Friday, 30 December 2011

In which I extol Christmas traditions

It has been an exceedingly busy year, in the wider world as well as in our own little family group. There have been some very happy times, but there have also been utterly dreadful moments. The Christmas traditions have this year provided me with an anchor in a stormy world and have been productive of great mirth. It is  worth mentioning how much of our ideas of traditional Christmas we owe to Mr Dickens. Christmas at Dingley Dell with the goblin stories, the goodness of the Peerybingles and the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge are responsible for much of the 'season of goodwill'.

One of the high points of the festive season this year has been my first attendance as a proud parent at a nativity play. The Infant Phenomenon’s class did tableaux of the nativity story during the school carol concert. As she had covered herself in glory at her first assembly (reciting a poem by herself as well as correctly pronouncing the word ‘palaeontologist’) I did not expect her to have a starring role. I did not really want her to either, I am a firm believer in sharing the limelight and giving everyone a chance. In the event, she was one of the sheep. She looked absolutely adorable. And of course, she didn’t know where she was supposed to be and ended up trying three different spots before she got it right. To quote from Mr Handel’s Messiah, like sheep, she had gone astray. I couldn’t see whether they’d dressed one of the others as a sheepdog, but I think it would have been useful.

It is a curious thing how people can be such perfectionists about so many trivial things and make themselves quite unpleasant over others' mistakes, yet, confronted with 30 small children, they would be quite disappointed if everybody had got everything perfectly right. There is something about ‘Away in a Manger’ sung out of time and out of tune which tugs the heartstrings like nothing else. Since then I have been teaching her 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'. With actions...

It is pleasant, and feels in keeping with seasonal good will, after having given a comprehensive list (see previous entry) of the Inexhaustible’s less endearing habits, to follow it up with a striking example of his best. Of  course being the Inexhaustible, it was done in front of a select audience of attendees at a carol service in which I had the pleasure of participating the weekend before Christmas.

Some of you may recall my vocal tendencies from an earlier chapter and I am pleased to announce that this year, although far from perfect, my singing was at least not as disastrously flat as on that occasion. I was still slightly concerned about the carol service; not from a musical point of view, we were actually singing rather well, the choice of repertoire was excellent (no Rutter, Ms D!) and had enough singers in each part for good balance. All of which astonished the person in charge. What I was truly concerned about was the potential for disaster should the Inexhaustible decide to embrace his more vigorous tendency to sound and movement during the service. On the other hand, it seemed unnecessary, even unkind, to exclude him.

My dear parents accompanied Mr B and the offspring, so fortunately there was sufficient control should he succumb to the urge for self-expression. In the event, he was only moderately vocal, mentioning to everyone quite frequently ‘Mamma up dere! Mamma sing!’ and similar running commentary observations. He did not howl or run around, much to my relief. This alone was enough to make me feel that the outing was a success. But the crowning glory was at the end.

We had just got to the end of the last carol and the Inexhaustible, with impeccable timing, burst into a rousing cheer and started clapping. Everyone else joined in, which was extremely pleasant and the singers all laughed. I have in my time as a choral singer been as heartily applauded on more exalted concert platforms, but the wild enthusiasm of my own little boy for Mamma’s singing and his perfect timing, will, I suspect never be trumped.

A merry Christmas to you all and as Tiny Tim says, ‘God bless us, every one!’

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

In which I mislay my temper

There is no evading it – on Saturday evening I was a naughty, shouty Mamma. This is clearly a Bad Thing, since one of the principal justifications of my return to the workplace was that I was becoming altogether too shouty when confined to the solely domestic sphere.

It was also in spite of the fact that Mr B took the little darlings to spend a few hours with their Grandmamma so that I could attempt (largely unavailingly) to reduce the home to some kind of order. A full five months of employment allied to the fact that I have had no time off since early September has ensured that we are running perilously low on supplies of tidiness, energy and meals in the freezer.

The mention of the freezer brings me back to my loss of temper. In common I would say with almost every family in the country, our kitchen affords the usual range of large labour-saving devices, such as electric oven, washing machine, dishwasher. The actual problem with these extremely useful implements is that the short-sighted or childless designers of these goods, for some reason which it is utterly beyond me to fathom, always make them with the controls at toddler height.

Nothing delights the Inexhaustible more than to play a game which I am starting to call ‘Washing Machine Bingo’. The implement has an alluring array of buttons which light up when lightly pressed for the selection of 'optional extras', also a programme-selection dial which you can turn to your heart’s content and which changes the numerical display at each turn. His favourite game is to select a laundry programme using the dial and then to press all the optional extras buttons until he manages to light them all and gets a ‘full house’. The challenge to this is that not every cycle permits one to select all the optional extras. When he manages to achieve a full house, he awards himself a resounding cheer and a round of applause. I admit it is at times entertaining to watch, but there are distinct drawbacks.

I can endure it when a) there is nothing in there, or b) the door is open and the machine will therefore not start. This is with the proviso that in the case of both a) and b), I have nothing else to do and can waste as much as a quarter of an hour watching the Inexhaustible play with the gadget.

I can NOT endure this when a) there is laundry in there or b) when there is laundry in there in the midst of being laundered. Especially if he manages to switch some of our more delicate apparel onto a boil wash. It palls entirely as a form of entertainment when I have anything to do. I must also confess to a degree of weariness at finding various small kitchen implements such as whisks, toys, or completely random articles such as my slippers, deposited in said washing machine, and discovering them only after an exhaustive search of all the sensible places in which a non-toddler would leave them.

With the dishwasher, I will grudgingly admit that it is not entirely the Inexhaustible’s fault. A modicum of fault lies with the machine which is extremely slow and far from efficient. This means that any interruption of its progress can delay everything for hours, if you don’t notice what has happened. The Inexhaustible delights in the dishwasher, particularly in switching it off mid-cycle when Mamma and Papa are busy and won’t notice. The upshot of this particular activity is that when one deluded parent says ‘the dishwasher must be finished by now, I’ll go and unload it’, said parent finds the machine full of dirty crockery, with cold, dirty water undrained at the bottom and no option but to start the whole, aggravatingly slow, process all over again. Once the maddening piece of machinery is in full flow, the Infant Phenomenon will without fail demand a piece of crockery or cutlery which is in the machine in a parlous state of filth.

The seriousness of interrupting either of these household gods in their appointed tasks really boils down to the enormous quantity of laundry and crockery that one family can use in a short space of time and the relentless frequency with which both these machines are called on to do their duty.

As for the oven and grill, with their built-in clock and timer… If I had a pound for the number of times the Inexhaustible has switched the oven on, set the grill to high, set the beeper to silent, changed the time on the clock, reset the timer and interrupted automatic cooking times, I would be an exceedingly wealthy woman. It is wearisome, to say the least.

My one consolation is that he is not yet strong enough to open the door of the freezer and spoil all the food within. It is probably merely a matter of time. However he is strong enough to drag a kitchen chair over to the counter, climb up on it and cause havoc at the stove, or on the work surface with whatever happens to be there. I probably ought to add that after one terrifying moment during which he wielded a carving knife, that no longer includes the knife block.

After a veritable gamut of these activities the other evening, Mamma lost her temper quite thoroughly. I am sure someone will ask me why, as the Inexhaustible is my second child, am I so put about by his activities? Surely I have accustomed myself to the wiles of this particular stage of infancy? The answer to this is that my children are bewilderingly different – of which more anon – and the Infant Phenomenon, like Miss Mary Bennet in Miss Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would 'infinitely prefer a book’.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

In which I muse upon the little things

I do not think that either Mr Dickens or Mr Trollope would understand, much less approve, such a phrase as 'corporate culture'. And yet, it is a material fact of working life, which both gentlemen describe in their novels.  For example, the Circumlocution Office (though perhaps that might best be described as an hereditary weakness) or its polar opposite (from Mr Trollope's Three Clerks) the Weights & Measures. The Brothers Cheeryble from Mr Dickens again, or Mr Trollope's Internal Navigation, show how the prevailing tone of the leaders of any enterprise can affect all the persons employed therein. 

I pause for a moment - the Inexhaustible Baby (or more properly speaking, the Inexhaustible Toddler) is stirring. He sleeps again. Phew.

I once attended an entire training session upon the subject of 'corporate culture'. It is a substance surprisingly difficult to define, yet surprisingly easy to understand. I did not admire the language of the definition: 'the way we do things here'; but it grasps an essential truth. Sometimes it is not what we do, but the manner in which we do it which really counts. 

For example, in my new place of work they have a small, but nonetheless significant habit, of holding doors open for one another. It is hard to describe the real importance of this small gesture, which costs the giver so little, yet leaves such a a pleasant impression on the recipient of this minor courtesy.

It is a fine example of real politeness. Historically, one was led to believe, the holding open of doors was yet another example of the strong defending the weak. A lady, after all, or any person suffering a physical impairment, could not be expected to open a door. Heavens forfend! That was the province of the Strong! In our generation, however, we have seen a great improvement in the status of the opened door; it has come to indicate simply a general chivalry. It is now emblematic of a wish to pass through this world considerately, giving space and time to those who need a little more of those commodities. As a fond mamma of two small persons, who frequently rely upon the perambulator, I can assure you I am in no danger of under-estimating the value of that inexpensive yet invaluable gesture.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

In which I snatch victory from the jaws of defeat

I have now been a salaried worker (note my pretensions to more than mere wages) for some four months. I will admit it has been rather a shock to the system to return to a five-day working week. And not only to my own system. The Infant Phenomenon and the Inexhaustible Baby have required much time and attention in order to reach a stage of simply accepting it. I cannot say that either of them is even yet enthusiastic about Mamma's return to the workforce. I have, wisely I believe, attempted to ignore the heightened debate following the release of a recent cinematographic entertainment on the subject, entitled 'I don't know how she does it'.

I skate over (and save for another occasion) the highs and lows, the enjoyment of my new occupation and the occasional pangs of guilt. My topic today is simply the relentless nature of working motherhood. I occasionally wonder what I used to do with all the free time which is now taken up with the time-consuming details of everyday life in a family of four.

Eyebrows are being raised - there may be ladies reading who cannot decide whether to pity my naïvety, disdain my stupidity or deplore my choices. I am not concerned with any of these. 

In actual fact, though I should not tempt fate by saying it, I am simply astonished that as yet I have managed to keep my head above water. I do not expect it to last. When first I returned to employment, the Infant Phenomenon was still at nursery and certainly life was extremely busy, but it was manageable. Since she started school in September, however, our weekly routine resembles nothing so much as a particularly complicated cotillion or quadrille. Even small matters become complex: I have to deposit each child in a different place, each with the correct belongings - everything from nappies to ballet kit. I must ensure that their evening meal is not the same as whatever they had for lunch - much harder to achieve now that they have different lunches. And there is an almost endless requirement for things for the Infant Phenomenon's school career. Culminating today in a dinosaur outfit.

Unsurprisingly, one sometimes forgets something. This week however, I did so to the brink of disaster. The Infant Phenomenon had been invited to an after-school birthday tea party. I was not sure this was a terribly good idea since she is so fatigued at the end of the day, and her friend's house is at the top of a long hill; but I didn't like her to miss it, so I accepted the invitation and procured a suitable gift for her friend. I then promptly forgot all about it. 

Yesterday morning, sitting stationary in the traffic at the summit of Reigate Hill, I received a message from the party-giver's Mamma. Was the Phenomenon all set for that afternoon? You can imagine my horror. The Phenomenon finishes school at 3.15, the party started a bare quarter of an hour later and involved a long walk and no possibility of an omnibus. The Phenomenon is a slow walker at the best of times and she has no sense of urgency. The gift, all unwrapped, was in a bag in the kitchen at home. The party theme was fairy tales and the Phenomenon was in her school uniform. It was fast approaching the hour at which I am due at my desk and I was 40 miles from home. There was little I could actually do. I did not realise until afterwards that the peculiar whirring noise I could hear was my brain revolving ways and means. 

To my eternal astonishment, and thanks to a great willingness to help in Miss J, the young lady who collects the Phenomenon from school, the situation was retrieved. Miss J called in at the house before collecting the Phenomenon. I described to her in some detail where the gift was (it was in a bag with several other gifts, which Mr B had put on top of the refrigerator as some scant protection from the Marauding Inexhaustible). I told her where to find paper for wrapping. I told her to take one of the cards from the same bag. I instructed her to avail herself of the emergency domestic funds and book a cab. But my pièce de résistance was the costume. The direst necessity proved most truly the mother of invention. I actually managed to compose a fairy tale costume 'remotely'. Red tights from her drawer and her new poncho from the coat rack in the hall, turned inside out to show the red lining. Hey presto, the Infant Phenomenon went to the party as Little Red Riding Hood and Mamma was not guilty of the awful social crime of accepting an invitation and then not showing up. Or (equally heinous in the Phenomenon's eyes) of sending the Phenomenon to a fancy dress party in her school uniform. 

I think the moral of the story, as the Duchess would say, is that juggling requires infinite skill and practice and that even the best performers will still occasionally drop a ball. I am far from being expert in the art, and will probably drop several on a tolerably regular basis. I can only hope that I manage to cobble together an equally suitable solution each time.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

In which the Infant Phenomenon is almost late

The Infant Phenomenon has started school. You never saw anything so pretty as she looked in her brand new uniform (strange to think that school uniforms started life to mark out 'charity children'). Her little curly, Titian-coloured head on top of the navy blue school uniform (which was a little too large) and the beaming smile which accompanied it were a sight to make any parent proud.

As my own Mamma puts it, she has been 'ready' for school for some time now. This has manifested itself in the previously unheard but now frequently used words 'bored' and 'boring'. Also in the oft-asked question 'What are we doing next?'. This can be somewhat daunting to a fond, but busy, parent, as come the weekend, I seldom want to have any particular plans and would like to just spend some pleasant time together, following the inspiration of the moment.

The day before she started was somewhat chaotic, as we were actually returning from my cousin's wedding, which I mentioned in my previous episode. We arrived back in the house at a civilised time of day, it is true, but with all the unpacking to be done and the Phenomenon's school uniform to prepare. And of course, I couldn't find the laundry marker pen. I am afraid that I did not spend hours sewing Cash's woven name tapes onto her every sock; I am not as old fashioned as all that.

She has been tremendously excited about the whole idea of going to 'big school' and we have had many conversations. I have been careful to point out that she must listen to the teacher (a skill which she frequently discards for the far more interesting one of talking) and do as she is told.

I did have a disappointment on the actual day. I had envisaged that we would walk hand in hand, having a somehow memorable conversation (conversations with the Phenomenon are often memorable, simply because of her quaint way of expressing herself). However, the weather was inimical to conversation of any kind and we battled our way along against the wind and the rain, unable to hear each other.

I had thought on that memorable Tuesday morning - as I dare say happens to other parents on a regular basis - that I had allowed more than sufficient time. I was in this, as in so many matters, mistaken. We were just about to leave when the weather which had been inclement but not actively hostile, took a violent turn for the worse, necessitating a change to stout boots. We then had to take the Inexhaustible Baby to nursery. To be frank, after two weeks with Mamma, Papa and the Phenomenon he was reluctant to return, and I was somewhat put out of countenance at being pursued by his roars of outrage as I descended the staircase.

Consequently, in spite of my mania for punctuality, we were almost late on her very first day. For shame!

Those of you who are acquainted with her will not be surprise to hear that she settled in very well and enjoyed herself. I must confess that my pride was mingled with trepidation when at 3.15 I was greeted with the comment 'She's very bright, isn't she?'. I couldn't help wondering what unanswerable questions she had been putting to the staff, or which of my opinions she had been advancing as her own.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

In which I suffer an attack of stage fright

We are but just returned from the wedding of one of my cousins in Ireland. We all had a thoroughly splendid time most of the time. Mr B and I had a few uncomfortable moments during the day, frequently caused by the behaviour of the Inexhaustible who is now extremely hard to contain.

Luckily, I did manage to postpone his nap until the ceremony, and he slept in his buggy throughout the entire service, looking perfectly angelic and allowing his fond mamma to thoroughly enjoy her emotional self. It had meant an extremely wearing half hour keeping him going beforehand, but it was worth it (especially as that was Mr B's job), else he was perfectly capable of shouting with glee throughout, or attempting to rival the charming singer. As it was, the ceremony was undisturbed by his entirely natural, but not really suited to a formal situation, antics.

The harder moments were during dinner. From the toddler point of view, a wedding is an extremely long affair (unlike for most of the adult guests at this one, who would be happily continuing the event even now). I had therefore, cunningly as I thought, decided to withdraw the children for a snack in the bar for the first hour after the ceremony, thinking that this would make the interval easier until dinner and prevent the Infant Phenomenon from staging one of her favourite performances: the Hysteria of Hunger; not to mention preventing the Inexhaustible Baby from actually biting his fellow guests.

Up to a point this ruse succeeded. They behaved tolerably well until dinner. However at this point, it all went (if you will forgive me for stepping out of character for a moment) Pete Tong. The Infant Phenomenon (who had staged a different drama entitled 'Who is going to cut up my sausages?' during her snack) had eaten so many of the said sausages that her interest in the frankly delicious looking dinner set before her was at best tepid. This may have been aggravated by excessive consumption of bread during the adults' first two courses. However, she played fast and loose with the gravy and simply spent most of her time demanding ice cream.

The Inexhaustible meanwhile started off well. In spite of the bread gambit, he appeared to be pursuing the virtuous course by eating all his broccoli and his sister's. However, that was simply guile and he went on to give a virtuoso interpretation of the babyhood of King Henry VIII of England & Wales. Instead of eating nicely with spoon and fork, he grabbed his breast of chicken by the piece of protruding bone and proceeded to tear lumps off it with his teeth, all the while looking at me with defiance in his eye. He wanted but a flagon of mead to complete the picture.

Seated between these two and attempting to make the one eat with some semblance of decency and to make the other eat at all, you can imagine that this was hardly an ideal experience of haute cuisine.

Added to this was anxiety on my own account. I am very close to all my cousins of the F family; Mrs F is in fact my aunt - I hope I will be permitted a mild literary digression here when I say that this phrase reminds of two of Mr Dickens's comic creations of rare genius: Flora Finching and Mr F's aunt in Little Dorrit.

Anyway, to continue. My cousins, the Fs are all very dear to me, particularly Miss F and her husband Mr C (Miss F, being a strong-minded female amongst her other many good points, rather despises changing of names on marriage. She prefers Ms F, but I hope that for the sake of my rather shaky authenticity she will endure Miss). I have frequently been staying with them, as have they with us.

The younger Mr F, on announcing his engagement, approached me to ask whether I would be willing to sing for them. Of course nothing could give me greater pleasure. On the other hand, to be asked to sing for the first dance is a task of considerable moment and I must confess that I was extremely nervous. As the day got nearer, I became increasingly panic stricken and had dreams of arriving in Ireland without my frock, my shoes, my voice, my music or my memory.

To add to this, the song chosen was not that easy, and the definitive version by a bona-fide soul/blues diva was frankly daunting. I kept telling myself that I would feel more confident once I'd been able to rehearse with the band. Yet again, I found myself mistaken. It took me a full 45 minutes to achieve a passable rendition - a luxury unavailable to me on the actual night.


Thus with every nerve jangling that could possibly jangle, came the nuptial day and the necessity for donning our fine apparel. Again, trying to keep calm and think ahead, I decided that once the children were dressed, I would put on the television in our hotel room, to try to keep them quiet while I concentrated on my toilette and tried to do some vocal exercises. We pressed the button and the screen sprang into life. What was on it? A staggeringly beautiful and very, very slender pop star singing the same song at a recent famous occasion. This, I felt, was rather like the proverbial straw, to remind me on the very day of the comparisons the other guests were likely to be making while I very likely did the song a terrible injustice.

It would be unfair of me to have gone on at this length without pointing out that the bride and groom both asserted, truly I am sure, that they simply didn't care what sort of job I made of it; nonetheless, I cared. I cared very much. I wanted to sing really well. The moment came and I did my best. It is difficult not to 'give it soul' as one kindly person said I had done, when you see two people so happy together surrounded by loving family and friends.

I cannot remember the last time I was so relieved as I was when the song was done, I knew that whatever I had done, I hadn't murdered it and Mr B procured me an extremely large glass of wine.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

In which everything has changed

It has been a long silence, as I am well aware. There is a chapter heading in one of Mr Dickens's novels: 'Too full of incident to be described briefly', or similar. That is how life has been since I last addressed you.

I am no longer a lady of leisure, I have employment and this is a good thing. I am most fortunate and I am fully aware of the fact. I have lost a friend and former colleague to an aggressive form of leukaemia, which has been terrible.

We appear to be in the grip of further global financial implosion (think of poor Miss Matty in Cranford, losing most of her income and selling tea and comfits); there are scenes in London reminiscent of the Gordon Riots, as described in Barnaby Rudge; the News of the World has closed amidst the kind of scandal that Mr Dickens would have majestically denounced and Mr Trollope revelled in; and if I recount any further sweeping changes, I fear I shall turn a little giddy and faint.

The Infant Phenomenon is starting school next month, the Inexhaustible Baby is 'streaming' (I believe the modern phrase is) the Terrible Twos and I hardly know whether I am on my head or my heels.

Frankly, I am yearning for a little boredom. Or failing that, the sort of genteel routine which the ladies of Miss Austen's novels enjoyed - or didn't, at times. At the moment, I feel more like Fanny Price than Maria Bertram or Mary Crawford, in wishing for stillness and peace rather than excitement. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

In which I struggle with another dress code

I recently made my first visit to an orthodox synagogue. The son of a friend of Mr B's was having his bar mitzvah and we were invited to attend. Happy to be included in this celebration, we of course accepted the invitation.

However, as the event drew nearer, I started to suffer from some misgivings. Some of you may remember that on a previous occasion I put myself through considerable (and eventually unnecessary) worry on the subject of what to wear. At that time, it was a mixture of insecurity, vanity and previous experiences of frock buying which worried me. My anxiety on this latter occasion, however, was of a completely different and frankly more alarming nature: the possibility of dressing entirely inappropriately and offending people.

Then the inevitable happened, as any busy mother of very small children will confirm: I completely forgot about the entire event until the day before. I had taken the Inexhaustible and the Infant Phenomenon to spend the afternoon with my dear parents and Mamma asked me towards the end of the day whether we had any plans for the weekend. I went through that strange paralysis of the mind, knowing we had an important engagement, but unable to remember exactly what it was. Then suddenly it burst upon me - and you can only imagine the mounting swell of panic which I now started to feel.

"What were the rules? Where would I go? What would happen? Did I have to keep the children completely silent?" Mr B filled me in on the basics: that the men and women would sit separately and I would have to take charge of both children, in an unfamiliar place and no means of getting Mr B out to give me a hand, should one or other of them require an extraordinary amount of attention. We didn't think Mr B would be able to take the Infant Phenomenon into the men's section and were absolutely certain that the Inexhaustible Baby would be too disruptive. This was somewhat alarming but the Infant Phenomenon has superb company manners and I was confident that with her on her best behaviour, I could keep the Inexhaustible Baby under control. That is a mistake I shan't make again...

We then came to what - at that moment - seemed like the most important issue: how was I to dress? I had some idea of where to start: as a married lady, I would be expected to cover my hair. This I think we can honestly agree would be the greatest challenge for me. If you look at the photograph of me at the side of this page, you will see at first glance that I have rather a lot of rather unruly hair. I have over the years come to consider it as a 'crowning glory' but for many years it really was rather a difficult matter. It now reaches my waist and is both voluminous and noticeable when unrestrained.

I simply couldn't think what to do with it. Nor did I know exactly how covered up it was supposed to be. Should it be completely invisible? Was that even humanly possible? In increasing nervousness I discarded one idea after another. I tried tying it all down and putting a striking coloured headscarf on - and nearly burst into tears when Mr B could scarce restrain his laughter. "Don't you dare laugh! It's easy for you!" I shrieked in increasing despair. But I could see well enough that it was not a  becoming style on me.

We had already been in telephonic communication with another friend who would also attend and had more experience of this than we. Until my conversation with her, I had thought that I would know fairly well how to dress smartly and appropriately. I could not have been more wrong: long sleeves, long skirts or dresses, no trousers and no sandals. I was saved from committing a whole series of sartorial solecisms by this conversation, yet nobody could solve the problem of my hair for me. I had to tackle that one alone.

Finally at 11.30 that night, in a state of desperation I finally remembered that I owned a couple of hats which had originally been bought for weddings and scarce worn. Retrieving them from the airing cupboard, they were a little squashed, but capable of rescue. However, I had bought them a considerable time ago, when my locks were shorter and much easier to manage. Nonetheless, it was my only option. Exhausted I betook myself to bed.

The next morning I still was in a quandary. If I put my hair in its usual plait, it would be extremely visible all the way down my back and I simply had no idea whether this would be acceptable or not. Also the mass of hair rendered the hat tight fitting and uncomfortable. So in a final attempt to solve all my problems, I divided the hair into two, made two plaits and looped them up so that the barest minimum was visible at the back beneath the hat brim. It also solved the problem of volume so I would be able to keep the hat on for as long as necessary. I must have stood in front of the glass for fully five minutes by the clock, checking different angles and using a small hand mirror to see how it looked at the back.

Mr B was matter of fact, but unenthusiastic about the style, which I had actually started to rather like. I suspect he was simply exhausted by the subject and my anxieties. Then came the terrible doubt, of which I still cannot free myself: had I managed to get my hair into an elegant, almost 19th century style, or did the plaits just make me look like a rejected extra from an especially bad cinematographic adaptation of Miss Spyri's Heidi?

The most important question of course, was the one I didn't think to ask. "How long will it last?" And that makes two mistakes I won't make again... 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

In which Mr B surprises me

I think that by now it will have become apparent to my regular readers that Mr B and I are what might be called Manchester Radicals. We are adamantly on the left wing of the political spectrum. Further (as readers of my last posting will remember) we are not only left-leaning but frankly republican.

I must therefore confess to some surprise at finding the interest which Mr B showed in the recent royal wedding. I will start by ceding several points to Mr B at once: it was exceedingly hard, nay impossible to avoid (he did after all get an extra day off work); one had to have a view on it, one couldn't simply pretend it wasn't happening. One would really have to be some kind of monster to actually feel actively hostile to a young couple on their wedding day. It would be inhuman not to at least wish them well, whatever one's view of the appalling system of constitutional monarchy of which they are part. And as I have previously mentioned, everyone loves a bride and there was some considerable curiosity as to what this particular one would wear.

Even allowing for all this, and adding in Mr B's notorious softness of heart, which would rather multiply his good feeling towards any young couple on their wedding day, I was somewhat surprised at the eagerness with which Mr B and his mamma discussed the possible titles and correct form for addressing the new Duchess of ... Cambridge (I had a momentary forgetfulness, I beg your pardon).

Mr B - with whom I have shared every thought, whose political views are as well known to me as my own - a secret royalist?

I ought to admit that the sheer pleasure of describing him thus (in some ways accurately, but on the whole doing him less than justice) has been great, if somewhat illusory. Who knows better than I that Mr is no royalist? Nonetheless, marriage being what it is, I have garnered much amusement from teasing him with the idea that he is a closet monarchist.

Friday, 29 April 2011

A tale of two nuptials

Today the Infant Phenomenon and I stood waiting - she clutching a posy of flowers - to wave to the bride: one of the young ladies from the house next door. No, we were not in London, waving to Miss Middleton (as she was), now the Duchess of Cambridge. We were at home in Brighton, waving to another bride, whose nuptials were planned and announced some time before those of the royal couple were made public.

Those of you who know me will not be shocked by my frank confession that I am no royalist; one might almost say that my Irish blood rather leans in the other direction. I have huffed and puffed like a big bad wolf ever since the announcement of the royal engagement. Those who troubled to listen might have heard me chuntering about 'real news'. I have muttered about the cost to the taxpayer (should I present myself at the Circumlocution Office and demand to know?); I have sneered at the overblown sentimentality of some of my compatriots (the references to the late Princess Diana have much in common with the popular misquotation of East Lynne 'Dead, dead and never called me mother!'); I have advocated the abolition of the royal family though have as yet no thoroughly well-considered alternative to offer, though I am sure that some exist.

Suffice it to say, my refusal to engage with this so-called national event was not uncommon (Mr B was a great deal louder in his protestations, it must be noted). And then our kind neighbour Mrs D told us that one of her daughters had planned her own wedding for the same day. We were vociferous in our exclamations about 'real brides'. I am sure you can imagine our comments and our unwearying (and frankly tedious) repetition of them.

However, as the moment has arrived, my mood has softened. And do bear in mind, that I am a hardened republican who despises 'Majesty' magazine (the existence of which I discovered as a humble bookseller at Harrods). This does not indicate any softening of my republican attitude (I still have a qualm at the thought of the cost of all those policemen). No, it is simply that a bride is a bride, all the world over.

Why did I ask lovely Mrs D at what hour her daughter the bride would leave the house, so that the Infant Phenomenon could wave to her? Because everybody loves a bride. Miss D looked wonderful, glowing with the radiance proper to a bride. And thus emotion clouds politics. Whatever one thinks of constitutional monarchy and the British version of it in particular, when the day came I was delighted to see that both brides looked beautiful and radiant.

And then, the London bride entered Westminster Abbey to the stirring music of Mr Parry: I Was Glad. This is the same as Mr B and I had for our exit from church at our own wedding. I looked at Mr B, the Infant Phenomenon (on my lap) and the Inexhaustible Baby (fast asleep in the perambulator) and grew misty-eyed. And while the royal couple have a very grand evening indeed ahead of them, our neighbours will be holding their reception at a pub owned by some friends of the bride and groom. And I am sure that hearts and heels will be as light in the pub as at Buckingham Palace.

I feel I cannot do better than finish with the words of my own dear Mamma. She 'texted' me thus this afternoon: "I am not a staunch Royalist but I do wish them well. There is nothing as nice as seeing a happy couple on their wedding day." Well said Mamma! In fact, with or without benefit of clergy, a happy couple is a happy sight. And however grand a wedding might be, it is, in the end, a wedding: neither more nor less than the most important decision two people can make about how they spend their lives.

Monday, 25 April 2011

In which the Infant Phenomenon is in for a penny

I mean the title of my latest instalment quite literally: she swallowed a penny and ended up in hospital. The next stop after the awful event (Mr B was on duty with her and I fear was sadly shaken by her somewhat melodramatic screaming) was the Accident & Emergency department of our local infirmary (again! As if a broken leg  last year wasn't enough for her, let alone the other alarums and excursions of recent years involving the Royal Sussex County Hospital). 


I will be the first to admit that the 'ingestion of a metallic foreign body: non-hazardous' (that is the technical terminology, I saw it on the form) is considerably less vexatious than a broken leg, but I did experience considerable misgiving, as well as some not unreasonable annoyance, when we were advised to take her to the hospital.

With all the admiration I have for our marvellous health system, my experience of the Accident & Emergency Department indicates that a visit there is usually a matter of hours rather than minutes. Please, before you start to hurl offensive missiles in my general direction, remember that I am not saying that this is anyone's fault. Sometimes, one has to be monitored in a given situation, which is simply a medical way of loitering aimlessly, not doing very much and wondering how severely afflicted one/one's loved one actually is. At other times, it is a question for waiting for a particular member of staff who is fully occupied at that moment with someone much more in need of their care. When the Infant Phenomenon suddenly developed an alarmingly high temperature and a rash, we had to spend several hours simply loitering aimlessly - to ensure she wasn't developing meningitis, which might have killed her. When she broke her leg, we had to wait some while for the orthopaedic specialist who had been dealing with an injury far more serious than hers. I simply felt that we were in for a very long evening of waiting. Particularly in view of the fact that she seemed perfectly well and after the initial shock, perfectly composed. It was not an emergency.

I was annoyed with her, I will admit, on the one hand for doing something which at the age of four and a half she knows full well is ill advised; and on the other hand for doing it at bedtime. This meant I had a supperless, comfortless evening as a prospect. Our hospital is many wonderful things, but I don't think I could honestly tell you that the Accident & Emergency area is comfortable.

Imagine then my amazement when I found that we were in and out in just under half an hour. I was frankly amused when told that the first necessity was for the radiographer to examine the Infant Phenomenon with a metal detector. Yes, really. Similar to those with which one is examined at airports. And she bleeped in the right places, if I may be allowed to so express myself. The penny was safely lodged in her tummy, and thus was no immediate cause for alarm. This, though welcome news, was hardly unexpected: had it been lodged in her trachea she would probably have gone black in the face some considerable time before.

The radiographer was charming. The Infant Phenomenon had brought with her a favourite toy, her surest resort in all times of stress. The lovely radiographer tested the toy first with the metal detector and did her utmost to reassure my bewildered child that there was nothing to fear. Her previous experience of radiographers left her with an expectation that their function was to cause pain, so she was exceedingly suspicious. But all passed off smoothly.

We were then sent back to the nurse who had interviewed us on our arrival. It was at this point that I noticed the form 'Ingestion of metallic foreign bodies'. It turned out to be a kind of 'flow chart' of which the top two options were 'hazardous eg batteries or sharps' and 'non-hazardous eg coins'. This immediately made me feel better as I really couldn't contemplate the ingestion of metallic sharps with any equanimity. But to me, the most impressive thing about this particular part of the incident is that there actually is a special form for this exceedingly common, but for a parent still unnerving, incident.

I know many say that there is too much bureaucracy in the National Health Service, but I can honestly say that knowing that our particular accident was so common that it warranted its own particular form, was indescribably reassuring.

Perhaps my favourite moment of the whole trip was the puzzlement on the Infant Phenomenon's face when the nurse rather solemnly suggested that he hold her upside down by the ankles and shake her until the coin came out. She really couldn't tell whether he meant it or not.

The Infant Phenomenon is now perfectly recovered from this little mishap. I will not go into the revolting details, but suffice to say the penny has dropped. And I am so grateful to the kind and professional people who made this whole incident so much less alarming than it could have been - as well as faster.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

In which I muse upon an anachronism

I feel as though I ought to apologise in advance, because I know full well I shall indulge myself in some unrestrained digression in this chapter. You will have to wait until halfway through to actually find out what the anachronism was.

The other day I was out and about in the town (I beg its pardon, the city of Brighton & Hove-actually) doing some of my usual errands. This generally consists of buying bananas for the Inexhaustible Baby, who has one for breakfast every morning. Note that I say advisedly 'has one' and not 'eats one'. Some mornings he devours his banana in the most gluttonous fashion as though he were indeed a starving million. On other days, most of it will 'adorn' the floor. And at this point I sigh for my previous life as a lady gainfully employed, who earned enough and was busy enough to justify to herself (and to Mr B) the employment of someone who obliged with the cleaning and ironing. Then I clean the rapidly decaying banana from the floor while the Inexhaustible plays watering cans on the table with his cup and the Infant Phenomenon takes half an hour to eat one extremely small apple.

I am no longer gainfully employed. Again, note that I say 'gainfully employed' not 'employed'. I am on the whole fully employed in trying to manage the household, persuade the Infant Phenomenon to eat and the Inexhaustible to sleep, as well as actually find a new avocation for myself. I look forward to the time when I will again receive those charming monthly billets-doux and corresponding augmentations of vulgar material wealth. In the meantime, in our attempts to master domestic economy and avoid expensive luxuries, I have changed the way in which I go about my shopping for groceries. Instead of simply doing one large Waitrose order online (as a lady in the 19th century would simply have ordered the cook to procure the necessary items for these dishes) and putting it away when the helpful delivery person has carried it into the kitchen for me, I now end up buying most of the crucial fresh foods in the usual way, but shopping for dry and tinned goods in less expensive emporia. The end result of this is that I seem to be perpetually shopping and - woe is me! - perpetually running out of something. So much for the Domestic Goddess. Perhaps I could aspire to be an Angel in the Home instead, that sounds much grander and one would expect such a lady to enjoy the ministrations of an excellent housekeeper...

Hence my frequent trips to the shops and we return at last to the day on which I spotted the anachronism. It was simply this: an elderly gentleman on a bicycle. I saw him twice and was incomprehensibly struck by his appearance. In an attempt to understand why I found him so noticeable, I have expended much thought (cooking, cleaning, ironing and shopping generally allow much time for such musings) on finding out why.

The first and most obvious reason is that he reminded me of one of my dear grandparents: my grandpapa in Ireland (the photo of Grandpapa below most kindly supplied by my dear aunt, Mrs F). He wasn't as handsome a gentleman as was my grandpapa, but he was dressed identically in the same kind of respectable overcoat and good flat cap. For some time, I put the strong impression down to this and indulged in fond memories of some of his inimitable sayings. ('He knows as much about that as a pig knows about a clean shirt' being one of my personal favourites.)

Then I started to reflect on what looked wrong about the picture because something was bothering me. I realised that in the not-entirely-appropriate wire shopping basket on the front of the bike (it should have been wicker), instead of the usual shopping bag there was a rucksack. I simply could not envisage this gentleman off his bike, in that garb and with a sports-type rucksack on his back. That was problem number one. Problem number two was that you generally don't see elderly people on bicycles any more. It used to be a common form of transport for people of all ages, but is so no longer. The omnibus and horseless carriage yes, but not the bicycle. Especially not in Brighton, which is excessively hilly and in consequence where you don't often catch me on my bicycle either (in spite of my former 'Urban Warrior Queen of Hyde Park Corner' status).

In fact, near my home you see many cyclists of the extremely dedicated and sporting kind: clad in all the correct accoutrements, which include helmets. Not flat caps. And so the list goes on. You often see people on bicycles without helmets (more fool them, frankly) but not in flat caps. They sport lycra shorts or tights and wraparound sunglasses, they glow in the dark like a Japanese nuclear reactor, they have particular shoes which clip to their pedals, specific kind of shirts with cunning pockets in odd places - and no shopping baskets on the front.

Some, myself included, will occasionally use the machine about daily tasks in the conviction that we are achieving our aims and getting the needful exercise as well. The bicycle, in the midst of our beautiful South Downs, is perhaps more of an extreme sport than a form of transport.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

In which I am grateful for modern medicine

The Inexhaustible Baby has spent much of the winter in a state of copious mucus. I do apologise for my lack of delicacy but really, when one spends appreciable portions of every morning trying to clear his little countenance of the truly revolting bits left from the night and his nose of hideous blockages, one rather loses one's daintiness on the subject. It really has been very difficult for him, the poor mite has just gone from one horrid cold to another and he always struggles to get rid of them. One can hear his breathing and he develops a chesty cough each time.

What I find somewhat puzzling is that in spite of his being such a sturdy little ruffian, who eats as though there is an interval of days between each meal, he succumbs to every cold that comes along. This is in sharp distinction to his sister, who eats but poorly and looks so dainty and fragile that she might float away in a light breeze. She has the constitution of an ox and never seems to suffer from more than a mild cold. Certainly she has avoided the procession of phlegm that has afflicted her brother.

The Inexhaustible now seems to be recovering from his most recent bout and I am in hopes that the milder weather may give him some respite. I must confess though, that on this occasion, I was actually relieved that he had a cold - because the alternative was infinitely worse.

Some two weeks ago, my heart sank when on arrival at nursery, a new notice was to be seen on the front door advising parents that one of the children had contracted scarlet fever. The next day, the notice had been changed from one to three and the Inexhaustible seemed to be sickening with something. I was, I will admit, pessimistic. It seemed to me that with his tendency to absorb every form of bacteria within his orbit, his chances of escaping this were slim. On the day when he developed a temperature and sore throat, as well as displaying a most uncharacteristic lethargy, my misgivings were grave.

In retrospect, my reactions were probably somewhat extreme, because I remembered how many characters in novels that I have read have died of scarlet fever and similar illnesses. I couldn't help think with nervousness of Beth in Miss Alcott's Little Women who never really recovers her health and strength. Interestingly the grandmamma of one of the Infant Phenomenon's companions at ballet said that her own mamma was horrified at the mention of scarlet fever and earnestly advocated the incineration of all bedclothes, clothing and soft toys once the infection has reared its ugly head in any well-ordered nursery.

However, thanks indeed to modern medicine, this one-time killer has become a very treatable and relatively unimportant illness for the few who catch it. With that panacea for every childish fever, Calpol, to lower the temperature and antibiotics to kill the infection, the scarlet fever of our nightmares, does truly belong in the 19th century. And I, for one, am most content that it should so remain.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

In which I suffer a culinary mishap

I have great pleasure in cooking. One could call it an inherited passion as my Mamma is a superb cook. She is entirely self-taught as in her childhood home, the 'Missy Sahibs' were not permitted to enter the kitchen. Rather like the Misses Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, the young ladies 'had nothing to do in the kitchen'. On the other side, Papa's family - most notably in the persons of my dearest cousin and my aunt, Miss and Mrs F - are also well versed in all the culinary arts. Indeed Papa himself, while not terribly at home amidst the onions and garlic, excels in his appreciation of Mamma's many works of art and may be considered a devoted worshipper at the shrine of which Mamma is the high priestess. In my own abode, I gladly share mastery of the kitchen with Mr B, himself no mean exponent of the hospitable art of cooking. Anyone who has eaten his cakes or his roast dinners will, I am sure, agree with me.

Mr B and I are both keen eaters as well as cooks (hence my earlier wails about my embonpoint) and enjoy experimenting with new recipes. Our greatest challenge in this wise is finding sufficient time. As a general rule, we eschew excessively faddy 'gadgets' about the kitchen and embrace only those which will stand a severely utilitarian test of  appreciably saving us time or labour. Thus the Magimix is a beloved replacement for a kitchenmaid, the dishwasher for the scullerymaid and thanks to the refrigerator, it is no longer necessary for the butcher to call daily at the area steps with the day's meat order. However, my electrical sauce maker, the juicer and the bread maker see the light of day no more.

The purchase of any new piece of culinary equipment is thus rather an enjoyable and absorbing pastime in our household and when the fiat goes forth in favour of buying something, there is usually a great deal of pleasant discussion and light-hearted debate. This was exactly the case with the slow cooker. One of Mr B's cousins, dear Miss I, was visiting and was eloquent in her praise of this particular piece of equipment. In view of the extreme utility of being able to prepare a meal first thing in the morning which will be ready to eat at the end of the day without further supervision, we agreed up on the purchase.

The device soon arrived by the medium of the post and eager was the desire of myself, Mr B and the Infant Phenomenon to sample the delights of this method of cooking. My first attempt I would call a qualified success. Using the receipt which came with book of instruction, I made what they called Hungarian Goulash. It was tasty and both the Infant Phenomenon and the Inexhaustible Baby ate to repletion, as did their parents. My only qualms were that my Hungarian sister-in-law Miss K might not recognise the dish as anything remotely resembling Hungarian Goulash. Nonetheless, leaving aside all such fussing over authenticity, it could be called a success.

My next attempt involved using a receipt from a new publication, especially written and bought for this device, by Mr Worrall Thompson. The book had been well- although not numerously reviewed and at first glance appeared to be the very thing I needed. Figure to yourself my distress and disappointment then, when I found that the end result of this receipt was foul-smelling and completely inedible. Mr B and I both had the fortitude to taste a sip of the sauce, but to no avail. Nothing would have induced us to sit down and actually eat the dish. Fortunately for myself, I had not used any ludicrously expensive ingredients, but the best part of a bottle of wine was wasted. It ended up as a very costly meal indeed, as we were obliged to send out for our dinner to the Indian eating house at the end of the road, which is pleasant but hardly economical.

I attempted to overcome this reversal by making another recipe from the book of instruction. This turned out tolerably well, but I am now plagued with the following question: Do I give Mr Worrall Thompson a second chance or should I simply forget all about him?

Sunday, 6 March 2011

In which I am dashing away with a smoothing iron

I must confess that ironing is not one of my preferred tasks around the home. In fact, I don't think any particular task around the home could ever be described as a preference for me. Had I followed my preferences, I should have been curled up in the armchair with my nose in my latest Trollope trouvaille (Ralph the Heir, should anyone be remotely interested). But duty is duty and a woman's work is never done (nor is a man's, as Mr B is still beavering away at something for his interminable office while I have finished the ironing and am simply enjoying this mild cyber gossip).

There I was, then, dashing away with my smoothing iron and to beguile the tedium, I was listening to Mr Bach's Motets. And with ironing, one's mind does wander - that is both its advantage and disadvantage, an idle mind and busy hands. And I got to thinking about that wonderful composer Mr Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and the rather staggering piece of biographical information that he had 20 (yes, twenty) children by his two wives. Of course any reputable source will inform you that only ten of these survived to adulthood, but still TWENTY CHILDREN! I struggle to keep pace with but two!

I will mention immediately that my knowledge of the domestic style of living of such a man is small, as I have not read any of the biographies, nor am I overly familiar with the period; but I am aware that at this point in time, such a man, genius as he was, was simply regarded as an upper level servant of whichever court or church happened to be his employer. I do not believe he would have been particularly wealthy, though I expect he earned respectably. And my mind wandered into wondering how many woman hours went into the laundering of nappies for 20 children and who on earth actually did it? Someone in the Bach household must have spent years of her life simply laundering nappies.

It puts my current worries as to my temporary career lull somewhat into perspective...

Monday, 7 February 2011

In which I discover a small domestic mishap

It cannot be said that the possession of a fully functioning pair of bathroom scales is an unmitigated blessing. On the contrary, there are times when the item in question is more of a bane than a boon. You step on and they heap reproaches on you for the gluttonous indulgence of some holiday season. Or you refuse to step on and they mutely upbraid you for your arrant cowardice. 'Madam,' you hear them say 'you may avoid us for a season but be sure that the moment of truth will come and you will have gained nothing (except more pounds) from your procrastination.'

However ambivalent my attitude towards this voice of truth masquerading as a domestic article, the discovery I made earlier today that the Infant Phenomenon has completely wrecked our bathroom scales (a rather smart digital pair, courtesy of Mr John Lewis) by means of jumping on it with greater vigour than decorum, simply for the fun of the thing, has slightly saddened me.

Notwithstanding the many reproaches they have cast on me, I remember that I have gone through the frankly comical weight gain of two 'interesting conditions' with them and two periods of hard-fought weight loss, in which every fraction of a kilo gone has been a cause for celebration, and when I have almost heard the usually reproachful voice saying 'Well done'.

I feel that I have lost a stern, but on the whole benevolent, mentor. Having said which, perhaps I shall replace them with a less smart and consequently less expensive pair, which it will be harder for either the Infant Phenomenon or the Inexhaustible Baby to demolish. Not that I would put it beyond either of them...

Saturday, 5 February 2011

In which I aspire to be more of a Trollope

I expect I ought to have called this chapter 'In which I succumb to the temptation of a rather obvious and vulgar pun' but I am sure you will eventually forgive me.

I have been immersing myself of late in the works of Mr Trollope, particularly the lesser known (undeservedly in my opinion). I have always been a fervent admirer of his writings and it is many years since I was attracted to the cathedral city of Barchester and entered warmly into the feelings of Mrs Bold and Mr Harding, thoroughly enjoying my comic loathing of Mr Slope and Mrs Proudie. I suspect it was seeing the BBC adaptation of this great work that introduced me to Mr Trollope, as my parents hadn't read any of most enjoyable novels. Who could forget the superb performances of Mr Alan Rickman and Miss Geraldine McEwan?

Nonetheless on my latest ramble through the works of this most prolific author I have avoided some of his most well-known fictions. I have included two which were entirely new to me: Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite and Mr Scarborough's Family. I have also reread several others, including The Vicar of Bullhampton, Dr Wortle's School, Cousin Henry, Is He Popenjoy? and The Three Clerks. I have now however given in to the siren call of Barsetshire and am immersed in Dr Thorne. I expect once I have got through the chronicles I shall revisit Orley Farm, renew my acquaintance with Rachel Ray and sympathise once more with Emily Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right.

One of the greatest pleasures for me in this is how complete a picture it gives one of mid-Victorian society. It is interesting to see how much has since changed, in regards to the rights of women, for example. Trollope is unhesitatingly hostile to increasing the rights of women (he gives a most unsympathetic portrayal of the movement in Is He Popenjoy?). Yet he is very sympathetic to the way many of his young female characters seek to find purpose and meaning in their lives. His answer of course is to find it in husband and family, but he is often very tender to the old maids of his stories. His own views notwithstanding, he does fully see how circumscribed is the life that he describes women living. Perhaps the long list of occupations he gives somewhat scathingly as those which women wished to pursue, and which we now do without one single exception, should be regarded as one of the great successes of the women's movement. From voting to buying and selling on the Stock Exchange.

Some things are more or less unchanged though - politics for example, an abiding passion of Mr Trollope's. The Prime Minister would make very salutary reading for the members of our current coalition government, not on their policies of which I personally despair. It might show them the impossibility of a coalition surviving and the practical difficulties of yoking two disparate parties together successfully. While the unsavoury financial activities of characters such as Ferdinand Lopez and Augustus Melmotte remind us that fraudulent speculation of the kind that we associate with names such as Enron, Arthur Andersen and Worldcom are in fact very old stories indeed.

We are in the habit in our modern world of thinking of the Victorians as a byword for stuffy prudishness. It is certain that their moral and social standards could be extremely severe - witness the distress of poor Mary Thorne and the difficulty of her position in the world when she discovers she is illegitimate. What I so much admire in Mr Trollope is that without even the faintest approach to sensationalism (which I do also enjoy, I might add) he tackles topics which would at the time have been considered extremely sensitive: illegitimacy, living together outside marriage, social mobility, the utter misery of genteel poverty and perhaps to me most surprising, unflinching studies of mental illness. The gradual growth of Louis Trevelyan's madness in He Knew He Was Right cannot but fill the reader with pity for him and those whose lives he blights. However the portrait of Mr Crawley's struggles with depression and his wife's attempts to help and shield him in The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire will always amaze me by its depth of perception and balanced sympathy.

I find that Mr Trollope wrote 43 novels. I also find that I have read a mere 28 so far. I will not set myself any time limits, but I do aim to have read them all at some stage. Thus will I become more of a Trollope.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

In which the herald angels sing, but I - alas - am not one of them

Those of you who know me will be aware of my enthusiasm, bordering on fanaticism, for all things choral prior to the arrival of Mr B in my life and for some little time after his advent. He is an excellent musician himself and as sympathetic to my vocal activities as anyone could well be. Nonetheless I must confess I was sensible of a degree of constraint, perhaps bordering on annoyance, when my choral commitments forced him to book a date some weeks ahead in which to propose marriage with all the due decorum and romance which a gentleman of his temperament would naturally prefer.

Ah, the halcyon years of singing with the Philharmonia Chorus! And then the chamber choir for which I had the honour and joy of expending some small administrative effort. Both were occasionally productive of little difficulties, but looking at the overall account, enriched my life to a glorious degree. Some ten years of my life, while resident in the metropolis, were dominated by singing and its corollary activities - such as touring northern Italy to sing Verdi's Aida; singing Haydn's Creation at the Vatican; trying to sing a whole song (Dashing Away With a Smoothing Iron) a third too high at Shiplake, including two modulations up and a male section 'corpsing' openly in performance. I have been fortunate indeed to have been deemed worthy to form one of such groups.

With such an explanation, I now propose to slightly paraphrase some words from the opening of a work by one of our most renowned American cousins, Miss Alcott. "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," Miss Alcott's rebellious Jo declares. For me it would be "Christmas won't be Christmas without any singing." While I can give up 'Classic Carols at the Albert Hall' albeit with a small pang, there is one omission at Christmas which I actually could not endure. If I do not get at least one opportunity to sing 'Hark, the herald angels sing', I feel as though Christmas simply hasn't happened. By the bye, the genesis of this seasonal musical gem is explored by the splendid Mr Russell Beale in his programme.

Thus, in spite of the difficulty of attending rehearsals and my own parlous lack of singing practice (which now dates back to the birth of the Infant Phenomenon, sigh) I did participate in a carol service in the week before Christmas. Words cannot express my dismay at my complete inability to sing in tune. I have since tried to persuade myself that this inability originated largely in a perfectly appalling head cold, which has dogged me for some weeks now and in fact is only just passing. I could scarce hear myself. But that is no excuse. There is NO excuse for singing flat.

As Miss Alcott's Meg says "It's so dreadful going flat." Well, perhaps she might have said being poor, but it's the same kind of thing.

And I add, as does Mr B, a most happy new year to all our friends, family and well-wishers.