Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wintertime nighs...

But no birds fainting in dread, etc, yet (& thank goodness for that).

What we do have, though, is snow – lots of it, too, and settling fast – and Christmas carols. It felt quite strange to be rehearsing “In the Deep Midwinter” today with heavy snow falling outside the windows. But rehearsing for the Kew staff carol service is another of those things, like baking my Christmas cake, that makes it feel Christmas is on its way.

This year we are doing “In the Bleak Midwinter” (unfortunately in what I think of as the “dirge” setting, not the folk-song-like one we used at school), “The Shepherds’ Farewell” (aargh! – I hate singing Berlioz; all those sharps and flats and key changes…) and “Unto us is born a Son” and the “Sussex Carol”, both of which are lovely.

Our regular choirmaster, Nigel, has sadly had to step back this year following a bereavement. My prayers are with him; I know how it feels to lose a parent, I know how it feels to find yourself absolutely wrenched apart by pieces of music you have never before thought of as emotional, and – well, my thoughts and prayers are with him. Standing in for him is the very capable Tall Woman from IT (taller than me! Yay!). She’s doing a fine job, though I miss Nigel’s unique capacity to be boundlessly encouraging in the face of the most disheartening choral noises. Tall Woman is managing okay with the conducting despite never having done it before, and she has a sense of humour, and I think we’re going to pull it all together and do her credit in the end.

The snow is still settling. Rats! Home through the snow, brrr...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wednesday night is...

...(or rather was)

Christmas Cake Night.

My mother's old Christmas Cake recipe - one of those handed-down things, tweaked slightly over the years and with odd marginal notes - makes the best rich fruit cake I know. If I ever get married, that's my wedding cake recipe. If I ever have a child, or get asked to be a godmother, it's my christening cake recipe. It's basically masses and masses of fruit stuck together with a wee bit of cake and then fed spoonfuls of brandy for a couple of weeks. Is your mouth watering yet? It should be.

It is also pretty easy to make. Almost everything comes in batches of 6 ounces. 6oz sultanas, 6oz raisins, 6oz cherries, 6 oz chopped peel or dried cranberries, 6oz butter, 6oz sugar. 7oz plain flour. 3 eggs. 2 oz whole almonds. 1 teaspoonful mixed spice. That's it.

Last night, a bit late this year, was Christmas Cake Baking Night.

First you prepare the cake tin. Mine is Victorian, a family heirloom; deep and solid and made of blackened wrought iron, it looks more like a piece of steam engine, but it's a cake tin to dream of. Grease it, very lightly. Line it with trimmed baking parchment or greaseproof paper and tie a thick layer of folded newspaper around the outside. Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 3 or the equivalent.

Next, prepare the ingredients. Get the butter and eggs out of the refrigerator. Sort all the dried fruit (checking the raisins and sultanas for stalky bits, chopping the glacé cherries, unsticking anything that is stuck together in lumps). Then blanch and halve the almonds and add them to the dried fruit. Next, weigh the flour, mix in the mixed spice, and sieve them both together. Then, cream together the butter and molasses sugar, mix in the eggs one by one, then add fruit-and-nuts and flour in alternating spoonfuls, stirring with a knife.

As you stir, make a wish. Call the other members of the household to stir the cake and make a wish. Then dollop the mixture into the cake tin, level off and hollow the middle slightly, and pop it in the oven, on the bottom shelf. Turn the oven down a scrap, straight away. After an hour, turn it down another scrap, to about Gas Mark 2.

Then wait.

It takes anything from three and a half to four and a half hours in total. Slowly the house fills with the glorious mixed smells of spices, fruit and hot newspaper. It's a classic smell that evokes childhood and the anticipation of Christmas as little else can do. On the occasions when it takes 4 1/2 hours (like last night) one is practically blotto with tiredness by the time the cake comes out. Then you have to wait another half an hour before it can be safely turned out of the tin. Do not be tempted to turn it out immediately! - it will sag unbecomingly about the midriff, or worse, come apart altogether. I've already got one saggy midriff, i don't need another.

Leave it to cool overnight, and in the morning, wrap in greaseproof paper and stick down with sellotape (or better still masking tape, which will undo and restick several times without tearing the paper). A couple of days later, unstick the tape, unfold the paper, prick the top surface of the cake gently with a fine-tined fork, and drizzle a dessertspoonful of brandy into the top, very slowly. Do this another two or three times at intervals of three or four days.

Take the cake out of the paper. Coat it with warmed sieved jam. Cover it with marzipan. Leave it out overnight to dry. Ice with royal icing. Leave overnight to dry. Decorate, in whatever way you fancy (the year I was eight, it had a pink plastic ballerina on top; the following year, for equality's sake, a toy tank in a green and brown iced battlefield diorama...).

Bring forth, show off, cut in slices. And eat.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Invisible disabilities

I am a contact lens wearer. I'm not ashamed of it, the way I am about colouring my hair (yeah! - say it in public!). But it's an odd thing about wearing contact lenses - no-one knows that you do, unless you tell them. Then every now and then there's a day when one is running badly late for work, or one has a head so stuffed with head-cold that one's eyes hurt (that's today, FYI) and one goes out in specs. Ooh, specs. Girls who wear glasses, and all that.

My specs are perfectly ok. In fact, they're quite nice - plain and practical with neat black frames that turn out to be smokey-transparent when one looks closely. "Capable and slightly foxy" was the look I hoped to achieve when I chose them. I like them. But people are often quite taken-aback when they see me in them. I just got a massive double-take out of someone at work - you would think I'd gone out wearing a bra on my head, not a humble pair of specs...

At least someone else then gave me a free flowerpot. Thank you, David! But no-one made a pass at me (not that they would have done if I'd been wearing my lenses, either, mind you).

Poor eyesight is a pain, goodness knows. I wish I'd inherited my father's 20/20 vision rather than the severe myopia that runs in my mother's family. I have such bitter memories of being teased in childhood for not being able to see things in the middle-distance; teased even by people who could have worked out, if they'd thought twice about it, that I must be short-sighted. I mean, people who are short-sighted themselves! Because the world looked exactly the same to me as it had done for as long as I could remember, I wasn't aware that it was blurry. It was normal. I had no idea that other people went on seeing clearly, the way I could see my own hands, when objects were further off. I though the world was blurry. I thought my perceptions were the only reality.

The first time, aged eight, that I looked through the testing specs at an opticians, with the right corrective lenses, and saw that there was indeed a list displaying the letters of the alphabet hanging up at the other end of the room (I had begun to fear he was making fun of me, as until then I literally couldn't see it) - it was revelatory, and rather frightening. The world looked totally different to the place I had lived in until then (you will gather, I really do have lousy eyesight).

I wonder if my grandfather, who was severely deaf, went through a similar revelation/shock when he was first fitted with a hearing aid and realised that the quiet world he was used to didn't exist outside his own perception? Deafness is an far more invisible problem than poor vision; at least these thick-lensed specs make it quite clear what my problem is. Grandpa struggled for seventy-odd years against others' impatience, prejudice and ignorance about deafness, with all the considerable vigour and fury of a very pugnacious educated working class man with a chip the size of Manchester Cathedral on his shoulder. Towards the end of his life it used to wear him down sometimes. He would joke about inventing a series of badges to carry in his pocket, and pinning more and more of them on as he tried to communicate with some mumbling shop assistant. Badge number one would read "I am deaf - please speak up"; then the successive messages would get blunter, then outright rude and finally be quite surreal - I particularly remember "If you want me to listen, don't talk to your bosom". He never did it, of course; but it gave him a laugh to fantasise about it.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Lost in translation..

This is fascinating stuff (& a really lovely bit of smut at the beginning - I'm clearly not the only person who appreciates the infelicities, and worse, that computer translation can inflict on us). It reminds me vividly of the occasion when I found a really cheap edition of "War and Peace" in one of those "£1-Classics" series that appeared in the early 'nineties. I very nearly bought it; but a single brief flip-through the pages was enough to make me drop it hastily. The translator had called Pierre "Peter" and Prince Andrei "Prince Andrew".

Peter is a good name; I used to imagine that if I had a son I'd like to call him Peter, in fact. But to reduce Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov, two of my greatest literary crushes, to mere Peter and (eeech!) Prince Andrew; it's horrible, it's shudder-worthy, it's yuk, yuk, yuk!

Mind you, although I agree with a lot of the points in that article (I can't agree with everything because I've never read "Madame Bovary"), I have to say that the best translations of poetry have to be relatively inaccurate. The very correct Princeton University Press translation of George Seferis isn't a patch on Rex Warner's stunning 1950s translation published by the Bodley Head.

Long before I ever went there, I knew Greece, her beauty, her history, her tangled present, through these poems, in Mr Warner's beautiful translations. I initially quoted a chunk of one of them here, from memory, but have just been reading an article (on "How publishing really works") on copyright, and realised with a dull sick feeling that I'd probably broken copyright in so doing. I was under the impression that one was allowed to quote other writers in small excerpts so long as it was attributed (which it was) - but it sounds from what I've just read as though I had this totally wrong. Ouch.

I was trying to pay tribute to a piece of writing I loved, and maybe even steer other poetry lovers and/or Philhellenes towards Mr Warner's great translation of Seferis. Boy, do I feel a fool now. I've taken it off, since I can't think of anything else to do, so now you'll have to go and look it up if you're interested. If you can track that edition down second hand (I'm pretty sure it's OoP), buy it - it's beautiful.

Monday, 15 November 2010


Holiday now over, sigh.

Cyprus was very hot and sunny. Far from doing lots of day trips and cultural things, we spent most of our week on the beach. Not that I'm knocking a beach holiday with Mum! - hot, hot sun, sitting under palm trees, swimming in the sea, eating tahini and garlic dips, salads toppped with olives and grilled halloumi, ice cream sundaes and bags of nuts, and drinking ice-cold beers at lunch and Brandy Sours at sunset. It was gorgeous. But based on the weather forecast I'd packed light-weight trousers, cardigans and cotton shirts, and only threw in some shorts and a couple of bathing costumes for the hotel indoor pool at the last minute. I spent most of the week either in the sea in one or the other of my swimsuits, or in the shade with a cold drink, wearing the shorts and my lightest tops.

So although not quite the planned holiday, it was a lot of fun, and perfect Girl Time with my Mum. I think the completely relaxing break did her the world of good, too. It's just such a pity one has to come back to Britain in the middle of the night to a thick fog and a hard frost; a temperature drop of about 25 degrees celsius, brrr...

Friday, 5 November 2010


The end of another busy week, and now I'm away on holiday till the fifteenth. Yay!

My regular pattern of having the week of my birthday off as annual leave has had to be discarded this year as I was planning to go away for some Serious Girls' Time with my mum and then she got landed with a hospital appointment in the middle of that week. As it's one of her eye injections and the window of opportunity for these is fairly small - they can be moved by a couple of days but no more - we had to change our plans. So last weekend I booked a trip back to Cyprus, flying out at 9am on Sunday morning. The forecast at the moment says sun, sun, sun...

I must just share the results of my latest tangle with spell-checker, though. It picked up the extra "s" I'd managed to stick on the end of "business", which was good, but then it got its teeth into some botanical names:

Pinus nigra = pin-up n*****
Heliconia rostrata = Helicon prostrate (bit tough on the Nine Muses, who are supposed to live on Helicon)
Thuja standishii = Thug sandshoe (surreal picture)
Zelkova serrata = Slovakian serrated (perhaps a kind of dragon?)

and my favourite, the beautiful Sacred Lotus, is
Nelumbo nucifera = Encumber Lucifer.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Yesterday I took a walk in the Gardens in my lunch break. It was a beautiful, misty autumn day, like an embodiment of Keats’ poem; the light was soft, the air mild, there were scarlet berries and fantastic fall colours everywhere, and more still to come. The red oaks are red and the lindens are golden now, but the Nothofagus have only just begun to turn. I even saw a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird, in the bare branches of the sprawling Canary Bird rose near the back door of the office. In the Princess of Wales conservatory the most recent Titan Arum has finished doing its thing and folded up, but the flowering Aloe abrupta was still going through the roof, the lithops were covered in bright little daisy-flowers like toys, and there was still a glorious display of tropical waterlilies.

Sometimes I feel as though I work in a magical place, where dirty, scrubby, anxiety-ridden modern London is trapped on the other side of the boundary wall and the spirit of Albion reigns within. These autumn colours are riches like treasure, poured out around me. The geese fly overhead in a long skein, heading for the river, and a tree murmuring with hundreds of starlings amid glowing foliage evokes William Blake’s visions of angels in the trees of Peckham Rye. Inside, the waterlilies look like Mughal cups carved from rare gemstones, floating in readiness for the hands of kings.

I needed the break; I need a break, full stop. Last week I ended up working through my lunch hour four days out of five. I’ve been so busy recently I feel as though I’ve barely sat down. I know I have sat down, obviously – apart from anything else, I have an office job, so like it or not large chunks of my working day are spent parked on my broad behind. But it’s been all go, at work and outside. I really needed to make that quiet reconnection with the air and the trees and the autumn gold…