A Vicarage Christmas

I used to love reading tales of old-fashioned Christmases; stories like Laurie Lee’s or Flora Thompson’s where preparations begin as soon as summer is over and gradually ramp up to Chrismas Eve when puddings are boiled, vegetables prepared and everyone goes to bed after Midnight Mass and gets up at 5 am to light the oven for the turkey (or, more likely, the goose).  Preparations were unbelievably elaborate back then; none of your pre-stuffed or pre-basted turkeys; you made your own stuffing from a secret recipe and basted the turkey every half-hour.  If it was a goose, the bones would be boiled for broth and the fat saved to rub on when some child had a chest infection.

But, beguiling as these accounts are, you can’t help but be struck by the phenomenal amount of work they require.  And it would be servants or housewives who did that work.  Sure, the man might chop down a tree or dig the potatoes or kill the fatted goose but it’d be the women who did all the rest.  That was still true until recently: last year I shouted at the TV during a repeat of a Christmas ‘Royle Family’ when the mother, having prepared and served Christmas dinner for six, groans at the thought of all the washing-up.  ‘Get up off your big fat arse and get in the kitchen!’ I yelled at Ricky Tomlinson.  But he took no notice.

But I was leading up to telling you about Christmases in the vicarage when I was a child.  There were a lot of similarities with the accounts I mentioned above: for a start the house was a large Victorian vicarage built for a numerous family plus servants, so an old-fashioned Christmas suited it.  Preparations began early: mincemeat for the mince pies would be made in October, as would the Christmas pudding (we all had to give it a stir before it was boiled) – and vast quantities of dried fruit, breadcrumbs and peel would be employed in the process.  The stuffing, too, would be made ahead of time.  But until we got a freezer everything else had to be bought the week before; turkey, sausages, vegetables and the fresh cream which, with custard, was served with the pudding.  We always had an enormous tree (the rooms had very high ceilings) and spent hours as children making miles of paper chains to hang in every room along with balloons and tinsel.

But Christmas for us really began the week before with the arrival of our grandparents.  Then on Christmas Eve my aunt, uncle and cousin would crunch round the drive in their Audi, which made nine of us.  That was the usual number but one year Uncle Peter came with Aunty Joy and our four cousins Barbara-Richard-Lyn-and-David.  That made fifteen, which was a bit of a stretch even with both leaves in the table.

We ate in the dining-room – the only time the place was ever used for meals – which had a hatch through from outside the kitchen.  (This was now used as the dog’s room but presumably had originally been part of a Victorian kitchen.)  The dining-room was generally used as a lumber-room but had a large oak-veneer table which, with two leaves fitted, could seat a dozen people.  Sometimes we used it to play table-tennis but the fluted edges made the balls bounce all over the place.

With my aunt and grandmother here, the kitchen became a hellish region of pots and steam with three red-faced women frantically working to get everything ready.  My grandfather lounged in the sitting-room with a glass of sherry or else walked the garden with his tobacco-pouch as he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house.  My father, meanwhile, was busy with Church: we’d all been to Communion at 9.45 but the rest of us came back home quickly.

I guess every family has its Christmas rituals but ours had more than most.  We children were allowed to open our Christmas ‘stockings’ (pillow cases) as soon as we woke and to play with the contents so long as we Made No Noise; but the main presents were not until the afternoon.  The order of events was strictly planned and never varied: after we’d eaten dinner there was a short intermission during which the dishwasher would be stacked (men would help with this) and then the scene was set for pudding.  The curtains were all closed, the lights turned off and then with great ceremony and split-second timing a thimbleful of brandy was poured over the naked pudding and set alight: my mother would pour the brandy while my father stood poised with a match as though waiting to set off a bomb.  The flames licked the top of the pudding and spilled down the sides like a small volcano accompanied by oohs and ahs and sighs of satisfaction as the last blue flame flickered around the base and died.  Then a small, crumbly slice for each person, infused with the flavour of burnt brandy, and a triangle of home-made mince pie; the option of cream or custard.

When everything was put away (this would be around 2.45 – we had our Christmas dinner very early) we would assemble in the living-room to watch The Queen.  Total Silence.  After the National Anthem my grandmother would say something suitably respectful about her maj and we younglings would give a sigh of relief that the royal platitudes were over for another year.

My parents, having been up since six, then went for a nap, as did all the adults.  We children then played with whatever toys had been in our stockings, or perhaps set up the dining-room table for table-tennis and tried to cope with the erratic bounces.  Excitement mounted as the hour of Four drew near, the Hour appointed for the Main Presents.  After an age had passed the yawning adults came down: but not until every person had found their glasses, been to the loo, finished their soggy roll-up or done whatever tedious task they had to do and had settled in the living-room, could the present-giving begin.

No prior examination of the presents was allowed: we might wonder excitedly what was in the huge box wrapped in red and gold or whether the tiny oblong package in green was something even more thrilling, but examination of the labels was strictly forbidden.  No furious tearing of paper, no chaotic free-for-all; no grabbing of gifts and opening them all at once – not for us.  No sir!  What happened was that the children took it in turns to fetch a present from the pile under the tree.  Each label said not only who the present was for but who it was from, so we would then hand it to the person giving the gift, who would with great ceremony hand it to the recipient.  They would then, in full view of everyone, open the present so we could all see what it was and whether they liked it or not.

These being pre-recycling days, the wrapping paper was stacked next to the fire to be burnt (on special occasions we had a coal fire made with smokeless fuel; this would be lit later on.)  Then came tea and Christmas cake (I forgot to mention the Christmas cake earlier, which was made around the same time as the mincemeat and pudding and later covered with marzipan and home-made icing.  It was decorated with a fat red ribbon round the outside and silver balls on top: I think there was also a tiny snowman in the middle but it may have been an angel.)  After this came what is to my mind the most bizarre part of our Christmas ritual and one replicated in no other family I have ever known: the adults went upstairs to Dress.  Yes, they actually put on formal evening dress; the women in long skirts and blouses with necklaces, the men in smart trousers and jackets.  Was the Queen expected?  If so, she never arrived.  Perhaps like the smart soldier who salutes in the dark although no-one can see him, it was felt that standards should be maintained nonetheless.  And then the evening began.

As a child I resented the lack of TV at Christmas.  There were so many good programmes on Christmas Day and with no VCR or iplayer, there was no way to see them once you’d missed them.  As a teenager I particularly resented missing the Christmas Top of the Pops though if we were lucky we could sneak in a bit before the tea and cake and do a bit of undisturbed bopping.

So.  The evening unrolled without TV: instead we played parlour games.  These I have to admit were quite fun; games like Squeak, Piggy Squeak or Twenty Questions (AKA Animal, Vegetable or Mineral.)  We also played a version of Who Am I? but without the headbands and there were other games too but I have forgotten them.  As a treat we would usually be allowed to Stay Up Late, though ‘late’ didn’t mean much as the cocoa was on by 9.30 and everyone was in bed by 10.

And that was our vicarage Christmas.  Fun, ritualised, matriarchal and probably never to be repeated.

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is This Blog About?

I read just this morning some advice which suggested a blogger should always make it clear what their blog is about.  But this presents me with some difficulty because when it comes down to it, what actually is this blog about?

It’s easy to say ‘it’s a blog about writing’ – and in the main it is; but it’s about so much more than that.  The one thing I discovered when I began to blog regularly was that it is impossible to stick to one subject.  The mind lists where it will; there are many things I’m interested in and I want to share those interests with readers.  I want to connect: I want to philosophise and politicise and talk about anything I damn well please, from bricklaying (yes, I did that once) to road materials testing (also done) to knitting and poetry and short stories and poems about knitting and road materials and bricklaying (I haven’t yet written about the last two but knitting has proved a fertile metaphor for many things.)

I also want to blog about culture: I want to organise my responses to films and TV programmes, I want to write book reviews and share the poetry I love.  So in the main, it’s about connection.  Only connect would be a good alternative title for the blog if ‘A Writer’s Life’ weren’t clearer and more likely to – ahem – connect with readers.

One of the writing quotes I read recently was: ‘A writer knows a little about everything and is an expert on nothing.’  Now I think that’s exactly true: I am compelled to find out about all manner of things and would be just as engaged in finding out how fork-lift trucks work (indeed I have had that conversation with a friend who works at JCB) as with hearing about how other writers write.  I’m fascinated by these processes and not with any conscious intent of ‘doing research’ for writing: they just interest me.  As Chaucer said (or at least the Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) ‘all human life lies within the artist’s scope.’  So there it is; all human life lies within this blog’s scope.

What is this blog about?  Everything.

What am I an expert on?  Nothing.

Except perhaps on writing…

And just for fun, here’s today’s writing cartoon:

Kirk out

No Woman

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film ‘Yes Man’.  It’s a highly enjoyable story of a man who says no to life; who never goes anywhere or does anything and is stuck in the same old job as a loans officer for a bank.  Then one day he goes to an empowerment seminar where he is persuaded to enter a ‘contract’ agreeing to say yes to everything – literally everything – that comes along.  It’s very different from the book; but what struck me about both book and film was this: just how impossible would it be to do this as a woman?  Totally, right?  Can you imagine – a woman going round saying yes to everything?  So maybe the best option for women would be to practise saying no, since traditionally women are supposed to be amenable, open, charming and supportive.  So what would ‘No Woman’ look like? *

Of course you’d have to be discriminating otherwise you’d have to say no to a good job offer or a gift or a holiday or some other opportunity.  But suppose you started saying no to all the things you really want to say no to?

I did this the other week.  If I have a weakness it’s a tendency to take on jobs which need doing and which no-one else wants to do.  If there’s a need in an organisation, some part of me feels the urge to rush in and Save the Day.  I’ve got better at this as time goes by and I no longer volunteer for things that don’t play to my strengths – but if jobs seem to be the sort of thing I’d be good at, I generally persuade myself that this is The Thing To Do.

A case in point: recently at a meeting, a vacancy was announced.  Immediately my ‘save the day’ urge kicked in – but I’ve learned caution so instead of volunteering I raised my hand and asked what the job entailed.  I deliberately and quite specifically said as a prelude to the question, ‘I’m not volunteering to do this.’  And what happened?  One week later I heard that no fewer than three people had said, ‘isn’t it great that Liz is going to be _______?.’  This got my back up somewhat and I said a very firm No right there and then.  It particularly annoyed me that my words hadn’t been heard; all that had registered was that I’d shown an interest, and that people leapt from that to thinking I’d agreed to do it.

All this is in stark contrast to the Quakers.  When there is a job to be done the Nominations Committee (of which I am a member) sit and reflect on who might be asked to undertake that role.  This can be a process which may evolve over weeks or months; or a name might come up immediately.  That person is then asked; whereupon they go away and reflect on it, again over a period of weeks or months.  They then come back to the Noms Committee with a response.  At no time is any pressure put on anyone to say yes.  The Quaker attitude is that jobs exist for people, not people for jobs.

Hmm.  Now, what else can I say ‘no’ to today?

Kirk out

(Or not…)

*  No Bob Marley jokes please

Writing Tips – Make Friends with Serendipity

I’m going to tell you a story.  Actually I’m going to tell you two stories – a tale of two tales, if you will – and it goes like this.

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story about a jumper, in which I used knitting as a metaphor for writing.  You can see the idea: each stitch is a letter, every row a line of prose, every colour a plot-line, and so on.  The story touched on the themes of miscarriage and Greenham Common and I was quite pleased with it at the time, but when I found it again I felt dissatisfied with it.  Something was missing.  I rewrote and rewrote but it still wasn’t right.  But what happened next was pure serendipity…

Image result for serendipity

image removed on request

As you know, I’ve been getting daily writing prompts in my inbox.  I set a timer for five minutes and just write without planning or forethought until the timer goes off, when I stop.  I’m allowed to finish the word I’m writing but not the sentence, and I’m allowed to read it through once but no more.

So here’s the thing.  Today’s prompt was ‘Where Did They Find the Lost Doctors?’ by which they presumably meant the lost episodes of Dr Who.  Then again, how you interpret the prompt is up to you, so I chose instead to imagine all the previous incarnations of the Doctor and to wonder where they are now.  I decided – or rather, my subconscious decided, since there’s no time for conscious thought – that they are all gathered on Gallifrey; all except Tom Baker who is wandering Earth in search of enlightenment.  The older Doctors are teasing Peter Capaldi about being replaced by a woman, and it’s beginning to make him grumpy.  They spend their time reminiscing and playing uber-pool with models of various solar systems.  When I was finished I thought maybe OH would like to read it and so I typed it up. 

Now, when I type up new stories I use a story template so I don’t have to set the font, spacing and margins all over again.  And sometimes it happens that another story is still lurking on the template instead of having been deleted after saving to the Short Stories folder.  No problem, I thought, I’ll just delete it once I’m  finished.  But I forgot; so OH received what he thought was one story but which was in fact two.

This is where serendipity comes in – because he actually thought it worked!  He said the first ‘Doctors’ bit seemed to fit in perfectly with the second part.  So maybe I’ve found the missing bit of my knitting story.

Serendipity!  Learn to recognise it when it comes: just because something is a mistake, doesn’t mean it won’t work.  Some accidents are happy, after all.

Some, on the other hand, aren’t; like spilling water on my laptop.  So while it dries out I’m using OH’s model.

Kirk out

What’s the Weather Like Last Night?

Like many people, I have a little weather app on my phone with which I check the forecast.  But, useful as that is, I often find myself checking the weather right now.  Sure, I can easily look out of the window and see what it’s doing but I like to know exactly what temperature it is and then I can see if it’s ‘really cold’ or if it’s just me thinking it’s cold.  What difference does that make? you may ask.  If I’m cold, I’m cold, right?  Well, I like to check my perceptions against what we are pleased to call reality.  Hence if I’m finding a crossword difficult I look at the comments and see if it’s just me: sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  Call me a kook if you will, but I like to know if I ‘have a right’ to shiver; whether my feeling of coldness is justified.  Is it really as cold as I feel? is the question on my mind; and I suspect I’m not the only one.  Of such stuff are daily conversations made.  Mind you, nothing can surpass this one, overheard at a Yorkshire bus-stop:

Passenger 1:  They said it’s going to rain.

Passenger 2:  Ay, they did

Passenger 1:  It’s raining a bit now.

Passenger 2:  Ay, it is

Passenger 1:  ‘Course, this en’t the proper rain.  This is just condensation.

It’s much funnier if you read it in a Yorkshire accent.  And in case you’re not from these parts and don’t know what a Yorkshire accent is like, here’s a taste:

 

 

But back to the weather app, because the thing that really disturbs me about it is this: you can’t scroll back.  I expect you can on the computer (I’ll check in a minute) but you can’t on the phone – so if, for example, I want to see whether it was as cold as I thought it was last night, or how deep the frost was at about half-past four – I can’t.  It won’t go back, only forward.  And there’s something in that which deeply disturbs me.  It’s as if the weather app is like something in 1984, not merely editing the past but positively erasing it.  ‘The weather last night?’ it seems to say.  ‘There was no last night.  You merely imagined it.  There is only now – and the forecast for the next few weeks.  That’s all there is.’

My weather app erases the past!

I’ve just checked and you can’t scroll back on the computer either!

Scary.

While we’re on the theme of temperature I’ve been reading Fahrenheit 451 and being very impressed by Ray Bradbury’s ability to forecast the future.  He’s like a sort of literary Charlie Brooker in that he takes current trends and propels them into the future.  I’ll never forget a short story of his in which everyone had a hand-held communications device and used it to call people at home so they could say, ‘I’m on the bus!  I’ll be home in five minutes.  We’re just coming round the corner…’

Now that’s a forecast.

Kirk out

C S What?

I’ve been getting daily writing prompts for about three weeks now, and along with them I get other little titbits such as cartoons:

(image removed on request)

There are also quotes and advice from well-known writers, and today’s advice was in the form of five writing rules by C S Lewis.  But for some reason I found myself strangely resistant to clicking on the link.  Like most modern readers I love love love the Narnia books (oh, that I could go back and read them for the first time!) but am less keen on his particular brand of theological sci-fi:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/That_Hideous_Strength

and still less keen on his misogynistic views.  This last is a little unfair on him as he was no worse and perhaps better than most men of his time: however it remains a sticking point, and that constituted a scotch in the free movement of cursor to link and a reluctance to click.  Nevertheless I decided to give him a chance; and lo! his rules turned out to be eminently sensible.  They boil down to this:

Always be clear and unambiguous

Don’t use long words where short ones will do

Be concrete, not abstract

Show, don’t tell.

These are surely rules no-one could disagree with.  Lewis, though some modern feminists would attempt to consign him to the dustbin of patriarchy, was an interesting character; a dry academic with a Blakeian imagination, a confirmed bachelor until he fell in love, a romantic who wrote about palaces while lodging with his alcoholic brother in a freezing house (the heating broke down and they couldn’t be bothered to fix it) a man with strong, unflattering views on both women and divorce – until he fell in love with an American divorcee.  It was almost as though life was trying to teach him something…

It seems Lewis had to be pushed to the brink before he would allow himself to live.  He had a difficult relationship with his mother and only reluctantly allowed himself to be drawn into a liaison with Joy Davidman.  This, however, was short-lived as she died of cancer and he married her on her death-bed (having previously entered a civil marriage so that she could live in the UK: you wonder how much he was kidding himself there.)  His non-fiction works Surprised by Joy and The Problem of Pain seem almost anticipatory biographies, life following the blueprint of art. 

His Christianity is a mix of fear and joy, though his apprehensions of hell are somewhat prosaic: people sin the most not by living too much but by living too little; by being afraid of life.  But he did liven up what was a very dull theological epoch during the inter- and post-war years.  And to an extent I agree with him as my vision of hell is like this guy in the Channel 4 series Mimic, who longs for fame but when his big chance comes he hides in the toilets. 

Anyway, I guess if your worst nightmare is NOT taking the opportunity then you’ll take it.  Otherwise your worst nightmare would be – oh, I don’t know, farting on live TV or picking your nose or crying or losing your trousers or… or something that would be shared on social media and stay on youtube forever.

Come to think of it, those are my worst nightmares…

Kirk out

Baa!

I’m feeling a little sheepish at the moment and I’ll tell you why in just a sec.  In the meantime I’m going to review last night’s one-off drama from the BBC, Care.  Alison Steadman is pure genius in this story of a bright, caring elderly woman who has a major stroke and loses everything.  She becomes aggressive and confused; she mistakes every man she sees for her dead husband and her response to being asked to make tea is to eat the teabag.  When she’s taken to a care home they lose her that first night because there are only three nurses to care for thirty-one patients.  She communicates in fractured phrases that convey nothing to the outside world: vague subtitles waft across to translate her thoughts.  After she absconds her daughter brings her home, and there begins a nightmare of trying to care for a demented elderly mother whilst bringing up two daughters alone.  The indictment of the care system is on a par with something by Ken Loach: after I’d seen it I couldn’t get to sleep as it stirred up so many emotions.

But none of this explains the sheepishness; nor is the sheepishness connected to sleeplessness.  Nay, I have ordered a book whose title has caused me some embarrassment, though I’m not sure why.  It’s nothing to do with sex; it’s on a subject which its author suggests is even more private and harder to talk about than sex.  It’s this.

And I have to say that so far, I’m finding it inspirational.  I’m not entirely sure whether I want to be you-know-what: in fact part of me things R*** is a four-letter word.  But McKenna deconstructs these ideas and suggests, firstly, that being rich is about a mental attitude and not governed by how much you have (I concur) and secondly, that wealth does not in itself corrupt, but ‘reveal’.  It accentuates what is already there.  I’m not sure I entirely go along with that but I know what he means.

Along with very helpful exercises there are some quotations designed to be inspirational; however many of these have a disturbing effect on me as they are from people like Richard Branson, Ayn Rand and (shudders) Donald Trump.  I should make clear that the book was published in 2007, way before DT got into politics.

But I am aware of two things; one, that I am hard-up, and two, that I want more income than I have at the moment.  I want a flow of income that allows me to buy some stuff I want and to give to others (no begging letters please; I’m talking about charities here) so that I can, in his words, ‘live my best life.’

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Kirk out

 

When Will I Be Back on Facebook?

I’ve been off the endless blue pages for three weeks now, and I can honestly say I’m not missing it.  On the contrary, nowadays there is so little of what I like ie sharing with genuine friends, swapping ideas, gathering information – and so much of what I thoroughly dislike, that I’m feeling more than ever happy to be free of it.  This morning I happened to look over OH’s shoulder at his Facebook profile and saw a big post saying:

Make Penelope the biggest C*** of 2018

What?  What the actual?  This is like playground graffitti but so much worse.  I feel awful when I see something like that, and I don’t want to be feeling awful first thing in the morning – or indeed at any time of day.  There’s very little you can do about those posts: reporting you to Facebook doesn’t seem to achieve anything (they’re far more concerned about removing pictures of breastfeeding and selling your data) and attempting to remonstrate with the person who posted it will only garner you a whole heap of abuse.  No thank you.  There’s nothing Facebook has to offer which could possibly compensate me for all the crap on there.

So now that I’ve conquered my social media addiction, what next?  I managed to buy a book fairly cheaply today without going on Amazon, which was great.  I’m making efforts to shop more ethically (not that I do shop, much) so I checked out other retailers – Goodreads gives you a list – and found Alibris:

https://www.alibris.co.uk

which has a list of independent stockists.  I managed to order a second-hand hardback copy reportedly in good condition for £3.50 including shipping.

Not bad eh?

And our Xmas tree is up too…

Could I BE more virtuous?

 

IMG_0789[1]

Kirk out

I Will Follow You, Will You Follow Me?

I am I hope always appreciative of my followers.  If you don’t know how to follow this blog, click on ‘follow’ which should be in the bottom right-hand corner, and you’ll get an email every time I post.  If you do this I guarantee I will look at your blog (if you have one) and may even follow you in return.

As of this week I have 400 followers.  In internet terms this isn’t very great, but it’s a bit of a landmark for me because for the last few months I’ve been inching towards that number and suddenly on Tuesday I got 4 new followers which means we’re up to 403.  So I was telling OH and he suggested that I commit to doing something when we reach 500.  What could that be? I wondered.  Hiding upside-down in a tub of custard?  Running a marathon? (absolutely no way, baby).  Shaving my head?  Mmm..nope.  I know, I’ll give away a book of my poetry.  Of course I haven’t got any books of my poetry at the moment, so that means I’ll have to keep an eye on the numbers and when we get close to 500 I’ll have to get my finger out and produce one.  Should be no problem; I’ve got plenty of poems after all.

So in the meantime here’s an appropriate song:

 

Kirk out

Blockhead: My Top Tips For Overcoming Writer’s Block

I have previously tried to analyse what writer’s block actually is:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/lay-your-head-on-the-writers-block/

and now it’s time to share some of my top tips for dealing with it.  No matter whether it lasts for an afternoon or a year (or longer) writer’s block is painful, debilitating, numbing and horribly frustrating.  Where does it come from?  Where does it go?  It seems to arrive like the wind, out of nowhere, and to disappear equally mysteriously.  Whatever your particular brand of writer’s block, some of these may help:

  1.  Set an alarm and write for 10 minutes without thinking, revising or stopping.  Any old junk that comes into your head is fine.  Don’t even worry about sentences.
  2. Sign up to writing prompts such as writerswrite.co.za
  3. Describe what you can see from your window.  I can see a quiet street with several vehicles parked, one of which has ‘Integrated Building Solutions’ on the side.  I might choose to write about what the hell that means and why everything is a ‘solution’ nowadays instead of saying exactly what it is ie ‘builders.’
  4. Go through old notebooks for any ideas you can harvest.  If you haven’t got any notebooks go out and buy one; there’s nothing like a new notebook for stimulating ideas.
  5. Take one item on your desk and write about its history.  At this moment apart from a laptop, I have two digestive biscuits on my desk.  I could, if I chose, write one of those stories they used to give us at school – The Life-Cycle of the Chocolate Digestive (‘I was made in a factory from flour and sugar…)
  6. Do something else.  Dig the garden, go for a walk, do the washing-up.  The unconscious mind will keep working while the conscious mind is occupied with something else
  7. If all these ideas bore you to tears, recognise that sometimes boredom is necessary and, like land lying fallow, can prove fertile ground for new seeds.

Kirk out