Sunday, January 07, 2018

Are they having a laugh?

My poor man has the flu. I'd like to say he has the man flu, but this seems pretty bad: high fever, aching bones, sore head, horrible cough. I am feeding him paracetamol and advil to keep the fever down, and bringing him apple juice and tea and water with lemon. He sleeps in his LL Bean pajamas, with a fleece underneath and his Philadelphia Eagles bobble hat, wrapped in most of the duvet and the Hudson Bay blanket. Periodically he reaches for his phone to check sports scores or says things like "Don't worry about me. I'll struggle on."

The Frenchie, who has been in a cone of shame since Boxing Day, for an ulcerated cornea, has been temporarily freed. The cone is battered and torn, and she is now sitting on the carpet cleaning herself, and all those parts other beers can't reach, elated.

On some of the coldest days of the year, the house has decided to turn off the radiators in the middle of the night, so we're woken (I'm woken) to a deathly chill, and have to pad downstairs in my bare feet to fiddle with the knobs on the thermostat as if I know what I'm doing. (I don't.)

"Are they having a laugh?" asked the nice man who came in to fix the extractor fan in the bathroom. "What do you mean, kind sir?" I said, like Lady Bracknell. "Not many people would take this place, you know" he said, "with the walls crumbling and all. I mean, I suppose it 'as its charm." "Oh I like it!" I said firmly. "Especially in the summer." "You must be a writer" the fine man continues. "I noticed the New Yorker in the bathroom. You writers like the romance of a place like this, don't you?" He smiled kindly. I know he feels sorry for me.

Speaking of romance, the cuckoo clock my son gave me is the most charming thing. Not only does it serve a purpose, but it does so with such elegance. William Morris would approve. It ticks two boxes of his criteria for objects to have in one's house. It serves another purpose: it tells you exactly how much time you're wasting. While I'm faffing around, trying to get out of the house, I notice the cuckoo of the half hour strike, which hastens me. I'm rather paying attention more to time, being our most important commodity and all that.  Too late into the new year I am realizing that change must come and that it isn't okay to allow things to remain as they are. One must be brave, one must reach out for the things one wants to do, one must be bold and brave and not give a damn what anyone else thinks, even the man who installs the extractor fan. Even him.

And this house is awfully lovely in the summer. Did I tell you that we've made mirabelle gin from the tiny plums in the garden? I gave a bottle to the postman and promised him I wasn't trying to poison him (it's all a bit Midsummer Murders around here - you can't be too careful) and when I bumped into him on Shire Lane on the horse, he confirmed that he'd loved it, although he had imbibed rather too much all round over Christmas. Let me be clear: I was on the horse; he was in his rather fetching red postal van.

I know when the house is warm enough. Because the dogs, who've had a propensity for jumping in the bed at any provocation, are cozily snuggled in their nice green tweed dog beda underneath the radiator. When it's warm, they don't wake up. Rather like me.

Oh I know this reads like an episode of the Archers. I haven't even gotten in to the man who likes teenage girls and gives them teddy bear necklaces to join the "teddy bear club". That will be another installment. And no doubt Shona will have something to say. We take the sunshine when we can get it, for minutes or hours. Probably a good way to look at life, no?

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Be the light in 2018

A very happy new year to each and every one reading this. I hope that your hearts will be full in 2018.

My mother says that you shouldn't have spring flowers in the house, like hyacinths, tulips, narcissus, until after Christmas. That it's just wrong to have them in the house before Christmas. I think it's the something to look forward to thing. To be honest, January in England is challenging when you haven't really experienced it before. The days are really, really short. The sun rises at 8am and sets at 4pm.  Which means there are about six hours of useful daylight. I've discovered that the only way to survive is to get up early and to greet the day. Whatever your mood, whatever your level of cabin fever, whatever your housebound nature, however hard it is to get out of your warm and comfortable bed to set foot in the freezing, terracotta floored kitchen, actually making it outside into the weather, the naked trees, the singing birds, changes everything. I force myself not to procrastinate, not to make an extra cup of tea, and to hit the muddy ground running. Your face freezes, your nose gets red, the red veins on your cheeks which make you further resemble your mother get more pronounced. Your eyes pop blue from your ruddy, scrubbed face. Your hands are permanently cold. You carry around Neutrogena Norwegian formula hand cream, and apply liberally. You've bought two new thermal undershirts shirts and you wear one every day and you tell people proudly that it's your favorite item of clothing. You make turkey and ham pies. You become useful with pastry. You wash your own knickers, because you like the feeling of warm, soapy water on your hands. You fantasize about crawling into the dog basket in the middle of the day.

It could be a superstition. Like keeping mince pies for three months.

But yesterday Charlie brought me tulips, pink ones with frilly edges like microscopic ric-a-rac, and they're on my scrubbed kitchen table, between two white candles, and they bring joy and optimism and hope.

"How do you do it?" I asked a friend. "Frankly, it's better than the snow," she replied.

My children brought me cuckoo clocks and cheerful blue printed napkins, a bud vase, a shopping bag with dalmatians on it, navy and white stripey socks, a hand-carved wooden cheese board, a jug with a bumble bee on it. I am spoiled. Mostly I am spoiled by having them here, all of them, all four of them, children and beloveds, smiling and slipping into their gumboots and Norwegian socks (I bought five pairs in various sizes for muddy walks in the rain). We walked to Ivinghoe Beacon in the snow, five of us, two dogs, one in a cone of shame, and breathed in the icy air at the top. It felt like the right thing to do after Christmas feasting.

And now the wind is howling through the chimney and blowing in the oak trees outside. Tis the bleak midwinter, frosty wind and all.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Home is where one starts from

When I walk, I imagine the best way things could be. I dream about the incredibly beautiful wreath I'm going to make and put on the front door of our little cottage, with holly from Oxford because all the holly near us is un-berried, and pine branches, and ribbon. I wonder where to buy grosgrain ribbon, because that is my favorite. In Los Angeles, I have a box of ribbons, and grosgrain in every (winter) color - red, brown, orange, lime green. I look at the beauty of naked branches and think I an incorporate them into a wreath, with lichen perhaps, and then I laugh at myself. And I marvel at the glory of it all: the impossibly bright winter sun, the orange-brown light on the trees just after sunrise, the spotted sheep huddling in puddles of sunlight, the cracked perfection of the puddles of ice, the sparkling frost on the black roads. When I walk, I am my best self, optimistic and ebullient and magnanimous, with the cold air freezing my face, and red-nosed in awe and gratitude. When I walk, I shed the doubt. Perhaps we all do.

I was born here, on a farm, in a cold house that didn't have a lot of central heating. There was a huge wood burning stove in the hallway that heated a fair amount of the house, and log fires in the sitting room, drawing room, dining room and study. I remember being too cold to get out of bed to go to the loo in the middle of the night, even though the loo was next to my bedroom. I remember ice on my windows. I remember frozen fingers and forced dog walks twice a day. And cold Land Rovers. And the damp. And the smell of wet dog. Five or Six of them. But, now I'm back I wonder if Southern California softened me, thinned my blood, made me a princess. There is no doubt I am now a princess. I've had to learn to wash my own floors and do my own ironing (I still suck at ironing). I've had to learn to feel cold, a lot, and to wear a woolly hat in the kitchen sometimes. Charlie is kind and good to me (too kind, too good, my mother says). Yesterday, I got back (freezing) from a funeral in London and there were white tulips on the kitchen table and yellow daffodils on my bedside table. "I wanted to remind you of spring," he said. "And hope. It's not always going to be like this." I'm not sure what to do with all this kindness. I don't ever feel deserving of it. I am not sure how such a lovely man managed to get into my orbit or what divine intervention brought us together. I know this: he makes the cold worthwhile.

When I walk, I warm up. I'm wearing my red and white Norwegian sweater and a huge red pashmina scarf, wrapped three times around my neck to stave off bronchial conditions and scattershot maladies. And on top of this a coat in my brother's tweed. It's the warmest thing I own. I want to wear it every day, even in London. "It's not really a London coat" says Charlie. He fears I'll start to wear one of those furry hatbands that all the Sloanes favor. When I warm up, the world becomes benevolent again, and the fear assuages.

We sang hymns in church. I stood beside my childhood friend who I love very much and he sang in a deep baritone.  All public school boys do this. It amuses me. My piping second soprano could not be bridled. I jolly well love to sing hymns. The Lord's My Shepherd (Crimond) and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, a great Wesleyan hymn. Goodness and kindness all my life shall surely follow me. What lovely, lovely lyrics. What lovely hope.

I hope, deep in my heart, that England is still in my bones in a proper, English way. I hope that I am deserving of its beneficence.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment 
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.  -- from East Coker, by TS Eliot

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Snow

Like a child on Christmas Day, I leapt out of bed at 5am to look at the world cloaked in white. Sparkling white snow everywhere. I've been giddy all day, taking the dogs out in it in their ridiculous red tartan coats, watching them leap like bunnies across it, standing in the woods and staring up at the white branches as if in a ghostly cathedral. It's Narnia here. Really it's Narnia. It's magical and white and glittering and everyone's greeting each other with jolly hellos. We're on top of a hill in the Chilterns and we're in a very small village; there are boxes of salt on the side of the road but I haven't seen a snow plough, nor do I know if such a thing exists in the English countryside. This is unusually snowy. This kind of weather sends me into paroxysms of glee and also sends me online searching for used Land Rovers. My poor darling is stuck in Berlin, where all the flights have been cancelled, as is making his way back via Köln and Dortmund and Brussels on a train.

Yesterday, walking through the cold woods, waiting for the snow, I realized that winter makes me, makes us, want to simplify. Summer is about abundance: flowers and fruits and buzzing bees and plenty. Winter is about taking stock, about letting go of things, about appreciating the beauty of minimalism. The cold seals you up, makes you careful, forces you to think about what you can lose without losing yourself. Winter isn't chaotic, unlike Spring, when everything bursts into being. Our job in winter is to keep warm, is basic sustenance, is thoughtfulness, is kindness.


Monday, December 04, 2017

No-Vember (remember)

Hello, kind and patient friends of the blog. It's the fourth of December at four minutes past four and it's dark outside. I'm sitting at my desk, catching up on emails, writing a few things, waiting for LA to wake up, and thinking, I'll take the dogs out in a few. And there it is, the skeleton trees and the cloudy darkness. Blink and you'll miss the day in December in the UK. Blink and you might as well just hibernate. But I refuse to be rocked or knocked or even slightly perturbed by it. I have cod liver oil and vitamin pills, radiators that work, and a very attractive grey beanie that I wear At All Times, in order to keep warm. My friend suggests wearing a housecoat over one's clothes to keep really warm. To that I say what my mother said in church this morning when offered a blanket for her legs "I'm not 100 yet, darling."

The mother of one of my oldest childhood friends (a pony club girl) has died, sadly, and we were at the funeral today. I remember her mother as beautiful, sexy, glamorous, funny, an ace cakemaker, and absolutely not death material whatsoever. In fact, she came to lunch in the spring, and was witty and amusing and warm and kind; this was, as I suppose death always is, unexpected.

Funerals are awfully sad.  But sitting in churches is lovely. This one was a creamy white, and light, and oddly, optimistic. There were grandchildren reading poems. A lovely son choking back his grief while reading a eulogy with a slightly wobbly voice. White flowers which looked as if they had been picked directly from the meadow, loose and natural and bright. Jerusalem, which was belted out. (This is how the English express emotion, through the belting of stirring hymns.) But also there were people I hadn't seen since I was fourteen. Lots of them. Lovely old friends and boys on whom I had miserable crushes, and Plum, who held a joint 14th birthday party with me, and painted my nails red for the first time, and made me feel sophisticated and grown up and just slightly slutty. There were sandwiches, and fudge, and little smoked haddock fishcakes, and farmers from all around, names of people my father liked. Names I remember him saying with warmth, which was not always the case. Two of my mother's widow group were there, and a sprinkling of pony club girls. Happily familiar faces. How sad it is that it takes a funeral to reunite us all. (Dear, dear Plum. Isn't it funny how you can see a friend for the first time in 40! years and it's the same. They may have a couple of extra lines, but the essence is their fourteen year old self. All I felt was immense warmth and love. Also, everyone should have a friend called Plum. It's so deliciously cozy.)

I have managed for the first time in the fourteen years that this blog has existed to miss an entire month. While other people were growing moustaches, I was NOT WRITING and no doubt lying about it to anyone who asked. I'm not sure how I could have allowed that to happen, but I am sorry. I am awfully sorry. In the future, I promise at least to publish a recipe. I'm letting no-one down but myself, I realize. This must be amended.

I can tell you this:

  1. I have fallen in love with the Alhambra Palace after seeing "A Trip to Spain" on the plane.
  2. I have been back to Los Angeles twice and I realize what an easy life we have there. Also, that I miss those balmy, orange-lit afternoons that only Thanksgiving brings.
  3. Vegan sweet potatoes with coconut milk are the most delicious things on the planet.
  4. I miss Monica with a passion. (This is another blog post entirely: but, I was a SPOILED girl.)
  5. I am busier with work than I have been all year and I love it.
  6. If you haven't seen "Midnight Special" do, immediately.
  7. People don't show up for food in the UK. This is what distinguishes it from the US. I told this story to a colleague and she thought I was joking, but in LA, if you want people to come watch a movie, you merely feed them. Here, not so much.
  8. I've done very little Christmas shopping and don't quite know how to survive with my go-to LA shops, OK Gallery, New Stone Age, Lost and Found, and Pergolina. If my British readers have any good ideas for cute places to shop for Christmas, please let me know.
  9. The stark, naked beauty of Britain in December takes some beating. Every leaf that's left is copper. The ground is muddy. There are starlings and wood pigeons and pheasants everywhere. And the blue, when it comes, is so pleasing, and so unexpected, that one's mood is imediately lifted.
  10. There is no Honey Baked Ham in Buckinghamshire.
  11. My expectations have changed. And this is a good thing. More on this later.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Radiate

In the two days since I last wrote something here, I have not had any wine, I have slept a full night (until 5.15am), and both my skin and my outlook are radiant. Not a coincidence, I'm sure. The wind is blowing through the oak outside my window, and I walked the dogs late in the dark on the common, as I got the 10.30pm train from Euston. The dogs don't care a bit about the rain. They're happy to bomb about on the cricket pitch, getting their feet muddy. My darling man is going to Australia tomorrow morning, but tonight he took me to see Michael Clark's extraordinary dance company at the Barbican, dancing to Satie, and Patti Smith and David Bowie. I found myself moved beyond measure, but perhaps that's because we were sitting dead center, three rows back, and I could see the facial expressions and lipstick of everyone on stage. C sat next to me with his arm around me the entire time and I felt myself swooning and wondered if it were possible to feel happier. Mr McDuck and Aladdin Sane after an almost full night of sleep; a heady combination.

I hope you all sleep well. xo