Monday, 22 November 2010

Brace yourself!

Hello. I'm back. I make no promises about how long for, based on my 'half-finished' attempts in the last few months. However, I had to share this little snippet of Edinburgh New Town life, spotted last weekend.

A Saturday stroll through Edinburgh's New Town, on the way to lunch back at Leo's Beanery, enjoying the restrained elegance of the Georgian townhouses. But what's that hanging from the top left balcony?

Ah yes, living in a city centre flat can be so restrictive. Where do you dry your laundry? Where do you store your bicycle? But most of all, where on earth do you hang your brace of pheasants?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

At last .....

I'm running a personal development course at the end of October. I'm really excited about it. However, it strikes me that its stumbling genesis is typical of my way of going about getting anything done. It also illustrates perfectly how those of us not blessed with the 'planning and organisation' gene, lurch into action.

First step is to nurture an idea which just remains wishful thinking for ages and ages (about 2 years in this case). Then I start mentioning it as a possibility to friends. Saying it outloud to people somehow makes it feel a bit more real. Then I start prefacing any mention of the idea with half-hearted attempts at commitment - e.g. 'I really must ..' or 'I am determined to ...'. Eventually there's a kind of internal commitment to the project with a vague timetable, e.g. 'I'm going to run a personal development course in the autumn'. This is followed by a hiatus borne out of an illusion of momentum, because I've decided to go ahead with the project. It's as if I believe that, by making the decision I've started the ball rolling and everything will magically come to pass, without me having to do anything. It's like the relief that comes after creating a neat 'to do' list, before you've tried to do anything on it.

Then comes the panic-inducing reality check, usually instigated by looking at my diary. In this case, it dawned on me towards the end of August that if I wanted to run something in 'the autumn' and I needed to get off my backside and organise it.

Even then, I need to engineer some unavoidable imperative to get me into full action mode. In this case it was booking the venue for a certain set of dates. Finally, a deadline, which is the only thing that gets me moving. After that,  it's extraordinary just how much I can get done. After two years of thinking about it, in the space of two weeks, I've designed a 6 week personal development course, arranged the venue, designed and produced a leaflet and poster, started advertising the event, and even created a website. Phew.

12 years ago, when I was studying for my counselling diploma, I came across a wonderful illustration of the planning vs 'emergent' approach to things. It was based on the Myers-Briggs personality types, and in particular the Judging/Perceiving dimension: the 'judging' types, being those who prefer life to be planned, stable and organised; the 'perceiving' types being those who  tend to go with the flow, prefer flexibility and are happy to respond to things as they arise. I've long since lost the reference, but the illustration of the differences between the judging and perceiving approaches to a task was so apt and so vivid,  it's stayed with me.

Judging vs Perceiving approach to tasks

Those of you who are 'judging' types will be baffled by the representation on the right. For those of you who, like me, are more 'perceiving' than 'judging', it will be all too painfully familiar. It is informally known amongst my 'perceiving' friends as the 'squiggle', recognisable from school essays, university assignments, work projects, PhD theses and even the housework (when we have visitors coming).  The question is, despite the apparent inefficiency and chaos (and the discomfort of going through this fraught process) is it any less effective than the nice linear version? The answer is probably irrelevant, as I seem unable to circumvent squiggle mode, however many personal development courses I run!

 On this occasion, my squiggle has produced this:

More information here (result of another squiggle!)

Tuesday, 31 August 2010


I am not really one for cutesy things. Although my blog is pink I'm not really a fluffy person. I'm usually a bit too dishevelled to carry off anything twee. However I will make an exception for the following.

There is a luscious flower shop called Honeysuckle which I pass on the way to and from work. It is always fronted by an abundance of extravagant bouquets, artfully put together, which cheers me every time I pass. It never just has buckets of tired daffodils or crysanths on show. If it does have bouquets of single flowers, it's always things like  giant sunflowers, blowsy peony blooms or lilac hydrangea flowers.   It's the sort of florist you wish your husband would buy you flowers from (hint hint!).

Last week I was trudging to work and enjoying the sight and scent of the floral display as usual. On this occasion, there was a little something extra to enjoy.

If there's one thing I enjoy looking at more than flowers, it's cute dogs. And this one is very cute.

She (surely a she!) is the definitive poodle. Dainty, pretty and perfectly accessorized in pink. She must be called Princess or Precious or something. You can just get a glimpse of her pink and diamante collar. Do you think you can have her delivered by Interflora?

I can vouch for the fact that she enjoys being stroked and petted. Ahem. Sad sight of middle aged woman fussing dog outside flower shop, then taking photos of it. Oh dear. Next thing you know, I'll be buying calendars with pictures of kittens in baskets.

UPDATE: Thanks to a nice e-mail from Honeysuckle, I now know the dog is called Tiara. Perfect.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The sea, the sea

I'm not really a sea person. I don't dislike the coast but I'm not one of these people who seeks it out or needs periods gazing out across the waves for the good of my soul. I quite like being landlocked. I like lakes and rivers and dales and hills. I like trees and dry stone walls and hedgerows. I like the scope for travel and exploration that the land offers. When we lived in East Yorkshire, near Hull, on the East coast,  I felt stuck out on the edge of things and I didn't like it at all. The sea feels like a barrier for me, a dead end. I've never sailed, and suffer from seasickness, so maybe it's just that I don't feel as if I can get about easily on the sea. On land, I know I can walk, or drive to get where I want to go. C says I always need an escape route, psychological and geographical. Maybe he's right.

C loves the sea of course. Another thing we are at odds about! C's brother used to live in the Outer Hebrides and C just loves it there. I know, would love to spend the rest of his days digging peat in the drizzle on an isolated croft on North Uist.  On the odd occasion we've gone there together, I've felt really trapped, stuck on an island that you could drive around in a day. C feels the exact opposite. For him the sea is a liberating expanse of space. Oh well, they do say opposites attract.

Odd then that our recent jaunt to the seaside was instigated by me. I felt an unfamiliar desire to escape to the sea. I'd had in mind something quite wild and isolated (also unlike me) but in the end, the restrictions of time meant that we only got as far as Stonehaven, not exactly off the beaten track (in Scottish terms at least). Stonehaven is about 15 miles south of Aberdeen. It's been a fishing village since the iron age into the late 19th century. Presumably it benefited from the arrival of the railway in the 19th century, developing as a seaside resort. It's not exactly Blackpool, but it does have an outdoor heated seawater swimming pool, which the town is very proud of. It also boasts an amusement arcade and a Pitch and Putt course - surely the core requirements for a British seaside resort. Unfortunately, the sea front by the beach is a bit uninspiring, with fairly ordinary modern housing all along it. However, it does have a beautiful old harbour ringed by sturdy, 18th century stone buildings, which are now being done up. The presence of seafood restaurants is a sure sign that gentrification is well underway.

Stonehaven Harbour, at dawn (yes, really!)

Stonehaven Harbour, still at dawn.
The reflection of the buildings and boats in the shallow water shows how sheltered it is.
We stayed at one of the two pub hotels along the waterfront. I am not going to recommend it. The one good thing I could say about our room was that the fixtures and fittings were good quality and new, the hotel having been recently refurbished. However, the room was at the back of the hotel and to access it you had to go through hotel laundry room/chamber maid store, stepping round the cleaning equipment. Rather than being woken at dawn by the soothing splash of the waves, we awoke to the thrum of the washing machine. The room was so small that we had to take it in turns to edge around the bed sideways to get about. And for this we paid £85. Maybe I'm just out of touch, but that seemed a bit steep. We were in Stonehaven for goodness sake! I really think accommodation in the UK is ridiculously expensive and bad value.

Anyway, before I get stuck in ranting mode, let me tell you about the highlights in Stonehaven, apart from the beautiful harbour. We had a fantastic meal at the Marine Inn on the harbourfront. Great atmosphere as well, with quirky driftwood and fishing industry inspired art on the walls, a big open fire ready for the winter and unusual fruit beers on tap. Should have stayed there!

A short, invigorating cliff top walk South brings you to Dunnottar Castle. Surely one of the most impressively situated castles in Scotland (apart from Eilean Donan). The castle is quite ruined, but not to the extent that you can't get a sense of the scale and grandeur of the place.

Dunottar Castle
by Jjhake on
The castle has played a significant role in Scottish history because of the strategic value of its location in allowing control of access north/south by sea and land. The site itself has been settled since Pictish times, in the early centuries AD, although no-one knows exactly when. The first Scottish King, Domnal II died there in 900 AD. The present castle was once the seat of a powerful family, the Earls Marischal of Scotland, until an awkward episode of treason as part of the Jacobite rising of 1715 meant the castle was confiscated by the crown. In 1651, the Scottish crown jewels were taken there for safe-keeping and defended against Cromwell's army.  In the 13th century, whilst occupied by an English batallion, it was beseiged and taken by William Wallace. It's most famous for the story of the 170 Covenanters, men and women, imprisoned in a dungeon in the half ruined castle for 2 months in 1685. Few survived the brutal conditions, and those that did, were deported as slave labour to the West Indies. All of which reminds me how ignorant I am about Scottish history, and how useful Wikipedia is! Of course Mary Queen of Scots stayed there as well - inevitably. That woman really got around. There isn't a historic house in Scotland that doesn't boast  a bedroom where Mary Queen of Scots reputedly bunked up.
Walk across the cliff tops
from Stonehaven to Dunnottar Castle

First view of Dunnottar Castle
Scottish thistles!

But it wasn't all brisk walks and historic sites. There was time for hedonism as well. More soon ...!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Displacement activities

There are times when I am faced with the undeniable truth that that I have my priorities all wrong. A quick survey of my current circumstances reveals panic-inducing numbers of tasks and chores that urgently need my attention. Inevitably, there’s the vast quantity of regular household chores being ignored. There's the ironing. There’s always the ironing. At the moment, I’m relying on the ‘iron-on-demand’ system. Similar to the ‘just-in-time’ production management approach developed by Japanese car manufacturers in the 1980s this means that a) I struggle to find something to wear to work without hurtling around the house first thing in the morning looking for the ironing board or b) I’m wearing the same forgiving crease-free trousers all the time.

There’s the oven, which is so filthy at the moment that I could incubate funghi in the bottom of it. We have visitors arriving at the weekend and as I can’t assume everyone has the same lax attitudes to housework as I do, I really need to clean the oven. I think back longingly to the decrepit, solid fuel Rayburn we had in Cumbria.  On the outside, it was always covered by a particularly noxious mix of coal dust and grease, because it was old and the flue was a little loose, allowing clouds of soot to escape towards the cooking plate. But Rayburn ovens never need cleaning. You just let the dirt in the oven carbonise in the constant heat and brush out a few innocuous piles of black charcoal flakes now and then. There’s also inevitably a certain amount of remedial dusting, hoovering and bathroom cleaning to be addressed before the arrival of visitors. Plus, relaxing in the sitting room yesterday I idly glanced across to the window and was reminded that the curtains we hung ‘temporarily’ 6 months ago, still have a foot of lining dangling beneath them. It’s chastening just how blind you can be to the half-finished, messed-up things lurking in your home. It’s only with the prospect of visitors that you start seeing everything that needs to be done just to maintain the pretence of being civilised people.

On top of this, we are still in the thick of the agonisingly slow and painstaking process of sifting through boxes of belongings in an attempt, finally, to match the amount of stuff we have to the amount of space available in our flat. This process seems to have been going on for years and consists mainly of taking bubble-wrapped objects out of boxes, unwrapping them, saying ‘oh, I’d forgotten all about that’, then wrapping them up again and putting them into a different box. Although I know we have disposed of lots of stuff, I can’t see any evidence of this in the number of crates and boxes stacked up around the flat. Many of these boxes are in our guest room, so there’s some sense of urgency. At present, I actually have a heavy-duty lawnmower in my study, waiting for us to put it on Ebay. Unfortunately, before we do that, we have to take it down 3 flights of stairs to the communal back garden to make sure it still works, as it sat in a storage unit for 2 years. But in order to check that it works, we need some petrol, which means remembering to go out to a garage with an empty petrol can. You can imagine. The damn thing has been sitting there for 3 months. We were supposed to be selling it at the beginning of the summer, when most people think about buying lawnmowers. Sometimes when I can’t stand having it in my study any longer, it gets trundled out into the hall for a few hours for a change of scene then trundled back into my study again. It’s starting to feel like a silent, mechanical pet.

Who needs a puppy when you have a lawnmower!

On top of household demands, there are the inevitable half-finished craft projects sitting around mewling for my attention like neglected, half-starved children. The length of fabric bought about four months ago to create some curtains to hide some shelves in the kitchen, bought to tide us over until we got the kitchen ‘done’properly. I have a pair of navy linen trousers I ‘ran up’ for my holidays, but didn’t get finished in time. To be wearable, they need hemming and pressing. By the time they’re finished a) it will be winter and too cold or b) it will be next summer and I will probably have put on more weight and won’t be able to get into them.

So as you can see, there are plenty of important things I could be doing. And what do I spend my time doing? I made my own baguettes.

I can come up with no reasonable justification for this absurd use of my time. I supposed I was trying to recreate the relaxed feeling of being on holiday in France earlier in the summer. There has been a disappointing contrast between the baguettes we ate on holiday - crusty, soft but chewy crumb, tangy yeast taste - and the baguettes we’ve bought since then - fluffy, tasteless cotton wool. I suspect the main reason I decided I just had to bake my own baguettes was as a displacement activity, so I could avoid the scary list of stuff I am supposed to be getting on with.

On a positive note, I must say the baguettes were amazing! Better than anything we’ve bought in the UK. Crusty, with a soft firm crumb, and full of flavour. They weren’t difficult to make. The significant factor is that you make a ‘poolish’ – a porridgy mash of water, yeast and flour, and leave that to sit overnight. I had a rather romantic idea that I would get up promptly and have fresh baguettes ready for breakfast time. However I misread the recipe slightly. I hadn't noticed that after the instruction: ‘let the dough rise for 30 minutes and then knock back the dough to 2/3 its risen size’ it stated: ‘repeat 3 more times’. Oh well. We had them for lunch instead. I followed the recipe exactly (amazingly for me!) but I did use a 50:50 mix of strong and plain white flour. I’d read somewhere on the internet that this was a good approximation of French bread flour. Anyway, the results were great and I was left with 2 baguettes to stash in the freezer.

Definitely a 'ta da!' moment

As an absurd way of spending my time, the ‘making my own baguettes’ episode ranks alongside this summer’s violet macarons debacle. This was my attempt at a show-stopping contribution to a chakra themed lunch - don’t ask – it was a Wild Women weekend in a yurt. I had been allocated the violet chakra. 7 hours in the kitchen, during a plumbing disaster which meant in order to empty the kitchen sink, I had to put a bucket under the u-bend and throw the contents down the loo. It took 2 attempts to make the macarons. The first batch of unmanageably friable, puny, flat discs were chucked in the bin. Out of the second batch I managed to salvage enough to cobble together a dozen sad little crumbly macarons of varying sizes. Never again and definitely not worthy of a photo. The sort of thing your 8 year old might bring home from school cookery classes.

Last week, I found myself making my own vanilla essence! Admittedly, this doesn't take a lot of effort: vodka, vanilla essence, vanilla beans, glass jar, shake then leave for 6 weeks. But nevertheless. Do I really have the time to make my own vanilla essence? Is that really a priority? However, if you are similarly at a loose end, by which I mean, so overwhelmed with things you should be doing that you need a displacement activity, the instructions are on Traveller's Lunchbox  here.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Oeuf nue a cheval

In France, a fried egg on top of things like hamburgers or pizzas is rather charmingly called 'oeuf a cheval' - egg on horseback. At one cafe, we came across what might be called an 'oeuf nue a cheval' -  a naked egg on horseback. A Godiva egg? Also known, as poor C was to discover, as a recipe for salmonella poisoning.

It was Pasta Carbonara. The idea being that you mixed the raw egg in with the hot pasta yourself to create a really fresh pasta sauce. Nice idea, except that it became clear from poor C's very violent reaction later that afternoon, that the pasta couldn't have been that hot and he'd basically eaten raw egg. Yuk. I'd stuck with yet more duck, and was fine!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Food with a view

View from Maisonneuve, Lalinde.
 We had blissful fortnight at the beginning of July, staying in Lalinde, a little 'bastide' town on the Dordogne, near Bergerac.

Inevitably, on a holiday in France, food is big feature. We ate fairly plain fare for most of the holiday. Plain but delicious. The Dordogne is a region of many medieval villages. Each of these small villages has at least one, if not two markets every week, rich with local produce. My idea of holiday heaven is a good market, and I have the holiday snaps to prove it! Just how many photos of nicely arranged vegetables does one woman need?

Purple Cauliflowers: Villefranche de Perigord market
So most of the time we bought food from markets in the area and spent most of the holiday eating home cooked (or rather home assembled!) meals in the beautiful garden of our holiday home. Baguettes, pain de campagne, cheese and tomatoes and fruit. This most simple of meals was transformed into something quite exquisite, simply because French produce is just so good. Washed down with plenty of local rose wine of course!

Market day: Lalinde
We also discovered the fantastic 'marches nocturnes' in the area. Literally 'night markets', where you can  buy freshly cooked food from stalls  - freshly barbecued steaks, moules frites, crepes, salads, goats cheeses - and of course wine - and sit at trestle tables in the centre of the market square alongside locals and other tourists, eating, drinking, chatting in broken French and generally feeling pretty damn good about life. 

Marche nocturne: Paunat
The most memorable meal we had on holiday was an accident. A very happy accident. We'd turned up at the pretty, historic village of Tremolat, hoping for a 'marche nocturne' but we'd got the dates mixed up; the place was deserted. We asked the staff at the tourist information office to recommend a local restaurant: we were directed to the nearby 'Ferme Auberge du Belvedere'. These 'farm restaurants' are apparently a feature of rural france. Simple restaurants which open during the summer and serve food based on produce from the farm.

This one offered 4 set menus: €15 / €19 / €23 / €27. In some kind of joint madness, we went for the €19 menu, according to the well worn 'how to choose the wine' rule, i.e. second cheapest on the menu. Somehow in this decision making process, we lost sight of the fact that this meant 7 courses. 7 courses!

Ferme Auberge du Belvedere
The first thing that happened was that a 2 litre bottle of red wine was plonked onto the table. No label. Presumably just filled from the barrel. This was included in the set menu. I was still cursing the fact that it was my turn to drive when a jug of ‘kir’ was presented to us. Would we like an aperitif? Well why not?

The first course was soup. This arrived at the table in a large tureen. The tureen was left with us, so we could help ourselves. This alone would have done about 8 people for lunch, rather than serving as a starter for 4. We drew on our scarce resources of self-discipline and were very sparing with our portions, knowing the culinary mountain still to climb. Then we had the 'starter'. Apparently the soup wasn't the starter. The starter was Foie Gras de Canard - i.e. duck fois gras.  This area of France is very big on foie gras – goose and duck. It's not something I have ever eaten, nor wanted to eat, because of the cruelty involved in its production. However, as this was a set menu: when in Rome. Not eating foie gras could hardly be described as a big sacrifice to date on my part, because I've never really fancied it. I imagined it would be a bit fatty and too rich. Oh. My. God. It was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, even with its garnish of animal welfare guilt. I am trying to forget this experience, so I'm not tempted to eat it in future.

Then came the ‘hot starter’. Apparently, we needed soup then a cold starter, then a hot starter. The hot starter was 'Cous de canard farcis': the less than appealing sounding 'stuffed duck neck'. This wasn’t as grim as you might imagine. It's a kind of duck meat terrine, but stuffed into the skin of a duck's neck, as if it were a sausage casing (which I didn’t eat!). We were slowing down a bit by now, having eating about a full day's worth of food already in this meal. My dining companions were able to wash everything down with the vat of red wine we'd been given. I was limited to my single glass of wine, eked out by glasses of water. You will have also noticed a food theme emerging. It will come as no suprise that the main course was, you've guessed it, duck. I don't know if you've ever eaten 'confit de canard'. It's basically duck legs preserved in copious quantitutes of fat, then roasted, presumably with some additional duck fat. Doesn't sound great does it? And probably slightly hard on the arteries.  It was, inevitably, delicious. Served with garlicky fried potatoes. Presumably fried in ... duck fat. Also, I'm almost ashamed to say, delicious.

Then came the salad - the first green veg of the meal. Even my salad hating husband was driven to munch on some lettuce as an antidote to the duck meat/duck fat overload. At this point, knowing we still had cheese and dessert to come and fearing hospitalisation, we suggested to the lovely, friendly waitress - the "farmer's wife" - that we might just have a small portion of cheese, simply to taste it. She looked heartbroken. Didn't we want cheese? It was all made on the farm. I swear her bottom lip quivered.  What could we do? The cheese was fabulous.

And finally came the pudding – warm apricot sponge cake. When faced with this generous slice of cake,  I felt like lying down on the floor and whimpering defeat. I only tasted it out of politeness (after the episode with the cheese).  It says a lot for the quality of the food after taking one mouthful, we were all wolfing it down. The combination of fragrant, perfectly ripe fruit with vanilla scented sponge was exquisite. Almost perfumed.

Then we were on the home straight – coffee. But were weren't quite finished. When we tried to pay, we were told that we couldn’t leave until we’d had our ‘digestif’. The farmer/chef emerged from the kitchen to serve us a glass of his home-made prune eau de vie! He looked as if he'd enjoyed a few glasses himself, but it hadn't affected his culinary skills. It is only after a meal of such gargantuan proportions and richness that you finally understand the purpose of 'digestifs'. They may taste like parafin and have the alcoholic kick of moonshine, but they clear the head and the gut like nothing else. 

This then, was our version of La Grande Bouffe. In the telling it probably just sounds like nausea inducing quantities of rich food. But that's because you aren't tasting it. Everything was intensely delicious. I wouldn’t want to eat like this every week, or every month – but it was a magical experience. 

The icing on the cake – or the apricot sponge – was that the farm was situated high up on a hill, overlooking a sharp bend in the river Dordogne and the broad flood plain enclosed. The clue is in the name - Belvedere. You could see for miles – and half way through the evening, as night fell, the most amazing electrical storm played out infront of us, across the whole breadth of the valley.  I've never seen lightening like it. If it had been on a film, you'd have assumed it was CGI overkill.

What an evening. I don't know why it felt so special. The food certainly. The setting was stupendous. The light show, courtesy of mother nature. Mostly it was because we only discovered the place by chance. We speculated that if we went back the following night, there would be no trace of the place, and it was a kind of restaurant Brigadoon. But it's not. Here's the website. If you are ever in the area, I would recommend it 100%. But fast for the previous day. Or go for the €15 menu.
View of the Dordogne, near Tremolat, from the Ferme Auberge du Belvedere.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The blessings of the blog

Sunflowers - Dordogne, June 2010

Well, this was nearly a very 'half-finished' blog. Or rather, a 'finished' blog (an ex-blog as John Cleese might say).

I wish I could say that some great crisis or excitement has prevented me from posting. Alas no. I didn't break both arms in a fluke shopping accident. I haven't been away for four months sailing across the Atlantic single handed. I just got out of the habit of blogging. Then, I'd stopped for so long, I didn't know how to start again. The longer I left it, the more the blog took on the guilt-inducing characteristic of a postponed chore, rather than a creative activity. It was in danger of becoming one more half-finished project in my life, the shortcut on my laptop desktop a constant reminder of yet another example of my fecklessness/ laziness/ lack of self-discipline/ lack of staying power etc. It joined the long list of activities taken on over the years and then abandoned through inertia and procrastination, the knowlege of which gradually chips away at the self-esteem: the oft started but never completed Italian evening classes; the neglected gym memberships;  the 'vintage' garden chairs awaiting renovation; the yoghurt maker; the loom (I'll tell you about the loom one day!); the handweights, now lugged on 3 house moves, in pristine condition. Ho hum.

But I've missed the blog. I've missed it because of what it brought into my life. Looking back at my first post I remember that I started blogging in order to 'taste the strawberries' - notice and appreciate the good things in my life. That's what I've missed. There's no doubt that we see what we are in the habit of noticing. The desire to write a blog fuelled a habit of looking out for good things to share, to photograph, to describe. Without the motivation of the blog, I think I've been noticing and appreciating the good things a little less.

In his book Authentic Happiness,  Martin Seligman reports on research done to measure the positive impact on depressed people of a simple exercise in noticing the good things. Participants in this research were asked to write down 'three blessings' every night before they went to sleep. These 'blessings' were simply required to be good things about their day. Not achievements, not major events, just good things - seeing some pretty flowers, watching a good film, having a chat with a close friend, completing a suduko puzzle, seeing a rainbow, getting kissed - whatever they had enjoyed about their day. They were to do this for a month. At the end of the month, the levels of 'depression' were measured and found to be decreased in all participants.This in itself is interesting, but what is really significant is that 6 months after the exercise, even though those involved were  not asked to continue with the blessings, levels of depression were still lowered.  (If I were a proper academic, I would have the actual statistics to hand, but I'm not. However you can read more in this report here and Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness website).

Maybe this blog is my 'blessing' exercise? In any case, I'm having another go at this blogging lark.

So what are your three blessings today?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Shop of Dreams

A further instalment in an occasional series of posts about shops I daren't go into, unless I am happy to spend some money (see  here and here for previous instalments in the series).

It's also probably about time I confessed to my bric a brac habit ....

When we lived on the Northside of Edinburgh, this shop, Duncan & Reid was at the end of our road. C and I nicknamed this shop our 'Shop of Dreams' because we both love it. Every week we would walk past it and get a little thrill from looking in the window and seeing what new treasures had appeared. Practically every Christmas, birthday and anniversary present during our 3 years living nearby came from this shop.  Maybe it's just that the owner has similar tastes to me. Every time I look in the window there's something that I love. It stimulates a rather shameful kind of acquisitiveness in me.

The shop sells books, jewellery, pottery and glass and what I suppose you would call collectibles or curios. It's not a really posh antique shop - not one of those that just has half a dozen monumental pieces of furniture on display, along with a copy of Millers Antique Guide and beeswax furniture polish. Yet it's not merely bric a brac. It's better than that. It is however very reasonable in terms of price. Which just adds to my acquisitiveness. Whilst I wouldn't spend hundreds of pounds, or even a hundred pounds, on a little gewgaw or trinket for myself, I might well spend £20 or £30. It's only when you add up all these little amounts that the truth of your habit dawns .....

My bric a brac habit isn't totally out of control - I don't haunt car boot sales or ebay, snapping up weekly bargains. Months can go by without me buying anything. It  is however totally inexcusable, given the amount of clutter and stuff we have clogging up our flat. It is especially unforgivable given the amount of time I spend complaining about C's hoarding habit. We are in the process of getting rid of a store we have in Cumbria, which means finally consigning to charity or the tip all those boxes of unwanted things labelled optimistically 'car boot sale'. Our large dining table is currently covered with random household goods - everything from a yoghurt maker to inherited tea sets to part sets of wine glasses - all waiting to be bundled up and dispatched.

Clearly then, it would be madness to buy more things from my favourite shop ..... but last week I happened to be in the area so I indulged myself in a little window shopping. Well, not just window shopping ........

The McVitie & Price display cabinet always has jewellery in it. Lots of late 19th and early 20th century costume jewellery. I have too many items from this case than I care to admit.

A special display of tea things for Easter.

I've had my eye on the glass comporte on the right for a while.

And look at this extraordinary parrot design tea set! But, for a woman who does not drink tea, I have too many tea sets already ......

This is the effervescent Jo - one of the people who works in the shop. We had an animated conversation about all the quirky and gorgeous things in the shop. She is a graduate from Edinburgh Art School, but said she had lost interest in her painting during her studies (a great advert for art college then!). 10 years later, she says that working in the shop has rekindled her desire to paint, because she has started painting still life studies, inspired by the objects in the shop. She had a fascinating way of describing her work. She said that painting objects  she owns or loves is like painting self-portraits, but without having to be in the picture. I thought that was rather cool. She hasn't got a website, yet, but she very kindly showed me a photo on her phone of a work in progress. It was very blue, and very fetching, and managed successfully to juxtapose a teapot and lacy knickers, which is quite original!

This was last Thursday's haul:

This was actually an Easter present for C. A little jam pot. It's 'Hancock's Ivory Ware'. See how I managed to photograph it showing off the chip on the lid. Clever that.

A spotty sugar bowl, to go with my spotty tablecloth. Royal Winton. Very 1950s chintz. I don't take sugar, but never mind.

I fell in love with these champagne glasses. They supposedly date from the 1920s. They are just so plain and elegant. This is for my imaginary life when I lounge about drinking champagne and no doubt smoking a cigarette in a long holder, a la Audrey Hepburn - rather than slumping on the sofa in my pinny with a mug of coffee. I can dream.

Erm, does anyone want a yoghurt maker? I need to make some space .....

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


I think Mercury must be in retrograde or something. There has to be some explanation for the succession of niggly frustrations and difficulties I have been plagued by for the last 10 days. Nothing has worked out.

Item 1: Friday 26th March.
Brand new laptop delivered 4 days earlier than expected by excellent ''. (That's not the frustrating bit). Switch on brand new laptop. It doesn't work. Screen knackered. No picture - just lots of thin, multi-coloured lines, like a weird bar code. Takes me until following Tuesday to get company to sort out return arrangements, after various phone calls to call centres in India and exchange of e-mails. The final straw was when the webpages which carried the returns request form crashed, and all I got was error messages when I tried to post the return details. Much swearing and gnashing of teeth on my part.

Item 2: Thursday 1st April
Having finally sorted out collection of non-functioning laptop by Parcelforce, get a text from husband, who was staying at home to facilitate said collection. The Parcelforce man had called at the very moment husband was in the loo. By the time C got to the door, Parcelforce man had gone back to his van and was driving away. I think ringing the doorbell once and then buggering off as fast as possible doesn't really constitute a reasonable collection service. Returns agreement with Laptop company states that if the collection doesn't go ahead because we weren't at home at agreed time, we would have to pay for second collection. Spent an incredibly frustrating half hour on my mobile phone, parked on a side street, navigating automated call routing system of Parcelforce in an attempt to request that the driver turn around and come back to pick up the laptop. At one point, I was connected to some random manager who was on his car phone! And of course, if you end up at a dead end on these automated call systems, you have to start ALL OVER AGAIN and listen to a cheery recorded voice telling you that your call may be recorded for training purposes, and that answers to many queries can be found at the Parcelforce website and that all the lines are busy and I am in a queue but my call is important .... We've all been there. Finally got through to Edinburgh dispatch office and was told that they would try to contact driver, but it was unlikely that he'd be able to come back and I'd probably have to arrange another collection on Tuesday, as Monday was a bank holiday .....

Item 3: Wednesday 31st March - Saturday 3rd April
Return of snow, sleet, gales and general wintery weather on Wednesday. Wednesday evening, central heating boiler breaks down. No heating. No hot water. Luckily, we have one of those service and maintenance agreements with the gas company, so I am sanguine. Foolishly so. 8am Thursday morning, phone to arrange engineer visit. No one available until following day but engineer would come between 8am and 1pm on Friday.  Spend Thursday huddled near to electric radiators (before we moved to Edinburgh, we used to live in what was possibly the coldest house in England, so at least we have a good range of mobile heaters at our disposal,  which have not quite yet found their way to the car boot sale). Enjoy pleasure of stand up wash with flannel and kettle of hot water.

Wait in on Friday until 4.30pm, before finally being told by British Gas that the engineer wouldn't be able to make it that day after all. This after 4 phone calls from me during day to enquire as to whereabouts of engineer. At each enquiry  I had been assured that he would be with us soon, and we were next on his list. In a rare moment of assertiveness (fuelled by blind rage) I insist on being put down as the first call for the engineer the following morning, Despite my assertiveness, I am fobbed off by 'Sean', who insists that this is impossible because the scheduling of the engineer calls is done by a computer. When I ask to be put through to a manager who might just be able to override the computer scheduling, I am told by the charming 'Sean' that the manager is on another call. When I ask to be put on hold until the Manager is free, Sean informs me that this is impossible as he, Sean,  has lots of other customers to call. I manage to extract a promise from 'Sean' (he refuses to give me his second name) that the manager will phone me back as soon as she is off the call. She doesn't call back. At 4.55pm, I phone British Gas and get through to the main Homecare call centre, where a  very charming man, with much better customer care training than 'Sean' arranges an engineer's appointment at 12 noon the following day and promises that this will go ahead come what may.

Saturday morning. Another nice stand-up wash at the basin with the kettle of hot water. Regret cancelling my gym membership. Even if I never went to the gym, I could have gone and used the shower. Engineer arrives shortly after 12 noon. Switches on central heating boiler. It works perfectly!  Let me just type that again so you don't miss it: CENTRAL HEATING BOILER WORKS PERFECTLY.  I had tried to relight the boiler a number of times on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning with no luck. But now, it works perfectly. Engineer checks everything, but cannot find a fault. We have been shivering, washing with kettles of hot water and having arguments with unhelpful British Gas employees, and all the while, our heating was apparently ok.

Item 3: Monday 5th April - Easter Monday Bank Holiday
Brief flirtation with DIY - putting up a venetian blind from Ikea - turns into day long swearathon. First I have the wrong screws. Then the wood is so hard the screws won't go in. Then I put the brackets on the wrong way round and have to start all over again. Then I put the brackets on about 2mm too close together so the blind won't slot in so I have to start all over again. All of this done balancing very precariously on top of stepladder, as we have very tall windows. Each time I (repeatedly) drop one of the screws, or the screwdriver or the pencil, or on one rather noisy occasion, the electric drill/screwdriver, I have to clamber down the steps and then clamber back up. Many, many times. What I estimated would take me an hour in the morning takes me until 6.30pm. Admittedly this includes a break for lunch, a break to go to Homebase to buy new screws and frequent breaks to calm myself down. I think the old man who lives underneath us must have been able to hear me swearing, and he is stone deaf.

Item 4: Monday 5th April
Undaunted by gruelling battle with blind, on Monday evening I embarked on a further - and some might say misguided - attempt at DIY. Putting up of very simple brass rod for new lace curtains in bedroom. (Yes, we had been to Ikea on Sunday, along with half the population of Scotland.) More precarious balancing on top of a stepladder. Manage to fix first bracket to carry curtain rod into very hard window frame. Discover I haven't left enough space between bracket and side of bay window for ornamental finial on the end of the rod. Have to start again. Discover that the window frame isn't wide enough to accommodate bracket in such a way that the ornamental finial can fit between bracket and wall. Give up.

Item 5: Tuesday 6th May
Take delivery of new mattress from Ikea. C and I haul old mattress off bed, then wrestle wrapping from new mattress, before dragging new mattress onto bed. Mattress is 3 inches too small. Either Ikea  have delivered the wrong size, or we were so confused by the weird Ikea bed sizes that we have ordered the wrong size. Either way, new mattress had to be dragged off bed and manhandled back into its large plastic bag.

Tomorrow I will face job of arranging exchange. Not now. I am just going to sit quietly for a bit, and eat some chocolate.

In our own back yard ....

When writing about my recent trip to the garden centre, I said my gardening these days is confined to window boxes. This is not entirely true.

I've written about the Edinburgh tenements before. These streets of tenements have little in the way of gardens on show. The ground floor flats sometimes have small front gardens. On our road, the front gardens are about 10ft x 20ft, but on some streets there are no front gardens at all. The effect can be quite austere. But the tenements hide secret gardens. Behind them lie the 'back greens' or the drying greens. These are back gardens, shared between all the flats on a stairwell, and accessed via a common door. They were designed originally as places to hang out the washing. Some of the old cast iron washing line poles still exist. The back greens are little used nowadays, although there is an association in Edinburgh which aims to reinvigorate back greens as common garden spaces:

Because the streets of tenements back onto these gardens, they create large squares of green space between them. From the streets, Edinburgh can sometimes seems lacking in green space, but as this Google link shows, there are acres of garden, unobserved by passers-by. It's probably only because these spaces have no vehicular access that they haven't had flats or car parks built on them.  This is an aerial photo of one of ECBA's 'Community Back Greens' near to where we live. You can see how most of the greenery is hidden within the square created by the tenements.

This is our 'back green', as viewed from the back of the flat. I've used the 'photostitch' function on my new Canon Powershot camera to create a kind of panorama [very exciting - the software patches photos together to create a wide-angle perspective!].  There's a slight 'fisheye' distortion, but I hope it gives you a sense of just how much space there is between us and the flats opposite. The space is divided into small plots - one per 'stair'.

This gives you a clearer view of the backs of the tenements opposite. 19th century high-rise!

No one else on our stairwell seems to use the garden. Last year, our first in this flat, C did a bit of weeding of a neglected flower bed, and mowed what grass there is. This summer we have decided we should try and breathe some life back into it and more to the point, enjoy having a garden ourselves, even if it is shared in principle with 7 other households.  It doesn't get a lot of sun as it's North facing, but we should be able to grow something. More on that later - hopefully!

Monday, 5 April 2010

Happy Easter!

It's Easter. The annual festival of chocolate. The pretty eggs above arrived yesterday, courtesy of C, filled with a Creme Egg, some Ferrero Rocher and in the large egg, a Chocolate Orange. But that wasn't all.

Aw. Look at that poor, lonely little rabbit.

Oh. It's ok. He has a little friend.
Wait a minute. Who's this?

It's Mummy Rabbit! Aw. Sweet.
Hold on. What's this I hear? The jingle of a little bell. The thump of chocolate feet approaching.
Who can it be?

It's Daddy Rabbit!

I think all the chocolate I have eaten in the last few days has sent me slightly mad! Ferrero Rocher are like crack cocaine for me. I know they're tacky. I know it's crappy chocolate, with about 2% cocoa solids. I don't care. I'm with 'His Excellency' on this one. The chocolate orange will have to be deposited in a lead box and buried a mile underground, so I can't hear it calling to me.  The rabbits arrived gradually during the previous week. They are probably safe for a while. They are too cute to eat, with their whiskers and little red ribbons. But I know a day will come when C will find me, smeared in chocolate and surrounded by gold paper and some tiny little gold bells. It's sad being an addict. But a very happy, grateful addict.

Sunday, 4 April 2010


Despite the recent, wintry spell of weather, spring is definitely taking hold. Never mind the sight of the snowdrops and daffodils in the parks and gardens. Never mind the sound of courting birds. The real evidence of spring is the fact that today I made my first visit of the year to the garden centre. 

These days, living in a first floor flat,  our 'garden' is confined to a few window boxes and the scope for plant-buying  is necessarily curtailed. Which is probably good news -  for the bank balance, and for  plants, as I've killed far more plants than I've ever managed to nurture to maturity. I suffer from an excess of enthusiasm in the first stage of any project and a dearth of sustained energy as time passes. This counts for gardening just as much as it counts for knitting, sewing, and PhD theses!

It's something of a relief knowing that I have no choice but to limit my ambitions to a few bedding plants rather than purchase on the basis of  extravagant planting schemes, which never quite come off , because I don't get round to planting everything out, or I forget to water things. Thanks to a herculean and unusual exercise in self-discipline I did manage to keep the plants in my window boxes alive all last summer.  I even transplanted the perennial geraniums into pots, in order to keep them inside until the following year. Unfortunately, they went into the back bedroom, where they got forgotten. Look away now if you are of a sensitive disposition when it comes to inexcusable neglect of plants.

Last summer's geraniums.

Nonethless, with the triumph once more of hope over experience, or self-delusion over self awareness, I treated myself to some cheerful, chintzy primulas to celebrate spring.

And I can't resist old-fashioned violets and pansies. These are a very Victorian dark red.

In a week or so, there will either be some nice pics of window boxes in full flower - or some pictures of withered, dried out plants still in their polystyrene boxes from the garden centre. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 2 April 2010


When will I learn just to leave well alone? I decided I would redesign the look of my blog a little. Try and make it look a bit smarter. Well, after 2 fruitless hours trying out different templates, different photos, I'm practically back at square one. Well, worse than square one. I've lost my greengage photo. When I tried to put it back in it appears as a giant photo, or only one corner appears, but magnified to grotesque proportions.

I give up. For now at least. So it's a very half-finished blog just at the moment. Ho hum.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Wedding Weekend

March has been a busy month. A weekend, being a wild woman in Cumbria. A weekend "Soul Questing". The weekend in between was the wedding of our friends R & S (they of the  gorgeous wedding invitation).

It was a beautiful wedding.

It was beautiful because of the setting, Auchinleck House,  an 18th century Landmark Trust property in Ayrshire, once home of James Boswell, esteemed Edinburgh author and diarist, and most famously, biographer of Samual Johnson. Basically, we lived in a stately home for a weekend. Could get used to it - with the addition of some 'staff'. Metaphorically speaking, we were 'below stairs' for a lot of the weekend.

Auchinleck House - nice setting for a wedding.

The Library. This was actually the name of the 40 foot first floor lounge, a room so big it required 2 fireplaces.  

One end of 'The Library'

Window in our bedroom.

It was beautiful because of the simplicity and sincerity of the ceremony, conducted by a Humanist celebrant. In Scotland, Humanist celebrants can perform the legal duties of a marriage ceremony. So rather than having to interrupt proceedings at the house in order to dash off to the less than romantic setting of Cumnock registry office to do the legal bit, there was an intimate and personal ceremony in the candlelit study of Auchinleck House. I'm tearing up just thinking about it! In a church wedding, setting aside the issue of whether you believe in the religious aspect or not, I think the ceremony itself can often be quite impersonal and distanced from the couple, because it is a church service and as such is articulated in arcane and standardised language. This gives it gravitas of course. But to sit in a small room, with a dozen people, and watch and listen as  your friends say wedding vows in their own words, about 6 feet away from you, was incredibly moving. With no intermediary of tradition or sermon or prayer or priest, the wedding ceremony becomes a direct statement of love and commitment, the kind of which we are rarely privy to.

The study - setting for the ceremony.

It was beautiful because S wove her magic, to create a perfect table setting in the grand dining room. Many of the guests were craftspeople of some kind or another, so have that capacity  to effortlessly make things look good. During the morning of the wedding, S and her willing helpers magicked a range of elegant decorations out of a big pile of flowers and foliage, most brought by S, but some also gathered from the grounds of the house.

But most of all it was beautiful because the occasion had a companiable 'DIY' aspect to it. The whole event was created through the working together of a small group of people, united by their affection for the 'happy couple'  - admittedly after the herculean task of advance preparation by S & R who were probably knackered by the time it came to the actual event. But during the wedding weekend, everyone mucked in. We divvied up the cooking between us; most of the wedding presents were handmade; C did one of his fantastic 'oldies' discos - or rather, he brought the sound and lighting equipment and his CDs, and then sat back as most of the men, including the groom (ok - and me as well) gave vent to their inner 'cheesy DJ' for a while.

'Blame it on the Boogie' (C's semi-retired mobile disco business) - out of retirement and ready for action! Slightly incongruous setting.

I think perhaps the most important wedding gift on this occasion was the active participation of the guests, given gladly and generously by all concerned. It felt like a gift we all shared in. (If S reads this, she will cry, like she did for a big part of the wedding!).

Ah. Makes me want to get married all over again. (Only joking C!)