Friday, 16 November 2012

Over-Egging the Pudding

I'm busy writing a novel at the moment. Well, actually I'm busy writing this blog entry, and baking chocolate steamed pudding, and packing for the Mouse to go on Brownie Holiday. When not doing any of those things, I'm working, or cleaning, or shopping, or just sitting down with a cup of tea. You get the picture: I'm employing a variety of avoidance techniques and very much not writing my novel.
 A woman's work, like the next tricky chapter of my novel, is never done.

Actual childhood photograph of me.
I've been writing this novel for years, It is set in my childhood and early adulthood. When I first started writing it, the latter part of the novel was a work of contemporary fiction, if I don't crack on with it, I will have to start approaching publishers of historical fiction. That's right, folks, I started as Joanne Harris and will finish as Georgette Heyer.

In case you're polite enough to wonder what it is about, it's about cooking and the healing power of a good meal, pretty much. I've shamelessly mined my own past for incidents, characters, locations and ideas and then added a lot of fictional events. I have to add that bit, as my main character finds herself guilty of 'murder by omelette' and, to the best of my knowledge, I've never killed anyone with my cooking, although my family still refer to the awful day when I served 'Avocado and Chocolate Mousse' as a nadir in my culinary adventures. It was completely inedible and I will never make it again. Nobody died though, despite the children's dramatic objections.
Good gracious, it was vile!
The novel begins with a description of a grandmother's kitchen, which, coincidentally, sounds very much like my own grandmother's kitchen. 'Granma,' as she was known (she almost always missed out the 'd') was a keen cook. Aged 14, she'd gone into service and, according to her, generally ruined various dishes in the kitchen of the big house where she worked. Somebody, presumably the cook, taught Granma (Phyllis, as she was then) how to cook and she gradually became a lot better at it. I'm not sure of she ever graduated from 'Daisy' to 'Mrs Patmore,' as she got married before she would have had much chance of promotion but she did later get a job as a school cook and some of my strongest memories of her are linked to the dishes she made and the way she made them. Some of my own early cookery lessons came from her, although I don't generally cook on quite the grand scale she did. I don't know whether it was as a result of a simple country childhood, livig through the War and rationing or just a general love of abundance, but Granma never cooked by halves. An ordinary Sunday tea would invole a table bursting with good things to eat and Granma's admonishments of , 'Have another - go on. Ooh, Jacqui Spratty, you don't eat enough to keep a flea alive!' It was like dining with the Berkshire equivalent of Mrs Doyle.
Not my Grandmother.
Christmas was when Granma really exercised her love of abundance, though. For reasons that still aren't clear to me, she always insisted we had turkey and pork or, with her talent for spoonerisms, 'Perky and tork,' often corrected to, 'Oh - Perk and torkey!'. My aunts - one of them Granma's daughter and the other married to one of Granma's sons, would join in, each vying to bring the most avant-garde stuffing, the tastiest Christmas cake or biggest gateau. We had the largest living room, so would often host dinner for the masses, which meant living off leftovers for quite some time afterwards - there was always far too much to eat in one day, or even in one week.  The highlight of the Christmas dinner, however, was Granma's Christmas pudding. Huge, with several smaller versions given and stowed away - I'm fairly certain one year we had puddings from the same batch, two years running - it would be pretty much drowned in brandy and carried in like an Olympic torch much to the loud potestations of her firefighter son-in-law. I sure they'd deny it, but I'm fairly certain that's why my dad and uncles tried to recreate the most memorable scene from 'Towering Inferno' every year. Every family has their peculiar traditions: the annual torching of the Christmas puddng was one of ours.

It wasn't just the serving of the pudding that was steeped in tradition and alcohol, however. Making it was just as much a ritual. If you were at Granma’s house when the pudding was being made, you got to have a ceremonial stir and make a wish. The thing is, you weren’t allowed to wish for any old thing. Oh no! There was one particular thing you had to wish for. When one of my uncles (one of the filial pyromaniacs) was small, he had a kitten whom he adored. I remember that cat; he was a beautiful long-haired grey cat called Smoky, who either consented to be petted or totally ignored you, as he saw fit. In  between times he pretty much ruined the legs of the kitchen hutch cupboard, by using them as a scratching post. When Smoky was still a kitten and my uncle still a little boy, he was asked to stir the pudding and urged to, ‘Make a wish, Neville!’ Closing his eyes tight and stirring with all his might, Neville uttered the words, ‘I wish my cat grows nice and big!’ In one of those strange quirks of family history, the wish itself became a tradition and Uncle Neville has never been allowed to forget it. For as long as I can remember, I have stirred puddings, cut cakes and blown out candles, all to the words, ‘I wish my cat grows nice and big!’ On my wedding day, I went to cut the cake, turned to face my uncle, opened my mouth to speak and all that side of the family roared with laughter, as Uncle Neville good-naturedly said, ‘Oh, shut up!’ My own children know they’d better wish for the same thing too.  

How I propose to add the finishing touches.
Regarding the alcohol, Granma once conspiratorially informed me, ‘I always make it with Guinness, Jack Spratt.’ A lesson I dutifully committed to memory. Despite that, I’ve never actually made a Christmas pudding. There was never really any need to when Granma was around, and then my dad took over the tradition, although he did scale back the quantities somewhat. This year, my lovely neighbour, the Pink Engineer, kindly offered to make our Christmas cake, so I thought I’d give the pudding a go. I’ve borrowed Dad’s copy of his mum’s recipe book, so I can make the real thing. Good sense tells me I ought to scale back the quantities too, but a desire to make a true tribute pudding and curiosity as to just how many puddings it makes, has led me to try and attempt the full eight egg, pound of this, pound of that version. Granma made hers in an old china washstand bowl, which now resides at Uncle Neville’s (only fair, given his wish contribution) and I don’t have anything big enough to mix the pudding in. A lament of this nature, posted on Facebook brought in the loan of a brand new washing up bowl from friend and former work colleague, Thermal Girl (I hope she doesn’t mind being called that, but she’ll know why!). We agreed ‘a pudding’ as suitable payment. Pink Engineer has been offered a pud as payment for the cake, although she’s not really getting a good deal there as I’m making her supply her own pudding basin. A further pudding has been offered to my dad. Let’s hope it works!

I’ll let you know how it goes, although I’ll be relying on the comments of others since it will be full of ingredients I can’t eat. I’ve decided not to try and make it free-from this year: for my first attempt, I’m going to try and faithfully follow Granma’s recipe. If it works and I’m feeling cocky next year, well watch this space…

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Little House Cookbook

Amazon, in one of their slightly unsettling moments of knowing more about me than I'd like them to, has correctly deduced that two of my favourite activities are reading Little House books and cooking. In what must be something of a triumph for them, they have come up with the ultimate book for me and emailed me forthwith, with the happy news that I can now purchase, 'Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories'.

All set and ready to bake!
I've got to admit, I'm tempted. What a marvellous way to indulge my inner 1880s pioneer woman! With this book propped open on the kitchen counter, I could make Johnny Cake, Vanity Cakes and churn my own butter. Mind you, I'm not really sure you need a book for all of this: the books themselves are so detailed that by the end of one slim volume, anyone with a mind to it and a ready supply of logs, bear grease, old button and a candle wick could easily build themselves a cabin and construct a button lamp. There is a minutely detailed account of how to make butter, how to fry salt pork in an iron spider and how to use every last bit of a recently slaughtered pig. On second thoughts, I'm not so sure this recipe book is such a good idea. It's not the pig I'm worried about, it's more that a true Little House Cookbook would involve recipes nobody much would want to make.
Blizzard raging from October 'til May? Nearly all your wheat supplies used up? Game either hunted to extinction or frozen under eight feet of snow? Family racked by cabin fever and malnutrition? Worry no more! Try our recipe for 'coffee grinder wheat'. That's right: use your coffee grinder to make flour, using the last of your seed wheat. The work is exhausting, largely unproductive and you've run out of leavening anyway, but follow our simple instructions and you may just save your family from starvation!

It's hard work!
Trust me, I've been on the Dakota prairies and ground wheat in a coffee grinder and it is thankless work! Oh, all right, I was just trying it at a visitor centre and doing a bit of re-enacting. And it was hot and sunny. But I've tried it, right? And it was hard work! And that's the thing, all these tie-in products and experiences give us a taste of life on the frontier, but it's a fleeting glimpse, not the real thing. I don't think I'd want the real thing, to be honest (note the hint of indecision there!). Year after year of ruined harvest, debt, isolation, hardship, near-starvation... it all sounds a bit much. That's the thing with being drawn to the past, isn't it? On the one hand, you can tap into the strangely satisfying yearning for a different, less complicated time. On the other, you'd probably be lying if you thought the lack of plumbing, heating or enough food to eat was really an option. One Amazon reviewer inadvertently has a go at summing it up, thus:

I was so annoyed I had to take a pen and cross over all the -homogenized- in basically every single recipe that included milk. The author even uses homogenized milk when making butter, which is utterly ridiculous because you cannot separate the fat from the milk and thus make butter if you use homogenized milk...

And further more, the first homogenizing machine was patented in 1899, and therefore homogenized milk isn't applicable on traditional cooking in the 1800s.

That's right, K. Norsetdt: ridiculous! I hate it when 'homogenized' takes over a cookbook and you're so darned right about the first homogenising machine (at least I assume you are - I can't be doing with verifying that). There was no homogenized milk on the prairies in the 1880s (to be fair, once the cow got malnutrition too, there was no milk of any kind and l can tell you're not one to split hairs). You know what else? There was no darned Amazon, either! Stick that in your purist's cup of milk and homogenise it!
You see, folks, you can't have it all. You can buy the Little House Cookbook (and I still might - Ma's instructions for vanity cakes were awfully vague and I can't hold a proper Plum Creek party without them now, can I?) and hope to rekindle a little of that way of life, but you can't replicate it entirely.
Not also available in Bronte.
Right, well I'm off now to 'pill a putatuh,' in the style of the Bronte's household servant. Wait - no - I don't think they had Good Grips peelers back then! Bother it! I'll have to think of something else to do now. Perhaps I'll read this blog instead and wish I'd thought of that.
Small print (because I know Nancy likes this bit): I know you're not supposed to start a sentence with 'and' or 'but'. But sometimes I want to. Also, the lovely picture of the ingredients came from the blog linked to above. I have no idea if the milk in the picture is homogenised.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Fanfic

Is it me, or is this the year when the whole nation is gripped by craze after craze, fevour after fervour? I like a little bit of collective, national joy and happily bedecked my home in red, white and blue bunting for the jubilee, thus subscribing to two current fads: jubilee fervour and bunting. In fact, mine was home-made from fabric scraps, so I can tick off 'vintage' and 'shabby chic' too. The bunting is still up, looking a little more pastel now, having been battered by the elements for the best part of the worst part of what felt like a month or two of rain. I'm keeping it up for the Olympics (ticks another box) and the street party (tick). I've also finally given in to the cultural and baking tsunami that is cupcakes. For several years now, I have resisted the urge to over-ice over-sized cakes, believing the humble fairy cake was in danger of extinction. To my mind, the marauding cupcake was the invading grey squirrel, pushing the native red squirrel (fairy cake - stay with me) to the very peripheries of the British Isles, i.e. my kitchen. However, the realisation that icing cupcakes might be fun finally dawned on me and now the two types of cake are able to co-exist in my kitchen.

One craze I haven't yet succumbed to is reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' I thought I might give it a go, given that everyone was talking about it and I didn't want to feel left out. I had visions of trying valiantly to hold up my side of the conversation, while all around me were discussing topics I had no knowledge of...

Me: I've just discovered how to do a 3-M swirl on cupcakes!
Other, much cooler, people: Hmmm? Yeah, so anyway, have you got to the bit about the red room yet?
Me: Huh? What? No, my kitchen's painted green...

It's not like me, though, to dive into anything without first reading up on the topic, even when the topic itself is, er, reading, so I read reviews and online extracts and decided that it simply wasn't my thing. I decided to take the, 'slightly superior' line, because, y'know, everyone loves somebody who does that, and tried rolling my eyes at anything involving Fifty Shades, but then I discovered that 'rolling your eyes,' in Fifty Shades parlance, is not a very good idea. Not unless you want to be on the naughty step, or a slightly ramped up version of it...apparently. So anyway, I decided to read up on it enough so that I could partake of Fifty Shades of chat, without actually reading it. I do that a lot. In fact, I'm a bit of a Wikipedia: full of information, but not all of it verifiable.

Today I was talking to a lovely and very talented friend, who has a real gift for writing but who is currently struggling to get her novel published. I don't know why, as I've read it (yes, actually read it) and it is really good. She was encouraging me to write too, but since I am currently 'under the weather' and my brain isn't working quite as well as it should, I declined. I then wondered, aloud, if I could attempt some kinky fanfic, suggesting, rather meanly, that maybe it didn't take much brain power to write. (Miaow!) My friend suggested I write kinky Little House fanfic. I know - it sounds like sacrilege, but here goes:

Laura looked longingly at Almanzo, his hair tousled and his pants hanging from his hips. ‘Holy Moley!’ she said aloud, despite her congrationalist upbringing, and bit her lip. He grasped the log firmly and rammed it into place. Her inner goddess danced a jig and all her corset stays quivered.

‘For Pete’s sake, Laura,’ he gasped. ‘Help me with this log, will you?’

 She shattered into a thousand tiny pieces and her inner goddess made a mental note to put them back together again later. Exactly as she was bid, Laura grasped the other end of Almanzo’s mighty log.

 ‘Stop asking questions and help me build the dashed thing!’ he commanded, commandingly and in a commanding manner.

‘Build?’ she asked, ‘Build?’ This was something he had never yet asked of her and Laura wasn’t sure she was up for this. Wavering momentarily, she took a moment to consult her inner goddess, who was at that very moment wondering whether to whip up a batch of fresh corn bread and Johnny cakes. At the mention of ‘whip,’ and ‘Johnny,’ her inner goddess skipped wantonly through the high waving prairie grasses and Laura’s thousands of pieces shattered into a thousand more, even tinier, pieces. Her inner goddess noted, ruefully, that the whole reassembly thing would now take a lot longer. She bit her lip. Again.
Almanzo rolled his eyes, which was OK for him to do. ‘Yes, woman: build. These are cedar logs and I’m building us another shed.’
‘Another?’ asked Laura, tremblingly, her pioneer undergarments wet like the shores of Silver Lake. ‘But, Almanzo, we have so many sheds already…’ her voice trailed off, mindful of what had happened last time she had questioned him. Her inner goddess privately wondered if decorating the parlor red had been a good idea after all.

Almanzo’s deep and powerful voice cut through her thoughts, like a knife through freshly churned butter, which you can read all about in ‘Little House in the Big Woods’. ‘Laura,’ he breathed, in that masterful way of his, ‘Of course I am building you another cedar shed: I am fifty sheds of grey.’

Well, that wasn't difficult: piece of cake! Cupcake, obviously. Or maybe cakepops. I'm told they are the new thing. Off I go to read up on them.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Rage Against the Machine

I'm so very, very tired...
Firstly, an apology: I do apologise for not writing anything lately and leaving you all hanging in cyberspace, no doubt pining for my latest missive. (Yeah, right.) My silence has been due to a number of factors: I had nothing much to say, I wasn't very well and it turns out that the end of a school year is a manically busy time, especially if you have not one but two jobs in two different educational establishments. So anyway, I haven't been around much.

Now it's the school holidays and a chance to slow down a bit, except that the start of the school holidays round here signifies the start of the St Peter's Church Holiday Club. Not much chance to relax, but a lot of fun! I'm endeavouring to produce some of the teaching materials for the younger children attending the Holiday Club. It's going OK, but you know how it is when you're trying to do something on a computer and it just won't do what you want it to do? Yeah: that! Sometimes I think life was a lot easier before we had computers. True, back then I spent hours drawing and handwriting these things, but at least when things went wrong, I had only myself to blame and could rectify most things with an eraser and a freshly sharpened pencil. These days it takes a plaintive, 'Mr Ruuuuuubbbbbbbyyyyyyyyy!' and much sotto voce cursing at the screen. Thing is, I know what I want to computer to do for me, I know it's done that for me before, but suddenly it seems to be on strike and won't do what I ask it, despite (or sometimes perhaps because of) my increasingly frantic mouse clicking). And the rage this kind of thing inspires? Well, it's impotent rage really, isn't it? Toddler tantrumming, Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew rage. You can get as cross as you like at the computer but in the end you're just ranting at code and code really doesn't give a flying fig what you yell at it.

Am I bovvered?

Incidentally, I'll be darned if I can get the images for this blog post to sit in the right place on the screen. Mr Ruuuuubbbbbyyyyyyyyy!
Small print: I borrowed the 1950s housewife picture from here.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Might As Well Face It...

Ever heard a song and thought, 'What on earth was that lyric?!' I'm willing to be that you have. I do it all the time. My own personal playlist of misheard lyrics would probably be enough to fill an entire radio show. (DJ Bro, take note!) Way back in 1987, or thereabouts, I amused a younger version of the aforementioned DJ, when I belted out, 'I believe in miracles, you saxophone!' No really, that's what I thought the lyric was. Not quite the same, is it? The Mouse has just reminded of me of her classic lyric misinterpretation too. When she was much younger, her dad bought her a copy of Little Boots' CD. The Mouse loved it and played it often. One day we heard her singing:
I'm gonna take you out tonight,
I'm gonna make you feel alright.
I don't gotta lotta money but I'll be fine.
No I don't gotta bunny but I'll show you a real good time.
While we were glad to know that the absence of a bunny didn't necessarily prevent one from having a good time, we did eventually point out to her that the line was, 'No I don't got a penny but I'll show you a real good time.'

I have a theory, though, that the younger you are, the more likely you are to either mishear or or misconstrue lyrics. When I was very little I remember singing:

See-saw, margarine door,
Jacqui shall have a new master.
He shall have a penny of butter a day,
Because he can't work any faster.

Yes, it was all about dietary fats and toast, as far as I was concerned. And me. Of course. My youngest niece, the utterly hilarious Baby G supported this theory recently, by singing along to Ollie Murs' 'My Heart Skips a Beat'. In the chorus there's this line that goes, 'My heart skips-skips-skips-skips-skips-skips a beat.' Obviously that makes no sense to a two and a half year old, so Baby G sings, 'My heart snakes, snakes a pea!' Yeah I know - that makes no sense either but the point is, to Baby G, it does. As does comparing the object of your affections to a saxophone. Maybe.

I've had the misheard lyrics conversation with other people too, so I know it isn't some kind of genetic default, shared only by my niece, my daughter and myself. Indeed, there is a word for this phenomenon: mondegreens. Wikipedia defines this as:
the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning.   

In fact, so universal is this mondegreen thing that there is a whole web site devoted to the topic. It is called, 'Kiss This Guy', after the famously oft-misheard Purple Haze lyric by Jimi Hendrix, although whether that is a truly misheard lyric is open to debate, apparently. If you look at the, 'All Time Funniest' page on the web site, you'll see how I came up with the title of this blog entry. I must confess, I read some of those and did the Muttley laugh.

Curse you, Muttley! It's, 'Might as well face you're addicted to love'!

Read this for your five-a-day!
I asked Mr Ruby if he knew of any more examples and he assures me that a line in Big Mouth Strikes Again, by the Smiths, is often misheard as the bizarre and slightly fetishistic, 'I'd like to mash beetroot in your hair,' instead of the lyrics actually penned by Morrissey, 'I'd like to smash every tooth in your head.' On balance, I think I'd go for the beetroot. Dreadfully messy business, mind. In a similar conversation with Dr Wise-Egg, I was delighted to discover that I am not the only person to have spent the past twenty-six years wondering why on earth Madonna sings, 'Young Girl with Eyes Like Potatoes'. Listen to her singing 'La Isla Bonita' and I defy you to hear that line sung any other way! However the Internet is a wonderful thing and if you google, 'Madonna lyrics La Isla Bonita' you can find out what she's actually singing. I was going to publish the real lyrics here, but somehow the real words lack the charm of the potato version. You'll just have to google it yourself.

Small print: Oh, OK then. The real lyrics are, 'Young girl with eyes like lumbago.'

Addendum (Latin for: the bits wot I added later)

More contributions. I reckon we could publish a magazine: Reader's Mondegreens.

The Hampshire Lass (aka my mum) offers, 'Take me and break me and baked bean island, I'm yours!' by Joe Dolan (misheard by the late, great Uncle Paul).

Mother of all Hoplets offered 'Tonight, I sellotape my guff to you,' sung by pretty much everyone, but penned by Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack.

PromQueen cited Abba's 'If you change your mind on the Virgin line,' from 'Take a Chance on Me' 

The Hampshire Lad (aka my dad) says he's always wondered why Belinda Carlisle sings, 'Poo heaven is a place on earth,' and asks, 'Where is Poo heaven does it have countless toilet facilities?'

Pompey, Dad, that's where.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Does Size Matter?

It's a Rayburn, but I'm not fussy.
Yes, contrary to what people may tell you, size does matter, at least where kitchens are concerned. I have spent my entire life in tiny kitchens (unless you count the Home Ec. room, but there you were pretty much always jostling for space) and yet I dream of something...well, bigger. I have lived in nine different places, all with small, mainly galley-style kitchens. I think a little kitchen-envy is to be excused. One of the ways in which I like to while away the odd spare moment is by imagining my ideal kitchen. The first thing you need to know about my imaginary kitchen is that it is big. In fact, it is the largest room in my otherwise modest imaginary house. Take that on board and you are welcome to come in and warm yourself by my imaginary Aga (or Rayburn or Esse - I'm not fussy!), sit at my imaginary kitchen table and sip a cup of tea, or even relax in the imaginary easy chair. Bring your slippers though, because my imaginary flagstone floor is quite cold. Still, on warmer days we can throw open the top half of the imaginary stable door and let in the sunshine!

Draw up a chair... but what's that bin doing in my fantasy?!

Back in the real world, I've been baking up a storm lately. This is due, in part, to having more time in the holidays and thus more energy. It is also due to my apparently unshakeable belief in the relationship between food and festivals. Honestly, can you name any major festival which doesn't have a food connection? Even those that feature fasting, rather than feasting, have at their core both a memory of and an expectation of food: Lent ends in the chocolate-fest of Easter, Ramadan ends in Eid. The other reason for my baking obsession is that neither I nor the small Rubies can eat dairy products or soya-based foods. At the same time, we've no intention of going without. Thus I have developed a detemination to perfect 'free-from' versions of the foods we love but can't eat. I reckon I can now produce cakes that are free from nuts, wheat, gluten, dairy, soya and, at a push, eggs and sugar. I can produce hollow eggs and cream eggs that don't contain any dairy. I can make hot cross buns without the 'all butter' tag. I can't make croissant dough, though I have tried. Luckily I can buy it in cans, although not so that my gluten-free mum can eat it too. No, free-from croissant dough is my Waterloo!

Not a gluten-free croissant beween them.

Kitchenaid, objet d'art
So what does that have to do with my lusting after a bigger kitchen? Well, not a lot really, since you evidently can achieve all that in a smaller space. However, when you are spending quite a lot of time there, you do become a bit frustrated by the lack of space to put anything down. Moving the recipe book so I can put down the pastry board is a proper faff, I can tell you. Lack of space also means lack of room for all my imaginary gadgets. I'd love one of those thoroughly sexy and iconic Kitchenaids, but the breadmaker is occupying the space that might otherwise be assigned to a food processor, and you can't easily buy bread that is free from soya - and anyway, Mr Ruby's home-baked bread tastes much, much nicer. Of course, what you do with a smaller kitchen is you scale everything back. No room for a food processor? Buy a hand-held blender/whisk/chopper! I am very find of my handheld b/w/c although it does loose a little of its appeal when I have to make breadcrumbs in batches because the the chopper attachment can only cope with a slice at a time or when, as this evening, I decide to whip up dairy-free mango, banana, raspberry and oat milk shakes. It wasn't that the thing lacked the capacity, so much as that it lacked a lid. All was going well until I added the frozen raspberries and then, much to the amusement of the rest of the family, I invented the world's first and only raspberry gun. Bits of frozen raspberry shot out all over the place! I'm telling you, it was carnage! I reckon I'll be finding splatters and globules of red for days to come.

Prototype for the raspberry gun.
Still, it can't be right to link all this talk of religious festivals with my covetous attitude to kitchens, can it? It's not just the baking I take seriously, it's that the food we share reminds us in some way (however tenuously, when it comes to chocolate Easter eggs) of the festival we are celebrating. This was brought home to me when the Mouse was much smaller. When she was three years old I gave her hot cross bun and she remarked, 'Look - God must love me very much - he's put a big kiss on my bun!'

So, back to my covetous attitude: I was thinking about this and decided that it is OK, as the ten commandments mention not coveting my neighbour's wife or his ass. Nope, not guilty there. Then I looked them up*. Here's the list of what I'm not supposed to be coveting:

You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour's.
Bother! If I start referring to it as an apiraton, will that be OK, do you think?

* The ten commandments, not my neighbour's anything.


Friday, 23 March 2012

May the Force be with You!

When I was very young, my dad would sometimes take me to cinema. My mum would get my brother down for his nap and then the news of the impending outing would be shared with me. I guess if they had told me earlier, my excitement would have been contagious and my poor brother would never have got to sleep. On one of these occasions we went to see Star Wars. I must have been five or six years old. I remember I was in infant school as I also remember playing 'Star Wars' in the playground. I can't remember excatly how the roles were divvied-up in our games, but I do recall many of the girls arguing over who was to play Princess Leia. To my mind, this used up valuable play time, so my own solution to this was to immediately volunteer to be R2D2. On some level, I think I probably did want to be the princess with the long hair and a space blaster to boot, but I was perfectly happy pootling about the playground, making droid noises. I don't actually remember any further interaction in these games, so for all I know, perhaps I just got on with my R2-ing, oblivious to anyone else. It's entirely possible! The other thing I recall is of having a 'swaps card' of Luke Skywalker stuck to my bedroom wall. Mark Hamil, as Luke, was my first human crush. (My non-human and entirely first crush, for whom I still carry a bit of a torch, was Charlie Mouse.)
What can I say? I like big ears.

As we both grew older and my baby brother gave up his daytime nap (for a while - I reckon he takes one now), he also discovered Star Wars and pretty much never looked back. I was talking to him the other day, about how - rather tragically, I suspect - we can divide out lives into 'Before and After Star Wars'. I'm pretty certain he was one of the people who helped create the 'Jedi Census Phenomenon' in the 2001 UK census. He collected the original mini figures, which we spent many happy hours playing with.

Anyway, Star Wars has been part of my life for a very long time and I have been looking forward to the day when I could share that fictional universe with my own children. TR recently declared an interest in watching Star Wars, so we borrowed DVDs IV-VI from our lovely neighbours and he and sat down to watch them while his sister was at Brownie Holiday.  I admit I was quite anxious about this - what if he didn't like them and I remained the only Star Wars fan in the Ruby household? Mr Ruby has always been more of a Thunderbirds fan. However, I neeedn't have worried - the combination of space travel, laser guns, lightsabers (he's only recently stopped calling them 'lightsavers', little eco-Jedi that he was) and explosions had him hooked from the start.

May the Force of the low-energy bulb be with you!

I hadn't watched the films for years (not since my brother's marathon video and dressing-up party, circa 1994) and really enjoyed watching them with TR. I have to say, he was less taken with the 'magic' of them than I was. He kept asking questions like, 'Did he really make the X-wing float up?' and I'd start answering, 'Yes, TR, Yoda used the Force...' only to realise that what he was really asking was whether the X-wing fighter truly levitated. 'Oh, no TR,' I was forced to clarify. 'That's CGI or models or trick photography.' After that, he spent three films saying, 'That's CGI...that's a model...' etc. Mr Ruby walked in and remarked, 'There's no magic in it, is there?'

The day after one of our viewings, we were all sat at the table eating dinner when the Mouse choked on a bit of food. Not badly, you understand; it just went down the wrong way. She choked a little and I happened to glance at TR for a second. There he was, sat opposite his sister and doing the 'Darth Vader death grip motion.' Yes, while she choked, he was apparently using the Force to bring about her untimely demise! On the one hand, I'm obviously a little shocked that he's turning to the Dark Side. On the other, I am quite pleased that he believes in the magic of it after all.

Han, I love you!

Small print: while I still feel some fondness for Luke, I can now see that it is in fact Han who is the best looking of the lot.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

When Smokey Sings...

The Mouse recently took up the violin. She has been asking for a long while to learn and we held off and held off, thinking that a true desire to learn would stay with her and then we’d know that she really was keen. It sounds harsh, I know, but if you’d been there for recorder practise, you’d have felt the same way.

Thankfully, the lovely Associate Rev offered us the loan of a half size violin and a few informal lessons to start us off. We braced ourselves for the sound of cats being murdered and warned the Mouse that it takes practise to get a good sound out of a violin. I was ever mindful of my childhood experiences of ballet, where I thought I’d be able to show up and dance like Margot Fonteyn, whereas, in reality, it involved endless clumsy skipping around a dusty church hall and serious injury to my baby brother…but that’s another story. However, the Mouse surprised us by managing to produce a pretty good sound on her two open strings. Ah yes, you see – I have the lingo now! ‘Open Strings’ is where you play the violin with the bow, but do not press your fingers on the strings in order to play higher or lower notes.
A long holiday to the States and a bout of extended illness for both children meant that the Mouse stayed with her borrowed violin and her two notes for quite some time. Finally, in January of this year, we found a permanent teacher for the Mouse and ordered her a quarter size violin. Now, call me na├»ve, but I had imagined that buying a musical instrument was relatively simple: you just walked into a specialist shop and requested your instrument of choice. So far, so good, but the shop didn’t have any quarter sizes in stock. We ordered one, for delivery ‘in two weeks’. Two months and many phone calls later, our violin finally arrived.

A violin very much like the Mouse's. She loves it that the case can be worn as a backpack.

So, the Mouse is now the proud owner of her own violin and bow. She has a music stand (sourced from a charity shop and missing a wing-nut, so don’t grow too much yet, Mouse, as we can’t alter the height of the thing!), a borrowed music book and another sourced, again, from a charity shop. She has been very lucky in that both her violin teachers have been lovely people, whom she likes very much and wants to please.
It’s been a steep learning curve for Mr Ruby and I too. I played the recorder briefly and badly, as an eight year old. In my primary school music performance I was initially given maracas, before being sent to the back of the row (behind the much taller children) and given a triangle which I was told to play, ‘quietly.’ I’m not entirely sure that the teacher didn’t then confiscate my beater! Mr Ruby had some piano lessons as a child and later taught himself to play a rather halting version of ‘Abba father’ on the guitar. As members of the youth group we mercilessly teased him by singing the chord changes as well as the words – we found we had plenty of time to do so. All I’m saying is, if the Mouse has musical ability, and she seems to, it doesn’t come from us. Her uncle DJ and her cousin Blondie both show considerable musical talent though, so perhaps there are some latent musical genes there. I hope so.
Not that kind of quaver

I’ve learned to use a metronome and am beginning to read music. I have to ask the Mouse to remind me when I’m looking at a crotchet, a quaver, a minim or a semibreve, though. I also have to remind myself not to call a crotchet a crochet. Knit your own symphony, anyone? Mr Ruby has become rather good at tuning the violin and we’ve both learned that, whatever problem you have with the violin, there’s an app for that! (As well as a Wikipedia article and a YouTube instructional video.) The Mouse, meanwhile, has learned to play open strings and is currently learning to use her fingers to play additional notes. She can play a few tunes and enjoys learning new ones.
The only one rather left out by this is TR. He does express a desire to play his sister’s violin, but she’s wary of letting him loose on it. I have offered him lessons too, but he assures me he wants to learn to play the drums (and therein lies the source of his sister’s wariness, I think – she knows that a violin bow does not make a good drumstick). If his sister isn’t looking, he likes to use her music stand as a prop for his small world play. Apparently it makes, ‘An awesome slide for moshlings!’
Small plastic toys that, apparently, like to slide down music stands

I can’t say that I’m quite so eager for him to learn the drums. For one thing, where would I put the drum kit? This blog isn’t called ‘LittleHouse on the Heath’ for nothing, you know! For another, I’m not sure the neighbours would be overly happy about TR’s drum practise. Mind you, the builders have assured us that the proposed loft extension will be sound-proof. Now all I have to do is convince Mr Ruby that a drum kit would be the perfect accessory for our new room…

Monday, 27 February 2012

Dress it Up However You Like...

...World Book Day is starting to stress me out. Don't get me wrong - I'm all for a day dedicated to books and reading, it's just the costume aspect that is causing me grief. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the concept, World Book Day is a UNESCO initiative, held once a year to promote reading, publishing and copyright. In fact, it's full title is 'World Book (and Copyright) Day. No sneaky 'homers' on the work's photocopier on that day, folks! 'Which day?' I hear you ask. Well, therein lies another little snippet of information for you: almost the whole world celebrates World Book Day on 23rd April, but in the UK and Ireland, we celebrate it on the first Thursday in March. The 23rd of April often coincides with Easter holidays, which is why our celebration is earlier. Of course, this may lead you to suspect that it is therefore not World Book Day, but just 'Local Book Day, for Local People'... whatever!

So, back to the costumes, it is fast becoming a UK tradition that on World Book Day, or the Friday nearest to it, in the case of the Mouse and TR's school, children dress up as a book character for the day. Last year the Mouse chose to go as Pippi Longstocking, which was a fabulously easy costume to put together. All she needed were ordinary, but mismatching clothes, a few extra freckles (drawn on with eyeliner pencil), hair in plaits and a toy orang-utan to represent Mr Nilsson (who was actually a monkey, but we did what we could). TR opted to go as Ben, from the book 'Penguin'. Apart from some eleventh hour rushing about to find him some starry pyjamas (thank you, M&S, for not only selling them but for putting a pair by for me) that was pretty easy too. It had the added bonus of providing TR with the impetus to do a bit of box modelling and he still has the cardboard rocket he built as his prop. He still wears he pyjamas too!

Fast forward to this year and the Mouse recently won a Lauren Child competition, which means she is now the proud owner of a Ruby Redfort selection of goodies and is planning to go as Ruby, teen super-sleuth. That's easy enough - jeans, trainers (or 'sneakers' as Ruby would call them) and her new Ruby Redfort T-shirt: sorted!

Lauren Child

TR has prevaricated somewhat on the topic of who he wants to dress as. This is further complicated by the news that, this year, the children need to pick a book character who is like themselves in some way. Mr Ruby casually enquired whether there was a Mr Men chracter called, 'Mr Ranty,' which provoked a - well, a rant - from TR. (If you're interested, there isn't. There is a Mr Grumpy but any grumpiness on TR's part is possibly attributble to his father's enquiry.) TR is quite a stickler for rules and is interpreting the 'like me' requirement very literally. Thus all Mr Men are out of the question because, 'I am not blue/red/yellow/square/a triangle,' etc. I have tried explaining the idea of characteristics but either it has not been well-received or it is a concept too far. Frankly, if you can't explain personality and characteristics via the mono-characteristc Mr Men, you're not onto a good thing. Accordingly I have given up. For now.

TR contemplated going as 'Where's Wally?' (That's 'Where's Waldo?' for my American public), which got me worrying about sourcing a red and white striped top. Unfortunately the stripes on his Brentford top are vertical, whereas Wally's are horizontal. I've no idea how he is like Wally. Mercifully I have never lost him in a crowd, so can't comment on how easy he is to find. 
There he is!
While I was contemplating this costume, he changed his mind and said he wanted to go as the whale from Julia Donaldson's 'The Snail and the Whale'. TR's reasoning for this was, 'I am big and I like swimming.' I won't comment on that. If you know TR, I know you are now laughing. My mum and my cousin sent me links to whale costume ideas and I contemplated making a whale (not an actual whale - that would require a lab, at least, if not two willing and eager whales). At this point,TR announced that he wants to go as the little boy from 'How to Catch a Star' by Oliver Jeffers and I breathed a sigh of relief. This book character wears jeans and a top - a red and white striped top. De ja vu, anyone? So, now I'm back to trying to find a red and white striped top.

Well, that really doesn't sound too bad does it, all things considered? No, well it wasn't, until I discovered, that I have to dress up too. I quite like the idea of dressing-up and do harbour a secret wish to roam the streets dressed as a pirate, or maybe a Victorian woman, but in practice I can't see me pulling it off. Odd that, because as a child I loved to dress up. Even when not in costume, I was mainly in character. Thus in my ordinary clothes, I was away in my mind, living an extrordinary life. Not any more: now I revel in my Not Very Interesting Life and see it as a bonus if a week goes by without me having to achieve anything extrordinary. Still, I was willing to get over myself, as they say, and don something for the day. Half a day, in fact. Only now I was faced with the same problem as TR: which book character am I like? Over the years I've taken on various literary heroines and claimed them as my own but times and people change and I'm not sure I want to be a middle-aged Anne of Green Gables. I may have got my Gilbert, in Mr Ruby, but I guess I still think of Anne as a young woman: I've aged, Anne hasn't.

Back to the Mr Men, then. Surely I could come up with a single facet of my personality that would be represented in one of the Mr Men? I asked TR for advce and his reply was, 'Well, you're not like Little Miss Somersault because you've got short legs [harsh, but true] and you're not like Little Miss Late because you're only late for most things, not everything [the boy has my number!] but you are like Little Miss Sunshine because you are very smiley and you like to be happy.'

Good save, TR. The boy will go far!  So, Little Miss Sunshine it was... until I realised I own nothing yellow. A quick  look at the back of a Mr Men book and a Little Miss book, where all the characters are pictured, gave me the idea of Mr Jelly. I'm easily startled (I recently jumped at my own reflection - true story!) and I own a bright pink jumper. Sorted! Of course, there was the problem of how to look wobbly. Mr Ruby had some suggestions to make on the topic, but I'm not about to type them here. Then a second problem occurred to me: what was I to wear on my legs? I don't own pink trousers. Back to the drawing board back of the book! My mum, who clearly went to the same diplomacy classes as her grandson and son-in-law, suggested Mr Forgetful.

That's me, that is.

She's got a point: if it isn't written down and attached to my person, accompanied by beeps and reminders, I will forget it. I like to blame the lupus, even naming the phenomenon of my extreme forgetfulness as 'stupus' but who knows if it's not just senior moments come early? A quick check of the back of the book revealed that Mr F is blue - hurrah! I can dress all in blue! He's also pretty much circular, which could be a little harder achieve. I've decided to approach this via the method-acting route, so if you see me between now and Friday, expect to see me stuffing my face with cake.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012 makes me wanna shout!

I had cause today to ruminate upon the matter of what Lulu likes to eat. I know, even by my standards that's a little bit 'out there', but stay with me. One of the ways I waste time keep up with the zeitgeist is by reading some of the posts on Mumsnet. The site was originally conceived as a way for parents to exchange advice on a wide variety of parenting topics. It still provides that, but with a lot more besides. I mostly lurk there to read and chuckle at other people's comedic misfortunes, but I also like to pick up recipes there, or gain advice on the odd thorny parenting issue or awkward social situation. Like any community, actual or virtual, mumsnet has developed it's own in-jokes. These usually develop from particular threads which seem to catch the mood of the moment. One of these was a post about finding other people's shopping lists abandoned in trolleys or supermarket aisles. One mumsnetter urged others, 'ok i hav now new challenge next time you find a note meant for someone else or a shopping list in your trolley you are to hold on to i tight ans report in' (the typos are all hers) and the idea somehow took off. Thirty-two pages and 886 messages later, it seemed everyone had suddenly taken up the latest 'craze'. You can read it yourself if you're at all inclined.

Whatever it is, she's looking good on it
So anyway, whats that got to do with Lulu? Good question! Well, today I went to the supermarket and found an abandoned shopping list in my trolley. Now, prior to reading that discussion, I probably would have popped it straight in the bin, but of course my curiosity was aroused and I unfolded the crumpled scrap of paper, hopeful that I might find something to make me smile. Lo and behold, the first item on the list was, 'Lulu Food'. Not long after, my fellow shopper had written, 'Lulu treats'. I was intrigued! Now, I know I was in Waitrose and so maybe my fellow shoppers there entertain the rich and famous once in a while, but it got me wondering... if I was buying treats for Lulu, what would she like or expect? She's been rich and famous for so long now that I daresay it's been a long time since a chocolate hobnob really did it for her. No, I bet Lulu craves your more sophisticated snack. I had a good look in the biscuits and sweets aisle but failed to find the answer to my question. I know she grew up in Glasgow, but even so, I can't see her enjoying a deep-fried Mars Bar, can you?

Admit it, you really want one now!

Now, blog-watchers, I wouldn't want to short-change you or fob you off with guesswork and supposition. That librarianship degree didn't all go to waste, you know! Accordingly, I have researched the topic. It turns out that Lulu has her own blog too and she's not entirely silent on the matter of what she likes to eat. Be honest: prior to reading this blog, you wonder how you filled the hours, don't you?

Lulu, as it turns out, likes to keep an eye on her cholesterol levels (so I was right on the deep-fried Mars Bars) and loves fresh herbs. She grows them herself, apparently, and is quite a keen cook. In her own words, or words similar to her own words because I’m willing to bet the real Lulu doesn’t actually talk like a sound-bite from Woman’s Weekly:
Friends who come to my house for lunch or dinner often ask me about the ingredients in my most simple dishes…To me there is nothing better than eating food that tastes great, and is also good for you! If you want to see for yourself if herbs can help you feel younger, try sprinkling some on to any dish like a bit of fairy dust and watch them work their magic!

So, there you have it: I was in the wrong aisle. For ‘treats for Lulu’ I should have been in the fresh herbs aisle or possibly the magical sparkly herbs aisle.  As it happens, I did buy a pot of parsley so she might want to pop round here after all. She’ll have to be quick though, or the guinea pigs will have eaten it all.

Small print: the second item on the abandoned shopping list was 'Puppy Food'. I think the Lulu of the list might be a pet of some sort, but I couldn't have got an entire blog entry out if that. As it is, I'm pushing it.


Sunday, 12 February 2012

I Promise that I Will do my Best...

...To do my duty to God,
To serve the Queen,
To help other people
And to keep the Brownie Guide Law.

Those were the words of my Brownie promise. They've changed a little over the years, although the sentiments have remained largely the same. I joined Brownies when I was seven, then we moved abroad and I became a Sunbeam, then back to England for some more of being a Brownie and then onto Guides and Rangers. During my time as a Guide I also helped at my brother's Cub Pack. (Now that was fun!) Now I have a Brownie and a Beaver of my own (and no, you're not allowed to snigger at that!), both of whom attended Church Parade this morning. It's the church service this prompted this blog entry.

Church Parade was one of the highlights of my Brownie and Guide life. Now, I know that sounds a little unlikely, but bear with me. I was a church kid anyway, or was by the time I got to Guides, so no stranger to a bit of sitting down, standing up, singing, sitting back down again and bowing my head. The church I attended at that time favoured a fairly sparse style of decoration and I always looked forward to a nice bit of Anglican or Catholic fancy church interior, not to mention the eminently singable Methodist hymns. That brings me onto the real reason I loved Church Parade: the Salvation Army band. Now, you couldn't guarantee their attendance but when they did show up, and my memory tells me that was more often than not, you could rely on their brass section providing a rousing accompaniment to, 'O Jesus I have Promised,' which was my favourite hymn when I was ten or eleven years old. Now, I realise it is entirely possible that I was a bit of an Odd Kid, but standing on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of the tubas, while belting out the words:

O Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
be thou forever near me,
my Master and my friend.
I shall not fear the battle
if thou art by my side,
nor wander from the pathway
if thou wilt be my guide.

Well, that counted for entertainment, in my mind. I seem to remember considering either joining the Salvation Army or taking up the tuba, but neither of these suggestions were greeted with a great deal of warmth by my parents. Later someone told me that the bonnets worn by the women of the Salvation Army were designed to protect their heads from the bricks that were often thrown at them as they marched through town centres. Frankly, those bonnets never struck me as protection enough from an incoming brick, so I was glad I'd never followed up that particular whim of mine. As for the tuba, well I was all but thrown out of recorder classes, so it's probably as well I never tried that either. Something tells me that, had I taken up the tuba, the chances of me having a brick thrown at me would have increased fourfold.

The tuba looks more resilient than the hat.
Sadly, brass bands are notable only by their absence from the Youth Service, but we did have a good singing session this morning. The vicar of our local church is due to move on to pastures new and this was his last youth service there. To mark the occasion, the local Scout and Guide movements organised a 'Songs of Praise' type event, where the leaders had pre-chosen their favourite hymns and they introduced each one with a little spiel about how and why it became their favourite. I learned some pretty intresting stuff here, too. For example, one lady told us that she had been a Brownie, Guide and later Guide leader for pretty much all her life and she has always lived in the same area. So, by her reckoning, she has attended nearly 400 parade/youth services in that one church. I know we've already established that I'm easy to amuse, but that little fact impressed me! Also, I learned that 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' (yes, we actually sung that and I like to think we rocked the rafters) reminds the leader of the local BP Scouts of Brian Blessed. Now, I admit I do have a head cold at the moment, and my ears are quite blocked. Therefore I can only claim that I think he said it reminded him of Brian Blessed. Quite what his link with scouting is, I couldn't tell you, although I am guessing that he was once Chief Scout. If anyone can enlighten me there, I'd be most grateful. Frankly, the link between these seemingly disparate facts has been bugging me all day.

"The Scouts are alaive?"
BP Scouts, by the way, stands for Baden-Powell Scouts. Confusingly, they are more recently formed wing of the Scouting movement, who prefer to conduct their scouting in a more traditonal manner. I'm not entirely clear on the distinction, although TR is now a BP Beaver Scout. I signed him up on the basis that the groups are small and friendly and they appear to have an awful lot of fun. Plus TR is, by nature, something of an indoor kid, who will happily engage in outdoor activities if you take the trouble to make them sufficiently exciting for him. So far as I could see, the BP Beaver colony appeared to offer exactly that. I sold the idea to him on the promise of marshmallows and I am happy to report that he has eaten marshmallows at least twice since joining. For all I know, the more mod-cons Beavers may be scoffing them every week,  but TR seems very happy in his Beaver colony and I like the fact that he can wear his uncle's old cub cap, once he moves up to cubs, which, by the way, in BP-speak are called 'Wolf Cubs'. Mercifully, the Wolf Cubs no longer wear the long grey socks and green garters, although a photograph on the wall of the BP Scout hut suggests that this practise was dropped only fairly recently.

I'm proud of the fact that my two are part of the Scout and Guide movement. I like feeling a strong link with the past, both my own and the general sense of Scouting and Guiding History. I also like the way it has it's own little subculture of rules and deferences, such as the left-handed handshake and the slightly odd names given to the leaders. (Actually, the Mouse's are known by their firstnames, but that seems to be the exception, rather than the norm.) I like the way the different groups keep common aims in mind, as demonstrated by the words of the promise, which vary slightly according to which part of the movement you are in, but which all express pretty much the same aims and desires. I also like the fact that you can earn badges. My word, as a Guide I loved earning my badges! By the time I left I had a whole sleeve full and had to learn to sew them on myself because, as my mum rightly pointed out, if I could earn my 'Needleworker' badge, I could jolly well sew the thing on myself!


So, come on folks, light the campfire, sew on your, 'Slightly More Enthusiastic About Hymn Singing than is Commonly Thought Normal' badge and join me in a rousing version of...oh, OK, we'll leave the hymns for now and go for a bit of that old Scouting number, 'Ging Gang Goolie'. As my parting gift to you on this blog entry, I'll share the following bit of trivia with you. Apparently the old campfire song was penned by Scouting founder himself, Robert Baden-Powell. He wrote a song consisting entirely of nonsense words, so that scouts all over the world could sing together and not be divided by liguistic differences. It was a lofty aim, although I think the message is clear: if you are going to write a unifying song, try not to pick words that will cause later generations to snigger into their campfire hot chocolates. Also, if you are a Brownie or a Guide leader, consider sharing the origins of this song with your charges. I spent an entire childhood baffled by why apparently responsible adults were making me maintain a straight face while singing about goolies. It took the advent of Wikipedia to teach me the true lack of meaning of this song!*

Here's a youtube link to the song. You gotta love the backing singer! Bless 'em, they look even more easily pleased than me, don't they?

* Small print: if you're not from the UK or otherwise unfamiliar with Brit-slang, don't Google that term. It's not all that rude but I can't promise you that your Google results won't be.