Marooned in the Modern World

In conjunction with my book "Swiss Family Suburban" this blog is from my diary; the diary of a wife and mum in a world where neither is valued highly. Beth Bill.

30th August 2009

A sense of panic (owing to the end of the holiday looming) has led to a spurt of energy enabling a deep cleaning of the kitchen. I've scrubbed down all of the tiles and cleaned out all of the cupboards. Drastic as this might seem, it's less of a task than having a new kitchen. Instead I've opted for a retro appeal - but clean! Some postcards of an old soap advert and a Jacob's Crackers advert picturing an ornate royal livery (not sure what the connection is there) alongside a jigsaw of a 50's 'Heartbeat' style kitchen (Em's first proper jig-saw) set the tone. So it's a 50's style kitchen, with original 70's tiles (?) - but it pulls together. I like this style as it can cope with being lived in. A modern, minimalist style (apart from being expensive and creating momentous upheaval) wouldn't cope well with constant use. A loaf and some jam cooling with a few dishes draining and keys left out don't stand out so much this way. I like this, as well, as I do sometimes think that most modern kitchens look the same, so impersonal. A trip to Ikea, to buy a shelf, was the finishing touch. It matches the shelving unit we draped my birthday present 'hearts' on and it covers some rough gaps in the tiles where the boiler used to sit.

I recently read Black Beauty which I've never read before. I vaguely remember a TV series of the story from when I was a child which I really didn't like and I think that has always put me off reading the book. However, I really did enjoy reading it. Because I'm not very 'horsey' (I think you have to be born 'horsey') I enjoyed reading the equestrian detail of saddle paraphernalia and the changing, and sometimes quite cruel, fashions of reigns and carriage. It's quite a gentle read, almost boring if you are looking for a fast paced plot, but calming to read with lots of interesting background detail - my kind of book. I'm thinking I might go back and read some of the other classics I missed. I'm considering The Water Babies, but I think that was another book that was serialised on TV that I didn't like, which put me off. I'd better hurry up because when term time starts I'm going to have to have a brush up on Keighley's Harmony book, and get cracking on some playing because I can't remember which end of the flute you blow down.

The children and I went blackberry picking at Mow Cop and I made some blackberry jelly, but it'll probably end up down the sink. It tasted so sugary that any taste of blackberry was masked. I know that jam has lots of sugar in it but this was astronomical. How depressing. Never mind, there's a few tubs full in the freezer - plenty for some crumbles. The hens appreciated the blackberry pulp left over from the blackberry jelly, delicious with bread crumbs and corn. I'm glad it wasn't all wasted. I'm not sure we'll have time to go again which depresses me when there's fruit going free.

23rd August 2009

The onions have finally dried out and so they just needed stringing up for storage. How on earth do you string onions? It's really tricky! I guess you'd be ok if you could French plait hair, but unfortunately I can't. (David has to do the ladies plaits in this house.) In the end I cobbled some sort of knotting and binding arrangement around a bamboo cane, which does seem to be a bit of a cheat, but was the best that I could manage.

The twins come home from Contagious today. I'm happy they are coming home, but sad for them as they'll miss all their new friends. This is where the internet really is handy. I don't like to think of teenagers MSN-ing the chums they see every week with pointless witter, but this is where it might prove worthy. I'm bracing myself for a load of washing and a torrent of chatter as they retell their adventures.

This summer holiday is fast slipping away. I'm always consumed by a sense of panic because I've not achieved all that I intended (which was probably too much). It's time for a bit of planning, to prioritise what I absolutely MUST do before term starts, and then planning for the next term ahead: "Plan your work, then work your plan."

18th August 2009

Disaster! The canes that support the beans have collapsed. The weight of the plants pulling towards the sunlight must have pulled the canes out of the ground, by degrees, at the back of the border. I've managed an unsightly patch up by tying them back and weighting the string with a tub of soil and lettuces. Hopefully it will keep the beans upright for the remainder of the growing season, but it doesn't at all match the idyllic image of a Victorian Kitchen Garden (a clarinet piece by Paul Reade which perfectly conjures images of it's title) - Matt is learning to play this at the moment.

The potatoes have gone into storage now. The best thing I could find was a Tesco jute shopping bag which seems perfect for the job. It's a breathable material and some brown paper bags should keep any light creeping in at the top.

Bought a huge bag of Layers Pellets to stock up for a few weeks. David made a great feed bin by converting an old ottoman and placing partitions inside to divide pellets, corn and grit. It's made of really old wood so any mice that might want to get at the food would have some serious gnawing to do and we should see signs of activity first before they get in, although it's shown no evidence of such activity so far. I also gave the hens their 6 weekly dusting (and David too - a black tee shirt wasn't a good choice). When we got the hens the lady suggested that now was a good time to 'worm' them, but our local shop doesn't sell any products and nobody around here seems to bother. I don't know what to do about that. I know I could buy some from the internet but it is really expensive, especially to herbal stuff which doesn't require egg withdrawal, so if possible I'd rather not.

Eek, still haven't done any music practice. Perhaps I'll try and do some tomorrow, though I don't know where to start ...

16th August 2009

David finished making the gate today. He made it from some pallet wood and an old piece of floorboard. I think that you can tell that a lot of love went into making this gate. It's purpose is to keep the hens in the garden (when we let them roam), but it's always nice to see that extra touch. The fact that a pre-bought gate was too expensive is irrelevant - this one is priceless. It just needs our initials carving on it somewhere!

Like Joe, Beth & Frannie (The Magic Faraway Tree), or The Famous Five (when including their friends) the children went to Mow Cop again today. Em did a spot of Blackberry picking there and so we have the first fruits which have gone into a couple of Blackberry and Apple crumbles for the freezer. I've put them in an ice cream tub so that they can just be microwaved when we want one. I've had to freeze them as the twins are going away for a week, to Contagious, and they didn't want to miss out. Again I spent an hour individually handling the fruit picking grubs off (soaking in salt water draws them out) although I kept some blackberries with grubs on to give to the hens for their tea with stewed apple peel - what a treat! It really is a revelation to understand how we miss the value of our food because we don't have to handle it individually. The norm is to buy a pack of frozen fruit and just tip it into your mix. It's been a good experience to slow down and get right down to the ingredients.

14th August 2009

In true Enid Blyton Fashion the children packed a pic-nic and ventured into the distance; to Mow Cop for the day. Some fruit, crisps, biscuits and bottles of water were all that was need to to keep them playing hide and seek and rock climbing for almost an entire day (They are 15,15 & 13 so they're big enough to venture off). Now, that's the stuff that summer holidays are made of.

While the children were busy frolicking I put the potatoes and onions out to harden off/dry out before storage. Only the best can be put away for storage, so those that weren't up to standard went straight into the pot and the peelings and chopped off bruisings went into the compost bin, so nothing at all was really wasted. Funnily enough we had Bangers and Mash for tea and we are having leek and potato soup tomorrow- heavy on the potato!

What I really got to appreciate, this afternoon, was how we have lost touch with what we eat. I had to inspect every single potato, individually. This is a huge change from just buying a big bag of spuds. I had to inspect each potato to ensure that no bruised or marred spud will go into the storage bag, as one bad potato will ruin the whole batch. I then had to peel and get ready to use every spud that wouldn't make it into storage, because (after all this tending through the growing season) it wouldn't really do to let a batch go to rot. How on earth do mass producers manage to do the same? On the one hand it's brilliant what they achieve, but perhaps in the long run it isn't so great as we've lost the respect for food produce and the effort that goes into it and so expect perfect results 100% of the time for the cheapest price. Growing my own small crop has brought home to me the effort that is involved in producing food. The mash tasted delicious too - and was cheaper than ever. It just cost me a few hours calm potato handling - very therapeutic.

By the way - all of my pupils passed their exams!!

11th August

I did say that the beans were doing well, but I later noticed that one of the plants was overrun with ants - great clumps of swarming black, clustered around the stem. I've sprayed it with a soapy solution, so hopefully that should sort it. Even so, there are lots of juicy beans. (Pictured is a painting David did of our children growing beans which is available as a fine art print). I'm not sure that we always tick the officially certified organic box but we do try and avoid chemicals simply because we don't want the family (or the hens) eating nasty stuff. We've tried the 'no dig' method of weed control (and moisture retention) but I'm not pleased with the results; when it comes to planting time you have unworkable ground which is also covered in moss and a green algae type coating. Weeding, it seems, is always best controlled by good old fashioned hoeing and on your knees picking and trowelling. Pest control is something else though. Egg shells do a decent job in slug prevention, though not all the time - not a single marigold was left in the front garden. Nasturtiums in the herb garden always get eaten by caterpillars, such that I've given up with them for the time being. My chemistry is not so good, so I'm just learning about Bordeaux mixtures and the like. Horticulture shields a multitude of unsung scientists, I think. (Just not me).

We can't even come close to the smallholding/self sufficiency ethos, but we can nevertheless 'do our bit' by raising healthy crops in some of our own veg and keeping a few hens to collect our own eggs. We were offered a couple of goats, but we don't really have the pasturage and I don't particularly like goat produce. We could consider raising rabbits as food, but I can already hear disapproval from some of my peers. In Swiss Family Suburban I remember walking my friend's goats on a lead. I also remember David's dad happily skinning rabbits in the back yard, years ago. At present the best we can do is get our meat from a nearby abattoir which reduces food miles and also cuts costs.

We finished today by having a family games evening. Our scrabble scores were Daivd & Matt: 178, Me: 175 (3 points!), Em: 159 & Jonti: 151. The combined score was 663, which is quite good when you consider the age range of the players (39 - 13 yrs). After tonight I think we'll have a Scrabble league where we don't double up on a team (eg David & Matt). We'll also be a bit stricter on the rules now. - no haphazard looking up in the dictionary and proper challenges on an incorrect word. This left time for just a couple of games of Uno - Matt & David being the victors again!

10th August 2009

Now that most of the veg is out the soil is quite empty, which seems such a waste - but we didn't have room for winter crops as well (I wonder if we might need to give over some of the lawn next season). However, I've just found a great website: which will provide brassicas for growing over the winter. None of our local nurseries have any winter stock available - I guess now isn't a popular time for selling veg. I'm sure that more choice would be available in a more rural setting - although the www gives us unlimited choice.

Thankfully we don't have to rely entirely on our own groundspace - it'll soon be Blackberry season (just don't collect those on the roadside as exhaust fumes can't be good to eat.) The book I used to make lemon curd also includes a recipe for Blackberry jelly which is delicious (again, just a couple of pots made in the microwave). That and Blackberry and Apple crumble are staple fare in the Autumn. We have space in the freezer which needs filling (with Blackberries) and it'll be more economical to run when it's full (of blackberries). In Swiss Family Suburban I reminisce about the children blackberry picking when they were small, picking (and eating) was ok but cleaning the berries didn't seem as appetising (sorry!) until they learned that salt drew out the grubs and killed them - all was gusto after that!

Last week the children visited a friend who needed to cull an infestation of feral pigeons by means of an air rifle - poison being unsuitable should they die elsewhere and take the poison with them. I can hear protestations, but an infestation simply must be dealt with. Why is it ok to kill grubs in berries but not pigeons? Once they had perfected their marksmanship on targets and coke cans a swift shot was the surest and safest way. I couldn't participate as I can't wink with my left eye and so couldn't see down the sight to shoot right handed! It created a desire for us to try fresh wood pigeon pie (which is very tasty) but it's just not possible here as we can't risk shooting across gardens - the gun doesn't belong to us either. Thwarted yet again!

9th August 2009

Began the day feeling jaded and oppressed, but an afternoon in the garden cleared away all the clouds. Now most of the veg has gone we let the hens have the full garden to roam in. It was so therapeutic, having chucks pecking around your feet as you hoe and weed - they follow you around like little vacuum cleaners, clearing away bugs and the odd worm. However, "A Grand Day Out" soon became "The Great Escape". We had woven bamboo canes in between the lower branches of the privet hedge to close any gaps (to try keeping the garden looking 'au natural') but the hens (and neighbouring cats) had nudged them aside and had wandered into next door's garden. Thankfully some corn was tempting enough to bring them back. Back to chicken wire, I guess. I also gave the hen house a thorough cleaning, which always is a satisfaction.

For tea we had a stir fry using some of the onion we gathered from our veg patch - it was lovely and sharp in flavour.

Musing over the day we discussed how we could have 'blown the cobwebs away' by donning our smart clothes and going for a coffee and browse around the shops at Trentham Gardens (we can't walk around the lake now, without paying a fortune in entry fees). Instead, we put on our scruffs and tidied the garden. Eating ice-cream with the hens pecking around next to us was cheaper and, I think, calmer. (My sister did visit Trentham today, as she has bought an annual pass, and reports that it was very busy).

The final touch to the day was collecting the dead and dried bluebells from the front garden, and arranging them in the coal scuttle (until the winter comes and we fill it with coal) with a ribbon to finish the display.

6th August 2009

Unbelievably, I didn't sleep at all last night! Now I don't think that I can attribute absolutely NO sleep to two cups of coffee mid-afternoon, yesterday. I just can't explain it, it's a new phenomenon to me.

I received a letter from a friend in yesterday's post (which also contained some lovely fabric - William Morris's 'Strawberry Thief"), so during the night I took the opportunity of replying. Actually, it was really pleasant to have some extended peace and quiet to gather my thoughts and to write a letter. I also got a considerable amount of Swiss Family Suburban typed and ready for a last proof read and fiddle.

I was really surprised to find that the sun was rising and the milkman was delivering to our doorstep. That's such an archetypal British sound of homey domesticity. By that time it didn't seem worth going to bed, so I thought I'd wait up and let the hens out. I've no doubt that I'll soon be 'running out of steam' and will need a nap. It looks like I'm on shifts today.

Not surprisingly I haven't achieved much today. However I have finished making the carrots, ready to give to the veg stall tomorrow. I've placed a label on them advertising their nutritional value (High in Fibre!) I hope the stall holders enjoy the sentiment, though it will be hilarious if it falls flat. I can just picture Em handing the basket over and them saying "Oh, erm ... thanks." What a hoot!

Em has had a great day rummaging through button boxes to sew on her jeans and tops (again). Getting the button box out is a real experience, not only because it's so tactile, but we still have buttons which belonged to my Grandma. We decided to ditch schoolwork today as we simply had to have an arts and crafts fest - it seems we can't have a summer holiday without one.

I think we are all exhausted today: Jonti stayed at my mum's last night and after a disturbed night he was up and out at 6am to do a one-off market stall to sell off some old stock.

I did exert myself earlier and harvested the onions. Once again, the crop was moderate - not especially big, but not too small. I expect that being trampled on repeatedly didn't assist matters. Thankfully the beans are doing extremely well. We had some with tea the other night - very nice!

4th August 2009

Yesterday I visited a friend to take some 'recycled' clothing that Matt had grown out of. They were lovely clothes, most of which he had hardly worn and I hate waste, and it does seem so wasteful not to pass on nice clothing. Unwittingly I enjoyed two mugs of coffee (which must have not been de-caff) and now, eight hours later, I still can't sleep. I'm beginning to realise how much caffeine can interrupt your sleep pattern - though it didn't used to.

Alternatively, it could be because I spent the evening re-working the 1st draft of Swiss Family Suburban, (does that make it the 2nd draft now?) so perhaps my mind was still whirring from that - although sitting on the sofa, under a blanket, listening to the rain is ample compensation.

Last night David and Matt burned the infected potato foliage. David thought he would make a scientific demonstration of how petrol and petrol fumes react to the naked flame. Using a stick with the end wrapped in burning paper he could safely ignite the fumes. Instantly there was a loud "WUMPH" and the flames shot out of the holes in the sides of the container about six feet across. I bet you don't get to do that in the science lab at school!

After a late night/early morning I'm uber tired now. David will be reading Sourcery and I usually do the ironing as we listen, but I think I'll let the ironing pile mount up a bit and sit and knit carrots instead. (We are knitting some carrots as a surprise display for our local, friendly veg stall).

2nd August 2009

Because of all the rain (which I do enjoy) I think the potatoes have got blight. When I cut off the affected leaves I hope the crop will remain healthy. On top of that, something has trampled the onions down in the night. How disappointing! I hope we still get a harvest of sorts in due season....

On reflection we decided to harvest the potatoes early rather than risk the tubers getting infected. It was blight that caused the historic Irish potato famine in 1845. We did harvest a decent amount of spuds but the thrill and satisfaction was somewhat lacking.

It's becoming glaringly apparent, by it's omission, that I'm not getting my music practise done. Over the summer holidays I get carried away by domestic projects and miss the important stuff. It's like the pitcher which, when filled with just water, leaves no room for anything else. Whereas, first place in the big stones then there's room for small stones. There is also room for some sand and then a little water too: Do the big/important things first and the little things will fit in around it. I still haven't mastered putting this into practice. If I do some practice first I'm sure I'll still fit everything else around it.

On the subject of practice, I'm still waiting for my pupil's exam results.... eek!