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.

14th May 2011

Some years ago I got so fed up of continually being asked, several times by each child in rota it seemed, "What's for tea?" that I wrote it up on a chalk board and refused to answer (or at least after the third time!) However, after looking at today's report I'm not sure that I've quite got the point!

Out of interest, the chalk board was a bargain as whatever should have been stuck on the blue centrepiece at the top was missing, so I stuck that heart on instead (which was on the gift tag of a mug and saucer given to me by a guest from Romania who was staying in our house for a week) and obviously something is missing from the left hand corner. I think it cost 99p. "Make do and mend" as ever. I always feel like I've failed if I just buy something!

5th May 2011

I do wonder if acting as reference models continually throughout the children's childhood might have had a long enduring effect (good or bad is debatable). The other day Jonti (aged 17) accosted me in the kitchen wearing a colander on his head and brandishing a slotted spoon in a menacing manner. The reason, it unfolded, was that I was the dragon that was guarding the newly made chocolate cake and I needed defeating! Years ago Matt posed for reference for a painting for a Fantasy card game that David was working on where he was pretending to be a soldier charging on a rocking horse wearing kitchen ware as his armour and weaponry.

The cake in question is an adaptation of a chocolate digestive cake which is very like Rocky Road - basically melted dark choc, broken biscuits, chocolate buttons and a new addition of mini marsh mallows chilled in the fridge. Yummy!

Em and I absolutely love the colander in question - which seems a little out of proportion, but it's so very 'country kitchen'. Em and I refer to it as 'playing house', or the old fashioned phrase would be home making. In reality it's trying to be creative on a budget - a £1.99 which just so happens to tie together the theme in the kitchen based around original 70's tiles. It just matches the table runner that I made - with the all important wooden button detail.

27th March 2011

David took the kids along to the Donington Motorbike race circuit as he had an exhibition stand there for his artwork. Really it's just an excuse to admire motorbikes and eat burgers - though we did pack a picnic and plenty of fruit. It's at times like this that you have to admire whoever invented instant tea. David and Matt much prefer tea and Jonti likes coffee, whereas Em mostly drinks hot water (what a good girl!). How on earth do you make a flask for all that? Now the problem is solved: A huge flask of hot water, Cappuchino sachets or instant coffee mixed with coffee mate and instant tea - sorted!

7th January 2011

Today is the twins 17th birthday. It seems that they've suddenly grown up! I guess it's fitting, therefore, for this to be the first year that they won't be celebrating their birthday together. Em is going to visit friends at the Wirral and for a Wedding there and Jonti is happy to content himself with a take-away with his younger brother. We did get the morning together but that was quite hectic as Em was having her hair died pink! We did the family party and birthday cake last night as this is one tradition that can't be skimped. We've never really gone in for the huge pressy thing (finances being only a part of the reasoning for that) but the children have always expected a home made cake with some stunning artwork/design by dad.

In previous years my sponge cake has always looked really flat - even though it tasted fluffy enough. I've tried all sorts of things to make the cake rise properly: I've weighed the eggs to correspond to all other measurements, I've sieved and sieved the flour, I've bought expensive flour - all to no avail. This year I had a brainwave - perhaps the mix simply wasn't enough for the tins. Hey presto! By using 1.5 x mix the cake was huge. It's only taken me 17 years to find it out. The only problem is that, now the cake is properly risen, there isn't a flat surface for David to paint his designs on!

This year David painted a picture of Pumpkin Jack for Jonti (who loves "The Nightmare before Christmas") and for Em he painted a picture of our doggie. One of my favourites is when David painted the Fucshia Flower Fairy, when Em was 7. (Wow, 10 years ago!) I'm thinking that I'd like to make an album (or scrap book) of all the different cakes for their 18th birthday. I'm a few years missing though. I'm thinking they're in amongst all of David's photographic reference material, which means wading through hundreds of photos in the loft.

2nd December 2010

Today is Matt's birthday. We don't tend to buy big presents, or spend too much money - for obvious reasons. But we do have a tradition where we make a cake and David decorates it. In previous years, when the children were very small, we'd stay up late into the night to sculpt and craft 3D designs. David once made a cake of Frank the Tortoise from Aardman's Creature Comforts for his dad. We chose Frank because we thought it looked like he wore his dad's false teeth! However, as the children got older and stayed up later, and things got busier we simply didn't have the luxury of time and so David devised a quick way of getting an original design by simply painting on a Victoria sponge cake covered with Royal icing using paintbrushes and food colouring. The problem is coming up with innovative designs year after year.

This year David painted the bbfc logo, as Matt can now come and see 15 certificate movies, with PS3 Zombies from a 15 cert game. Sorted for another year!

28th November 2010

Well, here comes the tidal wave! Em's Grade 7 piano date is through, we've had concerts (ranging from Symphony Orchestra to Scottish Cayleigh's) every night this week. I've still had pupils and David is getting busy with the pre-Christmas shoppers.http://billyart.co.uk/ It's all good stuff, just no time inbetween to enjoy it. The chip shop knows us well enough by now, the slow cooker gets the odd stew out (when I've time to peel veg) and the ironing pile is learning to wait. I've just got to learn to take it in my stride. The blessing is that, as everything really has come at once, we should settle down again quite quickly. I hope so!!!!

12th November 2010

I know that the timetable has been hotting up since the start of term, but I know life's going to get a whole lot busier. In previous years I've got into quite a state as, since exams are looming and concert season really hots up, the house gets messier and our diet gets worse. You'd think that if we were out of the house more the place would stay tidier, but as we 'drop and go' you begin to lose the carpet. Also, as we dash more and more frequently, and as the time we have here gets prioritised we tend to grab a bite when we can and then call at the local chippy on the way home at 10 o'clock at night.

I'm trying to make myself remember that it's only for a short while, the ironing pile will keep, surface clutter doesn't matter for a bit and chips is ok for a period of time (preferably not every night - though the kids would disagree).

21st September 2010

I've noticed how we spend our days completing seemingly meaningless tasks, and yet - in hindsight - it is these very dull tasks that matter most. (Hence a plain grey square for an image!) I always remember a quote that "Though a man may travel the globe he must do it one step at a time, and it by these steps that our life is measured." For example; I spent this morning being a 'field assistant' for a friend of mine who is conducting an degree science experiment/dissertation on the quality of soil in allotments founded on old industrial sites. We spent the morning traipsing around an allotment gathering trowel full after trowel full of soil from various depths at various locations on the allotment. It's difficult to connect this morning's activities to what will become a scientific table of soil analysis and chemical read outs - but without the spade work (literally) there would be no journal or report on what could be going into someone's veg.

On a more every day level; the endless routine of preparing meals results in whether my family is fit or obese, or the fact that I sit and listen to the same piano pieces and scales all over again means that my children will gain their music qualification and hopefully gain them a good University place, or my marking yet another maths paper results in a good GCSE equivalent for my kids. Similarly, making time for my own piano practice (ahem!! moving swiftly on) - when I've really had enough for the day - should mean I maintain my own skills and gain some sense of personal satisfaction. Even more mundane is that fact that I keep washing, ironing and cleaning - in addition to teaching my children and a fair few of everybody elses - means that my home is clean and (reasonably) tidy.

In reality family life isn't very 'shiny' (or at least ours isn't and I haven't any spare energy to pretend!), but if we all roll our sleeves up and get 'stuck in' whilst trying to keep the peace and maintain loving relationships (which is just as much hard work) - we should make it through pretty whole.

1st September 2010

I know that the Chinese have a very fine tea tradition whereby the constant sloshing of tea around the teapot brightens the burnished glaze, but I think we also have such a tea tradition, if not so refined and perhaps only found in the older generation. If I ask my Great Aunt and Uncle if they would like a cup of tea making they reply "Aye, ah'l have a vessel - just 'alf a cup", or, "Aye, ah'l have a swaller". My Great Aunt has her drink in a strangely mismatched cup and saucer. The saucer has a kind of apple leaf design on it and the cup, which is the tiniest of cups, has a picture of a teddy bear holding several colourful balloons. It really is a tiny cup, so " 'alf a cupful" really is nothing at all. No matter how little tea is to be consumed it is always in a stainless steel pot where, magically, a fresh tea bag is always waiting - and they always insist on using only 'Yorkshire Tea'. Never would they consent to blunging a tea bag into the cup.

David and I used to have a glass teapot which had a mesh strainer inside for tea leaves. We loved that pot and used it constantly, until it fell apart. Since then I've really gone off tea, I just can't drink it. Jonti is the same - he used to love Earl Grey tea but now only drinks coffee. He used to drink black coffee but he found that it is detrimental to your teeth and so now consents to add milk. David and Matt are the only tea drinkers in our family now (Em only drinks water - how healthy!) and we use a teapot now and then, especially if there are plenty of guests, but the institution of the teapot isn't held in such honour. I think this is a sad lack and I've put two sizes of teapot near to the kettle - a one mug pot and a bigger one, but they often get forgotten.

I remember when Em was small we knitted a tea cosy by making a square in stocking stitch, with holes at the top. We threaded a crochet 'string' through the holes to draw the top together and embroidered the outline of a tea leaf in the bottom right hand corner to match the colour of the chord. Somehow we just aren't the tea cosy type and it seemed a bit unhygienic to have a tea-sploshed fabric lying about the kitchen. Once again I feel a sense of loss, but can't explain why.

19th July 2010

Over the weekend was my 40th birthday! We'd arranged to have a garden party and, fortunately, the good weather held - although it was a bit chilly. It was so lovely to have so many friends and family come and visit, although it was very tiring. The kids consented to ditch school on Friday morning to attack the garden, weeding and generally tidying (making the most of a dry spell). I was so glad that I managed to convert the old veg plot into a herb garden - albeit a very basic one. It does lend a certain ambience to the garden and we all spent the morning of my birthday in preparation; I'd made and 8ft summer bunting which we fastened to the washing line with wooden pegs, we placed garden chess and dominoes about the garden. A neighbour made me two beautiful flower arrangements with Lillies (my favourite flower) as table centrepieces and we spread linen table cloths (from the days when my Grandad had a catering business) over the picnic table. One of the children's friends had made some lovely scones with strawberries and chocolate drizzled over them, Billy was manning a formidable BBQ and we loaned a fridge and a hot water urn for various drink options. I spent the rest of the morning cooking copious amounts of pizzas and then it was time for guests to arrive. The invitations said to pop in between 3.30 and 10pm but the last guests left at 12.45. The garden party image gave way to an impromptu brazier and jumpers loaned to all guests. It was a really special day.

I didn't have time to open any of my cards or presents until tea time the next day, so I had a full birthday weekend. The children (mostly Em I suspect - birthday presents generally do seem to be in the care of the ladies) had made me a basket full of "brown paper packages tied up with strings" which was really special. Some of the packages included packets of Monster Munch crisps (another friend gave me a packet of those, oh dear - my reputation goes before me), a cuddly lion whom we named 'Rudyard' and some Cola Cubes. I did share! A friend of mine bought me a really strange children's story book back from her Geography field trip in Iceland (literally at the site of THE volcano) which was all about Chickens, so David read aloud to us all that evening, which was very entertaining.

23rd May 2010

After all this glorious sunshine we finally managed our first barbeque of the year. It was an impromptu affair, but I think it turned out for the best that way. Obviously everybody else would have the same opinion and so I knew that there wouldn't be a single bread roll in the supermarket, so we made do with what was to hand. As such we were a little more creative and it resulted in a far nicer meal. We had chicken, bacon and mushroom kebabs, and also chicken strips wrapped in bacon secured with a cocktail stick. Of course there were the obligatory sausages (even the dog got a taste!) and the lack of bread rolls made the affair less stodgy and overfilling. There were also chicken burgers (we had no beef burgers in stock) as well as salad, home made garlic bread and tortilla chips with cool salsa or hummus. For dessert Em had made cornflake cakes with marshmallows and we made fruit kebabs with melon and apple interspersed with marshmallows drizzled with lemon juice and sprinkled with grated chocolate. Yummy!

Ordinarily Swing Ball is the order of the day at a barbeque, but as ours is broken (left over from last year) the boys just threw a tennis ball about. This got us talking about the ball games we used to play. 'Kerbie' is universal, although my children have never played this as we live on a main road (though I discovered that our council have banned ball games on any street - how silly. I doubt it is much enforced.) I remembered that I used to spend hours playing with a tennis ball in a sock, which everybody else thought was hilarious - it does sound quite silly now, but it really was fun. If you stand with your back to a wall and build up a rhythm of swinging the sock so the ball hits the wall to the left and then right you can build up speed and then start bouncing it under your legs - quite theraputic, honest! Nobody else had ever heard of such a thing and it made me sound as if I was from some bygone era where "we made our own enjoyment" - perhaps I am, though I'm not that old!

23rd September 2009

The long desire for bagged and cooked game has finally been quenched. We were invited to our friend's home for a meal to find that we were to whet our appetite with fresh wood pigeon! Apparently the bird was foolish enough to kill itself by flying into a window so all that was required was the presence of mind to bag the bird and prepare it. The boys have long shared the desire to shoot their own game. Unfortunately our garden isn't large enough to provide shooting ground and it's obviously unsafe to shoot across gardens etc. so this was the only chance of trying fresh pigeon.

We discovered that wood pigeon has a very strong, rich flavour and only a small serving was required - which is a well because there really isn't much meat on the bird. (You only eat the breast.) I'm led to understand that too much pigeon is undigestable and so pigeon pie has only a small amount of pigeon in it, the rest being supplemented with bacon or similar. Presumably the pigeon infuses its flavour into the other meats.

All in all it was highly exciting!

14th September 2009

After the choir residential Matt is exhausted - he stayed up into the small hours chatting with the 'big boys' (which is what it's all about really). He fell asleep on Em's lap last night and is really tired today. Nevertheless, it's 'up and at it' with a full day's bookwork. There's lots to get done and the timetable will really fall apart as Christmas draws nearer - crazy concert season! So, best get as much as possible done now. Jonti and Em finish their GCSE equivalent (ICCE)this academic year and Matt is registering to start his course this week (a year early) - so it's time to get stuck in again.

We've discovered a 'new' loaf - David was creative director for this one: It's a Walrus and Monkey nut loaf - high in fibre!


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.

31st July 2009

For breakfast had home-baked bread with honey from a friend's beehive. Mmmm! It sounds like the sort of breakfast Mother would make for Joe, Beth and Frannie in The Magic Faraway Tree, except mine was accompanied by a mug of coffee, not a glass of milk. The bread recipe is finally sorted, as the one in the recipe book didn't work at all. This one works for me:

1 cup (to the brim) water (in this instance a cup being a 350ml measuring beaker)
3 cups flour
a blob of margerine
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1.5 tsp dried yeast


As the children are older now they are having to do some schoolwork during the holidays, especially Jonti and Em. They finish their GCSE equivalent this next academic year and it doesn't seem wise to take seven weeks off (seven!!) and then have a crazy rush to get finished, particularly as Jonti needs to finish in time for a City Youth Brass competition in Belgium. Jonti and Em are going to 'Contagious', so they will get a break. Nevertheless, I do miss the holiday art projects we did when they were younger (though Em is maintaining the tradition by having a holiday scrapbook project - all about chickens).

Whilst the children were working I finally completed the first draft of my book Swiss Family Suburban. It's a sure sign that I'm moving into the older generation as I prefer to print off and proof read via a hard copy. To blow away the cobwebs of a morning behind the computer I made some lemon curd from an ace recipe book, Luxurious Jams, by Sonia Allison, where you make jams etc. in the microwave. It turned out a gorgeous bright yellow as Felicity and Verity are giving us 'double yolkers' at the moment. With the leftover lemon I made a lemon cake: Best not to think about how much sugar has gone into our diet this afternoon! At least it's just sugar, not additives and preservatives too.

26th July 2009

I think I've nearly perfected my bread recipe to make a lighter loaf - except I have to 'jiggle' the water quantities a bit. Each time I check on the leavening process I think of the quote "Is the bread ris yet?" It's the sort of thing Hannah, from Little Women, would say, but I'm certain it's not really from that book. So, where is it from?