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.

27th May 2011

I don't know if it's because I've been spending so much time with old, ill and dying relatives (Great Uncle Reg died earlier this week) but I've really been thinking that it's time to DO some of the things that we've been waiting to do once the kids are older and my responsibilities at home are a little less 'hands on'. I'm certainly not complaining, because I truly believe that family should care for family (at least, if not others too as far as we are able) but I do feel conscious that there are certain things I would like to do before I'm too old to enjoy them....

So, we've bought a motorbike!! David used to have a bike before we were married but my mum didn't allow me on it - I think motorbikes are like Marmite, you either love them or hate them. When we got married we couldn't afford a bike and then we had the kiddies. We've been married for nearly 20 years and I've only been on a bike twice, so I thought it was high time to get going. We don't go on holidays so we thought we could stretch the finances for a second hand bike. We visited our local Triumph dealer http://www.staffordshiretriumph.co.uk/newbikeoffers.htm (it has to be a Triumph). They have always been so helpful giving David access to bikes to photograph for reference for his artwork (which coincidentally is mostly motorbikes at the moment http://www.billyart.co.uk - it's in the air!) and it just so happened that they had a Bonneville in, in British Racing Green colours - perfect. Just after we'd bought it they had five telephone calls enquiring about the bike. His (its) name is Wiggins - a jolly British name for a jolly British bike.

That night it was like seeing Donkey Rides up and down Blackpool beach as David gave the kids and our friend rides on the new bike. Everybody had my leather jacket etc. on (rescued from the loft where it was waiting in hope). On Tuesday David and I took the afternoon off (and I took a holiday from choir, much to Em's disdain) and we went for our first ride. It was amazing! We rode to Nuneaton, the scenic route, to have a brew with our friends there and then we came home via The Red Lion at Checkley (http://www.facebook.com/redlioncheckley) for a gorgeous meal. The patrons are great guys, and have bought David's prints to put in the corridor of the pub, and the food is amazing. However, after 150 miles I was a little saddle sore!

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!

11th March 2011

Em and I needed a bit of a fabric fix so we trekked off to Abakahn's (http://www.abakhan.co.uk/acatalog/Hanley.html). We only ever look in the bargain section and we found this amazing fabric. Our intention was to make some pyjama trousers. The BIG mistake that I made was using a pattern I'd not tried before (I'd thrown out the paper pattern that I'd drawn out by hand in a mad tidying fit!) and we tried twice before I realised that the pattern was for age 8, not size 8. It's a good job that the fabric was only 99p a metre! Instead Em used it to patch inside some ripped jeans and embroidered around the edges and over the top. It looks really good - it's just not pyjama trousers. We went back and bought some more to try again another time - when I can sort out a decent template!

20th February 2011

David was booked to exhibit his artwork at the Adelaide Bike show in Belfast, N. Ireland and, with an effort of great courage, I decided to go with him and leave the children at home. Of course they are more than old enough - they could even be leaving home next year, but it still takes some effort. Even though they don't need childcare they arranged their own and invited our friends round for 99% of the time. It seems they had a great time, but I gather their diet slipped a little and I suspect that the PS3 figured quite heavily in the schedule.

As far as we were concerned it was quite a busy weekend at the exhibition and unfortunately I am totally ignorant regarding the racers. Quite a few came to speak to us and I eventually had to apologise and say that I really didn't know who they were. I did enjoy having the evening to myself when David was in the restaurant having biker man chats - a hot bath and CSI TV - great. We stayed in Carrikfergus which was nice, not that we had much time to do the tourist thing. Apparently David's dad was stationed there when he was in the army years ago.

11th February 2011

Well, I guess we're well and truly back into term time mayhem. It's not without its perks, though. The children all play in a folk band run by the City Music and Performing Arts Service, called Rootz and they were booked to play at a Barn Dance in Longton. They usually get a pie and pea supper but sadly not this time. They did however get a break from playing and managed a few dances themselves. Any excuse to wear a silly hat!

12th January 2011

Last night we started back to choir rehearsals. This spring we'll be singing Faure's Requiem, Le Cantique de Jean Racine & Messe Sollennelle by Vierne - YUMMY!! What makes it SO extra special - or even more extra, extra special is that my daughter is singing them alongside me. The music is just sublime, which just about makes up for us having to wear a truly awful jacket as part of our choir uniform. It absolutely buries Em. When she first tried hers on we had such a hoot as she'd never seen (or heard of) shoulder pads - very Dallas/80's. Of course, they were swiftly removed. Hopefully, because we're singing a requiem we might just be wearing a plain black dress, which is a little more palatable.

This all has such a lovely symmetry to it. I joined the choir over 20 years ago when my piano teacher/ friend invited me along. She is now Em's teacher/friend and we all sing together. The fact that we're singing such a beautiful programme is the cherry on top. Even Jonti will be keen to listen, as the last movement of the Requiem plays in the final episode of Morse - when Morse has his heart attack. Some years ago we did a Morse excursion around Oxford and Jonti and I stood on the very spot Morse collapsed. I'm not sure we were supposed to walk on the grass - oops! What really made the day was that, coincedentally, we saw Kevin Whately filming an episode of Lewis just by the Radcliffe Camera. Whaa hooo!

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.

26th December 2010

This year I've really changed in my approach to Christmas. On the whole I don't thoroughly enjoy the season; there's too much pressure to conform to the whole present thing, and also there's such a lot of pressure to make sure nobody gets to feel left out. We always make sure we stay in touch with our family and do all we can to care, but it's a bit much when you've got to see to everybody all in one day - as everybody expects something of you on Christmas day. All in all the true meaning gets thoroughly fogged. This year we decided to not to the present thing at all but put the money towards the whole family going out for a meal (except we did buy the boys a new shirt and Em a little cardi/jacket to wear on Christmas day) - we've never done the big pressy thing for a variety of reasons. Em thinks I'm having a mid-life crisis, as in previous years we've really not bothered about the big roast dinner. Four generations met together for a meal, including my 88 year old Great Aunt and Uncle - it was worth it just to see Aunty H in her sparkly clip-on earrings again!

Not only that, but I completely broke with previous years taste and went for a black and silver Christmas tree theme in the lounge, whilst keeping everywhere else traditional. I don't like too many decorations but I was thrilled with our new design (in the sales of course). Jonti's girlfriend came for the day and the girls all set to designing and decorating, with Christmas music and mince pies to maintain morale. Jonti made our evening meal so we could stick at it. I was thrilled with the result. Even the dog's house had a couple of baubles hanging in it. My friend bought him a hat for Christmas day - not sure what he made of it?!

12th December 2010

Last night Em and I sang Handel's Messiah at the Victoria Hall. It was such a wonderful experience! I have sung this before (once with Ted Heath, ex. PM conducting) but I think this was the most enjoyable performance yet. Not only did having Em at my side enhance the experience, but having Oliver Neal Parker conducting our choir, the organist and the orchestra was so great. He is now our regular conductor, so we are accustomed to his conducting (and he knows our foibles well!) whereas we have previously had guest conductors take over for the final performance - which I always find a bit hairy. At one performance (mentioning no names) the conductor couldn't find the altos from the sopranos, nor could he find the down beat. I enjoyed last night so much. The organist is a friend of mine, he played at our wedding. He played Romance from Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik with his wife playing flute, and he played War March of the Priests as we processed out of the church. It's a vast and awesome sound from the Organ in the Victoria Hall - with an orchestra to boot!

I'm always impressed how Messiah has really become the music of the people. Apparently there was always a performance in the local chapel. I wonder how they did it? Nobody (or hardly any of the choristers) could read music and the conductor was self taught, but it always gained a good reputation. There's a phenomenon of "Random Acts of Culture" where they burst into the Hallelujah chorus in various shopping centres, with the choir dotted among the shoppers. Unfortunately our local shopping centre doesn't have a pipe organ at it's centre! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wp_RHnQ-jgU

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).

17th October 2010

Last night Em and I sang Mendelsohnn's Elijah. It's some years since I sang this and I'd forgotten how good it is. I realise it perhaps isn't as accessible as Messiah - but it is worth listening to. There were a few gaffs, in that the soloists didn't realise who was singing what, and the bass stood up to sing an Aria at the same time as the Soprano - yikes. Nevertheless, it was a very good evening. You just can't beat live music, and participating is an extra bonus. Em only joined the choir this September and so has only had a few weeks rehearsal. This really is a major work - rather like a musical version of the old TV epics, so she did really well to get to grips with it in such a short time. In true Calvin and Hobbes fashion - character building! (Not to mention good for her UCAS entry).

2nd October 2010

Em entered a class in the Biddulph Music Festival, and won! She won the Volvo Trophy (not sure why it's called that, I guess it's to do with sponsorship). The trophy is huge. She played the Chopin flute Variations, which is very impressive. She did work really hard, so I'm glad she did well. I think, from the photo, it's evident that she takes all this very seriously!?

Jonti keeps busy with his trips to Macclesfield and now he also joins Alderley Edge's orchestra. It's quite nice to have a run out and a coffee to coincide with rehearsals. It's just a matter of stemming the panic that sets in when things get so busy. This academic year has hardly begun and the calendar is beginning to look like a spider fell in an ink pot and crawled all over the page. I guess it's just a matter of times and seasons - and this is a busy one. I suppose that in a few years from now we'll have the luxury of space either side of events - so : Take a deep breath and get on with it! On this trip it happily coincided with 'The Northern Women's Convention' which was pretty much en route. David played chauffeur and Em and I, with a friend, caught up with some friends from the Wirral during the day.

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.

15th September 2010

Last night Em auditioned to join my choir (in addition to singing in the City Youth Choir) and was placed with me as a 2nd Soprano. It's great that we can sit together, but it raises some quite ludicrous seating issues. There isn't really any more space on the row so a few of us moved up to the front row, but this left my friend Mae behind. Unfortunately there are those who are really nasty if they don't sit by a particular person and insist that others sit in a specific place. We'll have to give serious thought and split into two's! Perhaps Em can move to the back and sit by Mae. How silly! It's just like being back at school.

The reality is that it doesn't matter who you sit next to as there is absolutely no time to chat during rehearsal and then you can move and chat during the short break time. You really are there just to sing. Em has just a few short weeks to get to grips with "Elijah" - no problem.

I do have a dilemma; David is considering a business trip to Northern Ireland, to sell his motorbike prints and I could go with him - making it into a mini holiday (we've not had a holiday in over 16 years). However, I'd be missing our Handel's "Messiah" concert! I have sung this before but I was really looking forward to singing this with our 'new' conductor, Oliver Neal-Parker, and with Em joining too. Hence the dilemma ...

P.S. I love today's Google logo marking the occasion of Agatha Christie's 120th birthday! We are real mystery nuts; I was so proud when Jonti solved the murder at a Murder Mystery Night after only two clues! (He has read a fair few Poirot mysteries).

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.

24th August 2010

All the children have gone away for the week, to Contagious. The twins went last year and this year Matt is old enough to join them. This means that, for the first time in nearly 17 years, it's just me and David at home (oh, and the poochie). The irony is that David is just SO busy working towards a deadline that he is in his studio for about 14 hours each day, so in reality it's just me and the dog. The days are still so full and busy though, so I hardly notice the time go by - but I am enjoying the quiet. I've listened to a few audio books as I've cleaned out a cupboard or done some ironing - and I haven't had to hit 'pause' once. Usually I have to pause about 20 times an hour, so I've enjoyed uninterrupted concentration. I haven't attempted any filing or marking yet.

15th August 2010

Yipee, it's holiday time! I always stack up a huge list of jobs, which is totally unrealistic, to complete during the summer holidays. I always feel that I've wasted my time somehow, if I haven't ridded out and cleaned every imaginable cupboard and drawer and redecorated most of the house whilst catching up on a years worth of music practise. Of course, I don't manage anything like that amount. I guess anything is better than nothing.

I notice how, at times, I only feel that it's valid to enter details of particular note in this 'diary', and yet surely it's the hundreds of things which don't get entered that matter most. The fact that on any particular day there can be anything up to 10 people for lunch at any given moment, or that the hens are nicely cleaned out, the dishes are done and the ironing pile is eliminated (whilst listening to an Agatha Christie audio book) must truly matter. Surely these are the things that make a house a home. The fact that Em and her friend can sit in the cooling evening, wrapped up in a blanket on the bench in the herb garden
is important to me. Or that her friend can become a semi-lodger for the entire summer holiday, or that I can come home and find a couple of extra boys have taken root for the day must surely matter. Although it's important to make sure we study hard and work to do our best, it isn't that by which we measure our days - is it?

Surely it's important that we've spent the day being a family, being hospitable and working together, and it's from that we can build skills and character as we grow (us adults as well as the children). These last few months have been a constant sally to and fro between Doctors, Dentists, Orthodontists, Opticians, Vets and Hospitals - between 3 children, 3 ageing parents and 2 very aged relatives how else can I spend my time? When mum's are at work all the time who fills this gap? The fact that Great Aunt Hilda got to and from the hospital intact, and Matt and Em's glasses now fit must be of first importance. It's hard to remember that sometimes....

2nd August 2010

David and I spent the weekend restoring an old garden bench, given to us by my Great Uncle (who didn't realise quite how rotten and dilapidated it really was). It would definitely have been quicker to buy a new one, and probably cheaper - but that wouldn't create the same deep sense of satisfaction. We spent until past midnight one night stripping it down and then spent a very pleasant hour the next day searching out a strange green undercoat paint and an antique black to stipple a distressed effect. Some of the bolts had so rusted on that David had to grind them off, to everyone's amusement - bonfire night comes early this year! The end result is beautiful and it's so lovely to see Em and her friend sitting in the herb garden on said bench.

We also painted our old kitchen table and chairs with a "William Morris Blue" eggshell paint that we found whilst looking for the bench paint. I absolutely love the arts and crafts movement (see the William Morris cushions I made in the crafts section) and I think that a distressed effect works well with the original (old) tiles and colour scheme of the kitchen - I'm thrilled with the result and I thoroughly enjoyed spending the time 'restoring' with David. There is an old bird table which my Great Uncle has also given to me (which I think we gave to him on some occasion about 20 odd years ago - there is a plaque which is obscured by years of wood treatment). Once again it is rotten, almost beyond reckoning (obviously not enough wood treatment) but I can't quite face just tipping another prospective project. David isn't quite convinced and thinks it may be beyond repair. For the moment we are out of time, as he has too much work on to embark on a project, so I'm tucking it away for now and biding my time.

23rd July 2010

One of the children's friends are hand rearing a nest of baby squirrels. They were found in her grandparent's flue (not safe at all!) I know that squirrels are technically vermin, and as such we don't really need to be saving any, but it really has been lovely to see them grow. They began with no fur and their eyes closed and then they grew the sweetest whiskers. The children said they grew better whiskers than their dad could manage! Getting a bottle which they could drink from seemed a real problem but the parents are determined nature lovers and stuck to the task. With this friend Matt also went to help feed a snake (defrosted rat!) - I'm less keen to gain photographic documentation of that event!

Over this weekend Jonti and Em are in Belgium with the City Music Service, performing with the City Youth Brass Band and the City Youth Flute Choir. They are performing at various venues, one of which includes the Menin Gate, where The Last Post is played every evening in memory of soldiers in unknown graves. What a wonderful opportunity. Something like that will stay with you for the rest of your life, we are so blessed for the twins to have the chance to go there.

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.

12th July 2010

At the children's concert tonight Em was nominated for the Elaine Beaumond Award. This is an annual award that was bequeathed to the City Music and Performing Arts Service to reward loyalty, hard work and commitment. It was a real surprise when the Folk Group leader told Em that she had been nominated. The fun of it was that, when they introduced Em onto the stage, they didn't give a review of her attendance, or her academic and musical achievements. Instead they introduced her of having a love of buttons and for being known for sewing buttons onto all her clothes and bags. Praise indeed!

30th June 2010

The children gave their hair an extra brush (or at least a brush) tonight as the City Youth Wind Orchestra were having a group photo taken at rehearsal tonight. What a lovely surprise to find that it was their Uncle who was the photographer. As such we got a few ad-hoc extra photo sittings; individual shots with their instruments, a pic of all three children with their instruments (Jonti had his jazz brushes) and Jonti also got a lovely pic with his girlfriend. I'm looking forward to seeing the proofs.

I remember when the children were in school, I never could remember when the class photos were to be taken. Consequently all the pictures of the kids were very 'authentic'. Em's fringe was always frizzled and the boys were stereotypically 'boyish'. I was always amazed how some mums could arrange being on hand to brush their child's hair just before the shot. I wondered if they would manage if they had three children in three different infant classes - I never could! On reflection I'm glad - at least the photos actually represent the children as they were, not a sterile and emotionless representation. Em, at 16, still shows considerable reluctance to use a brush (just like her mother) - you just make use of the 'grunge' fashion and it works quite well!

28th May 2010

After our discussion of ball games (see 23/05) the boys have suddenly developed a craze for playing with a tennis ball again, and Em isn't too unhappy about tagging along. It's quite pleasant to see two 16 year olds and a 14 year old playing catch - although it is quite a bit rougher now they are older! The main break time occupation is a form of cricket, but using an old conifer branch as a bat, which makes the direction of the shot quite unpredictable. Matt is addicted enough to be happy simply bouncing the ball or throwing it against a wall (though not inside a sock!). However, it does mean that I'm having to curb too many prolonged outside breaks. I guess it's because we've finally got a bit of sunshine!

I was hoping to spend this afternoon working through some exercises on Figured Bass for the children's music theory lesson but the twins are SO close to finishing the dreaded Geography course (that seems to consuming their days) that I thought it best not to interrupt their cognitive flow - they need to get it finished before half term. Figured Bass is quite an involved topic (or I think it is) so I'd rather leave it until I can have their full attention. Instead, I spent the afternoon marking tests (my fault for leaving it for so long). It wasn't unpleasant though, as I took all the paperwork into the garden and spent a pleasant couple of hours under the gazebo, with the dog dozing on the lawn and the hens clucking down the garden - a sure sign of another egg!

Regarding eggs: Yaayy, Verity is no longer brooding on the nest all day! The tough treatment of locking her out of the nest seems to have done the trick. We just need her to start laying again. Charity does seem in better spirits now that the warm weather is here. Her comb isn't quite as shrunken and she is pootling about more and taking dust baths (when the others will let her). She mustn't be able to cope with the cold as well as the others, this first winter must have been a shock to her. However, she isn't laying yet...

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!

19th May 2010

I took my Great Aunt shopping in town today. Ordinarily she only gets a few bits and bobs from a local Spar shop (mostly cakes!) but she needed to go to the bank and so we ventured into the local Market for some real food. Well, I say real food but I don't think I could eat it.

On the shopping list were items such as Ox tongue, tripe and savoury duck! I remember selling tripe (literally a cow's stomach) as a teenager, in my parent's shop. The old ladies that came got quite feisty over getting some of the 'seam'. It's really rubbery, like a jelly honeycomb - I never did pluck up the courage to try it. Apparently its served with lashings of vinegar and mushy peas. Interestingly, my Grandma and Great Aunt sold tripe in the very same market during the war ration years.

My great uncle told me about how he worked for a butcher "When 'e were a lad," and the butcher made 'savoury duck' - sold for tuppence. I can't imagine why it's called 'duck' as it's made up of left-over pig bits (tail, ear etc.) with a few herbs. It was cooked in a meat tray and covered with fat, which they called 'the veil' and was served with gravy. Needless to say, we didn't try these recipes when we lived for a week on WWII rations!

I am wondering if I'm brave enough to try an oxtail casserole. I used to like tinned oxtail soup, although I haven't had it for years. I wonder if fresh oxtail tastes at all similar?

17th May 2010

Gathering eggs is still something of a battle as Verity just won't shift! However, in order to show her who's boss, we lock her out of the hen house as soon as we know that all the other hens have laid their eggs - I don't want them dropping all over the garden. Once she has been ousted she is quite content scratching around with the others. Hopefully she will soon get it out of her system if we continue in this manner (I hope.)

I know this sounds silly, being the middle of May, but is it too cold to plant any veg out yet? I think last night was the first night we didn't have the heating on! We could have a fire in, but we haven't had time to sit and appreciate it recently - and the rest of the house would still be freezing. Isn't it sad, how those things that seem to be the important little details in family life seem to drop to the bottom of the list and get forgotten. Now that the children are older we don't seem to have toast on the fire anymore, or Em and I don't get any embroidery done, or we haven't played a game of scrabble in ages. Who'd think that you need to fight to preserve such times? Perhaps some of this is inevitable, as the children grow older they do more by themselves, or they have more responsibility and less time. Years ago I would have had the children working the veg patch with me. When we first started home schooling we lived on WW II rations for a week and tried a 'Dig for Victory' veg patch. Absolutely every meal required something peeling, I felt like I was never out of the sink. Although the children did their bit in the garden they preferred to just randomly dig, rather than tend the produce. Now they are busy elsewhere, so I have to decide whether or not to plant veg for my own pleasure, rather than as character building for my kids. Mind you, Em did ask that I at least put some beans in, she couldn't cope without anything growing. Perhaps just having to nip out and pick some beans for tea is sufficient - if they grow! I haven't seen a single bean shoot yet, and just a couple of tiny pea plants. Is it down to the cold weather, perhaps? Hopefully everything will shoot now the sun if peeping out a bit.

Had a lovely lunch with my home ed curriculum provider co-ordinator. She is such a lovely lady who drives all over the nation just to help and encourage. It is lovely to speak to someone who is a little older and wiser. Happily, she likes textiles and sewing as well! Sometimes it's good to hear someone reaffirm the old home truths, even if nothing new is being said. Having a nice lunch out finishes the picture!

9th May 2010

Today the children went to a Folk Music Day with 'Rootz', the Stoke-on-Trent City Music Service's folk band that they are a part of. Although this meant over an hour of driving for David it was still a surprise to notice how much time we had in the day. Although the children are older it proves how much time being/raising a family requires. After a leisurely start to the day the majority of our time was spent in household chores, but the day still seemed so long. Another thought is that, when the children have left home, the amount of chores will decrease whilst available time increases - leaving still more time for our own pursuits.

I've been looking about me, now that the children are older, to see about more full time employment, e.g. teaching. As I've investigated further into the working world I've become less and less convinced that this is a good time to start. I realise that home education has exacerbated the matter, but I'm convinced that I'm still needed at home. I've spent so many mornings, this last few weeks, taking the children - in rota it seems - to either the doctors or the orthodontist that I really don't see how I could have a 'proper' job without being a really unreliable employee! And, this is at a time when all the children are well!

I remember a BBC Horizon special that looked into the concept of the 'career mum' and their findings were quite revealing (though not surprising, I don't think). If a mum returns to work the family are actually worse off, financially. When they did a break down of some family's accounts the poor woman broke down into tears when she discovered how much it actually cost her to go to work - not to mention the emotional cost. And, my last few weeks have proved how unreliable an employee we make - unless we don't take our children to the doctors or dentist. We can't do both things well and I can't choose to put my family in second place. Additionally, if I aren't around to see to these sorts of things David will have to do it and he has more than enough on his plate trying to build a business in the depths of a recession. He needs my help too! Although the peer pressure and 'pull' to return to a career is evident, after building a home for over a decade I can't bring myself to abandon it. So, it's back to 'make do and mend' for a while longer - it's what I do well!

The conclusion of the BBC episode was that, as a mum it is impossible (yes, impossible) to have a career and a family without both suffering. It is quite a relief to acknowledge this fact, after a few little struggles, instead of striving for what really isn't workable. After 15 years out of the industry I'm not going to make it to the top of the tree! However, it is feasible to have a job of sorts which can fit around the family. Each family will be different and so the aspects of a little job will vary accordingly. I remember reading an article in a bank's magazine which explained the concept of a Career's Portolio. Increasingly more and more people are choosing to have two or three jobs, instead of one (even those without a family). In that way they are gaining more job satisfaction (instead of one all consuming job which requires body and soul), they have executive control over their timetables and also have more creative working lives - or life in general. So, perhaps I can venture into 'this and that' now that the children are older - but with a more creative approach to the word 'work', and perhaps just a little here and there.

4th May 2010

I think that the Bank Holiday mood has overtaken us: the sun is shining and although today is a school day I still have 'the wanderlust'. All of a sudden the boys NEED to get some picture frames for the artist proofs of the motorbike sketches that David has given them. Despite the pleading eyes of an abandoned doggy we decided to venture to Ikea. In the end they hadn't got any of the cheap frames in stock - but the trip was worth it for the hot dogs. I ate far too many!

3rd May 2010

David and the boys went to the British Super Bikes race at Oulton Park today - for purely business reasons, of course! David has produced a composite sketch of Leon Haslam, which Leon has countersigned, and so they went to promote that. (Click here to see the Leon Haslam print "Triple First"). The boys (all three of them!) thoroughly enjoyed the day. There was sufficient carnage on the track to make the day thrilling, but without anybody getting too seriously hurt and so tarnish the day. (I remember watching the Grand Prix when Senna died, and I still feel weird thinking about it, the hush that descended was eerie and the thought of it still unsettles me.) They had packed food and drinks enough for the day, but when you are surrounded by so many burger stands it's hard to resist and so Jonti and Matt indulged in a burger each - at £5 a piece!

This left the girls home alone so David dropped Em and I off in the City Centre for us to have a little shop around. I'm not really much of a shopper though and all we were really interested in was Wetherspoon's Belgian Waffles with chocolate sauce, and their coffee and hot chocolate. We did sandwich a little shopping spree between two drinky stints, but for Em and I a real shopping excursion involves a stationery 'fix'. Coincidentally 'The Works' were having a paper sale and we filled a box full for only a couple of pounds, which should keep us scrap booking and card making for some time. However, the main purpose of the trip was the Belgian Waffles, Mmmm!

An added extra to the day was the bus journey home, which was something of a novelty - I don't think I've caught a bus for years. This was an especially brave endeavour as it was a bank holiday and the bus service to our home is sparse, but this particular route was well serviced and thankfully we got home seamlessly. (We did have our neighbour's telephone number in our bag, just in case we were stranded. It is great living in such a lovely community!)

29th April 2010

It's 5am and I've been awake for hours! David went to 'sign off' a print from the printing press at 11.30 and didn't get home until 1.30am. His coming home disturbed my sleep, and now there's no point in trying - I'm wide awake. I think this is one of those bleak moments in family life. I'm overwhelmed by the responsibility of overseeing the development of three children and although home schooling exacerbates this it's a responsibility that we should all shoulder - the buck stops with us, not the teacher. I keep wondering if I've got it wrong and I'm inadvertently hampering the children's progress. What if they don't get into the University of their choice? What if we can't afford to send them? What if?...

In reality I think it's because, by nature, I'm not a born leader and yet I find myself at the front of the queue at times these days. Quite a few people come to me and ask me for advice about home education, the LEA send people to me to help them get going and the LEA have asked us to attend showcase events to discuss and promote academics in home education. And yet, here I am - just me, frowned on by those who disapprove of home education, or disappointed when those I encourage in their beginnings quit because of an imagined easier option. Individual cases are understandable on their own merit but 'en masse' it's disappointing to still be left alone in the field, after working so hard to help folks along - to no avail.

There are a very few families hereabouts who home educate, but often it's an excuse to not bother much. Perhaps I'm too exacting on the academic front. That's the whole point of home education though - quality. I do know of a family who home educate because of special needs, and they do a wonderful job. However, that only stands for a small percentage. I remember, after some debacle with my children, pointing out to them that I wouldn't be expecting so much from them if they weren't capable, instead I'd be stretching them in other ways. Either way I'd be stretching them! Unfortunately we are surrounded by an acceptance (even approval) of mediocrity - and I'm sick of it!

HA! And on top of all of this, now that the children are much older, I'm wondering if I should should step into the working world a little. I already teach privately a couple of evenings and I'm looking into teaching in schools, either classroom or peripatetic. In reality the children will have finished their compulsory education soon. Even now they just get on with it, and when they start their A level equivalent at home all I'll do is oversee the admin and give them some music lessons. So, like the closing chapter of Swiss Family Robinson, I'm wondering whether to stay 'on the island' in a make do and mend mentality, or should I venture back into civilisation (by degrees) and dip into the working world? After spending so many years building the home it's hard to shift focus, and yet I'm not sure that I'm needed in the capacity that I once was.

Perhaps it'll all make sense in the morning. Oh, it is the morning! Still waiting to make sense of it all...

22nd April 2010

Who would think of all the repercussions arising from this volcanic cloud over England? My friend, Mae, has been stranded in France (lucky thing) - and she has had our Grade 8 exam results sitting on her doormat! I have been advised, by some, to break in and get them! (But, 'Thank you Lord for teaching me patience!) Nevertheless, our suspense is over and we have passed! I got a plain and respectable pass - and am pleased, Em got a merit - and is disappointed! I do understand (she had a blonde moment in the aural questions and it cost her those few extra marks) - but it is a very good mark. Jonti passed his piano in his usual style - by the skin of his teeth. Sheesh, what can you do with these children - it's one emotional overload after another! Now that Mae is back Matt is going to start having Clarinet lessons with her, instead of me, and so today is quite an exciting day for him. Up until now he has only ever had music lessons with me at home, but I think he warrants a little more expertise now. I'll still teach all the children their piano and theory. I think it will do him good to see somebody else now. He was moved up to 2nd clarinet in wind band and 1st clarinet in clarinet choir, so a bit a of musical maturity from another teacher will be good. The first concert I played as 1st flute was momentous - I fell off the edge of the stage. "Ta daaah!" Yikes, I really did, how embarrassing. Amazingly nobody seems to have noticed, despite me ending up in the middle of the Timpani. We were playing Haydn's Surprise Symphony; it really was a surprise!

This cloud has also meant that I've been stranded and alone at choir rehearsals for a couple of weeks. Because my usual friends weren't there (Mae included) I had nothing better to do than to browse over the second hand books that are sold there to raise funds for the choir. This is always a dangerous thing to do because I am a compulsive reader. For me, reading isn't a gentle recreation - I get so sucked into the world of the book that everything else (literally everything) gets left. I also stay awake until the small hours reading, even when I am exhausted, because I can't put the book down - not a healthy approach I know. When the twins were babies I read The Lord of the Rings. David would leave for work in the morning (he had to get a job then, during a 'starving artist' phase) and I would be reading whilst dangling the tassle of a book mark in front of the babies to occupy them. I'd be in pretty much the same position when he returned home - he did ask if I had fed them at all during the day (of course I had!). Well, they do say that children should grow up with books and reading! Matt and Jonti have picked put this love of reading, though Em is more of a 'doer' than a reader - humph!

After a holiday it's always a relief to get back to the routine of term time. This is last term of compulsory education for the twins, so they have an awful lot of work to get done by the summer. However, in many ways not much will change as Jonti and Em are going to continue to home educate for their A levels. They can have a quality curriculum in the comfort of their own home (without the usual distractions) and - thanks to the local music service - can be part of several bands and choirs which far outstrip any school orchestra. The children already work under their own steam, so this will just continue. The only thing that will change is that Jonti and Em will no longer be inspected by the LEA. I'm just not sure what to do with my time now that they don't need me quite so much...

Just as we were wondering whether to commit Charity to the pot (I don't think we ever could really) her comb has shown the tiniest signs of growing back. I'm thinking that she just doesn't cope well with the cold. The comb is where a hen sweats, hence battery hens having such large combs (the environment of a battery farm is really hot) and so Charity may just be feeling the cold. She has a small black dot on the tip of her comb, which may be frost bite, and so might start to revive as the weather warms up. We spoke to a knowledgeable neighbour and he says that sometimes you just get a hen like that - a bit of a dud. We'll see how she goes, but hopefully she will pick up soon.

10th February 2010

This is the first 'real winter' that the children have known. Previous years have only offered minimal sledging opportunities but this year we have had prolonged snow - not too good for academic progress, however. This picture of the UK is from Nasa's Terra satellite, taken on the twins birthday. It's such a lovely momento; I've had copies printed for each of the children - I've even scrap booked it! (Only very special things get entered into my Winnie the Pooh scrap book!)

The children have really enjoyed experiencing a 'real winter' with regular flurries of snow, but it is getting a bit wearing - having to keep de-icing the hens water. Ordinarily I would leave the water in the hen house overnight and then it wouldn't matter so much if we were a little tardy in letting them out (in fact some suggest keeping them in to make sure they get a good amount of nutritious pellets before they go scavenging) but it either ices over through the night, or they knock it over! It has been cold enough to ice up during the day too. No excuses now, I'll have to get up (or delegate the task!) to let them out on time and give them fresh water. I suppose it's good for me too.

4th January 2010

I do like the New Year. I like to have all the Christmas decorations away by January 1st as I like a clean and tidy start to the New Year. I know it's just another day really, but there is (for me) a healthy sense of re-focussing of effort. Time to roll up ones sleeves and get on with life.

It's good to get back to schoolwork too. (I suppose the children might disagree there, but too much holiday becomes 'ennui' as Jane Austen would put it). The first week back is always a bit spasmodic though. It's the twins birthday (after having David's and Matt's just before Christmas too) and we tend to to a bit of filing and planning to guide ourselves into student mode. We also need to prepare for our annual LEA inspection. A bit of 'paper shuffling' is quite therapeutic, I find.

20th December 2009

Yippeee! Christmas concert season is finally over! The children have all worked really hard on Brass Concerts, Wind Orchestra Concerts, Barn Dances... the list seems to go on. It's absolutely wonderful the opportunities that they have, but it is tiring.

The winter has really set in now! This is the first time that the children have had any prolonged snow. Usually a days sledging is the maximum but the snow is here to stay for a bit. Sledging and an 8' snowman are a great treat. I'm getting a bit fed up of endless soggy clothes, but I guess that's how it goes.

I like Calvin's snowman house of horrors, in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons by Bill Waterson. On some he is carrying out brain surgery with a saw, to the disgust of his neighbour, Susie Derkins. They are so funny. In one drawing all his snowmen are decapitated and in another he has put himself inside the snowman's mouth. He turns to his mum and says' "You don't like my snowman, DO you!" - GREAT!

The hens don't agree with me, though. It's the first time they've experienced snow and they just won't come out. I don't understand that as they've had some heavy frosts that haven't troubled them in the slightest. In the end David has had to clear away a patch of ground for them and they've just begun to venture into that, but no further. When the snow fell they were all outside and were stranded under garden benches and trees - we had to carry them back to the shed!

27th November 2009

Tonight we helped Grandma and Grandad with a Victorian Market stall. Grandma, Grandad and Em dressed up in Victorian costume - a great excuse to try on an old (adjusted) bridesmaid dress of mine - was I ever that thin?! Em and I also did some busking, which was fun.

We also held an outdoor market stall to try and sell off some old stock. We'd written signs proclaiming that everything must go for £1 but nobody seemed to be reading. An alter-ego seemed to come over me and David and I were true market vendors shouting "Everything £1" "Everything must go"! What a hoot!

The boys were employed in playing runner between the two stores, carrying change and keeping us all in hot drinks and burgers. I think Grandma must have lost all her profit to burgers that night! It was great fun though.

21st November 2009

Sang Verdi's Requiem. Hhmm, that should drive my Christmas blues away! The family came to watch and it was a nice change for the children to be watching me - I do practise what I preach! Mind you, it's such a long time since I've performed with the choir (I've only just re-joined now the children are older) that I was terrified, so I got a taste of how they might feel. Imagine what a solo would feel like. Yikes. Actually, now I come to think of it I don't think the children do get that nervous. Jonti certainly doesn't. It must be an age thing

Some friends also came to listen. This was their first choral concert and they really liked listening to Latin, it just washes over you.

12th November 2009

Em played for a Christmas Lights switch on with her flute choir. I realise that this is going to sound grouchy, but I really struggle with this aspect of Christmas - 'shammy shimmer'. I've noticed that children always cry when they meet Santa, and I don't blame them. (On that subject, I thought we told our children not to tell lies). There were some folks dressed up in Elf suits (looked more like goblins to me) and some poor little girl was absolutely terrified - crying uncontrollably. It all seemed quite shallow and sordid.

However, the music was lovely. I always think a flute choir sounds like a very breathy pipe organ, or a melodic steam train - very pretty!

24th October 2009

What a lovely end to the day: Em is away visiting friends on The Wirral, and Jonti & David are at the 'Godspell' after-show party, which leaves just me and Matt. We've spent the last hour beginning an Alphonse Mucha jig saw whilst listening to Glen Miller.

19th October 2009

This weekend we went to see our friend in a production of All in Good Time by Bill Naughton. It was hilarious and also quite thought provoking in places. Fortunately our friends, who played Arthur and Violet, are married so the stage kissing wasn't a problem. However, because the programme shows that they share the same surname - and folks can't imagine anyone marrying young - some folks thought they were brother and sister!! What is the world coming to?!

Audley Theatre did an amazing job for the set, a two tiered interior scene fully furnished and decorated. We particularly enjoyed the 60's sound tracks during scene changes and the intervals. In the play Arthur puts a on record of Beethoven's Emperor, and I was very proud knowing that it was my CD playing.

I have a feeling that the Noddy duvet was packed away prematurely - Em is unwell again. I did say that the children weren't ill very often - although they aren't too ill, just a little 'buggy'. We are hoping she has the energy to go to choir rehearsal tonight.

Tonight Jonti has dress rehearsals for "Godspell". I know I just mentioned how we enjoyed the 60's soundtrack at the theatre, but this really isn't my cup of tea - though I'm sure it will be expertly played. Not only have they got the theology messed up but I think it's really cheesy - I don't do hippy too well. (I think I'm wrong there, apparently it's 'Rock'.) Jonti is playing drums/percussion and apparently he has been given permission to "go for it" on a couple of numbers. GROAN ...

15th October 2009

The Noddy duvet is back out again. This time it is Matt who is unwell. Like Em was, he's not too poorly but just a bit 'wiped out' - quite nice and cosy really. This is where home schooling is good, as he wouldn't be well enough to go to school but can sit and do a bit. It's at times like this that a bit of English Literature comes in handy. To sit and read, and answer the odd question isn't too much trouble but you are still getting something useful done. When everybody else was out at rehearsal he didn't want to watch a film in the genre of "The Railway Children" so we watched "Rush Hour" instead. Boys, eh!

Choir rehearsal was gruelling this week. I wonder why Oliver keeps turning up! Everything he'd told us last week was promptly ignored and loads of people sing with their music copies right in front of their noses, so they just can't be watching the conductor. It's awful when he signals a stop and people just keep singing. He would say things like, "That first line was good", it was terrifying. I think the point is that he is teaching us to really sing, rather than just lah at the appropriate pitch. Each piece has it's own different character and we need to project this, Faure's Requiem has a really pure and bare tone, as do certain parts of the Verdi Requiem - very scary to sing, you feel so exposed. Parry's I was glad is a much fuller tone, overall, but it's easy to get carried away and make it sound like a 'foaming quart' ditty.

The rehearsal was only short as it was the Ceramic City Choir AGM. It was very interesting and informative - until any further business, groan......

12th October 2009

The weather is turning to Autumn - my favourite season. I just love the autumn colours. I like the clothes for Autumn too - jeans, jumpers and boots (Doc Martins usually). A brisk walk (with our neighbour's dog at the moment) is simply glorious at this time of the year. When we need a break and some 'time out' we refer to it as 'kicking leaves' time. There's nothing better to blow the cobwebs away and clear your head.

The trouble is that the washing doesn't dry. In Swiss Family Suburban I mention that, in our family, the main crop is 'pant trees' - which we harvest regularly. The children learned their colours by playing snap with wet socks (and 'smalls') which were pegged out and hung on the shower rail to dry. I know that tumble dryers have been invented, but they take ages and cost a fortune to run. In the summer it's no problem as everything can go on the line (I love watching sheets blowing on the line, I find it really relaxing - simple pleasures eh?), but this is that awkward inbetween time. The washing won't dry outside and we haven't got the radiators on much so it won't dry that way either - so it's back to the 'pant trees' (and a clothes maid in the bath).

At times it's difficult to remember that this kind of stuff is important. But, if I want my family to stay clean and tidy, then it's my job and it IS important. There's no point in the children learning to play Poulenc's flute sonata, Grieg's Lyric pieces or Paul Reade's Victorian Kitchen Garden if the basics aren't covered (literally!)

8th October 2009

The role of mum has transformed into the role of nurse in our household, although not in too extreme a measure. Over the last few days Em hasn't been well, not really ill, but just not quite well. Yesterday she was far too woosy to go to rehearsals. It's quite nice when the children are just a little bit ill (which isn't often) as it's an excuse to be cosy; and so last night we sat on the sofa, with a blanket, and watched The Railway Children (the original TV adaptation with Jennifer Agutter, Dinah Sheridan & Bernard Cribbins) - wonderful! No matter how many times I watch or read I ALWAYS cry when Bobby meets her dad at the station and shouts "My daddy!"

This morning David's eye is very painful again. He couldn't open his eyes to begin with and now it's very painful where he scratched it last week, so I was back to handing him his drinks - and the telephone to call the hospital. Back to the hospital again this afternoon. Because we are off to the hospital this afternoon the children have hatched an evil plan to take their schoolwork to Grandma's. I'm not too sure how much schoolwork will get done...

Extra curricular activities for Matt now include Dog walking for a neighbour. Actually, this counts as 'work experience' as he is thinking about being a dog handler in the police force. After several years of home education we're pretty good at labelling anything as educational!

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."

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: www.dobies.co.uk 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!

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!

30th July 2009

Finished cleaning the oven today, as my mum worked her accounts. Wow, "Oven Pride" (as was advertised by Charlie Dimmock) really is miraculous. I left the shelves overnight, coated in the stuff using a toothbrush, and when I wiped it off this morning a years worth of cooked-on gunk just washed off! Though what the link between Charlie Dimmock and cleaning is, I'm not sure. I wish she'd come and tell me why my tomato plant hasn't yielded a single fruit specimen. I think that I should have pruned the top, to keep it bushy and maybe I should have fed it more than the stipulated once a week - though you would have thought a couple of tomatoes would still have been manageable.

The flowers from my birthday have passed their best, even though I changed the water and trimmed the stems. Although I enjoy fresh flowers about the place It's nice to have the house back to normal. I like the simplicity of my summer fire arrangement: I've put pine cones in the fireplace and dried Hydrangeas around the grating. Mum and dad collected the cones on a walk and it's not often they do that sort of thing, so it's even more special because they're hand picked by them. I prefer Hydrangeas dried to the fresh flower. I've just planted an Hydrangea (given to me by my mum) in the garden purely to maintain a supply of dried heads. I understand that the colour changes in relation to the lime content of the soil, lime free soil creating the bluest flower. Our soil is very clay filled, in that part of the garden, so we have a deep pink blossom. Apparently my grandmother, who died just as I was born, loved Hydrangeas and had them in her front garden which was just a few houses up the road.

29th July 2009

Took Great Aunty Hilda shopping today. It does make me laugh when old people do their weekly shop as the actual food content is so low; a couple of tiny tins here and there, two tomatoes and the rest is cake and chocolate. Mind you, that's better than the old lady in the queue in front of us who spent the same amount as my Great Aunty's weekly shop on lottery tickets. That seems a pretty hopeless existence, to me.

Spent the afternoon listening to Faure's Requiem whilst cleaning the oven. I'll be singing this with the Ceramic City Choir in November for the British Legion Remembrance Day Service at the Victoria Hall. This was quite an appropriate piece as something must have died in there considering the amount of carbon on the oven floor. Perhaps that's what they mean by Carbon Footprint. I found the fish slice which we lost, about a year ago, inside the oven door - eek! Mustn't leave it so long next time (although I always say that).

17th July 2009

In previous years it's not made too much difference to the day being my birthday, so today I went out for the day with my sister. Typically, (or not, as the case may be) I miss three sets of visitors with three bunches of flowers! It's always nice to be surprised that people think more of you than you thought. (NB The paper diary this blog originates from being one more of those surprises.)