Posted by rowena on November 14, 2013
It was a bright crisp morning yesterday, and the turnout for the Remembrance Parade at the War Memorial in Hermitage Park was a good one. I went, because when my father was able, he attended every year, sometimes participating in, sometimes leading the parade of the veterans in the British Legion. He died on 19 October.
He had been active in local politics and many organisations in the town, and the Helensburgh newspaper published an obituary article. I wish it had been better written. In dealing with the many things that have to be done after his death, I have been surprised, and undone, by the number of people who knew him and have good things to say about him.
I won’t need a special Remembrance Day to think about him. Every day there are things that I would like to tell him, because they would amuse or interest him, and of course, things I would like to ask him.
I compiled a eulogy on behalf of my family, which my brother in law read at the funeral.
It’s what we wanted to say.
Country boy, proud Trenchard Brat, Royal Navy aircraft engineer, Holder of the Queen’s Commission, manager at Polaroid, elected representative on first Dumbarton District Council and then Argyll and Bute District Council, JP, a graduate of the Open University in history, active participant and sometime Chairman of many local organisations, lover of sport, especially rugby and cricket both as player and spectator, expert gardener with a fondness for vegetables growing in straight lines, keen appreciator of a good tune and a well told story, connoisseur of swashbuckling tales, corny cowboy films, and Broadway musicals, master of the well-polished shiny shoe, devotee of the Daily Telegraph general knowledge crossword, loyal and generous friend, gentleman, loving and loved father, grandfather, father-in-law, brother, uncle and, for 62 years, husband.
Norman was all of these things, and many more besides. His was a full life of nearly 90 years.
He enjoyed good food, but was not a gifted cook. When Sheila was in the maternity hospital with Rowena, left in charge of feeding M and K, Norman famously, and much to his daughters’ distress, fried them carrots for their tea. Fortunately his excursions into the kitchen were rare because Sheila is such a good cook and looked after him and the whole family handsomely. This could well have been his plan when he first met Sheila at the naval station at Anthorn, where she was a chef in the officers’ mess, and had access to better food which she shared with him when he showed up at the galley door.
He had an engrained sense of justice, and a belief that the punishment should fit the crime, as K found out when as a five year old she discovered a loose screw in the towel rail and used it to inscribe her name on the wall. Observing her newfound desire to write, the penance Norman prescribed was 50 lines: I must not write on the bathroom wall.
He was proud of his 31 years’ service in the Royal Navy, but that didn’t stop him enjoying mischievous fun with it. When the family was in St Louis in the States, he played it up by telling K and Rowena’s teachers that he worked for the Queen, and accepted their flamboyant curtsies as Her Majesty’s local representative.
His garden was a source of great pleasure, in the digging, planting and tending, as well as the harvesting and eating of the abundance of vegetables produced. The kitchen garden at Holmehill was a labour of love, and, when he arrived home from work each evening in the summer, before coming into the house, he would take a tour of inspection to see how the crops were doing. And, if he thought the ladies in the house next door were watching, he would stand to attention and salute the rows of vegetables.
Norman never lost his curiosity or his sense of adventure. He had travelled around the world both with the Navy and later with Polaroid, and always had a story to tell of his experiences: from trading a pair of canvas shoes he’d never liked for a pineapple from a South African during the war, to thinking he was only going along for a preliminary chat about joining and finding that the Helensburgh Barbershop Choir already had the waistcoat uniform ready for him and had it on his back before a note had been sung.
When the family bought him a flying lesson for his 70th birthday, he embraced the challenge and carried on with a course to learn to do it properly, after only having done it on the sly as a young man.
He enriched our lives and we shall miss him terribly.
Posted by rowena on November 11, 2013
We’d had a coffee in the courtyard cafe at the Victoria and Albert Museum, still able to comfortably sit outside on the unseasonably warm October morning, once the rain had stopped, and decided that we should go and have a look at the new Serpentine Gallery. All we knew about the new space had been gleaned from newspaper articles: it was somewhere in Hyde Park, had been a munitions store, and the refurbishment had been designed by Zaha Hadid.
With no discussion, but deep in conversation, we headed down Brompton Road towards Knightsbridge. It was only after we’d navigated the crossroads by Harvey Nicks that we looked at each other , and in near unison, said, we should have just walked up Exhibition Road.
I like to congratulate myself on the London map that I have in my head. There are whole areas that are blanks, there be dragons,: tracts of the City, most of what is South of the River, but the West End and west as far as South Kensington, I like to think I’ve got well mapped as it were. But walking two long sides of quite a big triangle, instead of taking the direct route, is a reminder that it can sometimes be quicker to think about where you are before setting off.
Having said that, it was a lovely afternoon for a walk in Hyde Park; the sun was so warm that we both ended up carrying our jackets, and because of our ridiculously roundabout route, I saw areas of the Park from new angles. Our wandering tour was worth it in the end.
The inaugural exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler is a huge installation by Adrian Villar Rojas. When we arrived, the gallery was being evacuated because of a fire alarm, so we walked around the outside of the building to examine the curves and sweeps of the Zaha Hadid extension. From some angles, the whole looks rather incongruous: a square building of golden bricks with a white curve stuck on the side; but the curving roof does have a pleasing shape, and cries out to be stroked – a possibility in those places where it swoops to the ground. It appears to be made of painted plastic and canvas. Light flows into the space from light wells in the roof, which are integrated into the support pillars, shapes reminiscent of the depiction of Triffids on 1960s editions of the John Wyndham novel. (There are T-shirts sporting the design shapes, in the minimalist shop for a mere £45.)
It clearly wasn’t a major fire emergency, as by the time we had complete the circuit of the exterior of the building, we were allowed to go inside.
The whole gallery is dedicated to the Villar Rojas installation, even down to the bricks on the floor, which the young man who greeted us at the door informed us were specially made, and had been laid loose, so that they respond with creaking and chiming as you walk on them; like a distant relation to the nightingale floors of Imperial Japan. Evidently, all of the bricks are newly made using traditional South American methods. It’s an astonishing feat of concentrated hard work and industry.
The entrance area is dominated by a sculpture of an elephant, made from textured concrete and plaster, apparently ramming itself into the wall, pushing its way into the gallery. There is something both powerful and poignant about it – its great shoulders stuck underneath a lintel, and its trunk curling helplessly below it on the floor. The surface is rough, and cracked, as the concrete has dried. Interior walls of slowly drying and cracking concrete surround the rest of the installation. The temptation to touch and to feel the surface is near overwhelming (and I gave in, but only for a moment, and really, really gently on tippy tippy finger tips), and there is that smell of fresh plaster in the air, that reminder of every hellish home refurbishment project ever undertaken.
Villar Rojas has created a collection of apparently random objects, the detritus of bits and pieces of contemporary life, and displayed them on racked shelved reaching to the ceiling. Many are coated in concrete, or sprout vegetation growing from green potatoes. It’s as if we are looking at a vision of our world which has been dug up by slightly confused archaeologists of the future.
I’m not sure I understood it, but it’s one of those exhibitions that will stay in the memory, if only for how much fun it was to walk on the brick floor.
Posted by rowena on October 6, 2013
It’s easy to understand why myths and legends were woven around the nature of toadstools when they appear so suddenly and so very substantially as if out of nowhere. Where do the spoors come from? How do they grow so quickly?
This reluctant gardener only noticed them when they had grown in some abundance on the damp mossy grass of the lawn. Knocking them over and pulling them up, they had an unpleasant solidity to them. I’ve no idea what they are (yet another growing thing for which this statement is true).
This thought reminded me of visiting a local pharmacy in a mountain village in France where it was possible to take in your forest harvest and consult wall charts, and the pharmacist himself, if you were uncertain if what you had picked was edible or not. There were three broad classifications: Good to Eat, Edible but not particularly nice, and Poisonous. I’m not sure I would ever have trusted my ability to distinguish between the appearance of some of the Good to Eat and the Poisonous, which in some cases looked remarkably similar on the charts.
I’ve always erred on the side of caution and bought my mushrooms at the supermarket, but collecting mushrooms in the woods was something that my Russian teacher in Moscow was always talking to me about, leading to a knowledge of fungus vocabulary I have never been able to fully display. Once, when he and his family invited me to visit their dacha we went searching in the woods with a disappointing lack of success. On the drive back to Moscow however, we had to stop each time we passed someone offering a basket of mushrooms for sale by the road. At each stop, my teacher got out of the car, inspected the merchandise, and then told the seller why his produce was not of the appropriate quality to be worth buying. So I never did taste any mushrooms from a Russian wood.
……. Nor from a Scottish garden.
Posted by rowena on October 4, 2013
Given the reluctance with which I embarked on my gardening duties in the height of the summer, I was surprised by just how reluctant I was to admit that the time had come to cut down the plants and ready the greenhouse for winter. But the Chief Gardener issued the order, so we cut down the tomato plants and gathered together all the green fruit, (including one over large cucumber that had been hidden by all the foliage in that corner where all the plants got overly entwined with each other) took it into the kitchen, and wondered what we would do with it all.
The large tomatoes were wrapped in paper and stored in the ripening drawer, and the partially red ones were lined up on the window sill, but that still left us with a pile to deal with.
Now, if you search on the internet, as I did, for recipe ideas to use up all the green tomatoes, and you happen to land on blog sites, or chatty food sites, then they all preface their suggestions with comments about it being an annual question, that there are only so many fried green tomatoes any family sized group of people can eat, and that nobody much likes green tomato pickle or chutney. All of these are true of my household too.
I decided to attempt soup, on the basis that I make a lot of soup, and it’s usually from the sad vegetables left rolling around the bottom of my fridge, and that generally tastes all right, so surely I could make something delicious out of freshly picked home grown tomatoes. The soup recipes I found fell into two basic categories: an Eastern European inspired ham, onion and potato combination with a dollop of sour cream on top, and an Indian inspired curry flavoured one.
My first attempt was with bacon, onions, garlic and potatoes, all cooked in stock with the tomatoes and then whizzed up at the end. While we agreed it was a lovely colour, It was surprisingly bland. I was a bit disappointed, but at that stage it was too late to think that I should have used a more strongly flavoured smoked bacon. Instead I rescued it with a good shake of Tabasco in the pan, and a heaped teaspoon of parmesan in each bowl, and the Chief Gardener declared it a success.
Aware, from that first experiment, that the green tomatoes somehow soak up a lot of flavour, I embarked on the curry inspired second attempt with more spices. Fresh root ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, a tiny touch of chilli and curry were the base, with onion, potato and tomato, all boiled up with stock, and then finally whizzed up with half a bunch of fresh coriander. The committee agreed that this was a success, without any further refinements required. (And it was a good colour.)
(We made a cold avocado, pepper and cucumber soup with the oversized cucumber….)
Posted by rowena on September 30, 2013
Why am I so suspicious of laughter? Not that spontaneous kind that bubbles up from a lively conversation or a shared observation of life in its many tricky forms. No, not that kind. I’m thinking of the canned variety, the forced ho ho ho of a dodgy looking Santa, or a comedian laughing at his own jokes. Maybe it’s too many hearings of The Laughing Policeman on Two Way Family Favourites as a child? Too many occasions of not seeing the joke and sitting stony faced in a room filled with empty hilarity? Or more often seeing the joke coming a mile off and knowing that it won’t be funny when it lands like a dead bird in my lap?
Why is the analysis of comedy much more entertaining than the comedy itself; the intellectual endeavour more engaging than the damp squib silliness that results?
Why, when someone asks me to explain that piece of unhelpful writing advice show don’t tell, do I always use humour as my example? If I read a description of something as ‘hilarious’ (or that theatrical review cliché ‘rolling in the aisles with laughter’), that’s an example of ineffective telling, as my automatic assumption is that something entirely unamusing except to an idiot has occurred, and I am bounced out of whatever world the writer was attempting to create. In contrast, if I read a scene which brings a twitch to the corner of my mouth, then that is genuinely amusing, and the author has shown me something funny, and I have stayed in their world.
Is ‘funny’ even an objective measure? Why do so many people insist so doggedly that X and Y are funny, apparently allowing no room for a different opinion, brooking no debate?
Maybe I could do a PhD on why comedy isn’t funny. Would there be a market for that, I wonder? I could have lots of good arguments along the way – so long as I didn’t have to go to any stand up comedy gigs. The last one of those was less than successful for all concerned. It really wasn’t my fault the compere interpreted my hard fought for ‘neutral face’ as antagonistic. I should just have relaxed into looking as bored as I felt.
I’m working hard here to avoid falling into another rant against the conformity of so called alternative comedy, canned laughter and the herd mentality…… Just so long as no-one tells me I simply have to see XYZ as ‘they’re really funny, honestly’.
Life might be so much easier if I were easily amused. There would be so much more to watch on television for a start. I might have to confess, though, that I spent six days at the Edinburgh Festival and didn’t see a single comedy act; apart from the fat fellow off one of those boys clubs TV shows who took the taxi we got out of at Bristo Square. He was wearing a surprising amount of eye liner for a big bloke at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, Edinburgh notwithstanding.
Is that funny? Interesting, incongruous perhaps, but no, not a titter, not even a twitch.
Let’s think instead of times that I have laughed, or had to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself…… that wedding of two young lawyers where the vicar progressed slowly, sliding inexorably, no way to stop him, from talking about how well they would have been trained in resolving disputes towards the topic of divorce. Even when I gained control of my own suppressed laughter, I could feel the wooden pew shaking where someone further up the row was failing in their own attempts.
Or that Russian production of Anne of a Thousand Days where Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey dressed in tight lycra, striped to the waist and fought each other with whips….over the future of the Church of England.
But then, neither of these were comedies.
I always sound like a real misery. Can’t tell a joke; doesn’t like comedy; gets bad tempered in a farce. Just so long as no-one starts to counsel me about the fact that I do have a sense of humour. We’ve been down that road before, when I had to endure a whole week of effective communication training being positively encouraged any time I said something remotely amusing. It’s hard to tell someone so seriously sincere and yet so lacking in basic intuition that you were joking.
Posted by rowena on September 18, 2013
Where in the world have I been for the last couple of days? Well, looking at this photo you might well think it was somewhere outside Britain, (unless of course you recognise it.) A little chapel on a continental lake, perhaps, or a remote place of pilgrimage to a church rescued from an inundation?
Well, it’s in the Midlands. It’s Normanton Church and is all that was left standing above water when this valley was flooded in the 1970s to form Rutland Water, a reservoir providing water to the East Midlands. It’s a surprising sight in quite an odd place.
It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why the place feels a little bit peculiar; but I think it’s to do with the newness and neatness of the environs. It’s obviously not natural; it has that inauthentic faux feeling of a golf course, or the sailing ponds created out of the quarry pits beside motorways, pretending it blends naturally into the surrounding environment.
It’s pretty though, and on a sunny day we had a pleasant walk along the tarmac path which, according to the information, is 40km all the way around. Its popularity with cyclists is evidenced by the hangar like size of the cycle hire franchise.
My curiosity as to its history could only be satisfied once we got home and consulted Mr Google: the information boards along the path were devoted exclusively (and disappointingly repetitively) to the osprey which have been introduced to the area. It’s almost as if we should believe that it has always been there. This made me even more curious to know about the engineering and the controversy of its creation.
In the meantime, I quite like the incongruity of the stranded church with all the stones banked around it, and it’s odd proportions because its base is flooded.
Posted by rowena on September 3, 2013
Nora has been petted and indulged her whole life, first by her father and then by her husband. She makes few decisions, and those that she does make, she expects to have few consequences. She has done one thing though which will have far reaching effects when her husband finds out about it. He believes that her desire for money, for additional housekeeping, is to indulge her childish pleasure in shopping. In fact she needs the cash to pay the interest on a loan she took out to pay for a trip to Italy for her husband’s health.
I believe this is a new translation of the play, and I was watching and listening to the sharp intakes of breath from the audience in response to the most patronising and infantilising things her husband says to Nora, I did wonder how heavily the original Norwegian text had to express the notion of the frivolity of women for a 19th century audience to react to it; because Nora, when we first meet her, is a self-obsessed, irritatingly silly woman. So irritating that K, my theatre companion, expressed a reluctance to remain in her company for the second half after the interval, until I persuaded her to stay. The point of Nora is that when she understands that her husband really does see her as only a decorative adjunct to himself, she awakes from her doll like sleep and leaves to grow into herself on her own. It must have been a controversial idea at the time it was written; but still today I heard a conversation in the audience after the play about the wickedness of her leaving her children behind (especially after the murmurs of surprise and approval when they had a real toddler, rather than a rolled up blanket prop on stage in one scene where she was playing with her offspring.)
I enjoyed the play, as, in sharp contrast to my experience of Fences it gave me a portrait of a deeply flawed character who, though her experiences, developed some self-awareness and understanding of her own role in her frailties. Hattie Morahan as Nora shows her development from silliness to anger as one of slow gradations, her fluting childlike voice gradually changing to one of deep adult power as the drama progresses, until finally she leaves the house slamming the door loudly behind her. There was also real pleasure and satisfaction in knowing that Nora’s school friend, the sad, widowed Kristine has finally found happiness with the suitor she thought she had lost years before.
The drama is acted out in a clever and intricate revolving set. The doll’s house of the title, it does indeed resemble one of those toys where opening the front reveals tiny details of a home, as well as having more than a passing resemblance to one of those wheels in a hamster’s cage that keeps the pet running, no matter how pointlessly.
It’s about taking responsibility for yourself, a properly occupying your own life, and I found that a surprisingly optimistic message.
Posted by rowena on September 2, 2013
This production of August Wilson’s ‘Fences‘ has received universally positive reviews in the press, and those journalists who award star ratings have generally given it four. It was therefore something of a disappointment that my conversation at the interval with K, my theatre buddy, was on the question of whether this was or was not, in our opinions, as bad as, or worse than ‘August, Osage County’.
It was perhaps the coincidence of the word ‘August’ in the name of Fences‘ playwright and the name of the other play, but Tracy Letts’ work, which I endured at the National Theatre a few years ago, is broadly my low water mark of tedious, over long examinations of family dysfunction in contemporary (ish) US drama.
The result of our discussion was a draw. K thought Fences was worse, I disagreed (but then I did truly loathe Osage County).
This was the first August Wilson play I have seen, although K had seen ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ in New York, coincidentally on the famous occasion, in 2009 or thereabouts, when POTUS took FLOTUS on a date night to the theatre, making it, K, observed, quite difficult to leave at the interval, even though she didn’t care for the play.
Having said all of that, we did stay and watch ‘Fences’ through to the end. The acting in the production was very good; Lenny Henry does occupy the stage with confidence, including great moments of stillness, and creates a blustering, unsympathetic character very effectively; and Tanya Moodie as his wife had a fantastic voice and tone.
The problem for me, was the play. It was a portrait of a self obsessed, self pitying, disappointed man, and the damage he did to the people associated with him. There was no development of that character other than the passage of time and the revelation of even more unpalatable events. He wasn’t tragic in that he had no sense of his own fallibility and frailty, and appeared to learn nothing over the course of the play. He gave some really self pitying speeches, punctuated with threats to his sons and his wife. It was a bleak portrait of a particularly nasty type of a man.
It was also perhaps unfortunate that it seemed that many members of the audience had come expecting to see a comedy, and therefore, primed for a laugh, started rattling away as soon as Henry appeared on stage, and continued periodically, even at astonishingly inappropriate moments.
All those four stars are still a mystery to me.
Posted by rowena on September 1, 2013
Sometimes, when I’m looking through my photos, when I should be doing something more productive instead, I come across one that I either can’t remember taking, or if I do remember it, can’t remember why.
There’s the holiday snaps, and maybe one or two too many of the same view, taken in the hope that the next shot will be the definitive one, or the ones of the flat in a state of upheaval following one domestic drama or another, taken in case they’ll help in an insurance claim; there’s the ones I’ve taken of the outsides of theatres and museums to use in the blog posts I write about my experiences of them……
And then there’s this one. It’s a pig. Or more accurately it’s two pigs. I know where I took it, at Ardardan Estate, farm and tea shop near Helensburgh, when we went to buy some things for the garden. But I can’t really remember why. Maybe because they are so odd looking. They have names; unfortunately I didn’t take a shot of the board on which that information was imparted, but they are something like Ki and Wi, or Wi and Fi, that sort of thing.
About the only other thing I can tell you is that Ardardan do nice cakes, but I don’t think that’s anything to do with the pigs.
Posted by rowena on August 30, 2013