Sunday, 30 March 2008


My new colour scheme reminds me of these lovely hellebores seen recently at the Oxford Botanic Gardens – that slightly washed out red is so subtle and alluring. It's perhaps not so readily associated with spring, but for me is as characteristic of this time of year as the deep yellows of daffodils.

A quick trip to check out potential conference venues had offered enough time between visits for a leisurely, if chilly, walk in the gardens and glasshouses, recalling a visit many years ago when my infant son decided that the water hyacinth was insufficiently labelled, the sign being beside the barrel within which the plant dangled its roots into rather deep water. We removed him before the gardeners realised that the label was now at the foot of the barrel. We must also have seen these lovely mulberries – black and white – but on this occasion early spring showed them in all their sculptured glory. I also had time for a quick coffee with Simon from Stuck In A Book, which was delightful.

At home there are leaves appearing on the trees (apart from the old ashes which dominate our garden). There are delicate buds on the amelanchier, indicating that it will soon disappear under a flock of happy blackbirds, who strip them off with great glee. Later in the year they repeat the process with anything that escaped their springtime attentions – last summer was the first time I had ever found a ripe berry on the poor thing. No Saskatoon berry pie in this house!

Yesterday, to celebrate my son's birthday, I sowed tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and courgettes. Three varieties of potato are chitted and ready to plant, though goodness knows when I'll get it done. I hate to go away at this time of year – by the time I'm free of work demands everything has already run riot and I spend the entire summer trying to catch up.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Easter eggs

Today's "new look" post is specially dedicated to Nan, of the wonderful Letters from a Hill Farm which I always read with pleasure.

I think I have mentioned before that one of the Bluebells approaches egg-laying with a good deal of enthusiasm. This was her Easter offering: you can see beside it a normal egg, which weighs 68 grams. The big egg weighs 102g and has a shell which looks as though it might suitably house a baby ostrich. Recalling Walter Wangerin Jr's Book of the Dun Cow I wouldn't be surprised if it would hatch a basilisk – be prepared to read in the newspapers that Northumberland has been laid waste!

Faced with such largesse I have been baking. I had been planning to whisk up a few peanut butter cookies, as recently made by Cornflower, but my son – briefly home for Easter - mentioned peanut butter brownies so, between cleaning windows, watering houseplants and generally trying to prepare for a frantic week, I went for speed, and measure-not-weigh.

Being so proud of the Bluebells' achievements, I had to photograph the eggs as I added them:

Turning the mix into the tin I got carried away: the chocolate sprinkles happened to be in the cupboard, although I can't imagine why!

The end result was greeted with approval, and I still had time to do some serious work. I'll try the cookies next time.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

An Eeyore moment

He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animal's heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expressions – the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn't really feel.

This excerpt from Barbara Pym's Less Than Angels struck a chord, as her lines so often do for me. This is a book full of sly digs at the foibles of academics and, since I am preparing to run a 3-day conference in April, I find it easy to identify her types among my delegates. It's a small conference – under 100 people – and so relatively easy, but it's three days of being at the beck and call of people who find their bedroom too close to the lift or to the place where staff gather to smoke, or who wrote their PowerPoint presentation on a Mac and find that the college's PC won't read it, or need to print their paper 10 minutes before their presentation is due. Relatives are taken ill, luggage only turns up on the last day; I hope it's not tempting Providence to mention it, but I've never had the ultimate horror of a death during the event, although it's happened to a colleague.

The current preoccupation is simpler. Apart from being ready – programmes and abstracts printed, badges bought and prepared, menus decided, rooming lists compiled, wine ordered (of vital importance!)- and checking the box of things every organiser should have - scissors, white tack, pay-as-you-go mobile (surprisingly useful), spare USB stick, marker pens etc - I am trying to prepare myself, practising the expression of open friendliness and interest, the warm and welcoming voice, the alert listening face I glue on at the conference dinner when I am so exhausted all I want to do is crawl into bed with a glass of whisky. And I'm hampered: my natural expression is just a touch on the gloomy side, I'm told, even when I am at my most tranquil, while my thinking expression tends to be a slight frown. Conscious of this, by the end of a conference I feel as if I've been grinning manically for days.

My inclination, like that of Pym's Alaric Lydgate, would be to retreat behind a mask. However, I shall try to channel the 3am frets into consideration of what I am to wear to alleviate the Eeyore tendencies; I remember arriving at one conference venue, hanging my clothes for the event in the wardrobe and thinking, "Goodness, it's a positive symphony of black!" Perhaps I'd better just pop out to M&S next week.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Booking through Thursday - Hero

You should have seen this one coming … Who is your favorite Male lead character? And why?

It's a good thing I've had all week to anticipate this question – heroines were so much easier! I suspect that I'm much less loyal to my heroes, a serial monogamist perhaps.

The first, and much the most enduring, is Winnie-the-Pooh. It's funny that a poor memory, a sweet tooth and an inclination to stoutness is so much more endearing in a Bear than a husband, but Pooh still makes me smile. My loyalty is strictly to the A.A. Milne and E.H. Shephard characters, though –later incarnations have never really appealed to me.

Now we get to the serious stuff. Hamlet is next, and the first of a list of Byronically mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know types. He's followed by J.P. Donleavy's Balthasar B, he of the Beastly Beatitudes, and a young man of very loose morals. Next is Francis Crawford of Lymond, from Dorothy Dunnett's 6-novel series, The Lymond Chronicles. A sixteenth-century Scots noble, Lymond is very much in the Hamlet vein, exiled and hunted down by his family, living by his wits and sword, and rampaging across Europe and the Ottoman Empire to the detriment of friends and enemies alike. Lymond was to some extent followed in my affections by another of Dunnett's heroes, Niccolò, his great-grandfather, who has a similar capacity for both humour and destruction. Swashbuckling at its most entertaining. In this category I must also include Albert Campion, who just beats Lord Peter Wimsey for me, although I know many won't agree. You'll have noticed that I like my men to be funny, erudite and not entirely responsible. And they need to be better than average dancers (I'll exempt Pooh on grounds on girth). Loyalty demands that I include Titus Groan, although he's singularly lacking in a sense of humour, and it's a bit strange being in love with a man you've known as a baby!

Happily, a more mature taste brings me to Mr Knightley, my favourite of the Austen men, despite his infuriating tendency to be right. Nonetheless, he's the one I'm spending most of my time with these days, a serious, well-read man, and above all, restful, a quality under-rated in one's youth, but which I've come to appreciate.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Spring purples

I picked this glorious selection of leaves for dinner, and we had them just lightly steamed, with roast chicken and Rooster potatoes roasted in goose fat. The outer leaves went to the Bluebells, who greeted them with their usual enthusiasm. We were rewarded with five eggs, one of them the largest I think I have ever seen from a chicken - it will be a double-yolker for sure.