Sunday, 25 April 2010

Salad days

Reading John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure for the Cornflower Book Group last week provided a good deal of food for reminiscence. Early in the book its horrible but compelling narrator, Tarquin Winot, talks about first experiences of restaurants:
One’s first restaurant is not or need not be one’s literal first restaurant, the place where one ate in public for the first time and paid for the experience (the forgotten motorway service station on a trip north to auntie’s, the first good-behaviour rewarding teashop scone), but rather the place where one first encountered the blinding, consoling hugeness of the restaurant idea. Stiff napery; heavy gravity-laden crockery; pristine wineglasses, erect and presentable as Guardsmen on parade; an expectant Commando of pronged, edged and expectant cutlery; the human furniture of other diners and the uniformed waiters; above all the awareness that one has finally arrived at a setting designed primarily to minister to one’s needs, a bright palace of rendered attention.
I got to thinking about my own experience of eating out and came up with a trio of memories, mostly by no means as grand as those which Tarquin is thinking of. The earliest is when I was six, in Scarborough, where my mother was working at the gloriously opulent Royal Opera House, in those days a proper repertory theatre and sadly now demolished, despite the fact that it had been refurbished in the 1970s. Rep companies tend to be very familial, so it was a fairly regular occurrence for a large group to descend at Sunday lunchtime on Scarborough’s first Chinese restaurant, where chopsticks and chop suey (which I adored!) were a novelty. I remember a large, light, upstairs dining room, leisurely meals accompanied by the sound of laughter.

My second recollection of eating out as a small child involves that largely-defunct institution, afternoon tea which, in the 1960s, could still be ordered in most hotels around the country – station hotels being particularly reliable in this respect. Sunday trips out in my grandparents’ car occasionally ended with tea (I recall a slightly undignified visit to the Loch Rannoch Hotel in Perthshire* when I had just fallen into a bog and was rather damp around the nether regions). Hot toasted teacakes or marmite on toast seemed much more of a treat than they could ever do at home: the toast was crisper, the butter sweeter…in those far off days, hotels seemed like heaven to me.

By 1967 my mother was working in London as wardrobe supervisor for a large organisation, overseeing productions both at home and on tour, and that summer she was asked to go to Bournemouth, where a summer show was opening next week at the Winter Gardens (to my horror, also now demolished – we used to joke that theatres my stepfather went to always burnt down; now it seems that all the theatres of my childhood proved surplus to civic requirements). I went too, and the team for getting the costumes ready for a show starring Tommy Cooper and Frankie Vaughan (big names then!) comprised my mother, the elegant and charming designer, two dancers from Bournemouth’s other theatre, the resident wardrobe mistress and me – there were 12 dancers in the show and I can’t remember how many costume changes (at least six, it was a lavish affair), but by the end of the week I was a dab hand with a staple gun and was practically on first name terms with the assistants at the haberdashery counter of Bournemouth’s department store. Yes, really, sixty yards of elastic, please.

The designer stayed in the rather splendid Royal Bath Hotel, while my mother and I went to a hotel next to the theatre, so that if I got tired (which I didn’t, it was all much too much fun) I would be near at hand. The evening we arrived though, we all sailed into the Royal Bath, where it was agreed that although the dining room was officially closed, the chef could probably rustle something up if we didn’t mind a lack of choice. I don’t remember what I ate, but vividly recall the pleasure of sitting by an open window on a warm summer’s evening, and watching several slices of melba toast float gently upwards in the breeze. The head waiter, who attended single-handed to our needs was stately, but not unbending. Several nights later, following the show’s opening, our wardrobe “team” returned to the Royal Bath dining room at nearly midnight – the centre of the room now taken up by a long table sparkling with silverware and glass – for a celebratory dinner, the head waiter, now an old friend, again presiding. This rather blurred photograph, the best I could find, shows that the dining room hasn't changed much in 40 years!

If I'd known then how much time I would spend in hotels now, I wouldn't have minded in the slightest – actually, even now, I don't mind it much, finding them to be places where you can retreat behind a closed door. I prefer them medium-sized, not so huge that you are completely anonymous, but not so small that you feel constantly on display. I generally eat elsewhere, though I could easily be tempted back by mid-afternoon toast and marmite!

* Edited later to add that the Loch Rannoch Hotel's website makes it quite clear that afternoon tea is still served there - nice to see they have got their priorities right. I must go back there one day.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

And seeing visitors

 Photo: RSPB website

Rather exciting to see one of these walking across the lawn this afternoon. It's a ring ouzel, presumably on its way into Britain and heading for the nearby moorland and summer nesting ground. I was hoping to get a photograph of it, but the resident blackbirds were very agressively seeing it off even as I spotted it. The population is in serious decline in here, so I count myself lucky to have had even a fleeting sight.

The jackdaws, meanwhile, are frantically flying in the most bizarre collection of potential nesting material, bits of fluff (deer and dog?), spare feathers - even an unattached pheasant wing, which was proudly conveyed to the nest site. Ten minutes later, it was lying on the lawn - rejected? too heavy to stay put? A little later still, it had disappeared again, replaced, I assumed, but then I saw one of the jackdaws flying away from the nest with it. I'm not sure whether it was a strange bird, poaching, or a disenchanted partner ("It's not hygienic, dear!") Five minutes later, and its proud finder was back again with the wing firmly clutched in its beak. I guess it has now been cemented in!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Watching the neighbours

Jackdaw by soikha

My new neighbours are a very industrious couple. They spend most of the day nest-building, having chosen a desirable site in the ash tree opposite my window, and I can't help watching when I'm supposed to be working. I can't see the nest itself, as it is deep in the ivy I've been threatening to remove - every spring when I decide to start work in the garden, the birds have beaten me to it and I resign myself to waiting until the nesting season is over. Somehow, come the autumn, nothing gets done.

This morning, Cor and Cora (as I am beginning to think of them) are prowling about the lawn collecting clumps of grass mowings, as well as venturing further in pursuit of sticks from around the field margins. Every few minutes they return with beaks full of spiky additions, sometimes flagging under the weight of a particularly choice item. One nearly fell off the branch just now. They are being watched beady-eyed by a pair of wood pigeons, who have previously raised the odd brood in the depths of the ivy (not very sucessfully, the squabs have a distressing tendency to make fatal descents from the heights), and there may yet be some nest-nabbing! Judging by the amount of sparrow activity in the ash tree, there are a number of smaller homes too - that's the excuse for not removing the ivy, it does offer such excellent habitat, though I do worry about the weight of it when the winds are high.

I rather look forward to young jackdaws - they will undoubtedly be noisy, and may be destructive, but I suspect they might prove amusing, if young starlings are anything to go by. The sparrowhawks, by the way, are back as predicted, and telling everyone about it at the top of their voices!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Reaction sets in

 Photo: angmac

* I've been working really hard for the last couple of months, setting up and running a conference. I'm lucky, really, the people I run it for are nice, the college where it took place last week was comfortable and the staff couldn't have been more helpful, and my wonderful younger son has been my conference assistant for 10 years, not only working hard during the event, but driving us both there and back (have I admitted it here before? I don't drive - and if I did, at conference time, I'd probably kill us both.)

As of Friday afternoon, I'm back, and I enjoyed the weekend. I indulged in the only form of retail therapy that remotely interests me - I spent rather too much at the garden centre, and spent yesterday afternoon up to my elbows in compost. Today, however, despite lovely weather, and a cast-iron (you'd think) excuse to take time off (I am due at least 5 days in lieu, since I worked most weekends in the last month), I turned on the computer - a grant application looms, and I thought I'd better spend some time clearing up the outstanding email, at least. Only to find that the deadline for a second grant application has been brought forward a month, and I now have to prepare 2 submissions in the next three weeks. So now it's 8.15pm and I have alienated both husband and aforementioned wonderful son by losing my temper in an entirely manufactured way. I feel very unkindly towards the world.

Normally, one of the few things I like about being 55 is being much more equable. Most of the time these days I pass pretty convincingly for cheerful, and if I mention a tendency to moodiness people look surprised. Tiredness is my undoing, though, and a conference causes more than just a energy dip. I ran on pure adrenaline for several days, and now I'm suffering the consequences. And I'm afraid the growly black dog may be around for some time, because I hate grant applications more than anything else I can think of. Grrr-r-r.

* This wasn't at all the post I was planning. I was quite cheerful until half way through the washing up...

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Blackbirds and thrushes

The blackbirds and thrushes sang in the green bushes

goes the folk song. Our garden is full of them at the moment, all intent on feathering their nests and nurturing their genes. At this time of year one of my amusements is watching sparrow fights, in which a horde of shrieking fluttering little brown birds rampage round the garden, like small boys in the school playground. This morning, though, it was blackbirds – five of them whizzed past me and into the hawthorn hedge, where I wondered if they would escape without getting spiked, so intent were they on each other.

Now that I’m at my desk, two very handsome song thrushes are stalking round the lawn, while overhead two buzzards soar. They too have been very active in the last few days, with some aerobatic displays more readily associated with some of the more agile raptors. This year I think we are going to have the buzzards nesting in the wood at the foot of the garden, while the sparrowhawks will probably be back in their usual tree just beyond the paddock. With both lots of fledglings screaming imprecations at their parents it could be a noisy summer. If you haven’t heard a hungry young sparrowhawk, believe me, it can shriek for England!

It’s pretty noisy already, in fact. There is a rookery here, and now that the rooks are convinced that spring is here, activity is non-stop. They wake at about 4am, with sleepy squawks and grumbles, and by about 5.30 the air of full of creaks and groans as they gear up for another busy day of collecting twigs. It’s not just picking of sticks (there’s another folk song – I’m as bad as the birds today) from the ground, the trees are full of rooks bent on that perfect twig, tugging away with dogged determination. On the fringes are the jackdaws, but they can’t compete for noise. Rook activity goes on all day, foraging for food and sticks, then as dusk falls those who aren’t nesting gather in our ash trees in great flocks like a flight of broken umbrellas, before rising all at once in a black cloud, streaming overhead on their way to their night roost in the woods.