Looking back

A friend recently visited, and very much enjoyed, the Beatles Story in Liverpool. It took her right back to growing up in the sixties, she told me. But the person she was with hadn’t derived anything like so much pleasure from the experience, saying that she didn’t like looking back to the past and that we should only look forward.  Well, of course we should look forward, but I don’t think we should do this to the exclusion of enjoying the past.

I’m excited by the prospect of said friend’s forthcoming birthday celebration in a tepee complete with hippy headbands and sixties music (definitely blasting ourselves into our past-  more of this in a later post). I’m looking forward to watching my mature student son graduate in September, and to several planned social occasions and I’m enjoying watching my grandchildren grow in to the wonderful little people they are.  All these things are joys but the longer term future, particularly in terms of health, is the unknown so I really don’t want to consider that. Of course the past isn’t a place where we should dwell, but isn’t re-living the happy moments in our lives surely one of life’s greatest pleasures? I like to think that life is about making memories that can be enjoyed when I am too old to make new ones.  It is past experience, along with the books we read, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear that shape our identity and make us who we are. I believe that my past is an important part of me.

Our conversation got me thinking about my own growing up years and wondering how much of the ‘then’ me is evident in the ‘now’ version.  I was fifteen years old when I climbed out of a caravan window, followed by the friend who had accompanied us on holiday. It was a little before six in the morning and we couldn’t use the door because we’d have had to pass through the dining area where my parents were asleep on the fold-down bed. For the sixth or seventh consecutive summer my family were in Tenby, holidaying in the pastel pink and blue caravan loaned to us for the last two weeks in August by one of my father’s colleagues. Tenby was the place to be seen that summer; anyone who was anyone was there. In truth, ‘anyone’ comprised  mainly the previous year’s sixth form boys now located at various universities around the country, hanging  around the beach by day, working in the bars and restaurants at night and by fortuitous coincidence (and to the chagrin of our school friends) we were there too.

In our ankle length, embroidered dresses purchased in the Birmingham Bull Ring’s Indian Bazaar, our long hair, plaited when wet to produce masses of pre-Raphaelite waves, we glided (often bare-foot) around the narrow streets, in and out of shops heavily fragranced with incense, ducking below coruscating glass mobiles hanging like stalactites from every ceiling and making friends with the left-over sixties hippies who worked there, and Anne, owner of one of these exciting places, who told fascinating stories  of pop festivals and the icons she had met.  We promised ourselves that as soon as we could leave home, this was where we would be, and Anne was the epitome of who we would be.

Had we even heard of the Isle of Wight festival before then? Probably not, but heedless of the fact that we would need tickets and rather more cash that we had, and anxious to turn in to reality the sounds hitherto experienced only on twelve inch vinyl – Jimi Hendrix, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and others whose names, so important in 1972, now escape me, we descended from that caravan window and made our way out of Tenby with a vague notion of hitch-hiking our way to Southampton. Our intentions were solid, no question – at that moment we’d meant to go.  Maybe no-one stopped for us or perhaps we just lost our nerve. I expect we were each as apprehensive as the other but neither one of us would have wanted to lose face and admit the fact. It’s a long time ago; some memories are crystal, others hazy, faded with the passing of years but this morning, sitting here remembering, I wonder how much of that girl is still evident in who I am today. It’s hard to define oneself, but I think there’s still a little bit of the hippy left in me, a little bit of the person who pushes the boundaries. But I’m also the mother who would be horrified if any of my children admitted to hitchhiking (please, if you are reading this, don’t tell me) and who would voice concern at the potential horrors of walking barefoot where ‘you could pick up anything’.

Yesterday evening a friend and I were reminiscing about people we had both known during the 1970s (even though we had not known each other at that point). His wife commented that we both  had a good memory of the time, saying that her own recall of those years was unclear. I was interested to hear her say that she doesn’t really look back,  which is where I began this post. I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong here. What do you think?

“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.” (BJ Neblett)

Amsterdam apple cake

Amsterdam

It seems a little heathen when asked for my most abiding memory of Amsterdam to cite a slice of cinnamon-spiced Dutch Apple Cake but four years later, I’m still in the thrall of that first unbelievable explosion of flavour. We were in  ‘t Nieuwe Kafé restaurant  which is housed beneath the stunning Gothic Nieuwe Kerk church in Dam Square. You can see the cafe just to the right of the church entrance in the picture below.

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Right at the heart of Amsterdam, Dam Square is home to the extraordinarily evocative memorial to the 22 local citizens who were celebrating liberation in 1945 when they were shot by German troops.  For such a small city, Amsterdam has a disproportionate number of memorials, museums and galleries but, with a keen interest in domestic architecture, I was here primarily to view the stunning 17th century homes characterised by their tall, narrow design.  This was my first visit and I was enchanted.

A hosue

The houses lean slightly forward and often have a beam sticking out from the top. This was so that goods or furniture could be winched up since the narrowness of the buildings made it difficult to take them up the stairs. The forward angle stopped the goods banging into the front of the house. It’s also thought that the owners of the grandest liked the forward lean so that its facade could be more easily viewed from the canal. The decorative gables above the uppermost windows on many of the houses indicate the profession of the original inhabitants.

The vibrant city centre is compact enough to explore on foot but why would you when for just a few euros you can enjoy the very best of the sights by taking a leisurely cruise on a glass topped boat along a section of the 100km of canals which cover a quarter of the city. Add to this the bonus of avoiding the risk of being flattened by one of the many thousands of bicycles that hurtle around the streets and there is no better way to enjoy the opulent mansions and houses at close quarters. Equally fascinating were the house boats, originally permitted by the council during the 1960s as a cheap solution to the housing shortage.  Chatting to our very knowledgeable guide on our boat, I discovered that today they are highly desirable and only the wealthiest inhabitants can afford to live in them.

One canal better viewed on foot is the Singel. A sweet floral aroma announces Amsterdam’s Blomenmarket  long before your eyes light upon the abundant blooms adorning the floating flower stalls. Founded in the 1860s, the market exports tulips all over the world. Opposite are shops which are accessed via steep steps. The display in the cheese shop drew us in and the tasty samples kept us there!

We ventured in to the Red Light District where, in the evening, prostitutes tout for business from shop windows alongside clubs advertising live sex shows. Here, less ordered than in the more salubrious parts of the city, the architecture confuses with a confused jumble of old houses with modern picture windows, and delights with the oddly designed buildings which lean at peculiar angles. It is undoubtedly seedy but the local council, in an attempt to capitalise on this tourist attraction, are working towards making it more of a cultural experience, tidying up the surroundings and closing down the most notorious clubs.

There is so much to see in Amsterdam and, although our visit was intentionally short, there was always the proviso that we would return soon if we wanted more time there. We have done so, and yes, we did partake of another slice of that sublime apple cake. I want to go back again.

 

Best foot forward

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I have a real liking for brightly coloured shoes. I like the way that they contrast with my clothes as I wear a lot of black and navy. Apparently the reason why women so love to buy shoes is because they still fit when you’ve put on weight!
My wages as a Saturday girl in the early 1970s were spent almost solely (pun intended) on shoes. I earned £1.25 a day and can remember spending £4.99 in a very exclusive shop on a pair of divine pair in black patent leather when an average pair cost less than half that price. I think my love of good shoes was born there and then. My father was so horrified at the price he said that I should take them back but my mother said that I’d earned the money and now I should live with the consequences of wasting it all so frivolously; it would be a good lesson and I’d soon regret it. I didn’t consider it frivolous at all, and no lesson was learned – I wore them proudly until they fell to pieces several years later.

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Recently mentioning at the gym that I was taking a pair of shoes for re-heeling, I was shocked to hear someone ask, “Do people still do that?” Turns out this person throws them away once the heel has worn down! Several others agreed that they no longer took shoes for heeling. I really do look after my shoes very well. I have a whole basket of products designed for leather care and I polish my shoes almost every time I wear them. I also always spray new shoes with a leather protector. This is why I still have shoes that were bought in the 1980s, including the multi-coloured ones in the picture above. They were from the Clarks Piazza range and I wear them perhaps a couple of times a year.

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The gold moon & star ones are Roland Cartier, bought when my daughter was a little girl, c 1990. The yellow ones were from Jacques Vert and were bought for a wedding maybe twenty years ago. I have other several pairs which are up to 15 years old.
At the gym I wear the two-tone lace ups – I am not a girl that does trainers! My latest shoe purchase was cerise suede ballerinas, bought for no other reason than that I fell madly in love-at-first-sight! That rarely happens of late. The green and the lilac ones are just two of several pairs that have been dyed using TRG Easy Dye bought from Amazon. They have a huge range of colours available and, as suggested in the name, it is very easy to use. (I’ve successfully dyed boots too, and have a few shoe-dyeing tips to share so if interested, just ask).
The younger me loved heels, though never ones as high as my friend Angela wears even though she is the same age as me. She refers to them as her Carter-Bar shoes (i.e. they’re so high that you can only walk as far as from the car to a bar in them)! The queen of divinely gorgeous shoes (and very glamorous with it) , she even has red-soled Louboutins. I think the heels are about 4.5”! I still love the look of heels but rarely wear them nowadays, though I have retained a few pairs for occasions that demand them. My usual style now is ballerina, and in particular, those made by Gabor. In real terms, I think they are still less expensive than those beautiful black patent ones!
Some years ago I visited the Manolo Blahnik exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Here I saw the most amazing, most outrageous, most creative shoes ever. But they could only be viewed behind glass, or from a good distance away. There was no trying on and no touching. Understandable, of course, but so, so disappointing!

I have a favourite pair. They are red leather ankle straps and were bought at a relatively inexpensive price several years ago from Marks & Spencer. Sadly though I love to look at them, they are more or less unwearable because they are so uncomfortable! Nevertheless, I can’t imagine ever throwing them away.

imageI’m almost embarrassed to say that this selection only comprises a small part of my shoe collection. I’ve not even mentioned sandals or boots (apart from the fact that I dyed a pair…light tan to deep wine),  I said in an earlier post that my love of beautiful shoes had waned on becoming a student, and this is largely true. I buy few now but when I do, they have to be especially beautiful.

Flash Fiction – The mouse that turned

A short story by me, as published today in the West Country regional newspaper The Western Morning News.

If asked to describe Mavis Middleton, you’d be hard pushed to say more than, ‘She’s a mousey sort of woman’, because that’s the perfect description of Mavis and in her fifty nine years no-one’s ever noticed much about her at all. George, her husband, wooed and married her to get his hands on her father’s business and from the day Mavis’s father died, George has barely uttered a civil word to her.  He keeps a roof over her head and makes her a monthly allowance which covers the cost of their food and very little else . With careful budgeting, she manages to clothe herself from the stores at the cheaper end of town. She cuts her own hair and has never been able to afford a colour. George, on the other hand, has appearances to keep up and is partial to a nice bit of cashmere and a well cut suit with a five button cuff,  preferably from the Mayfair Tailors which, as you might guess, resides some way from the cheap end of town.

George has always made it clear that he didn’t want Mavis working outside the home and have people thinking that her husband couldn’t provide for her. He’s a complicated man, thinks Mavis.  She cooks, she cleans, she gardens, and she lives a life of quiet frustration. 

 “George never thought it the right time for the business and then it was just too late,” explains Mavis if anyone ever asks whether they have children. It doesn’t happen often because she rarely meets anyone with whom she’d have that kind of conversation. They have never taken a holiday together, though George takes a short golfing break in the Algarve each spring and autumn .  “Business need,” he tells her. “Networking.”   

Mavis has never met any of his colleagues and never accompanies George to the annual dinner or Christmas parties though she suspects that other wives might be invited along by their husbands.

“More Premium bonds,” announces George at dinner, apropos of nothing. “ Sort it out, will you?”  It’s not really a question.   He tells her that they’ll have to be bought in her name since he already has the maximum permitted.

The cheque is made out to her and is sitting on the breakfast table the next morning. She banks it and is tempted to divert a hundred or so to get herself a decent winter coat, but she does the right thing and writes out her own cheque to pay for the bonds. The fact that she has an account of her own it not, as one might imagine, to benefit herself, but rather so that George can ‘arrange his finances to the best advantage,’or so he tells her. This seems to consist of the random moving of money in and out of the account. She suspects that it may have something to do with the money laundering that she has heard about in the news.

The letter from the Premium Bonds arrives several months later. It is one of Mavis’s bonds that has won – Mavis’s bond in Mavis’s name. Try proving otherwise thinks Mavis as she stares at the contents.

The kindly young man in the library helps her to set up an email account and she sends her first ever email in response to a job advert she found in The Lady  whilst at the dentist. Two weeks later George arrives home to an empty house. No waiting cup of tea, no dinner, no wife.  She has left a note in which she tells him that she will not be returning. Everyone has their tipping point.  

In the small coffee shop in a sleepy Devon town, the new waitress who lives in the flat above seems pleasant enough, but if asked to describe her, you’d be hard pushed to say more than, ‘She’s a mousey sort of woman’. There’s not much else to notice about her except perhaps the subtle highlights in her hair and the small smile of satisfaction that plays around her mouth.  

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Back in the early 1970s my imagination was captured by the TV series A Family at War.  This, I believe, set the tone for a genre of novels which became a great favourite – wartime sagas.

In a list of my favourite places to visit, somewhere near the top would be St. Peter Port in Guernsey. Its pretty quaintness belies the awful history of this small island. Following the series Island at War in 2004, my interest became focused on wartime Guernsey. I am, therefore, delighted to read that a film is to be made of the book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Burrows.

Potato peel pie

Of course, reading tastes differ but I reckon that if you’ve not read the book, you are missing a treat. With Guernsey under German Occupation, a local woman created the society as a cover for the breaking of the curfew, and to hide the fact that islanders had, broken the strictly enforced rule that they must not eat their own livestock.  If you have read the book and enjoyed it, try Margaret Leroy’s novel, The Collaborator (also available under the title The Soldier’s Wife) ….another excellent glimpse into life under the terrifying conditions of The Occupation).

A while ago I came across a fascinating article related to the Occupation. Starved, beaten and under threat of execution the inhabitants of Jersey and Guernsey were determined to defy the enemy with small acts of resistance.  The personal testimonies of some of those who suffered at the hands of the Gestapo were made public (c2010) after languishing in a wardrobe in Guernsey for the past five decades, the contents dispelling accusations that some islanders collaborated too easily with the enemy.

Islander Frank Falla collected the statements in the 1960s after the British Government, having received compensation from Germany, paid up to £1,000 each to Channel Island inhabitants who had been injured by the Germans. Falla believed that those involved in the resistance should be similarly recognised. He himself had been deported to Frankfurt for his involvement in “The Guernsey Underground News Service”, a clandestine wartime newspaper on which islanders relied to know what was happening.   One of those imprisoned, Walther Henri Laine, describes a complete absence of human rights as islanders were subject to the most appalling treatment, being starved and, at the slightest provocation, beaten. They were also denied medical treatment, letters or parcels.

The Channel Islands were occupied from 1940 to 1945, the only part of the British Isles to fall under enemy control. At an astonishing ratio of one soldier to three civilians it was more heavily guarded than any of the other occupied territories. The resistance movement was less organised than other countries but Islanders were involved in defiance and protest wherever possible.

Falla’s collection of testimonies meant that the world was able, at last, to understand the terrifying conditions under which Channel Island inhabitants lived during Occupation and recognise the immense bravery of those who carried out the ‘small acts of resistance’.

Any recommendations for other novels set in Guernsey during The Occupation are very welcome.

May challenge update, homemade soup and an apple sauce experiment

soup

Regular readers will be aware that I set myself a challenge to spend no more than £100 on foodstuffs this month. The idea is to make a considerable dent in the contents of the overstuffed cupboards and freezer. So here we are half way through the month – how’s it going?

Firstly, when I decided that £100 would suffice to cover the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables, fruit juice, milk and bread, I forgot about cheese and yogurt. Fortunately, even with these additions, the experiment is pretty much on track. Whilst I make cheese & onion quiches and cheese & potato pie from time to time, they are not featuring in this month’s menu, so the limited amount of cheese I buy can be eaten with crackers. Total expenditure thus far is £60.38. Although that is more than half the target,  I did spend a little extra at the start of the month stocking up on juice as it was on offer. I only buy the ‘not from concentrate’ variety which is a little more expensive than the concentrated stuff.

Tomorrow I need to buy tomatoes and potatoes. Depending on what Tesco have on offer, I shall add some green veg and fruit.  There are still French beans, petit pois and red cabbage in the freezer, plus plenty of sliced peppers (I bought three large bags for 20p each a couple of months ago, chopped them up and froze them that day). Using some of these and a carton of cherry tomatoes that I found in the depths of the freezer (like peppers, I freeze them ready to pop into casseroles, make sauces etc) I made a delicious roast tomato & pepper soup for lunch. We ate it with some (also from the freezer) Mediterranean bread left over from a recipe that my husband made a few weeks ago.

cake applesauce

I also made a cake this morning using some of that excessive store of  dried fruit that I wrote about. I’ve read several times lately that apple sauce can be used in place of some of the sugar or fat in cakes. The suggestion is that you start by replacing half the fat or sugar in your recipe with the apple sauce. From there, depending on how successful it is, you can replace a little more in the next one.   I replaced half and can report that it tastes absolutely fine if a little apple –ish, but since it’s a fruitcake, that’s not a problem.  I had a jar of applesauce in the cupboard (I cannot imagine why I bought this but at least I have now made use of it).   I also want to try another cake using applesauce to replace the sugar instead. I note, however, that the jar sauce contains added sugar which rather defeats the objective, so next time I shall make my own,  and I’m planning to have a go at a savoury cous cous cake – there’s still an awful lot of cous cous waiting to be eaten as well as several packets of quinoa and buckwheat!  I’m not sure yet what I’ll serve it with but something will spring to mind, no doubt.

To be honest, apart from the fact that I like, and therefore miss, food shopping, I can’t say we’ve felt deprived in any way or noticed anything different. Despite eating almost solely from the freezer and cupboards, we’ve enjoyed much the same kind of meals as usual. The difference is that instead of buying four portions of chicken and putting two in the freezer which I then forget about when I’m out shopping and buy more fresh chicken (and inevitably put another two in the freezer), I’m using the stuff that’s in there already. You would not believe how many portions there were …nor how much fish the freezer ‘audit’ turned up!

I think (I hope) that the outcome of this experiment will be that I become more aware of what I’m buying and more disciplined about using stuff up. I like to eat fresh when possible so I have to stop overbuying.

 

The gym for women who don’t do gyms

Exercise

No lycra, no mirrors and no posters of skinny celebrities. No thumping pop music and definitely no men! Doesn’t sound much like a gym, does it?

I’ve mentioned the gym where I am a member a couple of times so I thought I’d tell you a bit more about it. Aimed at women over the age of forty, it’s far from being a conventional gym. If it was, there is no way I would ever have joined for I am so far from being the kind of woman who joins gyms, you wouldn’t believe! No wonder I chose one called Gymophobics! Joining was one of those sudden whims that I occasionally act upon without thought, which ultimately changes my life.

Earlier generations of women rarely had professional careers so retirement brought few significant changes. Today, those women can experience considerable difficulties in adjusting to the isolation felt following retirement from an absorbing career and loss of confidence brought about by the ageing process in a youth obsessed world.  Men have always dealt with this but, according to studies, women are particularly affected by the loss of social interaction at work since they thrive on connecting with others in a similar situation.  The women-only Gymophobics is providing support and friendship alongside getting fit.

Winners of several regional and national awards, my local branch of Gymophobics was awarded Women’s gym of the Year in 2013 by the prestigious Fitness Industry Association.   Comfortable sofas, bookcases full of popular fiction and complementary refreshments create a relaxed societal meeting place where women feel totally comfortable, and with no requirement for special kit or trainers (all exercise is low-impact), this is as much a social club as a gym – and thereby hangs its great success.

There are other women-only gyms but only Gymophobics offer individually tailored exercise programmes suited to their members’ fitness levels and age with members receiving personal attention on every visit.  Whilst many gyms are cutting costs to counteract dwindling membership, here we pay a little more and retention is high as staff concentrate on building relationships with members.  Prescribed physiotherapy exercises can be incorporated into members’ 30 minute programmes so dodgy hips and knees, the bane of late middle age, are well catered for!  Only last year both my GP and physiotherapist (one of those dodgy hips is mine) commented that I was very flexible! The unique exercise programme (first to be awarded a UK trademark) combines cardiovascular, isotonic and isometric exercises designed to provide a full body workout and using air resistance instead of weights is gentler on both muscles and bones.  Also on offer are exercise classes and dietary advice.

Although we have members up to 80 years old, our core membership is the 50-70 age group, many of whom are retired professionals. Understanding the well documented physical benefits of exercise, we also place enormous value on the support and friendship received from staff and each other. Gymophobics is a great leveller; it doesn’t matter what job you did, at the gym everyone is the same as they cope with the mixed emotions that retirement brings. Whilst women look forward to retirement, for many the reality is that they miss their colleagues, the intellectual stimulation of busy jobs and the buzz of personal achievement.

Holders of the FIA’s award for community involvement, we are enthusiastic charity fundraisers, amassing almost £100,000 in the past few years. The gyms key charity is Cancer Research, but many of us fundraise for other causes too. I have personally raised over £650 (shared between Crohns & Colitis UK and Cancer Research) in two and a half years by selling hand-made cards. Our most successful fundraising activity is the annual 24 hour marathon exercise relay, but seeking to do something different a couple of years ago, and inspired by the famous Women’s Institute ‘Calendar Girls’, a group of members stripped off to produce their own version and were justifiably proud  to have raised in excess of £1,500. To minimise costs, a member who is a photographer, donated her services for the photo shoot and one of the instructors produced the artwork.  In case you’re wondering – NO! I was too much of a coward. Instead I volunteered as ‘Artistic Director’ for the December photograph. In June we have a quiz evening to look forward to and a mock Ascot Ladies Day event.

We are not women who don’t want to be with their husbands and families but we all recognise in ourselves an essential need for intellectual stimulation with other like-minded women.   Meeting up with friends generally involves forward planning but the great thing about  Gymophobics is that individual members can drop in at any time, day or evening, seven days a week and there will always be someone to chat to.

If a woman approaching retirement does not already have a support network in place, this can lead to feelings of isolation which, unaddressed, may lead to depression. No-one is suggesting that joining a gym will cure depression, but we know that exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemical. Combine this with the very real support and friendship (and the cups of coffee) available on a daily basis at Gymophobics and it’s an undoubted recipe for success.

If you’d like to know more or see whether there is one of the fabulous facilities in your area, here are the website details:  https://www.gymophobics.co.uk/view/the-circuit