Know your bacon

I wasn’t going to post anything this week, having been weighted down with homework – well, that’s my excuse, anyway – but I just have to share this latest outrage with you. We’ve just been for a quick beer and a sandwich at one of our locals. Settled down to enjoy half a Guinness and a filled toasted ciabatta (in a pub, I know – we’re nothing if not international around here), we couldn’t help but hear the altercation at a nearby table.

Two fellow diners were complaining to the landlady that their Brie and Pancetta ciabattas had meat in them. They whingingly explained that they were vegetarian. We halted our own conversation while we waited to hear the landlady’s response. She very sweetly explained that Pancetta is a little like bacon, didn’t they realise. The vegetarians said they didn’t and could they have the same but just with the Brie. The landlady asked if it would be okay to take the Pancetta out but they insisted on two fresh ones.

The landlady kindly obliged while we looked at each other, jaws dropped in amazement. Once we had recovered sufficiently, Husband (who would fall into the Basil Fawlty school of dealing with customers), made the point that because of the vegetarians ignorance, the Pub would be losing out. How fair is that?

When we paid our bill at the bar we told the landlady she’d been very generous and shared a moment of exasperated humour with her. What do you think – did she go beyond the call of duty? As a customer, should you check what something is on a menu before you order it? Particularly if you have restricted dietary requirements….glad I don’t work in hospitality.

The Saturday job at the chemist provided extra work throughout the holidays which in turn provided me with the cash required to clothe myself as a wannabe hippy in flared jeans and a selection of groovy cheesecloth tops and t-shirts. In a parallel life I was studying for ‘A’ levels, spending copious amounts of time in the art room, wading around in rivers on geography field work or having a wonderful time being properly introduced to Shakespeare by one Mr Herman Peschmann, a diminutive yet cantankerous German who resembled a shell-less tortoise. He had a slight problem pronouncing the word ‘three’ so we spent every lesson forgetting where we were in the text just to hear him repeat ‘Act Three; Scene Three’ which just happened to be on page thirty-three.  To our immature sixth-form minds this was hilarious but he got us through those exams and left us with a lifelong appreciation of the bard.

As if the pressures of the looming exams weren’t enough, we were subjected to our career interviews.  Remember those? You’d be ushered into a makeshift office the size of a broom cupboard (come to think of it, it was the broom cupboard) where an earnestly whiskered elderly woman with bad breath wearing a beige home knitted cable cardigan and flat sandals shuffled a few pamphlets and talked about secretarial college. Or the army.

In days of yore it wasn’t the natural progression to opt for three years at some ivy clad institution slogging your way through every optic in the student union bar and then take a gap year funded by your cash flashing parents – it was still perfectly acceptable to go out to work – and what’s more, there were actual jobs available for those with an inherent  work ethic but fewer theoretical credentials.

With the naivety of youth and a head swimming with implausibly grand ideas of becoming the next Mary Quant, buyer for Harrods or Sunday supplement editor-in-chief I settled in front of Miss Careers-Advice who suggested sweetly that as I had no intention of further education I should definitely think about becoming a secretary. After my dreary filing experience at the bookshop any notion of admin filled me with horror.  I didn’t like to tell her that I didn’t want to BE a secretary, I intended to HAVE one. I left that broom cupboard with a handful of her leaflets and deposited them swiftly into the nearest bin.

I began to panic a bit when several friends suddenly decided that they wanted to be teachers and signed up for various universities. Perhaps I ought to look for something beyond the sixth form, if only to keep the adults in my life from asking what I’d be doing post exams. I trawled through volumes of college prospectuses and finally found what appeared to be a course tailor-made to my lofty, fast-track ambitions. A one year diploma in periodical journalism (an academic year of course means September to June – things were looking better by the minute) at the London College of Fashion in Central London. Marvellous! All my boxes ticked and a year swanning around Oxford Circus: what more could a girl ask for.

I applied, was interviewed and turned up on my first day where I quickly realised that this was going to be the longest year of my life. My fellow course mates, most of whom owned a Chanel handbag, seemed to be treating this as a state-funded finishing school opportunity – a respectable interlude between exclusive boarding school and getting married to a City banker then heading off to the Shires to produce multiple offspring. However, I happily discovered a couple of kindred spirits – one of whom transferred to St Martin’s art college after the first term – leaving me and Val to endure and make the most of whatever came our way.

I have to admit that we probably didn’t embrace our time there quite as we should. We spent considerable time in the nearby Phoenix pub bemoaning our fate over half a Shandy before being dragged unwillingly around all the London fashion shows by Miss Jackson who in her time had been a Fleet Street fashionista but was by now retired and well past her sell-by date. While most of our peers were swooning at the sight of the editor of Vogue in the front row and possibly waiting to prostrate themselves in front of her, Val and I were frantically writing our reports and working out the quickest way back to Oxford Circus to be the first in line for cheese on toast in the canteen before the dreaded evening sessions began. These sessions involved learning a version of shorthand (T-line) which I never got to grips with (smacked of admin) and which I failed dismally.  Then there were the cosmetic science lessons where all I can remember is producing my own hand cream using something called Isopropyle. A word that for some reason has stuck in my memory all these years but which I’ve never had cause to use. The only useful journalistic training we gained was a block of six weeks taken at the London College of Printing. Based at the Elephant and Castle – a less than salubrious area of south London which came as a shock to the haute couture brigade who I don’t think had ever ventured across the Thames, this was where we learned from working journalists about editing, deadlines, printing and the reality of working on a daily paper.  We created our own dummy newspapers, selected stories, set up interviews, had our work rejected. It was fast, fun and furious and Val and I loved it which made returning to the fluffy world of fashion even harder but at least we knew where we didn’t want to work come the summer.

And, as the saying goes, nothing is ever wasted. As the end of the summer term approached, job vacancies trickled in to our tutor at the college. We were encouraged to go for as many interviews as we could. While the Edina and Patsy’s of this world held out for a position on one of the glossies some of us decided to have a bash at anything. So it came to pass that a position presented itself in the press office of the John Lewis Partnership, based at their flagship store a block away from Oxford Circus. I went along for an interview, they liked me; I liked them. It was settled. I said goodbye to the chemist’s forever. I was going to be a partner.

Oh, and by the way, for anyone who has ever thought that the characters of Edina and Patsy in the sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ are way too over the top, please let me reassure you that they aren’t. I have known people exactly like them – I only wish it had been me and not Jennifer Saunders who had created them. Here’s a hilarious reminder:

 

You’d be forgiven for imagining that the bookshop experience put me off reading for life but some things are so far entrenched as to be unthinkable. In fact, the thought once crossed my fifteen-year-old mind to rescue countless titles from the grasp of those two hideous old witches and re-house them on some friendly shelves where they would be loved and appreciated.

I used never to throw or give books away: I let them accumulate – from Enid Blyton to the Metaphysical Poets I hoarded books of all varieties for years, rearranging them often and repeating the dusting ritual begun at Crooks Books.

I tend not to amass many these days – I pass them on to friends and colleagues, the charity bookshop or simply leave them on a train or plane. Only books that I may conceivably read again remain, on a small shelf in my kitchen.

I belong to a small book group. We get together every six weeks or so, in a different pub each time (who knew there were so many within a few miles of home) and we take turns in choosing a title to read to discuss at our next meeting. We’re very informal but it provides a challenge to read something that perhaps I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen. However, I make sure that I also have a title of my choice on hand to read straight after finishing the group one.

So what is my preferred reading material? How do I go about choosing a book? I’m not sure I’d know how to classify my choice given that I don’t go for Sci-Fi or Fantasy, Chick-Lit or Aga Sagas, Thrillers or Historical Fiction. I’m not partial to Mystery, Romance or Crime, either. Is there anything left? Most definitely. I’m never short of reading material – sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed at the height of my reading pile – so how do I choose?

I start off by having a good mooch around a decent bookshop. I have to say that a large Waterstones is perfectly adequate. I even have a loyalty card which accrues points and every so often – yippee – I have enough for a ‘free’ book.

I’m drawn to a beautiful cover, obviously. Good design coupled with a tactile matt finish can set me reaching for my credit card without even turning a page. I’m kidding, of course. Once seduced by the visuals I check out the title – anything slightly odd, quirky or off-beat ensures that I turn to the first page to examine the writing style.  Then, if I’m suitably gripped, I’ll turn to a random page halfway through. This is usually enough to help me decide whether to part with my cash. I used to always read the last page too – happily I’ve trained myself not to do this now. (Nevertheless, I do like last lines of novels and often remember them which is probably why, when I write a story myself, I work out the ending and write to that).

It is with caution that I recommend books – I’m happy to divulge an enjoyed read and then discuss it but I don’t like to provide a resume or write an appreciation or otherwise – I’ll leave that to the reviewers. Now, this might sound mad but I only ever read reviews once I’ve read the book because I like to make up my own mind about what I read and then find out what the literati might think. I have a few favourite authors I seek out and I like to read debut novels, as long as they fit my other criteria. I’m always interested in what friends and colleagues read and why they’ve liked the book or not although it won’t necessarily sway me to follow suit.

 If you’re curious, here are a few books that I’ve read and enjoyed in the last few months although I wouldn’t dream of presuming that you might enjoy them too.

We’re All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibin

The Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

City of Women by David Gillham

And here are a few that I’ve loathed:

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

I’m currently reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (the jury’s still out but it’s looking promising) and on my reading pile is H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (lovely cover) and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

So, in the week that news has filtered through of Harper Lee’s ‘lost’ manuscript (should that be Hype-r Lee?) I’m wondering what’s on your bookshelf and how you decided it should be there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, having decided at fifteen that I really wasn’t cut out for baby-sitting I scouted around for another way to earn money.  As luck or not would have it, I discovered via our Parish Magazine that a Saturday boy/girl was required at a book shop in our nearest small town, accessible by an ancient and not wholly reliable hourly bus service.

A bookshop! I’d be in seventh heaven. I phoned them up, secured an interview and went on the bus to meet the owner. Crooks Books, as I shall from this point refer to the establishment, took up half an old Georgian house, the other half of which sold antique furniture. Mr Crooks owned both and we had a nice chat across a massive mahogany table. I was a pretty precocious and voracious reader for a fifteen year old which must have impressed him because I landed the position and arranged to start the following Saturday. I can’t remember the exact salary but it was probably in the region of around £2.50 for the day. I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams.

When I arrived the following week, slightly nervous but aspiring to become young book sales person of the year I was puzzled to find not Mr Crooks in charge but his rapidly introduced elderly mother and her side-kick, Miss Lemon-Wedge. I was hurried through the shop with its shelves tantalisingly full of rainbow spines to a cramped little office at the back where the walls were lined with filing boxes and piles of papers, odd books and other office paraphernalia. Miss L-W cleared me a space on a surprisingly untidy desk and an in-tray filled to over-flowing was put in front of me. She advised me to get everything into alphabetical order before showing me the next stage.

It was chilly in that dark little office with only a single bar electric fire to heat the place. The atmosphere was decidedly chillier. I very soon realised that I would be playing Cinderella to the wicked step-sisters; Cordelia to Goneril and Regan or James to his Aunts Sponge and Spiker without ever getting near the stories themselves, out of reach in the shop. I might have been any number of Dickens characters …

Once I’d sorted the contents of the in-tray which I deduced were publishing house invoices, all stamped with PAID on them, Miss L-W showed me to the filing cabinet: through a door in an even colder corridor running down the side of the building with a main door to the outside. All I had to do was to put these wretched invoices into the corresponding folders.

5042254[1]Not rocket science but it took the best part of the morning, only broken up by Elderly Mother bringing me a weak-looking cup of tea and one digestive biscuit balanced on the saucer. Every time I see Green Beryl crockery I’m transported back to that filing cabinet. Shame really – it has in recent years become somewhat iconic in ceramic circles.

The shop closed for lunch, I was booted out and had to amuse myself for an hour in a small town with no appealing shops, no cafes or anywhere that was remotely interesting to my fifteen year old self. I optimistically thought that my afternoon might prove more exciting but sadly I was deluded. When I arrived back, two minutes early, I was again ushered through to the back room and shown how to cover books in plastic. These books would then be sent out to the local libraries: there were boxes and boxes of them. The job took ages, I kept creating bubbles under the plastic or for the loose covers I found that the tape wouldn’t stick. It was a horrible job but once I’d acquired the knack I begrudgingly admit that it has given me a skill for life. (Not that I have ever supplied any libraries with books, but you know what I mean).

I was allowed into the shop for the last hour of my day where my task was to dust shelves and straighten the books. Miss L-W dealt with customers and Elderly Mother counted the proceeds. I have never known time pass so slowly, even in a Maths exam but I stuck this slave labour out for about six months until another opportunity presented itself and I jumped at the chance, vowing that anything I did in the future would not involve filing.

The opportunity that presented itself came in the shape of Viv’s mother (remember Viv – she of the babysitting monopoly?). She was the manageress of an independent chemist shop in Croydon. Viv was already working there and another Saturday position had just become available. I could see that running monopolies obviously ran in Viv’s family but why should I worry – I was going to work in Croydon, shopping mecca of the south-east.

Croydon has now merged into the sprawl that is south London but in those days it was our largest nearest town. It was where we all went for serious shopping. There was a new precinct with Habitat, Chelsea Girl, Miss Selfridge and the like as well as lots of strange little units selling cheesecloth, joss sticks and loon pants. Now I’d have something to do in my lunch hour and I’d have plenty of scope to spend my hard earned cash. This was more like it.

Working in the chemist was a complete antithesis to the bookshop. It was light and modern. It was fun. It was busy. Viv and I were allowed to serve customers, to work the till (an old-fashioned one, mind; we had to work out any change needed. My mental arithmetic improved overnight). We marked up stock, we created window displays. We had a laugh. We had a stream of regular punters, some of whom would drop in for a chat with Viv’s Mum. One of her ‘specials’ as she liked to call them was a chap called Tommy. He was a female impersonator, as was the description provided to Viv and me. Outrageously camp, Tommy sang in a night club in Streatham wearing a sequinned evening dress and would swan into the chemist seeking advice on his makeup and false eye lashes. Viv and I were fascinated. The song Lola, by the Kinks always reminds me of Tommy and my chemist days.

At the end of the afternoon Mrs Gracie, the owner, would arrive with our pay packets. She was an eccentric old bird who chain smoked Capstan Full Strength cigarettes – even in her shop. Her gash of red lipstick never quite followed the contours of her mouth; she was always clad in black with uncomfortable looking high heels and seamed stockings and she was a million miles away from Miss Lemon-Wedge. I worked for her until I had a proper job.  My starting salary was £3.27 a day.

I had hit the big time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The annual review provided by the Big Brother that is WordPress suggested that we revisit old posts and write about those subjects again. This seemed a bit counter-productive to me but as I trawled through some really old posts I began to see possibilities.

I blogged a couple of years ago about the first paid job I ever had, aged thirteen, writing up the new year’s stock books for my father. (If you want to read about that, you can do so here). This was lucrative while it lasted but it didn’t provide me with regular income and at that age, when the lure of Aqua Manda scented products and shops such as Chelsea Girl beckoned, money was all important.

Babysitting became the next option. A friend of mine, Viv, seemed to have a monopoly in the village which I was keen to break into. A recently built housing estate spawned plenty of opportunity and I began to get the odd Saturday night slot. I can’t say that looking after other people’s children particularly appealed – I wasn’t that bothered about taking care of my own siblings – but Viv assured me it was easy money and that most people had coloured TV sets and a never ending supply of biscuits.

Once the children are in bed, having read them a story, got them drinks, admired their Lego model, reassured them there are no monsters and Mummy and Daddy will be back soon, the evening is pretty much your own but sitting by yourself in someone else’s house is the weirdest thing. You’re not familiar with the creaks the house makes; the heating system might rumble on like thunder, the washing machine, set on a timer, may well spring into action to take advantage of cheaper electricity. There are likely to be small rodents somewhere in a cage running round in a wheel. You are on edge for four hours just waiting for the parents to get back and free you from this potential peril.

One household I sat for locked the telephone in their bedroom. What kind of family have locks on their internal doors – and who in their right minds locks a telephone away from someone who is acting in loco parentis? Did they think I’d be spending the evening ringing friends in Australia? What would I have done if an emergency presented itself? I never sat for that particular family again. In fact, I wasn’t very successful as a babysitter – I let Viv maintain her monopoly – but I stuck it out until I was fifteen or so until I was able to obtain a proper job: my first foray into retail. But that’ll have to wait until part two.

*My Brilliant Career - a 1901 novel by Miles Franklin about a young Australian girl, Sybylla, and her secret desire to become a writer. It was made into a film in 1979 starring Judy Davis. I’ve always wanted to use that as a title – and now I have.

How long did it take during your Christmas/New Year break to discover that you really couldn’t face one more chocolate, marzipan fruit, mince pie, trifle or slice of cold turkey, ham and accompanying pickle? How long was it before you were pining for something plain and simple, no sugar or unnecessary carbs attached? I’d reached my limit by Sunday 28 December.

As the fridge was still bursting with seasonal fare and a chocolate mountain overloaded the sideboard already I was dreaming of fasting. Even alcohol lost its appeal.

The sofas remained in a state of permanent lopsidedness with their slumped indented unplumped cushions caused by their permanently slumped and increasingly obese occupants while the TV went round on a loop of hideously boring repeats – some only repeated from the week before – as if any of us really noticed or even cared as yet another box of Turkish Delight was offered around.

Not being one to waste food I’ve made just about made sure we’ve chomped our way through pretty much everything before hitting the supermarket with renewed New Year vigour. The other day I made soup from some old leeks I found lurking and a wedge of stilton cheese. Why we buy strong blue cheese I have no idea – we never eat it at any other times during the year – but it’s a part of Christmas, so we have it. I had no idea that there would be a recipe for this combination so I just followed my culinary instincts (which we all know aren’t that well honed), chopped the leeks, sweated them in some butter, added a potato and vegetable stock then zizzed them up together with my hand-held blender. I then crumbled in the cheese, zizzed a bit more and returned the pan to the heat, adjusted the seasoning and served. Quite good, actually, although if I made it again (unlikely), I’d add a bit of milk to take the strength from the cheese.

I’m pleased to report that a) there won’t be any further recipe tips here and b) thankfully the cupboard is bare and we can look forward to getting back to a weekly routine.

Speaking of reports – I was interested to learn from the WordPress review of my blogging year that I have managed to elicit the same amount of traffic to my site as it would take to fill the Sydney Opera House several times over. Well, not having ever visited said concert hall, this statistic was rather lost on me until I equated the total to filling the Royal Albert Hall and discovered that I’m probably as popular as Eric Clapton on a two night sell out tour.

Now I know how many hits it takes to fill the Albert Hall…

Thanks to everyone who has dropped in, liked and commented – much appreciated.

WordPress also suggested that I take a look at some older successful posts and consider writing about those topics again. Hmm, might try this as a bit of an experiment especially as one post has only elicited interest because of its accompanying photographs and I’m feeling less than creatively original at the moment. Sounds like an excellent solution.

Also, in their wisdom, school have sent me on a training course which requires homework to be completed every week for the next ten. I can see this taking up more time that I anticipated so blog posts may well be sporadic although I’m hoping that the training course itself will provide some fodder.

So, that’s the start of my 2015 – glad to be back in the routine – however much we rail against it, I think we’re all creatures of habit to a greater or lesser extent.

Here’s to a new blogging year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrapping, sticking, tying, cutting, folding, covering, curling, polishing, paring, adorning, chopping, embellishing, fretting,  marinating, rolling, icing, dicing, stuffing, hiding, cooking, hanging, forgetting, decorating, dusting, peeling, browning, trimming, seasoning, stirring, splicing, vacuuming, arranging, sautéing,  draping, laying, panicking, cleaning, shining, contacting, baking, whipping, drinking, roasting, slicing, basting, measuring, fixing, fastening, eating, festooning, simmering, hosting, tidying, washing, drying, stacking, preparing, repeating…

images3JEDFBJNI hope it’ll all be worth it.

The blog kitchen will be closed for a bit while I concentrate on the real one, but I’ll be back sometime in January.

Whatever you’re doing over the festive season, have a wonderful time and a very happy, peaceful new year.

See you on the other side.

     

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 281 other followers