Posted in Personal life, Writing

The Early Bird Catches the Focaccia

This post first appeared in the July/August issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of July/August issue of the Tetbury Advertiser“Only in the Cotswolds!” commented a friend when one Monday morning I posted on Facebook a photo of what I’d just put out in my garden to feed the birds: green olive focaccia and grissini. (And yes, before there are letters to the editor, I did soak it in water first, so as not to dehydrate the birds.) I thought the birds might appreciate dinner-party leftovers as a change from my daughter’s school lunchbox leavings.

Even more Cotswold would be a selection of Hobbs House bread and some trimmings from Tetbury’s House of Cheese, all drenched in elderflower pressé and served up on a wooden trencher hand-carved from a piece of Westonbirt Arboretum wood.

I should probably also have served it in an elegant little Boden dress, covered with a Cath Kidston pinny. I failed on both counts, despite my predilection for the latter’s handbags. And sadly none of it had been nowhere near a middle-aged man wearing oxblood corduroy trousers.

Back to Basics

In fact what my friend took to be a gourmet treat for my little feathered friends was more slummy than yummy. The olive focaccia being reduced for quick sale before loitering in my freezer for a few weeks. The grissini was not the rustic hand-rolled type, but straight white mass-produced batons, bought for a young visitor who eats only bread that looks as if it’s gone a few rounds with a bottle of bleach.

But I’ve come to realise that gourmet cooking is in the eye of the beholder. In a supermarket recently, I overheard a lady saying proudly to her friend “I cooked porridge from scratch the other day”. Er, water, oats, oats, water – there’s only so much that you can do with that. Her claim struck me as not far removed from saying “I prepared a banana from scratch” when all she’d done was peel it. But in a world in which you can buy frozen baked potatoes and frozen scrambled eggs, perhaps I should not be surprised.

Fly-by-Nights?

Fortunately my garden birds are not foodies, and they’re not much bothered by sell-by dates. (Don’t worry, letter writers, I never leave mouldy food out either.) But I was a little puzzled that most of the food put down after my daughter got home from school, still there when I went to bed, would entirely disappear by the time I opened the curtains at breakfast time, without me ever seeing a single bird tucking in.

Another social media friend came up with the answer: “If the birds don’t get it, the rats will.”

To be on the safe side, I’ve now changed feeding time in my garden, so that I’m up in time to see who’s coming to Garden Café Young. If the dawn chorus want a snack before I’m up and about, they can jolly well catch the proverbial worm. Even so, I have to say this morning when I put out their daily rations, I have never been so glad to see a blackbird.


image of covers of first three books in the Sophie Sayers series
My series of village mystery novels is inspired by my daily life in the Cotswolds – just click on the image to find out more about them
Posted in Personal life, Travel

Let’s All Go Down the Strand (Bananas Optional)

Tube map, Oyster card and bunch of bananas
Why the bananas? I can hear my non-British friends wondering. I explain at the end of the post.

How the emptiness of one of London’s busiest roads, The Strand, near Charing Cross Station, caught me by surprise on Saturday morning

When I was a little girl, I lived in a leafy south-east suburb of London. Sidcup, to be precise, which is on a train commuter route half an hour from Charing Cross, technically the centre of London. Stepping out from the Charing Cross Station forecourt onto the Strand meant hurling yourself into a heaving metropolis, streaming with traffic of both pedestrian and vehicular.

Never Stationary

Later, I worked in central London in a couple, in one job round the corner from Victoria Station, in another a brisk stroll from London Bridge. (What is it about my career and train stations? Suddenly my life is starting to sound like a game of Monopoly.) Every day on my way to work, I’d automatically brace myself to wade purposefully through the crowds. It’s just what everyone does in rush hour, and no-one thinks anything of it.

Village Contrast

Since I moved to a small Gloucestershire village on the edge of the Cotswolds 25 years ago, a walk down the street has become rather a different experience. Here, you may not see many people – sometimes none at all – but each that you do see will say a friendly hello, and you’ll probably know most of them by name. Whenever I return to London now, I’m startled by the crowds, until my brain reboots into its former Londoner setting.

Photo of the Strand with no traffic or people
No bananas here – the very empty Strand, London, at 8.30am on a Saturday morning

So it came a huge surprise to me to discover last month that early on a Saturday morning, the Strand is deserted. Twice in January I had to be there at 8.30am on Saturdays, and I don’t think I’ve ever been there at that time of day at the weekend before. There was scarcely a vehicle to be seen, and the only people about were homeless people sheltering in shop doorways. What I first took to be a large gathering of them outside a theatre, I later realised to be a queue for cut-price tickets released early in the day. (I thought it was odd that one of them had a Cath Kidston handbag.)

Do I Know You?

Another surprise came when someone called out a cheery hello to me. It turned out not to be someone I knew, as it would have been back in Hawkesbury, but a young, very grubby chap of about 30, huddled under a blanket outside McDonalds. I stood him a cup of hot chocolate by way of a thank you.

Photo of man with bird of prey in Trafalgar Square, London
Feeding the birds – to the bird – in Trafalgar Square, in front of Nelson’s Column, with Big Ben in the background.

The only other person I spoke to was a little beyond the Strand, on Trafalgar Square, where I strolled to kill time, waiting for the friend I was due to be meeting at 9am. My attention was drawn to the jingle of bells as a hawk flew down from the National Gallery to return to this chap’s wrist. They turned out to be there on official business, paid to patrol the Square for three hours a day as pest control. Gone are the days when tourists were encouraged to buy bags of birdseed from street vendors to feed the pigeons. Mary Poppins’ persuasive song calling us to “Feed the birds” suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

Why the Banana?

Speaking of meanings, I owe my non-British readers an explanation of the banana. In 1909, a Cockney Music Hall became a smash hit, called “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, in which that line was followed by the refrain “Have a Banana”. I’ve always wondered what the significance of the banana was, other than the obvious connection of what was then a fruit market in nearby Covent Garden. Coming from Charing Cross, in search of a banana, going down the Strand would be a reasonable route.

I hesitated to research the meaning of the banana, knowing that most music hall songs are filled with bawdy double entendres. It turns out that “have a banana” wasn’t part of the original lyrics, but may just have been added by enthusiastic, tipsy crowds as it fitted the musical phrase that followed the first line of the verse. The rest of the lyrics are largely forgotten by most people these days. I’m not sure I ever knew them, but you can find the original lyrics here, if you’re interested. But there’s not a a banana in sight, nor are bananas relevant to the theme of the song. (Sorry if that news makes me sound about as much of a killjoy as a High Court judge.)

The Banana in the Room

Cover of Cabin Pressure box set
Turning the banana of Edwardian Music Hall into sublime 21st century comedy

But the banana in the Strand is like an elephant in the room. (No, I’m not talking about the Elephant and Castle, another district of London – I’ll save that for another day). It simply won’t go away. if you play “word association” with most British people of a certain age, and say “Let’s All Go Down the Strand”, “Have a banana” will be the first thing that comes into their heads. There have even been cover versions of the song recorded this century by – wait for it – Blur. (Listen to their version here, if you must.)

For a much more authentic and hearty demonstration of how the banana line should be sung, check out this extract of BBC Radio 4’s  smart sitcom Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam and John Finnemore, its genius writer. As the suave scoundrel Douglas (Roger Allam) might put it, the banana is in play.

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Posted in Family, Travel

Girls In Their Summer Clothes

Debbie and Laura about to buy Sancerre at source
"Have red shoes, will travel" (Buying Sancerre at source in France last summer)

If the weather turns wintry tomorrow, blame me. Because this afternoon, I dragged out from under my bed the big plastic storage box in which my summer clothes have been hibernating since October (cue for a snowstorm).

As I spread flimsy dresses and crisp cotton shifts across the bed, images of last summer flitted across my brain like the apocryphal flashbacks of a drowning man. All of these images featured me in these clothes.

There I was on the Avignon tourist trail in a floaty, floral Cath Kidston number. This cool cotton lawn frock was the only thing keeping me on the right side of sanity in the sticky, seething streets. And it was the perfect outfit to  “danser sur le Pont” (as you do).

And then there was the cappuccino sleeveless linen shift, short skirt sticking to my legs as we cycled across the cobbles of Senlis to reach the open-air municipal pool. Splashy French shrieks of excitement and distant foreign children’s laughter lured us in the right direction, even though we couldn’t see the pool till the very last minute. It was raised on a balcony above street level – an upstairs open-air swimming pool! Who’d have thought it?

Debbie and Laura on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Summer 2011
No prizes for guessing which city we're in! The terrace on top of the Arc de Triomphe provides a whole new perspective on the Eiffel Tower

The tiered navy sleeveless Gap drill dress didn’t show the dirt on a hot, dusty day spent giving my daughter her first taste of Paris.  Laura didn’t like Paris. “It’s too city-ish.”

It obligingly withstood another day’s wear at Disneyland Paris – a twelve-hour shift to get our money’s worth. Now that Laura did approve of.

And then there was the blue and white stripey jersey shift, too short and shabby to be worn beyond our back garden really, but perfect for the long haul south in our camper van, my feet on the dashboard as we ambled down the valleys of the Loire and the Rhone to Provence. (Don’t worry,  my husband was driving.)

For a second, I allow myself to  believe that the act of trying on my favourite summer clothes will magically transport me back to the south of France, far from the woolly jumpers of home. I gaze at my favourite cotton lawn sundress with the wistful longing that as a child I’d project on an old wooden chair, hoping it would sprout the wings of Enid Blyton‘s famous Wishing Chair and whisk me away. (How those magical children’s stories  stay with you forever!)

But this year we won’t be heading south, whatever we wear. We’re spending this summer is Scotland – and as my daughter likes to say, “You don’t go to Scotland for the weather”. I’ll still be taking my beloved summer clothes. But I expect I’ll have to wear them all at once.

Posted in Personal life

Why Pay A Grand for A Handbag?

Leafing through the Sunday supplements, I wonder how many readers actually buy the extortionately expensive items featured in the fashion pages. £100 for a moisturiser? No thank you! I expect change from a tenner when I buy a facecream. And how can any handbag be worth £1,000? I would never pay that much for an item I couldn’t drive away or spend a family holiday in.
The most I’ve ever spent on a handbag is just £35, and that was extravagant by my standards. Admittedly my standards are very low. My handbag collection features far too many bags that started life as free gifts attached to women’s magazines.

But I can certainly justify this relatively lavish purchase. It brought to a satisfactory conclusion my lifelong quest for the perfect handbag. Pillar box red, with a scattering of cheery retro flowers over practical dirt-repellent oilcloth, it has soft leather-trimmed khaki handles that make for comfortable carrying, even when it’s stuffed full with all that my daughter and I need for a day out. Its depths are positively Tardis-like.

Strangely, it also appears to spread joy to those about me. Walking around with this bag on my arm is like going out with a celebrity. People stop me to admire it, ask me where I got it, tell me they’re planning to put it on their Christmas list. I even had a shy-looking teenager call after me in a superstore toilet yesterday, just as I was leaving, as if unable to help herself: “I like your handbag!”

So if you’ve been tempted by the Sunday supplements to splash out, think again. Nip into Cath Kidston instead and buy a handbag like mine for £35. Then invest in a notebook to make a list of how you’re going to spend the £965 you’ve just saved.

Post Script on 12th May
A whole new take on my Cath Kidston bag yesterday in the supermarket.  The check-out assistant, mid-scan, fixes her gaze on my handbag.

“Is that one of those expensive bags?” she asks.

“I suppose it depends what you’re comparing it to,” I reply.

In the context of a free plastic carrier or a 10p Bag for Life, I suddenly feel positively extravagant.