Tuesday 31 October 2017

On Halloween

Hello, thank you for popping in, and thank you especially to those of you who left comments on my last post.  It seems to have generated a fair bit of conversation, both here and in the "outside" world. 
Today is 31st October, Halloween, a day which I have come to loathe. When I was a young child in England in the early 1970s it was the day on which we read stories and poems about witches and magic in school and drew pictures of said witches on their broomsticks with obligatory pointy hats and black cats.  By and large, that was it.  We knew that the day was a bit special but what we really looked forward to was Bonfire Night on 5th November.

Then when I was eight years old my family moved to Scotland and on 31st October, after we had eaten our tea, there was a knock on the front door.  When my mother opened the door, she found a group of my friends on the doorstep, dressed up in costumes, who asked if I was coming out guising with them.  Guising?  I had never heard of it, but I liked dressing up and I liked going out with my friends, so it didn't take me long to raid the dressing up box and off I went, bag in hand.  We knocked on people's doors - only the houses of people we knew or people our parents knew - and each of us had to perform a party piece, sing a song or recite a poem, tell a joke or two or perform a magic trick, and in return, we were rewarded with a handful of peanuts in their shells and perhaps a few sweets or chocolates.  Those rewards were why we each carried a bag. 

Every home had a bowl piled high with peanuts and some had bowls of water with apples in which we "bobbed" for - traditionally this involved putting your face in the water and capturing an apple with your teeth, no hands allowed.  Yuk!  I can't stand apples so this was double torture for me.  The more modern, and kinder, way was to kneel on a chair, hold a fork between your teeth and let go of the fork so that it dropped into the bowl: if it stabbed an apple, you won it.  Once everyone had performed and had a go at bobbing for an apple, we moved on as a group to the next house.  It was a benign affair with very small children going out with their elder siblings, I can't remember any parents coming with us, and costumes were simply fancy dress of any kind, not limited to the scary.  In fact, I can't remember anyone ever wearing a scary costume in the five years or so that I went out guising - actually, some people did dress up as ghosts, but they were friendly, sheet-over-your-head type ghosts, not really scary ones.
Of course, there were lanterns.  When I was a Girl Guide, there was always a competition for the best lantern.  However, there were no pumpkins for our lanterns were made out of swedes and we lit candles inside them, threaded string through the lids and carried them with us.  Even now, the smell of singed raw swede transports me back to the 1970s.  Although I must say that one year, I won second prize with a lantern made from a hollowed-out melon!  Perhaps my mother couldn't get hold of enough swedes that year (I have three sisters). 

I don't find any of this difficult.  What I know now, and didn't know then, is the relationship between all this and the Christian church: that this is  AllHallowtide.  Ist November is All Saints' Day, Hallowmas, a holy day to honour all the saints and martyrs and 2nd November is All Souls' Day, a day to remember all faithful Christians who have died, especially family and friends.  Around the world, many people will visit the graves of their lost loved ones and lay flowers for them.  So today, All Hallows' Eve, Hallowe'en, is a day to prepare to remember, a night when the veil between this life and the next is thin, a day when our superstitious ancestors might wear masks or disguises so that the wandering souls wouldn't recognise them.  During the medieval period in England, children and poor adults would visit houses during this period and offer to say and sing prayers for the souls of the householders and their friends in return for alms, specially baked cakes, apples or money.  This is the root of my 1970s guising. 

If Halloween were still remembered in this way, with an understanding of our folklore and heritage, I really wouldn't mind, but it isn't and I don't like what it has become.  Shall I start with Trick or Treat?  Earning one's reward by singing for one's supper, literally or metaphorically, has been replaced with obtaining it by menaces.  Children expect to be given sweets or money in return for absolutely nothing and if you don't give, you may be given a mouthful of abuse or have eggs thrown at your house or car.  As for the costumes, it's all about gore, violence and scaring the bejesus out of people.  What happened to magic and a bit of spookiness?  Little girls and boys go out dressed as bloody vampires and zombies  with their faces painted accordingly.  Nobody seems to raid the dressing up box any more, but supermarkets and shops make a fortune out of selling "costumes" which will only be worn once because the children will have grown out of them by next year - Tom Kitten has two Halloween costumes and he is three weeks old!! 

The season of Hallowtide has been replaced by the season of Halloween, with houses being decorated accordingly with tonnes of synthetic tat which will probably end up in landfill, and it's not just houses: I went for a walk in the woods on Wenlock Edge yesterday and there were fake cobwebs pinned up everywhere.  Several people have mentioned to me that they have never known the "season" begin so early before, perhaps because the actual day has fallen outside the half term holiday around here. 

As for the lanterns, I wonder if anyone in Scotland still scoops out and carves a swede or if, like the English, they have gone mad for the pumpkin?  America, I get it, I really do, pumpkins are native in your part of the world and let's face it, they are an awful lot easier to carve than swedes, and if I were American I would definitely go for the pumpkin option, but why have the British let go of their tradition so easily?  Vast fields are given over to the growing of pumpkins which will plummet in price if they are still on the shop shelves tomorrow.  Worst of all, as far as I am concerned, is the fact that apparently, most people scoop out the flesh of their pumpkin AND THROW IT IN THE BIN!  I was shocked when I discovered that, quite recently, because in my naivety I had assumed that nobody would waste good food and that pots of pumpkin soup were simmering away merrily on the hobs of the nation. 

And so I have come to loathe this day on which the British have given up their traditions and allowed nastiness, commerce and greed to hold sway. 

Are you wondering about the photographs?  When I was at primary school there was a television training college nearby and when I was eleven years old, the college approached my school and asked for four children to go there for a day to appear in a film about Scottish Halloween celebrations with an actress called Dorothy Dean.  I was one of the four children who were chosen and my friend Karen and I dressed up as Laurel and Hardy, our party piece being The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine.  We were treated like film stars that day and each received a handsome payment of £5 in House of Fraser vouchers, which I spent on a knitted waistcoat and a pair of gloves.  A short time later, these photographs were delivered to the school, a set for each of us.  I like to think that in some far-flung corner of the world, I was a famous film star for five minutes!

So I cannot wish you "Happy Halloween" as Facebook suggests I do.  Instead, I have gathered together some photographs of those I have loved and lost and they can stay on the mantelpiece for the season of Hallowtide.  I shall light some candles for them tonight and remember their stories.  No pumpkins, no plastic spiders and definitely no fake cobwebs. 

Rant over.

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x
Altogether now, "On a mountain in Virginia..."


Friday 27 October 2017

A Tale of Two Prams

Hello, thank you for dropping in, it's good to see you here.  We are still floating on a happy baby cloud here.  Tom Kitten arrived rather late and, in the end, rather dramatically, but mother and baby are both doing well.  Postnatal care has changed a lot since she was born in 1989: mums and babies stayed in the hospital for eight days for a first baby, four days for subsequent babies and at least ten days for babies born by Caesarean section.  I wasn't allowed to bring her home until feeding was established and I had shown the midwives that I could bath her on my own.  After returning home, the midwife made daily visits until the baby was ten days old, at which point we were discharged into the care of the health visitor.  The Teacher's experience was quite different: after two days in the hospital under consultant care she and Tom Kitten moved to the midwife-led unit for one night before coming home.  The midwife visited on days four, six and eleven.  The health visitor came on day fourteen and, having given The Teacher a verbal list of things she must and must not do, will visit again in four weeks' time.  Thank goodness for grandmothers who can show nervous parents how to bath a baby, dress a baby, wind a baby, launder baby clothes and generally help to build up their confidence.  We are all losing track of time and dates but Tom Kitten is absolutely adorable and we are all smitten.
When I was expecting The Teacher my parents-in-law said that they would like to buy a pram for us.  We went to the County Sleep Shop in Shrewsbury and, after much deliberation, chose a Silver Cross pram which, with its metal shopping tray, cost £158.  Of course, we didn't bring it home with us because that was thought to bring bad luck, to have a pram in the house before a baby was born; no, the shop owner suggested that he should keep it in his store room until we rang him to let him know that the baby had arrived, so that's exactly what we did.  It wasn't a coach built pram, the carry cot detached from the frame so that we could fit it into the boot of the car, but it had large wheels and springs and it was wonderful to push.  The springs meant that I could bounce it up and down the eight steps to my front door with ease and without disturbing either The Teacher or the shopping which was on the tray underneath the carry cot. 
Early this summer, we returned to the County Sleep Shop with The Teacher and bought a pram, this time from the daughter-in-law of the man who owned the shop the first time we visited.  She told me that her mother had bought a pushchair there from him in 1958. The Teacher also chose Silver Cross, but this contraption is so much more than a pram: it's a complete travel system.  There is a frame into which fits a carry cot, a car seat or a pushchair seat, which can be angled anywhere between upright and recline and face backwards or forwards.  There is a change bag for baby paraphernalia, a parasol for sunny days and there are various covers for wintry days.  It doesn't sing, dance or make the tea but it is definitely a multipurpose vehicle.  The wheels are small, but the woman in the shop assured us that they think these are "the best for our county".  There are no springs to cushion Tom Kitten's ride.  No springs and small wheels, and yet Silver Cross describe this affair as having "a multi terrain off road chassis" and being "robust and built for adventure".  Pish pshaw!  I think that would be a rather uncomfortable adventure.  Would you like to know how much this marvellous contraption cost?  £795, and that was a special offer as apparently the list price is £1,000+.  When I told her that we paid £158 in 1989, the woman in the shop said, in all seriousness, "The cost of living has rocketed since then."  I looked her in the eye and said, deadpan, "The cost of prams has rocketed since then."  

See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Wednesday 18 October 2017

On 16th October

Hello, thank you for calling in, and many thanks for your congratulations on my new grandmotherly status.  When I was a child, a grandmother had grey hair and false teeth and wore an apron all day, which is not a route I am ready to go down just yet, but my cousin has assured me that she has heard that these days, grandmothers can be superglamorous.  I have aspirations.

I hope to tell you more about our adorable new bundle later this week, but today I think I need to talk about 16th October - well, two 16ths October, to be precise.

On Friday 16th October 1987 I woke up full of excitement.  I went to the bathroom and when I came back to my room in the rented flat I shared with two friends, I turned on my second-hand, black and white portable television to listen to BBC Breakfast Time as I pottered around the room getting myself ready for the day ahead and packing up my things, ALL of my things because today I would be moving into my very own house!  Completion was due to take place at midday and then I would be A Homeowner. 

This is an extract from the surveyor's report.  Mine is the middle house.
As I looked at the television I realised that something was wrong: Nicholas Witchell was on his own in a temporary studio.  I listened more closely and discovered that storm-force winds during the night had caused massive disruption and destruction across the country.  I went to the window and, looking out, saw that everything was exactly as it had been the previous day.  I felt a bit confused.  Shortly afterwards, the Best Beloved rang me from his home in South Buckinghamshire.  He had booked the day off work and planned to drive up to Shropshire and help me to move house.  He told me of the terrible winds during the night.  In the morning, he had gone into the bathroom and thought, "Where's the window?"  He looked out of the hole where it had been and spotted it on the other side of the garden, with lots of other debris which had been picked up and dropped there by the wind.  Apparently, here in the west midlands we had been in the eye of the storm, winds had raged all around us but the air above us had been completely still and we had slept on in blissful ignorance as the Great Storm of 1987 passed by.

The Best Beloved's journey was long and tortuous as many roads were blocked by fallen trees but after several hours, he arrived and we collected the van we had hired.  Our first task was to collect the bed which I had bought during the week, so we drove to the shop only to be told that the bed wasn't there but at the factory on the industrial estate and that we should be quick because the factory closed early on Fridays!  The Best Beloved put his foot down but we were too late and as the factory was closed over the weekend, we had to sleep on the floor for three nights until it reopened on the Monday - fortunately, the house was carpeted!

Throughout the process of buying my house I recorded every important detail in a journal.  This extract shows the details of the van hire.
We had an interesting visitor that first evening in my new house: a television licence inspector.  He said that there was no record of a television licence at my address and I replied that I had only moved in that afternoon and hadn't had time to transfer the licence from my previous address.  He didn't believe me so I invited him in and showed him the boxes everywhere and the blankets which I had hung at the window as temporary curtains.  He still appeared to be very sceptical and the following week, I received an odd letter purporting to be from the General Post Office, which administered the licences then, informing me of the penalties which I would face if I didn't buy a television licence immediately.  The letter was typed on very thin paper, not headed paper, and I still don't believe that it was genuine.  All very odd.  Perhaps he was casing the joint with a view to burglary?  My second-hand, black and white portable television, cardboard boxes and blankets for curtains obviously weren't sufficiently enticing.
So let's move forward thirty years to 16th October 2017.  Flashman returned to work after paternity leave and so I drove over to The Teacher's house early in the morning to help her with Tom Kitten (he's not called Tom and he's not a kitten but his mother and I have decided that it's a good blog name for him, so that's how he will be known here).  We knew that the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia were on their way to Ireland and Wales but the Best Beloved, who is something of a weather nerd, had assured me that we wouldn't be affected here.  The sky looked very strange as I drove westwards, thick and uniformly grey but not misty.  The temperature was unseasonably warm, more than twenty degrees Celsius and apparently, it was the hottest October day since UK records began (the average temperature here at this time of year is  fourteen degrees Celsius).  Later that morning, the solid grey sky was blushed with pink and the shafts of sunlight which fell across the floor were rose-coloured.  Outside those shafts, the light was gloomy and dim and The Teacher commented that she's not used to having to put the lights on in the morning.  The atmosphere felt most peculiar, as if it were full of an invisible something, and the orange sun burned high in the sky.  The Mathematician, who had flown in from Guernsey that morning, told me that the skies were the same in Guernsey, in Birmingham and in Loughborough.  I have read several different explanations of the cause of this phenomenon but according to the Met Office, Ophelia dragged sand and dust from the Sahara Desert and ash and debris from the forest fires in Portugal up into the atmosphere where the particles scattered the blue and green light in the spectrum, leaving the red and yellow to dominate.  In the afternoon, the winds whipped up, we watched twigs and branches being wrenched from trees and thrown around the garden and we felt very glad to be safe indoors. 

In the evening, I went to a poetry evening and listened to three poets tell stories and poems, their voices rising to be heard above the howling wind outside (and the humming bar fridge inside!).  Fifty people had booked tickets but less than half that number attended and those of us who had made it were lauded for our efforts in braving the weather.  It was a memorable evening.  It was a memorable day.
 I hope you and yours have all survived the winds.  See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x

Saturday 14 October 2017

What A Wonderful World

Hello, thank you for popping in.  I'm just popping in as well, to apologise for my absence here and assure you that I shall be back soon.  A wonderful thing has happened and we are all somewhat distracted. 
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x