Monday 31 December 2007

Happy New Year

Phew - back from my travels in time to wish everyone a very Happy New Year.

Arrived home to find water dripping through bathroom ceiling, so supper, unpacking and chivving of offspring into bed have all been late and distracted. Finding a plumber on New Year's Day should be easy enough, shouldn't it . . . ???

Still feeling decidedly post-viral and even more decidedly middle-aged. I received some slippers for Christmas (I don't usually 'do slippers') - and (here's the really dreadful bit) - I LOVE them!!! I have 'done slippers' a lot over the past week. I have snored on sofas a lot. I have drunk many more teas than G&Ts. I have not been for any bracing walks, nor have I braved any shops to snap up bargains in the Sales. I have read quite a lot of books, though, so it hasn't all been a Bad Thing.

Jools Holland and friends are beckoning from the sitting room, so I am about to move on from one of these

to one of these

and then at 12.05 my slippers and I will be heading up the wooden hill with a[nother] good book.

Lots of good wishes from me and the Muddy Island to all my readers xxx

Thursday 27 December 2007

Forgot to say . . .

Re Christmas Day - the Cooking of the Lunch was considerably enhanced by listening to the bizarre and brilliant Humph in Wonderland - which you can catch again if you're quick between now and New Year's Day.

Re the Mersea Boxing Day Swim - you can see more photos here . For infomation on supporting the RNLI and to find out more about the West Mersea station, click here. And there's also a video clip of the swim here.

Where was I . . .?

Well, as previously intimated, my Christmas ended up a bit of a rub-out all round.

On Sunday, after a final (surprisingly leisurely) stroll round Sainsbury’s, spent the evening in the company of friends - and friends and neighbours of friends – which was all very jolly and congenial. My attempts to cauterise the onrush of attacking viruses by the judicious application of alcohol were unsuccessful from a medical perspective, but released my usually (very) well hidden reserves of wit, charm and erudition right up to the Unfortunate Incident with the Wine and the Natural Fibre Floorcovering some five hours later. After which (and following some strenuous blotting) a hasty retreat was effected.

(I have today been emailed with reassuring photographic evidence that the floorcovering – and thus, more crucially, the highly valued friendship – seems to have survived more or less intact, thanks largely to my serendipitous preference, that evening, for pink over red wine.)

Christmas Eve I don’t really remember, apart from a lot of belated wrestling with paper and sellotape. On Christmas Day – having 'achieved' lunch (very slowly, while everyone else was off out singing carols) – I retreated to the sofa, upon which I reclined, as elegantly as possible under the circumstances, for most of the rest of the ‘festivities’. Thankfully, I had received a copy of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader , which was just the thing to read between snoozes. I had never been in any doubt that I would enjoy this delightful little flight of fancy and I wasn’t disappointed. It was every bit as amusing, droll and gently satirical as I’d anticipated.

I have read some whingeing comments by some of the more serious book-bloggers complaining that it is some kind of cynical rip-off, an overpriced little outing on the bandwaggon by its author and publishers alike. I beg to disagree quite noisily. Plenty of Alan Bennett’s previous shorter works – including Father! Father! Burning Bright and The Clothes They Stood Up In have been published as modestly priced paperbacks and even given away free with newspapers, I seem to remember. From time to time, however, Christmas being pre-eminently one of those times, there’s nothing more cosy and satisfying than holding in one hand a nicely produced, small hardback book which one can read and enjoy without very much effort while clutching a life-enhancing/sustaining mug of tea or a glass of mulled wine (for example), in the other hand. The Twelve Days of Christmas [correspondence] was one such. The Uncommon Reader is another.

To complain about its price per page of text, or to compare it somehow with the cost or importance of a weighty, award-winning biography, for example, is to take it entirely out of context. The publishers got it just right, in my view, so enjoy it for what it is and stop moaning, is my seasonal message!

Having polished that one off and had another snooze or two, I started on Margery Allingham’s Mystery Mile . I hadn’t read any Allingham before, but this one had been on my list because it is set on a small island which purports to be in Suffolk but which was, in fact, based on Mersea, where Allingham had holidayed as a child. The island has shrunk to a fraction of its true size and population (even in the 1930s), and the Strood becomes the ‘Stroud’, but there’s a pub called the Dog and Pheasant and the vivid descriptions of the marshes, the mud and the estuarine tides will be easily recognisable to anyone who knows Mersea.

It was a good one to read while under the weather, though I confess that some of the urge to turn pages very quickly owed more to my frustration with the endless, camp, bletherings of the aptly named hero, Albert Campion, than it did to the compelling interest of the plot. It was rather like watching a pantomime, I thought – with too much magic and disappearances in puffs of smoke (or Mersea mist, indeed) – for my liking. Now you see him, now you don’t, but look – he’s right behind you! It seemed very much a 1930s period piece and I don’t feel terribly inclined to pursue the Campion series further. There’s an interesting page about the Mersea connection on the Margery Allingham Society website, though, and I’m quite interested in laying my hands on a copy of her first published novel, Blackkerchief Dick (1923), which is set entirely on Mersea, but it seems never to have been reprinted and the original editions are rare and command prices unfeasible for the merely curious.

The remainder of my recumbent day was spent enjoying the fabulous Royal Ballet production Prokofiev’s/Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet, with Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo. Just sublime. This has long been my favourite ballet of all time, and Prokofiev’s score some of my favourite music full stop (in fact, strike all other ballets from the repertoire and just leave this one – it has everything one could possibly need). The music is replaying in my head even now. There are some clips of Rojo and Acosta rehearsing and talking about the production here , here and here.

The very silly but good fun (if you like that kind of thing) Dr Who Christmas Special was followed by the girls going off to watch yet more of the endless Strictly Come Dancing spin-offs (I’m all Strictlied-out and won’t be able to bear another dose for at least six months), while I dozed with the menfolk in front of a DVD of The Battle of Britain, which I hadn’t watched for many years.

Always intriguing to observe that, although authenticity was (to my untrained eye, at least) achieved in so many ways, the women’s makeup and hairstyles were anachronistically 1960s. Was this a refusal on the part of actresses (Susannah York in particular) to contemplate assuming the appearance of their mothers’ generation? Did nobody notice that short, feathered hair and pale lipstick just didn’t achieve the wartime ‘look’? Or was it simply considered an unimportant detail for some reason? This is by no means a unique phenomenon in 60s films, but it jars even more distressingly against the WRAF uniforms than it does in other 60s 'costume dramas'. Perhaps it is only with hindsight that we can see these things clearly.

On the home front, not only is the Christmas cake still uncut . . . it hasn't even been decorated! It's merely a huge white blob of naked icing. I'm just about to do something spontaneous and creative with some gold paper and a red candle. But whether anyone will actually attack it with a sharp knife today is anyone's guess - we're all still stuffed after a late lunch of spaghetti carbonara plus stir-fried sprouts with Black Farmer hickory smoked bacon.

I love sprouts!

Parp, parp, toot, toot!

That's the sound of me blowing my own - or rather my children's - trumpet.

Well if one can't publicly rejoice in the wonderfulness of one's own children at Christmas, when can one?

I've already posted Small Doyle #3's Christmas card painting.

Here are SD#2's (entitled 'It was Supposed to Be a Tern but it Doesn't Look Like One So it's Just a "Seabird" ')

and SD#1's - (click to enlarge) which you will recognise as being of the bookshelf on which I keep my wooden ampersands. I was presented with the framed original as part of my Christmas present.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Boxing Day Swim - West Mersea

Some images of the traditional Boxing Day morning swim at West Mersea - raising funds for the RNLI. These were taken by my husband. I was not there, as I have spent most of Boxing Day - and indeed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - slumped on a sofa, felled by a virus. At least I've had a chance to read some books (of which more anon) in my less feverish and soporific moments. The rest of the festivities have rather passed me by.
Oh well . . . they'll be round again next year, no doubt.

Monday 24 December 2007

Saturday 22 December 2007

Fairy with a special Christmas tree wand

Guest post by Iona (6¼)

Dickensian . . . but not in a good way

Braved Colchester town centre today. It really was very horrible indeed, in many ways, and I returned home comprehensively dispirited and feeling decidedly 'bah, humbug'-ish. If I haven't caught something vile from the man who sat behind me on the bus, coughing non-stop, I shall be very surprised indeed.

Flopped in front of Oliver for a half hour's feet-up, to see whether the final offering was any less disjointed, poorly directed or badly acted than the previous episodes. It wasn't.

Have been stomping around making the odd bit of icing, dumping some greenery and flowers around the place and hanging books (only very small ones) on the tree, but am now at such a low ebb I really think I will be going off to bed before 9, with a hot whisky and lemon and a book (quite a large one) and never mind watching the results of Strictly or anything else.

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Friday 21 December 2007

Singing along with the sellotape

I've been singing this all evening while wrapping presents. With decreasing restraint with every slurp of wine! As 'Christmas music' goes, it has one of the best alto lines ever written, in m.h.o.

This is the best version I could find on YouTube from a very limited selection. It's not ideal - there's a rogue oboe in there somewhere - and ghastly to watch, owing to the number of people arriving late and bobbing around in front of the camera - so best close your eyes (or wrap presents) while listening.

Special greetings to shepherds and farmers everywhere - especially any I know!

Christmas is on its way at last . . .

Well, I've finished work now. Don't care any more!

There are trees to be decorated and shops to be shopped in, two large cakes to be iced, mince-pies to be made, presents to be wrapped.

And My Boy's String Orchestra Christmas Concert to go to at 4, which is always just the loveliest way to get Christmas off to a warm and glowing start - a hundred young musicians aged 6 to 16 spend the day learning and rehearsing an ambitious programme of seasonal music and then perform it to the delight of their families. Tissues to hand - pride, joy and laughter.

For anyone with time to sit down with a cup of coffee (that's what I'm doing right now - psyching myself up before entering the fray!), here are the final movements of Corelli's lovely Christmas Concerto.

Thursday 20 December 2007

If it's all getting you down . . .

. . . click here, and soon it won't feel so bad . . .

More angels . . . more Corelli

Still too busy to blog! House not yet bedecked! On the plus side, the cake is marzipanned and the 'spare' fridge is filling up.

And, hey! - I won a £10 voucher in the school raffle which I can spend in Arthur Cock & Son, West Mersea Butchers, so I'll be off to see if they've any haggis tomorrow, since that's one thing not yet ticked off the List.

Anyway, in case there's anyone out there who has time to listen, here's the second instalment of Corelli's Christmas Concerto (movements 4 and 5 - very relaxing!)

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Slowing getting there . . .

Too footsore and weary from late-night Christmas shopping to blog.

Nearly all done but will need at least two more trips off the island before I can hunker down and wait for Father Christmas, safe in the knowledge that everything he needs is stowed in his sleigh.

Here are the first three movements of the perfect seasonal post-shopping pick-me-up (even better than hot chocolate for reviving the spirits, I find).

Tuesday 18 December 2007

& lovers

Season’s greetings to ampersand lovers everywhere – and especially to my ampersand-inclined blog-friends Susan and Joel.

Getting in the mood at last . . .

From the ridiculous (Twelve Days of Christmas) to the sublime:

One of my top favourites - just listen to that alto line . . .

When True Love backfires

Now here’s one of the twinkliest stars in my Box of Christmas Books. But this one’s not the children’s, it’s mine, all mine!

Because it’s for grown-ups.

Because it’s got (giggle, snigger, snort) ‘rooooooood’ bits in it (giggle, snigger, snort)!

The Twelve Days of Christmas [correspondence] by John Julius Norwich takes another look at the words of the jolly Christmas song and wonders: What if some well-meaning but misguided chap actually DID send his True Love a partridge in a pear tree for Christmas?

He might receive in return a thank-you letter along these lines:

‘My dearest darling – That partridge, in that lovely little pear tree! What an enchanting, romantic, poetic present! Bless you and thank you.

Your deeply loving Emily’

But what if he then went on to deliver, on a daily basis, amongst other items, three live and loudly squawking chicken, four raucous green calling birds, geese (laying eggs all over the door step), swans that make a bee-line for the tiny fish-pond? Or . . . worse still - and to the increasing bewilderment, frustration and, ultimately, despair of the recipient - a noisy troop of bekilted bagpipe players, and ten whiskery and rather randy old men who get up to no good with the scandalously (giggle, snigger, snort) naked dancing ladies?

Poor Emily’s life falls apart in the space of twelve short days and she has to resort to legal action. The whole thing is a hilarious, rumbustious little gem – and it hardly needs mentioning that Quentin Blake’s brilliantly anarchic illustrations provide half the cake and all the icing. (Another National Treasure, our Mr Blake, are we all agreed?)

Sold everywhere as a till-side stocking filler a decade ago, this small treasure is now out of print and commanding ridiculous prices on Amazon and eBay. Worth tracking down, though, if you possibly can. (Eyes peeled at book sales and in charity shops!)

Put it away in the Christmas Books Box after the festive season and it will amuse afresh year after year.

Sheer delight.

Monday 17 December 2007

Cut down to size

Hey - I've been edited! Cut down to size! And I don't like it one bit!

The deliberately oversized 'banner' at the top of this blog, with the sea and the sky and the little boats in the distance and hundreds of yards of mud - it's gone!

And it wasn't me wot dunnit, either. It must have been imposed by the Powers That Be - either human or automated - at Blogger.

So now I conform to size regulations and shape restrictions and have a boring little strip of blueish sky at the top of Musings.

Here's a reminder of the Muddy Island from whence I Muse . . .

If any other Blogger users have any clues or suggestions as to how I might persist in my rebellion against conformity, I'd be interested to hear from you.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Ending the weekend with a few random musings

Don’t remember how I landed on Cynical Steve’s Doggerel Blog, but I do recommend that you take a look – I particularly enjoyed his Ikead and I Just Wanted to Say This.

Haven’t really got terribly involved in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing - the fact that everyone else in the family is glued actually means that it’s quite a good opportunity to get on with other things while the coast is clear. But, things have been seriously hotting up, so I duly sat down with a scone and jam and a large mug of tea and watched most of this evening’s semi-final. Wasn’t too bothered which of the guys got through – I thought they were both equally hunky and desirable (oh, and quite good at dancing, of course). Absolutely needed the gorgeous Alesha to be in the final, so hooray that she came out tops, and I jolly well hope she wins. (I'm still a bit peeved about Denise and Emma not winning, to be honest.)

But more than all that, there were Victor da Silva and Hanna Karttunen performing their latest ‘showdance’. Who could forget last year’s appearance of this amazing couple in all its leopardsuited thrillingness? More like a trapeze act or a magic show than a dance: ‘how did they do that?’ one gasped, blinking and rubbing one’s eyes.

Well, there they were, back again and . . . O.M.G! This isn’t ‘dance’ – it’s something else altogether and I’m not sure it should be allowed on air while young persons are eating their tea! Mesmerising stuff. The duo have a disappointingly bad website, with bad photos and an even worse video. There are some fuzzy clandestinely recorded videos on YouTube, but I just want to see that ‘dance’ again. To catch those ‘sleight of body’ bits between Hanna lying on the floor and then suddenly standing in mid-air – her (impossibly long) legs having performed some unfeasible 180 degree miracle while her partner twirled her effortlessly on one hand, with presumably some behind-the-scenes assistance from one or more of his interestingly tattooed biceps. Is this art or high-kitch circus? I really don’t know. But I could certainly watch it with my mouth unbecomingly open for a lot longer than the four minutes we were allowed tonight.

And so to Cranford. Ahhh, Cranford. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Cranford is a triumph – a total, 100% triumph – of BBC costume drama. Hardly any point listing the consummate performances, the fabulously authentic costumes and interiors, the telling reminders of the ever-present threat of death, the brilliant adaptation of three novels into a single narrative . . . one could go on and on and on.

I – yes, stiff-upper-lipped moi – was in floods of sniffing and blubbing from start to finish. That Alex Etel as young Harry Gregson . . . heartbreaking. The gorgeous, lovely, good Mr Carter, played by Philip Glenister – how I wept.

And of course, Judi Dench – surely our most priceless National Treasure (well, female National Treasure – Alan Bennett just pipping Humph to the post as male NT, obviously) – just perfectly perfect as Miss Matty, with her scruples about having to go into ‘trade’ but at least tea was not a 'sticky' commodity and would not ‘leave a residue’ – more sobbing from me. Gosh, I’m exhausted and dehydrated from all this lacrymosity.

And how many millions of miles ahead of the ‘costume drama’ on which I wasted my time last night when I decided it would be a good idea to catch up with the DVD of Becoming Jane . What a load of ineffectual nonsense! A romanticised ‘account’ of Jane Austen’s life pre-Pride and Prejudice, in theory it would seem to tick all the boxes – high-budget, big production values, top name actors, great locations, bla bla bla. But . . . several hundred yawns and a lot of anachronism-spotting later – I officially declared it a Load of Old Tosh.

Anne Hathaway is lovely, gorgeous and absolutely fabulous in The Princess Diaries, The Princess Diaries II and Ella Enchanted (and as a mother of two girls, believe me, I have seen these in the cinema and then ad infinitum on DVD). In such films she is perfect and utterly adorable. As Jane Austen, she really couldn’t have been more disastrously cast. She tries very, very hard – to an ‘aw, bless her’ degree. But . . . her winsome eye-rolling and shoulder-shrugging and stomping off with exaggerated arm-swinging . . . is not only, like, sooooooNOT early nineteenth century, it’s just, like, soooooo American. As are her looks.

And, please, if we're going to talk about National Treasures, you don’t really get more National Treasurey than Jane Austen. The Ultimate Englishwoman. Yes, I know Meryl Streep’s 'done English', and Gwyneth Paltrow’s 'done English' and let’s not forget Renee Zellweger, either. But they really are exceptions and Anne Hathaway is just not in their league when it comes to ‘doing English’ convincingly. She could probably do a very passable 2007 English, but she can’t do Costume Drama English. Sorry.

And if the poor viewer is constantly on the edge of her seat with anxiety that some American inflexion or other is going to creep into the heroine’s every utterance (as it often did, though she tried so hard, aw, bless her), then ‘convincing acting’ it is not. And if the viewer can’t engage with the heroine, then what hope is there? One is not drawn in, one is pushed out and becomes a critical observer, who starts noticing other niggling things – inauthentic costumes, hairstyles, anachronistic expressions and behaviour. And before the viewer knows it, she is picking the whole thing to tiny bits and getting in a big rage and counting the minutes until the whole wretched, artificial saga is ended. Frankly, the DVD ‘extras’ were more interesting than the film itself. It is such a shame that so many misguided mistakes were made in this production– which could have been enjoyable even while being recognised as the confection that, ultimately, it was. There were great performances from Julie Walters and Maggie Smith, among others, but they were let down by a very silly script, as much as anything.

Looking forward to seeing what the BBC comes up with in this week's adaptation of Oliver Twist - should be perfect pre-Christmas viewing. It's got Timothy Spall in it. So that bodes well.

No easy segue into my final topic for this evening. The children discovered a hedgehog in the garden at lunchtime. Moving, very slowly, in broad daylight, across the lawn. It must surely have been disturbed in a neighbouring garden and emerged from its hibernation nest. As quickly as we could, we filled a cardboard box with hay, carefully lifted the hedgehog into it and then buried the box, on its side, underneath a big pile of hedge trimmings etc. Will it safely go back to sleep again and survive the winter? Everyone's been instructed not, on any account, to disturb it. I suppose we will only know the outcome in the spring. I shall have to Google hedgehogs to find out more, I suppose. Meanwhile, all comments/suggestions welcome, but I imagine I'm right in believing that the prognostications are not encouraging?

Treasures from the Christmas Book Box

Well, it's well and truly Christmas-time now, and there's no getting away from the fact, however far short of finished my shopping is. I've been to the School Nativity Play, in which Small Doyle #3 was to have played a 'Jiving Camel' [sic] but, owing to the absence of a more crucial cast member on the night, had at the last minute to assume the role of The Donkey instead. The Donkey still got to jive, however, so that was OK. But it was nevertheless a disappointment not to be able to wear the Camel costume, which, I had been warned, was sooooo realistic that she might easily have been mistaken for a REAL Camel.

And then it was belated 6th birthday party yesterday - 21 small girls learning a dance routine to High School Musical, passing (hurling) the parcel and loading up their paper plates with far more sausages, crisps and cakes then they could have managed in a week, but that's kids' parties all over, and it was generally voted a resounding success. Exhausting though - even for those of us who weren't dancing (just idly serving food and clearing away again after a morning spent sauntering around supermarkets in a laid-back fashion - I daren't use the 's' word after having read Random Distractions' pertinent remarks on this point or I fear I shall be taken to task . . .).

So many busy days and late nights for the children this last week that there hasn't been a lot of time for bedtime stories. But tonight we will be back to the big pile of Christmas Books, which emerged on 1 December when the Christmas Boxes came in from the garage.

I absolutely and completely refuse, on any account, to start decorating the house for Christmas until the end of the school term. It's just a grumpy 'thing' of mine. It's not Christmas yet, it's Advent. It's bad enough that the shops have been twinking and flashing relentlessly since the beginning of October (at least), without us all having to join them the instant December arrives. Mine is already almost the Only Unlit Garden in the Village. It will twinkle (discreetly, with white lights) eventually . . . just not for a few days yet.

I simply prefer Christmas to be concentrated, rather than allowing it to expand to fit all available surrounding days, weeks and months. Shops do it because they need to make us buy stuff. But why follow suit and get all tinselled up while everyone's still slogging away at work and school?

Before I had children, I'd leave it until Christmas Eve until I put the tree up, brought in the holly and tied ivy and red ribbons to the door-knocker while listening to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge at 3 o'clock. I've had to pull back a little since then, but still haven't given much ground. My children are resigned to this Scrooge-like peculiarity of their eccentric mother and have even given up nagging me for flashing Santas on the roof and lifesize glowing reindeer in the driveway.

Anyway, as usual, I digress from what was to be the subject of this post, and that is all the much-loved Christmassy books in my children's collection.

Favourites include Little Angel by Geraldine McCaughrean, with illustrations by the always brilliant Ian Beck, and also Beck's Christmas Story carousel book, which is unfortunately out of print.

Shirley Hughes's Lucy and Tom's Christmas - very cosy and reassuringly realistic, down to the 'tears before bedtime' necessitating a brisk walk in the fresh air with Grandpa.

Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen's The Nativity Play is hilarious and parents will relate to its knowing observations as much as children.

Best loved of all here, without a doubt, is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, by Susan Wojciechowski, which I would strenuously recommend to absolutely everyone of all ages. It is a deeply moving human story of survival, hope, redemption and love, with the most astonishingly beautiful illustrations by Patrick Lynch.

Jonathan Toomey is a reclusive widowed wood-carver, nicknamed 'Mr Gloomy' by his neighbours, because of his dour demeanour. The other villagers don't realise that the reason for his unsmiling gloom is that -

'Some years earlier, when Jonathan Toomey was young and full of life and full of love, his wife and baby had become very ill. And . . . died, three days apart from each other. So Jonathan Toomey had packed his belongings into a wagon and travelled till his tears stopped. He settled into a tiny house at the edge of a village to do his wood-carving.'

One December a young widow, newly arrived in the village, calls on Jonathan with her seven-year-old son, Thomas. She commissions him to carve a nativity scene to replace one her grandfather made her which has been lost in her move. Gradually, the widow - through her persistent acts of quiet kindness - and Thomas - through his innocent, trusting frankness - force Jonathan to confront his grief and transform it into a source of inspiration in his work. The story ends on Christmas morning, with the dawning of new hope - hands tentatively held and laughter where once there had been none.

It's an intense story, sensitively told, and with a depth not often encountered in a children's picture book. It doesn't shy away from its troubling themes of bereavement and loneliness, and its resolution, while positive and warm is not at all sugary. Patrick Lynch's paintings are genuinely breathtaking - I gaze at them for as long and as many times over as my children do.

I have read it aloud hundreds of times because we've had our copy since it was first published here in about 1997 and it's demanded every single day from the moment it reappears until just before it's the last book to go back in the box on Twelfth Night. (It has been made into a film, but seems to have gone almost straight to DVD and only in Region 1 (ie US/Canada) format at that, which is a shame, because it would have been interesting to see how it had been interpreted.)

I was just composing this post when I noticed that Tarviragus has posted some fascinating photographs of the most amazing wooden crib made by a carpenter for West Mersea's parish church - how wonderfully apt.