January 26, 2009

Burns Night

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 3:50 pm

Yesterday was officially Burns Night, but as Sunday is an awkward evening for overindulgence, we marked the 250th anniversary of Robbie Burns’s birth with a supper on Friday instead.

I have never quite understood why the Oxford college where I work is such an ardent supporter of the night dedicated to the great Scottish Poet, but it is, and every year we celebrate it faithfully by dressing up in black tie and eating and drinking a great deal too much. 

Friday, after we had drunk a bit in the Senior Common Room, beginning as we meant to go on, we were summoned to the Hall where the students were already seated and waiting.  A gavel was banged and everyone stood for the grace.  This (as I have mentioned before) is usually two Latin words uttered by the Principal or, in her absence, the Senior Fellow, but on Burns Night we have instead the Selkirk Grace, recited in a gentle Scottish accent by one of the world’s leading experts in wildlife conservation.  His day job involves saving the British water vole and other endangered species, but on Burns Night, dressed in his kilt, he is the poet’s voice:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
   And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat, 
  And sae the Lord be thankit

Moments later we were served with cock-a-leekie soup and a wee dram of 15 year old single malt whiskey. 

When that was cleared away the undergraduates began to shuffle and there were sounds of chairs scraping the floor as they turned to greet the piper, preceding the haggis.  My office overlooks the College gardens and I had been listening to the drone of distant bagpipes all week — the playing fields on the edge of the River Cherwell were considered the only suitable place for tonight’s musician to practice such cacaphony.

The piper led the haggis in a triumphant circuit of the dining room until the platter was finally placed before our wildlife guy, who each year supplies himself with a dagger, dramatically pulled from his kilt.  The BBC website instructions on how to host a Burns Supper are very particular on the protocol at this point:

Warning: it is wise to have a small cut made in the haggis skin before it is piped in. Instances are recorded of top table guests being scalded by flying pieces of haggis when enthusiastic reciters omitted this precaution! Alternatively, the distribution of bits of haggis about the assembled company is regarded in some quarters as a part of the fun…

The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line Gie her a haggis!, which the guests greet with rapturous applause.

When our haggis was delivered to the table the chefs and piper stood by as our Fellow spoke:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch , tripe, or thairm :
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight ,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin’ , rich!

Then, horn for horn , they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive ,
Bethankit ! hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner ,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as wither’d rash ,
His spindle shank , a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit ;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed ,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle ;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned ,
Like taps o’ thrissle .

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies ;
But , if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!

If you would like to hear the poem out loud, here it is.) 

Our amateur Fellow really does it with great enthusiasm, especially the warm — reekin, rich! And the haggis was duly piereced.

I’m a bit of a fan of haggis, though I admit it sounds quite disgusting.  I tried it tentatively, a newspaper wrapped lump of gristle, grease and offal served up in a chippy in Oban more than thirty years ago when I first visited Scotland on holiday with my mother. She and I are both adventurous eaters so we bravely ordered that traditional feast on a night when it was optional (it is required on 25 January). 

I’m not sure my mother has tried again, but I can assure you that the version we get in College really is warm — reekin, rich!  And I was hungry enough to echo what I take to be, more or less, the translation of that last line of Burns’s address to the night’s pudding: Give us here our haggis!

There were, of course, neeps (=turnips) and tatties (=potatoes), and more drams of whiskey, and lots of gravy, which the Scots at table objected to — traditionally no gravy with haggis, apparently (but I, for one, like my offal well drown-ed).

Later, with another bang of the gavel we adjourned for coffee and yet more whiskey and poetry.  And everyone talked about just how long it had been since you didn’t need Latin to get a medical degree at Oxford, and the very best way to study physics, the Prisoners’ Dilemma, moral hazard, Tuscan holidays, World War I, quilting, flute playing, and whether Obama was really President when he signed those first executive orders.

It’s a life.

January 21, 2009

Say amen

Filed under: BBC radio addiction,misc,Politics and history — Duchess @ 3:27 pm

The BBC helpfully reported that the timing of the swearing in was written into the Constitution.  It was due at 12 noon (GMT minus 5).  BBC coverage would start at 4.30 (GMT).

I was at my desk in the Oxford college where I am currently temporarily employed (and used to be permanently employed, before I had a midlife crisis, failed to sell my house, bought a boat anyway, quit my job, and made an aborted bid to jump ship to the US, small poodle included — but these are other stories). 

The Principal (my boss) had gone home early, without a word about the inauguration, but we all knew what she was up to: her partner is the politics don at the college.  Other people began to peel away — those with longer commutes saying they would listen on the radio, those with shorter hoping to get home before the moment when W would no longer be President and Obama would take his place.  The whole world was watching.

I clicked on the BBC home page and gathered into my office the staff still lingering on my corridor — only the archivist and the development team were left.  We saw the fashion parade of VIPs taking their places and responded appropriately: we agreed that Michelle’s dress wasn’t flattering, but possibly sensibly warm.

Next we listened to one of the longest prayers any of us had ever heard (and watched most of the crowd peeking, but not the soon-to-be-President and Leader-of-the-Free-World, who kept eyes piously shut).  I remarked that though we are a nation founded on the principles of separation of church and state, Americans are more than usually apt to trouble the Almighty with detail.

After the marathon prayer the BBC commentator said Aretha Franklin was going to sing the national anthem, which she didn’t, but I guess he can be forgiven; in the first place the tune of what she did sing (My Country ‘Tis of Thee) is his national anthem (God Save the Queen), and, in the second place, who could concentrate anyway listening to that voice and looking at that hat?

We laughed at the stumble during the swearing in, and then we all spontaneously applauded and cheered as the new President was congratulated.  The whole world was watching. 

I don’t think I was the only one in the room moved by the speech that followed.  I might have been the only one who needed kleenex.

When the poet was announced, the Brits dispersed lickity split back to their own offices, and soon even the stragglers headed home.  Most of them missed altogether the Yella / Mella and the Brown / Stickaround benediction.  Say amen.

Later my younger son and I watched the parade together.  (He was with the rest of us on the the Dress Issue: it made Michelle look chunky, though she isn’t — but he mentioned that Hillary’s, which no one cared about anymore, was even worse.  Poor Hillary.) 

Today the newspapers are filled with hope and praise.  It is interesting watching American politics from this distance.  For eight years there has been little respect for the US abroad, though I think the wish for the most powerful country in the world to do well never went away.  Yesterday Obama’s clearest message for me was that he knows we do not have to choose between our ideals and our safety.  We can still be the city on the hill.

I admit that our new President was not my first choice.  But if I hadn’t been wholly won over to him before, yesterday completed my conversion.  The television (= internet; yay internet!) kept showing the crowds — never before such crowds — gathered with their tiny flags in the January chill to watch and to celebrate.

I do not believe any other candidate could have been such a force for unity in our country and in the world.  I do not think any of the others would have been met with the simple joy at a new chapter in American history that greeted Obama’s first minutes as President. 

At least, no one else would have been applauded, as he was, by a small group of Brits, and one American, crowded around a computer screen far away, hoping for change.


January 13, 2009

History delivered with the milk

Filed under: Back story,misc,Politics and history — Duchess @ 3:59 pm

When I was a child we used to get our milk on the doorstep in fat half gallon bottles with cardboard tops.  In the winter the milk often froze before we got to it and the top was perched on a frozen white spume.

Some marketing guy at the dairy must have had the idea that the caps would be a wholesome version of cigarette cards from a generation before. For a while, I remember, the caps had general knowledge questions on one side and the answer on the other. 

Then one long winter, when my brother had a paper route and I got up early to help him out, we poured icy milk onto our oatmeal, and, putting off the tramp through the snow ahead, we laid out our Collect All 36 Presidents of the US milk bottle caps. 

I had an idea I would memorize them in order, but it was so frustrating: I had any number of Washingtons, a Jefferson or two, John Quincy Adams and then nothing until seven Warren G Hardings.  I suppose I was meant to find some other history obsessed child desperately short of Hardings and trade mine for a Martin Van Buren, Ulysses S Grant, James Tyler or any other of those half remembered old white guys in fancy dress.  Alas, I did not.

Nor did I ever quite memorize the list.  I’m good on the first 8 or so and then get very dodgy until we hit Buchanan and Lincoln.  Next there’s another gap.  I am fairly sound on the 20th century, though I can’t get them quite in the right order until the late 20s.  (Do not ask me to perform this exercise with British Prime Ministers.)

So I very much enjoyed the following, which I came across on the over 50s blog, Time Goes By.  The President list has got a little longer since the paper route days, but by then it was my life, not history, so not so easily forgotten.

Any Brit readers of certain age will forever associate the accompanying music, Ravel’s Bolero, with Torville and Dean, but I digress. 

What I really want to say is I’ll give you a dollar if you can remember from all those years of American history a single fact about James K Polk.  Honour system here.  No looking him up on Wikipedia.

While the Americans are looking sheepish, shrugging and asking James K Who?  I leave you Brits with our own Jayne and Christopher. 

January 8, 2009

What? More Crime and punishment?

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc — Duchess @ 6:28 pm

There’s a little game going around where you get a theme for the week.  I’m not much of a team player, but I got interested in the varied responses to this week’s topc: guilt.

I’m not very keen on guilt either, but confession is quite another matter, and I am rather hoping that is what our ring master really meant.  Otherwise guilt is pretty boring, right?

My confession of the week comes up just because it is newly 2009, a nice round anniversary of 30 years since my senior year in college (which came in just a little late, because I was on the Seven Year BA Plan) . It’s also coming up to thirty years since I left the US and moved to England.

By 1979 I had quit dropping out and had been on the straight and narrow for a while. I went back to school and made good grades. Early in the new year I got a call from my best friend (who might not be my best friend anymore, but I still hope she is).  I had applied for a major, all expenses paid, scholarship to attend graduate school in England.  I had to apply from my home region, which was California (though it wasn’t really my home; that’s another story) and that’s where my friend was calling me.

I had already won what I figured was second prize –a free round trip flight to San Francisco, where I would be interviewed at the British Embassy.

There weren’t cell phones in those days and my friend telephoned me at my boyfriend’s house in LA, where I had gone after the interview. I was especially glad for the free ticket because my mother was living in Germany and for the second year in a row, Christmas was a makeshift arrangement.   California seemed like a good plan, especially if someone else was paying.

When my best friend called me she put on a serious sort of voice.  She said the letter had come.  I answered, trying to be brave, I didn’t get it, right?  There was a long pause and then she screamed, Yes, yes you did!

It was a happy moment.  Next, there were things I feel bad about – like telling my boyfriend he couldn’t come with me – but that’s not what I want to confess.

I flew back to the other side of the country.  My best friend and I had a flat on Mass Ave in Cambridge above a shop that sold “Hot” Coffee.  We always thought the quotes made it sound like a rumour.  I went to classes and took exams and meanwhile began to pay attention to foreign affairs in a way I never had.  I was going abroad, a sophisticated word meaning most definitely not in Kansas anymore.

There was a revolution going on in Iran, and in England, charming literary folk that they are, they were having what is still known as the Winter of Discontent.  I watched the news and worried about who I might root for in a threatened election.  I was pretty sure the Conservatives couldn’t be right, but was puzzled between Labour and the Liberals. 

Of course my friends all knew I would soon be off to England, and a few took delight in bringing me fresh information.  You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

I watched the tele too.  Where I was going the garbage wasn’t being collected and the dead weren’t being buried.  Far as I could see the whole country was on strike.

One bitterly cold day I biked back to our flat, picked up the post, and trudged up the stairs.  It was so cold in the flat I turned on the gas oven.  Hovering over it I opened a letter addressed to me.  It said I would be pleased to know that I was being sent to study in Edinburgh.

I wasn’t at all pleased to know! I was cold and I wanted to go to Oxford.  Dead bodies on the street were bad enough, but Edinburgh was practically in the Artic Circle.

I consulted a friend who had held the same scholarship recently.  He said, Everyone wants to go to Oxford.  The scholarship committee try to spread people out.  You need to make a good academic case of why it is important to you to be at a particular university, and then they will listen.

I did mean to make a good academic case, I promise.  I was planning to study the 19th century English novel and I went to the library to find out who was on the faculty at Oxford working on that subject, so I could take out some books.

I scanned down the list and came upon the name Mr A O J Cockshut, which, I am sorry to say, made me giggle enough that I had to leave the library.

Finally we get to the confession:

I left the library, bicycled back to my cold flat, pulled out my typewriter and answered my letter.  I wrote that I was tremendously grateful for the opportunity to attend Edinburgh University, but, as it happened, I had set my heart on studying with Mr A O J Cockshut of Oxford University whose work and scholarship I especially admired. 

I later came to know A O J as Tony.  He focused on the ceiling as he spoke and kept, along with his wife, a painfully thin mistress who always followed him several paces behind.  After twenty years or so the mistress faded away, or died of an improbably broken heart, and the wife remained.  While he was a Fellow of the college Tony was famous for mainly admitting red headed girls to study English.  After one year I ditched him as supervisor for someone considerably more distinguished.  Tony retired years ago and kindly invited me to his party.  I went, but I could tell he wasn’t certain who I was.  He repeatedly asserted that women never turned down offers of marriage.  I thought it was a curiously emphatic, but not inconsistent, position to take on such an occasion.

These days I see him every couple of weeks taking a shuffling walk in the University Parks.  I know he doesn’t recognize me, but even so I have tried nodding.  I should know better.  He has never once met my – or anyone else’s – eye.

Maybe he feels guilty about something.

January 4, 2009

12th Night

Filed under: family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 4:30 pm

It isn’t quite 12th Night, but as this is getting close to the last time one can decently use the c word until next November, I bring you, “Catching up: Christmas chez Duchess.”

One week before Christmas, The Piper’s Son fetched me from the airport.  I was coming back from a further month’s visit to the US, making 2008 the only year I have spent more than weeks in my native country since 1983.  I was glad to be home (England home) and not thinking of travelling again for awhile.  

A couple of days later I was again at Heathrow Terminal 5 to pick up Elder Daughter and her boyfriend.  Terminal 5 is the brand new state of the art way to fly long haul into London.  Here are the brand new state of the art fountains outside the door:

Terminal 5 fountains

Inside there are brand new state of the art baggage handling systems that didn’t work at all when T 5 first opened last spring, so they solved the problem by putting all bags, wherever to or from, on a bus to Milan.

They’ve sorted that now, it seems.  Elder Daughter was arriving with boyfriend.  In the distance, through the NO ENTRY doors I spotted a young, bearded man pushing pink suitcases.  I pointed him out to my ex husband, and, a moment later, we watched our daughter, swinging her violin, emerge through the doors.

I don’t have any pictures of that lovely, grubby, travel weary, grown up child whom I had not seen for one long year.  I simply cried and held her and then shook hands with boyfriend, a new acquaintance.  The suitcases, so clean, pink, and Legally Blond when she left for Uganda 15 months earlier were filthy.  Rats’ piss, she said casually.  The violin was the only item of value we sent her away with that hadn’t been stolen, because no one knew what it was or what it was worth.  Oh, guitar?  people would ask.  Yes, she answered.  A very small guitar.

My daughter worked for the VSO, the British version of the Peace Corps, posted to a small NGO, the Peace Education Trust, in the corner where Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo meet.  While she was there she looked after some of the most vulnerable people on the continent — deaf and blind children and HIV/Aids orphans.  Incidentally, she also set up youth volunteering options for much shorter periods — two weeks to several months — so get in touch if you have a young person looking for something worthwhile to do between high school and college, or college and grad school.  My daughter promises me it is safe, though readers of this blog will know I have fretted.

Meanwhile, back to Christmas with newly home Elder Daughter placing the dove that always sits on top of our Christmas tree

I admit it is a haphazard Christmas tree.  There are clothes pin and silver foil angels made by the children, felt snowmen and paper and glue stocking decorations.  Little wooden ornaments sent from Germany and glass ones from America carefully stashed in Granny’s suitcase.  There are unlovely, but loved, plastic ones meant to be hung on low branches, safe from babies, kittens, puppies.

My younger daughter is rather proud of our tree.  Her friends, she says, have Trees with Themes.  Unlike ours.

The Piper’s Son was eager to show me that five years at Fire Lighting School had not been spent in vain.

All the children grumbled when I said we might do without the knitted nativity (a Duchess hand knit original) so I put it on the windowsill as usual.

They never fail to remark on how fat Mary is, compared to poor little Joseph (in green next to her), but I deny this has anything to do either with my inability to knit to gauge or to Joseph’s weakness of character. All women who have just had babies are larger than life, I say, and husbands are naturally subdued.

Over the years the shepherd, poor thing, has lost his lamb and one of the kings has lost his gift. When I am a grandmother, my grandchildren’s parents will know more about fat Marys and I’ll knit up celebratory frankincense, myrhh and a whole stable full of lambs.

The presents were finally wrapped and Santa did come at last.  The cunning disguises in everyone’s stocking were a great hit.

So were the ping pong ball shooting guns (oops not politically correct, but I’m pleading years of a dove topped tree in mitigation)

The Piper’s Son gave us all bean seeds and a potted plant, according to our characters and gardening abilities.  His father got broad beans and a cactus.  I got runner beans and an orchid.  He gave his older sister and her boyfriend climbing beans and an olive tree, his baby sister dwarf beans and a jade plant (the jade plant is nicknamed “money tree” — the Baby has expensive tastes; her friends with themed Christmas trees may provide a hint).

After presents everyone pitched in to Christmas dinner cooking, especially when the cooker (=British stove, not the cook) broke down and dishes had to be shuffled oven to oven.  Everyone, that is except the Ex, who was busy enjoying his Christmas reading

Elder Son normally makes the Christmas pudding (from scratch!) but he was 8000 miles away, so this year’s was a store bought, out of date, emergency item I had picked up a few years earlier in case Elder Son’s plane didn’t arrive in time for heavy duty chef detail.  I shoved it in the cupboard and was too embarrassed to give it to the local old people’s home once it went out of date, but not at all embarrassed to resurrect it this year and serve it up to my family. 

Holly stolen from the neighbours over the road spruced it up nicely.  We did pour flaming brandy over it, but the ensuing excitement, what with the table also catching fire, means the before picture is all I’ve got.

And very nice the pudding was too, even after.

Crumbs!  I haven’t got to Boxing Day or New Year’s Eve at the Rock of Gibraltar pub on the Oxford Canal.  But I think that is all I have energy for, for now.

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