March 30, 2009

“And to my dear grandson, I leave the Village of Buckland”

Filed under: A long way from home,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 3:45 pm

For twenty five years I have lived in a rural English village about twelve miles southwest of the Oxford city limits, and on the edge of the Cotswolds.  Almost all the houses are built of the characteristic yellow stone from nearby rolling hills.  Some are finished with thatch, and most of the rest, like mine, have fine, old slate roofs.

Until recently virtually every cottage in the village was owned, as they had been since medieval times, by the lord of the manor.  (These days not a lord, and indeed not even a knight of the realm – but the Squire none the less.)

Falling on hard(ish) times, in 1968 the Squire began to sell off some of the cottages, and for the first time people other than those serving either his estate or the local community moved in. 

My house, Hedges, was once part of the commercial centre of the village.  Hedges was a draper’s shop (run by Mr and Mrs Hedges – hence the name – don’t go looking for tall bushes if you come to visit).  Next door on one side, now given over mainly to cats, was the brewery.  On the other side were the general stores; behind, the bakery, and across the road, the malt house and (somewhat incongruously) a Baptist Chapel, a temporary early 20th century enthusiasm.

The last time I asked there were about 500 adults on the Parish Rolls, and I don’t suppose the number has changed much.  In the quarter of a century I have lived here a lovely old mulberry tree, the malt house, and a bizarrely out of place petrol station have all been knocked down to make way for modest development.  The estate’s stables were converted to courtyard dwellings, and I suppose a dozen or so more new houses have been erected.

The shop and post office, once my next door neighbours, have shut.  The Baptist Chapel is long gone, and a couple of years ago the Catholic Church closed down too, its site deconsecrated, but, in the property collapse, still empty. The 13th century Church of England remains, and the pub struggles on; Australian waiters serve yuppie food to visitors while the locals bugger off to the Trout, an old pub down the hill by the Thames, on the river’s last few navigable miles before it peters out at Lechlade.

Buckland still has a village school; 35 children were enrolled when Silverbridge walked the 50 yards or so from our front door to its, but I think there are more than double that number now.  Almost all come from outside the village and create mini traffic jams outside my house twice daily.

Not long after I moved to the village, the Squire, the one who had inherited the village from his grandmother, and who had seen the first sales of village houses, died.  His elder son, a man about my age, succeeded.  The estate still owned a great deal of property in the village, and all the surrounding land. 

The new Squire, a late 20th century gentleman farmer, shouldered the responsibility manfully, honed his enterprise, reluctantly sacked his father’s servants, went partly organic (grumbling publicly about what that had cost him), planted hedgerows, shot pheasant in season, spoke with finely clipped vowels, and knelt and prayed in church with his wife and two little girls exactly as often as it was seemly so to do.  

Last week he loaded his retrievers into his Land Rover, drove to the now mature woods his father planted for grouse cover half a century ago, and shot himself.  Used to gunshot, the dogs waited patiently for their master’s return until the gamekeeper found them, and the dead Squire, some hours later.

This Saturday morning I heard the sound of sirens, and seeing smoke billowing above the houses across the street, I followed the trail around the corner to what was once my babysitter’s home, now a weekend cottage for Londoners.  An early sixteenth century pair of tied houses for labourers and their families, it was one of the oldest surviving dwellings (originally two cottages) in the village. 

This is what I saw:

Through the afternoon most of the village came out to see the slow, smokey and undramatic conflagration.  At one point there were 15 fire vehicles lining the road, the firefighters moving with unhurried determination. They emptied the two swimming pools in the village and reduced our mains water supply to a trickle. 

Four hours later the frame that had lasted almost 500 years still stood, shrouded in smoke;

This morning, almost 48 hours after the fire broke out, two engines were still in the village, but by tonight they were finally gone, and I took this sad picture:

At the height of the blaze I ran into the woman who sold me Hedges twenty five years ago.  We chatted a bit, she wondering that I couldn’t sell that lovely house.  Her theory was (because it couldn’t possibly be the lovely house) that too many people were now parking on the village streets.  It wasn’t like that in her day. 

I hadn’t seen her in a while, though she is sometimes in the village because she still has family here.  I remembered, right after I asked her what brought her back this time, that her mother had been nanny to the young Squire.

I came for Charlie’s funeral, she said.

The funeral is tomorrow.  It has not been a good week in this every day story of country folk.

March 24, 2009

This post is not about shoes

Filed under: family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:18 pm

Silverbridge (Trollope fans will recognise that as code for The Duchess’s Elder Son) phoned from Seattle just over a week ago.  I was on the boat, where I have recently sorted out internet access, but cell phone reception is a still a little dodgy.

Pangolin is 62 feet long and 6.5 feet wide, and I only get phone reception at either end, with a long dead zone in the middle. Late Sunday evening I was just emerging from the engine room at the back (where I was fussing over my batteries) when the phone sprang into life and registered a missed call. 

I opened the hatch, and standing on the little stern deck, picked up my voice mail.  A quarter moon shone on the canal and on the large, round hay bales in the fields on the opposite side.  The farmhouse’s windows gleamed in the distance, and, from along the tow path, a quarter of a mile away, the lights of the pub beckoned steadily.

I don’t usually make international calls from my cell (because they cost a small fortune) but I had a feeling that I wanted to return this call.  I hadn’t heard from Silverbridge for several weeks.

My son, child who first made me a mother, told me that sometime in the early autumn or late summer he was going to make me a grandmother.  When we finished talking I trundled up the towpath to the pub and shared the news with a batch of people whose last names I don’t know.

Then I played a couple of games of pool.

A long time ago I thought I would feel ambivalent (at best) about becoming a grandmother. When I was a very little girl my friends and I used to play a competitive game about how old our grandmothers were, each of us making more and more extravagant claims until the biggest liar of all shouted, MY GRANDMOTHER IS A HUNDRED.  To be a grandmother was to be old.

A couple of decades later I remember my mother, quite a lot younger than I am now, demanding to know when I was going to make her a grandmother (and complaining that my dog was interfering with the prospect).  I was still surprised that she would want such a thing, except as a deeply abstract idea, far into the future.  My mother wasn’t old; how could it be possible?  How could she want it?

I understand now.  I don’t feel old at all, even though my own grandmother really was a hundred when she died three years ago.

I do feel like someone who, one afternoon at work, might get up from her desk and ask, Anyone fancy a cup of tea? 

And then when several faces (some middle aged) look up and answer (in their British way), Go on, why not?  I might also just be the sort of person who would add, Oh, I forgot to say!  I have some exciting news!

And then, apparently, it would be perfectly natural for the others barely to blink before smiling and suggesting (empty tea cups still expectantly out raised), Could it be that you’re going to be a grandmother?

I’m not sure how I got to be that oh-so-obvious progenitor, but it seems I am. 

Do you think it’s the sensible shoes?

March 17, 2009


Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:26 pm

Apologies for taking so long to get back to you.  I have been away, learning to tweet.

Thank you to everyone who supported ActionAid‘s Put your foot down campaign to end violence against women.  They have made an art gallery from the real shoes they were sent and there is some fun stuff there (as well as some serious information about the campaign).  ActionAid more than made their goal of one signature for each of the 2876 woman who contracts HIV/Aids every day.

I know a few people went from here to the petition, and I am grateful.  A few also joined in the fun and sent me a virtual shoe.  Here they are, with links to their blogs. 

Jan from the Sushi Bar  sent me her lovely pink crocs:

Janie from Midlife Slices sent me the boots she covets (I do too):

Inventing Liz had just kicked off her sensible, work shoes

But thought she would send me her party array too

Darryle who blogs every day at I Never Signed Up for This, not to mention her regular Cluttercasts sent me one she had made earlier

Pseudonymous High School Teacher lives in tropical paradise and never wears shoes when she is at home reading blogs, but she still wanted to put both her lovely feet down.

And here is the Duchess’s favourite shoe, which she admires more often than wears, though it only ornamented the mantel briefly for this photograph

Any comments?  Favourites? 

Or, if you’ve got a better one, send your shoe to duchess(at)duchessomnium(dot)com

March 5, 2009

Put your foot down – and send the Duchess a virtual shoe

Filed under: misc,Politics and history,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 3:41 pm

The Elder Daughter is now the digital media intern for a major British charity, Action Aid.  She spent 15 months in Uganda working with some of the most vulnerable children on the continent: deaf and blind children and HIV/Aids orphans.  Now she is back in England trying to make a difference in another way.

She asked me to help gather support on my blog for a campaign that only has a few days to run.  She isn’t asking for money.  She’s asking you to put your foot down.

Around the world, 2876 women contract HIV every day.  A girl born in South Africa has a higher chance of being raped than of learning to read.  Widespread violence against girls and women increases the chances that they will join the 15 million women around the world already infected with the virus.

Action Aid wants 2876 people, one for every woman and girl who will contract HIV tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and every day until we put our foot down to stop it, to sign a petition in support of the campaign.  The campaign ends on International Women’s Day on March 8.

The petition asks the UK government to take 10 steps to help prevent violence against women and to help control HIV/Aids.  These are simple, achievable steps.  One of these 10 steps is to persuade other countries and international agencies to take action.  You don’t have to be British to sign the petition and put your foot down.

When you have signed the petition, please forward it to 5 friends.  2876 people to put their foot down is a modest goal.  Let’s help them achieve it.

Over the last few weeks, hundreds of people, besides signing the petition, have sent Action Aid a real shoe.  The charity has commissioned artist Riitta Ikonen to turn these shoes into art.  You can watch her progress on her blog.  I especially like the puzzled shoe, though I don’t think I would like to take a hike in it.

It’s too late to send Riitta a shoe, but you can still email the Duchess a photo of the shoe you are wearing (or imagine you might wear) when you put your foot down.  Send your photo to me (edited to remove my email address in hope of getting rid of so much spam).  I’ll publish all the photos… And then maybe we can have a vote for the best (if I can work it out) or something… and it can be the Duchess’s first contest!  Okay, I accept you may not be quite as excited about this concept as I am.  Especially as, so far, there’s no prize.

Never mind.  Sign the petition.  Send it to your friends.  Send me your virtual shoes.

Put your foot down.

March 2, 2009

Brave new world

Filed under: Canal,Geek world,misc — Duchess @ 4:40 pm

I finally got the world wide web on my boat.

It was my project for this weekend. After two and a half years of a combination of fruitless research and fervent hope that someone would bring mobile broadband to my squatting mooring spot in rural Oxfordshire, one company was suddenly boasting absolutely, totally perfect, best of all possible broadband — at least at the pub. I read it on the internet, so I knew it must be true.

Saturday’s task was to go to the shop and buy the magic bit of kit that would connect me. But because Friday was my ex husband’s birthday and today would be my Baby’s birthday, I had first promised to make a cake (in my brand new cooker) for a joint celebration.

I am well known for my cakes. This is not because I am good at baking – I am not – but because a very long time ago in England if you weren’t good at baking everyone soon discovered it. If you were a woman over 21, certainly if you had a child at school, cakes were required. The only mixes available, a fine powder to which you added water, yielded an object designed to humiliate you, flat and tasteless with a cardboard like texture.

Proper women, women whose minor children weren’t on Social Services lists, produced something called a Victoria Sponge. It was plain and yellow and sort of vanillish in flavour and had jam in the middle and, if you were very profligate or very rich, cream or buttercream on top. Though it might be lopsided, it was homemade, and your children would therefore probably not be Taken into Care.

The skill I brought to this market was discovering which over priced specialist groceries in Oxford stocked devil’s food chocolate Betty Crocker mixes in the exotic foreign foods section. Don’t knock them till you’ve tried them. I’ve heard whole classes of children, reared on homemade, smack their lips and sigh longingly at my kids, Your Mum makes lovely cakes!

Saturday I whisked up the usual courtesy of Betty Crocker and rummaged in the cupboard for extras. There were some rather jolly decorative sugar balls in gold, silver, fluorescent green and shocking pink (best before July 06, but believe me, no germ would go near anything quite that metallic) and eight candles. One and seven make eight, so that means eight candles are just right for the Baby, who turned 17 today. And six and one make seven, plus one to grow on, makes eight. So eight is equally appropriate for the Ex, sixty one last Friday.

Sorted, as the Brits say, and I thought the cake looked very pretty.

My children were sceptical about the candle calculations, but the Ex, an economist, was impressed that I had finally acquired the important life skill of making any number mean anything I liked. If I could make 8 candles work for a birthday celebration for a 17 year old and a 61 year old I could definitely be due for a million pound banker bonus.

We planned to meet for brunch, once I arrived with the cakes and the Elder Daughter caught the bus from London. But the Elder Daughter is always a bit of a wild card, and like the Lawyer Sis, invariably has an interesting reason for being late.

This one involved emergency stops, ambulances, evacuation of elderly passengers, and replacement busses. Brunch became early dinner.

We decided on a new restaurant in Oxford so I could do my errands. Even at half past four and even in a recession, there was a twenty minute wait for a table. Meanwhile, since by Act of Parliament shops can only be open for 6 hours on Sundays I was running out of time. I grabbed a takeaway menu to phone in my selection, left the family queuing for a table, and raced around the corner to the mobile phone shop to sign up for technology afloat.

That took a bit of a while and the shop might just have traded over time, what with the Angry Man screaming that his phone didn’t work and it wasn’t his fault that his phone didn’t work and the shop assistant shouting back that it wasn’t his fault either and the customer replying what about his bus fare? and then several more shop assistants plus the manager getting involved and everyone shouting, You are not listening!

It turned out that though I was requesting only a 30 day contract they had to run a full credit check on me and besides had to prove that I wasn’t someone pretending to be me asking for a full credit check for a 30 day contract. In order to prove this they had to ask me some important security questions to establish my identity. Unfortunately I hadn’t the slightest notion of the answer to any of the questions. Although I am me, I promise.

Meanwhile, the police arrived to deal with the man whose phone didn’t work and though I was worried they might possibly arrest me as well for theft of my own identity, in the end neither of us was arrested. He eventually walked out with a new handset (= telephone) and I with a dongle (= expensive thing I stick into my computer that supposedly makes the internet work on my boat).

On the boat it didn’t work. Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. So I trundled up the tow path with my laptop and my brand new dongle and my mobile (=cell) phone to see if it worked at the pub.  Nothing at all.

The whole pub took an interest while I telephoned for help and was connected to India and I argued with several helpdesk employees about whether or not a dongle could have a phone number. I maintained it could not. If it had a phone number, I could telephone it. What would that mean? Would it answer? How could it answer? What is the sound of one hand clapping?

They won. A very polite person simply asserted that a dongle must have a phone number and she would go ask her supervisor what mine was. When she came back she suggested I might like to make a note of the dongle’s number.  And then, though I did make a note of it, I never made any use of that phone number or entered it anywhere in the computer.  Nevertheless, once my dongle was allocated a phone number, it seemed it was happy and fulfilled, and I got connected, first at the pub, to everyone’s entertainment, and then on the boat too. 

In the early 90s, when the internet was pretty new, I first managed to get a computer online in the company I ran with my husband (I was always the geek in the family). Those days were before google and even before Internet Explorer. The brand new browser we used was called Mosaic. I don’t even know how we did it, but somehow we, in Oxford England, got connected to an archaeological museum in the University of California. There weren’t any pictures – God knows I didn’t expect any – just a list of what was in their collections.

It was one of the moments when I remember all the details – the time of day, the room, who was there. It seemed so extraordinary to me that I could be connected to a computer 8000 miles away.

These days I  am grumpy if I cannot buy a small toy on a Sunday afternoon without the intervention of Her Majesty’s constabulary, or the Indian sub continent, that will allow me to see, hear, and read information, or just chat, all over the world, while I float on the south Oxfordshire Canal, monument to nineteenth century engineering.

When did I become an unreasonable person?

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