The Girl often finds tasty literary treats for me, turning over her library stack, and saying, 'I think you'd like this, Mum.' So last year she brought home The Guernsy Literary & Potato PeelSociety for me, and I loved it, so much so that I actually bought a copy, and one for my sister-in-law, and one for Posy's teacher for Christmas...
It reminds me of Helene Hanff's charming 84 Charing Cross Road, in that both are written as a series of letters, they both concern the years directly after the second world war, and Juliet Ashton, of TGL&PPS bears a strong resemblance to Helene Hanff, a lover of literature, a writer but not an academic, direct, kind and endlessly curious about everyone she encounters.
I had known peripherally that the Channel Islands had been occupied by the Germans during the war, but never had the reality of it brought to my attention. At the beginning of the war, the Germans took nearly everything the Islanders grew to feed their armies, and by the end of the war, the British established a blockade, which meant that neither the Germans nor the Islanders had anything to eat, or wear, or use, other than what they could produce on their tiny islands. I must admit to being completely obsessed as a child by survivalist fantasies. I loved Children of the New Forest, The Swiss Family Robinson and Little House on the Prairie books, but this novel puts it all in perspective. What would I have left to cook with after meat, flour and sugar were off the menu, there was no oil or salt for cooking, and all the trees had been cut down for firewood? After five years nobody had a decent pair of shoes and all their clothes were in rags, there was no soap. Most of the children had been sent away to England a week before the Germans arrived, those who were left were skin and bones. They lived on potatoes, turnips and greens boiled in sea water in lieu of salt and went to bed when it got dark.
It sounds horribly grim, but this novel is funny and charming, without belittling the terrible times the Islanders had to endure. It concerns Juliet, a London writer, who travels to Guernsey after the war to write about life under the Occupation, as revealed to her by the eccentric members of the Literacy Society, and her subsequent adventures. It also features a fierce and determined four year old, who likes ferrets, and has invented a game called Dead Bride, and the local witch who develops a passion for phrenology and has a parrot called Zenobia. What's not to like?
Oh, how boring housework is! I try to be a little Pollyanna about it, and I truly am glad about so many things - I finally have a lovely house to clean, which is more fun than cleaning a renovation-in-progress, I have a happy, healthy family who are often even appreciative of my efforts, I love the state-of-cleanliness that prevails for oh, several minutes after the house is clean, and I am truly grateful that I have a roof over my head to start with... but, oh dear, I do not find the joy in cleaning AT ALL.
So I bribe myself to get things done. Luckily, I am easily amused, and seriously, every job in the garden is a hundred times more fun than any inside.. yesterday, after doing all the tedious dusting and vaccuuming, I got to experiment with homemade white oil.
I have two lovely apple trees which I planted the year before Posy was born, which makes them about nine years old. They are beautiful in every season, and produce delicious apples which are ridden with codlin moth, so that you can never eat one off the tree in case of a nasty surprise, and I mostly have to cut them up to cook with. So this is the year that I am attacking the hungry hordes with science. My personal gardening guru, Peter Cundall recommends four or five applications of white oil from petal fall, every ten days for apple trees to smother the wretched little creatures' eggs. Also citrus - there is some pesky little white fly thing on my lemons, laying eggs everywhere, and also scale causing sooty mould. Solution - white oil every ten days, three applications during spring.
Here is the recipe - it is SO simple, so non-toxic that it doesn't matter if you are a klutz like me and spill things everywhere.
White Oil Recipe
Shake one cup vegetable oil and a quarter cup washing up liquid in a jar. It will become immediatley obvious why it is called white oil.
Label, store in a cool place for up to three months.
Dilution rate: two tablespoons per litre of water.
It works by smothering pests, so spray under leaves where they hide. It is lots of fun to use a pressure sprayer, because you get a continuous spray, and you can spray really high into the canopy!
In approximately four months there will be a review and star rating... has anyone else used this to effect in the garden?
Today I fed the citrus hedges, strawberries, blueberries and fruit trees with a combination of dynamic lifter, blood and bone, and a little dolomite lime. I pulled the snowpea vines out of this wine barrel (note for next time - snowpeas on a bamboo tripod was bad idea. Turns into a giant jungle with snowpeas growing on the inside... peas need a trellis with horizontal bars). The wine barrel will house zucchini and cucumber for summer. I disattached the drop side from Posy's old cot to be a cool cucumber trellis. Maybe I will grow Tommy Toe tomatoes up there as well. Planning for the Summer garden is such fun. I went and bought seeds this afternoon, as most of mine were out of date. Now I have three years' worth of local seeds in paper packets for the same price as about five plastic punnets of seedlings, and I feel very good about that.
Meanwhile we are eating snowpeas, red chard, rocket, lettuce, rhubarb, artichokes, herbs, and plenty of lemons from the garden.
One of the more awful sights of my day is the state of the kitchen after the children leave for school. A couple of months back I blithely announced my plan of cooking breakfast and having lovely family time around the table in the morning. Ho ho ho. You'd think I might be a little more self-aware so far into my life, but no. Anyway, needless to say, breakfast is not being cheerfully prepared by this domestic goddess each dawn. The two smallest children still glare at me sullenly from the other side of the breakfast bar while I slap sandwiches together, and about two minutes before they are due out the door, they finally decide to drag themselves to the cupboard and fridge, sigh, and choose the most peculiar combination of food they can see to prove that there really is 'nothing to eat' and it's all my fault.
This morning Rosy ate apple and rhubarb crumble and cream (see, nothing at all to eat), and Posy had chocolate milk, crackers and cheese. Yesterday Rosy had juice and ham, and Posy had pineapple chunks. It's amazing how far a tin of pineapple chunks can spread across a kitchen..
Still, I've added all those hypothetical breakfast menus to our dessert list. Dessert around here is weekends only, and pancakes and waffles are high up there on the list for the days I don't turn the oven on. Because, alas, another confession: I have fallen off the 'saving electricity' bandwagon. This quarter we have used fan heaters endlessly for drying paint, The Man put heaters in the children's bedrooms, and of course they turn them on to get dressed, then forget to turn them off again, we still all use hot showers as therapy, and we've gone back to our bad habit of turning the oven on for a batch of cupcakes. Then, I got the bill, and, miracle of miracles, we had still used five percent less than the same time last year. I can only imagine that all the energy saving features we built in with the renovation are actually working, and offsetting our other terrible habits. It has inspired me to get back onto the wagon again, and return to my nagging ways, because just think of the savings we can make if we actually try...
So, to sum up: cooking breakfast: fail, saving electricity: could do better. Mean mummy: go to the top of the class.
The picture above is an illustration of how hard my life is. I get to sit in those chairs sometimes, with a cup of tea and a book, and often a cat. The pear tree has been in bloom a full two weeks, but now all the blossom has blown off into the pool, making it look like a wedding setting in Country Style magazine, and two little girls hide up there among the new green leaves whenever I want them to be doing something else.
See the problems I have to deal with? Recalcitrant children and pear blossom. So it will come as no surprise that I am suffering from a mild existential malaise. This is a term I have coined for those, such as myself, who live a really spectacularly pleasant life compared to nearly everyone else in the known universe, but who still want to do a little whining, you know, about having to clean the bathroom, pack lunches, turn up at parent help. I have tried to solve the problem by lying on the couch with a stack of murder mysteries all day, and informing the family that dinner is toasted sandwiches and cereal, and yes, there is a certain measure of satisfaction in that course of action, but only up until the point where they've all gone to bed and I get up to find just how much mess four children can make with a toasted sandwich maker and every dish in the kitchen.
In the end, after many years of painstaking research, I have concluded that the only real solution (and it really hurts me to write this), is to clean the bathroom, pack the lunches, turn up at parent help, and then spend two hours weeding the garden. Oh, and then sit under the pear tree with a cup of tea.
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (17) and Posy (13). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much..