Thursday, 2 July 2015


A hard few days. Terrible overbearing heat and humidity making the easiest tasks feel like mountains and sweat dripping off my nose as I return up the hill from the school run. Then a day of showers, eternal dusk and goosepimples (or goosebumps, is it a regional term? The ridicule I get from my family for calling them pimples rather than bumps is never ending). 

The frustration of wanting to finish the most beautiful eye-popping quilt before the end of the school term (11 working days, yikes) but having to wait for the post to bring the final metre of backing fabric all the way from Germany. Yes, pictures will follow soon but for now I am keeping it under wraps.

The anticipation to hear whether I'm going to be let in to Bristol University for my MA or whether I accept my offer from Portsmouth. The impatience of wanting so badly to start the course and get my brain into action but having to wait until September. 

The eternal ironing pile, turning into a permanent fixture in the corner of the living room, reminding me of my failure to ever be a decent housewife. 

The broken friendship that I am powerless to mend, the unfathomable origin of the first cracks, a black cloud overshadowing nearly every school run, forcing two highly intelligent adults with a lot in common to resort to childishly pretending the other one doesn't exist. God I would so like to solve that one.

Every so often it helps to ignore it all, go back into myself and shout "Knickers!" to it all. Or "Pants!" - I'm not sure which is most effective. Today I did just that. Daughter has been asking for some time when I would be making up the kit she got me for my birthday and today was the day. There is nothing so life-affirming as the acquisition of a new skill. I've never wrestled with elastic before. My day always always ALWAYS feels better when I've made something.

Would you like to see my knickers?

Friday, 26 June 2015

French Onion Tart (or I haven't done a recipe for a while have I?)

I emerged from university all those years ago and set up my first proper home in Bath. It coincided with my mum presenting me with my first Elizabeth David. It was an old battered copy, probably from a jumble sale or a charity shop, although I might be doing her an injustice. Some of the pages were a little loose, and they were discoloured and scented with that magical ancient musty book smell. Wait a minute, I'll go and find it so I can show it to you...

I can remember reading through it and thinking that it could well be the only cookery book I would ever need. These days I have probably got over a hundred cookery books, but there is one recipe from this one that follows me around and knocks on the door as a very welcome visitor every six months or so. I know it so well that I haven't looked the recipe up for years and in fact I've just found out that I've made a little amendment or two to it in the interim. I made this recipe back in the old days in Bath, and it was the first meal I cooked on the first day in our current house, 14 years ago, on the basis that it was the one thing I knew I'd be able to buy all the ingredients for in the local shop. I've made it to impress people; I've made it as comfort food. I think I even made it in honour of Keith Floyd when I heard he'd died. And today happiness was a couple of hours while the children were out, some gentle music and a pile of onions...

Tarte à l'oignon (or Onion Tart if you look in the index)

A lot of onions: more than you can fit on a chopping board once they are peeled and halved (Elizabeth David says 2lbs), finely sliced
40g butter
2 eggs
70g gruyère cheese, grated
100ml double cream (my addition, I'm not sure when that started but there didn't seem to be enough cholesterol in it before)

Pastry (again a few additions to make the crusts a little more welcome)
100g plain flour
50g butter
Salt & pepper
1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
A good grating of Parmesan

Melt the butter in a big frying pan, over the lowest heat possible, and add the sliced onions. It might be hard to fit all of them in the pan but it does shrink down over time. Season them well and keep stirring occasionally. At first the mixture will be wet but as it cooks it will start caramelising on the base of the pan so you need to ensure you turn it all over. Keep cooking very slowly - it usually takes an hour or so - until there is a little colour everywhere and the huge pile of onions has turned into a luscious few tablespoonfuls of loveliness. Like this...

Let's have a little close up, can you smell them yet?

While this is all going on, make your pastry by combining the flour, butter, seasonings and parmesan. Oh and turn your oven on, 180 degrees or gas mark 4.

 Rub in the butter, then add just enough water to bring it all together. Mine today was bit too wet so I had to add some more flour.

Wrap it in cling film and put in the fridge for half an hour. Then roll it out and line your quiche tin. A circle of baking parchment and some baking beans and Bob's your uncle. Into the oven with it for 15 minutes.

Now take it out and leave it and the onions to cool while you go out to pick up your daughter from her friend's house, discuss summer holiday playdates and buy some secondhand roller skates from the friend. By the time you get back, the pan will be the perfect temperature for you to add the eggs, cream and most of the cheese, plus a little more seasoning, and give it a good stir.

And the baking beans can go back in their jar. Turn your oven back on and put your filling into the pastry case. Top with the rest of the cheese.

Cook for... well... half an hour or so. Until it looks like this. Funny how some of the best food just looks beige... Serve with some good tomato-heavy salad and vinaigrette, and a good glass of red wine to raise to the memory of Elizabeth David and Keith Floyd. Bon appétit.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Lost in translation

Husband leaves tomorrow morning for a week in Japan. He is going to investigate laser machines but the trip strangely seems to include a rather large amount of sightseeing. You might not think this is very interesting but it has been a testing time for me. You might not know it, but Japan was my place, not his, and I always had it on my list of things to do that I would show him around there one day. As soon as I heard he was going, I was adamant we could all go. Opportunity of a lifetime. Wrong. Four days of upset and arguments and it is not happening. All is reconciled now; my time will come. But it did make me think about an awful lot of everything and for a while it became a symbol of everything I've had to give up since children came along. It's only today that it occurs to me that it might just be linked to my next big unveiling of news. Sometimes you need a big shove to realise what you really want and to try to go after it.

Another thing you might not know about me is that a long long time ago I went to university and studied French, German and Swedish. It took me a long while to find a job using just one of my languages, and then I stopped because of the babies. And for a long time, along with the old wild nights out and the less saggy body, I told myself it was all just part of the past and that I was better off this way. The children would be my ultimate reward and I could get all the fulfilment I needed from framing some bits of felt or from organising a PTA fair.

Last year when we were getting the kitchen done and the only tap that we loved on Pinterest had to be imported from Sweden, I dusted off my 25-year-old Swedish, relearning to tell my past participles from my definite articles and translated every last word of the assembly instructions into English. I'm not convinced Charlie ever needed to look at my translation to fit the tap but it set my heart on fire. It coincided with an old university friend getting in touch on Facebook and asking if I'd ever thought about translation. A little filing cabinet in my head had its first memo put away into it.

Last Christmas, on a night out, two friends drunkenly rounded on me and told me I was wasted and that I would be much happier if I got a proper job. I spent a lot of time justifying myself to myself - but I think the second memo went into the filing cabinet.

Then recently the cabinet was flung open... I answered an urgent call on Facebook from the International Feltmakers Association for someone to translate an interview with a French felter and designer for their members' magazine. How lovely to combine two of my favourite things... the joy of writing down for all those British readers that the designer had worked for Yves Saint-Laurent and spent evenings alone in the studio on all fours picking up offcuts of sumptuous fabrics that she still had in her box of scraps - a woman after my own heart. Then a week in France and some children who tested the definition of my ultimate reward to the limits and the damage was done, the dam had come crashing down and on my return I found myself googling translation.

I'm now halfway through my application for a part-time MA in Translation at the University of Bristol (I did one for Portsmouth distance learning too just in case). I've done my test translations in French and in, gulp, German pulled out of my head after a gap of 20 years, and although I keep rereading and amending them on a daily basis, I'm getting quietly proud of them. Next I have to write a 1500-2000 word essay complete with quoted references on why a good translator needs to have a good knowledge of the target language. It's daunting but it's a good buzz. There is a huge chunk of my brain that has been lying dormant for years. And I'm really pleased to say it's started jumping up and down and shouting "Hello!" and I'm very happy to see it again.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Beauty and the beast

Lots of interesting things going on... It's only a week and a half until North Somerset Arts Week and I'm feeling twitchy. How do you know when you've made an exhibition rather than just a few pictures? I think I'm getting there but until it all goes up on the wall it's just guesswork. I've framed everything I've made so far. I gave in to the critics and did some more stitching on my daisy, so now nobody can say it's not finished...

And actually I have grown rather fond of my daisy, especially now that it's in a lovely understated ash frame; I will be a little bit sad if it goes.

Then I made a little something else. I'm hoping that for lots of people it will be a happy memory of somewhere or other... 

And then I made another one. I was thinking about this beautiful batik by a lovely lady I know called Conny Ridge who will be exhibiting in Arts Week too....

I got an urge. Let's hope she thinks "inspired by" rather than "ripped off", as I really love her work...

So it's starting to come together. A mixture of flowery scenes and the sea. Some photos mounted and put into cellophane bags, plenty of greetings cards and postcards, of both my textiles and my photography (scary, never sold any photos before, I wonder endlessly how it will go). A play room full of things in frames all wrapped up in bubble wrap. The problem now is not really being able to relax until every last empty frame hidden around the house is filled with something beautiful to sell. I should stop writing this rubbish and get cracking now. 

I rather wish the thing I photographed today had appeared earlier - for one thing I might have been able to sort out a print or two of it, but also if I had known it existed earlier, I might have been able to spare the five little lives inside by stopping the hedge from being cut down... Sometimes at the children's bedtime we talk about the three happiest things that happened in our day, and tonight I had to include this just for the joy of seeing such beauty, even though it was also the saddest thing today.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

An old love reignited

I'm sure I should be doing some more plugging here today for Arts Week as it's only three weeks away, but circumstances and the children's Easter holidays mean that no making has happened for the last two weeks. I will get creative again next week but today it's time for me to tell you about an old flame that's been reawakened, after a very long gap, this week.

In the old days before children, we used to spend a lot of our holidays travelling round Italy. And then it stopped. The trips had been about wandering through cities, spending hours in great little old fashioned restaurants, a bit of culture here and there, travelling light. None of these are easy with small children and so our holidays were spent first in England and then as the whining on long car journeys improved, France and in particular (as you know if you are a regular reader) French beaches, as a ready made entertainment source is on your doorstep when you stay near a beach. But time has passed and this week we tried to stretch the limits a little further... and went to Rome. It was exhausting. We did so much walking, too much walking. I now have stumps of gristle where my legs used to be. Civil words were sometimes few and far between. The crowds of tourists in some areas were shocking as were the hundreds of poor souls trying to eke a living out of them - you want to buy a selfie stick? But there was a joy that I had forgotten and some new pleasure I hadn't known before. I had heard about it but had never fully realised how much Italians love children. Picture us standing on a bus and eldest says to me giggling "Mum, I think there's a lady who likes me" and suddenly I see a hand stroking his hair and tickling his chin. Daughter, still blonde in a way that must be quite unfeasible to an Italian, has a waitress sit down on the bench next to her to talk about whether she wants pasta and meatballs and blood orange juice or peach, then tells her she should smile more as she is beautiful when she does. Even the flower seller going round the restaurant gives her a yellow rose (yes it was MY birthday but never mind) and the stern passport guy in the airport gives her a smile, a wave and a "ciao".

The elegance and faded grandeur of the architecture. Ochre and burnt siena shades in the sun. The splendour of hints of the 1950's in packaging, in shop windows, in advertising. Sunny happy Vespas and motorbikes parked in alleyways. The surreptitious SPQR's hidden on drain covers, lampposts, bins, harking back to a distant age.

The food, the joy and pride in good quality and flavour. The French may have beautiful croissants, but the Italians take them and then stuff them like a doughnut: nutella, custard or apricot jam, what could be better? The steamy puffiness of squares of focaccia made especially in a wood fired oven for the children to have with their meatballs (which come after the pasta course, a bewildering concept to an English seven-year-old).

We search for the best ice cream in all of Rome every day, based on guide books and website recommendation. The quality, the intensity of flavour, gives me the greatest pleasure and the greatest regrets now I've returned. Why didn't I try the apricot flavour, the wild cherry, the chestnut, even the fresh date? I am mortified that on my last day, when I went back inside to thank the man for the three scoops I'd just had (salted peanut, rice pudding, and ricotta, cointreau and orange if you're wondering) and shamefully bought two more flavours, I asked him what he thought his best flavours were, then when he thoughtfully and bashfully pointed out the very darkest chocolate, and then the habanero, I grimaced, made my excuses and ordered the cassata and zabaglione instead. Why didn't I just do it? Maybe I need to get some funding to go back on my own and do some more thorough research before writing my thesis on the best ice cream in Rome. It will only take a few months and some larger jeans.

Anyway my friend Laura says I should just post some beautiful photos of my trip on here without any words, but I never could keep my mouth shut. I think I've said what I wanted to say now though, so here are the pics...

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Fate, calm and authenticity

Interesting times at the moment. Fate seems to be happening quite a lot more than usual. Serendipities. Odd events throwing things into my lap. I could mention the hail that fell earlier while I was out, forcing me into a shop and just compelling me to try on and buy a top that I didn't need. Or the boy spending an extra long time swimming and then showering one evening last week, which meant that by the time we got home, husband had had some peace to read the letter I had written after an argument, absorb it and let calm return to the house. My making seems to be going the same way at the moment: I am trying to get lots and lots of work together to show during Arts Week and so quite a bit of making is going on. I have an idea, start to get some wool out for it and suddenly something else altogether is getting made. I wanted to do some lettering in my felt, some beautiful, breathtaking wording, a life-changing slogan, but while I was trying to work out what I wanted to say, this happened:

(Incidentally this is an odd one, I feel really happy with this picture and then other people keep saying  that it will look great when I've finished it. Maybe I need to revisit it with the sewing machine. Or maybe people just need to get over themselves. I bet nobody told Picasso his picture would be great if he put his eyes and noses in the right place.) 

This time for Arts Week I'm branching out and showing a little bit of photography as well as the textiles. It's a gamble and an unknown, which is probably why I'm clinging to the idea that fate has a hand in these things. It's all for a reason. Even if that means I'll have enough greetings cards and postcards leftover to send to people for their birthdays for the next ten years. My amazing shiatsu friend Alexandra,  whose words always carry a great deal of truth in our sessions, and who always manages to point me in the right direction, suggested I get some photos printed onto canvas, and I've done it, with just three pictures. To be honest, I couldn't remember which photos I'd picked. My lovely friend Laura, who I will be exhibiting with, suggested I get my daisy photo mounted to hang with the felted version above, and says she will make a handbag with a daisy on the front to display with it. Great idea, add this to my list of things to do. So imagine my surprise when the photo, on canvas, arrives in the post:

I started making again last week, a sea picture this time, the one that the cat kept sitting on. I had intended something different but this happened:

The photo doesn't quite do it justice; I need to have a fiddle with it as the colours are a bit brash. This is the first time I think I've done a sea picture without any beach on it. At one point I was half thinking about using some sandpaper as a mount for it, to add a bit of beach.  The sea itself has a lot less movement than my usual ones, and there are (apart from the breakers in the foreground) no beads, as I normally use. I wanted to convey something a bit different, and I was reminded of it today, lying on the floor after another shiatsu session with the lovely Alexandra. I felt just the same as I do when I'm floating in the sea when we stay in Brittany, the most beautiful calm and freedom in my head. I told her about this picture, and of the photo that inspired it and a little of the event that inspired the photo: an evening after the people on the beach cleared off for their dinner, an evening of whipping a swimming costume on as soon as the children were in bed and dipping in, floating and flipping, watching little fish swim by, and emptying my brain. That evening a still came like no other, the light had a strange quality about it and you couldn't see where the sea ended and the sky began. Once I'd dried off I took a photo of it. At this point in my writing I'm trying to eke the words out a bit to make more space between my felt and the original photo, so you can't quite see how inadequate my felted version is in comparison to the real thing. But rest assured that in person, and away from the photo, the picture does convey that same feel (in my humble opinion).

By the way, maybe this is the moment to mention that I've recently set up an Artist's Facebook page for myself in a gesture designed to make things a little bit more serious rather than just messing about on the kitchen table, do check it out if you are a Facebook sort of person and like to see what I've been making...

Anyway (she says, continuing to make the space between pictures bigger) I've never really been one for these things but as fate is having a hand in things, why not: Alexandra, who brings me truths and calm, tells me that the time between the solar eclipse last Friday and the next full moon (Google tells me 4th April) is significant and momentous, and that I need to be authentic to myself. I wonder what this will bring...

Monday, 16 March 2015

Pasta and the sea...

I had intended to show you some new art I've made but it may have to wait...

It turns out that I'm not the only one in my household who loves felt. A few months ago I insisted on getting a cat from the local sanctuary. Our eyes met across the room, he rolled on his back and offered up his belly for a tickle and the rest is history. It was a gamble getting a five year old cat; we were half expecting a cat of a nervous disposition, but Pasta is a great big butch cat who stands his ground, respects nobody's rules and now has a territory that seems to span half of Long Ashton.

He follows us to school in the mornings (although he sometimes forgets the way home and waits until we are going home in the afternoon to follow us back up the hill), and he follows us on walks through the woods...

And I've found out once or twice recently that he loves felt. Today he was getting involved with the making of it. Here's a brief lesson in felt making for cats: get your owner to assemble your wool, cover it with warm soapy water and rub it until it stays in one piece, on a base of a piece of bubble wrap. Give it a good sniff every so often...

Wring it out a bit and roll it up in your towel, rolling backwards and forwards a few times in each direction...

Rinse it several times, squeeze it dry, and while it's still damp and rather cold, sit on it.

To help make it even flatter, you could lie down and go to sleep on it...

You probably can't tell from these photos that Pasta seems to prefer beach scenes. I'm doing quite a few in preparation for Arts Week in May. I can show you these examples of previous pictures I've made, but the one Pasta is asleep on is a new approach. Come and see when the pink flags are out!