A Time for “Occupations”

Winter is conquered
Winter is conquered

Winter is a Serious Business

As the American novelist Sinclair Lewis wrote “Winter is not a season; it is an occupation.”

I have always felt a little bond with Mr Lewis as he was once described by H. L. Menken as “a red haired tornado…” and his first wife was editor of Vogue. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions. Although I do not share his addiction to “John Barleycorn”, I admire the fact that in literary terms he ploughed his own furrow just as I attempt to do in matters of style and taste.

He unfashionably saw America and Americans in terms of faults as well as virtues. He might have been describing Glasgow and Glaswegians when he spoke of “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring of any land in the world today”. Perhaps he was really just talking about humankind? I feel certain that Mr Lewis must have had experience of Scotland in the winter months for as in the mid west, or Scandinavia, winter can be a serious business.

There is a Purpose to Everything

I long ago found it best to stop fighting winter, it comes and it goes but I feel sure it has a purpose. The short days, the fog, the cold and the wet and sometimes all together drive us to our hearths and home in what I suppose is our equivalent of hibernation. As individuals and communities we turn inwards on ourselves and once the basic needs of food and fuel are accounted for, which granted take up a great deal of energy, we can turn to what our 18th century ancestors called “occupations”. They were not of course referring to the means of earning a living, but as members of the leisured classes to the way in which time was passed in a seemingly profitable manner, particularly by young women. These occupations such as drawing, painting, pressing flowers, singing and dancing and so forth were also designed to equip them with the necessary qualities for marriage.

Ordinary people had precious little time for painting and flower pressing apart from limestone washing farm buildings and pressing the odd tongue. I can hear you from here; actually it is very tasty with a good mustard.

Being Cosy

a wee glass of sherry
Bliss – a glass of simply marvellous sherry

As I write to you in 1956 we, with more time on our hands and perhaps a little more income, call these hobbies. There are few things more comforting than the sight of a family around the winter fire with mother at her embroidery, father with his shoe box containing brown paper packets of garden seeds organising them in alphabetical order (if your husband is like Jasper that is) and the children with their stamp albums and coin collections. Add a nice cup of tea and a slice of gingerbread, maybe the occasional cream sherry into the mixture and one enters a state of near bliss. I believe the Danes call this hygge, but we would just say cosy. Jasper loves cosy, but for him it is an all year round occupation in which he might easily qualify for a ph.d.. In Scotland we “coorie doon”.

How Can One be Cosy With All That Sparseness?

I am puzzled about the Scandinavians. As you know my cousin and business partner Lulubelle has insisted that my interior decoration business “Chez Nous” should take lessons from the Scandinavians when it comes to interiors. Now in case you are unaware of design trends, this is a very sparse and bare look with pale timbers and thin spindly legs rather like those of Miss McDavid, our post mistress, who looks as if she needs another 6 to support her little body. I am constantly surprised as to how such a seemingly frail “buddy” can stamp postal orders with strength and violence. On pension day many have been seen to stuff cotton wool into their ears and take a firm grip on the oak counter. Miss McDavid is not cosy, unlike her friend Miss McTurk who serves at the neighbouring sweet and pocket money counter who, being somewhat of a winter model in terms of size anyway in her white slacks and pink angora cardigan, looks like a cloud on legs at sunset. The only contrast to her fluffy appearance is provided by the Fry’s Chocolate Cream Bar which is rarely out of her spare hand. I suppose what I am trying to say is that sparse, pale, thin and spindly do not, at least for moi, suggest cosy.

I don’t know about you but I always think that in Scotland we spend so much time indoors we seem to need to surround ourselves with things. I am aware that this means more dusting for Mrs Travers, our woman what does but not a lot, but I would find it difficult to manage without my books, pictures and ornaments. I do, I suppose, attach sentimentality to objects – I feel they always have a story.

The Feeling of “Cosy”

Jasper's beloved car
Jasper’s beloved car

There is nowhere more suited to cosy than our rural bolt hole in South West Scotland, where many of our city friends have also chosen to have little country cottages and some like Lady Pentland-Firth have considerable properties and land holdings. Providing the weather is not too icy, we often load up the Humber Super Snipe (most of the space being taken up with Mrs Travers and her suitcase of support hose and medications – just how much Eno’s fruit salts can one woman consume over a weekend, I wonder) and head for the hills. Let me tell you there is nothing quite like coming through the cottage door and watching Mrs T get the Rayburn going, empty the mouse traps, put the stone pigs in the

The Rayburn gets up steam
The Rayburn gets up steam

beds and put a pot of soup on to get the feeling of “cosy” underway. I feel like a pioneer just watching.

From the Bolthole

the latest sherry one must try
the latest sherry one must try

So dear friends my musings come to you this week from the Bolthole and I am writing by the fire with a crocheted rug on my knees and an old Paisley Shawl around my shoulders. I have to hand my occupations, a glass of “Nectar”, a new Oloroso dry sherry by Gonzalez Byass purveyors of my favourite Tio Pepe, and rather nice too.

Lady Pentland-Firth enjoys her coffee
Lady Pentland-Firth enjoys her coffee

Lady Pentland-Firth called around for coffee this morning and left me a copy of Britannia and Eve which she thought might be useful as it has some articles on colour in the home as well as fashions for the spring and summer ahead. I know I should be more charitable but something tells me she must want something, she has that predatory African bush look in her eyes.

Mrs Travers has put a beef and ale casserole in the oven with some jacket potatoes and gone round to the church to help sort jumble for a sale tomorrow to raise funds for “The Waifs and Strays Empire Resettlement Programme”. This follows on from last night’s Hysterical (Historical to those of you not in the know) Society Meeting in which our neighbour, Moira, gave a simply marvellous talk on the history of British Home Children and the wonderful opportunities that have been given to orphans to start new lives in Canada and Australia. With a bible, penknife and a one way ticket these fortunate children begin new lives with families on the prairies of Canada and the sheep farms of Australia. Jasper who is Chairman of the Hysterical asked who checked up on how these children were doing and it appears no one which is rather surprising. Always one to be optimistic of humankind however I asked him afterwards “Why do you always have to look on the black side of human nature?” to which he replied that I had clearly not looked at the invitations sent to the Children’s Homes which requested children with “merry eyes and golden hair”, “a cheery disposition” and  such like. He may have a point on reflection.

Jasper’s Ruse

As it is not a bad afternoon, if one wraps up, Jasper has taken some of his Hysterical disciples on his favourite river walk ostensibly to find examples of “material culture reflecting the settlement activities of the residents of the three rivers” which make up our slice of rural paradise. However, Jasper has a further motive up his sleeve and that is to try and select a successor to his former secretary Mrs Blenheim Crawford who has mysteriously disappeared. It is no mystery to me, but the Official Secrets Act prevents me from telling you or Jasper anything more. Suffice to say it is a lot colder where “she” and those two Cambridge traitors are holed up. Sometimes it’s better as they said in S.O.E. to remain in ignorance about some things; it can be a life saver.

I am not entirely sure why Jasper needs to make so much fuss about the committee members, as I said “Jasper you are running the local history society not some giant American corporation where you have to take candidates out to lunch to test their suitability for a job.” Jasper said a round of sandwiches, some fruit cake an apple and a flask of tea hardly amounted to a business lunch and that it was important he could work with the new secretary, so he needed to make sure they were on the same wave length. Actually what he means is not “work with” rather do the “work for” him. Jasper has delegation down to a fine art, why he even needs Mrs Travers to help take the top of his beloved brown sauce bottle. Honestly if my Grandmama knew I would marry a man who enjoyed bought pickles she would turn in her vault.

Jasper’s Latest “Occupation”

Still times change and Jasper has many endearing qualities and has always been receptive to an element of retraining and there are often times when one might almost think he had been to Glasgow Academy. He is nothing if not thorough and tenacious when he embarks on a project, providing it interests him. The Hysterical Society is a case in point with his pursuit of a new secretary

Then there are his interests. The Capodimonte Collectors’ Club would be lost without him and there is the ongoing Museum in a Shed project to commemorate World War I and now he is completely caught up in his new favourite occupation which is collecting what he calls “archaeological items” from the river bank and carting them home to put in his display

Jasper's recent river bank finds
Jasper’s recent river bank finds

cabinet with little labels. For archaeological, dear readers read rubbish! His findings so far consist of the bulk of the banking which follows our rivers as flood protection. He assures me that one day these fragments of pottery, or shards as he refers to them, will be a matter of interest revealing much about the domestic life of our Glens in times gone past. This week he has already found a set of broken Victorian tiles, a glass marble stopper from a lemonade bottle and a tiny little china doll. The latter is I admit somewhat cute but as for

The little china doll found on the river bank
The little china doll found on the river bank

the rest! “Really Jasper!” I said “if this were 19th century London you would be a mudlark”. He says we will all be laughing on the other side of our faces when he finds the Scottish equivalent of Tutankhamen.

Back from the River

The cosy fire
The cosy fire

I think I can hear him and Mrs Travers in the kitchen and that casserole smells good. Well time for another log on the fire and a top up of “Nectar” and we are all set for a cosy evening with a jumble sale to look forward to tomorrow, soup and pudding in the church for lunch and a Beetle Drive in the evening for “The Fallen Women”.

From the kitchen

“Muriel come and see what we’ve got I think it might be iron age………”

As the writer said winter is an occupation or in my case several occupations.

“Mrs Wylie, Mam, look what I got at the jumble”

“Oh Mrs Travers a set of broken flying ducks they will look lovely above your new radiogram with the stuffed lizard brought back from the East Indies by Mr Travers (after he ran away on a slow boat to China following the incident at Busty Betty’s and made into a table lamp”.

“Mrs T, are we having custard? It would be so cosy.”

“Of course Mr Wylie, a famous archemenologists like yourself needs custard. Any decision on the new secretary?”

Give me strength.

à bientôt

Muriel Wylie

February 1956

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4 Responses to A Time for “Occupations”

  1. Moira says:

    Sinclair Lewis was correct in his description of Winter. It is a full time occupation when one considers all the fetching and carrying required to keep the family in hot water, hot meals and hot legs (well, the fronts anyway!). If only I had a Mrs Travers of my very own, instead of which I have to resport to wearing a disguise when gathering firewood and coal lest the neighbours realise I am doing the donkey work myself……
    If only I could have been at the meeting of The Hysterical as I am very fond of a waif & stray, especially if they are strong enough to carry buckets of coal and faggots for the fire. Sadly I missed the meeting due to a birthday in the family and the very real fear that all the cake would have disappeared like “snaw aff a dyke” by the time I got home.
    And Muriel I am afraid that, like Jasper, I too am a scavenger for the relics of the past. When we go to our but’n ben on Arran we always go beachcombing and now have a very large collection of sea-washed glass, crockery and bits of tile. It is so satisfying when trying to picture an entire plate or tile from just a fragment. And the fragments can be made into fashionable mid- 50s jewellery or a mosaic picture. Must go now as I fear I may have overstepped the mark by disagreeing with you dear Mu ……

  2. Louise Lewis (Lady from the right side of Carlisle) says:

    Muriel ma chérie,

    Strength it is, indeed, that is required to survive a Scottish winter; or in fact any winter in the Northern Hemisphere! One adores the notion of to ‘coorie doon’ and one finds oneself drawn to the fireside of an evening – a Tio Pepe in one hand, a Fry’s Chocolate Cream in the other (much like Miss McTurk – a woman after one’s own heart in the chocolate department) and my darling, Mimi the Shih Tzu, snuggled into my lap. Bliss! Although, one must say, one does RAWTHER like the sound of the new ‘Nectar’ Sherry and one will be giving it a crack at the earliest opportunity!

    Of course, as you so rightly say Mu darling, occupations are ‘a must’ in winter; whether in a shed or otherwise. Moi, j’aime beaucoup to absorb myself in poetry! I am currently working on ‘Wind’ by Ted Hughes for an upcoming soirée (very apt considering the recent weather we’re having). One never tires of the spoken word…..as I so often say: “Once a thesp, always a thesp.” Maintenant, ma chérie, it’s time for my afternoon Tio Pepe….one must keep the vocal chords well-lubricated….especially en hivers….. *sends Jeeves in search of ‘Nectar’*

    Yours feeling the winter muse,
    Lulu xxxx

    • Muriel Wylie says:

      My dear, I do hope you are maintaining the 9 o’clock “bim-bongs” for dear little Mimi. As to sherry with Fry’s chocolate cream – not a combination I’d thought if before, but what a delight.

      Your ever loving friend


      • Louise Lewis (Lady from the right side of Carlisle) says:

        Mais oui, Mu ma chérie, bien sûr! My darling, Mimi the Shih Tzu, is in a strict regimen of 9 o’clock ‘bim bongs’ and 10 o’clock ‘beddy-bongoes’! Do try the Fry’s Chocolate Cream with the ‘Nectar’ – it’s divine, dwaaling…..

        Your Sherry-loving chum,
        Lulu xxxx

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