To the Shed
If you are wondering where Muriel is then join the club!
There are times when she is so busy being marvellous that it is hard to keep up with the whirlwind and to be frank it is best not to bother and to repair to one’s club or to the shed which is one’s club with garden implements for companions and a wee refreshment. Although I am sure that you are also aware that as supreme leader of the Historical Society, or as Muriel calls it “the Hysterical”, I have given over my shed to an exhibition about the First World War. It is now over 40 years since the first Unpleasantness and I am anxious that we do not forget, although I am sure that in 60 years time when to quote Mrs Travers (our daily woman what does but not a lot) “we will all be pushing up daisies”, it will be long forgotten and the same mistakes will be being made.
Gambling on Investments
I am concentrating this autumn on espionage in the war and in collaboration with the local “doomen”, or pigeon fanciers to you, we will be holding a demonstration of Secret Communications in the park during the village flower show. Alongside this Mrs Travers has organised on my behalf a “wee book” for those who fancy a flutter if you pardon the pun, but please do not tell Muriel. Muriel disapproves of gambling, which is odd considering much of her grandfather’s fortune was made in speculative investments. For example in railway debentures in lines that ran to the top of hills and nowhere else, ship loads of guano and I am not even going to mention the investments on her mother’s side. You see the MacCavitys, famous for their sweets and fast boiling, were firm believers in that fundamental economic principle of vertical and horizontal integration. Thus their success was based on the dubious acquisition of Caribbean sugar plantations by “Old Black Jack MacCavity” in the 18th century, where oddly enough, those who have been on holiday there say many of the islanders resemble Muriel.
On the other side of things the MacCavitys who were said to be responsible for most of the tooth loss in Edinburgh invested heavily in a series of “Painless Dentistry” surgeries and cornered the market in false teeth. Many paid a high price for gobstoppers, aniseed balls and pan drops. According to Muriel, however, the MacCavitys were not without a sense of social responsibility and points to their special 21st Birthday Gift Voucher, as evidence of this. The voucher with a colourful drawing of a silver key and a gaping hole entitled the birthday boy or girl to have all their teeth removed at once thus saving time and money. A separate voucher could be purchased for a matching set of false teeth, this was often the gift of choice for grandparents.
Is Rubber Bouncing
Muriel suggested I should keep you up to date with her comings and goings by referring to her desk diary. Now for someone who had a most expensive education this is in itself rather like a code breaking training session for MI5. I think that says – 10a.m. Tuesday S.T.V., which will be a reference to her advising the new Scottish television channel which is due to open on 31st August. Of course she is very friendly with its founder Roy Thompson the Canadian Newspaper chap and suggested he should buy the old Theatre Royal in Glasgow from Howard and Wyndam Ltd to use as a headquarters. She is urging him to go for quality – we shall see.
What else has she written oh yes, Federation of Malaya becomes Independent from Britain, with a note beside it “N.B. buy rubber bands in case price goes up” and “speak to Lord Wolfenden about likely impact on similar products”. I think, and I really should not be divulging this, but this must be a reference to her secret membership on the committee which is going to introduce sex into Britain, but not for another decade. This is perhaps just as well as with commercial television one does not want too much excitement all at once. Especially if there might be a shortage of rubber.
Book Signings in Edinburgh
Today she has gone to Edinburgh as Cousin Lulubelle is signing copies of her book “Get Rich Quick” in James Thin’s book shop in Infirmary Street. This firm dates back to 1848 and is very handy for the college which as Muriel says is “a very good varsity”. James Thin knew many of the leading figures of the literary world, Macaulay, Christopher North, Thomas Carlyle and my favourite Robert Louis Stevenson. Thin also knew Muriel’s grandfather, who wrote under the nom de plume, Sidney Sherbet and helped him to get his magnum opus “A History of Black Stripped Balls” onto the shelves.
Also signing books will be one of our neighbours Bunty Haystack author of the famous rural mysteries, you have probably read “Demon of the Dairy” or perhaps “Larch Tree Lynch” or even the rather trashy “Tractor Tramp”. Today she is autographing “Screams from a Shearing”. She is also promoting her next book aimed at the Christmas market which is based on a true story connected with our own village and that is the strange death of Admiral Lord Pentland-Firth, hero of Jutland, a few years ago at the Flower Show. This threatens to bring many things to the surface which would be best buried along with Salty Pentland-Firth. There are figures who work in the nation’s shadows who are worried.
Generations of Cottaging
Worried is also an adjective that might well describe the state of mind of the residents of our rural bolthole at the moment. For this is the week leading up to the aforementioned flower and produce sale. Of course in recent times the unexplained death of Lord Pentland-Firth, one of the major landowners in the area, has cast something of a shadow over the proceedings. It has to be said, however, that it is not a very long shadow because the villagers, or cottagers as they are known to their betters, are a stoic lot who have been cottaging for generations.
The demise of Lord Pentland-Firth if one was being honest simply removed a competitor whom it was widely known had won the sweet pea category for 17 years in a row by all means of jiggery-pokery. What bothers the cottagers more is that they will be ridiculed in Bunty’s forthcoming tale of rustic goings on and, worse, outsiders might be attracted on some sort of literary tour and destroy the delicate balance of rural life.
Preparation is Everything
Despite the concerns the rural bolt hole has gone into a sort of lockdown as the well oiled machine that is F.A.F.S. (Flower and Fête Show) has sprung into action. The glittering prizes have been removed from the window sills where they have stood proudly for the past year alongside fruit bowels and plaster Alsatians and returned to the committee. The polishing committee is now hard at work in a secret location which is young old Jock’s shed, where gallons of silver polish and yards of fluff less cloth are being employed to bring the trophies to presentation standard.
In an attic room by the light of a storm lantern Mrs Raeburn-Reynolds who once studied art in Glasgow, is leading a team of calligraphers who are carefully using pen and ink it write “First” “Second”, “Commended” etc. onto pieces of parchment as if they were inviting guests to a Royal Garden Party. There are even one or two in red ink saying “disqualified” in case anyone has the temerity to enter a shop bought preserve as their own or flowers from Tony Campbell as home grown. On the rare occasions this has happened cottagers have done the equivalent of falling on their swords or moving to Glasgow.
So Late, So Very Late
One the most stressful parts of the day is the presentation of prizes which takes place after the judges have “opened the doors” or in this case opened the flaps of the marquee. As the society is older than time itself many, well actually all, the prizes are in memory of former residents whose cottaging days are over and they have passed to be with the great Gardener in the sky.
Thus as each prize is presented by the President the secretary will announce something along the lines of “The late Lady Margery Mckenzie-Machbanks of Middlebank Muir, cup for an arrangement of garden blooms in a thimble etc , etc.. This takes a considerable number of hours as I have explained previously, so it is easy to understand why the present president is resting quietly in her boudoir with a retired actor practising “her looks” and the secretary is working hard with a voice coach in order that her tone does not express surprise or disappointment as the results are revealed. There are four presidential looks which say, “at last” “oh dear” “well deserved”, and “how dare you”.
Incidentally this is not a competition for those with an eye to profit as the rewards are still paid in groats and bawbees and it is the custom to return the prize money to the committee. With the remark, “here have this back, we don’t need the money put it to a good cause.” You do this even if you have just spent the last of the family allowance and the children need new shoes.
The Calm before the Storm
In the week leading up to F.A.F.S., a strange quietness descends on the bolt hole. No one seems to be about and yet the exhibition marquee is erected and so is the tea tent and yet no one seems to have seen it happen. Is it all happening under cover of darkness? Walls are whitewashed, fences creosoted, and windows glossed. In the garden’s gladioli are tied to stakes as if waiting to be shot and in raised beds leeks stand to attention in rows like a battalion on parade.
Practice runs are made with plates of onions on sand to the car just in case it rains and in buckets flowers are getting “a good drink of water”, prior to being arranged in the forms laid down since the ancient Egyptian’s first arranged flowers around the departed, which is probably where our committee got the idea of prizes presented in the name of the late Mr or Mrs So and So from. The Egyptians are now very late themselves. One is aware of children slipping out of cottages at night with buckets and spade to collect sheep droppings (sorry for the indelicacy, but that’s farming in the raw) which they bring back and add water and stir with a stick and then pour into the leeks as a final feed. It is said in these parts that sheep droppings make the best leek and potato soup.
Not Always Written Down
Meanwhile in kitchens the ladies are busy with well greased baking tins and flour and eggs and ginger and cocoa for F.A.F.S. is not just about the skills of the grower but about the skills of the baker and preservers for in late August we begin to think about the winter ahead when cold and wet days are enlivened by scone with jam and gingerbreads and fairy cakes. We look forward to cold cuts brought life with pickled onions and pears and rhubarb chutney.
If you were to visit the rural bolthole this week you would notice that blinds remain down net curtains are closed tight and everywhere there is the smell of cake as we go for “one more attempt to get this Victoria sponge just right”. You may admire the recipe but you will never get it, for this is the currency of the countryside, conferring worth and status. Indeed for many no recipe exists it is all done from memory and the hand measurements of cottagers. It has been well documented by ethnographers that cottaging requires certain hand movements. Where they exist recipe books tend to emanate from the cooks of the landed or gentry sections of Scottish rural communities. Annotated recipes have the name of the house where the product was consumed and sometimes in pencil it will say “good” or “not very good” beside a treacle scone not considered up to the mark. This may well amount to social death.
Muriel is back with Mrs T – All is Duplicity and Subterfuge
“Jasper I am back, thank goodness. I am exhausted.”
“Hello Darling I have just been swotting up on Mata Hari and Morse Code in the shed, where were you?”
“Edinburgh, do you never listen?”
Darling I hang on your every word, how was it?”
“Oh Edinburgh in the festival how can anyone be bothered, my feet are killing me, although it was nice to see Moira Shearer again and I did manage to see Shona at the Assembly rooms, she is looking marvellous , poor thing must be exhausted. So much work at this time of year, what with the Festival Club as well. One can hardly move along Princes Street.”
“Was the book thing you went for good?”
“The book signing went very well. Lulubelle is delighted with sales and so was Bunty, although I am concerned about that next book, you know the one she wants to base on here. The Handsome Stranger wants to see me about it again. By the way I picked up Mrs Travers, since she is feeling a bit down about Billy and the robbery.”
“So she should be, what is she doing?”
“She is planting some gladioli blooms in jam jars of water outside in the herbaceous border. They just look as if they had grown there. I bought them on the way home from a nursery garden so we can pick them in the morning. Here, come and help me decant this chutney into a new jar or cut out some gingham tops. Mrs T has done me a Victoria Sponge or at any rate bought one in Fergusson’s.”
“Muriel how could you? This is cheating””
“No Jasper, this is war. And no war was ever one by playing fair.”
“Muriel you never cease to surprise me!”
“Jasper, the modern woman of business does not have time to pickle walnuts and rhubarb, but I am going to pretend I can do both; it’s all right for you. Men have to do only one thing at a time and you cannot even do that half the time.”
“Mrs Travers might let on, you could open yourself up to blackmail.”
“No she won’t – her marmalade is Robertson’s, we are going for gold, it’s a jungle out there Jasper and I don’t intend to be eaten.”