The Art of Pottering

I am fully aware that many of you consider me harsh when it comes to my views and opinions on gentlemen.

Men and Their Urges

Let us face facts ladies, for a good deal of the time men are as my late Mamma used to say “neither use nor ornament.” They make work. They are untidy. They are prone to hypochondria. They are governed by primeval urges – such as the need to watch commercial television and eat baked beans out of a tin as soon as one is out of the house for more than 20 minutes .They cause wars and stock market crashes and never refill the sherry decanters.

I have never yet met one who does not look at an iron in anything but wonderment, just as our cave man ancestors must have gazed upon fire for the first time and thought, “Well that looks nice, I wonder what the lady wife can do with it”.

Jasper off to the golf club

On the rare occasions when Jasper is without a team of domestic support and requires a crease in his trousers for the Golf Club, he either places his pair of trousers under the mattress or gets the taxi to stop outside Rowans in Buchanan Street in order that he might nip inside and buy a new pair. This despite the fact that the manager Mr Fraser, “call me Innes” always measures inside legs even when one is only in for a scarf or tie. Jasper says it is a price worth paying rather than trying to operate the steam iron and I quote, “Muriel I want a crease in the cavalry twills not a sail down the Clyde coast.”

Gentlemen Callers – a Southern Problem

My Cousin Lulubelle is from the U.S.A.

My American cousin and business partner, Lulubelle, and I do not agree on much. However, I know from the occasional rissole and chipped potato meal we share, (which she calls a burger and fries) that in matters concerning the purposes of men we are as one. They are a universal problem and one which needs to be taken in hand.

Note the white gloves

Cousin Lulubelle is from the very deep south of the United States of America where they grow cotton, wear white suits and sing songs about climbing Jacobs Ladder. According to Cousin Lulubelle “gentlemen callers” have been the cause of everything that has gone wrong in the South, including blue grass music and overlong films in saturated colours. She may have a rather jaundiced view of course as her experiences with men have not been positive, despite being brought up with confederate manners, white gloves and ringlets in her hair.

Her two husbands both met with unfortunate deaths entirely the result of “misadventure” of their own making. They were not as the Sheriff “who never liked ma faaamily tried ta insinuate, the result of a heavily greased levee on the river” that suggested murder. “Fortunately the judge and Papa went back a loong way and he knew a not guilty verdict when he saw one was necessary. Papa never had to mention the business about the judge’s wife an’ the man in the cabin by the creek who liked jazz and said his ancestors were kings o’ the Gold Coast of Africa.”

A Famous ‘Black Bottom’

My friend, (and I use that term lightly as she can drive me up the wall) Lady Patience Charity Pentland-Firth, is also with us on the subject of the practical use of the male of the species.

the cabaret leg

Patience was a cabaret star in the 1920s and 30s before she married into the aristocracy. Her experience of men in the seedy world of smoke filled basements in Berlin was not always the best. Her magnetic charms, her famous “Black Bottom”, her lovely legs and hypnotic voice attracted some of Europe’s most powerful men. She has often been heard to say that the great dictators were not just notches on her bedpost, but “just badly behaved little boys at heart wanting someone to unburden themselves to during the long dark nights, between torchlight processions.”

Patience’s Rise…and Fall…etc.. etc.

Patience grasped a lot, but never the fact that she was being used. Eventually she did find happiness with marriage to Rear Admiral “Salty” the Lord Pentland-Firth, hero of Jutland etc., etc.. Marriage to the old sea dog brought land, money and prestige and Patience rose to the task of being one of the gentry.

The late Lord Pentland-Firth, known as “Salty”

Salty’s sudden death at a Flower Show Lunch (committee and sponsors only) was a great shock to Patience. She was temporarily disinherited when the entailed estate passed to her husband’s nephew. She took to the amontillado with disastrous consequences, particularly as she generally preferred a fino.

Lady P-F descends into the abyss

She recovered with our help and for a while found happiness with a very plausible man who turned out to be quite unhinged and not who he said he was at all.

the supposed Sir Andrew Auger

It was nearly curtains for Patience until the said gentleman was divided into three by the Auchenshugle Tram.

the real Freddie Farquharson, completely unhinged!

Since then Patience has adopted a “she travels fastest, who travels alone” policy and concentrates on making her estate into a financially viable entity by having concerts and not a few of the brass section. She says “it is good for a man to have puff and blow” whereas she finds the timpani “all bang and no finesse.”

Floozies and Missing Soup Spoons

At the other end of the social scale things are no more or less advanced with what the poet J.R. Lowell called “the horny hands of toil”. Mrs Travers seems not only truckled with various ailments requiring the assistance of our Health Service and stretch bandages, but with the fecklessness of her men-folk. Her husband , a silver tongued but useless individual of the highest degree was found to be carrying on, with a variety of women of the floozy-type at “Busty Betty’s” down by the canal.

Following a police raid on this establishment, he escaped and went on a slow boat to China. He returned like the prodigal son, with his smile and a stuffed lizard under his arm which he had made into an occasional lamp to grace a new radiogram. Mrs Travers refused him and he now lives in a sailors’ refuge.

Mrs T
A put upon woman

Things are not much better with her son “oor Billy”, but then he hardly had a role model. Billy is a petty criminal who is in and out of Barlinnie prison, just long enough to father yet another child with his long suffering wife. Billy is not really a bad man just easily led into trouble. Mrs T believes him to be a misunderstood genius. I am afraid, however, that he is a soup spoon short of a full canteen of cutlery.

Pottering – An Art Form

If Billy Travers is always on the fiddle then my husband, Jasper, who has the benefit of being married to a simply marvellous woman is always fiddling about. Indeed one might say Jasper has made fiddling or what he calls ‘pottering about’ into an art form. I don’t think I have ever come across someone who has so expertly turned pottering into something that he perceives to be an exhausting job.

Now admittedly he helps me with our business ‘Chez Nous’, interior decorators to the discerning (and even on occasions to those who live on the south side of Glasgow) but it is hardly atomic science. Of course he would, and frequently does, say that his prime responsibility of window dressing our shops “is Muriel, Dahling, an exhausting occupation testing every fibre of my creative being.”

He regards covering a footstool with William Morris using upholstery tacks and a hammer, as the decorator’s equivalent of a brain surgeon relieving inter-cranial pressure. As you can imagine the addition of the decorative braid requires several days lead in, with a round or two on the golf course and several rounds in the R.S.A.C. , “to help me focus on the delicate task in hand”.

The Spiritual Level

If pottering about is Jasper’s usual modus operandi when going about his daily activities, then on holiday he elevates it to the spiritual. I say that because it is very simple and ritualistic.

At home Jasper likes to holiday in the Lake District, apparently because of the walking opportunities it offers. Now I have yet to see Jasper walk much further than from car to hotel reception and yet he is convinced this is what is now referred to as an activity holiday. In truth the preparation of the car requires considerable activity as Jasper like to leave nothing to chance.

Jasper’s beloved car

There is always a service and then inside and outside wash and polish. Then there is the placing of the travel rugs, one to sit on and one for the knees and the refilling of the sweetie tin. These are tested as soon as Jasper closes the driver’s door and “starts engines.” Barley sugars are for the outward journey and acid drops for the home run.
If it is an unfamiliar route then this is written on the white side of a shirt stiffener and attached to the dashboard with a bulldog clip and a suction hook.

On the backseat are outdoor garments for every weather condition ranging from drought to snowstorm. The boot contains the suitcases and a shovel which despite being July might be needed in case of freak conditions in a pass as we descend to Windermere. The possibility of the heating not working is obviated by a candle and box of matches in a tin, which according to Jasper will elevate the temperature inside the car by several degrees which might be life saving.

Advanced Pottering

The perfect picnic

Travel to the Lakes is a fairly quick business from the Rural Bolthole in south west Scotland. Despite my suggestions that we should try different routes this cuts no ice with Jasper who is a creature of routine, a key essential of pottering about. We therefore motor to Penrith and turn to the right travelling along Ullswater, where we picnic from the hamper prepared by Mrs Travers.

Part of our picnic

This prepares us for the Kirkstone Pass and then the descent to Windermere for afternoon tea and a potter around the shops.  There is quite a good girl’s school in Windermere and I am considering it for Gayle, our ward. Jasper says this only perpetuates the class structure in Britain. Fortunately his mind is taken off the subject once we have tea and he finds a bookshop where he can undertake advanced pottering.

This is What We Always Do

From there he likes to retrace his steps slightly and then head for Ambleside and Keswick. The view is always terrific. There is usually a stop at Wordsworth’s Cottage en route. This is where the famous poet William Wordsworth lived with his sister Dorothy and they ate a lot of porridge just like us in Scotland.

Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread Shop, Grasmere

Jasper then likes to stop in Grasmere as he has the munchies by this point and likes to purchase some Gingerbread to “stop any malnutrition” and sustain him until suppa. I get to stretch my legs with a wander round St Oswald’s, the last resting place of Mr Wordsworth.

The Lodore Swiss Hotel

Despite my entreaties that difference is sometimes good he likes to stay at the same hotel. That is to say “The Lodore Swiss” at the entrance to the Borrowdale valley and the scary Honiston Pass. Here Jasper has a pink gin, claret with his duck and a glass of dessert wine. We view the setting sun across Derwentwater and retire.

There Shall Be No Change

The following day I make suggestions for excursions, perhaps a visit to the home of Beatrix Potter, but Jasper has his reservations about anyone who gives rabbits such a central role in an heroic sort of a way. As far as Jasper is concerned Mr McGregor has been much wronged and rabbits are best as pies.

Unfortunately Jasper’s vegetable garden, (or at least the one maintained by our gardener that Jasper thinks he cultivates like Turnip Townsend) has been devastated by rabbits this year. This puts a great question mark over the forthcoming Flower and Produce Show. Mrs Travers is thinking of buying something to place in the spaces left by the rabbits and exclaiming loudly “it’s a miracle,” Jasper can then enter with equanimity as he will be none the wiser. He fibs very badly, I having been in S.O.E. am a trained fibber, for the benefit of my country you understand. I am afraid in the cut and thrust of the dog eat dog world of competitive produce one has to do what one has to do or drown in the ignominy of “ Unplaced.”

The prize winners revealed

To have one’s runner beans unplaced is to signal dishonour and may even come with thoughts that like James Mason in A Star is Born, it would be best to go for a swim and keep going.

Round the Lake and Back

the preferred launch

As you will guess Jasper is not having another excursion added into the itinerary, as once he arrives at his destination this is his pottering base. Following breakfast at a window table, he thinks about going on a walk up the fells but usually remembers that his hiking boots are at home so he does what he always does and walks to the jetty where he gets one of the lake launches, usually the Princess Margaret Rose, not because of his liking of royalty of course but he likes the lady that takes the tickets who tells him where the bargains are to be had in the local shops.

coming back again

He goes round to Keswick anti-clockwise, potters about and comes back clockwise. The pottering involves various bookshops and the purchase of pencils at the Cumberland factory. These are used for the artist’s version of pottering which is called sketching. He visits the church and the grave of the poet Southey and has lunch in the pub before the journey back to the hotel to join me for tea on the terrace.

Better a Potterer than a Man who Gets Away

I usually spend the morning in bed having a long lie and then read something sensational and uplifting like a draft chapter from my memoirs. Quite often Jasper will return from Keswick with a find from an antique shop. He is never happier than when he is producing a piece of trench art or capodimonte figure recovered from the bottom of a box labelled “Everything 2 /6”. You should see his little face when he presents an armless shepherd as I pour the Earl Grey.

Of course I make all the right noises in the full knowledge that Mrs Travers will make sure it neither finds its way to my walnut what-not nor for that matter remains intact. For you see pottering has one great drawback and that is the collecting of rubbish. At least the trench art goes to the shed or to the monthly meeting of the Hysterical where they all “ooh and ah” over each other’s empty shells. Still, things could be worse. At least unlike Lady Pentland-Firth, Cousin Lulubelle and Mrs Travers I do not have a man who got away. The trouble was they have not had a potterer and I do and I wouldn’t change a thing.

The Following Day

The Princess Margaret Rose on Derwentwater

“Muriel fancy going around the lake the other way, we could have a potter? The launch will be here soon.”

“Why not Jasper, why not indeed!”

On Lake Derwentwater

Muriel Wylie
July 1958

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4 Responses to The Art of Pottering

  1. Patty C says:

    Pottering about, we do that here as well. Brought to an almost-art form by my dearest maternal grand-mère on my mother’s side, Mollie Wise Y., from whom I learned, one can accomplish a great deal. One must have a smattering of focus to do this, however, & I have none. Nothing discernibly accomplished is more the typical outcome of pottering and here I excel. My favourite pottering is dans le jardin.

    As far as the topic of men is concerned…DON’t GET Moi STARTED! I concur & heartily agree with chere Mu. While I wouldn’t go so far as to consider the male as a subspecies, they are teeter tottering pretty darn close.

    Hm, this under subspecies definition!

    “Subspecies are designated by a Latin trinomial, e.g., (in zoology) Ursus arctos horribilis or (in botany) Beta vulgaris subsp. crassa.”

    Horribilis! Vulgaris! Crassa! While these Latin descriptives might translate otherwise, horrible, vulgar & crass suits my petty purpose!

    (With saweeet southern-gal apologies to the fine gentlemen here.)

    Cheers all, with a teensy bon mot of caution not to fall to certain temptations in The Long Hot Summah. As in Splendor in the Grass
    and all that. TTFN

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

    Holà Muriel,

    As you are aware, dear heart, one is en vacance in Viva Espagña and one writes in soaring temperatures and in a Sangria Cava-filled haze from the seaside resort of Sitges. By Gosh, speaking of men and their urges, let moi tell you ‘Juan can’… a grand way……olé!

    Juan aside, dwaaling, Sitges is what we like to call ‘very theatrical’ in every way. One is told that our dear Sebastian and Dimitri (he of the exceptional gargouillades) often slip here secretly for brief sojourn. In fact, that lovely Mr Fraser, should he ever tire of Rowan’s in Buchanan Street, would never have his tape measure away measuring the inside legs of Sitges. It’s so frightfully gay – one does so wish one had brought Mimi, the Shih Tzu, as it’s small dogs a go-go here!

    Anyway, Chica (a term of endearment, one has picked up from Juan), one digresses! As regards men and their uses, one is of the same opinion as your good self, Cousin Lulubelle and Lady P-F: they are neither use nor ornament. Men are untidy, governed by their urges and they do indeed create wars and stock market crashes! Why do we let them govern the countries of the world, one cries?! Regarding husbands, my dear late Mama would often say, “Love and marriage lead to more washing……!” One couldn’t agree more!!

    Meanwhile, as ‘Juan can; Juan will’ – he’s just asked to borrow my boa for his Coco, the parrot……

    Yours feeling gay in Sitges,
    Lulu xxxx

  3. Moira Taylor says:

    You’re right of course, Muriel, in that Pottering or Foutering about as it was known in Mama’s day is indeed an art form and one which I have been cultivating since childhood. The real art lies in making the fouterer appear to be terribly busy. I must admit that I admire Jasper’s advanced pottering in a bookshop. It’s easy to while away several hours amongst the literary giants.
    The main problem I encounter is falling asleep whilst having a slow potter – SO embarrassing and quite hard to disguise. Note to self; must ask dear old Jasper for hints and tips.

  4. Matthew Bate says:

    A baseless aspersion, an unfortunate Antebellum, and the art and science of the flâneur.

    Men are untidy, eh? I hope I am not the only exception to this rule. I might point out that many women are not naturally tidy people, and that many of their handbags contain standard lamps and stuffed crocodiles. I must also mention that I am proficient with an iron. Not a golfing iron. Might I recommend a trouser press?

    Are we sure that all of Cousin Lulubelle’s misfortunes have been because of gentleman callers? I would imagine she has herself occasionally called. She’s a modern woman; Lady P-F likewise.

    Fino Sherry has many uses and is especially popular in these sugar-phobic times. It makes an ideal replacement for vermouth (which is basically the waste products of the wine industry) in martinis (which are always stirred unless you are an American or a thriller writer prone to short-sleeved shirts).

    I must learn to potter. I really don’t. I’m at that age though. I tend to ride bicycles rather than walk, and my purpose is to exhaust myself. It keeps me out of trouble. My car is a more relaxed place. A picnic basket and an umbrella are on hand at all times. I must take the car to the lakes this side of Carlisle one day. Maybe two days, it’s quite a big place. Anyway, enough about me, here’s Carol with the weather…


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