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  • Wool-gathering in the autumn mists


    Yesterday I did my first bit of teaching for the year: 30+ bright eyed first year students, all looking to me for enlightenment on something called 'digital design methods'. A dubious privilege – especially for them. One student told me he'd had a brief career as an undertaker's assistant, which had involved sewing up nostrils and mouths prior to embalming. Made me think of the stitching of sailor's corpses into canvas prior to burial at sea and the final stitch through the nose that made sure they were really dead.

    Then I rushed back and tried to prove to some of my customers I really do know how to do it. Failed spectacularly by trying to squeeze an email the size of a bus thru a mailbox meant for Dinky toys. Just in time, I woke up to my incompetence and got the artwork through before the looming deadline.

    At dinner time I was reminded that a vegetable patch is such a responsibility. Every tomato and potato grown is like my very own child - a child that just demands to be eaten. Leaving them to rot in the ground or wither on the vine is neglect of the worst kind. So I whipped up some ratatouille from a vast marrow and beefsteak toms, chopping in some fresh herbs from the garden with fresh ingredients from the village grocer, nice Mr Asda. Last week the same marrow went into a very decent leek, tomato and lentil soup (recipe tba). With a bit of luck it'll be gone by Christmas.


    After a yoga class, which involved a certain amount of putting my foot in places where it doesn't belong, and a lot of blissful lying down I went to the grocer's. The fire alarm went off just after the nice assistant had found me to say they'd retrieved my two pots of yoghourt-for-£1 from the back room. The alarm had nothing to do with the lighters I bought or the quip about my being over 16. Mr Asda seems to train them well: disbelief was affected when I pointed out I was a multiple of that figure.

    Last night I dreamt about my graduation as a young designer a quarter of a century ago. For our 'final displays' we were asked to exhibit our coursework. In the dream my show consisted of a couple of dozen glass jars containing exotic fragrances I had blended. How very Mrs Jeffrey Archer.

    I will miss the first night of choir rehearsal tonight as I have to baby-sit my nieces who are seven, going-on-17. With luck I'll catch up on the singing next week. The choir's musical menu this year includes a bit of Tipett's 'A child of our time', some Vaughan Williams and Morten Lauridsen's 'O Magnum Mysterium' – which sounds more like an ice cream out of Philip Pullman to me.

    This Saturday is (drum roll) quiz night. It's in aid of the community orchard I foolishly thought would be a good idea. In the village hall, where else. On Sunday I'd really like to go up to London for the Hadrian show or the RA and maybe the Docklands Turkish Baths but it'd be a bit of a squeeze as I am bidden to the 40th birthday celebrations of a good friend.

    Picture 2.pngIt's exactly 30 years since the glorious Belgian singer Jacques Brel died. His Longchamp pipe was sold yesterday at a controversial Paris auction for €6875. The French were said to love him ten times more than British love the Beatles (which is really quite a lot). Today a newspaper article says that according to Dr David Fowler our 'beloved' Beatles weren't inspired by flower power and 'all you need is love' after all. Apparently the Beatles were young capitalists who just wanted to make a lot of money. Le plus ça change. For really revolutionary youth you apparently have to go back to the inter-war years, and a movement that was all about jumping naked into the River Cam.

    Enough gabble from me.

  • Blankets and blazons


    Is it just me? I like old blanket labels. The design of some of these little scraps of silky cloth is fascinating. This 1950s blanket with its evocative label was brought by sea all the way from Australia over 40 years ago. Because she has a Physician chillproof blanket, the happy lady with the bedside flowers will soon be well again. With that sales pitch and with such a striking embroidered design, it's no wonder they sold.

    When they were younger my nieces were obsessed with the silky feeling of all kinds of labels. On blankets or teddy bears or sewn into clothing, stroking them was the perfect comforter. 'Continental quilts' (with all their associations of bright sunlit roms and Scandinavian health and efficiency) are all very well, but on a really chilly night you can't beat the comfort of a really good heavy woollen blanket.

    9590fc02ad8556e6a341df42bf8912ee.jpgccb665ad54d76723a095def83976fd08.jpgHere in Oxfordshire there was a long tradition of blanket making (they used 'tenter hooks' that are the origin of the familiar phrase). An excellent site, from which some of these images are taken, describes how until the last factory closed in 2002 the Witney blanket was a byword for quality. Made using local wool with a soft spun yarn that formed a fleecy pile, they were widely imitated until a trades descriptions case in 1907 put a stop to such 'passing off'.

    At its height, thousands of people were worked in the blanket making industry in Witney. The museum there holds a guardbook which contains over 150 blanket label designs used by just one manufacturer in the town.

    24ea33f2a3451b37b956e863d07c1b0d.jpgA special kind of Witney blanket was sold to the hugely powerful Hudson's Bay Company in Canada which traded them with native Americans for beaver furs. These point blankets are an early example of a graphical language being developed to symbolise a product standardisation system. The blankets were graded according to their size and warmth using a system of striped marks which showed up when the folded blankets were stacked together.

    There is a full description of the grading system on the Hudson's Bay Company website.

    In November 1779, M. Maugenest met with the Board at Hudson's Bay House in London to deliver his "Proposals of the Terms" under which he would enter into Hudson's Bay Company's service. He offered several suggestions for improving the growing inland trade from Fort Albany along the west coast of James Bay. The sale of "pointed" blankets was one of his suggestions. By December 1779, the sample blankets had been received by the Committee and an order was issued for 500 pairs of "pointed" blankets; 100 pairs of each, in 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 point sizes. Although blankets had been a staple of the fur trade to the natives and Hudson's Bay Company men prior to 1780, it was not until the first shipment to Fort Albany in the spring of that year that they were shipped to the posts on a regular basis.

    By 1860 full standardization of both sizes and colours had been established.
  • Shining in mid-winter

    6a1a040fe7a06fb91f6e8598d5b89e26.jpgThe unfashionable Cornish poet and playwright Charles Causley died in 2003. At an Advent service in Dorchester Abbey I heard what may be one of his greatest poems, 'I am the great sun':

    From a Normandy crucifix of 1632

    I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
    I am your husband, but you turn away.
    I am the captive, but you do not free me,
    I am the captain but you will not obey.
    I am the truth, but you will not believe me,
    I am the city where you will not stay.
    I am your wife, your child, but you will leave me,
    I am that God to whom you will not pray.
    I am your counsel, but you will not hear me,
    I am your lover whom you will betray.
    I am the victor, but you do not cheer me,
    I am the holy dove whom you will slay.
    I am your life, but if you will not name me,
    Seal up your soul with tears, and never blame me.

    In this wonderfully simple devotional sonnet, Christ speaks from the cross, full of compassion for human inadequacy.

    An essay by Dana Gioia analyses Causley's powerful work. You can also hear Causley himself reading 'At the British war cemetery, Bayeux'. Poets' own voices often seem inadequate, but Causley brings his rythmic and incantatory lines to life.

  • 'They shall not grow old as we grow old'

    Plaintive thoughts on Remembrance Day morning

    A cold, grey morning on a village green in Oxfordshire. A patch of marble chippings and three of us clutching our wreaths, lined out before the little war memorial.

    The names of a dozen or so from the village, fallen in two World Wars. The parish priest's surplice catches in the breeze, but his voice is that of a millitary chaplain, clear and uncompromising.

    He calls out the prayers for peace and reconciliation. A light aircraft drones overhead, an aimless buzzing. "Perhaps it's Douglas Bader!" – a quiet voice behind me jokes.

    To my left, a representative of the British Legion. She is smartly dressed, as she is every year; gloved, medals pinned to her coat: "or it could be my Tommy!" she says, so softly.

    We walk to the memorial in turn, gently place the wreath, step back and bow our heads for a few moments. The British Legion standards are dipped and then are raised again as we all declare 'we shall remember them!'.

    Afterwards a frail hand suddenly rests on my arm. At the memorial, for a moment, she stumbled and almost fell: "trouble is I'm not used to these high shoes any more". And then a smile and "goodbye then – until next year!".