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Lists

This time of year might be one of cheer and goodwill, but it’s also a time for lists. By this time, my list has taken on either a hint of desperation or resignation, and the latter is far more soothing.

What will be, will be…

  • Write the final Christmas cards, usually for family, so fairly disastrous if they’re missing on Christmas morning;
  • Check the cupboards and fridge to make sure that all the required ingredients ordered were delivered and put away in a lace someone human would recognise. All that goodwill means there are plenty of hands willing to help put stuff away but it never seems to end up in the obvious place;
  • Make the mushroom risotto for tomorrow’s pie, and if you’re feeling good, think about making the pastry case also;
  • Consider knocking up a trifle, or maybe this year making 4 individual trifles in glasses because the trifle bowl is vast, we never get through it all and it takes up a huge amount of space in the fridge;
  • Dress the table ie. wrap it in some festive paper and make it look cheerful. Do not put out a cloth for the cats to trash with muddy footprints;
  • Plan tomorrow’s campaign.

Every family has some traditions they’ve inherited from their parents and some they’ve made all on their own. Our kids have been brought up with a stack of them, in part because I had so few. Christmas wasn’t exactly a non-event, but it certainly wasn’t as memorable as most seem to be.

We wake up Christmas Day and gather in the parents bedroom. Settled with a coffee, the kids open up the presents in their Christmas stockings which tend to be small and trivial but still get the day off to a good start.

Usually, there are pancakes for Christmas breakfast, whilst the preparation of the meal gets going with vegetables peeled (potatoes, parsnips, carrots) and the first two parboiled ready for roasting.

The first, main round of present opening happens post-breakfast and pre-church.

The local church service starts at 10:30 and finishes at around12ish with a glass of prosecco at the back of the nave.

Back home, and the oven is warm having been turned on by timer, and the vegetables can go into the over to roast. If we’re aiming for “lunch” at around 2pm, it means potatoes to roast in oven by 1pm, parsnips shortly thereafter, with the pie going in at 1:30.

The sprouts go onto boil for 5 minutes at around that time because they are drained and pan-fried with chestnuts just before serving. The carrots are put onto boil at about 1:45 and can be drained and fried with some honey or maple syrup with a dash of lemon.

There should be some cranberry sauce left over from topping the pie, plus some bread sauce heating up in the microwave. & hopefully someone else is laying the table in the dining room.

We have trifle for desert but everyone is far too full to eat it so we mainly retire to the living room for some telly.

Each to their own.

Wishing everyone a very happy Christmas!

Bulbs

The problem with ordering your bulbs early is that when they finally arrive, you’ve forgotten what you planned to do with them all. This is somewhat compounded by waiting for six new bare root roses to be delivered so I could plant them all up in the new bed.

In theory this new bed comprises:

  • a row (or two) or blue iris, primarily Yosemite star, just planted with some stragglers from pots and described as “Yosemite Star. Blended blue wisteria self. Ruffled. Mid to late season ie. around May Strongly remontant throughout summer and autumn. Ht. 90cm“, and behind;
  •  one row of white David Austin shrub roses, Susan Williams-Ellis described as “extremely healthy with an exceptionally long flowering season. Charming, pure white, rosette-shaped flowers of Old Rose beauty. Strong Old Rose fragrance. Exceptionally long flowering season (June-August). Extremely tough, healthy and hardy.” growing to a height of around 90cm (3ft)

Plus whatever bulbs I fancy planting in amongst them.

Apparently, bearded Irises must enjoy full sun and sharp drainage. They disdain the miseries of shade and clay. Interplant Bearded Irises with plants with scanty foliage: alpine pinks, late flowering alliums….

I have already received and planted up some crocus, white muscari, small repeat tulips ( saxatilis bakery) along underneath a hedge, but set the alliums (Mount Everest X 10, Allium aflatunese ‘Purple Sensation’ X 10) and fritellaria (X50) to one side.

Now I have a mammoth bulb session ahead of me with these plus tulips, gladioli (The Bride) and some scilla siberica (X75).

Type:                            Name:          Flowers:                               Thoughts:

  • Gladioli  x50  – The Bride   – May              -60cm   – roses
  • Allium    x10      Mt Everest-June/July   -90cm   – roses
  • Tulip     x25 Angels Wish    -May               – 60cm  – White new bed
  • Tulip     x25 Queen Night  -May                – 60cm  – Black, new bed
  • Tulip     x20 Survivor            -May                – 60cm  -pink,    new bed
  • Tulip    x 40 Shirley               – April               -50cm  – White new bed
  • Tulip      x35 Angelique        -Apr                 -45cm   – Pink    new bed
  • scilla       x75      Alba               -Mar/Apr     – 6cm     – in front of iris
  • Fritellaria x50 Alba               – Apr/May    – 30cm – in amongst of iris

  • Tulip     x25 Queen Night  -May                – 60cm  – Black, back bed
  • Allium    x10      Afflat.           – May/June  -80cm  – back bed roses
  • Tulip      x35 Angelique        -Apr                 -45cm   – front garden
  • Tulip     x25 Angels Wish    -May               – 60cm  – White for shade
  • Tulip     x10 Apeldoorn       -May                – 60cm  – Scarlet, front bed

rose&2alliums pattern

x    //    x     //   x    //   x   //    x    //    x

I’m going to treat the gladioli like summer flowering tulips, planting the corms deep (10cm) to try to reduce the need to stake. They arrive before the roses with the iris so I’m thinking I’ll plant them as a dos between roses and iris and see what happens.

Choices

My youngest daughter is sitting her A levels next Summer, which means that she has to apply to university around about now. And the first step in making any kind of decision is obviously to look at the subjects being studied at A level and choose a degree subject.

All my friends seem to have children (boys) of the same age and they’re all studying the same subjects: Maths, Physics and Chemistry so we’re all in the same camp. A few, like my girl, are studying further maths as a fourth subject but in the UK university offers are made on the basis of three subjects so it shouldn’t make any difference, in theory.

Of course in practice, studying further maths is extremely useful if you are planning to study Maths at university. Since Further Maths allows you to study more modules, including mechanics, it’s also very useful for any Engineering degree which was the main alternative to Maths that my baby considered.

One friend’s boy chose Chemistry as a degree subject quite early on, where as another two boys settled on Maths. There is a huge variation in the grade requirements for these subjects. Chemistry grade requirements at Imperial College, a world class university range from A*AA whilst a second tier university ie. part of the recruitment drive of the major professional companies such as Bath might make offers from AAB. requirements for Maths at the same universities would be A*A*A (Imperial) and A*AA(Bath).

Because nowadays Mathematics is a very popular subject whereas straight sciences are less so.

After sitting her AS exams we headed into the Summer holidays within clear view as to what subject she would want to study at university and that’s important because during those holidays you are expected to draft a personal statement of around 4,000 words saying why you want to study your university course.

Mathematics is quite different to Engineering and at some level you’d imagine it was an easy choice as a result but the problem of course is that Maths is a known quantity where as Engineering is not. It isn’t even one single subject. So why would she be interested anyway?

Her school has encouraged placements in different workplaces and my girl has now had two in Civil Engineering companies one of which has been incredibly kind to her, incredibly welcoming and helpful. So maybe an interest in Civil Engineering is understandable.

Mathematics versus Engineering?

There isn’t much difference in the grade requirements from various universities. Once on the course, there is quite a difference between the hours of study with Maths degrees typically requiring 10 hours contact time compared to Engineering degrees with 30-40 hours mainly because of the extra time spent on practicals. And with one child studying English (12hours a week contact) I am not fooled into thinking these courses are “easier”. If anything, it is very much down to the type of student, as to whether they can cope with so much time unsupervised. It can be isolating having so little time with other students on the course.

There are many other types of engineering and the basic course would probably be regarded as Mechanical Engineering. As she veered towards choosing Engineering we had to look through the courses listed very carefully to try and identify more general degree courses. And then there is the 3year BEng. versus a 4yearMEng. degree course. to consider.

So she’s made her choice, and decided that she might as well apply to Oxford though the odds are very long because the Engineering course sounds wonderful. And the personal statement is written on that basis.

We are where we are, moving forwards with the decisions. The only thing learned from doing this for a second time, is to allow the child to lead the way. This choice must be their choice and should, in so far as possible, be for a subject that they can love. My daughter and her friends who have chosen a subject they love are having a brilliant time, even if the university isn’t great. Where the course is not great, even the best social life at university struggles to redeem the situation.

Rotator

The rotator arrived, late, on the Friday and looked like a real beast of a machine. Digging out a new flower bed for roses and iris was always going to be a nightmare and the rotavator was supposed to make that job just a little bit easier.

On Saturday I headed out for some tennis and he decided to give it a go. By the time I got back he was looking sick and dispirited. The bed remained virtually uncut.

It turns out that the kind of rotator that can be hired is a piss poor type of machine when it comes to cutting new ground, especially hard ground. It essentially just skins along the top scratching the turf up but not able to dig or cut into the ground itself. Just holding the beast was difficult. Forcing it down into rock hard turf was impossible.

The beats was retired and we proceeded to dig the bed the old fashioned way with fork and spade. It was hard and horrid work but more or less complete by the end of the weekend. The initial scripting of turf means the bed is full of grass remains so even though it’s now covered up and hopefully rotting down, it will clearly keep appearing in the bed for years to come.

Ho hum.

We’ll plant up in September/October and see how things grow.

June/July Garden

All is chaos and I kind of like it that way at the moment. The garden is at a tipping point whereby any moment now it’s going to flip from beautiful to drunk and disorderly planting.

And in the midst of all the planting misdemeanours are some very welcome  and very calm foliage plants like the ferns and fatsia.


Truth be told I’m a bit unconvinced by the latter and am trying to sell myself on the idea. having painted the tubs up and planted them with the variegated brutes it would seem a bit defeatist to admit they’re a bit, well, a bit “meh”

I shall persevere with the shady block at the back, despite the geranium overrun.

Shady Chaos
Fatsia

And hope for a wetter year next year to help build some colour to go with the annuals (begonias) in pots.

The new roses are lovely, but follow the sun so face towards the house and away from the lawn and swing seat behind. It’s a small point, but they’ll have to grow for a couple more years before we really get to see them above the lavender.

David Austin Roses

They’ve been underplanted with geranium rozanne which is also going to take a few years to get going.

Plus a few plants shoved in rather carelessly that have not worked especially well, some gladioli and a leftover salvia.

Gladioli nanus

The silver leaf is a survivor from one of my disappointing baskets. If the plant shows some sticking power, I find it difficult to throw it away but of course it means a garden full of unruly thugs.

Not dead yet hanging baskets

Thanks to some watering the baskets are definitely doing better the year, not beautiful but still alive at least. Best of all the tiny bed on top of the railway sleepers has also picked up.

Along with some overly planted pots. Thank goodness begonias are so forgiving.

Begonia stalwarts
Busy borders

This is the month that the penstemons come into their own, even the aptly named sour grapes.

Friedrich am Denken

And down on the side, the old roses are also doing well for having been cut and taken inside for flowers on a regular basis.

Silver Leaf
Perenial Geranium Rozanne

Some of the plants seem to have been flowering forever and are still full of joy.

Perenial Wallflower

The bees are happy and so am I with flowers everywhere and not too many weeds.

 

Up in the gravel, the story is all about flowering sedums of one sort or another.

Flowering sedum

Plus the indestructible fleabane. Because of the dry, I look set to lose a few plants, hopefully not too many.

Mexican fleabane

But just as I think I’ve lost them, it rains and one pops up as a survivor.

Verbena Bonariensis Lollipop

One day maybe I’ll know what I’m supposed to do with all of this, but not quite yet.

 

Shortfall

It’s amazing what happens when you meet the right person. All of a sudden lifestyle and family choices that seemed totally daft become a possibility.

So like lots of women, but certainly not according to the plans of my younger self, I had children, and having had the children when the work became less fun and the kids became more (basically toddler+ for me but everyone has their own ideas) I stopped working and stayed home to look after the kids. Well, look after the kids, play lots of tennis, have a good time and manage an investment portfolio.

It wasn’t quite the stereotype I had in mind as a kid, but close enough for strangers making deliveries to feel entitled to query my title and expect me to wait in on them.

Ho hum.

In the UK we have a system whereby you pay tax known as national insurance which entitles you to amongst other things, a state pension.

The UK state pension is amongst the most miserly in Europe, at just £6,200 per annum, but it’s index-linked and to buy a comparable annuity would cost me something more than £250,000. An asset worth quarter of a million pounds is worth having.

Whilst working, I was obviously contributing. Whilst looking after the kids, I acquired credits towards my state pension up until the youngest became sixteen and then, not unreasonably, they assumed I could go back out to work and start paying again.

Around the same time, 2016,  they also changed the number of years a person has to work from 30 to 35 in order to accrue the full state pension.

Long story. Short conclusion: I have a shortfall, a gap in my contribution schedule that can be made by making a voluntary contribution.

Each year that I failed to pay is priced slightly differently for no obvious reason but most seem to end up costing around £700. For that £700 I will be entitled to an extra £4 a week, index linked on my pension i.e. an extra £208 a year. To be worthwhile, I would need to survive 4 years post pension age, which in the UK , has also been moving ever further away.

All of this was determined after many phone calls to HMRC and to the pensions help line department. In order to determine my shortfall I had to ask for and receive an NIC statement. Before allowing me to pay any shortfall, HMRC insisted that I ask for and receive a state pension statement which predicts what my pension would be with a full contribution record, and with what I’ve already paid in. Interestingly they’re predicting the state pension will be worth around £8,500 when I retire, assuming they don’t push back the date even further.

At some stage in the telephone tree there’s a really annoying attempt to move you onto voice recognition software for security, without offering you a choice, just an assumption. If you want to refuse the option, your only choice is to stay silent when asked to repeat the stock phrase.

Ho hum.

For a woman of my generation, I can claim state pension from the age of 67. Average life expectancy in the UK for women is around 83 years old though there are huge local variations. As a white, middle class woman with no obvious health problems and no really bad habits (smoking, drinking regularly to excess etc) I could quite plausibly last to 90, but let’s assume the average age.

I will have a shortfall in my contributions for 12 years, which will cost me around £8,400 to make up, and gain me an extra £2,496 each and every year I survive past 67. If I make it to 70 then I’m making a profit. If I reach the average life expectancy, I’ve gained £14,976 at a cost of £8,400.

But of course most women aren’t in anything like as good a financial position. Most will have neither the cash set aside in their own name to pay this, nor the skills to go back into employment to a job that pays them a good salary. They may not have a clue as to how their state pension is calculated, how much they will be entitled to and whether it’s a good investment. They may be relying on their partner to provide for them in their old age, unaware of the rise in late life divorce, the impact of bereavement etc.

The UK state pension is arguably a pitiful amount, yet as a couple, it starts you off with a combined income of £ 12,400. Assuming that you’ve paid off your mortgage, it means you are unlikely to starve. You should be able to heat the house. Add into the mix a defined benefit pension from your employer, and maybe a defined contribution pensioner two from your partner to top up, and it should (fingers crossed) provide a good standard of living.

There are apparently three stages of retirement: Saga, named for the retiree travel company, when you basically live the dream of active retirement, travelling and having all of those adventures that you’ve promised yourself; AGA where you start to feel your age, still in good health but living life closer to home and less adventurous;and, gaga, when dementia sets in for at least one third of us, and your savings are used up paying for care in an often inadequate care home.

Back to that investment management…

Today

Today is the first mouse free day in quite a long while. With three cats you might think that I’d be expecting this level of gift giving but my previous two cats brought me no more than one or two mice in their entire 19 year lifespans.

We’re averaging one a day, usually alive. On the odd occasion a live mouse cannot be found somewhere, or hunted out from under the piano, behind the back of the wicker basket or dug in under the fireplace, there are usually body bits to be found outside the back door. A head usually.

And I probably prefer the dead mice to the ones that climb up the curtains and have to be picked off by hand.

The cats are happy with either obviously. Usually you can tell which cat brought in the mouse by the level of interest they show in the live creature. None of them are at all interested in the dead ones.

But when they’re alive, it seems cruel and unusual to leave them where the cats can re-catch them yet impossible for such a wuzz as me to kill the things myself, even knowing them for vermin with no bladder control, a disease vector waiting to activate.

So we dutifully walk them across the road to a rough patch of park five or six houses down and hope they live long and happy lives somewhere else. Or more likely, that the oriental cat across the road has them for lunch and doesn’t feel the need to tell us about it.

Hot

The house is built neither for the cold nor the heat, and neither am I. Like most people that I know from a celtic bloodstock, I have a very limited temperature range for optimal performance, somewhere between 20-25C.

Much lower the 20C and I start to complain about the cold. Higher than 25C and I start to whimper.

We have had a week of unreasonably high temperatures by British standards. The dry spell has continued but we’re now faced with early morning temperatures of 25C rising to 30C by mid-day. Around midday we wander around closing the blinds to the west of the house in a vain attempt to keep out the sun.

I’ve taken to splashing down the patio just outside the back door in the forlorn hope that evaporation might make a difference.

The kids start arguing about who has the use of the portable air-con unit at around mid-afternoon and it never, ever sees to make it into my bedroom. At the same time, he insists on retaining duvet rights even when we’re clearly just lying on top of the damn thing sweltering.

One very irritating bird sings it’s heart out every evening and every morning. It would be beautiful and charming, if it didn’t start at 4am. Somewhere around 4:15, he starts muttering about closing the windows and I start threatening physical harm if he does any such thing.

The eldest is heading off to visit her girlfriend in Wales, a place currently looking at a balmy 20C maximum. A civilised sort of temperature.

Meanwhile the baskets are watered and the pots survive. Heat does not make for happy families but the garden is not dead yet though we’re living in hope of rain.

Family

Both of my girls are home, one in the middle of some exams the other safely home from university and expecting the results of her first year exams.

It’s lovely to have them both here, once you get over the mess, the ever-present chaos that teenage girls inevitably create.

By way of casual update my oldest has announced she now has a girlfriend, not gay explicitly but bi-.

That seems to be basically describing herself as human rather than anything else. Her father seems curiously relieved not to be expected to deal with partners with dicks but other than that everything seems pretty much the same as ever.

My BF1 looked a bit strange when I announced the status update. It suddenly dawned on me that she was wondering what we’d done to result in two gay kids, as if we could do anything one way or the other.

People are what they are. The only thing that you can do is polish the corners and give them good manners. And love them, obviously. It’s difficult to trust and love yourself, to feel worthy of love and respect, if you’ve not been brought up believing yourself to be loved and respected.

One of the best things about being part of their generation, as opposed to mine, and with a certain acceptance that they’re part of a very privileged sub-set of their own generation in terms of wealth etc., is the ability to not label themselves. What a privilege it is to just feel attracted to a person rather than a set of genitals.

It took me years to realise that the person was more important than the body they were wrapped within so I tend to see it as a step forward that my girls have got there so much earlier.