New to Brussels

Arriving in Brussels was lifestyle changing.

First, if you can bear it, a bit of background.

My politics are left leaning – though there was more of an energetically significant tilt in my earlier years.

Of course me and my friends read The Guardian, opposed the Iraq war, a couple of them went on holiday to undiscovered bits of the Balkans, that sort of thing.

Nick worked at the Ministry of Defence.

They (my friends) said ‘He does what?’ and ‘Are you sure?’

But age brings a softening of approach so I let him into my life – at first he was rather bemused and bemusing but always good at turning up with, and opening bottles of wine, which made him (rather warily) accepted.

Anyway to cut a long story short after about a year of muddling along in separate places but with generally together-ish sort of lives, he got the chance to go to Brussels and asked if I wanted to go along.

So there, I found myself.

He was now Chief Executive of the a new ‘Agency’  and I was, to use the Belgian official description of someone living with, and largely off, someone else, his concubine.

I was also effectively Mrs Chief Executive – not a role I was used and, having watched the diplomatic and military wives, a role I realise I was not very good at.

I can honestly say I did not visit the sick, befriend his staff, go to children’s parties, hold coffee mornings or any of the stuff I should have done.

But I did have to do the dinner party and cocktail party circuit. (I am pretty sure that at first Nick feared that I would have secreted about my little black dress, a small CND placard and would slip away to the ladies room only to come back and brandish it.)

Did you know that you have to have placements at dinner party – a seating arrangement which means the most important man sits next to the hostess and his wife (or in my case concubine) next to the host? No nor me.

The form is that the host makes a short speech at the start of supper and the most important person – never actively designated but as everyone knows their place and he is sat next to the hostess, it is understood – makes a short thank you speech at the end of the meal. All new to me.

After all, dinner in my life meant your mates, food, wine and, oddly enough for Peckham, we tended not to go in much for placements and speeches.

Nick was more used to this kind of thing but sometimes despite his tutelage and practise, we got it wrong.

We went to this dinner party and it was the early days so when we arrived late I apologised profusely to the hostess and she said not to worry as the cooker was playing up so things were delayed.

I looked at her, so perfectly calm and serene, and said I thought she was taking that very well  – I would have been in the kitchen, red faced and panicking and wondering if sandwiches would do.

She smiled and said the staff were simply marvellous and all would be fine.

Staff!? Staff!? Blimey.

I should have remembered the form was that once we had all sat down Jean-Paul ( the host) would make his speech but I chose the moment he coughed a gentle alert to silence, to reach across the table, pick up the pretty menu card (oh yes, they have them too, unlike Peckham) and say loudly to serene hostess Marie-Francoise, ‘ These are pretty. Are they IKEA?’

Later, Nick regaled the dinner party with how hopeless I am at sailing and generally unsuited to this fantastic way of spending time.

I was sat next to an irritating bore so was not in the best of moods as Nick rattled on, engaging the rest of the party with my inadequacies.

After a bit, I told the collective dinner party that our first sailing holiday would have been greatly improved if he had not spent the whole time telling me how great a sailor his wife was, the places he and his wife had sailed to etc etc.

There was a stunned silence. ‘Have we in our midst a concubine?! And a stroppy one at that! Quel embarrassment.’

Nick was the most important man in the room so he knew he had to make the speech of thanks but he always forgets the French do cheese before dessert. He does not approve of that – being of a certain age, class and British.

So, when cheese is nearly over, I can see him thinking of warm witticisms and thanks and I try and warn him through surreptitious eye contact but of course he is still glaring at me because I ruined his sailing stuff and ignores me.

And so, he makes his pretty speech to a shifting, shuffling group of dinner guests and Jean-Paul smiles wanly and say, ‘ Eh bien et maintenant dessert.’

Rather alarmed that I am not reluctant enough

Our village shop closed as about 11.30am on a Sunday so you have plenty of time to get there and pick up the nice farm shop bacon for sarnies and the paper.

This week, because I didn’t think the man or dog needed bacon, I just dropped in for a paper. I saw only the tabloids and was not that keen on the Sunday Express.

But luckily Peter, the nice man who runs our shop, said how glad he was to see me because there was a pile of Observers left. Needless to say, the Telegraphs had all gone.

Anyway, whilst we were chatting, he told me of a ‘stash’ of sloes up on the Downs.

I want to say this was of no interest to me at all but I have to admit, as the Sussex housewife I am rapidly becoming, I galloped up there with (Waitrose of course) plastic bags stuffed in my pockets.

Now I don’t like gin or sweet things so why I felt the urge to pick sloes for sloe gin is really beyond me. But I did, and now they are in the freezer. ( Apparently, and don’t get too excited here, but traditionally you have to prick each small fruit to release the juice before you put them in the gin with what seems to me, to be a lot of sugar. But, hey, how exciting, I hear that you can burst the fruit by freezing them.)

And as for elderberries, I am on a mission. Last year there was a tree on the lane which was full to bursting with elderberries. I knew you could make some undrinkable wine from the flowers, but found that you could make a vinegar from the berries.

This year, the hedging has been done so the tree is cut down and out of action for a year or two. But my vinegar last year was a huge success – think how much more ‘on trend’ to say to your supper guests, ‘Yes, I always think that duck breast is great with a salad of mild radiccio and this dressing – no, no not raspberry vinegar, which would be good of course, but elderberry vinegar  – don’t you think it’s just gorgeous?’

Last year I made a shed load of preserves and jams and pickles and sold them all to my friends at a mass lunch when I menaced them and made them pay up in aid of Syrian refugees.

So, although I have sworn not to do all that again, the elderberries were needed. I friend has found a weighed-down tree so now the freezer has elderberries to cope with as well as sloes.

And, naturally, blackberries for jam.

Let no one tell you all this preserve stuff is nothing but a faff and a long-winded faff at that.

Let me tell you, I am ashamed how gratified I was when my crab-apple jelly made it to a restaurant in Scotland where they asked for more. (The tree is not well this year, so I cannot supply.)

Today I met a friend in London – I went and bought shoes in Covent Garden, put my nose in a gallery or two, had Mexican food and a conversation about Sierra Leone, the state of the NHS, the improbability of a European-wide immigration policy, renewable energy and the appalling nature of the big energy companies, how appalling it is that Israel is annexing 1000 acres of Palestinian land.

Lovely.

But this weekend, it will be elderberry vinegar making.

Books we really don’t want – but thanks anyway

We are of course very grateful to anyone who thinks of bringing their books to a charity bookshop.

Did you hear the ‘but’ coming.

The thing is that emptying those damp cardboard boxes from your garage or attic into our shop is not really such a great gift.

If your books are brown and falling apart no one wants to buy them so I will spend my time filling large, heavy, yellow sacks to be sent to be recycled.

To be blunt, we don’t care whether they are fine examples of English literature – if they are in rubbish condition we can’t sell them, so away they go.

When I first started as a volunteer, I was very reluctant to throw good books away. I had learned early on to  regard book ‘burning’ as a very bad business indeed. One day, one day, they would be stars on Antiques Roadshow and before that they would inspire a child into being an author, or I could remember reading them and loving that story and anyway they are books …. so on and so on.

Now, I am sorry to admit, they just get yellow-sacked and I have to say I relish the tidiness of the storerooms when they are clear of yellow sacks and crappy books.

And even in good condition, I am afraid there are some we just don’t want.

If I never see another Jeremy Clarkson book it will be too soon.

(Personally, I think the man should be gagged and forcibly removed to an uninhabited island with no vehicles.  I do realise there are people out there, living freely in society, who find him refreshingly funny and direct. But for anyone who does not fall into that category and are therefore not an idiot, could you stop buying Clarkson books for males in the family who you don’t have any other earthly idea what to buy for Christmas. Buy a Victorian stuffed owl, a train ticket to Bournemouth, a pair of socks from the 99p Shop, anything but a Clarkson book because it will, surely as eggs is eggs, it will end up in a innocent and hapless charity bookshop.)

Likewise, Michael Palin – no, no , he is a nice chap I gather, but there are a lot of his books in the charity circuit and they just don’t sell. Sorry Mr Palin but we don’t need any more Pole to Poles or New Europeans.

Dated cookery books. No thanks. No one want to have 365 Microwave Recipes or 100 Ways with Pasta (1980) . Or cookery books based on out of fashion diets ( and there are a lot of fads in diets, we see them all). Mrs Beeton unless a really early edition and not, please, held together by sellotape.

Delete as applicable for gardening books.

(These rules do not apply to classics of the genre but they are rarer. Keith Floyd, yes please. Fanny Craddock for humour value…..and vintage for novelty value though who these days who poaches chicken and puts into gelatine?)

And finally, or at least for now. We have to work very hard to smile nicely when someone pulls up, opens their boot and says breezily, ‘I have brought you a load of books. I’d like the bags/boxes/crates back.’

I say,’Thanks so much, that is brilliant. It is just near closing time, so could you possibly collect your bags/crates/boxes in a day or two.’

They say,’Oh no, sorry, I need them now. They have just come out of our garage and we have a lot more to clear so we will be back with more!’