Midsummer Madness

A few years ago, my husband, my son and I started celebrating the summer solstice with a bonfire in the garden, over which we cooked sausages and toasted marshmallows.  The cocktails flowed, our son was allowed to stay up late and there was general hilarity.  A “selfie” from our first event shows us wearing garlands of honeysuckle, which we happened to have been pruning that day, shrieking with laughter as our son photo-bombed what was meant to be a picture of me and my husband.  Over the years since then, various features of the evening have become “tradition” – the fire, the sausages, the marshmallows, and riotous games of “Squeak Piggy Squeak”, which is a version of Blind Man’s Buff.  We often end the evening playing instruments and singing.  Last night, my husband told the traditional Irish story of The Gold Ring, which finished with the tune of the same name played on the tin whistle.  We caught our first glimpse of the bats that visit our garden each year.

We always refer to our regular celebration as “Midsummer Madness”, partly inspired by Tove Jansson’s stories of Midsummer in Moomin Valley.  There is something inherently subversive about midsummer, as the normal rules of bedtime and sensible behaviour are relaxed in celebration of our longest day.  An episode in “Moominsummer Madness” captures this brilliantly.  The wanderer, Snufkin, returns to Moomin Valley on Midsummer Eve.  Before visiting his friends, he plans to “settle an old account…with a villain.”  The villain in question is the Park Keeper, who, with his accomplice, the Park Wardress, runs the park with the sole intention of preventing anyone having any fun.  Everywhere, there are signs bearing statements such as “ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE”, “LAUGHING AND WHISTLING STRICTLY PROHIBITED” and “NO HOP, NO SKIP AND DEFINITELY NO JUMP ALLOWED HERE”.  The trees have been “cut and sheared…into round blobs and square cubes” and the paths are “straight as pointers”.  The twenty four “small, subdued children” who visit the park every day are confined to a miserable sandbox instead of climbing trees, standing on their heads and running across lawns.  Snufkin sets about his revenge.  He starts by sowing the lawns with Hattifatteners, who electrify the Park Keeper (and not in good way), sending him and the Park Wardress away as fast as they can go.  If you don’t know what Hattifatteners are, you have some great reading ahead of you.  Having dispatched the villains, Snufkin pulls up the notices and tramples them in a heap.  Later, the Snork Maiden, out walking with the Fillyjonk, stumbles on something:

“Do not tread on the grass” she read. “Look,” she said, “here’s a lot of notices that somebody’s thrown away!”

“How wonderful, everything’s allowed!” cried the Fillyjonk.  “What a night! Let’s build our bonfire of the notices! And dance round it until they’re burned to ashes!”.

A hopeful statement, especially in these strange times of freedom and not-freedom.  Like so many others, I am looking hard at what I do as we gradually emerge from the rigidity of complete lockdown and search for ways to live together safely and respectfully.  I don’t want to get back into any sort of sandbox.  I am hoping instead for lots more laughing, whistling, hopping, skipping and jumping.  If we have to wear face masks and keep a little distance from each other as we do it, so be it.  Happy Midsummer!

Tea for Victory

Over the last fifteen years or so, my husband and I have acquired more tea sets than we can reasonably use (or house).  We didn’t set out to collect them and if pressed, we would not call ourselves “collectors”.  “Rescuers” feels like a better description, especially in the face of the appalling “smash the crockery” stalls from which we frequently run in horror at garden fetes.  A tea set has the same resonance as a family photo album, something that might have been a wedding present, perhaps saved for “best” instead of being used every day.  Once we happen across a tea set that calls to us from the jumble of a second-hand shop, we no longer have a choice.  We hold our breath as each piece is wrapped, then carry our new treasure home, where it must fight for space on our already-crowded shelves.

One of our favourites is an angular green and white Palissy tea set, painted with gold stars.  My husband found most of it – a large tea pot, sugar bowl, cups and saucers and tea plates – in a charity shop on Leyton High Road, near where we used to live.  The milk jug was missing, presumably broken by a previous owner, so my husband started looking for one online.  During the search, he acquired a matching but smaller tea pot, another sugar bowl and, eventually, the elusive milk jug.  Buying china online is a risky business.  Someone posted a sugar bowl and milk jug to us with no more protection than a jiffy bag.  The sugar bowl survived but the jug arrived in pieces.  It wasn’t the one we wanted to complete our favourite tea set but the seller’s lack of care was still upsetting. 

One pot or two?
The elusive jug

Palissy china in this style was made by AE Jones Ltd in Longford, Stoke-on-Trent during the 1930s and early 1940s.  The Palissy name was bought by The Royal Worcester Porcelain Company in 1958, later passed to Spode after a merger in 1976 and was sold to Aynsley China Ltd, also of Longford, in 1989, when the Palissy Works were demolished.  The mark on the underside of our tea set seems to date it to the years between 1935 and 1939.

Which brings me to VE Day.  We wanted to remember and mark this significant event in our collective past but felt a bit queasy about any sentimental “flag-waving”.  Our solution was to focus on the personal – things we now have and cherish that other people owned 75 years ago.  My husband carried a wind-up gramophone into the garden and provided a soundtrack to the day with a fabulous collection of 78s.  Our playlist included Glen Miller, George Formby, Flanagan and Allen and even (to my great surprise) the band of the Coldstream Guards playing the National Anthem – a rare engagement by my husband with that particular piece of music.  We enjoyed afternoon tea from the Palissy tea set, thinking of our families’ war time experiences and wondering who had eaten from those plates and drunk from those cups to celebrate the end of the war in 1945.