April is the cruellest month

Easter holiday, that brief respite before Trinity, which is always a short term and ridiculously busy. Work has been stressful lately, and unlikely to get any less so, until the Commemoration day in early July. I was going to go to northern France during this holiday, but that didn’t quite fit in, so instead I’m spending a lot of time knitting, watching House on Netflix and just generally doing nothing much. Usually that’s fine, but now I cannot believe there’s another week and a half of this left.

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This time last year, we had snow, so spring seems to be very early. I missed the glory of Magdalen College Fellows’ Garden last year, and because of work and bad weather, was afraid I would miss it all again this year. Not so, thankfully. This is the best place in Oxford for spring flowers – snowdrops in February, daffodils in march, fritillaries in April.

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The huge horse chesnut tree has survived another year, and was the first thing to sprout leaves this spring. I love this tree, and so I suspect did Dorothy L. Sayers, who refers to it in her novel Gaudy Night: But Mr Pomfret was not to be checked. His admiration had run away with him, and Harriet, cornered in the shadow of the big horse-chesnut tree by the Lamb and Flag, found herself listening to as eager an avowal of devotion as any young gentleman in his twenties ever lavished upon a lady considerably his senior in age and experience.

Sayers also describes April in Oxford – time when undergraduates all used to go home and the town, before mass tourism, was quiet and slow:

April was running out, chilly and fickle, but with the promise of good things to come; and the city wore the withdrawn and secretive beauty that wraps her about in vacation. No clamour of young voices echoed along her ancient stones; the tumult of flying bicycles was stilled in the narrow strait of the Turl; in Radcliffe Square the Camera slept like a cat in the sunshine, disturbed only by the occasional visit of a slow-footed don; even in the High, the roar of car and charabanc seemed minished and brought low, for the holiday season was not yet; punts and canoes, new-fettled for the summer term, began to put forth upon the Cherwell like the varnished buds upon the horse-chestnut tree, but as yet there was no press of traffic upon the shining reaches; the mellow bells, soaring and singing in tower and steeple, told of time’s flight through an eternity of peace; and Great Tom, tolling his nightly hundred-and-one, called home only the rooks from off Christ Church Meadow.

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I go to Ashmolean on all holidays. This time I didn’t quite catch the mood. The Vermeer, which used to hang in this room, is gone. Tourists everywhere. In one gallery, a pair of teenage girls were sitting, completely absorbed by their mobiles, while surrounded works by the finest artists in the world – Monet, Manet, Pisarro, Cezanne. How could anything on a phone possibly be more interesting?

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Lately I have been feeling everyone is going places, doing interesting things, achieving something and I’m stuck with unwashed dishes.

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I finally got around to buying the 3rd series of Call the Midwife. This last series felt at times almost like a spin-off of the original, and since Jessica Raine has left (and as rumour has it, Miranda will be available for limited filming only), 4th series will probably be even more so. I still enjoyed it, but felt often like the quality of the stories isn’t quite as high as it used to be. The midwives have beceome the centre of the attention, when it used to be the mothers and the patients who created the fabric of the show. I missed that, those extraordinary destinies of the people of the East End. And I missed the sense of women together – nuns, nurses, working and living in a community. And Jane. What happened to Jane?!?

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Some thoughts on blankets and how to make them

I noticed most of the search terms that have brought people to my blog lately have been “Call the midwife” and “blanket”, which I suspect means people have come here looking for instructions. I hate to disappoint my readers, so this is a post about blankets and blanket squares and how to make them.

Let’s get one thing over and done with right away. They are knitting! Crocheted squares! They are actually grasping crocheted squares and pretending to be knitting them! I still cannot believe that in a show that has such high production values, with such detailed research to get all the little details right, they would let such howling, obvious mistake slip through. I’m looking at you, Heidi Thomas. And you too, Pippa Harris. And at you, Laura Main, even though you were still in the sanatorium, thinking about that nice doctor. Why yes, none of you involved will probably ever be allowed to live it down 😉

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No wonder she looks confused, she’s trying to knit a crocheted square.

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Trixie, by the look of things, is making a scarf rather than a square. Love the incredibly round balls of yarn – mine are always all lopsided.

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When Sister Evangelina suggests that Sister Monica Joan should make blanket squares, Nurse Jenny thinks she will bored to tears. Trust me, that can happen. I just finished a blanket, and it took me nearly two years to do it. I took breaks. Long breaks. Because I was a bit, you know, bored with it. But, I’m really glad and proud I finally finished the blooming thing, and it was really quite enjoyable, in a strange sort of way, in the end.

And here it is. Please note that this picture was taken pre-steaming.

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The yarn I used has a bit of history behind it. About 20 years ago my mother and my aunt both made ryijys (traditional Finnish decorative tapestry-type thingies). There was some leftover yarn, all in lovely earthy colours, so I hang onto it, and ultimately brought it with me to the UK, intent on making something. I managed one sock, which I quickly undid, and finally couple years ago settled on granny squares. I originally intended to make couple of cushion covers, but got ambitious somewhere along the way and went for the blanket instead. I didn’t have quite enough colourful yarn to make the blanket big enough, so I added couple of layers of plain white squares around the original squares. I rather like the Arts and Crafts, Charleston House look of the whole thing, even if the colours are not completely balanced, and some of the white yarn I used is slightly different shade and texture.

Anyway, you’re here because you want to make your own. There are plenty of instructions online how to make granny squares, and all are better than what I could come up with, so I won’t even try. This set of videos is very good, showing you step-by-step how to make the basic stitches needed. Follow these instructions, and you should do fine – this is a very simple technique, and once you have it down, you can make them quickly, in huge quantities, and make them very colourful. I got a bit bored with the basic model, so I varied it occasionally – making the centre round, using cluster stitches rather than columns and so on. Once you have learned a few stitches and got a hang of how they work together, you can make your own designs easily. Also, check online and study images – there are literally dozens of granny square patterns, and they are all reasonably easy. I finished my blanket with an edge of simple columns (also called double stitches in some instructions) – the effect is neat and makes the seams stronger. I joined with needle, but you can also crochet the squares together. When all that is done, don’t forget to steam your blanket – this smooths and relaxes the squares together and just generally makes the blanket look nicer. I prefer to use a spray bottle, very hot iron setting and an old-fashioned cotton nappy for the steaming. Opening a window is useful too.

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(Okay, the colours are really much nicer and warmer than this.)

Few words about materials. Blanket squares are popularly considered something you can make with leftover yarn, but couple of important things apply here. First, make sure all your yarn is made of same fibre – mine was all 100% wool. This is important in case you ever want to wash your blanket (and you probably eventually will, after all that trouble) – different fibres wash differently meaning the whole thing could be ruined. Second, make sure all your yarn is roughly the same thickness. Mine was mostly two-ply, with some three-ply of similar thickness in the mix, and while the resulting squares are same size, the three-ply ones have just a little bit different texture. If some of your yarn is much thicker, the squares may not fit together properly, and again may react differently when you wash the it. Avoid any yarn with acrylic in it. It squeaks when you crochet it, feels nasty and will start looking bad very quickly (the softer and fluffier, the worse it will look). Smooth, 100% cotton is traditional, very easy to crochet, and will look cheerful and is easy to treat. It will be particularly good if you are making a baby blanket (it’s soft against baby’s skin). I loved the two-ply wool – it was a bit harder to use, since this particular type had a slightly rough texture, but the end result is stunning, a very traditional, rustic look.

Make sure you have enough yarn – the yarn from my mother all came in ready balls, so I don’t know exactly how much there was of it. The white edge took about seven 50-metre skeins, so for the whole thing I would say about 24 – which is a lot, but my blanket still isn’t as big as the one they make for Chummy, so prepare to get loads. Pick a yarn that will be available for couple of years at least, in case you need to buy more. Go nuts with colours – you can make every layer different colour, or play with combinations. As for the hook, check the paper “belt” around the skein – it says what size you should be using. Buy two, just in case. You’ll also need a blunt needle for joining the squares- again, buy a few because they are just about the easiest thing to lose. That paper belt also tells you what material the yarn is and how to wash it, so keep one as a reminder. There is usually also a number code for the colour, and for the batch it was dyed in. This is more important if you are using just one colour, as the shade might differ just a tiny (but visible) bit from batch to batch.

Now, get crocheting! It’s fun and gives your hands something to do while you watch TV or listen to music, and in the end you’ll have a blanket. Or at least a pile of squares.

(Edited for clumsy language. And bad punctuation.)

Why “Call the midwife” is awesome

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Warning, if anyone is reading: I live in the UK, where the 2nd series already finished few weeks ago, and refers to events happening right at the end. And yes, this is my copy of Call the Midwife companion book on a blanket I have made myself. One blanket square at the time.

I confess I’m obsessed with the BBC drama Call the Midwife. I have both series on DVD, and just bought the companion book (I know, I know). I have also read the original books by Jennifer Worth, and enjoyed particularly the first one in the series. Screenwriter and show runner Heidi Thomas also wrote my favourite movie, I capture the castle, and her work has a distinct style and quality – great attention to little telling details, and characters who are never flawless and often quite annoying but always likeable.

It took me a moment to realise that I actually have a personal connection of sorts to the world depicted in both the show and the books. My mother, born in 1933, was much like Jenny Lee – she came from a modestly wealthy upper-middle class family (one of her maternal uncles was a Senior Consultant of a private hospital in Helsinki, the other was a department store owner), and worked as nurse in the 1950s. She trained in a disabled children’s care home – not unlike the one visited by Jenny and Ruby and Doug Roberts, parents of a baby born with spina bifida,  in the show – and then worked in a private hospital for elderly patients. She had a job as a ward sister in a London hospital all lined up in the early 1960s, but after her mother suffered a heart attack, she chose to stay in Finland and eventually moved on to work as a banker before marrying. My mother always had a great respect for nursing as profession, but she had no trouble admitting that it wasn’t her vocation; some of the stories she told of her time in the hospital were harrowing. She frequently witnessed her patients dying, and not all of them went peacefully – a woman she had grown very fond of over few months died bolted upright on her bed, screaming with horror, with only my mother in attendance. She was 24, completely unprepared, and that moment left a wound I think never quite healed.

Her photo albums from that period were one my favourite things growing up. The uniforms she and her fellow nurses wore were not dissimilar to the one Jenny wears while working in the London Hospital – complete with puffed sleeves and a little white headpiece. She and her friends were all rather glamorous; the photos from 1950s show them wearing full skirts with little cardigans on their shoulders, and once they moved to the 1960s, it was all boxy Chanel-style jackets, pencil skirts and Russian fur hats in the winter. My mother “walked out” with both a doctor and an airline pilot. With her friends, she travelled, or spend weekends in the countryside, or went to dances or to the cinema – not much has changed, but they sure had much better clothes we do today! At least one her friends had an MG (like the one Dr Turner drives), and often they would all pack themselves in the car and off they would go, to have an adventure: visit places they had never been to, packing a grill and having a barbeque somewhere, sleeping in a barn, swimming in the sea. I think my mother even did some water-skiing.

Her experiences as a nurse were still probably a light year away from those Jennifer Worth describes in her books; 1950s Finland was a prosperous country that had put the difficult times between the wars behind it, was building up its industry and economy, arts and education were thriving. For women like my mother (from “good”, well-to-do families) it was possible to get jobs and live on their own – respectably – for the first time. There certainly was poverty and many people had big families, but cities were small, most people lived in the country, and deprived urban areas like Poplar, and the problems special to them simply didn’t exist. Tenement housing was rarer and generally in much better condition, the war hadn’t devastated the infrastructure in the same way it had in the east of London, demands of weather required housing to be better, fuel in the form of wood was cheap and readily available. Pubs didn’t exist, there was no street prostitution and very little in terms of organised crime. There was near full employment, and youth culture hadn’t quite arrived yet. Unwed mothers were rare, and the shame almost impossible to overcome.

I love the portrayal of women in this show. I cannot remember any other show with similarly large cast of characters I love all equally. None of these characters are stereotypes – the blonde bombshell Trixie is also a very capable nurse and midwife with a brilliantly no-nonsense attitude and great humility; posh, clumsy Chummy has a great compassion for all her patients and a wonderful, natural bedside manner. Sister Julienne is similarly compassionate and forgiving, but also tells without hesitation Jenny, squeamish and often repulsed by what she encounters during her early days in the East End, to get over herself and get on with the work. These are women not defined by men, and their relationships with each others are not defined by men –they have a vocation, a passion for what they do, a sense of purpose that comes from within and willingness to learn. And that is still incredibly rare on TV. There is romance (I cried my eyes out during the scene in which Dr Turner listens to Sister Bernadette’s lungs for signs of TB, my heart breaking for both of them), but it’s not the main offering. Also, it’s Chummy and the frightfully shy, timid Jane who get all the action and not the sparkling pretty-girl Trixie.

The series also frequently speaks of reproductive rights – the pill would come available through the NHS in only couple years’ time, and in the East End it had an immediate, dramatic effect. Given the choice, women embraced it. Abortion was legalised in the UK in 1967, and is available – no questions asked – to all. An episode in the second series shows the options available for women before that: pregnant with the 9th child, living in a one bedroom flat in a house already condemned, Nora Harding desperately tries to induce miscarriage with herbal remedies, Epsom salts, scalding hot baths and by throwing herself down the stairs, before paying for a backstreet abortionist – nearly dying from the operation, carried out with knitting needles and crocheting hooks. Sister Julienne never passes judgement; she has seen women go through it countless times before and understands why they would choose to do it.

My mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and so I have found the struggle of Sister Monica Joan personally poignant. Here is a woman who had in her prime undoubtedly an absolutely brilliant mind, a woman who had a vocation – both religious and professional – and who chose that vocation over the expectations of her upper-class family and all that they could have materially or socially offered to her, effectively cutting ties with them. Her cry, “I used to know so much”, her fear and confusion, broke my heart, because that is my mother – a strong, clever, extremely capable woman who has slowly lost her agency, and with that, her person.

I love the sincerity of Call the midwife – it is another rare quality in these days of constant, willful irony. It is all about what some people will dismiss as small or trivial or sentimental, yet these are the very things that define our humanity. Birth. Death. Fear of loss, or of pain, or of rejection. Friendship, love, family, home. Faith, shown in deeds more than words. In the final episode of the second series, Chummy comes near to death because of massive hemorrhage she suffers early in her labour. The nurses and Sisters, suddenly in a position where there is nothing they can do put hope, sit together in silence and put their anguish in work, making the blanket they later give to Chummy, symbolically wrapping her in their love. This scene of women together is incredibly powerful and true.