As the winter of January / February 1979 wrapped us in its enveloping shroud, more guests decided to come to Michael’s Nook. I can’t blame them. Winter in the Lake District is a beautiful season. Ultimately I worked there every season except summer, when the place is so over-run by tourists that its charm is seriously compromised.
I was kept on the go, especially when Maureen sprained her wrist and had a week off. The secretary was owed many days off too, and I stood in for her absences as well. The Giffords came to rely on me, and that caused a bit of trouble at ‘t mill, but more of that in the next post 🙂
I was supposed to get two days off a week, and often I did. You may recall that my original destination was Aviemore in Scotland. So you’d think I’d pop across the border and find out if the snow was thicker on the other side, wouldn’t you? But I had an Australia cousin who was on his way to England on a teacher exchange. His English-born wife and first-born child had come on ahead, and were living with her folks in Leicester. So mostly I headed south when I had free time. Somewhere along the line, she introduced me to brass rubbing. On the day of this photograph, we had to lift the carpet behind the altar to find the hidden gem. I think the church was in Northampton. Aren’t they a gorgeous couple? I wish I could remember their name. Maybe someone can set me straight.
Achieving those get-aways was not so easy. Often the weather thwarted me. And the strikes were a struggle. I wrote home, and I quote;
“One of them affects the clearing and gritting of roads including the famous motorways. Just today, for example, one of the busiest sections near Birmingham is almost completely closed and police are escorting vehicles through twenty at a time. One friend was caught in a thirty mile traffic jam the other day! The strikes here are incredible, much worse than home, everybody seems to be on strike at once and they stay out for months. At the moment we have transport workers, sewerage workers (certain areas are not allowed to use their water for any purpose), public servants – including essential services such as ambulances, teachers and so on, trains; and God knows how many more, I lose track of it. Everything is in short supply. We are just recovering from a petrol strike which even stopped heating oil getting through, now no food is getting through. Most of the supermarket shelves are empty and lots have big signs for no sugar or salt.”
What with the cold and the rations, home never looked better! But I was in Britain on a five-year working holiday visa and I had my eye on a bigger picture. Had I been more politically aware, I might have realised that these industrial conditions were going to give rise to Margaret Thatcher, and over the ensuing years, it seemed to me that she was making it her personal mission to kick me out of the country. But perhaps I took her policies too personally.
Something else I took too personally were letters from my mother. In a batch of mail that caught me up from all around the world were a number of photos that a photographer took of me when I was in Rome earlier in 1978. He was a street photographer. His job was to smirch up to the tourists and get them to part with mega-bucks for a pretty picture. But I explained to him that one photo was my entire accommodation and food budget for the day. He was a sweetie, he took a bunch of photos and took me out to dinner – and no – there is no “what happened next?” part of that story. Here’s the now damaged photo I posted to my mother.
She wrote back to me “remarking” on how fat I had become. Grrrr. It’s a bit like email isn’t it? What you intend to be so well meant when you write it, can be so ill-received when it is read cold. Plus I knew my Mum was not a well woman, and that one of the traits of her illness was that she had no filter. Although she rarely spoke, when she did, she said what she saw, without realising the consequences.
Despite understanding all this, there were a few letters torn up before I managed to write to my mother again. This was in the days before emoticons could be utilised to soften every message 🙂 🙂 🙂
I wrote hundreds of letters while I was overseas, and I made sure to write my mother at least once a month. It was on account of guilt. I was scared she’d hear from other relatives that they had received a letter, and she might be miffed if she had not. So I wrote to her as comprehensively as I did to everyone else, (allowing for some censorship naturally 🙂 ). I would receive strange two paragraph replies. I didn’t expect differently of course. One time she wrote that the dog had died. Technically, Bruno was my pet, and I’d acquired him when I was a young teenager. I wrote back, commiserating, but saying he’d had a long life. The next letter was brief. “He was run over. It was bloody. How’s the weather? It’s been hot here. Your loving mother”.
Oh well. It’s thanks to my mother hoarding my letters that I can draw so vividly on my life during these years 🙂 And I do know she was doing her best in the face of a debilitating illness.
I have a funny story involving Barry, the sous chef at Michael’s Nook. Good chefs are temperamental, that is my belief, and Barry first thing in the morning was rarely a happy camper. So it was our habit to make a big point of greeting him when he dragged himself into the kitchen, in that kind of oh, you need cheering up sing-song voice. Each of us had a signature accent and funny voice, and we’d chant Good Morning . . . Barry one after the other. Some ran the phrase up, some down, some added a query, and so on and so on. It wasn’t necessarily as altruistic as that sounds, really, we were kind of taking the mickey.
There was one room in the house that was always the last to be let. It was above the huge extractor over the cooking range, which itself was an immense structure in the middle of the kitchen. Conversations and other sounds from the kitchen drifted up through the extractor into the en-suite bathroom above. We were always told to mind our p’s and q’s when that room was let.
Our Head Chef, Nigel, was also “passionate”. Whenever he didn’t like our requests, he’d tell us to go to h – – l. Whenever he knew that room was let, however, he would modify his behaviour. He would stride over to the extractor, turn his face upwards, and say, ever so sweetly – – – “go to . . . go to . . . heaven“.
One morning though, we forgot that room eight was let, and how were we to know that the male guest had chosen that moment to sit on the throne for his morning constitutional? And which of us knew that Mr So-and-So’s first name was Barry? Every time he heard his name drifting up the sewer pipe, he jumped off the pan and peered into the bowl. Apparently it quite put him off the task at hand. He feared he was the victim of a hidden camera prank. That took a little smoothing of the troubled waters, so to speak.