"I was brought up surrounded by junk. It was no fault of my mother's, who had
an exquisite, natural
taste; it was merely a question of money. We had a large house, a quantity of hideous inherited
furniture, and an abundance of positively frightening pictures. We had to put up with them."
"Dam-making, surely, must be one of the most exquisite pleasures which life
can afford, even if the dam
is only a scrabble of sand on the seashore, hastily thrown up to make a pool in the sake of the retreating
tide. My love of dams is so unreasonable that psychiatrists would surely find it morbid; they would say
that the dam was a symbol for the womb, or something equally sickly, which in a sense it is, as I cannot
suppress my desire to fill it with shrimps — or, in the case of a fresh-water stream, with sticklebacks.
(The shrimps and sticklebacks, of course, would be symbols of sadism.)"
"It is arguable that ownership, in matters of taste, is nine-tenths of
education. If you possess even
one beautiful object it teaches you more, by its constant proximity, than a hundred visits to a museum."
"As the years go by, an old house gathers an aura of pride ... Even the chimneys,
I fancy, have a
jaunty tilt to them ... like the bonnets of old ladies who have had hard lives, but have conquered
them — old ladies who still walk down the street with an expression that seems to say 'Let 'em all
"How very much nicer it must be to be the employed rather than the employer.
The employer always has
the wrong end of the stick; it is always he who has to be disagreeable, to make scenes and fusses — and
incidentally, to pay for doing so."
Excerpts from Laughter on the Stairs
The conservatory [of Merry Hall] is really something ... But first, we
may pause for a moment in
this little glass corridor, to note what we may expect to see in it? After all, it is a very vital part
of the house; it links the old with the new, by a chain of flowers. It is one of [the gardener]
Oldfield's most sacred preserves; every morning, on the stroke of nine, his white head may be seen
bending over the shelves of geraniums, tapping the pots to see if they are dry enough to need watering.
"How can you tell just by tapping?" I once asked him.
His one good eye regarded me with some scorn. "You can tell by t'sound," he said. He tapped one of
the pots. "That's dry." He tapped another. "That could do with a drop." And another. "That's not
"They all sound just the same, to me."
He did not comment on this pitiable statement. He had noticed that the watering can was empty. He
gave me a reproachful look. "I see you've been using my water to fill t'vases again."
"I'm so sorry, Oldfield. I meant to fill up the can again last night. I'll get you a drop of warm
from the kitchen."
"T'isn't the same. Not as if it had stood here all night. Still, t'is better than cold. If there's
one thing that makes geraniums spalch off, t'is cold water."
"Spalch" is one of several new words which Oldfield has added to my vocabulary. It is not in the
Oxford Dictionary, but it is a good word, still current in Lancashire, which means to die back, to
We must not linger here too long, talking to Oldfield, but first I must justify my claim that the
conservatory is "really something." Perhaps I can describe it most vividly by saying that this is the
place where women, as soon as they step into it, exclaim with a sharp "Oh!" Sometimes this is varied
by "Oh no!" or "Oh really!" This sounds as though they had been pounced on from behind, and subjected
to nippings, but this is not why they cry out. It is because there is always some sort of display
which justifies the exclamation. In winter there is a bank of snow-white chrysanthemums on which I
have trained a spotlight, to heighten the illusion of ballet. In spring, there is a glorious tumble
of schizanthus, which I prefer to call by its common name — "Poor Man's Orchid" ...
And throughout the whole year there are geraniums, which to me are a sort of "test flower," for
long experience has taught me that people who do not like geraniums have something morally unsound
about them. Sooner or later you will find them out; you will discover that they drink, or steal books,
or speak sharply to cats. Never trust a man or woman who is not passionately devoted to geraniums.
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