"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 come!'"

"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 needing any."

"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 wither prematurely.

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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