August anniversaries

Two anniversaries of note this week. 

It’s one year since I started this blog and two years since I saddled up to ride the matrimony pony.

This is my gift from him. Silk pyjamas from Rigby and Peller. 

rigby peller | laughing heart

I would’ve been content with cotton, as two year anniversaries are symbolically cotton, but I’m not complaining about the upgrade. 

rigby peller | laughing heart
rigby peller | laughing heart

They delight me and will be perfect for 1. Summer nights 2. Packing for summer holidays 3. Looking awesomesauce. 

I’ve been trying to wear more natural fibres. Never in a twenty-eight years did I imagine I’d ever type a line so eye-roll inducing but there you have it. 

Best silk sets

Throwback Thursday: Robert Burns

In the week that Jackie Kay was named Scotland's national poet, or makar, I thought I'd look to Robert Burns for this week's historical gift-giving story.

Robert Burns, perhaps Scotland's greatest poet, gave this inkwell to his friend, John Lapraik, in 1793.

John Lapraik and Robert Burns Inkwell | Laughing Heart

It is made from the hoof of a pony. Weird, but not uncommon.  The hoof of Napoleon Bonaparte's favourite horse, Marengo, was made into an inkwell.

This particular inkwell features an iron shoe, a silver plaque bearing the presentation date and a brass lid engraved with the following: 'Presented to Mr Lapraik by his Much respected Friend Robt Burns'.

Born thirty miles and thirty years apart, Burns and Lapraik were from farming families in Ayrshire and, as Lapraik put it in a poem to Burns, ‘A mut’al flame inspires us baith’ meaning the two were poets.

Lapraik was an early supporter of Burns but he didn’t come close to achieving the level of fame or commercial success as his young friend. His contribution to Burn’s work can be seen in the ‘Three Epistles to John Lapraik’

An inkwell is a good gift for a writer. However, the reason I find the gift so poignant is that Burns was already enjoying notoriety in 1793. Lapraik by that time was already 66 years old. By giving Lapraik the inkwell, Burns is both practically and symbolically saying to his friend: ‘You must keep writing too’.

As an object, the hoof is as much associated with forward movement as it is with the earth. As my old professor Robert Crawford said of Burns, ‘No poet has been at once so brilliant and so down-to-earth.’ An ornate silver inkwell wouldn’t have been quite right for an old friend.

I don’t love the idea of an inkwell made out of a pony’s hoof but as far as gifts go, this gift ranks highly. It is as symbolic as it is practical and I like it for a’ that.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us...

If you'd like to read more about John Lapraik, www.lap raik.com   is a great site to visit. 

Visit Robert Burn's House in Dumfries:

Burns Street

Dumfries

DG1 2PS

Scotland

01387 255297

 

 

Chinese red envelopes

My husband’s business partner and his wife are having a baby this month.

They are Malaysian Chinese so I thought it would be nice to give the baby a red envelope, also known as ‘hongbao’. 

When visiting relatives in Singapore as a little girl, I knew them as ‘ang pao’ but it’s all the same thing.

You've probably worked  out that the red envelopes contain money.

In terms of etiquette:

  • An even sum is favoured
  • Avoid giving an amount with a 4 in it
  • Give notes of a single denomination, not coins. 

The tradition of giving red envelopes comes from the story of the evil spirit, Suì (祟)

Suì, a black form with colourless hands, tormented a village by sneaking into children’s bedrooms, touching them on the head as they slept leaving them ill or disabled. The parents of a boy from the village gave him coins wrapped in red paper to play with, to keep him awake for the New Year. Everyone fell asleep, including some fairies who came to protect the boy. When Suì entered the room and reached out to touch the boy’s head, the coins shone brightly, frightening Suì away. Words spread that the coins scared Sui away, and so parents put money in red paper.

My mum has a stack of them at home. If I’d planned a little better, I could have swiped one when I last visited.  Thieving ang pao is probably highly inauspicious so I looked for envelopes online. They all looked fine but I had no idea what the characters meant.

Remember when Chinese character tattoos were popular in the nineties and then it turned out that the Chinese characters which were meant to say ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Courage in the face of adversity’ actually said things like ‘Rice fried in pork fat’ and ‘Window Okay Beaver Tears’? 

I wanted to avoid a faux pas so I sent a picture to my Aunty Yian who checked that the envelope was appropriate.

The one I bought, at the top of the post, says happiness/good fortune. I was safe to proceed.

I thought it could be a fun craft project to make your own red envelopes, so here are my recommended supplies. I know the leather Aspinal envelope isn't part of the art and craft supply kit, but it was too cool an idea not to include. 

 

Throwback Thursday: Give the angry man a hat

I've always believed it's bad idea to apologise with a gift. 

A gift is a symbolic, shorthand way of publicly expressing a private feeling. If there is one occasion to avoid shortcuts and symbols it is during an apology. 

Plus, who wants to be reminded of the time they were wronged? Plus, an apology gift has never worked...or has it?

One historical figure proves me wrong: Samuel Pepys. 

Samuel Pepys

Generally speaking, the diary of a civil servant is unlikely to arouse or sustain high levels of interest. The diary of Samuel Pepys is different.

Born during the English Civil  War, Pepys lived through the Great Fire of London, survived both the plague and numerous extramarital encounters and wrote all about it in his diary.

One diary entry contains our historical gift. 

Sunday 1st November 1663

(Lord’s day). This morning my brother’s man […]  brought me as a gift from my brother, a velvet hat, very fine to ride in, and the fashion, which pleases me very well, to which end, I believe, he sent it me, for he knows I had lately been angry with him.

It’s not clear what brother Thomas did to make Samuel angry but the velvet hat was able to placate him. 

It seems like a fitting gift given that both sons took an interest in fashion. Thomas followed his father into the tailoring trade and Samuel placed a number of orders for clothing with Thomas. One such order includes a rather opulent 'gowne of purple shagg, trimmed with gold'. 

Sadly, Thomas followed a less fortunate path than his brother, dying young and in debt. 

I tried to find a picture of a velvet hat from around that time but didn't have much luck. I found this picture on Pinterest which gives an overview of hats between 1600 and 1700. 

1660s fashion Laughing Heart

The National Maritime Museum is holding a major exhibition on Samuel Pepys, his life and times. It runs until the 28th March. Find out more

If you're interested in reading the diary of Samuel Pepys, I'll put a link to it below:

San Fran, The Beats & A Gift For Laurie

I am not a daring person. I never swim out of my depth, I am always several hours early for flights and I won’t let a dog lick my face.

On that last point, I don’t hate dogs. It’s just that I once witnessed a dog jump in and out of a pond and then lick his owner's eye. His wide-open eye. I'm 100% sure that can cause blindness.

Being risk-averse means that traveling alone isn’t something which appeals to me. But inspired by the wisdom in Kylie Jenner’s video, I’m trying to make 2016 the year of realising and doing stuff.

So last week, I threw caution to the wind and flew to San Francisco. I'm 'into' American poetry from the 1950s onward. I wanted to visit the home of the Beat Generation, see Vesuvio Café where the writer Allen Ginsberg drank with Jack Kerouac and visit City Lights Bookstore.

I contacted my friend Laurie who lives in San Francisco to ask if she was around to meet up. Without a second thought, she invited me to stay at her flat and booked a day off work to hang out. That's the kind of excellent-hearted person she is. 

I told her about the literary sights I wanted to see. She hadn’t come across the Beats before which was great for me because it meant that I got to talk about it at length. It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I had confidently talked about something which actually mattered to me without saying: ‘Sorry, I’ve been talking for ages’ or ‘Sorry, I'm being geeky’ or 'Sorry, this probably isn't interesting'. 

It also occurred to me that it had been a long time since I’d found someone willing to listen. Unlucky, Laurie!

So together we went to City Lights and read some poems, bought some books and had a drink at Vesuvio. 

To thank her for hosting me and for being a good friend (one who can bear to be a tourist when she is really a local) I decided on a trio of Jo Malone gifts, a jumper, fresh flowers selected by a lovely lady called Courtney from the Floral Loft and a meal at AQ (which I'd heard was awesome - confirmed).

I'm glad I found and embraced my pioneer spirit in San Francisco, if only for a few days. 

It seems appropriate to end the post with a quote from Kerouac's Desolation Angels:

SO SHUT UP, LIVE, TRAVEL, ADVENTURE, BLESS AND DON’T BE SORRY.
— Jack Kerouac

SAN FRANCISCO HIGHLIGHTS

Here are some pictures from my visit. They include stops at City Lights, The Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park, Alamo Square, Twitter HQ and Pier 39.

Throwback Thursday: Foundling heart

The gifts of the rich and royal are easy to research and write about.

For every king, queen or statesman there are at least fifty books which document their lives in minute detail. From Tutankhamen's footwear to the near 1kg book on the 'scenes and times' from Queen Victoria's reign, some scholar or bureaucrat has recorded it. 

But this embroidered heart, just an inch tall and wide, affords a glimpse into the lives of the those at the far end of the fortune spectrum.

Red heart token © The Foundling Museum

Red heart token © The Foundling Museum

This heart, a token, was left with a baby by its mother at the city’s Foundling Hospital sometime between 1741 and 1760.

When a desperate parent applied to have their child admitted to the Foundling Hospital, the capital’s first orphanage, the child had to undergo a medical exam. 

If the child was healthy and admission was approved, it was renamed, given an admission number and baptised. 

But parents were also asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary.’

The token was filed away as a link to the infant’s past should they ever be reclaimed. A parent who couldn't read or write but who found themselves in a better position and able to look after their child could say: 'My baby was the one left with the blue and yellow ribbon'. 

Some left poems or coins with their babies, others left buttons or scraps of cloth.

This mother left a heart.

A very small number of the thousands of children admitted to the orphanage were reclaimed by their parents but stories do exist with happy endings.

Like the boy connected with this coin.
 

Innocency in Safety

The boy, Oliver (renamed Luke) was taken in by the Foundling Hospital in 1758. His parents left a yellow ribbon and this Charles II coin with the words ‘Innocency in Safety’ and the initials of the child’s parents, RL and ED. Oliver’s parents returned for him a few years later.

But the red heart is still in the care of the Foundling Hospital (now a museum) exactly where it was dropped off almost 300 years ago in Brunswick Square.

By 1790, 18,000 tokens, including the red heart, were left unclaimed.

I visited the Foundling Museum last Friday. 

There are hundreds of tokens on display and a fantastic exhibition 'The Fallen Woman' which includes petitions from women who applied to have their babies taken into the care of the Foundling Hospital.

 I took photos of three hearts.

As I looked at each token and at exhibition pictures of children who had passed through the Foundling Hospital through the years, I realised the token wasn't really a gift at all. The tokens exist as a symbol of the highest gift from parent to child: the chance to have a better life. 

The Foundling Museum

40 Brunswick Square

London WC1N 1AZ

T: +44 (0)20 7841 3600

The riddle of the mug


I went out with a really strange person, just as I was finishing my degree.

He was good-looking, charming. Not my usual type. We went on a few walks, went to the cinema, held hands. I went to watch him perform as an extra in a play. I heard some stories which made me suspect that he wasn't being entirely honourable but he was just good looking enough that it was possible to ignore them.

He turned up at my birthday party, a beach party, with a gift. A mug wrapped in a plastic bag.

mug

It was a porcelain mug with a table of imperial to metric conversions printed on it.

Because I had no confidence at the time, I was polite and grateful when it was presented, but I thought privately: ‘Why did he give me such a rubbish, thoughtless gift?’ After all, we talked about the arts!

On serious reflection, maybe it was I who talked about the arts. He just swung his head melodramatically from looking brooding and quizzical to looking pensively into middle distance. Maybe I'd misinterpreted him.

Back to the mug.

Giving me the gift of a mug was puzzling, but giving me a mug with a numerical table on it was completely inappropriate.

He left the party early. My friends and I huddled around the mug, passing it between us, trying to work out what it meant.

It was £7.99 the label told us - he could have bought a book for less. Or a beaded necklace. Or a pretty notebook. We knew that he'd bought it from a shop in the middle of town, and, from later investigations, I learnt that this range of mugs was displayed on the top shelf of a dusty cabinet at the back of the store. He must have searched for a while. He must have passed all of the other slightly more interesting gifts en route.

But then, in the spark of imagination which is only experienced by an English literature student looking for meaning in the apparently meaningless, I realised he'd given me this gift because I was the mug.

The mug was his way of saying that the relationship was over.

Perhaps a doormat would have been more appropriate.