20 April 2014

ooh, er...

They don't look very happy, do they? Perhaps we should have stuck to chocolate.

But my internet connection seems to have been restored, which is good news. And even if the rain is threatening the canopies of spider webs spanning the gutters, this is not altogether unwelcome.

Have a Happy Easter day.

02 April 2014

making space

It was warm yesterday - bare-leg warm by the afternoon. It had been a busy morning, the last of a series of weekly workshops I'd been running with some women in Whitechapel, bittersweet to say goodbye and good luck. I'll miss them. There was a lot to do back home, but that British summer time lost hour takes some getting used to, so in the end I thought the best thing was to get to the plot and do nothing, absolutely nothing. No sowing, no sewing, no reading, just a bit of space and quiet.

I cycled along the back streets, cut across the Bow roundabout and nipped onto the River Lea path to Three Mills for the last leg of the journey. It's a ride I enjoy because you're below the main roads and it's quite spacious. For now. A pair of swans were nesting, quite possibly the foolish pair who normally make their nest on the tidal part of the river further round by Three Mills, only to have their nest flooded and their eggs scattered on the mud.

Hopefully they'll pull it off, this year at least. Behind them a new red fence has gone up, and behind that the remaining industrial buildings have all but disappeared. This time next year the view will be completely different as the building work proceeds. It's no good whining about any of this, not for too long anyway. The pace of change around here is taxing, it always has been in London, but just now it seems to have accelerated.  People probably felt the same when this pretty as a picture collection of industrial buildings were erected. All the more reason to find a bit of space now, however small it might be.
Three Mills - view from river path exit by Tesco overflow car park
When I reached the allotment, I pulled out the old comfy chair and sat on our tiny bit of lawn to enjoy the space and the warmth. It wasn't quiet exactly. Huge peacock butterflies did that fighty thing in the air, and when they'd finished with each other, chased off the orange tips.  Hoverflies and solitary bees flitted through the overgrown rocket and the yellow flowers of gone-to-seed mizuna. There was the sound of building work near the new pumping station;, a very slight drone from the main road; an intermittent drilling which was, I think, a woodpecker; a blackbird starting that late afternoon singing; and could that possibly have been the sound of rooster nearby - really? 

Where the Prescott Channel runs at the back of the plot opposite, some swans flew across a couple of times, quite low down, following the water and just in view, then some wildfowl and a few gulls. At one point there were even three ducks in a row using the sky and trees as their wallpaper. Great tits flew around making that repetitive tweeting and the silhouette of a wretched magpie was just about visible in a tree. 

Such bliss. Inside my head I may have heard those Numskulls responsible for vitamin and endorphin distribution  calling out "More, more!".

(Map here.)

27 March 2014

the sewing class

Every Wednesday during term time I get my bag of bits and ride over to the sewing class for three hours. I love it. We are all women, around a dozen of us on busy days, from all over the globe, a range of ages, and the most brilliant teacher who clearly loves her job and manages to be both encouraging and firm with us at the same time. Some women come year after year, others come to learn something specific and then leave. There is a whole range of projects going on - this term we have a man's shirt, a denim jacket, a sari-silk dress, an african print kimono, a gorgeous coat made out of tapestry curtains, a restyled winter coat, a summer frock. On the quietest days, there is a meditative quality in the room. You can sense the concentration as people take on more challenging tasks - drawing a new pattern, making buttonholes for the first time, inserting invisible zips; or the trepidation at using the old industrial machines and overlockers, marked up with the names of engineers long gone along with the manufacturing industry they served. I've developed a tentative affection for one in particular with its purry sound as it slices off rough edges and turns them out with sweetly serged seams; get it wrong and it could be disaster. Then there are the days when we chat gently, share mishaps, enjoy the companionship of common cause, imagine what we might make next.

That thinking about developing our skills and having a talented teacher is one of the best things about being in a class and this year's Sewing Bee has been an inspiration too. It's all too easy to sit back and do the same thing again and again, so I've really enjoyed watching the sewists' determination at mastering the demanding challenges. If they can do it...

Which brings me to the Merchant and Mills Madison I made. Rachel asked for a picture and here it is, the only one, better perhaps at showing the hosiery than the dress.

What can I say about it? It's a simple pattern, requiring basic skills and, made in silk, it was a great dress for a British Spring wedding. I liked the plainness, lightened by the flattering neckline. The long sleeves were perfect in the cool shade, and I really took pleasure in the detail of the three vintagey-looking darts in the sleeves to stop them going baggy (you can't see them, alas). What's more, I was delighted that the dark blue silk dupion which I bought in Singapore around fifteen years ago finally saw the light of day. A bit like me.

Sewing for yourself can be a bit hit and miss. Often your vision doesn't quite materialise in the way you imagined and sometimes a bit of realism and self-discipline is required to avoid disappointment. But when it all comes together - something you enjoy wearing, understanding the skills that go into making even a simple dress, the value of the time it takes, well, it's a kind of enlightenment.

24 March 2014

the 2014 asparagus post

The earliest yet, though not the sweetest spears on the bed if I'm not mistaken, but let's wait and see.


Hyacinths: each year we plant the spent bulbs we grow indoors, and this year their scent has pervaded the whole plot; and endive which has flourished in the face of total neglect on our part, and total benevolence on the part of the mild winter.

Wild garlic is putting in an appearance in the scuzzy hidden space behind the shed,

while on the sunny side it's almost tropical with flowering bay and imminent yucca flowers.

And amid all this promise, an almost certain unhappy end for the mouse - or was it a young rat? - that our feline neighbour Pixie flushed it out of the currant bush.

I suddenly feel like I've missed the bus.

17 March 2014


I have been sitting, kneeling, scribbling, here this afternoon and in between doing things I have made a commitment to do, albeit in one case rather late, I have been pondering the difference between plenty and enough. Take a particular writing commitment I have each month: enough time, insufficient motivation equals plenty of guilt. Or in the case of rhubarb, I have enough to make an early spring crumble, and possibly a cake, but it's too early to be plentiful yet, at least until the other crowns start coming through.

The purple sprouting broccolli is quite another matter. When I took this photo around ten days ago, delighted by its pertness and the prettiness of purple against the green, there was only just enough for two, and even then I felt a twinge at despoiling its beauty. Early this Sunday morning however when I cycled down to the plot before anyone else had woken up, more plants had sprouted and there was enough for a meal for five together with a salad of endive, rocket, red mustard and young beetroot leaves; leeks, potatoes; all homegrown. There was enough for everyone, plates were cleaned, everything eaten. It really was most pleasing, this sense of plenty.

That thinking time this afternoon helped me to sort out some of the feelings I'd been having about a family wedding this weekend. I'd decided I wanted to make my own dress - I have more than enough fabric stashed away over years and I'm determined to use some of it up before I even think about adding to the pile. But of course, once you have a new dress, there's all that other stuff - shoes, handbags (hate them), hats (ooh, love 'em). So I mooched around, picked stuff up, put it down, wondered whether I was just being mean, came home with some shoes, kept them in the box so I could take them back if I had to. And of course the dress was fine, the new shoes were an extravagance I could have done without but they rather brightened things up. And after all, who cares when the bride is so beautiful that she makes your heart beat faster and tears rise, when the sun slants through the church windows at such an angle that she sits glimmering in a pool of light, when you get to ride on an old Routemaster to the reception on a warm afternoon in the middle of London on the Ides of March and drink fizzy stuff outside until you're fuzzy.

It was all more than enough, more even than plenty.

14 February 2014


Our idea of a celebration - pie, peas and mash, a pint of Broadside for him, the closest I could get to a milk stout in Bethnal Green in honour of Ena, Minnie and Martha, rain outside, and one of the barman's granny's amaretto truffles to finish. Oh, we know how to live.

12 February 2014

lighting up time

"Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or more usually a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten." Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines, 2012

I am writing this from my bed tucked underneath a duvet and a couple of woolen blankets, a jumper on to keep me warm. Our east-facing bedroom is unheated, and there are no sensible heavy curtains, just some light muslins so that the natural light can wake us up in the morning. The street lights have just gone off and now I notice that the sky is pink and bruised behind the couple of trees I can see through one window.

Jamie lives in the far north, and the return of the light there would perhaps have much more impact than here in the soft south. This year we can perhaps claim our fair share of grey, dreich days, the sky weeping daily the absence of the sun. At last though, and notwithstanding days of heavy rain, it does at least seem that the light is coming back.

Sightlines came off the shelf this week after a prompt here to name my top twenty books. Twenty? I'd have trouble naming a handful I commented. I think I've managed to come up with about a dozen so far, but I'm working on it.  It's time for breakfast now though.

08 February 2014

alfa female

There is no typical Saturday here. It all depends on the weather, and whether all the things that should have been done during the week have been done. There was something that was on my mind today though. I'd popped in to Sew Amazing during the week to buy sewing essentials - pins, some tweezers and a little thingy to make threading an overlocker easier after an hour and a half of exasperation remedied, successfully, by making a threader from some 5 amp fuse wire I found in the cellar. Now, I like to go in to Sew Amazing. All those rows of haberdashery kit - needles and studs and tailors chalk. And Rob, the man himself, he who can caress sewing machines into action. We have conversations about them - missing screws, bastardised Berninas, the history of the Juki... and the family's new poodle puppy. Around about chucking out time at the local primary school, the shop fills up - Have you got any pink felt? Do you mend Brother machines? Can I pay for these needles? And while Rob is dealing with the hubbub, I take a look at the shelves of second hand sewing machines like I always do. And that's where I develop a crush on a little 60's model - all metal and wood and touches of chrome.  The instruction booklet is pristine, all the feet tucked into the side drawer, a little plastic pouch for the embroidery cams. But the last thing I need is another sewing machine. I mean, that lovely little electric 1930s Singer that I saw in Herne Bay a couple of months back that smelt so evocatively of machine oil and lint, well, I managed to leave that behind didn't I? I've already got one, or two. So I admired the pictures of the pretty little poodle, said cheerio, and went home to make tea.

Back to Saturday. Wind and rain promised. We need to go to get the potatoes from the allotment shed. But I've been thinking about that little machine so we go up to the market, but Rob's is shut. An hour or so later we are back again. This time I try out the machine with Rob urging me on -"Go on, sew over that denim and leather and treble layer of fabric, pretend you're jumping over the hurdles. Lovely machine, isn't it?" I'm sold, and so is the machine.

Saturday becomes a stay at home day for me, spent in the kitchen, quilting something that should have been tackled ages ago. The machine jumps the hurdles as easy as anything.

This Alfa, this Romeo to my Juliet (what?for goodness sake!) weighs a ton, everything else feels lighter, brighter. It could be love.

05 February 2014

working through the cupboards

I know. It looks like Christmas again. It's because we have been eating our way through the cupboards, the freezer, the potatoes in the cellar, and the tiny stash of leftover bottles from Christmas. All part of lightening the load. I thought we might save the oloroso for next year's pudding, but it turned out to be quite unrealistic once we closed the doors to the inner sanctum of the back room to keep it warm and cosy while watching The Bridge - and if you must know, I was distraught at the end of it and really wished there had been even a tiny drop of something harder to buoy me up. 

On the food front, the potatoes - hotpot, mash, vegetable crumble, fish pies, wedges, jackets, soup, bubble - have held up well. There are more at the allotment to be tackled yet (we will have to share, I think), a few leeks and parsnips, winter greens and salads. There are tins of beans, tomatoes, sardines, jars of onions, frozen packets of fruits of the forest, jars of marmalade, a few jars of chutney, dried fruit, nuts, enough flour to keep us in bread and cakes for another month. We can probably last until the end of this month with only topping up on coffee, porridge, fresh fruit, milk. Whatever was I thinking of? Armageddon?

I've made a  tentative, very tentative, start on the fabric stash. Then there's the yarn, the cookery books, the novels to go. And don't even talk about the clothes; or the projects rolled up into bags, half started, a quarter finished. 

Gently, gently. It will be spring soon. It will be spring soon. 

Wake me up when it's half past April.

14 January 2014

after the frost

In Norwich at the weekend, we mooched around the market and saw some splendid  - and expensive - forced rhubarb.  Despite the temptation to buy some, practicality got the better of me and  I left it glowing pinkly on the stall among the caulis and greens.

Down at the allotment the next day after our first winter frost we found this pushing up from beneath the mighty feed of autumn compost - the first fragile leaves of our own rhubarb. 

There's a rhubarb forcer around somewhere, and it's about time it was put to work.