29 April 2008


I went down to meet John at the plot on Sunday afternoon (remember? before it got cold and started to rain again). He was not there and I was locked out because we are too mean to pay £20 for a second key. The allotment site is surrounded on the south side by a bit of a levee, which makes it all secret and nooky. Unless you walk along the ridge, you never get to see this view of our eccentricly constructed (and clearly Prospect Cottage inspired) shed against the backdrop of Canary Wharf a few hundred yards away which just goes to show how special it is.

Or this slightly Celtic arrangement of granite setts.

Or this sun spurge growing wild on the bank.

And when I popped round to see one of his school gardens nearby I found this little self seeded calendua.

All of which stopped me from being grumpy.

27 April 2008

reward policy

I've decided that I need a reward policy - for myself. I've already given notice to the bookclubs that I belong to that I won't be back in circulation until the end of September. But it can't be all penance and no pleasure, so I'm scheduling in some rewards. When I got home last week, these were waiting for me. I'm trying to pace myself but they're hardly what you would call a heavy read and they won't last very long, even if I ration myself.

Actually, the Jane and Prudence cover is a bit deceiving . Very Prudence, but not very Jane. She wears the sort of tweed coat that you would "wear to feed the chickens in". I have a coat like that myself which comes out now and then for gardening and such.

I've just noticed that Virago is publishing a hardback version of Excellent Women, clearly above the Whipple Line, on May 8th, so that can be part of my incentive plan. Then there's always a square or two of 78% chocolate (courtesy of Lidl) to keep me going.

I just can't help thinking I'm going to have to come up with a few more rewards if I'm going to last out until September otherwise I'll be hitting the advocaat in sheer desperation.

a matter of taste

When I got back to London this week from Sunningdale with my heavy case of books, I took a taxi home from Waterloo and although I was feeling pretty tired from my week away, I was cheered up by my journey home. The route the cabbie took (always interesting, that) avoided the main roads and followed the railway line and ended up where Union Street meets London Bridge. He was not to know it, but I'm rather fond of that route. I used to work nearby and I like the railway arches, the buddleia growing out of the brickwork, the bits of scrap land, the pot plants put on display by the people living in the flats along the way. People were buzzing around Borough Market and across London Bridge, livened up by the warm, sunny evening. Around Aldgate, the clock on St Botolph's church was competing with the siren from a police car. Kids hung around on bikes outside Stepney Green station, waiting for something to happen. And at home, my favourite garlicky homecoming meal was waiting for me. A bit different from Sunningdale, then.

I won't bore you with all the learny, learny stuff from the week away. But we were told about the importance of getting into the habit of working every day on our research and having a special place to write and think. So I decided I needed a new study spot and moved my writing table into a room downstairs in the company of strange drinks leftover from Christmas (will I be tempted by that half bottle of advocaat?) and Perseus, an inspiration for perseverance in the face of this study thing.

I now sit facing a window looking down the alley which runs at the side of our kitchen. It's where we store our bikes, plant pots, ladders, not the the most photogenic part of the garden. Or at least that's what I thought until I decided I needed some air and took a closer look. Along the soot-blackened garden wall, I found ferny croziers beginning to unfurl.

A lovely little maidenhair spleenwort tucked in along the bottom of the wall.

New soft spiky ivy making its way up the loose brickwork.

A hart's tongue fern creeping above the furnace slag,

And further along, where we have never managed to find a piece of york stone the right size to fill the gap, a scupture garden of sorts...

...in a space less than half a square metre.

It's all a matter of scale, a matter of taste, a matter of what makes you smile.

20 April 2008

picture post

It's late. I'm tired. And I still have to pack for four days away. Here's a picture post of what's happened since yesterday afternoon.

A nice lady heard me coughing and suggested I should try some Vicks. I had to buy some specially, and along with some Jakeman's original and famousThroat and Chest it seems to be working.

I tried to avoid this, really I did. But there it is, just across the road, all pink and frothy. I feel I would be lying if I just ignored it.

And I do have to get up early tomorrow, again.

My day. Back soon.

19 April 2008

early bird

Lots to get through, mostly studying, today. That meant going to the market before my 9.15 pilates class and, as I did not leave home until half eight, I had to do the whole trip in about 20 minutes. I didn't set out to blog this or take any photos, but the contrast between the grey and gloomy weather and the colours and textures of the fruit veg, fish and flowers was really uplifting, especially after being down with a cough and cold all week. So the pictures that follow were all done at speed along with the shopping.

I've been going to Globe Town market for years, and I like to be loyal if I can. It is not trendy and only has a few stalls and shops. It's no Borough Market, and can't compete with Broadway Market. In fact it's quite ugly, north facing, architecturally uninspiring (though there is a Denys Lasdun round the corner for those in the know) - a built for the locals space that has struggled over the years to go beyod the basic. But it's amazing how much the few stalls that are still there have changed - and some of them have been around for a long time. At one time the choice would have been fairly limited, but now you can get pretty much anything you want by way of fruit and veg.

First off today, was Leslie Herbert's fruit stall. Les's family have had market stalls for years, both here and in Hackney . (On Sundays he sells smoked fish and herrings in Brick Lane, another part of the Herbert Empire.) Great range of stuff but no time to snap it.

I'm not a great lover of red apples - I bought Cox's this morning - but these were still in their box and looked liked like they came straight out of a fairy tale.

Next off was Patrick Goggins for veg. It's a while since I have been early enough to see the stall at the start of the day - recently I've been so late that he's been stalling in. Today it was totally inspiring, a work of art.

Orange butternut squash, rusty red, sweet potatoes, creamy caulis, blue- green broccoli, pink rhubarb..

... soft green fennel, coriander, deep red beetroot, and the purplest sprouting broccoli. And that was only the half of it.

Dash to Joanne's to buy flowers. It isn't a stall but a little shop in the corner of the square where you can get anything from the familiar - daffs, tulips, anemones - to the more exotic. I bought my daffs and had to dash, so no time then to photograph the beautiful lilies she had today.

Final stop was the Downey brothers, Roger and Derek. They sell traditional smoked and pickled fish, including jellied eels, as well as wet fish and shellfish. They had not even had time to unpack their crabs or oysters today when I arrived. So much to choose from. I went for half a dozen oysters (they taste better when the weather's cold) though the striped- to -the -utmost mackerel and plaice were tempting too.

Half an hour later I was recovering my posture under the tutelage of the wonderful Janine, followed by a short blast in the sauna (so much nicer when someone else is responsible for the cleaning and laundry). Starting by now to feel at least a couple of inches taller and restored to something resembling a healthy human being.

Which meant that I could have one little treat when I went to pick up the papers at the corner shop when I got back home.

So I have the whole afternoon free to work. And I put this burst of energy down to a small dose of alternative medicine I had last night, a hoppy taste of Kent to put a spring in my step. I've saved some for tonight, so let's hope it does the trick tomorrow too.

15 April 2008

dust might

In spite of the cold and showers, I feel that I should be revelling in the longer days and soft light. But as I look around the house, all I see is dirt and dust. It's astonishing how much of a hold it has on the psyche. It weighs you down. Quentin Crisp reckoned on four years before it doesn't get any worse. I suspect that the rest of my family could last that long, but I can't. I have noticed though that even when my nerve breaks and the Mr Sheen comes out, there are some places that I never quite reach.

Like John's collection of glass fishng net floats on top of the kitchen dresser - disgustingly sticky.

Or the top of the kitchen cupboard. Still haven't got round to making that panettone bread and butter pudding a la Nigella (since January).

Or the top of the bedroom cupboard, dusty old toys, possibly the source of all those moths that are appearing lately.

As for this lot on top of the shoe cupboard, all I can say is that Jake and Dinos Chapman and Anthony Gormley have a lot to answer for.

Still, at least we can sleep safe in our beds.

14 April 2008

favourite things

When I looked back over this blog, I could sense that it was only a matter of time before I moved on to raindrops on roses, bright copper kettles etc. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that, but there is a subversive attraction to being a little more "local girl" than "yarnstorm". I'm afraid I can't manage either today. I have yet another - worse - cold. and all I want is a hot toddy and a good night's sleep. This is the nearest I am going to get to whiskers on kittens - worn out but much loved.

13 April 2008

labour and wait

My son tells me that I make unnecessary work . One of the many reasons for this is that I make my own plant pots from newspaper - very green, very worthy, and very modestly economical. I imagine I do it because I got the idea from one of the hand me down gardening magazines passed on to us through a friend. You can buy kits to make plant pots, but don't need to if you possess a rolling pin - you just roll pre-cut strips around the end of the pin and tuck the ends in. As I am a snob, I like to use old copies of the Financial Times , begged from my brother, just to add that extra little touch of style to the finished product. Prettier in pink, even if there is a hint of wartime utility about it.

I've come unstuck with beans before. If you plant them too early they'll rot if it's wet and cold, be killed off by late frosts or be eaten by vermin. These won't be ready to go in until mid - end May, by which time I'll probably be able to plant some out direct. I noticed yesterday at the allotment that some people are already busy putting up sticks for their bean rows. Mine won't be ready for a few weeks yet - they're tucked away in the little garden greenhouse -and we need a few warm days to get them going.

So, not much gratification yet. We'll have to wait even longer to eat the asparagus planted yesterday - 10 crowns of Dariana from Tuckers. You have to leave it in the first year while it establishes itself and be sparing in what you take in the second year. As asparagus prefers lighter weed free soils, we bought some pea shingle from the local builders and (John) dug that in with some more manure to try to break up the heavy clay a little. When we grew it at our Manor Gardens plot we collected seaweed, left it in the rain for a few weeks beforehand to wash off the excess salt and smothered the bed with it. It was great as a mulch and the plants seemed to like it. A good excuse for a visit to the seaside.

We are also going to have to wait some while for the figs from the little fig tree we planted at the back of the plot (you can just see it in the Grand Designs picture as a tiny little splash of green). We have a 20 year old fig in our garden, which is where we've been keeping this baby until the weather warmed up a bit. I'm expecting a wait of several years for it to grow up.

No problem. We can dodge the showers and watch the clouds pass over the Mudchute while we wait.

And reward ourselves when we get home.

11 April 2008

friday morning essay

I worked at home this morning. It went something like this.

Some rituals are important.

Decisions, descisions. Which colour cardigan? Which perfume? Which precious jewels? (Prize for correct guesses).

No choices here. Same every morning. Decaffeinated coffee, porridge and bananas (except for the days I've run out of bananas).

At this point I gave up and went into the office.

08 April 2008

time travel

I thought it was Wednesday today, the time of the week that I normally wonder whether it's nearly Friday. Unfortunately, it's only Tuesday. I wonder whether something similar was going on in the head of whoever named this street, along the lines of "I wish I was somewhere else".

Thermmopylae Gate is a little street on the Isle of Dogs, just opposite Millwall Park and not the site of the Battle of the Three Hundred in Greece. Get the picture? It's full of small houses, known locally as the "lead houses" (not quite sure why - did people working in the local lead works live there?). Apart from the giveaway 4x4s dotted around the place, there is bit of a 50s feel about the place - net curtains hedges around the front gardens, kids playing out in the street. Anachronistic in every sense.

Here is my favourite, though. It is a short cobbled street which runs between a piece of parkland at Stepney Green and Stepping Stones Farm. For a long time there were pre-fabs down there, long after most of them had disappeared around the borough, and it had a bit of a country feel about it. I used to make a point of passing through when I cycled home from work and it's still one of my preferred routes to my mum's house. It's close to St Dunstan's church, which has some of the oldest church fabric in Britain, so maybe there is a ley line thing around that makes it attractive.

Welcome to my virtual spiritual home.

06 April 2008

a coincidence of excellent women

It's taken me a couple of days to get over a night out with the East End WI, a group of excellent women sharing skills and ideas through the Women's Institute. A small group of us were having a night out visiting Brilliant Women at the National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition about a small group of women who "forged new links between gender, learning and virtue in 18th century Britain". A little bit like the WI really - though it is about a bit more than that too according to my bedtime reading joiners pack .

Apparently, there has been a rise in the number of urban WI groups and EEWI is one of them. I found out about the group at a community fete where they had a stall selling jam and cakes, just as you would expect to see at any village fete. EEWI does more than jam and cakes, though. Sorella, for example, is a "Love Food Champion" appointed by the WI and working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme WRAP to reduce food waste. It's not just about excellence and virtue. We had a glass of wine or two; and tried to do some recruiting on the way home.

My own contribution to reducing waste is the allotment I suppose. Yesterday I planted my potatoes and onions. I'm not sure whether the temperature of the soil was at the perfect minimum for planting potatoes-6 degrees C according to the growing your own book which came free with the paper yesterday. This year I am only growing two types because of limited space; Charlotte, the most delicious of salad potatoes; and Desiree, a very acceptable maincrop. Pity about the snow today, but I'm sure they'll survive. I go in for the minimum effort method - no trenches laid with manure, I just dig a little hole into the ready prepared ground, pop in a chitted potato and wait for the shoots to come up before earthing up. It does not make a particularly exciting photo opportunity. I did try...

...so I'm indulging myself just one more time with a picture of my narcissi, this time in full bloom.

Because of the cold weather forecast, I made sure that I was warm enough with at least 4 layers of clothes, including a fantastic leather jerkin that I found in our cellar. I've always been a bit snooty about the anoraky type that you imagine the heroines of aga-sagas wear. This one however, has a real worker's provenance. It used to belong to my dad when he drove a dustcart for the local council, over 20 years ago (John wears the donkey jacket, another workwear favourite of mine).

The jerkin was much admired by Les, my fruit man who says you can't get them anymore. That's not quite true, because I found some when I did a search on the web. I'm not sure that mine is quite as stylish as the one you can buy if you play at medieval knights; cheaper and more serviceable for the allotment, perhaps. Look out for it on a catwalk near you some time soon.

Now, Reader, I must return to my own quest for learning with my research proposal on what stops women from reaching the top in my workplace. I've been reading some fascinating stuff about the importance of the way we perceive ourselves and our beliefs about what we can achieve. Which is why I am going to remind myself that I too am an excellent woman from now on. For more tales of Excellent Women, take a look at the soon-to-be republished Barbara Pym from Virago, or just read what Alexander McCall Smith had to say about my favourite novelist. You'll understand why when you read it.