29 July 2008

sliding doors

Out there somewhere is a lovely little blog called three beautiful things written by someone who clearly has the makings of a saint. I was musing on this as I was counting up the number of things that had irritated me today.

First I dropped my bag as I was getting off of the train (OK, I was reading the paper at the time and I should have known better). My Oyster card, keys, diary spilled out all over the floor. Then as I walked towards the station exit, the local community police were blocking our paths as they stood over a young man while he opened up his suitcase exposing all his dirty washing. (Is it absolutely necessary to demonise and harass young men every day? No wonder those boys are angry.) As I came out of the station, I crossed the road muttering to myself like a mad woman, defiantly ignoring the traffic, only to be bibbed by one of the cars at the crossing. Aaaargh!

Let's re-run that. I got off the train in time because two kind young people helped me pick everything up so I didn't miss the stop. And that bibbing car? He drove round the block and caught me on the corner - it was an old friend who I haven't seen for a few years, a really lovely surprise. I arrived home calmer. My supper was waiting , chilled borscht, homegrown and homemade.

I could probably find a few more beautiful things if I tried harder, but three will do nicely for now.

28 July 2008

staying cool

It was hot on that tube this morning. The lions in Trafalgar Square never lose their cool though, no matter how many tourists sit on their heads, tread on their paws or put their heads in their mouths. They rise above it, placidly looking down Whitehall.

Maybe they know something we don't. Maybe they take their revenge when nobody is looking. Down at the waterhole.

Picture of lion added the following morning. Well fed or not?

27 July 2008

sea fever and the truant girl

Yesterday, I played truant from my scholarly pursuits. I was going to go into the office to work on the dissertation but we were forbidden entry because of some building work. Happy fate. The day dawned cloudless, so I bunked off of my Pilates class and loaded up the car with seaside paraphernalia and headed off for the North Kent Coast. The seaside, at last.

The day just got better and better. We bought gooseberries, strawberries and blackcurrants on the way, though no cherries (our favourite orchard was closed). There were new born foals in the fields and lazy sheep grazing on the marshes. When we arrived at the coast, the tide was out so we had time for a cup of tea and slice of cake on the slopes overlooking the sea. And as it was the last day of the Oyster Festival, there was all sorts going on. Giants walking down Harbour Street.

Lots of locally made and grown goodness to be had at the harbourside stalls – food, cider, plants. At the little local museum, we visited Drawing with Scissors a travelling exhibition of Matisse lithographs, late works from the 50s. The spiel says that he was advised by his doctor to wear dark glasses for the work as the colours he used were so strong – like being at the seaside.

We had time to buy some bargain books for the beach – Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook (important for courgette recipes), the Cloudspotter’s Guide (we’ll be experts in no time), a Life of Thomas Bewick (beautiful woodcuts), Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (never read) . And this in a charity shop.

I'm sure you will remember similar books from your schooldays. In fact, I’m not sure that we did not have this at my school. Skimming through the verses, they all seemed so familiar, not exactly great art, but deeply evocative. They obviously made a deep impression on me because so much of the subject matter appears in this blog – daffodils, marigolds, the west wind, lobsters, berries, dabbling in the dew. And of course the sea. The book opened on John Masefield’s Sea Fever which I can clearly remember learning at school. I took all this as a sgn that I should be there, by the sea, not working.

By the time the tide came in, the sea was flat calm and surprisingly translucent. Perfect for paddling (John) with little silver fish glinting and young crabs nipping.

Perfect for eating sandwiches on the pebbles. Perfect for swimming and doing an impersonation of a Matisse cut out on the beach (please imagine). Perfect for drying off with swallows and amazons. And sewn up with a few bottles of the local beer when we arrived home, to help seal our memories of a perfect day.

The moral of the story, of course, is that there are prizes to be had from not being a goody- two-shoes all the time. Though if any scholars can spot the other poetic allusion in the title of this post, there might be a VG and gold star in it for you.

24 July 2008

back down to earth

My goodness, that was a long post, wasn't it? I think the champagne bubbles must have gone to my head or something. So here we are back down to earth and what better grounding than a visit to the wormery.

Don't fret. I am going to spare you too many gory details. We are onto the second storey of the wormery now. The first layer already looks like compost, though there are still a few worms working away in there. The second layer is also beginning to become more crumbly and compost like. Here are the gerberas from last week with the remains of torn egg boxes which I put in regularly to soak up excess moisture. I was a bit worried when I read the other day that there might be harmful chemicals on commercially grown flowers, but the worms seem to have survived. I've given them some worm treat - yes, it exists - as a placatory gesture. Bless.

The bad news about keeping worms is the way fruit flies are attracted to the bin. Not very nice, especially when they decide to invade the kitchen. I've found a somewhat unorthodox solution to that - I've been hoovering them up from the kitchen ceiling. Not very Zen, is it, but I really could not come up with any other ideas - invite an army of spiders to take up residence and build silky webs across the door? I don't think so.
There is good news too. After a few weeks, you can open the tap at the bottom of the wormery and start collecting what we call here "worm juice" - a rich dark brown brew which is full of goodness and perfect for using on the garden. We've been bottling it up and using it on the plot, alternating it with some smelly steeped nettle juice to pep up the plants. They seem to like it because last night we managed to add beetroots, oak leafed lettuce, a few dwarf beans and a mighty fine cucumber to our crop of courgettes and potatoes.

I dare say that in a couple of weeks I won't be able to look a courgette in the face, but I've been pretty enthused so far. I've made a couple of courgette tarts , including a kind of tarte fine - ready made puff pastry rolled thinly and slightly crimped around the edge, with a layer of courgettes, asparagus and a sprinkling of feta cheese and cooked till the veg is lightly charred. Perfect. Ish.

22 July 2008

windfall day

I never finished Dickens’ Bleak House, but I do remember the character who used to retreat to his den when the wind turned to the east and became like a bear with a sore head in his "growlery". Today the wind turned to the south and, instead of the unpredictable and chilly winds we have had over the last week or so, I woke up to a blue sky and the promise of a warm English summer’s day. Some cloud, not enough to be grey and gloomy but sufficient to provide architectural relief to the sky. In other words, a typical sunny but cloudy English summer’s day, one where we come out of our dens to enjoy the sunshine, however short lived.

It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as y’all know. So yesterday when I came home, I was very grateful for the north- east-wind-blown-down flowers that arrived from John’s Cable Street garden – cloth of gold and globe thistle- (such lusciously expectant names). The inspectors came round recently to examine his garden for the Tower Hamlets in Bloom competition, and as often happens at this time of year the eddying summer winds had wreaked havoc in the garden. My gain, and hoorah to that.

So when I opened up my newspaper this morning I was wholly receptive to the idea of windfalls. There they were, a bundle of HF-W recipes for pickles using courgettes. Ours are fruiting and, because there are always one or two that develop Jack -and –the- Beanstalk aspirations, I’ve been wondering how I’m going keep them under control. So expect at least one or two tales of “chutney eye” over the next few weeks. (I'll let you know what happened to these later this week).

Indulge me a little and let me elaborate on the theme of windfalls. The loveliness of windfalls is that they are unexpected, not quite surprises, but more the expected unexpected. In other words, there is an expectation, but you are not quite sure how it will pan out. And the more open you are to finding pleasure in the everyday, the greater the potential. Well, it was my birthday today. We don’t do extravagant in this house, but we do thrift well, very well, perhaps too well sometimes. My beautifully wrapped present (using my ribbon) from my son was this…

… a packet of pastel sticks he found lying in the road on the way home one day this week. Full of promise, nevertheless.

I did not plan a day of birthday treats because I had some work commitments. But the treats turned up anyway. A successful presentation at a meeting. A yoga class that impressed the memory of relaxation on the body. A surprising shift in how I feel about sport (I’ve never been keen) inspired by a short and moving speech from a paralympian (part of my day job). A birthday kiss from my beautifully bathed and exuberant little niece. A bottle of champagne with my favourite supper.

Birthday cards that that said between the lines, “we knew you'd like this” – flowers, gardens, harvesting, a lazy day on the beach reading with your best friend.

I'd never heard of Harold Harvey before and, from two friends who have never met, pictures of a perfect day. On The Sands...

and Donkey Meadow (mmm,next year, maybe).

Then, as the sun went down, Elgar’s first symphony on Radio 3's proms.

Excuse me if this is sentimental, but I’m pretty overwhelmed with the wonderfulness of such windfall pleasures and, (indulge me a little more), as Elgar said about the inspiration for his first symphony,a "massive' hope in the future". Today at least.

PS An aide-memoire for my brother.

20 July 2008

this week I couldn't resist...

...these coloured pencils, a bargain at £1.49.

I'm trying to keep the consumerism under control - I even managed to resist buying a second hand copy of "Declutter it" on the basis that...well, it's obvious isn't it? But paper, pens and pencils, even sticks of glue - so, so hard to resist. And these ones are triangular which will make it so much easier for my niece to play with them when she pops in for a visit. That's my excuse anyway.

I couldn't resist buying these these scallops though (hope you aren't too put off by their "before" state, I know not everyone is keen) . We had them for for tea yesterday with some samphire. Just sticking my nose into the bag they were packed in was a treat. They only took a few minutes to cook in a gridde pan with a bit of olive oil and tasted so delicious, the scallops sweet, sweet, sweet and the samphire like saltwater marshes. If I can't get to the sea, then the sea is just going to have to come to me.

Just in case that's a bit much for you, I'll leave you with these hollyhocks. I've been going past them for weeks on my way home from my mum's. There are three houses in a row with these growing in the front gardens in a terrace on Commercial Road, one of the the busiest main roads into London from the east. They've been blown around by the winds we've been having and are a little the worst for wear, but I love the way they encapsulate that deep seated desire for a country garden and fly in the face of what you might expect to see in the east end.

Irresistably cheering.

15 July 2008


I have been waking up early, very early, for the past couple of weeks, just after four thirty. One day it was a dawn cacophony of seagulls come in to town after a few rough wet windy days. They obviously hacked off the crows, because they joined in too. But most mornings it's just the sound of the blackbirds singing, then at five o'clock the first train coming in somewhere from the east.

There's something about this time of year that takes me back to the time my son was a tiny baby. He was born just before midsummer when the nights were as short as my chance to sleep. I was unfamilar then with rising at dawn, woken up by his crying, pulling him into bed for an early morning feed, seeming as if we were the only two people awake in the world. I can still smell his woolly little head, feel the fuzz of his crop of golden hair, the softness of his skin and his guzzling.

I can't quite believe how quickly time has passed. How he grew so fast and so tall. And how I still listen out for him in those long hours before the sun comes up.

14 July 2008

mire escape

You know how it is some Mondays. Pile of papers on your desk, sun shining for the first time in weeks and you have to wade through words (emails actually, but you get the picture). I needed to get out so come lunchtime I went over the road to St James 's Park and ate my salad (potatoes suitably home grown) sheltering behind the Jerusalem artickes in the Dig for Victory enclosure. It was very pleasant indeed.

A few yards away is this "cottage orne" with a rather esteemed history. Just think how lovely it would be to have a nice little sinecure as the Governor of Duck Island or Mistress of the Dutch Hoe, whatever. A hop, skip and a jump to work and home again to play farms and country life, with the Queen and Prime Minister down the road if you need to borrow some sugar or milk.

I woke up and went back to work.

13 July 2008

...and a little local colour

It is the season of school fetes, open air concerts and, here in Mile End, the local dog show. So if you were in Mile End Park today you would have seen sights like this...

...and this......and this, as people made their way to the Dog Show. These ladies loved showing off their pets but I was less confident about asking other owners to pose - there were some big old boys around that looked like they would just as soon eat you as smile for the camera. The dogs weren't quite as scary.

This poor old boy, panting for breath from years of misguided breeding, managed a grin.

And the ladies of the WI gritted their teeth, overcame their nerves and served tea and cakes with great grace and, dare we say, doggedness.

Village life London style. More another day.

12 July 2008

colour frenzy

After a week with so many grey skies, and reminded of Frida Kahlo and things Mexican here, I decided the only way to get some colour into my week was to do it myself. With some flowers for a start.

Allotments are awash with dahlias this time of year. When I first found out that dahlias were the national flower of Mexico, I was a little surprised because they seem so quintessentially English though now I think of it, maybe they are more about what we would like to be like -more colourful, unrestrained, a little blowsy. These particularly fabulous ones grow on a plot a few yards down from mine.

And this beauty too.

My dahlias are not ready yet and even when they do flower they are unlikely to match the colour of these. I had to sate my appetite by buying flowers instead.

If I was really brave, I'd be wearing these in my hair, Frida style, but something tells me that I might not get away with it at my age, so I had to make do with my new orange patent pumps and a favourite skirt, a few years old now but destined to last forever, at least in my heart. I'm not the only one to feel like this about my clothes. I re-discovered Justine Picardie's "My Mother's Wedding Dress" this evening, an unexpectedly delicious book that describes the memories created by clothes. As she says, "life is not a bowl of cherries, but there is sometimes pleasure to be had in cherry red shoes".

And shoes the colour of tangerines.

PS We'll examine shocking pink another day...

08 July 2008

fishy tales and the ones that got away

I've been thinking of fish this week. Maybe it's because I went down to the river at the weekend, or maybe it's because our garden has looked positively aqueous with all this rain, or maybe it's because I had the most delicious sea bream for supper on Sunday. Those bream were so pretty. When I bought this brown trout some while ago I remarked to the assistant at the supermarket on its beauty. She gave me the gimlet eye and asked whether I was going to look at it or eat it.

It's quite an East London thing, fish. Pickled herrings, smoked haddock, shellfish. There's that famous quote from Sam Weller in Dickens Pickwick Papers about oysters and poverty going together. I've seen the evidence - when some local houses were demolished a few years ago we were amazed to see layers of old oyster shells excavated where the family must have just thrown the empty shells into the yard. We even have a Fish Island nearby where the streets are named after freshwater fish - dace, roach and the like.

Then of course, there are eels, jellied or otherwise. John brought this beautiful looking Book of Eels home the other day, attracted by the cover and the promise of things watery.

It reminded me of our pet eel. When Young John was little he persuaded the Downey Brothers, our fish men, to give him a live eel to bring home. It was quite a big one. It lived in a barrel in the garden then after about a week suddenly disappeared. We think it made its escape down the nearest drain. I like to think of it making its way back to the Sargasso Sea via Bazalgette's sewers and the River Thames.

They are always making mischief those Downeys. They sold me some live lobsters a few weeks ago. John refused to cook them. He reminded me of the story of a family we know who bought live lobsters to cook for a special meal and ended up driving to the seaside to set them free - at estuarine Southend - on Christmas Day.

I'll leave you to guess what I did with mine.

07 July 2008


You may recall that we were rather hoping that our new allotment would have a garden full of sunflowers. No such luck. We had the soil analysed a couple of weeks ago and found out that it was seriously deficient in nitrogen, potassium and phosphates. All of which might explain why everything has taken so long to get going and why, of the three separate sowings of sunflowers since March, we have only about seven or eight flowers coming through.

Now I know that sunflowers are considered by some to be a little unsubtle and in your face. Indeed they are, and that is what I love about them. They shout at you and demand attention. I had to buy some to see me through this unseasonal weather - English sunflowers from the flatlands of Lincolnshire, slightly wobbly, imperfect, different shapes and sizes. I'll think of the fields of them this week, bending in the wind, waiting until they can turn towards the sun when it finally comes out again. Which it will. Soon. And we'll all be able to tournesol.

06 July 2008

weekend pleasures

I had decided to have a break from work this weekend and enjoy some time away from the wretched literature review. I've been longing to go to the seaside all week but the lull in summer weather put paid to those plans. I had to make do with a sneak look at the river via Wapping Old Stairs on the way home from my mum's.

It was cold and windy down on the river and by Sunday the weather was even more dismal. Time to break the truce with the domestic clothes moths and set about vacuuming under the beds (normally unheard of) and inside the wardrobe. The impetus for this burst of energy was sparked I suspect by something young John said. I foolishly asked him one day what he thought I collected. "Only dust" he said. Too, too harsh.

Now I try really hard not to be a collector. For a start, there is all that extra dust; London makes enough dust of its own without any extra help from me. Plus the house is too small. I have to try hard to keep my magpie instincts under control though. I have a larger than necessary shoe collection, of course (and I'm very grateful to other women for assuaging my guilt on this point). And more cardigans than a heroine from a Barbara Pym novel can do justice to. There are also too many books around, but my nostalgic affection for the library service and forays into reading and swapping means that addiction is at least managed.

All of these pale into insignificance against the collecting habit that I have struggled most to control - my affair with fabric, sown in a childhood spent visiting haberdashers, cloth merchants and market stalls with my mum. My cupboard is less full than it used to be, though there are a few bits and pieces hidden away. While I was vacuuming the cupboards (honestly) I unearthed this little collection of Liberty silks which I have had for more years than I care to remember.

I get these out everynow and then, smooth them, admire them. I started to make this patchwork which has been waiting for years to be finished. But I find it so difficult to cut into that beautiful silk and I'm not sure whether it will ever be finished.

I even find it hard to cut some of the things that I have grown . My greed normally gets the better of me, that and the fact that it will go to seed if it is not eaten. I had a few leaves of this delicious peppery rocket I've been growing in the garden for lunch.

These Charlotte potatoes, dug up on the plot this afternoon in a lull in the wind and showers, didn't pose any challenge. We had no trouble eating them for tea with some mange touts. which were also ready to pick.

And no trouble eating these meringues.

Back to the everyday tomorrow.

04 July 2008

independence day

So. On the way home this evening I thought I might stop off at Benjamin Franklin House. It's in Craven Street, on my route home between Trafalgar Square and Embankment station. I've been meaning to look in for some time. Not only had I missed the champagne celebration but it was closed.

I've had my eye on this house for a little while because the shutters are painted the same colour as mine. Shallow I know, But now I've looked a bit closer, I think that Ben Franklin might be my kind of hero. He invented bifocals for a start and although I'm not there yet, I'm sure I'll come to it one day. He is believed to have developed the Franklin Stove, driven by his "desire to attain a greater degree of domestic comfort". A sentiment after my own heart. And he refused to patent his inventions believing that they should be there for others to benefit. Such spirit.

So I carried on homewards and visited my aunt on the way. She came out of hospital a few weeks ago and, despite having been very poorly, she insisted on going back to her own house rather than staying with one of her girls. It' such a treat to have a few hours of her to myself. She has always been patient, loving and kind, the perfect auntie. We had a long gossip. My final sighting was of her waving to me as she whizzed away upwards on her stair lift.

As I was walking down my street there was a large, loud, young man on his mobile. I could not help overhearing the conversation. And to challenge notions about brash young men, he was speaking about his granny really affectionately and saying how hard it was to help her with her decorating, how independent she was.

So here's to liberty, dignity, independence, domestic comfort, inventions for the greater good. For everyone. Everywhere.

03 July 2008


One day in May when I was a captive in the house, procrastinating, I decided to count the number of mirrors we had on the walls - more than a dozen. Even I was surprised. I decided to snap them because I was going to write a blog about all of the things I had been thinking about while I was away from work. I wanted to write about how much I enjoyed writing this blog. How it had made me look at the world differently, seeking out different perspectives, making connections between what I saw and how I felt , reflecting on where I live, what happens, how quickly it both stays the same and changes from day to day.

The moment has passed, and I have not had the time to take any pictures today. In fact it's already tomorrow. But let's take a trip around the house anyway.

This mirror is in the passage way and it's one of my favourites. I bought it from a neighbour who is moving to Hawaii and is disposing of goods and chattels. I paid for it with a twenty pound note which John's mum gave me for my birthday last year, shortly before she died. Even though she was in hospital and very poorly, she remembered my birthday, and I was able to report back to her how I had invested my money. Apparently it came from a flea market in France somewhere - Paris perhaps. It's a bit bashed about, with some of the frame missing, but that, and the fact that it has a layered history, adds to its charm.

Peep around the open door and you'll see this on the wall behind. I like these bull's eye mirrors that reflect a whole room in a small space. There's one in the Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery which has always caught my eye. I rather like the austerity of this one; and the view around the room.

Come upstairs into the bathroom. This little mirror is tucked away in a corner. If you push your finger against the glass, you notice how thin the glass is, which means that it is old and possibly has mercury in the silvering. The reflected light is rather grey, not very flattering, but I suppose the wear and tear hides defects. Maybe we should use it more often.

You get two for the price on one here. Normally I would only look into this small mirror to brush my teeth and scrub my face at night. I'm surprised I'd never noticed that you could see the second mirror if you stood at an angle, the soldiers on the top put there by young John (he likes playing this game on me, to test whether I notice), beyond that the shells on top of the corner cupboard. All covered in dust.

Back downstairs into the room with my writing table. Another mirror, probably the prettiest.

Or is it these? Those balls should really be hanging in the windows to scare off witches.

Maybe you can see one. Or is it?