31 August 2008

east of eden

I’ve thought for a while now that the forbidden fruit, albeit metaphorical, must have been a fig rather than an apple. Figs are so delectable; so soft and yielding when they're ripe with that sensuous first bite. I was in my twenties when I first tasted a fig – from this tree in Sidney Square – on a walk home one evening. I don’t think I had even seen one before and I fell in love there and then (with figs rather than the tempting serpent). I look forward each year to the first ones arriving, first at the market,then later, on the local trees.

We have a fig tree in our garden, planted when we moved in to the house years ago and, even though the roots are restricted according to all the best advice from fig experts, it is now a pretty substantial tree. It is not prolific. Some years we have no fruit at all, but at the end of a fair summer it will give us plenty of figs for breakfast and puddings, especially if we make a special effort to reach the ones at the tips of the branches before the birds or squirrels.

That early discovery of figs, eaten in a London square, has left me with a bit of a fixation. I look out for fig trees all the time. There are more around than you might expect – a young one planted in the mews at the back of Peary Place in Bethnal green, one around the corner from here peeping over the garden wall, next to the cycle path on Cable Street, creeping through the fence.

Sometimes my orphan fig trees disappear. A lovely one went recently from the perimeter of St Dunstan’s Churchyard to make way for a children’s playground, just at the end of this turn in the road.

But perhaps the one that I’ll miss most, already do, is Hassan’s fig tree on the original Manor Garden allotments site. That Brown Turkey fig tree was magnificent. The fruit ripened early in the year, just as the asparagus was coming to an end, end June, early July. I'm not a great one for oohing and aahing but those ripe figs eaten on a warm day were just paradisiacal.

I'll make do with what I've got for now. But I’ve planted a small fig tree at the Mudchute plot for the future. It’s a tiny wee thing, and a little overwhelmed by the dahlias at the moment. I think it'll survive.

emsworth village show

It's the last day for entry to the Emsworth Village Show and I'm entering my Mudchute tomatoes (as opposed to the ones growing in my garden which are still green).

Keeps me off the streets.

30 August 2008


It has been so still today, really quiet, the kind of quiet that you get just before a storm because all the birds have stopped singing or whatever. I was sitting reading and looked up just in time to see a yellow butterfly going past but by the time I got out of the front door it had disappeared.

This evening moths have been flying from the garden into the kitchen so I set up a moth trap before I went to bed. Not really a trap, more a lure. I lit a candle in the garden and waited for them to land on the white washing on the line. Not a single one.

It's late now and I've been sitting on the back step thinking how quiet it is still. Then I stopped and listened a bit harder. There was a helicopter hovering above, trains going past, music from a party, the sound of people laughing as they came out of the pub along the road, the cat's claws click clacking across the stones, and underneath it all, the distant hum of traffic on Mile End Road. All that going on yet I had to concentrate hard to hear it all. It's a bit like not hearing your heart beat unless you concentrate. It's always there but you get used to it.

Indoors again, writing this, there is a moth banging itself against the window attracted by the light. Tough. I'm off to bed.

28 August 2008

the spiders have arrived

First question. Why are there more spiders around at the end of summer? I don't understand it. You don't see a single spider all summer and then as soon as the temperatures start to drop they start spinning in the garden. You can see them in the morning with drops of dew glistening on those delicately woven webs, the first sign that autumn is on its way.

Second question. Why do they have such pedestrian names? Garden Spider (here), House Spider, Crab Spider, Zebra Spider. Compare that to all of the exciting names that moths have.

I got my spider book out to check but it didn't offer any insights, though it did describe the dominance of the female of the species, engineering experts, warrior spiders, veritable amazons, jumping, paralysing, biting.

You mustn't be fooled by all that plain jane pretence and their camouflage no-nonsense clothing. They are ruthless in pursuit of their prey.

And you should be thankful that you're not the male of the species.

27 August 2008

trish is home

I didn't really like to mention that our young cat went missing last week in case it was tempting providence. Our neighbours have been kind and put posters in their windows. There's a poster on the street sweeper's cart (my dad would have done the same, I know). There are posters on the lampposts. Robert at Ye Olde Village Shoppe has put a poster in his window. And I printed off more to post through people's letterboxes.

But she's home now. She'd been locked in the house of a neighbour a couple of doors away while he was away on holiday for the long weekend. He was very apologetic but it was her own fault for being curious.

So we've been celebrating. And we've put up a new poster. Trish is home. Hooray and amen.

26 August 2008

a bouquet

Those worms work so hard they deserve it. I put these in one day last week and they've disappeared already. Fantastic.

(PS Ahem. I made a gaffe. Yesterday was the 99th post. )

25 August 2008

holidays at home 5: the allotment

So here we are. My 100th post. And it feels fitting to record it, where it started so to speak. Even if only in the virtual sense.

Any visit to the allotment is a holiday as far as I am concerned. Catch it when there's nobody else around and you could be in another country. It does not look its pristine best this time of year, but then when we started out it was pretty barren. Now it's positively overgrown with tomato plants bending over with the weight of unripe fruits, squash vines climbing up redundant pea sticks and the patty pan plants invading the leeks. The asparagus have avoided attack by beetles. The potatoes have been fantastic, the dahlias have survived their transfer from Manor Gardens (the one above is an MG survivor) and, though you have not seen them yet, the sunflowers are on stage.

I forgot to take my camera when we went a couple of nights ago but I do have some mementos waiting in the kitchen. Note the monumental kohlrabi which I thought was purple sprouting broccoli - and admire those pretty patty pans.

If only I was not such a slatternly housekeeper most of this would be pickled or preserved by now a la Nell Heaton. According to Nell in the last week in August I should be thinking about preserving eggs in waterglass, making marigold cream cheese, stuffing marrow flowers, concocting banana chutney and finding just enough time to make some mulberry syrup. Strangely enough, there are mulberries in our garden, from next door's tree. But I'm on holiday, aren't I. It says so in the title.

24 August 2008

holidays at home 4: day trip to Greenwich

There is no better time to have a holiday at home in London than bank Holiday Weekend. If the weather is fine, everyone is on the road and if the weather is dull, people are watching TV. Ideal for a trip across the river to pick up my newly strung pearls in Blackheath and stop off at Greenwich.

Greenwich Park
is a favourite of mine. Looking across from Island Gardens you get to see one of the best views in Europe - the Queen's House, the Royal Naval College, the Royal Observatory. Cross to the other side and walk up the hill to
Blackheath and you pass the most beautiful old sweet chestnut trees . Glimpsing these greyhounds through the trees as we walked up the hill, you could just imagine what it might have been like when the park was a private hunting ground.

Blackheath was in holiday-at-home mood. We picked up the pearls, stopped for breakfast and finished the errands. Walking back over the heath, the fair was set up, the kites were out and so were the donkeys.

But I was on a mission to get to the National Maritime Museum. We used to visit frequently when (young) John was a child. Today I wanted to see the Nelson knife that I had read about here. It was there, tucked away at the back of the Nelson gallery, a small beautifully made knife-fork combination made for after he lost his right arm at Santa Cruz. There too were his knitted stockings, stained with the blood of his naval secretary at the Battle of Trafalgar. And a lovely woollen undershirt, with one long arm and one short, finely stitched, the neck edged with linen and the prettiest Dorset buttons. I found the intimacy of the objects, simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, strangely moving.

The Queen's House did not quite match the mood. I've always thought that this would be my palace of choice if I was queen. Beautifully proportioned, big enough for parties, not too big to keep warm. Since my last visit it has been stripped of the replica furnishings which I suspect I enjoyed because they were the equivalent of playing doll's house for adults. Suited me. Now it houses some of the NMM's art collection (lots of ships, plenty of stormy weather and some good coverage of fish).

But you can't quibble with the exterior. That lovely
leadwork (such a tactile metal, warm, lightly yielding and such a lovely faded colour) and the stone road running beneath the building. Yes, bit of construction thing going on here for me not to say a pash for plumbum.

We came home via the foot tunnel, a masterpiece of engineering and a complete act of faith if you're a bit nervous about being underground, especially when it comes to that slight puddle in the middle of the tunnel.

And though it might not be in quite the same league architecturally, the cafe in Island gardens is just the right place to recover your equanimity.

PS I admit I had to join in with the tourists and take one picture from the top of the hill...

...my allotment is just behind that row of trees on the far side of the river. Prime location, eh?

21 August 2008

pollyanism and the glad game

Occasionally I read over what I have been writing here and wonder whether I’ve been writing a load of tosh. I put the variable quality down to the fact that I’m still not quite sure what I am trying to say, that and not being a good proof reader. I’m not sure whether I’ve found that elusive “voice” that we are all supposed to have (and therein lies another story). Although I spend a good deal of my day writing at work, there my style is constrained by the purpose, conveying information not feelings. I’m not even quite sure what the purpose of writing here is. Is it for me? Or is it for you?

There is, however, one thing I have detected running through most of these posts and that is a certain pollyannaism, a “thought for the day” quality, a playing of the glad game. Why is this? Am I preaching? Is it because I just want to hide deeper darker thoughts? Or am I an innately sunny, optimist?

I’ve been thinking this over. There are probably a number of reasons but one is that I’m spending more time observing what is going on around me and finding small things, not so much hidden from sight, but previously hidden from my consciousness. Things that I would have noticed only fleetingly are making a greater impression on me – and of course some of these images are caught, snapped and so go deeper still.

I’m also on the lookout for things too, I suppose. Images from my daily journeys that show that life here is not some manic, uncaring frenzy (or not all the time), that you can find a slower, greener, gentler space if that’s what you want. What’s more these spaces aren’t that hard to find: small pockets of land that have reverted to nature, however shortlived, the allotment, city farms, trees, market stalls, tea and cakes, sounds, silence, public spaces, home.

I could go on. But the fact is that those Pollyanna tendencies keep surfacing and, much to my surprise, are making me feel happier. I got hold of economist Richard Layard's book on happiness from the library to see what he had to say. He concludes with a manifesto for public policy to increase happiness and at the heart of it is the principle that happiness depends as much on your inner life as on your circumstances, that it comes from outside and within.

So everyday I spend a little time thinking about what I am going to write or photograph and I suddenly I find myself smiling. I seem to be calmer and at the same time energised. There are a hundred things I want to capture, see and do, not ambitious sailing round the world type things, but small journeys, bike rides, bus rides, train rides; learning or reviving skills; discovering books to read, taking pleasure in what’s going on close by and with the bonus of coming home at the end of the day.

At least that’s how I feel most days.

17 August 2008

holidays at home 2: the church fete

I must confess to being rather fascinated by church fetes. I put it down to the time I won 10 shillings on the "throw a ping pong ball into a jar" stall at St George's in the East ( I was lucky - the vicar was so incensed that he removed the offending 10/- jar). There's the promise of easy money, cakes, books, plants bottles and white elephants. Then there's the added will-it -won't-it excitement of whether it will rain or not. And, of course, all those excellent women, from the rather severe ones on the gate demanding the 20p entrance fee to the rather gentler women who make and sell home knitted matinee coats.

I shouldn't be surprised if there is not some rather subtle management hierarchy involved in the organisation. Barbara Pym would have known. She is the mistress of church fundraising events. A quick flick through my Pym book stash takes you through the complete ecclesiastical calendar from Christmas Bazaars, autumnal jumble sales (to lighten those long days in ordinary time) to the summer garden party. She even touches on the rivalry between local churches. In Excellent Women, Sister Blatt, staunchly C of E, is outraged by Roman Catholic Mrs Ryan - " Well, really, that woman has a nerve, inviting me over to their jumble sale next week."

There was a touch of that yesterday - I saw a funny little scene where the Irish ladies from the Catholic Church over the road who had a few half hearted stalls outside their church, refused to pay their 20p entry fee because they supposedly only wanted a cup of tea. I didn't believe it for a minute. But the gatekeeper, only a temp while his mum was herself having a cup of tea, was utterly perplexed as to how to deal with them until a higher ranking officer, the lady running the plant stall, intervened and shuffled them through with an "of course they don't need to pay".

The outing was worth it just to see the church itelf. St Mary's Church goes back nearly 700 years. It's built in the middle of Bow Road - something to do with King Edward III deciding it was the only land available - with traffic thundering round it on each side. If you're able to ignore the noise, you could easily be in the country somewhere.

For such a small community, the fete was pretty good. You'd have to be stony hearted, or stony broke, to come away with nothing. Our haul was three books, a chipped plate, this cake and a jar of lemon curd. Plus some plants of course, we always come away with some plants.

It was a rather lovely afternoon, stepping into another world for a while. On the walk home we stopped off at an unfamiliar pub ( I wanted to poke my nose in their supposed beer garden). The garden was dull and uncherished. But there was a rough patch of ground that they had fenced off where I noticed some blackberries growing. That plate came in handy.

The blackberries were juicy and delicious, locally grown of course and - I hold my hand up to this - even better because they were scrumped.

Which did not bother me much to tell you the truth. Until I saw this on the way home.

Thought I better let you know in case you don't hear from me again.

12 August 2008

now and then

I try to avoid the Northern Line because it is hot and deep but now and then I coast into Charing Cross Underground Station. The station was decorated a few years ago with a murally thing depicting the construction of the original Charing Cross, the last of a series of crosses built by King Edward I to commemorate the journey of the body of his wife Eleanor of Castile from Harby to Westminster Abbey.

It's a touching story. Eleanor and Edward actually seemed to have loved each other though the natives, xenophobic even then, distrusted her because she was a foreigner. They probably complained of the extravagent waste of money on the crosses too. But it looks like it provided some work for the local craftsmen and - according to David Gentleman's interpretation - some construction work for women. When did that change, I wonder?

And, in typically native fashion, at least one dog joining in.

Why am I telling you all this? I think it as because as I emerged into a rainy morning with bustling crowds sheltering under their umbrellas on their way to work, I rather liked the idea that 700 years or so earlier there had been a different but equally busy crowd. That somewhere underneath us, there would be buried the everyday ephemera of their life. And one day someone might think the same about us.


a chorus of sunflowers

I know I've waxed on about sunfowers before but I have just discovered - maybe even created - what must be the collective noun for sunflowers. This chorus were clearly poised for a musicfest of some sort. John and I both thought (independently) it was Handel's Hallelulujah. Young John and his friend were more inclined to something from a Disney production or Zippitty Doo Dah.

Whatever, it was loud and full of life. And I wanted to sing along.

11 August 2008


It's National Allotments Week this week - a hundred years of allotments to celebrate, especially those of us who live in cites.

The dream may not always match the reality, but when did that ever matter?

10 August 2008


I've suffered a conflicted weekend. Too many things to do and not enough time to do them all in, augmented by temptation (by which I mean a particularly fine wine this evening). My choice was to go to visit some of the activities going on on Fish Island to celebrate the Hackney Wicked event on Saturday; or to invest my social capital in the East End WI summer picnic; or to clean a very neglected domestic landscape (latest management term deployed here); or to go to the allotment to harvest some of those cucumbers and beans; or to get on with my dissertation. What a complicated choice and risk assessment: weather, time, intellectual, aesthetic, social or domestic satisfaction all to be weighed up. Plus of course contingency arrangements for unexpected interventions.

. Who am I kidding?

I opted for Wicked on Saturday. Mostly because I wanted to see photographer Stephen Gill's exhibition in the old peanut factory. If that sound a bit Hoxton, don't be deceived. Stephen's work was stuck up on the walls of his workspace with blu-tack, there was lager to drink and the music was a compilation sound track of rousing imperial tunes (think Rule Britannia crossed with Nessun Dorma). But the work speaks for itself. Pictures of Hackney, the Wick, the canals and tributaries of the River Lee which run north to Hertfordshire. Cormorants drying their wings on benches on the banks of the Hertford Cut. Travellers' horses wrapped in old sacking blankets against a background of factories and gasometers. A picture of a bonny baby in a buggy with watering cans in the background. And in "Hackney Flowers" a collage of calendula seeds against a "buried photograph" (he buries photos and retrieves them later) and photos of the people of Hackney in flowery shirts or flowers in their hair. See the work and, provided you aren't looking for order and perfection, be delighted too.

If only that abandonment of order could pervade daily life. I spent today in a frenzy of cleaning and re-creating order, while John turned the bathroom upside down to paint it. You do get a different perspective with the curtains down, looking out over the kitchen roof, with the remnants of a heavy shower on the windows.

So no picnic, no allotment. An afternoon of transcribing interviews (interesting), interrupted by the snoring of cats sheltering from the showers...

... and an interlude of playing with my niece, who shows an imperious delight in colour and scribble. Rounded off with,what was that for supper- oh, yes, courgettes - this time with lemon and basil and a glass of red wine.

And even if I'll never be as good as Stephen Gill, sounds like rather a good end to the weekend to me. Smile, please.

07 August 2008

holidays at home

During WW2, the government encouraged people to "holiday at home" - as if they had any choice to do otherwise. The idea was that councils set up summer schemes to substitute for being unable to get down to the beach, most of which were barricaded off because of the threat of invasion ( however remote). People were also encouraged to have outings locally - picnics in the park, walks through the woods, dances on the green. So I thought that over the next few weeks - and to avoid the procrastinating distraction of taking too many new photos when I really need to get my head down and pull my dissertation together - I'd do a couple of things. Post some text light holiday-at-home snapshots (I'm not going away on holiday this summer) and also have a trawl through some shots that did not make it the first time round for one reason or another, a kind of retrospective. Hope that suits.

To start off, and as an alternative celebration of the start of the Olympic and Paralympic games on Friday, take a look at this lovely little film of holiday-at- home sports day in Gateshead during the war (you may need to download real player). There are egg and spoon and sack races and boys and girls running to win. I promise it will make you smile.

My own holidays at home as a child featured the riverside more often than not. There was a sandy beach alongside Traitors Gate by the Tower of London, reached by a set of wooden steps lowered when the tide was out. Our mums hired deckchairs while we children - and I can hardly believe this - paddled and splashed in the River Thames. Amazingly we all survived without contracting any deadly diseases.

To the riverside then. I walked took a couple of weeks ago from Charing Cross Railway Bridge to Southwark Bridge along the South Bank where its holiday time every day of the year. There was plenty going on - you could take your pick of buskers, from Ave Maria on the cello to Irish jigs on the fiddle. And all sorts of distractions for tourists, like gallopers Linda and Anthony. ( Are those names strange or is it just me?)

Skateboarders under the National Theatre.

Outside Tate Modern, plantings of birch trees, swishing and swaying in the breeze.

Globe thistles peeping over the wall over a secret garden, just by the side of, erm , the Globe Theatre.

And a display of good manners from the sand sculptors who optimistically work on the tiniest bit of sand before the tide comes in again.

Enjoy your holidays, at home or otherwise.