27 January 2009

underneath the arches

The space at the back of this railway arch, opposite one of the schools where John works, is where he makes his compost. He diligently hauls green waste over from the school in a wheelbarrow. If I'm lucky I get a share, provided I go and pick it up.
He used to have a large greenhouse where he kept his pots and tools and potted-on succulents but the school is being rebuilt and it had to go to make space for temporary buildings. So now he is annexed to the arches.

The floor of the arches is made up of different kinds of stone - granite setts, old brick, York stones on edge and Portland pavers - that look like they have been here for hundreds of years, and probably have. In fact, the arches uwere used as stables up until around the mid 50s, with carthorses housed there.

This is what James Lees Milne had to say on 1st July 1944 - "At six I met James and ...we tubed to Aldgate East. We walked down the Commercial Road to the river. God, the squalor, the desolation and the dreariness of the East End."

Still home.

25 January 2009

green shoots of recovery

Am I the only person who is enjoying this weather? I find it very soothing. No excuses needed for staying in if you want to. I spent half the morning putting little cedar rings onto all of my hangers, a task needing no brainpower whatsoever, incredibly relaxing and satisfying. I'm not foolish enough any more to think they might work against the moths without some kind of chemical deterrent, but they look suitably natural and smell of wet winter woods. In fact, when I was looking in my drawers for a scarf with a slightly Scottish edge, I found five more of my woollens with little holes in. Ah, well. Another excuse for staying in while I darn and launder them.

I did muster up the energy to go out with John to deliver four bags of his compost to the allotment. The sheep had escaped from the Big Field and were running around in the hedges eating bramble leaves. Then, on the plot, my garlic coming up - unfailingly, the first green shots of recovery.

Should I let the Press know?
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24 January 2009

fireside tales:: day 3

Chapter One of my copy of The Borrowers opens with a picture of an old lady (Mrs May) knitting by the fire and a young girl (Kate) sitting opposite her. Mrs May is telling Kate the story of the Borrowers, the little people who lived under the floorboard of her aunt's house.

I first came across the Borrowers in an educational comic called "Treasure" when I was a child and was totally captivated by them. Not, I think, because I particularly fantasised about little people but because I was so impressed at their inventiveness, the way they used everyday objects for purposes they weren't quite intended for. I was particularly taken with the use of cotton reels as chairs for some reason and still am very taken with little chairs of any sort.

The Borrowers was first published in 1952, close enough to the second world war for the ethos of making do and mending to have permeated the psyche of the population. This doll's house was from an exhibition in Whitstable Museum where the whole town has been seized by Make Do and Mend fever. It was made from an old box, covered with that lovely bricks and tiles paper you can get from model shops ( there is an excellent one in the town). I went straight from the museum to find a copy of the book. Of course, in the spirit of thrift, I should have waited to get home and go to the library, but I really wanted to own a copy. Sometimes making do isn't quite good enough.

And then, as often seems to happen when a thought thread unravels, the Borrowers seeped into all sorts of other places. Prick Your Finger asked for pin stories and there was one on page 24. And this picture of Felix and the knitted pencils was so very Arrietty. So when I saw the giant apple core at Tate Modern (don't know how I missed it earlier), I just had to go and try it for myself.

But the story of the Borrowers is also more complex. There is a tension between the comfortable, if somewhat dark, home beneath the floorboards and Arrietty's longing for the outdoors, adventure and emigration, all the things her mother Homily fears most. Yet, strangely, it is her mother's desire for the fine furniture from the doll's house which puts them in the most danger. The Boy is discovered on one of his journeys to bring it to them and so begins the persecution which forces the family to flee.

So, as we sit cosily by the fire sorting out the pencil box, finding bits and bobs which might be very useful for Borrowers, I can't help empathising with Arrietty - and Homily. And thinking about all of those real people whose homes are destroyed through no fault of their own, who have to make do in the most appalling conditions. Puts a lot into perspective.

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19 January 2009

fireside tales:: day 2

Me: Tell me the story about the cider press.

Him: You're always asking me about this.

Me: Oh, go on.

Him: Well, I looked into the caretaker's office - it's just a big cupboard under the stairs really - to find all three of them hammering, filing and sawing. It was like something out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. "What have the kids broken now?" I said "Nothing's broken, we're making a cider press. X's father in law gave us some windfall apples from his garden." The press was made up of: an oak-slatted outdoor litter bin set in a stainless steel draining board from one of the labs. And to press the apples into the litter bin so that the juice ran into the draining board, they'd adapted a carjack that had been thrown over the fence into the grounds. The amazing thing was that, in spite of all this, it actually worked and they made 2 gallons of cider. A few months later I collected my share - a bottle of cider . Now they've got the bug and have moved into bulk beer and they've managed to make 44 gallons in the boiler room. One of them complained about how much beer he'd had to drink to collect the bottles. The boiler house looks just like a brewery.


Him: They're good boys those caretakers. They run the place properly.

At this point I roar with laughter. Time after time.
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18 January 2009

fireside tales:: day 1

I've had to do some work at home today so I gave John the camera and asked him to come back with some shots of the new stove pipe that he was planning to fix onto the allotment shed stove; it's been waiting (for a few years) to become fully operational. Soon we'll be able to sit inside - if we can make some room among the collection of hoes, rakes, spades, forks, buckets, diggers, dibbers, deckchairs, string, sacks.spiders and calcified seaweed - and make a cup of tea.

Alternatively, he can live the life of (on your) Mr Tod.

Mr. Tod's stick house was before him and, for once, Mr. Tod was at home. There was not only a foxey flavour in proof of it—there was smoke coming out of the broken pail that served as a chimney.

17 January 2009

just des(s)erts

We found an abandoned terracotta dish during the holidays, propped up underneath the railway arches with an old hoover, two wooden boxes, a rice sack and a cardboard box. We brought home the dish (and the wooden boxes for the fire). John decided that the dish could be turned into a dry garden with some plants rescued from dusty school windowsills, a market stall cactus (gift from his mum) and bits taken from his existing gardens. The plants were well spaced as it doesn't take long for them to spread.

It was much admired by one of the cats.

The next day it was put out in our garden - it's been fairly mild here so it seemed a safe bet.

But I knew, I just knew, it would be too much for that cat to resist.
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10 January 2009

home and away

Sometimes you just have to call a halt and chill, or at least try not to freeze. This was the week that the London Heat Puddle froze over. Trish the cat got a nasty shock when her tongue stuck to the ice in the outdoor water bowl, but at least she recovered. The aloes may not. We on the other hand battened down the hatches, stoked up the Belle Portable and elbowed each other out of the way for face time with the heat.

It was wonderful. I dusted the coal dust off of the sewing machine and made a little birthday bag for my niece. It's the first piece of sewing I have done for ages - doubly pleasurable, in the making and the appreciation of the gift. (My mum, I noticed, checked how well the seams had been sewn.) I also cleaned out my button tin and sorted my cotton box. I used to sort cottons when my mum took me to work with her - she was a dressmaker - and her boss used to reward me very handsomely with folding money and wooden coathangers. No wonder I enjoy it. With the occasional glass of sherry and the last of the Christmas chocolates it was all very comforting.

I got time too to look back on Silvertown. The fox from my last post just appeared from nowhere in the grounds of Brick Lane Music Hall, coincidentally appearing against a mural. It was a particularly beautiful fox, very ginger, sleek, well fed and clearly at home in the space between the industrial land near the river, the old railway and the newer buildings to the west. The music hall itself is in a Teulon church, restored after a fire several years ago. I'm not a big fan of victorian gothic, but Teulon's brickwork here somehow has the quality of a piece of embroidery or patchwork, bricks and slates and tiles sewn together.

Nearby were the now disused Tate and Lyle working men's club, railway ephemera and working factories.

To the north, is London City Airport running alongside the old docks. And a little way back east is Barrier Park at Pontoon Dock, one of London's newest parks, stunningly designed, but looted so severely by local thieves so that there are signs on the fences to say there is no scrap value. The day we went there was freezing cold. The Green Dock with its sinuous yew topiary sheltered us from the wind until we could warm up in the cafe. John, as is the habit in this family, snitched some seeds from a pine cone of some sort. (Betula Nigra, Black Birch.)

And memento mori on the riverbank.

Those days between Christmas and Twelfth Night were the winter counterpart to my summer "Holidays at Home" Better in some ways because there was no expectation of fine weather, so any day when you could get out was like a gift and a day at the seaside especially so. This was the usual haunt, marshes along the north Kent coast, the tide so far out that the mud was full of fishermen digging for worms in competition with the seabirds. Cold and gloosy.

River, railway, sea, sky, lapping, slapping, trees, grids, groynes, bricks, stone. Memento mori.

Oloroso sherry. And dulce, dulce domum.

07 January 2009


So what exactly was that fox doing in the pub?
Maybe this wise old bird knows the answer.

06 January 2009


Our holiday outings took us to the Orient. Well, east of here anyway, following the Docklands Light Railway to West Silvertown, Pontoon Dock and North Woolwich. I was on a quest to find this giant tin at Tate and Lyle's. John had seen it from the train and I've been desperate to see it for myself ever since. This building looks to be mid 20th centuty but there is another factory down the road - big chimneys, smoke, the lot. Apparently Tate and Lyle still make their golden syrup at the original Silvertown factory.

The whole area here is one of transition, a mix of late Victorian terraced housing and modern buildings in what appear to be remote settings amid the bright shiny newness of the DLR and the vestiges of the North London line to Woolwich. I was on a bit of a henge kick and was interested in the contrast between the bollards here beneath the railway, presumably to stop travellers parking on the empty land ...

...and, just next to it, an overgrown roundabout at the entrance to the T&L factory with the usual detritus, including abandoned boots,and another henge of beautiful stones which looked like they had been left over from the gates of the docks which would have been here.

And, surprisingly, a solitary marigold flowering.

There's more to show from the outing - it really was full of riches. But let me just leave you with this from our breakfast table, John's morning treat to go on his porridge. It explains the quest.

05 January 2009


Even though I am struggling to recover from the excesses of the last couple of weeks, my mind has been occupied with beans. Purejuice left a comment on my very first post, a post which had ended with an accolade to the MudchuteFarmhouse Breakfast. What is it with us and our beans, she asked. Well, what is it?

Some would argue that the perfect marriage is between beans and toast while others suggest that that the real love affair is between beans and bacon or pork. I had thought that the pork and beans affair was American, but Dorothy Hartley in her 1954 book Food in England quotes a 14th century recipe for beans and bacon "Take benes and drye hem in an oven and grynde hom and winnow oute the hulles, and take and wash hom clene and do hom in a pot and seth hom and hereto gode broth and ete hom wyth bacon." Exactly.

Beans have attracted plenty of praise, with the government even deciding in the face of medical opposition that they can make up part of our five a day - well, we do have considerably less sugar in our tins of beans than in the US. Even as far back as the great war, people were encouraged to eat them- this little film used Canadian lumberjacks as a role model of healthy eating for their consumption of pork and beans (love that beany message in the middle). I'm sure that there must have been similar messages during the second world war and if I could get to my copy of Bombers and Mash in the cellar I might be able to check.

Perhaps I should explain the picture. I was thinking about all of this when I walked round the park and there in a secluded garden, which no doubt brigades of elderly bird lovers visit, I came across these old bean tins being used to feed the birds. Surely we don't feed our birds baked beans too!

I might get round to making some pork and beans of my own (pictured on the front of this book) when my appetite returns. Or we might just argue the toss about whether to carry on with the tinned beans or my son's latest retro-passion, tinned spaghetti (a desire inspired by a glimpse of Felix's poster).

So, have I answered the conundrum? Not sure. Are beans just in our blood? Do genes mean beans? Discuss.

PS Have just remembered that traditionally Twelfth Night Cake has a bean in it and whoever gets it in their slice is king or queen for the day. Suggest you improvise tomorrow.