30 May 2010

happy birt

There is a great Posy Simmonds cartoon about a school play where working mother Mrs Weber's children are robins in the Christmas production.  The young Webers' robin costumes are perfect - beaks, tails, rosy red breasts and all.  The rest of the kids are dressed in tee-shirtvv  s and tights.  It spoke to me, the mother who on the day her son started nursery turned up with the home made shoe bag, boy's name name appliqued on with love and tears, while all the other kids had plastic bags.  Yes, the guilt burden of those absences at the school gates still niggles.

All background to the reason why I decided this morning, the birthday of my son, a young man (in blue) past the age of majority, to make a birthday banner.  I've wanted to make one for years.  So, there I was this morning, with plenty of time because he never gets up before midday after a night out, cutting up scraps and making the banner.  Except that today he decided to get up earlier than usual. Unfortunately I'd only got as far as "happy birt".

It was not so bad in the end.  I got the rest of the banner finished before he appeared downstairs.  My mum turned up with his birthday card- "Did you make that?  That's nice.  Except I would have used capital letters.  And that yellow "a" doesn't really stand out, does it?"   "No mum, but it is the same fabric that I used for his shoe bag when he was tiny so I quite like it being there." After which we spent the afternoon having a conversation not dissimilar to a Count Arthur Strong show while I tried to make Dan Lepard's Dark Chocolate Berry Cake.  It would be churlish to blame my misreading of the chocolate proportions on my mum's monologue about bins on the streets, postal research surveys and the merits of the 339 bus.   And it was entirely my fault that I took a risk on taking my mum home and getting back in time to get the cake out of the oven but got stuck in a traffic jam by taking the supposedly quicker route home. The cake was not a great success.  Fortunately someone else had made him a box of chocolate brownies.

Do I still feel guilty?  Not now. I offered to make a roast dinner and he said he'd prefer a Chinese Take Away as a birthday treat.  We've have never ordered one before. He really did have deprived childhood.

So quite a happy birthday for him after all though I suspect that having a happy birt might become part of our family mythology, such as it is.

Hope you enjoy tomorrow's Bank Holid.

26 May 2010


This swan has been sitting on her nest for a few weeks now.  It's on a busy part of the Regent's Canal, just under the bridge to Meath Gardens and lots of passers-by stop to look or take photos.  A few days ago they were joined on the planks by a posse of turtles basking in the sun.  Today I saw the cob tidying up around the nest, pulling at reeds and moving them out of the way.  And last night, as I was walking home in the late twilight, there he was swimming up and down keeping watch.  She, for I assume it is the pen who is doing the sitting, tucks her head under her wing and huddles down.

I go to check on them regularly.  It's very touching to see them both sitting out the gestation of their eggs together, and a little bit nerve wracking too.  It'll be a relief when the waiting is over.

25 May 2010

mango, mango

Last Friday, the beginning of this last warm weekend, I stopped off along Whitechapel because I got a yearning for an Alphonso mango.  I'd seen them for sale on one of my walks home from the Women's Library the week before but didn't fancy carrying a box all the way home.  The bad news was that there were no Alphonsos left.  The good news was that there were some Kesar mangoes for sale, £4.50 a box, and just the right size to fit in my panniers.  I write that as if I am an expert on mangoes.  I'm not.  In fact, I had never heard of Kesar mangoes before, but how could anyone resist them in their neat little box,  Farm fresh, all the way from the orchards of Mumbai.   As if a whole box was not enough, I crossed the road and found some giant over-ripe mangoes for sale, four for a pound, and bought those too. Mango heaven.

I have a friend who loves food and says that she can remember the first time she tried a particular food - what it was, I can't remember.  I was a bit snippy about it.  But since I've had mangoes on my mind, I realise that I can remember the first time I ate a ripe mango.  It wasn't in some exotic foreign location, but in St Dunstan's churchyard, on a warm afternoon.  I can clearly recall the  geranium scent, and the juice running down my face and hands.

When it was too hot to sleep in the early hours of yesterday morning, I crept downstairs to open the back doors and let in some air, wondering how people ever managed in hot climates.  Maybe eating mangoes in the coolth of the garden helps.  Especially when nobody can see the mess you make.

24 May 2010

days at the circus

I can't help it.  I've found the circus thrilling ever since I was taken by my aunt and uncle when I was about six years old (Bertram Mills, Olympia, rather later than this film was made),  When the circus arrives locally, as it does every now and then, though with no particular regularity, I find any excuse to go.  I think it's the infectious energy,  the same people who sell popcorn and balloons before the show on stage dancing and swinging on ropes in their sparkly costume, and the longing to share in the promise of moving on to another town, another audience.

So we spent yesterday morning under the Big Top at Zippo's circus in Mile End Park, my mum, brother, niece and I.  It was the first time my niece had been to the circus - my mum too - and they were very excited.  We all applauded till our hands hurt at the acrobats and high wire and jugglers.  Then we came out into the heat of the so far hottest day of the year, joining the crowds of people who were making their way along the canal and into the park.  My niece and I walked home through the park, stopped off to check out on the tadpoles, made sure the horse had a little something to eat.

And carried on home.

18 May 2010

warming up

Went to see these people here last night.  The perfect venue for Cuban music.  They got several standing ovations for their soulful singing and rhythms and dance.  It didn't matter that we didn't understand the words because it spoke to the soul and made me want to wear bright colours and dance.  Well, at least I can wear my orange cardigan when I'm sitting in the Women's Library today.

You can see the choir on Jools Holland tonight.

16 May 2010


It was the Mile End dog show today.  I love the dog show.   It's all that is good about  a community event with all the local thoroughbreds, mongrels, waifs and strays.  Unfortunately I didn't have time to see the dogs because we were selling tea and cakes, had to set up a new gazebo without any instructions, were bathed in fluffy seed-heads from the white poplars behind us that stuck to our cakes and made us cough, and had problems with the generator that meant we were without hot water for a while.  We persevered, serving up our rock cakes and lemon cherry buns, banana loaves and ginger cubes, white chocolate cookies and marshmallow squares, butterscotch layer and lemon ricotta cakes, until we were washed out by a colossal downpour.  Now the bunting is drying on the washing line, our soggy bags are airing off on the dryer and I'm resting contentedly on the sofa with a glass of beer.

In case you are interested, the dog with the best smile was won by a King Charles spaniel  who apparently looked delighted when he stepped up to get his prize.  I so wish I'd seen that.

13 May 2010

spring archive

I don't think I've mentioned that I have been doing some voluntary work at the Women's Library cataloguing the photographs from the National Federation of Women's Institutes. The work is undemanding and quite soothingly repetitive - sorting and measuring photographs, putting them into files and adding an entry to what will be the database of the collection.  Some of the photos have been especially interesting, like the wartime photos of the work the WI did to preserve food.  One favourite is a stall outside a cottage with smart ladies selling meat pies to a woman whose child is sitting in a wicker seat on the back of the her bike. There are some particularly lovely photos of Sussex women drying herbs in cottage kitchens wearing embroidered smocks, as well as more curious pictures of the rabbit fur goods the WI made for Mrs Churchill's Aid to Russia scheme in the 1940s.  There's also less stimulating material - what has seemed like ten thousand views of Denman College (yes, I exaggerate, but it felt like it at the time) and innumerable pictures of worthy ladies in hats.

There is rather a poignant circuitry to my ending up doing this work.  When I came back to London after travelling in my mid-twenties, I was interviewed for a job at the library, then called the Fawcett Library.  It was in a basement with no natural light whatsoever and interested though I was,  it would have been too much of a trauma to go from living in the open to working in a dungeon.  So here I am, years later, surrounded by gently industrious women, boxes of personal curiosities and women's history.

Working on an archive for the first time has made me think more about what we decide to keep to record our interactions and place in the world.  (Kate's archive is a stunning example of how to do this well).  So I thought I might retrieve some of the pictures in my online album that have never made it here.  This one is Arber's stationery shop in Roman Road, just a short walk from my house.  It so happens that the family printed leaflets for the Pankhursts when their HQ was nearby. and Mr A will tell you all about it if you spend time in there. I find any excuse to go in there and buy stuff because it is such a curiosity, packed out with cardboard boxes of envelopes and heaven knows what.  Unfortunately he no longer uses the letterpress in the basement because some of the letters are worn out. He once printed some business cards for John on it and decided that he should stick in something about lawns, beds and rockeries "because the card looked a bit bare". Mmm.

I've always liked the signwriting and general decrepitness of this shop but when I walked past earlier this week I was shocked to see that the front had been painted.   Thankfully it is not because Mr A, who is coming up for 80,  is no longer with us.  And thankfully, I have in my archive a reminder of the shop the way I liked it.

09 May 2010

comfort objects

When my friend and I were walking through Victoria Tower Gardens on Friday evening, we came across some of the elephants that have been left throughout London as part of the project to remind us of the plight of Asian elephants.  One of my earliest comfort objects had been a pink plastic elephant which might be why these elephants, sitting in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, cheered me up just when I was beginning to think that if I heard yet one more time the insulting phrase "broken society" - as if we lived in some barren urban dystopia - I might scream. Actually, I did, several times.

Despite the chilly north easterly, my friend thought we should carry on walking down Whitehall and past Downing Street to see what was doing.  As it happened, not much, though the warm, dungy scent from Horse Guards was rather lovely.

The rest of the weekend has been spent trying to find more comfort against the ill wind.  The cats are doing what cats do best, have tucked their paws in and bagged the most comfortable places for snoozing.

Much against my natural instincts to sit it out with cold hands and a stiff uppper lip, I reluctantly switched the heating back on, then balanced out the extravagance by making some sweet potato and squash soup and bread pudding (I used 2 fluid ozs of sunflower oil rather than suet or butter, and some extra sugar.)

Comfort food in May, after weeks of salads.  I should have guessed really.

03 May 2010

country sheep, town sheep

I was mighty relieved to see the sheep in the cherry orchard this weekend.  I've been passing this orchard on Graveney Marshes for some years on the way to the seaside and buying cherries each summer from a temporary stall during the picking season.  Then last year - or was it the year before? - I noticed the farm was up for sale, the orchard was sectioned in two and a number of the trees were cut down.  It was lovely to see the sheep safely grazing again; fingers crossed, there may even be a cherry stall in the summer.

There are no cherry orchards here in my part of town, but plenty of ornamental cherries...and sheep.  The weather was so inclement that at one point I thought it was snowing, only to find it was the blossom blowing off the trees in the street.  When the showers finally eased off, we snuck down to Mudchute to hoe up the potatoes.  Walking through the farm we were just in time to see the lambs going wild.  Apparently, they race around the field just after they get let out in the morning and just before they go in for the night.  I've never seen anything like it.  

They lined up like racehorses and then bombed around the field as fast as they could go.

Maybe it's because there are more males than females this year.

Or maybe it's a street-wise town sheep kind of thing.