27 December 2012

hiatus


There is something sublime about the days between Christmas and New Year.  The pressure is off and small pleasures can be indulged without the least feeling of guilt.  I'm thinking here of christmas pudding and seriously creamy vanilla custard for lunch, cake and a glass of oloroso for tea, and long naps in the late afternoon.  There may be soup for supper, or maybe not.  The greatest risk of discord comes from whichever of the cats have missed out on the best seat in front of the fire.  There is a bit of walking, a quick trip to the plot to pick mizuna and radicchio, some reading, maybe some light sewing, time to reflect - not too long - on the past year and to hope for good things in the year coming.  Even if it is more rain.

24 December 2012

day 24: angels in ivy


Our angels came from Woolworths* sometime in the 1960s when the floors and counters were made of wood and you could buy lots of Christmas gifts there - cheap perfume, bath salts, handbags, and everything you might need for a nativity scene.  It feels like the right place to end this year's advent journey.  

So the candles are lit, the pudding is boiling, the Last Minute Christmas Cake is cooling on the rack, the cousin-who-brings-her-own-indoor-weather** is flying over the Irish Sea, the smoked salmon beigels have been eaten and a bottle of sherry is waiting on the table by the fire.  It's time to say thank you all very much indeed for coming along here for the last 24 days and to hope that that your celebrations are full of all the happy things  you might wish for. 

xx

PS If you are still hankering after snow, do pop in here,  

* with apologies to Barbara Comyns and William Blake
** a sort of whirlwind or friendly tempest

23 December 2012

day 23: old spice

Definitely not a Dutch Still Life
There is a slight sense of abandon setting in here.  We've been chopping and measuring out the fruit and freshly ground spices for the christmas pudding.  Late enough already, we had to send the man on an errand to buy a wholemeal loaf and some cinnamon while we two, my cousin and I  measured out the Royal Dutch advocaat and ginger beer as a little treat. On the table now are an empty glass that half an hour ago was a frothy snowball, the peel from a satsuma and, at last, the christmas pudding--in-waiting.

A taste of the mixture and the aroma from the bowl reminds me fleetingly of my dad's Christmas aftershave.  Old Spice.

22 December 2012

day 22: list


I have been working my way through my list - a bed ready in time for my cousin who is staying, food ticked off, gifts for most of the family. The tree is up, that is the home-made pyramid which is passing for a tree again this year. I decided we would just have the lights and old baubles, the colours of Quality Street.  Just one problem. Where it has been down in the cellar leaning against the wall, it has warped slightly.  Looking across the room at it now there is a hint of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  It appears that the so-called tree has a list of its own and it's driving me nuts.

21 December 2012

day 21: donkey





Readers may have noticed that I am somewhat enchanted by donkeys and so insist on having one in the calendar.  Ever since I saw a neglected donkey on sale for £10 at Puck Fair I've wanted to look after a donkey of my own. I couldn't bring one home a the time, so now I think about George. He is also an Irish donkey, abandoned this summer at the end of Cahirmee Fair in County Cork because prices were too low. The day after the fair, John and his friend, a farmer, went back to town and found him on a piece of fly-tipped land, said hello, and took him back to the farm to be cossetted.  And thus George fell on his pretty little hooves - well fed, good company, plenty of treats.  He is  spending the winter "with a group of  ponies by the river wearing a very grubby blanket". I asked if George might do a star turn here in the run up to Christmas and here he is.  

I may be a little bit in love.


20 December 2012

day 20: round robin


I can hardly believe it.  Day twenty already and we haven't seen a robin.  Try this - photo and text taken from an email today from my friend Mrs C.

"Thank you for my robin (see photo) who is now nestling rather anxiously i feel amongst the cards. He will soon get used to his new home.  He must be the best card i have ever had  Without realising it you have sent the infamous Round Robin card.  (actually maybe you did realise it and i didnt!!  I get there in the end ) He also doubles up nicely as Pigeon Post because of the Christmas greeting tag attached to his leg. Thank you so much for him and of course every time I look at him your little face looks back at me."

You may be able to tell that Mrs C is my very oldest friend because I wouldn't normally be flattered by someone telling me that a round robin somehow looked like me.

And for the record, it is the only round robin I have ever sent.

19 December 2012

day 19: headspace


We went, Baz and I,  to the White Cube in Bermondsey, and found our own little cube within Antony Gormley's Model.  Never mind what others think, personally I enjoyed the opportunity to enter the labyrinthine gloom and explore.  There was some crawling, scuffs on the shoes, a lost (and found) silk headband, and some deep, deep darkness.  Once we thought we'd reached all possible extremities - maybe- we made our way back but found a ledge.  We climbed up and into a black cubic void, felt our way to the corner and sat there in silence, entirely unseen, watching people stooping along down the corridor, disoriented and fearing a knock on the head.  Some were using the light from their phones, a couple explored "our" space with arms outstretched, tentative and cautious.  Only one person, a tall man, ventured within at which point Baz warned him we were there as he edged his way forward - I was all for staying schtum to see how close he got, but that might have been unkind.  Tricks of the light made us feel higher than we were and I thought this is what it might be like to be a well-camouflaged bird or animal, an owl maybe, at night.  After I while I realised just how much people miss by seeking  without looking, and how risk averse people were, how unwilling to play a little.  I was surprised at how much wiser I felt I had become from sitting still in the dark.

I had masses to do that day and I'm still behind but I don't regret for a minute my hour of exploration and, somewhat paradoxically, enlightenment from the dark.  I'd recommend it as the world rushes on.

18 December 2012

day 18: snow


Front stalls, Row J, Seat 13, Slava's Snowshow*.

Indoor snow, but accompanied by lots of awe and laughter, dramatic music, a covering of filmy nylon, a snowstorm, and giant balls and  balloons bouncing through the audience.  Absolutely amazing.  And to think I was dubious about whether I would enjoy a show that was all clowns.  The secret, I discovered, was to surrender to the surrealism.

There's a snowshow in the bathroom now where little pieces of white snow- paper are littering the floor after falling out of my clothes as I got ready for bed.

*A gift from my quizzy mate J.

17 December 2012

day 17: wreath


The choice of wreaths at the local florist for the family graves was limited:  a small, very prickly holly wreath with a couple of artificial berries for colour; a green plastic artificial wreath with glittery cones, apples and poinsettia; or a confection of garish red or white petals, some in the shape of an X (a kiss?).  My mum found it hard to choose, but opted for the glitter. When we got to the cemetery, she wiped down the stone before hanging up the wreath, had a little chat with my dad to tell him we'd been, and said ta-ta.

We moved on to Granddad, Auntie Mary and Auntie Rosie.  They had the silvery glitter version.  Very jolly it was too.

My mum decided that she had made a good choice.  Oddly enough, I think she was right.

16 December 2012

day 16: glints


Glint: to give off reflection in brilliant flashes; a tiny bright flash of light; a brief or faint manifestation

:: 7:45am - In bed, thinking, for some unfathomable reason, about the jewels buried in an Arctic glacier by artist Sophie Calle and wondering where they were now.

:: 9am - Looking up river and catching the glint of light on the Shard.

:: 1pm -  A pixie in a tiny pool of light along the woodland path at the nature reserve.  Must have been her lunch-break.

:: 3pm -  Remembering the glint in John's eye when he bought a second hand tweed jacket yesterday, and again today when he found a large green plastic trug washed up in the detritus on the edge of the river which he later filled with wood for the fire.


:: 5.30pm - After a heavy shower while we were all singing carols in the square, a crescent moon, and lamplight glancing off  a collection of raindrops on a waterproof coat.


15 December 2012

day 15: something furry

Allotment fox
When it came to the annual expedition to find the new "best" winter coat, my mother applied rather strict rules.  The coat would not be worn until Mass on Christmas day, and thereafter only on Sundays or to very special outings.  And fur collars would not be allowed because she thought they looked "cheap".  Naturally I desperately yearned for a coat with a fur collar though as time went on the desire must have become suppressed.  So for many years I have worn, for the most part, sensible coats - a penchant for tweed, a touch of cashmere, enlivened by the occasional dramatic silhouette, vibrant colour or fancy lining.  Underneath though, the genes I share with my late Aunt Rosie, she of the dyed ginger hair, cake mascara, a small glass of sherry in the "off sales"of the Dog and Truck and the fur collar, have been waiting to do their dirty work.  The sad truth is that I still long for a bit of fun fur. I saw some last week in Rolls and Rems, fabric emporium to the good people of Lewisham. I have been thinking that it would look rather nice edging my black cape, the one that makes me look rather too much like I have stepped out of Hogwarts. I have already measured up how much I would need.  I may, just may, have to go back and buy some.

The beautiful fox, blatantly lounging around at the allotment last week, would understand I'm sure.

14 December 2012

day 14: skate


London's ice rinks are so tempting and the setting at Somerset House on a cold evening is prettier than many.  Waiting to meet my friend I watched the novices testing their blades in the nursery area, tentatively edging themselves along the railing, gaining momentum, wobbling  for a while and eventually gliding off.  It looked like fun and I wanted to join in but the left side of my brain knows that this would almost certainly be a step, or more likely a stumble and a crash, too far.

When I came home I checked up on Raeburn's Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch  to remind myself how it really ought to be done.  Quietly, with dignity, wearing a lovely black coat and hat.

13 December 2012

day 13: dance


The Tower Hamlets Over 50s Christmas Tea Dance (average age somewhere around 75): hundreds of cups of tea, platters of sandwiches, plates of mince pies, tins of Quality Street, ladies in their sequinned finery, chipper old men wearing their best ties and us with our aprons and neat black dresses pretending we're nippies.

It all gets a bit boisterous after sherry and port have been served.  Thank goodness it only lasted until half past four because by then we were bushed with making all those giant pots of tea. I love it when they go home smiling and rosy cheeked with the odd filched mince pie wrapped in a paper napkin and half the shiny table decorations tucked in their handbags saying thanks for the lovely time they've had.  We wish them all a happy holiday and keep our fingers crossed that we'll meet again at another tea dance next year.

12 December 2012

day 12: a frost

Frosty Mullein
Sent on an errand to the Mudchute allotment, I left home late, as usual.  It was a good drive down though - I got two flicked indicator thank-yous from cab drivers and a wave and a smile from a little girl in a woolly hat on a zebra crossing. This was most cheering.

I arrived just as the light was beginning to fail. Walking along the farm path, I could hear invisible robins in the trees, and those sounds that blackbirds make as they flit around lat the end of the day. A couple of horse were led by, slightly spooked by a stranger in the half-light, consoled by the stable-maid.  To the left, a large and restless ram, then a couple of llamas.  All the other animals were secured for the night.  By the time I unlocked the gate to the plots it was dusky, a slight pink glow to the south west, though the frost which must have been there all day still reflected enough light to look around the deserted plots in all their shabby messiness.


I knew the snaps I was taking would be fuzzy, but thought that was fine because that's how everything always looks to me at this time of night. I especially liked the way the neighbour's cavolo nero looked exotic under the its fleece,



the way the tips of the vine blurred as I struggled to focus on at least one of the shoots,



the still life quality of a leaf ...


... and a paving slab weight on a blue plastic tarp laid down on the ground to keep out the frost.


As the sun went down, the only light was coming from the buildings at Canary Wharf and I thought I better take my trolley and get off home before I got spooked too.


Back at home, waiting for my cocoa to heat up, John said I should put my head out of the back door to hear how cold it was.  He was right.  Almost dead quiet except for a delicate, almost imperceptible cracking sound.

11 December 2012

day 11: a good book



Recently I asked a friend, a serious writer and reviewer of books, to recommend some nature writing to me. Stuck in a reading rut where I'd had difficulty finding anything at all* that I wanted to read,  I thought I might try something entirely new to me, some "nature writing".  He kindly sent round a pile of books and mentioned one or two others that I  might like.  Nearly all written by men.  I gave them a try but really struggled.  For the most part I found them unnecessarily wordy, overly romantic, and frequently self indulgent.  Mabey, Deakin, Lister-Kaye.  (Oh my Lord, can these men go on - where are the women? ) I couldn't get on with any of them, though I'm told I should try again with Waterlog,  I loved the first and last chapters of Luke Jennings' Blood Knots, a memoir which told me more than I ever knew about fishing, but it still didn't quite satisfy something I was looking for but could not name.  

It seemed that I was at a metaphorical crossroads in a wordy forest ready to give up when  I had a joyous discovery.  The wondrous Kathleen Jamie.  Insightful, quirky, sharp and gentle at the same time.  She writes about birds, bones, stones, the sea, the past, the present with such perception and, exceptionally, without a trace of false sentiment.  Her description of a sighting, two sightings, of killer whales off the Islands actually gave me goose bumps and her observation on bones, especially whales, is captivating.   I cannot recommend her book too highly.  

If you are interested in having a copy of Sightlines** and you've left a comment on the any of the Advent Calendar posts by Christmas Eve, I'll put your name in a hat and send the winner a copy.  You don't have to do any thing else unless you don't want your name included, though any recommendations for uplifting books are most welcome.  Obviously the winner won't receive Sightlines until the end of the year, but what a treat to look 
forward to.

* I fear this may be partly a result of my eyesight!  I've started to wear reading glasses, though even they are a pain.

** Liz - this is the book you asked about in the photo of the cats

day 10: heart


We had a lovely afternoon yesterday, some EEWI buddies and I.  Home made soup - leek and celery, and carrot potage*, a wee glass of port, tea, cake and shortbread.  I lit the fire to try to keep warm and the cats popped in to schmooze or laze by the radiator.  Then we set to with biscuit cutters as templates, donated fabric, floss, ribbon, buttons and lavender, and chatted and snipped and sewed.  Except for Elizabeth who has developed an obsession for Polish Porcupines which are lovely but require some dedication.  We're selling the hearts at our Christmas Market next week and any money we raise is going to a local charity for women which we support.


(Oh!  Have just spoken on Radio 4's "You and Yours" call-in about charity, second up.  Very interesting discussion, with lots of the issues people raised here being reiterated.  People it seems have cut back because of reductions in income, though not to the extent that the NCVO suggests.  Smaller charities are taking the brunt of cuts.  Among the issues raised by callers were real concerns about efficiency of the charities, no action taken on complaints about continuous requests for reduction in letters, continuous requests for donations.  Positive suggestions were to be firm (yes!), make direct debits to the charities which are meaningful to you, write to them if you are unhappy with them sending continuous bumph when you want your money to go towards services.  Sound familiar? One caller's daughter had decided to give an equivalent amount to charity when she bought frivolous clothes and found that this made her think about how much she really needed to buy something.  The Give More website was mentioned as a place to look for novel ways of giving which don't necessarily cost money (Hope signing up to access the guide doesn't result in more barracking.)  And, finally, a reflection on how tough it is becoming for some people, a rather alarming increase in the use of food banks.)

Hearts, and your own generous support, seem apt today.

*the carrot soup was inspired by a recipe on Liz's blog ages ago but I can't find the link - sorry

09 December 2012

day 9: melody


I discovered something today: that it isn't baking, or making, or writing cards, or shopping ( I have done none of these, by the way) or even the weather that make me feel like Christmas is really on the way.  It is hearing the first carol.  Somehow they have eluded me until now, but I caught a snatch of a folk version of The Holly and the Ivy on the radio this afternoon and it suddenly all felt real.  It coincided with the pruning of our holly tree, so there are snippets of leaves around the kitchen looking deep and glossy and ready to be constructed into something possibly christmassy.  It's not quite all coming together, but at least I'm in the zone.

We've also been along this evening to a concert of Brahms' German Requiem at a nearby church, home to a rather marvellous choir.  Now, a requiem might hardly seem like a precursor to festivity, but it was beautifully executed. and uplifting  According to the programme, Brahms was not religious but chose the texts from the Lutheran Bible to give comfort and consolation to the living and finally promise them rest. Maybe rather more apposite for the next few weeks than it first seems.

If your preference is for something more obviously seasonal you could do worse than find something in the Book of Christmas Melodies.  I bought it in a charity shop, attracted by the jolly cover - I do love a wall.  I was planning to cannibalise it to make cards but I just couldn't do it.  In my head a day will come when someone will play on an upright piano all the unheard of carols just to please me.  As that is somewhat unlikely, I have been amusing myself thinking how I might be able to illustrate some of the lesser known carols and include them in the calendar, like this for example:

Sketch by John from life drawing class with carol music

In other acts of silliness, the search is already on for an "Angel's Trump".  It was mentioned in a programme I watched about Tallis and Byrd this week and now I've got to find one.  If you'd like to commission or even contribute something not too unreasonable yourself for the advent calendar please do.  I am definitely up for a quest.  

Oh, and the other thing I learnt today is that I definitely need more music in my life.

*******************************
Many thanks for your comments on the gold coins post about charity.  I very much appreciate your sharing your perspectives on such a personal topic, and it was some consolation to find that I am not the only one who has decided that lines have to be drawn somewhere.

08 December 2012

day 8: three cats in harmony



The precedent for cats in the advent calendar is already set, and if we can have three ships, then we can have three cats.  It really is very unusual for the three of them to share the same space.  Normally they will be spread around the house, occasionally two will curl up, this normally initiated by the Mitten Cat who likes to be warm.  Three, purring in harmony, seems to be something they saved for the run up to Christmas.

07 December 2012

day 7: gold coins


Christmas stockings in this house always contain gold coins, chocolate of course, and oranges or tangerines.  It seems that the tradition is derived from the stories of King Wenceslas's charity to vulnerable women, the poor, the imprisoned. Ah, those wonderful chocolate coins. I once managed to use one as a kind of currency.  One very wet evening when the tube was down, a bus driver refused to let me on because I didn't have the right change   A woman offered to pay for me, and when we sat down, both like drowned rats, I remembered that I had bought one of those giant chocolate coins and gave that to her in exchange.  Whenever I see those chocolate coins I think of her small kindness.

I've been thinking more generally about kindness and charity this week.  Everyday, or so it seems, a request arrives asking me - not my partner, interestingly- to make a donation - phone calls, letters, shopping catalogues, emails, knocks on the door.  I feel besieged.  So I decided that I'd do a little bit of research and discovered this report.  It went some way to explaining why I'm being targeted: it seems that women in my age bracket give more than any other group.  Moreover, people are more likely to give if they are asked, hence the deluge.  Among the still relatively generous UK population, we older women are clearly an easier touch when it comes to marketing.

The NCVO report  also explains that income from charitable giving has dropped for the last two years - I know mine has.  The share of giving by cause makes interesting reading, with medical research topping the list, followed closely by giving to hospitals/ hospices and children's charities following closely behind; a higher percentage is donated to animal charities than charities for the disabled.  I also discovered that, unsurprisingly,  we are more likely to give to charities which have some personal resonance for us.  Looking elsewhere I found information on the salaries of charity CEOs and wondered whether some of those six figure salaries were justified.

All this made me feel less guilty about binning those marketing letters and giving cold callers and chuggers the brush-off.  I still have no idea what is a reasonable amount* to give to charity even though I do have a rough budget for direct debits to charities, giving on an ad-hoc basis, sponsoring friends and family, and one-off gifts.  And maybe I should be spending more of my gold coins or time on local causes that might not be cuddly and pretty rather than wearing a Christmas jumper.  Or should I do both?

It's doing my head in. What do you think?

* if I stuck to the median for my gender and age, it's £180 a year cash, but that doesn't take into account volunteering time


06 December 2012

day 6: health warning


In case you are thinking of eating another mince pie or, in my case, some home-made shortbread, you might want to defer some of that gratification for a week or so.

On the other hand, if you'd rather close this door in the calendar, you might prefer to open this window instead.

05 December 2012

day 5: string


It's definitely stretching a point to think you might open a door in an advent calendar and find oddments of string.  I suppose a brightly coloured parcel with pretty ribbon is a possibility, but string?  Unlikely.  However, I very much like this box of string that I saw at my cousin's place.  All those different colours, sizes, textures, the way it looks like scribble, the potential it has to be reused, tied round a brown paper parcel and handed on to someone else, the joyous frugality of it.  The perfect counterpoint to, say, christmas shopping.  A little gift in its own right, from me to you.

04 December 2012

day 4: star


My friend Chris and I visited Hollywood today and saw lots of stars, but this was the only one I could find to bring home.  The air was dry, the rooms dark and packed with people.  The costumes were fabulous, romantic and inspiring.  So many wonderful frocks - and Errol Flynn's Robin Hood costume was pretty nifty too. Chris told me that Scarlett O' Hara's dress, the one made from dark green curtains, had inspired her to do the same with some gold velvet curtains from a pub she worked in.  The customers admired the outfit when she wore it, but with puzzlement - they could not work out what was familiar about it.  The wonder of Hollywood.

In my tacky heart I really wanted to come home with Dorothy's red slippers but had to make do with my cheap star.

03 December 2012

day 3: board games


So here we have some board games to prepare you for those you may be playing after Christmas lunch, inspired by a visit to Tate Britain on a grey Saturday afternoon this weekend.  This is the board on which visitors were invited to comment after attending the Turner Prize exhibits.  According to some of the comments, and comments on comments, some people enjoyed these more than the art works.  In case you are interested, Elizabeth Price's work was the work that affected me most (she won the prize!), and this was the comment which I liked best:


As a substitute for the fun,  I thought some of you might like to play a little board game with the selection of post cards we bought that afternoon.  Four are my choice, three are his.  But which ones did I choose, and which were his? (You don't have to know the names of the artists/ pictures to answer this.)


To compensate for the poor light, they are, clockwise from top left:
1. Spartacus Chetwynd: Odd Man Out;
2. Cornelia Parker: Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View;
3. Marcus Gheeraerts: Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harington;
4. Edward Collier: Trompe L'Oeil of newspapers, letters and writing implements on a wooden board;
5. Barbara Hepworth: Shaft and Circle:
6. Richard Long: Norfolk Flint Circle; and centre,
7. Samuel Palmer: Harvest Moon: Drawing for "A Pastoral Scene".

Oooh.  How hard is that?

There may have to be a mystery prize for the first comment with the correct answers.

02 December 2012

day 2 : glitter

A fling of dunlin* on Rainham Marshes
Walking today along the wall above the Thames looking north across Rainham Marshes, there is a good view of the industrial landscape: pylons, wind turbines, a railway line, the mesh of the Dartford Bridge to the east, the Shard and Canary Wharf to the west looking like miniature building bricks.  Over the marsh a flock of dunlin lifts up and swirl around.  As they rise and fall, twist and turn, they manage to perform a kind of optical illusion, disappearing against the trees, then shimmering suddenly as they turn their white undersides towards the low light in the south.  They swish and swoop, landing briefly in the pools, then a few minutes later fly up, and drop down again and again like glitter falling over the marsh.  The light show is amazing, almost hypnotic. Then, without even waiting for the applause, they turn towards us, fly over our heads with a gentle whoosh, and disappear over the river.

Not quite the kind of glitter you might expect in the calendar, but perfect winter magic nevertheless.

*You can just see the dunlin at the bottom of the picture in the middle against the trees.  The best my camera could do, I'm afraid.  I found a reference to the collective noun being a fling, but personally I'd have called them a glitter, a twinkling, or a sprinkle.

01 December 2012

day 1: garland



A winter garland, made from off-cuts from wool jumpers now hangs from the mantelpiece in our kitchen.  The idea is that it will act as a reminder that winter really has arrived, though the freezing temperatures outside last night should be enough to notice.  The off-cuts result from an obsession I developed for buying charity shop woollens.  There are a lot of huge men's sweaters out there let me tell you - and in my stash.  I was actually thinking about a necklace when I sat down one evening with my little scissors, needle and yarn, then I started to use bigger scraps and I thought it might end up as a scarf.  Of course, it got completely out of control.  

Here endeth the first lesson.