24 December 2013

day 24: all we like sheep

With apologies to Handel for the missing comma, here are two wise old girls at Mudchute today, one slightly disapproving, one with a smile. They remind me of the two sisters in Cranford, watchful, waiting for news. Maybe they know something we don't.

So here we are again for another year. Thanks for coming along on the journey around East London and beyond, and leaving all your lovely comments.  Peace, joy and good wishes to you all. 

Hallelujah and amen to that.

23 December 2013

days 21, 22 & 23: a flurry, a star and whisky galore

Flurry: a small swirling mass of something, especially snow or leaves, moved by sudden gusts of wind; a sudden short period of activity or excitement; a number of things arriving or happening suddenly in a short period.

We have been bartering, my neighbour and I: her barely used spare mattress in exchange for hemming her curtains. It wasn't a bad deal, though I had forgotten what a pain net curtains can be. It was a lovely escape, actually, and as I sat at the sewing machine with the rain pouring and the long lasting leaves from the mulberry tree next door swirling around outside, I almost managed to forget that there were other jobs that needed to be done. I optimistically thought there might even be time to make a few late gifts. Wildly overambitious of course, especially when there was cake to be made for visitors, resulting in a flurry of flour and sugar instead. Then there was carol singing, social stuff, a bit of cheery jiving, shopping, deliveries. That flurry soon became more of a meltdown.

So to leaven the gloom of the heavy downpours this afternoon, we went off to find a star, and settled on the Star of the East in Limehouse. I've been curious about this old gin palace  for years. Back in the 50s it would have been packed with seamen or locals who left their bored children outside with lemonade and arrowroot biscuits. Outside there's a hint of the Alhambra, plus some original gas lamps. Inside it's more like the Wild West - bare floors, a scattering of seriously dedicated drinkers, and tables too heavy to pick up and throw through the windows.

We couldn't quite relive Whisky Galore which we'd been giggling over  this week. But we did our best for twenty minutes. Possibly the bargain of the month, if you don't mind a curious adventure thrown in.

20 December 2013

day 20: tree

Normally there is strict observance of the house rule that the tree does not go up until the weekend before Christmas. Now I realise that may well have been a mistake. We reached the point, with the cold and all, where something bright was needed to cheer us up over and above a glass of pudding sherry, so here is the driftwood tree, lights, three felt robins, a perplexed cat wondering what I am doing outside the house looking in, and a more cheerful household.

Driftwood and  drift plastic junk
The trip a few weeks ago to find exactly the right planks of wood for the tree, including a triangular piece for the top was made on a clear afternoon, timed so that the tide was far enough out to allow us to mooch about on the shore. As you may have gathered, we are partial to a bit of driftwood. Quite often it ends up just propped against the wall because it is too interesting, too tactile, too full of the past and possibilities.

I like the idea that our tree has been resurrected from the river. It's quite a fragile construction - one careless move and the whole lot could come tumbling down. It only has to hold on until the New Year, after which, well, it depends on how cold it is.

19 December 2013

days 17,18 & 19 : a sneeze, a cold and some oranges

Suddenly the advent calendar turned into Pandora's Box. It started with a sneeze, then a fit of sneezing and didn't stop until it was a fully blown thick head and aching limbs. Half a bowl of little oranges helped, and some real sunshine.

16 December 2013

day 16: dear hart

Or is it deer heart?

You can always rely on the V&A to pull out the stops with the decorations, and I like the playfulness of this year's offering, the colour, textures and the antlers peeking out.

If only I'd thought of it first.

15 December 2013

day 15: winter fuel

I was hoping to discover another series of Borgen behind the door of the calendar today, but alas not. All I found were grey skies, rain, a pile of cards to write and a pressing desire to stay indoors.  But what's this? Lurking in the background, some winter fuel, gleaned from the shore of the Thames at Purfleet. And Smiley's People on BBC i-player.

It's not even cold outside to be honest, but we can pretend it is, just to get in the spirit of winter and all that.

14 December 2013

day 14: paper decorations

Next to our cake stall in the Museum of Childhood last Saturday was a lovely young woman who designs and makes displays for the museum, Without the resources of their parent, the V&A, this outpost has learned to be resourceful and so we learnt in passing how simple it was to make these paper baubles. Waiting for that pudding to boil last night, I exercised my newly acquired knowledge and spent a relaxing hour cutting a musical score into strips and stapling them together. I hope Mozart isn't turning in his grave, wherever it might be. 

The decorations, along with some stars, are now adorning our slightly bonkers entry to the local Christmas tree festival. It's all very Barbara and Tom this year but at least it hardly cost a penny. Maybe in 2014 we'll be able to go a bit more bling and leopardskin, a la Bet Lynch, if things look up - or down as the case may be.

13 December 2013

day 13: the pudding

We've been here many times before, only it seems later and later each year, not that our enthusiasm for Christmas pudding has diminished in any way, just that it seems to take longer each year to get into the swing of the season. Same recipe, no half measures, a three pint pudding bowl, hours of boiling - that rumbling on the cooker, such a purposeful domestic sound. And when all is done, the pleasure of leftover pudding for breakfast on Boxing Day to look forward to. So satisfying.

(Thanks to Jess from Knitting on Trains for her recent giveaway of a gift from Neat Eats which I won. No prize for guessing what I chose.)

12 December 2013

day 12: fortification

By the time we get round to serving the port and sherry at the Over 50s Christmas Tea Dance, we must have poured out at least two hundred cups of tea - weak tea, strong tea, black tea, milky tea, extra hot tea. The variations are endless. 

There's strong ration control on the fortified wine however - only one small glass per person - but it's all done fairly. We ladies of the WI are even allowed to secrete a glass behind the cups and saucers and take a sip between pouring tea. It makes you feel like Irene Handl or some  middle-aged barmaid in an Ealing Comedy. Come to think of it, the whole cast of the  tea dance would fit in very nicely there too.

11 December 2013

days 10 &11: holly, ivy and bells

Normally the handlebars of my bicycle are decked with fake flowers, supposedly to deter any potential  - default male - thieves who might balk at the prospect of cycling on a hippy-looking bike. That's the theory at least. After a couple of years out in all weathers, those flowers were looking a little sad, even after I washed them so, with a snip here and there in the garden, they were soon replaced with something a little more seasonal. But you know how is it once you start with a bit of embellishment...where to stop?

I'm hoping that the bells will act as a gentle warning to strollers on the towpath, my routeway to all three points of the compass from here. The tinkle they make on the uneven path is really rather nice, just a suggestion that something is approaching rather than a commanding ring. I suppose it's possible that some people might think that they are suffering from auditory hallucinations but that's no bad thing if it makes them slow down for a moment or two.

So there you are - triple helpings today. Singles tomorrow.

09 December 2013

day 9: camel

This paper camel fell out of "my" cupboard the other day, the cupboard that's filled with books and old bank statements, passports and paper that might come in handy, handbags and old photos and stationery. It must have been there for twenty odd years because the niece who made it is now in her thirties. She was one a child who had to be doing something all the time; this must have been come from her origami phase. So how do you photograph an origami camel that is on its last legs? Why you get out that old junk shop platter that caught your eye one day and has only been used about half a dozen times since the day it came into the house.

I'm glad it all came in handy for advent because this may be the end of the road for these two. My resolution for next year is to lighten the load and any camel should be happy to hear that. It's something that has been at the back of my mind for a while and needs a little bit of elaboration. Plenty of time for that between now and the end of the month.

That origami camel though. It's really rather sweet.

ETA: Meant to say, read Esther on how to lighten the load for Christmas. It really cheered me!

08 December 2013

day 8: promise

Today we have a promise hidden within the calendar, and unusal one. If you think an image of some dried pea pods is an odd one to describe a promise, you might soon understand.

Joanna Dobson has always struck me as a woman of integrity and honesty, and I've been reading her blog for several years now, and over the last wee while, she has written more and more about her interest in the story of Incredible Edible Todmorden - the town that has been learning how to feed itself. Joanna's interest has gradually developed into a much more serious commitment - a full blown project, launched on Kickstarter, a crowd funding site, to raise the funding to publish a book about the story of Todmorden to encourage others to  think about doing something similar. 

This is what Joanna says about the project. "Incredible! Plant Veg, Grow a Revolution is the story of Incredible Edible Todmorden, the extraordinary local food movement that has become a worldwide phenomenon. I wrote Incredible! in collaboration with the movement’s co-founder, Pam Warhurst, in whose voice the book is told. From ‘propaganda planting’ in cemeteries and on station platforms, to a Green Route that has transformed the look and feel of a Yorkshire mill town and a global network that is helping to change the way we think about the future, the Incredible Edible movement is rippling out across the world. Over two years I have interviewed a whole range of people whose lives have been changed by Incredible Edible, from another co-founder Mary Clear, who ripped out all the roses in her front garden and replaced them with vegetables and a sign saying ‘Help Yourself’, to the farmer who credits with movement with boosting sales of his award-winning cheeses, and the high school student who thought his destiny was a dead end job until he became a student director of the project and realised that was a lie (he’s now at university). Woven into the story are facts and figures about our broken food system and illustrations of how it could change to give all of us a better future."

I'd never heard of Kickstarter until recently but I did understand the whole concept of crowd funding. I very much like the idea of a crowd of people risking a small contribution to help tp realise a project they believe in. It is really exciting to see that  Joanna is so very close to the £10000 target that can make the promise of publication a reality. When I checked earlier she was within £750 of her target. With just 3 days to go, she needs just a little bit of help. Worth thinking about or maybe even foregoing a glass of wine or a couple of cups of coffee*and pledging a fiver.

•Incredible, but that's how much you'll pay in the pubs or cafes round here. Not me, because I'm very mean so I have made a pledge to Joanna instead.

07 December 2013

day 7: yule log

My friend called. She was looking for somebody to make her a Buche de Noel and wondered whether a baker from the WI might be interested. Of course there was. Me. Never made one before so all the more reason to have a go.

It wasn't as difficult as I thought but there were lots of lessons learnt.  Firstly, read the instructions - that way you might beat the egg yolks before you add the cocoa. Secondly, do a bit more research than just going to the kitchen cupboard and getting out the Delia Christmas book you've had for 20 years because there might be a better way to do things. Thirdly, check whether the plate you put it on can actually fit into the carrier box because otherwise it'll be a bit awkward to get it over to Islington on the bus. Fourthly, remember that candied chestnuts are not commonplace in Mile End. Fifthly, leave enough time to  complete the operation in one fell swoop otherwise you might have problems with an unwieldy ganache. And don't even think about making it on the same day as you are committed to baking two dozen cupcakes and two other cakes.

If you fancy having a go, I suggest you read Felicity Cloake's article first. My offering used this Delia recipe to make the bare log as far as the rolling it up stage; and Felicity Cloake's generous ganache to finish it off.  Despite the tribulations, it worked out well enough. The best part was making it look like a log;.licking the bowl; cutting the perfect piece of holly from the garden; presenting it in perfect condition to my friend; being told that it looked pretty being given a slice to eat.

By the way, if I had to identify the species of tree, I'd say this was an oak log, wouldn't you?

06 December 2013

day 6: chestnuts

This is one of fifty two chestnut trees in Greenwich Park. Just imagine, you could visit one every week of the year and then start all over again to see what had changed. Myself, I find it quite extraordinary that these trees are so very old, planted around 350 years ago, though it notices in their bent limbs and gnarled trunks. Apparently the complex structure of the trees is enormously important to wildlife; those clefts and cavities provide safe space for all sorts of invertebrates and fungi. And there are the sweet chestnuts, of course, sought after by squirrels and elderly ladies alike in the autumn. Unfortunately the only evidence we found of this year's crop was  was a little cache of husks in a neat pile. 

At least I thought that was our lot, until this evening when John took out of his pocket three or four tiny little chestnuts that he had quietly pocketed and is planning to grow. Now that would be a wonderful thing, wouldn't it. A sapling from an ancient tree.


Just a quick word to say thank you for the comments you have been leaving over the last week or so. I particularly enjoyed all the comments on the Factory Dress. I always wonder whether I'm going to make it to the twenty fourth, but somehow something always turns up on the journey.

05 December 2013

day five: a pause for thought

I turned on the TV for the news when I arrived home tonight to hear the news that Nelson Mandela died today. It's hard to know what to say that won't be said elsewhere so perhaps we can just pause and think about what we have learnt from this man's life about grace, dignity and the power of reconciliation.

04 December 2013

day four: cat

A sweet friend texted late in the afternoon to say he had a spare ticket for the panto this evening at Hackney Empire. Would I like to go? Yes, I would...

Bright, loud, local, jolly, a small and enthusiastic band, a decent dame, sweets thrown into the auditorium, lovely frocks, tap dancing (I love tap dancing), the very best chorus for the audience sing-song, an excellent Puss with a Jamaican accent and winning ways. 

I do like a cat in a panto; and an advent calendar.

03 December 2013

day three: robin

He was singing right at the back of the Lidl car park. I couldn't work out where the sound was coming from at first, then tracked it to a scuzzy corner, discarded beer cans scattered on the ground along with the other detritus. A large buddleia was growing in a small share of land between the car park and a new building, and there he was as high as he could get, and he didn't stop singing until I got a little bit too close.

It was a competition of sorts I soon realised, because in the lull I could hear the other robins on the other side of the canal singing along.

Don't be fooled by the background - that car park is a bit of a dump but the music is still sublime.

02 December 2013

day two: three ships

Go to Greenwich to pick your three ships and you'll be spoilt for choice. They are everywhere. You can choose those with names. Go for the Cutty Sark tourist option. 

Admire Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle. 

Or walk through Turner and the Sea to see his interpretation of the Victory and the mayhem of Trafalgar - why did I not realise that the sails would be torn to shreds by fire and cannon?  Or the spectacle of the nation's favourite Fighting Temeraire being towed up river, with a degree of artistic licence. Then make your way to the last couple of rooms and be blown away in a breathtaking mini-storm by the little colour sketches with their merest suggestions of ships. 

I may even have been at all at sea when I saw them.

01 December 2013

day one: gold

On our way out of the Maritime Museum, we came across a small golden oak leaf on the stairs, brought in somehow from the park outside. It was so delicate, it's a wonder it survived at all under the heft of people passing up and down.

Back outside, the leaves had almost disappeared from the trees and even though the sky was grey there was a hazy goldenness about the place.   We walked up the hill by one path and down by another, then out into the street again. It was cool rather than cold, but it was the light that gave it away, a definite sense of change. December, I think.

27 November 2013

work and wear

Many moons ago, when the weather was warm, the days were long and time seemed plentiful, my best friend and I mooched around the galleries together. Along with hordes of people we squeezed in with the crowds swarming around Tate Britain's Lowry exhibition to peer at pictures of the industrial poor going about their daily business, always in a rush it seemed, whether it was to football matches or funerals. I'd never seen any of these pictures close up, and despite the pressing crowds, I found myself smiling out loud, so to speak, with their familiarity: altercations in the street, waiting rooms, the solemnity of funerals, and above all the energy of purpose. These were busy people, bent forward, squeezing life in.

I'd been thinking all summer about a green skirt that Salley Vickers' Cleaner of Chartres had worn, and found one in a charity shop, only to surrender it to a lady who had bent down to pick something up and looked devestated when she rose up and saw that I had picked it up off the rack. But around the same time, Kate wrote a post about her boiler suit which also struck a chord because I too love a bit of a workwear.

And with indoor stock coat*

With all these influences converging it was almost inevitable that I'd get over the green skirt dreams and so on a visit to Rye I found myself buying the Merchant and Mills Factory Dress pattern, made out of tough brown card and rolled up in a tube, beautifully utilitarian. Somewhat cautiously for me, I thought I should make up a toile before investing in expensive fabric. And so, with purpose and pleasure, my domestic workwear was cut out one night and made up in an afternoon from a second-hand gingham curtain, just as a try-out.

It turns out that the Factory Dress is an excellent dress for labour, around the house or on the allotment. For going out on the town - ha! -it is not quite right, at least not for me, though others here and there have fared better. It may be that because the pattern was a size smaller than my usual size it needs to be adjusted, at least made longer in the waist; or maybe I'm just more used to a more fitted style; or perhaps it's just inevitable that a dress made from an old gingham curtain might make you look like you really do work in an factory or  institution. Overall (sorry) the dress seems to work much better with sensible mary-janes and black hose, so a second attempt might be in order with a more drapey, woollen fabric. I thought I might get round to it in time to participate in the Wovember challenge to complete a woollen garment, but alas not - that jacket I started in September has taken its toll of my spare time with its tacking and catch-stitching, silk organza smoothing and sheepy-smelling hair canvas pressing.

There must be a moral to this lengthy tale but I've no idea what it is. Yet.

26 November 2013


One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I gave up the day job was this: get up, get washed and dressed right down to your lace-up shoes every morning before you even think of doing anything else. The advice came from the most organised woman I know, and she got it from this website. I dislike this website with a vengeance for being so bossy and goody two shoes, so much so that I can't bear to mention its name.  Mostly I dislike it for being so very right. I come from a family with a father who disappeared before sunrise and never returned until way after sunset and a mother who always saw us off to school still in her nightie. Even now I can call her at 10 or 11 o'clock and she will tell me that she's not dressed yet.

 It's not good. Even when I come down, as I do every day, to a waiting cup of coffee and a bowl of porridge, time just seems to slip through my fingers if I don't have those proper shoes on before breakfast. This has been what has been happening more frequently over the last few weeks, starting insidiously at first with the occasional lapse put down to the temperature, and building up gradually. The diary I have been writing since January so I could keep track of time has been sitting in all its jolly redness on the bedside cabinet, unfilled apart from a note of what I have been reading. And as for the blog, well the routine is all but broken. Resistant to opening the laptop  to avoid being waylaid by emails from Toast, Bloglovin and the quick crossword, the day rolls on into other obligations. Then once the light has faded, my eyes have to work harder in lamplight despite new specs and our unheated bedroom, just warm and bright enough to read, is no longer conducive to composition.

I fear these are all weak excuses. Sitting comfortably as I am now in front of the fire, one cat waiting patiently for supper, another sitting by the radiator, the half-painted kitchen (walls and ceiling: tick; everything else to do) a reminder of my indolence, I know that there is only one reason for this laxity. I don't get up in the morning and put on those lace-up shoes first thing.

11 November 2013

evidence uncovered

Apologies to all. Halloween came and went and the following day I waylaid my niece, who incidentally had been a cat the night before, and asked her to pick a name out of the cauldron for the giveaway. I wrote to the lucky person, posted the book, and got her reply saying that she loved the book. And I've only just remembered that I didn't tell you. Shame on me.

Congratulations Annie! And thank you all for being such good sports.

29 October 2013


A little while back artist Kate Murdoch suggested that I might be interested in the Guardian's 'This is Your Photo' project in collaboration with the Photographer's Gallery which was at the time collecting pictures of mantlepieces. The idea was to "to capture and encourage us to talk about the photographic moments that distinguish everyday life in contemporary Britain and beyond." As usual everyday life took over and I failed to get my arse in gear for the deadline. But it's a lovely idea and over the years the mantlepieces in my house have featured here often, their contents marking time and the changing seasons. The background has been fairly constant though, in various shades of off white. Now we have reached the point, particularly after the dust this summer, when we need to refresh the paintwork: upheaval all round. Who knew that there was a stash of sticky energy-saving lightbulb packs on top of the dresser, and a red and buff tin marked CAKE stashed away behind the tea pots, jugs and rolls of paper on the cupboard? 

The picture of the mantlepiece today totally belies the chaos at the margins: kitchen floor covered in cardboard - surprisingly cosy as it happens; a basket full of freshly washed glass fisherman's floats next to the ladder with the now-broken step; the table stacked with jars of various sugars, pepper, salt; the hall full of sacks of potatoes and picture frames. Above all of this, the mantlepiece is positively zen with only a paintbrush, a door handle and some finger-plates, in the background all those different shades of one off-white wall.

No wonder it's such a pain deciding exactly what colour paints to choose.

 * * * * * * * * *

Thank you so much for your apple recipe suggestions. As soon as the kitchen is back to working order I will definitely be trying some of them out. I'll be picking out the giveaway winner on Friday, so if you're interested in winning a copy of the Modern Peasant don't forget to leave a comment on the last post by close tomorrow. All comers welcome.

21 October 2013

on a great place and apples

"Rafe says 'This house always smells of apples'.

It is true; Great Place is set among orchards, and the summer seems to linger in the garrets, where the fruit is stored. At Austin Friars the gardens are raw, saplings bound to stakes. But this is an old house; it was a cottage once, but it was built up for his own use by Sir Henry Colet, father of the learned Dean of St Paul's. When Sir Henry died Lady Christian lived out her days here, and then by Sir Henry's will the house devolved to the Mercer's Guild. He holds it on a 50-year-sub-lease, which should see him out, and Gregory in. Gregory's children can grow up in the aroma of baking, of honey and sliced apples, raisins and cloves. He says 'Rafe, I must get Gregory married' 'I'll make a memorandum' Rafe says, and laughs."

Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel, 2012, p 137

I loved this book, and imagining Thomas Cromwell in a house in Stepney scented with apples gave me great pleasure.  All that remains of those orchards are maps and place names, so we went to Kentish orchards instead and tasted all sorts. My friend was very impressed at how many apples I could fit into the two-bags-for-a-fiver on offer. The trick was to choose the smaller ones, and then eat them down to the stalk and the pips. It rained most of the day, so we were too damp and lazy to make a note of what we stuffed into our bags, but a vague memory and a quick squint at the national collection website confirmed that my favourite was the Zabergau Renette, the russety apple speckled with red at the centre top of the basket. 

It's not all good news for apples however. I was utterly dismayed to hear on the news that 40% of the apples sold by our largest supermarket chain are wasted. Joanna's thoughtful post on "the power of free" suggests how we might avoid waste and make good.  Clearly more places need to be filled with the aroma of baking, of honey and sliced apples, raisins and cloves. Or parsnip and apple soup, celery and apple salad, apple sauce, chutney. I'm thinking apple crumble tonight to go with supper, just for a start, or maybe an apple cake or two. I need a few more ideas though so...

I'm also thinking maybe it's time to spread a little urban making and baking love. A little while back food writer and allotment holder Jojo Tulloh came to our WI and I bought a copy of her book The Modern Peasant with the specific idea of sharing it.  It's not a glossy modern baking book, but a more reflective exploration of how city dwellers can make the best of what's available locally, including growing our own, preserving and fermenting. You don't have to live in a city to enjoy the book. Some of the text might make you wince a little (did we need to know, Jojo, that you parked your bike in a mews etc?). But its heart is in the right place and the recipes are for everyone who might want a little food adventure.

Here's the deal. If you'd like your name to go into the basket to win a copy of the book, leave me a comment with your favourite apple recipe suggestions, with links if you can because we might want to make it. I'll leave the comments open until 30th October and publish the winner on Halloween.

18 October 2013


I don't know what I was thinking of, using a huge piece of heavy wood as a yardstick. It caught the corner of one of a pair of ginger jars that have been sitting one or other of our mantelpieces for about thirty years. It tumbled down, caught the edge of the table and shattered into pieces. Ironically, some of the shards ended up in a dish of pottery pieces I had collected from the Thames shoreline.  It is probably beyond repair but somehow I can't bring myself to throw the pieces away. Coincidentally, I had heard Grayson Perry speaking earlier that day about a jar that he had smashed deliberately with the intention of having craftsmen restoring it with gold. I wish I could do the same, if only to say sorry, for this was his jar, not mine.

Accidents often happen when you are tired, and I think that one of the reasons for my clumsiness was being a little bit shattered myself. Autumn has brought more commitments than might be sensible - some volunteering activity demanding a couple of days a week just now, organising the local WI, a sewing class where I've taken on rather an ambitious  and no doubt lengthy project, more yoga. Oh, yeah,  I have a family and home too which need some attention - Mrs Jellaby and the child with its head stuck in the railings often comes to mind. Not that there are small children around any more, but an aging parent has to be watched carefully too.

I started to write this earlier today and since then have managed to fit in some soothing activities: a cafe, the market, some baking, some fairy tales and forests, and a bit of a snooze. The world is looking a little less jagged. And it's Apple Day tomorrow at Brogdale. Hope you manage to celebrate too.

27 September 2013


At first I thought it was the foxes. Things being shifted slightly, a shuffling sound. Then I realised it was the sound of the of a broom, a big one. A single blackbird was singing, a train, a plane, the traffic rumbling away. Eventually I peeped out of the window and saw him turning the corner with his hi-viz jacket. The man who sweeps the streets before the sun comes up, who leaves order behind, had already moved on.

I snuck back to bed for a few minutes, heard the milkman leaving the milk. I thought about next door's  builders having their Macdonalds somewhere on the road between here and Billericay. And the morning last week when my neighbour and I rushed out in our PJs as the bin-men arrived early. "They've changed our schedule, love. We'll be getting here by seven from now on" he said smirking at us with our bare feet and shoulders.

I do wish I was a morning person.

20 September 2013

i spy

The end of summer came up us all too quickly, before I had even had time to tell of the wonderful times we had when the sun was shining and cotton frocks were de rigueur for staying cool. But there are stories still to be told, beginning with the wonderful windy, rainy weather today in Peckham with my old friend and local guide, Mr B.

All praise to the glorious Overground that takes us beyond Surrey Docks (as was, Quays as is) to Peckham Rye. And what riches Peckham offers over and above the now ├▒defunct Higgins and Jones department store of my childhood. We started at Frank's Cafe at the top of a largely uninhabited car park, up the mildly pissy stairwells, then the ramps and ridged concrete floors housing installations, to the breezy top floor, exposed to the south westerly winds and rain, the slapping of ribbons, and spectacular views across London. At the rooftop cafe we ate  corn and bacon chowder, creamy and sharp (creme fraiche, celeriac and whey the cook said), all this with the wind blowing fiercely and thwacking against the hefty plastic ribbons holding down the protective tarp. Mr B said it was like being on the deck of a ship, and he was right. Except there was a garden too.

Back on dry - well, dampish - land, we took the tour around the streets of Peckham. Green suburban roads; the South London Gallery; the London Wildlife Trust Centre for Wildlife gardening that was closed because of shortage of staff; the Peckham Library, choc a bloc with people, and a view down the line of the filled-in Surrey Canal reaching past the allotments; fish and boiling fowl, plantain and peppers; and an  even more extensive choice of bargain-price nail bars than we have around here - a waste of money on me,  but the idea of once, just once, having sparkly nails, albeit on crooked fingers, was tempting.

The richness of re-explored territory, a new perspective on a rainy day - totally exhilarating.

More tales to come.

12 August 2013

good neighbours

In one of his books, John Paul Flintoff describes how when he had a surplus of tomato seedlings, he and his daughter went down the street knocking at neighbours' houses to share the spares. This little story has always stuck in my mind as it seems such a perfect way of meeting people who live nearby but with whom you have never struck up a conversation. Now since we moved into our house the number of homes has at least doubled. A car alarm workshop was converted into a studio, the studio later split to add a flat, the yard across the road rebuilt to accommodate four new houses, the cosmetics warehouse pulled down so that eleven flats and houses could be squeezed tardis-like into the space. We scarcely see anyone from these new buildings because they are built behind security gates.  Knocking on doors to share surplus produce face to face with these unknown neighbours is well nigh impossible. So when we trimmed our rosemary bushes and had masses of sprigs of rosemary, I decided to make them up into bunches and hung them on the railings with a sign asking people to help themselves. Over the course of the day at least half of them disappeared. When I went out to bring them in later that night, a young woman and her friend called out to thank me from across the road. She was going to make rosemary bread, she said. Then this morning when I popped out to shake out the mats there, hanging on the railings, was a cloth bag and inside it a loaf and a note from Ellie.

I like to think that isn't the end of the story but the beginning.

Have a good week.

06 August 2013

there was a birthday

Back a bit now, there was a birthday. Now, we don't do birthdays in a big way, but I very much enjoy birthday cards, the choices that people make, that confluence of what they like and what they think you would like too - a bit of nature, some baking, rural scenes, a bowl of knitting (this accompanied by some felted stones!), scraps of seaweed, candles, and a beautifully coloured-in ballet "dress" and "shoes",  in what looks to me like red, but which I was assured were pink. This last was accompanied by a sprig of blue hydrangea blossoms which was proferred with more thoughtfulness than a six-year old might be expected to express (I chose blue for you. Which do you like best - these or the sunflowers that mummy bought for you? My heart creaked, my throat tightened. It remains so.)

There is a card missing. My friend always manages to find a card of women at the seaside. This time she actually found one of two women with the same colour hair as ours. And that is how we actually spent the day. I wore THE DRESS, the one that took thirty hours to make, the one I promised to show, the one I wore to the wedding party with ancient yellow patent shoes and a yellow flower pinned in my updo, on the day I forgot to take my camera.  Here it is. You've seen the front already and that's enough of that.

Now, the observant among you may notice that there is a pretty little Edward Bawden drawing of teapots on that mantelpiece. Inside is a message which reads "NO MORE TEAPOTS". 

Such an  instruction, Dear Reader, is as a red rag to a bull. I saw it in Deptford High Street priced at £2.25. It leaks, as I knew it would, but I could not care less.

It is the perfect partner for the other gifts. No expense spared in this house.

05 August 2013

it always rains on sunday

We'd just moved into a hard-to-let council flat on tenth floor of a tower block in Bethnal Green after three years of travelling. It was a Sunday, pouring with rain, and we were watching It Always Rains on Sunday on a small black and white portable TV somebody had given us.  "I wish there was no such place as Bethnal Green. No pubs, no jobs." says Googie Withers, laying back on the grass with her bad-boy lover. We thought it was a hoot. 

I've watched the film a couple of times today and it's actually much better than I remember it. Googie, a housewife worn down by post-war austerity, helps her ex-lover when he escapes from Dartmoor and turns up in the shelter in her backyard. The locations are bleak - bombed ruins, a church with the steeple missing, wet streets, railway yards, dock walls. There are some neat period costumes - a pretty pinny, plenty of headscarves and oilskins to keep the rain off, sharp suits and hats on the dodgy Hyams brothers (John Slater and Sydney Tafler), less nifty clobber on Jimmy Hanley and Alfie Bass. The interiors are evocative - washing drying in front of the range, a tin bath in the kitchen, proper pubs - and plenty of authentic dialogue: "diabolical liberties", "too much sauce", "mending to be done"; and a good smattering of the sort of Yiddish and slang that you'd actually hear around the place. What's more, according to my dad, his own father was responsible for driving one of the Council's cleaning lorries to make the streets wet for at least one of the scenes, none of which are actually in Bethnal Green according to the brother in law who is something of an expert on this kind of thing. I loved it.

It didn't rain this Sunday as far as I remember, but it did rain today, teasing clouds and sunshine this morning, then finally a tremendous downpour. I enjoyed it very much. When the weather is fine I simply have to be out in the open, a leftover from those traveling days, so being indoors with the windows wide open listening to the rain and catching the scent of the wet garden was an unexpected pleasure. A bit of light mending, a couple of cakes in the oven, catching up on some reading and writing, Cornelia Parker on the radio talking about the beauty of dust, all of these things were little splashes of joy because it simply doesn't always rain on Monday. 

01 August 2013

heat and dust and extraordinary things

The debris in the garden next door rather has put me in mind me of childhood summers when we would run around on the still-remaining bombed ruins pretending we were  cowboys, and indians, holding on to the belts of each others frocks to use them as reins. Even on the cultivated areas of grass, there were always bricks about which could be used to bang in pegs and stakes made from discarded chestnut fencing for the tents we would make from old curtains. There may have been fires, although that was mostly boy stuff.

So it goes on, the heat and dust. I am collecting bits of brick and stone and lining them up on my railings, my own installation to countdown to the end of August when the building work next door is due to be completed. Meanwhile, I am out of the house most of the time - it's just like being a child again - though nowadays more time is spent in the shade. Those city streets that I used to find so very dark and grim provide some welcome refuge. On the way to visit an aunt in hospital, I walked through Postman's Park, deeply wedged between buildings off St Martins-Le Grand, a cooling sanctuary where you can visit the memorial plaques commemorating acts of bravery, the perfect place to commemorate ordinary people doing extraordinary things, including the too young and brave Mr Onslow.

Outings here have been less dramatic. But I have been thinking of estuaries and rivers, trees and gardens, wonderful aunts, cakes and cafes and local shops, gluts and what to do with them, and getting older with each passing day. 

We can come back to those another day because the temperature is rising, the banging has started and it's time to get out of the house.

16 July 2013

so cool

This is Auntie Rosie in June 1953 - a touch of coronation chic at the street party.  I love the way she looks so very cool against the background of chalked walls.  Who would have remembered that walls were covered in temporary chalk graffiti, mock cricket stumps and football nets all summer? Not me.  All I can recall from my childhood, for we lived her too, is the dusty smell of the street when it rained, and a dairy smell (it was a Co-op building). And it remains a mystery as to who that uniform belonged to - surely not her brother Willy, a chubby little fellow? Look closely, you can even see the seven creases in the trouser legs, representing the seven seas.

We are trying to stay cool here in these soaring temperatures, and life seems to be taken up with the carrying of watering cans to help the plants survive.  I get up in the cool of the morning to do yoga in the garden, before the seven dwarves arrive next door to start digging and drilling and banging and generally creating more dust in my house than is imaginable. Then I am off to avoid the noise. In fact, I'm off this minute because the noise is already unbearable.  But I'll be back soon I hope.

30 June 2013

new pots

The early potatoes are ready.  The peas too.  And the lettuce will be going to seed soon if it stays warm. So we dashed home to eat them for lunch with home made blender mayonnaise and organic eggs. Perhaps there was a little bit too much mustard in the mayo.  Everything else was perfect.

Now back to do the watering before the sun goes down. Hope you had a lovely day.

27 June 2013

trying:: three

We are one lesson away from the end of term at the "soft tailoring" class. One three hour lesson to put in an invisible zip and turn up the hem before I wear this frock to a wedding party. Take my word, it will be done and there will be pictorial evidence.

I cannot believe how long this project has taken, or more to the point the wretched neckline. I made a muslin so that I could adjust the pattern before I cut out the fabric. The back was adjusted (who knew I had a narrow back?). Measurements were checked to make sure that it would fit snugly and I would sew carefully so it would all be perfect. After all, I had plenty of time. Three hours weekly in a well equipped classroom, top notch Berninas, industrial overlockers, professional cutting tables, a steam presser fit to compete with a dragon, a knowledgeable teacher who could remember exactly what you were up to and what the pitfalls were, encouraging co-students. All was exactly as it should be.

But, but, but.... somehow, those little sweetheart curves weren't loving me, weren't quite prefect. Eventually they looked fine and I thought it was safe to put in the lining. This time the three pleats at the neckline weren't quite even, just a slight extra fullness on one side. It just wouldn't do. Do you know how irritating it is to adjust neckline pleats when the lining has been sewed in? You start unpicking; you put it down. You realise you need to pick out some more. You mark the spot where the tailor tacks should be. You tack. You undo. You re-tack. You sew awkwardly. You measure one side against the other. You realise one of the seams is half a centimetre too short.  It needles you. You finally get it right.  And you learn that next time round when one side doesn't look quite right, it really will not magically work once you have put the lining in.

My mum would scoff at all this. I still tense up at the thought of her commanding insistence and my tears when, up against the clock, she would adjust a wonky neckline with a pair of cold, heavy, not to say sharp, shears against my skin. Looking back I realise that the results, measured by eye, without a pattern,  were amazing.  Unfortunately, I have neither her intuition or experience when it comes to creating a confection of frills and pleats and embellishments from a flat piece of cloth. So I conscientiously examine layouts and instructions, carefully measure and mark, laboriously follow seam allowances, sit up in bed reading the Colette pattern book and Adele Margolis, lurk around sewing blogs.

It takes 9000 hours of practice to become a genius I hear.  Three hours a week, 30 weeks a year.  Only another century of classes then. And I still haven't finished the dress I started last term.