22 February 2013


For goodness sake, what's with the photo shoot with a hot water bottle?
I have a secret to shrive, a sort of addiction that needs to be exposed.  Not the one that involved eating 20g of 81 percent chocolate at 2.30 everyday to stay awake: fortunately that can be classed as nourishment. No, it's the longing I get when the afternoon drama has finished on a Thursday afternoon and I have to trip-trap down the road to the local library Idea Store.

Don't for a second imagine that this is a cathedral of calm and learning because it isn't.  One or two security guards stand at the entrance just in case people try to sneak off with DVDs, or possibly even books, and beyond that the cafe where a group of elderly women sit and enjoy a long chat and a cup of tea in the warm before collecting their wheelies and pottering off home. The bank of computers to the right is fully populated, largely by goggle-eyed young people, while down at the far end, beyond the sofas for loafers and a solitary knitter, always there with her neon yarn, toddlers hop, skip, jump and squeal in the soft play children's area.

This is all exactly as it should be, for this is how I can creep unnoticed into the stacks containing Dewey Decimal System 746.432, sit on the floor and browse the craft and knitting books.  For it's here that I flick through those knitting books that always have an i-phone cover, a beanie hat, at least one, possibly as many as five, scarves, and a hot water bottle cover.  One even has knitted pebbles. And I think: does anyone really use a hot-water bottle cover?  And whatever is the use of knitting three different sizes of pebbles?  I ponder all this until the day I buy a felted sweater at a charity shop sale in Herne Bay and I bring it home and  remember that you can make said hot-water bottle covers and phone cosies from such material and skip the knitting.  So I get the scissors and cut, for even I can afford to waste £1.50 if it doesn't work, and sew up a hot water bottle cover on the Bernina.  Then I thread some yarn into a darning needle and blanket stitch round the trimmed remnants until I have a little pocket that resembles a sampler executed by a five-year old. And believe me when I tell you that my life is transformed. For I discover that everybody should have a hot-water bottle cover because it is the most comforting way of warming the bed without burning your feet and it keeps down the heating bills. What's more the hottie stays warm all night long, thus avoiding that horrible moment in the morning when your feet hit cold rubber.  As for the phone cosy, more miracles. The phone does not shatter when dropped and can be found immediately in the bottom of your handbag by touch alone because of its tactile woolly cover. It is, indeed, like having a pet lambkin tucked away, comforting to the touch, and so helps me to cope with modern life in a way that I had thought no longer possible.

I am deadly serious: get the instructions or wing it, make the hot-water bottle cover and the phone cosy or plead to someone else to make you one. Your life will be warm and stress free until spring arrives, possibly longer.

As for  those knitted pebbles, they are lined up along the top of the lower sash window in the (ha!) knitting room, just above the gap where an updraught creeps in, made up in the colours of seaside stones - blue, grey, dark yellow.  Every now and then I pick one up and press it pleasingly into the palm of my hand. That's how you will find me on a cold, dark day, thinking of Dungeness.

21 February 2013

all about the light

Following Whinchats, Rainham Marshes, December, 2012
"Our winters were long and dark, and we would start to feel like people under house arrest long before spring came- so when the thermometer rose to twenty or thirty degrees with gentian and jablom, it became almost impossible for us to stay indoors, even at night.  Sometimes, the outdoors seemed so vast and illumined, and the memory of the winter darkness was so strong, that we had to go out and walk on the shore, or wander about the meadows, filling our heads with light." (John Burnside, A Summer of Drowning, 2011, p105, Vintage Books, London)

We had a most brilliant day of sunshine on Tuesday, a day when, after a brief journey in a mist that was unusually thick for London, I had to stay in and bake for the first of our cake stalls this year. Normally, baking is a restful activity for me, but that day I kept on popping out in the garden to snatch a patch of blue sky because it was too cold to have the doors open. Fortunately, nobody complained that the cakes tasted bitter the following day, but I wondered whether my resentment at staying indoors might somehow make its way into the batter.  Because, you see, I am desperate for light and I can entirely understand why in Burnside's "Summer of Drowning" he recognises this greed for light after a long Arctic winter.

Wennington Green, Tuesday morning
The end of winter, I find, can be particularly demanding. Grey days interspersed with a couple of days of sunshine hinting at spring simply tantalise without satisfying. It's not the cold or looking out of the window at the same view or being confined to the same walks or rides that's the problem.  No, it's definitely about the light. 

River Quaggy, Loampit Vale, Lewisham
There are a few urban spots that seem to capture the light more than others.  The intersection at Mile End, ugly as it is, always seems to capture a little more light than you might expect, or anywhere near water - the river, the canal, the ponds in the park, or if you are really lucky, a trip to the seaside.

Shelter, Margate, without TS Eliot
Ostensibly, our trip to Margate last week was to go to the art gallery.  But just like Puggy Booth, I think it was really about the light.

14 February 2013

marking the day

Sitting on the upper deck of the 205 bus today you could see lots of sheepish boys in The City, half bashful, half proud, scuttling along with their bunches of imported roses destined for expectant sweethearts.  Back home, no cliched blooms in evidence at all.  Cheapskate Cards dominate the mantlepiece to mark the passing of another year for a certain someone whose mother insisted that his birthday was on St Valentine's Day.

13 February 2013

the 2013 marmalade post

Lenten Marmalade Cake
There was an issue with the marmalade last year, you may recall.  It would not set.  Margaret Patten had warned me about this - test early for the setting point because if you miss it you can boil it forever and it just won't happen. There may have been other reasons, but let's not go there.  So in the cellar there remains a substantial amount of last year's marmalade and while it occasionally finds it way into  marinades or sauces, stirred into plain yoghurt, or tipped onto ice cream, the best use we have found for it is cake. Dan Lepard has one, and Nigel, and the  Bake Off but I've yet to try these because the easiest one to find in the kitchen cupboard is Delia's recipe.  A simple recipe producing a smallish loaf cake, a cake with a slightly bitter note, most apt for those of us who are eschewing total Lenten abstinence.

In case you are wondering what has happened this year, well, I left the oranges down in the cellar for a couple of weeks then thought I ought really to face my demons and get on with it.  I picked out the speckiest specimens, boiled the rest, left them to cool in the garden while I watched the end of Silent Witness, wiped away my tears while we chopped the rind and boiled the pips, then with the fruit in the pan and the sugar gently added I turned up the gas, watched and waited, waited and watched, whispered some invocations, tested and tested again with thermometer and frozen saucers, ladled into the jars.  It was gone midnight by then, so I went to bed.

Chunky Marmalade 2013
And it was fine, all eleven jars.  Yes, there will be toast and cake, and even more cake. 

Wholemeal Marmalade Cake

*225g wholemeal flour; 3 level tsps of baking powder; 110g soft brown sugar - Mix together
*110g soft margarine - Rub into the flour/sugar mixture until it resembles breadcrumbs
*grated rind from half a lemon and half an orange (or more according to taste), 1 tsp mixed spice, 110g mixed dried fruit (with cranberries if poss)  - Add to rubbed in mixture
* 150ml of milk, 1 tsp cider/wine  vinegar - Add milk gradually until mixed in, then add vinegar
* Rounded tbsp of orange marmalade - Mix in

Pour into greased loaf tin (19x9 cm) and bake at 180C (170C fan) for one and a quarter hours or so. Leave to cool in tin for 10 mins.  Brush with warmed marmalade, orange shred removed and used to decorate if wished. Leave for a day or two before cutting.

Well, surely you didn't expect immediate gratification at this time of year.

12 February 2013

up in the air

Raspberry Red Rhubarb, West Ham Allotment, 7th February 2013
The trouble with not blogging regularly, apart from forgetting all of the things that you wanted to say, is that you start to feel guilty about it, and the more guilty you feel, the harder it is to get on with it - rather like visiting the aunts and uncles you haven't seen for far too long.  But these long, cold, grey days, well,  they rather get to you and there's nothing for it but to make an effort. So I visit the allotment to sit out in what light there is, wrapped up in a tartan blanket, and watch the birds until my feet are too cold to feel: blue tits and great tits feeding from my neighbour's table, a robin lurking around hoping for some worms, crows, magpies, pigeons, gulls, and somewhere close by the sound of a woodpecker drilling a tree, or maybe a telegraph pole.  Then I notice that the rhubarb is starting to come up, this very early raspberry red rhubarb whose name I have check up in my notebook.

I come back home with skinny leeks and cavolo nero that we eat for tea,  and enough fragile mizuna to share with a friend. It all tastes good enough to be parodied on Radio 4.  And at last, despite the cold, there is just a hint that sometime this year spring might arrive.