Wednesday, 4 April 2018


We haven't had the heavy snow that's affected some areas of Britain over Easter - our holiday was just wet.   And everything has stayed... damp.  The weather didn't stop the kids having an Easter egg hunt in the garden, but it was perishing as well as soggy, and their poor little hands were all red with cold. 

These papier mache bunnies, in the shop in St. Martins-in-the-Fields' Crypt, (which I think I've mentioned before) were more my style, even though they were made of papier mache so you couldn't even eat them. You only have to look at them to see they come from a hot, bright, flowery place.

Naturally we bought out the collection of chick and bunny egg-cups for Easter breakfast.....

and had a relaxed Easter - inside. 

We've been feeling the lack of exercise, though.  First, being stuck inside for weeks because we were both ill with this bug earlier in the year, and now because the weather has been so uncongenial that it hasn't seemed like an attractive prospect to be out all day.

Yesterday, though, we took the tube up to Kingsbury, which is on the Jubilee underground line. We'd never been to this suburb, and wanted to see what kind of a place it was, and perhaps explore the small country park nearby if the rain held off for an hour or two. 

It turned out to be a pleasant multi ethnic area with a a good selection of curry houses, Indian sweetshops and truly mega food-supermarkets selling food from all over the world. 

The country park was accessed from a suburban street, and just as well we bought waterproof hiking boots.  The ground was like a bog - no, this is not a stream, below. 

Walking was a matter of stepping from tuft to tuft of grass and avoiding as much water as possible.

Yet it was worth going. The area was obviously once farmland, and consists of woods and small fields divided by thick thorn hedges and hedgerow trees.  The hedges didn't look at all interesting at first, being entirely leafless, but if you went close up and looked inside them, they were wonderful. 

 Everything is very late this year,  but the different coloured buds, mosses and lichens and the mass of twigs created a wondrous effect like a great intricate embroidery.

or what looked almost like pieces of jewellery.

Some parts of the hedgerow were like an ocean of life, with each part ready to go. 

On the way back to the tube, the suburban gardens, by contrast, were neatly tended and stocked with garden plants in bright colours.  My eye was taken by this dinosaur scene - the dinosaurs are arranged in an artfully created little valley of rock and vegetation.  I like to think of someone having fun creating it. 

We have a small field in East Anglia which we generally let out for grazing, but the farmer emailed yesterday suggesting it might be a while before he brought his cows along this spring, and sent a photo by way of explanation.   I've never seen the land flood before, but it really looks as if it could support a few ducks at the moment, doesn't it?

Stay dry!

Monday, 26 March 2018

Stoke on Trent

Oh heck, if I don't get this posted it'll be April.   And I hope the weather will be better then!  Since I last posted we have had more snow, which was quite pretty, and we also stayed in a particularly beautiful part of Staffordshire - Consall Forge,  not far from Stoke on Trent.  

At Consall the woods were beautiful in a wintry way but there was very little sign of Spring. I was struck by the almost fluorescent green of the moss on the trees. 

The purpose of the visit to the Stoke area was a reunion. I'm not usually one for reunions, but I liked this one. They'd been an entertaining bunch even when you saw them day after day, and although some have sadly passed away, it was fun for us survivors to meet again, hear the funny stories and see what had become of everyone. 

But isn't it strange what people end up doing?  I still remember my surprise in my late twenties when I met up with a couple of friends from art school. Ten years ago, one of them had been a brooding passionate genius wedded to his sculpture. Ten years later he was a schoolteacher and said that the most exciting thing in his life was the weekly trip to Sainsbury's!  But another friend, who'd never seemed interested in very much, had become rich, and was working as a jeweller, creating amazing portrait rings for wealthy people.   Have you ever had any surprises at reunions?  

 Anyway, back to Stoke. Here's a locally made plaque by Johnson Tiles showing the city's history and created by children under an artist's direction.  See the bottle kilns on the left? 

It's in the railway station, where we arrived after a remarkably cheap though slow train ride from London - just £8.  You might have seen the recent Guardian documentary series of short films on Stoke and if you view them or read this you may get an idea of the place.  Like so many ex industrial towns, Stoke has an interesting history and some great buildings and good people.   When I lived there, heavy industry had made it spectacularly hideous, but it was still a true working landscape with a very strong identity. 

Now, nearly all that's gone. I don't think anyone denies that the city needs something big to replace the the pottery, coalmining and steel industries that used to be at its heart. Walking out of the handsome station, I was glad to see the North Stafford Hotel still stood opposite. It was built in the beautiful neo-Elizabethan/Jacobean style which characterised the local railway company in Victorian days.  Doesn't it look like a mansion?

The hotel's still there and on the card you can see a statue at the bottom left which is also still there today.  It shows Josiah Wedgwood, who set Stoke on course to be the centre of pottery making for two centuries.  

We stayed with old friends and visited some local pubs.  My favourite has always been the Black Lion at Consall (and that's our friends' dog). I remember visiting the Black Lion when it had no road access - you could only reach it by canal or footpath. Something about the owner of the road not allowing access, I think.  But it kept going and now the adjacent railway has returned to life and runs steam trains, so you can reach it by steam train too.

While we were drinking our Pig Squeal or Hogfather (for goodness sake) in the bar... 

...I picked up a children's book which happened to be lying on a table. It was called "Dash Makes a Splash" and it was by a local author.   I instantly fell in love with the happy, colourful pictures. 

Dash is a little puppy who has a simple adventure. He gets lost, is taken in by a couple of canal boat restorers at Consall, and restores a lonely natterjack toad to the bosom of its family before returning to Consall in time for Christmas.

The story is just the kind of tale that little kids can understand and sympathise with, and that is not as easy to find these days as it once was. I liked it so much that I went to visit the lady who did the book, and bought a copy from her. It is also available on Amazon, but visiting was more fun!  I learned she learned to paint plates in her family pottery business, can't you just imagine those flowers above, garlanding the edge of a plate? 

Although Stoke still has many problems, it's a lot cleaner and brighter than it was all those years ago. I was startled to learn that Etruria Hall (once the home of the Wedgwoods) is now part of the Stoke on Trent Moat House Hotel.   I still remember how amazed I was when I first saw Etruria Hall, presiding over a completely industrial landscape at Shelton Iron and Steel Works, a little bit later than the picture below admittedly but a spectacular panorama scene of industrial devastation, the like of which I had never seen in all my young life! It was actually such a busy scene that I was quite fascinated by it, though, and wish I'd photographed it myself. 

And here is another view of Etruria Hall as it was years ago, at about 0.58 on the "Staffordshire Men" song below.

I'm not going to presume what people of Stoke are like now, or what they want for their city, but I'm hoping to return to have a better look around later in the year. Times are changing and I'd like to think Stoke will soon start to get the break it deserves.  

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Including Music.

Everyone's Facebook pages (including mine) have pictures of snow today.  We didn't have any last year, and I do love to see it coming down, although I am not so keen on it lying in the streets for weeks on end.   

T and I haven't been out and about as much as usual, (although I've had some nice walks) because T. has managed to wrench his back. He's on the mend but he is being careful not to overdo things.   Actually I've enjoyed my own forays into the cold but colourful outdoors. A week or so ago I spotted these three fellas sitting on a dead tree, cawing in turn. 

Are they crows or ravens? I'm not enough of a birdwatcher to know - in fact, I think I did pretty well to spot them at all!   But I hope they are ravens, because I love the "Three Ravens" folksong, written down by (appropriately enough) Thomas Ravenscroft as long ago as 1611. This performance specially appeals to me, but the band, "Black Country Three" was active in the 1960s so I don't suppose I'll find any more of their singing.    

For birthdays and Christmas it's sometimes nice to have an outing - to a movie, a meal, a play, musical or opera or - well, anything really!    For Christmas I got tickets for  "Iolanthe" at the ENO.  It has only recently opened so we finally went and saw it the other day. I love Gilbert and Sullivan, although I know it's not for everyone. Gilbert's barbed wit of the 1880s often seems eerily topical even today, and Sullivan's music is so much fun. It's ironic really because apparently the poor man always yearned to be remembered as a serious religious composer, and not the entertaining guy who gave us this...

There have been four birthdays this month, two of them the twins -  I was pleased that my gift of a Spiderman umbrella went down well, as you see.  The party was fun but many of the guests were just as keen to play with the twins' toys.  That's one of the things I loved best at parties when I was little too - did you? 

I had a lovely surprise too. It arrived in the mail from Jeanie at  "The Marmelade Gypsy."  one of my favourite blogs. I was a prizewinner on her Blog Anniversary giveaway, and so a week or so a beautifully packaged item arrived in the post. 

Inside was a beautiful painting taken from a photo I posted from Miyajima island last year! 
It is nicely mounted in brown, and now I am on the lookout for a suitable frame.   Thank you so much Jeanie, it's lovely to have something so pretty and personal!  To me it makes the scene seem really magical in a way that a photo never could. 

The bulbs I planted last autumn have been coming up.  More crocuses - and my favourite variety, "Tricolour".  This was taken 3 days ago when the sun was shining and the bees were out, but I'm afraid the snow might have done for them now.  

I haven't been much at the computer - we've had workmen in and everything's very dusty so the best thing has been to sit in a nearby cafe and read a bit more than usual. I've just finished Edna O'Brien's "The Little Red Chairs" - a powerful, original and remarkable book, which I found extremely difficult to read at times.  It tells of what happens when an erudite and intriguing war criminal escapes to rural Ireland, and the village beauty, who longs for a baby, falls in love with him. 

If you think this sounds like a pleasing (though slightly challenging) read, you'd be wrong.   The relationship is glamorous and exciting in its way, and yet eventually we realise that the real story is  about different sorts of exile, and that some people are exiles from the human race.   

If I still wrote book reviews professionally, I'd have found it hard to produce an article about something as unusual and disturbing as "The Little Red Chairs."  Although it's so well written that I couldn't put it down, I began to feel in an odd way as if I was having to read it at gunpoint, unable to stop.  Alarming. Honestly.

If you'd like a proper review of it, click here and read what Julie Myerson wrote in "The Guardian."   

There's been quite a bit of music in this post, and so I should say that for the first time in all my years travelling on the London Underground, I saw a man busking with a didgeridoo.  It was a wonderful thing which appeared to be made out of a tree trunk.

I'd never thought I'd like didgeridoo music until I went to a concert by the virtuoso William Barton, and then I saw what this instrument can do. I was pleased to find a recording of him on Youtube so see if you agree with me that he is something special. 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Heath, Ghosts, Grafffiti and a Mysterious Ad.

I need to start posting more than once a month :) but anyway glad to say that the bug has finally left and I'm back to normal energy levels. And Spring is on the way. This and the coming 2 months are my favourite time of year, and I'm so delighted to have crocuses and a few early daffodils showing.  Here are some crocuses lit by the sun.


I'm trying hard to get fitter again, having sat around like a slug for 6 weeks. Our older daughter is a tai chi fan and has made a short video for us of a daily routine. It keeps some flexibility but more importantly is a daily focus on how my body is moving, and reminds me to exercise it more. 

T has also been ill with the same bug and he's only just getting better, but we've taken some walks on Hampstead Heath. This is still wintry but, as ever, there is always something to see, even if only shadows and reflections.  

                            In the sunshine, the lakes shone, and bare tree branches glittered.  

One morning our walk took us across the viaduct quite early in the day. (The viaduct is a whole story by itself but let me just say it was built about 1890 and stands alone in the woods.) The low sun cast the carvings into bold relief.  I had never noticed them before, and liked the variety of the carvings. This one I thought very elegant. 

I also wondered who worked so hard and for so long to carve "STONED HERE ON DAY"?  What they were trying to say isn't quite clear ....but perhaps that's to be expected.

Some of this stone graffiti had the air of primitive carvings. What do you think this might be?

About ten minutes walk from the viaduct is Kenwood House,  the Heath's big mansion.  If you click the link you might recognise it from many movies, most recently, I think, Belle.  I am a big fan of English Heritage which keeps the house and its treasures open all year, free of charge, complete with its interesting art collection, grand interiors and other treasures.  I liked this gilded lion lurking on the side of an 18th century table

And this detail from an early JMW Turner painting shows what his work was like when he was not being quite so abstract. I love it, and it makes me wish I could have known the seaside when these old boats were a common sight.  

A days ago T and I got the tube to a Southwark pub and attended to an amusing and interesting talk at the Southeast London Folklore Society by the artist and ghost-hunter Sarah Sparkes. She was talking about the magical library and extraordinary life of Harry Price, ghosthunter. Here's a photo I took of one of her slides projected on the screen. I think Harry looks quite the lad.  

  The library is held at Senate House, of University of Central London, which dates only from the 1930s but is said to be riddled with ghosts, including several haunted elevators.   Not sure I would take that too seriously. 

Sarah also touched on Borley Rectory, Essex, a large old house which Harry Price once owned. It was for many years famous as the Most Haunted House in England.  In fact, my parents had a book about when I was a kid and I have to say that even at the age of 8, I was not convinced by Borley Rectory! But Harry Price's life story is a great, sometimes laugh-out-loud tale of a humble-born magician and born entertainer, who was determined to be remembered one way or another. 

I also did a clear-out, and found this little book dating from 1852. I'm not that interested in Paris's Principal Monuments (which at that time, of course, did not include the Eiffel Tower) but the book was only 50p at a car boot sale, and although small, the engravings are beautiful when looked at through a magnifying glass.  But what is this building on the cover? Does anyone recognise it? 

T felt recovered enough at the weekend to take a walk with me over to Highgate, where we spotted this interesting advert stuck on a community notice board. It really ought to be the beginning of a novel or a movie, don't you think?  How do you think it will pan out?

By the way, since this is a real person's real advert (even though they are advertising on a public message board) I've blocked out some of the phone number.

So that's been me - and I wish you a very good week! 

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Still Tired - for Now

Sorry I have not been in touch much. I haven't been following many blogs - including my own. And, my Blogger site's been buggy lately, taking up to half a minute to post a comment. 

Talking of buggy, the bug I've had makes its victims feel tired for weeks after the symptoms have disappeared, or so the doctor says.   Am I sitting around because of that, I wonder, or because inactivity has fed on itself and turned me lazy?   T.'s been more energetic than me, so that's encouraged me to go out, visit a few people, and take a few photos, including these art deco style tree-trunk shadows.     

Sending so much time indoors means I've been too much on Twitter, and I hate it because everyone's become so political - including me. Every day some new mad and disturbing thing seems to happen and I can't help wondering where it will all end.   

I'm glad to say, though that we've begun doing a little Tai Chi. One of our daughters is an expert and just made us a little video of 8 minutes-worth to practice each day. It doesn't sound much but feels surprisingly good, with the graceful,  purposeful movements helping one's focus on the here and now.  Burning incense has been a pleasant discovery, too - the smoke makes endlessly fascinating shapes.

Oh, and I've finished Helen Dunmore's "Birdcage Walk" which I mentioned last post.  Great characters, story and plot - but what I liked best of all was the vivid picture it gave of 18th century life in Bristol.  I've been trying to write some historical fiction myself so I know how hard it can be to include period detail without seeming to give a history lesson.  Life over 100 years ago was so comprehensively different from now that unless you explain the background, you risk giving quite the wrong impression.   

For instance, lets say your plot needs your 3 year old son to drink a large glass of beer.  In a modern novel, this might seem like a problem for your little lad, and probably a problem for you, too. But in the late 18th century, right into the 19th, it was common for children to drink alcoholic drinks.  They often drank large quantities a weak type of beer known as "small-beer" which was more wholesome than the fresh water then available.  Not only is beer more nourishing than water (for as we know, alcohol contains a lot of calories) but the alcohol content made the beer healthier than water from a sewage-laced stream or rubbish filled well.    
But ... would you really want to explain all that background just to move your plot on?  The temptation is to change the storyline so that you're the one drinking the beer - or cut beer out of the plot altogether!  So, if you read Dunmore's novel, notice how cleverly she's worked in the period detail.  

My current reading is quite different. It's  Mohsin Hamid's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."  The text consists of a conversation the Arab narrator has with an unknown Westerner in an Arab town.   In fact, it's one half of a conversation, because the only person we hear is the narrator himself, talking about his life, what has happened in his past and what is going on around him now.  

As he speaks, pleasantly, politely and gently, we start to see how a bright, thoughtful and successful young man might give up everything to be a fundamentalist.  We can't hate him, and everything that happens during the conversation seems quite innocuous, easily understandable, easily explained.... And yet.... and yet.... 

Well, let me just say that I ended up thinking pretty hard about the book after I had finished it. I'd better not say more, in case you decide to read it. 

We had tickets booked for a concert at London's Roundhouse, and of course we went along to that. This well known venue was a steam locomotive turntable shed in ye olden days before first falling derelict and then being restored.  We saw a somewhat peculiar performance of Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses." It was interesting, though, and the Roundhouse is a fabulous venue. Here is a picture of its interior in railway days, complete with tracks and engines. 

This is how the ceiling looks now, complete with theatre fittings and lights. Can you see that the wrought iron pillars dividing the tracks in the old picture, are still visible in the modern picture? 

This is a view from the bar showing some of the exterior with a view down the road - lots of atmosphere. I wonder what those engine drivers would think to see it now. 

I hope I've saved up enough energy for a house guest arriving tomorrow, and Middle A coming to stay overnight for a birthday outing at the weekend, plus another house guest next week.   I think it'll be fine. And I am gradually making my way around blogs, and I'll try to reach yours soon.  Have a good weekend!  

Saturday, 6 January 2018

So 2018's nearly a week old....

Thank you all for your New Year wishes, and let's hope that 2018 is a good year for us all.   I've started it with viral bronchitis, picked up from one of several folk I know who are suffering from this, so I haven't been out much. Apart from the discomfort of the illness, I've been happy enough. I've begun reading Helen Dunmore's "Birdcage Walk," and look forward to reading more every time I take it up. 

I don't know how it ends yet but it's about a young woman in 18th century Bristol who is married to a seemingly respectable man - but the reader (though not the young woman) can see he is becoming increasingly dangerous and desperate.   A very interesting situation! 

Dunmore is a wonderful writer in a literary sense - I admire her use of words, her writing technique, the quality of her research and the elegant way she uses that research to bring her period to life.  She is also a master of plot.  Or, at least, to be more precise, the other books I've read of hers have had terrific plots. I'll let you know if this also the case at the end of my reading of "Birdcage Walk"!

I've also been enjoying blogs. One of my favourites is "The Gentle Author," an anonymous resident of Spitalfields, a once-neglected, now trendy part of London. Her (or his) mission is to reveal as much about this area, past and present, as possible.  Because London is such an old city, there is history everywhere once you start looking and the blog is varied and full of treasures. Today the author shows some of the many wood and stone carvings that used to grace East and central London, as seen in local photographic archives.  I am glad a photo survived of this physician tending his patients, and particularly the matter of fact way he is sawing off the patient's leg in the second picture down on the left. What do you think is happening in the lower right picture? 

These days, one of the best ways to discover ancient carvings of everyday life is to check in old cathedral choirs.  Many of them contain special tip-up seats called misericords.  These often show scenes of medieval daily life, and may be humorous and touching. Others feature the fearsome demons which occur very often on old churches of all sizes throughout England.  I have never known exactly why these demons live in old churches. My theory is that they're imprisoned there so they can be kept under control by God.   Here are a nasty couple of creatures on an archway at Ilkesthall St Andrews, Suffolk. The one on the right with its sharp teeth appears to be muzzled. Let's hope so. 

Many pubs also have artistic and interesting signs. This "World's End" is near Taunton, Somerset has  a nice picture of a punter escaping from the world's cares, but the surround is also interesting.

The badger's a symbol of the brewery, "Hall & Woodhouse" which owns the pub. You can get a better view of the badger here on Street View.  

Talking of pubs, do you know the Lidl and Aldi song?  (In case you are living in a parallel universe, Lidl and Aldi are discount supermarkets which sell a limited range of very nice food at very good prices plus loads of "special buys" which can be anything from fitness mats to drinks fridges, or embroidery kits, or cheese graters,or even the very nice jacket which T. impulsively bought for £15 in Lidl in Belfast when the weather turned cold.) 

This Irish pub song explains how you simply can't go into either store without buying loads of random stuff you never knew you wanted, because the price is so insanely low.  Yes, yes.  

The composer and performer is Mick McConnell,  and the pub's John B. Keane's in Listowel, Co. Kerry. 

A friend from Japan stayed with us a couple of days ago - hope I haven't given him my bug. We've had some wonderful New Year and Christmas presents from Japan. Here are two charming small boxes of sweets from friends in Hiroshima.  Each box, made from papier-mache, is a little work of art. I think they depict characters from Japanese folklore: the Seven Lucky Gods and Hyottoko.   

I've got tickets to something tonight, but I'm not sure I'll be well enough to go. I hope so.  My neighbour's invited us to her Twelfth Night party later this evening so I'd like to go to that too but don't want to infect others.  Perhaps I'd better do some more research into bronchitis and see if I can figure out what to do!   

So that's what I have been up to. I hope you have enjoyed the first week of 2018

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