Friday, 20 January 2017

Havens of Peace and Hope.

I try not to write too much that's negative here. So I haven't felt like describing how I've been unwillingly dragged into a frustrating and bizarre legal case that reminds me somehow of the trial scene in "Alice in Wonderland."

Can't say any more about it, but really it's nothing compared with the general madness that seems to be swirling around all of us in the world at the moment.   So instead of tearing my hair out (which I confess I often feel like doing) I'm concentrating on how lucky I am in the big scheme of things, and I've been supporting charities like UnitedRescues and War Child, 
which help the millions who have it very rough indeed.

And I've shaken off the flu, so I've been taking the chance to look around lots of old London churches lately - all of them havens of peace and hope. I'm not particularly religious, but I appreciate sitting within these old walls where for centuries people have taken refuge from the sad stupidity and evil conflicts of the world, said goodbye to hate and frustration and lifted their minds to higher things.    

The picture above shows the inside of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, overlooking Trafalgar Square.  This very famous church is only the latest building on this ancient church site, and it dates from the elegant 1720s. When I dropped in, the organist happened to be practising, which added an inspiring soundtrack to that glittering interior.  St Martin's also does a lot of work with homeless people and runs all kinds of events and concerts, and has a very good cafe in its crypt, all in the cause of raising money for its work. 

A few days later, I went into St Leonard's Shoreditch.  Although it's about the same age as St Martins, it's a frankly shabby old church, but it is full of interesting local curiosities and has a laid back, comfortable atmosphere.  The cat below certainly felt at home there, even though, like T.S. Eliot's Rum Tum Tugger, it was "always on the wrong side of every door."   I let him in, I let him out, I let him in again... and then.... 

One of the first things visitors see in St Leonard's is a large sign high up on the wall in the porch, recording how the church ringers did a complete peal of "Treble Bob Royal" in nine hours and five minutes. 

I've never quite got my head around change ringing but I gather it's about sounding lots of bells in slightly different sequences, according to mathematical rules. If I listen hard to church-bells ringing I do notice the sound seems to change over time. Perhaps you can detect this by listening to this part of Oxford Treble Bob Royal (and no, the video is not nine hours long.....).  

St Leonards Shoreditch features in the old English nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons."  Most people know this song, but if you don't, then my favourite version is this 1930s one, which was on a CD compilation that we used to sing along with in the car with S and Young A.  Like so many old English rhymes, the tune is so jolly that you don't always notice the slightly sinister words!  

Anyway, to get back to animals.... St. Stephens, Kensington, has a dog, but not as far as I know a cat. The dog didn't tell me its name, but it's a charmer, very gentle and very friendly as you can see from the wagging tail.  The church is a brightly coloured example of High Victoriana, and T and I spent ages looking around.....

and in fact found a corner devoted to T.S. Eliot... who turned out to have been a churchwarden here.

My most recent little pilgrimage was to London's financial district, the City.  First I dropped in at St Margaret Pattens in Eastcheap, where the kindly blessing below is offered to the stressed city workers whose warren-like offices tower all around.   

The church is supported by two livery guilds -  the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers and the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers.   Pattens are overshoes which were used for walking in the muddy, dung-littered streets of old, but now the guild has moved into making orthopaedic and medical footwear.  

I got chatting to the vicar there, who said that in the olden days, foundling children of the parish were always given the surname "Patten" when they were christened in the church.  So if that is your name, you might be able to guess where at least one of your ancestors came from.  

King Charles I's coat of arms hangs on the wall, and every year, the vicar said, there's a Choral Eucharist to commemorate the death, in 1649, of the "King and Martyr."  (This year, the service is on 26 January at 1 PM.)  As it happens, King Charles was beheaded, but I don't think it's anything to do with "Oranges and Lemons"   

And almost opposite St. Margaret Pattens, here are the doors of St. Mary-at-Hill, which stands in one of the ancient lanes which still survive in the City. It dates from the 12th century but was mostly rebuilt after being burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Then it got through the Blitz unscathed - only to have another serious fire in the 1980s. Luckily, it survived again.

After visiting these two churches, I returned home across London Bridge and saw a striking sunset, a great bank of purple and red clouds rising into a pale blue sky.  I realised how much I love living in London, because it always seems to offer something that matches my mood.    

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2016 in pictures.

Happy New Year!  I was wondering what to write for the last post of 2016 and then before I knew it it was 2017, so this will be the first post of 2017 now.   I always like reading Jeanie's "Marmelade Gypsy" blog and I thought I'd follow her example of posting a photo from each month to show how the year progressed. Thing is, it's been very hard to just select ONE picture from each month, and I am tempted to put in lots - but that would be cheating.

So, let's start with the January photo. It's the view out of the window of the cottage we stay at in Suffolk. It used to belong to a good friend who sadly died a few years ago, but it is still in her family and they don't mind our using it when they are away.  We have grown really fond of the Suffolk Coastal area and always jump at the chance to go, whatever the time of year.  Here was the view that greeted me one morning, at dawn, with the frost and the mist.  Although it was cold outside, that pink sky gradually turned blue and the day became sparkling and wintry bright.

February we went to Iceland - and Florida.  I'd like to show pictures of both places, but since I've only got one I'll choose this one of Young A in the Viking Museum in Reykjanesbær, Iceland.  The museum's like the Tardis, apparently modestly proportioned on the outside but mysteriously expanding as you get further inside. We managed to spend a whole morning there and there was still more to see, but unfortunately we had a plane to catch.

It is a great bit of modern architecture too, so imagine standing inside that great expanse of glass feeling nice and warm and watching the cold sea hurling itself at the rocks directly outside in the savage wind. (I always like doing stuff like that.)  The ghostly figures in the foreground are seated in a full sized Viking ship called the "Icelander" which was built by a shipbuilder called Gunnar Marel Eggertsson, who then sailed to New York in it before bringing it back to Iceland. Best of all, the staff were so pleasant and helpful. It seemed to matter to them personally that we enjoyed the place.

There is so much to see in Spain in March, especially if you like religious processions.  Much of our time in Andalucia was spent with family and friends -  but the abiding memory for me was the sight of hundreds, if not thousands of penitents in their curious outfits filling the streets and marching for hours in the Holy Week parades.  This drapers down a Malaga side street sells everything you need to make a good Penitent outfit.

And yay, April brought the swallows* back - a sign that spring was definitely here.

For the first time in my life I saw a complete half circle double rainbow late one evening in early May.   My phone doesn't have much of a camera, but even so I was glad I could take a photo of it

June has to be about roses.  I grew these ones on the balcony in a pot, then planted the whole bush out in the garden where it has taken very well. 

Late June, early July and quite a while after that was, for me, about the Brexit vote, and I attended the march in early July. I respect the views of those who genuinely believe Britain is better out of the EU, but I was shocked at the lies, self-centredness and responsibility-dodging of so many politicians - on both sides - and, looking back at my post, this was a major concern of many of the other marchers too, in spite of the generally good natured atmosphere.   

Anyway, there is no denying that this bloke thoroughly entered into the generally cheerful spirit of the march.

In August, we revisited the Kentish Town City Farm in NW London for the first time in years. The tots were thrilled at the chance to pick real apples and pears off low growing trees, delighted at seeing all the farm animals up close, and they ran around the rather messy and free environment in glee.  The farm is based on otherwise unusable land alongside a railway, and gives city children the chance to get close to nature, care for animals and learn to ride.   There are a number of city farms in London but Kentish Town was, I think, the very first. 

T and I had many walks and cycle rides over this summer, and one of the most interesting for me was to the Church of St Swithuns, in Wickham, Berkshire.   Many old churches have angels attached to the roofs - but elephants? Seems that the Rev. William Nicholson, one of the church's Victorian rectors, began restoring the church in 1845 and had commissioned some angels to decorate the hammerbeam roof in the conventional way.  But then he visited the Paris Exhibition of 1855 and was enchanted by a set of 4 papier mache elephants he saw there. Nothing else would do after that, and so after buying those, he commissioned another four, set them up - and they're there to this day. 

October and some of November we went to Japan.  We had so many adventures there but one thing that remains in my mind is the little shrine of Kansagu Ukiki on Lake Tazawa, in Akita Prefecture.  This tiny, peaceful shrine is set on the shores of the famous crater lake, considered to be one of the most beautiful in Japan, and all around  the shrine's pebbly base,  thousands of little fish gather. The shrine sells packs of fish food,  and when you venture down onto the shingle and throw it into the water, a seething mass of fish suddenly erupts.  What a bizarre experience! I rediscovered my childhood love of feeding the ducks -  except that there were so many more fish than there had ever been ducks!  And then I could hardly tear myself away...   

Returning to London in November we took several long walks exploring parts of the city we hadn't visited in a while.  One Sunday afternoon we found ourselves at Columbia Road Flower Market,  in Bethnal Green.  This is the top retail flower market in the country. It is crowded, bustling, and loads of fun, and the market holders still yell out their wares in the way that most stallholders have stopped doing these days.  And, you get flowers at Columbia Road that you don't see anywhere else.

We arrived as darkness was falling and the market was about to close for the day. All the small local shops were brightly illuminated, the stalls even more so, and there was a very festive air even though Christmas was still a month away.  As we arrived the stallholders began selling off the last bunches at half price, so we got two bunches of magnificent white freesias and a bunch of extraordinary red and black tulips with heads as large as peonies.   They would have been eye catching in the Spring but I've never seen anything like them in November.  Even though they were much cheaper than the half-dead bunches of sad flowers sold by our local Waitrose, they lasted twice as long, getting more amazing every day as they opened out bigger and bigger. 

And so to December. We took S and Young A to the panto ("Sleeping Beauty") at Hackney Empire.  It was a great panto, with plenty of audience participation, and I was flabbergasted, as usual, by the sheer amount of talent there is on the stage in this country.  Not only can these folks act but they can do so many other things too, quite perfectly  - sing, mime and dance, set up a rapport with the audience, make them laugh and carry them along.  This is a serious question  - why don't they all have Oscars?  

The Empire is an old music hall, and, as you'd expect, it is heavy on the gilt and plush. It still has the old board at the side of the stage from its music-hall days, on which the management would put the act's number, so you'd know what you were watching, (can you spot the number 4 on the bottom left?) and in the foyer it has photos of some of the stars of yore who have appeared there - Marie Lloyd included.   I loved the lighting, lurid reds and blues in the auditorium, mirrorballs and all sprinkled with stars.   Very Christmassy.

And so that was 2016.  Let us all hope that 2017 is a good year, and I do wish you the very best.

(*thanks to John E and Joanne N for tactfully pointing out it's not a swift. Well, ornithology isn't really one of my skills. I'm usually delighted to manage to spot a bird at all, one of the reason I always admire bird photographers.) 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas in its many forms.....

And now it's Christmas in London, so I won't post more about Japan for now. I've been making cards for family members and busy looking through some of my pics for inspiration and images, so I thought I'd share some images of a London Christmas, as I've experienced it over some years. Christmas in its many forms....

Here's a Christmas cake I made a few years ago. I don't usually make cakes but this was for someone dear to me who loved ginger, and it had a lot of ginger in it, as you can see from the decoration.  I haven't got round to doing a cake this year, but never mind - a friend who is a magnificent cook unexpectedly sent me a home made stollen - what a bonus!  

T and I always like to go to Oxford St. and see Selfridge's Christmas windows. They are always really original.  This year, Selfridge's Santa is a playboy. So the windows show Santa in the jacuzzi, Santa in the sauna, Santa going dancing... and here he is with his cool mates in a glittery ski lift in his sequined robes, gold sparkly ski boots and golden poles.... 

This Santa in Camden Town wasn't living the high life but seemed to be very content to be sprawled in front of a splendid repast in a barber's shop. 

I happened to be passing Guys Hospital when I spotted this festive character? They do say that doctors can have a rather black sense of humour! But there again, his eyes are made of champagne corks, and he has a very warm and good quality scarf... 

This Santa, spotted in the Oval area of SW London, made me smile.

I don't usually put pics of my family on this blog, so you must imagine the delighted faces there were when one of our daughters brought some treats back from a pre-Christmas trip to Paris a few years ago.  The display of cheese was almost too beautiful to eat (we did it eat it, though) and the macaroons from Fauchon were utterly elegant as well as delicious. Actually if you look closely you will see that one macaroon is already gone - it was shiny and bronze, like sculpture.  It really is true that nobody can do special food like the French.

And what about these cakes, below, which I spotted in South London - how do you think they were decorated? It look almost as if they have been embossed. I'd love to know how it is done so please tell me if you know. 

I haven't heard as many carols as usual in the shops, and I am not sorry because I far prefer to hear real people singing carols.  (PS: written on 27 December: I posted something about Wham's "Last Christmas" but I was really sad to hear George Michael died on Christmas Day, so I've deleted it now. He was a good kind man who died far too young. ) 

I was happy to hear the children below, in their school choir, in Bermondsey, singing their hearts out.

This year I haven't gone to Kensington Palace to see what they're doing for Christmas. At the present rate of (non) progress I probably won't, this year.  It's usually interesting, and they manage to ring the changes pretty well on the theme of palaces and princesses. One year, though, I felt a distinctly eerie atmosphere.  A bit  "Last Year At Marienbad" air it as we walked amongst clipped trees in a park that had become very silent.

We left after the palace had closed for the night, and it has quite a different atmosphere when there's nobody there.

It really did seem slightly creepy....
 The staff at that time were telling us that the palace  was haunted by some kind of large dog but I didn't spot it.

I expect Queen Victoria and Albert's cooks at Kensington Palace ordered from the old established posh grocers, Fortnum and Mason, when preparing for Christmas. We usually like to take a look at Fortnums' decorations and window displays.  This year's window didn't appeal to us much, so I won't show you pictures. To be honest, I didn't really understand what they were on about.   Below, though, are some Christmas crackers from a year when colour and celebration were Fortnum's Christmas themes.  I can't even begin to imagine what the price was, but I seem to recall they had real jewellery inside.   

They also had suitably over the top ideas for Christmas decorations.  Not recommended for households with little kids - can't I see little hands closing on those sharp, spiky glass ornaments! But it was all so cheerful I almost felt like a child myself.

There was festive fish and chips for the less well-off in Stoke Newington...

And lights for everyone

A cherub in Kings Cross

About three years ago we were surprised to chance upon pens of real farm animals when we happened to walk out of  Herne Hill railway station. The aim was partly to show the local kids what real farm animals looked like, and there was a Christmas market spread around the neighbouring narrow streets. 

Every year the faithful Salvation Army comes out with its brass band at Christmas.  I took this picture yesterday in Oxford St. We gave them some money. Homeless people I have spoken to usually have good things to say about the Salvation Army, who treat them with kindly respect, they say. 

This, spotted through a pub indow in Dalston, shows some of the older generation meeting up like they have probably been doing for years, under the tinsel. 

And so back home.  Nothing like being on the top of a double decker bus! 

  Happy Christmas! 

Monday, 12 December 2016

Folklore and Fish

Normally I'd be talking about Christmas, but I've been stuck inside with a nasty bug. Inside my head I've been returning to Akita though, in Northern Japan, so let me introduce you to the Namahage, the region's most famous folkloric characters. 

 The Oga peninsula has lots of thick forest and lovely coastline, and driving along the remote little road we suddenly came across these two giving us a friendly wave...

Well, maybe not that friendly.

Akita Prefecture is famous for its Namahage.  Or Yamahage (see later). Our friends were taking us to a museum deep in the forest, part of which is a traditional inn (below), where it's a good idea to begin your visit.

Once inside the inn, you need to imagine it's New Year and the landscape outside is deep in snow. There is nobody for miles, except..... the Namahage.  These are demonic religious figures whose job it is to make sure that people (especially the children) are working hard, being tough and enduring difficult things.  They dress in straw, have long hair and terrifying masks. 

They arrive outside the house roaring and shouting and banging at the door, upon which they must be invited in.  Once inside, they stamp about (stamping is often a way of getting rid of evil).  Then they shout at the children, demanding to see their lesson books, and fire questions around about how good everyone is being.  You see the one below shaking his finger.  

When everything is in uproar, and the children are screaming their heads off, the Namahage are offered food, drink and sake ("Kampai!" or "cheers!" - see below).  Then they go away, leaving everyone to reflect on whether or not they have been quite hardworking and strong enough lately.

I guess the tradition wouldn't get the approval of supernanny Jo Frost, though Mary Poppins might have had a shade of sympathy .... but anyway, that's what they do. Near the inn, there's a really beautiful museum giving a lot of background to this curious tradition and

also offering you the chance to dress up as a namahage yourself, in rice straw cape and shoes. Sorry it's a bit blurry, I wasn't using flash.

And when fully dressed you might look a bit like this....

Here is T. trying on a mask for size. 

and local kids had done some terrific, and terrifying murals, although, as you see the kid in the green sweater at the bottom of the picture is obviously finding the whole thing really amusing...  there's always one, isn't there?

In fact, the Namahage are the popular face of another very similar tradition, the Yamahage. Confusingly, the Yamahage, although they look and act in a similar way,  are much more rustic and are not a tourist attraction, and are more associated with having a good rice harvest.   As in many parts of rural Japan, though, the young are fleeing to Tokyo and other big cities, and the private old religious customs are struggling to survive in their pure and original form. So the Yamahage, with their simple rice straw masks are falling foul of the plain fact that you need to be young and quite serious about the rice harvest to tramp around for hours through sub-zero winter woods while dressed in straw.  It is as well that the Namahage are keeping their traditions alive.

Anyway, there are religious roots to both Namahage and Yamahage, as you can see from zigzag white streamers the creatures carry (below and first picture). 

I would love to go into this in more detail but I don't want this post to be full of my rather half-baked thoughts on Japanese folklore, so I'll just say that I bought the twins some splendid Namahage socks in the fantastic gift shop. I was also a bit tempted by this keyring of Jibanyan, "Yokai Watch"'s fire raising cat, as a Namahage.   Don't you think it's cute?

By the time we'd seen the museum it was gone lunchtime, so we drove a little further on to a fish restaurant our friends knew. We would never have found this on our own. It's a simple place, with plastic tables and a couple of Japanese style low tables, and all over the walls are pictures of the owners and their friends.  Basically they get fish from the sea each day, chop it up and cook it with vegetables in a wooden dish containing red hot stones.  It is really, really delicious, and, as always in Japan, beautifully presented with many side dishes.

The owners were so cheerful and friendly, chatting and joking with their customers. They posed for their picture.

And since we were their very last lunch customers of the day, they came out and waved us goodbye when we left, also bowing as is the Japanese custom.

We drove back via some wild, windy and unspoiled coastal scenery. By now the sun was starting to appear.  I could have stayed for far longer and taken a walk by the sea...

But we had to get back to collect our friend's son from school!

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