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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Spring and the Cheshire Cat

I had a beautiful weekend in Herefordshire with a friend who also has a large and very useful collection of Lewis Carroll and "Alice" material. I was researching unpublished material on Carroll, but it was really too nice to stay indoors so I spent a lot of time outside in the garden. 

   Something about the light in that part of the world appeals to me so much - it's hazy and yet bright, colourful and almost luminous at times. I often notice it and wonder what causes it.  Perhaps the shape of the landscape, with the distant hills blue and misty but the foreground so bright. And at this time of year the countryside is a great shout of green, with all the leaves opening and the blossom on the trees. 

Pretty sure these are apple blossoms - not that I'm a great expert.

 And here is my friend's magnolia tree....but do you notice the silent and (I think) rather creepy onlooker in the shed?  I don't know why the Cheshire Cat is so disturbing - he is friendly enough, after all.   Maybe it's the idea of a disembodied head that's a little bothersome.  What do you think?

Incidentally the idea of the Cheshire Cat is supposed to have been inspired by this ancient carving in the church of Croft on Tees, Yorkshire, where Lewis Carroll spent his teenage years as the rector's son.  He and his 10 brothers and sisters would surely have spent many hours listening to their dad's sermons while sitting in the nearby pews under the gaze of this ancient creature.  

Friday, 10 April 2015


Believe it or not I am still digesting the trip we took last autumn and winter to Japan, New Zealand and the Bay area.  It was such an intense and closely packed time, and quite a long trip too.  I am hoping to roll out a few photos from that time in the coming weeks.  I'm happy enough in London but seem to be spending a lot of time on routine stuff and family matters. And babysitting. (That's just one of the twins really, below, with a mirror.  I suspect that it is the kind of peaceful chilled twin she would like to have, instead of the one she really does have, who grabs all her stuff as he charges past at top speed.)

Anyway, these photos below are from late last November, and were taken coming down Nob Hill in San Francisco.   I have never seen such a lot of selfie-takers! I could have photographed them for hours but didn't want to block the traffic!


The first time I visited San Francisco I was in my mid twenties, and in those days it still retained a lot of its hippie past - well, it was more recent in those days. You never knew if you were going to discover that your accommodation had communal composting toilets for instance (and yes, I am glad they've stopped doing that).

And nobody had even heard of selfies.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Happy Easter

Happy Easter!   Doesn't the very word make you think of flowers?  These are some of my current favourites on our balcony.

During our recent trip to Suffolk we took in a daffodil show in a village called Benhall.  This was one of the prizewinners - it hardly looks real.  I'm trying to remember the name of the variety - does anyone know? I'll buy some bulbs next autumn.

 One category was for sprays of spring blossom - here is a selection below. 

And here is a whole array of cheerful prizewinners.  I always wish that daffodil shows could give more space to the flowers; but I guess there is just not much space in village halls once you've fitted in the stalls, the teas and the people.....

As well as the flower contest, there were various stalls, including a stall with plants from the villagers' gardens, and of course there were cups of tea and cakes.

F. bought us a bunch of flowers and I have been looking at the patterns and details of them with delight. 

  I love the way the petals glisten in these narcissi.

I am trying to stay off chocolate for Easter, although K bought us each a PINK chocolate duck. I will be too intrigued not to eat it. Wonder if it is flavoured? I hope so.

At this particular time, I like to reflect on how lucky we are to live in a peaceful and free country - those of us who do, are among the luckiest people on earth.. 

Once again - Happy Easter!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Chilling out... and Japanese Food

A friend let us use her family's cottage in Suffolk so we took the chance to go for a few days, and a very good idea it was. I've been getting all wound up about various things that aren't worth getting wound up about... and then feeling annoyed with myself because I know it's all really trivial YET I KEEP FUSSING ABOUT IT.  As I expected, a few days without phone or internet blew it all away!

I will download the photos soon, but first.... I still have a few images of Japan in my file, mostly about food.  You might remember I was a bit iffy about Japanese food before I went, but now I'm a fan.  I hope you enjoy looking at these aspects of food.  I start with a picture of how it feels to come into Tokyo in the evening.  We were arriving from Kyoto and had a dinner date within about an hour of arriving, so this picture recalls that feeling.  To be honest, Japanese cities do not present a very pretty appearance from the train but the light gave it a strange charm.

At the station, before each trip, we usually bought snacks to eat on the train, and I was always attracted by the variety of brightly colourful bento boxes. They look as if they are full of sweets, but most of the food is savoury.

Before setting out we had had a  Western style breakfast, with persimmon, salad, mini frankfurters and omlette and mashed potatoes.     Western style food, but far from the fry-ups you  will get at the average British b&b. 

Some of the restaurants presented food in the most elaborate ways. This was seafood - almost too amazing to eat. 

I considered going to MacDonalds and sampling their "take" on Japanese food (it wasn't all hamburgers). But in the end I didn't. 

This tiny model of an old fashioned cake shop stood on a table in the real cake shop we visited in Kanazawa with our friend Rie.   I thought how trusting it was of the owners to leave this little model here unprotected on the table with us.We admired the little display counter full of sweets, and the sweet boxes in the shelves behind. There is a low table so you can sit down, and that is a very interesting green mask hanging on the door.

Here is the real shop, 

This is an autumn cake,  with an autumn leaf and autumn colours and the autumn taste of chestnut, most beautifully presented in a tea house in Kanazawa.

Also in Kanazawa we admired a particularly large sake shop. Bottles of all sizes from tiny to truly huge, ranged along shelves that reached from floor to ceiling. I am afraid I couldn't tell the difference between different types of sake at all. 

Don't know what these bottles are supposed to hold  - look a bit scary actually - but they are some kind of a drink.

I think this little boy is dressed up for Shichi-Go-San, when little girls of 3 or 7 and little boys of 5 dress up in traditional costume.  I was told that the children are given sticks of red and white candy on this day, but if this little lad had had any candy, he'd already eaten it.

I think he might have liked some of the pancakes and waffles in Tokyo's Takashita Street.  It is where teenagers congregate to see and be seen.  Sadly for boys, sweet waffles seem to be considered a bit girly. Certainly it seemed to be only the girls who were buying.

On the whole, people didn't eat the great bags of sweets and snacks that they do here. Perhaps that is why nearly everyone we saw was slim.  

And oh yes, I'll be restricting calories tomorrow.  There is also some excellent food to be had in Suffolk and I feel as if I ate too much of it.  Those Womens Institute cake sales have a lot to answer for! 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Technological Cherubs

I put a new header on the blog today. It was a cat  I spotted on a deserted Greek beach, looking as if he owned it.  Perhaps he did.   Not sure how successful a header it is - looks a bit large - but I loved his air of calm authority!

These pictures mostly show cherubs showing off all the latest technology - well at least it was the latest when they were made.

This is a cherub speaking into an old fashioned telephone outside Two Temple Place, a fantastic house which used to belong to the Astors, situated right on the Thames next to the Inns of Court.  I plan to write a bit more about this building but click here if you want to know more facts, and go here for Katharine A's excellent description of the current exhibition, which I must say I can highly recommend. It is called "Cotton to Gold" and it showcases treasures from Northwest England museums.

There are other cherubs generating electric light,

holding up light bulbs 

and listening to the other end of the telephone 

 This lady is considerably older than the cherub but as you see she holds a retort, something used by chemists, plus some books.  I think she must symbolise scientific knowledge.   She can be found in a glass case near the centre lifts in the Science Museum,  London SW7.

She is part of a most magnificent table centrepiece made in 1870, which symbolises the importance of telegraphy in creating wealth.    It was presented to Alexander Cross, Chairman of the United Kingdom Telegraph Company.

It is festooned with telegraph cables, held up by cherubs

and a couple more are busily working telegraph equipment.

If the magnificence of this centrepiece is anything to go by - it is really huge and most beautifully done, studded with semi precious stones - then the telegraph was very successful in creating wealth for the shareholders of the United Kingdom Telegraph Co!
I am always fond of cherubs and putti and rather sorry that you don't see them much on modern artwork.  I can just imagine them all sitting there with their smartphones...

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


We hear so much about Syria these days - usually in connection with evil hearted terrorists who have chosen to make it a sort of gathering point for themselves.  Yet over the years when I visited Syria the most striking thing was the dignified friendliness of the people and the sheer lack of fanaticism. It was a place where, as a non-Muslim woman, I was treated always with the greatest respect and kindness, and where I always felt entirely safe, even walking through dark alleyways at night, alone. 

I know that murderous fanatics have been smashing up the amazing heritage of this country - not to mention elsewhere in the Middle East. Until I went there I had no idea of how much history there was in the deserts, in the stones and streets and houses.  I have been looking through my hundreds of images of Syria lately, and picked out a few, almost at random.  I'm offering them to you now.  Just so you know. 

Above - some of the buses were works of art. This driver was rightly proud of his. Because Syria wasn't really a tourist destination, few people knew about the splendid buses that were to be found, many of them decidedly vintage but very reliable. 

  Below, a Syrian Orthodox church

There are very, very ancient Christian churches at Ma'loula, some of which were converted from Roman era temples, and don't have electricity; such a powerful atmosphere. Ma'loula is one of the few places where people still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.   I believe many of these amazing places have been destroyed by the  bigots and vandals.

We had one very memorable trip to Palmyra, a great abandoned Roman city in the desert.   Our hotel was right in the silent remains of the city, surrounded by the ruins, and so we were able to get up and wander around before dawn, all by ourselves.  Here is the moon setting just before dawn.

 This picture below was taken just after sunrise.  We climbed some of those hills, and found them covered in tiny translucent flowers which looked almost like glass.

This is Beit Jabri, one of the best places to eat in Damascus, popular with just about everyone. It was hidden away in a tiny alleyway. Once a courtyard of an old mansion, it was roofed in with glass, with flowers growing inside and out - and great food at very low prices. You could come almost any time of day or night and find it busy with people meeting their friends and having fun. 

A fountain at Al-Azem palace.

Below is a little corner of a souq.  Nobody ever pestered you to buy in Syria. Nor was there the tiresome business of haggling.  You could wander around and please yourself whether you bought anything or not.   Souqs in Aleppo and Damascus were both vast, full of life and with countless things to see (and buy), and they rambled on for miles.   It certainly makes going to a supermarket seem dull and bland.

This is part of the exterior of the Ummayyad mosque in Damascus, built on the ruins of a very early Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist - and John the Baptist's shrine was on display inside the mosque.    There was a large archway left over from the Roman Temple of Jupiter in the square, which was one of the entrances to the souq, so there were always people around until late at night.  The tomb of Saladin is to the North of the mosque; it is where the Prophet Muhammed is said to have recited verses from the Quran.  

Inside the souq were all kinds of travelling salesmen including coffee sellers and candy sellers.  Somewhere I have a picture of a coffee seller with a great curved coffee pot on his back. But I'm just offering you a selection of pictures here.

Anyway these lurid sweets caught the little boy's eye.  I don't think his granddad was going to buy him any though.

Some of the buses were very striking, both inside (see top picture) and out.

Some of the best Middle Eastern pastries come from Damascus. This was a small, old but high class shop in a dark square in the centre of Damascus which sold elaborate boxes of sweetmeats.

The courtyard of the al-Mamlouka hotel, hidden in the maze of streets that made up Damascus's Christian Quarter. Most large Arab houses present a blank face to the street but have these hidden courtyards; this one had huge mirrors in the niches around it to reflect the light.

Some very splendid ancient cars on the streets. OK - who can name this one? I feel as if I should know what it is.

A staging post in the desert, with shop and café.  Imagine total silence all around... it made a huge impression on me.   The domed building is in a traditional architectural style. 

Bosra, in the south of the country, dates from Roman times and was capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.  When we went the entire huge site was almost deserted but this amphitheatre was quite spectacular and gave an eerily convincing impression of how it must have felt to come along to see a show in Roman times. Backstage it was dark and massive. 
I've never been a huge fan of the Romans -too tough and brutal - but I always admire their extraordinary building and engineering skills.

Local needlework

This dear little boy was full of happiness and mischief. He was having a picnic with his large extended family inside the mosque, which has a great marble floor and courtyard.  Families seemed to hang out there for hours, chatting with friends, using the mosque almost as a park - and his family was settled down for the whole afternoon. This is the only picture I took of him where he was not pulling funny faces.

We last went there in 2011. The country had been a dictatorship for many years but things were gradually liberalising.  Life was far from perfect - to put it mildly - but people coped with problems with grace and humour.  It is painful to think of the bad times there now and I very much hope that peace will return sooner rather than later... and visitors from the outside world will also be able to return, to admire this most varied and appealing country.

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