Saturday, 21 July 2018

Aches, Pains and Malta

Just in case you wanted an update on my ankle, it's still in pain, probably because I am VERY bad at doing what I'm told to do.  And I am VERY bad at being patient.  I hope I'll be able to make a trip to Berlin fairly soon, but there's a while before I go, so now I am really trying to obey the physio in every detail and simply not be my usual headstrong self.  

Meanwhile, I've been looking through old slides which T. has kindly been scanning for me. I stopped taking slides about 12 years ago and in some ways I'm sorry. The colours are slightly more muted than digital pictures, but when projected, the range of tones is far more subtle.  Since I have hardly been anywhere or done anything this month, I thought you'd like to see a few of the slides I took in Malta when I was on assignment for Islands Magazine about fifteen years ago, and hear some of my rather rambling thoughts about the place.

If  you have read this blog for a long time you'll know I moved from Belfast to Malta when I was 17, so it was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, to see how things had changed.  To my surprise, they hadn't changed quite as much as I'd expected they would.  

So, these are boatman in Senglea, a district of Valletta.  

These boatmen are (or were) incredibly tough and strong and these ones had been involved in some way with the Regatta which takes place in Grand Harbour twice a year, when teams of boatmen are pitched against each other. It's a tremendous event and lots of fun.  This boat's similar to the traditional Maltese "dghajsa" water taxi (below - not my picture) though as you see it is  not the same. 

When I first saw Malta, there were usually working dghajjes in every harbour, but now they're really just a tourist attraction. A shame because they are beautiful and colourful. 

And I can't tell you how exactly how to pronounce "dghajsa" (I say "DY-SA"). Maltese is an interesting language, and looks as if it is very difficult to read. I think it was probably originally written in Arabic, as  it is a blend of Arabic and Italian.  Here is a documentary starting with a beautiful dance sequence narrated in Maltese,  so you can hear this interesting language.

If you speak North African Arabic, or Italian, you can probably understand most of the rest of the documentary too. Nothing shows better than the Maltese language just how much this tiny island has been a cultural crossroads for centuries.     

I don't know how much Malta makes of its culture to visitors, but essentially the feel of the place is very much Southern Mediterranean,  not North African.  Each village has its annual "festa"  centering around the Virgin Mary, and the fireworks are truly spectacular.  I've seen many wonderful Disney fireworks shows, but they look quite tame compared with some of the elaborate displays you see in little Maltese villages.  Here are some preparations for giant displays of Catherine wheels in Mosta - do you see the men on the left fixing all the fireworks on the frameworks? 

 When these structures burn, they make a sequence of beautiful ever-changing shapes in the dark. 

Malta has 30-odd small fireworks factories which sometimes blow up, as there was, and perhaps still is, a very laid back attitude to safety around fireworks. Below, you might be able to see that the crowds clustered right around the frames, although we did have to stand back when the fireworks were lit.   Sorry about the high contrast - that's one of the problems with scanned slides, I guess.  The atmosphere was very exciting and full of happiness. 

So the fireworks were as good as ever, but on this trip I was also eager to see the buses again.  During my teenage years, each bus route had its own distinctive colours, so you could immediately see which bus was yours.  Our route had green and white livery. The buses were of various vintages, and each belonged to one particular driver, who decorated it to suit himself.   They were really quite remarkable and I hoped they hadn't been scrapped.

On the trip for "Islands" I saw that the colours had been standardised to orange and yellow, which seemed a bit pointless to me,  but the buses were still very distinctive, and nearly always beautifully kept and clearly well loved as individuals. 

Decorated inside, too. 

I remember on our bus route when I was young one bus had the message written over the door: "GOD IS WATCHING, BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WEAR!" which seemed to be directed just at teenagers. 

Now, they have modern buses in Malta.   I know things have to change, but it's kind of sad. I wonder if the drivers still sit to one side of their seat, so St. Christopher can sit next to them.

I do have many more pictures of Malta, not all of them scanned, but I think this is enough for now, and I hope you've enjoyed seeing them and hearing my thoughts on them. 

And, oh, I forgot to say that I also have developed a dental problem.  Our practice has recently been taken over, and I needed a  molar crowned, but within hours of my new dentist fitting the temporary crown, it came off again. The other dentist in the practice tried to re-fit it, but found that it came off again immediately.

He decided there was something wrong with the temporary, and made another, which was fine. But when my own dentist came to fit the permanent crown, she had difficulty as it didn't seem to fit. She tried to blame the other dentist for creating problems (!) and somehow got the permanent one in, and it didn't feel right. Somehow she managed to get it to seem OK, it wasn't hitting the one below, but after she cemented it in, I found that something about the alignment is wrong when I am actually eating. My lower tooth puts terrific pressure on one edge of the new crown. It feels like I'm constantly biting on something too hard.   I know if it continues I'll develop neuralgia, so I'll have to go back on Monday. This time I hope to get the other dentist, and I sure hope he can fix this. 

After that, I think I'll be moving to another dental practice.  

Friday, 6 July 2018

Slowing ....

So I went to a foot specialist who says I have a damaged tendon plus ligament trouble. I must completely rest the ankle, not even go out to the corner shop, and the priority is to get the swelling down so I can start strengthening exercises. The good news, though, is that I can cycle if it doesn't hurt me to do so. ( My neighbour suggests a crane to get me from the front door to the bike without walking.)  Next up, I have a dentist appointment to fit  a crown on a molar. So you see it's all loads of fun here. 

As I can't go far, I've been photographing plants right outside the door. Taking time to look closely is always worth doing. These fairly ordinary fuschias reminded me of little dancers, bobbing about in the breeze.

 And here is a look at the most wonderful petunia flower, seen against the sun.  This plant survived the winter, which pleased me, because I haven't been able to find the variety ("Night Sky") this year. I think it looks as if it was designed by a  top dress designer, with a jewel at its centre.

I also discovered this plant, which self seeded in a forgotten pot.  It has a lovely pink-white flower and a spreading habit. I have no idea what it is called - does anyone know?  And, I wonder how large it will get.

I've also been reading.  So far the book I like best, and am recommending to everyone, is "Golden Hill" by  Francis Spufford.  Oddly, it didn't appeal to me when I first saw it in the bookshop about six weeks ago. It's about a young man who turns up in pre-Revolutionary New York with a draft for a huge amount of money. Why has he come, who is he, and what does it all signify? Ho hum. I just didn't want to know, so I left it on the shelf......

But then the following week I returned and it was still on the shelf, so I took a closer look, as I was intrigued by the cover showing a man leaping over rooftops. This time, I decided to buy, and ten minutes after starting it, I realised it was well worth my time.  I loved the way that ever more information about the man was revealed, putting what had gone before in perspective. I loved the detailed descriptions of life in pre-revolutionary New York, a period I'd never previously given a thought to. The use of language is wonderful;  not quite eighteenth century, but full of the characteristic quirkiness and liveliness of the period. Best of all I like how some mysteries remained till the very end. (And even then, I ended up wanting more..)

Spufford is a very distinguished writer of non-fiction, but this is his first novel. I've ordered one of his non-fiction books, even though I suspect I won't like it as much as the novel. (On the other hand, I thought I wouldn't like the novel. So who knows?)  

 Since I am being so inactive compared with usual, I'm restricting my food intake. I like fruit and veg best, so I'm mostly living on those plus low fat proteins like egg, chicken, etc, with no-oil  citrus dressing.  Before my ankle went wrong, I had such an amazing salad in The Watts Gallery cafe that it inspired me to develop my own versions. The secret seems to lie in combining many different raw foods, cut small.    

The leaves for the salad above were from the farmers market; noticeably better than the supermarket leaves and almost the same price.  I always soak and cook my own chick peas/garbanzos with salt, sugar and vinegar so they don't end up tasting like little balls of plaster, and toss in items with a bit of flavour, like tiny pickled capers, pomegranate seeds or even shreds of ginger root. 

And other bloggers continue to inspire and interest me.   I got a lovely surprise a few days ago. Joanne, over at one of my favourite blogs, Cup on the Bus, said she was going to send me two hand woven towels!   Joanne and her sister wove professionally for years, and if you click the link you'll read about a very unexpected note which her sister received from someone who'd bought one of their sweaters in a thrift store.

The towels arrived in a most enticing package, covered in US National Park stamps. Made me realise how much I'd like to visit some more American National Parks - what a good idea to publicise them in this way. 

And here are the towels themselves! I was very pleased with the colour. Our kitchen is white and orange, with touches of dull yellow and cerulean blue, so this pumpkin shade goes well.

I've also been looking at YouTube for workouts for folks with ankle injuries. I've been using this, from Caroline Jordan Fitness.  Her enthusiasm is so relentless that it makes me feel exhausted just listening to her, but it is a useful workout.  However, with any luck I'll be able to 
go out on my bike.  Sure, I won't be able to get off it and walk around, but I am looking forward to it all the same.  

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Royal Lodgings, an Old Cat and a Bad Ankle

My last couple of weeks has been a mix of emotions.   We attended a funeral, which as well as being sad, was also uplifting.  The person who had passed away, too young, was very much into ecology and nature, and very fond of his native county, Rutland.  Rutland's the smallest county in England, and one of its sights is the church where the funeral service was held - Normanton Old Church (below). 

If the church looks as if it's half submerged; well, it is. It used to be the private chapel of the Earls of Ancaster, but in the 1970s, the Rutland Water reservoir was constructed, and the church was de-consecrated and slated for demolition.  After a public outcry it was adapted to stand in the water and is now a popular special occasion venue in the most beautiful and peaceful surroundings. 

Funerals are always a bit emotional so we decided not to rush back to London but spend the night halfway between Normanton and London.  Before the trip, I looked at the map, and, just off the A1, about halfway there, I discovered this place, which I had never heard of in my life. 

If it reminds you a bit of photos of Hampton Court Palace, that is hardly surprising. The site's now called Buckden Towers, but it was for centuries the palace of the Bishops of Lincoln (even though it is in Huntingdonshire.)  Above is the gatehouse, dating in part to 1480 - about 35 years before Hampton Court was built. 

There are all kinds of buildings on the site, which has a chequered history, but it is now owned and well looked after by a Roman Catholic organisation called The Claretians, which maintains four self catering apartments for those who wish to come on a retreat or have a peaceful and simple break from the world.  It is not a hotel - you have to make your own bed and look after yourself - but it was ideal for us. 

 We stayed in St. David's apartment. Look at the thickness of those walls.  

And this was the view along the battlements as you turned around from the door of the apartment.   

The site adjoins a most fascinating parish church,  and,  just out of the picture to the right is a knot garden created in honour of Katherine of Aragon, one of King Henry VIII's unfortunate wives. She was apparently imprisoned in Buckden Palace for a while.  (Other past visitors, by the way, include Henry III, Edward I, Richard III, King James and the Prince Regent, not to mention the diarist Samuel Pepys who must have been there on the King's business, I suppose.  I don't think I've stayed anywhere that has had so many royal folk staying before.)   

We took a stroll round the grounds. One of the most interesting buildings we saw is the chapel of St. Clare. It looks as if it could be very old, as the floor level was obviously much lower than it is now.  

The interior is simple and dark, lit only by jewel like colours from the modern glass. We spent a long time sitting there and the chunky art glass was fascinating to look at closely. 

The grounds are also full of surprises, but since we had not been invited to look around them, we just admired them from a distance, particularly noticing two huge old trees, an oak and a London plane, which date from the 17th century.  I believe there is more to see there and if we stay again we will ask if we can explore.

Then we meandered back to London via the National Trust's Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, which dates back to the Domesday Book and was left to the National Trust by Rudyard Kipling's daughter, who spent the royalties she had inherited on repairing and maintaining it. 

Sadly, we arrived too late to do anything but have a cup of tea and a browse in the bookstore, full of donated second hand books.    The tearoom, shop, plant sales and bookstore are inside the stables, which are shown below. Personally, I think you'd be forgiven for thinking that's the house, it is so grand. 

  When the hall shut at 5.30 we remained, lying on the grass outside in the sun.  Shortly after that, we were visited by what at first struck me as a very spooky cat.  It drifted up like a wraith, and sat near us, and proved to be very friendly. But I have never seen such a skinny animal, and there was something distinctly odd about its fur, as I think you'll agree.  I was concerned about it, to be honest - but then a member of staff came out of the gateway and called it in for supper, and off it hurried! 

So I asked her to tell me about the cat. She said he was a male cat who had adopted Wimpole Hall stables twenty years ago, when already full grown, so now they estimated his age at about 22.  They'd known the house he originally come from, and took him back three times, but he obviously preferred the stables,  so in the end he was allowed to stay. 

Turned out this venerable old gent had been taken to the vet just the previous week, because his fur had become very matted (which is why he didn't have much.)  After a shave, though, the vet checked him over and said he was in good shape, despite his appearance.    

I suppose some do become skinny as they get older, and certainly he is entitled to wander around rather than running. And perhaps keeping a whole lot of long fur neat and clean is a chore when you reach his age.... 

Then, last Monday, we had some time when passing Osterley, another National Trust estate, very near Heathrow Airport,but not bothered much by planes. There, we visited another stables teashop.  Those National Trust teashops are pretty good!  In Osterley they serve vegetables and fruits from their home farm, including some unusual old varieties. I wish I'd photographed my salad but it contained, among other things, beautiful and delicious red pea pods. 

This  (below) was a part of the stables not used for a cafe, but instead was where they kept the 18th century fire appliances. You might be able to make out one of the wheels.  I hope they have some more up to date firefighting equipment too!

If you want to see what it looks like and how it works, I believe this one in Colonial WIlliamsburg isn't that much different... 

I also hobbled around some of the interesting garden which has a variety of different and equally lovely areas.   Not sure what this building below was originally for, but presently it contains large specimen plants. 

They include these striking and very large fuschia blooms, which I loved!  They're called  Fuschia fulgens "Rubra Grandiflora" 

And I always love cedars, which are often to be found in the grounds of big old houses.  Osterley had some fine specimens. You can get an idea of their size by looking at the person in the picture below.  A little hard to spot, but... she is. 

Maybe you notice I said I "hobbled."  On Monday I had to face it that my ankle had swollen up and was painful and tender when I walked.  

 Last year, when the same thing happened  I went to a physio who said I had small tears in the ligament, or was it the muscle? Anyhow, I did some exercises she gave me and it got better.  But over the last two months I've been increasing my exercise routine, and perhaps has triggered it off again.  So as of yesterday, I've decided to stay inside for a few days, and follow my doctor's advice to keep it elevated, ice it, and use ibuprofen gel.  I can't say it's had much effect yet.  

So that's it, that's been what I've been up to. And anyone with advice on how to fix an ankle like mine, please advise, because even though I am taking it very easy,  it doesn't seem to be improving much, and I'm feeling a little anxious about it. 

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Skeleton in the Cupboard, Money Down the Drain

Never thought I'd see a REAL skeleton in the cupboard, but here he was, the other day.  We were exploring woodlands near Guildford, Surrey, and dropped in at the Watts Gallery Artists' Village.  

I think it's a real skeleton, or at least it was a real artist's studio.  The Watts Gallery has been hidden in the Surrey woods for as long as I can remember.  My memory is of a forgotten, charming little museum with a very nice cafe run by local ladies and owned a slightly decrepit gallery crammed with the Victorian paintings of G.F. Watts (1817-1904)

Watts' paintings were very popular in their day. Between you and me I was never a great fan, but I loved the gallery. So, some years ago, when I learned it had appointed a dynamic new director, I feared its atmosphere might be spoiled.  Mostly, though, the changes have been good. The place is still delightful but now the buildings have been repaired and updated, many have been reopened, and as well as Watts' pictures there's now a gallery of contemporary work with ever changing exhibitions and a really interesting programme of events and activities - way better than most galleries I know.  Oh, and the cafe and shop are also good.  Here is the website. so consider it for a visit if you are in reach of Guildford. 

  I'd actually intended a flying visit in order to see a large detailed map which one of my favourite illustrators, (and a friend), Peter Cross, had made in aid of a crowdfund to erect Watts' statue "Physical Energy" nearby.  Here is a photo of, well, some of  the statue, but it's big and not easy to photograph it all inside the sculpture studio.

I find Watts' sculpture more energetic and powerful than his paintings and I think this will look good on a hillside. In the background, you can spot a cast of another of his sculptures. This one depicts the poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson - the finished statue was installed outside Lincoln Cathedral in 1905. 

The volunteer in the studio told me that the map  is everyone's favourite thing, and it is very typical of Peter's quirky and original work.   It's based on the punning idea of Watts and Energy, and features a wholly imaginary transport network and many local landmarks including an image of Watts' house, Limnerslease.  (Also, nearby Loseley House, built around 1568, a grand Elizabethan pile. I haven't yet seen around the house,but must.)

And... the map also features Mary Watts' chapel just down the road from the gallery.

Mary was G.F. Watts' second wife, and she sounds as if she was a lovely lady who doted on her (much older but very dynamic) husband.

Mary was very interested in art and design and started a pottery to give employment to the local villagers. (In those days, more than a hundred years ago, Surrey was full of hard-up farming folk - unlike today, when many local residents are wealthy).  Her biggest project was a cemetery chapel just up the road, using ceramic tiles from the pottery and designed in her unique style which is something between Celtic and Victorian. 

You can see what the outside of the chapel looks like from Peter's drawing - tall, thin, cruciform and made of decorative red brick.  Inside, it's a mass of multi coloured glazed saints covering the walls and ceiling, and saints in the same teardrop shape as in Peter's picture. 

Apart from the interior of their home, Limnerslease, this is the only surviving major work of Mary Watts. 

On our way home, we dropped in at the nearby church at Elstead, where we met the churchwarden who was just locking up. Here's a photo of the interior of the church. We were immediately struck by the massive beams at the far end,  hewn from oaks of gigantic size hundreds of years ago. This bit of the church is directly underneath the tower. 

The churchwarden pointed out something we would never have found.  On the right corner, there is a very old doorway, halfway up the wall and built on one of the beams. 

It is so narrow and hard to reach (impossible without a ladder) that you can tell it is very old. Peeping behind the huge beam, you see the door gives access to the tower up huge steep stairs cut directly into the oak.  I've never seen anything like this before, and can imagine that climbing those steps in such a confined space must have been very hard.   I took the photo below craning my neck looking upwards and so the perspective is strange, but take it from me that those maintained the bells or went to the belfry for any other reason, would need to be very agile indeed! Why, I wonder, did people in the past make life so difficult for themselves?  

On the way home we bought some eggs at a roadside stall. I liked the way the eggs were displayed on straw and there were some interesting cuttings and photos to look at. The stall is unmanned and you fill up the second-hand egg boxes yourself.  I think the owner had a sense of humour because ...

....payment for the eggs was made by an honesty system which involved literally throwing money down the drain!

Friday, 1 June 2018

Fashioned from Nature

When I heard about the V&A Museum's exhibition, "Fashioned from Nature," I immediately wanted to go, and last week I did.  The show looks at how Western fashion has been involved with the natural world over the last four hundred years, and it takes in a huge variety of garments, from labourers' fustian smocks to  gowns decorated with beetles - as well as quite the most awful earrings I have ever seen in my life.

I won't try to tell you about everything, but it was good to see that many of the beautiful items on display were simply celebrating the beauties of nature.  The embroidery on this evening dress from 1810 shows swirling vegetation and tree ferns, and is thought to have been inspired by exotic St. Helena tree ferns that had just been given to Kew Gardens at the time.

And this 18th century fine French waistcoat is also a celebration of nature, with African plants and Colobus monkeys (shown at the bottom) which would have seemed very unfamiliar to Westerners.

At least the Colobus monkeys weren't being made into fur coats. Along with the admiration for nature there has always been a seeming determination to plunder it, as we know, and any show on this subject will inevitably include quite a bit about fur, skins, pelts and feathers.  I found it rather depressing to admire the wonderful breast plumage of the huge albatross, only to see, (as the vintage label at the bottom said ) that this specimen had been "dressed and prepared for use in Ladies' Muffs, etc."

I'll spare you a picture of those nastiest earrings I've ever seen - in fact, thinking about it, they are too nasty even to describe. So if you want to see them you must go to the exhibition and look at all the earrings and see if you can guess.   There was something distasteful too about common birds which were "altered" to make them look into more interesting, expensive and imposing hat ornaments, although I know that DIY taxidermy appeals to some people. 

So I will move on to embroidery with beetle wing cases, as shown in the dress below. This was a type of white muslin dress that was often made in India for fashionable Westerners. It is stitched with iridescent dark-green beetle-wing cases of the jewel-beetle Buprestidae.  This particular dress is relatively restrained: there's far more elaborate beetle embroidery on Pinterest.  I believe the beetles discard the wing cases naturally, but these days you can get equally iridescent effects with certain types of sequins, although to be fair they don't look as if they are crawling all over you.   

The show has examples of all kinds of unexpected natural fibres which have been used in fashion.  Forget about wool, linen and water-wasting cotton; I was more interested in more unexpected fabrics like glass and pineapple fibre.  Pineapple cloth is now made on a small scale as a leather substitute under the brand name Pinatex, but there was a much more elegant and time consuming use of  this tough substance in a wedding gown of 1820, in which pineapple fibres and silk were woven together. You might be able to see that the warp and weft of the silk was removed in part of the pattern, and only the see-through pineapple fibre remained.

(Or you might not be able to see that. I am sorry about the low resolution of the photos. I forgot both my camera and my phone,  and T kindly lent me his phone. But its camera doesn't appreciate low light levels. )

Another thing that caught my eye was this riding coat, not for its materials but for its shape.  I think it's for a young woman or even a girl, since is cut with space for wide skirts, but apart from that, it doesn't appear to be made for a human being at all. It is very tiny, and flat chested, with a waist that cannot be more than eighteen inches, and massive shoulders that must measure twice that. It is tightly buttoned and form-fitting so I suspect the unfortunate wearer would have been laced into a very weird shaped corset and stuffed inside before they climbed onto their pony and galloped off (side-saddle, of course.)    

Environmental issues and exhibits are a significant part of the show.  In the 21st century the major concern is the wasteful use of natural resources. There is so much throwaway fashion, and some of it, like cotton denim, takes incredible amounts of water to produce, so it is good to see that some major fashion companies are waking up to the idea of sustainability.  Here is a link to H&M's "Conscious" range (click the little square beneath the description of each garment to read exactly how it is sustainable). At present, though, the idea of eco-fashion still seems like a bit of a fad, so it would good to see it become more mainstream.  

All so different from the second world war, isn't it?  Then, just getting materials at all, of any kind, was a problem.  If you were a skilled craftsperson, though, you could create beautiful garments from used parachute silk, like this, fashioned by a clever London dressmaker in the 1940s. This might have been one of my favourite pieces in the show. 

Of course fashion comes up with all kinds of extraordinary ideas, and recent ones are just as impractical and probably just as uncomfortable to wear as that riding jacket. The shoes below are from the "Bird Witched" collection of Japanese designer Masaya Kushino.  I found them very hard to photograph, so I've manipulated the image so you can get an idea of how they looked.

In real life, the shoes were black and grey, with black plumage feathers at the back, and sculpted metal bird claws which are the part you actually walk on.  Since they stand several inches off the ground, anyone using them would need a wonderful sense of balance! 


Jean-Paul Gaultier, as ever, contributed one of the most amazing garments. This dress, from his "Russia Collection" is called "Cat Woman," but in fact it depicts a leopard.  It is not made from real leopard skin but is created with many thousands of beads, and the label said that it took over 1,000 hours to make. You will see that the "leopard" face forms the entire bodice of the dress, and to me it looked as if it was holding the model in a close embrace.

A bit creepy, as so much of this fashion is - but for me that's one of the things that makes it so fascinating. 

After seeing the show, we emerged, blinking, to soak up some rays in the Madjeski Garden, in the museum's central courtyard.  In the beginning, I suspect this garden with its calm lawns and shallow pool was originally intended as an oasis of serenity.  Well, it's anything but that, now, and all the better for it.  The museum seems to have decided that it should be a child friendly zone and added water jets to add to the fun, which I'm sure weren't there originally.   There's now even an  an icecream stand in the sunniest corner, where you can sit and watch the kids play and notice everything that is going on in the square.

On the way home, we stopped off by the Paddington Canal to see what was new.  More children, more water jets.   This little person below spent a while figuring how to catch water from the jets shooting upwards all around her. She was very persistent, and in the end she realised that her mug had to be right way up, catching the water as it fell.  It may seem obvious to us, but I thought that was a real feat of reasoning for a little tot. 

I know that the weather in some countries is pretty bad right now, so I hope you're getting some pleasant summer days where you are.  And, if you want to go to the "Fashioned From Nature" exhibition - which doesn't finish until next January - I do recommend it, and the details are here. 

Blog Archive