Thursday, 23 March 2017

Westminster



I had just written another post when I heard about the tragic and evil attack on Wesminster. I am so very sad for those who have been affected, and I can't say how much I admire the brave police who rushed in to help, and the NHS staff who deal with the aftermath.

I imagine that those I know who live and work in Westminster will be going about their lives as usual.  Which doesn't mean that anyone is complacent - very far from it - but many people remember how life was in London during the horrible IRA attacks of the 1990s, where the risk was ever present.  The subject gets filed away mentally in that part of the brain which deals with the risk of sudden death from whatever cause.

Wherever we live, however safe we may feel, we can do nothing to control our fate, and just have to hope and pray fortune will smile on us.

I'll post what I wrote tomorrow or the next day - it'll keep.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Thank you Jamie and Oskar.


Well, what have I been doing? Not blogging, for sure. But you might remember I wrote just before Christmas about taking the lads to the panto at Hackney Empire,  and the other day I noticed the Empire was showing something else I'd like to see. So I booked tickets, and at six o'clock T and I set off for the London Overground train, expecting to reach the theatre with half an hour to spare.  

The train was crowded, but all went well for about ten minutes, until we came to a screeching and unexpected halt.  "We'll be off again in a couple of minutes, we're just waiting for a signal," explained the driver.

"I don't think so," said a teenage boy standing next to me.   "We're halfway between signals. Look."  He showed his younger sibling something on his phone.

"Wow, Jamie," said the kid, peering at the screen. "So we are."

Two minutes went by.  Then another two. And another.  I looked at the dying streaks of sunset from the window. There was a slight click and suddenly most of the lights in the train went out. 

"Power's off," said Jamie, quietly.  "These lights above the doors will last for ages, but they only run on batteries.  I think we'll be here for a while."

"We'll be on our way in a couple of minutes," the driver announced again above our heads, and I hoped so, because the train was crowded and you never like to run too close to the starting time when you're going to a show.


"Not getting my hopes up about that, I'm afraid,"  Jamie muttered to the kid, and once more, he was correct.

As time went on, everyone got a bit tired of listening to the driver's updates about two minute departures, and soon we were straining ears to hear what Jamie was figuring out from his phone apps.  It was clear that the train had developed a serious fault, so when the driver finally admitted it, Jamie was already explaining to the kid how a diesel would soon be pushing us to the nearest station.  "Look - this is it. It's not far away.  Can you see? It's not one of the regular trains - it's got a temporary head code...."

I didn't think I looked as if I was drooping, but a blond haired man with a ponytail, fantastic glittery trousers and a big woolly poncho politely tapped my arm and said that that the long thin package he was sitting on had some space for another person.   I accepted, sat down, and he introduced himself as Oskar.

Nothing happened.  Then, "Oh, the walls and windows are all wet, look!" said the kid, rubbing a finger against the carriage wall.  

"Yuk. That's condensation from peoples' breath" said another passenger.

"The air conditioning's gone off," explained Jamie. 

"And it's sure getting hot" said a woman anxiously, and sure enough, people were starting to remove their jackets, and then their sweaters. Those who were sitting near windows tried to open them, but they couldn't be budged. The driver's voice crackled through. "We'll be moving very soon" she said, but nobody believed her any more.

It was perfectly dark outside now, and so we stood and waited and watched in silence as goods trains rumbled past the window, black and a bit creepy.  It got hotter. In fact, the atmosphere in the carriage was getting distinctly depressed, and suddenly Oskar made a decision. He pulled out a Bluetooth speaker, waved it in the air, smiled and music drifted out. And what great music it was. I don't usually appreciate other peoples' music in the train, but this was just perfect for our situation: melodious, cheerful, rhythmic and relaxing, and not too loud.  

It's amazing how a bit of music can change the mood. Passengers began moving around, tapping their feet, clicking their fingers, smiles appeared, sweets were handed out.  An mildly party atmosphere replaced the gloom in our bit of the train.... 


.... for as long as it took another passenger to push through the crowds from the other end of the carriage. His face was tense and drawn.   "People are very stressed up at our end. And this just adds to it!" he hissed.  Well, I was sorry for him, because he clearly was stressed, but somehow he did remind me a bit of Basil Fawlty....

Oskar smiled and turned the music off, but by then the ice was broken, and he got everyone chatting away, telling their own little stories. One woman owned a hairdressing salon, had been working late, was not looking forward to having to shop before she could eat.  Another had just moved to London, so being stuck on the train was a kind of introduction to the city for her, lucky woman.  Oskar revealed he was a carpenter from Sweden, and had come to England because he fell in love with a woman, but that broke up. So, he retrained as a massage therapist and travelled around a small but growing clientele. The object I was sitting on was in fact his portable massage table.

"Give us a neck massage, Oskar, that'd be really good" someone said, but at that moment, there was a commotion and a pair of men in fluorescent jackets suddenly arrived in our part of the train, carrying tools.  Were they going to fix the problem?

No. 

"We've got to see to the emergency doors. Idiots are pressing the emergency buttons, and every time they do it holds us up for another five minutes while we sort it out," sighed one.

The driver's intercom crackled. "Please, passengers, don't try to get out of the train, all the lines are live!" she said. "We'll be on our way in a couple of minutes,"  Silence.  "I mean, I'm doing my best, just give me a break, will you?" she snapped, and clicked the intercom off. 

"Don't worry, the rescue train's really near, it's been waiting at a signal for ten minutes," said Jamie.

 "The passengers on the Island of Sodor must feel like this,"  T remarked, and that was just what I'd been thinking too, for he and I have been reading lots of stories lately to little people about the Island of Sodor, where Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends operate the most accident-prone railway in Storyland.

Just then, a couple of policemen


hove into view through the crowds.  Not hurrying, just purposeful.  One of them explained that A Really Useful Engine would be coming very, very soon - or something like that.  And this time I was glad to find that Jamie agreed. "Yes - at last!" he confirmed,  peering at his screen, and a few minutes later there was quite a bump as Thomas - or was it James -  or Mavis - or Diesel?  finally arrived to the rescue.


Clunk, clank.  At last, we were moving - at least three feet.  Then another couple of feet...  And over the next twenty minutes, our poor broken-down train was pushed with excruciating slowness the 20 metres or so to the next station. Jamie filmed it for his Youtube channel....


... until finally there we were at the platform, only two hours late!  Now all that needed to happen was  someone to open the doors. "They still don't have any power," explained Jamie. "They'll probably just open one door manually, but that's all right."

And it was all right.   A few moments later, news spread that one door was opened at the end of the train. I thanked Jamie and Oskar, and some of the passengers said goodbye to each other - a couple even exchanged addresses - and then we filed out and went our separate ways.


By now T and I had almost forgotten our play. We were still miles from Hackney, and there was no chance of getting there even for the second half.   So we made our way through the milling crowds in the booking office,  many of them asking the harassed staff why they couldn't get the train. 
(Answer: "Because the train has broken down, like it says on the huge notice in the station entrance.")


And then at last we were outside in the diesel-reeking air of Camden Road.  We hadn't expected to end up here when we set out so optimistically.  Suddenly I thought of Jamie. I knew the pair of them had a few more stations to go, and I should have asked if they would need any help in getting home. 


"I'm actually not worried about Jamie," said T. "He's super competent.  I bet he gets home quicker than we do."

And with that, we set off - unfortunately, in what turned out to be the wrong direction. This time there was no Jamie to ask for advice, either.  So I expect he really did get home quicker than us.  

Oh, and before we parted, Jamie did suggest I asked London Overground for a refund of the cost of the theatre tickets, even though their website says they only refund the single fare. I suspect he might be right.  He was right about everything else.  Thanks Jamie, and thanks Oskar, for keeping our spirits up.

And I've applied for the ticket refund.  I'll let you know. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Travelling through Time in London

We were cycling through a not-at-all-beautiful area of London called Limehouse yesterday, when glimpsed amidst the traffic, discount stores and council estates, I spotted this handsome old house standing secluded behind some railings. 


A notice outside said that it was the head office of the Royal Foundation of St. Katharine, an organisation  I'd never heard of.  I spotted a little notice, though, with an arrow directing passers-by to the Yurt Cafe, and that sounded interesting.  So I followed a long wall, turned a corner and came to what looked, at first, like an industrial site.  The trains of the Docklands Light Railway rumbled constantly over the nearby viaduct, but there was certainly a yurt there, as well as tables where you could eat outside.


The place had a name - St Katharine's Precinct - and it's run by the St. Katharine Foundation.    And although you might think it looks a bit rough, believe me this is the cool style here in East London, just what many locals are hoping to see.  So I was not surprised to find that inside the yurt it was very pleasant, with great coffee, good cakes and fairy lights around the walls (although you can't see the lights very well in my photo.)
 

And there was a Quiet Space just down the corridor, warm, relaxing and welcoming. 


Most of the activity on the site was carried on in brightly painted metal containers. I stepped inside the Precinct office where I found photos of the sort of things that happen there, from printmaking to meditating to community gardening. I thought St Katharine's Precinct was such a nice place to hang around that I was a bit sorry it wasn't nearer home.   


Out of curiosity, I looked up the Foundation of St Katharine, and discovered it was founded by Queen Matilda in 1147 AD. It  has offered spirituality, hospitality and service since that time. It even runs a b&b where you can stay.

 I'm sure Limehouse has changed a lot since 1147, and probably not for the better,  but I like the idea of going on a slightly monastic mini retreat in the grounds of that old house, in an oasis of spirituality and history in the midst of the heavy traffic, trains and noise. 

Now, here is a slightly time-travel trip that you can take yourself in London. Go to this spot on Google Street View - it's Cleveland St., London. (Or at least, I hope it is - never quite sure with Street View).  See the house with the round blue plaque on it? Charles Dickens lived there during his not-very-happy early life. Here's a photo of him looking young, earnest and just a bit teenagery. 


Go back to his house on Street View, turn left along Cleveland St past Dennis Publishing and Middlesex House, continue a few more steps and you'll come to a boarded up old building, once known as Cleveland St. Workhouse. Charles Dickens would have walked past it almost every day, and it is thought to be his inspiration for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. Here it is on Street View, in case you missed it. 

Cleveland St. Workhouse was built by 1778 to care for the sick and the poor. In its early days, it was humane, but by Dickens' time, workhouses has become cruel and harsh places, and Oliver Twist reflects that period in its life.   Later, times changed again, and this building was returned to its original use of caring for the sick, becoming part of the large Middlesex Hospital. 

The main hospital was pulled down a few years ago and replaced by "luxury" flats. Costing over £2m each for 2 bedrooms, you can take a look here, and you might agree that there is not much luxurious (or attractive or interesting) about them, really. London has many blocks like this which are aimed at property speculators. They usually don't live there but buy them in hopes of turning a profit later.  Developments of this type create areas of deadness in the bustling city streets. 

There is now a plan to gut the 18th century workhouse to create more of this kind of "luxury" and, in the graveyard beyond it, which is full of paupers' bones, another huge block is proposed, with, shockingly, no care about what happens to the remains of the dead human beings who lie there. 

There's more about the workhouse and Dickens here on David Perdue's blog. You can also find the planning application for the graveyard flats here, where the links at the bottom take you to where you can comment to the planning board.  If you do want to comment, deadline is really soon - 23 February, in fact. 

Oh - and I've just heard fromphotographer Mo Smith, of the fascinating "Fresh Eyes on London" blog, that she has posted about this too.  

A bit depressing, that, but never mind, Spring is on its way, even in the busiest parts of London.   I was really delighted to see these brilliant crocuses in the nice park in Limehouse.  





And it was wonderful to see so many flowers all together after the months of winter. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Organising

I like to hand-make cards and February is the time to do it in our family - four birthdays plus Valentine's Day.  I'm a bit out of ideas now but quite pleased to have created individual cards for everyone.

With Spring on the way I got the urge to do some de-cluttering. I don't think I'll ever be a minimalist, but somehow I've acquired a lot of stuff which I really don't need. Do I really need an Ancient Order of Foresters sash?  Specially when I don't even know what the Ancient Order of Foresters is....


And where does this rather large  jug come from?  It reminds me of the stuff we saw in Murano, and although I wouldn't exactly call it beautiful it's kind of interesting.  But what could I use it for?


Not keen on this glass lampshade but it is genuine 1930s, and might be worth a few pounds. I wouldn't sell it on eBay as it might break in the post but our local charity shops only sell fairly new stuff so I don't think they would recognise it as an antique. After surviving for 80 years I feel it would be a shame if it ended up chucked out in a charity shop bin. Any suggestions?


As for THIS... well, an early effort by one of our daughters to get her life under control, it seems...


I'll keep that, for sentimental reasons.  As for the rest, I'm fighting the temptation to repack it and put it back in the loft.

Still, yesterday I did use one of the items which has sat forgotten in the cupboard for ages. T and I got an unexpected bouquet of Scilly Islands jonquils from a friend.  There were so many flowers we didn't seem to have a vase to fit them, when I suddenly thought of my grandmother's glass jug. It has a very wide neck so they all fitted in.


They are beautiful and giving us a lot of pleasure.  Glad we didn't get rid of the jug, which I always liked anyway. 

I was still thinking about how to deal with all the other stuff when we went into central London yesterday, to run a few errands. We had a cup of tea on the fifth floor of John Lewis, overlooking the escalators, a spot I love. Somehow I can sit for hours and watch the escalators rumbling quietly away.

Yesterday, I thought how well those crowds of people in the store organise themselves without anyone to tell them how to do it! 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Maps and Birthday Cakes.

Have to share the twins' birthday cakes. As you can see, their interests are not the same these days,  so they NEED separate cakes!


Both are very fond of cake but being twins they are quite good at sharing, so the cakes were a success with their little friends too.


I thought I'd share with you a couple of the exhibits from the British Library's fascinating exhibition "Maps and the 20th Century - Drawing the Line".  It's on till 1 March and if you're in London I recommend it - it shows very many different aspects of maps and mapping in the 20th century. Some were quite surprising to me. 

For instance, after the war there was a great shortage of dress fabric, but there were many military "Escape and Evasion" maps left unused in the Army stores.  These  splendid maps had been printed on silk, in order to be (a) lightweight (b) more durable than paper and (c) less likely to rustle when secretly opened.   With the war over, there was no further use for them as maps, so someone had the bright idea of making clothes out of them.  


I've never seen a dress made out of a map before. I wondered why, then I realised that after the war, people most likely dyed them to make the dresses look more "normal." I can't say I really blame anyone for not fancying going round dressed in a map of a war zone.   

These days, though, if the map showed somewhere I liked, I'd be happy to wear it.  Maybe that sounds a bit weird to you?

Among my other favourite exhibits in the show were watercolour designs that were used to decorate the covers of Ordnance Survey leisure maps of 90 years ago. The one below is for the stretch of the Thames between Wallingford and Kew, which covers some really beautiful landscapes.  It is still fun looking at boats going through locks, but I have never seen anything as colourful in real life as this group with their parasols and - yes, boater hats.  I suppose that's how the hats got their name, come to think of it... 


Do you find maps interesting?

Monday, 6 February 2017

Georgians and Dahlias

I wonder if developing that soy allergy in Japan weakened my immune system. After getting flu after Christmas, I went down with norovirus at the end of January, which makes you feel fit for nothing but lying around. So I lay about re-reading some favourite books and put together photos for another post about Akita, Japan.  

But I felt much better on Saturday, and by yesterday, Sunday, I was fine, so I decided to go and see one of London's hidden interiors which I'd learned would be open  to the public for the first time in years, or possibly even ever. It's a large 18th century house in Fitzroy Square,  London, that is home to The Georgian Group.  

So I'll still post about Japan, but first let me tell you about visiting Fitzroy Square and the Georgian Group....


The Georgian Group is a fount of knowledge about life, times, arts and architecture of the 18th century and if you click here you can read a bit about its work in protecting the 18th century heritage of England and Wales.  Part of that work is to help keep neo-classical skills alive - plasterwork, leadwork, wood carving like this delicately carved little swag, for instance, made out of lime wood.


Now the GG has just had its 80th birthday, and has decided to reach out to the wider world and get more people involved in its work.      There certainly seemed to be a lot of people thronging in to see the place.  The visitor's entrance to the house is via the big echoing stone flagged basement, once the kitchen and servants' quarters, and when I wandered in, one of the first things I encountered was a room full of people hard at work making 18th century style crafts with shells, plaster-of-paris and mirrors, and trying their hand at printing wallpaper. 


It looked like fun.  So I accepted one of the thin polystyrene tiles they offered me, and drew a vaguely old-world design onto the tile with a pencil, making the lines as deep as I could.   Then, I inked the tile with gold lino paint and printed it several times....  and wow, suddenly I had some decorative paper myself! 


Not sure how authentic the design was, but I loved the smudgy look of the printing (which is just as well). Even if I don't manage to create wallpaper, I can see all kinds of possibilities for creating my own gift wrap, at least. 

As my paper dried, I climbed up from the basement to explore the main house. This contained many unusual and fascinating objects, old and new.  The front hall is full of statuary and plasterwork. Here's the view looking to the front door with its well proportioned fanlight.  


The exact proportions of architecture were very important in Georgian times, so the size and shape of the rooms are always very harmonious and comfortable.  The main office, with deep red walls and a huge bookcase down one wall, would have been a wonderful place to work. It sports a signed photo of Prince Charles, the Group's patron, on the wall. 

 Charles has worked very hard in conserving the country's traditional visual and natural heritage. It's fair to say that not everyone always agrees with everything he does, but over decades he has done so very many good and lasting things for the country and its people. So I nodded approvingly at his photo and gave him a thumbs up as I passed.  

My favourite room in the house was the main salon, a double interconnecting room which when the house was new, would have been opened up for balls and parties.  In this shot most of what you see is actually a reflection in a pier-mirror, a tall mirror which occupies the space between two windows and makes the space seem larger.   Placed before the mirror is a decorative shellwork obelisk, which also reflects itself back.  


And there was more shell work in the next room - this is a startling and unusual modern chandelier.


And, how about this, in the glass topped cabinet below?  This grotesque face is reminiscent of figures featuring in shell grottoes, a type of folly which was popular two hundred years ago.   Like the chandelier, it is modern, but once again, it seems very eighteenth century somehow  - a mixture of brash, elegant, refined and outrageous.


 I looked up and spotted this modern painting of Fonthill Abbey (right) had been hung over a doorway. The towering, Gothic style Fonthill Abbey was created by the profligate, clever art-collector, critic and politician William Beckford, who was just the type of excessive character the 18th century specialised in.



Beckford was astoundingly rich and decided he wanted to live in a Gothic cathedral so he got one built as quickly as possible, without bothering about whether it would stay up.  And basically, it didn't.  Fonthill Abbey's soaring tower, 90 metre high (300 feet), collapsed three times, and the rest of the house wasn't much better built.  Beckford for instance, wanted Christmas dinner cooked in the kitchens even though they were not ready. So the kitchens were flung together just enough to enable the staff to cook the meal, and then they, too, collapsed. Mad though this sounds, there was, in fact, a bit of a tendency in the eighteenth century to build beautiful houses almost as if they were stage sets, not really intended for living at all.



Anyway, all kinds of strange stories circulated about Beckford, and Fonthill of course was famous for its extravagant interiors, in gold, silver, crimson and blue.   (Talking of which, someone had created some wallpaper with the lino paints downstairs which might almost have been made for somewhere like Fonthill Abbey, don't you think?)


 Gradually most of the Abbey either fell down or was demolished, although a tiny fragment of the building still remains, and it does make you wonder what the rest must have been like. This website by Ric Norton gives some idea.....

Having fallen in love with No. 6, I suddenly began to see Fitzroy Square in a different light from how I had always seen it.  To be honest, this corner of London had always seemed somewhat dull to me, but, viewed out of the long windows of No 6's salon I suddenly perceived it as it was meant to be: elegant, well proportioned and restrained, a place to spend the gloomy London winters.  Imagine going to balls in those long-windowed rooms, glittering with the lights of thousands of candles.  Really all the scene needs is a phaeton or two bowling past. 


And so that was my Sunday.   But, since I have got the dahlia photos sorted out, I'd really love to zip across to the other side of the world and mention the wonderful dahlia garden in Akita, Japan, which I was lucky enough to catch in full bloom last October.  

This garden, set in a sweeping valley, stretches almost as far as you can see to wooded hillsides, and the dahlias come in such a variety of colours, sizes and shapes, as you can see below. 


The variety below had a twisty, ornate quality, and if I plant any dahlias this year, I'm going to plant some of these. 


The yellow ones at the bottom hardly seemed like dahlias at all but make a striking display in a border.


This to me seemed to have a perfect colour and shape


 And the centre of this deep red dahlia glowed brightly, like enamelled gold.


However, my eye was also caught by this stall which an elderly man had pitched just outside the dahlia garden entrance. 

.
He was selling fungi that he had collected himself from the mountains.  Most of the fungi were very large, and looked almost as if someone had made them out of finely textured and dyed leather. 


I had seen small "maitake" mushrooms like this before - in fact, I think they grow wild in England - but these were in a different class - they were bigger than cauliflowers.  My Japanese friend told me they are called "dancing mushrooms,"   - 舞茸  in Japanese - because they look like dancers in flowing robes. And as you can see there were other types of fungi and fungi products on the stall.


The old man had obviously spent hours preparing them for sale, and as far as I could tell, they seemed to have health benefits, including boosting your  immune system......  hmmm, if only I had known that, I'd have bought some of the extract. Then, I'd probably have been the picture of health all winter.  And I would probably have got many more posts written by now!   


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