Saturday, 6 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 31 December 2017


There's so much we could say but it comes down to this :  "A Happy New Year to you all!" 

Friday, 22 December 2017


Nearly Christmas!  Time to stop obsessing about politics and think of better things. (In fact, it's almost always time to stop obsessing about politics and think about better things). I hope you'll like to see a few Christmassy photos that I've pulled from files from various years, and I hope you enjoy them. 

On Wednesday we took S and A to the trad panto at Hackney Empire - a mix of hiphop, jazz, schmaltz, talented dancing, the world's corniest jokes, over-the-top ugly sisters, hilarious ghosts, amazing special effects and lots of audience participation.  Here's "Buttons" having a conversation with the pantomime horse, Clopton.  We all squashed into the tiny seats they always seem to have in these old theatres, and the lads consumed what seemed like their weight in Haribos and pork pies, and we all had a very good time.  

Below is a view of Southwark Cathedral decorated for a Christmas service in aid of the homeless.  I like it here and end up visiting it quite often.  This was the year when Little A was in the choir, (though I took the photo before anyone, including the choir,  had arrived.)

Here's a very festive garden in Hackney, (complete with fuschias, so there can't have been any snow or frost yet.) I think the santa looks very pleased with the good job he has done in keeping the flowerbeds tidy. 

I always think German speaking countries do the best Christmases.   I loved this ski scene in, of all
places,  Munich airport, less for the detail than the bold concept of a ski slope cutting right down through the airport.  Can you see someone has come a cropper right by the deer?

Here is a beautifully decorated Christmas window in Vienna. 

And here's one the twins reflected in a Christmas bauble in Rotterdam (with me taking the picture, also reflected). He was very interested in seeing himself looking all red. 

And this was their Christmas present to us last year, decorated with their own fair hands. 

 And some very expensive Christmas sweets looking very beautiful from Fortnum and Mason (which I like to visit every year before Christmas). Lovely though they were, I'd rather have the things the children made.  

As I look at what seem to be ever increasing numbers of homeless on the streets, I know that for many people, Christmas isn't necessarily a happy time. They might be undergoing some kind of crisis, or have nowhere comfortable and pleasant to be, or they might be grieving a loved one. I was touched by a  recent post by Jeanie, who I've been following for some years.  Her blog "The Marmelade Gypsy" is usually upbeat, but she posted this which struck me as a very good thought to keep in mind amidst the celebrations.   

I hope your Christmas is a peaceful and contented one. 

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Netherlands

Well, Christmas is nearly on us!  We got back from Amsterdam and immediately started decorating since we're having family over here for Christmas this year.

But before I get on with the cards, let me tell you about a week I've just spent in Holland.  Now, Holland isn't a place I'd normally come in the winter, but one of our daughters was speaking at a symposium in Rotterdam, so we accompanied her and her family there for a few days because there was space on the boat where she was staying.

We thought Rotterdam is amazing, despite heavy rain, sleet and hail, because it has so much interesting architecture and many individualistic small shops.  Our boat was near the towering modern Market Hall, which is spectacularly decorated as you see. (In this photo, you're looking up towards a very high arched roof.   The hall is just one of many interesting buildings in Rotterdam, and there's more info about it here, in case you're interested). It's a great space to wander around and it contains lots of food stalls and little places to eat, including one of the best tapas bars outside Spain. 

We were staying on the water so spotted all kinds of maritime curiosities, ranging from historic boats to this floating jacuzzi floating cheerily along in the freezing cold.  They all seemed to be having a great time and waved cheerfully to us as they passed.

Although Rotterdam was largely rebuilt after the war it has plenty of quaint corners. Here is the ladies' restroom in a Turkish restaurant we visited one day for lunch. 

There are also many original and quirky small shops and eating houses, and when the rain laid off for an afternoon we thoroughly enjoyed walking around and looking at them.  This ornament caught my attention in a home design shop.  The lion is made of silk of various types and about 7 inches long. I considered buying but it's too big for our little tree, and perhaps the lion looked too cute. But really it was too expensive. 

After my daughter and her family returned to London,  T. and I went on to Amsterdam. To be honest, this was probably a mistake, since Amsterdam had seen some very heavy snow and did not seem set up to deal with it at all. They didn't even clear the pavements, so getting around was a problem, specially since the public transport also got snarled up.  Still, we did risk it and were rewarded with some beautiful scenes. The image below reminds me of a still from a film - but what kind of a film? Magic? Mystery? Something sinister?  Dickensian? 

And here is another scene I liked. I was specially interested in why the abandoned umbrella on the right. Why had its owner thrown it away?  So maybe this movie would have been one of those mysterious, slightly surreal continental ones. 

Eventually the snow melted and Amsterdam became even colder, but also beautiful in a different way.  We had a walk through the Vondelpark with numerous families playing with sledges and throwing snowballs in the sunshine, and enormous willows leaning over the lake in the morning sun.  

and ducks looking a bit disgruntled as they tried to fight their way through the ice. 

We visited several museums, but the highlight for me was "Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder" a remarkable 17th century house in central Amsterdam whose top two floors were converted into a Catholic church.  

This church, which is still consecrated, has been restored to how it looked in the 1860s, with the woodwork painted pink and a full sized pulpit hidden away inside the column on which that left hand cherub is standing.  ( I wish I could get a photo or film showing how ingeniously the pulpit, complete with steps for the priests, unfolds).

At present, there are several Nativities placed in various corners of the largely unaltered old house (in fact, it is three houses, knocked together). An artist called Clemens Merkelbach van Enkhuizen was so dismayed at seeing Amsterdam's churches destroyed that he set himself to recording them and their more unusual contents, and has made a collection of church art and sculpture.  The nativity figures come from his collection. 

My favourite was the one shown below.  It's several feet high and full of detail, angels, animals and domestic details of all types - can you see the knife grinder towards the top of the scene? 

I hope you've been having a good run up to Christmas. I'll try to post again before the big day, and also answer the very nice comments to my last post.  I seem to be disorganised at the moment, so if I don't succeed before the 25th, have a lovely holiday!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Leaves, Street Life and Ghosts

I've been involved in a couple of writing projects, but have been getting out and about in London too over the past week, including another cycle through Regent's Park.   We've had a really spectacular autumn display this year, with the beeches even redder than before

with various types of wildlife in evidence, particularly squirrels of course. I know they're pests but I do love to look at them flitting around so gracefully. I turned to find this one examining me closely.

A peaceful scene here, as a narrow boat chugged quietly along the Regent's Canal.

Today, I noticed that most of the leaves have fallen. I snapped these, twinkling gold against the blue sky.

so we are reaching the end and will have to hunker down for winter at last. 

I never tire of walking (or cycling) around London, there are always things to see, and often you come across something by chance. Five minutes later and I would have missed this scene. The lady in silver was quite goose-pimpled close up!  

Here she is a few minutes later trying to get warm. But who on earth is that behind her?

This gent was sitting happily by himself with a traffic cone which made a very good megaphone. He was singing old music hall songs and seemed most contented.  The sound's terrible but he's singing "Maybe it's Because I'm a Londoner"

Cycling back, the fountains in the park looked delightfully creepy.  This one reminded me of a veiled ghostly figure.  I like London parks at night, they seem to have quite a different character from how they are in the day. 

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Pride of Belfast City...

T and I have spent the last few days in Belfast. One of our daughters was giving a TEDx talk there, and of course the proud parents wanted to attend - what a wonderful experience! 

While we were there, we spent a couple of days roaming the city.  It was her first ever visit, but T had done some work at BBC Belfast during the Troubles, and I had spent some very formative teenage years living on the northern fringes of the city.  Neither of us had been back since.  

I am still coming to terms with how the old place has changed.  Have you ever had the experience of meeting with someone you haven't seen since you were 17?  Belfast seemed at first to be a bit like my old school friends, completely recognisable but immensely changed by the passage of the years. 

We stayed in a hotel which could have been in Shoreditch. It's reached through a passageway decorated with murals - there's the front courtyard, below.

It's fair to say that "hip" was not a word associated with the Belfast of my youth.  This time, though, we were in the Cathedral Quarter, the city's hippest area, and believe me, I've never seen such a place for street art.  In some areas, street art covered almost every metre of wall space.   The image below was one wall of a huge courtyard entirely covered in paintings, all of them representing events or aspects of Northern Ireland both now and in the past.  

It is approached by an alleyway, and the alley's roof is decorated with Yeats'  "An Irish Airman Forsees his Death" - you can hear it, and read an explanation of it, here.

When you get into the square you see that one side consists of a life sized row of terraced houses, one of which is shown below. To see a whole row is quite unsettling.

Each window in the terrace has a meaning.  I'd think the elephant, for instance, refers to a short movie directed by Danny Boyle about Northern Ireland refusing to "see the elephant" in its living room.   (in case you're not familiar with the expression, it means you refuse to acknowledge something even though it cannot be ignored).   

On the left you'll see a Catholic sitting room complete with a picture of the Pope, religious statuettes and a collecting box for missionary work. On the right is a gay couple with their cat staring out of the window. Above is an arm-wrestling match between the UVF and the IRA  over a coffin. The lady in curlers is holding a mug from Santa Ponsa, and this recalls an amusing story about 'Northern Ireland's best boss,' a hairdresser who made a rash promise to his staff... (read about it here). 

Above the houses is a black and white mural of Belfast folk before the recent troubles, and just visible on the left is a display of photos of real people who lived in this area sixty years ago.  

 Some of the imagery is pretty hard hitting, but there are also many moments of humour, and some well known Irish people appear.  Can you spot George Best and Van Morrison below?

Well, here they are.  Wonder who the fellow in the car is?


The Big Ben-like clock is the Albert Memorial Clock, a Belfast landmark. In the picture, the digital face shows 1690, the date of the Battle of the Boyne, cherished by Orangemen, and the hands show 1916, the date of the Easter Rising, which is dear to Republicans. 

I'm still puzzling about the tiny detail below, to be found at the feet of the Orangeman standing by the "bóthar druidte" sign. It is a tiny little jockey jumping a rat over a cigarette packet, which says, in Polish, "Smoking Kills."

Someone needs to provide little booklets to explain some of these murals, don't they? In fact, there is a company offering tours of the murals of Belfast,  but I don't know if it includes the likes of this square, which seems to belong to the nearby Duke of York pub.  And I'm sure the tours don't take in the mural below, decorating one of the industrial buildings that still characterise the city.  I think it's Belfast depicted in Native American style (or at least, I think the creature's head is the Albert Memorial Clock again, trailing clouds). 

And here are some more murals reflected in the windows of the Mourne Seafood Bar in Bank Square, which had the most delicious looking fresh fish I have seen outside Japan.    

But murals aren't the only things to look at in Belfast.  Its big white City Hall has a remarkable collection of modern stained glass windows representing different aspects of Northern Ireland's history.    The one below is their take on the great famine.   See the ship taking the starving wretches to a new life in America?  

And I was dazzled by the variety of stained glass techniques in the window commemorating 100 years of  Belfast life, with linen and aircraft making, agriculture, and scientific and artistic achievements. I particularly like how the rays of light from the atom are engraved into the glass and then coloured to catch the light.

I was pleased to see that the window also contains the "Salmon of Knowledge," next to the atom rays.  (I've always liked the idea of a Salmon of Knowledge.) It refers to Fintan mac Bóchra, from Irish mythology, a seer who survived in the guise of a salmon for some years and passed on his wisdom when he changed back into a human once more.  

It is very well worth taking the free tour of the City Hall.  It is a good example of Edwardian architecture, with no expense spared (and it also has a great museum and coffee shop). Certainly, I saw enough splendid old buildings to remind me how my teenage years in Belfast gave me a lifelong love of 100-year-old architecture.    

The City Hall tour's lots of fun, not stuffy at all, by the way. Here's a grandad being encouraged to model the Mayor's robes, and he got a round of applause afterwards. 

There are more visual delights - here are mosaics in Belfast cathedral...

And isn't this drinking fountain great? It's from 1874, in remembrance of Daniel Joseph Jaffe, politician and philanthropist, and it is painted up in dazzling yellow.  

Did you ever see such a magnificent old brass front door?  Someone must polish it every day or two.

I can't say goodbye to Belfast's public art without sharing this picture of the DeLorean from one of my favourite movies, "Back to the Future."   DeLorean's in Belfast had already closed by the time the movie came out, but it lives on in a terrific mural of Belfast in Dali surrealist style. 

One afternoon we managed to visit the Ulster Museum, where top priority for me was the tapestry of the "Game of Thrones."  This popular series was filmed partly in Northern Ireland, and the tapestry is a kind of take-off of the Bayeux Tapestry, with each section telling a part of the story. I understand that after every episode, another section of the tapestry is added on to what already exists.  

I'm not a "Game of Thrones" fan but this tapestry was a wonder, even if you don't know anything about the series.  

 We heard a good deal of street music around the city, which I don't remember in the Belfast I knew before.    My favourite performer was this charming man, below,  who was very proud of his fiddle-cum-vintage gramophone, which had exactly the right squeaky sound for the Central European folk music he was playing with vigour. 

You'll wonder if we got the chance to see any of Belfast's official tourist attractions, not least the well known Titanic Belfast, which occupies an eye catching building in what used to be a drab industrial landscape.   The answer is no, we saw nothing except the City Hall - but maybe next time.... And meanwhile I am very glad we took the trouble to walk around the streets and see all the sights available for free.  

At the end of my stay, I felt that the old Belfast was still very much alive inside its new skin.  Despite much redevelopment, it is still one of the great Victorian cities, and it is still full of friendly people who like a chat and are extremely attached to, and proud of the place.  Just as before, though, I was also aware of strongly held religious and political sensitivities, so I was instinctively figuring out what kind of person was listening before I gave my own views.  A strong moralistic streak still ran through some of the atttitudes I encountered - which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing, although I might draw the line at actually shooting drug dealers.  

I'm still trying to put this new artistic, outward-looking Belfast together with the place I knew, and  yes, I'm aware I was mainly in the centre of the city.  Still, the more I think about it the more I start to believe that, like all great cities, Belfast is constantly reinventing itself. It is obviously full of talented and hardworking people, and if it can withstand the challenge that the coming couple of years could bring to its hard-won peace, there's no limit to what it could achieve.   

One last thing. Just like when I lived in Belfast, I returned to England with Northern Irish money in my purse, and nobody in London would accept it, even though it is legal tender.  Grr!

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