Monday, 21 December 2009

By the seaside

Weary of work-a-day life, the Boy and I treated ourselves to a lovely weekend in deepest North Norfolk.

In late November, Norfolk is a country of lashing wind and pouring rain - tucked up in our splendid inn in the (very) out-of-season Wells-next-the-Sea, we were cosy as could be.

The Globe Inn - in a sweet little Georgian square - had a roaring wood stove, a menu of local seafood and game, and comfy wrought-iron beds.  Said combination lead to sound, sound sleep, of course!

The wintry weather thankfully gave way to enough sunshine for a brisk stroll on beautiful Holkham, miles of sandy beach fringed with pine woods and full of dog walkers, horse riders and bird watchers on a sunny Saturday morning.

Holkam is famous for the scene at the end of Shakespeare in Love, where the shipwrecked Viola walks the length of the sands - walking into the New World defiantly, hopefully, becoming the muse of the bard's imagination and the feisty heroine of Twelth Night (according to Tom Stoppard).

A fantastic weekend, rounded up - of course - with thrifting, antiques and cake in Holt and a wonderful vintage fair in Burnham Market. The effect of the long weekend was far, far better than expected - a change of scene, brisk sea air, hearty meals and lots of exercise, and I felt a new woman!

Sunday, 22 November 2009

In Praise of Paloma Faith

"Roses are blue, violets are red,
Say it isn't true, don't tell me romance is dead.
Wake up sleepyhead, think of all the magic we could make;
All your dreams are just a kiss away"

Inspired by her rather whimsical performance on the habitually rather more boisterous Never Mind the Buzzcocks, I have been enjoying the Paloma Faith album 'Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?' Her sound is lush, all sweeping strings and forlorn brass and dramatic drums, and richly overproduced to create something really quite old- fashioned and unusual. I can't decide if it's more big band or sixties influenced.

Her voice is husky, a little Amy Winehouse or Duffy-like, but vaguely off-key in the most deliciously mournful and quirky way. I've never seen her videos but if the album artwork (yes, I bought a CD: how very retro!) is anything to go by, I imagine them to be full hyperreal colour, kaleidoscopic jewelled detail and rows of dancing showgirls with plumed headdresses doing Busby Berkley moves. She may well ride in on a unicorn. (Have now seen video - I wasn't far wrong...)

Favourite songs so far - and I've only listened to it twice - are:
- New York
- Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?
- Stone Cold Sober
- Romance is Dead

There's only one bum note for me and that's the track called 'Stargazer' which veers too much towards Mariah Carey R'n'B-lite for my tastes: even then, when the chorus comes, the expected cadence is interestingly subverted which goes some way towards rescuing the song from Magic FM territory.

Most original, and all songs you can sing along to, which is very important on a 3 hour car journey.

Anglo-French Relations

Staying with good friends - the Anglo-French couple - in Bristol, I am pondering the acquisition of language and, more specifically, bi-lingualism.

Their daughter, all curls and extreme obsession with 'Charlie and Lola', is two. She swings from determined babble, which you can tell is communicating something specific from the tone of voice, to imitation and repetition, to almost fully formed sentences and questions.

She has also moved rapidly from combining French and English words - seemingly unable to differentate the languages - to a careful selection of the one most appropriate to the audience. French for daddy, and English for mummy, although both parents speak to her in both languages.

Fascinating. And very, very cute. I wish I knew more about the development of language: there is clearly some inherent ability to moderate language to audience even before the language capacity is fully developed.

On the same subject, I loved the story of the US linguist who spoke only Klingon to his child as an experiment: at the age of three, the child stopped paying attention to him.

A lesson to us all!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Making a purse (out of a sow's ear?)

In search of creativity and inspiration beyond our everyday lives, Cuttings on a Blog and I went to the Zandra Rhodes Fashion and Textile Museum for a sewing workshop.

The FTM is a wonderful bright orange edifice in Bermondsey Street, standing out against the Georgian relics and Manhattan style loft apartments carved out of Dickensian warehouses - something like a cyber-adobe casa, cheerful and defiant against the blustery November skies.

Currently showing: 'Foale and Tuffin, Made in England', a celebration of the independent early sixties fashion house. From geometric zippered shift dresses to bumpkin-inspired smocks, the clothes are joyfully redolent of an era of freedom, Swinging London, Twiggy haircuts and leggy young women jumping in and out of Mini Coopers. 

The workshop was rather chaotic but fun: my frame purse was, as ever with these things, not as perfectly crafted as in my imagination but the whole exercise was very satisfying and nourishing.  The sense of being caught up in creative flow - oblivious to anything except the methodical, attention-demanding task in hand - is quite delicious after a hectic week of work.

Wikipedia paraphrases Csíkszentmihályi's positive psychology theory of flow as "focused motivation ... single-minded immersion ... [oneself] aligned with the task at hand" - very much the effect that knitting, gardening, reading and crafting have on me!

Have you heard about Rainy City Stories?

It's an interactive literary cityscape project for Manchester: stories for specific areas of the city.

Genius idea. I love the idea of cities as being full of people living in separate, self-contained, self-absorbed orbits, colliding in fleeting moments of human interaction and drama, and then moving on, changed or unchanged as event and temperament dictate.

And I also learned that the poet Jackie Kay lives in Chorlton!

Listen to the Guardian podcast feature.

A walk in the woods

A weekend in the homelands (otherwise know as Manchester) with the Aged Parents and a Sunday morning walk in the woods around the Styal Estate in Cheshire.

Styal is home to a water powered calico mill, famous for being a well-preserved example of Industrial Revolution technology and purpose-built workers colony.

Quarry Bank Mill, run in the mid-1800s by the Unitarian Greg family, utilised unpaid child labour, frequently the children of the workhouses - and can be toured today, while costumed guides regale you with gruesome tales of fingers lost in satanic machinery and deaths from cotton lung and damp-induced consumption. Ahh, many a happy school trip spent in such a manner.

And it is also a beautiful park of dense woodland, meandering rivers and steep gorges, which in the crisp autumn sunshine was an absolute delight.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever

This is a tale of an ugly duckling-to-swan, caterpillar-to-butterfly style transformation.

Take one battered old sofa - an eBay bargain spotted and snapped up by the Boy's eagle eye and nimble mouse, and hauled home from deepest Hackney:

And - after many months of work* and a bit of posh fabric - et volia:

That battered old bedsit favourite becomes a thing of beauty and a joy for ever ...

Finally the sofa is revealed as a fifties Danish (we think) piece of gorgeousness, and a damn comfortable sit down too.

Welcome home, sofa.

* Work, obviously, not done by our own fair hands, but by the very talented Gabriel of Gabriel's Classic Upholstery, craftsman and neighbour.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

A tale of two cinemas

The boy and I had a movie-going trade off: we would each sit through a movie of the other's choice.

He chose District 9.

I chose 500 Days of Summer.

One was a low budget South African sci-fi film, exploring the morality of apartheid through alien body-horror.

The other was a sweet'n'kooky indie rom-com, pondering the meaning of love.

Speaks volumes, doesn't it?

Here's a snippet of my selection:

Knitting delight

Last weekend, inspired by the ever-increasing bevy of knitting mammas among my friends - see Helen's lovely 'Hand-me-down Handicraft' piece on A Matriarchal Cornucopia  - and fired up by my failure to take to crochet, I decided to learn to knit.

Perhaps rashly, and not a little swayed by the helpfulness of the lady at Teasels Yarncrafts, I invested in some 7mm needles and a chunky yarn (ideally for hiding beginner's mistakes, apparently!) and set to work.

I'm doing ok - I tackled casting on and knit stitch via the wonderful videojug How To tutorials and, so far, my scarf is growing nicely.

I admit to a little bit of a wonky start where I gained stitches at an amazing / alarming rate, and a few holes where I hadn't quite got the tension thing nailed, but I am powering on and may do a little judicious embellishment with ribbons, buttons and the like, to hide the mistakes! Or I'll just claim the whole thing is an artisanale design ...(sorry, family joke!)

I am thoroughly enjoying myself - the rhythm and low-level concentration required is very relaxing.

It also seems quite zeitgeisty: having posted my inital efforts on Facebook, lots of friends came out of the woodwork to confess their own first steps into granny-dom. Some kind of credit crunch make-do-and-mend movement, or are we just turning into our mothers? (Not necessarily such a bad thing!)

Sunday, 4 October 2009

In praise of Grain

Grain is a cool independent brewery running out of an old dairy in Alburgh in the lovely rolling (for Norfolk) Waveney Valley. It was started by Phil and Geoff in 2006, driven, they say, "by a love of great beers, a distaste for big business, a desire for a fresh start and an unhealthy dose of insanity."

Phil works with me occasionally, as an IT consultant, and - having failed to check the Grain wares when they did the Ally Pally farmers market two weeks ago due to a fairly nasty bout of swine flu - this weekend, the boy and I ventured north-east up the A12 to see what it is all about.

Yesterday, the brewery was hosting a Hop Harvest Festival Party, to celebrate the harvest and showcase their seasonal Fresh Hop Beer. Great fun: a mini real ale festival complete with bunting, morris men (the Golden Star Morris Dancers), a blues band, a barbecue of local lamb burgers, and a host of prize winning beers. The boy (being the designated drinker) sampled a selection, and we both really enjoyed the Oak brew, a mellow 3.8% pale ale.

Phil also gave us a tour of the brewhouse: most interesting, with wood-panelled conditioning tanks and what I think was a giant copper kettle of some sort.

Very impressive and highly recommended: if you're in the area, do pop in!

We came away with a case comprising India Pale Ale, Oak and Harvest Moon ....

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Best cookie of 1935-1940

I am baking this morning - one of my favourite activities, with eating the fruits of my labours coming close second - as I have real yen for soft, fluffy oatmeal cookies.

The recipe is an inherited one, of course: taken from a battered paperback cookbook of my mother's, 'Betty Crocker's Best Cookies', or some such. Garish photography and liberal use of synthetic food dye in the 'serving suggestion' sample goodies indicate it was likely an American title imported into Jamaica in the mid-seventies.

The loveliest thing is that the recipies are a whirlwind historical tour of twentieth century Western civilisation. The oatmeal cookie recipe is called "Best cookie of 1935-1940".

This was a childhood staple and the recipe book is heavily annotated by Mum - substituting wholewheat flour for white, brown sugar for white, etc., so probably during the brown rice - carob syrup - soya milk years!

Today, I made a walnut and milk chocolate version following Mum's alterations:
(Warning, all measurements are in US cups.)
  • 2/3 cup margarine or softened butter
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essense
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup self-raising flour
  • 1/2 cup wholewheat flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped nuts
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  1. Pre-heat oven to gas mark 4 or 180c
  2. Cream fat, sugar, egg, vanilla
  3. Sift flour, stir dry ingredients together
  4. Mix well with batter
  5. Shape cookies 2in apart on baking trays
  6. Bake for 8-10mins

Monday, 7 September 2009

Tumbledown heartbreak

After a day of wind and sunshine and free klezmer in Regent's Park,
evening entertainment of a different order.

Courtesy of a good Australian friend, who surprised me with the ticket
for my birthday, we go to see an artist I have loved since teenage days
in an intimate performance marking her return after a year out raising
babies. Beth Orton. For me, this is a name that conjures up sweet
melancholy, heartrending acoustic guitar and lush poetical lyrics of
love and loss. To The Boy, however, she embodies my taste in music -
what he flippantly calls "bedwetter music".

The venue: the Pigalle Club, tucked away in plain view on Piccadilly
Circus, a pocket of luxe and old time glamour in the throbbing heart
of tourist-tat-land. A supper club more famous for launching the
career of burlesque star Immodesty Blaze and for its celebrated
"afternoon tease" (yes, that's tea and cakes and burlesque!), it was a
surprisingly charming venue for such a gig.

The artist: Beth Orton is sweet yet tough, an emotionally mature
little pixie, a tomboy in jeans and a plaid shirt who could break your
heart with a hoarse whispered line. On stage, she is unsure, self-
mocking, ebullient, whimsical, shy, quirky, funny. She mocks the
audience with an off-balance charm. This is her first "proper" show in
ages and she bubbles over with enjoyment and love of making music: "I
like singing songs" she bashfully confides.

The music: swirling, transporting. At times, bare guitar and voice,
alternated with gluttonous harmonies of guitar, mandolin, banjo,
piano. Melodies that almost physically lift you up. Technically
imperfect - chords are missing, lyrics half-forgotten - but this just
adds to the tumbledown heartbreak charm of the thing. Just beautiful.

And she played all my favourites!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Something out of nothing

With my current zeal for creativity, craft and mend-and-make-do, this weekend I tackled a project that has been languishing unloved in the basement for some time.

Take one battered and bruised metal card filing cabinet from the crazy junk shop round the corner, one sheet of coarse sandpaper, three cans of apple green enamel spray paint from the wonderful Fred Aldous online shop and ...

Hey presto! A chic little bits and bobs cabinet for my desk.

Very satisfying to have freed something new and cool from something old and rejected.

I think I may have spray-painted a big chunk of my lawn though!

Flying high, literally

Everyone's favourite pop-philosophy author, Alain de Botton, has been spending a week at Heathrow airport as 'writer in residence'.

He divided his time between sitting at a desk in Terminal Five, complete with laptop and reference books, observing the eddy of human traffic, and roaming around in an exclusive 'access all areas' kind of way, engaging with parts of BAA's empire on their own territory.

As he has a one book publishing deal with Profile for the fruits of his labours, many critics have accused him of selling out, pandering to BAA's desire to purchase high culture credibility as if a commodity.

I think it's marvellous: airports are by their very nature dramatic places, stuffed to the rafters with high emotional tension. Factor in the fact that T5 is (intentionally) the biggest, busiest, flashiest terminal in the West serviced by numerous industries catering to our every (real and imagined) need while in transit, surely all human life is there?

Material enough for more than just one BAA vanity book, I would have thought.

See the BBC Radio 4 Today programme audio slideshow here.

Inspiring art

Here's two great art projects I read about recently:

Knit A Poem
Conceived to celebrate the Poetry Society's centenary and inspired by National Poet for Wales Gwyneth Lewis's lovely piece "How to knit a poem", crafters the world over are creating individual letters of a mystery poem to be revealed in October.

The Photographic Dictionary
A collection of evocative, atmospheric, haunting images, which define word through figurative, literal and personally infused representations. Beautiful. Like seeing life through another's gaze.

Monday, 17 August 2009

How to survive commuting in London

Top ten ways to survive commuting in London:
  1. Read. Not the freesheets which will only cause you to deplore the state of humanity and wonder if we really are all going to hell in a handcart, but something escapist and enthralling.
  2. Play music - no need for a stereo, use your imagination as a concert hall and listen silently to something good. Bach Goldberg variations tonight, probably performed by Glenn Gould. Inaudible humming is good too, audible humming makes people look at you strangely.
  3. Plan dinner for the week. Seriously. This is good organisational time that would otherwise be dead time.
  4. People-watch. Discreetly study those around you, wondering who they are, what they're thinking, where they're going. Give them make overs if they need them. Marvel at the tattoos on the guy in front.
  5. Day-dream. Just how would I furnish that castle in Spain?
  6. Eavesdrop. Need I say more?
  7. Catch up on favourite blogs ... on the bus, of course, not underground, no signal. Today I learnt from that there is a saying in French "to collapse like a soufflé", meaning "too lose steam".
  8. Eat.
  9. Refine your fashion-sense, using the world to window shop. Mmmm, great shoes, wonder where she got them?
  10. Distract yourself from thinking about swine-flu.

And you're home!

Time for a restorative sit in a deck chair in the garden ...

Friday, 14 August 2009

Fruits of our labours

Feeling very rewarded as fruits of our labours begin to be ready for harvest... and yes, more than one person has commented on how we seem to be morphing into The Good Life (1970s sitcom featuring a perhaps misguided attempt at self-sufficiency in suburbia) which is fine by me, as long as I can be Barbara (as opposed to Margot). Enjoy!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A madeleine moment

On my way to Pilates, a splendid sight in an unprepossessing location.

A row of splendid sunflowers behind a concrete wall. Six foot tall with faces like dinner plates. Sudden, charismatic, beautiful in their yellowness.

My madeleine moment: a childhood holiday in a chateau in France with a fountain. Fields upon fields of crops of sunflowers, regimental in turning their faces to the west. Markets with pyramids of veg and berries. A windmill, a river, hot sun. Milky coffee drunk from bowls.

All this on Lea Bridge Road. Wonderful.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

In praise of beans on toast

These big fat juicy broad beans came in this week's veg box from Abel and Cole (our driver's name: Orville). I was stuck for ideas, until the Boy flippantly suggested dip.


I blanched the wrinkly white beans in salty boiling water, then whizzed them up with olive oil, a splash of lemon and liberally seasoned with coarse ground black pepper and chilli flakes.

Perfect on a slice of toasted honey-and-ale bread, crafted by the Boy's own fair hands.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Diagnosis, logophilia

This article in the Guardian Review examines words that 'make us merry', looking at sound symbolism.

We tend towards nice, soft sounds like "l", "m" and "n", dipthongs and polysyllabic words, and steer clear of hard sounds and short vowels. Apparently, dislike of certain words is called logophobia.

Discussion on the blog focused on hated words, from cliches to Americanisms and nouns as verbs, as well as phonetics. "Moist" was one of the most hated: interesting, it starts with soft sounds and a dipthong and ends with a hard sound.

Some of my favourite words are (in no particular order and in no way comprehensive!):
  • Palanquin
  • Luminous
  • Catatonic
  • Bride
  • Undulate
  • Arc
  • Ululate
  • Prolific
  • Mediaeval
  • Luscious
  • Lyrical
Lots of soft vowel sounds, but also juicy consonants and a heavy sway towards the Latinate ... Go figure!

Diagnosis, logophilia ...

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Feet of clay

Reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Ellen Ternan - the young actress for whom Dickens abandoned his wife - I discover the extent to which my literary hero had feet of clay.

Dickens' passionate social documentation, live-loving humour, celebration of human nature in all it's diversity, fierce commentary on justice, poor reform, institutions and the Establishment- all this remains unchanged but I am seeing his heroines with a new eye.

Revelations of Dickens' Byzantine deceit, sexual double standards and double-dealings, hypocrisy and of utterly indefensible cruelty to his poor wife. His relationship with Ternan casts his insipid, passive, blandly pretty child-wives and doll-like victims in a whole new (disturbing) light for me.

Following it up with a viewing of the 2007 ITV take on The Old Curiosity Shop - the heroine of which, Little Nell, is the ultimate in pliable pedestal women - you can see Dickens has trouble representing flawed, real womenkind on the page. From Dora to Estella, is that it?

Interestly, it isn't (of course) the novels that have altered but my reading - thanks, Barthes! Is it dangerous to read too much secondary material? Does it muddy the instinctive reading or lift the scales from your eyes?

I am currently embarking on the Brenda Maddox biography of George Eliot. Fingers crossed there is nothing here to change the way I see Middlemarch - I am quite happy with my present understanding! So far, so good: lots of burgeoning Radicalism and working as the first female editor in London, editing a high profile quarterly ...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

My boyfriend loves the garden more than he loves me

Eccentric weather conditions - lashing rain, tropical sunshine and freak bouts of humidity have turned the garden rampant.

We have glorious flowers: stargazer lilies opening white petals flashed through with pink, abundant perfumed white roses, delicate purple clematis clinging on to the trellis in the random gusts of wind coursing up the passageway.

The veg patch - annexed by The Boy as his own fiefdom - has suddenly become exciting. Red buds promising runners beans have taken over the vines, which outgrow their supporting canes as rapidly as we construct them. I've also been feasting on ripe, sweet homegrown strawberries. The pumpkins have escaped the beds and are valiantly making for the other side of the garden, uncurling fresh trendrils everyday. We're in danger of being taken over!

So far, so edible!

I am also reliably informed that we are two weeks ahead of our competitor veg growers in Manchester, which makes us smug! Sorry, Aged Parents!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Glorious domestic goddessness

Mmm, lemon cupcakes! on Twitpic

Engaging in an enjoyable burst of domestic goddessness this morning, complete with Cath Kidson-lite apron.

A batch of lemon cupcakes nestles in the oven, alluringly filling the house with a homely, wholesome air. Recipe taken from Rachel Allen's beautiful book, "Bake".

For an hour or so there, I was beautifully absorbed in creative flow, caught in the moment and complete outside of my head. Very rare experience for me!

All this prompted by a visualisation exercise suggested by a lifecoach I am currently seeing: take your average week and the activities you do, and represent them proportionally to fill a 24 hour clock.

I spend 17 hours of my "day" at work or asleep and 3 minutes on creative activities that I feel passionate about! Oh dear!

In a similar vein, a common theme has emerged from this year's birthday presents, jotters and notebooks and journals. Clearly, my friends are ushering me back into writing! I plan to take the hint.

Also inspired by ByBlanca's art journalling project, so I think increased creativity is on the cards! Hurrah!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Down at the bottom of the garden, among the birds and the bees

Developments in the veggie patch:
  • The salad leaves are rampant, thanks to the warm, wet weather, and growing faster than we can eat our way through the bounty
  • The squash and courgette plants grow higher and higher, succulent Triffid-like monsters - embryo blossoms are starting to form, fingers crossed for some sunshine to coax them out
  • The runner beans are a bit weedy but making concerted efforts to twirl themselves up the canes
  • The strawberries are looking promising, more buds showing everyday - the cage was carefully constructed after an eye-witness saw a pesky squirrel making himself right at home in amongst the babies
  • Peas (out of shot) are looking luscious, with six or seven fat little pods already
  • And there's a veritable forest of broad beans

Here's hoping for a goodly harvest!

All construction efforts courtesy of The Boy: he has the necessary survival skills for a post-oil Apocalyptic world, for which today's transport strike has shown I am pitifully equipped.

He's coming with me - when the time comes, we'll head for the hills, and he can build us a raft ... and maybe a fort ... and maybe a wind-turbine.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Early Saturday morning

Early Saturday morning. Rain gently patters against the panes and the brick, leaving marigolds clustered with jewels. Drainpipes gush soothingly. Pink geraniums gently nod in the breeze. Silence: no cars, no children, no football, no neighbours TV. Two fat glossy pigeons with gleaming neck feathers sit amid ivy on the fence outside the backdoor: Mr and Mrs, facing each other. A squirrel, beady eyed and lithe, races nimbly, importantly, to and fro. Faint birdsong spirals from a lustrous blackbird in a far chestnut tree. The garden grows fatly. The clock ticks. Peace.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Old-fashioned Seaside Charm

Candy coloured beach-huts, wind swept piers, glowering cloudy skies, hardy families with buckets and spades on pebble beaches, lighthouses on rocky outcrops - it must be the English seaside!

Lovely weekend spent in Southwold, soaking up the old-fashioned seaside charm: a very sweet town, with a gentle, sleepy feel, with lots to look at and enjoy.

We particularly liked:
  • Southwold Pier - endlessly optimistic cafes with outdoor seating protected by gigantic windbreaks, and the eccentric Victorian-style slot machines at the Under The Pier Show
  • The Adnams Brewery Shop - Peronelle blush cider to die for, mmmm, and vast arrays of Suffolk ale for the Boy
  • Dinner at The Swan - unexpectedly superior dining in a beautiful Georgian inn, I had chicken confit with a hazelnut sauce, yummy!

Only regret: no meal opportunity to sample the much recommended fish and chips.

Only thing lacking: a decent tourism website ... c'mon guys, get it together!

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Beautiful Brighton

As the train moved further south-east and drew closer to the sea, the weather got sunnier and sunnier.

A quick day-trip to Brighton this Saturday: we took in cavernous junk shops and overpriced architectural salvage in the Lanes, browsed fruitfully in indie record shops (well, the Boy did - I read the Guardian in the sunshine outside) and generally ambled aimlessly.

Then to tea at Sian and Matt's, bearing dreamily beautiful cakes from the Angel Food Bakery: strawberries and cream, smooth red velvet, vanilla topped with sugar butterflies, and to top it all off, devil's food cake.

Finally, we finished up with dinner with the Aged Parents and the Affianced Couple at the cavernous Bill's Produce Store on North Road, a 'horn of plenty' style deli with wide oak tables for communal dining. Tasty, tender Moroccan lamb stew with lashings of harissa and yogurt for me, and a lush walnut, spinach and goat's cheese cannelloni for the Veggie. Lots of rich, velvety Syrah to wash it down. Too full for pud (I had my eye on rhubarb and white chocolate croissants, He had his on profiteroles), most unheard of.

I fell asleep in the car and woke up at the Blackwall Tunnel, a fine finish!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Constructivist criticism

To the Tate Modern, across the Millennium Bridge on a bright and windy Saturday. This time, we went to see the current Russian Constructivist exhibition on Alexandr Rodchenko and Liubov Popova.

Not really my area of expertise, but according to good ole Wikipedia, constructivism is "an artistic and architectural movement that originated in Russia from 1919 onward which rejected the idea of "art for art's sake" in favour of art as a practice directed towards social purposes." Love you, Wikipedia...

The show neatly illustrated Rodchenko and Popova's growth in maturity and development of their theory by charting the move from the figurative to the abstract as the clash of the opposing ideas of "Composition" and "Construction".

Composition is:
  • Personal taste
  • Subjective
  • Art made by hand
  • Figurative
  • Symbolic
and inherently bourgeois.

Construction is:
  • Collective
  • Non-unique
  • Mechanised
  • Non-decorative and non-representational
  • Abstract
and so is an expression of Communist principles.

Constructivist art does away with subtleties of the brush, the unnecessary and the personal, in favour of bold graphics and geometric shapes created with ruler, compass, collage.

Most fascinating were the post-New Economic Policy graphic designs, a strange combination of consumer ads for state-produced goods and slogan propaganda aimed at the illiterate.

Also, Popova's fabrics, designed for mass-production and for the workers, were very beautiful: she said of them, "no single artistic success gave me such profound satisfaction as the sight of a peasant woman buying a piece of my fabric for a dress".

Quite something!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Better than therapy?

To Make Lounge in Highbury last night for the bookbinding workshop: it was excellent fun. 10 or so crafters sitting around a wide wooden table stitching, folding and gluing for dear life. My effort was perhaps not the best hand-bound book in the world but, hey, as they say at the end of The Simpsons titles, "I made this".

I gained a new skill (not sure if I'll be able to replicate it!) and spent a pleasant evening in the company of like-minded people in a pretty and creative setting - highly recommended.

Interestingly, bookbinding class was 100% female but there was also a crochet class last night with guys in it - although they left halfway through to go to the pub and watch footy!

The word 'therapeutic' came up several times throughout the evening: if therapy was the cure-all salve of the late nineties and early noughties, is make-do-and-mend (crafting, growing your own and the like) the cure for the eco- and econo-stricken late noughties?

Just a thought!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Women of the world, to the Presses!

A colleague, Steve, who is something of a technical expert in the world of printing and a 'history of print' buff, put this photo on my desk the other day with an accompanying note which read "Women in the composing room, whatever next?"

A bit of background followed, explaining that at the time - around 1860 - women were not employed in printing presses. One social reformer, Emily Faithfull, who was part of the Langham Place Group and dedicated to campaigning for education, employment and suffrage for women, however, believed that composing was a suitable skill for women to learn to enable them to gain respectable occupation.

She then set up a printing works called the Victoria Press, where women were employed as compositors. There was some backlash from the (all-male) print unions, with sabotage and tricks played, but the press went on to great success.

I like to think that we're part of this legacy, although the picture has changed dramatically, and that were here thanks - in part - to Emily Faithfull's vision of skills and training as the solution to bringing women out of the domestic sphere and into the more politically significant world of work.

Read more about Emily Faithfull here.

Interestingly, she died and was cremated in Chorlton-cum-Hardy - I wonder her ashes lie in Southern Cemetery!

Vintage heaven

We ventured out of our comfort zone today in pursuit of tie pins and fifties sundresses - we travelled extreme west to the satisfyingly solid 1930s Hammersmith Town Hall on a pilgrimage to visit the London Vintage Fashion Fair.

Truly vintage heaven this, a cornucopia of of textiles, colours and textures. Beaded bags, silk ties, feathered hats, lace and ribbons and buttons, worn leather Gladstone bags. Everything from ostrich feather fans to heavy beaded flapper dresses to bold fifties prints to seventies polychrome polyester.

I tried on a lilac polka dot forties pinafore and a cornflower print fifties sundress, and lovingly trailed my fingers through trays and trays of bead necklaces and diamante brooches.

We moved on to Chiswick High Street to check out the Old Cinema antiques shop and ate our hearts out over beautiful, mint condition mid-century moderns pieces that we'll never be able to afford: the lead 'if-we-had-the-money' buys? A brick red fifties three piece suite and a haberdasher's chest, full of tiny drawers.

We can but dream ...

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Great Loves Part 2 - Katherine Mansfield

Courtesy of the Penguin Great Loves box set, I am rediscovering my love affair with Katherine Mansfield.

Poignant cinematic stories of gaining love and losing love, rising to a crescendo where the protagonists experience short-lived epiphanies of self-realisation but fail to recognise or translate this into the necessary impetus for transcendence.

My favourite: 'Bliss' (warning: plot spoiler here), for it's emotional evocativeness and the beautiful trope of the pear tree in the moonlight, echoing Bertha's discovery of the deception at the heart of her marriage. Surprised no one's made an art house film of it.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Great earthworks

The raised bed project continues apace ...

The beds are complete, earthworks of great proportions in the sunniest spot. Masses of earth has been painstakingly sifted for hardcore - how on earth do they make these urban green spaces so full of stones, bricks and shards of glass? And litres and litres of compost and manure (double) dug in. Full credit to the Boy for slaving at this enterprise for the past few weeks...

Sown so far, as seeds into the newly rich soil, are the mixed lettuce, spinach, chicory and rocket:

Next, housed in a dinky little bespoke greenhouse, squash and courgette:

Every day, we go out and eagerly open up to inspect progress: so much more exciting than ever anticipated!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


What a crazy day. Momentous events unfolding bang in the middle of my daily commute.

Watching the BBC News unfold throughout the day - largely to determine how on earth to get home when all roads lead to Liverpool Street - began to take on a rather bizarre air. Pictures of Obama descending from Air Force One at Stansted, as if off an EasyJet flight from Ayia Napa, contrasted with protesters throwing bricks at the RBS HQ; symbolic puppets representing the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' marching across London Bridge, while bankers-in-disguise looking ill-at-ease in their civvy clothes try to mingle with the crowds; Sarko threatening to storm out of G20, which is taking place in Canning Town. All very odd.

Strange to think, as I sat at my desk in sunny Bermondsey, that pitched battles were being fought in the streets less than one and a half miles away. Helicopters in the sky were the only visible sign.

As I write, I hear that demonstrators in the Climate Camp in Bishopgate are settling in their tent city for the night, while Jamie Oliver prepares Welsh lamb and Jersey new potatoes for assorted dignitaries and assembled British talent. Now there's a beautiful contradiction.

BBC 'live text' news feed is here, an interesting live narrative composed of blogging, texting, tweeting from serious reporters and 'citizen journos'.

Monday, 30 March 2009

"Outside of a dog ...

... a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Thanks, Groucho, love it!

A friend of the Girl from the Island is starting a new business: a talented fine artist, she is undertaking commissions for pet portraits.

The work in progress section of her site shows the painstaking detail that goes into each stage. The result? Beautiful, hyper-real intelligent pictures.

Also fun, a gallery of animals in art with some fab Elliot Erwitt photos of quirky dogs in gorgeous settings.

Image: Katie Jones

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

A rose by any other name ...

Leyton was first recorded in c.1050 as Lugetune, a name which derives from the river Lea (itself Celtic in origin, meaning "the sparkling river") and the Old English word 'tun', meaning farm. Leytonstone was first recorded as Leyton atte Stone, in 1370, indicating that the place is between Leyton and the High Stone, the boundary mark.


And I love imagining the scrubby, down-at-heel high street with it's death chicken takeaways and pound shops as a sprawling medieval farm by a rushing river, perched between civilisation and the boundary of the wild ancient forest - although admittedly it's currently rather a stretch to imagine this shopping-trolley-strangled reach of the River Lea as "sparkling", perhaps the 2012 Olympics development will restore it to it's former glory.

Geekily, I have been reading up on local place names in this ace book ... total goldmine!

I love a good new word

I learnt a new word this weekend, and one so rare that even my Compact OED couldn't furnish a definition ... courtesy of the great nation of Canada and one George Galloway MP, the word 'infandous' entered my vocabulary.

And having Googled "define: infandous" and got only the mysterious message "No definitions were found for infandous", I must take the newspaper's word for it that the true meaning is "too odious to be expressed or mentioned".

Excellent, I love a good new word. And, incidentally, also liking the anonymous government spokesman's description of Galloway as a "street-corner Cromwell"...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Kings, witches and lions ...

At Stirling Castle, the Historian and I end up gazing off the battlements into the highland hills with Frank, a Historical Scotland guide who had taken rather a shine to us on account of our insatiable interest and has given us an extended tour ... he is extremely well versed and we learn:
  • Troop movements for the Battle of Bannockburn
  • Mary Queen of Scots's favourite view
  • How William Wallace booby-trapped Stirling Bridge
  • The social effects of the Highland Clearances
  • James I of England & VI of Scotland owned two Abyssinian lions
  • Edward II wasn't up to much in warfare and statecraft, preferring thatching
  • James I wrote Daemonologie and persecuted witches because he had issues with his mother
Most enjoyable ...

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Gentlemen of Bakongo

The dapper gentlemen of Bakongo, as photographed by Daniele Tamagni in a book to be published in June by Trolley Books, were also featured in the Weekend Guardian: elegant and insouicant, I love the exuberance of their unusual dress sense.

Photograph: Daniele Tamagni, via The Guardian

A question of attribution?

This weekend, Oliver Burkeman's column in the Weekend Guardian 'This Column Will Change Your Life' covered an interesting concept, fundamental attribution error (FAE).

This means we fall into bias by overvaluing personality-based explanations - he was rude to me because he's a rude person - and undervaluing situational ones - he was rude because he's stressed about work. And we happily accept that our own personalities are a spectrum of emotions depending on the current (temporary) situation, but are unwilling or unable to attribute this to others. Apparently, FAE is less common in collectivist cultures ...

Interesting stuff. Perhaps more curious, how to address it in the hypocritical, hyper-critical snap judgements we casually make every day? Never judge a book by it's cover, I guess?

Poems on the Underground

Bent double beneath a fellow commuter's sweaty pit, Poems on the Underground caught my eye tonight. A wonderful idea this, snippets of poetry to soothe the mind and transport the soul as you take the cattle truck home, condemned to the vagaries of Transport for London.

Today, I saw the one above: a tortoise seeking transcendence, from ' The Carnival of the Animals' by Judith Chernaik.

I especially love the 'random poem of the day' feature on the website.

Image from TFL via

Thursday, 12 March 2009

I may not know about art, but I know what I like!

Also this week, a visit to Tate Modern with Mother. At random, we see Roni Horn 'AKA Roni Horn' where we like rough cast cubes of opaque and translucent glass in pinks and reds, black and white over-exposed photos of the river with lyrical, funny, quirky, gruesome footnotes about the Thames, and photos of empty houses and faces in Iceland.

We paid a quick visit on the way out to Cornelia Parker's installation 'Thirty Pieces of Silver', a gloriously delicate yet resilient mobile of steam-rollered silverware, which left me strangely uplifted.

The Young Victoria

To an early showing of The Young Victoria on Monday with the Aussie. We saw the movie at the lovely Stratford Picturehouse - an oasis of culture in the wastelands of Stratford shopping centre - which, incidentally, has half-price shows on a Monday, hurrah!

A lushly sumptuous film, rich in texture through the gorgeous period costumes, luscious lighting and evocative cinematography.

And covering, imaginatively, a bit of history that I know very little about. The later years are well-documented in the popular imagination - the rotund, severe madam in widows weeds who was not amused. This narrative looks closely at the pressure on her to agree to a regency before she was eligible to ascend to the throne, the constitutional politics of 'the bedchamber crisis', her incipient relationship with Albert, the multiple assassination attempts and her transition from naïve, wilful greenhorn to true monarch.

Most fascinating were the two key themes at the heart, the political play over control of a underage and female heir to the throne, and the growth of trust between Victoria and her husband, the political choice but also the love match.

Who knows how true a portrayal this might be - but I'm certainly keen to read more, by way of her diaries and letters, if I can get my hands on them...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Design Sponge in London

My favourite design blog just did a London city guide: see it here on Design Sponge. Lots of my old favourites listed, from Liberty to the Royal Festival Hall shop to Columbia Road markets, by way of V.V. Rouleaux and After Noah. What good taste!

It's magic!

Caught in a rainstorm in Walthamstow Village, the Boy and I dashed into The Deli for a panini and a coffee. A man dressed like Napoleon Dynamite amazed us with magic tricks and sleight of hand. All, he explained, revolving around the fact that he has three cards and you have only two eyes so you can't watch everything he does ... that was as near as he would go to giving away his secrets.

Emanuele Faja. Check him out. He works for Waltham Forest Council showing people how street gambling is a con.

Art Deco

The Boy and I found ourselves in Twickenham, of all places, yesterday. We were there to collect yet another brilliant eBay bargain of the Boy's finding - an Art Deco wooden standard lamp with chrome 'rays of sunshine' decoration. It's fab and looks not unlike the Empire State Building. Now to find a worthy shade ...

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Dirty literary secrets

This short piece on guilty pleasure books caught my eye a few days ago: have to admit I've been sheepishly reading but hiding the above on my commute this week.

John Sutherland describes reading as one of "only three private acts left" ...

That's what friends are for?

There is, apparently, an optimum number of friends one can / should have. While the average social circle numbers 150 friends, the average core group is of 5 really close friends. Sounds about right: this is certainly the dynamic of the US comedy show, which perhaps owed its phenomenal success to the fact that it was both identificatory - we recognised ourselves in it, we certainly were able to spot the 'Chandler' and 'Monica' types in our group - and aspirational - we wanted to be them, hence the rise of Starbucks et al!

Interesting, though, to look at how social networking is bending and altering the definition of 'friendship'. Adding a friend on Facebook prompts the question, 'How do you know this person?', a question that could be getting harder to answer as Facebook looks to increase it's current limit of 5000 friends per user profile. Meanwhile, on Twitter, Stephen Fry exceeded 100,000 followers in February this year ... Some wise words from Techipeida on social media etiquette (hat tip to B).

Love the guy in the article who operates a 'on in, one out' friending policy: wonder what happened to the cause the vacancy? And was his generous offer taken up?

God bless BBC Radio 4

Went into a zen-like state last night waiting for the boy to finish work, sitting on the sofa, eyes closed, listening to old podcasts of In Our Time (Simon Bolivar, followed by Vitalism).

Wondrous programme where brainiac Cumbrian and all round Renaissance man Melvin Bragg sits around a table with a bunch of crusty academics and ponders matters of cultural, scientific or historic import. The academics ramble, forgetting where they are, Braggy interrupts, mumbles and goes off on tangents, and lots of interesting information is imparted. Bit like gatecrashing a rather random and ponderous undergrad lecture series. God bless BBC Radio 4, one of the things I missed most when living abroad.

Although this one on the number zero nearly blew my mind: even after two goes, still couldn’t understand a flippin’ word of it!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Feeling seedy ...

This evening, I've got plans for some indoor gardening.

The boy and I, feeling crafty and eco-friendly, made paper pots from recycled newspapers a couple of days ago. Now they're dry and ready for action.

Going in:
  • Pumpkins (we are addicted and need a supply)
  • Runner beans (nothing better, steamed and slathered in butter)
  • Cherry tomatoes (much sweeter when you grow your own)
  • Sunflowers (cheerful, makes me think of France)
  • Sweet peas (purely for the colour and smell, heavenly)
  • Herbs (an unusual Valentine's gift)
On hold for sowing direct into the new raised bed:
  • Lettuce (multiple varieties, thanks to the boy's mum)
  • Spinach (with pine nuts on pasta with a splash of extra virgin)
Makes me happy just thinking about it!

Monday, 2 March 2009


Browsing Gywneth Paltrow’s new lifestyle website Goop – tagline: nourish the inner aspect – I came across this rather interesting concept.

Ubuntu means seeing yourself, not as an individual, but as part of wider web of humanity, through your relationships with others.

Desmond Tutu has described the philosophy as:
“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Surely a good code to live by?

Interestingly, ubuntu is also is a Linux-based operating system…

Customised books

Now here’s an interesting idea that the publishing industry should have come up with ages ago … software company PediaPress is working with Wikipedia and Lightning Source print-on-demand to allow users to select content of interest and have this typeset and printed on demand. What do you get? A customised encyclopedia. Genius!

Education publishers have been customising ‘slice and dice’ for a while, in limited, bespoke, expensive print runs but this is the first mass market version I’ve seen.

See Alison Flood's piece in The Guardian here.

In praise of making

Walking from Highbury to Angel to meet The Girl from the Island and her family for coffee on Saturday, I was rather taken by The Make Lounge on Barnsbury Road.

First thing to catch my eye was the quirky, fun logo – the word 'make' in typography formed of tiny red scissors, rulers, pencils, thimbles and other implements for craft.

Peering through the window, like a kid at a sweet shop or a dog at a butcher’s, I saw a host of contented people sitting at a long communal table, drinking champagne and making stuff.

How cool is that! Can’t wait to go!

Mourning Tony Hart

Lovely story today about a flashmob tribute to the recently deceased art guru Tony Hart.

200+ plasticine pastiches of Hart’s most famous creation, Morph, all along the South Bank outside Tate Modern. BBC News reports Hart’s daughter as "completely bowled over" by the gesture.

And what an interesting measure of the impact this one man had on the creative culture psyche of a generation … certainly, I get a flood of nostalgia when I hear the smooth lounge stylings of ‘the gallery’ theme from Hartbeat. To me the best thing about Hart was the enthusiasm for the act of artistic creation, no matter who the artist was or how talented. And he wore a cravat.

Something I didn’t know – thanks Wikipedia – was that he created the original design for the Blue Peter badge. So basically responsible for most of the totems of my childhood then!

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Busy Busy World

We are currently revisiting our childhoods, with the gift of a Richard Scarry compendium ... colourful, detailed double page spreads crammed anthropomorphic animals going about their everyday business in a hectic, harum scarum manner. Guaranteed to keep you enthralled for hours. Our favourite character is Bug Dozer, a little green bug trying to shift mountains with his tiny red bulldozer.

Another mainstay from that era: Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are', amazing artwork that draws you into the wonderful nightworld of naughty boy Max. I even (pretentious, moi?) once wrote a paper on this book, drawing on Freudian theory to provide insight and interpretation... but that's Oxford for you.


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