Friday, 30 October 2009

I spy with my little eye something beginning with G!

For the past week I have been searching everywhere for my second pair of glasses. Yesterday, I even asked at the gym whether they had been handed in. It was especially annoying because I had had so much trouble buying the glasses in the first place.

Two years ago, newspaper coupon in hand, I went along for a supposedly free eye test, assuming that my vision was perfect. Apparently I was wrong and the optician recommended reading glasses. I was mortified. I was not the kind of person who wore reading glasses. I used to have a screensaver at work bearing the legend: I am not a loose woman I am simply falling to bits. Now my words were proving prophetic. It took me well over an hour before I settled on a pair of Calvin Klein rimless varifocals, which was the nearest I could get to invisible glasses short of wearing contact lenses, the latter being something I could not stomach. Ironically, I need not have worried about wearing reading glasses as it was months before I actually received them.

Originally, I was given a delivery date of a few weeks. That came and went without the arrival of the glasses. Then, at regular intervals I was assured by the opticians that the glasses would be in-store for collection the day after tomorrow, or so their supplier had informed them. The next excuse was that the supplier was experiencing difficulties in manufacturing them before finally conceding that they had not even started work on them. It struck me that I could have gone to Venice, apprenticed myself to a glassmaker and made the glasses myself in the time it took to supply me with two new pairs. Only after the optician admitted defeat and switched suppliers did I finally received both glasses and at a substantially reduced price for my trouble.

Now it seems I might well need a new eye test. This morning I glanced up at my bookshelf and to my astonishment saw my glasses case with my glasses securely in them. I know I have picked up several other items in the past few days within inches of those glasses so why could I literally not see them? Perhaps my mind is beginning to crumble too.

Dog Day Afternoons

An introduction to Ellie the greyhound and a demonstration by her of how to make the perfect bed for a dog.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

More Tales of the Supernatural.

I had always wanted to be an actor as a child. Until the age of 10, I was firmly convinced I had even been a child star in silent films. I wish now I had told an adult about my belief. Perhaps they might have prised more details out of me or perhaps they would have laughed at my fanciful talk of reincarnation. As it was, the closest I ever came to appearing in a Hollywood blockbuster was a walk on part in the school nativity play.

Consequently, I was more than a little jealous when my brother’s young son landed a role in a major Hollywood horror film, later regarded as a modern classic of its genre. The director had originally only meant to search for extras at the public school my brother’s son attended. However,  the director was so struck by the "period " look of my nephew’s face, he instantly gave him a key speaking role in the film. It was a fantastic experience for my nephew. Hitherto, he had been prone to being bullied by certain class mates. That all changed on his triumphant return from location shooting. His popularity soared along with his growing self confidence as he magnanimously sold to his erstwhile bullies, autographed pictures from the Oscar-winning Hollywood actress he had acted alongside and recounted stories about his brief but glorious career as a movie star.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Reigning cats and dogs

I grew up in a household where both cats and dogs were equally cherished as family pets. When I went to live with my mother, she refused my pleas to be allowed at least a cat. That all changed when we were at breakfast one day and I poured out cornflakes into a bowl. Instead of a plastic toy, a live mouse fell out and raced up my arm, prompting screams from me and an instant decision by my mother that we needed a rodent exterminator in the form of a cat. Tiger the tabby cat she bought me, was so proud of his efforts, he would line the staircase with the tiny decapitated bodies of his hunting trophies. Staying at a country cottage years later, I awoke to find two ginger cats sitting on my bed and playing with the breakfast they had so thoughtfully provided me with: the hind quarters of a field vole.

When we moved house, my mother decided that Tiger could not come with us and killed him. I never asked how. A lack of space and ready access to the garden made me reluctant to get a cat as an adult. That did not stop a friend who lived in a light airy studio flat. Out of the blue she went to the local cats’ home and came back with a moggy. Then she decided that the moggy, who she would not allow outside, needed a companion and then another and another until she had at least 6 cats sharing her accommodation. Hence her subsequent nickname of the Catwoman. The cat charity had approved her home but some of the cats, from time to time, voted with their paws and made a break for it. One, on the day he first arrived, managed to squeeze through the tiny gap at the bottom of the partially open sash window, ran down the wall and escaped to freedom. Despite catching occasional glimpses of him in the neighbourhood, he refused to be recaptured.
"He won't starve", I comforted her. “People will always feed and water him.”

When I lived in rented accommodation, a beautiful white pedigree cat used to slip into the house whenever I returned home from work and opened the front door.It would make its way to my bedsit to while a way an hour or two on my bedspread and cushions until returning home, wherever that was. I never fed it but one day I caught it going into another flat and realised it probably went from house to house, being petted and generally indulged at every home it was allowed in to, before retiring to its owners for the night.

Another of the Catwoman’s moggies escaped down scaffolding the builders had left outside. This time the cat returned of its own volition. Despite my efforts at persuasion, she would not allow her cats out for fear of them being poisoned or shot at with air rifles, although she would take out one cat at a time on a lead around the local park.

Cats on leads are a bizarre phenomenon of city life. The Couple have a pedigree cat called Bruce, also known as Our Mouser in Chief, thanks to his sterling efforts at ridding the house of the mice problem, which had hitherto plagued us ever since the site next door was allowed to slide into ruin. Bruce has the run of a spacious flat during the day when at least one of the Couple is present. Owing to the main road outside the house, he is only allowed out in the garden on a lead, which extends around the upper part of his torso as well as his neck. As I was talking the cat for its morning constitutional and was chatting with his owner, Bruce decided to squeeze through the boundary fence into the site next door. I tried to pull the cat back but Bruce somehow manipulated himself out of the leash and ran towards the neighbouring house. With an almighty effort I squeezed my less than cat like proportions through the gap and chased after him, worried that he would get into the derelict house and I would be forced to follow him. Fortunately, having shown who was boss, Bruce allowed me to pick him up without a struggle and return him home.

In my fantasy house I would have a cat and a rescued greyhound or two. I have become particularly drawn to the latter ever since I was first invited to look after Ellie, my friends’ greyhound, whose picture is shown above. But that is a shaggy dog story for another time.

Saturday, 24 October 2009


At the time of the fire in December 1998, I was part of the Corporate Finance team working for an American multi-national. On the previous evening, I had checked and double checked that my bag contained all the relevant papers for the seminar being held at the Barbican in the morning. It was being hosted by the new American CEO and it would have been little short of career suicide not to have arrived on time. I was so determined not to be late I  even got out the shoes I was going to wear and left my cream skirt suit hanging from the outer wardrobe door, so there would not be a mad panic to find them both when I got up.  Satisfied that I had left absolutely nothing to chance, I set my alarm clock for seven a.m. and switched off the bedside light.
I woke up puzzled. I thought I could smell smoke. I dismissed the idea from my mind and went back to sleep. When I awoke again I sat bolt upright in bed. Why was the bedroom so dark? Then I realised that the room was pitch black because it was filled with smoke. I slipped out of bed and stood by the door. I was gripped by panic. I was convinced that I had somehow caused the fire. Had my socket extension caught alight because it was overloaded? The next thought that went through my head was: If that was the case, whatever would the neighbours think? I had to somehow get rid of the smoke before it seeped into their flats.
I managed to make my way across to the curtains and tried to draw them open. This simple everyday act proved quite beyond me, I ended up sending the brass rail crashing to the ground as I tugged in desperation on the curtains. When I finally managed to prise open the window, I saw all my neighbours, tightly wrapped up in their dressing gowns against the December cold, on the lawn below.
“There’s a fire, stay by the window,” someone ordered. During my career, I had been on numerous fire awareness courses. But I had completely forgotten my training. My one instinct was to flee down the stairs. Only my neighbour’s words of warning stopped me. They helped save my life. If I had opened my front door at the top of the stairwell, the fire raging below would have swept over me in an instant.
I suddenly realised that I had no nightwear on. I plunged back into the smoke to try and retrieve my dressing gown from off the top of the bed where I had left it. It was a foolish act and gave new meaning the idea of dying of shame. I then made my way to my kitchen. Seeing my neighbours safely grouped together in the garden made me feel incredibly lonely, the more so when I heard a woman repeatedly warn her brother not to go into the house to try and rescue me.

Now even the kitchen was filled with dense acrid smoke. Coughing hoarsely, I leaned precariously out of the window. desperate to breath in a lungful of fresh air. At the time, I never thought of the flames. The idea of being burnt alive would have petrified me. However it did dawn on me that the flats below had gas pipes running through them, which might explode at any moment, adding to my sense of utter hopelessness.

I neither saw nor hear the fire brigade arrive as I was beginning to blackout. I remember seeing them by the garden gate and then nothing until the top of a ladder miraculously appeared amidst the choking plumes of smoke. I grabbed hold of it but to my despair and bewilderment it was immediately wrenched out of my hands. The fire brigade were not prepared to take the risk of the windows below me exploding outwards from the heat. They shouted over to me to sit on the window sill, turn around and reach out for the ladder, now placed against the brick wall. Under normal circumstances I would be hard pressed to climb up or down a step ladder, let alone try and climb onto a ladder set at such an awkward angle from me and standing nearly forty feet up from the ground. But sheer adrenalin and determination gave me renewed strength. The worst that could happen was that I could slip and plunge to my death on to the concrete below. To stay within the house meant certain death. It was an easy choice. As I climbed onto the ladder, a fireman waited on the lower rungs to help guide me as it was impossible to see my footing amidst the clouds of smoke.

Once on the ground I felt invincible and waved aside the need for medical treatment. However, when I saw the intensity of the raging fire the bravado left me and I felt vulnerable again and readily got into the waiting ambulance. The hospital treated me for smoke inhalation but, anxious to know what was happening at the house, I discharged myself early the next day. When I arrived, I realised that although the upper storeys were badly damaged, the ground floor flat, with its separate entrance, had escaped relatively unscathed. It was there that I was informed that what I had assumed to have been an accidental fire was in fact arson. Someone had slipped into the house around 4a.m. and poured petrol into the upper part of the communal hall before setting it alight. I was devastated. A simple accident I could accept but not such wanton callousness.

We never did find out for certain who had caused the fire. We had our suspicions and for a time there was a degree of mutual paranoia. There was no sign of a break in; did the arsonist have a key?

It was nine moths before I was able to return to my flat as the damage to the Victorian house had been so extensive. I never had nightmares about the event but I still feel a chill whenever I read about others trapped in house fires. That night, I had witnessed the very worst of human nature in the form of the arsonist and the very best in the shape of those people, prepared to risk their own lives to save mine.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Voice of the People

Earlier this year, the Original Freeholder (OF) asked me to sign a petition in favour of the redevelopment of the site next door, which had remained derelict for a number of years. The developers had faced an uphill battle getting planning permission from the local authority and felt if neighbours supported the scheme it might help tip the balance in their favour. They then decided that their cause would be helped even more if a neighbour spoke in support of their proposals at the planning committee itself. Consequently I found myself roped in to make a speech.

The OF and The Couple came along to the meeting to give me support. I made my way to the speakers’ seats, which were provided with microphones. My neighbours sat at the back. The first item on the agenda went on for over an hour and a half, at which point the OF persuaded the Couple to pop across the road to the pub until it was my turn to speak. Within minutes of their departure, the remaining agenda items were raced through and a member of the public was finally invited to speak out against the proposed redevelopment of the next door site. When her speech rambled on over the allotted five minutes, her microphone was summarily switched off by the clerk. She looked bewildered and tried to finish off what she was saying until her unamplified voice petered out in resignation.Then it was my turn.

There was no time to text my neighbours.In my much rehearsed speech, I explained how our lives had been blighted by the derelict site. It had attracted tramps and drug addicts, who were not adverse to ripping off the wooden panelling and starting up small fires in the house during the winter.I had been stung to the quick when the very same committee, in an earlier report, had described our detached house as making a negative contribution to the conservation area by virtue of the rendering on the external wall and the pvc windows.
“By comparison to the site next door”, I said indignantly,“Our house deserved World Heritage Site status!”
I closed my argument by pointing out that if they turned down the current planning application, the houses on the site were likely to be beyond saving and the integrity of the whole conservation area would be destroyed. After that the developer spoke for 10 minutes.The motion was then put to the vote and for the first time in years, passed unanimously.

Afterwards, the jubilant developers took me across to the pub to celebrate with my neighbours. I had two vodka and oranges. I later thought I should have demanded a penthouse suite for my services. I really am hopeless at kickbacks and corruption.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

David Starkey: Man & Historian

Last month, I went to see a special evening lecture given by the eminent historian David Starkey at the British Library. He had guest curated their exhibition: Henry VIII Man and Monarch. Just before his lecture started, it was announced that he would be signing copies of his books later. As I had also been told that the guidebook to the exhibition was reduced for the evening, I dashed across to the bookshop to buy one. The book was a heavyweight in every sense of the word, weighing in at just under 3 pounds. Consequently, I decide not to bulk buy them as early Christmas presents.

After David Starkey’s lecture, I waited patiently alongside a group of other people, queuing up to have their books signed by him. I was somewhat apprehensive. His history programs are authoritative and, for me at least, highly compelling. However, he can be distinctly provocative off-screen and several of his public remarks have riled me. To my surprise, he turned out to be extremely charming as I listened to him talking to the couple in front of me. When it was my turn, I asked him to sign the book in my name and told him the initial, which he proceeded to do, whilst repeating my instructions in an amused voice. As he wrote, I noticed the beautiful gold intaglio ring on his hand. When I said how much I admired it, he explained that he had bought it as a present for himself to celebrate his first major success on television. I then told him how much I enjoyed his various television programmes and how informative I found them. He thanked me and I decided I was in love. Although I know I would not hold any appeal to Mr Starkey, as I have the “body of a weak and feeble woman,”  if he had but asked me, I would have married him on the spot.

His behaviour was so very different to that of a female historian years earlier, when the British Library had been located within the walls of the British Museum. One evening, I held the heavy doors to the Reading Room open for this woman. She sailed through and let them swing right back on me without either a word of thanks or a backward glance. Whatever else she might have been, I have never subsequently regarded her as being one of Nature’s ladies and I have studiously avoided buying any of her books.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A Growing Addiction

My addiction started in a small way. At first I limited myself to growing herbs on my kitchen windowsill and progressed to a single tomato plant. I also embarked on a never ending war of attrition against the Japanese Bindweed in the garden. When I bought a share of the freehold, I took it upon myself to tackle the tall hedgerows lining the garden path and that was it. Such regular and close proximity to the garden had me hooked.

I decided to divide the garden into three distinct areas for planting purposes. The lawn is a separate entity. The ground in front of the hedge would form the core of my herb garden. The ground under the 150 year old cherry tree would be my vegetable patch and the shrubs would be tidied up and space made for flowering plants and new shrubs. I also used windows inside my flat and on the communal landings to grow yet more herbs. chilli pepper plants and different varieties of tomatoes.

The herb garden proved a great success: I grew oregano, chives, mint, clary, bay, sorrel, savoury, tarragon, lemon verbena, camomile, lemon balm, pennyroyal ,parsley, sage, rosemary and of course (lemon) thyme. I am hoping that many of the plants will survive the winter and flourish again next year. A friend’s brother gave me a host of shrubs such as myrtle, roses, hydrangeas, most of which are still going strong. I was delighted to receive a small buddleia as there used to be a mature plant next door, whose top branches were close enough to our fence, for me to snaffle some blossoms for my flat. Annoyingly the whole of next doors' mature garden was rubbed out by the developers. Yet now it is verdant again, principally with bindweed! Flowering plants that graced the garden included gladioli, iris, geranium, primulas, violas, lilies, nasturnums.

Once the indoor chilli peppers had turned red I harvested them, deseeded and chopped them up before freezing in ice cube trays to be later added to stews etc as required. My courgette plant produced only a single small vegetable. However I was determined to cook it and chucked it in with some pasta. The many courgette flowers I stuffed with mozzarella cheese, freshly chopped tarragon and honey and then fried in olive oil. The stuffed flowers can also be dipped in batter and cooked as a tempura. I only managed to grow about a dozen strawberries and gave them to friends with as much solemnity as if I were presenting them each with a rare truffle. I grew a single cucumber the size of a ridge cucumber but without the textured skin. It was delicious. The tomato plants created a mini indoor jungle as they hogged the light coming through the hall window. Fortuitously, Nigel Slater gave a recipe in the Observer for Red and Green tomato chutney allowing me to make two generous jars full. I have a small but perfectly formed red bell pepper growing in the hall along with some baby aubergines and a green bell pepper plant which is flowering.

On the whole my other vegetables have failed to flourish. The squash has not yielded any vegetables despite producing flowers and apparently healthy leaves which look to swamp the vegetable patch. My purple sprouting broccoli only sprouted vigorous green leaves. Snails, slugs and squirrel were not the only pests I had to contend with. As I came down to the garden one day the Original Freeholder (OF) proudly informed me that he had been weeding my vegetable patch and had thrown all the weeds away.
“Where are my spring onions”? I demanded in sheer disbelief. He had failed to observe the plastic marker emblazoned with the words: “Spring Onions” and embellished with a helpful colour image of the plant in question.

My gooseberry bushes and blackberry bush look to have established themselves but I don’t expect any fruit until next year. I might still have some Brussels sprouts growing though. I planted Alpine plants along the top of the garden path on the basis that if they could survive an alpine environment, they ought to survive a barren piece of land. They and the fever few have now established themselves and will need little further maintenance.

My addiction has become so great I find myself watching gardening programmes and scrutinising newspaper supplements for handy tips. If you factor in the time I actually spent gardening then the resulting produce would be worth its weight in truffles. But I doubt if even the choicest truffle could give me as much pleasure as a spoonful of my home grown chilli and tomato and chutney or match the delicate taste of my cucumber.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A quaint and whimsical complaint

Having gained access to my own medical records I discovered that I had quinsy as a child and not glandular fever as I had hitherto thought. I was rather impressed when I read on the NHS official web-site that it is a rare condition. Sadly not rare enough to be named after me but at least it spares me from lots of other people assuring me their quinsy was far worse than mine. When I related this to a commentator on, the popular American website, they said that quinsy was now their favourite new word, being an inspired mixture of quaint and whimsy. Quaint and whimsical just about sums me up too.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Southside House, Wimbledon

Southside House by Wimbledon Common is a rare jewel of a house. Dating back to Tudor times and enlarged during William and Mary’s reign, it has the unique charm of a family home, not bound by the demands of rigorous academic conservation. Instead, the bomb damaged mansion, was restored by family members with what they felt looked aesthetically pleasing rather than historically correct.

I have noticed that over the years, the stories about the house have changed after the local history society took them to task for being unable to authenticate certain claims. Thus, the raised platform upon which Emma Hamilton was once said to have performed her daring yet artistic semi-nude classical attitudes, in the happier times before her lover, Admiral Nelson, sailed off for Trafalgar and immortality, is now prosaically described as having been installed several centuries later. I was not amused when a guide, talking about a former resident who had been sent by the SOE on a secret mission to Finland during World War II, described the Finnish ”capitulation” to the Russians.

"Capitulation"! I stormed. "During the Winter War, the Finns were heavily outnumbered by the Soviet forces, yet successfully held them off for months unlike what happened at a certain Dunkirk. I should know. My grandfather was there.”
Despite their valiant efforts, the Finns eventually had to cede nearly 9% of the country to Russia. Thus the birthplace of my grandmother, who was born in Finland, is now part of Russia. I was told that all my family left Karelia except for one man. He stayed in touch for a number of years until the Stalinist purge of the 1930s made it too dangerous to correspond with people living in the West and he begged the family to cut off all further contact.
Southside House

The stately ghosts of England

To my regret, I have never felt a ghostly presence at any of the palaces I have visisted. Nor did I experience any chills at Ham House, the seventeenth century mansion, where I took my friend on a ghost tour. I did feel the male guide was quite rude about the seventeenth century Duchess of Lauderdale, who had done much to transform the earlier mansion. Little wonder that the shade of the Duchess is said to irritably push aside those who get in her way as she descends the great oak staircase.

Ham House, Richmond

My only encounter with a stately ghost happened at Kenwood House, the eighteenth century mansion on Hampstead Heath. I used to wonder why I felt so drawn to the place. I only recently discovered that its exterior is very similar to Hylands Park in Essex, which I was taken many times as a child, although the latter was then sadly derelict and seemed destined to decline further. I daydreamed about living in that house as I walked under the grand portico and would peer longingly through the cracks in the shuttered windows at the brief glimpses of the Georgian interiors. Thankfully, Essex County Council was able to restore Hylands House to its former glory. According to its website I can now even get married there if I but had a fiancé.
Hylands House
I saw no ghosts at Hyland House but at Kenwood, as I was standing alone in a room given over to a small but stunning collection of Stuart portraits, the door suddenly began to close with tremendous speed and slammed shut.
“I didn’t touch it!,” I assured the warder as she dashed in from off her perch in the other room.
“It’s the ghost”, the warder explained and said she had told others about how the door would inexplicably slam shut when no one was around and yet usually it could not be moved without some effort. We began chatting about the pictures. She explained that the portraits displayed the blue veins of the women as a sign of imperfection. I said I had read that actually the veins were meant to highlight the milky pallor and translucency of the skin, a sign of great beauty.
Kenwood House
Once in Leeds Castle in Kent we seemed to be followed around rather too closely by a warder. We stopped in front of an Ancient Egyptian statue of a cat. I explained to my guests what the hieroglyphs engraved along its throat were, having studied the subject at evening class.
“ I never even knew they were there, let alone what they meant” said the warder to me in admiration as we were leaving.
Leeds Castle, Kent

Dancing Queen

I love going along to historical re-enactments. I once went to Eltham Palace when Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Cardinal Wolsey and the King’s Fool were present. I had a chance to ask Katherine of Aragon a question. It was slightly embarrassing as I am very much Team Anne Boleyn. However, I did join in the dancing in thr Great Hall including the lively Tudor Brawl. It reminded me of the country dances held on the lawns of my primary school, where we wore white blouses and full black skirts edged with colourful ric-rack ribbons. Then my favourite dance had been the polka. Once, at Greenwich Palace I took part in dances dating from the time of Charles I. It was a real feather in my cap when the ladies, in full seventeenth century court costume, much admired my own large brimmed straw hat. The latter has regal connections of its own. I bought it from LK Bennett, when the eponymous owner’s empire was limited to a single shop. Now her shoes are worn by the future Queen of England.
Eltham Palace

Henry VIII's 500th anniversary (Revised April 2011)

Earlier in the year I went to Hampton Court for the 500th anniverary of Henry VIII’s coronation. In the special visitors book commemorating the event, I wrote that I still had not forgiven him for Anne Boleyn’s death.

As I walked round the Base Courtyard, I felt something was amiss. It slowly dawned on me that the verdant lawns had been replaced by white cobblestones which were both dusty and reflected back the intense heat of that summer’s day. (I took the image above in January 2011) .Apparently it had been very expensive to install. I was not impressed. If the idea was to make that part of Hampton Court look more like it was in Henry VIII’s time, why didn’t they restore the gatehouse to its original 5 storeys? However, the following weekend as I sat in Base Court watching the evening fireworks set off in the pleasure gardens outside, the courtyard did seem rather atmospheric.

In the afternoon I had waited patiently for almost two hours for the arrival of Henry and Katherine Parr by royal barge from the Tower to Hampton Court. To my disappointment all I saw of the royal barge were the blue tips of the blade held aloft in salute by the oarsmen as the royal party alighted. At least I was able to later wander around Hampton Court at night. People were even taking pictures inside which is normally frowned on. On a previous occasion, an actor dressed as Sir Thomas Moore told me I could not take pictures even though I wasn’t using flash and others around me were using their cameras. I had never really like Sir Thomas Moore, a man who had had a 15 year old boy burnt alive for his faith but now I disliked him even more or should that be moore? Luckily when I returned to the palace in January 2011 to take part in the New Year celebrations with Henry and his fourth and fifth wives, Thomas Moore's head had long been lopped off his shoulders and so I was able to take pictures within the Great Hall itself.

A Tower of London

I am a member of the Royal Palaces. It means, for an annual fee, I can drop into one of five London palaces. Consequently I have found myself making innumerable trips to Hampton Court, Kew Palace and the Tower of London.
On my last visit to the Tower I explored the Cradle Tower, whose ground floor contained a memorial to Anne Askew the 16th century Protestant martyr. Suddenly, I felt unnerved as I could hear a man reciting part of the liturgy in Latin. I looked around. I was completely alone. I went into another chamber, furnished with a simple table and chair. Again, I heard the same voice. I found myself saying Amen as if to pacify the tormented soul forever condemned to repeat the liturgy in the place where he had been tortured and perhaps executed for his faith. As I went into the hallway I realised that the voice was on a loop as part of the exhibition commemorating religious martyrs in the Tower.

Nuts in September

At last the weather was cold enough to warrant venturing out in my cream coloured 1950’s “Silbert of California” cashmere coat, made for the bracingly cold Californian winters. It was in perfect condition. I only wish I had lasted so well. I took it to a park named after a nineteenth century Italian Duke, the ducal mansion now turned into a hotel and the gardens open to hoi polloi like me. As I sat on a bench reading the Sunday papers, a squirrel came cautiously towards me. To my surprise he jumped up on to the wooden bench and began to climb up my bag. I say he, only an adult male would be so impertinent as to be all over me when we hadn’t even been properly introduced/
“Tear my coat and I will take away your nuts”, I warned.
He seemed to take the hint and leaped off in search of more congenial company.

Voyage autour de ma chambre

I study moden languages part-time and spent the weekend preparing a presentation I had to give in class. I decided to base it on the 1794 bestseller “Voyage autour de ma chambre” by Xavier de Maistre. The latter decided to poke fun at the earnest travel journals of his day and write a 700 page book describing his travels around his own drawing room. In honour of M. de Maistre, I wrote a 700 word essay on a journey around my living room. The highlights of the tour include: a 19th Japanese wedding kimono, tea-cups and saucers from the 18th to the early 20th century and a discussion of tea ceremonies in Japan. Favoured guests are allowed to put on the kimono and have their picture taken in it. They can also handle an 1815 blue and white transfer-ware English teapot. Whenever I pour from it, I imagine its original owners discussing Napoleon and shaking their heads as they wonder what on earth he was up to on St Helena, following his defeat at Waterloo; a small vase from Vietnam which lay at the bottom of coastal waters for 500 years until the shipwreck was excavated in the 20th century; a group of scallop shells, found underneath some paving stones, which I like to think workmen consumed for lunch as they built my house in the 1850s but which my friend likes to imagine were left by pilgrims on their way to the great medieval abbey, which once existed along my road;. a part of a marble pillar which I also came across in my garden; paintings by a Czech artist, who was friends with the protestor who daringly painted a soviet tank pink following the Velvet Revolution; Tsarist silver coins dating from my family’s flight from St Petersburg at the height of the Russian Revolution, which legend has it that my grandfather, being but a small child, fled across a river mounted on the broad shoulders of an adult relative or were my family confusing our story with that of the Christ child and St Christopher?; a modern copy of an antique tapestry, identical to one in front of which Jonathan Rhys Myers pouted prettily on the Tudors; a beautiful 1920s Chinese silk shawl sold to me at an antiques fair by a vendor who, despite not knowing me from Adam or the fact I had no identification on me, allowed me to take it home and pay for it by cheque which I later posted to her, fearing all the while that I would be run down and killed and with me her trust in the human race would also perish ; a tiny 18th century wooden nutmeg holder designed to hold a single inordinately expensive (at the time) nutmeg and containing its own grater. Most of the things I own are not particularly valuable but I have assembled them over the years as my version of the Cabinet of Curiosities of old, containing all the weird and wonderful things the owner could proudly show off to his guests.

Essay update: I wrote my presentation in the form of a play and persuaded fellow students to enact the roles of guests on the tour. The tour ends at the café attached to my living room (a.k.a my kitchen). I handed out home-made lemon cupcakes to my audience on the premise it would be impolite to ask me questions with their mouths full and particularly rude to ask searching question to someone who has baked a mouth watering treat just for them.

London Open House 2009

In September I had my annual overdose of architectural history in London thanks to the annual Open House weekend. Even though I prefer to get up at the crack of noon, I made an effort to arrive early on Saturday at the medieval Lambeth Palace, home to the archbishops of Canterbury. I had been twice before but each time I learn something new. This time (spoiler alert for those watching the Tudors) I realised that the huge ancient fig tree shown above had been planted as a cutting by Archbishop Cardinal Pole. So it’s no use Jonathan Rhys Meyers sending two of henchmen out every episode to kill him because if they had succeeded I could not have taken a photo of said tree.
Lambeth Palace

Then on to Portcullis House, the ultra modern parliamentary annex in Westminster. I set off the alarms when I arrived. A tip to the wise, ladies: don’t wear steel boned corsets through security.
Portcullis House Westminster

Later I went to the Freemasons 1920s main London lodge. I always wanted to have a look inside although I find the whole premise of freemasonry objectionable. Finally, I went to the Middle Temple. This Elizabethan school of law saw the first production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1602. One of the Middle Temple students was a certain John Blair, who was nominated by George Washington to become an original member of the US Supreme Court, which only goes to show that the Blairs have been political stooges of American presidents called George for centuries.
 Middle Temple Hall

The ghost in my bathroom

Haley Joel Osment famously saw dead people. I HEAR them. It started as a child. I lived in a large Victorian house with my mother. One day, when we were alone together in the sitting room we heard a woman singing. But the sound came from WITHIN the living room itself. My mother asked if I could hear the woman and I nodded. On another occasion, my mother had already retired for the night whilst I stayed up to watch a Shakespearean play. When it had finished I went downstairs to the bathroom. As I did so I had to pass a set of empty unfurnished rooms. The doors were wide open and I could clearly hear a group of people talking and laughing from within, despite the street lights showing there was no-one or anything in there. I raced back to my bedroom and locked the door. As I was often alone in that house it was a tacit agreement that we never discussed what had happened.

I have heard voices since but put it down to my imagination until one day I found I had recorded a “ghost” voice. I now live on the top floor of a house built in the 1850s. At the time, the flat below me was empty and had been so for some time. Consequently no–one else had call to be in my part of the house. I often use my enclosed bathroom for taking pictures and film because of the lighting. Having been out for the day, I came home and started filming in the bathroom. I then went to my pc to playback the film. 14 seconds into the video I pan around the bathroom. It is empty other than for me. The camera is on my face when a woman’s voice asks somewhat tentatively for Laura. It is as if she has come back to the house unexpectedly and, hearing noises, wonders aloud whether it is Laura. As she speaks the expression on my face does not change. I had not heard her. Stunned, I tried to recreate the sound by standing outside my bathroom with the door shut and calling for Laura. My voice is not heard over the noisy extractor fan. I have showed the video to friends and made them listen to the soundtrack alone to confirm that we were hearing the same thing. I do not know who Laura or her friend are or were. Is she a ghost from the past or I am the ghost in her future?

Earliest memories

One of my earliest memories relates to when I was around two years old. I was sitting fishing on the banks of a river. The fact that my fishing rod consisted of a twig and a piece of string that dangled high above the water line did not perturb me in the slightest. Suddenly, the river bank collapsed and I fell headlong, like Alice in Wonderland, into an enchanting new world. Unlike Alice’s, mine was tinted a shimmering emerald green. I was so entranced I lay gently floating in the water, oblivious to the blind panic of the adults near by. Eventually, I was fished out of the river, swaddled in a grey woollen blanket and placed in the back seat of the old family car to be driven home. I realise in retrospect that my green world was simply the sunlight dancing off the weeds, swaying to and fro just below the surface. But now, whenever I find myself by the sea, I swim out as far as possible and allow myself to be borne along by the strong currents until the point where I must either swim against them and return safely to shore or else drift forever onwards, just as I had done on that magical day all those years ago,


I was watching a French murder mystery DVD when I heard a woman’s screams and what sounded like a bang. I look out the window. The woman is still screaming hysterically and waving her arms in the air begging for help. I grab my keys, my hat, a coat and a mobile phone. When I cross the road I see a young man lying on the ground. He is covered with blood. Has he been knifed, shot, a traffic victim? I got to the parked range rover. One side is covered with blood. I later discovered the blood was caused by the guy slumping over the car when the driver stopped to offer assistance. A woman and two young boys are sitting in it. I ask if the police have been called. It seems they have.
I speak to a man who had been out jogging. He is from Florida. He tells me what he has seen. The young man is very drunk. The Florida man said he tried to strangle his girlfriend and then vanished before re-appearing with bloody wounds and a desire to get mown down by cars by running headlong into the traffic. My desire to staunch his wounds vanish. I am tired of reading about men murdering their partners. Let him bleed to death!

Suddenly an ambulance appears. A female paramedic leaps out and goes to the young man’s aid.
“Get my green bag and a blanket”, she orders the young woman. I accompany her to the ambulance but the female driver refuses to hand over the bag. I see she already has a patient lying in the back with an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose.
“I am not allowed to hand it over”, the driver explains.
We return to the paramedic with the news. She is applying pressure to his wound.
“Tell Fiona to give you the bag!”
We return with the bag and Fiona.
The police arrive. They take statements. A second ambulance draws up.
The young man has lost around two pints of blood but will survive.
The spilt blood is so plentiful it looks unreal, more like crimson paint. I hope it will rain during the night and wash it all away.

The young woman wants to ride in the ambulance but is refused, although the officer says he will give her a lift to the hospital. I offer her my mobile so that she can call her family. I give a running commentary to the woman in the range rover. I assure her and her sons that the young man has been conscious throughout and because of the prompt action of the emergency services will survive. I thank her for being a Good Samaritan and stopping to help the young woman. I refrain from telling her sons that the young man is a fool. Romeo did not try to kill Juliet. Far from looking heroic, the young man’s actions were at best pathetic and at worst contemptible. I hope the young woman has sensible family and friends who will advise her to dump the loser promptly before he ends up killing her for real the next time they have a row.

I return home and switch on the television. A young woman tells an interviewer that we all need True Love and a Soul-mate. Money may be the root of all evil that men do but the Western notion of True Love must follow a close second.

Death and the maiden

When my mother died one of her self confessed close friends asked if there was anything she could do to as she had loved my mother so much.
“Well you could help me prepare food for after the funeral”, I suggested. How was I to know her comments were rhetorical? At least she had the grace to stay away from the funeral.

Another woman, a relative, earned my eternal anger both before and after my mother’s death. When the latter lay dying, our relative asked her whether she had confessed her sins. Otherwise she would go to Hell. In my view, my relative compounded her own sins by writing me a maudlin letter after my mother’s death, telling me she would soon be joining her. In the event, she made “old bones” and died many years later in her 80s unlike my mother, who died in her 50s.

I was worried that no-one would turn up for my mother’ funeral. Thankfully, many of her former colleagues were able to come along. At the end of the funeral they lined up to offer their condolences to me, something I had not anticipated. It was difficult to remain composed until I had spoken to and thanked them all individually. Later, after I had said goodbye to the last of the guests at my mother’ house, a male friend took me out in the car for a ride to clear my head and another female friend met in central London for a meal. As I returned home I met a work colleague on the station platform. I asked her how she was. She cheerily told me and then asked what I had been doing all day.
“ Burying my mother,” I replied lugubriously.
As she said later, at that moment she wanted the ground to open up and swallow her too.

An only child and her siblings

When I was a child I had older siblings. I had been a bridesmaid at my big sister’s wedding and looked forward to being a bridesmaid at my brothers. However I was not invited to any of their weddings as either bridesmaid or guest. I was all but written out of their family history. Once, when I visited their mother as I often did as an adult, it suddenly struck me that she had pictures of her children, grandchildren and great grand children scattered around the house and even photos of her pets, but not one of me despite the fact I had lived there from the age of 6 weeks until the age of 11. I was even at their father’s bedside as he lay dying. One by one we crept out of the hospital side ward and begged a doctor to give him yet more painkillers. Finally, as if to signal his desire to sever all further communication with the living, he switched off his hearing aid, removed his glasses and breathed his last. I stayed with his widow for the funeral and helped prepare and clean the family home. After the funeral my eldest brother thanked me for all I had done, which he felt was particularly kind “as I was not even a member of the family.”

The Brimstone Butterfly introduces herself

Why the Brimstone Butterfly? I was inspired by a photograph I took in the summer of the aforementioned butterfly feasting on knapweed. I was intrigued by its name, brimstone having rather satanic overtones for such a glorious insect. I also liked the idea of a butterfly flitting from one subject to the next without rhyme or reason, just as I am wont to do.