Sunday, 29 November 2009

The World of Literature salutes Mandip and CurtCole!

Three cheers for CurtCole and Mandip!

I have now received my first (and possibly last) journalistic by-line in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper. My editor failed to tell me the publishing date had been brought forward but fortunately a friend let me know. At least you can get to see the article online and I will get my friends to let me have a paper copy.  

A special thanks to Curt Cole and Mandip who between them finally persuaded me to start a blog, which in turn gave me the courage to send a piece from this blog on spec to the Guardian. (The original article first apapeared on this blog on 24th October 2009). I promise to name-check them both when I receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.The Guardian

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Reflections on brief encounters.

Viewed through the mirrored wall of a restaurant, a man holds a woman in a passionate embrace and kisses her. It is Paris. It is the City of Lights and Love. It is not what it seems.

There was a time when Alison thought it not uncommon for men I didn’t know to stealthily approach, kiss me and then leave. She had twice been witness to such acts of male audacity. The first occasion was in Paris. We had taken the ferry over to France in order to explore the capital. On our final night we went to Montmartre and the Restaurant Chartier, much favoured by students and poor tourists like ourselves and which had remained little changed since it first opened its doors in the closing years of the 19th century.

Having dined rather well but we bought cups of black coffee to round off the meal. We then started to take pictures of one another. I felt very sophisticated as I toyed with my coffee cup, dressed in my plain little black dress adorned only with a long string of knotted pearls. Had I ever smoked, I would probably have had a Gauloise cigarette dangling from my fingertips to complete the illusion of Parisian chic. We then took it in turn to take photos of the other standing in front of the mirrored wall. As I posed for my picture, a waiter sidled up to me, pulled me down in an embrace and kissed me. All the while Alison continued clicking away. What looks like the very image of romance when seen through the mirror is anything but viewed from the front. Caught unaware by the sudden embrace, I am absolutely rigid; fearful I will lose my footing and fall to the floor. I hold onto my string of pearls with grim determination as if they can somehow protect me from surprise ambushes by amorous Frenchmen After he had kissed me and set me upright again the waiter had the gall to ask for un pourboire (tip!)

Restaurant Chartier

The next time Alison witnessed something untoward happening to me was at the 30th birthday of the Household Name (HN).Alison and a friend of the HN’s decided to play at being matchmakers and urged me to gate-crash his party, which was being held in a restaurant in Mayfair. Alison and I had been driving back from a mutual friend’s wedding in the country when she first told me all about her plan. She mentioned that the HN was a barrister but she never told me whar his surname was. As my long dead father had also been a barrister, I always found myself inexorably drawn to men working in the legal profession. The HN did not seem unduly concerned that he had an extra uninvited guest and we joined the others around the tables. The whole restaurant had been hired for the night for the exclusive use of the HN and his friends. I found myself seated next to the HN’s best friend, a chef and possessor of a private trust fund. He asked me if I would like to fly out with him the following weekend to Spain as he had two spare tickets. I told him I was too busy studying for my professional exams. He said I could take my books with me and study during the day and he would join me again in the evening. Somehow we got round to the subject of drinking. It seemed he drank a lot and I drank rarely.
“Then there is little point in my tagging along,” I said. “You’re going to have drunk far too much to be able to have your wicked way with me by the time we did get together again in the evening.”
I then asked him what he would have done, had I accepted his proposition.
“I would have had to hurry around to the travel agents and buy air tickets,” he confessed.
The HN’s friend was charming but I was there to meet the host. Furthermore, I have always tried to keep clear of people who drink excessively as I have known alcoholics in my childhood and seen first hand the damage they do to themselves and others.
It was whilst as I chatting away to the HN’s friend that some man’s face suddenly appeared from underneath the brim of my large straw hat, kissed me and then retreated back to his own table.
“That’s always happening to her,” Alison commented dryly.
It rarely happened to me. It was just that Alison had witnessed it in both Paris and London and assumed it was a regular occurrence.

I recall going to a special black-tie event in a Park Lane hotel ballroom. I had changed in the showers at Paddington station as I had just returned from a business trip and didn’t have time to slip back home first. I wore my phoenix ball-gown, so-called because it was the first item of evening wear I bought after the fire when all my other clothes had been destroyed. It was sleeveless, made of crimson velvet and had a sweetheart neckline. It fitted me like a dream and had the same effect as a corset, thanks to the clever tailoring. I was also wearing black velvet kitten heels and felt especially glamorous for someone who had got ready in the far from alluring confines of a metropolitan railway station.
A man I had only ever known professionally had taken a table in front of my own. As I rather fancied him, I was able to discreetly look at him from time to time without it being made obvious to my colleagues. When I returned to my seat, he had vanished. It took me some while to realise that he had moved his chair behind our table so that he could observe me looking all around, trying to work out where he had gone to. Later when I was standing in the queue to collect my coat, he came across to wait with me. Then he kissed me on the lips twice before saying goodbye and disappeared into the night. We never met up again.

As a schoolgirl, one of the most romantic evenings of my life was spent strolling arm in arm around Red Square with the son of a French diplomat. I was in Moscow on an exchange trip. In the days of the Cold War, the exchange was only ever going to be in one direction. We went to Russia. The Russian school children never did get to visit us in England. I haven’t a clue how I came to be in the company of the young Frenchman, other than that foreigners tended to gravitate towards one another, anxious for news of what was happening in the West. We were so cut off we began to believe our hosts when they told us the whole of the London underground network was flooded. It seemed incredible but with no access to foreign media at the time, it started to seem feasible after a while. When the Frenchman explained where he lived in Paris, I remarked that I had heard of that particular Quarter as one of my mother’s favourite perfumes was named after it: Rive Gauche by Yves Saint Laurent. Unlike the waiter in Montmartre, this young man knew how to conduct himself like a gentleman and the memory has always stayed with me because it was so exquisitely brief.

By contrast, an incident at a wedding remains the epitome of excruciating embarrassment. My colleagues and I were invited to the evening reception of a former colleague. The wedding ceremony had taken place earlier in the day, followed by a sit-down luncheon in the afternoon for close friends and family and by a drinks reception in the early evening on board a boat moored on the River Thames. It had been a year or two years since the young groom had worked for me so I was rather surprised to have received an invitation. Nevertheless I was happy to accompany my colleagues there. After I had been on board for about half an hour, I left the saloon to make my way to the loos.
The bridegroom waylaid me in the corridor as I was returning back.
“Are you leaving?” he asked.
“No I just popped out to the ladies,” I replied.
He suddenly held me tightly in his arms.
“I just wanted to say that I have always fancied you and I won’t let you go without a kiss.”
I tried to free myself and then let him have his kiss. Once he released me I silently vowed to steer well clear of him for the rest of the evening, which thankfully proved easy enough to do.
When it was time to leave, I could not avoid going up to where he was sitting and bid him farewell along with my colleagues. As I walked past him to leave, he grabbed me by my waist and forced me onto his lap. I made to get up and he pulled me down again. This time I lost my balance. Someone recorded the picture for posterity. As  we both tumble to the ground, I clutch frantically at the nearest thing that comes to hand which proves to be a particularly unfortunate part of his anatomy. In the top left hand corner, his bride is caught in profile, her mouth agape in astonishment. I never did find out if that marriage lasted longer than a day.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Of devils, saints and martyrs.

Yesterday was a very peculiar day for me. I had a job interview in the same complex I had worked in a number of years earlier. Fortunately, the new firm had offices in a different wing. I used to tell friends that the building must have been built on the site of a pagan temple given over to ritual blood sacrifice and devil worship. It was the only logical explanation I could come up with to explain the collective madness that seemed to seize everyone within a short time of working there.

When I arrived at the complex I found the same old security guard still sitting behind the front desk. He recognised me and we had a brief chat before he escorted me across to the new firm’s offices.
“The interview itself is going to be held in another wing, “the receptionist explained.
It was with some foreboding that I followed her back across the courtyard, into the other wing, up the stairs and in to the very offices I had worked in all those years ago. My glass partitioned office had long gone as had all the furniture and fittings, save for a table and chairs for the interview, but the view from the window remained disturbingly the same. It seemed the floor I had previously worked on was now vacant and so other tenants would use it from time to time on an ad-hoc basis. Truly my past was coming back to haunt me. I did not need to rake through the entrails of a freshly sacrificed animal to know that it was not a good omen.

After the interview I decided to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre, as it was one of those places I knew of by reputation but had somehow never quite got around to visiting. The top gallery had some fine paintings of views of London, as expected from an institution set up to house the City of London’s art collection. The symbolic designs for the Lord Mayor of London’s gilded state coach were also on display. I had seen the coach itself at the Museum of London and also when I had watched the annual procession of the new Lord Mayor as a child. However, I had never realised the significance of the painted panels, representing as they did various virtues as well as London itself in the form of a young woman wearing a crown in the shape of the walled city.

For those not aware of the distinction, the ancient title of Lord Mayor of London is bestowed upon the Mayor of the City of London Corporation, who is elected by the residents, now predominantly businesses, residing within the square mile of the original walled City. By contrast, the Mayor for London is the title given to the Mayor for the whole of the metropolis. The latter has more power but the former gets to ride in an opulent 18th century gilded glass coach and frolic around in a black tri-corn hat, tights and a fancy scarlet coat bedecked with lashings of the finest lace. The 15th century Lord Mayor of London, Sir Richard Whittington, who was later immortalised as a prominent character in English pantomime, had the Guildhall rebuilt. I have indirectly been a beneficiary of Sir Richard Whittington’s largesse as I was born in the hospital named after him in North London. My mother never gave me reason to suspect she was anything other than happy with the treatment she had received there, so I was intrigued when a friend’s mother told me that she had been threatened with having her next child delivered there rather than in a private hospital if she extended her brood beyond her current four.

The upper gallery also contained a statue in marble of Margaret Thatcher. From a distance it looked gauche compared to the craftsmanship of work carved from marble in earlier centuries. Close to, I was impressed by the attention to detail of the artist. He had managed to expertly mimic the texture of Thatcher’s jacket. Her right foot peeped out beneath the folds of her long skirt reminiscent of the pose adopted by statues of Ancient Egyptian deities and pharaohs. From her arm hung a marble handbag.

The ground floor of the Guildhall Art Gallery was given over to an exhibition by the English painter Sir Matthew Smith. At first I was not particularly taken with the collection. But after I had been seated on a bench for a while and could peruse the paintings at leisure, I began to like them more and more. Sir Matthew Smith used to despair that he was forever being described as a great colourist but that was one of the main appeals of his paintings for me. The highest accolade I could possibly accord is to say that I would not mind having some of the paintings adorn my own humble garret. There was a time when Matthew Smith was also living in a tiny flat although he went on to enjoy pronounced commercial success. I fear I am more likely to follow the route of the eighteenth century poet Thomas Chatterton but without the extreme youth or the arsenic.

When I walked along the corridors I was able to peek into the Guildhall itself. Much restored over the centuries, many famous prisoners have stood on trial here including Anne Askew the Protestant martyr, whose death I saw commemorated in the Cradle Tower at the Tower of London, and also the 9 Day Queen, Lady Jane Grey, who was not much younger than Thomas Chatterton when she too died. As a seminar was being held, I contented myself with viewing the hammer-beam roof from the doorway.

I returned to the lower galleries, which held a series of Victorian paintings by such artists as Tissot, Alma Tadema, Millais and Rossetti and seemed relatively busy compared to the near empty upper galleries. Visitors were open in their admiration of the traditional figurative art on display.

I then went down to view the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre. Although the foundations were of stone, the seating and the upper structure of the amphitheatre were made of timber and therefore have long vanished. As I walked onto what would have been the floor of the amphitheatre, I recalled the last occasion I had walked around a gladiatorial arena at Pompeii. There, having only just finished reading Robert Harris novel ‘Pompeii’ I assumed I had come across the viaduct. Only when I was inside did I realise where I was. As it was late in the afternoon and the coach parties had long departed, I fished out my MP3 player and listened to the theme from Gladiator on my ear piece and then strode around silently challenging all comers to moral combat. The wild beasts in the form of a few stray dogs kept well clear.
“ My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius” I intoned, repeating the rest of the quotation from the film. The 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton used to go by the pen name of Decimus. Neither he nor Russell Crowe combined would have been able to defeat Margaret Thatcher, armed only with her handbag.

After the Guildhall, I lunched on soup and bread in the café at Mary le Bow before spending some time sitting alone in the adjoining 11th century chapel. I then made my way to St Paul’s Cathedral where I sat in a stone niche by the entrance, listening to the Choral Evensong. God knows, I need all the help I can get when it come to getting my career back on track.
Sir Matthew Smith Exhibition at the Guildhall
London's Roman amphitheatre

Monday, 23 November 2009

Treat this place like a hotel!

When I first arrived at my former rented bed-sit, I was weighed down with my mother’s French cast-iron pots and pans and two suitcases. The taxi had inadvertently dropped me off at the wrong house, a single family home. The owners must have had a shock seeing me arrive outside their door, struggling to carry all my worldly chattels down their front path.

People entering my bed-sit for the first time would invariably comment that it was cosy, a more diplomatic way of saying: Blimey, it’s small! I think it must have been the original box room of the Edwardian house. Despite its cramped nature, it had a splendid view over the mature and generously proportioned garden at the back. Instead of having fairies, we had a railway track at the bottom of our garden, meaning that it had escaped being built on. Besides, the bed-sit suited my needs at the time. I could have friends around for a meal and sometimes to stay. Being not long out of university, nobody minded sleeping on the divan on the floor or crowding around my small dining table to eat; one person perched precariously on the end of the bed, one person seated at the other end on a chair and two people seated side by side on the remaining chairs. The latter were wedged together so tightly, I recall one male friend gallantly and discreetly adjusting the sides of my wrap skirt, whenever they slipped apart to reveal rather too much thigh. I only had two gas rings and a grill to begin with. I discovered I could bake an open tart case if I carefully cooked the underneath of the pastry, by placing the tin on top of the naked flame of the gas hob, and then placing it under the grill to cook it through. I later bought an electric saucepan which allowed me to progress to roasting and baking dishes.

My interest in cooking began as a schoolgirl. Whenever my mother was out of the country, I would invite friends over for a meal. On one occasion the five of us prepared a roast chicken. The table was laid with the rather grand Wedgwood china my mother had received as a wedding present and had kept wrapped up in a box ever since, other than when I made the occasional secret foray to retrieve it. As the roast chicken was being placed on to a serving plate, someone thought to enquire where the giblets were in order to make the gravy. In those days, supermarket chickens came complete with their giblets, stored in a plastic bag in the cavity. We were forced to jettison the chicken and fry some sausages instead. Despite our school’s renown for its academic prowess, girls were still taught domestic science. I remember bringing home risotto I had made one day, in an empty coffee jar and obliging some unsuspecting relative to eat it all.

When we were in self catering accommodation at university, my friend Lynda and I took it in turn to cook ourselves a new dish each week, to expand our repertoire. I seem to recall we ate rather a lot of cooked liver, as it was nutritious and, more importantly, within out very limited budget. I was also exposed to Asian and Indian cuisine for the first time as foreign student friends cooked us their regional dishes. Until I went to university I had never had yoghurt or seen an aubergine or bell pepper, let alone tasted garlic. The range of exotic food available in Finchley was very different from the traditional English palate of my childhood. It made attempting the sophisticated recipes in cookbooks a real possibility, as opposed to a complete non starter with the realisation that key ingredients were unavailable.

In addition to cooking for friends, I began to bake fruit cakes for office parties. I found the trick to getting people to start eating a fruit cake was to ensure a few slices had already been cut for them. No-one wanted to be the first to cut a slice off lest they be thought greedy if the slice was too large, or else risk cutting off too small a slice and then having to wait impatiently until everyone else had helped themselves before taking another. One male colleague, whilst eating my cake, pinned me up against the library stacks as he recited all the dishes I had served over the years to a mutual friend. He was a strange man. Rumour had it that he had once lived and worked in a lighthouse, something he always vehemently denied. I later discovered that he had indeed worked in a light-house. I never understood why he should want to hide such an intriguing and romantic facet of his past.

Then as now, to make the most of the limited space available, I always endeavoured to ensure my home was tidy whenever I had guests around. Before she began to enjoy the high life as an advertising executive, May used my rented bed-sit as a base whenever she returned to England. As the pictures show, my efforts to maintain a reasonable semblance of order proved impossible if May came to stay.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Head in the cloud (berries).

During the week, as I was lying on my sofa like a reclining Buddha, my mobile phone rang. Normally, I keep all my phones switched off as I can only hear in mono and not stereo. Consequently, I cannot work out from which direction a sound is coming from. In the past, I have muttered to myself as a selfish commuter failed to answer the persistent ring of their phone, only for it to dawn on me that the offending racket was emanating from within my own handbag. Years ago, I had gone straight from work to a recital given by the Spanish harpist Marisa Robles in the Music Room of my beloved Kenwood House. I had my overnight things with me as I was going over to the Partridge’s later for supper. During the performance I could hear the faint and muffled clamour of a bell ringing outside. To my horror I realised the sound was coming from my weekend bag. My pocket alarm clock had gone off! Fortunately the sound was sufficiently deadened by my night clothes not to have disturbed those around me.

Even people who should know better can occasionally forget that others have hearing difficulties. Once at work, I heard someone call out my name. The sound seemed to be coming from somewhere in front of me. As I couldn’t see anyone I turned around.
“Are you deaf or something?” asked my irate friend Theresa.
“Actually, I am, “I replied tartly.
To her credit, Theresa often repeated the story at her own expense.
In crowds of people, I find nodding my head and smiling when the other person smiles, is often easier than trying to follow a conversation with a stranger. I’m sure that has unintentionally made me popular at parties. Many the man has prattled away, convinced I am fascinated by his small talk when often I don’t even realise he is standing right next to me.

So, rather than be driven to distraction by having a phone ring and not be able to find it in time, I switch them off. However this week I had my mobile phone switched on and within vision. When it rang I immediately picked it up. A recruitment consultant wanted to know if I might be interested in a certain interim role. From what he told me, it sounded intriguing. He asked what I had been doing since my last post. “Travelling and helping the Pensioner fight a repossession order in court,” I declared. I also explained how I had been rather busy recently putting the finishing touches to an article the Guardian newspaper had commissioned.
“The Guardian sent their photographer around on Sunday for a photo shoot and the Editor has assured me the article will be published on 5th December,”I added, hoping to give the impression that my life was a hectic whirl of championing the oppressed or else penning articles for the broadsheets, as opposed to reclining on a sofa most afternoons perusing on my laptop.

The next day the recruitment consultant rang again. “They” wanted to see me next week.  The Finnish Church in London was holding its annual Christmas Fair all week. I toyed with the idea of going after my interview and then decided on going today instead. Interviews make me superstitious. I don’t want certain places to be tainted with the memory of an unsuccessful one.

I needed to buy some more boxes of frozen cloudberries. If ever I have a heraldic shield drawn up they will feature prominently. Earlier in the year, I had been in the shower when I heard Jeni Barnett on LBC radio ask listeners if they could tell her precisely what a cloudberry was. Wrapped in a towel I dashed to my phone and rang the station. I was put straight through to Jeni. I described cloudberries to her and explained that I bought mine frozen from the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe. She asked me how I served them and I said seeped in cloudberry liqueur and folded into whipped cream and placed in a Pavlova.  I added that as cloudberries were so hard to get hold of, I only served them to friends as a special treat. Jennie asked if she could become my friend, my new best friend. I laughed and said indeed she could.

I don’t think I ever went to the Finnish Church with my mother. Until I visited it, I had assumed the building must be date from the 19th century when the Church was first founded, but it was actually built in 1958. I cannot say I am enamoured of the design but it is one of those rare churches where you can pray to cleanse your soul and then stroll downstairs to have a sauna to cleanse the body.

Within walking distance of the Finnish Church is the Mayflower Pub. My mother loved going there and would remind me for the umpteenth time that the Mayflower had sailed from the very same jetty with the Pilgrim Fathers on board. I prefer to dine at another riverside pub in Rotherhithe, the Angel. Although the current building only dates back to the 19th century, a public house has stood on this site since the 15th century and   nearby are the ruins of a royal palace dating from the 1350s. Naturally Samuel Pepys popped in here as well  for the odd pint of ale, which makes me wonder if anyone has ever done a pub crawl around all the extant inns he was said to have drunk at.

Having just unpacked my supplies of cloudberries I was shocked to discover I had spent £72 on 4 small boxes. Being so expensive to buy at the time, Samuel Pepys famously buried his wheel of parmesan cheese in his back garden during the Great Fire of London., rather than let it perish in the flames. At £18.00 a box, I am going to have to take similar drastic action if ever my frozen cloudberries are threatened.
The Finnish Church in London

Thursday, 19 November 2009

T’was the Night after Christmas

I flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur  by Thai Airways and found my friend May waiting to take me to her house in her brand new white Suzuki jeep, or her “baby” as she called it. I took the opportunity to take a shower as soon as I arrived at her home to freshen up after my flight. At first, I found the bathing arrangements somewhat puzzling. There was a huge Ali Baba like jar of water and a water hose in the tiled room. Was I supposed to step into the jar? Suppose it broke? It looked as if it might be a tight squeeze. Fortunately I realised just in time that I just needed to pour water from the jar over me, using a small bowl or else use the water hose.

In the afternoon, May decided to take me to see round her offices. She worked in advertising and had popped over to England on a business trip a few months earlier to carry out some research, prior to launching a new product in Malaysia. She wanted to take back so many books she completely overshot her luggage allowance, forcing her to buy the equivalent of another business class ticket to fly them with her. That act of extravagance was very much in keeping with the entire trip. She was staying in a serviced mansion block in Knightsbridge, so close to the Iranian embassy it was possible to take a bath and waive to the clearly visible diplomat in the building opposite.

When May was in England we went everywhere by taxi and she paid for all the restaurant meals and trips to the theatre. Feeling some unease at not being able to pay my own way, I was surprised when May reassured me that I was a legitimate business expense and came under the heading of entertainment by virtue of keeping her company. All too soon May’s trip to England came to an end as did my own brief stint enjoying an all expenses paid lifestyle. It had been fun whilst it lasted. But it did give me a taste for taking taxis. That became my one special treat when I eventually made enough money to indulge myself from time to time,

Within a day or two of arriving in Kuala Lumpur I began to feel a touch of paranoia. It seemed as if everyone was staring at me wherever we went.
“They are.” May confirmed.
To encourage tourism the Government had run a campaign to persuade Malaysians to be especially welcoming to tourists by smiling at them. It was a pity there was not a similar policy in place to resolve the uneasy relationship between the different races. University places for Chinese students in Malaysia were strictly limited. As a result, students like May preferred to study in the West where they were not subjected to stringent racial quotas. I had been shocked to read about the terrifying race riots in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the 1960s, which May’s own family had unwittingly been caught up in. Being both Chinese and Christian made May feel even more vulnerable in her country of birth. Hence her overriding ambition was to marry a Chinese Westerner and be in a position to help her immediate family flee the country, if ever the political situation became untenable.   

On Christmas Day, religious animosities were forgotten. May’s mother had worked hard the day before to prepare a lavish buffet, which anyone who called around would be welcome to help themselves to. Chinese food was still very much of an unknown quantity for me so I found it all rather exotic. I was amazed to find that one traditional Chinese dish bore an uncanny resemblance to shepherd’s pie with its minced lamb and mashed potato topping.
“It is shepherd’s pie, “May said. “My mother asked me for an English recipe she could use to make you feel at home!”
I was touched by the kind gesture.

On Christmas Day morning May’s family went to hear mass at their Catholic church. In lieu of hymn books, the verses were projected on to the white washed walls. It seemed strange to me to celebrate Christmas in the heat as opposed to the usual overcast and damp day in England.

The next day May decided to take us both on the two hour road journey to the historic Malacca Town., later to achieve World Heritage Site status.  I was keen to visit the place, partly to admire the architecture and partly to see if I could buy more of the stunning jewellery May had bought from there on previous visits. May’s mother insisted on taking a picture of the two of us standing by her daughter’s jeep just before we got into the car and drove off.

At some stage during the journey I began to fall asleep. When I awoke I could see our car, in slow motion, moving inexorably towards the oncoming traffic. We served to avoid them only to end up losing control and plunging over the side of the road. The car rolled over until it landed on its bonnet. There was only a second of quietude before I felt myself falling towards the dashboard at a tremendous speed. This is when I die, I thought calmly. Then I felt a sudden counter-pressure as my seat belt jerked me back. I had little time to register any relief when I heard May below me yelling: “Switch off the engine, switch off the engine!” Now I panicked as the dreadful thought struck me that the car might explode into flames with May and I trapped inside. I tried desperately to unclip my seat belt and struggle out of the car.

Luckily the car did not catch fire and we were able to get out safely although I cannot recall how we managed it or if anyone had came to our aid. I was dressed all in white and didn’t sustain so much as a single scratch. May had suffered a few minor cuts and bruises to her arm from the shattered window on her side of the jeep. Once she had ascertained that we were both relatively okay, she began to wail in distress for her poor crumpled “baby.”

A police patrol soon arrived. May said the policeman had indicated that if she paid him a bribe he would not report the accident. Otherwise her license would be endorsed. On principle May refused to submit to such corrupt practices and we found ourselves having to wait at the police station for the tow truck to come and take us and the jeep back to Kuala Lumpur. We had witnessed the aftermath of car accidents both on our outward and return journeys. The tow truck driver had even pointed out a badly damaged car in the pound and explained the owners had died that very morning in a crash. Apparently at the time that highway had one of the worst accident records in the world.

I must have taken the picture of the smashed up jeep only minutes after I had emerged from the wreckage. I should have got Helen to pitch an endorsement deal with the camera makers.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

One night in Bangkok.

A few years after I had left university May, a fellow graduate, invited me to spend Christmas with her family in Malaysia.  As students, I had invited her to spend an Easter break at my family home rather than remain behind in the Hall of Residence. Now, I eagerly accepted her invitation in return as I had never been to South-East Asia before. Unfortunately, it was too late to get a cheap return flight to Malaysia. The route was popular with foreign students travelling home for the holidays and they had snapped up all the remaining tickets. Consequently, I was obliged to make a detour first to Thailand and decided I might as well spend some additional time there whilst I had the chance.

Whenever I travel solo I always gem up on safety tips in advance, especially those relating to women travellers.
“Don’t get into unlicensed cabs at Bangkok airport. If you can, take one of the official minibuses to your hotel,” the travel guides warned. I planned on staying at a small Aussie owned hotel near the luxurious Mandarin Oriental. If I took the minibus to the latter, I reasoned, it should not prove too difficult to walk the rest of the way to the budget priced hotel.
I discovered later that tourist numbers were significantly down that year, a factor, which proved significant in terms of what happened next. I found a waiting minibus and told the driver I wanted to be dropped off at the Mandarin Oriental and paid my fare. We then waited until another passenger, a middle-aged man who had just flown in from Pakistan, also got on to the minibus. As we were driving, along I made the fundamental mistake of telling the driver that I was not actually going to be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, but at a smaller hotel nearby. The driver promptly made the absurd claim that he did not know where the Mandarin Oriental was. He insisted he would need to take me to another hotel instead. It was late at night and I was suffering from severe jet-lag. What made it worse was that I could not even read the street signs to determine where we might be going, as they were written in characters from the Thai alphabet, a script I could not begin to decipher. I had visions of ending up in some brothel. Eventually, the minibus drew up outside a nondescript but seemingly respectable looking hotel. I was too tired to complain about my treatment and decided I would stay the night but search for my original hotel again in the morning. The minibus driver left me at reception and drove off again with his remaining passenger.

Later, as I was unpacking there was a knock on the door. To my surprise I opened it to find the man from Pakistan standing on the threshold.
“My hotel was full but I managed to get a room next to yours,” he said, smiling.  
“That’s nice for you” I replied, firmly closing the door shut.
I went back to my unpacking only for the phone to ring.
“If there’s anything you want doing, I will come over and do it for you right now,” my new neighbour volunteered.
“No thank-you,” I said briskly and slammed down the phone.
He was waiting for me as I stepped into the lift.
“What are your plans for the rest of the evening?” he inquired suggestively.
“I am expecting a long distance call from my boyfriend,” I said sternly.
That finally shut him up and he never bothered me again.

Before retiring for the night, I decided to take a quick stroll around the local streets.   I didn’t know if it was the unfamiliar noises and aromas from the street stalls, but after a while I became disorientated. I seemed to be walking around in circles as I always arrived back at the same Buddhist temple, despite setting off in different directions. I finally realised that there were in fact two separate Buddhist temples on my route and I had mistaken them both for a single building in the dark. Relieved I was not going mad, I returned to my hotel and went to bed. I found sleep difficult. With the air conditioning off I sweltered. With the air conditioning on I shivered and there were no spare blankets to help me combat the cold. The next day I found the hotel I had originally been looking for and checked in for the short time remaining before my onwards flight to Malaysia.

Only after I had returned to England did it strike me how reprehensible the behaviour of the reception staff and the minibus driver had been. The driver was paid to take me to an authorised location. He had not been paid to drive me to an unknown hotel, where he no doubt received a bribe for dumping unsuspecting visitors there. The reception team was even more culpable. I had not told either the driver or the other passenger what my name was. Nor had it been written down on my luggage. Nevertheless, the man from Pakistan was able to waltz into the hotel shortly after my arrival and had been given my room and telephone number by the acquiescent staff, in complete disregard for my own safety and privacy as a lone female traveller. I never felt physically intimidated by the man from Pakistan. I was far taller than him for a start. It was more the principle: lone women travellers ought not to have strange men foisted on them by unscrupulous hotel staff.  

Thankfully, that was my worst experience in Bangkok. I returned there a number of weeks later after my sojourn in Singapore and Malaysia. After what had happened en-route to Malacca from Kuala Lumpur, I was in no mood to brook any further nonsense from minibus or taxi drivers and insisted they take me straight to my destination without question.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.  Friedrich Nietzsche could have been speaking about my near fatal car crash in Malaysia when he wrote those words.

Monday, 16 November 2009

"Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Yesterday, David, the Guaridan photographer, came around for the photo-shoot to illustrate the newspaper article I had written. He warned me over the phone that he was running late because of heavy traffic. I reassured him that I much preferred people to arrive late than arrive early. Although I always like to give the impression to visitors that my tiny flat is an oasis of tranquillity, the reality is sometimes very different. As long as they don’t arrive too early, before I have had the chance to cram as much clutter as possible into cupboards and wardrobes, the illusion can be sustained. To open one of my cupboards unbidden is to risk being crushed do death under the sheer weight of the overloaded contents within.

I didn’t know if we were going to shoot outdoors or in. I fervently hoped it would be the latter. The violent winds and rains of recent days would have played havoc with my hair and I feared my 1950s cashmere coat would not survive such harsh weather. On Saturday I sidled up to the make-up counter in a local department store, just before they closed and asked for some foundation. I felt like a schoolboy asking for condoms for the first time in a chemist. The last time I had used foundation was as a teenager. Cosmopolitan magazine had demonstrated how to make up your face to produce a flattering picture from a photobooth, rather than looking like a mug-shot from off a Most Wanted list. It meant piling on layers of foundation, concealer, blusher, highlighter, eye-shadow, mascara etc. I think the whole experience put me off wearing any make-up after that, other than the occasional kohl pencil and lipstick. I explained to the sales assistant that a photographer was coming around the next day to take my picture, a comment I had never had to make before in my life. The closest I had got was to tell friends that an award winning film director was keen to discuss a possible project with me. The film-maker in question was a personal friend who wanted to do a short film about me and my corsets. He said, if I preferred, my face would be concealed but I would be filmed wearing my ever growing collection of corsets. I am of the age where I no longer give a damn. Yesterday, a research scientist claimed to be the notorious writer of an online diary, detailing her real life adventures as a former call girl. Being filmed wearing a brocade steel boned corset, as modest in its way as the average matronly swimming costume, seemed very staid by comparison. 

The sales assistant fired a series of questions at me. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. I never realised foundation came in so many guises. When the sales assistant mentioned blusher I said I didn’t need any as my complexion naturally had a high red colour.
The sales assistant promptly asked, in tones of kind solicitation, whether I wanted to buy green make-up to correct it.
“But I like it,” I protested.
Unable to choose between two similar shades, the sales assistant applied one on each side of my face. She had left my nose bare. When she asked me to look in the mirror I burst out laughing. My nose was bright red from the cold. I looked as if I were auditioning for a role in pantomime as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.
“Cover it up,” I begged.
I was not sure about either foundation. I preferred my natural skin texture.
“It’s powdery,” I said dubiously.
“It’s cream to powder. It provides perfect coverage to conceal all those things you would rather not show on camera,” replied the sales assistant smoothly.
I hope she’s not suggesting I have a lot of things to hide! I thought indignantly. Nevertheless, thinking of my ruddy nose I bought the compact anyway and then went across the road to the gym. After I had changed into my swimming costume, I examined my face critically in the mirror. I was rather impressed by the product. My skin did appear to be glowing and the skin tone was excellent. Money well spent, I mused before remembering that I had asked the assistant to remove all trace of the make-up as I was going straight on to the health club. I was now looking at my bare face.

The following day I gave myself several hours to get the flat and myself ready. I was not sure what to wear. I would certainly wear my vintage 1940s hat with the diamante clip accent at the sides .It would help stop my hair getting in to too much of a state if we ventured outside.  I tried on my navy polka dot dress which had a 1940s flavour to it. I added a denim jacket and then a cropped cardigan. The jacket felt too restrictive and the cardigan showed far too much cleavage. I was not appearing on Page Three of the Sun! I settled on my tailored Droopy and Brown ballerina length navy dress. It had certainly worked wonders on the Cad of Kensington Gardens, or perhaps it had been the silk brocade corset I had been wearing underneath. I teamed it with a pair of my scarlet shoes, the only ones which have ever made women stop me in the streets, begging to know where I had bought them from. I had set my hair rather than letting it dry naturally, giving me the air, or so I liked to think of a brunette Veronica Lake crossed with Joan of Arc.

David set up some of his equipment in the living room and started taking tests shots of me as I sat in my Edwardian captain’s chair by the window. I had rescued the chair years earlier from a Town Hall. Through the office window I could see that the maintenance man was about to fling two of them onto a fire. They were considered old fashioned and surplus to requirement. I dashed out and persuaded him to let me have them both instead. I later gave one away to a friend. I have since seen similar chairs on sale in antique shops for hundreds of pounds but at the time I acquired mine, they were seen as only being fit for firewood.

As David snapped away, I told him more about the fire and my personal suspicions as to who might have started it. Although I could not be sued, as the person in question has subsequently died, I had not wanted to cause further distress to his family if they should by chance come across the newspaper article. I therefore omitted all mention of him from the final version. At the time, the police had certainly regarded him as a prime suspect. The fire had started immediately outside his flat and he didn’t have an alibi for the night in question. There was another overwhelming reason why the culprit was most likely to have been him.

The police had asked me about the level of rubbish in A’s flat.  I knew it was untidy and I had always wondered why A managed without fail to trap some piece of litter in the door frame. It still seemed odd though that the police should harp on about the rubbish. The OF offered to take me up into the blackened communal hall to see A's flat for myself. The floor was completely covered with the remains of black bin liners which had been filled with household rubbish. There were so many, only the fact that I once had seen his flat in a reputable state meant that I could have identified which room of his flat was the bathroom or the kitchen. The volume of rubbish had been such the firemen had not been able to smash down his front door. Instead they had to hack off the top part of the door and crawl in to the flat over it.

I was horrified. Being by nature a fastidious person, the very idea of having lived above a rubbish tip was shocking. I was also exceedingly angry. When I had been fighting for my life only hours earlier, I had been inhaling the toxic fumes from hundreds of burning plastic bin liners. The police questioned A extensively but there was insufficient evidence to charge him with anything. That very same day A suddenly had his shoulder length hair cut short, despite usually preferring to wear it long. He did apologise to me but I never forgave him, the more so since he went on to fill his renovated flat with rubbish bags on two further occasions. On the final occasion, the police found him dead, lying in dreadful squalor. I have to say I was glad. It meant he could never endanger my life or my health again through his manic behaviour. David agreed, adding that in one respect it would be somewhat reassuring to think of A as the arsonist, as his death brought closure. By contrast, if it had been someone else, they might have launched a further attack on the house.

When David went into the communal hall to decide where he wanted me to stand in the stairwell, I took a sneak picture of my own of his camera equipment. At first David wanted me to sit and then stand, in the lower part of the hall staircase. Then he had me posed higher up, peering through the banisters. I was grateful I had recently had the communal hall redecorated. It had been looking exceedingly shabby earlier in the year and I would have felt quite embarrassed to have been photographed in it.

I rather enjoyed the shoot. I had to refrain from smiling broadly. It was supposed to be a serious article after all. If I look somewhat pained in the resulting photographs, it is not occasioned by my sobering reflections on the fire. Rather, I am silently wondering just how long I can hold my stomach in and keep my limbs stretched out at a flattering angle. Like Joan of Arc, I am somewhat of a martyr to the cause at times.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Cream Teas and Spice Girls (Revised January 2012)

In the summer, the Partridge asked if I wouldn’t mind cooking for her brother again as he wasn’t quite well enough to make all his own meals. I was more than happy to oblige. The Partridge family home is a large detached house in North London, with beautiful gardens, planted in the main by her younger brother and mother. It makes a pleasant change to be the chatelaine, albeit temporarily, of such an imposing residence. On the previous occasion, I had felt like a cross between the redoubtable cook, Mrs Bridges, from the popular 1970s Edwardian drama “Upstairs, Downstairs” and Lady Chatterley as I entertained the cleaners and the strapping young gardener to tea and biscuits and luncheon respectively.

Each day I walked into Highgate village to combine my daily constitutional with a well deserved visit to a tea room. My favourite proved to be “High Tea of Highgate.” The retro tea rooms with its cup and saucer chandeliers were the perfect background for my vintage 1940s hat and swing coat. Nearly every day, I would try a new cake there to have with my coffee. Their profits must have spiked whilst I was living nearby only to inexplicably plummet when I left. The tea rooms combined two of my favourite pleasures: scrumptious home-made cakes and hats. As well as articles of millinery decorating the walls, the tea-room even ran a one day course in making a fascinator.

Further down the High Street, I would occasionally pop in to Lauderdale House to see their latest exhibition by a local artist. Nell Gwyn, the cockney mistress of Charles II, was said to have briefly lived there in the seventeenth century.

Ironically, across the road from Nell’s former lodgings is a house named after the very man, Oliver Cromwell, who had had her lover’s father put to death.

Close by is another house said to have been lived in by Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton. The regicide Major-General Harrison also stayed at Ireton House. The latter’s dreadful fate occasioned the following remarkable diary entry for Saturday 13th October 1660 by Samuel Pepys:
“I went out to Charing Cross to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could in that condition.”
Lauderdale House

It was at another local café altogether, that I bumped into Ginger Spice. I am usually pretty hopeless at identifying famous people out of context. I only recognised Geri because the Partridge had pointed out her house to me along their road. Not given to taking an undue interest in pop stars, the family could not but help but be intrigued by their glamorous neighbour, especially after paparazzi began lurking in their front garden, the better to take illicit snaps of her. At the time of the Spice Girls’ last world tour, interest in Geri Halliwell soared and as a result, the Partridges found themselves flocked around the television set to watch a documentary about Geri, all agog as it offered tantalising glimpses into her home-life. Even last summer, there were still paparazzi parked out in the street, their telephoto cameras lying by their side, ready to be immediately brought into action should Geri appear.

From behind the brim of my large straw hat, I caught a brief glimpse of a woman and a child standing in front of me at the refrigerated counter in the former Brew House at the Robert Adams designed Kenwood House. They were debating what to buy. I caught a brief image of a petite woman in jeans but even if that glance had not proved sufficient, her foghorn voice would have readily identified her. As they dawdled, preventing me getting to my cream cake, I began to feel irate. I had killed men for less! Finally, they made their choice and walked away. I took my meringue to the cashier and then went to pick up some cutlery. As I stood there, Geri Halliwell leaned right across me, whilst all the while telling her daughter not to wander off. From the little I had seen of her, Geri’s daughter struck me as being a very sweet and well mannered child. That did not seem to hold true for her mother. I felt aggrieved. Was Geri behaving like that simply because she was famous? The Partridge later thought not.

“Most of my friends behaved like that when they had small children”, she explained. “They can’t risk taking their eyes off them for an instant when they are out and about. So what might appear to be a lack of good manners, is simply their needing to focus all their attention on their child, in case they slip away”.

I was mollified. The next day, still wearing my big straw hat and vintage 1940s coat I walked past Geri’ s house, just as she stepped out of a silver people’s carrier. I was reminded of the lyrics to Neighbours, the Aussie soap:
“ Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours,
Just a friendly wave each morning, helps to make a better day.”
I refrained from waving in case she slapped a restraining order on me for stalking her. That might be adding just a little too much spice to my somewhat prosaic world.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Rules of Fine Dining.(Revised November 2011)

Rules Restaurant 35 Maiden Lane

When it comes to fine dining Rules is by far and away my most favourite restaurant in London. It is also the oldest restaurant in the capital dating from 1798. For generations it has attracted the cream of English literature and the stage. Even Kings of England have not been averse to whiling away an hour or two entertaining a mistress in the private dining rooms. What makes it  so special in my eyes is not the Edwardian splendour of its interior or the scrumptious traditional British food, much of which is sourced from is own country estate in the High Pennines, or its enviable literary and historical connections. Rather, it is the fact that as a single woman I am made to feel as welcome as anyone else and not treated like some pariah to be shunted next to the loos or viewed as an object of pity, who should eat up quickly so that a couple can be accommodated in my stead. Consequently I have dined there with friends and on my own, with equal enjoyment. It is relatively expensive and so, for me at least, constitutes an occasional pleasure. However, it has never failed to delight. I especially enjoy going there around Christmas-time when it is decked out with holly and ivy and has fires blazing in the fireplace. If it reminds me of a location out of a Charles Dickens novel that is hardly surprising, given that he was a frequent visitor.

Olde Cheshire Cheese 145 Fleet Street

Charles Dickens was also rather partial to the Olde Cheshire Cheese. This public house was rebuilt in the 1660s after the Great Fire of London and still retains a sense of generations of Londoners carousing in its rambling rabbit warren of ancient rooms. It was much frequented by Dr Samuel Johnson, who lived nearby. Although I have gone into the pub just for a drink with friends, I have also dined in the restaurant there, with its evocative high backed wooden settles and Dr Johnson’s favourite chair on display. Again, I have happily supped there on my own and with company. When I went with the Partridge, I dined so well, I was obliged to discreetly remove my corset lest I explode. I have a photograph from our visit of a rather tipsy looking Partridge. But I know if I were to print it on these pages she would lay an egg so I have refrained from doing so.

Dr Johnson’s House 17 Gough Square
Dr Johnson’s house is at 17 Gough Square, only a few minutes walk from the Olde Cheshire Cheese. I took the Partridge there as part of a cunning plan to later dine at the famous public house.

Highlights for me included:
  • The 18th century front door garlanded with iron chains. Dr Johnson feared thieves and bailiffs in equal measure.
  • The floor to ceiling internal wooden room dividers which could be readily moved to open up the rooms as required.
  • The cream coloured woodened panelled library.
  • The black and white painted wooden staircase. Living as I do in my fourth floor garret at the top of a Victorian house, I am always fascinated by period staircases.
  • The garret in which Dr Johnson and his six assistants laboured to produce the famous Dictionary.
  • The wardrobe of clothes and masks for children to try on. I was very taken with a white mob cap and a gilded sun-god mask, giving me the appearance of a transvestite Louis XIV.
        Dr Johnson's House

(I later came across some footage of the interior and exterior of Dr Johnson's House and wrote a separate post about it.  

Brasserie Terminus Nord, Gare du Nord, Paris

By comparison to Rules or Olde Cheshire Cheese, Brasserie Terminus Nord in Paris is a mere spring chicken of a restaurant, dating only from the 1920s. I was staying on my own in Paris a number of years ago and had read such glowing reviews I was determined to dine there. I walked into a cavernous and empty restaurant which was on two floors. The décor was uninspiring. Hoping the food would be better I sat down to eat. The waitress came over and wanted me to move next to the loos. The restaurant was empty, even more so when I upped and left in high dudgeon.  I continued along the street and came across the real Terminus Nord.

The restaurant was still resplendent in its 1920s art deco décor. The charming waiters (note plural) showed me to my booth with its upholstered leather seating and acid etched glass surrounds. What would Madame like? Madame wanted an hors d’oeuvre, followed by fish and a tart. And a kir royale to start! I was so transfixed by the sumptuous surroundings and the amiable waiters, especially when contrasted to the rudeness and lacklustre hospitality of its near neighbour that I completely forgot what I had ordered. So when the waiter appeared with my hors d’oeuvres, as I had already unwittingly scoffed the complimentary hors d’oeuvres, the arrival of my own came as a pleasant surprise. The fish was brought to my table and flambéed in front of me. Truly fine dining as a theatrical experience! When they presented me with a huge tart, I waited for them to cut it. But no, it was ALL for me!  Terminus Nord    

It is a great pity that some people deny them selves such gastronomic delights because they are on their own. I believe one of the great pleasures of dining solo is that it allows me to share my knowledge of excellent restaurants with friends at a later date and so perhaps in time, my favourite restaurants will also become theirs.  

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Hold the front page!

Having taken tentative steps into the world of blogging, I was bold enough to send one or two pieces on spec to the broadsheets. In the event, I sent two different pieces to two separate newspapers. One of them has now contacted me, asking me to expand my piece on the house-fire into an article for their weekend magazine. (My revised version). The new deadline is this coming Monday! They are also going to arrange for their picture editor to take photographs of me with which to illustrate the article. As long as I don’t get writers’ block, completing the article itself should be relatively straightforward. More daunting is the thought of the photographer. I need to cut out the carbs and hit the gym with a vengeance or else find out just how familar the photographer is with photoshop. If the camera always tells the truth I want to make damn sure that it is MY version of the truth!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


When I was looking through some old photographs I came across one of me taken on the ski slopes of Chamonix. I look ecstatic as well I might. It is the last day of my first ever week of skiing, in which I have survived being left stranded on an Italian mountainside by my French ski school.

The week had started promisingly enough. The Partridge and her siblings had invited their friends to Chamonix to share a chalet. The resident Chalet Girl provided us with breakfast, a three course evening meal and coffee and cakes on our return from the slopes in the afternoon.

As a complete novice I signed myself up to attend classes at one of the local ski schools. It felt such an achievement to be able to move along on skis without falling over even if it was spent at fiirst on the exceedingly flat nursery slopes. By the end of the week we had progressed from green to blue to the occasional red slopes as our competency and confidence grew. We were to spend the final day at the neighbouring Italian ski resort of Courmayeur.
“Now don’t get lost,” warned the Partridge over breakfast. “Apparently last week they left a skier behind.”
That was hardly likely to happen two weeks running I reasoned.

The morning lesson went well. As it ended, the instructor waved his ski stick vaguely in the direction of the mountain and told us to meet back at the car park at 4 o’clock for the return journey to France. At no point had he bothered to explain to us the basic rules of mountain safety.

Rule Number One
Always ski in groups of at least three people. That way if one person has an accident, one can remain behind with them and the other can go off in search of help. I was skiing with several others from the class until I suddenly fell over. When I picked myself up they had long vanished and I never saw them again.

Rule Number Two
Make sure you provide clear instructions as to how to get back. At around three o’clock, wanting to give myself plenty of time, I started making my way back to the car park. That was when my troubles began in earnest. I could not understand the map and sought advice from various people. Unfortunately they gave me differing directions. By now it was growing dark.  I skied into a group of Italian men sending them and me falling down like skittles. They helped me to my feet and gallantly agreed to take me to the chair lift, whose entrance was concealed behind a café. When we reached the chair life we found it was shut for the night. The Italian men persuaded the operator to start it up again just for me. Thanking them, I hopped onto the chair lift along with one of the operators. At the top, he got off and went away on his snowboard leaving me quite alone.

Rule Number Three
Understand the significance of signs posted on the mountains to warn of danger. Having no real idea in which direction I should be going I just kept on skiing along the path until it suddenly diverged. I did not know which path to take but in the end opted for the one without the yellow sign. I later discovered that the yellow sign was there to warn skiers the way was potentially treacherous.

To my immense relief I eventually spotted a cluster of buildings and skied towards them. They were deserted but at least I could sit down in the warm. At length I was joined by another skier.
“If you’re waiting for the telecabine to take you down the mountain, the last public one has gone. But there will be another in an hour or so to take the mountain staff down.”
Okay so it wasn’t the best of news. But at least the coach would be waiting for me when I did finally get down the mountain-side. To my shock, the car-park was deserted when I made my way across to it. The ski school had left me stranded on the mountainside at night. I stood by the car park for some while feeling completely helpless, leaning on my upturned skis for support.

Rule Number Four
Make sure skiers have contact numbers in case of emergencies. I had no way of contacting anyone to tell let them know where I was. Finally, I trudged wearily across the snow to a café I could see along the roadside.
“When is the next bus back to Chamonix?” I asked forlornly.
The Italian owners spoke to several seated Frenchmen.
“These men will take you back to Chamonix in their car,” the Italian couple explained.
It struck me, that as a single woman, it was not usually the wisest of ideas to travel across borders with strangers. As lurid headlines flashed through my mind, I could see readers tut-tutting and wondering how I could have been so foolish as to accept such a lift. On the other hand it was freezing cold and I felt I had no alternative. If I did come to an unfortunate end, I hoped the Italian café owners would at least be able to provide a description of my fellow passengers to the police.

As it was the Frenchmen turned out to be perfectly charming. They were on a skiing trip away from their families. They dropped me off close to my chalet with my heartfelt gratitude. Now that I was safely back, I had the luxury of imagining the turmoil in the chalet as they pondered my fate. When I went in, the Partridge and the others had still not arrived back from their own day’s skiing but the Chalet Girl was there.
“I was so worried about you,” she exclaimed. “The ski instructor said if you didn’t arrive back soon he would have to send out the mountain patrol. He thought you might have committed suicide,” she added darkly.
 For a ski school that had had managed to leave students stranded on the mountain for two consecutive weeks, it seemed a damn cheek to try and blame the victim for their incompetence.

I never thought I would ever go skiing again after that little adventure. However six weeks later the Partridge told me a friend of a friend had a spare place available on a ski trip to Livigno. If I was ever to ski again I should accept it. In the end I did go and subsequently skied in Switzerland, Canada and the United States but never in Chamonix or Courmayeur.

Monday, 9 November 2009

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Yesterday the Partridge invited me over for supper and to celebrate my birthday we first met up at the poet John Keats’ former home in Hampstead. It gave both of us an opportunity to view the Regency house where Keats first began his doomed love affair with his neighbour, Fanny Brawne, a story depicted in Jane Campion’s latest film “Bright Star.”  The 19th century actress Eliza Jane Chester later incorporated the two houses into one dwelling and added a single storey extension on to the original building known by Keats.

Jane Campion, the director of Bright Star (and the Oscar winning The Piano, one of my favourite films) held the after party for the London premiere there and donated several props from the film to be displayed around the house. It has been many years since the Partridge last visited the place, but she says it has altered for the better. She remembers viewing items through dusty display cabinets set in gloomy rooms. Now the curators have endeavoured to give a flavour of how certain rooms might have looked, both in terms of furnishings and decoration, at the time Keats lived there with his friend Charles Brown. The so-called Keats’s Parlour is the only room whose layout can be authenticated. Above the fireplace is a posthumous portrait in oils of Keats, set in the same room and painted by his close friend Joseph Severn. The ground floor contains not only the rooms Keats would have been familiar with, but also the dining room extension added by the actress Eliza Jane Chester, who later became a “reader” at the court of George IV. Given the latter’s less than spotless reputation regarding the ladies, I wondered whether “reader” was a euphemism for something altogether less cerebral. Certainly the satirists of the day thought so judging by the ribald cartoons of the actress and her sovereign on display in her former dining room.

The upper floor of the house is set out as a series of bedrooms. At the top of the stairs there is a little vestibule containing three costumes worn by the stars of Jane Campion’s film. In Keats’s bedroom, a small boy wailed that he wanted to go and find his daddy. In desperation his mother pointed to the 18th century commode on display and told her son that it was Keats’s toilet. The small child did not seem convinced that what effectively looked like a chest of drawers had anything in common with a modern flushing toilet. The mother debated aloud as to whether to open up the commode and reveal the chamber pot within but decided against it. I had shown similar heroic self-restraint when I refrained from trying on the red silk hat adorned with yellow plumes on display in the vestibule. However, since at the time I was wearing a 1910 tilt hat, adorned with silk roses and a rather becoming black veil, and as such a genuine museum piece, I could have argued that I was simply trying on the replica on the grounds of historical research. In reality, I knew the Regency hat would have proved far too dainty to fit my own head. 

Having carefully walked down the exceedingly narrow staircase to the ground floor we made our way down an equally narrow staircase to the basement kitchen and cellars. The rooms, with their flag-stoned floors, were distinctly musty. The Partridge said she revelled in such dankness and had always found such aromas thoroughly appealing. The Daily Mail had recently described the Partridge in her nest as sitting amongst paintings set at odd angles and wearing a blue cardigan full of holes. Had she let slip such a comment to the Daily Mail journalist, the Partridge’s reputation as a full blown English eccentric would have been sealed forever.

Highlights of the visit for me included:
  • The bust of Keats placed at a level in line with his real height of 5 foot one, an inch taller than the Partridge.
  • The costumes from the film Bright Star proving that the male lead Ben Wishaw is far taller than the real John Keats but not quite as tall as me.
  • The extravagant red silk and yellow plumed Regency bonnet from the film.
  • The Victorian oil painting of the poet John Milton (whom Keats greatly admired) and his daughters, whose own dresses looked suspiciously 19th century in style.
  • The 19th century blue and white transfer-ware side plate on the kitchen pine dresser thrillingly identical to china plates in my own home.
  • The signed certificate confirming that John Keats was licensed to practise medicine.
  • The generously proportioned four-poster bed in Charles Brown’s bedroom, which would fit easily into my own small garret as long as I moved out completely. Four-poster beds from earlier eras often tend to be far shorter in length, as it used to be the custom to sleep partially upright, propped up by bolsters, rather than lying prone.
  • The fridge magnet in the gift shop bearing the legend: a thing of beauty is a joy forever. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never even realised that it was a quote from a line of Keats’s poetry until I spied the magnet.
  • The Regency mirror in Fanny Brawne’s bedroom so darkened with age it would prove a boon to anyone averse to viewing their own features too closely.
  • The elegant façade and interior of the house. Put me in an empire-line gown and fanning myself before a marble regency fireplace and I would be in my element. 
  • Keats' House Hampstead