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.