Sunday, 28 February 2010

Olympic fun and games.

Long before it became fashionable I have been leading the life of a vampire, at least in terms of the hours I keep and my reluctance to venture out into broad daylight. Left to my own devices, I am very much a night owl. As a result over the past fortnight I have found myself going to bed just before dawn as I have become caught up in watching live broadcasts of the Winter Olympics from Vancouver. I have a competitive streak in me and have always endeavoured to maintain a certain level of fitness but I could never have aspired to Olympian standards. I have been fascinated by the men and women taking part in the ski jump and the freestyle aerial skiing. It must take nerves of steel not to panic mid-air. I had a genuine fear of slipping on icy pavements during the recent cold spell. The thought of smashing to the ground from a great height with a giant pair of planks fixed to my feet does not appeal to me in the slightest. Cross country skiing is the only winter Olympics sport I would be happy to participate in because if I slipped I would land on soft snow and not sheer ice.

One of the many fascinating snippets of information I have learned from Vancouver is that a bobsleigh is steered by a driver. I had assumed that the team members simply hopped in, hunkered down and just hoped for the best as their vehicle careered along the course. Seeing scenes of overturning bobsleighs, in one instance jettisoning  a female contestant on to the course and sending her hapless team member spinning inside the out of control  vehicle was literally breath-taking. Fortunately neither women was hurt although it ended their dreams of an Olympic medal in the games.  

Prior to the Vancouver Olympics, my interest in winter Olympic sports as a viewer was generally limited to ice-skating, alpine skiing and the ski jump. Somewhere I still have a medal from Livigno after I came first in a slalom race against an international field of competitors. The video of the race seems to show me skiing in slow motion though it is in real-time and the medal is made of slate rather than gold. But in extenuation, I had only been skiing for just under a fortnight when I hit my personal best. Given time and the right training it could surely have been me up there on the Olympic podium.   
Every year, as part of my modern languages course, I write an essay and present an illustrated talk in Finnish on a subject of my choice. Two years ago it was on the Olympics. Like my blog, I always choose a subject I can flit around like a brimstone butterfly, passing swiftly from one topic to the next, whilst maintaining the central theme. It also helps if I can give it a distinctly Finnish slant. In terms of medals, the Finnish athlete Paarvo Nurmi won the greatest number of Olympic medals ever for Track and Field events. Nurmi, along jointly with Larissa Latynina, Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis, holds the highest number of gold medals ever awarded to an Olympian in the 20th century. There is every reason to believe his haul might have been greater still if shenanigans on the part of Swedish officials had not prevented him from being able to compete in the 1932 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, an act which did little to strengthen Finnish-Swedish ties for some while afterwards.

Despite my owlish proclivities, I can get up early when the need arises such as my recent trip to Broadcasting House for my "Saturday Live" interview. There was a time when I used to be in my London offices by 7.30am. Prior to that, I would wake up at 4am on a Monday morning in order to get to my desk in County Durham by 9.30am, which involved a train and taxi journey of over 240 miles. One day, whilst I was being driven to my office from Durham railway station, the taxi driver related the moving tale of a young woman who had once been a fare in a colleague’s car. It seems she had been on the verge of relocating to the area when her company was taken over by new owners. On Christmas Eve she heard the disquieting rumour that her relocation had been cancelled, despite the fact that she had been obliged to sign a legally binding contract requiring her to have bought a property in the vicinity by January of the following year. Her colleagues, who did not believe the rumour, advised her to speak to her line manager. She was stunned when the latter breezily confirmed the rumour, merely expressing mild annoyance that HR, based over 200 miles away, had not handled the issue more sensitively. He advised her to contact Personnel but they alas were not answering their phones. The unfortunate woman then had to travel all the way back to London, where she was kept in a dreadful state of suspense over the entire Christmas period, not knowing whether she would still have a job by the end of it.  I listened to this modern morality tale, which would have made Ebenezer Scrooge blush at the heartlessness of her employers, completely enthralled. I realised that my personal story had become part of the folk-lore of the local taxi drivers. Who needs an Olympic gold medal if you are already a legend in your own taxi-ride?

Friday, 26 February 2010

Welcome to my world

An unexpected side effect of writing this blog has been that it has inadvertently improved my geography.  Despite having O’ Level Geography it never was my strongest subject. Yet I have found myself tracking the global location of “hits” using the site meter.  

I have regular hits from America and readers from US states including Georgia, California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Connecticut, Texas, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida and Virginia. I was puzzled by one regular hit from California until I discovered it was actually the Google search engine. Mountain View California had sounded so exotic up until that point.

I have received “hits” from Canada and, for the very first time this week, one from South America in the shape of someone from Peru. New Zealand and Australia have also registered on my site meter as has Scandinavia and most of Europe including former Eastern bloc countries such as Poland,  the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Rather intriguingly I have also had hits from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore.

However, the most fascinating for me has been from Yerevan in Armenia. Not only is Yerevan the capital, it is also one of the world’s oldest continuously occupied cities, dating back to 800 b.c.  In one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, the Armenian people were targeted by the Ottoman Empire for deportation and massacre. The current Republic of Turkey has vigorously refuted the idea that genocide ever took place. Their political stance has been deemed by some modern scholars to be mere semantics. The deaths of so many hundreds of thousands (and some believe the death toll runs into well over a million  and a half Christian Armenians gives the lie to the idea that only Muslim countries have shown religious tolerance towards other faiths within their own borders as opposed to Christian countries.

Tate Modern is currently holding an exhibition of the work of the influential American artist, Arshile Gorky (c.1904-1948). An Armenian exile, Gorky survived the enforced march to the then Russian Yerevan, where his mother later died of starvation. The poster for the Tate exhibition shows one of Gorky’s most haunting works. Entitled The Artist and his mother” it was inspired by  a precious photograph that Gorky took with him into exile of his 12 year old self and his doomed parent. Having seen a recent documentary about the artist, I am determined to visit the exhibition myself. It is on at Tate Modern until 3rd May 2010.  Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern

What lies beneath.

I have just spent several hours gardening for the first time since the autumn. I turned over the soil, cleared away leaves and other garden debris from around the plants, went mad with the secateurs and pulled up two shrubs to make way for three old fashioned tea-rose bushes, which are said to yield a delightful fragrance when in bloom. The latter are currently soaking in my bathroom basin. Consequently, every time I go into there I risk being scratched by the thorns and at night feel as if I have stumbled upon the set of the Day of the Triffids.
Now that I have prepared the ground, I need to pop along to the garden centre and buy more soil and plant food for the roses. At least this year I know what works in my garden: most of the shrubs have survived as have the herbs. I shall grow tomatoes and chillies indoors again and cucumbers outside. Courgettes and aubergines I shall give a miss as being more trouble than they are worth. The aubergines only produced a tiny vegetable, ditto the courgettes. Even the Partridge’s brother, a trained landscape gardener, only managed to grow a single, albeit, large and very tasty courgette in his substantial garden. I shall grow strawberries in a planter instead of in the ground so that I can ensure they get plenty of sun as opposed to being in the shade of the ancient cherry tree. I had put out a miniature orange tree in the garden and the all fruit was snaffled overnight by squirrels. Talk about taking the pith, they left behind a single scrap of orange skin after their raid. Not wishing to see a repeat of such day light robbery I shall buy netting to cover the fruit with. Last season the strawberries were as rare as truffles and I allowed only one per favoured house guest.

I have changed my mind about the courgettes after  remembering that although I was unable to grow a reasonable amount of courgettes, I was able to produce an abundance of courgette flowers, which I filled with mozzarella cheese, fresh tarragon and honey and fried in olive oil.   

The gooseberry bushes are in leaf. I hope both they and the loganberry produce fruit this year, having survived the unusually cold winter we have just endured. Mind you, the gooseberries are a Finnish variety and therefore should survive the vagaries of the English weather. I kept my fingers resolutely crossed when I used the past tense about the weather. I am praying that we don’t get any more snow to put paid to all my efforts today. The purple sprouted broccoli grew strong plants which are still in leaf but did not sprout broccoli. I have garlic bulbs given to me by a friend’s mother, which I intend to plant in a pot outside. I never did find out whether my spring onions would have flourished as they failed to recover after a neighbour pulled them up thinking they were weeds, even though I had a label bearing both the inscription ‘spring onions’ and a colour photograph of the plant in question by them. Despite the temptation I did not bury him under the flower bed.

I have started to tidy up the herb garden. My lemon thyme, bay, laurel, oregano, mint, sage and rosemary have all survived the exceedingly cold weather as has some lemon verbena. I have been using the oregano, rosemary and sage throughout the winter. I bake potatoes brushed with olive oil, dusted with sea salt and sprinkled with fresh rosemary. The sage leaves I use along with water, onion and carrots when roasting chicken. One of my favourite dishes is an aubergine cut in half, the flesh scored with a knife and then dribbled with olive oil and baked in the oven until the flesh is tender. I then remove the flesh and mix with chopped fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh oregano. Just occasionally something that is good for you can taste delicious too. I have some French parsley indoors which I shall take outside next week. The tarragon in the kitchen seems to have sprouted a number of green shoots recently which looks promising.

I  planted poppies last year as they were a stalwart of the medieval medicinal garden I was trying to recreate in miniature. Rather perplexingly none of them flowered. I came across some growing in a wheat field when I looked after my friends’ greyhound in the summer. At the end of my stay, I was green with envy when I found a. large clump of them growing at the back of my friends’ garden. They also had a number of sweet peas growing. I discovered that you have to keep picking the flowers to stop the plant from seeding and bringing the blooms to a premature close. Thus, I felt no qualms about helping myself to a large bouquet of them to take back with me.

When raking over the soil earlier, I discovered a number of bulbs had grown green shoots. Ditto bulbs I had thrown to one side last autumn, intending to put them in the former coal cellar to dry. They have all been replanted and I am hoping to get some unexpected spring flowers in a few months time. I have moved the hydrangea forward to give it more space as it seemed rather cramped last summer  and trimmed the lavender bush back to make it more compact. The remaining mature shrubs I have rigorously pruned in order to provide more space and light for the additional flowers I intend to plant there and to allow them to be watered by the rain, instead of laboriously by hand. The Partridge told me that one of her relatives refused to venture far from home during the growing season, lest his plants pine away without his daily ministrations. When I found myself dashing off to look after the Partridge’s brother in July, I tried to find an effective watering system for all my plants. I ended up investing in capillary matting, which worked up to a fashion. The garden itself I had to leave to the mercy of a neighbour and the elements. The former claimed to have regularly watered my plants but one or two, which looked suspiciously wilted on my return made a miraculous recovery within hours of my watering them again.

Having spent so much time in the vegetable and flower beds today, I think I shall need to retire early to my own bed to recover.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Brickbats and bouquets.

“I thought that woman talking about the fire was very boring, “ wrote one commentator on Facebook. Ouch! I thought. To my relief his opinion seemed to be in the minority. According to my university tutor her husband had been in tears at my interview (and not tears of laughter either according to my fellow students, to whom she had been enthusiastically describing my broadcast moments before I arrived).

Mandip's sister said that a former Head of BBC Radio described my performance as being “impressive.” However, it seems my allegedly “posh” accent is distinctly unfashionable in a world in which regional accents are most prized. Otherwise I would have been a strong contender for a role as a radio continuity announcer. I always was a woman out of my time. At least I received many kind comments, some of which I have included below just to remind myself that “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

Well, I put my alarm on for 9am this morning (which is not a thing I do lightly on a Saturday morning!) and thought that the well-spoken Caro (or was it Carrie?) spoke very vividly and eloquently about her experiences. Fi Glover was obviously very impressed by the way you got onto the ladder so far above the ground - and so far away from the actual window (as am I, of course). You are a natural interviewee - I didn't detect any nerves at all. Nice mention of B.
Let me know when your next outing onto national radio is due...

Hi Caro
You were brilliant - so confident and articulate - well done! It was great to raise awareness of smoke alarms and it reminded me to check mine. I'm also thinking I may get a CO monitor as I have gas boiler,
best wishes

That was excellent! what a pro I would have um'd and ah'd all the way through and been a total amateur. Hope you got some recipes off Simon.

Well done 'Cary' - you were very easy to listen to and no mistakes!
Ali x

Went very well! Thanks for the mention,

Well done. You were v clear and fluent.

Hello Caro,
I have just heard your story on BBC Iplayer Radio 4. You sounded GREAT! It was really good and I know you told me the story before but it was really interesting to hear it on the radio. You sound REALLY good on the radio. Give me a call so we can meet up again soon.

Wow Caro, thanks for that... just listened to it now and it's completely blown my mind.
Talk about a literal leap of faith!!! You are so eloquent, one of the best interviews I've ever heard on that subject, totally compelling, thanks so much xxxx
Chele xxx

We listened to it again. Well done! A lovely voice.

Dear Caro!
I thought you were very good with your interview - clear and concise ... I hope you enjoyed being a radio star!
Well done

Hello Caro.
Very well done, you were extremely poised, and your voice is perfect for radio. Thought about applying to the BBC for a job?

A Doll’s Palace

When I last described the interior of Kew Palace (It had to be Kew ) I stopped at the King’s Dining Room, having heard the siren call of my own stomach luring me away. The King’s Dining Room, though spacious enough by modern standards, gives little inkling of its former illustrious owners, other than the two oils, painted in profile, of King George and his wife gazing fondly at each other across the doorway that separates the two portraits. But then King George III was known to favour plain cooking in private. The dining room also contains a chamber organ dating from the 1740s. Although not original to the house there was a chamber organ in the dining room during King George’s reign.

Apparently King George III particularly enjoyed the music of the composer Georg Friedrich Händel, who was also extremely accomplished as an organist. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that Handel’s own organ music would have been played in this room. Several years ago I went with the Partridge and her sister to a recital at Handel’s former home at what is now 23-25 Brook Street in London’s Mayfair. The upper storeys have been carefully restored to how they might have looked when Handel moved in in 1723. In the 1960s the rock star Jimi Hendrix rented a flat in part of Handel’s former home. Had Jimi Hendrix lived to a ripe old age, perhaps it would not be too fanciful to imagine that he might have been inspired to record some of Handel’s pieces himself. There is already a precedent for using Handel’s music to advertise that most iconic garment of modern youth culture: denim jeans. For the soundtrack of their Engineered Jeans range, Levis chose an adaptation of Handel’s Sarabande Keyboard suite in D (.Handel House Museum )

The next room on the “in my mind’s eye” tour of Kew Palace is the breakfast room. It displays mementoes of various royal children who spent their childhood in the house. My eyes were immediately drawn to the two storey doll’s house. Built by a ship’s carpenter for King George’s daughters in the 1780s it was decorated by the princesses. After a convoluted history in which the princesses later passed the house on to the family of an officer in the Royal Navy, it came back into the collection at Kew in the 21st century. I have always had a certain partiality to dolls house, even as an adult. My keenest memory of the farmhouse lived in by my late mother’s friend’s was her wonderful doll’s house placed on top of a table. If I had first seen the doll’s house at Kew Palace as a child I would have been extremely impressed.  However, that was before I came across the truly palatial doll’s house of Petronella Oortman in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

 Set in a house-shaped cabinet; the doll’s house at Kew consists of a bedroom with a four-poster  bed and a blue drawing room on the floor below, both rooms connected by a flight of wooden stairs. Petronella’s Oortman’s house by comparison is a 17th century mansion in miniature containing as it does:
  • a linen room, with a bedroom containing curtained box beds for the maids at the back,
  • a peat and provision loft used as a general storage area by the household,
  • A nursery containing a canopied bed and a cradle.  At the windows are wooden-framed silk-screens decorated with parrots. Coincidently, this winter I adopted a similar arrangement for my own windows, using a Chinese screen of cranes I had bought years ago.
  • A sumptuous salon, whose walls were painted  murals by the 17th artist Nicolaes Piemont,
  • An entrance hall picked out in marble and decorated with black and white paintings known as grisaille, very similar to the kind of grey tinted wall paintings that once adorned the King’s Library at Kew and a fragment of which can still be seen today,
  • A red lying-in room, in which the lady of the house would give birth and later receive visitors,
  • A best kitchen housing a dresser, containing porcelain specially imported from China and Japan,
  • The actual cooking was carried out in the back room, which has a sink which could be pumped full of real water by drawing on the special reservoir below the basin,
  • Nor does the house neglect other bodily functions: the backroom leads to a simple earth closet and a child’s close-stool, stands in the best kitchen.
  • The doll’s house even has a hidden cellar beneath the kitchen floor for housing beer barrels and pots and pans,
  • The tapestry room was also used as a mourning room to house the coffin of the recently deceased before burial,
  • The library containing over 80 bound books, made up of prints cut to fit the pages rather than actual literature.

As well as being exquisitely decorated, the rooms have been furnished and equipped down to the last detail, including miniature irons in the linen room and baskets containing miniature silver cutlery in the kitchen. But then Petronella’s doll’s house was designed for a very different purpose to that of the royal one at Kew. The latter was more properly called a baby’s house in the 18th century and was deemed to be a rather upmarket child’s toy. By contrast, Petronella’s house was never intended to be played with by children. Instead, it enabled Petronella to indulge her passion for commissioning artists and craftsmen to decorate and furnish her doll’s house as if it were a fashionable late 17th century Dutch mansion. For the same money she spent on creating her world in miniature, Petronella could have bought a full scale townhouse in Amsterdam. Fortunately she was a wealthy widow in her own right when she married the Dutch silk merchant Johannes Brandt in 1686 and so could afford her extravagant tastes. For historians it gives an unprecedented insight as to how an entire house of the period would have been furnished and decorated. Make it life-size, replete with electricity and plumbed in hot and cold water and sewerage and I would move in tomorrow. I never quite felt the same way about my own modest two storey tin doll’s house.

After the delights of the doll’s house in the Breakfast Room, we make our way up the elegant staircase to the Queen’s Boudoir on the first floor. It now has a chaise-longue for reclining on, a table set out for a game of cards and a needlework table.The next room is the Queen’s Drawing Room. This pale pink witnessed the double marriage of two of  the Queen’s sons in 1818, the Hanoverian dynasty being desperate for an heir, following the tragic death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, the only child of  the then Prince Regent and later King George IV, the year before. Last year, I read a fascinating account of Princess Charlotte’s life in ‘Charlotte and Leopold’ by the author James Chambers. Charlotte spent most of her brief life caught up in the bitter rivalry between her parents. In many respects, Charlotte’s family was as dysfunctional as any that exists today. But then the royal houses of England have always set the pace when it comes to dysfunctional families.
The Grecian canopied bed in Princess Elizabeth’s bedroom was recreated by craftsmen in the 21st century based on contemporary accounts. Had I the space, it is the kind of bed that I would not be averse to having  in my own bedroom. The plain green verditer-coloured wallpaper (based on original fragments found in this room) with the Greek key border is simple enough to allow the yellow and red chintz of the bed to look elegant as opposed to overpowering.

Queen Charlotte’s bed in the adjacent bedroom is more plainly decorated than her daughter’s. In this room is also the leather armchair in which the Queen died in November 1818. Royal protocol would have preferred her to have died within Windsor Castle and in fact she was travelling there when her illness forced her to stop at Kew. In that she would have been envied by her youngest daughter, the Princess Amelia who died of tuberculosis at Windsor castle in 1810. It seems Amelia had expressed a wish to die at her beloved Kew which was ignored. Amelia also harboured a desire to marry one of her father’s aides, Sir Charles Fitzroy. There were many, including her own sisters, who believed Amelia had secretly married and possibly had a child by him. This was later vehemently denied by Fitzroy. Nonetheless, Amelia had intended to petition the Privy Council for the right to marry him when she came of age at 25. Sadly, it was that very age that she fell into an irrevocable physical decline, which resulted in her death only a year or so later.

Princess Amelia’s and Princess Augusta’s empty apartments were not part of the programme of  renovation at Kew Palace and have been little altered since the royal family left Kew for good in 1818, giving the rooms a somewhat melancholy air. Augusta, like her younger sister Amelia was never destined to marry. Of the 6 royal sisters only three married: the eldest, Charlotte, later the Queen Consort of Frederick of Württemberg married in 1797, Elizabeth married the Landgraf of Hesse-Homburg in 1818. Two years earlier her sister Mary married Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh and lived with him in England. Mary outlived all her siblings and died in 1857 in her 80s.

For the unmarried adult princesses, life in the royal household was akin to living in a gilded cage. Their mother, Queen Charlotte was reluctant to allow them to marry once her husband had sunk into his mental decline, preferring to have them around her instead. Thus, despite giving birth to 13 children who survived into adulthood, Queen Charlotte  had only two legitimate grandchildren and of them only Victoria lived long enough to inherit the throne.Last year, I read a fascinating account of Princess Charlotte’s life in ‘Charlotte and Leopold’ by the author James Chambers. Charlotte spent most of her brief life caught up in the bitter rivalries of her parents. In many respects, Charlotte’s family was as dysfunctional as any that exists today. But then the royal houses of England have always set the pace when it comes to dysfunctional families.

It was unfortunate that when I attended a special late opening of Kew Palace, we only had a few minutes to explore that very part of the house usually closed to visitors: namely the servants’ quarters in the attic. What makes these bare drab rooms so special is that they still bear the so-called witches marks carved into the oak beams in the 17th century, in an attempt to bar the way of witches or other evil spirits from entering the house. These rooms are in too fragile a state to allow large numbers to wander freely around them. The subdued lighting and low hanging ceilings meant it proved something of an obstacle course as I dashed around, anxious not to forgo the rare opportunity to explore every nook and cranny of the house, having fallen under its spell, witch’s mark or no witch’s mark.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Face for Radio

In the lobby of Broadcasting House I gave my name to the man on the front desk and was provided with a pass and shown over to the waiting area. I recognised the two other men seated there already as being Simon Hopkinson, the former Head chef at the renowned restaurant Bibendum and the poet Matt Harvey. Mandip had e-mailed me a copy of the scheduled guest list which she had found online, allowing me to carry out some research in advance on my fellow interviewees so that I would not appear a complete ignoramus.

A woman came over and led us up to the production offices. Other than the odd internal window frame highlighted in the corridor, little remains of the original art deco interior. As we waited on sofas to go into the recording studio another woman, who I took to be that day’s producer, explained the schedule. It seems my segment would start approximately half way through the proceedings in order to give me sufficient time to relax. Privately I thought I might be a bag of nerves by the time a further 30 mintes had elapsed.
“Do feel free to comment during the recording,” the producer said to me. “Don’t feel you have to be silent until your piece.” I smiled but quietly resolved not to make any comment until after my segment, lest the audience be confused as to why a stranger was suddenly interjecting.

Matt said he had read my article in the Guardian magazine when it was first published. They both asked me questions about my experience. The producer returned with listeners’ comments from the previous show for Matt and Simon to read out on air. There was then a debate as to how to correctly pronounce Lord Christopher Thynne's surname as it was going to be used in an anecdote about the writer Ernest Hemingway. I had my own concerns about correct pronunciation. At home, I had found myself mispronouncing the presenter’s name.

Then it was time to go into the studio itself. A platter of fresh fruit was set out on a table and remained untouched by the time I left. We were seated in a circle with microphones in front of us and headphones at the side. Only the presenter Fi Glover wore headphones throughout in order to hear her production staff.

The presenter was petite and reminded of my university friend Lynda with her tiny frame topped by a mass of thick dark hair. She wore a sleeveless top, black trousers and a green Lurex scarf and looked far younger and more delicate than her publicity photograph would suggest. She said unfortunately she was going down with something so she couldn’t shake hands.

Remembering how some people came a cropper with the microphones at the Town Hall, where I had made my successful speech in defence of the proposed redevelopment of the site next door(voice of the people), I told Fi I was not sure how to use those in the studio so she proposed a sound check. Whilst waiting for the show to start I looked around the room. Behind me was the glass wall separating the studio from the production staff. I counted 6 women in all seated at various desks. Our room looked much like a meeting room with terracotta and black coloured and textured walls. At the back of the room was a light box: the yellow light meant the studio was in use and the red light meant we were on air. A producer announced that the final "mise en place" preparations had been completed. We then listened to the news being broadcast from another studio before going live ourselves.Saturday Live Schedule 13th February 2010

The opening music seemed to be a sound collage of themes for that day's show. Fi began by interviewing Simon. A celebrated former chef, he is also seen as being the cook’s cook and regarded by fellow chefs as being one of the finest cookery writers of all time. At one point the conversation turned to quenelles. What the hell are quenelles, I thought, hoping no-one would ask me. Matt was somewhat thrown when he was asked to describe a photograph of Simon’s tomato curry. It would be hard enough at the best of times, but to have to do so in front of the one of the world’s best cookery writers and to have to comment on Simon's own dish must have been extremely daunting. Simon's recipe for tomato curry

I took the opportunity to write down some notes. On each of the pieces of white paper in front of me, I wrote “FEE,” that being the phonetic pronunciation of the presenter’s name. When I had practised it at home I found myself saying Fie. I just needed Fo and Fum and I could have recited the famous line from Jack and the Beanstalk:Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. I also scribbled down the name of two people I wanted to name check if the opportunity arose, as I owed them an extra special debt of kindness following the fire.

When Fi went to a pre-recorded segment, Simon handed out some bread rolls flavoured with truffles he had brought from Bibendum. He had enough for the production staff as well to their obvious delight. I said I would eat mine after my segment.

The journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy popped into the studio to make a trailer for his own radio show, which was being broadcast immediately after ours. In terms of personal ordeals, mine was as nothing compared to his. He had been held captive for five gruelling years as a hostage in the Lebanon in 1986 having been kidnapped, along with other western hostages, by the Islamic Jihad terrorists. It was then time for me to speak. Almost 12 minutes later my interview was over. Matt read out one of his poems and we went to another pre-recorded segment allowing Simon to pass around his home made rice pudding for us to taste. I asked him what special ingredients he had used to give it such a rich creamy flavour. He replied that he had used full fat Jersey milk, cream and vanilla extracted from a pod. Again, he had arrived with plenty for all.
The producer came in and said that my interview had been “fantastic,” and that a number of listeners had called in to thank me for reminding them to get smoke alarms installed. She said later that a professor of architecture had rang in asking if she could contact me, as she felt my comments on the reality of being trapped in a house fire would be of interest and potential benefit to her design students. I asked the producer to forward her details on. It would be nice to think that my experience might possibly save someone else’s life in the future.

When the broadcast ended we had a mini debriefing session and were asked to sign the Guest Book. I did not realise the pages would later appear online. The three studio guests then said our goodbyes to Fi and were escorted down to the lobby, where a photograph was taken of us by one of the production staff. I got her to take one using my camera too. The security guard told us we could not take pictures in the lobby but we had them in the bag, even if one of them had his arm stretched out in protest behind us. We then went our separate ways. I was green with envy when Simon said he was off to spend a weekend at Knole House, one of the grandest country houses in England, and the setting for one of my favourite novels: Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Matt said he would be taking public transport home. I had a driver to take me back to Wimbledon. Well, even Cinderella had a coach and driver to carry her home after the ball. Podcast

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Brimstone Butterfly takes to the air(waves). Part One

It is a rare Saturday indeed that finds me up before the crack of noon, but yesterday was of course very much out of the ordinary. I had set two alarm clocks the night before as a precaution and was awake before either of them rang. By 7.30 am, I sat in a state of some nervous apprehension at my flat, keys in hand and red shoes on feet, ready to dash downstairs the moment the driver from the BBC arrived. From my eyrie, I caught sight of the driver in question, roaming up and down my street before finally parking across the road and sneaking a quick cigarette. I hurried out to meet him, anxious that we should arrive at the broadcasting studios in time. I sent a last text message to friends and then switched off my mobile.

Once I realised we were making good headway, I relaxed and enjoyed the view. We drove along Wimbledon Common, down through Fulham and across Putney Bridge. Close by Putney Bridge is the ancient parish church of St Mary’s. The later played an important role during the English Civil war of the 17th century, being the site of the so-called Putney Debates of 1647. In these debates the ordinary soldiery, who had fought on the Parliamentary side, argued that they should be given extended civic rights as a reward for their services. Amongst other demands, they sought near universal male suffrage, religious toleration by the state, parliamentary constituencies to be based on actual number of inhabitants and Parliament itself to be dissolved every two years. These radical ideas appalled the likes of Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton.  They were all for using the ordinary man to fight their wars and overthrow an anointed King. It did not mean that they were prepared to share their new power with the very people who had helped them obtain it. Henry Ireton was of the opinion that only landowners should be entrusted with ruling the country since only they, he argued, had a genuine vested interest in the continued well-being of the state. This early attempt at Putney to introduce radical parliamentary and social reform into England was defeated and the leaders later executed. There is now a permanent exhibition at St Marys commemorating the turbulent events of 1647.Putney Debates Exhibition

If King Charles II had not been restored to his throne in 1660, there is no reason to think that Samuel Pepys would not have proved an equally able administrator under the English Commonwealth. Certainly, if the Republic had still been in place, Samuel Pepys might have been adopted a far less frivolous approach to church attendance, which often seemed to centre on the less than spiritual opportunities it afforded for ogling young women. On the 28th April 1667, twenty years after the Putney Debates had been held there, Pepys decided to pay a visit to the same church of St Mary’s. In his diary he records:
“and then back to Putney Church, where I saw the girls of the schools, few of which pretty.”
It seems the maidens of Putney were somewhat lacking the winsome charms Pepys had been so taken with when he espied the young schoolgirls of Hackney at prayer.Spirit of the age

We passed through Eaton Square, home of the fictitious Bellamy family, whose lives and those of their servants in the opening decades of the 20th century were chronicled in the popular 1970s television drama series: Upstairs Downstairs. Two hundred and fifty years after the Putney Debates, the fictional Lady Elizabeth Bellamy was campaigning for women to be granted the vote alongside men.

The next mansion of note en-route to the studios was Apsley House Once lived in by the first Duke of Wellington, it is now run by English Heritage and contains many items commemorating the Duke’s life, including the huge nude statue of his erstwhile adversary Napoleon Bonaparte, depicted in marble by the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, as Mars the Peacemaker. Although Napoleon sat for Canova and allowed him to model his head, it is clear that the sculptor had sought inspiration from some other man’s heroic proportions when he carved out the rest of the statue. 

In the 20th century the celebrated 1930s Hollywood actress Mae West quipped “Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.” At the age of 39, when her charms were no longer quite as potent as in her youth, the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson wrote to her former lovers, advising them of her plans to publish her memoirs. If they did not wish their former dalliances with her to appear in the pages of her memoirs, they would each need to compensate Harriette to the tune of £200, a not inconsiderable sum for the London of the time.  When Harriette targeted the Duke of Wellington he is said to have written back: “Publish and be damned!”

Our car then drove along Regent’s Street, which was completed in the same year as Harriette Wilson proposed publishing her indiscreet memoirs: namely 1825. We then proceeded to Broadcasting House, which was built in 1932. Above the doorway stands a statue of Prospero, Shakespeare’s magician from The Tempest and Ariel, a spirit of the air. At present the frontage is covered with scaffolding, making it hard to see the statues clearly.

As the driver was not sure which entrance I needed, he let me out by the very grand Langham Hotel, which was built as a luxury hotel in 1865. In the 1960s it was bought outright by the BBC, who had first started renting part of the building after the Second World War. The BBC’s plans to demolish the hotel and rebuild offices in its stead were never realised. Subsequent owners re-opened the Langham as a luxury hotel in the 1990s. At 8.20 am precisely, I made my way across the road and, like Shakespeare’s Ariel, took to the air(waves).

Friday, 12 February 2010

Shooting from the lips.

Today I dealt with some general administration then went off to the gym for a session on the rowing machine before setting off to the hairdressers. My listeners might not be able to see my artfully tousled locks tomorrow, but I want to look my very best for my big night or rather morning.

On the train journey there, I tried to check my voice-mails just in case there were any last minute messages from the radio producer. To my annoyance the battery needed to be recharged. To my relief, just before I went into the hairdressers I spied an electronics shop selling accessories for mobile phones. I dashed in only to be told by a bored young woman seated at a pc that the man who could assist me was out and would not be back for another hour. That meant I would need to use the hairdresser’s landline to access my own home phone. If there were any important messages, the producer would have left them there as well as on my mobile. Try as I might I could not access my answering machine using the hairdresser’s landline so I tried my mobile once more. I just managed to access the two messages held on it before it died.

When I replayed them both I was incensed. It was someone pestering me for help when they knew full well I would be fraught with worry about tomorrow. I felt my blood pressure soar as I complained about their behaviour to the sympathetic hairdresser.

Still heaping silent imprecations on the caller I returned home. Oddly there were no calls on my landline or e-mail messages from the miscreant. I charged up my mobile phone. Yes, the messages were still there. I then decided to check the date. They were from last month! Thank heavens I had not vented my righteous indignation in a telephone call or e-mail. Mind you, their past behaviour alone had certainly deserved it. But for once they were completely innocent of all charges of self-absorption and selfishness. Modern technology can be such a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A day devoted to Valentines

I was not downcast by the poor state of repair of the 18th mansion at Clissold Park when I paid a visit on Monday. Thankfully, it is in the process of undergoing a major programne of renovation. Likewise, when I visited Valentines Mansion in Ilford several years ago, I knew that it would close its doors that very night to the general public, before embarking on a project to restore it to its former glory. Consequently, I was able to wander around its crumbling interior like an extra from off the set of the Fall of the House of Usher, safe in the knowledge that Valentines Mansion would not share the same wretched fate as that of Edgar Allan Poe’s.

The present house at Valentines was built in the closing years of the 17th century. Successive owners have significantly altered the house and grounds. The latter now forms a large public park, affording a range of sport facilities, as well as plenty of things to interest those of a more horticultural leaning.

I first heard of Valentines Mansion when it featured on the digital television series “Most haunted.” The premise of the show is that its presenters will carry out a series of experiments to test for paranormal activity at a given location. The quality of its experiments was best demonstrated, when one of its psychics picked up a skull from off the counter of a public-house and solemnly declared that it was that of a Victorian woman (Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901). He then went on to assert that the unknown woman had been murdered by a Jacobite solider (the last Jacobite uprising had been quelled in 1745). Thus, the woman was doubly unfortunate. Not only was she slaughtered, but by a man who must have been well over 110 years old at the time. As the psychic unfolded this astonishing tale of a blood thirsty and incredibly long lived Scot, a ticker-tape at the bottom of the screen announced that subsequent DNA tests on the skull had shown that it dated from the Viking era.(circa 793AD to 1066AD).

The paranormals skills of some of the participants might be somewhat wanting, but the programme did afford an opportunity to gawp at locations that might otherwise have remained unknown to me. Thus, one of the shows centred on Hellens Mansion in the county of Herefordshire, the medieval sister building to Southside House at Wimbledon. Legend has it that in the 17th century a young woman living there eloped with a man deemed her social inferior. He died not long afterwards and the young woman was forced to return to the family home, whereupon she was imprisoned in her bedchamber, only leaving it upon her death some three decades later. From what little I can recall of the programme, the ghost hunt at Valentines mansion itself proved fruitless.

I later discovered a horticultural association between Hampton Court Palace and Valentines mansion. In 1758 a vine was planted in the hothouse at Valentines. Ten years later, the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown took a cutting to grow at Hampton Court Palace. That cutting became the legendary Great Vine, which is now deemed the largest and oldest vine in the world. I had toyed with the idea of buying a cutting of the Great Vine to grow at Chateau Brimstone, but since I have never been partial to a glass of wine, I decided against such a step.

With my keen interest in the culinary arts, I much admired the kitchen at Valentines Mansion as it contained a 19th century iron cooking range. I was fascinated by the various ovens and hobs and, since there was nobody about, had fun opening and shutting doors and generally exploring it to my heart’s content. Had I been an original kitchen maid entrusted with the arduous task of keeping it clean, I doubt if I would have been quite so thrilled.

The house also contains an elegant staircase and a large set of windows glazed with coloured Venetian glass. Apart from the fireplaces and sash windows, the rooms themselves were generally nondescript, having been used as council offices for a number of years. Now that Valentines has re-opened its doors to the general public once more, I look forward to seeing what changes have been made.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

A (radio) star is born!

I finally managed to catch up with the producer of the popular BBC Radio 4 Saturday Live show, which goes out at 9am every Saturday. (video killed the radio star ) After we had spoken for a while about my article, which was commissioned by the Guardian newspaper and first published on here,(Fire! ) he said he would love me to do an interview with them and preferably live THIS Saturday. They will be sending a car to pick me up and get me to the broadcasting studios by 8.30 am. Although my segment will only last 10 minutes or so, they want me to stay for the whole hour and answer any supplementary questions that the listeners might care to put to me. It is all very exciting and yet more grist for my blog.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A farewell to alms(houses). Revised April 2011

From my window I can see an 18th town-house bearing the date: 1797. It formed part of a £600 bequest left by a certain Mrs. Elizabeth Simon to the poor of the parish in 1801. According to the 1912 edition of “A History of the County of Surrey” there was sufficient money for six almshouses to be founded. Unfortunately these fell into a state of dilapidation, as it proved impossible find suitable tenants whilst the land remained subject to a legal dispute. I have no idea what happened to the other 5 almshouses. I do know I received a shock one day when I looked out of my window and it seemed as if a duplicate almshouse had sprung up behind the Georgian original overnight. The building work on the new almshouse must have been hidden by trees, which I presume were later cut down in a single day.

Mrs Simon was sometimes referred to as the Widow Simon. In this instance the widow’s mite seems modest compared with that of the former Lord Mayor of London Sir Robert Geffrye, whose baroque almshouses at Shoreditch have afforded me such pleasure over the years. Certainly the architecture of the widow’s remaining almshouse is very bland and but for the date on the front of the building, it would be hard to appreciate its relative age. I have often wondered whether it has sustained significant damage over the centuries and consequently been partly rebuilt, as its bricks seem a very different colour to those of other 18th century building in the vicinity.

Another set of splendid almshouses I have been fortunate enough to visit were built by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, in 1596. I first spied these almshouses through a closed wrought iron gate. It seemed extraordinary that such a place could survive into the 21st century amongst modern shopping centres and office blocks, having real commercial potential if redeveloped. Yet it is precisely because of its origins that it has survived. Originally known as the Hospital of the Holy Trinity, the almshouses stand in the centre of Croydon, close to where the medieval summer palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury is also to be found. Little did he know it but John Whitgift left land which, in later centuries, would prove to be prime retail estate. As a result, the Archbishop’s legacy continues to generate huge sums of money centuries after his demise. Therefore, the foundation set up in his name does not need to sell the land on which the almshouses were built to raise funds for their continuance. Built around an enclosed and gated quadrangle, the almshouses are afforded far more privacy and security than was ever available to the pensioners at Shoreditch in later years.

Other than forming an enclosed quadrangle, the original almshouses at Croydon followed a similar pattern to those of Sir Geffrye’s at Shoreditch (the latter has been turned into the Geffrye Museum). They consisted of separate houses, (9 to Shoreditch’s 14) accessed by an external door leading directly onto the quadrangle. Likewise, each house contained four rooms, one room per pensioner or couple. There was also a chapel. The major difference to Sir Geffrye’s almshouses at Shoreditch is that the Archbishop’s still function as almshouses today. Naturally, they have been adapted to modern living. I would not be averse to spending my declining years in such congenial surroundings, given my private passion for history and architecture.

If they were fitted with modern conveniences (in every sense of the word) I would be even more than happy to take up residence at one of Sir Robert’s almshouses. Turned into separate townhouses, their elegant exteriors would make them highly desirable. Their interiors are not to be sniffed at either. Although only granted one room for their personal use, the height and generous proportions of the rooms would make the pensioners the envy of many a modern bed-sit dweller. They certainly made my former bed-sit seem more akin to a box room in terms of size. Each room had a closet where food could be stored and prepared. Again, the closet was bigger than my former kitchenette. The plain shaker-style cupboards and beech countertops echo those in the kitchen of my current flat. The rooms had open fireplaces, where food and water could be cooked or boiled. Ever since I was a child I have loved the idea of having working open fireplaces in the house. We had them in my original childhood home, although the sheer daily drudgery of looking after them was alleviated by storage heaters, a luxury not afforded to Sir Geffrye’s pensioners of course. Even in the early 20th century, their rooms still did not have piped water, although a cold war tap was introduced into the basement of each house in the late 19th century. At least this meant that the occupants no longer had to haul water indoors from the pumps outside for their everyday use. In addition, an internal water closet was installed in the basement around the same time. This was an improvement on having to use the earth closet housed in the yard outside. Gas lighting was also introduced into the rooms in the 19th century. At first they used the so-called fish-tail burners, in which the naked flame was directed upwards. This was later replaced by the more efficient covered mantel gas lighting, which enabled the flame to be drawn downwards. On Saturday, one of the guides at the Geffrye Museum gave a demonstration of how such fish-tail gas lighting worked. The flickering light would have driven me mad and it produced too little light to have been able to read or sew by for prolonged periods.

The two rooms on display are staged as how they might have looked in the late 18th and the late 19th centuries. The former is more sparsely decorated compared to that of the 19th century, when advances in mass production meant that even the relative poor of the almshouses could afford to furnish their rooms with a greater range of cheap manufactured goods than had even been available to the middle classes of early generations. (as the period rooms in the main museum demonstrate).

I do not know how typical of their periods the almshouses at Croydon or Shoreditch were but they are far more appealing to me than many of the present-day counterparts that I have seen.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Craven

There are only two types of person who can strike terror onto my heart, owing to the havoc they could wreak in my life: my hairdresser and my dentist. Yesterday I went along to the latter for a routine check-up. Although the practise is located on the other side of London in Islington, I have been going there since childhood. The original dentist retired a number of years ago. Even though the practice is no longer convenient for me to get to, I value the level of expertise and service that I receive. Equally important is the fact that I am treated on the NHS (National Health Service), saving me a small fortune compared to what I would have to pay if I went private. It always strikes me as irritating when Americans perpetually mock the condition of English teeth. They should take a good hard look at the teeth of the poor in their own country. For such people, a dentist is often deemed a luxury they simply cannot afford. Judging by pictures of him taken before he became a major Hollywood star, Tom Cruise’s teeth were no paean to American dentistry before he became a screen success.

I hate going to the dentist but I would hate having to wear dentures even more if I failed to receive regular treatment. My dentist checked my teeth and said I needed a filling. Then he added that if he were me, he would have the tooth taken out as it was just a nuisance.
“Where is it?” I asked, fearfully, imaging returning home with a visible gap at the front of my teeth.
“It’s your wisdom tooth.” the dentist explained, pointing it out on a chart.
“Then I can’t have it done now, “I said relieved. Based on my horrendous experience of having wisdom teeth extracted in the past, it would be something I would need to psyche myself up to have done again.
“Yes you can have it done today and it would be more convenient and cheaper too.”
“Okay.“ I said reluctantly, trying to calculate the additional costs of the treatment. It came to the princely sum of £45.00 in total. The dentist handed over yet another form for me to sign agreeing to the treatment before he began to yank out the troublesome tooth.

My original dentist always used to have me read through magazines while I waited for the injection to kick in. Consequently, it rather alarms me when modern dentists want to start working straight away.
“That hurts,“  I squawked as I felt the clamp tightened on the doomed tooth. The dentist apologised and waited a little longer before starting anew. This time I did not feel any pain but the intense pressure and the gruesome sound effects were not pleasant. The tooth extracted the dentists placed a pad of gauze in my mouth to stem the flow of blood.
“Ann kooo, “ I mumbled, glad to escape the lair of the dentist once more.

I decided to make my way to Stoke Newington to examine anew some of the sites I mentioned previously in other posts. Now closed for major renovation, the Georgian mansion in Clissold Park is where I took my mother for coffee the day before she died. The neighbouring Tudor church of St Mary’s was immortalised by Edgar Allan Poe in his story William Wilson.” Poe wrote (I) “thrill anew with undefinable delight, at the deep hollow note of the church-bell, breaking, each hour, with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere in which the fretted Gothic steeple lay imbedded and asleep.”  

I wonder if Edgar Allan Poe would have spotted the tomb of Elizabeth Pickett in the graveyard of St Mary’s? The unfortunate young woman died on 11th December 1781 "in consequence of her cloaths taking fire the preceding evening.” If he did, I wonder if it later inspired a story?

Close to the ancient parish church of St Mary’s is the site of the former manor house school that Edgar Allan Poe attended from 1817-1820. Now it is a wine-bar called the Fox Reformed. Having established which side of the road the manor house school was actually located on and given its antiquity, it must surely have been the very same building that had once been owned by the Dudleys, kinsfolk to the great Earl of Leicester. Being related to the Queen’s evergreen favourite, the Dudleys were honored with a visit by Queen Elizabeth I when she came a-calling in the 16th century. Across the road is Sisters Place, built in 1714 and the site of the former medieval mansion of Edward de Vere.  The latter is thought, by some, to be the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

I then went to Yum Yum which had been featured on Gordon Ramsay’s the F-Word and came second in his contest to find the best rated Thai restaurant in the UK. Housed in a former 18th century mansion, it was one of those buildings I had never been able to access as a child. The restaurant ground and basement floors show no trace of the original mansion inside, but it is possible that features remain in the upper floors, which appear to be used as offices. Queen Mary I of England was reported to have been devastated by the loss of Calais, the last English possession in France. She is said to have claimed that if her corpse should ever be cut open, they would find the word “Calais” engraved upon her heart. Red duck curry would be engraved upon my stomach as it is one of favourite dishes of all time 
In homage to Edgar Allan Poe, I ended my day with a trip to the atmospheric 19th century Abney Park Cemetery. Poe would not have been familiar with the cemetery itselfm as it was simply parkland attached to Abney House when he was at school. Today the cemetery is a nature reserve and seems very popular with dog walkers. I did not wander far from the entrance, being of the belief that I had more to fear from the living than the dead and wanted to be able to leg it to safety should the need arrive. The most famous grave I found was that of William Booth, the 19th century founder of the Salvation Army. I took a number of photographs of the various stone-angels close by. One of which caught my attention, had roots growing up its back. As it was both snowing and growing dark, I decided the cemetery was becoming far too spooky for my liking and made my way home.

En-route to Chateau Brimstone Butterfly, I passed the former Highbury home and artist’s studio of Jack the Ripper. The crime-writer Patricia Cornwall holds the belief that Jack the Ripper was none other than the painter William Sickert and has spent considerable time and effort trying to prove her point. Credited with creating the detective fiction genre, Edgar Allen Poe would doubtless have revelled in trying to unmask the true identity of Jack the Ripper, had he been alive to do so.