Sunday, 27 June 2010

It’s too darn hot!

I have never taken to hot weather. Apparently as a baby I would scream in my pram if the temperature rose too high for my sensibilities. I am also prone to heat rashes. So today has been particularly taxing. The Eagle e-mailed to say she had spent most of it shopping with her parents. Yesterday I found her at the gym exercising on the running machine. I was full of admiration for such stamina.

A week earlier the Eagle and the Owl had called around for supper. I had a very special favour I needed to ask of them and generous to a fault, they readily agreed. In the event I need not have sought such a favour off of them. But it was touching that they were prepared to show me such a marked act of kindness.

It was so hot I had to postpone their visit by a further three quarters of an hour whilst I finished baking the main course in the oven. As a starter I served sorrel and spinach soup. I had planned to make a sorrel soup using ingredients from my garden but I lacked sufficient quantities of sorrel and had to make up for the deficiency with a large bag of spinach. The main course was a Delia Smith recipe for asparagus and cheese tart..recipe I had to scour the locality for a flan tin with fluted edges and a loose base. When I rolled out the home made pastry, made with butter and grated cheese (I omitted the lard) it fell to pieces. As a result it looked more like a patchwork pastry case when I placed it in the oven. Not that anyone would have noticed when the baked case was removed from the oven, steamed asparagus pieces placed on the bottom and covered with a mixture of single cream, eggs and grated cheddar and parmesan cheese before being returned to the oven. A simple dish but as Delia opines, quite “sublime.”  The Eagle could not believe I had made it myself despite the fact that I served it from the base of the flan tin.

For the dessert I had made an Angela Hartnett's chocolate and vanilla semifreddo in honour of the Eagle’s and the Owl’s Tuscany farmhouse.recipe Again a simple but stunning dish generously flavoured with Cointreau. When Cristo popped around the following day I gave him a generous potion to take back down with him whilst he watched the football in his own flat. I replaced Angela’s splash of alcohol with a generous tablespoon full to give it an extra kick.  I almost had to abandon the recipe altogether when I could not find any amaretti biscuits to buy even from the local Italian deli. Luckily the Italian bakery further along the road did have some in. Moreover the shopkeeper asked if there was anything else the "young lady" required. It has been many moons since I have been addressed as  young lady. Methinks that shop will receiving my custom again in the near future.

It is customary for me to bake bread for my guests to take away with them. Last week was no exception. I baked two Finnish nissua loaves and a Nigella Lawson Finnish rye loaf. My flat began to resemble the interior of a Finnish sauna with regard to the searing temperature. Truly I suffered for my art.

Living under the roof of a house built in the 1850s the building is as well insulated as modern dwellings. During the long winter months my living room was often so cold I could see my breath upon the air. I deliberately refrained from using my heating whenever possible to keep my electricity bills to a minimum. Cocooned in a quilt and the strategic placing of hot water bottles around my person meant that I could tolerate the cold perfectly well. Only friends thought it cold even after I had the heating on at full blast in their honour. By contrast, there is little respite from the oppressive heat, even with the windows and the doors, including my front door, flung open in a desperate bid to allow the air to circulate. For the winter I would be tempted to install insulation in the loft. However, I have heard that such insulation can cause the rooms below to become unbearably hot in summer as the heat can no longer disperse naturally through the roof. Little wonder that I prefer to keep vampire hours during the summer.

Are you going to Wimbledon Fair?

Coincidentally, last weekend two fairs were held in the neighbourhood. As a spinster of this parish, I thought it fitting to first make my way to the fair held on ancient glebe land attached to the church. It was a modest affair and sadly most of the plants (the sole reason why I attended) had been sold before I arrived. Nevertheless, I still managed to come away with small pots of comfrey, oregano and tarragon. Since there was nothing else that caught my fancy I took the opportunity to wander about the adjacent churchyard in search of the 17th century table tomb belonging to one William Rutlish “imbroiderer to King Charles II”. Strangely its exact location had always proved elusive to me on previous visits. It is quite unusual to find a tomb dating from the 17th century still extant in the graveyard of an English town.  William Rutlish had left generous legacies to the poor of the parish, one of which had led to the founding of a boy’s grammar school. The trustees of said school arranged for their founder’s tomb to be restored in the 1970s and a facsimile of the inscription placed by it.

The streets around the church still retain a distinctly rural air despite being sited within a London suburb. Only the occasional car drives past and there are still reminders of its past as the centre of a thriving agricultural landscape from a century or so ago: elegant iron gates and a high brick wall enclose what was once an imposing country house; the Georgian rectory could be the setting for a Jane Austen novel; the boundary of one road is not marked by pavement but by tall hedgerows; Yet it is the part of Wimbledon close by the Common which is referred to rather archly as “the village”, despite resembling a bustling county town with its crowds of visitors and constant traffic.

By contrast to the fair held in the glebe field, the one on the Common was on a far grander scale. To my delight I found that a number of stalls were selling mature plants from nurseries at very reasonable prices, allowing me to stock up on yet more herbs, vegetables and flowers for the garden. Consequently I ended up carting away sorrel, French tarragon, poppies, marrow, pumpkin and butternut squash. I already plant a variety of flowers to appeal to bees. To further help stem the calamitous decline in their numbers I bought a jar of locally produced honey. A number of stalls supported various charities including several relating to retired greyhounds. If Ellie were still alive I might well have bought her a new leash if only to replace the one I managed to lose when I looked after last summer. Thank Heavens she was such an obedient dog as we had to walk along the final tranche of the route back to her house with my hand holding on to her collar. There was a striped greyhound by one of the stalls, the spitting image of Ellie, other than for the fact that he was unmistakably male. I was intrigued to see his whole body quiver when he became transfixed by a particular scent. It was something I had observed Ellie doing on numerous occasions and I had previously assumed it was a trait peculiar to her: clearly not.

Up on a temporary stage erected by The New Wimbledon Theatre, a couple of Thai dancers performed a traditional dance which was well received. It reminded me of a similar performance I had seen in Bangkok. On that occasion a meal had been set out before me as I watched the dancers. The Thai people I met seemed an exceedingly polite race and it took me a while to realise that they were asking in a very deferential and embarrassed manner if they could see my ticket. I had only decided to venture out at the last moment and part of the price of the ticket included a ride in a tuk-tuk, an auto-rickshaw, to the venue. The journey was so horrendous that I could not remember whether I had even been handed a ticket back at the hotel. Fortunately after rummaging around for a while I able to retrieve the ticket from the depths of my handbag and honour was restored. Whilst in Bangkok I also saw traditional dancing in a theatre. One woman sat on her own at the very front.
“Is she the choreographer?” I asked the American seated next to me.
“No she’s a princess,” he replied.

Royal protocol is still strictly observed in Thailand. I remember visiting one of the royal pleasure palaces and being told the tragic and cautionary tale of the death of a royal princess in the 19th century. It seems a party of women from the royal household were sailing on one of the lakes by the palace when their boat capsized. One of the princesses was trapped beneath the upturned vessel. Another tried in vain to rescue her. Death by drowning was the outcome. Yet the boat was close to shore. Moreover there were people standing on the river bank who, theoretically could have dived in to help. But it was literally more than their life was worth to even attempt to do so. For a mere mortal to touch the royal personage was then a capital offence. So they were forced to stand by and watched the royal party flounder in the water.

I left the fair when it started to rain. At the edge of the Common I saw a couple of shire horses pulling a brewery dray filled with visitors. I scarcely had time to whip out my camera before they had disappeared around the corner. I often used to toy with the idea of taking riding lessons at the local stables. Nowadays, I am of an age and disposition that rather than perch atop a horse, I would be more inclined to fantasize about following such equines at a discreet distance, armed only with a bucket and spade. Their manure would do wonders for my garden.

Going to pot.

In recent weeks I have begun gardening again in earnest. I was pleased with how so much had survived the ravages of a particularly cold and long winter. Thus, in time, the sage, sorrel, mint, lemon thyme, oregano, bay and fennel all sprouted new vigorous growth. The rosemary had remained untouched by the weather. I have added comfrey, curry plant, parsley, basil and camomile to my collection.

Bulbs I had pulled out last Autumn I replanted. Other plants flowered anew such as the Sweet Williams, Feverfew and even the Foxglove. It seems I was particularly lucky with the latter as it flowered last year and usually  the foxglove does not produce flowers until the second year. The hydrangea, hollyhocks, and roses I planted last summer have either flowered or are about to flower shortly. My gooseberry bushes produced a solitary gooseberry. I saw a number of flowers earlier in the year so I assume any other fruit was snaffled by the local wildlife. Next year I must buy netting!

I planted some garlic but the one I pulled out seemed more akin to spring onions than anything else. I have had a few strawberries. I move plants around when the berries form or bring them indoors to ripen. I have far more tomato plants now after the rip-roaring success of last year’s crops. My chilli pepper plant is flowering so I have high hopes for that. I might even get some decent sized courgettes this year. I have already used the beautiful yellow flowers in recipes.

Last year I failed to stake out the sweet peas and crucially failed to regularly cut the blooms, which meant seeding set in and further flowering came to a halt. I have learned my lesson and have been rewarded with plentiful flowers already.

Now that another keen gardener has arrived in the house I have followed her example and set more pots outside. The OF grumbled once that my few pots had left barren patches in the grass. He himself went on to make half a dozen massive scorch marks in the grass, when he used undiluted weed-killer, which destroyed the weed and everything in close proximity. But then gardening, like interior decorating, was never the OF’s forte. Jenny is determined that the hideous bunkers the OF installed in the front garden to house his belongings and the garden equipment must go. She has many ideas for the garden but is going to wait until October to carry them out with my help.

At Christmas I met a man in his 80s, of whom it was said, that he refused to leave his house for extended periods during the growing season. I had thought that was taking a love of gardening too far. But now I find myself echoing his sentiments. In terms of vice, gardening has to be the cheapest and the healthiest addiction around.

Of Mice and Men

When the Partridge came over for supper a few weeks back I showed her around my garden, which was just coming into bloom. Unbeknownst to her, I made sure she did not see a certain piece of garden produce I had come across only a few days before. At first I thought it must be a sleeping mouse until it dawned on me that, given its size, it was more likely to be a dead rat. The next day it had been moved, presumably by foxes, further behind the shrubs. It was out of my direct eye sight but I was still uncomfortably aware of its presence. I did not relish the prospect of having it decay in my strawberry patch. Unfortunately it would have been impossible to dig a sizable hole in that part of the garden as it has only a few inches of soil before you hit matting, placed there in the past to inhibit the spread of weeds, something it has singularly failed to do. My only other choice would have been to place the dead rat on a spade and carry it across the lawn to the other side of the garden, where a deep hole could be dug.

I tried to enlist the support of Cristo but my hero proved to be less than heroic and more of a King Creon. He was all for me slinging it over the wall into the derelict garden next door. I balked at the notion believing myself incapable of managing to achieve such a feat of dexterity as the fence was too high. Moreover, the idea of throwing the rat into the air only to have it land back on the ground before me was too awful to contemplate. Cristo, as if to excuse his own lack of bravery, recounted the story of his nephew’s pet gerbil, which had been exhumed by foxes to his young relative’s distress. So I left the rodent Polynices to its fate. To my relief, the foxes did devour the corpse, leaving only a tiny fragment of the head to bear witness to the rat’s demise.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The one about friendship.

I received this rather odd text message a few weeks back from an acquaintance which I have reproduced exactly as I received it.

Think about this for a minute. If I happened to show up on your door step crying, would you care? If i called you and asked you to pick me up because something happened would you come? If i had one day left to live my life would you be part of my last day? If i needed a shoulder to cry on would you give me yours? Do you know what the relationship is between your two eyes? They blink together, they move together, they cry together. They see things together and they sleep together, BUT THEY NEVER SEE EACH OTHER... That's what friendship is. Life is lonely without friends. Its world best friend week. Send this to all your really good friends. Even me if i am one of them. See how many you get back. If you get more than 3 you really are a lovable person... Life's too short to wake up in the morning with regrets, so.... Love the people who treat you right. Pray for the ones who don't.

I don’t usually reply to such things as I consider them excessively twee but on this occasion felt compelled to write back. In my opinion real friendship is based on actions not words. People might proclaim themselves to be your friends but then fail to be there at times of genuine crisis. The writer admitted that this was indeed true and was gracious enough to declare that I had once shown her an example of true friendship. I cannot say my motives were wholly altruistic. A part of me believes or would like to believe in earthly karma. Heaven knows I have always depended on the kindness of friends to get me through some of the more challenging aspects of my life, whether it be bereavement or being rendered homeless overnight as a result of arson. I have regarded it as a point of honour to reciprocate whenever I can and be quick to acknowledge simple acts of kindness when they arise. As I said in my radio broadcast, it is as important to cultivate friendships as it is to have household insurance. You never quite know when you might need to call upon one or the other in an emergency.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Arshile Gorky A Retrospective

When Mandip finally arrived at Tate Modern(I'm late, I'm late for a very important date) we decided tobegin by dining in the restaurant before going along to the exhibition itself. I had three courses and enjoyed each and every one of them. The food was delicious. The restaurant afforded views over St Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge. However we both decided that we preferred the restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery for ambience. The fact that Clive Owen was filmed dining at the latter for the film Closer would of itself grant the National Portrait Gallery Restaurant pre-eminence in my partisan eyes.  As it was the last day of the exhibition we were not sure how many people would be there but the rooms were packed. At one point one man engaged in an extremely loud conversation about his business affairs on his mobile phone until taken to task by another female visitor. When he refused to shut up she summoned a warden to escort him outside. He left grumbling, it never even occurring to him in his extreme arrogance that the rest of us wanted to focus on the artwork and not his dreary telephone call.

It has to be said that I have never acquired much of a taste for modernist abstract art. Nevertheless I was inspired to go along to the Arshile Gorky retrospective at Tate Modern on account of his fascinating and tragic life. The booklet to the exhibition contained an extraordinary leaflet debating whether or not the whole-scale slaughter of Armenians 1915 by the Turkish Ottoman Empire could be deemed genocide. The pusillanimous Labour Government of the United Kingdom thought not. The Tate Modern believed it had been genocide, a view shared by many European Governments. Gorky, his father and sisters were eventually able to flee to safety in the West but only after his mother had died of starvation as a direct consequence of the genocide.

Gorky had been named Vostanik Manoog Adoyan as a child, but as if to flee his traumatic past in America changed his name to Arshile Gorky and let it be thought he was related to the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Like many other painters, Gorky’s early works were heavily influenced by the work of other artists until he was able to develop a style of his own. It seems he was rarely satisfied with his oil paintings and would return to the same canvas time and again over the years.

During the Great Depression Gorky could not afford to buy oil paints and canvas and was forced to rely on paper and ink instead. I rather liked some of the work he produced at this time, particularly admiring the textures he was able to produce from paper and ink alone. I also took a fancy to the preparatory work he carried out for what was intended to be large-scale murals destined for Federal Arts Projects sponsored by President Roosevelt under his New Deal. Had I the money, I would happily have such paintings adorn the walls of my home, which is the highest compliment I can pay any artist. Much of Gorky’s later work needs a room the size of an art gallery to be seen to its best effect, something beyond the scale of my own modest garret. 

It was the painting that Gorky did of himself and his mother that had originally captured my imagination. It was used as the poster for the exhibition and was based on a photograph that Gorky had managed to take into exile with him in America. It shows him as a boy standing alongside his seated mother. He has the innocence of youth whereas his mother’s face seems to foresee the terrible calamity about to befall the Armenian people only 3 years later. The exhibition showed two versions of “The Artist and his Mother” based on the photograph:one is reproduced above.

Try as I might the remaining paintings did not resonate with me. In the lobby outside the main exhibition a looped film interview Gorky's wife Agnes "Mougouch" Magruder described her life with the artist.(Footage of Arshile Gorky's wife) Mandip and I erroneously thought she was a British grande-dame judging by her patrician voice and general appearance in the film. In fact she was the daughter of an American naval officer and the descendant of the celebrated 19th century American sculptor, Harriet Hosmer. Prior to her bohemian later life she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, being educated in schools in Europe and America including a spell at a Swiss Finishing School. She finally left Arshille shortly before his death from suicide, taking their children with her.  

After such a haunting life it was something of a relief to step out into the blazing sunshine and come across the resolutely cheerful painted elephants further along the Embankment. I describe them in more depth in an earlier post. Elephants on parade

The Enchanted Palace Part Two

Statue of William III

Having been stunned by the sheer vulgarity of the gilded statues in the Georgian Cupola Room, I quickly made my way to the King’s Gallery. Upon the floor of the latter had been set out countless rows of toy soldiers to represent the kind of games King William III would play with one of his young nephews, which seems rather a departure from the overall theme of Princesses. When I was a child I played war games with my “brother” using toy bricks to build the walls of a fort and miniature cannons that fired matchsticks to try and make them tumble down again. Inspired by such battles I later studied Military Strategy as one of my electives at University.

I took the opportunity of a vacant window-seat to sit down and examine the William and Mary gallery in more detail. Unlike certain other rooms it seemed little changed from when it had first been built. As I was looking around one of the Wildworks’ artists strode into the room, placed herself at a desk and began to loudly bash the keys on an old fashioned typewriter and sing at the same time. I always feel somewhat disconcerted when faced with such interactive installations. Usually I am not at all fazed by actors dressed up in period costumes, although I do baulk at being accosted by a group of such actors and tend to steer well clear if I see Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I bearing down on me amidst a huddle of courtiers. The Wildworks actors were an altogether different kettle of fish. For a start I had no idea what or who they were supposed to represent. They wore a strange outfit of long grey trousers and skirts with a kind of miners’ light affixed to their heads. They would walk from room to room singing or declaiming loudly. I wondered if the woman typing away would have bothered to do so if I had not been there to hear her. I also toyed with the idea of sneaking over and seeing if she had actually typed anything legible or whether it was sheer gibberish. As a result I failed to observe the famed weather dial William III had had installed so that he could take note of wind direction and calculate the effect on his navy.  

From William’s gallery I passed in to what was once the comparatively modest bedroom of one of his successors, now decked out with a sleigh covered with wild furs to represent Wild Peter, the feral child of the Georgian Court, whose likeness is immortalised along the walls of the King’s Grand Staircase.

Eventually I made my way to the set of rooms most closely associated with Queen Victoria before she came to the throne. One room had what I took to be her original crib along with a modern light sculpture of Kensington Palace made to resemble a doll’s house. 

An adjoining chamber had her coat of arms in the fireplace. Yet another had an installation of a pile of mattresses placed upon a bed, presumably symbolising the story of the Princess and the Pea. I was more interested in the mirrored dressing table. Sitting at a dressing table and whiling away countless hours carefully applying unguents, potions and powders to my face is not something that has ever formed part of my own beauty regime. Hence my extreme bashfulness on those rare occasions when I have tentatively approached a beauty counter in a department store seeking advice.(Mr de Mille I'm ready for my close-up)

The King’s Drawing Room held a large cabinet of curiosities, whose drawers contained items placed there by a range of artists and an 18th century dress  by the 21st century illustrator and set designer Echo Morgan, fashioned out of paper and illustrated with antique maps to represent a dress of the world.

The King’s Council Chamber had been staged as enchanted woodland by night. Two glass cases contained dresses which once belonged to the Princesses Margaret and Diana respectively. Margaret’s was a lace-covered confection which did not appeal to me in the slightest. By contrast I was rather taken with the diamond encrusted tiara she had worn at her wedding floating above it. Diana’s dress was a simple ivory silk gown topped with a delicate lace jacket. As we were once the same height and of a similar build, I could well imagine myself wafting around Brimstone Butterfly Towers in the same outfit. The glass case in which Diana’s dress was displayed was adorned with white feathers. At first I took them to be feathers from the Prince of Wales’ insignia but decided they were perhaps more likely to represent the feathers of a swan.

One of the smaller closets was set out as if for a meal. Two women’s voices could be heard close by, raised in argument. I though they were supposed to represent the 17th century Queen Mary and her sister Anne, whose relationship was particularly fraught at times. I later discovered that the voices were supposed to be those of Queen Anne and her erstwhile chief friend and companion Sarah Churchill, the wife of the Duke of Marlborough. I have never been nor wish to go to Marlborough Palace built by the nation for the Duke after his outstanding success against the expansionist ambitions of Louis XIV of France. Marlborough Palace strikes me as being too bombastic and on too large a scale to have any inherent appeal for me, lacking too the turbulent historical dramas associated with a palace like Hampton Court.  It seems the Duke and his Duchess also found the palace somewhat overwhelming and oppressive at times. It was said that in the last years of his life the Duke preferred to keep to his own chamber rather than wander endlessly from one splendid state room to the next. The closet at Kensington Palace, like the King’s Gallery nearby, appeared little changed since the late 17th century when it was first built. At one point one of the doors suddenly opened and a woman stepped into the room. She gave a small gasp of shock when she saw me. She later admitted that she had taken me for a ghost on account of my elaborate straw hat. I was rather tickled at the thought of being mistaken for the shade of a long dead courtier.

The final state room on the tour was that of the Queen’s Gallery, which displayed the images of the seven royal princesses whose personal histories had inspired the exhibition. From thence I descended the staircase to the ground floor and the exit. I popped into the shop and bought a couple of postcards. I then tried to ascertain whether I had time to walk across the way to the Orangery and partake of afternoon tea before embarking on another perambulation of the exhibition. I always feel the first tour is to take my bearings and the second to consolidate my memories of a place. Fortunately, as it transpired, I decided to heroically forgo my date with a pot of china tea and a cream cake and wander anew around the palace instead. I noticed on the ground floor that the door frames had legends on them, bearing witness to the fact that soldiers, (yeoman of the guards, one of whom is depicted behind Wild Peter) had once been billeted there.

On this second tour I had only got as far as the Room of Enlightenment with its display of haute couture hats when the guide received a message on his walky-talky instructing him to arrange an orderly closure of the palace. We were thus herded out of the state rooms. Outside the Organgery too was closing its doors to the general public but I was able to sneak a picture of its interior from one of the windows. My exit across Kensington Gardens to the High Street was similarly barred as helicopters whirred overhead. As Kensington Gardens was the stomping grounds of the Cad of Kensington it struck me that he might have sent out one of his snatch squads to ferry former girlfriends hurriedly from the vicinity.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Elegy for Ellie.

Ellie the greyhound had a sudden seizure last week and died at the age of 12. Over the past few years I have spent quite a bit of time with her one way or the other. It all started after I discovered that a fellow Finnish student lived only 10 minutes away from me. Despite living in the same locality we took different train stations to our University classes and thus were unaware that we were virtual neighbours. Once we realised our close proximity to one another’s homes we started meeting up at one another’s flats, or else at an Italian deli cum café mid-way between our respective houses for coffee and cakes and the occasional light meal.  The café is surprisingly stylish and the food highly tempting. Apparently they supply bread to one of London’s top restaurants. Not that their own prices are prohibitive and it is an exceedingly pleasant place to while away the odd hour or two.

It was at Rachel’s flat that I first met Ellie. She was a rescued greyhound who, like many such dogs, was set to be made homeless or put to sleep when her racing career came to a close. In the Middle Ages greyhounds were the hunting dogs of kings and thus are often depicted in the tapestries of the period. According to the heraldic tradition greyhounds represent courage, vigilance and loyalty . They have an innate elegance and if Ellie was anything to go by possess a gentle nature too. Whenever I took Ellie out for a walk I would reassure anyone who was afraid of her that the worst she could do would be to lick them to death.

Out of the blue Rachel asked me if I could look after Ellie when her usual dog-walker had to return suddenly to Poland on family matters. I was not sure whether I would be able to control her but Rachel assured me that she was docile and very well behaved when taken out for a walk as indeed she proved to be.

Ellie was always something of a minor celebrity whenever I took her out for a walk in my own neighbourhood or later in the Hertfordshire countryside.

On the whole Ellie was a very well behaved dog and would usually respond to my commands. I often used to wonder whether it was her early training as a racing dog that made her stand stock-still if I just gently touched her collar, her leash being off but trouble, usually in the form of a far smaller dog, looming nearby.

I spent one New Year looking after her in the country. I had to conceal cut up medication in her food and it became a battle of wits as I endeavoured to make her woof the meat and biscuits down before she realised there was a broken up tablet craftily concealed within. We also fought over the sofa. I had but to leave the living room for a few minutes to return to find her lying fully stretched out where I had been sitting moments before. She was wont to try that ruse even when she had a sofa of her own to recline upon. Eventually we came to an accommodation and we shared the sofa although I made sure she realised that I was still Top Dog.

She missed her owners whenever they were away but after a while she was keen to follow me around the house, although she would never venture up the narrow stairs to the floor above. Instead, if I went out to the kitchen or dining room she would be sure to quickly pad out after me and flop down in her basket, where I would hold a distinctly one-sided conversation with her which she tolerated rather than be ignored.

She had her own mysterious little routines which she adhered to as if some time-honoured sacred ritual. Thus she would sway her head from side to side and stretch out her limbs if she knew we were about to go out for a walk. I would often watch in fascination as she spent ages using her limbs and her snout to fashion her bed, a quilt, until it was just so. I filmed her one day carrying out this strange little dance and made it and the ensuing video the subject of an earlier post.(dog day afternoons)

Like other dogs I have walked in the past, she was overcome with excitement at the prospect of a walk and would practically drag me out of the house as she tugged at her leash. On the way back home I would be virtually dragging her along as she was exhausted from  running to and fro to examine yet another scent in the ground that had caught her attention,. I could therefore stroll along at a gentle pace in front of her and then wait until she raced to my side. She was by my side when I taking photographs of the eponymous Brimstone Butterfly for my blog. Not that Ellie was much help with my nature studies. I would carefully and delicately approach a bright yellow butterfly feasting on  knapweed when Ellie would bound over causing the butterfly to immediately flutter away. Near the field of countless Brimstone Butterflies I took Ellie to the ponds so she could cool herself off. It took her a while to determine how to navigate the water but once in she raced to the centre, stood completely still for a moment or two before dashing out again and making her way to the river bank. Fortunately there was no-one in the immediate vicinity to drown under the deluge of water she shook from her fur.

I shall miss Ellie and will always remember her with the deepest affection.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Blowing hot and cold.

The Partridge came around for supper yesterday. As it was exceptionally hot earlier I decided to produce a menu that did not require me being in close proximity with an even hotter oven for an extended period. The first course was a simple Waitrose recipe I found online called “Mini Melon Medley with Prawns in a Ginger Dressing.” It involved carefully removing the flesh off a small Galia melon before cutting and dicing. The pith and membrane were removed from a ruby grapefruit and added to the melon flesh. This was all finished off with grated ginger, two tablespoons of honey and the cooked and peeled king prawns and the mixture placed back in the empty melon cases. I was supposed to add shredded rocket lettuce but forgot. I have to say the results were very pleasing. I then cobbled together a main course of pan-fried salmon fillets marinated in lemon, chilli and tarragon from the garden, the shops being empty of lime and fresh coriander. I also pan-fried halved cherry tomatoes and spinach in the resulting juices. I served new potatoes with the dish, which had been microwaved rather than fill my kitchen with oppressive steam from a boiling saucepan.

What I was most pleased with was my own creation: semi-freddo pina-colada. Unlike an ice-cream the semi-freddo does not require constant removal from the freezer so that it can be beaten to remove the ice crystals that inevitably form. Thus I simply folded together whipped double cream infused with the seeds of a vanilla pod, fresh pineapple marinated in Malibu, sugar syrup and whipped egg whites and placed in a loaf tin lined with enough cling film to cover the top as well. I placed the prepared semi-freddo in the freezer overnight.

The Partridge suggested I place the tin carefully under running cold water to help me dislodge the frozen dessert within. Her tip worked a treat and I slid the log on to a Victorian blue and white china platter she had once given me as a Christmas present. After a few minutes further defrosting the log was ready to be sliced into segments and served. If I say so myself, and fortunately the Partridge fully concurs, it was rather marvellous, the more so eaten on such a sultry evening. Sadly I did not have any glace cherries or tiny umbrellas to hand with which to decorate the pudding, items I would surely miss if presented with a true pina-colada cocktail.

Raking through the ashes.

I have never fantasised about being rescued by a handsome fireman. I would have been hard pressed to identify the actual fireman who helped me climb down a ladder when I was trapped in a real fire.. I was more intent on getting out of my flat alive than appraising his looks. Besides, there was so much smoke I could not even see the rungs of the ladder I was descending let alone him. It was a very different case with the paramedic.

I had been urged to step into the waiting ambulance and be ferried to hospital but I had initially refused. The adrenaline was flowing through me and I felt invincible. Only when the feeling wore off did I bow to commonsense and accept medical assistance. If ever I were to beget a child that would have been the moment. The paramedic treating me was very handsome and reminded me, in terms of his build and colouring, of the Cricketer.(Let them eat birthday cake) My being prone on the stretcher added to the frisson. Once at the hospital I refused a wheelchair and was shown into casualty. I asked the nurse who the paramedics were so that I could thank them properly later but she either didn’t know or didn’t reply.

I was given a hospital gown, paper underwear and foam slippers. Apart from my red dressing gown I literally had bought nothing else with me. It was fortuitous that I had been able to find my dressing gown in the smoke filled gloom. But at least it spared my modesty, although certain friends mischievously claimed the fire brigade might have arrived that much quicker had I been standing at my window completely naked.

In the hospital I felt strangely vulnerable and cut off from events. I had no idea what had happened back at the house after I had been borne away by the ambulance. I knew the house had been blazing fiercely when I first saw it from the safety of the ground, a factor which made my fortitude vanish when I realised just how close I had been to perishing in its flames. I did not know whether the house had been reduced to a shell in the interim. Nor did I have my mobile with me so there was seemingly no way of finding out other than to return back. All in all I passed an anxious night on the ward.

When the nurses changed over one said to the other:
“This lady has been in a fire. You can tell by the smell of smoke from her dressing gown and her singed hair.”
“My hair always looks like this,” I protested.

Despite counsel to the contrary I insisted on discharging myself that same day. I had to get news about what was happening. The nurses said I could travel back by ambulance but I said I would take a mini-cab instead. They made the necessary arrangements and I waited and waited but to no avail. This time I spoke to the cab company myself and they claimed they had sent a cab out already but would now send another one. Determined not to miss it I stood by the front entrance so that I could pounce on it when it did arrive. The driver later said that with my smoke stained dressing gown, my cracked foam slippers, my wild hair and even wilder look in my eyes I resembled an escapee from a lunatic asylum.

When we arrived back at the scene of so much turmoil only a matter of hours earlier, I was relieved to see that the house was still standing although the upper storeys had sustained heavy damage. Luckily the ground floor flat with its separate entrance had been unaffected and the OF offered me a mug of coffee and a top and sweat pants of his to change into. He later took me to his brother’s flat close by where I was able to enjoy the luxuty of a lengthy hot shower.

I had assumed up until that point that the fire, though destructive, had been accidental. I was able to use the OF’s telephone to matter-of-factly relate to my work-place that owing to unforeseen circumstances I would not be able to attend that morning’s management conference at the Barbican. Shortly after my jovial message a policeman came down to the OF’s flat and announced that Forensics had confirmed that the fire had been started deliberately. Someone had used a key to slip into the communal hall during the early hours and pour petrol across the landing directly below mine before setting it alight and vanishing again. I was devastated. An accident I could accept with a large degree of equanimity, the more so since I had survived the conflagration without sustaining serious long term injury. It was quite another matter altogether when I realised it had been cold bloodedly planned.

Later that same day the police interviewed us all. They never did arrest anyone for the incident but we had our suspicions as to the identity of the arsonist. For example, we did wonder whether it had been politically motivated. The woman next door, who coincidentally was away at the time, was in fact the daughter of a prominent South American politician. Were his enemies targeting her? I know I had been mistaken for a native of her homeland on one occasion. Perhaps they assumed that I was her and carried out the arson. Alternatively, they knew she wasn’t at home but just wanted to prove to her father that they could place her life in jeopardy whenever they wanted to. However there was one housemate in particular who roused, if not our suspicions, certainly my unmitigated anger at his behaviour.

When I felt resilient enough I went with the OF to view the rest of the house. One police officer had made frequent reference to the amount of rubbish in the flat below me. I knew the flat owner in question was known for being untidy but it struck me as strange that the policeman should make such a great play of the fact.

The fire brigade have a duty to try and search every room in a blazing building to ensure  as far as possible that everyone is accounted for. In my flat they had left axe marks in my door where they had smashed it down.
“Are we going to have news doors installed? “ I asked the OF. “Otherwise they might be somewhat off putting to potential buyers in their current state,“ I added drily.
The firemen had had to adopt a different approach to gaining access to the flat below mine. Instead of smashing it down they had to carve a hole in the top of the door and crawl through. To my horror I saw that the entire flat to a depth of several feet was covered with rubbish-filled black bin liners. Whereas a sane person would place the weekly household waste into a black bin liner and take it down to the rubbish area outside, this flat mate had decided to both hoard the filled bags and empty the contents of others around his flat. Being rather fastidious I was disgusted that I had been living above a rubbish tip. It certainly explained the peculiar smell that often emanated from his flat. I was even more furious when I realise that I had been choking on the poisonous fumes of hundreds of bin liners blazing away in the flat below.

When I finally saw the flatmate he mumbled me an apology. I thought it notable that he had suddenly cropped his usual shoulder length hairclose to his scalp. He complained that the police seemed to think he was the arsonist. Given that he had no alibi for the evening in question, the state of his flat and the fact that the fire had been started outside his own front door, it was hardly surprising that he had been viewed as a potential suspect. After his flat had been renovated I insisted that the OF should inspect it on a regular basis so that the flat could never ever again get into such a dreadful state. Unfortunately it was allowed to degenerate into utter filth on two further occasions. On the last the housemate was found lying dead amidst the squalor by policemen, who had broken into his flat after the alarm had been raised. I have to say that I was relieved he would never be able to place my health and even my life in jeopardy again from his unsettling behaviour.

It was nine months before I was able to move back into the house. People, including the radio show host ( a face for radio )often wondered why I did not seize the opportunity to sell up. The truth was I had been shown such exceptional kindness by friends and colleagues it more than outweighed the inhumanity shown by one twisted individual. I was particularly grateful to two of my friends who had offered me shelter at their own homes until I was in a position to arrange with my insurance company to rent another flat whilst mine was being renovated. One man at work was all for sending me a huge bouquet of flowers when the news first broke of my ordeal.. It took a female colleague to point out as I no longer had a flat let alone a vase it was perhaps not the most appropriate of gifts. She suggested a whip around instead so I could buy what I needed.

It amuses when I read magazine articles about which three things the interviewee would rescue in a fire. In my experience your sole thought is to escape umharmed. As I gingerly climbed up the blackened stairwell with only the light from shattered window panes to see by, I resigned myself to the prospect of encountering a scene of devastation as brutal as that in the flats below. Unexpectedly it did not bother me. I would always have the memory of those items were of great sentimental value to me. I also knew that those who had given them to me would have regarded them as mere trinkets when set against my own well-being and safety. To my surprise the contents of my flat had sustained substantial smoke damage but other than that were unharmed. As a result a number of precious items were saved from ruin by being sent to specialist agencies for restoration. Today I might feel a tinge of regret if I had to relinquish any one of them but the fire proved to me that at heart I value certain things far above material goods; true friendship being principal amongst them.

Princess of Darkness

Around 4 a.m on Wednesday morning I awoke with a start as I realised I was dead. I switched on my bedside lamp. Being dead and lying in the dark felt infinitely worse than being dead and bathed in light.
“You are dead,” I told myself.
“I am alive,” I argued.
“Prove it!” I demanded.
I picked up my new mobile phone and switched it on. My old phone, dating from 2002 and therefore practically prehistoric could no longer be turned on other than by the expedient of inserting a small metal letter opener into the slot where the broken on-switch should have been. Could the Dead switch on mobile phones, I reasoned? 

It might have been more impressive had I been able to effect a resurrection of my old mobile from its inert state. Annoyingly I was told at the shop that I could not retrieve my friends’ phone numbers as they were held on the phone itself and not the sim card. Apparently this meant they could not be accessed and transferred across to the new phone unless the old phone could be switched on too. Thank heavens for e-mail. I was able to warn friends that although I had retained my old number I no longer knew theirs.

Eventually I conceded that I might not be dead after all and went back to a fitful sleep. I was still mulling over the incident several days later. What did it all signify? It finally dawned on me that I ought not listen to radio adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula last thing at night, even if the celebrated author does share a birthday with me.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Enchanted Palace Part One

As far as I can recall I have never been to Kensington Palace before even as a child. Consequently on Bank Holiday Monday I decided to make up for that omission. In recent years I had refrained from venturing near the palace as I knew the parkland in which it is sited, Kensington Gardens, was where that incorrigible buck the Cad of Kensington Gardens loved to roam. Lest our paths should happen to cross I made sure I was tightly laced into a steel boned corset beneath my 1940s vintage frock and placed a large straw hat upon my head. Thus armoured I strode purposefully across the park to the entrance to the house.

Like Kew Palace, Kensington Palace was originally a Jacobean mansion which found its way into royal ownership. After being bought by King William and Queen Mary the royal couple commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to remodel and extend the Jacobean mansion. They also asked Wren to undertake a similar venture at Hampton Court. If Wren had had his way, save for the Great Hall, he would have pulled down the Tudor palace of Hampton Court in its entirety. Future generations were to be spared such an outright calamity although regrettably the magnificent state apartments of Henry VIII were sacrificed on the altar of Stuart self-aggrandisement and are now lost forever. Their splendour can now only be gleaned from surviving oil paintings from the period and a few extant gilded ceilings.

One of the most iconic images of the late 20th century depicts the sea of flowers placed before the gilded gates of Kensington Palace following the death of Diana. The palace had been the setting for the equally tragic demise some 300 hundred years earlier of Queen Mary, who died of smallpox at the age of 32. William himself died at Kensington Palace less than a decade later in 1702 as did his successor and Mary’s sister, Queen Anne. Without a living child of her own, Anne’s death in 1714 brought the ruling Stuart dynasty to a close in England after almost 111 years. Their German successors, the Hanoverians, continued to regard Kensington Palace as an official residence of a ruling monarch. This changed with the death of George III. Although it had been her childhood home, Victoria was eager to vacate the palace the moment she became Queen. It held too many memories of a lonely and far from happy childhood.

Kensington Palace is currently undergoing an ambitious programme of refurbishment. In order to continue to attract visitors during the re-building a special interactive exhibition is being staged called the Enchanted Palace. The state rooms have been styled by leading fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood in collaboration with the international theatrical company Wildworks, whose actors and musicians wander around performing. The whole installation has been inspired by the lives of 7 different princesses who had lived in the palace.

Once in Kensington Palace I was provided with a map and a pencil to note down the names of the various princesses I would encounter on my tour. To reach the state rooms you need first to walk up a modest staircase. The map urges you to sneak up the upper part of the staircase, whose way is barred by stout branches of wood. When I checked with a guide it seems visitors are not expected to take this instruction literally. It is but a play on the fact that in the past people of rank and social standing would reach the royal apartments by way of the two formal staircases. The rest would have to make do with the backstairs. Perhaps I should just have slipped up the forbidden steps and waived the apparent letter of consent if I had been hauled unceremoniously down them again. Then again, picking my way daintily between the obstacles lying across them might have proved quite beyond me. As it was other dramatic events were about to occur which deprived me of the opportunity to even try.

The first sequence of the exhibition is set in the former bedchamber of the same Queen Mary who had died at Kensington Palace in 1694. This room was styled by the designer Aminaka Wilmont. On an illuminated table a collection of glass bottles represent the tears of grief shed by Mary and her sister Anne at their joint inability to produce a Stuart heir to inherit their thrones. Pinned along railings were numerous hand written messages of mourning and loss. Suspended between the mattress and the canopy was a mannequin dressed in sequinned jeans. To be honest I was more interested in the four poster-bed, the large period looking-glass on the dressing table and the impressive solid silver chandelier than this particular installation, which to my mind seemed to be akin to a glorified shop window. I do not know if the room is always kept as dark to preserve the detail textiles or to add atmosphere to the installation. Either way I found it rather frustrating not to be able to see the original items more clearly especially the bed. I wondered whether it was the very bed said to have been lain in by Mary of Modena whilst she gave birth to a son and heir to the Catholic King James II of England. Claims were made that the real heir had been stillborn and that a healthy impostor had been smuggled into the chamber in a warming pan to take the place of the dead baby. It suited the Princesses Mary and Anne, daughters from King James’ first marriage, to believe this story as it enabled them to rule in their supposed brother’s stead after their father was forced to abdicate. A century may have passed since the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I but the memory of the Protestant martyrs she had sent to a terrible death at the stake was still strong amongst late 17th century Englishmen. As a result they were not prepared to risk seeing a Catholic dynasty installed on the English throne.

The next room in the sequence was set in the Privy Chamber. The milliner Stephen Jones had been inspired by the busts of famous male philosophers and scientists to showcase a collection of his own distinctly feminine hats. As a connoisseur of extravagant headwear I greatly admired the specimens suspended from the ceiling. But like the hats, the connection between them and the busts was quite out of my reach. On my short-lived second perambulation around the exhibition perhaps in homage to the striking example of millinery atop my own raven clocks, the guide was quick to invite my opinion as to which of the hats on display I would choose for myself.

From thence to the King’s Presence Chamber in which Wildworks had placed a throne. Visitors were invited to sit upon the throne and imagine themselves rulers for the day with the powers to grant their every wish. I had once surreptitiously sat upon the throne in the Whitehall Banqueting Hall as a schoolgirl and briefly imagined myself Queen of England. I did not feel the need to repeat the exercise in front of strangers. My attention was caught by the carved chimneypiece. I assumed it was by the celebrated 17th century English woodcarver whose name entranced me from the very first moment I heard it uttered: Grinling Gibbons. I am at a loss to understand why one of his masterpieces should have a white 20th century plug socket placed at its very centre.

I then progressed to the King’s Grand staircase. A bricked up wall partially concealed behind wooden panelling bore a mirror warning visitors to “Turn away now.” Heeding the instruction as I lacked both the means and desire to smash down the wall, I descended down the staircase to examine more closely a ballgown designed by Vivienne Westwood. The gown is of the wrong period as is supposed to be inspired by Princess Charlotte. The latter was the unfortunate only child of the Prince Regent, later to be George IV and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. Her parents’ marriage proved an utter disaster from the start. George viewed Caroline with the kind of revulsion that Henry VIII had felt upon seeing Anne of Cleaves in the flesh. However George was made of sterner stuff than the ageing Tudor monarch and steeled himself to sleep with his wife on two successive nights before quitting her bed forever, his royal duty done, having sired a child. Wisely Anne of Cleves did not commit to paper her initial impressions of Henry VIII. Had she done so they might well have echoed Caroline’s in the late 18th century when she is alleged to have described the future King George IV as being “very fat and he's nothing like as handsome as his portrait.”

In the exhibition at Kensington Palace Charlotte is described as the rebellious princess because of her insistence on marrying Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, despite the fact her father had far grander alliances in mind for her. Alas for Charlotte, after an unhappy childhood caught between warring parents, her escape into a happy marriage ended abruptly when she died in childbirth at the age of 21. The veiled lights lining the staircase might symbolise Charlotte’s early demise. Pinned to the front of the Westwood dress is a large badge bearing the legend: “I am expensive.” Years ago a famous theatrical costumiers held a sale open to the general public. I went along and purchased two Victorian silk dresses, and a brown silk early Georgian bodice and top. May is pictured in an earlier post wearing one of the Victorian gowns.(treat this place like a hotel) I only ever wore the garments around the house. I loved the sound the silk made as I spun around my room. I later kept them all in the loft where they were torn to shreds by sartorially challenged mice. I had a chance of buying the kind of gown Vivienne has on display but as I would have needed to buy hoops and panniers to wear underneath to give the right kind of silhouette, I reluctantly eschewed the opportunity. It also occurred to me at the time that I could never have been able to store the dress and panniers in the tiny bed-sit I was then renting.

The King’s staircase is adorned with murals of various people at the court of George I. One of the most intriguing portraits is that of Wild Peter a feral child from Hanover, brought over to England by royal command. Wild Peter lived to a ripe old age. Coincidentally only a few days prior to seeing Peter’s portrait I watched “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” by the German film-maker Werner Herzog. Kaspar was born a century after Wild Peter in early 19th century Germany. Like Peter, he was deemed a feral child. As his fame grew all kinds of legends arose about his origins including that he was in fact a prince of the House of Baden. Mystery too surrounds his untimely death in his early 20s. Some claim suicide others say Kaspar was murdered.

The Cupola Room houses a huge clock built for an 18th century Queen. The time motif isexplored further by the installation artist although no reference was made to the ultimate Lord of Time going by the title of The Doctor. Other than the clock, what struck me most about the room was the gaudy gilded statues of roman gods set in niches.
“I assume these were added for the installation, “I enquired politely of a guide. I was advised to the contrary, thereby somewhat undermining my view of 18th century England as representing the Age of Elegance.

I shall return to this subject anon as I have yet more rooms to wander around and I need to explain why my second perambulation came to such an abrupt halt.