Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 22 February 2009

A quiet spot

That's something I could have done with this week - suddenly it's Friday and I still haven't written up what I meant to last weekend.

Saturday was such a bright day, with some real warmth in the sun - just the weather to go and check out some of the City gardens.

With so many commercial buildings squeezed into a mediaeval street pattern, and private interests successfully resisting any grand plans that might have inserted continental-style squares and piazzas into the City, even (or especially?) after the Great Fire, greenery and open space here - unlike in the West End and later expansions of London - depends on the old churchyards, which provide somewhere for office-workers to get a bit of something like air in their lunch-hours. At the weekends, they are practically deserted.

Thanks to a more recent unpleasantness, there are gardens, not just in the churchyards, but in the remains of some of the churches built after the Great Fire.

One of the most visible - since it's on a corner passed by several bus routes and all the other traffic towards St Paul's - Christchurch Greyfriars, of which just a shell was left after the Blitz. Now its walls surround a formal rose garden, rather bleak at this time of year, but impressive in season.

Turn the corner and walk up towards the former General Post Office, and you would come to one of the better known City gardens, Postmans' Park, which combines the former churchyards of Christchurch Greyfriars and St Botolph Aldersgate.

Shaded by all the surrounding buildings (and frankly rather dull as a garden at this time of year), it's most famous for the wall of ceramic plaques created to mark acts of heroic self-sacrifice. Here you can see plaques commemorating the pantomime artiste who in 1863 tried to save a fellow-performer from fire, despite wearing an inflammable costume herself, the policeman who rushed into a bombed building in 1917, as well as this rather more revelatory than intended description of a drowning.

One of the most atmospheric is St Dunstans, tucked away in a hilly side-street not far from the Tower.

The remains of the walls, surrounded by the uninspiring glass and steel of modern office blocks, enclose lawns, shrubs, palms, even substantial trees, and last Saturday, hellebores open and plenty of bulbs showing real signs of life. It's a beautifully peaceful place. Don't tell anyone about it, though.

Saturday 21 February 2009

A free paper to read...

rather than just let your eyes slide over, that is.

One of the irritations of London life - if you use public transport - is the free-paper distributor constantly nudging the line between catching your sight and actively getting in the way. Metro, in the mornings, is at least just piled up, and you can take one or not as you wish (though it becomes a nuisance when the discarded ones pile up on the floor, and even block train doors); but there's a business paper thrust at people trying to get down the escalator at Canary Wharf, and again at London Bridge with the distributor hovering in the middle of the exit doorway. In the evenings, there are two evening free papers whose distributors are in fierce competition wherever people gather, at bus stops and outside stations. Once a week, commuters have to run the gauntlet of people waving free sports magazines at them. And the fact that one already has one's hand full with a bought paper somehow doesn't seem to register with most distributors either. One more reason to use the bike wherever possible.

But something I discovered, while back on the tube during the snowy weather, is Notes from the Underground, consisting of short stories, poems, reviews and news about literary events (and a piece about Belleville by "petite anglaise" that's given me a few hints for my next trip to Paris).

It seems to have appeared some time ago and disappeared again, and I have to say the content is patchy, to my taste: but what a welcome difference.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

I'm in two minds..

about Mark Wallinger's proposal for a giant statue of a horse at Ebbsfleet. No objection to big statues, or to horses (and heaven knows, Ebbsfleet is the kind of non-place that needs something to make it memorable). But it does look a bit soppily static - and one can only imagine the jokers who might be inclined to pile up suitable offerings beneath its rear end. No doubt there would be some engineering problems to make it more like Stubbs' Whistlejacket - and at least it wasn't Jeff Koons, or we'd have had a gigantic My Little Pony.

Of one thing I am sure: the music for its grand inauguration (if it should ever happen). It's a big horse, after all:

Sunday 15 February 2009

Cheap, but...

When the shopping bags toppled off the rear carrier for the third time (I blame the pineapple), it was beyond obvious that I had to find a permanent solution. A short-lived experiment with a plastic greengrocer's tray had been fine in itself, but it was too flimsy to last. The problem is that my rear carrier curves up at each end of a relatively short space, leaving little support for any container; but some googling turned up a rear basket (why hadn't I thought of that as a search term months ago?) that looked promising, with a stockist not too far away on Roman Road.

I haven't been there for a couple of years, the sun was out (for a few minutes suggesting I had one layer of clothes too many), so off I went.

Roman Road (it's straight enough to be on the line of a Roman military road, and it points straight towards Colchester, a military town from Roman times to the present day) has long been a centre for shopping, with the kind of street market that features in EastEnders, and what my parents would have called "proper shops" - independent specialist businesses that know their stock and their customers' needs. And sure enough, this particular shop had something that fitted, at much less than the silly prices in the better-known chain cycle shops: problem solved in minutes.

Exploring further along the road towards the market, you're never without reminders of the road you're on: Roman Properties, Roman Sports, Roman Nails, Roman Computers, Roman Furniture (some blinging mirrors and this shoe in the shape of a high-heeled shoe), Roman Tackle (for fishing), Roman Plumbing, and, yes, Roman Baths and the Roman Empire (that's a Chinese takeaway, by the way).

In amongst these are the Amazing Grace bridal boutique, Sew Amazing (no prizes for guessing their business), a shop with a signboard in Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Latvian as well as English, halal shops and Afro-Caribbean hairdressers as well as a pie and mash shop. Above it all, it has my favourite, the proper-est of proper shops, an old-fashioned family-run hardware shop that seems to sell almost anything you could want: paints, tools, tiles, plugs and sockets, nails, screws, hooks, every sort of household cleaning device and chemical - and if you want a packet of seeds, a double eggcup or a honey pig snout for the dog (yes, really), then look no further.

But oh dear, when I got to the market itself, the sun had gone in, the cold had returned. Here too many shops were shuttered for a normal Saturday afternoon; one flower stall knocking down its last bunches of Valentine's Day carnations, a couple of greengrocers, a sweet-stall and some housewares, but mostly unbelievably cheap clothing. Cheap, but not at all cheerful. Unusually, the central passageway wasn't impossibly crowded, and not many people seemed to be buying anything.

And then, at the end of the street, this sign of community jollity: two gigantic metal poppies in a little park.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Aren't snowflakes painful?

When you're cycling into a snow shower that is....

Monday 9 February 2009


Another great singer gone...

Sunday 8 February 2009

Here's a game for a dull grey Sunday (or any other time you feel like it). Inspired by discussion on an internet messageboard, I've been looking at some of the more outlandish place names in the UK and what they suggest. Bill Bryson had something about this in Notes from a Small Island (try searching that document for "Potto"), and I've certainly seen the occasional newspaper columnist pointing out how many sound like the kind of Edwardian character ac-TOR one spots from time to time in ancient movies on TV (such as, for example, Norton Disney, Compton Pauncefoot, Nempnett Thrubwell).

But a little wandering around the atlas suggests to me nothing so much as an old music hall playbill:

Little Man ("The Tiny Tot with the Twinkling Toes")
Wendens Ambo ("He Fills the Stage With Flowers")
Crungie Clach ("With Her Tumbling Chihuahuas")
Queen Camel ("Belly Dancer With A Difference")
Steeple and Helions Bumpstead ("The Banjo Buffoons")
Peterstone Wentlooge ("The Vagabond Siffleur")
Lamorna ("Bel Canto Contortionist: A Smile and A Song With Her Feet Behind Her Ears")

Imagine the scene backstage, on the night when Peterstone Wentlooge hit the bottle, sat on the star chihuahua, and said something to Little Man that resulted in his second house performance reaching a much higher register, Helions Bumpstead performed solo (Steeple Bumpstead's banjo having been damaged after he told Queen Camel - once too often - not to get the hump), and Wendens Ambo and Lamorna combined their acts to reach new heights of invention (until an unfortunate incident involving a spray of chrystanthemums and the Mayoress of Poulton-le-Fylde led to their being banned by every Watch Committee north of Finchley and west of Watford).

Thursday 5 February 2009


Today I received an email at work which included a remark about the need to ensure that X would be "kept in the loop going forward".

This sounds to me like a nasty accident waiting to happen. Should I tell Health and Safety?

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Eheu fugaces..

or, "Well, that didn't last long, did it?"

This morning, so many cars, vans and other vehicles were sporting a toupee or mohican of snow, sometimes as much as five or six inches high. My bus even had a fetching fringe almost to the bottom of the front window on the top deck.

This evening, most vehicles are back to their customary baldness, the snowmen are wilting and on the pavements the snow is turning to the sludgy slush that is usually we get in London.

Mind you, if the weather turns out as forecast, there should be many moments of involuntary comedy as we all slip and slide our way to work (or the A&E department) over the next few days.

Monday 2 February 2009

Aaah, pretty......

This was the view before I set off for work this morning. No, it wasn't the Retreat from Moscow - the boats were running, the tube was not particularly crowded for the last stretch, so I had (anti-climactically) no problems - unlike almost everyone else in the department (so it was a nice quiet day).

And I'm not joining the "Why oh why" crowd moaning about our not having Swedish-style precautions in place for this sort of event: it's not worth the capital investment for a couple of day's disruption every five to ten years or so. If there's any "why oh why"-ing to be done, it's about the people who simply can't cope with a change to their routine and can't welcome the opportunity to have a day playing out in the snow. End of.

By the time I got home, my neighbours had clearly been busy building giant snowmen (and their dogs).

And some enterprising souls had built impressive "blast walls" for snowball fights - as I'm writing, there's one still going on (even as more snow is falling):

Sunday 1 February 2009

Market day

Yesterday was a day to cram in as many outdoor activities as possible before the forecast cold and snowy snap. So, pausing only for a £6 quickie from a nice Australian lady in a Soho shopfront (that's a haircut, Ms Scarlet, a haircut), I took my camera to Borough Market.

Squeezed in under the railway tracks beside London Bridge and Southwark Cathedral, and straggling out to meet the South Bank attractions like Vinopolis, this is a wholemeal fruit and vegetable market most of the week (this is, after all, where all the roads from the market garden areas to the south of London have converged for centuries). But on Fridays and Saturdays, it's heaven for would-be foodies and the merely gluttonous alike.

As well as all the usual things you'd expect in a food market, there are specialist food shops and restaurants in the streets around (one such street, vanishing gloomily under the railway track, has served as a period set for many a film and TV series). A visiting Australian friend of a friend was missing his co-workers' Wednesday cake club - so we came here so that he could at least email them a photo of the cakes in Konditor and Cook's window.

In and around the market building itself, there are stalls and stalls of foods, breads, cakes, sweets, cheeses, meats, fish, oysters from Cornwall and Essex, Cumberland ham, foods from "Hadrian's Wall country", and of course (this is London, after all) from all around the Mediterranean and further afield - a huge pot of Thai green curry rubbing shoulders with specialities from Italian monks, a huge queue outside the Spanish delicatessen, Greek, Arab, Indian.

Also very London is the self-consciousness of so much of the presentation ("Yummy yummy mushroom pâté", anyone? And do food markets in, say, France, badge products for a tourist board's brand?). There may well be shoppers stocking up, but most people seem to be here to taste, snack, graze or (like me) just gawp.

But a cold wind was getting up; being a bit nesh and anxious to rescue the perishing, I stayed just long enough to collect these impressions of the scene: