Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Useful reminder

Spotted on the deck at the Grapes - just in case anyone might be thinking of diving in for a refreshing swim at high tide one evening:

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Floral bicycles and rainbows

It wouldn't naturally occur to me to decorate a bike. Mine's plain (and rather scuffed now) black, with some fairly prominent police markings for security*. So Sunday's Floral Bicycle Parade at the South Bank seemed an interesting photo-opportunity, if not necessarily something to participate in (it looked like rain anyway).
*(A thought: does having your postcode on your bike advertise to burglars that you're not at home? But I suppose it also suggests a skinflint unlikely to have much at home worth nicking anyway).

The space underneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall had attracted a fair number of people to pick up flowers, leaves, balloons and other bits and pieces to prettify all kinds of bikes (a tandem, a Borisbike, even an acrobatic loon on two unicycles), to whatever level of extravagance or restraint people chose.

It has to be said that not everyone there seemed that enthralled: but in the end the final Parade made a reasonable show.

The most striking visual effect of the day came from the weather. The on-off showers gave rise to one of the most vivid rainbows I've ever seen and some dramatic sunset skyscapes:

Saturday 27 August 2011

Carrying on with the "seen through windows" theme, here's a snatched shot of the Olympic Park from a DLR train. You'll see that the observation tower thing is well on its way to completion.

The official name is the ArcelorMittal Orbit. I can't imagine what, if anything, it will actually come to be known as (anything with an orbit like that in space would surely be on the way to a very bumpy re-entry). The Curly-Wurly? The Boriskelter? Sadly, it will only be possible to walk down, rather than slide on a mat: someone missed a trick there (though, come to think of it, the exit velocity from 115m up might be just a little too exhilarating).

Seen from my window

Pleasant though it is to live here, it wouldn't occur to me to see our garage - in the rain - as a particularly picturesque backdrop for a wedding photo.

Friday 26 August 2011


It's a scene that turns up at least once or twice a week in TV drama: a hand guides a cabled scanner across a stomach, a machine bleeps, and soon there's either a coo of joy or a grim-faced nurse conferring in hushed tones with a doctor (cue cliffhanger music..........)

Today, the stomach was mine, but there were neither coos nor grim face. I'd just happened to ask my GP if indigestion in the middle of the night was a known side effect of statins: and he arranged for me to be ultrasounded, or whatever the term is. For obsessive watchers of NHS performance, by the way, my appointment was within three weeks of my seeing the GP, the waiting-room was the usual functional but depressing 1970s-style decor; but I was seen on the dot of the appointed time, and out again with 15 minutes (just as well, as I hadn't been allowed to eat for six hours and I was starving) - and there's a dinky little electrical warmer for the lubricant (that's quite enough of that from the back row, thank you very much).

Don't ask if it's a boy or a girl, please; nor do I have a copy of the snapshots (clichés - geddit?) - those will go to my GP in the usual way. But at least it's not an ulcer. It seems, quite simply, that I have a fatty liver.

Just fancy: do-it-yourself foie gras.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Another day, another ship

The local TV news yesterday featured the arrival of the tall ship Gloria at Canary Wharf, welcomed by an enthusiastic (they would have to be, to turn out at 7am on a rainy morning) group of London-based Colombians. If you ever wondered what the Colombian flag looked like, this is an emphatic reminder: at a pinch, it could probably serve as an extra mizzen sail (there speaks one who is up on all the lingo, having read a couple of Hornblower books forty-odd years ago).

In today's sunshine, they were welcoming visitors on board (well, on the foredeck at least) well after the advertised hours, such were the queues. Just for a few minutes, you could stroll around, ring the bell, have your photo taken in a heroic pose and imagine yourself in one of those romantic sea movies (we'll forget about storms and scurvy, shall we?).

But you couldn't forget the other great military tradition - "If it moves, salute it, if it doesn't polish it". If ever there was a demonstration of "all shipshape and Bristol fashion", it was in the way every possible piece of brass was polished, every rope neatly coiled.

Monday 22 August 2011

Seasonal sign

This lay on the path in our local park the other day, which seems a little early in the year.

Whether that's the effect of the blight-cum-canker visibly affecting the chestnut trees, or an early sign of autumn (along with the way a lot of blackberries round about seem to have fruited and been picked already) - maybe even a portent of an early or cold winter to come - this is a conker in its prime.

All I need now is a bit of string and a skewer. And maybe some vinegar.

Sunday 21 August 2011

An invitation to a departing neighbour's farewell do gave the baking muscle a rare twitch; not that these demand much effort of either muscle or skill (apart from trying to make sure that forming the shapes doesn't leave more of the mixture on your hands than on the baking sheet - a little oil on the hands helps). Described in the recipe as macaroons, they're basically marzipan cakes with chopped ginger in them. Crisp on the outside, and moist and spicy inside:

Saturday 20 August 2011


Don't you just love it when the supermarket moves everything around (again)?

Thursday 18 August 2011

Back from the depths: 2

A more cheerful resurgence this time: the Cutty Sark is starting to emerge from its protective covers and scaffolding:

The hull has been lifted on to a cradle so that it no longer rests on its keel, and the museum and exhibition space underneath her is in development; there's a new coat of paint, and a definite air that she's well on the way to recovery and complete restoration.

Here's how impressive she looked on a hot and sultry evening five years ago; this time next year, she should be riding higher still:

Back from the depths: 1

Most of last week's hooha in London seemed at the time to pass us by, though after the event, it turned out there was a rather nasty attack on one particular house not too far away (rumoured to be something to do with ongoing "postcode" gang troubles) and a window was smashed in a Tesco.

It seemed there might be something riot-related happening last Friday, in the sudden arrival of police helicopters hovering almost directly overhead for what seemed like half an hour; but it turned out that there'd been an accident on the river, with a tug somehow run over and capsized by its tow, a barge with a large crane on it. In a matter of seconds the tug had sunk, and sadly one of its crew was lost. I was reminded of the time when I was living on the other side of London, and was woken in the early hours of a Sunday morning by helicopters going backwards and forwards along the river, searching for people from the Marchioness.

Today, on my way to Greenwich, the tug was visible again, raised from the bottom by this colossal crane (presumably not the guilty party). One more reminder that Old Father Thames can be dangerous.

Wednesday 17 August 2011


It was a surprise to find that it's been more than five years since my last visit to the National Archives.

It must be more than fifteen years since the family history bug bit me (a little before the big explosion of interest), and quite a few since a series of what seemed to be dead ends (short of trawling through parish registers in county records offices up and down the land) dampened the enthusiasm a bit. But a recent email from the grand-daughter of a friend of a now-deceased cousin of my mother's (that's what the internet makes possible) raised some new ideas; and a little work on the internet showed how much more is now online, and crucially, indexed.

Within an hour or so, I'd tracked down online a whole family of one great-great-grandmother across several different registers, with a father in the militia, raising the prospect that there would be some sort of military record for him. More checking revealed a list of Crimean War soldiers sharing the name of one great-grandfather, showing their regiments - the key piece of information make searching the military records of the National Archives a manageable prospect. So it was off to the other side of London this morning to renew my registration and get stuck into my list of file references.

Except that it's no longer possible to inspect the original paper records in the ordinary way: the Archives have contracted with a commercial service to make images of them available online, and to index them. This is all entirely understandable. At the start of the genealogy boom, the official records services set out to modernise their access arrangements, and developed some very pleasant research rooms and helpful enquiry services (at least in London): but within a few years it must have become clear this was a very expensive way to provide the service. The principle that public records should be available to the public doesn't, of itself, justify spending a lot of taxpayers' money to make them easily accessible for what is, after all, a hobby, and a rather obsessive one at that: only sensible, then, to let a commercial service take on the cost of photographing, transcribing and indexing the records most people are likely to search and let the internet absorb the bulk of searches from people like me.

Except that, at least in the case of the series of individual soldiers' records, the chosen partners haven't made a very good job of the transcribing, indexing and search mechanisms. I would expect that setting additional parameters, like dates and places, would act as a search filter, removing those that did not include that information: but not in this case - mainly because the transcription included no dates. As it happens, this particular organisation charges six times as much in pay-as-you-go credits to view a full image as opposed to the transcript (entirely accidentally, no doubt*), so it's very easy to run through £25 on a search specifying records between 1854 and 1860 only to discover that all of those listed are actually from much later.
*sarcasm alert

I am in full Mr. Growser mode. Emails are in draft......

Friday 12 August 2011


Somehow managing to avoid much of the week's excitements elsewhere in London, I've found nothing out of the ordinary on a couple of bike rides up to the West End this week - except at the end of one, at the British Museum's Treasures of Heaven exhibition. This takes the visitor through the story of devotional and votive objects from pre-Christian times to the Middle Ages, from humble lead pilgrimage tokens to the gilded and bejewelled reliquaries owned and presented by kings and aristocrats.

Whatever the miracles that might have been attributed to these objects in the past, today one wonders at the simple fact of their survival. Two votive discs with gold decoration on were displayed side by side, looking almost identical: one was dedicated to Roman divinities, the other to Christian saints - but both were of glass, and are more or less intact after two thousand years. There is a moulded glass beaker from 12th century Syria, delicate carvings in ivory, minute and intricate mosaic and enamelling - one could go on.

In this of all weeks, it isn't surprising that over the centuries many of these objects were looted and damaged (many of those on display have holes where once there were precious stones); nor to be reminded of the way relics - and their decorative containers - were acquired/expropriated/distributed as objects and symbols of power and prestige, as the Byzantine Emperors, Kings of western Europe and the Church itself contended for supremacy - the oil or aircraft carriers of the mediaeval world, perhaps.

The exhibition concludes with a reminder of the different ways in which people today feel the need to collect and display reminders of celebrities, or visit their homes, or lay objects to commemorate them at sites of mourning, and leads the visitor to exit - of course - through the gift shop for that votive postcard or pilgrim token pen, fridge magnet or tea-towel. It did occur to me that there's one modern parallel the exhibition doesn't draw attention to: is the heir to the ostentation of the gilded, enamelled, carved and bejewelled shrine or reliquary, presented to a cathedral by a king or aristocrat, the named bequest or donation to a museum?

Outside, there is a less ambitious display as part of an activity for children: paper "pilgrims" coloured and attached to a map of the major European pilgrimage routes. And above, the Lion of Knidos looks as though he could do with a miracle to cure a toothache that's lasted several thousand years.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Back to the future*

Yesterday turned out to be a good day to revisit the South Bank's commemoration of the 1951 Festival of Britain. When I went in April, not everything had got under way, but, especially this month, there's a whole series of events going on. In particular, there's a "Museum of 51" display, tucked into a side entrance of the Festival Hall, about the experience and construction of the Festival. This sign from the "Dome of Discovery" exhibition rather sums up the ambitious aspirations of the time, as did the Skylon - couldn't some sponsor be persuaded to create a modern version on the same spot? With today's technology, it could be much lighter (on both weight and illumination) and look even more spectacular.

Outside, the brave attempt to evoke the seaside had attracted a fair crowd, and rather more of the beach hut artworks were open. I was particularly taken by these ideas for modern coin-operated machines, now that the Haunted House and What the Butler Saw machines would seem so old hat.

They've made a nod to the various themes of the Festival,such as the Land (a roof garden on the brutally concrete Queen Elizabeth Hall), Industry (a photographic exhibition), and Transport (some upcoming events on new developments - and a Floral Bicycle Parade later this month!); and on the theme of the future, there's quite a focus on children's and young people's art.

But overall, it feels a bit thin and hollowed out, as if all we have to show today is ideas and responses to ideas, rather than the concrete trade show aspects of the original Festival. This seems to reflect the determination of the incoming government of 1951 to remove as much as possible of the physical symbols of its predecessors' spirit: in the end, the Museum exhibition can only point to memories, the odd surviving relic and the revitalising influence of the Festival spirit on domestic design:

PS: Yes, I am deliberately not saying A WORD about the recent/current unpleasantness. I haven't actually seen any myself.

Monday 1 August 2011

Summer's back

The sun came out of its recent sulk over the weekend: better get the best of it before it changed its mind, so out came the bike for a trip up to the Grapes in Limehouse.

It prides itself on being the original (more likely, one of many for a composite picture) of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, the riverside tavern in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend.

It is certainly an old narrow building (in Narrow Street), the bar barely the size of an ordinary room in any of its residential counterparts of the period, the bare wood of its floors and furniture suggesting no great changes in a couple of centuries (though the frosting on the front windows is evidently more 1970s than 1870s).

The walls and any available surface are covered with Victorian and Dickensian memorabilia, and light flooding through from the back invites you out on to a little deck overlooking the river, to watch the boats passing by.

None of the skullduggery and shady business of the novel, just the usual procession of Clipper riverbuses, pleasure cruises, refuse barges - and, just at the moment, rather a lot of yachts from the Netherlands, for some reason.

After that, a gentle ride up the canal, past Mile End and Victoria Parks. This weekend, there was some municipally-sponsored fun and games in Victoria Park:

Then up to Broadway Market for a cup of tea along the canal, where the graffiti seemed to become more thoughtful, the closer they were to the Alternative Central of Hackney. On a day like this, you could almost forgive them for painting over the instructions in case of emergency (though it could be frustrating, should you happen to see a heavy lorry careering up the towpath and crashing into the railway bridge):

More adventures with jam

Ever since I learnt to trust the wrinkle test, I've had a yen to have another go at making gooseberry jam. They seem to have such a fleeting season in the shops, and to involve so much faff to prepare for cooking, as to make it doubtful whether there's much of a commercial future for them: so you have to grab them while you can. It doesn't help that my supermarket has only had the most perfect-looking "dessert" gooseberries in tiny punnets that work out at £12 a kilo; but I found a stock of normal ones at less than half the price. A first batch was stewed down for the freezer; one of these punnets became jam, and the other an experimental batch of chutney.

The chutney, made with brown sugar, just looks like sludge, and the recipe says to leave it to mature, so it will be three months before I can tell if the gooseberry flavour has been swamped by the vinegar and spicing. But the texture of the jam is just about right (trusting the wrinkle test worked!), the flavour has a slight prickle of ginger (from one of those Christmas presents of preserved fruits in syrup that just seem to hang around for years); and best of all is the way the colour changes from the insipid grey of stewing to the rich orangey-red of the boiled jam: