Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In the bleak midwinter

We haven't yet reached mid-winter by calendar, but bleak is certainly the word for this morning. The sun — if there was sun — would have risen less than five minutes ago at 8:06. The sky is very grey, the air itself looks grey. The time of sunrise will not reverse its course until later this week. On a positive note, sunset is now moving by the minute toward spring, and although the sun is not scheduled to appear any time today, it will set before 4:00 pm for the last time this season. So we remain in shortest day mode for this short week between Christmas and the New Year. England of course celebrates Christmas over two days, but with the 26th of December falling on a Saturday, yesterday was the public holiday, so Bob had a four day weekend — four and a half days if you count in the half day of Christmas Eve — to loaf.  And that's pretty much what Christmas is all about for us here. A very English Christmas is eating and watching lots of television. The two-part Cranford was somewhat depressing; and the first part of Dr. Who was a bit incomprehensible, but perhaps the conclusion will explain it all. David Tennant's Hamlet was also a gripper. We skipped the Walk on Boxing Day out of laziness, using the expectation of bad weather as the excuse, but of course that just confirms our un-Englishness. Later, when there were sad reports of an MP dying of a heart attack while on a Boxing Day Walk with his family, we felt vindicated in the wisdom of our laziness.

The UK — and the Continent — has had record cold and snow over the past few weeks. We did have a snowy day with a night in which cars and vans could not get up the snow packed and icy street outside our flat. London was mostly spared the deep snow and transport problems that made holiday travel a nightmare for so many people. Ironically, British Air and Eurostar voted to strike before Christmas making everyone angry until the strikes were called off — then the weather managed to shut both of them down anyway. My Luddite leanings always come out when I see the general public's anger if natural events — like snowstorms — inhibit free movement or access to services. The wonder of technology so quickly turns to entitlement and petulance. Reliance on technological fixes will be the end of civilisation eventually.

Now we must contend with another assault on the globalisation that allowed us to skip off to London without giving a thought to losing easy access to the States. Terrorism and oil prices have made the trips sometimes easier and sometimes harder, both less expensive and more expensive, over the past decade. We had been discussing whether to sacrifice some of Bob's limited vacation days (a limit he has abused a bit over the two-plus years since we became grandparents) to a trip or two that did not involve visiting our children and grandchildren in Massachusetts. We have not yet resolved the Istanbul-versus-Bibs-and-Bobs question, but now this new plane terror threat has been thrown into our faces. Knee-jerk reactions will abound: no potty trips (lets tell the children that one!); no blankies (personally, I have trouble imagining any man, even the most rabid Islamist, reading about third-degree burns in the "groin," and thinking "I could do that"!); and the indignities of the airport searches to come (a political cartoon yesterday has a line of naked passengers boarding a plane!) will make travelling to the States less than pleasant. Huge decreases in the number of passengers has cut the number of flights between Boston and London by half over the last few years. If computers are no longer allowed on board, will that cut the number of business trips? Will fewer passengers lead to even fewer flights with concomitant higher ticket costs? Oh brave new world of the Millennium, you have failed us all — actually we have failed you — but I want to whinge about a world that doesn't let me see my children and grandchildren easily and cheaply.

The children and grandchildren had a grand Christmas from the photos Megan sent through her blog. They had Christmas dinner with Barnz's father and his wife, so the grands (and the son-in-law) were able to celebrate a traditional English Christmas with a turkey and a flaming Christmas pudding. And in the way of children, I see from Megan's Facebook messages, they have all come down with winter ailments immediately following the festivities. Barnz, who is ace at whatever it is he does since he was assiduously courted and interviewed by everyone who knew of his availability after the Microsoft debacle, has a new job, starting this week perhaps, in Providence of all places. So as the world turns, we return to the Providence of our adult youth, and briefly of our children's youth, to continue this chronicle. Fortunately Hingham is on the right side of Boston to make a Providence commute (by train or by car) do-able. Interestingly, a few months ago, in our occasional conversations on where we would go if we returned to the States, Bob and I agreed that Providence would be pretty close to ideal for a life post-London. We did love both our stints in Providence and would never have left if Bob had been able to find a job back in 1983. That was such a painful move, we couldn't bear to return to Providence for the seven years we were in New Jersey, and consequently we lost contact with all our friends from those years. We felt courageous enough to visit Providence in 1991 on our way back from Boston after Bob had had a good job interview, and we believed, correctly, that we would be moving back to New England. We rarely went to Providence during the Hingham years though. I'm never comfortable because for me it is a land of exile.

I guess the idea of moving to Providence for a third time would be at root a way to capture what was lost in 1983, but nothing would match the pain of leaving London. Sometimes we joke about a future of sitting in rockers thinking about what we would be doing if only we lived in London. Yesterday was a very good London day. After a weekend of lethargy, we stirred ourselves into action because we had hot theatre tickets for the evening. After a slow start, in late afternoon we headed off to the Royal Academy to see Wild Thing, a sculpture show of Eric Gill,  Jacob Epstein, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, three young artists who came together in London in the early 20th century. Just the right size show, with a room devoted to each man. Gill's work is astoundingly beautiful, and remains astoundingly beautiful as you remember this maniacal Roman Catholic nutcase of a man sexually abused his daughters, his sister, and even his dog whilst producing exquisite religious art.  Then another excellent supper at Bentley's in Mayfair before heading off to the National Theatre to see the new Alan Bennett play The Habit of Art. The play is a play-within-a-play of an imagined meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in Oxford in 1973. Richard Griffiths plays the actor who plays Auden and Alex Jennings plays the actor who plays Britten. The play-within is possibly the worst play ever with parts written for Auden's mirror and for his easy chair, rhyming on their places in the poet's life.  Clever and satiric, the cast and crew are engaged in a shambolic rehearsal of the play-within, while moving deftly between their roles as actors and as characters played, to show us the work that goes into creating art. The strains that arise personally and professionally, the compulsion for an artist to continue to create — the habit of art — and with an emphasis on the shared experience of gay artists, closeted or not.

One of the great gifts of living in London has been the good fortune to learn that drama is an art form that can endlessly remake itself. Before I moved to London, I understood drama to be a static art form: written lines put together by an author and then spoken by actors on a stage, sometimes interesting, often not.  I know now that great drama is transcendent: an alternate world is created on the stage, and as a member of the audience, you share the physical space of that alternate world; through the magic of art, you become part of the other, the transcendent world. I vaguely remember learning something like this in a college course on theatre history when we studied the meaning of drama for the ancient Greeks. There is no one way to create the magic that draws the audience in. In His Dark Materials, it was the puppetry; in After Mrs Rochester, it was the physical action of the writhing mad woman; in The Habit of Art, it was the mutiple layers of reality.

Time to look ahead and list those resolutions which are pointless to make because no one ever keeps them according to scientists! Suggestions to help include keeping them positive, keeping them simple, telling all your friends about them, and keeping a diary. Well what's a blog for but using as a diary, so I have one out of four already — and still two days until next year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Fog in London

Sun-up was at 7:56 this morning according to the BBC weather site, and we are having our first foggy morning of the season. The skyscraper tower of the Royal Free Hospital two blocks away — considered a blight by Hampsteaders — is not visible from the dining room window at the moment. These foggy days are a prelude to Christmas every year. A new weather front is dropping the temperature every day, and for the next few mornings we can expect freezing fog to linger. The sidewalks — I can never remember they are called pavements here — will be wet and slick; the damp air will penetrate the woolen defenses of scarves, hats, and gloves, making the temperature seem much colder than it really is.

As the atmospheric fog drops, the fog of my eternal head cold seems to be lifting. The week after my return from the States, I never left the house except to buy some  head cold medication. I just slept and worked on breathing. Fortunately, there were no dates to remember on my calendar. This week has been a gradual entrance back into the swing of living in London.

I hosted a quilt group pot-luck lunch on Monday and attended one on Thursday. The Monday group always holds the pot-luck lunch here because we have more Christmas decorations than anyone else.  Most of the group members are ex-pats living in rented and often furnished flats who will only be here for the months or years of their husband's overseas assignment, so naturally they haven't brought the family decorations from home. I usually welcome the party to unpack our beloved Christmas decorations, but I am afraid last weekend I made a rather half-hearted effort, so I have to finish the job this weekend. Alas, we have another year in which the storage box of Christmas themed fabrics has not been touched. The old "Christmas in July" craft magazine promotions need to be revived. Speaking of magazines, Borders bookstores in the UK are closing down, so my easy access to US magazines is now closed off. Borders US expanded to the UK shortly after we moved to London, but was sold off a few years ago to a UK private equity group and then to a management buyout, but Waterstones has the high streets sewn up having bought up all the other high street chains. Borders opened up some huge US-size bookstores around the country. Those empty spaces are going to make big holes in shopping districts.

I loved seeing Megan's Sanctimommy photos of decorating Hingham. Some are ones she grew up with and requested when she and Barnz chose to have Christmas on their own. It has been nine years since we spent Christmas with Megan. I would never ever want young children to spend Christmas away from home. I still have memories of a Saturday night in a tiny hotel room in Washington, D.C. with two little girls deeply worried the Easter Bunny would not be able to find them for basket delivery room service. (He did.) As of yesterday however, I have formed a new holiday plan. In a few years, I want Megan and the children to come for a visit the week after Christmas so, as dual citizens, they can experience an important cultural component of their English nationality: the theatre. The English live and breathe theatre, unlike Americans who have very little access to theatre productions unless they live in New York with money to spare. Outside of New York, there is the one professional repertory theatre in big cities, the non-professional drama club in small cities, and the ubiquitous high school musical. I wonder if high schools even put on plays any more. My high school had the annual musical plus a Junior Class Play and a Senior Class Play where we were introduced to classics like Blithe Spirit and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Hingham High School had a vaunted drama program, but after the annual autumn musical, all I remember being invited to see was the 15 minute entry into the all-important Massachusetts High School Drama Competition, which recognises technics and techniques, but offers no appreciation of drama as art.

Yesterday, when an English friend with a three year-old granddaughter listed the number of performances they had already attended with her and how many more were coming up, I realised the national love of drama begins with the pantomime season at Christmas. Time Out magazine lists 27 productions under the Children's Theatre heading in this week's issue. They include The Cat in the Hat at the National Theatre directed by Katie Mitchell (a very hot young director), The Enchanted Pig, an opera by Jonathan Dove at the Royal Opera House, and The Forest at the Young Vic. Then there are the annual productions based on beloved story books, Raymond Brigg's The Snowman told in dance (suitable for age 2+ to start them really young), Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo, and a new production of her book Stick Man. The year-round children's theatres, the Polka, the Angel, the Unicorn, have seasonal productions too. So of course I want my grandchildren to come here to spend a week attending the theatre every day. When they outgrow the children's productions they will graduate to the adult panto productions. Fairy tales told with an edge of sexual innuendo and cross-dressing with B-list celebrities, popular stars of past decades, soap opera stars, and reality TV competition winners and losers in the special roles. We went to a few high-class pantos — Angela Carter's posthumous Cinderella — years ago, but looking through the listings, perhaps we need to book a real panto this year.

Every year in the weeks before Christmas we book so many Christmas concerts, there is no room for anything else. Looking at my calendar I see six concerts coming up over the next two weeks. Speaking of music, I am surrounded by stacks of CDs — our collection of Christmas music (minus the extensive, but outdated collections of LPs and tapes) that Bob has been using to write his review of favourite Christmas music available on Bazzfazz (11 parts) and on Scholars and Rogues, which has 14 parts. A Big Day in Hingham was the day the Atlantic Wire website picked up Part 4 from Scholars and Rogues. I can't find the actual link because my computer is not picking up links very quickly right now, but the Atlantic Wire bills itself as "tracking the most influential opinion makers," and on the night in question, everyone else on The Ticker was indeed someone notable from their 50 most important pundits list. I feel the title of Bob's post, which included the words "Medieval Babes" had something to do with its selection by an A-list political site with cultural pretensions. Megan and Barnz, who can do these things, captured a "screen shot" so we have a record of this event on Bob's laptop.

In addition to the two pot-luck lunches, I went to two book groups this week. My regular "Sevens" group read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, a book I did not like in the 1980s when I first read it, and which I found I still don't like when I reread it earlier this week, although I keep reading that I should like it as it is some sort of classic. The group was split on opinion, but those who liked it kept citing the magnificent prose, which is usually the reason given to call it a classic. One thing I don't like is the writing style which I found made up of oddly patched and overblown phrasing. Our moderator found an interview in which Robinson said she began writing and saving metaphors when she was doing a graduate degree on Shakespeare, and later she realised she had the voice of Ruth in her random collection. In other words, she did patch together the prose.

The second book group was an extra meeting of the "Literary Ladies" to meet  Ruth Waterman, the author of When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo. Ruth is an English violinist who studied at Julliard and lived in New York for years before returning to England. In 2002 she was invited to guest conduct the Mostar Sinfonietta in Bosnia. She returned to Bosnia to lead concerts in 2004, 2005, and 2006, when funding for the orchestra ran out. As a BBC contract presenter, the BBC gave her recording tape and suggested a radio show if she found any interesting material. She collected personal experiences of the devastating war years from her young orchestra members that were used for a Radio 4 programme, and ultimately for this book. I bought the book from her, so haven't read it yet, but she played excerpts from the voices of the musicians and discussed the sadly deteriorating situation in Bosnia at the moment. The meeting was heightened by a visiting friend of a member who told of her escape to Rio de Janiero from Bosnia with her 9 year-old daughter after, as she said, "my mother's body was found in the river and my grandmother was killed." She is also a violinist, explaining she was in Bosnia when the war began because she had returned from living in Paris when asked to represent Bosnia in an international competition, and told us of her desperation when her only chance to stay in Rio was by securing a seat in the city's symphony orchestra. The room certainly went silent as she told her story, giving us an inkling of what Ruth went through when survivors poured out their experiences.

Finally, we went to a gallery opening of a print exhibition organised by the husband of a quilting friend. David is an artist and designer, and his design has been chosen by the Royal Mail for the Olympic Sports series of stamps issued earlier this year. David's stamp is for Badminton. To celebrate he invited other stamp designers to exhibit their work as prints made by Epson photocopiers. What a great show. The link to the ROA Gallery lets you see the wonderful work on display. We chose at least a dozen. Next week we will have to hone our choice down to Christmas gift level.

At last I feel like I am back into the routine of life.  Tomorrow we get our tree, and I begin to organise what needs doing between now and the New Year. We haven't even caught up on the Advent Calendars. Christmas is only two weeks away!!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Jenni Not in London

I see it has been a full month since my last post, and that is because I was not in London for most of November. The few days I spent in London before leaving for the States and the few days now back in London have been blighted by a head cold — perhaps the same head cold since I was downing sinus decongestants off and on all month. Then the day before my return, the head cold hit full force, and as everyone knows, an airplane flight doubles the misery, so I have been mostly laid up sleeping and not feeling energetic enough to post anything coherent about my wonderful month with children and grandchildren.

Today the world is looking brighter — literally that is — the sun is shining. I have turned lights off in the daytime, something that I have not done on either side of the Atlantic in weeks. I'm sure we had a few sunny days in Hingham, but all I remember is perpetual dusk, morning, midday, and night. Partly because a very old Cape Cod style house with low ceilings, tiny windows, and surrounded by trees is never filled with light. A life lesson learned: if you like a light filled house, never buy a house in the woods. I do love the Hingham house, but the Victorian flat in London on the second (UK)/third (US) floor, with high ceilings and huge windows is a much pleasanter place to live. The weather was pretty terrible for most of the month with a continuous series of driving rain storms and blustery winds, with intermittent days of plain, dull gloom. Surprisingly warm temperatures though. No frost yet which I think may be a record since the frost date average is more than a month ago.

I flew into Boston a week before Bob. Megan picked me up at Logan, and we were back in Hingham in time for greeting Bibs when she was waking from her afternoon nap. Bibs has a world-class memory for a 2.33 year old, so she remembers me, and calls me Gam-ma — her "r's" have not quite come in yet. Eventually we will have to work out the appropriate terminology for having three grandmas, but we figure Bibs will come up with something herself. Bobs who is 9 months now is of course a completely different boy from the 4 month old we saw in June. He was a different boy by the time we left three weeks later. By then he had discovered he could grab objects and play with toys. So he is at

the wonderful age where you can sit him on the floor with a pile of toys, and he will happily pick up and manipulate and explore — with his mouth of course – everything within reach.

Here he is with his baby doll and his favourite book That's Not My Puppy on his favourite page because he can grab the puppy's long furry ears.

Bibs is a force of nature. Bright, quick, clever, verbal, beautiful, opinionated, stubborn, determined, and adorable.  Here she is having one of her regular tea parties with Dolly. The tea set is all gingham  (bought by Bob at the Country Living Fair here in London last spring, but when opened in Hingham discovered to be from Tiverton, Rhode Island), and little Lady Bibs likes nothing better than to set up and pour tea for Dolly. By the way, the furniture is second generation: table is one of two bought for Megan and Susan when Susan was Bib's age; chairs from a yard sale at our church in East Brunswick, New Jersey! Bibs has an active life. She is a Montessori student, four mornings a week, and loves going to school. On the extra weekday, she participates in a play group that has been meeting since birth. The baby boomlet of two year olds gives her lots of playmates in the neighbourhood and at local playgrounds in the afternoons. She has become enamoured with ballet since Megan showed her clips of a video of The Nutcracker. She like nothing better than putting on her dancing dress —the blue dress to the right of the chair in the photo below — and emulating the pictures in a ballet book Megan has from the library. Perhaps all little girls like ballet, but Bibs' paternal grandmother danced with the Royal Ballet here, so perhaps she has the right stuff too. One milestone passed in November when Megan took Bibs to her first theatre performance of a singing and dancing version of Alice in Wonderland by the Sixth Graders at Derby Academy. Megan said she was riveted and glared at the other two year olds who made noise.

Bob arrived a week after I did, so our baby sitting needs were met since Bob loves nothing more than getting down on the floor to play with babies or sitting reading a book with toddlers. We had a very quiet visit. The children are of an age when they are not easy to take out to many places. Shopping is boring; meals need to be quick. The daily schedule —morning school for Bibs and a nap for Bobs, afternoon naps for both, dinner at 5:30 — tends to chop the days into small segments. The generally bad weather cancelled some of the outdoor excursions we had planned. When I arrived, Megan presented me with a classy knitting project: Knit Picks Holiday Ornament Kit and said I want these for a children's Christmas tree. So I spent spare time knitting a string of lights!

Bibs chose the sweater ornament design; Megan really wanted the pickle. I am still working on the popcorn and cranberry string. This kit is a terrific bargain and loads of fun to knit although circular knitting on dp needles with 3-4-6-8 stitches is a bit tricky. I don't think the company ships to the UK, but the website lets you download some of these patterns free. And the excellent lump of coal is not in the booklet and must be downloaded. Megan—in one of those motherhood is not a blissful time moments—decided she would award the lump annually to the child who was not getting any gifts because the naughty outweighed the nice.

We visited with our Hingham friends for a delicious homemade chili dinner at the Macmillans, but everyone was heading off for Thanksgiving visits so there was not much time to knit and dish. 

We did embark on a wonderful three day road trip to New York and New Jersey.

Here I am relegated to the back of the minivan with Megan, but we didn't mind because we were on our way to Purl, the craft world's trendiest knitting and quilting shop. We had both been to Purl Knitting, but never to the newer fabric shop, both on Sullivan Street in Soho. Yes, we were taking the minivan into Manhattan. An internet search turned up the Peanut Butter & Co restaurant's website, which listed local parking garages, also conveniently on Sullivan Street (Noho, however).

Megan's prediction the restaurant would be empty since every child in Manhattan is allergic to Peanut Butter turned out to be true. Here we are enjoying our Fluffernutter sandwiches — okay, Barnz is eating the bacon and PB, since Fluff is not part of an English childhood — but for all you New Yorkers, YES, that is a Vanilla Egg Cream in the photo!! So far things were working perfectly, but the rain forecast for the evening moved in 12 hours early, so the directions for the menfolk to take the stroller —without the forgotten rain cover — to the local celebrity-filled playgrounds (everyone lives in the Village, Noho and Soho, of course) was not going to work to plan. Megan and I were so close to our goal, we decided not to care, and let the ex-NYer grandfather use his imagination for the hour we needed. (Answer: the NYU bookstore.)

The Purl Fabric store is just as tiny as Purl Knitting, but the concentration of wonderful fabric was enough to keep us happy for an hour. Megan bought Japanese prints for children's clothes. I have nearly stopped buying fabric these days, but I did buy some wool felt packs, one Japanese cotton, and small pieces of a some solids for a quilt for Bibs' bed to see if I can get the room's unusual colour right.

Then on to Highland Park, New Jersey for a visit with Frank and Deborah and some nostalgic walks down Memory Lane. We moved to Highland Park when Susan was just two years old, so this photo of Bibs could be Susan 25 years ago as we walked to the Highland Park Library, still the greatest library in the universe. The children's room has been refurbished and expanded since our day, and Bibs and Bobs loved going to the library as much as Megan and Susan once did.

We once owned a Fisher Price horse just like that one.
Then we had to walk to our old house which is keeping to the standards of creative chaos that we lived in. I still miss that wonderful front porch.

One terrific change is the Farmer's Market held weekly in the parking lot that is just to the left of our old house in the photo. The week of our visit was the last market of the season, so we helped Deborah stock up. The food was lovely, but so expensive. We bought bread and cheese and chocolate for lunch, and some honey to bring back to London. I just opened it to put some on my yogurt and fruit lunch.

In the afternoon, the children went off to Park Slope in Brooklyn to visit one of Megan's high school friends from Commonwealth. Bibs loves the big city.

Bob, Deborah and I went off to the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers where we saw two great shows. Lois Lenski is one of my favourite children's book illustrators because she illustrated the early volumes of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy book series. I knew she had written books because Strawberry Girl won the Newberry in 1946, but we didn't know that it was part of an extensive series of books on the varieties of experience of childhood in regional America that pulled no punches on how difficult some of those lives were. The second exhibit was on American woodcuts from the 1890s to the present. The visit to the Zimmerli was nostalgic because Bob was greatly taken with an exhibit we saw during the New Jersey years on Japonisme, the influence of Japanese woodcuts in American and European art at the turn of the 20th century, so this show was a perfect follow-up.

We had a wonderful visit with Frank and Deborah who became grandparents this past summer. Their granddaughter is not too far away in Virginia and would be arriving in a few days for a Thanksgiving visit. Frank and Deborah's legacy project is attracting positive attention in recent days with a Kansas City Star editorial endorsing a Buffalo Commons National Park appearing a few days before our visit. When I was Frank's T.A., he was just beginning to play with the idea of overturning Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Theory — which declared a county no longer part of the frontier if population rose above 6 people per square mile — by counting the number of counties that had 6 or fewer people in the 1980 census. There were nearly 400, and when he mapped them, the grasslands of the Great Plains states appeared in living colour. The initial hostility of Plains residents has slowly morphed into acceptance of reality as communities and services disappear with continuing outmigration from these depopulated counties. 

Bibs was instantly smitten with Frank, as Susan was 25 years ago when I was his Teaching Assistant for one semester, but she wasn't sure what to call him (I doubt if it occurred to us to specify a name), so she settled on The Man. Every time he left the room she would say, "Where's The Man?"  The pile on the floor is The Man's catch-up reading.

We left New Jersey for a new adventure — at least for me. 40+ years after high school I have reconnected with some of my classmates through Facebook. We were on our way up the Hudson Valley to Poughkeepsie to visit Charlotte who I had not seen since the day before Thanksgiving in 1966 when we saw each other at Grand Central Station in New York on our way home from our respective Massachusetts colleges for the holiday. We survived the crowds on the shuttle to Penn Station and took the train home to Bellerose together. Charlotte found me on Facebook, and we have messaged each other for a year. She invited us to stop in for lunch on our way back to Massachusetts.

While I was in Hingham, I had a long phone chat with Barbara who I have known since 2nd Grade, and who taught me many of the most important things I have ever learned, such as how to dance (the Twist, the Mashed Potato), cool music to like (Del Shannon, Rolling Stones, Janis Ian), what to wear (Madras plaid, purple when it is the colour du jour, Saddle shoes), TV shows to watch (Route 66), movies to see (anything with Hayley Mills), and she had a real Davy Crockett coonskin hat. Without Barbara's aid, I would not have even risen to the level of nerd in middle and high school. Barbara was hoping to come to Charlotte's, but a trip from the eastern end of Long Island to Poughkeepsie is an undertaking, especially the weekend before Thanksgiving, so will meet up on a future trip.

We had a wonderful lunch with Charlotte and her husband John that included birthday cakes for Bob and I, from a local bakery that were superb. The visit just wasn't long enough to remember what to ask and then to ask all the questions that popped up in shaky memories working their way to the surface. We did have time for photos.

Then it was time to point the minivan back for the long drive to Hingham — this time with Bob in the backseat with me.

Next Grandparents Day arrived at Bibs' school. We all had a great time. The children were rather confused why their orderly world had been interrupted for the day, and unfortunately the rain meant we all had to stay indoors.

Stacking blocks built into two towers by Bibs.

The day after Grandparents Day was Thanksgiving. This is the first year Bibs will imprint on the cultural importance of holidays, so Megan put on the Macy's parade which is now just a running advert for terrible TV programmes and for the toys you don't want to have to buy for your children with a few intermittent bands from Kentucky and balloons from Disney. Very sad. Nevertheless, Santa came, so the holiday season can roll.

Bibs looked at her Turkey Paper Doll Book.

Bobs wore his Turkey suit and played a tune for us.

Bibs puts on patent leather.

for Buffet Dinner at the Langham Hotel in Boston.

Then we were down to our last few days in Hingham. Lots of rain. Lots of lobster. A little bit of shopping. My birthday. And then the sad part of having to leave our lovely children and grandchildren. Bibs was upset until Megan told her we had to go visit Auntie Susan, so it was okay then. I think we will be spending our lives bouncing back and forth visiting Bibs and Bobs and visiting Auntie Susan for awhile. Here is Auntie Susan greeting us. in London.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cooks and Books

This weekend I came down with the cold that Bob and half of London have been nursing recently. Sort of a half-hearted cold in my case that didn't progress beyond a stuffy nose, but on Sunday I wasn't feeling great so I cancelled quilting for Monday since I was hosting, and everyone I know is feeling pretty risk averse to germs these days. Last spring Hampstead was one of the first nodes of swine flu for tweens and teens in Britain. Lots of Easter holidays in Mexico for the elite travelling set of North London, I guess. Not having quilting has thrown my whole week off. And this is my last week in London until December because on Saturday I fly to Massachusetts for more than three weeks of doting on my grandchildren and on their lovely parents too.

It wasn't much of a weekend here. American-style Halloween has been adopted by England — at least in Hampstead, home to so many US children and their parents — over the course of the eleven years we have lived in London. Costumed Trick-or-Treaters rove the streets including ours, but living in a mansion-block of flats, we don't have to stock up on treats. The deli up on the High Street that has a sideline in US food — junk and otherwise — was selling bags of candy corn, so I did get to gorge on that annual American iconic treat. Back in the day, our first Halloween here, teenaged Susan was appalled to discover there was no knowledge of candy corn in this country. Every year since then, we have imported some either on an autumn trip to Hingham or by having Megan mail us some. The first year Susan was at Cambridge, she shared her stash with British friends, who refused to believe it was edible — and she said some adhered to that belief after trying a piece.

Fortunately we are going to be in the States this year for Thanksgiving because there seems to be no tinned pumpkin in England this year. Europe does not know about the joy of canned pumpkin puree. Every recipe that involves pumpkin, and there are a lot of recipes since pumpkin is a favourite vegetable, begins with the instruction to clean, bake, and puree your pumpkin. Now I have done that in my past life, and generally I ended up with a weak coloured, slightly stringy, and invariably flavourless mush that made a very poor pie. Yes, I know that sugar pumpkins are the recommended variety if one wants to be all native, back-to-the land, I-never-eat-canned-food about these things. And I have had better luck with sugar pumpkins when used for puree, but nothing gives a pie the flavour of pumpkin from a can. For several years, tins of pumpkin were only available at the American-stocked deli for a price, so that became an item to bring back on visits to the States. Finally, a few years ago supermarkets began to stock tinned pumpkin, eliminating the need for suitcase importation, but last year and now this year, the tinned pumpkin has disappeared once again. So I will have to spare some suitcase room for pumpkin to make muffins and bread and soup, and maybe even a pie, next winter.

I have been in a cooking trough for the past week. Absolutely no interest in cooking, and this week will require no dinners, so I am pleased. Although I do have a mound of pears and apples that should be sauced or something. And a sugar pumpkin delivered with the organic produce last week in time for Halloween. And a backlog of onions, cabbage, and carrots that probably won't be used, at least by me. By the time I am back here in December I will be ready to cook up a storm, I'm sure. And I will try not to find any new cookbooks to buy — although I am intrigued by Thomas Keller's new cookbook that was written up in the New York Times a few days ago.  I never buy restaurant chef cookbooks because I know they are never going to work for sloppy non-perfectionist me at home, but the references to apple butter in a slow cooker and already knowing he salts his broccoli water makes me curious about the blanching in a big pot method mentioned in the article.  Addictions are impossible to overcome. I guess I have been lucky to avoid damaging addictions like drugs and alcohol — and I gave up cigarettes (although I plan to resume smoking regularly when I am 80) — but I can't stay away from the cookbooks. There are always new ones, flaunting their flashy covers, the well-designed pages — fonts, white spaces — that I cannot resist, and of course the appealing taste sensations promised are irresistible. Sometimes when I bring them home I cook up a recipe or two, and I am rarely disappointed. After that, I mostly admire them on the shelf — on the shelves is more accurate — and the ones in the piles on the table or some in the pile under the table. Okay, you get the point. Fortunately most of the cookbooks never came to England — part of the plan for a new life in a foreign country free of cooking and cookbooks — and then I just had to have Nigella's first cookbook published the same time we arrived in England, and making a big splash because of her family and her dying husband. Now there are so many of them, I consider them to be "A Collection" so it would be wrong to de-accession, in the museum term, by weeding them out and taking the pointless ones to Oxfam. Next time, we can discuss my addiction to buying craft project supplies.

I have succeeded in halting the buying of books that are not cook or craft books. And I have been immune to Amazon messages offering books that sound really really good — those statistical algorithms at work — after the debacle of the non-delivery of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.
Last week was Book Group Week for me, so my list of "Books I Am Reading" has been reduced by two for the group reads. Sunday's illness allowed me to curl up with Beth Gutcheon's Saying Grace which was much too depressing for me to recommend to anyone else. It was written in the mid-1990s, and Beth must have been in a right funk. Her more recent Maine novels More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage, and Good-bye and Amen were much more enjoyable reads (although not necessarily happy novels). Since I gave up Joanna Trollope and Anita Shreve,  Gutcheon has been a favourite for women's life-story novels because she is a good story-teller and a good writer with a sharp eye for social comment. I am being unfair to Saying Grace because it is a brilliant novel, set in a wealthy coastal California (think Santa Barbara) private sub-secondary school much like our Derby Academy in Hingham, with lots of sharp social commentary on education and parenting, and the fact that it depressed the hell out of me and gave me a nightmare the night I finished it, is no reason to slag it off to others. I am saving Hornets' Nest for the plane ride and donation to friends and fans who have to wait until next year for the US publication of the third volume. So I am down to the last of the Japanese mysteries from The Pile of books.

Full Moon Feast will remain on the list as I dip in and out of it over the year. At root I will always be a California coastal hippie since all the most important experiences of my adult life happened in coastal California (Northern and Southern) between 1971 and 1982 — I think of that time period as pre-Reagan America, although he had tragically been elected, his vampire friends hadn't yet thoroughly trashed America to enrich and empower themselves. Full Moon Feast is a recipe and food philosophy book on a subject that has long interested me: the seasonality of diet in a natural world. A few weeks ago, when London was having a cold spell, and we had not turned on the heat in the flat, the only thing I wanted to eat was pasta with butter and sage sauce, clearly because my bones were chilled, and I wanted carbs and fats to warm me internally. Yes, localism has become popular in the post-Michael Pollan world of sophisticated eaters, but I think of seasonality as being more world shaping than just eating what is on hand. My interest probably began with William Cronon's Changes in the Land, an ecological history of New England, which begins with a description of the American native tribes' movements through their territory over the course of a year to eat what was available in different places during different seasons for an adequate annual diet. Cronon discussed the Starving Season of late winter, early spring, when stored supplies were used up and new growth had yet to begin. (I immediately connected this starving time to the Christian season of Lent at the same time of year. The disadvantage of scarce food turned into a devotional benefit of sacrifice and grace.) Of course the European "settlers" ruined the native food year by restricting access to their "settlement" places  which disrupted the annual cycle and destroyed the culture. So I will dip into the thirteen Full Moons Feasts over the year.

Rarely do I attend both Book Groups these days since they meet the same week, and rarely am I interested in reading both of the chosen books. This month was one of the rare months. Last Wednesday I headed over to Tamara's in Kensington to discuss Stoner, written in 1965 before "stoner" meant something else, with the Seven College Conference Book Group whose members are drawn from the alumnae of what was once the Seven Sisters Colleges in the US and enhanced by a fair number of Tamara's English friends who she has enticed to join. The nearly forgotten author John Williams won the National Book Award for Augustus in 1973, but the New York Review of Books re-published Stoner in its Classics series a few years ago, and it has been doing the literary fiction rounds ever since. The book chronicles the life of Professor Stoner at the University of Missouri from his boyhood on a struggling prairie farm to his death, a life in which very little ever goes right for him, but in which he never loses his integrity or his inner self. The writing is a tour de force of spare prose and deep meaning. It was an excellent book club choice: everyone liked it, but there was lots of discussion on those deep meanings. Much of Stoner's misery is caused by his emotionally, psychologically, mentally disturbed wife who is also just plain mean to him.  By the time I was a third of the way through the book, from hinted incidents and behaviours in the text, I was convinced there was no question the horrid wife had been sexually abused by her father. From then on I interpreted the book with that point in mind, finding it remarkable because I didn't think sexual abuse existed in 1965, certainly not as a standard plotline like we have today in novels and films. What I thought was more remarkable was that when I casually dropped this interpretation into the discussion last Wednesday, I was met by stunned silence, broken by one woman saying she had assumed the same, the remainder split between "of course, now I see, that explains it all" and "no, no, she was just a nutcase and a meanie." Since there are at least a dozen passages supporting my side, there weren't many unbelievers by the end of the meeting. I think what surprised me the most was how little sympathy these women had for the wife while reading the novel. No character could be as cruel and deranged as this woman acted all through the novel without a reason, yet only one other person looked beneath the novel's cool surface to seek an explanation.

The easy manipulation of women readers was shown by the somewhat opposite reaction to the women characters in the book chosen for Friday's Book Group meeting. This is a much larger group which was once connected to the Hampstead Women's Club, when the members were almost entirely American expats most of whom had been in London for a short time — that would have been me eleven years ago — and when rotations for ex-pats were at most three years, so the group changed constantly, except for a small core of ex-pats who had lived in London for decades with English or Commonwealth husbands. The group is now made up almost entirely of long time expats or citizens. So I headed over to Nikki's beautiful house in Primrose Hill to discuss our book choice The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. I was very excited to read this book because Elizabeth Jenkins who celebrated her 104th birthday on Halloween — yes, still alive in a local care home — spent most of her long life on Downshire Hill, and for her 100th birthday wrote a memoir titled The View From Downshire Hill. She wrote dozens and dozens of books, novels, histories, biographies, was a founder of the Jane Austen Society, a writer taken up and then dropped by Virginia Woolf. She is mostly out of print, but Virago republished The Tortoise and the Hare a few years ago, and the entire literary establishment of women love this book: Hilary Mantel in the Preface, Carmen Callil in the Afterword, Dovegrey Reader (perhaps not so much now that I re-read her post), Amanda Craig in her blog. It is well written, but it is such a period piece, from the early1950s, about a world I'm not sure we can even understand much less interpret.

Imogen, 39 years old, sweet and lovely, raised to be useless is gobsmacked when her 52 year old successful barrister husband Evelyn takes up with their 50 year old neighbour Blanche who is not physically attractive, but is a director of her late father's company and who shares Evelyn's interests in sports and other activities. Now all of these critics and half the book group women — yes, for once I wasn't the only contra opinion on a book — are as one in saying poor Imogen, who shouldn't be criticised for being useless because she simply can't help it, is being hard done by the ghastly Evelyn who is taken in by the wicked Blanche. None of this made any sense to me because Imogen is a pathetic, boring, and shallow creature who I soon wanted to strangle. I never felt Elizabeth wrote sympathetically about Imogen, yet somehow women readers instantly side with Imogen. Evelyn might be a bit cranky, but living with Imogen would drive any sane person up a wall. He is a caring father; he is devoted to his cases; he is even kind to Imogen despite her shortcomings as a wife and partner.  Blanche is an active and competent woman. In a feminist novel of the 1960s, she would be the heroine, the independent woman who knows herself and knows what she wants, and no one would laugh at her just because she wears bad hats, has a chunky body above spindly legs, and chooses heinous carpets.

This is where I think we have trouble with interpretation. In today's view, Blanche is a character on Desperate Housewives breaking up a family for her own satisfaction, the clueless husband is easily lured into her honey trap Rolls Royce, and the innocent, blameless wife unjustly suffers. Yet in the 1953 world of the book, Imogen makes clear that she was raised to accept the fact her husband would have a mistress because that is the way her world always has worked (and she herself has retired from sex in the marriage). What she is upset about is that she assumed the putative mistress would be a younger version of her own useless self, on hand for sex, but not to be an active partner in life. To complicate the interpretation further,  Carmen Callil relates in the Afterword that Elizabeth Jenkins told her in the mid-1990s, that the story is autobiographical. She was a long-time mistress to a respected doctor, and when his wife died, he did not marry Elizabeth. Instead, he married a neighbour and asked Elizabeth to pick up their former arrangement. She was furious, wrote this novel in a few weeks, sent it to him, and never spoke to him again. So this is definitely not a novel about the evils of adultery. When Callil made a remark about the ghastly Evelyn,  Elizabeth remarked, oh but you didn't know him. I found this all to be very confusing, but I think I have now found an answer that satisfies me. The critics, and the book group members, all spend time discussing the clever title in terms of who is the Tortoise? Who is the Hare? I think the cleverness in the title is that Elizabeth is telling us she has swapped the real women in the fiction version. Elizabeth is Blanche — bright, active, competent, respected — and the message of the novel to the real unnamed Evelyn is that you could have chosen me as a partner in a modern marriage of equals to share an active public life — but you chose to remain within the accepted boundaries of your class, to marry another useless child-woman who will never be your equal and who will spend her life playing with other child-like friends. Amanda Craig's blog refers to Imogen beginning a new life with the one person who loves her. Amanda does not mention this person is 12 years old!

I began this post thinking I liked one book, Stoner, and disliked the other, but now I think they are both brilliant novels. They both manipulate the reader by pretending to be straight forward tales of their character's lives, but by placing the important facts of the story out of the way, buried in the subtext where they may not be noticed while the author is distracting you with the smokescreen of an important event, another story is unfolding.So it was a good week for reading.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

No more Dark Ages

Tuesday night found me back at the British Library attending another Beowulf session. The draw was Seamus Heaney, and the auditorium was fully packed. Poor Bob had to back out as he was still nursing a cold and wicked cough. No fever, so no flu, swine or bird, thank heavens. I sold my ticket to a nice young man who asked me at the door whether I had an extra ticket, and weren't we both surprised when I said, "why yes I do!"

The event began with Michael Wood, the brilliant TV presenter of history and travel shows. He is an Anglo-Saxon scholar, much of the audience tittered when he made quips with Anglo-Saxon punchlines, and he discussed what little is known of the tale and the surviving manuscript. The manuscript is about a 1000 years old, give or take a hundred years. It was probably looted from a monastery in the Fens, the marshy area, of East Anglia since it turned up in the collection of William Cecil, Lord Burleigh during the Tudor years, at his manor near the Fens. From there it went to the Cotton Manuscript Library whose heirs turned the collection over to the government as a gift to the new British Museum, and was later burned in the fire at Ashburnham House in London where the manuscripts were being stored. Between the fire and the 18th century restoration, a fifth of the manuscript's letters were lost. The tale of the heroic Beowulf is old, perhaps dating back to when the Saxons migrated to England, four or five hundred years before this manuscript was inked. Since the kings and tribes and action are Danish and Swedish, the legend was carried from the old homeland to the new.

Then Seamus Heaney read his translation of his favourite part of the legend, the dragon and Beowulf's death.  Benjamin Bagby was back again with his harp and performed a short piece from Grendel's attack on the mead hall. He discussed how there is no possible way to know how a medieval bard would have presented the poem, so he does whatever feels right for the cadence of the poetry. He addressed the issue of whether what he did was sing or speak Beowulf, and said that he believed the bardic tradition required a term somewhere in the middle — he quipped that today we call it musical theatre. Finally, Michael Morpurgo, Children's Laureate a few years ago, discussed his version for children age 5+, and read us the opening pages. What an extraordinary looking man with a comb-over and wearing a velour leisure suit and shirt the colour of ripe watermelon. He is wearing the same colour in his Wikipedia photo, so perhaps that is a trademark.  He had been the guest speaker in the afternoon for an audience of 150 children and their parents (it is half-term holiday week here in England). His version was pretty gruesome, but he said children are drawn to the story because half of contemporary children's literature involves monsters, so monsters can be pretty pedestrian to them, but the children understand that Grendel is a serious monster, one to be afraid of, and that it was good for children to learn to fear real monsters. Which does get back to the old question of whether fairy tales are good for children. And he really really hated Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother in the film (that I think no one saw) two years ago. He bemoaned the state of Hollywood film treatments of magical  stories such as Philip Pullman's Golden Compass. I have given up seeing films of good books, since they are almost always disappointing. On the other hand, the National Theatre's stage version of Pullman's trilogy was one of the best dramatic experiences ever produced. I'm not sure the books could even match the play now.

I have always loved history, and moving to England has been an overwhelming historical experience. I wish had moved here with a younger brain so that I could remember a greater portion of what is out there to see, read, learn. I find it amazing and thrilling that history is so alive and accessible here. I had never heard of the Cotton Library until this past spring when Bob and I went to see the Henry VIII commemorative exhibit at the British Library also. The exhibit was curated by the TV presenter and historian David Starkey who documented every moment of Henry's lengthy and busy life. Many of the documents were catalogued as from the Cotton Library. The most remarkable, to me, was a giant volume of Scripture with marginalia written in Henry's hand suggesting verses that would aid his lawyers in preparing the legal case for a divorce from Katharine of Aragon, his first wife. How cool is that!

When I finish my book pile, maybe I will make a new pile of all those history books on hand that I have never read from cover to cover. Of course for the Saxons there may be a new history by next year with the recent find of the biggest hoard of artifacts up in Staffordshire. I've seen photographs of some of the treasures. They were on display in Birmingham for a few weeks with huge waiting queues, but are now on their way to London and the British Museum for cataloguing. A job that Susan did not get several years ago was in the British Museum's Treasures Department. People who dig in soil — farmers, builders, metal detector hobbyists — are always finding things, so there is a national network to evaluate finds. First at the county level of official scrutiny, then if a possible treasure is suspected to the British Museum for an evaluation and a determination of whether it should be kept by the nation or returned to the finder. If the nation keeps it, the finder gets a fee; if it is returned, the finder can dispose of it as he or she wishes.  The last big find, Sutton Hoo in 1939, is housed at the British Museum. I read this new find will probably be distributed to various museums, mostly in the area where it was found in the northeast. I can't wait to have a chance to see it on display somewhere.

Remember the Dark Ages? When I was in school, we studied the Dark Ages for about 15 minutes because nothing happened for 600 years – from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Crusades history was a blank page, except for the Sutton Hoo ships which existed, but for which there was no explanation.  And of course there was Charlemagne. I've seen the crown that Charlemagne crowned himself with, in Vienna's Hapsburg Treasure Room, but I haven't yet been to Aachen to see the church where it happened. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Friday night we went to see the new play Enron at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Finance is the theme for this year's drama season and Enron is universally agreed to be the best of the bunch. The playwright, Lucy Prebble, is in her mid-20s with an amazing talent for mixing both humour and sober wisdom in telling this morality tale for the age we live in. I'm not sure whether I had ever heard of Enron before their collapse and the ensuing scandal. Living outside the US in the age of the internet means that you can easily keep up with the main news stories and with the stories that shouldn't be featured stories like Balloon Boy, but you start missing the under-stories, the nuances, the spins, the frequency of repeats that turn a story into "conventional wisdom." In 2001, I'm sure I was shocked not only by Enron's transgressions, but also shocked to learn how admired the company had been for its innovations in achieving success. Those innovations are carefully explained: mark to market accounting — why wait to enjoy a profit that could be spent before it exists; "off-balance sheet vehicles," the offloading of debt from the books by creating an infinite number of companies to hide the debt — played here as raptors who crawl around the stage chomping on a fodder of debt. Singing and dancing financial analysts break into song to celebrate, and Arthur Anderson — remember them — auditors are cowed into agreement as the party goes on and on.

The play connects the Enron debacle directly to the US and its culture of huckster marketing that is thought to be uniquely American, at least in England and more broadly in Europe. When we moved to London eleven years ago, I was struck by negative references to the States as a place where everything is for sale and only valued if it has a good price attached. Having always lived in the States, I had never thought the incessant marketing of everything was a strange custom. My ex-pat friend Martha is always wondering why there are never any T-shirts for sale at special events here because they could make a killing. Martha was really bummed this summer when she went to Hampton Court Palace for the celebration of Henry VIII's accession to the throne 500 years ago, and there were no commemorative T-shirts to buy! I think we can all agree, such an event would never be T-shirtless in the US. When we were in Massachusetts last June for ten days, I think Bob bought six T-shirts at various events and places. Except in the T-shirt arena, England is always trying to American-ise by choosing and emulating the worst of our cultural sins, but there is always a great deal of angst involved before the difficult decisions are finally reluctantly accepted as necessary. The most recent example I remember is a decision to allow "product placement" on TV shows. Whenever and whoever came up with this moneymaking idea in the US, never had a moment of moral qualm to disturb the dollars he was counting off in his dreams. This article from last month's Guardian gives a flavour of the counter arguments and the politics involved here in such a decision, despite the real bottom line issue being the independent TV stations need bailing out. The BBC stations of course still have no advertising ever which is wonderful (except when you need a bathroom break while watching a riveting show, and you go damn, this is on BBC . . .).

Enron, the play, has lots of Texas references and the Stars and Stripes waving to drive home the message that this is a born and bred American smash-up. There was a brief scene of the 2000 election night and the disputed Florida vote count that hit me like a gut punch. Fortunately it was a very brief scene, but for a moment my stomach heaved at being reminded of that awful time. Bob and I were in the States for Thanksgiving that year when the despicable decision had not yet been rendered by the Supreme Court. I still can't believe the Supreme Court created the nightmare of the Bush years — well they are only responsible for the first term — and the legacy that continues. As Enron moves to its final scenes, the ironic humour tails off and the morality tale takes over. The kicker is that there is no morality in the tale. The little people lose everything; the big guys cash in. The big kahuna dies, so conveniently for his wife who is apparently struggling on the $13 million she has left to live on, and some go to jail, ho hum, undoubtedly to emerge as lifestyle gurus to the masses.

Enron collapsed nearly ten years ago, and no lessons were learned. Earlier this year mark to market accounting was legitimised. Just go Google "off-balance sheet vehicles" to get a glimpse of how this strategy post-Enron helped create the current financial crisis, and more worryingly how it is still being used to hide the lurking toxic waste in the financial system. As the play ends, Enron CEO Jeff Skilling madly offers his tribute to The Market, the engine that moves the universe forward, the glue that binds us because self-interest allows us to, counter-intuitively, trust one another motives. Finally in front of a graph of the market's rise and fall, he points out that bubbles produced the railroads, the industrial revolution, the internet, and that future bubbles will be needed to save the environment, to save the world. All well and good if earlier bubbles produced the modern age of wealth and leisure, tragically, the recent bubbles have done nothing of the sort. Fortunes were amassed, although few remain intact since most were only balance sheets assets, but where were the investments in the future. Instead of wealth distribution, factories were shut down and jobs out-sourced; simultaneously cutting taxes and starting expensive wars depleted public coffers and limited public services; health, transport, and communication systems trail behind the rest of the developed world. As we all now know, Jeff Skilling was not the smartest guy in the room, and it's time to give up the fantasy that The Market will solve all problems.

On Sunday we moved on to a real hero of his time. The British Library is celebrating 1000 years of Beowulf — admittedly they don't make very clear what exactly happened in 1009 to make this birthday happen! The only existing manuscript is on display in the Treasures Gallery at the Library. Click on the link, and then click on the picture link to see a page. The link also explains how it was almost lost in an 18th century fire (and how you can buy related Beowulf items. I wonder if there is a T-shirt?).

Sunday afternoon we heard the phenomenal Benjamin Bagby recite the Grendel legend with his 6-string harp. Bagby specialises in very early medieval music. His group Sequentia, founded with the late Barbara Thornton, were the leaders in promoting the music of Hildegard of Bingen, who had a bit of a revival a few years ago after 900 years of obscurity. His website includes a clip of a performance, which he seems to do quite regularly. At the British Library auditorium, a blue screen behind him, ran the modern English lines, as he sang and played. Tonight he will be back with Seamus Heaney who will recite his version. Poor Bob is home from work today with a cold, so I'm afraid he won't be able to go.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another week in London

I see it is more than a week since I last posted. Some computer problems, a vision problem on the day I cried so hard finishing Stoner, days out, and lots of knitting have added up to my staying away from the computer for hours on end. Lord knows what I would do if I were even moderately technologically savvy. I can barely figure out how to use my mobile phone — which I have owned for less than a year and still have not used up the £50 of calls I paid for — and nearly all of the calls were made by visiting relations who needed a phone that worked on European networks. I have never addressed the possibility of texting. I know where my i-pod is, but I'm not sure I remember how to use it. Now there are i-phones in the future when their contracts become competitive in London next year. And perhaps I will have to learn to Twitter.

This morning I learned that my son-in-law's "team" is responsible for hooking Twitter into Bing — and thereby beating Google to the finish line. Megan, Bibs, and Bobs have been missing Daddy a lot in the last few weeks. It's nice to have a spouse who is around, but then again it's nice having a spouse with a job. I learned that lesson. When Megan and Susan were very young, Bob was an academic with flexible time or an unemployed academic with oodles of time.  Except for the no money and no health insurance, motherhood was easier, especially since we had no family help to rely on. Then when the Big Life Change came, Bob's forced career in finance and our forced move to New Jersey, the biggest change was weekday single parenting since Bob left at 6:00 a.m. and only rarely was home before 10:00 p.m. There was one night he was so tired, he didn't wake up until the train was down the line in Princeton. He had to wait for another train to take him back to New Brunswick, and by then it was midnight, and he was too exhausted to walk the mile home. I left the kids sleeping to pick him up in the car. I remember balancing driving fast to get there sooner with driving slow to make sure I didn't get caught in the sin. Murphy's Law did not kick in so maybe there is a God. There weren't even any "big bucks" in that crummy job — although we did have health insurance.

Tuesday morning I woke up cozy in bed — we finally got the radiators bled and the heat working on Sunday — and knew that I simply had to finish Stoner. The book had been languishing for almost a week, and I only had 70 or so pages left. What can you say about a book that is profoundly beautiful, but so depressingly sad, that at one point, vacuuming seemed a positive alternative to discovering what additional terrible afflictions Professor Stoner would face as his life played out to its end. After copiously weeping through the final 70 pages, my eyes were so red and swollen, I decided not to even try plunking myself at the computer for an additional dose of eyestrain. Leaving out eyestrainers like knitting, sewing, reading,  TV and daily puzzles, there was no option but cleaning the TV/sewing/computer room, especially since bleeding the radiators had required moving the many, many bags filled with unfinished or not-yet-begun knitting and sewing projects from the little niches and corners they had been stashed and hidden. Oh my, how have I gotten myself so knee deep in beautiful things that all require time and organisation to begin and to finish. I didn't have the heart to even look at the quilting projects. The knitting projects were enough to dishearten. Usually abandoned projects are ones with problems or have in some way generated visceral loathing — the so-called frogs — so it almost is worse that I like nearly all my projects; I have no easy recourse in the trash bin. Then there is the collection of beautiful yarns, some very old, some very new, waiting with a specific patterns in mind. Oh the lists we could make. I nearly did add one to the sidebar here. And of course the knitting website Ravelry can be nothing but lists that will shout their presence with a mere log-in.

Most of the unfinished knitting projects of course predate the grandchildren who are facing a cold New England winter unready for the assault of snow and ice and cold wind — or so Megan has been guilting me into believing! There isn't even a legacy collection for the under threes in the matter of cold weather clothing, since Megan's first three years were spent in the warmth of San Diego where a light quilted jacket sufficed in winter. I did love knitting for the girls, but when we were back East, I sometimes did feel pressured to keep up with the warm hats, mittens, and sweaters because I never felt the store-bought versions — rarely ever made with wool — were really warm enough. Nowadays there are so many more lovely washable wools and wool blends too. I finished and sent off to Bibs a ballerina wrap sweater with matching hat and socks.
My model here is Alice Vanderbear.

I am now working on a cardigan and hat for Bobs, both of which are almost finished because I spent much of yesterday watching the first six episodes of Dexter.  US shows come here in dribs on our Sky (Murdoch, boo hiss) digital service, often on strange channels and at odd times.  Except for the hyped hits — Lost or Desperate Housewives or Mad Men — we've rarely even heard of most of the shows that turn up. When I do hear of a show that might be interesting I order it from Love Film/Netflix which is how I ended up with 6 episodes of Dexter. What a strange plot premise, yet how compelling the story line. Who needs capital punishment when an avenging sociopath is on the case. I'm afraid our postal strike may prevent the next set of DVDs from arriving so Bobs's sweater may have to await a suitable viewing opportunity.

On Saturday we enjoyed a day of recreational walking. One of the great joys of England is the national love of walking — not hiking as it is called in the States — just simply walking. The opportunities for walking are endless: long distance paths, circular routes, pub walks, walking guides, ordinance survey maps, walking festivals, magazines, newspaper features. When we moved here, I thought we would participate in this national obsession because I have always liked walking, but we soon discovered that the English see a decent walk as eight to ten miles, a bit too much for us wussy Americans to take in a day. Eventually I found the series of guides for wimps, Short Walks in......., but somehow we seemed to always find ourselves in a muddy field wondering which was the correct hedgerow to follow and whether the lack of a stile, clearly described in the directions, meant we were in the wrong muddy field to begin with. You know those spousal arguments in cars over which way to turn according to the map? They can be carried out in muddy fields too. So the walking holidays diminished although never disappeared.

Last spring, an e-mail announcement came from The Ramblers, the UK's huge walking club/lobby/ organisation, on their Get Walking Keep Walking health initiative which was sponsoring a weekend of walks in London. So Bob and I did an enjoyable short walk in East London's Hackney, London Fields, and Victoria Park, an area we are not very familiar with. When I told Susan about our walk, she suggested we celebrate Father's Day in June with another healthy walk. She suggested we walk from London Bridge to Greenwich which is six miles along the Thames Path! Bob and I gulped, but we were not going to wimp out! We had a gorgeous day and a glorious walk that included all sorts of interesting sights —and by the time we were finally back home about one step away from collapse. The next day we felt surprisingly invigorated, and decided we should exhaust ourselves more often.

I pulled out some old guides and remembered a walk I had read about years ago that had sounded intriguing. The Capital Ring is a 78 mile route that circles outer London connecting up parks and other green spaces, divided into 15 segments that each begin and end at a Tube or train station. Each segment is about 5 miles. So the next weekend we embarked on our first Capital Ring walk. I can't remember why I decided to start with Walk 4 at Crystal Palace, probably because I had never been there. The Crystal Palace of 1851, designed by Joseph Paxton for the international exposition in Hyde Park, was moved to this out of the way neighbourhood shortly after the exposition closed. A park was created to house the Palace, new exhibits were designed, and the site became a popular entertainment until the Palace burned down in 1936. The deteriorated park has been undergoing a facelift in recent years. Sadly there is nothing left of the Palace except for some footings and a sphinx sculpture. The not-to-miss attraction is the newly landscaped Dinosaur Garden with prehistoric beasts modeled in the 1850s as dinosaurs were then imagined to have existed in life that peek out as you wander the path.

Over the course of the summer we  completed six of the Capital Ring sections, measuring more than 30 miles, and we have had the best time learning about what London is like outside the central city. The flat, not very scenic boroughs south of the river, are very suburban with huge commons that are now recreation facilities. Then through the wealthy areas of Wimbledon and Richmond. Richmond is the only part of the route we have ever been to regularly. Along the Thames and then along the canals dug in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to connect London with the industrial, coal rich Midlands, the towpaths are now scenic routes the Ring follows after crossing into North London. Weekend activities and poor weather kept us away from the walk since late August, but on Saturday we completed the section that takes us closest to home in North London.
Here is Bob checkng our downloaded directionsand map on Gotsford Hill in Fryent Country Park. The hill behind him is Harrow which we passed through on the previous walk. We download the  map and directions for each walk, but the route is well signposted. Only a few times have we wandered off the path because the signs have been vandalised.

This is the view from Gotsford Hill. I made the photo large so that you can see the arch of the new Wembley Stadium poking up from the center of the picture. The day was rather cold, cloudy and breezy.

Farther along we came to the Welsh Harp Site of Special Scienticfic Interest on the Brent Reservoir. Display boards told us the reservoir was created in 1835 to provide water to the canals. During the 19th century, the Welsh Harp was a popular recreation spot for Londoners, and there are still watersports clubs on the reservoir. In fact there was a regatta in progress as we walked along the path. Windsurfers were also out on the water, although I don't think there are any in the photos here.


One of London's major highways, the North Circular, runs along the other side of the reservoir from where we are walking. North London's major shopping mall, Brent Cross is near to the reservoir, as is the beginning of the major north-south expressway the M1.  Of course these are urban walks, and often the connections between these lovely natural areas, are blocks of terraces or semis, sometimes boring, but more often than not interesting windows into the life of London: run-down terraces cheek-by-jowl with elegant villas, ethnically mixed neighbourhoods everywhere we have walked, the suburban life style of mowing lawns and washing cars with a hose in the driveway is alive and well in this world class city. We still have 8 of the 15 sections of the Capital Ring to complete, but we have walked half the miles. If the winter is dry and mild enough, perhaps we will be able to finish before next summer. And then we can begin the 150 mile London Loop!

Cultural events of the past week have included a concert of Spanish religious music to mark the opening of an exhibit of Spanish religious art at the National Gallery. Lots of bloody hands on display I imagine. Something to look forward to, I guess. And another dance event — although it would be more appropriate to say acrobatic event since the Swedish troupe Cirkus Cirk├Âr, puts on circuses. It was fun, but not quite enough fun, as the Independent critic said. The Peacock Theatre — an off-shoot of Sadler's Wells — was packed with young adults who are obviously drawn to artistic circuses. I have never been much of a circus person. We took Megan to one of the big arena circuses when she was three. She hated it. I remember lots of very noisy, very smelly motorcycles. What did motorcycles have to do with a circus anyway? So we never went back again. We did go to the Big Apple Circus in Boston when they were older. That was fun. I'm glad I remembered that, for a minute I was thinking we had never taken Susan to a circus.

I haven't had to cook dinner in a week because we have been out every night. Time to reconnect with the kitchen I guess.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A cultural cornucopia of autumn

A generally busy week around here. Saturday evening we heard the Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall doing motets on death by Lassus, Gombert and Josquin, followed by Victoria's Requiem. Not a cheerful programme. We used to be fans of the Tallis Scholars, but we gave them up a few years ago when we started thinking everything they sing sounds a bit like everything else they sing. A bit boring really. And I guess we still are thinking that after Saturday night. We have tickets to their Christmas concert in December too.

Sunday was cold and gloomy so instead of doing a planned walk, we went to the Tate Britain to see the Turner and the Masters exhibit that opened a few weeks ago. Turner is not one of my favourites, and I know very little about him, except for the tons of information that permeates English culture because he is after all "England's greatest artist" who painted England's favourite painting.  A Cockney prodigy, he enjoyed besting his contemporaries and the old masters who came before. He famously added a speck of red to his seascape in the 1832 Royal Academy Show when he saw that it was hanging next to Constable's red splattered Waterloo Bridge.  This exhibit hangs the two works side-by-side for the first time since 1832. The entire show is made up of Turner paintings side-by-side with the work of artists he wished to emulate or more to the point to outshine in skill. He competed with all of the greats: Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Poussin, Claude Lorraine, Canaletto and dozens of other very good artists. The Tate holds a huge collection of Turners because of the Bequest to the nation that settled his estate's death duties — and the idea for the show comes from Turner in his will leaving a few of his works to the nation with the condition that Dido Building Carthage be displayed next to Claude's ...Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba in the National Gallery. The interesting thing about the show is that curator David Solkin chose to exhibit as many misses as hits for Turner's scorecard. There were some where Turner's version of another artist's subject was a clear winner, especially when atmosphere was a defining element. There were some perfectly dreadful pastiches of master works. Sadly, for me and for Bob who is a bit more of a Turner fan than I, there were some perfectly lovely paintings by Turner that paled when sitting next to a master, so we have another show where opinion of the artist declines as the show progresses. In our family that is known as the Bonnard effect, after a huge show at the Tate in 1998. We took time out from our moving-to-a-new-country chores to see the show, and Susan, Bob, and I agreed that the only Bonnard we really liked was the famous Dining Room Overlooking the Garden at the Met in New York.

On the plus side, some of the old masters borrowed for the show were well worth the price of admission (which we didn't pay because we are members), especially Rembrandt's The Mill from Washington D.C.'s National Gallery. That was one of Bob's favourites when he was in the army in Maryland and spent his spare time in Washington museums. He hardly recognised it because it has been cleaned in the intervening 35 years, which I read on-line was rather controversial since it completely changed interpretations of the work.

While at the Tate Britain, we stopped in to see the Turner Prize nominees work which has just gone on display. Why it is the Turner Prize I have no idea except he is Britain's best/favourite artist. He would have no problem whatsoever competing with these artists and winning hands down. This is the Prize that has featured unmade beds and light bulbs flashing on and off in past years. I couldn't possibly comment on any of these nominees so I will let a link do that.

And I found a new artist to admire in a room display on women artists who had a hard time because they were women. Stanislawa de Karlowska was married to the Camden Town painter Robert Bevan. The Tate owns three of her works and these two were on display.

Last night we did something we rarely do anymore. We went to see a dance performance. This is the centenary of Diaghilev's Paris company Les Ballet Russes, and Sadler's Wells' contribution to the celebration is this programme where they asked four choreographers to create pieces In the Spirit of Diaghilev.  We went primarily because one of four, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui,  choreographed a fabulous programme we saw last year titled Myth. His contribution was Faun, based on the music Afternoon of the Faun with additions from Nitin Sawhney,  and featured two remarkable dancers. Afterlight, danced to wonderful Satie piano music, was an homage to Nijinsky, danced by a solo male with a light show playing over his body movements. Quite fantastic. Those were the two successful parts of the evening.

The first piece featured many dancers, several large TV screens with bright red machines turning and black and white stripes rippling, plus a bright strobe light that unfortunately was directed right at Bob's retina, so he had to hold his hand over his eyes for most of the piece. The TV screens were very distracting, as any neuroscientist knows, the brain is wired to watch moving impulses of light, and as any parent buying an infant mobile knows, red, black and white are the colours that can be discriminated first and best.  I have no idea what the dancers did, I watched the TVs. When we were riding home on the Tube, and I finally had a chance to read my programme notes, I discovered this piece was made by "an ongoing collaborative enquiry into the distributed nature of choreographic thinking with the Interactive Cognition Lab, UCSanDiego" — the very place Bob did his cognitive science post-doc 30 years ago!!!!!! So it was neuroscience after all.

We had gotten an e-mail from Sadler's Wells last week noting this production included "adult content" material, and that would have been directed at the final piece which included rape, sodomy, a Pope, a garotting, blood, and an electrocution. This was very much "in the spirit of Diaghilev" measured by the people walking out! But no fist fights as far as I could see. A powerful blast of incense permeating the theatre did nothing to improve my reaction. The music was a lovely waltz — my programme says Ravel's Mother Goose — so ho hum, violence and nursery rhymes, must be a commentary on our times or something.

I also finished another book this week, Gardens of Water, a first novel by Alan Drew, written when a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The book has one of those Readers' Guides for book groups in which we learn that Drew and his wife took teaching jobs in Turkey, arrived in Istanbul four days before the huge earthquake hit in 1999, and lived there for three years. The latter means they were there pre- and post-9/11, never mentioned in the interview, but clearly what helped shape the text. A Kurdish family of four has been uprooted from their Southern Turkey homeland because of the PKK rebellion. The Turkish forces are of course funded and supplied with weapons by the US — it's just what we do — and the father hates Americans — it's just what they do. They have settled in a city near Istanbul, but when the earthquake hits, they lose their home, shop, and extended family. The Turkish government is unable to respond to the crisis so they rely on American aid workers to feed and house the population. These aid workers are Christians who offer succour, but at the price of intense proselytising. The novel sets up clashes in world view: evangelical Christianity in a Muslim community; traditional parents trying to maintain their values — values that are mostly abhorrent to those with Western values such as the readers of this book — but whose children are swayed by the toys and treats of the modern world; the deep distrust of anything associated with the US by the millions of people whose lives have been tragically altered by one US policy or another.  I won't be giving anything away if I say this is not a happy book.

Cold weather has arrived in London this week along with quite a bit of rain. We haven't yet turned on the heat, but we will this weekend. After spending a day shivering wearing three sweaters and my bathrobe, I finally pulled out my winter clothes and sweaters. My closet and drawers are stuffed full so that means no shopping trips for me. I find myself drawn to the window displays this season because so much of it looks familiar — 1965 familiar. The last time these cute tunics and miniskirts were around, I was the target market! There are articles in the paper about Twiggy because she is turning 60. How could she have been younger than I was? And suddenly through Facebook I am in contact with high school classmates who haven't crossed my mind in 40+ years. I seem to be simultaneously moving backwards and forwards in time.