Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jenni in Bruges

Our traveling totem Barley sits on a wall in Bruges.

A few weeks ago, Bob and I realised that since Bibs was born 2 years/2 months ago, our holidays have been only to the States except for a week in Germany in 2008 and a weekend in Vienna way back in January. There are many reasons to love living in London, but one of the best is hopping a plane or train and being in Europe in a few hours or less. When we moved here, we coincided with the advent of cheap airlines that would take you any where in Europe for a few pounds (and when they wanted to fill planes, a few pence). The first few years we were here, at the turn of the century, there were at least four discount airlines — Go and Buzz are long gone, Ryanair and Easyjet hang on — competing for passengers by offering lower and lower fares. This was of course in retrospect A Very Bad Thing for many places — Prague and Vilnius were overrun with very drunk Brits attending stag party and hen party weekends – and for some people too — on school holidays very drunk teenage girls were raped and very drunk teenage boys died falling out of hotel windows on Greek islands. And we hardly need to go into the Very Bad Thing this was for airplane emissions and global warming. The cheap airlines are no longer very cheap. The post-9/11 airport security levied stiff taxes on each ticket, the rising price of jet fuel increased fares further, and now we have the endless extra charges for bags, for check-in at the airport, for paying with credit cards, and now for seat reservations too.

For a time though, the cheap airfares were A Very Good Thing for us. Nearly every month I could book a ticket and be in some wonderful city: Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki, The Hague, Oslo, Copenhagen, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Dresden, Vienna, Madrid, Barcelona, Siena, Lucca, Brussels, Paris, Nice, Cannes, Monaco, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Munich, Cologne, and Bruges. There are lots of places I still want to see in Europe — Seville, Milan, Bergen, spring to mind — but I have now been to Bruges three times. I have not seen In Bruges yet, but I will watch it tonight because it came in the mail while we were in Bruges.

My trips to Bruges started as literary pilgrimages. I can't remember where I first heard about Dorothy Dunnett, but I bought the first volume at Waterstones in one of those buy two books/get a third one free offer that is now standard in UK bookshops. Of course you can always find two you have been dying to read, but never a third with equal passion. Dorothy Dunnett, who sadly died in 2001 right as I was buying that first volume, is a cult writer with a huge, if hidden, following. She wrote two enormous multi-volume historical fiction series with casts of thousands of characters, both fictional and real, with complicated plots that follow historical events with great accuracy. In 2002, I began the eight volume Niccolo series, and I might have flagged half way through, but by that time, I had told Megan about Dorothy, and she urged me on, as a fan and a fast reader, she finished all eight volumes of Niccolo and then devoured the six volumes of the Lymond chronicle . The heroic Niccolo begins his globe trotting career in the important textile centre of Bruges in Flanders in the Duchy of Burgundy during the 1460s to 1480s. In those pre-Columbian decades, he single-handedly invents international capitalism as he roams through Europe to adventures in Cyprus, Iceland, Africa, and Scotland. By the end of 2002, Megan had convinced me that we must see Bruges for ourselves. So we headed off in cold and raining early November when many places were closed for the public holidays All Saints Day and Armistice Day which serve as a good week to take off after the tourist season is over. But we did have a good time in a lovely cozy hotel, The Egmond which I highly recommend, but it was completely booked for the month when I tried them last week, so plan ahead. We spent a great deal of time eating candy and cross-stitching after finding a very good embroidery shop. 2002 was the end of the year for Bruges as a European Cultural Capital, so there were several special shows still on view about lace and with illuminated manuscripts. And of course we wandered the streets seeking out sites from the Niccolo books where important events happen.

This is the Jerusalem Chapel where Niccolo was married with the approval of the chapel's owner Anselm Adornes who is now entombed in the chapel under this effigy of him and his wife.

The following year, Ryanair decided to fly a route to Ostend/Bruges, so Bob, Susan, and I booked for one pence tickets -- oh the golden days of destroying the environment -- which was perfectly ridiculous, and the route was scrapped after a few months. For one thing we were in the air for about 15 minutes, not long enough to fly much higher than a kite. Second, these cheap airlines which fly to less accessible destinations use not real airports, but old commercial aviation landing strips that are in the middle of nowhere, and then require long bus rides to the actual desired place of destination. On this trip the bus ride was more than an hour to Bruges! At the very last minute, Bob had to cancel because of a work-related matter, so Susan and I carried on. Susan is not an enthusiast of tourist sites that in some way resemble Disney World and attract the same travelers — she is not a fan of Venice nor of Bruges — but we also had a good time visiting the very interesting city of Ghent and exploring the old beach resort at Ostend.

I always knew that I would need a third trip to Bruges with Bob, so when we realised the paucity of our recent travels, Bruges seemed the obvious easy and near destination. Plus, Bob has now read all of Dorothy Dunnett, being the other fast reader in the family, he has plowed through both the Niccolo and Lymond series. (As the slow reader with a Pile to Read, I have not yet read the Lymond books, but I am thinking that is a possible 2010 project.) Travel to Bruges could not be easier, we took the cheap £49 train at 6:00 in the morning on Friday. The new fast Eurostar from St Pancras, which we hadn't ever used, gets you to Brussels in 2 hours. The 9:00 (add an hour for the Continental time difference) train to Ghent/Bruges/Ostend was 5 minutes late, so we caught it, and an hour later, we were in Bruges at 10:00 in the morning. Third time in Bruges is not really recommended over all. On the plus side we had a weekend of sparkling beautiful early autumn weather, several churches I had never seen were open, and Bob has a nose for good restaurants, so we had some terrific meals.

Some of the lovely canals that run though Bruges. The center of the city is usually crowded with tourists in small groups and in large groups, but when you walk away from the center, the crowds disappear. And one of the windmills placed on the embankment where the city wall once ran.

A Romanesque carving over a portal in the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

On the negative side, the art museum was closed until next weekend for a rehang of the collection, so we didn't get to see those jewels of Flemish art; the quality of shops has declined to offering just tourist tat both in the embroidery shop Megan and I patronised, and in the German Christmas chain Kathe Wohlfahrt where the nice angel orchestra figures I buy for Megan have been replaced with made-in-China knock-offs. And the hotels.com offering we booked had a nice entry and a good location, but the room was up two steep flights where I was eaten by mosquitos and have now broken out in some sort of allergic rash of red bumps on my face and arms.

However, the pastoral Beguinage, a community for excess women and now a Benedictine convent, is still charming and the early Flemish kitchen in the dwelling unit open as a museum is still covetable. The Memling paintings in the eponymous museum are still stunning, especially the Ursula casket.
And as a special treat we were able to buy tickets for a Telemann concert with Gustav Leonhardt playing the harpsichord. The concert hall is new, built for the Cultural Capital year, and has a strange unattractive façade of rust coloured slats, but the interior is lovely, and looking out from within the slats makes them more appealing. Gustav Leonhardt is old, 81 years, and has been playing the harpsichord in concert for 60 years according to his biography. Bob was over the moon at the chance to hear a legend play once more.

We also spent an afternoon at the seaside in Ostend where the modern stained glass in the cathedral is a knock-out, especially on a sunny day when the blue and red glass makes patterns on the white interior walls.

Monday, on our way back to Brussels for the Eurostar return, we stopped off in Ghent to see the magnificent van Eyck polyptych The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St Bavo's cathedral with "the most beautiful Mary ever painted," as Bob said.

Ghent has such a lovely old town with striking buildings and a scenic river and canal through the centre.

A brass plaque on a modern shop showed us the location of the building where John Adams lived in 1814, when he was negotiating the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. That brought to mind from some deep recess in the brain, the grade school poem, How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix by Robert Browning, and I wondered if the poem had to do with the Treaty, and why on earth they cared in Aix (this Aix being the German Aachen/French Aix-la-Chapelle) or even thought it was good news. A little googling and it seems there was no news, no event, Browning just wanted to write a poem to the rhythm of galloping horse hoofs.

So back home in London by 10 p.m., after an excellent four days away. I think a fourth trip to Bruges would be two or three too many, but I am looking forward to spending tonight In Bruges, cinema version.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Open House Weekend

This was London's Open House Weekend, an event we all look forward to every year as lovers of buildings and architectural spaces. London is a very large city -- 620 square miles according to the tourist information bureau -- New York City is only half the size of London coming in at between 300 and 320 square miles (none of the sources seem to agree). While some visitors to New York may know there are five boroughs, only Manhattan really ever figures in planning a holiday itinerary. I bet that very few visitors to London know that this city is made up of 33 boroughs with names like Redbridge and Merton and Bexley, along with the better known boroughs of Camden or Westminster or Kensington and Chelsea that figure in every London holiday itinerary. Every September, Open House invites public and private buildings, owners and architects to open up their spaces to the public with free admission for everyone. This year, buildings in 31 of the 33 boroughs participated. (In the interests of complete accuracy, some sources correctly say that London has 32 boroughs, because technically the City of London is not a borough.) So what went wrong with you, Kingston and Barnet?

Every year I promise myself that I will use Open House Weekend to visit sites in the outer boroughs, but I usually end up closer to home in the inner boroughs. This year I had great plans to visit some ancient churches, but the on-going rehab of the Tube and train lines regularly close transport lines on weekends, and sure enough on Saturday morning I discovered that my plans to travel both east to Barking on Saturday and north to Stanmore on Sunday would be very difficult with line closures on those days. Also Bob was looking forward to spending time at a favourite stamp show on Saturday morning. In the past few years he has begun collecting stamps again. His maternal grandfather was a serious stamp collector who cultivated Bob's interest in stamps when he was a boy. When we moved to London, he began attending stamp shows which can be very interesting. Stamps are after all little tiny pieces of art work, so it is quite easy to become enthralled with their designs. The most fun at stamp shows are the displays by collectors of themed stamps. For example, someone might collect stamps with dolls -- and if you are able to gather all the stamps from all the countries of the world who feature dolls in their design -- you have an amazing display of style, geography, and culture that might equal the display in an art or ethnographic museum, but all in tiny visuals. I have been tempted to collect stamps featuring needle crafts. I think everyone remembers the wonderful quilted basket stamps the States issued in the 1970s. Quilt design books, now refer to that basic basket pattern as the "stamp basket." The States also issued a set of stamps with the Gees Bend quilts in a little booklet a few years ago when the quilts were traveling to museums around the country. The Scandinavian countries are always issuing wonderful stamps with knitting and embroidery designs too. As it is, I never seem to get done all the things I want to get done -- hello book pile, hello yarn pile, hello fabric mega-pile -- so can I really add stamp collecting to my life? Maybe next year. Therefore I sent Bob off by himself so he could enjoy himself without me huffing every time he spends money -- which I know is terribly unfair because he never huffs when I buy needless yarn and fabrics.

We set out mid-afternoon for the heart of London, the Royal Academy complex on Piccadilly. The Royal Academy exhibition galleries are situated in Burlington House, remodeled in the Palladian Style by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, in 1717 when he assembled the supreme Georgian architecture team of Colen Campbell and William Kent. Their remit was to revive the classical Italianate style brought to England by the architect Inigo Jones in the early years of the 17th century before the Civil War. In the 1860s, the Royal Academy moved into Burlington House from their purpose-built rooms at Somerset House in the Strand, and at the same time, the service wings of Burlington House were rebuilt to house various scientific societies. Each society is housed in a suite of rooms that includes meeting rooms and a fantastic multi-level library. The Royal Society of Chemistry is not quite so interesting because their rooms were redesigned in the 1960s. The Linnean Society and the Society of Antiquaries where the original rooms have been left largely as they were designed, including their libraries with a light-filled central courts surrounded by multi-levels of bookshelves, were just wonderful. The Linnean Society is where Darwin and Russell gave their 1858 paper on evolution by natural selection. At that time the Society met in the main body of Burlington House, not in these rooms, so we were not standing in the actual rooms, but since the Linneans moved in only a few years later, there is no doubt, some of the great battles were fought in these historic rooms. I see on today's Alternet feed, they have reprinted the Guardian's article from earlier this week on how the new film about Darwin, Creation, cannot find distributors in the United States of Stupid because it is "too controversial" since only 39% of Americans believe in evolution according to some Gallup poll, although it has to be said that a nearly equal percentage has "no opinion one way or the other," and that undoubtedly includes people who are tired of stupid polls that ask stupid questions.

After Burlington House we moved on to Marlborough House. Sarah Churchill knew a good piece of real estate when she saw one. When her husband, the Duke of Marlborough was busy having Blenheim Palace built in Oxfordshire, Sarah secured the land next to St James's Palace, hired (and later fired) Christopher Wren to build her a town house. Sarah lived in the house until her death in 1744. A series of Dowager Queens and princes and princesses lived in the house until 1959 when Marlborough House became the headquarters of the Commonwealth secretariat. The original house is an eye-stopper with Orazio Gentileschi's Saloon ceiling, painted originally for Inigo Jones's Queen's House in Greenwich, but never installed, the Wren designed cantilevered staircase with wall paintings of Marlborough's battles with the French, culminating with his great victory at Blenheim. The State rooms include the impressive conference room with a huge mahogany table that seats the delegates from 53 commonwealth nations, according to the guide pamphlet, with 2 billion world citizens represented. (Although I do remember that Fiji was expelled earlier this month, so that makes one fewer country, but probably doesn't alter the population count by much.)

On Sunday, we headed out early for the Benjamin Franklin House on a charming Georgian street between Charing Cross station and the Embankment. When I moved to London, the Franklin house had just become a new project supported by a number of American civic groups and clubs here in London. Then it seemed to drop off the radar until a few years ago when it finally had a very low key opening. I had never been to visit, and I'm glad we went when entry was free because the house is pretty much totally empty. The interior has been beautifully rehabbed, but there isn't anything to look at. I gather from their website they have a costumed actress who guides booked visitors with a sound-and-light show to fill the space. That doesn't sound like a programme I would enjoy.

After Ben Franklin, we visited the Royal Institution founded in 1799 as a science research laboratory where great discoveries have been made by great scientists. Research continues today, but the Society, in its gorgeous headquarters building in Mayfair, now seems to concentrate on educating the public about science through lectures, exhibits, and especially children's activities. We finished the afternoon with two churches in Kensington and Chelsea: a Victorian masterpiece near the Albert Hall and a later Arts and Crafts masterpiece near Sloane Square. A profitable Open House Weekend with at least a half dozen new places for me to find out more about their activities and programmes.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Friday, not the thirteenth

A second good joke in the same week as the green bananas quip -- by the way, what sort of bananas did Ocado deliver on Thursday? -- the greenest green bananas I have ever seen from Waitrose's new Fairtrade Home Ripening line of bananas. They are mostly yellow now, so we have nearly survived this bunch. And now another banana line to keep straight when I am placing my on-line order for groceries.

The second joke: Friday is considered an unlucky day in the maritime trade. One merchant decided to prove this superstition wrong. He ordered a new wooden sailing ship to be built, on a Friday; construction of all the important parts of the vessel were begun on Fridays; the boat was christened on a Friday; and sailed off on its first voyage on a Friday.......and it and its cargo of woodpeckers was never seen again.

All right, it sounded much better when told by the magnificent June Tabor in her dramatic deep voice at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night. Another spellbinding evening of music from June with last night's programme all connected to the sea in one way or another including a wonderful description of the Aberdeen Fish Market from one of H.V. Morton's 1920s travel books on Britain. I was once a huge fan of Morton. Our first trip to Rome, way back when we lived in Hingham, was planned around a Morton book I found in the Hingham Library. Despite being decades old, the essence of Rome had not changed, and we explored sites that a modern day Fodor's or Frommer's or Rough Guide would not have sent us to. When I moved to London and found that Morton had produced a huge list of British travel books, I was excited -- until I started noting the anti-semitic, racist comments laced through their texts. I imagine the Rome of 1957 had few undesirables for him to comment on in that book. I'm not a big Wagner fan, so I have never had to deal with that moral question. Bob is uncomfortable with being a fan of T.S. Eliot since Anthony Julius's book was published in the mid-1990s. We were in Hingham, and much of the book dealt with Eliot's time at nearby Milton Academy (where we might have sent Susan for high school) and Harvard, so the book made a big splash in Boston. I've noticed when Bob says something complimentary about Eliot he likes to add a tag line, "but of course he was an anti-semite..." I have deliberately had nothing to do with Morton in years. I had bought only one Morton book (he's more of a library kind of guy) on Wales, which I left shrink-wrapped for several years, while I evaded dealing with my conscience, and then binned after a biography of the man was published and learned from the reviews that anti-semitism was only the start of this appalling man's sins: he supported Hitler and took South African citizenship as a fan of apartheid. But he was a brilliant travel writer. Last night, sitting in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, we were all transported to Aberdeen's fish market, where the slap of dead fish -- dead being the normal state of fish for people, if not for fish -- sounds like the slap of a million babies bottoms all at once, to paraphrase a bit. Morton's warped mind has not seemed to be an issue for others. The BBC has done a recent TV series following his travels, his books have been reissued (I don't know if the new editions have been redacted.), and through Google, I can join a Morton appreciation society to share views with other Morton fans -- I certainly hope this is referring to his views on travel. So I exude a deep sigh of sadness and wonder how someone with a gift for describing places so well, could do so with a mind steeped in malice.

Back to the subject of Friday, here, yesterday -- It was certainly not an unlucky day in this family. Susan was appointed Curator of the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House. A day we have awaited with no certainty since last March when our former curator announced her resignation and recommended Susan be considered for the job. Five years out of Bowdoin, two years out of Cambridge, Susan has achieved a goal -- a real job in a museum. That may not seem like such a difficult goal to reach, but in the three to four years since Susan decided that a career in museum work was what she wanted to pursue, we have all learned museum work is one of the hardest, most competitive, limited job areas to break into despite the huge number of museums in the UK. She has volunteered at museums -- no longer a route to being hired for jobs as it once was -- worked on grant-funded projects at Hampstead Museum, and financed her independent life by working in a shop. For much of the past two years working -- for pay or as a volunteer -- seven days a week. Of course museum work is still under-paid and under-funded. The curator job is half time with half-pay to match, but she is finally on her way upwards. And we all say hurrah!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book blogging

This is Book Blogger Appreciation Week!
Since I am not a book blogger, I have not signed up to participate, but I am a great supporter of book bloggers. Linking from book blogger to book blogger is one of my favourite ways of wasting an afternoon or an evening when the mind is tired and the body is weak. I have been a regular visitor to Dove Grey Reader's blog (dovegreyreader.typepad.com) for years and years. When blogging was just emerging as an indoor sport in Britain, lagging a few years behind the States, I read a newspaper article condemning these new upstarts who thought they could be arts critics. The article was written by a book critic, so Dove Grey was singled out, and when she was described as a quilter and a knitter, I knew I had to check her out. All those snooty journalists have had to pull in their horns and hope to keep their jobs these days. Dove Grey is now a celebrity -- courted by authors, publishers, festivals -- and we all love her because her head has never been turned around by the recognition. She has retired from her day job as a visiting nurse for the NHS in rural Devon (really, how did she have time for everything?), and now has more time for knitting and quilting, and for the hundreds of books she reads every year. (Does she sleep?) Starting with Dove Grey, I can link to dozens of other book blogs, and from those to dozens of others, and on and on.

Except for Dove Grey, I don't follow any other book bloggers regularly. I am not a steady reader of newspaper "professional" reviews either. The literary mafias here and in the States get it wrong so often, that I almost shy away from the the hot new literary books and the prize winners too. I have yet to find anyone who felt Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss was worth the inordinate amount of time it took to read, much less the Booker Prize it won. I read it for a book group, and we all wanted to like it because her mother, the writer Anita Desai, had been a book group guest a few year's before, and she was such a lovely woman and so proud of her daughter's writing career. Once one member of the book group (probably me because I am usually the contrarian) admitted to hating the book, everyone admitted to skimming, stopping at page 50, or unhappily slogging through. I seem to have more of a problem with highly championed books than most people. For example, I hated Brick Lane -- and Monica Ali has not had much success post-Brick Lane; Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture has such a stupid premise and ending, it shouldn't have been in the running for prizes, much less won the Costa; The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was just plain boring once you got through the history of detection and realised there was no story; and the Orange Prize winner last year was the ridiculous The Road Home whose author Rose Tremain is way overrated if you ask me, talk about a writer with no ear for dialogue. Saturday by Ian McEwan is without any shadow of a doubt, the worst book ever written (and "you don't have to take my word for it," as LeVar Burton used to say on Reading Rainbow, but you can take John Banville's [whose Booker winning The Sea, I did very much like] word for it in the NYRB) by an established author who has written good books (Enduring Love) and great books (Atonement). In my defense, I thought The Road, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and The White Tiger were all great reads and had important points to make, so I am not a complete philistine when it comes to award winning, best sellers.

What I do find fascinating when I page through book blogs is the inconsistency of opinions that match my own critical opinions. This came as a shock to me because up until I moved to London, I almost never discussed books and opinions on books with anyone else. I was not in a book group, as the only book group I had ever heard of in Hingham never asked me to join them (although with typical Hingham inhospitality, I was occasionally asked for suggestions!); the internet hadn't discovered organised social networking; friendly discussions never included opinions on books. When I read a book, the opinion I formed was mine and rarely, if ever, shared. It is hard to imagine that life now. The book group was the first activity I joined when I was settled in London. Authors speak all over London all the time, including at the Waterstones here in Hampstead, just up the street. There isn't a living author I can't see and hear -- and question if I were brave (but I am not) -- with only the least effort of keeping track of perhaps a dozen events calendars, and paying a few pounds, which at bookstores is usually refunded if you buy the book at the reading. Some of the world's most popular writers have been guests at my book groups: Tracy Chevalier, the sorely missed Carol Shields, Esther Freud, among others. When I moved to London, reading turned from being private and personal to public and social. I discuss books at book groups of course, but I also discuss books while quilting and knitting with friends, comparing what our various book groups are liking and disliking. And if a live person is not available for an opinion, the book bloggers always are. I really cannot ever imagine going back to a world where reading is a private matter. When my opinions became a shared event, I was struck by the fact someone could agree with me wholly on one book, and disagree just as wholly on the next book. At first, I couldn't understand how that could be, but of course, everyone enters a book with their own life experiences and biases shaping what the author is serving up on the page. What may be tosh to me, will resonate with my opposite. The joy of book groups and book blogs is the multitude of individual personal insights that can make a book come alive. Too often professional critics want to pronounce on how we should feel about a particular work based on some arcane literary standard, hence the overhyped disappointments we may read and the overlooked gems that are invisible. Of course some of the biggest successes these days are the "word-of-mouth" bestsellers that emerge from the vast sea of readers who pass recommendations through the web of book groups and book bloggers.

Those with a discerning eye will notice that March has moved from reading to read on the lists to the right. Another book off The Book Pile, bought at the Library book sale two years ago, and ready to be returned for resale this year. March won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006. The narrative is related in the voice of Mr March, the father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, as he recounts his early life and his terrible experiences as a chaplain in the American Civil War. The voice shifts to Marmee March, when she hurries to Washington to care for her gravely ill husband. The story is well done enveloping the Marches -- using Bronson Alcott as a model for Mr March -- in the intellectual and abolitionist life of the Concord, Massachusetts inhabited by Thoreau, Emerson, and a cameo of Hawthorne. Mr March's Civil War includes a long section on the Union's attempt to employ "contraband" -- which would be the homeless slaves about to be emancipated -- in model agriculture schemes. An element of the war that I certainly knew nothing about. March was a good read.

Geraldine Brooks's first novel, Year of Wonder, was set in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, famous for quarantining itself to prevent the plague from spreading through the shire during the late 17th century. That was also a very good read. I had read a long time ago Jill Paton Walsh's YA novel A Parcel of Patterns on the same subject. The plague is thought to have arrived in Eyam with a postal delivery from London where the final round of plague was petering out. A disturbing cautionary tale as we wait to see what will happen with our Swine Flu pandemic in the months to come. Brooks's most recent novel, People of the Book, was interesting, but ultimately not satisfying. The book of the title is the Sarajevo Haggadah, saved again during the most recent bombardment of Sarajevo by a librarian. The novel traces the real, when known, and invented history of the book back to the medieval clerk who lettered the manuscript. The story is told through a series of historical vignettes, interspersed with a present day story of the young woman who has been hired to restore the book for display in a new museum. I read the book for a book group and was surprised at how many people disliked the book. I disliked the book restorer, a young woman, but chosen for this important job because of her professional skills and training under the finest craftsmen, yet she acted like an immature teenager throughout, and I thought that did not ring true as a character. I did, however, like the historical vignettes, and that was the part with which others found fault. So once again, you just never know what to expect.

Now I am on to C.P. Snow's The Masters for next week's book group.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Oh what a weekend

Another busy weekend beginning with a nifty knitting show over at the Horticultural Hall near Victoria Station sponsored by the I Knit London Shop near Waterloo Station.When the knitting renaissance began in the States ten years ago, London was a backwater for craft supplies of any sort and was progressively shutting down all the most popular sites. The go-to department store John Lewis on Oxford Street had a floor devoted to sewing fabrics and yarns in 1998 and that was pretty much gone a year later. The loss of Liberty's fabric floor at about the same time was like the violation of a World Heritage Site. On my first trip to London in 1974, I hyperventilated in Liberty's fabric department. Bob had to take me outside to calm me down before I could breathe evenly and buy a yard or two of Tana Lawn from the massive display. Even as knitting shops were opening by the day in the States in the early years of the 21st century (isn't that a great historical line!), Liberty's moved their entire yarn department into a little alcove behind the stairwell where if one customer and the shop assistant were in the alcove, there was no room for a second customer. The only yarn available at either John Lewis or Liberty was Rowan -- I'm not counting the cheap synthetics since I am never more than barely aware of their existence yarn snob that I am -- but the saving grace at the time was that Rowan had gorgeous, affordable yarns that were so desirable it didn't matter they were the only game in town. I'm not sure where Rowan went wrong, but I never even look at Rowan yarns these days. I knit a sweater for Bibs last year from a cotton-wool blend that did not feel nice to work with and looked worn out after one washing.

Slowly the world's wonderful yarns have been slipping into England. In London the shops Loop and Stash were opened by American ex-pats. Loop in Islington is not a favourite although lists usually proclaim it to be the premier London shop. I was there with Susan the opening weekend, excited to be buying some patterned sock yarn, previously unavailable in England, and the owner asked me if knitting socks was fun because she had never tried knitting a sock. Hmm I thought, not a shop for advice then. Loop is really a yarn boutique, nice yarn if a bit expensive, and if knitting is not your interest, very nice knitted gifts to buy at a premium price. I have only ever been to Stash once, and it was terrific, but involves a train ride to Putney, which isn't so difficult, but not something I think about doing. The UK is great for mail order too -- well maybe not now with the endless postal strikes that are carrying on -- but ordinarily, the on-line shops are well stocked, the country is small, the regular postage costs are not onerous, so things are often in hand within one or two days.

When I Knit London moved to Waterloo a few years ago, I began to go there for the odds and ends I need. They have a wonderful variety of stock including a lot of small British yarn producers and dyers/painters that are both beautiful and reasonably priced. Their website is
www.iknit.org.uk and offers a link to the weekly newsletter which usually has interesting tidbits even if you don't live in or around London. I went to the show early on Friday when it wasn't very crowded, so it was easy to look and touch and feel. I bought unusual fibres, silky Chinese bamboo, very fine hemp, a cashmere-silk blend, and some gorgeously dyed merino. The publishers of Sew Hip! magazine had a table because they publish a knitting magazine Yarn Forward, so I was able to pick up a few back issues of Sew Hip! too.

Friday evening, we went to a fantastic concert at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. We have gone to many Waterson/Carthy concerts over the years in the various combinations and groups they perform with, but this was a special Waterson Family concert. Norma, Martin, and Eliza, with Mike, his wife and two daughters, and the late Lal's son and daughter. In the middle, Eliza did a set with her band. It was a wow evening. . .a reprise to a similar show they did at the Albert Hall two years ago, that we managed to miss. We never heard Lal Waterson live, but the commentary is that her daughter is the image and sound of her. Bob of course bought the career box set of CDs so we have been listening to a lot of East Yorkshire music since Friday night.

Saturday and Sunday were devoted to Susan's Big Event. Last spring she was awarded a £14,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to do an oral history for the 30th Anniversary of Burgh House's opening as a community centre. Saturday was street festival day in Hampstead, so we spent the day passing out announcements of Sunday's schedule of events at Burgh House to the people wandering through Hampstead for the Gayton Road Festival and for Gail's Bakery's Food Festival. Saturday was lovely weather, a bit cool, but sunny, so there were mobs of people to leaflet.

Sunday dawned cold and grey, and sadly remained cold and grey all day. The morning event -- speeches and birthday cake went very well -- Susan gave a rousing speech that touched everyone. One of the reasons she pursued the grant was the realisation that many of the people who saved Burgh House were getting on in years and would not always be around to share their stories. She was most upset because Ian Norrie, a writer and owner of a Hampstead bookstore for many years, who she had interviewed for the project and had quite liked, was gravely ill in hospital. And had in fact died the day before, we later learned. Christopher Wade, founder of the Hampstead Museum with his late wife Diana, started off with a great joke about how "he was of the age where you wonder whether to buy green bananas....." It took everyone a moment, before the room was convulsed in laughter. I may never buy another banana without contemplating mortality.

The afternoon of public events began very slowly -- worryingly slowly. The Buttery cafe has become very popular, and on Sunday is ordinarily standing room only, but the patio was empty. The cold weather? Festival fatigue? By mid-afternoon, everything was hopping at last. The short walking tours of the neighbourhood around Burgh House were well-subscribed, as was the informal piano concert, and the talk on Dr Gibbons who owned the house during the 1720s. My contribution, as a Friend of Burgh House, was a tour of the House itself. I had a very small audience, but it was scheduled for the lunch hour, so that was a factor. We may try to do more scheduled tours in the future. We walked with Ed Wolf on his New End excursion which was erratic, eccentric, and wonderful. He showed us places I never knew existed. Then he announced New End was boring and took us down to Gainsborough Gardens which was not boring! All in all a huge success for Susan.

Bob and I were knackered at the end of the day. Fortunately, we had some corn chowder in the fridge, and some delicious smoked fish spread I bought at Gail's Food Festival from Pinney's of Orford -- a town in Suffolk (that seems to smoke a lot of fish, and oysters too) where we have eaten more than once at Butley's with its 1950s interior and ambiguous menu. By googling, I have just discovered that Butley's and Pinney's have the same ownership (www.butleyorfordoysterage.co.uk ). Orford has a lovely church and a fun castle to explore too. The corn in the chowder was from Riverford. I accidently ordered two bags so I have to still deal with a few more ears. The flavour was not too bad, but the sweetness and tenderness is just not there even in fresh organic corn.

It was a good night to watch DVDs, so we popped in more episodes of Damages Season 2. I love Glenn Close, not so much Rose Byrne who does only seem to have one facial expression, but the twists and turns of the plot does keep the blood pumping. Our first year in London we went to Heathrow to meet Megan's plane for the Christmas holiday, and Glenn Close was standing near us in the scrum of people waiting for passengers to enter the arrivals hall. She is tiny with a large head, like most actresses, and she looked exactly like Glenn Close on screen, despite no make-up and waiting-at-the-airport casual clothes. Maureen Lipman, a famous London stage actress, once said in an interview that she never had a film career because she wasn't tiny with an outsize head which is what the camera needs for the best screen shots. It's been true of the three actresses I have seen in the flesh recently: Helena Bonham-Carter, Imelda Staunton, and Alison Steadman.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sewing and pictures, at last

I am thrilled the younger generation has taken to handcrafts in the past ten years or so. I have always loved making things, and I am happy that my daughters also like making things. Making things gives a richness to life that just thinking about things or just reading about things cannot do.

I have enjoyed sewing since junior high school home economics class had us make the cobbler apron. I continued to make the most appalling creations that were not (could not) be worn until the summer before 10th Grade when I made a shift dress from a pattern suggested in a Seventeen magazine feature -- so we can credit Seventeen as responsible for the achieving the first rule of thumb of successful home sewing: choose the right pattern. The second rule is to choose the right fabric for the pattern, and I did that myself this time for the first time. I still remember looking at myself in the mirror for the first time and feeling stunned that I was actually wearing something that could be worn in public. And I did wear it, and from then I sewed nearly all my own clothes until 1990. By then of course, we were all wearing jeans and knit T-shirts neither of which are particularly fun to sew. Although in the early 1980s, when Calvin Klein invented the must-have designer jeans, he did license a pattern to Vogue, and I made a Calvin Klein jeans skirt that I wore between the Megan and Susan pregnancies. What really happened in 1990 was that globalisation finally shut down home-sewing. I made my clothes because I couldn't afford the high quality clothing that I wanted (especially those Calvins), but by 1990, clothes were so cheap, there was no reason to spend time sewing. As the market contracted, fabrics and patterns became very expensive, and hard to find as fabric shops closed. By 1990, the cost of buying a decent outfit at a mid-price department store was much less than buying the bits needed for sewing it together yourself. And when the outlet venues began to spread across the land, sewing became the luxury option. After 1990, the sewing machine was always running, but for patchwork projects instead of clothes.

The other thing that happened around 1990 was that my little girls were no longer little, and sewing the cute girlie clothes I had loved making for them was no longer an option. When Megan was a baby, the baby and child clothes were awful. Remember there had been a monumental "baby bust" from 1964 when the "baby boom" ended until 1978/79, so there was no energy in the market. All the clothes were slimy polyester often coated with carcinogenic chemicals. I wasn't going to let my darling baby wear what was available on the market. Then when she became a child, what I called the Madonna years began, when the clothing available for children seemed modeled on sexy costumes worn by rock stars -- dubbed by Megan as prosti-tot clothes, and even more widely available for children now. Lots of bad things have been said about The Gap over the decades, but The Gap Kids shops that opened in the late 1980s were life savers. Classic, comfortable clothes in appropriate styles, nice fabrics, happy colours, and affordable. We were fans.

Children's clothes in the States are now quite wonderful, from the outrageously expensive designer lines like the French Bonpoint to the mid-priced Gymboree shops, and I have had fun looking at the former and buying at the latter, when I am visiting Megan. I'm sorry to say, the situation in England is much bleaker. The expensive French shops and The Gaps are here of course, and there is a nice Scandinavian shop at the local mall, and the fancy Rachel Riley boutique is quite lovely, but there is no affordable comfortable children's clothes line available here. Marks and Spencer and Next have cute baby clothes, then the size range leaps from Age 2 to Age 11, which is much too broad, and with the emphasis on the older end, often inappropriate for the younger end child. John Lewis (aka Peter Jones), everyone's favourite department store, usually have one line a season that is cute, but really do you want your child's clothes to all be hot pink or bright orange for a season. I imagine the dearth stems from the ubiquitous school uniforms worn by every child in the country. The fancy private schools have their distinctive uniforms which must be ordered from special suppliers (or traded second hand within school communities). State school students wear generic uniforms that can be purchased in most department stores. The better stores offer a more expensive line, the discounters offer a less expensive line (I wonder what parents will do without Woolworths this year?), but the point is they all look the same. They come in grey or navy, pleated skirts and trousers (Teflon-coated), with a white shirt, and a sweater added in the school's colour of red, or navy, or dark green. Socks are white and shoes are black and chunky. Voila, the school year is taken care of.

I always felt lucky that I came of age during the crafts boom of the 1970s. Remember macramé! I lived for the next American Home Crafts Magazine issue to arrive in my waiting hands. Patterns for every sort of craft appeared and they were both stylish and trendy. Historians count 33 years as a generation, and it has been about 35-40 years since the last peak of crafting, so hooray for the new generation who have taken up handcrafts as a cool pursuit: good for the planet and good for the psyche. Knitting came first. Susan, who had knitted a beloved pair of mittens as a child from a wonderful book titled Sunny's Mittens, picked up needles when she went off to Bowdoin College which culminated in a photo in the New York Times of the Bowdoin Knitting Club as part of an article on how college kids deal with stress. (And my favourite part, the Times website using Susan's face from the photo as the icon for National News for half the day!) And now sewing has begun to enjoy the same sort of revival. Trendy magazines in the UK such as Sew Hip! (a needle is the exclamation point in print), trendy businesses like Brooklyn's Oliver & S patterns for children's clothes, and new shops selling trendy fabrics from around the world, especially Japan, available everywhere on the internet. A new operation here in London called The Make Lounge, offers courses on making all sorts of crafts including needlework, sewing, candles, cake decorating -- and I think we have swung back to the pages of my 1970s magazine.

If you follow Megan's Sanctimommy blog, you have seen the fabulous clothes she is making for her children. When she formulated her school-clothes plan for Bibble, I was inspired to try my hand again, and it was so much fun this summer. My first project was the jacket pictured above. The pattern is from an issue of Sew Hip! I used a packet of fat quarters of indigo fabric bought years ago from the African Fabric Shop at the Alexandra Palace Stitching Show. Strips are sewn together for the outer jacket, and the flannel lining is so so old, a remnant bought perhaps in New Jersey to make striped legs for a doll that was never made. Perhaps for brief moments, you can live life over again, as I found when I was deeply engrossed in the jacket, and for a brief moment, a thought wafted through my brain that I hadn't heard the kids and should I wonder why? Of course the last time I was deeply engrossed in making something for a two year old, the answer would have been an emphatic yes. Sanctimommy's photos from yesterday's first day of school for Bibs show her wearing the jacket.

Then I pulled out my Oliver & S patterns and made this sweet little tunic from a very old fabric that never quite seemed to be right for anything else. I do love my red and yellow combinations, and can never resist buying them. The mustard yellow seems to be a big trend this year too.

For the matching trousers, I used the Oliver & S shorts pattern and lengthened the legs to more or less the length that is used in the sailor pant pattern. Bibs has been seen in Sanctimommy photos wearing the outfit, so they do fit.
Added bonus, I used up mounds of old fabric, another one of those New Year's goals like the Book Pile Project.
I have a few more ideas for outfits and have bought a few Boden knit tops to work off of the colours of the tops. Perhaps I will have some more finished project photos next week.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Midweek is a good time for a catch-up on events. The weekly gathering of the Flying Geese Quilters met here on Monday. Over the past few years, knitting has been talked about and worked on as much as quilting among the members. The group changes constantly as ex-pats come and go. We have lost most of our serious quilters, and not added anyone with advanced skills and an eye on the greater quilting world. In two weeks, we are having a special reunion meeting, with the three former members -- well lets say three members who no longer live in London, because membership is surely for life -- who best fit that description.

Bob is looking for a new group to sing with. He lost patience with the basses in his last group who never learned the music and were difficult to sing among when they were so unprepared. Last evening he raked through websites of the dozens and dozens and dozens of amateur singing groups in London looking for one that fits his criteria.

Susan is madly busy putting the finishing touches on her first exhibit at the Hampstead Museum commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the formation of the Burgh House Trust taking on the management of Burgh House and opening it to the public as a community centre. The celebration is on Sunday. And I have to get busy on putting together the spiel for my part: a 20 minute tour of Burgh House mid-afternoon, perhaps to become a semi-regular event for visiting groups. She wants me to take on the role of leader of the Friends, but that cannot be considered until -- or perhaps if -- she is offered the job as curator. September offers lots of other voluntary activities. I have already expressed interest in the Hampstead Churchyard Project, and yesterday I saw a sign at Keats House for an open day for volunteers later in the month.

Megan's blog Sanctimommy goes from strength to strength. Her recent post on the Cushing Academy Library shedding its books, and her post on the frightening new cycle-of-life (no longer related to Shakespeare's Seven Ages) we are offering our children are just brilliant reads. Bob's Bazzfazz blog has been picked up by Scholars and Rogues, and he has been linking to her non-mommy posts to widen her readership a bit. Bibs begins pre-school this week -- not a moment too soon for Megan -- the terrible twos have been taking hold, I gather. Bobs is such an adorable baby boy in his pictures. Megan says people melt when he flashes his big smile.

I am building the blog page here with some "gadgets" as Blogger calls them. I have added the Family Blog list. The "Books I am Reading" has gained a companion of "Books I have Read" since I have finally finished the books on the initial list. One lesson of the past week is that if you spend enough time on the computer, there is no time to do anything to write about. September begins a new year for the two book groups to which I belong. Both are run by the same wonderful woman who moved to London from Minnesota as a newlywed with her Australian husband 40 years ago, with the intention of staying for a year or two as an adventure. I have never read so much as I have since moving to London. Bookstores have always been a destination for our family. Bob is a huge reader and book buyer. I have always bought way too many cookbooks and craft books and history books, but when I moved to London I started buying fiction too. I was confused by the authors on offer being so different from those in the States, and after the huge bazaar of the Hingham Public Library, our tiny neighbourhood library seemed much too limited. After a year or so, I did become a huge fan of our library, tiny as it is. It is a lovely building with a coloured glass domed ceiling attached to the Keats House. The library's ginger cat, Domino, died earlier this year, and that was a great loss. It was very soothing to see him curled up sleeping on the sofa.

I don't imagine I am the only person who buys books with the good intention of reading them all, however somehow the books pile up faster than the time expands. By this time two years ago, my pile was enormously tall. The Book Pile Project was a New Year's Resolution of 2008 -- I sorted through the pile, admitted there were some bad purchases that I would never read, and they went to Oxfam -- and resolved to work my way from top to bottom over the year. I actually did stick to my resolution and read a good half of the original stack, but it's impossible to get through a year limiting reading to older purchases -- the monthly book club choices, the new bestsellers, the book sale bargains, and the hot recommendations all must be figured into the calculus. So 2009 began with a pile too -- a much smaller pile and not all the same books -- and The Book Pile Project continues into another year. I am very pleased with my progress this year. The Summer Book and March, which I have just started, are both from The Pile. Tove Jansson is a Finnish writer best known for the beloved Moomin books and cartoons. The Summer Book is an evocative series of vignettes about a motherless girl and her ailing grandmother who spend summer holidays on an island in the Gulf of Finland. A cult classic no doubt, but I found it a bit twee. The descriptions of nature were elegant, but the people of the story never rose above the level of stock characters mouthing banalities to each other. Kate Atkinson's Case Histories has turned into a much admired mystery series because of her appealing hero Jackson Brodie, the last good man standing. I just borrowed the second Brodie book from the library when I returned Janet Evanovich's Finger Lickin' Fifteen. I have read and laughed my way through all fifteen of the Stephanie Plum numbered novels -- what's not to like in a book that spoofs New Jersey -- and one of the books even has a car chase over the Raritan Avenue Bridge into Highland Park and up River Road, a route that took seven years of my life -- and takes about three hours to finish. This is the first one I felt perhaps that Stephanie and her posse of friends and family have been there and done that maybe once too often for the schtick to still be as funny as it was the first fourteen times.

I have my next few books laid out from The Pile, the library, for book club, and I'm very excited about a new food book that arrived from Amazon today. I saw it referenced on the 101 Cookbooks blog yesterday, and I can't believe I already have it in hand. I will report on the reading I get through next week.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

This weekend we........

.........started off with another fine meal at Bentley's in Mayfair. We always sit at the counter, drink their special stout and eat scallop and pea fritters. We love living in the big city, but we are such small town eaters. We invariably eat out at the same restaurants and order the same dishes -- because they are so good. We do add new places, as we did with Bentley's three years ago when Bob's job moved to London's node of hedgefunds in St. James's and Mayfair. The only problem with Bentley's now is that it is always filled with Americans. I guess it must appear on some list of where to eat posh fish and chips in London.

Bentley's is an old time fish restaurant recently brought back from the dead by one of the UK's celebrity chefs, Richard Corrigan, who I don't think does TV. Although I did see him once as a guest on Tamasin Day-Lewis's TV series, and I thought he was a really neat guy. I never watch TV cooking shows, but I did enjoy Tamasin's show in her funky home kitchen, mumbling to herself in that deep posh voice about what she was doing. TV cooks always seem to be perky, but Tamasin could never be accused of being perky. We used to get the Telegraph on Saturdays so I could read her weekly food column which was a wonderful source for information on ingredients and for recipes. Then the newspaper was sold and all the fun columnists disappeared. Susan says Tamasin's Kitchen Bible is the only UK cookbook she needs. (Marian Cunningham's Fanny Farmer Cookbook is the US equivalent for Susan.) After Tamasin ran off with the cheeseman (who then ran off with Nina Planck of our London Farmers' Markets, mentioned here already on 2 September ) the funky kitchen was sold in the divorce, and now she cooks in the shiny kitchen of her dreams, according to the Times.

After dinner we took the Tube over to Kings Cross for an evening of music at London's newest concert hall, Kings Place. The scruffy area around Kings Cross has been undergoing massive redevelopment for as many years as we have been here in London. The neighbourhood still has that half gentrified look I remember from lower Manhattan in the 1980s. Trendy offices and eateries flanked by buildings waiting for a rehabber to come along. The Guardian newspaper has built a new glass office building for themselves with gallery space at street level to wander through and see work from their archive on display. Tucked into one end of the building is a gorgeous arts centre with two concert halls, gallery display space, various eating and drinking venues, and what I can only describe as a huge public living room with tables and chairs to work at, and sofas to relax in. The Regents Canal passes behind the building, so on nice evenings -- as Friday was -- you can sit outside and watch the canal boats pass by. Last year to open their first season, they had a week-long festival of arts events from morning to late night. Each event lasted 45 minutes and cost £4.50. This year the festival was limited to the three days of the weekend. We heard two delightful concerts from musicians who are members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, one of London's major orchestras, and one that performs with original Baroque instruments. In the first concert, the oboes and bassoons from the orchestra played Lully, Handel. and Purcell's Fairy Queen, which they said they had played all summer at Glyndebourne. The second concert was two violins and a theorbo playing Purcell, Corelli and other Italians who experimented with the violin early on, and pieces from John Playford's music score collection published in the mid-17th century. Bob writes the programme notes for the chamber choir he sings with, and last year he wrote an interesting piece on Playford. During the Civil War period when the Puritans were in control, theatre and music were banned from public performance so entertainment moved into the private spaces of homes. Playford's music collections were popular with people who wanted to learn to play instruments, and those who wanted to organise musical evenings for private entertainment.

The new concert hall was lovely with wood panelling and outstanding acoustics. Sadly, the ticket prices for the regular schedule of concerts at Kings Place are quite expensive. All of their concerts are only 45 minutes, yet the tickets cost as much as the average ticket price for a full length concert anywhere else. Perhaps they are filling a niche for audiences with limited attention spans who don't mind paying full price for half a concert. For us, it really is more expensive than can be justified, so we will not likely be attending very many events here as the year goes on.

Saturday morning we set off early for Cambridge to see the Darwin show at the Fitzwillliam Museum. This is of course the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin (born the very same day as Abraham Lincoln), and there has already been a big show at the Natural History Museum on Darwin's life and work. The Fitzwilliam had an interesting hook for their exhibit: Darwin's influence on artists in the 19th century, a period when discoveries in natural science were relentlessy changing the way the world was understood, and also a time when scientists, writers, and artists ran in the same circles as friends and colleagues. Entering the first room, you are face to face with Darwin himself in John Collier's, magnificent portrait of the man. Collier was T.H. Huxley's son-in-law twice over having married Huxley's eldest and youngest daughters. (Collier is also the grandfather of the 91-year old friend who I mentioned in my previous post on the start of the Second World War, which makes her T.H. Huxley's great-granddaughter through Collier's second wife, Huxley's youngest daughter.) The opening rooms of the show were devoted to the burst of interest in earth science after the publication of The Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell in 1830. Included were gorgeous geological maps including some drawn by Darwin, landscapes where the topographical features and rock structures are painted in detail, and fantastic canvases of "lands before time" filled with imagined prehistoric creatures fashioned from the evidence of recent fossil discoveries. Three popular genres of Victorian painting were then attributed to Darwinian principles. Scenes of animals struggling in the wild -- battling stags, raptors eating their prey -- illustrate "survival of the fittest" in the natural world, and the social realism paintings of the later Victorians -- starving peasants and wan labourers -- illustrate the extended principle of "social Darwinism" in the human world. For me the most interesting connection was in the genre of sad-eyed puppy paintings, as I have always thought of them when passing quickly by, that was related to Darwin's theories of animal expression which anthropomorphised animals by attributing emotions akin to human emotions. So now I will forever have a context to view these paintings. I love art exhibits that make me understand the world in a new way. The artists exhibited here all used Darwin's scientific work to see the world in a new way, and the remainder of the show was mostly devoted to human evolution and behaviour -- women flaunting their beauty as male birds flaunt their fabulous feathers, human racial types catalogued, and explorations of "pre-evolved" humanity -- both cave man paintings and imaginary beasts. Our favourite was a set of Redon lithographs entitled Les Origines (after The Origin of Species, of course) which includes a flower with an eye, a cyclops, a cynical satyr, and Pegasus on his back finding his wings to be useless for flight. When you think about it, why not a few fauns and gryphons in that great chain.

Cambridge's academic museums really are quite spectacular for their amassed collections. Despite regular visits during Susan's two years in Cambridge, we had only been to the Fitzwilliam and the Polar Museum before. Sadly the History of Science Museum is closed on weekends, but the Geology Museum was open with another Darwin Commemorative Display that included Darwin's personal belongings from the History of Science Museum. Bob loved seeing Darwin's microscope, my frisson of excitement came from the rocks on display, that had little collection tags printed "Beagle Collection." How cool is that, the very rocks Darwin picked up and brought back to Cambridge.

The day ended with Susan coming over for dinner. She is working non-stop on her first (and hopefully not last) exhibit for the Hampstead Museum which opens next Sunday as part of the 30th Anniversary Celebration for Burgh House. Fortunately Sunday was a boring day in which we cleaned the house in preparation for my hosting the weekly quilt group on Monday. As I am finishing this "weekend post" on Tuesday, I will have to learn to be quicker and conciser with future weekend posts......

Friday, September 4, 2009

Of war and broccoli and other vegetables

The broccoli pesto worked out pretty well. The result is thick, not liquid like herbal pesto, but the garlic, almonds, and lemon nicely flavoured the broccoli. I used the pesto with linguine (and minced pork meatballs), because linguine turned out to be the only pasta I had in the cupboard. That wasn't the best choice for a thick puree, but it would work nicely mixed with a grain as the recipe suggests. And I did use up all the broccoli. Now on to the swiss chard and pointed cabbage.

I signed up for the veg box scheme for the very reason that I am now forced to deal with difficult vegetables that I would not be drawn to choose on a quick trip to the market. I find the summer vegetables much less interesting than the winter vegetables. Partly that is because England does not have enough of a summer to grow the traditional summer vegetables that require lots of hot sunshine. Tomatoes were mostly sad Dutch agribusiness products of the pale and crunchy variety. Until the Isle of Wight tomato people started producing luscious varieties and selling them at Borough Market and now at farmers' markets, I had given up on eating tomatoes here. For some reason the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel off the mid-south coast, has more sunshine than most places. Corn-on-the-cob remains a problem however. We have had a few ears that were up to the standards of New England sweetness and flavour over the past 11 years, but sourcing has been random, and most purchases have been binned after a single bite. For the English, the variety of corn they love is called "Niblets," easily found in tins, and to be used to enhance all sorts of cold dishes, especially tuna salad sandwiches. They might also believe that Niblets are raw delicacies based on these two incidents. Years ago at a regional Food Festival, the Isle of Wight people were handing out cobs broken into small pieces for tasting. I bit into mine and said "this is not cooked." The purveyor looked at me in confusion saying "It doesn't need cooking." (We did buy some ears, took them home, cooked them, and they were the best we have had here in England.) Second, last summer when Susan was on an archaeological dig in Cyprus with students from a Welsh University, some local residents brought them ears of corn for their dinner, and she reported that several of the students were unaware of the need to cook corn. Fortunately she had a few allies who also insisted that corn did need cooking.

We stayed in to eat the broccoli last night instead of eating at Pizza Express with our good friend Pam who is 91. Pam and her grandson eat at Pizza Express every Thursday evening, and Bob and I often join them. After dinner, I remembered that I wanted to see Pam last night so that I could ask her where she was on the day 70 years ago. I know she was 21 years old, and a student at the London School of Economics after spending a half-year studying in Vienna. I know she moved back home to the family farm when she and her medical school student brother lost their digs on Lambs Conduit Street in a bombing raid. I know she lost her precious copy of Virginia Woolf's Flush in the raid, and was terribly pleased when a few year's ago a friend gave her a new copy of Flush, reprinted by Nicola Beauman's Persephone Press whose main office and shop is located on Lamb's Conduit Street. I know she worked on the family farm as a Land Girl for a time, before moving back into London to work in a government office where she helped to type William Beveridge's 1942 Report which laid out the framework of Britain's post-war welfare state, including the establishment of the National Health Service. But I don't know where she was 70 years ago yesterday. So I had to make do with a Melvyn Bragg narrated documentary from the Imperial War Museum on TV last night to mark the 70th Anniversary of Britain's (and France's) entry into the war. A war that has moulded every aspect of all our lives since the day it ended 64 years or demographically, two generations, ago: politics, international relations, economics, arts, education, land use, even personal relationships through parenting, feminism, and the rise of youth culture. Lots of good decisions were made and some very bad decisions were made in the hothouse atmosphere of the immediate post-war world in the US, in England, and in Europe.

Leading to why I spent the latter half of yesterday feeling down and depressed about how the US seems to have learned nothing from some of those bad decisions. A mid-afternoon (UK time zone) front page on the New York Times web-site told me that the US was ready to dive into a new Vietnam called Afghanistan -- which was something Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury had been sounding the warning bell on this week already. A second article on the front-page told me that the newly elected administration in Washington was allowing a truly stupid and mean-spirited minority rump of US citizens to once-again hijack the health-care agenda, thereby denying the right to decent medical care to more and more of our citizens. How can it be that my native land no longer wants to be seen as a civilised nation nor wants to be respected by the rest of the world? How have we moved from John Winthrop's "Citty on a Hill" to Cormac McCarthy's The Road?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A rainy night at The Globe (and broccoli)

The broccoli problem has been solved by blogging and the internet. Last week I signed up for an e-mail feed from the award winning food blog 101 Cookbooks (www.101cookbooks.com) out of San Francisco, and the first message came through yesterday with a recipe for broccoli pesto for when you have much too much broccoli on hand. Bob and I are big fans of pureed broccoli so I am optimistic. Yesterday I referred to the gourmet-foodie wasteland of the Highland Park, New Jersey years. That wasn't completely honest, I did buy a broccoliflower at Foodtown once, and my daughters still joke about the awfulness of that occasion. They also agree that my single stab at 1980s gourmet-foodie trendiness was the most horrible thing I ever tried to make them eat. I don't know if the recipe was actually from the Silver Palate cookbooks, but there were no fancy ingredients in pureed broccoli, just the veg, some, butter, some cream, and a Cuisinart. You can still say "pureed broccoli" to my grown daughters, and they will pretend gag and say "the colour, the awful colour. . ." Thus ended my attempts at trendy cooking. But children do grow up, and they leave home, and one night here in London a few years ago, with some broccoli on hand, I remembered that wonderful pure taste and lovely deep green colour. The butter, cream (now thick and organic from Riverford Farms), and the Cuisinart (well not the same one) were still on hand, and now we often eat our broccoli pureed. Since I am talking rather endlessly about broccoli, I will mention that the trick to cooking it is to way way oversalt the boiling water, then just bring it back to the boil for the shortest time. I learned this by accident of course, probably forgetting the first two times I had put salt in the water, but a few years ago, I was paging through cooking god Thomas Keller's French Laundry cookbook in a bookshop, and found him writing along the lines of: the trick of cooking broccoli is to use more salt than you think possible in the boiling water -- So I don't want to hear any of the faux-health advice from people who regard salt as the enemy of civilisation. (Especially since it is the saviour of civilisation being a sure way to preserve food for the "starving season" of whatever ecoclimate in which one is subsisting.) I don't eat processed food except for obvious junk treats (mmm Doritos and Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, now easily available in England), so I control my salt intake, and I have no qualms about oversalting the things that taste great (to me) when salty: mashed potatoes, French fries, macaroni and cheese.

London is such a cultural cornucopia, we could find an event or two every night of the year. In practice, we attend events in waves. We purchase tickets for a dozen or more events, become exhausted by the cultural input, spend a period of time watching worthless, but entertaining US TV programmes (Bones, Heroes, NCIS, CSI), agree that since we live in London watching this stuff is ridiculous, buy another round of tickets, and let the cycle begin again. August is always a buy-tickets season for us, as the programmes for next season are delivered, and newspapers announce the must-sees. So last night our cultural season opened with a trip to the Globe, the reconstruction of Shakespeare's theatre on the South Bank of the Thames. Now the Globe is not one of my favourite places. Partly this stems from the first production I saw with Megan on holiday, the summer before we moved to London. It was the theatre's first season, and they were attempting to do Shakespeare's whole 5 acts with an interval between each act. We left somewhere in the middle of Act 4, I believe. I'm not sure if they were yet renting cushions for the hard wooden backless benches, but the event was more painful than enjoyable. I hadn't been back for a dramatic performance since then. Bob has developed an interest in Thomas Paine, reading Paine's work and a biography of the man. Paine is a bit of an anomalous figure here. He was a heroic figure in two earth-shaking revolutions, but we are in England after all, and England was on the opposite side of both those revolutions, which makes Paine kind of a terrorist and traitor. I say kind of because the opposition party Whigs were supporters of American independence so they agreed with Paine, even if the government didn't. It was the French Revolution and Edmund Burke that did in Paine's reputation in his native land. Last year, in an interview in The Guardian, Richard Attenborough discussed his decades long quest to make a film on Paine. Over the summer, Bob saw that Attenborough's scriptwriter had turned his script into a play to be performed at the Globe. As we found our way over to the Globe the light rain turned into a slightly heavier rain and as the play began, the slightly heavier rain turned into a raging downpour. Our seats (yes uncomfortable backless benches) were under the roof, but the pit audience, and the actors who performed their parts in the pit, were drenched. When the wind gusted the plastic bag raincoats provided to the pit audience all crinkled at the same time. And of course Shakespeare did not have to contend with the flight path to Heathrow overhead. Cute idea rebuilding a mock-up of the Globe, not sure it's very practical, but the tourists seem to love it, so who am I to be negative. Sadly the play was not very good, lots of running around, lots of extraneous plot points such as the women he bedded, but not a lot of explanation of why he was important. Since much of the audience was probably American, perhaps they knew what Common Sense was and what it meant, but the brief mention of its publication hardly did the work justice. We were trapped for three hours, so there was enough time to offer a little more substance. In London fashion, the three hours of heavy rain ended as the play finished, allowing us a lovely walk across the once-wobbly Millennium Bridge to the Tube and home before midnight.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Too much good food

Where was all this good food when I had my children at home and cooked for more than two. I pretty much missed the whole US Foodie Revolution of the 1980s because the Highland Park, New Jersey Foodtown didn't stock anything beyond the basics of fresh and processed agribusiness, and there were no other food stores in town. When I moved to Hingham, Massachusetts, the Fruit Center Market was a revelation. What a shock to find out you could actually buy all those ingredients in the Silver Palate Cookbook recipes.

(Well here is a sad aside, I just googled Silver Palate and learned that author Sheila Lukins died yesterday, according to the LA Times. Another brain cancer death . . .)

By the time we were in Hingham, cooking had become a bit of a chore, and my daughters insist I cooked the same two dishes every night. I remember cooking at least four dishes. There were so many rules to follow, no chopped beef or pulses for Megan, no onions or green coloured food for Susan, no peppers for either of them. No wonder I grilled chicken or beef, baked potatoes, and filled the meal out with carrots every other night.

We had the great good fortune to move to London on the cusp of a massive revolution in local food production. Borough Market in Southwark, South London has become an overcrowded tourist site, but we were at the first Food Festival at Borough Market in 1998 that was such an overwhelming success it became first a monthly, then a weekly market. For years, Bob and I went to Borough Market nearly every Saturday to buy the week's worth of groceries. Then the New York Times featured the Market as a place to ogle food and buy sandwiches for lunch, and soon food shoppers couldn't get through the crowds of tourists. I haven't been down there in years now.

The next food revolution was starting up at the same time when American Embassy staff member Nina Planck organised the first London Farmer's Market in Islington, North London in 1999. The Farmers Markets have taken over London in the past 10 years. There are now 15 of them spread across the city including Wednesday 10-2 at Swiss Cottage Tube Station, a short bus ride away for me. This market is quite small and new and doesn't draw many customers, so I'm not sure if it will have a long life span, and while I will miss it, the truth is that I don't need it because I have so many other sources of good food.

Most of our supplies are delivered right to the house. The best smartest thing I have ever done is sign up for the organic vegetable delivery box scheme from Riverford Farms in Devon. Riverford picks their vegetables on Tuesday and delivers them around the country on Wednesday. Between Friday and Monday night I order the box I want on-line (size and contents vary). I also order organic fruit, meat, milk, yogurt, and cream at the same time. Could anything be easier? And the cost is essentially no different from supermarket produce and nothing like the cost of fancy food halls. The supermarket basics are delivered by Ocado, a service set up by Goldman alums a few years ago to distribute Waitrose supermarket goods. I order on-line and a new flat fee delivery option will bring me a delivery every week (every day if I want, but there is a minimum order). The Wine Society delivers boxes of wine when ordered on-line. Beer deliveries are handled by Bob from several places including local breweries and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

If I need or want anything else I can walk to a dozen different places within a few minutes. There are four fruit and veg stands (costermongers! -- one of whom sells organic fruit and veg) that I pass within a block or two, plus a gourmet organic shop that sells lovely produce from France and Italy. We have an excellent fishmonger. The terrible loss of our butcher shop two years ago has been filled by the Riverford delivery, and now also by an itinerant meat provider who sets up between the fishmonger and one of the costermongers, several days a week. Our supply of bread and baked goods is met by four notable named bakers: Raymond Blanc's Maison Blanc, the Hungarian Louis, London's Gail and Paris's Paul (who opened their shops across the street from each other the same week three years ago), a fourth small chain called Euphorium, and a large Belgian chain Le Pain Quotidien. While I have had disappointing meals at Carluccio's restaurant since Antonio sold the chain a few years ago, the partner deli to the restaurant on our corner offers wonderful Italian ingredients including excellent Parmesan and mozzarella. Of course I could also walk to Giacobazzi's Italian deli famous for its prepared food and fresh pasta instead. The Rosslyn Deli is famous for its supply of American food products in the back room at laughable prices, but hey when you need molasses, corn syrup, Liptons Onion Soup Mix, or Pop-tarts, what can you do. (I buy only the first item in that list.) The deli's quality has slipped, but they are still a source for cheeses, pates, and are the closest croissant to home, when a croissant becomes essential. Bulk grains and other health foods are available at the health food store on the High Street and more intriguingly at the Mistry Chemist who takes the idea of full service health provision seriously by combining a health food store with the standard stock of a drug store. Finally, we have the supermarkets: a tiny Tesco which is useful, the giant Marks and Spencer whose offerings are as much a revelation as the Fruit Center in Hingham was 18 years ago, and the once slightly scruffy Budgens, which has now been spiffed up into a great place for lots of unusual items.

That gets us back to the title here: Too Much Good Food. I used to buy too much quilting and sewing fabric, or yarn or cookbooks. At least they have the property of keeping for a good long time -- don't they just do that, as I look at my fabric and yarn cabinets and cookbook shelves. Now I have to discipline myself when confronted with the riches of food all around me. My lovely Riverford order has just arrived, but I see that this week's broccoli now joins last week's broccoli which only looks marginally healthy. Cooking more food is one solution, but that brings us up to the fact that I live in London which means tonight we have theatre tickets, tomorrow we are having dinner with friends, and Friday we have concert tickets. When I ordered my food on Saturday, it was August, it was summer. I didn't check my calendar to see that September was here, and the autumn cultural season was beginning. What will happen to my poor broccoli.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Happy New Year

September 1 is always the beginning of my new year no matter how long ago school years ended for me or for my children. This September Bibs begins pre-school, so the cycle of the school year calendar begins again in the family. We haven't had too long a break from those calendars, as Susan only left Cambridge two years ago, but that was such a different calendar: Michaelmas Term, Lent Term, Easter Term. . .

Yesterday was the August Bank Holiday, the official national end of summer day, so autumn has truly arrived. Even the weather is appropriate with a cool breeze and fading sunshine as the day progresses, after a sunny, warm and humid day to mark yesterday's last day of summer. A summer that was a great disappointment to most of the nation. Predicting weather is nearly impossible on a small island land mass surrounded by huge and stormy bodies of water -- the Atlantic Ocean on one side, the North Sea on the other -- but the population has great faith in those who predict, and when last spring, they said a hot, break-out your barbecues, summer was on the way, the nation was ready. London's sunny southeast corner of England was not really too bad, but the rest of the island suffered endless clouds, gloom, and rain according to news reports. And experienced first-hand by Bob and I when we spent an August weekend in Devon. So now we can hope for a peerless autumn of sunshine and cool breezes.