London is never finished

Wednesday 21st September   

As I get older I notice more and more that London is never finished, it has actually become one giant building site; what with the Olympics (Westfield and all) and now Crossrail adding to the rapidly frustrating feeling of living in a never-ending treadmill as we continually find new (old actually) sites just ripe for re-development.  One wonders why they (the mysterious planners behind everything) do not simply stop and pause, and ask themselves what they want it to actually look like when it is done; I suspect that even they do not know, they just know they have to constantly keep knocking things down and rebuilding.  And even Oxford Street, the street I used to know so well, feels a stranger to me.  It is being transformed (ripped apart I almost feel) before my very eyes; there is a vast block rising from behind blue hoardings between Bond Street and Marble Arch – the actual site was boarded up so long ago I cannot even remember what used to be there.  This leaves Selfridges, standing opposite, now more than ever resembling a relic from the past, with its’ ornate canopy and gilded clock waving to us from a far more splendid past, as it desperately tries to dream up new schemes to modernise itself, such as all the in-store concessions,(horrid!) and the ploy of having the entire row of front windows identically displaying a single designer perfume, that in all probability will smell just like all the rest, overblown, sickly and instantly forgettable, a bit like Selfridges itself is becoming. It is simply no use trying to get up Oxford Street by bus now, as the behemoth that is Crossrail Bond Street has swallowed up almost all of the road; one wonders if the combination of the internet, the Westfields and the shocking traffic congestion will finally be the death-knell for this beloved shopper’s paradise – or will they simply knock it all down and start again.

I have recently visited an old friend who has bought a flat in dockland, just down by the river on the Isle of Dogs.  She is just opposite Greenwich, where as you know I visited with Adrian and his son Justin on that fateful Saturday afternoon – oh, so many years ago now. I decided to go by tube to Bank, and then the DLR down to Island Gardens.  Although I have been a regular user of the tube and buses I had never before been on the Docklands Light Railway.  It was quite amazing, more like a gentle rollercoaster ride than a railway, and what an innovation – no driver.  We wound our way along the raised track winding between huge blocks of glass curtain walling and over acres of water and I marvelled at the quite incredible architecture.  I felt like Noddy in his little yellow car visiting Toytown; all the steel and glass buildings with funny little triangles and sharp angles or impossible curves, and bright blues and whites and yellows.  But even here, amidst all this modernity, almost a new city in it-self, there were still boarded up sites of grassy wasteland just waiting for the bulldozers and the cranes.

It just amazes me that this project, this city, this town I call my home, this London, is never finished, and never will be.

Singing the blues

Tuesday 20th September   

Despite my repeated and oft-quoted dislike for “pop” music, I am not totally stuck in a time warp musically.  My lifelong passion has, of course, been classical music, especially the piano, but I am not averse to other genres.  I have a CD of Miles Davis ‘Kind of Blue’, which I simply love, though much ‘Jazz’ leaves me cold; I think it is the honesty of the playing which I love.  And I often tune in to Radio 2 on a Monday evening to catch Paul Jones playing ‘the blues’, well ‘Rhythm and Blues’ he calls it, I just know it as ‘the blues’.   I just love those old black bluesmen, often with just a guitar, singing in their deep rich and sad voices; and no, it quite cheers me up actually.  I know that they are singing about the hardships of their lives, and I am fully aware of the awfulness of slavery and the civil rights movement in America in the fifties and sixties, but I believe there is a thread of hope and human joy in these recordings too.  Who can fail to be moved by Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’, with its’ tragic subject matter, but above all I always hear the hope in her voice too.

I don’t own any ‘blues’ CDs, and actually I cannot remember the last time I bought anything on CD; I listen to the radio now mostly. I can remember the radio, the wireless as it was called then, as a child, and how we would all sit around and listen on Sunday evenings to ‘Sing Something Simple’, (and yes, Grandma would sometimes sing merrily along too) or that one where they read letters out from soldiers serving abroad.  Grandma, of course, controlled our listening; it was clearly understood that I was not to switch on the wireless; that was always Grandma’s job. The wireless set itself was ancient and must have been from the late forties, it was a piece of furniture on its’ own and had a fretwork sunset design over a big cloth covered speaker, and lots of valves which took minutes to warm up.  We foolishly jettisoned this in the late sixties, and got a real Bush transistor radio, which has long gone too. I remember I was always allowed to listen to Uncle Mac on a Saturday morning, with all those songs about teddy bears picnics and puppies in the window, and three billy-goats gruff, but my very favourite was Sparky; how I longed to be Sparky, even though I showed no aptitude for the piano at all.

I have one of those clever little digital radios now with all the stations tuned in, so when the mood takes me I press Programme 2 and listen to and often find myself singing along to the blues, I don’t really know the words, I just sort of vamp-along (as I believe the expression goes).  In my younger days, when I was a bit more serious than I am now, I would never have imagined myself, at sixty-three, glass of red wine in my hand, puddy-tat staring strangely at me, waltzing round the room and happily singing the blues.

Westfield East or Westfield West

Monday 19th September   

Westfield East or Westfield West; I will not rush to visit either I can assure you. I have never been enamoured with shopping malls. They are certainly impressive; our very own cathedrals built for the worship of consumerism, but to my mind they are all so shockingly similar, with their white gleaming walls, marble effect floors, curved stairways and transparent elevators, and the shops all look just the same too.

I much prefer a traditional high street, with its’ organic mix of old and new, a few independent traders along with the familiar names, but even this is fast disappearing nowadays, and most high streets now resemble a bad set of teeth, with boarded up and whitewashed windows and ‘to let’ signs popping up everywhere you look.  A few years back there was a rash of estate agents and building societies springing up all over the place, then we had the invasion of the mobile phone outlets, and now we are left with a few well-known but boring chain-stores, (I mean, who actually shops in Peacocks?), plenty of charity shops and a few disconsolate traders hanging on for dear life and lots of empty shops.

I suppose that this is progress and of course more and more of us are buying things on the internet.  Books and music I can understand; you don’t need to see the latest Julian Barnes to decide to buy it, the name is enough.  But who in their right minds would buy clothes and shoes this way, without trying them on, or feeling the fabric or the cut, but apparently thousands do.  I suppose that this is a modern day continuation of catalogue shopping, something my family never indulged in, thank goodness.

Have you seen the advertisements for Westfield, all those smart thirty-somethings in trendy clothes and looking so smug with their lifestyles, not a person over forty to be seen;  women of my age, although we have plenty of disposable income are quite invisible to the advertisers, unless it is on daytime television, desperately trying to sell us stair-lifts or equity release.  So no, I shall not be rushing out to Westfield East or Westfield West in a hurry.  Maybe I will just wait for Westfield North by North-West to open.

 

The demise of Roman numerals

Sunday 18th September   

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was reading an Anthony Trollope; well I am reading, and re-reading in many cases, the whole collection actually.  I have been a lifelong member of the Folio Society, and collected the complete works years ago, there must be about forty volumes.  I always intended to read them all in the order they were written, but instead have found myself cherry-picking and reading them as the fancy takes me.  The chapters are in Roman numerals, we learnt these as a matter of course at school, and in my little short stories over the years I invariably used them to number my own little chapters. They were in much more common usage a few years ago, but have lately fallen almost completely out of fashion.  I seem to remember that all BBC television programmes used to end with a BBC logo and the year date in Roman numerals, you know MCMXCVIII and so forth.  Almost a secret language I suspect, and they conveniently disguised how old the programme actually was, but I don’t seem to have noticed them at all lately, have they stopped using them completely, or have they been replaced by the universal 1998, perhaps I should watch a bit more carefully.  Books are now almost universal in using standard dates, and hardly anyone numbers their chapters in Roman anymore.

Was our having to learn by rote Roman numerals just another attempt to hold back modernity, or was it all a part of the British Empire’s worship of the two millennia earlier Roman Empire. At school we were taught loads about the Romans and how wonderful they were until 410 a.d., and the Visigoths sacking of Rome, then barbarity and wilderness; a great passed-over void, until the Normans rescued us from obscurity and restored order and stability. History is almost always indistinguishable from propaganda, I have since learnt that far from being a wilderness the ages of the Ancient Britons, and the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons were wonderful years of progress and art and social development.  We were just brainwashed that the Romans were so wonderful, with their central heating, their straight roads and their statues and their complicated numerals.

The onset of autumn

Saturday 17th September   

It is quite amazing really, we all know perfectly well that autumn follows summer, and yet we are so often caught napping, and the early onset of autumn takes us by surprise.  Perhaps it is because there is no clear delineation; no first daffodils of spring; no first cake-icing of frost dusting the ground; there is nothing specific to tell you that autumn is here again.  Perhaps we are all still clinging desperately on to the idea of it still being summer, thinking about the weekends that passed us by, when we should have been out in the sunshine and for some reason we were closeted indoors and missed the rare sighting of the sun. Even I, a few posts ago, was hoping against hope for a last hooray of summer this September.  Well it almost happened, but not quite, and inexorably the seasons are turning, the harvesting is almost over, the fruit is ripening on the trees, if it hasn’t already fallen, and the leaves are beginning to turn through their rainbow of colours once more.  Strange, really, that the act of dying has such a poignant beauty about it.

The long school holidays are over, children returning to their studies, the tubes and buses are even more crowded than usual and now we are on that long helter-skelter slope into Christmas again. But I still love autumn; maybe my favourite season after all.  I particularly love the early mornings when I often get up and take a constitutional in the park, it is still almost dark, and the mist lies in hazy bands in grassy dips until the sun, pale and watery, struggles through the grey layers of clouds and burns it gently away.  In the London parks you can often see squirrels, incredibly tame they are, and totally oblivious to mankind and road traffic, they are perfect adaptors and scamper here and there in the morning sunlight.  Many creatures now seem to survive perfectly well in the city, I often see a rather imposing heron flying onto the lily-pads in an ornamental pond, and there are foxes in most suburban and even inner city gardens these days.  This gives me enormous hope and never fails to lift my spirits, but I do wonder sometimes how they will fare in the winter, how many will survive.  Always enough, it seems, to carry on next year.  So we shouldn’t be sad at summer’s passing, we should look forward to this time of closing up shop, of husbanding our resources, of preparing for the winter to come, we should take comfort from these little signs, these warnings of the onset of autumn.

The Circus

Friday 16th September   

I have only once been to a circus, when I must only have been eight I suppose.  It was on Barnes Common if I recall, and though we only went the once, I used to see the posters every year; it may well have been a birthday treat for me.  I was astounded, I had never seen a circus before, or a zoo, and this was pre-television and I had never been to a cinema either.  Children nowadays are often visibly bored when they first see wild animals in a zoo or a circus; they have seen so many clips on the internet or television of cheetahs chasing down antelope, or rhino’s charging, that the reality of rather mangy, bored and docile-looking animals comes as a disappointment.  I had only seen hefalumps as I used to call them in picture books, Babar the elephant was a favourite of mine, but these were line drawings not even photographs.  The shock, can you imagine the shock at seeing real elephants.  My god, they were huge – I had no idea they would be so big. Frightened as I undoubtedly was, I was fascinated too.  And the horses with their plumes and girls turning somersaults on their backs, the ringmaster in his red coat and top hat, the acrobats on the flying trapeze just flying so effortlessly from swing to swing, and there were seals balancing balls on their snouts, and jugglers throwing Indian clubs high into the big top, and flame-throwers putting lighted rag-covered batons into their mouths, and a knife thrower who burst balloons in a circle around a pretty sequin covered woman, and scariest of all there were clowns, with huge flapping feet, baggy trousers, and red noses and big-big painted grins. For some reason, the clowns scared me the most; no matter how hard they fell over and were whacked with planks they always had these big grins on their faces.  They ran around the raised ring, hurtling towards me, coming from both directions towards me, and I hid my face in Grandma’s big woolly cardy.

The elephants had been huge and lumbered roiling round the ring and lifted their huge flat feet high into the air above my head, the horses galloped inches from my face, and the seals honked and clapped their flippers right near to me, but none of this really scared me.  It was the clowns I was frightened of, and I still don’t like them.  I never find them funny, and of course as I grew older and learnt of the sinister history of the eighteenth century Italian Pierrots, and the Commedia Dell Arte it only confirmed my suspicions that anyone who wants to be a clown must be concealing a rather nasty person underneath.

I have never been to a real circus since, although I have seen the French-Canadian Cirque de Soleil; a nice modern take on an old tradition.

Throwing things away

Thursday 15th September   

If I have one fault, (or one I am prepared to admit to) it is that I hate throwing things away.  Not just those old photographs from long ago holidays, where you struggle to even recognise yourself in the photo, let alone the other people, but all my old things, my diaries, notebooks, old theatre programmes, postcards from exhibitions which I saw thirty years ago or more.  Consequently I have trouble with storage, and now have two large and deep plastic containers with clip-tight lids in which I keep “my treasures” as Edward used to laughingly call them.  I would have thought that writing the book would have helped to exorcise some of the ghosts from the past, but I find I am just as bound up in memories and reflections as I have ever been.  Occasionally I decide to have a clear out, and with the best intentions in the world even sort things into two piles (the throw-out pile admittedly much smaller than the keep-it one), but at the end of the exercise the thought always comes to me, ‘Oh, I don’t know, what harm does it do, to retrace some of these old memories for a while longer.’ And so I just repack them and leave it for another day.

And in a way I am right; I am on my own now, I am not leaving this for anyone at all.  It is just for me, and who knows when I am eighty, provided I live that long, I can still rifle through, and remember the holidays and the outings, the plays and exhibitions I went to.  Because by then I will have precious little else I expect.  Oh, I am not being maudlin’, as Grandma would call it, just realistic.  I have had some good times, some very good times, but I expect them to be fewer and fewer as the years progress, and I don’t ever want to forget, so my little boxes of treasure will be my aide memoire, in years to come.

The other things I cannot bear to part with are my clothes and shoes.  I see them all, neatly arranged in my wardrobe, the shoes all in pairs and lined up by colour, and though I know I probably won’t wear many of them again, I can’t quite bring myself to throw them away either.  I have a friend Monica, who loves nothing better than de-cluttering, and is always encouraging me, and has even offered to come round and help.  I daren’t let her in the house, I am sure I would have a nervous breakdown if she started to throw all my lovely things away. And would I have the strength to stop her.

Old Coins

Wednesday 14th September   

Sorting through one of my boxes of possessions I seem to have dragged around with me for years, I have come across a sheet of white cardboard with all the pre-decimalisation coins sellotaped on to it.  I must have done this way back in 1971, or possibly slightly earlier when the idea of getting rid of them was first mooted.  I think I must have been keeping my own personal record of the passing of a certain way of life, a slower, a more intricate and idiosyncratic way of life too.  The currency was the first to go, and then imperial weights and measures, and now volumes and distances are fast disappearing too.  I wonder how long it will be before we start to see kilometres on our motorway signs, just in brackets to begin with I imagine, but I am fairly certain it will happen.

I don’t really mind, after all decimals are so much easier to understand, heaven knows how we all remembered how many furlongs in a mile, how many hundred-weight in a ton, and how may farthings in a pound (nine hundred and sixty, if you are interested).  It was such a quaint system really, and difficult to fathom (don’t get me started on sea distances and speeds) for anyone under forty nowadays I suppose.  But I still know how small an inch is and how long a yard of material, or how heavy four ounces of sugar are, or how much a half pint of milk is without thinking, whereas I struggle with millimetres and centimetres, and when on packaging it states that it contains thirteen grams of salt you have no idea if that is good or bad.

I am thinking whether to throw the sheet away, with the old twelve sided thruppeny bit and the silver sixpence, the rather grand looking half-crown and my favourite, the little robin on the farthing itself, but no, I think I will keep it, even if it is only a collection of old coins.

Addicted to Starbucks

Tuesday 13th September   

I realise that I have become addicted to Starbucks; by addicted of course, I do not mean that I cannot live without it, but rather, I find myself ending up in a Starbucks most days.  I love those tall silky-milky lattes they do; it’s as simple as that.

As a child I was never given coffee, I cannot be sure if Grandma or my mother ever secretly drank coffee when I wasn’t around, but I doubt it – tea was the chosen beverage in our house.  When, on the rare occasion, we ate out, tea was always ordered for me, and, like all children of my generation, I hardly understood the concept of choice, or if there were a choice that I had the power to exercise it. You ate or drank what was prepared or ordered for you; the only choice you understood was that if you refused it, you would go without.  Not such a bad lesson actually, and one today’s generation of spoilt infants with their petty likes and dislikes, and tantrums when they don’t get what they want, might benefit from learning.  It was only when I started working, and the innocuous question “tea or coffee?” that I realised that I had never tasted coffee.  I found it quite bitter at first and could only drink it with the addition of at least two spoonfuls of sugar, but I fairly quickly got used to it, and would then naturally reply “Oh coffee, black, no sugar, please.”  I always liked my coffee black, and as I got older, the stronger the better.  In Tuscany we used to percolate our coffee on the hob, in an aluminium two cylinder percolator, and then later I got a real espresso machine which I became quite adept at manipulating, and Edward and I would drink quite a few espresso’s a day.

But now I drink smooth milky lattes, with just a sprinkling of vanilla and cinnamon, I seem to have developed a taste for them.  Almost every day if I am out I end up in a Starbucks and have one.  The only thing that rankles is their infuriating habit of calling a medium size, a “grande”.  Even more ridiculous is that they insist on calling the smallest size they do a “tall”. Come on now, that is plain daft.  So I always ask for a medium, and when they reply “a grande latte?”, I say sweetly “no, a medium latte, as I requested, thank-you.”

I know I will never win, but then again, neither will they.

The smell of a bon-fire

Monday 12th September

I have always loved the smell of a bonfire, that rich and irresistible aroma of leaves and wood burning in the open air.  My present garden is really too small, and I do not have bonfires, but we often had them in the house in Tuscany, and of course in the garden at Putney the gardener used to burn all the garden refuse in an incinerator, which was like a galvanised dustbin with a little funnel in the lid.  What is it about the smell of burning twigs that excites me so?  Maybe the memory of bonfire-nights as a girl when there was a huge bonfire over the allotments, not so far from our house, every year.  It wasn’t one of these officially sanctioned affairs one hears of nowadays, run by the council; this was a much more organic affair, with all the local children and their parents attending.  I suppose the adults had helped to build the bonfire; it was huge, and must have been built up over several days.  I can remember the anticipation and my worrying that we would get there too late, and the fire would have already burned the guy, and me nagging Grandma into allowing us just one small box of fireworks, which would be lit by the gardener in our own garden long before it got really dark.  And making great big loops in the air with sparklers, always held in a glove – Grandma was most insistent.  And then over we trekked to the allotment, and the crowd already gathered and the huge fire roaring away – and all the faces lit up by the flames.  I never knew the other children’s names, they went to a different school than me, but I had nodded to them sometimes on Saturdays when shopping.  I realise now that I never played with other children, out of school that is.  I was always expected home prompt at four, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of dallying or even talking to children I didn’t know.  Sad?  No, not at all really; I was quite happy in my own little world, and I had my few friends at St. Mary’s, so I never lacked for company.  But I always looked forward to bonfire-night – it was one of the highlights of my year.

And so now, as the evenings start to draw in, I look forward to Autumn again, when you suddenly catch that unmistakable smell of a bonfire in someone’s back garden. It always brings a smile to my face.