One of the things I miss from home is cookies. Don’t get me wrong, I love biscuits and trying out new varieties, but sometimes I just want a much-loved cookie from home. The humble oatmeal raisin, my mother’s peanut butter, or the gently spiced and chewy molasses, which I’d been especially missing. With this in mind, Paul brought home a tin of Lyle’s Black Treacle and I gave it a shot.
They’re not exactly the same. The treacle is thicker, darker, and the taste somewhat overpowers the cinnamon and allspice, although you can still taste the ginger. If anything, they taste a bit like gingerbread cookies. I’ll keep looking out for molasses, but in the meantime, these aren’t a bad alternative!
I know what this means now, but I’m a bit sad about that. I liked it much better when it looked like a sign for wizards, or for almost-wizards with magical flying motorbikes. “Caution, Muggles below!”
When I was wandering through John Lewis haberdashery the other day, as you do, I stumbled on a sale section. The sale wool was a bit sad looking, but there were some lovely beads and jewellery making kits. This is not the way my craftiness lies, but I couldn’t stop circling back to a rather sparkly and art-deco looking strand of beads. In the end, I decided it would make a simple ribbon necklace with some rather lovely silk ribbon I’d picked up at Loop months earlier.
I decided not to knot the ribbon, so that I could adjust the length as I wanted and move the beads about to suit my whim. I can wear it long and keep the beads free-flowing, or I can wear it short with the beads in a neat line.
My friend Bex, whose house and cat I watched while she was on vacation with her family, mentioned that bookish people should go on holiday at other bookish friends’ houses. This is an idea I can fully endorse, and in fact, began immediately while there!
The Brontes Went to Woolworths is a book I have at home. I tried reading it, having loved the other books in the Bloomsbury Group series, but put it down after about 2 chapters. I managed to make it slightly further this time, getting about 5 chapters in, but I still didn’t finish it. The story, about three sisters who are so immersed in their own made-up world that the intrusion of reality shakes them, should be my cup of tea. I just can’t seem to make it past the brittle tone and, well, the silliness of the girls. Oh well, my copy is still at home if I want to try again.
Bex also had a Nancy Mitford that I hadn’t read before, Highland Fling. While not quite as good as Love in a Cold Climate or The Pursuit of Love (and is anything that good, really?), it was still amusing. It was Nancy’s first work, and follows two bright young things as they get married on ‘nothing’. As their nothing involves plenty of creature comforts, including borrowing a castle in Scotland, they’re not exactly suffering. Frothy and fun, and ultimately forgettable.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop was a reread, mostly because the night I read it it was hot and I couldn’t be arsed to go downstairs and find another Persephone to read. If you haven’t read it, though, you should. The story of a widow who opens a bookstore in a small coastal town, and the resistance she gets from the very people who claim to love books and art. A beautiful book.
Every now and then I have a desperate need for food from home. Sometimes it’s understandable, food I ate a lot, like breakfast burritos, and sometimes it’s really damn weird, like Dr. Pepper slurpees, which I rarely ever drank (and basically doesn’t count as any kind of food product past the age of 9). This morning I just really craved Tex-Mex, but it’s too warm for grilling fajitas or baking empanadas, so tostadas it was. When Paul got home, I fried the tostadas and we dug in. Kudos for him for (a) eating it with his fingers like a proper Texan, (b) trying everything, even the limes and jalepanos, and (c) basically being a really good sport and humouring me.
I know I’m biased, because this is the food of My People, but this is a really fast and easy dinner to make in the summer when it’s just too hot to be in the kitchen for that long. And better still, everything but the tostadas can be made ahead of time and popped in the fridge until you’re ready for dinner. In spite of the fact that the tostadas are fried, and there is never enough cheese to please me, the meal is actually not too heavy for hot weather. Black beans for protein, lots of garlic, tomatoes and lettuce and limes, and since I don’t like sour cream, I blitz together Greek yogurt with cilantro and garlic to make a cream sauce. The tostadas only take a few minutes to fry, and if you get bored, you can pop the bubbles as they come up.
On my last look-about day in London, I met up with my friend Eleanor in Westminster. I was planning on going to Choral Evensong at St Martin-in-the-Fields, so we decided to meet for tea at the Cafe in the Crypt before. There really should be more occasions for meeting people in crypts.
It was beautifully atmospheric. We both got the afternoon tea and my scone was so large that I couldn’t finish the very nice cherry sponge cake. After poking about the crypt and galleries, and being shooed away from a private door, we decided to wander to Trafalgar Square and catch-up next to the fountains and the lions. We wandered down to Eleanor’s tube stop, stopping on the way to see a statue of one of her ancestors. After she’d left, I wandered back, stopping at Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, saying hello to the statue of Churchill watching over Parliament.
Sadly, I didn’t spy either Holmes or the Prime Minister.
I did spot Big Ben, an old friend. I stayed to hear his chime bells. It’s impossible for me to hear them without remembering the scene from the Betsy-Tacy books, where Julia is in London and sends back the words of the chime to her family.
And I spotted a monument that had not been in Westminster the last time I wandered there, one to all the women who served in WWII. A beautiful and moving monument to some truly incredible women.
Paul’s strawberries have been coming up since I got here, and they are delicious. Sadly, they also make me want strawberry ice cream every time I see them!
As well as hitting some of the more familiar tourist sites around Trafalgar Square while I had time to myself, I wanted to see some of the less permanent offers, so I headed for the Laura Knight exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. I’d seen posters around town and several people had already raved about how good it was, so I made my way there with just a short stop in Chinatown for coconut bubble tea. Do you see that…ice, ICE! I must go back soon for more, and to sample the truly amazeball-smelling dumplings being made as I slurped my drink.
Anyway, the exhibit was splendid. The portraits were compelling, there was enough space to have a really good look, and it was thoughtfully curated. I was familiar with Knight’s war work, but was surprised to discover that she had immersed herself in African-American culture in pre-civil rights Baltimore, and then with a Roma community in England. In fact, what emerged from the exhibit was Knight’s ability to see a whole picture, and the desire to paint reality in all its beauty and ugliness.
Even in her commissioned works, like this portrait of a dancer, she wasn’t content to just show the pretty picture, but quietly revealed the domestic landscape of the dancer, including the workers who helped make the beauty happen. Her portrait of the Nuremberg Trials was incredibly moving, showing both some of the main ‘characters’ in the trial and, in a break from reality, an impression of the blitzed city just beyond blending into the proceedings inside.
I had not realised before the exhibit that Knight had written an autobiography. Sadly, it seems to be from early in her career. I want to find a really thorough biography of this stimulating artist!
Part of living over here is learning all sorts of things you thought you knew how to do already: which way to look when crossing the road, how to lock a door, and what the various signs mean. I do actually know what this sign indicates, but to me, it always looks like a parking sign for a couple and their Dalek. It’s just a shame I never seen such a family getting into these spots.
Part of the joy of house/cat-sitting for a friend while she is on holiday is browsing her collection of books. Fortunately, she has both excellent taste and has several Persephones that I don’t own. I brought books with me, I have books on my iPad, I’ve bought books since I’ve been here, but I’m never able to resist those dove grey covers.
The endpaper is beautiful. The Persephone website says it “could have been worn by any of the three sisters but perhaps most especially by Vera.” I would say it was more likely to be worn by Lucy, as Vera was probably too smart for something so delicate, and Lucy would have appreciated the gentle pattern of flowers.
While the endpaper is lovely, the book itself is deeply unsettling. Like the only other Whipple I’ve read, the wonderful The Priory, the novel concerns the life choice of sisters. Lucy, the eldest, takes care of her family from an early age, and provides a constant base of support that is only truly appreciated by the next generation of her family. Vera is a beauty who is used to having her own way, and her lack of imagination and selfishness make her unable to see the lasting effect she has on people until that effect begins to fade. Charlotte is a wife and mother who, after being emotionally abused by her husband for years, decides to be neither and self-destructs in a world of drink and drugs.
While it can be difficult to watch Charlotte and Vera awake to the effect their actions have had on others, it is the slow destruction of their children that is painful to read. While the novel is ostensibly about an abusive husband, what lingers is the emotional abuse that this small group of adults inflict upon their children. Vera’s daughters are made pawns in their parents’ unhappy marriage. Charlotte’s children, who find unconditional love in the shape of a beloved dog, are witnesses to the most unspeakable and unforgivable act of violence against him. The book, in spite of all of this, never feels melodramatic or revels in misery. The novel is saved by Lucy, who is able to see what’s happening and tries to help, even if she doesn’t always succeed. Whipple’s depiction of children is astonishingly good; she neither sentimentalises them nor ignores the effect they have on others. While some of the children get swallowed up by the actions of their parents, two are rescued by Lucy, who gives them the home and family they’ve never had. But even more than that, she shows them a wider world where people can be kind and love can be healthy.
On Sunday I braved the heat to meet my friend Jane at Regent’s Park. We settled in the shade to eat sandwiches before joining in with Tango Al Fresco. They started with a beginner’s class, which, unlike some classes, was really for beginners. We even practiced moving our feet around the dance floor before we got started. There should be more classes like that! I was also lucky enough to be partnered with one of the instructors, who was kind enough not to point out that I am essentially a lumbering mess on a dance floor. Still, it was a lot of fun, and for the tiny moments when I managed to let my partner lead, I loved it. I definitely need to take more classes and then get out there and tango!
As well as the instructors and beginners, lots of dancers came out to just enjoy the sun and spin around on the dance floor in bright frocks and pretty shoes. There was also a demonstration from a professional tango duo from Argentina who were really spectacular to watch.
After our tango class, we wandered around the park, trying to keep cool with ice cream. We looked at the roses, examined what was on at the open-air theatre, and got up close to an elephant.
On my stroll back to Great Portland Street Station I spotted a familiar face. I’m not sure exactly why he was there, but it was lovely to see. I suspect, of all the presidents, JFK really would have enjoyed a good tango around a dance floor on a summer day.
Last week, on a beautiful sunny Friday, Paul and I wended our way to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens.
I can’t say the ducks were overly impressed with us, but I was struck with how lovely the gardens were. Some botanical gardens are too tidy for my taste. This one felt nurtured, but still natural.
Some of the greenhouses were too hot for me, but they had some really stunning plants and flowers in them. And for some, it looked like there were tiny tendrils of outside plants trying to make their way under the glass into the greenhouse.
I’m not sure if someone ignored the rules and made off with the books, or if they’ve just stopped using this cupboard, but this was a delight to find in one of the greenhouses.
I had expected to enjoy the gardens, but was also struck by how beautiful the greenhouses were. You don’t expect to go to a garden to admire the hardware, but the old cranks and pulleys and metal corners were as lovely in their own way as the flowers they sheltered.
I’m currently spending the week in Wimbledon, which is proving rather dangerous on the book front. There are two bookstores directly facing the station. The added danger is that both have air conditioning, making it very easy to justify popping in for just a moment. Clearly, I’m going to have to buy another bag to get back to Cambridge.
Yesterday, after a leisurely morning (well, for me…Paul worked from home), we wandered in the direction of The Fitzwilliam Museum. I’d passed it several times when visiting before, and we’d once popped in just to have a quick peep, but this was my first time to really get a chance to look around. We started our museum tour with a visit to the cafe, a technique I can fully endorse.
The museum is vast, so promising myself several return visits to fully explore, we passed quickly through rooms of Madonnas and fat angels to get to the French and English galleries. No matter how many museums I visit, it’s always astonishing to find oneself surrounded by paintings, prints and sculptures and then being left to make sense of them. I wandered through the galleries, finding old favourites, adding new ones, and just enjoying my usual game of trying to understand about what the curators were thinking in the arrangement of the gallery.
I found this wall in the 20th century English art gallery most pleasing. Women reading, thinking, and spending time on their own in domestic settings…lovely.
And as an added bonus, outside or in, it’s a beautiful place to look up.
Although I’ve spent most of my school holidays since I arrived in the UK here in Cambridge, I still feel like I’m just getting acquainted with the city. Part of the joy of walking about and exploring is the beauty that springs up in the most unexpected places.
Like the gentle sprinkle of roses across a pipe.