I’m still not exactly sure where 2014 disappeared, but it was an interesting year. I finished my first year of full-time teaching in a British school, started my second, became a tutor and took on added responsibilities in my department, and generally muddled my way through the year.
I have high hopes that 2015 will be slightly more mellow, and that I’ll have more time to open doors and try new things. Regardless, I am looking forward to a new year. And since I am one of those people who actually like arbitrary dates to start new things (as, I suspect, most list-builders do), I’m enjoying the thought of a new start with all kinds of resolutions, including using this lovely space that Paul has created for me. Happy New Year, my friends!
After what can only be described as the world’s longest staff inset day, following a 14 hour school day with Open Evening, I met up with Paul in London for a Saturday of doing lovely, relaxing, bookish things. From a leisurely train ride with a new Persephone book to climbing into bed in flannel pyjamas warmed on the radiator, it was possibly the most therapeutic thing I could have done.
We braved the downpour for a lovely brunch at Giraffe, did a bit of umbrella shopping, stopped to admire the leaves in Russell Square Gardens and get very wet indeed. We made our way to The Folio Society bookstore where Paul had one of the limited edition Odes of Horace manuscripts illustrated by William Morris. It was boxed and wrapped and rewrapped so it wouldn’t get wet, so I haven’t had a chance to peep at it, but it looks to be one of the most exquisite books I have ever seen.
And that is one of the loveliest bookstores I have ever been into; wall-to-wall of stunning books, comfy chairs to have a sit-down, and being offered a glass of port and toffee apples on a steamingly rainy day. I have now added about a dozen more Folio books to my Must-Buy list.
We made our way to Mayfair and to one of my very favourite places in London, Heywood Hill. Part of my love for this shop is because Nancy Mitford worked here during the war, and I love treading the boards and picking up books from the same shelves she once stocked. (I still need to read the collection of letters she wrote with Heywood Hill…may need to go back just to snap that one up!) Paul found one of Nancy’s books with her autograph inside, and I had a lovely, ghostly encounter when one of the beautiful cupboards opened on its own while I was browsing the shelves. I like to think it was the kind of tease one of the Hons might get up to. I snapped up the most delightful looking book, Christmas with the Savages, by Mary Clive. It’s just the kind of read for this time of year and I’m trying to save it for when I don’t have controlled assessments to mark! The bookseller mentioned that she was one of the Pakenham family and now I’m eager to find some of her other books.
It was especially lovely to go into the Chesterfield Mayfair for a luxurious champagne tea after all the darting about in the rain. We had gone earlier in the summer for a tea in the conservatory while staying for my friend Kat’s gorgeous wedding, and while I like the beautiful dining room, I love the open and airy conservatory. I indulged in my love of cucumber sandwiches, nattered on and on to Paul, and tried to get him to look at my new book. It took me a few hours of thinking he was a weirdo for not wanting to see it, only to realise he’d slipped another book I had been looking at while at Heywood Hill into my bag. Lovely boy, he is.
You would think that after that enormous tea we would be ready to roll back out. But no. We were both attracted by the lovely Terrace Bar next door, so we settled into a comfy booth and sampled the range of Gin and Tonics. Paul tried Hendricks, and another I can’t remember, while I discovered that Tanqueray 10 is a bit of magic in a bottle. Needless to say, I slept very well.
While it’s back to marking and lesson planning and prosaic things like cleaning and laundry, it’s lovely to have had a day out with my favourite person. And waking up to the lovely things he surprised me with just made it even better. Truly, the most lovely and relaxing day out I could ask for.
After a rather hectic week back at school, I went into London to meet a couple of friends for the Renegade Craft Fair. It wasn’t the most welcoming morning; all I could tell when I popped my head out was that it was cold and bloody dark, and by the time I got into Waterloo, it looked like the scene in Harry Potter where the weather changes as the dementors board the train. I considered hiding indoors and having a quick coffee at Starbucks before I realised how feeble that was, and I headed out into the downpour. I looked at market stalls, popped into bookstores warm from the steam of generators, had a warm and delicious caff breakfast where the beans slopped into the fried egg and mushrooms with a delicious kind of rightness, and where my tea cup was constantly refilled with the kind of tea you can stand a spoon up in. I even poked my nose into iKnit London, which I haven’t been to for a few years now.
Eventually I hopped back into the station and made my way to the East End to meet Jane and Kat at the Old Truman Brewery where the fair was being held. It’s an amazing space, even if they were not still selling beer (or, in fact, any beverages in the hall…would have been perfect if they’d had some tea or coffee, and they would have made a killing).
Even without the coffee, though, the craft fair was splendid. There was such a huge variety of artists, and all of them with such lovingly presented tables and goods. I had gone with the good intention of buying unique Christmas presents for family and friends. What I went home with was all for me me me. But my spot of selfish shopping is fine, because I also took home a selection of business cards and can order quite a few of these things through Etsy or Folksy. And I can also have shipped some of the more delicate things that would have been a complete faff to try to get home on the Tube and train, like the amazingly beautiful lamp shade I covet like mad for my little flat.
When we’d exhausted the hall, we stepped across to Brick Lane for some much needed caffeine and a sit-down. The tea shop was held in a kind of antique/junk shop full of curious things. There was much trying on of hats, and I resisted the urge to pose with the silly mannequins who were shaped like Beyonce. We also popped into Spitalfields’ Market for a quick lunch and a browse of the market stalls. It’s a fantastic space, full of both vintage treasures and homemade goodies, and I think we all ended up getting something we had not planned on, and in Jane’s case, a tiny Lego version of herself, complete with purple hair.
This was my first trip to Brick Lane, and I’m going to have to go back soon. The street was full of men trying to entice customers into their curry houses, the street venders were selling various foods and mulled wine, and there was at least one shop crowded with amazing-looking bolts of fabric. I’d also like a closer look at Christ Church Spitalfields, which was striking in both size and severity. Definitely time to get out of central London and explore the East End.
I know that the new year starts for most people on January 1st, but for me, it’s always been the first day of school. Now that I’m teaching, this feels even more the case. I’m in a new place, in a new town, in a new school, with new students, and all kinds of new things to learn and teach. It’s all very exciting, except when it’s also a little “aaaaaaghh-ish!”. Fortunately, there’s always a weekend right around the corner when that happens. This past week was a bit rocky, so it was lovely to just flop on Friday night and not have to deal with anything that smacked of newness!
By Saturday, I was already feeling more myself, and a day spent shopping and walking around a rainy London only helped. It takes an hour to get into London from my new home, so I wanted to cram as much shopping as I could into the day. I walked up and down Oxford Street, browsing through the enormous John Lewis, popping into shoe stores, walking into anything that looked interesting, getting a few things at Boots, and eventually ending up at Gap, which seems both weirdly familiar and yet very different to the store I know from home. I eventually found some really lovely things for my home, so I walked into Marylebone to visit Daunt Books, something I’ve been wanting to do for ages. The store is beautiful and temptingly stacked full of enticing books, but it’s the travel section that bowled me over. I love how it has been arranged by regions and countries, with biographies and memoirs stuffed into their relevant countries. I snapped up a small book on Copenhagen and ran through the rain to the Nordic Bakery for a warm and spice-filled cinnamon bun and an enormous latte, and read my book and munched while I sat out the worst of the downpour. (Many thanks to Miranda who first recommended the bakery!)
I’ve spent the rest of the weekend just trying to relax and clean and get ready for the week ahead: lots to do. Fortunately, so many of the new things in my life are also quite lovely. Like my generous, apple-donating neighbours.
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.
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!
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.