Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Arrived in Tokyo

I'm sitting in my hotel room and it's about the least busy night I'm anticipating for several days, Arrived in Tokyo today in heavy rain but I don't care,. I love it. These are pretty much random images, that I happened to take on iPad not the usual camera. So it really is first impressions of Japan! 

Here's a window of the cafe in a market 
We had a nice lunch but did not dine off plastic food :) 

Just a weird random image in a drugstore 

And some good luck cranes in a shrine.

All very ordinary and everyday to Japanese people but I have spent very little time in Asia and so a lot of it is plain unfamiliar.

The layout of this post is screwy but I am pleased that I was able to post at all as my new ipad has gone mad and deleted my entire mailbox when I changed the port.... Sigh..

Friday, 17 October 2014

Wool, Poppies and Rage

Isn't this beautiful? It reminds me of a tulip,or a poppy, or crumpled silk sexy underwear, and I even see a couple of sly Aubrey Beardsley-like figures top and bottom. I just didn't expect it to be made of wool. It's an ambiguity that I expect the rug's designer, the late great Alexander McQueen intended us to feel.
I saw it at a pop-up free exhibition for the Campaign for Wool on the South Bank the other day. This organisation's patron is my favourite Prince and it's quite sparky. They've overran Savile Row, home of fine tailoring, with sheep, and roped in top designers for the "Wool School" training initiative and show some beautiful ideas for interiors (of the type where it's helpful if you're a millionaire).

Outside the exhibition, they'd woven great big strands of white wool through the old railings round Southwark cathedral. It looks so.... well, I suppose woolly is the word.

On Tuesday an old schoolfriend and I braved torrential rain to see Paul Cummins' poppy installation in the Tower of London's moat. See the Shard shrouded in cloud in the distance? That's how damp it was. The poppies, each representing a death in World War 1, joined in a dark red mass that really was reminiscent of an ocean of blood. We left in a thoughtful mood.

I've been organising being away. Talking with house sitters, packing, details of the trip, trying to get the place sorted out before we go. The Tokyo street guide (Japanese and English) has arrived. Our kind Japanese friends will take us to so many places that we may hardly need the Tokyo street map but it's both exciting and intimidating to peep inside and see what a large city it is.

While I'm away over the next several weeks, I won't have much time so I think I could find it hard to visit everyone as often as usual but I'll do my best to post here.  And I've also scheduled some posts.

I was going to add something more, but I posted this with my newly acquired app Blogsy, and it's TOTALLY screwed up when I tried to edit it on my desktop.  I had to delete the whole post and start again on the desktop.   Another hour of valuable time down the drain sorting it all out.

I steer clear of apps unless I really need them.  I am bored stiff with going through all the endless options.  All I want is something simple I can use forever without thinking about it, so I have time to spend on doing the things I actually like doing.   But that's not the "choice" you get.  Like, I had to "choose" to give all my photos to Google on Picasa in order to use this Blogsy app.  I now have to learn to use Picasa. I don't want to. And I would prefer to keep my photos on my computer, privately. Great "choice", huh?  It's that or the Blogger app that doesn't work at all.

Well, bear with me if you don't get any sensible posts from my travels.  I'll do my best, I really will. But something tells me I'll be deleting both Blogsy from my iPad and Picasa from my desktop, in order to get clear of all this cr*p without having to waste hours of time on it. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

A Pleasant Weekend. .... except......

Oh! Hope I'm not coming down with the bug which the babies had last week.  Baby No 1 got hold of my mobile phone and had sucked it all over by the time I noticed.  Ever since then it's been kind of ... sticky....and I have been feeling slightly flu-y. Not as if he did it on purpose, he is just at that age. And he is so sweet and cuddly that I nearly don't mind if I catch a cold from him!

Apart from feeling slightly rough, it was a good weekend. On Saturday we attended a meeting of our Garden Committee - as I've said before, we have a three acre shared garden out the back of our houses. Each house has only a small back garden, from which a back gate leads onto the communal space, like this, below.

 There are surprising numbers of these private gardens in London - this article's about some of them (we don't open our garden, so you won't find us in the article).  A firm of gardeners comes in once a week and the guy who runs it told us we are among the most easy going and unquarrelsome groups he deals with. Everyone was amazed to hear this, to be honest. One of the residents has been taking the law into their own hands and destroying some large climbing plants and there was some fire and brimstone in our meeting.

When we first moved here, the garden was more overgrown.  According to a film someone made in 1969, that was the year when residents started to get together to work on our garden, planting trees and clearing rubbish.  It took decades to get it into shape using voluntary labour, since of course it also had to be maintained and improved as well as cleared.  Money had to be raised to buy equipment, and it was hard graft.  

Many of those people are  now dead, but we see the fruits of what they have done and are grateful.   It is strange how people can look out at a place choked with brambles and filled with rubbish and nettles yet not consider getting together with other residents to improve it - but that is the case in some of our local big gardens, even today.

Afterwards I wandered around and admired some late blooming roses.

One of my favourite communal gardens is Park Crescent, in Brighton, which is about 70 years older than ours, consequently the houses are more elegant.  Here's a Guardian article about them. Their garden party sounds all sweetness and light doesn't it?  Ours is rarely so idyllic, but it is fun nevertheless.

I once looked around a house in Park Crescent which was for sale.  It had been the home of of  Lewis Carroll's youngest sister, Henrietta, who in the 1890s lived there with an elderly maidservant and many cats who used to climb the curtains. Henrietta sounds to have been a typical, gentle Victorian spinster who didn't really care what anyone thought of her.  She and Carroll got on well, and I thought the house, with its tiny rooms and simple period details, had a happy feeling. As a biographer, I found it rather cool to think that when he came to visit Henrietta, which he often did, he looked out onto that very garden.  It must have been so different then.

 There aren't any pictures of Henrietta later in life, but here she is as a child, when he took a photo of her.

On Sunday, went out for a walk to Kenwood House, a wonderful mansion and art gallery now in public ownership.

Just outside the orangery, at the front, I noticed two young girls had carefully created a home made picture out of petals and things they had found. It's entitled "Sunset" and they had a collecting hat nearby in case anyone felt like giving them a tip for their work.   Not sure English Heritage would like them chalking in green outside their lovingly renovated 18th century mansion which they have just spent millions of pounds on, but I gave the girls 50p for being enterprising and said I hoped they'd make lots of money. 

Kenwood's grounds were "landscaped" in 18th century style, and it overlooks a lake with an elegant little wooden bridge at one corner.

But if you go around the back you see that it is not a real bridge. It's just one layer of wood that looks like a bridge.  It was actually designed that way, for appearance sake only.

Totally fake in other words! It's fitting that Kenwood is quite often seen as a location for movies, where nothing is as it seems. Its biggest claim to fame is in "Notting Hill" - remember it?

Further along I spotted a really weird old tree. It had once been a large silver birch,but the entire bark had been stripped off, except for a few ragged branches at the top.

I found it quite creepy because it was so tall and so dead, there on the edge of the hill. I wondered why I had never noticed it before. And when I went closer, I thought it even creepier. Maybe it's my imagination but does it seem to have a face? It's like some horned witch, dancing wildly on top of the trunk.

As T said, you didn't quite like to turn your back on it in case it somehow changed position while you weren't looking!

To be honest I was glad to leave it behind, and off we went to a 70th birthday party. The birthday girl lives next door to 2 chefs who had made her two matching birthday cakes, in different flavours. One had a 7 candle and one had a 0.

It was a lovely party and we knew lots of people so it brought the weekend to a happy conclusion. Until, that is, I realised I had a sore throat.....

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Breaks from Planning

I've been glued to the computer having a lot of fun and planning the forthcoming trip though I must admit that at times it feels as if I am planning a gigantic tour for 100 people instead of just T and me. We will be away for quite a while, taking in three different countries altogether, and doing different things in each one.

Since I'm immersed in Lewis Carroll right now, I found time to go to the latest meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society, which was in the extraordinary surroundings of  @Waterloo, one of the new breed of serviced offices in London, it was designed by Peldon Rose, (which also designed the new Google office block in  London) on the theme of "Alice in Wonderland."  It's been so successful that it was 98 percent let within a couple of weeks of opening.

Since it was evening, we had it more or less to ourselves. So here are a couple of LCS members braving the enormous White Rabbit and coming to meet me....

What you really can't see from my photos is the dazzling whiteness of it all, like something out of a science fiction movie.   Click the link for more photos of this place. It is quite exhilarating to be meeting there.

Then at the weekend we had young visitors who really loved having a picnic on the balcony. They didn't actually want to have one in the garden, the balcony was far more exciting, apparently!

And we had an autumn walk through Regents Park. I loved Nadezda's post on the rose garden in Regent's Park recently (and if you like gardening, by the way, look at her blog here. I often think I'd love to see her garden in real life, she gives it so much love and skill).

I'm a big fan of the rose gardens but I am just as fond of some very Victorian-looking gardens in the southeast part of the park - they were designed originally around the 1860s and restored about 25 years ago. . They're usually planted out several times a year with striking colour schemes and combinations of plants.

 I was entranced by this great shout of autumnal colour as a sort of defiant reminder that winter is coming.

And I spotted this cat television in someone's garden ...

Friday, 26 September 2014

Catching Up

Sorry for being a bit quiet lately.  I've had some medical issues, a bit of a shock as I am not usually ill.   But now I hope I am on the mend and I'm looking forward to our forthcoming trip which will take in Japan,  New Zealand and California.

I've never visited Japan and nor has T (the picture above was taken by F on his visit a couple of years ago).  The trip is built around my work about Lewis Carroll  and I will be seeing Tokyo and the Toyama region with some Japanese "Alice in Wonderland" friends - Alice is popular in Japan.  I will also be writing some travel articles and of course posting here! 

Thanks to the travel articles, JNTO has teamed me up with the company Japan Experience which has just sent my Japan Rail Pass - yay - my first hold-in-the-hand tangible evidence that the trip is for real.   The company has also fixed some interesting outings for me around Kanazawa and Kyoto.

And I'm really delighted at the prospect of meeting Yoko, Tomoko and Keiko in Nara.  They blog about this very beautiful area of Japan (click on their names to see their blogs) and it is completely because of them that I put Nara on my itinerary.

So, as well as planning the trip, re-reading Lewis Carroll notes, doing other work and hanging around in hospitals, these are some of the more fun things I've been doing while I haven't been blogging....

Went down to Henley to see how K's boat is getting along.  It has a permanent mooring in a beautiful stretch of  the Thames.  She treats it a bit like a holiday cottage, although the engine works fine. She's just had it craned out to be blacked at the bottom and repainted in traditional colours.

The next thing will be to paint  the traditional decorations of diamonds, roses and castles back on to the doors and sides. K's considering doing it herself, it doesn't look that hard.  (So speaks the person who can't even paint a number on a bit of wood to go on our front gate.....)

Went to a concert of Indian Music at Kings Place, which is a fairly new and completely inspiring music and cultural venue in Kings Cross.  The concert was over four hours long and to be honest I'd been wondering if I could sit and listen to Indian music for 4 hours because I don't know anything about it.  But the flautist Shashank Subramanyam was just astonishing and his accompanists so good that I didn't want it to end.    I took the picture when they'd finished as you weren't allowed to film during the performance.

Spent lots of time with the twins who are always such fun.  And we took Little A and S to Regents Park boating lake which is so entertaining, though expensive.

We also paid a visit to in-laws in Dorset.   Here's a photo of us trying to find a spot to picnic on the beach in the RSPB reserve at Arne Peninsula.  We'd forgotten to check the tide tables, and so actually it was high tide and the beach was covered in water! But we found a handy canoe tied up to a tree and had our picnic in that as the waves broke around the canoe.

Also spotted this threatening sign on a pretty little bridge nearby

I've been looking through other peoples' travel blogs, and found this one which interested me. It's about dealing with anxiety, particularly travel anxiety.  Actually, I have suffered quite badly from this too (although not as badly as Lauren, the blog's writer). It's OK now that I have wound down travel writing and really just do it as a hobby.  But when I was being well paid as a freelance for turning in the perfect product to someone else's specification, there was a lot of anxiety attached in taking off into the unknown.  Obviously it is nothing compared to the stress of being a brain surgeon or a judge (or indeed anything that actually matters).  And it was well worth it for the wonderful experiences.

Lauren thinks that too. Take a look at her blog, it's good.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Pargetting and the Supernatural

Haven't been much in London at all. We were visiting friends in Wessex last week (where I spotted this pretty blue butterfly, above) and we somehow got chatting about ghosts and the supernatural. I was very surprised at how many perfectly normal people reported ghosts and hauntings from their own experience.  We all agreed that the the "ghostly" manifestations seemed a bit inconsequential and really quite varied, although rather scary at the time.   

My feeling about ghosts etc. is that I don't believe in them,  even though I once worked for the vicar of this church (photographed 100 years ago or so - these days you can hardly see it for trees)

By the time I was there, they'd built a church hall where my daughter went to playschool every weekday morning.  We were hard-up at the time, I needed work and I was pleased to be getting a handy part time job in the vicarage right next door to playschool. But the vicar turned out to be a well known exorcist and my work was mainly dealing with deeply troubled people who thought they were possessed.    My experiences there were enough to convince me that I did not wish to meddle in this subject and I was not sorry that my daughter grew out of that playschool soon after and I didn't need to work there any more.    

I have no doubt that many of us (including me) have scary and unexplained experiences, but I prefer to keep an open mind about what these experiences actually mean.  It's so easy to sleep and dream very briefly, misinterpret sounds or sights, or become quite suggestible. Also, there are strange folk around who like to threaten and frighten others and are not above taking a lot of trouble to do it.  

And chatting with my Wessex friends,  I learned that a vicar I had met a few weeks ago has to keep clearing up "cursed" hub caps and unreeled VHS tape draped over hedges outside his vicarage - it's a form of attack by weird individuals who are into witchcraft, and worse.  At first it seemed ridiculous to think of some idiot cursing VHS tapes, of all things, and then spreading them around.  But I quickly realised that it is deeply threatening and upsetting to be on the receiving end of this weirdness.  I ended up feeling  sorry for this vicar, and surprised that apparently other vicars have to deal with similar deranged behaviour that is more appropriate to 1614 than 2014.

I'll leave the topic here, as I know it upsets some people - but it's on my mind so hope you don't mind me sharing.  When I got back to London, I went to see the choir of Kings College Cambridge singing sacred music at King's Place - what a contrast to the cursers!  The programme included the extraordinary "Spem in Alium" motet by Thomas Tallis.   This work has forty separate parts, so is very hard to sing and conduct.  When Queen Elizabeth I heard it, she's said to have given 40 pounds to Tallis - enough to buy him a country estate in those days.   When forty people are singing it just in front of you, it's so loud and intense that the air seem to jump about and the music completely fills your mind.  This YouTube video can't replicate that experience but it's a good performance.  

And now I'd better finish the post I was writing before I went to Wessex.  My post was about Essex. Essex and Wessex are on opposite sides of the country ("Essex" = East Saxons, "Wessex" - West Saxons, I'm told),  In many parts of the East of England, you'll see houses decorated with pargetting, a form of plasterwork. It can be in a plain little pattern

 free form 

or quite descriptive. The one below, in Saffron Walden (see last post) seems to be telling a story, but I don't know what it can be! 

Anyway as I cycled along a quiet lane we passed this sign on a rusty-roofed old shed 

Adjoining this old shed was a handsome house, decorated with some interesting modern pargetting describing medieval customs. I thought it was great. 

We have also seen pargetted homes in Northern France, but there the pargetting is often painted up in bright colours. 

I suppose the scenes in old pargetting are also to do with legends, supernatural things, traditions and spells, lingering on in our modern world.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Saffron Walden and Mazes.

I promised Jeanie of Marmelade Gypsy that I'd mention the maze in Saffron Walden, in Essex. I hadn't visited Saffron Walden for many years.  It is less sleepy than it was, but the picture above, showing a side street, still brings back to me the feeling I had as a child, when we lived for a while in an old cottage set in what was once a stables in the centre of a similar small, old town. I remember so well looking through an ancient timbered archway at small, old fashioned shops on the other side of the road.  (As a kid, I'd have definitely investigated the toyshop on the left.)

Saffron Walden's many old houses including these at the side of the main road.  As you see, the road has been built up over the years - resurfaced, I suppose - giving the impression that the cottages have sunk. Really, they are built on the level of the mud roads of 400 years ago. Surely, if the road is to be resurfaced much more, something will have to be done to stop it getting much higher. As you can see the cottages' front doors are already accessed by steps cut into the pavement! 

The handsome library is right in the centre of town. I was glad to see it's still a library, not a cafe bar or restaurant, which so often is the fate of old public buildings. It was a particularly lovely sky that day, with so many different types of clouds.

Many of the doorways are decorated or adorned with figures.  I'm wondering what this one is. A rather ugly cherub? A god? Or even a lion, with all that hair. 

This old window bows out crookedly.  I have an idea this kind of angular bow window has a special name, though I don't know what it is.  The glass in it is old and uneven, so if you are inside you'll get a slightly wavy view of the world.  

I'm very glad that many of the old houses in Saffron Walden actually look old. This place, painted white, looks almost ghostly, but look at all the interesting details and the shapes of the windows and doors. It makes a most fascinating addition to the street.

Now I'm going to rant, so skip the next paragraph if you don't want to read it!  I really hate it when people buy old, old places like this and modernise the insides. I stayed at quite an expensive b&b recently which was an Elizabethan farmhouse, over 400 years old, whose interior had been entirely replaced with every darn cliche in the home improvement magazines. The walls of small old rooms had been torn down and "spaces opened up," like a furniture showroom.   Colours were all Farrow and Ball "period" pastels instead of the plain whites, blacks or dark colours you find in real old places. The floors were of smooth new flagstones, straight out of the builder depot. All the plastering of the walls was new and flawless. Staircases were modern.  This lovely old house had no doubt needed some work, but the new owners had stolen every fragment of its personality and I really wished they'd just bought a new one instead of destroying something irreplaceable, that would have had so much to tell us about the lives of those who'd lived in it for centuries and passed it down. Of course houses should be modernised and improved over the years, but if you're going to do so much work, why not just build from new?  

Oh well, rant over. And you certainly couldn't say that anyone had unsympathetically modernised the interior of the white house above. It was really quite dusty.  I peeped through the diamond windows and spotted this trendy little china couple (well, trendy for the late 18th century). The man wears one of those tall thin wobbly wigs that suggest he was a laughable dandy, and she is wearing a jaunty little indoor cap. I wonder what story the ornament is telling.  

The town has two mazes. One is in Bridge End, a large Victorian garden towards the north of the town. Once neglected, Bridge End has been carefully restored and is now run by the council as a public park.  What a great place to take the family for a picnic! The garden is charming, and full of wildlife - some of the beds were alive with butterflies in a way I have rarely seen before. I wonder if they'd sprayed the flowers with the butterfly equivalent of recreational drugs....

This door, to the humble kitchen garden, is very grand, don't you think?  Just beyond it is a maze with tall hedges. It's impossible to photograph - it just looks like a lot of hedges - so you'll have to take my word that it is there.

There's some puzzling statuary. This creature (lizard? demon? dragon? gargoyle from an old church?) guards one of the steps leading into the area with the maze.

But a little further on is a parterre, an arrangement of flowerbeds surrounded by small hedges, which I photographed from a viewing platform built among the trees. It's not exactly a maze, but it looks more like one in photographs than the real maze does!   The two sides of the parterre were originally symmetrical but old photos show that over time it has gradually changed, so now the two sides do not match.

And the real, old town maze is on the outskirts of town, on the other side of the common.  It doesn't have hedges, but the maze is cut in raised turf in an orderly labyrinthine pattern, and it is not fenced off in any way. The sign by the maze explains all about it.

If you ever go walking in the British countryside with an Ordnance Survey map (so much better than Google) and you come across something written in Gothic lettering entitled "mizmaze" then it will likely be one of these ancient mazes, either maintained or overgrown.  They were quite popular hundreds of years ago - Shakespeare refers to one in Titania's quarrel with Oberon in "Midsummer Night's Dream" in which everything goes topsy turvy, including in the village, where all the leisure activities are forgotten

"...The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud
and the quaint mazes in the wanton green
for lack of tread are indistinguishable...."

I have been told that instead of getting lost, you are supposed to walk the maze paths in order to consider your spiritual life, and organise your thoughts.  A good idea.

You can see a fairground truck at the far end. They were about to have a fair on the common, so I doubt there would have been much chance to walk quietly and organise one's thoughts in the next few days!

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