Friday, November 26, 2004

Photo-essay: guarding the entrance

Some photographs of gate posts guarding the entrance to private roads on secluded suburban estates.

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Usually, the higher the gate pier the more private the road.
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Seventeenth-century gate pier, mature holly bush in the background, late afternoon sun.

In the middle of some London suburbs you often come across gate pillars which are obviously far older than the surrounding 1930s houses. This was probably originally the entrance to a private estate with a big house and parkland - as London expanded these estates were bought up and developed as suburbs. The gates remain as a clue to the the past.
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In a 1920s estate the developer has constructed gate pillars which incorporate carvings of roses - appropriately this gate leads into Rose Walk.
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Sometimes wrought iron was used.
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And beyond the gates? Mile after mile of leafy suburbs, with detached and semi-detached houses (usually mock-Tudor, very occasionally stark white 1930s modernist). I like these blocks of flats.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Something was wrong

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Corner of the wet carpark at lunchtime

Cold, steady, persistent rain that started about ten o’clock this morning. Thank goodness it was dry earlier when I took the dog for a walk (7 am). Normally we go for a short walk along the lane, and then return to the house where I have a cup of tea and some biscuits and then go to work. The dog always has one of his biscuits (mixed ovals in a dish on the floor in the kitchen – he could have a saucer of tea if he wanted it) and then goes to bed where he stays until my brother gets back from work at 4.30.

This morning however, the dog must have sensed something was wrong. Because the cat is at the vet for the next few days, having a small operation, the dog was left in the house alone. He watched me put on my coat, and followed me through the two kitchens (the Inner Kitchen and the Outer Kitchen) where he stood at a little distance as I went out the door. As I walked round the corner and along the front of the house (which actually faces away from the road – the road came after the house) I heard the dog howling mournfully, something he has never previously done. I briefly considered going back to quieten him, but there was too little time. And later I realised he has never been completely on his own before.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Recognisably “London”

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I rashly incorporated the word London into this weblog title, but looking back through past posts, there is more about life in the Home Counties than in the city. I suppose when you are very familiar with a place you tend not to pay much regard to the obvious features around you. Anyway, I’m going to make more of an effort to include scenes that are recognisably “London”.

Natural History Museum in Cromwell Road. This is one of my favourite buildings, designed by the Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse. I took the picture when I was on my way to the Victoria & Albert Museum on the opposite side of the road.

I say it is one of my favourite buildings, but only in regard to the architecture. I never go round the galleries inside (except the entrance hall where the gothic theme of the architecture is enhanced by monstrous skeletons of dinosaurs, ferocious jaws grinning at the incoming tourists). To tell the truth, I struggle to raise much enthusiasm for anything scientific (I suppose I’m just not very practical).

Biographical note: although I live outside London and the place where I work is located in an industrial suburb, I feel I am a Londoner through and through. I was born in north London, and my father’s family came from the East End where they had lived for hundreds of years. The only reason they moved out of the East End was because of the blitz in 1940 (and three days later the house was hit and completely destroyed). They moved to Mill Hill and never looked back. It was the best thing that could have happened to them. After years of poverty, the war gave them a new start.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

It's embarrasing when it breaks down

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There's a lot of kudos in having a cool-looking car, but it's embarrasing when it breaks down in the High Street

Monday, November 15, 2004

Finding myself drawn into someone else’s life

Saturday. As arranged, I drove north to meet Marie-Astrid Wallis. She had given me a different address to go to, an ordinary semi-detached house. Inside she was completely alone.

We had a cup of tea and she told me that she had split up with her husband and was living on her own. She intended to divorce her husband. They had agreed that their two-year daughter should spend half her time with each of them.

This news left me confused and a little shocked. At all our previous meetings Marie-Astrid and her family had placed such emphasis upon their religious way of life that the idea of getting divorced seemed incredible. The last time we had met there had been no hint that the marriage was in trouble.

And I also felt I was experiencing déjà vu – of not seeing someone for several years, and then meeting them again almost by chance and then finding myself drawn into someone else’s life in a way that I was not entirely comfortable with. Sat there in the cold empty house I didn’t know what I was expected to do. As it was bright sunshine outside I suggested we went for a walk.

In my car we drove out into the countryside, and parked in a little track. Getting out we walked through a village. Although the sun was out, the air was very cold, and I didn’t have an overcoat, so the walk was not entirely pleasant. Past an old church where a grimacing medieval gargoyle looked down at us menacingly. On some exposed stonework I found a lichen-covered coat-of-arms featuring three goats and the “bloody hand” badge of a baronet. We rounded a corner of the church and discovered a lovely old manor house, with a sixteenth-century doorway. Marie-Astrid was very keen to explore, and led the way round the back of this building where there was a range of stables.

It was so cold that I was glad to get back to the car. We drove to a nearby country club that Marie-Astrid was considering joining (£50 per month). It was a modern building set in woodland and comprised several bars and restaurants, a swimming pool, extensive health facilities. “As I’ve got older I’ve grown to appreciate nice surroundings” Marie-Astrid told me. We had a cup of coffee in one of the lounges then went for a walk round the building – squash courts, gym, an upstairs restaurant where Marie-Astrid was considering holding her forthcoming birthday party. The sun had gone and darkness fell quite quickly.

Returning to Marie-Astrid’s house, she sat beside me on the sofa and told me all the difficulties she had faced recently, and how she planned to start her life over again.

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Malevolent medieval gargoyle (with gaping mouth)
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Three goats and a “bloody hand” badge
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This manor house had a sixteenth-century doorway (mentioned in Pevsner, I later discovered)
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The stable range behind the manor house - the late-afternoon sun has cast a shadow of the house onto the stable wall
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Main entrance to the country club (photo taken from the upstairs restaurant)
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Into the country club. Big display of plastic flowers - I thought they were real at first sight
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Corner of the upstairs restaurant (where Marie-Astrid was considering holding her birthday party)
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You can have coffee in this upstairs lounge and look down at the swimming pool. Through the three side windows you can see into the gym

Friday, November 12, 2004

Infuriating, defiant, often lazy

Adrian Taylor’s last day in the office before he goes off to Australia for a year (including following the Rugby Lions Tour). In the morning Peter Haslett and I drove into the city to buy some leaving presents for him. Because he is mad keen on rugby we got him a book on England’s victory in the rugby World Cup, plus some silver cuff-links in the shape of rugby balls, plus the 2005 Kylie Minogue calendar (to add an Australian element to the package).

Peter Haslett and I went to a big shopping centre to buy the gifts. Afterwards we sat in the Costa Coffee café in the middle of one of the indoor plazas, and drank mocha coffees. “I could sit here all morning” I said to Peter (and that’s what we did).

The presentation was held at 3pm in the afternoon, with everyone gathering in the big sales office. Neil Hancock made a speech and handed Adrian Taylor the presents. Adrian went very red and mumbled a sort of general thanks to everybody and slouched back to the Marketing corner.

In the eighteen months Adrian Taylor has worked for the Marketing department he has been infuriating, defiant, often lazy. Also funny, loyal, and capable of huge bursts of exuberant energy (moving whole pallets of sales literature by hand, stripping down the big colour printer to find out why it’s not working, stalling groups of visitors when I’ve forgotten they would be arriving for a marketing presentation). It was a sad moment when he left.

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Adrian Taylor receiving his gifts from Sales Director Neil Hancock. Photograph taken by my new assistant Alison Davis (the office doesn't normally look so scruffy).

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Armistice Day has become slightly controversial

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The eleventh day of the eleventh month. At eleven o’clock we had a two-minute silence throughout the company. Kevin Maglio on the Sales Desk continued talking through the silence until Peter Haslett went over and told him to shut up (“It’s personal choice whether you observe the silence” Kevin said petulantly).
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Three members of my family died in the First World War – three brothers aged in their early twenties. Two died fighting in France, the other drowned in Limehouse Basin. They all died in the same week.
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Armistice Day has become slightly controversial in recent years. The pro-European movement thinks it should be dropped so that the Germans are not offended. The French have already dropped their Poppy Day (actually I think they wore some sort of blue flower rather than poppies).

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Slanting sunlight falling on the meadow

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We’re in the middle of gloomy dull dreary November, so I have dug out a photograph taken in the summer.

Late afternoon, the slanting sunlight falling on the meadow made the long grass a wonderful shade of green. After a very hot day a slight breeze had began to blow. No birds were singing except for the sobbing call of a Nightingale (there is always scepticism when I tell people we have Nightingales living in the chestnut trees – it seems a pretentious bird to have in the garden compared to the Blackbirds and Thrushes that most people have. One of the favourite memories I have of my parents is of the three of us standing in the garden on an early summer evening listening to a Nightingale singing in the tree above us).

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

She had contacted me and suggested a meeting

Saturday, and the usual Saturday lunch, the usual afternoon spent in an armchair reading the newspaper. In the early evening I drove northwards through the dark night, joining the Great North Road and continuing until I came to a small northern town. Parking my car, I walked along the High Street to the Crown Hotel, one of the most famous coaching inns of the Great North Road.

The Crown Hotel is a magnificent example of pre-Reformation architecture, with stone bay windows and mediaeval vaults. It was a favoured stopping point on the road from London to the north of England, and many kings have stayed there in the past. There is a chamber in the building where Richard III is supposed to have signed the death warrant of the Duke of Buckingham (it forms a famous scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III).

In one of the hotel sitting rooms I met Marie-Astrid Wallis. She hardly seemed changed since I last saw her, although we had not met for several years. A little slimmer than before, her hair was still blonde, her eyes still an implausible shade of blue. She was dressed in dark red, a thick overcoat folded on the seat by her side. As she got up to greet me I kissed her in a formal sort of way, but I detected a slight drawing away, as if even conventional intimacy was to be avoided.

I had met Marie-Astrid at university where we had several mutual friends and had eventually become friends ourselves. She came from a very religious background, but at college she had more or less put all that on one side and lived as an ordinary student. Since her return home however, and her subsequent marriage, the religious side of her life had prevailed, and she had effectively “disappeared”.

Therefore I had been very surprised when she had contacted me and suggested a meeting.

We had tea on a sofa in the middle of the chintzy room (the chintz was rather overwhelming, so that I felt almost suffocated by the soft furnishings). She told me all her news since her marriage (which I had not gone to), the birth of her daughter two years ago, and her new job with a charitable foundation that helps single mothers who have young children. It was her job that had led to her moving from London to the small northern town.

The hotel sitting room was rather overheated, and as it was still quite early we decided to go for a walk before dinner. Outside the sharp air was very refreshing, and we made a circuit of the streets in the town centre, along a back street to the main square, past statues of various local worthies, past the Town Hall, past the Museum with its political exhibits from the 1980s.

On impulse we decided to try the new restaurant The Quayside on the opposite side of the road from the Museum. Because it had recently opened it had not yet been "discovered" and so we were able to get a table without booking. Inside it was a little stark, having high rooms that magnified the noise from the chattering diners. Everything was painted white. The staff were all French, which seemed unusual in such a provincial town.

Salmon pancake followed by grilled chicken followed by green tea brulee ("our own recipe'" the waitress told me, her beautiful French accent marred by an acquired flat Midlands intonation). Marie-Astrid announced she was a vegetarian, something I had not previously known. Our conversation was very eclectic. Being half-Danish, Marie-Astrid talked of Denmark, describing it so effectively, and with such enthusiasm, that I wanted to go there. She also talked of east Africa where she had been born (her parents had been missionaries at an American mission).

Her capricious conversational style, and her pretty appearance, belied a serious aspect, for Marie-Astrid is, at heart, a very serious person. She certainly took her job very seriously, and had become genuinely interested in child poverty. We discussed the book Angela's Ashes (a controversial account of a Dublin childhood) which she had recently read. She also told me about her religion, which seemed to be a fusion of Baptist doctrine with ultra-orthodox Jewish observances.

After dinner we went for another walk around the centre of the little town. Our previous excursion had been just after the shops had closed, and the town had given the impression of being completely deserted. Now it was past ten o'clock lots of bars had opened, guarded by security staff (physically large and bulky, mostly bald or shaven-headed, looming over the pavements in a menacing way and looking suspiciously at the passers-by – there was a big army base located nearby, and the town had a reputation for rowdiness on Saturday nights).

All around the town centre there were many groups of young women walking about in raucous clusters. These young girls were wearing tight, bright clothes, and hardly any of them had on coats, so that they must have been cold in the night air. They also seemed to have a strangely glossy appearance - long glossy hair, glossy lips, glitter on their eyelids. There seemed to be no end of these young women, clomping around in impractical shoes, carrying on jolly conversations at the tops of their voices.

Marie-Astrid invited me to see her new home and we drove, each in our own car, to a nearby village. She lived in the back half of the Old Manor House, a very solid-looking Georgian mansion that had been split into smaller units. We parked our cars in the road and went through a courtyard surrounded by outhouses, entering the house through a large kitchen. Inside the rooms were big and spacious, with an empty appearance as most of Marie-Astrid's furniture was still at her house in London. She introduced me to her sister-in-law who was staying over the weekend.

This sister-in-law seemed to take a dislike to me and pointedly ignored everything I said. She went into the kitchen and made me a horrible cup of tea (weak and almost cold, as if the water hadn’t been boiled). The thought crossed my mind whether she was mistakenly regarding me as some kind of rival to her brother (who was out at a “Sabbath” function – observation of the Sabbath being one of the key tenets of the fundamentalist protestant sect to which they all belonged).

Marie-Astrid showed me round the house. Toys belonging to her daughter were scattered about most of the rooms. On the wall in the living room was an embroidered sampler, a family heirloom. French windows led onto a terrace but it was too dark to see much of the garden.

We chatted for a little while, and I told her about the Nixon wedding in two weeks’ time (I am to be Best Man). After about half an hour I left them, and began the long drive back to Buckinghamshire. Arriving home the sky was very clear, and above the house the stars seemed enormous - Orion, the Plough, and the "W" of Cassiopeia.

It had been a strange evening.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The fusillade

Friday, 5th November – Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. At about eight o’clock I attempted to take the dog into the garden, but he was too frightened by the noise of fireworks and refused to leave the house. I went along the front of the house, across the lawn and through the gate in the hedge to stand in the lane.

From the lane I had a sweeping view of the black night, which was interspersed by the lights of far-off houses and the distant sodium glow of the local town. Crackles, bangs and fizzes filled the air – considering there were no fireworks going off within half a mile, the noises were surprisingly loud. Pale gleams darted into the sky, and exploded into showers of coloured light.

In the fields around me I could hear the anxious calls of wild birds, woken by the fusillade.

In the television dramatisation of Return of the Native (a great book, although the TV adaptation was flawed) on Guy Fawkes Night Catherine Zeta-Jones lights her own bonfire as a desperate signal for a lover to appear (which he does, with tragic results).

In The Golden Bough (another great but flawed work) Sir James Frazer writes that Guy Fawkes Night is a survival of the great European fire-festivals where village communities would light bon-fires, leap over them, and carry charred sticks back to their houses as protection against lightning and house fires over the coming year.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Thursday photo essay: Holloway scenes

Grecian profile

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Languishing petrified pre-raphaelite with Grecian profile. The stomach muscles look unusually developed. I have thought in the past of doing a photographic survey of memorial sculptures in municipal cemeteries – one of the many projects that I know will never get off the ground.
A close fraternity

A small market near Camden Town tube station, that only sells fresh produce (I avoid the market at Camden Lock, which has become a horrible tourist trap). London costermongers traditionally sell apples and pears – the word coster comes from the name of an apple. They are a close fraternity with their own language (cockney rhyming slang). Henry Mayhew, in his 1861 book London Labour and the London Poor (one of my favourite books) said that all a costermonger’s sons would follow their father into the trade (presumably daughters as well these days, although I didn’t see any barrow girls during this visit).

I took lots of photographs, but very few are presentable. I was using a cheap throwaway camera (bought in Tescos), and the light settings were limited. Anyway, you get a sense of the November gloom – it was dark even in the middle of the day.

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Said to two female office workers, wandering about in their lunchbreak: “Peaches luv?”
“No thanks.”
“Go on, ’ave some peaches.”
“No thanks” (giggling) “…I bet they’re all bruised anyway.”
“They’re not bruised – on my life. Take them down the hospital and have them x-rayed if you don’t believe me.”
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If you go to the market late on Saturday afternoon they sell the fruit and vegetables off cheap to get rid of them. I bought a tray of peaches once for only £1 (about sixty peaches).
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The old couple on the right are wrapped up against the chilly November cold. It really was a cold day. The barrow boy was lifting huge boxes of vegetables and yelling to his colleagues.