The sea, the sea

I’ve just read a book called ‘Adrift in Caledonia’ by Nick Thorpe.  It describes the author’s voyage hitch-hiking around Scotland by sea.  It is very well written and a great read.  Why do I like it so much?  Partly because it avoids cliches and stereotypes: Thorpe manages to describe a real country where real people live: dull, likeable, eccentric, attractive, offensive.  I like the way he explores not just the country and the sea but his own search for faith and his feelings of being an outsider as an Englishman living in Scotland.  I like it because it reminded me of weeks I spent sailing from Helensburgh to Kinlochlevan, through the Kyles of Bute and the Crinan Canal during university holidays.

One of my favourtie reflections from the book summarises how the sea for Scotland is not a defensive barrier but rather “a connection to the world.”  For explorers and for trade, the sea was a highway to France, to Norway, to America, to Africa. I love the idea that what separates us also connects us: a truly transforming thought.

And another beautiful thought from the book: “Nobody in this sea-scoured nation is ever more than 45 miles from tidal waters…” How wonderful: never more than an hour from waves breaking on a rocky shore.  What freedom, what possibility!

A week in Edinburgh

I’ve just spent a week in Edinburgh.  While I was there, I spent a lot of time travelling on the Number 8 bus: its route slices right through the centre of the city, from the north side to the south: up Dundas Street, past Waverley, along the Bridges and down through Newington.  Sitting at the front, on the top deck, I looked out at the city streets, noticing how things are different from SW20.

Some differences you can blame on the weather: in Edinburgh, girls were wearing thick black tights under their short skirts and large cotton scarfs with their vest tops.  In Wimbledon, girls just wear short skirts and vest tops and their bare legs are usually tanned. It must be because people in Edinburgh are always ready for bad weather that on a hot day everyone was walking around carrying heavy jackets and coats and large shoulder bags: are the bags to put their coats and umbrellas in when the sun comes out?

Some of the differences must be economics: you don’t see as many mothers pushing Phil and Ted buggies; you see more fat people and more old people.  You see fewer teenage girls with perfect teeth, skin and hair (the kind you only get from good breeding and plenty of money).  You see more old men with rough red cheeks and noses (the kind you get from always walking into a cold wind blowing off the North Sea).

Some differences are harder to explain.  You still don’t see many black people, for example. Ladies lunching on George Street all look like they have made a special effort to achieve their polished good looks.  There are still a large number of funny little shops selling tie-dyed ethnic clothes, black goth tee-shirts and incense sticks – the kind of shops I used to love when I was at school. Why should there still be more aspiring hippies in Edinburgh than south-west London?

I liked noticing and trying to define the differences.  What is it makes Edinburgh, Edinburgh?  I saw things I would not have noticed if I’d lived there rather than London for the last eight years but I came away after a week with only random observations: not a portrait of a city, just a few snapshots from the top of a bus.

Cakes from my mother

chewy date bars recipeAt some point this afternoon, the desire for a cup of tea and a slice of cake crept up on me.  Specifically, I wanted a Chewy Date Bar, something my mother used to make and one of her many recipes that in mind belong to the Seventies – healthy, economical and wholesome.  I imagined them today, light and chewy and dusted with crunchy sugar.  I found the hand-written card in her wooden recipe box.  Serendipitously, a bag of dates were sitting unused in the cupboard. I measured and mixed the ingredients.  I put them in oven.  As I write, a tray of Chewy Date Bars is cooling on the counter and I’m about to enjoy one with a cup of tea. I hope they taste as good as I remember.

(I will post the recipe on my recipe page so that you can enjoy them too.)

So long, Kingston Road

Kingston Road stretches from South Wimbledon tube stop all the way to Raynes Park station (about 1 1/2 miles).  Its one of those funny roads that are horrible to find if you don’t know the area: you have to make a left turn at traffic lights in order to stay on it and then as you get towards the station at Raynes Park it turns into Approach Road.  We live at the Raynes Park end. Further down, the street is mainly Edwardian terraces and Blay houses but after our row, the terraces are old Victorian buildings with shops below and flats perched above (many of the shops are now offices).   On the opposite side from us are some low 1930’s factory buildings, one of which is just now being prepared for demolition.  Now that we are leaving, I find myself feeling nostalgic as I walk along the road: I don’t think its just because we will not be here for much longer.  I get the feeling that Kingston Road itself with its eclectic mix of shops, cafes, bizarre small businesses and ‘light industry’ will not survive. So, just for the record, here is my list of places to remember on Kingston Road:

Cunninghams – a builders’ merchant where you can buy any size or shape of screw or hook or nail as long as you ask for it in imperial measurements.  Mr Cunningham does not do metric which he regards as something imposed on us by the French, around the time of Napoleon (at least, I think thats what he told me when I asked for 60cm of dowling rod).  Every morning, he moves his display of goods out of the shop onto the pavement under a red striped awning and every evening he packs them away.

Wells Motors – the garage that we have used for all repairs to our car while we have lived here, housed in a low shed with a a folding glass and wooden front that opens right up.  In winter, when the lights are on and you can see men in dungarees working on cars, it could be a scene from a Edward Hopper painting.

Mr Patel, the newsagent – he came here from Kenya and reuses, with a smile, any plastic bags you hand in

Cocum – winner of the best Indian restaurant in London, a little green place making authentic Keralan cuisine

Spink and Son – one of the factories on the other side of the road, with a name straight out of Dickens.  No-one knows what they actually do

Terry Gregory, Metal Fabrications – love the name, so close to ‘mental fabrications’, you know, such stuff as dreams are made of

The Upholstery Shop – the whole shop is stacked with old chairs from floor to ceiling. It seems to open once a year.

The Stainless Steel Fasteners and Fixings Company – does what it says on the tin (presumably)

Spanair – a shop that looks like a front for some illegal operation but in reality is, I think, a air cargo shipping company

Enough already – and I haven’t even mentioned The Red Rose Takeaway, the House of Spice or The Cinnamon Tree; Jalapenos and Coriander, or the sushi place; Cafe Rossano or the Kings Cafe.  I haven’t got time to write about Palladium Pictures or Universal Flooring; our Dentist, Results Health and Fitness or the little dogs that frequent Top Dog Grooming;  I won’t say anything about Lighter Life, Zest Financial Consultants or Sunbed City.  I’ll leave for later the the Apostles Bar (for the young and upwardly mobile) and the Junction Tavern (for the old and back-sliding) and the three churches (the Shofar Christian Church, Dundonald Church and the Kingston Episcopal Office for the Southwark Diocese).

I hope I’ve not given the impression that Kingston Road is fashionably unfashionable. Cool it is not and never will be. But, as we have discovered in the last three years, you can find pretty much everything you need for health and happiness here.

Back to the Bodens

Boden have been sending regular editions of their catalogue all summer and each one quickly finds its way into the stack of reading material in our bathroom and from there into the recycle bin.  Looking through it, I notice that it does not just describe the clothes (‘Fabulous patent bag – £149; Floaty day dress – £89’) but also provides the name of the model and an insight into her life and opinions. So under the photographs, you can read: ‘Caroline (Greatest athletic feat: getting up in the morning)’; Simone (Daffodils or crocuses? Daffodils).  I know the point of the questions is not to reveal great truths about Simone or Caroline’s character but they do come over as either incredibly dull (I’m notorious for: my freckles) or incredibly conceited (Last saintly deed: I’m always jumping in to help people).  I decided to see if I could do any better (with truthful answers, of course.) So taking ten questions from the catalogue at random, here are my answers:

If my phone rings at 7 am, I know its: most likely my sister and something pretty serious

If I had a year off, I would: finish my Masters

I’m surprisingly good at: sailing close to the wind

My breakfast consists of: two slices of toast and marmalade and a cup of coffee

To feel better after a bad day, I: stop and pray about it all

I’m notorious for: being late, not being able to make up my mind and organising things at the last minute

Last saintly deed: making my husband a cup of tea during the Murray match tonight (hardly qualifies, I know)

Recent rediscovery: reading poetry in bed at night is a great way to get to sleep

What makes you feel glamourous: painting my toe-nails, then wearing sandals with bare legs (hurrah for summer!)

If I were handed a £1000 tomorrow, I would: buy a new bed and a dishwasher

My Scotland

The date for our move to Scotland is set for the last week of August.  I’m spending time looking for removal companies and a house in Dundee.  I’ve also been reflecting on ‘Homecoming Scotland’ and realised why it makes me so uneasy.   The photos used to promote the campaign represent old buildings, old statues, stained glass windows, golf courses, old men in tartan, old books and empty landscapes.  That Scotland is old, dull and (apart from the old men) deserted.  Who’d want to go home to that?

So what should have been included? Here’s my list as a start:

Alexander McColl Smith (the Number One Ladies Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street) – and all the other great Scottish writers in paticular John Buchan, Ian Rankin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Muriel Spark: what talent, what diversity!

Scottish bands from the Proclaimers (just starting another tour) to Franz Ferdinand.  Listen to Letter from America if you want to feel like going home:  I’ve looked at the ocean tried hard to imagine how you felt the day you sailed from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia...

The land itself – mountains, rivers, lochs, sea, beaches.  Not a deserted landscape for looking at from a car window but a wonderful space for walking and climbing and mountain biking with friends; for sailing and swimming; for campfires and beach games and weekends away. And (particularly appreciated after years in England) Scotland’s enlightend approach to access: there is no law of trespass in Scotland.

The Elephant House and all Edinburgh’s coffee shops – with which no other city can compare.

Scottish schools – not all great, but part of a great tradition based on breadth of knowledge and opportunity for all that I don’t think England’s complex educational system was ever truly committed to.

The Scottish men and women making their mark on the wide world: Andy Murray, Ewan McGregor, James McIlvoy, Gordon Brown, Kirsty Wark …

The Scottish rugby team – so often beaten, never bowed, always ready to rise again.

Eating outHaving funBeautiful beachesO flowers of ScotlandSpace to playLets get married

What, no posts?

Mr Strong!Its been a while (you may have noticed) since I wrote anything.  Blame it all on the erratic sleep patterns of my baby boy.  The days when I could count on that after lunch peace and a cup of coffee are long gone.  Daniel no longer reliably sleeps for an hour in the morning and an hour after lunch.  In the evenings, he takes longer and longer to go to sleep.  I was going to write about all of this and explore theories about what to do; I got ‘Sleepeasy Solution’ out of the library but I haven’t read it and I’ve realised just thinking about it all makes me feel too exhausted to put fingers to keyboard.

Fun!Fun!So I’m laying that aside for now and focussing instead on the high points, the delights. Saturday morning with Ross, we took Daniel for his first swim in his star-spangled trunks. He was bemused, then pleased, splashing and smiling as we whooshed him through the water like a baby walrus. Yesterday, at the swings, he laughed with pleasure, smiling at everyone as if to say: see what an amazing fun thing this is you should try it too, its quite easy.

Today, I bought him his first proper ball: we came up to the basket of balls in the toy department of Debenhams.  I poked around, choosing a colour I liked then turned to him with the ball I’d chosen.  As I handed it to him, his eyes widened and his mouth split in a smile of pure wonder.  He held it in both hands all the way home. My first experience of making my child happy with a very simple present.

(I have just now turned the lights on – its after ten o’clock at night.  From the window, the roofs and treetops and chimneys are black against a strip of pale yellow, fading to duck-egg green and pale blue.  Today was hot.  The first day of Wimbledon.)

Holland Garden II

Daniel and I were back in Holland Garden this afternoon.  He was sleeping in his buggy, I was reading on the grass.  Holland Garden was a gift to the people of Merton from Lady Holland in 1928 as a memorial to her late husband, Sir Arthur who was ‘well known for the tireless service to the local community’.  The square of grass tilts up the hill and is surrounded by trees and thick hedges.  A row of old pines shade the east side of the gardens.  Above the grass there are three clay tennis courts, out of use now but still surrounded by tall fences.  In front of the tennis courts, pink and white rose bushes climb poles, well over two metres high.

Franz ToveyOn a sunny afternoon when school is over, it is full of boys in shorts and girls in blue gingham dresses.  Today, they were running and chasing each other over the grass; one boy had managed to climb a tree and two others were trying to poke him with a long stick; another group were hanging through the iron railings, trying to squeeze through the gaps; one little boy was shouting to three litle girls to ‘Come, I want to show you something, over here!’  Two tiny boys on scooters guarded the gate, counting people in and out.

But at five o’ clock the Garden emptied.  Suddenly, there was only Daniel and me left on the grass.  I felt like Franz Tovey (hero of a wonderfully surreal book published in 1968, illustrated with beautiful black and white photographs).  He lived in a castle all his own in the middle of a great park.    During the day, he played with the children who came to the park.  But, later when the sun went down and everyone had left, the park became his again.  And Franz Tovey was Prince of the Night.   The hills were his, and the meadows, and the lakes.  The trees were his, and all the beautiful flowers.  Everything was his … except for the Rare Animals.  And they didn’t belong to him at all.


One of the nice things I’ve been doing over the last few weeks is working on some illustrations for Tearfund’s Emergency Handbook.  They are funny little line drawings – its inspiring to think that they will be looked at by men and women doing difficult jobs in places like Darfur and DRC.  Here are some of my favourites.Listening to childrenEducating men on HIV

Walking on sunshine

Yesterday was the kind of hot day that makes London feel like a city in a different century, a day from the summers E. M. Forster wrote about in A Room with a View.  I walked with Daniel up to Holland Gardens.  The red brick houses were baking in sun in a particularly English way: gardens still and abandoned in the early afternoon, the grass vivid and green, slowly drying out, red roses and purple lavender bright and fragrant in the hot sun.  

I met two friends with babies of similar age in the park.  We sat on rugs in the shade.  Daniel overcame his dislike of the itchy grass and started crawling away.  He looked back for a minute and then kept going.  Would he stop?  It didn’t seem like it: on he went, arms and legs like little pistons, heading out of the shade into the bright sun.  My baby: looking so small against the expanse of grass, so determined, so independent, so delighted with his mini-adventure.