An unexpected visitor

This was a day of domesticana  –  just as well I didn’t have to travel as Storm Doris was making herself felt with gusts of winds that made the house creak in its old joints and had the trees swaying wildly, which we don’t see often in London.  I kept hearing odd noises downstairs as she tried to make her way in through the cooker hood with baleful whining and  frustrated tantrums.

Tedious domestic chores always take me longer because time seems to stand stultifingly still. There’s a sort of pleasure in achievement but after a while I sat down to do some research at the computer as my real reward.  I love tracking things down and the Internet has made for a new world of possibilities.  Although I do miss exploring and coming face to face with people and places. But now I can do both and cover more ground.

I watched the shirts and trousers jiving in the wind on the line outside from my study window  –  not many people have a washing line nowadays but it’s much less expensive and environmentally more friendly than a droning drier.  And the clothes smell fresh, ready for ironing, when I also have the chance to listen to Radio 4.  Ironing in itself is workaday but because of Radio 4 I look forward to it.

I got absorbed in researching new flooring and sofas, flitting out from time to time into a few favourite sites like Bendor Grosvenor’s ‘Art History News’,  French vocabulary sites, new books, travel writers and places to visit, film reviews and art, science and nature programmes on TV. Back to the job in hand  …

And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an orange flash at the edge of the window pane.  A ginger cat?  I looked round and came face to face with a very pretty fox, staring at me through the glass! I was both shocked and enchanted at the same time.

An unexpected visitor

She must have climbed up the sloping glass windows in the kitchen roof to find a sheltered place by the wall, which separates us from our neighbour.  It was a smart move  –  a very cosy, mossy corner out of the wind.  She was completely unafraid of me as we gazed at one another  –  only slightly curious.  She looked in good health, she knew she was elegant  – it was almost as if she was smiling at me.

Surveying her territory

Elegant Mrs. Fox

Photoshoot of foxy model

I longed to have a conversation but finally, after twenty minutes or so, she made a move and vanished as silently as she had come.

The lady vanishes …

In the evening, I heard some fox call in the distance.  Was it her? I hoped she had somewhere to sleep out of harm’s way.  Maybe she was pregnant and looking for a safe place to make a den.

I know foxes can be a menace. They attack our compost heap with a vengeance. They have proliferated in cities where food waste makes easy pickings.  They leave nasty droppings and make bloodcurdling screeches in the dark of the night. They have been known to enter houses and bite babies in their warm, soft cradles. They are classed as vermin.

But I fell for her in an instant and I called her Vivienne.


PS  This encounter put me in mind of the poem by D H Lawrence called ‘Snake’.  It taught me the lesson of tolerance, of live and let live.  The author watches a snake coming out of a hole in the wall to drink at a pool in the heat of the day in Sicily. It is golden and venomous.  Should he kill it?  Read this poem and see.

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My highlights of 2016

We have BREXIT ongoing, we have TRUMP taking centre stage.  I just thought I’d take a photo or two from each month in 2016 to show that all was not gloom and doom. I’m determined to ‘think positive’ because that carries weight, rather than being crushed and feeling disenfranchised.

A physicist mooted that ‘dark matter’ could be made up of the weight of ‘thoughts’.  This appealed to me – a merging of science and philosophy –  the weight of conscious thought holding up the universe as against a black hole crushing it into extinction.  I did check up this idea with another astrophysicist, who, to my surprise, did say it was a possibility.  He didn’t laugh at me! It may be in the realms of science fiction but there’s so much about the universe we don’t know and so many dimensions that we haven’t or are unable to explore in our present human form.

Arthur C Clarke observed “How inappropriate to call this planet earth, when it is quite clearly ocean”.  And we don’t yet know very much about what lies under our oceans   –  and the size of them compared to land is immense. So, who knows?!

January 2016, started off very wet; we were not aware of what was to come – but my instinctive psyche took this photo. You could interpret it as reading the future …

The shape of things to come ...

The shape of things to come … photo taken January 2016

The highlight of the month was a family outing to ‘Mr. Foote’s Other Leg’ at a theatre in central London.  A triumph for Simon Russell Beale and a great family get together.

February is often misty and damp.  But there was a high point –  being taken out to dinner … a much appreciated birthday treat at Quo Vadis …

Quo Vadis birthday

Quo Vadis birthday treat

This was followed by a trip to Greenwich with my friend, Kate, to see the Samuel Pepys exhibition, which I loved. Then a wonderful film – ‘Bridge of Spies’ – by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, who were both fabulous. A ‘best’ film.

Samuel Pepys - his diaries are an invaluable source of knowledge for how life was lived then.

Samuel Pepys – his diaries are an invaluable source of knowledge for how day-to-day life was lived then. This is the best way for me to learn about history. I took SP a bunch of daffodils after the exhibition.

March offered spring flowers …

Early Spring flowers

Early Spring flowers

and a long, looped walk from Barnes Bridge, up the Chiswick side of the river through Dukes Meadows,  finally crossing back over Hammersmith Bridge and following the towpath home.

Chiswick riverside walk from Barnes Bridge to Hammersmith 1

Chiswick riverside walk from Barnes Bridge to Hammersmith 1

Chiswick riverside walk 2

Chiswick riverside walk 2

The Dove with a riverside terrace...

The Dove with a riverside terrace… a welcome dalliance half way round…

A rather splendid boat, caught at low tide on the Thames ...

A rather splendid boat, caught at low tide on the Thames …

There’s a picturesque group of pubs and houses, painted in different colours on approaching Hammersmith Bridge.

What are you thinking, my lovely, as you stare out across the river ...

What are you thinking, my lovely, as you stare out across the Thames … ?

Hammersmith Bridge

Hammersmith Bridge

We crossed the bridge, took the towpath back to Barnes and saw the most beautiful heron.  I love this circular walk.

A most beautiful heron - Barnes

A most beautiful heron – Barnes

I was lucky enough to see both the Delacroix and the Giorgione exhibitions before moving on into April, where my good fortune continued with the tremendous (and tremendously long!) Monet Gardens exhibition at the Royal Academy, followed by an excellent exhibition on Shakespeare at The British Library to celebrate 400 years since his death, a trip to the Foundlings Museum in Thomas Coram Fields in Bloomsbury and finally, the Botticelli drawings at the Courtauld Institute. I don’t really see myself as a ‘culture vulture'(!) –  more a person who is curious and likes to find things out. However, I do love paintings – even ones I don’t like.  There is also a lot of rubbish but that’s like looking through a junk shop for the real thing  –  and the thrill of sometimes finding it!

A friend, Will, who I took to the Monet exhibition, bought me the catalogue!

A friend, Will, who I took to the Monet exhibition, bought me the catalogue!

I taste the cover – it reminds me of those coloured sweetmeats by Charbonnel & Walker called ‘crêmes parisiennes’.  So melt-in-the-mouth delicious. I went to this exhibition three times, taking three different guests.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth von Arnim is an all time favourite read of mine.  It was made into a television series – very well cast.  Mellersh, the husband of Mrs. Wilkins, who is thrifty, ‘except for that branch of it which got into his food’, is a perfect role for the actor, Alfred Molina.  Mrs. Wilkins shops at Shoolbreds in Piccadilly for Mellersh’s fish.  He only likes sole and salmon.  He was ‘difficult’ with fish.

This is the story of how Mrs. Wilkins escapes from her dreary, diurnal round by boldly answering an advertisement in ‘The Times’.  ‘Small, mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let  Furnished for the month of April’ and in doing so, escapes London’s ‘extremely horrible, sooty rain’. I’m enchanted by this story in a similar way as in ‘The Greengage Summer’ by Rumer Godden which is, for me, a perfect read.

In May, my sister took charge of a stray dog from Greece.  Jack is good natured, greedy and gregarious. I went for a long walk with them in Bushy Park. He is not fussy about what he eats – enough said!  The main thing is that Jack has made her happy.



We went to see Tom Hart Dyke’s ‘world garden’ at Lullingstone castle in Kent.  We drove but it’s easy to get there by train from London Victoria and the station is within walking distance of the garden.  Tom Hart Dyke and his friend were kidnapped in the Colombian jungle in 2000, while plant hunting but finally managed to escape their captors after nine months.  A television programme was later made about his ‘world garden’, which is open to the public.

May – Barnes Common makes for a quick and uplifting stroll.

Cow parsley on Barnes Common

Cow parsley on Barnes Common

Summer hats on the bus to Hammersmith …

Although I succumbed to a deathly cold in June, the upside was a visit to the ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition at the British Museum  –  two cities submerged off the coast of Alexandria 1,300 years ago by a series of earthquakes and tidal waves, leading to liquefaction of the earth they were built on. Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile.  An archaeologist diving in the area twenty years ago organised a search expedition. It is mind blowing to see what they have found to date and there is much more awaiting discovery.

The 'Sunken Cities' exhibition at the British Museum

The ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition at the British Museum

I went to a film –  ‘Love and Friendship’.  A delicious confection, based on a Jane Austen novel. Just managed also to squeeze in the ‘Botticelli’ exhibition at the V&A before it finished. An eclectic mix of old and new  –  an angle that showed how much Botticelli has influenced painting, photography and advertising in the modern world.  Very well worth going – pause for thought.

I bought an exquisite print at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.  It’s called ‘Arch’ and is by Suzanne Moxhay.

And there was a Zédel lunch.

Another celebration!

In July one highlight was a few days at Buckler’s Hard in the New Forest.  A glorious walk through the woods and by the river to Beaulieu and back, with the treat of a delicious ice cream cornet thrown in!  A change of scene from the city and lots of fresh air. And an interesting place from a historical point of view.

Buckler's Hard where many of Nelson's ships were built

Buckler’s Hard where many of Nelson’s ships were built

A very special treat awaited us at Kew Gardens. ‘The Hive’ – an enormous sculpture made by Wolfgang Buttress in order to draw attention to the plight of bees, who have been experiencing death and disease in many numbers worldwide.  Leading up to ‘The Hive’, a wildflower meadow has been planted.  We, as human beings, very much depend on the pollination of plants by the bees.  No bees would finally lead to none of us either!

The Hive at Kew Gardens

The Hive at Kew Gardens

Wildflower meadow at Kew

Wildflower meadow at Kew

August is always a good time to stay at home if you don’t have to take school holidays.   Sitting in the garden reading, a visit to Kew, meeting up with the friends you haven’t had time to see all year, not having to get up at 7am every day.  But it soon goes! Carpe Diem!

Flower garden bordering the towpath, Barnes

Colours - Kew Gardens

Colours – Kew Gardens

Water lilies at Kew Gardens

Water lilies at Kew

A secret corner – Kew

One of my favourite reads this year was ‘The Penguin Lessons’ by Tom Michell.  This is a heartwarming story – so vivid, so alive, so very appealing.  Read it and be uplifted – laugh and cry – and love the penguin!

This penguin will restore your spirits ... however low they may be

This penguin will restore your spirits … however low they may be

And then it was September.  We were invited to an RAF service  in Westminster Abbey.  The day was clement and the service beautifully done.

Flypast at Westminster

Flypast at Westminster

I was inspired to walk along the Thames from Blackfriars to the Millennium Bridge and came upon some bizarre goings-on!

Thames cube!

What is going on? Any clues?

What is going on? Any clues? Well, it is near Tate Modern …?!

A more conventional view of life on the river Thames

A more conventional view of life on the river Thames

In the river with a box of treasure … another conundrum …

I made my way back to Blackfriars and found myself in another surreal situation.

Under Blackfriars bridge – good location for a gangster/spy film?!

I explored the underbelly of Blackfriars station, which has had a huge renovation.

Queasy feeling ….. underground at Blackfriars station

Blackfriars – caught in a bubble

HELP – looking for a way out!

Entrance to station – Blackfriars – finally made it!

I’ve always been attracted to things in the round – like marbles. When I boil water in a pan on the stove I wonder why the bubbles are round …then I put in the peas! If you want to know more about bubbles, look up Helen Czerski, physicist.  She’s written a lot on the significance of bubbles and her latest book is called ‘Storm in a Teacup’ (The physics of everyday life). Fascinating!

Rolling on into October via a visit to the dragon benches in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington. A new part of town for me.

Here be dragons – Clissold Park

Walking the dog – Clissold Park – slight air of Magritte about this picture?

The air is very clear but the garden is now fading and looking overblown and weary as it settles blowsily into middle age. Then I notice that the nasturtium seeds I threw carelessly into the soil not so long ago have flourished and given me an undeserved reward.

An unexpected jewel

A Triumph outside Barnes Bookshop …

Macaroons at the French Médiathèque, South Kensington

Moonshine …

The weather for November was better and I felt good.  Here are a few images which kept me in an upbeat mood for most of it.

Flowers from our new neighbours …

Late Autumn – Richmond Park

It’s a great place for a good walk without meeting crowds of  other people.

Sunset over Barnes Pond

Being a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, I’m always looking upward for a beautiful skyscape!

I can’t recommend enough that everyone see Phil Agland’s recent documentary, ‘China – Between Clouds and Dreams; China’s Silent Spring’, which was shown on Channel 4 in November in five episodes.  It’s such an original way of looking at this  vast, burgeoning country and all the good and bad things that are emerging.  The small, charismatic boy who is training to be a monk is an exceptional human being.  We need more of his kind. And the ‘spoonie’ story is unforgettable too.  Fabulous filming  and the narrative continues to hook you in. Phil Agland is an outstanding film maker.

Good to be back in central London …

Cityscape 2

and a chance to go to the exhibition at the V&A called REVOLUTION – Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970.  The music, fashion, film, design and political activism of that era was brought together in a truly organic way.  How did what happened in the late sixties change the way we live and how we now think about the future?  Looking back at it all, I remember how very exciting it was at the time but it’s very weird to see that we are now history!

Retro Revolution!

The weather finally broke, the leaves started to fall and Autumn was on the move into Winter.

Raindrops keep falling on my head …

A big highlight was an unexpected but much enjoyed day trip to Paris.  This made me decide that 2017 should be reserved for at least some (quite a lot!) of long weekends away across the Channel. Bordeaux, Lisbon, Copenhagen, Seville …

Elegance – Paris

Guarding Place des Vosges – Paris

Enfants parisiens …

St Régis – Paris

Arrondissement St. Germain – Paris

Café Rouquet – Paris

Escargots – Terminus Nord, Paris

Back in London for December’s Christmas festivities and, most of all, a holiday for reading and walking by the river –   and not taking to the roads with millions of others from here to there and back again … loaded up with presents and stress.

Regent Street – a ghostly angel … Christmas 2016

St. Mary’s church, Barnes – Christmastime 2016

Time off to read – Christmas 2016

A walk up river – Chiswick side, looking across to Barnes …December 2016

Winged harpies swooping towards 2017 … December 2016

The rower at Barnes Bridge – December 2016

The towpath, Barnes – December 2016

The way ahead …

Christmas Day was wreathed in grey but towards the end of the year a sharper snap brought clear skies at night followed by crisp blue skies next day.

Hammersmith Bridge at sunset

Christmas wreath 2016

We move forward into the New Year with an uncertain future but with a certain amount of pzazz …

Trumping Trump 2017 … Sloane Square, London

Always a treat throughout the year …  coffee is a great mainstay!

And Woody Allen’s film, ‘Café Society’, was also a great pick-me-up and sparkling with wonderful music! Enormously entertaining and on a par (for me) with ‘Midnight in Paris’.

These are some of my highlights in 2016.  And the lowlights can just look after themselves and vanish into the ether …


PS  Here’s a sad thing that happened but it made me do something very positive.  The journalist, A A Gill, died at 62 of cancer, which came as a great shock to many readers.   Hadley Freeman wrote a wonderful piece in ‘The Guardian’ weekend magazine  (17.12.16) about him, which moved me to tears.  She was inspired by his writing – so why didn’t she tell him?

This article made me get in touch with somebody I met at a dinner several years ago.  I always meant to let them know how much I enjoyed their company and conversation but I didn’t do it. And then I did  –  thank you, Hadley Freeman –  both for your article and for helping me to make that happen!





















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Buxton, Derbyshire – a fleeting visit

I hadn’t been to the north of England for a long time.  In this case it was ‘needs must’ and although my sister and I set off feeling anxious, it turned out to be more like a ‘weekend break’ –  but not at the weekend.

Driving first along the M40 in the direction of Oxford, we were making good time and the sky was clear.  Coming through the gap where the red kites congregate we decided to stop off for coffee at ‘The Leathern Bottle’ pub, which is only five minutes drive off the motorway, offering a welcome respite for half an hour.

At 'The Leathern Bottle'

At ‘The Leathern Bottle’

A tuna sandwich helped us on our way, so we wouldn’t have to stop at a motorway café later on.  Hunkering down, eyes flipping northwards, sometimes with a clear road up ahead,  more often sandwiched between two lorries, we finally hove into Buxton as the night sky turned purple –  a roofscape studded with pinpricks of bright stars. English towns were looking very festive  – Ashbourne with its old traditional houses and sparkling Christmas trees and lights looked like we were driving through a Disney movie.

Christine had chosen well with our small hotel, which looked out over the lakeside in Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens.  No road in front – just a Broad Walk for pedestrians five minutes into the centre of town. Perfect location. I shared my bedroom with a white rabbit.

The Buxton white rabbit

The Buxton white rabbit

Our hotel overlooking Pavilion Gardens, Buxton

View from our hotel overlooking Pavilion Gardens (23 acres), Buxton

Buxton lakeside - Pavilion Gardens

Buxton lakeside – Pavilion Gardens

Buxton - Pavilion Gardens - a tranquil spot

Buxton – Pavilion Gardens – a tranquil spot

The market square (officially the highest in England) was a few minutes away and we had a choice for dinner.  Greek, Italian or Chinese.  The Greek restaurant, Ithaca, looked the most inviting and we chose well.  A simply delicious, authentic meal. The owners/chefs come from Corfu.

It’s so tranquil here – all I hear is the clucking of night birds dreaming – better put on my alarm as we needed to be up early.  A good, long soak in a hot bath and I was ready for the next day, travelling on to Uppermill.

Buxton - countryside with sheep

Buxton – countryside with sheep – taken through car window

It was only an hour’s drive.  We had work to do all day but managed a half hour break in a café called ‘Saint’s’, secreted in a little nook on the edge of the park.  I forgot to take a photo (so hungry) – the high street in Uppermill was looking very picturesque and Christmassy, the people very friendly.

The café is run by several ladies, who are both busy behind the till and also the purveyors/bakers of the most appetising cakes.  It was very hard to choose and if Christine hadn’t been with me I would have greedily had another piece  …  but we had to get on with our task before heading back to beautiful Buxton.

Countryside near Buxton

Countryside near Buxton

Next morning we had time to explore the spa baths, which are being completely revamped and will include a five star hotel. They are built on the site of the original Roman Bath, by St. Ann’s Well, which stands next to the Pump Room. It’s going to be fabulous when finished with the renovated Georgian buildings and will really put Buxton on the map as a place to visit.

We saw the Opera House, the Dome, which is now part of Derby university and nearby a huge, glass and wrought iron window, in the shape of a fan, designed by Joseph Paxton.  It marks the terminus of the railway line. There is a music and literature festival here every summer.

I bought a thick wool blue and yellow scarf in the Cavendish Arcade (housing a bunch of boutiques), as we made our way to the Winter Gardens.

Buxton - the Winter Gardens

Buxton – the Winter Gardens

Buxton - Winter Gardens

Buxton – Winter Gardens

Buxton Winter Gardens - exotic in orange

Buxton Winter Gardens – exotic orange on 17th December!

We took a quick look at the shops and then it was time to take to the road once more.

Buxton - at the chemist's

Buxton – at the chemist’s

Buxton - another impressive building ...

Buxton – another impressive building … a dome but not ‘The Dome’!

Coming home was good except for where vast warehouses, like aircraft hangars,  congregate like a herd of mastodons close to the gordian knots of many motorways.  They apparently store everything for the supermarkets.  The roads rear up like a  bunch of racer snakes – it’s very stressful to choose which one to take and not end up going north instead of south.

We stopped off at a farm in Northamptonshire, which has a very hospitable tea shop and restaurant.  Baked potato with coleslaw – absolutely scrumptious! With a pot of tea. When you are really hungry, food just tastes so much better.

I remember when we were renovating our house almost forty years ago, I sat down after working on it all day, having eaten nothing.  I can still taste the absolute deliciousness of wolfing down a whole baguette with a few glasses of red wine.

Buxton is definitely a place to return to at leisure, I thought, especially when the spa is re-opened.  But for now it was disappearing into the night sky, just like a bubble, as the lights of London were blazing ahead, illuminating the trail home.

Farewell Buxton - we'll be back

Farewell Buxton – we’ll be back

Buxton was once a very rich and celebrated spa town, visited by the great and the good, with grand Georgian architecture and it’s wonderful to see this all being renovated. The Peak District offers a great deal of variety as well, including Chatsworth and the Blue John caverns.  We had too little time to explore properly but what we had seen whetted my appetite for a return visit.

Buxton scarf




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Autumn leaves and loaves …

Things – like a walk in the park,

Things – like a walk in the dark …

Suddenly,  the leaves are falling all at once.  It’s Autumn turning to Winter and time for the deer cull in Richmond Park.  Clouds  are gathering …

Clouds gathering above the deer in Richmond Park

Clouds gathering above the deer in Richmond Park

... but the young will survive ...

… but the young will survive …

Back in Barnes, we visit the bookshop, finding that it has a new owner. While John is perusing the shelves, I am dazzled by what is parked outside.

A beauty

A beauty…

... a Triumph - in both senses of the word

… a Triumph – in both senses of the word

Down by the Thames, the light is slowly going golden as daylight fades.  There are still boats and rowers by Barnes Bridge.

Boats and rowers on the river at Barnes

Boats and rowers on the river at Barnes

Barnes Bridge - remains of the day ...

Barnes Bridge – remains of the day …

I manage to capture a spectacular sunset as we pass Barnes Pond a little later on the way home …

Sunset by Barnes Pond ...

Sunset by Barnes Pond …

The next day couldn’t have been more of a contrast.  The rain beat down incessantly and everything was a sullen, sodden mouse grey.   With the change in the hour, everything gets dark so early and I was feeling weary as it got to supper time.

No bread – Bof!  I would have to brave the rain but it’s only five minutes walk to Gail’s, our local bakery.  The street lights were on and because of the rain, the dead leaves seemed to sparkle with a last little show of life.

Fallen leaf with raindrops

Fallen leaf with raindrops

Autumn colours

Autumn leaves – ‘yellow and black and pale and hectic red’ (from’Ode to the West Wind’) – Percy Bysshe Shelley

More leaves, more rain ...

More leaves, more rain …

Falling leaves ...

Falling leaves …

Just managed to buy the last loaf.  The rain was falling in tiny, sparkly diamond droplets, backlit by the street lamps.  It was just one of those moments out of time when you feel completely happy in that instant to be alive. I caught it like I caught a falling leaf, which is meant to bring you luck.  The leaf is still in my coat pocket.

'Raindrops keep falling on my head' - Jackson Pollock style ...

‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’ – somewhat in the style of Jackson Pollock …

Read Sonnet LXXIII by William Shakespeare  –  but stay optimistic about ‘life in general’ …















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Day return to Paris

My friend David is a whizz at finding good travel deals.  Who wouldn’t jump at the chance of a £39 return on the Eurostar? Bon, j’ai sauté à l’occasion…

Getting up in the dark and cold is never the best thing but as soon as I was at St. Pancras International I could feel the joy of travelling abroad welling up and coursing through my veins.  Added to that, I was in seat 61, which seemed a very good omen.  (see the book ‘The Man in Seat 61″ – A guide to taking the train through Europe, by Mark Smith).

David bought me a reviving cup of coffee while I looked at my Paris map and studied  ‘Café Life in Paris’  – an illustrated guide book by Christine and Dennis Graf, published by Chastleton Travel – ( Much recommended if you are a flâneur.

Eurostar - travelling at over 300 km an hour ... the pylon bats her eyelids!

Eurostar – travelling at over 300 km an hour … Mademoiselle Pylône bats her eyelids!

Speeding by trees full of mistletoe - 'gui' in French

Speeding by trees full of mistletoe – ‘gui’ in French

Arrival at Gare du Nord is on time. We make our way by metro to the ‘Place des Vosges’.  It has good memories for me.  We once rented an apartment above a ‘boulangerie’ nearby on the Rue de Turenne. We awoke in the mornings to the delicious smell of warm croissants wafting up the spiral staircase.

The ‘Place des Vosges’ is geometrically beautiful  – there is something of ‘the golden mean’ to it. It is peaceful, yet at the centre of things.

La Place des Vosges - 17 November 2016

‘Place des Vosges’ – 17 November 2016

Lion guarding fountain - Place des Vosges

Lion guarding fountain – ‘Place des Vosges’

We walked towards the fountain, passing by a group of young people twittering happily together, like a flock of companionable birds.  Then we came upon an ancient couple, very much at home in a familiar place,  enjoying their midday constitutional.

Denizens of the Place des Vosges, Paris

Denizens of the ‘Place des Vosges’, Paris

For all that I rail against the misfortunes of old age, this old couple really warmed my heart.

Paris retains a special elegance.

Rue du Pavée, near Place des Vosges

Rue Pavée, near Place des Vosges

Paris - images of elegance partout

Paris – images of elegance

Lunchtime beckoned. We made our way down through the old area of St. Paul towards the Seine and the Ile Saint-Louis, managing not to get squashed by an enormous, growling cement lorry. There is a lot of building work going on everywhere – the same as in London.

At the point of no return ... ?

At the point of no return … ?

A gaggle of schoolchildren, headed by their teacher, were about to cross a busy road.  I noticed they were all hanging onto a communal rope, so none got left behind.

Linked in and crossing the road ...

Linked in for safety …  bonne idée!

We followed them, crossed the bridge and turned right into the ‘Rue en l’Ile Saint-Louis’, which is narrow, straight and absolutely charming.  Here are some examples  –  can you spot the mice?!

Walking across the bridge on our way to Ile St-Louis

Walking across the bridge on our way to Ile Saint-Louis

Paris - Rue St-louis En L'Ile

Paris – Rue Saint-Louis En L’Ile

Ile St-Louis - making our way to lunch ...

Ile St-Louis – making our way towards lunch

Here’s a close-up of the mice, just in case you didn’t spot them!

No, I don't know. Just a mystery ...

No, I don’t know. Just a mystery …?!

Passing by a small art gallery

Passing by a small art gallery

Ile St.Louis - La Cure Gourmande

Ile St-Louis – La Cure Gourmande

Ile Saint-Louis - petite boutique typique

Ile St-Louis – petite boutique typique…

Paris - toujours créatif, toujours original ...

Paris – toujours créatif, toujours original …

Do you remember that short film, ‘The Red Balloon’- ‘Le Ballon Rouge’? It was directed by Albert Lamorisse (1956) and is a classic.  It was filmed in the Ménilmontant neighbourhood of Paris, near  the Cimietière Pére-Lachaise  and is about a small boy who finds a red balloon that has a mind of its own and follows him wherever he goes  –  it is utterly charming.  Look it up in Wikipedia for more details.  This photo reminded me of red balloons!

Ile St-Louis - living here would be an ongoing temptation ...

Ile St-Louis – living here would be an ongoing temptation …

... and nearby is 'La Fromagerie'

… and nearby is ‘La Fromagerie’ …!

We were almost at our destination.  Saint Régis, a restaurant John and I found by chance a couple of years ago, when we were up early, walking along the river, looking for breakfast. I hoped it would stand up to the wonderful memory I had of it  –  it didn’t disappoint!

Lunch at the Saint Régis restaurant, Ile Saint-Louis

Lunch at the Saint Régis restaurant, Ile Saint-Louis

Marmite du poisson at the restaurant St. Régis, Paris

Marmite du poisson at the restaurant St. Régis, Paris

Leaving the Ile Saint-Louis

Leaving the Ile Saint-Louis

decisons, decisions ...

decisons, decisions …

Our decision was to make for Shakespeare & Company – the famously eccentric bookshop – which is right by the Rue de la Huchette on the Left Bank.  It’s good to see that it continues to thrive and has even slightly expanded, adding a café alongside.  If you buy a book here, you get a special stamp in it.

Still surviving - les bouquinistes by the Seine ...

Still surviving – les bouquinistes by the Seine …  on my first visit to Paris at age 17, I bought a rough edition of ‘Les Fables de La Fontaine’ in two volumes, which I still have somewhere …the pages had to be cut open …

I meant to snap this 2CV but this elderly gentleman hove into my photo at speed ...

I meant to snap the 2CV but this elderly gentleman hove into my photo at speed …

At Shakespeare & Company

At Shakespeare & Company

Keeping up appearances outside Shakespeare & Company - now with a café

Keeping up appearances outside Shakespeare & Company – now with a café alongside …

Next, we walked on along the Rue de la Huchette, passing gendarmes with guns at their belts, before plunging into the Latin Quarter, burrowing down through small streets and alley ways.

Making our way to St. Germain-des-Prés ...

Making our way to St. Germain-des-Prés …

My curiosity factor rises at every step, with each street containing a cornucopia of small boutiques, craftworks and galleries, glittering like small jewels. Sadly, there isn’t time to visit them all but that means another visit to Paris is a must.

Culture and arts - the choice is here

Culture and arts – illimitable choices …

What lies behind the blue door?

What lies behind the blue door?

St Germain - antiquités

St. Germain – antiquités

St Germain - sculpture and art

St. Germain – sculpture and art

St. Germain - design

St. Germain – design

We were approaching the celebrated triumverate of cafés on the Boulevard St. Germain.  ‘Les Deux Magots’, Café Flore and Brasserie Lipp.  Home to ‘flâneurs et philosophes’.  Nearby is a wonderful book and stationery shop and we spent some time foraging among the shelves.

At Café Flore

At Café Flore – a ‘flâneur’ is spotted …

Les chats sauvages rôdent le Boulevard St. Germain ...

Les chats sauvages rôdent le Boulevard St. Germain …

So we also prowled along Boulevard St. Germain.  I was searching for an old fashioned café, mentioned in my book. Le Café Rouquet.  No pretend retro here but real retro from the 1950s, with burled walnut formica tables.  It’s only a stone’s throw away from our celebrated three.

The café was fairly empty and we sat around the back by the cobalt blue daisies.  Two hot chocolates came to 11 euros so obviously there’s been a hike in the prices since ‘Café Life Paris’ was written.  But I did get an extraordinary photo which put everything into glorious perspective.  And I must add that the loos were modern and pristine clean 2016.  I’ll go back.

Le Rouquet, 188 blvd St-Germain, November 2016

Le Rouquet, 188 blvd St-Germain, November 2016

Time was running on. I had this plan to get to the Fragonard shop/musée du Parfum in Rue Scribe at Opéra.  Their soaps make lovely, fragrant presents – a joy to give and a joy to receive.  I don’t count David in on this last personal view but he accompanied me with good grace.

Fragonard, rue Scribe, Paris. A favourite.

Fragonard, rue Scribe, Paris. A favourite.

We spotted ‘Café de la Paix’  as we came out of the metro at Opéra.  John and I once had lunch there and the waiter ran after us as we were leaving, waving John’s camera aloft.  It had been left under the table.  I still think of this man with great affection.

Noses pressed to the glass - Café de la Paix, Opéra, Paris

Noses pressed to the glass – Café de la Paix, Opéra, Paris

Mission accomplished.  Rush hour was beginning and the metro was turning manic.  I have to say that although I am sometimes overwhelmed in London by the crowds nowadays, the tube is somewhat cleaner than the metro.  Everywhere here needs a good scrub and all those stairs need sweeping. But on the other hand, it works pretty well as a transport system.

Another favourite of mine is the restaurant, Terminus Nord, right opposite the station.  It’s a wonderful place to have a genuine French ‘repas’ before catching the Eurostar. The waiters in their long aprons –  serving you with that understated but totally professional ‘je ne sais quoi’, catering to your every whim, complimenting you on your choice, making you feel special …  I could go on but here’s what we had to eat! And we were even wished ‘bon voyage’ as we left for the Eurostar. Faultless!

Huitres at Terminus Nord - Paris


Escargots at Terminus Nord, Paris


A glimose of Terminus Nord, Paris

A glimpse of ‘Terminus Nord’ restaurant, Paris  –  very well worth a visit …

We cross the road to the Gare du Nord –  homeward bound.  A magical day in Paris all wrapped up …

Au revoir, Paris

Au revoir, Paris













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Hallowe’en 2016

Bonfire night on the 5th November follows fast on the heels of Hallowe’en at the end of October and there are always a few bangs and some stray, early rockets to chase the witches away on their broomsticks.

A ghost peers in on Hallowe'en

A ghost peers in on Hallowe’en

I usually buy packets of coloured ‘haribo’ sweets, which I keep in a bowl by the door for passing jack o’ lanterns, ghosts and vampires.   And I continue to make a Hallowe’en mask from a pumpkin, even though our children are now grown up and flown  the nest.  Maybe I am at heart superstitious!  This year, John was away and I ended up spending the evening alone with a rather evil- eyed head glaring at me.  Not the best conversationalist!

My evil eyed companion for Hallowe'en

My evil- eyed companion for Hallowe’en

Hallowe'en moon 2016

Hallowe’en moon 2016

A vampire abroad on a wild night

A vampire abroad on a wild night

He did not visit –  so I ate the sweets myself.  So tasty!



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Flower diary for 2016

Flowers are a great comfort.   They don’t make a noise, they don’t complain, you can come and go as you like because they don’t need you and, most of all, they give unstinting pleasure because they have intrinsic beauty.

Flowers are also a bridge between science and art.  Many plants are used in the progress of medicine  and yet we can simply just gaze on their fleeting, physical beauty for what it is and feel the emotions that well up from that experience.  They inspire poetry, literature and painting. In the scientific world, they are made up of fractals. They probably hold the meaning of the universe in their petals …  both simple and massively complex.

Flowers mirror human beings with their biodiversity.  If only some human beings knew how to be silent at times …  but with all the horror of 2016 on our planet I am uplifted by the mere existence of the resilience of flowers and of their perfumes.

‘To me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’

(William Wordsworth – “Intimations of Mortality” 1807)

Springtime - Pheasant Eye

Springtime – Pheasant Eye

Deborah's freesias

Deborah’s freesias

Paeony - a fragile beauty

Paeony – a fragile beauty

Lily white ...


The enchantress

The enchantress

Tulips co-exist with daisies in Embankment Gardens

City spring flowers in Embankment Gardens 1

City spring flowers in Embankment Gardens 2

City spring flowers in Embankment Gardens 2

Printemps - birthday flowers

Printemps – birthday flowers – not quite in focus but it was my birthday!

Flowering planet

Flowering planet

Monet to Matisse RA exhibition catalogue

Monet to Matisse RA exhibition catalogue.  I went to this exhibition three times …  and took three different friends

Yellow flags - Barnes Pond

Yellow flags – Barnes Pond

Home is a crack in the wall ...

Home is a crack in the wall …

Early comma butterfly with bluebells - I hope it survived those fickle Spring days ...

Early comma butterfly with bluebells – I hope it survived those fickle days of Spring …

A mysterious blue butterfly - Barnes

An uncommon blue butterfly – Barnes

Couldn't resist those Monet/Renoir colours!

Couldn’t resist these Monet/Renoir colours!  Summer by the towpath along the Thames …


Magical astrantia

Reed beds - Barnes

Reed beds – Barnes

Leg O' Mutton small reservoir by towpath, Barnes

Leg o’ Mutton small reservoir by towpath, Barnes

Blue box in Barnes

Blue box outside Sonny’s restaurant

Sunflower - I remember fields of them in France, all turning their faces the same way to the sun - hence their name - tournesol ...

Sunflowers – I remember fields of them in France, all turning their faces the same way towards the sun – hence their name – Tournesol …

Complementary colours

Complementary colours…  wilder side of the geranium family …

Mallow - cousin to the more exotic hibiscus ... Barnes

Mallow in Barnes – cousin to the more exotic hibiscus. This stalwart shrub is over forty years old.

Wild grasses and horsetail

Wild grasses and horsetail.  Horsetail is full of silica and brilliant for cleaning silver … and very primeval too.

Blue poppy - Meconopsis - grown in my garden!

Shy blue poppy – Meconopsis – grown in my garden …

A Barnes window box

A Barnes window box

Exotica grown in Kent

Exotica grown by Tom Hart Dyke at Lullingstone castle in Kent

Summerhouse reflections ...

Summerhouse reflections …

John enveloped by roses - Malvern Hills

Enveloped by roses – Malvern Hills

By the bank of the Thames ...

By the bank of the Thames …

Wild flower garden at Barnes Pond

Wild flowers at Barnes Pond

In a Cotswold village ...

In a Cotswold village …

At Syon Park 1

At Syon Park 1

At Syon Park 2

At Syon Park 2

Elegant, paper thin, white lilies ...

Elegant, paper thin, white lilies …

Clematis tangutica ...

Clematis tangutica …

Leg O' Mutton reservoir

Leg o’ Mutton reservoir

A mysterious corner of the garden - trembling grasses and daisies ...

A mysterious corner of the garden – trembling grasses and daisies …

Nasturtiums are very hardy and spread like wildfire - with vibrant colour...

Nasturtiums are very hardy and spread like wildfire – with vibrant colour…

Shades of Autumn ...

Shades of Autumn …

Dried petals

Dried petals

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.”

W. Shakespeare – “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”











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Keyhaven, Hurst Castle, Southampton and Buckler’s Hard

John promised he would finish his 24/7 report by the end of May, so I kept my counsel and was as quiet as a mouse about having a few days away.  We finally pointed the nose of our old- but- still- stylish- car in the direction of the New Forest at the beginning of July – only for five days –  but just that change of scene began to put a spring into the constant daily trudge and drudge …  further burdened by a disabling depression, following the madness of Brexit.  How could I, a European, be represented by blinking, blinkered Brexit? Would I have to leave my country of birth?  The EU certainly needs radical reform but we need to be a partner in all of that – not an isolated small island on the fringes.  Heavy feet combined with a heavy heart were not a great combination.

Our first port of call, although picturesque, with a river running through the garden, somehow didn’t appeal.  Too twee, too expensive for what it was, although the dinner was good.  We just felt out of place. Next morning, we were woken by a huge, red sewage lorry growling under our window.  Long, blue sinuous pipes slithered through the dining room, into the garden beyond. We made a hasty exit. I fell silent in the car on our way to the coast, concentrating on the map  – no sat-nav, so at least we won’t drive gaily into the sea…!

Escape from the city ...

Escape from the city …

Keyhaven is a place more full of boats than people.  It looks out over the Needles at the Isle of Wight. Otherwise, it’s marshland which attracts colonies of birds and then there’s Hurst Castle,  which sits out at sea – a formidable and unwelcoming fortress –  as it was in times past and latterly, during WW2. You can walk there from the shore (about 30 minutes) on top of a vast sand spit  –  which we did.

Keyhaven - boats 1

Keyhaven – boats 1

Keyhaven - the lagoon

Keyhaven – the lagoon

 Keyhaven - Sailing boats 3

Keyhaven – Sailing boats 3

We met sailors, anglers, dog walkers and a lovely old countryman,  John Churchill, dressed in capable browns and greens, who told us about the habits of grayling fish, which favour the shallows.  His son was by the shore, fishing for their supper.  They had invested in a motor home, bought on the proceeds of breeding a special type of dog.  Looking at John Churchill, he could have come from the 18th or 19th century  –  immersed in country ways. It reminded me that my father used to read a book size magazine regularly, called ‘The Countryman’.

My change of scene was finally off to a great start  and I could feel myself  escaping from ‘grimmity’.

On the shoreline - Keyhaven - 1

On the shoreline – Keyhaven – 1

On the shoreline, Keyhave - 2

On the shoreline, Keyhaven – 2

Goats and a scarecrow - Keyhaven

Goats and a scarecrow – Keyhaven

Good to be aware of the very different lives people lead.  English summer weather – bright, warm but with grey clouds lurking somewhere out there and a brisk wind up on the sand spit.

The sandspit - Keyhaven

The sand spit – Keyhaven

Angler with The Needles on the horizon

Angler with The Needles on the horizon

Half way there!

Half way there!

Keyhaven - sea cabbage

Keyhaven – sea cabbage

I’m amazed this place exists here.  When I elected to go to the New Forest I just thought of wild ponies and piglets, hoovering up beech mast.  Lovely, but there’s so much more …

Approaching the fortress - photo by john Elkington

Approaching the fortress – photo by John Elkington

Hurst castle - entrance

Hurst Castle – entrance

Old bricks used as breakwater - Hurst castle

Old bricks used as breakwater – Hurst Castle

I was fascinated by the colours and patterns rust makes, when continually washed by sea water.  The ‘lonely heart’ photo is particularly atmospheric!

A wall of rust - Hurst castle

A wall of rust – Hurst Castle

A neglected, rusty heart ...

A neglected, rusty, lonely heart …

The fort is well worth a visit.  Lots of memories of how it was used in WW2, wonderful, panoramic views of sea and land, and volunteers repainting relics of war.  See John’s blog.

Inside the fort.

Inside the fortress - John with large guns ...

Inside the fortress – John with large guns …



Kitchen Range

Kitchen Range

Cup of tea?

How about a cup of tea?

There’s a lot of rust about …


Double basins – shabby chic!

Vintage ... and

vintage … and

... very retro!

… very retro!

The fort is slowly being renovated with relics of the past on view and two rooms dedicated to lighthouses around Britain.

Amateur dramatics during WW2 ...

Amateur dramatics during WW2 …

Lighthouse exhibition at Hurst Castle - I never knew this fact!

Lighthouse exhibition at Hurst Castle – I never knew this fact!

It was beginning to spot with rain, so we decided to take the small ferry – ten of us squashed up for a ten minute ride – back to the shore.   It had a canvas roof but was otherwise open to the elements – giving me a rush of elemental energy as the wind buffeted us across the water.

We clambered out onto a small jetty and made our way to the “Gun Inn’ for a welcome lunch.

Time to catch the ferry ...

Time to catch the ferry …

The 'Gun Inn', Keyhaven, offers a welcome lunch ...

The ‘Gun Inn’, Keyhaven, offers a welcome lunch …

Next day we found ourselves in a car park, near the Hythe ferry, which we were taking to Southampton to see friends. John spent an hour in the car on a conference call, while I moseyed around the local Waitrose, picking up a razor (which he had forgotten to bring with him) and also a free ‘Times’. No FTs on offer in Hythe.  Two a day are delivered to Lymington  –  and later on we tracked one down, much to John’s satisfaction!

An old fashioned wooden train trundles the length of a very long pier far out into the Solent, where a quaint passenger ferry (1950s style) awaits to take you over the water.  Southampton docks are still industrial and impressive with vast ocean liners and cargo ships.

Southampton docks - the Queen Elizabeth

Southampton docks – the Queen Elizabeth

Cargo ship, Benjamin Franklin, leaving Southampton docks ...

Cargo ship, Benjamin Franklin, leaving Southampton docks …

... on its long voyage ...

… on its long outward voyage …

I hadn’t been to Southampton before and it was lucky that we ended up in the old part, which was to some extent saved from bombs during WW2.

Arrival in Southampton

Arrival in Southampton

Southampton Playhouse and the mystery of the missing camera ...

Southampton Playhouse and the mystery of the missing camera …

See John’s blog for this story – it’s his 9 life camera!

The Titanic sailed from here on its maiden voyage to New York. It sank on the 15th April 1912.

'The Titanic' pub, Southampton

‘The Titanic’ pub, Southampton

Southampton - walking the old walls ...

Southampton – walking the old walls …

Southampton - medieval merchant's house built in 1290

Southampton – medieval merchant’s house built in 1290

The Tudor House has a great museum and a charming garden at the back, built into the city walls. Worth a visit.

Southampton - Tudor house with museum and gardens

Southampton – Tudor house with museum and gardens

A lovely, quiet square by the city walls ...

A lovely, quiet square by the city walls …

Southampton - part of the city walls

Southampton – part of the city walls

There’s a good place to eat and stay here, called ‘The Pig’.

We had lunch at ‘The Olive Tree’ (Italian).  Our friends have a motor home and had travelled from Spain to Greece, so had interesting tales to tell.

Then it was back on the ferry.  Next stop, Buckler’s Hard via a welcome Waterstones bookshop we found in Lymington. We finally drove through parts of the New Forest.

A wild pony in the New Forest

A wild pony in the New Forest

Entrance to the Master Builder's House Hotel, Buckler's Hard

Entrance to the Master Builder’s House Hotel, Buckler’s Hard

This is in an idyllic spot by the river, where Nelson had many of his boats built.  Besides the hotel, there is a museum and many riverside walks.  We did the one to Beaulieu by the river – twice. This is a wonderful place for a weekend visit  –  even better if you can go mid-week.

Buckler's Hard - looking down towards the river

Buckler’s Hard – looking down towards the river

Buckler's Hard - clouds and boats ...

Buckler’s Hard – clouds and boats …

An idyllic spot by the riverside

A very English spot by the riverside – film set for an Agatha Christie, I thought…  or just a memorable country house weekend.

Buckler's Hard - time for an aperitif ... a nice place to read

Buckler’s Hard – time for an aperitif … and a nice place to read before dinner

Buckler's Hard - a river monster

Buckler’s Hard – a river monster?

Quinces at Beaulieu

Quinces at Beaulieu

Another monster keeping a beady eye on our sandwiches.

Beaulieu blackbird

Beaulieu blackbird

The ice cream at Buckler’s Hard was so delicious.  The sunset was very atmospheric. I slept well.

Sunset at Buckler's Hard = goodnight!

Sunset at Buckler’s Hard = goodnight!

Next morning we turned the car’s nose toward home via Fordingbridge, where we have a friend who has made some stunning films about China.  His name is Phil Agland.   We were invited for lunch with his family and then for a walk by the river. I wish I’d taken a picture of the pretty, lumbering white cows, which followed us closely, slobbering rather alarmingly  –  but I got stung by nettles instead!

John spotted huge trout basking in the shallows.

And then it was back to the mad motorway, the boy racers, the pointless, idiotic speeding, followed by the relief to be home once more with good memories and some fresh air in my veins.

An appealing poster at Fordingbridge - John said his grandmother was a Canary Girl!

An appealing poster at Fordingbridge – John said his grandmother was a Canary Girl!


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Lost and Found

Piccadilly.  Pouring with rain, I struggled to get my umbrella out of an already soaking shopping bag.  I trudged on to Liberty’s via Golden Square.  Breathing a sigh of relief as I arrived but looking like a drowned rat, I began to drip my way upstairs.

When I went to put my umbrella back into my sodden bag, said bag was missing.  There hadn’t been much in it but it weighed very little and was useful.  Oh dear …  oh well … I expected somebody would pick it up and put it in a bin or take it home and find it useful too.

Then I forgot about it as I had something similar at home.  About a week later, when John was away, I decided to go to the Nordic bakery in Golden Square and buy a favourite egg and herring sandwich in a round bun for my supper.  Joy – there were one or two left.  I came out of the café and lo and behold – on the railings opposite, surrounding the grassy square – was my bag – waiting patiently.  I crossed the road, picked it up and found something inside.  A brochure telling me about all the shops to visit in the neighbourhood.

Lost and Found

Lost and Found

So some kind person had rescued it from the gutter, put in the brochure and hung it on the railings.  It was such a nice surprise to see it again and have good feelings about who had put it there.  Just reporting an act of random kindness … heartwarming … thank you.

PS  In Britain, we have ‘Lost Property’.  In France they have ‘Objets trouvés’ – (found objects).  Different mindsets …  !

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Books I read in 2015

The first book I read in 2014 was ‘WOLF HALL’, by Hilary Mantel. It’s long and was quite a challenge but I suddenly found myself ‘in step’ with it after about 200 pages.  And, by chance, I started 2015 with another long but ultimately satisfying piece of writing.  ‘THE GOLDFINCH‘ by Donna Tartt.

This starts off with a ‘bang’ which filters out into an extraordinary,  sprawling panorama of a book.

The day I bought a copy was when I’d been to see a Vermeer exhibition at The National Gallery.  I knew that Vermeer was supposedly mentored by Carel Fabritius, who himself studied under Rembrandt. But Fabritius died young, a victim of the massive explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine in 1654.  Many of the paintings in his studio were also destroyed but from what art historians say, he was destined for greatness.  One of the paintings that  did survive is called ‘The Goldfinch’, which was on show in the Vermeer exhibition.

I stood in front of it for a while, thinking of all the untimely accidents that happen and how they affect futures that might have turned out very differently, for not only the victim but for those he/she knew and for the world in general. What if …

On my way home I slipped into Waterstones.  The first book I saw, laid out on a table, had a jacket with Fabritius’s goldfinch on the front.  I felt in visceral shock, as if my heart had stopped.  The title was  ‘THE GOLDFINCH’ by Donna Tartt.  I wasn’t to know then that the book starts with a terrible accident  –  creating the effect of a stone thrown into a pond. It’s a wonderful read  –  long, but once started, bowls along.

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

Patrick Modiano has won the Nobel prize for literature.  I had already read three of his novels (in the original French) at my class. ‘UN CIRQUE PASSE’ continues the theme which runs through his novels about ‘untold’ stories and ‘lost’ people.  Many of these people were ‘lost’ during and after World War 2.  This novel is set in Paris as the war continues and a young boy and girl with her dog are thrown together, their lives fractured, having lost touch with their families.  Atmospheric, sinister, mysterious, tense and sad  … there is also romance and you wish for a happy ending …

I  continued with ‘Maigret’ (Simenon) in French and read ‘LES VIEILLARDS’ (1960).  A former diplomat in his fading years, living in retirement discreetly behind Parisian closed doors, with only an ageing and devoted housekeeper for company, is found shot.  His life seems to have been unimpeachable, except for a long standing but curious platonic love affair with a woman, Isabelle, with whom he exchanged letters almost daily since he was a young man. Maigret investigates.

Books in French

Books in French – Modiano and Simenon

London Under

‘LONDON UNDER’ by Peter Ackroyd. He’s written some wonderful books, many on the city of London. In this one he makes you aware of how London is built on so many wells and springs.  It makes for a fascinating read, especially when you are out and about and can track down some of these wells and springs – or remains of – with your trusty A-Z.

“The plethora of London names such as Spring Gardens, Well Walk and Wells Street testifies to the extent and variety of these waters. We also have Shadwell and Stockwell and Camberwell”.  And so it goes”.  On its journey to the Thames, the Westbourne river  passes through a great iron pipe today, to be seen above the platforms of Sloane Square tube station.”

The river Westbourne passing above Sloane Square station

The river Westbourne passing above Sloane Square station

Afterwards, I went for another non-fiction read. ‘STUFF MATTERS’ by Mark Miodownik.  I needed to read this twice to remember it  –  ‘Stuff’ indeed really does matter and we should be aware of what we can do with, for example, futuristic materials like graphene and aerogel. Afterwards, I felt more or less up to date with ‘The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that shape our Man Made World’. A great scientific learning experience.  Since I read this MM has presented programmes on television, following his book.

Concentration here reaps rewards ...

Concentration here reaps rewards …

Somebody suggested I read a novel about exploring nature. ‘THE FISH LADDER’ by Katharine Norbury has very memorable descriptions about the countryside as she indomitably strides on through it, day and night, but she would not be my type of travelling companion.

I read an American novel soon after this one, called ‘AQUARIUM’ by David Vann.  This is grim reality –  but seen through the surreal world of a young girl. ‘Jellyfish eyes’ (page 51).  It’s very dark – peeking at the obverse side of the American dream  with the aquarium as focus, where Caitlin is obsessed with the maritime creatures.  Is the old man who she meets there other than he seems?  It’s an ongoing struggle, not just for survival but to understand the adults around her and help them find a life rather than just an existence.  An uplifting read, despite much of it on the dark side.

Both of these books made me feel somewhat like this picture of them.  Unbalanced – on the edge …probably good to be out of one’s comfort zone!

fish ladder + aquarium

I loved this next book. ‘PERFECT WIVES IN IDEAL HOMES’ – ‘The story of women in the 1950s’, by Virginia Nicholson.  I raced through it with many of the stories resonating so strongly with my own experience of the 1950s and 60s  –  like being a teenage beauty queen at Butlin’s holiday camp!  How things have changed – for better or worse – or both.  Very well researched and tells it as it was.  It hit such a nostalgic note for me.  And am still doing the housework …  but I do have time to read nowadays…

Enormously enjoyable!

Enormously enjoyable …

It was about this time that an American friend of John’s, Debra Dunne, who is a food scientist, arrived in London and over lunch at Zédel’s, she recommended  a book ‘SALT, SUGAR, FAT – HOW THE FOOD GIANTS HOOKED US’ by Michael Moss.  Yes, they certainly did –  and do. I lapped it up!

The author tells us that every year the average American eats 33lbs of cheese  (triple what we ate in 1970) and 70 lbs of sugar (about 22 teaspoons a day).  Also that we ingest 8,500 mg of salt a day – double the recommended amount and this mainly comes from eating processed food.  It’s no wonder that 26 million Americans have diabetes 2.  The level of obesity among humans today is beyond belief – and continues to grow. Most of this has happened in the past 60 years.



I came down with a terrible cold and actually spent two days in bed.  Unheard of for me, but it was comforting, pampered by my oh- so- soft duvet. I began to find it quite relaxing. From time to time I ventured downstairs to fill up my mug with restorative hot lemon juice, honey and whisky.   And I found a perfect book to read when my eyes stopped streaming.

‘THE BLACK EYED BLONDE’ is a Philip Marlowe lookalike novel, set in the 1950s and written by Benjamin Black, a pen name for John Banville.  Very ‘noir’, with its laconic detective once more in edgy company of a beautiful, rich woman who wants him to solve a murder case while treacherously tempting him to sleep with her. A spider in her web …

John Banville won the Booker prize for ‘The Sea’ in 2005 but alongside his other novels, he wrote detective stories as Benjamin Black.  Humphrey Bogart’s ghost is strongly in evidence.

Shades of Bogart ...

Shades of Bogart …

Another writer, Sophie Hannah, takes on the Agatha Christie style of writing with ‘THE MONOGRAM MURDERS’.  I bought the hardback, lured by its glamorous gold and black cover and endpapers.  It was good but somehow not quite what I had hoped for –  but nevertheless, a great ‘try’.  I love my handsome copy and would gladly read another by her.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

Feeling better now, I needed to jump out of my comfort zone.

What better than a travel book with a philosophical strand to it. Michael Jacobs, the author, who studied art at the Courtauld, fell in love with Spain.  He was, for some years, a guide with ACE, a travel company. We had hoped to join a group where he would take us to the Alhambra, the huge mosque at Cordoba and to Toledo, where El Greco spent most of his life and did some of his best paintings. Sadly, it was not to be.

The title of this book, ‘THE ROBBER OF MEMORIES’, relates to his parents, both of whom died of dementia. But the story is about his dangerous trip up the Magdalena river in Colombia, dangerous not only because of the impenetrable jungle with its snakes and poisonous insects but also because of the FARC guerrillas, who made it their hideout.

MJ was lucky to survive. I’m glad I only travelled by armchair but also glad I was with him in spirit on this intensely personal journey.  Later, MJ died of cancer before he was able to finish a book on the famous painting, ‘Las Meninas’ by Velasquez –  a painting which obsessed him.  A good friend finished the book for him after MJ’s death.

'Carpe diem'

‘Carpe diem’

Dwelling on death, I decided to read ‘REASONS TO STAY ALIVE’ by Matt Haig.  Oh, my!  I don’t know if I would have survived this ordeal of deep, dark depression. It is brave of Matt Haig to relate what he went through.  Others caught up in a similar situation may benefit from reading it.  I hope so.  His parents and girlfriend were saints and because of them, he made it.

And he wrote ‘THE HUMANS’, which I love.  It is an original take on life on earth – completely original, off the wall entertaining. Yet so insightful about the human condition.  What a star!

So glad you made it ...

So glad you made it …

This next book was recommended. ‘EUPHORIA’ by Lily King.  It’s an ‘anthropological’ novel set in New Guinea and based on the book  ‘MARGARET MEAD – A LIFE’ by Jane Howard. It’s a good read and knowledgeable about tribal cultures. These can be very different, with a fierce and murderous tribe living quite near to a gentle and altruistic one.  Biodiversity rules?!

Jungle secrets ...

Jungle secrets …

This book reminded me of Ann Patchett’s ‘STATE OF WONDER’, which is a similar novel about a scientist doing research in a rain forest, who gets lost and is presumed dead.  I preferred this novel because I felt a lot more in tune with all the characters and really cared about the outcome.

I had never read ‘TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY’ by John Steinbeck. I found it by chance in Waterstones Piccadilly and being a person with itchy feet for exploring, I picked it up with the anticipation of a good road trip.  John Steinbeck is one of the ‘great’ writers of our time.  This is a compelling read, written by a very intelligent ‘hobo’ (!), whose dog is pretty intelligent too.  Charley is a French poodle without the frills and possessed of excellent instincts.  I’d like to travel with Steinbeck and Charley again … I missed them  as they turned the corner to home and disappeared from my life.

Travels with Charley - Steinbeck

Travels with Charley – Steinbeck

Waterstones were bringing out some old classics in new jackets. Somehow, I had never read ‘THE BALKAN TRILOGY‘ and ‘THE LEVANT TRILOGY’ by Olivia Manning, although I remember the television series with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as Guy and Harriet Pringle. So many of my friends said how envious they were of me because it was such a treat in store.  And so I began … 1033 pages, followed by another 569.

I wonder why Olivia  Manning is not so well known today as other writers of her period, like Iris Murdoch. ‘THE BALKAN TRILOGY’ starts as Guy and Harriet Pringle, recently married, travel out to Eastern Europe at the start of World War 2, where Guy will be working as a lecturer with the British Council.  The story follows their fortunes as war spreads and engulfs them.

Olivia Manning bases both books on her own experiences. She is acutely observant and as ‘The Guardian’ noted on the back of my book ‘One must salute the brilliance … the exactness of sights and sounds, the precise touches of light and scent, the gestures and entrances’.  And I would like to add that Guy Pringle is one of the best delineated characters in modern fiction – and the marriage of  Guy and Harriet, so finely dissected, means they can never be forgotten. I recognise some of the traits in my own marriage.

Instead of more explanation, I should direct you to the site of Abigail Nussbaum, whose commentary on both books (2010)  is outstanding.  Don’t read it before reading the books!  I feel another trilogy could have been gestating in OM’s head but as ‘THE LEVANT TRILOGY’ was published in the year of  her death (1980), I expect we missed that treat.   Oh dear, my friends were right.  I felt bereft when I came to the end, like saying farewell for the last time to people I had known and grown fond of. 100% recommended!

Not be be missed ...

Not be be missed …

We decided to do a big clear out of books which had accreted over thirty plus years.  Ten boxes went to the Oxfam shop in Chiswick, who accepted all of them.  Hurrah – thank you, Oxfam. Then we rearranged hardbacks and paperbacks.  I collected all the Graham Greenes together and decided to read ‘STAMBOUL TRAIN’.  His characterisations are both skilful and memorable but personally I much prefer Paul Theroux’s train journeys.  No criticism, just a personal choice –  perhaps because PT is more of my era. Both of them tricky men in real life, I would think …

John bought ‘THE MARTIAN’ by Andy Weir.  It’s not a book I would have picked up in the shop but despite all the technical detail, I found it fascinating and could hardly wait to find out the ending.  An astronaut gets left on Mars by mistake, following an accident.  The story is about how he survives – or not.  A successful film has been made since.

Potatoes play a major role on Mars ... !

Potatoes play a major role on Mars … !

I needed to get back to earth, to my own, green planet.  I was drawn to ‘THE LAND WHERE LEMONS GROW‘ by Helena Attlee. What a pleasurable discovery!

It’s both a well researched history of the enormous variety of citrus trees grown through the ages with fillips of intriguing stories tossed into the mix.   There is also a wealth of personal detail as the writer travelled over southern Europe, meeting all kinds of people connected with citrus and adding all sorts of recipes for marmalade and pasta. One which especially appeals is ‘Tagliolini alla Scorzette di Arancia e Limone’.

I can’t tempt you more than Jonathan Keates in the ‘Literary Review’ saying ‘every lemon-scented page made me feel it’s time to pack for Italy’ or Tom Stoppard  in ‘The Times Literary Supplement’ – ‘The book I pressed on friends more than any other this year’.  Added to that ‘The Guild of Food Writers’ chose it as ‘Food Book of the Year 2015’.

So you have to buy it and read it and try one of the recipes, (although I quickly turned over the page at ‘Tortoise Pie’)! Take the book as a companion on your travels – open it at any page and you have a wealth of fascinating anecdotes at your fingertips.

Land of Lemons

Land of Lemons

‘THE VERSIONS OF US’ by Laura Barnett.  This is a novel about however many times you get the chance to change – have a re-run,   make another choice, some people still make an enormous mess of their lives.  I didn’t enjoy this at all and was very turned off by all the characters.  It went to the charity shop and as it seems to be popular, I hope it went to a home of somebody who loved it.

Sue Roe is a writer after my own heart.  I am a great lover of paintings and ‘THE PRIVATE LIVES OF THE IMPRESSIONISTS’ is such a rewarding read.  It’s a very personal and detailed account, so much so that I felt I was living alongside the artists.   She nails your interest from the very first sentence, creating a luminous backdrop for the artists of Paris and the Seine.  The blurb comments, ‘This intimate, colourful, superbly researched account takes us into their homes and their studios and describes their unconventional, volatile and precarious lives, as well as the stories behind the paintings’.


I was so entranced that I bought another book by her, called ‘IN MONTMARTRE’.  This is all about Picasso, Matisse et al arriving penniless in Paris, where the ‘high pitched chaos’ of living in the Bateau Lavoir is shatteringly and wonderfully portrayed. The Spectator said of this book that it was ‘enjoyable, engaging, rollicking  …  lively’.  Both books are worth a second read.  They flow as easily as the Seine.

A friend bought me the catalogue of the ‘Gardens’ exhibition at the Royal Academy, which was on until recently. Painting outdoors instead of always in a studio became popular with the Impressionists and many artists, like Monet and Renoir, Pissarro, Caillebotte and Sorolla, le Sidaner, Bonnard and Rusinol, to name a few, took not only to painting gardens but to growing their own and exchanging visits to see one another’s.  Monet’s garden at Giverny is a prime example, which many flock to today as his dream lives on.  There is an interview between Monty Don and the present gardener, James Priest, in the catalogue.  Monet lived at Giverny for 43 years.

Towards the end of the year I was beset by gastric problems and felt miserable. This was made worse by ‘the 100 day cough’, a beastly malady which meant that talking started off a machine gun rat-a-tat, so I began to speak less and less.  Probably a relief for some!

I silently bought ‘GUT’ by the rather beautiful Giulia Enders, illustrated by her equally beautiful sister, which became a best seller –  making me think that many people must suffer from gastric problems!  There are no euphemisms here as she describes how your complex digestive system works.  A great bathroom/bedside book. I learned so much about my innards!

GUT by Giulia Enders

Could I possibly take on another long read after the Balkan and Levant trilogies?  I had quickly skirted the table in Waterstones, which groaned under piles of the Elena Ferrante quartet for this very reason.  Just don’t pick it up … what I really needed was even just a cookery book that I could dip in and out of to finish up the year.  Or an Alastair Sawday book, full of beautiful chateaux and manor houses in France that offered B&B. I needed comfort on many levels.

But somebody arrived, bringing ‘MY BRILLIANT FRIEND’, the first book of the quartet, which by now was celebrating bestseller status  –  not that that means I would enjoy it.  I said thank you, how kind …  but resolved firmly to put it away until 2016 poked its head around the door.

However, the cough maundered on and one day, in the midst of cleaning the kitchen, I opened the first page out of curiosity. Just like Pandora’s Box! Casting mop and bucket aside, I read on …

The Ferrante table at Waterstones

The Ferrante table at Waterstones

Book 1 - My Brilliant Friend

Book 1 – My Brilliant Friend

The Ferrante quartet

The Ferrante quartet –  The Neapolitan novels

In order: ‘ My Brilliant Friend’, ‘The Story of a New Name’, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’, The Story of The Lost Child’.

I read these books voraciously, one after the other.  Emotions run high, damaging people’s fragile lives; whirlwinds of love, lust, hate, loss, tempered by enduring friendships.  Any advice that one might have given would have been ignored.  But for all the family feuding, the leaving and returning, the loves and the losses, the loyalties and betrayals,  there is an all pervading sense of belonging that connects the characters to one another and makes for an indelible story line.  The ending (for me) sews it all up in one sentence.

The author is unknown as she will not give interviews or reveal who she is. I empathise with that. I think she herself must have struggled against the macho atmosphere and way of life in which she grew up to attain a university education and success as a writer. The Neapolitan novels are a wonderful read, a great achievement and will be remembered also as a valuable social document of the times we lived in.

The Lost Child

The Lost Child

Ferrante Man Booker 2016

Waterstones - ground floor

Waterstones – ground floor

Well, that’s it for 2015.  Bookshops still exist despite Amazon and I would feel completely bereft without them.  There are two on Piccadilly –  Hatchards and Waterstones.  James Daunt, an independent bookseller, was asked by Waterstones during lean times, to come in and try to revive their fortunes.  He seems to have succeeded.  Hurrah! He also has independent  bookshops of his own.  Daunts in Marylebone High Street is very special.

Waterstones now has two cafés and a restaurant of their own in the building, which become ever more popular, together with soirées, when authors come and talk about their books while you enjoy a glass of wine. Books, flowers, knowledgeable and friendly assistants on hand.  A cup of coffee, a slice of cake.  I can’t think of a better treat in store!

Welcome to bookshops 2016!

Welcome to bookshops 2016!

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