The Vaults at Waterloo

I didn’t know that these underground tunnels which spider out from Waterloo station even existed. They have been turned into an arts space, which include an underground theatre. Spooky bars with shadowy characters in dark corners made me feel I would never see daylight again.

Oddly, we came upon a family we knew well, who live outside of London. One of the daughters is at Goldsmiths Art College. We enjoyed a drink together in the expectant gloom.

Making our way to the underground theatre through snaking passages and stairways, we arrived to hear the physicist, Jim al-Khalili, talking about his new science fiction novel, ‘Sunfall’. I love his science programmes on television and radio – he’s an excellent presenter. John bought a copy of his book.

The entrance to The Vaults is on Leake Street, a walk south from Waterloo station. I felt I’d entered a wormhole to the 1960s, given the alternative ‘arty’ welcome. The walls of the tunnels are alive as they suck you into a black hole.

starlight cat

This is my favourite ‘graffito’.

behind the screen they can see you …

This is what unnerves me about computers …

man of mystery …

but at least there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

someone to keep at arm’s length …
in a while, crocodile …

This was a bizarre experience – a rendezvous with ‘creatures of the night’. Mind expanding is good!


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‘Faces’ on Ludgate Hill by Emily Young FRSS

Walking up Ludgate Hill from Fleet Street, I was about to cross the road towards St Paul’s Cathedral … when

ancient and modernruler

this stopped me in my tracks … and there were more!


I don’t know what these sculptures represent and so I’ve just put in my own interpretation of the faces. They are magnificent.

‘Emily Young is Britain’s greatest living stone carver’ (Financial Times 2015).


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Soap/sapo/sabun – a short history of soap

Sales of soap have rocketed during ‘coronavirus’. A gift of soap has always been welcome – our forced early return from Greece in March, Covid-19 snapping at our heels, had six bars of orange scented olive soap tucked into my luggage, which were happily received by friends.

soap from Greece – 2020

I began to think of the origins of soap, the word coming from Latin ‘sapo’. I looked up ‘soap’ in many different languages and nearly all begin with ‘s’ or a soft sound.

The earliest recorded evidence of soap dates back to 2800 BC in ancient Babylon. A formula for soap – water, alkali and cassia oil – was found written on a clay tablet about 2200 BC.

what soap may have originally looked like

It’s commonly thought that the process of soap making came from Arabic chemists in the Levant region (of which Aleppo is a main city) and to have moved westwards to Europe after the early Crusades.

Both animal fat and olive oil have been used in soap making. There is also a plant called ‘soapwort’ (saponaria officinalis), which when agitated in water makes a foam, and is a mild cleanser of clothes. It’s also called ‘Bouncing Bet’ – which was a nickname for a washerwoman. However, it’s quite poisonous, so shouldn’t be ingested or used for personal hygiene.

Olive oil rather than animal fat was used in making ‘Aleppo’ soap and the addition of aromatic plants like lavender, germander, yarrow and thyme gave it a pleasant smell. It was said the soap was used by Queen Cleopatra of Egypt and Queen Zenobia of Syria. Besides using olive oil and lye, laurel oil was infused.

soaps – colours and fragrances

As soap making developed, coconut, safflower, sunflower, avocado and argan oils were among others substituted.

Laurel oil was in short supply in Europe and so it was finally dropped there. I’m not sure whether this was a good idea, as looking up the properties of laurel oil – laurus nobilis – I find it impressive! It is a natural antiseptic used in aromatherapy and is also antimicrobial, anti fungal and anti itching. Good for beards and shaving? It is also said to clear mental confusion and clarify thought processes – something a number of us seem to need nowadays …

Soap from Aleppo in liquid form containing laurel oil

And then there’s the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne, ‘daphne’ being the Greek name for laurel. It was a fairly extreme decision that the gods took for this poor nymph to help her escape his clutches! To find out more, look up the painting called ‘Apollo and Daphne’, attributed to Piero del Pollaiolo (approx 1441 – 1496), now in The National Gallery in London. Digression … but I like promoting a favourite painting – this one is quite unusual.

A laurel wreath in athletics wrapped around the head symbolises victory and is still used as a symbol in the Olympic Games. Maybe artisanal soapmakers in the West should look into adding laurel oil into their soap once more.

‘laurus nobilis’ – sweet bay laurel

Soap was also made from animal fat. About 1,000 BC there’s a story (unproven) that Roman women were washing clothes in a tributary of the Tiber on Sapo Hill, below a religious site, where animal sacrifice took place. The clothes became very clean because of animal fat soaking through wood ashes and into the clay soil, which was then washed down river. Maybe just a story but soap was on its way for the Romans.

Apparently, the ruins of Pompeii from 79 AD revealed an entire soap factory. I don’t know if archaeologists would be able to tell what ingredients were used. I’d like to know! At least four baths were found there too. The Romans were renowned for their love of bathing. I may have some Roman genes …

The Greeks also knew about soap from the 1st century AD when they used lye and ashes to clean their pots and statues. But personal use of soap came later.

After the Fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th C AD, the tradition of bathing entirely disappeared from Europe – ( how could this be!) The baths they had built, for example in Bath, in England, unused, fell into decay. Poor hygiene helped to bring on a thousand years of uncleanliness, encouraging several waves of deadly plagues – most notably the Black Death in the 14th C. It was only much later that soap raised its sweet smelling head again.

Actually, the original soap made with animal fat smelled very unpleasant and the discovery of ‘Aleppo’ soap from the Middle East was a great improvement all round. This soap is still made there in the same way today and I bought some in the bazaar in Aleppo some years ago. The laurel oil gives it a slightly spicy, medicinal after note. It is muted green in colour, turning to brown with age.

As this soap slipped along the trade routes of the Silk Road and flowed along the Mediterranean by boat to the West, various changes happened. Soaps could then be made specially for bathing, shampooing and laundry.

This revolutionised personal hygiene in Europe – how did they manage without it all these years? Why did bathing fall out of fashion when the Romans left? It doesn’t bear thinking about!

Soap really was an important lifesaver used regularly. When I was a child, my father (a doctor), always said that washing hands with soap and hot water was a good preventative measure to keep the community healthy. I’ve always been keen on preventative medicine, maybe from listening to him.

Italy (Savona), France and Spain were keen to make their own type of soap, based on the ‘Aleppo’ soap. ‘Castile’ and ‘Marseille’ soap keep these names today from the places where soapmaking started on a major scale in Europe.

Both these soaps are made from pure olive oil and latterly from vegetable oils too in Marseille. They are renowned for their particular mildness. I have bought ‘Marseille’ soap in Provence and visited one of the factories where it’s made – a sight worth seeing. As well as olive oil, it included sea water and alkaline ash from sea plants. Soap for laundry had a different recipe from that for personal use.

soap both for laundry and personal use

Today I buy a soap called ‘Le Petit Olivier’, which has several fragrances and provides both bar and liquid forms. It is natural and completely biodegradable, reasonably priced and very mild.

liquid soap
soap factory – Salon en Provence

The region of Castile in Spain has an abundance of olive groves. They made a bar of soap which was also very mild and effective and in addition was pure white. This became extremely popular with the royal houses of Europe. But it took much longer before soap could be afforded by the general populace.

Even now, Castile soap is one of the best natural and biodegradable soaps on the market that can be manufactured by hand. It is used both for the body and laundry and doesn’t lose its potency after time. It is also used to bathe the sensitive skin of babies. Although there is a bar soap, much of it seems to be sold in liquid form today.

Britain was laggardly in offering soap to the general public. It was only made in the UK commercially from the mid 1800s.

The rich were able to buy soap before this but it was a luxury item and a ‘soap tax’ was even introduced between 1666- 1714, which meant it was even more out of reach for the majority of people. Maybe that’s where the phrase ‘the great unwashed’ comes from?

Today we have such a choice of soaps on the market and many types of ‘luxury’ soap are given as gifts. That doesn’t in the least suggest that the recipient needs to wash … !

The soap industry now extends into all sort of ‘health’ and ‘beauty’ products made for bathing and the bathroom.

‘luxury’ soap from Italy
exotic scents from Kew Gardens (does contain accredited palm oil)

Andrew Pears started making a high quality transparent soap in 1807 and his son-in-law opened a factory in Isleworth, London in 1862. Pears soap still exists today.

Pears transparent soap
good value but does contain palm oil

William Hesketh Lever and his brother James bought a small soapworks in Warrington in 1886 and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses – formerly called Lever Brothers and now called Unilever. They have expanded into many different products. Pears soap is now owned by Unilever.

B J Johnson was a soap company that changed its name to Palmolive because the name of the soap became so popular. However, today palm oil is beginning to be shunned in products for environmental reasons. The growing of palm oil plantations has led to the destruction of ecologically valuable rain forest.

Adding soap to water lowers the water’s surface tension. Making water molecules stick together less is what helps soaps clean clothes and other things more easily. I’m not a scientist but it’s worth exploring this side of soap/detergent.

Liquid soaps became available in the early 1900s, which made cleaning things other than skin, like clothing, floors and bathrooms, easier. This developed further into detergents, used in washing machines and dishwashers.

Most of us now use soap products every day of our lives and I realise how appalling it would be to live as we do now without this indispensable discovery! Of course, some people might argue with that – just keep a safe distance!

delicious fragrance

And with more and more emphasis on protecting the environment, we want a soap to be natural and biodegradable.

artisan ‘gift’ soap from Ireland

For everyday use, I like the soaps below, which can be bought in ‘Holland & Barrett’. Most organic soaps have paper packaging, which can be recycled – but not all as yet.

well priced and recommended

There’s a big revival for attractive, ethical, artisanal soaps with a vast choice of fragrances – a gift that doesn’t destroy our environment and is a treat to receive. I am a big fan. Soap lifts my spirits. I feel clean and pampered – and all from just something I can hold in the palm of my hand.

small orange ‘guest’ soap – Italy

Here’s a short list of eco soaps I have used and can recommend. There are many more of these ‘artisan’ (handmade) soaps to be discovered.

  • (Eric Renard and Xavier Padovani are founders of ‘Le Petit Oliver’ soaps).

Thank you to Wikipedia and ‘’ for being ‘soap’ mines of information.

The pleasures of using and giving soap


PS If you run out of toothpaste, soap is a great alternative!

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Working from home during ‘coronavirus’ lockdown has meant that toast and marmalade, which we usually only have for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays has been added to our normal weekday fare of yoghourt with cereal, fruit and nuts.

Our best choice is ‘Duchy’, organic thick cut but we’ve had to cast around when that wasn’t on the shelves. There’s quite a difference in quality and I became interested in how marmalade came into being in the first place.

It seems that historically marmalade was made of quinces and the word comes from Portuguese – marmelada.

In 1524 Henry VIII received a ‘box’ of marmalade from a Mr. Hull of Exeter. This was probably solid quince paste from Portugal. It was often flavoured with rose water and musk, or ambergris, then cut into squares like Turkish delight and packed into boxes – hence Henry’s ‘box’.

Quince paste is still available – more popular on the continent – it’s an interesting addition to cheese and biscuits. I find it goes particularly well with Manchego cheese.

There’s a note in Samuel Pepys’s diary on 2nd November 1663. ‘Left Mrs Hunt and my wife making marmalett of quinces’. In England in the seventeenth century citrus fruits became more plentiful because of foreign trade.

In James Boswell’s book ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’,(published 1791), there are various references to marmalade. In a letter he writes to Johnson, Boswell says, ‘My wife is much honoured by what you say of her. She begs you may accept of her best compliments. She is to send you some marmalade of oranges of her own making’.

Marmalade, as we know it today, is a sort of jelly consistency, containing the juice, pulp and citrus peel of oranges, lemons, limes or grapefruit – or a combination of two or three. I remember my mother making ‘three fruit marmalade’ for the RNLI every year – maybe 200 pots of it – sitting in serried ranks on the dining room table, ready for the stall on ‘Lifeboat Day’. She also made apricot jam, adding fresh apricot kernels, which was delicious.

The best marmalade is made with bitter oranges from Seville. Cooked with sugar, the taste is both sweet and sharp. The favoured ‘Duchy’ marmalade has a robust taste and the peel is satisfyingly thick, with lots of it.

Marmalade got its jelly quality rather than solid ‘paste’ by pulling it from the heat earlier. Using whole oranges, lemons and sugar with the acid of the lemons helping to create pectin, ‘sets’ the jelly. Nowadays, you can just add ‘pectin’.

The peel should be evenly distributed throughout the jar. To achieve this at home, you should leave the marmalade after its setting point to cool and thicken for fifteen minutes before pouring into the jars.

If you want to look further into marmalade, there are stories, (which are unproven), like the one of Keiller’s Dundee marmalade, which was the result of oranges taken from a shipwreck and made into marmalade, no doubt laced with sea water – or search for the (unproven) link with Mary Queen of Scots, ‘Marie est malade’. Go to Wikipedia, which is a mine of information.

Edmund Hillary took a jar of marmalade up Everest in 1953. Captain Scott took jars of it to the Antarctic in 1910. A solitary jar was found, buried in the ice, years later.

Fortnum and Mason used to sell marmalade in tins, rather than jars. Today they offer a wide range of flavours, including ‘kumquat’ and ‘rose petal’.

English and Scottish migrants took marmalade to Canada, where it remains popular – but it didn’t hit the spot in the U.S.

Paddington Bear always had a pot of marmalade in his brief case and sometimes a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat to keep him going. Sadly, his creator, Michael Bond, died last year but the books and films survive – to the delight of both children and adults worldwide.

This photo might tempt you to sit down with toast and marmalade at breakfast time. Funnily enough, I never want to eat it at any other time of day.

marmalade made with bitter Seville oranges – delicious!

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Lockdown – a view from my study window

The weather in mid-April seemed to range from one extreme to another – damp and cloudy to bright, hot and sunny, still and serene, to windy, gusty and sometimes stormy grey, with raindrops obliterating themselves, almost like machine gun fire, at the window. ‘Coronavirus’ keeps me ‘safe’ at home and I watch these weather patterns, with a cup of black coffee for company.

You notice changes in the weather much more when you’re looking out at your garden all day, sitting at your desk watching the aeroplanes being substituted for flocks of crying seagulls, cooing pigeons, cawing crows, chittering magpies swooping here and there instead of the regular flow of heavy machines on course for Heathrow. One afternoon I looked up and as a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, it made my day …

The beginning … mixed weather patterns
zooming down – clematis montana
cloud closing in …
like a giant dollop of Cornish ice cream

now sporting a jaunty cap

And then came a fierce gust of wind, followed by a flinging of raindrops in my direction, hitting the window with full force – and I caught them, reflected against the cloud.

raindrops are falling

Maybe I should be sending this on to The Cloud Appreciation Society! Anyway, it brought inspiration to my next writing project.

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Lisbon – trees, trams and tiles …in technicolour

Avenida da Liberdade – Lisbon
Praça Dom Pedro IV

We’re meant to be in Lisbon now, with trips to Sintra and Porto but all is lost, owing to ‘coronavirus’. My first ever visit to Lisbon wasn’t so long ago – so I’m re-engaging virtually.

This is a beautiful city on the River Tagus – which is very wide and rolls down into the Atlantic Ocean. We had a long weekend planned at the last minute, staying in a hotel just off the spectacular Avenida da Liberdade. My first impression of the city is of elegant, tree lined streets, extraordinary, tiled pavements and traditonally picturesque trams.

Trams of Lisbon

We arrive in mid-afternoon – in time to do some exploring – and find supper along the way. Lisbon has steep hills but also a vast, flat square down by riverfront, where people gather in companionable groups. It’s a stupendous sight … full of light … a wonderful introduction to what lies ahead …

Lisbon – Praça do Comércio
Lisbon riverfront at Praça do Comércio
Praça do Comércio
Lisbon – yellow tram
extraordinarily beautiful pavements

I’m besotted by all the tiled pavements, although they can be a menace if you’re wearing high heels – but I’m not. There’s also something seductive about a city by the sea and I’m being happily seduced.

criss-cross pavement
mysterious hieroglyphics …
‘knot garden’ pattern
the tiger’s lair
the red swimsuit and Jimi Hendrix
Lisbon – meet the aliens …
retreat to a quiet square
with an art shop

Roaming around has made us hungry. Behind the main streets are steep, stepped alleys. My eyes are drawn to this blossom, which, by chance, stands outside a restaurant.

Supper time
Lisbon – ghost tram

Night is now drawing in and a comfortable bed hovers like a mirage as we make our way back to the hotel.

Our bedroom is spacious, with a separate sitting area and a small balcony. There’s both a bath and a shower. Joy!

Downstairs, in the semi basement, is a beautiful pool – a glass wall opens out onto a terraced, tropical garden. I want to come here and swim every day. It’s very tranquil – only a couple of other people in evidence. The hotel is called PortoBay Liberdade.

We are awake early next morning and decide to take the metro out to the Aquarium, which is part of a huge modern complex, designed by Peter Chermayeff, on the bank of the Tagus. Blue skies, racing white clouds and ozone fresh air.

on the metro 1
on the metro 2
Lisbon ladies – where are you going?
Parque das Nações
new ideas …
sculpture welcoming clouds
Lisbon – architectural
Lisbon – the Aquarium

It’s fiendishly difficult to get a good photo inside an aquarium unless you have the right paraphernalia – not just a small camera. Below is my best shot. The aquarium is incredibly well looked after and used for a lot of ocean research too.

at the aquarium
outside the aquarium
Lisbon – out on the boardwalk
strolling …
…and time for a treat
before taking the metro back to ‘centre ville’

There’s an astonishing amount of ‘street art’ in Lisbon, some of it really brilliant, some feral, some gruesome, some just bad. We even come upon a blocked off ‘graffiti’ street. It reminds me a bit of ‘The Vaults’ near Waterloo station in London, except that it’s not underground. If you like that sort of thing, it’s worth exploring…

stir crazy
Lisbon – graffiti street
very ‘sixties’

The melodic and melancholic tones of ‘fado’ music entice us out for the evening, followed by a fish supper. ‘Fado’ enters my psyche. We buy some CDs before leaving.

searching for ‘fado’
making ‘fado’ music
fish restaurant
close up …
excellent ‘Vinho Verde’
a place to remember
homeward bound …

Exhausted … I embrace bed … slept like a log …

The Botanical Gardens are near the hotel and we make a quick tour. Our goal is to get to ‘Castelo de São Jorge’ today …

entrance to Botanical Gardens
palms galore ..
a rendezvous?

Then it’s ever onwards – across town to Alfama.

Alfama is the oldest part of the city with narrow, crooked streets winding their way steeply up towards the citadel.

Alfama – small square
Alfama – round square!
Alfama – street art
Alfama – Scooby-doo …
Alfama – picture framing shop

The hill up to ‘Castelo de São Jorge’ gets higher and higher. I’m not a mountaineer! I come upon a wall, showing photos of past denizens of Alfama, which I find very touching. This is the real old heart of the city.


A historic past brought to life by pictures of ordinary people who lived here … it’s a great idea to do this.

Alfama – old woman with broom …
wall of tiles
stairs to a secret garden … (ssh – I’m being nosy)
here lies a tale … ?!
entrance to the castle grounds
view of city from the castle – Alfama

The view of the city is panoramic. I feel so happy to be here, high up, in the fresh air. I now see why mountaineers need to reach the top!

view two …
Alfama – castle grounds
a wall!
strolling along the terraces …
inside the castle walls
Alfama – contemplation
haunting sound …

I don’t know what this musical instrument is but it’s sweet and deeply sonorous. There’s also some arresting street art near the entrance to the citadel. See below.

I notice an old outdoor urinal. Waited to see if anyone would use it – it brings back memories of 1960s Paris. Along with the palpable smell of garlic suffusing the metro.

On my first visit to Paris alone, when I was sixteen, I was intrigued and a little shocked to see the patterned metal, outdoor urinals, with heads and feet (only) in view.

My mother sent me to a lycée in the summer holidays, which led to a lot of exciting experiences – and did help me learn French. And I’ve loved going to France ever since.

She didn’t like ‘abroad’ so I’m forever grateful to her for sending me there. I think it was because she had a friend, who taught French at the local school.

Frenchmen seem to be less reserved than most Englishmen in this department. Over many years driving through France, we used to count the Frenchmen insouciantly ‘baring all’ at the side of the road, when the need arose.

no takers …
arresting street art …
Alfama – street sculpture? – spot the ‘kitkat’
gene genie

Starting the long trek downhill. A concatenation of brilliant colours …

sherbet yellow, pink, red, blue, green …

We eventually find ourselves at the ‘Museu de Artes Decorativas’, which includes an 18th century backgammon and chess table in rosewood.

entrance hall – Museu de Artes Decorativas

Lisbon is a wonderful city to explore by walking. We make our way parallel to the Tagus through small streets and alley ways. I am curious by nature and this is one of my favourite things to do in a city.

Lisbon – picture postcard
Lisbon – traditional dancers

I don’t know what the picture below signifies but Lisbon cuisine is very much about fish – which seems plentiful and is tasty.

ruby red
verdigris green
beatific blue …
yellow ochre

When I hear the word, Lisbon, I do see/think ‘yellow’. The days of the week I see in colour too. Some people have synaesthesia – a syndrome which means that words and numbers strongly conjure up the same colours/tastes all the time. You can take a test to see if you have this syndrome.

Lisbon – fish ‘kiosk’

There are quite a lot of these picturesque ‘kiosks’, which sell ‘take away’ fish dishes in the centre of Lisbon – often with a few tables and chairs outside. I like the look of them.

We’re almost back at Praço do Comércia. John reluctantly agrees to a photoshoot! I have to take it by reflection …

on holiday in Lisbon 2019

We’ve been walking for seemingly hours now (not complaining!) and I’m famished.

dizzy with hunger …

We could have a very late lunch but I am sidetracked by looking into the window of a bakery – immediate gratification! I wouldn’t pass the ‘marshmallow test’ at this moment …

‘immediate gratification’
These ‘hit the spot’ too …

Recovery …

man in black …
dog in black …
stars in black …
swirls in black

You can tell how fascinated I am by Lisbon’s pavements!

keeping going …
interesting – how do I get up there?
blowing in the wind …

I look at the European flag and I want to weep that my birthright of being European may be taken away from me. Brexit was the main topic last year, like ‘coronavirus’ is now … so … to drown my sorrows …

I went swimming in the hotel’s gorgeous pool, which I had all to myself. The air smells like the ocean. I am revived – for the moment… and the warm night draws in …

Lisbon glamour …

‘To sleep, perchance to dream …’

It’s already our last day, so we make an early start after breakfast. There’s an art gallery close by, opposite a statue of Fernando Pessoa, ( 1888 – 1935), a famous Portuguese poet and writer, translator, publisher and philosopher.

Fernando Pessoa 1888 – 1935
Carlos Botelho 1899 – 1982

A well known painter, illustrator, cartoonist and humorist, born in Lisbon.

contemporary art
bizarre … and disturbing … and unknown
the one that got away …
unknown but handsome …

Final decision made, after wavering as to where to go next. We’re taking the metro out to the Gulbenkian Museum, stopping en route at a patisserie, as it’s almost time for elevenses …

beguiling shopfront ..
odd one out ?

Emerging from the metro we can see the Gulbenkian Museum, but it means crossing innumerable roads and roundabouts to get there. It’s worth it!

Calouste Gulbenkian was born in Istanbul in 1869 – his family roots were Armenian. He became one of the richest men in the world as an oil magnate but he was also an avid art collector and philanthropist, living all over the world. His life story is fascinating. A lot of his private art collection is on show here. The building also houses contemporary exhibitions. It’s surrounded by lovely gardens, which are dotted with cafés and is a great place to visit. You can easily spend all day here.

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian 1869 – 1955
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian
Gulbenkian Museum – Lisbon
giant carpet – featuring oil pipes?
an extraordinary individual
Gulbenkian Museum – garden
Gulbenkian gardens – turtles – real ones!

There’s also a contemporary exhibition about mysteries of the brain, robots and language.

map of Indo- European languages
brainpower 1
brainpower 2
and then there was this octopus

I couldn’t help feeling that the tentacles of the octopus and the spread of the language map had similarities. Our brain travels in various different routes from birth, depending on who we are as an individual, where we came from, what we do and what happens to us in life.

And then there’s this astonishing individual, Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, who made the most extraordinary connections. He had a brilliant financial brain and made a lot of money, he loved art and collected more than 6,000 pieces and he also used the huge amounts of money he made to help others, funding schools and hospitals and scholarships. His international reach in the world is also somewhat like the tentacles of an octopus. Octopuses are known to be super intelligent …

In London, Gulbenkian built St. Sarkis Armenian church as a memorial to his parents and is buried there. In doing this, he wanted also to provide a place of ‘spiritual comfort’ and a gathering place for ‘dispersed’ Armenians. (Wikipedia).

I’m so glad to have visited this place and to have learned more about this man.

Portugal has always been a seafaring nation. Every morning we passed this nautical floor sculpture but I’m not sure of its provenance.

Lisbon – nautical floor sculpture

It gives me a chance to put in the pirate, who we also pass every day.

Black Jack
pirate ship – top right

But the fire engine is tempting … I know a little boy who would love that …

Time’s running out. We’re now waiting at the hotel for a taxi to the airport…

waiting for the taxi … under these graceful trees

I just had time to race down to the bakery to get the best ‘pastéis de nata’ in town … I hope I get them home in one piece.

the famous Portuguese ‘pastéis de nata’

Our short stay has been super enjoyable. I wasn’t to know then that ‘coronavirus’ would delay our return to Lisbon but at least there’s something to look forward to in the hope that the state we find ourselves in will be overcome in the not too distant future and we will be free to travel once again.

!Adeus !


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In the Pink

A surprising happening … my spiny cactus suddenly burst out with all these flowers …

Shocking pink!

Shockingly glorious! I love ‘pink’.

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Abbots Bromley – my old school, revived by the Chinese …

Revival of my old school, Abbots Bromley, by the Chinese – 2020

I was aged ten when I went to the boarding school of St Mary and St Anne, Abbots Bromley, in 1957. Seven years later, in 1963, I left to explore the world.

In July 2019, there was an article in ‘The Times’ about Abbots Bromley closing down. It had changed over the years from a school where pupils did ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels with a bent towards vocational careers, to a less academic establishment, which included dancing and horse riding. Way back then, we were five hundred girls in nine ‘houses’ – later, there were only 300 pupils and it was mixed. Then in July 2019 it was closed altogether at the end of the Summer Term.

I don’t know how much Abbots Bromley influenced me in later life but I’m amazed by how much I remember about it. I suppose it was a seven year stint – of what now seems a strange existence. Five hundred girls in a small village, otherwise known for its Morris Dancing – and especially The Horn Dance. This was performed in front of The Buttercross, an ancient monument close to ‘The Goat’s Head’ pub.

We wore these ‘wimples’ on our heads only on Speech Day in the summer. Otherwise, we had straw ‘boards’ (boaters). In Winter, a navy uniform with a white shirt and a tie whose colour showed what ‘house’ we belonged to. Mine was pale pink.

I envied the dark green one. Those belonged to ‘Crofts’ – a small ‘house’ which was in a very pretty building, covered in vines, in the village. I had a friend called ‘Jinx’ there and was sometimes invited for lunch, which was very cosy and ‘unschoollike’. Otherwise, ties were red, blue, purple, turquoise, orange, light green and yellow. A rainbow.

Coming and going – Speech day in the Summer Term
Abbots Bromley – the choir leading the procession on Speech Day

Abbots Bromley was one of the Woodard schools, set up by a clergyman. There was a lot of church going, which was High Anglican. One of the sixth formers swung the thurible, filling the church with the scent and smoke of frankincense and myrrh as she made her way to the altar, followed by the ‘boat boy’, who carried the aromatics in an oblong silver vessel. I would have liked to have been a ‘boat boy’ but this dream was never realised. But I did get to light and snuff out the three red sanctuary lamps in the chapel at Evensong.

My main memory of the chapel was fainting at First Communion and knocking over the whole row, who were praying on their knees. After I had been dragged out, following a terrible ruckus, I had to go and apologise to the headmistress, Miss Roch.

Luckily, I didn’t miss First Communion breakfast. We were given a beautiful bouquet of Easter flowers and a card showing Jesus, ‘The Light of the World’, painted by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). I kept this in my hymnal, which we used every morning at School Prayers.

We sang both a psalm in plainsong and a hymn before the headmistress read out various events that were going on. I think it was in the Spring term that the whole school sang the ‘Benedicite’ in prayers. It had a strong rhythm and melody and we all sang our hearts out. It included God blessing all the animals and sea creatures and insects, which I liked.

Evensong, in the chapel, was on Wednesdays and Fridays, Compline was on Saturday evening. On Sunday morning we went in a crocodile line down to the church in the village, where the Chaplain was waiting to conduct the Morning Service. Then it was back to chapel in the evening for another Evensong.

The entry into the chapel had a lot of white marble, including the floors and a beautiful table, always decorated with a vase of fresh flowers. The cloisters gave onto the private gardens, belonging to the staff houses. We all had our favourite hymns and wrote notes of undying love to our friends on those pages. Forbidden, of course.

Lining up in the houseroom to go to chapel on a Sunday evening clashed with ‘The Top Twenty’ popular songs on radio. This was a precursor of ‘Top of the Pops’ on TV. But The Beatles were just about in evidence and becoming the talk of the dormitory.

Meanwhile, we also had to learn the Catechism, followed by a ‘collect’ every Sunday. In the afternoon we wrote our letter home, which was checked before sending. Our housemistress would pounce on somebody to stand up and recite the ‘collect’ by memory.

Our choir was in the hands of the glamorous Louella Harris and I still remember the beautiful swoops of the ‘Ave Verum’ and the ‘Kyrie Eleison’. Those of us who didn’t get into the choir (like me), were left with Miss Roadknight, whose determination to get us to sing as well as possible elicited a lot of spitting as she enunciated … nobody wanted to sit in the front row.

I was quite anxious when my parents dropped me off at the dark, oak panelled entrance to the school for the first time, leaving me to confront an unknown world as the old Austin disappeared down the driveway and turned out left into the road on its return home.

But a smiling face appeared. An older girl, Jennifer Fisher, greeted me and took two of us new girls for a cup of tea and a bun before accompanying us up to our dormitory. Matron had made up our iron bedsteads – she took our tuck boxes and locked them in a cupboard. Life at school began.


Miss Crawley-Boevey. She was deputy headmistress and taught Geography. She had some sort of contact with royalty and her brief included teaching us about sexual intercourse later on. She was a handsome figure.

The Honourable Xenia Pleydell-Bouverie. She was the games mistress who taught us lacrosse. I was left wing and did a lot of speeding up and down along the edge of the playing field. Miss Pleydell-Bouverie joined in the action, shouting ‘cradle’, ‘cradle’, as we tried to get the ball into a tiny triangular goal. She also came from an aristocratic family and it was said she’d run away from home to become a games mistress? I preferred netball (shooter) and rounders and tennis in the summer. We also played cricket and I enjoyed being ‘long leg’ in the long grass. So not very sporty really.

Mrs Atkinson. She taught ‘A’ level German (she was German) which I studied along with French. We read German literature (‘Wallenstein’ by Schiller and poetry) in the old fashioned script. Mrs. A was dramatically beautiful with a creamy complexion, dark curly hair that flowed over her shoulders and a slash of red lipstick. She was very different from the norm. One day she was late for our class – there were only six of us. She breezed in saying ‘Mein B-H ist kaput’. Her bra had snapped! We liked her a lot. Where did she come from, where did she go?

Mr Heald. A token man. He was a great Maths teacher, although it did take me five times to pass ‘O’ level Maths. Everyone clapped when I got the long longed-for result. Mr. Heald was full of enthusiasm, a favourite among us all.

Miss Hann. Our English teacher. She was under five feet tall and a purposeful character, discussing our essays with great pzazz. She taught me to love the Romantic poets and we pushed back the desks to act out Shakespeare. I was lucky to have her, as this was my best subject. In the sixth form, we were allowed to write our essays in the library, which was light and warm with French windows opening onto the garden. I wish I had made better use of it. The prefects’ Common Room was more tempting as we could make toast and tea and have a chat with the other heads of houses.

Miss Jesse.(known as Jezebel) She had been a pupil at the school. Her voice was unintelligible and she gave out many detentions. She sat at the front of the class on a high desk and we all got a detention for laughing when one of her stockings fell down. She also taught Girl Guides. One time we almost died of food poisoning after trying to cook sausages over a bonfire. Carbonised on the outside, raw within. I’ve never liked sausages since.

Mr Hensher was something else. The Chaplain became ill and he arrived to be the religious stand-in. He was tall and good looking but with strange, wide apart, eyes like marbles, which seemed to see through you. He taught us Divinity besides being our Chaplain and we were mesmerised as he talked about the dark clouds of the nether world.

He asked us to think of a flower without saying what it was, then he would go round the class, getting all our flowers right. We were agog. He finally organised us to go on a CND march to London one weekend and at that point he disappeared. I expect he was sacked.

Later on at university I opened a ‘News of the World’ Sunday paper. There was Mr. Hensher – a vicar in a country village with his black labrador, advertising for a wife who looked like Ingrid Bergman. The congregation were up in arms! He brought melodrama and excitement into our lives for a short time.

I liked biology but somehow didn’t crack Physics and Chemistry. We had an exciting lesson in Chemistry when Miss Underwood dropped a piece of sodium into water by mistake and it exploded everywhere. To add to the general pandemonium a girl who was rather glamorous and came from Zanzibar, fainted. We made pink soap and blue crystals but valences escaped me.

We also had a weekly lesson called ‘Human Biology and Hygiene’. This taught us how to look after our bodily selves and then progressed on how to run a house, have a hygienic kitchen, mend clothes, make beds (with so-called ‘hospital corners’), mop floors and perform basic first aid in case of accidents.

Unfortunately, cooking didn’t come into it for me. The choice was Latin or cookery. The two top forms did Latin and the third level got to cook and eat their own lunch every Wednesday in a modern cookery lab. We were all very envious!

I learned to cook later on – something I now do nearly every day – I have no use for Latin but I suppose it helped with French and German. I did enjoy Virgil’s ‘The Aeneid’ but Caesar’s Gallic Wars with their wretched earthworks drove me to distraction, as did the subjunctive. But I do love both Greek and Roman mythology. I later discovered that I love going out to restaurants instead of cooking all the time …

Some mothers sent birthday cakes in a tin by post and this was given out in slices to friends. I remember an iced cake covered in crystallised violets. Sprigs of real violets dipped into hot liquid sugar and left to dry. When you bit into them the remains of the petals could be seen.

There was a wonderfully old-fashioned art studio upstairs in an old barn but I just couldn’t paint, even though I loved colour. Miss Foster, who wore eclectic smocks, did have her favourites. She lived with the Head of Music, Miss Wadeley, who was in charge of a big, old fashioned music wing with separate rooms for practising piano.

The ‘cells’ all had names of famous musicians on the doors. Palestrina, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart etc. Miss W used to come and listen at the door to make sure we were practising. My sister turned out to be a very good pianist.

Matrons presided over the dormitories and generally oversaw hairwashing, bathing, mending and shoe cleaning. Head matron, Miss Jones, who treated our ailments, was known as Kipper Feet, due to the way she walked. Her lair was in Doctor’s Room. Sore throats had to make a line. She had a long paintbrush which was dipped in a jar of sticky, black liquid and painted our throats one by one. What was it? I didn’t ask. We got better.

Miss Metcalfe handed out clean sheets each week from the ‘hot cupboard’ and kept a watchful eye on the tuck boxes, which were in another locked cupboard, opened by her once a week.

For some reason she refused to let us have our sweets one week, so two of us locked her in the hot cupboard, which was actually a small room. She did manage to call for help in the end and we were all called together in the houseroom and asked who had done this. Nobody told. There was a unbreakable sense of solidarity.

Each table in the dining room had a teacher or prefect in the middle. We had to make conversation with her so as not to get a bad table grade. At the same time we were not allowed to ask for, say jam for our bread – somebody had to ask you if you wanted some and then pass it to you. If you failed to make sure your neighbour had all she wanted, that meant another black mark.

Meanwhile, bacon on fried bread, which I loathed, was being clandestinely pushed behind the radiator. Semolina pudding was for seconds – one day I found a bluebottle in mine, so I couldn’t bear ‘seconds’ any more. We were meant to eat everything – so nobody had allergies then?!

My sister was in the choir and they were sometimes asked to sing at weddings. If they got back late at night, they had to come in through the dining room, crunching cockroaches underfoot. This haunts her still. I suppose all that food that fell on the floor ‘by mistake’ made up a banquet for ‘creatures of the night’.

We had two baths a week, which I looked forward to, especially in the Winter. There were no doors on the bathrooms and Matron would come and check that all was well and that we hadn’t used too much hot water. I filled it up after she had left.

In the sixth form, we were allowed to go in threes for a bicycle ride. One day we came upon a dead fox and extracted its teeth. I kept this long canine tooth in my pocket and would polish it from time to time. Sometimes on our rides we would get as far as Uttoxeter and find a café which served fish and chips and mushy peas – much preferable to school dinners. We became bolder.

The playing fields were enormous. Each morning we ran around them before breakfast and got back in time to turn our mattresses before the gong went. There was five minutes before the second gong. If you were late, you got another bad mark. You were not meant to run down the corridors … a no-win situation!

We did go to Stratford-upon-Avon a number of times in a coach to see Shakespeare’s plays, which was a great treat. We also went to Wimbledon one year as the father of one of the girls was a vicar whose parish was near the tennis courts. He supplied us with delicious bowls of strawberries and cream in his garden afterwards.

There is a fantastic photograph by Jane Bown of schoolgirls at Wimbledon in the 1950s. It was shown in ‘The Observer’ on 23.06.19 as ‘The big picture’. It’s a perfect photo to show how we were about to experience a great cultural shift. How ‘the teenager’ was about to appear and change the lives of young people like us. Do look it up. Life outside of Abbots Bromley beckoned … but we didn’t yet know quite what was in store …

Meanwhile, there were films (set up in the gym) some weekends. We swooned over Gregory Peck, Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Humphrey Bogart … I think it was then I fell in love with David Niven in ‘The Guns of Navarone’ but I rather fell for Gregory Peck too.

‘Lassie’ (the dog) was a hit. Alec Guinness was in ‘The Ladykillers’, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ and ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s ‘North by North West’. ‘The Lady Vanishes’ with Margaret Lockwood – another Hitchcock. ‘Brief Encounter’ with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard made us aware of the trials and tribulations of forbidden love …

We wept for Richard Todd and his black labrador in ‘The Dam Busters’. Romantic films with sex scenes, though, were few and far between. I think we got to see ‘South Pacific’ with smoothie Rossano Brazzi. I definitely remember ‘Casablanca’ – wet handkerchiefs all round. I identified strongly with Ingrid Bergman and she just blew me away. Life after school – it was all to play for …

One time I had ‘flu so badly, I was sent to the ‘San’, which was hidden behind trees at the bottom of the tennis courts. It seemed as if I was in solitary confinement as the only person I saw was ‘Sister’ in her white coat, who brought me subsistence meals.

I found a shelf of books as I began to get better. They were all Agatha Christies and I read every single one. Perhaps that’s why I like Agatha Christie. She had an interesting life herself and I recommend her account of accompanying her husband, Max Mallowan, on his archaeological trips to the Middle East. She had a very self deprecating and dry sense of humour.

Each year we made things for the bazaar. We knitted hats and gloves and teapot cosies and sewed furiously, but the main stall was lampshades, made with raffia woven on a steel frame into intricate patterns. For some reason, they were very popular.

I can’t help thinking of ‘Molesworth’ in this context. The book ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans, wonderfully illustrated by Ronald Searle, has a character in it called ‘Grabber’ who is ‘skool captane of everything and winner of the Mrs Joyful prize for rafia work’. I think the proceeds of all of this industrious toil were sent to deserving charities with a religious bent.

Our parents were allowed to visit us twice a term. We could take a friend out. My mother often brought the lunch from home and we ate it from the back of the car, overlooking the Blithfield Reservoir, near Bagot’s Wood. We finished off with tea in a thermos flask. It wasn’t very relaxing and sometimes the weather was bleak and cold. Somehow I felt school was school, home was home and it was best not to mix the two. But she did make a great lunch in difficult circumstances …

I had gone to ballet classes before I started school but now we learned the waltz, the quickstep and the foxtrot – did we try the tango? I don’t remember.

No boogie-woogie, no twisting by the pool, no jiving (I do wish I’d learned to do this). And certainly no jitterbugging. That was all to come. I was one of the taller girls, so I always had to play ‘the man’, which I found awkward when I had to do it the other way round. One girl’s mother sent her a pair of ‘kitten heels’, which we all drooled over.

In the sixth form at the end of the Autumn term, there was a dance at a nearby boys’ school – Denstone. Our mothers sent us suitable dresses and shoes for the occasion. I expect we looked frumpy. Partners were chosen by putting one of our shoes in a pile in the centre of the room and the boys picked one they liked. Disaster.

Repton was another favoured boys’ school, which I found rather more engaging. Boys were allotted a girl’s name and had to write to us beforehand, introducing themselves. We got quite excited but my boy wrote to me a few days before the dance to say he had been expelled.

My mother had sent me a green, silk dress with capped sleeves, which she had made. I thought it made me look like a water nymph – (sadly mistaken, no doubt). See ‘Hylas and the nymphs’ – painting by Waterhouse (1849-1917). One girl’s mother had sent lipstick, which we all borrowed … it was called Pink T.N.T.

Our coach arrived at Repton and I had no partner. Matron said I could sit with her in the dance hall. Each boy held up a board with their girl’s name on it as we got out of the bus. Then I saw my name. Somebody had made sure I wasn’t to be alone all evening.

And the boy was tall and handsome with a big smile. We were not meant to leave the dance hall and our partner had to have a dance with Matron. After this, he asked me if I’d like to go for a walk in the grounds. We had a lot of fun, only curtailed by one of the Masters spotting us and sending us back. I was very popular for a day or two recounting my adventures and it was a great boost to my confidence.

I still have one of those long school photographs of everybody – girls and staff. It was taken on the tennis courts. But I only know one girl from Abbots Bromley now.

For all these seemingly odd and pointless rituals that we went through, I did develop a sense of responsibility towards others and a consciousness about what was right and wrong.

We were taught to always think of others before ourselves. This was good in some ways but somebody was complaining in the paper the other day that ‘coronavirus’ had changed her into a fifties housewife. I completely understand this. Family life is more balanced today in that women do have more opportunities but there’s still some way to go. And if you have been instilled with a certain mindset, it’s difficult to change. But the next generation have more chance.

The strong religious element of Abbots Bromley never quite captured me. I feel more pantheistic than anything and always did. Maybe that’s why I ended up married to an environmentalist.

Churches were often built on the sites of old temples to the sun. The number of different religions is enormous but they seem also to instigate violent wars against one another. Without the sun and water and the right sort of balance and temperature, we simply wouldn’t exist anyway. But living life within an infrastructure is quite helpful and that can be religion for some. Formal religion didn’t work for me, although I am not totally against it. I loved singing ‘And did those feet in ancient time’… on Speech Day. Horses for courses …

Above all, Abbots Bromley had a good heart and probably turned out many girls who made a difference to a sometimes challenging world. It made me independent and able to look after myself in the years to come – and instilled a strong streak of common sense to overcome adversity.

I wouldn’t have written about my school except for the fact that first it was closed down and now is about to be re-opened by the Chinese. I am curious to know what will happen next. Maybe we should be singing, ‘And did those Chinese feet in modern times …’?

I’m happy to have tried to make some sense of those seven years. I thank my parents for trying their best to give us an education that would stand us in good stead for life ahead. They gave it their best shot. They can’t be held responsible for the outcome.

My ‘board’‘Edwardian’ trendy?

Recommended books about the 1950s :-

‘Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes’ – the story of women in the 1950s by VIRGINIA NICHOLSON

‘The Fun of the Fifties’- Ads, Fads and Fashion by ROBERT OPIE

‘The Best of Times’ – Growing up in Britain in the 1950s by ALISON PRESSLEY

‘The Hulton Getty Picture Collection – 1950s’ – NICK YAPP


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Delphi, Jeremy and ‘coronavirus’

Last September I had been complaining that a ‘real’ holiday, not accompanied by work, had become, more and more, a ‘pipe dream’. ‘Well, just book something and I’ll fit in with it’, said John, as if he was batting away a mosquito. I had just got a brochure from ‘Travel Editions’. One of the trips was almost the same as our Greek odyssey in 1970, where six of us travelled in an old Land Rover across Europe, ending up in the Peloponnese, via the island of Skiathos and Athens.

One site we were disappointed to miss out on – because for some reason it was closed – was Delphi. This current tour took in Delphi, Olympia, Nafplio, Mycenae, Corinth, Mystras and Sparta, nearly all of which we did manage to visit – fifty years ago. John was hooked, I was excited and happy …

But in February ‘coronavirus’ was in the news more and more frequently, rearing its ugly and terrifyingly invisible head. It reminded me of Hercules trying to kill the Hydra – a serpent with numerous heads. If you cut one off, two or more would quickly grow out of the stump. This virus was stalking the world, creating chaos and in many cases, death. It had apparently arisen from wild animal markets in China, linked to bats and pangolins and had made the jump to humans. I was getting more and more anxious but when I rang ‘Travel Editions’, the tour was still up and running. We decided to risk it.

on our way …

Jeremy Paterson, our enthusiastic tour guide, who taught Ancient Greek and Roman history for over forty years at Newcastle University, collected us together at Athens airport and we were soon plunged into the Greek landscape with Nikos, our driver. I felt relaxed, footloose and ‘fancy free’. We had got here, Jeremy was in charge and I could sit back and enjoy a ‘real’ holiday, with somebody else doing all the organising. Bliss!

Arachova is a delightful mountain village near Delphi. Our room at the hotel Likoria had a balcony overlooking the mountains and the Delphi valley. We arrived in time to explore, Jeremy suggesting we visit the church, which was approached via 100+ steps …

Agios Georgios Byzantine church, Arachova
Church infiltrated by the evening sun

The sun was beginning to wane and there is that magical moment when it blazes for the last time before slipping behind the horizon. I’m not particularly religious in a formal way but I lit a candle and made an offering for being here.

sunset – shades of de Chirico …

We negotiated our way back to the main street via stray cats patrolling crooked alley ways. Jeremy had recommended a tea shop, which was easy to find, as the window was full of teapots. It not only sold tea but we bought dried apricots, mango, almonds, sesame biscuits and some kind of large citrus fruit which was dried, sliced and vivid green. I wish I had bought a huge bag of it – it was so very delicious.

This village has an alpine feel to it as there is skiing in the winter, which is very popular. But we were in a quiet time between that and summer tourists.

a basketful of pomegranates
Still Life …
vampire cat
chimney pot 1
chimney pots 3

I wonder why Greek chimney pots often resemble birds?

Time for supper at the hotel – the bed is comfortable and I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep in the mountain air.

view from our balcony – remains of day 1

I’m more of a one-to-one than a ‘group’ person but Jeremy and Bianca make me feel at home, always ready to answer any questions and full of interesting stories. And I am absolved of all responsibility – they will sort things out. I didn’t realise then how much sorting out they would ultimately have to do.

It’s a glorious day, sunny and warm, bathed in that ‘special’ light of Greece. Greek myths tell us that Zeus sent two eagles out from the ends of the universe to find the navel of the world. They met in Delphi, which was for many centuries the cultural and religious centre and symbol of unity for the Hellenic world. (Jeremy’s notes). Its setting in the landscape is spectacular.

trees at Delphi

We pass by the Shining Cliffs and meet up with George, our Greek guide, who lives locally and is the son of a priest. He and Jeremy go back a long way. George points out the Castalian spring. This sacred fountain was used to purify people before entering Delphi. Byron apparently plunged in, hoping to enhance his poetic spirit. I held out my hand and drank the clear water, splashing it on my face. I’m open for anything good coming my way. … I hope the ‘Pythia’ was listening …

‘Shining Cliffs’ – Delphi
outside the entrance to Delphi

Behind the bespoke Land Rover you can see the tent like nests of the processionary moth, whose larvae attack pine trees throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a massive problem.

Delphi – healthy pine cones

Lots of birdsong. We walked under a bower of yellow, strongly scented flowers, which were buzzing with cohorts of bees …

bee flowers …
wall at entrance to Delphi
Serpent column at Delphi

This is a replica of the original 8 metre, bronze column, which is now in Istanbul. There used to be three serpent heads on the top – destroyed – although a small piece of one serpent’s jaw is in the museum in Istanbul.

Delphi – The Athenian Treasury
Delphi – Jeremy in full flow …

A lot of the stones are carved with inscriptions – in Greek, so I can’t translate them – but apparently many of them relate to the emancipation of slaves. The Greeks’ view of making slaves free men is interesting – different from the norm.

Delphi – inscriptions on stone

I don’t own a cat but I was rather taken by the one which followed us around the ruins …

guardian of the stones …
Delphi – keeper of secrets …
embodiment of the Pythia
Temple of Athena

Looking down from Delphi into the valley, you can just make the temple remains out on the left, shaded by trees. As the museum was closed, due to coronavirus, we got a chance to visit the temple instead. Next day the whole site was closed down – we managed to squeeze in with twenty four hours to spare. The ‘Pythia’ was benign on a perfect day. Luck was on our side.

Temple of Athena looking towards Delphi
Delphi – spring blossom
Delphi – purple vetch
Delphi – white throated nuthatch (?)
splendour in the grass
The Oracle keeps her secrets …

… as we leave for the monastery of Osios Loukás, which is quite close.

Time for a coffee break on the way in a quiet village. Old men playing the even more ancient game of backgammon. They were happy for me to take a photo. When I was in Fethiye in Turkey I asked some men if I could take their photo and they invited me to sit down with them and bought me tea in a glass – sadly, I didn’t have time to learn backgammon.

eye catching pickup truck
keep on trucking …

The site of the monastery on Mount Helikon dates from before AD 944. It exceeds all expectations. The location is secluded, the atmosphere is tranquil and the silence all embracing.

entrance to the Monastery of Osios Loukás
Osias Loukás basking in the sun
Osias Loukás – church
Church interior
votive beeswax candles
fountain with flowers and urn

While I was taking photos, George started to sing in Greek within the church. He has the most mellifluous voice – molten with the honeyed smell of beeswax candles …

trying to capture the ‘special’ light of Greece …
John at the Monastery of Osios Loukás

Coronavirus creeps closer. As we leave the hotel next morning the owners close it down. Our itinerary must change as many sites are now being closed too. However, Jeremy, George and Bianca are full of innovative ideas and we end up at the delightful town of Nafpaktos by the sea with its impressive looking castle on the top of the mountain.

Venetian castle of Nafpaktos overlooking the bay of Patras
Nafpaktos – harbour with Venetian ramparts
Nafpaktos – Bay of Patras
Nafpaktos harbour – fishing boats
under the ramparts to see …
…the view of the Rio-Antirio bridgewith bathers …

The Rio-Antirio bridge is the world’s longest multi-span, cable stayed bridge. It crosses the Gulf of Corinth, linking the town of Rio on the Peloponnese to Antirio on mainland Greece.

Nafpaktos was known as Lepanto during part of its history and by the harbour is a statue of Cervantes, who took part at the Battle of Lepanto. There is another statue on the harbour wall of Giorgos Anemogiannis, who lost his life defending his country. The two statues seem to be waving to one another …


Most shops are closed and although bakeries are open, only two customers are allowed in at a time.

no shoap or shampoo …

As we walked back to the bus along the shoreline I noticed a shower was set up on the beach with a large notice not to use soap or shampoo. Seeing spelling of ‘shoap’ on the notice made me think of the roots of words and language. If it’s shampoo, why not shoap …

Shampoo seems to have had Indian roots and was first noted in England in 1762. Its original meaning in Hindi was ‘a full body massage’. Soap seems to have German/Dutch roots. My most successful chemistry lesson at school was succeeding in making a bar of soap! Digression …

Next stop is at the bridge – we take the ferry across to get the best view of it.

view of Rio-Antirio bridge from the ferry
On the ferry
coming and going …
The ferryman
the way ahead …

This photo reminds me of the work of Richard Diebenkorn, a Californian artist, whose paintings are a mix of abstract and figurative. I especially like his colour palette.

He manages to be both geometrical and lyrical at once, which brings on a train of thought. How music and mathematics are in tandem… how poetry works lyrically, limited yet enhanced by lines of a sonnet or haiku … how a painting speaks to an audience in a more emotional way when constructed invisibly by the harmony set by ‘the Golden Mean’.

An example of this is in ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Piero de la Francesca, who was also a mathematician and a pioneer in the field of perspective. I am always drawn to his paintings – the way he uses colour and light. And the invisibility of the ‘Golden Mean’ underlying it all.

If this photo appeals to you, it’s worth looking up more on Diebenkorn too. (1922 – 1993).

Back on the bus, I snap these weird looking cliffs. They remind me of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Wizard of Earthsea’ or a film set in ‘Lord of the Rings’. However, I think this is merely a quarry.

weird cliff formations

Maybe I’m flagging a bit – needing a siesta … I remember I bought something to eat in Nafpaktos so I rummage around in my bag to find it.

fig sticks

I’m sure one or two of these will raise my energy levels. The label mentions that they are ‘fumigated’. I don’t know what that means but I’m hungry so I’ll risk it…

The site at Corinth is already closed but we can look through the fence as various companionable dogs follow us.

village at Roman Corinth with dogs

You can just see the fortress of Acro-Corinth on top of the mountain in the right of the picture.

swan gates

This reminds me that when we get home John’s new book, his twentieth, will be published. It’s called ‘Green Swans’ – The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism – and has already had some positive feedback from both business and environmental people.


I notice lots of shrines by the side of the roads as we pass. Bianca says that many of them commemorate people who have died in car accidents. One man even built a chapel of remembrance for his son on the spot. I am glad that Nikos is our driver, as he is excellent …

And the best is yet to come – we are driving up the mountain to Acro-Corinth.

fortress of Acro-Corinth

The fortress had its own water supply – the spring of Pereine – and a commanding view from the mountain top over the Isthmus of Corinth.

view from the fortress over the Isthmus of Corinth

Asphodel grows here – the sacred plant which is connected to the Elysian Fields, where knights and warriors who lost their lives defending their kingdoms entered – the equivalent of Paradise. I first came upon asphodel growing on the ramparts of the castle by the harbour in Kyrenia in Cyprus. It struck a chord – it is wonderful to see it growing here.


Asphodel is the pinky white flower – the other is euphorbia, which grows everywhere we have visited.

Acro-Corinth – time to leave

Nafplion. I’m so looking forward to seeing this town again fifty years on. It’s a small port and again, like Nafpaktos, has an impressive Venetian fortress, Palamídi, towering over it. There is also another fortress – Bourtzi – located on an islet in the middle of the bay.

But our first point of contact is the Hotel Amalia, a few minutes drive outside the town. It’s huge, spacious, full of light and our room has French doors onto the gardens and a small nature reserve, full of bees, birds and croaking frogs. I’d like to explore it but it’s cordoned off and I think the ground must be quite marshy, given frogs are in abundance.

Hotel Amalia – entrance
Hotel Amalia – doors to gardens
Hotel Amalia – gardens
Hotel Amalia

The hotel is silent and almost empty – except for us. I’m enjoying the breakfasts with oranges off the trees and delicious, thick cut quince jam. Add it to Greek yoghourt – fabulous … it’s alright to have seconds on holiday …

Jeremy, George and Bianca have sorted out interesting things for us to see, despite the castle being off limits. We drive right up to the entrance with the view of Nafplion spread out before us.

Palamidi castle/fortress at Nafplion
what is it?

I’ve fallen in love with this tree. I keep seeing them and wish I could grow one at home.

outside the castle walls
well used/ill used public phone box

Graffiti persists the whole world over – I suppose it did in Greek and Roman times too …

more interesting graffiti …

On the opposite side of the road is the ‘Lion of Bavaria’, carved out of the living rock. It dates from 1840. The sculptor was Christian Siegel, the first professor of sculpture at Athens Polytechnic. It was commissioned by Ludwig of Bavaria – father of Otto – who was the first king of Greece – in memory of Bavarian soldiers who died during the typhoid epidemic in Nafplion (1833/34).

Lion of Bavaria

He looks pretty exhausted but he was commemorating a grim typhoid epidemic. It is quite an extraordinary achievement.

As Nafplion was once the capital of Greece, there are many commemorative statues, where Jeremy and George can expand on our knowledge of Greek history.

Theodorus Kolokotronis (1770-1843)

TK was a Greek general and leader of the War of Independence (1821-29) against the Ottoman Empire.

Ioannis Kapodistrias (1776-1831)

Kapodistrias came from Corfu and studied philosophy, medicine and languages in Padua before going into politics. He established the first agricultural school and the first printing shop, when becoming the first governor of Greece. Sadly, he was assassinated in 1831. He is deservedly honoured in the country today. Statue now under renovation …

My favourite statue is of King Otto, who came from Bavaria and ruled as king in Greece from 1836 to 1862. He married the rather beautiful Amalia of Oldenburg. In 1862 there was an uprising, forcing the royal couple into exile. They spent the rest of their lives in Bavaria, deciding to speak Greek every day between 6 and 8 o’clock to remember their time in Greece.

King Otto in Greek national dress
elegant Syndagma square

This square is the heart of Nafplion and must usually be buzzing with people but now it is eerily quiet. I’m a bit behind the rest of the group as I came upon a Gelateria that was open and bought a lemon ice cream cone – later on, I sloped back for another. Greek and Turkish ice creams are the best.

Gelateria – Nafplion
floral balcony
a place to stay in Nafplion

I looked this up when I got home and it appealed. It’s always good to have recommendations of places to stay. Often best to book direct with the hotel.

Nafplion alley way

We are left free to roam around this afternoon. Hardly any shops are open and I can’t even find postcards. I don’t expect many people bother with writing them nowadays, finding stamps etc. – I always used to send them because I liked receiving them from others in far flung places. And I was excited to be abroad and exploring. This is a postcard odyssey of sorts I suppose … without stamps …

We walked along the shoreline. I’m fascinated by the tiny fortress of Bourtzi which takes up the whole of an islet in the bay. There’s more about its history on It holds a music festival in the summer.

There’s a slightly sinister side. Until 1930 the fortress was the home of the local executioner. It defended the only navigable channel in the bay, which could be closed off by a chain reaching between the fortress and the town. (info gleaned from Eyewitness Travel book on Greece, published by DK).

Bourtzi fortress, Nafplion
Nafplion – down by the shore
seascape – Nafplion

The streets are silent. The tavernas are closed. But the air is fresh with a sea breeze and it’s lovely to be here …

tarte au citron – bittersweet
deserted garden
little owls …

In Greek mythology the little owl was the messenger of Athene, goddess of wisdom. Fifty years ago, we bought a print from a gallery in the Plaka in Athens and the owner gave us a tiny print of a ‘little owl’ as a gift. I hadn’t thought about this for a long time until I saw these owls in a shop, which was also, sadly, closed. I have to say I am missing ‘the shops’ !

film ‘noir’
old Nafplion

This is an old photo, showing the fortress and the harbour of Nafplion – the fish is still fresh today but there was probably more to catch then …

Nafplion 2020 – time to go

I hope I may come back one day.

Back at the hotel, I now know where its name, Amalia, comes from. The wife of King Otto. Jeremy said Otto really tried hard to be a good king in Greece. I’m lying on my bed having a rest before supper and idly looking at the picture of a mimosa tree on the wall. Mimosa is one of my favourite blossoms – a yellow, fluffy harbinger of Spring, coming out to give cheer in February, with the most delicate, seductive fragrance.

mimosa tree

There are two life size ‘fake’ statues which we pass on the way to the dining room A woman holding a lute and a man who seems to be holding a giant ice cream. That ice cream in Nafplion was especially addictive …

lady with a lute
ice cream man

This may sound flippant but as all the museums have been closed from day 1, I don’t have much in the way of Hellenic sculpture to show.

Next morning is cool and cloudy. George had a word with some nuns last night, who offered to show us round their nunnery, two at a time. On arrival all is silent and after many attempts with the bell pull and his phone, George decides that they must have changed their minds. The small shrine at the entrance will have to suffice.

shrine at entrance to nunnery

We pass by the site of Tiryns and drive on to a small church where the caretaker arrives on his bicycle to let us in.

cypress at Tyrins
illuminating on a cloudy day …
capturing colours

We’re going on to Mycenae but will only get a superficial look as the site is now shut and we’ll miss seeing the Lion Gate and the tombs. This complex of buildings was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1874. It spans the years 1700 – 1100 BC, when it was abandoned. John remarks on first view that it reminds him of a battleship. I expect it survived many battles before sinking into the earth. We’ll have to make a return visit.


The car park at the top is empty, except for our bus and a ‘pussy posse’ who explode out of the underbrush in the hopes of food. Bianca supplies this as they circle around her.

pussy posse
wild spring flowers of the Peloponnese

Petrol station alert – we stop for food and facilities and find there’s a shop attached. I did rather covet the head of Medusa and thought about buying an ‘icon’ of St. George and the Dragon’ and/or an octopus plate but ended up with six bars of orange blossom soap to give as gifts when we get home. I don’t yet realise how very welcome these gifts will be …

Medusa, the Gorgon killed by Hercules

Her hair was live snakes and if you looked at her you would be turned into stone. Hercules managed to kill her by looking at her reflection in his shield.

St George and the dragon
octopus plate

Outside there’s a reproduction of the ‘Jockey of Artemision’. This is a bronze statue of a young boy riding a horse, dated to around 150 – 140 BC. It was lost in an ancient shipwreck and found in the wreck in pieces only in 1926. Then it was reconstructed and can now be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

the Jockey of Artemision

Coronavirus is now snapping at our heels and any other tourists seem to have evaporated. We are alone but in good company with our three guides and Nikos at the wheel. Our destination today is Epídavros but we stop off on the road from Tyrins to look at a famous (Arkadito) Mycenaean bridge, which is, astonishingly, still here – dating back to the Greek Bronze Age.

Mycenaean bridge

We stop in a small town to look at an exquisite little church that I feel I could hold in the palm of my hand. There’s an orchard of almond blossom behind it, sunlit orange and lemon trees … we have now been told that ‘Travel Editions’ has got us onto an earlier plane, so home tomorrow. It’s probably for the best.

What I will miss most is going to Mystras and Sparta, which I remember very clearly from fifty years ago. We walked up steep hills, baking in the hot sun, fragrant with oregano, thyme and rosemary beneath our feet. When you want something and know you can’t have it, then you want it even more – we are so near and yet so far. Even more of an incentive to try again next year …

an exquisite gem
interior 1
interior 2

George tells us that there are lots of different kinds of oranges grown in Greece. I’m not sure from this picture whether I’m photographing oranges or lemons – the latter, I think. But they are super large. If you’re interested to know more about the history of citrus fruits, the book ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’ by Helena Attlee is a great read – but mainly based in Sicily. It also includes some recipes.


The skin is rough and knobbly but they look delicious. I desperately want to pick one and eat it – but they belong to someone else. I turn my attention to other things …

siesta with flowers

It’s so warm today – almost like summer now – Easter flowers – a perfect spot to enjoy sleeping in the sun.

I notice a tree that’s been cut down by the church, where a beetle has bored lots of holes through the stump.

Two years ago we stayed in a lovely hotel called ‘Es Moli’ in Deia, Mallorca. The gardens were beautiful but some of the pine trees had holes in the bark, just like this. It’s an attack by an evil looking beetle. One landed on my hat and I should have killed it at the time but then we didn’t know what it was. There are photos of it in my journal about our stay in Deia. Diseases of trees are very much on the increase, throughout the world.

massive attack by evil beetle …

George has devised a walk for us through olive and orange groves to the village which is near the site of Epídavros. It’s delightful to be by the sea again. And I love being off the beaten tourist track, despite missing some of the sites. I feel the pull of Greece and I want to come back.

a giant sized ‘Ali Baba’ pot amidst the orange groves
village view from orange groves
a man repairing his boat
I was enchanted by the fish … so much so that …
I had to take a close up …

Look how the patterns in the wood mimic patterns in water …

walking round to the village …
sitting on the sea wall with my sandwich
counting sea urchins

Greece has had such a battering over the past few years and now they are losing the tourist trade because of coronavirus. We’ve been welcomed and had a brilliant time here but I feel guilty leaving the Greeks to yet another uncertain future, just as they were getting back on their feet.

But they are a tough people and will keep going and we’ll be back. If Europe can’t get itself together a lot of us will be in the same boat. This is the first time I am querying whether we should stay in the U.K. I see myself as European and then British. But where are we now? We should be strengthening our bonds and making Europe a continent to be reckoned with. China and the U.S. are powerful but they also have huge problems – even more so in the present circumstances.

picture postcard
sun and shade
a suspicious look …
fishing nets

I’m aware that I’m teasing out this last day to make the most of it. We are now on our way to the site at Epídavros. It’s closed too but the location is magical.

graceful trees at Epídavros
pine tree cones
a sifting of daisies at Epídavros

Persephone is the goddess of Spring. Her Roman name is Proserpine. Khloris is the goddess of flowers. Her Roman name is Flora. I need to find a book which gives me all the Greek names of the gods and goddesses with the equivalent Roman ones. One book which sounds very good is ‘The Complete World of Greek Mythology’ by Richard Buxton.

Star of Bethlehem

This grows on many of the sites we have visited. It is part of the lily family and poisonous to eat. And beautiful …

at Epídavros – March 2020

Tomorrow we pack up and leave for the airport. The hotel waves us goodbye and closes down. Soon we will all be scattered to the four winds but there are still one or two treats to be had together.

I took a fast moving photo from the bus as we passed the ‘open’ prison on the other side of the road from the hotel. John and I realised that it was the same place where we had pulled off the road fifty years ago as it was getting dark and we had nowhere to stay the night. The others put up their tent in what we thought was a field, while John and I slept in the back of the Land Rover with the tailgate down. I was woken at dawn, having a dream that somebody had cut off my feet. When I lifted the canvas at the back of the Land Rover, a man with an axe was standing there.

Dreams like that don’t usually come true – and my feet were still attached. We worked out that the man had murdered his wife’s lover – and was here atoning for his sins by working at the prison in the olive groves. He seemed content and we enjoyed his company. I still wonder about it …

Nafplion – passing by the ‘open’ prison

We’re stopping to get a view of the Corinth canal. There’s an old photo of this in our album at home with a ship coming through.

Corinth canal – 18 March 2020
Corinth canal – summer 1970

John took this photo fifty years ago. Things don’t seem to have changed a lot – except there’s no poster today showing the ‘Regime of the Colonels’ – far right military juntas that ruled Greece from 1967 – 1974. But something isn’t quite right …

I took a photo of the bridge shown at the information kiosk. Having wondered how John managed to take his photo, I realise that the motorway, where we are standing today, wasn’t there. John’s photo was taken from the next bridge.

Planners of the Corinth Canal

Athens airport is fairly empty – all the staff and many people wearing masks. As John travels so much we are able to sit comfortably in the lounge and have some something to keep us going on the flight ahead. I’m really happy not to eat on planes at the best of times. This time coronavirus is stalking the aisles no doubt.

I can finish my book and look out of the window. I’d been watching Mark Kermode talking about films and he reminded me about how good ‘The Day of the Jackal’ (1973) was. Edward Fox played the jackal. I’d never read the book by Frederick Forsyth, so I bought a copy before we left. It’s a great thriller – you are on tenterhooks from the start and if you know Paris, that’s an extra bonus. It turns out to have been a perfect choice for this trip … and it is so filmic …

Rio-Antirio bridge from the air
flying home

I’m so glad we managed to get here despite having to come home early. Thank you to Jeremy, Bianca, George and Nikos for a wonderful Greek odyssey and for keeping us entertained and safe and to ‘Travel Editions’ for getting us home ‘in the time of coronavirus’.


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Favourite books of 2019

I don’t know if it’s a case of getting older but I do sometimes re-read books I have loved. These include ‘The Greengage Summer’ by Rumer Godden, ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White, ‘The Balkan Trilogy’ by Olivia Manning, ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner, ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ by Clive James (after his recent death), ‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd, ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ by George and Weedon Grossmith, ‘The Young Visiters (sic)’ by Daisy Ashford, ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig and ‘The Places Inbetween’ by Rory Stewart. I love Patrick Modiano’s books in french, often just re-reading a chapter because of the brooding atmosphere of impalpable menace he is so good at invoking. ‘Maigret’ by Simenon, in french, is also a great favourite This short list probably gives some inkling into my personality. A lot of these books have also been made into films.

The writer

I’m starting with Muriel Spark, who was brought up in Edinburgh and ended up in Italy. She was quite a tricky personality but Alan Taylor, who has written her biography after many meetings and interviews over some years, became a friend and there was obviously a ‘spark’ between them.The book’s title is ‘Appointment in Arezzo’, subtitled ‘A Friendship with Muriel Spark’. What a great name, even though it came from her husband, who was, apparently, not so great! William Boyd writes on the cover, ‘A beguiling, fascinating memoir’ and I couldn’t put it more succinctly myself. I felt I got to know her well and found the book enormously enjoyable.

I also read her book, ‘Territorial Rights’. Much of it is set in atmospheric Venice – with rocky romance, adulterous liaisons, a would-be art historian meddling with a capricious countess, blackmailers and spies against a backdrop of ‘respectable’ ladies who run the Pensione Sofia. An interesting footnote – when Robert and Anna are tracked down by a middle aged man in a business suit, purporting to be a ‘talent spotter’, he tells them they have ‘style’ and can ‘make the top’. As a result, they are sent to the Middle East to train in a terrorist camp! This book was written in 1979 …?

Two excellent reads

From there I came upon a great find in Waterstones. First published in the U.S. in 2017, ‘Sourdough’, by Robin Sloan, is set in San Francisco and features the Farmers’ Market on the sea front, where I remember sitting outside a great fish restaurant with a steam beer, feeling on top of the world. Sourdough bread is all the rage – now in the U.K. as well – and the author has soared on its wave of publicity. Lois Clary, a software engineer, is bequeathed a sourdough starter, which she, a novice in baking, must keep alive. Shades of ‘Burning Man’ eccentricity, a new life opens up for her in an unexpected way. The Financial Times calls it ‘An enjoyable slice of fiction, wonderfully written and absolutely brilliant’. It sparkles.

Always buy sourdough bread!

A non-fiction book from that part of the world – but based in Silicon Valley, is ‘Bad Blood’. John Carreyrou is an excellent investagative journalist who tracks down secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley start-up. A scientist becomes obsessed with a new idea and then hides the fact that the technology is flawed. Investors have put in millions of dollars. Carreyrou discovers a huge, corporate fraud. This is an example of the downside in taking risks with new technologies. It’s a fascinating read – quite shocking. It rather confirms my reluctant suspicions about certain people and projects in Silicon Valley. Hi-tech needs to be monitored and regulated. Difficult but necessary in a globalised world. No photo – the jacket is bright red but it’s disappeared … suspicious…

I’m interested in Japanese culture and found two books which really appealed to me. ‘Sweet Bean Paste’ by Durian Sukegawa and ‘Before the coffee gets cold’ by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Both of these books explore the meaning of individual lives (‘no existence is devoid of meaning’), of the power of friendship, the importance of memories and how the celebration of good food and drink interweaves into our spiritual existence.

‘Sweet Bean Paste’ is a charming, sweet and tender book, using the deliciousness of the sweet bean pancakes to illustrate how unexpected friendships bring happiness to each person and harmony to the world around them, enhanced by the beauty of pink cherry blossom. And yet there will always be dark clouds, bad memories, bad times, challenges to overcome. ‘Poignant, poetic, sensual’ (Lausanne Cités) – ‘This mix of grief and solace, cherry blossoms and red beans is a recipe for happiness’ (Radio SRF 2 Kultur Kompakt). A book to be read when feeling overwhelmed with the modern world. It will ease your worries for a while and give you new insights into what life might mean to you. Much recommended.

Two charming reads take time to sit down, clear your mind and read them slowly …

I picked up ‘Before the coffee gets cold’ partly because I liked the cover. It’s very offbeat, set in an old fashioned café and quite mysterious. There are three stories – three different people who wish to find out what the future holds, following things that have happened in the past, which cannot be changed. A chair in the café offers you the possibility to travel back in time but not without risk. And you must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. Mesmerising and extremely thoughtful. It starts slowly but stick with it and you will be rewarded.

Delving back into the past in a different way is a book by Lara Maitlem about the treasures to be found in the mud of the Thames in London. It’s called ‘Mudlarking’ and a mudlark is defined as ‘A person who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour’. I see many ‘mudlarks’ plying their trade along the banks of the Thames and have often thought I would like to join in. The author has spent fifteen years discovering objects from the past that the river throws up on its banks – buckles, pins, pipes, pottery, bottles, coins, sometimes engraved with initials and love knots, examples of which are illustrated on the endpapers of the book. Lara has many stories to tell – a fascinating read.

Treasures of the Thames

I don’t usually read the books which win the Booker Prize but ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner won it in 1984 and I have enjoyed many of her novels since – so much so that I read this one again recently. It was made into a film, starring Denholm Elliott and Anna Massey in 1986. The Times calls it ‘a smashing love story. It is very romantic. it is also humorous, witty, touching and formidably clever’. Hilary Mantel writes ‘Her technique as a novelist is so sure and so quietly commanding’.

Anita Brookner taught at The Courtauld Institute of Art and wrote twenty four novels. She died in 2016.

One of those books that merits a re-read

Talking of the merits of re-reading, ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Ethel Lina White (1876 – 1944) also qualifies but in this case I saw the film on television and then decided to read the reprinting of this book. It was first published in 1936 under the title ‘The Wheel Spins’ and made into a film, entitled ‘The Lady Vanishes’ by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938. It starred Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave and Dame May Whitty. Two further remakes were made.

Ethel Lina White wrote over fifteen mysteries and thrillers, several of which were made into films. She was enormously successful in her day and as well known as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers but she fell into obscurity following her sudden death in 1944. The story is about a woman who goes missing on a train travelling through Europe and the tension is kept up until the very last page. The characters are well drawn and I can see why Hitchcock decided to make a film of it – which, in itself, was a great success.

Two very enjoyable reads …

Surprisingly, here is the detective novelist, Agatha Christie writing a very personal diary of the trips with her husband, Max Mallowan, to archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and Mesopotamia. Fascinating photographs are interwoven throughout the text . I’m really impressed by how she copes with the primitive conditions in the desert. How would I compare if I was woken in the night by mice running over my face, only to struggle to light a lantern which then illuminates hundreds of cockroaches on the walls of what can hardly be called a bedroom. She describes everything with a wonderfully dry wit, and is very ‘beady’ about the local sheiks and their behaviour.

P.D. James writes ‘Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense, and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life both in peace and war for millions throughout the world’. She continues to do so today. Félicitations, Agatha. Very good to read something about your own life!

I’m now turning to contemporary writers. I have always loved Sebastian Faulks’ writing – ‘Birdsong’, ‘Green Dolphin Street’, ‘Charlotte Gray’ – and ‘Paris Echo’ (2018) doesn’t disappoint. If you love Paris, it’s an especially good read. I love the detailed descriptions, for example, of the markets in Paris and in Tangier. Sebastian Faulks is so thoughtful that I feel he must know some of these individuals personally … maybe not. But he pulls out all the stops to deliver a first rate story, balancing his characters between Paris and Morocco – delving both into the past, their daily life in the present and the hopes of Hannah and Tariq for their different futures. Again, a relationship which happens through a chance meeting which in the end fulfils both of them.

‘Trinity'(2018), by Louisa Hall, is extraordinary and mesmerising. It is based on the complex character of J. Robert Oppenheimer – the father of the atomic bomb. The title, ‘Trinity’, is used because ‘Trinity’ was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear device on 16 July, 1945. It was named by Oppenheimer, who said he was inspired by the poetry of John Donne, (1572 – 1631). Maybe ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ …

The author takes seven fictional, separate individuals who fall into Oppenheimer’s orbit at different times of his life in order to unfold the scientist’s very complicated personality. It’s an absolutely riveting read. The ‘New York Times’ pronounced it ‘brilliant’.

Two contemporary favourites …

Two other contemporary novels, which I didn’t get on with quite so well. However, it’s good to see what other people like. John suggested ‘Liberation Square’ by Gareth Rubin. John likes ‘what if ‘ books. The Germans have won the war and London is now like Berlin, with a wall down the middle. Everything operates in an atmosphere of fear. I found it a bit muddled but on the whole, a good thriller. It didn’t do much for me though. Just added to the gloom of the present uncertainty in our general lives …

Elizabeth Strout is an acclaimed writer, obviously beloved by many. So I bought ‘Olive Kitteridge’. Somehow, I was reluctant to get into it but then began to really enjoy it, so it clattered along. Over half way, I began to find it so parochial and suffocating, I started to wonder why these people managed to go on living such tedious lives. Poor Olive is tied to a life of negativity because of her personality. I do see myself in a very small part of her (which I must keep extinguishing) – really so glad I wasn’t born Olive. She’s bitter, she’s irritating, she’s tetchy, she’s funny, her character assassinations are brilliant, she relies too much on common sense and can’t help breaking out in kindness and self pity from time to time but she’s also lonely and sad and won’t admit to it. She’s not someone I would like to see often. Too wet blanket, too needy, just tiresome. But still, I sympathise with her lot in life. Will I buy the new book, ‘Olive Again’? I’m curious but life is short, so I’m not sure. Elizabeth Strout does hit the nail on the head though. Ouch!

Horses for courses …

What I needed now was some tales of derring-do. An old fashioned phrase, stirring up memories of Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean. Vintage have re-issued some of Hammond Innes’s thrillers – and I landed up with ‘The Lonely Skier'(1948). He dedicates the book to a friend, Peter Wilson, saying he hopes it will recall pleasant memories of places visited together. The setting is the Dolomites. This is a thriller at the top of its game – a great book to read either while travelling or tucked up in bed. Satisfaction guaranteed!

In 1975, Frederick Forsyth wrote a novella, Called ‘The Shepherd’. He’s not a writer I know well, although a film (1973) was made of his book, ‘The Day of the Jackal'(1971), starring Edward Fox, which was a massive success. The film was absolutely riveting but I don’t believe I ever read the book. I should. My father-in-law, who was in the RAF, died last year, aged 98. ‘The Shepherd’ has a picture of an RAF brooch on the front cover, which men gave to their sweethearts as they left for war. I had bought two of those for my daughters as mementoes of their grandfather. So I picked up ‘The Shepherd’ out of curiosity. It’s Christmas Eve 1957 and a pilot is flying home solo, on leave from Germany – a simple sixty six minutes of flying time. Things go wrong. It’s a miniature masterpiece. Tense, spooky, stirring and beautiful. I loved it.

High quality thrillers

I’ve just found a book which incorporates both travel and history in Europe. It’s called ‘Lotharingia’, by Simon Winder. Judith Flanders says ‘He has created a genre all of his own, the history-travelogue memoir’. It sounds just up my street!

A treat in store …

Art books by Taschen are fantastic and always a great gift to receive. I’ve been dipping into ‘What Great Paintings Say – 100 Masterpieces in Detail’. Alongside it, I’ve been reading ‘The Art of Rivalry’ by Sebastian Smee. He takes Manet vs Degas, Picasso vs Matisse and De Kooning vs. Pollock. This writer really knows his stuff and uncovers so much personal detail of each artist. This is rivalry that stems from admiration and friendship. It’s an illuminating and rewarding book.

‘The Secret Lives of Colour’ by Kassia St Clair is beautifully presented. It’s also packed full of information with fascinating stories about each colour. I’m besotted by colour and this is such a treasure trove. ‘A vivid, whirlwind tour through the rainbow’ says The Wall Street Journal. These are all books which reside by my bedside. Dippers!

Treasure troves – the buzz of learning more about what you love …

I love Alexander McCall Smith. I bought his new book of short stories, ‘Pianos and Flowers’, inspired by old photos which he has come upon randomly – he doesn’t know the people in them but has created stories around the images. There are fourteen stories from all over the world concerning love, friendship, happiness and how chance and serendipity play a part in changing lives. ‘McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers’ – (New York Times) . He’s a lovely man in real life too!

Brief Encounters

And now a cracker of a book, bought by John and definitely in my top three reads of the year. It is a non-fiction, historical account of The British Plot to Bring America into the Second World War and stars two unlikely heroes, Bill Stephenson and Bill Donovan. It really is a sensational piece of writing, entitled ‘Our Man in New York’ by Henry Hemming. There is praise from Ben MacIntyre, William Boyd, Max Hastings, ‘The Guardian’ and many other newspapers and journals. I couldn’t put it down. Those two men did so much for us all.

A revelatory and wholly fascinating work of history ‘ – William Boyd

I finished up with a book advertised enormously in advance and very well worth the wait for! This is one of my favourite writers. ‘The Body – A Guide for Occupants’, by the illimitable Bill Bryson. Besides his brilliantly entertaining travelogues, he is also a mine of information about life in general. If you enjoyed ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, you should read ‘The Body’ too. His erudition is lightly worn and he has the enviable gift for explaining the most difficult subjects in the clearest possible way, spicing his writing with a dry sense of humour, often against himself. This is a book to return to. Like a knowledgable and engaging friend, you will always find something new and inspiring to discuss. I am always curious to learn, so this book is perfect company.

A final flourish …

This has been a great year for books. I am happy, as I love reading, love bookshops and long may they continue to give us such pleasure. As you may have guessed, I am not an Amazon fan. Waterstones and Hatchards in Piccadilly are my stamping grounds – good cafés within at Waterstones, meaning I can always stay that little bit longer …

2020 awaits …
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