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Return To Long Forgotten London

April 16, 2014
by the gentle author

The seven volumes of Walter Thornbury’s London Old & New, filled with richly detailed engravings, prove irresistible to me for compelling visions of a city I barely recognise. Published in the eighteen-seventies, they evoke a London that had passed away at the beginning of the century and contrast this with the recent wonders of the Victorian age which prefigure the city we know today.

Entrance to the Clerkenwell tunnel

Hackney, looking towards the church in 1840

Columbia Market, Bethnal Green

Crown & Sceptre Inn, Greenwich

St Dunstan-in-the-East

Kensington High St in 1860

Primrose Hill in 1780

The Tower subway under the Thames

Bunhill Fields

Red Cow Inn, Hammersmith

Chelsea Bun House in 1810

River Fleet at St Pancras in 1825

Rotunda in Blackfriars Rd, 1820

Somers Town Dust Heaps in 1836

The Old Cock Tavern, Westminster

Seven Sisters in 1830

Highgate Cemetery

Magnetic Clock at Greenwich

Great Equatorial Telescope in the Dome at Greenwich

Searle’s Boatyard at Bankside, 1830

Bridgefoot, Southwark in 1810

Sights of old Hackney 1. Br0ok House 1765 2.  Barber’s Barn 1750 3. Shore Place 1736

Izaak Walton’s River Lea 1.  Ferry House 2. Tottenham Church from the Lea 3. Tumbling Weir 4. Fishing Cottage 5. Tottenham Lock

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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At St Botolph’s Church Hall

April 15, 2014
by the gentle author

If you want to know the story of the splendid pair of statues of schoolchildren upon the front of the former School House at St Botolph’s in Bishopsgate, Reg the Caretaker is your man. “When this was a school, these statues used to be coloured – the children repainted them each year – and, recently, we sent them away for a whole year to get all the layers removed,” he explained to me with a sigh. “When they came back, people tried twice to nick them, so then we put them inside but the Council said, ‘They’re listed,’ and we had to send them away again for another year to get replicas cast.”

Old photographs show these figures covered in gloss paint and reduced to lifeless mannequins, yet these new casts from the originals – now that the paint has been removed – are startlingly lifelike, full of expression and displaying fine details of demeanour and costume. The presence of the pair in their symmetrical niches dramatically enlivens the formality of the architecture of 1820 and, close up, they confront you with their implacable expressions of modest reserve. Quite literally, these were the model schoolchildren for the generations who passed through these doors, demure in tidy uniforms and eagerly clutching their textbooks. Their badges would once have had the image of a boy and a sheep with the text, “God’s providence is our inheritance.”

“It’s Coade stone – the woman died with the recipe, but now they’ve rediscovered it again,” added Reg helpfully and – sure enough – upon the base of the schoolboy are impressed the words “COADE LAMBETH 1821.” Born in Exeter in 1733, Eleanor Coade perfected the casting process and ran Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory from 1769 at a site on the South Bank, until she died in 1821 aged eighty-eight – which makes these figures among the last produced under her supervision. Mrs Coade was the first to exploit the manufacture of artificial stone successfully and her works may still be seen all over London, including the figures upon Twinings in the Strand, the lion upon Westminster Bridge and the Nelson pediment at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Reg took me inside to show me St Botolph’s Hall, lined two years ago with oak panelling of 1725 from a demolished stately home in Northamptonshire, where the two original statues peer out from behind glass seemingly bemused at the corporate City functions which commonly occupy their school room now. The Bishopsgate Ward School was begun in 1820 by Sir William Rawlins, a Furniture Maker who became Master of the Worshipful Company of Upholders and Sheriff of the City of London. In twenty years as Treasurer, he  had lifted the institution up from poverty and it opened on 1st August 1821 with three hundred and forty pupils, of whom eighty needy boys and girls were provided with their uniforms.

“They used to be the other way round,” admitted Reg mischievously, indicating the pair of figures on the exterior, “their eyes used to meet but now they are looking in opposite directions.” Yet, given all the changes in the City in the last two centuries - “Who can blame the kids if their eyes are wandering now?” I thought. It was a sentiment with which Reg seemed in accord and which the enterprising Mrs Coade exemplified in the longevity of her endeavours too. “I should have retired fourteen years ago but I don’t like sitting indoors and couldn’t stand all that earlobe bashing,” he confessed to me, “I like to be outside doing something.”

In St Botolph’s Churchyard, Bishopsgate – Schoolroom and Sir William Rawlins’ tomb

Original figure coated in layers of paint

Modern replica now in place upon St Botolph’s Hall

Original figure coated in layers of paint

Modern replica now in place upon exterior of St Botoolph’s Hall

With layers of paint removed, the original figures now stand inside the hall

Reg the Caretaker at St Botolph’s

Coade stone Nelson pediment at Greenwich

Archive photographs courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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At The Velho & Alderney Rd Cemeteries

April 14, 2014
by the gentle author

Lilacs at Alderney Rd Cemetery

A warm afternoon in April is a poignant time to visit cemeteries and remember the long dead, when the new grass is flourishing, fresh and green, and the scent of spring flowers hangs in the air. Yesterday, I spent a contemplative few hours exploring the Velho Sephardic Cemetery in Mile End, which is Britain’s oldest Jewish cemetery, opened in 1657, one year after the readmission of the Jews to this country in 1656, and the nearby Alderney Rd Ashkenazi Cemetery which has inscriptions dating from 1697.

A gothic door in an old wall opens to reveal the Velho Cemetery, sequestered from the public gaze just yards from the Mile End Rd. In 1657, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, a Portuguese merchant, and Simon de Cacares, an Amsterdam-born merchant, leased an orchard plot on this site next to an inn called The Soldier’s Tenement for fourteen years at an annual rent of ten pounds, which was about ten times its market value. Yet, in spite of the financial opportunism of landowner Henry Clowes, the Jewish community was treated with respect by many others – as reflected in the tolling of church bells from Aldgate and along the Whitechapel Rd when bodies were carried out here from the City of London.

Today, you step into a large walled space approaching the size a of football pitch, with slabs placed in neat lines, yet overturned in places by trees sprouting and overgrown with thick grass and bluebells. Almost all the stones have lost their inscriptions, worn away over time, with just a few images discernible and enough lettering to distinguish Hebrew and Portuguese, reflecting the continental origins of many of those buried here.

An unmarked area contains the remains of plague victims from 1665 and 66, while the high levels of child mortality demanded that infants were buried in closely-packed rows of three foot graves. Between 1708 and 34, six hundred and thirty children were buried here, almost half of all those interred in that period. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Jewish population in London had grown to between six and seven hundred, with around five hundred Sephardim but, testifying to significant numbers of Ashkenazim, Benjamin Levy purchased adjoining land in Alderney Rd in 1696 for an Ashkenazi Cemetery. And the Velho itself was superseded in the eighteenth century by the Nuevo Cemetery, occupying land to the east purchased in 1724.

Entering the gate in the wall in Alderney Rd, you enter another of the East End’s secret sacred places and the atmosphere is quite different from the Velho. In this smaller, more domestic enclave sheltered by tall trees, you discover elaborate table tombs surrounded by vertical stones, like lines of broken teeth, erupting from the recently cut grass where lilac and fruit trees bloom. A twentieth century monolith lists those famous in death and a handsome warden’s cottage both reflect the recent care expended upon this site, which received burials until 1852 and where the devout still attend regularly to light candles for the most worthy of the departed.

Yesterday, the warmth of the sun and the depth of the shade rendered both cemeteries as welcoming tranquil places – where grief and sadness and loss have ebbed away, and the peace that is unique to the grave prevails.

The door to the Velho Cemetery

Tomb of David Nieto – born in Venice, he came to London be Rabbi at Bevis Marks Synagogue and established the first Jewish orphanage in 1713

Plaque of 1684 commemorates the laying of the foundation stone of the boundary wall

Entrance to Alderney Rd Cemetery

Tomb of Samuel Falk, the Cabbalist who died in 1782 and was known as the “Baal Shem of London”

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On The Buses With Colin O’Brien

April 13, 2014
by the gentle author

The restored prototype RT1 of 1939 in Piccadilly Circus

A magical time warp appeared to manifest itself in London yesterday, when Saturday shoppers were surprised by buses of past eras – many more than sixty years old – arriving unexpectedly, as if conjured from the ether, to whisk them away to the West End. In fact, it was a celebration of seventy-five years of the classic RT London bus organised by the London Bus Museum, in which fifty vintage vehicles returned to service for one day, offering free rides to all.

The buses gathered at the Ash Grove Depot next to London Fields before departure, so Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I put on our anoraks and joined the happy throng of enthusiasts, mesmerised by the return of these beautiful historic buses, polished to perfection for this special day.

Unquestionably, the star attraction was the original prototype of the RT1 which first entered service on route 22 between Putney Common and Homerton on 9th August 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of World War II. The RT1 marked the culmination of a programme to design the ultimate London bus, featuring the latest in construction and engineering for passenger and crew comfort. Now fully restored to its former magnificence, it led the fleet from the depot out into the London streets yesterday.

Colin & I hopped aboard and made our way upstairs, and we discovered that we were upon a trip into memory. The checkerboard velvet upholstery, the wind-down windows, wooden floors, the cream paintwork, the “Push Once” bell and the “Do Not Spit” sign were all powerfully evocative of another time. But before we could contemplate further, the bus departed with that once-familar ding-ding of the bell and we enjoyed a smooth ride with just the occasionally rocky patch, whenever the bus lurched round corners, swinging around like one of those stage coaches of old.

Our great delight from the top deck was to observe the expressions of wonder and joy appear upon the faces of vaguely-bored Londoners at bus stops, astonished at the unexpected arrival of these glossy chariots from another age, skinnier and with rounder corners that our contemporary buses, and embellished with colourful advertisements from the past.

At Piccadilly Circus, we hopped off again and positioned ourselves strategically upon a traffic island so that Colin might photograph the old buses as they came through, standing out with decorative flourish like swans upon the river. We waited for hours, searching the distant traffic expectantly to capture the trophy shots you see below.

In spite of all the changes, these charismatic buses still looked entirely at home upon the streets. Held in great affection by Londoners, they are interwoven with the identity of the city itself and their descendants still ply the same routes every hour of the day and night – but we were overjoyed to see the return of the much-loved ancestors, reminding us of our collective past and reclaiming their old routes for a day.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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Blogs Spawned

April 12, 2014
by the gentle author

One of the great joys of recent years has been teaching courses encouraging others to write blogs. Without exception, the participants always come up with wonderful ideas and here are just a handful of favourites that have been spawned as a result. The next course HOW TO WRITE A BLOG THAT PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ will be held in Spitalfields on 10th & 11th May.


Because a community is more than just people

Bug Woman is a slightly scruffy middle-aged woman who enjoys nothing more than finding a large spider in the bathroom. She plans to spend the next five years exploring the parks, woods and pavements within a half-mile radius of her North London home and reporting on the animals, plants and people that she finds there. She will also be paying close attention to the creatures that turn up in the garden and the house. She promises to post every week on a Saturday and more often if she can tear herself away from the marmalade making.


When I got off the tube train at East Finchley Station this afternoon, I noticed a small, hunched shape on the platform. As I bent over for a closer look, I realised that it was a bumblebee, lying motionless on her back. As everybody else piled past on their way home, I wondered what to do. I couldn’t bear to think of people treading on her. What if she was still alive? So I picked her up and rested her in the palm of my hand. She looked substantial, but her weight barely registered. And then she moved, one of her legs groping into the air as if looking for something, anything to cling on to.

My bumblebee is a Queen, who has come out of hibernation too early because the weather has been so unseasonably mild. She has been unable to find any flowers to feed from, and has used up her last energy searching the desert of the station platforms for something to eat.

I cradle her in my hand all the way home. Once there, I put her onto a plate, and position her so that she can drink from a spoon filled with sugar-water, the closest substitute for nectar that I can make. I watch as her leg twitches, but gradually the movement becomes weaker. I fear that there is no hope for her.

The bee will not be the only creature to die – she has some ‘hangers-on’. I count four mites crawling through her fur, each the size and shape of a flaxseed. That’s a heavy burden for an insect to be flying around with. The mites live in bumblebee nests, and will attach themselves to the young queens, like this one. When an infested bumblebee lands on a flower, some of the mites will get off and wait for another bee to latch onto, as if changing buses. However, without the bee the mites won’t survive either.

Looking at the bumblebee closely, in a way that she would never allow if she was healthy, is both a privilege and a kind of impertinence. I notice, as I never did before, that her wings are like smoked glass, the ridged veins standing out and catching the light from my Anglepoise lamp.  Her eyes are black, like twin coals in her alien face. She has little hooks on the end of each leg, rather than feet. There are bands of dirty yellow fur behind her wings but just behind her head there is the faintest shadow of gold, only discernible from a very particular angle.

As I watch, she is curling up, her antennae covering her face, her legs crumpled under her. I will leave her for a while, but I am sure that she is dead.

The other casualties, apart from the bee herself and her little team of parasites, are the eggs that she carries. She will have mated once last summer, when she first emerged from the nest as a fresh young queen. I imagine her flying to meet the male bees at the top of the lime trees where they leave their pheromones, a kind of sexual perfume, so that she can find them. Inside her will be the first of her fertilised eggs that, if things had been different, would have hatched into the first workers to support her nest. From this one female up to four hundred and fifty bumblebees would have been born, going on to pollinate countless thousands of plants. When any creature dies, however humble, however common, there is a ripple effect that spreads much wider than that little death.


A Private History of a Public City

My father was born in London in 1928, lived in London throughout the Second World War and started taking photographs of the city from 1946 through to 1954. These show a city which had changed dramatically since the pre-war period and has changed, in many places beyond recognition, in the intervening years.

Through “A London Inheritance” I document my exploration of London using these photographs as a starting point. To try and identify the original locations, show how and why these have changed and how the buildings, streets and underlying topography of the city have developed. To guide me on this journey, I use my father’s original 1940 London Street Atlas, along with books, documents and notes collected over many years.


Within my father’s photo collection, there are many photos of people across London. Whether as part of an overall location, or frequently the focal point of the photo.

This week’s post is from the later category. I have no idea where this was taken or who he is. Checking the photos on the negative strip either side of these photos, it is safe to assume they were taken in Central London – however I can find no clues within the photos as to a possible location. I am impressed by the good condition of his well polished shoes.

The close-up nature of the photo shows that he did not have a problem with my father taking his photograph. He carries on with his work with an obvious high degree of concentration and, I am sure, pride in his work. This type of scene would once have been very common on the streets of London, but was soon to be replaced by a throwaway consumer culture where everyday objects are cheaper to replace than to repair.

It would be good to know if that chair is still in use, somewhere in London.


Random Encounters in a Railway Walkway

The Herne Hill Piano sits in the entrance tunnel to our local station. I saw it one day plonked there with its lid open confidently displaying its stream of black and white keys – an invitation for contact like no other. And that is what this blog is about – the contact that this piano generates.

I began to notice how a piano in a public place changes the way people behave. It seemed to naturally encourage interaction and to see that happening in a screen orientated urban environment was fascinating. In a city like London people enjoy living here because it is exciting and diverse but the the city can also be isolating.

What I found exciting about the piano was that it gave permission for face to face personal interaction and permission to experience this diversity. By the piano, people talk to ‘strangers.’

The area around it becomes like a front room without walls. It is a natural community maker in the gentlest, most-unassuming way. And I wanted to tell people about that and decided to make a film about it – so this blog is a companion to the film.

I promise to post a piano story every week and look forward to hearing yours.


Anthony was the first person that got asked these two questions – How did you get into playing the piano ? and Why do you  like playing the Herne Hill piano?

Anthony said, “I got into music when I heard it on video games – the backing tracks, I wasn’t financially stable, so I got myself a cheap keyboard and some books and learned to read sheet music and compose.”

He taught himself initially by ear to play the music he heard on video games – classical, soul, jazz. Then he taught himself to read music and is now at college learning to compose music for video games. He plays beautifully.

“That what I just played was one of my compositions. That’s what I do now, I decided to make a career out of i , I compose music for games. I’m studying it now,  i’ts a passion.”


Turning fifty and looking for role models who can show me how to do it with style and grace

Over the last eighteen months, I have been on the move. My elder son has started at university in Scotland and my younger son is busy planning his gap year in the States. Having spent the last ten years on my own ‘gap year,’ I have recently remarried and moved into a working vicarage. In the process, I have acquired a whole new set of roles as well as a beautiful step-daughter whose love trials have taken me back to my own eighteen-year-old self.

In the midst of these shifting life plates, I have experienced my own deep murmurings. I have turned fifty.

In the move, I came across a photograph of my teenage self in one of those boxes that I hadn’t opened in years. It was taken at my debutante party – my ‘coming out’ party – at the yacht club in Vero Beach on the east coast of Florida in the nineteen seventies. I am sitting beside my grandfather. While I glance self-consciously to my right, maybe a little anxiously, my grandfather stares straight ahead, on top of his game, like a mafia boss contemplating a hit. It touches me.

When I was turning from a girl into a young woman there were social conventions and peer group expectations. There were grown-ups to dodge my way around and also to help me negotiate my way through. There was the  promise of adventure and there was lovely day-dreaming. There were parties.

But now, standing on another threshold, I face an unknown future with few signposts. And the places to which I have always gone for inspiration – the films and magazines and fantasy characters that played such a key role in the creation of my younger self – have simply disappeared. They have dried up. I feel bereft.

What does it mean to be newly married again at this age? What do I take with me and what do I need to let go? Who now are my role models and my muses?

I am still a little anxious, looking over my shoulder for clues. Only now the girl in front of the mirror at eighteen stands there at fifty. Maybe less wilful, she is still wondering what lies ahead.

I want to open up a new conversation with my younger self in order to reconnect with how I got to where I am today. To make sure that she comes along with me. I don’t want to loose the spirit of the girl inspired by adventures of Huckelyberry Finn, or the teenager with her Singer sewing machine who spent hours making creations more inspired by Cosmo Cover girls than Simplicity patterns – much to my parents’ horror.

In these get-ups I created at fifteen for my lanky hollyhocks body, just coming into flower, certainly nobody ever thought I would end up a vicar’s wife. Least of all me.

I’ve been playing all my life. But do I have to stop? Can I still play the romantic lead in my own life? Where do I look for inspiration and guidance?


Interesting things we’ve stumbled on and want to share


On being asked why he became a hairdresser, Mervyn Parnell is liable to give one of two answers. Either: “I was good at art, I could draw and I knew I was creative. I could have gone to art college but it was full of ‘hippies’ not people like me, so I thought that hairdressing would allow me to be creative and earn a living.” The other answer is “I was a 5’2” lad with buck teeth, so I figured that going into an industry which had loads of girls and not too many heterosexual men working in it, that I would be bound to pull.”

I’m not sure which answer is true. In any case, Mervyn started as a Saturday boy in a salon near his family home in Gloucester in his early teens, he was cutting hair at fifteen and had is own client list at sixteen. “No one ever taught me, there was one chap John Phelps who ran another salon and had been a world champion, we just used to talk about cutting hair – which sounds a bit sad – but he’s the only person that I learned anything from.”

A girlfriend and job brought Mervyn to Ledbury at the beginning of the eighties. “I remember getting off the bus with a Mohawk haircut wearing bondage trousers and I thought ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ Mervyn has continued to be one of Ledbury’s more stylish residents with a collection of more than sixty vintage Levi jeans, twenty-five Levi jackets from the forties & fifties, Pendleton shirts and 1948 -1956 suits it can be said that Mervyn is more into clothes than most “It just smacks of laziness, dressing badly.”

In 1986, Mervyn opened the Cutting Club, with a distinctly mid-century feel and an educational selection from Mervyn’s extensive collection of northern soul, fifties and sixties R&B and roots, and rockabilly music playing. The salon has been busy since the day it opened.

“My working day starts at 7.30 in the morning and ends at 7.30 in the evening, I have more than twenty clients a day and I can’t wait to get a pair of scissors in my hands.”

“So you like what you do?” “Absolutely – I like to create and change, I like cutting hair and I really like the people that I work with, in twenty-eight years I’ve never had a cross word with any of my stylists.”

There is no computer in the salon or in Mervyn’s life and no mobile phone either, this seems to be an aesthetic choice as much as anything. “I struggle with technology, I’m just not interested, I prefer things which are crafted with a hand and heart.” And fashion as a concept is difficult for him too. “I like style not fashion, I like a good hair cut where you can see it’s a whole exercise in shape, not to be dressed.”

Mervyn and I go back a long time. He first cut my hair when I was fourteen, it is a haircut which is etched in my memory because until that day my hair had been long, straggly – and mainly scratched back into a ponytail and found under a riding hat – but the sleek sharp bob that Mervyn gave me made me aware of a whole new world of possibilities!


Once a week on a Tuesday, I’m going to tell you about my retirement experiences. Don’t be fooled by the somewhat bucolic title, there’s a lot of stuff going off even if most of it is in my head.

The bald facts of the matter are that I’m going to retire in just over a month. I have been thinking about what I want my world to be like – we control freaks think in those terms – what I want it to be. Problem is, I have not much in the way of an idea what I want ‘it’ to be. When you tell people you’re going to retire their immediate and, I suppose, predictable response is – what are you going to do?

I need to be creative, think laterally, work out what works. Important when, like me, you have no passion, no firm hobby to fall back on or extend. So this is my challenge and the challenge of this blog, to report my progress from said Summer House.


Call me a romantic old fool – You’re a romantic old fool! – but I can’t let Valentine’s Day go by without some recognition and I wouldn’t have let it go by this far, had it not been for the fact that it was a day of mixed fortunes. Let’s start with the downside. It was the day, some time ago, not realising the significance of the date, we had chosen to have the pups ‘done’. On the most love-oriented day of the year our puppies love life was to be brought to an abrupt and permanent end. This was how the day began, dropping them off at the vets in full knowledge of the pain they were about to suffer through castration. Archie, mild-mannered Archie went straight for the vet, he knew you see. We were upset when we got outside. In fact some tears were shed – mine.

Then – pulling ourselves together – we thought, well we’ve got a day to ourselves. A very rare event. So we had better make the most of it and it is Valentine’s Day. So, being the romantic old fool that I am, I decided to take Mrs Summerhouse for a little luxury shopping and a celebratory meal. No expense spared, yes, of course, my love, you may have the bacon sandwich and a large mug of tea of your choice. Go ahead, spoil yourself, live a little. We were sitting in a cafe in Leeds Market, a place overflowing with romantic ambiance. I, myself, chose the bacon and egg sandwich, no point skimping on such a day as this. The puppies would have wanted us to have a good time, we reasoned.

For dessert, I walked to the next stall and bought three Twix bars for a pound. Yes, I know I spoil her and do you know she refused half a bar – a whole finger – said it was too soon after the bacon sandwich? But, “My love,” I reasoned, “That’s what happens with dessert. It comes more or less straight after the excellent first course and while you have some of your liquid refreshment – in this case a mug of tea – left.”

I love Leeds Market. We took full advantage – two sirloins and two fillet steaks for ten pounds – beat that. A new watchstrap for three pounds. Then outside where my lucky Valentine bought two pairs of gloves – one for each evening dress, although I’m not sure woolly mitts are de rigeur these days. Then there were the light bulbs, four of them. No matter the expense, this was life in the fast lane. I bought a Freddy King CD for a fiver. My romanticism knew no bounds, I even allowed a man to give Mrs Summerhouse a single red rose on my behalf of course.

Of course, there was a price to be paid for all this fun. Isn’t there always? After a romantic day out, we went back to pick up the pups. And a sorry sight they were, very subdued, although Archie managed to attack the vet before he left. Smart boy, that Archie!

He, the vet, had put those ridiculous lampshades on them – to stop them licking their wounds, he explained (and biting his hand off). We took them off as soon as we got home. The pups were delighted but it meant we had to watch them carefully to ensure that, now they could, they didn’t lick themselves and hence open up their wounds.

They did manage to share a little of our meal – the prawn vol-au-vent and the duck l’orange went down well. So well that it took their little minds off licking themselves for a while. But, after the meal, the practicality of our choice to remove the lampshades became  clear. It meant we stayed up all night. We slept on the sofas and, as we tossed and turned, our minds ran fondly over the day. Who would have thought that, at our age, Valentine’s Day could be so full of romance.

HOW TO WRITE A BLOG THAT PEOPLE WILL WANT TO READ, 5 Fournier St, Spitalfields, 10th & 11th May