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.
BUG WOMAN – ADVENTURES IN LONDON
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.
THE PERILS OF A MIDWINTER
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 LONDON INHERITANCE
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.
THE CHAIR REPAIR
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.
HERNE HILL STREET PIANO
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.”
THIS IS FIFTY
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
WHAT DO HAIRDRESSERS DO ALL DAY?
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!
THE SUMMER HOUSE YEARS
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.
FIRST VALENTINE’S DAY AFTER RETIREMENT
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.