Friday, January 30, 2009

Gin and Vice in Georgian London

Who'd a thunk it? Benjamin Franklin lived within spitting distance of Charing Cross Station back in Georgian times. Not that there was a station there when Benjamin Franklin inhabited 36 Craven Street, in 1757-1775.

Not that I'm that well up on American Presidents, either. For me, they generally come heavily mediated by Hollywood films, and if Frank Langella's current portrayal of Richard Nixon is anything to go by there's probably little connection with reality.

'Benjamin Franklin' was the answer to one of the 'Slumdog Millionaire' quiz questions, so I was better prepared, I thought, for a visit to his house in Craven Street.

It was a U3A notice of a talk on 'Vice and Debauchery in Georgian England' that drew me in, interest provoked by the Hogarth exhibition at the Tate Britain last year . It wasn't a surprise to find a scene from his cartoon series called 'The Harlot's Progress' attached to the door, and I passed some time talking to two 'interns' (ie unpaid employees) in the entrance hall before being joined by another U3A member to whom I chatted before the lecture.

The room was full by the time we sat down. It was strange being addressed by a young fresh-face American about such a sleazyy topic, especially as his research was so thorough. One cringed to think of the sordid details he'd have had to wade through. He knew all the gradations of prostitutes from Duke's mistress down to streetwalker as well as the ins and outs of gin production and drinking customs as well. His talk was well-laced with anecdotes.

The talk was an excellent £3.50's worth. Incredibly as it seemed, by the time we'd heard that one in four houses in Westminster was a gin shop, some residents stayed clear of vice. It was also known as 'The Age of Englightenment'. On my next visit maybe I'll find out how Benjamin Franklin kept to the straight and narrow whilst living in the midst of temptation. I suspect that he didn't.

More information about the house, talk and events:

About Frost/Nixon :

About Slumdog Milllionaire:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Predatory Squirrels

It's good to have this glass door beside my bed. Most mornings I wake to the sound of the birdfeeder banging against the balcony bars. I let the blind up slowly so as not to frighten off the pair of blue tits who build their nest underneath, or the fat robin that's been hopping around lately, hoping to catch the bits of peanuts that fall down.

Most of the time, though, it's these squirrels, one gnawing at the plastic base of the feeder until there's a hole big enough for a nut to be extracted, one waiting his turn in the branches. They're only stopped from getting the whole cache at one go by the metal mesh I've had to put inside. They take very little notice of me, even when I rap on the door.

My dilemma is how to feed the small and needy while deterring the big, fat and more agile greedy. I wouldn't begrudge them, but I suspect they've got a heap of nuts hidden away somewhere.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chinese Paper Cut

Whoa! At the mere hint of a tax rebate I've become an art collector. Normally, I walk round London with eyes down (metaphorically speaking) and desires reined in when it comes to buying.

It's the Age of Restraint since R and I sat down and made a budget last September. It took several days of sitting down and a lot of shouting, as I recall.

Apparently (well, it's a fact) when you get to 65 your tax code goes up. If I'd sent back the form asking 'Have your circumstances changed?' and tracked down my NI number before Christmas I'd have found out earlier. I wouldn't have accumulated enough to make me throw caution to the winds, though. Well, I wouldn't have bought this picture.

I'd had to miss the January 17th launch of this very small exhibition of Chinese Paper-cuts, at Charing Cross Road Library, which was annoying because I'd met the artist at the Probsthain's woodcut exhibition and said I'd write about it for the Dimsum website. I was reminded it was there when I called in at the library last week, looking for a copy of 'Revolutionary Road''.

I was amazed by this transformation of paper-cut art, which I'd previously seen only as one-dimensional representations of symbolic animals and plants. These were abstract, and made from layered papers in different colours to resemble paintings . The one I chose was a 'Double Happiness ' symbol, harbinger of married bliss. You never know.

Later in the day I met up with the artist, who'd been summoned by the libararian, and had a mini guided tour with explanations. 'Double Happiness', for instance, can symbolise other unions, such as a priest and religion, or an artist and his muse. He was as entertaining as I remembered and told me he'd reduced the prices considerably for Chinese New Year. I felt a bit guilty, but after all, if the piece hadn't cost only £45, I couldn't have afforded it.

Anyway, my picture is on display until February 2nd, when the artist says he'll have it all packed and ready for collection. I expect he'll put another in its place, because the exhibition lasts until February 7th.

No 'Revolutionary Road' to be had, but a minor revolution for me, debut art collector.

Here's more about it:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Beside the Seaside

My friend, who teaches in Bahrain, arrived looking shattered after a seven hour flight and three hours in the rush hour. She was fit for only local sight-seeing.

The National Maritime Museum promotes our 'Glorious Naval Heritage' and 'Britannia Rules the Waves' , etc, but for me and my companion 'sea' means 'seaside'. The 'Beside the Sea' exhibition of photos, posters and a video of film clips was a trip down memory lane, although we remembered different towns. As my friend's a native of Hull, in her case it was Scarborough, home of Alan Aykbourn plays in the Keith Joseph Theatre

Preston is only fourteen miles cycling miles from the doyenne of resorts: Blackpool. Luckily, the Fylde is flat there, particularly if you take the coast road, instead of the shorter route via Kirkham and the High Gate Hotel. I did this sometimes, glad to see the pub sign at the top of the long haul with its message:

'The gate hangs high,
And hinders none.
Refresh yourself,
Then travel on.'

It's an Italian Restaurant now.

Sometimes, in the two-week factory break called 'Preston Holidays', my mother bought a 'Family Runabout' a green card with a map of Fylde rail routes printed on the back. Rail stations from Southport to Windermere were marked with dots. For a whole week we travelled every day , with Blackpool the favourite. For a change we'd go to Lytham and St Annes for sand-dunes, or Fleetwood to pluck winkles from the rocks. Southport we shunned because the sea never came in.

I think 'Golden Mile' is excellent to describe the flat, biscuit-textured sand that was perfect for sand-castles, the sea close by for carrying water to moats; no shelves, or shingles; no breakwaters. For a child Blackpool on a sunny day was perfect. There were places along the 'prom' where my mother paid for tea and we sat on benches at board tables to eat 'butties' from home.

I like other seaside places - I lived in Southsea for three happy years when I was first married. Now Whitstable's a favourite, and I go back to Southport a lot, where the sea still stays out but Lord Street was Napolean's model for the Parisian Boulevards.

The museum display isn't all about sandy beaches; there are photos of old-fashioned bathing machines and piers, even fishermen posed self-consciously holding nets by boats in Cornwall.

It was a good to be reminded of happy holidays on a wet afternoon in Greenwich. My friend said she felt quite revived; ready to travel on and spend the weekend with another friend, who lives in Eastbourne.

Here's a site that lets you click and revive your own particular memories:

Rainy Thursday
I felt sorry for the hot chestnut man opposite Charing Cross Station when I saw the his umbrella lifting in the wind. As for poor Oscar's coffin, where I usually rest my bag to replace my freedom pass - no chance, because it had a large puddle on it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Spanish Interlude

On a murky London evening, I was happy to recall the unusual week I spent last September in Spain. I went with Vaughan Town, a company which introduces Spanish business people to mother-tongue English speakers on an ‘immersion’ week. Regular 'Sangria evenings' take place in Dirty Dick's, opposite Liverpool station. Vaughan Town veterans renew friendships and answer 'newbies' questions.

I’d been studying Spanish for a while, as a kind of antidote to Chinese. Spain's a lot more accessible than China, too. We’d had a few home-swaps and a few cheap package holidays. It’s not easy, though, to plumb the Spanish psyche, when all the people you meet are waiters, couriers or shop assistants. I craved more in-depth conversation, even in English.

Last year, a classmate told me about Vaughan Town. A week of speaking English to Spanish business people, on a one-to-one basis, sounded like hard work. Still, all I had to pay was the air-fare to Madrid and two over-night stays there at either end of the week. Easyjet and a hostel made it affordable.

In fact, I loved it. We were driven to a 4-star hotel at Monfrague in the Extramadura region, all stone walls, rows of dusty olive trees, and distant mountains, about three hours from Madrid. The hotel had the biggest bedroom I’ve ever stayed in, plus excellent meals with wine.

For five days, the rule of speaking only English was observed even at meal-times. Almost all the Spaniards worked for international companies in Madrid, but one ran hot-air balloon flights near Valencia. We talked as we strolled down to the village or near the pool or on the hotel terraces.

I learned a lot, and enjoyed working with the 14 or so friendly ‘Anglos’. Activities and entertainments in the programme were all designed to help the Spaniards achieve fluency. Many of the Anglos, including Americans, Australians and even an English couple living in Spain, had done the programme before, some several times. It seems to be addictive.

Venues are now Gredos, for those who like a rural locations, and the medieval city of Salamanca.

I’d never been to Madrid before, except to change planes. I loved the Tapas events at either end of my stay. On the way back, I had time to wander around before my flight back to London. Madrid reminded me of London, with its tree-shaded squares and back-streets. My companion was a Texan lady I’d bonded with over Spanish-size gins and tonics in the hotel bar every night. So I learned nice things about Texans, too.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Virtue Windows at the Maritime Museum

When friends arrived from the coast they’d heard about these stained glass windows on display at the local Maritime Museum. Apparently made for the Baltic Exchange building that was destroyed by a bomb in 1992, they're designed to impress the public with the fiancial house's lofty 'mission statement', in five panels with allegorical figures and a curved ‘half dome’.

The 'virtues' represented: Truth, Faith, Hope, Fortitude and Justice, had me thinking about the how they'd be represented in today's financial institutions : Spin, No Accountability, Government Bail Outs, Directors Bonuses and Pension Cuts - not virtues at all, really.

The museum staff practise their own virtues, though. My friend was in a wheelchair and as soon as we arrived one of the ‘Meeters and Greeters’ team at reception stepped forward to conduct us to a glass-sided lift and make sure we got up to the right level. When we left she was there again to ask about the visit and to remind us to drop in again.

It’s free to go into the museum and see the windows, with their story on plaques attached to the walls.

It’s a good museum for children and adults, filled with paintings and artefacts connected with Britsh naval history. My favourite item is the coat that Admiral Nelson wore at Waterloo, with a bullet hole in the shoulder. The Museum's very elegant, light and airy, situated at the bottom of Greenwich Park.

About the exhibition:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Scottish Stories

I was pleased when I was asked to reviewing a collection of short stories from Scotland called ‘Bucket of Frogs; New Writing Scotland 26’. I've always felt a connection with Scottish writing.

My love for Scotland started with my junior school singing teacher, Mrs Buchanan, a doughty woman who conducted singing lessons while standing on a bentwood chair. I remember the combined gusto and suspense as we sang:

'Sure, by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go.
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles;
If it's thinkin' in your inner heart braggart's in my step,
You've never smelt the tangle o' the Isles.'

Much later I was asked to read a poem by Robert Burns at the funeral of a friend’s husband, a Glaswegian. The words reflected the man's own befiefs in a mix of nostalgia and optimism that seems to characterise much Scottish writing:

'For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.'

A more personal connection was set up when as a teenager I hitch-hiked over the border to get married. We were delighted by the generosity and friendliness of the lowlanders, who would stop their cars or trucks almost as soon as we set foot on the road, offering us a lift to ‘Gala’ (Galashiels), the nearest town of any size to where we stayed. Inevitably, sooner or later we were asked whether we were ‘runaways’ our denials greeted with knowing smiles.

Marriage laws are the same all over Scotland, not just Gretna Green, and it seemed a good idea in 1962, when my boy-friend was 25 and I was just eighteen, and my parents wouldn’t give consent. They were still mad at me for leaving my home in Preston a year or so earlier and in those days you had to be 21 to marry without your parents' permission. We lived in Portsmouth, where, as a student, my partner wasn’t allowed to live outside ‘approved’ digs unless he was married. Lack of money meant we'd have to hitch-hike to Scotland and back, but that was just a bonus.

We stayed in a YHA hostel overlooking a romantic ruined abbey, in the tiny village of Melrose. Like Gretna, it had a registrar’s office. This was to establish the required two week's residency in the country. When the hostel warden asked us, reasonably enough, ‘Will ye no’ be moving on to the Highlands?’ we assured him we were happy to walk the nearby Eildon Hills. They had been adored by Sir Walter Scott, who died at the house he built at Abbotsford, his sofa placed so he had a good view of them.

After reading the novels of Ian Rankin, Jackie Kay and Val MacDiarmid, I was anticipating more of the same quirky humour, gritty settings and down-to-earth characters in the collection I reviewed. They were there, right enough, in some beautifully written poems and stories.

I wasn’t expecting dismal urban living, the decline of traditional industries and loss of thriving rural or seaside communities. Maybe the short story format brings these aspects into sharper focus., or maybe it's a corrective to the 'tartan heritage' tourist theme.
Here’s what I wrote for ‘The Short Review’, a website devoted to short story collections:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Prince Charles Diversion

When we went to the Prince Charles yesterday it was good to see the red lanterns are already up in China town. They’re ready to celebrate The Year of the Ox on January 26th.

I won’t often stray from the Cineworld circuit (unless it’s to the NFT). These and sofa.cinema take care of my foreign film needs. Still, when I’m waiting midweek for a programme change I’m vulnerable. So when R said ‘The Wave’ at the Prince Charles had good reviews I went along.

The German, title is ‘Die Welle’ and it’s about a school teacher who sets out to prove to his class of High School students they could become Nazis if conditions were right. It all ends in tears. The plotline was fairly predictable, but the main problem was the lack of definition to the characters, apart from the teacher, and he had to keep you guessing how serious he was, so acted low-key. I hadn’t expected ‘High School 3’ but these kids were lacklustre to say the least. It was strange, too, that although the wife was heavily pregnant, she and the teacher never mentioned the baby or discussed future plans, such as when they’d move off the houseboat where they lived. It was as if a whole scene had been cut out.

It reminded me of watching films in Singapore, where whole scenes were cut out for censorship reasons, regardless of how it affected the plot. We saw Jodie Foster in ‘The Accused’, for instance, and the rape scene was cut. One minute she’s dancing to a juke-box in a café with some boys looking on and the next she’s hysterical and Kelly McGillis is encouraging her to take them to court. What, for just looking???

The seats at the Prince were less comfortable than Cineworld and the screen a lot smaller than I’m used to. That 'Studio' at the NFT has ruined me. At £4 for the afternoon show it wasn’t bad. The sound wasn’t as good but as it’s often too loud in Cineworld so I didn’t mind that. I thought I might go deaf after ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ at West India Quay.

The huge letters in Leicester Square to welcome Will Smith were startling. I’d be even more impressed if it was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Crime Reading Group

At first glance, the last two books chosen by my crime reading group have only murder in common: Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ is a true story set in Victorian England; George Pelicanos’s ‘The Night Gardener’ is fiction, about a serial killer in Washington DC, in 1985. Both, however, foreground the social setting.

Summerscale’s fascinating glimpse into Victorian society suggests that police detectives, recruited from the working class, were supposed to concentrate on pickpockets and prostitutes. They were expected to defer to middle class suspects, not suggest they might murder family members. Mr Whicher should keep his suspicions to himself to avoid being vilified by the forelock-tugging journalists of the time.

Pelicanos’s hero, Italian detective Gus Ramone, happily married with an African- American wife, worries about his teenage son in a neighbourhood where drug crime is rife among teenage boys. Parents will empathise with the officer’s efforts to establish residency in the right school catchment area and his fears about discrimination.

Family solidarity is key, but it works two ways: the Saville-Kent kind breeds violent resentments between siblings while social status protects them from the law; the Ramone kind struggles to guard vulnerable youngsters from a downward spiral into crime.

A big advantage of a library group is books, chosen months ahead, are always made available for borrowing.

It’s great to hear different opinions and discuss styles in crime writing. Most members know much more about crime writing than I do. I can’t wait to start the next choice, ‘Vanish’, by Tess Gerritson, collected from the library today. Looks like a real ‘page-turner’.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher:

The Night Gardener;


Lewisham Library :

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Gentlemen of St James's

For all government ministers throw up their hands in astonishment at ‘social immobility’ and ‘class divide’, they're embedded in England’s institutions, such as ‘The Gentlemen’s Club’. We spent Sunday afternoon being reminded of this, in St James’s.

J. is training as a Westminster Guide and generously treated friends to an inaugural walk , taking in the arcades and passages, shops and clubs located around the church of St James. It’s an area redolent with the notion of the ‘English gentleman’, and shops which provide the accessories, from fine wines to country house clothes. Woolworths may go to the wall, but here it’s Floreat Asser and Turnbull.

Here, too, are the gathering places. Boodles and The Atheneum, Whites and The Reform Club are concealed behind discreet façades while we listen to tales of gambling, fine dining, and political chicanery within. Admission is by election and our privilege is to be allowed to stand on the pavements and gawp.

That epitome of the English gentleman, George 'Beau' Brummell, commemorated in bronze in Jermyn Street, didn’t worry about pavements. After washing from head to toe, in an age when few people bothered to bathe, he took five hours to dress. Then he had his sedan chair brought into his house so as not to sully his boots by London’s mud on his way to his club.

R once trained as Greenwich Guide and was impressed by the research that had gone into preparing the walk. I was amazed at J’s mastery of a tortuous route and memory for the facts.

The area is not so compact as Greenwich, but the walk was pleasantly varied. Greenwich has some real heroes, of course, unlike the effete and privileged drones of St James’s, for all their tourist appeal. I may be biased, of course.

Beau Brummell :

St James's :'s

For details of future walks, email:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Easter Rabbits

Never mind the Brrr... At Asda we're lining up for the Next Big Thing.

Friday, January 09, 2009

‘Complicit’ at The Old Vic

An essay title in Willy Russell’s ’Educating Rita’ reads: ‘How would you overcome the problems of staging ‘Peer Gynt?’ , to which the time-pressured heroine responds, ‘Do it on the radio’.

For ‘Complicit’ I’d suggest the same, but I’d add ‘Do it in America.’ The play's first night had a polite but bemused reception from the Old Vic audience.

In fact, the staging is the best part of a political three-hander which no amount of hi-tech flashiness can rescue from leaden prose, absence of drama and at best a muddy message. The round, see-through stage resembles a dart-board or spider-web, with overlapping screens underfoot. At times dozens of newsreels, or flaming clouds or pastel shades appear, surrounded by a neon circle. Two overhead screens are used to show a TV interview.

Richard Dreyfuss plays journalist Ben Kitzer, facing jail for writing an article exposing US use of torture after 9/11 and refusing to name his source. His performance is twitchy but fairly restrained in the first half. David Suchet convinces as his untrustworthy legal adviser. Kitzer’s wife Judy, played by Elizabeth McGovern with a voice barely audible in the ‘gods’, has a marginal role, bleating about ‘the family’ and assuring Ben she loves him.

The themes are interesting, although obscure, but a cringe-making climactic breakdown scene with Ben wallowing in patriotic sentiment and sobbing over and over ‘I did a bad thing’ like Lenny in ‘Of Mice and Men’, was embarrassing. The sniggering I heard during the scene itself is an understandable response from many of the audience probably resentful of the UK involvements in the Iraq war.

On the good side the programme is the best I’ve read for a while – maybe because it fills some gaps. For £4 you get a history of the theatre and experts writing on the main themes. There’s even a slightly creepy ‘discussion’ about the value of hedge-fund financing. That helps explain why although the theatre exterior looks the same the converted auditorium is called ‘The CQS Space’. With seats filling the gap where the stage used to be the space is not so much round as, like the play, a bit pear-shaped.

Website details:

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Year Resolution

Apart from access to materials, there are benefits to going out to do research at the British Library. For a start, I'm showered and dressed rather than still in my pyjamas. Instead of the radio for company or disputes with R about interruptions I have a background buzz of fellow workers discreetly interacting with helpful desk staff in the reading room plus people on either side tapping away at key boards. It's a bit like being in an exam room only more relaxed.

I caught a train from London Bridge station to marvellous St Pancras next door. I’ll soon get fed up with ten minutes crushed into standing room only, and not very much of that, en route to London Bridge from Lewisham. Still, it’s my New Year Resolution to do three days a week. I must remember to take out my book in good time, as once on the train it’s impossible to reach the bag wedged between my feet.

The huge BL interior walls and stairs resemble marble, like the British Museum's entry hall. Quite appropriate for a temple of learning, I’d say; very airy and modern. Walkways surround a central area with a kind of four-sided book-case rising in the middle, leather spines adding a touch of gravitas. I read in the handbook that Anthony Horowitz used this place to research for Foyle's War. It's a feel-good building.

Traffic is heavy in the public spaces, now crammed with desk-chairs and sockets for computers, all fully occupied by noon. The demographic profile has gone down by abut thirty years. I saw a man eating salad from a plastic box balanced on his keyboard and another with baby buggy parked at his elbow. Notices say the cafe tables are reserved for people buying food from 1pm-3pm, but plenty of people are talking or reading. The free Internet Wifi must be a big draw: a ‘pilot scheme’.

The Prue Leith specials look good but a room at the top, with canteen-style furnishings and drinks machines is where you can eat your packed lunch. In Summer people sit out in the vaguely Japanese roof garden. Leaflets about forthcoming highbrow activities are laid out on shelves. Maybe later inthemonth I'll go to a day of silent films about the ancient world.

Two of my research days will coincide with my Chinese classes at Frith Street. I aim to break off at noon to get to my class in Soho, and then come back by 2.30pm. It's not a problem keeping a desk, by leaving stuff on it, but by noon all the desks are taken. I used to transfer to the film library off Tottenham Court Road for the afternoon when I was researching my book. I wonder if I'd have a problem there too these days. That's the trouble with an excellent resource; a lot of people want to use it.

The British Library Website:

Monday, January 05, 2009

Representing the Past

A variety of styles, from near-fantasy to realism, is shown in three 'historical' films I’ve seen recently. All have a political message and two focus on a love-relationship.

In epic-romance style, ‘Australia’ climaxes those tourism ads that ended with someone pleading direct-to-camera, ‘Where the hell are you?’ - as if the cinema audience should rush to fill those wide open spaces. Despite Lady Sarah (Nicole Kidman ‘progressing’ from tight Edwardian clothes and parasol to riding boots and horsewhip); cattle-droving looks less appealing than jeep safaris. The appeal, for me anyway, was akin to that of the Saturday morning cowboy films, when I galloped home neck and neck with my sisters. The ‘exception story’ about an aristocratic white woman who fosters an aborigine child shows liberalism alive and well and living in Oz. Very ‘Over the Rainbow’.

History as a source of today’s problems is shown too in ‘The Reader’, but not so easily resolved. In fact, some critics have thrown up their arms in ‘Not again!’ protest. Reconciliation here is more as suggestion than fact and closure more complex than mere survival. The opportunity to rewrite history and ‘rescue’ the vilified is refused. Unlike the aboriginal child, the illiterate SS guard is abandoned. The causes lie within the protagonists’ complex psychologies, unlike the cartoon simplicity of the Lady and the Drover. A film to be mulled over with friends.

‘Che: Part One’, is superficially about a different kind of oppression, but rooted in similar territorial and cultural conflict. History here is a media matter, partly the hero’s voice-over memoir, pretend documentary style glossing-over the individual’s tendency to selection and interpretation. Scenes of guerrilla warfare and political discussion alternate with recreated black and white news-reel footage. Late on, an incipient romance throws a sop to mere human interest (apart from sympathy for an asthmatic hero), and maybe a hook for Part Two. History is our contemporary, the struggle endless and, as Mao Zedong declared, revolution’s a constant process. At least, that’s how it seems in Part One. There’s a good chance that Part Two won’t succumb to supposed box-office demand for a happy ending. The Spanish dialogue was a bonus that helped make up for a hazy start.

I read somewhere that Horror-genre films reflect society's contemporary pre-occupations. Maybe that's true, too, of History-genre ones.


The Reader:

Che Part One:

Saturday, January 03, 2009

New Year 's Day at the Royal Botanical Gardens

The journey to Kew took an hour and a half from Greenwich. Fortunately, it was enlivened by reminiscesnces with an ex colleague from my local FE college. I’d told her that Kew Gardens was celebrating its 250th anniversary by letting in visitors for free, instead of charging the usual £10 entry fee, so she was happy to join R and myself.

It was getting dark by the time arrived. We had lingered too long at the Waterstones coffee shop, watching friends re-uniting and showing off their babies. Then the aroma of fish and chips near Kew station reminded us we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. As the temperature was near freezing , we warmed up inside the cabin.

Afterwards we walked against the flow of departing people, who resembled a football crowd leaving the ground after a match.

‘What time do you close?’ R asked the man at the gate.

‘In about four minutes’.

But he gave us tickets and let us in. My friend observed, as we headed briskly in the direction of the palm house, that loiterers would take a while to disperse. At one end of a huge lake a fountain still played and ducks swam about in the dusk. The Palm House, bulked like a grey whale against the darker sky, was closed. However, we came across a little building with the lights still on and an open door. Inside, a few people browsed among glass cases filled with a fascinating collection of plant-derived products, from blocks of compressed tea to pith helmets. There was a lovely little machine where you could twiddle a knob to hear different musical instruments – pan pipes, lutes and a wooden xylophone. It made a delightful mini-concert.

‘What are you all doing in here? Now you’ll have to leave by the Victoria Gate!’

An indignant attendant had found us. At his insistence we walked in the opposite direction to that we’d been following until we saw the lights of a huge Christmas tree. It was at the entrance where we’d first come in. I looked into a shop and a café whose floor was strewn with debris like the aftermath of an invasion. It was the same in the toilets. I was glad after all that we hadn’t been there earlier. There’s something magical about Kew in the dark, walking under the shadowy outlines of exotic trees - especially when it’s free and you know you shouldn’t really be in there.

All about the Gardens at Kew:

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Homer’s Not Just for Christmas

This unwanted present was left outside the flats on December 26th . He seems to have been re-housed.