Saturday, 16 October 2021

New tricks and revamped sofas

Yep, old dogs and mothers can learn them - tricks. Son and I are continuing work on the gîte project, each day a small challenge as although he has done a year of carpentry at a good level, working with wood, stone and renovation rather than new build . . . well, we've had a few hours of panic and angst.

Various builders and friends have appeared and made suggestions about the correct way of doing things which is ultimately confusing as I want to follow everyone's advice and have almost no experience, but we are both learning, rapidly. Yesterday we managed to fix the support beams for the floor into the wall using scarily long bolts and evil-smelling resin stuff - not very ecologic compared to the stone motoring we were doing before. Today we placed two cross beams and I drilled/hammered out excess stone to prepare for tomorrow's beams.

And the sofa . . . our old second hand kitchen sofa has long had uncomfortable flat seat cushions, the feathers crushed under 70 years or so of various posteriors and more recently, greyhounds. Allowing ourselves a morning off from building we went to the fabulous Saumur Emmaus - veritable department store of donated everything you can imagine - where I bought four very large cushions for a euro and on our return re-stuffed the flagging seat cushions. Result, very happy dog, and me; as the sofa is now hyper comfortable. Next up, the sitting room couch...

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The view from the hill, a 70s childhood. School route perambulations.

I must have been from a very early age, a flaneur, a wanderer, an observer of minutiae, without being aware of it, possibly born from the way of getting to school - never a car journey. I can't recall exactly when Mum did acquire the Hillman Minx/tank after eventually passing her driving test but it was certainly never used for dropping me off at said establishment. 

                                                                          11 year old me

The school run for me was a long walk, probably made longer as school itself was something I would always wish to put off as long as possible. The journey started with leaving our block of flats, admiring the enormous English Oak that spread its evergreen leaves like a protective cloud over the gateway, down Colney Hatch lane, crossing over without getting run over. 

Small digression here. I did once get run over by, and for some reason I remember clearly the car - a dark green Ford Zephyr. I don't know how and why the brain chooses to retain certain memories but this one was certainly well-etched. The thud of me against bumper, the tyre squeal, car door opening, scuffling of desperate man as he knelt and then scooped me up, turning and no doubt staring wildly about - 'where's this kid from? Help me!' Someone must have known, or maybe I was able to tell him as I recall passing under the tree, down the path and the door of the flat being opened. Odd that I can't recall more than that. Mother must have been in a rabid state of panic and fury as she had no doubt told me a zillion times about using the crossing...

Colney Hatch lane, and the righthand road I would take towards school

On a normal day when I wasn't being run over I would take the zebra crossing, shudder at the sight of the dentist surgery (another tale) and take one of two routes both equally enticing for an unwitting studier of suburban London house-frontages and gardens. I still find the same fascination for front gardens which tell so much of the occupant's lives as I did then: ragged hedge or groomed, stone chippings, manicured grass, a cottage garden in Haringey or a dumping ground for a house already overflowing. At that time most people still had front gardens, a car if owned firmly resigned to road parking, very few gaping gravel expanses waiting for the metal occupant to return.

The majority of the houses I passed were probably 20s and 30s, this part of Haringey having exploded into expansion after the first world war. Bay windows, a touch of Tudoresque non-structural black-brown beams, an occasional false shutter or two after someone's tentative foray over the channel; painted woodwork - just before the era of aluminium ugliness and the later creeping white plastic tide. Blue doors, purple, red, green - that sort of dark London green that could have been distilled from privet and moss; usually the original doors that would have been supplied with the house, and mostly, sanded, undercoated, protected and repainted.

One of the houses had a then unusual feature of large wind-chimes. I can still hear the slightly mournful clonking sound of the large bamboo pieces, as eerie as a fog horn as I approached up the slight incline of whatever the road was. I have since been back, tracing the walks, the wind-chimes of course long gone, the dread of school thankfully also long gone.

I sometimes wonder if I can trace back the origins of my wishing to write about dystopian times to those walks; reflective time with no chatter from friend or parent, a time to consider even in my early adolescent-hood, (a period of life concerned with acquiring forbidden platform-soled shoes or who was in the top ten) what might happen in the future. Just as the being-run-over incident had been laid down in my mind I recall another moment which seems to have been a catalyst for these thoughts. 

The day had been dim grey, the stick in my hand damp as I ran it along a clapboard moss covered fence: clack-clack-clack. A huge tree rose above the fence, a few brown leaves still clinging to its branches. I stopped the clacking and stood for some time just staring at the tree, aware that my feet should be moving in school direction but ignoring the unwelcome urge. 'What would happen if trees just didn't wake up in the spring?' The words still hang in my mind as clear as clean glass; that twelve year old me's thought budding into possible future stories. Supposing trees and bushes, plants in general refused to put forth leaves - some sort of silent protest about human's assumption that nature existed for their benefits. 

Seymour Court. Our flat being last on the right.


Saturday, 9 October 2021

The wavering mind

Don't know about you but I sometimes have days where I can pass from near bliss to gloom within a few moments, usually happening after some tedious email or a bit too much internet wandering.

Yesterday, I was pootling along quite happily doing jobs, leaf-raking, making lists, bit of writing, bit of admin, sweeping out our building site (gite project) when I sat down to check my emails - at the moment I have to curb the checking as I have sent out quite a few submissions to literary agents . . . anyway, I sat down and poked the computer into life to find: a rejection, written with excessively bad grammar it must be said; a desperate offer from Ryanair to claim a last bit of Greek sun, something from some smug bugger called Kelvin offering revamp my website and . . . our insurance company doing a special offer on funeral planning. That was it, I could feel the tendrils of gloom reaching out to me and within twenty minutes I was fully into: 'What's it all about' mode - relatively easy in our current times when every click onto the Guardian page reveals more planet-devastation, cruelty, misuse of public money and general chaos. 

I tried full on clearing up, more rigorous admin - even digging into the recesses of the in-tray, serious bank account reality check - (not a good move), researching about insulation in afore-mentioned gite (scary, cost-wise), but although the waters of depression had been stemmed and just a light trickle was escaping I decided more radical action was needed: a bike ride up to our bio veg growing friend and to offer help in exchange for supper-veg. And it worked, as it always does. An hour and a half later I had helped him weed his lines of lettuce with a very impressive 'hoe with wheel' item, and picked 'bouquets' of parsley and coriander for his market trip in the morning. Not a huge thing but somehow the gloom simply evaporated, partially though the exercise and mediative nature of working with soil and plants, partly through helping someone else rather than dwelling on one's own inadequacies and worries.

I returned with my carefully chosen misshaped veg so not to take away from his beautiful market produce, made a huge garlicky salad and enjoyed a peaceful evening with Ezra, rounded off with an episode of Detectorists -another gloom evaporator if you haven't had the pleasure of watching the series.



Tuesday, 5 October 2021

The view from the hill, a 70s London childhood. Saturdays

No school. No work for Mum. She would be largely occupied creating some bizarre stew as far as I can recall. How odd it is to look back into one's childhood and not really be aware of what the parents, or in my case, parent, had been doing most of the time. Selfishly, I mostly recall her movements when it involved me; something probably quite normal in children, I suppose. Ezra did recently mention to me when we were discussing his childhood that we were 'just there' I don't think he meant it in an uncaring way like we were objects - standard lamps or chairs; we were there and his world revolved around him

When she wasn't creating stews of pig heart or other unfashionable lumps of meat she was probably trying to tame the mess of the flat. I did help out however, my main job of the weekend, to go to the washing shop. Furnished with enough coins to buy a sherbet fountain and a copy of the Beano, I would walk down to Colney Hatch Lane's parade of shops, buy the items and enter the fuggy warmth of the laundrette - a largely yellow formica establishment with a row of smaller top loader machines, larger front loaders and the three rumbling industrial scale tumble dryers. Having stuffed the clothes into a top loader I would add a dose from the washing powder machine ( I can still hear the whirring sound as the powder dispensed) add the coins and if it was a chilly day sit down with my back to a dryer feeling the comforting warmth, half listening to the sounds of trouser buttons and bra straps tinkling around the drum. 

Saturdays also meant shopping, usually at the local fruit shop, butchers and all the other little shops which were eventually crushed by supermarkets. The most exciting shop, apart from the woodyard with all its dense resiny smells where I used to buy small amounts of sawdust for my various rodents, was the Greek Shop'. This to my mind is what grocery shops should be like: teetering shelves of exotic packets, tins, cases of citrus fruit, tins of olive oil, paper bags, shoe laces, allotment produce; anything and everything. The shop was always busy with locals chatting about the weather, football, the government and what foodstuffs the owner had managed to procure. Once when I went in under instruction to buy tinned tomatoes a small stampede of housewives were vacating the shop, screams knifing the air. Apparently a black widow spider had been discovered in a box of bananas.

The other shops I recall were an excellent chippy where I was sent at least once a week to purchase a treat of cod and chips - often I would go accompanied by a mouse or two clinging to my jumper which seemed to perturb no one. The bakery must also be mentioned as along with fabulously awful iced 'torpedo' buns it had a special cabinet of broken biscuites which you could help yourself to with an aluminium shovel.

If Mum had the time she would take me and a friend to the swimming pool at Southgate - when she had eventually passed her driving test (another tale). We would scramble into the back of the tank-like, Hillman Minx, each trying to avoid the part of the seat with the protruding spring and Mum would drive to the baths were she would swim majestically in flowery bathing cap and we would shriek along with all the other kids in the deep end. The wonderful trip would culminate in a bag of cheese and onion crisps my friend and I trying to outdo each other in making each pungent potato slice last the longest.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

Birthday happenings.

As the family are totally bored of hearing, last year my birthday - and a big one at that - was utterly rubbish, due to neither of them being at home and us having just moved to the Loire and knowing no-one. It was however saved by lovely neighbours coming to the rescue with wine and suchlike.

This year was and still is very different; both special folk here and we've had a great day. Before breakfast I was ushered outside to see Mark's present - an amazing one in the form of an established Ginko tree - Mark is currently outside in the rainy dusk digging a hole for it. Ezra presented me with two packages, one containing a tiny handmade bag he had fabricated from a small piece of tapestry I had found at Emmaus, and the other . . . I was fairly speechless, a jacket which he had made from more Emmaus fabric complete with buttons from their excellent stock and embroidery made also by himself. I've always admired folk who can make clothes and he certainly has an interesting experimental time ahead of him with his old electric sewing machine.

Lunch was in a moroccan restaurant we have passed many times on the road to Tours - excellent tajine and pastries of the day, then, at my request we visited the tank museum in Saumur . . . yes, weird choice but we park near it every time we go to a favourite recycling place and I just thought, well, why not. There were a lot of tanks. Many, many tanks, fearfully heavy (10 - 65 tons) sparking with weaponry from simple rockets to nuclear warheads (inert!); anti-tank missile craft, amphibious craft, jeeps, hospital trucks, maps of where various wars happened and an awful lot of war game nerds playing highly complex games involving moving around small tanks, trees, cardboard explosions etc on huge sand covered boards. They also had a large croissant supply and a table laid out with wine ready to go - set in for the day and evening. So, done that . . . probably a one off, but a truly extraordinary collection, and apparently, the place to go if you happen to be shooting a war film and need tanks.

Well, the Renault was getting on a bit

We retuned home with cakes and I lit the kitchen wood burner for the first time this year as the the lashing wind and rain was announcing the true start of autumn. 

Thursday, 30 September 2021

View from the Hill, a 70s London childhood. The Broadway.

On my last post I wandered off following some memory that had suddenly prodded me. I had wanted to describe the actual hill of Muswell Hill and its aforementioned (70s) view, so will now.

If one stood at the edge of the hill near the bus and taxi rank, London in all its myriad of greys would stretch out dizzyingly, the vague forms of distant hills just visible, and of course the magical form of the Post Office Tower, where Andrea's dad was said to have dined out in the revolving restaurant. My God! Such exotic behaviour! But these were the times when going to Spain for a holiday was not unlike Mr Branson's space jaunt - impossible to imagine for anyone I or Mum knew, although I think Andrea's family did go to Benidorm, and they had a colour television. The view from the hill now looks very different with the clutch of steel and glass, gherkin, walkie-talkie and fat penguin edifices rising in the city's middle.

I was conscious of the view from other points too such as the top room of my friend's house just down from the milk depot and from the kitchen of a flat which was the top floor of Midland bank. Like so many early childhood memories, I now have no idea who the people were that inhabited the place, other than I was dropped off there sometimes when I was about five or six while Mum did . . . something. Worked? socialised? I know there was a large wooden canoe hung on the hallway wall and that two of the boys hated me.  I did once ask Mum about who the family were but she couldn't recall either so it remains a small mystery, but enough to make me wonder whenever I see a Midland bank - or not as they are now HSBC. 

My aforementioned friend's abode was possibly a hoarders house; typically, as a child I just accepted it as how it was but looking back now, the unwashed pans from multiple lunches of tinned macaroni cheese, drifts of books, newspapers, clothes and heaps of unspecified items was possibly unusual. Her mother appeared to possess two records - A night on a bare mountain by Mussorgsky, and King of The Road by Roger Miller. I only have to hear 'Trailers for sale or rent...' and I'm back in that fusty room with its distant view of 60s tower blocks.

One of my strongest memories of the hill was sitting in a cavernous (or it seemed to my seven or so year old self) café which used to occupy a space to the top left of the hill as you came up from Holloway. The place was always thronged with people and waitresses; possibly one of the last Lyons tearooms? Mum would afford us a rare tea and cake and I would sit looking up at the electric bar fires that were suspended in the roofing; an orange glow as warming as Heinz tomato soup on a chilly day. One time when we were sharing a table, the other occupier seeing me drawing something in my book (probably a cat or a dinosaur) offered to teach me about perspective. I wish I had kept the napkin on which he had drawn a railway line, train cables, trees and fences, streaking away and as complex as a Uccello painting.    

We also used to very occasionally frequent the Lantern Café for tea and that sort of butter-soaked white toast that only certain cafés can fabricate, and something that Mum would never allow at home, brown bread being the only healthy option. The Lantern was the sort of eatery that is now a rarity; a place of dark wood, red checked tablecloths, cottagy pictures - warmth, safeness, things shunned from our current restaurant styling of over-lit, sterile grey and white. I suspect as world events compound in complexity the checked table cloths and candles in bottles elements will return...

Cafés apart, another establishment of many memories still stands on the Broadway, Martyns the dry goods grocer. Thankfully untouched by modernisation, its handsome black and cream facade and large windows display a wonderment of dried fruits, cakes, biscuites, speciality teas and so much more. Back in the 70s, Mum, as mentioned in the last post, didn't have much of a food budget (Marmite was a real luxury) but she allowed herself coffee beans and sultanas from Martyns. I would stand in the shop like Charlie Bucket and breathe in the smell from the roasting machine as the beans shoosed and rattled around in their pierced metal drum. I've visited the shop on numerous occasions during my adult life London-wanderings and have marvelled as I've bought a bag of dried pears or peaches at how nothing, really nothing seems to have changed in the shop since I was a kid; a strange unaltered miniature world amongst the continually altering city.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

View from the hill, a 70s London childhood.

 I am currently reading Alan Bennet's Untold Stories - I think a present from Andy if you read this.

As I turned the first few pages I found myself thinking different things: why should anyone be interested in the minutiae of someone else's life and childhood? But then why not? All experiences are interesting, to me, anyway. Some folk stifle a yawn as a relative or friend turns pages of a family album - 'that's Aunty Bess in about . . . hmm, 1978, perhaps . . . when she had that job at the first Sainsbury's in East London'; or recent photos lost in a technological maze on an iPhone - 'us in Paris', 'the best pudding I ever had' or, 'Your Dad and me at Sarah's wedding when the cake collapsed.' All human stories, things we can relate to or not; things that provoke memories, cause tears to rise or a smile to stretch.

As often the case, an idea surfaced as I walked the dogs and filled holes in walls this morning, which then refused to be packed away again. My own London child/adolescent-hood. All those little memory chinks that wend their way into most of my writing. How much more would be buried behind the so-many-times replayed recollections. So, between the jobs, Gite construction and editing, I'll write out some of the memories and see what occurs. Bitty, no format - no time for the foreseeable.

The view from the Hill.  

The view being Muswell Hill. One of London's high points and very much my world between the age of whatever age I was when memories started forming until about thirteen when we moved from North London to the gentle rounded hills of Dorset. 

Muswell Hill was the center of everything - school, the pet shop, buses to the West End, the road where Nichola Stott's family lived in their rather handsome Edwardian semi. She was one of my best friends, freckle-faced, long red hair and as tom-boyish as I was. I don't recall much about the house other than the attic where we played and once decided it would be fun to scratch off a large portion of the polystyrene cladding. It had fallen as gently as snowflakes, and we had laughed until almost peeing ourselves. My mother, always feeling in the shadow of house-owners and seemingly established couples generally, had come to remove my seven or so year old self, red faced, apologies streaming. Maybe that was the last time I visited the Stott household. I don't recall Nicola visiting our more humble abode on Colney Hatch Lane. 

                                                            Colney Hatch lane in the 60s

And it was quite humble. A one bedroom, rented ground floor flat in what is these days a prestigious 40s (I think) block, surrounded by, for London, ample and well treed grounds. Mum shared the front room with her precious piano, table, large armchair (which I recall sitting in and crying while listening to Yesterday by the Beatles), second hand jade green Wilton carpet and her single bed which doubled up as a sofa - long before the days of Ikea Click-Clack. I had the bedroom which was crammed with jumble sale finds, cages of various rodents (depending on the phase), toy cars, and later walls adorned with the usual poster pop beings of the 70s - except mine were all of Rob Davies from Mud. I think I was probably the only teenager in London who preferred his flared cat suits and dangly earrings to Donny Osmond or David Cassidy's toothy grins.

Our kitchen, always warm from stews Mum concocted involving such delights as pigs heart or the marvellously termed, scrag end of lamb, had generous built in cupboards, a china sink, an old green enamel gas stove with chrome metal 'taps', a table and two chairs and a fridge being bought on instalments. Mum, being Mum encouraged my various manias for bringing more wildlife into the already crammed space; often a sweet jar of stick insects or butterfly pupae balancing on the table or sink side.

The bathroom was small, dark and purple but furnished with an ample bath and never ending hot water as all the flats' heating and water were fuelled by an enormous boiler somewhere in the grounds. Mum's stack of 'I'll read them all one day' old Guardian newspapers were for some reason housed in that room. Perhaps she read them in the bath. Those odd knowledge gaps that appear now as I think. Did I know why they were in there? Did she? It's just how it was. Just as we never mused over the spelling of the Fuck Of  that had been shakily scrawled in black paint above the bins at the back of our flat. It had been there for years - part of the block's ornament along with the black crittal window frames and brick framed door entrances.

There, I digressed already. Not so much about the hill or the view but here's a picture for now, although the skyline would have been a little different.