Notes from the City: Lockdown, continued

IMG_3137

IMG_3176 3

May was a record breaking month in the South of England; the hottest and sunniest since records began. Day after day, week after week, London basked under a baking sun, the sky a bright, fresh cornflower blue and the air filled with the sweet scent of drowsy flowers. I felt like I had been transported back in time to the long, lazy days of childhood summer holidays, lying on sun-scorched grass in my back garden, reading, aware that all the time in the world stretched before me and there was nowhere I needed to be other than here. Gorgeous weather has made lockdown really rather pleasurable; it’s far more bearable to know you can’t go anywhere exciting when you can enjoy endless afternoons tanning in a deckchair in the garden with a book, or lovely walks along the canal and through the parks in a deliciously balmy heat, able to take your time and enjoy the surroundings rather than being cowed under an umbrella or forced to walk briskly in order to stay warm. It has been a true gift to have such surprisingly lovely weather, and has boosted my mood enormously. It’s also encouraged me to go further afield than usual, and last weekend I completed a walk I’ve been meaning to do for some time; walking the length of the Regent’s Canal between King’s Cross, near where I live, to Regent’s Park.

IMG_3177

IMG_3179

The work done to restore this canal over the last twenty or so years is nothing short of extraordinary, and is a real testament to the power of community campaigners, who were the driving force behind cleaning up what was, just a couple of decades ago, an unusable eyesore at risk of being filled in and lost forever. Now the canal, with its restored footpaths, parks and flower beds, and new waterside homes replacing run down old warehouses and factories, is an absolute treasure for so many Londoners. There are several canal networks in London that provide miles and miles of scenic walks and in non-lockdown times, there are plenty of lovely pubs, restaurants and cafes along the route, so that you can enjoy a waterside meal or drink at leisure, and feel a million miles away from the city. I always recommend a canal walk to friends who are visiting London; it’s not a common feature of travel guides to the city, but if you want to get a feel for what London is really like to live in, and understand more about its history and development from a series of rural villages to heaving metropolis, then the canal is the place to be.

IMG_3242 3

IMG_3182

King’s Cross has become unrecognisable over the last decade; as a child, I remember it being a no-go area, as London’s red light district, and certainly no-one would willingly hang around the area after dark. It was sleazy, grimy, run-down – a real stain on London’s reputation. But a huge regeneration programme has taken place here, and central to that has been the restoration of the canal. It is now a bustling, beautiful waterside neighbourhood, filled with new homes and offices, art studios and performance spaces, and restaurants, shops, bars and cafes, clustered around the myriad waterways that used to bring coal and other goods to King’s Cross Station. Old coal stores and other warehouses have been imaginatively repurposed, and it feels very modern and sleek, though if you look carefully, you can imagine a little of what it used to be like in the nineteenth century. Taking the canal walkway around the edge of Granary Square, the centre of the new development, you find yourself walking past the old loading bays to the coal warehouses, the enormous water-side openings into the buildings behind you now bricked in. Ahead is the lock to manage the entrance and exit of the loading and unloading boats; still beside it is the beautiful little lock keeper’s cottage, and a pretty community-tended garden. Keep walking and you find yourself amidst sleek new waterside flats jostling alongside huge old warehouse buildings as you wend your way through Camden Town, but moving further along the canal into the smarter neighbourhood of Primrose Hill, the large Georgian and Victorian houses backing onto the water offer a glimpse of the suburban idyll nineteenth century city workers created here. I love seeing all of the lovely stained glass windows, fancy wrought iron verandahs, and pretty gardens that run down to the canal, and there are many beautiful willow trees bending their boughs into the water and forming a softly verdant backdrop to what seems an impossibly pastoral scene. As I turned one corner, I saw the spire of a church peeking up between trees, and as I stood and gazed across the still waters of the canal,  admiring the gaily painted boats moored there, I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone standing in the same spot one hundred and fifty years ago would have seen exactly the same scene as me.

IMG_3160

IMG_3188

At the end of my walk, I exited the canal and wandered through leafy, meadow-like Regent’s Park, before coming out in Marylebone and wending my way home through Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury. This slice of London offers wonderful scenes for the Georgian architecture enthusiast, and Fitzroy Square has to be one of the most beautiful off-the-beaten path places to sit and while away a few minutes on an idle afternoon. Virginia Woolf once lived here; there is a plaque on her house, and I can only imagine she must have loved watching the world coming and going in the square below from her tall drawing room windows. I took Tottenham Court Road as the most expedient route back home. The emptiness of its hot and dusty pavements was striking, and gave me the opportunity to really admire its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, most of which was built to house furniture warehouses and shops, as this was where the middle classes bought their furniture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a tradition that continues to this day. Behind Tottenham Court Road lies Bloomsbury and the British Museum; I walked through leafy Bedford and Russell Squares, their gardens lavishly green with hardly anyone to enjoy them, took a detour past lovely Persephone Books on Lambs Conduit Street, sad I couldn’t pop in to buy a book, and then past Charles Dickens’ house on Doughty Street, before wending my way through the back streets to Clerkenwell, looking up with interest at my surroundings as I went. There is so much beauty and so much variety to enjoy in the jumble of London’s streets, and so many surprises you can stumble across when you take a street you don’t usually, or take the time to look at a building you normally just hurry past on your way to somewhere else. Even though there is nothing to ‘do’ at the moment, walking through London on an idle afternoon offers far more interest, education and beauty than many an exhibition I’ve seen in a gallery. How wonderful to not have to ‘do’ anything to enjoy what’s on my own doorstep!

Reading from my shelf: May

Books started: 14

Books finished: 9

Books abandoned: 4

Books kept on the shelf: 3

It’s been a long, sunny month, filled with lazy afternoons in the garden and leisurely evening strolls by the river in a balmy heat that has reminded me of my days in New York. Lockdown has become less strange and more just life, now; I seem to have somewhere inside myself accepted that the limits of my world have been drawn much smaller, and no longer rail against their restriction. I make the most of what I can do, and try not to pine for the things I can’t, though of course I have days when I long to escape for a weekend by the sea, to spend an afternoon pottering through a gallery followed by a slab of cake and a proper cup of coffee, or to enjoy the thrill of a night at the theatre with friends and wine and gossip. One day, these things will be possible again; in the meantime, I am experiencing as much of the world as I can through books.

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag this month, and my bookshelves are grateful for the fact that not many of the books I started made it back onto the shelf. Unless I plan on re-reading it, using it for teaching, or lending it out to others, I’m not keeping it, and only three books this month met those criteria. There was an unintentional Scottish theme to much of my reading; I started the month with O. Douglas’ A Proper Place, my first of her books, which is set in the Borders and East Coast of Scotland, and tells the story of a once-grand family forced to sell up their estate and move to a small house in a fishing village, and of the nouveau-riche Glaswegian family who take their place. I love Scotland, and being able to go there in my imagination, as I lapped up the descriptions of the beautiful countryside and coastline, was such a treat. I also very much enjoyed the gentle, undemanding and entirely predictable storyline, with its almost-perfectly- tied up, ever-so-slightly melodramatic ending that left a very satisfying taste in the mouth. It’s very much a light, sweet, life-affirming Sunday afternoon read; perfect for when your attention span is limited. The Scottish theme continued with Compton Mackenzie’s The Monarch of the Glen, which was a birthday present, and so I wanted to read it straight away to let the giver know what I thought of it. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, and I wasn’t disappointed. The hilarious tale of a reactionary Laird fighting against the cruelly lampooned National Hiking Union, while simultaneously trying to marry his son off to an American heiress who’s fallen in love with a Scottish Nationalist illegally camping on his land, The Monarch of the Glen is a wonderful, witty, and very clever paean to the culture and traditions of the Highlands. Mackenzie was Scottish himself, and so his mockery is not afraid to slice very close to the bone, and his characterisation is superb. I was in fits of laughter throughout – this one is definitely staying on the shelf! Sadly, Jane and Mary Findlater’s Crossriggs, much lauded on the back of my Virago copy as being an unjustly neglected Austen-esque tour de force, was not a success. Set in the small town of Crossriggs, just outside of Edinburgh, in the late nineteenth century, it starts excellently, but it soon becomes apparent that the feisty and independent main character, Alex, is going to continue to make totally martyr-ish decisions that condemn herself to a life of unhappiness right up until the end, and all of the predictable things that happen in nineteenth century novels – terribly timed accidental deaths, men and women who don’t tell each other how they feel but pine away in misery for years, etc. – happen, just exactly when you might expect them to. It’s all so very predictable, and I gave up at the half way point, annoyed at everyone. Though apparently Virginia Woolf loved it, so, you can take from that what you will.

Rather topically, I borrowed Pale Rider by Laura Spinney from the library; an account of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, it’s a fascinating, compelling read, and rather frightening in how similar the mistakes that were made then were made again in our own times. By the time the world realised what was happening, the horse had already bolted, and the consequences were horrific for a world just emerging from the deadliest conflict yet known to mankind. Spinney goes through all the evidence available to explain where it came from (we still don’t know), how and why it spread so easily, its legacy, and what lessons we can learn for our own world today. I genuinely couldn’t put it down; if you can bear to read about a pandemic at the moment, then I really recommend this.

Lastly, my great disappointment of the month was discovering that not all of Susan Glaspell’s output is, for me, anyway, still readable. Having adored her two novels republished by Persephone Books, Fidelity and Brook Evans, I was looking forward to finally getting to the stash of other books I’ve found of hers during various trips to second hand bookshops in the US. However, her first novel, The Glory of the Conquered, is sentimental, mushy claptrap, which I abandoned after 50 pages, and a later novel, Prodigal Giver (also known as Judd Rankin’s Daughter) was utterly uncompelling and very difficult to get into; I gave up after 100 pages. Thankfully, a volume of her short stories, Lifted Masks, contained some brilliant, thought-provoking and moving stories, so there was some solace, at least. I’d love to know of any novels of hers readers can recommend, so that I know what to look out for when book shops open again!

Notes from the City

IMG_2859

I’ve always loved living in London for its vibrancy; its streets throb with life, in all its strange and wonderful variety, and every outing, no matter how prosaic, offers the promise of some sort of adventure or new discovery. There is always so much to see and do, and so much to be distracted or entertained by. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but most of the time, I find it a delight; the various views across the city from the many bridges never cease to take my breath away, and I can still never walk past St Paul’s without stopping to admire its beauty. Despite having lived here for most of my life, I have never taken it for granted that I am lucky to live in the greatest city in the world.

IMG_2902

IMG_2904

Now the shutters have come down on the theatres and museums, shops and cafes, offices and universities and schools, bars and restaurants, a quietness has settled. There is an almost pastoral air of a summer Sunday over the city; the blank-eyed shops sleeping, the offices shut up, everything holding its breath for a moment until the machinery of commerce begins to slowly creak back into life again. The majestic bridges spanning the river are empty of traffic, and the Embankments, normally thronged, have just a few people strolling along, leaving plenty of room for wandering and thinking. I have enjoyed walking up and down the abandoned thoroughfares of Regent Street and Oxford Street, Piccadillly and Shaftesbury Avenue, actually being able to stop and marvel at the beautiful architecture I normally can’t see through the crowds. There are so many ghost signs and old shop fronts that reveal the history of how these streets evolved over the past couple of hundred years, and it makes for a fascinating study as you walk along – far more interesting than actually shopping, if you ask me! I’ve also loved looking closely at the amazing jumble of buildings, from medieval to modern, in the City, sitting cheek by jowl in a wonderful historical melting pot. Like the rest of central London, normally it’s so crowded in the streets around Bank that you’d have to walk into the middle of the road to get a good look at any of the architecture, so I’ve taken the opportunity to stand and wander where I please to get a good view of the spires and sculptures that ordinarily go unappreciated by the hurried passer-by.

IMG_2964

IMG_2931

I’ve enjoyed walking through parks I normally avoid due to the tourist crowds; St James’ Park is looking particularly bucolic at the moment, with its swathes of sweet-smelling  meadow flowers and flocks of geese wandering around at will, and Clissold Park and Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington are positively alive with blossom and flowers and birds. Around my own flat in Clerkenwell, the birdsong is so loud that I could be living in the middle of a field in the countryside, and at night, I can see the stars clearly for the first time in what seems like forever. This is one glorious consequence of an otherwise terrible situation for so many – the world is healing itself, and many people who had never given it much thought, seem to have developed a new-found love and appreciation for nature. I have never seen so many people enjoying the parks and gardens in London, and so many people out in their own gardens and allotments, actively growing things and taking joy in it. If there were one change I would like to see made permanent in London after all this, it would be a genuine recognition by the government of the importance of nature within cities. I’d love to see more trees planted, more parks created, all new build homes having to have gardens and balconies and communal growing spaces, and more clearly signposted and maintained walking routes across the city, with flowers planted along these routes to make them beautiful, wildlife- rich spaces for everyone to enjoy. What this pandemic has shown more than anything is that people need access to nature for their wellbeing; they don’t need access to fancy coffee and expensive sandwiches. There are so many people trapped in poorly built high-rise flats with no access to outdoor space, and the impact on their mental health of being stuck indoors for weeks with not even sight of a tree or flower from their window has been disastrous. How can we have allowed this to happen?

IMG_2917

On my birthday this week, I went for a mammoth walk through London as the sun set, stopping to do a little mudlarking at the foot of the Millennium Bridge as I did so. My flatmate and I had a lovely time poking about on the shore, picking up some old pipes and bits of blue and white crockery, before walking along the river, past the Southbank cluster of theatres and concert halls – I had a pang of great sadness as I saw my beloved National Theatre steeped in darkness – and back across the river at the other end, all the time barely seeing another soul. We wandered through Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and then Bloomsbury, and marvelled at the beauty of the moonlit streets. We wondered when was the last time London had been this empty, and whether it ever would be again. The weight of history seemed to settle upon us. And then, as we turned onto our street, I smiled at the thought that my block of flats was built in 1949, on top of the rubble of a Georgian terrace flattened by a flying bomb. London has stood for centuries, and endured all sorts of disaster. Each time it has emerged from the ashes and been rebuilt, even better than before.  I hope that once this is all over, it will enable us to see what we do and don’t need, what we want to keep and what we want to change. I hope it will serve as an opportunity to make this city an even greater place to live, if we take the chance to rebuild our lives around the pursuit of people’s happiness, rather than profit.

READING FROM MY SHELVES: APRIL

Books started: 6

Books finished: 6

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 4

Well, lockdown life continues, and I’m well and truly adjusted to the slower rhythm of my days. I’m back in London, and enjoying the peace and tranquility of my little corner of the city, where the birds are singing, the streets are quiet, and the air smells of nothing but the sweet perfume of the abundant purple wisteria proliferating over my neighbours’ houses. I get up as the sun rises and retreat back to bed with a cup of tea and a book; a treat I never had time for when I had to be at school by 8am. I have a leisurely breakfast, flipping through a magazine or listening to the radio; I’ve become quite addicted to the ever-varied and interesting Radio 4. During the day I teach lessons online, do some marking and admin, chat with colleagues, and when I take short breaks, I have time to do bits and pieces of housework, or sit on my balcony with a cup of tea and read a chapter of a book. I finish teaching around 4 most days, and then I go off for a walk to get some fresh air. Every day I  go wandering around a different patch; it’s surprising how much of my neighbourhood I’ve never even seen. When you’ve nowhere in particular to go and all the time in the world, it’s wonderful how many interesting side streets and passages you can wander down, and I’m finding lovely little pieces of hidden treasure every day. In the evenings, there’s FaceTime and Zoom catchups with friends and family, episodes of new series to try, piano practice, and normally an early night, finishing the day as I start, with a cup of tea and a book. It’s not a bad life. I’m taking what pleasure I can find in every day, trying not to dwell on the things I miss, and not thinking further ahead than what I need to get ready to teach tomorrow. I think I might have inadvertently mastered the art of living in the present, which I’ve been trying to do for years; it’s just a shame it’s taken a pandemic and mass suffering to make me realise that constantly trying to plan ahead and worrying about the future doesn’t really do anything other than make you feel constantly stressed and dissatisfied!

However, I digress; I’m sure what you really want to know is what I’ve been reading this month, and the answer is, not an awful lot, as most of the month was taken up with Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I finished last weekend. It was initially a struggle to get into, and I had a few false starts, but once I properly got into it, I was absolutely hooked. It’s a perfect finale to the series, and the slow, inevitable downfall of Cromwell is so compellingly, so cleverly and so subtly written. In the suffocating, self-serving world of the court, every conversation is a tightrope, and every glance a hidden code. No alliance can be trusted, no amount of ancestry can be relied upon for protection. In this final volume of the series, a creeping disillusion begins to take hold over Cromwell. To be at court is to be caught; there is nowhere to hide, and nowhere to escape. Increasingly he feels the bars of this cage pressing upon him as jealous nobles vie to pull him down, and Henry’s favour starts to waver. He may have amassed a fortune, titles, houses and be the most powerful man in the kingdom, next to the king. But his whole world rests on the whims of an irascible and entirely selfish man, and his  days are full of plots, intrigues, petitions – his work to keep everything on an even keel and his own head off the chopping block never ends. He is exhausted, and beset by enemies on all sides – in his heart he starts to long for rest in the heat of a summer afternoon, the smell of lavender, days of blissful emptiness, where he is beholden to nothing and no-one – and yet still he must go on, calculating, cajoling, convincing. The humanity of Cromwell is Mantel’s genius – he is so real, so full of conviction and contradiction – capable of great love and kindness, and yet also so much cold cruelty, but at his heart, still the beaten, unloved child, born in the gutter with his eyes fixed on the stars. I had grown to love him over these three mammoth books, despite his flaws and failings, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried at the end. No words of praise for such remarkable brilliance can truly be sufficient; I honestly can’t imagine reading anything better.

After the emotional end of The Mirror and the Light, I needed something frothy and fun, and I picked up Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, which I’ve been meaning to read for years. I was laughing out loud from the first page; his depiction of British people is horrifyingly, hilariously true, and his affection description of the British landscape alongside his playful digs at the various absurdities of the British psyche were an absolute delight to read. Something else quite interesting to me, reading the book some twenty years after it was written, is how awfully dated the 90s seem in his descriptions of day-to-day life. I was a 90s child, and like to think that my childhood was but a blink ago in a world that looked very similar to now, but reading his descriptions of flounced and floral interiors, drab and dreary B&Bs, mobile phones in suitcases, terrible TV shows and awful beige food, has made the 90s suddenly seem centuries ago, and me feel horribly old! Even so, I loved every minute of this tour of my country, and it made me desperate to get out and go for a brisk walk by the sea and eat fish and chips, wander around a musty smelling cathedral, and take a ride on a miniature railway run by enthusiastic trainspotters. I can’t believe this is my first Bryson, and seeing how much I loved his wry and witty prose, it definitely won’t be my last!

I had a couple of disappointments this month; The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was voted for by my Year 11 class as their monthly ‘book club’ read, and I hated it (as did they) – how it won the Pulitzer Prize I can’t imagine, as it was dull, unrealistic and utterly unimaginative – I don’t see how making the Underground Railroad very briefly into a real train is that praiseworthy an imaginative leap myself! – and suffered massively from lazy plotting in that the main character was miraculously saved from every tight corner she found herself in. The Old Countess by Ann Douglas Sedgwick is a beautiful old 1920s novel I picked up in a book shop in Annapolis last summer, and I was really looking forward to reading it, as I loved another of her books, Dark Hester, when I read it years ago in New York. This one, unfortunately, is so histrionic and contains cardboard cut-out characters who are all so absurd that I just wanted to throw the book against the wall by the end. It could have been wonderful – a bitter old countess mouldering away in a dilapidated chateau, her mysterious young housekeeper, a young English couple who stumble across the menage and find themselves fascinated and drawn in – but it just degenerates into melodramatic bizarreness that would have made a wonderful silent film, but makes for a terrible book. Definitely not a keeper!

Notes from the Country

IMG_2585 2

Living in the countryside at this point in the calendar year is a treat. We’re in the depths of Spring; everywhere, there is life stirring. The hedges are full of wildflowers, and in the cool green dampness of the woods, clusters of bright daffodils glitter like treasure. Across from my sister’s house, the creamy-coloured 13th century church sits in the sparkling lushness of its lawns, where the primroses are scattered like yellow confetti. Beyond the graveyard, in the rolling open pastures, sheep graze lazily against the shimmering backdrop of the distant London skyline. The fields are newly ploughed; furrows of peaty, iron-scented earth stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. On our walks with the dog, we rummage for shattered remnants of the past, our pockets filling with bits of blue-and-white crockery.

IMG_2523

My favourite walk takes us down the lanes and into the undulating land that surrounds the Chevening estate. The footpath leads around the front of Chevening house, which is never open to the public, and provides a fantastic view down to this beautiful mansion that many believe was Jane Austen’s inspiration for Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s house in Pride and Prejudice; Austen’s uncle was the vicar at Chevening church, and she visited on several occasions. The hilly landscape here offers wonderful, sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, before taking you up into a great expanse of woodland. Filled with the rustling of squirrels and rabbits, and the singing of birds, it is a haven for wildlife. At this time of year, the air is filled with the scent of wild garlic, which we pick to make pesto when we get home. Beneath the trees are cluster after cluster of the thin bright green leaves of bluebells; soon, they will burst into brilliant life, and the entire wood will become a sweet-scented carpet of almost ethereal violet-blue. Next week, perhaps, the show will begin.

IMG_2535

Once we are almost back in my sister’s village, we pass the shattered, overgrown remnants of the enormous Victorian mansion that was torn down after the war (I wrote about this before, here). February’s storms have wrought immense damage in this part of the wood; the ornamental trees that belonged to the mansion’s gardens mixed in with the native species  have not fared well and many have come crashing down. On our last walk, we saw that a felled giant Cedar of Lebanon had demolished a huge section of fencing by the footpath, making it possible to enter a section of the wood that is usually inaccessible. Rather naughtily, I climbed through the gap in the fence and found myself face-to-face with the ruins of some sort of building. The roof had fallen in, but I could still see the edges of the floor; tiny black and white mosaic trimmed with Royal Doulton ridged, non-slip tiles. This was similar to the changing rooms I had found on my previous adventure in the woods, when I came across the debris-filled swimming pool and its ancillary buildings. I couldn’t work out how close to this we were, but I didn’t think I was too far, and so couldn’t help but think this had to be some sort of bathing-related facility. A closer look at the round walls, which had little openings around the bottom, made me wonder whether this had perhaps been a sauna or steam room. An exciting discovery! Perhaps one day I’ll be able to find a map of the old grounds and discover exactly how the now overgrown landscape once looked.

IMG_2489

Last night, we took the dog out for her walk through the woods. The sinking rays of the sun were flashing through the trees and a mist was rising as the heat of the day receded. My sister and I were chatting, not really paying any attention to our surroundings, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a herd of deer came galloping out of the mist across our path and disappeared into the distance. They were gone in a blink of an eye, and it felt like a brief glimpse of something from another world. As we returned home via the road, we looked across the hills beyond and saw London sparkling in the distance, each glittering building clearly defined. Normally we can’t see this view because of the perpetual smog and haze that covers London; after almost a month of restrictions on travel and the shut down of a lot of industries, the difference in the amount of pollution is startlingly visible.

IMG_2562 3

Out here in the middle of nowhere, life is slower, simpler, more serene.  In the background, rather than traffic and sirens, there is simply birdsong. The nights are steeped in silence. In the evenings, rather than going to the theatre, or a restaurant, I watch the sun setting over the fields in a glory of red and gold. During the days, I look forward to my walk in the woods, looking out excitedly for that first pop of colour that will signal the bluebells coming into season. With nothing else to distract me, I notice every flower, every tree, every daily change in the landscape as Spring marches on apace across the countryside. I breathe in fresh, earthy air that comes from a clear, plane-less sky. There are hardly any cars on the road. The only shop open is the local garden centre, which now resembles a Victorian grocers, its selection of locally grown produce a lifeline for the village.  I feel like I’ve stumbled into the past. Strangely enough, I don’t mind staying here for a while.

IMG_2581