Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cranes, London sky, Samuel Palmer

From the train on the way up to London, I see two cranes side by side on a building site. So much construction work is going on that the whole scene might be described as a crane-scape. But there is a companionship between these two cranes which look like fishermen enjoying each other's company.

From the train leaving London, the sky, for a moment, contains every aspect of silver and pewter shades and highlights. Then spaces between the buildings reveal the source of light in the last pink streaks of the setting sun with a glowing coal at the centre.

Samuel Palmer's magical watercolour, Cornfield by Moonlight wuth Evening Star, stands out in my memory of the exhibition, Vision and Landscape, at the British Museum, which I visited yesterday. It was painted at Shorham in north west Kent, where the painter lived between 1826 -1830, and manages to capture the mysterious beauty of the countryside by moonlight. There are stooks of corn, a shepherd and his dog, and wooded hills in the background; and never for a moment has the painting anything of the chocolate box about it. It is infused with a golden glow, and the figure of the shepherd succinctily suggests the end of a long day's labour in the fields.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Lampost, silver birches, sudoku

A lampost bobbing up and down and swaying behind a hedge like a drunk, is what I see. As I draw near to the corner I realize that it is a street lamp being lowered into position by two workmen.

Silver birches seen from the train, their trunks bright in the sunlight, conrast with the dun, winter fields and pearl grey sky.

In the train, the man sitting opposite is intent on a sudoku. His pen, hovering above the puzzle, traces in the air tentative lines of numbers. His eyes are fixed in concentration. I know how he must feel for I am, myself, addicted to this game.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Oysters, Shakespeare, milk float

Half a dozen oysters and a glass of dry white wine for lunch, with a view of the junction of Sevenoaks High Street and London Road as people hurry past the restaurant window.

I return to readingCymbeline. Even the most routine dialogue displays the Bard's genius. At random, I note: Posthumus to Iachimo- "This is but a custom in your tongue. You bear a graver purpose I hope." In other words: "You can't be serious!"

Waking in the early, early morning to hear the calm sound of an electric milk float accellerating up the hill.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Willow, more gulls, Alec Guiness

Recently, I have noticed the greeny grey tufts of willow catkins in the front garden of a house I pass. I read in my tree book that each catkin consists of a collection of tiny flowers. I shall look more closely tomorrow.

Whether it is because of cold weather on land or, as Clare suggests, bad weather at sea, the seagulls, they are acoming. First it was just a couple; the next day I saw several circling high above the Grove; today, I see a substantial flock wheeling north above Mount Sion.

The late Alec Guiness showed himself to be a natural noter of beautiful things in his common place book, largely devoted to quotations from his reading, but sometimes including his own observations. On occasions, his anitipathies surface. In one entry he writes: "I like the sound of many things, but not the barking of dogs, the road drill or the hovering, inquisitive helecopter".

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Chrysanthemums, hurrying clouds, sea urchins

Curly green chrysathemums reside at one end of the sitting room and white at the other.

This afternoon the sky brightens, and the north wind blows fleecy yellow clouds in a southerly direction - a crowd of clouds hurrying across the sky.

Sea urchins, which some people eat raw and others, as a sauce to accompany pasta are, I see, to be farmed in Scotland alongside salmon.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The cold, raven, machine noises

It hasn't been really cold for a long time, so I enjoy the biting wind on my face above my thick, woolen scarf and below my beret basque, and I especially like it when you exchange the cold for a warm house.

A raven, slow and black from beak to tail, after a lumbering flight, alights on a larch tree in the Grove. Immediately, a squirrel and a magpie, which have been minding their own business, leave the young tree to its new occupant.

Have you noticed how machines - pedestrian-crossings, trains riding over sleepers, for example - seem to have a language of their own? Fitting words to their rhythms can be amusing, but are they always saying the same things? Today, my printer repetitively intones:" rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb- rue", with emphasis on the final "rue", like the refrain of a nursery rhyme. I am sure that I have heard it say other things in the past, but cannot now recall what they were.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Seagulls, sunbeams, buds

This morning, I see two seagulls flying above Mount Sion. They follow the line of the road and then veer off in a north easterly direction. A sign of cold weather, they say, when gulls come inland. The seabirds look as though they know where they are going.

Watching the sky at this time of year, it isn't exactly sunbeams that catch the attention, but the way the pale light touches sparse clouds, creating perspective lines, which seem to converge on the sun.

I like the defiant way the tight, armoured buds of rhododendrons and camelias, appear in the autumn, and hold themselves through the winter in readiness for the spring.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Leaves sucker, pink air, rosehip

Technical progress in the Grove: instead of hand-held machines, which blow the leaves into piles so that they can be shovelled into trucks for removal, there is now a giant vacuum cleaner with a huge matalic hose, which sucks and chews up the leaves before spewing them into a container.

The sun sets over the High Street. At a critical moment the air itself seems to become pink.

A rosehip, with its dry sepal atop the orange and green, egg-shaped fruit, seems to glow like a lamp as the light fades.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Plane leaf, through a window, sauvignon blanc

I bring home the leaf of a plane tree which I will photograph. In the meantime it lies between the pages of my atlas because of its tendency to curl at the edges.

Passing an office window I see a girl laughing at a computer screen.

At lunch, a glass of sauvignon blanc, delicate and understated in the French (and it is from the south west of France) rather than in the fruity, boastful, new world style.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Sun, leaves, trails

Between some houses the sun sets like the tip of a red lollypop.

In the Grove, everything is still in the late afternoon sun. The dead leaves lie still on the ground and hang motionless from the trees, as though they are waiting for the wind.

Two planes crossing the evening sky, too high to be visible, draw parallel lines with their vapour trails.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Beavers, potato crisps, sunset

Castor fiber, is the latin name for the European beaver, which I learn is being reintroduced to the British Isles. In April 2001, the Kent Wildlife Trust, according to Fauna Britanica, flew in a group of these dam-building , amphibious rodents , a gift of the Norwegian government. The aim is to carry out a five-year field trial, with the animals released into a fenced reserve of about 50 hectares. While welcoming the move, the same book says that, if beavers got out of control, they could cause immense damage. One animal can, apparently, fell a tree with a circumeference of 25 cm in about four hours. A single family may cut down 300 small trees in one winter. They cut down the trees to build dams in the streams where they live.

I have a weakness for potato crisps, which are becoming increasingly refined in quality. I like the the latest "Kettle" crisps, or as the packet calls them in the American fashion "chips". Today I find a packet, which boasts: "Just potatoes UNDRESSED" and qualifies this titillating claim with the addition "LIBERATED potatoes". These paragons have no added salt. The list of ingredients reads: "Select potatoes, sunflower oil".

I go out of the front door to view the sunset. I try to identify the spectrum of colours: yellow, rose, pale green, eggshell blue set against a darkening mass of dark red roofs and chimneys, and grey, green and brown trees on the Common.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Vapour trails, herbs for pigeon, saudade

The blue sky, this bright, crisp winter day, is padded with small, white clouds and criss-crossed with vapour trails - a busy sky.

I cut a bay leaf and a few sprigs of thyme. They will flavour the sauce that will accompany our supper of pigeon breasts, mashed potatoes and cabbage.

I am much attracted to the Portuguese word saudade, which, a translator called A F G Bell, describes as " a vague and constant desire for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent, dreaming wistfulness".

Friday, November 18, 2005

Frost, squirrels, red leaves

Frost, this morning, covered the hedges, stretches of grass seen from the window and the branches of trees, as though someone had been round with a praint brush.

When I was a nipper I remember having my attention drawn to a red squirrel in the wood at the bottom of our garden in Forest Row. It is a long time since red squirrels have been seen in the south of England, and now we learn that they are at risk in the Lake District and even Scotland, as the imported grey squirrel proves an increasingly succesful competitor. I am sorry about the reds, which are altogether cuter. But I can't help having a soft spot for the greys, when you see one, as I did this afternoon, turning a nut round in its paws and nibbling it, its little jaws pulsating with the effort of chewing.

The sun, from low down in the afternoon sky, catches the remaining leaves on top of a beach tree. They are a rich, dark, glowing red, the same colour as the chrysanthemums, which Heidi bought the other day from the stall by the station.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Last rowan berry, mussels, barker

All, or nearly all, the orange rowan berries have been stripped by birds. As I pass one of the rowans in Berkeley Road I see a blackbird with one berry in its beak: the last of the season?

A big bowl of steaming mussels at Sankey's. Instead of the white wine sauce with parsley, I choose a thai version, with a sauce using coconut milk, lemon grass and chili.

A little dog barking fruitlessly at a squirrel up a tree, and wandering off.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Chill, writing on the pavement, ivy

A refreshing chill in the air. This bright afternoon, the cold is a tonic after the unnatural warmth of the last few weeks.

Passing a glazed office door after dark, I see the name of the building, Mount Pleasant House, which is embossed on the glass, projected, by the light inside, in reverse letters on the pavement.

In the orange light of a sodium street lamp, ivy extending its leaves and tendrils over a wall, looks as though it has been drawn by a victorian artist, the edges of the leaves in hard outline and the green of the leaves translated into sepia shades.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Gold, dogs and leaves, shadows

Gold: that is the colour of the sky at the west end of the Grove this afternoon. No not a hint of red; nor of pink; none of that translucent green, you sometimes see at sunset. Just variations of gold surrounding the dazzling gold of the sun.

Two dogs play in the leaves. They snuffle and scuffle and chase each other through the rustling leaves. They seem to get the same sort of pleasure from the leaves that children do. But there is, surely, the added dimension of smell. The leaves must smell wondeful to dogs - of rot and corruption, and the last of the sap drying out.

As the sun gets lower in the sky, though it is still daylight, shadows seem to envelope the figures of people in the park. They seem two-dimensional and merge with the trunks of trees and shrubs as though camoflaged.

Monday, November 14, 2005


This blog inadvertently limited comments to "members". This has now been corrected. Comments and observations are as always welcome from all comers. Cheers.

White cliffs of Dover, loading booze, flocks of birds

From the top floor restaurant in Calais called Aquar' Aile, there is a spectacular view of the English Channel and the white cliffs of Dover. Eating a meal and watching the sun shining on the sea, and ferries passing "on urgent voluntary errands" is a delight.

Outside Wine and Beer World, the drinks supermarket at Coquelle outside Calais, I watch with vicarious pleasure, a group of jolly Englishmen loading their van with cases and cases of booze and sticking their golf clubs on top.

While we wait to drive on to the train for the tunnel, flocks of migrating birds fly in clouds of different shapes and sizes across the setting sun.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Oloroso, green juice, lottery forms

Oloroso sherry is naturally dry, and not, as a lot of people think, a sweet wine. At its best it has a nutty, fruity flavour that is addictive, and just right when winter begins to approach.

The juice of green vegetables: green pepper, brocolli, cucumber, celery, lettuce. It tastes of the country green, and looks like a summer meadow.

In Sainsbury's, two small boys collect lottery forms and hand them to their mother, who distractedly stuffs them into her shopping bag.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Singing mice, brocolli, ugh

Mice, according to a report in the National Geographic, are one of four mammals, which serenade their mates with a song. The others are humans, bats and whales. Because mouse songs are delivered at ultrasonic frequencies, no one( apart from other mice) seems so far to have noticed them.

I stand in the vegetable garden and look at the purple sprouting brocolli, which should produce purple heads in the Spring. It is protected by netting from marauding pigeons, which abound and have in the past stripped every leaf and sprout before I can go to the rescue.

Igittigit is a german expression of disgust, which has become part of my vocabulary on account of Heidi's frequent use of it - when the weather is foul, for example, or in response to a sticky mess on the floor. One German dictionary has it in its more usual form igitte. Another doesn't mention the word. I suppose you would translate it as ugh. But the german word strikes me as more effective, and pleasantly mild sounding.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Old gentleman, getting there, modest cook

There is an old gentleman, whom I often pass in the street. He is well dressed in an old fashioned way, has a big white moustache and a sad, self-absorbed look. He is always on this own. I often want to greet him, but his reserved manner somehow prevents me from doing so. I passed him yesterday in the Grove and did so again to day at almost exactly the same spot and probably at the same time. I thought: if he so much as glances at me, I will say "good afternoon", but he ploughed on, and so, I regretfully admit, did I.

In a queue I see a familiar face, but one which looks tired and thinner than it used to be. I ask after his family and his health for want of anything else to ask after. "Getting there, he says, "getting there," but I have a feeling that he isn't really.

In a pretty book of recipes from Provence, the author writes with reference to the famous soup of the region, Soupe au Pistou: "In giving this recipe I tremble a little. Every housewife speaks of it with a fierce pride. Hers is the true version, the best." Such is the passion that cooking arouses, at least in France.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Weather forecast, pomegranites, strangeness

I like hearing the BBC weather forecast because it is nice to be reminded that there are going to be scattered showers in the west, even if there always are and always have been.

Pomegranites seeds clothed in transparent garnet coloured flesh are among the most beautiful things; they taste good and are good for you.

"There is no excellent beauty without some strangeness in the proportion", wrote Francis Bacon. It is quite often quoted and with good reason.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Compost, leaf sounds, beams in the sky

There is satisfaction in settling down a vegetable bed for the winter. I spread a good layer of compost over the barely weeded earth. I look at it, and think about what I'll sow there in the spring, and in what order.

I stop in the middle of the Grove and listen to the sound of the remaining leaves in the numerous trees. I ask myself whether the dry leaves of autumn have a completely different sound to the fresh leaves of early summer. I expect they do, but how can you compare them?

In the late afternoon sky is a strange phenomenon. You often see the sunbeams emerging from behind clouds, but to day it is rather the beam-shaped shadow of sunbeams, which I see. They are darker than the surrounding sky but quite straight and, through transparent (you can see clouds behind them), look heavy and solid like roof beams.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Blackbird, unseasonality, not so fast

I feel a presence as I walk past the hedge which borders our garden. It is a blackbird. I expect it to fly away. Bit it sits there and looks at me with its beady, orange eye.

The warm weather goes on and on. Today, I was still cutting sunflowers. And nasturtiums!

In the Grove two little boys run their scooters through a puddle. They leave a tracery of tyre tracks on the dry tarmac. A mother says: "Not so fast!"

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Walking in the rain, umbrella, Chilean wine

My favourite film (sometimes) is Singing in the Rain, and my favourite scene is that in which Gene Kelly does that dance in the rain. Today I walk to Safeways in the rain and don't mind getting wet, thinking of the film and Gener Kelly's abandonment to utter happiness.

On the slope beside the station a man in a red anorak struggles with a golf umbrella, which has blown inside out. The umbrella looks like a giant flower or a very large and flashy satelite dish. The man seems to be performing a dance with the umbrella, which his wife, also wearing a red anorak, and his two children join, as a sort of corps de ballet.

There is a new wine shop called Five Reasons Wine in Vale Road opposite the station entrance. It is not for the impecunious, bargain hunter. A table is laid out with tasting glasses in front of the door. I buy a bottle of Chilean wine, which the label tells me comes from Panquebue in the Aconagua Valley. It is a place which not only is, but sounds, a long way from Tunbridge Wells.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Umami, second childhood, Penguin Books

For some time, I was trying to remember the word, which describes the fifth primary flavour.The other four are: saltiness, sweetness, bitterness and sourness. Then I came across a note I had made and mislaid, which reminded me that the word is umami. It is a Japanese word and was coined by a Japanese researcher called Kikunae Ikeda in 1907. He was trying to find what it was that made the Japanese stock made from seaweed and dried tuna so alluring. He identified two chemicals - glutamic acid and inosinic acid, which were largely responsible for the flavour. It is a taste common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. In its artifical form it is known through the salt made as a seasoning - monosodium glutimate. This has earned itself a bad reputation as an ingredient of Chinese take away food and other fast foods, and is reputed to make you thirsty, to create artificial hunger pangs and have other bad effects. Be that as it may, glutamic acid, in its natural form, is a significant ingredient of breast milk.

While waiting for my lift home after the checkout at Sainsbury's this morning, I try to pass the time by searching for beautiful or interesting things. But the cross-looking shoppers offer very little in that direction. Then I notice that one trolley, proudly pushed by a parent, is equipped with a carrier suitable for a very small baby. In it, lies, amidst the cereals, bottles, detergents and tins, a regal looking child, pink and pristine. As I am approaching my own second childhood, I nearly give way to, but fortunately resist, the impulse to ask in which aisle babies can be found.

I have loved Penguin books all my life. I still do. Just recently, I have come upon those mini-penguins called Penguin 60s, containing extracts or short stories from well known authors, in an Oxfam bookshop. I snaffle them up, because, at 49p each they are far nicer and better value than cards to send to friends, and fit neatly into a standard envelope. I find a new hoard in the Chapel Place Oxfam.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Fly agaric, painted lady, fireworks

It seems to be a good year for fly agaric, the fungus beloved of fairy story illustrators, and often referred to as a toadstool. I see this conspicuous mushroom in the Grove and in the triangular shrubbery, nearby, known as the Village Green. It has a bright, scarlet cap on which there are white spots or "warts". It kills or stupifies flies when broken up and left in a saucer of milk. It is an halucigen and an intoxicant. A graphic description of its effects on the nervous system in Roger Phillips' Mushrooms and Fungi of Great Britain, does not encourage experimentation.

Near the group of fly agaric, I see a painted lady butterfly. Or did I? Its movements seem slow and ponderous. This, I attribute to the cool wind and the time of year rather than the mushroom.

Tomorrow is November 5. As it is a Saturday, we are spared the sporadic, unseasonal bursts of festive explosions on dates more convenient for working parents and school children, and fireworks day will be celebrated on the appropriate day.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Swish, doing without, wind

The swish of car tyres on a wet road is for some reason a comforting sound.

Among the many things, listed in direct mail catalogues, which it is pleasure to do without, is a clock guaranteed to be accurate to less than one millionth of a second.

Today the wind, which has been frisky all night, works itself into a fury tearing the last leaves from the trees in the Grove, and whips the branches about as though they, too, are about to be wrenched away.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Topinambour, juice, mire

I often wake up with a word in my head.This morning, for no good reason, it is topinambour, the french for jerusalem artichoke, and a pretty word too.

Juice extracted from: carrots, celery, tomato, red pepper and radish, lightly seasoned.

A wet day, with the leaves squashed into the paths and gutters, slippery like mud. It puts me in mind of Milton:
"...Now that the fields are dank, and by the fire
Help waste a sullen day, what may be won
From the hard season gaining? ..."

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Cat, Larkins bitter, warm sun

The little marmalade cat, which takes over the vegetable garden, has always ignored me. Today he greets me instantly, purring and winding round my leg. Why the change of attitude? Perhaps it's because we haven't seen one another for some time.

A pint of Larkin's bitter and then another pint of Larkin's bitter.

In the coolish wind, the wamth of the sun, like a friendly hand on your shoulder.