Wednesday, December 31, 2008

greetings, territory, deadline

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A happy New Year!

On my regular walks through the Grove, I notice that certain areas are usually occupied by the same birds, territories I suppose you would call them. There are the grey ring doves, always on the west side of the park. A pair of blackbirds seem to favour the entrance from Belview; and by the same entrance I have, two or three times, recently encountered a thrush. The crows, as I have remarked before, look on the entire park as their territory, and strut about where ever they please, as do the wood pigeons and magpies.

With a literary project in hand, I find myself working to a deadline for the first time in a good many years. It serves as an incentive to act rather than a constraint.The unaccustomed urgency is, for the most part, enjoyable.


















And good health!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

self-portrait, collector, sunrise

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Self-portrait in the sun outside the bar window of the Compasses.

An entomologist, Christine Rollard, uses a length of tubing to collect spiders too delicate to grasp with her fingers. The picture in the December National Geographic Magazine shows her sucking at the tubing to pick up the spiders from a sheet of muslin stretched on a frame set up amid dense jungle foliage. She could be playing a musical instrument or smoking an unusual pipe.

As I drink my morning tea I watch the sun rise slowly behind the tulip tree. Just a lip-like rim appears, which gradually becomes larger and more imposing. I feel that I can see it moving. At first, the mist masks the brightness, but soon the glare of the red ball is too much for the naked eye.

Monday, December 29, 2008

bare, visitor, skate-boarder

Posted by Picasa In many respects trees are more interesting to look at when all their leaves have fallen.

Through the window of our dining room we see a squirrel in the front garden. The squirrel catches sight of us. "Help", it says to its self, "human beings in their drey!"; and scampers off. In the last year or so the number of squirrels in the Grove (grey squirrels of course in this part of the world) has visibly multiplied, and this visitor's explorations, can only be seen as a result of the little park becoming over-crowded. Me, I like a bit of wild.

As I walk down Mount Pleasant, a young man on a skate board slope rattles past my ear. The brick pavement is wide and the slope steep. I think, what fun it must be to weave downhill in and out of pedestrians and bring a little excitement into the lives of the elderly and infirm.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

beer, gull, dark

Posted by PicasaThe first pint after Christmas is refreshing after all that wine. And it is a pint and not half a litre. So entrenched in British culture is the pint of beer that it remains, probably, the last officially recognised imperial measure.

A lone sea gull, its white feathers lit by the morning sun, glides over our house. It is far from the sea, but not far from another attraction, the council rubbish tip to the south of the town

This afternoon I settle down with a book. An hour later I look up to see that it is already dark.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

rose hip, frost, tame

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Sunlight seems better than a studio light at the right moment in the garden against the pale wall of the house.

Frost at last this morning. Not much, but something to welcome after the recent, unseasonal weather. I sit outside Ishmael's in the sun with a pot of Ooh Long. The subtle perfume of the tea, fine as a passing thought, makes me feel virtuous. The wind chills my ears -the same wind that seems to have made the frost vanish.

On the display counter of the butcher's, a skinned rabbit lies, its modesty preserved, with only its legs protruding, from under a sheet of sheet of greaseproof paper. The label beside it says: "tame rabbit." It strikes me that this rabbit could scarcely be more tame.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Savoy, silent, turkey store,

Posted by Picasa Cabbage this year instead of sprouts to accompany the turkey. The outer leaves of the Savoy looked so attractive that I had to stop cooking to photograph them.

Christmas night really is silent round here. Everyone is buried indoors immersed, if not in sleep or tv, in domestic duties. Not a car in the road. Not a footstep on the pavement. Peace.

Where to store the turkey which we collect from the butcher on Tuesday with 36 hours to go before it is time to cook it? There is no room in our fridge, and as it is unseasonally warm, it seems inadvisable to keep it in the winter garden (the converted coal chute, which is covered but does not benefit from the central heating). Then we remember that our next door neighbours who have asked us to look after their house in their absence have a large fridge with, as likely as not, very little in it.Having installed the turkey in its temporary home, my imagingation runs wild. Our neighbours come early and hungry, and finding the bird in the fridge, devour it, believing that it has been brought to them by an angel. Or else, overehelmed by a wave of forgetfullness, we have to initiate a search at first at home and then in neigbouring houses, to see if we discover where we left it. Some Christmas stories write themselves. Our turkey is still there on Christmas morning when we pick it up. Not a good story but a good feast.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas ...wrong button, visibilty

Posted by Picasa....to all who visit or pass by.

It is not just recently that I have become absent minded. I believe that I have always buttoned up my clothes with the buttons in the wrong holes. I know of no single expression to describe this failing in English. But today I come across the charming French phrase for it, attacher Lundi avec Mardi. Could it be that the French are so careless about the way they button their clothes that they have to have a special phrase for it? Are they therefore less concerned about sartorial precision than the English? Surely not.

The shortest day just behind us, I have been waking in the morning while it is still dark. At first my eyes can discern the shapes of very little in the bedroom. Then slowly as the light comes under the blinds, familiar object come into view. One of Heidi's pictures, the books on my bedside table, the shape of the window, a chair. The degree of light is one way of telling the time without looking at the clock.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

newcomer, short crust, tea timer

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By a devious and complex route, a newcomer has joined our household. Although German by birth, he prefers that his name, Hubert, is pronounced as though it were a French name, which as he is eager to remind you, creates an English pun.

For a long time I found it difficult to make short crust pastry. It was rubbing the butter and flour together to form a breadcrumb-like texture that floored me. The particles were uneven and often too course. The pastry usually seemed to turn out alright, but I suspected that it could be better. With this year's mince pies, there has been a breakthrough. The breadcrumb texture is perfection. Whether the pastry when rolled and baked matches it, remains to be seen. But progress of any sort is something to please us old ' uns.

At Ishmael's, the tea and coffee shop in the centre of the town, they serve Oo Long and other teas in pretty glass tea pots, with perforated glass infusers, which sit in the pots. Nothing very unusual about that. But there is an additional piece of presentation designed to impress , and it does, I have to admit. It is a timer, which they put on the tray with the pot and cups. The disk-shaped, stainless steel device is switched on to count down, to the second, when it is time to remove the infuser from the pot. It would, I suppose in the spirit of scientific enquiry, require a lot of visits to Ishmael's to know whether they have the timing right. But one likes to assume that they know what they are doing. The tea certainly comes up to expectations.

Monday, December 22, 2008

mist...robin, malt whisky

Posted by Picasa ... over the Common.

I stand on the corner of the Grove and look and listen. A child kicks a red football to his big dad. Dad kicks it back. The child runs after it. The shouts of other children drift across the twilight. From the branches of the oak, under which I am standing, comes the song of a robin, but I cannot see the bird. Then, there it is, on a high branch. It is so small, that it is hard to believe it capable of so full and persistent a sound.

An article in the paper on malt whisky, this weekend, reminds me of a whisky tasting I once conducted in Edinburgh. Although I was accustomed to regular wine tastings, the language and lore of whisky tasting was new to me. So I needed a lot of help. I was fortunate in being able to assemble a number of leading experts, to whom the idea of limiting the tasting to the peaty distillations of the Scottish Islands, seemed attractive.
Used to the language of wine tasters - body, fat, flabby, finish etc - I was eager to know how the distinctive malts of Islay and Jura, would be described by the experts. It was clear that the slurping, mouth-rinsing and spitting procedures of wine tasting were out in this case. Too much alcohol would be absorbed to allow for a balanced assessment. Instead, we had to be content with swirling the whisky in the glass and relying on a long sniff of the rising aroma. These were the famous, peat flavoured malts - remember - which require sympathetic and accustomed palates, to give them due appraisal. And what terms did my tasters use? I no longer have my notes, but two in particular stay in my memory. "Aye, it has the genuine smell of engine room!" was one mark of approval. While " plenty of oily rag there" was another. I remember thinking at the time how accurate these descriptions of the whiskies were. And that didn't mean that I was not then, as I am now a fan of Island malts.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

close to, weather, association

Posted by Picasa Poinsettia.

There is something a little sad about the blandness of the weather at a time when one recalls fields used to be rock hard with frost and every tree, hedge and bare shrub white with hoar. Today I read this forecast:
"Christmas day will be mostly dry but with a lot of cloud around and just a few bright spells, mainly in the northeast. It will be chilly on Boxing day and mostly cloudy". Dull, but reassuring perhaps.

At first I am a little surprised by Google's "sponsored links" ) which appear next to my email window. They are, it turns out, advertisements; and advertisers pay for them only when you click them. What is clever about them is that, albeit inefficiently, they pick up the the subjects of emails. A series of conversations about spelling the other day produces the following headings: Plain English Lexicon", "Reading Pen for Dyslexia" and, surprisingly, "Speak Finnish Fluently."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

twilight, packaging, money

Posted by Picasa The Grove, Tunbridge Wells, at twilight.


Sometime you feel that the package is worth as much as its contents. A particular brand of coffee, which we can no longer afford, comes in cylindrical tins deserving of life after they have outlived their primary use. I used to imagine collecting enough to make legs, filling them with sand to provide stability, and gluing or screwing them together to support a discarded door or sheet of glass or perspex and so make a table. Today I remove from its pack a new handkerchief, which is wrapped round a very serviceable piece of white board. Something to embellish, to make a card or book mark or small picture of. But surely not to discard.

Walking past cash points, where despite the credit crunch, people are queuing for cash, I listen carefully, as the coins in the bank stamp their feet, while the banknotes shuffle and whisper: Christmas, Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2008

bread, corrections, drums

Posted by Picasa That bread, just out of the oven, looks so good, says Heidi, that you ought to photograph it. So I do.

The other day I realize that a hurried comment that I had made on the blog of my friend Barrett Bonden, had turned out to be gobbledygook. As there seems to be no other means of correcting it, self respect persuades me to ask him to delete it. I am still kicking myself for my clumsiness, when I receive a similar request from him, after what he considers to have been an inadvertent solecism - undetected by me - this time, in a comment from him on this blog. It can be reassuring to know that others have feet of clay even when you don't notice them.

Passing one of the tall house in Berkeley Road, I often hear someone at a set of drums. This afternoon, drums and cymbals are going at full whack. I look up at a lit, attic window. The back of a boy's head, nods in time with the beat, and on either side of his head, drumsticks wave.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

amarylis, strange pint, jaguar

Posted by Picasa Insect's eye view.Inside a white amaryllis are the filaments and anthers which compose the stamens.

Apart from the service of draft beer - a pint of beer is a tradition too strong to eradicate - the pint is no longer a recognised legal measure. We notice, however, that a bar in the Pantiles has, in addition to a "pint of prawns" on its menu, a surprising "pint of chips". In both instances "pint" seems to have achieved a new meaning .

Headlines with unintended meanings have always been a weakness of mine. Today ,"Government confirm Jaguar talks", is hard to resist.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

crow, silk, virtual and real

Posted by Picasa My old friend at work in the Grove.

Lit by the sun, a single golden thread of silk (spun by a spider one supposes, but possibly by some other small creature), is attached to a young tree in the Pantiles. Its loose end waves and shines in the wind.

When the real world and the virtual world meet: two people, one of them me, in different countries and time zones are, by agreement, jointly editing the same document. Unexpectedly and unknown to each other, both open the document and begin to move their cursors over it at at the same time. Each feels that he is intruding on the other, and exits to come back later.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

cold, money boxes, full

Posted by Picasa One of the numerous black birds round here. He shrinks his head into his body and puffs out his chest, to keep warm.

In the toyshop window are a locomotive and a tractor. On inspection they turn out to be made of china and glazed in bright metallic colours. The tractor is red and black; the locomotive green and black. A slot on top of each is the give-away. Theyare money boxes. When I was of the age to have a money box, I always found them disappointing, especially the sort you had to break in order to get at your cash. I suspect that these are disappointing in another way. They are about the size that money boxes used to be, and , it is sad to reflect that, with inflation, a child might expect that, even when they are full, his pennies or pounds, will no longer amount to very much. Euros, perhaps.

Today, when we post some Christmas cards, we note that the letter box is full almost to the top. We have to push hard with our envelopes to make room inside. It is a letter box packed with good will, love and seasonal cliches.

Monday, December 15, 2008

factory, emoticons, paths

Posted by Picasa The Christmas card factory. End of the production line.

Above my gmail window, there appears an icon signifying emoticons. Click it, and you have a whole library of these little symbols. At first, I resolve to neglect them. I have no time for ready-made slogans and jokes such as you see on cards and sometimes on to the rear window of cars. I would rather put a sentiment in my own words than use, second hand, someone else's wit and ingenuity. But I find myself making an exception for these, little sweeties. And, I have to admit that I have already popped one or two of them into emails.

While reading the massive French novel Les Thibault, by the novel prize winning Roger Martin du Gard, I come across a passage, where a professor of literature shows Antoine Thibault, one of the central characters, a missive from his brother, who has gone missing. The missive consists of a poem by Walt Whitman. "My English is not up to this," says Antoine. So the professor translates the poem off the cuff. Suddenly I have to look for my copy of Whitman's poems. And I realize that, by such hap hazard procedures, has my reading progressed throughout my life. This is no plan and very little purpose, except that of self-indulgence and satisfying my curiosity. So I recently I began to read Montaigne only because Flaubert, whose letters I was reading at the time, praised him constantly. And now I am reading the journals of the Goncourt brothers because they knew and constantly gossiped about Zola, another novelist with whom I had been absorbed. And now back to Whitman, the first of the beat poets, I always thought, though he wouldn't have known it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

drift, peppermints, christmas trees

Posted by Picasa Where the dilapidated alley, known in these parts as a twitton, meets the pavement, rain water has brought down a load of sand and gravel, which in turn has a eroded the tarmac. The result, when I photographed it, looked, I thought at first, like a man's head, but now I realize that it is the head of a bird.

From the Notebooks of Albert Camus, which I found the other day in the Oxfam bookshop in Chapel Place: In the local cinema, they sell peppermint lozenges on which are inscribed the words: "Will you marry me?" "Do you love me?" And the replies, "this evening", "very much" etc. You pass them to your neighbour who responds in a like manner. Some lives are devoted to the exchange of peppermint lozenges.

Windows in the neighbourhood are alive with Christmas trees. Lights on the branches sparkle. The pine needles are fresh and green.Yet it is still almost two weeks until Christmas day. Heidi, who comes from the land where the Christmas tree originates, says that, in her tradition, the tree is only brought indoors on Christmas eve, when it is decorated with real beeswax candles. The honey-smell of the burning candles and the pine needles fresh in from the cold, are one of her treasured Christmas memories.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Horatio, for the dog, strips

Posted by Picasa As we are walking down the Strand my friend, Anna says to me: "Who's that up there"? Then we realize that it's Admiral Lord Nelson, enjoying the sunset from his column above Trafalgar Square?

A friend, introducing a delightful note of domesticity, concludes an email, " ...must make a hot-water bottle for the dog."

As I insert Christmas Cards into their self-sealing envelopes (how comforting these are after the ones which you have to lick), I wonder to what use I can put the pretty strips of treated paper, which peel away so neatly from the adhesive. The envelopes I have used this year are made by a firm called Conqueror, whose triumphant logo is printed repetitively at an angle across the strips.
So far I have thought of two uses: as book marks, though because of their relative fragility, they would probably only do on a temporary basis; or alternatively, I could gum the ends of each strip, and made a paper chain, but to make a chain long enough for any useful purpose, would demand a lot of Christmas cards, and I fear I would run out of friends before achieving my aim.

Friday, December 12, 2008

frost, mouse, bear

Posted by PicasaThe secret ministry of the frost.

My friend Anna tells me about her cat which, having killed a mouse, hid it without her knowledge, in her bag. "I was on the underground between Embankment and Sloan Square," she says, "when, not knowing what my hand had encountered , I pulled the mouse out by its tail, and stared at it in amazement, which was nothing to the amazement of the other passengers."

In the train on the way home: the man is like an overweight bear. As he reaches up to stow his bags on the rack, he reveals a large, loose paunch which falls over the top of his trousers. There are already three people occupying the four places round the table. He makes the fourth. He spreads his files, calculator and mobile phone on the table , and extends his ham-like elbows on either side of them. The man sitting next to him politely shrinks into himself. When he has regained his breath, the newcomer begins his telephone calls at the top of his voice. First on the list is Terry. "What you're looking at, Terry, is total. I'm paying pound notes. You know what I mean. .. Alright I 'll give you a grand on Friday...I'll have to have a word with Liza. ... I'll meet you half way. It'll be in "£20.00 notes . Half on Friday. Cash. Alright buddy, no problem. Alright then, matey. Alright. OK."
Next is Liza: "I said, call it three grand. He said, there's one other thing: I need some money. Just something to tide me over. It was just crap. I knocked him down again. He was just gutted. I said, 'No, Terry'. He said what about the extras? A meter of tiling, he said. He's such an idiot. But you've got to hand it to him for trying."When he has finished, he slumps forward with a sullen expression. It is too late to open my book. So I go over my notes. The time has passed, as it so often does on the train nowadays, not without amusement.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

sunset, lost, great thought

Posted by Picasa A few starlings in the late afternoon sun.

In the half darkness, as I walk home following the broad, central path, through the Grove, a rubber ball races past me, hard along the ground. A few steps further on, I spot the dog for whom the ball is intended racing off to left and right of the path into deeper shadows, in pursuit of it. It imagines that its owner has thrown it wide rather than straight ahead, if it imagines anything at all. Or does the ball, as I thought on first seeing it, really have a life of its own?

"You have a great thought, you're always on your own," says the green grocer to the woman behind me in the queue, apropos of what I can not hear. But it seems a noteworthy aperรงu.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

notebook, theatre, uni

Posted by Picasa Higgledy-piggledy and hugger-mugger are two words, which describe both my note book and my attitude to it which has evolved over the years. The principle is that drawings and observations, which are usually unconnected with each other should occur side by side, following chance and the sequence of events. The result is rarely enlightening or useful to anyone but me, who enjoys the anomolies and surrealist effect of unlikely juxtapositions.

The l0w angle of the sun at this time of year spotlights ordinary things and provides them with theatrical qualities which they don't always deserve but which serves all of them proud. It's difficult to keep the camera in its case.

In the old days rich people who were lucky enough to go there called it "varsity", while clever people who valued its qualities called it university. Nowadays everyone seems to call it "uni".

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Early, other animals, John Milton

Posted by Picasa Buds in December eager for April.

Images of monkeys and other creatures looking for knits in one another's fur and generally grooming one another, keep recurring in tv programmes. On three separate occasions recently - at the dentist's, the opticians and the hairdressers - I am reminded of these touching scenes of mutual care, which seem to remind us that we are not so very different form other animals.

Today is the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton. It is often said of Satan in Paradise Lost that Milton made him the true hero of his epic poem, a judgement with which it is hard to disagree. There is something of the rebel in Milton's writing, as there was literally in his espousal of the parliamentary cause in the Civil War. There is also, I fancy, a proud note of defiance in the last lines of the epic, when Adam and Eve having been thrown out of Paradise,
"Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way".

Monday, December 08, 2008

December moon, options, busy

Posted by Picasa This afternoon the air chills the gibbous moon.

In the charity shop, I spot a hardback copy of the Robert Micro French dictionary. I have the paper back version, Robert Micro poche, which is now a constant companion. For a moment I am tempted to buy it but it only duplicates the copy I already have. "I 've a copy of this," says the man who assists at the shop. We talk about French. "Do you go often to France?" I ask. " No, he says, "My wife hates the French, and I don't like them either. The culture's alright though." As an afterthought, he adds "There are a lot of French saints, too".

I pass a woman who lives nearby. She has a parrot and numerous children. "Rush, rush, rush isn't it!" she says. As I amble slowly on, I feel a little guilty at having nothing to rush to or from. But on the whole, I feel pleased that I don't have to run.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

of an era, lost, mist and frost

Posted by Picasa I feel a little guilty about stopping to photograph this front door as I walk past. It belongs to one of the houses facing Tunbridge Wells common. It is like snapping a person unaware, a sort of intrusion. But the door captures some of the elegance of Tunbridge Wells, a spa town, the heart of which was built mostly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Before the spring of rusty water (it has a high iron content), which attracted visitors in search of its supposed medicinal qualities was discovered in 1606, there was no town or village here.

Clive James, in his 10 minute talk on Radio 4 this morning, made me laugh out loud. A slightly bitter laugh. Describing his study, he admitted to feeling compelled sometimes to replace a book which he knows he possesses and is somewhere on his over crowded shelves, but which he cannot find, when he urgently needs it. It is something, which I have had reluctantly to do from time to time. However, it has its compensations. When I find the duplicate copy, I can have the satisfaction of presenting it to a deserving person.

This morning, when I raise the blind of our bedroom window, I see mist behind the tulip tree. It masks the rising sun like a shade of fine porcelain. The hedge and lawns of the houses opposite are white with frost. We used, I suppose, to take mist and frost for granted before climate change set in, but now they tug at the heart, like something old and established that seems to be fading from our daily lives.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

hydranger... grey, toyshop

Posted by Picasa Only a few half live petals remain on this faded hydrangea. It recalls a photograph posted by Lucy Kempton on box-elder a few weeks ago. But I hope she will agree that the image bears repetition.


From our bedroom window as I sip my morning tea, I watch a milky sun streak narrow clouds with yellow and curd-white behind the tulip tree. The clouds range in tone from pearl grey, through the purplish grey called Paynes grey to the ever so gentle misty grey of the ring doves which inhabit the Grove.

Children and grandchildren are now to old for nursery toys and baby clothes, but the shop called Children's Salon in the High Street, draws us in with its compulsive warmth . A colourful, toy town train circulates on a track suspended on a shelf just below the ceiling; it is difficult to refrain from playing with the marble runs, xylophones and spinning tops on display. "We just came into play," I say to the shop assistant. "That's what I do," she says. I remember a song by the early blues singer, Leadbelly with the refrain "all the lil' chidren get so happy when it's Christmas time, Christmas time." Its charming simplicity still disturbs me.