big smoke

I stepped onto London's South Bank to find myself at the seaside. Beach-huts, bunting, even a strip of sand. A very short strip - not quite the Paris city beach experience. Enough for a toddler or two, but not a sun lounger. Anyway. There was a general perkiness about the place; perhaps we were temporarily stunned by the colour scattered amongst the brutalist architecture, and by seeing both sun and blue sky for the first time in a while. 

After lunch with a friend I haven't seen in too long a time, I headed to the Hayward Gallery to see the Tracey Emin exhibition Love is What You Want. It steps away from many of the infamous pieces that have been featured so frequently and instead shows quieter, more crafted but still acutely personal works. What I returned to over and again were the large-scale sewn drawings. The juxtaposition of the beautifully finished stitching with the aching acuity of the emotions the drawings described, gave the pieces a real power. Worked onto fine, cool, vintage sheeting or blankets, some were given an unexpected, vivid and lovely scattering of applique flowers that I longed to try at home.

I found myself thinking of them in the context of the generations of women for whom sewing was, variously, a means of making a living; a solace; a necessary social skill. And I wondered at the emotions that were stitched into the fabrics I sometimes find discarded in thrift shops, or gaze at in awe in museums. Emin acknowledges this tradition, and the role of craft in her work, in an interesting Radio 4 interview

Too soon, it was time to bolt for the station. And no matter how much I enjoy my days in London, I always love to catch the train away. I lived in London for several years and have so many memories associated with it. But now, when I come home to my little house, step through my gate and hear .... nothing, except birdsong, I feel - to quote Sinatra - that yes, it's so much nicer to come home.



wanted: summer

Summer where are you? You turned up early with unexpectedly blue skies and roses in full, early bloom but then vanished, just when it was all going so swimmingly. Now the days are about sudden, sun-shielding clouds and winds that shower me with leaves and small branches and tug hair from its moorings to whip about my eyes and mouth. All in all, it just isn't as much fun as it could be.

We've got lovely new picnicky things and outdoorsy adventures and celebrations planned. I've put away everything warm. So, please come back summer. I promise to use you well. 


in praise of boys


I love being mother to a boy. In fact (deep breath) I don't feel a trace of envy for those of my friends who have a girl or two (or three). But what is it about society and boys? The consensus seems to be that boys are trouble and parents of boys are to be pitied. Disruptive, noisy, aggressive and doomed to fall behind at school. Too often that is the view of boys that I find in the press or, sadly, at the school gates. And it just doesn't fit with my experience. For instance, I could have chosen photos where Joel is drawing, reading or playing with his soft toys. Many of the boys I know love to do all these things; activities that are usually presumed to be the preserve of girls. 

But why should we denigrate, for example, the sheer force of nature that is a boy outside? Climbing, running, hunting for bugs, enjoying the world with all his senses. I love that the little boys I know have boundless energy and enthusiasm. Their default position seems to be 'hurray!' I love the physicality of the pillow fights and wrestles and chases and matches - and hugs hugs hugs. I love how slights and arguments are quickly forgotten. I love that no thought is given to mud on trousers or scuffs on shoes. I love the way my son wants kisses and affection and promises to do so even when he's old (by which he means 17).

Of course these are traits aren't solely attributable to boys (or even to all boys). And I acknowledge that some boys can be - ahem - difficult. But I do want to say that there is so much to celebrate about boys - and being the parent of boys - and I would love to see more focus on the wonderful. Roxanna is doing a sterling job on her all-things-boy website Frog & Snail Society, and I recently enjoyed Jules' post on the magical confidence of her baseball-playing son. This is my own small trumpet blast in praise of boys and I plan to give my own a special squeeze of appreciation after school tonight.



monday morning


As a stay-at-home mother, Monday mornings seem unusually quiet. It's about empty beds and full wash-baskets, but also the chance to take time for a quietly indulgent breakfast involving jam (will my extravagance never end?) and a catch up with the weekend papers.

School drop-off today saw all the children being herded into the hall as there was apparently 'a slight smell of gas in the science labs'. Oh. So moving everyone into a building 20 feet away from the science labs offers ideal protection from an impending explosion. 

To take my mind off potential disasters I'm going to play this on repeat while my second pot of coffee brews (once again pushing out the boat of excess). Not the best quality video but who needs boring old clarity when you have fabtastic prints, Cass grooving, Michelle Phillips' beautiful face and a man with tight, stripy trousers? Whether you're at home or at work, happy monday to you.





reasons to be cheerful (part 3)


Rainbows. Fleeting and elusive, revealing the ultimate beauty and complexity of light, they seem like such a gift. I remember my 12th birthday, walking home from school with friends as a double rainbow appeared directly over our heads.  We stood awhile in awed silence, arms around each other. 

So here's to summer days making rainbows with sprays of water and hunting them down in sudden summer showers.




reasons to be cheerful (part 2)


 All human life has its seasons and cycles, and no-one's personal chaos can be permanent. Winter, after all, gives way to spring and summer, though sometimes, when branches stay dark and the earth cracks with ice, one thinks they will never come, that spring, and that summer, but they do, and always.       Truman Capote


While I wait for the silver lining to reveal itself, I thought I'd share some small things that generally make a not-so-great day a little better for me.

Firstly, good coffee in my favourite cup. After a lot of experimentation with fancy brands, I find myself returning to Lavazza ready-ground for a strong morning hit when I need to get moving quickly. With a little more time I like to grind my own beans. Their cool, slippery oiliness in the hand and the aroma as they turn to powder really gets my senses going. If you love coffee and find yourself in London, drop into the Monmouth Coffee House in Covent Garden, or fuel up at their shop in Borough before entering the gastronomic powerhouse that is Borough Market.

Another source of bliss and joy is a new magazine. I'm a magazine obsessive, reading everything from fashion glossies to interiors to travel and fine art and craft journals. If (disaster!) I'm at the end of the month mag-wise and there is nothing new to be found, I trawl through my admittedly substantial stack of back copies. I tear and file articles to keep, rip out images to make notecards, and just generally lose myself for a bit.

Then I get out my camera and prowl around, even if it's just in the house. It's the looking that's key and I always end up with something that lifts me. A shadow, colours, a shift of sky or a detail that makes me smile.

Ending the day with a glass of icy cold wine in the bath, something funny to watch and a bit of a back rub makes it easier to believe that tomorrow will bring with it sunshine - and silver.

What little things makes your day better?



reasons to be cheerful


At the end of a week that's seen difficult decisions, sad news and no hint of summer, I needed a little cheer. So when I unearthed these photos, taken in Sweden last summer, I was reminded that solace can often be found in little things. 

I hope the week has been kind to you.




At the end of a long phone call I realised my notepad was spilling over with spirals. Disturbingly so. I wouldn't want it to be seen by anyone with an interest in psychology, for instance. But the reason behind the obsessive drawing is completely pedestrian: I'm trying to gain control over my sewing-machine. And that means sewing spirals. 

Recently I took my first ever sewing course with the lovely Alice and Ginny, aimed at those of us who own a machine but, for whatever reason, have failed to use it. Simply being able to ask embarassingly basic questions, in a room full of women with similar problems, put behind me the horrors of school sewing from which - to my utter relief - I was banned for continuously mangling the bobbins. Instead I was to spend the hour in the library, all by myself.  The nearest thing to the perfect punishment for me, especially on summer days when I took my haul of books outside and lay beneath trees or drew warmth from the brick steps.

But back to spirals. With each turn I feel my grip on the fabric loosen and my certainty that the turn will be made smoothly increases. And so I find myself beginning to relax, and to enjoy. And feel compelled to reward myself with yet another book full of projects to sew. But this time, I'm confident that some of those projects will actually get made. 




There is a particular indignity that comes with having something go amiss with one's head. Today, whilst trying on a top, I entangled my hair so thoroughly in the fastenings that, head topped with top (and body exposed),  I was forced to ask the assistant for help. After a lot of pulling and tugging and leaving of hair behind I was freed. But with dignity shattered.  The assistant seemed appalled and conducted the procedure in silence. Which made it all so much worse.

And I went out with mascara only on one eye. I noticed it as I peered and plucked frantically at my hair - when I still believed there was hope of keeping my predicament to myself. I fear the stars are misaligned for me today and it's safer for everyone if I just stay indoors.




For the last couple of years I've tried to persuade the other half to try a bit of camping. But he has memories of army cadets and bivvy bags and a pathological dislike of holidaying near anyone. I, meanwhile, doggedly pursue a vision of us with our lovely bell tent, sipping wine fireside with friends while the children sleep, weary from a day of fun. Perhaps he suspects that, if I finally get the tent of my dreams, my desire to actually use it might evaporate. Perhaps, to be honest, he suspects that I wouldn't be very good at camping.

The closest we've got as a family was a long weekend at a Feather Down Farm in Dorset. The 'tent' (really a canvas sided chalet) was cosy and the wind-battered canvas made those spooky sounds I remember from my childhood. The little bed in a cupboard was a child's dream and the suppers eaten by candlelight, with the radio playing softly, were lovely. Fossils were unearthed on the nearby Jurassic coast with a real fossil hunter's hammer. 

Interleaved with these triumphs were: a dash to A&E as our son developed a full body rash and one eye sealed shut; and again as both my eyes swelled and sealed. It seems we reacted to what they were spraying in the field outside our tent. We looked like boxers and I could only see by tilting my head backwards. And yet. Sitting outside our neighbours' tent that evening with our pooled food and booze was one of the best nights we'd had for a while. 

Who knows? The promised warmth of summer and a new telescope may yet make nights under canvas more enticing. Do you have any camping  tips or special locations to share?


upstairs downstairs

I love to wander around an historic house but it isn't the grand reception rooms that principally draw me in. The kitchens and the servants' quarters are where I prefer to spend my time. Walking through these rooms on a recent trip to Uppark, it was the beauty of the everyday objects that compelled me. The cool smoothness of a worn chopping board; the subtle lustre of storage jugs and jars that bring to mind Vermeer's milkmaid; the weighty intricacy of a cake mould or a saucepan.

I wonder about the hands that scrubbed those boards and poured from those jugs, day after day after day. Did they sometimes appreciate the unexpected beauty of a shaft of light on a just polished pan or the satisfaction of a cake that slips, perfectly and smoothly, from its mould? Did small moments like this lift a day for them as they can for me?




Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored

means you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

People bore me,

literature bores, me, especially great literature...

John Berryman, Dream Song 14 The Dream Songs (Farrar & Strauss & Giroux 1969)

Sometimes, having nothing to do does me good.  I love an unexpected period of solitary time that allows me space to think and to plan - or just to sit with a pile of magazines and a pot of coffee. And the curious subterranean boredom of the earliest days of parenthood, when life seemed to close down to repetition interleaved with the panic of responsibility, nevertheless held a precious intensity.

But I find myself more intolerant of what truly bores me. Waiting interminably in a doctor's surgery with no-one else in it and nothing to read or in a traffic jam with no radio and lashing rain that excludes even the distraction of people watching. Or yet another evening listening to acquaintances discuss schools or cars or extensions. And yes, of books that just don't make my heart sing. Slowly I've learned (these things take longer with me I fear) I can say 'no' to the invitation that makes me groan and put down the rapturously reviewed book that I just don't like. And as for the rest? Perhaps I can use those moments to cultivate my inner zen.  



Some days (perversely it's usually when the sun isn't at its hottest) we have a yearning for the coast. The British beachfront is a curious one; spectacularly beautiful and frequently unpopulated beaches interspersed with shabbyish towns with beach, pier, fried food smells and too many people. The wild and empty ones are favourites with the grown-ups but for a small boy, the tacky town wins hands down. Something to do with the ice-cream, the playgrounds and the shiny lights.

But even a town beach can offer space, wildness and small, unexpected pleasures such as 'angel wing' shells and a seaweed tree. And who doesn't need fish and chips and an ice-cream from time to time?





Bathtime for our six year old usually involves goggles, shipwrecks, sharks and rather more water overboard than I care for. But sometimes a bath is more tranquil, especially when taken late afternoon after a busy day. I love these rare moments of stillness; time to sit quietly alongside him and let my gaze linger on the simple beauty of his face, usually so animated and expressive. And just be together.




Sometimes I'm caught out by a photo or a letter that slips out of a 'strictly in the past' album shelved out of reach amidst a tangle of gift bags that accumulate dustily. Today it was music. Two tracks that shuffled next to each other and sent me back to another lifetime. And the clouds gathered over my house and, for a while, the rain fell in bursts. Actually, not metaphorically. Weather and music combined synchronistically to induce a rush of nostalgia that took my breath away.

Now the sun's out again and I have a school cake sale to attend and swimming to cheer on, and risotto ingredients to buy and prepare. And life continues on.



little house

We live in quite a little house, an Edwardian lodge that stands at the entrance to a manor house. It's quirky inside with diamond-leaded windows so hard to clean that the only window cleaner we could persuade to begin slipped away halfway through his first visit, never to be seen again.

We have no hallways; you can walk (or run) in circles throughout the downstairs. And many children do. No upstairs sweep of hallway means you can hop between bedrooms and bathroom. The saving grace is a double height breakfast room that lets in light year round and is where we eat, draw, make. It’s really the outside space that makes this house so special. In front we look onto fields that slope towards an ancient church and at the back, our garden opens onto a lake that is stocked with trout. It’s divided from us by a small stream that we dip rods in and watch the ducks and water birds that make their homes in the greenery. And do a lot of mud poking to see if we can unearth the ferocious crayfish with their rust-coloured claws and furious temper. 

Surrounded by woodland, we’re familiar with foxes, badgers and the deer that delicately pick their way between the thorns of a wild rose to pluck the newly emerged buds. Then there are the birds. Blue tits are our favourites for their perpetually rotating heads and perky, bossy ways but we also enjoy the cry of the buzzards, the dart of the tiny wren that lives at the base of the lavender and the woodpeckers that echo through the woods. All this wildlife thwarts our desire for a lush, flower-filled garden but I’m not sure now that I’d want it any other way. The profusion of wild flowers is more beautiful to me than most cultivated blooms and their fragility in the vase reminds me to appreciate these short seasons while I can.


good morning

Do you have a sense of how the day will unfold before you've even opened your eyes? My checklist starts the moment I begin to surface: have I slept well - do I smell burning toast (or worse, the smell of old burning crumbs) - what's with the noise? - is it raining? Then there's a nebulous sense of uneasy discomfort that's sometimes present, as expressed in Jenny Holzer's plaque. It's funny and true and self-indulgent so I typed it out and have it propped to remind me, maybe, to chill.

Once I'm up the worst is over. Unless there's no milk for coffee (or worse, no coffee) or we have visitors and I'm expected to speak, smile and make breakfast all at once. But there are things that reliably make for a good morning. Sitting outside is one of them - in silence, with coffee and an egg or two, sourdough toast or, on a weekend, a warmed croissant. The iron tang of a frosty morning is as appealing to me as the wet green of a spring day and with a bit of air, warm coffee and diverting birdly antics, I'll be happier by the minute.

Then there is light. The low slant of a winter morning or hot yellow of a hot summer day are the spurs I need to get up and get out. I stalk light around the house with my camera. It's elusive, forcing me to work fast and, at the same time, to look.  

A good morning is a fine thing. What do you need to make your morning sing? I'd love to know.

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