In search of tea

Can one get nostalgic for a past one hasn’t experienced? I expect there’s a German word for it.  I know the pre and post war periods weren’t really romantic, but I’ve read a couple of historical novels in succession. This has made me think how lovely it would be to live in a little flat in Bloomsbury, earning a living from doing a bit of typing, and then toasting crumpets over the fire for tea.

Or, one could run up to London for a treat, properly dressed in gloves and a hat, and pop to one’s marvelous little dressmaker for a fitting. I expect some charming chap would take one for lunch before going back to his office. So you’d have time for afternoon tea with a friend, before changing for cocktails, dinner and dancing at the latest club. Oh, you must have heard about it, darling, everyone’s going there.

I always think the Lyons Corner House sounded like a wonderful institution, the perfect place to collapse and unburden oneself of the string-tied parcels. Always somewhere to get tea and a bun for a few shillings, and I bet the waitress brought more hot water as a matter of course. I’m sure it wasn’t always very good tea and that the buns weren’t always very fresh, but at least it was table service and you could sit down.

That’s what London needs, I think. After a few hours pottering around on Saturday, I had my one small bag of purchases, a new book and tired feet. Obscurely feeling that if I drifted off the main highway, I might find a proper tea room, or at least a Pret with some empty seats, I carried on walking. The vision in my head was for just such a welcoming establishment as I imagine Lyons to have been. I wasn’t looking for the full on three tier cake stand and silver teapot experience, just somewhere that might do a decent cuppa.

No such luck, of course, and I ended up in one branch of an indistinguishable coffee chain, but which at least had a spare table and a friendly barista. I paid the best part of a fiver for one teabag in a pot, and a muffin that I watched being taken out of the plastic wrapping. Either it wasn’t baked on premises, or they take food hygiene very seriously indeed. The cafe was thriving, though: people meeting to chat, some taking a break from shopping, someone else reading and taking notes. I was left undisturbed for an hour while I read.

Was Lyons the mediocre, oh it’ll do option of its day?

Running, again

It was going so well until winter hit, and then it wasn’t the cold so much as the chain of foggy nights that stopped me. I liked running in the dark, but heading out of the village into a wall of fog, unseeing and unseen, was a little too spooky for even my common sense to counter. Plus, the risk of being hit by a car seemed amplified to an unnecessary level.

Then I was horribly ill over Christmas and then it had been weeks since I’d run and it seemed like it was going to be too much like hard work, and anyway, if I was out running, who would eat all the leftover Christmas cake?

And now here I am, round the corner and facing into spring. In a moment of madness I signed up for the Oxford Town & Gown, which is a 10k in May. I could easily write off the entrance fee, but what the hell, how hard can it be? So I downloaded the 10k runner app, eased myself in at the 3k mark 5 runs ago and should hit 5k on Thursday. I’m not exactly pushing it, so a slow 10k should be comfortable by  the time May rolls around. I’m deliberately not finding out what a good 10k time might be, so that I don’t expect to hit it and then disappoint myself.

I’m going to struggle to find a long enough route around here that doesn’t involve either brutal hills or speeding traffic, so a little further along and when the evenings are lighter, I plan to run in Oxford. In one of my previous running phases, I used to like running through the University Parks, out through Mesopotamia, down Marston Road and then London Road to St Clements, over Magdalen Bridge, back up the High Street, through town and back to Summertown along St Giles and Banbury Road. To boost that up to 10k, you could throw in a bit of riverside or canal side running, and that’ll be all my favorite places in Oxford covered.

Surprisingly, to me, I’m quite looking forward to it.

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

This is another book I was introduced to by Short Stories Aloud, and I bothered to get this one signed. Antonia Honeywell was charming and seemed genuinely excited to be at the event, meeting readers and introducing her first novel. And so she should be, because it’s very good and I look forward to the next one.

(Also, what kind of great name is Antonia Honeywell? It would be a waste of it not to be some kind of artist.)

The Ship is set in a future that doesn’t necessarily seem so terribly far away.  Economies, countries, law and order have collapsed, leaving Anna, Paul and their daughter Lalage (Lally) living mostly in their London flat where they are safe(ish) from the want and disorder of the streets. But the situation is getting worse: the homeless who’ve created a tent city in the park are bombed; citizens have to register and re-register their identity cards, the only fragile marker of legitimacy, to get food and stay alive. Lally remembers birthday meals that have shrunk from roast chicken to, finally, a shared tin of spaghetti hoops.

While the world continues to spiral, Paul has been preparing for his family’s survival by acquiring, resourcing and peopling the ship. It’s a huge liner, and he has hand-picked 500 people to live on it, along with all the food, clothes, amenities, games, activities they might want for a long future ahead. The new community has been living in a holding pen for years, because Anna refuses to leave while she continues to hope that in fact life in London will improve. Finally, a crisis is provoked and Paul sets in motion the departure of the ship, sailing off into a new way of living for all aboard.

He’s built a utopia for Lally, but as he is hailed as the Father for his special, saved few, Lally alone remains ungrateful. Despite the evident vast size of the ship, it’s claustrophobic (although as I’ve always thought a cruise ship would be hell on toast, that could just be me). Lally’s companions eagerly turn their backs on both their varied, haunted pasts and the horrors of the news, to focus on a now that they’ve been convinced is their destination. They have certainty: that they can do meaningful work in keeping the ship running, the children educated, the food cooked. Their needs are met, from football to pianos to embroidery silks.  Lally alone continues to question and to search for a direction, for both the ship and herself. The only flaw in Paul’s plan to protect and educate his daughter is Lally herself.  With a ship full of people willing to love her, she won’t let herself be loved.

It’s a deft and though provoking novel, asking big questions: is ease and certainty for a few worth the loss to the many? Should, or can, someone be happy in a constrained, finite present with no thought to the future? Paul is a convincing, charismatic figure but he may be peddling no more than bread and circuses, and it’s not enough for Lally. In the end, she makes a different choice, for life rather than what she thinks of as a living death.


Country music Monday

I like me some cheesy country music, but it’s a fair point that women’s roles in a lot of country songs have been reduced to being objects wearing tiny denim cut-offs as they sip a beer in the back of a truck. So when I stumbled across this, I figured it was about right. The guy on the right of the truck, though? Sure is purty.


Ten things I like about being a grown up

Subtitle: The injustices of teenagerdom

1. No one can tell me not to put my feet on the furniture, even in ‘those muddy shoes’ (that aren’t really muddy at all but may once have seen a spot of mud in passing).

2. No one can tell me to ‘get that cup off the arm of the chair, I don’t want you spilling tea everywhere!’ ‘Everywhere’ was the key word when I was growing up. One book on the floor right by where you were sitting engendered the complaint ‘Who’s been leaving books everywhere?’

3. I can spend hours on the phone without being reminded who pays the phone bill. My mum did spend literally hours on the phone, and then always complained that the entire bill was our fault.

4. No matter what time I get home, no one says ‘What time do you call this?’. Although these days, if they did, I’d most likely say ‘9.30’.

5. Chocolate biscuits could be an every day occurrence. In our house, my step-dad had them and we weren’t allowed.

6. If a plate or glass gets broken, I clear it up. It does not require a three-act tragedy and week long recriminations.

7. No one tells me ‘Girls don’t whistle/chew gum/put their hands in their pockets’ or ‘Young ladies don’t swear’. And if they did they’d get a pithy lecture on the importance of not reinforcing outdated gender norms that are biased in favor of supporting the fucking patriarchy.

8. No one says ‘You’re not going out looking like that, are you?’ . Yes. Yes, I am.

9. It is not considered a crime to get crumbs in the marmalade.

10. I can crank up the heating as much as I like, because I do know who pays the bill and it’s me.

Music Monday

So, today entailed a little day trip to Manchester. My top tip is don’t attempt to get there by train from Bicester while there’s a replacement bus service between Banbury and Leamington Spa. It’s been a long day of trains and buses and trains and buses.

I loved Manchester when I studied there, just as much as I desperately hated the town I was from. As soon as I was out of halls of residence and no longer compulsorily evicted at the end of each term, I began to stay in the city as much as I could. I did a token few days at home over holidays, and then fled back to its comforting anonymity. When my degree course finished, the one thing I knew was that I wasn’t moving home. I’d spent enough time in my parents’ house feeling trapped and confined, as though my arms and legs would burst through doors and windows like Alice in Wonderland. So I stayed in Manchester about another year, until I got a job in London.

Despite the fact that I haven’t been there for at least 10 years, Manchester still seemed familiar. I started walking and the geography unrolled in front of me: Piccadilly, the Arndale, Spring Gardens, St Anne’s Square, all in their turn, and I realized for the first time that Manchester is one of my dreamscapes. I didn’t have time to get far from Piccadilly, and I don’t think I could face the old haunts of Fallowfield and Withington anyway. Some memories are best left undisturbed, especially when they involve Newcastle Brown Ale. But I’d like to go back again, for a weekend, and explore and rediscover. It’s way beyond time to be trying to recapture the past. Even a few years ago, I might have made that attempt, but these days I don’t need nostalgia. It’s a different kind of pleasure to revisit a formative location in a new way, and to interact with it as I am now rather than searching for glimpses of who I was then.

Still, in honour of the glorious (and inglorious) days of 1990-1993:


A literary tour with Peter Wimsey

I sent Mr W Kai Lung’s Golden Hours for his birthday, and he asked me how I discovered Ernest Bramah. It’s another one of those examples of books leading to books. In this case, the starting point was Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers. This is the book in which Peter first meets Harriet, not in the best circumstances given that she’s on trial for her life, accused of having murdered her lover. Peter attends the trial and decides she’s innocent, that he’ll help with her defence and that he’ll marry her when the trial is all over. Of course, true love doesn’t run anywhere near that smoothly. Harriet, badly emotionally battered by her previous relationship, ashamed and truculent, has no value for herself; Peter has much ground to make up for his early, ill-timed proposal, when, by saving Harriet’s life, he’s put her under an obligation to him that she feels can never be repaid. Their spiky, difficult relationship that is yet a meeting of minds, plays out through several of the novels until Gaudy Night.

But back to Strong Poison. In Peter’s first interview with Harriet, she quotes ‘but however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from a subject of almost equal importance?’, to which Peter responds, ‘And if you can quote Kai Lung we should certainly get on together.’

I was always charmed by the way Peter and Harriet delighted in language and swapped literary references, and the name Kai Lung was odd enough to capture my attention. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read all of Sayers’ Wimsey books (I don’t like her Montague Egg stories), her books fall right into the comfort read category for me. Over the years, as references have gradually dropped into place, it feels as though I’ve decoded their private conversation. We did Donne at school, so there’s Peter’s major love covered, but one year mention of a Forsythe fell into place, then Religio Medici (in Gaudy Night, Harriet discovers a copy in Peter’s pocket when he’s fallen asleep while they are punting on the Cherwell, and takes it to read until he wakes up).

I haven’t searched anything out deliberately, so it was only last year that I came across an old Penguin copy of Kai Lung’s Golden Hours. I had no idea what to expect, but the eponymous Kai Lung is a storyteller who, imprisoned on some trumped up charge, manages first to prolong his life and finally to save it through his clever telling of stories. They are sly and charming, with much of the humour in the language itself, and having read them adds another layer to the characters of both Peter and Harriet. I haven’t re-read Strong Poison since Kai Lung, but I wonder what else is there to be discovered?