Aah, Bicester


Which is presumably a joke the burghers of Bicester have heard once or twice before. And anyway, I didn’t make it to the town, I just skirted south on my way, on foot to Hereford, for it is the occasion of a mighty walk. Too mighty, I decided last night, almost weeping with pain and rage as I barrelled through, over and under the brambles and farm machinery obscuring public rights of way. Sabotage or indolence, but walker/council apathy is a definite. And there are strands of my hair caught in brambles to prove how nearly it worked if they hadn’t been pitched against a bloodyminded tourist who’d waaay overestimated her time/distance/speed performance and couldn’t afford to go back and look for another route. God, yesterday was long. So long that when I missed my way again, thanks to no signposting, it was soon so dark that I simply headed towards the faint red smudge above the horizon that said west. A bit scared, I was. Today was shorter by far, but so unbelievably wet that my T-shirt was clammy through two layers of waterproofs and people in teashops were laughing at me. I may get myself varnished. Tomorrow combines all the chuckles of days one and two, ie rain and distance, but it’s also my mother’s birthday, and nothing bored her more than self-pity. I’ll see how far I can honour her memory (predicted score on that effort: looow.


God is great


Sir Christopher Wren certainly thought so, although I suspect he thought he ran God a pretty close second. In fact, when it came to rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, he probably thought it was even stevens. The man had a point, I thought, as I walked around St Paul’s this cloudless morning, on my way from Camden to Tate Modern. It’s a jaw-dropper, a magnificat in stone, a marvellous, floating impossibility of grace and proportion. And yet – undercutting any pomposity – there’s a gleeful delight that revels in its naughtiness, the turrets and twiddles and dome hidden behind wraps until it was too late for the city authorities to do a damn thing to change it. Bravo.

The reason I was walking past it – an unaccustomed journey for me – was because I had volunteered to flatsit for a friend who has gone to a wedding in the Caribbean. My role is to water the garden and see that the place is neither flooded nor torched while he is away. These simple yet nerve-wracking instructions were dished out on Tuesday evening while I feigned interest and craned around him to satisfy myself on more pressing concerns, like how the telly worked and where the tea lives.

I’ll spoil the ending now by saying that nothing has been broken, burned or stained – yet – though he is away for ages, leaving plenty of time for me to announce his absence with telltale heaps of unbinned pizza fliers sticking out of the letterbox, or lure in a horde of vermin with uncovered food. On the subject of which, forgive me, but there’s something ineradicably Camden about a Camden flat. You can call it a garden flat, build it a snazzy glass extension and install a water cannon for a shower. You can do anything you want to it, but it’s always going to carry a whiff of Withnail.

Incidentally, way before St Paul’s, still back up in Clerkenwell, on this gold and sapphire morning, I overheard a snatch of conversation between two women. ‘He was just the right level of funny, d’you know what I mean?’ Yes, love. I know absolutely exactly what you mean. And thank you for putting it into words.

Scotland has been on my mind for months, and suddenly, here we are, on the eve of voting in one of the least democratic processes I think I’ve ever seen, bar that time in Ireland when the EU made everybody vote all over again because Brussels didn’t like the outcome. That was seriously off-colour. Oh, and the hanging chads of Florida – they were pretty bad too. And actually any election in Bradford isn’t to be fully relied on without close scrutiny, either. Yeah, ok, democracy’s a pretty baggy entity when put into practice.

But those examples have been crap in the execution; this one is systemically crap. How else can you describe a process that denies a vote to 96 per cent of the people affected? And since I haven’t spoken to one single person in England – and I’ve been doing a LOT of speaking about it because I haven’t really been able to think about much else – who would vote yes to dissolving the union, the whole thing feels, well, a bit Russian. In an aside muttered over a pint, one Irish friend even declared he didn’t think the Republic of Ireland should have split from the union in 1922, but he keeps that pretty much under his hat, he said. A wise choice, friend. And an astonishing statement.

Still, whatever the outcome, I worry deeply for what may follow. Smaller economies are weaker economies. I feel tiny fault lines that were never there before, both in personal friendships and on the wider stage. I fear people have expressed things they can’t take back. In short, I want Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland together, counteracting each other’s excesses through regular elections. I want UK votes to dilute Scottish sectarianism and I want Scottish votes to dilute English Tories and Ukip. But what I, along with the other 45-odd million people of voting age in the UK who are denied a say in their future, may want clearly doesn’t matter a toss. Yay.

You don’t know until you try, do you? I proved it beyond doubt last weekend when I went to stay with a lovely chum in the depths of Kent. For example, I didn’t know you could scorch half a very tall tree with a bonfire until we put match to a handsome pyre and it went up like a frigging rocket. Sheets of flame, there were, loud crackles and bangs – not loud enough to cover my ‘Holy shit, Sian’ – but still, substantial enough to make me not want to turn my back on it.

Photographed from some distance, that thing is about 10 feet tall. Wait until it goes up - in about 45 seconds

Photographed from some distance, that thing is about 10 feet tall – we had to throw the branches onto the top 

Once the flames had died down to a kind of volcanic-crater glow, we transferred our attention to the log pile. I had missed the visit of a duo of toothsome tree surgeons the previous day, who had chopped a couple of felled trunks into logs, which then had to be turned into a sturdy, weatherproof pile. Since I struggle to stack a dishwasher, I elected to be the muscle, pushing barrow after barrow of logs to where my hostess – an art director by trade – was turning my tumbled dumps into herringbone masterpieces. Slowly we got down to the dregs: the enormous logs that were unbudgeable by lady arms, but having once seen my father, 25 years ago, split logs with a borrowed maul and sledgehammer, I chirpily lied and said I was a dab hand.

Maul and sledgie were fetched from the shed and an air of expectation intensified around my hostess as she handed them over. I smothered a gulp. Needn’t have bothered – it’s brilliant! You just assume an air of confidence, pray to God you’re not going to break the bastarding hammer or your/anyone-else’s toes then take a swing. Yes, there’ll be several heartstopping moments when you think you’ve got the maul stuck in the log so deeply that only a mythical uncrowned king of England will be able to free it, but there will be others when you feel like Boadicea.

Once you get past the checkerboard jacket, note the smirk-to-split correlation

Once you get past the checkerboard jacket, note the smirk-to-split correlation

That log is intact, isn't it? Note grimace, composed of half-fear, half-rage

That log is intact, isn’t it? Note grimace, composed of half-fear, half-rage

Only four of the most intransigent survived our onslaught (‘Let’s leave them for Bob, shall we?’), so we hid them under the hedge, set up a table and chairs beside the embers of the bonfire that was still glowing strongly seven hours later and settled down with a gin and tonic that was about the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. My hands and arms were trembling with such muscle fatigue by then that I could hardly pick up the glass at first, but hard liquor set me right, and truth be told, if it hadn’t, I’d just have licked it off the table.

As the evening drew in and the bats and owls declared their presence, we turned in for dinner, which we had in front of the sitting-room fire, an altogether more sedate conflagration. I knew it was too early to burn my work of the afternoon, but still, were we toasting our toes in the glow of stout Kentish oak, ash or sycamore? Were we hell. We were toasting our toes in the glow of stout Brixton lavatory seat, which had been sacrificed during a refurb and had made its way to Kent.

So yes, things I didn’t know until I tried: a 50ft tree could be scorched; I can carry 1700 tons of logs (or thereabouts-ish) in an afternoon; sledgehammers are fun and toilet seats make good fuel.

Foreign affairs


So, after five years of domestic bliss, my housemate is abandoning London and moving back Germany. She’s going about it an interesting way. Her friends back home keep making ‘jokes’ about how they’ll have to help reprogramme her, purge off that Englishness etc. Nothing more guaranteed to raise her hackles, of course, but as her hackles rise, so do my eyebrows. See, when I moved back from Ireland, I got rid of a lot of stuff. She’s doing the opposite, and mostly because of that awful Englishness that will have to go. You know those weird square pillows they have in France/Germany/Italy? Chances are you have happened upon them in a hotel/hostel/hellhole [delete according to budget] and wondered how the natives use them when surely the oblong shape favoured across these islands is the more practical. It is. The natives reportedly spend time each night folding, punching and plumping to get the optimum (oblong) shape. So Carina, spotting the quicker way, is returning to her homeland with Brit/Irish pillows and cases to match.

This I can understand. Less easy to fathom is the acquisition of the fire surround. See, in Germany they don’t have fireplaces, and when one has seen a fire surround used as a novelty bookcase in an interior-design magazine in the UK, one is all too prone to setting one’s heart on recreating said effect. Not me, obvs. I couldn’t give a rat’s about interior-design effects, certainly not enough to seek out, purchase and then collect a solid oak fire surround from East Finchley, on my own, by tube. It was far bigger than she expected, but the gentlemen of London rose to the occasion magnificently, helping her up and down stairs, on and off tube trains, across roads etc.
Her last Prince Charming was a strapping Polish bloke who collared her at her home tube station and declared that wherever she was going, he wasn’t going to let her carry it one step of the way. What a sweetheart! Off they walked, he carrying the mighty oak, she wheeling his bike. During the inevitable chitchat, conversation turned to the date of the fireplace – 1930s. Second World War, PolishBloke said dreamily. He wished he’d been alive then because he would been in the army and would have made it his business to shoot loads of Germans. Awwwwkward. Even worse when he asked where she was from. ‘Holland,’ she said brightly. She couldn’t bear to embarrass him after he’d been so sweet, she later admitted.

When embarrassment is worse than death, yeah, you’ve probably been in England for too long.

I don’t like August. Dunno why, but I’ve never liked it. Perhaps in the past it was the sense that the school holidays are slipping inexorably away; certainly the weather’s never as good as you hope. Everyone’s away so there isn’t even the onslaught of work to buffer the greyish, what’s-the-point gloom. And the news isn’t helping. Jihadist beheads reporter; Hamas executes ‘informers’; Nigerian girls remain missing. Gawd.

Still, I read this piece by Michael White Continue reading ‘I don’t like August’

Have you ever wondered what happens if you use hedge clippers to cut their own cable? Please don’t say I’m the only one who has felt their teeth judder to the tune of a power tool and asked themselves, a bit like Father Dougal, what it would actually really feel like if you trained its blades onto its vital parts. In the event, nothing. You look away for a split second, laughing, and the motor cuts out instantly. No blue flash, no sticking to the ground, no being thrown backwards through the open front door. What happens is that you stare appalledwise – first at the severed insulation and shinily exposed wires, then at the amount of overgrown hedge you still have to cut (90 per cent). Then you apologise sheepishly to their aghast 85-year-old owner who thinks you’ve probably just seen the face of God, and fetch the shears.

Luckily for the shears/unluckily for the hedge, I have the arms of Hercules – another interesting discovery made in the course of a few days’ jaunt to Pembrokeshire, courtesy of a very dear friend who was renting a cottage with her two ridiculously adorable sons. After several days of wondrous walks, glorious swims and hothousing more freckles than is surely advisable, I picked up a tennis racquet at a nearby friend’s house and discovered to my joy that 30 racquet-free years have not dimmed my talent. I’m just exactly as awful as I ever was and tennis is just as much fun. Fun for me, I should say. Less fun for the unshakably charming host who smiled politely as I waved at the next-door field as an explanation for where at least one of the balls might be found, and less fun for the blameless small boy ambling about his four-year-old business on the other side of the net from my flailing serve.

But yes to Pembrokeshire. Yes and double yes. Apart from an apparently endless round of country fairs, hog roasts, art workshops and talks on church architecture, there are walks that will take your breath away. Red sandstone to the east, leaving softer cliffs buckled and gentle; limestone to the west, producing stacks and arches and sheer drops with seagulls wheeling dizzily far below. Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings, but with the occasional tea shop.

And the train to get there! At Swansea you are decanted into a two-carriage train that takes you to 1935. You trundle through people’s gardens, past their potting sheds, past families having picnics. You toot and stop at lanes that cross the railway but are too small to merit a level crossing (which will give an idea of the velocity of your trundle). Passengers wishing to disembark at the quieter stations have to request it of the guard, who’ll do a head count and have a word with the driver. Passengers wishing to embark from these same spots are sternly enjoined by signs on the platform that they must “Please signal clearly” to the incoming train so that its asphyxiating pace – that of a stout spaniel, at a guess – can be slowed in time for the Titfield Thunderbolt to hit its mark.

So now I am entirely in love, although Pembrokeshire may have to wait for my return. The box of OS maps grows fuller, the weekends more heavily pencilled with words like Lewes, New Forest, Faversham and Hereford. And as an aside, there is an urgency. News of a former colleague’s appallingly sudden death last week; a near miss suffered by a dear friend six weeks ago; a friend’s baby who only lived for two days in May. It pushes you to eat life in great bites, to drink in beauty, to bottle laughter, to dance A LOT more often and to gloat that yes, one will always be the greatest tennis player to cut a hedge-trimmer’s power cord this afternoon in south London.