Only in England

I’ve recently been lamenting the lack of any decent blogging fodder so I cheered up no end when presented with a little gift this morning courtesy of breakfast news: the urge to share proved irresistible.

Steve Bloom, an independent second-hand bookseller from Hawes, a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales, hit national headlines this week because he dares to charge people 50p to browse in his shop, Bloomindales. (Get it? Bloom–in–Dales? The story gets better).

Steve generously offers to refund the browsing fee should a purchase ensue but the local parish council are up in arms because, according to various media reports, they have had twenty complaints in four years (good grief, how do they cope?) about Mr Bloom’s rudeness when customers refuse to cough up. He even called one man ‘a pain in the arse.’ Amazingly, opinion on this earth shattering news is divided. Some folk seem outraged that a nominal fee is required – haven’t they ever been to a craft fair? Here in Surrey it’s quite usual for a £10 entry fee to be charged – and there’s no refund under any circumstances, not even if you clear the knitted animal stall right out.

Now dubbed the Basil Fawlty of booksellers and the rudest shopkeeper in Britain, Mr Bloom can probably look forward to celebrity status and a long line of customers just waiting to be insulted. After all, there are now Fawlty Towers themed events which command top dollar. Why not Bloomin’ Bad-tempered Books?

Should we be expected to pay-to-browse? Mr Bloom has conceded to a sign on his door detailing his 50p eccentricity. Is it eccentric? Perhaps he’s just brilliant at marketing and all this adverse publicity will get the punters pouring in.  I do hope so.

So – what do you think? While you’re making up your mind, here’s a bit of vintage Basil to remind us all of what it is to be British. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Tis the season…

I wonder why it is that, however carefully you pack away the Christmas lights each year, you end up wrestling with a tangled mass of wires before draping them over the tree to discover that they’ve decided not to work. They worked fine during the plug-in test in their jumbled state. This is one of life’s many little irritations and reasonably resolvable after checking the efficacy of each individual bulb but it is a seasonal time-waster.

I managed to avoid one of the stressful Christmas traditions this year – that of actually going out and buying the tree in the first place. For once, last year’s tree has been flourishing, potted up in the back garden, requiring very little maintenance other than the occasional watering. Because I have to have a real tree – and I’m very determined about this – nothing will incite me to unfold a fake tree from my attic – the task of selection and carriage falls to me. Many a year I have suffered scratches to face and arms as I force the shapeliest spruce I can find into my modest hatch-back.

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So with the tree decorated, all presents wrapped and cards written, unusually I had time on my hands so, as you do, I hemmed a pair of curtains. Now, this might not sound like much but let me tell you, my sewing box and I are distant acquaintances. It sees the light of day occasionally if a button goes astray but coming out as part of some sort of enjoyable leisure activity is, frankly, risible.

I put this down to the trauma I suffered as a child in my first year at secondary school at the hands of our sewing mistress, Mrs Gorrill. She was a sour-faced little woman, always dressed in black (I think it may have been taffeta – whatever it was, it rustled) and she would rap us over our knuckles with her pinking shears if the stitching on our gingham cookery aprons wasn’t neat enough. My knuckles that term were red raw and I spent much of the time in that sewing room unpicking my sub-standard effort gazing across to the adjacent hut where the boys were doing technical drawing, wondering why girls were excluded from learning about perspective.

We were relegated to ‘domestic science’ which I reckon was only a generation away from ‘housewifery.’ I wasn’t much better in the cookery room, either. I remember my Swiss roll unravelling and ending up on the floor and being told off for pointing a saucepan handle over a hot ring when, in my defence, I’d been taught at home to angle handles away from the edge so that smaller siblings wouldn’t reach up and tip molten liquid over themselves. I think the teacher burned her hand on that handle as she was reprimanding me…hadn’t she heard of oven gloves?

These days cookery is called ‘Food Technology’ and anyone is allowed to take it as a subject, although its current status has gone the way of many of the more useful subjects on the national curriculum and has been savagely down-graded in favour of the academic subjects. While students are still required to make (in my opinion) unnecessary culinary items – fresh pasta, for instance, whoever is going to make their own pasta in halls of residence? – for some pupils, creating dishes in the kitchen is what they excel at and should be given as much kudos as an A star in English or Maths.

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Little Mai from the Moomins looks just like my old sewing teacher

But what am I thinking? This wasn’t meant to turn into an education based rant. I simply wanted to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have fun, enjoy yourselves – and cheers to another blogging year!

 

 

Funny Shorts

No, the title doesn’t refer to the wearing of hideously patterned Bermudas: just a couple of moments that amused me recently and which I thought were worth sharing.

I was on my way to lunch with WF1 when I spotted this. Other road users must’ve thought I was some sort of mad woman as I laughed away to myself, veering off the road when I could safely park up, walk back and take a snap.

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It’s great, isn’t it? There are definitely some cases where the absence of proof reading or checking is vital to our well-being. It certainly made me feel better. Thank goodness for illiteracy.

I was obviously in frivolous frame of mind that day because not much further on I saw a homemade poster taped to a road sign advertising a
‘Massive Rug Sale‘.
And I wondered how large a rug has to be before it’s a carpet.

At home with Geffrye

How could anyone not like a museum called Geffrye? (Pronounce as Geoffrey or Jeffrey, depending on your spelling preference). I’d never heard of this place until recently whilst trawling my Art Pass guide. (Quite frankly, I’m beginning to think the Art Fund should be paying me commission, the amount of times I mention the organisation favourably on this blog). Situated right by the railway station at Hoxton – an area of London I’d not visited since the early seventies -The Geffrye Museum is now in one of the most sought after postcodes for young moneyed Londoners – especially the ones with the lumberjack shirts and beards, apparently. (I don’t know what constitutes a female hipster but I’m guessing facial hair isn’t a requirement).

Hoxton lies just north-east of the city between Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. In my student days we had to travel to Shoreditch once a week to the college annex which was housed in a building that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dickens novel. It had one of those cage lifts with the metal fretwork doors. We used to pile into this rickety structure, overload and get it stuck on purpose every Friday just to abbreviate and alleviate the tedium of Mr. Goldstein’s Cosmetic Science classes.

Anyway, back to Geffrye. When I saw that this is a Museum of the Home, I knew that WF1 (Work Friend 1) would be my ideal companion for the day. She likes anything home design related and of course shares the same days off as me. We discovered that it’s easy to get to from Waterloo and arrived as early as our off peak train cards would allow.

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The spacious front lawns at the Geffrye

I picked up a comprehensive guide book which explains that ‘the museum is set in the former almshouses of the Ironmongers’ Company, built in 1714 to provide homes for the elderly poor. They were founded with a bequest made by Sir Robert Geffrye, a wealthy merchant who became Master of the Ironmongers’ Company (one of the London guilds) and Lord Mayor of the City of London.’

The buildings were converted into a museum of furniture and opened in 1914. The surrounding gardens were – and still are – a free space for local people to enjoy.

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Conservatory overlooking the rear gardens

The museum has arranged its collection into a series of living-rooms through the ages, depicting the way the middle classes have lived since 1630. There is plenty for the visitor to read by way of storyboards and there are ‘feeling’ samples of the textiles used in each set which enhances the whole sensory experience. We were very impressed – the curating here has been done with meticulous attention to detail.

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An 1830 drawing room

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An 1870 drawing room

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At home in 1890

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How we lived in 1910

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The height of modern living in 1935

One of the almshouses – Number 14 – has been restored so that visitors to two of the rooms can glimpse life as it would have been in the 1780’s and the 1880’s. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide spends around half an hour explaining the history and restoration process which we found fascinating.

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A simply furnished bed-sit, circa 1780

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Same room, updated 100 years to 1880.

With the help of lottery funding and the work of the Geffrye Museum Trust (funded by the government) the resources available here are just wonderful. A full range of educational programmes is offered throughout the year for schools, families, youth groups and adults. WF1 and I visited during the half-term break so it was crowded with children busily finding out about how their ancestors lived. There is a delightful café on site where you have to wait to be seated. While waiting, you stand beside a delicious array of home-made cakes and pastries and when you are finally seated overlooking the gardens and bee hives, a waitress takes your order. I had home-made soup and sour dough while WF1 had a tasty looking sandwich on home-made bread. There is an option to have a full cooked meal with wine…maybe next time.

The gift shop’s not bad either: tasteful merchandise with relevance to home and garden and a good selection of books. Any trashy logo-imprinted tat was thankfully conspicuous by its absence.

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A view through the garden ‘rooms’

Outside, between the museum and the station, the gardens are divided into a series of period garden rooms reflecting the rooms inside. There is a Knot Garden; a Herb Garden, a Town Garden and so on. Going in late October doesn’t show the gardens at their best so WF1 and I have already pledged to return next spring.

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Entry to the museum is free (donations obviously welcome) and there is a charge of £3 for the almshouse tour which must be booked on the day in advance.

What’s not to like? I’d have no qualms about awarding the Geffrye five stars.

 

 

 

The short half-term break shot past in a flash even though I managed to pretty much fill it up with taking various jaunts to places I’d been meaning to visit. So with the SSF otherwise engaged entertaining antipodean amigos, I took myself off to Hampstead. (As you do).

I had a reason to choose Hampstead for my solitary outing. Two, actually. I’d been scouring my Art Pass guide book for ideas and discovered that there were two properties in Hampstead within a quarter of a mile of each other that sounded well worth a look.

I’d never been to Hampstead – at least I have no memory of ever having visited the place – which is mad really as it’s only a few tube stops northwards from central London. I emerged from the station on one of those crisp autumn days where the skies are forever blue, there’s a healthy nip in the air and the trees are beginning to emulate Joseph’s coat of many colours.

Passing and noting for later a promising looking coffee shop (SSF would be proud) I made my way to my first stop – the house of poet John Keats. Originally known as Wentworth Place, the house was built around 1815. From the outside it looked like one beautifully proportioned villa but the interior was originally divided into two separate homes and it was in one of these that, in 1818, Keats went to lodge with his friend, Charles Brown.

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Most of the rooms in the house are accessible to the visitor and on arrival I was presented with an informative leaflet detailing the route I should take. Each room has plenty of information about the poet printed clearly onto boards.

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The furnishings are sparse but give a flavour of the time. In one of the basement rooms a ten minute video plays on a loop, giving us a brief history of the poet’s life.

To say that Keats had a tragic life would be an understatement. His father died in a riding accident when Keats was eight, his widowed mother quickly married a man who proved completely unsuitable. Keats was sent to a boarding school in Enfield, north London where he stayed until he was fourteen and where he fostered a love of poetry and literature. His mother died of consumption so Keats and his brothers were looked after by their grandparents. Keats left school, took up an apprenticeship as an apothecary surgeon and began to write poetry which provided solace in his unhappy world. Around this time, both his brothers died and Keats went to live with Charles Brown where he met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, who lived next door. With no family wealth behind him (that he knew about) Keats gave up his medical aspirations to concentrate on poetry and it was while living at Wentworth Place that he produced the abundant volume of work we are familiar with today. With his own health in decline (he too contracted consumption) he died aged twenty-five in Rome where he had gone to recuperate.

The gardens around Wentworth House are modest and well tended and are free for the public to wander in, sit a while and ponder. There is a small gift shop selling poetry books, tasteful cards and soap of a natural quality. Had there not been a noxious smell of evil boiled vegetables emanating from the bowels of the house while I was wandering around, I’d have given Keats’ House full marks.

My visit lasted around an hour and a half after which caffeine was definitely required so I wended back to the coffee shop I’d espied earlier and took my Americano across the road to the Heath and sat by the pond in gorgeous autumnal sunshine, watching the ducks.

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A little way from here, just up the hill and facing the Heath was my next port of call. Number 2, Willow Road is part of a terrace of three Modernist houses designed and built by architect and designer Ernö Goldfinger. He and his family lived at Number 2, the middle house, from 1939 until his death in 1987.

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Goldfinger is remembered for designing residential tower blocks, some of which are now listed buildings but at the time of their construction were controversial. Willow Road is built of concrete with brick facings and just scraped past the fastidious Hampstead planning department, causing outrage amongst the preciously exclusive locals.

Entry into the house is by timed tickets and for only ten people at a time. Thankfully I had had the foresight to book my place before buying coffee so when I returned at my allotted hour, nine other folk were hovering around outside waiting for the off. The National Trust is the custodian of 2 Willow Road and I have to say that this was one of the times that this fusty old institution got it right. It was bequeathed to the Trust by Goldfinger’s children and the furniture, fittings and artwork are all authentic. The house is stuffed full of modern art – Goldfinger was a collector.

Our guide was well informed and interesting. We were ushered into what had been the garage to watch a short video about the life and times of Ernö Goldfinger before entering the downstairs lobby where an extraordinary spiral staircase gave us access to the rest of the house.

Goldfinger also designed furniture – in particular chairs – and there are examples of his work here. The house would have been ultra modern for its time, with interior partition walls that could create different spaces by being pulled back or closed. The kitchen, however, is tiny and one wonders how his poor wife coped to entertain all the friends and celebrities who frequented the place. Everywhere you look there is art by someone notable: Henry Moore…Bridget Riley…Barbara Hepworth. The bookshelves are full of arty books and there are myriad miscellaneous collections on windowsills and tables. I loved it and didn’t know where to start and stop looking. Sadly, photographs of the interior are forbidden so I can’t share this cornucopia with you but if you ever find yourself in Hampstead, make a bee-line for this place – it’s wonderful!

 

First up, those curious to know the outcome of the wanton littering of my area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with preformed brightly-coloured bovines, here are the details: The first auction to sell off the psychedelic Surrey cows took place last week at Sandown Park. Forty-one of them went – goodness knows where – but a spectacular total of £79,800 was raised. Even by my maths’ appalling standards I make that just under £2000 per cow (or £500 a leg: that’s food for thought…). Many charities will benefit from the sales which can only be a good thing.

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There’s another auction coming up next month at Hampton Court Palace where the aforementioned Peter Blake design will be up for grabs.

 

 

And now (as goes the catchphrase), for something completely different.

The Department of Education, now thankfully without Michael Gove but sadly still lacking anyone who actually has any notion of teaching and learning has dropped the History of Art from the A level syllabus.

What?!!

To study art from ancient civilisations through to the present day is to put some kind of sense and time line into life as we know it today. Art is about expression but it is also provides valuable social documentation. Have we become so superior in this crazed technological world that we think we don’t need to consult the past? As if eradicating this subject isn’t bad enough, there are others that have suffered the same fate: Archaeology. And Creative Writing. And Media Studies. And Humanities. And Home Economics; Economics with Business Studies; Statisitcs; Critical Thinking…and the list* goes on. It might be easier to list the subjects that will still be available.

This of course is the legacy that Gove left after his departure – sadly his presence will be felt for many years to come unless someone with a bit of vision is allowed to take control. Bearing in mind that students now have to remain in education until they are eighteen, what are the majority going to be studying? Where are all these government promised apprenticeship opportunities that will lead to real jobs? Where is the enhanced programme of vocational studies needed to spur on the creators and innovators of the future? Where are those with practical ability going to hone their skills? Certainly not at Mrs May’s proposed grammar schools.

By expecting that every student will end up at university is madness. Yes, everyone has a right to the same opportunities but if those opportunities are so narrow, so academically focussed then we are not catering to the wider skill base our country will desperately need in the future because a slim majority voted to go it alone.

Some of the students I support struggle big-time with academic subjects. With the best will in the world they will not achieve decent grades. They are being forced to take exams at fifteen/sixteen that will propel them towards A levels when something more appropriate to their needs should be readily available. Alternative programmes are few and far between because without academic recognition, schools are deemed to have failed.

It’s going to be a dismal future world without craftsmen and women, without artisans and trades. I don’t see how it’s going to work. Can anyone out there enlighten me?

*Read the full list of culled subjects here.

 

 

I sat, listening with what I hoped was an interested expression, to one of my (on the Spectrum) students as he earnestly explained, in the utmost detail, the intricacies of his Pokémon Go game. This downloadable App swept our nation (and most likely the entire planet) at the start of the summer and is the sole reason that more children than ever were walking around during the holidays with their eyes fixed firmly to the screens of their mobile phones, obsessively collecting virtual cartoon characters. I suppose it at least got them outside in the fresh air and with any luck gave them some insight in to map co-ordinates – but I’m not holding out much hope on the latter. Frankly I just don’t see the attraction of these crudely drawn fantasy figures with their over large eyes, flat colours and lack of detail. I was about to say it’s probably an age thing but our local TV news ran a feature on a man – yes, people, an ADULT, who apparently was the first reported person to have finished the game and was offering help to others for a FEE. How low can one stoop.

As my student launched into a second phase of enthusiastic explanation, the like of which he never displays in any lessons, I felt myself glazing over and for the first time in my life was thankful to hear the bell ring indicating the start of maths. Then, as I sat trying to absorb what my teaching colleague was saying about simplifying expressions so that I’d stand half a chance if any of the students asked me for extra help, I realised that I could have been guilty of a similar useless obsession during my own summer holidays.

It began last term when a friend arrived at work one morning waving her phone at me and asking whether I’d seen the life-size blue cow at the traffic lights.

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She’d managed to snap it while waiting for the green light to prove that she wasn’t going mad. A few neural cogs chugged around and I vaguely remembered my niece (the arty one), mentioning something about a Cow Parade.

So, on further investigation (OK, I Googled it: isn’t that what we all do these days?), I discovered that The Cow Parade reckons it’s the world’s largest public art event, providing artists and chosen charities a chance to benefit from the scheme. Anyone can sponsor a cow – from individuals, to schools to local businesses or multi million pound companies. Each cow is painted – either by an amateur or an established artist and then auctioned to raise money. There have been Cow Parades in different cities across the world since 1999 and over £2.5 million raised for worthy causes. This year the Cow Parade was coming to the Surrey Hills.

From this point on, my friend – I shall refer to her as WF1 (Work Friend 1) and I were on a mission. To see how many cows we could find over the summer, either by ourselves or by meeting up for a walk which would invariably end in a tea shop and doing a bit of cow-spotting on the way.

We started off enthusiastically enough.

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Here’s one looking nicely out of place at the top of Guildford High Street while this mother and calf greet shoppers at the entrance to the Friary Shopping Centre.

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WF1 was better at it than me and would arrive in the staff room with reports of yet another sighting. We met up for a walk across beautiful countryside ending at the Watts Gallery where a couple of painted cows were grazing, one of which had allegedly been decorated by Sir Peter Blake, designer of the Beatles iconic Sergeant Pepper album cover.

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I think what had really happened here was that he’d allowed his signature to be used. I refuse to believe that one of our foremost pop artists would have been content with simple colour blocking when we could have had something fantastical. And those awful plinths! Whoever attached these sculptures to their bases certainly wasn’t over flowing in the imagination department, were they? A little green paint may have helped, or even a yard or two of Astroturf, which to be fair, I did spot a few days later as I spied a cow in the middle of a round-a-bout outside one of Guildford’s Park and Ride facilities.

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But by this time, WF1 and I were becoming a bit bored by the whole thing. Once you’ve seen one painted cow, you’ve seen them all. I was much more taken with this wooden sculpture which I discovered near the Park and Ride when I stopped to photograph the one on the round-a-bout. Although I must have passed it hundreds of times in the car, the  view was always obscured  by a hedge.

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Called ‘Farm Talk,’ the farmer and his bull were sculpted by Jo Wood in 2004 as part of the Wey Valley Rural Art Project.

The Cow Parade cows are due to be auctioned off on Thursday 20th October at a grand bash at Sandown Park. Tickets are from £10 (standing) or £65 for a three course dinner. It’ll be interesting to see how much these vibrant bovines fetch…and even more interesting – what do you actually do with one, once you’ve bought it?