Showing posts with label culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label culture. Show all posts

Monday 22 November 2021

Croatia: in love with Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik, jewel of the Adriatic, once a prosperous trading hub, now a tourist's dream. Our half-term visit in October to this beautiful old city still glows in my memory. After 18 months of being confined to the UK, it was our first trip abroad post-Covid. Blinking sleepily, we stumbled through the sliding doors at the airport into a sunlit world with china-blue skies and breathtaking views of the glittering sea. 

Stradun - paved in white marble
We felt like we'd been magically teleported back into a European summer. Wall-to-wall sunshine, with highs of 21 degrees. Woo-hoo! Back home, it was raining. With a rush of euphoria, I realised the endless form-filling and antigen tests were finally worth it. How lucky were we.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Screen life: the films I've loved

Today I'm sitting at my computer in three jumpers, looking through the window at snowflakes swirling around the garden. As ever, I'm peering through a screen at the real world beyond. The pandemic has turned us into a nation of voyeurs, gleaning our entertainment from Zoom, television, mobile phones... and now windows.

A snow globe in front of a window
Living in a bubble
Not that I'm complaining. I've had my fresh air this morning and it's chilly enough in the house, let alone outside. I'm also quite a fan of Zoom and its ilk. Without video conferencing, I wouldn't be able to read Jacqueline Wilson to my nieces, catch up with family/friends, watch live theatre, enjoy Arts Society talks or take part in an upcoming Chinese New Year quiz this weekend. This is life in 2021.

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Imagine a world

Here we are again in Covid country. Either I've become habituated to lockdowns, or I secretly crave a quiet existence, as I'm not finding it too hard this time around... as long as I ration my consumption of the news. Occasionally, for my own buoyancy, I need to think about something other than mounting Covid cases.

A photo album showing the World Trade Center
Photos of the twin towers in my album
The big distraction for me in lockdown 3 has been my writing. I'm inching towards the finish line (first draft) of my latest novel about New York in 2001. When I conceived this book in the summer, it was intended to be a light piece of escapism, based on my own experiences of living in Manhattan during the late 1990s (more City, not much Sex). Inevitably the story has become a shade darker as September 11 looms in the latter stages of the plot line. 

Tuesday 13 October 2020

My love of LitFest season

An intriguing nugget I've learnt from my two weeks of #litfest indulgence? The novelist Ann Patchett slipped into her favourite ballgowns during lockdown to promote new books on Instagram. She runs her own bookshop in Nashville, Tennessee, and was forced to get creative to sell some books - it's heartwarming - go take a look at @ParnassusBooks on Instagram.

Andrew Marr's book, The Elizabethans on a yellow chair
Lots of bedtime reading...
My attendance of the Henley Literary Festival has been a bit different this year - for obvious reasons. Instead of strolling around picturesque venues in Henley (and feasting on Gower Cottage brownies), I've been sat at home watching various sessions via Crowdcast. 

The 2020 festival has been as stimulating as ever, bar a few interruptions as people wandered into my viewing suite (aka kitchen): Mum, what's for supper? or Has anyone seen my wallet? In response, I've had to ramp up my particular superpower, an ability to zone-everyone-out while I'm focused on something more interesting (a skill usually only deployed on long car journeys).

Wednesday 10 June 2020

White privilege, black lives

The Black Lives Matter protest came to the small market town of Henley yesterday, a mark of how widespread the movement has become. We were late to the protest - only hearing about it by chance - but managed to make the tail-end, joining a crowd of students, families and older couples in the main square.

Black Lives Matter placards during a protest in Henley on Thames
Protesters in Henley-on-Thames
There was a small police presence (a rare sight in our law-abiding town). Earlier, I was told, the officers had shown solidarity with the crowd by kneeling in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds - a tribute to George Floyd, whose neck was knelt on by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, for the same duration of time. Long enough for George Floyd to plead for his mother and long enough for him to die from asphyxiation.

Tuesday 14 May 2019

Exploring Lanzarote

When the sun comes out at this time of year, I want to lie outside and soak up rays like a solar battery. This year, I got an early charge when we flew to Lanzarote for a week's stay over the Easter holidays.

Swimming pool at Princesa Yaiza hotel, Lanzarote
One of Yaiza's many pools
We took a family suite at the hotel Princesa Yaiza in the Playa Blanca resort. The hotel was vast and we were tucked away in a distant wing (the family zone) but there was lots to keep us entertained. As well as three swimming pools and numerous restaurants in the hotel complex, there was the 'Kikoland' sports facility, where we got addicted to paddle tennis (a cross between tennis and squash). We could also walk to a pretty (if busy) beach nearby.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Vive l'ind├ępendence!

This time last week I dropped off my 15-year old daughter at school for her French exchange trip. In the dark, lamp-lit morning (4:30am), seeing her onto the school coach felt like a surreal experience. In a haze of orange street-light, I was sending off  into the unknown, to stay with a family I'd never met before. Instinctively, I didn't want to let her go, even though my head was telling me this was a good opportunity for her.

My daughter at ease with her new independence!
On the quiet drive home, I gave myself a stern pep talk. As a good parent, I needed to allow my daughter her independence and the freedom to try out new experiences.

Tuesday 5 March 2019

Spring house makeover

At long last, spring is in the air! I can't say I feel the urge to spring-clean, but all this lovely sunshine is raising my energy levels on the house front. We moved into a period home last October and are in the throes of figuring out what needs renovating. The to-do list seems to keep on growing...

Fliers of exhibitors at the Henley House & Garden Show 2019
Exhibitors at the House & Garden Show

We could live here quite happily for another year or so without doing anything, but we're under pressure to get the heavy lifting out the way before my daughter takes her GCSEs next summer. 

Tuesday 4 December 2018

In the pink

A friend and I were discussing what I should buy her little girl for Christmas. We hit upon Lego. "Friends Lego, the pink stuff?" I clarified nervously. She grimaced apologetically: "Yes, I think she'd like it. It would make a change from all her brother's kits." We both experienced that twitchy, self-correcting thought - in this 'woke' world of new feminism, should we really be buying our girls pink Lego?

A bouquet of pink roses
Are pink roses just for girls?
The fact is my daughter enjoyed her pink Lego back in the day and I suspect this little girl would too. I'm guessing the 'Friends-themed' Lego range wouldn't have expanded as quickly as it has, if it didn't sell. The treehouses, camper vans and art studios, all decked out in pastel shades, are clearly designed to appeal to a feminine sensibility. Heck, I probably would have loved Friends Lego too as a child, had it been around then. 

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Relics of the past

Victorian-style dresser in old kitchen
What secrets does our house keep?
Credit: William Lam
Archaeologists recently found a fragment of Roman pottery in my home town, in the car park near our local Waitrose supermarket. My first thought was that the discovery would make a nice premise for a Latin text book: 
Metella and her slave Grumio visit the fish counter at Waitrose. Ever mindful of landfill, Metella brings her clay cooking pot to carry the fresh salmon home, but on the way back to their villa, naughty Grumio drops his mistress' pot and it shatters on the ground... Heu!

Wednesday 6 June 2018

Foreign fields

Travel diary
WWI sites in Belgium and France

Every evening in the Belgian town of Ypres, people of all nationalities gather at the Menin Gate to remember the young men who died in the Great War. At eight o'clock sharp, a group of buglers sound the last post to commemorate more than 54,000 missing Commonwealth soldiers. Their names are engraved on the honey-coloured walls, interminable lists of men who went missing in action. They died in the fields around Ypres, but their bodies have never been found or identified. 

Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium (The Last Post)
Crowds gather at the Menin Gate
This ceremony has been performed every evening since 1928, apart from when Ypres was under German occupation during the second-world war. I attended with my family one Sunday in late May at the beginning of a half-term trip to visit the sites of World War I. The aim was to enrich the kids' understanding of the war, although I think we all came away with a deeper sense of what went on during this terrible period of history, viewed by some as a European civil war.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Twelve new things I learnt last week

Notes from the Henley Literary Festival 2017

Blogger's son and children's author Katherine Rundell, writer of The Explorer
My son meets children's author Katherine Rundell,
who researched her latest novel The Explorer
on an expedition to the Amazon rainforest
What a journey! I've travelled from the Ottoman Empire to the Tudor Court, across Russia, dipped a toe into Georgian and Victorian England, scurried through a few war zones and glimpsed behind the scenes of a coalition government. 

It has been exhilarating, mind-blowing, delightfully informative and, at times, a little exhausting. My conduit for this dizzying tour of culture was the Henley Literary Festival, a book fest that pops up every autumn like a mushroom in my back yard.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Becoming Jane-ites in Bath

As a family, we have hit that magical sweet spot where the kids are becoming interested in the same kind of stuff as the grown-ups. In other words, we have managed to successfully mould them in our own image, which makes holiday excursions a tad more scintillating. No more soft-play areas for us!

Roman Baths, Bath
The original Roman Baths
Over half term, we booked a few days in the elegant city of Bath, staying in Jane Austen's former home at 4 Sydney Place. The author lived there with her parents from 1801-1805, before the death of her father forced them into cheaper accommodation. 

I should explain that the house has since been turned into holiday flats by Bath Boutique Stays and that we occupied 'Mr Darcy's Apartment' on the second floor. The prospect of treading the same flagstones as one of my literary heroines proved oddly thrilling! Each morning, I enjoyed imagining her journeying forth with her parasol and her bonnet, and a little Austen sass.

Monday 19 September 2016

Drama in the night

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mum

"Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" was King Lear's famed reaction to the storm. "Where the hell are my children?" was mine last week as I lay in bed listening to rolls of thunder shake our house to its very foundations. 

Lightening and thunderstorm in the night sky
Where are the kids?
© Jaroslav Noska | Dreamstime.com
Normally, a rollicking, good thunderstorm never fails to bring all three children running into my bedroom like rats deserting a sinking ship, but last week as the storm bellowed outside my open window, there was no sign of them. My first thought was: Oh well, I'll just go back to sleep! But then I started to panic. What if Walking Toddler was a gibbering wreck, too frightened even to call out my name? What if one of them has been struck by lightening unbeknownst to me?

Thursday 8 September 2016

Passing through Barcelona

The Skybar at the Grand Hotel Central, Barcelona
A visitor to the Skybar, Grand Hotel Central
So I have a friend who is currently sailing around the world in a yacht with her husband and young family. I am following their progress avidly on Facebook - they are mid-Atlantic as I write. A small part of me would love to be on that boat, embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, instead of dancing circles in Henley-on-Thames. But it will never be. I don't have the nerve or the skills required.

Travelling has its own mystique for me. As the child of ex-pats, I have never felt entirely comfortable living in England. I much prefer the thrill of foreign cultures, even if it's only a week in France! Somehow, I feel more alive when I'm in someone else's country. 

Monday 13 April 2015

Cornish fantasies

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark in the BBC series
Just on my way, Ross...
© Mammoth Screen / BBC
Last week I saddled up my horse and galloped off to find Poldark. Well, in a manner of speaking. It was more a case of cramming the boot of our Volvo with buckets, spades, suitcases, wellies, wine and coats, whilst leaving a slither of space for the dog. Meanwhile in the back seat, the kids were wedged in with a box of board games and various bags of food (including a rogue red pepper that had escaped its casing) as I rested my feet on another three bags in the front. Only my husband enjoyed the luxury of a footwell, but then someone needed to drive. This was us, off on our hols to the West Country.

Our destination was a Landmark Trust cottage, tucked inside the border of Cornwall, with no television, wifi or mobile signal to pollute its venerable rafters. Quite an undertaking for my family with our various addictions to Instagram, Facebook and Amazon instant video. In their stead, we had Cluedo, a 1000-piece jigsaw, chess and Bananagrams to while away the time. 

View of Daymer Bay, Cornwall
Poldark country
How were we going to cope? Oddly enough we felt excited about our wifi-less wilderness - not exactly 18th century Poldark, but a return to more simple pleasures. Regretfully not much bare-chested scything came to pass, but there was a fair bit of trekking along coastal paths while gazing over the clifftops at the turquoise sea and spumes of white spray below (where, oh where, were those pilchards?).

Wednesday 25 February 2015

A new kind of alchemy

A few months ago I had the pleasure of shepherding a group of excitable seven-year olds around the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The highlights of our trip, according to the consensus view, were Guy Fawkes' lantern, a mummified cat from ancient Egypt and the contents of our packed lunch. So when a glass case of Eastern porcelain caught my fancy, I knew I was going out on a limb. There was a typed notice inside the case that particularly intrigued me: 

East and West: a difference of opinion
In the West an object is considered more beautiful and valuable if it is in perfect and original condition. Contrast this with the Far East where imperfections and repairs can be considered to enhance the beauty and significance of ceramics. The dish [below], showing the rising moon, has been mended with gilded lacquer. The gilding draws attention to the restored area. A Western mender or restorer would have aimed to create an invisible repair.

Porcelain dish, Arita, Japan, 1600-1699
Porcelain dish, Arita, Japan, 1600-1699 
The rim has been repaired with gilded lacquer using a technique known as maki-e

Thursday 3 October 2013

My literary week

Stella Rimington, former head of MI5
Dame Stella: MI5's first female head
Credit: James Gifford-Mead
We had a marvellous day out last Saturday: we went en famille to an open day for a private school in Abingdon. There were newly hatched chicks in the biology lab, smarties in the maths room and trampolining in the gym! The kids were in heaven, but what impressed me most was the onsite theatre, two-tier library and purpose-built lecture hall. I realised this was what we would be paying our fees for: the chance to plant our children in a glorious hothouse.

Now that my days in full-time education are long gone, I realise I miss that heady atmosphere of learning new things and discovering a world in books... which is why I adore The Henley Literary Festival. Once a year, thanks to this jamboree of writers, historians and bloggers, I get my literary fix. The festival takes place right on my doorstep for a week at the end of September and I have been attending ever since former journalist, Sue Ryan, set it up seven years ago. It has gone from strength to strength, selling over 14,000 tickets this year.