A family ‘do’ took us cross country to Hertford, north of London – three trains there, three trains back. On the way, we changed at Cambridge – ‘the City of Perspiring Dreams’ as it’s known to the top-notch scholars who tread the hallowed precincts. Last year we took the same route and stopped off for a look around. This time we didn’t pop in – too many perspiring tourists for my liking. On the return leg, we changed at Ely, a tiny city with a vast cathedral dominating the flatlands. God’s house can be seen for miles around, demonstrating just how important He used to be to the prince, the pauper and everyone else in between. The city sits on a small patch of highish ground at the heart of the Fens, a once expansive marsh long-since tamed by dykes and ditches and drained for agriculture.
A sign at Ely station caught my eye.
I’ve had a bit of bother with my own Office package of late so it amused me. My picture-taking caught the eye of a ragged local with a lumpy face.
‘Take my picture,’ he insisted. ‘I’m famous, you know. I’ve been on the telly.’
It cost nothing to oblige him and I showed him the snapshot. He smiled and shuffled off down the platform. He may never have been on the box but at least he’s now on the blog.
As for teeny-weeny Ely with its oversized church, calmed waters and bobbing boats, it’s on the bucket list for next year.
And what better place to have one than Brick Lane in London, the curry capital of the UK and popularly known as Banglatown? The area has seen successive waves of immigrants down the centuries – French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution, East European Jews escaping murderous pogroms and, more recently, Bangladeshis seeking work in the sweat shops of the rag trade. There’s no greater symbol of this evolution than the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, a Grade II listed Georgian building which has gone from church to synagogue and now to mosque. Forget the messy Brexit, for me, it represents what London is all about.
The changes are still a-ringing. Brick Lane is rapidly becoming a magnet for creatives and fashionistas, trend-setters and tourists, and the streets provide a canvas for some stunning wall art. We added to the chaotic throng, day trippers on a mission for ‘authentic’ South Asian grub and a catch-up with two old friends. We nattered so much, I hardly took any photos but I did manage to snap this quirky sculpture near Spitalfields Market as we meandered back to Liverpool Street Station to catch our train home. What’s it about? Beats me but I love it.
March was Maker’s Month at the Forum where handy creatives from across the county showcased their passion for all things woven and sewn. Traditional skills have come back into fashion as a welcome antidote to our no-time-to-knit, wear-it-only-once society. I’m all for it. The revival is good for the mind as well as the pocket. Some of the exhibits, though, were plain scary.
Back in the day many working class mothers knitted, and my mother was no exception. I was raised to the clicking of knitting needles, and half-finished woollens could often be found stuffed down the side of the sofa. Mother knitted for all her sprogs – jumpers and cardigans mostly. Here’s one she made earlier for my first school photo.
It itched. That bit I remember.
She also made mittens and we had a balaclava each, which, on a frosty day, made us look like a gang of apprentice muggers.
One day, mother decided to raise her game and invested in a knitting machine on the ‘never, never’ as hire-purchase financing was called. Why ‘never, never’? Because the item was never, never yours until the final payment was made. And if you missed a payment, off it went back to the shop, no money back. I assume she forged my father’s signature as back then, housewives couldn’t get credit. Sadly, mother’s venture into mass production was short-lived; the machine was sent packing by my father when he got home from the barracks. Who knows? She could have been Britain’s answer to Benetton. Or perhaps not, judging by the scratchy cardigan. Nice buttons, though.
This winter’s brought some lively weather to keep us from our slumber and to wake the dead in the funeral parlour next door. Unsurprisingly, the huffing and puffing of storm Eileen and her gusty sisters trying to blow our house down damaged the roof over our heads. So it was over to our property management company to contact our freeholders to contact their insurers to contact the roofers to contact the scaffolders to repair the flashing loosened by the ladies. It’s a long supply chain and, of course, we didn’t get any warning before a couple of butch men in hard hats and tool belts over woolly jumpers arrived to chuck some poles up the side of the microloft. It’s just as well I wasn’t sitting in my underwear and fluffy mules.
I should be used to chance encounters with scaffolders. Before we bought the microloft, the roof of our rented weaver’s cottage had sprung a leak. The workers turned up unannounced then too. But that was in the summer and at least I had something scanty to ogle – discretely, naturally.
And then there was the time back in the day when I had a proper job with a proper office on Kensington High Street. The building had been caged in scaffolding for repainting and repointing. There I was, busy counting beans at my proper desk, when there was a rat-a-tat-tat at the window. I looked up to see my brother-in-law beaming at me.
“Milk and two sugars, please,”
Yes, he’s a butch scaffolder. And yes, I made him a brew.
Certainly there’s more joy than anger on pride marches these days. Yes, attitudes have changed, things are better. But all that glitters is not gold. Recently, Channel Four ran a series of ads made by Pride in London. It was part of the channel’s ‘50 Shades of Gay season’ marking the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. The ads featured belated apologies from parents who rejected or ridiculed their own children because of their offspring’s sexuality or gender identity. Still too many parents disown their own for the sake of family, faith and community. Still too many parents worry about how it looks, not how how it is. Still too many young people suffer bullying and rejection – at school, on the streets, at home. Some cope better than others. Some don’t cope at all. We may be living in the age of sexual enlightenment but suicide rates remain depressingly high. Why is this?
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’
As famously written by poet, Philip Larkin.
Back in the dark ages, my experience with my own family was unusually benign for the times. It helped make me what I am today, for good or ill (no laughing down the back, please). The people in the ads are actors but the message is powerful. That’s why we march. That’s the point of pride.
Now their kids have flown, Liam’s sister and significant other have sold their north London nest and migrated to a chocolate-box cottage with half an acre or so in rural Hertfordshire. Brother-in-law’s sixtieth birthday BBQ provided the perfect opportunity to survey the estate for the first time. It was gold stars all round from their Norwich kin, and a marvellous afternoon was had by all. I’m sure the birthday boy won’t mind me mentioning he was rather upstaged by the astonishing sight of a herd of wild deer trotting past the garden fence. They stopped and stared for just an instant before bolting off. This city slicker has never been up close and personal to a herd of anything before. Be still my racing heart. Apparently, the stag often makes himself at home on their lawn. I wonder if Bambi poo is any good for the roses?
To make the most of the weekend, we lodged overnight in Cambridge and the next day took a ramble around the famous city streets, following in the footsteps of some of the greatest thinkers of all time – Darwin, Newton, Hawking and our PhD’d niece, to name a just a few. The ‘city of perspiring dreams’ (a nickname coined by the student’s union) is truly impressive and the ancient colleges tightly packed along one side the leafy River Cam are simply stunning. But the flow of weekend tourists was overwhelming, the cyclists annoying and the price of pretty much everything inflated. In my romantic mind’s eye, I had a vision of floppy-haired scholars in straw hats punting down the river like a scene from Brideshead Revisited, but this was rather spoilt by an armada of long-lensed Koreans in baseball caps. In the end, these drinkers abandoned the thinkers and we caught the train home. And we made it to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival’s Party in the Park just before last orders.
Some snaps of the lovely Cambridge as we dodged the cyclists…
Of late, boozy gigs with ancient comrades from old London Town have been as rare as ginger imams. Somehow life just gets in the way. So, one evening I fired off a text.
“Boys. It’s high time we had a coven.”
After a flurry of replies, it was game on.
I always get down to the big city a tad early – to imbibe the vibe and cast my spell over the Soho boys. I know, hopelessly deluded. Gay scene wise, Soho isn’t quite what it was. Online ‘dating’ has seen to that. Nevertheless, a few old haunts stumble on, attracting the after-school crowd. I wandered into the Duke of Wellington (or the Welly as it’s affectionately known, my spiritual home back in the day). As I headed for the bar, I spied a former squeeze in the corner of my eye. By the time I’d been served, the hairy old crow had taken flight, leaving half his pint behind. Clearly, my magic wand has lost its vigour. I wouldn’t mind but it’s over twenty years since we stepped out.
After a sherry or two with my London witches, we pitched up at a local brasserie for a bite and a long natter. We wittered on for hours about everything and nothing and by the time we were hoarse, the staff were sweeping up and stacking chairs around us. It was time to mount our broomsticks, and as befits three old sorcerers whose powers to bewitch have all but withered, we were tucked up in our beds by the stroke of midnight.
This is what we looked like twenty years ago before our allure had faded. Obviously, that’s not yer actual Taj Mahal. We were in Blackpool for a dirty weekend. And where better?
And this is what we look like now. No wonder our wands have dropped off.