Sunday, 27 June 2010

River Legends

Two members of the Cossey Family : lightermen on The Thames by George Owen Cossey who died this year.

On the hottest day of an English summer (so not that hot then) what better than to wrestle with a 20 ft oar or ‘sweep’ and help power a very heavy steel barge seven miles up the River Thames.  The tide is with you but it’s still a Herculean task over a couple of hours.

Racing barges today.  Two men run up a small ramp and take less than a dozen strokes before handing over to the other pair. The fifth man steers with a sweep.

Yesterday’s Annual Barge Driving race from  Greenwich to The Palace of Westminster that I watched from The Port of London Authority’s beautiful launch ‘The Royal Nore’, celebrates the strength and adroit handling of all kinds of river craft for which The Company of Watermen and Lightermen are famous. Well, in my opinion not famous enough.    

The Race starts at Greenwich Naval Hospital, designed by Christopher Wren completed in 1712.

 One of the 'diamond geezers' at the prize-giving.  The Freemen and Apprentices of the Company of Watermen & Lightermen are a tough breed.

A few years ago I worked for Alan Lee Williams who had completed his seven year apprenticeship as a waterman and lighterman before becoming a Member of Parliament and going on to other great things. The watermen are concerned with passenger transport and the lightermen with the carriage of goods but whichever way you work the river, it seems to get into the bloodstream. There are several redoubtable London families who have been involved with The Thames over generations.

Alan L W couldn’t get it out of his blood either and would annually renew his towing licence. I jumped at the opportunity to accompany him and asked naively ‘So what will be towing?’ The answer came ‘Well, rubbish of course.’  Oh well, I thought, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it and that means me.  Apparently there’s very little waterborne trade left these days.

The stuff Londoners would rather not think about in yellow containers

The next bolter was that I had to get up at 4am to drive down to Gravesend and catch the tide on the Cory tug ‘Retainer’. I wouldn’t get up at such a daft hour for anything else; and this, it emerged, was to be my finest hour.

You can call me Tugboat Rosie now.  I took the helm as a string of several barges slewed round a river bend behind me and then I was jumping between them like a gazelle. Actually I lie about that bit.  I was shaking with horizontal vertigo as I gingerly unclipped the bindings on one container and took slow motion steps along the concrete gunnels. I felt sick as the skipper brilliantly judged the fast ebbing tide in the process of berthing alongside the depot at Mucking Flats. What seemed like two minutes later, an evil expanse of mud appeared which always gives me the most ghastly feeling of claustrophobia.

Lucky  bargee.  Feeling proprietorial about the rubbish in my lifejacket with Alan looking on.  If I told you I have this picture in a silver frame...

You see, I am not talking about my heroics (I had all the bravado of a whelk) but those of the lightermen who do this work in all weathers and in in the dark. On an icy morning, the ropes have to be bashed into life with a length of two-by-four. I watched in awe as the men deftly juggled their juggernaut barges into changing formations. And I appreciated their rough charm and patience towards the honorary apprentice. (Little did they know I already had a degree in lower-deck language.)  And what was great was our fat boys’ breakfast and a rest on the bunk waiting for the tide. There are bursts of activity and then everyone can settle down to do the crossword. We disembarked at 9 pm – a pretty long day. Meanwhile London was completely unaware that all its landfill was being quietly and efficiently disposed of. (Don’t ask me about the recycling implications, this was about ten years ago..)

 Reunited yesterday with Jack Faram MBE, my fellow crew member on that voyage.  A former much respected trade unionist, he spends much of his retirement taking the disabled and disadvantaged on narrowboat excursions on the River Lea. He also works with Alan Lee Williams on Transport on Water, an organisation which aims to reinvigorate the river's working culture.  

Many thanks to The Company of Watermen & Lightermen, The Port of London Authority and Transport on Water for fabulous hospitality in The Royal Nore yesterday.

 Top two images from the Barge Driving Race Official Programme; Greenwich Naval Hospital courtesy Wikipedia

The Triumph of Hope over Experience II

Germany 4 : England 1

And the man who painted the front of his cottage in Bray white with a red cross over it will be opening a new tin of Farrow & Ball tomorrow.

The South African sun sets over England's World Cup hopes.

We was horribly robbed of our second goal.  But we shouldn't have played 4 - 4 -2 .  But what does that mean?

"We  have to go back to factory settings."

 Oh dearie dear, as the commentator on my radio kept saying. "We might as well bring David Beckham on in his suit." There's apoplexy breaking out in every pub in the land.  I feel the pain of our supporters but truth to tell I can't really care.

Friday, 25 June 2010

In Berkeley Square...

A nightingale sang...

And in Moscow.  I always wondered how a nightingale really sang.  Wait for its sublime little voice to

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Triumph of Hope over Experience

FREE with Tatler July issue!!!!   Never buy the July or August edition of anything.  Half the staff are on holiday, it'll be thin and disappointing. No wonder you get the tacky gift. When will I learn to resist?

You know you're old when you absolutely hate shoes like this  :

Shoe crimes perpetrated by Giuseppe Zanotti and Gina (no. 3)
Photos courtesy of Tatler

Sunday, 13 June 2010

That Polish Wedding

This is my favourite image of our daughter Olivia's marriage to the fine young Tomasz Grabowski in eastern Poland, an hour from Lublin. The musicians came from Warsaw and stayed two days.

So our big fat Polish wedding was the antidote to the heavily orchestrated, anxiety-laden, cosmically expensive affair that we are so used to these days.  The party started with our coach crash, fifteen minutes after I had collected fifty English guests from the airport.  Nobody was hurt or badly shaken and we adjourned to a bar whilst a replacement arrived. Not your usual kind of icebreaker, it has to be said. (That's the hapless Mercedes owner in the apricot shirt. What a gentleman, he never uttered a word of reproof after we comprehensively ruined his day.)

Olivia and Tom live in London but she was insistent they should go to his family for the wedding. They arrived a fortnight beforehand and set it all up then, including obeying the custom of visiting the Polish guests and inviting them in person.   She and I didn't really know what to expect (I arrived three days in advance)  but we went with the flow, with a lot of help from the neighbours.  It was a stunning community effort. I remember calling my husband to say I was up to my elbows in sausage meat and madly chopping onions with the ladies for the world's largest and most delicious Bigos stew.  That was for Day II as it turned out.

The men cut down silver birch saplings from the surrounding plantations and decorated a traditional wooden barn. There was no point interfering and fussing about the mis-en-scene: we'd chosen to do it this way and were delighted that everyone went to so much trouble.  

Well, almost.. Instead of a sea of ruched satin and a groaning table of food Polish style,  Olivia wanted flowers on white damask tablecloths. I already suspected they'd be polyester with a bluish sheen and yes, she wept when she saw them. Then there was a  'matrimonial' with Tom about the soft drinks in plastic bottles going on the tables but that's about the sum of the pre-nuptial panic. That is, if you discount her reading the riot act to the workers who were making free with the wedding  beer out of a nice tap. Naturally there would be vodka - shedloads of the stuff. Champagne was the only thing that came at eye-watering expense but what the hell.

Incidentally, we were to hear a knocking sound when the party started.  Someone was banging in a nail to hang up his jacket. 

The bride and her father got to the church on time in the vintage American sedan, despite the fact it had been pulled over for speeding on its way to collect them.  A large table decoration of artificial flowers and ribbons fixed to the bonnet (the hood?) by a magnet flew off as they turned a corner but my husband fielded it. He had it in his lap for the rest of way.

Couldn't resist this picture. But I am not going to bore you with the whole church thing.
Suffice it to say that we had found a priest the day before who could speak English. I did think that was cutting it a bit fine.  Olivia was four months gone but nobody seemed to mind.

Nobody quite knew who this little old lady was but we were pleased she wanted to join us.

When the newly weds arrived at Tom's parents' little farm, they were greeted with the  bread, salt and vodka symbolic of the sustenance, pleasure and vicissitudes of marriage. Glasses hurled over the shoulder, yes!

A latter-day Botticelli's Rites of Spring?  The time was early May.

After a shy start to the reception, the Brits and the Poles were soon dancing  together (a pair of false teeth flew across the floor which my husband also fielded)  between elaborate food dishes that kept on coming.  At one point my eldest son exclaimed 'Ah, I see this is the fish and gateau course!'  Later, an international football match..

There's the goalie, a young doctor friend of ours, in his morning suit.  

Delightful Polish relatives and friends

A pair of our guests about to leave in this, adding a touch of the surreal.  That wheatfield had never seen such excitement one way and another.

As night fell, the hog roast arrived in a white van:

No modish cuisine here. Love the banana tusks.

The whole experience was riotously funny, riotously drunken, but I write all this with great affection. We weren't expecting sophistication and got what we really wanted, an authentic gregarious and massively enjoyable rural Polish wedding.

The End

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Antidote To Treating Your Body As A Temple


am always reluctant to plunder the viral soup on the web for an easy post but I do love these witty juxtapositions. In case you haven't seen them?  There are moments here that remind me of my daughter's riotous wedding in rural Poland.

Thanks to whoever it was who compiled these.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The English Country Blogger

When I'm affecting my urban cool mode, I tell rural types that I only like to see the countryside through double glazing because I know it teases. Except that they look at me witheringly and uncomprehendingly. By then it's too late to say that we once bought a coastguard house on top of a cliff in Dorset, without electricity or running water ten years later. That big blotch in the picture represents the row of seven grimly but solidly built dwellings that look so out of place on the footpath that we frequently met the gaze of walkers down the other end of a pair of binoculars, leaning against our wall.  The painter Augustus John once stayed there but so did some IRA bombers on the run, before our time.  For many years there was an old rowing boat parked outside, confiscated from smugglers pour encourager les autres. The story goes that they were made to carry it up there (where the coastguards made it unseaworthy) - no mean feat up 500 ft of precipitous smugglers' path. Thomas Hardy's short story The Distracted Preacher is a rollicking tale of the Revenue men versus the smugglers who took this very route.

I have just returned from staying nearby for a couple of days and much regret that we didn't get to walk up there.  The first day it was shrouded in mist; the second day I fell to painting it instead. And then I  fancied myself attempting The Diary of An English Country Lady with a sketch of some bois trouvé.  I found it in on a lush secret path from the beach, the trees dripping and glistening after the rain.  I was taken by the radioactive green of the lichen and the alien fungus growing out of it.  I wish I could pretend I wasn't in the East End of London as I write this or that I won't be back to compulsively drawing shoes now. (I am such a poseur.)

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Hat Shock

Clearly, I had internalised this..

and this..

when I saw a couture hat in a beautiful shop in Berlin a year or so back.  I tried it on and it looked fabulous darling!  But being a little small, I asked them to make me another that would be more comfortable. I don't recall asking them to scale the whole thing up.  When a large pink box arrived in London I could barely contain my excitement until...

The look of dismay on my face was occasioned by the entry of the artist formerly known as my husband who not only roared with laughter but started singing Haul 'Em Down You Zulu Warriors!  a number more often heard in the communal bath after a rugby match.  Ok, he's still my husband.  

I took a deep breath and strimmed it, leaving road kill all over the bedroom floor. And I can now wear it out in public without a couple of stiff gins. 

 Nice to know I'm in good company.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Tidy Mind (or The Guest from Hell)

Original image from

I found myself staying in an Admiral’s residence at the weekend.  A handsome Georgian house, our bedroom was on the top floor looking out over the harbour and there were naval ships of an earlier era on the walls.  I loved the little white bowl with its gold rim containing two pills in a dark green bubble strip. Stuck in the base of the bowl was a utilitarian dynotape message in white on black SEASICK PILLS. (Seriously, a design classic.)  It was all charming except that something kept catching my eye: a big basket of not terribly wonderful white artificial flowers on a good mahogany chest of drawers. They just cancelled out everything that was so pleasing.  If she should read this, I do hope the delightful admiral’s wife will forgive me for tucking them away in the bottom of the wardrobe. So naughty, I know. At least I didn’t steal the little white bowl, tempting as it was.

When I confessed this to Mr. Toby Worthington he kindly absolved my sin and admitted that he has been known to fully rearrange hotel rooms. “Really, it's doing the management a favour, if only they'd see it that way.” Every time I think of it, I can’t stop laughing.

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