The first fifty little boats are now hanging in the bathroom. Sailing boat bunting really does improve the start of each day (even if it is almost impossible to capture properly with my slightly slapdash approach to photography).
Although our seasons are no longer reliable, November is heading towards the end of autumn. Next month, regardless of the temperature, it will be winter. I decided to spend today doing a little autumnal baking. First Nanaimo Bars, for which a friend gave me the recipe, saying they were amazing. They are a Canadian speciality and have even been featured on a postage stamp. Since Canadian trees are famous for their autumn colour, this clearly counted as an autumnal recipe. Called a dessert bar, I’m not sure whether they should be eaten as a pudding or at tea-time. They are a sort of unbaked traybake and staggeringly good. I think elevenses, lunch, tea or supper would all be suitable times.
I am the generation that prefers Guy Fawkes Night to Hallowe’en and my childhood Guy Fawkes Nights were always accompanied by toffee apples (as well as jacket potatoes cooked in the embers of the bonfire and the obligatory burnt fingers). I wanted to make an apple cake and reasoned that the addition of toffee would only improve my standard recipe. I was afraid the toffee would melt and run out of the tin so I added most of it about ten minutes before the end. The result was apple cake with an almost impenetrable layer of toffee on the top. It’s very good but needs a little refinement.
It’s autumn. Every morning I look out of the kitchen window and the colours of the witch hazel remind me that summer is over. Not that I mind; the garden has shifted and the colours of the leaves and grasses are beautiful. There are even some flowers.
There’s been a lot of rain and I’ve noticed that grasses, in particular, look beautiful with raindrops hanging from their wafty stems. I’ve also realised that they are impossible to photograph successfully, at least with my fairly basic camera and even more basic ‘point and click’ attitude. Next year’s forget-me-nots were easier.
Many years ago I fell in love with a house in Edinburgh. Or, to be exact, I fell in love with its bay window. It was a perfectly ordinary Victorian house but there was a table in the bay window, with a lamp and a pile of books. I had no idea who lived there but I imagined wonderful books being written at the table. I came home and rearranged the front room and this is now the table where I do much of my writing. For most of the year the grasses create a perfect screen from the street, particularly at this time of year with their airy plumes and autumnal colours.
I’ve bought bulbs from de Jaeger again this year. They are slightly more expensive than many others (especially if you aren’t careful when choosing the cultivars) but last year I had a 100% success rate. Every single bulb I planted produced a flower and most lasted very well. This has never happened before. I’ve planted bulbs and, at best 75% have flowered. The aim this year was to plan carefully and buy fewer bulbs as I knew I could rely on them. Of course, like a small child in a sweet shop, I bought more than I intended. But I have planted them all, a bit late for the daffs and alliums, and a bit early for the tulips, but they are at least all in the ground.
For the last few weeks I have been treading water as far as these posts are concerned. When Ann Wood first wrote about the Hundred Day Project, way back in March, she warned that it was important to have a plan for the bad days. Recently there have been a lot of days which have been busy rather than bad but the end result has been the same. The plan for these weeks was to make boats and bunting and castles, improve my drawing and push my making. Instead of which I have relied on patchwork to fill the posts.
My job as the Shop Scribe at Hatchards is always uneven; the year is split into times when I work long hours and other times when I barely do any work at all. Now I’m used to this, I love it. The past few weeks have been taken up by the Christmas Catalogue, which is now done. It is in the shop and has been sent out and is, I trust, solving everyone’s Christmas list problems. It’s full of lovely books, is very pretty and I hope there will be something for everyone in it. If you’d like to be sent a copy, just email the shop (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you’re after recommendations Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth was, predictably, my favourite book. The runners up were Dr Seuss’s Horse Museum, Restoration Stories by Philippa Stockley and Scent Magic by Isabel Bannerman. The first is fun and the second two are full of houses I’d like to live in and ideas from Isabel Bannerman’s garden that I want to incorporate into my, admittedly much smaller, plot.
I now have almost six weeks of only working in the children’s department one day a week and I want to make the most of the time. Here are the next six boats for the bathroom bunting – numbers 41 to 46.
For about three years this partly-made patchwork has hung over the door. Originally, when I was going to move to the seaside and have a proper spare room it was going to be one of a pair on the spare beds. There would be a countryside counterpart to the seaside quilt to reflect the dual aspects that my life would have. The seaside patchwork was great fun to plan and was finished comparatively quickly. I quilted with waves and I like the back almost as much as the front. Slightly embarrassingly, I have enough sea-sidey fabric left to make at least one more quilt, if not two. I appreciate the photos would look better if I had ironed the quilt but I had pushed the cat off the bed to take them and if I then took this quilt off, ironed it and turfed her off again (she is sitting pointedly very near the bed) I would have been even more unpopular than I already am. Think well-used rather than crumpled.
The meadow quilt was more problematic. When I decided not to move I tried to convert it into a bedspread for my bed but the central panel was the wrong shape and as I had run out of the background fabric I couldn’t alter it. Every few months I would get it down, replan it, add a few more patches and then hang it back on the door when it didn’t really improve. Today I finally faced the fact that it will never work as it is and unpicked the central part, leaving me with a future meadow-patterned picnic rug or tablecloth and four much more useful strips of patchwork which have the potential to be joined together into a far better quilt. There are a lot of ragged edges but can be fixed. I’m regarding the whole thing as a step forwards rather than back.
Some years ago a chance conversation between two editors standing by the coffee machine at the publisher Pavilion resulted in these books.
It is probably safe to admit now that, at the time, I hadn’t read much poetry since school. I’d bought poetry collections and anthologies. I’d even left them in conspicuous places in the fond hope that I’d get into the habit of regularly reading poetry. And, for a time, I would. But then, gradually, the book would move down the pile until, a few weeks or even months later, I would rediscover it and start again.
Being asked to compile an anthology of poems about London seemed like a dream come true. I was (and still am) very fond of London, I was curious to discover the city in verse and I wanted to read more poetry. Now working on my eighth collection, I am so glad I said ‘yes’ when I was asked. Actually pretty well all the occasions I’ve said ‘yes’ and taken a slightly blind leap into the dark have been good decisions. It’s mostly the ‘no’s’ that one regrets.
Friends, A Poem for Every Day of the Year has just been published and I’m at the stage where I regard it as a favoured child. There is a joke amongst my friends that I can walk into a bookshop and spot my books at fifty paces. This one is, I think, particularly pretty. I can say that as I had no hand in the design other than to say ‘Oh yes, that’s beautiful, thank you.’ The brief was that the poems had to be about friendship, rather than love, which was far harder than I had expected. Most poets are obsessed with love (or the lack of it); a seemingly innocent verse would end up with the poet looking at his muse lying naked in bed or the charming subject of the poem would suddenly open the buttons of her blouse to reveal……well, you can imagine. Fairly soon I realised that the people we love should, ideally, also be friends, which widened the scope. It was a delightful anthology to compile. I deliberately chose poems that were uplifting and spent my days reading about life-long friendships, faithfulness and fun. I hope the collection will do the same for readers.
This may be my new favoured child but I am still fond of its sibling, Nature, A Poem for Every Day of the Year. Particularly since they look so charming together.
This week Lily, my god-daughter, came to make papier mâché. As we only had an afternoon, I realised that the drying times were going to need to be speeded up. I discovered that wallpaper paste dries beautifully in a low oven (Gas ¼) cutting the time from several hours to about thirty minutes. Research revealed that it isn’t possibly to dry acrylic paint the same way as it bakes rather than dries. A slow speed on a hairdryer works here, drying the paint in minutes.
As we also had to fit lunch, chatting and afternoon tea into the time, her box only got its first layer of paper but it has joined the ranks of my half-made pieces to be finished at a later date. I sewed (and ate scones) while she pasted and the sewing room / studio felt like a gentle hive of creative activity – apart from Matilda who spent the entire afternoon asleep in the only comfortable chair.
September is one of my favourite months. Partly because it is ‘autumn’ but nearly always behaves as if it is still summer; it feels like stolen time, a sort of permanently sunny bank holiday. At the end of the month I went to Devon and, driving there, I was surprised how autumnal the countryside looked. It may still have been summer in London but the fields and woodlands of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset all had a distinctly golden tinge. It was lovely but in a slightly wistful way. As I was driving, in the interests of safety, there are no photos.
My friend lives by the seaside and this too had tipped from the buckets and spades of summer to deserted expanses of sand. But it was still warm enough to paddle.
This has nothing to do with gardens but it was one of the best puddings I’ve had for a long time. It was called something like ‘Every Child’s Worst Nightmare’ and tasted every bit as good as it looked. Thank you Relish in Ilfracombe
As a child I loved playing shops with Mum’s sewing basket. As this was a ‘basket’ which actually consisted of a basket, an old wooden chest and two huge wicker hampers full of fabric, a cabinet of cotton reels and an extensive button box, there was plenty of scope for stock. I would set everything out on the table and then solemnly ‘sell’ her whatever she needed. Transactions were carried out with buttons as currency so, while it may have been the deciding factor in my spending much of my life working in shops (a fabric shop as well as all the book shops), it didn’t make me rich.
When I moved on from playing shops, Mum taught me to sew. She made most of my clothes and, more importantly for me, clothes for Dodie and Betsy, two rabbits who were called after my god mother and her twin, and accompanied me everywhere. I passed them on to my god daughter and recently got them back as she had (long since) outgrown playing with rabbits. Here they are modelling summer and winter dresses, everyday coats and party coats. Dodie, the favoured rabbit also had a ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ dress, and a velvet party frock but she also had to undergo an operation to have her tummy fur replaced when I wore it out with too much affection. Betsy had a simple summer frock. Aged four, it is easy to see the importance of child and rabbits wearing matching dresses.
Mum sewed beautifully and was adamant that the back of any project should always look as neat as the front. I couldn’t see the point of this; after all, the back was nearly always hidden. It was only when I started quilting that I realised the importance of her lessons. I have finally finished quilting the patchworks I made during the summer – yes, I have been eating off a half-made tablecloth and sleeping somewhat precariously under a quilt held together with pins rather than stitches. While the backs are not quite as neat as the fronts, they aren’t bad. And now I can leap in and out of bed without the risk of impaling myself on a pin.