Friday, December 07, 2018

Corn and Garlic (Mussels, too)

There were two out-of-season sections of sweetcorn in the refrigerator. Feasts of in-season corn, eaten with butter and salt from the cob is one thing, but what should one do with two sections that were supermarket wrapped? I boiled them for 20 minutes and cut the corn from the cob with a sharp knife. The corn was then broken up and put into bowls containing pressed garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, vinegar and Tabasco. They were ease itself to consume, unlike the rather messy way of chewing off the corn from its cob, when bits are inclined to get stuck between the teeth. I did the same later with mussels that had been bearded, steamed open, and separated from their shells. That, too, was a delicious dish when eaten with crusty bread.


You will need:
Corn on the cob (or mussels)
Olive oil
Pepper and salt

Boil the corn on the cob for 20 – 25 minutes and, when cool, hold the cob upright in the middle of a large plate and cut off the corn from its sides with a sharp knife (the thinner the blade the better). Break the corn up with the fingers and combine it with the ingredients already mentioned.


Monday, October 15, 2018


Heaven knows when our slate roof was last laid. Anyhow, over the years there have been leaks, broken and disintegrating slates, wood rot and deteriorating lead work. It was a mess. It was time for renovation.
Difficult to access myself, I had, in the past, employed various people to execute spot repairs. And using a long pole with a paintbrush tied to the end, I had manoeuvred roofing mastic into holes and craters to keep the rainwater out. But all this was only patching up an old roof.
Then a big leak appeared, soaking a ceiling, and needing buckets on the carpets to catch the minor cascade, eased a bit by the hole I drilled to duct most of the water into a single bucket below it.
We decided that it was time to bring the entire roof up to date.
The insurance company was reluctant to pay for repairs as the roof was old and in a poor state, but would make a small contribution toward the cost of a new one.
I contacted a well-established local, family-run roofing firm that I had known for some 30 years. They looked aghast at the condition of nearly everything that should have been keeping the elements at bay.
As Health and Safety now insist on expensive scaffolding being used for such work, a “patching up” of the roof seemed out of the question. So a brand new roof was commissioned.
The roofing firm’s own scaffolders constructed some platforms and a hoist, giving their entire construction unbelievable rigidity and strength. Then off came the old roof and its slates (that had been second hand already when installed), leaving only sound rafters remaining.
Dry weather was much on our wish list – and it came, only raining for about an hour during the entire three weeks of roof replacement.
Insulation, in the form of thick foam sheets silver foiled on either side, was installed between the rafters throughout.
Old slates and decaying lead work were cast off from on high into the back of a flat-back vehicle below. Reconstruction could begin.
New slates, from Spain, arrived with rolls of lead sheet, treated wooden battens, guttering, thick ply board, copper nails and all the bits and pieces needed for the new structure. They were delivered and stored on the several scaffolder’s platforms.
Battens in place and roofing felt laid, the slates were positioned so close together that gaps between hem barely showed. This work was combined with lead flashing, with insulation and new lead work fitted around each of the dormers.
Our gang of Charlie, Garry and Allan worked from 08.30 to 3 o’clock, each knowing what the others were doing and co-ordinating their jobs so that progression could be continued without disruption.
With the roof lining installed, the house was watertight during construction should showers fall.
The tea-boy (me), supplied endless cups to keep the roofers happy (perhaps delaying their work a little). And when our electric kettle broke (in two pieces at the same time – that’s planned obsolescence for you) I was most surprised to discover how long it took to boil water in a saucepan.
The dormers seemed to take a lot of time to renovate, but insulation and beautiful lead work cannot be rushed by such craftsmen.
It now remained for only the flashing and guttering to be completed.
So, with a gift of a letter of thanks, wine and a selection of my books as a topping out present to each man, the job was complete.
Neighbours, who might have been inconvenienced by vans or noise, were invited for evening drinks as our own topping-out ceremony.
Roll on rain, frost, snow and wind. We will be snug inside from now on.
But that was not the end of it. Hardly had the roof’s ridge tiles been laid than a watchful and helpful neighbour telephoned to say that red tiles had been laid and, being in a conservation area, there would be complaints for sure. Fortunately the scaffolding was still in place so that the roofers could return to change the red tiles for black – like the rest of the neighbouring ridge tiles. Job done.

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Compressed Life

In the hot summer of 2018 we are sitting on a garden bench beneath our vine arbour with ripening grapes hanging from above.
In front of our seat is a table-top slice of marble resting on metal legs.
But the marble is not just a marble top, but also a beautiful object in its own right. How could ancient volcanic action produce such a myriad design of glowing chestnut colours with white streaks running through it in all directions?
I once designed for the theatre and painting marble for the scenery was always a pleasure. I laid on a background of colour, that probably related to the action of the play and, with a brush full of colour (or white) pushed the bristles against the way in which one would usually use a brush. The result was theatrical marble for columns and walls that to the audience looked much like our garden table-top. 
This marble top was never a table-top but once a washstand top.
After the war the emerging generation wanted to be rid of the old and start afresh in a world at peace.
Washstands were old hat. They once held a basin and matching water jug for washing one’s face and neck (usually with cold water). Times had changed to hot water from a tap and basins that would empty just from pulling out the plug. So those old-fashioned washstands with their marble tops were thrown away or sold for a pittance.
So how did I come by the lovely table-top beneath the grape vines?
Thinking in advance in life, I saw the marble on those washstands becoming the future surface of a marble floor. So I bought them wherever I found them (5 quid max but mainly a lot less, or free), burned the wood for heat, and had the marble stored for future use.
That future came to fruition when I built a country studio house. The rectangular slabs were positioned, levelled, and bedded down above underfloor heating. The marble quality was not of the finest but the combinations of colour and pattern delightful. From this floor one could look out through floor-to-ceiling windows on to the Berkshire Downs. My washstand tops had, at last, come into their own.
But of all the slabs to be used there was one odd one out. It had rounded ends. And you cannot fit a round-ended slab with rectangular ones.
So I kept it aside and had a table frame and legs made for it using reinforcing rod.
And that is the story of my lovely slab of marble that gives so much pleasure beneath the grapes. It is a delight. And I hope that the long-dead cutter of it (number D 8 8 3, carved on the reverse) would also be pleased. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Fear is something that is very personal and comes in degrees.
It is possible to imagine the fear that others experience in life and often to be very moved by what we hear or read about it. But one’s own fears are real, very real, and usually remain in the memory – not always happily.
The fear of death is, I suppose, the greatest universal fear, much of which has been used to coerce religious people into devotion and donation. We atheists are spared it.
So what I write here are some of my very own fears and what has frightened me in the past. So they are someone else’s fears and probably of little interest to you. But here goes.
I suppose, as a boy, I was frightened while waiting outside my headmaster’s office door to be caned by that sadistic man. But then showing off the raised, purple welts to fellow pupils later proved that I had experienced fear and come through it unscathed – except for the marks on my behind. So pride was to follow fear, and made up for it.
At the same school we boys were taught to swim by a master holding us up from drowning in the swimming pool (where masters took moving films of us naked) with a ring of material attached to a rope at the end of a pole. I hated it and did all I could to avoid the lessons. That created a fear of the water that I retain to this day – except, of course, for baths and drinks.
Fear and excitement are close companions, especially for me whenever I flew in those early biplane aeroplanes with their open cockpits, wind, noise and bumps on the ground. It was exciting yet enjoyable fear.
But generally, fear and flying do seem to go together, even now when transportation in the air is about the safest form of getting from A to B where great distance is concerned.
When flying in Warwick aircraft from an airfield in Cornwall during the war,  and still only training to be a pilot, I was taken along on sorties over the Bay of Biscay, simply as another pair of eyes (excellent ones). So when I saw, in the far distance, a menacing, German, four-engined and cannon- bristling Focke-Wulf Condor, that would have made mincemeat of us had any aboard it seen us first, we dived to just above sea level (so we could not be shot at from below) and headed for base full tilt. I doubt if any of us aboard felt fear, but certainly considerable apprehension.
With aeroplanes again, when I crashed a lovely Cornell primary training aircraft into the muddy ground of Oklahoma, in the USA, I was more occupied with how to save myself and the aeroplane than to experience much fear. But it must have been there all the same.
I had joined the RAF in 1942 and, because weather was so bad in England, potential pilots were kept waiting for vacancies to train abroad in better climates. Until called, I took a job first as a farm labourer. Hoeing in the middle of a field one day, a German Ju 88 flew so low over me that the gunner could have popped me off very easily. This aircraft was banking on its way to bomb Reading Station. It missed the target and killed a lot of children in school. The enemy, in such close proximity so that I could see the pilot and gunner almost to have been able to identify them, should have frightened me, but I was so astonished, and it happened so quickly, that there was no time to be frightened.
 After the war I hated to be flown by another pilot because I knew how dangerous flying was at that time and could only trust myself to be in charge. I suppose that that was fear in a way.
I do not see the pleasure, in any form, for caving. Yet, in Bulgaria, I joined others in a journey underground from A to B. After a while I found myself wearing quite inappropriate gear for the operation and trying to balance on a narrow, muddy and slippery ledge, with a deep chasm below. I then felt fear all right.
Just as crashing old aeroplanes and fear seem to be complementary, so are cars and road accidents. Once, a lorry-driver, not seeing me behind his rear-view mirror, drove straight out from a country side road into my main road. There was nowhere for me do steer around it. Despite full braking, I had to hit it head on. Fear? Probably.
And on another occasion, in snowy conditions and poor visibility, an articulated lorry-driver decided to turn around his huge vehicle in the middle of a main road. My car simply slid into it. That must have frightened me – and probably frightened a few spectators when I appeared from the car just having painted some scenery in a northern theatre, and was now covered with multi-coloured scene paint that sloshed over me when the accident took place.
When stationed at RAF Davidstow Moor in the war, there were separate ablution blocks for men and women placed near to living quarters. I was in a very clean one once and was more than surprised to hear a woman cough from a few cubicles away. Such cleanliness should have alerted me to the fact that I was in very much the wrong place. Being caught in a women’s convenience was a Court Martial offence. My career in the RAF now depended on my making my way out unobserved. So, hastily adjusting my clothing, I made for the exit and, as nonchalantly as I could manage, went on my way - seen by no one. Now, that really was fear.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Instant Memories

It is our wont in later life to reminisce about countries visited in one’s lifetime and, importantly, impressions (often only minor ones) that remain in the memory about those places. Dates to some people are of importance, but to the enumerate, like me, they are of little consequence.
We were talking about these quick impressions over a glass or two in the 2018 summer of heat. And sitting beneath our vine arbour in London, the foreign incidents recalled from such an English setting seemed even more remote than they were.

I start and end in the UK.

In Wales, just after the war ended, a family took me in when I had been posted there to be the air controller of a single Spitfire. From a generous supply, they placed every single lump of coal in the firebox of a grate that warmed the house and supplied heat for cooking. This coal, for them, in a mining district, was unlimited, whereas in the rest of country we were severely rationed for fuel. It seems a very minor incident, but such bounty gave a warmth of feeling that better times were to come and, in my case of a missed education, thirst to catch up on knowledge.

Scotland’s Aberdeen in peacetime I thought to be grey and forbidding. But it was the sick on the pavements in the mornings after early compulsory closing of pubs in the evening, that I remember most about it.

On a visit to Ireland at one time to see if we might live there, an evening in a pub where a rugby match between England and Wales was shown, a serious confrontation almost erupted when we cheered for England.

In France I once had to hide in a cupboard when my lady companion’s lover and protector came to visit unexpectedly. I had imagined that such incidents really only happened on the stage of Whitehall farces.

To the north, in Finland, visited as a supernumerary on a coaster to collect timber, I was introduced to a black sauna. The fire to heat large stones had no chimney, so the soot from smoke mingled with sweat, stung the eyes, and clogged the lungs. We dashed into the cold Baltic water at intervals and drank a lot of lemonade. Because I was a foreigner we wore items of clothing.

Sweden, on yet another coaster trip, meant mosquitoes (huge ones) and a youthful population who seemed to have nothing to do but look miserable. Our motley crew of non-Swedes were pointedly ignored.

Holland, where all the courses for a meal might come at one time on the same plate, is, for me, Amsterdam, where you can hardly turn without seeing a building that is not a delight. And I managed to find a wonderful wife from that country.

In St Petersburg, the closely-fitted bunk bed was too short for my frame. So I put the mattress on the floor for the night. As soon as I had done so, the floor lady rushed in to investigate (no locks). Being observant of architecture, I noticed that our hotel had a floor missing (an extra one when seen from the outside and missing one from the inside). This was the electronics floor, found by a fellow guest (a spy) at a dinner party, who managed to access such a floor in Russia and was never challenged – being thought to be part of the organisation.

As a child visiting Germany before the war, I was delighted to see so many fortifications and tanks around. My mother knew what was to come and saw it in quite a different light.

After distributing clothing and blankets on the Austria-Hungarian border to refugees fleeing Hungary, we stopped off in Alsace. Next to our bedroom was another smaller room with a hole in the wooden floor for defecation, etc. The smell was really atrocious. If that wasn’t bad enough, I looked above this hole toward the ceiling where there was another hole for those living above. 

Staying with a family in Switzerland to learn French as a young schoolboy, I was summoned back to England as war with Germany was imminent. But before I made my way back, I was going down a wooden-slatted slide into a lake for a swim and had not realised that a bucket or two of water should have been sluiced down first to lubricate the wood. So I returned home with vertical welts on my behind instead of the usual horizontal ones delivered by my sadistic headmaster at school.

To me, Spain means swifts. In England I watch each morning in springtime to see the first swift arrive from Africa. When one comes, summer has arrived. Alas few are now to be seen over London at all, but in the 40 degree heat of Granada, in Spain, the sky was full of these mysterious birds that only touch ground to nest and reproduce.

In Sicily, where we had noticed in a nearby café several Mafia youths throwing their weight around, and who were obviously not going to pay for their food and drink, one of them fancied Margreet, broke away, and started to follow us. It was not a nice feeling, and a memorable one.

In Bulgaria, my son and I ordered beer. And as is our custom, we paid for it on its arrival. Our waiter went off duty. We ordered more and paid for that, but they claimed that we had not yet paid for the first order. Without knowledge of the lingo, and despite our protestations, we had to pay again to avoid trouble. We were glad to leave that surly lot.

Confirming that scent prices rely on marketing and exclusiveness, it was a delight to find, in Greece, copycat scent that was sold from bulk for next to nothing. And with returning samples to test at home, they were as close to the “originals” as we could discern.

En route through desert scrubland to an oasis in Morocco, where no visible roads led to a suddenly revealed small community based around a stream surrounded by crops, trees, and animals, we passed a tree inhabited by goats. To see these four-legged animals climbing around a tree was almost more surprising than coming across the verdant oasis in mid desert.

On the eastern side of North Africa, in Sudan, desert merged with town and goats with desert, there was something touching and elemental to see a family stop in the desert sand to pray.

It was while drawing women weeding beneath rubber trees in Malaya, and standing near to a Land Rover, that I heard shouts and screams. Coming straight toward me was a large snake. Just how I found myself on top of that vehicle I will never know, it happened so quickly. The snake passed by the wheels below and made off toward the jungle nearby.

In the south of Africa we stayed in a hotel in Cape Town that had once been a prison. Wisely or not, they had preserved that ancient punishing machine, the treadmill. What a sinister and frightful object it was – and adjustable for speed. It upsets me even to think about it.

As the only passenger on a ship from Singapore to Thailand, an ant run crossed from one side of my bunk to the other. When in bed, they crossed on top of the sheet.

I rented a room in a Bangkok brothel. It was cheap and entertaining, giving me much to draw. The downside of my room was to have an open drain at one end. This plumbing arrangement was used by the occupants of cubicles upstream. Perhaps that was the reason for the modest rent.

India is a place that seems to be either loved or loathed. It is a country full of extremes. For one leg of our journey through this land of beauty, and architecture that often needs a good scrubbing, we took an overnight “Luxury” bus voyage in Rajasthan. With passengers mostly made up of men, many slept on the floor and most, if not all, farted throughout the night. So much for luxury.

In Vietnam, when I was there, Vietnamese soldiers in the south were being trained by Americans to fight northern Vietnamese. This now seems absolutely crazy.

In Japan, where there was an appreciation of art throughout, I saw gardeners  pruning a pine tree, clambering around its high branches with secateurs in hand, such was the general appreciation of nature among the people. A word or two of the language would have helped when venturing into a small section of a public bath, I found myself buried up to the neck in very hot volcanic sand. There was no escape. And my shouts for help may have seemed to them like noises of appreciation. I now know how lobsters feel when cooked.

In a South Pacific island I saw a spider catch a full-sized bird in its web. And when walking along a remote crushed coral track, a dark man appeared from the jungle next to me, dressed only in an animal’s tooth through the nose and a scarlet jungle flower in his hair.

A returning sad and diseased passenger on my South Pacific coaster to Australia, kept saying that back of beyond in the outback of Australia was “back of Bourke”. So, on landing in Brisbane, I hitchhiked to Bourke. It took several days. There were very few cars on that dirt road, but each would stop. Once, for a very short ride, I became the self-starter and reverse gear to one of them. Two workmen, knowing that I was interested in seeing a kangaroo, spied one and tried to shoot it for me to look at. It was rather like a Japanese fisherman who did the same with a bird, killing it with an oar. We have rather a different approach to wildlife.

I left Sydney, Australia, on a ship that called first at Aukland in New Zealand. I found during so brief a stay that all was so neat and tidy I wanted to see dirt, poverty and even some of the lawlessness of Australia to give it balance.

For another brief stop of the ship in Tahiti I bought a large and flat mother of pearl shell from Gaugin’s son who ran a small souvenir shop there. It is a remote connection with his father, and one that I treasure.

After Tahiti came the Panama Canal and at the end of it a rather sordid Panama City. There I saw a buxom lady, dressed not unlike Carmen Miranda, who was offering her body – with a free cigar.

Back in the USA, having completely written off a rather nice aeroplane there during the war, and in the process knocking two instruments out of the panel with my head, I asked the ambulance driver who was taking me to hospital what had happened. He didn’t know. My question had been a global one. Was I, perhaps, in London and been run over by a bus? And of course I had forgotten how wonderful it had been to have left wartime rationing behind in England and been able to eat unlimited (though not very good) food.

The 707 jet airliner had just been introduced on the New York to London route. Short of money I took the cheaper Bristol Britannia instead to the country of my birth and one where aeroplanes had always been part of my life.

It was from the muddy grass field of Croydon Aerodrome that Kingsford Smith was to fly my brother and me around London in the very early 1930s. But the tail skid of his aeroplane had broken and another pilot took us boys up in the open cockpit of a Klem Bat. With our caps on back to front we held on like grim death and were probably more frightened than observant. They were days when flying was still in its infancy, but fascinating.

It is extraordinary how often such minor incidents in life stimulate the memory of them and events that surround them. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

What's in a Name

I was born a Page-Roberts, for better or worse, and given the forenames of James Frederick Clare. For calling me the James part is anyone’s guess, Frederick because my father was one, and a knighted grandfather the other. Clare was because my grandmother may or may not have been born one, or perhaps lived in County Clare. We don’t know much about her past as she kept it secret.
Having started out with a hyphen to my name I kept it for my ordinary self and for my art and writing. After the 1950s I dropped the hyphen for my artwork signatures as it looked a little poncey, or might have made me out to be a dilettante, even though I was a fairly well-known artist at the time. All well and good.
After those early days I signed my work PR, or in capitals without the hyphen.
In the early part of the 1800s, my great grandfather, a Master Confectioner called William Roberts, married a Prudence Page who, because of her contributing wealth, had all her children christened with Page as their last given name.
Then, when one son, a Reverend, became The Very Reverend Dean of Salisbury and married a baroness around the very early 1900s, he paid to have a hyphen added between the Page and the Roberts, and a coat of arms created. That was a start to the hyphen business.
His brother (my grandfather) was also a Reverend. He was the chairman of The National Rose Society and had a famous rose named after him. He was clearly reluctant to add the hyphen to his name at the same time as his brother, because in my research into his printed writings he does not use the hyphen until later. (For the horticulturally inclined, there was also a Dorothy Page-Roberts rose – a simple, wild-looking one, now lost, and last seen in the mid west of the USA at a sort of garden centre in 1943 and correctly named, with hyphen.)
When it comes to how we name ourselves, my ex-wife later married a Mr Jones but kept to her previous married name of Page-Roberts.
The family name gets increased with marriages and retained through partnerships and liaisons by those who are happy with it.
But there are losses, too. My youngest son, a musician and postman by calling, discarded the family name in favour of Pete Page, as he considered his longer name to be a drawback in his work. And I notice that the other son, a prop master in Hollywood, has discarded the hyphen. Perhaps the younger one was also influenced by all the new double barrelled names appearing in the poorer areas of his postal distribution. Sportspeople, too, now seem to favour the two barrels.
Margreet, my wife, is Dutch, coming from a country where it is customary to conjoin your given and married names. So really she should have a triple barrelled name, which is clearly far too cumbersome. (When women divorce in Holland, their married name is usually abandoned.)
A double name has its difficulties, especially when such as records and prescriptions and the like are concerned.
Other than a change of name at the time of marriage, some change their name to that of their partner for convenience or the happiness of their children. But if changing one’s name for other reasons, do you go for a long, cumbersome and grander one, or a simple and speedily-written shorter one. Most just keep to the ones they were born with and get on with it.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Garden Update - early 2018

Some write about art, on writing, of children, work, philosophy … and on it goes. I want to write, in simple terms, about my garden – difficult to visualise if not actually there, but I try.
Like many, those of us who have grown up close to nature and have learned to love almost everything that grows in a garden under our care, we like to share our experiences with others.
I’ll try to be brief, but even in my 5 ½ by 15 paces, walled London garden, I could talk or write about it for hours. That is the way when one knows almost every flower or weed that grows or should not grow in it – all mainly in pots, the configuration of which is changed quite often.
I’ll go around the garden from left to right, starting from a hidden compost bin and our glazed, octagonal “shed” at the end of the mainly flagstoned, walled plot, and below a theatrically perspective arbour of grapevines that span an area from wall to wall.
So, on the north-facing wall, first comes a sad looking mahonia in a pot. It may be ending its life. I hope not, as our Mrs Blackbird dearly loves its autumnal fruit, despite having to be somewhat of an acrobat to reach them and suffering from its prickly leaves.
Then comes a more than life-size sculpture of a pair of lovers. Originally of elm wood, and still as such, but hollowed out by rot and mice over the years and is now held together by its thin, wooden skin, coated in a black mastic waterproofing substance used generally for waterproofing roofs. Between the lovers’ legs at ground level is a plastic box with holes at either end for mice to eat the poisoned bait inside. My seeds and seedlings are now safe from their predations.
Then comes a hibiscus in a green pot, next to where a paving stone has been lifted in the past to accommodate firstly a morello cherry tree and then a damson – neither of which has been a success – nor has the attempt to grow snowdrops in its earth. On the soil, and around the existing damson trunk, is a section of the cast iron, Victorian water main, recovered when the original was replaced in our street by a larger one of yellow plastic.
Then there is a fern that softens the lines of a pear tree’s blue pot, some chervil, and then an apple in a pot, with its trunk sprouting three branches of mistletoe of my planting. Another fern grows in a pot, and lying beyond it, alongside the garden wall, stands an earthenware trough, holding early spring mini-daffodils.
Lastly, on that north-facing wall is a large thermometer, canted away from the wall. This is large enough to be seen easily from inside the house and is constantly referred to, summer and winter.
Beside a back door leading from a utility passage is a rainwater butt. I use this water when giving my plants their weekly tonic. Touching it is an old bay tree that has lived in its almost bonzai pot for possibly 40 years. The roots get a thorough drip-water soaking once in a while, and the weekly tonic.
On the house wall that faces east is a home-made bird box that is used successfully each year by a pair of great tits. Their constant comings and goings become our garden mobile, and when the young have fledged the place seems quite still.
Where the south-facing wall meets the house there is a small bricked-in bed where potting soil lies fallow, then to have peat added, sieved, and used again. In the corner of it is that wonderful rose called Typhoon. Difficult to find, I cannot think of a better one – disease-free, vigorous, early orangey buds, perfect open flowers and a blowsy finish in early winter. And it smells nice, too. Two examples supply us from early spring to late autumn with a constant stream of long-stemmed flowers for the house.
At the back of that bed are Triomphe d’Alsace vine cuttings for anyone who might want one in the winter.
This “fallow” bed narrows to about a foot wide beneath the wall and holds either runner or broad beans on alternate years, the other ground for this rotation is three large plastic bags of soil.
Above where the beans grow is a framework of bamboo that looks a bit like the inside of a grand piano. The beans are either tied to or clamber over this construction. And birds love to perch on it.
From the wall, and sticking out over the flagstone garden is a peninsular of pots, arranged at various heights and in changeable configurations. The pots rest on old bricks or pottery occulonae (like Roman hypocaust bricks). In the middle of it is a large, raised, strawberry pot, but instead of strawberries, geraniums grow out of the holes, I have had to block the unused holes at the rear to prevent water from escaping with soil. Resting on top of this pot is a large, and very rustic earthenware bird bath. 
The peninsular pots consist of those for rosemary, agapanthus, hosta, flox, lemon, pieris (what a wonderful garden plant that is), geranium, pelargonium, chive, parsley, coriander, thyme, petunia, impatiens, New Guinea, asparagus, Christmas rose, mint, ivy, buddleia, daisy, fuchsia, lily, fig, lavender, Bolivian begonia, pots of daffodils and a dahlia.  
After the peninsular is a hardwood garden bench, behind which grow the vines for the vine arbour and, in front, a marble-topped table.
Finally, almost back to the shed, come buckets of potatoes, rose cuttings in a pot, Peruvian lily, primrose, masses of self-sown morning glory, another bay tree in a pot and a camellia.
Hanging from the vine arbour are various dispensers of food for wild birds.
There is a narrow allyway at the end of the garden behind our shed where once night soil was taken away and coal delivered, It now holds garden stuff.
We spend a lot of time in the shed, eating, drinking and looking at the garden as it changes throughout the seasons.
Paradise? I think so, and so does Margreet.

Friday, April 27, 2018


We were having breakfast at the Ritz. We usually do when our daily comes to clean the house once a week.
I should add that it was not at The Ritz, but our local greasy-spoon café, The Ritz.
We finished our breakfasts of brown, toasted bacon sandwich for Margreet and two poached eggs on fried bread for me. When our mugs of workman’s tea were empty we parted company on the pavement outside for Margreet to tend to her sister in Chiswick and for me to return home to continue the tedious work of dealing with my income tax. Actually, the task seemed less taxing this year as I had been selling rather well to private collectors i.e. no gallery or auction house commission to pay.
At home, I had barely started on my calculations when the cleaner rushed in to where I was working, shouting “emergency, emergency, emergency”. I followed her down to the floor below to see a cascade of water flowing from a join in the plasterboard ceiling above and out from overhead electric light fittings.
Connecting in my mind that house floods usually come from storm water penetrating the roof, I rushed to the garden to collect half a dozen black plastic buckets that are normally for garden and grape harvest use. En route, I discovered that water had passed through the floor and ceiling above the ground floor as well and flooded the kitchen.
With buckets in place I did what I should have done in the first place, namely, isolate upper house water from the main water supply. This I did. Even then, the water that was still held between the space above plasterboard ceilings and floors continued to fall.
The next move was to locate our plumber to mend the broken pipe. I had made a guess as to its position and the fact that it was not connected to the central heating, which was still under pressure. Also, being warm, it must be connected to a hot water supply. But we had no reply from our plumber.
In the house there was now no heat, hot or cold water above ground floor level, and with only bucket water to flush lavatories. We mopped up the kitchen floor.
Before 6 o’clock the following morning I contacted the insurance company’s emergency number (John Lewis), which, in retrospect, I should have done immediately after turning off the water. Almost right away they sent their in-house plumber to solve the problem.
To locate the break, this excellent Portuguese plumber asked me to turn on the water once more (to cause another mini flood) so that he could put his ear to the floor to locate the noise of water flowing from the break. It did not take long but it was an unpleasant experience to see water once more flowing from plasterboard ceiling joints. Having located almost the exact area, it was then a case of lifting the carpet, cutting out a section of floorboard and finding that a right-angled, brass, compression joint fitting had come apart from a hot water pipe.
With the pipe mended, we could return to partial normality, but in a very wet house. As I write we await assessors to estimate the damage as wet carpets start to give out a mouldy smell.
What immense good fortune it was that someone was “at home” when the flow began, as without an immediate response, with doors and windows sealed against winter draughts, the house might well have just filled up with water.
And although pictures almost completely cover our walls, not one was damaged. And the electric lights, despite being soaked, continue to function normally.
Before leaving homes on a visit or holiday, people might think of turning off the mains water supply. Yet all of the above flooding happened when Margreet and I had just been out for a quick breakfast. It was sheer luck that someone was able to deal with it.
A pipe breaking like that must be a rare happening. But it did.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

One's own books

To clarify the reason for writing this piece I have to start by repeating some already related items of my past. 
In the late 1970s I felt that I was becoming more of a sculptor of large wooden blocks than a painter, when a car accident and a broken wrist forced a change of direction for my creative processes.
  As I had, for years, been importing wine in cask, and bottling it for my own domestic use, and at the same time writing down what I had learned about vines and vinification, and had started two small vineyards of my own, it seemed natural that I might fill the void of journalism at that time concerning supermarket wines. They were then retailing at around £2 a bottle, and no one, to my knowledge, was informing the public about which ones were good to drink and good value to buy.
Starting first with a column in a free newspaper, then a weekly one in a proper, paid-for newspaper, then writing a small book on starting a vineyard in England, then other wine guide books and columns, membership of The Circle of Wine Writers… and on it went. I was enjoying the life of authorship. And it was going well.
The transition process from painting to sculpting and then on to writing had been minimal. They were, after all, much to do with ideas.
I wrote many books and articles over the next 25 years. They were mainly on wine, vines and docks, but other subjects as well.
For the last five books I established my own publishing company as “real” publishers found my target buyers in London’s dockland to be too localised to justify publication. But those five books, with 2,000 initial print runs, each made a profit within three months – somewhat of a record I imagine.
Having said what I wanted to say about wine and the London docks, it was time to return to painting once more.
Preamble over, what I want to say now is the surprising pleasure that I/we have found in getting rid of all the mainly dockland books that were not sold and, being out of print were piled up against a wall in our kitchen.
There have been days when authors gave away their books to the public to encourage reading. This made a wonderful outlet for many of the unsold paperbacks. Some recipients were suspicious, thinking that it was some sort of con or other. But mainly most books were received with pleasure both on our own and their behalf.
Our local Underground station now has a few shelves where books are placed to be read and returned. We have been supplying these shelves with my dockland paperbacks (three different ones at a time), and by the end of each delivery day, all have gone – none to be returned as far as we can see.
Then, whenever we visit such as hospital or dentist, the receptionist, doctor or assistant may be given a copy. Or perhaps a helpful girl on a supermarket check-out counter might be the recipient. They are well received.
Last evening, on returning from St Pancras Station, a far-eastern-looking young man got up in a crowded compartment to give me his seat. He was just finishing a very serious, religious-looking tome, and obviously relishing every gospel word. As a gesture of thanks, I managed to give him a copy of one of my own books. It had the very inappropriate title of “Cooking in Docklands” as he probably ate mostly curries, whereas my book dealt with the suet pudding kind of fare made by the wives of inter-war dockers. The three of us, he, Margreet and I, discussed religion as we progressed. He then gave us the book he had been reading (late 16th century, heaven above and the devil below stuff), which must have been a treasure to him as the more important parts had been marked with a yellow dye pen. We parted as friends at our joint destination.
It is little incidents like this that have given us quite unexpected pleasures – gained from a pile of unwanted books that are still in pristine condition, but rather in the way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Secret and Confidential

When throwing away old bank statements have you ever wondered if someone with a criminal mind might find them and use them for untoward activities?
My sister did, giving me a handful once in a while to shred in our domestic-size electric shredder.
This machine would accept three sheets at a time to produce a fluffy mix of finely shredded paper that we would share to add to our respective compost bins.
Not long after I married Margreet, who was working for a foreign embassy, she asked if I would like to shred some secret and confidential documents for, I think, a small remuneration. This I did willingly.
I was an ideal person to do the job of shredding secret government missives as I was quite ignorant of the language in which they were written.
I was able to feed their shredder with more documents at a time than the smaller one at home. Even then it was a slow, painstaking and dull job.
As I progressed, I suddenly saw a document in English. 
I am afraid that curiosity overtook my natural inclinations of confidentiality and probity to take a quick glance at its contents,
Surprisingly, the date on this secret document was somewhere in the 1930s.
My quick and surreptitious look might, I thought, reveal information on which the fate of nations had depended.
Its headline was “The Price of Irish Potatoes”.

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Weather

I have always been keen on the weather – sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes of necessity.
I suppose that I started this interest (which goes with that of aviation) when I was a boy. My father, being a farmer, kept a close eye on the weather for such as rain quantity, sowing, harvesting, planting and the rest.
Our family was keen on aviation, which was then in its infancy, though I believe my father only saw one aeroplane in the sky during WW1 when fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia.
He took us children to fly with Allen Cobham’s Flying Circus, which would take place in a local farmer’s field. On offer were flips in an Avro Tutor for 2/6 and with a loop-the-loop thrown in for 5/-. We also went to the Solent to see Supermarine seaplanes break airspeed records. My flying bible and most treasured book then was The Pictorial Flying Course, written by F/O W.E. Johns, the author of Biggles books. Copiously illustrated with line drawings, it told you almost everything you wanted to know about flying a biplane. As for the weather, avoid clouds. And should you see either snow or fog forming, get home as quickly as you can.
In good weather The King’s Cup Air Race’s flight path went almost over our house at Silchester, near Reading. Its mixture of private, fast and slow aircraft flew so low that one could usually see the pilots in their cockpits.
Kingsford Smith, that famous Australian aviator, was due to fly in to our large chicken field for a visit. So we laid out a landing T with sheets held down with stones, but, being unreliable, he never turned up, even though the weather was fine – a great disappointment.
All grass fields for aeroplanes in those days, had a landing T that ground crew pointed toward the direction from which the wind was blowing (windsocks, too, were also used). I imagine that it is the same now although I have not flown an aeroplane for many a day. Aircraft, even today, always take off or land into wind. This gives them maximum lift for their speed through the air.
In WW2 we used landing Ts and windsocks to determine wind direction when flying from grass fields in England and America. Having joined the RAF in 1942, after signing on, I had to wait for a vacancy for pilot training and took a job as a prop-swinger starting up Tiger Moth engines on an RAF training airfield by swinging their propellers.
We had no meteorological service then, so an instructor would fly upwind to see if the approaching weather was suitable for novice pilots (which meant no clouds). I often went along in the spare cockpit, and it was there that I learned the basic rudiments of flying an aeroplane. 
With those, and more sophisticated machines later, one’s life might well depend on understanding weather patterns and dangerous cloud formations.
That interest in meteorology has continued throughout my life.
Lying in bed early each morning I listen to noises outdoors. Chimes from the church clock may tell me of wind direction, its intensity and thickness of the air. In very cold or hot weather the resonant brittleness of the sound from footsteps on the pavement below gives me a good indication of what the day’s weather will be. Snow produces silence. The sounds of weather are very important.
On rising at around 6 o’clock in winter and much earlier in summer, I look out of my studio window over a London landscape of streets, pavements, roofs and trees. I see the direction in which aircraft are landing or taking off from Heathrow airport. This will only indicate if the prevailing wind is roughly from the east or west as the runways there run almost directly east-west. If it is a cross-wind, then the aircraft have to crab in to counteract drift. I look at the bending of twigs or leaves on trees to judge wind speed. Birds land into wind. I can see rime frost on house and car roofs. When aircraft are landing toward the west, if they are below cloud and visible when passing the line of our street, their altitude is 1,800’. Or if in cloud they may appear in sight just before landing at London airport. Then the cloud base is about 800’. If I never see them at all on their approach, then the cloud base is lower still. Gulls leave their feeding grounds on rubbish tips and head for the sea. But if the weather is stormy they fly inland.
As for weather forecasts, experience tells me that weather can change very quickly, fooling the pundits – however sophisticated their equipment. So I dismiss forecasts beyond a day or so, preferring to predict it myself. I rely on wind direction, cloud formation and type (high cirrus clouds, for instance, usually precede a warm front, culminating in low, rain-filled nimbostratus cloud). And with my back to the wind I know that the low pressure area is on my left hand side.
With so much interest to be had from the sky and what inhabits it, I think how lucky I am to live in England where our climate is so splendidly variable and unpredictable.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Painting

Even before I start writing this piece I feel that it might be a long and very personal one. As it concerns the way I work at present, it could be of no interest to anyone but myself. So be warned should you wish to continue.
I favour working on a series theme. The present one is on “Events”. These may take minutes to complete – or months. All are done from happenings large or small (stories) that I set myself the task of turning thoughts of objects of interest and pleasure into a flat painting of two dimensions to hang on a wall (very old fashioned nowadays, I suppose).
For instance: one was done having witnessed a fight on the ground between a wood pigeon and a carrion crow. The pastel took minutes to do – quite a different matter to the present one that I describe here, which took four months, though interrupted by a bout of acute bronchitis that turned into whooping cough when a fight for life took precedence over artistic output.
My modus operandi is, after deciding on the event(s), or story, is to make drawings of the proposed ideas on scraps of used paper, then to progress to acid-free A4 paper for the application of line and then pastel colour. There may be several of these to retain or discard. Then, if thought to be satisfactory, I will progress to a work on a large, A1 edition (33” x 23 ¼”) (79.5 cm x 59 cm) on card. 
Small works are done usually at my desk in a little room (my studio) at the top of the house. This suits me as I have always favoured working in a small space. For the much larger A1s I kneel beside a bed where the card lies on brown paper pulled from a large roll of it at one end.
Also on the bed are several boxes of large pastels that contain roughly colours of the same kind.
I might at some time in the future abandon “Events” and strike out on another theme. Nature seems to dictate when these changes might happen. But for now it’s events.
At least I am my own master, with no-one asking or demanding what I might do, no galleries to provide for and no corporate artistic bodies to influence my work.
What my eyes have seen is the usual motivation for an event painting. After that everything comes from the brain – the imagination.
This imagination is mine alone, and although each process is very real to me, other people are sometimes mystified by the result. To my mind, that is the way of art. It may be self-indulgent, but it represents the special art world in which I live. What I produce is, I hope, grist to the imagination of others.
The just-finished painting, an A1 size Event, number 48, developed thus.
When our cleaner comes once a week to smarten up the house in her robust and rather forceful Polish way, we leave the house to her and have breakfast in our local, insalubrious café, called The Ritz (where our dustmen take their morning break). We have tried much of the breakfast fare on offer and have settled on a toasted brown bacon sandwich for Margreet and a plain white bacon sandwich for me. We drink builders’ tea.
After one such early breakfast, where we look out over busy, cosmopolitan  King Street, Hammersmith, we attended an evening birthday party, given by a retired banker cousin, at Brooks’s, the height of gentlemen’s clubs in St. James’s Street, off Piccadilly, London. The latter is a club where, in the 18th century men gambled away their fortunes, estates and even wives.
So this painting (actually pastel), entitled From the Ritz to Brooks’s, was about a day’s event, starting at society’s lowest order and finishing at its highest. Such a contrast not only made a splendid event but an extreme contrast of pleasures that we experienced in one day – an event.
But how to present this as a painting of composition and colour? That was the problem (as it is with all works of art that flow from the mind).
I decided to start with The Ritz, which has its name engraved on the street window, and is seen in reverse from the inside. Across the road, in contrast, is a Sainsbury’s sign, seen as normal. Then there were cars on the street, people on the move, and us in the foreground with our bacon sandwiches and builders’ tea in mugs.
Drawings (compositions) were made, with avenues of thought in the form of lines. Then, on acid-free A4 sheets of paper, further developments, simplifications and colour added.
After those, I felt like combining them with my thoughts on the extremes, working directly on to a large A1 sheet of card.
As I think about the painting in operation night and day, I may suddenly alter and evolve it. Mostly this takes place very early in the morning when the mind and air are fresh and all is still, but can take place at any time.
The Brooks’s part of the painting had to include a grand, red-carpeted staircase, a crowd of people meeting and talking, large portraits of past worthies, long, black limousines and a factotum on watch.
Then, when the piece was finished, it had to be fixed, as pastel chalk would smudge, fall from the board and get everywhere. This I do on dry flagstones in the garden with special spray. As it had rained for a few weeks I had to wait for the weather to change before sealing it.
Then, after the pastel was fixed, the piece had to be signed, dated and studio stamped with the reference code.
From this account the painting sounds like a very complicated one. But it is, in fact, rather simple and stark.
Is it a good, bad, or indifferent work? An artist never knows as we think that each one is good – otherwise we wouldn’t be artists doing what we do as part of our being.
So what is considered to be one’s success (or failure) as an artist? Does it depend on demand and high prices at auction or the number of solo exhibitions achieved? Is it the close connection with a well-known gallery or the number of private buyers interested in their work? Might it be satisfied owners, public purchases, or good reviews? Or could it be income from sales, notoriety, or demand from foreign buyers? Yet again it could be membership of an artistic corporation or consistency of style. It could be any or all of the above that go to form an individual’s or critic’s opinion of success or failure.
As for the artists, they carry on doing their best and, hopefully, enjoying what they do. They can do no more.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


I once worked in the theatre painting scenery at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, designing sets for repertory, touring shows, and even pantomime and ice shows.
At some time in this life of illusion I had to deliver a manuscript to Alec Guinness.
He then lived in a late Georgian square in Hammersmith. I was surprised and delighted to discover an area of London that seemed to be an ideal place in which to live. At that time I was in residence and rebuilding a bombed-out house in Fulham, right beside the Chelsea football ground. In time, noise, regular isolation on match days, and then the over-abundance of home games all became drawbacks to life there.
Time passed in many interesting ways until I needed to return to London from life in the Hampshire countryside. But where to look for a home? Why, near to that square in Hammersmith, of course.
A small house in the district suited me. Depending on the approval of my youngest son, I bought it – at a time when property prices were in a trough and, by present standards, low.
There was little to do structurally as the owners had done it up for sale – installing gold taps in the bathrooms, for instance.
But they had employed a lousy electrician. Although one could switch on the lights to climb the stairs, there was no way of turning them off having reached either the first or second floors.
Our street’s cars were possibly a couple of beat-up Fords. My soft-top VW not only looked rather out of place, but was vulnerable at that time to having its roof slashed by vandals.
I then knew most of the residents who lived in our street, many of whom were renting from a property landlord on a long term, sitting tenant basis.
What has prompted this blog is that Margreet and I have just returned from friends in a neighbouring road who were celebrating having lived there for fifty years.
We were almost newcomers among our fellow guests, having been residents nearby for only 29 years.
I wonder if there are many enclaves in London where residents are as happy as we and they are, and would not think of leaving voluntarily to live in another district.
But there have been naturally many changes over our years of occupancy.
Neighbouring houses have been bought to let. So their temporary occupants move on and have never had time to become part of our community. They are transient. Even those renters who we get to know move on and are lost, except possibly for a welcome Christmas card.
And there have always been at least one, two, or even three complete misfits around (I’m sure every street has them) who, for one reason or another, dislike the neighbours or the close community and continue to live among us, but apart.
One hopes that community bonds of friendship are not formed by class, breeding, nationality, birth, history, fortune, ancestry, accent, race, religion, origins, upbringing, occupation, schooling, or any other such mark of identity.
When I was a child in the country, it was thought that you became part of our village only after living there for at least 25 years.
So perhaps, even today, close communities are still formed mainly by the seemingly outdated idea of long residency.

Friday, January 05, 2018


With this first blog of the year, I would like to wish all my readers a very Happy and Healthy New Year.


The daughter of a couple that met at one of our tennis parties in the country when I was a child, died.
Her memorial service was to take place in Salisbury Cathedral, around which is a lovely Close, where she had lived.
We were asked to say if we were going to attend – in view of the catering arrangements.
The “catering arrangements” part sounded good. But beside our attendance to remember this very nice person, we wanted to visit the Cathedral for Margreet to see the Page-Roberts stained glass window there.
So down we go by rail, have lunch at an inn, and take seats in the body of that wondrous, Early English Gothic, medieval cathedral. Conducting the service were two clerics (not in full drag I’m glad to say).
The choir sang beautifully. The setting was magnificent.
In an address from a pulpit by a son of the deceased, he mentioned that on her death she wanted no fuss. And here we were at about the grandest memorial service one could imagine, in defiance of her wishes. So having been told that we might meet in the afterlife, those who arranged this grand farewell might well approach her in Heaven with caution.
After the service we repaired to a medieval hall to enjoy the catering – of tea and egg or tomato sandwiches. It was nice to meet some old friends.
We retreated, and returned to the cathedral to find the P-R window.
Walk the length on the right hand side until you must turn left, and the window faces you across the nave.
It has the merit of containing much clear glass, so admitting plenty of light. Its pictorial element is of biblical scenes executed in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.
At the bottom of the window it says: To the Glory of God and Remembrance of the Very Reverend Page-Roberts, Dean of the Cathedral from 1908 – 1919, and of his wife Margaret Grace.

That done, we returned to London, parched but not hungry, for a generous and very welcome memorial glass.