IMG_0165One of the great things about working in education is holidays; though I don’t get as many as the teachers, couple weeks off between the terms is great. By its very nature, the school year is varied in its busyness, and from now till the end of the academic year, things will be hurtling forward at dizzying speed – there will be exams, events, another arts festival, all on top of all the regular things. Like most people returning from the holiday, I feel the sort of slight guilt that comes from not doing all those things I intended to do – read piles of books, redecorate the house, bake cake every day… I did manage however to visit one place I have never been to before – the National Portrait Gallery. I love museums in general, and occasionally seeing the “original copy” of a familiar picture, like Vanessa here, can be incredibly riveting.IMG_0188IMG_0192I also finished my socks and did some other crafty things too.
IMG_0178I love candles. My favourite smell in the world is a mixture of stearin and coffee – it’s the smell of my childhood spent eating cake after Sunday church service. I picked up a rhubarb and raspberry -scented candle in the M&S, and found a warning printed on the label: harmful to aquatic life. The candle also had a list of ingredients long as one’s arm, and that caused a mild consumer panic. A quick search online later, I happily ordered some Beefayre organic candles, which are dolphin and bee friendly, burn nicely and smell good. The packaging doesn’t hurt.
IMG_0222The spring creeping forward, despite bitter, cold winds.
IMG_0254IMG_0274IMG_0311IMG_0294IMG_0305IMG_0304At the end the hols, I went to the Isle of Wight for the first time ever, with some friends. We sailed across the Solent from Portsmouth and stayed in the Yarmouth marina; having grown up by the sea, I miss it every in the terribly landlocked Oxford. The sea is both constant and ever changing to me, a bridge – I cannot imagine how living deep inland, hundreds or thousands of miles away from sea is like, but think it must feel terribly isolated.


Towns in colour

Red slippers in a shop-window, and outside in the street, flaws of grey, windy sleet!

Behind the polished glass, the slippers hang in long threads of red, festooning from the ceiling like stalactites of blood, flooding the eyes of passers-by with dripping colour, jamming their crimson reflections against the windows of cabs and tram-cars, screaming their claret and salmon into the teeth of the sleet, plopping their little round maroon lights upon the tops of umbrellas.

The row of white, sparkling shop fronts is gashed and bleeding, it bleeds red slippers. They spout under the electric light, fluid and fluctuating, a hot rain—and freeze again to red slippers, myriadly multiplied in the mirror side of the window.

They balance upon arched insteps like springing bridges of crimson lacquer; they swing up over curved heels like whirling tanagers sucked in a wind-pocket; they flatten out, heelless, like July ponds, flared and burnished by red rockets.

Snap, snap, they are cracker-sparks of scarlet in the white, monotonous block of shops.

They plunge the clangour of billions of vermilion trumpets into the crowd outside, and echo in faint rose over the pavement.

People hurry by, for these are only shoes, and in a window, farther down, is a big lotus bud of cardboard whose petals open every few minutes and reveal a wax doll, with staring bead eyes and flaxen hair, lolling awkwardly in its flower chair.

One has often seen shoes, but whoever saw a cardboard lotus bud before?

The flaws of grey, windy sleet beat on the shop-window where there are only red slippers.


II Thompson’s Lunch Room—Grand Central Station

Study in Whites

Floor, ceiling, walls.
Ivory shadows
Over the pavement
Polished to cream surfaces
By constant sweeping.
The big room is coloured like the petals
Of a great magnolia,
And has a patina
Of flower bloom
Which makes it shine dimly
Under the electric lamps.
Chairs are ranged in rows
Like sepia seeds
Waiting fulfilment.
The chalk-white spot of a cook’s cap
Moves unglossily against the vaguely bright wall—
Dull chalk-white striking the retina like a blow
Through the wavering uncertainty of steam.
Vitreous-white of glasses with green reflections,
Ice-green carboys, shifting—greener, bluer—with the jar of moving water.
Jagged green-white bowls of pressed glass
Rearing snow-peaks of chipped sugar
Above the lighthouse-shaped castors
Of grey pepper and grey-white salt.
Grey-white placards: “Oyster Stew, Cornbeef Hash, Frankfurters”:
Marble slabs veined with words in meandering lines.
Dropping on the white counter like horn notes
Through a web of violins,
The flat yellow lights of oranges,
The cube-red splashes of apples,
In high plated épergnes.
The electric clock jerks every half-minute:
“Three beef-steaks and a chicken-pie,”
Bawled through a slide while the clock jerks heavily.
A man carries a china mug of coffee to a distant chair.
Two rice puddings and a salmon salad
Are pushed over the counter;
The unfulfilled chairs open to receive them.
A spoon falls upon the floor with the impact of metal striking stone,
And the sound throws across the room
Sharp, invisible zigzags
Of silver.


III An Opera House

Within the gold square of the proscenium arch,
A curtain of orange velvet hangs in stiff folds,
Its tassels jarring slightly when someone crosses the stage behind.
Gold carving edges the balconies,
Rims the boxes,
Runs up and down fluted pillars.
Little knife-stabs of gold
Shine out whenever a box door is opened.
Gold clusters
Flash in soft explosions
On the blue darkness,
Suck back to a point,
And disappear.
Hoops of gold
Circle necks, wrists, fingers,
Pierce ears,
Poise on heads
And fly up above them in coloured sparkles.
The opera house is a treasure-box of gold.
Gold in a broad smear across the orchestra pit:
Gold of horns, trumpets, tubas;
Gold—spun-gold, twittering-gold, snapping-gold
Of harps.
The conductor raises his baton,
The brass blares out
Crass, crude,
Parvenu, fat, powerful,
Rich as the fat, clapping hands in the boxes.
Cymbals, gigantic, coin-shaped,
The orange curtain parts
And the prima-donna steps forward.
One note,
A drop: transparent, iridescent,
A gold bubble,
It floats . . . floats . . .
And bursts against the lips of a bank president
In the grand tier.

IV Afternoon Rain in State Street

Cross-hatchings of rain against grey walls,
Slant lines of black rain
In front of the up and down, wet stone sides of buildings.
Greasy, shiny, black, horizontal,
The street.
And over it, umbrellas,
Black polished dots
Struck to white
An instant,
Stream in two flat lines
Slipping past each other with the smoothness of oil.
Like a four-sided wedge
The Custom House Tower
Pokes at the low, flat sky,
Pushing it farther and farther up,
Lifting it away from the house-tops,
Lifting it in one piece as though it were a sheet of tin,
With the lever of its apex.
The cross-hatchings of rain cut the Tower obliquely,
Scratching lines of black wire across it,
Mutilating its perpendicular grey surface
With the sharp precision of tools.
The city is rigid with straight lines and angles,
A chequered table of blacks and greys.
Oblong blocks of flatness
Crawl by with low-geared engines,
And pass to short upright squares
Shrinking with distance.
A steamer in the basin blows its whistle,
And the sound shoots across the rain hatchings,
A narrow, level bar of steel.
Hard cubes of lemon
Superimpose themselves upon the fronts of buildings
As the windows light up.
But the lemon cubes are edged with angles
Upon which they cannot impinge.
Up, straight, down, straight—square.
Crumpled grey-white papers
Blow along the side-walks,
Contorted, horrible,
Without curves.
A horse steps in a puddle,
A white, glaring water spurts up
In stiff, outflaring lines,
Like the rattling stems of reeds.
The city is heraldic with angles,
A sombre escutcheon of argent and sable
And countercoloured bends of rain
Hung over a four-square civilization.
When a street lamp comes out,
I gaze at it for full thirty seconds
To rest my brain with the suffusing, round brilliance of its globe.

V An Aquarium

Streaks of green and yellow iridescence,
Silver shiftings,
Rings veering out of rings,
Grey-green opaqueness sliding down,
With sharp white bubbles
Shooting and dancing,
Flinging quickly outward.
Nosing the bubbles,
Swallowing them,
Blue shadows against silver-saffron water,
The light rippling over them
In steel-bright tremors.
Outspread translucent fins
Flute, fold, and relapse;
The threaded light prints through them on the pebbles
In scarcely tarnished twinklings.
Curving of spotted spines,
Slow up-shifts,
Lazy convolutions:
Then a sudden swift straightening
And darting below:
Oblique grey shadows
Athwart a pale casement.
Roped and curled,
Green man-eating eels
Slumber in undulate rhythms,
With crests laid horizontal on their backs.
Barred fish,
Striped fish,
Uneven disks of fish,
Slip, slide, whirl, turn,
And never touch.
Metallic blue fish,
With fins wide and yellow and swaying
Like Oriental fans,
Hold the sun in their bellies
And glow with light:
Blue brilliance cut by black bars.
An oblong pane of straw-coloured shimmer,
Across it, in a tangent,
A smear of rose, black, silver.
Short twists and upstartings,
Rose-black, in a setting of bubbles:
Sunshine playing between red and black flowers
On a blue and gold lawn.
Shadows and polished surfaces,
Facets of mauve and purple,
A constant modulation of values.
With green bead eyes;
Swift spots of chrysolite and coral;
In the midst of green, pearl, amethyst irradiations.

A willow-tree flickers
With little white jerks,
And long blue waves
Rise steadily beyond the outer islands.


IMG_5841.JPGAt a birthday party.IMG_5991.JPGSeptember, 1918

This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.IMG_5997.JPGI have been listening obsessively to Grieg’s Lyrical Pieces and missing the cold, crisp continental autumn. I have discovered the American poet Amy Lowell, and read Siri Hustvedt – I seem to have too little time to read these days, so this is luxury. Another luxury is hearing Sarah Connolly sing twice in five days – it’s Oxford Lieder Festival time.


All poems in this post are by Amy Lowell.


20140618-160646-58006653.jpgChain of flowers for the 750th anniversary garden party in Merton College.

20140618-160719-58039258.jpgAnd the gals who made them.

20140618-160756-58076735.jpgAh Oxford!

20140618-160918-58158522.jpgThis yellow rose goes with the photos above.

20140618-160941-58181068.jpgCurtain call at the ROH. I went to see the rather magnificent Robert Carsen production of Poulenc’s Carmelites. The opera itself is one of those one wouldn’t listen to on CD, but on stage it works. Every staging in the past twenty years owns something to this one, it seems, and it’s easy to see why. The minimalist approach, period costumes on an empty stage, use of the ensemble to define the space are thoroughly thought of, and the dramatic impact is breathtaking. Bonus points for Sir Thomas Allen in a bright crimson costume – I hear ROH staged this production on his request.


20140618-161512-58512623.jpgBees bees everywhere.


20140618-163028-59428745.jpgIf I ever open a pub, I’ll call it The Rose and the Ladybird. Or The Rose and The Snail.


20140618-164715-60435901.jpg“If it ever occurs to people to value the honour of the mind equally with the honour of the body, we shall get a social revolution of a quite unparalleled sort.” ― Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

The streets are sparkling with litter and confetti, and everywhere there are bruised carnations and empty champagne bottles. Can only be Trinity and exam time in Oxford.