Thursday, May 31, 2012

Art or Adhesive?

Funny story: For a couple of months now, the walls along one of the main escalators in our tube station have been studded with these odd, random black blobs.

Normally, this is where advertising goes. So Dave and I naturally assumed this was some kind of transitional phase -- maybe the maintenance crew came in and tore out the old ads before putting up new ones.

"It's adhesive," Dave said dismissively of the black blobs.

The other day, though, I began thinking these blobs had been hanging around a while. And sure enough, when I looked more closely, I could tell they were in fact black patterns printed on vinyl. I looked around the station and found a sign noting this is a work of public art by Alice Channer, titled "Hard Metal Body."

The blobs, according to the artwork's special page on the Transport for London web site, are actually imprints made by inking the elastic waistbands from clothing. According to the accompanying explanation, the artwork "expresses Channer’s desire to inhabit and communicate with the industrial surfaces of the tunnel. She attempts to set up an exchange between her own soft human body and the cold metal surfaces of the tunnel. This is achieved through an indirect reference to her human body in the form of the stretchy clothing that we usually wear close to our skin."


I like art, and trying new things, and I support the idea of public art. I want to appreciate this work and its cool metallic starkness. But Dave is right -- those blobs do look like adhesive.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Jubilee Flags

This is what one of London's main shopping drags, Oxford Street, looks like decked out in its Jubilee finery. This weekend is the main celebration; in addition to the Queen's flotilla on the Thames, there are all sorts of events planned, large and small. Even one of our neighborhood pubs is getting into the action with a "fancy dress" (costume) party and other activities.

Above is Regent Street, which leads from Oxford down to Piccadilly Circus. Closer to home, Portobello Road is also trimmed with flags. Dave and I intend to attend some of the weekend events -- though probably not in fancy dress. You'll get a full report!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Following up on yesterday's gardening report, I thought you might like to see our balcony with its newest assortment of vegetation. From left:

-- Three big shrubs passed down from the landlords (no idea what they are)
-- Our horseradish plant (left foreground)
-- A purple-blooming campanula, given to Dave by one of his coworkers
-- Lavender, newly repotted (the bees LOVE this plant)
-- Five tomato plants (next to the railing)
-- Four boxwoods, also from the landlords
-- Our new red geranium (against the railing)
-- A purple salvia
-- A plumbago we bought last fall; it turned prematurely, autumnally red after our cold snaps in April.

Finally, you can see a tiny sliver of our thyme plant, which sits on a windowsill at far right.

We have so many plants there's barely room to set up our clothes-drying rack -- and when I need to dry sheets and towels I usually hang them from the railing, which involves acrobatically bending and contorting to reach over the rain forest, with industrial-sized clothespins in my hands.

But don't get me wrong. I love our balcony!

Monday, May 28, 2012

It's a Beautiful Day

We had a pretty quiet weekend around here, so I don't have much to report. The highlight was traveling down to Greenwich on Saturday, where Sally and Mike had a little gathering for Sally's birthday. We had a great time sitting in their back garden, sipping wine and watching the swallows swoop and dive in the evening sky.

The weather has been fabulous. In fact, it reminded me of my favorite record album cover:

I first saw this record as a kid, digging around in my dad and stepmother's record cabinet. I hadn't listened to it in years -- a 1969 disc of grooviness that practically produces a contact high. Back then I loved the most famous track, "White Bird," but the others didn't much impress me. This weekend I found the music on iTunes, though, and it was much better than I remembered, so I bought most of the songs. That set me off on a psychedelic rock listening spree: Moby Grape, Strawberry Alarm Clock and a band with the unlikely name of Ultimate Spinach. Apparently naming your band after produce was a popular fad in the '60s.

We did some balcony gardening on Saturday. We bought a new geranium to replace the one I killed (and subsequently failed to root), as well as purple salvia, thyme, a bigger pot for our lavender, and some stakes for our tomatoes. We have quite a garden going out there -- though sadly not one as extensive as Sally's. (I don't think we have any swallows, either.) On a related note, our Amsterdam tulip never did bloom. It began to die back, so I planted the bulb in the corner of one of our large potted shrubs. Maybe it will return next spring -- and maybe it won't.

(Photo: The Bow Road tube stop, on Friday.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Locks of Love

I found this lock attached to a fence on Portobello Road this week, committing Hege (?) and Peter to a perpetual public declaration of their relationship -- well, until a maintenance man cuts it off, anyway.

Apparently this is a European thing, attaching padlocks in public places to represent couplehood. When I was in Italy, in 2007, I found nests of them adjacent to the Ponte Vecchio, hanging off railings like Spanish moss.

And last November I found a nascent growth of locks on a fence in Greenwich.

I never saw this when I lived in New York, but maybe I just wasn't paying attention!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Balfron Tower

No, this is not Trellick Tower, the sooty, Eastern European-looking housing block visible from our bedroom window. This is its sister building in East London, known as Balfron Tower. Same architect, similar design, similar date of construction. And similar overall visual impact, although Balfron looks a bit neater and airier to me -- maybe because the detached elevator shafts are not as tall and the balconies seem more orderly.

You may remember that back in August, when we first moved to Notting Hill, I somewhat unfairly branded Trellick Tower "the ugliest building in London." I have to admit that since then, it's grown on me.  I see it all the time, from everywhere in the neighborhood -- it's like a big, concrete, Communist guardian angel. That's partly why I decided to hike out to East London yesterday to see Balfron -- I'm apparently becoming an unwitting cheerleader for these buildings. (I am a fan of mid-century architecture including certain forms of Brutalism, so it's not entirely a surprise.)

Balfron, like Trellick, was designed by Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger. It's a few years older than Trellick -- it was finished in 1967, while Trellick wasn't done until 1972 -- and at 27 stories, Balfron is also four floors shorter. And like Trellick, it's a listed building, which means it's protected.

It looks like there's some renovation going on -- a small building near the bottom of the tower and an adjacent residential structure known as Carradale House, also by Goldfinger, are covered with scaffolding.

It was quite a walk to get out to Balfron -- I took the tube to Aldgate and then walked almost three miles through Whitechapel and Limehouse to get to the neighborhood, known as Poplar. And then I walked a couple more miles north to Bow Road to catch the tube back home.

But yesterday's weather was beautiful and sunny, as you can see, and I had a great day of photography!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Goal-Setting, or Not

I was sitting on the couch yesterday morning, nursing my second cup of coffee and working my way through David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun” – a riveting read, unlike that recent Mahatma Gandhi fiasco – when I suddenly began to feel very purposeless.

I have no idea what led to this feeling. Maybe anytime I read, part of my brain is analyzing the flow of words and thinking, “I could write this!” (Or, in the case of Carr’s book, “I could never write this!”) Which makes me wonder why I’m not.

Or maybe I’m just naturally reaching a point in my English sojourn where I’m starting to look for more.

These ten months of settling in, of exploring a new city and making new friends, of bringing the dogs over and then losing them, of adapting to our quiet household and my daily routine of chores, have afforded me a degree of personal growth. I’ve never felt like I was wasting time. Things were happening. I was learning and changing.

But now I’m feeling that change less and less. I’m starting to feel, well, lazy.

My mom would say she saw this coming – she’s been predicting for months that I wouldn’t be able to sit still for long. But I’m not sure I’m finished sitting still. In fact, I’m not sure I really am sitting still. I guess I just want to see my time in England as part of a larger picture. What, exactly, am I doing?

I haven’t been writing – at least, not aside from this blog and the fact-based recitations I’ve compiled for my former boss’s web site project. I’ve been doing photography, but I have only the vaguest of goals for all that material – I’m still not sure whether I’m creating something larger or just futzing around with a hobby.

I’ve been hired for a part-time job (oh yeah – I got that job), but it doesn’t start until August and even then it won’t take a whole heck of a lot of time.

I’ve never been good at setting long-term goals. I just kind of coast along until I see an opportunity, and then I go for it. Maybe I’m in that coasting-along phase. I do have some larger ideas drifting around inside my head like silvery fog, but none that yet present themselves as a clear, attainable project.

Fortunately, I’m not getting pressure from Dave. I think he knows I need to work all this out for myself. He seems perfectly content to leave me reading on the couch, traipsing around London with my camera, vacuuming and doing the laundry. So far, those things have been enough. But for how much longer? And what happens next?

(Photo: Campanula growing from a brick wall in Islington, on Sunday.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Moonrakers, and Other Vacancies

I've been fascinated lately by vacant storefronts. There's something so forlorn about them, and they pose so many questions. This one caught my eye yesterday as I walked to the post office on Ladbroke Grove -- it had been home to a Chinese restaurant, and then the restaurant closed and the sign came down, and beneath it was this mysterious older sign.

I knew "Moonraker" only as the title of a James Bond novel, and somewhat mediocre corresponding film (partly redeemed by its fabulous Shirley Bassey theme song). But it turns out Moonraker is a colloquial name for a person from Wiltshire, with origins based in this story. No idea what this store might have sold, aside from Coca Cola.

Here are more vacancies, from my walk around Islington and Camden on Sunday:

And these are from my walk to Wembley last week:

There are still plenty of going business concerns on London's "High Streets," as the shopping districts are called. But there's also an awareness that many local businesses need support, particularly in this economy. I've seen campaigns aimed at getting shoppers away from malls and back to the High Streets -- much like the "buy local" movements in the United States. Obviously I don't know the story behind any of these particular businesses, but I'm sure the economy didn't help any of them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Holland Park

After weeks of chilly gray skies and rain, the weather yesterday was suddenly balmy and beautiful. And none too soon! My frustration with our spring showers was reaching a breaking point. On Sunday, when Dave told me it was supposed to rain yet again that afternoon, I surprised both of us by exclaiming, "I hate this country."

Of course I don't really. I was just annoyed because I'd planned to do photography that afternoon. (And as it turned out, the rain never materialized and I took pictures after all.) Why I was so attached to my plans -- to my idea of the weather as I thought it should be, rather than as it was -- is a good question.

Anyway, yesterday was the first truly pleasant, warm, sunny day we've had in weeks -- t-shirt weather! I went to Holland Park and wandered the paths through the forest, where the rhododendrons were in bloom.

I also saw lots of these blue flowers, whatever they are.

And more horse chestnut blossoms -- pink ones this time, as opposed to white.

I took my Gandhi book to the park and finished it in one sustained, committed marathon of reading. Thank goodness that's over. I did learn from it, so it wasn't a waste of time -- it just wasn't pleasant!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I went running yesterday morning on my four-mile route through North Kensington and along the Grand Union Canal. I really enjoyed it, for a change! When my friend Pam visited last month, we talked about how hard running is now that we're in our mid-40s. The younger me used to reach a point of endorphin-fueled euphoria, but that rarely happens now. My runs often seem like one long struggle. Yesterday, though, I hit a good stride and felt, if not euphoric, at least not like I was about to die.

I'm reading a book about Mahatma Gandhi, "Great Soul," by the former editor of The New York Times, Joe Lelyveld. So far I am underwhelmed. Lelyveld obviously put a tremendous amount of work and research into this book, but it is a slog. I wondered if it was just me, but I looked at the reviews on Amazon and it seems others have also had this problem. I'm up to about 240 pages so I'm within sight of the end and I'm going to push forward. Dave doesn't understand my compulsion to finish books I don't like, but I figure, if I spent the money, I'm going to get a return on my investment -- and besides, you never know when a book might turn around. I enjoy the parts that provide a glimpse of Gandhi's psyche, his inner self. The intricacies of early South African and Indian politics, though, make my eyes roll up in my head.

Yesterday afternoon I walked over to Trellick Tower and found a whole new crop of graffiti had appeared over the weekend, like the piece above by Kesh. If I want to be obsessive about it, I could probably go over there every other day and find new stuff. I'm not going down that slippery slope, though!

Finally, last night Dave and I went to The Ledbury, a fabulous restaurant with two Michelin stars a few blocks from our flat. We've been meaning to go for months, but getting a reservation can be a problem -- we made this one back in March! It lived up to our expectations. We had the tasting menu with wine pairings. Terrific!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Post-Brunch Barber

Last week, as we were driving home with Chris and Linda from the antiques show at Alexandra Palace, we passed this barber shop. I loved the painted gate on the front of the store, so I made a mental note of the location so I could go back for a picture. I knew I had to go back on a Sunday, when the store would be closed and the gate would be visible.

Yesterday morning, Dave and I went to his coworker Keith's house for a really fun brunch -- egg, cheese and spinach casserole, baclava and plenty of champagne! Afterwards I wove my way to the tube and fulfilled my plan to visit the barber. I'm surprised the picture came out so clearly. Thank God for auto-focus.

I then walked for several hours through North-Central London, and I didn't get home until almost 7 p.m. My feet were killing me -- but overall, a great day!

On Saturday, Dave and I went to see the movie "Jeff, Who Lives at Home." (Or as Dave mistakenly called it at brunch, "Tim, Who Lives in the Basement.") It was a great movie, and although it's billed as a comedy, it's pretty unconventional -- more like a drama with comedic moments. Two thumbs up!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Black Line, Red Dot

One of my faithful readers asked to see the items I bought online to match my recently purchased egg cups. So here they are! They arrived Friday -- a jam pot (left), napkin holder (center) and sugar bowl (right). The wood bases are all marked Wyncraft, a brand somehow associated with a pottery company called Crown Devon, which made the pots. I'm sure the pattern has a name, but I don't know it. I've only seen it described as "Black Line, Red Dot." So far I've only seen serving pieces -- no plates, cups or bowls -- so I suspect the set isn't very extensive.

I used to collect a lot of mid-century pottery but I sold or gave away almost all of it in the late '90s and early 2000s. This is my first acquisition in a long time -- at least since my vintage creamer from last summer. (Which is still in its place of honor in our kitchen window.) Never again will I collect as much as I once had -- it's too much trouble to store, display, clean and protect -- but I can't resist certain pieces!

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Last fall I mentioned the volunteer marigold that popped up in our parking lot. Well, this spring we're seeing other feral garden flowers here and there around our flat. This clump of pink blossoms is growing in the gutter of the building across the parking lot (or "car park," as the English would say). I can't tell what they are -- they're too far away.

And these snapdragons have appeared once again on the ledge just above our building's front door. I thought they'd vanish after the cold winter, but they're persistent little devils. Makes me think they've probably been around for years.

You gotta be impressed with a plant that can grow and prosper on a concrete ledge, without any apparent soil!

Friday, May 18, 2012


I've been hearing raves about the London Design Museum, so I decided to go on Tuesday. It's in Shad Thames, on the south bank of the river, and when I got there I discovered I'd missed the recent Terence Conran show. Alas.

I found instead an exhibit focused on Christian Louboutin, the famous French shoe designer. Now, I do not care one whit about shoes. I own about five pair, and as far as I'm concerned even that's too many. Women's shoes are even more of a mystery. But I decided to check out the show, since, well, that's what there was.

It wasn't bad, and I imagine if I'd been a shoe person I might have loved it. There were lots of schoolgirls running mad, apparently on some sort of class trip, and although I suspected I would be the only man, a couple of others were also wandering around. My conclusion: If I were a wealthy drag queen, I would wear these.

I also checked out an exhibit of design award winners, the most noteworthy of which (in my book) was  the Mine Kafon, a giant dandelion-like ball that rolls across minefields and detonates forgotten mines. Designed by Massoud Hassani, an Afghan designer, it's meant to be a cheaper, safer alternative to mine clearance, and indeed an accompanying film showed one being blown apart like so many Tinkertoys. Kind of amazing.

(Photo: People seemed to like the colorful outdoor sign for the Louboutin exhibit. I took this during the approximately five minutes of sunshine we had on Tuesday.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Walking to Wembley

Well, I spoke too soon. Just as I complained about the weather in yesterday's post, we had a relatively sunny day! Still a little chilly for my taste, but at least not damp and drizzly.

I decided to celebrate by taking a nice long walk out to Wembley Stadium. I'd never been out that way, and I wanted to check out the neighborhoods on the way and take some photos.

The stadium itself is a 90,000-seat behemoth that hovers over surrounding neighborhoods like a UFO. It's a very distinctive structure, with a huge metal arch that I'd previously seen only faintly from the London Eye, about eight miles away. I didn't realize it's only about five years old -- according to the always-trusty Wikipedia, this incarnation of Wembley opened in 2007, following the demolition of the previous stadium, which had stood since 1923.

Here's a map of my walk, which came to about 6.7 miles. I did get lots of interesting photos -- primarily storefronts in the heavily immigrant neighborhoods along the way. I'm sure I'll share some of those in future posts, or you can find them on my Flickr in a week or two. (It takes me a while to catch up -- I have a perpetual backlog of photos. I try to only add about ten a day so as not to overwhelm.)

I didn't walk back home again. I took the tube!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Jubilee, And Other Frivolities

I'm sure you've heard about Queen Elizabeth II's upcoming Diamond Jubilee festivities. Plans call for a boat procession on the Thames on June 3, featuring the queen herself, as well as lots of other events around that time. Apparently thousands are expected to line the riverbank to see her, and Dave and I will be among them. Union Jack bunting has been strung all over town and celebratory products are on sale, like these fun cupcakes we picked up Sunday at Waitrose -- the upmarket grocery store where we only go when we're feeling special.

Street artist Don has even put up jubilee-themed graffiti! I wonder if the Queen would approve? (He may have permission from the building owners; I don't know.)

In other miscellaneous news:

-- I gave up on our canned seedlings, but before throwing them out I emptied the cans just to see whether they'd germinated or not. And you know, not ONE of those seeds even sprouted. So let this be a lesson to all blog readers that canned seedlings are not what they're cracked up to be.

-- I failed to mention Mother's Day on the blog, but Dave and I were good sons and Skyped with our moms, and I wrote to my stepmother too. Just so you know.

-- I am sick and bloody tired of rain and chilly weather. It's supposed to be in the 50s every day this week, with lots of clouds. And this after the rainiest April in more than 100 years. Bring on the summer!

-- We went to another antiques show with our neighbors, Chris and Linda, at Alexandra Palace on Sunday. My only purchase were these groovy and absolutely essential '60s egg cups (we think?) made by Wyncraft.

When we first saw them we thought they were sake cups. But then we realized that we were probably expecting far too much, multiculturally speaking, from a British ceramics company in the '60s. Egg cups make a lot more sense. (I have since ordered a matching sugar bowl and jam pot online!)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Stickers from the '70s

I bought some bananas yesterday morning, and like most supermarket bananas, they had a grower's sticker on them. It occurred to me that I hadn't paid attention to banana stickers in years. When I was a kid and kept a journal, I used to save them. I liked the typography and the colors -- the graphic design.

I got out my old journals and found my banana stickers (above) from 1979. I still kinda dig that "Yes!" sticker. Such enthusiasm!

My childhood sticker appreciation didn't end with bananas, though. My brother gave me this fierce Halloween monster, which he bought in a sticker pack from Sherry's Hallmark, a card store in north Tampa. (Now long defunct.)

And of course I saved Cracker Jack stickers, like these from 1979.

Apparently I found this Artoo-Detoo sticker while cleaning my room in 1980. Maybe I should put it on eBay?

I never imagined when I used stickers to illustrate my journal that I'd be able to share them with the world electronically, 33 years later. (And you're thrilled too, I know.) For good measure, here's the banana sticker that started this nostalgic wandering through stickerland, from yesterday's bunch of bananas:

A worthy typographic design, I'd say!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sayonara, Sky

You may remember we've been wrestling with bad cable TV service ever since we moved into this apartment last summer. We put up with it for a while, but it seemed to be getting worse and worse. Our signal was breaking up, the picture was freezing, and our recordings were failing. It was particularly bad on certain channels.

We tried several times to fix it, but the TV company, Sky, refused to work with us because our landlord's name was on the account. So we asked the landlords to cancel the service entirely -- they live in the U.S. and can't really deal with repairing our cable TV. They canceled, effective the end of May.

On Friday I bought a new receiver for Freeview, which is a fancy way of saying we discarded cable TV entirely. We can get more than 100 channels absolutely free, including all the BBC channels, ITV, three or four movie channels, the Food Network and almost everything else we regularly watch. I hooked it up and now our TV, at long last, is operating normally. The picture quality is terrific.

Why did we wait so long to do this? No cable bill! Free television! A good signal! What's not to like?!

(Photo: Portobello Road, on Friday afternoon.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012


I met a traveller from an antique land 
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, 
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown 
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. 
And on the pedestal these words appear: 
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: 
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!' 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, 
The lone and level sands stretch far away." 

 -- Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818 

 (Photo: The front of Lichfield Studios, the former photography studio of the Earl of Lichfield, now used as art gallery space in Notting Hill. Coincidentally, I saw this same quote the next day on the wall of the Egyptian Escalators at Harrod's!)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Under the Westway

When I was photographing graffiti at Trellick Tower last week, I ran into a guy who asked me if I'd seen the graffiti walls beneath the elevated highway known as the A40, or Westway, which runs near our neighborhood. I hadn't, so he gave me rough directions, and on Thursday I set out to find them.

It turned out not to be all that difficult. The area is easily accessible by sidewalk, and most of it is paved and serves as the entrance to a large recreation center. And the graffiti was pretty great, so I'm glad he filled me in.

There's more than graffiti under the Westway -- there are also horses, stables and the distinct odor of manure.

Maybe the animals are connected to the nearby recreation center. In any case, they seem urban and edgy, surrounded by all that concrete, traffic and graffiti!