The real straw-berry

I spent thirty years of my life in a part of the world dedicated to the strawberry: Watsonville, home of Driscoll berries.  However, it was not until I came to England that I met the true berry, the English berry, pale and acidic and short-lived.  When you buy a packet of them here, the label says not only the specific variety, but where it was grown.  And sometimes, the berries reveal that, despite the plastic punnet and the sealed film lid, they have still been grown on the traditional straw:photo 5

The Museum of Fabulousness

On Friday I made the trip back into London from the city’s Western Reaches, headed this time to my favorite non-grandmother’s-attic museum, the Museum of London.  photo 1

From the Stone Age river-side village to Roman Londinium to Victoria’s smoke-choked London, the museum uncovers the city’s layers as archaeological digs have done–

Excavations at Bloomberg Place

Excavations at Bloomberg Place

brilliantly presented to prove that history is NOT boring.  photo 2

I could spend all day here, among the chattering school groups, the tourists, the pensioners, and the fanatics.  (Friday’s example of such was a gent who took up a position at the tobacconist’s shop in the “Victorian Street”, and any unsuspecting passer-by who paused to look at the display of match-boxes was delivered a lecture on the same, complete with proud fetching of examples of Swan Vestas and enameled boxes from his inner pocket, competing with the lesser models locked away behind the museum’s glass.  I rather expected his counterpart over at the Roman exhibit to pull a bit of bone or worn sandal from HIS coat pocket, but there the gent just pressed his nose to the sarcophagus.

One unsolved mystery, in the “grocer” diorama in that Victorian Street, a peculiar mechanism overhead that went unlabeled and unexplained, and since I had time constraints, I could not pursue it. Anyone know what it is?

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And I’m no great fan of city life, but I will admit, the Barbican flats that rise up behind the Museum of London are immensely appealing. Look at the hanging-gardens effect of all those balconies:photoI had to pull myself away so my British publishers could take me to lunch and discuss the oddities of British publishing and bookselling while tucking into nice Sardinian food served by suitably swarthy and handsome young people. (I, noting the Italian-esque offerings on the menu but overlooking the name of the restaurant–Sardo Cucina–innocently inquired if they had any Italian beer.  The young man, one eyebrow eloquently arched, replied, “No.”  And after a pause brief enough to preserve manners but long enough to indicate a point was being made, he continued, “We have Sardinian beer.”  I assured the young man that Sardinian beer was much to be preferred, and indeed, it was very nice.)

Following lunch, an attempt was made to visit an antiquarian bookseller I like, but since my publishers had well-meaningly summoned a mini-cab, and since mini-cab drivers do NOT have “The Knowledge” of real cab drivers (a course of brute memorization that takes at least two years to absorb) this one’s attempt at finding the place based on an inadequately entered Sat Nav (ie, GPS) location brought me to Baker Street instead of Mayfair, I briskly exited and made for the nearest Tube stop.

Please note: a mini-cab is not a proper London Taxi, no matter what it looks like.London cab

Love for Victoria (& Albert too)

Wednesday we (ie: self and daughter’s family with two small persons) reluctantly extracted ourselves from the farmyard near Thame where we’ve been talking to cows and magpies the past couple of weeks and flung ourselves at London, to insert said daughter’s family onto an aeroplane Thursday morning. A process that proved rather more troublesome than any reasonable individual might expect. United having thrown its hands up and had the vapors like a Victorian heiress, said family grabbed at the opportunity to transfer onto British Airlines. Which, despite the late notice, at least managed to a) get them four seats together, only three of which they had paid for since one member is less than two years old and b) succeeded in presenting them with two (count them: two) car seats upon their arrival at San Francisco.
None of their other luggage, mind, those suitcases being somewhere in the bowels of Heathrow, but at least they could drive home without having to duct tape the kids to the seats. (And in case you’re wondering, the daughter’s husband being an engineer, yes they do travel with duct tape. In more than one color.)
While all this was going on, I was attempting to let Avis have their car back, Avis being singularly uninterested in having their car back, and by the time I had traded a ton or so of motor for a three-inch length of printed paper, my family had been sucked into the security vortex. So I boarded the tube to London.
I adore the Victoria & Albert museum, one of my two favorite grandmother’s attic sorts of places (the other being the Pitt Rivers, which is anthropology to the V&A’s art and textile focus.) My first visit to London, in the winter of 1977 (during such a bitter cold spell the gas fires in sitting rooms burned a sullen orange, the evening roasts were not cooked through until midnight, and a genuine London cab driver admitted defeat and pointed out the entrance to the tube station) my husband took me to the V&A to meet Tipu’s Tiger.

Tiup's Tiger, thanks to Wikipedia

Tiup’s Tiger, thanks to Wikipedia

I said hello to the fellow again this time (have you seen the Youtube video of what the tiger’s internal organ–ooh, punny joke!–sounds like?  It’s here. ) and then went to look at all the Victoriana I could find (have I mentioned that The Murder of Mary Russell will spend a great deal of time in the half-century before Russell is born? Although I’m pretty good on the Twenties, when it comes to 1860-1880, much research is involved…)

And then I wandered over to the best part of any museum visit: the cafe. What is it about museum cafes? An endless source of delight, stimulation, and interest both visual and gastronomical. Of course, being set in William Morris rooms makes the V&A even more of a treat.

However, I have decided that museum visits to London really ought to be done using a base of central London: clawing one’s way into the Underground in the late afternoon shatters any sense of peace and uplift a museum might have given one.

Waterperry gardens

My mother made precisely one trip out of the westernmost coast of the United States.  In the summer of 1984, I took her to England for three weeks: all her lifetime’s travel in less than a month.  We were mostly in Oxford, where she reveled in the sound of the bells, the boats on the river, trips into the covered market for dinner.  And the 1

Her favorite, and mine, was Waterperry gardens near Oxford.  photo 2

Waterperry has elements of Tudor and Domesday and Roman at its roots (although, what doesn’t, in England?) but its present form is due to an extraordinary woman named Beatrix Havergal, who moved in with her Horticultural School for Ladies in 1932, and stayed until she died in 1971.

National Portrait Gallery, by Valerie Finnis (later Lady Montagu Douglas Scott), cibachrome print, 1960s

National Portrait Gallery, by Valerie Finnis (later Lady Montagu Douglas Scott), cibachrome print, 1960s

Ms Havergal’s story is an amazing one, and typical of the kind of woman who just doesn’t hear the world saying No.  And Waterperry is a glory, from its stream to its apple orchard to its spectacular herbaceous border.  And–the wisteria!photo 4

(Read about her and her work here.)

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Shipshape & Bristol fashion

Crime Fest is an annual conference held in Bristol, England.CrimeFest+Logo

This Con has been running for eight years now, although it actually started a couple of years earlier, in 2006, when the indefatigable Adrian Muller had the idea of running a Left Coast Crime on the left coast of, well, England.

This year’s guests included one of the true queens of crime, Maj Sjöwall, who with her husband Per Wahloo changed the face of crime during the decade that started in 1965.  Their series of ten linked novels, beginning with Roseanna, reads as fresh today as when it was published, with gritty reality mingled with three dimensional characters and deliciously dark humor.

And to have her interviewed by Lee Child was a meeting of the generations.Maj_Sjowall_lee_childOf course, one great thing about Crime Fest is that it is in Bristol, a great place to explore not just this side of Britain, but the mind of one of its builders, Isembard Kingdom Brunel.  One can follow the projects of this extraordinary Victorian around the country, from the Clifton bridge to the Thames tunnel.  Ah, if only he’d lived a bit later, and I could introduce him to Mary Russell…