Saturday 30 November 2013

Let Glasgow Flourish (Love Letter from Glasgow)

The Cenotaph and City Chambers on George Square

I was all set to write a post about Glasgow today, it being St Andrew's Day, and because I recently made a trip there on a day when it was graced with blue skies and I was able to get some half-decent photos of its astonishingly beautiful architecture. Time wasn't on my side as I was there for work and had other things to be getting on with, but I was able to nevertheless grab a few shots around the centre of the city.

However, I find myself writing now with some sadness, as I woke to hear about a terrible accident last night in which a helicopter crashed into a pub by the Clyde. There have been several confirmed fatalities and series injuries, and rescue work is ongoing as I write this. My thoughts and prayers go out to the people directly and indirectly affected by this shocking event, in that city for which I feel great fondness.

I fell in love with Glasgow quickly when I first visited it ten years ago on a short, solo Scottish trip. I started with a few days in Edinburgh and then headed to Glasgow, via Stirling. Edinburgh impressed me undoubtedly, especially the unforgettable experience of coming out of the train station and seeing the Castle hanging off a towering, dramatic rock, right in the heart of the city. But there was something about Glasgow that spoke to me more than did Edinburgh. I struggled to put my finger on it, but I just felt more at home there. The atmosphere felt more vibrantly urban and exciting, and it was arguably more visually compelling than its typically more admired cousin. I was enamoured of its strikingly noble but slightly decaying buildings. I remember taking a photograph of rusty ironwork on a bridge near Glasgow Green, on my way to the People's Palace, revelling in its rustic, gritty. poignant beauty, and contemplating whether I would have been quite so drawn to it, were it in pristine condition. I would share the photo with you now but it is somewhere stashed in a storage cupboard in my family home so I don't have it to hand...

Ironwork in the city centre, more cared for, but just as beautiful, as that which captured
my fancy on my first Glaswegian trip

Instead, I will share some more recent photos of this beautiful city, known as the 'Second City of the Empire' in the nineteenth century and which, in my humble opinion, is still one of the best in the UK. I hope to one day have the honour to live there, even if just temporarily... And even if I will have to re-name my blog. Love Letter from Glasgow? Doesn't have the quite same as Love Letter from London but we can work on that.

Having been back a few times in recent years, one of the things that particularly thrills me about Glasgow is the fantastic eclecticism of its buildings. So many periods and styles of the highest quality are represented in this richly varied city. I also love that it is not stuck visually or psychologically in one past moment in time, but continues to morph and develop and change, as any true city should. Sure, it's not always quite so pretty, and mistakes have been made, but Glasgow's energy has been kept alive through all these changes. I have to confess that I even get a buzz crossing over the roaring M8 (which circles the city in a choking ring and was almost certainly responsible for some criminal demolitions of old architectural gems...); I love seeing the view out to the council estate blocks sticking up out of the urban fabric. And I do admit that such a statement has the aura of someone giddily in love, akin to perceiving someone's nasty habits as endearing. Of course Glasgow must have shortcomings but I'm quite blind to them, or willing to shrug them off in my current state of infatuation. 

Although I do have to say that I worry for it sometimes. Beautiful, historic buildings not at all far from the centre of the city are left to flounder, empty and unloved. Meanwhile, I worry about the risk of unthinking, ill-considered new development gradually eroding the character of the heart of the city. By all means, Glasgow, continue to morph and develop and change - it's one of the reasons I love you, after all - but please pay heed to the joyousness and creativeness of your rich architectural legacy as you do so. Modern architecture has the potential to enrich and add to the exciting patchwork of your urban fabric but just please take care... That's the challenge facing Glasgow but it's met it in the past so can surely continue to do so into the future. So as the city's motto says, let Glasgow flourish!

Anyway, I hope that these pictures capture at least some of the beauty of Glasgow's built environment. It is a city which I find difficult to do credit to with photographs, because it is the variety and juxtaposition which makes it so special. It's the uplifting and ever changing views which you get along its hilly streets, the shifting depth and range that the human eye can appreciate but which cannot be captured by a restrictive camera's field of vision. Still, I did what I could...

Sunday 24 November 2013

... But One Month 'Til Christmas

On Friday, a memorial for C.S. Lewis was unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner, where various British authors are commemorated and celebrated. The unveiling took place on the 50th anniversary of his death. 

C.S. Lewis' memorial in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey (Image source)

C.S. Lewis wrote and presented extensively but he is probably most widely known for his Narnia series, of which The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950, is the most famous installment. And the timing of the unveiling of Lewis' memorial just happens to be an appropriate time to be thinking of this classic story, in which the Pevensie children arrive in the magical land of Narnia to find that it is 'always Winter, but never Christmas'. The arrival of Father Christmas later in the story is a sign of hope that the evil White Witch's spell is breaking, and the children are furnished with Christmas gifts to help them in the battle for Narnia.

Mr Tumnus and Lucy walking through the wintery scene of Narnia
(Image source)

As we in the Northern Hemisphere start to move into Winter, with colder, shorter days, at least we - unlike the citizens of Narnia - know that the brightness and warmth of Christmas are not too far down the track, with Christmas Eve but one month away today.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Halfway Down the Stairs

The Tate Britain re-opened in its full glory today, following a massive refurbishment. Apparently one of the highlights is the new staircase:

Tate Britain, Millbank, London (Image source)

And don't we, as a species, just love a good staircase?

Wells Cathedral, Somerset (Image source)

Tulip Staircase, Queen's House, Greenwich (Image source)

Nelson Stair, Somerset House, Westminster (Image source: David Holt London)

Tassel House, Brussels (Image source)

De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex (Image source

What is it about staircases that we find so appealing? Is it simply the graceful sweeping form of a curved stair, and the pleasing angles and geometry of those that are square on plan? Or is the sense of anticipation in not knowing what lies around the next bend or on the next landing? Or is it the underlying feeling of wonder for the mathematics and physics that appeals to us on some subconscious level, even if we aren't engineers? Or it it that slight sense of exhilaration in being able to move across planes and spaces in ways that would not be possible, were it not for these structures?

Whatever the case, I certainly think there is something more profound than pure aesthetics that gives us a sense of awe and great pleasure on encountering a particularly noteworthy, or even a relatively average staircase.

M.C. Escher's Relativity (Image source)

And that, my dear readers, is what I call a tangent - from a gallery re-opening to waxing philosophical about staircases. Though I did manage to draw it back to art with Escher there.

But do pitch in, what is your favourite staircase? Is it a simple stone medieval spiral staircase? A sweeping marble Baroque palace staircase, with ornate gilded balusters? A clean white, sleekly formed Modernist staircase? Or is it something more humble, like your carpeted, timber staircase at home?

With that last thought, let me leave you with an old favourite poem, which might indeed say a little more about the simple appeal of staircases:

Halfway Down
(A.A. Milne)

Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where I sit.
There isn't any 
other stair
quite like 
I'm not at the bottom,
I'm not at the top;
so this is the stair
I always stop.

Halfway up the stairs
isn't up
and it isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery,
it isn't in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
run round my head.
It isn't really
It's somewhere else

Saturday 16 November 2013

The Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers

Last night I had the honour and privilege of attending the Annual Young Pattenmakers' Dinner.

The Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London. The Livery Companies or Guilds are part of an ancient system of trade associations which was established to control the manufacture and selling of specific goods and services. The Companies also protected the working conditions and wages of the people operating under the relevant trade. This system was common throughout Europe from the medieval period, if not earlier, but their active survival today is unique to London. The older Companies such as Grocers, Haberdashers, Ironmongers, Bowyers (long-bow makers), Cordwainers (fine leather workers) and Coopers (barrel-makers) - to name but a few - have been joined in the past century by Companies such as the (far less exotic-sounding) Tax Advisers and Information Technologists. 

That's all very nice but who the heck, I hear you ask, are the pattenmakers? What is a patten? Well, this is a patten:

Image source

Pattens were protective overshoes that were worn over your regular shoe when you went outdoors. They helped protect your shoes from being dirtied and prematurely ruined by the muck of the streets, in the days before paving was prevalent. In the days of pattens, one could expect to encounter all sorts of unpleasant refuse in the streets, particularly due to the presence of horses and other animals, not to mention lack of sewerage, which meant that human waste was simply tossed out on the street. 

However, as paving became more common and the streets cleaner, pattens became no longer a day-to-day necessity. (I note that there is also a Worshipful Company of Paviors - those responsible for paving and maintaining roads. One has to wonder if there was - and is - rivalry between the Pattenmakers and Paviors...)

Image source

Although pattens are extinct in today's day and age, the Pattenmakers still exist. They now have a close association with shoe makers and designers, as relevant, connected and still thriving trades. Meanwhile, the charitable and social functions of the Pattenmakers carry on. And one such social function is the recently instigated Young Pattenmakers' Dinner, an annual event started four years ago to allow curious friends of Pattenmakers to find out a bit about the Company and to get a taste of how they do things.

I was invited by a lovely young lady who has been working in my office over the summer. As a person intrigued by historic customs and institutions, I readily took up the offer. And I'm certainly glad that I did because I had an excellent evening, enjoying dinner and drinks and conversation with some of the interesting and varied people present.

Image source

Oh, and the other thing to mention about the Pattenmakers is that, unlike many of the Livery Companies, they do not have their own hall. The reason for this is not recorded, but it is possible that it, like a great many others, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and it was never rebuilt. As they do not have their own hall, they instead make use of the other Livery Companies' various halls. Last night's affair was held in the headquarters of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners:

Image source

Yep, that's right. It's a freaking ship! The HMS Wellington, to be exact. Built in 1934, it acted as a convoy ship in World War II, and has been moored in the Thames since 1947 as the headquarters of the Master Mariners. A pretty awesome dinner venue, I'm sure you'll agree.

So I think I can safely say that last night was all a pretty unique experience. And that I kind of fancy becoming a Pattenmaker myself now...

Sunday 10 November 2013

The RAF's Sweethearts

This morning I went to the Remembrance Service at St Clement Danes, the central church of the Royal Air Force. The original church dates back to before the Domesday Book of 1086 but was rebuilt in the 1680s by Christopher Wren, with the steeple added by James Gibbs in 1719. The reason it is today the church of the RAF is because it was gutted after being hit by an incendiary bomb on 10 May 1941, and after the war it was rebuilt with funds raised by the RAF.

War damage at St Clement Danes (Image source)

Long-serving readers may recall the post I wrote about my father's parents, who met during World War II, when both served as part of Bomber Command - my grandmother on the ground and my grandfather up in the planes. Although they both thankfully survived the war, it was for this reason that I opted to go to St Clement Danes today. 

And it's also the reason that I have collected the two sweetheart brooches below.

The first (above) was bought shortly after I first read about sweetheart brooches, which were given my servicemen to their girls to wear whilst they were off fighting. The whole concept definitely spoke to my Romantic side and my mid-century interests. As an RAF-granddaughter, I took a particular fancy to the idea of having one representing the air force. So off I went exploring on Ebay, and found the one above. While I was on there, I also saw a wonderful, solid plane figurine, which very much appealled to me but I watched it soar above my budget in a bidding war... Never mind, the one above suited me just fine so I bought it up. It was a time when my grandfather wasn't doing so well, so I liked the idea of being able to pin this onto my jacket as a reminder of him.

That was quite some time ago now. Then about a year ago, on my visit to Australia, I was exploring an antique shop in a county town when I came across this with my mother:

Just like the one I had spotted previously on Ebay but had been completely out of reach! The question of whether it is a Hurricane or a Spitfire is up for debate but, either way, it's just lovely and perfect. (Yes, my grandfather flew a Lancaster but this brooch makes me happy, nevertheless.) My dear mother got it for me as an amazing, treasurable birthday present. For a while it was almost a permanent fixture on one of my favourite jackets but now I wear it more sparingly, after I had a scare with it when it dropped from my jacket. I realised a short while later and thought I'd lost it for good. Thank the heavens and the good people of Carlisle (where the incident occurred), as some stranger had handed it into the staff at a shop I'd been in and I found it held at the Information Desk. I wonder if the person who found it knew what it was or thought it was just some funny little plane? Either way, I almost cried when I realised it was gone, and then again when I safely recovered it... Imagine what it would have been like for a girl who had actually been given a brooch by her sweetheart who was off fighting to lose such a thing. I'm sure one couldn't but think it was a bad omen.

Thankfully, I'm not such a girl and I'm blessed to not be personally affected by war. Instead, I wear my sweetheart brooch in honour of all those from the RAF and other members of the armed forces of this country and others who have died young due to the horrors of war and conflict throughout history.

The exquisite War Memorial in the Freemason's Hall, Great Queen Street
(Photographed on my visit during this year's London Open House weekend)

Tuesday 5 November 2013

A Firecracker of a Cupcake

It's Guy Fawkes Night! I wore my best sparkly top to work in honour of the day, with its evening promises of joyous, wonderful and magical fireworks going off in all directions.

As well as being Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night), today is also the birthday of one of my dear friends. All her recent time has been occupied with pulling together a portfolio for a big, impressive professional qualification, which she was submitting today. So, figuring that baking a birthday cake would be the last thing on her mind as she applied the finishing touches last night, I took it upon myself to bake one for her... or rather, a series of wee cupcakes.

But I couldn't overlook the fact that it was also Guy Fawkes as well, so I attempted to give them a fireworky look, with edible glitter and pearly things.

Not being sure what her favourite type of cake was, I just went with chocolate cake. Everyone likes chocolate cake, right? And the recipe (found on BBC Good Food and reproduced below) was dead easy. It was the beautifying of the cupcakes that was the most taxing, as I vainly attempted to make convincing starbursts...

200g butter
200g plain chocolate (up to 70% cocoa solids)
200g light, soft brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
250g self-raising flour

For icing:
200g plain chocolate
100ml double-cream (I used extra thick double-cream...) 
50g icing sugar 

Heat the oven to 160C/140C fan and line a muffin tin with cupcake cases. Gently melt the butter, chocolate, sugar and 100ml hot water together in a saucepan, stirring occasionally, then set aside to cool a little while you weigh the other ingredients.

Stir the eggs and vanilla extract into the chocolate mixture. Put the flour into a large mixing bowl, then stir in the chocolate mixture until smooth. Spoon into cases until just over three-quarters full, then set aside for 5 minutes before putting on a low shelf in the overn and baking for 20-22 minutes.

For the icing, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Once melted, turn off the heat, stir in the cream and sift in the icing sugar. 

Happy Bonfire Night! Hope everyone in the UK has a lovely night, celebrating and enjoying it in whatever way you choose. And I encourage everyone else around the world, wherever you are, to twirl a sparkler or bake some sparkly cakes, in your own personal celebration of early November.