Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Card 2011

In previous years I've posted an outdoors Christmas picture. This year I'll share the minimum effort decorations going on in my hallway. Today there has been ice, sleet and hail outside. Do you blame me for staying indoors?

I did venture into Birmingham earlier in the week to find that this year the visiting German market has got bigger but is selling fewer things, that I've already missed the best bargains in the supposedly post-Christmas sales and that the bull is ticking off several trends at once (onesies and knitwear that could be either festive or channelling The Killing) in his new outfit.

Have a lovely Christmas.

K x

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Postcard from underwater III

For someone who isn't keen on fish, I seem to spend a lot of time at aquariums. It always strikes me as weird that somewhere as far from the coast as Birmingham has such a large Sea Life Centre and even weirder that when I have visitors they want to go there.

It has improved since my last visit a couple of years ago. There are now otters (aaahhh!) and a 4-D cinema. In which the fourth dimension is...guess what...water!

The otters were cute but moved too fast for my camera. I had to stand still for a long time to get a shot in which it appeared the fish were kissing. Now I know how the paparazzi feel.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Postcard from the pond

Autumn's colours are already fading. A walk through Highbury Park this afternoon proved that the leaves are falling, not just turning. A mob of ducks gathered at the other end of the pond where a toddler had food for them and I was left with this reflection. Bonfires were smoking in back gardens and squirrels were dashing up trees and dislodging more leaf litter. Somehow it's less antisocial when nature behaves in a loutish manner.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Postcard from the library

Well, not so much the library as the building site of what will be Birmingham's central library. It's not quite ready for the books yet. Given the issues with funding for libraries elsewhere in the country, it's great to see Brum investing in the concept with a whizzy new building. Also good to see is that it won't be another concrete hulk and will instead be a little bit bling. Nice.

I know I'm not the only Birmingham writer to use the central library resources for research as well as sometimes working at a desk there. So I'm hoping facilities at the new building will be everything we need. That's not much: desk, light, chair. The fancy exterior and cutting edge technological fit out is all very nice; but my biggest wish for the new building is that the escalators don't squeak. The noise from the current ones is ear bleedingly distracting.

I was lucky enough to be visiting the new building on a tour which included a chance to see some of the treasures which will move into the building once it's complete. Among the inspirational items for a writer included a First Folio of Shakespeare's plays and Caxton's first printed book. One item which will remind me of the old library though was a German speaking picture book. You can see an example demonstrated here then imagine those sounds on a constant loop coming from the escalator. Now do you understand why I can't wait for the new building to be ready?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Postcard from The Big Draw

The Big Draw is a campaign whose aim is to get everyone drawing. They claim "Drawing helps us to think, invent and communicate – regardless of age and ability." Filling a wall with Etch-a-Sketches is guaranteed to tempt passers by at the MAC to have a go. Critical design fault though: you can't shake the frames to erase previous 'scribbles'. Which means that only the highest placed had room for new 'drawing' and those of us who are not so tall couldn't reach them.

What would you guess to be the most common 'sketch' made? Yup, names. Why pass up an opportunity to tag your graffiti?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Postcard from Martineau Gardens

I'm fond of late summer/early autumn for a number of reasons, including fruitfulness. When I visited Martineau Gardens in Edgbaston harvest was in progress in the veg plots while laden boughs in the orchard begged to be scrumped. Grapes dangled from their vine and enticed with the promise of a nice glass of red. Although, I have to admit to doubts about how Brum-grown wine would turn out.

Not that my local produce can be faulted in any other way. I've been fortunate to have been gifted some cucumbers from a friend's garden about a mile away and some tomatoes from the allotments next door - can't get more locally sourced than that. Well, I could; if I did any gardening of my own. As someone who has managed to kill a houseplant in the last week though, I think it safest to admire plants from afar. Until they're ready for my plate of course.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Postcard from the museum storage depot

One problem with museums is that they only have a limited amount of space. So visitors have to look at what has been chosen for display by the curators. Which is all very well, but when the museum actually owns thousands of other objects it's a bit of a shame. So I loved having a root around the Museums Collection Centre which is a big warehouse storing all the items owned by museums in Birmingham which aren't part of current exhibitions.

It's more akin to having a rummage around an antiques shop than going to a museum. Items are arranged more by whether they fit the storage space than their relation to the object next to them. So a carved horse from a merry-go-round sits next to some engine parts; empty gilt frames lean against a model of the canal network in the Black Country. Wandering at random down aisles stacked like a surreal warehouse, or peering into cabinets packed with odd assortments of household items, sparks ideas and memories.

There's a writing workshop as part of the Birmingham Book Festival this year in which you could spend the night locked in this place. I'd love to read some of the work produced on the night, but you couldn't persuade me to stay overnight. Who knows what's lurking in among the artefacts to jump out after dark?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Postcard from the removal van

Apologies for the lack of posts. I've been moving home and am currently without internet access. It was distressing to see all my worldly goods crammed into a van; but they have now arrived safely at my new place.

I do have more attractive pictures to share from recent outings and will do so once my broadband goes live. Watch this space!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Postcard from Salcombe

I'm lazy. I don't deny it. So if I'm going to climb steep hills there needs to be a reward involved. Fortunately for Salcombe, the view delivered from the top and the short boat trip across the estuary to sandy beaches drenched in late afternoon sun meant I felt the expedition to the bottom worth it when faced with the million steps back up to the car. Well, it felt like a million.

I admit it: I also can't deny that having partaken of tea and cake at the beach side cafe may have may have made the climb more arduous. But what are holidays for if not indulgence?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Postcard from my post bag

OK, so I make a lot of fuss about postcards, to the extent that several of my friends and family are kind enough to continue to include me in their travels by sending a card rather than email, text or silence. The above arrived in the last month or so and each brightened my day with its vicarious visit to Barcelona, Yorkshire and a Greek beach. From the article and comments here it's obvious I'm not the only one to still delight in them (the comment about 'middle-aged or elderly' rankled a little, have I really crossed that line?)

Last week I went to a preview of a show which will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month: Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs - the story of an investigation inspired by a postcard of Lincoln Cathedral sent in 1910. See? Postcards as life-changing dramatic device!

If you think it's just a photo of a beach, you're missing out. I'm off for a mini-break in Devon this weekend, anyone fancy a card?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Postcard from the food festival

You might think the ideal food festival starts with a literal interpretation of the name. Food in a festival setting, what's not to like? There's no denying that the addition of a 12 foot high lobster riding in a cart towed by a man in hunting regalia livens things up a little though.

The food was good, as was the drink. The entertainment seemed to be straightforward: cooking demos and a jazz band, until things took a turn towards surreal...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Postcard from the path

I've posted from Winterbourne before, but it's the kind of place which rewards a visit in all seasons. In fact, the cafe rewards a visit full stop.

You already know the only gardening I do is in the line of admiration rather than action, and that I'm fond of a cake, so what's new? Well, Winterbourne is owned by the University of Birmingham - a fine educational establishment which saw fit to confer a degree upon me - and both are in Edgbaston, which I've recently heard is the leafiest suburb in Western Europe.

Birmingham likes these kinds of claims. While other cities  make a lot of noise about how special they are, Birmingham comes up with fascinating facts such as 'more canals than Venice' (true, but hardly comparing like with like), or 'more parks than Paris'. And now the leaves. What I want to know is: who counted?

There are a lot of trees in Edgbaston and I'm thrilled my degree came with added leaf quotient. Another fact: last year a record number of tourists came to Birmingham. My top tip for visitors: take a stroll down this garden path and check out the cakes.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Postcard from the Pantheon

Two thousand years old and yet it's the most impressive dome I've ever seen. Yes, I've visited the one in London; so the standard was set fairly low! The fact the Pantheon in Rome is still standing and looks so fresh is a wonder in itself even before you get round to realising how nice it is in there.

It just shouldn't work. The only light comes through that hole in the roof, and that hole in the roof lets in rain. Any architect proposing the design would be deemed insane. Inside though, it's fresh, calm and beautiful.

These days it's a Catholic church and there are some altars and tombs of significance. All I could do however was look up.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Postcard from the butterfly house

Sorry, no time for a proper post at the moment. I've been too busy getting out and about taking pretty photographs. See above from the Butterfly House at Berkeley in Gloucestershire. Such a beautiful colour, and prepared to sit still and show off while I faffed about with the settings on my camera!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Postcard from the Festival of Britain

You're right, the Festival of Britain was in 1951 and I don't own a TARDIS. So it's kind of the people at the South Bank Centre to put on a commemorative event for those of us not quite old enough to have experienced the original. There's a beach, a roof garden, really cute 1950s-style ice cream vans, and what you're looking at in this picture is world record bunting. As made by 21st century school children.

The 1951 event was intended to perk people up in a period of post war austerity. Let's not talk about the current state of the economy. Look at the bunting fluttering in the sun - doesn't it just make you smile?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Postcard from the parterre

I'm no fan of gardening, that popular bank holiday activity. The hard work the National Trust are putting in to restore the formal parterre at Hanbury Hall is impressive though and I admired their results. With the weather as it was this past weekend, the lawns were more popular with picnickers such as me. I'd rather laze in the sun than worry about gardeners' backaches as they trimmed the topiary.

My favourite aspect of the parterre was the frilly edged petals and raspberry stripes of the tulips. And with a picnic comprised of leftovers from a Royal Wedding party, the food was fun too.

Those of us who live in flats are always appreciative of a pleasant outdoor space. The parterre was pretty, but finding a sheltered corner to spread out a rug, with a vista of mature trees, warm sunshine and a cool box packed with treats makes a bank holiday in Britain great.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Postcard from the pigeon loft

Pigeon racing is not something I knew a dickie bird about until I spent a morning on a writing workshop with the artists at Project Pigeon. The birds are nothing like their scrawny street cousins. Nor are they pets. These pigeons are intelligent athletes. And, as in any sport, there is money, strategy, suspicion, ritual and rumour: all the elements for dramatic fiction.

The fact we were sitting around a shed in a yard situated under the railway arches of inner Birmingham couldn't detract from the fact that the birds were calm company, the world of pigeon fancying is surprisingly fascinating and the sun was shining. I scribbled loads of notes and outlined the plot of a rather gentle thriller set in the world of pigeon racing. It's unlikely that book will ever be written by me, but I am thinking up ways to work a pigeon loft into other stories.

I doubt I'll be using a pigeon as a main character though. Their key characteristic appeared to be that they just want to be at home with the family, eating. While this translates into an impressive homing instinct which uses navigational skills to surpass any satnav and speed to outpace birds of prey, once they get home, all they do is sit there. It just doesn't make for a satisfying ending.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Postcard from the festivals

Springtime in Birmingham means a blossoming of arts festivals. The Flatpack film festival brought this vintage mobile cinema (22 seats and fully upgraded to digital, Dolby, etc) to my local park and used it to screen hilarious public information films about Birmingham in the 1960s. For free! How charming is that?

Also unusual and intriguing was the event I chose at the Fierce arts festival. I indulged in a walk with a difference around a museum. They put a blindfold on me. I had a guide to prevent me falling over and a soundtrack delivered via wireless headphones. The whole experience was disorienting, deep and memorable.

Next weekend is the first of the book festivals. Brummies obviously love reading so much that we're treated to multiple events. I'm showing favouritism by picking my highlight event before it's happened, but I'm looking forward to the historical fiction discussion.

We've been spoilt for choice for things to do and see. I only hope the cuts to arts funding don't mean next spring won't be as vibrant.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Postcard from the tunnel

Greenwich is famous for many reasons. Its wealth of viewpoints which showcase the beauty of London is one of them. That's not what you're seeing here. Another thing Greenwich and the rest of south east London have historically been known for is lack of bridges and poor transport links, for being the land where cabbies fear to tread because of the dearth of return fares to the West End.

Even now the DLR has arrived, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel which burrows under the Thames to link south London to the Isle of Dogs is a lifeline for commuters and provides aural delights to groups of foreign students testing out the echoes. I was lucky to catch it so deserted for my photo. Equally lucky not to be mown down by a cyclist 'not riding' their bike through it.

While central London's bridges and the planned cable car crossing to east London may deliver scenic vistas of the iconic skyline, they don't have the frisson of danger the foot tunnel delivers. You're under water down there! The work in progress to prop up the roof just confirms the potential for it to come crumbling down around your ears. Sadly the lifts are currently under refurbishment, but no flashy cable car or convenient electric train can compete with the delight of being escorted 50 feet underground by a lift attendant accompanied by fading reception from his transistor radio before you promenade under the river.

OK, so it doesn't make for an attractive postcard. Here's the view towards Docklands from Point Hill in Greenwich to make up for it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Postcard from the Lunar Society

It wasn't the night of the full moon when I attended a Lunar Society lecture this week. The original one in the late 18th century always met on the lightest night of the month to minimise the chances of its members being robbed on their way back from an evening of stimulating debate.

This week's talk at the brightly lit Ikon Gallery took the theme of 'Heritage and the role of art in contemporary society'. It brought together folk such as a modern art curator from the National Trust (I loved seeing a big blue Jeff Koons egg in the conservatory at Waddesdon Manor last summer; sadly they didn't allow photography) and the Guardian's cartoonist Steve Bell.  The original Lunar men met in 'an age of miracles' (the Industrial Revolution - as described by Josiah Wedgwood). Imagine what he'd have thought of the pace of today's technological advancements.

So what role does art and heritage have today? As befits a good debate, there were differing views. Art allows imagination and challenges assumptions so that change can occur. Heritage (eg having a history of such things as the Lunar Society) allows change to be put in context. Both should be valued. At least that's my take on it.

And don't worry, Birmingham is now so well illuminated by street lights and monitored by CCTV that I made my way home without incident.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Postcard from a book launch

It's always good to see a friend do well; so yesterday was a treat. The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville was launched and is already attracting great reviews.

The book is a gripping thriller set in an alternative history where a Nazi empire dominates Africa. The action races along and the characters with their complex motivations and emotional baggage demand your attention.

The plush 5th View bar at the Waterstones on Piccadilly was the venue for the launch party: a suitably impressive setting to celebrate what's sure to become a best seller. I started reading on my journey home. It's a sign of a good book when you almost miss your stop because you're so engrossed!

Guy's a brilliant, hard working writer and deserves his success. Look carefully at that photo: he can even spell my name correctly!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Postcard from Charlestown

It was cool and windy in Cornwall last weekend, but bagging a bargain on last minute accommodation always gives a warm glow. I was staying up hill with a sliver of sea view so took the first opportunity I could to get down to the coast itself. And was thwarted. On arrival in Charlestown late last Thursday there was not a parking space to be had. The place was heaving.

What I didn't know was that I was visiting a film star. The Georgian harbour and resident tall ships do still work in their original capacity, but mostly they stand in for other places for filming purposes. Last week Dr Who was in town; hence the mayhem. The TARDIS had left by the time I got there next day. I'll have to watch closely to find out what planet or era present day Cornwall is thought to resemble.

That is a hint of turquoise you can make out in the sea. If the sun had only been a little stronger and the drizzle had dried up, I couldn't have wished to be transported in time.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Postcard from the estuary

As I live in the centre of Britain, it's rare I get to see the sea. And I only caught this glimpse of the tide receding from the Severn estuary out the window of a moving train. I was en route to Cardiff to talk about the River Severn though, so it was good to see it doing what it does best.

For reasons I'm probably one of the few people to find fascinating, the Severn estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. A whole fourteen meters at best. Yes, that grey shrouded expanse of mud and sand is world class. Give it a break. It's Britain in January; of course it's not looking its best. You should see it when the Bore is ploughing up the channel at high water.

Of course, all you really want to know is where's the biggest in the world if this is second best. Honours go to the Bay of Fundy in Canada. Everything's bigger that side of the Atlantic though. All I care about is that, following postponements to my Christmas plans, I might get a proper trip to the seaside next weekend. Hmm, the British seaside in February...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Postcard from the Custard Factory

Birmingham was once known as the 'city of a thousand trades'. One of the most successful Brummie products was Bird's Custard, although it's long since been sold off to some multinational conglomerate. As has much of Birmingham's city centre. Which is why it's so lovely that the factory which once made custard powder has been revamped to house a thriving community of creative types in the workshops, offices and boutiques tucked within its walls.

This is no identikit High Street. And I am pleased to report that, as befits a building with such sweet toothed heritage, the cakes in the cafe are delicious.

There may no longer be a thousand trades practised in Birmingham, but the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.