Monday, 24 September 2018

Alive at Midday

Amidst startling bursts of floral colour, and in spite of the white heat, dozens of finches, some dull, brown bird, parakeets and squawking myna birds flit about with vigour. It’s midday and they are so alive.

The scene is gaudy. Hot pink, aquamarine and scarlet. In a surprise swoop, the dullest birds opens its wings and skims the blue water, revealing a myriad of turquoise and green tones on its underside.

Somewhere, the laughing dove mocks my wonder.

Ordered patterns elsewhere counteract the assault – the base layer for some intricate drawing. Spirals, patterns, dimensions within dimensions - impossible constructions.

I disturb a lizard. Its camouflage is too good to be real, and I expect it to dive back into a two-dimensional plane.

There’s a dark, shady section of this scene where the other-worldly creatures lurk. I daren’t peer behind the thick green leaves. I’m not one to take fright but it’s the just that these skulking things have a habit of shifting and shaping just to startle you.

Its time to step quietly inside and leave the grotesque to rule.

Inspired by the work of M.C. Escher.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Greenwich, Me and Time

The Royal Borough of Greenwich is perhaps best-known for its naval history, its smart Georgian and Victorian architecture and lending its name to Greenwich Mean Time. It encompasses a number of lesser-known districts, the names of which are so familiar to me, yet visiting them feels like something of an adventure, being so different from East Anglia where I have spent much of my life.

On my mother’s side, my family lived in the Greenwich area from at least the early nineteenth century, around Woolwich, Eltham, New Eltham and Lee and neighbouring Lewisham. Research in the censuses has revealed that my ancestors were simple folk, described as ‘coachman’, ‘groom’, ‘laundry wash’, ‘grocer’ and even ‘prisoner’.

Well Hall Road, Eltham

So, an adventure we had a weekend or two ago as we returned to Greenwich after a long absence. There was a homely feel as we made our way up Well Hall Road in Eltham. Arts and Crafts style houses lined our route, with many well-tended, rose-filled gardens. If it weren’t for the South Circular Road, you could imagine yourself in the depths of some very pretty, very English village.

The road is notorious for being the site of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993. The spirits of my grandparents were not far as I couldn’t help but wonder what they would have thought of this sad infamy.

Heroes' Corner, Greenwich Cemetery

At the top of Well Hall Road is Greenwich Cemetery, set on the slopes of Shooter’s Hill - one of the highest points in London. Here we spent a good hour visiting relatives’ graves and exploring the site. I had forgotten about the parakeets that are peculiar to south-east London, which I remember from our former garden in Kent. They darted about shrieking to one another, too quick to be captured on camera.
It was worth walking to the far end of the cemetery to see Heroes’ Corner commemorating World War I burials, and to take in the panoramic view of London. It is a good place for reflection.

I wondered what my ancestors would have made of my life. Having recently sifted through boxes and boxes of family memorabilia and photos, and through censuses and other records, I feel I can piece together a little of their lives.

I have just marked the anniversary of my eight-year-old great-grandfather Frank starting school in nearby Lewisham in 1883. His parents must have had high hopes for him. Sadly he died aged only 33, leaving behind a young family. A poignant note that his wife, Selina, wrote their daughter, my grandmother Ethel, later in life suggests it was a struggle after Frank’s death: “…you worked with me all your young days, when you ought to have been playing”.

My mother Pat in the garden of 36 Castleford Avenue, New Eltham, in the 1930s

For many years, my devoted grandparents Ethel and Bill stayed close to the area where they both grew up, although World War Two enforced a separation when Ethel and my mother Pat were evacuated to Wales for a period. Handwritten letters between Ethel and Bill tell of Bill’s duties as an air raid warden, and are surprisingly passionate, considering that Bill was known as a taciturn man. Though I was only six when he died, I have clear memories of him not saying a lot but pottering about fixing things, ensuring that doors were locked and padlocks secured, usually with a ciggie at the corner of his mouth.

My mother, Pat, with her parents Ethel and Bill, 1940s

Ethel, Bill and Pat only moved out of Eltham in the 1950s to Foots Cray, Kent – not far away but something of a step up for them as they purchased a decaying Georgian rectory which Bill, a builder, restored to an idyllic home. It makes me happy to think how thrilled they would have been to bring their new home to life.

Ethel and Bill in Foots Cray, Kent, 1950s

No matter where I go, their imprints are everywhere. Tracing their footsteps in South London makes me hyper aware of their history, but I don’t need to go far to be reminded of them - I’m surrounded by their knick-knacks stuffed in display cabinets – their bridge trophies, a few defunct cigarette lighters dotted about here and there, bits of china that are worthless but too precious to throw or give away.

Ethel, 1950s

In troubled times it’s always my grandmother Ethel who comes to me, making time stand still. Always smiling, telling me to get my coat on and hurry up and put some lipstick on as well during a difficult house move or “Don’t worry, it’ll all turn out alright in the end”. And it did.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Sounds Like Home

The sounds change as the moon rises then dips below the Karachi horizon.

The whir of the ceiling fan provides the canvas, while car horns and shouts from the street below are the threads of the tapestry.

Two or three cats hiss and yowl like banshees in the garden. They may be the displaced spirits who claim this plot as their own.

Deep in the night the watchman whoops and calls as he rides the streets, our protector on a rusty old bicycle. He is unarmed and ill-equipped but he channels our guardian angels and is more powerful than you would believe.

On New Year’s Eve fireworks and celebratory gunfire start just before midnight. It’s a real cacophony of sound…not just pistols but machine guns and Kalashnikovs add to the mix.

There is peace for a few hours until the call to prayer marks the end of night. But I confess that rest is more tempting than prayer and I sleep until a mynah bird squawks, “Wake up! Wake up!” directly outside the window while Shameen’s pots and pans clang in the kitchen.

The soft swish of a broom on marble soothes me into the day.