Back in July we went to Wales and foraged and flowered, and I meant to write about it but the time passed and we were back in the city.
I can share a few photographs at least.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working on a project with photographer Mim Saxl.
It was before the weather got all Turkish on us and when shit could still get done. A n afternoon of delicious indeterminate grey murk.
No, no, no.
Thou shalt not complain about the weather that you whinge for all year, all long freezing winter and drizzling spring. No.
Marilyn Monroe had the right idea, keeping her underwear in the fridge when it got hot and sticky in the city. I might try it. I’ll stick some knickers in the salad drawer and let you know.
Rather less elegantly, I have taken to wearing kaftans in recent weeks. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this, but there it is.
Cue the white djellaba.
These Moroccans know how to keep cool.
Mim is one of the few people with whom I feel natural in front of the camera. She is discreet and easy and she doesn’t talk all the time; she just gets on with it, which suits me fine.
I did the redeye schlep to Nine Elms and came away with amaranthus, astrantia, garden roses, nigella and fragrant mint.
And I found a rusty old enamel tureen somewhere that had the rustic vibe I was going for. (Without any holes in the bottom. Coup.)
For an afternoon I flowered, Mim photographed.
I made a considerable mess all over the floor. Have discovered that I am at my happiest in the thick of plant detritus, puddled water and snippets of chicken wire. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
We ate brownies.
I tried not to pull strange faces while I flowered.
Those photos are under embargo.
These are a few of my favourites.
All photographs © Mim Saxl Photography, http://www.mimsaxl.com
Sits above the town in her Schiaparelli gown, down in the depths on the ninetieth floor.
- Cole Porter
Things that have happened lately.
A couple of my house plants died. I didn’t mourn them. I just went out and bought more. I callously drove over to the garden centre and came away with potted dahlias and a fern I never knew I needed.
I have taken up exercise.
Yes Sir, in my thirtieth year. I guess my thirtieth year was the year I discovered I can’t just eat as much cheese as I like anymore and get away with it.
Harsh but true.
I am now a member of ‘The Rosenblatt Pool’.
When I swim there is blue evening light and glittering water and I think of nothing but flowers. And William Morris. The textile designer. Not the 1st Viscount Nuffield (for clarification, obvs).
I can now count visiting a chiropodist as among one of my ‘life experiences’. She told me I have very long toes and delectable heels, although I have been banned from wearing ballet pumps ever again. My entire Repetto collection is currently up for grabs if anyone is interested.
Suede flats and floristry are not happy bedfellows.
The flower of the moment – undoubtedly the dahlia. Preferably in shocking ludicrous pink that makes me think of a nail polish that Prunella Scales might wear on a day at the races.
I have a kaftan in this pink that I am saving for my honeymoon. All encompassing, billowing pink silk that was made for an evening breeze on a beach in the Mediterranean.
In other news, I have taken up tablecloths lately in a big way.
Dressing a table has forever been one of my extra-curricular activities. There’s nothing
quite like the scent of beeswax and roses and silver polish. When I was a child I used to dream of being a woman and owning china and stopping at the florist before preparing for a dinner. I hadn’t heard of Constance Spry then, then it was all about Julia Child and Martha Stewart.
Here’s how it goes:
Take your time. Table dressing should be done slowly, quietly, with no music on.
Wear an apron. Press your cloth. You can use scented water if you really get into it.
Lay the cutlery for each place setting. Silver should be polished. No smears please (Julia Child speaking). Likewise the glassware.
Arrange your candles.
Stand in the doorway and adjust the dimmers and watch the way the shadows fall across the table.
Put on some Puccini, or whatever is to hand.
And lastly, place the flowers and light the candles.
The true art of dressing a table is one of those things that in this modern age of TV dinners has all but vanished.
Like cocktail hour, or wearing a hat to go to the shops.
For events, I like to make up a sample, to see how the flowers and candles and glassware will all work together. It helps me visualize the end result.
Everyone loves a demo.
For this project I used aforementioned dahlias, garden roses and sweetpeas, mint and rosemary. A jar full of seashells we collected on far flung Kenyan beaches. Nautilus shells from Malindi, coral from Kilifi, sand dollars from Lamu.
I keep thinking I should have more dinner parties.
But there’s too much chicken wire around the place for that at the moment.
Increased risk of guests being impaled on flower frogs.
Off to Wales this weekend with secateurs and a variety of footed vessels.
In search of ancient hills and Spirea.
Please God we make it in time for the last of the foxgloves.
It’s that time of year again when everything goes to seed. Life feels spiralling, out of control busy, decisions take time to be made, there are emails, meetings that beget verdictless meetings, excitement – that sick, nervous excitement that comes when something big is coming but you don’t quite know when or how and there’s this little mountain of little niggling decisions to be made.
Nothing is resolved for now – and in the meantime, particularly on this particular day, our future hangs in the balance.
It is summer, the evenings are long and light and we leave the windows open. We eat a lot of asparagus and lemon sole.
I sail around on my bicycle between here and there (it feels like sailing when you cycle in billowy dresses on a big ole bike like mine) with a list as long as my arm of things that needed to be done yesterday, and sometimes, but not as often as I would like, with a basketful of flowers.
I am behind schedule, with everything, and yet I am a long way further down the line than I thought I would be.
There are a lot of lists lying about our flat at the moment.
Sometimes I squirrel them into little piles, but mostly they are here and there and used variously as a bookmark, a coaster, sporadically ticked and added to. Lists of sundries stock to buy, lists of things to do in May / July / November, lists of trade suppliers.
A shopping list these days is less Chanel ballet pump, more Mercedes-Benz Vito 115 CDI Long Tailgate Diesel, less nail polish more anchor tape.
Finland reindeer moss, rather than Diptyque.
But it smells just as good.
Strange but true.
In many ways it seems to me that the sole purpose of 2014 is preparation for next year – business plan, saving, website, branding, practice, projects, freelance work, getting fit. As much as I try to live in the moment, as much as I try to remember not to wish my life away, it happens – sometimes I just want it to be next year and not this year.
The next year will see a lot of changes. I launch my business, I take a new name, I turn thirty.
I get to be Mrs which feels very old and grown up indeed.
Of course all that comes with a whole raft of other problems – sleepless nights and wondering why I’m risking all the money I ever had and whether anyone will book me and thinking oooh, last year, how lovely that was, just planning and dreaming and wedding froth and notebooks…
I guess I won’t have a lot of time for playing around with flowers and a camera anymore.
Some days, the days when I’m more on edge than usual, thinking about flowers calms me. Just picking up one of the Madderlake books and flicking through it before bed is steadying. And I’m inspired by the creative community of other designers – amateur or established – in the field that I am still tentively entering. To some extent, when I’m flagging and tired and demotivated, I feel they are cheering me on.
Like, last week I was sent a Wedgwood vase by a lady I have never met.
I know that she lives in Yorkshire and she’s a florist and likes Constance Spry, and we’ve chatted a bit on Twitter and that I narrowly missed meeting her in London one time. But isn’t that incredible? To send a gift across the country to someone just starting out, to a complete stranger?
A little vase, a talisman.
It meant the world to me.
Occasionally, we get out of this town and we drive for miles and miles and remind ourselves that the bubble bursts in an instant, that the horizons are far and beyond and seemingly limitless.
This was one of those days.
Foxgloves and poppies in the gardens of Great Dixter.
All so calm and pretty there.
I’ve been flowering a lot. Making arrangements. Getting up at sparrow fart to visit the market after very little sleep in a damp Barbour.
Instagram makes it all look pretty! and inspiring!
Did you know they sell quite possibly the worst coffee in the entire world at Covent Garden Flower Market?
Like stagnant river water bad?
To people who have got up at flipping 3am to be there.
I think it’s insane, personally, to trek all the way to Nine Elms to look at orchids at dawn without being able to get a decent latte.
That’s just asking for trouble. No, not me. I’m just saying…
Apparently I make funny faces when I am arranging flowers. I squint and sort of hold my tongue between my teeth.
Concentration, I tell people.
Yeeeah, they say.
I hope you’re not planning on doing that around future clients.
Have you heard this song, Trouble Town? It’s been on repeat in my head recently.
Stuck in speed bump city
Where the only thing that’s pretty
Is the thought of getting out.
I like Jake’s music. This one’s good too. Happy tunes. If you don’t listen to the lyrics.
Actually, if we were to meet, I think we’d be mates.
I’m gonna make flowers for him someday.
I am way behind with the blogging. Things keep happening. Exciting things that I want to write about but haven’t found the time and I feel guilty about that, like I may never catch up ever again.
But that’s okay. Not everything has to be documented.
I am not a slave to social media.
While I’m here I have to tell you about this amazing place I found recently, though I’m prolifically uploading photos, so i’m sure you’ll get the gist and want to go.
An idyllic market garden and smallholding just a few miles north-west of Oxford – somewhere I must have driven past a hundred times and never noticed.
It is a tucked away, word-of-mouth kind of place, with a quiet sign on the road, so you’d be forgiven for missing it completely. But what a shame that would be.
I drove over there last Saturday, pottered around, took some photos.
It was all very pretty – glasshouses, an explosion of flowers and leaves and tilled soil.
Alliums and sweet peas and lupins.
But it’s places like this that remind you that our land is really very green and pleasant.
We had lunch snuggled up against the wood burner.
And I kept saying how did we never know about this place? over and over. Annoyingly.
Because the food was perfect bliss. Perfect for that day and that afternoon, artichokes and asparagus and little torn shreds of prosciutto in a grey flecked gravy that had just the comforting warmth needed to numb the chill typical of those English days before summer has begun.
We were leisurely about it, had coffee and meringues, stroked the dog, chatted to the couple at the next table about Scottish fairisle.
There is nothing better on a Saturday afternoon than to have a long meal somewhere unfamiliar and beautiful and then afterwards to go shopping for your food for the rest of the weekend. And to buy flowers, while you’re at it.
The farm shop sells local cheeses from Crudges Cheese and from Windrush Valley Goat Dairy, organic preserves, juices, kindling and locally produced charcoal alongside heaps of seasonal fresh vegetables, herbs, fruit, eggs and flowers.
If you’d like to visit, the cafe and shop are open all year round on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Booking is advised in advance. Quite rightly.
You can see the website here.
Thank you to Anneke and David Blake for such a warm welcome to your bountiful gardens.
I’m coming back soon for as much chard as I can lay my hands on.
This arrangement is dedicated to you and your work.
And your beautiful lupins.
Not so much to report this week.
I have been reading a lot of Jo Nesbø thrillers which lead me to worry about desensitization.
I really do worry about this.
Is it right to read gruesome accounts of rape and murder – meh! – and turn out the light to have perfectly cheerful dreams?
Isn’t that strange?
I don’t know.
I have a beautiful new tea dress and have been eating great bowlfuls of pasta splashed with olive oil, which I
probably definitely shouldn’t, given that I won’t fit into it for much longer if I persist.
Linguine al dente with sautéed garlic and shallots, and finely chopped chilli.
I like drinking a glass of red wine alone standing up in my dark little kitchen, but with the blue light still streaming into the living room through the geraniums (which I must say are in rude health this year) while my boyfriend sits in his chair like the grandfather I already know he is going to be, engrossed in a book about Thomas Cromwell.
Miss Peggy Lee is quietly, softly singing the blues and I idly spoon on white crab meat, and then pour over the double cream.
This is the stuff of big-bottomed early-summer ecstasy, this ritual of cooking pasta.
It is times like this that I know we are happy.
The Wisteria is going crazy here, in London and Oxford.
There is little that is more romantic than a porch entwined in vines with their pale, weightless bunches of grape-like petals.
I had a heated debate about Wisteria with an angry Scottish architect the other day, standing in the middle of the road. He hates it; I love it. He was so angry, and sure, and, well, Scottish, that he made me feel very young and naïve, which of course was enraging. He made me out to be idiotically romantic! Which I suppose I am, some of the time.
We didn’t make headway, and we very nearly got run over, and so that was that.
A couple of links:
Sarah Ryhanen’s New York Story for Coach. That trench is a good look for her.
And this recipe. (You guessed it) Pasta! with Basil Pesto and Green Beans.
I have learned two things in recent weeks. Firstly, they say you should fight through jet-lag. Just keep going, they say. I say bollocks to that, and sleep for 24 hours. Much better.
And secondly, I now know the answer to staying awake in the dark on the motorway after a day that started at 5am with 2 hours sleep the previous night. Icona Pop – I Love It (feat. Charli XCX) – turned up LOUD. Works a treat; try it next time you’re in this predicament and you’ll see.
What else is new… Well, of course Sarah and Nicolette came to London to host their Little Flower School classes. Which gave me the top-up of flower froth that I needed after coming back from New York to the grim reality of relentless spring rain and my telephone bill. God, don’t I sound like a miserable cow? It’s really not that bad…
The venue was The House Next Door, a Castle Gibson location – a Tim Walker, Alice-in-Wonderland set in Stoke Newington, outwardly unassuming but containing a collection of magical, fraying rooms and light, dusty stairwells, and creeping ivy. And every backdrop aching to be captured on film, of course, as intended. I spent most of the day either sweeping or pointing my camera at strange angles, under tables, around people’s ankles. Little piles of green, swept debris and detritus; peeling wallpaper.
I am fascinated by this duo. The Sarah-and-Nicolette show. They have something unique, which is, of course, why it is so demanded wherever they go. I watch Sarah picking her way through each piece of work. Standing back, threading something through, adding a touch of this or that, and it is magic; it gets me every time. I find it conflictingly uplifting and depressing, that us lot are all here because we love her work so much, that we are trying and learn something that is so ‘her’, something that is the essence of Saipua, her ‘trademark’, if you will, although I’m fairly certain she would make a nauseous face reading this. Afterwards, the glut of ‘Sarah Ryhanen-esque’ arrangements cropping up on Instagram – and I’m not saying I’m any different, because I’m not – I just flew 4,000 miles to learn from her, prolifically posting to Instagram all the way, to try to absorb some of that talent. She is as much a mentor to me as anyone else could ever be at this baby-step point in my floral journey. But while I can learn the three-tier process and pepper a loose arrangement with cosmos like exclamation points, trying to emulate her particular style as a designer is futile, just as it is futile to think I’ll ever compose like Brian Eno or write The Secret History. Just don’t go there.
That way madness lies.
This brings us to the question of originality and inspiration, which is far too broad a subject to broach here on this wee blog. Another tome on the matter, a PhD thesis, perhaps? I am always so conscious of inspiration, greedy for it and wary of it in equal measure. I want to create something that that is authentically mine, but can anything ever be? We are all sated with little nuggets of visual deliciousness all the time, thanks to Instagram. So how to be influenced without copying, when does it tip over into plagiarism? There must be a line, somewhere…
But let’s leave that there for now.
I’ve been deliberately slow to establish a style of my own. It’s an intimate process and, being human, one is fickle, one goes through the motions; in and out the other side of phases. I wanted to swim through all that, languorous, able to pause, pick up and put down, read, write, absorb. Play.
Increasingly, though – I have found this through working on various arrangements lately – the elaborately decorative vibe that I so loved for a while feels empty, absent of anything but the blooms and the grounding weight of a heavy vase. I imagined, I guess, when I started down this path a little under a year ago now, that I would naturally produce work that was an extension of my surroundings – the English countryside, the abundance of wild flower meadows and orchards swollen with heavy fruit in the autumn. I stayed up well into the night, poring over floristry books containing sumptuous, Bacchanalian arrangements of all the abundant produce of English summers – spilling with garden-y blossom, ruffling with sweet peas, tightly packed, the eye bouncing each off the other because it cannot rest – Tulips! Roses! Fritillaria! Peonies! But then, halfway through an arrangement, I would suddenly feel quite exhausted by all those textures vying for attention beside the other, and sorry for those that didn’t quite stand out. How can a humble leafy branch holds its own next to a fat, ostentatious ranunculus that screams look at me! all striped and layered, its bronze skirts and enticing stem curling just so…?
I started to think maybe that branch doesn’t want to blend in? Maybe it is secretly a show-stopper, a peacock in its own right, given space and volume, given the setting – an alcove bathed in light that calls for nothing more than subtly dappled sunlight on fronded leaves.
Constantly surprising is the contrast between what I envision, how I visualise the arrangement or bouquet before I start work on it, and the end result, because what comes naturally (if I ignore all the buggary ‘Rules’ that City & Guilds drummed into me) is something surprisingly restrained. Not minimalist – and not in size or shape necessarily – but certainly in terms of limited colour and fewer ingredients. Less glitter and swank.
Because, yes, less is more. And I have to remind myself that. It is harder – and editing is always the hard part, I know that from writing. That old Chanel-ism; take something off before you leave the house.
Cut that adjective.
Hard; I do love an adjective.
I find that the colours and competing textures of too many choices saps the energy of flowers, like the chatter of voices drowning out the one, essential message. I’m not saying that my ‘ethos’ – once it is fully formed rather than the embryo that it is now – is, or will be, frugal, exactly (I love the Dutch Masters look just as much as the next girl) but sometimes what is hauntingly beautiful, to me, about flowers, are the spaces between them, the shadows on the wall beneath them, that I want to include rather than obscure behind an unnecessary peony.
However buxom that peony may be.
I often have the same feeling about fashion, which I love, am fascinated and inspired by – the colours, the shapes, the texture – though conflicted by too. Because I imagine myself as Valentino-girl, when in reality I’m probably more Margaret Howell. A bit linen, a bit lace-up, a bit pyjama. (You can’t cycle in Valentino.) How often have I cast off a floral print, an organza blouse, sugary coloured mohair, for the crisp simplicity of a white shirt? In the same way, flowers are so naturally exuberant, so essentially luxurious, that I quite like reining them in. Utilitarian flowers. Unsentimental. Not cutesy or over the top. Not ludicrously extravagant. I want to say – Actually, you know what? No. Olive branches in a stone urn might be enough. Silvery leaves, silvery bark, crumbling soapstone – enough to make the composition speak to you across the shadows in a room and your pulse quicken.
Because, really, anyone can create pretty. And when you’ve got a recipe laced with all manner of pretty, it’s not hard to just put it all in a bowl and – tadah! To me, a lot of floristry – UK in particular – looks the same. There is so little that is different and – that old chestnut – original. Just flowers, arranged. A lot of pretty. It’s so easy, it leaves me cold. I flick through books and magazines and scroll through websites and blogs and – nothing. And then suddenly there’s Daniel Ost and you have opera! and poetry! in one terrifying installation of twigs and asparagus. I don’t necessarily like a lot of his work. I wouldn’t buy it for my house – not that I could afford it – but, man, has that guy got a different take on flowers. Valentino, hello.
I want to send a message, create a narrative. It isn’t enough, for me, that it just looks nice. I want to say something through the medium of flowers and I expect it’s going to take a long time, I expect it’s going to take forever but I think, in essence, that what I most want to achieve, when I think about it, is something unanticipated. Something that walks the line between maximalism and minimalism, if you will – elements of Ikebana and the starkness of Scandinavian ceramics with smokebush and layered Juliette roses, say. Something reticent and artful, like a landscape painting that captures the beauty of a deserted wasteland, washed-out, filmy, sober rolling mist and then ping! – an orchid. Pink. Speckled.
Or how Wales was this past weekend. The half-light. Endless green and rain, rain, rain. But then – on the edge of that, something startling, something out-of-the-blue. An errant, lost balloon, a black sheep.
You are probably thinking that I’ve completely lost the plot, but it makes sense inside my head.
Now it’s just a case of painstaking translation.
I will get there.
What I’m trying to say is – it doesn’t always have to be obvious. Particularly when we’re in the business of ephemerality. Flowers are like weather. To me, they should evoke the flash of shocking colour through trees, a bird, a shadow that passes, is hurried away by the wind. When I’m working, I try to close my eyes and think of a deserted beach on a grey day – flat light – and suddenly, unexpectedly, a little cluster of dried bladderwrack, a rust-speckled crab shell, coral, all deposited on the same spot, never ever in all time to be repeated and already blown apart just as soon as it is imprinted in memory.
Something sparse and yet intricately complicated.
Something majestic; the art of nature.
Dear New York,
Tomorrow night I am on the red-eye out of here, so tonight, I am writing to say goodbye. My two weeks is at an end – done – kaput – I am out of time, out of money – but, somehow, I don’t feel ready to leave you quite yet. It seems harsh, abrupt, too sudden. It snuck up on me, just when we have started to get to know one another, just when I am beginning to feel what I can only describe as a burgeoning physical intimacy with your streets and blocks and subway, your high rises and your low rises. I know it hasn’t been long. I don’t want you to get the feeling that I make a habit of getting attached too easily. I am English, after all – there’s nowhere like home. And, of course, every cloud has a silver lining, because at home I get to kiss my boyfriend. And my cats.
The thing is, New York – and I didn’t intend for this to be an all the gin joints in all the towns kind of letter – but I think I love you. You’re not easy, at first. You can seem hard, aloof, gritty, even. You can intimidate the hell out of a girl. And you sure don’t make it easy to get your hands on any filter tips (just saying). I mean, don’t get me wrong – you’re not perfect – particularly on a spring day when the asphalt warms and the breeze blows the smell of the chicken abattoir my way – I’m not so keen on that – or when someone sweaty on the subway stands with their armpit just a touch above my head, and breathes down my neck, which I could probably do without.
But here I am, looking at your fading skyline, and I must admit, I do feel a little bereft. Maybe it’s just infatuation, who knows, maybe I got lucky, and saw your more ‘attractive’ side – brief affairs and holiday romances such as ours do not leave much time for the mundane nitty gritty. You’ve shown me a good time, been all twinkly lights and restaurants and flowers. And I fell for you, hard.
On that note, was it really necessary to choose these last, fragile few hours as the moment you loosen your magnolia buds into blossom?
That really bloody doesn’t seem fair at all.
Well, toodle pip. I’m going to sign off now, go and drink a cocktail or something. Drown my sorrows in bourbon.
Until we meet again, New York. Know that I’ll be dreaming of you.
Eight days in; only six to go.
It has taken me a week to acclimatise and settle into the rhythm of life in Red Hook, which is home for the time being. I have spent a few days with the girls at the Saipua studio and had some invaluable flowery lessons, been to a meeting at a 3D printers in Long Island City, sat in on a production meeting. I’ve scoped the outposts of some other designers, become acquainted with the flower market and some of the suppliers there.
I have been uptown, midtown, downtown, Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Queens. I’ve cracked the subway and buses, which freaked me out to being with, I don’t know why; you can always go one stop too far and turn back. And I have. Sometimes two stops.
On Tuesday I was ‘loaned’ to Nicolette Camille – loaned gladly, because Nicolette is one of the other New York designers whose work I love, (and stalk regularly on the internet). Nicolette is the author of one of my favourite books on floral arrangement, Bringing Nature Home. If you are a flower enthusiast, or even just interested in interior design and/or hauntingly beautiful photography, you ought to check this book out. She is also, of course, co founder of the Little Flower School, Brooklyn, with Sarah.
Anyway, we met at the market early in the morning; Nicolette was on a mission for a very particular shade of ranunculus that turned out to be determinedly elusive and we hoisted flowers wrapped in parcels of brown paper and boxes of footed glass bowls in the back of her car on 28th street. I spent the rest of the day at her beautiful studio in Greenpoint, surrounded by flowers destined for an elegant uptown luncheon at the Colony Club (Solomon’s Seal, Hellebores, Fritillaria, Parrot Tulips, Roses, Ranunculus, Colombine, Sweet Peas, Narcissi), conditioning and making chicken wire balls and arranging in a quiet daze because I was trying to take it all in. At one point, Nicolette was showing me how to ‘loosen’ the particular arrangement I was working on, and she said “this is probably going against everything you have been taught”, which was true. It was an enlightening moment, because, once I forced myself to stop being tight about what I was doing, I felt so different; so much less uptight about myself. Changing it, backtracking and starting over, felt like cracking some frustrating yoga position that, once perfected, releases all the tension in your body and the brain takes over, hones in on one clear thought. Everything becomes glassy. That’s how it felt to me, anyway.
I realised that what I have been taught, to some extent, I need to ‘unlearn'; my formal training has drastically altered the way I would naturally approach arranging flowers, and I need to go back to that. I had already considered it before, but at that moment in Nicolette’s studio, I decided not to continue onto the next stage of formal floristry training. After all, the designers I most admire, were all self taught; they learned by trial and error, by experience, by assisting their role models, being mentored, freelancing. One of the greatest advocates of going with your gut was Constance Spry who did more for the world of floral design during the last century than any other.
In The Art of Arranging Flowers, published in the 1950s, Spry wrote:
I would like, in modern parlance, to debunk the idea that there are certain set rules of right and wrong for the arrangement of flowers. Such rules and opinions sometimes go to ridiculous lengths. Perhaps it is just plain obstinacy, but when I hear or read that certain colours should never be put together, or this class of flower be arranged with that, or gypsophila should always accompany sweet peas, I feel the prison walls begin to close in, threatening the freedom of ideas, freedom of ideas, that is the important point.
Formal training, while it has its benefits (in that I can now wire a buttonhole like a pro, and know the Latin name and genus for an array of flora) has also palpably asserted boundaries that I fundamentally disagree with, and it would, should it continue, limit my experience. I think it would actually stifle the magic of working with flowers, for me. Nicolette recognised this; or at least she made me recognise it, because after a while, she looked across and asked “do you feel better?” – and I did.
I’ve spent a lot of time on my own, lately. Here, except when I’ve been working (and I’ve been lucky in that respect, to be working with people who are so welcoming and warm and helpful) I am completely alone. Alone despite being surrounded – strangers in the street, strangers on the subway, their faces a pale sheen under strip lighting as if they were standing in moonlight. At home I don’t spend much time alone. I am always surrounded by people I know – at work, at home. I cohabit, my family live a few streets away. In New York I have found myself in conversation more than I would if I were travelling accompanied, with strangers, eating $1 pizza slices off Broadway, with the Egyptian driver I seem to have been allocated by the taxi company I’m using (“yeah, I had a friend who was a designer, once”, and, “you know Dodi Fayed? He’s Egyptian. Was.”), a fat chauffeur outside the Colony Club on Park Avenue who hollers at me, schlepping a bucket of flowers across the pavement and under a ladder – “Hey! Hey! That’s bad luck!”, in that thick, nasal New York drawl , “now you’re flowers are gonna die!” Oh piss off, I yell back, laughing, which he seems delighted by.
Sometimes, at night, I get a feeling of swallowing homesickness, or perhaps love sickness and I have a moment of missing my boyfriend so much that my stomach hurts. Or when I heard that my parent’s flight to Rome was diverted – literally at the moment of takeoff, due to some kind of engine failure – having sped up the runway, wheels leaving the tarmac, then sudden emergency braking, throwing everyone forward in their seats. (Off the plane; 3 1/2 hours in the terminal.) I had a teary moment in Herald Square when I got off the phone, because I know how my mother hates to fly, and I was imagining my father’s composure, that if you were being thrown around in a plane, scared out of your wits, Dad would be the one you’d want beside you, holding your hand. Dad, the voice of reason. But mostly I find I am quite content with my own company. I go to work; I come home to this creaky old apartment on the top floor of a red brick building in Brooklyn, with the lilac Volvo 240 parked outside, and the beautiful light in the mornings.
Yesterday I checked out Ariella’s shop in Tudor City, and trawled the rows of exquisite Japanese ribbon in the Garment District, at a store called Mokuba. I bought a couple of yards of a beautiful embroidered silk in black with a peach and brown floral pattern. I faced down a nail-bitingly difficult dilemma in Bloomingdales (to clog or not to clog?) that I guess every girl faces at least once in her lifetime. To clog or not to clog; to clog or not to clog? (I didn’t, and I think I’m done.)
I saw a view that took my breath away.
New York City from Queensboro Bridge in the warm, shortbread-pink morning light, heading for Park Avenue with a boot-load of parrot tulips the colour of spring.
I am eating steak, alone, in a restaurant called the Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It is seven thirty at night and I am being served by a waitress who looks exactly like a girl I went to school with back home, except she’s taller. It is bitingly cold here; my hands are still freezing from the short walk from the apartment. I think, not for the first time since I have been here, that I did not bring the right clothes.
Today was my third day as an intern at Saipua. It is hard to put into words quite how much I have already learned by being here; I arrived, a little disorientated, very jet-lagged – it took me a good three days just to shrug that off, for some reason. The first night I was in New York, Wednesday, I stayed at the Ace Hotel in midtown, which was perplexing enough because it is such a dark hotel – you step into the lobby from a sunlit street, into dim gloom – but the elegant, expensive, choreographed kind. Then the corridors are painted black, and the elevator signs gleam red and I guess it’s like being in a nightclub and nightclubs always have the same effect on me – it’s time for bed! (except that, that first day, although it was time for bed at home, it definitely wasn’t here, and I had to have a meeting, and try to keep sharp).
I am staying in Sarah Ryhanen’s apartment in Red Hook, which I feel kind of guilty about – I just hope I am being of enough use to warrant her putting me up. One thing I’ve noticed already, though – I apologise, all the time. Is that an English thing? I tiptoe around, even though Sarah is at the farm upstate, so I’m not exactly under her feet. At the studio I’m kept busy, working with Ashley and Deanna, who are gently instructive, and I’ve done a bit of schlepping and had a few lessons – arrangements, creating a tablescape, making a bouquet – all the Saipua way, which is what I wanted, what I came here for, because they are the best, and I wanted to learn from the best. The process is different from how I have been taught at home – looser, the effect being natural and artless, though I assure you it’s probably harder to achieve that glorious ‘just plucked’ garden-y look. You are contriving to make something look uncontrived – no mean feat with a natural material. Ashley shows me how to put together a boutonnière – the knot of ribbon to one side, flat and perfect, the stems trimmed so that they appear recently gathered together, rather than the lumpy straight-cut finish I was taught at flower school. We put together, and shoot, a mock-up tablescape with a centrepiece flanked by smaller arrangements on a silky linen runner with rust coloured candles in pewter candlesticks and shadow-grey votives, using roses in antique cream and nude and ranunculus – orange gold and speckled flesh, mountain laurel, tulips, spirea, sweetpeas, poppy seed heads, hellebores, carnations. We make slow, deliberate bouquets. Deanna tells me it took her nigh on two years to get to grips with making handtieds well; I think she is being kind, letting me off the hook, but I walk back to the apartment and put the finished article in water and feel pretty damn pleased with the result. I sit and look at it, watch the shadows moving on the wall as the light falters, try to work out what I would do differently next time.
I woke early this morning, and according to my now routine, bought a coffee at Baked and wandered around the surrounding streets looking at the industrial warehouses and abandoned factories and the beautiful wasteland feeling of this part of Brooklyn, that I am already falling slightly in love with.
Then I found the pier, at the end of my street. Valentino Pier, at first light – glittering light, the brackish smell in the air of dried salt and seaweed. I stood directly opposite the Statue of Liberty across the water and looked up towards Governors Island and then closed my eyes, listened to the tinkling mast ropes of the dockyards and the slap of water on the slipway, the pounding of a runner’s feet on the pier.
I’m going to post like this while I’m here; snippets here and there whenever I get a chance. Currently sitting in the lobby of the Ace Hotel eating a bagel having been up since 4 am. I took advantage of that by checking out the flower market, which, with only a couple of exceptions, was one of the best moments of my life. Cherry blossom, meters high, wrapped in brown paper in great bundles, petals blowing across the street; the sidewalk heaving with just about everything you could wish to see at stupid-o-clock in the morning with a jet-lag headache in an alien city. The nigella, oh god. The peonies, fat and fluttering slightly in the breeze, which, despite the promise of a warm day ahead, is still bitingly cold. The flower market is comforting, a time warp, when everything else is foreign and disorientating. After the market I walk to Madison Square park and watch people hurrying backwards and forwards to work, walking their dogs, exercising in strange, contorted positions under the shadow of the Flatiron building. The sun is bright already and smarting. The headache eases off; I’m finding my feet. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
You stay in an apartment on Clifton Street in the Lower East Side, eat mac n cheese at Schiller’s Liquor Bar, walk the Highline, drink a lot of martinis. You are at odds, both empty and conflicted. It was just three months ago that you walked out on your life back home and since then it has been packing boxes, division. You are still in the desolate, undersea state that comes at the end of something long and slow to die. At any moment, finally, you are going to break through the surface and take a great big gasping breath of fresh air.
It is hot in New York and you rent a shiny car and drive to Montauk with the windows down. All those strange-looking towns and lakes and trees pass in a blur and you are thinking how peaceful it is not to know somewhere, to be someplace unfamiliar where everything is compelling and possible, because it is, because sometimes knowing a place erases the magic of it, nullifies its previous allure. The unknown has a glamour about it – not just the Hamptons, which are glamorous anyway with their Ralph Lauren wearing Martha Stewart-esque summer boarders, square-straight green lawns and designer muffins – but the dirty back streets of Manhattan, the greasy place you ate dumplings back in the city, the deserted, polished malls that you are passing now. There is a glaze over the uncharted that chips off like enamel upon acquaintance. You are thinking that, sometimes, getting to know a person has the same effect, too. You don’t want to be acquainted to anywhere or anyone, right now, so in a way New York is perfect for you; hard and noisy and fast and unsympathetic. You go to Barneys and fit slick into jeans in tiny sizes because you lost a ton of weight being unhappy. You go to Williamsburg and Brooklyn and watch a Yankees game. You go to Queens and eat the best Thai food of your life.
Interesting to go back, two years later, a different, far happier, far more peaceful version of the person before; another juncture.
I love travelling. Who doesn’t? But I mean the actual humdrum, boring part of travelling, waiting in departures lounges and traipsing through arrivals halls, queues at customs, queues at taxi ranks. The temporary paralysis during the A to B to C. Other than back in Africa, I haven’t travelled much alone. Lonely travelling is something I’ve always wanted to do; someone I’ve always wanted to be, I guess – self-sufficient; incognito. I think of it as the ultimate luxury, where the only agenda is being led, driven, flown, waiting to arrive. And luggage, packing a suitcase, those little disposable travel toiletries; all that.
On Wednesday I’m going to get on a plane from London and I’m going to sleep in that white hotel room and I’m going to go walking in the city. I’m going to read the latest Donna Tartt novel and search out the best lobster roll in town and I’m going to meet Sarah Ryhanen and spend a couple of weeks as an intern at Saipua, hopefully learning a little more about flowers.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Until then, you can find and follow me on Instagram, if you are so inclined.
images via Park & Cube
Rosehip & Borrage Flower in Jelly, Gleham Hall, Suffolk, photographed by Tim Walker -
via AnOther Magazine
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Lately I’ve been having slightly porn-y dreams about doing flowers for catwalk shows, outlandish editorial work, film-sets. Can you imagine; being the floral designer on a Sophia Coppola movie, or a Wes Anderson? Well someone’s gotta do it… That’s the furthest highfalutin goalpost so now I just have to work back from there. Assuming I have another 30-odd years of working life ahead of me. Touch wood.
To begin with, it was a case of recognising everything I definitely didn’t want to do, florally. No coloured sisal, no plastic, no tinsel, no diamante. No sequins. If possible, no Oasis foam. Although rolls of chicken wire in a small flat do not a happy boyfriend make… I have put a lot of time over several months writing down lists of questions… Do I open a shop? An event studio? Do I work from home? What will my strategy be, my USP?; blah blah blah, all that. And then (mostly) I just played around with flowers, practised different techniques, tore through old floristry books from the 1930s, devoured tips and points of view, experimented with colour. I researched the marketplace and tried to see where I would fit in, worked up branding plans, stuck up mood boards, looked at premises. In two years’ time I would like to be in a place where life and work intersect rather than separate. I covet other people’s lives, other people’s histories. Constance Spry in the early thirties. Rebecca Louise Law, amidst drying flowers strung by copper wire, creating trees of willow branches strung with garlands, making great temporary, flaunting sculptures flowers in giant conch seashells. Dried flowers, iced flowers, flowers set in a jelly pudding like some beautiful, sleek paperweight.
I’m still in love with the feeling of working on an arrangement – the now-familiar buzz, followed by complete clarity, and then a sort of helplessness because I am working with a medium that is so fragile and challenging, so ephemeral; I am responsible for making it as beautiful as it can be; I photograph it at its peak and know that in days, hours, it will wilt and vanish forever.
via AnOther Magazine
I am interested in the emotions that flowers evoke, too. Like place, the nostalgia they invoke. The characters we project onto them; why some flowers are ostentatious, vainglorious, and why others are shadowy and melancholic; how they fuse together in arrangements. Why sweet-peas always remind me of a very hot English summers day in my childhood and walking barefoot in the garden without any clothes on. Why that particular memory, when there have been many sweet-pea-scented afternoons since?
I don’t say much a lot of the time. People ask me what I’m thinking about, because I guess they can tell that I’m thinking hard. Maybe I’m frowning; biting my lip. And I say flowers, mostly.
via The Daily Mail
Isn’t March a beautiful name?
We seem to have been swallowed by televised sagas this winter. There was Breaking Bad, back at the beginning, then The Bridge, now House of Cards. I guess it’s very absorbing, particularly when it’s always dark outside and cold (I hate the cold) and being consistently submerged in something fast-paced mid one of our slow English winters, helps. It helps our collective depression when we’ve had months of oppressive rain and there’s a communal soggy melancholy hanging in the air, but then – pssst! Silk is back on TV! And we’re placated for a while longer.
Then (it can be in February or sometimes not until May) it changes, and life outside, real life, becomes much more interesting. You catch up with friends you mutually haven’t bothered to see since Christmas, because they were indoors watching House of Cards too. And suddenly things like picnics become possible again, and long walks. This weekend was the changeover (I think, although you never know until the season is out, you only ever know in hindsight).The sun came out. There was a metamorphosis of mood. An about-face. Open windows. Blossom frosted streets. Bicycles. Pink light.
I’m counting down the days until New York and Saipua – 21 to go! Let’s hope that’s enough time for the snow to melt…
In other news I’ve begun playing floriculturist at home with hellebores, primulas. And herbs. One day I will grow a herb cutting garden, as much as for cooking as for ornamental use in bouquets. Bouquets scented with spearmint and lavender… I daydream about cloches and jars and harvesting trays, salads of edible flowers – lines of chives, nasturtiums, pot marigolds, anise hyssop, borage.
This change in weather makes me want to cook. We had lots of fresh eggs to use up from our last trip to Wales and on Sunday I baked eggs in ramekins with cream, shallots and black pepper. (See the recipe in my previous post here). And I made this vegetable broth from The Kinfolk Table cookbook which is to die for. If you are feeling under the weather with a trans-seasonal cold, I recommend it. I customised mine by adding a lot of thinly sliced ginger and poaching a piece of fish – cod – which I dropped onto the vegetables when serving. It flakes into the soup as you eat it – and is simply delicious.
Fickle as I am, this week has been all about the Camellia (until recently it was the Hellebore), otherwise known as the Tea Flower, or the Rose of Winter, which is my personal favourite. A rose but not a rose. Those shiny, dark leaves; they are so luxurious somehow. Camellia japonica makes me think of Parisian perfumer salons. And wealth; Camellia flowers smell like money.
This weekend I bought a jasmine plant and pots of fritillarias. The car still smells of lemon thyme.
This week is going down in history as the week that on an almost-spring afternoon across a shadowy Barlaston rose-bowl, a certain flower girl met with a Hermodactylus Iris Tuberosus (or, in lay terms, a taupe-brown ‘snakeshead’ iris) from Cornwall. Even cherry blossom pales to a passing, trifling fling in comparison.
It was intense.
Afterwards her head was full and spinning with delicious thoughts of decadent low arrangements of snakeshead iris and San Remo amaryllis in milk-glass. Imagine THAT by candle-light, if you will.
There was also the challenge to justify the acquisition of certain pair of shoes. Ahem. At a time when she is absolutely not buying shoes, no. At a time when, at a push, she might just allow herself to concede that her Superga plimsoles have finally given up the ghost and need replacing – that hole on the right foot is letting puddle-water in; they’ve got to go. At a time when there are more trivially pressing things looming on her grocery list, like coffee, let alone the bare essentials of life and the gathering threat of an expensive car on the horizon that will inevitably need taxing and ensuring and new tyres. Said flower girl tells herself that she is not a character from Confessions of a Shopaholic; Christ, Rebecca Bloomwood had shop mannequins as imaginary friends; this is nothing like that. No, she is quite grown-up enough, and more than restrained enough to put the Valentino rockstud flats in nude down (slowly, easy does it) and out of her mind for now and forever.
Well, since you’re listening… if the Chrysler Building were a shoe, it would be a rockstud. And not to get all Cole Porter on you, but these aren’t just any shoes, they are the Bendel bonnet, the Shakespeare sonnet, the Mickey Mouse of shoes. Shoes to make you swear off heels for good because they are just so delectable you could positively eat them. (And before you ask – if this irritating, wheedling teenage exuberance is making you suspicious – no, she is not on the Valentino books, there is no commission involved). Is working really, really hard a good excuse? Or getting married occasion enough?
Now there’s a thought…
And then there was this interview. Working, trawling the internet seas for a stock of wedding vases for a future client, there was Frances Palmer, the potter who whips up whimsical vases straight from her dreams.
So all in all, it was the week of the brown iris; also a week of lust and forbearance, forbearance and lust.
PS – Amanda Brooks has ditched New York City for Oxfordshire. As you do. If you like pretty pictures of ex fashion directors/writers nesting in the countryside – chickens, kilim rugs, pigs, playsuits, and that kind of thing, you can see some here.
Has everyone noticed that the cherry blossom is starting to come out? Tentatively – not like later in the spring when the streets are clouds of it – but most significantly, somehow, when coming to the end of a long winter, the city streets slowly grow flecked with the familiar delicate pink of cherry and crab apple petals. The flowers of a changing season, so redolent of that particular juncture in the year. Flowers are very atmospheric that way.
February’s showcase has been fragility – hellebores, freckled and frail, the froth of ranunculus and shivery poppy anemones, their petals so thin and translucent they seem vaporous. February flowers make me think of the ballet, how the pale wisps of chiffon betray robust muscle and sinew – after all, they flower during the hardest, coldest, most unyielding spell of the year. But every year, here they are again, recurring, perennial. And soon there will be the braceleted bleeding heart and not long after that, mock orange.
What I love about blogging is that it’s a great way to recap – the last few days, the last week, the last few weeks (if I have been very naughty – not often, but it does happen). Retrospective analysis, a bit of a rehash. Something of a neurotic with the greatest respect for lists and tick-boxes; I’m very into this. It’s like taking a journalistic inventory, taking stock, only of one’s mental and physical health, e.g. state of mind – distracted / ill at ease; outlook – depressed / positively utopian; head – clear / foggy; heart – full / bruised, and so on and so forth. Actually my heart is in good condition, thank you. I’m thinking of getting a lifestyle coach to take care of all the other stuff. You know, someone I can pay to text me inspiring, motivational quotes daily, and nag me enough to go to pilates.
I thus summed-up (put to bed) the week commencing 17 February in my diary: Decided that I find the word ‘swoon’ very annoying. It is used a lot on Instagram. I don’t like it. Still bringing back Wedgwood, and mint in arrangements. I eat too many Carr’s table water crackers. On driving to Wales via Shropshire, I believed for almost a full minute, that the county is so called for being ‘the land of the Shrops’, which are a certain variety of frog. E continues to be infuriatingly pleased about this. My spring investment piece, an almost-too-crisp white shirt from safari outfitters Hickman & Bousfield, is finally bedding in. (If you are into your collarless tunics, check them out. They have decent hats, too.)
Actually, I spent a lot of time last week not-writing, as I was meant to be, and thinking about magnolia, and listening to the almost-silence of falling rain.
Busy times and muscari, muscari, muscari!
So far I’ve pulled a fifty hour week at school, designed my wedding dress and sourced the ‘exact’ shade of vintage ecru organza (reaching a whole new level of ‘pernickety’ in the process) developed an exciting writing project, attended a nine-year-old’s birthday party and eaten bubblegum flavoured rainbow cake while managing to keep a straight face (an achievement), got through a ‘personal development assessment’ at Flower School, and – finally – managed to do all of this without drinking ANY wine. Can I have a weekend now? Can I have half term now, actually, and sit by a log fire and drink wine in the afternoon and take long snoozes? Yes?
I don’t know where to start, I say to E, mid-week.
Do you need flowers today? he asks.
Well, let’s start there, then, he says.
He keeps me sane.
I used tuberose for the first time in a Valentine’s bouquet this week. It smells quite unlike any other flower I’ve ever smelt before; the scent is a complicated perfume in itself. (Robert Piguet may not have been the genius perfumer people say he was, he could have just crushed a few tuberose petals and bottled the oil, and called it a day.)
Now, Flower People, sit up straight; I have news! Sarah Ryhanen and Nicolette Camille of The Little Flower School, in Brooklyn, are coming to teach a ‘Spring Riot & Revelry’ class on Monday 28 April and a two full-day intensive ‘Floral Immersion’ course on 29 and 30 April at Castle Gibson’s The House Next Door in Stoke Newington. Further details can be found here. Maybe (fingers crossed) I’ll see you there.
In the meantime I’m going to be working with lots of hellebores this week and trying to talk myself out of buying expensive lust-worthy ceramics. [If, for some/any reason, you have a sudden, inexplicable desire to buy me a Valentine's Day gift, I'd like a Volpe and Volpe swan in metallic grey. Just saying.]
Can everyone please start buying more flowers? If everyone starts buying more flowers, the UK demand will dictate that the flowers we get will be better, and cheaper (and I’ll be much happier). So it’s totally worth it. Go on! How can you resist a bunch of scented white lilac?! Oh yes, I know how. Because a bunch of lilac will set you back £17.50, and that’s a small bunch, that’s why. I was grumbling to a florist recently about my spiralling-out-of-control flower envy on Instagram. These New York florists posting their positively pornographic images of fat-headed ranunculus. The biggest ranunculus I can get here are about 3cm in diameter, 4cm at most. Mean little ranunculus. All my flowers seem to go over within a few days lately and I’m pretty sure that the quality isn’t what it would be if people in this country were just that little bit more extravagant. If the culture was that bit more European, if people went to a proper butcher for their meat and stopped in at the florist on the corner on their way home, and picked up one of those small bunches of anemones in brown paper, or a little spray of violets. That would make all the difference.
I think I’m going to have to move closer to Nine Elms. I want my flowers perkier, plumper, I want my British-grown peonies exuberant, straight from the nursery, and my Dutch parrot tulips in buoyant shades of every colour, and that’s that.
[I'm really just cranky because I can't get the salmon-apricot hyacinth that I want for love nor money here and I'm going to have to traipse to London for it at the weekend.]
[Actually, that's a lie. I am in London anyway at the weekend, on a wedding recce, traipsing round after a very specific guipure lace.]
For any of you who may have any dusty old blue Wedgwood jasperware or black basalt vases in the back of your cupboards that you don’t want, let me know! I am collecting all sizes for wedding work; if you have any bound for the charity shop, please think of me first, shamelessly, as I will pay!
Very exciting baby steps are being taken with the website and branding and work on my logo is underway. I can’t wait to share it with you. It feels very grown up, to have a logo. I had an deliciously self-indulgent dream last night that I was a florist in a broadway show and my name was up in lights. Haha. Oh, come on, you know you’ve had it too… You haven’t? Oh well, just me then.
If you are interested in workshops or bespoke classes, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org . I have just designed a class specifically for brides-to-be and their friends on buttonholes/boutonnieres, corsages and floral wreaths – a civilised ‘hen-do’, perhaps? With elderflower prosecco? Classes can be tailored to you, depending on seasonal availability and numbers. Maybe you want to give a girlfriend a cute birthday present and spend an afternoon making hydrangea crowns, or you want a mad, exuberant rose headdress for a party, or Grecian circlets, just because?
I thought so. Email me for more info.
I’ve been at a seriously low ebb lately, pretty much flat on my back for three days straight. It’s amazing how long three days in bed feels, it feels like weeks. Antibiotics are just starting to kick in, so I’m coming around now. I dragged myself to flower school this week; didn’t even want to go, which is a first. Then had delicious late-night linguine with chilli which is totally against my diet and I feel really guilty about it [except I just noticed I'm half way through a packet of Maltesers, oops]. Yesterday was a turning point because I woke up before noon and decided I wanted to a) bake (this never happens) and b) write a list of the things I want to achieve in 2014. It’s quite a long list and includes, in no particular order, ‘get a bigger apartment with some wood in it, for e.g. floors / wall panelling’ – random! – ‘move to the city (a proper city, not another university town)’, ‘do work experience/internship’ , ‘launch own business’, along with the more trivial but nevertheless specific ‘invest in a pair of Christian Louboutin décolleté calf 868 pumps in black’ (because those will be so useful when I am a full-time florist) but these things don’t happen overnight, and so I just slept and time passed again. When faced with change at the moment I just feel exhausted and let lethargy take over. I leave the list on the dining table and crawl back under the duvet and sleep.
E, of course, has been perfectly sweet (he blow-dries my hair for me, have you ever heard of such a thing?) Brings me a digestive biscuit on a little plate with my antibiotic so that I don’t take it on an empty stomach. Lets me wear not one but all of his big cashmere sweaters around the house. I love him extra specially more than usual at the moment. He reminds me of all the exciting things that are happening this year for sure and that it’s only the mood I’m in, that it will pass.
Someone once told me that they liked stopping by on the blog because they thought it was honest. I think it’s the best compliment I’ve had so far in five and a half years of blogging. But I don’t think it’s true, if I’m really being honest. I choose the pretty photos, write about the pretty things, mostly. Edit it out the laundry pile. Life isn’t always the way we see it on Instagram; as long as we’re alive we’re still figuring it out. Some weeks are just crappy, and it’s still January. How can it still be January?
Flowers are keeping me focused. I love that there’s so much to learn. This is what I want to be so good at, that I’m better at it than anyone else. That’s a nice feeling, the competitive spirit that means you are fully immersed, that you need to be. I guess it’s because styling flowers, arranging flowers, choosing them, putting them together is almost purely visual, purely creative, like painting; it’s about eye and texture, colour and shape. Symbolism. And knowledge of the material, of course. When I’m working on an arrangement, or even just conditioning the flowers, I really think – yes, this is the only thing I want to be doing. I have found my medium. In the mean-time, I have redone my window boxes and watered my house plants and planted my amaryllis. Now, alongside the cheerful, hardy geraniums, I have a dark purplish hellebore, hyacinth, dusty miller and rosemary. When I look out my window onto the street, I look through feathery leaves; a good filter. And the rest of the time I have been head-tripping about the palest lilac and ranunculus. This wallpaper. And also coral, as a colour. I’m sure you needed to know that.
But I’ve saved the best till last… Last weekend a hydrangea from one of my arrangements started to wilt and droop southward – not unusual but particularly annoying because it was the focal flower and had been purchased from the florist only a few hours before (hate that!). So I tried something I was told a while ago, which is to recut the stem and drown the whole flower, blossoms and all in cold water, then leave submerged for half an hour. This was a disquieting thing to do because it is hard to keep petals under water; you have to keep shoving them back down below the surface and it all felt a bit brutal. When I took it out, the flowers were sodden and the head flopped sadly against the stem. It was definitely caput. I left it tucked into a glass carafe just in case (important to mention that in between choosing glass carafe and getting it to the sink, decided that this is my absolute favourite carafe) and two hours later came back… Well, I couldn’t believe it – it was a different flower, surely! A head of rigid stems and crisp, perky petals.
That was the best thing to happen to me this week.
Something of a chore, January isn’t it? An annual assignment. Yes, there is dogwood and Benedict Cumberbatch is back on TV, but there is also fog and flash flooding, silt, ice on the car in the morning, dark, damp evenings, and a suspenseful waiting (for the rest of the year to happen); pursuit of spring.
Deep in work-mode again, even, (especially) when not at work. Trying arrangements in different containers – an ornate antique jardinière that is heavier than I am, a Chinese ginger jar, little coloured glass medicine bottles. Blue is cropping up a lot. Graphic, modernist blue; in flower fashion the equivalent of Dior’s New Look. Delphiniums (larkspur?), iris, hyacinth, eucalyptus, muscari, Clematis Perle d’Azur. There’s a Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis x Sheldonii Lingholm) that I would probably give my eye teeth to arrange with. Bright, luminous, blue is something of a jolt, an ‘up-yours’ to the moodiness of the festive season, all that dark red and sumptuous fruit, boo! Blue flowers are forward-thinking, they share beautifully with popping reds and glistening pink; they are complicated, delicate, modern. Give me an armful of blue flowers and a basket of maple branches and I’ll be superbly happy for days.
I have been trying to learn the common and the Latin names of the plants I’m using for flower school, which is harder than you might think, and to remember each of the ways they like to be treated. The proper name for soft ruscus, for example, which has deep-green trailing foliage with delicate, thin leaves, is Ruscus Aculeatus, but it is also known as Butcher’s Broom, Knee Holly, Kneeholm, Sweet Broom and Jew’s Myrtle. Hard ruscus (proper name Hypophyllum / Israeli Ruscus), on the other hand, you might think came from a different family altogether; it is stiff and upright and has much larger, rounded leaves. Both, however, like to be cut across the stem with a sharp knife, at a 45 degree angle and plunged into lukewarm water. Both thoroughly dislike draughts. I can never seem to remember Arachniodes; leatherleaf.
Flower choices not only say a lot (from one person to another e.g. the by-courier ‘I love you’ bouquet – unimaginative perhaps, but always a winner, particularly if it arrives mid grey Monday morning at the office – the carefully selected, expensive, florist-bought ‘shit I’m really sorry’ bouquet, the crumpled corner-store ‘I don’t really fancy you anymore’ bouquet), they say a lot about a person full-stop. Taste is a funny one, isn’t it? I mean, I cannot comprehend why anyone would use Gerbera. I feel strongly about this. If I received a bouquet with Gerbera as an ingredient, I would automatically assume that person did not like me one bit. At flower school, people use them a lot; we are told to use them a lot, they work in a lot of arrangements really well, I just always find an alternative if I possibly can. I dogmatically refuse to use bear grass, it makes me think of fishbowls and that really tacky freckled gravel, and nasty hotel lobbies. Likewise aspidistra, which I’m equally pig-headed about. You won’t find me folding them into any arrangement, I can promise you that. Anything leaf-shined is out.
January has been sober so far; I’ve been enjoying not drinking, not that I was ever a huge drinker, but it’s amazing the difference a few less glasses of wine a week makes. I sleep better, think sharper. Emotions are more acute – worry (not entirely pleasant) happiness (heady); there are less blurred edges between the days. ‘The Diet’ is ongoing, though I have lapsed once (maybe twice). It’s Friday nights that are tough, when all I can think about is going out for pizza bufala and a cold beer (I am still dreaming about the buffalo mozzarella salad I had at Polpo a couple of weekends ago). I’ve traded dependence on cigarettes for dependence on Diet Coke and heaven help he who tells me we’ve run-out mid week after the shops have shut. But I’m learning to cope with the lack of lipids, getting used to the daily mid-afternoon hunger-faints. It passes. But sleep, sleep is the most blissful thing when you can learn to do it well; I’ve been getting real well acquainted with my bed again.
Somehow I always seem to be wearing the get-up I wore yesterday. I have probably worn variants of the same since Christmas, now. Perforated leather lace-up boots from Carven, leather leggings and alternates of two identical Cabbages & Roses wool square sweaters I bought in navy and cream. I’m loving the uniformity, warmth and practicality of this vibe, and am enjoying not thinking about clothes too much.
Last week I bought half a dozen Columbus tulips from a store around the corner from where I work, walked along Norham Gardens with them under my arm, and dunked them in a vase as they were when I got home. They were perfect just like that. Permanently unsettled, they bow and bend towards the light. That night I decided that one day I’m going to have a Burmese cat and I’m going to call her Tulip.
Current playlist: all-girl bands: The Staves, Coco Rosie, Warpaint.
And this short film.
Resolutions for February: definitely give up Diet Coke. And thinking about Benedict Cumberbatch naked. Plan trip to Glasgow.
And I think that’s all, folks.
Day Nine. Day nine of refraining, abstaining, forgoing. Declining anything alcoholic, refusing sugar in my coffee (any sugar anywhere, actually), ignoring the little voices in my head that say yes, yes it is a good idea to go and bury your head on a vat of creamy, buttery mashed potato. It’s the mashed potato I’m missing; can you tell? Winter is just miserable without mashed potato. No carbs. No sugar. No booze. No fags. I’m living on vegetation and steamed fish and water and diet coke. I’m cycling. In the rain. I spend my evenings wondering what on earth to do now that I can’t reward myself with a large glass of Pinot Noir, a roll-up and half a tub of Haagen Dazs in front of something on BBC iPlayer. On the up side, the ironing pile has gone down considerably.
So I never thought I’d say this. I am on a diet. More specifically, I am on the I-want-to-look-like-Heidi-Klum-on-my-honeymoon-this-summer diet. It’s painful. It’s boring. It’s why I’ve never stuck to a diet before (but day nine. NINE). I am going to get back into my favourite, extremely skinny jeans, which I wore for years until suddenly I couldn’t get them over my knees. Why now? Because I’m happy, apparently.
[You're always fat when you're happy, says my sister.]
There’s nothing more dull than people whining about their diets. I guess they feel they need some kind of recognition, or something.
December happened. Always a relief that Christmas is over, somehow. I worked and socialized and did flower stuff and burnt out. I spent the morning of Christmas Eve in a spa being cleansed and wrapped and unpeeled and listened to an entire CD of whale songs and strange jungle bird music that made me want to itch, but I couldn’t because I was wrapped, and the beauty person left me in the room, alone, wrapped, with the jungle bird music for a disconcertingly long time and I got home stressed and late anyway, so it really didn’t make any difference.
But then I had a glass of red and a ciggie, and everything was fine.
The potted Hellebores arrived, alive, and were re-potted, and looked delicate and ethereal and speckled over Christmas, and are still alive (miraculous).
And now it’s the New Year, and I’m bright-eyed sober, and getting thinner. And feel healthier, (if a little irritable at times), already.
There are grape hyacinths in the florists, and Genista, which, as a child, I knew only as broom. I’m back at Flower School again. Stay tuned for flowering updates, or find and follow me on instagram here.
And be wishing me bonne chance with the fasting and the fitness and the organic wholegrain rice cake stuff; I’m needing it.
December has been an industrious culmination of a momentous year.
I have made so many wreaths I have lost count – wreaths for Christmas tables, for porches, for a Georgian apartment in Edinburgh, and, on Wednesday night, my cottage industry Christmas Wreath Workshop at the Rusty Bicycle in Oxford, which was just as fun I had hoped it would be. Aproned, we set to work amidst chaotic piles of spruce, ivy and moss, reel wire, secateurs, pine cones and caterpillars. Three hours later, nine distinctly different creations had been decorated with ilex berries, rosehips and wax flower, kumquats and physalis, and after a glass of hot mulled wine and a mince pie, were borne aloft into a rather wild night, towards Christmases near and far.
I was half-hoping that one of these afternoons I’d have a few hours to myself so that I could make my own wreath for my own door, but it would probably be nicked in my neighbourhood and actually, I prefer giving my work away than keeping it for myself. Instead I’m going to use that time to go and have a facial and a massage so that I can go home on Christmas Eve pampered into serenity by a French masseuse, smelling of aromatherapy oils, radiating a fresh, flushed glow, rather than the unsightly pallor of one rigid with late nights and too many early mornings.
I have to thank some people for this year.
Lana – you got me through. Young and Beautiful is the song of the year. Anyone who has access to my Spotify stats can attest to this. In fact, the whole of The Great Gatsby soundtrack makes me want to party. Anyway, L, I love you, and I really couldn’t care less about the botox.
My parents. For making Christmas so magical throughout my childhood. You never forget that feeling, the excitement and atmosphere, the fragrance of chocolate and oranges and warm, clove-y wine. It fades as you get older but there are glimmers of seasonal nostalgia at this time of the year – wood smoke and chestnuts, the glint of coloured cellophane in gleaming silver bowls, sequins and flushed cheeks, the smells of freshly chopped kindling wood and firelighters and new beeswax candles, the crunch of wrapped presents – and that is enough. You can’t recreate the past. Perhaps you experience it again in a new way when you have your own children.
Currently trying to ignore the impulse to get out a wodge of cash and spend it on short, sequined apparel that is not me and that I’ll never wear again. Not even next Christmas because by next Christmas I won’t fit into it after such spiked cheese and wine consumption (it’s the squares on cocktail sticks at drinks parties that do it, you know, you think you’ve just been nibbling but actually you’ve already scoffed a truckle). Thought: what is it about Christmas that makes everyone, even the most respectable people, want to dress up like Santa’s sl*ts? I like it, don’t get me wrong, I am definitely one of those people who’ll be changing into hot-pants and something glittery at midnight, I just always look at photos in January and wonder what on earth I was thinking.
December is all about unabashed mistake making as far as I can see – too many sore-headed mornings post Chablis nights, too many ciggies, too much impulse expenditure. December is the I-don’t give-a-flying-fig of months, the Samantha of months. We know that on its heels is January, plenty of time for regret and detoxes, resolutions and renewals.
Now, if only my postman would arrive with my large delivery of potted hellebores, I’d be Christmas-ready.
Wishing all my readers a glinting, twinkling, nostalgia-inducing holiday and a very Happy New Year.
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
We machete-d great carpet-rolls of sphagnum moss off a Welsh hillside this weekend. Stockpiled boughs of spruce and cypressus and clutches of slender red willow and rosehips and pine cones, and some other stuff too, that I don’t know the name of. We ate creamy baked eggs for breakfast (this is now officially a thing). There was talk of weddings and there was wearing of thermal leggings (also now a thing), a bit of photography, a lot of coming in from the cold and relayering and going out again, the most welcome bubble bath wallow of my life, log fires and red wine and cashmere. We drove home Sunday night, the now familiar on-and-on-and-on drive, with a car load of deliciously scented noble fir and Norway spruce. A four hour drive isn’t nearly as tedious when scented with fresh pine and coffee and oranges.
Someone (who?) once gave me a white ceramic mug with the above Thoreau quote emblazoned upon it in black letters. I’m not keen on the often trite, smart-alec-y quoted mug thing in general, but this has stuck with me, been packed and unpacked in various different offices, and has served loyally as a pen pot slash emergency mug for when all the others have run out. I think I always liked this quote because it is so flagrantly hopeful. It completely assumes that you have dreams, that you know what they are, which I didn’t until now, as though they were dormant in me, waiting for the right time and the right place until I could go confidently off, like it says. Likewise I appreciate the “live the life you’ve imagined” bit because of its brave optimism, although this worried me for a while. How? I thought. How? It sounds so easy. But it makes sense now. Your dreams and your imaginings need to coincide. At some point they will. And you need to grasp them, be confident with them. Then it’s all fine. Well, not all fine, but, you know – better.
This is the scenario. You are run down/miserable/mid cold, but with enough of an appetite to scour the fridge and find that all you have is eggs, some old spinach, half a pot of cream and some elderly onions. I was first cooked baked eggs by my soon to be mother-in-law on an autumnal morning not so long ago. I was sure I hadn’t eaten them before, but there was something nostalgic about them, so ambrosial, so evocative of the nursery tea, that perhaps they were a staple of my early childhood and I had just forgotten all about them until now.
Here’s my version.
Florentine Baked Eggs
Turn up the oven high. Smear a china or glass ramekin with butter. In a small pan melt a large knob of butter, add three or four sliced shallots and sweat gently for ten minutes or so. Then add a handful of spinach and leave on the heat until the spinach wilts. Pour the buttery shallot and spinach mix into your buttered ramekin. Crack two small eggs over the top. Scatter with Maldon sea salt flakes and cracked black pepper. Add a generous dollop of double cream. Grate some Parmesan and sprinkle on the top. Now into the oven on 200° for about ten minutes. Serve with buttered toast and eat, preferably with a spoon and a piping hot mug of tea.
In other news, wreath making has been happening. And happening. And happening. Wired. Dried. Flowered. Mossed. Living. I am into my stride now; the flat looks like a flower shop, there are German pins in my pockets and baskets of ivy and berries all over the living room and it smells of earth and moss. I like it.
If you would like to order a bespoke wreath, I am operating a custom-made service over the Christmas period. Please email your requirements to me at email@example.com with the approximate size you would like (10” to 20”) and the style, e.g. traditional (ivy, holly, berries, pine cones, lotus heads, tartan ribbon), modern (pussy willow entwined with flowers of your choice), fruity (ivy, apples, persimmon & pomegranate) etc. From £30.00 + P&P. Payment by cheque or PayPal.
I’ve been complaining a lot recently. I know, I’m sorry. It’s just that things have genuinely seemed quite bleak; my whole life has felt like one long irritated thought, or one incredibly long moment holding Sam, while bent at an angle trying to do something for Kitty, one-handed (get out Playdough, cut up a pear, turn on Tom&Jerry, play “birdseed”…???…). I’ve constantly felt like it’s 2.05pm and it’s hours till bedtime and it’s raining and we’ve got no visitors and I’ve been awake since 0430 and I can feel a cold coming on. I’ve just been feeling like that all the time. I’ve felt like a weary beast of burden, or like I’m sitting in Economy on a flight to Australia, I’ve felt so far removed from my old self, my old life that I can’t even remember what I miss about it anymore.
from Esther Walker at Recipe Rifle Blog
Question. Is whingeing on the internet acceptable now? When I read this article by journalist Esther Walker I found myself nodding with my eyes closed in that really irritating way that people nod in conferences at an inspiring speaker. I know. I’m with you on that. So true. I don’t even have offspring yet. I have no excuse to be this tired.
But, hey, whining is trending lately. I read enough blogs on a Saturday morning to know that. Also GUILT. ( I read blogs on a Saturday morning; I do not have children. I’m whining. I have no excuse. I am a terrible person). Having some sort of low-brow vomiting bug is also trending, along with general crankiness and indignantly mouthing that I can’t believe it’s nearly Christmas and where has the year gone. And then there’s bitching about the day job and secretly despising one’s colleagues.
The School Common Room is an interesting place to be at this stage in the term. I shouldn’t have thought the word ‘coven’ is far off. Three weeks to go and the staff body has taken on that haunted look, like journalists freshly returned from a particularly unsavoury warzone, wired on coffee, a faintly desperate, maniacal glimmer of hope in their eyes at the mention of (whisper it) the holidays. Just don’t whatever you do, mention The Christmas Production, or you’ll get a saccharine facial reaction reminiscent of a dog licking a nettle. But it’s all good humoured, it’s all jocular. Or you hope it is. Looking for a Kit-Kat in the cupboard the other day, midafternoon, I found a feebly-hidden half glass of wine and I thought, you poor cow, whoever you are.
I was only just, at a party on Saturday night, (I go to parties on a Saturday night; I have no excuse) boasting to a girlfriend that I had found the answer to not getting sick. Fruit! Who knew! Forced grazing on tangerines all day long and skipping through the germ-riddled minefield that is a boarding prep school in November, dodging the slap cheek virus, deflecting Scarlet Fever (i’m not kidding), sidestepping my old friend Norovirus and wham! Glands Up! Check.Throat attacked by cheesegrater-armed goblins overnight. Check. Sod the miserable little tangerines, I shan’t bother next time. And I’ll learn not to do the blackberry vodka fuelled bravado thing at parties, too. Maybe.
So I came into work this morning drunk on a blessedly strong cocktail of paracetamol and a cold and flu remedy called Tylenol that I bought by mistake at JFK airport last year and has a severe liver warning if you take more than 10 in 24 hours, like if you take 11, you will die. (That sounded particularly good at 6 am this morning.) I came into work wearing a burglar bill beanie that I have re-fus-ed to take off despite repeat warning glances from my boss, carrying a baked bean tin of flowers wrapped in hemp twine (which actually looks very pretty, thank you), a birthday offering of striped dianthus and eucalyptus for my sister. Mid morning, grumbling over a lemsip satchet I voiced the oft repeated need for it to be over, not life, just this year, and some hideously perky part-timer said don’t wish your life away! in a sing-song voice and I punched her in the face. Well, I nearly did. She was saved by the bell.
photograph c/o Cabbages and Roses blog
Outta gas. Bone weary. The bleary half-six alarm starts are wretched at this point in the term. It all starts so well – autumn! The mellow flush of morning mist! Yep. I fell asleep making coffee this morning (for visitors just off a Cathay Pacific 12 hour marathon from Hong Kong and had much more reason to be growly than me). Empire of the Sun’s, Walking on the Dream is keeping me alive, lately.
Now, the million dollar question. Where do we stand on doing one’s own wedding flowers? I’m at an impasse with this – everyone has an opinion. Mine is that I’ll be freaked unless I’m working. Flowers calm me even if it’s shed loads of flowers and they need to be ready for a deadline of, well, yesterday. I’ve never been one for being the centre of attention, I just don’t like all the eyes, don’t know what to say. I figure the only way I’ll stay sane is if I’m in my land girl garb up a ladder, rather than having someone fiddling with the arches of my eyebrows in an airless room. Bollocks to the eyebrows, I’ve got trailing amaranths to rig up, pomegranates to carefully place so that they look ‘artlessly scattered’ but even saying that makes me sound petulant and that’s not what I mean at all. How to be a bride without being bridezilla? Maybe I have warped priorities, I don’t know. I just wish I could do my work and marry the man I love; the two things that make me the happiest if I really think about it. There must be a way to marry the two. And Cissie Redgwick, Cissie Redgwick on repeat. It’s when people say I should relax that I get really worried. My being quietly, busily occupied is the best thing for everyone. Trust me.
For a trainee florist, I’ve picked the worst month for flowers. August really is scraping the barrel. Peonies have been and gone, the anemones are yet to come. For my favourite flowers, for hellebores and fritillaria, it’s the polar opposite end of the year. But if I’m lucky, if I beg a smattering of cornflowers, borrow a few Siam tulips, steal lashings of vine clematis and import from god knows where – garden roses from Columbia, perhaps? – in other words, if I completely contradict my advice to any bride I work for in the future – I might get by. But it’s all hanging on the Vanda orchid and that’s a tough call. What I’ve been visualizing is a Bacchus-esque tablescape of frenzied flowers and plump fruit, the madness and ecstasy of fat clustered roses and sumptuous berries, and… well, you get my drift. Abundant harvest bounty. I wonder if my bridesmaids would object to dressing as maenads…And if I have a bouquet of whiskery scabious and nigella, I’ll have something to fiddle with when it all gets nerve-wracking – poor things.
Ah, Saturday tomorrow. I’ve traded in my longed-for lie-in for the early morning flower market. But dragging myself out of bed on a grey-orange parrot tulip hunt isn’t quite so bad on a misty morn. Might even treat myself to a takeaway latte, who knows.
Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.
- A. A. Milne
Sitting down to write this with the second coffee of the morning, I have spent at least three minutes staring at yellow leaves spiralling down off the trees, trying to work out how to sum up November so far. Thinking that the last two weeks has been one reminder after another that people are kind, really kind. People don’t need to be as kind as they are, but they are anyway. I haven’t explained that very well, but that’s what I’m thinking, so I thought I’d better get it down. I’ve had some pretty teary moments recently, opening cards, messages on Facebook, a thoughtful gift I never expected and I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I am.
How beautiful are those brownish last-of-the-season hydrangeas in the florists at the moment? Speckled with rusty blotches, the colour of robin’s eggs; I can’t get enough of them. And then there’s the Crimson Tide Chrysanthemum. Oh. My. God. I’ve literally taken hundreds of photographs of this one gold flower recently. It changes tone every time you look at it. I can’t walk past one without stopping and making that peculiar squeaky noise that some women make when they see a small child, a cute one in little booties.
I’m hankering for a garden where I can start growing my own flowers. And not one that is communal, sad, likely to be pillaged or likely to be abandoned at a moment’s notice, as our current one is. I’m slowly stripping our fence of ivy, which is pretty much the only growth prospering in the rectangle that is our back yard. Been stalking galvanised troughs on eBay, wondering whether I could just create a few mini transplantable flower beds. But no, just wait. These things will come. One day I’ll have a cutting garden. I’ll come in and get into a hot bath (we’ll have a bath, then). One day we’ll live out in the sticks surrounded by rare breed hens. One day.
For now I’m reading The Surprising Life of Constance Spry. Every chapter is exhausting. How can one person have achieved so much? It makes me want to work much harder and considerably faster. I opened my first trade accounts with flower wholesalers this week, played around with fonts and logos; that’s a start.
There are whispers of intercept-able vans of Holland’s finest in the Heathrow area and I’m enjoying the secret handshake, cloak and dagger-ish-ness around sourcing flowers; always did like a challenge. Florists are so cagey about their suppliers, especially in an area like Oxfordshire that is at least an hour from London’s Covent Garden and the second-best option is Bristol, even further. Not an easy place to be. So, god-damn, I’m gonna hunt that Heathrow van man down. If you see a woman in a black wig, collar-up mac and sunglasses peering through binoculars round about Cranford, it won’t be Lisbeth Salander; it might well be me.
I’m learning not to take flowers for granted any more. An orchid that I unwittingly sent into shock a year or so ago by cutting the stem back, has sprouted two new ones in its place! (Another teary moment, what’s wrong with me?!) I keep peering at the buds appearing slowly. It’s amazing. It makes me happier than almost anything else. And, to think, I used to get the same kick out of buying shoes.
This week is my blog’s five year anniversary. Still going strong, I think – I hope. Thank you all for reading, commenting, liking, following, etc… It means such a lot to me.
For those of you interested in Christmas wreath-making, my class on Wednesday 18 December (3-5.30pm) at the Rusty Bicycle is now fully booked and I am taking a list of requests for a second day; if there is the demand for it, I will run a consecutive class. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
Most days go like this. Wake up and untangle myself from vivid dream in which I’m doing something random with people I don’t recognise. Irritatingly nuzzle boyfriend until he gets cross and wriggles out of bed and off to work. Read iPad until the electricity cuts off, swear and lie there until can be bothered to get up. Meter takes pound coins, which I never have. The kindly Indian man in my local off-licence has become used to seeing me in my nightie and giving me change and not asking. Make stove-top coffee. Read floristry blogs, lust after the lives of strangers, then catch up on work emails. Browse eBay for bell jars. Order a stack of books on Amazon. Think about breakfast. Nothing in fridge but Tupperware pots full of corsages and buttonholes.
I haven’t been living well, lately. I mean I’ve been living great, but not well. Without the routine of work I find myself skipping meals, drinking gallons of coffee, chain-smoking roll-ups. Eating large bowlfuls of kale at strange times of the day. More often than not I don’t eat till lunchtime. I drink espresso and get jittery instead. And feel guilty about that. Unsuitable behaviour, especially for a neurotic. Back to work next week and it’ll be porridge time again, which will be better. But I’m creating all the time – flowers, words, ideas. It’s times like this that I feel most alive.
While I’m in a confessional sort of mood, I think I may as well admit to some flower thievery too, a recent adopted habit I’m adding to my new year’s resolution list (if I’m not in jail by then), along with quitting smoking and neurotic behaviour and whiskey and skipping breakfast (all in favour of yoga and keeping on top of the ironing and working my way through the vast cupboard-load of expensive herbal teas I always buy because I like the names, but always pass up for shudderingly strong ground arabica). So, yes, I stole some roses yesterday while no-one was looking. Snipped them off and hid them in my handbag and then walked briskly across the road, whistling and looking innocently into the air like a cartoon character. I know it’s ridiculous, but they were heartbreaking. They’re now on my dining table in my new crystal bowl. Stolen roses. I expect I’ll generously allow myself to stop feeling guilty about it soon.
I want to write about love, because more than anything else lately, there is that. But it’s hard to know where to start. I’d like to tell you a Cinderella story. I’d like my life to be easy like that, a flawless, infinitely tell-able yarn that my grandchildren will want to hear over and over again. Perhaps, like Chinese whispers, by then – in forty years or so – there’ll be something similar that remains, like there was for my grandparents.
My grandfather was in Africa during the war, and my grandmother waited for him for four long years and they wrote love letters to one another, and there are photographs that show her, beautiful, pale, and him, standing in the dust in spotless RAF uniform, smoking a pipe. But it probably wasn’t like that, the way we choose to remember it or imagine it now – it was probably far less romantic that that. When he telephoned her, once every few months, there was probably a terrible crackle on the line; they probably fought. She may have wavered; four years is a long time. When he came back, he may have been different from before, different to how she remembered him. We all create our own myths.
My boyfriend asked me to marry him on Thursday.
I said yes. ‘Yes please’, actually.
When I saw Edward for the first time across a dark bar, I blushed involuntarily. (Not a glow-y pink-cheeked kind of blush like they create in the films with Chanel cream and clever lighting, more an uncomfortable purplish, probably unflattering flush that started at the nape of my neck and spread up to my hairline, while all the time I was smiling and trying to look perfectly serene and order a glass of wine and be, well, normal.) How do you stop a blush spreading? I’ve been meaning to look it up ever since. Never have, though.
I was there with my then-fiancé, an architect, who was much older than me, had a head of beautiful brown curly hair, rode a motorbike and was, in hindsight, just shy of being an alcoholic, though he hid it well. I’m afraid, that night at the bar, he noted my change in colour and teased me relentlessly about it for days afterwards. I had persuaded myself that I loved him and I was going to marry him because I didn’t know what it all meant anymore. I was creatively dead, during that period; we had been together several years and I thought that this was it, all relationships were imperfect in their own way (I still believe this). I was unhappy, but isn’t everyone? I had sold my childish dreams of happily ever after down the river. Happiness would come from loyalty, from sticking it out, from compromise, companionship; soppy nonsense was make believe, I didn’t believe in all that anymore, I had grown up.
And then I walked into a bar, and saw this man, and suddenly, childishly, became fascinated by an article in the nearest newspaper and turned purple, and tried to hide my face. Perfectly ridiculous. But a short while later I left the architect and moved out and that was that. In a few months there was a quietly catastrophic ending and a chaotic beginning.
It was far from perfect; I was mad for a while. Confused. Depressed. I didn’t know what on earth was going on. I lived with my parents, who were kind to me and kept me from derailing. I went to New York and Montauk and cried and drove my best friend crazy. But there’s no doubt that it was a romantic beginning, a whirlwind, nerves and sickening butterflies and long, late night phone calls. It was the saddest time and the happiest time all at once. I woke up, bolt upright, in the winter of my twenties. And in fifty years my grandchildren will say it was love at first sight. Which it was, in a way, or something like it.
So I’m sitting here, writing this and trying to ignore the little six year girl inside my head shouting silly, girlish things that I definitely grew out of a long time ago (tulle!) (bridesmaids!) (peonies!), I’m nearly thirty for Christ’s sake, and trying to find a way to tie this up and get back to those work emails and the next cup of jitter-inducing coffee. Blushing bride to be? Ha! You bloody bet.
This post is dedicated to all the other soon-to-be-wives, and especially Niv, Miranda and Kate. Finding the right person to love is half the battle. And that’s what I really wanted to say. Over and out.
The storm came and went, leaving us blanketed in neighbours’ leaves. I was awake for those few hours, thinking about 1987, because that’s how they said it would be (it wasn’t). Remembering how my father, driving into London, said there was a sheet of corrugated iron floating a little above the lanes of cars on the motorway like some great grey lethal bird. My sister was born that year; I was three. We watched trees bent sideways, entire trees, picked up and scattered like hairpins.
In other news – my fridge is full of flowers, and the butter is in the cupboard. I’ve a boot-load of jam jars, too many boxes of German pins and I’m trying to think up an elaborate story to tell the people who are going to ask me why on earth I’m wearing a hydrangea crown to a Halloween dinner party on Saturday night. Really, it’s because it’s too sad to contemplate a life wasted on the middle shelf, between the leftover cheesecake and the jars of chutneys that nobody eats. This way is better; someone (anyone) will appreciate the many, many hours I spent putting the bastard together, taping and wiring, taping and wiring, wiring and taping. This way, the blisters will be totally worth it.
[Oh, and plus, I'm a terrible show-off.]
Autumn. And what I want to do is curl up one of these smoky afternoons with a piping hot cup of vanilla tea, wrap my feet in a blanket and curate slow, deliberate compositions of blackberries and Japanese anemones with sprays of rosehips and probably some amarynth, too. But I don’t live in a Sofia Coppola film, as much as I’d like to, and the reality is I’ve mostly been practicing my taping and wiring, like every promising floristry student should, if she knows what’s good for her. Taping and wiring till my finger tips blister. Making corsages the traditional way, the City & Guilds way, because even if I never make a corsage ever again, I’m sure as hell going to pass my next assessment.
The “cor·sage” – ‘a small bouquet worn at the waist, on the shoulder, on the wrist, by a woman.‘
The “corsage” makes me feel nostalgic, for no particular reason. I’ve never worn a corsage. I’ve never been a mother of the bride. I’ve been a bridesmaid, yes, but I was very small and I wore a circlet of freesias. I’ve never been to prom. Being a Brit I went to barn dances and hunt balls instead, and Scottish country dances where I smoked Marlboro Lights round the back of marquees with men in strange tartans who were too old for me.
It’s a false nostalgia, then. Perhaps a borrowed nostalgia, because I did watch those all-American teen movies – American Beauty, American Pie, Never Been Kissed. An uneasy nostalgia; a memory lane less scenic, more train-track braces and agonising over which is the salad fork. A sort of oh god oh god oh god feeling, because when I think of a corsage, I spontaneously – unreasonably – think of a panting teenage boy with unfortunate skin collecting the box from the florists the afternoon of his prom and his mother at home looking out over a hot suburban lawn and laying his suit across the bed. I imagine the box, shoved into the refrigerator next to a plate of vol au vents, and then what it contains – a teardrop-shaped collection of Alstroemeria on shiny leaves.
You see, aside from Morris dancers (read into that what you will), the corsage is the closest I get to a phobic reaction. Perhaps because I am visualizing myself as the recipient, in strapless satin; the horror of being presented with a bracelet of flowers (hoping against hope that it will be, as you have daydreamed, something rather more 18th century) and trying to conceal revulsion at an obtrusive offering of carnations and baby’s breath – or worse, Gerbera. Accepting it and biting down on the scathing remark you are longing to make because at the door is a boy you have to spend the rest of the evening with, a kid sure that he is going to get lucky tonight. A kid who might have, if he hadn’t bought you a damned Gerbera.
So, that’s how it really stands, between the corsage and I. I shan’t tell City & Guilds that. I’ll just get through this next week and then it’s on to the Hydrangea-crowned headdress, which is an altogether different story…
Life is backbreakingly full lately and I’m not complaining. My flat is getting smaller, the more it is stocked with vases and urns, tarpaulins, buckets, and other floral detritus. Hoping my recently moved-in boyfriend won’t notice that I’ve started hoarding jam jars like a kleptomaniac in one of our few storage cupboards. The plug-hole in the bathroom is clogged with petals and seeds. He doesn’t seem to mind.
I bought my first grown-up antique last week – a (colossally heavy, mind) metal art deco lamp that my Dad has rewired with vintage tobacco-coloured flex cord. Sometimes, when I have a moment, I just sit, and look at it, and click the switch and mentally flick through the William Morris wallpaper swatch-book, (which I have memorized, obviously) – fruit, bulrush, pimpernel. One day, I will have a studio where I will work (read ‘lurk’) by the light of my 1930s lamp, against a back-drop of Morris & Co. artichoke, or whispery green willow bough… Oh, who knows.I can’t decide. It’s enough sometimes, I find, just to have a little worry about something small and cosmetic and insignificant – something that might not even happen anyway. Its a nice break from worrying about all the bigger things, the things that are significant, that will happen for sure.
Classes are happening. Every Tuesday – which is now a relentless 16 hour day that I treasure more than any other. Alarm, work, swim, work, teach a creative writing class, spend an hour in traffic getting out of Oxford into the country, three hours of concentrated floristry, drive home in the pitch black still exhilarated. I’m tired, though – inoperatively so by eight o’clock tonight, I imagine. Half term and Wales, and windy walks, and SLEEP, can’t come soon enough.
The photographs above are from a selection taken (beautifully and patiently) by my lovely girlfriend Natasha Denness of Candy Pop, this past weekend, on a photoshoot for my new website which I will be launching early next year. We had such a fun day. Natasha shot from the shower, I dressed up and played with flowers and had a forties makeover by my sister (who is – excitingly – training in period make-up for theatre and film next year at one of the best schools in London) and pulled silly faces and ate lots of cake and almost forgot that I hate having my photograph taken, by brazenly posing as if it were the most natural thing in the world … it is not…
For those who are interested, you can now also follow me on Instagram for more pictorial chronicles of my floral adventures, and misadventures.
Photographs below all taken by me, using an Olympus PEN EP-3.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends”
from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Practising coolness and composure this week in the face of a so-many-shifting-priorities-and-things-to-be-done situation. Depressed about Kenya; strange to see the familiar old Westgate Centre splashed all over the front pages. Anyone who has lived there is probably thinking – we used to go there for milkshakes, to buy phone credit, to stock up on tea. It was always such a comforting place, somehow, the almost-European-ness of it, we used to look forward to it – a shopping mall, such sophistication! After being in the bush for a while, you look forward to things like that, buying tea, having a milkshake.
Here, people keep shivering and walking with their arms folded tightly across their chests. Saying things like – bit brisk this morning!, as if surprised to be noticing that autumn has crept in and is happening all around us.
Flowers are my everything at the moment. Every day I’m learning, reading up, making notes. They are needy little things, flowers – needing trimming, scraping, de-thorning, de-leafing, needing darkness, desirous of liquid, and not just any, but tepid, thank you. Sometimes they dislike sharing a vase with your carefully chosen accompaniment – and they like bleached vases, oh yes. In hindsight, I really must get my fear of slugs under wraps.
On the style and culture front, it’s move over, Acne, city breaks, ludicrous costume jewellery – Yarnton Garden Centre is where it’s at. Only I do want some navy blue drill overalls and they are definitely trending all over the place at the moment so thankfully I’m not completely out of touch (oh, phew). I have decided that while the necessity of ugly, sensible footwear and raggedy jumpers and early mornings – I mean so early that I don’t even have my lipstick on early – are well, necessary, I have decided that I’ll stick firmly to Breton for my uniform and work a trug like you’ve never seen a trug worked before (that smudge of soil on my face might always have been there). But I’m afraid it’s game over in the manicure department.
For my recent birthday, I was given a beautiful new collection of hakari basami topiary shears, Kijo secatuers (to replace the ones I already lost) and Arthur Wright pocket knives, all from Objects of Use. They stock the best range of thoughtfully sourced implements for the house and garden and now have an online shop. Check them out when you can.
I had a dream last night that – in fact I had lots of really weird dreams last night – but in this particular one, I was arranging grasses in my imaginary dream-world studio in which there was an amazing 1930s green iron planter trough (obviously), and I had buckets and buckets of whiskery nigella and chocolate cosmos that I was nesting together in pewter milk-jugs, snuggled up tight. Best. Dream. Ever.
I turned 29 this week. It was emotional in many different, small ways.
Facing down a damp and smoky autumn in Oxford; burning leaves and dingy, smog-clogged mornings, boozy nights, already the leaden weight of knitwear and it seems it was only a few days ago still summer. The frothy peony season is over for another year. They outwitted me this summer. I swore off them for a while – too pink, too bowl-headed, too ‘instagram me!’ but they deliberately wheedled their way into my arrangements anyhow.
Roses are disappearing all over Oxford, suddenly. The buddleia is browning and dropping with alarming haste. Some years seasons seem so laboriously slow in changing, some autumns drift and drag their feet, lagging behind; others seem almost rudely urgent. Impetuous, even. I’m not sure I’m finished with summer yet.
It’s ranunculus time, now. And, getting ahead of myself, I’ve black Christmas roses, Helleborus niger, on the brain for the depths of winter.
In other news, I am balking at how hard it is trying to start a business and work at the same time. There’s time, but not enough, opportunities, but too many to take up. Even though I want to, I’m forestalled by something. I just need to find a way to make my present cooperate with my future and not get so neurotic about it – not see the looming incompatibility of living two lives at once as some kind of impending incubus. Stop trying to decode. Changing career was never going to be seamless. I’m working, slowly, on my website. Looking at Volvos on eBay. I want an old estate workhorse that I can run into the ground. If you come across one, you know where to find me… (I’ll be the frazzled, exhausted one, with “pom” dahlias coming out of my ears).
Christmas Wreath Workshop @ The Rusty Bicycle
3 to 5.30pm – Wednesday 18 December 2013
Come and spend a cosy afternoon creating a wild, natural wreath to take home and hang on your door or to give away as a gift. Relax with a small company of like minds; enjoy an interlude from the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations, surrounded by the fragrant scent of pine cones, delectable nibbles and spicy mulled wine.
All materials are provided and included in the cost of your workshop. Friendly advice and guidance will be on hand throughout the afternoon. You are welcome to bring foliage from your garden to personalise your wreath. Please bring an apron and a large pair of scissors.
If you have an enquiry or to book your place on the workshop, please email me, Ally Lister, at email@example.com.
£35.00 – includes all materials, tea/coffee, a glass of home-made mulled wine and a couple of mince pies.
Places are limited – early booking advised.
“I think sometimes life forces things at you…and you have to hold these things for a while before you know what to do with them.”
“What I realize I don’t want to do is sit in lots of meetings. I don’t want to suck up ever ever ever to people who don’t really understand what we do. I don’t want to plan details for table top. Sure, I want those details to be incredible, but I don’t really want to personally be that involved with it. I don’t want to look at tent schematics or talk about the marshmallow roasting fire pit after-party. Especially if I’m not invited to said fire pit after party. I don’t want to do photoshoots I don’t have full creative control over.”
“I think the things we love the most are the things we do best. When I clutter my business with shit that bores me or worse — things that I think I am supposed to do as a floral designer — I suffer and Saipua suffers. We live in an age now where we can invent, each one of us, what our personal industry looks like. So I may not take my clients shopping for linens, but I will provide them with a full tutelage on flowers, invite them to come see how we grow flowers and ideally inspire them to start their own gardens and begin their own experimentation with flowers.”
- Sarah Ryhanen of Saipua
The other day I drolly joked that I’ll end up ‘the mad old lady with the orchids’ but my bedtime reading at the moment is searing lilac stems so it may come around sooner than I thought.
Been thinking a lot, of late, about the yawning vacuum of imaginative floristry in England; gaudiness and cellophane, non-seasonal flowers that smell of cold storage and air miles, mass produced faux-retro containers in sicky baby blue enamel. Sometimes it actually makes me feel nauseous – this is Constance Spry territory, darn it. She’d definitely be tight-lipped at the state of us, god rest her soul.
In the spring I’m going to go and do an internship with Sarah Ryhanen in New York (quite a few air miles there, I know) because, even so, three-thousand-odd miles is the closest I can actually get to someone I think that I can learn from in starting my own business. Sarah is one of a group of several women in the US who some would call members of the ‘back to nature movement’ – among them Nicolette Owen, Amy Merrick, Erin Benzakein – with whom I share lofty dreams of a different industry. Smaller business, local growers, family-run farms, like minds. Having a vision. Getting on with it. Not sucking up. I really want to learn from her.
I cut a modest basketful of flowers this weekend. Foraged and grubbled about in Chedworth Woods. Had a run-in with an electric fence. And I thought – this is what I want to do with flowers. Search and pick and source and buy and sell. Driving around, a lot of lugging and hoiking and hefting. Hunting strange forgotten specimens, foraging foliage. Making sumptuous botanical messes. But mostly I just really want to curate. To make arrangements that are distinct and abundant, that cannot help but be, in themselves, an ode to weather, an implication of mood. There are some things that you can’t teach. Some things you only learn by trial and error. I am only interested in doing work like that; it’s a waste of time if it isn’t going to change the way people think, if the flowers aren’t the most exquisite I can lay my hands on. But it’s going to be a huge project.
I do not want to walk into a supermarket and buy their bereft, Primark-type flowers ever again. I want to make people feel the same way about flowers as I did when I was a child. The intimacy of presenting a hand-picked bloom. Fleeting blossoms that have been harried by the wind, that curl, droop, drop and shiver. I have to close my eyes to try not to let go of that. Flowers are nothing if not to be gathered as bounty.
Start of the new academic year. Kick-off, in other words. Currently day four of holiday stories and cheek-kissing and tan-comparing and trying to remember how to do my job. Breathe! The evenings this week have been mellow and sun saturated though; still the dog days of summer.
Beginning to think about going back to school. Raring up to get back into studying. Feel like going out and buying myself a rucksack, some new socks, but shan’t because all I really need is secateurs and scissors, maybe a pen-knife, maybe a trug. And fresh flowers, of course. I start my floristry course in October and have been gathering equipment, reading up, looking forward to creating bouquets and boutonnieres and writing essays and autumnal foraging. I have two crates of oasis that I have nowhere to put in my flat. [...I want a studio...]
There’s a pool at work; a really beautiful pool. I can swim there with friends and family in the evenings and weekends. I don’t know how I didn’t know that before. Someone’s been keeping it a secret.
I am 29 in just over a week. Not sure if I’m horrified or thrilled or just a bit – meh. I guess it gets like that as you get older.
For those local to Oxford, I am running a series of floral workshops in the next few months, the first being a Christmas wreath-making workshop in December at the Rusty Bicycle, which I hope will be a cosy afternoon of like minds and scratchy cardigans and ambrosial smells (and probably some home-made mulled wine and mince pies too). I will keep you posted – stay tuned!
The days pass something like this. Wake up tangled in mosquito net again. Eat melon and yoghurt with honey that tastes of wild flowers. Smoke cigarettes while boyfriend painstakingly applies high factor suncream. Walk down the hill along cobbles, under awnings. Iced coffee at the Pirate Bar. Boat to Vlychos. Collapse onto sun lounger. Wait until so hot can barely think. Swim. Beer? Oh, I think so. Swim. Afternoon hangover. Swim. Long beach nap. Ice cream. Swim out to the furthest yellow buoy and tread water until get cramp. Sleep. Read. Fall asleep, reading. Swim. Walk back to Hydra stopping at Castello for a drink and watch the beautiful people playing day glo beachball. Think about supper, at 8pm, 9pm, eat calamari or similar at 10.30pm to the soundtrack of cicadas, Daft Punk, the clink of worry beads. Drink too many drams of Laphroaig – think must not drink so many tomorrow. Fall asleep, dreaming of swimming in deep, dark water.
Alice’s house is rickety, dishevelled, half hewn, as though someone wandered off in the middle of it to pick some olives or something. It is an old taverna.The bathroom is the colour of a murphy’s mint. The ceilings are flaking, the stones crumbling dust. The cicadas sound rather like ducks in the night. There are taps in strange places so that you stub your toe walking to bed. White light in the afternoons. Her mother has hand painted every single surface, scratchy drawings of birds and fish. We have been burning citronella day and night. The tomatoes are huge, soft and red and fragrant. There is a well outside that we pull water from. We switch off.
You can feel its inheritance, here, people have loved in this house, fed their children here, argued over bottles of wine late at night. It feels like family, complicated, all knotted wood and cracked flagstones. Many people have drunkenly hit their heads on the wooden beam halfway up the stairs and cursed before us, many hands have crushed peppercorns in the huge stone pestle and mortar as we do, making salad for supper. Houses like this are remnants of love, proof of life.
I am still thinking about flowers. The olive boughs are exquisite alone- shivery silver leaves on silver branches. We have bougainvillea too, and tiny bushes of speckled lilac flowers I don’t know the name of but look a little like orchids. I make arrangements in broken clay milkjugs, pick limes from the trees in the garden.
Nothing matches in this house, no two pieces of cutlery are the same, a muddle of unpolished silver spoons and enamel ladles.There are half empty bottles of spirits and half smoked packets of cigarettes on the dresser. Pregnant cats wander entitled through the kitchen looking for lost pieces of fish, or anything, as though they own the place, which I guess they do. Last night we fell asleep to a mad opera of fighting cats and dogs.
One party. One weekend. Twenty-two friends and family. Three Labradors.
Six hours flower arranging. Fourteen flower arrangements.Thirteen foraged apple boughs. Three foraging bruises. Fourteen hydrangeas. Seven peonies. Twenty sprigs of wild clematis.
One gramophone. One unused generator. Fifty candles. Six crates of wine. Two waitresses. Five seating plans. One last minute mini nervous breakdown (mine). One parking ticket. One new app (McDonalds). Seven hours of classic fm.
One black tie left behind (anyone?)
One amazing boyfriend.
Ostrich feathers scattered – too many to number.
Roll-ups smoked – ditto.
It’s been the school holidays. I’ve been playing around with flowers, mostly, wearing dungarees and stripping and painting furniture. Drinking takeout coffee from Quarterhorse. Planning a party. Not sleeping much. Noticing that the season is changing again.
Also, listening to my neighbour’s kids through the wall in the afternoon:
Little girl – ‘Joe? Joe? Joe? Joooooo? Joe? JOE!’
Presumably Joe (Dad/stepdad?) – ‘WHAAAT?’
Little girl (plaintively) – ‘Can we water the flowers?’
5 minutes later
Presumably Joe – ‘Now, I don’t know much about gardening but I don’t think we need to water the pond now do we?’
So cute. Can’t wait to have weird, kooky conversations like that with my kids someday.
Other than that counting down the hours until we are back in Wales. Wednesday, not long.
There isn’t much that makes me happier than a walled garden on a hot day in midsummer. Yew tunnels and aviaries and orchards swollen with fat bees and branches groaning under the weight of turning fruit. Wherever I am dreaming of being (and I dream of being somewhere else quite a lot) an English summer’s second flush of roses and I quickly drop Indian rice paddies or a wide, red-stone street in Brooklyn, being older, being twenty-two again – for me, pink clouds of Hewitt’s Double, stretches of mock orange and I am perfectly, unusually content to be here, just here. Wearing dungarees, eating bowls of peaches and cream in the shade, taking flushed afternoon naps.
There is such a garden on the Aberglasney estate in Carmarthenshire – not just a garden, perhaps a series of gardens – cloister gardens and kitchen gardens and jungle-y sub tropical gardens – gardens that make your head spin and stop you wanting to be anywhere else in the world. You watch one of the gardeners, quite an old lady, pottering quietly in a wide-brimmed sunhat with a basket and secateurs, pruning roses, persuading sweet-peas around bamboo canes.
I’ve been reliving this garden in my head ever since.
**The first, and last three photographs were taken at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales. All others taken at Aberglasney Gardens.
If I’m posting photos, I’m still there, aren’t I? Picking foxgloves by the armful, buying books by the car-boot-full. Eating crab linguine and jars of homemade marmalade, cutting elderflowers into bags for cordial and playing croquet and playing tennis and not knowing what day of the week it is, let alone what time it is, being in a black spot, where the air is clearer and the stars brighter and where you hear every fox bark in the night, where driving home late after dinner with a friend, an owl flutters across the road and you have a flash of white wing and underbelly.
It was a week of slow winding down, regular meals, decent sleep. It was also the first time in a long time, that I have felt I had the perspective, from up on that hill, to look at my life clearly, to assess what I have done and make some fairly serious decisions about realizing a dream that I have held in abeyance. It felt like a break in every sense of the word – a ‘brake’ too, an interval, suspension.
The past year or so has been a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve lived by myself, I’ve changed, I’ve worked hard and learned a lot, put my hand out and taken on more, and more again, I’ve made contacts, I’ve saved money, made and lost friends, fallen in love, travelled. It has been one of the loneliest, toughest and happiest years of my life; I forced myself to live entirely in the present, to stop asking questions or look for the answers, anyway. There was also an estrangement with myself, a feeling sometimes of paralysis, a disconnect. Sometimes you are so busy orchestrating all the day to day details of your life that you need an interruption to propel you into remembering who you are, or were, who you wanted to be.
Wales made me look at the breach, separate the different parts out in front of me and try to piece them together. It was good. Oh, and, boy, did we watch some sunsets.
From tomorrow I’ll be in a cottage on the side of a mountain in deepest darkest Wales. When my boyfriend suggested this to me a few months ago, I was half-thinking of last summer, of wet and windy days, log fires, a good novel, thick-knit cardigans, a bottle of whiskey. I was thinking what films to pack and which car my wellingtons were in and not to forget them. I wrote a list of films I haven’t had a chance to see and a recipe for a soup I haven’t made yet and imagined power-cuts and afternoons in bed listening to gale-force winds outside.
But it seems, although you never can quite tell, that we’re in for this extended heat-wave a little while longer, even in Wales (where it usually never stops raining). So, instead, I am packing my flimsiest shirts and looking out my tiniest bikini and my widest sunhat because in these parts we have to make the most of it while we can.
Holidays like this remind me of being a child, very British holidays – throwing your oldest, comfiest clothes into a bag, packing the car, setting your sights on being as far away from anywhere as possible by nightfall. Quiet holidays of early nights because the days are more important, grass-stained plimsolls, punnets of strawberries, fresh air and freckles, the smell of sun-cream and cow parsley.
For the sake of my film list I half hope we do have at least one wet evening, but it’s Wales, so I’m sure we will, and either way, I cannot wait.
“The original Bombay Cafés have almost disappeared. Opened early last century by Persian immigrants, their faded elegance welcomed all: rich businessmen, sweaty taxi-wallahs and courting couples. Fans turned slowly. Bentwood chairs were reflected in stained mirrors, next to sepia family portraits. Students had breakfast. Families dined. Lawyers read briefs. Writers found their characters.”
A hot day in London presents the perfect opportunity for lunch and lassis in a banquette at Dishoom. Modelled on the disappearing Irani cafes of 20th century colonial Bombay, institutions that served food and chai morning till night, for breakfast, lunch, drinks and dinner, regardless of caste, Dishoom is a welcome change from the traditional poorly-lit, velvet-boothed curry house.
Start with a bhang lassi with or without rum (coconut milk, grenadine, ginger and shredded mint with candied fennel sprinkles) or a rose and cardmom lassi, ‘sweet and subtle as a perfumed love-letter'; the food comes as and when it is ready. My sister and I ate warmly spiced samosas, bhel, crunchy puffed rice tossed with tamarind, pomegranate seeds, lime and mint, creamy black daal which had been simmered for 24 hours with freshly baked roomali roti, smoky handkerchief-thin bread and strips of charred chicken tikka, laced with ginger, turmeric, garlic and green chilli.
Dishoom have two cafés in London – Covent Garden (12 Upper St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2H 9FB, T: 020 7420 9320) or Shoreditch (7 Boundary Street, London, E2 7JE, T: 020 7420 9324)
The other day a friend asked me for a list of tips on where to eat in Marrakech and Fès and this seems to have become a blog post on all my favourite places to eat in Morocco, including some great eateries in Essaouira, Oualidia and Chefchaouen. If you manage to visit any of these I’m sure you won’t be disappointed, at all.
Marrakech: Grand Café de la Poste is behind the main Guéliz post office in the Ville Nouvelle. An ex-colonial post office, the Grand has the irreverent atmosphere you’d expect of flapper-era France, only in Northern Africa; there’s lots of rattan and wicker cane chairs, wooden ceiling fans, potted palms and white linen. The food befits the clientele – mainly well-heeled French expats, local professionals working in the New Town and tourists. You’ll find roast chicken with wild Berber thyme and olives on the menu, alongside steak tartare, monkfish carpaccio, duck shepherd’s pie and oysters from Oualidia.
If it is your first time in Morocco, Marrakech can be relatively frenetic – the din, the smoke and spices and narrow alleyways – and if you need a break from the medina, somewhere shaded and calm with nice music and fine bone china, this is the perfect refuge. Also, you can pay by card and drink cold beer on the terrace.
Grand Café de la Poste | Corner of Boulevard El Mansour Eddahbi & Avenue Imam Malik | Guéliz, Marrakech | T: +242 524433038 | Web
Fes: Riad Maison Bleue is a sumptuous 4 star boutique riad and spa. A fitting place for a honeymoon, in a review by Conde Nast, Maison Bleue was said to “strike a successful balance between antique splendour and modern comfort”; the Adalucian-style courtyard is speckled with orange trees around a cerulean pool, there is a dark, velvety bar and numerous Moorish salons, and a terrace overlooking the medina ramparts.
You might come here for a celebratory meal – a birthday, an anniversary or some-such – because the service is formal and the bill won’t be easy on your dirhams, or you might come because you’ve been reliably told that the chef at this hidden, clandestine little hotel makes the best pastilla in Fes. Pastilla is the signature dish of the city – a sweet, sugar dusted pie of flaky, filo-like pastry, filled with pigeon breast slow cooked in butter with onion, coriander, honey, orange flower water, hard-boiled eggs and spices and then sprinkled with toasted almonds, cinnamon and sugar. You have to order pastilla two days before so that it can be prepared by hand and you’ll eat it by candle-light, accompanied by a bottle of Riesling, with views towards the Borj Nord.
Riad Maison Bleue | 33 Derb Miter, Talaa Kebira, Ain Zliten | Fes-Medina | T: +212 35 741873 | Web
Fès: Café Clock, as renowned for its ambrosial breakfasts and Moroccan-style tapas as it is for its North African cookery school, Clock Kitchen, this is a Fès institution. For breakfast, you can choose from eggs, including the gratifying ‘Berber eggs’ (scrambled with tomatoes, onions, humus and spices, and slathered on Moroccan round bread), pancakes or muesli and on the lunch menu you’ll find tapas, falafel, toasted sandwiches, burgers (such as the camel burger with taza ketchup) couscous and salads – look out for the maakouda and warm tomato salad – all lovingly prepared by hand, tasty and affordable. And don’t miss the almond milkshake. The café is a warren-like series of nooks, crannies and terraces with a great atmosphere and live music and caters to an international crowd of travellers who seem to hang out there for hours – unlike most cafes in the medina, they have free wifi!
Café Clock | 7 Derb El Magana, Talaa Kbira, Fes Medina | T: +212 (0) 35 637 855 | Web
Essaouira: Elizir resembles an apartment you may have found in Milan in the seventies and might best be described as ‘hippy chic’ – peppered with neon modernist furniture, the odd design classic, iconic lighting, stacks of records and copies of Italian Vogue, with a soundtrack of Leonard Cohen, Hendrix and Bob Dylan in the background. The proprietor, Abdellatif Rharbaoui, spent 9 years living and working in Bologna so it is unsurprising that his menu consists of both Moroccan and Mediterranean dishes – the pumpkin soup with Argan oil, cuttlefish risotto, organic chicken with fresh figs, chicken tagine cooked with pear and gorgonzola and lemon sorbet with vodka are all excellent. They also superbly cook a fillet steak.
Elizir | 1 Rue de Agadir, Essaouira Medina | T: +212 524 47 21 03 | Web
Oualidia: L’Hippocampe. Oualidia is a strange place. All you would know about it, unless you were tipped off by an inebriated British lord you had dinner with in Marrakech, is that Moroccan oysters come from here, though you might have heard it mentioned by surfers on the train to Fes. But then you’d been told about the lagoon, tucked behind a rocky barrier that deters the brutal abandon of the ocean, about the shoreline of wild Atlantic beaches and about the flamingos that land here on their migration from Spain to sub-Saharan Africa in spring and autumn. And then you hear about the lagoon itself, which changes colour throughout the day from green to lilac, and the spectacular sunsets.
They say Oualidia is Morocco’s St Tropez, but it couldn’t be further from that. There is absolutely nothing here, nothing but surf and the odd sandcastle, a few fishermen, perhaps a couple of birdwatchers, and lots of fish. No bars, no boutiques. There is, however, a hotel called L’Hippocampe, lodged on a hill, overlooking a vast stretch of the 11km of creek amongst a very English garden of daisies, ivy, black-eyed Susans and pink hibiscus. Outside it is parked a tomato-red Alfa Romeo, which is as St Tropez as it gets here.
Other than a mention for the hotel’s harira, which is the traditional soup of Maghreb made with tomatoes, onions and lentils and fragrantly seasoned with ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cilantro, parsley and celery, you come here to eat the fish, plucked straight from the ocean only hours before, the crustacean platter – crunchy spider crab, langoustine, shrimp – and of course, the oysters, which are as fresh and plump and clean as you’ve ever seen them.
L’Hippocampe | 2, Rue du Palais| Oualidia Plage | Web
Chefchaouen: Auberge Dardara is a terracotta-tiled farmhouse beneath the Rif Mountains set in groves of olive, quince, fig and pomegranate trees. The auberge / “inn” is delightfully rustic – and so relaxed that you’ll be lucky to find a member of staff when you arrive and you might have to nap in the rosemary-scented garden, while lizards flicker in and out of cracks in the stones around the pool, until anyone emerges. But if you don’t mind switching off completely – if you’re looking for fresh air and log fires and really very delicious food, I think you’d struggle to find anywhere better.
Don’t expect a menu – if you ask for lunch it will be whatever they are making that day, such as bissara, a traditional Jbala split-pea soup in an earthenware bowl with a great pool of olive oil on top sprinkled with cumin, a basket of delicious wholewheat bread, and small bowls of olive paste and homemade seasoned goat’s cheese with walnuts. An evening meal might consist of roast rabbit or a home-made lamb and quince tagine.
Auberge Dardara | Route Nationale 2 de Alhoceima| Chefchaouen| T: +212 539 70 70 07 | Web
**My subsequent excursions to Casablanca and El Jadida were not nearly so successful, food-wise. Any recommendations there would be gratefully received!
As a child I used to read ‘The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse’ and try to work out which one I would be (if I were a fictional mouse character from one of Aesop’s Fables, and illustrated by Arthur Rackham).
Because if your formative years are shared between central London and rural Wiltshire you probably loved both in equal measure, and still do; home is two halves, emersion in one followed by the other, over and over again.Perhaps the happiest balance you can find is working in the town, weekending in the country.
It is the collision of so many lives and stories and neuroses in one place that I love about the city – noise and grit and traffic, Daft Punk, cabs and chai lattes, convenience stores, city parks, city florists. Conversations with strangers. Living in an apartment. Eating Wagamama noodles from the carton in bed.
The country on the other hand, is waking late and missing lunch and not knowing what time it is, when a visitor’s arrival is not a finger on the doorbell, but the sound of their car rattling across the cattle grid and a cloud of white dust at the end of the drive. The country is not packing your iPad and turning off your BlackBerry. You wear grey tweed and pick wild flowers, go lipstick-less, drive barefoot. In the country you sit around a fire of spitting logs until the starless night envelops you, while other people in the shadows remark on a gathering storm.
Wales is hard to leave, particularly on a Sunday night, particularly when it is hot and still and you have spent the weekend wild river-swimming and collecting eggs from the hen-house and driving too fast along ribbons of car-less road among craggy hills. Your phone hasn’t rung and the weather is so soporific that hardly a thought has entered your head all day; you have sat against the river-bank watching your boyfriend fly-fishing, casting his thin line across the swirling eddies of dark water and trying to keep your eye trained on his pale fly amongst the white pollen on the surface. It’s hard to pack up and leave for the city, when all afternoon it has been perfectly soundless, but for the spin and click of the reel.
~ + ~
Thanks to Marlene of Chocolate, Cookies and Candies blog who featured me on her recent Pass It Forward post.
A press release announced today that Isabel Marant will be releasing a collection for H&M on November 14th, 2013 which is to be available in stores worldwide and online and will feature clothing and accessories for women and teenagers, as well as Marant’s debut collection for men.
On the one hand, it could be a collaboration to die for (and many might, come November), as Marant’s threads and aesthetic could translate well to the high street, – if it’s done well, that is. And there’s no doubt that the steely-haired designer is shrewd – with this collection, she maintains creative control while targeting the other high-street brands, such as Zara, that so relentlessly copy her designs.
On the other, these hyped high-fashion collaborations are getting a bit repetitive now, aren’t they? And I wonder, with clothes this mass-produced, aren’t they terribly low quality and are they, then, even more of a rip-off on the high street than the real deal?
The idea of millions of cheap, knock-off acrylic-fringed sweaters does fill me with dread. I’m sitting on the fence for now.
Photograph re-blogged from lndiamond.blogspot.com
Thoughts on repeat purchases and brand loyalty
My mum once told me that my father’s first wife (who needless to say was a thin, blonde German aristocrat) had a wardrobe full of Yves Saint Laurent, a beautifully lit closet containing shelves of tonally co-ordinated cashmere, rails of shudderingly expensive designer labels, but that she only ever wore a grey marl Lonsdale sweatshirt and Fioruuci jeans (well, it was the seventies). Jackie Onassis, similarly, used to buy a garment she liked in every colour, so that Aristotle famously grumbled, “one of everything in every colour, and in every home, but all I ever see her in is blue jeans”. Both brand-loyal and serial repeat-purchasers, then, but it made me wonder – why are we loyal to certain brands, and is repeat purchasing a smart consumer strategy or just a sign of OCD?
As someone for whom ‘ winding down’ on a Sunday evening typically involves hand-washing, ironing and folding my t-shirts by colour, someone who seasonally rethinks my wardrobe, routinely, and some would say rather anally, cleanses, prunes, and refines one rail of garments over and over again, I’m going to have to argue my case, here. Without getting too scientific about it – who knows why people like certain things, when their tastes develop, whether it is hereditary or random (but this is an interesting topic) – people have their routines, their way of doing things. Some girls are fastidious about their morning and night-time skincare regime, for example, whereas I am very much in the ‘make-up looks better the second day’ camp on the ‘cold water followed by Nivea’ side of the fence. But I am very particular about my wardrobe, far more so than practically any other area of my life. My diet goes up and down, my music collection is confused at best. But my wardrobe is the place I never neglect.
Recently – it was a Sunday – happily epilating last season’s knitwear and editing down to a stream-lined selection of crew-neck cardigans, a grey V-neck in cashmere and my ‘investment’ sweater (thus justified at time of purchase), a chunky pale-blue angora number, it occurred to me that a pattern was emerging; I seem to have duplicates of everything – two pairs of brogues, two pairs of the same suede ankle boots, four pairs of Acne jeans in varying shades of grey, two Equipment shirts, two identical blazers by Acne (one chambray, one stone) and so on and so forth. It had escaped my attention before quite how predictable I was in re-buying the same items, the same styles in a second or third colour, how apparently ‘loyal’ I am to a small pool of the same designers.
Considering how much is out there – the dizzying number of labels and department stores and online emporiums – it’s hard to find something I want to buy at all, let alone re-buy. Of course it was easier when I used to be a sporadic consumer, when it didn’t matter how many skirt-sweater combinations I had in my closet, but we develop behavioural patterns as we get older, I guess, we develop certain likes and dislikes and are less swayed, less distracted by the fads that trickle through from the catwalk to the street. It is rare, in my experience, to find designers that you like on every level – and by this I mean founders you admire, a history you have followed, an ethos you empathize with, staff you like, who intuit what you want and understand why, rare to find a business that are really good at all these things. It’s complicated, out there, and tried and tested might be increasingly what people need in order to part with their hard-earned wages. ‘It all makes me think that fashion retailers have got something very muddled up’, Maggie Alderson wrote for High 50 last year. ‘They think consumers want to be constantly thrilled by something new, when in fact there are some essential items we just want to be able to buy over and over again in the basic colours without any fuss.’
Market research indicates that loyalty stems from the relationship one has with a particular brand – a relationship which, like a friendship or a love affair, stems from values of trust, like-mindedness, understanding. ‘The ingredient that turns repeat purchase into true loyalty is the consumer’s relationship with the brand. If they feel that the brand is truly on their side, and is looking out for their long term interests, repeat purchase and loyalty will become synonymous’ writes business strategist Frederick F. Reichheld in The Loyalty Effect.
But is there something to this, or is it all consumer-research claptrap? Sure, we all have the obligatory Tesco clubcard, but we probably have a Nectar card too, and even a Co-Op card and this is meant to signify ‘loyalty’, for which consumers are rather patronisingly ‘rewarded’ with yet more vouchers for half-price eggs (usually during the precise duration in the month when you don’t need eggs) but realistically we go where the offers take us, don’t we? Wherever is cheapest, or most convenient on the drive home from work. In this case, we are all guilty of multi infidelities on a daily basis.
According to Co-Creation Consultancy, Promise, there are five steps to becoming ‘brand-loyal’ [read the full article here].
1. Customers come back, the brand becomes the preferred brand (retention)
2. Customers come back for more, more often (repeat purchases)
3. The brand creates a habit (customers come unconsciously)
4. Customers stay through bad times, are willing to forgive mistakes (when they happen and they are addressed) and find a reason to stay
5. Customers advocate the brand (helping the brand retain existing business as well as win more customers).
Thinking about my own repeat-purchases and questioning whether I am ‘loyal’ in any way to a particular brand, and why, I made a list of four:
The fourth, and perhaps only label I feel I have had a semblance of what Reicheld would consider a ‘loyal relationship’ is the Swedish brand Acne.
Acne is reliably consistent; I buy a couple of pieces every season. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) buy the whole collection and there are actually only a few pieces each season that I would choose to wear as I’m not courageous or cutting-edge enough for their more extreme styles.
My ‘relationship’ with this particular brand began with the basics – actually I started out with a pair of Acne jeans that I bought on eBay because I had heard that they were a great shape. I liked them enough that a year later I went back to the store on Dover Street and bought a pair full price, and then another and another and I’m now on my fourth or fifth pair. Then I tried a shirt, and loved it, and still wear it. So, as Promise predicted, the beginning of the ‘relationship’ was a series of several tentative steps. As is any, if you think about it.
Meanwhile, Acne seemed to have become more of a high-end designer label, with several collections a year and more accessories and footwear, and become extremely expensive – jeans at £190.00, shoes from £350.00, leather jackets at £1,200.00. They opened stores in Tokyo and offices in New York. But they retained their core selection of denim with the same styles and cuts and colours. Aside from the aesthetic, I think that might be what I like about the label so much – every season for as long as I’ve been following them, they bring out the same models of jeans, boots, motorcycle jackets, the same basic linen t-shirts. They might be ever so slightly improved, cut in silk rather than viscose or suede rather than leather, there might be a whole new colour palette, but it must be a testimony to how right they got the designs of those garments, that they are still around, still in fashion, still on the shelves and on the catwalk and on the street. A couple of years ago I acquired one of their classic lambskin biker jackets, which was the most expensive item I had ever bought – an investment that could have gone horribly wrong, but it has become an integral part of my wardrobe and has softened and bedded down and gone from something I ‘save for best’ to the thing I throw on with jeans and a t-shirt on a Sunday. I am genuinely fond of it; an old friend I will have for years, decades perhaps.
Recently, I decided to buy a new hand-bag. My favourite tote bag was looking a little tired and I had started to wear my vintage Chanel too much to compensate. I saved up for a classic Mulberry ‘Bayswater’, because I like the style and the pebbled leather and over a period of months I thought about it and occasionally looked at the Mulberry website and pondered over the right colour. But I wanted to go to the store and buy my bag when it was the right moment, and it never seemed to be. If you’re going to spend £700 on a bag, you want it to be the right day, when you’re in a good mood, you want the sun to be shining and to know exactly the one you want, and it would be nice if you were in New York or Paris or Rome because you like buying things when you are travelling, so that every lovely thing you have reminds you of a holiday, and who you were with. Anyway, it came to the moment, and after so much thought and consideration, I walked into the Acne store, fell in love with a pebbled leather satchel and decided upon it, then and there, without really thinking about it. Mulberry never even got a look-in. I wasn’t thinking about being faithful to anyone, I was thinking about shape and weight and the feeling of the leather in my hands, but I unconsciously chose to make a significant purchase with a brand I know and trust – in terms of style and durability and quality, rather than with another I don’t regularly frequent.
I can’t help feeling that becoming loyal to a particular brand you love, repeat-purchasing the same items over and over again, does come down to basic human emotions – the desire for consistency, the need for trust, feeling safe, comfort, familiarity, but also it is so wound up with finding an identity – without wanting to sound too naval-gazey – one of the many fragmented factors of becoming you – a woman, an adult, an individual, a character. One of the nicest compliments I ever received was ‘I love what you’re wearing; it is so you’.
As much about the past as the future, it is finding a perfume that you wear throughout your life, like my grandmother, who always smelled the same. I never knew what her perfume was, but occasionally I will get a waft of it, somewhere, and instantly remember the way it felt as a child to hold her hand, the weight of the rings on her fingers.
There’s my friend, in her seventies, who always wears the most beautiful palette of greys and taupes, colours of mushroom and bone that always remind me of sitting in cafes discussing Sufi poetry and drugs and hanging on her advice about love, the nail varnish she always wore, by Paul & Joe, the colour of nougat. And the painter I used to model for, who I only ever saw wear the same shoes – faded black converse hi-tops. Of all his paintings there is one, a pair of black baseball boots, that I love the most, and when I wear mine they remind me of the time I wrote a terrible novel, lived in a beautiful large-roomed, high-ceilinged apartment on the Iffley Road and those slow months when I changed, and grew up, and fell out of love. But they’re happy memories, strangely, happy memories of a rather unhappy time.
I think that the clothes on our backs, the way we choose to portray ourselves to our colleagues, our friends, the strangers we pass on the street, to the world at large, is also so often rooted in feeling, in memory, nostalgia, in looking forward, in wanting to feel the way we did before again.