A stroll through Holland Park, with its colourful flower displays took me onto Kensington High Street by the former Commonwealth Institute
The Commonwealth Institute was designed by Robert Matthew, Sir Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, architects, and engineered by AJ & JD Harris, of Harris & Sutherland. Construction was started at the end of 1960 and completed in 1962. The project was funded by the UK government, with contributions of materials from Commonwealth countries.
Regarded by English Heritage as the second most important modern building in London, after the Royal Festival Hall, the building had a low brickwork plinth clad in blue-grey glazing. Above this swoops the most striking feature of the building, the complex hyperbolic paraboloid roof, originally made with 25 tonnes of copper donated by the Northern Rhodesia Chamber of Mines. The shape of the roof reflected the architects’ desire to create a “tent in the park”. The gardens featured a large water feature, grass lawns, and a flagpole for each member of the Commonwealth. The interior of the building consists of a dramatic open space, covered in a tent-like concrete shell, with tiered exhibition spaces linked by walkways. Despite its iconic status the building fell into disuse and began to deteriorate. As it was a listed building plans to demolish it were always resisted. Now the garden is a building site, but the ‘tent in the Park’ has retained its original shape without the copper. Still I thought it was looking good and hopefully will provide an exciting new home for the Design Museum.
Kensington High Street is not the fashion centre it used to be – most of that has, I suspect, moved to Westfield just over a mile away. Would it be too much to hope that more independent shops will start of open up along this important thoroughfare. Certainly one has, and an unusual one at that. The shop is an old fashioned hardware store called Skillman and sons. The original Skillman and sons was opened by Alfred Daniel Skillman in 1900. What a super name for someone selling tools. The store was famous for selling everything from watering cans to musical instruments. Today at Skillmans, you will find some of the best hand tools from around the world, together with top quality hardware and ironmongery from the U.K, as well as the most functional cleaning products made from all over Europe and the rest of the world. Would it be too much to hope that more independent shops might open along this important thoroughfare. Certainly one has, and an unusual one at that. The shop is an old fashioned hardware store called Skillman and sons. The original Skillman and sons was opened by Alfred Daniel Skillman in 1900. What a super name for someone selling tools. The store was famous for selling everything from watering cans to musical instruments. Today at Skillmans, you will find some of the best hand tools from around the world, together with top quality hardware and ironmongery from the U.K, as well as the most functional cleaning products made from all over Europe and the rest of the world. See http://www.skillmanandsons.co.uk
Ever year at the Tudor house, Cotehele Cornwall, a garland is made from flowers grown in the gardens over the summer. It hangs in the hall of this magical old house, to attract visitors to the property. We went on Friday and although it was thinner than it has been in the past, due to our atrocious summer, nevertheless it is still a reminder of the time when the Christmas decorations were not bought in a shop.
We are going to France next week to complete the sale of our cottage there. I wrote this piece some time ago after I had seen this girl begging by the expensive chocolatiere. in the square of our nearest town, Uzes.
It was just after four in the afternoon when James strolled into the Place aux Herbes, in the small city of Uzes. The square lay languid under the upturned blue enamelled bowl of the sky. The seventeenth century former silk merchants’ houses were built of topaz coloured stone which glowed in the sun, their olive- green shutters closed to stop it from penetrating the interiors. The same strong light shone through the canopy of the plane trees created patterns across the paving stones, and under the vaulted arcades the shadows were the colour of a raven’s wing.
James felt his shirt sticking to his back and he slid his finger along the neckband of his linen grand-dad shirt. He took a seat at one of the many cafes, whose chairs and tables formed fingers in the open space, stretched his long limbs out in front of him and threw the battered panama he had inherited from his father, onto the table. He ordered a beer in his schoolboy French. It arrived quickly. Condensation on the outside of the glass formed a pool of water on the table. He sipped the cool amber liquid slowly, the antiseptic taste bursting on his tongue.
From behind a pair of sunglasses he settled down to observe the town, as it shook itself awake from its siesta. Tourists, dressed in light loose clothes, wearing sunhats and dark glasses, strolled across the square, the heat a brake on their energy. Children played in the fountain, dabbling their hands in the translucent green water. A golden retriever leapt up into the basin to cool off, and showered them as he jumped out, making them squeal and laugh.
After he had been sat for some time, from between the arches of the arcade, emerged the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She had the golden glow that looked like it had been perfected on the beaches of the Cote D’Azur. Her hair was spun gold, pulled back into a bun and held in place by a red ribbon. Her face was long and thin with high cheek bones and a well formed nose above bow-shaped lips. As she passed in front of him she looked directly at him, and he could see her eyes were a startling pale blue framed with long dark lashes. She was tall and slim, almost boyish. Her clothes were shabby chic, cut-off jeans and a tight white T-shirt, and she carried a grubby blue canvas bag. Over her arm hung a red and white beach towel, and by her side trotted a grey-brown shaggy dog.
James watched her amble across the square, the roll of her walk accentuating the slight curve of her hips. He thought she looked like a starlet, what was the French, une vedette, and he imagined her dressed in a clinging white gown, walking along a red carpet with an admiring crowd applauding her. Or perhaps flouncing along a catwalk in Paris, London or Milan, wearing a well cut trouser suit, under the appraising eye of the fashionistas. Then he thought of taking her to his firm’s annual dinner, introducing her to his friends, her smile dazzling them, and he being warmed by their murmurs of approval. Other thoughts, of her naked and in his bed, came as well.
By now she had reached the far side of the square and was about to disappear from view. James dropped some euros onto the table, to pay for his unfinished drink, grabbed his hat, and rushed after her. He rehearsed the words he would need to ask her if she would have a drink with him. ‘Prenez une tasse du café.’ ‘No,’ he thought, ‘une coupe de champagne.’ Surely she only drank champagne.
Back out onto the Boulevard Gambetta, James cast around and saw her to his right, some way ahead, walking purposefully, the dog loping at her side. He hurried to catch up. She stopped in front of Deschamp’s, the chocolatiere, and within a few seconds he was besides her, in front of the large glass window. They stood side by side looking at the tasteful display inside. Chocolates arranged precisely on glass salvers, in pyramids, circles and triangles, a few to each plate. The sort of chocolates his mother would buy to take to a dinner party. They came in a variety of shapes, enrobed in dark and pale brown chocolate, as well as creamy white. By each cluster was a small label written in an elegant script, describing the different flavours, cherry, violet, caramel, apricot and orange. The very sight of them made his mouth water. He looked at the girl, and saw her long dark eye-lashes quiver, as she stared at the chocolate coated candy, as if trying to decide what to buy. He thought he would pre-empt her by purchasing some, then give them to her and ask her to have a drink with him.
Inside the shop he made a small selection, and waited impatiently whilst the ‘vendeuse,’ she was far too elegant to call a sales assistant, put them into a small oblong box of gold coloured cardboard. ‘Pour offrir, Monsieur?’ James kept glancing behind him, making sure the young woman was still outside. ‘Oui,’ he replied abstractedly. The vendeuse placed the box in transparent cellophane, tied it with a long strand of thin gold tape and handed it to James together with a few coins, the change from the ten euro note he had given her. As he turned to leave, the girl moved towards the door. He opened it and held it ajar to allow her to enter and for a moment they stood face to face, looking into each others eyes. He was about to speak when she moved to one side, folded the beach towel carefully, placed it on the ground against the wall, and sat down on it. The dog, which had been stood patiently by her side, flopped down next to her and placed it’s head on her bare knees, paws outstretched. From her bag she took a battered straw sunhat, which, instead of putting on her head, she placed on the ground in front of her. She was very still, leaning slightly against the wall, her long neck bent forward and her head bowed.
James stepped out onto the pavement and stopped next to her, his shadow falling across her face. She didn’t look up, but he could see her blue eyes had lost their liveliness and the pretty lips were turned down. One hand rested in her lap and the other was motionless on the dog’s head. Then he saw, in the hat, a piece of card with the words ‘Pour manger S.V.P.’ He closed his eyes for a moment, before bending down and placing the box of chocolates and the coins he was still holding into the upturned hat, before walking away.
Cathi Unsworth writes about her novels which are described as noir. Unlike many crime novels she does not write series. In this article in The Guardian she writes about the difficulty of getting published and says her first manuscript was rejected by many editors who wanted her to turn it into a series. In the end she did get a publisher who told her she might have done better if she had used a man’s name as a pseudonym. Really that’s too much. She also says that to get published you must write what the agents say, ‘fit into the Christie corset’ are her words, and accept the compromise or do your own thing and take a chance with e-books. It seems to me she is saying what I said in my last post about making your novel fit an agent’s view of what you should write or you write what you want and self-publish. To use an overworked phrase, publish and be damned.
The last two weeks have been so fraught that I have been unable to think straight never-mind being able to write on my blog. The ten days spent in our little bit of France, a maison du village close to the super-cute town of Uzes in southern France ended on a sour note. The market in Uzes is an amazing experience- this is how people shopped before department stores. Stalls selling everything, clothes, shoes,table clothes, cooking utensils and of course food. At this time of year the cherries are in season. They are a speciality of the region, dark red burlat cherries, not too sweet but not too sour. We bought a large punnet of them along with other fruit and vegetables.
After we got home, we made coffee and went to sit in our small garden, which is across a narrow lane. As I drank my coffee, I struggled to read Le Figaro, while my husband read the Times on his Kindle. A few minutes later, two men walked into the garden. At first I thought they were kids acting the fool, and I said to them, in my best French, that the garden was private. The two men kept on coming towards us, and I then realised the one leading had a knife pointing at me. Before I could move, he was stood next to me with the knife at my throat. Without thinking, I pushed my chair back. This must have suprised the man because he let go and I was free to run from the garden screaming ‘Help, Help’ (my French had totally escaped), into the square, and then along the narrow street to the door of one neighbour, where I banged on the gate and rang the bell, and then to another where I knocked frantically on the window, making the dog bark, but no one came out. At some stage whilst I was doing this, I saw one of the men come out of our house carrying my handbag. He must have gone onto the kitchen door and run through the house to the front door, where he emerged into the same street. I continued to run towards the gite at the end of the street where I knew about six young men were staying, with visions of my husband being attacked by two men, when I realised the man with my handbag was running towards a blue Renault parked around the corner. I followed him and saw the registratioin number of the car, which I kept on repeating aloud (it was CC 108 LT, if you want to know) To my relief as I turned back into our street I saw my husband on his feet, I was afraid I would find him in a pool of blood, and on a neighbours telphone to the police. More of the locals arrived on the scene as we tried to deal with the police and make calls to cancel credit cards and have my mobile barred.
I have had my handbag snatched before, but being in real danger of harm was a very unnerving experience and I am still very shaken. Sometimes life is not a bowl of cherries.