A Woman of ill Repute has a Terminal Sickness

Last Sunday afternoon I was cycling home in a leisurely fashion, enjoying the quietness on the roads and while my thoughts were elsewhere I jumped a red light. A taxi skidded round the corner and the driver shouted ‘kanker hoer!’ at me through his window. I must have delayed his journey by at least 0.02 seconds so enough reason for him to call me a whore and wish me cancer. I can laugh about it now but in my early days of living here an incident like that would have had me in tears. Living amongst the Dutch is easier with a thick skin. Nowadays I’m not fazed by people wishing terminal illnesses on each other. Years ago I found it shocking.

During my student days in the eighties I left a party in the small hours, got a London cab home and calmly told the driver, as he dropped me at my front door, that I didn’t have any cash on me or in my house. I was totally skint. I’d probably spent the larger part of my grant on buying a pair of pink suede boots along the King’s Road, but that’s neither here nor there. The taxi driver said he’d see me coming next time, tutted, rolled his eyes heavenwards and drove off. A rather calm reaction, don’t you think? At least in comparison with the Amsterdam taxi driver. Without besmirching Amsterdam taxi drivers too much, many of them have spent a lot of time detained at ahem, His Majesty’s Pleasure, if you know what I mean. But that could be a subject for a totally different blog post!

Back to swearing by wishing illness on others. The most popular illnesses to bandy about are: syphilis, cancer, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and the good old plague! The rule is that they have to be life-threatening. Krijg de cholera means I hope you get cholera or alternatively you can say choleralijer, which means you already suffer from cholera. The same variation applies to all the other illnesses and then you can jolly them up a bit by adding a gender-specific term of abuse. The variety allows room for a certain amount of creative license. I’ve lived here long enough now to be able to swear in Dutch but I’ve never sworn using illnesses. The disease names just doesn’t come to me in the heat of the moment. I guess you probably have to be a native Dutch speaker to be able to swear in this unique way. Anyway, I don’t like swearing in Dutch in fact I have a pesthekel (plague-hatred) eraan…

Below a few pictures of the Amsterdam Pesthuis (Hospital in Amsterdam for people with plague and other infectious illnesses.) Now known as het W-G Terrein. It’s no longer a hospital but a thriving community with artists’ studios, a restaurant and independent galleries. Well worth a visit for a glimpse of Amsterdam’s lively contemporary culture with a frisson of its dark history.



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Beside the Seaside, Beside the Sea!

One of the advantages of living in Amsterdam is that you’re never more than half an hour’s drive or ride from the sea. Zandvoort-aan-Zee is the favoured beach for Amsterdammers, easily reached by train or car. But my favourite seaside resort is Wijk-aan-Zee in the Northern Province of the Netherlands. It’s a small town nestled behind dunes which run adjacent to the widest beach on the North Sea coast.

The town has higgledy-piggledy streets, boutiques, knick-knack shops, chippie, a church and a big central meadow where horses graze. What’s more, for visitors to the beach, it’s free to park! There is no beach boulevard which is perhaps why it’s not as popular as Zandvoort and also no direct route by bus or train from Amsterdam. This jewel of a beach is a well-kept secret amongst locals so ssshh, let’s keep it that way!

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‘Oh, Buttons!’

Last time it was ribbons, now it’s buttons. Am I turning into a haberdashery connoisseur? Probably not, but I do like a nice button from time to time. I remember having a conversation about buttons with my much-loved mentor, Christine Risley, when I was studying textiles at  Goldsmiths. One year, I sent her a Christmas card which was made of a paper plate and decorated with lace, a huge button and glitter. Uhu glue, glitter and cheap lace from Woolies were mainstays during my surrealist period. Anyway, the card wriggled through her letterbox, dispersing a trail of glitter and triggering a whole train of thoughts about the significance of the humble button.

Have you ever seen that film, with Sally Field, called Sybil? I asked Christine, when we met for tea and cake in Blackheath Village. Sybil had dissociative identity disorder and was horribly abused by her mother with a button hook. Since then I have been unable to look at a button hook without crossing my legs. Christine’s memories of buttons were related to WWII when she was growing up as the eldest daughter in a lower-middle class family. The thrifty wartime philosophy meant buttons were recycled from garment to garment. Christine’s love of the decorative, which inspired her to teach the craft of machine embroidery, was born during those ‘Make do and Mend’ years.

The phobic fear of buttons is called koumphounophobia. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was a sufferer. If it hadn’t been for his aversion to buttons perhaps the touch-screen phone and tablet might never have been invented! An invention I’m sure they couldn’t even imagine over 3,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, when the first buttons made an appearance. While recognisably buttons, Bronze Age folk didn’t fasten anything with them, but wore them purely for decoration. By around 1200, the functional button and buttonhole arrived in Europe, brought back home by the returning Crusaders. It wasn’t their invention however, they ‘borrowed’ the idea from the Turks and Mongols. From then on, the button and buttonhole became an intrinsic part of clothing design. More info about the surprising history of buttons here.

Anyhow, as usual, I digress! This week I bagged a bargain vintage 1950s tea dress at this shop, Marbles Vintage, along the Haarlemmerdijk. I adored the pretty print and the fact it was clearly home-made. I wondered about the woman who made it as there are no signs of wear and tear on the dress. The buttons on it were obviously recycled from another garment and horribly ugly so this was a perfect excuse to visit to one of my favourite shops in Amsterdam, De Knopen Winkel at number 64 along the Herengracht. Below a few photos of the shop and finished result.

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Send for me some Scarlet Ribbons…

As a child I was obsessed with the colour red. My first pair of shoes, that I can remember, were red Mary Janes from Clarks. I even refused to take them off to go to bed! I had red trousers, red anorak, red jumper and the trademark of my youth, a red ribbon for my ponytail. I was a whizz at the local gymkhana and then later I took part in show-jumping competitions on my horse, Red River. I made a red velvet brow-band for him with matching velvet for my ponytail. He was already named after the river in the southern states of America, so that was pure coincidence.

This memory of red ribbons was triggered by a book I’ve just finished, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. In the book he describes how the slave women instead of spending their Christmas cents on tobacco – as the men did – almost universally spent it on ribbons for personal adornment. Without exception they chose the colour red. Red is traditionally the colour of passion, lust and love. With Valentine’s Day approaching splashes of scarlet can be seen in many shop windows, selling love in the form of chocolates, cards, flowers and other racier items!

But red can also be sinister and dangerous, suggesting violence and death. Would ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ have had the same underbelly of menace if it had been called ‘Little Green Riding Hood?’ Anyone who has seen the red-hooded dwarf in ‘Don’t Look Now’ will never look at a child’s red rain or duffle coat in the same way again. Hunting pink, worn by hunt staff, is an echo of Britain’s colonial past, and perhaps hints at the blood to be shed during pre-ban foxhunts.

So, what’s your favourite colour? Does any other colour have as many emotional connotations as red?

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Year of the Horse

On January 31st 2014 we enter the Chinese year of the Horse. The horse is an auspicious sign for all of us but for me especially. I grew up with ponies and horses and have always felt happiest with horses nearby. Although I love living in Amsterdam, more contact with the natural world and in particular with horses is something I yearn for.

This year, the theatre production, War Horse is finally coming to Amsterdam! Firstly, the original English production will be simulcast at Tuschinski on 27th Feb and then for the Holland Festival the Dutch production will run throughout the summer at Carré. I’ve got my tickets already for both events! I saw the production in London and it was the most moving piece of theatre I have ever seen. It’s amazing how quickly one suspends disbelief and the puppets become real horses, living and breathing on stage. Visceral in its immediacy, emotional without being sentimental and especially poignant this year during the commemoration of 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.

To celebrate wonderful equine friends and family, I want to share a favourite poem with you. It conjures up cosy evenings spent with my family in the seventies, watching the Horse of the Year Show. Each year during the closing ceremony, a horse would stride out into the spotlight of Wembley arena, stand still and the audience would hush. The mellifluous tones of the late, great Dorian Williams would recite this ode by Ronald Duncan,

The Horse

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
Here where grace is laced with muscle and strength by gentleness confined.

He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;
there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.

England’s past has been borne on his back.
All our history is in his industry.
We are his heirs;
He is our inheritance.

© the Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation

My sister, Christine Hardinge on Crown Derby

My sister, Christine Hardinge on Crown Derby

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,100 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Christmases Past

Christmas is a very poignant time of year, isn’t it? And as one gets older, it gets worse, remembering the people no longer around to celebrate it with you. As a child, I believed in Santa Claus for a long time. I got a stocking full of presents from Santa (laddered stockings, Santa didn’t have time to get his nails done, obviously). Then there was a big present at the end of the bed that wouldn’t fit inside the stocking, and downstairs under the tree, at least two presents each from Mum, my stepfather and my sister. My stepfather didn’t do Christmas shopping so Mum, Chris and I had to buy presents for and from him to each other.

Cooking Our Goose
We didn’t mind. Harold had other Christmas duties, and one that he really loathed; slaughtering our flock of geese. The gander was always called Charlie. It took me a while to figure out that Charlie was not the same gander year in, year out. In the spring Harold used to go to Hereford livestock market and come home with a cheeping cardboard box, full of fluffy yellow goslings. Occasionally he’d also buy bizarre things like home-made parsnip or gooseberry wine which he used to give to guests who were too polite to say how disgusting it was, while Harold sat sipping cider or whisky. He never touched the home-made stuff so why he bought it, will remain one of life’s mysteries. The Johnny Walker also came in handy to give him Dutch courage to go out and kill the fully-grown geese, come Christmas time. He swigged back a triple, then went out to do the job. He said the birds always sensed what his intentions were. Not that I was ever there to see it. No, I was happy enough to eat one on Christmas Day but thankfully, slaughtering animals is a man’s job.

Defending the Underdog
Harold was a Capricorn, he shared the same birthday with my husband and they both have a similar sense of justice, and a tendency to side with the underdog. When he was at school, Harold was often involved in school-yard fights. He took it upon himself to defend the weaker boys from the school bullies. He was caned regularly and saw corporal punishment as an occupational hazard. The trick was NOT to withdraw one’s hand and make sure the cane caught you on the fleshiest part of your palm. He said particularly cruel Masters would use a cane with barbs on, although this might have been one of his stories. Like the best storytellers, he was fond of exaggeration.

Love at First Sight
When my blood father died, I was only three years old but the baronet, Sir Cotterell, allowed us to stay at the farm in Herefordshire for a while before giving us the boot and handing the farm over to my uncle. Even though I was tiny, I remember Harold rattling up the farm drive in a car with a horse trailer hitched behind. He lowered the ramp and there was the most gorgeous creature I’d ever seen in my whole life. A grey Welsh Mountain pony! He’d been caught wild on the Black Mountains and broken in by a local farmer. Harold had bought him for me as my first riding pony. I remember somebody putting me on his back and walking us down the farm lane and back. My clothes were covered in white hairs but I didn’t care. Nothing could have made me happier than that pony. I learned to ride on Tim, and even before I could say the word canter, I called it tanter, I was out in the field attempting it. Every time he broke into a canter I would tumble off. Tim would stop immediately, look down at me as if to say ‘what are you doing down there,’ and start grazing. Harold would come and pick me up, put me back on and the whole process would start over. I wonder if I learned to say canter correctly before or after I learned to do it!

I hope you have a Happy Christmas wherever in the world you are, and cherish your loved ones while they are with you, because nothing in this world lasts for ever…

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