Sunday, May 29, 2011

Interiors and Exteriors

Marius has been sick with a nasty cold and last week was my regular infusion week-from-hell making us a nice pair of misery;  however on Saturday afternoon we both felt well enough to sit in the garden and drink tea together.  It was surprisingly pleasant for this time of year - only 35 - and not humid at all. 

Marius was studying his 'Strad' magazine, drooling over the advertised bows (he told me about a gold-mounted cello bow that was a snip at £55,000) while I was slobbering over householder porn - you know those exquistely photographed glossy magazines filled with fantasy houses and gardens.  I confess I succumb to the pleasure of  looking at them about three times a year.  I look at the pictures but rarely read the rather fatuous text.  I love the pictures for about three-quarters of the magazine before outrage and cynicism grip me - I don't really want a dining table in padded zebra-skin that retails (trade only) for the equivalent of a small country's GDP.  Then I toss the magazine aside and swear off until I forget and pretty pictures get me again.

I am quite intrigued - from the outside - of the bizarre, entirely separate worlds of fashion and interior design because the published stuff seems so far removed from any personal reality, and yet I also know that the published stuff is all done with smoke and mirrors too.  Okay, maybe not the stately home ones, but the 'real people's homes' ones.  I had a friend with connections in Malaysia whose house was the subject of a magazine 'profile'.  I knew the place quite well and was astonished how the photographs had made a run-down bungalow, full of cast-off furniture and peeling paint look quite good - almost unrecognisable.

So, inspired by the greats, I bring you some tantalising shots of the Exile's Villa.  In keeping with magazine style, I will refer to the occupants as 'the owners' because in interior-magazine-land, no one is a renter, a mortgagee, in debt or suffering any other crisis of finances.

Burmese chairs, a rain drum and one of the owner's paintings, complement the 'garden corner' of the sitting room.  The bookcases were made to order in Malaysia.  Books can be found throughout the owners' house.

Of course in a proper shoot, the piles of magazines stashed on the floor would have been tidied away.  Those houses look like nobody actually lives in them - uncomfortable, formal, and pristine.  We have cats so our house is full of cat hair, scratched furniture and also people - so there are discrete piles of junk, mail, old newspapers, shoes ...  and crumpled cushions and footstools.

The owners spent many years living in Asia where they collected antiques.  The screen is early 20th century Chinese, with Japanese influences, highlighted with ivory, ebony and mother-of-pearl.  The rug is also early 20th century, signed wool-on-wool from Eshfahan, while the paintings in the dining area are by the famous Dutch modern painter Huizinga.
Are you annoyed yet?  The thing which is really sad about our furniture, apart from the constant shipping and handling and changes of humidity (lots of pieces are splittling because it is so dry), is that the nice, interestig stuff is all in storage in various places in Australia, including most of our collection of Buddhas, which is probably very disrespectful of us.

The fountain adds much-needed moisture to the living area.  The owner adds over a litre of water a day to it.  Some of it evaporates of course, while some of it is enjoyed by the household cats.  Here Miss Ming helps herself to a drink.  The outer wooden bowl is a Chinese water butt, while the ceramic fountain is from Thailand.  The frogs were hand painted by the owner.

One day I will show you some of the Buddhas who have made it to exile.  When we moved here we were very worried about them being condiscated or damaged as a result of differing religious beliefs - which is why a lot went home.  During our first weeks here we saw some for sale in a furniture shop, and those that came (bronze ones which we hoped were indestructible) made it through customs with no trouble at all.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Am I back?

I haven't posted any messages from exile for a while you may have noticed (but possibly the great void hasn't even blinked in my absence).

I am happy to report I was not arrested nor frozen out by the cyber-fun-police, rather I got caught up in being in London and decided that instead of analysing my joy I would focus on experiencing it.  It was lovely to sit under a tree in Kensington Gardens and watch the clouds flutter across the sky, to feel grass and hear birds and chatter and digest my copious breakfasts.

We did visit the British Museum (one of my favourite haunts) and see Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World.  This exhibition is focussed on treasures from Tillya Tepe, a 1st century AD burial mound of a nomad prince and five women (possibly wives slaughtered to keep him company, thank you).  The finds include goods from across the ancient world - Roman coins from France, silk from China, a folding gold foil crown (described as the 'ultimate example of portable nomadic wealth' on the BM website here) glassware, pottery, weapons ... 

It was an extraordinary display of wealth and ingenuity from two thousand years ago, and the tale of its discovery and survival through recent events is also riveting.  We were fortunate that it was not crowded the morning we visited because the items were on the small side and required close examination to appreciate them.  My one criticism was the lack of enlarged photos or magnifying glasses which are part of permanent exhibits elsewhere in the museum.

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe
Gold folding crown from Tillya Tepe, photo from the British Museum (

We also paid our customary visit to the London Silver Vaults at Chancery Lane.  A lifetime ago, when we lived in Chester, we collected silver and antiques from the numerous fairs and auctions that were offered weekly and monthly at various towns in the area.  One of our favourites was the one at Nantwich on the last (or maybe the first) Thursday evening of the month.  We would combine a visit to the fair with our grocery shopping, as you do.  We found some wonderful bargains and curios over the years there and our appetites for unusal pieces was whetted. 

Antique fairs we've visited recently are not the same:  I suspect all the interesting things have been collected and sold and now the 'antiques' are mostly jumble and car-boot sale stuff that may have value but not enough to buy and then cart halfway around the world.  We satisfy our lust by visiting the Silver Vaults and gazing in the many tiny shops (each one literally a 'vault') filled with silver:  ancient, antique and contemporary.  We look in the windows and visit a few of the dealers but we don't buy much at all.  Last week we saw a silver chess set through an open doorway  - we didn't go in fearing we would be seduced into buying - the chess pieces were about 8 - 14 inches (roughly 20 to 35 cm) high, and the castles or rooks, were massive battlements.  The playing board would have been at least 30 inches (about 75 cm) square.

We have no photos of the Silver Vaults because being a high security place, photography is banned and bag searches are in force.  It is two storeys underground and was originally built in 1876 to provide secure storage for the 'wealthy elite' but during and following the Second World War, satisfying the needs of  silver dealers became its focus.  I suspect the present building over the vaults is more modern than 1876.

So now we are back in the dust and heat and facing a long hot summer.  It was 50 celsius (122 Fahrenheit) last week while we were away.  Since we've been back it hasn't been quite that hot, yet.  It is usually 32-34 celsius (90-93 F) at 6 am and up to 43 or 45 (109-113 F) during the day.  Nice to be er, home.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Out of the desert and into the park.

We are not strictly speaking tourists so we feel no obligation to do 'the sights', or cram frantic activities into our days in London.  Spoilt or lazy or rather dull perhaps, but we are on holiday, like an extended long weekend where you really could be out festivity-making but you'd rather sit and watch the dandelions bloom.

Yesterday we walked over to Kensington Gardens.  Marius went across to the Royal College of Music to attempt to gain entry to their instrument museum.  Sadly it is closed for refurbishment until September (shucks we will have to come back ...).  I sat on a bench in the shade of a huge chestnut, displaying its candelabra, shedding tawny tufts of hay-fever-inducing tree feathers.  I watched tourists trying to hire Boris-bikes and giving up, I watched dogs taking owners on leads, prams and nannies and frenetic cyclists in lycra and space helmets.  I could see the beautiful red buses heaving themselves up Kensington Road (I have quite a soft spot for buses) and taxis, vans and motorbikes. 

There was the blue sky, grass and flowers.  I could have sat for hours.

We wandered across the park, dodging the mad lunch time joggers, the lovers, the businessmen on purposeful perambulations.  I was seeking inspiration for the Poets United prompt of 'Toes' and found it of sorts, in two statues:  GF Watts' Statue of Physical Energy and Sir George Frampton's Peter Pan

The Muse was not particularly interested in helping me out on the subject of toes as she was too busy with bird life and garden beauty, and overall joie de vivre. 

Here are some of the beautiful ducks being fed at The Long Water, near Peter Pan:

And right in the middle of one of the world's largest metropoli, we found a Great Heron and its chick (chick not in this photo, don't strain your eyes searching for it):

It is a lovely overcast morning with threats of drizzle, so we are walking down to Chelsea to see if we can get wet.


Friday, May 6, 2011

We've Escaped

Yesterday we snuck past security, passport control (you need an exit visa), the myriad checks and questions and flew away.  The plane was stuffed with fellow escapees and those who had come from further afield. 

Tedious and cramped but then we sank down out of the clouds into a gorgeous late afternoon on the tarmac, floating above green fields and hedgerows, suburban roof-tops (sorry for our noise), offices and factories and train lines and trees and more trees and more trees.   I am not religious but I do feel like kissing the earth when we land anywhere but the Middle East.

Our first encounter with Terminal 4 - the airline previously used Terminal 3 - and not happy.  All bright and shiny, yes, no construction, scaffolding or hoarding, yes, nice big, no huge posters welcoming us to London with open arms, yes.  HUGE queue for 'Border control':  very definitely NO.  We stood in line for ONE HOUR and TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES.  There were FOUR passport officers on duty and the best part of ONE THOUSAND passengers.  I know there are budget cuts, I know people need to take their tea breaks, I know unions can be pernickety, and many people have had  much much worse experiences in airports, but it all seemed so unnecessary.  Flights come in all the time.  We are here to spend money and invest in the economy, why treat us like sheep?

Now I've got that off my chest ...

breakfast was divine, thank you for asking.  It is a beautiful morning and we are about to go for a stroll.

The view from the window:

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


A few days ago, I alerted the throngs of readers (well two, it seems, anyway) that Marius and I would soon be escaping for a short respite to the land of breakfasts.  Tomorrow we are off, which means today I am faced with the unavoidable packing job.  Not simply packing, but the wrestle with myself:  I don't want to go.  I would rather stay put.  I hate suitcases and passports and taxis and queues and airports and airport security and changing currency and telephones and ...  all of it. 

I hate saying goodbye to my cats and entrusting their care to someone else, even if that else is trusted.  I hate leaving my books behind, and my garden, and I always end up bringing the wrong shoes (or no shoes at all) and the wrong weight of coat and fear I will forget my medicine chest of drugs. 

Which is all ridiculous of course.  I can't wait to be at the baggage carousel at Heathrow, counting black suitcases and making little jumps of excitement.  Or on the tube, seeing trees and sky when we pull out of the endless tunnels, or hauling myself up the steps at Gloucester Road, or fighting the temptation to kneel in worship when I go into Waitrose to buy my PG Tips and my pint of milk for the early morning cup of tea in bed.

Packing.   Which reminds me to get down my travelling teapot (I can't bear tea made in a mug with a jiggly bag and the worst horror - milk added before the bag is removed) and my travelling picnic set (as opposed to my proper picnic set), my fold away cooler bag for transporting picnics and er contraband on the return journey, a knife for cheese, a corkscrew - all the essentials.  Forget make up and socks, these things are procurable, but how many travelling picnic knives can one justify replacing?

I always pack two small tea towels as well.  I would drive a lesser man than Marius mad, luckily he is used to me now and knows it is far less stressful to give in to my peculiarities than try to reason against me.

I have to dig out the book suitcase.  This is a carry-on size bag I pack empty into my suitcase on the outward journey, in order to accommodate the books on the backward journey.  It is a mistake to pack books into a large suitcase as it will quickly become dangerously heavy.  I always carry two other fold-up bags (Longchamps if you must know) for overflow - dirty laundry at the end of the trip, spare shoes and other awkward objects.

Once coming here to Exile-land from a visit to Malaysia, I carried three Buddhas in my 'overflow' capacity.  I live in a nation of shoppers, so naturally the national airline has very generous baggage allowances for frequent travellers, even if they are flying cattle class, as we will.  I think our combined allowance is 80 kgs - and we usually manage to put it to good use.  Vegemite can be quite heavy in quantity.

I have nearly encouraged myself to start discovering where I've hidden the Oyster cards and the London sim card for my phone, and the left-over-from-last-time sterling ...

I hope to be able to tell you tomorrow about the Nonya food we will have enjoyed for dinner.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I was admiring my gardenias this morning - they only last a few days - when I spotted something I'd never seen before.  I know very little (if not less) about insects, beyond a general awareness of bugs and their abilities to camouflage themselves. 

Spot the spider-ish creatures:

And here:

I have never seen white insects before:

Aren't they clever?

*                                                        *                                                            *

I am sorry, I have some bad news too.  While I was out surveying the estate, I noticed a small bundle of grey feathers.  Definitely a deceased bulbul chick.  I don't know if it is the one we'd all been watching or not.  My cats have not noticed the little body and I think are innocent of its demise.  I wouldn't be surprised if its crazy parents hounded it to death with their exhortations to fly.  RIP little one.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Update on the White-Eared Bulbul Chick

I have not seen the frantic family today - and my cats have not brought in any small trophies, so I am hoping the fledgling has made it back to the nest or some other place of refuge.

My cats are happy to enjoy their garden again.  I am relieved not to be a worrying surrogate parent (pulling my feathers out).

And the gardenia is flowering:

I wish I could capture the scent for you because it is heavenly.


Sunday, May 1, 2011


If there was some sort of universal frequency-of-complaint counter, after the weather, parents would be at the top of the list.  Parents can be blamed for every short-coming, personality disorder, failure, temper tantrum or misdemeanor.  Parents are accused of being too laid back, or too thrusting, overly cosseting or neglectful.  Those of us on the 'have children' register are familiar with myriad charges, while those of us as innocent bystanders can tut-tut and shake our heads at the mistakes of others.

I have a problem with parents in my garden. 

In the first place, the archway of my patio door was a poor choice of location to build a nest where there are resident cats.  Actually, I don't think they built it.  I remember seeing a beautiful peach-coloured 'laughing dove'  in it last year.  She and her partner built it, then surveyed the landscape and sensibly sought a better neighbourhood.  I suspect the current occupants moved in after the doves moved out. 

I don't like the current tenants.  They aren't as bad  as the Indian mynah birds (Marius calls them 'flying rats') and they are not as noisy as peacocks.  What I don't like is their habit of plucking the blooms off my canna lilies and my hibisci.  They don't appear to eat the flowers, or suck nectar from them, or chase little insects, they simply pluck and drop.

The current tenants are white-eared bulbuls, formally known as pycnonotus leucotis.  They have a chick, at least one, but this one is causing enough trouble for the parents and me.

It was very windy yesterday, perhaps the little chap got blown out of the nest;  perhaps his ambitious parents were teaching him to fly.  I had gone out to top up the fountain when I spotted the little grey scrap in amongst the leaves.  Then I noticed the parents, hopping about in the shrubbery, squawking, flapping, jumping up and down.

I dragged the cats inside as I was sure the feline audience wouldn't help.  The parents spent the whole afternoon coaxing the chick back towards the nest.  He could fly a little bit, but clearly the three metre leap to home was too much.  He'd start to hop up a shrub, using the branches as ladder rungs, but every time I looked again he was back down amongst the leaves on the ground.

Last night he'd made it down the garden and was directly under the nest, in a very exposed place, right outside our back door, with two cats watching him through the glass.  This morning he was out on the patio again, his parents cheering from a nearby bougainvillea.  I noticed one had a tasty breakfast morsel in its beak.  They were clearly still caring for their offspring, even if he wasn't in the nest.

I couldn't see any of them for a while, and I let the cats back into the garden, but the crescendo of chirruping told me I haven't got the happy ending yet.  The cats are back inside, cross as cross, and the parents are pulling their feathers out, just like parents do. 

I hope that next time the parents are more careful and keep their chicks well-tied in, with safety lines and parachutes.