Thursday, 31 May 2012

Where dolls come from

Last week I spotted a perfect doll's house in a dimly-lit shop window. It was real down to the tiny brass knocker on the doll-sized front door.

The shop had no sign up, and no indication of its purpose apart from a hand-written note on the door declaring it to be "a toy collection, not a toy shop".

Intrigued and possessing of few manners, I barged in.

Down the rabbit hole. 
Inside I found a fairy godmother towering over a miniature floor-to-ceiling kingdom of dolls' houses and related paraphernalia. Everything in her magical world was intricately non-standard, from the wonky chimney pots to the tiny jars of rainbow sweets.

I asked the landlady of wonderland where such amazing things as this came from, and she whispered that her collection had been forty years in the making. 

Her collection, I discovered, is an entire house of dolls' houses - room upon wondrous room. The dolls' houses are chock full of the stuff of miniature life - light fixtures, plumbing, and sumptuous dinners that won't come unstuck from perfect porcelain plates.

No two houses are the same, but one is more special than the others: the one arranged by the landlady's favourite little farm boy, decades ago. The boy is grown, but there are still wooden cats napping in the kitchen of his house, and plaster ducks socializing under a grand chandelier in the loo.

Fake plastic tea. 
Why a grand chandelier in the loo? The boy wanted to look at it while he took his bath. And why ducks? They are waiting for the boy to return for his bath under the grand chandelier - they want to play in the puddles that form on the floor as he splashes about.

You may not have realized that fake plaster ducks had so much patience. Neither did I. There's a lot us grown-ups don't know about fake plastic ducks.

This magical toy collection is absolutely real, but I can't tell you how to find it. Rather than advertise, the landlady of wonderland waits for all those who truly believe to find her. 

So should you ever find yourself in Kentish Town, follow the second star to the right and carry straight on till morning. You may meet the two bad mice along the way.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Wandering lost

I always end up writing about places when I intend to write about people. I'm not sure how to kick the habit. These nicotine patches certainly aren't helping.

Last week I gave a guest talk to a travelling troupe of writers from my alma mater. I was invited along by my friend, Leslie Brody, who published an excellent biography of Jessica Mitford last year.

Domesday skyscraper. 
Her book should be required reading for anybody who wanders around and hates being told what to do - like how to sing for instance, or what to read.

I took the gang to my favourite pub in an alley off the Strand, and someone asked: why do you wander? 

It's a good question. I don't really have a good answer.

Tolkien is currently shouting at tired commuters from lampposts: "all who wander are not lost!" His travel enthusiasm is in promotion of the British Library's current exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands.

Some who wander are suckers for this kind of thing, so I found myself there this week. I quickly discovered that many great British writers have appalling handwriting (except for Charlotte Brontë  - hers is exquisite).

You there! Scratch my nose!
The British Library is wonderful. Glass bookcases scrape the ceiling, and apparently the basement descends to 25 meters. Guys with coiffed hair stare down from the architecture with a sternness that can only come from decades of being unable to scratch a nose-itch. 

Writing Britain  uses text and illustration to chart the Green Man's long walk from Hobbiton to to Dog Island by way of Wessex, Metroland, and Jerusalem-upon-Thames.

Kipling said: "Out of the spent and unconsidered earth, the cities rise again". Islington was a quiet suburb, and Marylebone a dairy farm.

Satanic Mills, then and now.
If you walk from Moorgate to the Museum of London, you can see chunks of the old Roman wall waiting patiently for the surrounding steel and glass to fall. 

The message of the British Library's exhibition is that writing about places is writing about people. Which makes me feel much better about my bad habit circa line one.  

In addition to wandering all over the place on paper, I wander in and out of London every few years. Thomas de Quincey once said: "my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep."

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Champagne and a lie down

I don't know what the American way of birth is like, but apparently on private British wards you a bottle of champagne and a lie down afterwards. Sounds peachy, yes?

Smell the roses, but do keep going.
On the NHS, the midwife gives you about thirty minutes before she tells you to sit up and start breastfeeding. If you are a reasonable human, you insist that you need to rest, and surely it can wait till later. 

The midwife tiredly responds that all that jazz is over - it's time to get up and get on with it. NHS midwives excel at ripping bandages off quickly.

So happy day to all the great mamas I know, who don't rest and never get to wait. And happy day to our beloved ones, as tired and relentless as we are, who make it possible for us to carry out our task with joy.

May the lot of us spend the distant future drinking champagne and napping. For now, let's get up and get on with it.