On The Town : Late Entries In The Snow Scene Category

Just before it melts, a couple of late entries in the snow scene category.

This is Wilfred Dudeney’s ‘Three Printers’, transformed into three jolly matelots on shore leave and looking for fun.  I think Gene Kelly is the one on the left.

On the town

And this sad modern variant on the traditional lost dog notice.  Lost in snow – White iPod Touch.

Lost in snow

I bet the owner is regretting not having gone for the pink iPod option now.

Ornithology With Orwell

Older readers may remember the feature Nest Watch, which appeared on this blog in March of last year.  In it, I observed a pair of magpies painstakingly dismantling an old nest (or, as a reader suggested, a squirrel’s dray) and reassembling it into a new nest higher up the tree.  At about the time the nest disappeared from view behind foliage, the magpies seemed to have been chased away from their nest by a crow.  

Once the leaves had fallen – as leaves do – the full magnificence of the finished nest was revealed.  I have often reflected on it – and the effort that went into its manufacture – throughout the winter as I smoked a reflective gasper or two in the garden of the vanished St Mary Aldermanbury.  A week or two ago, I spotted two magpies – probably the same ones (you can see them – if you look closely – in the photograph below) making what seemed to be a reconnoitre of the nest with a view to reusing – or possibly reassembling – it when the mating season arrives.  And so, reassuringly, and at last, we begin again.    

By coincidence, I was re-reading* Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier recently when I came across this passage (he is leaving Wigan by train).  It struck me as unaccountably funny (particularly the line in bold) –

Although the snow was hardly broken the sun was shining brightly, and behind the shut windows of the carriage it seemed warm.  According to the almanac this was spring, and a few of the birds seemed to believe it.  For the first time in my life, in a bare patch beside the line, I saw rooks copulating.  They did it on the ground and not, as I should have expected, in a tree.  The manner of courtship was curious.  The female stood with her beak open and the male walked round her and appeared to be feeding her.”

Why this is funny, I’m not sure.  Perhaps the image of the tall, awkward Orwell in his workingman’s disguise peering from the window of his railway carriage, sucking his pencil and gravely noting down –

Rooks copulating – on ground not in tree

 or, perhaps, because of Orwell’s insistence on that pseudo-medical vogue word copulating (I suppose that – in spite of his natural almost-prudishness – he was still trying to be a little more like Henry Miller).

His publisher (Gollancz) changed “copulating to “courting” – Orwell agreed to settle for “treading”.  “Treading”?

Anyway, roll on the mating season.

*This can be a very irritating expression, but I have reached the stage in life where there seem to be an awful lot of books to re-read.

Inexplicable Splendour : City Churches At Christmas

In the first week of December I spent a free afternoon walking from the heart of the City of London (and it does have such a thing) to Trafalgar Square.  I’ve always felt that this is the part of Christmas-time when London is at its most attractive (assuming that you aren’t completely broke, in which case it’s always fairly wretched).

There is a prickle of anticipation, but the shopping frenzy has yet to reach Maenad proportions, and the streets of the City itself aren’t yet full of impenitent bankers spewing Chateau Petrus into the gutters and waste bins.

My walk was in the opposite direction to the Sunday excursions that Dickens made when he was living in Covent Garden, and recorded in his essay “City Churches“, published in  “The Uncommercial Traveller“.  Dickens was writing at a time when the exodus of the residential population from the City had left its Churches attended on Sundays only by skeleton congregations (almost literally so in the case of St Mary Woolnoth) but before the C of E had done the sensible and unsentimental thing by demolishing many of them to pay for new churches in the growing suburbs.

What’s striking is how – a century and a half later – then unanticipatable life has returned to those churches that survived the cull.

In St Mary Woolnoth – sandwiched between the Mansion House and the Bank of England – the Vicar was conducting a two hour open service (“come and go as you please”) before a congregation of what might have been penitent bankers.  It was so packed it didn’t feel seemly to take a photograph.

Moving down Cheapside past St Mary-le-Bow (whose restaurant was doing a roaring trade), St Vedast (home to Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous),  the usefully occupied St Paul’s itself and St Bride’s (inspiration for wedding cakes everywhere), I stopped in at St Dunstan- in-the-East, which, like many other City Churches, has come to what, in footballing terms, would be called a ground share arrangement with the Romanian Orthodox Church.  The C of E holds lunchtime services during the week, and the Romanians have it at the weekend.  This results in some interesting cross-cultural and cross-temporal hybrids –


Progressing on to  the City boundaries, the Templar Church in the Temple (of which more anon) was having an open day (admission £3.00) –

and finally  to St Mary in the Strand, marooned on a traffic island in the middle of that street.  This has survived several attempts to destroy it, most recently a road-widening scheme.

As you can just about make out here, a small choir were rehearsing for a carol service.  This St Mary is the official church of the W.R.N.S., but the choir didn’t look like Wrens, and were probably from nearby King’s College,or perhaps the Courtauld Institute.

My walk also took me past the inexplicably splendid branch of Lloyd’s Bank, where T.S. Eliot used to work –

All Inexplicably Splendid.


It isn’t often that this blog gets the chance to report on events of national significance, but I thought I must have been in with a chance today.

When I came out of the tube station in the morning there was an impressive array of muscular coppers lined up outside the University opposite.  Some of the offices built in the fashionable largely plate-glass style had covered their nether regions in hardboard, as if expecting some kind of assault.

 Throughout the day, whenever I popped out for a fag, preparations were clearly being made for the arrival of something monstrous and ghastly – perhaps Genghis Khan and his Hordes, or at least a decent-sized football crowd. 

Roads were being closed off, squads of police – half Hoplite, half American footballer – emerged from the police station, as did detachments of cavalry.  Plain-clothes men (middle market leisure wear and sensible haircuts) sauntered out to assume their positions.

As the afternoon progressed, if you assumed a high vantage point, you could see the hoplites gathering in alleyways, stamping their feet and touching gloves (as we say in the world of cricket).  Overhead, helicopters hovered low 

I Love the Smell of Napalm in the Afternoon

 drowning conversation and pumping the adrenaline.

When I left work, I found my usual route to the station blocked by one of the detachments of cavalry (their high-visibility vests shining in the sunlight) – preparing to scatter the enemy if they regrouped outside J. Fox (the ex-umbrella repair shop)

When I had, by a circuitous route, made my way round to the station, I finally got to see this terrible horde that had presumably issued forth from the Gates of Mordor.  A long crocodile of children, essentially, looking slightly dazed, cowed and – I think – frankly glad it was all over, trailing hand-written cardboard signs in their wooly-mittened hands.

As a demonstration of who – ultimately – is really in charge, the whole thing was immensely impressive.  If you enjoy that kind of thing.

(This photograph appears to suggest that the marchers had just demolished part of Moorgate – but, in fact, it’s just part of the Crossrail Project.  The City is perfectly capable of demolishing itself.)

Fox At Bay

Meanwhile, back in the City of London …

The last few weeks have seen mixed fortunes for Foxes of various descriptions.  Foxy Loxy has been acquitted of murder, “Dr.” Fox has been forced to resign as a result of some incomprehensible imbroglio involving his “friend”, and – though I doubt too many tears will be shed in – say – Consett over this – I am sad to record the demise of J. Fox of London Wall, as a result, apparently, of “adverse trading conditions”.  It cannot have helped, either, that the rest of this late-Victorian block has been erased as collateral damage to the Crossrail works around Moorgate, leaving only the supposed birthplace of the poet Keats and a branch of the Carphone Warehouse standing.

As the frontage announces, J. Fox was founded in 1868, and specialised in the making and repair of bespoke umbrellas, supplying them to John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, James Bond and Steed of Avengers fame.

Quentin Lake, who has clearly looked into this more thoroughly than I have, describes it thus –

“The extremely stylish exterior was installed in 1936 and was, at the time, the latest in shop-front design. Curved non-reflective glazing later used at Heals on Tottenham Court Road was used for the windows, and the framework was made from black Vitrolite a type of black glass used in the 1930s and chromed steel. Two prancing silver foxes and a neon sign were the finishing touches. Inside, the shop is fitted with cabinets made of solid Canadian black walnut. The staircase boasts framed mirrors, with original advertising graphics dating back to 1868.”

Mind you, I suspect the real reason that this always raised my spirits so much whenever I passed it was that it reminded me of Grace Road.

Summertime at Moorgate and Wantage Road

(Warning – this post contains images of nudity)

A couple of pieces of public art to welcome the arrival of Summer.  This is from the City of London (outside Moorgate Station)

This is advertised as being by Salvador Dali.   In fact, it appears to be have been fabricated  by a dealer based on a illustration for Alice in Wonderland that Dali had drawn late in life (the Guardian has the story here) –   The asking price, should you wish to buy it, is £1.5 million.

Simply as an object – and I pass it every morning on my way to work – I rather like this.  If they were selling it for £14.99 in Homebase as a piece of garden furniture I’d be tempted to acquire one.  

That Dali was illustrating Alice at all reminds me of what Orwell had to say in his generally uncomplimentary (“he is as antisocial as a flea”) essay “Benefit of Clergy : some notes on Salvador Dali“, in which he wrote of

“…  the old-fashioned, over-ornate Edwardian style of drawing to which Dali tends to revert when he is not being Surrealist … Picturesqueness keeps breaking in. Take away the skulls, ants, lobsters, telephones and other paraphernalia, and every now and again you are back in the world of Barrie, Rackham, Dunsany and WHERE THE RAINBOW ENDS … It may be therefore, that Dali’s seemingly perverse cult of Edwardian things … is merely the symptom of a much deeper, less conscious affection. The innumerable, beautifully executed copies of textbook illustrations, solemnly labelled LE ROSSIGNOL, UNE MONTRE and so on, which he scatters all over his margins, may be meant partly as a joke… But perhaps these things are also there because Dali can’t help drawing that kind of thing because it is to that period and that style of drawing that he really belongs.”

This, on the other hand, is from the window of the osteopath near to the County Ground in Northampton that has featured before on this blog –

A skeleton on its way to the beach on a bicycle, dressed in a sort of bright green hooded bathrobe (and note the cricket bat in the lower foreground).  A piece of home-grown vernacular surrealism that, I imagine, would set you back a good deal less than £1.5 m.

Fine Energies : Demolition at Moorgate

I’m afraid that circumstances have conspired to prevent me bringing you a full account of Leicestershire’s defeat on Sunday against Warwickshire in the 40 over league.  But I think this is an accurate graphic illustration of where the Foxes’  hopes lie at the half-way stage in the competition.

A row of shops opposite the entrance to Moorgate Station being demolished in connection with the Crossrail project (the white building in the background is part of London Metropolitan University).  Two or three doors away is the site of the inn where John Keats grew up (and may have been born) – now another, later, pub.

Keats wrote of a quarrel in the street that it was “a thing to be hated, but the energies displayed in it are fine” – which, I think, applies rather to this demolition (close- to it is an extraordinary sight and sound).  Also, I suppose, Leicestershire’s record in the CB40.

And Warwickshire’s hopes?  More like this – the soaring – if unfinished – riverside Shard  (snapped from a train window as I was on my way to some high-level talks in Bromley).

Empty Nest Syndrome (with Louis MacNiece)

What of the nest?  The nest itself is now harder to see  through the fresh green leaves –

and, since the incident with the crows, I’ve only seen the magpies once more.  Perhaps they are lying low and incubating their eggs, or perhaps they’ve been reading Louis MacNiece –

In a between world, a world of amber,

The old cat on the sand-warm window-sill

Sleeps on the verge of nullity.


Spring sunshine has a quality

Transcending rooks and the hammering

Of those who hang new pictures,

Asking if it is worth it

To clamour and caw, to add stick to stick for ever.


If it is worth while really

To colonise any more the already populous

Tree of knowledge, to portion and reportion

Bit of broken knowledge brittle and dead,

Whether it would not be better

To hide one’s head in the warm sand of sleep

And be embalmed without hustle or bother.


The rooks bicker heckle bargain always

And market carts lumber –

Let me in the calm of the all-humouring sun

Also indulge my humour

And bury myself beyond creaks and cawings

In a below world, a bottom world of amber.

Nest Watch Extra : A Crow In The Ointment


Unwelcome news, I’m afraid, from our nest. 

Yesterday morning I arrived at work to find two large crows squatting in our magpies’  laboriously constructed nest.  The magpies gamely tried to expel them, but all their flapping and chattering were to no avail.  It’s hard to know whether the crows were aiming to annex the nest for their own use, steal the building materials or eat the eggs (if any), but, apparently, this is a common sight at this time of year – RSPB.

No sign of either magpies or crows since.

Let’s have a poem about crows.  This is by Ted Hughes.


Examination at the Womb-door


Who owns these scrawny little feet?  Death.

Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face?  Death.

Who owns these still-working lungs?  Death.

Who owns this utility coat of muscles?  Death.

Who owns these unspeakable guts?  Death.

Who owns these questionable brains?  Death.

All this messy blood?  Death.

These minimum-efficiency eyes?  Death.

This wicked little tongue?  Death.

This occasional wakefulness?  Death.

Given, stolen, or held pending trial?


Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth?  Death.

Who owns all of space?  Death.

Who is stronger than hope?  Death.

Who is stronger than the will?  Death.

Stronger than love?  Death.

Stronger than life?  Death.

But who is stronger than death?  Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow.


(The volume this is taken from – Crow – has the dedication “In Memory of Assia and Shura”  – Assia being his partner, who had recently gassed herself, alongside their daughter Shura.)

Nest Watch : Week Two

I must admit that, last week, I was feeling a little pessimistic about the prospects for our pair of nesting pies.  If Robert the Bruce had sat and watched them instead of the spider I fear he would have concluded that if at first he didn’t succeed it was probably best to call it a day.

I should have had more faith.  By Tuesday the nest had achieved a sort of “critical mass” – enough of a stable base for new twigs to be added without too much danger of them dropping down again.  Of course, the odd twig still tumbles down, but I imagine our pies can laugh this off (“do you remember, only last week … this used to happen all the time?  To think of it now!”)

The happy pair have a new spring in their step (or spring in their spring – they don’t really step) as they approach completion and are probably giving some thought as to what shade of moss they’d like to line the nest.

Almost finished

I hope you appreciate, by the way, that I am putting my liberty on the line to bring you this important news story.  The building in the background is the City of London Police Station, and this is a few yards from where photographer Grant Smith had his collar felt last year – (The Guardian had the story) for taking photographs.

I wouldn’t be too surprised either to find that our magpies – given their reputation for thieving – were being kept under surveillance.  “We have reason to believe your nest is being used to store rings and other valuable shiny items that may be the proceeds of crime. I must ask you to allow me to search the premises and I have a warrant …” 



Come and get me, Copper!