Sunday, 24 January 2010

Of The BookBook

Part of the reason I've decided I should start doing some more exercise (hence the pole dancing, *ahem*) is my fear that, thanks to spending the majority of my days hunched over a desk, I am going to turn into a wizened, hump-backed old crone before I hit thirty. It's not just brooding over my books that worries me, either, but also the process of hauling my reading material and laptop to the library in the first place. With my bulging laptop case slung across me, I go along the street veering to one side like a sailing ship struggling against a strong breeze, so actually it's perhaps not my back I need to worry about, but rather one shoulder ending up about five inches higher than the other.

It's not just the physical discomfort that troubles me, however, but also just the inescapable ugliness of my laptop case, which is a very plain, functional black one into which no aesthetic thought has been put whatsoever. I've been thinking for some time about buying something rather prettier to replace it, and having come across these MacBook covers (known as the BookBook) from design company Twelve South, I wonder if my search might be over before it's even started. Twelve South designs accessories exclusively for Mac users, of which I am one (and a very happy convert since my move to my shiny new MacBook at the start of my D.Phil), and I came across them thanks to the ever-wonderful India Knight's Posterous. Do take a look at India Knight's site if you haven't already, by the way, as it's a wonderful source of shopping/present-buying/design/generally tempting information. I also heartily recommend her lovely book The Shops, which is a fantastic shopping guide but also happens to be very well-written and funny. How can you go wrong with a woman who is a fan of Georgette Heyer, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, and eyebrow threading. Anything she suggests is going to be worth checking out (well, ok, she did recommend Ugg Boots in her book, I suppose, but nobody's perfect).

Anyway, to get back to the BookBooks. They're just the right side of kitsch and you can probably tell right away why I like them:

BookBook MacBook cover, $79.99

The inside is all soft and snuggly to cushion your precious little MacBook and the covers are hard and tough to protect it from harm. The website suggests that one of the benefits is that the covers also disguise your MacBook and therefore make it less subject to theft. I'm not sure this would work for me, however: in the circles I move in, something that looks like an old book is probably more vulnerable to wandering hands than a spanking new laptop!

The only problem, of course, is that the BookBook is only a protective cover: I'd still need something to put it in to transport it and my books to and fro. So even if I were to give in to temptation with this little fellow, I'd still be able to seek out a pretty laptop travel case as well. Isn't that what's known as a win-win situation? In any case, surely I can't go wrong in buying something called a BookBook, for, as Sir W said in his 1600 essay 'Of the Obseruation, and vse of things',

'all kindes of bookes are profitable'.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Of Crumpet & Skirt

Perhaps it's the whole pole dancing thing that's drawn me to the wonderful range at Crumpet & Skirt (is that not the most amazing company name?). I've only just come across them, but already I absolutely adore all of the products for sale in their online shop, and I think it's only a matter of time before some of their pin-up beauties wing their way towards my letter box. So far, you can choose between mugs, cards, wrapping paper, and even a tea towel, all decorated with saucy images of glamorous pin-up girls from the 1940s and '50s. All the girls are named after the film stars that the company's creator -- Elizabeth Pinnock -- thinks they most resemble, from Marilyn Monroe through to Veronica Lake.

I'm sad that I didn't discover the site in time for Christmas, as I'd have loved to have sent this coquettish Santa's Little Helper through the post:

Santa Baby Greetings Card, £1.50

Perhaps I'll make the most of the post-Christmas sale and take advantage of the fact that a pack of five is now only £6. After all, there's nothing like being well prepared. In the meantime, of course, I could always go for the non-festive version:

Rita Greetings Card, £2.49

Although I'm awfully tempted by this blonde beauty with her slinky long black gloves -- always a glamourous accessory for any girl, but this lady takes things to a whole new level:

Veronica Greetings Card, £2.49

It's so hard to decide between the various vintage lovelies that to stop my head from exploding with the effort, I might just be forced to go for this set of four designs:

Greeting Cards Set, £10

The lovely Veronica is also available decorating a tea towel, and this Tease Maid would be a great way to turn up the heat in the kitchen:

Veronica Tea Towel, £6.49

Just in case you're looking for something to dry with that towel, you could do a lot worse than this cheeky little Peek-A-Boo mug, which I loved on sight. Its pure white exterior looks extremely innocent, but I'd love to see the look on your guest's face when they finish their tea and find the naughty little surprise awaiting them at the bottom:

Sophia Peek-A-Boo Mug, £7.49

And don't worry, I'm not completely selfish -- as well as lusting after all of these for myself, I also think they'd make really fun gifts. After all, I need an excuse to buy some of this divine wrapping paper, don't I?

Pin-Up Wrapping Paper (4 sheets), £8

If only I could tie bows so neatly!

I'm certain that fun-loving Sir W would have been charmed to receive a card with one of these lovely ladies decorating the front. In his 1600 essay 'Of Resolution', he describes

'the strange alterations of men vpon slight occasions, at the receit of a letter, yea, before the reading'.

If the post contained one of Crumpet & Skirt's cards, I think it would be easy enough to understand why no reading would be necessary!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Of Amsterdam

I spent some time whilst getting dressed this morning admiring my bruises. I have a lovely big one on my right knee, a couple of smaller ones on my right shin, and a little one threatening to develop on my right arm. Not to mention the slight graze to my left knee. They say that pole dancing makes you feel like a new woman. Well, it certainly does, although in my case the woman is about ninety years old. I can barely raise my arms above my head, my upper body doesn't know what hit it, and my wrists are sore with the memory of clinging onto the pole for dear life with trembling hands. But my Monday evening's entree into the world of pole dancing was tremendous fun, and I simply can't wait for the next lesson! I'll be posting properly about the delights of my new interest next week, after session number two, when hopefully I'll begin to show slightly more mastery of the 'attitude', the 'dip and flick', and other wonderfully-named moves...

For now, however, I want to take you all back to the weekend before Christmas, when I took a trip to Amsterdam to visit a Dutch friend who's now working as a lawyer there. I'd never been to Amsterdam before, but had heard many good things about the city from friends. I was also looking forward to visiting my friend, as we hadn't seen each other since she left Oxford in the summer (she was also a graduate student at New College last year). My journey out to Amsterdam was smooth, as I left an Oxford lightly dusted with snow with little thought of what those wicked little flakes foretold. I had decided to take the Eurostar to Brussels, and the train to Amsterdam from there: a quick and easy journey. I was delayed for a couple of hours in Brussels, which was a pain, but -- looking back -- seemed like nothing! But this is getting ahead of myself...

I arrived at Amsterdam's central station to find my friend waiting for me, and once our excited greetings were over we made our way via tram (I always get excited by trams when I'm abroad!) across the already snowy streets to her lovely flat, which was looking nicely festive thanks to this cute little tree:

After we'd freshened up, we popped round the corner to Simpel, where we both enjoyed a delicious duck confit. The evening was spent eating, drinking, and chatting into the small hours: perfect.

Now, when this friend and I were both in Oxford together last year, she was my (now oft-lamented) wonderful shopping companion on some particularly successful trips to Bicester. Consequently, we were both looking forward to renewing our retail relationship in Amsterdam. We awoke on the Saturday morning to find the city even whiter than it had been the night before, but it would take more than a little snow to keep us away from the shops. So we pulled on hats (bemoaning the inevitable 'hat-hair' that would result) and gloves and headed out into the cold. Their icy decorations just made the lovely old houses lining the canals look even prettier...

... and we paused to admire some of the bridges criss-crossing the water, glad now of our warm head-gear:

My friend led me to the wonderful area of the city known as the Nine Streets, a beautiful grid of (yes, you guessed it) nine narrow streets which cross one another and the canal, and are lined with lovely boutiques, cafes, and other little shopping gems. I was particularly taken with the look of this cheesemongers...

... while the Christmas treats on sale in the bakeries we passed looked extremely tempting:

As good as all this food looked, however, we were both extremely excited to once again be trying on clothes together, and the old chemistry clicked into place immediately, as we both found would-be purchases in the very first shop we went into (after trying on half its contents, of course). Aware that spending all our money before we'd even seen what anywhere else had to offer (even though they were ON SALE), we reluctantly put the gorgeously-cute-purple-with-flowers-and-bows-yet-sophisticated-dress (me) and deliciously-warm-and-soft-and-pretty-and-loveliest-shade-of-green-ever-cardigan-wrap (my friend) back on their hangers. The very nice ladies in the shop, understanding our dilemma, offered to hold them for us while we had more of a look around. We enjoyed pottering around some of the other boutiques, trying on some other tempting bits and pieces, but by the time we sat down in a lovely cafe for a much-needed sandwich and hot drink, we had both become convinced of our Absolute Need for the aforementioned items and rushed back to claim what was obviously Rightfully Ours just as soon as we'd licked the last of our lunch from our fingers.

Day turned into evening, and we were charmed by the Christmas lights which sprang up all over:

I particularly fell in love with this little lot, leaping off the prow of one of the many barges along the canal, so that one might almost imagine it gliding up into the air after them:

We stopped off for a scrummy glass of gluhwein, to keep us going before our main meal, which was at fun and trendy restaurant Stout!. Apparently 'stout' in Dutch means 'naughty', and the restaurant enjoyed making the most of the potential for double jokes on this with the English captions like 'Proud to be Stout!' on the back of the waiters' and waitresses' t-shirts. The set-piece of the house is the tasting menu -- the Plateau Stout! -- which gives you ten little dishes for an incredibly reasonable €29.50 (€35 if you want dessert tasters too). Although my friend and I opted to choose from the normal menu, the tasting platters did look great, and were extremely popular with diners around us. I had plumped for beef, which was absolutely fantastic, and I'd definitely be keen to re-visit Stout! for some more of their quirky takes on classic dishes on my next trip to Amsterdam.

We rounded off the evening by meeting my friend's brother at the aptly named Bubbles & Wine champagne bar just off Dam Square, where we enjoyed wine 'flights' (three half glasses) of some delicious Spanish reds:

By this time, the temperature had plummeted to -10, so we were glad of a warming alcohol blanket as we headed homewards, managing to stop shaking just long enough to pose for a quick picture with our shopping bags on the deserted Dam Square (everywhere, from the shops, to the bars, was quiet that weekend, which was surprising when Christmas was almost upon us. Although not so surprising when one considered the weather, which was bitter enough to keep most sane-minded people indoors, however many festive party-pieces they had yet to buy):

By this time, we'd heard the reports of trains being stuck in the Channel Tunnel, and I could only thank my stars that I'd missed the misery of sixteen hours beneath the ocean (and by only a few hours!), but we weren't yet feeling unduly concerned, and went to bed dreaming happily of our purchases.

The next morning dawned whiter than ever, and the first whispers of real misgiving crept into my mind as I listened to tales of cancellations of trains and flights and grumpy passengers freezing as they waited to find out how they were going to get home for Christmas. Shelving such concerns for the time being, however, my friend and I set off on a merry walk to the Van Gogh Museum, a slippery twenty-minutes away from the flat.

On the way we passed a one-street version of the Red Light District, and I must admit that my only thought upon seeing all the ladies in their lingerie posing inside their light-lined windows was how very cold the sight of their scantily clad bodies made me feel with all the snow outside! The Museum itself was well-worth the icy walk, and I particularly appreciated seeing the paintings alongside Van Gogh's letters, as the journey from preliminary sketch (often contained within letters to friends and family) to final piece was fascinating to behold. It's made me even more eager to visit the forthcoming Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy, which I'm hoping to do soon after it opens later this month. As its title -- The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters -- suggests, it should provide a lot more of just what I found so interesting in Amsterdam.

When we'd had our culture fix, we headed into Amsterdam's main park, where we joined what seemed like half of the city's population, all out enjoying a Sunday in the snow, with toboggans and snowmen around every corner. I'd like to say we built these two with our own fair hands, but that would be a lie!

The park also provided my friend with the perfect opportunity to introduce me to a Dutch delicacy: raw herring. And, more importantly, to the traditional way of eating it:

Yum! And the day's culinary delights were far from over, as we stopped off at a nearby patisserie for some seriously delicious tea and cake before heading home:

That evening my friend made a yummy and traditional Dutch dish of sausage accompanied by mashed curly kale and potatoes, and we settled down to an evening of Oxford nostalgia with an episode of the ever- wonderful Inspector Morse.

I certainly needed both the comfort food and comfort TV, as by this point, I had had to well and truly face up to the fact that however I was going to get home, it wasn't going to be by train, as all international trains out of Amsterdam had been cancelled thanks to the blanket of snow now covering the country; in any case, even if I'd made it back to Brussels, the Eurostar was still in turmoil, with all services cancelled until further notice. After frantically checking flights, and then deciding against them (£400 for a single trip which would quite likely be cancelled anyway? I don't think so!), I was just beginning to wonder whether I'd be spending my first Christmas in the Netherlands when my friend suggested I could always take the boat. Yes, that's right: The Boat. A quick search revealed a ferry leaving from Hook van Holland at 2.30pm the next day. I would arrive in Harwich, a no doubt amiable enough spot of whose existence I was, until that moment, completely ignorant. I booked my passage.

My final morning dawned; we rushed to the window: it wasn't snowing! This at least boded well for my trip south to the port, as my real dread had been waking to find a heavy blizzard and all trains cancelled. After saying goodbye to my friend (already looking forward to another visit in the hopefully better weather of the summer!), I struck off into the snow. Buying my train ticket, I was instructed to go to the airport, and from there, catch whatever train I could going south, to Leiden, Rotterdam, or The Hague, with the hopes of being able to travel from there to Hook van Holland without too many changes inbetween. I caught the airport train at 9.30, imagining that five hours was surely enough time to make what was usually an hour and a half's journey. Arriving at the airport, I was cheered to see a train for Rotterdam due to leave in an hour's time, so settled down with a cup of coffee. An hour passed, but my train didn't come. Cancelled. But there was one due for Leiden twenty minutes later. Cancelled. This went on for two and a half hours. Just as I had become convinced that I would be spending Christmas in the airport, a train for Rotterdam drew up on the platform. As luck would have it a set of doors opened right in front of me and I was able to spring on and grab a seat (my flailing suitcase as I did so probably helping to keep other passengers nicely out of the way), rather than having to spend the journey standing like so many poor people, as what seemed like hundreds of travellers crammed themselves on. I congratulated myself on this, and turned to ask my neighbour if he knew how long the journey might take. He predicted that, in these conditions, it would be something like an hour and a half. An Hour And A Half. AN HOUR AND A HALF. My new-found optimism vanished as I realised that if this were the case, I would be lucky to make it to Rotterdam by 2.30, let alone to the boat. I sank back against the window, and resigned myself to the thought of hanging around a port for the afternoon whilst waiting for the nightboat, which was due to leave at 8pm. Giving myself up to Fate, I watched the white landscape go by.

Fate was, it seems, looking kindly upon me that day, for as we pulled into Schiedam Centraal, I happened to glance out of the window towards the adjoining platform. Imagine my JOY to behold a board informing me that a train to Hook van Holland was due to leave from that very station in only five minutes! I frantically scooped my things together, wriggled through the carriage, and jumped onto the platform, where I spent the next five minutes with my fingers crossed very tightly indeed. The train came, and the destination list inside informed me I should be at the port at 14.14. For the second time in ten minutes I risked my circulation by crossing my fingers more tightly together than ever.

I stumbled, breathless, to the check-in desk, together with a few other stragglers, at 2.25pm.

Stenaline kindly held the ferry back until 3, in order to give a few other late-comers chance to get on, and by the time we left, my breath had returned, my legs had stopped shaking, and I was ensconced on a reclining chair in the private lounge (well worth an extra €16!), with a glass of wine and some chocolate, ready to face the SEVEN AND A HALF HOUR journey across the grey sea. I raised my glass to my decision to make this the trip to finally get to grips with Forever Amber (I knew there was a reason I never got round to reading its 1000 pages when I lugged it all the way to first the Chalet, and then Greece last summer), and settled myself down to a thorough enjoyment of Amber's exploits, which kept me completely entertained (with the odd break for food) until we arrived at Harwich. I resisted the desire to fall on bended knee and kiss the soil of my native ground, and made my way to the train station. After half an hour standing about in the cold (but hey, I had totally got the hang of this whole waiting about on platforms thing), the train appeared, its magical destination of LONDON blazoned on the front. I finally rolled up in the capital at 11pm, jumped into a taxi, and made my way to the Dorchester, where I met a friend who had been following my progress via text message, and who gave me the exact welcome back I needed by buying me cocktails and listening to my woes.

What a journey! Still, the holiday was definitely worth it, and I can't wait to return to Amsterdam to visit my friend again, although -- pretty as it was -- I could quite happily live without seeing it in its coat of snow! There's no record of Sir W ever visiting Holland, but it seems like he would have enjoyed a trip there, as this extract from his 1600 essay 'Of Resolution' suggests he shared the received idea that the Dutch would have made good companions in one of his favourite activities, drinking:

'I will hauke with a faulkoner, hunt with hunters, talke of Husbandrie with the seruants of Thrift: bee amorous with the Italian, and drinke with the Dutch man'.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Of Being Out With The Old...

...and in with the new. A belated Happy New Year to everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful and peaceful Christmas and that 2010 has started well. I had a simply lovely time over the holiday, spending Christmas Day itself with my mum in the heart of a beautifully frosty Gloucestershire. Rather than stay at home for Christmas, we decided to take ourselves off to the Priory Inn in Tetbury, renowned for its excellent, locally sourced food. The restaurant has a 30 mile food policy, meaning that 90% of its ingredients come from nearby farmers. As they are just down the road from Highgrove, we were spoilt with scrumptious Duchy vegetables from the Home Farm there, to accompany the melt-in-the-mouth pigeon I had for a starter, and the truly delicious venison I chose for my main course. After the mock Christmas Day my friends and I had enjoyed in Oxford before the vacation, I felt I'd already had enough turkey to satisfy my seasonal craving! I was also happy to have the chance to show off a new dress I'd bought just before Christmas -- part of the collection designed by Coast only for sale in their outlets inside Debenhams. The meek and mild front...

... makes the pretty draped back a nice surprise, giving it an elegantly mischievous frisson which appealed to me:

I always love the chance to get dressed up, and Christmas is a great excuse as we toasted the season with some local (and surprisingly nice!) bubbly. I was also pleased to toast a particularly successful present haul, as I opened pretty parcels to find jewelry, gloves, a new watch, various other bits and pieces, as well as my current reading material -- Saplings by Noel Streatfeild -- and, some tokens of the best kind: one from the marvellous Persephone Books, to feed my grey cover fetish once Saplings is done with, and also some theatre tokens, which I'll be able to exchange for tickets to one or two of the many productions I want to see this year! Wonderful! Long-term readers might also be interested to know that my presents also included some of the beautiful travel guides from The Little Bookroom I wrote about here, and *all* of the beautiful items from Fey Handmade I lusted after here, courtesy of my lovely grandfather, who has obviously been keeping a weather eye on this blog! Thank you again, Grampa!

Boxing Day was spent with family back in Staffordshire, and so the festive season was a perfect combination of good food, relaxation, and good company. I was only at home for a week, which was just enough to refresh me before returning to Oxford just before the New Year, when an American friend was visiting from Los Angeles. He and I and another friend travelled together to London on New Year's Eve, joined by others to see in 2010 at another friend's flat there. We were all thrilled when it actually started snowing bang on the dot of midnight, as we crowded onto the balcony to watch the fireworks over the dark sky. Sadly my camera broke almost on the stroke of midnight as well, so the snowflakes were lost to posterity (this sad calamity also means my blog might be a little sparse when it comes to pictures while I get a new camera sorted out. Sigh).

I was particularly excited on New Year's Day, as my friends and I were -- as I mentioned in my last post -- off to see the much touted production of The Misanthrope at the Comedy Theatre that evening.

As I think I mentioned before, I was particularly eager to see Damian Lewis on stage, and I am glad to say I wasn't disappointed. He had tremendous energy and presence, and made a wonderful Alceste. Obviously the main draw for many in the audience was Keira Knightley, in her widely publicised theatre debut. Personally, I thought she was fine, but nothing more, and her American accent was unfortunately terribly distracting, and at times rather wavering (as my American friend, who is a BIG fan of KK, was forced to admit). She did, however, have a couple of very nice outfits! I particularly liked the 1930s-style silky black jumpsuit and black and gold drapey cardigan she wore in the first act, which you can see a detail of here:

The play itself, a modern reworking by Martin Crimp, sped along at a zipping, zinging pace, with the rhyming couplets flowing easily from most of the cast, as it rushed through its slim two hour running time (this included the interval -- it's a while since I've been out of an evening performance by 9.30!). I've never read Moliere's original, and seeing this really made me want to, so at some point I'll have to seek it out (although the sad state of my French means I'll probably be forced to read it in translation, unless I'm feeling very virtuous. And have a lot of spare time).

Since then, I've been back in Oxford, which has looked beautiful under the deepest covering of snow I've ever seen here. I can't believe my camera has died at such an inopportune moment! Still, I must admit I have been spending quite a large proportion of my time tucked up indoors, drinking much hot tea and snuggling under blankets, as (you may not be surprised to hear this) my footwear collection is not really very compatible with the icy conditions! It turns out that the only shoes or boots I have which have any tread on the soles at all (excluding, of course, The Walking Boots, which are huddled at the back of a cupboard at home -- little did I think I might have need of them away from the alpine slopes) are my new knee-high boots. Which have heels. Chunkyish heels, sure, but still heels, which is enough to make many passers-by give me sidelong glances and a wide berth as they wait for what they assume is the inevitable graceless topple. Luckily, this hasn't happened yet, and I am convinced that heels and tread is infinitely safer than flats and smooth sole. In comfort, I also draw upon my demonstrable (and long-honed skill) of walking in Adverse Weather Conditions in surprising footwear, rembering that skirmishofwit and I survived a three day sojourn in Paris last December without any mishap, despite the fact that we were both trotting (well, okay, Very Slowly Edging Our Way Along) over the icy pavements in ankle boots with, shall we say, heels of a height which might make some people question whether I truly do suffer from vertigo. Saying all this, I shall probably leave the library today and fall flat. Well, just as long as I don't damage my laptop!

Although I sincerely hope I don't injure myself before this evening, as tonight I am ... DRUM ROLL ... having my very first Pole Dancing Lesson. Yes, that's right: pole dancing. Two friends and I are going along tonight to be initiated into its wonders, having being reassured by another friend who is already a fan that it is excellent exercise, a great confidence booster, and quite simply a fabulously sexy and fun thing to do. We'll see! If I can move enough tomorrow to drag myself to my laptop, I'll be giving a report on my first experience. Talking of which, I'd better go, as my friend and I are meeting up shortly to buy some hotpants which, for some reason, neither of us happened to have lying around our wardrobes already...

Although my posts have never been entirely regular, I've so much enjoyed having my blog over the tail end of 2009, and I look forward to continuing with it this year. And what better start to 2010's blogging than to find that I've been given A Lovely Blog Award!

Many thanks to Karen at BookBath for this! The idea of the award is that if you receive one, you then give it to others, so I'll be nominating some lovely blogs of my own over the next couple of days, as well as sharing with you tales from snowy Amsterdam, and a few other bits and pieces. I can't wait! Thanks so much to everyone who's been reading and commenting over the last few months -- I never thought that anyone I didn't actually know would ever read what I wrote, and it's added so much to my enjoyment to 'talk' to you all in the comments section!

Rather than leaving you with the usual quotation from Sir W, I thought some of you might like to see this wonderful engraving from the 1632 edition of his Essayes, by Thomas Cecill. There is an old story that the two men are Sir W and his father, Sir Charles, but as they look more like twins than father and son, this hardly seems the case. So sadly it brings us no closer to knowing what Sir W looked like, although that he was wonderfully dashing seems unquestionable. Well, through my rose-tinted eyes, anyway...