Lockdown has not brought out the writer in me or the painter or the linguist or sadly the exerciser. Instead I have mostly sat metaphorically or otherwise paralysed like a rabbit in the headlights of an ‘unprecedented’ series of events.
I wonder how many others have found themselves observing the weirdness of a life paused while complying willingly to the rules of safety.
My lockdown life has been a gentle one of privilege and access to a garden and to online communications with family, to a job not furloughed and to a cupboard full of toilet rolls and wine, but I have still felt a sense of loss.
I have not had a direct experience of the impact of Covid -19 on a loved one so I appreciate my loss is small by comparison to those experienced by many. But I have missed the easy interaction of city life, a trip on a bus to a cafe or pub, and those tiny observations of others that reminds us of humanity.
While others have found joy in birdsong – I miss the noisy clatter of messy lives.
Three years ago I ran a marathon and 2 weeks ago I ran for 8 minutes as I embarked once more on the couch to 5k journey.
It’s running Groundhog Day on my quest to regain my fitness and be able to run like I used to pretty much every weekend for the past 10 years.
I used to run so often that even I was bored of my Facebook posts – yes, guilty as charged- I was that person who just had to share my post-run,endorphin filled euphoria with you, regardless of whether or not you might care.
But the past couple of years the wheels have kind of fallen off my running bus as a combination of injury, lack of opportunity then latterly recovery from surgery, meant my running mileage dwindled.
During lockdown after developing a serious case of runners envy – I acknowledged that if I wanted to get back into running I was going to have to start over.
So in June, like many others before me , I downloaded the Couch to 5 k running app and with the mellifluous tones of Jo Whiley guiding me I started to make progress .
All was well until week 7 run 2 when disaster struck and my knee gave up the ghost and I had to hobble home. So once more running was abandoned and as we were still in lockdown it was tricky to see a physio, so I had to put running on the back burner.
Wind forward to October and I was back at the gym – swimming but not doing much else and eventually made the effort to get an online consultation with a physio. He diagnosed my dodgy knee as a tendon problem – gave me some exercises and more importantly the ok to go back to running.
So after a few trial runs – I reset the app and started right back at the beginning.
Let’s see if I can make it to the week 9 finish this time.
I can’t quite remember when I started taking pictures of numbers, but I love typography and commercial art and perhaps an interest in these tiny artworks is a by-product of that.
I don’t have any rules as to what constitutes a ‘good’ number – it’s very subjective and there is no formula – it just depends on what tickles my fancy 😉
It might be a carefully painted number in gold leaf above a door, or brass numbers screwed on a bit squint. I love a weathered number on a stone gatepost – but am equally fond of a 70s style ‘stick-on’ decal against a garish painted door.
On doors and gateposts, these tiny numbers sit sentry both welcoming and protecting and while houses are extended and reconfigured over the years – often the house number remains unchanged. Sometimes I wonder about what lives the number may have witnessed, and the tales it might tell, if only numbers could talk.
Some numbers seem to have more of a personality than others – cheeky, austere, whimsical, stalwart and for those, I pen a short caption by way of description.
This is entirely my own interpretation of the number persona and others may not see the cheeky insouciance I see – or the flirty nature of a particular digit as I do. My tendency to anthropomorphise numbers does often depend on the mood I am in when snapping.
Other numbers need no description and their beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
When I was training for a marathon a few years ago, like a trainspotter, I had a notion to collect a full set of numbers 1- 26, but I soon gave up on this when my eye was more often drawn to 2s and 3s and 5s – and never finding a 26 or 14 that made the cut.
As a hobby, it suits me to be free to take pictures of those numbers that appeal and so my collection of number pics will always have doubles and triples and omissions as there will always be some that for whatever reason I just don’t like.
As a photographic subject, it is one of almost infinite possibilities – the world is full of numbers and I am happy to just keep surreptitiously snapping as I encounter those that catch my eye.
I do see the start of a new year as a time to review and reflect. I don’t make resolutions as such but I usually think of a few ‘goals’ or things the old me might like to achieve in the next 12 months. This loose collection of paths to self-improvement might include some new activities to try in the coming year and will always include an optimistic commitment to trying to get better at some of the things I do already.
Practice makes perfect and all that.
Getting back into writing regularly is on my list, having pretty much kicked this blog into the long grass in the past year. I have got out of the habit, and now my writing is reduced to social media posts, work emails, and the odd business report.
Aside from an intention to keep writing, following on from a recent batch of marmalade making – next on my list is a quest to get better at making jam- not with a view to becoming a professional preserver, but more to crack the elusive nut of getting my jam to set.
On paper, making jam and marmalade is an easy process – you combine the right ratio of fruit, sugar and sometimes water, heat it to the temperature of jam setting point then Ta Da! It sounds simple, but while my jams and marmalade usually taste good, they are often very runny and the process of knowing when it has reached setting point is a bit of a mystery.
Some of this is a fear of the pan boiling over – and so to avoid this, I don’t have the temperature high enough – or when it is boiling a fear of letting it boil too long in case it overcooks,( having once made blackberry jam that was like industrial strength glue).
Recipe books offer instructions and guidance, but rarely give much detail around timings. I suppose it is because as with most cooking, there are unknown variables relating to your own kitchen and equipment so success comes through trial and error and accumulated knowledge.
Apparently, there is a magical knack of knowing when the bubbles in the pan have changed – and recognising this I imagine only comes with practice. As I only tend to make jam or marmalade once or twice a year – reading the jam bubble runes is a skill not yet mastered. This year I had to reboil marmalade when after cooling it still looked more like orange soup than a breakfast conserve. So after that near disaster, I bought myself a jam pan and a thermometer.
Today I gave my new pan and thermometer combo a test drive – making scarlet chilli and red pepper jam, a recipe from Diana Henry’s book Salt, Sugar Smoke. Intrigued by the prospect of making the evocatively named scarlet jam, I set forth on a new path in my preserving journey – as I have never made jam with peppers or attempted any kind of savoury relish before.
chopped and cooking
setting point reached
scarlet chilli & pepper jam
It was an easy recipe to follow, with only a few ingredients and it looked beautiful bubbling in the pan as the peppers and chilli transformed from raw ingredients to jam. As always it took longer than I expected for it to reach setting point, but this time I persevered, even letting it rise above the mystical 104.5 C. Using both my thermometer and the wrinkle test as guidance I studied the bubbles, stared into the glossy pot and followed my instinct 😉
I don’t imagine I will ever win any jam making contests – but it tastes good and looks like it will set. Bravo to me !
I was prompted in part by reading Tom Hunt’s Waste not column in Feast in the Saturday Guardian.
Each week in the Feast food supplement, Tom Hunt highlights various ways to reduce waste in the kitchen focusing on a different ingredient each week. This week it was chillies.
To make the most of chilli waste, you can save discarded seeds and dry them to season other dishes, and in something of a revelation to me, it turns out that the green stalks of chillies contain the beneficial bacteria lactobacillus and can be used instead of a starter to make yogurt.
I had chillies that I was using to make Menemen ( Turkish egg dish) for brunch and lots of milk – so was looking forward to trying out this eco tip.
So far so good – except I had not read to the end of the recipe – where I noticed it asks for 10-15 chilli stalks.
While I do like my Turkish style eggs spicy – 10 chillies is a bit too spicy !
Having decided to make yogurt I did a quick trawl of the internet for yogurt recipes – more by way of a reminder of quantities, as I have made yogurt in the past.
In my teenage years, I went through a phase of making soft cheese ( crowdie) and yogurt. I would like to say I was ahead of the artisan foodie curve but probably closer to the truth is that I lived on a farm in a small Highland village & was just a bit of an oddball.
Making yogurt is not complicated – and sometimes can happen by accident as I found out when I left a carton of milk on the windowsill of a Premier Inn hotel room on a business trip a while back. Reader – I ate it.
So back to my yogurt making – having gleaned the essential facts from the internet and reminded myself of the steps and quantities – this is what I did.
1. Gently heated up a pint of full-fat milk.
2. Left milk to cool to the temperature of a hot bath ( 45 degrees C )
3. I then took a couple of tablespoonfuls of Greek yogurt – from an existing tub, to use as the starter.
4. To warm the starter, I mixed a couple of tablespoons of the warmed milk into the Greek yogurt to make it runny and less cold before adding it back into the rest of the warmed milk.
5. I used my slow cooker to heat up the stoneware container so that the mixture went into something warm. If you don’t have a slow cooker – the important thing is to put the mixture into something that can retain heat – a thermos or just a sealed container than will keep the temperature even.
6. Having warmed the container – I put the yogurt ( that I had warmed a bit) into the warm milk then put the starter + milk mixture into the warmed slow cooker pot.
7. I switched the slow cooker off and took the stoneware container up to a warm room where I covered it in a thick blanket and left it for a few hours.
About 5 hours later it was well on the way to becoming yogurt but I decided to leave it overnight.
The next morning TA DA !
It tasted ok – quite mild, but I thought it was a bit runny and as I eat a lot of Greek yogurt I thought I would try straining it to see how it turned out.
I put the yogurt into a muslin lined sieve over a bowl and left it to drip in its own time.
I was heading out to a show at the Edinburgh book festival so I just left it dripping.
We ended up staying out later than planned and going to some more stuff at the Fringe so the yogurt had been doing its dripping thing for about 9 hours by the time we got back.
The result was a small ball of thick yogurt – maybe closer to fromage blanc than Greek yogurt in texture – but with a lovely mild flavour.
As I don’t have any pigs I drank the leftover whey – the strained liquid. No idea if it’s good for you but it was a refreshing slightly tart drink.
To make the yogurt a bit creamier I added back in a couple of spoons of full fat milk and the end result was quite close to the shop bought varieties.
It’s a fairly easy thing to do. I don’t think it gives any better result than buying a tub, but it’s quite satisfying making your own.
I might experiment with different types of milk ( e.g. Jersey or unhomogenised ) and also the length of time I strain it to see if that makes a difference to the end result.
Meanwhile, I have started saving my chilli tops in the freezer ( which I hope does not destroy the lactobacillus) and when I reach 15 I will give the chilli yogurt a whirl.
My London dwelling daughters have settled south of the river in Camberwell & Tooting respectively. Last weekend was a first proper foray into South London.
For someone who is both a fairly frequent traveller and a geography graduate – I am embarrassed to admit to a dreadful sense of direction. Or more accurately, I never quite succeed in making the connection between reality on the ground & maps. Whether they are of the paper or Google variety – I struggle to join the dots.
It’s a conundrum because I love maps – reading them and pouring over the detail of the symbols, the cartography and notation. Have even been known to choose an OS map as bedtime reading.
Unfortunately, when walking or running I need more obvious visual references to stop me getting lost and am much more likely to arrive at my destination by following simple instructions like take a left at the big red sign or right at the Wheatsheaf pub.
A perfect example of this disconnect was when arriving at Balham underground station I failed to locate the Balham Travelodge – even though the hotel is pretty much on top of Balham station!
As is often the way – opting for the wrong underground exit and surfacing I saw the hotel entrance beaming out at me from the other side of the road.
This lack of map reading ability does mean that I often make interesting discoveries unintentionally, and as long as I am getting lost in daylight hours, I see this failing as a good thing- and a serendipitous way to get to know a new place.
When venturing out later in the day and in darkness, fortunately Transport for London do keep you informed via electronic bus displays.
On Saturday & after a most excellent evening of pizza & wine – I was dispatched safely by my daughter onto a number 45 bus. And with tables turned, I was given detailed instructions of where to get off, & advice to use Google as back up.
With tables turned, on arrival above ground – my girls have texted to see I have arrived safely & I must update via WhatsApp that I am back in the hotel in one piece.
Happy to report that regardless of being directionally challenged & inclined to a wee snooze on the tube – I survived my first time south of the river & by Monday was slowly feeling I had the measure of another slice of London.
It had been a while since I had last visited London after a spell of working there last year.
This weekend was a time to visit my daughters and see an exhibition or two and the date turned out to coincide with the People’s Vote march – an event that had passed me by in the blur and Groundhog Day noise that Brexit has become.
I did not join the march, but witnessed some excellent placards and did enjoy a good conversation and an expression of solidarity on the topic with a marcher I met on the tube.
Last year my spell of working in London was brief, but during that time I felt I had, like millions of others before me, been welcomed as a temporary Londoner.
Now back home working in Edinburgh, I do sometimes miss the vibrancy of London, and the diversity of people and experiences that were an everyday occurrence.
London is ‘always on’ and can be a hard place to work & live – keeping up with the energy and pace can drive you to weariness, but that energy is also exhilarating and challenging in a good way mostly.
This weekend trip was not about challenge but more about family and a chance to discover new places. With my grown up children living away from home, I was looking forward to spending time with them in their new neighbourhoods.
We had art on our agenda but also time for chatting and wandering, eating & drinking and catching up on news.
In between and by accident almost, I visited three different art exhibitions and as is often the way, the best one was unplanned.
Despite being a fan of pop art, I had not heard of Corita Kent – Sister Corita – and my visit to the House of Illustration was prompted more by wanting to see an exhibition of drawings by Ludwig Bemelmans – from the Madeline books.
The ticket included entry to 2 other exhibitions – Journeys Drawn – illustrations from the Refugee crisis and Corita Kent Power Up. A trio of very contrasting exhibitions.
Journey’s Drawn was a powerful and moving testament to the experiences of refugees seen both by observers and drawn from experience.
Moving on to the Ludwig Bemelmans exhibition felt like a more innocent interlude after the reality of Journey’s Drawn – a brief glimpse into how the stories and characters evolved and a window into his approach and style of Illustration.
Carita Kent was a revelation for me – I had not heard of this pop art nun – whose art combined messages from Holy scriptures with advertising slogans. A mash up of Los Angeles billboards and mass media, creating motivational and uplifting messages screen printed in day glo.
She talked about her art being like the original books of illumination – where Illustration ‘throws light’ onto a message.
Was a joyous, colourful exhibition and a new discovery for me.
On Sunday – we all visited Pierre Bonnard – The Colour of Memory exhibition – at Tate Modern. His was a different use of colour and his ability to recreate landscapes from memory created beautiful paintings and his skilful way and modern composition of painting nudes and landscapes was very evocative.
I liked the paintings but whether because I was overfilled on art or my expectations were on the high side, it did not have the same impact as any of the exhibitions I had seen the day before at the House of Illustration.
Before visiting either of these exhibitions my first exhibition visit was to see Dorothea Tanning also at Tate Modern.
On Friday evening after a long and tiring day travelling – I took advantage of late opening at Tate Modern and decided to visit the Dorothea Tanning exhibition.
I think as a canny Scot and with my annual membership of the Tate coming to an end, I was trying to use it to the max by seeing as many exhibitions as possible!
I can’t say I really enjoyed the exhibition save for a few pieces, ( e.g. her sketch of tango below ) maybe I was just too tired. I whizzed round the galleries desperate to get beyond the Surrealist paintings and fur fabric sculptures so I could sit down and have a cup of tea.
Although I like visiting exhibitions, I am not a true art aficionado and sometimes whether through tiredness or just sensory overload, I find it overwhelming to process the visuals and grasp what the artist is trying to convey.
Walking out of the Tate onto the riverside picture of night time London, hearing birds singing in the midst of the city was perhaps the best painting for me.
In between the mostly grey January days, there has been the odd bright interlude – a winter gem of crisp, eye-watering cold – blue skies, glistening pavements and low winter sun that almost blinds you.
Just as my summer memory is filled with long soft sunny days of peachy light ( yes, even though I grew up in the north of Scotland), the winter I remember is always frost filled with steamy breath clouds and icy air that catches in your throat.
When I first moved from Inverness to Glasgow to study, I was surprised at how warm it was in winter and wet. It took me a while to adjust – and I missed the easterly cold.
Last week I was out in Edinburgh on a proper east coast winter’s day and looking up saw what seemed to be a circular rainbow around the sun. I took a pic with my phone and thought it might just be sun flare but on checking with Google I found out my half rainbow was a parhelion or sundog.
The name parhelion comes from the Greek ‘parelion’ meaning beside the sun and sundogs so called because they follow the sun like a dog follows its master. How sweet is that? The rainbow effect is caused by sunlight being refracted through ice crystals.
I took a few more pictures and added this to my encyclopedia of meteorological facts, then spent quite a bit of time looking upwards for a better example – or as I had understood might just be visible on these cold icy days – nacreous clouds.
It was a bit low level for proper cloud investigation and I did not have the time or if I am honest the footwear and knees to climb Arthur’s seat – so I stopped off at the Museum of Scotland on Chambers street and headed to the rooftop.
On my way, I came across an exhibition on Scottish embroidered samplers – framed samples of stitches cross stitch, french knots etc. creating alphabets, motifs, and family pictures. It was serendipitous that I came across this exhibition, as I had opted for a quiet side stair to quickly reach the roof. I imagine the museum building was designed in this way to encourage accidental discovery.
What incredible skill was evident in the samplers produced by girls as young as six. The craftswomanship and patience in evidence was a reminder of how young women often had to channel their skills and intellect in different ways when not included in formal education.
Well, that’s one thing I took from it – but mostly I was in awe of the dexterity and neatness of the handiwork. My own attempts at embroidery or any sewing being rather slap dash.
No more sundogs spotted when I reached the roof but the views across Edinburgh and the skyscape from the building were worth the trip to the top.
Every now and again I do one of those geeky calculations around how many hours I have spent commuting or sleeping or running.
According to my Nike+ app, my total miles run since 2009 is 6697 miles and based on my average pace, it means I have spent 1116 hours running and of those, I imagine that for around 80% of that time I will have been running alongside my good friend Alison. That’s over a month of talking.
Fast and slow runners ask how we can run and chat – but that’s the main ‘raison d’ être’ of our running. It is a social occasion and mutual therapy rolled up with exercise and fresh air.
Someone should bottle it and make a fortune!
Given all these minutes we have spent in a moving conversation, we have covered quite a few topics even though there are recurring themes. We have shared and supported each other through some tricky times but mostly we have had a lot of laughs and the comforting ear that friendship brings.
Recently we have been talking quite a bit about the books we are reading and sharing recommendations. We are both fans of crime fiction and have now read the Lin Anderson Rhona Macleod series of novels. I would love to say we have made an insightful critique of the literary merits of the genre – but the truth is we are much more absorbed by the two main characters than the writing or the plot – appreciating their believable and familiar flaws and wondering about the ‘will they /won’t they’? chemistry between them.
Alison belongs to a real book club, but I think our running book club could catch on as it nicely ticks off two life-affirming habits in the space of an hour or so.