My mother


Scan 14 dThe funeral for my mother was a week ago. She would have loved it, I think… so many friends, the fact that my father was there, the flowers, the service written specially for her. She’d have put the pictures and the order of service on her new iPad and shown everyone with pride. My mother was an extraordinary person: she explored ideas, she made — and kept — so many friends of all ages, she cared for my father with so much love, she could still do headstands even just before that catastrophic stroke, she was a brilliant mother, she was wise and funny and she made me be a better person. Each morning I wake up and remember again. Here is her eulogy.

On Boxing Day 2004 our mother and father were in Sri Lanka. They had – though we didn’t know this until later – arranged to go on a little boat to a small temple island with friends, Alison, Alasdair and Cordelia, who was then eight. That morning my mother had gone for a walk on the beach and met with the wife of the hotel manager, with whom she had a wonderful discussion about… I don’t know… everyone here knows my mother’s astonishing capacity for making instant friendships and having wide ranging conversations about all sorts of exciting things. Continue reading →

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A white chicken and a silver wheelbarrow

I looked out the window just now and THERE WAS A WHITE CHICKEN standing beside a silver wheelbarrow in our garden… Of course I wished – it almost hurt – that I had followed my instinct and painted it red, like in the William Carlos Williams poem. I had wanted to do it this spring just in case a white chicken wandered along. And then it did wander along and I wasn’t ready. Is there a metaphor somewhere there…. ? 

Faith in Conservation reissue

In January 2003 my husband, Martin Palmer, came home to the little cottage we lived in in the Peak District, and said that as part of the World Bank funding of some projects with his charity he had to write a book about what it was all about. They were going to publish it later that year.

He showed me the first draft of his history of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), the charity he had set up with HRH Prince Philip eight years before.

It was nice, I said, and obviously it was amazing for the short amount of time he had available. “But if the World Bank is going to publish it, couldn’t we write a better book, an engaging one, full of stories that people would actually enjoy reading?”

And he smiled, as if that was what he was hoping I’d say, and asked me if I’d put a bit of time into improving it. “And maybe rewriting,” he said hopefully.  Continue reading →

When Colour could kill and I got addicted to a design website…

Washington's verdigris dining room

Washington’s verdigris dining room

Last month the people at that wonderful (and horribly addictive) interior design website Houzz asked me to write a story about colour for their February Colour Month. It was a great chance to remember some of the extraordinary interiors stories I found while researching my Colour book, including George Washington’s insistence that his new dining room should be a particular fashionable green, made from verdigris (interestingly it was a British fashion, and he was writing home from the battlefield where he was fighting against the British in the American War of Independence.)

I also remembered one story which particularly delighted me at the time, (even though I have never had a comment about it from anyone which suggests I might have been a bit geeky) which was about the problems of painting pillar boxes red, or rather of finding a red paint that stayed red and didn’t drift to a cloudy and faded pink. For that one I spent a whole day in the Post Office archives in London, pulling out of storage letters written by angry ex Admirals who said the splotchy colour was unreasonably ugly on their streets in nice places like Tunbridge Wells, and perhaps the Post Office should bite the bullet and paint the boxes battleship grey, which at least would stand the British weather.

I took this in Bath's Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

I took this in Bath’s Great Pulteney Street: this wonderful old pillar box has no doubt been repainted many times since it was first installed more than a century ago

There were also some awful tales about how children’s bedrooms in Victorian times were painted or wallpapered in one particular emerald green, which was seen as being jolly for children but which in reality was full of arsenic, and responsible for some horrible deaths and sicknesses. Yet despite that, at a talk given at London’s Royal Academy in the 1870s, there were still a few people who said that they didn’t care about the consequences; it was too marvellous a colour not to use. Here’s the Houzz story.

Always look on the bright side

ImageIn September 1993 I was sent from The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong to cover the first Beijing bid for the Olympics.

I was a rookie news reporter who knew just about nothing about sport, but I had, three and a half months before, been assigned to do a daily “100 days to the Beijing 2000 bid” countdown, with a new locally generated story every day.

After I had interviewed every potential olympic and paralympic athlete in Hong Kong that still left about 93 columns to find, each written with increasing desperation and I am ashamed to say even on one occasion involving cajoling one of the big hotels to make a “Beijing 2000″ chocolate cake. My reward was to be sent to Monte Carlo to cover the vote.

I remember how, on my way out of the airport in Nice, there was a shortage of trolleys. But a nice Englishman suggested I put my bag on his trolley and as he pushed it towards the buses, I asked him whether he too was going to the Olympic meeting. He said he was with the Manchester 2000 bid. When I got onto the press bus and he into another, the British journalists who had been preening themselves on the plane from London looked extremely impressed.

“How did YOU know Bobby Charlton?” asked the man from the Press Association.

Sir Bobby Charlton carried my bag once

Sydney, of course, was awarded the 2000 Olympics. I remember going to the Australian party that night and an Ozzie athlete telling the barman: “don’t worry about the champagne glasses, mate. I’ll just take the bottle.”

The Chinese had cancelled their party int the room next door, but halfway through the evening, I found the Manchester party in a smaller room down the corridor, with Britain’s finest athletes – including Sebastian Coe and Chris Boardman – sitting in thoughtful mood. Sir Bobby Charlton spotted me as I stood peering in at the door. “You again! Come and join us!” he called out. Continue reading →

An ochre mine in Gloucestershire

Ochre miner at the Wick Quarries - PHOTO: THIS IS BATH

29 days after my pledge to write 500 words a day: I am not quite on track – that would mean I had already written 14,500 words which would of course be wonderful. But I have, perhaps 5,000 words more than I would have had I not thought, every day, that I had to do it, like it or not. And some of the images and incidents are keepers, especially the ones I wasn’t expecting.

Today is a “writing day” which meant that I was out in my garden in the sunshine at lunchtime reading a book for research, and taking notes, when neighbours passed. They had lunch guests, would I like to join for a gin and tonic? It took me two minutes to close the door of my house, and be round there.

Our neighbour has always promised to take me to the ochre mines at Wick, in Southern Gloucester. He is very amused that I went round the world to Australia to find ochre when there was perfectly good material five miles away from the place that would later be my home. He said that in the old days you used to see the workers finishing their shifts at five o’clock and they would look yellow-white as ghosts, their features and clothes clouded in dust. He also said that the red tarmac on the Mall in London was coloured with pigment of Wick. There is, apparently, a letter from King George V, thanking the men of Wick for the redness of his road.

It is apparently now a nature reserve. And there’s some good local research on its history. I must visit soon. I can’t believe I haven’t been there before. But first I have 500 words to write.