behind the lens

James Balston and I have had a busy couple of weeks both shooting house features and also nosing around houses taking recce shots for future stories. I couldn’t help noticing that James has a uncanny ability to coordinate his wardrobe to suit the locations we visited.

P1270222:2First, in a wonderfully quirky house in Montpelier, I was struck by the way James’s green velvet jacket looked so good against the olive green walls and the flash of lime on the lampshade in the background.

P1270330Later, at our shoot in Peckham, James’s outfit managed to work well, with a slight adjustment, in two very different rooms. Above, in a very dark sitting room and below, in a bathroom —practically in the bath. Impressive.

IMG_2663I don’t think any of my clothes matched anything at all. I’ve clearly got to up my game.

You can see more of James’s work here, including some of the houses we’ve worked on together. I am planning to get my work archive on here soon, but need to freshen up the look of the blog first, I think.


chasing waves 1The time since my last post and this one has whizzed by in a frenzy of deadlines with a holiday squeezed in the middle: half term by the sea at Charmouth. We had a fabulous repeat of last year’s fun but this time without the skinny dipping.

I’m back at my desk now, with the clock ticking on another feature and the arrival of this parcel from Nyssen’s has reminded me that deadlines of another sort are looming  too …

nyssenTime to get my wellies on and head out to the garden. Which also reminds me that a proper round-up of what worked and what didn’t is sitting half-written on my desktop.

comfort knitting

P1200988The relentless cold has driven me back to my needles. I think I’ve had a scarf of some description wrapped around my neck since the middle of October. I’m a bit sick of it now; fed up with both the cold and my scarves. Time for something new: a cowl, in the same yarn I used for this, and which I think will go with almost everything I own.

I found the pattern at Loisaida Nest, and I followed it with one slight modification: I cast on an 82 stitches rather than 72 and then, once I’d finished the first ball of yarn, I decreased by ten stitches, knitting two together at random within the second round of the new ball of wool. Oh, and I used 6mm needles as I couldn’t find my 5.5mm.

NB I really enjoy Ileana’s blog, Loisaida Nest, for many reasons, but particularly for her photos, such as these which were taken at her local open air pool last summer.

knitting and nanowrimo


So, Nanowrimo is over. And, sad to say, I not only failed to make the official finishing line, but I also collapsed long before I reached my own finishing line (25,000 words).

I was on track for a full eight days during which I managed to hammer out 12,000 words. But then my mini-Nano was derailed by a deadline which was suddenly brought forward from January to November. Work, of the paid variety, always has to come first. And fortunately it was a nice feature to write – it’s about two very interesting people and it will be accompanied by some lovely photographs taken by my friend James.


Although the writing didn’t go entirely to plan I did get a lot of knitting done. I find that simple knitting – of the hats, fingerless mittens and socks variety – is very conducive to the sort of free-form thinking that creative writing requires. Round and round I knit, and round and round my thoughts go. I always have a notebook to hand and ideas pop into my mind effortlessly; so different from the paralysis I experience when staring at a blank screen.


It works with articles too. There is always a point when whatever I am writing about becomes far more complicated than it needs to be. A cup of coffee and a bit of knitting, and the tangle I am in with my writing has miraculously unravelled.

The hats, from top to bottom are Snawheid by Kate Davies (pom pom yet to be attached), Julia’s Cabled Headband by Paulina Chin and finally my first, and not entirely successful, attempt at making a hat without a pattern. I also managed to make several pairs of fingerless mittens using this excellent pattern by Leslie Friend, though I am now keen to have a go at two other fingerless, wrist-warmery, stash-busting patterns, both of which I’ve had sitting on my desk for months now: Susie’s Reading Mitts by Susie Rogers and Runrig Muffatees by Annie Cholewa, aka Knitsofacto, who is currently running a very lovely knitting-related giveaway.

losing the plot

This time last year I was a little over halfway through Nanowrimo, an international event in which participants attempt to write a novel in a month (or 50,000 words). I was wrestling with a story I’d been writing on and off for several years and although hard work, it was liberating to just write and be damned. Writing without looking back, without tinkering with your copy, is essential if you are to have any hope of crossing the nano finishing line. There is also a lot to be said for the whole idea of writing as badly as you can. To be able to say to yourself “this is SO atrocious, so cheesy, so cliched” is incredibly exhilarating.

Anyway, I crossed the finishing line. Just. And then I put the manuscript to bed, at the back of the filing cabinet. I’ve tinkered with it since, but not much. My plan was to plough on with the rest of the story for this year’s nano, and then kick it all in to shape in the New year.

But the starting gun for Nano 2012 was fired in the middle of half term. There was no way I could manage 2,000 or so words a day (however bad they were) during the holidays – not fair on the girls, not fair on me either, frankly. I thought that perhaps a late start would be possible – I would have been happy to limp in at around the 40,000 mark.

However, on our return from Dorset a whole run of family-related events, issues and life stuff rolled over the horizon, as it does from time-to-time, and the slightly late start became a non-start. But a few days ago, whilst out on my morning run, and very much in the spirit of my new found love of running, I decided I could do a half-Nano (25,000 words) instead of the full Nano, and write like a demon for the last two weeks of the event.

I tell you this by way of explaining the lack of activity on my blog, and the fact that it may remain rather quieter than usual until the end of the month.

I’ll finish by saying that I really enjoyed all the comments on my last post – who would have known that a humble canvas shoe had so many names? It might warrant another post – not least because I have these two books sitting on my desk, and I am itching to read them.

Oh, one final thing, if you are hopping around the internet this weekend, there is a nice word game taking place here – I’ve found it a fun, if maddening, distraction this week, and  it’s not too late to join in for round one.

PS trees are all in Ashton Court, a favourite place for walking the dog and now running. 

make hay while the sun …

… resolutely fails to shine.

We were in Hay last Thursday because Joe was appearing at the annual Hay Festival with Frank Cottrell Boyce, whose book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, Joe illustrated.
They gave a lovely talk about the delicate business of bringing Ian Fleming’s famous flying car back to life, and then Frank read whilst Joe drew Chitty. The session ended with some very sweet and occasionally hilarious questions from the audience.

Despite the dreadful weather the festival was packed with happy, if soggy, visitors, and we had a wonderful time.  If you’ve never been, Hay is a fabulous, very family-friendly literary festival and really worth visiting. The atmosphere is incredibly relaxed and
there are lots of interesting things for all ages.

Next year, and I’ve been saying this every year, long before Joe started illustrating and writing children’s books, we’ll be really organised: we’ll book a cottage and plan our half term around the festival and all the events. Ha! As if – although clearly lots of people do.

on the buses

Crystal Palace Radio Transmitter

Six years on and, to my horror, I find that I am now a tourist in the city that I called home for the first thirty-eight years of my life. Actually I still call London home, but it doesn’t always feel very familiar, as I discovered this week on a work-related whistle-stop visit.

The sense of being a stranger in town began the minute I arrived. As I faffed about trying to top up my oyster card, it occurred to me that my ineptitude would have driven the London-living me completely insane if I’d witnessed it. Next I found that the tube map in my head – something I had always taken for granted – seemed to have been erased. No longer necessary I suppose; God knows the storage space in my brain is pretty limited, but if I’d had a choice, that’s something I might have kept. And then there is the city’s skyline which looks different on every visit – Strata one year, Heron Tower the next and now the Shard glinting in the heat haze.

But some things remain reassuringly familiar: namely the general scuzziness of South London (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, always a fan of a little bit of grot), and the key bus routes of my childhood. My heart always leaps a little at the sight of the 137, the 37 or the 88 which, for some reason I always think of as the original Clapham Omnibus (as in the man on the Clapham Omnibus).

And on Wednesday morning I was transported back to my teenage years when I caught the number 3 to Crystal Palace. I don’t think I’ve been on this route since I was about 18, but nothing has changed, and as the bus wound steadily up the final hill before pulling into the bus station, I was delighted by the sight of the Crystal Palace radio transmitter – surely London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower.

I was in Crystal Palace to meet up with my friend the photographer James Balston, to discuss some projects and to visit a remarkable subterranean home that he is photographing and I am writing about. Below is a tiny taste of what we saw and the rest I’ll post later when it’s been published. Incidentally, James has a lovely blog here, which is dedicated to life high on the hill in SE19.

Interview over, I hopped back on the number 3 and from the front seat on the top deck I enjoyed the show as we sailed back down the hill towards the West End via Herne Hill, Brockwell Park, Brixton, Kennington, Westminster, Trafalgar Square and then the grand finale – Regent Street festooned with bunting and Union Jacks.



It’s over. Nanowrimo is behind me. I made it to 50,106 words today. It’s not a novel – the plot is all over the place and half-formed characters abound – but it’s the start of something. Now I’m going to print it off, stick it in a folder, and ignore it until next year.

Despite its ups and downs, Nanowrimo has been an incredibly rewarding experience – a  boot camp for writers, with weekly pep talks from the likes of Erin Morgenstern, who says she wrote The Night Circus over the course of two Nanowrimos, and Philip Pullman.

Out in the real world another November challenge is drawing to an end – Movember. To celebrate the amazingly hairy fundraising effort made by the male teachers at the girls’ school, all the children were encouraged to wear moustaches for today (school is closed tomorrow). Bea went in sporting this rather natty little number.


Having signed up to a mad, month-long writing project which involves attempting to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days (NaNoWriMo), I find that all I want to do is bake stuff. And biscuits, in particular, have become very appealing: they are quick to make and, perhaps more significantly, easy to eat whilst alternately drinking coffee and typing. Or, more typically, staring into space.

The biscuit obsession began during half term when Bea rustled up a batch of peanut butter and chocolate cookies for her godmother, Jess. Whilst overseeing production, I was struck by the speed with which biscuits can be made, cooked, and dispatched.

I know there are recipes out there for cakes which can be whipped up in minutes (Delia has a very good basic sponge that springs to mind), but even so, biscuits seem quicker. I suppose it’s partly because biscuits tend not to be iced, which means that you don’t need to wait until they’ve cooled before diving in. In fact these cookies are particularly delicious when they’re still warm. The recipe is from Christmas Treats by Linda Collister.

But of all the biscuit recipes I’ve looked at recently (and it’s been quite an intense period of research), shortbread must be the easiest. It only has three ingredients, all of which are store cupboard basics: caster sugar, butter, flour – cocoa powder if you’re feeling flash.

The recipe for this chocolate shortbread came from The Great British Book of Baking, which accompanied the first series of The Great British Bake Off. It’s very rich.

And finally, for now anyway, from the same book, Jumbles. So called, I guess, because you sling a jumble of whatever nuts, fruit or chocolate you have to hand into the basic biscuit mix. Quick and easy, Jumbles are delicious and smell heavenly as they bake. All three of these biscuit recipes have been made on a loose rotation for the last two weeks. I have plans for some freezer biscuits this weekend – you make a dough, freeze it and then, when you want biscuits, you take it out and let it thaw slightly before slicing off the number of biscuits you want to bake. I love this idea. Though I can see some problems – chief among them being the temptation to bake a biscuit or two with every cup of tea.

Of course all this domestic goddess malarky is just a complicated, and fattening, way of avoiding my daily word count. Still, making biscuits is more fun than the endless vacuuming I found myself doing when I was trying to revise for my RHS level 2 exams.

Fortunately my daily walks with Sybil go some way towards ensuring that my bottom doesn’t take on bus-like dimensions as I sit in front of the computer.

These walks also give me a chance to get outside to enjoy my favourite season.

Enough! I have biscuits to bake. No, what am I saying? I have a novel to write. My cardboard characters are demanding a better plot. They say their situations are boring, their motives shaky. I am inclined to agree*. All my baking, walking, gardening**, quilting***, knitting, and blogging, have conspired against The Great Project. It is now 2,000 words behind schedule. Back to the grindstone.

* I don’t really care though, the exhilarating thing about Nanowrimo is that you just plough on, churning out words without a backward glance. I know that when the 1st of December dawns I will have some cringe-inducing prose awaiting me, but I will have thrashed out the framework for a story I’ve been thinking about for years.

**Despite several mornings on my knees, I still have 200 bulbs left to plant. 

*** It’s finished! I will write a post about this later. 

PS If anyone wants the recipes, just leave a message and I’ll post them as soon as I can. I’m sure it’s alright to post someone else’s recipe as long as it’s credited. Just can’t face typing them up right now.

jess quinn

Quirky, disturbing, beautiful, strange, exquisite – take your pick – it’s hard to settle on the one adjective that best describes Jess Quinn’s work. Impossible too, to categorise; are her creations toys or sculptures, fine art or craft? Or all of the above?

Having trained as a painter, studying fine art at Glasgow, Jess returned to Bristol with only the vaguest idea of where her work might lead. Her career took a familiar turn at this point, stalling after the birth of her first child. But she channelled her creativity into drawing, knitting and sewing, primarily for her growing family.

I first met Jess five years ago, around the time when she was thinking about going into business selling bespoke children’s knitwear. Her children’s hats were the envy of the playground – fabulous creations including a crown complete with knitted cabouchons and ermine, and a monster hat writhing with tentacles.

But as any knitter knows, it’s hard to make the cost of labour and materials add up when the highstreet is awash with £10 tams in myriad colours. Added to which, Jess knits intuitively, sculpturally, feeling her way with the yarn, rather than working up a pattern. Each creation was worked afresh, so making a living through selling the patterns was never really an option. “Besides,” she explains, “knitting these things didn’t really allow me to go where I wanted to with my work.”

Two years ago, the painful separation from her partner of many years proved an unlikely catalyst for a change of direction in her work. She started drawing in earnest and this unleashed a curious cavalcade of dancers, clowns, acrobats and circus performers. These drawings, although works of art in their own right, are the jumping off points for her sculptures, as is her huge collection of textiles. “Materials suggest certain characters, and I like discovering what will happen with each individual piece. They are like storybook characters, I suppose.”

Each creation is brought to life over the course of many weeks. “I find that I become completely lost in the pleasure of the process,” she says, “I work on each piece as though it were a painting, and they simply grow.” Sometimes, she admits, she’s not entirely sure where and when to stop. Like Paula Rego, whose work is certainly an influence, there is always a strong sense of narrative to her creations, and this is something that she is keen to explore further by setting her characters in stage-sets, boxes and glass domes.

But Jess is aware that her work falls into uncharted territory, and to that end she has started to develop a few slightly more commercial strands to her work such as stationery, fabric designs and jewellery, all of which feature her fantastical characters. She has recently re-stocked her Etsy shop, and to celebrate its relaunch she is running a giveaway which you can enter by visiting her blog. Leave a comment by Friday 3rd June and you could win a brooch like the ones below. The brooches are made with hand-stitched felt, each one with a unique combination of colours, stitching and in some cases, ribbon. She calls them her Small Art collection, and it’s true, each brooch is a tiny work of art.