Guerilla Garden Grows

It’s almost a year since I mentioned my forbidden garden: the plants in pots I’ve smuggled on to the roof. Here it is today, on a murky Tower Hamlets morning.

It’s growing. There’s a leggy hydrangea that had been given up for dead, not far off opening into handfuls of white blossom. Sweet peas are climbing up a thriving bougainvillea among the violas.  I bought that for a pound, to use as an attractive stick, as the stall holder said it had had it. It’s a bit of an interloper in my urban cottage garden but can only add to the life among the bricks and concrete.

The bright pink pelargonium is part of an original more than 16 years old: it sat on a Barbican  balcony all that time until my daughter’s father brought it here a few months ago. The white peony smells sweet and delicious: my husband bought it for our 4th wedding anniversary (‘flowers and fruit’) and was disappointed that it wasn’t the blowsy red dramatic version I remember from my gran’s garden. I think it’s perfect.

A constant supply of ants covered the three tight peony buds and I have to confess to some ignorant attempts at formic cleansing,involving dregs of coffee cups. Then we found out they are needed to open the buds. Well, there’s a thing.

The peony is next to a rose of almost blue, from Watney Market, some fading snapdragons and more sweet peas: my favourite flower (apart from all the others.) It’s the first year I’ve kept them alive so long, on a roof blasted by wind and scorched by sun.

I still have to wash the bay leaves very, very thoroughly, as  various people who wander the roof still see a public urinal sign that’s invisible to me. The caretaker is still turning a blind eye and the bees are back in force.

I set up my wobbly wooden table to write. I’ve reached an understanding with the lone magpie who hovers around, explaining that I am not superstitious and so will not say good morning to him. The peregrines that usually roost over the way don’t seem to be around this year. I blame the invading parakeets. But there’s a single blackbird too, at dusk, with the loveliest song.



Polling Day: barefoot and no biscuits.

East London  Suffragettes Festival
East London
Suffragette Festival

Dawn over the rooftops of Bethnal Green. Not quite sunset over the Florida Keys but the photo on Twitter was enough to inspire me to go on my Stepney roof for a picture early this Polling Day.

It’s a flat roof; I’m not stupid. Achilles tendons screaming in protest at tiptoeing over rain-soaked moss between the stone tiles, I hear the unmistakable sound of the front door slamming shut behind me. My mobile, with perfect comedy timing, beeps and dies.

Husband has left for work; daughter sleeps in an exam-, revision- and not-much- past-dawn-induced coma. Stage whispers through the letterbox and gentle knocking are not enough so after ten minutes I am shrieking and yelling and booting the door. Ow. Barefoot.

She’s up, with a pale face and unopened eyes, clutching a cat. No words.

I’m not telling her it’s Polling Day.

When she was little, I took her with me to vote.  In 2001, I was on the Home Office’s new press desk that dealt with electoral matters. I put together a briefing document for the media. On paper, digital natives; I know.

I talked often and excitedly to her about how we were able to get rid of bad people in charge, if we didn’t think they were doing good things, and could stop worse people trying to be tell us what to do. About the long, hard struggle of workers and women and how we must always, always, ALWAYS use our special, wonderful votes.

‘That’s right: they’re a sort of magic.’ She came along to the polling station expecting a form of Narnia and scowled at the tall City of London policeman on the door. ‘They didn’t even give us a biscuit!’

She wasn’t convinced and delivery of the suffragette movement for school history certainly hasn’t given her my passion for the mandate. It’s a shame she wasn’t studying here, in the heart of the East London Suffragette movement: look what’s happening to celebrate them soon.

Next elections, she’ll be old enough to vote. She will and I will and you should: today and all the polling days.

Takeaway at Death Cafe

Death Cafe, San Carlos
Death Cafe, San Carlos

No, no skulls in a brown paper bag or zombie food in an insulated box. Nothing morbid.

Morbid. That’s the word I ran into, again and again, when I said I was going to my first Death Cafe. ‘Morbid’, said my mum and daughter and the man at the underground sweetie shop.  Underground as in Tube: nothing morbid.

It’s possible I might not have picked up on the idea of an event where people meet to eat cake and talk about death, had it not been for my dad dying. I found myself reading more about death online and went to the first #DeathSalonUK (attracted by the idea of intellectuals gathering, I admit.) I read about Dying Matters’ Awareness Week, well underway this week with stacks of impressive national print, broadcast and online coverage.

Raising the subject of death has invariably met with a shudder and a desire to change the subject among most people I know, in case they catch it or something. Now there’s the feel of something of a cultural shift, where there is more openness in acknowledging death. I’m sure there’s plenty of research into whether it’s the case but I think so (QED.) Huge hat tip to whoever came up with #YODO, by the way: You Only Die Once. Inspired.

So, I decided to go to Cafe Rouge at Hampstead on Monday. There’s a cultural shift for a start, when you live in Stepney. Rather a dearth of fried chicken and sari shops in Hampstead. Cute coffee bars and designer clothes shops and sunshine combined to help my cheerful mood but I know that having my mind on death honestly contributed.

I fairly skipped along, in a ‘Hello, busker! Hello, prep school kids! I’m alive!’ cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Fotherington-Thomas from the sublime Molesworth books.

Fotherington Thomas, a wet and a wede,  sa Molesworth
Fotherington Thomas, a wet and a wede, sa Molesworth

The upstairs room was packed, mainly with women of all ages. There were large tables and smaller ones: I chose a table for four and am glad I did. We started talking almost straight away, before organiser Josefine Speyer rang her little bell to say this was the first anniversary of Death Cafe at that venue. She explained there was no agenda for discussion and that each table had a facilitator, who each identified her- or himself.

With growing interest in Death Cafes, there were a number of journalists present, Josefine said. I wondered if it might be like the mythical Ku Klux Klan meeting, where every sheet hid an undercover reporter, but they all stood up and said they’d be happy to speak to anyone who wanted to afterwards. Anyone who didn’t want to be photographed could also stay off camera.

My table had a journalist, who was frank, charming and made a real contribution to the discussion. We four talked families and funerals and how we did NOT want to die (in pain and without any capacity for choice.) One woman was wonderfully pragmatic; her instructions for conveying her to the Dignitas clinic are in a cupboard but I’m not telling you which one.

We laughed quite a lot. After about an hour and a quarter, which sped by, there was a general session to offer views. One man thought the waiters were obtrusive. ‘Antonio? Never!’ cried everyone else.

My own happy highlight was nervously raising my plan for Dad’s ashes next month, which my table liked. Relief. They’ve been at the undertaker’s since January and I haven’t been able to raise the subject with Mum. This week gave me the impetus to do so. He adored watching the Red Arrows and never missed a display: when they fly over at Folkestone Air Show next month, we’ll be near the cliffs and he can join the coloured smoke trail in the air.

Dying matters. Let’s talk about it.










Just like my daughter

My daughter is one of only two white girls at her East London school of 1,400. She may be the only one; she is unsure about a fleeting glance she caught of a younger girl. Nearly all of her Year 12 friends are Muslims, from Bangladeshi or Somali families. They’re studying science AS levels and want to go to university. Just like my daughter.

Most of the girls wear headscarves. She was excited at going on a residential field trip a few weeks ago: “I’ll get to see their hair!” They spent the evenings chatting and giggling, swapping sweets and studying. Just like my daughter

Over the last few days, my daughter has got swishy new specs from a hip new City optician. She’s been on a day trip to the Royal Veterinary College: her first university visit. There were lots of girls, practising sutures and listening to lectures, full of plans for their careers. Just like my daughter.

She’s watched Game of Thrones and gazed adoringly at Jon Snow (even though he knows nothing), and been angry and upset by the rape of Craster’s wives: some of them just young girls. Just like my daughter.

And back in a world as random and horrific as anything Westeros can devise, she’s been shocked beyond telling, reading about and listening to the news about the girls in Nigeria. Girls of 17,  sitting their  exams. Girls from loving families. Just like my daughter.

May the Fourth: 4 by 4

May the 4th is Star Wars Day. It’s my wedding anniversary, by happy coincidence: we chose it to make a long Bank Holiday for people coming from abroad.

It’s also our 4th anniversary and I like the number 4. I voted for it as the world’s favourite number – see no. 7 here (I think seven cheated to win.) So I though I’d find four groups of four things about our wedding, with the four photos above.

Four Musical Things:

The Swedish Wedding March. A nod to my background by birth, for going into the register office. We’ve heard all the jokes about strangling cats, thanks.

Nick Cave: Straight to You. There had to be St Nick, forced upon a captive audience. The setting limited our choice a bit. One other devotee was happy and she’d traveled from the States; several older guests who’d come from Kent and Herts had a little doze.

North Sea Radio Orchestra. For one reason only. First dance: shortest piece of music from a band we both love.

Arash: Boro Boro. Because you’ve got to have an Iranian-Swedish crowd-pleaser. And everyone gets to do hand-waving and make up their own words.

Four Decorative Things:

Life-sized plastic horse. You can see him behind the table if you zoom in. I’ve said it before, the London Canal Museum is the best place for a party. It’s got the horse AND one of the only ice wells you can look into.

Place names: Friend did the nice writing, paper cut into strips and stuck with a pin through a pink heart chocolate. Soppy but nice. With the replacement of a black jelly baby pinned through the heart for our much-loved Welsh Goth.

Confetti cones. Not to be quirky or wedding-magaziney but because I enjoyed using old wrapping paper and sheet music to make them. And our two bloke ushers looked amusing carrying them.

Orders of Service: Sister-in-law enlisted to help cut paper as above, stick on more paper with song and poem titles, stamp with special name and date stamp, thread with ribbon and shove a bit of rosemary through the ribbon. Took ages: looked lovely. Which brings me on to –

Four Things I Forgot:

Orders of Service. Left at home. My daughter tried to tell me as we got in the cab but I didn’t listen. Sigh.

Vases. Carrier bags with the little vases I’d found in charity shops over months, for flowers on the tables, left under the table with the above. The flowers looked just as good in bar glasses.

Marylebone Register Office waiting room: It is lovely. Actually, they forgot to tell me it existed so Best Friend and I went to Starbucks before and I had to tiptoe around on a ladies’ floor with rather more urine on it than is acceptable.

Sense of humour: Starbucks and the rain made me a bit hacked off for a while. Sorry, Mum and Amelia.

Four Brilliant Things:

Going through London on our own big red bus on the opening day of the Elephant Parade.

My nervous daughter reading poetry in front of loads of people.

Friends from all over and from all stages of our lives.

Family for the first and last time they’ve all been together. Four of my half siblings made it. My birth father. And all four of my and Steve’s parents.