Old hat?



Black and white photos used to seem old hat, in the heady 1980s when all photographs were in bright technicolour. My father loved to take black and white photos in the 1960s and 70s and used to develop them at home in a dark room (the bathroom).  A single special bulb would illuminate his bathing of the photographic paper in a sequence of chemicals.  Once colour had taken over it was too complicated to develop photos at home and he would send away the negatives by post, to receive the colour prints in return many days later.  Those colours are now faded in family albums, the yellow too dominant, skirts too short, the smiles forced.  We were not used to posing for photographs in those days, long before the ubiquitous camera phone and the selfie were invented.  Each call for ‘smile please’ or ‘cheese’ greeted with suspicion or indifference.


How different then, the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson which is on show now at the Sainsbury Centre (SCVA) in Norwich.   His black and white photographs chronicle life in Paris from 1929 to 1985 and capture the essence of each subject through apparently very simple scenes.  A young boy, dressed in clothes which are too large for him, stares at the ground, ignoring the photographer who can only be irrelevant to his poverty.  A more joyful scene shows a group of school girls looking out at the view over the Seine from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, their school capes dating their uniform and making them part of a long-gone era.  There are photos of porters at the big market in Les Halles, known nowadays for a large metro interchange and a shopping mall.  One photo shows a porter with a flatbed trolley, carrying an enormous carcass of raw meat, which takes up the centre of the picture, wholesale in size and intensity. This is no holiday snap, the men do not smile, they have been captured doing their job, this was their daily reality.


Cartier-Bresson took many photographs of famous writers and artists, including one here of Jean-Paul Sartre looking nonchalant and effortlessly cool on the Pont des Arts.  The Swiss artist Giacometti, is shown walking across the road, in action, as in so many of his ‘Walking Man’ sculptures, featured in another current exhibition at the SCVA.


Cartier-Bresson portrayed Parisians from a variety of social backgrounds.  One photo is of an ordinary middle-aged man alone in a café, looking out of the window, he may be waiting for someone or just watching the world go by.  He looks bemused and if not quite fearful, certainly isolated.  Likewise a photo of plasterers taken in the 1930s, is proof of what looks like a terrible life.  The workers are standing in front of a mountain of cloth, with more piled up in front of them.  They are covered in plaster dust and stand upright to have their photograph taken in what must have been a miserable and filthy working day.


There is a contrast in the photos between the truly shocking slums of Nanterre, which look more like the shacks of Nairobi or Rio de Janeiro and the relative riches of a fashion show, where the ladies present are well dressed, hatted and all eyes for the new fashion ideas on display.  One woman has the confidence to lean forward and feel the cloth as the model passes close by.


Black and white photography gives this exhibition a strong sense of frame and contrast as well as a clear message for us to view.  In these captured moments, Cartier-Bresson reflected the world around him and each choice of subject and surroundings give us an intimate likeness of what he saw in Paris through the decades of the last century.


The Story Machine



The best part of the Norfolk &Norwich Festival this year was…well there was so much I enjoyed that it’s hard to isolate one part of it.  I went to poetry readings and short films at Fierce Light, I  cycled by the public duke box belting out music at full pelt in Chapelfield Gardens and spent a memorable evening watching a large piece of redundant car-making machinery in motion with two acrobats.  The most delicious event, however, was the one I booked at the last minute, after seeing a post on Twitter and deciding to take a risk and spend yet more money on tickets.  I told my husband and he decided he was up for the outing as well, so I bought another ticket and off we went to Dragon Hall, which now houses the Writers’ Centre and hosted The Story Machine as part of the 2016 festival.


To my shame I had never previously visited Dragon Hall, even though it’s on my doorstep and is frequently mentioned in tourist information for this area.  Why is it that you have to host visitors before you go and see the famous attractions in your area?  Is it just me or does everyone leave the 2nd eleven sights until they have to find an outing for guests?  As we found somewhere to park and approached Dragon Hall, I was already feeling smug, knowing that even if the event was boring I could finally say that I had visited Dragon Hall and of course I’m familiar with its medieval delights!


It turned out that the venue enhanced the event in many ways.  The ‘other worldliness’ of a hall built in the 1420s, with oak beams standing out against uneven white walls and a soaring ceiling height, together with the size of the hall, was well suited to the audience of about 100 people.


The event lasted three hours, which normally would be a long evening at the theatre or a concert but in this case flashed past as we made a decision each half hour about which room to go to and which story to listen to, from the comprehensive leaflet we were given on arrival.  The first session gathered everyone together in the Great Hall and a unnerving tale was read to us by the author dressed in scrubs, about a difficult medical situation with ethical consequences.  I was gripped and as I was seated in the front row, was the recipient of a lucky charm mentioned in the story.   I’m a sucker for a free sample and it brought me even closer to the storyteller.  What a start!


During the evening the bar was open selling cocktails designed to follow the theme of each story.  Cocktails are not really my thing, I’d rather have a glass of wine, but it was great to see that the event was attended not only by old stick in the muds like us, but by plenty of young folk who enjoyed the stories and the cocktails.


Each story was brought to life by being read aloud and had one additional channel of communication.  In the first, the reader was dressed in character, in others some slides were shown, music played or on the case of a Katherine Mansfield story, one or two key props were used.  Here it was an inkpot and pen, as the heartbreak of two men was portrayed, due to the loss of their sons in WWI but they still maintained a stiff upper lip.  On arrival we had to book to see the Electrification Trilogy, which took place down in the under croft, with only candles for lighting and a rather small stone ledge for seating.  A memorable section of this was acted out as a soliloquy and was in turns funny and tragic, as a woman bemoaned the coming of electricity to her village, as she could now see the squalor in which she lived.


Having enjoyed Here we Are, by Lucy Caldwell, I was tempted into buying a copy of her book, and am now immersed in her northern Irish short stories, each one a pearly treat to be savoured like the last boiled sweet.


Being read to is very relaxing and immersive, you can close your eyes and let the story take you away in a way that’s hard to do in our over busy world.   The Story Machine took me back to the excitement and delight of being read to as a child and also of reading aloud to my own children when they were young.  So, bravo to The Story Machine, please come again next year.

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It took months of physio to heal my husband’s injured shoulder, no he didn’t do it chopping firewood in the garden or lifting a sofa into place or even taking out the bins, but with a sudden movement, lifting his arms above his head and striking a pose, in imitation of a male Flamenco dancer.  It is nearly four years now since our daughter was au-pairing in southern Spain and we went out to see her and visit the beautiful city of Seville.  Part of our tour of the city included a visit to the Flamenco museum and in a darkish room I remember a wall of mirrors, encouraging you to copy one of the poses shown in photographs on the wall and to think about the hours of practice the dancers put in.  I swished my imaginary skirts and my husband clasped his hands together and raised them above his head, olé and oops, that was it, a pose too far for a novice with no experience of Flamenco dance moves.


Last Saturday we were lucky enough to watch a display of Flamenco, there was a woman, a man and a guitarist, all Spanish, chatting to one another in the lingo, ‘shall we sing that one?’ ‘yes, you dance first and I’ll follow on,’ and so on.

The wooden floor reverberated as the woman dancer put her head up and marched to and fro, holding up her long flounced skirts at knee level.  She twirled and stamped, singing as she went, the man also joining in as her dancing became all consuming.  The polka dots on her dress were black on white and everything about her was clean lines, definite and certain.  Each angle of the head was chosen with care and held with precision.  She slowed down and re-captured every single audience member’s attention before slowly building up the pace again, all of us entranced by the speed of her tapping feet and clapping hands. The Flamenco dancers I have previously seen have always been very solemn, but this woman smiled throughout, she loved what she was doing and it came across at every moment of her performance.  She smiled at the audience, directly into your eyes, not just a general smile and she grinned at her dancing partner when they were on stage together.


The man had his turn and strutted out with his hands on his hips, tight black trousers, little black waistcoat swinging and dark hair greased back out of the way.  He struck an attitude with his whole body, sharing an arrogance and a proud Southern Spanish heritage.  He tapped his slightly raised heels on the wooden floor, starting with a slow sultry pace, giving  smouldering looks to no one in particular.  Stamping faster and faster, he created a frenzy  using his arms above his head (see above!) to create a physical manifestation of the ache and anguish of centuries.   Flamenco has a long history of passing on the tragic, traditional stories of the Andalucian people, through singing and dancing.  It is unusual to see it performed here in the UK but these performers encapsulated the spirit (known as the duende) of Flamenco and gave it to us, the audience, as a gift.


After the display we were encouraged to stand up and learn a few foot stamps, claps and twirling of the hands, as well as the hands-on-hips pose for extra attitude, which made you really feel the part.  As the audience comprised folk aged 21 to over 80, this was ideal, as there was no movement of the feet apart from stamping and everyone joined in, even my husband, who was careful not to repeat his shoulder injury!  It was a 21st birthday party and we were so pleased to have been invited and to share in this proud Flamenco heritage, olé !



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Ready for Change?


Adapt or die.  That’s the Darwinian absolute for each species but can I have a note excusing me please?  ‘Dear World, Please excuse Amanda from any further adaptation as she has already adapted to sooo many new things, from hoverboards to solar chargers.’ Well, actually I haven’t actually got a hoverboard or a solar charger but I have learned lots of new techhie stuff over the past five years, haven’t we all?


I now rely on my ipad for catch up tv, radio, electronic diary and electronic contacts.  Like all converts I am over-zealous and keen to spread the word.  If you haven’t changed your tatty little address book for an electronic contacts list then you’re missing a trick.  Equally, if you and your partner still write in a paper diaries, then consider a change to a common online diary, so much easier to keep up to date, you can even choose a different colour for each participant!


It has taken me six months to adapt to the new laptop, everything is different and more complex than you could imagine if you just want to browse the net and type.  Most of the guidance is online now but luckily I was given a paper manual which has helped me to transition from one operating system to another.



So I can do change but I must admit that my heart groans when something from my daily life has to change.  Yes I know, it’s good for you to adapt, not get set in your ways.  But still, what a pain it was recently when I replaced my mobile phone cover, to find that the new one fits the other way round to my old one and although it gave my family pleasure to tease me about having to adapt, it is such a nuisance to have to relearn how to flip open the case (what used be upside down) and have the mobile ready for use.  That will teach me to buy cheap phone cases from the market, I bet the proper branded goods don’t change about.  I have pretty much sorted out my phone case now but the next hassle was changing pillows.  What a petty problem but surprisingly important.  I’m sure none of you suffer from the infernal problem that your old pillow is so flat, it’s squashed down like a pancake and keeps your head only half a centimetre off the mattress.  Any new pillow though, is just far too bouncy.  New pillows seem to delight in being like an enthusiastic puppy, just a bit too  energetic for me.


I do better with changes I can prepare for.  I had heard and read about ‘empty nest syndrome’ before my youngest went off to uni and I was ready when it happened.  Determined to guard against feeling miserable due to my ‘empty nest’, I made sure I was well occupied, out of the house for long hours and busy once I returned.  The plan worked; I missed him terribly but I didn’t have time to dwell on it and I was only too happy to realise that it was soon time for him to come home for Christmas.   When my daughter got married I had a whole year to get used to the change of her living permanently in a different part of the country.  The year leading up to the wedding was busy with preparations and I adapted gradually to the fundamental change, which was consolidated once she was living with her husband.  Now I’m used to my empty nest and enjoy my new freedoms, whilst always looking forward to the next visit home from either of the youngsters.


Big lifestyle changes then, I can plan for and sort out.  It’s the little things that trip me up and make me return to my cave muttering.  Do I embrace change?  Not unless I have to!!


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Hang the rules!



Let’s be free spirits and hang the rules!  Oh yes, the rules that governed the fifties are no longer relevant.  Ten things you don’t have to do any more, unless you actually want to:


  1. Avoid hanging washing out to dry on a Sunday.
  2. Wear a tie to church (men only).
  3. Wear a hat to church (women only).
  4. Eat your evening meal seated at a table.
  5. Writing a thank you letter, a text will do.
  6. Listen to your elders, what do they know?
  7. Answer phone calls away from other people, so as not to disturb others.
  8. Stop swearing in public.
  9. Wait for everyone to be served before starting a meal.
  10. Stop at a red traffic light.


Wait a moment…numbers 1 to 9 on that list are no longer expected by all in the 21st century.  If you look at numbers 4 to 9 you may see that although it is now commonplace to see people ignoring these guidelines, good manners would dictate that you still refrain from these actions.  Whether it’s writing real thank you letters, holding back from swearing in public or waiting for everyone to be ready before you dig into your lasagne, these are all highly desirable and whilst they may no longer be obligatory, they are all signs of civilised folk.  You can send a text to Aunt Flossie to thank her for the cheque for £25 (which you had to find an actual bank in order to cash) but you might give her the surprise of her life if she receives a text on the mobile which she ‘only uses to make phone calls’.


Equally, you can pretend to listen while Uncle Albert is telling you about his days in the army or you can actually do him the pleasure of listening properly and take an interest in his army japes and death-defying near misses.


There is no rule that you must take your mobile away from a group in order to answer a call and indeed, on trains people chat away on the phone, regardless of who is being forced to listen.  Good manners would dictate that you keep your voice down at the least and move somewhere more private if at all possible but as you will know to your cost, these are not rules followed by many people.


We are not so hung up on rules nowadays, although many of the old rules are seen as good manners and are still desirable to promote the good of the many, over the loud voices and actions of the few.


The last item on the list though, stopping at a red light, that is still compulsory, isn’t it?   I ask because you wouldn’t know it if you sat at any set of traffic lights in my city.  It used to be that you went through the amber if it would be dangerous to stop.  Now, drivers accelerate when they see the amber light and then as many pile through on the red as possible.  When the drivers in the other direction start moving there are frequently a couple of stragglers still turning.  I know that you’ll understand what I mean because it’s everywhere.  Each driver seems to think, ‘poor me, I’ve waited so long at these lights, I deserve to go across’.  Even worse, is when the last few drivers don’t clear the junction but then queue directly across the other carriageway, you know who you are!!  As for motorbikes zooming down the middle of the road over hatched areas, don’t get me started!


As far as I know the Highway Code is still taught as part of the driving test and is not open to personal interpretation.  Good manners and many rules are based on a bit of order to keep everyone safe and well looked after and help us to live harmoniously together.  So let’s forget about wearing hats to church but I would welcome a return to drivers stopping at red lights.


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The Houseplant Mystery


The elephantine cheese plant is dead, long live the cactus!  Janice Turner in her recent article in The Times commenting on interior design, stated that houseplants are only for ‘old ladies’ and that ‘anything beyond a pot of basil is naff’.  How easy it is to sneer, I know, as I can be sneery myself but in this case I think she is wrong, wrong, wrong.


You will be imagining now that I live with spider plants growing up between the cracks in the floorboards and their babies in miniature cots on the bookshelves; cacti occupying every surface in the front porch to warn thieves with their deadly prickles; and a rubber plant so large that it completely blocks the kitchen window but proudly bearing the name Mr Elastic on a pottery label I made at an evening class. Not quite.  But the humble houseplant does indeed occupy some space here at home and people do often comment on our plants.  I would venture that this is not because they are unfashionable, but because other folk have fewer or weedier plants in their homes.


Garden centres seem to sell every houseplant you could imagine and many are given as presents.  What happens though, once they are unwrapped and installed at home is that …you find a windowsill for them, give them some water and then water them again a week later, they lose a few leaves and the remaining leaves start to get little brown patches on.  Seeing this, you spring into action with some plant food and try to perk them up with a bit more attention, maybe even moving them to another windowsill.  Two weeks later they produce a single flower and next time you look at them, they have died… crispy, leafless, nothing but a stalk left!  You put the plant pot quietly by the back door and later that month buy another one from the garden centre.   This is due to the tyranny of the plant present giver, who may at any time return to your home and naively expect to see a healthy plant specimen.


I am lucky that my husband studied botany as part of his degree.  He spent many an hour looking at ferns and grasses and at the time I was, I have to admit, bewildered.  Now though, all that knowledge is a great and useful thing as he tends endlessly to our houseplants.  They are watered regularly, given a new spot if they look peaky, pruned occasionally and re-potted about once a year.  These key actions look simple but are more complex than they seem, as I know from the few plants I have tried to look after over the years; for details, see above.


We have inherited one plant which flourishes, tolerates both drought and over-watering and grows easily from cuttings.  From the original parent plant given to my daughter by her school biology teacher, there is now one plant here, one at my daughter’s house, one at my son’s London flat and one at my mother’s sheltered housing flat.  The strange thing about this plant is that we have never known its name.  It is the one pictured above, if you happen to know, please do let me know in the comment box below!


Fashionable, unfashionable, who cares?  Houseplants rule!


300 Years of Dance





Oh my aching ankles, too much tapping.  No, I haven’t started typing with my toes, it’s the result of my first dance lesson since I learned a bit of tap in my twenties.  I have been to a few ceilidhs and barn dances over the years and I absolutely love them.  It means you can dance with a whole group of people, drop in and out of the dancing when you need a rest or are ready to jig about again and you’re not dependent on your own partner wanting to dance. Win: win, as far as I’m concerned.



You may have heard last week on Angela Rippon’s TV programme, that dancing is apparently the best form of exercise to keep you young.  That coincided nicely with my friend J’s new project, to start a local dance class.  The qualities which attracted me to dance are all the things which apparently keep you young; meeting people, taking a variety of exercise and learning a new skill.  So far, it’s all looking good, nothing but advantages to this new venture.


The first 15 minutes looked very promising, my husband and I joined a group of eight others, pretty similar in age and appearance.  The unassuming tutor taught us a few steps and we paced them out; join hands, four steps in, four steps back, ladies in and clap, then the men and so on.  I was feeling confident, I could remember the sequence, pace out the steps and was ready for more.  I was possibly even over confident…  Next we added the waltz.  Now, I have always wanted to know how to waltz.  It seems to be one of those dances that some people were ‘taught at school?’ although it certainly wasn’t part of the curriculum at my senior school.  Anyway, it turns out that the waltz is all about triangles and I understand that concept.  Moving backwards across the dance floor with my female ‘male’ partner, I felt the rhythm of the waltz and could picture my feet drawing the little triangle on the floor as we progressed from one side of the room to the other.  I was so pleased with myself and still had plenty of energy.  The trouble started, dear reader, when we had to do a turning waltz as part of the dance sequence which had by now increased to more steps than you could imagine.  The tutor called out the steps and we all followed, some of us a step or two behind and then once in a while the instruction came for a turning waltz step, which meant a little jog on the spot for me until everyone else had turned around!  I started to warm up with all this activity and by break time was overheated and gasping like a fish for some barley squash, which made me feel I must be ill, as that’s the only time anyone ever drinks lemon barley squash isn’t it?


In the second half we were treated to a dance from the 1650s which was slower and more elegant.  The tutor kept referring to the men’s cloaks and swords and the ladies’ bustling gowns. I was transported to my very own Jane Austen novel (a later era I know, but apparently they used similar dances for many years).  I swept my imaginary gown as I turned around  and imagined myself with those long white gloves to complete the look.  There was no time to picture my hair with the curls and the embedded jewels, as the tutor kept us busy with a smouldering shoulder to shoulder touch, first left, then right and a zig zag walk into the middle of the circle.


The next stop was the 1920s and we were taught the basics of the Charleston.  Was it front back, back front or vice versa?  Tricky and fast, this dance also included a little tap tap, behind, across in front, tap tap and a quarter turn each time.  This meant that even when we made sure we were at the back of the group, after two quarter turns we quickly ended up at the front of the group and they were following us! My secret weapon in this dance was that little tap tap behind etc .  I remembered it from my tap dancing days and I felt so proficient that I even helped a couple of others to get their feet in the right place.


The last dance was a ceilidh dance and had several familiar elements, skipping down the middle of two rows of dancers, making an arch for others to go through and so on.  By now, I was ready for a rest and glad it would soon be home time.  This morning was another matter, muscles aching in my shins and ankles, hobbling round until I had reassured my legs that today is not a dancing day.  But there’s another class in a week or so and we’ll be there for some more fun.


Fact:  Next time you’re at a barn dance or ceilidh, when everyone holds hands to start with, look for a man who holds his hands out at about waist height, palms up, he probably knows what he’s doing, as that is apparently the right way to do it!


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