Monday, 28 November 2011

A tiny treasure trove

I went to one of my favourite places yesterday. Bloomsbury, in London. Once the home of several literary giants, including Charles Dickens, Dorothy L Sayers and Virginia Woolf. It’s steeped in atmosphere and charm, especially in a city that seems to sprout more retail chain outlets and big-name coffee shops by the day. Where have all the independent places gone? They may have all but vanished from the West End, but there are still plenty of them in Bloomsbury.

And one of the richest pickings of all is the tiny area around Lamb’s Conduit Street, just off Theobalds Road. It’s the home of some wonderful shops, cafés, bars and restaurants, not to mention The People's Supermarket. And you’ll even find a small independent publishing company. I love it round here, if you haven’t guessed by now. If you’re looking for unusual and beautiful Christmas gifts, whether for yourself (surely I’m not the only one who operates a one-for-you-and-one-for-me policy when buying presents) or someone else, you’ll be spoilt for choice here. When Christmas has become another memory, you’ll still find lots to buy or gaze at here. It’s a treasure trove.

Persephone Books is one of the jewels of Lamb’s Conduit Street. The company republishes books that have been largely (and unjustly) forgotten in recent decades. Some of the authors, such as Frances Hodgson Burnett, are still well known (although no longer household names), while others, such as the marvellous Dorothy Whipple, once sold in their millions yet had faded into obscurity until Persephone Books began to republish them. Although No. 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street is the Persephone office, the front of the ground floor is their bookshop, where you’ll find copies of all their titles as well as other enticements, such as packs of postcards, their exclusive tea towels and mugs. You can also pick up a copy of their magazine, Biannually, which includes a full catalogue of their books, plus features about the authors and news of forthcoming events. It’s a glorious shop and the books are unfailingly covetable. If you’re the sort of reader who’s left unsatisfied by many contemporary novels (not to mention some non-fiction books), you could find what you’ve been missing at Persephone Books. The quality of the book production alone is enough to gladden a dedicated reader’s heart, with their dove grey covers, carefully chosen endpapers, and forewords or afterwords by contemporary writers. If you buy a book in the shop, you’ll be given a bookmark that matches that book’s endpapers. Delightful.

One of the newest arrivals in Lamb’s Conduit Street is Private White VC, which sells men’s clothes inspired by the wardrobe of Jack White, who was a First World War soldier. If you’re like me in regretting the demise of British clothing manufacturing, you will be heartened to know that all the clothes sold in Private White VC are made in a factory in Manchester. And, neatly, it just happens to be the factory that was once owned by Jack White himself. The fabrics are woven locally too. As for the clothes themselves, they’re stylish and interesting. You will find great looking jackets, coats, shirts, trousers and jumpers there, as well as gloves, shoes and other accessories. Unfortunately, from a female perspective, they are only made for men. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

Two of my other favourite shops are just around the corner in Rugby Street. Ben Pentreath at No. 17 sells what it calls ‘good things for your home’, and they certainly are good. You’ll find everything from glass baubles to sofas, china jugs to prints and cards. Some of the ‘good things’ on sale are contemporary, others are antique. They have a particularly nice line in antique lustreware china, which is a hopeless weakness of mine.

If jewellery is your thing, then you’ll love Maggie Owen at No. 13. She sells highly collectable contemporary jewellery of the 'wow!' variety, made by a carefully chosen collection of European designers. The shop is beautifully laid out, with displays of necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. There are also cards and gloves (I spotted some very elegant pairs of elbow-length cashmere gloves on my last visit), as well as some enchanting fabric teddy bears and dogs.

And there are other shops in the area too. And cafés. And bars. But the four I’ve mentioned here are my current favourites. I often drift into them and have a good mooch about. The staff are always friendly and welcoming, and there is none of the unpleasant expectation that you get in some shops where you feel pressured to buy something simply because you’ve crossed the threshold. (For me, a cast-iron guarantee that I won’t be making that mistake twice.)

So if you’d like to enjoy your Christmas shopping this year, and buy some fabulous gifts while you’re at it, I’d suggest you head for this tiny corner of Bloomsbury. You never know what you’ll find.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Now showing

Sixteen months ago, I did something crazy. I applied to take part in a television series. I knew I didn't stand the remotest chance of being selected. Which only goes to show how wrong you can be.

I was very busy at the time and was avoiding as many Internet distractions as possible. But one hot June afternoon a voice inside my head said 'Log on to Twitter now'. I trust this voice because it gives me very good advice — it kept me away from the King's Cross Tube fire in 1987, and in 2001 it directed me straight to the house my husband and I bought when we moved out of London. It doesn't often pipe up but, when it does, I listen.

So I logged on. And the first thing I saw on Twitter — directly in my line of vision so I couldn't miss it — was a Tweet from Mary Portas (the retail guru often referred to as the Queen of Shops) asking if anyone wanted to get involved in her latest project. I've always been a big fan of Mary's and it sounded interesting, so I clicked on the link. And that's how it all started. 

The project is about the lamentable state of high street fashion for women over 40. Something dear to my heart as I often despair of what's on offer in the major chains, particularly out here in rural England. The clothes either make us look like teenagers or grannies. It seems it's a common problem, which is why Mary decided to create and design her own line of clothes. 

I was invited to an interview with the production team, said what I thought, and to my astonishment I was recruited from hundreds of applicants to be one of a team of six 'ordinary' women giving Mary our thoughts on everything from the shape and colour of clothes to the way our needs change as we get older. We met Mary roughly once every couple of months and there were some major fireworks along the way. There were also some good laughs. The whole experience was tremendous fun. I particularly enjoyed trying on the early prototypes of some of Mary's designs because a lot of them could have been made for me even though that wasn't the intention. It was fabulous to step into a dress and find that it not only fitted perfectly but looked great. That doesn't happen to me every day. 

There is just time to catch the entire three-part Channel 4 series here if you haven't already seen it. The series follows Mary from her initial decision to create her own range of clothes, through many twists and turns, to the opening of her shop within House of Fraser in London. It was a privilege to be involved, and I hope the shop is a huge success for Mary. She has worked so hard on it. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Cake tins and Christmas

It’s that time of year again. The point where the days speed up, so one minute it’s the autumnal equinox, then it’s time for the clocks to go back in late October. And, before you know it, it’s watch out for ghosts, get out the fireworks, on with the British Legion poppy and then suddenly we’re in the middle of November and hurtling towards Christmas at breakneck speed. When I was small, I would start my Christmas preparations weeks in advance, in the hope that this would somehow hurry up the arrival of my favourite time of year. It never did and my fevered anticipation was sometimes almost unbearable. Would Christmas never come?

I have the opposite experience these days. Christmas rushes up like an eager puppy hearing the first rattle of biscuits. The only answer is to get myself ahead of the game. So I’ve already baked two Christmas cakes, and now they’re cosily encased in greaseproof paper and stashed away to mature. Two cakes? It’s not because we eat Christmas cake uncontrollably in this house (although there was one notable Christmas when we’d already eaten the entire cake before the big day arrived) but because I give one away.

Each year, for the past twenty-five years, I’ve baked my Christmas cake in the square tin that used to belong to my grandmother. She was a brilliant baker and I always hope that some of her culinary art will rub off on me. After she died, my grandfather immersed himself in her cookery books and began to bake fantastic cakes as well. So every year, when I fish that square tin out of the back of the kitchen cupboard, I think of them both. It would be unimaginable not to use their tin to bake the Christmas cake – it’s an important part of my Christmas traditions. But this year, when the first cake had finished baking, there was a puddle of melted butter on the floor of the oven. One corner of my beloved old cake tin must have a tiny hole in it. Which means I should really get rid of it and buy a replacement. After all, that tin is at least forty years old, if not more. But somehow it’s almost part of the family. I may have to retire it from active service but I don’t think I can bear to chuck it out completely. Somehow, that would be cruel.