Back in Oxfordshire after some time in London last week, flower market-ing and stocking up on paper supplies and checking up on the building works at Jesse’s new flat. Which is beautiful ~ Victorian, high ceilinged, tall windowed with a view over a grove of nobbly plane trees and the trendy wine bar opposite. It is all being tarted up, Farrow & Ball-ed, but I quite like it the way it is now – a raw shell, the colour of setting plaster, with wonky wooden floorboards chipping flakes of white paint. The fish & chip joint around the corner is life altering, if you are into that sort of thing.
We sleep on a mattress on the floor, make curtains of dust sheets and eat dinner on packing boxes among tool-kits and internal scaffolding. In the fridge there is a bottle of Tattinger and a couple of stubbies left by the previous owner – the former a congratulatory gift, the latter abandoned, I expect. It feels very much like the end of an era. And so the beginning of a new one.
There is completely absurd blossom everywhere in London. Great clouds of fragile spring blossom and fully blown magnolia. Except that it isn’t nearly spring. It makes Jesse anxious; she is thinking of our spring bride who has asked for acres of plump pink cherry blossom for her wedding. Oh sure! we said, back in the autumn. [It will all be fine.]
Seeing as we're in town and starved for it, we take in a bit of culture. It would be a shame not to. Last year we visited Chiswick House and vowed to come back and see the camellias in bloom. So we do. When we arrive the glasshouse is closed to the public in preparation for the upcoming Camellia Show but by some extraordinary stroke of luck a benevolent gardener takes pity at our crestfallen faces behind the locked door and allows us in for half an hour, resulting in a sublime private viewing of the most magnificent collection I have ever seen. The oldest collection under glass in the Western world.
If you are a camellia admirer the experience is almost painfully intoxicating and you must go; the festival is on until 20 March. In the conservatory are thirty-three different varieties of C. japonica, many of which are originals from the 1828 planting, some of which are the earliest varieties introduced to Britain. We make our way down the path in reverential silence broken only by the occasional intake of breath or the dull thud of a heavy bloom hitting the ground. A row of resplendent pinks and stripes and milky whites cradled among glossy leaves; Middlemist's Red, Imbricata, Chandleri, Alba Plena, Aitonia, Corallina, Rubra Plena, Variegata, Pompone.
Later we head over to the Annie Leibovitz exhibition Women: New Portraits in East London. Interesting to get to ~ the walk from Tower Hill takes you through a cityscape not unlike Andover crossed with District 12. Where are we? I ask Jesse, who is darkly marching ahead while I trail back trying to figure out my Google maps, which has taken it upon itself at this opportune moment to be confused and tell me that we are in the Thames. I don’t catch her reply but it's probably the arse end of nowhere.
We sure don't take the scenic route, if there is one. Not a soul on the deserted streets but rain and a post-apocalyptic sense of never-ending déjà vu. Endless yellow-brick closes and half-constructed blocks of Baltic-looking flats with perplexing billboard advertisements of couples sporting all-beige, unconvincingly chopping peaches together in black granite kitchens. Presumably these ads are irresistable to beige-wearers aching to expend their city-earned millions on making a home in an annihilatingly ugly suburb. Bizarre though, with the peaches.
At some point we pass the optimistically named Ornamental Canal and then ~ at last ~ freezing and grouchy we stumble into a reassuringly swanky restaurant in one of the wharf buildings, which it turns out is where everyone else in Wapping is too, eating pasta. Revived by spaghetti and a cute Italian waiter we forge on to Wapping Hydraulic Power Station arts space (impossibly hipster, this) and spend the afternoon sitting in the vast ex-industrial cavern, gazing up at giant-screened slideshows of visceral portraits ~ all women ~ politicians and actresses, show girls and self portraits; they meander from one to the next like a train of thought. I love Leibovitz’s work, atmospherically charged, luminous light and colour, the way her portraits seize the most fleeting of emotions, moods, intimacy, reaction. The show has just finished in London but it moves on to New York next, followed by San Francisco, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Zurich, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Singapore. If you are local to any one of those cities I’d recommend the trip.
Back in Oxfordshire, I have bulwarked myself into the cottage while yet another stormy squall tantrums outside. Somewhere on the M40 I succumbed to a cold and it couldn’t be a more fitting moment for it ~ the second week of February, persistent rainstorms and galeforce winds coinciding with the weepy finale to the best BBC drama of the winter.
Here I intend to remain, endeavouring to recover in time for V day when I'll be bestowing bouquets from my Barbara Streisand emiting van to starry-eyed maidens around Oxford and West London. In future years I'd like to expand my repertoire to include Schubert's Violin Sonata in A major, Bionda Castana heels, silk lingerie and white doves, but this year it'll just be the blooms. Or if you prefer your flowers with designer coffee and Mast Brothers chocolate, come on down to Quarter Horse Coffee at 76 Cowley Rd, Oxford where we will have small bouquets for sale to complement your latte-(he)art on Saturday 9am ~ 6pm or Sunday 10am ~ 6pm.
For now I have chopped logs, lemons and brandy. And the imminent arrival of Darryl in the Ocado Apple van with Day Nurse. It could be worse.