Monday, 28 September 2009

Andrew Motion, poetry, harvest festival and pastoral heaven

I’m in a very bucolic frame of mind. Yesterday was so beautiful weather wise that it was a joy to be in the great outdoors.

This northern part of Kent is known as The Garden of England and for a very good reason. The land doesn’t lend itself to large fields of cereals and nor does the soil. But it is suited to orchards and nut plats.

The nuts have all been harvested – those that escaped the wily squirrels – but the branches of the apple trees hang heavy with red rosy fruit. These orchards are tucked away amongst rolling hills, small fields and narrow lanes, bordered by native hedgerows. Trees frame every view.

The colours of these are beginning to turn, from darkest green to soft butter yellow, ruby red, lime green. From a distance the landscape looks as if it’s still the ancient forest that existed when the Jutes invaded – long before the Romans – obscuring small hamlets and cottages.

Lunching with friends in their garden yesterday the scene was about as perfect as it can get. We walked up through their fields, between the trees, through the gate and there spread before us was an incomparable view.

Ah me! Why do I moan about British weather; what a traitor I am to rush off to sunnier climes and foreign lands when we have such temperate weather and gorgeous countryside.

The sun has lost its stridency and yesterday it bathed the landscape in such a soft golden light that it seemed to glow. Across the valley was a scene from a picture book: roads and towns were obscured, traffic was absent and all around us was such a bounty of produce that it felt like a paradise.

I think Friday night put me in the right frame of mind to really appreciate the simple things of life. Firstly, I went to a poetry reading my Andrew Motion – the ex-poet laureate. The tone was right: his poetry is not in your face, he’s a man who reads softly and speaks hesitantly.

A poem about his mother’s horse being shod during his childhood conjured up memories of my own. His description of the place, the dog, the blacksmith and lane were evocative. I was back in Hardy country - in Mayor of Casterbridge mode - unspoilt rural England.

Afterwards I had to collect Best Beloved from the harvest festival. And this event always fills me with pleasure: if a large group of unrelated folk can meet in an old agricultural barn, sit on spiky bales of straw, eat the simplest of home made fare off bare trestle tables and have a great time then there can’t be much wrong with village life.

Tomorrow it may be raining and I shall be as grumpy as usual about our weather but for now I’m not complaining about the summer being over. Instead I’m looking forward to harvesting fat leathery pumpkins from the veg patch and collecting apples to crush into the freshest juice.

I’ll collect shiny mahogany conkers for the little boys up the road and have promised a friend our golden quince and mushy medlars for her conserves so I shan’t be consumed by guilt for leaving them to waste. Come on, roll on Autumn, I’m ready.


Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Real Thing - Dream on

In the UK we’re spoiled for good home design: from top notch designers in chic city centres to humble high street stores, there’s something for everyone at every price. Years ago good design was only for the rich (we Brits had had a bit of a go at good design in the fifties but had priced it out of most peoples grasp) then along came Habitat. Terence Conran’s shop transformed the homewares design scene.

We went from drab or gaudy, gross or dreary stuff to simple, toning, well-balanced and stylish. Suddenly sofa’s were boxy, tables were cubed, kitchen utensils were coloured and fabrics were crisp. No more curlicues, no more reeded coffee table legs or velvet pouffes. Other shops followed. We were suddenly into ‘good’ affordable design.

But Habitat stuff was not cheap. Much of it came from Europe where design had been an important element in furnishings: in Germany throughout the 1920’s and thirties, along with cool Scandinavian stuff and glitzy Italian gear. British stuff lagged behind.

But after a decade or two of Habitat stagnation set in. The good stuff on offer was expensive, the cheap stuff rubbish. Until Ikea. Be as rude as you like about it – some things are tat but the majority is perfectly fine and excellent value - but Ikea offers decent ‘design’ to the masses.

Some of it is so cheap – who wants it to last – that anyone can afford it. Every student digs and Buy-to-Let flat is furnished from Ikea. There are copycat retailers and superstores now and even the big department stores offer economy ranges to try and tempt the closet Ikea shopper.

But still some are sniffy: the design snobs. I’ve just been reading a piece in The Times by Stephen Bayley decrying Homebase for copying a design classic: the Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe. Of course it’s not as good as the original, of course it doesn’t have the same panache.

The materials are inferior, the lines less fine, the proportions not as pleasing. Boy, would I love an original. But then an original Barcelona chair would knock me back £4,350: the Homebase one three hundred quid. And I’ve always drooled over an original Corbusier lounger, but I’ll never have the spare cash to buy one.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York they had a great display of chairs when I went. The great names of Avante Garde and Modernist chair design - Corbusier, Breuer, Dieckmann, Thomas, Aalto – are in museums all over the world. But in New York there was the Butterfly chair. Years ago I bought one.

Yes, it was a copy of the original design. It was great fun. Everyone who came to our house wondered how to sit in it. No-one wanted to get out of it when they did. No-one could get out of it as it happens. Because I owned it I got to experience what the design was all about. Original Butterfly chairs are worth a lot of money now but they were too expensive for me even then.

But when I saw it lined up there at the MOMA alongside the classics I had a little smug grin. I had recognized a classic. I had bought into good design. Admittedly a rather lowly one compared to the Mies van der Rohe’s chair but nevertheless a classic in its own way. Now Starkey would deny me that.

I think it’s great to experience the real thing (admittedly even better to own one) to appreciate what good design is all about - back to those materials, lines and proportions – but if aspiration is all most of us can afford it’s really quite nice to go home, sit in one’s own humble copy, forget the design snobs and dream.