A visit to The Library of the Birds of London


The complete joy of hearing birdsong again is making up for a stop-start spring this year. And thinking about birds, I had a joyful visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in London last week, mostly to visit the giant aviary created by American artist, Mark Dion.

Only four visitors at a time are allowed in the aviary – well, four people and the twenty zebra finches who are temporarily living there. So you stand surrounded by birds completely ignoring you, going around their own business, pooing on books and making nests from the linings of hats…

And there’s something about how they absolutely don’t care they are an ‘art work’ that made me take time, to go slowly, to look again at all the artifacts around the aviary so very deliberately placed there. The books on cats, the bird books from all round the world, the photos of David Attenborough, all the exploring equipment, the amount of knowledge we  humans feel we need for such a simple thing as looking at birds…

I loved it, and thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s on until 13th May. It’s part of Mark Dion’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and culture, and includes a reading room with hand-made wallpaper featuring extinct animals (I heard a granny explaining that loudly to her grandson), findings from mudlarks, and so much more.


My favourite was finding out about the The Ladies’ Field Club of York. This was a previous exhibition for  the National Railway Museum in York, in which imaginary female amateur naturalists from the turn of the century set out on a field trip together.

Joy indeed. Here’s the artist talking about it…

Halfway to Heaven in Folkestone


Not quite a garden, but this website has done graveyards before so we’ve got form. And besides, this is amazing. It feels so secret and magical, that even the dandelions look as if they are meant to be there.


The Baptist Burial Ground in Folkestone has been left as an ‘island’ for more than 100 years, floating above the town. You have to go up some steps to get there, and I’m not sure I’d ever have found it if it hadn’t been part of the Folkestone Triennial this year. The sound artist, Emily Peasgood, chose it for her wonderful audio installation, Halfway to Heaven (on until 5th November). She has created a polyrhythmic (phew, trying spelling that when you’ve had a drink) harmony based on the stories of the people buried there – and the living get involved too because you have to stand in front of the grave in order to hear their strand of the composition.

Only when the ground is full, do you get the full experience. So many things to think about as you stand there – the history of the place, the people left almost stranded there and also who we all were – random strangers coming together to make beautiful music. A song of us, as well as those who have gone before.

And I hadn’t heard of Emily Peasgood either before this show, so I looked her up when I got home and found this really charming TED talk – I wonder if there are many writers it won’t resonate with!

Narcissus Garden – a post especially for Sarahs

On a recent visit to Stockholm, we caught an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work, and fell in love particularly with Narcissus Garden.


Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

What’s not to love? Look at all those me’s! It was originally created in 1966 for the Venice Biennale, and consisted of 1,500 of these silver balls on the lawn outside the Italian Pavilion. This is the only picture I could find of it then.


Apparently once the work was installed, Kusama sold the balls for two dollars each to visitors under a sign ‘ YOUR NARCISIUM FOR SALE’. Art as commodification.


In the gallery, we weren’t allowed to touch, let alone buy, so we just all stood and looked, and most of us took selfies of ourselves reflected again and again. Narcissium in action? Of course, back in 1966, this wouldn’t even have been a thing.


It got me thinking about one of the events I’ve been part of that still makes me laugh – in that delighted gurgle sort of way. This is the Sarah Party – a party of people invited just because we were called Sarah. We were strangers who didn’t have to ask our names. Behold us in all our glories in a garden….

sarah party

The postcard of the Sarah Party, with our hostess, Sarah Pletts looking beautiful in the middle of us all

The Sarah Party was the initiative of two producers (called Sarah) at the BBC, and was open to everyone – so long as you were called Sarah. Nearly 75 of us attended, and I can’t tell you how much fun it was. We had badges with ‘hello my name is Sarah’, Sarah tiaras to wear, Sarah food, Sarah games, even a Sarah shrine.

It was even the subject of a 30 minute programme on BBC Radio 4, which was Pick of the Week in the Radio Times (although I do remember the review saying something like ‘maybe of particular interest to listeners called Sarah…!) I have to tell you that even as I’m writing this, I’m laughing to myself. What a wonderfully mad idea it was. A bit narcissistic maybe, especially as we just didn’t care.

Below is the piece I was commissioned to write for the Sarah party, which still makes me smile now. Feel free to share with other Sarahs, or indeed if you’re called Sarah please feel free to share your own thoughts. If you’re not called Sarah, I’m not so interested to be honest.

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Ten things about being Sarah
Sarah Salway

1. Once at the start of a writing group we were asked to tell a story about our names. I told everyone that Sarah meant Princess. ‘That’s so appropriate,’ they all said straight away. I secretly think of myself as modest and humble so I was a little shocked, but when I’ve told other Sarahs this story, they’ve received the same reaction. It seems we can’t always hide the princessy bit.

2. My uncle made a speech at my wedding. ‘Sarah,’ he said, ‘is harass backwards, and she has certainly always been very good at that.’

3. My real name is Sarah Jane. Once when I was being chatted up by a stranger on a train, I told him this. I didn’t think of it as something funny but he started laughing so much that he slapped his thigh too hard and got worried he might have given himself a bruise. Luckily I was able to get off at the next station.

4. Sarah, Sarha, Sahra… how hard is it to spell? Once, after three attempts over the telephone, the man on the other end told me crossly that it would be easier if I’d been called ‘banana.’

5. Ever since that wedding speech, I can’t stop thinking about ‘hairy ass’. Princess, I whisper to myself at these times. Princess, princess.

6. When my children were little, I told them that Bob Dylan had written his song, Sarah, just for me. After that, my daughter kept asking for me to play it in the car. I didn’t feel guilty until she told me that one day she wanted to find someone who would love her as much as Bob must have loved me.

7. French people find it hard to say Sarah. ‘Zhere are..’ they keep telling me and I am still waiting to hear what they are going to say next when I realise they are not just halfway through a sentence but are saying my name. For this reason, Sarahs can often appear suspicious in France. It is as if we can’t always remember what we are calling ourselves today.

8. People are often disappointed when they meet me. They tell me they expect Sarahs to be small, bubbly and blonde, but most Sarahs I have met are dark like me. Dark, brooding and princessy.

9. Sarahs don’t always respond to their name in crowds. There are too many of us. We tend to look a bit wary when someone shouts ‘Sarah’ as if we will be caught out pretending to be popular if we respond. A Mercedes or a Camilla, on the other hand, feels free to yahoo wildly at even the whiff of a ‘Merc…’ or a ‘Cam..’

10. Once when I went into a school to teach creative writing, I spent too long with a little Sarah. She had called the heroine in her story Sarah. ‘Is it about you?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, frowning at me very fiercely. ‘Why do you think that?’ I told her I had no idea ‘It’s because it’s the nicest name,’ she whispered to me then, and she put her hand in mine under the table to let me know that this was our little secret.


A garden girl in Paris…

(with apologies to John Denver)

Three nights in Paris, bucket loads of rain, cafes, people watching, a bit of shopping, cake eating and champagne drinking too. But also galleries. Lots of them, and I got interested in the gardens attached. How artists, even in the middle of a city, need space. Here are three of them…

  1. Musee Rodin is probably the most famous artist jardin, and even in the drizzle, it’s obvious why it’s so popular.


After Rodin left his works and collections to the nation, this house (where Rodin had been a tenant) became an official museum. I loved finding out that other tenants included the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, Isabella Duncan, Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau.


The garden is divided into four main areas, and you’re greeted by an extravagant rose garden which smells just as good as it looks…


The garden is perfect for displaying the monumental sculptures, such as the Burghers of Calais (which I’d seen in London but they looked so different in a gallery). Here I found them unbearably moving

And I learnt quickly to duck and pose so I could photograph the sculptures without catching the other tourists…

… although of course it is impossible to resist some poses…



And now the second garden, a surprise for us this one, is the Musee Delacroix in Rue de Furstenberg. 

IMG_0299The painter lived here for the last few years of his life (he died in 1863), and wonderful to see the view of the garden he would have seen from his studio, although these may be *new* chairs and benches….


But it’s still possible to imagine it as he might have done when he wrote: “My apartment is decidedly charming… Woke up the next day to see the most gracious sun on the houses opposite my window. The view of my little garden and the cheerful appearance of my studio always make me happy.” Even in the rain, and imagining different planting, it was easy to see why. You can see some of his paintings here.

And the last garden is a bit of a cheat because it wasn’t directly connected to a gallery, but it was just round the corner from the Picasso Museum, and was just a delight – Square Georges Cain. 

A beautiful circular design with a bronze statue of Aurore in the centre by the 17th-century sculptor Laurent Magnier. The  gentle planting  is deliberately soothing, and in fact a sign at the entrance says ‘too bright colours would spoil the view of the passer by’. And oh, look, a chess board just waiting for you to play there.

I tried and tried to hear the ‘Le Rossignol Electrique’ by Eric Samakh, a small electronic bird that starts singing whenever the wind blows, but I think it was raining more than windy. I did spot a bit of Parisian beauty rivalry though which got my writing juices flowing. There are archeological relics around the edges of the garden, and I was taken by this beauty – so beautiful that someone has stolen her face…


…. could it possibly be this woman lounging on the exact opposite side of the park, rather smugly holding up a mirror at the perfect angle to catch my faceless goddess. Perhaps if you stand still long enough in this little park then your face will be taken by the mirror thief too…


Wearing the garden

Of course dressing yourself in the garden isn’t new. Chelsea Flower Show hairdo anyone?

garden hair

But I’ve fallen in love with two designers recently, who are doing more than just putting beautiful flowers on garments. Both Carol Lake and Travail en Famille are really digging deep to harvest their seeds of garden inspiration (I know, I know, I’m sorry…).

I came across the designs by mother and son team, Travail en Famille, hanging in a man’s shop in Hastings. ‘I can’t decide whether it’s art or clothes,’ the manager said, and I couldn’t help but agree.

Especially when you look on their website – here -(and they design for women too, hurrah!) and see that the inspiration behind the collection is a literary inspiration one, Voltaire’s novella Candide, first published in 1759. This gave the title of the collection, Il faut cultiver Notre Jardin and this is what they say:

Voltaire was telling us not to be concerned with the greater machinations of the world, but to grow our own garden, both literally and metaphorically. This is very much our philosophy at Travail en Famille, the only fashion brand where you will find a 23-year-old man making silk scarves with his mother.


The plants on the coat are inspired by the film, Van Gogh by Maurice Pialat, which covers the last few month’s of Van Gogh’s life when he was being treated by Doctor Gachet, just outside Paris.

Our Dr Gachet prints celebrate Van Gogh’s love of gardens through a collage of French garden flowers whilst acknowledging the difficulties he faced through a solitary white arum lily featured in the print. He painted these lilies when he felt melancholic and sad. garden

I love the idea of wearing these garden stories.

The second designer is Carol Lake, whose studio/home/the place I want to live in forever is in Norwich. Again, I came across her work by accident and felt those tremors of excitement when you know you’ve found something really original. Carol’s an artist, and her studio-shop is a treasure trove of Carol’s own botanical prints on shoes, scarves, dresses, sofas… you name it.



You can get a little of the flavour of the beauty of her work from her website, but if you can, I urge you to visit yourself. If not, indulge yourself with this video!




Trails, tea and Tofino

You know those guided meditations which start, ‘imagine yourself in a beautiful place in nature…’? Well, ever since I’ve visited the Tofino Botanical Gardens on Vancouver Island, that’s exactly where I imagine myself. Perhaps it’s not surprising when you feast your eyes on these pictures…



IMG_0700In fact it’s both beautiful and surreal. Especially when you suddenly come across a piece of home…


Or a reminder that’s it’s been some time since you wrote in your journal…


The gardens is designed to inspire conservation of, and provide information about, the world’s Temperate Coastal Rainforests. A series of boardwalks take you through to ‘pocket gardens’ which display plants that thrive in other temperate coastal rainforests around the world, some designed so you can look at all levels of the planting.


There’s also the fascinating Bernardo O’Higgins homestead, recreated after a chance find some years ago. Somehow I don’t imagine Bernardo had much time for meditations.


Bird hides to look out at the mudflats, part of a Wildlife Management Area.

IMG_0697IMG_0696And in the middle of the wild landscape, the thriving Tofino Community Garden.

tofinoIMG_0778A children’s garden that this ‘unsupervised adult’ found just a little tempting…



Art was everywhere, adding to rather than taking away from the plants, although sometimes so much so that it was hard to tell whether it was natural or manmade.



Not to mention other fun things to do…


Possibly the best selection of books on gardens and garden history in the cafe library, where there was also a reminder of the serious scientific endeavour behind the gardens…


And, of course, a cup of London Fog through which to view the garden!


Eating William Morris’s Potatoes – Red House, Bexleyheath


I nearly turned back when I got to the suburban street marked as the address for Red House because it was hard to imagine William Morris, who once proclaimed that we should have nothing in our houses that were not beautiful or useful, commissioning his first ever home from architect, Philip Webb, here.


Nothing against the street, it’s just so busy, but once in through the gates, there’s an immediately calmer atmosphere. And also, I found out later, a historical connection as Chaucer’s pilgrims would have passed nearby on their way to Canterbury. Morris christened the garden porch the ‘Pilgrim’s Rest’ in Chaucer’s memory.


The house and garden were designed together, and although not much of the original design of the garden remains, it’s hard not to see it as one with the house.


I’d wanted to see it particularly in autumn because the site was originally an orchard when Morris found it in 1858, and some of the trees – apple, cherry, oak,yew, hazel and holly – remain.


The flowers and plants were also an inspiration for Morris’s own designs, so as I walked round, I had half an eye on looking out for the shapes and structures that might have appealed to Morris.


Part of Webb’s design specification was that the house should be ‘clothed’ in traditional climbers such as roses, white jasmine and honeysuckle, and although it was obviously the wrong season for these, it was possible to imagine how this would work to enhance and soften some of the architectural features.


Possible also to imagine one of May Morris’s memories as you sit on the lawn here – it was of the poet Swinburne lying in the orchard, ‘his long red hair spread out on the grass, as she and her sister Jenny sprinkled rose petals on his face.’*


And if the house was designed to be looked at from the garden, so the garden forms pictures from different windows of the house.


I recently set my creative writing students the exercise of imagining the view from their character’s bedroom, so it was fascinating to see the view William Morris would have woken up to.


Although William Morris and his family left Red House in 1865 after a series of personal problems, the house feels less of a museum than a family home, largely due I’m sure to the careful owners who followed him. So it was nice to see this plaque on a bench in the garden.


Also good – if surprising – to see potatoes and apples on sale in the vegetable patch.


How could I resist? And it’s the potatoes I’ve written about for this garden. I had been worried that it wasn’t paying enough respect to William Morris – potatoes, after all! – but then I read how much fun they had in their early years at Red House. There was even an apple fight in the Drawing Room which left Morris with a black eye, and a spectacularly good practical joke by his friend, Edward Burne-Jones, who sewed up the sides of Morris’s waistcoat to persuade him he was putting on weight.


So here’s a silly potato poem for you…

Cooking William Morris’s Potatoes

It’s a hot potato, mashed, smashed,
boiled to a turn, it’s got its jacket on,
been chipped, French fried, finely
diced, topped and crowned, but

is it beautiful?

We arrange them in a china bowl,
pink earth eggs, dark scented
like honest women, skins
blooming with imperfections, but

is it useful?

As they struggle to breathe in the
kitchen air, tubers blindly groping
their way back to cold soil beds,
we heat water, watch as they fail to swim.

Peel it, roast it, serve it on the side,
Wedge it, spice it, nutmeg, salt and cream,
pocket warmer, peasant filler, fat
maker, famine causer, hot potato.

* Taken from the National Trust brochure for the house.

Red House is owned by the National Trust and the website is here.
Date visited: October 2013