The royal wee ‘uns

I know I don’t often write about fashion, but I thought I would share with you what we found on a recent outing to Greenwich. It’s what every trendy baby will be wearing today. Only.

Add a strawberry fascinator and voila! A future queen

Onesie is totally amused.

Sunshine signing off today!

My world in random order

Today is officially Squirrels-Gone-Mad Day. I know you might have been expecting a Royal Wedding post from this heaving city because nothing much else seems to be happening here at the moment. People are camping outside Westminster as we speak to get a glimpse of the family-that-is-not-boring and the couple-who-are-also-not-boring as they get set to tie the royal knot on Friday. But squirrels captured my attention today; they just did.

As I walked to my bus this morning, I decided that the squirrels in our ‘hood had gone nuts. Firstly, I saw a squirrel scurrying towards the water as I crossed the dock. There was no tree in sight and, I know it’s been a bit warmer here, but I didn’t realise squirrels liked the water. Although I saw no towel or swimming cap (health and safety considerations, of course), I think my squirrel friend was going for a squim.

Then, when I walked past a row of weeping willow trees, a couple of squirrels rushed past me and scurried up a tree. I heard a crinkling sound and then saw that one of the squirrels was carrying a large, crumpled-up piece of paper in its mouth. I watched it as it ran to the top of the tree, towards a nest. (Do squirrels have nests?) I thought maybe the squirrels just wanted to do anything to take their minds off this royal madness all around them; it was their equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la-la-la”! I know the feeling.

My version of doing that is to share a few more of the things that I love about life in London and, in so doing, to keep the attention away from the you-know-whats.

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

A glimpse inside Sir John Soane's museum (via culture24.org.uk)

Friends of ours told us about this little hidden gem in the heart of London. Sir John Soane was the Royal Architect (sorry for using the “r” word) in 1806 and, according to his website, began “to arrange the Books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them and proposed opening his house for the use of the Royal Academy students the day before and the day after each of his lectures. By 1827, when John Britton published the first description of the Museum, Soane’s collection was being referred to as an ‘Academy of Architecture’”.

We visited this Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field near Holborn in central London a few weekends ago. We stood and waited our turn to enter the hushed and hallowed halls of this building that was home and house to both a family and an exorbitantly large collection of stuff. The number of visitors to the house at any one time is limited to about 20, as space to move is at a premium. I had to put my handbag into a plastic bag and hold it in my hand, to avoid the risk of knocking over artefacts that are stood and stored everywhere; all cameras and laptops were surrendered at the front door and no photography permitted. No washing machines either.

When we got the nod, we stepped into a surreal world of compulsive collections of artwork, furniture, paintings, statues, stained glass, casts, architects’ models and history. Our eyes stood out on stalks, our senses were overloaded and the abundance of assembled heritage from every corner and age of the world just about blew my mind. The house itself is a fascination of levels and sunroofs and alcoves and cellars and nooks and crannies. Every available surface and space is filled with another piece of art.

The “monk’s cellar” at the bottom of the house is home to a collection of Egyptian art, including a sarcophagus, complete with hieroglyphic engravings as well as a wooden mummy case. A cellar-level courtyard hosts the final resting place of “Poor Fanny” whose inscription on a massive headstone tells of a greatly revered personality, laid to rest in pride of place. I asked one of the staff members who “poor Fanny” was and was surprised to learn that “she was, madam, Mrs Soane’s dog”.

We were ushered into a high-ceilinged room whose walls were lined, from floor to ceiling, with paintings. The door was closed behind us and a white-gloved curator proceeded to talk us through the profusion of artworks that covered the walls. He talked with perfect comedic timing through a series of William Hogarth paintings, A Rake’s Progress, and then described the provenance of each other gem hanging from the walls, or should I say, cupboard doors, as they opened to reveal a further collection of artworks lining the inside of the doors and the real wall behind the doors. The opposite “wall” was also so composed, with one difference: the doors opened to reveal another set of doors which then opened on to an open space above the monk’s cellar, where Soane’s model of the Bank of England stood proudly for all to see. We all gasped and applauded.

The rest of the house brought with it equal numbers of surprises and sensory treats; it certainly requires a second and third visit and you can be sure that we’ll be back to discover more.

2. Charity in London

I work for a small charity that does remarkably big work in London. I never cease to be amazed at the level of dedication to our work that I see all around me every day, and the pace of change that results from passionate and focused campaigning.

Ten days ago, we stood on Tower Bridge and cheered on the 100 or so runners who joined the 36,500 others to run the London Marathon 2011 in our charity’s colours towards a goal of raising some quarter of a million pounds for us. It’s far and away our biggest fundraising event of the year, which makes sense: the London Marathon is, I am told, the “biggest fundraising event on the PLANET”.

The elite women. The green-vested speedster on the right ran in what was her second marathon and won in just over two hours.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: these ladies stopped their running and took photos of each other on Tower Bridge.

Each person running for us had a reason to run for us: to raise funds for world-class research that might change the course of his four-year-old son’s life; to run in memory of her nephew who died 15 years ago, aged 16; three university students who ran because their mate is in a wheelchair and he’s an awesome guy; brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, friends – all honouring someone close to them and supporting them in this amazingly tangible way. There are no more words.

3. Endless eavesdropping opportunities

Last week, a woman sat behind me in the bus on the way to work. She arrived at her seat mid-conversation on her cell phone. She had a slight accent, and from what I could overhear, she was whingeing about someone; female I think.

The conversation continued in a monotone and then I heard her say, “But you know what? I’m really worried about the herpes.” I then began to wonder what kind of a weekend she’d had, exactly, and began to understand why she was so irate with this other person.

“Everything else is okay, the shoes and everything, it’s just the herpes. And I’m really worried. I don’t know what to do about it.”

I was about to move seats, when I realised I was heading off down the wrong track.

“You see, the thing about the herpes is that … well, it’s more like a veil than a herpes. You see?”

She was talking about a “hairpiece”.

4. Riding along the Thames

I am quite proud of myself because I can still ride a bicycle. Well, ride might be too generous a word. I can stay upright on a bicycle and not fall off. Just.

Easter Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day with a light breeze. My husband and I set off on our newly-sorted bikes to enjoy a little ride along the edge of the Thames. I haven’t been on a bike for about 30 years but, as they say, it’s just like riding a bike. I managed to stay pretty much balanced and didn’t wobble myself to a complete standstill.

Thank goodness we didn’t ride in traffic, just along the Thames footpath, and I mostly managed to avoid hitting any pedestrians. For a short distance we rode on a road with traffic and I discovered a have a unique instinct: instead of fight or flight, I have my own response: act like a complete idiot. Fearing being knocked over by a car, I do the sensible thing when I hear it approaching: I ride towards it.

I don’t think that approach will lengthen my life, but I’ll stay off the busy roads just in case. It is also a bit of a challenge riding a boy’s bike that is slightly too big for me, but I’ll get over it. In fact, I did! And the uncomfortable saddle. And the handlebars that seem designed for gorilla-length arms. But you know what? The freedom of riding along in a gentle breeze, alongside my best friend and along the edge of a raging river that’s been churning and flowing since time immemorial, made me feel alive and unbeatable.

Until I hit a cobbled path and riding over it was like being aboard a jackhammer at full throttle. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

This post has felt a bit like Sir John Soane’s museum – nothing really makes too much sense; it’s filled with bits of this and bits of that and peppered with randomness and collections of thoughts and observations, with nothing really to hold them all together except that they all come from me. I don’t think there’ll be people queuing for a viewing of my thoughts but you never know; this is London, man, and people here are crazy.

Sunshine signing off for today!

The Princess and Me

The media in the UK is in a bit of a froth and a frenzy over the Royal Engagement. In the midst of coalition woes, strikes, budget cuts, FIFA-fixing, cold weather, floods, not to mention Wagner, it helps the nation to have something positive to look forward to.

The merchandisers have been going overboard with enough commemorative Will ‘n Kate crockery to sink a ship. The first item I saw, which made me laugh, was a mug with two handles. I wondered if that was in honour of the father of the groom-to-be who has, rather unkindly, been described as resembling a VW with the doors open.

Image from thejjb.com

Typically, British bookmakers have been bursting with speculation about where and when the wedding will take place, who will design the wedding dress, what title the couple will take on after the wedding, who will be the best man, who will be the maid of honour, how many viewers will tune into BBC to watch the wedding live, what colour the wedding dress will be and – my personal favourite – the colour of the Queen’s hat.

All of which reminds me of Diana and me. Princess Diana was born one week before me. And honestly, if I had a pound for every time someone told me that I looked like her, I would be basking on my yacht in the tropics somewhere, sipping on an expensive, chilled cocktail, waiting for someone to peel me a grape, and enjoying the company of my gorgeous husband who, thankfully, looks nothing like Charles.

I can’t remember when it began. I didn’t do like Julie Walters’ client in Educating Rita and take a magazine photo of Diana with me to the hairdresser and say, “I want to look like that.” I guess I just do look like that. A bit. Or so some people think.

I think the first time was when I visited my new boyfriend’s family, who grew up to become my parents-in-law. They had a delightful, also Scottish, neighbour who was often, as my granny would say, full of hops. The more she tippled, the more slurringly talkative and tearfully sentimental she became. In a particularly emotional moment she wiped a tear from her eye as she looked at me and said, “Och, you’re affy like Leddy Di.”

From that moment on, I became Leddy Di. Even after the leddy became Princess. It was quite sad, really, that sometimes in her blurred reality, I became Diana. She gave me a beautiful, expensive bottle of perfume and said, “This is fer Leddy Di.” I thanked her and then told her to curtsy and in future not to speak to me unless spoken to. (Just jokes.)

She and her husband came to our wedding, and I’m sure she thought she was coming to a royal occasion, although it must have been a little confusing that this was happening in Bulawayo.

Another time, when my older son was a baby, we went out for Sunday lunch at our favourite Italian restaurant in Harare. When we’d finished our meal, my husband went to settle the bill and I went outside, our six-month old son in my arms, to wait in the sun for him. I happened to stand next to a giggly bunch of female senior citizens who had emerged from the same restaurant where they had enjoyed a few too many fizzy drinks with their lunch.

One dear lady approached me and asked me about my cute little baby. She choonched his cheeks, told me he was gorgeous and wanted to know how old he was. You know, the usual. As I was answering her questions, one of her friends approached me from the other side and said to her friends, “You know, she looks just like Princess Diana!”

She then took my face in her hands and turned my face to show her friends, “Don’t you think so?” she said. I kid you not.

At which point the baby-ogler asked me another question. So I turned my head to answer her, and as I began to speak, my face was again showcased in the other direction in the middle of two ageing palms. The ridiculous charade continued for a short while, my face going this way and that.

I guess I could have shouted, “LEAVE ME ALONE, THIS IS MY FREAKING FACE ALREADY!” but I couldn’t find those words, and, to be honest, it was really really funny. My husband came outside and rescued me from the face-grabbing aunties a few minutes later, and we both laughed as I recounted what had just happened.

A few years ago, I was shopping in a supermarket in Rondebosch in Cape Town. I noticed the cashier staring at me before I got to her to make my purchases. As I approached, she said to me,

“You know what? You look JUST like Prince Di-ANNE!”

I smiled coyly, as one does when you’ve been told that, I don’t know, a MILLION times.

The cashier was quite overwhelmed. She called to her colleague at the next till.

“Hey, Bronwen! Look who I’m serving. Prince Di-ANNE!”

Her friend looked across at me and said, “Yoh,” as one does, in Cape Town.

My cashier then said to me, “Are you related?”

To which I said, “No.” (I had wanted to say, “To Bronwen?” but I figured the sarcasm would be lost.)

She said, “Pity, hey? They got lots of money.”

People tell me almost conspiratorially that they think I look like Princess Di. And like they are the only ones who have ever thought that. It’s quite difficult to respond graciously, and to retain an element of fresh surprise when I’m thinking “If I had a pound…”

So Kate – all the best for your royal future in the spotlight. I tell you, it’s tough. And if I can give you some advice, steer clear of slurring aunties at Italian restaurants – they sure squeeze your cheeks.

Sunshine signing off for today.