A Dwelling of No Significance

sharing our heritage from Bruce Castle Museum Archive

This project was exhibited at Bruce Castle Museum, and as part of their wonderful lockdown email series, they very kindly invited me to revisit this house. So, in the words of the Museum, come along “and travel back in time, peeling away the layers of history, researching, documenting, recording and sharing an extraordinary portrait of what might have seemed an everyday house, hidden away in Wood Green.”

 ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’This phrase sealed the fate of No.24 Truro Road, Wood Green. Officially uninhabited for almost a decade, the building was considered to be of no significance as described by planners in Haringey Council. A house with no history. It could be demolished.

I disagreed. The dilapidated building had been my neighbour for thirteen years. No longer a home, the property opened up as it decayed and shared a record of domestic life spanning the whole of the twentieth century.

home life : a snippet of cine film found under a floorboard

The house was tucked away at the end of a long driveway on a large plot between two roads, completely obscured from prying eyes by a vast willow tree. Following a huge fire in the adjacent builders yard, the property was abandoned and sold to a developer. The garden became overgrown and wildlife increased. People began to use the house as a free material source, and tiles and pipes and floorboards began to disappear. The local children used it as their own playground, and the sound of shattering glass continued until there were no windows left to smash.  Squatters came and tamed the garden (and the children) and they grew vegetables and raised pigs, and were in turn evicted *.

The garden rewilded. Rumours spread of it having changed hands again.

pinhole camera photograph: view from my garden of No.24

Climbing over my back wall, with a homemade pinhole camera wrapped in a black bin bag, I started exploring and recording the property. My process was one of trial and error, with many opportunities for things to go wrong. The camera was a hatbox, and the photographic paper I placed inside was old stock, which didn’t always react. My exposures could be up to an hour long, depending on the light conditions and the behaviour of the paper. I was using out of date paper as I wanted the images to look and feel as though they had been found in the house, and to capture the change of light as real time passed.

I picked at the many layers of wallpaper as the damp caused them to unpeel, and scavenged remnants of the house to include, reused, in layered kiln-formed glass.

self portrait in the ruined house

The glass was recycled from the broken windows and greenhouse. Using textured plaster moulds, I formed layered and spaced glass memories. Some had an image transferred on, either a photograph or a detail from a census, and in the formed spaces I placed objects and scraps from the house.

wallpaper samples from the house

Each individual piece was a fragment of history. Put together, splintered stories of this house and it occupants could be traced.

kiln formed glass, fragmented memories

The blank spaces that appear in a fading memory are all too present in the history of this house, and correspond to the blank spaces within the glass pieces. These voids are waiting for recall, for the information to come to light that completes the story of this house with no history.

One day someone ripped out all the copper pipes and there was a fountain bursting up through the gaping living room floor. It became increasingly dangerous to flipflop around the house and after finding half the staircase smashed, I knew that I would soon have to leave the physical house alone.

interior and wallpaper layers

Turning to the local archives of Bruce Castle Museum I began to construct a factual history alongside my imaginings.

Using the information I gathered, and a lot of hunches, I tracked down the family who last lived in the house. Attached to the front porch of the building had always been a homemade sign – The Swifts. This wasn’t the house name as I had expected, but the family name. They were surprised at my interest, and a little suspicious. However, they kindly allowed me to visit, and Mr Swift shared his memories. He talked not just about the house, but about his life, for the two were so entwined.

pinhole photograph from homemade camera

Leonard Swift was born in the house on 11th July 1911. It was his home for eighty-seven years.

From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).
Truro Road – a century apart

Built in 1860, the house was possibly intended to be two cottages, for the end wall to the north had the staggered bricks and internal fireplace of a never completed project. It is possible this was because the Finsbury Freehold Land Society acquired additional land and the terrace of Sidney Road was built instead.

Originally known as Blenheim Cottage, it became home to a florist and gardener, who worked the large plot as a nursery. The produce from this garden continued to feed the family for many years and even earned them extra sugar rations during wartime for jam making and preserving.

Detail of OS map. From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).
Detail of OS map. From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).

The Swifts first came to the property in 1900 to rent the large outbuildings for their thriving business, Edward Swift & Sons, Microscope Objective Makers. As soon as the cottage was available, the family moved in. The four Swift sons – no longer the ‘terror of the neighbourhood’ as the young Len recounted in his stories, but busy making microscope objectives (these are the brass tubes with the lenses inside). They worked both the brass and the lenses, with Leonard’s father, Herbert, cold working the glass lenses to within a thousandth of an inch, tiring and precise work. Their cousins, James Swift & Sons of Tottenham Court Road, made the actual microscopes. In 1901 Captain Scott was supplied with Swift Microscopes for use on the Discovery.

During the First World War, the forty-foot shed was full of busy lathes constantly working, and many staff. Leonard always thought he would take over the family business, and spent all the time he could at Herbert’s side, learning. Sadly, by the mid-1920s, there was no demand.

pinhole photograph, long exposure

The cottage had three rooms downstairs, and three rooms upstairs. The Swift family – Catherine, Herbert, Leonard and his brother – shared the property with lodgers, as the Objectives business became less profitable. The business ceased to be with the death of Herbert in 1932.

When war came again in 1939, Leonard joined the Air Force as a ground gunner and was posted overseas until August 1943, when he landed in Liverpool to begin a long and dodgy journey back to London. All the underground stations were crowded with sleeping families and everywhere was pitch black. As he finally reached Wood Green, the air raid siren was going, and he couldn’t get into the house as most of the rooms were let out and he didn’t have the right keys. He thought everyone must be down the underground shelter, so dumped his kit bags and went round to the police station on the corner of Nightingale Road and asked if he could sleep in a cell. At first they said no, but Leonard said “Why not? It’s got a bed hasn’t it?” So they gave him a cup of tea, and let him stay. In the morning he went home again, only to make the shocking discovery that his mother had been buried on the very day he landed in Liverpool.

After a month’s leave, Leonard was reposted to Hillingdon to work in the operations room. Here he met Margaret as they worked together, plotting the flight information. They were married in 1945 and settled down together at No.24. Leonard returned to work in Covent Garden.

Detail of OS map 1956. From the collections of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

The house had always been rented accommodation, with rent being about ‘thirty bob or something a quarter’. But in 1956 a couple of men turned up to look at the house, as it was being auctioned the very next day. Margaret found out where the auction was to be, and that they needed a 5% deposit. They didn’t have any money, but borrowed what they could from their neighbours.

Armed with £30, Leonard went off to Piccadilly for the auction. “We had decided we couldn’t go more than £500 for the house. There were all these people who wanted to buy it, plus there were families there who were in tears as their houses were being sold from under them and they couldn’t afford the money. So at the auction, I’m surrounded by all these big blokes bidding, £300… £400…£500… I thought what am I going to do? I haven’t got enough but we can’t lose our home. Then a bloke said £600 and I said ‘And five’ and he said ‘oh let him have it ‘.

Now it turned out that the deposit was 10%, not 5% as Leonard had thought, and he only had a matter of hours to find the other £30. Once again, friends rallied round to stop them losing their home, and his boss agreed to lend them the rest as a mortgage for two years, at two and a half percent.

Once the family owned the house, and had paid back the money, they added gas and electricity. The landlords had never wanted the expense of running power all the way from the road up the long drive, so it had been oil for lamps and coal for cooking and heat. In 1966 he was given a grant to add a bathroom block instead of the old outside brick toilet.

Over the years they made many improvements and alterations to the house. It was Leonard’s son who built the porch and added The Swifts sign.

Copper print from the collection of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service).

If it were not for the fire, the Swifts might never have moved. Admittedly, the garden and the house were really becoming too much upkeep, but it was home. That night though, “I was asleep when I felt Margaret urgently trying to wake me, but when I sat up, Margaret was still fast asleep! I’ve always thought it must have been my mother, come back to warn us. The heat coming through the window was unbelievable.” After that, the Swifts decided to move, and left Truro Road for the last time on 28th July 1998.

I wish I’d gone up the long drive when the Swifts lived there. I sometimes saw a man and woman getting into their car at the distant end of their drive. I could never think of what to say – what reason could I have for going and opening their gate and letting myself into their secret garden? It was intriguing, a magical space that I wanted to know, whilst at the same time recognising that it was totally private, and that my nosiness would not be welcome.

My other neighbours didn’t share my obsession with No.24. They described the family as one that ‘kept to themselves’, but maybe they’d just seen so many people come and go in the last few years they had stopped getting to know their many neighbours. Once families would stay in the same house for generations, as had the Swifts. But as people moved away, houses turned into flats, and a new block was built along their west boundary.

My neighbours also agreed with the council verdict that the house had no history. The house doesn’t I suppose, it is rather the history of the family that lived there, and of how lives and expectations changed. Mr Swift remained nostalgic for the soft glow of the oil lamps over the bright light of the electricity he worked so hard to obtain. He grew up there and raised his own family with no bathroom, sharing the three bedroom house with others whenever necessary. He laughed a lot as he recounted tales of boyhood and fatherhood. No.24 Truro Road was a real home, with a loving family and good friends.

My partner and I used to wish we could buy No.24, and talk about what we would do if we could. We watched the final owners pull it down in 2006. The enchantment was broken, and we moved away too.

* This was the subject of a BBC Life of Grime programme. From a precarious position on top of my wall, I watched the council men try to evict the pigs and their guardians. It was one of the funniest things ever. Those travellers were the best neighbours.

The artwork and research I did on the house became my art degree show, which was exhibited at New Designers at the Business Design Centre Islington 2005 and Free Range at the Old Truman Brewery.

With many thanks to Bruce Castle Museum

“Travelling back in time to 2006, when we had an exhibition at Bruce Castle, curated by artist Annie Taylor and called No.24 Truro Road ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’Annie as our special guest writer today guides us through this touching portrait of a derelict house in Wood Green, that she lived next-door to from the 1990s into the 2000s.” Bruce Castle Museum

The Cinderella of Manual Arts

Educational Needlecraft by Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth

Inspired by a beautiful post this morning from Arnold’s Attic, of a sampler book stitched in 1852-4, I went looking for my Educational Needlecraft book. This wasn’t easy as last year we had some work done to the house, and most of my books are still stacked along the wall behind our bed, and the smaller ones piled in triple rows on the remaining shelves. Fortunately this one is always within reach.

I’ve owned this book since 1977. When my brother was busy with his punk band, as were most sentient teenagers, I was busy listening to soundtracks from Busby Berkley musicals (complete with tap dancing) and heading back from Art Deco to Arts and Crafts. (I did wake up to punk later, but I’ve always a bit slow to catch on).

My parents were avid bookshoppers. They still are, but don’t get out so much (not at all these last few months) but even so, no bookshop en route, no reason to leave home. This one came from the Antiquarian Bookshop in Sheen, a very posh shop for us, rather expensive too. It was visited because it was a museum of a shop, and on the way to Richmond with its vast array of junk shops and second hand bookshops. It was always a pleasure to visit the Sheen shop, the book spines alone were works of art. I did acquire a few books from there as presents, as I had a habit of returning to favourite books and hunkering down to absorb as much as I could, against the day where someone else bought it and it was no longer ‘mine’. Occasionally, as happened with this volume, after a year or so, I had proved my loyalty to this book, and it was purchased for me – possibly even a discount taken into consideration by the shop owner for the same reason, and that of the fact that no-one else had purchased it. And no, I didn’t hide it, in case you were wondering. There were books at our local library which sometimes the librarian would gently suggest I might like to not renew this time, so someone else could have them. Often no one else did want them, so after a couple of weeks of the book being on the shelf, home they came again. I do own copies now of all of them, some bought new as they were reprinted, others unexpectedly turning up second hand. One large volume I lugged on Greyhound busses after finding in a vintage shop in San Francisco, and in reality it was one picture that always stayed in my memory. I can’t show it to you because I cannot reach it. Too far down the pile behind the bed. But I digress, as usual. Back to Educational Needlecraft.

It was the quality of the arts and crafts drawings and designs, and the full colour stitched panels that I was looking at. Ann Macbeth taught at the Glasgow School of art and was a friend of the Mackintoshes. She was also a suffragette.

I was stunned by the stitching, but never really thought of doing it. Obviously, I never have. But I still love the book, and it is never far from reach, and I do sew an awful lot, even if it is not exactly educational.
Rereading the introduction I was struck how the authors, Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth talk about art and needlework and the eye of the child.

“This book represents the first conscious and serious effort to take Needlecraft from its humble place as the Cinderella of Manual Arts, and to show how it may become a means of general and even of higher eduction.”

“In becoming good craftwomen girls may become something more. Their work itself leads them to look at last BEYOND their homes, and if they look to-day, what do they see? Much beauty and happiness, work and pleasure, but also beyond these vivid glimpses of widespread misery and darkness – a chaos which waits for creators to make of it a new world. That winged power in them, the unresting creative energy, must find a new field for its labour. It cannot be CONFINED to the home. What the educated woman of tomorrow will do we cannot foretell, for she will not longer be the slave of routine and tradition.”

Here we are a hundred and twenty years later with the Society For Embroidered Work being created to loudly shout ‘Stitched Art is Art’. If I were not a member, I don’t think I’d be able to look my book straight in the eye. As it is, I’m wondering quite what Ann Macbeth and Margaret Swanson and Margaret McMillan (pioneer in the education of children and provision of free school meals) would make of ‘the educated woman of tomorrow’.

Red Thorn, Black Thorn. Rose Red and Sloe

The sisters felt the first blow rather than heard it. Without thinking, each put a hand to their heart. The beating within echoing the thumps throbbing across the forest. The sisters exchanged a glance. “They’re back, Rose”.

Everything had been peaceful for so long now, living as they were so far away from the madding crowds. Away from misunderstanding. Rose and Sloe ventured out only when the carnival came to town, when spirits were high and colourful, and nothing seemed quite real. As they aged, it became easier to go unnoticed, to be the hunchback herbalist with reliable potions, to be the lonely old woman from the woods.

In their youth, life had been so very different. Rose was a beautiful as any bloom, pink and blushed with red red hair. Sloe, white of face, hair so black it shone blue. They had travelled with the circus, danced for kings – and princes. Ah yes, princes. Their mother, WhiteThorn Mae, had told the girls all the old stories, all the warnings. Still, true to form, along came a Prince, and the trouble began.

Any child of the Rose family has thorns. They will catch you and the poisoned tip will grip deep into your flesh. The poisoned tip will rot inside you, spreading through your veins until one day your heart just stops. To share a kiss with a child of the Rose family is a dangerous undertaking. To steal a kiss without asking is suicide.

Stories of the Prince killers spread far and wide. Embellished, untrue, believed.

The Sisters backed into the safety of the forest and let their family, black thorn, white thorn and red, grow and protect them, but stories persisted of a fair princess held captive by the dark witch. Of an old crone of woods, whose wicked ways were responsible for all ill that befell the town.

‘Burn the Witch’ would seem like a good idea once in a generation. The old people who remembered would try and talk sense to the young, but no one ever listened. Fanciful tales from the frightened old. A forest that killed, that left deep scars should you be fortunate enough to escape? Tell that to the children, they said, and gathered their high spirits and axes, and headed to adventure.

Rose sighed, and looked at her sister’s face, clouded now with worry and foreboding. “We could go and meet them – tell them”.

“They’ll not listen, they never do.”

The sisters stood a moment or two longer, listening. The hunt was yet miles away, hacking at the almost impenetrable wall of nature. Baying dogs, excited voices, trumpets to call order. These sounds travelled on the cool morning air, travelling easily where nothing with more substance than a ghost could pass. The sisters were old now, and did not welcome the intrusion, the dredging up of the past. They turned and headed for their cottage, using the branches on either side for balance, their hands automatically missing the thorns. They knew how the day would end, and felt great sorrow.

At Winter’s end, when the blackthorn flowers first appear like little stars of hope, and at September time, when the hedgerows at Prospect Field turn blue with sloe and red with rosehip, watch for Rose Red and Black Thorn, Red Thorn and Sloe. Stay on the path, pick only what you need, and leave the rest in peace.

Covidella: a LockDown Tale

“I want to bake a cake”

Covidella turned from the heaving sink of breakfast debris to face her stepsister, teetering warily on the top of the kitchen steps.  An unusual visitation this, and one that Ella was having difficulty processing. She paused the music and removed her headphones.

“Nigella’s dark and sumptuous chocolate fudge cake” the visitation continued in a querulous squeak, whilst flapping the torn page of a Sunday supplement food special.

It was Lockdown at the castle. Ella hadn’t thought of it as ‘home’ since her mum died.  Mum had always been accident-prone; walking into wardrobe doors, falling on the stairs. Funny really, ‘cos Ella never saw her trip, not even when wearing her old platforms for a laugh. They would skip and dance all around the house, making light of work and life. Until they heard her father coming.

The Stepmother appeared awfully quickly after that last fatal accident, dragging her two delightful daughters along for the ride. Stepmother promptly had a lift installed so she could avoid the stairs. Ugly thing.  The lift too….  Looked like a plastic Smart car someone had parked in the ancestral hall.  Still, for all its aesthetic lackings, Ella pretty soon loved it. She could chuck in all the laundry and the vacuum cleaner and mop and bucket and then sail off up through the floor like Willy Wonker in the glass elevator. Made life so much easier. Meant Ella could avoid those stairs too.

Ella missed her mum, and avoided attempts to play happy families, preferring instead to stay in the kitchen. She loved the peace down there, her mother’s presence was strong in the ping of the microwave and the sizzle of deep fat fryer. Dad had always been softened by a good plate of food. Well, not always, obviously.

Stepsister No.2 now appeared over Stepsister No.1’s shoulder. “It is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that is super squidgy, the sort of cake you want to eat the whole of, and even the sight of it all chocolaty and gooey, comforts”.

Quite. Well, do you know what? That actually sounds like a damn fine idea.  Now she was out of her musical cocoon, Ella could hear familiar sounds storming around upstairs. Maybe Nigella’s chocolate comforter was exactly what this castle needed, right now.  She’d had a food delivery only that morning, and had ordered plenty of chocolate as her own special treat. So, she’ll be eating it in cake form instead, no matter.

 “Okay, I’ll make it” Ella announced, thinking it would save a lot of mess, wasted ingredients, and possibly a super pissed off Dad at the end of it all. The Stepsisters scooted across the room glued to each other, wild-eyed and eager, clearly without a clue but very determined. They wobbled their heads frantically from side to side, no no no.  “We want to make it. It’s very important. We want to make it and we want Him to eat it, and we want Him know that we have made it.”

Oh for goodness sake, who cares? She was getting sick of this lockdown baking mania. None of her friends had anything interesting to post on social media – it was all just bloody cake.  She sighed.  “Go on then….” She started to say. Then she looked at them, which she tended to avoid doing. Oh. “Is your mother alright?” The heads wobbled up and down, a little shaky, but generally affirmative.  

Ella whipped out her phone and googled the recipe. She wasn’t touching that torn and blood splattered cutting. No.1 was put on washing up duty, No.2 on … on …helping No.1. Actually, no, lets clean her up a bit, and, um, a bit more, and then just prop her in the corner with a large brandy. 

Plain flour, caster sugar, light brown Muscovado… hmmm, nope, damn, have to be Demerara and hope for the best. Not as moist, but it will have to do. Corn oil? Corn oil? Who the bloody hell has corn oil knocking around in the back of their Covid cupboard, sunflower shall have to do.  Yup, Nigella says that’s ok. We’ve got this!

Two hours later, rather longer than the recipe generally requires, the kitchen was clean (ish), and three satisfied and rather chocolaty faces were admiring the thing of beauty they had created.  The Stepsisters had mixed and stirred, and made a wish as they added their own special final ingredient.  They were sure Nigella would understand. For good measure, they added extra chocolate and a lot of Amaretto. Just in case he noticed any undertaste. He’d watched far too many Agatha Christies to let that go without hilarious comment and tapping of his little grey cells.

Together, they made tea, gathered plates and cutlery onto trays, and lifting the gooey chocolaty comforter, headed for the tv room.

Dad loved it. He gorged on it, taking great drunken handfuls. His chocolate fudgy hands trying to grab the Stepsisters or their mother, any one, he didn’t care. Oh he was a happy man as he fell asleep in front of Tiger King.

The women were gutted and regrouped in the kitchen with the gin and the rest of the chocolate stash.  “Well, it’s for the best really.  I mean, you didn’t really want to kill him, did you?” said Ella cheerily as she broke out another bottle.  Stepsister No.2 was rereading her ceramic glaze book.  “But it says here it’s terribly poisonous. He should have been in agony by now. Maybe we just didn’t use enough.” She took one of her own brightly coloured earthenware bowls, poured it half full of gin, and went in face first. Ella looked on her quite lovingly. Really this Stepfamily wasn’t half bad.  

After the Lockdown, the women opened the castle as a hotel. Nothing boutique or fancy, more a bed and breakfast with dinner sort of a place. Occasionally some guest would mention the whole Covid thing, mention the loss of a loved one before their time. The women would agree, and tell of their own experience – that awful coughing and long long weeks of waiting.

Mostly people just wanted to move on and forget about it though, and have another slice of that delicious, comforting chocolate cake of Nigella’s that featured on every single review.


This short tale popped into my head last week, when Nigella’s chocolate fudge cake was filling my social media feed as I read a Guardian report on the femicide numbers under Covid lockdown. Always like for my Cinders variations to have their revenge.

The picture was obviously inspired by Aubrey Beardsley – the exhibition is in lockdown, but there is a short Tate film of the curators talking which is better than nowt.

City of Love

City of Love

Here’s something I’m very chuffed about! You may well be aware that I am one of Ma Polaines Great Decline’s biggest fans ; not in that stalkerish worrying sort of way, mind you – just in that staggering up to them and going ‘I really love your stuff’ in that arm waving boozy Sunday afternoon in the Dukes sort of a way. Which happens a lot in Whitstable.

Anyway, last year, when they were working on their new album, they asked if I would like to have a think about some artwork for it. Would I??? well, what do you think? So, they sent me the work in progress, and I listened, and sketched, and then listened and stitched.

The tracks illustrated are Volcano – which was mostly hand stitched on trains and in Nobby van, Paris is Burning (which I always think of as Dead Man in the Closet) and Morphine – both of which are machine stitched on Nina the Bernina, reusing fabric from my recycle pile, and painted with a watercolour wash.

This album has become rather a Whitstable project, with local artists and musicians adding their skills to the beautifully composed music and lyrics.

Produced by John Gallen, photography by Phil Miller (exhibition currently showing at The Sportsman, additional bass playing from Martin Elliott… this is a band that the Bubble has really taken to heart.

Give them a listen – or even better, go see them, and buy the cd!

I’ve only ever lived in a left handed house

Aware of a deadline for an open exhibition I wanted to enter, equally aware that I hadn’t even started thinking about what to make, I opened our blue front door to welcome a friend, and as I stepped back, realised that I’d only ever lived in left handed houses.

What I mean by that is that all the houses had the front door on the right hand side, so that when you enter the house, you turn left into the rooms – otherwise you’d go splat straight into the party wall, which would hurt, and might upset the neighbours.

I’ve never been much of a mover. I don’t travel light and have way too much stuff.  Books and fabric and records and pictures and ornaments and nicknacks and just stuff! I read, sew, draw and paint, garden. I didn’t always garden, I did when I was small, helping Mum, and even having my own little patch to grow tiny radish and carrots. But then music and dancing took over and it was some years before growing things became important again. That was after I bought my flat. Planting a tree makes it even harder to move. Eventually though, we (for it was ‘we’ by then) dug up the nectarine tree, and the peonies, and an artichoke or two, and moved on.

This house we moved to, is only the sixth house I remember living in. There was a house when I was tiny, and I’ve seen photos, but I do not remember it.  I know it in terms of stories: the kitchen-hatch my Dad made, the mice my brother loved to watch careering round his bedroom floor, the neighbours my crying drove demented. 

I can’t draw that first house. I know the road name, but not the number. There were trees in the road, but the trees in the road I grew up in had spring blossom. One had both delicate white blossom and green leaves, together with heavy blousy pink blossom and plum coloured leaves.  The trees have not fared well these past few years, and the gutters no longer fill with fallen blooms. We had a green front door, and a pyracantha tree in the corner, which my Dad kept trimmed to a lollypop shape.

simple stitched outline of a house, a 1930s terrace, with a green front door.  The house is one of a series illustrating the houses I have lived in, and how they are all similar

When I finally started going Out, I stayed at friends and boyfriends, in Camden, in Kings Cross, in Haringey and somewhere in West London that involved a complicated process of hiding under a van to gain access to the house; going home to my parents for a change of more or less identical artfully ripped black clothes. My friends (and boyfriends) meant visits to Sheffield and Glasgow and Manchester. But my ‘stuff’ all stayed at my parents. My room was always there, and after a hot dinner, a warm bed, and maybe a Dynasty with Mum on a Friday evening, I’d head back off again. Sometimes I turned up and someone else had eaten the dinner and nabbed the bed, as my parents always looked out for our less fortunate friends.

Simple machine stitched drawing of a 1900s house with a bay window, illustrating the similarity of all the houses I have lived in

After approximately 8,431 days, I moved across the River, into a room with my boyfriend.  It was a big house with no shared living space, 15 miles north from my parents.  My Dad drove me there in a car full of stuff, lit a cigar and laughed a lot.  He hadn’t smoked for years. The boyfriend and I stopped talking to each other around 182 days later, I found myself another room in a different shared house, less than a mile away, and wonderful new friends. It was an unmitigated shithole, but with a pint of red wine in one hand, a big old funny cigarette in the other, and helping hands all around, I moved in. It had a big rambling hedge, that was never trimmed, and I think had a gate – or at least a gatepost, when I arrived.  It was gone by the time I moved on, about 1,187 days later.

Two simple illustrated houses, machine stitched in black thread, one with a blue front door, one yellow, both with hedges to the front garden.  Illustrating the fact that I've always lived in similar houses

My next home was just around the corner, not even a quarter of a mile from the last, with, as usual, more people most of the time than actually lived there, plus four cats and two dogs. We had the offy on one side, which was very handy. I never saw the neighbours. Probably just as well. They must have suffered. The garden was crazy-paved all over, but had a tree. The huge ground floor bathroom had French doors. The offy had a German Shepherd dog that sat in their yard and howled, generally whenever things seemed quiet enough to chance a bath on a sunny day with the doors open.

Sleep began to seem a more attractive and necessary idea, and I began to think it might be nice to have somewhere of my own, maybe a garden.  912 days later, I found my flat, two and a half miles uphill.

A simplified embroidered drawing of a house, with a red front door and a tree to the left.  illustrating the similarity of all the houses I have lived in

My brother borrowed a van from work and arrived to help me move, as by then I had rather a lot of stuff, including a wardrobe and shelves to contain it.  He said “we’d better unload the van first”, as it was pre-loaded with all stuff from my parents’ house, plus some things they thought might be useful and a small white table and chair from Granny. My parents’ house breathed a brief sigh of relief, before my parents set about filling all the now available space with yet more books and ornaments and records and things of their own.

I met my partner, The Engineer. He lived in Nobby Van, had a motorbike, tools, a couple of cassettes, but no stuff. He built a workshop on the back of the flat, and we took over the garden next door as our allotment.

4,716 days later we were moving on, 163 miles East to the seaside. Everything went into storage as our new house wasn’t entirely habitable, some might say it still isn’t. The Engineer was astounded and horrified by the sheer stuff volume: it kept appearing: cupboards disgorging their contents like Tardis. Added to which by then was his Edwardian safe, my full size kiln, and other death-defying one ton objects of a whole new level of stuffness to move. And my greenhouse – a leaving present from my last ever proper job some years before. That didn’t want to move. It had taken root along with the white peach tree and the big pink rose that bloomed all year, the magnolia and the apple trees, and the um, Japanese Knotweed.

Simple illustration in black thread, drawn on a sewing machine, of a Victorian terrace house with a blue front door.  It shows the similarity, in my mind, of all the houses I have lived in

So here we are, 4,836 days and counting, in my sixth left handed house, with a Cat That Isn’t Ours, and lots and lots and lots of stuff. One day it will all be in the right place, neat, tidy, accessible. Ha ha ha, say the Fabric Friends.

Six little houses, all in a row. Stitched by hand and machine, onto fabric from the stash. I had so much stuff I wanted to squeeze into this piece – names, and latitudes and longitudes, and dates and times, and distances. I wanted to map my infrequent moves, my travels with my stuff.  The houses weren’t having it. They’ve formed themselves into a single terrace, stuff firmly behind closed doors.

Six little left-handed houses, with their post codes. I’ve only moved one degree East, less than a degree North or South. And I’ve never lived in a right-handed house. 

stitched art illustration of six similar houses, on a background of vintage 70s yellow and pink bedlinen.

I’ve only ever lived in left-handed houses. Machine and hand embroidery and crayon, on old bedlinen.

2020 Vision

Oh how I wish I still had it!

My friends have been laughing that this is going to be a good year for opticians, and I’m guessing they are right. I’m tippitytapping this with transformed spectacles held on with welding wire arms, with gluegunned tips for behind ear comfort, fashioned lovingly by The Engineer after the arms just randomly fell of my specs, leaving me balancing my varifocals pince-nez style – which meant only a matter of time before we had specs in soup and beans on specs.

Like one of my Big Dolls, my arms are not long enough. No amount of holding at arms length is going to bring small print into focus. I’ve thought about making some longer arms, more like Big Alice’s legs, but I don’t think they’d really be much help. I can imagine them trailing along behind me down the High Street, tripping people up, and wrapping themselves around lamp posts, and being quarter of a mile behind me when I did actually want to read something. And they’d need an awfully big sort of puppet frame mechanism to function, which might be rather heavy for walking far. I suppose I could put them in my shopping trolley and just bring them out when I need them, but then, where do I put my shopping – in another trolley that I tow behind me and the arms? Actually, I’m beginning to feel quite exhausted thinking about all this, and considering I wasn’t particularly thinking about it before I started typing, I think it is best I just stop now. And make an appointment to see the optician.

However, as we are now in a New Year, and my spectacles are, for now, correctly positioned, I am busy sorting out diaries and calendars (and trying to make sure I write the same information on the same day of each). So here is a list of what is afoot (or a-fin) so far for this year in the House of Mermaids.

First up, the Profanity Embroidery Group Annual Exhibition will take place from 12th to 18th February at the Fishslab Gallery in Whitstable.

May 28th to 2nd June, the Big Dolls and I shall be joining Meg Wroe, Bev Sage and Clair Meyrick at the Pie Factory in Margate

July 10th to 16th sees the Mermaids in residence at Show Off in Harbour Street, Whitstable, alongside Alma Caira and Katrina Taylor

During the Whitstable Oyster Festival, in July, the house shall be Open for the Made in Whitstable: Arts, Craft & Vintage Trail

And quite frankly, thats enough to be getting on with. So on with it I get. Happy New Year!!!

Busy Busy Busy

Facebook has just told me this photo was 5 years ago. Big Alice, as nature didn’t intend. Strangely my first thought was about how the Terminators arrive nude. Not that Big Alice is very Terminatorish, but Big Alice wasn’t terribly happy at this point, and having difficulty managing those legs and feet. She’s still the biggest doll I’ve made…. so far.

Anyway, when I was making her, if I wasn’t busy busy busy, I was thinking “what on Earth?”. Not a question I asked at all once she was finished. And once she’d cheered up too. Not to be like those people who walk around going “Cheer Up Love It Might Never Happen” (who do deserved whatever might not happen to promptly Happen to them), but having a glowering larger than life fabric friend sprawling all over your studio like a malevolent teenager was rather unnerving.

Last week I started being busy busy busy again. And then I stopped and came up for air and thought ‘What On Earth?”. I’ve been possessed by my new sewing machine, and she’s making me do things I wouldn’t normally do. This wasn’t the plan, not one bit. All I can hope is that with time, I’ll accept that I’ve made a sort of appliqued quilty thing, and enjoyed the process, and that I’m sure some good will come of it one day….

Come and see what you think. Save me from the evil/conforming influence of Nina the Bernina, and let me get back to my dolls. Its East Kent Artists Open Houses time again, and we open for the following three weekends, 12/13th, 19/20th and 26/27th October 2019.

Malacophonous Magnicaudate Mermaids

“What does this say?” enquired a lovely visitor, holding one of my articulated paper mermaid dolls. The room was packed, as it was during our very busy Open House for the Whitstable Oyster Festival, this last weekend.

First, find spectacles underneath a couple of goats. Next, focus. Goodness, I don’t think I would write anything quite so small any more. Not that I designed this an awful long time ago. Obviously pre these specs though.

“Malacophonous Magnicaudate” says I, with satisfaction. “Yes”, says lovely visitor, “but what does it mean?” I think, I think, as I dredge in my brain, that it means….. ah yes, gently voiced. And big tailed.

paper mermaid doll by whitstable tail


A room full of incredulous faces turn to me. “You made that up”. No, no, I didn’t. Honest. Look I’ll show you. Oh no you won’t, says internet. Internet says no such words exist. Butter wouldn’t melt in its technological mouth as it asks me if I mean all sorts of other things because it has never ever heard of those two words. Never. Lying little internet. It gave me the words in the first place.

“I think it means ‘Bad’ – you know ‘mal’, it means bad. Its all cod-Latin. You definitely made it up.” No, not Bad. I know my mermaids are quite often naughty, but I really don’t like to advertise the fact. And I can remember being delighted when I came across these words, because they were so perfect. And I do so like a perfect word.

Finally the pixies of technology decide to stop messing about, and throw up one lone dictionary definition to back me up, allowing the Malacophonous Magnicaudate Mermaid to swim off to her new home, laughing at all the fuss she had caused.

Not everyone was convinced, I could tell. One online dictionary doesn’t prove anything. And I do like to tell stories, so you cannot blame my visitors for their lack of trust. Of course, later, much later, the Big Old Dictionary finally wakes up, and I find “malaco- or malac- denoting softness: from the Greek malakos”. I missed it because it was hiding behind a snail, slightly above a bunch of herrings and salmon. And if you want to know what I’m on about, you’ll have to look in the dictionary. A proper one, with paper pages. None of that online pedanticness.

Malacophonous Magnicaudate Mermaids are downloadable from my Etsy shop.