Life in the big smoke

Dreaming of northern places

Last night I googled the largest islands in the world. It turns out the fifth largest island is called Baffin. It’s a place I’ve never heard of before, but when I found it on a map I realised it’s that large island north of Canada which sort of looks like an upside down unicorn. Apparently it’s a popular destination for base jumpers because there are many amazing cliffs. It’s also home to around eleven thousand people. The capital is called Iqaluit.

Iqaluit. Image by Leslie Coates via

I sometimes read a blog called Where is Acacia, by photographer Acacia Johnson who travels to many amazing northern places, trekking over snow and ice. She is pretty inspiring. This morning I checked my bloglovin feed (because I didn’t want to start writing just yet) and Acacia is currently in Iqaluit. I find these coincidences interesting. When you hear about something new it starts popping up in random places.

I would like to go to Iqaluit. I’d like to go to Greenland, Svalbard, to the North Sea coast in Norway and to remote Scottish islands.

A while ago I read an article on Aeon magazine by a British writer who left her life in London behind and moved up to Orkney to work with Cornrakes. It’s an interesting and peaceful read.

Perhaps it’s because it’s early in the morning, perhaps it’s because I’m a bit stressed and it’s grey outside and the nights are creeping ever closer to the mornings, but this sort of life holds a lot of appeal to me at the moment – the sea wind blowing outside, a fire keeping away the worst of the winter cold, air that’s not been polluted by hundreds of thousands of cars and buses.

When I first moved to the UK I liked the softness of the colours here, all that pollution in the air, the greens and blues muted and warm, there’s a hint of yellow in the leaves and the grass. Now I miss the clear, harsh blue of home. I miss the white of winter, the dialed up colours of clear summer days. The bright reds and yellows in the autumn.

I grew up in a small town in rural Finland. I didn’t see the trees and sea shores and the open skies. I didn’t listen to the rain beating against the roof at night or the wind howling during autumn storms. I hated chopping wood for winter fires and raking leaves in September. I wanted to escape, I wanted to go away, learn, grow, run around big cities with a take away coffee in one hand, hailing taxis and reading books in cafés like cool people do in movies. And here I am in London. The pendulum swings past where it all started, to another extreme.

Top image by Blake Richard Verdoorn.

Hello October, month of witchery

Hello October. I like you because you make me think about stuff like this.

“Mysticism” is derived from the Greek μυω, meaning “I conceal”, and its derivative μυστικός, mystikos, meaning ‘an initiate’.

For mystical London-based events in October, check out Bad Witch’s blog.

All image sources can be found here.

The lion taming Bostocks of Stoke Newington

Abney Park cemetery is one of my favourite places in London. Sometimes I feel like pinching myself because it’s just around the corner from our flat, it’s the sort of place I’ve dreamed about visiting since I was a teenager with too much black lipstick and an ankh symbol around my neck.

Walking around Abney Park feels like stepping into a forgotten world. It’s a wild Victorian cemetery, there is a bombed out old church in the middle and the gravestones are overgrown with ivy. There are hidden paths, forgotten corners, messages scribbled onto stones and carved into wise trees. There are bombs from the second world war hidden in the soil and around every corner there is a story.

Sometimes I use the graveyard as a cut through from our house to the high street in Stoke Newington. If I take that route I always pass a majestic white lion. He’s pretty dirty, but his nose and paw are patted shiny white by visitors. He’s an eye-catching lion and he has a very fascinating history.

The king of animals

The lion is resting on top of the grave of Frank Charles Bostock, known in his day as the Animal King and the King of Carnivals. Bostock was a Victorian lion tamer who travelled the world with his pride of almost 30 lions. He mainly worked in the US and his most well known show was on Coney Island.

Bostock was born in Basford, Derbyshire in 1866 and started his career in small circuses. He lived an adventurous life and almost lost his arm to a tiger whilst performing on Coney Island.

He didn’t only train lions and also performed with tigers, hyenas and camels. He’s said to have had a farm with giraffes on Yoakley road in Stoke Newington and he was rumoured to have been the first person to have introduced boxing kangaroos to the carnival stage.

Bostock died of the flu when he visited England in 1912 when he was only 46 years old.

According to The National Fairground Archive his funeral was quite an event.

Frank Bostock’s funeral took place at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington on the afternoon of Monday 14th October. As well as his wife, children and family members the funeral was attended by a great number of people including John Sanger, Pat Collins, W Sedgwick, Fred Ginnett, to name but a few of the famous faces of showland. The hearse, drawn by four horses, was covered in wreaths and floral tributes and there were around 30 other carriages filled with mourners. It was reported in the World’s Fair that all along the route to the cemetery great crowds lined up to pay a small tribute to one who was so popular and esteemed.

More about Bostock

The fairytale art of Elsa Beskow

There are images from childhood that inspire you and stay with you. Swedish illustrator Elsa Beskow is the artist behind some of the images that still manage to bring back some of that childhood wonder for me. I remember leafing through dusty, old books with her illustrations at the summer-house, the perfect place to read about folklore and fairytales, flowers coming to life and strange creatures living in the forest.

Recently I stumbled across an article about Beskow’s work, where her style was described as having been seen by some as weak and lacking in depth. I think she’s the opposite, able to capture something magical, a sense of childhood wonder and innocence.

Elsa Beskow was born in Stockholm in 1874. She’s said to have loved fairytales from an early age and to have started telling stories before she was able to speak properly, with her older brother Hans helping her to find the words she was struggling for. She grew up surrounded by fairy-tales and nature, which is reflected in her work.

When she was fifteen her father died of pneumonia. Elsa, her five siblings and their mother had to move in with Elsa’s mother’s unmarried sisters and brothers who were already living together.

It was a liberal home where organisations like the women’s movement were discussed and approved of. These values are reflected in Elsa’s picture books. The Flowers’ Festival, from 1914, argues for freedom of speech for everyone, and some suggest that Mrs Chestnut, in her loose-fitting dress, is depicted as pregnant – a daring thing to do at a time when the middle classes were of the view that pregnant women should be kept out of sight.

Elsa started writing and illustrating some of her stories during the first world war, escaping into a world that was innocent and peaceful, when the real world wasn’t.

In 1897 she married fellow art student Nathaniel Beskow, after having been his model. But her new husband didn’t stick to the artistic path and instead became a doctor of theology. Apparently that wasn’t a very lucrative choice and during their marriage Elsa became the main breadwinner. The couple had six sons and Elsa supported the whole family by producing one new book every year. I find it amazing that she found the resources to raise six sons and still keep producing her work. Although she’s said to have described her married life as “every year another book and every other year a boy”.

One of her children died tragically before his eight birthday, two others went on to become famous in their own right as authors.

The family lived in an old wooden mansion outside Stockholm, with a huge over-grown garden. A lot of the inspiration for Elsa’s drawings is said to have come from there.

One of my favourite author’s Tove Jansson writes about rediscovering Beskow’s work as an adult and the way it made her feel.

“I looked through all of Elsa Beskow’s books, trying to find the key to the enchantment that was still present. All her illustrations were sublimely simple and honest. There was no trace of make-believe for its own sake, no other effects than the magic of making large things small and small things gigantic.

Elsa Beskow does not make use of the storyteller’s privilege of painting the lawn blue and filling the forest with animals that do not exist. Rather, she concerns herself with reality and lets her story take place there. Suddenly I realized how wonderful it was to be able to recognize my own forest, my own ditch, my own meadow, my own blueberry plants, and I was filled with admiration for an artist who dared to paint a yellowy-green bush with pink roses and to insist that the sky really is pale blue.”

See also: The fairytale art of John Bauer