The between time…

30 December 2013
Ben Pentreath

Sorry – I almost forgot it was Monday.

I find the days between Christmas and New Year quite strange… curiously lethargic… not helped, perhaps, by another huge storm blowing across London today.  I’m back up here now, and pretending not entirely successfully to get on with a mountain of work that needs to be done before I’m away on my (proper) holiday and a serious dose of sunshine and change of scene in… oh, less than ten days’ time, which is something to hold on to at this time of year.

New Year can be a melancholy time, can’t it?  That forced good humour, when in fact all we really want to do is go to bed at about 9pm and watch a film or read a book and turn the lights off before 10; (I’m normally an early bird, but I have to confess I do not like getting up when it’s pitch dark outside).  All those forced lots of resolutions to give up this or that, when the only thing worth doing in these dark days is to polish off the best part of a bottle of red by 8pm, or even to open the next bottle, and eat masses of very rich very tasty food. I’m not sure I buy all this giving things up in the depths of winter. For stronger minds than mine, I would say.

One of the things I was reflecting on this Christmas, which has been a normal lament for longer than I can remember, is the fact that yet again I didn’t get around to Christmas cards this year. Hmm.  I think this might be a part of a bigger shift in my life, which – I’ve got to be honest – means it’s easier to send a quick email than to bother to pick up the phone and call; which likes to make plans but then manages even more often to cancel them at the last minute (always with an impeccable excuse); which spends far more time looking at a screen than at the printed page, and which ultimately spends an AWFUL lot of time saying how busy I am… so busy, in fact, that I’m often too busy to get on with anything at all.

I think that all of this might, just might, be my resolution for 2014: To remember that a voice is more real than an email, a drink together is more real than a text message, and that reading a book is more real than endlessly surfing the net (I am an endless surfer of the net). (You might also say that a visit to Rugby Street is more real than a trip to One of my resolutions, that I have already put into place, is to move my phone charger from the bedroom to the kitchen.

And, as inspiration, yesterday I opened up my old box of Christmas cards. I thought you might like to see a few.

The A-Z was the last card I did before I moved to the states – Christmas 1998.   I suddenly remembered I did a blog about it ages ago – as very loyal readers will recall.  You can find it here, and you will find if you read it that the one thing in my life which is never new is my regret about not having the time or care to draw a Christmas card these days.

A few years earlier was this card – 1995, which was followed by Good Things and Good Wishes for Christmas 1996:

Which is still pretty much a list of 32 things that I really like:

A year later was a slightly dishonest list of vegetables that, if you had actually found them on my table, would have been bought from the supermarket – but which potentially could be harvested from the kitchen garden on Christmas Day…

…If you were a wealthy rare-vegetable-loving type, Prince Charles maybe, with a handsome walled garden and several full time gardeners.

Coming back from New York I moved into a tiny flat in Great Ormond Street and very avid readers of my book will recognise my old early Georgian fireplace and the tweed armchair that used to sit in front of it. In fact, thinking about it, for that particular incarnation of my flat you probably have to have an earlier book on your shelf, Ros Byam Shaw’s brilliant book Perfect English – it will all be familiar there.

I did manage one more Christmas card the following year, but I don’t have a copy of it here. 12 Bloomsbury Doorways, which really I should turn in to a little poster for the shop, if only I could find the original drawing.

Back to New York. On my first winter in that fantastic city, I decided to make a little book called ‘New York Notebook’ as a Christmas card. I well remember, with horror, the afternoon that I bound up the books. I’d gone over to my beautiful friend Violet’s house, where she lived with her wonderful boyfriend, the renowned fashion photographer Oberto Gili.  Oberto had a beautiful, massive, marble-topped table. It was at this table that we decided to punch and sew up 150 copies of the book. Unfortunately it was only on book 134 that we discovered that our punch (that I’d bought in a proper NYC bookbinding store) for making the holes in the sheets was also putting a little dimple in the marble table top each time it was being used.  Oberto was so kind – he didn’t mind at all (or very gently claimed not to).  I’m afraid that table still bears the marks of my christmas cards.

The Bank Street Yard was my view out of my little sitting room window in Greenwich Village. Please will you tell me why I am such a sucker for a clay flowerpot with a white geranium on a windowsill?

Woah. hold on. Really sharp eyed readers will recognise immediately that that is not Mercer Street.

A few books were misbound. I’ve got three left, of which only one has all the sheets in the right order. Mercer Street in April should look like this:

And the former image, as you will all know, was Greenwich Village in May:

I haven’t been to Coney Island in 13 years, but I loved it so much in my first couple of years in NYC.

Many a fabulous night was spent at the bar on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum, watching dusk falling over the great expanse of Central Park, and getting drunk on cocktails and cheap beers

Long lamented Restaurant Florent was bang-slap next door to the office where I worked, at architects Fairfax & Sammons, on Gansevoort Street.

I went on a dreamy date one day in September to Prospect Park with a handsome Jewish American boy who I couldn’t quite fall in love with

I never went on a date to the Union Square Greenmarket. Frankly that’s a place to go when you’re done with dating and getting ready for home-making. But I loved that greenmarket almost more than anything in New York on a chill sunny autumn weekend.

Twin towers, I miss you still. My heart lurches when I look at this little drawing.

my little nest for my first 18 months in New York was the top floor back apartment of 111 Bank Street. Proving that if you want to make me really happy, put me in a small 18th or 19th century room in one of the two greatest cities on earth, with a working fireplace.

(I’ll be honest. I never actually got a Christmas tree).

The year 2000 didn’t get a Christmas card. Too much on my plate that winter. Then came Christmas 2001.  I’ve got to confess that was the most miserable Christmas of my life. The towers had just come down. New York had a gashing wound in her heart, and the emotions were too raw to bear, still (isn’t it marvellous, incidentally, how time really is the great healer? Worth remembering if you have sadness in your life right now – and Christmas and New Year is often, I think, a time when good people feel a bit sad).

That Christmas, I got stuck in NYC. I was in the middle of renewing my visa when 9/11 happened. Because so many of the terrorists had been living in the states perfectly legally, on visas, there was a sudden panic as to who was here and why.  What should have taken 6 weeks – a simple bit of paperwork – ended up taking about 9 months as every last detail of my life was checked and re-checked (who knew that I would have to hand in every single bank statement since I’d been in America. Just as a for instance).

I was welcome to leave, but I wouldn’t have been allowed back in without the new visa. New York was my city, my life, my job. So I stuck it out for those 9 months – unable to travel, to get home to Mum and Dad, at precisely the moment in my life when that was what I really, really, needed to do.

It wasn’t a good time. Let’s face it, I’d walk out of my door in those days and go past the fire station at the end of the road and want to burst into tears every morning. But I woke up on January 1st 2002 and thought I’d write my own little love letter to New York. Here it is.

The stock exchange was still flying a giant stars and stripes. I know it’s not always been very fashionable, in the passing decade, to say it, but GOD I LOVE the United States of America, and I think I always will.

The grid ends with King Street, where I lived such a happy 3 years. King appears twice, which is why there are only 79 Streets on a grid of 80 squares. Looking at it, should Green Street have an ‘e’ at the end? It should.

New York, New York, I miss you and I love you.

So that’s the story of my christmas cards. To everyone that sent me a card this year, I’m sorry, once again, that I didn’t get around to replying. Will you understand? I’m not trying to be rude, but I did run out of time to be polite.

And as the clock shifts seamlessly, silently, from one year to the next – can I wish you a quiet, peaceful, happy New Year?

We’ve got a little party in my flat tomorrow for the waifs and strays. It’s been organised pretty much at the last minute and yet all of a sudden it’s going to be very fine.  We’re doing a massive chinese takeaway, I don’t want to be washing up on New Year’s morning. Goodness how I used to hate New Year when I was about 18, or 20 – how significant a date it seemed, how important it was to know months in advance where you were going to be on that vital evening….  needing to know it was the MOST fabulous offer of a party that you had accepted… which by, and large, as far as I can tell now, meant:

on which floor in which house am I going to be waking up feeling desperately ill with a dreadful hangover on the first day of the year, looking around at a bunch of people who I didn’t necessarily really like? Hmmmmmm.


I can’t tell you how glad I am to say goodbye to all that. The blissful moment in your life of arriving at a point when you know who you are.

With best wishes for 2014.

33 comments on this post


Hi Ben, I believe I have one of your 12 Bloomsbury Doorways Christmas card. I found it the other day when I was tidying up our bureau, looking for something else, and thought it would look great framed, especially since leaving London for France in 2007! A little reminder of my years spent living in W1. If you’d like a copy of it, or would need the actual card then let me know and I’ll post it on to you.


Happy New Year, Ben.
Thank you for this post. The semester I lived in London on a teaching internship sealed my love of your city and all (most) things Anglo for life. That said, certain streets in my hometown had views across the Hudson to the Manhattan skyline. New York City will always be my special town. I am so glad you love it too. (I know many people, especially me, who would treasure your charming 79 Streets card as a poster.)

Ben, I’m late with my comment, but couldn’t not say something about such beautiful work! You are a bookman and a designer through and through. AND typographer!! Thank you for sharing these, and Best Wishes for a healthy, prosperous 2014, overflowing with everything (and everyone) you love 🙂

Hugs from Diane


I am in awe, wonder and rapture of your cards. Drawn with all the care and attention of a young, gifted and sensitive artist. I want originals (although I promise to buy some if you start selling them.) You already have a lot of takers. Have a merry and prosperous NY;)


Thanks Ben, for a year of interesting and inspiring (mainly) posts. Love your artwork for your beautiful Christmas cards of years gone by. Here’s an idea of something to give up, certainly for food or drink, that would be silly – shopping on Amazon. If we want wonderful bookshops to survive, then we will have to shop in them and give them our hard-earned cash rather than big old Amazon. I made this decision last year, and I’m glad. Do you know the illustrations of Sara Midda – very nice, have a look. Happy New Year. On Christmas cards – I love sending them and I love receiving them. I like choosing the designs, supporting my favourite charities if I am buying them, or making them with my kids (less so now that they are teenagers). I make an event of writing them, maybe take myself off to a cafe or gallery where I can sit for an hour to write my cards, and I like to do this in November, so that I can post them early in December. I hope these things don’t stop. I need to make for time for the things which make me happy.

Dear Ben, I hope you don’t mind my sending you this link to a youtube video. We recently filmed -for a BBC Timeshift documentary about the British weather – with The Polperro Fishermen’s Choir. We asked them to recite The Shipping Forecast and I thought you might enjoy it. The Timeshift documentary – which will be broadcast on BBC Four next Wednesday, 8th January at 9.30pm – was narrated by Charlotte Green who’ll you’ll remember as the person most strongly associated with reading The Shipping Forecast. When I worked with her, I told her about your letterpress print and sent her your link. Anyway, if you like the youtube video, it would be wonderful if you could give it (and the Timeshift programme) a mention on your blog or tweet about it. Thanks so much. Kind regards, William


An extraordinary post. And how it cheers me to read your proclamation of LOVE for the United States of America when, even for a citizen, it so often feels uncool or silly given our cultural deficits and hubris. Thank you for the perennial pleasure of your blog posts. Happy New Year Mr. Pentreath.


Right, genuinely livid not to have known you in your late 90’s Yule card heyday. Happy New Year Ben Lx

I echo all the lovely Benites above. Do consider selling these in your store. There would be a queue around the block.
Once you’ve done that, could you consider doing some drawings of the Parsonage? And the potager too. Some drawings of flowers and even vegetables would be beautiful for summer. Or you could do the Parsonage, the village and the surrounding landscape?

Gosh, we’re demanding readers, aren’t we?

(NB I’ll be over in London in May. Gives you plenty of time.)


That was a lovely post, clever fella. Happy New Year Ben, from sunny West Sussex 🙂 yes… the storm has passed, phew! X


Good Lord. These are so beautiful. Please add my voice to the chorus requesting prints of these. Wow. Kind of overwhelmed.

Emlyn Stancillsays:

Dear Ben,
What an incredibly sweet and poignant post. I also feel that this time of year is bittersweet, maybe exactly because old memories (good and bad) collide with the actual making of memories and it’s all jumbled up together. Your cards are beautiful, and I am happy to see that you’ve kept some for the archives. If you would ever consider selling a print of the 79 streets below Houston I would be so thrilled. I also have my own love affair with NYC and your drawings capture that feeling so well. Please, oh please would you consider it? And finally – one of my favorite gifts this year was a copy of your book. A total surprise and a complete joy. You are so talented! Happy New Year from a reader in Baltimore, Maryland.


Ben, did you print these up yourself or have them done? My husband (MFA printmaking) has two presses in the basement, and every year I hate myself for not making my cards. (I sent 55 this year and got 35 – not bad odds at all!) All the best.

Gorgeous post (as ever). Please add to your massive ‘To Do’ list – must reprint old Christmas Card books and sell in shop/online – they’d go down a storm I am sure. Smack across the back of the legs for not sending a card this year though, I’m a rather big advocate of a brilliant card – – I wonder why? HAPPY NEW YEAR


Plain card lampshades Ben.
Where to buy..

Pierre B.says:

Thank you, Ben, for such a poetic post to close 2013. May 2014 be one of the most enjoyable years of your life!

Suzy O'Briensays:

You are a genius Ben Pentreath. Please say that you are NOT doing the ‘dry January’ thing. Actually I know that you are not. Thank you for your funny and joyful writing


Happy New Year, Ben!
May it be one full of health and happiness for you and promises(or rather resolutions) kept, and may it be all of that and more wonderful posts from you, for us!


What a lovely post for this between time. Happy New Year, Ben. I was born and raised in NYC and though I live far away now, I’ll always have a piece of NYC in my heart. I think what makes all of your cards, not just the NY ones, so special is that they each have piece of your heart. Your love for the places you’ve called home comes through so clearly.

Another fan who’d be happy to be able to buy reproductions of the cards, either as posters, or as cards, to keep in a box to look through from time to time. All best wishes for health and happiness in 2014…


I was born and raised in NYC but no longer live there but it will always be “home” for me. So I absolutely adore all your NYC memories and drawings.

And I will second the request for a reprint of the “Seventy Nine Streets” drawing for purchase. I’ve been researching my ancestors and going through the NYC census records finding out where they lived in NYC in the 1800s and every address I’ve found is represented on your drawing. So I look at those images for Pearl Street, Prince Street, etc. and I don’t just see your drawings but I see them there as well.


Fairytale of New York by Kirsty Maccoll and the Pogues anyone?! Happy New Year to one and all!

Helen Jamessays:

Ben what a wonderful heartfelt and honest post. Loved your stories of NYC. Also being a former refugee of that inimitable city and having been there on sept 11th. And witnessing the wound and rawness. Your Christmas cards of old are truly special. You should publish them.
Wishing you a wonderful 2014 and thank you for all your wonderful posts in 2013

These are wonderful. I so love your 79 Streets South of Houston–are there any copies available?
Perhaps next year you’ll make a new year card.

I found you via Jane Flanagan (Ill Seen, Ill Said) and look forward to exploring.

These are just lovely! I had an Scottish friend who lived on King Street, right around the same time you did, and then she moved to Prince Street. I got to know that area in the late 90’s, early 2000’s before it became so commercial and popular and all of the good places moved out.

A friend from here in Baltimore visited your shop earlier in December and came back home raving! Hope to be over to see it in March of 2014.

Thank you for all of the inspiration you’re providing, and Happy New Year, Ben!

Faith McLellansays:

Dana, somewhere above, is a friend of mine and I was hoping she was writing to beg you to sell that NY book so she could give it to me as next year’s Christmas gift 😉 Today’s column was the best ever. I feel exactly the same way, on so many fronts. Absolutely loved all the cards and drawings. Thanks and Happy New Year!


I do a watercolor christmas card every year. This year it was large, required addiional postage, and each was hand tied with a ribbon (my inspiration was the 1901 menu for reveillon from the Riz in paris and that one had a ribbon so mine seemed to need the same). I did 110 of these, down from 200 last year. after all this I found less joy in my cards than I should have. you may have just restored my joy. these are wonderful and as the first commenter said, ‘benites’ want them. If you did a little box of your cards from the past I’d be so thrilled. what a collection of good wishes done beautifully. this IS your christmas card for 2013.


I can hear a chorus of voices from fellow Benites up and down the country, over the pond and around the globe pleading with you to do something, with your delightful drawings. I for one will be first in the queue for a Good Things and a Vegetables poster or print. One other plea: Please make it fit one of those slim, black, A3 Swedish you know who frames, I’m getting very tired of being ripped off by expensive framers.

Frances Kassamsays:

You are so right…if you can ring don’t write if you can meet don’t ring ….Ben the pen..get drawing please.

Thank you for your kind remarks about the U.S. Given the ghastly state of the Congress it’s hard to be positive about the state of our nation, so your mention is a boost in the cold and dark of winter. Your drawings and cards are beautiful, thoughtful, creative, and dozens of other adjectives. I think you must book time to keep designing them. If you sell them at the shop you can justify time drawing. I grew up at the opposite end of NY state from NYC but I love seeing those images of streets I have walked on and streets I will never see. You make Mondays special!

Caroline T-Bsays:

Ben you echo all my sentiments about this time of year …I adore your blog, your eyes, your drawing, photos and your sensitivity to all the things I personally love. And yes please, ditto the message above – please print off your old Christmas cards…NY/London?Dorset and “Seventy-Nine Streets”. It would be lovely to have one..
Thanks for all your inspiring messages this year and many more next.
Happy New Year xx


Gosh, it would be a joyous day to receive a Christmas card from you! These are wonderful!
I made my own Christmas card once using a silk screening process; I was in high school and it was soooooo many years ago! Enjoy your holiday; I’m leaving for the sun soon, too! The only thing I enjoy about winter anymore is getting away from it!

Nicola Barriesays:

Your drawings are exquisite. Would you consider printing some Christmas cards for next year and selling them in your shop, please? (I miss your Ormond Street flat!). I’m sure you will have many requests for copies of ‘Seventy-Nine Streets’. Happy New Year to you and your blog readers. Enjoy your holiday in the sun. Cheerio, Nicola

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