Friday, 16 December 2011

Septimus Appleby's Lesson in Flight

Well, we're rapidly drawing to the end of another year, and I have achieved my customary level of controlled chaos in preparing for the festivities. The Christmas tree (this year we're calling him Fred. What do you mean, you never give your Christmas tree a name?) is sitting in a bucket of water on the patio waiting to come indoors.

Incidentally, I had an interesting chat with the man at our lovely, family-owned garden centre yesterday. I asked him whether he was sure the tree would be happy outside until we were ready to put it up, before realising that trees usually live outdoors, rather than in centrally-heated houses, and that bringing trees indoors is actually quite a bizarre thing to do, if you stop and think about it. So, let's not stop and think about it.

There is snow falling as I type this, and I have a Ted Heath album of Christmas carols playing on iTunes - talk about Nostalgia - so I'm starting to feel a bit Christmassy now. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for visiting my blog during its first year, and to say that I hope you'll return in the New Year, when I hope to be able to post more frequently.

Wherever you are, and whatever you're doing this Christmas, I hope you'll be safe and happy. And may 2012 bring with it a host of good things for you and yours.

Now, in a spirit of looking forward to a new year, and new beginnings, here is a short story, which I hope you'll enjoy.

Merry Christmas!  

Septimus Appleby's Lesson in Flight

That New Year's Eve, over his customary glass of sherry, Septimus Appleby made two resolutions. Firstly, he would build the first pair of truly functioning wings in the history of human endeavour, and then attempt flight in its purest form. Secondly, he would teach himself Spanish. He was painfully aware that one of these projects would be much more challenging than the other: he had never had a natural aptitude for languages.
    The next morning, he pinned an invitation to witness his maiden flight, to the parish notice board at the edge of the village green. It was a bright, frosty morning, and his slender fingers prickled with cold as he pushed in the drawing pins, one at each corner of the neat piece of card.
    'Good morning, Mr Septimus Appleby. Happy New Year.'
    Septimus Appleby looked down at the familiar, earnest face, with its big brown eyes framed by thick lashes.
    'Happy New Year, Kevin.'
    They shook hands, and he noticed that the little boy had fastened his duffle coat unevenly, so that there was a spare toggle at the top, without a loop to accommodate it.
    Kevin stood on tip-toe to read the notice on the board, his lips lightly shaping the words he found there. His breath hung on the cold air in a visible cloud, and Septimus Appleby pictured a happy dragon, full of youthful curiosity.
    'Where are you going to fly to, Mr Septimus Appleby?'
    'Spain, I think. Eventually. I shall buy a little house and live out the rest of my days there.'
    'Couldn't you go in an aeroplane?'
    'Yes, I could do. But where would be the challenge in that?'
    The smile on Kevin's face seemed to say that he could appreciate that point of view entirely, and his eyes were bright with imagination.
    'May I help you build your wings?'
    'It will be a pleasure to have your company.'

As he walked home, Septimus Appleby pondered on how people would react to his announcement. They would think he was mad. Of course they would. Some of the villagers might even worry about him. Mrs Robinson, Kevin's mother, for instance. It couldn't be done, could it? The scientists said so. If it could be done, someone would have done it by now.
    But 'the scientists', some of them, had claimed that the bumblebee should be incapable of flight, hadn't they? And look how wrong they had been on that one. He would ignore what everyone else might think. All it would take was imagination, hard work and a little faith. 'Where there's a will, there's a way.' That's what Molly had always said, and Septimus Appleby was determined to prove her right.

Septimus Appleby's shed, always a hive of industry, was especially lively on the following afternoon. The walls of the shed, usually bare, were now crammed with postcards of mythical birds, and pictures of old flying machines; the air was sweet with the scent of sawdust. Kevin was perched on one end of the workbench, swinging his feet to and fro, and watching attentively as Septimus Appleby sawed thin pieces of wood into precise lengths.
    'My mum says you won't be able to do it. She says if Icarus couldn't do it, why should you be able to.'
    'And what does your mother know about Icarus?'
    Kevin explained that they had 'done' Icarus at school, and that he had told the story to his mum when she got home that evening. She had found that story odd enough, but when Kevin had told her of Septimus Appleby's plans, she had just shaken her head and muttered something.
    'What do you think, Kevin?' asked Septimus Appleby. 'Do you think your mother's right?'
    'No. I don't think she has much imagination. I think you need imagination for something like this.'
    'Good lad,' said Septimus Appleby, smiling to himself. 'After all, it wasn't that Icarus was unsuccessful, was it? On the contrary, he was a victim of his own success. His wings were so effective, they enabled him to fly too close to the sun. That was his downfall - heat. Heat and hubris. Do you know what 'hubris' means, Kevin?'
    'Yes, Mr Septimus Appleby.'
    'You're a bright young chap.'
    Kevin frowned for a moment, and hesitated.
    'I think my mum's worried about you. She says maybe you're not expecting to be able to fly at all, that you'll just jump off the cliff and... well... She thinks... She thinks you never really got over... you know...'
    'It's alright, Kevin. Your mother is a wonderful woman. But you must tell her not to be concerned about me. I shall be alright. This is going to be the finest time of my life. Don't you think?'
    Kevin nodded, reassured.
    'Will you be using wax and feathers, Mr Septimus Appleby?'
    'No, Kevin.'

That evening, Septimus Appleby balanced himself on a chair against the wardrobe and pulled down a box with a faded design of antique roses on it. He was ready for the aching sense of emptiness it would bring with it, and tried to suppress it, but without success. He jumped nimbly down from the chair.
    He put the box on the floor, pulled off the lid, and removed the layers of crisp tissue paper protecting its precious contents.
    And there it was. Molly's wedding dress. The scent which rose from the fabric struck him like a physical blow, and a wave of loss and loneliness washed over him.
    He remembered Molly telling him the story of the dress. How it had been her mother's, carefully crafted from the parachute which had glided her father into occupied France in 1944. And it suddenly struck him that perhaps he should preserve the garment just as it was, as a piece of history.
    He hesitated a moment, pushing the tissue layers home again. He started chewing on his thumbnail, something he did when he was undecided. Then he realised what he was doing and gently admonished himself, just as Molly would have done.
    And the realisation struck him: his life had become like that wedding dress - preserved in layers of tissue paper, unchanging, suspended in time. Suspended. Yes. He pulled off the layers of tissue paper again, more urgently this time, hoping that a sense of purpose might extinguish his doubts.  
    'You don't mind, do you love?' he asked the face in the photograph on the bedside table. 'You do think I'm doing the right thing?'
    The face in the photograph smiled at him, the smile it had smiled forty-five years ago, across an airport departure lounge - the smile he had fallen in love with.
    'This way, you see,' he said to the smile, 'we'll be together again. And I can't do it without you, Molly. I don't want to do it without you.'
    The smile seemed to say 'You should always follow your dreams, Septimus Appleby,' and he felt the same sense of reassurance he had always felt from her.
    He pulled Molly's old sewing box from its retirement space under the bed, and took out a large pair of dress-making scissors. He had the strangest feeling that they had been waiting for him.

That weekend, Kevin watched as Septimus Appleby cut pieces of silk into the shapes he needed for his wings, adjusting his measurements from time to time, and trimming pieces of the fabric as he went along.
    Kevin was in charge of the glue pot, and had risen to this responsibility with an easy assurance surprising in a child of his tender years. As each piece of silk was cut precisely to its finished size, Kevin would carefully run the glue brush along the edges, his lips pursed in concentration. Then he would watch intently as Septimus Appleby eased the silk into place on the wooden frames.

And so, four months later, Septimus Appleby stood on the edge of a cliff, with a small group of people from the village assembled nearby. His white, silken wings were dazzling in the sunlight. He didn't look worried at all, Mrs Robinson was to remark a day or so later. No, quite serene, in fact.
    He looked up into the sky at one point, and his lips moved. Could it have been a prayer? they asked. But they agreed that no, it probably wasn't. He didn't believe in God, did he? They had seen him in the church occasionally, just recently, but he usually seemed to be studying the stained glass window of the Annunciation, and jotting down notes in a little book.
    So there he stood, looking up into the sky, and moving his lips. Nobody would ever know what he was thinking; nobody would ever know what he was saying, or to whom. Perhaps he was just talking to himself.
    After a moment, he closed his eyes and nodded, as if something had been settled, once and for all. He stared ahead of him, smiling softly. Smiling, why? Out of pure happiness? Out of a recognition of something suddenly understood? Out of resignation, perhaps?
    When he shifted a little in his harness, adjusting the straps ever so slightly, and slowly raised his wings, it was obvious to the villagers what would happen next. And they watched, not wanting to, transfixed in their unwilling comprehension of the disaster which lay only moments ahead.
    He would plunge to his death on the uncompromising rocks below, and they would have to wait until low tide before they could recover his poor, broken body. The retreating water would solemnly lap its last around the ragged remains of his improvised wings, the splintered wood, the silken tatters: Mr Septimus Appleby, and his wife, Molly, finally reunited - in death.
    Septimus Appleby appeared to brace himself for a moment, and take a deep breath. He flapped his suddenly flimsy-looking wings - once, twice, three times -
    and launched himself decisively off the ledge, to a sharp gasp from the crowd.
    Mrs Robinson turned her face away and screwed her eyes shut, as Septimus Appleby plummeted downwards, gravity scorning his unnatural wings. The villagers murmured, horrified, as he and the rocks came into rapidly closer proximity.

Kevin saw everything from a little further along the cliff, away from the adults, where he had been calmly feeding twenty-pence pieces into the viewing telescope.
    And it came as no surprise to him when Septimus Appleby suddenly soared away from the rocks, just in time, and up into the cloudless sky; or when, a few seconds later, he had established his wings into an assured, steady rhythm, and seemed suspended on the fresh, blue morning.
    Kevin imagined this was how an angel might look in flight, but he had never seen one, so he couldn't really know for sure. What he did know was that those silk panels seemed transformed into feathers now, softly embracing the air with each broad stroke, and that with the sun on his wings, Septimus Appleby shimmered like some mythic creature from a story book.
    The little boy watched as his friend grew smaller and smaller, flapping and gliding his way across the sparkling water, strong, free and invincible. Kevin put his hand into the pocket of his duffle coat, and pulled out a perfect square of silk, a gift from Septimus Appleby. He smiled to himself as he caressed it with his fingers.
    'Goodbye, Mr Septimus Appleby,' he whispered, not in a sad way, but with an overwhelming sense of pride. 
    He had known all along that everything would be alright. Because nothing was impossible to Kevin, just as nothing was impossible to Septimus Appleby. It never had been.
    And after today, it never would be.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Use it or lose it

"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I have been reflecting just lately on language. I love words; and I love the way they can be put together with huge subtlety, enabling us to express with precision and beauty the tiniest detail, thought, or experience.

I was revisiting a favourite episode of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's 1970's BBC sitcom The Good Life recently, and one scene particularly got me thinking. Tom and Barbara, who are striving for self-sufficiency and have suffered a disappointing harvest, are having dinner with their neighbours, Margot and Jerry. They are out of sorts, and the conversation has stalled:

Jerry: You two are very quiet.

Barbara: Oh are we? Sorry. 

Margot: Yes. Now come along. We have such a rich language. Let's use it. 

Tom: Alright then.


Barbara: Err...

Margot: I've finished.

Tom: I've finished as well.

Margot: Oh yes. Have you finished, Jerry?

Jerry: Yes, thank you, darling.

Margot: Then I've finished too.

Jerry: It is a rich language, isn't it?

This is comedy of course, comedy of the highest order, written by two men who were masters of bringing character and situation to vivid life - through words. But it got me thinking about the English language and our use, abuse, and neglect of it.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, there are at least 250,000 words in the English language; and depending on what you actually term a 'word', this number could be as many as 750,000. It is one of the richest languages on the planet, partly as a result of being such a mongrel: much of our language has Germanic roots, courtesy of our Viking invaders; but the Norman Conquest brought with it lots of French and Latin too.

Is it just me, or are our language standards falling? Every day I seem to notice examples of poor communication. My husband once had a client whose email communications were written with a carefree disregard for most of the basics - grammar, punctuation, good manners - and with the same sloppiness and informality he might use to text his mates and invite them to the pub. And he considered himself a businessman.

I'm talking about a paucity of self-expression, an inability - or a disinclination - to use our wonderful language to the best of our abilities. Trying to do business in the language of the text seems unprofessional, not to say counter-productive: how can you expect to get what you want when you're not prepared to communicate clearly what that is? It also seems disrespectful, both to the language and to the recipient of the message. Perhaps this reflects on a growing lack of respect within society generally?

In his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created the concept of 'Newspeak'. This was a system of repression, where words were gradually made to disappear from the language to limit the citizens' imaginations, and therefore their activites and behaviour. For instance, the word 'revolution' was deleted, the theory being that if the word did not exist, people would not even be able to conceive of the idea of revolution. 

I do sometimes wonder whether we might be imposing a form of Newspeak on ourselves without even realising it: if the only contact we have with our own language is through the limitations of the text message, are we not in danger of limiting our imaginations, and our creativity, too?

In neglecting the huge potential for expression open to us through our native tongue, perhaps we are also limiting our ability to appreciate the riches of the world around us, to share that appreciation with others, and to grow in the process. But it takes practice. Like a muscle, it needs to be exercised and challenged to be kept in optimum shape. Perhaps language is like the human body or the human mind: if you don't use it, you are in danger of losing it.

It's a bit depressing, isn't it? So here is a YouTube clip from the episode of The Good Life I referred to earlier. The dinner party scene is at 4'30", although it is well worth seeing all the way through. Enjoy!


Tuesday, 18 October 2011

All things must pass...

Well, it's that time of year again. There is a nip in the air, and there is a haunting quality to the light which I know is there but which I find difficult to describe, a sort of mellow clarity unique to autumn.

This is my favourite time of year, and has been for as long as I can remember. Autumn at its best can deliver bright, crisp, sunny days, times when you feel a need to be outdoors, kicking up golden leaves, breathing in, and simply being

And in more recent years, autumn has sometimes brought with it another treat for me and my husband: a trip to Inversnaid, or, more specifically, the Inversnaid Photography Centre.

If you type 'Inversnaid' into Google Maps, you will see that this tiny hamlet is in the middle of nowhere, about half-way up the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. It is actually at the end of a 15-mile cul-de-sac, which begins in Aberfoyle and then travels along a narrow, winding, undulating road, along the banks of several lochs and through stunning areas of woodland. 

 View from the eastern end of Loch Arklet, looking west towards Inversnaid

For nearly 25 years, André Goulancourt and Linda Middleton, ably assisted by Ian King, ran residential photography workshops with some of the country's best photographers, from their home, Inversnaid Lodge, a beautifully-restored, 18th century hunting lodge. My husband participated in several of these workshops, before becoming a tutor there himself. And - luckily for me - non-participating partners were made very welcome...!

My memories of Inversnaid are pretty unusual, as they're from the perspective of someone who hasn't participated in the workshops themselves. But this gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore the area in depth, and to come to know and love it.

Whichever way you walk from the Lodge, you end up in beautiful walking country. Head down to Loch Lomond, and you can walk a section of the West Highland Way. My favourite stretch of this walk takes me south, into a dense area of woodland which allows for only limited, dappled light, and where many of the trees are covered in delicate lichens. There is a stillness and a quiet here which is absolutely magical.

 Looking west across Loch Lomond from Inversnaid

At my most energetic, I love the walk along Loch Arklet, up and around Loch Katrine, where the plaintive cry of the buzzard provides a haunting soundtrack. Whenever I've done this walk, I've always had to keep my eye on the time: I've covered as much as 14 miles in a day, pausing frequently to watch the birds or to enjoy my packed lunch. And my greatest fear has always been that I won't be back at the Lodge in time for dinner: ask anyone who has experienced Inversnaid, and they're bound to mention Linda's delicious home-cooking!

Loch Katrine at sunrise: not my favourite time of day, but very pretty.

And what of the Lodge itself? It is beautiful and cosy, and many of the rooms look straight over towards Loch Lomond. But I suppose the real measure of any home is the people living in it. For that reason, you couldn't hope for a warmer atmosphere than you find here. It really is one of those places where you arrive as a stranger and leave as a friend.

For so many reasons, the arrival of autumn always makes me yearn to be back in Inversnaid. And that feeling is given an increased intensity this year, because sadly it seems very likely that the days of photography workshops there are over now, after an impressive 24 years. (This, incidentally, gives my husband the rather melancholy distinction of having run the last one ever!)

All good things must come to an end, of course, and nobody who knows how much energy and effort has gone into the running of the Photography Centre will blame Linda or André for deciding to slow down a little. 

Of course, my beloved path through the woods on the edge of Loch Lomond will still be there, and the fieldfares will return, to strip the rowan bushes of their berries and to set the sky alive in their chack-chack-ing, silvered flocks. These things will remain. But the atmosphere and warmth of the Inversnaid experience itself, the laughter and the friendship we all shared, can never be recreated. That will have to live in memory alone. But what memories..!

If you've been a fairly regular reader of this blog, you'll realise that music is a fundamental part of my existence. And if there is one piece of music which is guaranteed to bring the sensation of Inversnaid flooding back in all its loveliness, it is 'Soltarlo' by Claudia Gomez. I can picture myself in front of the fire in the sitting room, with a book and a pre-dinner drink, refreshed and happy after a long walk along country lanes in glorious, chilly sunshine. This is where I was when I first heard this song, and it never fails to transport me straight back to that blissful moment.

 Silver birch at Inversnaid - handsome in its autumn livery!

I would like to dedicate this post, with much love, to Lin, André and Ian for the unfailing warmth of their welcome and their friendship over the years, for their tireless attention to detail, and for the magic they created for everyone privileged enough to have walked through the door of Inversnaid Lodge.

All photography copyright David Taylor Photography 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A viola lesson

Some of my best friends are viola players.

Does that sound like the beginning of a joke to you?

It isn't supposed to be, but by the time you've read this post, you might want to come back and see what you can do with it...

I play the cello. In my time as a 'cellist', I have had the pleasure of meeting lots of lovely musicians, and even some viola players.

Did you see what I did there? I fell into the common trap of making fun of viola players, when in fact, I'm here to defend the viola and viola players a bit. If I can. Partly.

To define the viola, briefly:

  • In size terms, it is the big brother of the violin, but very much the baby cousin of the cello, with a body length of between 15 and 18 inches.
  • Its four strings are tuned an octave higher than the cello, its lowest string being the C below Middle C, which is the lowest note you will have played if you experienced the delights of the descant recorder at school.
  • Its music is written in the alto clef, which is inherently scary. As a cellist I'm already invited to practise the mental acrobatics of the three other clefs - bass, tenor and treble - on a regular basis, and I'm not learning another one. I'm not.
  • It is the subject of scores of jokes - many of them screamingly funny - as are the people brave enough to take it on.

I had always imagined that part of the perceived problem with the viola is that - dare I say it? - it is neither one thing nor the other. It doesn't have the sparkle of the violin, nor the rich, sonorous depth of the cello. It kind of... well, rumbles along somewhere between the two.

When I decided to write this post, I googled 'Viola jokes why?'. I genuinely wanted to get to the bottom of why the viola, and violists, are so often maligned.

My search led me to Dr Carl Rahkonen's fascinating paper No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke as Musician's Folklore*. This informative and informed article makes a lot of serious points about the reasons behind the notoriety of the viola and the violist.

The viola usually takes an easier orchestral part than the violin. The instrument is far less powerful than its smaller sibling: it is tuned a fifth lower but is only 10% larger, so will never stand out in the orchestra.

The fact that its orchestral parts tend to be easier means that when these parts are more challenging, players sometimes struggle with them. This could account for jokes about viola players having more limited musical and intellectual capacities than their colleagues.

There is also, apparently, a tradition that viola desks are filled by people who just didn't make the grade as violinists. Historically, the viola didn't actually have a part written for it: it doubled up the bass parts and was often played by inferior violin players.

This is a tradition which continues: according to Dr Rahkonen, school orchestra directors routinely 'switch the poor violinists over to viola, where they will do less harm, and perhaps even contribute...'

Even Richard Wagner - yes, the Richard Wagner - put his oar in. He is reported to have said:
The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time.
With friends like that...

I would add that Dr Rahkonen's article is made all the more appealing by the appending of three whole pages of viola jokes... (He is, of course, entitled to tell them, being himself a violist.)

According to Dr Rahkonen, the telling of viola jokes was at its height in 1993, and has since greatly diminished.

That doesn't make them any less funny, though. So, here are a few of my favourites:

Q:  How do you know when a violist is playing out of tune?
A:  The bow is moving.

Q:  What is the difference between a viola and an onion?
A:  Nobody cries when you cut up a viola.

Q:  What is the difference between a viola and a trampoline?
A:  You take your shoes off before you jump on the trampoline.

Q:  Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?
A:  It saves time.

Q:  What is the longest viola joke ever devised?
A:  Berlioz's Harold in Italy.

Oh dear. Reading this back, I don't seem to have made a very good job of sticking up for the viola or his noble player, do I? I have simply reinforced a well-established stereotype. Tut tut.

So let me end by saying that there are some beautiful pieces for the viola, and here is a selection of clips you might like to listen to. They will break you in gently...

Far from being a joke, Berlioz's Harold in Italy is a wonderful tour de force for the instrument. He wrote it at the request of Paganini, who was apparently disappointed with it; it seems that it wasn't enough of a showcase for his virtuosity.

Elgar's Enigma Variations feature a beautiful solo for viola. 'Ysobel' (Variation VI - roughly 2'15" into this clip) depicts Isabel Fitton, one of the composer's viola students.

William Walton wrote one of the most famous concertos for viola. This short clip of Maxim Vengerov is a really good introduction to the appearance and earthy timbre of the instrument. (Unfortunately, the world was deprived of the much-anticipated (?) viola concerti of Elgar, Glazunov and Ravel - all three died before doing any substantial work on them.)

I hope you've enjoyed this short tour of the viola as much as I have. Oh, I must go. My violist lodger is outside the house again, standing on the doorstep. I'd better go and open the door for him: he can't find the key and he never knows when to come in...

*Presented at the National Meeting of the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, October 21, 1994, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Copyright (c) 1994.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Dulce domum: the joys (and perils) of working from home

My husband and I run our own business from home. He is a photographer, specialising in landscapes and architecture, and together we work on ideas for ways of making a living - organising exhibitions, running workshops, and selling prints and greetings cards. This is his website.

We like the life we have and wouldn't swap it, even though it can sometimes be a struggle.

So, what are its advantages? Well, personally, I don't miss the stresses and strains of office politics or aggressive, power-hungry bosses, even if I do get misty-eyed when I remember the monthly payslip...

And I don't envy our neighbours when I see them drive off to work at 8 am. Given the cost of fuel at present, I do wonder how many hours a week they have to work just to be able to afford to get there in the first place.

And there are the little things. We can beat the crowds, by going out to places during the week, when there are fewer people around. We get to decide our own hours and can, if we wish, saunter into town for a coffee occasionally, when we feel like it. That's the theory.

But this lifestyle is also fraught with hazards, some of them almost serious.

Cash-flow for one. The work may be flowing in, but that doesn't mean the money necessarily follows in a hurry. This can put serious pressure on the bank account: will we be able to pay the mortgage on time? Happily, the answer is usually 'yes', but there have been times...

And there are more creeping dangers. We gave up the idea of weekends long ago, because we could opt for days off during the week instead. But it can be very easy to let work seep into that designated time off when you are responsible for generating every penny of your own income yourself.

But there is a lighter side to the perils of this kind of self-employment.  

Some of our neighbours*, on the somewhat flimsy evidence that we might eat breakfast at 8.30 on a week day, seem convinced we're living in a state of semi-retirement! This has occasionally led to perfectly innocent comments, such as 'But of course, you have much more free time than we do.' Well, actually, no. No.

The high point, in a comic sense, of our work-related encounters with our neighbours came when my husband's first book was launched by our wonderful local independent bookshop, Cogito Books.

A lovely man from along the street came over and asked me: 'So, do you do any work?' (Italics his, not mine). I explained politely my own role in the photography business, but resisted the urge to tell him that we were both working ten hours a day, seven days a week.

I thought it was very funny. I did, honestly, or I wouldn't be telling you the story. The fact is that this man is a retired farmer - most probably used to getting up in the dark and doing very physical work for long hours - and therefore probably wasn't persuaded that what I do for a living is actually honest work. Perhaps it isn't.

We enjoy the life we have. True, it has its drawbacks, but we don't complain. This is the life we have chosen and we wouldn't change it for the world. True, it will never make us rich. In fact, another photographer friend once joked that the surest way of making a small fortune from this sort of thing... is to start off with a large one!

Boom-Boom, as Basil Brush would say.

* I would stress that we get on really well with all our neighbours. The whole street has a lovely feeling of community about it, and everyone knows everyone else's name. We're very lucky to have that.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

As if by magic... In celebration of 'Mr Benn'

I had so much fun writing about 'Bod' on this blog a while ago, that I thought I'd also re-visit Mr Benn, one of my other childhood heroes.

Mr Benn was created by David McKee and first appeared on television in 1970. Each episode of the series, beautifully narrated by Ray Brooks, sees Mr Benn visiting a little costume shop.

As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared...

Assisted by a shopkeeper who appears out of nowhere, he chooses an outfit to try on (it always fits), and walks through 'the door which could lead to an adventure'. It invariably does, and that adventure always relates to the costume he has chosen (which is lucky, really: I'm not sure what good a wet-suit and diving gear would have been in befriending an unhappy dragon...).

In re-watching the entire series on DVD - strictly for research purposes, of course - I've realised with a touch of sadness how cynical we can become in today's society. At the opening of the series, Mr Benn has been invited to a fancy dress party, hence his visit to the costume shop. We are told:

'Mr Benn wasn't really very fond of parties, but he did like fancy dress...'

Hmm. An asocial loner, then, with a penchant for dressing up. He also spends time watching the children in his street playing and queueing at the ice cream van. So, through today's eyes, perhaps not the sort of man you'd want hanging around your children...

But of course he is! That's just it. This series sparkles with a touching, innocent magic. One of the delicious things about watching these episodes now is that they remind us about the eyes through which we used to see as children, which is enormously refreshing for the soul.

So. Who is Mr Benn, and what are the features which make this little series so captivating?

Mr Benn lives at 52 Festive Road, a charming (Edwardian?) terrace, where everyone seems to be happy. We know little about Mr Benn's life. He wears a dark suit, smart tie and bowler hat, and has a handkerchief in his breast pocket - even on a Saturday. He looks as though he works in the City. But he never goes to work. Ever.

Festive Road - the Postman brings Mr Benn's invitation to the party.

That doesn't mean he isn't useful to his community, though. Far from it. Mr Benn's adventures generally lead to his helping people, righting wrongs or offering suggestions for ways to make things better. He helps to reconcile the King with his exiled pet dragon; he cheers up a princess who is so lonely that she refuses to eat; and he encourages the townspeople to build bigger cages for the unhappy animals in the zoo.

In short, Mr Benn is gentle, compassionate, practical and diplomatic. He helps to make a difference. 

One of the joys of the series is the beauty of its illustration. Each scene is vividly set in colourful watercolours, whether it be a castle, a jungle, a park or an underwater seascape. And the people are lovely too: they have gentle, rounded features and rosy cheeks.

The animation is executed simply but effectively. When characters are walking or running, we often see them only from the waist up, their legs concealed behind hedges, rocks or jungle scenery, depending on the story. This would have saved the animator a great deal of time and effort - having to produce all those legs moving would be very time-consuming.

The elephants walk through the jungle, legs concealed by foliage.

I'm not sure I felt like this when I was a five-year-old, but now I find there is something unbearably poignant about the moment the shop-keeper reappears, signalling that Mr Benn's latest adventure is over. Without argument, Mr Benn steps through the door which takes him away from his adventure forever, and back to the fitting room. He changes back into his suit and tie. He goes home.

This bit reminds me of a scene in the film 'Field of Dreams', where Dr Graham walks over the threshold of the baseball field to save Ray's daughter, knowing that he can never rejoin his team-mates and continue to live his baseball dream. I find it heart-breaking.

Still, Mr Benn never seems to mind - he is always smiling when he's changed out of his costume and into his own clothes - so perhaps I should stop taking it so seriously and not worry too much.

At the end of each episode, Mr Benn is always left with some small memento of his adventure - a parrot's feather, a seashell, a box of matches with a picture of a dragon on it... and we feel all's right with the world.

'How nice... I'll keep them carefully, just to remind me.'

There is an informative Wikipedia page, which includes a brief synopsis of each episode, and a website devoted to the series - As If By Magic - which has some lovely images. And the DVD contains the whole series, a true nostalgia-fest if ever there was one.

In Mr Benn's own words, to the shopkeeper at the end of an adventure, 'I look forward to seeing you again. Goodbye!'

Mr Benn is copyright 1970 David McKee.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Seven Links Project

I was really touched this week when 'the fly in the web', proprietor of the lovely Costa Rica Calling blog contacted me to let me know that she had nominated Sophie's Words for the blogging Seven Links Project.

The idea of the project is that one blogger is nominated by another to take part. That blogger then looks back over their archive of posts and chooses one that fits into each of seven categories.

Finally, the blogger nominates five other blogs, although there is absolutely no pressure on anyone - that would be unpleasant, wouldn't it, and if it was going to be like that, I wouldn't have agreed to come out to play!

Now, this blog is still quite young, only a few months old, so I don't actually have that many posts to choose from, but I thought it would be fun to look back on what I've got so far. Here goes...

My Most Beautiful Post

I feel a bit squeamish about this one. While I would hope there is sometimes beauty in what write, I'm not sure it's for me to decide whether there is or not - I think that sort of thing is for other people to judge.

So, I'm going to cheat a bit, and nominate this one:  Seeing the smaller picture because its subject is an object of beauty. I just hope my writing does it justice.

My Most Popular Post

The post which seems to have moved people most, and to have elicited some very personal and heartfelt comments, was How Dave Lee Travis helped make the world complete. I was really touched by the response I got with this one. It seemed to have moved something very deeply in people.

My Most Controversial Post

Ooh, tricky. Perhaps the closest I have got to controversy so far is  Magic moments: Your table awaits which touches briefly on the nature of socialism in Cuba! Believe or not, I was nervous about that one and not sure how much to say. I was relieved once I'd got the politics out of the way and could concentrate on the magic!

My Most Helpful Post

Ah. No doubt about this one. No doubt at all (she said, tongue planted firmly in cheek). This one contained vital information for writers everywhere: Displacement activity, revolving cats... and WWWhen the internet comes good This post also holds the record for longest title. And I had fun writing it.

A Post Whose Success Surprises Me

I'm not sure this counts as success, but the following post caused lots of good-natured banter on Twitter about the interpretation of fairy-tales and their sinister undertones.

Admittedly, the debate wasn't directly related to the blog post, whose purpose was to celebrate the beautiful art work in the old Ladybird books, but it was gratifying to watch it spark something in other people: The Elves, the Shoemaker, and a pile of old... Ladybirds.

A Post Which I Feel Didn't Get the Attention It Deserved

I am of the belief that life doesn't owe me anything. And I don't write the blog expecting anyone to pay attention! But there is a post which is close to my heart, because I so enjoyed writing it, but which seems to have passed by pretty much unnoticed. It did get some very lovely, thoughtful comments when I posted it at RedBubble, though, and seems to have moved people. Here is The Happy Meal.

The Post I'm Most Proud Of

One of the ideas I like to explore on my blog is the similarities which different art forms bear to each other, and how an artist in one field might draw inspiration from another in a completely different field. I'm quietly pleased with Elliott Erwitt - the writer's photographer? because it explores how the visual arts might act as a trigger or an inspiration for a writer looking for character, situation and plot.

So, there we are.

And now for my own five nominated bloggers. As I stressed before, there is no obligation on anyone to take part - we're all busy, and this should be a bit of fun rather than a burden. As much as anything else, I see nominating these five beautiful blogs as a way of sharing them with you. Here they are:

Deborah Parkin Photography  Deborah makes some breath-taking photographs, featured on the blog, but also writes thoughtfully and philosophically. You don't need to be a photographer to appreciate the content here.

Hadriana's Treasures  This is a lovely, varied blog by an ex-city banker and scuba diver, who now runs a B&B near Hadrian's Wall, as well as guiding at local Roman sites, and running Latin courses!

The Way Things Comes Clear  Betsy is a recent history graduate and a keen wet plate photographer. She is obviously a great thinker, too, as will be evident when you read her blog.

In The Write Mind  Quirina's blog is home to her beautiful, hypnotic poetry, which has much to say on the nature of being human. If you read German, you're in for twice the pleasure.

English Epochs 101 Debra is a newly-published author (and therefore very exotic to this aspiring one!). An American, living in Oregon, she has a fascination for British social history, and writes informatively on it, as well as on the nature of writing itself. I would like to take this opportunity of wishing her every success with The Companion of Lady Holmeshire.

Do explore these blogs if you have the chance - each of them sparkles with its own unique riches!

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Call me Ishmael... In defence of 'Moby Dick'

I'm quite a slow reader, and life is short. For this reason, long novels often put me off. I find them intimidating, and will more often than not go for a shorter option instead.

But if, given a truly bizarre set of circumstances, I was invited onto 'Desert Island Discs', Herman Melville's Moby Dick (600 pages) would be my book of choice. I would happily while away the hours with it, in my homemade hammock, enjoying some coconut juice and a cooling sea breeze.

Moby Dick is much-maligned: I've more often heard it criticised and described as 'unreadable' than I've heard it praised and celebrated. And the mission of this post is to stick up for this lovely book.

To summarise... Ishmael, our narrator, and his new friend Queequeg, sign on with the whaling ship Pequod, whose captain is the imposing and haunted Ahab. He has one leg missing below the knee, courtesy of a huge white sperm whale - Moby Dick. Ahab's quest for revenge on the whale becomes more and more fevered, until the great climax of the book - a three-day battle of wills between the whale and the crew of the ship.

But Moby Dick is so much more than a book about whaling. My first reaction on reading it, was that it was a sort of 'encyclopaedia of the sea', such is the detail with which it treats it subject. There are chapters dedicated to pen portraits of the crew-members, Nantucket and its inhabitants, the joys of chowder, and a comprehensive classification and description of different types of whale, all in beautiful, engaging detail.

And as with any great novel, all human life is here. The characters are richly portrayed and their relationships with each other are often humorous and touching. My favourite passage has nothing to do with whaling: it speaks of the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg, who first meet when they are required to share a bed in their temporary lodgings:

... I had felt a strong repugnance to his smoking in the bed the night before, yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them. For now I liked nothing better than to have Queequeg smoking by me, even in bed, because he seemed to be full of such serene household joy then. I was alive to the condensed confidential comfortableness of sharing a pipe and a blanket with a real friend. 

Yes, this is a long book. But in its favour, the chapters are very short - many of them just a few pages - making it more manageable. And it really does reward our attention. It is full of humanity and tiny, fascinating details, and makes for really compelling reading.

I do like to include pictures on the blog whenever I can. But I don't have a picture of a whale. So here is another view of John Kindness's 'Big Fish':

A big fish! Not as tenuous a link as you might imagine:
Ishmael refers to Moby Dick as a fish, rather than a mammal.  

If I've whetted your appetite and you think you might give the book the benefit of the doubt, I won't spoil the ending for you. I remember standing at a Metro station in Newcastle, half-way through the book, and an elderly lady saw what I was reading. 'I've seen the film,' she said. 'Gregory Peck. He gets him in the end, you know.'

Ah yes, but who gets whom...?

Monday, 27 June 2011

The jewel that is The Crown

It's sad to see that Belfast has been in the news again for all the wrong reasons, after a period of apparent peace and growing prosperity. And I want to help redress the balance. I see this blog as a place to celebrate, and reflect on, the good things in life. And Belfast is one of them.

A while ago, my husband and I took two 3-week photography trips around Northern Ireland, including ten days in Belfast. My husband needed to produce photographs for several books he had been commissioned to illustrate. Every minute of every day was taken up with photography. We found ourselves hoping it would rain, just so that we could have a day off! It didn't. We didn't. For six weeks (although we did once wake up to snow).

As with any city which has enjoyed a resurgence in its fortunes, Belfast is a heady mix of the old and new, alive with history but buzzing with new developments: the beautiful architecture of City Hall sits happily amongst smart new office and housing developments...

The beautiful interior of City Hall, from the dome
... the harbour is home to the Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the ill-fated Titanic was built and fitted-out; and the arts are thriving in all their forms. Down by the River Lagan, John Kindness's 'Big Fish' sculpture brings old and new together: created in 1999, it is clad in ceramic tiles decorated with texts and images chronicling the history of Belfast as far back as mediaeval times:

The Big Fish, which also contains a time capsule

But to me, the real jewel in the crown of this fine city is The Crown itself.

The Crown Liquor Saloon is a Grade A Listed building, standing on Great Victoria Street. Dating from 1826, it was extensively refurbished in 1885. In 1978, after a campaign by, amongst others, Sir John Betjeman, the National Trust acquired The Crown and restored it to its full Victorian glory.

And glorious it is too. A real gem. The exterior offers an enticing hint at what awaits you inside, with its elaborate tiles and delicate stained glass (designed to give the customers within a greater degree of privacy):

Stained glass window and elaborate ceramic tiling

And stepping inside really is like stepping back in time.

The Crown owes the beauty of its interior to Italian craftsmen. During the late 1800s, there was a resurgence in Catholic church-building in Northern Ireland, and many Italian craftsmen were employed on these projects. Some of these men were persuaded to work after hours on the refurbishment of The Crown, and their skills and attention to detail can be seen everywhere you look.

The bar is a feast of coloured ceramic tiles, beautifully-carved wood columns with Corinthian capitals, etched glass, decorated mirrors, and mosaics. There is a long 'alter' bar in red granite and a heated foot rail.

 The sumptuous bar: ceramics, mosaics, carved wood...

Customers wishing to have a little privacy can enjoy one of the ten individual booths, or 'snugs', which still have a bell for attracting the attention of the bar staff. Each snug is enclosed with carved wood panels and etched glass, and guarded by carved wooden lions and griffins:

'Fortune favours the brave'

And to add to the atmosphere even further, The Crown is lit by its original gas lamps, which occasionally putter, and which welcome the thirsty visitor with their homely, muggy odour.

Gas lamp, pounded tin ceiling and colourful mosaics

The Crown Liquor Saloon has seen, lived through and survived a lot of history. During 'the Troubles', it frequently suffered collateral damage owing to its proximity to the Europa Hotel, a favourite of visiting dignitaries, which had the dubious honour of being the most bombed hotel in the world.

It is so sad to think that a few people are intent on reversing the peace process in Northern Ireland. I do hope peace will prevail, and I hope that will be soon. Belfast, and indeed the whole of Northern Ireland, is full of gems like The Crown, and they deserve to be discovered, enjoyed and celebrated.

All photography © David Taylor Photography

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

How Dave Lee Travis helped make the world complete

I was at the 60th birthday party of a dear family friend recently. A terrific party, with lots of lovely people and a wonderfully warm atmosphere. Our friend made a moving speech, in which she mentioned that she was an only child, and that this meant that her friends had always been extremely important to her.

I'm an only child too, and it's a strange, somewhat unnatural state in which to grow up. It inevitably puts you at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to developing socially. I am fiercely loyal to my friends, but also fiercely independent and self-sufficient. This has meant being largely resistant to the joy other people, outside my close circle of friends, can bring to life.

It has only been in recent years that I've begun to recognise, and embrace, the warmth, pleasure and sunshine which other people have to offer. It may sound odd, but this has been a revelation to me. I think the following traditional African Xhosa proverb expresses it very well:

'Ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu' 

'People are people through other people'

This is something which really struck home this morning when I read an online article about this year's Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4. The Reith Lectures were founded in 1948 by Sir John Reith, the BBC's first Director-General, with the aim of 'advancing public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest'.

Two of this year's five lectures will be given by the Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. The recording of her two lectures had to be undertaken in great secrecy, with the BBC even referring to her by the code name 'Maggie Philbin', a radio and television presenter, to ensure secrecy was maintained.

In an interview with Eddie Mair ahead of the broadcast of her lectures, Ms Suu Kyi spoke about her years under house arrest. She made special mention of Dave Lee Travis's requests programme - 'A Jolly Good Show' - on the BBC World Service, and spoke of how it had provided a particular lifeline for her. She said it had made her world 'much more complete'.

One thing she said touched me particularly:
'I would listen to that quite happily because the listeners would write in and I had a chance to hear other people's words.'
'... other people's words'. I was stunned when I read that. It made me realise that the one thing we really need in order to exist is other people.

To Ms Suu Kyi, cut off from humanity, this radio programme, with its listeners' requests, created an important sense of contact with the outside world. People's musical tastes, their hopes and dreams, their concerns and priorities, were reflected in the requests they sent in, and this helped satisfy Ms Suu Kyi's yearning for human contact and interaction.

I hope I'm beginning to appreciate how precious other people can be, how crucial they are to living a happy and fulfilled life, and losing my original default position of, well, vague suspicion! There are few things I love more than the smile on the face of a friend - and I'm learning that the smile on the face of a stranger may yet become the smile on the face of a friend.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Elves, the Shoemaker, and a pile of old... Ladybirds

In times of stress, or tiredness, when I wish simply to be soothed a little, I often find myself drawn to my small collection of Ladybird 'Well-Loved Tales', easy-reading books published from the mid-1960s onwards, on which I cut my reading teeth.

These fairy-tales were re-interpreted for Ladybird by Vera Southgate, and beautifully illustrated by Eric Winter and Robert Lumley. I remember being captivated as a child by the sumptuousness of Cinderella's ball-gowns, the menace of the ogre's face in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and the handsome, jaunty figure of 'Puss in Boots'.

Sadly, I no longer possess the books I cherished as a youngster. I (rather too) generously handed them down to a younger cousin, assuming, I suppose, that she would care for them as I had. Huh. I think I only need say the words 'coloured' and 'crayons' and you'll be able to imagine the horror for yourself. It still makes me sad to contemplate that mindless destruction!

Happily, though, thanks to the wonders of eBay, I have rebuilt my collection, and have even added stories I never owned as a child. I find when I look through these delightful little books that they hold even more magic for me now than they did when I was a five year old. And much of this magic lies in the way these books were illustrated.

One of my favourites is 'The Elves and the Shoemaker' illustrated by Robert Lumley (this link not only includes the image from the front cover, but a synopsis and several other illustrations - well worth a look).

(This is wholly irrelevant, but compare any of the pictures of the shoemaker with this photograph of Mr Kidd, one of Ernst Stavro Blofeld's henchmen in 'Diamonds Are Forever', and tell me there's not a startling resemblance.)

When I look at this book now, I notice tiny details. For instance, the first illustration shows the shoemaker and his wife at their poor, rough table. The room is shabby. There is plaster missing from a wall and the laths show through (this is a popular motif for poverty which has been used in everything from 'Tom and Jerry' to 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', but no less effective for that: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!).

Later on in the book, when the couple have become prosperous, we see them in the same room. But there is now a fire burning in the grate, the furniture is of higher quality, and the couple are better dressed and have acquired a cat. The colour tone of the whole image is much warmer than the one which opened the book.

A little later, when the couple discuss how to reward the elves, there is a beautiful illustration. Crisp winter light floods in through the latticed windows, there is a robin on the windowsill - a promise of Christmas - and I swear I can smell the snow outside, so vividly is this scene illustrated:

And there is nothing more magical than the illustration of the tiny clothes and shoes which the shoemaker and his wife prepare for the threadbare elves, to thank them for their hard work. Note the Christmas decorations - Christmas is always good for a bit of extra magic:

From the late 1970s onwards, the style of illustration changed dramatically, as you can see here. It's all very subjective, of course, but the later style, to me, is more 'cartoon' than the tiny pieces of art which accompanied the stories in the earlier books, and it holds little of the same magic.  

I was lucky enough a while ago to see a handful of the original watercolour drawings for the Well-Loved Tales series, in an exhibition on fairy tales at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle. They were considerably larger than the books in which they were used, their colours glowed, and they exuded nostalgia! I was transported straight back to my childhood wonderment... These truly were artistic masterpieces in their own right.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Drink to me only with thine ayes

Effective communication is a wonderful thing, isn't it? My husband and I consider ourselves lucky, in that we communicate very easily and honestly with each other, something which, sadly, not everyone can accomplish.

You could say we speak the same language. And in a way, we do.

But occasionally, just occasionally, we realise we are speaking completely different languages. And I don’t mean metaphorically. You see, my husband is a Geordie*; I grew up in a village which is a satellite of a town which is a satellite of Birmingham, so I'm very much not a Geordie.

One day I was doing some decorating. I was sanding down a very rough door frame, and my husband told me to be careful I didn’t get a spelk in my finger. I looked at him, baffled. He looked back at me, equally baffled that I obviously didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

After he’d explained - and we'd agreed that what he really meant was 'splinter' (!) - I thought to myself, that word comes from Old Norse.  That’s why you use it so naturally, husband, and I’ve never heard it. So I went to my dictionary and found this:

spelk n (Scots and northern English) dialect: a splinter of wood (from Old English spelc; related to Old Norse spelkur 'splints')

The Geordie dialect is full of words that have their roots in Old Norse, a legacy of Viking settlement from the 8th century onwards.

I would stress that I'm no expert in etymology (I even had to check how to spell it!), but it is something which interests me. And I thought I'd share a few snippets which I've discovered whilst researching the origin of 'spelk'.

  • In common with Scots and many northern English dialects, Geordie commonly uses the word aye meaning 'yes', (from the Old Norse 'ei').
  • When a Geordie says 'Aal larn yer', (as Scott Dobson did in his enlightening book 'Larn Yersel' Geordie'), we might assume that the word 'learn' has been incorrectly subsistuted for the word 'teach'. But the truth is much more interesting: a Geordie is drawing on his centuries-old heritage and using the Anglo Saxon 'laeran', meaning 'to teach'. Fascinating, isn't it?
  • Newcastle upon Tyne has a massive annual fun fair on its Town Moor, called the Hoppings. 'Hoppings' was the Anglo Saxon word for 'fayre'.
  • The Geordie phrase for 'go home' - 'gan hyem' - sounds almost identical to the equivalent Danish and Norwegian phrase: 'gan' was the Anglo Saxon word for 'go'. (In fact, someone once told me he knew of a group of Geordies who had visited a bar in Denmark and been able to converse fairly effectively with a group of Danes, without the need for translation.) 

I find it fascinating that an invasion that happened well over a millennium ago left its mark so indelibly on the local dialect. Better still, it has been gloriously un-superseded by that new kid on the block, Received Pronunciation, a legacy of the later Norman invasion which left the north comparatively untouched.

Before I go, I'll leave you with this: the Vikings also gave us the origin of the words 'smile', 'cake' and 'happy'.

The more I find out about them, the more I like them.

* If you're reading this from outside the UK - I know quite a few people do, and it's lovely to see you! - I should explain that the definition of a 'Geordie' varies considerably. Nobody would dispute, however, that someone born in Newcastle upon Tyne, in north east England, is a true Geordie, and that makes my husband one. Very proud of it he is, too. And quite rightly.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The loneliness of the long-distance spear carrier

I've been thinking a lot just lately about my part in the world. I feel small and insignificant, in the universal scheme of things, which, of course, I am.

The decision to take my writing more seriously has brought this feeling into sharp relief: I have a long road ahead of me if I want to see my work in print or brought to life on screen; and to an agent, publisher or producer, I will begin life as a complete non-entity, up against very stiff competition, even if my writing has a degree of merit.

I think the idea of the Spear Carrier in drama is a really good illustration of how I'm feeling, and perhaps how most of us feel as human beings, from time to time. I came across a quote recently from the 1968 novel Rite of Passage, by Alexei Panshin, in which he describes the role:

A spear carrier is somebody who stands in the hall when Caesar passes, comes to attention and thumps his spear... A spear carrier is a character put in a story to be used like a piece of disposable tissue. The trouble is that each of us is his own hero, existing in a world of spear carriers.

This sums up nicely, I think, a familiar paradox. It doesn't matter how selfless we are as individuals, how lacking in narcissism, how full of compassion and empathy, we must necessarily be the heroes of our own story, inhabiting our own tiny part of the world, seeing things through our own eyes. And yet, to everyone other than those closest to us, we actually remain largely insignificant.

 This spear carrier on Hadrian's Wall seems 
reasonably happy with his lot in life.
Photography © David Taylor Photography

It's difficult trying to make a mark in any creative field. And this difficulty is compounded by the nature of creativity itself. Most of the creative people I know are much like me: their creativity comes from deep within them, so the fruits of that creativity feel private and fragile, and can be very difficult to share with others.

But if anything is to be made of them in the wider world, they need to be put into the public domain, for others to enjoy, and learn from... and dislike... and criticise! This is a very real dilemma, but one which must be overcome if we are not to remain spear carriers.

I suppose the real trick - not easy to achieve - is to have the courage of our own convictions, and to take encouragement where we can. One of the things I've quickly discovered, to my surprise and delight, since I've been sharing my writing, is how much warmth and support there actually is out there in the creative community. Perhaps it's as simple as everyone being in the same boat, and being sensitive to how difficult the whole process is.

I'm particularly impressed by, and have felt very welcome at, RedBubble, a website where artists, photographers and writers share their work with others. The site has a 'Play Nice Policy', aimed at encouraging friendly feedback, and taking a very dim view of negative, personal and hurtful comments. This is perfect when you're just starting out and feel nervous of letting others see your work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I've begun to realise that on RedBubble, everyone is allowed to be his own hero - there are no spear carriers - and perhaps that's the sort of environment we need if our creativity is to thrive and flourish, and develop to its full potential.

Monday, 16 May 2011


I've said this before: I really don't regard myself as a poet. Honestly, I don't. And yet, since I began writing in earnest at the beginning of this year, poetry seems to be what comes more naturally than anything else, and poetry seems to be the thing towards which I'm being inexorably drawn, almost against my will!

This is a poem I wrote a while ago, which I have recently re-worked. It was inspired by a trip my husband and I were lucky enough to make to Turkey in 2006, to witness a solar eclipse. I'm convinced that I could spend a life-time trying to put the experience into words and failing. So this poem might be seen as something of a work in progress! I hope you enjoy it.

This is another of the pieces I recently recorded for listenupnorth. com, an exciting spoken word website run from here in Northumberland. All the work I recorded for the site should be available in the next few weeks.


Yes, I can describe what happened
as our tiny Moon, audacious,
crept across the scorching springtime Sun,
stealing the light from the Earth,
cooling the air and casting steel-sharp shadows.

Yes, I can tell you I saw planets –
Mercury and Venus tenderly suspended there –
strung across an eerie, sunset Turkish sky:
dusk at lunchtime,
on the Third Rock from the Sun.

You want to know about totality?
Let me tell you about a sparkling diamond ring,
too beautiful to comprehend -
cheers and applause from an appreciative audience -
and too-soon disappeared for good.

And let me tell you about the phantom Moon,
visible in its dark invisibility,
powerful and awesome, disc on disc,
void over blinding fire, setting a feathery corona free,
to reach out, exquisitely

as my yearning does, to turn the clock back,
and inhabit that rare moment, just once more.
You ask me how it felt? Then you ask me
how it feels to be human, to be humbled and bewitched,
looking upward, looking outward, looking in.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

One man and his dog

I was having a leisurely cup of coffee with an artist friend the other day, and our conversation turned to the subject of her children, a daughter of 15 and a son of 13. She was telling me how different they are. 

Her daughter is very systematic and self-disciplined. She has drawn up a colour-coded timetable, taking in her school work, revision and hobbies. But, as diligent as she is, she really can't motivate herself to do her art coursework. This is very disconcerting for my friend, for whom art coursework is the stuff of dreams.

Her son, on the other hand, is of a much more creative bent. He recently had to write a story for school, and didn't know where to start. But once he got going, he created an impressively mature piece of work, rich in descriptive narrative and tension.

Two parents, one household, one environment, and two very different children. One of them seems to take after his artistic mother, while the other clearly shares more character traits with her (scientist) father.

Our conversation left me to reflect on how we end up the way we do, and how certain tastes and talents are passed on from one generation to the next. And I began to think about my own heritage. 

Let me introduce Henry Keates Gazey.

I love this photograph - the only one we have of him. Henry Keates Gazey was my great grandfather. He grew up in Birmingham, the tenth of twelve children, and was at art college before World War I so cruelly intervened. He served in the 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, and was killed in Flanders on 8th April, 1915, at the age of only 21.

I always think that Henry looks haunted and melancholy here. Of course, people rarely smiled in photographs at that time. But I am doubtless also projecting my own knowledge of his fate onto the image, a fate of which he was probably unaware when the photograph was made.

I like to believe that my own creative drive, or any talent I may have, came down through the generations from Henry. Every generation on that side of the family has included individuals with a strong interest in literature, art, the theatre and dance, and there seems to be too strong a connection for this to be mere coincidence.

Sometimes I muse on the idea that, had Henry not gone to war, I might have met him. I might have known and loved him. He might even have shaped and guided my own creativity, an idea I find awe-inspiring. 

But it's nonsense, of course. Had Henry lived, life for his immediate family would have taken a completely different course, different decisions would have been made, different opportunities would have presented themselves. And, ultimately, it's unlikely I would be here at all!

I may never have met him. But I can use his talent to inspire and motivate me. I can strive to make the most of my own creativity. And I can hope that, one day, I might even do him proud. What a tribute that would be.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Light Dancing on Water

Over the past few weeks, I have been re-visiting and re-working some pieces of poetry I originally wrote a while ago. They never saw the light of day: my confidence deserted me, I stopped writing altogether, and the poems have been hibernating on my hard-drive ever since.

It seemed strange to come back to them. So much time exists between me and the words I once wrote, that they feel unfamiliar, as if I have never seen them before, as if it they're not actually my words at all. But that has been useful. I can look at them much more objectively now than I could then, and it has been much easier to edit them as a result.

Light Dancing on Water was inspired by the fountain and water trough in the glass house in the walled garden at Wallington in Northumberland. The light on the water reminded me of long, carefree summers, when, as a small child, I would delight in playing with a bucketful of water. And this made me consider how powerful and potent - how visceral - a memory from childhood can be.

I'm excited to say that I should soon be recording this poem, amongst others, for, a beautiful, imaginative spoken word website, based in Northumberland. Do visit this lovely site - it's a real treasure-trove!

Light Dancing on Water

The marble lion's head spouts water
in a steady, sparkling stream,
smooth, green-scented,
amidst the verdant planting of the orangery...

A memory - a long hot summer:
Time passing by so slowly then.
A cold-water tap, in a small suburban kitchen,
a shiny metal bucket, brimming liquid fun.

A mother's gift, not yet discerned:
How To Delight In Simple Pleasures.

Out on the sun-bleached lawn, my versatile friend
galvanises me to innocent exaltation.
I plunge my hands through crystal magic,
laugh with it as its coolness tickles my fingertips -
mischievously splashes knees, bare feet -
thrill at the dazzling sparks that
flash across its surface and
scorch themselves in ecstasy onto memory's eye:

Light dancing on water...

... plunging home to the perfect proportions
of its deep, square, marble pool.
A mellow life-force, calming, tranquil,
cooling the lush-planted greenhouse,
where dappled light dances on water.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

In Bod we trust. And dandelions.

Ask any of my friends, and they'll tell you: I'm not a latest-designer-handbag-chasing sort of girl. My husband and I share a mobile phone but can rarely remember where we left it. And Jimmy Choo sounds just like someone sneezing, to me, although I believe he is a real person and has something to do with shoes.

There, that's who I am. My trusty, ageing little rucksack serves me well for walking home with the groceries, and a sturdy pair of trainers is the ideal footwear for getting me there, up a mile of pretty much unrelenting hill. And if someone phones when I'm not at home, they can leave me a message and I'll phone them back.

I often reflect on the importance of simple pleasures - at least for me - in an increasingly complicated, pressurised and stuff-led world. Surely if we can enjoy the simple things in life, we're more likely to be happy? And we're surrounded by things everyday which can delight, even astound us, if we simply take a moment to see them.

The humble dandelion, for instance. Yes, it's a 'weed'. But take a good look at a dandelion. It actually has a very beautiful flower, a gorgeous sunburst of small, delicate petals. The name 'dandelion', incidentally, is apparently of late Middle English origin, from the French dent-de-lion, meaning 'lion's tooth' (because of the jagged shape of the leaves). But to me, the petals of this big, happy daisy actually resemble the mane of a bright yellow lion.

How could anyone not take pleasure in one of these?

Happy Dandelion 

And a cat's fur. Strictly speaking, our cat is black and white. But in bright sunlight, if you look closely, each 'black' hair reflects a dazzling array of colours - purple, green, turquoise, russet... Clever cat. Another simple pleasure, and for free, too. Well, maybe not quite for free, but, like me, she doesn't have designer tastes either: she is perfectly happy with Go-Cat, so that's something.

Happy Hattie 

And Bod. Ah, Bod. This was one of the television programmes I grew up with, and I feel so lucky I did.

For anyone who has never met him, Bod is a follically-challenged cartoon boy in a yellow dress and leggings (bear with me) who has an infectiously jaunty walk and an aunt called Flo. His friends are Farmer Barleymow, PC Copper and Frank the Postman (Oh! Ha! I just got that...).

Bod began life in 1963, when Michael and Joanne Cole created him for the entertainment of their own children. He enjoyed his first outing on television in a series of 13 five-minute animated shorts in 1974, and he is still going strong on DVD. His simple, sometimes surreal, adventures are complemented by warm and lovely narrative from John Le Mesurier and catchy incidental music by the much-loved Derek Griffiths.

Bod's adventures can be sampled for free online and I would strongly recommend you begin with the Official Bod Website. Here, you can witness the ramifications of 'Bod's Dream' about strawberries and cream, complete with joyously bizarre ending.

Also here is the story of 'Bod and the Apple', where the law of gravity is tested in time-honoured fashion, and there are, temporarily, red-faces all round. In fact, I just have to share this bit of dialogue with you:

Flo:   Hello Bod. What are you doing here?

Bod:  I'm waiting for an apple I threw up in the air. It hasn't come down.

Flo:   Oh, it will. They always do.


Today, this delightful programme feels like a celebration of simplicity itself. In these days of computer rendered special effects and the burgeoning of expensive 3D productions, what could be more heartening or reassuring than a little slice of hand-drawn, primary-coloured, two-dimensional animation?

Three cheers for Bod!