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!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Magic moments: Your table awaits...

I’ve been thinking about magic moments this week, those times, often unplanned or unexpected, which instantly become treasured memories. And I started thinking about a trip to Cuba my husband and I shared a few years ago, a (very well) organised small group tour.

It pains me to admit this, but at that time I was hardly writing at all, and didn’t even keep a diary of the trip. Tsk. So many wonderful memories lost for ever. But one very special one does still stand out.

We had been told one afternoon that dinner that evening would be a 'memorable occasion'. So it was that later in the day we found ourselves sitting in our mini-bus at the side of the road, ‘waiting for a signal’. This eventually arrived: two motor cycles swept past our bus, and our attentive driver immediately set off in hot pursuit.

I should explain at this point that Cuba is a Socialist state, where, supposedly, everyone is provided for, and free enterprise is both unnecessary and non-existent. 

I’m not here to talk about politics, which is a tricky business and could get me into all sorts of trouble. So, for the sake of balance I will just say this: Cuba has a lot of problems, along with an exemplary education system, and excellent health care provision.

It also has a thriving and imaginative culture of free enterprise.

We drove for roughly half an hour, the rear lamps of the motorbikes glowing just ahead of us in the growing darkness. The bus eventually pulled over to the side of a remote country road where the motorcyclists were dismounting, and our intrigued little group piled out.

I’d love to be able to describe the scenery to you, but the fact is that the sky was pitch black by now, and in the absence of houses or street lamps, we could hardly see a thing. We were in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it looked like this, in the day time - I honestly don't know:

Tobacco-drying hut in Pinar del Rio province.
There followed a ten minute walk along an uneven dirt track, lit only by the flash light of one of the motorcyclists. I must admit that it did occur to me at one point that perhaps we were being kidnapped and were about to meet our collective deaths in a nearby field, but I wasn't being serious.

Making our way gradually uphill, our dusty walk was eventually rewarded with the appearance of some farm buildings, and then one of the most magical sights I have ever seen. In a field, nestled in a little grove of trees, a long table was laid for dinner. A delicate table cloth flapped gently in the balmy evening air, and the whole scene was illuminated by candle light.

We dined on lobster that evening, not for the first time that trip. We ate from pretty, mismatched china, and chatted happily, our laughter drifting away into the night on a warm, gentle breeze as congenial as the company itself.

At the end of the meal, our friendly hostess presented our tour guide with a hand-written bill for our meal, watched as he checked it, and then... set fire to it with a cigarette lighter, to destroy the evidence of the transaction.

The atmospheric setting, the amiable company of new friends, and the creativity of our hosts, combined to create an unforgettable experience. And this spell could never be re-cast, even if the circumstances could be replicated. Because the magic of that night lay, in large part, in the element of surprise, of the gradual revelation of the delight that awaited us.

For your delectation, here is the Buena Vista Social Club performing 'Chan Chan'. Goodness me, but this sound brings those memories flooding back!