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...?