Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Past Imperfect 6 - Karnali river

I came across this photograph when sorting the contents of my study. The figure in the centre is me paddling a rapid we named Sweetness and Light on the Karnali river in Nepal. It was taken in April 1993.

The Karnali is the biggest river in Nepal; it lies in the far west of the country, running steeply from Tibet, through dense forest, toward the Indian plain. At that time the river was a recent discovery for kayakers. My friend Phil Blain had been on the first descent, an audacious self supported expedition - our trip was the one of the first to use rafts and take 'paying customers' - we calculated that less than fifty Westerners had been to the area.

When I think back, the risks we took astonish me. For a start I was not that good a kayaker; I had been to the Alps a couple of times and paddled a bit in the UK, but to make the leap to Nepal would never be recommended today. The Karnali was also, at that time, extremely remote (there is now a road) - access required a long trek over unmapped mountains, porters, self-sufficient supplies; there were no satellite phones - and we had no expedition doctor.

This minor omission nearly proved fatal.

We arrived at the river late afternoon, setting up camp on a beach surrounded by trees, monkeys screeching in the canopy. The porters inflated a raft and as the sun was setting I helped them carry it to the water. With my first step into the silted river I felt a grinding tear in my foot; the water ran red and I fainted.

The porters carried me to the camp, blood pouring from the wound. I had stepped on a flint, cutting deep to the bone, across the width of my foot  I remember lying on the sand and the faces above me, the grimaced smiles; you'll be fine they said only a cut. Their voices betrayed the lie, though strangely I didn't feel any pain - in fact, I couldn't feel my foot.

My friends cleaned the wound with neat iodine, stitching it crudely after practicing on the skin of an orange. Four of them held my legs as the needle drew the flesh together; Jane gripped my hands. When it was over, she stayed with me as the others huddled out of earshot. The porters were asked to wait overnight; I was given some rum.

The next morning, before the others woke, I crawled to my boat. It took me ten minutes to launch it, shuffling inch by inch towards the water. I paddled across the current, capsizing as I hit an eddy but rolling upright without problem. It convinced me that the damaged foot made little difference to my paddling.

When I returned I noticed the porters sizing me up. One held a large basket, big enough to carry a man, with holes for legs and makeshift straps to hold the passenger steady.

In truth, my fear of being carried over the mountains was greater than facing the river. I insisted we send the porters home and my friends reluctantly agreed. Jane sat with me as the rafts and kayaks were prepared; the river our only option now - it would be ten days before we reached a road.

As it turned out, the problem was not so much paddling the river as scouting the lines. Because I couldn't walk I had to rely on sketches drawn in the sand. With waves the size of buses these proved useless; I was effectively running the river blind, chasing the tails of other boats and praying they'd chosen the safest line.

One time I got it wrong, ploughing headlong into a deep recirculating wave, known as a stopper. I was sucked deep into the current, emerging shaken but alive downstream; my boat followed five minutes later - bent like a taco by the power of the water. After that I ran the 'chicken shoots' on the bigger rapids: easier lines that give relatively safe passage through the maelstrom.

By the third day my foot was too large for anything but a sandal. After a week it had doubled in size. We had no antibiotics, the wound was drying but my leg was swelling. Thankfully, the river eased and we could make faster progress. By skipping a rest day we made it to the road in nine days.

Back in Kathmandu I went to the Canadian hospital. There were mice running across the floor of the surgery. The doctor was horrified, but not at the vermin. He gave me strong antibiotics and told me I'd been a fool to refuse the carry out - either that or I'd been in shock. Probably, it was a bit of both. The expedition had taken a year to organise; I had come half way across the world; I wasn't going to return without trying.

Looking back, I have a certain pride in my decision to go on; at the very least it is a good pub story. But in truth it was as much to do with fear as any macho heroics. Continuing also taught me about my my weaknesses. Regardless of the injury, I learned I was not as confident as I had hoped in such extreme environments; that Jane, who had come for a ride on the raft, was essential to my sense of security; that I had survived rather than conquered the river.

Eighteen years later, as I sit in my study flicking through old photographs, I can still feel the scar on my foot. I can remember too the speed of the water, the screams of the monkeys; the bridge at Chisipani as, at last, we reached the road.

And, on balance, I think that's a good, if imperfect, outcome.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


By 11 am on Christmas morning  we were on Newgale Beach. The sky was cloudless, the sea transparent turquoise, frost on the pebbles. We walked to clear our heads from the night before.

Our neighbours had invited us round. Lovely people, honest friends; they drink too much, and so did we. It was the strawberry daiquiris that did it for Jane, or was it the Sambouka shots?  I steered clear of those and consequently was in a better state. In truth, neither of us was that bad, but when Dylan woke at eight and said can I sleep a bit more before its Christmas, I thought, 'perfect child'.

His brothers were less patient. It was them who got up first. Then breakfast, stockings, big presents; the usual mess of wrappings on the floor and me frantically shoving it into plastic bags. We lost Dylan as soon as he unwrapped his Gameboy - I expect him to be fixed to the screen till Friday. The older boys were on form too: grateful, attentive to their brother, nice presents for their mum - well done. A typical family Christmas, I thought, nothing special.

Then I remembered the night before.

Another neighbour had been there too; farm labourer, a bit boisterous but no edge to him. Two years ago his wife ran off with another bloke, leaving him with the debts she'd run up as well as their two pre-school sons - for good measure she also left two teenager daughters from her previous relationships. One of the teenagers has since returned to  her natural father.

The other has remained with our neighbour. An ordinary kid, she was thrust into the role of surrogate mother to her little brothers. And judging by what we saw on Christmas Eve, she does it naturally enough: calming, cuddling, explaining. Father Christmas will come tomorrow she said - after me and your Dad come back from doing the milking. She scooped up her brothers to get them ready for bed.

You're not really going milking tomorrow? I asked when she returned. And she looked at us with clear eyes and a soft smile; It's not that bad. We'll be finished by five thirty and the boys will sleep through.  She went on to explain that she does this every weekend and holidays, though not on school days as her GCSEs are coming up. It'll be harder in the sixth form, but I don't want to milk cows all my life. No more was said; I was lost for words.

As Jane and I walked the beach we talked about how different lives can be; how lucky our kids are, ourselves too. It was her calm acceptance that struck us most; her willingness to do what was right; the responsibilities ahead of her years. My Mum is coming round tomorrow afternoon she had said. It's good the boys see her, but I won't stay while she's there.

A kestrel soared along the cliff edge, searching the tide-washed sand. The air was so clear we could see Grassholm, twenty miles off shore. It appeared like a dark circle , weirdly undercut, as if a ball had been stuck to the horizon. Even through binoculars it was difficult to make out why this was - eventually I realised the distant surface was miraging; the island was reflecting its own shape into the water.

The kestrel kept looking, hopeful of some carrion perhaps. I wanted to stay but we had to hurry: visitors coming, the turkey in the oven, the table to prepare. It all seemed a bit tame in comparison.

As we turned to leave a tanker was rounding the west of Skomer, its stern fading into the mist.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Two million and one

Starling roost - Pembrokeshire
Today, I returned to my house in Wales. When I arrived I noticed there were crusty droppings on the floor, not unlike the body fluid that moths squirt if disturbed. Strange to find these in December - and so many of them; on the window sills, the cupboard doors, the bathroom sink. I noticed too, dusty marks on the ceiling and walls.

On the floor of my bedroom lay the body of the culprit. It was a young starling; I suppose it came down the chimney and become trapped, eventually dying from lack of food and water - perhaps from panic. It must have happened recently, the body was soft and sleek; decay not set in.

As I disposed of the corpse, it struck me what a beautiful bird the starling is. The feather pattern is a pearlescent blue-black, changing form and colour with the angle of the light. A starlings head is small with a dark green eye that in this case remained open, it's beak dagger sharp, longer and more elegant than I realised. The whole body weighed no more than few ounces. It's wings opened one last time as I flung it into the field beyond my garden.

An hour later I stood under two million more.

Every evening in winter, up to three million starlings gather in a small copse of trees near my house. It is the largest roost in Wales, and an extraordinary sight to witness. People I tell about it, often ask if the birds swirl in fish-ball patterns, keen to hear of a spectacular aerial display. Sometimes the starlings do this, but more often, and especially when it is cold, they fly straight to the trees. It is not a disappointment.

For thirty minutes this evening the sky was black with their arriving; at one point they were literally brushing our heads, the din of their collective chattering like a river in spate. Amongst them flew buzzards, a sparrow hawk and evidently two goshawks had been there earlier. As the sun set over St Brides Bay, the silhouettes of the late comers were streaking against an orange and purpling sky.

To stand under that many birds is surprisingly beautiful. And I realised tonight it is the closeness to them which makes it so. The swirling displays are spectacular when they happen, but usually they take place at a distance. Like the bird I found in my house, it is the physical presence, the tactile sense of something  beyond us, that best allows us to see the world differently.

What a welcome home.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Moments of transcendence

Last week I called in to see my artist neighbour, John Knapp Fisher. He is one of the finest painters in Wales , working from the small village of Croesgoch on the North Pembrokeshire coast. On the walls of his house come gallery was a tiny water-colour of a bare field, the furrows white with snow, trees stark against a bitter sky. It was dated 1962; the sticker said, Not For Sale.

I was living in Suffolk when I painted that, he told me. I gave it to my father and when he died I had it reframed. I reminded John that I owned a similar picture that I'd bought off him twenty years ago. I did a number that year, he replied. But you know, I remember everything about this one: the smell of the field, the trees bending, the taste of paint on my lips. I remember the brush strokes, the colour of my water - everything, everything, he said again.

I smiled as John talked. His words said more about the intensity and integrity of the picture than could any formal description. I knew too, something of what he was saying.

On my computer is a photograph of Dan and Michael when they were small. They are lying together on a double bed - the visitor's bed, we used to call it - where they would often choose to sleep together. I remember thinking they looked like figures by Klimt. And I remember too the smell of that room, the warmth of their breath as I kissed them and pulled the covers over their soft bodies. I remember Michael stirring, and me standing for minutes, watching them from the half open door. I remember dimming the light, the sound of the TV, and the taste of salt on my lips as I walked downstairs.

I suspect we have all had experiences like this. Moments when, for whatever reason and perhaps for only an instant, we see things differently. Moments that burn into our consciousness, unlike the billions of others that we will never recall.

A few months ago I watched an interview of the scientist Buckminster Fuller. He was talking about a girl in a white dress that he'd noticed walking off a ship, fifty years previous. I don't suppose she even saw me, he said; and yet not a day of my life has passed without me thinking of her. Why was that he wondered, and what did it say about human memory and consciousness? 

The truth is I can barely remember the details of my sons being born, and yet if I think of climbs I did in my twenties I can bring to mind the shape and sequence of each hold, the pull on my fingers, the strands of heather on the ledges, the harness on my waist...  And more darkly, I have images from my childhood, of a father with manic depression and little self control, that have haunted me for forty years.

The artist Terry Frost said that his painting could take that long to gestate. In his later life he was painting the fields and boats and sunsets he had seen as young man. The late Pembrokeshire painter Peter Daniels said something similar to me once; I'm interested in the moment of seeing; the instant before consciousness, before we categorise and commit the image to memory.

Talking to John last week reminded me of this. It reminded me too of how art - be it images, music, or writing - is a means of connecting with a world beyond ourselves. And how when that happens, even in some small measure - even in a photo of two sleeping boys - it can bring back memories that are more vivid and real than the taste of the coffee I have just put down.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Past Imperfect 5 - Wilder Freiger

On a clear dawn in late July 1984 we ambled over the glacial moraine that leads to the slopes of the Wilder Freiger mountain; at 3400 metres it is one of the highest peaks in the Stubai Alps. By mountaineering standards the route is easy, only a few hours climb from the Nurnbeger Hutte where we had stayed the previous night.

Everything about that morning was perfect; I was happy, confident, the trails of mist lifted as the sun warmed our suspended valley. We reached the mountain proper in about an hour, ascending the lower slopes on a well graded path and cresting the ridge by mid morning. I remember stripping to my shirt and gulping water from the flask, the cirque of peaks sparkling. There were climbers descending already, some had come from the Italian side; others were passing us on the ridge, grüs gott they said, berg heil.

The summit was only 500 meters above us, a fine rock ridge followed by a snow slope that wouldn't need a rope. A couple we'd met the night before had caught us up and suggested climbing together. You go ahead I said, we'll follow shortly.  And as they passed, I noticed a cloud gathering at the summit of the Daunkogel to the West. It was nothing to worry about, a ball of cotton; we hitched our sacks for the final push.

And in that instant of standing up, I committed to turning back. Twenty five years later I still can't explain why; except for the alarm that clanged inside me: that cloud, beware of that cloud, it rang.

Rebecca wanted to go on; she was my girlfriend at the time and later my wife. We'd have an easy day I consoled her, read books and lounge on the terrace at the hut. She deferred to me but couldn't understand why I was heading down. As we did, so more climbers passed us, grüs gott they said, berg heil. 

An hour later we reached the Nurnberger Hutte as the first snow fell. We sat in the bar and the clouds enveloped the last view of the mountains, thunder rolled in from moraine. As the storm took hold a stream of bedraggled climbers knocked the door, beds were made on floors and the hut guardian checked his list of expected guests. The atmosphere was tense; we were happy to be safe but there was a darkness too.

Two climbers died that day, somewhere on the Italian side, descending in the storm. I don't know more than that. Perhaps they were lost the ridge, or struck by lightning; the snow might have given way - it is possible they were poorly equipped. And possible too that it was none of these things - sometimes there is no logic to it.

The mountaineer, W H Murray wrote, The moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents... that no man could have dreamt would come his way.

I agree with that, and could write of countless examples, some of them the toughest decisions of my life. Twenty years ago I separated from Rebecca - possibly the saddest, and arguably the most selfish, commitment I have ever made. And yet it led to greater joy, eventually on both sides, I hope.

But I have learned too that sometimes the power of committing can work in reverse. Sometimes it is not the going ahead that brings the providence but the holding back. There are many times I have walked around easy rapids, halted though the way is clear, said no in the face of overwhelming reasons for yes - and I have seldom regretted it. Two years ago Jane and I set off  across a similar stretch of the Stubai; we returned after less than a mile when I sensed that same warning. Again, the clouds rolled in.

Always, at these times, I've listened to my inner alarm. I have come to trust its sounding; and to recognise the difference between the tinkling bells of adrenaline fuelled uncertainty, and the overwhelming, inexplicable clanging that has kept me safe when logic says nothing should go wrong.

They say that mountaineers climb for the view from the bottom as much as the top. It is a reference to what the hills teach us and the memories they hold. I have not quite climbed the Wilder Freiger, but it has taught  and given me more than most. When I last saw it two years ago I silently gave thanks. One day I will finish the job - perhaps.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Putting Dylan to bed last night he asked me, Do you like to go thinking? Well of course, I reassured him; if we didn't think, we couldn't talk, or decide what to ask Santa for Christmas, or...  I know that, he yawned, but do you LIKE to go thinking Daddy, that's what I want to know?

It's a strange question for a child to ask, but perhaps understandable given the time I spend in my study. It's also a good one, because it allowed me to think about thinking, which is about as near philosophers get to being paid double time. For thinking, I'd say, is one of my favourite pastimes. 

This isn't new. As a teenager I'd muse on deep and troublesome issues as I ambled home from school. Problems like: if I can hear myself think, then who exactly is doing the talking; or why can't I imagine a new colour; or more frequently, is it wrong to think of Tracey Burnett when I'm snogging Sharon Simpson?

And I'm afraid the habit stuck - the thinking bit, if not so much the snogging.

At university I studied political philosophy, which might have got it out of my system, had not my first proper job been so fatefully lonely. A sales rep for a local newspaper my territory was loosely defined as Northumberland and the Lake District; I was given an old Vauxhall Chevette and drove fifty thousand miles a year occasionally bumping into customers - I loved it. Two years later my manager told me my car was being upgraded with a cassette radio! Oh, there's no need, I said, I never listen to music in the car. I'm sure he thought I was trying to impress him.

Still today, I seldom listen to music in the car; I prefer the silence of long journeys as an opportunity to work things through. Walking is like that too. Yesterday morning, I drove ten miles from my house, parked the car and tramped home along the old railway line. I did this partly because it was a beautiful morning, but also to have some time to ponder. I spent most of it contemplating two films I'd watched this week. 

The first was the Diving Bell And The Butterfly. It is the story of Jean Bauby, a victim of locked in syndrome who could communicate only by blinking. Bauby was physically paralysed but fully conscious: able to hear and see and smell, and eventually to 'dictate' the book on which the film is based. But his condition was perhaps as near to 'life as thought' as it can get. There was a scene where his eye was sown up to stop infection - it made me shudder, as if he was being further reduced to the bare essence of life. 

The second film was Restless Natives, about two youngsters who dress as a clown and a wolf man to rob tourist coaches in the Scottish Highlands. It's a quirky feel-good movie with a fabulous soundtrack by Big Country. But it's nothing like the stuff I normally watch and the ending is bordering on the ridiculous. So why did I like it so much? I'm really not sure, except maybe it's that hope and spirit triumphs over tragedy - which in a way has parallels with Jean Bauby's story. 

Aristotle said that the best existence was a one of contemplation. That may be so, but he was a professional thinker and by the time I reached home I was in need of more physical pleasures. Personally, I'd add good food and wine, the joy of landscape, a sense of love and security and a hot bath to his singular proposition. But then I've always have been greedy for life.

Interestingly though, as my walk confirmed, if I had to pick between my knowledge or my wealth, my mind or my body, the absence of love or loss...   I know precisely the choices I'd make. 

So yes, Dylan, I like to go thinking. I like it very much.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What's on my desk?

This is picture of my desk at eight fifty one this morning. You can tell that from the clock on the right. And if you were especially sharp you'd notice it isn't really a clock at all, but an Ipod touch 3G. You might also notice that I have a BT home-hub, a flashy Apple Mac computer and a Blackberry (switched off) on top of my brown leather wallet.

You might register that the desk is old, with a leather top - and that the windows are leaded with stone mullions. Outside there is scaffolding, so the roofers have not finished; it is winter - and do you see the fat wood pigeon on the snow beneath the birch tree?

That's not all the picture can tell you about me. On the screen is a blog I follow. There is a book of birds, another of moths, and the Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes; some of my writing underneath. Towards the back of the desk are my banjo picks, a watch (not trendy), fifteen pounds in notes, an electric razor, a magnifying glass, a bottle of drawing ink...

It was my my art teacher who taught me how a still life can tell a story. I once did a painting of a handbag with its contents spilled onto the floor: shopping list, rent book, a broken doll, tranquillisers. Painters have long used symbolism to add to the narrative; skulls to indicate death, snakes for wisdom, swans for love and fidelity. It is rare to do this now, but at one time very particular emotions could be represented by say flowers or fans. Well into last century painters such as Rene Magritte and Gustav Klimt used symbols extensively.

And what might Hercule Poirot deduce from my desk - the razor is unused, the watch indicates middle age, the date on the screen, the names of my folders? Before I know it, I'd be found out for staying home when I might have made more effort to go to the office!

This reminds me of a game we played as children; we called it 'murder clues' and the idea was to leave no trace of your presence - in case you happened to kill someone later that day! Forty years later, if my boys leave a wrapper or a yogurt pot, I still find myself saying, pick it up; might be a murder clue.

Leaving behind that less than cheery note, I wonder what is on your desk? Many bloggers don't like showing their face, but maybe their desk would reveal more. Does it say enough, or too much for comfort? Perhaps you will post a picture for us all to see?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Aunt Kitty's gift

My Great Aunt Kitty lived in a fading two bed terrace in Newcastle on Tyne. It had threadbare carpets and horsehair sofas that once were stylish - she wore copious jewellery, too much rouge and was entirely dependent on the help of others. She ought to have lived in Paris.

I must have been about thirteen when I first met her. Would you like a shandy? she asked, pouring me half a tankard of ginger beer and topping it up to a pint with dark sherry. It's one of my specialities, she winked - we used drink it at sea. Aunt Kitty had lived a full life that I suspect was half real and half fantasy, but we took to each other nonetheless.

Her house could have been an antique shop; not just for the furniture, or the immaculately displayed china - but because of the labels! I can't be bothered with a will, she'd say, I just scribble who it's to go to and stick it on the back. If you lifted a cup or turned plate it would have a yellow label with the name of friend or relative. And if she had a row with someone, she'd cross their name out and replace it with another. They can all see what they're getting, she'd say, everyone wants the pictures.

My Grandfather's name was on those: magnificent Victorian seascapes, framed in gilt and mercury glass. He was given the house too when she died, for looking after me more than the others - though when it sold, he insisted on dividing the proceeds with the other relatives. Fifteen years later he died, and I advised my mother to auction the seascapes  - she had no use for them and they raised a good price - but I've always rather regretted it.

My name was on two boxes. The first was a collection of tiny exotic beetles, which she'd collected on her travels - I keep them by my desk still. The second I had not looked at in years; a small jewellery box containing a gold cravat pin and a retractable pencil.

They are beautiful, especially the gold pin, decorated with turquoise stones and fine leaf engraving. The pencil is made, I think, from Tiger's Eye, and can be worn as pendant. Inside the lid of the box came a note from my Aunt. 

It explained they were curios collected by my Great Great Uncle, William (Bill) Page. As a teenager he had enlisted as a ship's engineer, led an adventurous life and gathered a reputation for the ruination of beautiful women - including his cousin Ada! He was accompanied everywhere by his faithful servant 'Coffee', and loved gambling at the Newcastle races. Bill met his end on the Congo: electing to sleep in deck he presumably fell overboard and was devoured by crocodiles.

How much of this is fact is questionable. My Uncle was certainly a sea going merchant and he collected items from Africa, but the mention of servant called Coffee seems fanciful - and a touch too close to the Geordie song, The Blaydon Races, a verse of which mentions the character Coffee Johnny. 

Aunt Kitty was considered the oracle on our history, so in the days before Internet searches, it was her we went to for stories about our relatives. It turns out she wasn't averse to a little invention to fill any gaps in her memory. We now know that uncle Harry was not  lost on the Titanic, that various 'ruined' sisters were far from innocent victims, and that Uncle Bill probably died in a nursing home rather than the Congo.

But in a way I prefer the stories; her gifts are more real for the past she gave them. And she was right about some things too - relatives always fight over wills, and sherry with ginger beer is surprisingly good. We should have more Aunt Kittys, I think. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Keeping fit

A rare photo of me - after running six miles along the Derbyshire edges in February
You wouldn't normally associate blogging with keeping fit. Dexterity at the keyboard doesn't exactly set the pulse racing, even when the subject is as exciting as me and my life (... something not quite right there, but I'll let it pass)  That said, if I write a post tomorrow I'll complete the NABLOPOMO challenge, the second year I've done this, and I reckon it  requires a fitness of sorts.

Being honest, I planned to take it easier this time, allowing myself the soft option of posting photographs when I couldn't think of something to say. I'd also write some pieces in advance and be less particular about the flow of the words. But as it turned out, the only 'easy day' was my entry to a writing competition, and, with one other exception, I have crafted every post from a blank page each day - always, they take longer than I think.

So on balance, I'd say November has been a fair reflection of the blurb in the top corner of this page - musings about places and ideas and writing and painting and sometimes even bikes - ultimately, about me and my life. It sounds a bit self-interested, but I try hard to turn what delights me into something more universal - and if that sounds a bit pompous, I hope regular readers will forgive me and know what I'm getting at.

I'm increasingly aware though, of how I use chance happenings and what I call moments of seeing to keep what I write fresh and interesting. And this November I've been especially aware that if I don't organise myself in way that allows that serendipity to happen, then my thoughts becomes flabby and boring.

My new house is a good example, I must have mentioned it about one day in three - which is far too many, so my apologies for that. I'm sure it comes from the stress of moving, but it must also reflect how it's reduced the time I spend outdoors, in special places or even with new and interesting books It is not a coincidence that there are less posts on landscape, few on philosophy and almost none about painting or bikes.

And physical fitness matters too. The writer Huruki Murakumi runs at least an hour a day so he is fit enough to be an author. The mental stress of writing is balanced by the physical and spiritual workout that running gives him. Other artists have found they need to travel, to drink, to listen to music... whatever their means, the desired end is a stimulus to see things anew, for only by doing so, is there anything worth saying.

I used to have a friend who said the hardest thing about running was pulling on her training shoes - I know what she meant. Last week, at my snatched visit to the Tate, it felt like I was returning to the gym after a long lay-off. But no sooner was I in the first gallery than I loved it; seeing the paintings again reminded me how important it is to discover and rediscover different ideas and perspectives.

And all this week I've been thinking that I've not done enough of that this year. Or perhaps more kindly, that I've been kidding myself. Learning the banjo has been fun, but it's also a distraction - a soft option that means I've read fewer books, written less and spent too much time in my study. My new house is wonderful but it has dominated too many of my thoughts and too much time. And whilst breaking my ribs wasn't something I planned, frankly it happened in the spring and I ought to have been out more in the mountains. It's no coincidence that I'm over a stone heavier than last January.

I tend to be hard on myself; always pushing. But writing every day has reminded me that what appears to be a sedentary activity, relies, for it to be worthwhile, on having an active life to draw on. As I come to the end of November my thoughts are turning to the challenge of sustaining and improving what fitness I have regained.

All of which leads me to the less than obvious conclusion that to keep fit as a blogger I need to stroll round more galleries as well as pulling on my running shoes.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Snow down, slow down

I'm hopeless with snow; as the first flake drifts across my window I can feel myself grumping. I start moaning about impassable roads and frozen hands and pipes bursting. My boys used to try and jolly me up, but now they don't bother. It's too deeply ingrained, a childhood thing; beyond hope, they reckon.

The trouble, I insist on telling them, is that I was brought up in Northumberland. And 'up north' the snow came straight from Siberia and lasted all winter and froze my blood on the three miles to school, without a coat, or gloves, or anything for breakfast... By the time I'm finished they've sneaked out to play in the pathetic dusting that we consider snow down here.  Now when I were a lad...

I know all this is nonsense, but it so deeply reflects how I feel that I can't stop myself. My boys are right: I think it is largely a childhood thing - and perhaps I did have some bad experiences with snow as child?

I certainly never liked boisterous games, and snow always brought the prospect of someone shoving ice in my face, or pushing me over, or worst of all, making me go on those dreadful slides we used to build at school that I could never get the hang of. And my father did used to make us clear the drive, using boards and shovels to make a neat pathway and then refusing to take the car out regardless.  The moment it snowed again we had to do it a second time, shivering hands, wet wellies, the lot.

But all of this is a long time ago and a pretty lame reason to be so belligerent. It's not as if I'm going to be shoved down a slide or forced to clear the drive nowadays. Perhaps I ought to grow up and embrace it?

I would, if only snow didn't mean that my plans go all askew. As a child snow meant not going to my granddad's on Sunday, the otherwise highlight of my week. At work it still means disruption and re-routing and probably extra costs that we'll have to recover elsewhere. Next week I'm in London on Tuesday and already I'm thinking about staying over the night before, or after. I was planning to meet a friend on Wednesday before he goes to France; he wrote this morning saying we'll need to check the weather first. The backpack trip will be off too.

But when I think about it, none of these things really matter. There are possibilities in all of them and it's not as if my moaning will make any difference. I could go walking, and if not I need to slow down anyway - like the snow, drift a little...

Except the roofers! Oh God; one look at the frost and I'll not see them till spring. Now if they'd been born up north, like I was, where the snow came straight from Siberia ...

Dad, is that you ranting?


Saturday, November 27, 2010

From blogs to books

When I started writing I had many notebooks, recording something every day so they became like scrappy journals. The habit came from using sketch book, some of which I have from my teens. It is seldom that I look at them, though I like them being there.

Nowadays, other than first drafts of essays, almost everything I write is developed and stored electronically. This blog is an obvious example, but even my personal notes are made direct to the screen. My work exists largely in a virtual world and I worry it will be lost. And much that I like electronic publishing, there is something that remains exciting about the physicality of a book.

So last January I decided to transfer my blog to print. I used a company called Blog2Print and ordered two copies, one for my house in Wales and one for Wiltshire - they cost about seventy pounds which I guess is quite expensive but I opted for hardback and they do have over 150 colour pages. There is an option of a high quality PDF which you can self print for about a fiver.

The advantage of Blog2Book is that the set up is incredibly simple - it takes minutes to have the layout on screen, you can personalise covers, add dedications and receive a low resolution proof to check before confirming the order. The disadvantage is that the formatting is limited and the process doesn't always like posts with wrap around text. Overall the quality is excellent, the service fast and its a nice way of keeping a physical record of your work.

Having the blog printed also set me thinking about 'home books' and how underrated they are. I have a friend who wrote and illustrated stories for her children; my mother makes similar books for Dylan and my uncle keeps an illustrated diary of his adventures on his boat. For the last ten years my father in law has been keeping a Pembrokeshire diary, full of snippets and silly drawings and lists and photographs - he won't let us see it until the book is full (which he claims will be very soon) - everyone is waiting eagerly.

I suppose the whole point of home books is that they are not intended for a wider audience. This means they are not restricted by the conventions and commerciality of publishers. Like our lives, they are less than perfect, full of quirks and foibles - at their least, home books are a bit of fun and a personal touch; at best they are unique and intimate records to be passed down generations.

This isn't a sponsored post or anything like that, but I'd say having your blog printed is a good exercise. It reminds me of when I exhibited paintings - it is only when you see the images together that you fully understand what you have created. I always thought of Views From The Bike Shed as a public recording of my random thoughts. The interesting thing, that I can't fully explain, is when I see the words in print, it feels more personal, something more worth the keeping. Maybe your blog is like that too?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Puppet Daddy

When my older boys were small I bought them each a cone puppet. They were from Paris, very expensive; the sort of toys that parents like. The boys thought they were spooky, and perhaps because they played so much together they didn't feel a need to involve other characters. Hence the puppets languished in a cupboard for a decade.

Dylan discovered them when he was three. Next to trains I'd say they are his favourite toys, especially Puppet Daddy, who Dylan insist is controlled by me. This is interesting in itself, because to Dylan the whole point of the game is to talk to the puppet rather than handle them.

Puppet Daddy speaks with a screeching Welsh lilt, modelled on Norma Price from Fireman Sam - Dylan won't let me change it. But he's a boy, I say. He's a puppet Daddy, Dylan corrects me

He's a nervous puppet too, retreating often to his cone, especially at any sign of his nemesis, Boppy Jester. Boppy Jester speaks incredibly fast and plays the singular role of bashing Puppet Daddy on the head at any opportunity. And so the game goes on.

Puppet Daddy's great sadness was that he had 'no legs'. This regularly caused him, and Dylan, to cry. He couldn't go to school, or escape his enemies, or play football; he was confined to his cone and hours in the dark. Perhaps he could hop on his stick? I once suggested. You can't hop without legs Daddy... tears flowed.

Until that is, Dylan found some plastic boots from an Action Man toy. Puppet Daddy's legs, he cried, I've found his legs. Where is he; go and tell him Daddy; go tell him now... we've found his legs!

And so, Puppet Daddy has new legs. He remains nervous of course; after all, he is only learning to walk - and Boppy Jester is still to be avoided. But great was the joy the day those boots were found.

And great joy we have had together since: the mornings I've been woken with, Will you be Puppet Daddy now?; the ongoing saga of Boppy Jester (don't find HIS leg's Daddy - he'd be too boppy); the surreal time Puppet Daddy accompanied us to Wales and I spent the weekend talking in a high pitched woman's voice; the videos we've made, the cuddles, the laughs, the insanity of it all.

Almost every parent can tell you of a time they bought some expensive gift only for their little darling to spend more time with the cardboard box. I know very little about the psychology of play, but I suspect there is something important in allowing children to transcend themselves. The problem with so many of the branded toys, is that they are based on formulaic characters that limit possibilities and contain the imagination.

Toys like Puppet Daddy are different. They are about invention and sympathy and absolutely believing in and living with every turn and detail of the story. Nobody could design Puppet Daddy, he just was, and is. In a few short years he has grown into a complex, lovable, irreplaceable  character.

And as Dylan sneaked into my bed with him this morning, I realised how much toys can imitate life.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanks Giving

Thanks Giving doesn't register much in the UK. It is something the Yanks do; one of the few of their customs that hasn't travelled across the Atlantic, grumbled a colleague this week. Unlike, Trick or Treating or Grandparents Day or McDonalds, he went on, Won't be long, before we're the fifty first state...

His rant began after I mentioned going to an early Thanks Giving dinner on Sunday. We'd had Turkey and all the trimmings, I told him - stuffing, gravy, beans, carrots and sweet potato with marshmallows!  Dylan thought this latter was wonderful; I was more, just a little, thank you. 

It's so typical of 'them', complained my colleague, to spoil a British classic like that.

I didn't pursue the conversation. For when you think about it, his opinion doesn't stand scrutiny. Roast dinner might have originated in Europe, but turkeys certainly came from the States and were only popularised here in the 1940s. And whilst I wasn't keen on the marshmallow combo, the pumpkin pie which followed was excellent and just as appropriate as any British dessert.

And it's typical of a wider British bias towards the US. To listen to many people you'd think there was no decent culture, architecture, or cuisine in the States. They might grudgingly acknowledge the Grand Canyon looks interesting, but then, we have Cheddar Gorge. And of course, in the US you get shot at, hospitals costs a fortune and (as if it mattered) only seven percent have passports.

I'm not a devotee of all things American, but its clear that most of these stereotypes are nonsense. The US has been home to the best art this century (think of films, abstract expressionism, Broadway, the Guggenheim, Jazz, the Manhattan skyline...) It also has the world's best universities, the foremost technology, the most advanced (and some of the worst) of health care. There are more guns in European countries (especially in Eastern Europe), and most of us never leave our own continent, passport or not.

The writer, Tim Garton Ash, posed the question, Is Channel wider than the Atlantic? He claimed that to be in Calais feels more foreign than Boston. On the other hand we have a shared European history (except that ever since Communism we have regarded Eastern Europe as semi-detached) and participate in institutions such as the EU that bind us to the Continent. His conclusion was that we are in a special position of having close links with the two, and that we should make more of that opportunity.

In practice, people like my colleague rant at both sides of this divide. His attitude reflects a small island mentality, seeing us as not quite European and yet resentful of American prosperity and influence. For myself, I like much of our peculiarly British culture, but I wish we were more open to Europe and I especially recognise there is good that comes from America too. It's a bit like dinner last Sunday; a little more turkey please, but I'll pass on the marshmallows.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turner's New Clothes

Image from
I went to the Tate Britain yesterday, my favourite of all the London galleries. At one time it was simply the Tate, but that was before millennium grants and the turbine halls (and empty walls) across the water took away its status as the 'Modern' gallery. The theory was that the old building would have more space to display the best of British - and largely I think that worked.

I couldn't remember when I'd last visited; perhaps four years - but most of my friends were still there: paintings by Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon, Stanley Spencer and Thomas Gainsborough. And of course, the great man himself, Joseph Mallord William Turner.

The delight of Tate Britain is that much of what it displays is more modern and exciting than half the tosh at its South Bank sister. OK, so that's a prejudice of mine - but go look at the Turner galleries and tell me his paintings aren't as importantt and inspiring now as they were 170 years ago. Or, if you like contemporary, stop in the Duveen corridor to stand under the disturbingly beautiful and scary plane sculptures of Fiona Banner, commissioned by the Tate this year: fantastic.

How ironic then, that precious space should be given over to this year's Turner prize.

I reckon I'm more open to new ideas than most, especially when it comes to art. Even the nagging feeling of 'sure I could've thought of that' doesn't put me off - it's almost part of the pleasure. Its very rare that I simply don't see any value at all.

So it's significant that a day after viewing I now have to look up the names of this year's shortlist... (pause while I go to Google)

Frankly, I can't be bothered to cut and paste them - what you need to know is that there was an inept painter who thought the titles of his pictures more important than the image; a video installation with supposedly provocative quotes (you'd have to be very dull); a set of destroyed canvasses and two stacked chairs (to be fair I liked the pink canvass - for all of a minute), and a room with three speakers playing a woman singing some sort of Scottish dirge. There were lots of words on plaques to explain it all.

A summary dismissal perhaps, but in my view if you have to read all the blurb to appreciate the art, it has missed its purpose. Surely there is better new British art than this - and I'm not suggesting it has to be watercolours or traditional sculpture. Yesterday I felt like the little boy in the Emperor's New Clothes.

What was it he cried to the crowd?

Something like, 'Where are the fancy robes - all I can see is bollocks!'

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Lower Nevern estuary
The Avon Nyfern is one of the shortest welsh rivers to reach the sea. It springs from the barren marsh at the foot of the Preseli Hills; in less than ten miles and two oxbow bends it has flattened into the most beautiful of Pembrokeshire's estuaries.

Despite its brief length the river does not want to hurry. Nowhere is it steep or straight, it's course a series of delays and diversions, as if reluctant to meet the incoming tide. By the time it reaches the hamlet of Nevern the river is bubbling over gravel beds and fishermen float flies on its sparkling current.

Nevern itself is a wonderful place. The churchyard has the best celtic cross in Wales, an eleventh century masterpiece of intricate weaving curves. There is an Ogam stone too, and yew trees with bleeding sap, and peculiar headstones with rhyming poetry. Over 140 wild flowers have been recorded in the graveyard.

From Nevern to the estuary is an awkward walk, the paths, like the water, reluctant to take you directly. But I have followed the river here, passing the pilgrim's cross that is crudely hewn from the cliff, and the sand banks where the flow eddies and otters leave their prints, though I have never seen one. Eventually you reach the bridge at Newport where the tide and river join.

It is about a mile to the sea from the bridge, but the flow is now imperceptible. The tide becomes the dominant force and when low it reveals a broad mudflat that is one of the richest habitats for birds in West Wales. Egrets have set up home here, foreign amongst herons and gulls and crows, usually keeping their distance. This Saturday I watched the turnstones stilting on the waters edge, probing the mud in a leisurely fashion.

I first came here when the boys were small. There is graded track on the southern edge of the estuary that is perfect for pushing buggies. Despite it being twenty miles from my house, we would make the effort to drive here then walk to the river mouth (known as the Parrog) where there is a boat house and coffee shop and enough to divert the attention of little ones before encouraging them to walk the last few yards to the sea.

Even here it seems the river is reluctant. After the Parrog it carves a deep channel between cliff and sand bar forcing sailors to take a circuitous course toward the Cat Rock and old lifeboat station, before finally the open sea. I have often seen boats caught on the bar here, waiting for the tide to rise, or frantically revving engines to pull free before it falls.

Often those who are caught are holiday makers; visitors from the east that I unreasonably dislike - for in truth, part of me is that too. Except they are impatient to be moving; unsettled by the stillness and at odds with the flow.

Boat House at Parrog

Monday, November 22, 2010

Encounters with butterflies

The story below is an edited and adapted extract from a longer essay. It was my winning submission to the National Trust's Butterflty Isles Competition, for which you had to describe an encounter with butterflies.

Painted Lady

I know precisely when I saw my first Painted Lady: the 19th of August 1974, in the garden of my Aunt Marjorie’s house.

Marjorie wasn’t my real aunt. She was our primary school nurse and friend of my mother. Her husband had died in India, serving as the batman to Lord Hunt who led the first successful Everest expedition. She was a redoubtable lady whose house was stuffed with eastern artefacts and Catholic icons; she drove a red Ford Capri, had a casual disregard of the Highway Code and seldom bothered to change gear.

Looking back, I realise that Marjorie’s was a place of escape for my mother. At the depths of my father’s depression we would go there from school. And I’d be sent to the garden, my mother explaining they had ‘things to talk about.’ Marjorie would give me a jam jar and tell me to hunt for caterpillars. ‘Don’t get lost,’ she would joke, ‘it’s a wilderness you know.’

And she wasn’t exaggerating.

Her garden ran down to the railway, the lawn as tall as meadow grass, the borders overgrown with foxgloves, convolvulus, and climbing nasturtiums. There were patches of stinging nettles and thistles, a forgotten bed of lavender and sedums growing between torch lilies that we called Red Hot Pokers. And most impressive of all, by the railway fence, were three towering buddleias, large enough for a small boy to hide in. Two of them bloomed purple madder; the other was pure white.

The wilderness was Marjorie’s delight, her decadent secret in contrast to the clipped roses and crazy paving out front. It was also, though I didn’t know at the time, a perfect butterfly garden. And it was there, sitting beneath the buddleias with the Observers’ Book of Butterflies that I learned to recognise my first species; red admirals, tortoiseshells, brimstones, large whites and peacocks.

After I left primary school we stopped going to Marjorie’s. She retired the year I left for the Grammar, by which time my mother had learned to drive and found new freedoms. I was making my own escapes too and might well have forgotten about my mother’s elderly friend.

Except occasionally, especially when the sun was out, I would cycle by her house and pretend to be passing. We’d stroll down the garden, inspect the nasturtiums and observe what was feeding on the Buddleias. I kept records in a little pocket book that I still have. And I remember her excitement at the Painted Lady. ‘They come from Morocco,’ she said. ‘My husband used to say they were pilgrims. How lucky one should come on your birthday.’

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Silent Sunday

Well almost silent...

Full moon last night, so a low tide this morning; soft edges to the air, sea and sand. We counted the boats on the bay: four ships and three kayakers; half a dozen walkers and as many dogs in two miles.

The picture is of Newgale beach, taken at eleven this morning, three miles from my house.

It was a typical November Sunday, the wind bitter and the beach at its bleak and open best. At this time of year the sand is at high tide too, though most people don't realise it - for over the summer it gradually accumulates, burying the slabs of rock that the spring storms expose. It is a slow change; subtle, like this morning's light.

And on the beach we saw many things: a star fish with a broken limb, some blennies, a large common whelk, barnacles, limpets and razor clam shells. Few birds today, but an unexpected rock pipit that followed us we played pirates and dug for treasure in the caves.

As we walked back I noticed the variegation on the open sand; bands of darker grit, each with a doily fringe of beige. The stripes were about a foot apart, receding to the sea in a repeat of theme and variation. I realised they marked the fall of the tide; wave after wave, line after line, time after time.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Oh my head

Returned to Wales last night and spent the evening with our neighbours. Rob drinks cider, lots of it usually. He was down on supplies, so brought over a bottle of wine to top things up. It went down well, after the stiff gin I'd begun with, and the whiskey which followed.

I lay in this morning - or so I thought, until realising I've not reset the clocks since summertime. And what I'd usually think of a beautiful dawn seemed a touch too bright - but in truth I'm not sure about that, because thinking hurts...

In a perverse way this is good for my head. It was in danger of swelling too much after learning I was a winner in the National Trust's competition for a signed copy of Butterfly Isles. Hardly a top literary prize, but  I'm imagining there were many thousands of entries (I wish) The competition was to describe an encounter with butterflies and I shall post mine shortly.

Coincidentally, the author who wrote the cover blurb for the book was a tutor on my recent writing course: she recommended I buy it. I'll wait and see, I said, I 'might win a copy - you never know. I was always confident; strange though,  how success can go to your head.

Now where did I put those painkillers?

This morning in my garden

Friday, November 19, 2010

A visit from the blog fairy - erm, VP actually

Picture from Veg Plotting
A week or so after I started the Bike Shed I Googled blogs from Wiltshire. Top of the list was Veg Plotting, describing itself as Musings from life in the heart of rural Wiltshire, well, erm Chippenham actually... It was ostensibly about allotments, not something I was hugely interested in, but I clicked to follow anyway.

It didn't take long to realise that Veg Plotting is about much more than allotments; it's about plants and gardens and the town I live in and funny adverts and serious issues; it's about someone with a passion for and an interest in life. Gardening might be the means, but the end is much more universal. .

VP is a blogging hero in my mind; she'd laugh at that, but I have watched and learned and shamelessly imitated many of her ideas. It was where I learned about comments and followers, and got the idea to use themes for continuity (see here for example), and always using a photograph...  Her blog is also hugely impressive from a technical aspect and I've long envied its three column format.

So how nice that VP herself should come and visit me today. Not in the blogosphere, but actually knocking on my door, coming in for a coffee, swapping pots of home made jelly (apple for quince), talking blogs and biscuits, wandering round the garden, offering ideas and advice.

And how great that someone you've come to 'know' through their writing should be just as you'd hoped. She describes herself as 'very much the amateur' and yet in only a few minutes pondering she'd given me more new idea and advice than I'd have thought of in months. And just like her blog, our chat ranged from the local to the national, from plants to people, from moths to trains, from birds to real ale...

I thoroughly enjoyed VP's visit. We've exchanged emails for a couple of years and must have passed in the street many times before - she lives about a mile from my house - but there's nothing like meeting up for real. And like the blog fairy she is, she brought me good luck - no sooner had she left than my solicitor confirmed the exchange of contracts on my old house, and then an email to say I was a winner in a writing competition (more of which tomorrow).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The new retirement

I was forty nine last August, not an especially important birthday, I thought. Except the cards said, Not long to the big Five Zero - enjoy it while you're able!. Another wag sent me a brochure for SAGA holidays.

What they missed is that I've always rather looked forward to turning fifty. For years I'd been planning to retire early, do a little travelling and go back to university. Those dreams were scuppered by a combination of supposed pension reform, the outrageous cost of housing and my concern for my children's future, such that I worry about downsizing. For completeness, Dylan coming along wasn't part of the plan..

But let's look on the bright side. I'm in my fiftieth year; financially stable, good job with a flexible contract, happy family, fit and healthy if a little softer round the edges...

That's not the point, said Kerrie, my colleague at work. It's your fiftieth year, so you must to do fifty new things before your next birthday.

Who says, I asked?

I do, she asserted - and believe me, there's no arguing with Kerrie. You have to do forty new things in your fortieth year, fifty in your fiftieth and sixty in your sixtieth - it's the new retirement.

Can't I just do fifty exciting things?

No, they have to be new. I have a friend who planned it all out - had a fabulous year - even went to Boston for the weekend; didn't involve her husband at all.

It all sounded very exciting, but three months on I'm making limited progress.

The trouble is, I find it difficult to think of new things I want to do. There are old friends I'd like to visit - doesn't count; there are places I want to see again - sorry no; much the same applies to restaurants, books, mountains...

Kerrie allowed me the day I played in a banjo ensemble (weird but acceptable), and the time I drove a digger (so long as it was it a real one?); even the trip to Corfe Castle (ok, but no more castles - boring). Other than those I'm struggling. She says I'm a lightweight; I claim it shows maturity. More seriously, I think it says something about our varying needs for novelty.

My father in law has visited over 110 countries - he recently took to cruising because he'd run out of mainland destinations. A close friend  changes his job about every seven years because he gets bored. A few weeks ago I met a lady on a writing course who told me she was 'addicted' to the choice that London offered.

In contrast , another friend wrote last week, informing me of his return to France - it is achingly quiet there he said. His note reminded me of a Northumbrian shepherd I once knew, who had never been to Newcastle. In Wales, my neighbour, John Knapp Fisher, has spent half a lifetime painting within five miles of his home.

There is merit in both approaches. I ought to be more open to new ideas, but I also try to take inspiration and satisfaction from what is around me. Ultimately, I said to Kerrie, its a rich and fulfilled life that we should be seeking, however best we find it.

She was having none of it.

You're not entering into the spirit. All those trips to London; just think what you could do.

She is right of course. I need to pull my finger out; to be more adventurous; take more pleasure in the new...

In the meantime, I'm heading  'home' to Wales - just to think about it, you understand.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Painting the stove

The artist Paul Cezzane said, 'if you have nothing to paint, then paint the stove.' His point was that to be inspired you need to practice. That the very process of putting pigment on paper will lead you to respond; interest and creativity will follow.

Writers know something of this too. Julia Cameron in her book, The Artists Way, suggests three pages of writing every morning which she calls 'morning pages'.  The process is close to writing as a stream of consciousness; your hand should never stop moving; you are not creating, simply reacting to the flow of your thoughts.

I wrote morning pages for two years, and coincidentally to this blog post, (which is being written with no idea where it is going) they are on top of a box by my desk. In a moment I shall photograph them - but, hold on, you've already seen the photo that I'm about to take ...

That's the sort of puzzle philosophers like, and it's given me an idea for a piece about the illusions words create. So already this post that was going nowhere has opened up some new possibilities.

Another trick I used as a painter was to rip up old pictures, retaining a fragment of the past as a starting point for the new. Frank Auerbach works this way, drawing and erasing, drawing and erasing, drawing and erasing... many of his pictures are patched because he has worn the paper through. I find that using fragments works less well with writing, however, I know others who think the approach is helpful.

But for all the tricks and techniques, sometimes it is serendipity that matters most.

Yesterday, taking some junk to my car, a blackbird took offence at me in 'her' garden. The closer I approached, the more agitated she became. She puffed along a branch, her cries receding as I stood motionless - until we faced each other for a long silent minute.

I'm not sure I've ever looked that closely at a blackbird. She wasn't black at all, but a sparkling umber, with a speckled chest and an orange ochre beak. Her head was cocked to one side, a green eye staring at me, staring at her. Blackbirds are one of our commonest species, I thought; we must pass each other every day. And yet I couldn't say which of us appeared the stranger to the other.

Our postman came ambling up our drive, and the moment was gone.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The perfect present.

I've written before about jam; a high contender for my last meal on earth would be fresh croissants with blackberry preserve. Jam is a small delight each morning; a taste of sunshine; a moment's pleasure before the drudgery of the drive to work;... ok, ok, you know I like jam.

So how wonderful that my new garden has a prolific quince bush. And even better that my mother had time on her hands to transform them to jelly.

Does jelly count as jam? Daniel asked, after she brought the jars round. Or is it a type of marmalade?

There's no time for classifications, I told him -  get the muffins in the toaster!

It was years since I'd tasted quince jelly, but worth the wait. I'd forgotten the slight tartness that follows the sweet bite, and the pleasingly wobbly quality of a dollop on bread.

Why is it red, Daniel asked?

Who cares - put some more of those muffins on will you.

My mother says I am impossible to buy presents for. She has laboured for years to find the perfect gift, too often seeking inspiration in the Sunday supplements. Part of the trouble is the looks I get from Jane when I open her presents, making it clear that I'm to keep any ironic laughter in check. The result is the unwanted gifts continue and the charity shops do well with 'as new' donations.

More recently, she has focused her giving around consumables. This is a good development, but there's still the risk of a too inventive trip to the delicatessen. The other year she had a thing about Kendal Mint Cake - often gift wrapping it with a pot of lump fish caviar...?

So Quince Jelly seems the perfect answer. It takes ages to create (lots of straining evidently) and therefore feels like a special gift to those who make it - and I genuinely appreciate both the effort and the end product.

Last week, my mother asked if I would like a gift for the new house. I refused; couldn't think of anything to be honest. But then I noticed some more windfall quinces...

 More Jelly? Was I sure it was all I wanted? she asked.


After all, jam is food of the Gods; a taste of sunshine in the morning; a contender for last meal on earth...

Lovely - but why the funny cloth lids?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Taking the biscuit

'Should we have a biscuit?' Dylan asked, this evening after dinner. 

'All right,' I agreed, 'But just one... so long as you clean your teeth afterwards.' 

'Of course,' he replied, taking two from the tin. 'One's for you,' he grinned... 'while we watch the video.' 

'I thought you were going to bed?' 

'Not till eight,' he pleaded... 'Come on Dad, you know you want to.'

And so I'm typing this post on the laptop as we watch the Big Rock Candy Mountains (for the tenth time). I'm also smiling, because as we left the kitchen Dylan made what might be his first step to a future career.

'Have you been in the sweetie tin?' Jane asked, blocking his exit.

'No,' he replied, holding the biscuits behind his back. 'Just going to watch a DVD with Dad ... '

And as he squeezed past her, he moved the biscuits carefully to his side, keeping them out of sight. By the time I joined him in the lounge he'd eaten one chocolate chip cookie and was looking longingly at the other. Do you want your biscuit Dad? he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be. 

I'm a soft touch and he knows it. After a dull day at the office there is no one who makes me happier and he knows that too. Had I told him to put the biscuits back he'd have done so, and I doubt he'd have whinged if I'd said it was bedtime. That's because he's learned outright defiance doesn't work half as effectively as being my buddy and cuddling up on the sofa.

He's always been cute, but his little deception tonight was something different. He knows full well there is no substantial difference between biscuits and sweets as an evening snack - and by hiding them behind his back he proved it. Whilst he didn't exactly lie to Jane, he deceived her by omission. 

That's quite subtle for a child of six, I thought - a sign of intelligence I'm sure (must get it from me) - but it could lead to trouble in future. Mmmm...

Perhaps I should talk to him; explain how deceptions lead to mistrust; show the distinction between 'acts and omissions' to be morally spurious... 

On the other hand, the Big Rock Candy Mountains is a great video. 

And on reflection, I should perhaps encourage it - in moderation of course. After all, a cute manner and a little deception bodes well for a successful career... politics! 

And that really would take the biscuit.