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 tate.org.uk
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... 

...in politics! 

And that really would take the biscuit.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ordering the shed

I've been building shelves in the garage. Actually, Chris, Fred and I have been building shelves in the garage, because when it comes to storage, half-measures are not allowed. Do it once, do it right, was my maternal grandfather's motto, and I try always to follow his advice.

Chris and Fred would appear prefer the motto of my paternal grandfather - make it a double while you're at it! They ordered huge quantities of wood, screws, brackets, plugs, glue... which I was certain we wouldn't use, but turned out to be perfectly correct. My responsibility was the plastic boxes which I estimated at twenty units, feeling somewhat of a lightweight when they only covered two of the five shelves.

Over tea and sandwiches, there was general agreement that a man can never have too many sheds. There was also agreement that the status of his shed is directly proportionate to the quality of its storage - mine is heading for five stars, and but for the inadequate lighting it would be there already. This is our priority next week.

Jane can't understand the rush. Why don't you leave it until the roof's done and then you can shove everything in the loft. She misses the point; I don't want to shove everything in the loft; I want it all available, on show, in neat rows of carefully marked boxes. I want to count and stack and organise and reorganise...

Until eventually I do something more creative.

Because for me, organisation is part of the creative process. I find it impossible to work in clutter; I dislike background music, TV or any form of distraction; I spend hours tidying my desk, longer clearing my mind - in order to write or paint for what may only be minutes.

But when those minutes are good, they are worth all the preparatory effort. The editing, reworking and general faffing can all follow - those processes are less dependent on order and silence. It is my creative spark which seems to require neatness - a counter intuitive notion to some, who think of creativity as a mystical and messy process.

In some ways it would be good to like disorder. It would at least save time and DIY bills. But we are who we are, and I crave neatness. I once had a colleague whose diary was so perfect I ached with envy and couldn't understand his poor progress - that he was a useless salesman is beside the point; I'd have promoted him many times on the strength of his records.

And not all artists conform to the wild romantic stereotype. Piet Mondrian used used to paint in a suit and tie, as did LS Lowry (though he really was odd). Indeed, Mondrian's calculated grids have a certain resemblance to my newly shelved and neatly ordered garage. How many boxes would it take, I wonder, to fill racking as beautiful as his?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Perhaps the play is not worth the candle - or is it?

Golden boys - 2002
Yesterday I sent a piece of writing to a friend who is a well known and respected author. He was generous with praise and asked if I intended publishing the series I have been working on for the last few years. 

It is significant that he didn't ask if I had considered publishing; his emphasis was on whether or not I 'intended' to. I have no doubt that this subtle difference comes from his experience as a writer of, amongst other things, deeply personal biography.

For through I write about landscape and nature, these are usually a backdrop to the main subject: my relationship with my sons and the sense of wonder they have given me. Another writer friend once described my work as an astonished journey into fatherhood.

But therein lies a problem. For that journey is inevitably a consequence of my own childhood and the fractured relationships I had with my parents - my father in particular. My father is dead, but to publish would inevitably cause hurt to others, my mother especially. I am not, and never have been, the person she thinks I am - and she would not want me to improve her understanding. I have no wish to either.

Shortly after my first son was born I recall Jane saying, your trouble is that you have no reference points; or if you do they are the wrong ones. She was right. It took me years to realise that my sons might love me back. And when they did, that simple fact has driven my writing ever since.

But do my sons want their childhood 'out there' for others to read?  And how would they feel about my interpretations of event? For interpretations is what they are; though I strive to be honest, there is a necessary difference between objective and personal truth. Writers must always editorialise; the very act of pressing the keypad is an exercise choosing what, and what not, to emphasise.

I should explain that my work is never 'pour it all out' stuff - nor is it writing as therapy, from which dark secrets are revealed. It is simply a response to the situation I find myself in, and the past I came from.

But what of those who are close to either end of that astonished journey? I fear they will misinterpret my motives, question the need and argue the finer details - and in so doing, miss the bigger picture: that we can all come through.

And yet to write a book and keep it firmly closed, seems, if not exactly a pointless exercise, then a self-interested and self-limiting one. For I have learned from kayaking and climbing - as well as from fatherhood and writing - that for life to be worth living, we must take some risks with it too.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Collections 13 - Tea pots

I started collecting novelty tea pots when I met Jane. We lived for a while in a small terraced cottage and they seemed appropriate; there was also a china shop down the road that used to have a window full of them. It began almost as a joke (the only 'art' we could afford) and sort of grew - long after I stopped buying them, friends would give us gaudy pots as gifts.

For the last fourteen years these have been in crates, so it was fun to take out a few for old times sake. I especially like the cactus with the vulture; my boys liked the fish, Jane remembered buying me the sailor. I have boxes of the them and suspect they might be worth putting on eBay. Or maybe a pub might want them - because to be honest, though I shall keep a few, I don't.

On the other hand, I might regret selling them. For if I ever become famous they could take on a whole new value. The artist, Andy Warhol, used to collect novelty cookie jars that he bought at flea markets. Their intrinsic value was a few dollars a piece and yet, after his death, his collection of 175 jars sold for $275,000. They are now on display in a corporate museum.

It is strange to think of the value of an object being attributed to its previous owner, especially if an identical item is widely available. The cookie jars, for example, were elevated to the status of art works merely because Warhol had chosen them. There was a similar furore a while ago when someone tried to sell an 'original fax' he had received from (I think) David Hockney. It lead to a debate on what constitutes original art.

I suspect many galleries were uncomfortable with the question. Most promote similar vagaries of value, foremost amongst them being the 'limited edition print'; in essence a lithograph or digital copy (intrinsic value a few pounds) with a pencil signature in the corner giving it a putative value of, say, £250 - or, depending on the signature, upwards to many thousands of pounds.

My tea pots will never be worth much, but they are not an entirely random collection. You might notice that the handles and spouts are always integral to the design, rather than simply stuck onto a fancy pot. The latter is the more common practice with novelty crockery and finding the integrated designs was always a challenge.

Now I've pointed that out you might notice it on other tea pots; perhaps also on cookie jars, cruet sets, mugs... even works of art.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Past imperfect 4 - forgotten paintings

Clearing the loft last week I discovered two forgotten paintings.

The picture above was painted in 1978. It was my first large oil painting and the first time I had used canvass. Like the artist it depicts, the picture has a turbulent history.

I entered it for the school art competition but the judges rejected it because they considered it a copy. My art teacher (not one of the judges) was so annoyed by the decision that she arranged a separate display of my work. Another teacher so liked the display she gave me my first commission (all of £15) for a variation on Van Gogh's sunflowers. My father liked the painting too and kept it hidden when my parents divorced. Some years later I found it displayed it in his dinning room; I took it back to spite him after he had our family dog put down.

Looking back, I don't think the decision of the competition judges was that unreasonable. What they perhaps didn't consider is that copying famous works is a valuable way to understand the painting and the artist.  In a sense, this is what happens when musicians play concertos. But the best copies are also interpretations and my painting fails in that respect. Many years later I discovered Francis Bacon's transcriptions of Van Gogh which is  how to do it properly - but to be fair, I was only sixteen when I painted mine.

The shoe painting was completed around 2001. I was fascinated by the way London fashion boutiques would display luxury shoes and handbags as if they were works of art. And yet when I looked closely, the items were often ugly or kitch, made more offensive by hugely inflated prices. The displays were both beautiful and repulsive - and it was that uncomfortable sensation that I was responding too.

And so began a series of shoe and glamour paintings. To me they have an edgy quality still, because I regard them as a failures, and yet many people have asked me if I have more. As I pulled this one from the loft and tossed it onto a pile of old canvasses my middle son said, 'Great shoes Dad! Can I have it  for my wall.'  And that, I suppose, sums up why they are imperfect.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Break Down

Image from Google Images

As I sit in my makeshift home office, packing boxes strewn around the room, I am conscious of how uncomfortable the process of moving can be. It isn't so much the physical process, the frustration of having no Internet, or even the constant thoughts about what might go where and what colour we should paint the bedrooms  - that much I had expected. Rather, I have realised, it is the temporary absence of  certain lass than oobvious possessions that has so disturbed the order of my life.

For a start, I hate being without my books.  The fact is, I  have little need for any of them this week, but it still upsets me. And where are my paints? Come to think of it, what about my notebooks, and my binoculars and my camping equipment - I know I don't need it either, but I want to know were it is; that it is still there.

Get a grip. Here I am considering myself to be an non materialistic person, and yet take away my chattels and I'm approaching a mini break down.

Which brings to mind the performance art of Michael Landy, who ten years ago destroyed all his possessions in a public event called Break Down. It took place in a defunct C&A store in London and over a period of weeks he catalogued and destroyed absolutely everything he owned - from a Gary Hume painting, to his passport, his clothes - even his house keys.

Despite my cynicism of  much performance art, I remember being affected by the idea behind Break Down. It seemed to me audaciously brave to carry it out so completely. Perhaps at a subconscious  level I was horrified by the thought, and it has taken a house move to confirm it. I would like like to think that our possessions do not matter much - that the best things in life are not things at all - but I suspect that for me it is a naive and fanciful view of myself.

Michael Landy's latest project was called Art Bin. It involved the destruction of thousands of works of art , including contributions from Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. He billed it as a homage to artistic failure, encouraging amateurs to ditch their forgotten works in a large skip that was taken to landfill. The idea feels almost as brave as Break Down.

For in the corner of my makeshift office is a deep stack of paintings, most of which will never be hung on a wall - in truth, many of them make my toes curl with embarrassment. And yet they are part of me, a physical manifestation of my past; some better ideas and some crap ones. I shall probably move them to the loft next week, but at least I'll know where they are; that they are still there.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Director of fun

From time to time most regular bloggers will receive emails from marketing agencies offering to sponsor or place advertising on their blog. Occasionally I've been asked to do product reviews, including an offer from someone in Thailand who had an interesting take on what the bike shed was all about. I let all these pass.

But earlier this year I received an email from Nicky, who described herself as personal assistant to Sam Pointon, the Director of  Fun at the National railway Museum in York. Sam had a parcel he would like to send me if I would forward my address. The email looked genuine and I was intrigued, so I phoned the museum which confirmed they did indeed have such a director.

A week or so later my parcel arrived: it included a stick of rock, a signed photo and letter from Sam himself. Sam, who is seven years old, had been 'appointed' as Director of Fun to encourage parents and children to visit the museum by injecting some life into their marketing. His letter asked if I might encourage readers of my blog to join in.

What a great idea! And as a public relations exercise it has been a huge success. Sam's appointment was perfect for those light hearted news items and if you Google him you can see just how much coverage he has achieved. As my small contribution to his success I'm going to make an exception to my rule of not accepting sponsorship and encourage you to visit their website, if not the museum itself.

Of course, people warm to the idea of a six year old directing the campaigns of a stuffy old museum. But as I sat today conducting staff appraisals for the legal and corporate department that I lead, I did think I ought to embrace the idea more fully. My team are fantastic, but let's be honest, corporate governance isn't exactly the stuff of laughter, even if we do ditch our ties on a Friday. I asked for ideas.

Perhaps we could sign the share certificates with a child's handwriting? Maybe Dylan could stand in for me occasionally. Someone suggested inserting those smiley symbols into the annual report and accounts :-) Or in the present climate, more like :-( 

Our ideas were pretty lame. I suspect we take comfort from our contracts and mergers, the piles of documents waiting to be to filed. What's more, the business I work for is deeply suspicious of anything less than formal; to receive a light hearted memo is rare, as if humour denotes a lack of commitment, or threatens to trivialise what is universally regarded as a 'serious business'. That's sad in its way.

On the other hand, I must be part of that culture too. For there is little that fills me with more dread than the thought of fully grown Director of Fun. I can picture them now, dreaming up with jolly ideas for corporate engagement: singalong-a-brainstorm, fancy dress Fridays, emails that open with a jingle, sponsoring people's blogs....

On reflection, I'll let that one pass as well.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Returning places #1

The picture above was taken at one of my favourite places. It is St David’s Head, the most westerly tip of Wales – beyond it are islands and the Irish Sea.

It is rare to photograph the Head from this direction; more usually, visitors stand on the summit, look over to Ramsey and South Bishop lighthouse. But on this occasion I had scrambled down the cliffs to the wave washed platform where the land and sea collide.

My son was with me when I took the picture – it was his thirteenth birthday and I’d taken a group of his friends for some air after they’d stayed for a sleepover party. One friend, George, didn’t fancy the scramble; if you look very closely you will see him perched to the right of the large boulders in the centre of the picture.

I have no idea how many times I have been to the Head – hundreds perhaps - and yet I never tire of it. This August I discovered a colony of Eggar moths flying over the bracken; I saw porpoises that day too. Last year, I camped on the soft turf below the summit when a gospel choir began singing from the rocks above me – they left at midnight, rejoicing with hallelujahs, as they filed down the narrow path by moonlight.

The National Trust owns the Head and surrounding land. Mostly, I think of the Trust owning old buildings and brown painting, but in fact it  owns large sections of wilderness, ensuring access for the general public. There is no charge to visit the Head, though I’d argue it is better entertainment than any theme park, especially if the sea is running high and the wind backing westerly, gale force 9.

The Head is one of my returning places: one of about six very particular landscapes which I visit time and again. I have never fully understood why I feel so drawn to them. But perhaps they are a reassuring constant, in an ever changing life.

My son is too old for sleepover parties (at least of the type he used to enjoy) ; George, who didn’t fancy the scramble, is now six feet tall; the gospel choir can only reminisce about the sunset and sprit of place. In contrast, the Head’s changes are imperceptible – the granite is virtually immortal, and the landmass moves at the rate our finger nails grow.

Dylan told me he wants to hunt the ghost of George. You know, he explained, the one in your picture, who sat on the rocks and was washed away when no one was looking. (He has a vivid imagination.) Would I take him there soon, he asked?

I have been away from Wales for only a week, and already I want to go back.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Gunpowder Plot

As the fireworks went off this evening, Dylan asked me, what's the real story of the fireworks plot? I tried to explain as simply as I could; that's stupid, he replied, why didn't he just use a big bomb.  If only, I thought.

Last week, on my writing course last week I spent a lot of time thinking about plot. Not that I was planning to blow up parliament you understand; the issue in question was how writers use plot to embellish stories.

According to our tutor, the 'structure' was the fence posts, the 'story' was the washing line and 'plot' was what you hung on it. Actually, she didn't quite say that because she got in a bit of a muddle with her metaphors, but I got the idea. So 'Jack sat on the mat' is considered to be 'story', and a follow up like  'the stolen coins heavy in his pocket' is regarded as plot. A bit tenuous in my book but I went with the flow.

We played a game of consequences that started with something like, Once upon a time the geese arrived... and finished with predetermined ending such as a star appeared in the pale evening light. Getting between the two involved violence, intrigue, lust, the occasional dragon and a stalker with binoculars. Everyone seemed to enjoy the exercise and I suppose it was funny in its way.

Except try as I might I don't like plot very much.

The books I most enjoy seem to have very little that actually happens. Take Jean Rhys as an example - her semi-autobiographical novels might be summed up as 'alcoholic seeking love finds only despair.'  There really isn't much more to them than that; certainly no thriller like mystery or murder to solve. And yet they are fabulous.

And what about Carson McCullers', The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in which a deaf mute 'listens' to the stories of four misfits. Or Sandor Marai's Embers: the entire book about two old men sharing a meal and reliving a night forty years previous in which a betrayal took place. Quite a number of Grame Greene's books have very little happening too.

I like films that are similarly bleak - especially old British ones such as Saturday Night Sunday Morning. More recently, there's a great Mongolian film called The Tale of the Weeping Camel that I'm especially fond of and my boys show to their friends to demonstrate how odd I am. Look at this; my Dad actually thinks this is good!

I tell them they miss the subtlety because they are young; they tell me I'm boring. But interestingly, I met a writer last week who had recently finished a novel for young adults. She told me that teenagers expected their books to be packed with action; if there wasn't a murder, a romance and an epic quest by chapter three, then there was little chance they would finish it. That's a pity I thought, because real life isn't like that.

Does that make me boring? I don't think so, but then I'm hardly the best judge. I suppose I just feel that simpler events can be fascinating too, and that the best stories don't require non-stop action or ridiculous coincidences to hold our attention. I appreciate that fans of the Kite Runner or Rambo movies won't necessarily agree, but I'd urge them to at least try.

Of course, I'm exaggerating here, and it's one of the delights of books that there are so many different genres appealing to different tastes - from the sombre darkness of  Koestler to the bodice ripping yarns of Barbara Cartland. But even allowing that most novels are more about escapism than gritty realism, I'd still argue that too much plot is hard to pull off successfully.

And if you don't believe me, just ask Guy Fawkes (not that you can of course).

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Books I'm reading # 8

My father in law decided to be helpful this week, packing my books randomly into cardboard boxes in preparation for the move to the new house. I was thus saved five minutes work at the cost of losing a carefully organised filing system that he would have otherwise admired. Oh well, that's six hours distraction I can find this winter. He meant well, said Jane.

Today is the 'big move' so I'm writing this in advance - perhaps as a distraction activity too, for the thought of it is worrying. Jane's brother is coming to help; he has the attributes of being large, available and keen, but isn't known for the gentle touch. We've packed the raku already.

None of this has much to do with what I'm reading. Which is kind of appropriate as this autumn I've been distracted by other things. I have a wide selection of banjo manuals but they don't really count, and though I can only photograph the few books that were by my bed (the rest are in random boxes), there are not many more I can remember.

Except a quick mention that Dylan has been enjoying the copy of Struwell Peter that I bought him last week - highly politically incorrect, but superbly old fashioned cautionary tales. I especially liked the story of Little Suck-A-Thumb who get his thumbs snipped off by the long red-legged scissor man.

I've also been re-reading George Orwell's diaries, but I've written enough about Orwell in the past and everyone who would be interested knows about them anyway. Much more interesting is The Peregrine by JA Baker, a cult book amongst nature writers that has recently been rediscovered. I'd rate it as one of the most beautifully written texts I've read -  in fact, it is so good it makes you feel like giving up writing. Essentially a diary of watching peregrines, you wouldn't think it would appeal beyond the birding community. Yet Andrew Motion writes the cover blurb and whole list of writers now quote it as a seminal influence. Here is the opening paragraph - read it slowly.

East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water and there is a feeling of sails beyond the land. Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory and winter shadow.  The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me toward them, through them, and on to others.  They layer the memory like strata.

After that, everything else pales a bit. Even the excellent Alun Richards' memoirs of his childhood in Dai Country. Or Kasuo Ishiguro's An Artist of The Floating World, which is much like his better known Remains of the Day. And the weirdness of Bugs Brittanica, companion volume  to Birds Brittanica (also in random box), both of which are a strange mix of coffee table and enthusiasts guide.

Finally, I re-read the Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (another random box), which also has a brilliant opening paragraph: It was eleven o clock in the morning and the sun was not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness foothills... I was calling on four million dollars.

Talking of big sleeps, with tomorrow looming that's just what I need right now.