Friday, November 30, 2012

Chuffed to bits of Cippenham

My friend Michelle emailed me today; chuffed to bits she said. And so she should be. Her excellent blog, Veg Plotting, was a finalist in the Garden Media Guild's Best Blog of the Year - the only independent blog to reach that stage. It ought to have won of course, but it's some justice that Michelle also contributes to the Guardian which took first prize.

Last month my company organised a celebratory dinner for our community champions - folk who'd volunteered their time and raised money for good causes. Michelle was there too because she also writes our workplace blog - and a brilliant job she makes of it. I like making a difference, she once told me and recognising success encourages others.

She's right. Recognition is important: it gives us standing with our peers, in our community and at work - but perhaps most importantly, in ourselves.  I remember when I sold my first painting, how much confidence that gave me. The same when I passed my writing exams, when someone said, 'that's a nice tune' as I played my banjo - the latter I have to add is a rare event (the 'nice tune' bit I mean, not actually playing the banjo which I do most days).

So, Michelle, I hope you celebrate your success and bask a little in this moment of glory. I shall take pleasure in the afterglow because Veg Plotting and The Bike Shed are crafted only a few hundred yards from each other, and while that has no direct relevance on their content (save for this post and few others) it somehow feels good to know that my friend up the road is succeeding.

I never quite understood why people got so excited when someone from their town stars in the X-Factor or represents their country at sport. But perhaps now I do.

Congratulations Blog Fairy - you deserve it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Workplace gibberish

A friend recently sent me an email in jest.

Mark, sorry I haven’t been in touch for a while. But I’ve been striving to drive business forward, leveraging the upper quartile and focussed on securing some milestones

I replied.

I'm glad you touched base to give me that heads-up, sharing your learnings with reference to key personal deliverables and critical imperatives.  Yours, insincere bull!

And his response.

Good to see our symbiosis means we’re on the same wavelength. Because as a goal-orientated self-starter I’m committed to dovetailing my blue-sky thinking with pushing the envelope through this window of opportunity to achieve results-driven outputs at the high end of expectations, just outside the box. High five !!

Today the BBC website carried an interview with the footballer Joey Barton, (now playing for a club in France) speaking in a ridiculous Allo-Allo accent. It's common to see folk doing the same on holiday and I suspect management gibberish is similarly contagious. Once one person starts saying benchmarking when they mean to compare, or learnings when they mean knowledge, then hey, it's almost rude not to join in.

But when it comes to memos, does anyone think writing ' in order to drive revenues a critical imperative is to improve our customer-facing manner' is better than simply saying 'to increase sales we must first improve service'?

In truth, I don't think they do. It's partly a matter of limited time, and in bigger part, a blindness to the words. Most managers write as if they are talking to fellow managers, regardless of the audience. I once saw a memo from a Chief Executive (not mine I should add) to his shop floor workers. It incorporated quotes from Machiavelli and made reference to his love of Latin at school. He closed with, 'I hope you've enjoyed learning a little more about your new leader'.


That's not my judgement, but an assessment of what I suspect his staff thought.

I suppose at least he was clear. Over the years I've learned to ignore jargon, and I don't get in a spin over grammar or spelling. So long as the message is clear and polite I judge it's doing a job, no matter how inelegant. If people want to talk in cliches that's their embarrassment, though I sometimes wonder if they do the same at home.

To finish this rambling post I thought I'd share an email I received (names changed but nothing else). It arrived some time back, and I've been trying to figure it out ever since - perhaps you can help.


Already one step ahead, and agree with your point. Nick has already done a useful initial investigation having spoken to a large proportion of the users, that report made a number of observations and I believe part of what Dave needs to get to grips with is this.

I believe however that part of the learnings will be what happens when we are a lot more robust with non-usage and withdraw the right to 'not alter your copy' if people squeal then they have an option if they don't then with really do have a problem with 'retailer apathy' !

However Dave primary focus must remain to put the retailer targeting and workings in place with a view to the new way of managing the unsold etc of Camberley, I have no doubt this must come first, then any investigation can follow. I believe these first goals can be achieved fairly quickly with Joe full time.

Suggestions on a postcard, please.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Old files - boarding school bed

Another piece of writing from my 'lost files': this time an exercise I was set at my first writing workshop. They say your early work is always autobiographical.

Here is the brief and my response:

You are the new Tracy Ermin. Your bed is going to go into the Tate gallery. One bed, from sometime in your life. Which one do you choose? Put it on the page as if you were describing it and its `artistic' and personal interest to a visitor of the Tate.

Boarding School Bed 

Media                        Installation 
Artist                        Mark Charlton

The title of this piece hints at the ambiguities of the artist’s childhood.  

Here is an apparently straightforward bedroom: single divan, purple crocheted bedspread, neatly folded flannelette sheets. The wallpaper motif of galleons at sea and the matching curtains in toning shades of blue, fix the room firmly in the Sixties. A typical child’s room from a loving family: the quintessential 2.2 children living in a three-bedroom semi.

Yet the scene is uneasy.  The bed is too neatly made for a child, the sheets folded and tucked in almost military fashion (evidently the title comes from the family's cleaner who coined the phrase).  There is no mess or muddle, no sign of fun -  nothing of childhood beyond the galleons on the wall The corner of the curtain nearest the bed is oddly frayed from constant tugging, posing the question, why peer so often (and so furtively) through the window? 

The bed itself is pushed tightly in the corner and close to the radiator as if trying to hide but with nowhere to go: trapped?  Or perhaps, it is positioned to get the best view of the door. And the lampshade, swinging rhythmically, suggests the foetal rocking of a frightened animal. Why is it swinging you wonder, a child could never have reached it?

A closer look reveals disconcerting details. The only toys are a tiny knitted penguin, and the ripped face of a home made teddy bear; both are stained, both hidden in the pillow-case - as if rescued from rubbish - secreted away?  There are no books to be seen, no radio, no sound but the creaking of stairs. 

The installation comes to life with a periodic projection of shadow puppets from a torch on the bedside table.  The puppets act in a silent world: the inventive characters enacting a tale of swashbuckling retribution.

As I left the installation I noticed that the small wicker chair at the foot of the bed echoed that of Van Gogh’s room at Arles.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Secondhand bookshops, free tea and cake

I'm not generally a fan of secondhand bookshops; on the whole, I think they attract praise beyond their worth.  Often they are smelly, poorly organised and bursting with overpriced junk that's been bought by the yard. The worst trade on the dubious sentiment that buying old books is both a virtue and a bargain - and that part of the pleasure is fumbling through their dust ridden shelves in dark and labyrinthine rooms.

I don't buy it.

That said, there's a place for them. I'd not have my collection of Wayside and Woodland without secondhand bookshops, nor have been able to replace all my old college texts; some categories (art and nature in particular) have key works which have long been out of print.

The Internet has been a saviour to many dealers, some of whom now regard walk-in customers as distractions from the post. Buying online is quick and easy -  and it takes away the smell and uncertainty of those labyrinthine rooms. On Friday a friend recommended I read Edge Seasons by Beth Powning - I found a copy in thirty seconds and paid 17 pence plus postage.  To be fair, that is a bargain!

But for all my reservations, when secondhand is done well, it can be a delight. The other day I called at Pen'rallt Books in Machynlleth - a treasure of hand-picked stock, with clear and limited categories which the owners know well and can offer advice on. There was a browsing table, a comfy sofa, an exhibition of photography on the wall. And best of all, the selection surprised and inspired; a mix of stylish oddities and classically good, if out of print, titles.

I do buy this.

In fact, I bought two. A copy of Pip Pip by Jay Griffiths, and a wonderful old volume on The Mole by Kenneth Mellanby. The latter is an especially good find - I don't know much about moles and had been looking for a short guide - this one was written in 1971 for the Country Book Club and has a rather lovely cover.

Pen'rallt Books also sells new titles, and even has regular author evenings - I'm (prepare for the shameless plug...) reading and talking there on 6 December.  I understand they also do excellent tea and cakes. So, in a completely unbiased way you understand, I'm going to take back everything I said at the start of this post and dub Pen'rallt Books (did I just mention Pen'rallt Books in Machynlleth again) as my secondhand bookshop of the year.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Spending less; living more?

I learned too late that today is national buy nothing day. I'd have taken part, had we not already visited the hardware shop to collect a few bits for our builder - coming away eighty quid lighter! Still, it's miracle enough to have a builder in Pembrokeshire, so I'd probably have turned a blind eye to construction consumables even if we'd known in time.

I like the idea of buying nothing for a while. In fact, I'd be up for a buy nothing week, or even a month - except on reflection that wouldn't be very practical. But even if we only bought nothing for a day, what about the cost of electricity (does that count?) or consuming the food we'd bought the day before?

Truth is, these campaigns aren't meant to be philosophically or practically perfect; they are set up to highlight a particular issue - in this case, the inequality between spending in the developed and developing world. The point is not to so much to make an immediate difference but to encourage changes that have a more sustainable effect.

My own interest lies less in the wealth disparity of nations than in the misguidance of those who think consumerism is the answer to personal fulfilment. We know from scientific research that once a certain threshold is passed (and that point is critical), the relationship between wealth and happiness is actually quite tenuous. Most of us know too that the things which matter most, seldom cost a lot.

I've long fancied the idea of reliving the Butlins' promise of a 'week's family holiday for a week's wage' - and seeing if we enjoyed it as much as when spending vastly greater sums. Based on an average UK wage the only possible way would be to go camping at a simple site, spend the days walking outdoors, cook meals on a barbecue, have star parties at night... Wait a moment, that's what I like doing best!

Some years ago I met Satish Kumar, famous for walking, in the Sixties, from India to The West. He did so without any money, carrying a peace gift of tea for the world's premier leaders; he has since become a leading ecology and anti-consumerism activist. I remember him asserting in a panel interview, 'Life isn't better for having more things.' And when challenged to declare what was largest consumer item he'd bought in the last five years, he replied, None. Inspiring man.

Now I have to be careful here - very careful in fact. Because of course, I spend in much the same way as anyone else - on cars, houses, books, computers, clothes, builders' bits and bobs on a Saturday morning... I also have an excellent job and with that comes income well beyond the happiness threshold I mentioned earlier. I might think I'm not especially materialistic, but the hard facts are that I spend more than the average person in the UK, never mind the developing world.

But I hope I've retained a sense of perspective. I find it an irony and a sadness that so many of the highest earners I know are also those with the largest debts - and frankly the shallowest lifestyles. One of my life's ambitions is never to lose touch with simpler pleasures - if I ever start thinking that fancy restaurants are intrinsically better than a good picnic then I'll know I'm in trouble. Another is to cherish my relative security - valuing it above any thrill or ego boost which yet more possessions might provide.

Broadly - though I'd stress in the context of middle class comfort - I've held to those ideals, and try to encourage the same in my children. If spending one day spending nothing at all helps to reinforce those values, then I'm all for it.

Friday, November 23, 2012

On the edge

Come to the edge, He said. They said, We are afraid. Come to the edge He said. 
They came. He pushed them... and they flew.    
Guillaume Apollinaire

Edges are special places.

Today I drove down the coast of Wales. There must be few finer sea views than that from the road above Cardigan Bay. The arc of Portland to Lyme Regis runs it close, but the South Coast lacks the glimpses of Snowdon and Bardsey; the sense of imminent landslip, as if you could at any moment, tip into the void.

But for all I love the coast, it's the mountain and moorlands I associate most with edges. The very word in Derbyshire refers to the gritstone cliffs that ripple the landscape: Stanage Edge, Froggat Edge; Birchens Edge... Here there's been no meeting of land and sea in recent millennia; instead, there's a feeling of height (often more so than the map confirms), and, I find, an urgency to keep moving, as if the ridges 'need' to be tramped, rather than pondered on.

In Northumbria, where I grew up, the Whin Sill fault determines much of the line of Hadrian's Wall. I remember walking it with my maternal grandfather and him explaining how two ravens were using the ridge lift to maintain their glide. I think of him every time I watch birds hovering, wings to the wind.

The Whin Sill begins or ends at Lindisfarne depending on how you look at it. The other end or beginning is at High Cup Nick, above Dufton in the North Pennines. I went there a few years back, to walk the edge with Daniel. We sat by the downfall at the cliff's highest point, the ridge lift carrying the water upward from the cleft, spraying over our heads.

As I come to think, there are dozens of edges, in one form or another, that have been sites of significance and now memory: Striding Edge on Helvellyn (my first 3000ft mountain), Tossen Edge in Coquetdale (with my grandfather), Fan Brychieniog above Llyn y Fan Fawr (with Jane) Sharp Edge on Blencathra (with my dog), and Bowden Doors, and Curbar Edge, and Wingather Rocks, and Abereiddy, and the White Tower, and Pemmaen Dewi and the Black Cuillin and Aonach Eagach...

Come To The Edge

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high.
And they came,
and we pushed, 
And they flew.

Christopher Logue

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Books, friends and influences

Today I took a day off work and drove two hundred miles through torrential rain, arriving after five hours in Llanystumdwy, just as they closed the roads. I'm here for the launch of my friend Jim Perrin's new book: Snowdon, Portrait of a Mountain.

But the operative word in that last sentence is not book but friend.

For in truth I'm not here for the book at all - I've already read it and know it's excellent.  And I'm not here to hob-nob with publishers or authors, though I guess it's a possibility. The real reason I've made all that effort, is because Jim is a friend and perhaps more than any other (and I've many to thank and be grateful for) he has encouraged and shown faith in me.

I was thinking this yesterday as I drafted an email to another author in which I wrote:

I've come to realise that whilst my book is important to me, it just isn't to other people - or more accurately it isn't to lots of folk I thought might have given it more heed. On the other hand I've had letters from all over the world; strangers touched by the stories and taking an interest I could never have anticipated.  

Recently, I've understood that the friendships I've made are one of the most important aspects of my being a writer.  I'm making a huge effort to go to Jim Perrin's book launch in North Wales tomorrow, partly because he, above anyone, has been unfailingly supportive, but also because I want to go to the pub afterwards!

So tonight's post will be short, because it's not actually about the book, it's about friends and influences, and why they're important - important enough to make the effort, to offer some support in return, no matter how small that might be. 

As they say, it's the thought that counts.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

End of the line

Evidently, yesterday marked the official end of typewriter production in the UK.  The last manufacturer, Brother's in North Wales, ceased production and donated its final machine to the Science Museum. Already typewriters are regarded as retro; in a few years, they'll be sold alongside wind-up gramophones and knife polishers.

I for one won't miss them. Typewriters aren't kind to bad spellers. Nor do they work for those whose words evolve rather than being preplanned.  In all my writing I'm constantly changing, reordering, reading aloud, reordering again.  This is my second paragraph and (believe me I've been counting)  I have made sixty-one, yes that was sixty-one revisions already - oops, sixty two (I spelt revisions incorrectly - and again, sixty three)

The critics say word processors make us lazy - and in my case, that's true to an extent.  But I'd argue it's more a change of style (sixty four, another spello corrected).  Frankly, I couldn't work without going back over every sentence. I've come to realise that the mistakes (sixty-five) and other amendments (sixty-six, no sixty-seven - how the hell do you spell amendments? sixty-eight) are actually part of my process. (I've just made a further seven amendments to sentence structures on re-reading the last three paragraphs)

Where is all of this going, other than rapidly (seventy-six) towards a century of spellos, typos other amendments (darn it, seventy-seven)?  Frankly, I have no idea - like most of what I write.

Except I'm trying to show that working inaccurately and correcting as you go has its merits too. Some people do this on paper; I use a screen. The important point is that trial and error, invention and reinvention,  are at the heart of creativity - for me, a typewriter would stifle that process and with a few 'in theory' exceptions (lack of electricity for example) I can't think why or when I'd ever use one.

By the way, I gave up listing the errors above, because I'm now way over two hundred. (Yes, I mean two hundred) What's more, I've read every paragraph above at least six times, some sentences twice that amount and changed some words almost as many. Despite all this, I've absolutely no doubt that when I press publish, I shall find another five or six changes to make.

So I shan't be lamenting the loss of typewriters, and I suspect not many others will either - except of course, the manufacturers of Tipex!

(Best estimate, 270 271 272 corrections made)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Let the train take the strain?

 Happier times on the train
I find train journeys to be tiring at the best of times, but doubly so when it all goes awry.

Travelling to Norwich yesterday the scheduled four-hour journey took nearer to seven. The reason: a combination of signal failures, tube delays, a failed train at Liverpool Street (rescued by a new engine) which then broke down for good at Diss - even the taxi rank at Norwich was blocked by roadworks.

And my return today? I'm writing this at Paddington Station six hours after leaving Norwich and still have (if we don't break down) another ninety minutes before getting home.

I know this is a run of particularly bad luck, and I know too that driving the M25 is not much better, but somehow that's not sufficient to make me philosophic. Frankly, our rail network is crap, and the train companies are floundering. If it didn't happen so often I wouldn't be so bold, but I reckon one in three journeys I make are delayed in some way, and more are overcrowded.

All this isn't new, you know it already, or something similar anyway. But I wonder if you knew that a standard rail fare from Chippenham to London is now £146 return - nearer to £240 first class. My trip to Norwich was £309 round trip. Sure there are cheaper deals if you travel when the Moon is in line with Jupiter and know exactly the trains you need and pay about three weeks in advance - but the cost is still prohibitive.

So in response to what is now an expensive as well as crap service, what do the train companies do? As far as I can see they invest in a veneer of customer service, much of which is counter-productive. First, we had rather poorly produced magazines. More recently, Great Western seems to have trained its on-board announcers to go on and on.... just when you want to... and on.... get so some work... and on and on... done!

A moment ago the 'train manager' kindly informed me that the buffet car has a wide selection of snacks, including bacon rolls, muffins, crisps, hot and cold drinks, spirits, wines... (insert almost infinite pointless detail)... that they take cash or credit card.... aghhhh! He also tells me that Reading is our next Station Stop. What other sort of stop is there - a pee stop, a bird-watching stop, a robbery stop?

Okay, enough ranting. The bigger point is that if we seriously want to reduce road traffic and increase rail usage then we have to do better than this. For a family of four to visit the theatre in London it's almost as much as paying for a short holiday. For business travellers to have any faith we need better scheduling, rolling stock - and frankly better contingency when things go wrong.

Most people don't want free magazines, seatback videos or for that matter hot and cold snacks... They want the train to run on time, for pricing to be simpler, and for a little more humility and care from the operators when delays occur. Until we archive that - and especially until we achieve it with mainline services into and out of London and other major cities - then I reckon we're failing.

As for me, the next time I go to Norwich and am faced with the choice of driving or taking the train, which do you think I'll pick?

No contest I'm afraid.

P.S. As I finish this we've just had the transport police on board to eject a stroppy passenger - oh what a delight!

P.P.S.  I was further delayed due transport police ejecting an obstreperous passenger and signalling near Didcot.  Total travel time Norwich to Chippenham - eight hours!

Monday, November 19, 2012

All things vintage a'merkin!

A lighter tone this morning (forgive me).

Interesting how the word vintage is increasingly used to describe those items that are not quite antiques but old enough to stir some nostalgia. The Fifties is perhaps the pivotal decade, and consequently, the resale value of everything from vacuum flasks to drop-down kitchen cupboards has rocketed. It's a style thing; nobody really wants to give up their microwaves, but it's quite fun when you see it done well.

Near to my Wiltshire home is a small campsite which goes by the gloriously naive name of Merkins Farm(Here's what Wiki has to say about Merkinwhich reminded me of  George W Bush drawling 'I'm proud to be a'merkin' ) One of its attractions is a vintage style cafe which serves the most excellent coffee and cooks breakfasts for lazy campers. Evidently, it's thriving, with customers travelling quite a distance, to sample the food, the decor and the wood-burning stove.

Good luck to them I say. Far too many characterful cafes have gone over recent years. On a recent visit to the Peak District (a one-time stronghold of tea and butty establishments), I noted the demise of Lovers Leap caff at Stoney Middleton. That place was an essential part of my youth! Many of the climbers' caffs in Snowdonia have gone the same way. In Wiltshire, there are plenty of fancy tea shops, but virtually all the greasy spoons have closed - replaced by supermarkets, garden centres and the ubiquitous Costa.

I guess the customers stop coming before the caffs close their doors, and I've pulled in at my fair share of McDonalds as we drive West on the weekends.  I should make more effort I suppose - put my money where my mouth is and spend more at places like the one pictured.

That said, if they open a farm shop too, I'm definitely not buying a Merkin!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Please pick the flowers

A comment by Mike McCarthy, the Environment Editor of the Independent, got me to thinking this weekend. In a panel debate at the New Networks Nature conference, he said it was a pity people didn't pick wild flowers, because it meant they couldn't look so closely at what's around them.

I agree. Of course, we don't want the raiding of red kite nests or the random picking of soldier orchids, but the assumed correctness of 'take only photographs, leave only footprints' has a counter productive side. If we always look from afar, everything is at a remove.

The National Trust has recognised this in a different context. Its recent renovation of Avebury Manor is a flagship for a more involving approach to heritage: please sit on this chair the signs say, do use the snooker table; try bouncing on the bed.  Returning to nature, the Trust's initiative 50 things to do before you're eleven and three-quarters is a laudable example of a hands-on approach to the outdoors.

In my teens I collected butterflies; nobody thought that was terrible, even if it didn't do much for my street-cred. I also picked and drew flowers, captured newts, dipped ponds, trapped moths and ate many a mushroom.  Some of these activities would be frowned on nowadays, but I don't regret them. And being frank, I've encouraged my kids to do much the same - when looking at the fifty things list, there were only four we hadn't ticked.

The other week I wrote a post about a bloody nose beetle describing the feel of its tiny legs padding over my palm - this was intrinsic to the joy, so too the iridescence of its carapace, only visible by angling the thorax to the sun. I put the beetle down in the grass, but it will die as surely as any cut flower - had I bottled it for a collection it would make no difference to the population of beetles in Pembrokeshire.

That isn't always the case, and as I hinted above, indiscriminate collecting is not what I'm advocating.  But unless we look closely and are prepared occasionally to touch, we sanitise and lessen our understanding - and in the long run, that's not in anyone's or anything's best interest.

As Mike McCarthy said, if people picked a few more wild flowers, maybe they'd also care more about the rare ones.  I think there's a lot of truth in that.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Artists and nature

It's interesting what happens when people with a shared passion meet. I've just returned from a conference involving, writers, scientists, ecologists, painters, musicians, journalists, outdoor enthusiasts... The uniting force was a love of nature, and over two days we explored concerns and celebrated successes across topics as diverse as the decline of cuckoos and increase in pesticides (sadly these too, are related).

For all it was a multi-discipline event, what stood out for me was a sense that although our mediums and working methods may be radically different, our responses to the natural world, and what's happening to it, were remarkably similar.

My friend Jim Perrin gave a short address in which he argued that 'rapture' and a sense of wonder were both essential to our appreciation of the natural world - and that it was an artist's duty to communicate those feelings as surely as it is a scientist's to order and correlate observations in a way that gives meaning and insight to chaos.

I think Jim is right - but it's easier to say than to do. For using words runs the risk that we don't have enough, that they are inadequate; that our true responses are beyond literal translation. And communicating through paint or sculpture has the opposite but equally problematic restrictor - that the silent language of visual arts is so easily misunderstood or misrepresented.

The hope in both cases is that if our response is 'true', then no matter how crudely put (in words or paint or stone...) its message will be clear and its authenticity obvious. We see this quality in the work of children, which at its best is honest and direct, no matter its lack of sophistication. What's more, it is usually obvious when children are faking it, because their words resort to cliche and their pictures to caricature.

Unfortunately, we are more easily fooled by the sophistry and, at times, plain fakery of adults. We need a sensitive antenna to detect those artists whose modus operandi is living out a fiction, designed to manipulate our emotions. I've seen this on the blogosphere as much as in books or in painting - at times outrageously so.

The good news is that genuine painters and writers and sculptors are out there - and often they are modest and welcoming. Although it's a wild generalisation, I find those with the least need for public acclaim to be those who work with greatest integrity (by which I mean truth to themselves and their ideas) - the most prepared to risk failure and the possibility of ridicule which comes with trying something new.

On Thursday I had a reminder of this when I called at the house of long standing family friend, Jack Kirk. Jack is a sculptor, specialising in abstract constructions in metal and glass and I was keen to have some of his pieces for my garden. Interestingly he began sculpting in his sixties; after a long career in business, he studied for a fine art degree and reinvented his outlook on the world.

Jack's work is simple in construction and very beautiful in parts - not so in every aspect, but then you see, that makes it truer. His pieces need to weather, to live outside - they are a response to nature, and best seen amongst it. I was taken by the simplicity of his tools and working methods, and also the language of his descriptions, of what he was trying to do. Or rather, now I think of it, the absence of over sophistication, the plainness of his motives.

After loading my car with four pieces, I spent fifteen minutes showing Jack how to create a blog. He's promised to let me know when it's up and running. And I'd bet when he does, that it's more than a series of pictures, but also an insight into his working practice. I'd bet too that his inspiration is something similar to what I heard at the nature conference: a sensitivity for what's around him, a sense of wonder and yes, a feeling of rapture.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The evils of drink

Those of you who visit the Bike Shed regularly will have noticed a recent increase in pace. Though not overtly declared, I've been attempting to complete my third year of the National Blog Posting Month - writing a short piece every day in November. And I was doing quite well, I thought...

Until yesterday.

When ironically I met up with some writer friends at the New Networks for Nature conference in Stamford.

I'd planned to write a quick post as I arrived, but was waylaid by a well-known nature writer (no names can be revealed) in the bar. A quick pint won't harm, I thought; I'd have time to nip off after the opening talk and write it then. Except I was waylaid, this time in a different bar with many more writers. No matter, I could write when I got back to the hotel...

You'll be getting the pattern by now...

By 11pm I was thinking (just) there's still an hour to publish a few words...  at which point we opened the bottle of Island Malt. (Check picture closely to see how much is left!)  Two hours later and I manage after five attempts to fit the key into my bedroom door.

This morning, I awoke to the unused computer by my bed.

I've failed, I thought, as I shuffled down to breakfast.  Might as well give it up for this year.

I felt I'd let myself down. Why do I do this - it can't possibly be worth it.

But you know, now I've sobered up, I reckon it was.

It was worth it, because NABLOPOMO, or any contrived challenge for that matter, shouldn't get in the way of enjoying life.

It was worth it, because failing every now and then is okay, and being reminded of that (occasionally) is not a bad thing. And...

Most of all, it was worth it, because good whiskey and good company are a fine and all too rare combination.

That's my excuse anyway.

And if you missed yesterday's post, all I can say, is that it probably hurt me more than you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The breath of sleeping boys

Visitor's bed - 14th November 2002

After writing yesterdays post I looked again at some of my first digital photos. The one above was taken precisely ten years ago - if I hit the publish button at 8:49pm that would be to the minute. And if I had to choose a single photo to take with me to a desert island, this would be the one.

The composition is nice enough, but it's the memory the image evokes that matters. I've written before about this picture, about the infinitesimal moments which stay with us and change our lives - moments of transcendence I called them.

For those of you who didn't click the link, here's an extract of what I said.

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.

In a sense I've been feeding off that moment, writing and painting from it, ever since. I'll never quite capture what it means, how it felt and affected me - but I suspect I'll be trying till I die.

In 2004, the Welsh poet Paul Henry published a fabulous collection called The Breath of Sleeping Boys.  Among many beautiful poems is one that comes close to some of what I've tried to say.


I need them, to muscle in on this silence,
to measure the softening tissue in my arms
when I carry them up to their beds,
when the old house creaks like a galleon
after a storm.

Set adrift on their dreams
their faces turn soft again.
So, that one kiss carries the weight
of all we try to make light of.

I'd best sign off before I cry.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A digital decade

The picture at the head of this post has a special significance; it's the first digital photograph I took -  almost exactly ten years ago. I know this because the file is date stamped and it's the first to show in the tab named 2002 General which sits under the Pictures Folder.

In a rare reversal of the norm, in which long-gone events could be yesterday, I find it astonishing to think it's only a decade since I stopped using Kodachrome. The days of counting down exposures, posting off the film and waiting for your prints to arrive - then sticking them in a leather-bound book  - seem much further back.

My boys don't remember at all. To them, chemical photography is a thing of history - it's marketed now as Lomogrpahylow-tech, vintage and trendy. Devotees place particular value on the random outcome, using plastic cameras and prizing 'out of date' film for its unreliability. Film must be one of the few technologies that having endured so long, was so quickly and comprehensively replaced.

But I don't lament it's passing. Digital photography is a great improvement. The ability to reel off (okay so we haven't lost the language of analogue yet) picture after picture, send them round the world, post to a blog, display them instantly - fantastic. And the quality of even the cheapest cameras is incomparable to the grainy Instamatics they sold in Jessops. The camera on my phone is now better than almost any 35mm compact.

Nor do I miss my photo albums.  In the next room lie thirty years of images, unseen in a wooden chest. Meanwhile, there's a decade of pictures on my computer, constantly being referenced, viewed on the screensaver, shown to friends... I must have viewed these a thousand times more than I ever did the physical prints.

I use the pictures for my writing too.  Notes and sketches remain important but, in the landscape, a digital camera is now my first choice - and for identifying insects or flowers it's unsurpassed. Often I create a montage as a writing prompt, a sort of 'mood board' that's not literal, but a reminder to the senses. I developed this technique from painting - always using wallet size prints on the cheapest paper I could find.

Notes shouldn't be an end in themselves. 'Never be precious' my painting tutor used to say,  but that can be difficult if you're destroying hard won work. A delight of digital is that you can scribble all over the print outs - and yet still have the image in reserve; it has a kind of cake and eat it quality.

I could go on and on. But the general point is that we should embrace and celebrate this particular technology. And as I look at the image above, I wonder how much more change there'll be in the next ten years.  More, no doubt, than I can imagine - I hope it's as much for the good.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What's your square mile?

The white tower - one of my favourite places in all of Wales
My friend Jill Teague was writing on her blog yesterday about the Welsh expression Milltir Sgwar. It means 'square mile', but has deeper meaning than a literal translation, referring to the patch of ground you make your own; a place that shapes you and which is shaped in return by your connection.

Dyner filltir sgwa is a related expression - it means 'a man of his own square mile', and though I'm not Welsh the idea has always felt right.  Because for all I enjoy travel, and I have no wish to be insular, I'm more attracted to a deep understanding of a single place than skimming the surface of many.

It takes time to become rooted like this, and perhaps longer to lose the pull. Occasionally, I'll talk of making a trip home' - referring not Wales but to Northumberland where I grew up. That's not an uncommon feeling. I remember meeting an eighty year old with an Aussie accent on the Beara peninsula of Ireland -  he'd returned after seventy years abroad. Did he have local family, I asked?  None still alive, he explained,  but Beara was 'home', and he'd felt a need to return.

For me, home is my house in Wales. That I spend more time in Wiltshire is beside the point - I'm here for work and the family, and though I'm happy enough it will never be my square mile. When my boys leave, as they surely will, I worry how they'll settle. And were we to move elsewhere, how would they feel about that? Jane once confided how upset she'd been when her parents decided to use 'her' empty room for guests.

Some might define their square mile as a patch wilderness, a mountain perhaps; to others it's an urban ghetto. My grandfather lived in the same streets all his life, and he would talk of the mines and the shipyards and the back-to-back terraces - he'd travelled worldwide on merchant ships, but Wallsend was his place.

I'm reminded of painters who thrived on similar connections. LS Lowry is intrinsic to Salford and it to him.  Monet will forever be connected to Giverny. Peter Lanyon, the finest of the Cornish landscape painters - and interestingly a local from birth - to St Ives. The point here is that there is more than enough inspiration to be found in one small place - and arguably, greater creative integrity too.

Dyner filltir sgwa - it's a fine expression; a good motto for life.

But enough - for I'm rambling now and in danger of treading beyond my heft.

Where is your square mile, I wonder?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Every child a reader

On Friday Dylan came home with a note from school. His teacher would like every child to bring in a photo of themselves reading in a cool or whacky place. They could try reading in bed, the letter suggested, or the bath, or the park; anywhere unusual to enjoy a book.

So we've been carrying The Sand Horse round West Wales as part of our weekend pottering. And Dylan's been reading on the beach, at the castle, in the antique shop... He's as much motivated by winning a prize for best location than a desire to bury his head, but it's fabulous he's taking an interest at all.

Dylan has struggled with books. At first, we thought it was a boy thing - more interested in trains than words - but it gradually became clear he didn't fully grasp the concept. Or perhaps more accurately,  he couldn't follow how it worked - spelling in particular would fox him. Early in his second year, his teacher commented on the gap between his above average vocabulary and below average reading skills.

We were lucky. His school was a pilot for the Every Child A Reader scheme and, with the help of a specialist, they brought him back to the expected standard.  It took three months of a very different approach to learning - which as an aside, helps take the pressure off anxious parents - but I can't think of a better investment in a child's future. I'm immensely grateful and Dyan will be too in time.

At the moment he's not fully aware of his good fortune. Not only was he blessed with a school that had extra resources for literacy, he also has intelligent parents who care deeply and take the time to work with him - though interestingly, in his case it wasn't quite enough. In the bigger scheme of things (and this isn't meant as any sort of boast) he'll benefit too from his social upbringing - three generations of education and encouragement will shape his future if not exactly define it.

It saddens me when I see some kids - or rather when I see their parents. 'A poverty of expectation', was how someone once described it. We all know reading is an essential life skill - nobody in their right mind thinks otherwise. But I'd go further and say children have a Right to Read, and I'd like that idea to be more deeply embedded in both law and attitudes. It's very probable Dylan would have caught up anyway, but I'm glad it wasn't left to chance - and it seems to entirely right that it wasn't.

You might think as a writer that I've always loved words. It isn't so. I struggled with reading, and still find spelling an illogical chore. Unfortunately, my teachers didn't spot my potential quite so young! I could rant for pages on the damage done by the pedants who value correctness but are blind to creativity. But that's for another time.

This weekend we had some fun; we listened to CDs in the car; we played Dylan's imaginary 'talking game'; we spent hours on the computer and the Kindle... So many ways to read and tell stories - and amazingly, we even managed an old-fashioned page or two.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Collections 18 - the ugly shelf

I like to think I have a good eye. While there's no objective standard for taste, my house and its decor often draw compliments. The comments on this series would suggest at least some of my collections are well chosen. Our middle son - style guru in waiting - steals my old jumpers, and even admitted that Sinatra was cool.

But when it comes to the ugly shelf, I'm generally on my own.

The shelf is where I keep all my best kitsch: items so tacky that no-one could possibly like them. No-one except me that is - although I suspect there's a repressed envy in some quarters. For the ugly shelf is more carefully chosen than first appearances would suggest.

For a start, no item can cost more than a few pounds.

Secondly, they have to induce a mild nausea when first examined - a cry of Gosh, that's foul, is a good starting point.

But it's not enough.

For thirdly, and crucially, that initial distaste must be tempered by a sense of '... but there's something about it...'

At this junction, I begin to reason that the dual qualities of beauty and revulsion are the essence of much good art. I point out that Francis Bacon talked often of how his better paintings made him feel sick; I mention Andy Warhol's love of cheap cookie jars; and I remind myself that Monty Python was so bad it was good - so too The Goons, Father Ted, Vic Reeves...

And usually, my internal reverie is interrupted by Jane declaring, buy what you like, but it's going on the ugly shelf.

Quite possibly, there's no greater compliment to bad taste.

Take for example the sailor brandy decanter - note the delicate drinking cups hanging on his barrel A bargain at three quid from the antique shop in Narberth.

And have you ever seen a piggy bank, quite this gross? Two quid from Fishguard.

I first thought this was a dinosaur, and only later realised it's a miniature teapot. Fifty pence at Lacock car boot.

This thermometer is simply stunning - my current favourite and another Narberth special.

There's many more where these came from, like this egg cup...

Interestingly, one or two items make it off the ugly shelf, back to the mainstream so to speak. They tend to be regarded as 'vintage' or 'rustic' - which in my opinion, indicates my judgment was out of sorts. For true ugliness should be beyond repair; it's beauty in the eye of only one beholder!

Have fun, whatever you collect.

P.S. The paintings in the background are mine, and no, they are NOT ugly or kitsch.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A visit from the Blog Master

Like many bloggers, when I first began I hadn't a clue. Sure, I understood it was a means to publish some stuff, but that's as far as it went. I didn't know about followers, or layouts, or widgets, or running articles as a series, or photos, or sidebars, or stat-counters, or awards, or comment moderation...

So it was supremely fortunate that a Google search for something like 'Wiltshire Blogs' returned Veg Plotting at the top of the list. It's been one of my blogging inspirations ever since, and by coincidence, its author lives literally up the road. Over the last few years, we've gradually progressed from commenting to emails, to visiting my garden, swapping jam, working on charity projects... Last night, when I gave VP (or the Blog Fairy as I sometimes call her) a copy of my book, I wrote in friendship on the inside cover.

For nearly three hours we nattered about blogs, drank a bottle of wine and sampled my quince cheese. Veg Plotting is hugely successful and deservedly so - it's one of the best gardening blogs in the UK and I'm in awe of its flow of ideas and projects. VP said she wished she could write like the Bike Shed; I said I wish I'd interviewed David Attenborough and Ringo Star!

After more wine and cheese we agreed that we each 'do what we do', and we're both happy with that. Or almost - because I'm not beyond pinching a good idea when I see one. And if you look at the top of the sidebar on the right you'll see a new link to Magazine Style.

VP showed me how to do this, and whilst I don't want magazine to be the Bike Shed's standard form, it's a nice alternative to offer.  Once you're reading in the new format, you can play around with other view-options by clicking the top left of the black menu bar - go on, give it a go.

So thank you, yet again VP. This blog is nearly five years old - I'll be celebrating its birthday shortly. But I'm certain it wouldn't have got there, had it not been for that happenstance Google search. VP has long been my Blog Fairy - a benign guide, looking over me - but really, I ought to call her the Blog Master.

Oh, and she makes darn good apple jelly too!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Old files - a perfect day

Sorting through my files for some blog inspiration I came across a collection of cycling articles I wrote years ago. They were never published; I'm not quite sure why I wrote them.

Reading them today, they seem crude, not as crafted as I'd like - and yet they have a certain something. It seems a pity to leave unseen them in the depths of my hard drive. As I struggle through November's 'Post A Day' challenge I thought I might share a few.

 The Perfect Day

Have you ever had a perfect day’s cycling?  The sort when the sun blazed in a cobalt sky, waterfalls cascaded from silver peaks, flowers danced in the fields and a light breeze cooled your brow as you crested every hill - a day so brilliant that it’s etched on your memory?  

Let me tell you about one like that.

It was our transfer day: we had been in the Alps a week and we're moving from Chinaillon, a small village, half way up the Col de Colombier, to Le-Biot, an even smaller village about sixty miles and two mountain passes to the north. Jane agreed to take the boys in the car while I would ride and meet her at the hotel that afternoon.

The sun was up and warming my back as I set off down the tight hairpins to Grand Bornand; five miles of adrenaline, my brakes screeching on every corner.  I barely turned a pedal for the ten miles that followed, gently freewheeling down the Eveax Gorge, the road hugging its damp walls and twisting slowly through hamlets and farms to the broad valley of the river Arve.

At the lower altitude, the breeze was hot as a hairdryer as I peddled along the banks of the river Arve, a cool mist rising from its gelid waters. Swallowtails flitted on the roadside thistles and in the distance the shadows of the Col de Ramaz loomed. A week before the Ramaz had been part of the Tour de France - Richard Virenque taking the stage and the yellow jersey with a solo breakaway. 

I climbed quickly through the orchards and ramshackle farms of the lower slopes, the road steeping at every turn, sweat dripping onto my bike frame.  The tarmac was covered in slogans: Allez Lance, Vive Morreaux, Ullrich est God. So much for the Gods!  I was down to five miles an hour, desperately stuffing energy bars and slugging water, my hands gripping the bars ever tighter.

The final kilometre is a suspended belvedere, hewn from the side of a ravine.  It is unremittingly stepped, but by now I’d lost any thought or care about speed.   Below, the valley where I’d begun the climb looked like a model railway, whilst above me waterfalls cascaded through fissures in the limestone cliffs.  In almost surreal contrast, a forty-foot high polka dot jersey had been left hanging from two trees that clung to the side of the summit gorge.

At last the top!  A stunning panorama of Mont Blanc, clearer than I’ve seen it in twenty years: each of its needle peaks reflecting the sunlight with dazzling brilliance.  I put the bike down and stood there open mouthed – barely a sound, save for my heartbeat and the ticking of a thousand crickets in the grass.

The tarmac was actually melting as I began the descent.  Loose grit was sticking to my tyres and with the memory, fresh in my mind, of a high-speed blow-out on the Galibier, I took it easy, stopping often to cool the rims.  A few cyclists were grinding their way up the cooler Northern slopes -they passed in a blur, as I topped out at forty five mph, nearly missing the narrow junction that marks the start of the Col de L’Encrenaz.

The L’Encrenaz isn’t used in the major tours and, as a result, isn’t well known by cyclists, but it’s my all-time favourite nonetheless.  The narrow road, never too steep, is lined with fragrant pines, and interspersed with traditional farmer’s chalets complete with beehives, vegetable gardens and water fountains.  An old couple sat playing cards and drinking wine in their garden – at another chalet, a couple were chopping wood, wearing thick woolly jumpers and jackets.  As I crested the Col, three eagles circled above me, piercing the silence with high-pitched craws.

After that, it was another screaming descent: three thousand feet of clear road to Morzine and the valley of the river Drance. I whooped and grinned as the familiar villages passed in seconds, limestone peaks glinting in the background.  I was still grinning, and sprinting even, as I climbed the last kilometre that takes you past the local fromagerie, to the tiny commune of Le Biot.

The ride had been fifty-seven miles, ascending two major cols with six thousand feet of climbing.  It had taken me just under five hours; every minute in sunshine, every view sublime, every breath of air as clear and clean as the mountain streams. 

I dipped my head in the water trough outside the hotel and rose to be greeted by a hearty slap on the back.

“Bonjour.  Bonjour Mark”, it was Fernand, our hotelier and an old friend. “Was it a good bicycle you have been having today - you mad man?”

“Perfect” I replied, water dripping from my head, snot hanging from my nose.  “Absolutely perfect!”

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Birthday boy

Earlier this summer in my shed

Three years ago this morning, I wrote a letter to Dylan. It was his fifth birthday and I published it here on the blog.  For all I spend hours crafting my lines, that particular piece took me fifteen minutes. It was published in my book; one day he'll read it and understand.

This morning he was eight, in our room at first light, delighting in his presents. Of course, he's bigger and the gifts are now largely electronic (as is the way), but fundamentally he's much the same - still looking to us, innocent and protected for all his worldly demeanour. With luck, we'll have a few more years of this.

Last night I spent some time with my eldest son - he's applying to university and asked me to scan his personal statement. In the early hours of this morning he went off on a trip to the Hadron Collider in Switzerland - very soon he'll be eighteen. He's his own person already but in his daily presence, he's still one of 'us'. We'll be lost when he leaves for good, and again when my second son (a year younger) does the same. Dylan will be just as bereft.

Outside it is snowing, the earliest I can remember. There'll be no cycling or walks in the wood today - instead, we shall play games, read books and have a party of sorts. The flakes look pretty on the window, but already they're heavy and melting.

Nothing lasts they say; treasure it while you can.


Here is the piece I wrote three years ago.

For Dylan

Five years. Has it really been that long?

It feels like yesterday and forever. So much life in such a short time.

Time Passes. Tick-tock, Tick-tock...

So wrote Dylan Thomas, after whom you’re named. I wished you his genius if not his weakness. You have his charisma already, and his bombastic ways - you sing like a Welshman too! But I forgive you your faults, as I always will.

Strangely, I can't remember your birth, perhaps because it was so early in the morning. What I do recall is bringing you home. And your brothers sitting on the bed; looking not touching, just as they were told - then gently, one at a time, holding your hand. They wanted you to wake, but you slept through it all, oblivious.

Oblivious too of the years of yearning, the three miscarriages, the nuchal scans, the waiting for results, the tests and more tests - and the waiting - always more waiting - until the final phone call. And when it came, the nurse asked if I was sitting down.

'All clear,' she said.

You see that's the thing about probability - it doesn't work in the real world. There is only one you and you were always perfect. Just like there's no probability or quantum for love: you either do or you don't; all or nothing, no half-measures. And every day you remind me of that simple, inexpressible, fact.

Happy birthday Dylan; it's the least and the most I can say.