Friday, 29 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 15 – The Full Stop!

As I begin to type this, I’m aware that this is my last self inflicted challenge to write 1000 words a day throughout my two week holiday. It’s Friday June 29th 2012, this is the last day of my holiday. I have made it, but only just. By the end of this posting I’ll have written about 16,000 words in a fortnight, which sounds impressive, maybe it is, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. It’s been a bit of a slog at times.

So why did I do this? Well, plainly and simply I like writing, but as my first posting said, I am not a good writer, nor am I a disciplined person. My personality is one of all consuming interest in a topic or process for about six months and then I become bored, I move onto something else for 6 months and the cycle repeats itself. By way of broadcasting what I was up to on Twitter and my blog, it forced me to be disciplined. I have no idea how many people read or wanted to read my ramblings, but the pure act of saying I’ll do it, forced the issue. However there have been times when the stress of having to write something got to me. But that is good, controlled stress is great for creating creativity.
I’ve also confirmed through my challenge what I secretly already knew: if I get up early and write (or paint) I can be very creative. If however I leave the challenge to the afternoon or evening, creatively I really struggle. On average, morning compositions took under an hour to think, write and publish, with words and thoughts flowing easily and continuously. In fact most morning postings are written in a single burst of energy and left unrevised. By contrast those writings I left until the afternoon and evening took around 2 to 3 hours, they needed more correction, more revision and for me I felt they lacked that spontaneity of cognitive outpouring. I wonder if any reader can guess which were morning or which were evening creations?
I have also discovered I am absolutely hopeless at grammar. Mind you there’s nothing new there. My school education was appalling, being educated in a liberal 1970s comprehensive school where errors were left uncorrected, homework nonexistent and educational standards at rock bottom. As a result, although reasonably intelligent, I am lazy and easily distracted. And this meant I failed my O levels in English Language and English Literature. To this day I struggle with what for me are the incomprehensible complexities of English grammar. What is a verb is? A noun? An adverb? All are like double Dutch to me. I’ve tried many times to understand English literature and language, but these subtle complexities of prose and composition are like a mist which falls across my eyes meaning that each time I write it is like re-inventing the wheel. I therefore have to offer my eternal thanks to Julie who each day, after reading Day 4’s appalling car crash of grammar and semi-colon ineptitude has painstakingly corrected my efforts.
And that is something else which this challenge has been an eye opener for. The actual process of writing is a lonely task, but in reality I feel to write involves at least 2 people. Creatively my mind never switches off. Sometimes this drives me mad as I sometimes find myself batting about half a dozen ideas without any coherent reason. My father calls me a fidget. I’m never still, always on the go and always thinking up new creative things to do. In fact tomorrow we shall be off stone carving. No doubt that will become the next obsession and writing will be consigned to the “done that, got the t-shirt” part of my life. I like to write, but can I really call myself a writer if my composition is unread by others?
To write is essentially an egotistical occupation. As a creative person I have an idea, I write about it, and therefore by default I then want others to read it. I may huff and blather with notions that as an artist my words are my own and it is irrelevant what happens to those words once written. Absolute poppycock.  Creative people are egotistical. One should never generalise of course, but show me an artist who doesn’t want to see their paintings hanging on a benefactor’s wall, or a writer who doesn’t fill with pride when their words are published and I’ll show you some hens teeth. Maybe I’m being harsh here but anyone who is creative wishes to be acknowledged as such. Am I correct? And is this necessarily a bad thing? I’d say not.  What do you think?
By and large, before the advent of the Internet, to be published involved a middle man (or woman), be it editor for print media or a publisher for books. Self publication was always seen as “second best”, something a writer did because no one else wanted to take the risk with their work. These days, self publication is very much the norm via social media such as Blogs, Facebook and Twitter which are the supreme way to air unregulated thoughts; however by its very nature this unregulated aspect of social media is fraught with dangers. We can all recall someone sending out a message only for their words to be either misinterpreted or cannoned around cyberspace and the red-top newspapers with an almost evangelical zeal to bring the perpetrator to justice, with a sub-plot of “phew that wasn’t me this time”. In the past the publisher or editor would have prevented such errors before they hit the public domain. But the dangers inherent in self publication, can again bring a certain creative edginess to a work, I feel.
But to prevent free speech, no matter how well meaning, is in my view one step closer towards the slippery slope of repression. I love the fact that the Americans invented the World Wide Web for secrecy and intelligence purposes, and in doing so they created a technology that is absolutely unregulated.

And so my final unregulated free speech posting is coming to an end. I sit, I think, I write and I publish. If I get it wrong, I’ll be informed of this by another indulging in free speech. I hope though, by and large I get it right, and for those of you who have read one or all of these 15 essays, you gave your time freely, to allow me to indulge myself in my egotistical free-speech compositions.
For that I thank you.
(Speaking of discipline, keeping to 1000 words has never been achieved – 1,129 today)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 14 – Countryside Books

Today I bought yet another countryside book, this one a first edition of H.G Massingham’s English Downland. A book I had had on my radar for a while, but a book I didn’t expect to buy today.
We were in Bristol to meet up with a lifelong friend of mine. We’ve known each other for 47 years and so we have a lot of history flowing under our friendship bridge. The reason he was in Bristol was to accompany his youngest son who, being set on becoming a doctor, was here to attend a Bristol University Open Day for prospective students.
Sneaking off into the University staff refectory we had a very leisurely 2 hour lunch and catch up.  After emerging from this oasis of calm, we encountered what resembled a surrealist painting depicting thousands of hopeful students and bewildered parents as they hustled and bustled about. At this point we said our goodbyes and leaving my friend and his son to the delights of Bristol University, we headed to the streets of Clifton and found ourselves in an oft-visited Oxfam bookshop.
I’ve bought books here before. I’m not sure where they get them from but this second-hand bookshop has an ‘old’ section. As a result, I’ve spent many happy lunch hours in there, with scarcely a visit seeing me leave empty handed. Today I could have bought another copy of Highways and Byways of Dorset, but as this would have been my 3rd copy; restraint was needed. I did however leave the shop with a good copy of “English Downland”. Written in 1936, it is one of many such “guides” published before the war as people began to realise the centuries old landscape and traditions of England were fast being consumed by the modern age, especially with the arrival of the motor car. The majority of these books were written by established writers, who, we should remember today, were educated mainly in Victorian times and with their Victorian view of the rural idyll, wrote sometimes with rose-tinted nostalgia.
Personally I like a bit of nostalgia. I feel we should respect the past and learn from it for the future. But between the Wars the British countryside was not a vision of rural perfection, far from it. What looked to the travelling artistic as rustic charm was often nothing more than shackled-to-the-land penury and economic deprivation. The Cotswold town of Broadway is a nice example of this. 30 years or so ago I got talking to an aged local, who was then in his 90’s. My description of this beautiful town and how it must have been wonderful to live here in the past was greeted by a smile. “It’s a much nicer place today, 50 years ago we had open sewers down the street and most houses were in a ruinous state”. That’s a novel way to describe unspoilt.
That said, despite my reservations, I still like reading and having these books about the house. Often they are liberally sprinkled with old photographs or better still stylised pen and ink drawings of the subject. A book is much more than words and thoughts on a page, it is the smell of ages, it is the feel of the bindings, it is the language of the era that book was written, it is the whole, a living history of the writer’s thoughts, personality and intention. Recently I visited the Richard Jefferies Museum on the outskirts of Swindon. Writing in the late Victorian era, Jefferies, one of our pre-eminent writers, wrote wonderful descriptions of the Wiltshire countryside that are a joy to read still and his books are illustrated by exquisite linocut etchings which instantly say late Victorian England.
But I do have a lot of books. Purchasing the odd book here and there is not too bad, but over the years the number of books in the house increases. Apart from the books in the office and the downstairs rooms, I have books in cardboard boxes and back in the North East my parents oversee my more valuable books kept firmly under lock and key behind the glass doors of bookshelves.
Many book collectors are driven to obtain the full set of a series, or maybe every first edition by an author. Indeed I know of two top naturalists who have full sets of first editions of the New Naturalists Series. A fantastic effort given that many single volumes are now worth hundreds of pounds. But I’m not that sort of collector. Well I say I’m not; even I succumb to temptation at times. Last autumn I visited Stella & Rose’s bookshop in Tintern. Until then I had only bought mail order from this excellent antiquarian bookshop.  But on this visit I was tempted by a mint condition, first edition of BB’s book “The Wind in the Wood” at an eye watering £190. At that price it won’t be well read by me.
Most of my books are ones to read and enjoy, maybe not cover to cover in one go, but in a quiet moment I’ll look through the shelves and dip into whichever book takes my fancy and read a few chapters.
Recently the advent of e-readers has revolutionised book publishing. They are a fantastic invention but I wonder what this means for the printed book? Do books have a future? The speed of technological advance tells us that in maybe 5 years time another technology will appear and obsolescence will consign the e-reader to the waste bin. Books however have been here for centuries. They can be handed down through generations, they are solid, permanent and what a second hand book can do is give the feeling that other eyes from the reader have seen that page, that word before. Often a book will contain a hand written inscription, in fact the one bought today just says June 13th 1938. Who wrote this date 74 years ago, and why just the date? It is intriguing.
A quick search discovers this was a Monday. Did the first owner of this book pop out to the shops that Monday and buy this book for their enjoyment over the week ahead?
I will never know, but forever that date exists on that page of my new second hand piece of history.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 13 – The Transitory Fate of Coincidence

What is fate? The dictionary will tell us something like this;

The universal principle or ultimate agency by which the order of things is presumably prescribed; the decreed cause of events; time:

Which is all a bit dry because defining something that is an ephemeral concept is by its own definition, difficult. I have long thought intellectually about the coincidences of meeting people, or more accurately seeing people, especially if this meeting is transitory and unfulfilled. I’m a keen people watcher, not in some sinister voyeuristic way, but as an observer of human activity. Train stations are a fabulous place to observe human activity of all kinds; they are a wonderful kaleidoscope of chaotic human coincidence.

All these people rushing about have lives, lives which are linked to and separated from others by a degree of separation, a theory which states that everyone is on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth, which is an astonishing concept in itself.  

In a way I was part of this theory in 2006 when I travelled by train to Italy to visit friends. Entombed and hopelessly lost in the Paris Metro system I walked past a woman who was similarly lost and unable to make herself understood to an uncommunicative member of Parisian staff. She and I joined forces to extricate ourselves and find our own way to the Gare de Bercy station where the overnight trains to Italy depart.  It turned out she was an opera singer from the Netherlands en-route to Venice for a job interview. Normally she flew, but that day there was a Europe-wide Air Traffic Controllers strike, so like me she travelled overland. As we waited for the train she suggested she purchase some food for us for the journey, which she did, returning just moments before our separate trains were due to depart. In haste we said our goodbyes, bordered our overnight trains and I never saw her again. But like many people I have fleetingly met over the years I often think about her and whether she got the job. I never did know her name but for a few minutes our lives collided and we shared an experience together.

Films and books have long discussed such thoughts. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is of course a well known example of looking into the future. If Ebenezer Scrooge follows this or that path as outlined by his visiting ghost, his future will be redefined for good or bad. The romantic film Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah is another well known exploration of this concept of “what if’s”. Missing her train on the London Underground, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character then embarks on a parallel universe plot, outlining what may have happened if she had caught her train, and what happened if she didn’t. And of course the poet Robert Frost’s poem The Road Less Travelled details the routes we take in life and their consequences.

In reality every action we take has a parallel plot to enact should we choose it. How many times have we heard stories of people who missed their connections to a plane or ship only for some disaster to befall it and all hands are lost or killed? The survivors’ stories are often a powerful example of fate. Many say fate is something we have absolutely no control over, as it is something that supernatural forces direct. But is that true? As intellectual human beings, can we not bend fate to our own will? Intellectual minds far greater than mine will theorise over this forever.

But what really interests me is what I prefer to call the ephemeral side of coincidence, where no actual contact is made but for a brief moment in time there is connectivity. This was something I noticed yesterday whilst driving. I noticed a group of four men on a Welsh golf course. They were on the green, one was putting, one held the flag, two others stood with their putters in hand watching. In our car, myself and Julie and for what can only have been a couple of seconds I watched the first man putting as I drove past. Those four men would probably have known each other. Friends maybe, or colleagues away from the office for a day. The round of golf would have been planned maybe a day or so before and in the morning they would all have left their individual houses  to meet up for their leisurely game. That same morning Julie and I set off from Somerset on our visit to Wales. At around 12 noon our 2 sets of lives which had been separate until yesterday collided in time and space, for the briefest of moments, before separating again for eternity. Today we are all back in our own world, leading our own lives; but for me the memory will linger.
Intent on their game, the golfers would be unaware I had seen them and carried on with their game as Julie and I carried on with our day. Writing about them now in a way could possibly break the unconnected side of this encounter. Maybe one of the golfers will read this blog in years to come and think “was that me he wrote about?” “I remember seeing a black Renault Clio as I held the flag”. I probably think about such things too much, but I do find them intellectually fascinating.

From the cradle to the grave, all of our lives are made up of connections. I am fortunate in that a fair few of my school friends I keep in touch with. But from Agricultural College I have as little an idea of where those students I spent every waking day with are, as I have those Welsh golfers from yesterday. Social media such as Twitter broadens our connections with the wider world, but does it? We tap tap tap into a keyboard, and read a reply. Are we really connecting or does that only happen when we emerge from cyberspace and meet in person? But we should remember, as Robert Frost said of the road ahead;

“I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 12 – Fog Goodness Sake

Discussions at breakfast revolved around heading to a beach destination today. Sea air, negative ions, ice cream and a smattering of seagulls called us to the briny. Devon? Dorset? Cornwall maybe? So whilst Mrs Wessex Reiver consulted the map as to a premier coastal hot-spot, I headed into the kitchen to make a Man vs Food style sausage and egg breakfast combo sandwich.

If you have not seen Man v Food it is currently on the Freeview channel Dave and hosted by Adam Richman. Each programme’s premise is easy and strangely compelling. Adam sets himself a challenge to find and consume the biggest - and I’m talking big here - food challenges available in America. Usually his prize if he succeeds is a t-shirt and a photograph on the wall of fame. His feat of eating 5 x 1.5lbs meat-and-French-fries-filled baguettes in under an hour has to be seen to be believed. My breakfast bap combo wasn’t quite as large, but stomach filling it most definitely was. I lay on the floor for 10 minutes to recover from this overindulgence, as a voice was heard stage left.

“Let’s go to the Gower”.

Good choice. I’ve never ever been to the Gower in South Wales. Ever since moving to Bristol in 1993, colleagues and friends have said to me “you must go to the Gower, it is fabulous”. So for nearly 19 years I’ve wanted to go. Advertising images of Rhossili Bay gleaming in bright sunshine do look absolutely stunning. Legion reasons have prevented me going but today, after checking the weather forecast, we headed off up the M5 to the Severn Bridge, paid our £6 and headed deep into the land of Owain Glyndŵr; although in our haste we had forgotten a map.

By Cardiff mist had begun to skirt the Valleys and by Swansea what can only be described as a pea souper had blanketed the entire Celtic landscape. Port Talbot is best seen in thick fog and whilst in reverie for this small mercy, I nearly missed the brown tourist sign “To the Gower”. A sharp left saw us descend into the underbelly of Swansea. On a grey, fog-enveloped June day Swansea is not at its best. The Amazon.co.uk huge warehouse is impressive, but not quite on the tourist trail yet, although the Celtic Lawnmower superstore looks fun. Wave upon wave of traffic lights loomed out of the deep gloom; each seemingly set to turn red as we approached. A sign gleamed, “Gower” to the right, so in a balletic manoevere across three lanes we found ourselves in a Short Stay Hospital car park. Did I mention we’d forgotten a map?

Retracing our steps we then took in the delightful aspects of street upon street of grey pebble dashed houses adjacent to grey streets enveloped by grey fog. It reminded me of bleakest parts of Tyneside, and unfavorably so. Like an Olympic torch bearer we sped into, through and out of the Mumbles in the blink of an eye. Let me summarise that from there by hook and by crook, or at least every single track lane in the Gower we finally made it to Rhossili after the most pleasurable and leisurely hour and 20 minutes drive from the M4 possible. Tempers were fraying.

At Rhossili the fog was so thick I had difficulty seeing the car park attendant grunting something in his Liverpudlian accent about £3 to park. In front of us was a cratered field awash with water, mud and ‘yooths’ in surfing gear. Californian surf dudes look bronzed, muscular and fit; Rossili’s Celtic cousins looked gangly, pasty white and about to expire due to hypothermia. Looking first at the attendant, then the fog, we did a U turn and, although initially thinking we’d drive somewhere else instead, we parked further up the village in the Church carpark. I’d rather give the Church my money as a donation to park, and so I did in their honesty box.
Improvement of our now frazzled demeanor however did come in the excellent guise of The Bay Bistro and Café. Optimistically, the sign outside advertised glorious views of Rhossili Bay while sipping a Barista served coffee. Predictably no one was sitting outside as the scenic view of the fog- enveloped landscape wasn’t really a major draw. Inside though was busy, packed with damp walkers and hypothermic surfers; it was also humid. Lingering for just a moment at the door, our brief indecision whether to go in or beat a hasty retreat was dispelled by the menu board proclaiming a veritable smorgasbord of vegetarian options, of which we partook of heartily. The food was excellent and with coffee consumed, a voice was heard stage left.
“Shall we go to the beach?”

So thick was the fog I hadn’t realised a beach existed, but scrambling down the 200 foot cliff footpath, there at “The End”, as some wag had scrawled into the erstwhile wet cement, was Rhossili beach. Empty of human life, in this thick fog it was moody and fantastic. We walked along the tide line with the sound of the sea as our constant companion. I gathered shells and took a photograph or two. Adding to the mood of the day it began to rain, but onwards we went. The return walk was just as damp and so as I emerged huffing and puffing at the top of the cliff path, we once again entered the comforting interior of The Bay Bistro for refreshment. Coffee consumed, a voice was heard stage left.
“Shall we go to home?”
In 2010 Rhossili Bay was voted the best picnic spot and the best beach in the UK. It was a superb beach I have to admit and we did have a fabulous walk in the gloom. It would be good to see it again in the sun. But I know of better beaches in Britain which are just as impressive and just as empty. More importantly to get to them does not involve traversing miles of urbanised sprawl. As if to add insult to injury, we tried a few sandy bays on the way home, each seemingly turned into a caravan park with a grumpy car park attendant with a Liverpudlian accent demanding money.
I like Wales, I like the Welsh people, but I’m sorry, even in glorious sunshine, I think it will be a long time before I’m persuaded to visit the Gower again.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 11 – Darkness

Shocking I know but I’m back on a wildlife theme with this 1000 words posting. For those of you following my 2 week challenge you will know I’m trying not to write about wildlife. I do that anyway so that would be cheating!

Yesterday, as my posting hinted at, I was in Full Monty (not literally you understand) DIY-Sunday mode. From waking I was on a quest to paint our bedroom wall. Starting at 9.30am I finally got everything back to being ship shape and Bristol fashion by 10pm. It was just emulsion but preparing, cleaning and finishing off takes a lot longer than the painting itself. And I’m a fussy painter too; I could paint in my best suit and still not have any paint on me… hum maybe a second career here.

But by 10 o’clock in the evening with the bedroom back in position, curtains returned to the perpendicular, radiator reassembled, brushed cleaned and stacked away, most people would have collapsed into the bed and the day would be over. But I’m made of sterner stuff (some could question this statement and say I’m just mad). However as I looked out of the window of what had been my cell for nearly half a day, it was a fabulous evening, a glorious sunset had just ended and a calm clear night was developing; and I hadn’t left the house at all in 2 days. Being such a lovely evening I said to Julie how about we go and have a quick drive to Little Bedwyn about 7 miles away, and see if we can spot a glow worm or two. In reality my thought was more, “I’ve got cabin fever, and please can we go and see something outside before retiring for the day”. I didn’t really expect to see any glowing beetles.
Arriving at Little Bedwyn, we parked down a lane and headed for the canal and railway. In society there is something strange about being outdoors at night. In daylight if I was seen wandering about with a pair of binoculars and a round of egg and tomato sandwiches, no one would think anything other than Wessex Reiver on walkabout; mothers would whisper to their children, “just walk quickly past, don’t speak to him he’s harmless really”. Fast forward 12 hours and wander about in the dark with a torch and battery down footpaths and village lanes, curtains twitch, security lights come on and is that the bark of an attack dog about to be unleashed, why I always carry a cudgel and wear a balaclava to blend in unobserved should the dog be on guard; this gets worse doesn’t it…..
Some of you may remember Ann Widdecombe’s cutting remark about the MP Michael Howard that "there is something of the night about him". Unlike Lord Howard, I may not have demonized tendencies but I do like the dark. As humans we are sight dominated animals, which is why our eyes provide binocular vision, point forward, and are able to adapt to differential light levels. Being abroad at night is exhilarating, sounds are heightened; we have to rely on hearing and some primeval subconscious senses more than we do in daylight. And being unable to see we are aware of anything out of the ordinary. And so it was yesterday evening as I stood on the railway footbridge.  There next to the railway line was something out of the ordinary: a piercing bright green light, no bigger than a match-head in size. This was the very bright illumination from a female glow worm; then another and a third.  All in all, in half an hour we saw 11 glow worms next to railway lines, all seen from the vantage point of a bridge, their glow clearly visible with the naked eye.
But night time is something which is becoming less and less prevalent in the World, with the arrival of ever more artificial means of keeping the dark at bay. A fascinating read if you are interested in such things is “Evening’s Empire – A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe” by Craig Koslofsky. I read this book last year when it was first published and it is a wonderful and eclectic summary of how Civilisation has worked relentlessly to banish the night, for example how street lights changed cities for ever, making streets safe to walk in and opening up the possibility of pleasure in the dark through lit theatres. Chapters also cover the devil, mythology, theatre and the gradual removal of the power night had over human activity as the use of increasing light was developed.
One aspect of the night I absolutely love is candlelight, and for me when we lose an hour in October and it is dark before 6pm, it is a perfect opportunity to close the curtains, and sit quietly with no other illumination that a lighted candle or two. A couple of years back when I was painting much more than I am able to do now, I drew a composition in charcoal while a single candle burned. The resulting painting was called “Last Flight” as it depicted a moth coming to candlelight with a terminal outcome, and a painting I sold the week I sketched it. I wasn’t even selling at the time as I’d just arrived at the Black Swan Art Car Boot Show in Frome and busy sorting myself out and erecting my stall. Putting painting on an easel and out of harm’s way, this gentleman walked past, stopped, walked back and came up to me.
“I know you’re not open yet, but please don’t sell that, I haven’t got money but will go to the cashpoint”. He left and returned with a fist full of £10 notes” My first sale of the day and before the event had begun.

This is the only painting I’ve sold which I regretted selling, because it reminds me of a night spent drawing in almost total darkness. I didn’t have time to properly photograph it except at the show, so I often wonder where it is now, and whether it still gives the owner pleasure.
From starting this 1000 word challenge to completing it, 4 hours have elapsed and 78 miles. I’m completing this in Somerset but it began in Wiltshire, such is the life of a 2-house lifestyle, and weakly explains the delayed posting.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 10 – DIY Sunday

I’m not a religious man but I did go to a church school until the age of 8, I like visiting churches and I like Sundays to be a bit different. But how different? If we delve into the Holy Bible, The King James version we find in the First Book of Moses : Genesis 2, the following;
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”
In my childhood, and of course long before that, the seventh day, or Sunday as it became, was a day for rest. I well remember the silence of Sundays growing up in the North East. Everything was shut, shops, museums, places to visit, just about everything, except churches of course which, as a family, we never visited when a service was being held. My Godfather was a staunch Christian and I think he never ever forgave me for a failure on my part to be confirmed into the Church of England. I wasn’t against the idea, but as a teenager interested in other things, it never entered my head, and as such although I know he now lives in Norwich, I know absolutely nothing about him.
As a child I think Sunday used to last for about 3 weeks. Boredom and I are constant companions. I need to be stimulated at all times and Sundays of old were not stimulating. The silence which seemed to envelop Sundays also seemed stifling. My bedroom overlooked the 1st green of Boldon Golf Club in County Durham. I’d be reduced to spending hours watching golfers playing on the course, not the most exciting thing to do. Sometimes I’d wander out and sit on the fence and watch them, which occasionally got me into hot water from my mother who has the propensity to see errant danger in the most innocent of pastimes; so of course she visualised me being felled stone cold dead by a golf ball. Mind you our front room had a huge bay window overlooking the course and many is the time we have been alerted to a wayward projectile through the window by an almighty crash.
But I think on balance I miss Sundays as they were, but I’m not actually sure what or why I miss them. Clive Aslet writing in the Daily Telegraph wrote at length about this in March by asking the question “Whatever happened to Sundays?” It was interesting that a grocer’s daughter, in the guise of Margaret Thatcher, first broke into the sanctity of Sunday. Since 1986 and the initial relaxation of the Sunday Trading Laws, there has been a gradual drip drip erosion of the one day in the week many people, and I am one of them, feel should remain special. This year during the Olympics, full relaxation of Sunday Trading Laws will be rolled out. Why? What has shopping and sport got to do with anything?  Well of course both are big business, but I personally do not see the relevance of making shopping even easier just because Britain is hosting the Olympic Games. And what about the people who will be working on those Sundays, do they not wish to see the Olympics too?
Sundays as they were were boring, that I have to admit. But looking back from the great height of my middle aged opinionated blogging, there was something special about a day when everything stopped, people could spend time with the family (with associated health warnings of being in a confined space with Aunt Maude) and just relax. After all this was the original meaning of Sunday, we work hard 6 days a week and then relax, properly relax on the 7th Day.
Now we seem incapable of relaxing. Sundays have become either a mad dash to the local supermarket, often to buy so much food we end up having to throw most of it away, or a mad dash to the DIY out of town shopping store to buy a BBQ we never need so we can spend quality time with the family; but in the chaos of getting to and from the DIY Superstores Maddening Crowd, we’ve become too tired to even light the charcoal, and of course it is now raining, so everyone has gone indoors to watch TV.
The brilliant film “Whisky Galore” based on the book by Compton MacKenzie which itself was loosely based on the sinking of the S.S. Politician, encapsulates the power Sundays once had in society. If you do not know the film, a ship packed with whisky runs aground off the Hebridean island of Eriskay. Eriskay itself due to World War 2 rationing has run dry of whisky. A calamity so enormous to the islanders they’d go to great lengths to rectify the situation by hatching a plan to ‘relieve’ the ailing ship of its cargo. About to set off, the clock strikes midnight – THE SABBATH. No one can work on the Sabbath and so the whole enterprise stops for 24 hours; even if their drive for the uisge beatha (pronounced 'wishge ba' ) the ‘water of life’, brings them almost to insanity during the enforced wait.
So should we keep Sundays special? Well I think that is a matter of personal choice. In a quickening world, maybe we should take time out once a week and slow down, as a society it may do us good. Do they not say Good things come to those who wait?”
However I must finish my thousand words for the day because as I look out of the window, Julie is just driving up the drive after a mad dash shopping trip for food and I am in the middle of decorating so must head of now to the DIY store for another pot of paint.
The Madding Crowd awaits…………………

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 9 – Lucky Dip

Saturday morning: I was going to write this at Cobb’s, the local farm shop near Hungerford, but with one thing and another it is 09.30am and I’ve just got up. Foregoing therefore the writer’s indulgence of sitting in the farm shop with my laptop writing this, whilst munching my way through a Farmhouse Breakfast (sausages to die for), drinking gallons of coffee and observing the good folk of Berkshire, I am at home. Hot fresh granary toast from the village bakery at Great Bedwyn, smothered in thick Seville marmalade and a mug of Taylor’s coffee beside me. All is calm here as I look out of the window at the weather outside. A bit breezy maybe but enough blue sky to make a sailor’s breeches, as the old saying goes.

It is hard therefore to appreciate the news this morning. As I write this, Northern England, Ireland and Scotland are being battered once again by 2012’s unseasonably wet and stormy weather. To date over 70 severe flood warnings are in place and yet again the horror of being flooded out is being re-enacted by people, with predictions of 4 inches of rain in 24 hours in some areas. Being flooded out must be one of the worst things that can happen to any household. Within seconds a lifetime’s memories can be washed away or contaminated by thick oozing floodwater. Pictures of the devastation that befell Boscastle in Cornwall in August 2004 are still vivid in my memory. Boscastle of course rebuilt itself, but it is not the same place. The atmosphere changed forever in just a few small hours.
In July 2007 Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire was badly flooded as the River Severn in full spate met the River Avon and the incoming tide from the Bristol Channel 20 miles downstream. Having nowhere for this massive volume of water to go, severe flooding took place. TV images of the 12th Century Abbey, built on high ground and remaining dry but surrounded by water beamed around the world. That flood was caused by 5 inches of rain falling in the hills beyond Tewkesbury in as many days.  In March 2008 I went to a concert at the Roses Theatre in the town and what shocked me as I drove into the town from the M5 motorway was the number of caravans parked on people’s driveways. A full 8 months after the floodwaters had receded, the lives of individual people were still being adversely affected.
But flooding in summer, no matter how dreadful it is to those affected, is something which happens regularly. A quick look back through some weather records show severe floods in July 1968 affecting much of the South East, and of course the Wimbledon tennis championships are prone to disruption by rain, the worst affected year being 1922 when it took 3 weeks to finish the tournament due to rain. The Boscastle floods themselves were not exceptional, with the severe and more widespread floods of 1847 causing more, but less reported, damage in that area.
In this country we like to think that summers are long and hot, lazy days sipping iced tea while snoozing in the warm sunshine ostensibly watching a game of village cricket. Actually this is far from the case and actually more of the exception than the rule. Being at the edge of Europe, Britain is wet. Our weather is officially classified as ‘temperate maritime climate’. In simple terms we have a lot of wet sea to our west, a lot of dry land to our east and we sit on the boundary. This is what makes our weather unpredictable and annoying for lovers of hot sunshine in the summer or deep, crisp and even snow in midwinter. Daily there is a battle going on between the dominant moist Atlantic air arriving over us from the South West winds and the dry air from the East. Coupled with this at this latitude we should have a climate similar to Canada, hot summers, very cold winters and 2 weeks of spring or autumn in between. The Gulf Stream of course stops this happening by continuously flowing warm air over our shores from the Caribbean.
There is of course the North American, Atlantic Hurricane season, which begins in June and lasts until November, although this year Tropical Storm Beryl hit landfall in late May. Many of these hurricanes never make it across the Atlantic, but a fair number do. They may have lost some of their intensity on the 3,000 mile journey but they reach Britain laden with moist air between 3-5 days after leaving the east coast of America. Not all of these low pressure systems bring rain or flooding, in fact most just bring turbulent unsettled air over our shores. But again Britain being positioned where it is, we are on the roller-coaster of weather patterns.
Much has been said already about this cold and wet season and its effects on wildlife at the height of the breeding season. Certainly there have been disasters. The Ouse Washes were flooded, as were the Somerset Levels at peak ground nesting bird season. High winds in May did blow rook chicks out of the nests causing breeding failure for this year. Up on the Farne Islands huge waves battered the south cliffs where many seabirds were nesting. Butterfly and moth numbers are also down on a normal year.
But this is the point. In Britain we never have a normal year, despite what the media and product advertisers will tell you. Wildlife by and large is well adapted to our unpredictable climate and will recover. We will have long hot summers, we will have wet cold winters, and we will have everything in-between.  What we cannot predict is the weather and this is what makes Britain a unique place to live in. Although I may have left the house on a hot sunny morning, by afternoon I could be enjoy the sound of raindrops quietly tapping their beat onto the leaves of trees.
But what clothing I should wear for a typical summer’s day, is a bit of a Lucky Dip.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 8 – Views and Visions

What is it about a view that takes the breath away? There is something in our make-up which, when we come upon a view, makes us stop and look far off into the distance. I do not know anyone who does not like to look at a view, whether that is an urban landscape or atop a hill looking down to the valley below. Another must visit place for taking in a view is at the seaside, where we can spend hours just sitting on the beach gazing out to sea. This just may be the reason for our wish to see and to spend hours just looking at a view. Is it the view we are looking at; or the far horizon?
I think the latter.
We may think of ourselves as modern man, but actually we are ancient, at least the physiognomy of our bodies and genes are. I recall reading somewhere that our gut flora is designed for a lifestyle 50,000 years ago, essentially a diet of the hunter gatherer, seeds, nuts, roots and fish and then a very occasionally a good blow out on a woolly mammoth or two. So in my mind, if we have 50,000 year old stomachs, surely the rest of us must be that old too. Certainly after a few glasses of grape juice the night before I can wake feeling that old. But mulling over why we like to look at a view the other day it struck me that we are not so much looking at the view, but our genetic structure is  looking for danger or prey on the far horizon?
It sort of makes sense. In the times of the hunter gatherers people would have found a good vantage point and scanned the horizon looking for the woolly mammoth to bring home to the roaring fire. They could of course stand in grassland and have a look, but on high ground the hunter could see much further than his rival. And of course standing on top of the hill allowed him to also spot his enemies, well before they saw him. I’m no expert but I can’t think of any ancient fort, castle or defended position that isn’t on high ground, well apart from that one in Monty Python that kept falling down into the swamp. But that aside, it made absolute sense to build defences on high ground, partly as they were easier to defend as the enemy was exhausted running up that hill, but it also meant the owner of the fort had a clear view all around; to the horizon!
The seed of this idea came from someone asking me the other day where I liked best in Britain. That was easy to answer; I have two places I love to visit as often as I can one in Northumberland and one in Dorset. The first is overlooking the River Coquet near the hamlet of Hepple, and the second is the view I absolutely love from Eggardon Hill in West Dorset, looking down past Askerswell and to Golden Cap, 10 miles or so away. Apart from both being in England, what connects these places is that they provide a view of a wide landscape as seen from a high vantage point. I can sit for hours at each place just doing absolutely nothing. But actually am I subconsciously looking for danger? This got me thinking, where else have I loved to stand still and stare off into the distance?

From the holy island of Lindisfarne, looking across the sea to Ross Links beach. From the Stiperstones in Shropshire looking across to Wales or the Long Mynd. From the cliffs at Lizard Point, not the one on Cornwall, but the one in Tyneside, looking north along the North Sea coast to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in Northumberland and as far south as Whitby in North Yorkshire, an impressive 80 miles. In the built environment I love to look out of high places. Church towers are an easy and obvious example. The London Eye is another.  Before going on the Eye for the first time I bought a 360 degree panorama guide to, yes the far horizon surrounding London. So here it is again, the horizon is ever present even in our most densely urbanised Capital city and it is impressive that even as sprawling as London is, at that height, green fields and hills can still be seen in all directions, on the far horizon.
In cultural terms, especially in the visual arts, it is the landscapes of far reaching views which can make painters go weak at the knees. Paintings such as El Greco’s, View of Toledo, captures this mood beautifully by recreating the mood of a hilltop town from a high vantage point. Many a landscape painter or photographer even positioned on the shores of a lake has painted or photographed not the immediate shoreline but the landscape ahead of him or her all the way to the mountains and the skyline in the distance. Even when incarcerated indoors for long periods, artists crave the distant view. One such evocative painting is by Vincent van Gogh. In his painting of the view he had from his asylum, The Starry Night, he longs for the distant town, hills and sky which for the moment is out of his reach.
But there is one thing about a view to the far horizon, much like the sight of a rainbow, which is impossible to resolve. No matter how much we may look, no matter how far we may travel, we can never ever reach the horizon. We are surrounded by views to the horizon, but we can never touch or feel that ephemeral object. The horizon is only in our mind. Logically we know beyond the horizon is another place, we just can’t see it.
And just maybe this is why we will sit for hours on a beach looking at the sea, because deep down we are wary of what is over the horizon, beyond what we can see.

And although this takes me well over my 1000 words, what we fear most of the far horizon is encapsulated in this oft read poem at funerals attributed to Bishop Brent (1862-1926)
“….I am standing on the sea shore. A ship sails and spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon, and someone at my side says, "She is gone",
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all;
She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her,
and just at the moment when someone at my side says, "She is gone", there are others who are watching her coming,
and other voices take a glad shout "There she comes",
And that is dying.”

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 7 – Midsummer’s Day

In starting this challenge to write 1000 words a day while on a two week holiday, I thought I’d steer clear of writing about wildlife. Not that I had become weary of wildlife, far from it. It was more that the reason behind this challenge was to provide discipline and structure to my attempts to write; to develop an ability to write about anything that came into my head upon first waking. However an interesting observation is that many of my first waking thoughts began with the letter W; Walking, Wind, [walking] sticks; [writing] Mills and Boon. Undoubtedly a psychiatrist would make a reasoned study of this obsession with the 23rd letter of the English alphabet.

However today I mean to turn my ideas of not writing about wildlife around, as well as turning the W thought’s of the week about, to begin today’s 1000 words with the letter M: Midsummer’s Day.

At 04.52 British Summertime today, it was officially the Summer Solstice. I’ve written about my love of both the summer and winter solstices before on this blog. There is something to embrace, that constant turning of the Wheel of the Year, which we as sophisticated humans can neither control nor affect. For millennia our Planet has revolved around the Sun, and so each day either lengthens or shortens. This makes no two days the same and that uniqueness of daylight length is a fascination to me. The arrival of the Summer Solstice is a pivotal moment in the 12 month cycle, but unlike the Winter Solstice, which I find universally uplifting, I find the Summer Solstice both uplifting and sad.

I love these long days. Here as I write in Wiltshire it becomes light by about 4am and twilight still covers the sky at 11pm. Of course further north, in places like Shetland for a few weeks it will never really become dark at all. I recall watching otters on the Isle of Skye at midnight one Solstice evening. Sitting on my own on a coastal headland, I watched those otters playing and feeding amongst the kelp beds, as clear to me as if it had been full sunlight.

The summer solstice though can make me feel sad because, imperceptibly at first, I know that from today the daylength will begin to shorten and autumn then winter are ahead of me. I think this melancholic side must be due to my Scandinavian genes; the Nordic countries do make the most of the summer daylength, knowing that in a few months darkness will dominate their lives for the long winter ahead.

But this year as the days lengthened in early June I set myself another quest, that of seeing a glowing glow worm. In all my years of wandering about the countryside I had never seen a flightless glowing female advertising herself to a passing flying male. It is thought that glow worms are in decline nationally, although this may possibly be more a result of increasing light pollution causing their admittedly very bright light to be dulled and hard to see by anyone looking for them. In dark areas of the countryside, the female glow worm light is so bright it can easily be seen 20 meters away.

And so it was that last night on the night of the Summer Solstice, Julie and I set off to look for glow worms. I’d found a single female glowing the night before and intended to return to look for more. Before that we drove to a disused railway line at Wootton Rivers on the edge of the vast Savernake Forest. There have been historical reports of glow worms here and so with anticipation of seeing one we headed off down the railway line. It was 10 o’clock and there was still enough light to see the banks of this track were covered in wild flowers. Moths too danced about in amongst the shrubs, it was good to see them as this year has not been kind to moths and butterflies.

Suddenly I heard a noise and there right in front of us, a black and white striped face, a badger, just three or 4 feet away. I’m not sure who was the more startled. I called to Julie behind me but in doing so this gave old Brock enough time to disappear into the undergrowth. After walking a good length of the railway we had not seen any glow worms, so we returned to the car and drove to Great Bedwyn.

Driving around the empty lanes here in rural Wiltshire often brings us closer to wildlife. Near Crofton a polecat (or maybe polecat x ferret) ran across the road in front of the car towards a rabbit, but, seeing the car, turned and ran into the hedge. These mustelids with their ‘Lone Ranger’ mask are becoming quite common around here I believe and recently I found one dead by the road near Pewsey. If that wasn’t enough, as we arrived at the railway footpath crossing, the car headlight picked out a barn owl, which again seeing the car approach flew off.

About a quarter of all glow worm sightings are along railways or tracks and so as we got out of the car and with caution quickly crossed the main Plymouth to Paddington railway line, there in the same spot as the previous night, a bright green glow, the size and intensity of a L.E.D light on a hi-fi. Julie, like me, had never seen a glow worm until last night and, despite being gripped by hayfever, we were both mesmerised while I took a photograph. Returning to our car, I looked along the railway line. There not 20 feet away another glow by the side of the track. In dark areas like this they really do stand out and there may have been more, but this is a very fast line and it would be foolhardy to trespass, so I observed from the comparative safety of the footpath crossing.

But I shall remember this Midsummer’s night, looking for, and finding, glow worms in Wiltshire, a priceless memory for me as the days imperceptibly begin to shorten.