Friday, 29 April 2016

Colour, Delacroix, flochetage and why don't we all have a go at inventing words

Yes - it is a real word. Flochetage. Well, a real-ish word. One invented by the painter Delacroix, when he found the dictionary cupboard bare and required a word to describe his technique of layering different coloured paints, using lightly pulled brush strokes to create texture and pattern and thereby enhance his base-layer colours (... lost? - stick around, read on and all will become clear. Or perhaps muddier ...).
Flochetage implies both stringiness and threadiness. Apparently. And it sounds good - in a filling-the-mouth-with-sound sort of a way. Try it ... flochetaaaage. Not that I speak French. So I am probably mis-pronouncing it. Nor am I an artist. So what do I know about painting techniques - except that I think this one works. What I do like is the concept - you invent a new technique in whatever it is you do, hunt around for the vocabulary to describe it, find the dictionary is lacking, so make up a word of your own and announce to the world what it means.

Delacroix isn't alone in this wordy inventiveness.

Authors do it all the time -

'A-sort-of-hockey-crossed-with-volleyball-and-tag-played-with-balls-one-of-which-will-try-to-maim-you-and-a-flying-golf-ball-which-you-have-to-catch' doesn't quite have the same ring to it as Quidditch (which, interestingly, this version of Word doesn't recognise).

Jaberwocky - need I say more?

Pointillism and Ben-Day dots - painting and printing techniques respectively -  are words invented to describe the same thing - a deliberate repetitive sweep of dots across a canvas, clustered to create shape and depth.

The king of word-inventing is of course Shakespeare - turning nouns into verbs, adding prefixes, chucking around suffixes. There are hundreds attributed to him. What follows are just a few -

addiction, advertising, amazement, arouse, assassination, auspicious, baseless, barefaced, bedazzled, belongings, bloodstained, castigate, changeful, cold-blooded, countless, critic, clangor, dishearten, dwindle, epileptic, eventful, exposure, eyeball, fashionable, frugal, generous, gloomy, gnarled, grovel, impartial, inaudible, jaded, ladybird, laughable, lonely, majestic, manager, marketable, mimic, monumental, moonbeam, negotiate, new-fangled, obscene, outbreak, pageantry, pedant, premeditated, puking, radiance, rant, reliance, sanctimonius, scuffle, submerge, suspicious, swagger, torture, unreal, watchdog, zany - yes, zany! Who'd have thought it?

Dickens was the same, often splicing existing words together - butter-fingers, slow-coach, dust-bin and casualty-ward are all his. As is the unspliced flummoxed.

AA Milne gave us the heffalump and the woozle. Less universally useful perhaps but memorable all the same.

Artists other than Delacroix did it too -

Pointillism and Ben-Day dots - painting and printing techniques respectively -  are words invented to describe essentially the same thing - a deliberate repetitive sweep of dots across a canvas, clustered to create shape and depth.

Scientists have been doing it since science was invented - a hundred years ago we didn't need the word boson because it wasn't until the 1920s that Einstein and Bose proposed the existence of elementary particles and the particles had to have names. Penicillin, paracetamol and warfarin are all  words, along with X-ray, electromagnetism and chromatography that Aristotle would not have understood (although, he may have had a go at deciphering some of them ... chromato- and graphia- both being Greek. Perhaps, that wasn't a good example. And oops! - elektron also has Greek origins.)

So, back to Delacroix and his word flochetage - what is it?
Imagine a gauze bandage; gently pull it apart just a bit, then crumple it slightly. Stain it in middle or lighter hues of a secondary colour and then place it on a background of deeper, stronger primary colour e.g. pale orange place on red. Look at what you have, then paint it. There you have it - flochetage. Easy! ... if you know one end of a paint brush from another. And how to 'do brush-strokes.'

Delacroix clearly knew both. He was a Romantic painter who inspired the Impressionists - don't worry, I knew nothing about him before my trip to the National Gallery yesterday either. It was one of those I-have-a-couple-of-hours-to-kill art-exhibition visits, which are often the best because you arrive with no expectations. As I have said already, I am not an artist. I am also not a student of art history. But I do know what I like (a bit like my opinion on different wines - if I like it, I'll drink it. If it's not expensive, that's a bonus, not necessarily a choice. Sadly, all the paintings I like are expensive). I think that art appreciation for me, and I suspect for many others, is all about the initial emotional reaction to the painting. Walk me up to a Cezanne and my insides go Wow! A room filled with Matisse, Monet and Pissarro would make me want to linger there for hours. I get Rothko; I love the huge dramatic presence of his paintings, although I understand why some don't ... all that black - blocks and lines - on backgrounds of solid colour. But I'd argue it's the depth of that colour, the sincerity and peace of the whole that creates the impact.
The Delacroix paintings didn't move me in the way that paintings by these other artists do. I felt slightly guilty as I wondered if it is wrong to go to a exhibition of one artist's paintings only to find that I preferred the paintings of the other artists on display with him. Actually, that he did inspire so many - Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Signac and Monet - who went on to become household names is pretty awesome. And his paintings weren't at all bad. I love it when artists play with light. One painting by Delacroix, named 'Women of Algeirs in their Apartment,' depicts the drawing-back of a heavy curtain to reveal the seated women of the title. So, at first glance, it serves as a commentary on everyday life. But only if that first glance is fleeting. Look any longer and it becomes so much more. A low light source hidden behind the curtain shines on the women's faces and limbs, highlighting detail in the fabrics of their clothing and reflecting off a high mirror. It also illuminates a solitary pale orange flower, in a vase, sitting on the sill of a high recess in an otherwise shadowy wall above them. This is story telling with paint and a brush. And it is beautiful. If you go to see the exhibition - on at the National Gallery until May 22nd- indulge me for a moment and pause at a Delacroix painting titled 'Basket of Fruit in a Flower Garden' and marvel at the lustre on the grape and tomato skins and acknowledge your intake of breath when you see the texture of his peach skin; so life-like that you can almost smell it and imagine reaching across the rope to snatch it from the bowl. This may result in your rapid eviction from the gallery, so I wouldn't recommend it. Also, you'd miss the last and arguably the best bit (in my opinion) - stop at 'Landscape near Champrosay,' a Delacroix showing heavy foliage on trees in a countryside setting, before turning through ninety degrees to the next wall of paintings; a Cezanne river landscape and a Van Gogh of olive trees, and hear the light bulb click on, inside your head. The free brush-strokes, the blues and greens and the naturalistic painting of Impressionism were all born here. Delacroix, known as 'the tiger' because of his energy, powerful emotions and dazzling, often fiery early paintings, is the genius who led us to Monet's water lilies and Van Gogh's sunflowers.

I'm sorry if my art based ramble has rambled on too long. I guess what I am trying to say is that I enjoy being inspired and acknowledging that inspiration from others - those with the vision and skills to paint stories onto a canvas and those with the playful inventiveness and insight to create stories with words and to create new words when established ones are found lacking.

I am also trying to say that without the great painters and their understanding of light and colour the world would be a much duller (in more ways than one) place. Imagine a world in monochrome. Imagine a filtering out of shadow and the subtleties of lighting. Imagine never being able to see this

Or the colours in this

Imagine the art in galleries restricted to a limited range of greys and whites.

How boring. How uninspiring.

How very much I've-got-an-hour-to-kill-but-what's-the-point-of-going-to-an-exhibition life-belittling.

Enjoy colour and light.
Flochetage, bedazzle and woozle ... free yourself to play with words, too.
Be creative. Invent something.

Go ahead - it's fun!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Heaven clearly can't wait. Ranting and screaming inside. Growing old and lecturing ... myself, mostly.

What follows should come with a warning - it is a preachy rant. Stop now if you're not in the mood for a lecture. Or, if you're into procrasti-reading, read on and (hopefully) enjoy my latest piece of procrasti-writing. Apologies too for the reference to elderly leakages. And farts. And now, for being deeply irreverent. Sorry.

Heaven can't wait. Meatloaf was wrong. Clearly the 'band of Angels' is impatiently putting together a gig. There's a party happening which we haven't been invited to. Yet.

What a terrible year 2016 has been, so far. And we are barely dipping our winter-wrapped toes into Spring. Is it that the roll-call of those summoned to a higher place grows ever more poignant as we age? Prince was but a few years older than me. Victoria Wood, a meaningless number of years older still. Meaningless because what does age mean astride the long plateau of middle age before the eventual slide into decrepitude? A few years here, a few there - we're essentially all the same, us middle-agers.
I meet people often through my work who bemoan getting old - I want to scream at them that most of the world misses out on this opportunity. Denied seeing their children and grandchildren grow, as living-a-long-life is stolen from them. Old age is indeed a privilege enjoyed by few and if we are lucky enough to be one of the few, we should embrace it. Enjoy the passing years. The piling-up of experiences (... the piles? Maybe not.) The expanding knowledge. The wisdom of someone who has seen it all and done it all before. Don't moan. Don't whinge. Don't complain. Avoid any crumb of bitterness or resentment.
Yes, as we age we slow, we shuffle, we buckle and bend and ache and leak and fart and lose things. But we can still smile on the inside. And be grateful.

Prince, David Bowie, Victoria Wood and Alan Rickman were denied their old age. 
Their untimely, shocking, deeply unfair deaths bring the rest of us up short. Makes me ... you too? ... think - am I next? I think of my middle-aged family and friends. And I can't bear the idea of living without them. 

Perhaps, the answer to this tsunami of celebrity deaths lies in the maths of population statistics. In a world obsessed with celebrity, we have reached a critical mass, the number of celebrities now so great that it is inevitable there will be a significant passing, if not every day, then every week and because of social media, we all hear about it. We are at the tipping point beyond which the flood of celebrity deaths becomes more noticeable, more flood-like. It is no longer a sad, dignified trickle, to be contemplated and quietly grieved over, but a daily headline-grabbing sensation that is hard to avoid, hard to recover from, and hard to live alongside. Obituary journalism must be a booming business.

I'd like to postpone my obituary for as long as possible. I want to grow old.

Growing old is perhaps a little like reading a book of poems. You start and three or four poems in, you already have a favourite. Then, it is replaced as you read more. The favourites jostle for position - some remaining high on your list, others dropping away - as you race to the end. Your head full, you struggle to remember those you dropped, their words fade and disappear. Others rise up and remain with you, right to the end. You cherish them. You meet with them each time you pick up your book. Then they too drop away. And all you have left is a trinket box of orphaned words and half-remembered names. Gloomy? Not at all. What is better than reading a life full of friends?

Write the life you want to read. What haven't you done today that you could have done? What do you want to do with the life you have left? Start tomorrow to live the way you want to live. Can you?  Can I? Think about it. While you can.

Social media has called for the elderly statesmen and women of celebrity to be put on 24 hour guard. But I say live like Attenborough - with grace and adventure and enthusiasm and good cheer. Don't wrap him in cotton wool. Allow him to be reckless. To enjoy every minute. In the middle ages, knights strove with passion to have a good death. Their idea of a suitable end was rather different and a lot more bloody than ours (thinks swords and valour and Game of Thrones and you'll get the general idea). Today, a good death is one that comes peacefully at the end of a long and full life, enjoyed right up to the end. It should be celebrated. We miss those that die this way - of course we do; Corbett and Wogan, both this year - but we celebrate them too. Shock at their deaths quickly fades. We don't feel they were cheated in the way that Bowie, Prince, Wood and Rickman were. Their relatively early deaths grip at our hearts. And sear into our heads making us fearful for ourselves. And for our loved ones.

Such fear should be avoided, though - worrying about death assuredly paralyses. It stops all the living clocks, silences the pianos that would play our tune, and scribbles prematurely in the sky the message He/She is Dead. Dead all too soon. Let living be our North, our South, our East, our West, our fun-filled week, our Sunday rest. Believe that love could and can last for ever. Light up the stars, rejoice in the moon and dance in the sun. Let us live and breathe and see that only despair can never come to any good. Apologies to W. H Auden, with whose misquoted poem - in case you hadn't guessed - I utterly disagree. It was beautiful in Four Weddings and a Funeral. But really? - I want to live and believe that love lives on. Love doesn't end. We simply take it in our hearts to a new page.

Heaven clearly couldn't wait for those we now salute and remember. But for me, for now, I'm hoping it can.

As Meatloaf sang,

Heaven can wait
And all I've got is time until the end of time

...  I'm off to use my time well.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Multi-tasking and tail-wagging.

One of our dogs is better at multi-tasking than the other - in response to having his back rubbed, he can wag his tail and eat at the same time. The other dog's tail, exposed to an identical stimulus (back rubbing) plus task (eating), remains motionless. The same 'other dog' cannot walk, sense that his lead is tangled and set about disentangling himself - instead, his approach is to stop and wait for his two legged friend to execute the disentangling. The dog that multi-tasks - eats and wags - on sensing that he is tangled, will endeavour to achieve disentanglement himself. Without the aid of his two legged friend. While continuing to walk. Which dog is which? And what does the ability to multi-task say about which is more intelligent?

It has long been cited that women are better at multi-tasking than men. Various hypotheses attempt to answer why this is the case. Perhaps, it is an evolutionary trait - the care, protection, feeding and all round nurturing of the next generation is perhaps best done by only one of the sexes; leaving the other free to obsess about how fast his chosen method of transport is and whether his ball skills are better than the next man's. Businesses have even attempted to harness this gender bias is multi-tasking ability. Men have linear thinking responding badly to influences that impact and attempt to sidetrack them. Give a man, skilled at job A, an additional job B to perform simultaneously and the time to completion of job A will increase - give him several additional jobs to do and the risk is that he will grind to a halt; job A won't be finished today and depending on the size of the stack of additional jobs, may not be completed this side of next week/next month/next year/ever. Give a man one job to do and you optimise the chance that he will do it well. Women's minds are more multifaceted - they can think linearly but will absorb a myriad of stimuli around them. They can simultaneously do jobs A, B, C, D, E & F. But they will (research has shown it to be true, I am afraid) in doing so, complete job A slower than their singularly tasked male colleagues. Their overall productivity over time might be broader but it will be slower.

Here's a little test to illustrate what I mean - Picture the scene: Sunday morning and the newspaper is spread out on the kitchen table. Coffee has been made (dogs fed, first washing of the day loaded, dinner taken out of the freezer, last night's washing up done, breakfast served to Littlest who has been sent off to do her homework, school shirt for tomorrow ironed and husband nudged out of bed because his coffee's ready). So there are two adults reading the newspaper. Put yourself in this scenario. Can you read and answer a question at the same time? Think about it. Do you stop reading, put your spoon down because of course you had been enjoying your porridge while reading, put your finger on the paper marking the word you had got to, look up, answer the question, pour yourself more coffee and then get on with the reading? Or are you so in the zone of reading the paper that after five minutes you look up and say 'sorry, did you ask me something?' I don't have to tell you which sex is which, do I?

So, given that my dogs are both male, which is the clever multitasking tail-wagging, lead-detangling one?

This one

or his nephew

Four-legged-friend is the multi-tasker. Which doesn't necessarily mean that he's the clever one. Studies have actually failed to correlate multi-tasking ability with overall IQ. In fact, being overloaded with tasks will lower the IQ in both sexes. And rather more alarmingly, those who believe they are good at multi-tasking have been found to be the opposite - they are very busy achieving very little ... why does that sound so familiar?

All of this leads me to conclude that juggling several balls is good only if they are all travelling in the same direction. And to achieve organised, effective juggling the number of balls needs to be culled. Even if a diminished multi-tasking path is never straight, it would be good to stop racing down it from time to time; to prune further our tasks to maybe one or two essentials, like eating and breathing, and learn how to wag our tails.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

When tiny is mighty: of house mice, field mice and men.

Tiny can be mighty.

Tiny can completely fill a room or indeed the whole upper floor of a house. Or as those with fully-functioning nostrils might say, tiny can fill an entire house. Which might suggest that my definition of tiny is somehow ironic, or tongue in cheek, or heaped with sarcasm. No - the mouse was tiny. In the dictionary compliant meaning of the word. What wasn't tiny was the smell made by the tiny dead animal. The smell was immense. So mighty that Littlest ran screaming from her room. So all pervading that Littlest had to change out of her clean pyjamas that had clothed her for the five minutes during which we hunted her room for the source of the smell. Her sister tweeted about it, Littlest cried, then sprayed the room liberally with every squirty substance she could find - mainly deodorant.
I never thought I would be grateful to suffer from sinusitis but in my role as chief pest-control officer, I didn't smell a thing.
The tiny mouse had found a frog stuffed with dried seeds - a beanie frog - and thinking it had found the abundant larder of mouse heaven had crawled inside, gorged itself until it fell asleep, started to digest the stomach full of seeds and - unfortunately, there's no nice way of putting this - exploded. I  hope the explosion was swift. The agony does make me pity the tiny greedy mouse.  Surely gut bursting is a rather extreme punishment for greed. The mouse's eyes were definitely bigger than its tiny stomach. What a horrible, horrible way to go. For the same reason, don't ever give your dogs dried rice to eat - if you do, they, like the mouse, will explode.

Thus, tragically, tiny trespassing creature made an enormous smell.

Unfortunately, many more tiny trespassing creatures have declared their residence in our home. OUR home - where we use the bathrooms for our personal waste disposal, but where the mice go wherever they happen to find themselves at the moment when they feel the need to go. Hence little brown droppings everywhere. And so far no interest whatsoever in the peanut butter baiting in all the traps.

We need a cat.

Or plug-in ultrasound emitting mouse and rat deterrents - do they work?

Or many more grain filled beanie toys - no, on second thoughts ... just no! Demise by expanding grain is too cruel.

Maybe it's the mild winter, maybe it's the presence on the landing of beanie toys turfed out of cupboards as children growing-up purge their childhood from their rooms, maybe it's the cumulative effect of years without a cat or maybe it's the warm, food-filled, predator-devoid prime example of mouse real-estate that we have created, which has caused the invasion of OUR space.

Are house mice the same species as garden mice? I think not. In my head, they are not the same. I am happy to share the garden to a point just short of sharing my strawberry crop. But not the house. The house belongs to us. And several thousand wood lice.
The garden belongs to me, the birds - mainly black birds, pigeons and blue-tits at present - rabbits, moles, woodpeckers (yes, I know they're birds too), occasional pheasants (ok, more birds) who forget we have dogs, a rare visiting fox, and Four-legged-friend and Bertie-Baggins.

And this little chap

I can't decide which picture I prefer, so you get them both

Bertie Baggins was interested but I'm guessing was fully aware of the futility of trying to catch the mouse - all that wasted energy for a not very satisfying morsel. A bit like his attitude towards rabbits. And pheasants. The prey always panic when they see Bertie-Baggins or Four-Legged-Friend and don't hang around long enough to notice that they are content to hang around watching them run away rather than give hungry chase. Little do the prey know that it's far easier to wait for your dinner to be scooped into a bowl than chase it up the garden.

Bertie Baggins managed to feign interest in the mouse runs in the grass for a while

until his eyes became so heavy that he had no option but to sleep in the sun.