Thursday, 27 October 2016

Autumn or Fall or whatever you want to call it. In England this week and somewhere else next

'Summer has o'er-brimmed' and we find ourselves in Keats' 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.'

Of brambles, apples and crumble.

Of falling leaves.

Long shadows

And flaming sunsets

'Autumn settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favourite chair and fills the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he had done since he last saw you.'
Stephen King 

Stories ... 

We find stories everywhere. And if we don't find them, we make them up. Stories for ourselves and stories for sharing.
Usually, they are good stories. 
But sometimes they are bad.

Bad stories make me feel uncomfortable.

And this autumn, I am a little uncomfortable.

No, I don't mean a little uncomfortably shivery around the edges? It's not a the-nights-are-drawing-in-and-we're-holding-out-like-we-do-every-year-til-November-to-put-the-heating-on seasonally induced uncomfortable.

Nor is it uncomfortably starting to count down the days to Christmas and dreading the what-on-earth-do-I-get-for **** insert name of the person you find it hardest to buy a present for *** angst.

Nor is it the woodsmoke down the chimney that gets up your nose and reminds you that you forgot to call the sweep.

Nor is it the uncomfortable feeling that dozens of small whiskered faces are watching our every house-bound move, eager to see if we drop any crumbs or fail to sweep up the drifting dog hair that will line their mouse nests for the long chilly we-don't-waste-the-heating-by-having-it-on-all-day winter nights that are coming soon.

No. It's the autumn television schedule; specifically the glossy series filling Sunday evenings, like visual hot chocolate and treacle pie and wooly socks and takeing-us-gently-into-the-winter television schedule. Does anyone else feel a little uncomfortable watching Tutankhamun?

We were an arrogant, expansionist, greedy, self-serving and imperialist race. Weren't we? What did we think we were doing? What would our response have been if Egyptian archaeologists had come here, bossed us about, treated us like the mud on their shoes, looked down their noses at us, ignored our centuries of scholarship, pillaged our land, abused our misplaced hospitality - and if, having had the inspirational idea of digging in Suffolk, had discovered Sutton Hoo. And then having dug it up, had packed it into crates and shipped it back to Egypt? We would have had something to say then about finders not being keepers. And about the found belonging the the state from whose ground it was taken. Yet, put the shoes on the feet of history and our forebears clearly thought it fine to move in, conquer, belittle and steal. 

Forget the fact that the cast are all rather nice to look at; Howard Carter would have been particularly flattered that Max Irons is playing him, given that Carter was short and squat while his acting double is altogether more dashing. The cast are highly accomplished actors all. I just can't get the bad taste out of my mouth.

Something about the discomfort sits worse, when I remember that Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon et al were alive in living memory. There are those alive now whose grandparents might have known them. That closeness feels like a hand-shake away, a simple arm stretch across history. I remember my grandfather. I remember his tales of colonial Africa. I remember him as a good man. But I am pretty sure that he would have held the views of his time when it came to race and empire. Perhaps, that those were the views of his time is almost an allowable excuse. Perhaps, I would have learnt to think that way too, had I lived then. Nonetheless, those views were wrong and to most of us today are deeply offensive. At its simplest, the story of adventure and discovery of the boy king's tomb is a good one. It is its setting that turns it bad; that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Stories that we tell ourselves. 

Stories that we tell ourselves to make the world a better place. Be blind to colour. No - don't even see colour. See the person not the colour of their skin. Where we don't and where we get the story wrong desperate things can happen. Fear of the black man behind the wheel of a car. Fear of the middle-Eastern business man getting on a plane. Fear of the tattooed youth smoking outside the newsagent's. We see, we judge, and we invent a story. If we are going to live together, we need to learn to invent good stories. We need politicians who tell us good stories too; not ones whose stories give us nightmares about murdering immigrants, and encourage us to see women as less strong, less talented, less intelligent and less in control of their bodily functions. You know which story teller I'm referring to. What a story teller! Watch this lady's impressive, eloquent quashing of his stories, NEWSFEED.  We need honest stories! Not stories that beget injustices.

I'm on a roll here - rant, rant, rant ... and hop, skip, jump to another injustice. Another story. Imagine for a moment that I have an uncle and that he and his partner were convicted in their twenties for committing same sex offences. Now, imagine that one of them died last week; after a lifetime of being an excellent and generous uncle, the sort that takes you out to tea and dainty sandwiches and pink cakes when you're little and takes you to Harrods to buy a tiara when your nearly old enough not to need one and gets you champagne with Wimbledon tickets when you're older. He can now be pardoned for living his life as the man that he was. His partner can't be. Because he lives.


Because the private member's bill to pardon living homosexuals has failed to progress through parliament. Both of my (fictional) uncles were alive last week but only one - the newly dead one - is pardoned. What a punch in the chest to the living. Your criminal record - c-r-i-m-i-n-a-l record - still stands. What you did in the past before it became legal will still hang round your neck; a historical conviction from a dark time. Shame on all of us for doing that to you.

Sometimes we meet people who make us smile. For whom we think, 'this is what makes life good.' I met one yesterday, aged ten who had the fragile seed of a fashionable-hat-wearing, arty, cultured, Gok Wan-like self-confidence that was lovely to notice and that I hope no-one knocks out of him. He was funny and different and intelligent and full of character. It was a pleasure to meet him. I hope society is kind to this different little boy. I worry that it might not be.

As procrasti-rambles go this one has been quite a ramble. A bit ranty, a bit dreamy, a bit it's time to wrap myself in a duvet, pull up the long socks and sip hot chocolatey. 

Autumn; a time to think, perhaps?

A time for two more quotes - for the first, think long walks in air cleared by the first frosts, along footpaths cleared of leg snagging crops, and next to hedgerows cleared of swarms of biting beasties.

'It was one of those days you sometimes get latish in the autumn, when the sun beams, the birds toot, and there is a bracing tang in the air that sends the blood beetling briskly through the veins.' PGWodehouse

Nora Ephron asked, 'Don't you love New York in the fall?'

... I don't know. But I'll tell you next week ...

Monday, 17 October 2016

The art of storytelling; Caravaggio, Pinter and a Bear of Very Little Brain.

A life without stories would be impossible. Look for something that doesn't have a story and resign yourself to never finding it. A grain of sand on a beach; a petal on a flower; the broken handle on my cup; the rusted rivet in a metal bridge; and the gum stuck to the pavement, all have a story. Everything does - there's the how did it get there; where did it come from; who put it there; what happened to bring it in front of me at this precise time?

What is a story?

Story - definition: a true or fictitious account of a sequence of events and characters; its purpose being to entertain or inform.

We constantly ask ourselves, what's the story? Or, what's in a story? Different questions, but essentially addressing the same thing: we like to know. And if we don't know, we like to make an attempt at explaining things - we pry, we wonder, we invent - who did that, why, where, what happened next? We fill in the gaps. Not always accurately. But we fill them anyway, because we don't sit comfortably with ignorance.

Life becomes a series of stories that we tell ourselves. We pile story on story, constructing a personal library of tales that define us. A library that is without walls, colliding with other people's libraries and sharing its bookshelves in a vast lending and borrowing and stealing narrative ecosystem. It begins with a few words announcing our birth and collapses at our death; ripping, as it does so, into the overlapping libraries of the lives we have shared and announcing this story is no longer available; it has ended. Nothing more will be added to it beyond its expiry date.

Brief aside as this procrasti-ramble veers off on a slightly different path: real brick and stone libraries filled with real books should be preserved as the treasure houses that they are. Perhaps, that's the subject of a ranti-blog that I'll save for another day. Though, to be honest, I don't think I could add more than has already been said by Chris Riddell on this subject - look at his on-line presence if you want convincing that he is a laureate on a worthy library-saving, literacy-promoting mission.

Back to stories - obvious stories told through word of mouth or written in a book. Not so obvious perhaps, the stories in a poem or the words and, sometimes Nobel winning, poetry in a song. But cinema, television and radio create stories too - fiction, non-fiction, news; all stories. What about photography and paintings? Can a painting have a narrative? Not the story behind the two dimensional construct of canvas and paint. But the picture as painted. Yes, of course it can. Visit any art gallery and listen to the newly woken words inside your head - dancing and joining hands and splitting apart - as you order and formulate a narrative to explain the image.

Some artists are better at story-telling than others. Caravaggio - see Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery until January - was a master story teller. No words. Just paint. An an acute sense of the dramatic; the confidence to stray into scenes of everyday life; and a deep appreciation of light and dark. If what follow fails to convince you, visit the exhibition and decide for yourself.

Let me tell you some Caravaggio stories -

Caravaggio takes two friends; close friends it appears, as one is kissing the other. Both are men. The scene is set for his story. Who are they? Are their names of significance? If I tell you they are Judas and Christ, you'll perhaps guess where this story is going. The kiss is not innocent. It is an act of betrayal, that will have enormous consequence. What Judas does in identifying Jesus by kissing him is irreversible, deceitful and shaming. Caravaggio builds on this moment by surrounding the figures in darkness and shows not just one Roman soldier but a crowd of them. You gaze at the picture and feel the oppressive crush, the jostling and the heat. You imagine the noise. Then you notice a lamp, held aloft by another man - a stranger, not a soldier, not a disciple, but Caravaggio himself; the artist as illuminator. Light shines on the soldiers' tunics and helmets - its searing sharpness heralding the something wicked that is to come -  and drops harsh shadows across their faces. A softer fragile light falls on Christ. We can imagine what happens next. Caravaggio makes story-telling look easy.

Another painting and another story. Caravaggio paints a supper, and tells us it is in a place called Emmaus; it's an ordinary domestic scene with fruit on the table and seated men talking. Nothing more, perhaps, than ordinary life. But being Caravaggio, the story unfolds the longer you look at his painting: there is an overly ornate table cloth; the man on the left has fallen on hard times, there's a rip at his elbow, and he is pushing himself hurriedly out of his chair. Light again casts shadows, picking out details - a glint in the eye, a fold of fabric. The background is dark and the picture's focal point is the seated man directly opposite the viewer. There is a pale luminescence to his skin, quite different to the lines and ruggedness of the other men's faces. All these fine details add to the story: who are they? Are they friends or were they strangers before they sat to share this meal? What has occurred in the life of the man with the ripped sleeve to make him look so dishevelled? Caravaggio is playing with us. Leading us from beginning to middle to end - it is, of course, the risen Christ, sitting centrally, and his astonished disciples rising as they recognise him.

These stunning paintings sparked a Caravaggesque style - narrative art heavily dependent on chiaroscuro and the drama of everyday life. (Chiaroscuro - a technique of manipulating light and dark in a painting, where the light jumps out and slaps you on the face; imagine shining a torch on a picture, anything white will shine and you can pick out other parts while leaving the periphery in darkness, then take the torch away and step back and see astonishingly that the light is still there. The artist has illuminated his picture with white and yellow paints and the contrast between light and dark creates atmosphere and drags you in, forcing your participation in the story.)

Have I lost you in this procrasti-ramble of story telling? Yet? ... Not yet? Can I tell you a couple more?

Picture a tavern and a motley gathering of souls, both old and young, experienced and inexperienced, wealthy and not-so-wealthy. They are all men and are singing and drinking, in several degrees of inebriation. So far, a common enough social scene. But now for the story - there's a knife on the table. One of the men has a sword. At the back a hungry servant is stealing some food. One of the drinkers  has spied the thief. It's a game. Seed some doubt, scatter a little jeopardy and crank up the tension by turning down the surrounding light. Illuminate from only one lamp which casts long shadows and ripples of reflected light across the scene. It's menacing. Who are the gathered men? The story sits at a precipice - jump and it's going to turn nasty. Murder even. Bartolomeo Manfredi knew what he was doing when he painted this story; he drew us in, with lots of visual clues and atmospheric, discombobulating lighting, just as in the art of his inspiration, Caravaggio.

Last story (for now); last picture - it is of two young women and an older man. The girls are standing together at the man's side and he is seated. Even though he looks a little worse for the wear already, perhaps he's drunk, they are pouring him a drink and helping him to drink it. Have I seeded the picture in your head? You need to think classical painting. No mini-skirts; no mobile phones. I hope you're wondering who they are. There are more clues in the painting. The girls are clearly wealthy - one has beads decorating her long pink dress - it has the lustre of silk - and they both have fine lace at their breasts. Are they prostitutes? Have they tricked the man and plan a night of debauchery which he won't remember in the morning? Are they wealthy perhaps because they are thieves and he will wake hungover, stripped of everything? Or ... are they his daughters? No, surely not. Not looking at him like that. But wait a minute, notice how the lights are lowered. Wonder why. Shrouding them all, in the background, is bleak darkness. The only light is from a single lamp and it shines on their stricken faces. The old man is their father. His clothes hang off him and he looks exhausted. Beneath, his body is bare and wrinkled and weak. His name is Lot. His daughters believe he is the only man to have escaped Sodom. And that he is their only chance of conceiving. They love their father but they touch him with the lightness that we reserve for something we find repellant. So they encourage him to drink. If you get to see the painting, look into their eyes (if not, imagine a look of fiery hatred dulled by awful resignation). What you will see is the brilliance of the artist Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri. A story both haunting and horrific and wonderfully executed.

Is it possible to look at anything without our brains leaping like enthusiastic olympians to fill in the gaps? I think it isn't. Caravaggio et al exploit this when they paint stories. Photographers and film makers do the same.

Our hunger for stories makes us look everywhere. Sit at a pavement cafe, watching the world pass a few feet away, and invent stories for the people you see. Do this with a friend and observe how your stories differ. What features do you both notice and include in your stories; what mannerisms; what hints from the dress and the way they walk? Did you see different stories? Sometimes, we look at something and see the same story. But sometimes, the same story is the wrong story. What about this one - a story made famous recently by social media? A small boy is running to rescue his smaller sister from a car; the sand at his feet spitting into the air as a sniper aims at him. Awful and shocking. The video was assumed, by millions to be from Syria and went viral. But what we all saw was the wrong story. It was later attributed to a Norwegian film crew, filming in Malta, with Syrian refugees. Our interpretation was collectively wrong. Our shock however was justified as worse is happening every day in Syria and that apparently was the motivation behind making it. We got it wrong but our emotional response was perhaps right.

So we can't stop seeing and telling ourselves stories. They flow in our veins. We find them in pictures, in cinema, in words, books, poems, songs, and in music.  How we interpret what we read or see depends on where we come from, on our experiences and beliefs, and on the particular stories that we as individuals reference in trying to understand what we see.

If we want to create stories for others to enjoy, it is best always to show, never tell. The best writers know not to tell. Some of the best writers, write for the stage and create dramatic stories. Their skill is to show the audience just enough and leave all the rest open to interpretation.

My trip to London last week, took me first to Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery (national gallery) and to No Man's Land (nomanslandtheplay) in the evening. What a joy! What a treat to see two knights of British theatre! And what a story. Pinter gives a masterclass in the slow reveal, leaving the play open to interpretation on so many levels. His two old men are overly-fond of alcohol, and have a shared past and polarised literary careers. The only other characters are two parasitic con-artists who live with and off the wealthier writer, whose mental capacity is affected by drink and possibly early dementia. Who is likeable? Where do our sympathies lie? Pinter drip feeds the back-story. The successful writer, in a lucid moment, reveals himself to have been an arrogant cad. And is thoroughly unpleasant. Where now do our sympathies lie?
Apart from wanting to call social services to report the imprisonment of a vulnerable elderly man, I wanted to know what happened next. Would he slip into death after the prolonged hopelessness of his entrapment? Indeed is that what he deserves? Or could the two old men outwit the younger less educated wordsmiths and escape into a second after-no-man's-land life; freedom in a twilit heaven on earth? Pinter didn't fill in the gaps. A consummate story-teller, he knew just how many words to use; just how much to show and just how far he could push his audience's imagination.

Story-telling has its greats. They are the threads running through the corridors of our personal story libraries. Different greats for each of us, they enlighten and help to make us who we are.

One of my greats is AA Milne and his Bear of Very Little Brain. I am endlessly moved and cheered by his gentle stories. This quote makes me smile and perhaps sums up the muddled story-telling and words in this procrasti-ramble -

"I don't see much sense in that," said Rabbit. "No," said Pooh, humbly. "There isn't. But there was going to be when I began it. It's just that something happened to it along the way."

Happy 90th Birthday, Winnie the Pooh.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Something's missing. And a pedant in deep water with Canaletto.

According to Tate Modern -


I wonder if it's just me ... just me - the sufficiently pedantic one, who bothers to be bothered by this declaration? Everyone else simply walks on by. If they notice the words, perhaps they glance, read, shrug a 'yes, whatever' and walk on. Me - I glance, read and the words trigger an agitated avalanche; a silent screaming 'Whaaaaat?!'

Surely, something's missing.

Perhaps, a comma. Or any of the following: when, how, where, if, and, as. 

All would fit. Wouldn't they? Or am I alone in my nit-picking, pernickety little world; worrying what these words mean? What the intent was behind displaying them large above the brick wall of the iconic Tate? What they are meant to say? But fail to say. Perhaps, the point is that different people will read different things into them. If they bother to read them at all. I'm still bothered, though, about what they mean to me. And what they clearly don't mean? Or perhaps they are not being clear about not meaning anything? Am I'm trying to read something into what is essentially a meaning-free hoax? If the Tate's intention was to prick my ire once a fortnight, when I walk over the Millennium Bridge, it has certainly succeeded.

Inside my head, I see the words and groan, dipping into an resurgent OCD loop, as I start to juggle with the options

... if art changes, we change

and ... art changes if we change

and ... when art changes we change

and ... art changes when we change

and ... art changes how we change

Try the others. Inside your head ... where ... and ... as. All imply cause and effect - a nudge or a push or a shove depending how or when or where or if, that cause and effect occurred - art changes and we change.

But is the relationship necessarily that linear? That temporal? A time-line where one changes and then the other will change; later. What if change reflects a mutual dependence? Both change. Simultaneously. If the missing comma is inserted, like the fulcrum of a sea-saw the art and the us in we become dependent on each other; change in one causing an immediate change or effect in the other.
Put the comma in; it's suddenly brilliant.
Visually, simply and perfectly getting to the nub of the matter - art and life reflect a symbiosis that cannot be split. One depends on the other. Change one, change the other and evolve together. Life and the creative world joined. And balanced. They always have been. One cannot exist without the other.

Try replacing the comma with a full stop and watch as you blow the art and humanity synergy away: Art changes. We change.
The full stop rips the heart out of the relationship. Art changes ... who cares! ... We change too. Caring is the point. Man cares about his or her art. Art underlies our psyche, our history, our soul.

I know ... I know. I walk over the Millennium bridge a bit too early in the morning and my  brain is still under a duvet, dreaming of books and holidays and yesterday's garden bonfire and whether Littlest will remember the dates and details of the Battle of Bannockburn (she did!) and if Robert the Bruce was actually a murderer (he was!) and how any of us made it to the 21st century after the terror, pestilence, disease and poverty of history (we did!). Yes! Proper, early morning madness ... I know. But Tate Modern's four words woke me up. And were stilled when I found their missing comma.

Missing commas and words written high on an art gallery's wall are probably not going to provide a smooth transition to the pedant being in the water with Canaletto (see title). So, in something of a continuity blip and progressing in a rather wriggly line across London from a gallery celebrating modern art to one that, on the whole, takes a more classical approach, the procrastinating pedant arrives in front of the Canalettos at the National Gallery.

Canaletto - brief bio: lived 1697 - 1768, Italian, born in Venice. Painted for wealthy tourists. Had a workshop of artists producing paintings. Famous!

The crowded scene, the boats, the buildings, the light are all meticulously detailed and the overall composition viewed from a distance is mesmerising and rich in narrative. The water viewed up close is terrible.

Even when he nearly gets it right, he gets it wrong

beautiful bright light, accurately pulled reflections and in the foreground little white squiggles, carelessly drawn. So disappointing that I wish I hadn't gone to see them up close.

Water in paintings needs to be believable. Highlighting ripples with lines of white pain fails - it's as though Canaletto gave the painting above to an inexperienced junior artist, in his workshop, to finish. From a distance, a Canaletto is a magnificent Canaletto - perhaps, I should learn to stand back.

But ... contrast Canaletto's child-like waves with Constable's textured water in the ford of the River Stour

and the still water at Stratford Mill, rich in hue and complex in motion, reflecting the trees and the light-filled sky.

Constable painted water that would feel wet if you could reach out and touch it. Canaletto's foreground water would feel like peaked, grey, Royal icing spread on a grey cake; nothing more.

Monet, like Constable, achieves the full wet water look in a backwater of the river Seine, near Argenteuil. It is grey, swirling and luminsecent; water you could swim in and that would feel bitterly cold.

My favourite 'water artist', though, is Camille Pissarro. The National gallery has two of his paintings hanging side by side. In my non-artistic and humble opinion the one titled 'Boulevard Montmartre rainy morning 1897' is the best - rain in the sky and in the air and on the ground; water droplets everywhere convincingly portrayed. A wonderful wet watery painting. Which I was't allowed to photograph. You'll have to go and see it. It is worth seeing. Almost as good is this one - the same wet boulevard but now in winter. And photography was permitted!

I like quotes. I like quotes when they round off a piece of writing. I like these -

"A fine work of art has the power to silence the chatter in the mind and lift us to another place."
Robert McKee

"Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a yellow spot into the sun."

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Sunset in pictures and a few words and a few quotes

Don't walk behind me; I may not lead.
Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.
Albert Camus

Be my friend. Just take me for a walk. Please. Or I'll have to take myself for one. And then I won't have a friend -

Four-legged-friend discovered yesterday that he could hold his lead in his mouth. It happened by accident. There was something dangling at mouth level that hadn't been there before so what was a dog meant to do. It tasted leathery and smelt of friends' hands. Then, he appeared to realise what exactly it was that he had in his mouth. And having never done this before, he brought it to us looking for our hands, as if to say take it and take me for a walk. 
I thought you couldn't teach an old dog tricks. Four-legged-friend proved that wrong. Even if seven is not old old, it is pretty old in big-dog years.

While Four-legged-friend was happy to walk with a friend, Bertie Baggins was taken for a shimmy by Littlest. Oh yeah ...

Littlest who's never been one to stick to the common path - instead striding out across the road less travelled - the road not previously travelled by anyone, unless that anyone is a tractor driver.

In life, as in stomping across an actual field, 'If you're walking down the right path and you're willing to keep walking, eventually you'll make progress.' Barak Obama

And the truest quote of all and the one that fuels this blog - 

'All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.' Friedrich Nietzsche

Shadow pictures; I'm always taking shadow pictures. They are more anonymous for the purposes of a blog and I think they are a little bit arty; is ethereal too big a jump - pictures that hint at the person without showing the person, that capture only their shadow - a fleeting, temporary but essentially unique and unchanging thing? These five long skinny figures are us stretched across the ploughed field - like the mysterious ebony Makonde figures of African sculptures - all leg and short body and interlacing togetherness.

Our shadows lengthened as the sun bit a chunk out of the horizon

Before setting (behind Littlest)

Sunset: word jumble that might be a poem or might just be a word jumble

Dragged below a distant hill and
in outstretched hand,
the dying sun -
blinking, burning bright - is
by hungry clouds once grey, now
in golden light.
Dreaming summer murmurations,
distant, dipping, earth-bound flock -
soaring, spinning, 
sudden dropping,
as a breaking wave 
on new bared soil;
a memory dancing briefly, 
skipping stirred up thoughts, then swiftly gone.
Fine ash of autumn stills 
with sudden sharpening 
winter chill.
And dimming light at dusk
sends our shadows running home.

One final quote on the subject of walking -

'If you are seeking creative ideas go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk.' Raymond Inmon

Angels whisper at sunset too.

Monday, 3 October 2016


Compliment: definition (noun) - an expression of admiration or praise; (verb) - to express admiration or praise.
A compliment then is a verbal gift, if you like, that is offered to make the recipient of the compliment feel good about themselves, or force the recipient to notice, because others including the compliment-giver have noticed, that they have done something well. To receive a compliment is one of life's pleasures. It should be a surprise. It should not come with any sense of expectation. It should be delivered genuinely. If it meets all these things, then it brings with it a warm glow; a bit like love. Fish for, or reject a compliment and it loses its gilt edge and become distinctly soured and chilly.

The word has origins in the mid 17th century, from the French compliment and Italian complimento. The complimenti of this blog title means congratulations. Which is, in itself, a means of praising someone. Well done on being who you are! On achieving so many birthdays! On rising up the career ladder! On passing your exams! All imply that admiration and praise are directed enthusiastically at the recipient - Complimenti!

When did you last receive a compliment?

When did you last give one?

Do you remember your best compliment?

And what if the compliment you remember is not gilt-edged but two-edged; a little bit nice but nasty at the same time? The barbed or poisoned compliment delivered with calculated malice; meant to hurt and belittle and insult the recipient. Sometimes, referred to as a back-handed compliment; verbally striking the recipient with the back of the hand. The trusting open palm, turned away, thought entirely of gain to self and nothing but pain offered to the recipient; the true intention concealed behind words with dual meaning. The back-handed compliment is avaricious, cowardly, perfunctory and mean. It criticises while being superficially nice.

"you look great for your age"

"I love that dress; it does wonders for your figure"

"Wow! I can't believe you're married to him/her; he's/she's gorgeous"

"I really respect you, especially the way you don't care how you look"

"The book's brilliant; I didn't know you knew so many big words"

"Your garden looks beautiful; I love the way the weeds give it a natural look"

"I love the way you achieve the shabby-chic look of your house so effortlessly."

Have you received any of these? Or any similar? Or worse, have you delivered any of them? How did it make you feel? Pretty sick? Bitter? Ashamed even?

There's a saying, 'Do something nice every day.' Delivering a compliment is a nice thing to do. But not if it's calculated. Log looking-for-good-things-that-other-people-do into your daily radar. And if you notice something acknowledge it. Deliver a compliment. Make it genuine. Then, feel some of the radiated warmth - a warmth that you created - and feel better about yourself.

Back for a moment to the subject of best compliments - for me it's any favourable comment, that I then take as a compliment, about my children, dogs, garden, house, writing. About children = very best.

But perhaps the best ever - the one that made me really warm inside - received when I was wracked with doubt and had my worried face on and was fretting that maybe I hadn't done enough or listened long enough or had acted bluntly towards someone else, was delivered recently by Eldest. It was quite the nicest thing to be told. If I share it, it would turn me from a humbled and grateful and glowing with warmth recipient to fisher-man. I don't wish to fish.

It has been hard correcting the spelling from complement to compliment throughout this procrasti-ramble and I apologise if I have missed any.

To complement (verb) is to enhance something by improving it.

Confusion arises when things are either complimentary or complementary. I don't frequent jewellery shops but the daughter between Littlest and Eldest ... perhaps, Middlette and her brother could be Middlet, or Midda and Middo, or Waggimold and Amadaegus (they will understand!) ... has a broken ring and we found ourselves in the jewellers at the end of last week, where I spied this calligraphied notice 'Complementary engraving on every wedding ring.' Now, while the engraving might be artistically executed and enhance the emotional significance of the ring, I think what they meant was complimentary which means free. Perhaps, if the engraver was confident of his skills, it could be 'complimentary complementary engraving.'

Maybe other things, closer to life and theme of this blog, can also be both -

Four-legged-friend, who will wait for hours at the bottom of the stairs, for me -

- the love of a dog is both freely-given and life-enhancing; complimentary and complementary.