Friday, 26 October 2018

Time and dreams. And a mountain or two.

Time doesn’t stand still. Not for any man or woman. Time is physics. It proceeds and there is nothing that we can do about it. Not yet anyway. Probably not ever.

While perhaps it's not great writing to start with a cliche (or even a few), the standing still of time, as sometimes observed in a moment of awe, is something we can perceive. Sometimes. Okay, time doesn't actually stop. But it feels like it does. Insert here any moment when for you time 'stood still'; that moment, perhaps, when you had raced to summit a mountain and - with your feet standing on the highest point, your body in that state of elated exhaustion - you watched as the rising sun crept long pillars of light above the distant horizon. And you realised - literally standing still - that you were holding your breath. 

The sun of course went on rising and time did not actually stop. At moments like these, we tell ourselves that it did; just for a moment. But that is an illusion. A mere mistaken perception. Even the language around its hypothetical stopping is, if you think about it, so entangled in the definition of time - a moment, passing, still, sometimes - that it needs the momentum of time to make any sense at all. You can't interrupt something if that something is not an entity that can be interrupted. It must be interrupt-able. Time is a continuum. It proceeds. Relentlessly, perhaps. Reliably, yes. It must have started somewhere - at The Beginning Of Time. And we can hypothesise all we like about how it will end. But the End Of Time, when it happens, won't involve us. We will be long gone before Time ends. 
This, hypothetical space-time conundrum or Physics as it is sometimes called, is, however, not what I set out to write about; I have allowed myself a temporary distraction and have strayed from my story - if that is what this blog is. So, I will move hastily back to it. Ahem ... while it is impossible to stop time (... see above!) it is possible to step back and observe time passing. This we do in retrospect: we see ourselves age - wrinkles appear, our skin thins to fine crepe and our bodies become lumpen and slowing, stiffen; we remember; we watch our children grow, our gardens mature, our lives adapt and change. This retrospect is a reflection on past times. It is an awareness of history, of time that cannot be changed. Which in turn makes us contemplate the time that we can change. We can change the future. It's not happened yet. Just jump onto the bandwagon of time and steer it in a direction we want it to take. Simple, eh? Well, yes - we can do this. If we want to. If we believe we can. We can even dream of a fast-forwarding of time. After all, we do this when we ask ourselves ‘What if?’ 

What if?

What if I had no time left? Yup, we’re straight in with the biggest what if. What if next year, next month, next week, tomorrow, were my last? What if I knew that my time were about to end? What would I do? What would I change? Would I change at all or am I content with who I am right now?

Aside from the incredible heart-ache and sadness of telling those nearest to you that your time with them has a use-by-date closer than any of you had expected, how would you react? 

Through work and among family and friends, I have observed many in this position. It is always sad. Always a shock. Always hard. But ...

There are those that rail against it, like caged lions, furiously throwing themselves against the bars of shortened time. They are angry - so very angry - and bitterly aflame in their own grief. They are frightened too - their fear acting as fuel to their anger. And they are terribly, terribly difficult to help. 

Some give up immediately and slide into a slow declining gloom, deaf to any words of encouragement, deaf to offers of help and deaf in the end to the things they really needed to hear. 

Some write frenzied bucket lists and embark on frenzied trips with frenzied family and frenzied itineraries and frenzied cancelled appointments until life inevitably collapses into a frenzied crash-landing of an end, with no time left for goodbyes. 

But ... it is better to love. To love and to be loved. To support and to plan. You can't stop time. But you can optimise every minute that's left. Yes, tick some bucket list items off but do it with love; surrounded by love and sharing love with loved ones. 

The last response to the curtailing of time in that biggest what if of all, is awesome to observe; awesome and very humbling. If … when … I were in that dreadful position, would I have it in me to neither a lion, nor a frenzied bucket-lister be? I wouldn’t waste time being the gloomy one, so my neither, nor stands. I hope I’d be the strong last one. Which would you be? The last? So easy to aspire to. So hard to do in our ambitious, forward thinking, westernised culture where death is still a taboo.

Dragging this back to the big what if? What would you do differently? Why ask this now? Perhaps, what I’m getting at is a need to re-appraise our lives. I think this is called the mid-life crisis. Maybe, I should have had mine a few years ago - maybe, I’ve been having it for the past decade or so - maybe, that’s what makes me perennially indecisive and an entrenched procrastinator. Maybe, it’s what makes me say maybe so often. What if?

What if?

What if I could change three things; what would they be?

Slap the Trumpster off his pedestal and reinstate the agreements on global climate change.

Nominate Paddington for the next James Bond - he’d be great; think about it - imagine the weapons he’d fit under his hat next to the marmalade sandwiches. Okay, they’d get a bit sticky and he’d press the wrong switch or smear ear wax in places where ear wax should never be seen (should it be seen anywhere? …) but he’d brilliantly bumble his way into enemy territory and defeat them with his charm. 

Ban palm oil. And in doing so save the last remaining orangutans.

Ye-e-es … but, I think you’d anticipated three things I’d change about me and aside from protesting and dreaming, I can’t make the three above happen. And anyway, I think Paddington is probably not in the running for Bond, in anyone's head other than mine. So me - what would I change about me?

Well … that would be telling. Better to ask yourself what three things you would change about you? Go on. Ask yourself, What if?

And then do them. What’s stopping you? No; really - what is stopping you? If your answer is time, remember that time is the one thing you absolutely cannot take for granted. And even more absolutely than absolutely, you cannot stop or pause or even slow it down. It just is and you need to hold on to your ride and make it good for as long as you can.

P.S. Me? My what if? My three things? 

I would do more of this

and this 

and this

and this

and ... well, this. This writing thing. This procrastinating and dreaming words onto a page.

Which is five things but who's counting?

p.s. A bit more about orangutans

orangutan conservation borneo


Thursday, 14 June 2018


Ah, spelling! Or more accurately mis-spelling. And in particular, my near mis-spelling of the title above.

As AA Milne said with the voice of Pooh, or Piglet, or maybe wOl,

'My spelling is Wobbly. It's good spelling but it wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.' He went on to say that 'spelling isn't everything.'

But ...

Mark Twain said that 'anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word lacks imagination.'

But ... hmm ...

Unfortunately, I can think of two ways to spell the title of this blog - the homonym for wort would create a major Wobble and would turn an innocent blog about plants - yes; plants ... you have the homonym in your head, don't you? ... to something entirely different; unpleasant skin eruptions in unspeakable places. All entirely ... still stuck in your mind? ...  yes, entirely unintended. Yes, un-in-ten-ded. Absolutely. Not a w-a-rt in sight.

Bollocks on the other hand. You didn't see that coming, did you?

Bollocks, there I've typed it again. Bollocks; specifically bollock-worts are plants. Yes they are.

And I collect them.

I am a collector of bollockworts. A bollockwort fancier, if you like. If you're reading this and 'no, actually, you don't like', just flashed through your head like a neon, red light in a dark, dark box, then you're still treading through the land of smut and I apologise, though I'd argue that the fault cannot be laid solely at my feet.
Incidentally, I have twenty four bollockworts. Pink ones ... you still have the wrong ones in your head, don't you? Purplish ones ... hmm, tut-tut? Spotty ones; a striped one; yellow ones and several that are dormant and currently residing in the utility room.

Dormant. There's a clue. When dormant, they are pretty uninteresting. Their tangled protuberances press against the side of their containers and some rise up into the air, like slightly tortuous, erect fingers. If a bollockwort's container looks like it can barely contain the exuberance of the bollockwort's growth, then before it bursts it must replaced; in other words, it is time to repot the orchid.

The orchid. What did you think I was writing about? Bollockwort is the old name for orchid. Because the tubers of old orchids looked like ... well, they looked like bollocks. Which interestingly is why the surgical procedure to remove ... one of those ... is called an orchidectomy.

Now that we both know what I am writing about, I can admit, without inuendo, that I am passionate about bollockworts. Though mine are the modern skinny-rooted variety. The roots - tangled and tortuous - are a little like swollen veins, but are not remotely bulbous; not in fact bollock-like at all.

The worts are a family of plants, the roots of which, historically, were thought to have medicinal properties. A Roman called Dioscorides is thought to have suggested that a plant or part of a plant that resembled a part of the human body could be used to treat any ailments affecting that look-alike organ. For example, a toothwort bears its flowers on a pillar-like stem with rows of slightly yellowing white-tipped florets that do perhaps - with one eye shut and the other squinting at the plant - resemble the sort of decaying, long-in-the-tooth teeth that would have a twenty-first century dentist reaching for the abrasive toothpaste and embarking on a frenzied afternoon of scraping and scaling. Toothwort roots, as you may have guessed, were chewed as a cure for toothache.
Dioscorides may have started this dubious classification system but it continued for centuries, with the discovery of new and peculiar worts by herbalists who had vivid imaginations and invented often poisonous wort-derived concoctions - liverwort, bladderwort, bloodwort, lungwort, fleawort and, of course, bollockwort.

Many worts have independent of human-anatomical-reference names - dragonwort, St John's wort, brotherwort, felonwort, mugwort, sneezewort and hog(s)wort. I wonder if apothecaries offered a line in potions to rid customers of unruly dragons, brothers, felons, pigs, saints, muggles and schools of witchcraft and wizardry - a dastardly form of Middle Ages protectionism, perhaps.

Bishopswort appears to have had two significant uses - boiled and crushed it was applied to gouty joints; tied into posies and hung at the corners of the pig sty, it warded off the evil spirits that carried little piggies off to pig heaven in the night. Whether it was named after a bishop with gout, or a bishop who looked like a pig, or a portly and gouty bishop who kept pigs and so immersed himself in the rearing of pigs that he grew to resemble them (in the same way that dog owners often look like their dogs) is a question that could be turned into a story but one that appears not to have an answer.

Though they keep their family name, the myths and superstitions associated with worts are simply de-bunked myths and largely forgotten superstitions. A load of old bollock(-wort)s, like these -

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Confetti for the brain. A little bit of history regarding a use for holes and a couple of quotes.

Confetti - noun: small pieces of coloured paper thrown over a bride and groom following their marriage ceremony. Also the bane of church yards and wedding venues - who wants to exit church after their favourite spinster aunt's funeral and slip on the papier mâché mush of last weekend's weddings, or step, in your wedding gown, onto a pink spattered step when your colour theme is lilac?

Confetti - derived from the Latin confectum, meaning something prepared. Which suggests that there is something missing from the traditional wedding rhyme 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue ... something prepared.' How about something shared ... declared ... or ensnared??

Nature's confetti is all over the ground at this time of year -

The garden, footpaths, and pavements are covered in blossom snow. And, when he falls asleep beneath the apple tree, it speckles Four-legged-friend's black coat.

The confetti we know today - bits of bio-degradable (church and venue friendly) coloured paper or flower petals or died flowers - replaced the seeds or rice which were showered over the happy couple in the past. These were thrown as a blessing and sign of fertility but like hail-stones, rice and seeds hurt and pricked the skin. I guess the seeds presented another, longer lasting headache to those charged with overseeing the upkeep of church yard gardens. I guess also that which seeds were chosen might conceal a hidden message for the wedded couple - lily seeds, harbingers of funerals; blackthorn of impending death; orchids for love, friendship and fertility; morning glory for peace and happiness. You could get quite schemingly and secretly poetic with your intended message and no one would know until months later.

The first paper confetti was produced in Milan, in 1875; the invention of a textile manufacturer, called Enrico Manglini. He produced silk and housed his silk worms in hole-y paper. Being an inventive type and one to seize an opportunity to avoid waste, he looked around for something to do with the bits of hole and noticed that the discs of paper - the holes - created a snow-storm when thrown into the air. Why did he throw them? Perhaps, at first, he didn't; perhaps he observed his factory workers throwing the holes from the prepared paper sheets of hole-y silk-worm-hotels. This snow-storm became the confetti that replaced the sugared coriander seeds or coriandoli that had, prior to Manglini's papery snow, been thrown at performers in the Milan carnival. I should think they were very grateful to him. Bits of paper wriggling down between you and your clothes would be far less uncomfortable and less sticky, than sharp coriander seeds and less likely to attract mice to you discarded clothing.

Confetti as metaphor: I was discussing books at the weekend and described my teenage reading of John Buchan as confetti for the brain. I know - I'm not entirely sure what I meant either. Something along the lines of trifling, entertaining, unchallenging, enjoyable, inspiring and unthreatening - a pleasant stroll through bright and lightly literary fare.
My brain confetti was swiftly drenched as I leapt from Buchan to Tolstoy and Turganev and Nabokov and found their Russians too serious for paper holes.

Confetti is fun. It is beautiful and imbued with love and happiness. And it gives inspiration to others:

Ray Bradbury said 'I'm interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them.'

John Updike (much rearranged and condensed) wrote 'to distribute ... one's memories and fantasies ... as ... dark marks on paper ... as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind ... is surely a great privilege.'

Confetti - topical: will Meghan and Harry have some; what will it be (I'm guessing petals ... or, if they're feeling mischievous, bubbles)

Confetti - topical: the trees are full of it

Showers of butterflies can also mimic confetti; even one dances lightly through the air, floating much like a disc of paper before flitting back to a flower

Friday, 13 April 2018

If I put up my hand

If I put my hand up,
if I try to have my say,
will anybody listen? 

If I tread softly in a wood of silver trees
and whisper susurrations;
snippets sparsely spoken from my soul -
my supplications rising in the warming breeze,
will my words rustle any of the paper leaves
and stop them falling?

falling to our precious fragile earth.

Fragile is our world.
Fragile our grasp of what - it - is.
One world. Precious. And us,
holding on,
mere atoms in a surging sea of selfish, greedy strife.
Fragile is our hold, our will, our voice. Our life.

To right a wrong with words
is right.
To hit back with fury risks a monster
roused. Stirred to act; tit for tat.

Tit for tat.

Tit for tat.
An eye for an eye.
Think on that.

If I put up my hand
and cry. And cry. Will it stay
the will of leaders who capitulate and bluster
and risk throwing our lives away.

Let us not forget.
World Peace - that illuminated icon,
precarious as a glass balanced
on some far away, razor-edged horizon.

That hard-fought dream of peace.
Hard-fought on fields in France.
Hard-fought in dessert sands.
Hard-fought on sea,
in sky and mountain lands.
Hard-fought. Hard-fought.

Hard. But not impossible to shatter.

Let History speak. I am one. I am weak.
Yet words are not. Words have power;
more power than guns or bombs. Or tears.
Words create change.
Words can. With words we can survive.
Give words a chance.


Give words a chance.

If I put up my hand,
will anyone hear my words?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Walking and thinking. A meander, some quotes and lunch.

I own dogs - Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins. 

I own dogs and therefore I walk. I walk the dogs. And I walk me, obviously.

Learning how to walk is one of the milestones on our journey from infancy to adulthood. So ordinary. So fundamental. So universally ... well, ... useful.
We walk to the sink to brush our teeth. We walk to the kettle to pour a hot drink. We walk to fall into the arms of those we love. We walk to work. We walk to the cinema. 
We walk to .... 

We don't always have to walk to do or achieve something. 

We can walk aimlessly. In Old Scots this would be daundering, as in 'I go out for a wee daunder wi' my dugs.' Like this -

Walk - definition, (mostly) from online OED: verb - to move at a regular pace by lifting and setting down each foot in turn, while never having both or all feet off the ground at the same time (that would be a jump!)

In the English language, we have lots of words (... again, mostly from the OED) that mean walk - stroll, saunter, stride, stomp, amble, plod, trudge, tramp, trek, march, traipse, roam, shuffle, perambulate. That last is used frequently by the bipeds in my family to avoid the quadrupeds becoming overexcited when asking 'Is it time for a ...' and 'Fancy a ...' and 'Who'd like to come for a ... later?'

Per-am-bul-ate; a secret code word for walk. Or, per from latin, meaning through and ambulare, also  from latin, meaning to walk. So perambulate means through walking. And this is the definition of walks that I like the most. It's not just the act of walking; the useful, (almost) universal, physical, one foot in front of the other purposeful travelling - the get me from a to b or away from c act of walking - but the through-walking perambulate that this walker wants to think on.

Yes, I walk - a target of 13,000 steps a day - every day. Yes, I take it for granted (and I realise the arrogance of that statement and that this discussion excludes all those who for some reason can't walk but stay with me because I think we all - if we can - also go for walks seeking entirely other intentions and outcomes). Yes, I walk for exercise. Yes, I walk because I want to have healthy dogs not dog-food-filled barrels on stick-legs. Yes, I walk because the dog-owning community expects me to. And I walk because this blog is called Walking the Dog and I have to have something to walk about. Hah! There it is ... something to walk about. It's the something to walk about that takes me on a walk far more frequently than the physical need: it is the mental need to walk. To think. To find answers and dreams and stillness and healing and ideas and stories and peace and existence through walking. 

Nietzsche said, 'Only thoughts conceived while walking have value / All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.'

And Hippocrates claimed, 'Walking is a man's best medicine.'

I agree with both. Walking takes us out of our lives. It shows us things that we otherwise pass by without noticing. It gifts us time. 

These pictures were taken on several recent soul-restoring walks (... 'soul-restoring', too much? Not if you consider the spring clean afforded to your head by fresh air, wind in your ears and the cutting beauty of sunlight and blue sky and the new green everywhere at this time of year that assaults your eyes. It's like you've taken the mess inside your head - stacks of half-thoughts and teetering pillars of emotions - to a mind-librarian and come away with catalogued shelves of ideas and a personalised re-written route-map for the future).

Three weeks ago, on a beach in Suffolk -

... 'never doubt the clouds will break' ... Robert Browning; slightly misquoted -

Perambulating affords us time to notice things. Reflections in a boat filled with rain-water

and sun highlighting the white gable edges and the winter-worn colours of beach huts against a back-drop of grey clouds.

'Each time he took a walk he felt as though he were leaving himself behind ... he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within ... ' Paul Auster

'Walk neither faster nor slower than your own soul. Because it is your soul that will teach you the usefulness of each step you take.' Paolo Coelho

From Suffolk to Staffordshire and the Dales. More clouds and more head space.

Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins walk in order to walk. And to keep in the company of their two-legged family members. They also walk to sniff and smell and stop at every tussock or gate post or puddle that takes their fancy. Slurry overspill was a particular favourite in the Dales. Like artisanal chocolate poured across the road, apparently.

A dog's rule of walking - shared with a Bear of Little Brain - is that 'It is more fun to walk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?"'

... how close can we get to that sandwich?

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Saunter, dream and sometimes marvel

Sometimes, when I visit an art exhibition, it is enough to spend an hour or so getting lost in the paintings.

Sometimes, the paintings are not to my taste and rather than getting lost in the art, it loses me and I leave feeling that I have walked through a sweetshop and failed to eat any of the sweets.

I have been to art exhibitions where every picture is a wow - Turner, Lowry, the 2017 BP portrait award - and to some where none is - Rauschenberg at Tate Modern. And I have been to some unexpected gems - Ernest Shepherd's illustrations at the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A and a marine art exhibition in 2016, in a small maritime gallery in Mystic, USA.

Special exhibitions or event exhibitions are expensive and I have devised a private, retrospective is-it-worth-it score. If there is one picture that makes me stop and stare. And stare again. That pauses time. And takes my breath away. If there is one of these - there only needs to be one - then the is-it-worth-it worthiness is confirmed. A good exhibition might have several wow pictures but it takes only one for me to consider my money well spent.

Of course, what is a moment of art-appreciating bliss for me might leave others non-plussed; cold even.
For example, Littlest doesn't get Rothko. I do.
Gerhard Richter (look him up) paints sublime abstract interpretations of music like a woven watery landscape of colourful threads - I love them but I know others who don't.
Van Gogh's iconic blurry, swirling yellow moon in the inky dark, star-pocked sky, of The Starry Night 1889, is all the more astonishing when you understand that it was painted while he was within the Saint-Remy asylum and probably suffering the side effects of digitalis treatment. This perhaps explains the almost child-like brilliance of the painting but it's that garish naivety and the troubled addled mind behind it that half turn me away. It gets a half-wow from me (though The Whitney, NY, where this Van Gogh is housed, was worth it - the self-portrait of Hopper a big, big wow).

Paintings tell stories. And I love stories. The picture an artist produces has a narrative, intrinsic to what he or she is seeing or trying to say. We see what the artist painted. But not necessarily what he or she saw. There is a difference.

Edgar Degas (he of the ballet dancers) said, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."

We might understand the artist's picture but each of us will interpret it with our own ideas; our own stories. We bring all our previous experiences and beliefs and sometimes prejudices to formulate what we see. And what I see is not necessarily what you see. Or what Mrs Blogs, recently widowed and on holiday alone from deepest darkest countryside, sees. Or Jenyfyr, whose parents didn't know how to spell and were puzzled by her decision to leave their drafty yurt and become a legal secretary, sees. Or retired Frank, who wrote the definitive guide to sixteenth century artists' pigments and still receives invitations to speak at universities, sees.  Or Poppy, who sits on the floor and twiddles with the volume on the black box dangling round her neck and has to hold the too-big head phones with her other hand, sees (when she can see past all the knees). We're all different and no interpretation is right - except perhaps one might argue because it makes no sense otherwise, the artist's. Ultimately, the artist's picture is a gift for us to take and do with what we like.

Here are some pictures and their stories that I have recently marvelled at. At risk of being boring - because I'm not sure if I can legally insert images here - I could say shut your eyes and listen and see in your mind's eye but as you're hopefully still reading this and need your eyes for that, it might be better to say 'let me tell you a story' but bear in mind it's my story and if you do see these paintings one day, you might see something entirely different.

1) Modigliani - on at Tate Modern until 2nd April. If you visit, look for The Cellist, painted in 1909. I see a man in a collarless shirt, in a tired apartment and bathed in a warming glow probably from a single candle, with the room behind him in partial shadow. The cello looks a little battered, it's wood slightly mottled, almost bruised in places. But while these observations are pretty and have a weak narrative, the story comes alive in his face. His head is slightly bowed; his face expressionless, unlined, framed by thick dark hair on his head, chin and across his upper lip. Still just a picture. But ... but, but ... Modigliani shuts the cellist's eyes and suddenly the narrative is there - so strong that you almost hear the music. Who is he? What is he thinking? Why does he look so alone? Absolutely intriguing.

2) The Turners at Tate Britain, now and at any time you want to visit. And free. Saunter and dream and marvel at them all. All are incredible. I could lose myself among them for hours; days. However, for this purpose here take one - the one that Littlest flopped down in front of and sat staring at until I dragged her away. My work at encouraging her to enjoy art - well and truly done. A wow moment for me in itself. All the exhibition fees that went before, worth it. Worth it with bells on. The painting? The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817. Huge, striking, dramatic - yes, all of those things but also storytelling at it's very best. Imagine: a doomed, soon to be ruined stone city, stragglers of it's population who failed to flee on the ships that left the port earlier that eventful day, scattered broken belongings on the quayside, a calm estuary reaching out to a distant golden sea and the sun glowing ever nearer to the horizon illuminating the now impassible path to salvation. Look at the huddles of people clinging to each other. Look at the despair on their faces. Imagine the impending, inevitable sacking of their city, their lost hopes and smashed dreams. The sun is setting. Setting like it always does but this setting sun is magnificent and terrible; the last rays of searing light sealing the fate of an abandoned people. Beyond lies darkness and in half-shadow in the right foreground sits a woman, crumpled and clinging to a wall, with her head in her hands. See what I mean by great storytelling? That one hopeless woman in the shadows, beyond the thinning light of the dying sun says to me all that Turner distills into the whole picture. Brilliant.

3) Tissot, at the magnificent Impressionists in London exhibition, at Tate Britain until 7th May. I had not come across Tissot until this exhibition - another that Littlest and I visited at half term (after I had dragged her away from the Turners). The Impressionists were remarkable. This was an exhibition of many wows. Definitely worthy on my is-it-worth-it score. But it introduced me to Tissot and to the finer points (excuse the pun) of dry-point and etchings. And this lifted it high in my worthiness rankings and encouraged me to visit the Desboutin's (more etchings) at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge last week (also very good).
Back to Tissot and specifically Emigrants, drawn in 1878. Littlest had to drag me away from this picture. Imagine a drawing of a mother carrying her infant child; steadying herself because the load she carries is heavy. She is in an elevated position in the centre of the picture because she is about to step down onto the deck of a ship. A weathered old man, perhaps a sailor, reaches up to help her, his face slightly hidden beneath the brim of hat. His clawed hand gripping the ladder hints, in my head, at desperation and neediness - what are his motivations in helping the young woman and is he entirely to be trusted? Above her is a forest of masts and flags and gathering clouds. It's dark and brooding; quite Victor Hugo-esque in it's bleakness. And - here the story stirs - behind the woman, still on land, is an older man and the face of a wondering, curious, confused child. Just the face. From the picture's title, she is an emigrant, as Tissot was, and is leaving somewhere with her baby and small bag of belongings. Is she also leaving the wondering child? What is she fleeing from? Where is she going? Tissot teases us with questions and sends our imaginations spinning off into myriad narratives; little stories that answer some questions and sprout more. Wonderful.

If you have got this far, you either think I'm mad and living in a fantasy world or you agree that flat static pictures are capable of telling incredible stories. Am I alone in thinking that they would lose something if they moved; if the figures were animated, as in the world of Harry Potter?


turner-the-decline-of-the-carthaginian-empire - The Emigrants

Monday, 22 January 2018

Oh bother ...

I can't believe I've let #WinniethePoohDay pass without posting something about the bear of little brain who is and always has been my favourite literary character. Were I ever cast away on a desert island, the collected tales of Pooh would be the book or books I would choose to have with me.

Alan Alexander Milne created a character who has universal appeal.

Whether we are young or old, in China or Dubai or Greenland or a windy village in a wintry England, we all have Pooh days. Days when we 'stop to think and forget to start again.' And days when we fail to 'pay attention to where we are going and without meaning to get nowhere.' I have those days all the time.

There is Winnie-the-Pooh thinking or philosophy or whatever-you-want-to-call-it in all of us.

For a birthday treat this week, my big children invited me to London. It was one of those 'I'll come down* to London and spend the day with you for your birthday doing whatever yo want to do' that turned into a 'I know it's my birthday but for my birthday treat my brother and I want to take you, our mother, to a surprise treat for you. ** And until we get there we're not telling you where we're going.' Well, we went past all the tube stops that I knew. The stops where I could have made a guess where we might have been going. We strayed into city realms where this country-mouse felt - well, I'm not sure what I felt exactly - I was having such fun simply wondering. And if I felt lost, I knew that I wasn't. Because to misquote Pooh, the place where I was wasn't lost.

When we - in my case narrowly, having avoided being turned into road jam by a taxi that appeared quickly from nowhere - reached our slippery destination (slippery due to the white ceramic-looking tiles on the ground. Outside! In the rain! It made the ground look edgy and bright, and like a head-injury waiting to happen), I still didn't know what we were going to see. I knew now that we were going to see something. I'd seen the excellent Ballenciaga exhibition here last month. But I couldn't remember what else was on.


of course.

Perfection. I can't think of a better treat. I can't think why I didn't cry. I (nearly) always do. Actually I nearly did. Quite a bit closer to the crying side of nearly crying than the nearly side. This is what did it - Christopher Robin saying his prayers:

I read this as a child with a whithper - the little me had a lithp: 'whithper who dare-th, Chrithtopher Robin ith thaying hith prayerth.' Years of elocuthion lessons got rid of the lisp. Almotht.

The exhibition was all about Pooh but more about EH Shepard, the illustrator whose pencil drawings are at the heart of my Winnie the Pooh memories. Somehow he conjured graphite and paper into the stuff of magic - pictures that moved long before Harry Potter had moving photographs

Zoom in on this drawing to properly see the shifting outlines of a bear bouncing - bump! Bump! Bump! - down the stairs. Brilliant!

He was also strikingly good at trees

which is just as well given that the adventures of Pooh take place in the Hundred Acre Wood.

It's difficult sometimes to tease apart the original Milne from the familiar Disney Pooh. I have children and when they were growing up the Heffalump and Tigger Movies were favourites. Unlike some,  I can forgive the American gotten that slips into Tigger's vocabulary but I have an uncomfortable tingle that runs up my spine when the gopher whistles and wheezes his 50s gangster beavery form into the films. He even says 'I'm not in the book y'know.' He shouldn't be in the films.

Oh bother. It's going to be another tomorrow - and another - before I post this. Winnie-the-Pooh Day Plus One  T'woo Three Four ...

I'm sure Pooh would have something to say about this delay. All life is in Pooh after all. Let's see ...

People say it's impossible to do nothing, but I do nothing every day.

Yes, the procrastinating bear. Perhaps, that's why I am so fond of him.

Another quote, that I live by is this

One of the advantages of being disorganised is that one is always having surprising discoveries.

And, finally, this honest, tear-jerking, sentimental quote is sincerely and with all my love for my children

If there ever comes a day when we can't be together, keep me in your heart, I'll stay there forever.

up to London or down to London? Does it matter?

** Thank you. Thank you.

***Country Mouse might be hibernating for a week or two while she contemplates writing course applications and what she wants to do when she grows up or grows beyond her current state of perpetual procrastination and mid-life unease. Is there life beyond procrastination? Here's to hoping there is.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

On snoring, barking and (un-)stable geniuses


Snoring - go on; say 'snoring.' And again. And again. Play with the word; roll it around your mouth - sno-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-rrrr-ring.
Try it again.
I defy you to do this without a tiny twitch appearing at the corner of your mouth. A tiny twitch plus a slight wrinkling of the skin at the outer angles of your eyes. Why is snoring funny?
Why, for example, did I find it impossible to discuss snoring yesterday without smiling; in a professional situation where smiling was probably inappropriate? Snoring is funny. In the same way that everything about toilets is funny to a seven year old boy. It makes us smile; childishly. It's something only other people do; isn't it? It's funny! Unless you live with someone who snores. Or you are the snor-ee ... snor-er ... ? ... one who snores ... and live life in a permanent fog of day-time exhaustion.

Snoring is not restricted to humans.

Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins snore: they sprawl in front of the aga paws twitching as they chase a rabbit/fox/pigeon; facial muscles doing an Irish jig; muffled, whimpering barks as they bravely fend off haystacks-that-weren't-there-yesterday. Then, comes the snore and they're awake! And on their feet looking around for the 'Who', who did that! They always stretch after this, as if to say 'I'm fine, me - no I didn't just wake myself up snoring. No no no. I was about to get up anyway. Snoring - pah! Not me.' Or maybe I'm putting words in their mouths. Which would be pointless because they can't speak. They do however bark. Often in the middle of the night.

Which raises the question - is it better to be hauled from the realms of sleep by noisy snoring humans or barking dogs?


Maybe, consider it this way - think about the creators of the noise. The snorer who gets kicked. Or shoved. Or rolled off his back. Or smothered with the nearest pillow. The dogs who are let out. Chase the noisy fox out of the garden. Wake all the neighbours. And then, satisfied with a job well done, go back to bed. The person woken-up either commits a snoring-related murder or by being the owner of the dogs is responsible for waking the local babies, inserting baying hounds into neighbours' nightmares, teasing the cockerel that lives somewhere, and alarming the herd of deer sheltering beyond the fence. Deer have eyes. A whole herd of deer have dozens of them. All brightly still and staring in the torch-light. A sudden sea of eyes that makes the dog owner yelp in alarm.
The only beings that win here are the dogs.

... would I rather be woken by snoring or barking? Barking - every time. Despite the cold and often rain and staring deer eyes, when the dogs come back in, I can return to bed and sleep. Sleep - impossible next to a snorer.

Why am I writing a blog about snoring? Partly because snoring is funny but it also isn't funny and snor-ees need help and sympathy and arnica for the bruises on their legs. But also because I can't be bothered adding my voice to the shithole debate. I am fed up with being outraged. I have outrage fatigue.

Though ... returning to snoring - the dehydrating effect of the caffeine in 12 cans of diet coke a day and a body habitus that is more late-Brando than lithe-Al Pacino hint, perhaps, that the very stable genius snores. I wonder ... Bet that won't be mentioned in his medical report!

One final non-snoring-related point - I think 'stable genius' is an oxymoron. Stable implies a regularity of thought; unwavering, steadfast, concrete. Very unlikely, in fact, to drift off into inspired, out-of-the-box thinking. Stable suggests that the box is rigid, intransigent, hard-line, even mundane. Most geniuses are none of these things - they are unstable, dynamic, restless, quick thinkers who learn from their mistakes. To learn from one's mistakes, of course, would first require the stable genius to recognise and acknowledge them. Trying to lie one's way out of one's mistakes is not the mark of a genius. Unless we're talking evil ones ...