Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Chuntering Nonsense

I'm currently writing this from underneath my duvet, my trusty red scarf around my neck and a Small Wee Mabel stretched out over my toes. Why this level of decadent comfort and unusual cat closeness? The boiler has packed up. 

 
Oh yes, just in time for unspecified "spell of winteriness" (genuine quote from local weather forecast). 

I went out for a walk with a friend, leaving N and the boilerman chatting happily about annual service, bleeding radiators, blah blah temperature controls blah, and returned to find the house cold and N chatting less happily on the phone about circuit boards, replacement parts blah blah, soon as you can blah.

"Soon as you can" turns out to mean £350 quid for a replacement circuit board and we'll see the man in 2 days time to fit it. Marvellous. 

Although it's annoying to be wearing scarves and 4 layers indoors, it's not really an inconvenience. We have hot water still, thanks to the immersion heater. The oven still works so a decent bout of stew making means the downstairs is warm in the evening. We have 2 portable electric heaters that warm our offices during the day and there's a shop down the road selling hot water bottles if I get really desperate. 

I once sat a mock exam in an unheated school gym in the middle of winter during a particularly vicious cold snap. My friend and I took in 2 hot water bottles each: 1 for our feets and 1 for our middles. I am not at that stage yet. 

That old Christmas thing is looming ever closer into view from the Titanic that is life right now. In what is surely the closest sign that we are engaged and Officially Committed, N has asked me to buy him clothes. 

Oh the pressure!

Is the wool of that jumper too itchy? Will I upset him if I buy a shirt a size up to cover the wee paunch of lockdown belly he's proudly sporting? Is that colour going to make him look jaundiced or in fine fettle? Are the necklines on those t-shirts going to fit just right or make him feel like he's being strangled? Am I buying things that would suit a middle aged man and not the young thing he still envisages (until he has to dig on the plot when age suddenly bites)?

Obviously, I'm aware of the honour presented to me like it was my own Christmas gift ("buy me clothes - I haven't had anything new for years and you like buying clothes"), but still. Pressure. And before you ask, no. He does not get to buy me clothes. 

I've been very much enjoying finding new routes around my city. On Sunday, I needed the library but instead of taking my usual main route, I turned off down what I'm now renaming Urine Alley (okay, that bit was not enjoyable) and walked some back streets, enjoying the feeling of being sort of not sure where I was but also vaguely sure I was going in the right direction. And if I got completely off track, I could Google Map my way out of trouble. 

Found: little micro-breweries I didn't know were there, curious houses with odd angles to them, ghost signs for long gone businesses, intriguing front gardens with yellow painted doors, wrought iron lampposts that brought Narnia to mind and the delicate tracery of ivy roots on brickwork. Someone had piled books on their garden wall and a sign in wonky black pen told us to "help yourself!". By another front gate, there was a grate of mouldering apples with a similar sign but in crayon. 

I took one to fortify myself for the return journey. It was a cooker, not an eater. 

This month I have read Wintering by Katherine May - an exploration of our physical and emotional reactions to times of stress and difficulty. How our natural reaction is to hunker down, retreat, hibernate, winter. I liked very much the concept and the book is gently written, plus it's always nice when a book validates how you are feeling/behaving.  

On the topic of books, I'm very much enjoying a foray into essays and thinking by women. Next up is Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust, an exploration of walking. Which may sound silly but I love an aimless amble (as you've just read) and there can be something very profound and powerful about the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other... "Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned..."

The clock on the nearby church has just chimed to remind me it's time to get on with some real work. Spoilsport. I'm enjoying writing more and more these days, excited for the minutes I can snatch away from proper, paying work and spend them chuntering on about nonsense. I'm not sure there's a career in that though. 

Certainly not one that pays for unexpected boiler bills. 

I posted this on Instagram the other day and then spent HOURS worrying people would 
ascribe hidden meaning to it. There is no hidden meaning, I just like the way the smoke looks against
the blue of the walls. Sometimes a blown candle is just a blown candle.  
Other images: blue skies over the allotment. Sometimes November really pulls it out of the bag. 


Friday, November 19, 2021

November on the Allotment

The sighs of relief when I’ve taken myself up to the allotment at odd times this month have been deep and genuine. Half an hour snatched at lunchtime, early in the morning before a busy day, the last hour before dusk falls too heavily to see. This November is difficult. It would have been Dad's birthday month. It is Dad's birthday month.



What an I doing? Not a lot. Pacing. Looking. Thinking. I harvested the last of the potatoes. Planted the first of the bulbs. Dug out some deep rooted dandelions. Shook my head in despair at the slug-damaged brassicas. 

So much for nematodes. 

Amazingly, there are still flowers blooming. Marigolds, Cosmos, the climbing rose and the last sweet pea. They’re refusing to admit that their time is done. 


 

At the canal end of the plot, the sparrows are clattering and chattering around in the oranging knotweed. Their antics make the bare stems rattle. Another type of rustle makes me look up at the larch in time to see a squirrel racing from one branch to another. 

The robin comes along to check what I’m doing. Investigating the ground I’ve dug over for tasty bits. 

I come home with a good inch of mud on my boots, and at least another inch in the turn ups of my jeans, under my fingernails and, on one occasion, in my hair (I blame a particularly tough root that gave way with a snap and arched over my head, sprinkling me with mud as it went). 


I’ve gathered seed heads, shaking them over the ground before bagging them to come back home with me. I’ll put them in the airing cupboard to gently dry before shaking the last of the seeds into brown envelopes. 

The sun on Wednesday was strong in a blue sky, forcing the removal of jacket and scarf. I dug out weeds quickly, pruned back the wineberries, stood and watched the magpies shout insults at each other. 

Made some more plans. Went home and dropped an eye-watering amount of money on seeds. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Bimble in the City

At the beginning of November, in what I'm hoping is the last big excusion of the year*, we headed to London (twice in one year!). N had work and I was going for an explore. We were meeting up for the leaving do of one of his colleagues later in the day. 

The weather was perfect: cool, sunny and with that lovely tingle in the air that autumn brings. With strict instructions on how to cross the road (I once was nearly run over in London and only saved by N's quick reflexes...and better road sense), we parted ways on the tube and I headed to St Pancras Old Church


Old as in, it is the OLDEST site of worship in London. Tucked away behind the British Library, down past the Francis Crick Institute (where I muttered some rude words on behalf of Rosalind Franklin), and in a clean quiet spot of London, it's rather lovely. 

The church itself is mostly Victorian. Inside it's all whitewashed and sterile with some cracking iconography. Gilt images of saints that flicker in the light of the dozens of candles that people set out. 

I'd been reading about this place and Hardy's Tree and a particular grave, but before I put myself to the task of finding them, there were some substantial monuments to admire...



You've got to hand it to the Victorians, they give good monument. Not for them the discreet little plaque on a bench. At least, not for those that can afford something more splendid. And whilst it might not be practical, it does at least announce "THIS is how much I loved this person. THIS is how much I miss them. THIS is how much money I have to tell you all about them."

Mostly, of course, it's about status and showing off. Our man Morris, back in Kelmscott, kept his and his wife's affectingly simple but then, he doesn't strike me as an ostentatious man, more one that keeps his grief close and private. 

Hardy's tree is fenced off nowadays, so this is as close as I could get to it, which is annoying but I’d mostly come to see a different grave. 


This is the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She of  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the key feminist text (not that I've read it but, you know, one day I will. That and the Second Sex). Her youngest daughter, Mary (she of Frankenstein) would meet Shelley, who her father disapproved of (and rightly, in my opinion) there. Scurrilous rumour would have it she lost her virginity to him there. I'm not sure what to believe but a "sublime and rapturous moment" is rare in first-time stories, so I'm not totally on board. 

Mind you, it is exactly the sort of thing Shelley would do. *insert eye roll*

Anyway, back to our girl, Mary W G. I'm pleased to say that after a rackety start which saw her tearing around an unstable Europe after a bloke who was the definition of Not Worth It, she found a like mind, a supporter and a short-lived happiness (she died shortly after M S's birth) with William Godwin

I love that Godwin was considered an anarchist, but not where his daughter was concerned. He was furious about her liaison with Shelley and came across all Conservative Papa. I suspect he'd met chancers like Shelley before and had the measure of him. 

Today, people leave offerings on her tombstone. There was a motley but touching collection of small pebbles, shells and flowers on the top. Yes, I did add my own small pebble. Yes, I do always have a small pebble in my pocket. 

Then it was back through London via the British Library and Regents Park, to meet up with N to party the night away, up until the point all that walking caught up with my arthritis and I stopped, like a horse refusing a jump. 

I do need to get better at managing it and, in hindsight, clocking up 30,000 steps in one day is not a better way. Part of it is my refusal to let it stop me doing anything (until it most emphatically does) and part of it is sheer bloody mindedness. Actually, all of it is sheer bloody mindedness. 

But there, that was my last trip to London for a good long while. Now is the time to make soup laden with giner and turmeric, to crochet blankets under more blankets, to drink coffee from a flask at the allotment and watch the winter sun come up. 

Keep well everyone.

*I mean, it's absolutely aces to see everyone again and see things and go places but I'm quite tired now and my allotment needs me.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Of all the Morrises in all the World

I got to visit this one and class it as “work”. 

This one is the beautiful Kelmscott Manor, owned by William Morris, and found all the way down in the deepest wilds of south Gloucestershire, through twisty lanes, down steep hills and around tree-lined corners. 

I am a very lucky person. 



Morris brought this when it was still a farmhouse and set about filling it with beautiful things, including his own, hand blocked wallpaper, which the team are busy recreating. 

This was his weekend retreat, a place he described as “heaven on earth” and he populated it not only with things he loved but also people. His family came with him, the Pre-Raphelite crew (including Rossetti, who I suspect was actually quite mean and spiteful. He was definitely full of himself), anyone he took a shine too. 



I’ll confess here that I have a bit of a crush on Morris, the big beardy bear of a man that he was. He comes across as a gentle, yet passionate man. Deeply loyal and, of course, a bloody design genius. 

The more I read about him, the more I wish I could sit down with him, share some pints, and listen to him talk. 



I basically spent the entire visit fan-girling over him, being generally over excited and giddy with spinning my head around to look at everything. 

So much detail. In fact, I got so absorbed in those, I mostly forgot to take whole room pictures. Morris probably would have understood. 



I also spent much of the visit with my jaw open, saying “wow. I mean. Just. Wow.” like the professional I am. 

This eloquence especially came into it’s when when I walked into a room, peered at a painting and said “that looks like a Bruegel.”

“Oh yes,” said the curator. “It’s an original.” As casually as if it were cheese. 

I mean. Just. Wow. 



But my absolute favourite thing was the screen below. Morris painted this and would cart it around to lectures, standing in front to tell students and audiences his design principles, the elements of it. 

Can you imagine being in that audience? The screen, in an odd way, felt more personal than any of the paintings or tapestries. I can’t really explain why. It just did and I would have liked to take it home with me. 

Sadly, there are rules against that sort of thing. 




Morris himself, below. Look at those sad eyes. Don’t you just want to give him a hug and tell him it’ll be okay? Or at least prescribe him something for his gout. 



And it was just nice driving around my old stomping ground again. When I lived in Cheltenham, I was but a mere callow youth, who preferred burning the candle at both ends, providing one of those ends was a rave or a club, to doing anything cultural. So I missed this. 

But that was another life and besides, the wench is older and, a little wiser, now. 

Kelmscott reopens in the spring. Hard recommend. 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

October, where did you go?

I mean, who decided that time could speed itself up? I would have liked to savour this month, my favourite, but it wasn't to be. It moved at it's own sweet merry pace and I clung onto the sides.

A lot of it has disappeared into the hecticness of work. There have been more than a few working-late evenings and early-start days. Given that I mainly work from home, this is hardly down-the-coalmine stuff. The busiest contract is coming to an end in December and while I shall miss the people and the income, I'm looking forward to having the time to develop ideas I've had for a while. Courses and resources I want to develop may actually see the light of day. 

Speaking of courses, the RHS Level 2 that I started is...okay. The other students are great and I've learned how to take a softwood cutting, and mark out a square with perfectly straight edges and right-angled corners. The module the lecturers selected for us is "Vegetable Growing" and that feels a bit redundant as I already do that. I think I was hoping for something more challenging than an assessment on how well I double dig. But I will probably still learn new things as well, so I'm trying not to be bad-tempered about it. 


 Aware of my general lack of exercise and movement since working from home (I used to easily clock up 20k steps or more when I ran a museum), I brought myself a cheap pedometer and am pleased to report that every day this week, I've broken my target with room to spare. 

This morning, I woke to the sound of rain drumming its beat against the roof. It's quite a comforting sound on a Saturday when I have no plans, limitless tea and a warm Mabel leaning against my leg. I have a couple of candles lit, which I've been doing most mornings this month - sometimes, I sit and stare at the flickering, thinking of nothing. It's the nearest I come to meditation. 

 This week, I had to be in Birmingham for a meeting and it was fab. I do love that city, for all it's faults. We met at the extraordinary Library, ate lunch at the beautiful Ikon gallery after wandering up and over the canal. Shopped at Muji for my favourite pens (0.78 navy blue, thank you) and read on the train home. 

I have been reading Barbara Comyns' Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, but the desire to reach into the pages and soundly smack her selfish, self-serving husband is too great for my peace of mind. A friend came to the rescue with a copy of Luckenbooth, so that's my Halloween reading sorted. 


 I said goodbye to my lovely nutritionist at the start of the month. My excema, while under control, is still here despite blood tests, a veritable alphabet of supplements and nearly a year of restrictive eating. When she suggested yet another limitation, my brain snapped and went "Nope, can't do this any more." So I refused the next blood test, put my 2 remaining appointments on ice till next year and watched my bank balance breathe a sigh of relief. 

Not sure what to do about the excema now. It's still here like a flaky, aggravating pal who doesn't know the party is over. N suggested seeing a doctor. I probably should but can't yet face dealing with the receptionist that guards the appointments. 

 

Still working verrrry slowly on the Attic 24 Meadow blanket. The rest of the world finished theirs in February, it seems. It always takes me a year to finish one, what with one thing and another.

I managed to get the majority of the shallots into the ground at the allotment, and the last of the brassicas in. Now will come afternoons of pruning, weeding, planning and generally tidying up, especially inside the shed. I haven't created the little nest in there that I'd hoped, but maybe winter will be the time to do it. 

In N news, we got engaged. I should have led with that, shouldn't I?? The ring is just about the shiniest piece of kit I've ever worn and I've been married once before, in another lifetime. I do not have a photogenic enough hand for this ring. Plus, I can hear generations of Northern ancestors telling me to Know My Place. But lookit, pretty.

Waiting until it arrived to tell people was the hardest thing: I wanted to run through the streets with a cow bell yelling "Engaged! Engaged!"

The wedding will be next September, hopefully. I am too old for long engagements - they have a habit of drifting on for years with no resolution and I am of the age where 50 is hovering just on the edge of the horizon. I want to feel present. Anchored in a way I haven’t felt since Dad died. 

Plus, I want to gather everyone I know and love and vaguely tolerate together in a field, with wellies under the dress if necessary, and say thank you for being here despite everything, now raise a glass to my Dad, who would have given a better speech.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Bluest of Skies, the Leekiest of Leeks

Time at the allotment has been somewhat lacking recently. Work work work, socialising, weather. They've all conspired to keep me stuck indoors, feeling disconnected from the plot. So much so that I actually woke in a panic at midnight the other night, saying out loud "what will it do without me?". 

Yes, mad. 


The answer, obviously, is that it will keep on growing and doing it's own thing. After that midnight awakening, I took an hour off and headed up to the site. The sun was shining from an innocently blue sky that seemed to say "storms? What storms? Yesterday? Oh no, that couldn't have been me, look how blue I am."

Indeed, it was very blue. The sun shone right in my eyes all the way down there, forcing a squint. When I could open my eyes fully, it was just lovely. The still-wet grass shone, beaded cobwebs sparkled and I felt my spirits lift. 

What does work matter when there is this? 

I walked the boundary, as is my habit after reading The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds. I'm not much of a one for fey, wafty thinking, but for some reason, this book really stayed with me and I'm slowly adopting some of her tactics. The beating of the bounds is my favourite. I walk slowly round the plot, drinking my coffee and just looking. Since doing it, I feel like I've properly seen the space for the first time since getting it. 

After doing that, I set to the buddleia with the pruning saw, taking it right back to the ground. I am not, I confess, much of a fan of buddleia: I don't like the smell or the look, but I let it stay because the insects blinking well love it. Then, once October rolls round, I hack it right back to the ground. It's not died from this treatment yet, and comes back strong every spring. 


Whilst up there, I harvested the leeks. In truth these had probably been in the ground too long but like I said, life gets in the way. We haven't eaten them yet but given the smell, I think these may be the leekiest leeks ever. 

Whilst up there, I could hear buzzards screeling through the sky above my head. This is the first year I've seen buzzards in the city and it makes me feel like this is the place I'm settled in now (sorry N, sometimes it takes more than a mortgage). They are my favourite raptors ever since I stood on a hill and watched them ride thermals beneath the overhanging hilltop. The patterning on the tops of their wings are just beautiful.

Since then, I’ve managed another hour to take the beans down and put some onions in. I’m hoping to carve out some time later this week but the weather may conspire against me: downpours, not just showers are predicted. 

Still, it will tick along until I get up there. And I’ll walk the boundary and feel grounded again.   

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

What Happened to all the Books?

 

Asked nobody. 

But as there hasn't been a book update since...yikes...June, you're getting a sort-of-one anyway. 

You see, I am still reading - lots - I'm just not recording it anywhere. For the first time since 2014, I've stopped keeping my book diary. I rarely Instagram (when did that become a verb?) what I'm reading and I don't often mention it to anyone. 

It's not that what I've been reading has been unmentionable! More that I was beset with a whats-the-point feeling. What is it I'm trying to do with the diary? I don't mind re-reading books, in fact I've been known to actively seek out books I've already read just to enjoy them again. 

Nor am I embarassed by what I read. It's not like I've got all the works by EL James or Jeffrey Archer on the shelves (although I would ditch the Game of Thrones series if they were mine or I thought N wouldn't notice - I have tried covering them with Armistead Maupin instead) hiding on the shelves.

Do I think the Kid or any descendents of mine will be interested? No. And knowing the Kid, descendents are very unlikely, apart from my niece and nephew who surely won't care what Mad 'Burn the Patriarchy!' Aunty T read back in May 2017. 

I had to face the fact that I was probably really only keeping it to, well, show off. Mostly to myself, some to anyone lovely enough to stop by here and read stuff. A little to those mythical descendents who I imaged saying (in binary because all language will be obsolete by then and we'll just be brains in carbonite structures with electrical impulses for senses) "Gosh, look how well read our illustrious ancestor, Mad 'Burn the Patriarchy' Aunty T was! And she was right to burn it all down. May we forever deify her with this digital, virtual structure of a tree because there are no real trees now."

Maybe I should write dystopian fiction?

Anyway, the point of this is that the diary has been ditched and I am a much freer reader for it. There is an absence of pressure, a reduction of ego, a lack of assumed judgement at reading 4 Allinghams in a row. 

But what about the promise I made myself last August, when the world was breaking into tiny angry pieces and this small something became the tiniest raft of hope? I must confess that events of early this year derailed me for a little while, but I'm back on it and see no reason to stop. It has brought open new worlds for me and, I tentatively think, new thinking. I'll keep going.

Just finished: 

  • The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller - cutting through the sentimental nonsense that surrounds the Brontes, although there's a huge gap where Anne should be.
  •  Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay - enjoyable psychobiography rather than conventional biography.
  • Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham - because she's aces and I'm in love with Albert Campion

Ditched: the Patrick Melrose books because, fucking hell, who needs that toxicity in their lives?

 Top image of the Shakespeare & Co bookshop, Paris. Courtesy of The Guardian. Support independent bookshops! And burn the patriarchy!

Chuntering Nonsense

I'm currently writing this from underneath my duvet, my trusty red scarf around my neck and a Small Wee Mabel stretched out over my toes...