Sunday, November 27, 2022

Of the Before and the After

The Potting Shed by Lore Pemberton. 
On my Christmas wish list, Click on the image to get to her website.

I had planned to pop on here and say something cheerful about winter being nearly here, but it feels like we have crossed that invisible marker here in the Midlands. Winter is already here. The past week has been full of huge downpours, torrents of raindrops that hurled themselves at the windows and roof, drumming percussive music through the week. Whole days have been blackened by rain clouds, battered by winds. Taking the train to Gloucester, I could see the silver glint of flooded fields by Bredon Hill, the hill itself looking dark and already folded into hibernation. Occasionally, a wild sunbeam would break through the cloud, sending down a fierce bright light that made me blink. 

On Monday, my friend came over with her little boy. 10 months old and already staggering around like a wee drunk man, bow legged and hands raised up for the sheer joy of motion and speed and independence. He is a joyful whirlwind, a tiny tyke, a terror of all cats and bearer of childhood nursery germs that I had long lost all immunity to. 24 hours later, whilst hoovering up what I hoped was the last of the rice particles he had liberally blessed the carpet with, I felt an ominous itch in the back of my throat. 

This has been a proper, old fashioned cold, the like of which I haven't experienced since the Kid left primary school. Stuffy of head and nose, full of catarrh, throat like sandpaper, eyes like heavy hot marbles and sleep punctuated by a cough that would scatter the crows. Bravely I have soldiered on through it, meeting grant application deadlines, project end deadlines and meetings that could not, would not be shifted. But now I'm ready to lean into it, give in to it. Lie on the sofa with a cool flannel on my forehead, a soothing drink to hand and someone else to cook. To give credit where due, N has been dying to do this for days, it's only now that I have the capacity to lay down tools and let him. 

Own. Worst. Enemy. 

But I am ready for winter now. For fresh air walks in the morning that leave your cheeks pink and tingling from the nip of a frost. For gentle yoga meditation in a candlelit evening, emerging blissed out into a house that smells of rich stews and baking bread. To take up a craft again, pick up the knitting needles or crochet hook and not care if the end result is any good. For the time to make bread and stews and soups. For woodsmoke, and citrus, and spices. 

Not that I can smell anything right now, and I was about to write "stupid cold".  Which is reflective of how I treat most of my conditions. They are stupid because they get in the way, they stop me from doing the job I loved, they cause me pain. 

But it occurs to me that this is the wrong approach to these things. It lacks grace and understanding. It tries to set the bar to how things used to be when, truth is, it can never be that again. As a friend said last week "it's okay to be angry about them but don't let that anger become all you feel". So, it is time to reach an accommodation, an acceptance of where I am now. To develop an intuitive understanding of what my body is trying to tell me, instead of rushing over it because there are things to be done. To consider a new approach to my body instead of feeling like a failure because it doesn't work like it used to. 

Chronic pain is the worst bedfellow, it sucks as a walking companion, and I've raged bitter war against it, but maybe, this Winter, I can take the time to recognise it for the signpost it is. The one that guides the way to a better, more sustainable life, overriding the itching temptation to eat all the chocolate oranges under the tree and carry on as before. 

'Before' is a closed box; 'After' is a wide, open landscape to explore. Let's see what I can find there. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Reading Autumn

When October rolled around, I dug out my battered copy of Dracula for its annual reading and settled down for a few days of feeling slightly jumpy and the right side of being scared (you know that side: a rush of goosebumps when the cat knocks over a plant pot outside - even though the Count would never be that clumsy - or a mild jump when your partner leaves his dressing gown hanging somewhere different and you spot it in the half light of an early dusk). That feeling should only last the duration of the book and a couple of days after before vanishing, never to return...until you read it again the following year. 

This year, after putting it down, I gazed across the shelves to decide on my next book. This takes a while as I have about 1000 books, not including N's. He keeps suggesting a 1-in-1-out policy, I keep finding new ways of stacking them so I can pretend I haven't heard that. 

This Autumn, it seems I am in the mood for dense, chewy Victoriana, with a side helping of mild Gothic horror. I want a weighted tangled storyline with complex family feuds and backstories that take entire chapters to retell. I want to hear a metaphorical wind howling outside the window, trees thrashing in protest, as a backdrop to the dark matter in my hand. I want to feel the damp chill of a creeping winter dawn. 

After Dracula, I settled down to get myself lost in the moors and wilds of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Jane Eyre, settling myself into a warm reading nook while N watched foot-the-ball, and letting the descriptions of wide Yorkshire landscapes take me away from all that. The power balances shifted on the page to the backdrop of feet thunking against wet turf. 

Isn't it wonderful how they were able to make the landscape feel so expansive, whilst depicting lives in miniature? And I always find something new when I return to them. Wuthering Heights, for example (read in August). On that reread, I lingered over old Joseph's proselytising, pulpit-raising, style which made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. 

Wildfell and Jane also both contain a supporting cast whose speeches and asides cut through the tension, providing a small moment of comic relief, the brief capering of a jester at times of high tension. I'm more appreciative of those nowadays, and it seems to be a skill we've lost. Now our epic tomes are relentlessly grim and Loaded With Meaning from start to end. You need that lightness to throw the rest of the plot into contrasting shadow. 

On honeymoon, I took Lady Audley's Secret, having spotted it on the bookshelves, unread for a few years, and remembering that it included Belgium, which it described as "flat, featureless", a statement I can reveal is partly true. It took up a large part of the suitcase but was forgiven as I, once more, found myself rooting for the Lady Audley as she pivoted and twisted against the confines Victorian society imposed on women, ceaselessly seeking a way out until all routes were closed off. 

Back at home, after a couple of misty morning starts, the kind where the air soaks your hair and distant hills appear to be wearing blankets, I reached for Bleak House. It's really the only Dickens I can stand to read without choking on his performative sentimentality and is absolutely perfect for this time of year with its depictions of fog and ceaseless rain, the blackened sooty streets of London. The extraordinary description of the foul Mr. Krook's spontaneous combustion. The icy chill of Lady Deadlock's disdain. Poor confused and persecuted Jo of Tom-all-alone's. 

The complete loss of internet at home was a blessing as it allowed me the rare treat of hours of evening time I could give over to reading. But now it's finished, and Esther is happily married, I find myself restlessly scouring the shelves again. It seems that any post-1900 fiction just isn't satisfying right now; thin, sterile things they seem as the weather hurls itself against the windows of the house. A candle is guttering in a draught that reaches me a few seconds later, causing me to wrap the blanket more tightly around my knees. A mug of tea is steaming next to me and there is hot buttered toast for breakfast. It's no good, I can't stop the hand reaching out, fingers extending, grasping until...there!

The Moonstone it is. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

I left my sock in Bruges

When it came to deciding on a honeymoon location, N and I were in swift agreement: Bruges. It had to be Bruges.

We’re both fans of the darkly, bitterly funny film, In Bruges with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, which also contains one of the finest comedy gangster performances you’re ever likely to see Ralph Fiennes deliver.

So we set ourselves in the direction of the “fahkin’ fairytale” medieval cobbled city at the end of October. I’d booked a medieval (there is a theme in Bruges) cottage right next to the canal and then booked the Eurostar so we could feel all green and smug. A feeling that quickly evaporated when we realised we were seated facing backwards and my sea sickness (so much worse now that the perimenopause has kicked in) took a fierce grip.

But we made it. 7 hours of travelling, 4 trains. Green with sickness and smuggery, one of us at least, we staggered from the final station with one wheelie suitcase and one partly wheelie (it lost a wheel en route) case that had to be carried, and straight into a town more well preserved than David Dimbleby. As we passed along the streets, the lights became dimmer. The walls of the houses were punctuated with niches in which sat Mary and Jesus in various states of decoration and decay, looking down as we cringed at the sound of our own approach. Mullioned windows blinked the subdued streetlights at us as we and a handful of other brave souls headed for our respective staying places.
The sound of a dozen wheelie suitcases making their way over the Bruges medieval (that word is going to get a lot of use in this post) cobbles is like nothing you’ve ever heard. Not even the thunder of hooves at the Cheltenham Gold Cup comes close.

The house was beautiful (although there was a noticeable lack of tea bags and milk on our arrival – this is the very last time I use Air BNB) and only a few minutes’ walk from the very centre of things: the Markt, the tower, the museums, the churches. There are a lot of churches – this is a deeply Catholic country. Our longest walk was on the 1st day when we went to see the Jeruzalemkerk* to the north(ish) of the city. This was one of the film spots, but also, just somewhere I wanted to visit because I have a passion for old churches and N is kind enough to tolerate that. Or at least lean against a wall outside looking up nearby battlesites while I go knock myself out.
The cobbles did an absolute number on my poor arthritic feet and I watched with jaw dropped in awe at the oh-so-chic women swinging along in heels and camel-coloured coats, apparently unaware that the ground beneath them was chronically unstable. They would sweep past, all dark glasses and shiny hair, speaking rapid Flemish into their phones, casting glances of disdain at the giggling couples** and pouting singles taking selfies along the canal wall.

Houses in Bruges can go for over 1 million euro, the chap leading the canal boat tour (yes, we did). Leading you to wonder where the real people are when they are not selling us postcards, taking us on carriage rides (no, we didn’t) or serving us terrible beer (much head, little liquid, for god’s sake don’t complain or ask them to top the glass up…they really don’t like that, keep quiet, order your moules et frites and make a mental note to only drink wine for the rest of the trip).
The coffee was delicious. Short little cups, drained in 3 gulps, but rich and aromatic, served with cream not thin and unsatisfying milk. Hot and revivifying in a way I had forgotten coffee could be. Everywhere it is served with a little speculoos biscuit – that lovely caramel, slightly spicy biscuit – apart from one memorable occasion where it came with a little dish of nougat and marzipan made on the premises. A marzipan made with real almonds, not a whiff of essence in tastebud reach, it was a completely different beast to the sort we cover our claggy fruit cakes with. I brought quite a lot of it to take home.
We saw extraordinary art – Bosch and van Eyck and Memling. At the Groeninge, halfway through, there is an extraordinary painting in the chiascuro style, of a young woman and her lover, the candlelight giving her a luminosity that made me cry. I brought a print to bring home where now, in the lamplight, it glows again. At the St-Janshospitaal, there was a splendid exhibition on the assumption of Mary as depicted in art through the ages. There I found a wonderful olive wood carving and Books of Hours that were rich with colour and devotion. The Gruuthuse Museum was full, packed to the gills with interesting things, some of which dated back to the Iron Age. At last! Something older than medieval! There is a surprising lack of natural history in Bruges. It’s like nothing happened here until God moved in.

Speaking of which, there were many, many churches, of course. I do wonder myself at my complete irreligious self so liking churches. At the Helig Bloed Basiliek, there is a phial of (allegedly) Christ’s blood that (supposedly) liquefies every now and then. There is no entry fee, but you are invited to pay due REVERENCE by way of a donations box right in front of the phial, guarded by a stern woman who looks like she probably ignores safe words. It felt…cheap. Lacking in taste. I mean, charge me an entry fee, sell me a postcard and some holy socks but don’t put the donation box right in front of the bloody exhibit.
In another church (by this time, even I’ve forgotten the names), there was a decidedly graphic reliquary with a bit of a saint’s arm bone in there. I wondered if that waved every now and then.
In between, I would make N pause for more coffee and a break from the cobbles, and he would fill me in on the tour we were taking in the middle of the week, which battlefields, which war memorials, which cemetery for the war dead with their rows and rows of graves that saturate you with sadness. 9am to 6pm that tour. It is safe to say he made me pay him back for the churches.

Our final night, we ate at the little tavern 2 doors down from us where we had made friends with the pub dog and the food was cheap. Drank a final glass of wine (on Belgian soil anyway), chatted to the owner and tried not to think of the 7 hour, 4 train return journey.
And the sock? A casualty of packing light so I could bring back ALL the chocolate. I’d had to do a wash halfway through the week, draping the wet socks on the radiator to dry. 4 hours later, I knocked it down the impenetrable back of the radiator. I like to think of it slowly becoming at one with the house. Or hooked out by the puzzled owner with a long arm, an even longer piece of wire and a growing collection of odd, foreign socks.

*I’m currently posting this with no WiFi due to complicated BT-engineer-based reasons, so I’ll add links another day
**We took precisely 1 selfie because otherwise, how would we prove we’d been there? But there was absolutely no giggling. Serious selfies befitting of our Great Age (personal age, I mean. There is nothing great about this political age).

Winner of this year's "Nicest Pub Dog with 
Silkiest Ears" award

Winter's Tail

Well, we made it. Imbolc has passed with its promise of fluffy lambs, fluffy mimosa, fluffy pancakes on everyone's horizon. The change i...