Monday, January 16, 2017

Season of S.A.D.ness

The cottage is dark. The skies are heavy and the passing cars outside my window make a swishing noise on the dampened roads. January seems a long month. It always does.


The windows are small; they let in limited light. But their panes are edged in white and through them the cherry trees are stretching their twiggy limbs towards the light grey sky, so pale is almost parchment, and longing for the day when festoons of pale pink blossom will sprout there in the merry month of May, leaving the austerity of winter behind. The hills behind them are comfortingly green. The poinsettia on our windowsill glows a heart-warming shade of red, reminiscent of the Christmas that is now past. Ornamental boats, pebbles from the sea shore and a small, stark white lighthouse with a seagull perched on top seem out of place now but at least they augur warmer, happier times to come in this scenic coastal spot on the west of Wales. The seafront is damp and drab now but on summer days it will be transformed once again, as the yellow sun glints on the dancing waves and life-sized boats bob up and down in the water.


On dark days like these we need candles. We have saved our strings of tiny bulbs from the Christmas decorations, draped them round the hearth and the old mahogany bookcase to light our way through this gloomy season. Why put them away in the box when they can still brighten up the winter months? The soft, white tablecloth is adorned with cheery red candles, matching the hopeful vase of small, red tulips which have cheated their way into an early life with the help of hothouse warmth and the latest technology. Red is a good colour for this time of year, not just for Christmas. The bear's festive hat and scarf on this novelty pen donated so kindly by my grandchildren, nods in agreement as I write. Red keeps us warm. Red makes us bright like robins. Somehow we will make it through these dark days to summer.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A proper Christmas blessing!

My angel lurches drunkenly. We have placed her near the top, as befits angels, and she perches uncertainly at an angle, overshadowing the star and the miniature wooden stable placed strategically beneath it. Maybe the star is shining in the east; I'm not sure of the geography here. I think actually it may be to the west as it seems to point towards the  coast. Never mind. In any case, the angel is bending near the earth. She seems to have mislaid her golden harp, but her anti-war slogans seem as much needed as ever.


I have invented a new Christmas blessing. The Jews, it seems, have a blessing for every eventuality and despite not being Jewish myself, despite this being the season of Christmas, not Hanukkah, the festival has its ancient origins in Judaism and there should therefore be a proper blessing for it. 'May all your branches rise upward' seems this year to be a suitable one. Scouring the shops and garden centres for a tree in mid-December, we were disappointed to find nothing that matched the romantic dream. Trudging around in the rain - nothing deep, crisp or even in sight - we discovered Christmas had been modernised once again. The fragrant Norway Spruce was nowhere to be seen. Coming downstairs in the morning to be greeted by the heady and nostalgic aroma of pine resin was a non-negotiable part of the recipe for that perfect Christmas we all seek, so regretfully we got back in the car and moved on, hoping that maybe the next makeshift sign on a piece of old board would point the way to the right sort of 'Xmas trees'. Finally we went full circle and ended as we had begun in a small florist's shop whose trees we had already rejected. They were small, misshapen and spindly, but cheap. If we couldn't have what we wanted, and clearly we could not, we were at least going to score on price. Even the woman in the shop warned us:


"They're rubbish Christmas trees" she said. "But an old man who grows them himself brings them in every year and I haven't the heart to tell him. Everyone wants the perfect tree nowadays, but you can have this one for a tenner if you want."


A tenner sounded good and anyway, we didn't believe her. No-one really means that the stuff they're selling is rubbish. Do they?


It was. There is nothing more depressing than a drooping fir tree, hence the blessing. Once decorated, ours stood in the corner and wept. We selected our lightest, most delicate baubels and tried to push them as far as we could up the branches, but nothing could disguise the droopiness, as our poor little tree hung its head in shame. 'May all your branches rise upward!'


I wonder why I think of angels as 'she'. Biblical angels come with names like Gabriel and Michael, never Barbara or Jane. Maybe the Christmas angel has become tangled in my subconscious with that imposter, the pagan Christmas fairy who dares to adorn many trees. All through my childhood she was an annual visitor to the topmost branch of our tree, decked out in a frothy white dress and a tinsel headdress and waving a tiny magic wand in case Santa failed to do the business. To be honest, in those days her magic seemed to have more success than the ministrations of our more authentic and Biblical angel. Certainly, the magic of the tree was lacking this year, but then perhaps we treated our angel badly, without proper respect. Everyone knows that angels are not 'she', do not wear frocks and, because of their awesome nature, do their best to calm our nerves by always announcing their arrival with those immortal words: 'Fear not!'


One further point - just to clear up any misunderstanding and pave the way for a better Christmas next year - my angel, despite appearances, is not drunk.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Harlech Hedgehog

It's hard to concentrate sometimes. In the face of unadulterated, egocentric prattling at top volume, I am defeated. The old lady who sat opposite the prattler was at her mercy. But so were we all. The old lady said very little. There was no space. The big voice droned on. It was penetrating and abrasive and I found myself shrinking in my seat, unconsciously trying to make myself smaller to escape the unwelcome battering of the ears. In fact, it reached further than my ears; it threatened to permeate my very soul. Does she have children, I wondered? How have they been affected?


Publicly, and at top volume, she ran herself down. Her hair was flat; it had no curl, no BODY. This last word she pronounced boldly, to its full sensuous effect. No BODY. When sprayed with lacquer and brushed out, she continued, it looked better, but she looked like a spiked hedgehog. Her mother was beautiful: "prettier than I am!" she confessed, a tone of slight surprise, mingled with jealousy, betrayed in her voice. Like a little girl in her party frock, she waited to be admired, waited for one amongst us to rush to the rescue, denying this terrible admission. But no-one obliged.


The conversation ranged over a variety of fascinating subjects, all, it seemed, designed to show her in the best light, better than name-dropping. It was an odd counterpart to her self-abusive comments. We started with the lawnmower. "I'm just going home today" she began (I started to get excited), "if I have time" (my heart sank), "to set up my robot." My ears pricked up at this, despite myself, and I settled down to listen. Too bad that all conversation with my husband was impossible; shame that even private reveries were constantly interrupted. This was riveting stuff. It was true, it emerged - or at least it seemed to be. She really did own a robot lawnmower which she was keen to put together and set on its way, doing what robot lawnmowers do.


Her initial, self-deprecating manner changed. She was playing to her audience and we were all, I am sure, now obediently playing the game. The monologue moved on, past the lawn, to the inside of her, no doubt, sizeable and prestigious home. She spoke of robot vacuum cleaners, of one in particular that had been no good and therefore passed on to the daughter (well, of course!). She spoke of "the boys", who failed even to flinch as the robot came right up to them. Octavius and Tiberias appeared, it seemed, to be her canine friends, but no less a part of the family. She mentioned mobile phones the size of credit cards and was evidently familiar with all kinds of up-to-the-minute technology. I wondered what the old lady was making of all this.


My attention wandered as I noticed her, with her back to me, fidgeting a little in her seat. She was trapped, her walking sticks placed at a distance from her, and perched precariously on one side of a wooden bench of the kind that pub gardens favour. We were sat out in a cobbled courtyard outside the cafe, basking in the early spring sunshine that was reflected gloriously from the whitewashed cottage walls. But the old lady was clearly uncomfortable and I mentally practised leaping from my seat to catch her as I saw her topple backwards in my imagination, splitting her head open on the stone pavement, as could so easily happen if she nodded off.


Perhaps this was just the eventuality that her kind friend was guarding against, keeping up her continual stream of scintillating, well no, not conversation, maybe monologue. When my full concentration returned we were talking about webbing and upholstery. We ranged on through the full gambit of furniture restoration. She had an intriguing style. We passed back and forth with dizzying rapidity. One moment she was displaying her many and varied creative talents and the next it was like listening to a chapter of accidents worthy of Paddington bear with a paintbrush. Having completed her masterpiece of restoration, somehow the afore-mentioned canine friends were let into the workshop and wrecked havoc. She should have known, she berated herself. But the paw print, dead centre of her artwork, that she discovered next morning, was as finely executed and as perfectly placed as if she had done it herself.


The lunchtime concert was over. The soloist helped the old lady to her feet, disentangled her from the bench and fetched her walking sticks, so she could totter across the cobbles, leaning on her companion's arm. They were off to entertain elsewhere, ready for a quick look in the next door design outlet, with its array of upper class fabrics and pure wool, tartan throws, before going home to robots and doggies. I felt a little ambivalent about their departure. Peace and quiet was wonderfully restored, but alas, the show was over.


Harlech, Wales



Friday, November 13, 2015

Nothing new under the sun

All that week it had been raining, never stopping, never drawing breath, the heavens pouring down their torrents, more water than you could imagine. The earth was full of water. The fields were sodden and the drains were overflowing. The sky too was dark, pregnant, threatening, ready to drench us still further in its never ending flood. I sat beside the Rhine, watching the endless flow of water, down, flowing down from the mountains of Switzerland in the heart of Europe, through the flatlands of Germany, through the Netherlands and emerging at last into the waters of the wide grey ocean. There was more water than you can imagine.

In central Europe thousands of homeless, shifting refugees are flooding through the barriers, leaving the wide open arms of the blue-skied Mediterranean for the grey, watery desert of the north. Germany is their preferred destination. 'Mother Merkel' has bidden them all welcome, although the rank and file of the nation seem a little less keen. There will be riots. The air is thick with the menace of growing discontent. Britain is trying to close its doors, keen to do the right thing for its own people and walled in, separated by the deep, grey-green Channel, fenced in by tunnel defences: presenting a coldly indifferent front. The Netherlands, ever practical, are devising new ways of accommodating the hordes, without detriment to their own priorities of social housing, but the mood is turning ugly in the city halls and meeting places of the nation. There are storms over Europe, more of a flood than we can deal with.

Where will they sleep? Where will they hide when the cruel forces of nature are unleashed on innocent men, women and children? On the Hungarian border thoughtful border guards are giving them a practice run - with water cannons and tear gas. They will soon learn the ropes, soon understand what it is to be European. Their Syrian homeland is hostile, evicting them forcibly from their homes, their livelihoods and their families, but their new home is unpredictable, capricious and not always what it seems. Nations are complex entities, with complicated histories; how will they behave? What is their agenda beneath the conflicting attitudes, the posturing, the threats and the desire to appear humanitarian? The pawns on Europe's chess board are at the mercy of its leaders, as kings, queens and bishops battle it out and their victims are caught, helpless, in the cross-fire.

Christmas is coming. We are once again on the relentless treadmill that will carry us nearer, still nearer to the spirit of Christmas and to the season of greed. Will there be room this year? History has a habit of repeating itself. The first Christmas is forgotten by many now but the story lives on. Still in our memory, clinging on by its fingernails, the holocaust whispers its uncomfortable, disquieting remembrances into our almost deaf ears. No room at the inn? No room on our island for fleeing Jews in the thirties, a displaced people, running for their lives. Boatloads of refugees denied access by the authorities of many nations, a shameful neglect of suffering people. And now this. What will we do now? History repeats itself. Is there room now?


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Art for Art's Sake

The concentration is palpable. As I enter the room and tiptoe in it's like entering an examination hall. The desks are laid out side by side around the edge of the long, narrow room, backs to the window. No chance of distraction then. There is a hushed atmosphere, an almost holy reverence, and I make my way hurriedly to a quiet corner, anxious to avoid making a disturbance.

Gradually my ears attune themselves to what is going on. It's quiet, but by no means silent. A gentle buzz of soft murmuring fills the air, but the most discernible sound is the rhythmic dipping of brushes in water, tapping them gently on the rim of the container before applying small dabs of paint to the paper stretched across the boards. The class is learning to apply paint in layers, building up the image before them. The subject is a small child, on a beach, carrying a bucket and spade, and the mood is traditional, reminding me of a page torn from a child's colouring book. It's a classic seaside scene, blue and yellow with splashes of red for the bucket. It's a 1950's kind of scene. The more skilful of the artists are managing to convey the summer sunshine, with just the right choice of yellow and the shadows on the ground suggesting the direction in which the light is falling and the heat of the summer sun.

My gaze wanders. Easily distracted, I remember how as a child I always chose the window seat wherever possible. Finding lessons easy, I was able to multi-task successfully and my main focus of attention was usually out of doors, watching the netball game in the playground or soaring with the seagulls and wishing I could be free like them. Today my attention is caught by the wide expanses of sand and the line of white foam breaking across the mouth of the estuary before the Dovey empties out into the waters of Cardigan Bay. All that is lacking today is the child with bucket and spade. It's a school day and the children are imprisoned, like me, behind classroom windows and will have to wait until the weekend to get more hands-on experience of the great outdoors.

But it is an odd experience, this mirroring of art and life. Through the yacht club window I am viewing the mirror image of the multiple images on the artists' drawing boards. Fancy expressionism or abstract art are not encouraged in this class. Everything is carefully monitored; even the precise colour shades are prescribed by the tutor to achieve the greatest synchronisation between the image and its various reproductions. Photo-realism is more the recipe dished up by today's art tutor and it is strange to see how uniform are the representations of such a bunch of diverse artists. Creativity, it seems, points the way to a multiplicity of vision but realism seems to necessitate a certain kind of uniformity and a limited vision. The further one travels down the road of expressive creativity the more the paths diverge into a wide spectrum of infinite variety.

Maybe this underlies in part my impression of having walked into an examination room. Here the goals are clear; the challenge is well-defined and the results will be judged against a pre-ordained checklist of techniques and achievements. Originality, flair, expressionism or abstraction are harder to assess and are apt to side-step achievement targets and fall outside the boxes. As usual, the air outside the classroom seems a little easier to breathe. It always has for me.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Art of Self Knowledge

I read it in a magazine somewhere: "No-one lives up to his ideal." Such an obvious thought, but how true! As I pondered this simple home truth, it hit me right between the eyes. However much you achieve, there is always more in your dream than in the hard facts. Live up to your ideal? No-one does... so why do I expect to? No-one lives up to her ideal either. Not even a woman! Women are pretty smart these days, pretty liberated, pretty powerful sometimes, but even so...

Ideals have rocketed these days. "Come on, you're a woman - don't let the side down!" It's a bit of a pressure at times. These days we're encouraged to dream, to aspire, to reach for the sky, to have it all. Nothing's changed really. All that has happened is that our ideals have gone sky high. "You can be anything - anything you wanna be." That's the theory. Then there's the catch... "if you want it enough." Well, I'm not sure I agree with the bold, somewhat arrogant assertion in the first place, but even if I did, do I want it that badly?

 I have a dream. Of course I do. In my dream I'm a writer, making enough money to get my stuff published: a neat little row of matching volumes side by side on my bookshelf, all with my name on, of course; and a modest little income and sales figures to match. My blog has a readership of thousands and 392 people regularly follow it. I only want enough to bolster my self-image and make it all worth the effort. That's all I need, isn't it?

 I bake too, of course - who doesn't these days? In my farmhouse kitchen (the social hub of the house) I turn out pies and pastries, rustic-looking loaves of granary bread, mouth-watering date flapjacks, gingerbreads and brownies, neatly packaged and carefully labelled and, of course, sold - like hot cakes. The house is daily filled with the tantalising aroma of freshly baked bread and the order book is full.

 There's a garden in my dream. It is stocked with fragrant sweet peas, delphiniums and roses. Honeysuckle and clematis climb the old apple tree and the herbs cluster around the garden door. No substitute for a profusion of fresh herbs. It is a country garden, a cottage garden. This has been part of the dream for years now. I am happy and content in my garden. I till the earth, hoe the weeds meticulously, harvest the vegetables, pick the golden apples from the tree and settle down contentedly beneath it to pen my thoughts and meditate in the sunshine.

My house is calm and uncluttered. The style is minimalist (I wish!), but still warm and inviting - a real home. I don't actually do housework; I have too many dreams and aspirations for that. But it is taken care of and I glow with pride at my string of achievements, both personal and delegated, effortlessly accomplished.

Do I reach my goal? Well, not always, not often, well, never, in fact. "No-one lives up to his ideal." Let that be a comfort. Don't take it personally when perfection escapes you just a tiny bit; no need to shed tears. We are all the same. Be happy. Life is short.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Meandering Along

I'm not really a great one for discipline. I'm not a great fan of meticulous detail. I'm good at starting things and not very good at finishing them. I can play the piano but my sight-reading lets me down. The treble clef is fine; the bass clef starts OK but once the notes fall off the bottom of the stave and there are too many little lines added to their stems I get lost.  I love to express colour on the page but never really applied myself to drawing. "Could do better" found its way onto too many of my school reports. I don't know why. I guess I discovered motivation a little late in life.
I am trying to reform. It may be too late now to alter the habits of a lifetime but I try. When the motivation is there it makes all the difference. I have a small keyboard in the living room of our tiny cottage. It tucks in against the wall at the foot of the stairs and threatens to trip me up when I go downstairs to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But I am determined; I will make good. No longer am I guilty of neglecting my practice times as in my youth. I am trying painstakingly to master my sight-reading. Over the years I have come to love jazz; it has an endearing propensity to disobey the rules, although perhaps it is merely that it is directed by an unseen sense of order that I am unfamiliar with. Do I play jazz? No. Jazz is another world for me. My ear is classically trained and I do not understand the rhythms and melody lines of jazz, although I love them. I cannot predict it so I am forced to rely solely on my sight-reading ability. Now I have a book of elementary jazz pieces and I am stumbling through it, but it's tricksy. I am on a steep learning curve. Nevertheless, I am trying to re-educate myself.

As I said, I am not a lover of discipline. Straight, practical lines of thought, the most efficient way to progress from A to B, are not for me. I love to meander. Sitting here on this beautiful April afternoon, on the terrace of the Plas Tan y Bwlch, I am entranced by the wide, exaggerated meanders of the river below me in the Vale of Maentwrog. The view is enhanced by a magnificent spread of crimson Himalayan tree rhododendrons, somewhat curtailed by recent damage, but nevertheless spectacular. Sheep are grazing in the water meadows, the first swallows are pursuing their bat-like flight in the blue heavens and a hawk is mewing persistently overhead. Only the constant stream of traffic on the main road below disturbs the sense of tranquillity and idleness, but it is thankfully hidden from sight behind the terrace parapet. The scene before me is arresting but it is the river's course which touches a chord deep within and with which I feel a deep empathy.

The river, like me, has been subject to discipline in its time. The information leaflet tells me that William Oakeley, whose family owned the Plas and most of the landscape stretched out before me, was responsible in Victorian times for taming this errant river, curbing its indolent spread across the agricultural land of its flood plains and building small embankments on either side to wall it in. The embankments are still in place today. Oakeley, it seems, was an innovative and ambitious landowner. Not content with his early achievements, he is also credited with changing the river Dwyryd's course and creating, as a result, these attractive and deliberate curves as the river ambles across the Vale at a gentle pace. Perhaps all discipline is not so odious after all, but still I feel myself strangely drawn to the unrushed and lackadaisical meanderings of this pretty river; we are two of a kind.


Plas Tan y Bwlch, Maentwrog, N. Wales