Looking forward to Autumn – why September is my favourite month

I always think that autumn (fall) gets a bit of a raw deal in the popularity stakes.  Spring has lots of fans, summer is everyone’s favourite, and even winter has its proponents (due in no small part, I suspect, to the midwinter festivals of December and their associated jollification – I should perhaps note here that I am writing from a northern hemisphere perspective).  But apart from the show of colour in the trees of New England, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, autumn gets a bit of a bad press.  It’s the season when the heating goes back on, the days shorten, the casual linen and cotton of summer gives way to woollies and coats, equinoctial storms batter western coasts, and summer holidays are well and truly over.

There is one thing I hate about September – wasps.  In the UK, September is peak season for wasps, timed to allow them to feast drunkenly on the apple harvest.  As I both have a phobia about wasps and also react very badly to their stings, this makes being outdoors – and especially eating outdoors – stressful.  But other than the wasps, not only is the autumn my favourite season, September is my favourite month.

For me, the year turns several weeks earlier – usually in early August, although in 2020 it was in mid-July.  One morning, you go outside and realise that the air feels different.  It’s not necessarily colder – just different.  There is a sense that it is the beginning of the end of summer, although often the hottest weather is still to come during August.  The swifts, which have been screeching around the summer skies, are ready for their epic migration to Africa, and suddenly, from one day to the next, they are gone.

The start of meteorological autumn in the northern hemisphere is 1 September.  This makes a lot of sense – historically, the grain harvest was pretty much all gathered in by the end of August (as evidenced by Lammas (Loaf Mass, or festival of the First Fruits) on or about 1 August, in thanksgiving for the harvest.  Before modern farming practices, the land would then rest until January, when ploughing would begin for the next year’s crop.  Geese fattened on the stubble would be eaten on the feast of St Michael and All Angels, on 29 September.  St Michael the archangel is probably my favourite saint – whilst I take a dim view of his persecution of dragons (I like dragons), I like that he is the saint associated with high places, and churches on hilltops in remote locations are often dedicated to him (for example, Mont Saint Michel in France, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, St Michael’s Church on Brent Tor in Devon, and the tower on Glastonbury Tor, which is all that remains of St Michael’s Church, to name but a few).

Photograph of an Orthodox Christian icon of St Michael the Archangel

September’s weather often seems better than August (hot and humid) or October (wet and windy), and most years I choose to go on holiday then, to take advantage of the weather and also of the relative quiet once the children have gone back to school.  For September is a month of new starts, with the school year in England starting at the beginning of the month, and the university year at the end (in some universities, the autumn term is still called the Michaelmas Term).  It feels fresh, full of potential and possibilities, of projects begun in hopeful anticipation.  The days are still long – the curse of the end of British Summer Time doesn’t take effect till late October – temperatures are pleasant, and mornings start to be crisply or mistily autumnal.  The archetypal poem about autumn (John Keats’ Ode to Autumn) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44484/to-autumn has a melancholy tinge to its celebration of the season, but for me, September is more upbeat, full of promise and purpose rather than an elegy for the summer that is ended.  I feel energised, roll my sleeves up and get stuck into life and work.  Although it’s many years since the academic year governed my working calendar, I still find that this is the month when I gear up to start new work, find my mojo again, and start looking forward.

This September, I am back in Somerset, becoming re-acquainted with the landscape – coasts, hills and wetlands – ancient landmarks, and contemporary communities.  No doubt I shall be writing about some of them too.  Perhaps, especially if you are in the northern hemisphere and it’s the start of autumn where you are too, you might also like to go exploring during this month of September, watching out for the signs of the changing seasons.  Let’s enjoy it and make the most of it before the darkness of winter closes in.

Tools of my trade – techniques and technology for non-fiction writing

What image pops into your head when you think of a writer?  For many people, I gather it’s an image of a solitary figure, toiling for long hours in a shed or an attic, maybe even still writing in longhand or using a typewriter, surrounded by books and dust, and forgetting to eat.

Well, in my case, the image would be almost totally wrong.  Only almost, because I do actually work in the attic, or more accurately the top floor of an Edwardian town house (it’s not as grand as it sounds – the first occupants were glove makers, working from home, but more about that another time).  In my previous post, I write about the view from the windows.  But I am not solitary – my partner, who is a postgraduate researcher, and I share a study, with our desks facing each other across the floor of the room.  I do have quite a few books, but very little dust.  And I am keen on cooking and even more keen on eating.

Longstanding readers of this blog will know about my notebook habit, and I do write in longhand in my notebooks.  Often this is where initial ideas – or notes jotted down from reading or visits which may morph into a piece of writing later on – are recorded.  I have a general notebook, one for business-related notes, one each for the writing projects I am currently working on or planning, and one for courses I participate in.  Since I discovered the Pentel 1.3mm propelling pencil, most of my notes are written with that as I find it gentler on the hands than a pen.

If I am making notes from books – generally when I am researching historical topics, and referencing academic books – or from online sources, I use a narrow-ruled A4 student pad.  This makes it easier for me to file my notes in a ring binder if I need them for future reference.

For the actual writing, I use my ancient laptop (I really must upgrade it sometime, as it’s getting slower and slower) which I back up regularly.  Mindful of the importance of an ergonomic workstation, I use a separate keyboard and mouse, and my chair and desk are at the right height for me.   I loathe conventional office chairs, so my chair is an early 20th-century ‘smoker’s bow’ which originated in Pembroke College, Oxford, until it was sold off when one of their buildings was re-built.  It has a pleasing patina of age and use, and is built for comfort.  And to celebrate my move to Somerset, I recently treated myself to a new desk, made from reclaimed timber by Pegasus Furniture.

Picture of a desk with laptop, keyboard, diary, pens and books.

Planning a new piece of work – and the steps involved in making it happen – is done in two stages.  The first involves a large sheet of paper, a lot of lovely coloured pens, and often my partner to act as scribe and to challenge my thinking and provide research tips.  The ensuing mind map is then transferred to Trello (my planning tool of choice) as a series of colour-coded lists.  The book I am currently writing has an introduction and 12 chapters.  Each has a Trello list, with the structure, visits, research, reading, interviews, photography etc required for each chapter listed, with notes to myself where appropriate.  I find that working with Trello helps me to keep on top of the various strands of research, and allows me to have an easy overview of what needs to be done – geographically, for example, while I am visiting Hadrian’s Wall to do research for one chapter, it makes sense on the same trip to schedule a visit to Lindisfarne for another chapter; and I see that three chapters will require expertise from the British Museum – maybe I can cover all three on one visit to London?

For each chapter, I first sketch out where I see the chapter going – what I want to include, what angle I am taking, why this chapter is in the book, who are the key people to interview and why, and insights from previous visits where relevant.  Then I do the research, do the site visits and interviews, take photographs were possible, and take lots of notes and voice recordings of my impressions.  Later, these are all collated and, once I have created a detailed structural plan of the chapter, written up into the first draft.  It’s a slow process but it allows for rigorous background research and fact checking, as well as giving me time for ideas to develop as I reflect on, and respond to, what I have experienced.

It may come as a surprise to some people that the actual writing is a relatively small part of the process.  Bear in mind that I write non-fiction, so although what I write is filtered through the lens of my own personal perspective, experience and personality, it is based on something external.  Most of what I write about involves history or place, or both, and therefore writing about it requires close reference to the place, object, event or person that is my subject, and to what is known about it.  For example, my personal reflections on the music of Benjamin Britten in a recent piece for Issue 5 of The Pilgrim are informed and enriched by studying his life and work, as well as by experiencing for myself the sights and sounds of the beach at Aldeburgh which is the setting for his opera Peter Grimes.

No two writers – not even two non-fiction writers – will approach their work in the same way, or use the same tools and technology in their writing, but this is how I work.  The process evolves, too – prior to my discovery of Trello, I used whiteboards and a lot of coloured maker pens and sticky notes.  Trello is essentially a digital version of this, which has the advantage of leaving my walls free for inspiring art!

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The view from here – first impressions after relocation

Readers of my last post will be aware that I have just moved house, and will hopefully forgive the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks.  To begin with, of course, we weren’t able to engage with the town and surrounding area as much as we would have liked because of the tedious but necessary business of unpacking, spring cleaning the house for a nice fresh start, and generally getting very tired and achy!  However, the particular bonus of this house is the view from the study, which is on the top floor.  It has windows front and back, giving panoramic views of the town of Glastonbury and the surrounding countryside.

One way, the view includes the iconic Glastonbury Tor, with its medieval tower of St Michael (all that remains of the church which used to crown the hill).  A site of pilgrimage since at least medieval times, the Tor continues to draw modern day pilgrims and visitors, who climb it for a variety of reasons – spiritual, sightseeing or artistic.  Since we have been here, I have never seen the Tor without people on it.  Even at night, the lights of people’s torches (and, at Lammas, a fire spinning display) are visible, and when the Sturgeon Moon rose last week there were dozens of people on the Tor to witness the moonrise.

Photograph of Glastonbury Tor, with a road in the foreground and trees framing the view.

Country road leading to Glastonbury Tor – image copyright Robert Bruce 2020

Below and to the right of the Tor, the view takes in the rooftops of the town – mostly red pantiles – and the gardens of the townhouses, built on land which, a century or two ago, used to be orchards.  The tower of St John’s church rises above the rooflines, and at the moment a pair of peregrine falcons is raising a brood of chicks on the tower – the young’s raucous cries echo across the town when the parents arrive with food.  They are so loud, even at this distance, that for a couple of days I thought one of the neighbours had a particularly noisy parrot!  It’s such a privilege to see these amazing birds soaring above the town.

Further to the right again is Wearyall Hill, where Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have planted his staff in the ground, which grew into the Holy Thorn, a thorn tree which bloomed twice a year – at Christmas and Easter – and whose successors still grow at various locations around Glastonbury.  Sadly the successor which grew on Wearyall Hill has now been removed due to persistent vandalism.

Beyond Wearyall Hill are the Polden Hills, where the modern A39 main road follows the ancient ridgeway to Avalon.  During the catastrophic floods in the winter of 2013/14, my usual commute across the Levels was under several feet of muddy water, so I drove along the A39 instead, looking out across floodwater as far as the eye could see, with only the odd tree or rooftop sticking up above the water.  It gave an insight into how these marshy lowlands might have looked before sea levels fell, and the land was ‘improved’ for farming.

From the other window, the sweep of the Mendip Hills runs east to west in the distance.  From this window, we can see dramatic sunsets – the skies in this part of Somerset are particularly striking, which I have always attributed to the conjunction of the open flatlands of the Levels and the way the light reflects off the Bristol Channel.

Sunset over rooftops

In between the unpacking and cleaning, though, we have managed to wander into town from time to time.  Glastonbury’s High Street is not typical of a small town in a rural county – for ‘normal’ shopping, you need to go a couple of miles down the road to Street, which as well as a ‘normal’ high street has the country’s first shopping village, built on the former Clarks shoe factory site.  Glastonbury’s retail offering is something else entirely – crystals, books on esoteric subjects, tie-dyed clothing, Buddha statues, candles in all the colours of the chakra rainbow, Goddess figurines, Green Man car stickers, herbs and incense.  Buskers can include dreadlocked drummers, haunting folk singers, or jazz saxophonists.  At the Tuesday market, you’ll find the fast food outlets selling not hot dogs but vegan falafels.  It’s lively, chaotic, a bit ‘lived in’, and there’s something unexpected around every corner.  I’ve been walking – and photographing – the Glastonbury Mural Trail, which I will be writing about in a future post, and it has taken me to parts of the town centre I never knew.  And of course when the current heatwave abates a little, we will climb the Tor again (and take binoculars to try to locate our window!).

Photo of colourful mural in Glastonbury

I mentioned Joseph of Arimathea and Avalon in passing above  – Glastonbury is full of history, legend and myth, and a huge amount has been written about the various themes associated with it (Avalon, King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea, Gwyn ap Nudd, the Holy Grail, the Glastonbury Zodiac, the Goddess, Nolava, the Chalice Well, Bridget, and Glastonbury Abbey as a site of Christian pilgrimage, to name just a few).  This isn’t the place to add to that, although I’m sure I will be touching on aspects of it in this blog from time to time – it’s impossible to live in Glastonbury and not engage with the various strands of spirituality and legend which are the town’s raison d’être and, frankly, why would you not want to?!  Glastonbury is unique, crazy, enchanting, infuriating, but never boring.  If you would like to know more about Glastonbury* and its vibe, I recommend Vicki Steward’s excellent blog, Normal for Glastonbury.  She has recently produced a book, also called Normal for Glastonbury (available as an e-book and in print), which pulls together a selection of her blog posts – her portrayal of Glastonbury life is humorous and well-observed, and makes a very good read.  Again, highly recommended.  And no, I’m not on commission!

* When I talk about Glastonbury, I mean the town in Somerset – not the world-famous festival, which in fact takes place in a field a few miles away.  If you watch footage of the festival, you can see the Tor in the distance, behind the Pyramid Stage.

The next chapter – relocation and the art of moving house

I promised in my last post that I would let you know why I have been writing fewer blog posts recently.  Well, for the last few weeks I’ve been tackling practical jobs and to-do lists, while trying to get ahead with deadlines for commissioned articles in order to create a few weeks’ breathing space for myself.  The thing is, I’m moving house next week.  Not just moving house, but relocating to the other side of the country.

When I left Somerset some years ago to move in with my partner, I didn’t imagine I’d be going back any time soon – but life (and my partner) had other ideas, and earlier this year the decision was made that we would relocate.  We’ve always been great at timing – for example, we booked the Registry Office and only weeks later realised that we’d picked a Bank Holiday weekend, thereby condemning ourselves to a future of trying to book anniversary dinners and weekends away at peak holiday time.  In this instance, no sooner had we decided to start a long-distance house hunt than lockdown was announced.  However, despite all the obstacles and frustrations, and with a lot of help along the way from Robert at Robert Bruce Relocation, four months on we have found our new home and are preparing to move.

For a number of excellent reasons, I have moved house quite a few times since the turn of the millennium.  This is what I have learned about moving house:

  1. If you can avoid moving, do so. It’s expensive, stressful and time-consuming.  You need to be very convinced that the benefits of your new location are worth the upheaval.
  2. If you can’t avoid moving, it’s great if you can keep the move local.  Long distance moves are exponentially more stressful and fraught with complications.
  3. Ensure that you have the following items in your possession (not on the lorry):
    • toilet roll
    • emergency chocolate
    • a kettle and/or whatever you need to make and drink hot drinks of your choice, including at least one teaspoon
    • cleaning materials (your new home will never, ever, be as clean as you’d want it to be when you get there)
    • keys to your new home AND to your old home (you’ll need to lock it up after you!)
    • the keys to your car (sound obvious? Maybe, but a friend of ours managed to leave their car keys in the drawer of a dresser which was loaded onto the removal lorry…)
    • if you are as paranoid as we are, all important personal documents, your passport and driving licence
    • phone chargers
    • hand soap and a hand towel (to go in the bathroom when you arrive, together with the toilet roll)
    • a toolbox (there will always be something which needs tools in the first 48 hours, while your stuff is still in boxes)
    • a doormat (saves a lot of floor cleaning)
    • at least one bin bag
    • a meter key (you’ll need to take meter readings at both ends for the benefit of the utility companies)
    • hand luggage (a couple of changes of clothing, your daily toiletries, and a bath towel) to tide you over until you can start unpacking
    • Paracetamol
    • a mobile phone, for guiding the driver of the lorry when they get lost, photographing the meter readings, and using as a torch to find the stopcock in the back of the cupboard under the sink.
  1. Find out (ideally before you get there) where your nearest hardware shop or DIY store is. You will need at least 5 things in the first 48 hours.
  2. Find out where your nearest takeaway is. You’ll need it for several days.  Make sure you know where your plates and cutlery are (or add a picnic set to the list in point 3 above).  Eating egg fried rice out of the carton with your fingers is not recommended.  Trust me on this.
  3. You will need to leave your fridge and freezer to stand for a while to settle after their journey. Just make sure you remember to switch them on at some point BEFORE you do your first large food shop.
  4. Write your new address down somewhere or store it on your phone. You will go blank when asked for it.  For several weeks, possibly longer.
  5. There will always be at least one Really Important Contact whom you forget to notify of your change of address. Just make sure it’s not your bank.
  6. The spare light bulbs from your old home will never fit the light fittings in your new home.
  7. It is a universal law that the more you spend on curtains, the less likely they are to fit in your next home.

Despite all that, I am excited as well as apprehensive, and very much looking forward to being back in Somerset.  It’s the place where – notwithstanding a mixed heritage and a nomadic childhood which left me feeling rootless – I have felt most settled and at home.  Thanks in no small part to the decluttering process which I have written about in a previous blog post, this move isn’t as daunting as some have been.  Wish me luck – I’ll see you on the other side!

Photograph of colourful mural of Glastonbury Tor.

(Can you guess from the photograph where we are moving to?)

 

A writer’s desk – my working environment, coffee shops and the view from the window

It has been a bit difficult to concentrate on writing blog posts recently, for reasons which I will tell you about very soon, but it’s given me the chance to think about how and where I work best.  For one thing, I have been choosing a new desk, which proved to be a surprisingly fraught process.

My current workstation is a little computer desk on the large and sunny landing with a view over the fields.  The landing also has my reading chair, a compact 1920s armchair which nobody but me finds comfortable.  I love working here – but the desk itself is just too small to spread out my books and papers – things keep falling off the edge!

Over the years, in various work contexts, I have occupied a large open-plan office (my idea of hell), my own room (nice, but a bit isolating – I tend to get engrossed and forget about meal times), shared offices (the success of this depends on whom you are sharing the office with!), and dual-purpose space (desk in guestroom or dining room).  The common factor is having my own desk.  Having recently read about various free-ranging creatives who work anywhere, as long as they have their laptop with them, I toyed with the idea of giving up on a desk altogether and being a roaming writer.  I can see a few issues with this.  Firstly, the cost.  Most of these free-ranging creatives seem to work in coffee shops.  As it’s not reasonable to expect a retailer to provide a table for hours at a time without income from the sale of coffee, this would seem to be expensive compared to using one’s own home which one is paying for already.  Secondly, the effect on my waistline – the purchase of coffee is inevitably accompanied, at least some of the time, by the purchase of cake.  Thirdly, the effect on productivity – with the best will in the world, if I have editing to do, or a complex piece to research which involves not only internet searches but reading books, this requires a level of uninterrupted concentration which is not really possible when out and about.  (Fourthly, we have the current restrictions on visiting coffee shops etc because of the pandemic, but hopefully this is a time-limited problem).

Last but not least, I like my favourite resources within easy reach of my workstation. A diary (page to a day, so that I can write my to-do lists alongside appointments and deadlines), notebooks (one for each current project – see my recent blog post about my notebook obsession), pens and pencils, a mousepad and mouse (I have never been able to get on with the integrated ones on laptops), a coaster for drinks.  I also have at least one ‘to read’ stack, of books and papers relating to whatever I am currently working on.  It could be argued that I should tidy these away on a bookshelf and bring them out when required – except I know from experience that this would ensure I never get round to reading them!  Sometimes there’s a vase of flowers, or crystals (currently a big piece of fluorite), or an interesting pebble I’ve found on the beach.

In short, my working environment isn’t particularly portable.  I’m happy to spend the occasional few hours elsewhere with my laptop, but I am most settled, and concentrate best, at my desk.  As I’m now writing full-time, therefore, it seems not unreasonable to treat myself to a good desk that does what I need it to do and is aesthetically pleasing – I have to look at it all day, after all.  Simple, you might say, just go and buy one.  Yes – but which one?

I’ve had to work out how big I need a desk to be, in order to accommodate my laptop, all the stuff mentioned above, and have space to spread out books and papers when I’m researching.  I have learned the hard way that I need to get the height right, too, in order not to damage myself in the long term.  Also, what kind of desk do I want to look at every day?  I browsed a lot of office furniture catalogues and felt uninspired – I really don’t like the corporate, nine-to-five look of most of them.  My desk may be my work space, but it’s still in my home, and it would be nice if it was pleasant to look at.  What kind of ‘look’ does the rest of my furniture have?  A lot of it is quite industrial (for example, the coffee table is made out of reclaimed timbers from Indonesian fishing boats).  Something artisan-made from reclaimed wood, then?  Eventually, I found just the thing on Etsy – made to order, to my size specifications, using scaffolding planks and industrial steel.  It is being made as I write this.

I mentioned earlier that the landing where my computer desk is situated has a view over the fields.  I have discovered that having a workplace with a view is something of a mixed blessing.  Some years ago I moved into a house and chose the larger bedroom as my office because it had stunning views across the rooftops to the hills beyond, complete with sheep (whose bleating was just audible with the window open).  It seemed a waste of the view to use that room as a bedroom.  I positioned my desk in front of the window, to get the full benefit of the view.

View from window, showing rooftops and distant grassy hills.

Reader, a week later I moved the desk.  I was getting precisely no work done.  I spent hours gazing out of the window, watching the sheep move around their fields, watching the birds in the gardens, watching the light and colours change on the hillside as the sun moved around during the day and the shifting clouds cast their shadows, watching the rain sweep through the valley, watching the flock of racing pigeons which went for a fly about at 3 o’clock every afternoon, watching the bats at dusk.  In order to get anything done at all, I had to move the desk to the side, and only allow myself gazing time when on a coffee break or having an eye rest.

Here, instead of sheep, there are a pair of muntjac deer, who graze the field and occasionally venture into the neighbour’s garden to drink from the pond; a barn owl who quarters the field on silent wings, hunting, at dusk and dawn; a kestrel who hovers, defying gravity, high above the field, occasionally dropping like a stone into the grass and emerging with whatever hapless rodent is his dinner for today; tinkling flocks of goldfinches; a pheasant, whose call reminds me of vintage car claxon, and his girlfriends; a pair of red-legged partridges, with their Egyptian eyeliner, who also visit next door’s garden; and an enormous hen buzzard who circles on thermals over the field before sliding off downwind beyond the oak trees.  It’s very distracting – but it’s a nice problem to have.

My creative inheritance – the story of three generations of women and our textiles

I have been making things with yarn and textiles for almost as long as I can remember.  I can vividly recall the first time I saw someone crocheting (I was about four at the time), which I described as “knitting with one needle.”  Evidently I already knew about knitting with two needles!  As a child in the Netherlands I grew up around embroidery and cross stitch – my aunt used to make amazing tablecloths embroidered with naturalistic leaves, berries and flowers in tiny cross stitch, a style which is very common in the Netherlands but rarely seen here in the UK.  It always impressed me that the reverse was very nearly as beautiful as the front of her work, and I was taught that this was something to aim for.  My Oma (grandmother) was skilled in a wide range of embroidery styles – blackwork, drawn thread work, and crewel work as well as cross stitch and needlepoint.  She always had something on the go – unless she was immersed in one of her beloved English-language whodunits!

Occasionally she would knit – I have a vague recollection of cardigans she knitted for me when I was very small – but it was my mother who was the prolific knitter.   Rarely working from patterns, between the 1940s and the 1980s she produced a vast number of garments, not only the usual sweaters and scarves, but also entire dresses – with panelled skirts – fully fashioned and a perfect fit and, astonishingly, knitted from the finest 2-ply or laceweight yarn on knitting needles barely thicker than sewing needles.  She always claimed to hate knitting, but nevertheless she put a lot of time and effort into her creations, even when knitwear was easily and cheaply available to buy and knitting was no longer the necessity it perhaps was in the 1940s and 50s.  She also made her (and my) clothes occasionally, including her own wedding dress, on a 1950s Singer sewing machine with an electric motor.

Image of textile art. Skyscape in blue wool with vapour trails and clouds suggested in white and oyster silk. Image and art copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

Beacons Skyscape. Wool felt and silk. Lisa Tulfer 2012

It was probably inevitable that I would continue the tradition.  I was embroidering (including blackwork and drawn thread work) by the age of 6, and I also remember learning to knit when I was 6 or 7 – it was a scarf for one of my dolls, made out of scrap yarn in stripes of olive green and burgundy.  I made all my dolls’ clothes, sewing as well as knitting and crocheting.  Up until my late 20s (when my eyesight started to struggle) I made fine cross stitch cards and bookmarks as gifts.  After that, I moved onto needlepoint, as it is larger scale, uses chunky wool instead of fine cottons and silks, and is altogether easier on the eyes.  For a time I took commissions, creating unique bespoke designs for cushions.  In my 20s I acquired a 1930 Singer hand cranked sewing machine, which is my pride and joy, and started dressmaking.  Unfortunately, full-time work and the demise of fabric shops in the 1990s eventually ended that, but I still use the machine to do alterations, shorten trousers, and make things for the house, even if I haven’t made myself an item of clothing for many years.

Image of a hand knitted sock, with a second just begun, and a ball of yarn, in stripes of three shades of green.

I knit compulsively – I’m more than a little obsessed with yarn, especially wool and silk, and deeply in love with the self-striping sock yarn which has been developed in recent years in a kaleidoscope of colours.  I think that for me it’s often about the process of knitting – the meditative rhythm of it, and the tactile and visual enjoyment of the yarn – as much as the finished garment.  I rarely use commercial patterns, usually sketching out my own designs and often making it up as I go along.  If the yarn is colourful or has a great texture I try to keep the design simple so as not to compete with the materials.  Over the last few years I have set myself new challenges – I have learned to knit socks (my partner is now the proud owner of a number of pairs of custom socks in the knock-your-eye-out colours she loves) and also plucked up the courage to try lace knitting, with generous guidance from Liz Lovick of Northern Lace.  Both of these do require patterns, as well as intense concentration.

When I was very young, I was told I couldn’t draw.  With art therefore not open to me as a creative outlet, I turned instead to the skills I did have, inherited from the women of my family – textiles.  For me, there has always been more to making things with yarn and cloth than simply making functional garments – colour, texture and pattern are paramount.  In my late 30s I discovered feltmaking, and rather than making the clothes, wraps and bowls which many of my contemporaries created – often very beautifully – I ‘painted’ with coloured wool fibres to create wall art which was mounted and framed like a picture.  I then discovered spinning – with a spindle, still my preference, and with a wheel – and with the unique yarns I was making I started to weave.  I did make myself a scarf, and a table runner is currently awaiting its bead fringing, but otherwise everything I weave, too, is wall art.

Although I have inherited a number of things which belonged to my Dutch grandparents, I think the one I would save from a fire is a blackwork wall hanging embroidered by my Oma in 1966 – before I was born.  It hung on her kitchen wall for as long as I can remember, and now it hangs on mine.  It depicts the signs displayed outside Dutch hostelries and other businesses in former times.  It could do with specialist cleaning, but the marks on it tell the story of family life, and for me, as the work of her hands, it’s infinitely precious.

Photograph of a blackwork embroidery, dated 1966, depicting old Dutch inn signs and associated advertising slogans.

 

Spirit of the sea – art, music and glass

There are few sounds more magical than the sound of the sea. Whether it’s the slow, breathing cadence of the beach at Aldeburgh, with the North Sea washing the pebbles up and down the shoreline with each wave of the swell, or the thunder of the storm waves hitting the breakwater at the Cob in Lyme Regis, sending a plume of white into the air, I find the sound of the sea compelling. Sadly I am rarely successful at taking photographs of the sea – in the time it takes for my eye to see the image, by brain to send instructions to my finger to press the shutter release, and the camera to respond, the scene has moved on, and the moment is lost. Writing about the sea is hard too, with words often feeling too solid to convey something so mercurial and transient.

Paintings can be more successful at evoking the sea – I am especially admiring of Maggi Hambling’s sea paintings (there’s a video here where she speaks about ‘painting the sound of the sea’, with images from her exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2010). Music can do it too, and for me the most moving examples are by Benjamin Britten (his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes) and his teacher Frank Bridge (his symphonic poem The Sea). Britten lived and worked in Aldeburgh, on Suffolk’s North Sea coast, and when I walk on the quiet beach there the soundrack in my head is his first sea interlude (On The Beach: Dawn).

My love of the sea is not sentimental. I was brought up on or near it, and I know all too well how its moods can change, and the destruction and death it can cause. It’s not all blue, bathing beaches and bobbing boats. The sea demands respect, and takes revenge on those who trifle with it. It’s also merciless to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, those who have to make their living on it and risk their lives doing so. For me, the heroes of the sea are the volunteer lifeboat crews who set to sea in the worst of conditions in order to rescue those for whom they are the last resort. Yes, the sea is beautiful, but it is also powerful and cannot be tamed by humankind.

The British coastline is shaped by that power. Breakwaters and sea defences notwithstanding, the sea has created – and continues to create – a dynamic coast. Erosion and encroachment by the sea (to stick with the North Sea examples, think of Happisburgh which is being ‘lost’ to the sea at a sometimes dramatic rate) is balanced by the creative forces of deposition (for example the giant and ever-growing shingle bank of Orford Ness).

There has been much concern, and rightly so, about the amount of plastic debris being washed up on our coastlines, and the effect of this on wildlife and the marine ecosystem. But there is something else which is regularly washed up on our beaches, which to my mind is a great example of the power of the sea at work to create something beautiful from the cast-offs of our past. I think of it as a kind of recycling, the forces of nature reworking the mundane into unintended gems. I’m talking about sea glass.

Sea glass is formed when pieces of waste glass are abraded by being tumbled in the sea for extended periods of time (sometimes decades or centuries), their sharp edges eventually ground down into a frosted smoothness and pleasing pebble shapes. I have collected sea glass for some years, and there is a vast network of collectors around the world – Instagram is a good place to see their finds.

Sea glass can be found on beaches anywhere – as with any beachcombing, the best pickings are often to be found at the first low tide after a storm, when all manner of interesting things can be washed up. Some parts of the UK coastline, however, seem to yield more glass than others – I have found a lot in the North West, and also some on beaches in North Devon and East Anglia. I hear that the North East of England is a favourite location for collectors, due to the presence of several bottle works in the 19th and 20th centuries – the largest in the country was at Seaham – which dumped their waste glass into the North Sea. I have included a few photographs from my collection, most of which I display in a large glass vase, although the best way to see sea glass and the way it plays with light and colour is to handle it. The blue pendant is a gift from my partner, who found this unusual aqua-coloured and very large piece of sea glass at Lynmouth in North Devon (other people’s partners give them gemstones. Mine gives me sea glass. I am very lucky!).

Sea glass pendant

Most sea glass is a magical pale aqua colour, but some is white, a lot is green, and other rare colours include amber, blue, orange and (most prized of all) red. As most sea glass originated as glass bottles, the abundance of any colour depends on how common the bottles were – blue, for example, started life as medicine or poison bottles, while amber bottles held spirits. Glass bottle tops are sometimes found too, as are the glass marbles which formed the stoppers of early carbonated drinks. Keen collectors have researched the origins of sea glass, which is in itself a social history and archaeology of glass. Occasionally I am lured into researching a piece – for example the reinforced glass incorporating rusting metal wire grids which occur on Crosby beach on Merseyside, which are part of the debris from buildings destroyed in WWII air raids on the city of Liverpool which was dumped there. Mostly, though, I collect it because I am enchanted by what the sea has made from our thoughtless waste. The power that destroys coastlines and wrecks ships has formed something which, in its colour and ever changing reaction to light, is a kind of echo of itself. Have nothing in your homes, said William Morris famously, that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Sea glass, I believe, is the most beautiful thing in my home.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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A very British memorial – public art in a nation of animal-lovers

I have recently written an article about Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, which will be published in the next issue of The Pilgrim.  In it, I write about The Scallop, the controversial but, in my opinion, wonderful sculpture by Maggi Hambling on Aldeburgh beach which is a memorial to the composer Benjamin Britten.

Colour photograph of The Scallop sculpture by Maggi Hambling on Aldeburgh beach

There is, however, another memorial on the seafront at Aldeburgh, much loved by the town.  Between the Tudor Moot Hall and the shacks selling fresh seafood, overlooking the boating lake, stands the statue of Snooks.  Measuring approximately two feet tall, the bronze figure sits on a stone plinth, head on one side, as if watching the model yachts on the boating lake.

‘Mrs Snooks Chip Winkler,’ as the inscription on her collar says, was the canine companion of two local doctors and used to accompany them on their rounds.  She got her name from the tinned fish, ‘snook’, which was imported from African waters during the Second World War.  Although her statue is popular with the people of Aldeburgh, its seems that in her lifetime they were perhaps not always so animal-loving – there is a story that, when wandering the seafront, she would have a notice on her collar which read “Please do not throw stones at this dog.”

Dr Robin Acheson and Dr Nora Acheson were doctors in the town from 1931.  Following Dr Robin’s death in 1959, a memorial was commissioned and the original Snooks statue was created by sculptor Gwynneth Holt.  It was unveiled in 1961 by the couple’s grandchildren.   Dr Nora continued to practice medicine, including teaching first aid to the crew of the Aldeburgh Lifeboat, until her death in 1981, when her name was added to the inscription.

Snooks

This memorial
was erected
by the people
of this borough
to Dr ‘Robin’
P.M. Acheson
who cared for
them from
1931 to 1959
and to Dr Nora
his wife
who died 1981
whilst still caring.

Snooks oversaw the fun at the boating lake until February 2003, when the statue was stolen.  The consternation in Aldeburgh was such that fundraising was started and a replica was cast, which was installed later that year.  However, that was not the end of the story, because in 2012 the original Snooks was discovered at an antiques fair by dealer John O’Connor, and was returned to the town.  This original Snooks now overlooks the pond in the garden of Aldeburgh Community Hospital, which the Achesons helped found, and ‘Snooks 2’ remains on her plinth.

At Christmas 2017 an anonymous well-wisher ‘yarnbombed’ the statue – apparently fearing that Snooks might be feeling the cold, exposed to the winter gales on the seafront, the knitter kitted her out with a jacket, a scarf, and a Tam o’ Shanter  hat.

Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall.  As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living.  If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button.  Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke