Writer’s block – can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

There’s a book by Michael Rosen called We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.  If you have had anything to do with small people in the last 25 years, there’s a high chance you’ll have come across it.  When faced by each new obstacle, the characters sing ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it!’

I have been reminded of this refrain recently.  I usually write fluently and easily (editing is more of a pain for me than actually writing), but one particular commission has been causing me a problem.  Writer’s block is a well-known phenomenon – the curse of the blank page.  Block can take many forms – I refer to my two main ones as ‘research paralysis’ and ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.

Research paralysis

I’m one of those people who want to know everything it’s possible to know about a subject.  As a student, I felt very anxious about starting an essay if I didn’t feel I’d read every book and article available on the topic.  This is, of course, unrealistic.  Yes, research is important.  Especially if much of your subject matter is historical, as mine is, it’s vital to understand both the subject and the context, and in particular to avoid the heinous crime of being anachronistic – introducing ideas or objects that didn’t exist yet in the period you are writing about.  And if you are writing about living people, you need to get your facts right, and you can’t do that without research, lots of it, and using your critical faculties about what you are finding in your research.

However, the trick is to stop researching at some point, and start writing.  I find this difficult!  There’s always ‘just one more’ book, article or website that looks so interesting, and which might just yield that extra fact or perspective that would make all the difference to the piece you’re writing.  It takes a fair bit of confidence to say ‘OK, I now know enough about this to write a robust, accurate and informative piece on the subject’.  When is it ‘enough’?

If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here

This is a reference to an apocryphal tale, sometimes set in Ireland or Scotland, where a tourist asks a local for directions to somewhere and is told ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.    Mostly I enjoy specific writing commissions, but occasionally it can feel as if I don’t know where to start.  Sometimes it can be about the format not matching the topic (‘write about this huge topic in 200 words’), or the style being inappropriate to the content (‘write about this complex argument, requiring lots of specialist knowledge and vocabulary, in a chatty tabloid style’).  Not doing it isn’t an option – I’m a writer, this is my job, I’m being paid to do it.  I can make lots of cups of coffee, go for a walk round the block, do the laundry, compulsively check Twitter, but the problem isn’t going to go away.

Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with writer’s block.  One is to write – anything, not necessarily related to thing I’m supposed to be writing, but just writing – simply to get the writing muscles exercised and moving again.  Often, something will shift and the block will be removed.

Another is to go back and re-read the brief.  Have I understood it wrongly?  Is there some other way of approaching this?  If all else fails, can I get the reader to collaborate with me in wrestling with this topic?  For example, ‘I’ve been asked to write about X, but I didn’t know where to start, so first I tried looking at it from this point of view… what do you think?  Then I tried if from this other perspective… how about this?’

Having a lot of different projects on the go at once is, I find, hugely helpful with writer’s block.  If one article or post is not happening for me, there’s usually something else that’s going well, and it’s amazing how often one project will provide the solution to a block in another.  The human brain is an amazing thing.  And writer’s block must never be allowed to become permanent.  If you can’t go over it, and can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it!

Going Dutch again: reclaiming my bilingual heritage

I have just finished reading my first ever book in Dutch.  More precisely, my first ever book of fiction for adults – as a child I read many children’s books in Dutch, some of which I still have.  The book in question is not exactly literary – it’s a yellowing, fragile paperback entitled De Cock en de wurger op zondag (De Cock and the Sunday strangler), by A C Baantjer, published in 1965, and it is a police procedural whodunit.  Nevertheless, this is a big thing for me.

Ironically, I learned to read and write Dutch a year or more before learning to read and write English.  I am half Dutch, half British.  When I was small, we lived with my Dutch grandparents (Oma and Opa) in the Netherlands, and my parents decided that the best way to bring me up bilingual was for them to speak English to each other and to me, while I would hear Dutch all around me and would converse in Dutch with the wider family.  This worked well – by the age of 5 I was completely bilingual verbally, and I learned to read and write Dutch easily – it’s phonetic, very regular, and pleasingly logical most of the time.

There is a myth that if you bring up a child bilingual, it will be confused, will mix up the languages and be held back in its language development.  This is, in my opinion, rubbish.  I knew full well which language was which, and which language was used with to communicate with which person.  For example, my (British) father’s Dutch was appalling – I remember being embarrassed by how bad it was, and wishing he would stick to English.  I only borrowed from the other language when the one I was using didn’t have the exact word I was looking for, e.g. there is no English word to translate ‘gezellig’ (it’s a bit like the Danish ‘hygge’ which is so trendy at the moment, but with more sociable connotations – see what I mean about there being no English word for it?!).  I could switch effortlessly between the two, and thought and dreamed in either language.

Moreover, I am convinced that a bilingual start makes it easier to learn subsequent languages.  There appears to be something about understanding from the very beginning that there’s more than one set of sounds and language that makes the acquisition of a new set of language skills less challenging than it seems to be for those raised monoglot.  I went on to learn French, Spanish, a bit of German, a bit of Welsh, some Hebrew, and beginners Latin, all with very little effort  – I am convinced that learning more than one language to begin with makes it easier to learn subsequent languages, and I consider that being brought up bilingual was a great gift.

When I was 5, two things happened.  Firstly, we left the Netherlands.  Secondly, I started my education through the medium of English (starting with learning to read and write English, which was way harder than Dutch as it’s so irregular – in fact, it’s so irregular there seem to be more bits of the language that break the ‘rules’ than follow them!).  I was home schooled, something I have very mixed feelings about, and until I was preparing for public examinations I was taught by my father.  My parents continued to speak English to each other, and to me, and because our lives were (for reasons I won’t go into here) nomadic and we were not well integrated into the countries we lived in, I was heavily influenced by the BBC World Service (and the radio was on for much of the day), so that what I was hearing every day was formal standard British English.

My mother was Dutch, and (in common with many of her compatriots of that generation) had been educated to school leaving standard in English, French and German as well as Dutch.  Her accent was near perfect in all three languages – no one ever guessed she was foreign, they simply assumed she was from a different part of their own country that they couldn’t quite identify!  She lived in Scandinavia for some years, and was fluent in Swedish and had a good command of the notoriously difficult Finnish.  She learned Malay in her colonial youth, a smattering of Spanish when we lived in Spain for a while, and Welsh in her old age.

My father’s family were Liverpool Welsh, and were of the generation who felt that it would disadvantage their children if they spoke Welsh, so although Welsh was spoken at home, he lost it as soon as he started going to school, and sadly was not able to pass it on to me.  He did not have a Welsh accent, though, and neither did he sound ‘Scouse’ – his accent was more the very precise, formal tones of the (probably fairly well educated ) first language Welsh speaker, from North Wales or metropolitan Cardiff, speaking English.  If you’re not familiar with it, it probably sounds like rather ‘posh’ English – something I am often accused of being!

Growing up, I really only spoke Dutch to my grandparents.  My main writing practice was regular letters to them, and no one seems to have thought to buy me Dutch books after the age of 7 or 8.  When I was in my late teens and at school in the UK, it seemed sensible to do an ‘O’ level in Dutch, as it was a painless way of getting another qualification.  I revised for that by reading a couple of old copies of Libelle and Margriet, women’s magazines, which were sent over for me by family in the Netherlands.  I found the exam ridiculously easy, and got an A grade.

Fast forward 30 plus years.  My Dutch-speaking family are long gone.  It’s been 30 years since I visited the Netherlands, as I only went to visit family.  Because I never spoke Dutch as an adult, and didn’t go to school there, my vocabulary was childish and old fashioned – not only because I haven’t been around to pick up contemporary idioms, but because I learned my Dutch from elderly, formal and middle-class grandparents who didn’t really do slang and idiom!  I had reached the stage when I was too nervous to engage in conversation with Dutch people I encountered here in the UK – knowing it would take too long to get my brain in gear, saddened that I was no longer fluent or bilingual.

Enter my partner, who announced a couple of years ago that she wanted to learn Dutch – not least to encourage me to engage with it again, and stop me losing it altogether.  She is making good progress, although as we are not currently following any one course of study, it’s a bit erratic and her vocabulary is random and eccentric (she knows the Dutch for ‘volunteer’ (vrijwilliger) but not ‘plate’ (bord), for example!  For a British person, her pronunciation  is quite good – she’s inevitably struggling with ‘sch’ as in Scheveningen, but it’s coming on nicely.   She follows the exploits of the Dutch royal family on Twitter, which gives her not only a nice bit of translation and comprehension practice in fairly correct Dutch, but also glimpses of Dutch culture.   We are planning to visit the Netherlands soon.  I am very nervous about this, because somehow I feel I ought to know all about it, how the transport system works, how to book things, what the rules of the road are, etc because I’m half Dutch – but of course I don’t, because I didn’t grow up there and have never been there as an adult, having to engage with such things.  I am simultaneously native and a foreigner, which is very confusing.

However, what I am very excited about is my reclaiming of the Dutch language.  With my partner’s encouragement, I have been reading Dutch on the internet, subscribing to Dutch language magazines online (who knew that you could get National Geographic in Dutch?!), watching YouTube clips of Dutch comedians, and have joined a Facebook group for Dutch people living in the UK.  Half my Facebook feed is now in Dutch, and a couple of months ago I realised that I am now back to just reading Dutch, rather than translating it into English first.  I’m not yet thinking or dreaming in Dutch again, but I suspect that might happen if I was in the Netherlands, hearing it around me all the time.  I have to look up some words in the online dictionary, but generally I’m surprising myself how rarely that happens.  Bit by bit, I am becoming bilingual again.

And then, just before Christmas, I happened to glance at the second hand books table in my local supermarket – and amongst all the chic lit and gardening books I spy De Cock en de wurger op zondag – so of course I had to buy it!

The gate of the year: musings on the New Year

As 2019 draws to its close, and we count down to 2020, it is perhaps inevitable that I have been musing on the nature of change.  Time passes – some things stay the same, other things evolve.  Change is sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden, often unwelcome, sometimes liberating.  At this point in the calendar, it feels as if we are poised on the threshold – at once looking back at how things have been, and forward to how things might be.  Depending on where we are on life’s journey, looking back can evoke joy, sadness, regret – or simply relief that it’s over.  Looking forward can be scary, or hopeful.  We close the door on the old year, and open the door to the new.

This is not a new concept.  The month of January is named after the Roman God Janus, the god of beginning s and endings.  He is associated with transitions of all kinds: doorways, gateways, arches, passageways.  He was also associated with war and peace, the doors of his temple in Rome being open during war, and closed during peacetime.  It is said they were rarely closed.   Janus is usually depicted in art as having two faces – one facing forwards, one back.   At this time of year, we probably all know how that feels.

All this talk of thresholds and gates reminded me of the words of a poem known as The Gate of the Year or God Knows, by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957) – here is the first stanza:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

The poem is perhaps most famous for being quoted by King George VI in his Christmas broadcast in 1939, with the deprivations of the Great Depression fresh in the collective memory, and the challenges of world war ahead.  “A new year is at hand,” the King said. “We cannot tell [what] it will bring. If it brings peace how thankful we shall all be.”  I wonder if he, too, being classically educated, was thinking of Janus, on the threshold between war and peace.

Despite my best efforts to avoid the news, in the interests of keeping my sanity, it’s impossible not to be depressed about the state of the world, with wars, natural disasters, and divided societies.  However, I am determined to step over the threshold of 2020 in a spirit of hope.  There is the opportunity of change.  The new year lies before us, like the blank pages of a new notebook, ready for what we create in it.  Let’s fill 2020 with adventure, flourishing, love, and above all, peace.

Happy New Year!

 

I was reading this piece aloud to make sure it was OK, and had the sudden thought that it might be fun to experiment with recording it as an audio file and adding it to this blog post as a link (below).  I’ve not used the technology before, and I’m just using the Voice Recording function on my laptop, not a proper mic, so the quality is a bit scratchy.  I wonder if you, dear reader, would mind testing it and letting me know if it works on your phone, tablet or laptop – and whether you’d like me to do this again from time to time?  Just a few words in Leave a Comment would be great.  Many thanks!

Audio – 31 December 2019 The Three Hares Blog

Portraits of the past – my family history in photographs

Last year I came into possession of a large collection of family photographs.  I am the last person standing on that side of the family, so on the death of the last of the previous generation is all passed to me.  We’re not talking a few albums here – the collection completely filled the back of an SUV!  Most of the albums were in poor condition and had been stored in damp or dusty places, so a priority was to remove all the photographs (copying the annotations onto the back of the photos where appropriate) and throw away the wreckage of the albums.  There were also a lot of loose photographs, as well as some in frames (many with broken glass).

Eventually, I was able to group them into rough families, eras and locations.  There were a huge number of duplicates, so the first edit was to choose the best of the duplicates, again copying any annotations, and put aside duplicates for cousins in America if they were likely to be of any interest to them.  Then, I went through each group of photographs, weeding out any which were of no particular family history interest, or where the features were blurred, or choosing one from a series of almost identical shots (there were lots of these, especially 1950s landscapes.  It was apparently a thing in Scandinavia to take many photographs of the back of people standing in a field gazing at distant hills…).

After many evenings and weekends of going through photographs, peering through a magnifying glass at blurry faces, and getting very dusty, I have now whittled the collection down to a single crate, all divided into acid-free archival envelopes labelled with details of the contents (pre-war Holland, Helsinki Olympics 1952, holiday to Wales July 1961, etc).  I also started a notebook, with a page for each year, so that I could track the events and movements relating to the various strands of the family.  One wet Sunday afternoon this winter I plan to create a timeline from the notebook, which colour coding for each branch of the family, for the whole of the 20th century (and also scanning the most interesting ones of shared ancestors to send to my American cousins).

This side of my family is Dutch (via military service in the Dutch East Indies and internment in Japanese camps during WWII), with various members emigrating to America, Finland and Britain.  It has been a fascinating – and occasionally harrowing – exercise to follow individuals from newborns, through rites of passage, family memories, pets and holidays, to ageing, and in one case, death (it seems it was the fashion to take open casket photographs in 1940s America).

I have glimpsed the interiors of Dutch colonial houses of the 1930s, Scandinavian holiday shacks in the 1950s, and American ranches in the 1970s.  I have found that some of the stories I was told as a child were true, and others were not, while still others have got garbled in the telling.  I have been saddened by the toll that WWII took on my grandfather (he was in his 60s when I was born, so I never knew him as anything other than old).  I have been moved by how much my teenage grandparents were obviously in love, in photographs from their courting days which I had never seen.  I have seen my own features and expressions looking out at me from the faces of long-dead relatives.  And I now have a much clearer sense of who I am, and where I have come from.

Too Much Stuff – a decade of decluttering

I recently read back through all my old blog posts (on this and other blogs) and was rather embarrassed to find a theme, going back almost a decade.  From 2011 I have, at regular intervals, been writing about decluttering.  Not decluttering in the abstract, but my own attempts at achieving a simpler life with less Stuff.

Since then, I have moved house no fewer than five times, and am about to move again.  Each time, I have spent days, weeks, months, sorting through Stuff.  I have benefited my local charity shops to the tune of many hundreds of pounds worth of donations.  I have made a lot of people happy with my cast-offs.  I have spent much more than was necessary on house moves, because of the amount of Stuff which needed to be packed and moved each time.

I have read a lot of blogs and books on decluttering (I even have a friend who is a professional declutterer, and if I’d met her earlier in the process I might well have engaged her services!).  I have internalised Marie Kondo’s principles (I even rolled my socks up for a while).  I have read books on Stuff, agonised about Stuff, packed up boxes of Stuff, and driven countless carloads of Stuff to charity shops and recycling centres.

What have I learned?

I had a shocking amount of Stuff.  No, really, I did.  It’s obscene.  After nearly a decade of active decluttering, I still have a home that is far from sparsely furnished and which contains plenty of books, art, clothes, kitchen and tableware, and sentimental items.  I think I’m just about there, though, finally.  This is probably an acceptable amount of Stuff for a woman of 50 in the UK to own.  I’m just acutely embarrassed about how much Stuff I had.

I am ashamed of how much money I spent on Stuff.  There have been many things I have not done in my adult life because I felt I couldn’t afford it.  But the purchase price of the Stuff I have decluttered would have paid for all of those ambitions, with plenty to spare.  I appear to have chosen Stuff above Life.

I have a powerful emotional attachment to Stuff.  This takes two forms:  firstly, I feel responsible for it – I can’t just dump it, it’s my responsibility to make sure that it is rehomed/recycled/sold on to someone who will use it.  It’s partly an environmental thing, and partly something I haven’t quite got to the bottom of yet, which is around a kind of anthropomorphism of Stuff, whereby each item is something I have called into being and now it’s my duty to do right by it.  Odd, isn’t it?!

Secondly, I have discovered that I feel really uneasy about not having much stuff.  Reading books on minimalism makes me feel acutely uncomfortable.  How can having only a few clothes, and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, be something to aspire to?  It just evokes images of refugees, and living in squats, and I can’t imagine how somewhere so Spartan could ever feel homely.  A lot of thinking, and long conversations with my long-suffering partner (who has never in her life had Too Much Stuff, and is rather bewildered about the concept – why would you want to have more Stuff than you actually need?!) has made me realise that the Stuff is, for me and for many other people, tied up with a lot of complex emotions.

A lot of my Stuff relates to creative projects, which get mixed up with issues around identity.  If I decide to do or make something, I first get “every book ever written on the subject” (I quote my partner!), and every bit of kit/materials/tools I might conceivably need.  When (as is often the case) life moves on and I don’t get round to completing the project (or, all too often, even starting it), the Stuff is a silent reproach.  It’s not just about the wasted money, but it’s about mourning for the project that never happened – and for not being, after all, the kind of person who would have done that project.  If I get rid of my wool and my loom, I am also getting rid of my identity as an aspiring textile artist.  Stuff and identity become intertwined.

The unhappier I am, the more I crave being surrounded by my Stuff.  It needs to be my own stuff – not just clutter, but things that I have chosen to have in my home.  Even if there are far too many of them for the space available.  Somehow, it makes me feel safe.  This has made decluttering even more difficult, as it’s usually initiated by stressful events (moving house) which are precisely when I’m likely to be more emotionally dependent on my ‘shell’ of Stuff.

Whilst the last few years of my life could hardly be described as peaceful, they have nevertheless been years of growing happiness and contentment.  And I have recently discovered that I have reached a tipping point.  The burden of having all this Stuff – paying to have it moved, paying to store it, keeping it clean and in good repair, and generally having it take up brainspace as well as physical space – has finally outweighed the emotional benefit of having my Stuff around me.   I no longer need my ‘shell’.  No, I’m still not going to sleep on a mattress on the floor if I can help it, but I’m finally able to follow William Morris’ dictum: “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

So, where does that leave me now?

We are preparing to move house (again).  This time, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, the only things I’ll be moving are things that are either useful or beautiful (or, in a few cases, family Stuff of which I am currently the custodian).  No “but I might still do that project” Stuff, no “but it might come in useful” Stuff, no “but it took me ages to track that book down ten years ago” Stuff, no “but that was really expensive, I can’t get rid of it” Stuff.  Less Stuff, more space.  Less Stuff, more experiences.  Less Stuff, more life.

Why Three Hares?

Why, you may well be asking, have I chosen ‘The Three Hares’ as the title for this blog?  I confess, it’s a bit of a self-indulgence.  It has to be called something, so it may as well be something I’m passionate about!

The motif of the three hares has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it, and I have been intrigued by its mysterious history and ambiguous meaning.  The motif consists of three hares (or possibly rabbits, in some cases) running in a circle, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, with each hare having two ears – but there are only three ears in total.  The ears form a triangle at the centre of the design (very occasionally, there are four hares sharing four ears, which form a square at the centre).

I first came across them in Devon, where there are nearly 20 examples of medieval roof bosses featuring the three hares in churches across the county.  (They are sometimes called “Tinners’ Rabbits” in the Dartmoor area, but this seems to be a bit of a red herring, as the origins of the motif are much older).

So, first, the history:  the earliest examples have been found in caves in China, which are believed to be early 6th century.  The theory is that the motif travelled west along the Silk Road, appearing in southern Russia, Iran, eastern Europe, Germany, France, Switzerland, and finally crossing the Channel to England and Wales in the early 14th century.  The hares transcend religious traditions, from Buddhism, through the Islamic world (where the motif appears on metalwork, glass, ceramics and textiles), Judaism (18th century synagogues in Germany have the motif, alongside the riddle “Three hares sharing three ears, yet every one of them has two”) to Christianity (they feature in churches across Western Europe).

The meaning is much more mysterious than the history.  Hares have had many associations, including as a symbol for resurrection in Chinese mythology.  The hare was the animal associated with the pagan goddess Oestara, along with the moon, possibly because the hare was believed (erroneously!) to have a gestation period of 28 days.  This association may account for the naming of the female cycle (oestrus) and the principal female hormone (oestrogen).  This female imagery may be the reason that the three hares are often found juxtaposed with the Green Man in English examples.  In another legend, the hare was believed to have laid the Cosmic Egg, which may be the precursor of the idea of the Easter Bunny, and Easter eggs!  And latterly, the three hares were believed to be a symbol of the Christian Trinity.

I leave you with my own interpretation, in a linocut print, of the three hares and moon motif, which is the logo for this blog, and some links to articles which have informed my understanding of the three hares and which you may find interesting.  If you are really lucky, you may manage to track down a copy of The Three Hares: A curiosity worth regarding by Tom Greeves, Chris Chapman and Sue Andrew, published by Skerryvore Productions but now sadly out of print – if you do, can I please borrow it?!

20190722_100029 classic - Copy - edited and watermarked

The Three Hares Project

Legendary Dartmoor

Wikipedia article

New Scientist article

The Three Hares Trail, Dartmoor

An artist’s blog about the three hares

The three hares as a Chines puzzle

Back to blog

It seems – and indeed it is – a very long time since I last blogged here.  Although I have been writing prolifically since I arrived in Norfolk, for various reasons I haven’t been blogging.  Now, however, a whole raft of changes to my work pattern and lifestyle mean that I am back at the laptop, raring to go and full of ideas for blog posts to share with you.

So, just to get started, here is a picture of a bug hotel from a recent visit to Pensthorpe nature reserve.  I love photography, and in particular black & white, and having recently bought a shiny new camera with lots of settings, I am hugely enjoying playing with my new toy when out and about in Norfolk and beyond.

DSCF2630 web

Move to Norfolk

Over the summer I have moved to Norfolk.  Apart from a week’s holiday and a couple of weekends, it’s completely new territory for me, and I am enjoying getting to know my new habitat.  Here are a few pictures from recent trips out.  Norfolk is well-stocked with some of my favourite things (beaches, ruined monasteries, interesting medieval churches, nice places to eat) so I’m having a good time!

Writing course at Manchester Writing School

This week I have treated myself to a three day course on Media Skills for Creative Writers at the Manchester Writing School.  This centre of excellence in all things writing related has a formidable reputation, and given the quality of the tuition I’ve received here, I can see why.  Under the direction of unit leader James Draper, we have been taught by journalist and lecturer Rachel Broady.  Rachel has grounded us in technical aspects of writing (especially features) and facilitated us in workshopping our ideas.  Guest tutor Kath Grant gave us valuable input on working as freelance writers, and how to pitch our ideas to commissioning editors.  The small group format means that we have had plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and to receive advice tailored to our interests and circumstances.  Having a more journalistic slant on writing has been an especially good discipline for me.  Watch this space…

Liverpool – impressions

I’ve recently moved to Liverpool – quite a change from rural Somerset!  I had been visiting regularly for a while, so I realised that my Honda CR-V, while perfect for yomping across Exmoor and tackling fords was possibly not the idea vehicle for parallel parking in the city.  So I test drove a range of ‘normal’ cars, which all felt like driving a go-cart by comparison, eventually settling on a middle-aged VW Golf.  Moving to the city has increased my car insurance by roughly 60%.  Cars up here seem to be much newer, much more likely to have chrome and tinted windows, and there is a conspicuous absence of mud…I am going to have to get used to the idea of spending money at the car wash if I’m not to be horribly conspicuous in my road-grimed car…

Today the sun was shining and I could justify playing hookey and going into the city centre.  Public transport here is the best in England outside of London, but I am driving most of the time at the moment as it’s a great way to familiarise myself with the geography of the city.  Today I parked near the Anglican cathedral, and walked down Duke Street to Liverpool One, passing the great gate or paifan of China Town on the way.  It’s the largest outside of China, as befitting the oldest Chinese community in Europe.  Nelson Street is garlanded with red lanterns in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend.

Next stop was the Tate, on Albert Dock, where I wanted to look at the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition.   The red brick of the older buildings in the dock area glowed warmly in the winter sunshine, and despite being off season there were still tourists from all over the world – in a few minutes I’d identified Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish and German being spoken.  I love the cosmopolitan vibe in this city!

I had some Christmas gift vouchers to spend, so from the Tate I walked the short distance to Liverpool One and indulged in a little retail therapy.  Midweek in January is an excellent time to shop – lots of sales, but relatively few shoppers.  It’s fair to say that am not an enthusiastic shopper, but it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s peaceful.  To celebrate having successfully tracked down all three items on my list, I carried on up the hill to Bold Street in search of lunch.  Bold Street is a hub of ethnic restaurants and quirky shops.  To be honest, I generally feel a bit old and un-hipster when I go there, especially at today’s trendy lunch venue: Leaf.  I’ve been there for tea before, but not for lunch.  I opted for Moroccan chicken sandwich with broccoli soup on the side, and it was not disappointing – full of flavour and fresh ingredients.  A nice touch is the tap water (I was being stingy).  It comes with a tang of fresh mint, dispensed from a giant glass jar with a tap, which is on the bar so you can help yourself to refills.

Twenty minutes’ walk took me back to where I’d left the car, and I drove home in the sunshine, feeling glad to be in such a beautiful and vibrant city.  There is so much more to explore: the range of world-class museums and galleries, the library (to research my father’s family who came here from Wales in the late 19th century), and the constantly changing panorama of the River Mersey.