Friday 29 February 2008

eternal vigilance

I've been hunting jackdaws around the Downs with my camera, because I need to do some jackdaw drawings.

Ended up buying a zoom lens too. It's very good, and will be useful for taking pictures of things that are either small, or far away, or small and far away.

This is, of course, not a jackdaw, but hey.

I've got some usable pictures, but am still hunting for the perfect jackdaw.

So I was out there again this afternoon in the mounting gale and rain. But not for long as I'm soft. So I went to Spike Island to see what the current exhibition was like.

I didn't take pictures of the exhibits because

  • I wasn't allowed to
  • Actually, I didn't really want to. They just. Didn't. Float. My. Boat.

On the other hand, I liked the chairs used by the invigilators. They told stories. And the nice people in the gallery were quite happy to let me take pictures of them. Thank you. I like Spike Island, even if I just don't get the art bit.

Thursday 28 February 2008

skipping the light fantastic

Bristol is getting pretty good at recycling. We put out:

Kitchen waste

..and it gets whisked away every Tuesday. I miss the compost bin I once had in the garden. The landlady, a gardener of the "scorched earth" school, was strongly opposed to it, saying that it would attract rats. In fact, it attracted wood mice, a family of which had made themselves cosy in there, though they occasionally forayed into our kitchen in the winter. Wood mice are nice. High up on the cute animals list.

It also attracted hippies. We had an infestation of them in the attic at the time, and they used to throw plastic and horrid stinking things into there. O well, despite all that the compost bin produced lots of nice rich humus in its time.

Long gone now; the landlady finally had her way. And the hippies disappeared. Perhaps the council pest control people had a hand in it.

So I'm glad that at least the green waste is not going to landfill....

With spring comes the high season for skip hunting. There are two sorts of people; those who put things into skips, either because they've hired them or because they're nefariously getting rid of something at someone else's expense; and those who take things out of them. Obviously, I fall into the latter category.

Skips can be wonderful; you never know what you may find. Let's see: past highlights include

a czech motorbike
a Seagull outboard motor
an Atco lawnmower
a Kenwood Major food mixer, with which I have been making my bread for about fifteen years now
loooooads of bicycles and bike bits and tools
...countless books, paintings, pictures, pots and pans...

...sometimes I am circumspect, as when it is evidently the possessions of someone who has died; it's rather pathetic, seeing the material legacy of a life consigned to a skip, and I feel rather intrusive; but it seems even worse to let the things go off to be strewn on a tip.

And then there are builders' skips, which can be a rich source of timber. I've been rescuing piles of stuff from down the road, where an old people's home is being done up. And last week I found this one here, outside Redland's eco-home.

...Well, it was hailed in a quiet way as an eco-home when it was built a few years ago. I think it's got insulation and stuff like that.

The eco-skip has provided me with some very nice plywood and MDF, and some blocks of tropical hardwood. Don't know if it's teak or mahogany or that other supposedly more sustainable one, ikebana or ikea or whatever.

Iroko, that's it.

Anyway, v heavy. I tried cutting it with my chainsaw and it started sparking. Whoo. Wood with attitude.

Still, I'm sure it'll be useful for something. And it did come all the way from a rainforest. Shame to throw it away.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

when seagulls sing hey ding-a-ding-a-ding

When it comes to spring's harbingers
I say stuff your primroses and your daffodowndilly.
And snowdrops I associate with chilly
Hanging-on-in-there-tenaciously-winter's fingers.
What I like to see, since you're kind enough to ask,
Is black-headed gulls in their new Lone Ranger masks.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

signs of the times

I've been going through my couple-of-hundred photos from last summer's Great Welsh Walk, and filling out the Flickr album a bit. It's a restless business, looking at adventure-ish summer photos. It's getting me thinking of what to do and where to go this year. Summers are too good to waste them not going on expeditions of some sort.

Also reminded me of the infinite variety that there is in campsites. The signs here were on a site at Rhaiadr Gwy, or Rhayader if you prefer. It was nicely-located on the bank of the youthful River Wye, and the showers ran on time, but...

....this is more my sort of place, on a farm high up near Cemaes Head. There were things growing in the shower (singular), and everything was higgledy-piggledy, including, or especially, the landscape.

...and it was Very Nice Too. A rainbow hung over the Teifi estuary as we pitched the tent and the sun reappeared after the rain which had followed us from Hay. We watched a chough haranguing a buzzard high above us, and a whitethroat sang from the adjacent ash tree.

Well, I think it was a whitethroat.

We met this german couple further south. They thought it was hilarious that there was such a complete lack of consistency in british campsites. Look, they're laughing. We were sharing our memories of that shower with things growing in it.

They like that sort of thing. They said they preferred it to the uniformity of european municipal campsites.

Perhaps they're not typical germans.....

...this, on the other hand, is the encampment of a fairly typical Modern Family That Camps. I'm curious; if there is a recognisable demographic thing going on here, then where did this particular group come from? -were they the sort who would have been going on package holidays to Spain twenty years ago? Are they a new growth rather than an evolution? Questions, questions. I suppose I could always pluck up courage and ask them. Lord knows there's no shortage of 'em...

...o well, there's always hit-and-run camping. Melt away with the morning dew, leaving no trace of our passing.

Roll on, summer.

A distant jet plane,

And a blackbird chipping chinks
From the dawn's silence

Wednesday 20 February 2008

what the Doctor ordered

As Ivor Cutler said, "Thin shoes tell you more about the world we live in than thick shoes."

Thin shoes tell me that, just at the moment, it's bloody cold.

I got a nice pair of Doctor Marten boots the other day, from a charity shop. Just the thing for bouncing around the frozen countryside.

I think the previous owner had given up on trying to break them in; they were stiff and painful after a short while of wearing.

I have had problem boots before, and usually ended up being broken by them rather than the other way around. I once even tried the traditional army wheeze of using urine, and concluded that there are some v good reasons not to use this method. Like, yuuurk, and who wants to put their feet in boots that smell of wee?

So today I'm thinking outside the box and rubbing moisturiser inside the boots. Time will tell how effective this proves, but at least they smell nice.

...these are the boots that got me round Wales. Note: they're not boots, they're shoes.

Monday 18 February 2008

prisoner of the white lines

When the world was a lot younger and dinosaurs still lived in Wales, I used to hitchhike when I wanted to travel. I got to meet interesting and usually very nice people. Old soldiers would tell hair-raising stories of their campaigns; one, a retired Lt Col, pointed out the regimental badges carved on a Dorset hillside by Kitchener's army as we swooped by in his MG, me sharing the passenger seat with his affable labrador.

"Had those CND johnnies up there last week," he said; "Carved their symbol on there. Took us all weekend to fill it in again."

I nodded sagely and failed to mention my political leanings.

Caught in a rainstorm on the A4, I took refuge in the Brillig Centre in Bath, and ended up staying overnight with some new-found friends and having a wild evening at the Hat and Feather.

I hitched through blizzards, I hitched across the English Channel. I was benighted in beautiful places, and occasionally stranded in vile ones and despairing of ever getting another lift. There were high highs and low lows.

Fun, adventure, serendipity, the microbiographies and casual friendships of the road. Nasty things could happen; I'd heard about some of them; it didn't stop me, though. A man who rescued me from a rainswept roadside near Strasbourg in his Renault 4 one night invited me to stay in his flat; I accepted gratefully; later he appeared in his underpants and invited me to join him in his bed. "Merci; je prefer mon sac a coucher," I said. He didn't push the point... I guess I was lucky.

Here's my first car; a van. Most of my friends at the time didn't have anything transportwise beyond bicycles, so it got used for house (or squat) moves, and I took some friends up to Greenham Common in it for the 'ring the base' event.

I used to pick up hitchers as I thought I had a sort of moral obligation to do so. Again, it was interesting; and it answered the question I used to ask myself; "How good a hitcher am I compared with other ones?" -you know, the unspoken obligation of the hitcher to provide some form of company and entertainment for the person giving you the lift.

The answer was, mostly, "Fairly OK, I guess..."

..and sometimes...

...we picked up a shadowy figure at the Exeter services one night. He was dead scary, and didn't seem entirely sure where or if ever he wanted to be let out. I was thinking of parking outside a police station and calling for help... but he got out in the end.

After that, I swore never again to pick anyone up after dark.

I broke the rule a few weeks ago, driving out of Wells and homeward-bound for Bristol. A girl was hitching. "She could get into trouble doing that," I thought, and stopped.

She had missed the bus for Bristol and was in haste to get a coach for London, where she was attending a Tibetan Buddhist training course. She was (of course?) from Glastonbury. It was quite like the old days.

So I was glad I'd stopped.

Yesterday, heading up the M5, we were pulling out of the car park at Strensham when I saw a chap with a rucsac saying something to me. Wound window down.

"I was saying, it's a nice looking car. Don't see many of those around," he said.

He was obviously after a lift. I told him I was going as far as the next services on the M42. He was heading for the M1 and gratefully threw his rucsac into the boot. Katie flounced into the back seat and sat there radiating disapproval at her Nintendo.

He was a bit worrying. OK, make that "he was the sort of person you'd avoid making eye contact with if you met him on the street". He was dishevelled, looked as though he'd taken too much of too many things for too long.

He was smelly.

I watched out of the corner of my eye. His head hung forward as a default posture, so I could see it quite easily. He stared at my feet, my hands.

I was a bit bothered. I kept my talking to a minimum. Some men can get a bit funny if they find out that a woman used to be a man, as it were.... Funny in the sense of not being at all funny, of course. And I was uncomfortable enough as it was.

O well, it's a bright sunny afternoon and it's only twenty minutes, I told myself, checking the position of the mobile phone.

So we got there. He thanked me and shambled away.

Katie gave me a severe telling-off. We agreed that I wouldn't do it again.

Driving south again, the sun set spectacularly behind the Malvern Hills, and, tuned in to Radio 3 I heard Stockhausen's Gesang de Junglinge for the first time. That was good.

Sunday 17 February 2008

neighbourhood watch

We wandered down through the People's Republic of Stokes Croft, on our way to St Nick's Market- Katie has a new piece of plastic and a date with destiny at Beast and the stall that sells cuddly animals....

PRSC is a lively place. We looked at the exhibition in the Here Gallery, lunched at Pie Minister, noted the blokes with dreadlocks and cans of Special Brew lolling on Turbo Island, admired the graffiti... ticked quite a few of the tourist boxes, in fact. I'm glad it's there, and secretly glad we're just up the hill from it rather than in the thick of it...

And then an afternoon trip to see what Portishead Marina looks like.

I like old docklands. I like the air of dereliction and ramshackledom, the feeling that great things were once done here and epic voyages undertaken; and have admired it in places like Newport, Barry, Cardiff, Marseilles, Valletta, Colombo, and ...oh, all sorts of places. Modern docks combine dullness spread over hundreds of acres with the imminent prospect of being squished by the large lumps of machinery rumbling around.

And then there are harbourside developments.

I never got to see what Portishead Docks were like before the development, as the entrance was barred by a gate.

Now, the way lies clear before you, although if you stop to take a picture of a misspelt road sign ("Pheonix Way"? I don't think so) you will likely get beeped at by some jerk in a Merc. Thank you. Maybe if I lived here I'd have a sense of humour failure too.

This place ticked all the right boxes to bring out my snobbishness. Buildings-for-living-in simulating dockside warehouses, a job lot of art-lite sculpture, "thou shalt not" signs, rows of expensive boats, and absence of amenities. Maybe the residents alternate between the telly and the leisure centre just outside the gates.

The east wind funneled down the breakwater and froze us. We gybed, and ran before it. All the way back to Bristol.

Saturday 16 February 2008

sharp practice

It's been blooming cold in these parts. So we've been doing indoors stuff. I've been encouraging young K to take an active part in kitchen work, because it's all got to start somewhere; the other evening, she made us a dinner of pasta in tomato sauce. And made the bread. And it was a jolly good loaf too.

And then there's knifework. I know people who are afraid of sharp knives and feel happier with barely-usably blunt ones in the kitchen. Bloody odd behaviour. "Sharp knives are safer," I say.

Up to a point....

That's my nice sushi knife in the picture, which John brought me back from Japan a couple of years back. It's my Best Knife. It's got lots of carbon in it and is so sharp it starts cutting things even before it gets to them.

So K has a go at the onions for last night's dinner (a vaguely moroccan thing with chicken and chick peas), with me hovering over her saying, "Right, now lay that half on its side and slice along that way..." and so on and being nervous as old heck. And the nervousness got on K's nerves too. "Don't be so protective," she finally said.

Oh well, payback time for all those years of riding motorbikes and dangling off cliffs and sailing through storms and walking through town centres after dark and keeping unsuitable company and.... generally doing the thousand and one things that would have all right-thinking parents breaking into a cold sweat if only they knew.

I remember someone in my house in Portsmouth once remarking; "We're the sort of people our parents warned us about...."

Friday 15 February 2008

owl service

Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte;
Thus singen smale foules for thy sake -
Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake.

as everyone knows, Valentine's Day is the day that birds take their mates for the year. It seemed a good occasion to rehome our wooden owl, as she was certainly never going to meet anyone up there on the bookshelf.

Out to the Downs, then. A flight of Redstarts were hanging out on the grass, and it was wintery cold with a nasty easterly blowing. Come on, Spring! Pull your finger out...

Here she is, then, in her new home.

Postie came while we were out climbing trees. I got... a letter from the Inland Revenue. Romance in my soul, me.

Monday 11 February 2008

braver notes

Misty Sunday morning in the Usk valley.

In cities that have outgrown their promise
People are becoming pilgrims again,
If not to this place,
Then to the recreation of it in their own spirits.

The beginning of the month saw me hitting fifty. It seemed more of a watershed than forty, or even thirty (never trust anyone over...); this last decade has seen more, or possibly bigger, changes in my life than the preceding ones, and I'm only beginning to look forward and think "Where next?"

And then last week marked the fortieth year since my mother died. She was very alive and loving and creative, and then she died of leukaemia, at the age of thirty four. I still feel her loss. How much loss should you feel? I don't know. I tried some hypnotic regression a few years ago to try to sort things out; it was a very upsetting experience, and I decided that this sort of thing is best left well alone.

Back then, we lived in Llanfrechfa, in Monmouthshire. Mother was a sometime churchgoer, and a Christian in a quiet way. I was in the church choir, and still at that time a Christian (I was going to say still a believer; but that suggests I don't now believe in anything, and I do) . I decided to return to mark the occasion.

I drove over early, and walked down to the church. In a tall beech at the top of the churchyard, a gaggle of crows was being rowdy. Crocuses and snowdrops were abundant among the graves past which I had once hurried fearfully to evening choir practice. From Church Farm, now an animal sanctuary, came a hullabaloo of dogs and what sounded like parrots.

In the porch I met Ken Jacobs the church warden, just locking-up the church after the first service and in haste for his breakfast. He invited me to return for the 10:30 Family Eucharist. I wandered around the village; outside the sagging fence of the playground of the now-demolished school was the rotting stump of the parish notice board which my father had built. A garden warbler was singing in the bush above it.

I walked down Tram Lane, and wondered (having never wondered at the time) why it was called Tram Lane. It was a cold and clear morning; a few primroses were in flower on the banks. The lane was as rough and potholed as ever, and a stream flowed down the side of it. Nearing what had been the Pughs' ramshackle farm, I heard geese honking and then the barking of farm dogs. I decided that I didn't really want to meet the dogs or renew my acquaintance with the Pughs, or whoever it may be these days, and returned up the hill.

Three blackbirds squabbled through the bushes; a pair of cock robins faced-off'; one puffed his breast feathers way out to demonstrate his supremacy, and the other retreated in as nonchalant a way as it could muster.

I heard a green woodpecker, great tits, and a nuthatch. And a mistle thrush provided the high accompaniment to this village morning.

So braver notes the storm-cock sings
To start the rusted wheel of things
And brutes in field and brutes in pen
Leap that the world goes round again.

Church Cottage was festooned with multicoloured lightbulbs. Outside, a crop-headed and leisure-suited man, only sign of human life in the village, swept gravel back off the road onto the hard-standing where four cars were parked.

As I walked back to the church, the bell began tolling. The churchgoers, identifiable in their Sunday best, were arriving in their cars; I leant back into the hedge to let them by. I remembered the time that the collection plate had passed me by, long ago, and so I'd put the sixpence in this hedge, because I figured that God would find it there just as easily as in the church.

And so I went in. I was greeted warmly and given the paperwork for the service, invited to join the congregation for coffee afterwards, and advised to choose a pew well away from the draught from the door. I gazed around; unlike the rest of the village, the church was essentially unchanged, other than being inexplicably smaller than I remembered it... the brass eagle lectern, the Last Supper relief of the reredos, the big immersion font...

There was a fair turn-out. And the choir was there too. The service was led by Sister Anita, whose parish this is; it was a pleasant surprise to hear her warm canadian accent. We sang hymns, of which I had heard of one; "What A Friend We Have In Jesus". I thought wistfully of the tortuous grammar of Hymns A&M; and, in this place, perhaps my favourite, "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended" in a summer's Evensong, with the shadows deepening.... but that was then, and this wasn't my show, so I sang the unfamiliar words with a good will, accompanied by Ken Jacobs on the guitar, and an elderly lady in a Big Hat who trilled out a wobbly descant -some things don't change.... I offered prayers for my mother and for a friend who is really quite ill... at one point we all said hello to each other and shook hands, too, which was nice. I'd been surrounded by a cheerful family, and the hands for shaking were going everywhere; "We play Twister later," joked one of the women...

I always used to feel left out of the Communion; every year the choir turned out for the confirmation service, when the young confirmands, all dressed in white, trooped forward for the bishop to lay on hands; but quite how one set about getting confirmed was never quite made clear, and I never quite got round to asking. This morning, however, the order of service invited the unconfirmed to join in and receive, if not communion, at least a blessing. So I finally made it to the altar rail and was duly blessed. It was a good experience.

Over coffee, afterwards, I chatted with my cheerful neighbour, a lawyer from Ponthir. We enthused about St David's, where Sister Anita had lived before coming to the parish. A few people thought they knew me from somewhere. I doubted it. Some older people racked their brains and failed to remember my family, or more particularly me; we agreed that I'd probably changed quite a lot since 1968.... We shared a few names of people we commonly remembered. "It's a village full of people getting old," said the chap who officiated over the coffee; "Still, that's better than the alternative...."

I made my farewells and left them to it.

Something had been unlocked in me; some part of my past which had been in stasis since we left the village in 1969. Things change. People go about doing their best, being good, or not being good, but mostly, I think, trying to be good. Life goes on.

I picked a snowdrop from the churchyard and pressed it in the pages of my journal.

Sunday 10 February 2008

solitude and me

I tried to be virtuous and busy yesterday, so I missed most of the spectacularly nice weather.

But my ex-flatmate dropped in later, and we took her bike on the car roofrack over to her new place in Bath.

Setting off for home again the sunset was too good to ignore, so I bimbled westward and meandered my way through Somerset, with the vague waypoint of Stanton Drew. It was so dark by the time I got there that I couldn't tell whether I was treading on molehills or cowpats. Forgot to check shoes when I got in.

*checks now*

Phew, must have been molehills.

Saturday 9 February 2008

hard travellin'

Another MOT, another year.

Every car I've ever had has been hanging in there on a wing and a prayer, so I can't shake the habit of feeling worried that they'll need expensive stuff done to fix them. The Trav needed some new tyres on the back, but is otherwise fine.

I am trying to get fit and thin. The thin bit is problematic, as my genetic inheritance is big and peasanty. Fit, however, I can do. So I stuck the bike on the car roof when I took it to the garage on the south side of the city, and cycled home. And then cycled back through the rush hour to collect it, later. I weaved, or maybe wove, my way through nose-to-tail vehicles in the twilight.

Car drivers are noticeably more bolshy during the evening rush, than they are earlier in the day. Must be the stressful jobs they've got, poor lambs.

I, however, know no fear.

Though perhaps I should.

Look, it's my bike.

Friday 8 February 2008

poetry in motion

This isn't my car, this is Buzz's car. My car went off for its MOT today.

In this strange new land
We name the hills as we pass;
Our feet mark the map.

Well, what with it being LGBT History month, the monthly Bristol Poetry Can event at the Central Library was on-topic, with a reading by Andi Langford-Woods, and a talk on Thom Gunn by a gay bloke who whose name I can't be bothered to remember because his talk was rather dull and he twice referred to "Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Month" despite being outnumbered on the omitted oppressed minority front in that particular event. Bloomin' gays, I dunno...

It was a good event, some rather moving stuff. I threw in a couple of haikus which could be read in an on-topic sort of way, as the pertinent work-in-progress from the Marland pen is on a poetic hard shoulder somewhere waiting for the AA man.

There were also a couple of (presumably) 'normal' people, one of whom announced that "I don't do clever poems." He was right, unfortunately. And a woman who said that she hadn't realised that there was a theme, as though it was something she'd just trodden in. Poets, eh? -mad, bad and dangerous to know. Apparently.

I watched a spoddy boy who spotted Andi reading her stuff and became theatrically amused by it, and took a seat just outside the reading and sniggered to his girlfriend. He was there as I left at the end, and did a weaselly little wolf whistle, just audible; I was last to go, along with Alan Summers, who was telling me about his new gig as poet-in-residence riding the mobile libraries of Herefordshire (I was v envious). I wish I'd gone back and given the spod a good talking to, rather than merely being disdainful... o well, too late now. It'll just take him longer to work out for himself what his issues are. Or not, as the case may be.

Monday 4 February 2008

cries in the dark at night

There was a godawful screaming from the garden at 04:15 (I checked).

Peered out of the window, saw nothing, worried a bit. It sounded as though it may have been foxes, but foxes can sound v much like someone being murdered, 'orrid like.

More noise at dawn; this time I saw the rascals, three foxes loping away from their squabble along the garden wall. They looked v thin and lively. The dawn looked v cold.

Bloody chavs with bushy tails, I suppose, but I like having foxes in the garden. I wouldn't like having chavs in the garden.

I made coffee and said a silent prayer of thanks for electricity and opposable thumbs.

Sunday 3 February 2008

up the hill

It was my birthday. I thought I should do something to mark the occasion; Suzanne joined me, and we went over to the Black Mountains and climbed the Sugarloaf. It was cold and clear; we could see way south to the other side of the Bristol Channel.

A snow storm came rolling across the mountains to the north; it reminded me of one of those films made by volcano chasers, the ones who end up dead. I reassured myself that snow may be cold, but at lest it's not toxic. And so I took a few pictures of it instead of running away. And we drank our coffee and ate chocolate, as you do.

Me at fifty. I saw this and thought, "I'm turning into my grandma..."

This hasn't happened to me before. Oh well. I sometimes see echoes of family in my daughter's face, as transient presences. Now I see it in me too. I feel less individual all of a sudden, and conscious that there aren't that many people in front of me on the family conveyor belt, these days.

We dropped down into Abergavenny for lunch, and wandered around the market. There was a french bread stall, with a chap with a french accent behind it. I bought a nice-looking pain au levain, because I like to see how other people's bread compares to mine. I bought the loaf in french. He sold it to me in english. "Surly bugger," I thought. Suzanne suggested that it wasn't surliness but a lack of real frenchness on the part of the baker.

It was a good loaf, though. We ate it with cheese and salami and stuff, and drank the champagne that was sitting, a courier delivery, in the porch on our return home. Thank you, Richard. It was a happy birthday.