Things I Haven’t Seen but Have Done

Back in the beginning of March, the Teen and I started a bit of an experiment: could we survive two weeks without television without switching on iPlayer every night, bickering or resorting to poking each other with sticks for entertainment? Would we remain vaguely human-like in form and brain, or would we regress into Neolithic grunters, staring into puddles* and banging rocks together?  So, once we were back from my parent’s house, I packed the tv away and waiting for the sky to fall in.

6 weeks later, I’m still waiting.

The space where it used to be has been filled with plants and the cupboard where it is stored now has gradually filled to obscure it. We sit most evenings with the radio on (god bless BBC6 Music and Radio 4), reading, crocheting (me only), revising (Teen only), chatting, doing coursework (both of us) and occasionally switching on iPlayer to watch something (hello Inside No 9 and Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the South) that we really really want to see.

I’ve taken up needle-felting again, with the intention of creating another Brian. But hopefully without the Brian moniker**. Have drawn silly little sketches that will never see the light of day. Attempted the writing I kept promising myself I’ll do. Actually taught myself to be comfortable without a constant dribble of hypnotically coloured hyperbole being streamed into my home. Finally managed to read the entire Saturday edition of the Guardian from cover to endless supplementary cover (except for the sport bit – there are limits) in a day. We’ve adapted surprisingly quickly to not having it there.

What has been odd is the reaction of other people to our decision. These have varied from shock to dismay, incomprehension to outright irritation. Someone called me ‘tight’, assuming I’d done it to avoid the license fee (not true, still paying it in fact). Others have stared and said “but what do you do?”, rather like a royal must quiz one of the common people, as though the human race has evolved purely due to a daily input of soaps, quiz shows and detective series reruns. And some just think I’ve gone mad and the Teen must be suffering greatly under my reign of terror. I’ve been forced into defending a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with how social, free with my money or busy I may or may not be. I thought I might miss it on the weekends the Teen isn’t with me, especially on weekends I wasn’t occupied with friends and plans, but it didn’t turn out that way. One particularly black, weather-battered on-my-own-Sunday, after a grocery run, I came home and thought for a moment before getting back into my pyjamas, getting under a blanket and reading for a straight 8 hours, pausing only to make tea, get food or move myself so bedsores didn’t become an issue.

A great stretch of time with nothing but amazing stories for company is a rare treat.

Yes, there are things I’ve missed. Napping on Sunday afternoons in front of a Miss Marple. Aidan Thingie taking his shirt off in Poldark and rippling his chest like a mermaids tail. Possibly never knowing if Penny and Leonard finally make it down the Big Bang aisle. Coming home from a bad day and just letting the screen soothe me into a catatonic state. However, finding other things to soothe the day or set me daydreaming hasn’t been a problem. Sorry Aidan Thingie but you were always too hairy for my liking anyway. The telly is staying in it’s cupboard.

Added bonus: I’m missing most of the pre-election nonsense that every channel seems to want to force feed the general population. And my soul is definitely infinitely better for that.

Photos taken during an Easter Sunday walk up to an Iron Age hill fort with the Teen (the last time I was here, it was over 2 years ago, misty, with bare branches looming out of the gloom and Dog to keep me company). It was glorious, with a second breakfast of sausages when we reached the top.  2 days later, that pleasing achey pull in my leg muscles reminds me of it every time I move.
 
* mind you, there is a lot to be said for staring into puddles
** the Teen has christened her Agnes. Sigh. Had been hoping for a more Thor-the-puny-human-slayer type of name, but no. Brian and Agnes it is then.
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That There London 

It seems bizarre to describe a trip to London as ‘relaxing’ and whenever I have this week, people have looked at me as though I’ve gone off my tiny little rocker but seriously, that was THE most REEELAXING weekend I have had since Christmas.

Apart from having to get to the station on time and then locate my friend at the other (Paddington) end, there was pretty much nothing else I needed to take responsibility for. Food, tube times, which direction to walk in, which pub to visit, whether the bed was made, the wine was in and the entertainment suitable for two middle-aged souls (a marathon viewing of Spaced, so yes it was): it was all down to him.

And he did the job splendidly. As I knew he would from the very first time I visited him in London and he pulled me out of the way of a speeding car. Now that’s a damn fine tour guide. The only specification I made was that we visit the Grant Museum (see previous post) and that was only so that I could see the Glass Jar of Moles. And I did! See, see them up there with their little snouty noses and shovelly paws. Oh Glass Jar of Moles, I wish I had one too.

In fact, the more we looked around the Grant, the more I realised this was probably my new favourite museum. It’s exactly everything I want from a museum, full of specimen jars and weird things that I’ve never see before. Cow fur ball, anyone? Or maybe a fish doing a cracking visual impersonation of Elvis?

The Grant Museum was established by Robert Grant in 1827 as a teaching museum for the University College London. A highly intelligent and inquisitive thinker, his work influenced a young Charles Darwin. I think I’d have liked to have met him.

There were labels handwritten in tiny, crabbed script, skeletons of wonderful beasts, slides of microscopic creatures, and the occasional sight that was the stuff of nightmares. Big spiders, I’m looking at you. Or rather, I’m turning the corner, spotting you, saying ‘oh shit’ quite loudly and then walking quickly away from that area. This prompted a conversation about warning signs in museums: if we’re now expected to warn people about human remains, should we be warning people about giant nightmare spiders? I don’t think there should be any warning signs at all, despite my arachnophobia.

Occasionally I toy with the idea of getting rid of my possessions (the Russian dolls, the snow globes, the Day of the Dead bunting) and living a paired down life, but the Grant reminded me of why I can’t. I like a plethora of little intriguing things that make me and the people who visit me, smile and get in closer for a better look. I like to be fascinated by a museum and my house is an extension of that.


After the Grant, we made an unplanned trip to the Petrie Museum (seriously, university museums are the best) for a crash submersion in the early days of Egyptian excavations, stopping on the way to admire the street jazz band, especially the young lad playing a tuba that was practically the size of him. An unexpected and joyous thing to hear and witness. Until the song ended and he emptied the spit valve. Bleh.


Years ago, when I was 16, my parents took me and my sister to Egypt: a week in Luxor, followed by a week at the Red Sea. I have visited the Valley of the Kings, ventured down the Nile and seen flying fish leaping in the bow waves of a boat. An incredible, challenging trip that came back to me as we wandered the little space. But I had known nothing of William Flinders Petrie back then: this man excavated dozens of sites during the early 20th Century, selling his collection to UCL in 1913.


Again, a fascinating place with tiny, typewritten labels that spoke of a more innocent time in archaeology and collecting. As always, I found the smaller pieces the most fascinating: the faces, the unexpected details, the colours that are hidden until you get up close and peer through the glass.

But we’d done enough by the time we reached the pots (although I couldn’t help thinking how much my potter friend would have loved that section, telling us all about the composition of the glazes, and how exactly they were constructed). It was time to find the pub.

Both the Grant and the Petrie are free to visit but if you do, please bung a donation in the box, buy a postcard, adopt an artefact, become a friend. As with any museum, money funds research, development and the day to day running. These places are too valuable to lose.

Spring is (nearly) Sprung

I’m back in my own home after two weeks looking after my parent’s dogs whilst they celebrated 40 years of being married in Cuba (say what you will, they celebrate in style). After losing mine at the beginning of this year, it was a bittersweet experience but I relished the chance to get my boots muddy walking and laughing at their antics. Much as I love my cats, they do not chase tennis balls or rush to the door when I get home.

Next weekend, I’m taking myself off to London to visit an old friend: we’ll do the one cultural thing (visiting the Grant Museum to see the Glass Jar of Moles), and then devote the rest of the weekend to drinking, eating and drinking some more before I catch the train home the next day. I did request dancing but he looked terrified at the prospect, so I suspect that’s not on the agenda.

To tide you over till I return with tales of daring-do (i.e. I got on the right train at the right platform without looking up, realising I’m at the wrong one and having to perform the Mad Dash of Panic across the station), here’s a Sunday Summary for you:

Oh hooray, it’s March! There are catkins, the promise of bluebells, crocuses under trees and a different smell to the air. And a beautiful article by Robert MacFarlane (still my favourite nature writer) about the unusual words we have to describe the natural world. Now I just have to find a way to use ‘clinkerbell’ in conversation. Warning: contains the information that bluebell is a less used word than block-graph. I don’t think I’ve ever read a sadder statement.

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This great article in the Independent reignites the debate around free museums. A much needed one as cuts to the arts means museums are still hemorrhaging staff and resources. Dame Liz Forgan referred to the sale of museum collections as “selling the family silver to buy a sandwich”; once collections are gone, sold into private hands, they are gone for good. Ed Miliband’s “free museums for all” hyperbole is so much piss and wind if he’s not going to promise to undo the damage the cuts have caused.

A lovely exhibition at my friend’s gallery featuring the work of Welsh artist, Aneurin Jones: wonderfully evocative of a landscape and people that are changing and altering every year.

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Today, the Teen and I packed away the television and started our two week trial of living without it. Mainly because I realised she pretty much already was (AS exams, stuff on tumblr being more interesting, etc etc) and since Wolf Hall had finished (all hail to the superlative Mark Rylance), I had no interest in switching it only to watch repeats. I can waste my time far more productively than gawping at a re-run of the Big Bang Theory.

This may be more difficult than the time I gave up smoking. Or sugar.

A lengthy but utterly brilliant interview by the Paris Review of PD James.

And, in case you haven’t visited it yet, the fantastic Standard Issue is well worth losing a lunchtime over. It’ll make you laugh, promise.

Have some French cats with attitude till I get back (hopefully, a bottle or two of Cuban rum to the better).

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Attack of the seasonal baked goods

My sister is more of an inspiration than she knows. Passionate, loyal, devoted and funny, she has been my bedrock over the past twelve months, and no more so than on an issue that has plagued our family for years, handed down the generations like brown eyes, snooker chin* and a tendency to bronchial lungs.

Weight.

Oh yes, our stop-eating switches are faulty and our emotional make up means we’ll reach for a cake when we’re angry or upset rather than deal with that is upsetting us. Or we did, until she decided enough was enough and over the past year has rid herself of 3 stone of baggage.

Yes, I know: THREE STONES! That’s 42 pounds no longer weighing her down, and she looks amazing on it.

Families being what they are (ours, at least), that doesn’t take place within the unit without the ripple effect kicking in. So now, in an effort to make this year the year I get my shit together and behave like the bloody adult I’m supposed to be, I’ve also joined her. And it’s scary. And I miss cheese.

And sometimes those damned hot cross buns just won’t leave a person alone.

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*snooker chin: a chin dimple that my dad says is just right for using as a snooker cue steady. Ironically, I really suck at snooker.

Reading in Spots

Last Saturday was National Libraries Day which I celebrated by visiting my local library (where, rather shockingly, there were no signs about it), tweeting about it and getting righteously angry about it at a game of scrabble in the evening. On the scale of world-changing actions, mine came somewhere between the “read an article and was mildly outraged” and “signed a petition”. But at least I set in foot in there, walking past the man plucking loose clumps of hair out of his dog’s coat and the girls surrounding their mum wanting to know when they would be old enough to read American Gods. She clutched her 50 Shades rip-off closer to her chest and shuddered.

Half an hour of browsing and six book choices later, I was heading back for home and my current favourite reading spot. My big blue armchair. This has a comfortingly deep seat that cradles me as I read, a handy blanket on the back for when my feet get chilly and is near enough to the radiator to keep it warm. There’s also a table next to it for my mugs of tea, phone and pile of books. It has become ‘my spot’. Dog used to rest next to it, his head on my feet and the arms are wide enough to take a sprawled cat or two. A turn of my head and I can see outside to where the starlings are gathering and shouting in the tree.

I’ve had favourite reading spots in all my houses. When I was very small and the airing cupboard was just outside my room, I’d climb up into it with book, blanket and torch, closing the sliding door behind me so my sister didn’t know where I was and hide away with nothing but oceans of words and a pile of clean laundry to drift away on. Wind in the Willows, the Worst Witch, Wolves of Willoughby Chase and One Hundred and One Dalmatians are forever linked with the smell of Lenor fabric cleaner and the distant sound of my little sister saying “I can’t find her!”

In the last of the parental homes, it was nestled in the corner of my bedroom where the radiator was. Piled with pillows and in a suntrap, it was warm and comfortable. The family dog kept me company, his whimpering dreaming occasionally farting self the only noise beyond the turning of pages. It’s here I read Wuthering Heights, Animal Farm, Ruth Rendells and my first ever Jackie Collins, emerging hours later with popping eyes, blown mind and a desire to wander about wind-battered moors.

Bed has always been a good place to read. Under the covers with a torch when young, sat up against the pillows with tea when older. Although these days, I have to sit up to read: lying down runs the risk of falling asleep and then clouting myself one with a falling tome. Baths too. There is nothing finer than a long hot bath with a damn good book and a glass of wine, the bubbles creaking as you settle against them. Cross-legged on the sofa, or in the open boot of the car during days out. Stood in the kitchen, absent-mindedly stirring pots of dinner with one hand, or perched on the chair in my bedroom, pile of washing temporarily forgotten by my feet as I just have to finish this chapter.

That this knowledge, this endless, continually growing sea of words and information is free (or cheap), is a wondrous thing that crosses social boundaries, breaks down barriers and makes our lives more than a little richer with every visit.

Wherever and whatever you read this month, make it something from your library. This week, I heard a Disturbing Thing: museums and libraries are discretionary services; as far as the government is concerned, if your council can afford to run a discretionary service (no matter how much money they prove they can save or earn from it), they can afford to have their budget cut further. Use it or lose it people, and then, come May, vote these fuckers out.

Wildlife in Hidden Places

One of the books I’ve had on my shelves for a while now (purchased during a long-ago-feeling trip to London in July last year) seemed perfect to wile away some winter evenings with. Field Notes from a Hidden City tells the story of the wildlife, in particular the birdlife, in Aberdeen over the course of a year. That granite city is not all unyielding stone and shipping, plus by reliving her summer months, I was able to keep reminding myself as I shivered under a blanket, that it would come round here again – always hard to believe in early Feb.

Now, I don’t share Woolfson’s fondness for all creatures. For example, I really don’t like pigeons, but I do have a greater tolerance of rats (thanks to an early reading of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh) than most people I know. However, I won’t hesitate to trap a mouse. These are not endangered species but ones that positively flourish, hoovering up our crumbs and waste, testing their teeth on our wiring, and I make no apology for it. However, reading her eloquent passages on the previously unremarked beauty of a pigeon’s eye or rat’s gait, I’m more likely to question my instinctive reactions than before. And that’s what every good book should do – make you reconsider yourself.

“In wild animals, violence is not purposeless. (We don’t behave like ‘wild animals’. If we behave badly, we behave as badly behaved humans.) There is always an explanation, even if we don’t appreciate or understand it. What we find difficult is to be witness without judgement.”

And despite my best efforts, I had to skip the passage about spiders. Look, I can admire their cunning and strategy for survival and a dew-beaded web is more beautiful than any diamond necklace, but frankly the descriptions of spidery appearances were too much for my phobia, so I clipped the pages together and moved on to the next chapter.

Where I gelled the most with Woolfson was over her love of corvids. Magpies, crows, jackdaws, rooks. These are so often irrationally seen as harbingers of bad luck, bad news, doom to those who see them and forget to chant the rhyme, cross their fingers or walk backwards over a footbridge. One of the things I miss most from our previous address is my early morning walks past the rookery, watching them wheel and dive above the trees, shout hoarse greetings to one another or race through the sky, screaming with fury at an inopportune buzzard. I have seen a fledgling magpie, feathers like velvet, the blue flash of the wings unsettling in the gloom, and I am as quietly upset as she is when the late-fledgling jackdaw dies.

“In the evening’s heat, the swifts scream over the garden. Towards darkness, we take the jackdaw from his box and hold him and stroke his feathers. He seems content. Bec puts him on her shoulder and as he sits there, his eyes grow heavy. We know that it isn’t the night-time weariness of a busy baby bird. He folds his head under his wing and when we put him in his box, we know that it is the last time we will. “

Woolfson is a skilled and gentle narrator of the year. She takes the truths we hold (grey squirrels bad, pigeons filthy dirty things, rats even worse) and holds them up to the light, carefully pointing out the holes before suggesting there might be another, equally valid way of looking at things. She has the scientific papers and books to back her up as well; this is no woolly do-gooder scattering universal love with lentils, although she does not fail to be sharp when called for, angry in the right places at our obtuseness, our insistence on paving over everything and then being surprised when the birds stop visiting but the floodwaters keep rising.

I still don’t really like pigeons though.

“Days later, I see something high in the branches of the large cherry tree in the next-door garden…it’s a grey squirrel, apparently asleep, huddled in the rain on the top branch of the tree and as I watch it, I think of it all again; of how, as humans, we feel free to treat others, both human and not, and of the ways we find to explain to ourselves what we do, and the ways in which we present and elevate our condemnations or our judgements. I think of the dangers of separating the lives of animals and men, believing them to be irreconcilable or subject to different standards; of assuming righteousness, of the consequences of words once spoken that we can never recall.”

The Vikings are Coming

Or rather, I’m going to them. A trip to IKEA is on the cards for tomorrow. Whilst I only need a lamp, set of shelves and a saucepan, I can fully expect to come back with enough tea lights, wooden boxes, scatter cushions and weird cooking utensils to see me through any possible apocalypse in Scandi-approved style.

I’m suspect my Viking ancestors would spin in their funeral boats at this version of a Norse invasion, but then they had no time for speech bubble shaped paper clips, multi packs of clip frames or baking tins in the shape of horses (although, actually these are really cool and will definitely end up in the trolley). DRÖMMAR Baking tin, set of 2 IKEA With Teflon®Classic non-stick coating which makes food and pastry release easily.

There will be meatballs. There will be surreptitious sniggering at the couples arguing about which set of bedding they can stand to have on the bed without one of them going to sleep each night with a lingering bitter resentment colouring their dreams. There will be a small amount of trolley rage as I navigate around the 500th person stood in the aisle with no apparent realisation that they may be in The Fucking Way.

Hopefully, this time there will be no need to resort to bungee cord to hold the boot closed on an unexpectedly large purchase. But you never know.

Daydreaming

Of getting the paint out to create yellow-hued doors and splashes of sunshine.

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Of wading through warm shallows with red painted toes and time on my side.

Tuscany’s Elba Island is home to many gorgeous beaches, but Sansone might just top the list.                                                                                   (Tuscany, although I don’t mind finding myself somewhere equally nice. Never let it be said that I’m fussy.)

Of the day this book is available in paperback; I won’t be leaving the house until I’ve finished it.

Of silly-but-awesome kitchen equipment that will make me smile as I ladle out yet another warming and wholesome soup.

Nessie Ladle

Of a garden filled with daffodils that nod and dance, rather than mud and grass and muddy grass.

William Wordsworth, please do the honors:    I wander'd lonely as a cloud  That floats on high o'er vales and hills,  When all at once I saw a crowd,  A host, of golden daffodils;  Beside the lake, beneath the trees,  Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.  [...]  They flash upon that inward eye  Which is the bliss of solitude;  And then my heart with pleasure fills,  And dances with the daffodils.

Of finally finishing my crochet blanket. This may take a little longer than March to arrive. Especially when pesky cats keep me company.

Of wandering around this exhibition with the Teen who, I feel, should always be encouraged to reach for the moon.

Of Amsterdam. My head is full of Amsterdam and planning my first ever solo holiday. Scary and exciting and new.

Colorful Amsterdam, Netherlands

As we approach the arse-end of the year (February – ugh, I loathe February and it’s misleading hints of spring) and I tire of casseroles and stews and trying to find new ways with pearl barley, I need to be reminded that sunshine, birdsong, blossom on the trees, some other vegetable than swede and fewer than 4 layers of clothing before I leave the house is just a few short weeks away.

(Images found on pinterest via 1. homestoriesatoz.com; 2. cntraveller.com; 3. animicausa.com; 4. panoramio.com; 5. gutenberg.org; 6. pinspopulars.com)

Sunday Summary

A quick round up of things that have happened, caught my eye, made me smile, or just set me thinking.

A course in which I learned to make a proper, museum-grade tissue paper scrunchie (yes, there is a proper technique which ends in a scrunched wad of tissue paper that doesn’t unravel) and pad out a mannequin.

This way of dealing with worries that otherwise keep you up at 4am – and some gorgeous Grand Canyon pictures to boot.

This incredible jewellery designer from the State. Being a practical romantic, I’m very taken with her designs. Found on Pinterest (yes, I am on there under my occasional-shop name of Poppycorkhill).

The incredible ad for This Girl Can had me smiling and secretly singing Missy Elliot to myself all weekend. Even the Teen thinks it’s a pretty cool thing … and she’s a discerning judge.

That I will get in my own way when I’m doing yoga. But I don’t care. Even if my vision is momentarily blocked for half of the session.

That there is nothing, but nothing, as satisfying, morale-boosting and happy-making (albeit shallow) than buying a pair of jeans a size smaller than you needed a month ago.

That when returning to crocheting my ripple blanket (as seen on Attic 24) after my wrist injury, I really should read the pattern again. Will I be redoing the past 6, slightly off-kilter rows? No. No I will not.

My friend and I may have just created #MannequinMonday. A celebration on Twitter of truly astounding (and hilarious) museum mannequins. This needs to be A Thing. Cue misappropriation of Manic Monday by the Bangles.

Working my slow way through the Penelope Fitzgerald biography. I’m not sure she and I would have got on but her strength and intelligence is awe-inspiring. Finished The Bleeding Heart by Marilyn French. A feminist classic that still contains food for thought in its depiction of a year long love affair that brings truth and passion to its protagonists.

That a week on trustfunding.org will make you squiffy-eyed and reveal an incredible amount about the vagaries of human nature. So many trusts, so many random conditions.

That it is possible to go for a country walk without a faithful dog accompanying you. Possible, but oddly lacking. It was good to get my boots muddy again though.

Next week: I become a qualified first aider! Certified to tell you to stop making a fuss, t’is merely a flesh wound. My staff are looking pale already.

**photos from a recent walk along the Greenlink to a hitherto unknown community orchard, full of carved benches, stone lined ponds and twisty apple trees. I do love a community orchard.**

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