Monday, February 25, 2019

Light and dark

Last Friday did turn out to be a gift - a walk through beautiful countryside, a leisurely coffee while basking outside a cafe, more walking, then lunch.  Oh, the sunshine!

Have you ever seen a butterfly on wild snowdrops before? This is February!

And here's me in shirtsleeves taking the photo:

Yesterday I worked out what's been bothering me (apart from the ever-present anxiety about Brexit and despair at the intolerant right-wing direction in which the UK is moving.)

I've been clearing out stuff from the attic such as ancient bank statements, accounts from when Dave and I were both self-employed, and lastly, research papers from said self-employment. Here's just one box ready for disposal:

We don't have a shredder and as so much of it is confidential, I've been burning it in Dave's home-resourced incinerator i.e. the recycled drum from an old washing machine:

It made me feel sad: all that hard work going up in smoke. Sorting through old papers always brings on melancholy, but it's not as if either of us misses our work, so what's this sadness about?

It does coincide with the completion of another novel and getting it ready for publication and not knowing if I'll ever write another. ( Some friends reading this will scoff - 'You always say that, Sue!') 

It also coincides with feeling older physically, and this thing I keep mentioning of being 70 this year. I don't know how old you all are but it feels like a big deal to me, and not one I welcome.

And you may think this is irrelevant, but I didn't like the last series (5) of Grace and Frankie. I've loved all the other ones, but this one was full of arguments and angst and conflict, and what's more it showed all four main characters  getting older and frailer, which felt too close to home and not fun to watch. Death doesn't frighten me but old age fills me with dread.

All these feelings have been festering for some time and now I've worked them out and got them out in the open, I feel better. We have another fabulous sunny day today, and my sweet peas are sprouting. Onward and upward.

Friday, February 22, 2019

A gift

I'm feeling a bit ditsy this morning. I was sick of the same old breakfast of Dave's oatcakes and my home-made lemon curd, and had pancakes instead. Oh, we live on the edge at Hepworth Towers.

Secondly, I got an email from TOAST  telling me I can have 15% off till Sunday, so now I am going to buy the garment I have been lusting over for two months, but resisting because it was too expensive. It's still too expensive even with the discount but this is my seventieth birthday year and I'm going to treat myself. I might be dead next February.

Also, it's a beautiful clear sunny day and I'm going for a walk through the woods and by the river and then for lunch with my friend, Liz. We had it booked for a week ago but had to cancel because of a hospital emergency. It was a sunny day and I missed it, so to have another chance today feels like a magical gift.

This week I've been seeking permissions from agents and publishers to include four specific poems in my novel. For several of them I had to answer reams of questions about my book, such as the price, what kind of rights I need (e.g. worldwide?) where the poem will appear in the novel and in what format, and more and more. I'm not complaining. It has to be done. I hope the permissions aren't too expensive, though. I got one under my belt last year. It cost 50 Euros.

The joy on Wednesday was when I rang an agent in Ireland to ask for permission to include one of my favourite poems of all time and he immediately said 'Yes.'  And there would be no charge. It made me happy out of all proportion. I'm still puzzling over why this cheered me up so much. Was it because it was so nice to have an immediate 'Yes' for whatever reason from a literary agent? Was it because it related to one of my favourite poems? Was it because the agent was so charming and had a delicious Irish accent? Was it because it was the first day of getting ready for publication and it felt like an omen?

Answers in the comments section below. 

In the meantime here is a Lenten Rose in my garden:

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

On not blogging

My brother on the phone at the weekend: 'You haven't blogged. Why haven't you blogged?'

Me: 'I've got nothing to say.'

Him: 'Well, put some nice photos on, then. Get outside with your camera and take some spring flowers.'

Me: 'I don't want to just put photos on. I was thinking of baring my soul.'

Him: 'Oh no. Don't bare your soul.'

Gales of laughter.

The moon through our hedge

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The art of the rejection

My new book is ready, and two weeks ago I emailed four literary agents to try to entice them to read it. I knew when I did this that the chances of success were infinitesimal, not because I can't write, and not because you guys aren't going to enjoy reading the book, but because the novel is not sexy in marketing terms.

Yesterday I had my first rejection. Rejections are two a penny and I know the format now. A short paragraph of guff, and then a sign off, wishing you luck. I've always hated the paragraph of guff, wondering why they bother. And when I open an email from an agent I've approached, I immediately skip to the last line to save my nerves. I knew yesterday's was a rejection because the last line said 'We wish you all the best for the future.' But this rejection didn't have a paragraph of softening guff above it, there was only one line: 'Many thanks for your email and material but I'm afraid we're going to pass.'

And I felt dismissed. It's that phrase: 'we're going to pass' that pissed me off. It's so trivialising. It sounds as if they're responding to an offer of a biscuit. I now recognise the value of guff. Give me guff. I want guff! 

By the way, the two last readers of the novel loved it, so I know you will too. When I've got all my rejections in, Dave's going to format it for me and then I'll publish it. I have no hopes of getting a publishing deal, but there are worse things happening in the world than a mid-list author having to self-publish her novel.

And Spring is knocking on the door.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

McCullin and me

The celebrated photographer Don McCullin has an exhibition on at Tate Britain. He is 83 and the exhibition covers his lifetime's work - the last 60 years. It is stupendous.

 McCullin  is a photographer with a social conscience and has photographed homeless, poor and downtrodden people in London and the north of England, but is better known for his photographs of wars all over the world. 

This may sound dreary to you, and I, myself, was dithering over whether I should go to the exhibition. I worried that as a visual person I might find some of the images too horrific, and that they would stay in my memory and haunt me. But on the other hand, there I was in London and the exhibition seemed important, covering as it does the main conflicts that have happened in my life (including the Troubles in Northern Ireland), as well as disasters like the famine in Biafra and the aids epidemic in South Africa. 

There are too many subject areas to list here, so here is a plan of the exhibition to give you some idea:

So many of these things were happening when I was a teenager and unconcerned, or when I was busy with work and children and I hadn't the time I have now to keep up with the news. (It's ironic that now I do have the time, I find the news too bad to read. Was it always this way?)

So I went, and I am glad I did. It knocked me out. I would go and see it again tomorrow if I lived in London. 

Yes, there was horror and heartache, but there was humanity and intense observation and let's not forget - beautiful photography. It seemed to me that the other visitors in the gallery were quieter than is usually the case in art exhibitions. No-one was talking. We were all gripped by the power of the images and what lay behind them. 

McCullin's words:

and here's a statement he made about neutrality:

I made my way along the walls, gallery to gallery, concentrating, and was some way in when I came to a photo of a dead Vietnamese soldier, his small possessions scattered in front of him, and was brought to tears by McCullin's caption underneath:

This was early on in his career. 

When we came to the room with the famine photographs, there was this caption:

His photos of people living in poverty were as striking, moving and powerful as those of people dying in poverty.

Since the 1980s McCullin has engaged in still life and landscape photography to escape his memories of the horrors of war. The photographers among you might like these photos. I am not a fan of black and white landscape photography, though I fully accept the arguments for it in photojournalism. 

Something puzzled me while I was at the exhibition. The other time I was moved to tears was at the photo of an Irish teenager, jubilant after throwing stones at soldiers in the British Army, inexpertly rendered here, secondhand:

with apologies to McCullin for the poor copy
After thinking about it on the journey home, I understood my reaction. First let me say that that I am not taking sides with the British Army, nor am I condemning the teenager's actions. And also, this is my personal reaction, in the moment, and of course others would react differently. 

Why I was upset was....Having spent time engrossed in images of war and it's aftermath, to see a young man embarking on it with enthusiasm made the whole idea of the peaceful solving of conflicts seem an impossible dream to a pacifist like me. There will always be wars. And there will always be people who like to fight in them. 

The McCullin exhibition is an education. I shall be thinking about it for a long, long time. 

The exhibition is on at Tate Britain until May 6th. If you want to know more about McCullin there's a documentary about him called Looking for England currently available on BBC iPlayer.

Friday, February 08, 2019


Do you remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe's irritating boyfriend Parker (played by Alec Baldwin) walks around taking imaginary photo after imaginary photo because he's 'making memories'?

Now imagine me in London this week doing the same thing, except I was taking real shots with my phone, jumping about with excitement, zinging with relief to be somewhere different, seeing something different, talking to someone I haven't spoken to for months. Why else would I have skipped down Piccadilly on Tuesday morning taking photos of hackneyed mottos in the windows of Fortnum and Mason's?

....except that they chimed so well with my mood. I was like a child on a trip to the circus with an ice cream in one hand and a candy floss in the other.

I've felt so low through January, and this was the perfect anti-dote to turning-seventy-this-year blues, country-mouse-winter-blues, Tory-government-austerity-blues, and Brexit-blues.

My friend H and I packed a lot into three days. We went to the Bridge Theatre on Monday to see My Name is Lucy Barton, an adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's novel, which we both enjoyed more than the book itself. I loved the writer's novel Olive Kitteridge but had found My Name is Lucy Barton hard going. The play brought it to life for me, and the luminous Laura Linney was brilliant in the title role. It's a ninety minute monologue: impressive. 

On Tuesday we saw the Michelangelo/Bill Viola exhibition at the Royal Academy and wept at Viola's video of the mother giving birth and gasped at his video Tristan's Ascension.

In the evening we went to the Royal Opera House to see the ballet - Asphodel, and Two Pigeons. Pure delight.

There was non-stop talking between all these happenings, and various delicious meals. Here's me revving up for breakfast on Wednesday.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the Don McCullin exhibition. Wow, oh wow.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Letter from home

It's been a funny old week.

On two days we had fabulous sunshine on snow that bucked me up hugely, and we went for walks round the village and I said to Dave - 'Imagine if we lived in Boulder and had weather like this all the time instead of the wall-to-wall grey of an English winter - wouldn't it be fabulous?' 

And he said 'No. I don't like the cold.' 

Our lane

In the picture below, you can just see two locals meeting on a path between two walls, having a chat. Zoom in and see. 

And on another day we set out for our constitutional on ice and in thick fog, and the air was so unpleasant we cut the walk short, and the only thing I brought home was this photo:

On another day I decided to tackle a job that's been on my winter to-do list for a couple of years: sort out my father's suitcase of papers. He was a successful agricultural journalist (amongst other things) with a regular column in Farm and Country, and he also wrote poems. My task was to whittle down his papers to a tiny pile, keeping examples of the best of the writing, and then to get rid the ancient suitcase. 

So I went up to the attic to fetch said suitcase and couldn't find it. I went up again. No joy. Dave went up. Nada. It's a puzzle. It's definitely there somewhere, but you wouldn't believe our attic. It's so disgusting there's no way I'm showing you what it looks like. Amongst other things it contains six large packing cases of Isaac's stuff that he left with us when  he emigrated to the USA. That was 2003. Who knows what's in those boxes? I guess he'll find out when we die and he has to clear them out. I couldn't deal with the suitcase, I turned to another winter job: processing wool. I'd already unravelled a home made cardigan and rolled the wool into balls, but I needed to get out the wrinkles, so I wound it all into hanks and then washed it. 

It's good wool - Rowan felted tweed - and I like the colour, and I'm a frugal woman.

Another thing I've done this week is start a list of food to stock up on before we crash out of the EU and the UK becomes an even darker place to live.

Tomorrow I'm going to London to stay with my friend H, and we're packing in the culture - going to the theatre, the ballet, an exhibition of Michelangelo's drawings and the video artist Bill Viola. The theme of the exhibition is birth, life and death. Phew. 

And we'll be talking. That will take up a lot of time.

But I need to fill Wednesday morning before I catch my train home, and I'm dithering about whether or not to see the Don McCullin exhibition. In case you don't know McCullin's work, he's a celebrated photographer, now in his 80s, who has specialised in war photography. I like photographic exhibitions as much as exhibitions of paintings, and McCullin is such an iconic figure, it feels like an exhibition I shouldn't miss. On the other hand, when I am still teetering on the edge of hopelessness, is it a good idea to go? 

I just read an interview with McCullin and another photographer, Giles Duley, who takes pictures of the aftermath of conflict. Giles Duley said their work couldn't stop war, or change the world, but maybe it could inspire other people who could. And he told the story of a letter he received from someone in another country who he'd never met, who was inspired to become a doctor by one of Duley's photos, taken in Afghanistan. The man had a copy of that photo on his wall and would look at it every day to remind himself.

That's a very encouraging thought. We never know what effect we have on other people and thus on the wider world. That's why we need to keep going, following our path, being ourselves, doing our best, even if our efforts seem small and insignificant.