22 November 2013

Mildly Indisposed

I’ve not been around much lately.

That’s because I’m writing my second novel.  It feels like a dose of the flu.  You know when you need to take yourself off to bed and allow things to run their course, getting up only when you need to go to the loo or trudge bleary-eyed and sore-headed down to the kitchen for a crust and a cup of tomato soup?

It’s just like that.  I swear this novel is the heaviest cold ever.  I want to treat it and only it, snuggle down into it, let it sweat itself out, let the aches and pains remain behind closed doors, confining it, nursing it, ignoring all phone calls asking if I have recovered yet.   

Maybe this is exactly as it is meant to be.   Never surfacing until the indisposition has passed.  Refusing all temptation to rise from the sickbed and flee the house.  ‘I don’t go out for lunch,’ said A. S. Byatt simply, sternly last year when talking about the discipline of her writing life to students of Creative Writing at Roehampton University in west London.   I happened to be in that audience, cheering on one of my former star pupils, Haley Jenkins (watch this space                                                                                
Haley, that’s for you).  As Haley’s guest, I accidentally found myself ushered into the ‘Green Room’ beforehand.  Suddenly, A.S. Byatt, that giant of modern English literature, was standing at my side.  Fortunately, no one had mistaken me for her agent, her sibling, or her distant North American cousin – unlike the time I was for ten minutes the wife of the late, and much missed, poet Michael Donaghy

On that previous occasion, I had arrived extremely – and uncharacteristically – punctually at the school where he was due to give a reading.  As he went off to prepare for what turned out to be a scintillating and inspirational evening of poems recited from memory and flute playing, I hung around in the foyer - all too matrimonially, apparently.  I found myself being introduced to all manner of people by the Head of English.  Thinking this was extraordinarily attentive of the school’s staff to a person who had just blown in off the street, I lapped it up until the moment the head girl herself was summoned before me, and I heard the unmistakeable words: ‘and this is Mrs Donaghy’.

‘No, no,’ I said, flattered, but hugely embarrassed, ‘I’m just…’

I was just… what?

And I am just….what?

Just holed up, to be honest, the novel brewing like fever, and still tetchy, grumpy, indisposed…

31 October 2013


This blog post is in memory of my neighbour, Wendy.

In one of life’s ironies, I only really got to know Wendy over shared cups of tea once she took ill with leukaemia and needed to spend time at home, and once I had left my teaching job to develop a closer relationship with my personal computer.   Until then, for the previous ten years, we had simply waved at each other in a friendly fashion or occasionally passed the time of day on the way to the shops.

Wendy began to make jewellery.   It was a new passion.  She attended gem and stone fairs like there was no tomorrow and acquired varied specimens to fashion into necklaces and bracelets.  She kept her growing collection in the spare bedroom, organised neatly into drawers and boxes, all the labradorite and the amethyst and the tanzanite, and countless others whose names I have forgotten.   Holding them up so the sunlight could tease out each one’s rich personality, she would explain exactly why she was  drawn to them.

Sometimes she wished she could lie in a bed of cool stones, feeling them all around her. 

When it became apparent that the leukaemia had returned and she would not get better, it was a special privilege to go across the road, sit in her bedroom and talk to her as she lay in her bed.  Or rather, I would listen, because even these conversations were acts of generosity on her part, as she shared anecdotes, stories, dreams and regrets.

She said how none of us really knew, as we walked upon the ground, the stunning beauty of what lay hidden underneath.  It had always been her greatest ambition to have the opportunity to go into a mine herself, to be that person who discovered a gem of unique exquisiteness, to chisel it out from the surrounding rock and take it up to the light of day.

Her words resonated.  They continue to resonate.  She may have thought that she never achieved her ambition.  But, in fact, she did.  She touched a profound truth – for she reminded me that all creative life is exactly that: digging deep, very deep, risking scratches on the hands, gouges on the arms, and contortions of the body in order to chip out and extract something that has been buried and never imagined, then hold it aloft, shining and translucent, to share with and delight others.

Postscript October 2016 - The Woman in Goggles band has written a song inspired by this blog, called Dig Down


30 September 2013


Inside Abbey of Saint-Avit-Sénieur 

The Woman in Goggles music project continues apace and has been elbowing out blog time.  Eight, could it be nine? original songs are in gestation, tottering on the edge of birth. Except for My Shrink is Pregnant, none are at large in the community.  But the corollary of penning tunes is the quest to have them aired, live - if only to three sympathetic people - necessitating a rappety-tap on venue doors and asking busy landlords and hard-pressed landladies for a gig.  

Sometimes I think this would all be easier if I were still in my twenties.  But when I was in my twenties I was even more scared, though of different things.  Or maybe they were the same things – that one isn’t good enough, that one’s efforts, or barefaced cheek, will be met with guffaws of incredulity.  At which my instant response has always been: I was just kidding.

Meanwhile, limbering up, I’ve done a little of what we could term song-bombing.  Its crucial difference from photo-bombing, which is defined by Wikipedia as 'the act of inserting oneself into the field of view of a photograph often in order to play a practical joke on the photographer or the subjects', is to give pleasure rather than affront.  It consists of getting a song into a public place, spontaneously, non-threateningly, and without a busker’s cap in sight.  I've notched up only a handful of scores, largely in safe spaces, like an empty church.  I did rounds with close friends and family in Nolay and Saint-Germain-de- Belvès in France.  When no one was looking, or listening, I slipped a quick solo Hodie Cristus Natus Est by Benjamin Britten into the Abbey of Saint-Avit-Sénieur whose splendid interior demanded something reverential and soaring, even though it was a baking July day and this was a Christmas carol.

Two years ago, when I was in the Svaneti region of the Republic of Georgia learning Georgian songs, the song-bombing technique was perfected by members in my group.  Of the many gorgeous melodies sung many times, I wish I could have recorded the spine-tingling harmonies of Madge, Nana, Nicoletta, Fran, Derek and Irene on one particular day when they broke out into an echoing Shen Xar Venaxi in a local church. 

Instead, I’ll need to leave you with this version

Oh, and the beginning of Hodie Cristus Natus Est by boy soprano David Cizner.  


8 August 2013

Still on the Map

The Abbey at Cadouin

Cadouin, a town in the Dordogne region of France, rose and fell because of a length of cloth. 

A shroud, venerated over the centuries by thousands of pilgrims who came to see it hanging in a glass box in the abbey church, was proved a fake in 1934.  Instead of being the fabric that wrapped Christ’s body – or, to be more precise, his head - it was found to have been commissioned in the 11th century for a Caliph in Egypt.  Telltale writing in Arabic, mentioning Mohamed, was the unfortunate giveaway, after which the Archbishop had no option but to permanently suspend the pilgrimages.

The town and its faithful were devastated. 

Well, of course.   However, given that the cloth was in competition at the very least with the Turin Shroud and the Sudarium of Oviedo (some claims suggest that the Middle Ages were so awash with sheets purporting to have covered the body of Jesus that one could have opened a very successful holy laundry) the chances of this being a true relic were always slim.

Cadouin was unmasked and admonished publicly as an impostor.  Like cities that were once the seat of power (such as Guimarães in Portugal) or seaports that now find themselves stranded two miles inland (such as the Cinque Port of Sandwich in Kent) Cadouin was left high and dry.

Yet, in these days when Cadouin has regained popularity as a tourist site, are we still to mourn its downgrading?  Does its fate contain all the hallmarks of an inevitability that has nothing more to say to us? 

I think it's too easy to label Cadouin’s erstwhile mass duping as mere nincompoopery.   My heart bleeds for those whose world view shatters.  None of us are immune from such catastrophe.  None of us recognise how set is our own pathway - until the pathway peters out.  You trust.  There is betrayal.  You have unshakable belief in your judgement.  You are proved wrong.  You have faith in your job.  Redundancy occurs.  You rely on your body – one day, it fails you.  You give yourself fully to love.  A long-held relationship cracks open. 

Pieces scatter. 

And you are forced to decide whether to pick them up again, knowing they can never be shoe-horned into quite the same pattern, or discard them altogether.  Either way, the result leads you into uncertain terrain.

Thus, for my part, a trip to Cadouin is well worth it.  To confront and remember fallibility - in all its guises.

12 July 2013

Kicking the Tooth Fairy into Touch

I’ve spent the entirety of this past week needing cold compresses to the forehead, handfuls of smelling salts and hourly nips of quote unquote ‘lavender’ water.

Life used to be blissfully ordinary. 

But then, nine days ago, I happened upon a You Tube clip in which Paul Hellyer, whom I remember from my Canadian childhood as being the Minister of Defence and best known for unifying the Canadian Armed Forces, was calmly reporting to an American committee entitled the Citizens Hearing on Disclosure.   

He was talking about UFOs.  And these were his words:  ‘UFOs are as real as the airplanes flying overhead.’  Then, to a ripple of applause from the assembly, he continued by saying that he was ‘the first person of cabinet rank in the G8 group of countries to say so unequivocally.’ 

The Citizens Hearing he was reporting to is part of the larger ‘Disclosure Project’ which is described on its own website as: ‘a research project working to fully disclose the facts about UFOs, extraterrestrial intelligence, and classified advanced energy and propulsion systems. [It has] over 500 government, military, and intelligence community witnesses testifying to their direct, personal, first-hand experience with UFOs, ETs, ET technology, and the cover-up that keeps this information secret.’

As one of those 500 people testifying, Paul Hellyer continued with assertions including:

  • At least four species of aliens have been visiting Earth for thousands of years
  • Live ETs are on Earth right now, at least two working with the US government
  • Places they come from include Zeta Reticuli, the Pleiades, Orion, and Andromeda
  • This information is known to a kind of cabal consisting of select members of military and intelligence organisations, the international banking cartel and oil cartel, who effectively operate as a kind of shadow government…
  • …and therefore accountable to no one 
Somewhat shaken not so much by his (often second-hand) testimony but other witnesses I subsequently  watched, I then proceeded to lose uncountable hours glued to You Tube clips of UFOs – many looking suspiciously like Chinese lanterns, or home-made zeppelins, others like that shred of plastic debris that’s just blown out of the garden shed and annoyingly taken to the air.  Some have been filmed by shaky hands against nothing but non-descript sky that gives the object no hint of dimension, height from ground, or speed. 

But then there is genuinely astonishing footage (with predictable disembodied soundtrack: ‘What IS that?’)

So, dear reader, I am freaked out.  

And in processing and sifting through all this gigantic, mind-boggling - one could say Earth-shattering – stuff, I keep thinking about a sentence uttered by Paul Hellyer.

‘Just as children survive the idea of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus when they become adult,’ he said, ‘I think that tax-paying citizens are quite capable of accepting the new and broader reality: that we live in a cosmos teeming with life of various sorts.’ 

You see, I think he got the analogy twisted.  Yes, I know he was trying to say that we need to grow up, get real, lose our childish illusions.  But surely he was asking us to go in reverse - to allow, in fact, not just the possibility of Saint Nick, the Tooth Fairy, the Loch Ness Monster, the leprechaun under the privet hedge, but also those little green men in flying saucers that we’ve all grown up drawing pictures of.

Who are apparently, according to P. Hellyer, white.  Tall and white and, incidentally, with a lifespan of  700-800 years.

12 June 2013

A Surprising Robin Hood

Robin Hood

A little more freckled, I’m back from my sojourn at Mslexia.  And it’s time to see who or what has inhabited this space in my absence. 

I’ve flung open the curtains and windows of my blog and allowed an unseasonably cool June draught to surge through.  It all looks unfamiliar here.  After the comfortably sociable Mslexia spot – where the neighbours were chatty and a friendly jingle on the comments door would signal the arrival of a newcomer – this a lonelier place.

I’ve been up inspecting the blog’s attic and down in its basement to see what has withered or pushed up through cracks, what is salvageable and what needs to be flung.  There’s a suspicious stain close to the margin, some random words in a sorry heap and a half-eaten idea about horses and precipices. 

And nowhere certain, yet, to park the phrase the need to move tables that I’ve transported back as a souvenir of three months away.  It will function as a wheedling instruction to get on with writing a song about furniture removal.

As a curio collected on my travels, this scrap of paper with its five words may appear slight, but my feeling is that it’s probably going to be as potent as the Robin Hood you can see pictured at the top of this post.  Yes, correct, he’s not the Robin of Sherwood Forest.  Nor England.  Nor even Europe, for that matter.

But let me explain. 

One day three years ago, in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, my partner and I were on the trail that leads from Imlil to Mount Toubkal.  It had never been our intent to slog all the way to the summit, but we’d been impelled by the breath-taking scenery to walk further along the path than planned and were now taking a break in a crumpled heap under the shade of an overhanging rock, contemplating heading back down.

An English couple approached us on the path from the opposite direction.  ‘Don’t give up just yet,’ they advised.  ‘There’s a little village twenty minutes ahead where you can get a drink.’

We trudged on.  Sure enough, gradually, improbably, a tiny camouflaged settlement appeared, clinging to the rocks, complete with mosque, café, and colourful rugs and shawls for sale, all fluttering in the breeze.

A hidden village!

A twenty-something Moroccan man with excellent English immediately took us under his wing, ushering us with the smooth assurance of an event planner to the small café where he snapped fingers for the service of refreshing mint tea, then to the stalls of his cousin selling carpets and Berber carvings.  I was captivated by the figurines – and one in particular who stood with pointed head and ring-hole ears like a tough pint-sized warrior.  The bartering began, but only half-heartedly as I lacked the energy to drive a hard bargain.

Soon the figurine was in my hands.  I was pleased.  The seller was pleased.  Our young guide was pleased.

‘What’s your name?’  I asked him.

‘Robin Hood,’ he replied.

And so, the feisty little Berber carving that I brought home and then stood on a chest of drawers was named in honour of the Moroccan who was disarmingly honest and upfront about precisely what he was up to. 

Perhaps, then, the best location for my new cut-up souvenir phrase, the need to move tables, is exactly as I've  now decided to place it -  captured and preserved in the photo below, at the feet of the beguiling north-African Robin Hood who, with his wide-eyed stare and defiant stance, will forever ward off mischief-makers.

While I get on with the work at hand.  After all, there’s still a pile of unpacking and a load washing to do.

6 March 2013

Mslexia Blog

I've great pleasure in announcing that I've been asked to guest blog for Mslexia magazine from March until May.  During that time, I'll be looking at the ups and downs of attempting to write song lyrics.  You can find my post here.

27 February 2013

For What This Tooth Has Munched, May I Be Truly Thankful

A sense of foreboding, sadness, apprehension.  Shortly I will be leaving to go to the dentist for the extraction of a molar from my lower left jaw.  I’ve already managed to put off the procedure once, but it is the day of reckoning and I must say farewell to a trusted friend.

This is not just any molar, but the important one in the middle, the one that’s led the way through family feasts, cream teas, dîners à deux, the explorations of olives, kumquats and pomegranates. 

I’m not sure the tooth fairy will be able to stump up adequate recompense.  If the molar is stuffed under my pillow tonight, I will expect a thick wodge of notes tomorrow morning – enough for Eurostar to Paris, or robust domestic appliance, or delicately carved mandolin. 

Not that I wish for the remains of the tooth to be placed ceremoniously into my hands in any case, even if it were to be extracted in one neat piece.  It might  engender the kind of horror I frequently feel at the dentist.  In fact, rule three on my random and varied list of Ten Things to Keep You (Sort Of) Sane Throughout Life concerns being in the dentist’s chair:
3. While having a tooth filled, never, ever, allow your tongue to stray over the area your dentist has just drilled out.

Bits of ex-molar in my palm may just be a one souvenir too many.

But the imminent loss of my tooth, and the acute reluctance to give it up remind me that today there are people who will be facing so much more: surgery to surrender parts of their body for life-saving reasons.  For once, there is just a glimpse, a smidgeon, a flash of humble kinship.

22 February 2013

Dog Tales

(from a Spanish notebook)

There is an enormous pile of dog poo outside my front door. 

Not my front door in England, but the door of the little casita I’ve rented for a week in Orgiva in the Alpujarras in southern Spain.

As I eyeball it, the pile in question seems to be actually sitting on my next-door neighbour’s territory, that is if any of us are allowed to claim jurisdiction of the street in the first place.  But in our narrow cul-de-sac, my door is without question the closest door to the deposits of a very large dog – or a smaller one who has been saving up all week. 

As the nearest resident to the unmissable feature on the pavement that now needs to be manoeuvred around, it must be my responsibility to commence emergency removal procedures.  But I don’t possess a trowel, much less a spade, nor have I the stomach to use hands and a (jumbo) plastic bag.

Is anyone watching my hesitation?  I look nervously around at all the windows.  But there again, in this town generally there appears to be a laissez-faire attitude not just to the passings of dogs, but their passage as well.  They run freely through the streets, without identifying collars, sometimes alone or in pairs, sometimes following their owners, or even sitting obediently at cafes.  So far, they have been gentle and unmenacing.  A majority of them spend their entire lives outside, and start up a yowling echoing chorus at intervals during the night. 

There is a different way with dogs here.  I can’t help thinking about the black sports bag in the cafe of the bus station in Malaga yesterday.  Plonked on the chair beside a woman in a green wool coat, it independently started up a routine of quiverings and tremblings.  It lolled around on the seat. It lurched dangerously close to the edge.  A tidbit was fed through its zip.  Then another.   Its interior concealed the small white curly-haired dog I’d seen in the woman’s arms half an hour before.  The pooch was packed, ready for transportation.

And I remember the words of a bar owner in another Spanish town that I visited last autumn.  “Carolina is bad, very bad,” he had said.  Carolina was tiny, adorable, and chained outside to the leg of a bar-football table.  “Loli, her mother, is very good.  She doesn't chase cars like Carolina does.  But Carolina, you are very bad.”  And he frowned and wagged his finger at her.  Loli and Carolina were Chihuahuas, Carolina a puppy of 56 days old.

Back in Orgiva, later in the day, I meet a charming elderly neighbour who lives opposite me.  She tells me she is pleased I am staying in the little house – it once belonged to her family.  We exchange more pleasantries and then it is time to seize the moment.  I point to the offending heap only a metre and a half from where we are standing, the huge brown blot in the cul-de-sac of light-coloured stone and whitewashed houses.  I ask her what I can do.  She shrugs her shoulders, and says that the street will be cleaned.  Or the rain will wash it away. 

Or at least, I think that’s what she says.

I’m off the hook.  And I’m hoping for a short but well-aimed shower during the night.

30 January 2013


And when Voice is kaput, what next?

Voice that has blanketed itself in mucus and phlegm.

Voice that has buried itself deep, refusing to be coaxed out with promises of  chocolate fudge sundaes.  All grumpy and sorry for itself, pulling the duvet over its head.  Playing hard to get, its sulky outline infuriating.

Voice that’s taken a hike.  Gone off in a huff though you've no idea why, berate yourself with thoughts of was it something that I said?

Voice that’s gone whiskery and curmudgeonly.  Retreated.  Holding out in a log cabin in the woods.  Refusing even to wave through the gaps in the planks, though you know it's in there because you’ve smelt the smoke and seen the discarded fur of a trapped weasel.

Voice that’s gone to wallow in something closer to the ground.  A bleat.  A grunt. 

Voice that sends you to internet forums.  Help for Voice.  The Dos and the Don’ts.  Do take honey, lemon, slippery elm.  Don’t drink milk, eat cheese.  Do shut up.  Don’t test Voice out too soon, startle it half-naked, make it run off again.

And the hope, the prayer that becomes Vocalzones.  The cheat, the rescue that is Vocalzones, not knowing the science of it all, just out for the short-term remedy.  Because Voice, having been AWOL all week, needs to be brought to heel.  The show must go on.

And half an hour after the first Vocalzone has kicked in, Voice is suddenly there.  It’s got up, got itself dressed.  Though not wearing the outfit you’d have chosen, it’s done the right thing.

Voice is surly.  

But it’s not completely abandoned you after all.

22 January 2013

Another Name in the Supper Pot - Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self-portrait in a straw hat 1782

You probably know the game – the one where you make up an ideal guest list and choose famous people, living or dead, you’d like to invite round for dinner. 

Well, I’ve just had to add a new person to my list.

There she was, framed in a corner of the National Gallery in London, at first seemingly just A.N. Other society beauty, until closer inspection revealed a telltale palette and paintbrushes.   It turned out that the pretty pink-cheeked woman in a flirty hat with voluptuous feather was none other than the portraitist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

She was the second shock in the space of fifteen minutes.  Back in the Impressionist section of the gallery, I’d just realised (klutz moment) that the painter Morisot, whose work I’ve long admired - even had on my student walls in postcard form - was in fact Berthe Morisot, for Bertha, not for the rather more trouser-wearing Bert Morisot, her alter ego.   So much for the assumption that every single painter on display was necessarily male.

The French painter Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842) in fact pre-dated the Impressionists by a hundred years.  How much more remarkable does it seem, then, that she was able to establish herself in the male-dominated world of Paris in the late eighteenth century during the upheavals of the French Revolution.

It’s true that she had some help in her genes and circumstances.  Her father was a painter, Louis Vigée, and after he tragically died when she was twelve, a new and relatively wealthy stepfather was able to pay for painting lessons.  At the age of  twenty  she married the painter and art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun whose circle of influence  undoubtedly helped her but who kept control of her money, often to pay off his gambling debts.

But her talent was incontestable.  It had manifested young and had burst out everywhere at the boarding school she attended from the age of six to eleven.  Her memoirs tell us: “I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates', I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks.  So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water.  I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head.  At seven or eight, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard….  When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming: ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’ "

Elisabeth (I think we can move  on to first-name terms) enjoyed considerable success within her own lifetime, leaving behind 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.  She painted many of “the most delightful and most distinguished men and women in Europe” – including members of the nobility, the Prince of Wales, Lord Byron, the family of Catherine the Great of Russia. 

But I’m not inviting her round for supper solely on the strength of her contact list, but for the anecdotes, insight and pioneering spirit she’s likely to impart.   For example, I’ll want to find out more about her singing sprees with Marie Antoinette.  During the sittings for more than thirty portraits, it seems that they would warble duets by Grétry, for Marie Antoinette “was exceedingly fond of music, although she did not sing very true.”  And we’ll certainly need to get the low-down on the sessions with the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) which enraged those English painters who were elbowed aside for the privilege and which worried the Queen Mother enough into thinking that some kind of hanky-panky was going on. 

I’ll want to ask her about her scarf-draping techniques that came from her intense dislike of the female fashion at that time, when she found that wrapping bits of material made portraits “a little more picturesque”.   Perhaps, too, she’ll reveal more about that famous exchange with an English painter she simply describes as M:  "It seems that my lace shocks you, although I have painted none for fifteen years.   I vastly prefer scarves, which you, sir, would do well yourself to employ.  Scarves, you may believe me, are a boon to painters, and had you used them you would have acquired good taste in draping, in which you are deficient.”

She’ll be fascinating, no doubt, about her artistic eye, and to what extent she was tempted to enhance the appearance of her sitters.  Marie Antoinette, although pitchy of voice, apparently possessed an amazing complexion.  “I never have seen one so brilliant,” writes Elisabeth, “and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting.  Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished.  I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”  

Marie Antoinette by Vigée Le Brun

She had equally flattering comments to make about the Prince of Wales:  “Tall and well-built, he had a handsome face; his features were all regular and distinguished.  He wore a wig very artistically disposed, the hair parted on the forehead like the Apollo di Belvedere's, and this suited him to perfection.”

Whereas she may have felt favourable towards its monarch, generally, however, she found England "unmerry".    She has a point -  at the time she visited, London had no picture gallery, and great works of art could only be seen in the private homes of the wealthy.  There was, therefore, much less of interest for an artist compared to Paris or Rome.    And  “Sunday in London is as dismal as the climate…" she writes.  " The English are used to braving their weather.  I often met them in the pouring rain, riding without umbrellas in open carriages. They are satisfied with wrapping their cloaks about them, but this has its drawbacks for strangers unaccustomed to such a watery state of things.” 

The “watery state of things” was no mere idle complaint, for unlike in Paris, she needed to keep a fire burning constantly in her studio, then judge and juggle the distances of her canvasses from the grate in order to dry them.

She’ll be a sparky and fascinating guest.  To make her feel comfortable on this first visit, I’ll arrange proceedings according to her own taste:  

  • the cleverest will get an invitation including, perhaps, a poet, a viscount, an actress
  • start time will be 9.0 pm
  • ladies will wear white gowns
  • it will be a light evening repast -  some fowl, some fish, a dish of vegetables, a salad
  • no politics - but we’ll chat about literature and tell anecdotes of the hour
  • there will be refined merriment and diversions such as charades
  • no extra food will be provided, even if guests stay until midnight

I hope more than anything that she will inspire us about her passion for art.   “Nor has that passion ever diminished; it seems to me that it has even gone on growing with time, for to-day I feel under the spell of it as much as ever, and shall, I hope, until the hour of death.”

All quotations from A Celebration of Women Writers: Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun (1755 -1842)
by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Translated by Lionel Strachey, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903.


3 January 2013

Out in the Forest

Out in the forest at this time of year, everything is holding its breath.  Although mid-winter, there's a lightening amongst the deciduous trees.  Branches are defined and free of clutter.  Space has been cleared in preparation for the new.  Vistas are generous.  You can see things you can’t normally see when foliage complicates the issue. 

But of course, all is not one hundred percent well.  Ash dieback has spread to our shores.  A disease first noticed in Lithuania, but with origins in Asia, it is sweeping eastwards, and making steady and grim progress through our woodlands.    

In Norse mythology, the tree of life, Yggdrasil, is a giant ash that links the worlds.  Should it be affected, then all life is threatened.  

It is a metaphor with arresting resonance, as much as the words of a forester who on a recent radio programme talked about the measures needed to cope with this new disease and the serious thought required as to what trees might be able to replace the stricken ash. What he mentioned has stuck with me: that in the maintenance of a forest, there is nothing short-term at all.  Decisions made today would far out-reach his own span of time.  He would not live to see many of the results of his work, but was involved in stewardship for a coming century and future generations. 

Listening to him, I thought of people who would benefit from such an approach, and perhaps from a compulsory six months work experience in a forest – politicians, economists, industrialists… But then my list grew and grew to pretty much everyone on this planet, regardless of occupation or condition.  We all, let's face it, ultimately need to honour the patch around us, protect its possibilities for those who will succeed us, and take responsibility for what we choose to fell and what we choose to nurture.

So here's to the new dreams you plant in 2013 - may a number of them be not of the instant variety but unfurl gradually into something majestic, sturdy and truly lasting.