I’ve decided to take a break from all social media for a little while. Stay safe and well and I’ll see you all in a little while.
Yesterday, I went for a walk around parts of Sussex and Kent. The sun shone – Hooray! I managed the whole walk without aching too much afterwards – Hooray again! I said good morning to some sheep and patted a very nice horse. I just knew it was going to be a Good Day.
At one point I went along a footpath I haven’t used for several years, and was delighted to see this:
And then another four miles or so later there was this:
The council have made this area a Designated Roadside Nature Reserve. Established for several years now, it has a rich variety of wildflowers and grasses, and is fairly humming with insect life.
Perhaps there is a little hope for us, after all.
This Tuesday evening just gone. Brighton. 7.30pm. I’m here with my friend Mark to see a gig for the first time since the Pandemic began, a gig I had planned to see last year for my birthday, but which was cancelled – due to the Pandemic, of course. Chanctonbury Rings is a collaboration between writer Justin Hopper, musician Sharron Kraus, and visual artist Wendy Pye, based on extracts from Justin’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion.
Chanctonbury Rings was released (on CD, vinyl and download) by Ghost Box in 2019, and is described on their website as ‘A spoken word and music project by writer Justin Hopper and folk musician Sharron Kraus. It also features Ghost Box’s own Belbury Poly. Based on live performances of Hopper’s 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, it’s a poetical, autobiographical and psychogeographical account of his experiences at Chanctonbury Ring…‘ It goes on to state: ‘The album is a blend of folk, electronic music, poetry, prose and environmental sound. Kraus’s electro-acoustic soundscapes and songs interweave with Hopper’s rich, intimate narration.’
I first learned of The Old Weird Albion a couple of years ago when I was emailed by a reporter writing a review of the book for the Caught By The River website (which I must post about sometime), who had come across one of my blog posts on Chanctonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort on Chanctonbury Hill, part of the Sussex South Downs. In conversation, he told me of both the book and the music project. Naturally, I ended up buying both. (My review of The Old Weird Albion is here if you wish to learn more about it. Of course you do.)
When I heard it was being performed live, I decided I would have to go to see it. Then the Pandemic intervened and it would be over a year before I had another chance.
So on Tuesday we are in the Brighton Spiegeltent, part of the Brighton Fringe, awaiting the show. Outside, pouring rain and a lot of rather drunken football-related chanting. (I believe there was a game on somewhere.)
Inside, though, Chanctonbury Rings. The piece is built around the section of the book where Justin visits Chanctonbury Ring one May Day, to watch both the sunrise and the Morris dancers celebrating Beltane, the ancient name for the festival held that day. It combines personal experience with myth and legend, Sharron’s music both punctuating and supporting the narrative, and Wendy’s visuals projected on a screen behind the performers.
Incidentally, Sharron is a musician I had not come across before hearing the album, but I have since been captivated by her own stunning albums. If you have any interest in folk, I’d recommend you give them a listen.
Wendy’s visuals were well-judged photographs and film of Chanctonbury Ring and the surrounding area, at times deliberately grainy and vague and at others lusher, although there was perhaps something ghostly about all of them, each choice inevitably suiting the mood of the narrative at that point.
The spoken words, the music and song, and those visuals weaved around each other and blended happily together, elegantly constructing the world as it appeared to one viewer that May Day morning and projecting the audience, for the duration of the performance, into that world too.
It was magical.
June is the Thick Month. Trees and bushes and stands of wildflowers have acquired a lush density by now, branches and stems encased in full-sized leaves, rich and vividly green. Leaves massed and packed in swaying light-blocking swathes. Nothing has yet faded, although there is a gradual falling away of birdsong now mating is over and broods are being raised, although this is compensated for by what seems to be an increase in insect noise, especially bee hum – certainly in our garden. The flowers are beset by mason, carder and bumblebees, and large numbers of solitary bees which provide a delightful oxymoron for this recorder, at least.
Going out and about through the woods a mile from my home, I feel I could almost be walking indoors, such is the density of the tree canopy above me, and when it begins to rain I do indeed remain dry, other than from the occasional drip finding its way through. But it is muddy underfoot in places, the sheltering swathes also keeping the sun from drying out the ground. The thick wet dark humus-rich soil smells sweet and clean, reminding me of a ‘plum-pudding smell,’ as Kenneth Grahame described the river-bank in The Wind in the Willows.
The fields, too, are thick with wildflowers and grass, as are roadside borders where councils have refrained from scalping them. As much as I rejoice to find the occasional rarer species amongst them, I think my greatest pleasure is just to see masses of the commoner species; buttercups or ox eye daisies, vetches or speedwells.
I generally see nothing rare when I am walking my patch, but I could never think of any of this as ‘ordinary’.
About two miles away from our house I came across these two oak trees. The smaller one looks as though it is embracing the larger one.
I wanted to know their stories. Had the smaller one grown from an acorn produced by the larger one? Or from a different tree? Most oaks in Britain grow from acorns that have been gathered and buried by squirrels or jays, and they’d probably not bury them right at the foot of the tree, or would they? Could it be a secondary growth thrown up from a root of the larger tree? And the smaller one has developed in an unusual way – long and straggly as though it aspires to be ivy, or some such climbing plant. Very difficult to assess its age for that reason, although I would guess the larger one to be between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years old. Both are still alive, although it was difficult to spot leaves on the smaller one, as they are mostly high up.
My immediate instinct, or at least idle musing, was to begin to impose various anthropocentric motives to the situation: The larger tree was supporting the smaller for some reason – perhaps it was weak, or diseased. The smaller one was supplying the larger with nutrition of some sort. They were living in a symbiotic relationship and sharing resources…all nonsense, of course. They had grown that way purely by chance.
After my previous post on the merits of idleness (which was meant seriously, not tongue in cheek, just in case anyone was in doubt), it seemed a good idea to re-post this poem that I put up three years ago.
And, of course, by simply re-cycling an old post, I get more leisure time. I think that’s a result.
We measure out our time in days,
We measure things so many ways.
We measure distance out in miles,
We measure happiness with smiles.
Some think the dollar and the dime
Should be the measure of their time.
The passage of each single hour,
Is marked by exercise of power.
I think our time is short enough,
Without recourse to such sad stuff.
I’ll measure my remaining years,
With laughter, books, light rain and beers.
Sometimes it’s good to speak of trivial things, to leave the grim and urgent decisions to languish for a while. It’s good to discuss the relative merits of one particular brand of baking powder over another, or whether that particular goal shouldn’t have been ruled offside. While these concerns may be dismissed as distractions, as though there were something inherently bad about that, I think I would prefer to praise them as distractions, a way of finding valuable breathing space amidst the crushing pressures of those important decisions we know we have to face. And although those decisions will still have to be made, and perhaps will become that little more pressing for our inaction, we can return to them refreshed, having found that tiny bit of extra strength and resolve through our inactivity.
Sometimes it’s good, too, to pass some time in lethargy and sloth. To turn one’s back upon the umpteenth task that should be done, to join the Mole in The Wind in the Willows and throw one’s brush down upon the floor and exclaim ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolt outdoors and find the sun and end up lying in the grass listening to the birdsong.
Sometimes it’s good to refuse to enter into competition with the world, to refuse to join the race to become ‘The Best’ at everything we choose or are compelled to do. For what does it matter if we are not the best?
Sometimes it’s good to just say ‘No’.
I sometimes wonder whether it would be good to do this all the time.
About an hour after I wrote my previous post, we finally had some serious rain. Real, well-intentioned rain. Rain that took its responsibilities seriously. It even managed a little bit of thunder thrown in every now and again, although nothing too strenuous. So as soon as I published that post, really, it had been overtaken by events. Because the trouble with writing about rain, especially in Britain, is that by the time you’re done, it’s doing something quite different and making you look a bit foolish.
And this morning we have a light, steady rain again, but this time it feels very different to that of yesterday. Perhaps it’s just because the last twelve hours have been wet, and this weather has now established itself as a new, if temporary, normal. The day is bright and grey and, I have to admit, I love it. At this time of year the greens of the countless new leaves on all the trees and bushes and smaller plants glow with a wonderful brightness, even under the grey and the gloom. It is a day to put on boots and a light waterproof (it’s still very warm) and go out for a long wander.
So that is what I think I’ll do.
It is raining, and after what feels like weeks of steadily increasing sultry heat, it has now been raining for almost an hour. But there is no relief in this rain, at least not yet. It is a light rain, light and disinterested, as if its heart really isn’t in what it has to do. It sounds as though it is tired. It is a dutiful rain, rather than a rain with a purpose. We have been promised thunder, and torrential rain, but so far we have had rain that merely congeals the dust; rain to lightly refresh anyone abroad this evening without threatening to soak them through.
The windows of the house are open, front and back, in an attempt to create a through draught, but the air is still. Clammy. Hot. The only relief from the heat inside is psychological, rather than physical. The pattering of raindrops outside. A slight increase in birdsong, despite the lateness of the hour.
I am afraid the rain does not think it is really worth all the effort and will soon pack up and leave again. Maybe it will never return.
One of the things about growing…older, let’s say…and I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing, is the growing realisation that we’re never going to live in that place that we are convinced is perfect for us, or have the day to day lifestyle that is everything we want.
One consolation for the writer, even if it’s rather a shallow consolation, is the opportunity to write these places and lifestyles for ourselves. For the last year or so, nearly all my creative writing has been rather experimental, which is one reason I’ve not put much up on here. Rather than focusing on writing the complexities of a story arc, I have been very much concerned with the character of the characters I have written, and possibly even more concerned with the environment they occupy.
In a way, then, I’m exploring different versions of myself – although that, surely, is what all writers do anyway? – and it is instructive how much all of these versions have in common. For anyone who knows me, the information that these scenes involve almost nothing of town or city should come as little surprise. But it’s a learning process, a personal learning process. And even the photos I’ve chosen to accompany this post serve to reinforce what I already know about myself.
And the other strand that occurred to me as I thought about all this, is how it has brought home to me that the priority in my writing – my absolute, number one priority – is that first and foremost I am writing for myself. Whatever I write has to please a rather demanding reader; myself. And if that means my writing is even less ‘commercial’ than it was before, then so be it.
Strangely, this seems to have removed the pressure of time. I’ve always ended a writing day either pleased with the amount I’ve written or berating myself for not having written more. As if that was the sole measure of how successful or productive my day had been! Now, though, writing just for myself, success can be equated with how good I feel the output is; and by ‘good’ I mean quality (as defined by me, for me). So even a few lines that work well may be a good day’s work. I think this time pressure, this fixation with writing a certain amount each day, is a purely commercial pressure; an I-need-to-finish-another-book thing.
So goodbye to that. It’s not for me.