In Praise of Idleness

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.

Rain of a Completely Different Water

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.

The Weariness of Rain

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.

My Virtual Reality

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.

Twitter Tantrum

It was interesting – or demoralising – to follow a couple of threads on Twitter today where the vast majority of contributors remarked that if someone followed you, you HAD to follow back. If not, you’d be unfollowed instantly. I noticed this because a few times recently I’ve been followed, only to be unfollowed a few hours later, presumably because I hadn’t followed back. This tells me these new followers had NO interest in what I might post, only in boosting their followers total. And if that’s what the majority think, then why on earth bother posting anything if the only reason anyone else is there is to gain followers?

Just go away. We don’t want your sort in here.

Panicking Pigeons and Floundering Pheasants

Some birds look particularly elegant and graceful when they fly…

And some don’t…

Panicking pigeons are pitiful things,

Flapping and slapping and clapping their wings,

Each one has only one thing on its brain,

And that’s searching for insects, for seeds, and for grain.

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Walk-bobbing-walking like chickens on speed,

Or speeded up clockwork or on some doped seed,

Cooing down chimneys and shitting on folks,

A ridiculous call like a ghost being choked.

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A floundering pheasant’s a physical freak,

With a whirring of wings and a creak from its beak,

You would think they would hide up and shut up all day,

But a clattering rusty noise gives them away.

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There are plenty of elegant fowl in the sky,

The swift and the swallow, the eagle and kite,

With a breath-taking swoop or a beautiful song,

At times, though, evolution just got it plain wrong.

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And on the subject of birds, I couldn’t let you go without letting you listen to the blackbird in our garden who I mentioned in the previous post, who has been singing his little heart out every day:

Saturday Rumination

Sometimes, when the sun is shining and a blackbird is absolutely singing its heart out, so the air is filled with the beautiful liquid notes of its song, and when the spring leaves are coming out, nothing more is needed for contentment than a beer and a book in the garden.

There is still a keen freshness in the air, and the scent of the hops in the beer seem especially fragrant.

Nothing more is needed then than, perhaps, a ghostly, misty, shape arising from the marshes and speaking one’s name…

Smallpox, Vaccinations, and my Ancestors in Essex

One branch of my family came from Essex. In the eighteen hundreds they lived in the Ashen area, in Ashen, Ovington, Clare, and, I expect, other nearby villages. Extended families all living within a few minutes walk of each other as was the way then, both in urban and rural areas. They were all farm labourers making more or less of a living and I would imagine they found life quite a struggle. Most did.

Yesterday I made a systematic search through the parish records for the Ashen area, looking at every page between 1800-odd and 1890-odd. The pages up to approximately 1815 are water-stained and virtually indecipherable, and they finish around 1890. This branch of the family were named Hickford and I decided to extract every entry of that name to help me piece together the relationships. These records are of Births and burials and, before 1837, marriages. After this date the marriage records were held in London.

I don’t propose to bore you with any details of the family, but I was particularly struck by the following entry:

Mary Hickford was only thirty five when she died on June 16th, 1839. What is interesting is the note appended to her burial record by the rector. And it was the only such record I noticed, although I might have overlooked one for another family. It reads:

She died of the small-pox between 3 and 4 o’clock on Sunday the 16th and buried a little after midnight. I read the burial service over her grave at 10 o’clock this same morning. L Squire, Rector of Ashen.

So much haste! No sooner is she dead than she is buried – in the small hours of the morning, no less. The gravediggers must have started work almost as soon as she had breathed her last. It illustrates how terrified people would have been of catching the disease.

We have forgotten how virulent and frightening smallpox was, since it was finally eradicated by vaccination in 1979. Up until the 1800’s it killed thousands of people, and disfigured many more than that. Attempts to protect people from it by vaccination go back much further than Edmund Jenner famously inoculating a boy with ‘cow pox’, essential a milder form of the same virus, to produce antibodies that would protect against smallpox. He had learned that country folk had noticed that milkmaids who worked with cattle all the time might develop cowpox, but rarely caught smallpox, and would occasionally inoculate themselves with cowpox to ward of smallpox.

A thousand years ago in China, healthy people inhaled a powder made from smallpox scabs which provided some protection against the disease. Another method was to scratch the surface of the skin and introduce the powder into the body that way. Versions of this circulated around Asia and Africa until stories reached the west in the 1700’s.

Since the disease killed so many, especially children, parents were keen to have their children inoculated. But naturally there were scare stories. There was an anti-vaccine movement ridiculed in this well-known cartoon by the then prominent cartoonist Gilray, in which patients are seen developing cow-like pustules as soon as they are innoculated.

These, of course, were the nineteenth century version of today’s anti-vaxxers protesting with no proof whatsoever that the vaccine is a way of inserting microchips to monitor and control the population, of ignorance rejecting science. And just as true.

Happy Birthday to my Little Brother

Who would have been 62 today.

Grief is a powerful emotion. It can be debilitating and overwhelming. It can consume people, preventing them from living their lives.

Although it sounds a fictional cliché, In some societies ‘professional’ mourners will attend funerals, intentionally provoking powerful outpourings of grief by almost theatrical displays of wailing and crying; perhaps ripping their clothing, throwing themselves to the ground, and thrashing around in distress. This helps to move the bereaved through the process of loss, by bringing feelings and emotions to the surface, rather than allowing them to linger unexpressed for months or years. It helps the mourners to move on – not to forget, but to allow life to continue.

I can understand this, having met people who have been unable to move through grief, seemingly trapped in an ‘I’m okay’ situation, refusing or unable to display their emotions but presumably storing their grief up inside, unexpressed. Refusing help. People who have appeared unable or unwilling to move on. I was fortunate, my grief striking me like a clenched fist and, for periods, I had no choice but to allow myself to weep and rail at fate. But this allowed me to eventually move on, my grief evolved into sadness.

And for anyone struggling with grief themselves, something that helped me at the time was to write a letter to my brother. In my case after remarking it had been a while since I had heard from him, I filled it with humour, using in-jokes we had shared, although other people might have found a different approach beneficial. And the letter sits on my computer still and every once in a while I read it, and it helps me to smile and remember and, of course it makes me feel sad.

But that’s good.

I shall read it again today, and remember.

So Little Time, So Much To Do

The last week or so seems to have been ridiculously busy. All my own fault, of course. I’ve become exceptionally good at realising I’m doing rather a lot…and then starting a new project to add to it.

I’m making good progress on my current work in progress, A Good Place. Check.

Totally irrelevant photo, but one of my favourite shots. Small boy carrying dead sharks on a donkey. As you do.

Now that I have unpublished both of my books from Amazon, I have submitted Making Friends with the Crocodile to a publisher who will accept work that has been previously self-published and am waiting on a yes or no from them. Check.

I have edited two of the poems I wrote last month during my Poem-a-day-for-a-week experiment, and my talented friend Mark Prestage is including them in a pamphlet / zine / chapbook /call it what you will with some of his superb linocuts and photos. More on that when it’s out.

And while I’m thinking about that, perhaps I should have a go at another Poem-a-day-for-a-week soon, it worked quite well, really.

What I haven’t yet done is put my short stories and poem book, The Night Bus, up on a new platform. This will probably be Lulu, and I really ought to do that soon.

I haven’t been very good at visiting blogs recently, as you might have noticed. I need to do a bit more of that.

I was going to start a painting, which I haven’t managed to do yet. Really, I do sometimes set myself too much to do.

So, a new project? Really? Well, yes, actually. Forty years or so ago my father began a family tree, which I occasionally helped him with. It has sat in a cupboard since he died thirty years ago. And now I’ve had the urge to take it up and do some work on it, partly because I’m aware that there is a whole branch of my family which has died out, and only myself and one cousin would still remember any of them. And, we’re not getting any younger, you know. So I’ve begun researching that.

And I wonder where the time goes.