Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Saunter, dream and sometimes marvel

Sometimes, when I visit an art exhibition, it is enough to spend an hour or so getting lost in the paintings.

Sometimes, the paintings are not to my taste and rather than getting lost in the art, it loses me and I leave feeling that I have walked through a sweetshop and failed to eat any of the sweets.

I have been to art exhibitions where every picture is a wow - Turner, Lowry, the 2017 BP portrait award - and to some where none is - Rauschenberg at Tate Modern. And I have been to some unexpected gems - Ernest Shepherd's illustrations at the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A and a marine art exhibition in 2016, in a small maritime gallery in Mystic, USA.

Special exhibitions or event exhibitions are expensive and I have devised a private, retrospective is-it-worth-it score. If there is one picture that makes me stop and stare. And stare again. That pauses time. And takes my breath away. If there is one of these - there only needs to be one - then the is-it-worth-it worthiness is confirmed. A good exhibition might have several wow pictures but it takes only one for me to consider my money well spent.

Of course, what is a moment of art-appreciating bliss for me might leave others non-plussed; cold even.
For example, Littlest doesn't get Rothko. I do.
Gerhard Richter (look him up) paints sublime abstract interpretations of music like a woven watery landscape of colourful threads - I love them but I know others who don't.
Van Gogh's iconic blurry, swirling yellow moon in the inky dark, star-pocked sky, of The Starry Night 1889, is all the more astonishing when you understand that it was painted while he was within the Saint-Remy asylum and probably suffering the side effects of digitalis treatment. This perhaps explains the almost child-like brilliance of the painting but it's that garish naivety and the troubled addled mind behind it that half turn me away. It gets a half-wow from me (though The Whitney, NY, where this Van Gogh is housed, was worth it - the self-portrait of Hopper a big, big wow).

Paintings tell stories. And I love stories. The picture an artist produces has a narrative, intrinsic to what he or she is seeing or trying to say. We see what the artist painted. But not necessarily what he or she saw. There is a difference.

Edgar Degas (he of the ballet dancers) said, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."

We might understand the artist's picture but each of us will interpret it with our own ideas; our own stories. We bring all our previous experiences and beliefs and sometimes prejudices to formulate what we see. And what I see is not necessarily what you see. Or what Mrs Blogs, recently widowed and on holiday alone from deepest darkest countryside, sees. Or Jenyfyr, whose parents didn't know how to spell and were puzzled by her decision to leave their drafty yurt and become a legal secretary, sees. Or retired Frank, who wrote the definitive guide to sixteenth century artists' pigments and still receives invitations to speak at universities, sees.  Or Poppy, who sits on the floor and twiddles with the volume on the black box dangling round her neck and has to hold the too-big head phones with her other hand, sees (when she can see past all the knees). We're all different and no interpretation is right - except perhaps one might argue because it makes no sense otherwise, the artist's. Ultimately, the artist's picture is a gift for us to take and do with what we like.

Here are some pictures and their stories that I have recently marvelled at. At risk of being boring - because I'm not sure if I can legally insert images here - I could say shut your eyes and listen and see in your mind's eye but as you're hopefully still reading this and need your eyes for that, it might be better to say 'let me tell you a story' but bear in mind it's my story and if you do see these paintings one day, you might see something entirely different.

1) Modigliani - on at Tate Modern until 2nd April. If you visit, look for The Cellist, painted in 1909. I see a man in a collarless shirt, in a tired apartment and bathed in a warming glow probably from a single candle, with the room behind him in partial shadow. The cello looks a little battered, it's wood slightly mottled, almost bruised in places. But while these observations are pretty and have a weak narrative, the story comes alive in his face. His head is slightly bowed; his face expressionless, unlined, framed by thick dark hair on his head, chin and across his upper lip. Still just a picture. But ... but, but ... Modigliani shuts the cellist's eyes and suddenly the narrative is there - so strong that you almost hear the music. Who is he? What is he thinking? Why does he look so alone? Absolutely intriguing.

2) The Turners at Tate Britain, now and at any time you want to visit. And free. Saunter and dream and marvel at them all. All are incredible. I could lose myself among them for hours; days. However, for this purpose here take one - the one that Littlest flopped down in front of and sat staring at until I dragged her away. My work at encouraging her to enjoy art - well and truly done. A wow moment for me in itself. All the exhibition fees that went before, worth it. Worth it with bells on. The painting? The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817. Huge, striking, dramatic - yes, all of those things but also storytelling at it's very best. Imagine: a doomed, soon to be ruined stone city, stragglers of it's population who failed to flee on the ships that left the port earlier that eventful day, scattered broken belongings on the quayside, a calm estuary reaching out to a distant golden sea and the sun glowing ever nearer to the horizon illuminating the now impassible path to salvation. Look at the huddles of people clinging to each other. Look at the despair on their faces. Imagine the impending, inevitable sacking of their city, their lost hopes and smashed dreams. The sun is setting. Setting like it always does but this setting sun is magnificent and terrible; the last rays of searing light sealing the fate of an abandoned people. Beyond lies darkness and in half-shadow in the right foreground sits a woman, crumpled and clinging to a wall, with her head in her hands. See what I mean by great storytelling? That one hopeless woman in the shadows, beyond the thinning light of the dying sun says to me all that Turner distills into the whole picture. Brilliant.

3) Tissot, at the magnificent Impressionists in London exhibition, at Tate Britain until 7th May. I had not come across Tissot until this exhibition - another that Littlest and I visited at half term (after I had dragged her away from the Turners). The Impressionists were remarkable. This was an exhibition of many wows. Definitely worthy on my is-it-worth-it score. But it introduced me to Tissot and to the finer points (excuse the pun) of dry-point and etchings. And this lifted it high in my worthiness rankings and encouraged me to visit the Desboutin's (more etchings) at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge last week (also very good).
Back to Tissot and specifically Emigrants, drawn in 1878. Littlest had to drag me away from this picture. Imagine a drawing of a mother carrying her infant child; steadying herself because the load she carries is heavy. She is in an elevated position in the centre of the picture because she is about to step down onto the deck of a ship. A weathered old man, perhaps a sailor, reaches up to help her, his face slightly hidden beneath the brim of hat. His clawed hand gripping the ladder hints, in my head, at desperation and neediness - what are his motivations in helping the young woman and is he entirely to be trusted? Above her is a forest of masts and flags and gathering clouds. It's dark and brooding; quite Victor Hugo-esque in it's bleakness. And - here the story stirs - behind the woman, still on land, is an older man and the face of a wondering, curious, confused child. Just the face. From the picture's title, she is an emigrant, as Tissot was, and is leaving somewhere with her baby and small bag of belongings. Is she also leaving the wondering child? What is she fleeing from? Where is she going? Tissot teases us with questions and sends our imaginations spinning off into myriad narratives; little stories that answer some questions and sprout more. Wonderful.

If you have got this far, you either think I'm mad and living in a fantasy world or you agree that flat static pictures are capable of telling incredible stories. Am I alone in thinking that they would lose something if they moved; if the figures were animated, as in the world of Harry Potter?



artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection - The Emigrants

Monday, 22 January 2018

Oh bother ...

I can't believe I've let #WinniethePoohDay pass without posting something about the bear of little brain who is and always has been my favourite literary character. Were I ever cast away on a desert island, the collected tales of Pooh would be the book or books I would choose to have with me.

Alan Alexander Milne created a character who has universal appeal.

Whether we are young or old, in China or Dubai or Greenland or a windy village in a wintry England, we all have Pooh days. Days when we 'stop to think and forget to start again.' And days when we fail to 'pay attention to where we are going and without meaning to get nowhere.' I have those days all the time.

There is Winnie-the-Pooh thinking or philosophy or whatever-you-want-to-call-it in all of us.

For a birthday treat this week, my big children invited me to London. It was one of those 'I'll come down* to London and spend the day with you for your birthday doing whatever yo want to do' that turned into a 'I know it's my birthday but for my birthday treat my brother and I want to take you, our mother, to a surprise treat for you. ** And until we get there we're not telling you where we're going.' Well, we went past all the tube stops that I knew. The stops where I could have made a guess where we might have been going. We strayed into city realms where this country-mouse felt - well, I'm not sure what I felt exactly - I was having such fun simply wondering. And if I felt lost, I knew that I wasn't. Because to misquote Pooh, the place where I was wasn't lost.

When we - in my case narrowly, having avoided being turned into road jam by a taxi that appeared quickly from nowhere - reached our slippery destination (slippery due to the white ceramic-looking tiles on the ground. Outside! In the rain! It made the ground look edgy and bright, and like a head-injury waiting to happen), I still didn't know what we were going to see. I knew now that we were going to see something. I'd seen the excellent Ballenciaga exhibition here last month. But I couldn't remember what else was on.


of course.

Perfection. I can't think of a better treat. I can't think why I didn't cry. I (nearly) always do. Actually I nearly did. Quite a bit closer to the crying side of nearly crying than the nearly side. This is what did it - Christopher Robin saying his prayers:

I read this as a child with a whithper - the little me had a lithp: 'whithper who dare-th, Chrithtopher Robin ith thaying hith prayerth.' Years of elocuthion lessons got rid of the lisp. Almotht.

The exhibition was all about Pooh but more about EH Shepard, the illustrator whose pencil drawings are at the heart of my Winnie the Pooh memories. Somehow he conjured graphite and paper into the stuff of magic - pictures that moved long before Harry Potter had moving photographs

Zoom in on this drawing to properly see the shifting outlines of a bear bouncing - bump! Bump! Bump! - down the stairs. Brilliant!

He was also strikingly good at trees

which is just as well given that the adventures of Pooh take place in the Hundred Acre Wood.

It's difficult sometimes to tease apart the original Milne from the familiar Disney Pooh. I have children and when they were growing up the Heffalump and Tigger Movies were favourites. Unlike some,  I can forgive the American gotten that slips into Tigger's vocabulary but I have an uncomfortable tingle that runs up my spine when the gopher whistles and wheezes his 50s gangster beavery form into the films. He even says 'I'm not in the book y'know.' He shouldn't be in the films.

Oh bother. It's going to be another tomorrow - and another - before I post this. Winnie-the-Pooh Day Plus One  T'woo Three Four ...

I'm sure Pooh would have something to say about this delay. All life is in Pooh after all. Let's see ...

People say it's impossible to do nothing, but I do nothing every day.

Yes, the procrastinating bear. Perhaps, that's why I am so fond of him.

Another quote, that I live by is this

One of the advantages of being disorganised is that one is always having surprising discoveries.

And, finally, this honest, tear-jerking, sentimental quote is sincerely and with all my love for my children

If there ever comes a day when we can't be together, keep me in your heart, I'll stay there forever.

up to London or down to London? Does it matter?

** Thank you. Thank you.

***Country Mouse might be hibernating for a week or two while she contemplates writing course applications and what she wants to do when she grows up or grows beyond her current state of perpetual procrastination and mid-life unease. Is there life beyond procrastination? Here's to hoping there is.


Sunday, 14 January 2018

On snoring, barking and (un-)stable geniuses


Snoring - go on; say 'snoring.' And again. And again. Play with the word; roll it around your mouth - sno-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-rrrr-ring.
Try it again.
I defy you to do this without a tiny twitch appearing at the corner of your mouth. A tiny twitch plus a slight wrinkling of the skin at the outer angles of your eyes. Why is snoring funny?
Why, for example, did I find it impossible to discuss snoring yesterday without smiling; in a professional situation where smiling was probably inappropriate? Snoring is funny. In the same way that everything about toilets is funny to a seven year old boy. It makes us smile; childishly. It's something only other people do; isn't it? It's funny! Unless you live with someone who snores. Or you are the snor-ee ... snor-er ... ? ... one who snores ... and live life in a permanent fog of day-time exhaustion.

Snoring is not restricted to humans.

Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins snore: they sprawl in front of the aga paws twitching as they chase a rabbit/fox/pigeon; facial muscles doing an Irish jig; muffled, whimpering barks as they bravely fend off haystacks-that-weren't-there-yesterday. Then, comes the snore and they're awake! And on their feet looking around for the 'Who', who did that! They always stretch after this, as if to say 'I'm fine, me - no I didn't just wake myself up snoring. No no no. I was about to get up anyway. Snoring - pah! Not me.' Or maybe I'm putting words in their mouths. Which would be pointless because they can't speak. They do however bark. Often in the middle of the night.

Which raises the question - is it better to be hauled from the realms of sleep by noisy snoring humans or barking dogs?


Maybe, consider it this way - think about the creators of the noise. The snorer who gets kicked. Or shoved. Or rolled off his back. Or smothered with the nearest pillow. The dogs who are let out. Chase the noisy fox out of the garden. Wake all the neighbours. And then, satisfied with a job well done, go back to bed. The person woken-up either commits a snoring-related murder or by being the owner of the dogs is responsible for waking the local babies, inserting baying hounds into neighbours' nightmares, teasing the cockerel that lives somewhere, and alarming the herd of deer sheltering beyond the fence. Deer have eyes. A whole herd of deer have dozens of them. All brightly still and staring in the torch-light. A sudden sea of eyes that makes the dog owner yelp in alarm.
The only beings that win here are the dogs.

... would I rather be woken by snoring or barking? Barking - every time. Despite the cold and often rain and staring deer eyes, when the dogs come back in, I can return to bed and sleep. Sleep - impossible next to a snorer.

Why am I writing a blog about snoring? Partly because snoring is funny but it also isn't funny and snor-ees need help and sympathy and arnica for the bruises on their legs. But also because I can't be bothered adding my voice to the shithole debate. I am fed up with being outraged. I have outrage fatigue.

Though ... returning to snoring - the dehydrating effect of the caffeine in 12 cans of diet coke a day and a body habitus that is more late-Brando than lithe-Al Pacino hint, perhaps, that the very stable genius snores. I wonder ... Bet that won't be mentioned in his medical report!

One final non-snoring-related point - I think 'stable genius' is an oxymoron. Stable implies a regularity of thought; unwavering, steadfast, concrete. Very unlikely, in fact, to drift off into inspired, out-of-the-box thinking. Stable suggests that the box is rigid, intransigent, hard-line, even mundane. Most geniuses are none of these things - they are unstable, dynamic, restless, quick thinkers who learn from their mistakes. To learn from one's mistakes, of course, would first require the stable genius to recognise and acknowledge them. Trying to lie one's way out of one's mistakes is not the mark of a genius. Unless we're talking evil ones ...

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Brain farts and other absent-minded moments

Fart - definition: do I have to spell this one out? We all know what a fart is.
It's Bertie Baggins emptying the room faster than even he could leap up at the rustle of wrapper and hint of a biscuit. Perhaps it's his passion for all things biscuit-crumby and sticky and generally curled up and slowly decaying that he finds on the kitchen floor or dead in the middle of a field that leads to the efficacy of his room-evacuating talent.

The picture of innocence

Farts are also the bubbles suggesting the early morning swimmers are using some internal combustion engine to propel themselves up the pool and that the changing room toilets are probably best avoided when the swimming session ends.
Farts are universally unpleasant and embarrassing; always and instantly orphaned and totally necessary. We all do them. Yes ... we do; all of us. At all ages; next time you're near a very young baby watch it jump in  surprise when it noisily passes wind.
Fart as flatulence is from the old English feorting but with possible German origins from ferzan or from the Old Norse freta. I have no idea why I should find word derivations interesting but I do (follow Robert Macfarlane on twitter if you also enjoy ancient words and their resurrection).

In English, fart has other meanings, too.

The old fart; the one who knew a cousin of your father's and corners you at a party and spends the evening discussing the relative merits of the different routes he could have taken to get to the party but didn't and wished he had because his journey had been delayed by first a minor accident and then a closed road. And you listen wishing that your father didn't have a cousin and that the minor accident hadn't been so minor and could perhaps have involved some more cars - one in particular - and then you feel guilty and you try to listen. But as your eyes start to wander and settle on the face of the one person you hoped would also have been invited and your head explodes along an unspiralling reel of picture stills - silver sand and squealing gulls; blue sea stretching to a horizon dotted with islands; a hot sun shimmering in the sky; and a warm hand folded into yours - the old fart twitches slightly, and blushes and your nose is suddenly assaulted with a stench of stale cabbage. The old fart has farted.

There is also the fart of foolish, irresponsible things. The fart of farting around. It is naughty and shameful and sometimes illicit. It belongs almost exclusively to teenage boys. And sometimes to an orange-hued adult whose day-care handlers should know better. This older, oranger fart is on a limited-run ticket and racing towards possible impeachment but, like the younger farts farting around, is essentially a time waster; particularly when playing golf. The fart of farting around is silly and disrupts the norm. And, in the case of the orange one, sometimes argues - until he is even oranger in the face or gets someone called Sarah to argue for him while he chain-sips coke in front of the television - that the unprovable is right and the science-based wrong. But as the orange-hued one has just banned - yes! Banned! - the use of the word science-based, along with evidence-based, vulnerable, diversity, transgender and fetus, I guess he is creating his own little world (... getting littler after Alabama) where he and Sarah can continue to fart around and not care about the health of other human beings and human rights and climate and all those boring things that might require reading more than a paragraph and interrupt the next opportunity to tweet narcissistic nonsense. Untrammelled farting around is globally hazardous and must be stopped.

Time to breathe. To count to ten. To gaze upon a nice picture. And remember that the words ridiculous, risible, ludicrous, stupid and impeach have not been banned.

Lastly, there is the fart which is the brain fart. This could be called forgetfulness. It is the disorientation when walking into a room and wondering why you are there. It is turning the radio on to listen to the forecast and realising ten minutes later that despite standing next to it you managed to sip your coffee and eat your porridge but heard absolutely nothing of the impending weather and still don't know if you will need an umbrella. It is describing to a stranger that you write a blog and in the moment of realising that you have shared this personal thing with him, struggle to grasp at any good words to describe it, and instead tell him it's "basically a brain fart." What!? I have never described it thus before. A ramble - yes. A rant - yes, sometimes. A slow meander through some thoughts and comments and happenings in my life - yes, because that is what it is. The dreams of a champion procrastinator - yes, often. But a brain fart? No. No. No.
Littlest frequently has self-confessed brain farts when there is a temporary disconnect between what is in her head and what comes out of her mouth. She has the agile brain of a teenager and sometimes its too-fast agility spills gibberish into the air. My brain no longer possesses that agility. The irony of the words I used is that I stumbled upon them precisely when I was suffering the moment of absent minded panic that we call a brain fart. My brain, if you like, suffered a brain fart and farted out the words "brain fart." Which is not what I wanted to say at all. The bubbles in the think tank of my brain rose to the surface and turned into words. Just not the words I expected.

Why do we suffer brain farts and where do they come from? I didn't really expect to find an answer to this but I did.

Imagine telling your granny at Christmas that you are studying brain farts. After she'd checked the settings on her hearing aids and if bringing up the subject of flatulence hadn't shocked/embarassed/confused her too much or convinced her that you were the liberally raised idiot she had always suspected, you could - if from the team at the university of Notre Dame in Indiana - explain that brain 'f's' are now called "doorway effects." Imagine watching her relax at this euphemistic substitution and wait for her lips to thin again as you proceed to tell her that we all suffer from brain farts. Even grannies.

While it might at first appear surprising that anyone would study brain farts - maybe for an April 1st publication or the Christmas Edition of the BMJ; the only BMJ worth reading cover to cover. Sorry if I've lost you - the BMJ is the British Medical Journal and to prove that doctors can be funny it publishes the whackier research articles from the previous year in its Christmas edition. The brain fart study, featured in the New Scientist (see link below), is not however whacky. It is serious. It looks at what happens in the brain when we forget things or appear absent minded or substitute the wrong name for something or commit a Freudian slip. And it's not just happening in Indiana. There are many teams in many different parts of the world looking into this phenomenon because, as I have indicated already, we all do it.

Studying brain farts leads to a classification of sorts.

There is the walking into a room and wondering why we are there sort, which is common and always peculiarly discombobulating. It can be solved by retracing your steps until the lightbulb comes back on and the thing you had gone to do or fetch is lit up within your consciousness and you can now do it or fetch it as previously planned. This phenomenon is thought to be caused by our brain compartmentalising our surroundings. It copes with creating an image of place inside our heads and there is a temporary blank moment when we walk into a new room when it readjusts. In this moment, we can't process both what we left behind and the reconfiguring of our new surroundings, so we forget why we are there. This is the 'doorway effect.'

At times of extreme stress we can experience a cascade of brain farts. We forget the details that define us; the facts that we previously thought so familiar that we pictured them branded into our conscious self. But no - after an accident or in moments of extreme embarrassment we blank: our address, our phone number, our date of birth evaporate. Our brain, flooded with panic, struggles to retrieve any meaningful memory. Gibberish is what comes out instead - brain fart after brain fart after brain fart. It feels like a nightmare. Like we are watching ourselves implode. This awareness makes the panic worse and as the tide of stress rises, we lose sight of ourselves and in extreme situations the brain fart nose dives into panic attack.

Milder, less distressing, brain fart types are these - calling your children by the wrong name (I do this all the time); seeing a face in the pattern of knots in the wood on the back of a door; calling your teacher/boss/doctor 'mummy'; signing off with kisses in a text to your builder/plumber/bank manager; fixating on a word until it becomes meaningless - the comedian Miranda Hart does this well when she over-repeats pet words until they no longer make any sense.

I suspect I have repeated brain fart rather too often here. Part embarrassment. Part hey-this-is-something-funny-that-also-has-meaning-and-could-be-interesting-and-perhaps-has-a-blog-in-it. And let's face it, I should be wrapping presents; turning several brown bananas into banana bread; hemming a pair of curtains; ordering last minute stocking fillers; writing Christmas cards and taking this pair for a walk

All of which I will go off and do now. And prepare lunch for the friends I had forgotten were coming. Soon!

This is the article in New Scientist on the study of brain farts


And on the subject of flatulent farts, here is Canada, very amusingly punching a hole in the social smoking habit of young Canadians - worth a giggle


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

A bounce and a splash on a blustery day. And feeling pain. And emotions.

I haven't done this for a while. Blogging, I mean.
The while has been spent tackling the annual creative writing exercise otherwise referred to as the NHS appraisal. 
There must be a better way of establishing if we are fit to practice. A way that doesn't involve finding fifty differently worded paragraphs in which we comment on how we reflect on out learning activities. Yes - okay - it does make us think about our role. Yes - it also confronts situations where we might have acted differently. And it does force us to keep current with latest research and treatment protocols. So, maybe it does enable us to practice better medicine. But how many ways can I find to say 'I am working to relevant standards.' 
I prefer this creative form of linguistic perambulation. 

Perambulation - this has become our home, code-word for walk. If we mention the w word, Four-legged-friend and Berti-Baggins go into paroxysms of over-excited tail- wagging and barking. We, therefore, use the p word instead. It will only be a matter of time before they react to perambulation as they react to walk now and then we'll have to choose another word - stroll, trot, wander, ramble, expedition?

On today's morning perambulation, we weren't alone. Others were perambulating fleetingly across the field.

Not that Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins appeared to notice. Or just ignored them. Maybe they knew that they wouldn't catch them anyway. 

Hmm ... were they choosing to ignore the deer or oblivious to them? 

Were they just putting one leg in front of three others and somehow managing not to fall over - blithely looking straight ahead; not thinking about anything; empty headed; and plodding, in fact. 

In popular fiction, zombies are incapable of feeling or emotion. Their thoughts are base and primitive - move, harm, destroy. 
Bricks don't feel pain or emote either. 
Nor do dead elephants. 
Or dead baby whales (... Blue Planet - plastics choking our oceans - another rant, another blog).
Or animals, according to our government.

Is this the picture of a creature unable to feel pain or have emotions?

*note to self - breathe. Pause. Count to ten. Look at the trees - and the sun - then hit something!


Dogs who limp when they get a thorn in their paw. When they feel pain. 
Who leap out of the way if a stray foot steps on their tail. When they feel pain. 
Who back into a corner at the vet's because their annual jabs hurt. When they feel pain.
Who two weeks ago felt the pain of the bites of the critters they had in their hair. Anti-flea treatment = no critters = dogs no longer scratching because they no longer feel the pain of the bites.

Dogs who whine at about this time in the evening because they feel the pain of hunger. 
Who wait at the foot of the stairs because they feel the pain of separation.
Who lay a muzzle in your lap because they feel your pain when you feel like crying.

Dogs who hang their heads in shame and head for the nearest exit when they know they've done something wrong. If that's not an expression of shame, I don't know what it is. A Pavlovian response to eating the last slice of cake?
Dogs who today stopped during their perambulation and reversed their rears against the reassuring steady shelter of my legs because it was windy and the trunks of a pair of trees were rubbing against each other with a sound that was half splintering wood and half creaking door and they were afraid. Or if not actually afraid then certainly wary. Did they learn this from Pavlov too? Was it an emotionless reaction to an unknown noise? That they kept looking at my face seeking my reaction, suggests to me that they were ready to react with emotion to my emotion. If I was frightened, they might have barked. Barking is often an expression of fear. It is seldom that other emotion, aggression.

Dogs who don't have the vocabulary to express how they feel. Are we to believe that this means they don't feel? A baby cries when it has immunisations. It reacts to pain but doesn't have the vocabulary to express how it feels. I challenge anyone to say that a baby does not feel pain or have emotions.

I have witnessed the truly awful, heart-rending lowing of a cow separated from its calf. I have read about elephants that mourn the death of family members. The elephant calves taken to orphanages are lost and subdued when they first arrive after witnessing the deaths of their mothers by poachers or trophy hunters (*breathe - count to ten thousand, although that wouldn't be enough. Another blog; another day). We - I - anthropomorphise too much but don't try to tell me that these animals are not feeling emotion. A primitive expression of emotion - yes, perhaps. That depends on how you define it. Primitive - in human terms - because the animal doesn't give it a name, it isn't treatable with counselling (horse-whisperers might disagree), it isn't talked about with friends and there isn't a tee-shirt for it, but it's still real. 

If, by law, animals do not feel pain or have emotions what does this say about us; the writers of that law? I think it makes us a little less human.

* I need to breathe again.

Here is Bertie Baggins following his uncle into a puddle

And doing what he 'likes' best

... bounce once

bounce twice

then splash

and slide to a stop

I just love these blustery-day ears

and this happy boy.

How do I know he was happy? The wagging tail. The 'smile' ... ?

Okay - I know he wasn't really smiling. But in my head, I think he looked happy. I suspect having just run around a lot; eaten a biscuit; and chewed something unmentionable, he was content; if not actually happy.

Here he is again - showing that dogs can run and wipe their nose at the same time

And here is Four-legged-friend just turned into the drive and expressing in an I'm-not-moving-til-we-extend-this-perambulation-activity way that he is unhappy to be home.  

Blustery days and awesome wintry skies ...

and angry hearts. 

Excuse, for a moment please, my mind being in a post-appraisal fog: perhaps, the government should appraise their thinking and reflect on whether it meets relevant standards. We are humans, our standards define our humanity and we are better than this.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

All the D words, a bit of a rant and a catch up

Ok - so I fail at the first hurdle: of course I can't list all the D words in this post. Well, theoretically I could, I suppose, but it would create a dull, dreary and not particularly daring blog. I'd lose my readers quicker than a duck, diving for dragon-fly larvae, in a duck-pond. But incase you missed it, I'll pick up one of those D words again: daring. That's the one.

Daring - adjective: definition - to be adventurous, fearless, unafraid or bold. Origin: Old English, durran - to brave danger.

So ignore the "All the D words" bit of the title and insert 'Some D words; one D word in particular; a bit of a rant and a doggy catch up."
Huh! I hear you cry - actually I don't, but I like to delude myself that you noticed; that there even is a you to notice that I inserted another D word. The canine, four-legged, lick-you-in-the-face-if-you-get-too-close D word, that is, after all, appropriate for a blog called Walking the D-og.

Dogs! It's autumn. Autumn = apple season. Apples = stuffed canine friends. Absolutely stuffed canine friends. Four-legged-friend and Bertie Baggins are on a self-inflicted apple diet. The apples go in and apple-y excrement comes out, much to the apparent delight of the woodpeckers who toss it around all over the grass, presumably gorging themselves, disgustingly, on the partially digested lumps of apple. Eurgh!
Apple-tummies demand an increase in daily exercise

"Please take me and my tummy ache for a walk,"

Unfortunately, walks sometimes have pop-up or in this case fall-down cafe's. You can never eat too many apples, right?

But a re-stuffing results in an I-need-to-sleep-this-off silent, stationary protest and a dogged determination to waddle slowly for the rest of the way home

I digress. The apples will soon be gone - into chutneys, crumbles, jellies, compost, dogs and deer (judging by the hoof prints) and an unseen badger (judging by the neat piles of poo in shallow, scraped out holes).
Doggy catch-up done.
Back to Daring. And some homework. Not mine. Term has started for Littlest (who really can't go on being called Littlest for much longer - there's probably about a year before she ceases to be Littlest in stature, much to the disillusion and disgruntlement of one of her older sibling-ettes). With a new term term comes new homework. With homework and sleepy end-of-the-day heads comes cups of coffee and a parent struggling to decipher an algebraic x from y and navigate between masculine and feminine endings in French - it must have been a man who decided that when he sat on a chair, at a table and watched his wife put the kettle on for him, before she loaded the washing machine and did the washing up, there were six feminine things within that sentence. Thank heavens we don't have to argue about the gender of inanimate things in English. Anyway, I am distracting myself; again. Back to business and homework and in particular English and a critical essay on a choice of two poems, taken from a collection of about a dozen. All the poems tackled discrimination.
One in particular, tackled the discrimination of race. I hope I can quote from it here and that there aren't any copyright issues because I'm about to. I'm daring to, if you like. But not exactly the daring that I'm leading to - yes, very slowly. I know. But you are being led there, so 'Bear with' as Miranda Hart's dear friend Tilly might say (look it up if she's new to you). It (might) be worth it.

The poem is Caged Bird by Maya Angelou:

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to climb the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings and clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown 
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

For me, it's the first verse that stands out; that walloped me in the face, waking me from my caffeine fuelled, parental, homework-was-never-this-hard-in-my-day stupor. And within that verse, one word - a D word - in the last line, dares. Angelou could have chosen different words but the insertion of dares shines a beacon on the arrogance and self-belief that only the truly free can summon when making the choice to do something risky. Fear stalks those who are oppressed, making them wary of retribution and stands between them and the freedom to make choices. This makes them careful. Always watchful. Averse to doing things that they imagine might lead them into trouble. They wear the bars of their societal cage metaphorically and imovably. For them to be daring, they must first be brave. The free man has no need of being brave because, whatever he does, life is comfortable, full of fat worms on a dawn bright lawn. And, as even the sky belongs to him, his life knows no limits.

So where am I leading you?
Downwards; onto one knee, as you will discover if you delve further into the words below (... 3 D words on one line!)

I'm not going to pretend that I understand the details of the politics behind the take a knee movement in the USA. And I suspect I just fully declared my ignorance by implying that politics is behind it. Politics has certainly taken notice; its Dolt-in-chief has tweeted from the floor of his adult day care centre, like Nero playing the violin while flood and fire ravage the earth. Politics has staged its own theatrical, ridiculous, petulant and expensive counter-protest and has elevated taking a knee to a significant and highly (purposefully?) distracting and now political issue.
But at its heart - at its origin - it is about peoples caged by prejudices taking the only 'stand' they can - silent (in this case) and visually shocking but dignified. Theirs is a stand against discrimination, particularly the discrimination by those in authority that drives divisions in society. It is not a stand (or kneel) against the flag, nor against the military. They are simply saying that they are not free and have never been free to dare to climb the sky - why? Because although they know they can, they can't. They know that to openly confront discrimination would attract name-calling, bullying and risk retribution. It would heap more dirt on the graves of their dreams. Their cages might be metaphorical but trap them as securely as a prison wall; cages and walls, with bars and bricks, cemented deep in racial history. We - yes, we - wherever we are - should reflect on this and be ashamed. It's a cliche but in death we all make identical piles of bones. If we are the same on the inside, why can't our brains accept that we are the same on the outside. The caged birds of the NFL shouldn't have to kneel - that is the point of their protest. And until we can see this none of us will truly be free.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Curlews, summer skies and walking in circles.

Summer skies over the Yorkshire Dales and my mind is set to rest mode. But that rest is not totally restful; there is a niggle ... a memory, a hint of childhood, something that unsettles slightly - a light brush stroke of discomfort; a gossamer breath of discombobulation and a 'Woah! Wait a moment!' moment of 'that's-not-right!' - we're about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in middle Britain and yet, I can hear the distinctive Peep! Peep! of oystercatchers and the piercing cry of curlew. Here - 

in the blue skies of the North Yorkshire dales and along the footpaths -

and above the endless miles of drystone walls are birds that should be at the coast. 

Oystercatchers, with their distinctive red pliers attached to their heads feed on - you've guessed it - oyster beds. All along the coastline of the British Isles, their distinctive cry is the call of summer. Drowned out somewhat by the banter of seagulls but sharp and high pitched enough to be powerful prickers of memory. I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland, by the sea and frequently on the sea - oystercatcher, heron, curlew, tern, eider and shell duck, with the occasional puffin out among the Western Isles, were the backdrop and soundscape of my childhood. It's great to hear them again. But unexpected; discombobulating. The Dales aren't exactly known for their oyster-beds or salt water lochs. 
A quick search on the internet reveals that, in the past fifty years, both species - the oystercatcher and the curlew - have increasingly been forced inland to breed, due to changing land use and habitat erosion along the coasts; overall numbers of both have declined and curlews are endangered; in the red zone, with oystercatchers marked as amber.

I have apparently over-stated the 'it's (another) oystercatcher/curlew' this holiday. I'm accused of flooding the air with CPD-like facts about the birds - which unhelpfully reminds me that I have my annual CPD-fest to write up before summer tips into Autumn (*extremely sad face*) - but I'm unapologetic. It is tragic to think that in another fifty years, Littlest could be walking in the dales with her children and reminisce that she once heard curlews here, before they became extinct. The fact that she currently says she will never walk on holiday with her children is quite beside the point. She will. Walk with them somewhere; I'm sure. Probably with satellite headsets that allow constant and instant communication with their friends while they walk, instead of the old-fashioned i-phones that struggle to find signal among these hills, but still remain stubbornly glued to the hand.

Enough of curlews and oystercatchers - Yay! cry Littlest and He-who-is-seldom-obeyed. Although I feel guilty dismissing them so lightly - the birds. The birds! Not Littlest; not HWISO - look at the RSPB website and the work they are doing to try to save these species ...

... I don't want to dream of empty skies.

Onward with our walking. What is it with walking? A slow perambulation through slowly changing countryside - slowly changing in more ways than one - there is a marked absence of wind farms, pylons, solar panels and pretty much anything giving away which century we're in. Slow wearing-down of the soles of walking boots and slowing the pursuit of cares and worries and preoccupations  and quieting their carousing in our minds. 

We walk in circles. 

And find another species entirely. But what is it? Stoat, weasel or ferret? We think ferret. Aren't the other two reddy-brown? The species in it's mouth is a mole. Clearly no longer spring cleaning his patch of river bank, or boating with a water rat, or picnicking with otter, or chasing toads in racing cars, or facing stern looks from a certain Mr Badger.

The builders of footpaths around here are inventive in their design - upended barrels of concrete work surprisingly well.

Walking in circles is soothing. It is the reflection of eternity and of peace. Running in circles, on the other hand, quickly spirals into chaos. So walk - beginning to beginning to beginning.
When you walk in a circle, there's no opportunity for boredom. The view ahead keeps changing and nothing is repeated. And you reach your destination which was also your start, so there is no need for complicated bus coordination or expensive rural taxis.

It turns out that others agree and Yorkshire is dotted with circular walking routes. This one started at Askrigg and stopped half way at Aysgarth Falls -

It climbed several gates

was long enough (10 miles) to encounter different weathers

and finish in bright sun. The lifting of the cloud reminded me of these words, by Longfellow

'Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood.' 

and this

'When I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that peace and tranquility will return once more.' Anne Frank

And since that last picture is of Askrigg, where the James Herriot television series was filmed in the late 70s, it is, I think, appropriate to finish with a quote that applies as much to me, and to any other dreamy procrastinator, as it clearly did to him -

'That quotation about not having time to stand and stare has never applied to me. I seem to have spent a good part of my life - probably too much - in just standing and staring and I was at it again this morning.'

Sorry, if I've rambled on and on, but just for a moment - Peep! Peep! back to the beginning - do have a look at the RSPB website. It's a more worthy distraction than the leader of the free world spouting misogynistic drivel. Again.