I Belong, Where?

“A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.” – Lin Yutang

Years ago I read about a man who packed in his job, bought an old mobile library with his savings, and set about converting it into a home on wheels. Stories of this sort can start a person dreaming. Imagining a nomadic lifestyle, with the freedom to roam wherever. I did the job resignation bit (many times) swapping some mind numbing routines for something a little more adventurous, and with less responsibility. Like the time we took off on a whim to travel Scotland and its islands. As it was, the caper was unromantically short-lived, due to Mags succumbing to infected blisters. Our time away, though, was anything but boring. An alcoholic lunch in Ardrossan, stormy crossing to Arran, a bluebell wood with herons nesting in the treetops, camping on a beach where the only flaw was the washed up, rotting calf that came to rest overnight only yards away from our tent flap. More of that, another time, perhaps.

I’ve almost finished ‘Stopping Places’ by Damian Le Bas, the author from Gypsy stock, who writes of his quest to understand more about his people and their travels. Several times I’ve paused to share short passages with Mags. Sayings that I’ve only ever heard my Grandad use. Familiar lifestyle habits of a man who spent the larger portion of his life working in the woods, making hazel hurdles and thatching spars, bundling up pea and bean sticks and securing them with twists of green wood. I know he had dealings with Gypsies, particularly those who camped close to his woods at various times of the year. One man, George, a gigantic figure to a small lad, in heavy brown jacket and trousers, used to call on Grandad from time to time, with some implement or other that he couldn’t sharpen or set the teeth on. When the job was done, he’d thumb coins from his hand into Grandad’s palm. This may have been the solitary thumb’s only real use. The rest of his fingers had been lost to a circular saw blade.

Great Uncle Jim, youngest daughter, and pony.

My Gran’s twin brother, Jim, definitely had something about him that was unsettled, nomadic and, like my Gran, he had a love of horses. Both their father, and paternal grandfather had been grooms. An explanation of sorts, maybe? Jim ran away to join a circus at the age of 16. A little known fact that has come to light in the years after his death. But showmen, circus folk and Gypsies are itinerant, and it’s so tempting to speculate that Jim might have been trying to connect some dots. Like Damian Le Bas, maybe he had a strong inner sense of belonging that required investigation.

I don’t think I’ll be pulling up sticks any time soon. Reading about the escapades of others will do me fine. Speaking of which, I must check out ‘Salt Path’ by Raynor Winn. Not least because part of her journey takes her along the coast of Cornwall, the only place I’ve lived, other than Hampshire where I actually felt I belonged.

Milkman Out, Brilliant Friend In

There was a time when I’d beat myself if I abandoned a book part way through. These days, not so much. As a general rule, if it hasn’t grabbed me in the first couple of chapters, I close the pages and move on. The fact that my latest rejection is Anna Burns’ Booker winning novel, ‘Milkman’, makes no difference. It’s back on the shelf. Maybe I’ll tackle it another day.

Unlike the challenge presented in Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half Formed Thing’, Burns’ book has strained rather than stimulated. I was constantly losing track of the story and rather than being drawn closer to the characters, felt myself floating away from them. The colour, which I sensed to be vivid and intense, became obsurred by lingual layers. In a review, one of the Booker judges encouraged readers to persevere. The view from the top would be worth the steep climb. Sadly I got out of breath about 60 pages in.

On the flipside of this experience, I’ve discovered the most wonderful TV adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend”. I never got around to reading this one, and in a way, I’m glad. This miniseries is proving to be one of the best things I’ve watched this year. If you have access to Sky Atlantic, I urge you to take a look.

When I Get Older…

It was my birthday last Friday, and ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ took on a little more weight for a day or so.

It was an enjoyable, low-key event. A few cards, a box of liquorice allsorts from my granddaughters and a couple of books: China Dream by Ma Jian, and To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing.

The eldest granddaughter baked a wonderful cake, long since devoured (the cake, not the granddaughter).

In the evening I kicked back and watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a thoroughly entertaining Coen brothers film.

And to top it all, I hear that Blac Rabbit just released ‘Seize the Day’. If you don’t know the band, check out their Beatles covers on YouTube.

 

Zones

If ever there was a deterrent to the pursuit of physical fitness, “no pain, no gain” has to rank pretty high on the list. It’s a phrase that’s been appropriated and given a twist by motivational speakers, life coaches, and advocates of extreme dieting regimes. It’s the mantra that drives those who should know better into bungee jumping. Who knows, it may even, in some circumstances, have brought about an early demise, in the quest for the perfect holiday selfie.

Personally, I’ve always thought that people who claim to be happiest outside their comfort zone should be avoided at all costs. Apparently I’m not alone in my thoughts. See Melody Wilding’s, Please stop telling me to leave my comfort zone.” I mean, call me unadventurous, but why would anyone want to constantly drive themselves into anxiety or humiliation in order to find a side to themselves that they may ultimately wish had remained hidden? Unless you have masochistic leanings, how is this the route to an agreeable existence?

I have a lifelong aversion to public speaking, but no matter how persuasive the arguments for making me a more rounded person, I have resisted in determined fashion. I even had my career prospects curtailed due to what was perceived as a “bad attitude”. Or, as I would put it, more fittingly, non-compliance in the interest of self-preservation. In short, I already knew where I was most at ease; and it didn’t entail leading huge gatherings of students, repeatedly, through the ins and outs of database interrogation.

Of course, people may say that my fascination with art – I’m no expert, by the way, so don’t ask me – must inevitably present the odd challenge or two. Yes, of course, but therein lies the thrill of provocation, the testing, the questioning, the interpretation, the working out. All these things I can achieve in relative ease, allowing myself time to process and evaluate. I can get into a special place, right enough. It’s a flexible expanse; the horizons of which stretch out further with each passing year. To call it a zone, comfort or otherwise, would be far too limiting.

This week I happened upon the work of Felice Hodges (not a relative, to my knowledge) on Instagram. I was immediately smitten. How about you?

Brush Regularly, and Keep Your Album White

As a fourteen year old, I’d had it with school. In point of fact, I’d had it with school ten years earlier, from the very first time I entered the sit-down-shut-up-do-as-you’re-told world of education.

“I used to get mad at my school

The teachers who taught me weren’t cool

You’re holding me down

Turning me round

Filling me up with your rules”

Just over a year away from leaving the classroom for more interesting ways of killing time, a little occasional bunking off could be easily justified as preparation for the big leap. I wasn’t a regular truant, but when a pal invited me to his house, one lunchtime, to hear his older brother’s newly acquired White Album, I didn’t give it a second thought.

Around this time, like most lads of my age, I wasn’t wholly into taking care of myself. I was well fed, had a place to sleep, clean clothes magically appeared in my absence. Life was sweet. As were most of the ‘extras’ that passed my lips. The sugar took its toll, but appointments with the dentist – a severe Scot, called Mr Black –  were avoided by the creation of increasingly fantastic excuses. None of which convinced the old grouch for a single second.

So, half a century on, bunking off has caught up with me. Another tooth extracted this week. Although how it held out for so long is a mystery. More importantly, the re-release of The Beatles’ “White Album” (Super Deluxe). I’ve been enjoying it for the past few days via Spotify, and with a birthday around the corner, I have my fingers crossed that a copy will appear magically, just like my clean underpants did, all those years ago. I don’t have to bunk off to enjoy it. Retirement is a kind of approved truancy, anyway.

I really should be sharing “Savoy Truffle” with you, but YouTube doesn’t have it. So here’s “Glass Onion” instead.

I Got Rhythm

Awake in the early hours, to the sound of fireworks exploding. We get our fair share of sleep disturbance, even though we’re buried deep in the Hampshire countryside. Two or three months ago it was Elvis at 03.00, explaining how he couldn’t help falling in love. Before that, it was the police hammering our door at 02.00. “Sorry to disturb you sir, but we’ve had a call about a domestic distrurbance.”

“Not guilty, officer. Can I go back to bed now?”

Usually I can slip back into slumberland with ease but, when I can’t, it means the thought processes move quickly into overdrive. This morning I started drifting off, vaguely thinking what goes around comes around. Then my mind is full of rhythms. The rotation of the earth, the hands of the clock, the seasons, Trump’s Tweets, the regular repeat showings of Dad’s Army.

I must have dropped off and, when dreamtime eventually came to an end, I kicked off my day by idly checking the news on my phone.

Despite all that’s going on in the world right now, it was an article about llama’s blood that caught my interest. I had my flu jab a little over a week ago, so the fact that scientists have been checking “…llama blood for the most potent antibodies that could attack a wide range of flu strains” made we sit up straight. I paused for a while, imagining the vaccine I received from the Superdrug pharmacist, working its way into my system. What goes around comes around. Then the revelation that llamas produce incredibly small antibodies, compared to those in humans. Then back to the rhythms again. The huge, indisputable, wobbly recurrences that we unconsciously keep in time to…or not. And between, those rhythmic layers? Unpredictable and unforeseen changes, that’s what.

Mutation, as favoured by the flu virus, is ever present in our daily lives. Things that have the power to shock and surprise. A sudden change in someone’s behaviour – “well, I would never have thought he had it in him”– a spin on the news, a fall from grace, triumph over adversity, a miracle cure, unexpected debt, a windfall, babies arriving ahead of time, loved ones departing before reaching what we’ve come to consider as being an ‘good’ age. And, of course, the detonation of pyrotechnics at 01.30 in the bloody morning!

Free Fruit and Bare Breasts

We usually get out and walk two or three miles a day. Sometimes more. It’s good to be in the real world, to feel the wind on our faces, and the watered down warmth of summer that still has the power to soothe.

Whichever route we take, dog walkers are guaranteed. Some we know, some we don’t. Some acknowledge us with a wave of the hand, others stop and chat.

Most of the time we amble along in near silence, but there are occasions when walking becomes a kind of therapy, and we tread the landscape in animated conversation. You can find any number of good things written about Shanks’s pony, from stress-busting, to maintaining regular bowel movements. But the one thing that always comes to my mind is something I read a few years ago; a piece written by someone who was about to embark on a round-the-globe walking adventure. In his article, the author mentioned how we process information at approximately 3.5 mph. In other words, average walking speed. This may or may not be scientifically proven.

It was precisely because we were ambling along this morning, that we couldn’t fail to notice a large blue bucket filled with fallen cooking apples. On top, was a note: ‘Cooking apples. Please help yourself’.

So this was a pleasant experience in the real world. Meanwhile, in that other place, where some of us spend far too much time than is good for us, information rains down relentlessly, in both volume and speed. However, I freely admit to making my own contribution. I love to share things that I think might be of interest to my ‘friends’, and with this is mind, I clicked the Facebook ‘share’ button for yesterday’s Guardian piece: Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance review – spells, smoke and taboo-busting. Almost immediately, I received a notification that a line had been crossed, and that this article went against Facebook’s “community standards”. I guess it’s because there was an accompanying image which included women’s breasts. So I’m sharing it here, because I feel it’s worth bringing to the attention of others. Make of it what you will.

The social media giants might do better at policing their platforms if they worried less about what they consider to be offensive art, and concentrated more on curbing abuse. In short, employ the clever algorithms they have at their disposal to recognise when something – like those fallen apples– is beneficial and well qualified for free distribution. Quality control should be focused hard on all that is rotten and potentially harmful when consumed.