Thursday 17

Out early this morning, looking for fossils along the shoreline just west of here.

rockpoolIt takes a while to key-in to the business of looking. It feels less like a hunt and more like a meditation, a slow working down through the normal levels of thinking into something steadier, quieter, more finely tuned to the thing you’re looking for. I remember a description in The Pearl by Steinbeck where he talked about the pearl fishers hearing ‘the song of the pearl’, a distinctive note rising and falling amongst all the other natural voices they swam amongst. Not that I’m claiming to have the song of the fossil in my head. I’m only here a week. But, hey! It’s great to get up early and act as if you can carry a note.

All this is a precious and literary way of diverting attention from the fact I didn’t find anything. Which is an epic fail, considering how fossiliferous the place is. (And that’s just an excuse to use the word fossiliferous – which is quite possibly one of the most ludicrously extravagant words I know, along with concatenation, and maybe bioturbation.) It’s a beautifully dramatic stretch of coastline, though, especially after the storm last night. A real battle zone between land and sea. The forest trees cling to the meagre top soil, whilst the trees at the very edge totter and lean with their roots exposed, overlooking all the sea-worn timbers on the shore. It all feels very liminal and exposed. I could happily beachcomb here all year. Only next time it’d be nice to have Lola along, too.

I just looked up how to spell ‘beachcomb’, to see whether it was hyphenated or not. The definition Google came up with was this: Beachcombing is an activity that consists of an individual “combing” (or searching) the beach and the intertidal zone, looking for things of value, interest or utility. Which is a definition that really seems to fit. Because although I was primarily looking for fossils, I was happy to find other stuff that had been washed up, including worn bits of pottery and glass, and taking photos of things I thought looked good and that I might be able to Tweet. So – absolutely. Beachcombing. With a touch of meditation thrown in.

I didn’t see too many people out this morning. It was still pretty murky and rainy. And everyone I saw had a dog or two with them. We’d wave and say good morning (the people); hold out my hand and say helloooo! as they bounded wetly up, around and on (the dogs). I wondered if they thought I was some kind of expert (the people). Because there I was in the early morning, wearing glasses, a bag over my shoulder, crouching down amongst the rocks at the water’s edge, wearing the right kind of sandals, not caring my khaki trousers were getting wet, holding very still, gently reaching out, picking something up, lifting my glasses, looking at the thing closely, gently putting it down again. I must have looked like a Goddamn professor – when actually I had only the vaguest idea I might find some shark teeth or maybe the odd bivalve, and that about twenty or thirty million years ago this was all something like the Florida Everglades.

Happily, they left me to it.

 

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Wednesday 16

On holiday in Fort Victoria, Isle of Wight.

Walking along the beach here, kicking over stones. There was a group of very elderly people out looking, too, one of them having to be held by the arm whilst she prodded around with her stick. I liked that. Anyway, no doubt the ammonites were the same, swimming up and down, rolling their eyes about the gloom for as long as they possibly could before the light went out and they settled into the ooze. (This is why I could never work as a Tour Bus Guide).

One of my holiday books has been By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It’s a brilliantly passionate account by Elizabeth Smart of her love affair with the poet George Barker. I found it strange to think that a writer of such creative intensity could ever actually die. Maybe she hasn’t, quite. Maybe she’s a ghost somewhere, forever waiting for George to turn up, five minutes, five years too late.

eroded timberPlenty of arty shots to be had along the beach. Derelict piers, rusted iron fixings, doors in ruined walls, ancient timbers eroded along the grain. This part of the island was heavily militarised, guarding access along the Solent to Portsmouth. Apparently there were forts here from the sixteenth century, but most of the ruins and remnants are from the mid-nineteenth. It’s a great place to kick around. The swimming’s good, too – although the waters here are out of bounds, a big red sign saying Danger – No Bathing. Standing on the shore you can see what they mean – a distinct line of white surf mid-way out, tearing round the point.

The other book I’m reading is a non-fiction account of the transportations to Australia. The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (excellent, btw). I got quite excited to think that those transport ships might have sailed out from Portsmouth along the waters we can see from the cottage window – but then looking on Google maps I saw that it probably made more sense to sail straight down along the east coast of the island en route to Rio de Janeiro. I’m reading The Fatal Shore because I’m researching a book with a foot in two time zones, the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. It feels like I’m taking on a lot. Wouldn’t it be easier to write about something closer to home, maybe a domestic drama about a community health care worker and his struggle to come to terms with death? Something as bright and upbeat as that? But I have to admit I like the research. It’s a kind of insurance. If the book doesn’t work, at least I’ve learned something (other than how to write a book that doesn’t work).


new poem:

dragon head
what do you mean, Norway?

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Tues 08

dogs & what they do

Working three long days straight is a sapping experience, so it was a relief to have the day off today and start with a good long walk with Lola through the woods.

It didn’t start well. We’d barely made it over the park when Lola got a little snappy with a chocolate lab. It had wandered over to have a sniff whilst she was relieving herself against a tree, so she growled and bared her teeth. Luckily the owner, an elderly man who looked so friendly and soft and grey he could actually have been a life-sized cloth puppet, was perfectly easy about the whole thing.

‘Serves him right,’ he said, laughing. ‘He’s got a nose for trouble. D’you know – yesterday – he found this disgusting old rabbit carcass, and he was munching away like a diner enjoying the most delicious meal. But I really couldn’t bear it, so I called him off. And blow me, today, as soon as we were within a mile, he made a direct line back to it and finished the damned thing off.’

more mushrooms

As I was walking I was thinking about my guided meditation that morning (using the Headspace app – thoroughly recommended). In the last few sessions, Andy had been exploring the idea that sometimes we have certain emotions that we come back to again and again, emotions that end up defining us and our way of thinking. Ironically, the resistance we put up to these emotions can end up giving them strength and permanence. He put the idea that it would helpful not only to recognise what these recurrent emotions might be, but also recognising when the usual pattern of resistance was happening, so that we could rob them of their power by letting them go. (I think that was the gist).

He put the question: What would it be like to be free of them?

Depression has been a problem with me for so long I’ve come to accept it as a fact of nature, like the weather. Sometimes worse than others, exacerbated by circumstances, no doubt, but always there, a latent voice, a bad-mouthed genie in a dirty bottle I’m doomed to rub at certain phases of the moon, ready with the same old tropes, scenarios in which I’m the hopeless case, the dreamer with nothing to offer, the bad lot, the waste of space.

What would it be like to be free of all that?

And actually – I could imagine it. Bizarrely. But then where would that leave me? It’s been the way I’ve orientated myself in the world for so long, I had the light-headed feeling I’d be left with nothing.

But wouldn’t that be great? A blank slate. A chance to start over. A chance to be myself without fighting against some wormy, outdated version of myself.

Anyway,  that’s where I am at the minute. I’m definitely carrying on with the meditation, because this is the furthest I’ve got with this, and it feels right, and anyway, it’s less fattening and blurring than SSRIs.

As I was walking and thinking about all this I was taking more pictures of mushrooms. I was particularly looking for raddled old, slug-sculpted specimens. Don’t know why – just seemed appropriate!

 

 

new poem

trailer b 2_sm
Trailer B II

I wrote another poem today. It carries on from Trailer B, so I suppose it’s really Verse 2

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading!

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Friday 04

Alistair is one of those easy-going friends where the conversation picks up where it left off, no matter how many days or weeks have gone before. A geologist by trade, his natural inquisitiveness extends endlessly, to everything, from dinosaurs to the Trump administration, computer hackers to the future of transportation – everything flowing one thing to another as bright and lively and refreshing as a spring from an artesian well. I don’t see Alistair so much these days, more’s the pity. We met dog walking, and that’s what I’ve come to do today, driving out to his new house in the country.

So after getting there early, pulling on our boots and discussing the route, we set off, his collie Ailsa running on ahead with Lola, our lurcher, trying to keep up. Briefly stopping to check on the two new chickens he’s added to his flock, in a pen at the bottom of the garden, we have the usual family updates neatly out of the way by the time we’ve reached a gap in the hedge, and the conversation opens out as we step through into the first field.

Religion

ferns on wall ‘Do you think the whole religion thing just boils down to people being scared of dying?’ I say, stopping to take a photo of some ferns on an old wall.  ‘Or maybe it started off when people painted pictures of animals they hunted and then confused the picture with the real thing.’
‘I don’t know,’ says Alistair, examining a twig. ‘It’s such a world-wide phenomenon. It’s like a function of who we are. I read this book once that looked at religion in the context of societal development. It was a bit turgid, but I think he had a point.’
‘Which was…?’
‘Well to begin with you had groups of people wandering about, following the migratory routes and the seasons, settling in places only so long. You get an idea of how their religions might have looked from old peoples like the Native Americans or the Aborigines, where it’s all very much linked to the land, ancestors, spirit animals and so on. I mean, some things you can imagine. Like worrying whether the sun’s coming back, or thinking that lightning or earthquakes are the world being angry. But then as soon as people start settling in to one place, and they start being able to support themselves, and an artisan class, then the more monotheistic religions come in, which fit with the way society starts to stratify into working and ruling classes.’
‘Be content with your lot because your reward will be in heaven’
‘Exactly. And it sanctifies wars of acquisition, because God’s on your side, even though it’s obvious they’ve got a version on their side, too.’

We come to a pine tree that’s been pushed over by a storm. The roots have been leveredtilted tree up, so the bole looks like the door to the underworld prised open. I stop to take a photo whilst Alistair re-laces his boots.

‘Have you ever been to Jerusalem?’ he says. ‘I went there once – by accident – long story – but anyway, fascinating place. We went to Temple Mount, to see the stone Mohammed was supposed to have launched himself from to meet Allah. I was standing there with the rest of the crowd, and I was trying to get into it all – you know – the idea that here was something magical and divine. But I just couldn’t get past the thought that here we all were, standing round an outcrop of limestone on a bit of a tilt.’

Eyes

‘You’d think with evolution you’d see lots of redundant species,’ I say. ‘But you don’t. Everything seems finished. Although hammerhead sharks are pretty weird.’
‘I think the thing is, evolution happens over such a long period of time, and at a genetic level, it’s hard to comprehend,’ says Alistair. ‘But then – think of the spectacular variations you get in eyes. It’s such a specialised bit of kit, adapted for all kinds of environments. Flounders, lying on the sea bed facing up. Or flies, with compound eyes that look like blackberries.’
‘I think I read somewhere that a hawk has two lenses in each eye, one for distance, one for close up.’railway bridge
‘And dogs. Dogs have way more peripheral vision than we do because they needed it for the plains. And that’s why they tilt their head to look at you. Not because they’re trying to be cute. They’re just trying to get past the end of their nose to read your expression better.’

We come to an overgrown railway bridge, abandoned years ago along with hundreds of other branch lines in the sixties. It’s a poignant scene, and seems to fit with the idea of evolution, redundancy, for better or worse.

Left brain, right brain

‘You know swifts?’ I say, stopping to take a picture. ‘Apparently they live almost their whole life on the wing. When they want to sleep, they fly up ten thousand feet, then half their brain shuts down, with the other half adjusting to the wind currents so they stay in the same place.’
‘The whole sleep thing’s interesting,’ says Alistair. ‘I mean – this idea that you close down for hours, in some kind of suspension. I think there’ve been studies done that show if you hear a regular noise you don’t respond, but if you hear something sudden and out of character, you wake up. So you’re actually monitoring your environment – which suggests you’re never completely out. Which makes sense.’
‘Maybe that’s why your brain’s in two halves, so one half can keep an eye on things while the other rests.’
‘There’s definitely something in this whole symmetry thing. Two arms, two legs, two sides of the brain. I don’t know. It kind of fits with the rest of the design.’
‘Didn’t they debunk that whole left brain, right brain thing?’
‘It’s over-played. You get regions responsible for different tasks, and it all comes together. It’s like eyes again. The two inputs merging to give you a stereoscopic picture. It’s probaly something like that. A kind of rounded, three-dimensional apprehension of whatever it is you’re thinking about…’

You are old, father william

We meet an elderly man at a gate, out walking his large, chocolate labrador. The man looks a country sort – gilet jacket with loops for shotgun shells, and a small pair of binoculars. We stop to chat, but Alistair’s from Edinburgh, and his accent completely flummoxes him. Hmm? he says, and then looks at me to translate. Alistair asks him whether he’s spotted anything interesting whilst he’s been out. The man looks to me again. I point to the binoculars.
‘I’ve got a defibrillating pacemaker,’ he says, as if that’s what I could have possibly meant.
‘Oh?’ I say.
He goes on to describe in great detail absolutely everything pertaining to his heart condition. The number of times surgery was cancelled, even though a wire was actually hanging loose, he says.
‘And picking up a local taxi cab’ says Alistair.
Hmm?
I don’t translate. He carries on… the dose adjustments to his Warfarin, transport arrangements, failures, symptoms out walking, and on and on. It’s an exhaustive and comprehensive account. Ten minutes later and the dogs have given up, going on into the next field to sniff about, and even though I keep glancing in their direction and making slight movements of my body to hint that perhaps we should follow, and it’s all been lovely, the man carries on talking. I start to feel desperate and consider my options, but Alistair seems happy enough, standing with his arms folded, listening to the man, drinking it all in. Eventually, through some miracle not of our making, the man runs aground.
‘…but I mustn’t keep you,’ he says. ‘Cheero!’ and abruptly hooking his labrador to him with the crook of his walking stick, he turns and shuffles off.

‘You see!’ says Alistair, utterly unfazed. But I’ve completely lost the thread, and I’m not sure I do.

Monday 31

The Anxious Forager

Mushrooms are great, but you have GOT to be sure.

It’s a salutary story, the one about the two families who went out mushroom picking, both thinking the other knew what they’re doing, both ending up on dialysis a few days later. Because the trouble is, the differences are often subtle and really hard to spot.

I’ve got a field guide to mushrooms & toadstools (first lesson = there’s no real, scientific difference between a mushroom and a toadstool), but I don’t find it easy at all. There are handy logos at the top of each page – a knife and fork on a plate, a knife and fork on a plate in brackets, a knife and fork on a plate with a line through it, and a grinning skull.

It’s the grinning skull that puts me off the other three.

The distinctions between each specimen are often extremely subtle, and go against your natural inclination. Take the smell. Strong odour of cucumber, or cedar wood? Or prussic acid? Which amongst those would you want to eat? That’s right – the prussic acid odour. Belongs to the Fairy Ring Champignon  – delicious, apparently, if you could ever relax enough to force it down.

The whole thing seems rigged. For example, the Deathcap – the mushroom vying for friendliest name, along with the Destroying Angel – well, apparently when it’s young it’s encapsulated in a ‘universal veil’ which gradually disintegrates. Before it does, though, it looks exactly like an edible puffball.

Great. Thanks.

If all that wasn’t enough, the deadly varieties like nothing better than to sneak in amongst the edibles. The Deadly Webcap has been known to grown next to hallucinogenic Liberty Caps, so you’d get way more of a trip than you bargained for.

Although there is the Contrary Webcap, which you can eat.

It’s supposed to be reassuring that most of the poisonous varieties will only give you severe cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting and a mild longing for death. There are only two or three with no antidote and a guaranteed one-way trip to complete renal and liver failure and a plot of your own for the mushrooms to spring up in. *shiver*.

All of which is to say that I’m a complete coward when it comes to picking mushrooms to eat. I did actually go on a one day course once, to get more confidence. The woman running it was amazing. In her late seventies, keen naturalist all her life. She looked more at home in the woods than anyone I’d ever seen. Well – at one point she cut a mushroom, held it up for a while, and said Hmm. I’m not sure about this one. So I’m content with taking a few pictures, and buying the cultivated kind from the supermarket.

I prefer this, anyway. To be really sure about a mushroom you have to cut it and have a good look. (You’re not killing it. What you see above ground is the fruiting body, with the mycelia extending underground to a surprising extent). You have to examine the thing carefully, the gills, the stipe and so on, slicing it in half to see what colour the flesh is and what happens to it. But the mushrooms look so beautiful in situ, it seems a shame. I’m not ruthless enough to be a collector, or a (safe) forager. I’ll content myself with taking pictures, and leave the rest to nature.

Here are a few I took today. (Once you become aware, you start seeing them everywhere…)

 

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Saturday 29

arrow
An arrow points the way

Out with Lola for a dog walk this morning. I was thinking maybe I ought to find some new routes if I’m going to be writing more day-to-day stuff for this part of the blog. But then I thought how changeable things are. There’s always something new to see, different times of year, differences in the light, the people you meet, the way you feel in yourself. No two walks are ever the same. And then, to illustrate the point in a rather blunt kind of way: I found this arrow propped up against a tree…

 

Lola as Sam Spade (if you see what I mean)

lola looking sneakyLater on I met Mary. She stopped to make sure her black Labrador Charlie had a firm grip on his ball, because Lola has been known to nick it and then run around for ages celebrating / taunting. It was obvious to both of us –  and no doubt Charlie – that Lola was only pretending to be interested in something a little way ahead. Sure enough, as we stood talking, Lola slowly started to circle back, irresistibly drawn to the ball. She really can’t help herself.
‘All she needs is a trench coat and trilby hat,’ I said, thinking about detectives in pulp thrillers.
‘And a pipe,’ said Mary.
She put the slimy ball in her pocket.
I carried on walking.

A complete absence of bird

woodpecker tree

Out onto Broken Tree Hill. Saw a woodpecker on the dead pine there, but the zoom on the phone camera isn’t great, and when I tried to get closer the woodpecker had gone, flying in that funny, dipping way they have, a lazy-kind of blanket stitch along the edge of the field. So I didn’t manage to get a great wildlife shot of a woodpecker tapping around for bugs. You’ll just have to make-do with a shot of the tree, and trust it was ever there at all.

 

Andy says

I’m a big fan of my smartphone. They come in for plenty of stick, especially re.‘phone zombies’: people walking along staring into them without looking up phone zombieand falling into the sea &c, or sitting scrolling through lunch and not talking to anyone. All these things are true and a bit of a hazard. But there are so many other, positive aspects to them, beyond just the phoning, the googling and the satnav. For example, I love the note function, that lets you dictate things you’d otherwise forget. The camera’s good, too, and the voice recorder. And then there are the apps you can download. I’ve been using Headspace these past few months. It’s a meditation program, which you can tailor to your own needs. Things were getting stressful at work, and I needed something to help me feel more in control & calmer about things. Headspace has really done the trick (which sounds like a blatant bit of advertising, but it’s just a personal recommendation – honest!) I was thinking this morning that it could be seen as something of a cult. ‘Andy’ the charismatic voice guiding you through all these deep relaxation & visualisation techniques. I wonder if the government has approached him with a ton of money to hypnotise a good proportion of the population so that at one key word we all become Andy’s Army (free story idea, right there). Anyway – I thoroughly recommend the app (must serve Andy… must serve Andy….).

New poem:

Iguanodon_feeding
mantell piece

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p.s. Big thanks to Mark Spencer for recommending Irfanview as a handy photo re-sizer in place of the much-missed Picture Manager. (I downloaded via filehorse, but there are plenty of other place). So far, so good. It works a treat!

Friday 28

avatar_smSo the idea is, instead of having a static homepage, which maybe lacks a little colour, I’m going to put up a blog post for the day. It’ll have links to new pieces of writing in the voices and poems sections, but it’ll also be somewhere just to hang out and say stuff that’s too baggy & unfocused to make it as a more finished piece of writing.

Of course the danger is I won’t keep it up as a daily thing, and the date will hang there on the front page as a sombre indictment of my failure to produce – but hey, I’m going to do it anyway.  It’ll be worth it just to have a few more pictures on the site.

Whilst I’m on the subject of pictures – does anyone know some really simple, free software that’s good for sizing pics? I used to use Picture Manager, but it’s no longer available on Windows 10. I’ve got GIMP, which is amazing, but that’s for more involved stuff with layers &c (and takes longer to load). Any suggestions gratefully received.

So anyway.

Here’s a picture I took today:

curtainfungus

 

I looked it up in a book and I think it’s called Hairy Curtain Crust Fungus (you’ve GOT to love the names of these things). Listed as the fungus that you often see first when timber starts to break down.

 

splittree

 

I also took a picture of an ash tree that had split in a recent storm. I wish I’d been there to see & hear it :

 

 

 

Okay – as promised: a link to today’s new piece….

 

trailerb
Trailer B

 

It’s a poem, partly inspired by Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, and partly because this trailer looked a little sad, and I wanted to imagine a heroic role for it.

A huge thanks as ever for reading the blog. Please do drop me a comment, email – or maybe follow me on Twitter!

Jim