Thursday, 10 August 2017

Absorbing Conversations


Last week, a friend and I ate lunch on a bench in a busy town square. Opposite, perching on a bollard, was a well-dressed man doing exactly the same – eating his lunch (a sharing-bag full of what looked like vegetable crisps), and watching people walk by. In fact, he probably ended up watching us too. A triangle of people-watchers. We were only there for a few minutes, but so much can be gained from just observing, listening, and reminding ourselves to be aware of our surroundings. So many people I know like to write and work in cafes. A moment of boredom strikes, look up, and immediately you have a world of distractions at your disposal. Watch as people walk past expansive café windows, showing off their best clothes, or catch a gasp of conversation as groups pass by an open door.

On a train home this week I sat at a table opposite another passenger, expecting to spend the next few hours reading, opening and closing my notebook, scrolling through Instagram. Instead, this passenger and I ended up talking throughout the three-hour journey. I learned about the swimming costumes people used to wear fifty years ago, made of heavy quilted material that sagged in water. I learned the names of her grandchildren. Food took up a large part of the conversation. Hummus, sundried tomatoes, artichokes, and a pile of salad leaves. Halva crumbled over ice cream. Sliced banana on toast. We shared an obsession with coconut: macaroons both chewy and crisp (but those ones from that place whose name escapes her were too sweet, wouldn’t recommend), porridge made with the thinner milk from the carton, shredded coconut toasted in a dry pan to top a morning smoothie, peanut butter with a touch of coconut oil. Dhal with coconut milk and spinach. Crumbly biscuits made of coconut, oats, and raisins. We were both very hungry by this point.

Earlier in the day, sat in a little coffeeshop with the tables packed in side-by-side, I couldn’t help but hear the conversations going on around me (I’m sure people on the train heard my meandering conversation too). The women at the next table were so close to me that we were almost sharing tables, and their words drifted over along with the steam from their turmeric lattes. Everyone’s words muddled together. I’ll put some here – not a coherent conversation, but a random collection. For no real purpose at all. Just for the sake of listening better, and finding what inspiration we can, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. (And for the sake of writing – with no aim and no perfectionism.)

“I’ve got a new diet regime. I think I’m going vegan.”
“I don’t like all this publicity… bovine TB…”
“I’m not… it’s really put me off, actually.
Also put me off dairy, actually.”
“So I’m struggling slightly because I don’t know what to eat.”
“Good as new. Bring it over.”
“Cash or card?” “That’s fine.”
“Should have done that at the beginning.”
“This morning I had kale, blueberries, something
called fax… flax, a superfood, ten cashews
and some mint from the garden. Whizzed it up.”
[Sound effect]
“Take this table, clean now.” “Sugar there.”
“Made some dhal. So easy to make.
Absolutely gorgeous. So cheap, so delicious, healthy.”
“Caramelised onion, cheese… made four – one then,
one the next day. Easy. With salad.”
“Have you met David? That’s him, with Thomas and Sarah.”

Make what you will of that...


xxx
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Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Going to Edinburgh


I came across this passage recently and something stayed with me, particularly as I've just returned from Edinburgh, a city that was relatively new to me: “Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London [or, for the sake of context, read ‘Edinburgh’], place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets: the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends.” – Robert MacFarlane, ‘A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk’, TLS, 7 October 2005. 

After buying the hideously expensive train ticket and packing a miniature wear-the-same-thing-every-day suitcase, I’m on my way. Edinburgh is around five hours away on the train, plus a forty-five-minute wait in one station with a burning-hot coffee to wake me up. Another friend is also on her way, on a different train speeding through the hills and fields to intersect here. We sit at a train table and play cards and exchange stories. We report job hunts and applications, and each new tale seems more farcical than the last. Even success-stories are comical now. Collected at the other end, we find ourselves in a beautiful, spacious house – staying with another friend, temporary members of the family (or, perhaps, invaders of the kitchen). Two foil-wrapped loaf cakes emerge – we’ve both brought near-identical offerings from home, though the tokens were uncoordinated. Excited younger cousins run around the garden. For a few minutes, we are invited into a game of bubble-chasing, and are ordered to punch and kick escaping bubbles by an angelic four-year-old. We retreat into the city, inspired by poetry in a cave behind a pub. Browse posters and invitations and smiling faces and endorsing phrases that adorn the walls. A man eats dog-food onstage, and the smell takes hours to dissipate.



In the morning, we hover in the kitchen with toast and pyjamas. Released from the house, so much to see, and no sense of direction yet. Walking around an unfamiliar city with a blue and dog-eared Free Fringe map, half in pursuit and half aimless. Wandering this way and that, absently wondering where the next steep-stepped alley leads or which bar will lure you in and hold your attention for the next fifty minutes. The most precious thing you have to give is your time. And a handful of change at the end, if you can. Occasionally there is a goal in mind, a circled point on the map and a hazy sense of which turning to make to reach the show that starts in only ten minutes, tickets bought but still uncollected. A street of bookshops or an invitingly narrow, old-tabled, eclectically-furnished coffeeshop draws the eye. Money-saving lunchbox lunches already bagged, as we walk down a bustling thoroughfare with sweet things baking and fast food in polystyrene waiting to be bought on either side. Old friends cropping up unexpectedly, appearing from the crowd with flyers in hand, in a hurry or pitching themselves, asking you to take a chance and detour to this show, here, starting soon, tickets two-for-one today. Can’t see everything, smile and thank you, but no thank you, we’re on the way to something else. A mess of flyers already scrunched and raindrop-stained at the bottom of my bag. House-bound again. We drink a lot of tea.

It is so busy that sometimes the buildings, the streets and multicoloured shopfronts, the array of vegetarian, vegan, enticing cake-filled cafés become a blurry backdrop that’s hard to remember or visualise. Cameras rarely come out, leaving us with no visual record of what we pass as we hurry to the next time-slot, or meander back home along a memorised route as the evening darkens. Spoken word rhymes still on repeat, punchlines already half-forgotten as we struggle to remember what made us all laugh when the drawing of snow white flipped into view. A confusing miscellany of photographs are assembled at the end of the day, to be deciphered and explained, but they are only really funny if you know the right in-joke. A lot of laughing. No crying, though we were promised heart-wrenches. Perhaps we saw the wrong things for that, but there is always next year.



A day at the beach to escape the crowds. Watch dogs running back and forth instead, and smell the seaweed-air and sleep soundly for it. Taking off shoes to feel the sand and playing throw-and-catch with a perfectly spherical rock. Singing and humming and planning. Paddling for less than a minute in the too-chilly (it’s still Scotland) sea. Speaking nonsense in French and unpicking a joke made in the local chip-shop. Standing in the line of the sunset and picking pink, blue, and yellow flowers as an offering to say thank you so much, before goodbyes. Writing in an old notebook with an enormous museum poster looming from the building on the other side of the road, we plan our return next year. We all go our separate ways with a bundle of ideas to be mulled and explored. See you soon. Waiting for the train home again, in a café for too long but this coffee is strong and it takes time to cool. An hour nearly passed, as the crowds stream from the station and up the hill, to join the general roar that I can hear as I hurry to the train, just announced, sounding from the distant royal mile.

xxx
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Friday, 4 August 2017

Blackberry-Picking



Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
- 'Blackberry-Picking', Seamus Heaney

I hunted for blackberries today whilst walking one of our dogs, watching him run and play in the long grass. Though it’s still early, and most of the berries are still nobbled and green, I found a tangle of riper ones in the fields between the river and the old railway bridge. I had – very wisely – decided to go for this walk at midday, thinking that if anything it would rain, but instead it turned out to be stiflingly hot. As it perhaps should be at this time of year. The sun was so bright and the air so still that the smell of ripening blackberries hung about the hedgerows. I tasted one, but it was sharp and sour, and sent shivers through my teeth.



The other week, on another walk, we harvested two small bags’ worth and cooked them into a crumble. We mixed in some apples from my grandma’s garden (frozen from last year), and made two little puddings – one without sugar for my brother. Both were eaten before I even thought to take a picture. There’s another cluster by the chicken-garden just down the path from the back door – they have ripened the fastest, and my mum has been filling bowls with them this morning. Maybe I’ll bake something more adventurous with those later, if I have time to spare.


I don’t know why so many people have written about and mused on the act of blackberry-picking. Perhaps because people are now more likely to walk along a road than beside a neglected hedgerow, or because the act of picking free food from a bush seems like something from another time. A few years ago, there was an abandoned ‘waste land’ near home, which, though it may sound unappealing, was my favourite place to play, make up stories, or read in the sun. There were little mossy hillocks, a pond surrounded by perfect climbing-trees, forest-like grass, and banks of buddleia covered in butterflies. There was also an enormous clump of blackberry bushes, which produced the fattest berries I’ve ever seen. When I later read Heaney and Plath writing about blackberries, ones whose juice is barely contained within their thin, globular skins, I knew exactly what they were talking about. I learned Plath’s poem off by heart once, and though I cannot recite it so flawlessly anymore, I still remember the blackberry alley going down in hooks…

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,   
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
‘Blackberrying’, Sylvia Plath


xxx
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Thursday, 3 August 2017

Botanical Walks


I used to know the names of all the flowers, trees, and crawly creatures that we encountered in the garden, or on walks in the fields and up the hills. I still know butterfly names, but am no botanical expert anymore. I do still love to note what’s flowering as I walk with one or both of the dogs. 


If Maisie is coming, the walk must be very slow – she is old and likes to amble. Though Chewie, a three year-old shih tzu, prefers to scamper and toddle as fast as he can, walking slowly does leave time to appreciate the hedgerows. On our last longer walk, I had my camera with me, and snapped some of the flowers we passed, though I still can’t remember all their names.


xxx

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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Dresses from Attics


As anyone who knows me will attest, I am slightly addicted to clothes. Long coats, so long that they drag through puddles. Second-hand silk shirts, completely transparent but so pretty with their tiny floral prints. Designer dresses snaffled up for less than £5 from a charity shop. An ideal shopping trip right there.

I’ve also had a lot of trouble with clothes. I have never managed to find the perfect black shoes. In the depths of winter, I eventually find passable black boots, and in summer my Birkenstocks take over, but I have never found a transition shoe, which I envision as a substantial but subtle brogue-type thing which will withstand miles of walking and wandering. They must be versatile enough to match dresses and cropped trousers, and not so prim that I look like I’ve gone back to school. I will probably continue to complain about this (seemingly endless) hunt until the shoes have been found. It may be some time.

In the vintage clothes department, I’m very lucky to live in a town with so many charity shops, a second-hand designer shop, and my family’s own antiques business. My parents are constantly uncovering attics full of vintage items, many of them odd, homemade, and occasionally downright ugly. But it’s always fun to re-discover these pieces, to wash and iron them, to see them given a new life, first on the blustery washing line and, later, in the hands of a customer who’s discovered just the thing s/he was hunting for. I hope my shoe-hunt has a similarly happy ending.


xxx
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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

On Finally Starting a Blog


Hello reader. As you can see, I've once again started a blog. In the past, I’ve written a couple of posts, battling with Wordpress or another site, before remembering I had several essay plans, library trips, and reading lists to get on with. The little, skeletal blog sat there for a day or two before I deleted it, in defeat. This time, however, I’m here to stay. Largely because I’m currently drowning in job applications, cv drafts, and LinkedIn sessions. Writing another minutely-crafted cover letter isn’t really the creative writing I had in mind for this summer.


I’m still not sure what this blog will become. A corner of the internet for me, as everyone seems to say. But it is true that I like the idea of having free reign to ramble, to intertwine dog walks and miscellaneous poems, charity shop trawls and my desire to be a fully-fledged flâneuse, homemade cakes and my ongoing obsession with Virginia Woolf. I hope it won’t prove annoying – to you, or to me. Thank you for following along.

xxx
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