All posts by coradevine

The Idle Way

 

 

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The word ‘Idler’ can inspire a wealth of negativity.  For many, it conjures up an image of slacking, or even scrounging; of not pulling your weight at the expense of others.  It goes against the concept of the modern work culture and ‘contributing to society’.  And let’s not forget that the devil, no less, will find work for you.

But that’s not what it means.

I was brought up in a protestant work-ethic environment where even on Sunday, the so-called day of ‘rest’, there were puritanical rules imposed.  What should have been a free day of reflection and idle pleasure was somehow twisted into a ban on doing anything at all.  Rather than be able to loll the day away guilt-free in play or dreaming, a regime of Sunday school study was imposed; even reading was forbidden unless it was the Bible or the mindless memorizing of Catechisms.  Joy and fun were guilty outlaws.  But even then I knew something was wrong.  It was obvious even as a child, perhaps especially as a child, that we were not supposed to spend our days in such rigid, time-thieving routine and rule-bound enforced activity.  And even my indoctrinated, pre-agnostic self saw clearly that, ironically, Jesus promoted idling.  Consider the lilies, my friends.

There are others more well-read and qualified to explain than I, but for me, to embrace the philosophy of idling is merely to remind ourselves that our lives are not solely for work alone, but for reflection, study, creativity, and dare I say, pleasure?  Idling is about making time for the act of living.  That is not to say that to idle is to do nothing. Those who choose to bring up their own children, for example, will not be waged but try and tell them that they do not work at your peril.  I find it curious that if someone is employed to look after your children they can hold their heads high in society by answering that most insidious of questions ‘What do you do?’  As a ‘child minder’ or ‘nanny’ they escape scrutiny because they are paid for their efforts.  If you are the child’s parent performing the same tasks on an exhausting twenty-four hour basis with no time off and not paid for the delight, then you are deemed a work-shy ‘stay-at-home’ with all the implications of doing nothing.

But this is just an illustration.  With or without children you can ‘idle’ your time away quite spectacularly by say, growing vegetables, cooking fresh food from scratch, ‘foraging’ by foot on a daily basis rather than stockpiling food once a week by car… all laborious tasks, but you get the picture.  Think of it as constructive idling – and the more self-sufficiently and independently you can live, the better.  Ideal idling requires self-employment, but part-time waged work is an alternative.  In short, the Idler does not necessarily work less, but often does less work for money.  He may be money-poor, but time rich.

Yes, you cry, but what about the economy?  Will not all society collapse if we all become peaceful idlers?  Er, take a look around… but I hear you; idling is all very well and good for artists and philosophers, and independently wealthy ones at that.  We all have bills to pay and mouths to feed, and whilst anarchy and self-rule appeal, they should be tempered with co-operation.   But which is the easier, lazier path?  To take full-time waged work that you might not necessarily enjoy or even care for, for little more than the prescribed reward  of an exhausted, disgruntled flop on the sofa at the end of the day with a stiff drink and the TV?  Or to have what I like to call a ‘healthy disrespect’ for money and usury in all its forms in order to pursue what inspires?  Incidentally, on the subject of wage-slavery, I would be bold enough to suggest that the work-place has changed so radically of late, with job insecurity coupled with a longer working life and no guaranteed pension, that I would personally consider this a deal-breaker.  The standard three to four weeks annual leave may be just about acceptable if there is some promise of retirement in sight, but if you’re selling your soul for the rest of your days then I’d be looking at three to four months annual leave a year.  At least.

In fact the whole wage-slave ‘model’ looks increasingly precarious. Yet another irony of modern life is that we are bombarded with products which promise to make our lives more carefree… (It is 2011 – where IS my home-Robbie the Robot?!) We’ve been peddled a vision of the future where our lives were going to become easier because machines were going to do all the work.  The reality is you are not going to be allowed not to work, but will instead be compelled to struggle for gainful employment in order to survive.  Where are the employers offering you that three-day week for the same salary because our lives have magically become enhanced by technology?  (Better to use that technology for your own gain, but that’s another tale…)

There is a long history of Idlers; from Aristotle to Samuel Johnson, Jerome K Jerome, Robert Louis Stephenson, and many more.  And Keats wrote an Ode to Indolence; so good company then.  In more recent times we have Tom Hodgkinson to thank for considering the history of these ideas along with his own delightful observations in his books ‘How to be Idle’ and ‘How to be Free’ (he’s really not paying me), which manage to be both erudite and very funny.  And now there is an Idler Academy too.  Huzzah!

I do not claim to be a proficient idler, but merely working my way towards it.  I know that the way in which modern life has developed leaves most of us with little choice, but even to think about things differently; to entertain the idea of less work and more free time might lead to a more carefree state of mind and consequently a less stressful existence.  Let’s just take time now and again to remember our lives belong to us.  And just one small act of rebellion a day might set you on the path to freedom.

The sunshine beckons…have a lovely, carefree day. *Wanders off*…

A Radical Dude

 

I was so inspired by this short but delightful clip of John Betjeman on an old wooden belly board that I couldn’t resist sneaking a reference to it into my current novel/work in progress.

‘Those moments, tasted once and never done,

Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.

 A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun-‘

(From ‘Cornish Cliffs’ – John Betjeman)

You keep saying you’ve got something for me…

 

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Linen print from ‘lovebox’, The Cure

 

Ah, Manhattan-sky lined metropolis of dreams; majestic multicultural melting pot; monolithic memorial to modernity.  Or Croydon.

When I first came to London from rural County Down, I thought Croydon WAS London.  I was almost eight years old and already disappointed by my visit to the other nearest town centre.  Hang on a minute, this wasn’t London; you know, the one I’d been sold on being enticed away from my seaside town.  Okay, there were red double-decker buses, but I’d expected the full Tower of London with beefeaters scenario.  And then a trip over the other side of the hill revealed the futuristic sky-scrapers of Croydon.

Reluctantly I accepted the fact that it wasn’t the ‘actual’ London, and not even technically a City, but it was one that my childish mind could comprehend.  London is too big to see; once you’re there you are already in it and part of it.  But from the top of the hill, Croydon had limits, and encapsulated all my childhood ideas of what a big city should be.  It only needed Flash Gordon scooting around in a flying car to complete the look.  Some of my earliest memories of Croydon are going to a Saturday morning disco at The Greyhound – yes, that Greyhound – an infamous live band venue now long gone and shuttered up, looking forlorn and defeated under the weight of the mighty Nestlé tower.  The morning disco was officially for ten to fifteen year olds, but I got in at nine because my friend’s mother worked on the door.  How cool was I?  In teenage years I hung around Croydon’s paved precincts with my mates, trying on clothes in Top Shop and Miss Selfridge, sharing bags of vinegar-soaked chips and cramming into photo-booths to snap ourselves in Hawaiian shirts, shades and pork-pie hats.  Everyone was in a band, including the guys I was about to go walking around the countryside with, and my friend Liz and I would dutifully trot along to every gig in our ‘furry’ granny coats and winkle-pickers.

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A stunningly professional flyer 

 

There was an abundance of second-hand clothes shops at the time and I don’t think I ever wore a dress that wasn’t Vintage.  My favourite was a Debbie Harry-style yellow Crimplene mini, which I teamed with Doc Martens, fishnets and long, cruelly back-combed hair.  This ensemble I might choose to team with shocking pink lipstick smudged à la Robert Smith of The Cure.  Ah sweet youth.

And now I was standing in a camping shop.

Croydon has changed, over the years.  Gone are the second hand clothes shops (it’s like we bought it ALL) and independent record shops like Bonapartes, or the magnificent Beanos which traded old vinyl.  The larger music retailers are visibly dying a death, and I cannot help but wonder what will happen to all these large shopping centres as more and more purchases take place online.  High Streets are already becoming a wasteland of betting and pawn shops in a nightmare scenario not envisaged even by Bill Bryson in his wildest rants about Sketchleys.  But perhaps I too have changed; I know too much, and the wonderland has lost its sheen.  No longer enticed by the gewgaws and baubles of mammon, nowadays I come out in a feverish anti-materialist rash within minutes of exiting West Croydon train station, and feel overwhelmed with a burning desire to flee in haste towards nature and beauty.  But today I have made my way in a desultory manner past the cheap jewellery shops, McDonalds and Chuggers to a branch of a well-known outdoor clothing and equipment chain, and am staring at an ungainly, frumpy pair of ‘walking trousers’ with an elasticated waist.  Shoot me now.

And yet… there is an insidious appeal to these places that prowls a deep-hidden recess of your psyche.  One minute you’re fondling a stainless steel screw-top beaker thinking it would come in handy for a cup of tea on a walk, the next you are mentally climbing Everest in a two-man tent with a plethora of ultra-cool camping equipment.  And Ben Fogle.  Camping shops are a haven for encouraging the outdoorsy geek.  They are crammed full of cool gadgets and gizmos that you didn’t know you needed, especially given you haven’t struck a peg in a tent since the Girl Guides.

But distractions aside, I am here on a mission; The Walk is looming and my friend Rich has suggested a practice run the next morning.  The correct socks have been hunted down and commandeered, and now it’s time to tackle the boots.  Rich has recommended a certain brand, so I try them on dutifully.  I hoick up my trouser leg and peruse the reflection in the unhelpfully angled mirror.  Hmm.  Now as we’ve seen, I am not averse to a clumpy boot, but these are hideous Gore-Tex grotesques.  My normally longish legs are rendered squat and my ankles non-existent in the stiff, incarcerating grip.  How am I supposed to wear little shorts and a holster and utility belt with these?  It’s supposed to be Lara Croft not Don Estelle.  Disheartened, I remind myself it’s not about the look, but how they support the foot and ankle, or so they tell me, and admittedly the price is good.

The sales assistant gazes into the middle-distance in boredom as I pace up and down again, doing that ‘testing’ thing you do when trying on new footwear, galumphing in a manner never seen anywhere outside of a shoe shop.  Horrible, heavy, clod-hopping, Frankenstein monster boots!  My old Doc Martens were dainty by comparison.  I begin to waver from my instructions and eye-up a rather more attractive and slim line leather boot.  They are twice the price, but rebelliously, I try them.  Ah, that’s better: lightweight, comfy and stylish.  Springing to the mirror again, I turn a coquettish ankle. Oh yes, perhaps not quite the full Lara, but much more like it.

‘You should get the first ones’ the assistant says in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone.

‘Oh? Why’s that?’ I ask furtively.  Her beady-eyed contempt has not gone unnoticed.

‘You’ll be better off with them’

I look askance at the Frankenstein boots.

‘Really, but why?’ I try to keep the disappointment out of my voice.  ‘These are much more comfortable, and they’re more expensive.  That must mean they’re better, right?’  I don’t say a word about how much more attractive they look, but I know it, she knows it.  I want the Lara boots.

‘What do you need them for?’ the assistant questions brusquely.  I tell her.  Her eyes only widen ever so-slightly when I describe the route and distance, and they only barely flicker up and down my length in assessment, but I know what she’s thinking.

‘You should get the first ones’ she repeats.  ‘Those leather ones will fall apart’ she adds, shifty-eyed, and without conviction.

And suddenly it’s pistols at dawn.  Why won’t she sell me what I want?!  She has scanned my being, without knowing anything about me, and decided that I would be wasting my money on the Lara boots.  You won’t make it, her scornful eye says; you’ll do a couple of hours and give up.  She’s doing me a favour, ensuring I don’t waste my money on expensive gear, when clearly it’s just a whimsical fad on my part.  Now, there are many words perhaps to describe my physique, and admittedly ‘athletic’ would not top the list, but still; she doesn’t know me.  She’s about twenty years old, and I note with some annoyance that she is working the elasticated trousers rather well.

The following morning I am gasping for breath as I climb yet another steep incline on Box Hill in the dawn fog.  Rich has, over the years, worked out a personal training ground; a circuit of around seven miles that takes you up and down probably the hardest route that this innocent looking downland escarpment has to offer.  Bugger.  Whilst only slightly alarmed at the image of Rich skulking around in the pre-dawn to discover this (both he and Kev, who used to live here, claim that there are LOADS of people living rough here, which is unnerving), I am rather more immediately worried about my rapid heartbeat and the ensuing nausea that I’m experiencing.  Half-way up a ridiculously giant-stepped ‘path’, I smile and wave nonchalantly to the guys who are lolling about at the top and grinning.  It’s alright for them; all that testosterone means easy muscle tone.  By comparison, my thighs are made out of duvet.  All the same, my words come back to haunt me: ‘It’s only putting one step in front of the other, how hard can it be?’  Forcing myself to move on, I curse my lapse in self-belief alongside every step of the way as I heave the gigantic and heavy Frankenstein boots onwards and up.

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 (P.S.  I do get them in the end…)

There ain’t nothing like this Dame

 

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To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about modern sculpture.  It nearly falls into that borderline category of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ alongside  Dada, ‘Emin-ent’ brit-art,  and just about anything that requires ‘installation’.  Is it art, or is it philosophical discussion?  (or is some cases, sixth form debate).  If it leaves me scratching my head, I’m not particularly happy; I’m left with the uneasy feeling that either I do not have the intellectual wherewithall  to comprehend, or that there is in fact little substance; neither of which is good.

But there are some exceptions.  Antony Gormley perhaps is one.  And the other most definitely is Dame Barbara Hepworth.  Oddly enough it was my young daughter, no more than five or six years old at the time who instantly fell in love with Barbara’s work, and so prompted my repeated visits to her remarkable walled home and studio in  St Ives, and now the Barbara Hepworth museum and sculpture garden.

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Anyone visiting the place surely must agree that it is the dream studio, especially in St Ives where gardens and space are so limited.  Barbara herself acknowledged that she had passed by the place for ten years without realising what lay hidden behind the high stone wall.  And today, there are her tools, still, in a white-washed work-place; her overalls still hanging on the peg.  And in the garden a poignant and ghostly white summer house, more of a shed really, with just a single bed, where she often slept.  Thirty-six years ago today she died here in a fire.

I spent too much time today trying to source a photograph by Lord Snowdon of Barbara emerging from St Ives Bay like a sea-witch from the rocks and seaweed.  I think it sums her up; how she made the town her own, despite perhaps some good-natured ribbing from the locals.  With hindsight, she fits in perfectly.   And tomorrow, a new Hepworth Gallery opens in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, where Barbara was born.  You can find more information at  http://www.hepworthwakefield.org/  or via the wonderful Tate St Ives http://www.tate.org.uk/stives/

As I’ve said, I’m on unsure ground; but what I love about Barbara is that she seemed to make a real effort to connect with the Cornish environment; the shapes, the tides, the stone. And I also admire her for holding her own and more amidst the flourishing and largely male-dominated St. Ives ‘colony’ of artists, which included herself and second husband Ben Nicholson (an informal chat with one of her former assistants sadly revealed an on-going disparagement).  And all whilst bringing up triplets.

Here’s to you Barbara.

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All photographs taken by C Devine at the Barbara Hepworth museum and sculpture garden, St Ives, Cornwall

 

Cora explains herself

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CORA

explains herself

Welcome. I sit, often freezing, in a garret in South London wearing fingerless gloves and writing romantic novels set in Cornwall. A time-honoured tradition, you might think, and despite the resultant penury I am very happy to do this. But alas, it would seem that it is no longer viable for the writer to be a shy and reclusive oddball.

I have long procrastinated over producing a blog since I feared it might become a distraction from the actual business of novel-writing. However the modern world decrees that I must have a ‘platform’. I’m not quite sure what this is, but gather I must raise my head above the hordes upon my online soapbox or virtual fourth plinth. I must also be ‘media savvy’, and I don’t think messing about on Twitter for a year and a half counts.

Ah yes, Twitter. Many of you arriving here will know me by my Twitter ‘persona’ @coradevine. I should say from the off that I had no idea what I was getting into when I first made that innocent foray into the social networking site that is Twitter. I blithely picked a profile name (my pen name, of course, that’ll do). Before I knew it @coradevine rapidly, some might say rampantly, took on a persona of her own. Part Georgian trollop, part medieval princess, she is a schizophrenic splicing of Nell Gwynne, The Lady of Shalott, and would-be surfer girl. I am also upon occasion a Cornish rum-smuggler and a banker-worrying masked highwayman. Somewhere in all this multiple personality mayhem I assume and dare hope is still me, just saying hi to people and ‘clinking’ the occasional glass of virtual wine.

I dwell on the Twitter personality for a reason. When I first signed up to this madness I also carelessly entered the following bio: ‘Renaissance woman: writer, artist, thinker, drinker, rambler, idler, dreamer’. It was a throwaway stream of consciousness; I didn’t care, I had one follower! And as I said, I did not know what I was getting into. With shocking speed I found myself embroiled in a world of mysterious if entertaining historical ‘spectres’, and all because I had tapped out the word ‘Renaissance’. And so, I confess now that this was tongue-in-cheek; a self-mocking gibe at my own pretentiousness. And yet… and yet I am all of those things listed. I love how every corner of interest, whether garnered from the arts, science and literature, or indeed rambling so often correlates, each informing the other. I don’t want to limit myself; I don’t think anyone should. I cannot put it better than Tom Hodgkinson in his wonderfully inspiring book ‘How To Be Free’:

‘It is wise to reject utterly as a piece of bourgeois propaganda the oppressive aphorism ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. No: you can do lots of things. You can chop wood and carry water and write poems. You can combine small holding with software design.’

And so, this blog will also appear multi-faceted. Whilst the main business of my day is the writing and development of my novels, there are, I’m sure you will agree, enough writers out there blogging about the angst of being a writer, and the formidable route to being published. So I thought I’d write about something completely different: my adventures and observations garnered from yomping around this land’s ancient footpaths with a motley bunch of miscreant… I mean friends. But there will also be Art. And there will be revelations of my sordid decline into an unhealthy obsession with surfing culture… and other rants and idle ramblings. But you’ll see. Take a look around; it may all appear a bit ‘rustic’ to begin with, and undoubtedly will require tweaking, but if you like the cut of my jib then please do come back and visit from time to time.

I am intending to e-publish; sample chapters and links to my work will follow once I’ve figured it all out. But in the meantime, if you’re involved in publishing of any kind, pray come hither! Say hello.

Beachnik Blues

 

I have a confession to make.

I am a kook.  That’s right, a kook, a shubie, a sponge-riding paddlepuss, a shark-biscuit.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about this means that despite an obsession of many years standing, I have never stood up on a surfboard.  Oh well, I’ve body-boarded of course, when not tragically padding around the land-locked confines of South London in flip-flops and Finisterre; but I have never stood up.  My shame in this is palpable, but somehow I can’t help myself.

I have always been attracted to the surfing lifestyle, from the spiritual ancient Hawaiian Alaia-riders to the easy, laid-back images of sun-bleached California beach boys and girls. But I always felt it was something inaccessible to me.  And then I started writing a novel set in Cornwall, and this was to prove my downfall.  Surfing is an inherent part of the Cornish culture and, what started as innocuous research soon became rabid addiction.  Suddenly I found myself in the unenviable position of beginning to understand, with some fervour, what a glassy wave was without ever having experienced it.  Can you imagine the torment?

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Photograph by C Devine

 In my defence, my dithering is due to… well, fear.  Oh, and the fact that for most of the time I am nowhere near a wave.  That doesn’t help.  And while I’m trawling out the excuses, I should add that for too many years I have always had a young child with me, keeping me largely confined to the white water, or at least within a safe distance should potential rescue from drowning be required.  And I believe I’m supposed to keep an eye on her too.  One day, I told myself… one day my daughter will be old enough and a strong enough swimmer for us to take surfing lessons together.  This plan was three-fold:  Not only would we have great fun learning together, but I could hold before me a living sign, a symbol of my late christening to the cult.  Here, I could say; look: this is the reason for my delay.  But furthermore, I would have a prop;  I could not be held up to so much ridicule for my great age, for I could claim to be there in the interests of my daughter;  learning with her, taking an interest, helping and encouraging, if you will.  What a good sport.

Except after years of having to be dragged protesting and blue from the ocean after hours of body-boarding fun, my daughter reneged on the deal.  Last year I spent our usual summer break in Cornwall alone in the waves while she lay snuggled under a duvet in our rented cottage reading the entire collection of some VAMPIRE novels.  I know.  Frustratingly, everyone I complained to said I should be happy that she was reading anything so avidly.  Some even claimed these books were actually quite good.  Harrumph.  The fact remained I was left in the tricky position of being, well, a middle-aged* woman who wanted to surf.  But, like you, I’m not really middle-aged.  I’m still a girl in my heart and a surfer girl at that.  But people can be so judgmental.

(*I struggled to think of a better phrase than ‘middle aged’, and I don’t think there is one! The best I could come up with was mid-lifer, which is just as bad.  It strikes me as odd that the vast part of our lives – you know, that really, really long bit in-between the first spark of youth and the still-burning embers of old age – should be thought of so disparagingly.  It’s a hell of a long time to feel negative about yourself.  If anyone can provide a more life-affirming word or description I’d be interested to hear it…)

To be fair to the lovely people of Cornwall, nobody has ever laughed, to my face at least, when I’ve been for wetsuit-fittings.  Nobody has actually looked openly startled as I have marched, board under arm across the beach towards the ocean.   If anything, there is a kindness in their gaze that borders on pity for the poor ‘just-down-from-London’ body-boarder who must fight for a space in the confined, safe pen that the shrewd lifeguards allow us to play in. Because when I say I body-board, I don’t mean real body-boarding, with flippers and everything, in proper green waves; oh no; read on.

There is nothing wrong with having fun in the safe, flagged shallow waters.  But with each passing year, this has become an increasing frustration, and I have watched the freedom and space enjoyed by the ‘real’ surfers in the line-up with a jealous eye.  No matter how deep I have dared venture, with as I said, one parental eye on my daughter, I would still end up with some over-excited blob of a child and his foam board hitching a ride on my back, or have some idiot father recklessly shove his offspring into the face of the oncoming surf – and myself- in an inflatable dinghy.  Time and again I would have to bring up the nose of my board mid-ride to prevent crashing into some lumpen paddling holidaymaker with several shivering toddlers in tow.  This was all so far removed from that first time years ago when I had first properly caught a wave and shrieked aloud with delight at the sheer speed and energy that propelled me.  This was not the being at one with nature that I sought; nor the serenity and meditative inner peace to be found from deep bonding with the Ocean.  I was NOT stoked.

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Seventh Wave’ Porthmeor.  Acrylic on canvas

And yet, on that last summer holiday I still went in the Ocean each day.  Our cottage was yards away from the beautiful surfing beach, and I would sneak out each morning at dawn with a mug of tea (whilst SHE festered under the duvet) to wander the, as yet, empty beach, trying to assess the wave quality and watching the few committed surfers already out.  I learnt to ‘get in’ early on in the day or later in the evening, missing out on the daytime summer hordes.   But time was running out.  On the afternoon of the last day of our trip my desperation was manifest.  I had loose plans to return in the autumn, but nothing was guaranteed.  This could be my last chance for a while.  It was overcast, chilly and softly raining Cornish ‘mizzle’.  I persuaded the girl onto the beach, book ever present in hand, but not into the water.  She sat huddled in the meagre shelter of black granite rock wrapped in a towel and my hoody whilst her mother played in the water.  And I never did have so much fun.  But I still passed the surf school on the way back and enviously eyed the young students, with all their years of practice and potential ahead of them.

And so what’s stopping me, apart from location? As I said, I may harbour a disproportionate fear of the Ocean caused in some part by an overprotective mother whose advice to my sisters and I when we went swimming would be ‘stay in your depth’, and the rather more succinct ‘Don’t drown’.  And yet perversely, the lure is there.  I spent most of the first eight years of my life growing up ‘where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea’, and so did we; in great gangs of children after school to frolic, unguarded and un-chaperoned (aside from the remonstrance of ‘Don’t drown’ fresh in our ears) in the waves. And despite many years of enforced land-lubbery, the call ‘to go down to the seas again’ is still strong.

So perhaps it is just the age thing.  I should say right here, and joking aside, that I do not believe age in itself  to be a deterrent (if you start to think like that you would never try anything new, ever).  But fitness, now that’s another matter.  I am fit enough to hike twenty miles up and down cliff paths with a heavy rucksack on my back without collapsing in a quivering, vomiting heap.  And I have always been pretty flexible; but strength? Agility?   Of these I am not so sure.  In truth, I will probably never stand up on a surf board, but I can at least prepare the way by improving my swimming; by losing those extra pounds, and by practicing pop-ups on the yoga mat.  And who knows, small steps may lead to bigger waves…   Until then, I shall continue to paint the sea; to photograph it and write about it.  I shall paddle vicariously on the shoreline of surfing, where longing is a contrary pleasure in itself.

And I do have one small advantage over ‘real’ surfers.  When it’s flat, I am not left climbing the walls.  I just go for a swim…

Glencoe Pines

 

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Glencoe Pines, acrylic on canvas

I cannot claim to be a prolific artist, largely due to my other activities and interests, and notwithstanding the slavish devotion to my children.  I have never exhibited, and despite my extreme pauperism tend to become attached to my paintings, guarding them jealousy like precious babies.  So far, so unprofessional.  Nevertheless, on occasion works have been wrenched from my grasp via word of mouth or commission.  ‘Glencoe Pines’ the painting shown here, was one such, and I thought I may as well start with it since I have been giving some thought to the nature of commissions following an article by the lovely coastal artist Melanie McDonald, which you can read here http://www.melaniemcdonald.co.uk/commission-paintings-by-melanie-mcdonald.htm

I was interested in Melanie’s wonderfully embracing attitude to the process of collaboration between client and artist, for it is a thing which, if I’m honest, is anathema to me.  This probably says more about our relative characters than I might prefer to dwell on, but the truth is, for me, commissions are frustrating affairs.  Art is subjective; it evolves from the distinct idiosyncrasies of the artist, which, put simply, is the reason one scene painted by two separate artists at the same time will never look the same, or indeed be admired by any two others equally.  The subject has to ‘pass through’ the perpetrator; from observation to thought process, through emotional sinews and personality to interpretation.

And then someone asks you to paint a picture of their dog.  Probably with a red velveteen backdrop and a dewy look in its eye.  Or wants you to interpret an improbable dream or vision they have had, and by ‘interpret’ I mean relay exactly what they see in their mind’s eye.  Which of course you can never do, for you are not in their mind’s eye, you are in your own. Call me stubborn but give me the customer who points admiringly to a seascape and says ‘Do me one of those, please.’

I say all this because ‘Glencoe Pines’, although not originating from an idea of my own, was one that, unusually, I ended up reasonably satisfied with.  And here’s why.

The customer was a sports fanatic; a keen runner who also happened to own some property in Scotland, and she loved to go running through these woods in spring, so there were some quite specific requirements.  But all she presented me to go on were some black and white scans of photos taken in winter.  And lovely as she was, my hackles started to rise.   Yet I managed to be a little inspired. I have been a long-time admirer of Gustav Klimt’s landscape paintings (as opposed to the more popular, decorative portraits) and had been meaning to explore similar techniques.  So I was thinking: no horizon and pine trees forming abstract pattern.

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Birch wood, by Gustav Klimt, oil on canvas 1903

But wait, I said there were requirements.  Specific ones.  My customer loved to see the spring primroses and rhododendrons on her runs, and these were to be reproduced in all their exacting glory.  My Klimtian aspirations (there is clearly no comparison) were slowly dissolved as attempts at suggestion and impression were admired, but could I make it a bit more…detailed.  And Brighter.  Reader, you have no idea how many times I had to change the colour of those rhododendrons…

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 Detail from ‘Glencoe Pines’

In the end I found a way, of sorts.  I am a huge fan, from childhood, of the Ladybird ‘Well Loved Tales’ series of books with illustrations by Eric Winter, and others.  There is a magical quality to these renditions of classic stories, all portrayed in a vivid and glamorous sheen of bright colour.  Suddenly my pine wood became a nostalgic fairy-tale setting of enchantment…  Or at least, I found a way to work with it; to accept the ideas of another mind in a way that I could get along with.  I don’t think it completely sits well; the balance is wrong for a start. But the customer got her primroses and was happy.  And me, well I can imagine my handsome Prince come riding by at any moment…

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Illustration for Sleeping Beauty by Eric Winter published @ 1965

a brand new box of matches

 

    ‘You’re going to do what?’

My friend Liz’s expression was an incredulous leer as her sports car screeched to a halt in the South London traffic.

‘You’re going on The Walk?  What do the wives and girlfriends think about that?’  No preliminaries then, no sly references or allusions, but quick, brutal, to the point.

‘I don’t think it’s a problem,’ I asserted, mortified by the angry glares as cars steered around us, and pleading with my eyes that she should move on.  But Liz is not one to be rushed or intimidated, especially when she is awaiting an explanation.  I had better elaborate, and quick.

Yes, I was going on The Walk, an institution of some years standing begun by friends of mine that I had thus far felt excluded from largely due to its beginnings coinciding with the birth of my daughter.  Oh, that and the fact that it was an all-male party.  I had not paid much attention at the time of its inception, being otherwise preoccupied with the more pressing requirements of new life, breast-feeding and nappies, but suspected its roots lay in male-bonding and escape.  Yet as the years passed, and the legends abounded, my curiosity grew in corresponding alignment with my own desire to break free.  What was this ‘Walk’ (capital ‘W’) thing?

Slowly a picture emerged: A twice-yearly long-distance trek; a five-day break from cares and worries to pursue the ancient pastime of rambling.  All very innocent-sounding.  But there were other stories: tales of reckless mayhem and equally reckless alcohol consumption.  Injury, illness, and near death experiences were all to be expected.  Part of the challenge appeared to lie in a wilful abandonment of anything resembling a considered plan.  ‘Getting lost’, although not officially a deliberate intention, was neither a cause for much concern.  Indeed it seemed imperative to give each trip a hefty scope for calamity for the sole purpose of later amusement and anecdote. But most of all, I was told, it was hard.

But let’s backtrack.  The first symptom of my restless dissatisfaction was perhaps the bike.  I was working from home doing a job I hated and watching as my young daughter grew wild-haired and feral whilst I regularly hiss-screeched at her:

‘Sssshhhhh, Mummy has to make a very important telephone call!’

And I didn’t feel I was getting anything out of the experience except stress, so when I saw the bike, I knew in a moment of wide-eyed lunacy that I had to have it.  It was a beautiful Schwinn beach cruiser and I bought it on the spot. That’s right, a beach bike in South London.  Friends sniggered over their high-street lattes at the sight of me riding bolt-upright in the fabulously well-sprung saddle through the town centre.  As crises go, I may as well have been wearing purple hotpants and a tinted visor.  Looking back, it is the only thing remaining that I ever gained from that grim employ, but at the time was clearly indicative of my impending madness.  It was while out and about on my bike that I realised with no small degree of panic how adventure had left my life. Bad timing meant there was a large age gap between my two children; a lengthy and impoverished domesticity had ensued, and now I recalled with dismay how long it had been since I had climbed a mountain.  And it was while I free-wheeled along under a cerulean sky that the idea to go on the Walk had come to me.  But I had tucked it away, secretively.  When it was announced that the next Walk was to be in Cornwall, I was resolved.  I had not been to the county for many years and yet, out of pure love, romanticism and downright foolhardiness, had decided to set the novel I was writing there.  The excuse of ‘research’ was all the persuasion I needed.  I called Andy, perhaps my oldest friend in the group and asked him outright if I could come.

Of course I could.

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‘Andy’:  pastel on chipboard

It was that easy.  If Andy had had any reservations he hid them with aplomb.  He explained how it was open to all, indeed wives and girlfriends had been before, but usually just for a day, and mostly, tellingly, never to return.  But this was the difference: I was not a partner, an ‘other-half’, and as such was the source of Liz’s entertainment.  Liz’s idea of a holiday was a month on a beach in Florida with a stack of paperbacks, so the idea that anyone would choose to go hiking with a bunch of men was instantly suspect in her eyes.  And well, yes, okay, I had dated a couple of the guys before but that was way back in another lifetime.  And I may have harboured a tiny crush on one or two of the others at times…  But no; these were my buddies, my mates.  They were the boys of my youth that I had gone to gigs with, stood around charcoal burners in donkey jackets on picket lines with, hung out in corners at parties trying to look moody and interesting with.  We had argued, fallen out, and at times lost touch.  We had shared flats, and shared problems.  But most of all there had been fun, laughter and good times.  And I knew and was friendly with all of their partners, so despite Liz managing to raise a small blush to my cheek, I was not about to rise to insinuation. I was no Jezebel.  No, the desire to escape had been strong, and if I’d had any small doubt that my motives might cause suspicion, it had been quietly repressed.

And how hard could it be?

I have always been attracted to roaming; a vagabond heart that always wanted to see the view from the top of the hill, or find out what lay at the end of that eerie tunnel of trees, or beyond that rusting iron gate.  But back-packing around youth-hostels as a teenager I most certainly did not associate myself with the middle-aged ‘rambler’ types you would see lining a distant hill-top with their funny trousers, hats and sticks. Oh no… I was an adventurer; I had climbed Ben Nevis, and Snowdon.  I had traipsed around the Greek Islands for long months, sleeping under the stars and with nothing in the world but what I carried in an old army rucksack on my back.  And they thought they could scare me?  Hah!

Phone calls were made, and I was guided through the dark streets of Old London Town to an ancient gin-palace of a pub for a pre-walk meet. Ostensibly this was a chance to reacquaint and do some serious Enid Blyton-style map-poring; in reality, an ill-disguised test of my drinking prowess; a limber-up if you will, and an opportunity to test my mettle with yet more fearsome tales. By candlelight in a hobbit-hole corner at an old wooden table, I listened and nodded, sensing that with barely a toe in the door, this was not the time to ridicule.  Yet inwardly I scoffed; they were making it up, the bunch of Jessies.  I didn’t drive a car and walked everywhere as it was, and surely it was just a question of putting one foot in front of the other?  Hard, indeed!  I’d climbed Ben Nevis!  – And Snowdon.

A rehearsal run was arranged for the following weekend on Box Hill, a popular Surrey area of wood and chalk downland, and it was deemed imperative that I get me to a hiking shop for some essential kit.  Much attention was given over to my basic equipment, and most importantly, my footwear.  It was all about the socks and boots apparently.  But mostly the socks.  In case this had not been made perfectly clear on the night, it was followed up by an emotional telephone call the following day from Kev, barely disguising his shrill panic as he emphasized ‘Bridgedale!  They must be Bridgedale!’  I reassured him that his own ghastly experience of the wrong socks had not fallen on deaf ears and that the suffering would not have been in vain.  I don’t like to see a grown man cry.

Liz helpfully (some might say salaciously) offered to lend me her pink Timberland boots ‘to match my knickers’.  Naturally I loftily declined…

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My bike.  (And yes, well spotted, it’s a man’s bike.  Such was the impulse I could not wait for them to order a woman’s model, which incidentally also cost almost a third more!)