Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Matthew is a fun guy

I was waiting in the Bristol Guild cafe with a pot-of-tea-for-one (it was Assam, since you ask) and beguiling the minutes by staring out across the potted plants on the flat roof and sketching the fire escape, just a useful exercise in drawing perspective,which failed miserably, as it happens. It also felt a bit precious, but then that's the Guild for you. Arty. There were two other people wearing berets, and the group of elderly folk across the way threw Anthony Gormley's name into the conversation. Quite loudly. I'm not sure where that particular conversation was meandering, but one of them, a chap with a beard as well as the beret, was one of life's Eddicators. A lot of geology was mentioned; I poised my Lamy Safari fountain pen in readiness to capture the spirit of the thing, but lost the thread soon after he said "the Tibetan plateau is a similar structure." The woman opposite him at the table, to whom these words were addressed, looked duly impressed, though.

And then Charlie came along and we talked. And then we went off in our different directions. Last time I'd met Charlie for coffee, I'd ended up being run over by a car, so this time I was being vigilant. As I ascended Park Street, I saw a man holding a basket, in the sort of way you would hold a basket if you wanted people to see what was in it, but weren't entirely sure that you wanted them to look after all.
So of course I had to look. And then I carried on. And then I stopped and went back.
"You're wondering what they are," he said.
"They're Jews' Ears," I said.
"I'm impressed," he said.
He was touting them around Bristol's restaurants, but it being lunchtime, they were a bit busy so he was biding his time.
We agreed that Jews' Ears aren't the most pretty of fungi, but at least they are available in January. That's macrobiotics for you.
I asked his name, so that I would have a name to go with the photo.
"I'm Dru"
"Not the famous Dru of Oxford?"
I had to think about this for a few moments.
"I don't think so..."
There's a famous Dru of Oxford? Crikey.

(postscript) I've been criticised for describing the fungus as Jew's Ears. As I don't own the term, I have taken the crit on board, and shall in future make a point of describing the fungus in question as Jelly Ears. Perhaps in time the Latin name will be changed from its present Auricularia Auricula-Judae to something else. I can only say that I was aware of the historical resonances of the name; Judas is supposed to have hanged himself from an elder tree, and it is upon elders that Jelly Ears like to grow. And further, elder is a tree associated with witchcraft. So associating it with Judas, and naming the fungus after him, is both anti-pagan propaganda and anti-Semitism. I consciously used the old name because it is an historical curiosity, in the same way that I look at Marlowe's Jew of Malta and Chaucer's Jewish characters, compared with whom Shakespeare's Shylock seems almost benign; as examples of institutional racism that need to be looked at full-on. But you can hardly be expected to know that, in a casual description like the blog entry above.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

kitchen disasters and other disasters

It's been a bad week in the kitchen, though it has provided me with some quotable quotes. Like when I sort-of-apologised to Katie for putting too much lemon juice in the coleslaw, and she consoled me with the reassurance that "If it's any help, I wouldn't have liked it however you served it."

And then I put a loaf in the oven and got engrossed with a drawing, and three hours later Katie noticed the smoke, and...

..and then I dropped the pan of cabbage (fried up with garam masala, since you ask) as I was preparing to dole it out onto the plates. Katie had not tried very hard to hide her dismay, earlier, when she realised that cabbage was on the menu. "Ha! Served just as you like it," I said, surveying the steaming mess on the floor.

I'd been shamefully procrastinating over giving money to the Disasters Emergency Committee for the Haiti earthquake appeal. Then I heard on the radio that the sum of donations in the UK was £38 million. Which is a bit less than 50p per person, by my rough and ready reckoning. Which I thought was very shameful. So I got onto the DEC website and did something about it. And so can you, dear reader, if you have not done already. Follow the useful link above!

Thursday, 21 January 2010

going to the zoo

I think I've finished this picture, and I'm both quite pleased with it and aware that I could do better, which is probably a good result.

On 2nd February there's an event at Bristol Zoo, where Geraldine Taylor will be reading from The Coffee Thrush and talking about bird song and adventures in wildlife; there will also be some poetry from Nick Winn, the Peregrine Poet, whose poems have also graced the sides of buses in the Bristol area. And I'll be doing a sort of son et lumiere thing with my illustrations.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

wild places

At last I've got into gear and am painting pictures, and I'm pleased with the way this one is going. It's a fox catching hailstones in its mouth. It was something that Geraldine Taylor spotted on the Zoo Banks, on the Downs. Assuming I don't mess the picture up, it'll be in the Bristol Review of Books and in Geraldine's new work-in-progress book.

There's been a lot of nature around the place lately. I walked along the Severn estuary on Sunday, exploring the bit where the railway tunnel and the new bridge intersect.

This is a shaft that was dug to tunnel outwards from, and is now used to pump water out of the tunnel. The one on the Welsh side is more impressive, because it pumps out the Great Spring, which was discovered in dramatic circumstances during the construction of the tunnel, and which has in its time supplied an ordnance factory, a paper mill, and, now, the brewery that makes Becks and Stella beer.

Anyway, the recent snows have been thoroughly washed away by the rain, and the sun shone brightly, and the birds agreed with me that it felt like spring, and were singing in a chirpy sort of way all over the place. A couple of blue tits were bobbing round in circles, occasionally performing sudden vertical climbs. Similarly, a grey squirrel in next door's garden was performing high-speed circles punctuated by great leaps into the air. Lord knows what that was about; perhaps it was art.

And the magpies in the plane tree at the front of the house have been repairing the nest where they reared their single chick last year, before it was killed by the local fox. Gratifyingly, the car parked below the nest was spattered with twigs and magpie crap. It is this car's owner who cleared the snow before driving away last week, throwing the snow onto the footpath where I had cleared the snow. Karma!

Saturday, 16 January 2010

look out there's a monster coming

It's Katie's birthday, and she's officially a teenager! Thirteen years old today.

We're still talking, though. So far, so good.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

fox in the snow

The morning after the night the snow came, I looked out of the front window at about five o' clock and saw a smooth blanket of snow. The only mark on it was the single line of fox prints winding down the street, a Morse code message saying "I'm hungry!"

It changed halfway down the street from dots to dashes; the fox had broken into a run at that point. And suddenly there it was, leaping at something under the car below. I hurried for my camera, but it had gone by the time I returned. Then it reappeared briefly, hurrying round a house against the east wind, defiantly bristling with life in the sub-zero morning.

I've been putting food out for the birds since the cold weather came in; scraps, and crusts soaked in old vegetable oil. I don't have access to the garden, so it has to be hurled down from the kitchen window. Sometimes it goes onto the roof of the garden shed.

The neighbour over the way there has several bird feeders in a tree in the garden, which is ideal for the small birds as they are relatively safe from the swooping of sparrowhawks; her garden is especially popular with goldfinches, and an increasingly large flock of them is for ever flitting down from the neighbouring ash tree to bicker over the feeders.

The food I throw down is sometimes foraged by blackbirds, but usually it is the crows, pigeons and squirrels who get it. I would rather feed creatures with whom I have more sympathy, but I guess bad guys need to feed too, and these particular bad guys can't really help being bad.

Anyway, after the snow came I saw that the fox had been up on the shed roof too. I was quite impressed, I must say.

After a few days I noted that our garden had far more fox prints in it than the neighbours' gardens, and felt unreasonably smug and virtuous. One evening we watched the fox hunting around the gardens and sitting under a tree crunching something that sounded a bit disgusting. But then yesterday morning there was fresh snow and no sign of tracks, and I wondered whether the fox had succumbed to the hostile weather, or whether it had simply done its garden patrol before the snow had fallen.

The answer was there this morning. Last night I'd mixed up the unsuccessful chocolate cake, and the rather long-in-the-tooth oatcake batter, fried up with the oil from a jar of aubergines, and bunged it down into the garden. And there, this morning, was a fresh trail across the garden. Fox lives on!

Monday, 11 January 2010

a big snowman

John Terry, whose book of poems, Building Wings, came out recently, sent me this poem he wrote a few years ago after seeing my previous photo of Katie on a snowball. So here it is

A True Story

When I was five my dad showed me
how a snowball rolled in snow gets bigger.
So I rolled my snowball in the snow
until it was too big for me to move.

Then I called my friends to help
and we rolled our snowball in the snow
until it was too big for us to move.

Then my dad came out to help
and he rolled our snowball in the snow
until it was too big for him to move.

Then we called my uncle to help
and we all rolled our snowball in the snow
until it was too big for anyone to move.

It was so big
we made it into a snowman,
with a carroty nose and potato eyes,
a tattered scarf, and a broom to lean on.

He was so big
that when the snow melted
he took a whole week to run away,
and even then,
left the broom and scarf behind.

But I do know he took his carroty nose
and potato eyes with him.
Because when I looked,
they'd gone.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

cold calling

Just before Christmas the doorbell rang and I found a young man at the door with a box. "This was delivered to our house by mistake," he explained. He lives in a house with the same number as mine, but in the next road. This sort of thing does happen. Quite often, in fact. At least, we often get the wrong mail, and I then drop it round to the right house. I rarely get stuff brought to me, though.

Anyway, the box had a cake in it, all the way from Texas. There were no clues on the packaging and labelling to tell me why I'd got the cake, or why it had been sent. I sniffed it suspiciously for explosives or poisons, but I don't really know what explosives or poisons smell like, apart from cyanide, which apparently smells a bit like almonds, according to a Biggles book I once read; which is unfortunate if you've got a fruit cake on your hands, that may or may not have been laced with cyanide. If that's the case, it's probably your safest bet not to eat it.

I put it on the tumble drier, where things go when I can't decide what to do with them.

Yesterday John phoned. He was on the mobile, and I could hear wind blowing in the microphone.

"Sounds bit cold, John," I said; "are you on the Downs?"

"Yes," he said. "Can I come round?"

"I'll put the kettle on."

"I'll be there in five minutes."

When he was settled in the kitchen, I offered him a bacon butty, for I know John's likes.

"I'm afraid I must say no to the bacon butty, because I've got a lunch appointment, and I expect to have a bacon butty then."

I then remembered the Mystery Cake. John is a great man for the cakes.

"What about a slice of cake?" I asked. "Lord knows where it came from."

John made a sort of bubbling and fizzing noise. "It came from me," he said. "Didn't it say so?"

"No; no clues of any kind."

"Damn; I shall have to get in touch with everyone else I sent one to."

It was a good cake.

I played with John's camera's funny fish-eye lens, and called Katie through so that she could be in the picture too.

Friday, 8 January 2010

snow business

School's out, so we went trogging around the Downs. The sky was clear and the sunlight almost painfully brilliant; birds flying over us were brightly underlit by the reflected light, and looked very different to the way they usually look; I stalked a kestrel for ages to try to photograph it in flight, and ended up with an unusably poor photo and presumably a paranoid kestrel.

I fell over twice, too.

Pavements in Bristol are in a shocking state, icy and mostly untreated and uncleared, even on the busiest thoroughfares; one of the places I fell was on Whiteladies Road.

Over at Green Bristol, Chris Hutt observed the results of this state of affairs, and was invited by Councillor Jon Rogers to go and take some direct action with him. And so they did. Well done, both of you!

My contribution has been to clear the path at the front of the house and a little way beyond, as I have always done, as it seems like an obvious bit of civic duty. Not so obvious to the neighbours, sadly; next door's elderly widow has a house full of young lodgers, who happily let her attempt to scrape her own path clear. So I did that too.

Total number of houses on my road where someone has cleared the path: three. And none of them are the big houses which are used as old peoples' homes, of which we have several on the road. Still, it's better than the state of play citywide; hardly anyone has done anything on their own patch. Shame on you all, I say!

Thursday, 7 January 2010

radio on

Listening to Laurie Taylor on Thinking Allowed yesterday, he said something that got me thinking. Appropriately enough, I guess. To a backing of Calling All Workers, he said

"I don't know whether I've somehow imbibed my dad's socialism, but as a child I couldn't ever hear this music without imagining a vast factory full of downtrodden workers who were required to fulfill their mundane repetitive modern-time tasks to the insistent, unrelenting rhythm of the marching radio."

..and there went another of my cosy versions of an imagined past, where I'd cycle into the factory along with a horde of fellow-workers, and spend a useful day building engines for Spitfires and spinning stuff on a lathe and designing something really neat on a drawing board, aided by my trusty slide-rule. And occasionally singing along to Our Gracie.

Fat chance, really, perhaps.

When I was building tricycles for children with special needs a few years back, I worked with a bunch of people who'd once worked in the engineering factories around the Stroud area, now defunct or reduced; like Lister, whose engines have powered several of the ships upon which I've worked. My colleagues' tales of life in the factories fitted reasonably well with my imagined past, though there were unpleasant things too; the description of the comapny in the link above mentions the good integration of Eastern European refugee workers into the workforce and locality in the immediate aftermath of the war. It doesn't mention the West Indian workforce who, as one of my colleagues described it, were brought in to work for Lister, but obliged to live in Gloucester because they didn't want That Sort living in Dursley.

In fact, of course, any workplace is going to have its annoyances and petty feuds and plain nastinesses, and the tricycle factory was no different. But I am thinking mostly of music-while-you-work, so I'll limit myself to that. The workshop always had the radio on. The best you could hope for was Radio Two, which was just about survivable, though I prefer Kenny Bruce and Terry Wogan as options rather than forced listening. As often as not, though, if the young apprentice got to the radio, it would be Radio One, or one of the local commercial stations. And that was deeply unpleasant, and contributed nothing at all to my productivity...

...silence was not an option, of course. Like telly in ships' crew messes. I remember a bosun coming into the mess of the Havelet, where I was quietly reading, and sticking the telly on. It was Rainbow. I asked if he really wanted to watch Rainbow. He said, in a tone of voice that said it should be obvious, "It's the telly, isn't it?" Duh.

My friend Mary had some work done on her house not long back, and was driven mad by the builders' radio, tuned to Radio One, very loud. She asked them to turn it down or off, pointing out that it was her home and she was in it. This did not go down well. I guess it's a class war thing. And a bloke thing. Like leaving fag-ends in the toilet, and tea bags on the draining board. A bit more civilised than pissing on lamp-posts, but. You know.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

light my fire

There was a thing on the radio this morning about the Darwin Award, which has been granted this year to a pair of bank robbers who used too much explosive, and blew up the bank and themselves. It's all a bit sad, really, like the Brazilian priest who flew off out to sea under a cluster of party balloons and was never seen again. I laugh, then feel a bit guilty at laughing.

Of course, I would never do anything so daft.

When the gear change mechanism on my bicycle froze up in the cold weather yesterday, I tried freeing it up with a gentle application of the blowtorch. And then a short time later realised that I'd set fire to the lever mechanism. The gear changer worked, though, until this afternoon. When it Ceased To Function.

So I stripped it down, and what did I find?

Uh-huh. New bits on order, and, well, maybe a lesson learned. Don't hold your breath though.

Monday, 4 January 2010

once in a blue moon

New Year's Eve saw a partial eclipse, and so did Katie and I, because we went up on the roof especially. And by heck it was cold. If you click on the picture you may see the notch cut out of the moon by Earth's shadow, in the lower right hand side.

Lord, it's cold. I had to bring my bicycle indoors yesterday, to thaw out the gear changer which is frozen into position.

I've been thinking thoughts about the passing of time, as you do when you mark another year gone, another decade gone. I'm still working on those thoughts, so in the meantime, I'll share this poem that reminds me of my feelings after my father died, a few years ago. It's by Charles Causley. I first encountered it in an anthology of poetry, Staying Alive, that was my constant companion in the wild days of 2002 or thereabouts.

Eden Rock

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. Sauce bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, 'See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.'

I had not thought that it would be like this.