Saturday, November 27, 2021

My piece of heaven - a big black tin box.


All writers need space, and not just in their heads. Dylan Thomas wrote in the boathouse at Laugharne; Hillary Mantel has a flat that's separate to her home; John Clare used the corner of his cottage, scribbling poems to the light of a fire. Without a dedicated area, our work is distracted and the words disrupted and detached.

When we came to live permanently in Pembrokeshire I needed an office. And when I say need, I mean that in a more visceral than physical sense. I could have cobbled together a workspace upstairs, but it wouldn't have been mine. What I wanted was a home for my thoughts as much as my things. To write I need order and silence and the familiarity of reference... it's a complex formula that's felt more than reasoned.

And so, a project began.

We would first clear the garden once and for all; the groundworks would make room for a sizeable building. That in turn, would allow a reordering of the cottage: we could incorporate storage, shift the oil tank, rebuild the patio...   Quite how it would all turn out, I wasn't sure. But then I always start from notions, and often from memories too.

My paternal grandfather had a shed. He called it his cabin and it was made of tin and wood. He'd sleep there after going to the pub and it was full of nails and string and had our drawings on the walls; there were net curtains on the windows and it was perhaps the happiest place of my entire childhood. I'd long dreamt of having something of the same.

And like my grandfather I'd build it myself, or at least as a collective. 

Which is why if the notion came from me, the design was my son's, who's usefully an architect. The build was then handled by my friend as I strode around project managing in a tinkering sort of way, considering and revising, changing details here and there... just like I do with my writing. 

I looked and learned too, becoming a chronicler of vernacular tin and the versatility of this simplest of construction materials. On my phone are dozens of photos of outbuildings and garages and even whole houses. There's a village hall down the way that I have my eye on for project number two!


Meanwhile, the new shed, if we can still call it that, has cost me twice what I paid for the cottage. To be fair, that was thirty years ago, and no reasonable expense was spared in our specification. Do it once; do it right was our mantra, or at least it was mine. And as. result I now have an office with a loft and a garage type storage area and ethernet connections... and beautiful bi-fold doors that open to the garden.

It was worth every penny. 

For I love it, and it gives me pleasure every day. And that it was designed by Daniel just adds to the joy. It's a light and airy space, with an aesthetic that nods to this cottage's agricultural past. When I first came here, there was a tiny garage across the road; nobody owned it as such, though my neighbour used to keep his junk there. After he died it was demolished and something of my view was gone; something beautiful lost.

And so in a sense, I've replaced that too. My black tin monolith is a homage to what once was there, and more generally to this village and its single windswept street. Some don't get that at all; others, see it straight away. 

As for me, I feel it. 

Like the words that I'm writing, and the space that I'm occupying.  Which currently is rattling as a gale blows outside, rain drilling the roof.  And yet I'm warm and happy here where I am... in my body and my head.  

And of course, in my shed.

P.S. For those who'd like a deeper peek into my little world, here are some more pictures of the writing shed and its construction.















Friday, November 19, 2021

Reflections on my glasses?

I have another half dozen pairs around the house!

This is a picture from my office; the latest attempt at bringing order to chaos, and a wry comment on my writing life. When I posted the image on our family WhatsApp my son replied, 'how long until the hooks are empty?'  For someone who has a reputation for diligence, my absent-mindedness is legendary.

Jane despairs. 

She has two pairs of specs that are always at hand; it's much the same with her keys or handbag. But then, if I ask her to make a bank transfer or phone for an appointment, there's a high probability I'll be reminding her a few days later, and quite possibly the day after and the day after that... In the grist of everyday life, Jane's a 'do it when it's necessary' person, whereas I'm a 'tick it off, so it's sorted' kind of guy.

No doubt the best course lies somewhere in between. For whatever 'it' may be, addressing matters early is seldom as critical as I tend to think. On the other hand, to diminish advance planning or view absent-mindedness as equivalent to ill-discipline would be equal mistakes.

I tell myself that my habit of losing my glasses stems from thinking of bigger and more important concerns. Jane's view is that I should get off my high horse and pay more attention to where I jettison my stuff. Again, the truth—and the best way—is at neither extreme.

And so we compromise, making the most of our respective virtues. You might say we are stronger together, working as a team... oh, I could so easily fill this paragraph with management clich├ęs. For indeed, there is some accuracy in them, as there is in all stereotypes. The important thing is to realise that it's not the whole or only truth. 

But enough of this philosophising, it was only a humorous photo and a little glimpse into my world. Someday I might show you my new 'tin shed'. It was designed by my son—the one who queried how long before the hooks are empty.  And now I think about it, we worked together on it too; his design and my project management skills, not forgetting a little trust on each side.

The end result is the best office I've ever had. To write here is a joy, most days with Oscar curled on the seat by my desk. Meanwhile, the hooks on my filing cabinet remind me that like their magnets to the metal, my eyes to my glasses, Jane to me and vice versa... we all need each other to get along.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Letter to America


If you were to stand on the cliffs near my house looking in a vaguely west-south-westerly direction, the next dry land in your line of sight would be the eastern seaboard of America. To reach it would require 3,000 miles of sailing into the wind, assuming that is, you don't drift north to Canada or slip south to the Bahamas. Only a few centuries ago, thousands of migrants took that chance, departing from the harbours of Pembrokeshire, just as they did from Cardiff and Bristol and Cork. 

I often think about how grim life must have been to impel those early settlers. Anyone who lives here doesn't romanticise the danger of the sea; to embark on that journey in the full knowledge of the risks must have taken great courage. If we add in the one-way nature of the voyage and the ignorance of the land and life they were sailing towards, it's near certain that desperation was their most likely driver.

In what's a free-flowing post, it would be understandable if I were to now veer off my intended course and make comparisons with the migrants of today. After all, there's little doubt that what drives the diasporas from the Middle East to Europe, from Central to North America —or for that matter, from rural to urban India— is a not dissimilar anguish. 

But instead, I'm going to hold to my compass, and reflect, as I did while looking out to the ocean this morning, that it's because of our connection with its past, that North America is simultaneously foreign and yet familiar to us today. In many ways travelling to France is a more alien experience, an idea that's  captured in the classic geopolitical essay question: 'The Channel is wider than the Atlantic. Discuss.'

This tension between the foreign and the familiar was surely key to the appeal of Alistair Cooke's legendary radio broadcast, Letter from America. For over fifty years, he wrote a weekly epistle on the everyday lives and politics of the USA, gently—and generously— exploring the subtleties that are lost in mainstream media. In a sense, it was not that dissimilar to a blog, reflecting on his comings and goings and those of people he knew; building a picture of a place and its people over time. I miss those broadcasts, and more to the point, think we are lesser in our understanding for their loss. 

How I wonder, would Alistair Cooke would have written of the Obama years, or of Trump and the Capitol riots? Here in the UK we tend to think of US history in terms of its presidents and wars, just as we delineate our own in relation to monarchy and conflict. But I suspect Cooke would have focused more on the attitudes and aspirations—as well as the despairs and desperations—that define us more accurately than the words or policies of any politician. 

There's a growing trend in academic writing for what's sometimes called 'history from below.'  In contrast to the traditional focus on supposedly seminal events, this 'micro-history of communities' emphasises the role of everyday struggles and beliefs as underlying drivers of change. When I think of my own village, and the reality that even today I have neighbours who've travelled no further than Cardiff, I wonder if it's not a more accurate perspective on our past, and indeed our present. 

One of the delights of writing this blog is that I never know what metaphoric shores my words will wash up on. Over the years, I've made connections as far apart as Australia and Alaska, neither of which places have I physically visited. In writing that last sentence I  could have equally have chosen Nepal and New England both of which I've travelled to, but would not pretend to know in any deep sense. Indeed, with the exception of France, I suspect I've learned more about life overseas from the blogs I read, than my limited time abroad. 

A few weeks ago, two US followers of Views From The Bikeshed asked me how they might obtain copies of my books. It seems that copyright laws aren't as internationally seamless as we might wish them to be. No matter, a trip to the post office and the packages were soon on their way to Pennsylvania and North Carolina. What a joy that I could do that so easily... 

Seriously, what a privilege it is to be able to share words across continents.  And what a delight that someone should take an interest in my life and what I have to say, thinking that perhaps it has something of relevance to them. That one copy is now in Pennsylvania is especially appropriate for it was there that the majority of welsh settlers found a home. The other in North Carolina is but a geographic stone's throw from my friend, now resident in Greenville, but who once lived down the road.

In truth, none of my writing is really about me. It's intended to be universal, and if it succeeds it's because the connections between us are closer than we think. This autumn, I had hoped for my latest collection to be published; it's now scheduled for next year. When the first copies arrive I shall send some to the US once again; to those bloggers who follow me and who in their way correspond in return. If I can be so bold, I hope it will be my own small Letter to America;  a tiny contribution to narrowing the width—and the fear—of the ocean between us.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Quince jelly reflections

This week I made quince jelly from the fruits in my garden. It's become an annual ritual; my own miniature harvest festival with a bittersweet tang that marks the start of winter and yet the ending of my busiest period of work. The coming months will be—I hope—ones of less stress and more creative plenty. 

Although even to write that has an edge to it too. 

For only recently I gave a talk to some students in which I claimed the difference between creative and corporate writing is more blurred than it seems. I use much the same skills in crafting a blog post as I do in writing a workplace communication; the need for truth and clarity are as applicable to a company announcement as they are to the personal essay. Yesterday I read for the umpteenth time, Orwell's 'In Praise of English Cooking', a piece that in its rounded perfection would merit a place on any menu for a last literary meal on earth.

Orwell doesn't mention quince in his list of British delicacies, though at one time it was more common here than apples, which were not widespread until the middle ages. Today we consider it more of a Mediterranean or even oriental plant, with Japanese varieties having moderate popularity in discerning gardens. The fruits are hard and inedible when raw, but—in some ways like words—when carefully prepared they have seemingly endless possibilities, with a capacity to surprise and delight as well stimulate the tongue.

My crop this year was ample for our needs. In our former house, we had a long hedge of bushes that produced sacks of fruit but made the processing somewhat of a chore. I now have two small shrubs and yet we harvested enough to make four litres of piquant jelly. Had I had more time, I could have made the pith into membrilo, a delicacy from the Iberian peninsula, more commonly known as quince cheese. 

Alternatively, I might have made quince vodka or quince pudding; my friend and fellow blogger Michelle once cooked a quince tarte tatin which she claimed was delicious. Orwell says in his essay that Oxford orange marmalade is one of England's finest foods, but I wonder if he knew that the word comes from the Portuguese marmalada which means quince preparation.  

On which subject, my annual ritual is more about patience than skill. I don't follow a recipe but simply chop the fruits, cover with water and bring to a simmer...  After an hour at most, I mash the mixture and strain it through a muslin bag. The resulting juice is mixed 60:40 to sugar, boiled vigorously and then decanted into sterile jars. Once it's cooled, you can spread it on your toast the next morning... or perhaps you prefer muffins, or eating it with cheese or merely spooned from the jar.

Who cares, it's all good.

I shall share much of our bounty with friends, for though it keeps well the jelly is best eaten when young. There's a piquancy to the new crop that's more alive and arresting than any supposed depth of flavour that comes with age. Or in plainer English—and the type of words Orwell would favour—it comes with a raw and vigorous smack in the mouth!  

Perhaps that's why I like it so much; why this strange gnarly apple appeals to my sense of self; why its tang is something I crave and yet can't quite fix and even less hold onto?

Quinces it seems are among the oldest of fruits but their taste is the flavour of youth. 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Dark clouds over Ramsey

An all too rare walk on the beach

It's often said that moving house is one of life's most stressful events—along with divorce, death of a close relative; a change of job or school... Combine two or more of these and the strain can fracture even the tightest of bonds. In our case they remain tight and intact, but there's no denying these last few months have taken a toll.  

For to live where we do exacts a price that few appreciate and most romanticise. 

The reality of rural life is somewhat different to the magazine dream—and especially so, when you add 'remote' to the mix. Chores and choices that were once incidental require careful scheduling: popping to the shops is an hour's round trip; the nearest airport, three hour's drive... Much of our life—and that of our dog's—revolves around the tides. 

But there are compensations too.

This morning we walked the silver-washed sands at Newgale, dark clouds gathering as Oscar chased his ball, oblivious. There were dead seals on the shore; pups washed up overnight... two miles in and I was regretting my decision to forego a coat. A great deal here depends on the wind.

And yet, today—like with so many of our darker thoughts— the billows passed and brighter skies prevailed. 

At the head of the beach, I caught Jane looking out to sea and remembered when we first came here, how we'd walked and walked... and made decisions that are with us still.  That they are is as much fate as it was foresight, for if these few months have taught us anything, it is that nothing is truly in our control, and that to think otherwise is hubris.

As we turned to face our home I reflected that change and stress—like birth and death—are part of life; it's how we respond which shows and makes us who we are. And if at times that's tough or taxing, it doesn't mean it's not worth the effort. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Class of 79

A picture of me in 1979

Has it really been eight years since I took my son Daniel to start his first term at university? He'd chosen to study in Newcastle, about as far as it was possible to get from our house without crossing the border to Scotland. The thought of leaving him, and his being so distant, was not dissimilar to grief. And yet, in our driving north, I was also going home: to the place where I'd grown up, come of age, and in many ways, never truly left.

The story of that day, and the conflicting emotions of loss and return, became the subject of an essay that was published in Meet Me There, an anthology of writings on 'place'.  More broadly, it also led to my reconnecting with the region. During his time as a student (he's an architect so that that's longer than most) our trips to see him were highlights of the calendar we looked forward to every season.

And so, it was with mixed feelings that I returned early this September to help him move flat. He has a new job in Leeds, and a fresh phase of his career to begin. I'm sad he's leaving Tyneside and yet know he needs to move on, not limit life's prospects to the nostalgic inclinations of his old man.  

Arriving mid morning, I realised there was sort of inversion—a mirrored equivalence if you like— to that first trip we made together. I'd come to help him depart, and yet that evening was planning on attending a school reunion, meeting former friends I'd not seen for more than forty years—many of them, for all I knew, could have driven that morning to the northeast too. And as for who would be there or what to expect, I had little idea.

For reunions, it seems, are not everyone's cup of tea. 

When I wrote of my learning of the event some months ago, perhaps half of the commenters suggested they'd find the prospect unbearable. My good friend, and only close contact from those days, refused to come, saying life had moved on and he wasn't one for looking back. And yet my former wife, who might have taken a view that my presence would be somewhat awkward, was actually the person who alerted me to the get-together.  

As it turned out, her being there made it even more special. It's over thirty years since we separated; time enough for wounds to heal and memories to mellow. We swapped stories, swiped our phones for photos; asked how our parents were doing... Life has treated us well, and though we might wish to alter parts of our past, we're old enough to know it's not possible—that the paths we've taken, and joys they've brought us, can't be unpicked from our parting of ways.

There must have been forty of us in all, names and faces sparking long-dormant memories: Susan teasing me about the scraps I'd had at school; Debbie recalling times from the university we attended together; my old friend Peter, who like the boy who never grew up, is just as comical and good looking as ever. On the wall was a blow-up of our year-group photo to which we added our names and had a little gossip about those who'd done this or that, or fallen off the wagon of life. 

But this wasn't a mean spirited or comparative affair.  

Indeed, I was struck by the sense of goodwill, of the mutual interest in the choices we'd taken—of the collective sense of lives well lived, and still more to come. I couldn't help but think what our teachers would have made of it all. Would they be pleased with how we've turned out, and if so, how might they arrive at that conclusion?  

I hope not in the way of today's obsession with scorecards and 'value add' tables. Because for all we could list the educational attainments, financial rewards and outstanding successes—and I've no doubt we'd rank well in the league table of life—it wouldn't get close to answering the question of whether ours was a special year.

And of course, it was. 

Not because of any dry assessment, but because it was 'ours'. Just as our children are special not because of what they become, but because they are part of us; inseparable from the hopes and dreams that chart our passage through life. We don't measure love through any analytical filter—all that matters is that we carry it with us.  

And perhaps our memories—or at least some of them—should be no different. The best are like those keepsakes which we treasure not for their intrinsic worth, but because they remind us of the places, people and events that touched our lives and made us who we are. Before going to the reunion, I dug out my old school reports which shamefully confirm I was once awarded 3% for French—my teacher said it was for spelling my name correctly! And yet I know (though quite how escapes me) that in France the word souvenir means the act of remembering

As the evening came to a close, I was delighted to catch up with a classmate who'd also studied economics at A-level. We chuckled at the memory of our teacher's futile attempts to convert us to monetarism and voting for Margaret Thatcher.  She said I'd been the star of the class—and she was right; my one and only time! Then, as if out of nowhere, we both remembered that our mums had a connection too; that they'd worked together in a junior school... and I recalled that her's used to wear knee-high boots and play opera records... I was right, she smiled.  How on earth did I know that; where had it all come from...?  We laughed and laughed, suddenly back there again.

It was a long drive home. 

The day before I'd travelled to attend, my wife's mum had passed away. I'd considered cancelling the trip, but there was nothing yet to be done and Daniel was in need of my help. Jane urged me to go too, saying her mum would have wanted it; 'take care of your boys' were the last words between us. We live today on the far west coast, where, unlike the shores of my youth, the sun sets behind the sea's curved horizon. For all my years of being here, that still feels foreign. And yet I know that tomorrow it will rise again, following an arc that can't be changed, to shine its light on where we are now. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Lists for blogging... and for life

Some books from 2019

Most bloggers I know keep lists, at least in their head if not on their PC or jotter. I use all three, as well as my phone and the blackboard in our kitchen and the back of a packet or two. When stressed, list-making is my go-to relief, as if ticking all the items will eliminate the source of the angst. Get everything done, I say to myself, and there’ll be time to relax… and start a new list tomorrow.

For Views From The Bike Shed, I make a note of the posts I might write, a store of ideas for when inspiration or memory fails me. It’s part of the curation process I say, the planning for a varied output that will keep my readers engaged. There are currently eleven items in my notebook, dozens more on my phone and many more that have been consigned to the bin.

On the page beside me as I type is a list that includes: The Three Peaks of Abergavenny; Collecting Jugs; Digital Minimalism; Girls Own Paper and Bookmarks.  How many of these, I wonder, will make it into print? Two would be good going; three a marvel. And those I’ve mentioned are the most likely; there’s another six I might as well cross off now.

Perhaps the problem is not so much with the making of my lists as with the nature of our epiphanies. What seems so vital and vibrant in the moment, tends to fade as the passage of time dulls our enthusiasm. How often have I woken from slumber, written down some putatively genius insight only to read it a week later and think, ‘In your dreams Mark; literally, in your dreams…’. 

But is this such a bad thing? Because for all that some ideas are lost—and this blog is sparser as a result—isn’t the unconscious mind also acting as a sort of quality control?  And frankly, if it were not for a little temporal distance between my thoughts and my keyboard, the blog you’re reading might all too easily be called Rants rather than Views From The Bike Shed. 

And that wouldn’t do.

Because sounding off seldom works out well and almost never if done too often. Indeed, rants by their nature have an impact only if they break the pattern of the norm; to be permanently raging is invariably to become blinkered and somewhat deaf to others. The exceptions that prove this rule are those rare talents such as Jeremy Clarkson, whose columns, far from being true rants, are actually humorous vexations on the absurdities we encounter.  

Which makes me wonder if my list-making—and my failure to follow through—is any different to everyday life? We all have our passing fancies; intentions that sound great in the pub or as presented on TV. But when it comes to taking action, they suddenly don’t seem so compelling. For years I’ve been saying to Jane that we really must go to Hampton Court, after all, it’s not that far… so long as we set off early, and avoid the London traffic and book in advance…

In her turn, Jane says I should be less driven; try to enjoy what’s around me instead of always looking ahead. It’s fine to be doing she says, so long as you don’t forget about being. Actually, those words are mine not hers—she’d put it more plainly and tell me to stop obsessing over things that can wait. And why, she’d ask, am I so focused on striving that I lose sight of what we already have?

She’s right of course, and yet I can’t shake the habit. There’s a body of research that claims achievement is fundamental to our happiness and sense of self-worth. I feel it keenly, together with a sense of responsibility to others as well as myself. I’m sure this explains my reluctance to retire and certainly my intention never to stop writing. 

I’m conscious too, of not wasting the opportunity and privilege we’ve been afforded. Imagine a life in which your ambitions were thwarted, your chances proscribed by custom or lack of resources. Such was the lot of most people (women especially) for millennia—and in truth, it remains the case in large parts of the world. My parents in law, two former school teachers, have visited over one hundred countries in their retirement—an achievement that’s unthinkable in historical terms.  

Theirs of course is a different kind of list to what we began with. Like those I keep of books I’ve read, it looks backwards not forward, recording rather than prompting. There’s a danger, with lists of this type, that their length becomes more important than their purpose— but at their best, they can be a trove of memory, imbuing a sense of a life well-lived. The concept of a ‘bucket list’ has become commonplace parlance, and a reflection of a predominantly secular outlook on the ticking of our clocks: carpe diem; you only live once; eternity is an awfully long time...

Which inclines me to think I’ve been rambling on quite enough. What started as a notion about blogging has morphed, through a series of unplanned diversions, into reflections on the good life. And maybe that’s a fitting conclusion: that as writers the purpose of our lists is not so much to schedule our output as it is to remind us of the wealth of the choices we have on offer. Which is a good and wonderful thing, so long as we know also when to stop.