Monday, May 2, 2022

Prophecy, witness or waste of time?

Beach pondering with Oscar

Earlier this week I attended an online poetry evening, themed on the environmental threats (many would say crisis) we are facing. Three excellent writers gave readings and discussed their concerns in what was a convivial and supportive forum. Looking in from the outside it might easily have been mistaken for a Friends of the Earth campaign, rather than a literary event. 

But it wasn't so much the message, or indeed the enviable quality of the work, that I've been pondering since. Rather, it was a comment from one of the writers, responding to a question about the difference that poetry might make.  His reply was as candid as it was unequivocal: very little, if any

Poetry, he asserted, is read by very few people. Those who'd attended the evening and listened so intently were self-selected believers; and if not, they'd be unlikely to change their view because of his verse. He'd long accepted that his acclaimed collections had little capacity to influence others. Someone (or was it him, I can't remember) suggested that poetry might be seen as a sort of prophecy; in any event, he didn't think much of that either.  At best, he said, it was about bearing witness. 

And what struck me, is how relevant this was to me, and to many other bloggers too.  

The concept of 'writing for change' has a long history. Much of ancient philosophy is political in its intent, as were the dramatic tragedies, comedies and epics of that time. For thousands of years, playwrights, diarists and pamphleteers (as well as novelists, journalists and scholars) have chronicled events with the intent of shaping opinion. Today, in addition to those forms we have TV, radio, film and social media...  There will be hundreds of academic theses on how public perceptions can be moulded by words. 

And yet, if I think of the essayists and political writers I admire —Orwell, Greene, Koestler... I wonder how many of them actually had that much of an influence. Most social commentators write 'after the fact' and those that don't (Dickens perhaps) are usually read by a sympathetic audience. And as for journalism: we've long known that newspapers reinforce rather than reorder opinions, just as Twitter is more of an echo chamber than a forum for debate.

But what of bloggers, and particularly those like me?  

For many, it will be an irrelevant concern. They write to share rather than shape; to clarify their thoughts not change those of others. The vast majority of what we read on forums like Views From The Bike Shed is not political but personal. Its merit, if it has any at all, comes from transcending the 'me', to become something more universal; achieving an ill-defined sense that the words are as relevant to the reader as they are to the author. 

This is not so much writing for change—and far less for prophecy —than it is the idea of giving testimony to our lives. It is, in effect, the same as bearing witness. And I suppose I believe that to do so truthfully and meaningfully has inherent worth, even if it alters very little in a tangible way. I sense this is why I most often write about experiences that moved me or in some way adjusted my view—narrating how I've changed rather than telling others that they ought to too. 

Which brings to me the end of this pondering.  And I hope the start of a refreshed enthusiasm for what is my writing homeland. For weeks I've been stuck in a mire, planning the 'perfect post' that would somehow encapsulate my despair —and in truth, my anger too—at the perma-crisis we seem to be living through. From Brexit to Covid to the War in Ukraine, (and a hundred topics in between) there is so much I could say.. could give an opinion on... could rant or cry or bellow...

And yet, I think on balance it's better left unsaid. For it would not alter anything, let alone me —and nor would I be confident of its truth. Better I think to stick to what I know; to the chronicling of the seemingly little things in life; those moments that change us forever. 

As for the rest. this too shall pass...

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Photo by Benry Be, Unsplash

A little under three weeks ago I sat with my youngest son on the crest of the Col du Ranfolly, the Pointe de Nyon to our left; the ridge of the Roc D'enfer sparkling in a cobalt sky. We'd ordered burgers and fries from a buvette that supplies the skiers who come here for their annual fix of alpine adrenaline. In truth, it's as pre-packaged an experience as the fast-food we were about to tuck into. 

I'm not being critical here, just telling the truth as I see it. And admitting too, that, despite my misgivings, I'm one of those hundreds of thousands for whom the heady cocktail of sociability, snow and sliding is an addictive draw each winter. For all that my favourite skiing is in the back-country, ideally alone or hanging back from the pack, by far the majority is on the groomed pistes that are the manufactured playgrounds of middle-class folk like me.

Perhaps it was the Arcadian nature of our situation that explains why the news hit me so hard. I suspect the subliminal unease in our privilege plays a part too. Of course, it might simply have been the shock of the unthinkable... But whatever the reason, when my son said 'have you seen that they've full-on invaded Ukraine' it suddenly all felt so wrong. 

In the passing of that one sentence, the contrast between the beauty of our location and the horror of wider circumstance became all too clear.  The thought of finishing our food only to career carefree down the slopes seemed grossly inappropriate. I wanted to get back, to return home and take comfort in those I loved…

But if I'm honest my heart sank for less noble reasons too. 

The prospect of another crisis—on top of Brexit and the pandemic and the rising cost of living—surfaced deep, if selfish, anxieties. Will we ever, I wondered, be free of this grinding uncertainty? Is our yearning for security, like Helen Keller claimed, 'mostly superstition'—out of reach of the children of men? Her assertion may well be right in fact, but the longing is real and heartfelt, for few of us are truly stoic by nature.

These last two weeks I've limited my exposure to popular news and certainly avoided social media. Not because I want to hide away but because I'm wary of their amplification of the noise and its impact on my own, and indeed our collective, wellbeing. I know too well the process of generating stories and constructing narratives that do little to improve our knowledge but a lot to worsen our worries. 

Quiet reflection, coupled with a steely resolve to stand by our conclusions, is not what sells newspapers, generates clicks or raises viewer ratings. And yet—for me at least—this internal reasoning is what's most needed to find peace with, rather than panic in, the actions we must now take. 

The historian Yuval Noah Harari spends weeks each year on meditative retreats to see things as they really are. That's not an appropriate response to an international crisis, but perhaps there’s something in it for our coming to terms with the long-term implications of the course we must follow. Might it also help put into perspective our other worries and fixations? As I write these words, I'm conscious that Brexit, the pandemic, the cost of living… all seem so trivial compared to what’s happening a mere few hundred miles from Berlin.

Perhaps then, a tangential benefit of this upheaval is that we might find the courage to focus more on what really matters—not just in geo-politics but in our daily lives too. Is it just possible that in facing into issues that are existentially vital we might begin to abandon our obsessions with the inconsequential and worry less about what cannot be changed? Some of us might even learn to give more thanks for the overwhelming (and largely unearned) good fortune we enjoy? 

It has taken me a fortnight to be able to write this post, the issues—and the feelings they evoke—shapeshifting in my mind. Only gradually has my heartbeat slowed. But with its calming has come a greater acceptance of the realities of the world and the potential for evil which deep down we always knew was there. There’s an affirmation too of what needs to be done and a resolve to see it through rather than wish it away. In some strange way, it almost feels good to have this clarity forced upon us.

So no denial for sure.

Though curiously, and certainly unexpectedly, in reflecting these last two weeks I’ve found myself more hopeful than I might have imagined. If the situation in Ukraine gets worse by the day there is, I sense, a flicker (if not quite a flame) of optimism in the exposure of our delusions and the galvanising shock of a truth that's been hiding in plain sight. There’s a refreshing honesty too in the equally plain actions we’ve taken, and a rare pride in the unity of democratic governments and their recommitment to principles we’d let slide for too long. Am I alone in feeling that this wake-up call is a chance to reset our values (and our policies) to ones that are ethically sound rather than economically convenient? 

This week I'm in Majorca, on a cycle camp that was first booked pre-pandemic. The very fact I'm here on holiday feels more poignant and privileged than it would have three weeks previous. Yesterday, as we rode in the warmth of a soft spring sun one of our group spoke unprompted of the delight she took in her retirement, listing her blessings—financial and otherwise—for all who cared to listen. 

I didn't reply, but I counted my own, more aware than ever of the myriad protections that insulate me and my family from the cold realities faced by millions elsewhere. And as I did so—and this, I promise, is no word of a lie—I looked up from the wheel I’d been following, only to realise that we were riding through a field of poppies.  

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Deep and wide...

I have a friend (one of many with similar outlooks) whose attitude to travel is so very different from mine. To her, visiting the same place twice is a wasted opportunity. 'No matter how much I liked my holiday, I'd rather go somewhere different next time,' she'd say, 'After all, there's so much of the world to explore.'  

It's not that my friend is oblivious to the possibilities of familiar places. Rather, it's that she delights in new experiences and (with some obvious justification) associates those with fresh destinations. It's not an uncommon perspective, indeed I suspect it's the majority view. The idea of 'seeing the world ' has a strong pull on the imagination.

But not on mine.

Occasionally in our house, we'll play that game of listing the places we'd most like to visit. Jane and my sons quickly offer up half a dozen suggestions. My answers are always couched in conditional terms: if you offered me a free ticket, I guess I'd choose Patagonia, but if you gave me the cash, I'd spend it going to the Alps...

Not again, they all wail...

My friend, and many in my family too, are seeking a panoramic vista from their travels. For all they might talk of wanting to avoid the tourist hotspots—to see the 'real' country— it's not on their agenda to truly 'know' their destination or feel a part of it in any meaningful sense. Depth of place is not the point or even achievable—it's the breadth, and to a large extent the newness, of experience, that matter most.

I should say here, that I'm not against tourist travel (I've done plenty of it) or indeed, suggesting that my approach is right or better. It's simply a different preference, and one that I sense comes more from resolving what's within than responding to what's without. Or to put it differently, it's about our inner journeys as much as our outward ones. 

The other week Jane and I went for walk near our home. We followed the cliffs west of Fishguard, a path we'd taken before though not for some time and never in that direction. On our circular route, we passed a series of cromlechs, found hidden bays and near Carreg Wastad point (the site of the UK's last invasion) spotted a seal offshore and another on the beach... and then another.. and another...  In all, we counted over thirty and probably missed as many.

Seals are relatively commonplace here and yet to see them so close, and in that number, was a special moment. But more than that, I learned from this walk many things new about where I live. As well as chancing on the beach, I discovered the cromlechs—three of them as good as lost in the scrub—visited a new village, found a beautiful church... and most of all, enhanced my mental map of this tiny part of my home turf with more detail than was there before.  

The point I'm making somewhat clumsily is that my experience was fresh and new, not because the place was, but because my knowledge of it deepened.

Perhaps this explains why I take such delight in returning to familiar haunts; why if I had to choose six locations for my bucket list they'd all be repeats of a sort. We have only so much capacity to look and feel and understand, not least in the limited time we have allotted to us. I've been talking here about travel but in truth, the same oppositions apply to more prosaic concerns, just as they do to our professions, creative callings and personal commitments. If the world and our resources were infinite, then I suppose our knowledge and experience could be, as the old hymn goes ... like a fountain flowing, deep and wide...

The tragedy, for us mere mortals, is that we must choose one or the other. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Girl's Own Annual -1901

I don't generally like second-hand bookshops. They smell fusty and are usually full of poorly curated stock, infused with a sentiment that yellowed pages have a value greater than their words. For a writer, second-hand books mean no commission too—not that I've ever earned more than a pittance through sales. 

But a few months ago I made an exception. There was a pop-up charity stall at the National Trust and for some reason, we wandered inside. Ignoring the displays of hardback novels and Seventies cookbooks I headed to a section of old magazine journals and one, in particular, caught my eye: The Girl's Own Annual from 1901. It's a collection of that year's weekly issues and a fascinating insight into how our lives and expectations have changed — for better and worse.

A little research tells me that the Girl's Own Paper was first published in 1880 by the Religious Tract Society, later becoming Lutterworth Press. Astonishingly, it ran through to the Nineteen Fifties. The weekly journal was a mix of stories and articles focused on the interests and aspirations of girls; its editorial mission was one of self-improvement, urging its subscribers to make the most of their talents, albeit always with an element of decorum.  A modern-day reader might reasonably conclude that its pages are proof positive of the subservience and frustrations that women were expected to bear.

And in the obvious sense, they'd be absolutely right.  

But in another—the one that struck me most—they would be missing something of its virtue. For there is much in this little long-forgotten magazine that we would do well to remember and for which, in its loss to our outlook more generally, I'd suggested we are more diminished than developed.

Take for example, the quality of the writing. Sure, it's aimed at educated middle-class girls, but nonetheless, it's of a standard we simply wouldn't see in magazines today. The weekly stories are full of long passages of complex dialogue, and yet if you stay with them, they are skillfully constructed and a lesson in serialised fiction. Some of the titles made me smile, including the travails of Pixie O'Shaughnessy and the growing pains of little Barty's Star. Others are retellings of classical myths, including The Fair Captives of Castle Vulcan - a tale of love and loyalty. Imagine that in a teenage magazine today!

But it wasn't so much the stories that I liked dipping into as the informative articles and the 'answers to correspondents' pages, both of which shine a light on the opportunities for educated girls at that time. One reader enquires about working in a post office, another about the route to becoming a teacher.  Detailed and encouraging responses are provided—though interestingly, always concluding with a note that on becoming married the applicant would, of course, be expected to resign! 

Turning the pages this morning I found a lovely article on life in a laundry, another on soldiers returning from conflicts abroad that's an early lesson in recognising post-traumatic stress. There's a piece on Eastertide in Russia sitting side by side with this week's Household Hints; pictures of Our Queen Alexandra front a cover, but more commonly it's taken by profiles of women making contributions to science and art. For musicians, there's the Fidelio club which discusses concertos and classical pieces in astonishing depth. And there are regular columns on nature, needlework, points of law, careers, poetry, cooking, geology and puzzles so complex they make the Times Cryptic seem a doddle.  Sport is tellingly absent.

To read The Girl's Own Paper today is like looking through a window to our past. Of course, it was a bright and shiny and rose-tinted one, and I sense that large sections of the poorly educated working classes would have found little of interest—or comprehension—in its content. I know too that it's all too easy to fall into a high-brow lament about a loss of educative endeavour and lessening of standards...  The truth is, there's much more information available today (albeit in different formats) and we shouldn't think that all writing has been reduced to the level of tabloids and Twitter.

And yet still I am struck by its mission and zeal.

Opportunities for women have been rightly transformed in the decades since my time-bound volume was published. But at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, aspects of its stance and choice of content were radical and are worthy of praise today. I wonder, how many readers of the Girl's Own Paper became suffragettes; how many went on to make contributions to art, science, commerce —or fostered those of the next generation, for whom they carried ambitions that had been kindled by their weekly reading of this magazine for betterment. 

An annual subscription in 1901 would have cost four shillings and four pence - about forty pounds in today's money or 80 pence per issue. That seems extraordinary good value to me. So too the five pounds I spent on this quaint volume at the National Trust bookshop 120 years later.  If the magazine was still in print —there was evidently a boy's version too — I reckon I'd subscribe on the spot.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Objects of life #8 — mid century bookcase.

Yesterday, on the turn of the year, I decided to tidy our back room. It's one of those awkward spaces,  useful and yet not quite what it could be; a thoroughfare from the front to rear gardens that we use for coats and boots and anything that might make the cottage look untidy. When I bought this place it was no more than an earthen floored shed; decades earlier it had been used to keep pigs. 

None of which is particularly relevant, except for the process of relooking and sorting —the putting of our lives in order and hoping they might stay that way; which of course they won't. 

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have the patience to try.

In the corner of the room was a mid-century bookcase that I bought when I was twenty-one years old for my first ever house. I'd seen it for sale in a newspaper small ad of the type that nobody bothers with these days. And I remember the elderly lady who sold it to me: she was small and solid with deep-dyed hair and bright features that hinted at the beauty in her youth. She was almost seductive and insisted on my having tea and offering me a small table she was selling too. For years it was in our summerhouse until (to my deep regret and in a moment of unthinking) I disposed of it as clutter.

Why do I remember that encounter so vividly?  And why do I recall it so often? I must have forgotten a thousand equivalent meetings, and yet, I could show you where her flat was in Cullercoats, overlooking the sea in the north east of England. I could tell you with confidence that the bookcase cost me fifteen pounds and that I gave her an extra two for the small table. If I took a moment I'm sure I could bring to mind the smell of her perfume. It seems our minds hold onto memories as randomly as we do the objects we own.

And as I get older, the two become almost indivisible.

The bookcase has been with me in all my houses since that day, even if, like the space between our gardens, it's not always been fully utilised or appreciated. For the last year, it's been squeezed lengthways between a wall and a wardrobe that stores our coats; when we pulled it out yesterday, its shelves were crammed with a plethora of 'stuff' that hadn't quite got another home. Someone in a more objective mood would've taken the lot to the tip.

But then, they wouldn't have been looking closely. For despite its utilitarian appearance, the cabinetry is precise and cleverly designed. To help its movement and assembly, the shelving dismantles and fits together with a jigsaw-like accuracy; the panels are subtly coloured, the hinges smooth, the doors satisfyingly snug. It would be easy to mistake the workmanship as coming from a famous maker like Ercol or G-plan, but in fact, it's anonymous. Which I rather like, as it avoids the temptation to put a price on something whose value isn't about money at all.

That said, I'm told that mid-century furniture is enjoying something of a renaissance. It seems my taste of forty years ago is finally becoming trendy. As we dusted it down and cleaned the glass my teenage son said,  I guess this is going in your fancy new study?  And he was right; it fits perfectly too — between the chairs where I like to read and the pebble tables which though an iconic design irritate me a little with their fiddliness.  Oh, I do so wish I had that table I threw away. 

Coming to my study this morning I had no intention of writing about this. But then yesterday I had no idea that the bookcase would find its home and feel so appropriate at last. It's as if the sorting of objects helps to clear our minds too, suggesting possibilities and settling ideas into place — not dissimilar, perhaps, to the way we store books on shelves; an ordering of our memories, of significant moments... the putting of our lives on display.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Encounters 7 — Vultures

All photos by Justinn Bunn

I first saw vultures when I was twenty-six years old. It was the year that Stephen Roche won the Tour de France and I cycled across the Pyrennes on a tandem with Rebecca. For most of our trip, we carried little more than a change of clothes, our passports and a couple of baguettes stuffed in the saddlebag. We were young, fit, and unphased by challenges I wouldn't look at today.

At the top of the Col d'Aubisque, there's a section of tarmac that's cut into the cliffs, creating a suspended belvedere road with a vertical drop on one side and a distinct absence of barriers between you and the abyss. It's about the worst place I could think of to suffer a puncture or to lose concentration after toiling to the top.  As we rode over the summit, they were circling above us.

And I remember our stopping to watch them, marvelling at the ease with which they rode the thermals, gliding across the valley that had taken us all morning to climb. There's an elegance to the flight of vultures that transcends that of any other bird of prey, and which ironically, in its effortless grace, strengthens our stereotype of the species. 

Vultures, we believe, are cold, calculating, patient...

It was two decades till I saw one again. I know this for I remember the day with photographic clarity. We'd been walking with the boys in the Aravis mountains; it was scorching and we'd taken a route too long and too steep for Jane who was pregnant. That evening when she went to the loo, the bowl filled with blood and her face with tears...

She needed time alone, so I rode my bike up the Col de la Colombière. I wanted it to hurt, pushing every sinew; screaming at the mountains... and their indifference. As I pedalled the last incline—without elegance or grace—there were two Lammergeiers wheeling in the sky. These, the largest of the European vultures, have learned to drop bones onto rocks so they shatter into pieces small enough to swallow. 

They are, I think, the most magnificent of birds.

Lammergeiers are also rare and have only recently returned to the Alps. I learned later that the ones I saw that day were from a reintroduction scheme based in the valley. Three years ago, walking in the Sixt Passy nature reserve, a warden showed me the one breeding nest in the region. The parents did not return while we waited. 

And so, it was almost another twenty years before my next encounter.

This October I made a short visit to France, climbing the Point de Chalune in the crisp autumn sunshine. The peak is a two-hour walk from the top of my favourite cycling col: the l'Encrenaz above Les Gets. We were lucky with the weather: Mont Blanc in full view to the south; Lac le Man to the north. At the summit, two men with binoculars were recording birds for a survey—not that much of interest had appeared, one said. 

Until that is, he finished his sentence. For no sooner had the recorder sat down than my friend Justin asked, what are those birds approaching us?  There were seven of them in all: five griffon vultures and two enormous Lammergeiers. They drifted above and below us, like a squadron on reconnaissance. The surveyors whooping with delight, furiously taking note of their maturity and size. 

In jest, our new friends credited us with the show, suggesting that vultures liked to smell out the English.  Nous ne sommes pas anglais - nous sommes gallois, we replied, and they laughed. The Welsh, they said, must not be so tasty!  With that, the birds departed, swooping over the valley in the direction of the Désert de Platé.  

And before we'd gathered breath, they were gone.  

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 a hut by 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.