Saturday, May 15, 2021

Poly-mathematics - and the need to let go.

Towards Strumble Head - M Charlton c. 1998

Every so often a friend or fellow blogger will ask if I still paint.  The honest answer is that I don't, though I will usually fudge it by saying something like I occasionally draw, or only for fun. In many ways, this isn't a total deception: I take an interest in images; I love art shops; I think in a visual way... In my mind, I could pick up my brushes tomorrow.

But it wouldn't work.  

Painting seriously takes practice and dedication—as does running, or chess, or physics... Occasionally, people refer to me as a polymath (one blogger did so yesterday), but in truth, I mostly focus on one thing at a time. If I want to lose weight it will obsess me till I‘m thinner; if work is busy I tend not to write for pleasure; when I learned to play the saxophone, it consumed me for two years—in retrospect a bad idea. 


Because I'll never be any good at jazz. Sure, I can bash out a tune and fake the odd riff, but deep down I'm not a musician—and no amount of practice will change that. What's more, it's an all too easy distraction from those projects that in my heart I know are more important. Writers are notorious for finding excuses to delay; sometimes we need simply to focus and type—in my case, with the music turned off. 

Not that I shall sell my saxophone. For I've learned to stop playing when it matters and to see that as something gained rather than lost. The same is true of painting: to begin again wouldn't be right, but that doesn't mean all interest has gone. My love of the outdoors is similarly slimmed-down: I still kayak and cycle and climb mountains, but all in a more relaxed and less obsessive way. 

This is good, I think.

For there is pleasure in learning and letting go. 

Life drawing 1997
Until I was fifty, I had no technical knowledge of music—but while it's satisfying to have an understanding of scales and chords, I have come as far as I can.  Five years ago I taught myself basic French, but let's be honest, I'm never going to be fluent. Similarly, mountains and wild places have been a joy of my life—in some ways they saved it—but to continue quite so full-on, might well end it prematurely.

I could say much the same about poetry, or fiction: I wrote them for my degree and learned a great deal, but they are not my genre. Though interestingly, I write often in a 'fictive form', constructing my blogs and essays not dissimilarly to short stories. I obsess too over words, in the way of a poet. 

And this illustrates how in letting go, we don't lose all that we've gained. It's forty years since I studied economics, and yet in drafting this piece I originally wrote a line in a paragraph above: ''s like the law of diminishing returns: once optimal capacity is reached, further growth requires disproportionate resources... '  Thanks for that are due to my teacher, Mr Johnson; I owe much the same debt to Ms Davies who taught me to draw.

But for all it's good to have a reservoir of knowledge, the fact I chose to reposition the words is due to an experienced eye, which saw that they might add more elsewhere. That judgement—and intensity of focus—comes only with practice, and were I more rusty, I'd probably have missed it. This is the dilemma we face in pursuing our passions; how to balance the breadth and depth of our skills and understanding. 

Though actually, that's not quite correct, because a true dilemma is a choice between two outcomes, both of which are bad. There is no word for its opposite, so it seems to me that in our choosing depth over breadth (or vice versa) we are more in the realm of preference. Both are equally good. And they can feed off each other, as do music and dance, science and nature... or for that matter, writing and painting.


  1. Hari OM
    Very good. To summarise, never stop learning, keep it if you can and don't worry if you can't, stay focused, and practice makes perfect. That'll do! YAM xx

  2. I often look at my neglected painting materials with guilt but you are right, painting well takes a lot of dedication and practice. I'm not prepared to put the hours in and I'm never happy just dabbling and producing second rate work.

  3. Learning for learning's sake and for pleasure can never be a waste of time in my opinion. Whatever we take on to learn is going help us as we go about our lives, go about our other practices. And if eventually, our passion for the endeavor fails, let it go. It has served its purpose, even if we are not quite aware of what it was.

  4. I have many interests. I remember a conversation with an acquaintance who worked in the Records Office and I asked him what he was interested in most. His reply, "Everything" (although his speciality was watermarks on paper!) That I can relate to. I have the broad spectrum of archaeology as a big interest (I did my degree in that), and within that prehistory was always paramount, but my dissertation was on the Equine Iconography of the Pictish Symbol Stones, much later. In researching that I found my true metier - research, and I still adore research in other historical contexts and also apply it to family history.

    I can draw but am no real artist but I have a keen eye for what I like and any paintings or drawings of horses particularly have to be spot-on or they irritate me. Aries intolerance I fear!

    Many more interests, and too little time - that's the problem :) At any rate, I am right-brained without a doubt.

  5. Self education must be the most satisfying way of going down rabbit holes and popping up where ever you want to be. I think I'm a frustrated Rock journalist and garden writer.

  6. I've often thought that the label dilettante, which is so often considered negative, might actually be a positive. What's wrong with learning a little about a lot of things? I think I could justifiably be accused of that!

  7. I am glad that you no longer play the saxophone. I have known many 40+ year-olds who took up the sax and still inflict it on others. I just stopped myself from taking drum lessons from one of Britain's top drummers when I was about 50. A rare moment of lucidity and a lucky escape.

  8. Not just food for thought Mark but a banquet! We strive for something beyond mere maintenance and survival. Is it ego? I don't know and so what if it is? Procrastination is the imp that sits upon our shoulders reminding us of who we might have been, what we might have done.

  9. It's an interesting question, how far it's worth pursuing an activity for which one has an interest but no natural ability (for me, a good example of this would be music). In a work context, as a team leader, I very definitely came to the conclusion that things worked better if people were allowed to play to their strengths rather than be forced out of their comfort zones! Cheers, Gail.

  10. Both the writing and the comments are thought provoking. My father used to say 'everything in moderation'. He was a very moderate man. However i suspect it's deeper meaning was to be curious about everything and don't ignore the wider opportunities around you to be singular in pursuing one. Others would say that true greatness lies in being singular....i prefer the idea that even if you have one true passion, inspiration can be found in enexpected places and one should be prepared to seek them out and e plore them.