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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Dear Diary : Page 1

How to cross the same river twice

Or, returning to the scenes of your youth

They say you can never go back again. Never cross the same river twice. The past is a foreign country, as the famous quotation goes. Sometimes, it can’t be avoided. Sometimes, though, it can be worth doing just for yourself.

When I was small, our summer holidays followed the same pattern, from when I was three through to when I was about 14 or 15 or so—I can’t rememeber the exact year it stopped. We would go camping for a fortnight, either two weeks in Sussex, two weeks in Kent, or more often than not, one week in each. The amount of equipment and comfort changed over the years, from smaller tents to larger tents, trailer tents through to caravans, but the destinations were always the same, the same two campsites in the same two parts of England. Wherever else we went, every holiday would include at least one day trip to Hastings, the south eastern seaside town that feels almost like a genteel resort, a noisy arcades town and a West Country fishing village all rolled into a single ball and mixed together. Here’s a photo I took when I was eleven, of the cliffs in Hastings Country Park, looking towards Fairlight Glen.

The cliffs east of Hastings

And then, in my mid teens, we stopped going. We had a couple more family holidays, where I asked for Gwynedd to replace Sussex, but I never again went back to Hastings.

Until last week.

I took The Children away for a summer holiday; and where better to go than a classic seaside town that has a beach that’s great for paddling, arcades, a miniature railway you can ride on, castles, caves, cliffs, the lot. OK, you can’t really build sandcastles, but building sandcastles is something The Children really enjoy in theory far more than in practice, and at least the sea never disappears to the horizon, the beach being steep enough to let it merely retreat a respectful few yards from the prom and the arcades. And: they loved it. I took them around all the same places I’d been taken when I was a kid myself: the miniature railway, the crazy golf, the cliff railway, the castle, and they loved absolutely all of it. We barely even left town for the week. The Child Who Loves Animals would have had us go to the aquarium every day if he’d had his way. I just enjpyed the chance to walk around and practice a bit with my new camera.

Hastings seafront seen from the pier

Bottle Alley, the covered promenade linking Hastings and St Leonards

The town? As a child your priorities are naturally a bit different to those of a middle-aged adult; but, even I could see that it has changed in the past thirty years. It has improved, a lot. So many places to eat out in the evening! So much craft beer everywhere. So many Pride flags flying, even from the flagpole in the castle. But it was still recognisably the same place, the same old shape, new flesh on old bones. The 1930s railway station might have been demolished and replaced, but the walk from it down to the beach was still unchanged. The art deco promenade by the pier has artwork now, but still the same concrete lines. The miniature railway might have nicer trains, but they still go between the same two spots, past a boating lake now cleared of boats and pedalos, but to a crazy golf course that still has its windmill and watermill obstacles and where hitting the bell at the end still scores you a free round. It’s hard to say, but I’m fairly sure the fish and chips is better.

The main thing that’s changed, though? Probably me. And it made me quite emotional. The last time I went there, I had a fairly good idea of the sort of person I wanted to be as an adult. Going back, walking down the promenade, I almost drew tears as I thought about just how much of my envisaged self, the me I imagined back in my early teens, is present in the woman I am today. Even if it does mean that I have to walk along the shingle in heels now.

Because the East Hill Lift was closed for major track repairs, we didn’t go up to the Country Park so I could replicate the picture at the top of this piece. Here, though, is a view of the town from the West Hill, the castle site, still the same odd little mixture of holidaymaking and industry that it was when I was a preschooler.

View of Hastings from the castle

Sunset at St Leonards beach

Oh, I said we barely did leave the town, but we did go for a couple of days out, to Battle and to Hythe. Here’s a couple of photos of Hythe railway station, one I took age 9 (I think) and one from last week, just to show you that in some ways I haven’t changed that much at all.

Hythe railway station in the mid 1980s

Hythe railway station in August 2023

The flutter in the dusk

Bats are flying round Symbolic Towers

At this time of the year, when spring is firmly established, the day has been warm and lots of insects have been buzzing around the garden—as dusk falls, just before nine o’clock, there is still life in the garden.

If I’m still at my desk, working away on some crafting or one of my side projects, and the curtains are pulled back, then I start to see a flutter out of the corner of my eye. This is the time the bats come out.

When I mention the garden bats to some people, they’ll say “you’re so lucky! I’ve never seen a bat.” I think, though, it depends if you know what you’re looking for. They’re quick, faster than birds. They dart to and fro, changing direction apparently at random. It’s dusk, though, and unless you spot the outline of their wings you might mistake one for a small bird heading off to their roost. I’ve been stood outside a friend’s house and seen bats flying around us. I recall, years ago now, going on a camping holiday in Cornwall with H; walking back to the campsite after a lovely dinner in the nearest village, up a steep ancient lane lined with tall hedges, and with bats flying around above us constantly the whole way. I’m not sure that anything quite beats, though, the idea that bats are fluttering around my garden every spring and summer night. As the moon rises—as it is now, waxing and almost full—I stand at the window, and watch their silhouettes flicker.

I should be proud, really, that they choose my garden because my garden has enough insects for them to feast on. There must be three or four regular visitors at the moment: if you watch them, if you are quick, you can see more than one in your line of sight at the same time, or one disappear off to the left just as another swoops in from the right.

A few years ago I went on a bat walk with my friend W, for his birthday; the tour guide gave us all “bat detectors”, pitch-shifters that lowered ultrasound to audible frequencies. If you twisted the knob up and down the dial, you’d occasionally hear snatches of bat, a bit like trying to tune a shortwave radio to a Dutch or German station. Each species of bat has a slightly different voice, so if you leave the dial in one position you might miss something; equally, turning the dial makes you wonder if you’re going to be on the wrong frequency at the wrong time. For all the noises we heard, we didn’t really see very many bats. Here, though, I see them nearly every fine night. No need to listen for them when I can watch each wheel and turn. At this time of night, at this time of year, you’ll find me at the window, watching the bats.

Ongoing projects

As soon as something finishes, I start two more

The crafting project I mentioned in my last post is finished! Well, aside from blocking it and framing it, that is.

An actually completed cross stitch project of a Gothenburg tram

Me being me though, I couldn’t resist immediately starting two more. And then, of course, there’s the videos still to produce. I will get to the end of the list, eventually. In the meantime, here’s some photos of a few of the things in progress.

An in-progress Lego project all set up for filming

An in-progress crochet creation; this photo is from a few months ago but I still haven't produced the video about it

Frame from another in-progress Lego build which will probably be the first of these to hit YouTube

At some point, I promise, all of these projects will be complete and will have videos to go with them! Better make a start…

Crafting starts again

Or, a new project is embarked upon

It’s been all quiet on here for the past month, and all quiet on the YouTube front too. I do have a couple of projects waiting to be turned into YouTube videos, you see, but that means putting all the video footage together, assembling it, writing the voiceover, recording the voiceover and then cutting the whole thing so that the one fits the other. It’s a surprising amount of work if you do it like that, and I’m not sure my degree of anal perfectionism will allow me to do it any other way. Those videos will make it to an Internet near you, but not until some time in the middle of March at the earliest.

What have I been doing, then aside from that? Sorting out The Late Mother’s paperwork for one thing, naturally. But also, picking up another craft project that arrived for my birthday. I do have a massive cross-stitch project that I bought myself a while ago waiting to get started on, but this was a little tiny small one. A palate-cleanser, I thought it could be, before I start on the next big thing.

The start of a cross stitch project

It doesn’t take long, with a small project, before you start to see recognisable progress. A cross-stitch kit too, because it contains floss that’s been pre-cut into small, manageable lengths, is always very more-ish. Using a whole length only takes maybe twenty or thirty minutes, so at a weekend or in an evening, it’s always very tempting to just do another.

Further cross stitch progress

If it keeps catching your eye, then within a couple of weeks, you have all the cross-stitching itself finished.

All the crosses stitched

There’s still all the backstitch to do, to give it all some outline. This particular kit has three different shades of backstitch to put in, and I’m not convinced how well some of the very pale backstitching will show up against a background that is, frankly, mostly in shades of medium-grey. Watch this space and we’ll find out.

The great year

Looking back, on reflection

The year turns, and the seasons change, as has happened many times before. Tomorrow evening, if you’re in Europe, is the winter solstice, and the days start turning back towards spring. Right now, as I write this, the sun is well below the horizon and the moon is a thin misty sliver behind dark and rain-filled clouds.

This site has been quiet since I posted about putting The Mother’s body in the ground, back at the start of November. Since then…there has been too much other stuff on the horizon to have space in my mind to assemble words into sentences for here, or for that matter, to add video for things to go on YouTube. When you’re dealing with a death in the family, there is an awful lot of paperwork to do, correspondence to answer, and many hours spent on hold to banks, energy companies, everyone she had to deal with. I’ve even had a few letters to answer from organisations who now suddenly think my dad has died, three years later, because The Mother never cancelled all of his direct debits.

Tomorrow, though, is Yule. The end of the year and the start of that time between this and the next, the strange unofficial intercalary weeks that we all somehow seem to obey. Everyone is wound down, yet still tense. Everyone needs the light to change and the sun to move backwards in the sky; and so we have candles and glitter and the warmth of a fire.

At the turning of the year, albeit not the Great Year, it’s worth looking back at what has and hasn’t happened. I’ve made huge strides in life, even if it feels like I haven’t. I’ve taken massive steps, even though I feel I haven’t moved for a long while now.

The other week I was at the beautician’s salon and she asked if I was seeing any difference in how I looked. “It’s hard to say,” I told her, “because I look at myself day to day so I never notice a tiny daily change. You’re more likely to notice a change than I have.” I’m sure, if I were to go back to photos of myself a year ago, I’d see a massive change, even if I feel right now that no massive changes have happened. Hopefully at the next Yule there will have been more changes, even if I feel there haven’t been still then.

I will sit back, imagine lighting a fire, imagine watching the log crackle in the flames, and drink a warming drink. Hopefully, a clear sky, and I can watch the stars spiral and turn. Here’s to one year gone, and here’s to the next just starting, the old gods bringing the sun back around to us once more.

Into the earth

CW: death. Another day, another funeral

It was a bright, crisp, autumn afternoon, the sun still high in the sky. I put my hand in front of my face to shade my eyes from it. Nobody else did, and I wondered if they thought I was saluting.

“Private committal”, I had said on the Order Of Service, so it was only a small group of us. Two of The Mother’s brothers, and their wives; the third brother was too sick to travel. A nephew, a couple of nieces, and my children standing by.

The Child Who Likes Animals was taking a great interest. “She will be buried next to Grandpa,” he kept saying, no matter how many times people explained that, no, Grandpa’s grave had been made specially deep so Grandma could be slotted neatly on top in her matching wicker coffin. When the funeral director had us, the mourners, stand well back by the hearse as the coffin was carried over the damp grass to the temporary trestles at the graveside, The Child Who Likes Animals had ignored him completely, had run circles around them and peered down into the hole. He was the only mourner who saw the bottom of the grave, before the coffin went in.

“Earth to earth,” said the priest, in her hard-edged New England accent. I don’t mean that to sound like a bad thing: she is a very good priest, but her public-speaking voice is firm, and clear, every syllable carefully divided and enunciated. “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” She sprinkled soil from a small plastic takeaway container, finely-divided to be straightforward to sprinkle in.

“Take as long as you want,” said the funeral director, after the ceremony had finished. We stood, not really knowing exactly what to do, or how long to wait before leaving. I thanked the priest, and the director; the pallbearers, two old men and two young women, had drifted away discreetly as soon as the body had been lowered into the ground. We stood, chatted a little, said how nice the flowers were, and it was something of an anticlimax. When she had died, in a hospital room, it felt inappropriate some how to be the last one to leave the room and leave her body, on its own, slowly cooling. At the graveside, it felt the same.

This is also something of an anticlimatic way to end this post. When my father died, this blog was on pause, but I wrote about watching him die straight away. The Mother’s death was four weeks ago, and so far, I haven’t written anything about it, about what led up to it, about the sudden shift in realisation that a life will be ending, not in months or years but in a few hours or days. This, though, might be a good point to start writing about it: the end of the process, not the end of the legal and formal processes, but the end of the ritual part.

On whether birds have legs

Or, conversations The Mother has had

It’s been quiet on the blog for the past month, what with one reason and another. Work has taken priority; other writing projects have taken priority; and more than anything, I didn’t realise just how long videoing my crafting exploits, recording a narration and editing the footage into something at least semi-watchable would take. I will put a link to the YouTube channel over on the sidebar at some point.

I did think it would be nice to make sure I did have at least one thing posted here in September, though, and handily The Mother said something yesterday that I thought was worth writing down. “You probably won’t believe this happened,” she said, “but when I was in town today…”

When The Mother says “you probably won’t believe this happened,” it usually means she’s about to say something that’s extremely believable—much more believable than a lot of the things she claims as straight-up fact—but also unintentionally hilarious. I pricked up my ears.

“…you see this top I’m wearing, how it’s covered in animals?” she said, veering off on a tangent. She was wearing a horrible brown sweatshirt, the colour of estuarine mud, coveerd in embroidered birds.

“There were these two women in town with a pushchair,” she said, “youngish lasses, and one of them came over to me and said: ‘scuse me, can you come over here and show my friend your top?’ So I went over, and she said to her: ‘see! Birds do have legs!’”

I almost wish I’d heard the rest of the conversation, which could be settled most quickly by finding an old woman with the right clothing, rather than, you know, an actual seagull or something. The matter, though, had been decided. The Mother can’t quite get over it.

Provincial civics

Or, the Guardians of Knowledge

Back in March, I wrote about the architecture of Grimsby Central Library and all its surviving 1960s detail touches—the building opened in 1968 and many original details and interior fittings still survive. I briefly mentioned in passing the five gaunt, slightly macabre figures sculpted in relief on the south side of the building. Well, the other day I happened to be passing, it was a bright and sunny day, so I pointed my camera lens at them.

The Guardians Of Knowledge

These are The Guardians Of Knowledge, sculpted in the 1960s by Peter Todd, head of Grimsby School of Art, and moulded from fibreglass but made to look like bronze.

I’m disappointed, slightly, that as far as I know there aren’t any local myths of the statues occasionally coming to life and roaming the town in a ghoulish way. Maybe, on the right day of the year, if you are in the library late into the evening, the staff will give you a haunted look, with fear in their eyes. “Why stranger,” they say, “it’s a bad night to be lost in this town after dark. You had better find yourself a sanctuary.” For who really wants to be given knowledge by these fearsome, cadavarous figures, knowing the knowledge they receive may be a blessing but is more likely a curse?

On the road

A summer ghost story

This post is subtitled A summer ghost story, but it’s not a story, in that it’s true, it’s something that happened to me a few days ago.

I was driving, late at night, from Cymru to Aberhwmbr. I was getting towards the end of the journey, on the winding, twisting stretch of road between Lincoln and Faldingworth, and it was about 10.45 at night. Being the start of July, it was still twilight. The fields and hedgerows were dark, but the sky was a deep blue shading to pale orange in the north-west, and occasional clouds were either dark or light against the sky. In the distance, the red-dotted spike of the Belmont television mast stood upright on the horizon. This is the old kingdom of Lindsey: I was not far from Lissingleys, the historic central meeting-place of Lindsey, where its three Ridings came together.

The road was, for that time of night, relatively busy. This was partly because someone a few cars in front of me was taking a fairly cautious pace, so a line of traffic had bunched up behind them. I was third in the row; there were at least two other vehicles I’d noticed behind me, possibly more. There was nothing, that I recall, coming the other way.

Around Snarford Bridge, I glanced at my mirror, and saw a single headlamp on the offside of the van behind me. A biker, I thought. I saw the light pulling forward, pulling alongside the van. It seemed very yellow in colour, more yellow like a modern headlamp, like a filament builb on a low voltage. Circular, it was, and quite large for a headlamp. A biker on a vintage bike, maybe: it had been good biking weather earlier in the day, so it wasn’t surprising a few would have been out enjoying the evening.

I flicked my eyes back to the tail-lights of the car in front of me. Not a place I’d have chosen to overtake, quite a twisty stretch of road, but I could understand a biker in the middle of a string of traffic starting to get frustrated and pulling out—and as I say, there had been nothing at all coming the other way. I waited to hear the roar of the engine as the bike pulled past me, too.

Nothing; nothing loud enough to be heard over my stereo at any rate.

Still nothing.

They should have reached me now. I glanced to the right expecting to see a quiet bike coming the window, and saw nothing. I looked in my mirror, expecting to see they had pulled in behind me approaching the upcoming bend.

Nothing there. Only the van that had been there all along. The single headlamp that had pulled forward to overtake it? No, no sign.

There are no turns off that road, other than a few driveways and one small crossroads. As we ran through the next curves, I tried to get a look at the other vehicles behind to see if any of them had similar headlamps, to see if anything at all matched what I’d seen.

All modern cars, all modern outlines, nothing at all that colour or shape. It had gone. With no turnings and nowhere to go, it had gone. I shivered, involuntarily, as I started to think there was no way, really, to explain it without saying what I didn’t really want to admit. Maybe it was genuinely a ghost?

It’s hard to say, now I’m home, now it’s a few days later, if I really did see what I thought I did. For the rest of my journey, though, I kept looking behind me, convinced I’d glanced something supernatural. It was, after all, at exactly the sort of spot where a biker may well have made a bad overtaking decision at some point in the past, had thought they could overtake before the bend and had found someone coming fast the other way. To be honest the whole road is notoriously dangerous, to the extent there have been documentaries about it, so you could be forgiven for expecting there might be ghosts on every sharp corner. I’ll keep a lookout, for any other records of ghosts near Snarford, just in case there have been similar sightings in the past. For now though, as far as I know, it’s just my own private ghost sighting.

In the countryside (part one)

Scenes from a rural idyll, or possibly not

It’s something of a cliché—it’s been something of a cliché for centuries, almost—that the English countryside is a haven of natural beauty, a green and pleasant land (to use Blake’s phrase) which is somehow a reservoir of timeless, genuine Englishness.

It’s not true, of course. It’s far from being a green desert, but it’s a strange, deserted place, peaceful due to absence, peaceful because strangers are forever unwelcome. Or am I just seeing it through the lens of folk horror? Nevertheless, whenever I go out for a long country walk, I try to avoid paths that will take me through farmyards and golf courses, because I’m always aware that I’m intruding, there, that I’m a stranger who just doesn’t fit in.

I do, though, still go out for long country walks when the weather is right. I can set out first thing on a Sunday morning and barely see another person other than relatively amiable middle-class hikers and dog-walkers who have driven out to their favourite rural circular walks to get their weekly exercise. All the people who can afford to live in the big houses are still in bed; all the farm workers are sleeping off their Saturday binge hangovers, and the countryside is mine and mine alone, has space for me to intrude in it. I watch swifts and swallows spiralling above catching insects; hares running away up the lane ahead of me; and dozens and hundreds of hedgerow butterflies. I haven’t seen deer yet; I suspect I would have to be up a lot earlier.*

A butterfly, apparently with another insect riding on it

I said the English countryside is a strange, deserted place. It’s a place for the wealthy and the very poor. The process of denudation, of removing the population, has been going on a long time; and Lincolnshire is full of the scars and landforms left behind by deserted villages, the inhabitants evicted centuries ago to turn the landscape into a series of sheep-ranches, the fleeces for export to Brugge.

The remains of Beesby

These lumps and bumps are the remains of the village of Beesby, a village which seems to have just gently faded away in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At the edges of the village are its fields.

Old cultivation marks

The stripes are the result of six or seven hundred years of digging and planting the fields in the same pattern, each villager having rights to a few widely-scattered strips in the large open field, to give each villager land with a variety of soils and situations. After another four or five hundred years as pasture, the ridges they form are still clearly seen, as the sheep and cattle which have grazed here ever since never let anything grow to a height of more than a few inches. This is no hay-meadow full of flowers.

One reason sheep have been so popular on this land for such a long time, why mile after mile of it was turned over to sheep-ranching, is that the soil here is actually pretty poor, thin stuff. The chalk bedrock is only a foot or so below the surface in most places, and when you do find a ploughed field, its surface will be dappled white with lumps of chalk that have come up for air. If you take an archaeologist on your walk with you, be prepared for it to take a while, because each square foot will have a few flints that are probably natural but, you never know, might not be. Of course you might want to keep your eyes out for other things too; because we know there were Roman villages and villas in the area even if we don’t know exactly where all of them were. The land is dotted with pits, too, little quarries maybe a few hundred yards wide, maybe only tens of yards wide, most of them abandoned, some still worked. The larger ones feel as if you may have strayed onto a horror set.

Abandoned chalk pit

One thing that will grow, though, is Brassica napus, rapeseed, almost six feet tall and eye-wateringly yellow. For me, it’s been a sign of the early summer as far back as I can remember, so it’s strange to think that to people only a few years older than me it was a strange, alien plant when it first became popular with farmers here—British rapeseed production increased by a factor of 20 between 1975 and 1995. Where it almost swamps the path, it can be rough going.

Through a field of rapeseed

So much for the timeless nature of the countryside. And this, you see, this is the nice parts. I haven’t got on to the pristine, hygienic farmyards, deathly silent on a Sunday. Or the quiet churchyards hiding who knows whatever Jamesian horrors. Or the pile of wood twice my height, waiting for the sacrificial torch. This post is already getting long; think of this as the gentle, friendly, bucolic introduction, with the next act of the film containing all the scares.

* I have seen deer only just outside town, just after dawn, when I’ve been to the beach for a sunrise walk in autumn. In June, sunrise beach walks are just that bit too early for me.