+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Post Category : Dear Diary : Page 1

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.

The shortest night

Some reflections on the solstice

There were sundogs, yesterday, as the sun was getting low on the horizon. After sunset, there were high, wispy, noctilucent clouds to be seen, and a red glow in the north-west sky which did not fade until getting on for midnight. This is, after all, the North, where midsummer sunset is dead on the North-West compass point.*

All the coverage of the Summer Solstice, at least in Britain, focus on this being the longest day of the year, with seventeen or so hours of sunlight depending on where you are.** The biggest focus of all is on this morning’s sunrise, especially at sacred spots like Stonehenge. Few discuss, though, how the longest day is also the shortest night; and after all, you can’t have the one without the other.

This has been a big year for me so far, and I’m sure it’s only going to get bigger. I’ve always been more of a dark, cold-loving person though than a hot, summer-loving person, so I’m all in favour of the winter coming back. The world turns, and we turn with it. The shortest nights are past us, and now they are growing again.

* This is true in southern England and the southernmost parts of Wales, and is a key part of the solar alignments at Stonehenge: midsummer sunrise is directly opposite midwinter sunset, and midsummer sunset and midwinter sunrise are at right-angles to them. In the English Midlands, northern England and Scotland, midsummer sunset moves further and further north around the compass.

** This wasn’t meant to be an astronomy post, but fun facts keep creeping in. This varies hugely from one end of the UK to the other, by over 90 minutes! On the south coast of England you get less than 16½ hours of day; in South Wales it’s more like 16 hours 40 minutes, in Lincolnshire or Yorkshire it’s around 17 hours and once you’re up to Inverness or further north it’s over 18 hours.

Hooked on a pattern (part two)

The crochet continues

The previous post in this series is here.

The crochet project I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has been coming along, if sometimes in fits and starts. Practicing my crochet stitches, my test piece came along quite a way, even if I did decide to pull it all down and start again because I was making my stitches far too tight, with the result that I then couldn’t stitch into them very easily on the following row, not without splitting the double-knit yarn. Before long, I had quite a substantial…um…rectangle.

A test piece

It must, I thought, be time to start on the thing itself. The first round was a little bit fiddly, but I perservered.

The first false start, and my legs

I just wasn’t happy. The shape didn’t seem right. The shape didn’t seem to match the pictures in the pattern, and I’d clearly messed up the start and stitched the second round, but only the second round, into the wrong side of the previous, so one tiny bit of the thing looked like it was inside out. So, pull it all down and start again. The second time, I got somewhat further…

That shape still isn't quite right

…and I still wasn’t happy. Because I seemed to have misread the pattern. Due, I assume, to my misunderstanding of crochet patterns. The pattern gives instructions for stitching each round, ending with “join with slip stitch”, and then a stitch count. The stitch count for each round matches up with the number of stitches produced in the main instructions for each round, minus the slip stitch at the end. Because of this, I was stitching the slip stitch into the first stitch of the round, then starting the next round by stitching into the second stitch. As a result, the whole thing was developing a twist, and as I started to do more asymmetrical increases and decreases the twist was becoming obvious. I begun again, and moreover, did the first round a number of times until I was quite happy with it. I begun again, treating the slip stitch as an extra stitch in addition to the stitch count for the round, and the shape started to make a little more sense.

Finally everything is lined up

All in all, then, it’s going quite well. I’m now thirty-something rounds into the main body of the thing, stuffing it as I go to help it take up the right sort of shape. It’s a bit lumpy compared to the pattern; it’s a bit larger too, because I’ve used slightly chunkier yarn and a slightly larger hook than the pattern suggested. But so far, I’m pleased.

Actually getting quite big

Whether I’m still going to be pleased when I’m making fiddly little decorative bits that then have to be stitched onto the main body, we’ll have to wait and see.

Hooked on a pattern (part one)

Or, let's not get too crochety

Over the last few months I haven’t done much crafting, for one reason and another, but various crafting projects have slowly built up in my mind, a bit like a slowly-filling bath, until the other day someone sent me a link to an amigurumi pattern they thought I might want to buy, and it finally slopped the water all over the edge of the bath that is my mind and onto the bathroom floor that is my working table. Amigurumi, I should say, is specifically a term for making cute cuddly toys out of crochet.

Now, I haven’t done any crochet for over ten years, and I hadn’t tried to follow a crochet pattern for over ten years before that. On reading the pattern I’d bought, I quickly realised that right this minute my crochet skills are no where near good enough to actually make the thing properly. Rather than give up, though, I started making a trial swatch using the yarn I’d bought, to get used to using it, to remind myself how the various stitches work, and to get used to the difference between American crochet terminology (as used by the pattern) and British crochet terminology (as used by me in the past). They are confusingly similar: to go from American terminology to British you add one to all the names, so a single stitch becomes a double stitch and a double becomes a treble. Within a few minutes really, I had myself a few rows of double single crochet.

A few rows of crochet

My big mistake was buying the wrong yarn, basically. The pattern said to use “baby yarn”, but the shop I went in didn’t have the right colours, so I went for “double knit” instead, thinking “well it’s the same sort of thickness”. The difference is that double knit is twisted from two strands (hence the name, presumably?) and in my hands, the crochet hook is liable to split the yarn when I try to insert it into a stitch or pull through a tight loop.

Making a practice swatch, though, is definitely a good idea if only so I get myself used to how not to do that. Indeed, when a pattern says “insert hook into next stitch”, exactly where in said stitch do they mean? A few times in my first few rows I accidentally decreased or increased several stitches, from either skipping my hook ahead too far or accidentally putting it back into the previous stitch, giving my test piece a rather wobbly and wrinkled look.

I’m not going to start the pattern itself until I’ve done quite a few rows of every stitch it needs, and until I’ve “got my eye in”, reached the point I can look at the piece and see where each stitch is and which part of each stitch each thread belongs to. That was something I learned years ago doing archaeology: you can’t just come into a new situation, look at a thing, and immediately parse it all visually, immediately see how the different things slot together. You have to “get your eye in”, and let your brain learn how things work in this new context. At first my crochet piece was a uniform brown blob, which is why I made mistakes, but now I’m starting to see what to do.

The next part in this series is here

Be seeing you

Or, Photo post of the week under another name

At the start of the month I mentioned that I’d taken The Children away for a week in the Easter holidays, up to North Wales. As I said then, we saw quite a few beached jellyfish. Naturally, though, I refused to spend all day every day on the beach. So where else did we go?

Statue of Hercules

To somewhere I’ve been to a few times in the past, but for some reason, whenever I’ve been there myself I’ve never had a good digital camera with me. Time to rectify that, I thought.

A mural angel

I can remember taking practically that selfsame identical shot when I was a teenager, on Kodachrome slide film. This is a place that—on a sunny day—was ideal for slow Kodachrome and its richly saturated colours. I’m teasing you with little detail shots here because it’s such a famous place, and its main landmarks and vistas are so well-known and well-photographed, that you’d recognise it immediately if I’d started out with any of the obvious viewpoints.

The village campanile

Around the village square

Some of you will have recognised it: the holiday village of Portmeirion, on the headland between the Afon Glasyln and Afon Dwyryd, just on the other side of the headland from the Boston Lodge railway works. It’s full of picturesque clusters of cottages and intriguing viewpoints, because it was deliberately designed in precisely that way, by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. The grandest architectural folly of them all, a folly expanded to the size of an entire village and turned into a holiday resort.

One of the regular readers has already told me that they “struggle to be whelmed” by Portmeirion, and I can see what they mean. Because it’s designed with an artistic eye, because it is designed to be almost like a stage- or film-set in some ways, it has that strange faery property that a set has of seeming, when in pictures or on film, of being much, much bigger than it actually is. You can—and people have—publish entire books of pictures of Portmeirion, with almost as much variety as if it were an entire city, but when you visit you realise that all those views and all those sightlines are crammed into a tiny pocket of space, like the hollow between the cusps of one of your back teeth. If most of the visitors stick to the village and its shops, I do have to wonder what they do all the day.

A towering cottage

Still, if you wander off into the woods, or down along the shoreline path, there are places to explore that relatively few of the village’s visitors get to. A painted-steel lighthouse at the tip of the headland, or various oriental ponds and pagodas. Most curious of all, the Dog Cemetery, a small clearing in the woods packed full with graves.

The dog cemetery

Now I’ve been to Portmeirion with the Proper Camera, now I’ve shown the kids around it, I don’t feel I’ll see the need to go again for a pretty long time; I feel I’ve seen it all. Was it worth going again for the first time in over a decade though? Was it worth it, so that I can take the same photos as everybody else does? Yes, I think so. It’s a charming place, but maybe that bit too carefully-orchestrated, that little bit too whimsical and twee, to be quite as charming as I’d like.

The banks of the Dwyryd

Wibbly wobbly

Or, something from the depths

I took The Children away for a week over the Easter holidays. Naturally, they wanted to go somewhere that had a beach, and naturally, they badgered to be taken to the beach nearly every day we were there. What did we find there, when we went? Jellyfish. Big ones.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish

Jellyfish, at my feet

I poked the bell of one with the toe of my boot, almost expecting it to burst, or my foot to sink into it. It felt surprisingly tough, though, tough and rubbery, not fragile in any sort of way. They were all sizes, from tiny things, to beasts a couple of feet across. I took a photo with The Children in it for scale.

Jellyfish with child for scale

THe big one seemed to have tiny tiny shrimp living in a little hole. I’m not sure if they’d been trapped and eaten by it, if they were in some sort of symbiosis with it, or if they just happened across it as the tide went out and were using it as a kind of emergency rock pool.

Tiny tiny shrimp

One of the regular readers, who I won’t embarrass, has already written to say they’re terrifying. I find them eerie, but also comforting, in that they have been bobbing around the sea happily for millennia, eating away at stuff and just generally doing their own thing. I think these are the barrel jellyfish, Rizostoma pulmo, which can potentially grow to much, much larger than this, and are also known as the “dustbin lid jellyfish” as a result. Maybe one day I’ll come across a dustbin-sized or child-sized one washed up on the shore.

Bad for your health

Or, a sudden flash of the past

The Mother has always lied, and always denied that she does. She hates being called out for her mistakes, and will flatly claim she didn’t make them. Moreover, she’s always preferred to lie rather than admit any aspect of the past she’s ashamed of. Sometimes these things come out, years later, and I start to doubt my own memory. I’m not saying she consciously gaslights people; but she will say one thing one day, something entirely contradictory a week later, and you start to wonder where the truth, if anything, actually lies. This has reached the point where she has been—possibly deliberately—not taking her heart medication, and not going to the pharmacy or the doctor when she should to get her prescription sorted. So, now and then, I go to the doctor with her, to see what she tells him and what he tells her. This woman, who has been telling me constantly that she doesn’t feel well, that she’s constantly dizzy, will tell the doctor that everything is fine. He asks her why she hasn’t been taking her medication: she tells him she ran out, even though she has plentiful stocks at home. He asks her why she didn’t come back for a repeat: she says she wants to help save the NHS money.

Since my father died I’ve been trying to help her come to terms with her grief; but that, too, has in a way been difficult for both of us. I was always aware that there was something slightly off in the atmosphere of the house when I was growing up, although as a child it was impossible to explain or analyse. My father was extremely, intensely controlling, and since his death more and more has emerged which shows what I have been feeling for a while. That, to my mind, myself and my mother were in an abusive relationship with him. She, of course, does not admit this, does not admit that he stalked her before they got together, does not admit that my traumatised memories of his outbursts of anger ever happened, does not admit that he felt anything for us other than love.

Sometimes, though, there are sudden flashes of new information, things I didn’t know, that just go to prove that she should possibly have walked away years before I was born.

As I said, The Mother has always lied. When I was small, back when smoking was much more common than it is today, she told me earnestly not to smoke, that she had never smoked. The one smoker I regularly saw in my life before I started school was the travelling butcher, who would drive round in his van and knock on the door once a week, and then sit on our kitchen stool trying to sell his cuts to The Mother, chain-smoking as he did. She would get an ashtray out for him; it was the only time the ashtray was ever used. He would leave, and she would tell me how important it was not to smoke, that she had never done it.

Later, then, I was a little puzzled when—and I can’t remember the context—she admitted she had once been a smoker, but had given it up. Another of those lies, of something she was ashamed of. I thought little of it.

Until, at the doctor’s this week, the nurse was reviewing all the personal information on her file. “‘Former smoker’, it says here,” said the nurse. “Is that still true.”

“Non-smoker for a very long time,” I interjected.

“Do you know why I stopped?” said The Mother. “It was my husband that did it, before we were married. He said he could never marry a smoker, so I stopped. He said he couild never marry a smoker, and he grabbed the pack out of my hand and threw it on the fire. And he did that every time he saw me with them. So I stopped.”

It was a strange moment. A strange moment of clarity, as to what my father was actually like, back in his early 20s. A little window. I don’t think it’s a nice one.