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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

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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.

Too tired for meteors

On not seeing the Quadrantids

If you’re into astronomy—or if you were reading this blog this time last year—you might remember that the first week in January is home to one of the big annual meteor showers, the Quadrantids. I still keep meaning to write a blog post about Quadrans Muralis and other forgotten constellations, and I’m sure I will do at some point. Anyway, as I was saying, last night was the Quadrantids’ peak night.

I went outside at 7 or so for an evening walk, and the sky was beautifully clear, with what felt like it would be excellent seeing. Unfortunately, it was also bloody freezing, with a strong wind blowing, and I was exhausted from my first day back at my desk after the long Christmas break. So, an early night, and no Quadrantids for me.

About half two I woke from bad dreams, and considered getting dressed, dragging a garden chair out and going outside. I could hear the wind blowing gustily, though, and howling around the gutters. Moreover, I’d already worked out that the radiant, here, would be in the direction of the worst street-lights in any case. “Maybe not tonight,” I thought, and turned over and tried to get back to sleep.

There will still potentially be meteors to see tonight, of course, and if the seeing is good again I’ll at least consider taking myself outside. I might have to dig out my warmest clothes and put them to one side first, though.

New year, new dawn

The sun still rises

“Are you going to go and watch the sunrise on New Years Day?” said more than one person over the past week or two. Initially, I agreed, it seemed like a rather nice idea. The sunrise is too late at the moment for me to really go and see it on a work day such as the Winter Solstice, so New Years Day seemed like a suitably symbolic alternative. However, I had second thoughts. A long-distance running race was scheduled for that morning. Not only would it bring crowds, but it also would block off my usual access to the beach from around sunrise until well after lunch. I thought better of trying, so had a lie in instead. On the 2nd I had other plans, which I’ll tell you about later in the week; so finally, today, I headed down to the beach for my first sunrise this year.

It was, still, unusually busy. But by that I mean the car park was half-full, and there were several other groups of people spread out across the beach, not that I was having to elbow my way through the crowds. One family had brought chairs to sit and watch the sunrise. A man with a long, long camera lens grumbled at his dog for running off.

Dawn on the beach

The tide was highish but falling, so I strolled along the tideline. The sea was calm, no swell at all, but a bitterly chill wind swept across the sands and raised ripples in the water. I watched the first signs of fire lighting the edges of the clouds

Dawn on the beach

This is an east-facing coast, so normally, as you would expect, the sun rises over the sea every day. At this time of year, though, the sunrise moves so far around to the south that it rises over the land instead. And naturally, on a day with a clear blue sky, the one and only patch of clouds on the horizon was exactly in line with the sunrise. I watched as, slowly, the sun edged around the clouds, crows wheeling in the air around me.

Dawn on the beach

In a few months time, when the sunrise is early enough that I can get home after it, shower and breakfast before work, hopefully I’ll start coming here every day again, or at least doing something else similar to give me fresh outdoor air each morning. For now, though, this was enough. The sunrise in winter, starting the year afresh. I shivered in the bitter wind, and turned for home.

Dawn on the beach

Just one dawn, but it means a whole new start.

A blast from the past

Or, digging out some old words

As it’s New Years Day, time for a new start and all that, I’ve … er … done what I said I was going to do back in November, and started to pull out posts from my previous blog, of twenty years ago, edit them and post them on here.

In my mind, this blog and that blog are effectively equivalent, so it’s strange to realise that I only kept that site going for two or three years or so. Compared to the not-quite-one-thousand posts on here, the old blog was hardly anything. Nevertheless, I still think it’s worth copying over some of the highlights, not that any of the handful of posts moved so far count as highlights. So far I’ve done March 2002, starting from the start, but starting a project is half the battle if you ask me.*

In the meantime, while I do more editing, there haven’t been many photos posted on here lately. So here’s one I uncovered on the old hard drive, from the Edinburgh period of my life. Going by the filename, this was taken in the Holyrood Tavern, which dates it to around 2003, before it changed hands and most of the regular clientele moved over to the Auld Hoose instead. I hope none of the people in the photo mind; but they’re probably a bit too blurry for a stranger to recognise them anyway.

Inside the Holyrood Tavern

Happy New Year!

* The Plain People Of The Internet: Is that why you never finish any?

The calendar rolls around again

Or, the end of the year

It’s Hogmanay, or nos Calan,* or New Year’s Eve if you’re English.

In some previous years I’ve done a big summary round-up of exciting things and powerful memories from the past year. In at least one, I even did a week or so of posts counting down my top five memories of the year. 2021? Nope, I’m not doing that. Not because nothing has happened, not at all, but almost because too much has happened. I moved house twice. I met one of my best friends face-to-face for the first time. I changed jobs. I went for walks on the beach a lot. Most important of all, though, I gained confidence. I gained enough confidence in myself to look at who I really am, what has held me back in the past, and start to sort out some of those things.

So this post, then, is not about looking back, because I’ve spent a lot of time doing that over the past year and I know that I don’t have a time machine. I know I can’t go back to 2003, or 2006, or any other arbitrary point in my life. This post is about looking forward, because in 2022 there are going to be even more changes in my life. Changes that I’m going to take the lead on, be in control of, and that will put me in a position where I can live a happier life.

At some point in the next year I will ramble on about this a lot more, I’m sure, and explain more about where I’ve come from and where I’m going to. For now, to you the reader, this is all unsubstantial mist, I know. It won’t always be. For now, happy new year, blwydden newydd dda, and here’s to a better 2022. I know mine will be better, and I hope yours is too.

* It’s only just occurred to me that the Welsh word “calan”, meaning the first of the month or year, is a direct remnant of the old Roman word kalendae, from which the English word “calendar” is derived.