Growing pains

Alice in Wonderland.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartSeeds come in various sizes, from the dust of foxgloves and grit of brassicas to the desiccated sponges of beetroot. All are shells containing new life. Some need to be frozen for a kick start, some drowned in a saucer of water overnight, some cooked over a radiator, but they have this in common: they must be shattered. Three times in the past few days, I’ve been reminded by the wise that stress is the trigger for growth.

First, standing with a friend in the Ashmolean looking at a hand axe 300,000 years old, I voiced my rather clever, I thought, objection to evolution theory with the question, ‘How come one species grows out of another, but the original one remains? In other words, how come there are still chimps?’ She looked at me witheringly, as well she might. ‘The chimps were in a comfortable place.’ I fell backwards through time like Alice and got a glimpse of hungry hominids, cold and thirsty. Time to move, to migrate, or to change.

Second, a YouTube clip I came across on Facebook. Anyone with a beard like that has to be wise, so I listened…

[Unfortunately I am not evolved enough to embed a vid and get it to play when it doesn’t want to. Here’s the link: Responding to Stress. And if that doesn’t work, as it doesn’t for me, go to YouTube and search Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski, Responding to Stress.]

Third, in my current favourite reading, Florida Scott-Maxwell’s Measure of my Days, this development of the thought:

Evolution is necessarily slow since we resent it so. A large proportion of our energy is used in holding it back, wanting to stop it if possible. The new good is refused countless times before it is accepted. The rare, the beautiful, the admirable are taken as rebukes, making us feel inferior, suggesting our improvement. Anything but that, so we mock at the new, recoil from the rare belittle the great, until finally grown accustomed … to ignore is easy.

And then a glimpse not of the distant past, but of now and how it is as I biff my husband to try something new, such as podcasts on his Kindle Fire.




Fra Filippo Speaks

After yesterday’s exciting news, that a publisher in Russia is looking with interest at Knights of the Grail and, potentially, all my novels, Fra Filippo is elbowing everyone aside. Today is his day. Recently interviewed by the wonderful Helen Hollick, his unholy words have just appeared on her blog.

A Gift for the Magus low res


Vernal Equinox

It’s a misty, dank day, this 20th March. We’ve enjoyed high pressure for over a week, and for many days that has meant cold air and bright sun, but now it is warming a little, as under a grey blanket. Time to start turning the soil ready for planting.

And time to stop writing. What does that mean this year, this day? A pause, at least, to take breath and re-gather the energies after a few weeks of being carried on a big wave towards the end. I’m stopping with the end still to do, but at least the structure is in place now, and the latest idea makes me smile suddenly in inappropriate places, whilst talking to another or walking to the corner shop.

I say, this is my last novel. Others say, we’ll see. I compromise: I shall not go looking for another story, but if one comes to me… But if they could see this screen as I type, they might realise what I’m trying to say: I’m not up to it any more. It seems that even at the basic level, of touch typing, brain and hand are no longer in synch. I sometimes watch words appear on the screen and wonder how they got there. Is it just a spelling (first written as pseeling) mistake that hand becomes hound? Some fat-fingered mis-typing? I think not. Somewhere in the process, I am typing (tuyping) what I hear, and it seems I’m not hearing so well on a subtle level.

I have loved this winter past, although I would have liked it a bit colder, would have liked to have seen snow falling. In the Drawing Landscape class, I am learning to draw trees, learning that what stops me being able to draw trees is impatience – all those twigs! – and now I see buds appearing, breaking, even, on the blackthorns, and I think, ‘Oh no! So soon?’


I shall miss the trees in silhouette, the ability to see into the undergrowth, the gratitude of the swans as I feed them, the snuggle of winter clothes, the bliss of my very woolly socks, the great white cloud of the new duvet, the teddy-bear embrace of the armchair slanket. No doubt spring and summer shall have their compensations.

And so here we are, at the equipoise between winter and summer, balancing on a fulcrum, on a day when it will be light for as many hours as it is dark. Too grey a day to run out on to the meadow at sunrise to see my equinoctial shadow stretching away to the west. Alas. But a good day for a bit of a clear up and chuck out, perhaps starting with the ideas of what I can and cannot do.

mature socks
The best socks are those that can stand up for themselves

Subtle Maps

Subtle Maps

It’s too easy to think of blogging as singing in the shower in an empty house, but every now and again you pull back the curtain and find you have an audience. Gulp! Yesterday was one such day when, for some reason, my stats went wild. I also received a message from people I never knew about, the parents of Justin Howes, who left a comment on a post I made a couple of years ago, saying that today is eleven years since his premature death.

All death, all grief is hard to bear, but how much harder it must be to grieve for your child than to grieve for a parent. The death of a parent is in the natural order of things, something that can rarely take us by surprise. But of a child, even — especially — when he is a grown man, it must be so hard.

I was therefore reading through my post ‘Goodbye to the Press‘ and realised I’d made a mistake in saying we’d gone to Kidderminster to see Justin. Of course, it was Kettering and I was muddling my K’s. Then I realised that anywhere that begins with K seems remote to me: Keele, Keighley, Kent. It was the middle of the night, of course, that hour when I lie prone fit only to wonder about things, and I was wondering, does anywhere in Oxfordshire begin with K? Cumnor, Cowley, Cutteslowe, Cotswolds, the list went on and I do believe I drifted off, but not before I’d wondered why this should be, that Oxonians prefer hard C to K, and whether — now, here’s a thought — whether there is an invisible map of England related to such linguistic differences in place names? I expect there is, and someone has already done it, but in the deep hours it was toe-wriggling delight to think of my felt-hatted and smocked predecessors (not ancestors — they were elsewhere) burring and drawling, telling the children what places were called, and suffering some kind of aversion to K.

There may not be such a map, yet, but what I did happen upon and only yesterday, when googling about looking for something to explain the geology of Shropshire (as you do), was the government’s very new project, Natural England’s Character Map.

The idea was to divide England up into areas of habitat rather than geo-political divisions (usually created to massage voting patterns, I have to say). How sensible! How wonderful! How wise! Mind you, it took me a while to find where I live, for in this plan ‘Oxfordshire’ is designated ‘The Upper Thames Clay Vales’. Of course, silly me …

The description: … a broad belt of open, gently undulating lowland farmland on predominantly Jurassic and Cretaceous clays. Blenheim Palace World Heritage Site falls within the NCA, along with around 5,000 ha of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and smaller areas of the Chilterns AONB and the Cotswolds AONB. Two of its Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) are designated for their lowland meadow vegetation communities, while Little Wittenham SAChas one of the most studied great crested newt populations in the UK. There are contrasting landscapes, including enclosed pastures of the claylands with wet valleys, mixed farming, hedges, hedge trees and field trees and more settled, open, arable lands. Mature field oaks give a parkland feel in many places.

The project was only completed two years ago. Perhaps it’s taking time to filter into national consciousness, or perhaps I’ve just been out of the loop. Anyway, I embrace you, Natural England Character Maps.


Welcome to Upper Thames Clay Vales – a K-free zone


How to see

How to see

2015 has, for me, been the year of John Ruskin. It was the year of four trips to Lake Coniston, two of them holidays in a cottage which is completely Swallows and Amazons, two of them on retreat with fellow writers at Brantwood Lodge. Brantwood was Ruskin’s home at the end of his life. It was where he put many of his ideas into practice. You cannot walk those woods above the house without bumping into his gangly spirit, striding along, muttering, ‘Just look! All you have to do is just look!’


The Lodge at Brantwood House

Creatively, it has been one of the profounder years. I started high, with a retreat in February, but by March I was crashing into something a friend finally diagnosed as ‘accidie’. I read Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me and realised that the way out from this awful hole of depression – a kind of well where a deep voice booms, asking, ‘What’s the point?’ – is to pay attention to detail.

Art in Action invited me to take part in their lecture programme in July and I opted to speak on Ruskin and ‘How to see’. Preparing for that helped me out of my hole. After all, I had quickly to learn what I was about to propose to others: how we need to learn how to just look.

One of the highs in this year of valleys and mountains, troughs and peaks, was signing up for a drawing class at the Ashmolean Museum. This was where, after all, Prof. Ruskin founded the Oxford School of Art and, to my joy, his spirit still presides there, too. I had four sessions of traditional instruction in drawing technique, and discovered that if you want to learn how to see, drawing is the very best way.

elements of drawing

Ego haunts every path and turns us off the straight and narrow so quickly. ‘You wanna do art? Be an artist? Have an exhibition? You want praise? You want to impress people?’ Every day I have to remind myself, no, no, no and no. None of these things. I just want to learn how to see.

What I produce is of no importance. What matters is that for a few moments I’ve stopped to look: how a branch grows from a willow’s trunk, the angle of the crest of a grebe bobbing on the river, the slouch of an angler sitting on his stool, the shine of a crow as it pecks away at the pile of horse dung it’s standing on.


An aged John Ruskin being visited at Brantwood by William Holman Hunt

God is in the detail. Truth, happiness, knowledge. The devil is in ambition. I hope I remember this throughout 2016.


Robin of Brantwood

Mr Ruskin’s bath

I’m just back from my fourth trip to Coniston Water in the Lake District this year. It was neither my intention nor desire to go there or so often – it just kept being offered and I kept accepting. Two of those weeks were spent at Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin, in a privately-run writers’ retreat, weeks of total immersion, stunning views and great walks. It was hardly surprising that I fell in love (again) with Ruskin. The first time had been while i was writing Consider England, back in the 90s. At that time, Brantwood had not been open to the public very long. Now it is a port of call, literally, for the Coniston launch and the Steam Yacht Gondola, and has a car park for those who arrive more conventionally.

Launch leaves Brantwood for Coniston

Launch leaves Brantwood for Coniston

I was sitting in Ruskin’s study and a Dutch couple came in to look around. The man looked up and said, ‘He’s still here, you know.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘It’s as if he just popped out and will be back any minute.’ The grounds, being thoughtfully and devotedly restored by gardening staff and volunteers, are trails of beauty and happiness through woods, over rocks, with wonderful cataracts crashing past through ferns and mossy stones. ‘Ruskin’s seat’ is a stone slab over such a cataract and you can imagine him sitting there, paddling with bare feet.

Ruskin's seat

Ruskin’s seat

‘Ruskin’s pond’ is something he made so that he could see the sky without craning his neck. A visit into the public toilets makes you gasp at the loveliness of tiles and fittings, and above is an out-of-the-way room most miss, where a newly constructed lithophone sits, inviting you to play it. Based on something Ruskin invented, this one was built in recent years with advice from Evelyn Glennie. There are two of them, the smaller one being wired to a synthesiser. I jump about with the beaters like a native drummer and, depending what number I’ve selected on the keypad (I try them all) I get arpeggios, broken chords, up octaves, down octaves and water effects. It is woo-woo music, kind of right for Samhain. I summon nature spirits and they come.

Dining room of Brantwood House

Dining room of Brantwood House

The lodge, where we stayed, once housed his valet. When it was restored just recently, they moved Ruskin’s bath out of the house and into the upstairs bathroom. It is fed by water from the reservoirs that he installed 140 years ago in the moorland garden, water that is soft and yellow, yielding clouds of soap.

Ruskin's bath 2

It is so long: I could drown in this bath, a vast tub with Victorian taps made by Shanks and Co. looking like capstan wheels. It has a strange drainage system – designed by Ruskin? – where you use the central tap to lift or lower an internal sluice gate that doesn’t quite seal, so you bathe to the sound of running water – Bee House Beck beneath the Lodge and the bath leaking. To get out of this bath, I have to turn over on to all fours.

Long hot soaky

Long hot soaky in the great man’s bath

I think I went to Coniston four times this year because I needed to. As Ruskin said himself, ‘I should be well if I could be at Coniston Water.’

Coniston Water from the south end

Coniston Water from the south end

Acts of Mercy

Seven Acts of Mercy by Frans II Francken

Seven Acts of Mercy by Frans II Francken

At a series of talks on mysticism yesterday, we heard about the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy. These are:

  • Feed the hungry
  • Give drink to the thirsty
  • Clothe the naked
  • Shelter the homeless
  • Visit the sick
  • Visit the imprisoned
  • Bury the dead

As they were enumerated, I felt my soul settle, because for the last few months we’ve been in this storm of opposing opinion about the migrants and refugees, divided between those who say we should take them on board and those who say that, if we do, we’ll all drown. Emotionally I was drawn to the ‘take them in’ movement; rationally I could appreciate the other point of view. Hearing the Seven Acts of Mercy, however, resolved the conflict. And made one feel rather proud of Christianity.

The list derives from chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew.

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’

That is the source of the first six acts. The seventh, to bury the dead, is derived from the Book of Tobit.

In these days of cynicism, a point of view which, projected back into the past, gives us a view of a Church eternally corrupt, it is comforting to think that some early medieval monks or, perhaps, desert fathers, drew up this list as a guide for us to live by.

‘How did we forget this?’ someone asked me in astonishment in a coffee break. Two answers to that. One is the Reformation, for the Seven Acts of Mercy have not been forgotten by Catholics. The other is that we haven’t forgotten. Food banks feed the hungry, Oxfam et al clothe the naked, and other charities look after the sick and imprisoned. No one should go thirsty, at least not in this country, and the local authorities bury those too impoverished to see to their own funerals.* As a Christian society, these things are more or less covered. But the memory of the text from Matthew, which reminds us of the divine soul of all beings, should not be lost by the individual. It makes right action so much more obvious.

  • I just looked into this and found my optimism to be misguided. See The Daily Mail’s article from last December on funeral debt. Further investigation showed that the homeless dead are given ‘public health funerals’ – burials of up to four people in unmarked graves. Burial (or cremation) of paupers and the lonely, which the Beatles highlighted in their song Eleanor Rigby, remains a pressing issue in our society.