facing the dawn;
the swelling song of rooks
and pigeons, as this glass picture
facing the dawn;
the swelling song of rooks
and pigeons, as this glass picture
Every year, I resist the approach of winter.
There is always a morning, early in September, when I step outside the back door to find a delicate web stretched between the stems of dying plants in the garden, with a small black-and-brown resident lurking at the centre – the first autumn garden spider. With it comes a definite chill in the air – and from that shivery moment on, I am trying to hold back the encroaching darkness simply by force of wishing it may not be so.
Sadly, my wishful thinking is not powerful enough to halt the carousel ride of the earth around the sun. Like every other helpless human, I’m just holding on tight while the great wheel keeps turning. As I watch the light fail earlier each evening, and pull ever thicker clothes from the back of the cupboard, the link with summer months gets more and more tenuous.
Compensation comes in the form of autumn colours, of course. The beauty of this season easily rivals that of spring. But there’s no escaping the fact that the golden leaves are dying leaves, a last flash of glory before bare branches are exposed to the frost.
It’s all very depressing – that is, until 5 November, Guy Fawkes Night. This time when the annual extravaganza of firework displays takes place is always the moment when, finally, I agree to face winter head-on.
Red, green, gold, silver and, best of all, purple flashes defy the dark skies. A blazing bonfire defies the cold wind. Every fizz, boom and whistle gives a two-fingered salute to gloom.
Even better, Guy Fawkes Night gives permission to think ahead to sparkling fairy lights, scented candles and hot mulled wine – all the warm, comforting accompaniments to Christmas. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
This year, I’ve bought a bright red winter coat. I shall wear it for the first time to our local fireworks display, and stop wishing for summer.
William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? I first started asking myself that question when I read a small selection of his poems for my O Level English exam, and then a few more for A Level. A recent visit to his home, Dove Cottage in Grasmere, central to the beautiful Cumbrian Lake District, got me thinking again.
I remember being both enchanted and suitably scared by the part of ‘The Prelude’ where he describes the Gothic horror of seeing a huge cliff-face rising before his eyes as he rows a stolen boat across a lake. The simple, poignant Lucy poems, about a young woman who lives and dies unnoticed by most of the world, were just as emotionally confusing. To read this stuff was like opening doors in a fascinating but creepy old house. Being a slightly depressive child and teenager, there was something I recognised in this melancholy beauty. I identified with it and felt its pull – but wished not to.
When I read now, as a happier adult, I can see that his constant focus on solitude is what makes me inwardly shiver. I think of poor dead Lucy, who ‘dwelt among the untrodden ways’. In the aftermath of the boat-stealing, his mind is overcast by ‘a darkness, call it solitude / Or blank desertion’. And to top it all, we have ‘The Solitary Reaper’, singing her songs of ‘old, unhappy, far-off things’ alone in an echoing valley.
Wordsworth insists on painting a picture of solitude even when, in fact, it wasn’t so. I learnt from the Dove Cottage tour guide that although, in his most famous poem, he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, the inspiration for those words actually came from a lakeside walk accompanied by his sister Dorothy. He was no hermit: he shared that small home with his wife, his sister and his sister-in-law. Their many visitors included Walter Scott, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He had five children. He seems to have been quite a gregarious fellow, fully involved in life, and yet his poetry tells a different story.
Setting these gripes aside, though, there are things I admire him for. He wrote mostly about ordinary everyday life, not old myths or abstract intellectual ideas. He was a keen observer of the natural world on his doorstep and of the way it made him feel. He was mindful, living in the moment, in touch with his emotional responses to people and places and objects; and his skill in painting word-pictures that pierce straight through into a reader’s heart and mind was unsurpassed. All of these qualities I can appreciate, being a haiku poet myself.
What’s more, I have to admit that, for a poet I ‘don’t like’, his words are as memorable as those of Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence or Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of whom I do like. Whenever I stand on a bridge overlooking the River Thames in London, the words from his sonnet, ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, are right there at the front of my mind. The daffodils poem is one of the very few that I can recite from memory in its entirety (that is, as long as I say it in the rhythm of the song I learnt at school), and I always think of it in spring-time. Somewhere inside me, the melancholy teenager can still recognise a sympathetic mind.
So, William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? The answer’s yes – and no.
When we first viewed the house where we now live, it felt right as soon as we stepped in at the front door. After checking out the living-room and kitchen, we climbed a flight of stairs to the middle floor and another to the top, where two bedrooms were built into the roof space. As I looked out of one of the narrow windows next to the sloping ceiling, across the neighbours’ back gardens to the green and blue stripes of fields and sky beyond and above, I suddenly felt tears prickling the back of my eyes. That’s when I knew for sure that this was the house I wanted us to buy.
Since then, a line of five wind turbines has been planted in one of those fields, right on the horizon. Luckily for me, I’m one of the few people who think they’re beautiful, not an eyesore. Perfectly framed in the top floor window, they catch the light each morning, glowing white against the sky.
Through the same high window, I can often spy on a pigeon or crow perched shakily at the end of the neighbour’s rooftop TV aerial, flapping its tail feathers to keep its balance. Each month, on a cloudless night, the full moon shines through, and every other month the window offers a perfect view of the International Space Station gliding across the sky at the end of its journey from west to east.
I do like windows. I even like paintings with windows in them – a frame within a frame. Especially from high up, looking out and across, there’s a sense of having an expansive view of the world outside. And yet… as I stand in front of our top-floor window, I’m aware that the sounds outside – the rumble of passing traffic, the barking of a small dog, the squawks from the car park rookery – are muffled. I notice the hedges and tree-tops shivering in the breeze but I don’t feel the wind on my face. I see grey-bottomed clouds but I can’t smell the rain in the air.
The pane of glass that gives me access to the world outside also detaches me from it.
I’m sure it does you good to escape to the top floor sometimes and spend a few minutes staring out of a window. It clears your head and helps you to chill out in the middle of a busy day. But it’s also great to be involved in the world at ground level – and for that, a window isn’t good enough. You have to get out of the door.
It took a bit of cajoling to get my 14-year-old niece to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. A whole generation ago, I queued up, also aged 14, to see the very first film, Episode IV: A New Hope, with its groundbreaking special effects and full orchestral soundtrack.
For those of us who were teenagers or children when Star Wars first began, this new film was bound to be partly a nostalgia trip, with the three leading actors returning 40 years older. But would it also succeed in taking the story on into a future that we were interested enough to enter?
Many critics have commented on the plot similarities between Episodes VII and IV. The droid escaping with vital information, then rescued from scrap dealers, is both R2-D2 and BB-8. The talented young pilot tied to an unfulfilling job on a desert planet is both Luke and Rey. The secondary hero who abandons the rebel cause, only to return when he realises how much he’s needed, is both Solo and Finn. Starkiller Base is just another Death Star, destroyed this time almost with a flick of the wrist by the same little old X-wings.
So the film seems heavily weighted on the side of the past. The grief of the decades since the defeat of the Empire certainly burdens Han Solo, Leia Organa and (so we’re told) Luke Skywalker. Han has lost his youthful cockiness, replacing it with looks and gestures that say clearly ‘I’m past caring.’ The new characters struggle just as hard to leave old identities behind: Rey is held on Jakku by the empty hope that her family will return, and Finn is haunted by his stormtrooper upbringing. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren resists the call of the light by praying to a relic – Darth Vader’s melted helmet.
Even the film’s central non-living ‘character’, the Millennium Falcon, is heavy and cumbersome on her first outing, barely able to get off the ground. For me, though, the Falcon is the fulcrum on which the scales turn. This neglected piece of ‘garbage’ is an emblem of a mythical past, but, once unveiled, unshackled and soaring into space again, she remains the most beautiful starship in the galaxy, with the potential to carry forward an exciting reawakened hope.
My favourite new character, the wise seer Maz Kanata, is the one who voices the change of focus from past to future, telling Rey, ‘The belonging you seek is not behind you; it is ahead.’ The word ‘nostalgia’ means literally ‘home-sickness’. It’s tempting always to hark back to the well-loved homes of years gone by, but if the new trilogy is to capture our hearts in the long term, it needs to lead us to unfamiliar places that we can also call home.
Before my 50th birthday, a friend set me a challenge: let the big day be the trigger for doing fifty things I’d never done before. Two years on, I’ve completed the list!
It sounded daunting, but I decided not to interpret the brief as meaning ‘fifty massively exciting or scary things’, like skydiving or hitch-hiking around the world. I started simple, by ordering a bottle of lager with my next curry. (Yes, I’ve led a sheltered life.)
Deliberately choosing new types of food and drink was an easy way of clocking up a few of the fifty – buying pistachio nuts instead of cashews, and trying foods I didn’t expect to enjoy, like figs and curly kale.
Others needed a little more planning, such as booking a lesson on the harp, or setting the alarm for 2.00 on an August morning to look out for the Perseid meteor shower. Some took a bit of determination to carry through, as when I complained to a national newspaper about a misleading report online and not only got the report taken down but pushed for an apology and correction to be printed.
Perhaps the most enjoyable were the activities for which I learned new skills. I made a waistcoat from a fabric remnant, copying the pattern of one I already owned. In the process, I discovered the overlocking stitch and the buttonhole function on my sewing machine.
Given a box of beads and some basic jewellery making tools, I made a necklace. With a batch of essential oils and the right kind of alcohol, I eventually designed a wearable perfume. Helped by a how-to book, I turned pretty paper squares into a flurry of origami butterflies.
The biggest challenge, though, for someone as unaccustomed to foreign travel as I am, was a trip to California. As soon as a friend announced, nearly two years ago, that she was emigrating to the USA, I knew that this would have to be on my list of fifty new things. It brought with it a whole crop of new experiences – not just booking tickets online and boarding the plane for my first long-haul flight, but also having pancakes for breakfast in a typical US diner and being able to wear a summer dress at the beginning of March.
Big or small, planned or spontaneous, the activities themselves were not just important for their own sake. They were all signs of a mindset – the recognition that midlife is not a time to settle into a comfortable rut. It’s a time for branching out, broadening horizons, grabbing the chance to do some of the things you’ve been putting off for too long. It’s about opening up, not closing down.
I’ve done the fifty new things I was challenged to do, but you can bet I won’t be stopping there.
For just a few weeks in late April and early May, my local bluebell wood is a magnet for visitors wanting to catch one of the ‘special events’ of the year. The blooms are not visible from the road, not accessible to casual passers-by. You have to go there on purpose – park the car, open the gate and climb a short slope to the edge of the copse. Then you see the familiar but always magical carpet of mauve (not blue at all, of course), beneath the delicate fresh beech leaves in their contrasting yellow-green.
In August, t0wards the end of an all-too-short summer, the leaves have darkened, the thicker canopy blocks out more of the sunlight, and the ground is a boring brown. Without the bluebells, it’s nothing very special.
Or so I thought. Wanting to spend a quiet hour or two alone on a fine Sunday afternoon, I went to the woods. I parked the car, opened the gate and climbed the short slope to the edge – to be met by an extraordinary atmosphere.
Utter stillness. Not a breath of wind to produce the shushing sound of swaying branches. The air pressure was that of a humid enclosed space, pushing gently on the ears, as if everything around me was waiting and listening for something. It was, as one translation of an untranslatable biblical phrase puts it, ‘a sound of sheer silence’.
I usually stroll around the perimeter of the wood to the far side and stand on the ridge looking out across the fields beyond. But this time I wanted to tiptoe straight ahead, along the broad avenue cut through the middle of the trees, to get deeper into the stillness at the centre.
In spring time, I’d be admiring the display of bluebells; in the autumn I’d be kicking the rustling layers of fallen leaves. Without either of these distractions, with nothing interesting to see or hear at ground level, I looked up, noticing the towering height of the beech trees and the patches of pale sky between the branches.
At last the spell was broken with the echoing shout of a dog-walker at the edge of the copse, and an excited answering bark. Walking on, I had my quiet hour alone – and didn’t once wish for bluebells.