Monday 20 October 2014

Sad things

A woman crying on the train. The way she curls her hands around her face to disguise her tears is saddening.

A stump-footed pigeon hobbling after a piece of bread.

Elderly people left alone for Christmas or holidays. Their loneliness is quite sorrowful and unnecessary.

Two people arguing about something unimportant. You can tell from the way they scream at each other that the true reason for their disagreement remains buried below the surface, unspoken.

Someone kneeling at an alter, praying fervent prayers.

A parent sitting by the bedside of their sick child. Their helplessness and powerlessness is extremely saddening.

The body of a rabbit being picked at by birds.

A funeral at which no one is present.

The devotion of a person which is lost on the other. To see affection offered and dismissed is most distressing. 

Friday 10 October 2014

Beautiful Things

An autumnal day with the trees in their burnt colours and the mist rising loosely over the fields, making the landscape look like a Chinese painting.

The night of a full moon, an occasional cloud veiling its light.

Cold moonlight shining on slate roofs.

The bright flash of a fox’s tail as it slinks out of sight. 

The song of a blackbird. This is especially beautiful if heard early in the morning when there is little other noise to interrupt its clear, trilling sound.

Frogs. Though many people find frogs quite ugly, there is something beautiful about their slick, rubbery skin and the way they hold themselves immobile. A frog jumping is a very amusing sight.

A spider's web beaded by dew or frost.

The bare fields, stripped of wheat. 

Wildflower meadows busy with many-coloured flowers, themselves heavy with bees and other insects.

The Peacock butterfly. I love to find them basking on the side of my house, or the ripe flowers of a buddleia. Their soft, brightly coloured wings and larger than average size are quite impressive.

Libraries. Not only are many library buildings quite beautiful pieces of architecture, what they represent is perhaps more beautiful.
Manchester central library

Tuesday 7 October 2014

English wildflowers

Wood Anemone, Traveller's Joy,
Cowslip, Primrose, Lady's Smock.

Hogweed, Bogbean, Eyebright, Ling,
Skullcap, Bugle, White Dead-Nettle.

Sheep's-bit, Goosegrass, Field mouse-ear,
Hound's-tongue,  Hogweed, Ragged robin,

Gypsywort, Fairy flax,

Feverfew, Ragwort, Daisy.

Thursday 2 October 2014

The pleasure of watching birds

Whether one lives in the countryside or in the city, there are always wild birds to be found. It takes only patience and a certain stillness and soon enough a bird or a flock of birds will come into view. Watching birds can bring considerable pleasure.

From my window I have a good view of the garden, and I am fortunate to live in a place in which there is an abundance of wild birds. I love to identify the different species of bird that arrive in my garden. There are the flocks of starlings that arrive en masse, a great speckled blackness pecking in the grass or weaving a dance in the sky. Goldfinches are another bird that appear in packs, little fluttering flashes of gold and red that settle on the roofs of the houses or amongst the branches of trees. House sparrows, though dowdy of feather, remain interesting to watch on account of their constant movement, their squabbles and their comparative boldness. Blackbirds often appear solo; with their bright orange beaks and musical whistle they are a pleasant presence in the garden, though when a cat appears their warning cry carries quite a distance and can grate on the nerves. Tits, of any variety, are always a flashy presence with their vivid colouring and acrobatic capability they are the true showman of the suburban garden. The robin is a heartening presence in winter or summer. Crows are always an interesting visitor; there is something in the eyes of a crow that speak intelligence, and their glossy feathers and vicious beak create an impressive vision.

Even within the apparent desert of cities, birds may often be found. The pigeon, though considered a pest, is still quite beautiful. With their soft grey feathers, interspersed with light pinks and lavender, a glitter of teal, and their curiously clockwork-like movements, their variety and boldness they are a most under-appreciated presence in our cities. Their deformed feet and the way in which people disperse them so offhandedly, is a source of much dismay. It is easy to forget that pigeons thrive in such numbers because of human wastefulness and lack of care for the environment. Similarly in seaside resorts, gulls are a familiar but unwelcome presence yet they are quite graceful and appealing in flight.

It is exciting to hear the hoot of the owl at night. 

Monday 29 September 2014

On shopping in supermarkets

It seems that in whatever location a person might live, a supermarket is never very far away. Whether one lives in a city or the suburbs, or even in a rural area, it is certainly the case that a supermarket will exist within a ten minute drive of that location. Supermarkets are everywhere. The modern supermarket is something remarkable: vast, clean white floors crossed with evenly spaced displays of carefully parcelled goods in neat rows. So clinical. Supermarkets are remarkable in the way that they have convinced so many of their convenience, despite their out of the way locations often inaccessible to walkers or public transport. When within their walls the shopper is dazzled by the array of choice. On a single aisle one may find up to twenty different types of strawberry jam, though no damson or blackberry. It is interesting the degree of homogeneity which is disguised behind the seemingly limitless array of goods. Supermarket shopping is easy, but not fun. It is convenient, but not rewarding. Rarely do you see a person shopping in the supermarket with joy.   

When I was a child, supermarkets were extremely rare. Instead people shopped on their local high street. They wandered in and out of each shop buying their meat from one, their vegetables and fruit from another. For frozen goods there were special shops with rows and rows of freezers, all closed, their contents disguised behind opaque lids that one had to lift to uncover their contents like a treasure trove. There were shops for newspapers and confectionery, shops for bread and baked goods, shops for shoes, shops for music which sold not just rock and pop albums but also musical instruments and sheet music. There were shops for general dry goods, grocers’ shops, which sold nuts by the pound, great vats of flour. The floor of the butcher’s shop was covered with sawdust and wood shavings; the butcher’s apron bore vertical stripes in red or blue and white, often streaked with brown, finger shaped stains of dried blood. The black pudding with its fat intestinal coils always gave me the shivers. Shopping took time, it was a ritual. Many shops had individual owners, the chain store was rare. People took care over their offerings; bakers prided themselves on their skill. If a cream bun cost ten pence more in one shop than another but were the best cream buns in town, one didn’t begrudge paying the extra.

Market days were always exciting. On Bank Holiday Mondays there would be a special market; the streets were riddled with stalls that spread across half the town and each turning brought new surprises. Stalls selling books and magazines, handbags and cheap dresses, belts, treats, all sorts of things. The food sellers would fill the air with marvellous smells: candyfloss and doughnuts, hotdogs and burgers, the humble but quintessential chip. The streets would be littered with food wrappers and plastic bags; dogs would wind a path through forests of legs, feasting on scraps of discarded food alongside the pigeons and blackbirds, brown fluttering of sparrows. Stall owners would cry their wares, their offers “three for a pound…two for the price of one…a fiver for the last one, they’ve all got to go”. Markets are a carnival of colour, a confusion of sound, a jumble, a lot of fun to walk around.  

Supermarkets are convenient. They are the perfect reflection of a world which measures value in terms of time and cost. If I had my choice, I’d rather have a messy market day, meat wrapped in paper and a cream bun from the best, if most expensive, bakery.  

Thursday 25 September 2014

Travelling by train

Every weekday I travel by train. I have travelled the same line up and down, Monday through Friday, for the past 10 years. I must now be an expert in train travel.

I am an expert, but there is still more I can learn. After 10 years the danger is that you stop seeing. After 10 years you think you’ve seen everything there is to be seen.

There is always something new to be seen. A white flash of bunny-tail, the growth or fall of a tree, a new crane on the horizon, a building burning, the way the sun’s rays fall on the golf course this morning.

The people are the same people, but different. Each morning a different configuration; each evening, a different conversation.

I am an expert. I know just where to stand on the platform so that when the train stops the door is nearby. I board in an unhurried way. There will be seats, there is always a seat somewhere even if it’s on the floor. I let people board the train before me. I let people exit easily. After 10 years, there is no hurry.

I know the trains and their configuration. I know from the front of the train whether the door will be at the end of the carriage or the middle, or spread evenly at regular spaces. I know which seats will be free. I know where to sit so the persistent drip doesn’t drip on me. I know how to avoid the wobbly seat.

I like to travel on a new route, an unfamiliar branch. I like the surprise of it, the sense of taking a journey, safely, into the unknown. Arriving at a new station and learning its secrets. The basic configuration is always the same: there are platforms, there are trains, there is a ticket gate and people in neat uniforms to check the tickets and provide customer support, there is a ticket office, there are boards announcing arrivals and departures. They are the same, but different. Each has its own character.

I love the old trains, the rickety decrepit trains with windows that open (and don’t always close), an engine that rumbles and clatters. Old trains are characterful.

The new trains are slick and aerodynamic. They are all about efficiency. They are slick, but inside there is little space for people. Inside a new train, people are a nuisance.

Riding a steam engine is like riding a horse. It is personal and animal. It breathes, its flanks heave, it roars. Driving a steam engine is like breaking a horse. You must treat it tenderly and determinedly. I drove a steam engine once. It was exhilarating.

I love travelling by train. Each journey is a gift of sensory experience. There is always something to see, the vista is always changing even on a familiar journey. The trains are warm or cold, the glass of the windows either clear or hazy with condensation. The seats are comfortable, or not. You may sit or stand. Every day there are different conversations, a different yet familiar set of people. People come and go. There are birds and trees and unexpected clumps of flowers. If you’re lucky the occasional glimpse of fox or deer.

A train journey is a gift of time. You can learn, you can read. On a train, you can meditate. You can relax. On a train you’re free to dream. 

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Irritating things

People who walk along staring at their mobile phone. They are like a stone in the shoe, impeding movement. This is especially irritating in cities.

Competitive misery.

When someone says "With all due respect..." and what follows is invariably less than respectful.

Stock phrases such as "to be fair; to cut a long story short; at the end of the day; I hear what you're saying...". Rarely do these phrases serve any other purpose than to fill a silence.

Media sites that deliberately seek to goad or annoy. Why do they feel it necessary to spread misery and anger?

People who check their mobile phones in the middle of a conversation or meeting. How rude!

Dog excrement on the pavement.

People who throw their rubbish out of car windows. This behaviour is simply lazy and inconsiderate.

People who complain about the behaviour of others, but smile and accept it when in that other party's presence. *

Mobile phones.

People who say they are going to do something, but never do.

*I may be guilty of this, on occasion.