ASK NOT FOR WHOM THE CONDUCTOR DANCES

Keep an eye open for your bliss. You can stumble upon it or you can create it. And for all your planning, it may still be a surprise.

I expected a satisfying day in Exeter, South West England. For one thing, they have the Royal Albert Museum and, for another, the cathedral – the heart of the city. The city’s Red Coat Guides would round the day out nicely.

The sign says, "Believed to be the narrowest street in the world. 23" increasing to 45"."

The sign says, “Believed to be the narrowest street in the world. 23″ increasing to 45″.”

I didn’t see the Sword and Cap of Maintenance in the Guildhall. These were a gift from Henry VII to Exeter as an acknowledgement and thank you for dealing with a pretender to the throne in 1497. Apparently, the original cap has been enclosed in a hat rather different in appearance. That is on display, though retired from active duty, and replaced with a replica. As relics go, it’s a close cousin to Washington’s axe with its replacement head and shaft.

In a carpark

Now a carpark

Springs pop up throughout the city – a result of the high water table. The tunnels underneath the city were created for maintenance men to deal with pipes. It was all a bit rough and ready in those days – as one would expect. The men joined the pipes with rags dipped in fat. The cycle of food for the rats and consequent employment for the men presumably made everyone happy.

Shops in the river bank.

Shops in the river bank.

Stepcote Hill may have begun as Strip Coat Hill. People entering through the west gate would have laboured up it into the city.

Exeter, Stepcote Hill

"The House That Moved"

Next to Stepcote Hill: “The House That Moved”

This bridge dates from the twelfth century when it spanned marshes. The church on it was named after St Edmund because he sought refuge under a bridge. It still provides what looked like permanent shelter for one woman.

Note the different shaped arches.

Note the different shaped arches.

And this was all very well but, yielding to the attraction of extremes, I wanted to see the longest uninterrupted medieval vaulted ceiling in the world (about 96 m, 315 ft). And so I came to Exeter Cathedral, initially ‘built’ by William the Conqueror’s nephew and consecrated in 1133.

Exeter cathedral vaulted ceiling

A number of other features set it apart. It is the only cathedral in the UK with two towers. (The church in the town of Ottery St Mary was modified in 1337 to become a mini replica.) The Exeter cathedra, or bishop’s throne – that which differentiates church and cathedral – is an impressive 18 m (59 ft) high. The cathedral also contains the earliest set of misericords (mercy seats) in the UK and the minstrels’ gallery in the nave is unique in English cathedrals.

Exeter cathedral astronomical clock

Hickory Dickory Dock
This astronomical clock
While keeping the time
Gave rise to the rhyme
And there’s a hole in the base for the cat.

The library contains important manuscripts including the Exon Domesday book. My Red Coat Guide said that, as the Bodleian library was being set up in Oxford, a Bodley brother in Exeter offered this book for inclusion. His brother declined – possibly because it was a bit scrappy in appearance. It is now worth £2million.

The stone employed in the image screen (the front of the cathedral) is from the village of Beer. Apparently, it’s soft to quarry and carve then hardens with exposure – rather like oversized fimo for adults. England’s biggest facade of 14th century statuary, it was once painted in bright colours (and, according to my guide, pink-washed during the civil war). The muted colours that we associate with churches today is not representative of their history– they were once places of visual revelry.

How much does the appearance of a church – colours, scale, visual art – shape our response to its teachings? Do we respond differently to the same words delivered in a cathedral and a tiny wooden church, for instance? Would we go on our way from a gaily-coloured place of worship more glad of heart than from a sombre one?

Consecration marks

Consecration marks

In any case, the remarkable Exeter cathedral, thrilled me in a way I did not foresee.

I had seen online that it was to host a concert to mark the 30th anniversary of Wren Music. I hurried from my walking tour and was whisked in the door by a lively dance tune played by two folk orchestras from Devon. The programme featured waltzes, traditional tunes from around the world, songs of protest and solidarity, music to make one weep and tap and soar. Six conductors took command…and magic happened.

A conductor’s movements are a physical representation of the music – both another way for the audience to experience the sound and a delight in themselves. Two conductors gifted us richly.

It was easy to imagine the members of the youth group, Roots Acoustic, waking up each Saturday and smiling at the thought of music that afternoon with Becki Driscoll, composer and conductor. In the cathedral, surrounded by sweeps and columns of marble, violinists swayed, guitarists’ heads pecked the beat…and Becki Driscoll danced. She danced the music we heard, creating it as she did.

conductor in Exeter cathedral

Paul Wilson invited a group of women in the centre of his large choir to begin a Sardinian song. As their voices held, firm and mellifluous, he wheeled one outstretched arm like a ballet dancer. A finger snapped out and pointed to the end of the cathedral above the audience’s heads. ‘Project,’ it said. He folded more singers into the song. The hem of his dusky-red jacket shook as his upturned fingers trilled, asking for volume.

conductor in Exeter cathedral

I found myself smiling broadly; this was deep pleasure.

With movements elegant, eloquent, crisp and graceful he lifted the voice of his choir to the ribbed vaults. Our human hearts fluttered like reflections on brass within the ancient giant heart of the cathedral.

What Do You Mean ‘It’ll Be Three Days’?

On Friday, my computer chucked in the towel: blue screening all over the show. I called a repairman, we did a drop off (I felt like a drug lord) and he drove away with what I dramatically told him was my life’s work.

He sorted the blue screen stuff (faulty RAM stick) then the computer refused to charge. He fixed the charger then the wireless wouldn’t arc up. He worked out the wireless then the computer wouldn’t start. He sent it to computer ER.

I hope the last domino has fallen.

Mostly.

It’s a curious thing. When Tony, the repairman, told me it would be three or four days until I saw my laptop again, I just about blue screened myself. How the heck…? I had things to do, projects to work on. This next week was to be an intense time, a fun time…a productive time. And now, pow zam zap, all in cinders.

I checked my to do list. There were things I could do that did not require a computer, things that might have been pushed aside or snarled at if I’d had one.

That afternoon in the library, as I signed out the maximum number of items (all picture books) the contrasting colours on the cover of a book on the counter drew my attention. Oooh! A thick  novel by one of my favourite authors. Goodbye ‘The Elephant and the Bad Baby”, I’ve read you once, you can wait for another day when there is less magic around.

The following morning I climbed the steep hill behind my house feeling this time like Lucie from Mrs Tiggywinkle: ‘along a steep pathway – up and up – until Little-town was right away down below – she could have dropped a pebble down the chimney’. Moisture turned the far hills blue. A nearby lake shimmered and it was warm enough to remove my mittens.

At home, I nested in the sun room. It’s often too bright in there for me to see my computer screen but a crisp white notebook… now that works. With no web pages to distract me, no photos to fiddle with (one of my planned projects) I am putting in the yards on my picture book. It is taking shape.

From my windowed room I watch the day as if it is a movie. I saw my first bumble bee of the year – a huge, fuzzy black ball carving paths in the air. A flock of large gulls wheeled in and settled in the paddock in front of me. Other birds flapped wildly or soared or dropped to capture food. A tiny figure traversed the hilltop skyline away to my right as though balancing on a razor edge. Clouds formed and dissipated.

None of these things are visible from my office. In the normal course of events I would have missed them as I sat in front of my screen.

And I have made curtains, resealed the shower recess, discovered why the vacuum cleaner isn’t functioning, learnt how to gut a fish, picked up the rubbish along my road and the main road it intersects, realised that the gap at the top of the pantry cupboard door is unfixable, watched Torville and Dean skate their final Bolero ever, read three quarters of a novel and planned two dinner party menus.

Granted, some of these things I would have done anyway, but it seems so much easier, I have so much more room, when I’m not tussling with a computer. My life opens up. For me, there is some suction exerted by a computer. There is always stuff to do on it – useful stuff, good stuff but stuff. These computerless days have liberated me from all those tabs I want to read, that bulging inbox. Oh yes, I need to be more organised (I’m working on it) and less hoardy and unrealistic about what I can get through (working on those too). Maybe if I was, being computerless wouldn’t create this sense of freedom.

Sometimes it takes just a step, sometimes a full swing of the pendulum, to experience or remind ourselves of how we can feel, to see what is possible. And then we can swing back, but only as far as we want for we have become aware again. We can rejig our lives.

So what am I going to do? I’m going to work in the sun room in the planning and first draft stages. My writing hand is a better conduit for useful thoughts than my typing hands. And I attend better when I have a notebook not a screen of clamouring tabs. I’m going to let go of ‘stuff’ on my computer so I don’t feel hemmed in by it. I’m going to make time for those activities from which the computer keeps me.

There are things which I simply cannot do without it though. I will be pleased to have it back (and that anticipation is now increasing incrementally with the delay). However, when it does return, I’m going to work my computer, rather than the other way round.

Update. It is now twelve days since my computer left (I wrote the above on day five). The computer is dead. That revelation didn’t bother me as much as the initial idea of being computerless for several days did – a quick adaptation. It is a strange land without a computer, with things unfinished, undone, dangling in the ether around me. It is at best, not altogether pleasant, at worst, concerning. In today’s world, life both opens up and closes down without one. I’m ready to rejig – but I need to cross the hurdle of setting up a new computer to do so.

Meat on the Street, Jewels in the Window

A city’s hinges are its most dynamic times. Those are the in-between hours – the mornings and evenings, often overlooked or designated uninteresting when compared with the bulk of day and night. They are when the city swings from one mode to another. They are when it reveals itself.

Take a morning in Cardiff – after the stuff of night, prior to the business of day.

toll bridge to Wales

At 7.15am the cars are streaming in and out of Wales, UK.

This is when the city forms itself; when it creates its day.

Stripped of cars, streets appear bare but systems are whirring.

Cardiff, Wales

An early worker confronts a screen in a grim office block. A woman wanders into the adjacent room, makes a hot drink and wafts out again. On the street below, someone strides purposefully.

office block

Yesterday’s rubbish bags are stacked high around lamp posts in the malls. Surely they’ll be removed before the shoppers arrive.

Delivery trucks line the streets, orifices open.

delivery trucks, Cardiff

I trace the milk vendor by the rattling of his cart.

Cardiff, Wales

A clutter of tables and chairs is quickly given its daytime persona.

cafe chairs

A paper recycling trolley sits outside the market doors. The man who pushes it has disappeared inside. Perhaps he’s collecting paper. Perhaps he’s collecting gossip and a morning coffee.

Buildings are prepared for the day. Footpaths and tiled entrances are spruced.

man sweeping street

Doors are opened but disallow entry. It is the hour of the select few.

castle

A pinstriped chap opens multiple locks on a bank door while his co-worker watches. I refrain from photographing this security-sensitive moment. When I return later, one of the men is crouched inside the glass door, undoing the floor locks for more staff – but not yet the public.

shop front

Behind closed doors and in full view, organisation continues.

Loiterers are more obvious at this hour when there are fewer people. They stand or crouch in recesses, smoking, eating. Some more intentional people out on the footpath glance up and down the street, hands jiggling in their pockets. Pre-work smokers chat in pods of two or three.

A meat wholesaler talks to me of his memories of market towns before supermarkets undercut the individual retailer. He understands people’s desire for the one-stop-shop but misses the diversity and the sense of community.

meat supplier

And that’s the key: engagement. Before the rush begins, with its throngs of averted eyes, there is engagement. The manager of an automated supermarket has time to answer my questions. The driver of a passing delivery van reaches his arm out the window to grasp the bloodied hand of the meat man. The butcher comes jovially out from his shop and settles in for a chat. Near the church, a man unloading beer from a huge truck sings loudly, injecting a little joie de vivre into the lives of passers-by.

meat supplier, street, van

In a park close by, two men comment on life and rest their beers on the hut bench. Perhaps they are the one constant as the city swings on its hinges through the day.

park

Around them, the early morning city gradually merges with the later, less nuanced version of itself.

And we leave it to do so.

Severn Bridge, Wales, architecture

bridge

To Hear the World in a Glass of Champagne

I raise the glass, thinking to drink as a thousand times before. But I hear my grandmother’s glass xylophone.  Tiny, high-pitched dings sound above the almost-monotonic poppings.

I tilt the glass and hear the sound of the sea inside a shell: the ocean twice removed.

champagne glass Continue reading

Living with the Beast

Western Australian summer is a beast. For months it slumbers, its great curved back a docile silhouette against the greys and greens and bobbing florals. Then it awakens and scrapes its claws across the land in a blaze of heat.

  • The water in garden hoses scalds and the cold tap in the shower runs warm.
  • Lawns crunch and prickle bare feet.
  • Thick metal necklaces become burning collars. Steering wheels and doorhandles and car seats scorch hands and thighs.
  • Pedestrians at traffic lights shelter beneath buildings, metres from the kerb, waiting to cross.
  • Paddocks stretch into the distance: rolling, fuzzed and tawny; rustling with bleached crop stubble; closely-capped in the pitch black of char or flat, bare and crazed with cracks. And, above them, the deep, rich sky.
  • Urban buildings glitter and oncoming vehicles are globs of eye-watering golden light.
  • The only clouds are the tiny tufts of cumulus stirred up at the ocean’s edge by the reach and retreat of the waves. People come in their hordes for the cleansing and lightening peculiar to swimming in the ocean.
  • The air is an invisible wall, high and hard and hot. It batters and stings…and waits for a spark.
  • Fire alerts on the radio warn residents who have remained to fight for their suburban homes not to venture out because the heat will kill them before they even see the twenty-metre flames.

sheep at dawn

But sometimes the beast slinks into its cave and only its switching tail shows that it breathes yet and will strike again.

  • The Fremantle and Albany doctors drift across the land signalling the end of the working day. People dare a drink of red instead of cooling white and know that tonight they will turn off the fan and pull up the bedsheet.
  • A storm’s first drops spatter and the world smells of dust.
  • The earth is made nubile by the honeyed light of evening.

Australian shed and tree

Australia, evening light

Eventually, the beast curls up again, a monument to the season. We used to think it immovable, impervious to us, but now our proddings rouse it earlier. It stalks for longer. And we have become its prey.

Australia, evening light

Anchovy Ahoy! Part Two

Weeks after the departure of the ss Great Britain from the UK, the fair maid Clare, wandering by a (muddy) Western Australian shore, sighted this raft.

miniature wooden raft

Clearly it was the handiwork of a shipwrecked tin of anchovies (those knots bear all the hallmarks of a deft tab).

But the anchovies had gone! Continue reading

Anchovy Ahoy! Part One

Once upon a time an anchovy swam in the vast ocean with all its friends.

800px-Anchovy_closeup

They flittered and darted, avoiding the jaws of sharks and salmon. Unbeknown to them, a far more sinister danger lurked. A danger so dastardly, planned and executed with such cunning, that there was no escape.  As they innocently played Pin the Leg on the Octopus a net was ploughing towards them. The anchovy was scooped up, suffocated, gutted, salted and laid out in a small rectangular tin with a number of its friends.

Weeks passed in oily darkness. One day, the lid was peeled back. The anchovy was thrown onto a bed of soft green leaves next to a strip of capsicum.

 “I didn’t watch Two Fat Ladies for nothing,” a woman’s voice said.

Continue reading