Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Building a Character from Ten Objects

The aim of this month's challenge was to create a character through thinking about their possessions, especially items that are important to the owner.

We were given a list of ten objects:
* a withered poinsettia
* business card
* dusty radio
* silver locket with inscription
* bottle of herbal medicine
* auburn hair dye
* fortune-telling cards
* jar of sharpened pencils
* brand new laptop

We were asked to write about a character who owns these things, incorporating some (or all) of the objects into our descriptions. 

Madam Sosostris

Madam Sosostris scrutinised her reflection carefully in the mirror. Appearances were so important in creating the right impression and inspiring confidence in clients, particularly when embarking on a new venture like this where one was, so as to speak, feeling one's way in the dark rather. The auburn hair dye had, she felt, been undoubtedly the right decision, lending a warm glow to her features whilst artfully concealing the streaks of grey. She arranged her headscarf so that strands of hair peeked out from underneath it and adjusted the silver locket round her neck, then re-examined the overall effect. Yes, definitely the look she was aiming for - wise and slightly mysterious, not too elderly, with a welcoming look that invited confidence in her. She opened the locket and gazed affectionately at the inscription inside: 'To Rosie from Bertie, with undying love'. Alongside it was a photo of a slightly pudgy young man with a walrus moustache - her beloved Bertie. 

Next she turned to examine the room behind her to ensure it conveyed the right atmosphere. The lights, of course, would be quite dim but nonetheless it would not do for there to be any details that jarred or distracted her clients from giving her their undivided attention. She placed the withered poinsettia behind the dusty radio, and draped over both of them a purple cloth embroidered with gold suns and silver stars. Finally satisfied, she turned her attention to the centrepiece of her arrangements: the brand new laptop sitting on the desk in front of her, a present from her daughter Ellie. 

It was Ellie, in fact, who had come up with the whole idea for the project. After Bertie died, Rose had found herself at a loose end: increasingly reluctant to leave the house and meet new people, yet at a loss to know how to pass the long hours by herself. 'You need a new interest, Mum', Ellie had said (somewhat sharply, in Rose's view). 'Something to keep you active mentally - it won't do you any good just sitting round feeling sorry for yourself.' She'd paused for a moment, looking round the living room and taking in, Rose felt sure, the rather neglected and shabby state of things - housework had not been high on Rose's 'To Do' list recently. 'I know,' she continued brightly, 'you could go in for fortune-telling - you know, with a crystal ball and the Tarot cards and all that. People used to love it when you did that at parties and the village fete - it was an absolute hoot, and they all said you were so convincing.' 

Initially, Rose had resisted the idea, saying she couldn't think of anywhere where she could do that kind of thing - and anyway, who'd be interested? Ellie had scoffed at her last objection, saying it was amazing how many people were into all this New Age stuff - as people became less religious, they seemed to have become more superstitious. She could see, however, that her mother was genuinely distressed both by the prospect of venturing out in public and by having strangers invading the privacy of her home for such encounters, and she had seemed to be on the verge of abandoning the idea when suddenly she exclaimed 'I've got it, Mum - you could do it all online!' 

And so the project was launched, along with her new online persona. Rose had wanted to call herself Gypsy Rose Lee, using her maiden name prefixed by the title, but Ellie had guffawed and said, 'Mum, with a name like that you'll attract completely the wrong kind of people online - trust me!' Ellie had come up with Madam Sosostris instead, as being 'more classy', and had mentioned something about a poem called The Wasteland, but Rose hadn't really been paying attention at that point. They had both become quite excited about the idea, however, and Ellie organized the printing of some business cards for her with the words 'Online Clairvoyant and Fortune Teller' after her name. She had also guided her mother through the mysteries of setting up the computer, downloading and logging on to the app which was the medium through which her clients would contact her and positioning herself in front of the webcam so that she appeared to best advantage. 

Now, as she prepared to welcome her first client, she felt oddly nervous and fortified herself with a quick swig of the 'herbal remedy' which she had bought on a visit to Prague last year. It was quite bitter-tasting, with a strong, pungent smell; the bottle did not specify the ingredients or the alcohol content but she felt the latter was certainly quite high. A warm glow suffused her and, confident and excited, she switched on the computer and logged into the app. As the beep sounded to let her know a caller was online, she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and intoned: 'Madam Sosostris welcomes you - speak, friend, and say what it is that you seek!'


Marjorie and Peter, Horace’s cousins edge their way somewhat stealthily into Horace’s living room. They cough nervously to announce their arrival and to avoid scaring Horace who has been rather skittish of late. The scene before them startles and amazes them. It is largely frozen in time. Traces of neglect abound. Dust pervades and almost obscures the sad now entirely green-leaved Christmas poinsettia. Dust has also sought the company of the ancient brown Bakelite radio, or wireless as Horace, never comfortable in the 21st century, would term it. He would never countenance a flat screen TV entering his household. They scan the room but there is no sign of Horace,

Marjorie says,”He was scared, he did not want to spend the night alone here after his father’s death. He heard his father’s heavy footsteps upstairs shortly after his father’s funeral.” The passing had not been peaceful An inquest had yielded the cause of the demise as inconclusive. There was some feeling that Horace had in some way been implicated in his father’s death. Perhaps this had caused Horace to withdraw from society. Now they become concerned for his welfare. Where was he? He is a vain man who liked to cover his greying hair with an auburn hair dye, he would never leave that behind. Nor would he leave his pack of tarot cards without which he could never undertake any journey. And why oh why would Horace possess a brand new laptop? He wasn’t even connected to the internet. They examine the laptop carefully and recoil in surprise when they see that the screen has been smashed and shattered.

They decide to risk exploring upstairs. They enter Horace’s father’s bedroom. The bed appears to have been slept in recently. A silver locket , warm to the touch is found on the pillow. Dust adorns the wooden floor. There are signs of a struggle where the dust has been disturbed. Suddenly they notice that the word, “Help” has been etched in the dust.. There is still no sign of Horace.


Randy Stella

Never underestimate the power of Randy Stella. Outwardly her home may have looked a tip with withered poinsettias and ancient Christmas decorations adorning the bay window of the front room. Cleanliness and goodness have never been part of her psyche. Her parents moved in before she was born and the only way she was going to move out was in box. The Council had decided that all those homes with their large gardens should be redeveloped for affordable housing. Property developers had started infilling plots with cul de sacs. Instead the council had produced a scheme with a park, a primary school, behind blocks of functional homes with minimal gardens. A letter had gone out to residents inviting them to sell at favourable prices to the Council. If they did not then their homes would be compulsory purchased!

No way was Randy Stella going before her natural time was up. Round her neck she always wore a silver locket with photos inside of her greatgrand parents. On the front was inscribed “Till death do us part”

Well being a spinster of middle age that was how she felt about her home. No Council officials were going to chase her out of it. She knew all her neighbours and the area like the back of her hand. Everyone knew her with her auburn hair dye glowing to show she was still nearly a spring chicken. Her floral dresses in the summer nearly reaching her wellies. In the winter she had a thick woolly coat, and of course the wellies.

To clear her mind she took her fortune telling cards and carefully laid them out on a patch of clear floor. No room for the cards on any tables. Too full of heaps of paper and several jars of sharpened pencils. The cards showed that decisive action would be taken in the near future. A newsletter from the local residents association came through the letterbox. Other neighbours had received the Council letter and a meeting had been arranged.

The councillors had agreed to meet the residents so that it could all be explained. Well at the meeting Randy Stella made her views very clear by heckling and hissing. She was nearly asked to leave by the chairman of the resident association when she shouted “This is social engineering “ and “My home is my castle”

Afterwards one of the councillors came over to her and gave her his business card. “Phone me and we can discuss this more easily”

Well she did not need to be asked twice. Next morning when she turned on her dusty radio the local news was full of the so called “Political manoeuvring” and Social Engineering. She took a swig at the bottle of herbal medicine and picked up the phone. To her surprise the councillor answered himself. He said he had heard the news on the radio. His party was all for the redevelopment of the area but not on the lines that were proposed. He was sure that her eloquent heckling had won a lot of support. The elections were soon and if his party won he would send her a brand new
laptop. Was that bribery or reward?

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Fears and Phobias

Grim Reaper

The ultimate fear we all share is our death. The grim reaper is all around but kept under ground like a taboo that rarely is mentioned. I enjoy my permanent holiday from my working life and have no wish for it to end. Would we wish to have planned date, like a retirement age when it is time to go? A simple answer is to say it is Gods will when the time will come. Why have a huge debate and use all the skills of medical intervention to prolong life?

I have an ambition to live to be 150 inspired by the long life line up the middle of my hand. It is great to be able to cycle to the swimming pool and play with the grandchildren. To go on trips with my wife and enjoy her cooking. But change is inevitable, either through ill health or accident. What will be, will be. 

There is the lurking fear that there will be the loss of freedom. The inability to do what I want to do, being in unending pain. Loosing my grip on events and the companionship of my wife. There are plenty of nonsense sayings to dispel worry, but my favourite is:

Something nearly always happens
When you least expect it.

Having read a book by a retired community nurse I was reminded that people usually wish to fall asleep in their own bed, peacefully and without pain. However the reality is that they are rushed to hospital in unfamiliar surroundings and die alone with no sweet dreams.

That is my fear.


Is fear contagious? Yes I think so.

is fear transmitted genetically? In my case probably yes.

A common but irrational fear possessed my mother. She wanted to fly but she had developed a profound and unremitting distrust of all aircraft. It was the time when mass travel burst into the popular consciousness. 2 week package holidays on the continent for the "ordinary working people". The travel bug bit my mother hard. Ideally she would have loved to travel on cruise ships as if we were rich people enjoying the heyday of the trans-Atlantic luxury liners. But then she always did have an over-active imagination. So we had to endure the noisy propellor driven smelly aeroplanes. Consequently she became a nervous wreck for days. prior to any flight. The cruise obsession culminated in a mini Mediterranean cruise on a Greek ship smelling persistently of kerosene and full of randy Greek sailors, one of whom attempted to abdduct my mother.

Thereafter our continental adventures were restricted to annual trips to Malta to stay in the flat of a family friend. But still there was the 4 hour flight to contend with punctuate with the additionally harrowing command to fasten the seat belts in response to turbulence over the Alps.

I was caught up in the contagion of aircraft fear until one day i flew alone to India on what could not be described as a direct route. The plane stopped in Geneva and Cairo, so this meant a total of 3 landings and 3 take-offs. I was convinced that the plane was only kept aloft by my constant wakeful vigilance and will. However, after Cairo I fell asleep completely exhausted. I awoke to find myself still airborne and alive. After that the fear vanished.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Inspired by Art

The Great Wave by Hokusai

The picture strikes you immediately with an almost physical force, even before you have had time to take it in properly and absorb fully what is happening here. What you notice first is a sense of power in churning motion; the restrained palette of deep dark blue, paler blue and white against a background of grey, black and beige; the ghostly light in the sky. And above all the looming, towering, threatening shape moving into the picture from the left. Your eye is drawn irresistibly towards the curling, clutching fingers (or are they claws?) that stretch forward, reaching out to clasp and grasp and almost over balancing in their eagerness and impatience to do so.

Ah yes, you think (now that you have had time to think) - this is a seascape. But a seascape unlike any other you’ve seen before, rendered with an almost cartoon-like simplicity. Or perhaps like a picture from one of those disturbingly dark graphic novels where threats are lurking in the shadows, just out of sight.

Yes, undeniably a seascape. Just looking at the churning, violent motion of the waves - back, forth, sideways, up, down - is making you feel distinctly queasy, uneasy. And always you come back to that monstrous cliff-wall of water, sweeping forward inexorably to engulf all in its path.

With that thought, your attention is drawn to what does lie immediately in its path: two long, pale, slender ovals of perilously fragile boats. The small, huddled shapes at either end must be the men who are rowing these craft: backs bent with effort as they strain to escape from the sea-beast reaching out to devour them.

ou pause at this point, overcome with the drama of the scene that is being played out here, wondering how it will all end. And then you notice another wave, dark blue and capped with white like the one in the foreground but further in the distance and slightly to the right of the picture’s centre. Given how far away it is, and yet how large, this wave must be another giant one.

Or is it a wave? It’s certainly peaked like one of the smaller waves below the crest of the monster on the right. But it’s also shaped like a volcano. Perhaps it might be a mountain? And what about those small white spots just above its peak? Could that be snow falling on top of the mountain, rather than flecks of foam from the great wave?

One final look, and yet again the picture shifts and yields up a different story. This time you notice the writing in the upper left-hand corner, in a foreign script, with the letters arranged vertically instead of horizontally. In a moment of understanding, you realise you have been reading this picture in the wrong direction: from left to right, instead of from right to left as the artist intended. The men in the boats are not fleeing in fear and panic, desperately trying to outrun the huge wave.

No, they are heading heroically towards it, and up it, and through it to the other side; because they are Japanese fishermen and this is what they do for a living. You can almost hear the voice of their chief urging them on: “Come on, lads! Put your backs into it! One more heave and we’ll be there - and then back home in time for noodles and saki!”

Revealing Weimheim - on a painting by Karl Mulfinger

Few people in England have heard of an itinerant artist called Karl Mulfinger (1882- 1956). However his works are now collectors pieces and auction houses in Germany are glad to promote him. He was commissioned to paint landscapes in central Germany. 

My father fled from Nazi Germany and settled in north west London. Imagine his delight when at an art fair at the Whitestone pond, Hampstead he discovered an old oil painting of his former home town, Weinheim. The two dominant castles overlooking the small town, with it's wall and the railway and a steam train in front of it. The painting was very dirty but despite the grime there was no doubt where it was. He bought it for ten shillings and spent another five shillings on a walnut burr with brass infill frame. It then hung in his office above the shoemakers shop in Paddington Street, Marylebone London. 

After he died I took on running the shop, I tried to see the details in the picture. How could it be cleaned up? The nephew of a Quaker friend worked at the Wallace collection so I went and asked him. 

"Simple soap and water and and a soft nail brush". 

I had a go and the picture was a lot clearer. The sky looked a bit patchy grey in places, but acceptable. 

Several decades later I sold the business and the office was cleared. My relatives were not interested in giving it house room. My wife does bed and breakfast in our house in Amersham which is twinned with Bensheim near Weinheim. I discussed the painting with a guest from Bensheim and he suggested that it be given to the town of Weinheim. He made contact with the museum who asked for details about it. The frame covered the signature so I took it out of the frame and found a second canvass under the picture. I didn't dare to take the top painting away in case it got damaged. The artists signature was K Mulfinger dated 1913. The curator said they would be happy to accept the painting. 

Feeling cheeky we asked if in exchange we could have a tea pot and milk jug from a porcelain firm called F├╝rstenberg. We had a lot of their China but not those items. The curator agreed. We ordered the tea pot and jug and said we would deliver the painting by car. 

In June 2016 we drove to Weinheim where we met the curator and also the Mayor and newspaper reporters. They all studied the painting pointing out details such as the roof of the Pestalotzzi school. Afterwards we had photos taken with the mayor holding the picture. The local newspaper published the photo with an article headlined "Every town has a murky past" They then recounted why my father had fled because his brother was killed in 1935. It went on to say that reconciliation was the reason for it's return to Weinheim. 

The museum decided that the painting would benefit from more cleaning and that was done. The restorers left the second painting that was underneath to be discovered at a later date. We returned recently to Weinheim to see the professionally cleaned up painting. It looked like new. The brush strokes crisp and bright. The colours radiant and much more lively than any photograph. Next to the painting was a small notice explaining how the painting came back to the town, saying that I had returned it. We use the tea pot and milk jug frequently and remember the painting of my father's birthplace.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Spring and Rebirth


Curled up in a corner of myself
Far above the tideline of the sea
Beyond the reach of human grasp and need
My kernel’s whole, sealed off and floating free.

I am renewed, each day the first of Spring
Life’s storms drawn back, I’ve reached the further shore
Inviolate and still, my centre held
I’m on dry land, and don’t want any more.

Spring along the Wye - a Haiku 

Mating mallards splash 
Water vole scurries through reeds 
Is new promise here?


Bluebell is the early smell of summer, wild and soft, warmed out by sunlight that dapples the cathedral floor of a Chiltern beechwood, or let loose across open hillsides in Rannerdale.

Full summer comes savoury with the aroma of marjoram and thyme. I stir it up as I walk in chalkland meadows and relish the flavour of Mediterranean food.

The nose of cold as I walk out early to the cycle sheds on my way to morning lectures is quintessential autumn; or pungent silage, the smell that sometimes hangs over fields in the valley all day.

Winter is the invitation of Christmas spices mulled with orange and wine. Brave the cold outside to inhale winter honeysuckle – and look out for winter-active bumble bees which are also drawn to the fragrance.

And what of the scent of spring? In the depth of winter it arrived for me, boxed and sent from the Scillies. The cut narcissi flowers carried a touching message for life: Don’t expect them to last very long.

The moments to live are now. Don’t wait for spring!

Spring on Q

Spring on Q like hope is eternal
There must be something maternal
Knowing the right time for optimism
That the bulbs and seeds will prism
Into a rainbow of colours so good
That they will multiply as they should.

Tiny seeds that grow into mighty trees
Renewable energy that humans sieze
To heat their homes as logs or chips
Renewable electricity is on everyone's lips
Series or parallel it goes on and on
Like the seasons that keep rolling on

The life line on my hand is long
I wish it could my life prolong
An ambition is to see 2095
By then I will be over 125
Never say die, it is the Dash
Twixt when you were born and then become Ash
Hope springs on Q

St David's Day

Every year, on St David’s Day,        
I give my mother daffodils
from the greengrocer, tightly furled.
We tell each other,
“Hwyl fawr a Dydd Dewi Sant.’

And hope that along the verges,
The wild daffodils will have struggled
Through the frozen ground    
And pushed their heads through their green sleeves 
to greet us.  

This year, for the first time, mum’s   
not here, but back in the ice   
and snow of Canada. No chance  
daffodils will show their faces  
there, for St David.  

Spring Woodland Painting

Lay a wash of clear, bright sky, 
Add a touch of hugging warmth.
Filigree trees splashed with fresh young green.
Busy beaks, with nests to build,
Acrobatic darts of a Brimstone or two.
Wood anemones and lesser celandines
As an explosion of light, reviving stars,
Mirroring a night sky on ochre ground

The woodland has been holding its breath
Releasing now in slow, contented sighs
To delight our eye and gladden our heart
With awakening cheer; promise and hope,
Embracing new beginnings.
Let us draw on its strength and persistence -
To do the same.


From the highest atmosphere
a flash of sunlight on a plane:
photons crash my rods and cones.
Giddy, I close my eyes to see
a light that dances mindfully.
Here’s a thrush’s eggshell found
on leaves and blossom on the ground.
And all about the vibrant air
swallows darting everywhere.