Sunday, 31 August 2014

Come for a walk

Another of my safety valves is walking and I thought that today I might take you, my virtual friend, with the dog and me as we follow our default route.

We leave the garden through a wonky gate in a dark patch that used to be part of a track and which leads straight into a field. We are lucky to have such easy access to the countryside and that all (but one) of the neighbouring farmers are happy for us to walk on their land.

The field is currently an organic vineyard and smallholding and these are the solar panels that provide power for pumping water from a well to the automatic watering system in polytunnels beyond the vines. I am happy that this part of the countryside at least is in good hands.

At the top of the field we take a track that goes up the hill, the dog ahead as usual. I love this track because it is shady and because I hardly ever meet anyone else on it.

I stop at a gateway to catch my breath and look at the view. I remember how my London sister when she last came to stay enthused about the 'space'. I realise that the space here is both mental and physical. I couldn’t do without it.

The track gets steeper but it is still shady – and the dog is still ahead, stopping every so often to check I’m following her. ‘What’s keeping you?’ her face says as I pant along behind. I’m glad that the climb is at the beginning of the walk instead of the end. It works up a sweat and gets the blood moving and, however tired I am when I start the climb, I always feel better at the end of it.

And when I see the view from the top I know that I have deserved it. I want to throw up my arms and sing like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

We descend, crossing a stream churned up by cows, calves and a bull who were in this area a few days ago. I can’t see them today but keep a wary eye open, ready to vault a barbed-wire fence if necessary.

The stream plunges into a steep valley, obliterated by dense woodland. It’s too overgrown to enter at the moment but I do venture in on special occasions during the rest of the year. It’s a non-human magical place and sometimes it makes me frightened. I always try to contact its spirits beforehand to ask permission to enter.

We rest in the shade of an oak tree. I always find myself doing this. Oak trees are benevolent whereas beeches are self-absorbed and ashes skittish. The dog copies me, as usual, and sits down too. She is still alert however. We both listen to the screeches of a buzzard hunting around us. Like geese and swallows, it reminds me of that wild world most of us humans left many thousands of years ago but to which we will I hope one day return. I try (and fail) to get a photograph of the buzzard.

I enjoy the rich colours – the dark green of the trees (‘tired’ I described the colour yesterday when the sun wasn’t out and I was recovering from a migraine), the red haws tumbling from the hedges, the terracotta earth of the recently harvested field on the skyline.

I write some daily pages and find several ideas rising to the surface. I wonder if DPs and blogging are play, practice for the real thing, and whether that real thing is novel-writing. Or perhaps novel-writing can be play too.

The dog gets bored. She stands up and starts barking at voices on the track, and then barking at the echo of her own bark. Time to move on.

Back in the vineyard field, we pass the 'art installation' (abandoned farm machinery and chicory) where the dog chased a rat a few weeks ago. (She didn't catch it.)

In the distance are the polytunnels where J grows organic edible leaves and flowers for expensive restaurants.

Here, at the bottom of the field, are some of the grapes, ripening well. I think they are Chardonnay.

And here is the gate back to the garden. For once the dog has vanished (lots of small mammals to chase in organic fields) but usually she is at the gate before me, keen for food - as am I always at the end of our walks.

I hope you enjoyed this one as much as I did.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Safety valves

On Monday evening I was watching Channel 4’s ‘Food Unwrapped’. The subject was detoxification and among the features was one on hangovers, where several studenty subjects were encouraged to party and then tested the next day to see what was going on with their bodies. The headaches, nausea and exhaustion, the expert explained, were all signs that their bodies were working efficiently – breaking down the toxins and expelling them.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog you’ll know that I suffer from regular migraines. I tend to beat myself up about them. They’re my fault, I say to myself. I don’t know how to live properly. I’m still hung up on past events. I kick against them and see them as a waste of time.

But yesterday when I woke up with a migraine and said to Frog, ‘I feel as if I’ve been partying for the last two weeks’, I found that my attitude had changed.

I’m more Aunt Polly than Pollyanna. I race around ‘doing’ things. I fret. I don’t give myself time to rest. When I have a migraine however I have to stop. I can’t read or watch television or write or garden or walk. I can hardly talk. I have to do nothing.

Migraines are a safety valve, I realised. They rid my body of all the nasty hormones I’ve been creating and bring me back to the present, to simply living. If I didn’t get them I might be storing up far more serious health problems.

I’d quite like to blog about this, I thought as I brushed my teeth this morning. But it’s not quite enough. (As my writing sister Emma says, you need at least two ideas to make a story.) What else can I write about? Blogging came the answer.

I’ve always been ambivalent about the value of blogging. Is it self-indulgent? Does it distract me from the serious business of novel-writing?
    ‘Why do I do it?’ I asked Frog the other day.
    ‘Disclosure,’ he said.
    That’s what I write novels for, I thought.

Recently I’ve been working hard on the novel, doing what I hope is a final draft and giving myself until Christmas for it. I’ve almost completely stopped blogging, thinking that I can’t have both blog posts and the novel fermenting in my head at the same time. In the last week or so however I’ve found myself wanting to blog again.

And I think it’s OK to do so. Blogging is light relief. It’s novel-writing in miniature. It keeps me going. It’s another safety valve.

And that was a very long-winded post. Blame the dregs of the migraine.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Time to live

Recently I’ve been re-reading some of my children’s books, among them Pollyanna. I’ve discovered that she’s not at all the saccharine creature I remember (probably from the film – was it Disney?) but instead drives everybody mad by inadvertently wrong-footing them all the time.

My battered 1969 edition of Pollyanna (with cover illustration by Shirley Hughes)
Having been orphaned, she goes to live with her starchy aunt. Aunt Polly outlines Pollyanna’s new schedule: tidying her bedroom, reading aloud, cookery lessons, sewing lessons, music lessons.
    ‘Oh, but Aunt Polly, Aunt Polly,’ Pollyanna cries in dismay, ‘you haven’t left me any time at all just to – to live.’
    Which brings me to the original reason for this blog post – an explanation of my profile picture, ‘Summer girl daydreaming’ by Margaret W Tarrant.

'Summer girl daydreaming' by Margaret W Tarrant
As I’ve explained before, this picture was given to me by my aunt, Annabelle, when I was four (and she fourteen). I’ve always treasured it, partly because it was such a grown-up present to receive and partly because it reminds me how important it is to make time for doing nothing.
    I mentioned the picture to Annabelle recently and she dismissed it as sentimental. I’m sure it is, but I still need it.
    I'm more Aunt Polly than Pollyanna, which is probably why I found the book so funny this time round.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Pruning and digging out by the root

We spend Friday and Saturday taming the edges of the garden. This is necessary because some of the hedges are now so tall we’ve lost our view, because branches are upsetting our phone and broadband lines, because fruit trees are losing sun, and because we’re losing lawn space as hedges creep forwards. It's not the right time of year for such work but we are careful, looking out for nests and avoiding anything with fruit or nuts so as not to deplete the birds’ foodstore

Our phone and broadband lines disappearing into a tangle of branches

Even though nothing in our house runs on wood, I persuade Frog to saw up larger chunks and I add them to my woodstore under the shed. I like to be prepared for the collapse of civilisation.

My woodstore under the shed

The dog passes the time barking down rabbit-holes through the chicken wire put across the hedge by Frog in order to stop her barking down rabbit-holes (and then excavating them and then coming inside covered in mud).

The dog, frustrated in her attempts to get at the rabbits
Frog does the destructive work – chainsawing and lopping – and I drag things to the bonfire. It is soothing, mindless activity. We make a good team. The sun shines. I am happy.

Frog at his favourite sort of gardening - the destructive sort

I started the weekend sad. Summer is drawing to an end. My lovely niece left Exeter last week after three years at the university. The novel, which is semi-autobiographical, is forcing me to relive some of the worst times of my life.

I’m trying to dig those times out by the root and leave them to die in the sun. They can’t be tamed. Pruning is not enough. But on Saturday night – bone weary, my hair stinking of smoke – I dream for the first time ever of a way through.