Swifts for the tacit longings of our adult years

As we approach middle age, is it normal for birds to become more fascinating to us? We start feeding them, watching them, doodling them. Do they represent our longing to shed the earthbound web we’ve woven for ourselves and to be as light as air? Maybe it’s just me.

Once again my scratchpad (the notebook I keep strictly for rough work/business notes, lists of action items and phone calls) has been invaded by the doodling dreamer.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

A Mysterious Message from Avebury

Last night, I had occasion to share my postcard collection with a room of some twenty people.

“Find me a picture that speaks to you of God,” I asked them.

At the top of the first cluster of cards I picked through was this:

Avebury

Avebury

Although this wasn’t the card I chose for myself in the end, it struck me how the sacred stone circles of Britain have played a part in my own journey towards Divine Mysteries. I flipped it over …

The back side of the card brought a flood of memories from my 18-year-old self, who sits like a lodestone in my consciousness and frequently pulls at my internal compass needle.

05-09-2014 11;38;03AM

Dear Seymour, We are sitting in a pub with our local draughts, (beer not women!) having journeyed to the sacred stones – and halfway back. Meeting bearded bards and chalkened travellers, Listening to tails From near and Far. Met the sacred guitarist of Avebury, Played a beautiful song to me as the moon danced upon the clouds and shone incandescent against the stones. LUV Owain, Meic, Rob Surtees :-) Robin.

I include a scan of the original to show how my messengers clearly passed the card around, each adding their own lines in the true spirit of the bards of old. They would have been excellent company: one of my English teachers (the biggest single influence on my education), his two sons (companions on many woodland adventures) and another pal from school (an occasional co-conspirator in mischief).

Ahhh … the summer of  ’95.

Barter Books, Alnwick, Northumberland

Some 18 leagues due north from my front door lies one of the largest second-hand bookstores in Europe: Barter Books, lodestar of literary pilgrimage and home to the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster as well as an impressive mural of authors.

Ah, you know, between those shelves it is possible to forget the passage of time; I can’t remember the last time I was so distracted by the present. Here are a few of the things I saw this afternoon on my voyage along the platforms of the old train station that houses the shop.

A glimpse of an old pal

A glimpse of an old pal

Biographies are front and centre as you walk into the main part of the store  and this volume was on display. The author is a friend; I had the pleasure of getting to know him a bit while he was training as a minister in the Church of England. Tom fed me westerns and frontier-flavoured theology, warned me off crappy writing gigs (said I’d be be happier going back to nursing) and encouraged me on every level in a series of conversations that are burned into my soul. Seeing this reminded me that I still have not followed up on his recommendation to read more … Raymond Chandler.

Kipling and his "swastika"

Kipling and his “swastika”

Now here’s something you won’t find on any editions of Kipling’s work these days, nor even any editions later than 1935. Rudyard Kipling adopted the symbol, which is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for wellbeing, long before the Nazis got hold of it.

Two of Kipling’s books stand out in my life as a reader. I read “Kim” when I was about 12 and it proved an extremely significant influence on my unfurling spirituality and lead me into further reading and an early exposure to eastern philosophy and religion that has coloured everything that has happened since.

When I was much younger I read a wonderful collection of Kipling stories told from a dog’s point of view, called “Thy Servant a Dog”, which was easily one of my favourite childhood reads. I’ve never been able to find myself a copy of the book, but I keep my eyes peeled in second-hand bookstores.

An untellable treasure

An untellable treasure

This was the hardest book to replace on the shelf: the price tag of £39 was more than I’ve ever paid for a book, but if any book were to come close to having that kind of value to me, this would be it.  GM is the brightest burning star in my literary galaxy and “Donal Grant” (quoted on this page) certainly my favourite of his “novels”. His shadow has presided over a latter unfurling in my spirituality but, apart from his “Diary of an Old Soul”, I have read very little of his poetry. Ahhhh … well … another time, perhaps.

Woodcut by Nora Unwin

Woodcut by Nora Unwin

The woodcut illustrations by Nora S. Unwin were just the icing on the MacDonaldian cake!

The Bible in Gaelic

The New Testament in Gaelic

Merely four books sat on the Gaelic shelf, including this New Testament. I don’t read Gaelic (yet) but feel as if I have had a lot of exposure to it in recent weeks through getting deeper into celtic music. I’ve given some serious thought to studying the language because it sounds so beautiful when spoken and I’d really like to solve once-and-for-all the ongoing dispute in my band over the correct pronunciation of the names of tunes like  Chi Mi Na Morbehanna and An Phis Fliuch.

Wesley and Swedenborg in reformed spelling

Wesley and Swedenborg in reformed spelling

This ranks among the most curious finds of the day. A book on Swedenborg and John Wesley is coming from left field to begin with, but this one uses “reformed spelling”! Yes, published in the earlier part of the twentieth century before two world wars gave us something more serious to think about than spelling reform.

Something more suited ...

Something more suited …

After about three hours of browsing, I walked off with this in my rucksack. At £1:50 it was kind of in that sweet spot of providing a decent number of hours of rewarding reading of something I knew I’d like at a price I could manage. I’ve been on a D.H. Lawrence kick since Xe Sands reawakened my dormant interest in his poetry with some of her readings. I’m hoping this will bring a dose of bygone  English summers to the remaining days of winter for me.

The Leibster Award

Gillian at Skybluepinkish nominated me for a Liebster Award. The Leibster highlights up-and-coming blogs and helps to feed the content dragon. How kind! Responding to this nomination involves a lot of work, but its also rather fun. As exemplified in Gillian’s post, the lucky blogger shares 11 random facts about themselves from the endearing …

I used to make tar lollipops in the summer when the tar melted and seeped into the gutter.

… to the historic …

I have sat on John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s knees.

… and then answers 11 questions from the nominatorator, wherein we may discover some surprising facts:

We have 5 cats, 3 dogs, 1 parrot, 2 goldfish, 2 geese and assorted chickens.

Finally the nominee poses 11 unique questions and nominates 11 other bloggers for the award – simples!

So here goes:

11 facts about me

1. When I was 12, I wanted to be a “tree surgeon” because I thought that was someone who cares for sick trees.
2. My first bicycle was called “Froggie Moore”, after a tune by Jelly Roll Morton; my next bike was called “Amiahaz”, after a runner in the Bible; and my first car was called “Lucy”, after an early fossil hominid.
3. My grandfather played rugby for South Africa but I took up sailing in order to get out of playing rugby at school.
4. According to my media player stats, J.S. Bach wrote about 30% of what I listen to.
5. I don’t like long sleeves; they make my arms feel inhibited and I always think I’d have the advantage without them – in a fight.
6. My favourite scent is sandalwood.
7. People struggle to get my name right: I have been called Selwyn, Secombe, Semen, Simon and Sigfried in my time.
8. I prefer brandy over whiskey.
9. I didn’t like kindergarten: much to my mother’s chagrin, I upped and walked home at break time – twice.
10. There are gaps in my cultural education: I have never read ‘Harry Potter’, watched ‘Jaws’ or played ‘Angry Birds’.
11. I have a nasty scar on my right knee from tripping over a dog and landing on barbed wire when I was 12.

Questions

1. Have you ever had a dream come true? How?  … I once dreamed that I was roller-blading; it was fun so I bought some roller blades the next day.
2. What was your most serious misdemeanour at school? Were you caught?  … I wore dark glasses in a school photo; it was difficult not to be caught.
3. Do you snore? Have you ever voluntarily or involuntarily tried any cures?  … Yes, but a neti pot helps.
4. What was the last song that stuck in your head?  … The Derry Hornpipe; my brain has an internal juke box of traditional airs.
5. Tulips or daffodils? Why? …  Tulips – they seem more exotic and remind me of a happy holiday in the Netherlands.
6. Do you prefer to cook or to eat? …  On balance, I prefer to cook; I enjoy it and I like to have control over what goes in my food.
7. Are you a Townie or a Country bumpkin? Not in reality but in your heart.  … Definitely a country bumpkin – I long for the chalk downs of the South on a daily basis.
8. What is in your handbag/briefcase/rucksack/pockets right now? Chose one or more.  … At this very moment, my man-bag contains a small Moleskine notebook, a pencil case full of whiteboard markers and an egg timer; I have not unpacked it since the last workshop I gave.
9. Do you think beauty is in the eye of the beholder or are some things inherently ugly?  … The effects of violence are inherently ugly.
10. Do you have a party trick? (And what is it?)  … Cossack dancing
11. What do you do when faced with a big spider staring back at you from the bath?  … I calmly fetch a glass and a piece of card and relocate the creature to the garden.

My Questions

1. Tattoo? (Yes, no, maybe one day)
2. Have you ever collected anything a bit odd? (What was it?)
3. If you had the time and money to further your education, what would you study?
4. In the Hollywood feature film of your life, who would you like to play the title role?
5. What was the last song or piece of music you listened to?
6. If you were stuck in a lift for an hour, which historical figure would you most like to have for company?
7. What is the next book you hope to read?
8. In a house fire,which of your possessions would you most like to save (apart from the house)?
9. What would be your ultimate comfort food?
10. Where do you stand on politicians, from “I don’t vote” to “they are our only hope”?
11. Could you summarise how you see your mission in life in a single sentence? (What would it be?)

My Nominations

  1. Jess at thefilthycomma
  2. Ben at These Thoughts of Mine
  3. Emily at throughthelattice
  4. Eugene at 27th Street
  5. Tom at The Blog
  6. Aliya at Three Magical
  7. Dr J at Heart Soul Mind and Strength
  8. Matt at Confessions of an Undercover Theologian
  9. Jon at Mish-mashed Mind
  10. Kat at Pondering Pancakes
  11. John at Not Built With Hands

Love in a Mist and other Spring-related Juvenilia

Love-in-a-mist, devil in the bush Español: Ara...

Love-in-a-mist

It’s a morning in May 1993, I’m 16 years old. I step out into our garden after breakfast. Beyond the garden fence, there is an orchard and then a steep, treed slope down to the river Thames. It is spring; I can hear skylarks and boats chugging lazily up the river. There is still dew on the grass. Somewhere between the flowerbeds of giant poppies, Love in a Mist, and Borage, I am struck by a feeling of  “at-one-ness” that I have never forgotten – everything seems stitched together. There have been several moments like this in my life (another one was in a pool of light under a streetlamp in Reading one rainy night), and I often feel closer to them at this time of year … Spring.

Quite soon after this intimation, I stitched together a naive poem that I still don’t really understand but which seemed to fix that moment in the garden like a photograph for me. I grew Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) in my flowerbed when I was a youngster, and it is probably my favourite cultivated flower.

Here is an audio of the poem, “Love in a Mist” by my 16 year-old self, read by my 20-years-later self. This is followed by “A Daydream”, written the following year while I was travelling in Africa – somehow the two always seem to have come from the same stable in my psyche. Both seem to be haunted by a mermaid of some sort …

Fictional Literary Crushes

One of the highlights of my week is hanging out with the 14-17 year olds in our Church youth group on Sunday evenings. The little glimpses I get into the world of young people today are worth their weight in platinum. For instance, I learned from them that it is entirely unnecessary to tie your shoelaces – you can just tuck the trailing ends into the shoe. I have also had the opportunity to familiarise myself with Harry Potter fan-fiction lingo (do you know for instance, what “headcanon accepted” means?).

someecards.com - I'm sorry, but I only date fictional characters. In my head.This week’s insight bore down on me on the back of a couple of comments, overheard. Here’s a fact: a significant number of teenagers have an agonising, unrequited crush on Mister Darcy. This is definitely headcanon non-accepted stuff but it is real enough to invoke quite strong emotions.

I remember it well.

Yes, before I was old enough to have real girlfriends (and for a while after that, too), I confess I had a few romantic attachments to literary characters –  never to more than one at a time, which suggests that these were fairly serious relationships. So this blog post is a tribute to those unreal beauties I loved between the ages of 9 and … er … about 17 if I’m honest!

Arrietty Clock

Cover of "The Borrowers"

Cover of The Borrowers

(from The Borrowers series by Mary Norton)

Wow, this must have been the first cut; it still smarts to think about it. Arrietty was about 14, brave, redheaded with plaits and freckles. She kept a diary, she was an avid reader. She drove her parents crazy but I admired her adventurous spirit and she wasn’t judgemental about people. We spent hours together. I think it was awfully handy that she was small enough to fit in my pocket and knowing she was there sometimes gave me the chutzpah to scare my own parents by being adventurous – although I think my headcanon made a magical allowance for me to shrink down to her size sometimes too. I actually hit it off quite well with her parents, which was just as well.

I’m not sure how any of these “ended”, or even who came next, but at some point my heart moved on to …

Kira

(From Jim Henson’s “Dark Crystal“)

Although not strictly a “literary” character, Kira deserves a mention. I grew up without television and we went to the cinema about once a year so I never saw the “Dark Crystal”. In fact, I met Kira in 3D, on a set of view-master slides (that’s a thing I’ll bet the youth group have never heard of). I fell for her pale complexion, rosy cheeks and elfish ears, and her sense of adventure. I watched the Dark Crystal for the first time a few years ago and was amazed to discover that my gelfling childhood sweetheart also had wings! She kept that a secret. In fact I think there was always a distance in our relationship. As much as I admired and adored her, the gelfling-human thing was never going to work out, and there was always that scruffy “Jen” lurking in the background.

Perhaps I grew up a little at this point and realised I needed to date more human girls. But I couldn’t resist at least a little magic. Perhaps that’s why I gave my heart to …

Dorrie the Witch

(from Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs)

She was a young witch, as vividly illustrated in the books, with a crooked hat and unmatched stockings. It was her endearing clumsiness that won me over. Dorrie and I hit it off because we were both misfits who always ended up doing things differently to everyone else. In fact, she was a proper disaster area! Being with her was so exciting, I never knew what was going to happen next. She always meant well but her spells hardly ever did what they were intended to. In spite of this she always came out on top of the day. I seem to remember she had a spell that made my bicycle fly, and she used to ride on the back of my bike with her cat, Gink. It was flipping romantic (headcanon non-accepted)!

We were pretty inseparable, but we must have grown apart eventually. I suppose, these literary characters never age with us so, at some point we outgrow them and find more age-appropriate sweethearts such as …

Polly

(from “The Dean’s Watch” by Elizabeth Gouge)

Polly was a humble maid who served Mrs Peabody, the wife of Mr Peabody, the watchmaker. I wanted, so very badly, to be Mr Peabody’s apprentice, “Job” and to whittle beautiful birds from scraps of wood to give to her as gifts. I wanted to sit in the pew across from her at church and catch her eye, like he did. I became extremely interested in horology and wood carving, and possibly even in going to church, on the strength of my fascination for Polly. She was brightly optimistic, in spite of Mrs Peabody being pretty harsh (as I recall) and she was simply kind in her thoughts towards those whom others were inclined to mock or ignore. There is no doubt that the time I spent with Polly made me a better person.

cider with rosie

The same probably couldn’t be said for …

Rosie

(from “Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee)

Yes, well, ahem … This was definitely one of those coming-of-age crushes. I don’t think anyone can read that scene with the cider and the kissing under the hay cart and not fall in love with Rosie. I guess she still haunts my summers, whenever the hedgerows are hot and fragrant and the beech woods are filled with secret green light and the chaff-dust of threshed wheat hangs in the air …

How about you? Did you give your heart away to someone you found in a book? Or is it just me?

A Poem: For James

I have a folder with maybe an hundred poems in it; most of them were written between 1994 and 1999 and covered the span of time from GCSEs to my final year at University. In the last thirteen years my poetic productivity has died to a trickle. I have lost my way a bit. I feel embarrassed by the panting romanticism of the early stuff and the technicolour emotions and tangible intimations of immortality that fueled my late teens are not  as keenly felt as I approach my mid-thirties.

When I was at school, I was surrounded by poetry.  There were three of us in my A level English Literature class where poetry was inescapable, there was an annual poetry prize, there was even a Dead Poets Society and there was a library with a well stocked poetry section. With some friends and some support from the English department, I started a small literary magazine called “Apex”. These days I have to fight to make space in my life for reading poetry, let alone writing it, but there has been a modest output. Here’s one I wrote for a friend a few years ago:

For James
 
there’s a person i know i could be
theres a woodsman and a soldier in me
a weather beaten soul that’s rarely seen
i know he’s there because he’s been in my dreams
 
there’s a monk called brother somebody
who leaves his cell to cross the sea
he doesn’t fear and he doesn’t flee
but stands on the weatherdeck scorning the lee
 
i have felt his anger and desire to be free
his feelings and mine always agree
his indian name is strong-man-going-boldly
god’s breath must be in him or he couldn’t breathe
 
a strong man this woodsman must be
to fell the hulk of my family tree
a bold soldier too and armed to the teeth
gallantry and loyalty stirring beneath
 
his bayonet gouges mediocrity
and the monk steps out on a distant beach
salt on his lips that are burning to preach
and he speaks of my soul and who i could be

More poetry postings from this blog can be found here.

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