Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Juddmonte International: Frankel faces 1m2f

and the small matter of some very good horses in their own right.

Best price is 1/7 on, still makes my stomach turn somersaults though. An unbeaten record is always a worry in racing; each race becoming not so much, will he win? rather, what if he loses?

On the possibility of the mighty Frankel being found out over the 2 extra furlongs, judges will say, it’s highly unlikely and, on all known form, it is. My own observation is that he’s never looked like stopping over the mile, so fingers crossed.

I wanted a horse more than anything in the whole world when I was a girl, life dictated that instead I should have a roaring allergy to the real thing, so the nearest I got was when the fair came to town.

Life is a carousel?

Woodworm

Some Kitesurfing, Wissant, France

Bronze

This isn’t another Olympic or Paralympic post, it’s about an upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy starting next month.

This is the head of Seuthes III a king of Thrace and contemporary of Alexander the Great.
It was made around 2300 years ago somewhere on the Northern Aegean coast and excavated in Bulgaria only eight years ago. The bronze head is slightly bigger than life size, with copper eyelashes; the eyes are picked out with four different colours of glass paste.

It looks amazing.

Over two millenia collapsed in an instant between the gaze of those eyes and ours.

Bronze of Seuthes III c. 3rd Century BC

‘Thanks for the warm up’

If C4’s advertising in the run-up to the event is anything to go by, the London Paralympics 2012 is going to be worth this bit of waiting for.

The BBC’s drama The Best of Men, about the inception of the Paralympics at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, puts the event in a historical context. It’s thought provoking to see how far the world has come in a relatively short time.

Off the wall, Olympic style

I am trying to Get On. I thought I was getting on with finishing a project, but when I went back to it today, I realised it was almost entirely off-topic and not at all suitable for its intended purpose. Fifteen hundred words of meander. I think it defies an edit, so, it’s going on the compost heap – which is the blog.

Sometimes, I don’t know where my brain goes off to. I really don’t.

I write this final part, part five, as the London Olympics 2012, takes place. It seems apt somehow and compels me to get to the finish line of my own project; something which, I admit, I have begun dragging my heels on a little since June.

The dragging has been for many reasons and yet no particular one. Firstly, there is the business of putting one’s work ‘out there’ – alone and bare without the collaborative efforts of an editor, or a proof-reader, or a publisher who has believed in you in the first place. Independent publishing, although much vaunted as the way forward, is at its very essence an act of extreme hubris, perhaps. Writers, who have not been professionally validated, sticking it all out there anyway. This is not a criticism, I am one myself, but self-publishing, with few sales and even fewer reviews, let alone positive ones, is not for the faint-hearted, or the writer who is not prepared to accept that their craft is far from the finished article. I am quite sure that, if my wafflings were subject to a proper editing process, what I have just written and what I am about to say would be the first cold cut of the day.

Anyway, it’s just me, self-publishing away and The Olympics is proving the backdrop for my writing at the moment. Yesterday the cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, cemented his position as one Britain’s greatest Olympians when he won his 7th medal, making him our ‘most decorated Olympian’ ever. That’s the phrase the pundits favour, personally I think it makes him sound a bit like a chintzy lounge. (Chintz is a word that has haunted me since I wrote the episode about the terrapins. I proofed and proofed and then published and immediately noticed that the terrapins own pink chintz palace was missing a ‘z’. ( The Shame.) What ‘most decorated’ means is that our Bradley has won the most medals of all colours, of all our athletes ever. I don’t think Bradley would mind me pointing out that the British record for the most gold medals ever remains our rower the great Sir Steve Redgrave. And, as soon as I typed that, Sir Chris Hoy picked up his 5th gold medal to equal Steve and I think exceed Bradley in the decorated stakes; except that Hoy had the good grace to point out that Redgrave did it the hard way, in consecutive Olympics. Fair point.

The point that I am trying to get to about Bradley and the Olympics is something he said yesterday in his immediate post-race interview. The race was a road time trial around the south-west of London and into Surrey and he cracked through it in a sub 51 minutes time, taking nearly a minute out of his nearest rival. After the immense effort, instead of joining his fellow medallists on some over-decorated purple and gilt thrones to match the occasion, in front of Hampton Court Palace, Bradley hopped back on his bike, that instrument of both torture and glory, and spun off down the road from whence he had come only a short while before. You could sense, here was a man, trying to take it all in; a man trying to imprint the experience, like a mother tries to sear the first impression of her new baby into her mind forever. When he had finally cycled back to the fold, in the interview he said that he could not remember the Beijing Olympics, ‘perhaps I was too young…’

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Those huge events in our lives, and alright, I know that for most of us it’s not going to consist of winning a medal of any kind, let alone our ninth Olympic one, they just don’t always go into our heads in the way we are so certain they will at the time. Or if they do go in, the retrieval doesn’t work neatly in the way we would like. How nice if memory was like a set of show reels, labelled alphabetically placed on a great big mental shelving unit. It’s not though. Even someone like Bradley, lucky enough to have his great moments filmed for posterity, may have trouble filling in the emotional memory gaps in future, even when the events are played before his very eyes.

And that is all a very long way of saying, that the one reason my writing has slowed down is that I realise I only have two, very hazy round the edges, memories to turn into a part five. The hope is, and this sometimes happens, that once the retrieval through writing gets going, the brain starts making links and associations and manages to pull memory rabbits out of hats. The problem with this particular period I am trying to recollect is that at the time everything felt hazy anyway. I am writing about my last month of pregnancy, a time when nature wraps you mentally in bubble wrap anyway. There was no film camera, no bicycle by this point, no post-walk interviews and certainly no medal, but there was a baby at the end of it all, and their was a dog called Benji, so I’ll make a start down the home strait and we’ll see what arises from the recesses of my mind.

And then, instead of writing about that, I wrote this:

A strange thing happened, as I walked the current dog home just now on a route I have taken hundreds of times. Firstly, I walked up the opposite side of the street to the usual side I take, and it struck me, from this side, everything looks so… different. Which made me think then, that even if we can never walk in another person’s shoes, we can at least cross over the road, and that that small act in itself can change our perspective completely.

And after I had thought this and was waiting for the lights to change so I could cross a busy road, a man with crutches also stood waiting. I crossed quicker than him, and carried on up the street, but a few moments of stopping to look in a shop window allowed him to gain on me, and I began to hear the rhythm of the crutches clattering the pavement and the sharp intake of his pained breath as he drew closer, until I walked on again. I had, that day, been vaguely thinking about what the writer, Will Self, had said about the Olympics, that he viewed it as ‘horseshit’ and that he felt likewise about performance sport, describing that through the prism of winning and losing as ‘functionless’. I didn’t disagree with everything he said, but this idea that winning and losing was functionless jarred me up a bit. As I heard the man pounding along on his crutches, I thought:

That surely winning and losing is what makes this man get up and go down the road on his crutches, when it is hot and obviously painful for him, when it would be easier to just sit in a chair, somewhere. It is true that Olympic athletes are sponsored large sums but their endeavours are surely the distillation of that human spirit, to simply, live. The product is the race, there has to be a winner, that’s the narrative, the winning then is the result for one, but the will to live is exemplified in all the competitors. I wonder how that can be horseshit. I wonder how, if a child is inspired to tell themselves a story of achievement and endeavour and to perhaps, one day, succeed, how can that be horseshit?

And as I was mulling all this over, the strangest thing of all happened. I felt, as I had always, normal, usual and commonplace. And I realised all the changes that had happened to me over all the years that I had walked with dogs, from childhood with the dog Toby, to the one today, had left something in me still untouched. I looked and felt different, a lot; I was a mosaic of all the changes, but there was a quiddity I could not remember, but I recognised in that moment, that remained.

And I looked at all the other people, on bikes, in cars, walking home and I thought of them, just like me holding their own changes but also staying the same somewhere underneath it all, both ordinary and extraordinary in their own ways. And I thought to myself, they for this period of the Olympic Games in London, are Olympians themselves. And in that way that we always second guess ourselves, I thought, well now you are quite mad, calling them Olympians and so on when they are simply going home from work. But I looked at them again and I knew that every so often, from time to time, each of these people, including me, would excel themselves. There would be no medal, or one of those plaudits Will Self says he wouldn’t turn down, for most of us, but every so often, on a regular day, every one of us will get up and do something just a little bit better than we needed to, for the benefit of no-one and nothing or everyone and everything. We can’t know when, we can’t always plan it four years in advance, but like the man walking down the street on the crutches, or Katherine Grainger winning the Olympic medal she called the ‘People’s Medal’, it happens.

And I thought to myself, in the end, that is what it is all about.

Skeleton Coast

Possessions come and go, yet memories are yours to keep forever. Make choices from a sacred perspective rather than a mundane one and the rest will fall into place.

That’s what my horoscope said this morning, so here’s a little blog about a possession on its way out and some memories of yesterday.

The plan was, modest I thought, to go to the rescheduled Bloomsbury Summer Fete and take in the horse exhibition at the British Museum, which is sure to be cool in such hot weather, surely? I was a little later leaving with the kids than I had intended, but I wasn’t worried about it – why worry about time, when time takes care of itself. Incidentally, there’s an excellent blog here on that very concept. My loose attitude towards clock time causes my mother to compare me to the hookah smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland; I take this as a compliment. I stand by it though, if you stop watching the clock, real time elasticates in rather marvellous ways.

Not hardly

I’ve digressed. I was a bit behind my nominal schedule and we left around midday. I’d spent some time throwing around the options of car v train in my head. In the end, because I had petrol in the car and a week until payday, I opted for the car. The car is old, it has many miles upon its clock – a measurement of wear and tear as much as years passing our the markers for my own. We have had it for 7 years and it is reliable, which is the main thing, in my book, Alice in Wonderland or not.

I drive conservatively and, I like to imagine, a little like a light aircraft pilot – with one eye constantly on the control panel. I also drive a little empatico with the car, given the miles on its clock, I don’t take it for granted. Of course this is all silliness, but it does mean that when, even under the soundproofed bonnet, I heard some strange noises I turned down the radio and scanned my dashboard. Sure enough, the temperature gauge was creeping up. The car has never done this with me, the needle having always been rock steady on the vertical. I pulled over immediately, on a very narrow ingress from the A127 near the junction with M25. I was off the road, but barely and cars and lorries were thundering along a couple of feet away.

Obviously the children needed to be out of the car and away from the road. Some weeks ago we had a debate about the necessity for child locks on the rear doors – leave them I said – you never know.

The child locks certainly saved the 8 year old from disappearing down this uncovered manhole, its depth indicated by the traffic cone tip just showing like an iceberg. Now, I may have been broken down on the side of the A127, with volcanic mustard-coloured water spewing from the radiator cap, but I considered this to be the result of the day. The car was parked literally, on a precipice and a child or a wheel down there would have been no fun at all.

Before calling the RAC it was decided to let the engine cool, add some more water and try turning for home, there being no visible leak from the radiator. The car had recently been to France and checked over and topped up, so this was a bit of a surprise, but the car is reliable, isn’t it? Surely it would limp back to Southend.

After a time cooling off and topped up with more water by the emergency back-up in the shape of the kids’ dad, I drove on up to the next junction to turn round. For a mile or so the temperature gauge behaved, by the time I was on the slip road up the M25 interchange it suddenly shot into the red. For the second time that day I pulled over, this time onto the pavement by the roundabout traffic lights. We all got out again and climbed behind the crash barrier. The RAC were called, this seemed a bit more serious now.

I may not clock watch, but I did notice I was hungry, thirsty and needed a wee. The children said the same. It was also bloody hot. Lunch in London had been the plan, but that was off the menu now. To be fair the kids were really good. The eldest made a fairy garden in the first spot we broke down in and in the second said that there was a lot more wildlife off the M25 than she had ever noticed from the car… Good girl.

The RAC man said it was a puzzler. The car took a quantity of water from his container – all of it in fact – gallons. He said, ‘It’s a mystery where it’s gone to though,’ there being no visible leak. The car was still overheating. In the end, he said that if we put the heating on it would draw the heat into the car and release it. I could try driving back to Southend like that and he would follow me. The kids were to go in Dad’s vehicle. It would be a lot quicker than waiting for a recovery truck and, despite my caterpillar tendencies, even I don’t want to be on the A127 on Friday afternoon as the commuters hit the roads home. We would give it a go.

As I said, surely this reliable car would limp home for me…

Every heating vent was open, on full blast. The RAC man set the temperature higher than I even knew it could go: 32 degrees to be precise. I had the windows open so much of it blasted right on out, but, oh… my foot. There was a vent directly onto my right flip flop accelerator foot. It was like putting your foot in a oven set for a Sunday roast. The heat felt, at times, almost unbearable and in the convoy of three vehicles I am sure my erratic driving was noted as I removed my foot from accelerator as often as I was able. 32 degrees outside and 32 directly on my foot. How my flip didn’t melt, I don’t know. Why my flesh wasn’t falling off my metatarsals like a lamb kleftiko I don’t know either. Sweat? You ain’t seen nothing. I could offer to test anti-perspirants driving up and down the A127 in high summer, and I’d lose half a stone a day to boot. I tell you what though, that reliable car’s temperature gauge did not budge – bang on the vertical the whole way home.

So, if you don’t mind travelling in an overheated sauna, there’s nothing wrong with the car. By the time we had returned to base the RAC man had diagnosed another fault: a replacement rear shock absorber needed he said. That’s added to a suspect head gasket, the unknown leak in the coolant system, the timing belt that’s nearly shot, the boot that doesn’t open, two new tyres and knackered paintwork on the bonnet. I suppose it’s like the horoscope said, possessions come and go but I’ve got the memories alright.

So now we’ve got two knackered old bangers out front, it reminds me of Namibia’s skeleton coast. What with all the heat I contributed to global warming yesterday and the passage of clock time, I wonder how long I would have to leave the cars before they looked like this?

Not hardly, as Absolem the caterpillar said.

Postscript – now faced with the rather mundane conundrum of saving the old reliable, or letting it go out on its shield like an old soldier. With the two bangers and if I only had the right amount of engineering know-how I am sure I could cobble together a hybrid ultra reliable car in blue and green for only the price of an elastic band and some pork scratchings. Hopefully though, like the horoscope said, I can make this choice from a sacred place, whatever that means. Back to the Caterpillar.

A bit more off the map: leaving signs along the way

After yesterday’s post I did a bit more thinking, which went a bit like this.

If I know that being off the map is going to make me feel a certain way, then that makes it easier for future episodes, ah this feeling again, I know you… Then rather than anxiously search for signs that I have found my way back to civilisation as quickly as possible I can leave my own signs; little landmarks that say I was here too.

It will be like Hansel & Gretel scattering breadcrumbs, only I will be casting them before me, not behind me. It still leaves a trail, but one that aims to show where I am going, not where I have been. Of course there is no material difference in the trail, whether the crumbs are thrown forward or behind me, it is the intention of it that matters to me.

It seems, that for now, these stand in for a handful of breadcrumbs.

And like adding a rock to a cairn at the top of a mountain summit, or leaving a pebble to mark the way, the trail of words others have already left helps me to recognise fellow travellers along the way. Suddenly, off the map feels much better in my head.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled with, as I suspected, a German word that attempts to categorise those feelings I have struggled with called Waldeinsamkeit; the nearest translation is to do with being in the solitude, or of being lost, in the woods. And, in a moment of serendipity, last night I finished a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft; on the last page it quoted her writing thus

I am not born to tread in the beaten track, the peculiar bent of my nature pushes me on.

Wherever I go, on or off the map, it is certain that someone, somewhere, sometime… has been there before.

Even in my head.

Off the map

Warning: this post is not simply lost, it is off the map and it remains so throughout. If you like a nice tight narrative, abandon ship now.

In these days of sat nav and GPS on phones, you’d think it impossible to do… actually with a lack of forward planning and general ignorance – it’s quite easy. I’ve done it twice in the last few years, once in London, a city I know so well that my familiarity bred contempt on that one occasion, and once last week when I ended up off the small tourist map of the area in France. On both occasions, my sense of direction, which is usually quite good, completely deserted me and with it being night in London (no stars) and grey and overcast in France (no sun) there were no natural clues to help me.

It’s an interesting experience to reflect on: not being lost, that’s different and I don’t mind that too much, but being ‘off the map’ is enough to quickly provoke an existential crisis in me. The difference? Well being lost, is merely a matter of locating oneself on the map, and given enough time, that can always be done – I experienced that in the Caribbean as I insisted on driving over a mountain range to the north of the island on unmade roads. My sister as passenger was unhappy, we were LOST. She was right, we were lost, but we were still somewhere on the map. Sure, the map was poor, with little detail, but with the mountains and the sun in the sky to guide us it was only a matter of time before we popped up on the map again. It took a few hours, but we did.

Now, being off the map, the maps you have in your head or hand at any given moment, and being pointed in any direction, you know not where, that’s completely different to being lost on the map. It makes me feel a strange mixture of rising panic, freedom and desperation to get back on the map. It’s a feeling, there’s no word for in English, perhaps there’s one in German. It’s a feeling I despise in myself. Can I only feel free on a map? If everything is already mapped are there no new ideas, ever? But if there are still some uncharted territories somewhere, if I can’t get off the map for a while and explore, how will I ever find them? Help. Now I am lost.

These overwhelming feelings when I am temporarily off the map indicate I am not who I hoped I was: a little intrepid and brave, sometimes fearless. The feelings tell me I always want to know where I am in the world… at all times: where I am in the vicinity, which way I am facing, where I am going. On each of the occasions I was physically off the map, one of the first things I did when I found myself again was consult a map that covered the areas to check where I had been. I had to know what the off the map experience looked like, on the map. Even though I had just been there, as if a map would give me any more detail about the actual experience of driving along French roads or sitting on a wall somewhere in Kensington. Why does the cartographical detail matter after the event? I don’t know. Maybe I am a mad egotist who cannot bear not to know where she is in the world at any given time. The question it begs, not you, but me, is: what an earth would have I been like before the whole of the world was committed to charts and paper. Would I have been a flat earther, still brave enough to hop on a ship and sail off to the edge of the world? Would I have been able to surmise that India was round the globe somewhere and sail off confidently in the wrong direction? Is ignorance truly bliss; is a little information a dangerous thing? What the hell is it with me and maps. I just don’t know.

On both occasions when I was off the map, it turned out I had been heading in the complete opposite direction I had intended to. This is obvious in hindsight. The mix of feelings it creates is not. So what? Just turn round, retrace your steps, you idiot! No-one need ever know your mistake. But I have always had a natural aversion to doing this, preferring to press on, hoping to see something worthwhile, whilst angsting about never getting back on the map. So I panic about my existence no longer being charted, but I refuse to turn round.

Hopeless. Call me the Bellman. I don’t suppose this makes the least bit of sense to anyone else, but in the writing of this post I am starting to realise that the process is another version of being off the mental map; another refusal to retrace my steps to a known point. I’d rather be there in many ways, writing something intelligible, or entertaining, but I can’t – I am compelled to tramp forwards into headspaces I have never been to before, for which I have no sat nav.

Old paint, wonky shelves

It’s a constant battle: trying to hold the camera in a way that evens up the general wonk of the world.

It’s life-affirming when the subject defies my best efforts.

A sentiment that can be applied beyond photography.