blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The squirrels' kindergarten

(Wikipedia photo)
... is in our back garden. We're being entertained every day by the glossy furred twin baby black squirrels who tumble over one another and chase one another round our deck. There's an equally small grey one who plays with his black friends when he's not stopping for a drink from his mother on the ledge of our kitchen window. The mother doesn't seem to mind us watching.*

We encourage them with peanuts or pieces of apples and pears. I wish I were quick enough to catch their antics on my camera.

The scurrying chipmunk family is bold enough to sit on Chris' lap stuffing their cheeks with peanuts after running up his leg while he reclines in the deckchair. One of them has had a piece of thread stuck tightly round its neck for over a year, now, surviving well in spite of that.

* Footnote: I have just witnessed the grey mother squirrel suckling one of the black baby squirrels as well, without trying to push it away! Is she colour-blind, I wonder, or simply generous?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thomas Traherne and other English mystics

In Hereford Cathedral is a side chapel dedicated to Thomas Traherne, a clergyman and poet, who died in 1674. He was born in Hereford and died in Teddington, two of the places I stayed at on my latest travels. Traherne was a contemporary of Henry Vaughan, another visionary of 17th century England, of George Fox, founder of the Quakers, and of John Bunyan, the man who wrote The Pilgrim's Progress.

Most of Traherne's writings were not discovered until 200 years after his death, and his poems not published until 1903.

The Audley chapel has four stained glass windows, recently installed as a tribute to Thomas Traherne, created by another Thomas, Thomas Denny, in a style that reminds me of Samuel Palmer by whom Mr. Denny admits he was influenced. Dedicated in March 2007, the chapel provides a leaflet for its visitors to take home with them: a description of the windows, with quotations from Traherne. It says
The windows seek to be a visual expression of the visionary beauty and the richness of Traherne's imagery, and an inspiration to pray to the God who[m] Traherne loved and served.
The window or "light" on the left shows a figure running through a cornfield (like the cornfields in Palmer's "Valley of Vision") with trees beyond it:
The green trees when I saw them first ... transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap.
In the next window (not pictured here) is a cross with a bird rising above it: Love is a phoenix that will revive in its own ashes, said Traherne. You are as prone to love as the sun to shine.

In the third window a man stands "in wonder"––the leaflet quotes a line from one of Traherne's "Commentaries" in relation to this image.
An ant is a great miracle in a little room and no less a monument of eternal love than almighty power.
Which reminds me of (Lady) Julian of Norwich, saying:
...he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus, 'It is all that is made.'
I read another of Traherne's quotations aloud to my mother:
You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.
"Isn't that wonderful?" I said.

"Oh yes," said my mother. "I know that one! I've got it in my Quote Book."

In the fourth window, on the right, is a crowded city scene that bears a resemblance to Hereford. The artist assumes that this is how Traherne saw people and things in his moments of ecstacy:
The city seemed to stand in Eden or to be built in Heaven ... The dust and the stones of the street were as precious as gold ... O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! ... And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels.
Don't mock at mystics. It is rare to see the world like this, but not impossible. It's what you see at moments of great happiness, if, for example, you have come alive out of surgery that you feared would kill you. It's what you perceive whenever you are receptive enough to perceive it.
What shall I think therefore when the winds blow, the seas roar, the waters flow, the vapours ascend, the clouds fly, the drops of rain fall, the stars march forth in armies, the sun runneth swiftly round the world?

Monday, September 23, 2013

A trip to the UK (part 2)

After my rainy arrival in Teddington the weather continued variable. Mostly we stayed indoors, although Thomas picked up his umbrella and his mother's rubber shoes at one point, telling us he wanted to play in the garden. He talks and sings entertainingly now, just as his brother did at that age. Alexander and I played a game of chess and read Paddle-to-the-Sea, the Canadian children's classic written in 1941, but still good. We even found episodes of the film on Youtube. We all watched a BBC programme about vegetable harvesting, more interesting than you'd think.

On Monday I travelled through London to return to Cardiff. The sky was blue that morning and to my delight, when I reached Waterloo I still had an hour and a half to catch my next train, so could walk down to the Thames on the way, seeing the London Eye, Big  Ben, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Then crossing the Hungerford footbridge with my not too heavy luggage I saw the Thames boats and barges and the view down the river to St. Paul's Cathedral, nowadays dwarfed by nearby skyscrapers, which is not what Sir Christopher Wren intended.

From the Embankment tube station I took the Bakerloo line to Paddington and reached Cardiff (Whitchurch) in time for lunch at the Café Katz with Mum while the showers went through. She had met me off the bus. In the afternoon we ordered a new mattress for her bed and a magnifying glass on a stand. I did some gardening for her which was just as well as I didn't get another chance; it rained all the next day. We were drenched going shopping, after talking to a lady from Dusters who I hope will be cleaning Mum's house for her soon. That evening, being Tuesday, was the Pub Quiz night in Gwaelod y Garth, at the Gwaelod Inn (before which Mel cooked a wonderful supper for us complete with chanterelles he'd picked himself in the local woods, and my sister's plum crumble). Our team, "Mrs Pepperpot's Crew," came second to the usual champions, because we weren't very good at identifying examples of Soul Music.

The beach at Rest Bay
Wednesday was my last day in Wales. Mel joined us for lunch at the Deli-A-Go-Go a place I've failed to mention in my blog before, so I'm putting a link to it here and now. It sells Welsh (e.g. Perl Wen) cheese and other gourmet foods and drinks and has won a Best Bistro of the Year award more than once, justifiably so. Then we rode in Mel's car to Porthcawl (i.e. Rest Bay and Pink Bay) for an exciting walk by the sea, so exciting indeed that three of us fell in. Mum was the last to dry off but was unharmed and very uncomplaining for a 94 year old. She had fun scrambling over the rocks, too.

Meanwhile, other people were kitesurfing on the incoming tide.

I enjoyed my journey home on Thursday too, finding a surprisingly tasty lunch at the Rhubarb "British restaurant and bar" in Heathrow's Terminal 3, then, on the flight, watching Much Ado About Nothing in a modern (black and white) American context, as well as the latest (very colourful) version of The Great Gatsby and part of Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes, a documentary about his photography projects in China. With no luggage to collect from the hold, I was the first person through customs at Ottawa, and so back to normality.

Let the children play!

Martin, a Facebook friend of mine, has just posted a link to an excellently written, 5000 word article in a British-based online magazine, Aeon. The article is entitled The Play Deficit
Children today are cossetted and pressured in equal measure. Without the freedom to play they will never truly grow up ...
It's written by someone of my generation who probably grew up in the countryside, as Chris and I did. In the author's case, it was the American countryside, but it makes no difference. Although he didn't actually make this connexion, children have become more urban during the last half century and consequently, it seems, less self-sufficient. I worry about their lack of free time, myself. I added a comment, saying:
I absolutely agree with the message of this article. I grew up in the '50s too and see my grandsons deprived of this freedom to play. However, when I talked to my daughter, their mother, about this, she pointed out that the traffic on the roads near her house is too dangerous to let the children explore on their own out there. The children are aged 2 and 6 and live in London, England. Although they live near a big park, it is taboo to let them explore it on their own, although in my opinion they could have a wonderful time if they did so. Too "dangerous." In fact it's considered so dangerous that my grandsons' parents could be put on a blacklist by the local authorities for not being present while they play. Where they live, there's a communal lawn and a car park (parking lot) for residents immediately outside. If they play ball games outside with the other neighbours' children, their parents have to suffer endless complaints from the childless neighbours about the noise and damage to their cars, so for the sake of peace and harmony the children are mostly kept indoors, where they too often stare at computer or TV screens. What is the solution to these problems?
Thomas and Alex choosing their own way home in the rain
When they can, my daughter and son-in-law, who need to live close to their place of work, so moving to the countryside is not an option, do their best to find their own solutions. They often bring the boys home through the park after school / nursery and work, letting them run ahead through the long grass, just within sight. That's OK until the winter comes and it's too dark. At the weekends they take them to places like Wimbledon Common, which is virtual countryside, where they can go on "'dventures" (as little Thomas says) down the inviting pathways through the forest and up and down the hills, and climb trees. This summer the family went camping too, in the real country for a few days, where the boys had the freedom of big fields to play in. Still, their parents have always been close at hand.

In the old days, it was more acceptable for parents to take risks, my mother vaguely warning me about "bad men"––I hadn't a clue what she meant––when I wandered off by myself into the woods, as I had been doing since the age of three or four. Chris' parents didn't even know where he had gone with his untrustworthy pals once he'd left the house. One day he naughtily didn't come home for lunch and they had the river dragged for him, but he turned up safe and sound in the end. I don't think the outside world was that much less dangerous, although admittedly the roads weren't so busy. There were still just as many "bad men" out there, of course, everywhere. Dürrenmatt's horrible novella about the hunt for a child murderer, Das Versprechen––set in rural Switzerland!––was published in 1958.

On Sunday mornings Alexander attends his Rugby Club training sessions for the Under Sevens. The writer of The Play Deficit would probably disapprove of this, being so regimented a pastime, but it does give Alexander a taste of male discipline, it encourages self-discipline too, and he gets to play with a whole pack of other boys his age. Most important of all, the coaches and visiting professional rugby players are role models for him, in contrast to the lady-teachers he mostly has at school. I witnessed two hours of this on the weekend I spent in London, and came away impressed.

Alexander and other 6-year-olds, with a professional rugby player 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A trip to the UK (part I)

I've just come back from visiting my mother and sister in Wales and my daughter in London.

From seat 13K on the outbound flight, I didn't have too good a view through the small window that was blocked by the chair back in front of me. I did get a glimpse of Hyde Park, with the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial, as we came in over London. The films I watched, half asleep, were a dramatisation of the Kon Tiki expedition, starring a handsome Norwegian called Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, and a love story in Chinese, Say Yes, some of which I could follow.

The boat arriving at Bute Park to ferry us to Cardiff Bay (£3)
My first full day with Mum started warm, so that she and I could wait for my sister in Cardiff's Bute Park at an outdoor café; it turned colder in the afternoon. We ambled along the herbaceous border and caught one of the Taff riverboats down to Cardiff Bay (Tiger Bay, as was) that has an increasing number of attractions, the latest being the Doctor Who Experience in a big blue shed at Porth Teigr. I think Chris and I would be more interested in the World of Boats next door and the "self drive boats" for hire from the wharf. A little Norwegian church, now an art gallery and tea shop, bears witness to the number of Norwegian immigrant sailors and their families who once felt homesick here. Faith and I looked at these places after a stylish lunch at the Côte Bistro, while Mum had a rest in the Millenium Centre foyer.

Cloisters, Hereford Cathedral
The next morning Mum and I set off to Hereford on a direct train from Cardiff Central, passing Cwmbrân, where Chris and I used to live, and Abergavenny, where we used to go hiking or bilberry-ing. The Welsh border hills looked lovely, with clear outlines and cloud shadows on them. Once off the train at Hereford, it wasn't too long a walk to our hotel, the Green Dragon, that makes the most of its history. There has been some sort of hostelry here since 1079, when the masons needed a lodging while they built the Cathedral, and where pilgrims stayed on their visits to the local shrines. The girl at the reception desk told us there were secret passages between the hotel and Cathedral, but they'd been bricked up. In the 18th century the building was a coaching house, and later, an omnibus brought guests to and from the trains. The livery stables were eventually turned into garages with accommodation for one's chauffeur. The hotel now seems to be the essence of decayed gentility, its Garrick Lounge in particular. "Step back in time when you enter with it’s [sic] comfortable sofas and arm chairs," as the website says. When we were in there playing Scrabble, the lounge was full of people from Up North on their last legs leg of a coach tour. There's a ballroom, too.

The population of Hereford seemed to have a high average age, that day. Mum and I lunched at the Antique Tea Shop, every table taken by aged customers like us(!), then looked at the "Old House" museum on Butchers' Row, neatly furnished in the Jacobean style for the edification of its visitors. Among other interesting things, it had a painting of Urania, the muse of Astronomers; upstairs I also learned that the phrase "sleep tight" refers to the ropes under people's beds, that used to keep their mattresses firm.

The nave of Hereford Cathedral
The Cathedral was 100m down the street from our hotel. We had some time to spare before Evensong, so walked through the flowery cloisters and then across Castle Green to the iron footbridge over the River Wye. The Evensong service featured responses by Tomkins and an anthem by Purcell. The cathedral choir was a good one and the Bible was well read, but Mum tells me that the older she gets, the less religious she feels (unless she's listening to one of the Passions by J.S. Bach). We repaired to the hotel, just in time for a buffet supper of roast turkey, etc., administered by Indian waiters.

I had a long day on Friday, beginning with a walk in the rain after breakfast. We crossed the river on the old stone bridge and walked along the other bank to the iron one, passing a class of kids from a privileged school, having a lesson on the river, in kayaks. The swans gave them a wide berth. After that, we visited the Mappa Mundi exhibition in the Cathedral precincts: fascinating to get an idea of the mental picture people had of the world in the thirteenth century. Mum bought me a tea towel version of it, to hang on our wall at home. After another lunch at the Antique Tea Shop, with our luggage, we walked back to the station and caught the Cardiff train. Later that afternoon I caught another series of trains to London, travelling in heavy rain all the way. I arrived with a dripping umbrella at the new Travelodge in Teddington at about 9pm, a far cry from Hereford's Green Dragon. Emma immediately came in to meet me and we spent two hours in the bar, talking avidly. At the other end of the room was a group of metrologists from Sierra Leone. Emma knew that, because she'd met them at the NPL, earlier on.