Work in progress


Some of you know that every now and then I go to an art class. It isn’t really a class but Clare the artist who lives on the opposite side of the hill from me, has a slot for me and John and whoever to come and play with paint in her her studio.

A fortnight ago in glorious October sunshine she got me outside with an enormous sheet of blank paper and presented me with a vase of sunflowers. They were stunning and of course I could never do them justice but I loved having a go. She has encouraged me to look at the subject rather than my work, so the heads were easy to do and full of energy. Stalks less so and I didn’t get the vase right at all. The flowers would never stand up the way I drew them. I was disappointed as I was pleased with the flowers. I wanted to cut them out and use them in something else.

Then Clare – wise woman – said, ” Creativity starts when you make a mistake.” And she’s right. (” A man who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Einstein this time ).

She then proceeded to help me disguise my mistake and I had a go printing with wilting sunflower leaves and getting messy with acrylic paint. I filled in the leafy blanks with inks this week. Oil pastels, inks and acrylics. and then I am going to collage newsprint into the background. ( Not the work of a moment, she warned me, knowing my need for instant gratification).

So here I am on Monday afternoon, tearing up newspaper and making my sunflowers stand out from their drab background. Easier than trying to make that vase stand on a table, I’ll tell you. I’ve orange tissue paper saved from a Le Creuset shop for that.

Breaking Bad

This is a truly shocking confession. You will all think badly of  me after this, but I am addicted in a small way, on wet days, to this series. The subject matter could not be darker, namely lung cancer and drug dealing.

Let me explain to my more innocent readers.

[ As an aside, a very close friend told me I was naive the other day. Naive? Less so after 39 episodes of BB. (Not to be confused with BB,  Baby Bill who is no longer a baby, more like Toddler BIll, but TB doesn’t sound nice, does it? Just so long as he never becomes Burglar Bill…) But I am rambling.]

BB is a revelation. I have a very low tolerance level of violence and depictions of crime, anything more than Morse has me leaving the room to put the kettle on. Indeed I walked out of the cinema during The Elephant Man because of the mocking cruelty of the crowd. I’ve toughened up since then.

Breaking Bad is at one level a slice of life most of us never see and try not to read about. It’s a gruelling watch. However it is very well constructed and throws up a lot of questions.The characterisation is outstanding and the tension in each episode almost unbearable.

A bit of back ground.

Walter White (played by Malcolm in the MIddle’s dad) is fifty, a chemistry teacher in a high school in Alberqueque who has a wife, Skyler and a teenage son with cerebral palsy Walt Jr. At the outset he has second job in a car wash to supplement their income. The family are unexpectedly expecting another child, a girl. One day Walter collapses at the car wash and is taken, against his wishes, to hospital, his insurance is basic. He discovers he has terminal lung cancer and has maybe two years to live, with radio and chemotherapy. More expense.

Early on we discover he was a whizz at chemistry at college and contributed to research which won a Nobel award. His peers all have high flying jobs in elite labs, so why he chose to teach in high school I don’t know yet and don’t tell me, please. But he did and now he has a predicament. How will he provide for his family after his predicted early demise?

His brother in law, Hank, who’s a swaggering hunk, works for the DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency, and takes Walter on a drugs bust. Like you do. They discover a ‘lab’ making the highly addictive substance, crystal meth. Walter meets an ex student, Jesse Pinkman, involved in this enterprise and together they form an uneasy alliance making – ‘cooking’  – and distributing this drug. Seamy does not describe the world we now enter. Terrifying more like.

From being a decent, middle class, middle aged teacher Walter uses his talent for precise chemistry to generate secret income for his family and becomes a drug manufacturer of immense skill, earning the respect and attention of many inside and outside the law.

Layers of lies and subterfuge ensue and he becomes ( initially I wrote ‘ is forced to become’ but he doesn’t, he chooses) an altogether different person. The symbiotic relationship between Walter and Jesse is unsettling and the balance of power shifts continually. Despite graphic scenes of drug abuse and degradation I find myself hoping they succeed in eluding both the cops and the drug cartels, that his wife will not find out about his double life.

Subtly I have been inveigled into their world, when I thought I was straight and so superior. Decisions are so clear cut, aren’t they?

The cancer story line is clever too: we know malignant cells grow unnoticed until something makes us aware of them. This parallels the web of lies spun by Walter which eventually will out. Furthermore of course addiction starts with one drink, one smoke, one snort of cocaine. Users initially think they have their habit under control but after a while the substance controls them. It becomes stronger than they are and takes them to places they never imagined. They become people they never wanted to be. People don’t they recognise. The need for the addictive substance is so strong that everything else takes second place and decisions are made only with short term procurement of the drug in mind.

Tough stuff. This series has made me think. It keeps me awake at night, imagining those many lost souls who were once dearly beloved children. And were I in such a position, what would I do? What would I trade to see my family secure and safe?

Another poem, Wendell Berry this time.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

October 7th

I know, I know, two posts in a day!

Another day snatched from winter. I was going to the bank in Hythe, had finished my chores and then drove along the sea front, saw a woman, emerging Ursula Andress-like from the waves. The sun was shining and I was jealous.


So home I went, got my swimmers and in I plunged. I did the same yesterday and the identical programme, The Food Programme,  was playing on Radio 4 on both occasions. It was celebrating the slow cooker and pressure cooker which both suffer from an image problem. They’re thought of as seventies, brown, orange and frumpy. But how wrong can we be? Slow cooking is right on trend in this frugal age, making the most of those cheaper cuts. And a charming professor of physics made a very good case for parboiling potatoes in a pressure cooker before roasting. It breaks down the starch most effectively making for a fluffy outside. Ok, I’ll dig it out.

The weather was predicted to be 18* and the water not much cooler. It was still marvellous and I made pedestrians and cyclists jealous, of that I am certain.


Yet another snap of sunny Hythe. Aren’t I lucky? Now I know when I enjoy something I can become evangelical to the point of forced conversions, but…

What I’ve learned this summer from so much swimming:

Be prepared. Take your kit with you. All of it, all the time and rinse it out when you’re home ie look after yourself in the same way you looked after the kids.

Once you decide to go in, don’t hang about. Don’t overthink. There’s always a reason not to do it.

Put to bed the childish fear of ‘being out of my depth’. The beach shelves so steeply that if I had to stay in the shallows, I’d be scraping my tummy on the pebbles. Of course I am out of my depth but I don’t let that dominate my thoughts. If I relax and swim gently, the tide will swoosh me back to shore. Everything is metaphor.

And swimming takes me out of my head. Not being expert I have to concentrate on what I am doing, you can’t do that and worry.

So what shall I do when the sun goes in?

Max, and being uncritical

This is Max who is staying with us for a week. Let’s get acquainted. Max is not the handsomest dog in the world: he looks like something created from the game of Misfits. His skin is black, his hair is white.  His legs are too short for his sturdy body and his ears are just plain silly.


Furthermore Max is not intelligent. He can’t read Billy-Old-Dog’s signals of “ I am not interested. Just p*** off you young whipper-snapper!” He startles at many things. He nudges his bowl with his nose and jumps back as if bitten.

On our walks we pass a fallen tree, and as we approach his pace gets slower and he stops and looks intently at it as if he can discern something I can’t. Admittedly it’s a large one, but let’s face it, it doesn’t move. (We once had a dog who used to stare over my shoulder when I was watching tv which was unnerving, especially if it was Dr Who, or Morse).

The same feeling arises in me when Max goes all still and alert in the woods. As a child I read constantly in Readers Digests about dogs’ instinct for danger and their selfless and heroic acts, well, all I can say is I wouldn’t rely on Max to save me from marauders or bears, neither of which have I come across in West Wood. Fortunately.

(I have met some rather overdone partying campers who couldn’t find their way back the car park and I regularly meet a guy who resembles the chief zombie from I am Legend. He looks frightening but is a gentle soul who walks from before dawn well into the day to deal with some unspecified pain he endures. Bless him).

Max prefers another dog’s food. He ignores his own bowl and lurks meaningfully beside Bill and waits till he pauses and rushes in to devour what’s left. He is like the annoying kid who hangs about, plays no real part in the game, even sabotages it from time to time, just makes up the numbers.

But, and you knew it was coming, didn’t you, there is not an ounce of harm in Max. He doesn’t whine or meither. He is unfailingly cheerful and accepts Niamh (a committed dog botherer) putting him on a lead, walking him up and down the garden and tying him up to a rail, untying him, attaching him to another rail, teaching enforced agility over shaky boxes and sticks, instructions delivered with the sternest of voices. She has no time for dog whispering. Dog barking more like.

(I’ve just had the scariest, hairiest man come to the door with a parcel for me. This man was half bear and wore dark glasses and bad hat. He also stood too close with his little electronic ‘sign here’ thing. And did Max growl or bark at him? Did he heck? And did my senile Billydog who can’t even cock his leg to pee anymore? Yes he did. Pause for applause).

Back to Max’s array of small virtues. We have just been for a run. He is ever alert to the possibility of going out, nipping past me into the porch at every opportunity. He leaps into the back of the Land Rover despite his shortness of leg. It never looks as though the move comes easily for him, as if he might fall  back at the last moment with a frenzy of scrabbling. Sits nicely on the old carpet in the back, not panting in my ear. When we arrive he leaps out and waits for me. He has no idea he could just run off and lark about in the woods on his own, making doggy friends and sending up pheasants. We set off at a plod and run through the woods for about half an hour: it wasn’t fast or athletic. He’s got short legs and I am 54. But he scampered about and pee’ed every chance he could. He watched and followed me and thoroughly enjoyed the exercise, up and down tracks and trails and he didn’t run off (although other dogs tempted him), nor did he judge my running which was like stodgy potato. When we found our way back to the car, he jumped in and lay down, even though he could have kept going for another hour or so.

When you run in a group, or with just one other person, there is often an element of competition. Unspoken mostly but it’s there. Even when I run with John and I have no chance EVER of catching him or keeping up with him (unless he has flu or something), I am aware of making comparisons between his ability and mine. Pointless I know but I am being honest here. But when you run with a dog, he’s just pleased to be there. A dog doesn’t make you reflect on your style or pace or personal best. You just do it. Together.

George Eliot wrote:

We long for an affection altogether ignorant of our faults. Heaven has accorded this to us in the uncritical canine attachment.

Yes please, more of that. Maybe without the dog?

(He’s now snoring gently in his basket.)