Books, Dreams and Leaves

Autumn is finishing and Winter is beginning to close in.  The sunny days of early and mid-November that highlighted the changing leaf colours have given way, in the last week especially, to grey murk, mist and damp.  But, today is sunny and Christmas is coming and, beyond that, a chance to think about a new, hopefully less pandemic-ridden new year.  I will have to start thinking about New Year resolutions and how well (or not) I did with 2020’s resolutions.

Horsley Woods Exactly A Month Ago

At the beginning of 2020 I set myself a target of reading 20 books in the year.  To my disappointment and surprise, I am going to fall short of the target.  Disappointment because I have consistently read 16 to 17 books a year since I retired and so reading 20 was only a small step up.  Surprise because I enjoy reading a lot and would have expected to have found more time for reading in what has been a year of pandemic lockdown and, therefore, more time sitting around at home.

Local Sunlight Through Mist (Photo Courtesy LSW)

I would like to be able to say that the relatively slow pace at which I have finished books this year has been a function of those books’ complexity or length.  But given that one was ‘How to Be a Footballer’ by Peter Crouch, I can’t get far with that argument.  No; the real reason is that almost every time I pick up a book during the day – especially after lunch – I doze off.

Birthday Voucher Books

A few weeks ago I cashed in a book voucher my mother in law had kindly given me for my birthday.  As I carried the books home, I resolved to resist siesta time more determinedly.  I have had partial success and am now embarking on the third of the books I bought.  However, I think the only real solution is to when read standing up or while sitting stiffly at a table.  I am still finding that trying to read on the sofa or in a comfy chair leads inexorably to a frittering away of retirement in a pleasant but wasteful snooze.  I’m going to try harder.

The first of the new books I read was ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison.  This is an intricate novel about, at its core, slavery and how ex-slaves and their offspring came to terms with their experience.  It’s a brilliantly constructed book with fragments of the story, told by different protagonists, coming together gradually to create a whole.  The presence of a ghost (as representation of guilt, memory or trauma – I’m not sure which) was a device I don’t normally warm to, but it worked here.

The next book in the new pile was ‘Always North’ by Vicki Jarrett.  This was very different from Beloved.  It is set in a dystopian near future, not the past, and is a fast paced climate emergency thriller.  There are some parallels between the books though.  They both describe a tragic environment and they both deal with the nature of memory and dreams.  I thought that some of the ideas in Always North were only partly thought through.  However, the excellent first section of the book describing a survey of the Arctic hooked me, the story unfolded quickly enough for me to forgive any logic holes, and I learnt a few things about likely climate change trigger points above the Arctic Circle.

A Few Remnants Of Autumn Colour On The Walk To Town Through The Fisheries

The preoccupation of both books with memory and dreams links to some thoughts I have had about these recently.  I have had a spate of dreams over the last few months that have had a corporate office work theme.  There were people in the dreams from my previous work life.  There were offices, deadlines, files and meetings.

I won’t relate what fragments I can remember of any of the dream sequences – I often think there is nothing more tedious than hearing about someone else’s dreams – but it is weird that they have cropped up over 3 years after my retirement.  I read once that dreams are the brain’s way of flushing out information that is not needed anymore.  Well perhaps my experience is bearing that out!

Beautiful Autumn Leaf Colour

So, onwards into December…  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are looking forward to Christmas despite the constraints on gatherings.  I have issued a light and laughable survey to our sons asking them what sort of Christmas they want with us – what food, drink and activity for example – and that has helped to build up some excitement.  Most of all, we are looking forward to some long chats around meals, during long walks and in front of the wood-burners, in advance of what should be a good and interesting 2021.

The Sort Of Country Walk We Like

Already – and regardless of the pandemic – LSW and I can see the potential for big changes next year.  The landscaping of the garden behind the house is nearly (and finally, belatedly) finished but will need planting and then we should decide what to do about the big crumbling stone wall in front of the house and the gently declining stables in the field.  The Barbican flat in London is being vacated by Eldest Son and his girlfriend as they move to Edinburgh and so we have to decide whether to sell it.  The tenancy of our Tin House in a neighbouring village is coming to an end so there needs to be some thinking about the future of that too. 

Beyond the pandemic, there will no doubt be other opportunities and issues to confront.  Not least we are keen to travel around the UK rather more – especially to Northern Ireland, now Youngest Son is settled there, and to Scotland, once Eldest Son and girlfriend have moved there.  I will also visit my Mum and Dad again after a long break due to the lockdown.

Unexpected Autumnal Fungal Beauty

The sun coming out today after four days of grimy, grey weather has made me feel optimistic again….. There is still some autumnal colour in the leaves on some trees, the woodland paths are gorgeously spongy with the recent leaf falls, fungi are thriving in the undergrowth and birds are still marking out their territories beautifully noisily.  And a Covid-19 vaccine is coming….

The Stream Just Beyond Our Field In Early Sunlight (Again, Photo Credited To LSW)

There is much to appreciate and anticipate.  Roll on Christmas and the New Year.

Ups And Downs Of Walking

Anyone who has read this blog over the last few years will know that one of the greatest pleasures I have taken from retiring, and therefore having more discretionary time, has been in walking around the vicinity of our home in Gloucestershire.  That has continued in the last few quiet weeks of Covid-19 semi-lockdown.

Typical Local Cotswold View From A Local Walk

The weather has become distinctly Autumnal.  Now there are puddles and a sogginess underfoot on some of the footpaths that is requiring more care and more mud and waterproof footwear.  However, the weather has been largely good and recent walks have continued to be full of interest.

Autumnal Sunrise From Our Bedroom

The berries on the trees and hedgerows remain vibrant and fungal growths on tree stumps seem to have become more extravagant. 

Autumn Fungal And Mushroom Blooms

The local streams have become little gushing torrents again following the rain and the birds are noisy with their staking out of their territories. 

Local Streams And Waterfalls Are Filling Up

The changing seasons are bringing shifting palettes of colour to the views from walks where the green of fields and trees has previously dominated.  I am hoping that the warmth of the summer that accumulated in our woods has allowed trees to make the sugars that will bring out even more brilliant browns, reds and yellows as the month progresses.

The only irritants on my local walks have been the increasing prevalence of discarded face masks and dog poo bags along the way.  I have read that the standard plastic face masks take 450 years to decompose.  In recent years I have seen a raised consciousness of how the oceans are filling up with our plastic waste and I feel that we have begun to understand the potential (all bad) implications of this for the food chain and wildlife degradation.  Suddenly we have found a way of reversing that progress through carelessness in disposing of face masks; frustrating!

Perhaps I shouldn’t get started on dogs and their owners’ misuse of poo bags.  It makes my blood boil and I’m sure the issue is getting worse.  Of course, no-one wants to step in dog poop.  Picking it up and disposing of it safely should be a basic requirement for any dog owner.  But many choose not to do so when their dog is on a footpath crossing a field.  That endangers not only my shoes but also livestock in the field.

Locally Bagged Deposits Including The Particularly Egregious Example Pinned On A Stile Behind A ‘Please Clean Up After Your Dog’ Sign

Some dog owners are diligent in picking up their mess.  However, when they do, most use plastic bags that usually take centuries to decompose and create micro-plastic particles that simply end up poisoning the earth or flow into the oceans.  Googling ‘dog poo bag decomposition’ produces pretty frightening results.  Then there are the worst dog owners who pick up the poo and then, astonishingly, leave the bag swinging in a nearby hedgerow or lying by the side of the path; disgusting!

Disappointing Use of A Grit Bin In Our Lane – Dog Poop and Plastic!

Of course, dogs bring huge amounts of pleasure to millions of people.  But I worry when I read that people in the UK alone have bought 2.2 million dogs in the last six months of Covid-19 lockdown.  Will spotting discarded poo bags be the norm on any outing?  And what about the meat consumption of all those pets and the impact on greenhouse gasses that has?

I know – I shouldn’t have started my rant.  Rant over!  I’ll focus on enjoying the views during my walks by looking upwards and hoping my mud-proof footwear deals with the rest.

Summer’s Slow Demise

The weather during most of September has been excellent.  Now, though, summer has gradually drawn to a close.  There are still warm and sunny intervals but rain clouds are more prevalent, the tiring trees are dripping brown, and the streams are filling up.  Autumn is here.

The new walled garden still looks full of colour – Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has done a great job of maintaining its life throughout the summer and now on into Autumn.  The dahlias, which she has tried growing for the first time, largely succumbed to the slugs early on, but those that survived now look magnificent.  The scabious, salvia, cosmos (my small contribution), gaura and ever-resilient verbena bonariensis still look great and the last of the bee activity of the season continues to feed on these.

Last, Fading Colour In The Walled Garden

Last, Fading Colour In The Walled Garden

The badgers took all the sweetcorn – they didn’t leave one for us! But there are still vegetables to harvest – leeks, beetroot, potatoes and chard – plus one last elephantine courgette.  However, thoughts are now moving on to clearing away the vegetable beds, planting bulbs for next year and putting in a couple more trees.  We have ordered loads of alliums which I (and the bees) love and some more narcissuses for the field.  I have gathered some wildflower, hollyhock and foxglove seed and now need to do something with it!

We can see a lot of the ash trees in the vicinity are diseased.  We have a very impressive, large ash at the edge of our property.  It looks appears to be thriving but must surely be threatened by the surrounding ash die-back disease despite its current good health.  We need to get ahead of the damage and start planting to fill potential gaps.  We have just ordered a cherry and a whitebeam to offset the cutting back we did earlier in the year, and to augment the little orchard we have established over the last few years.  However, more tree-planting may be required.

I attended my Parish Council meeting for the village we now live in last week.  This was one of a series of meetings I attended related to carbon footprint reduction in the village, local sustainability initiatives and climate change.  At the Parish Council meeting I supported a move towards our village becoming carbon neutral and one of the first steps is to plant a 1,000 trees in the Parish.  It’s a start and we’ll offer to take three or four more in our field.  But I’m aware that other trees will die or need to come down because they obstruct power lines adjacent to our land, so all we are likely to manage is a rough equilibrium.  I hope others with space do better.

Local Tree Planting Scheme To Reduce Flooding

Local Tree Planting Scheme In Kingscote Woods To Reduce Flooding

As we have become increasingly aware of the climate change and sustainability issues, so LSW and I have suffered increasing angst about air travel which has such a big carbon emission impact.  Our trips to Canada, Australia (twice!), South Africa and cities in Europe in recent years have magnified our carbon footprint.  We haven’t looked to offset these trips up to now but are certainly planning to do so in the future.

Fortunately for the planet, our prevarication in the face of Middle Son’s accident, and then my mother’s recent falls, have given us excuses to shelve our summer and autumn holiday plans to burn up more exhaust in the upper atmosphere.  Maybe we will train-ride to Lyon for a few days in October…..

Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy the local walks.  The wildlife on the way to the local town each day is constantly shifting in character and behaviour.  Seeing it every day allows observation of the slightest changes – the loneliness of the swan, the arrival of little egrets, and the growing snuffling aloofness of the increasingly porky pigs.

Local Wildlife - New Chicks, Lonely Swan, Foraging Old Spot Pigs And, If You Look Carefully, Little Egrets

Local Wildlife – New Chicks, Lonely Swan, Foraging Old Spot Pigs And (If You Look Carefully) Little Egrets

This fascination has been augmented by the joy of being able to pick and eat the blackberries on the way.  Even better, there are enough – it has been a truly wonderful year for hedgerow blackberries – for cooking and for freezing for breakfasts and puddings during the forthcoming winter.

Masses Of Wild Blackberries Picked In Less Than 30 Minutes

Masses Of Wild Blackberries Picked In Less Than 30 Minutes

I shall miss the summer as it creeps away.  I shall miss the casualness of not having to worry too much about whether it is going to rain or the need for a coat.  I shall miss the sun and sitting and walking in it.  But Autumn will have its splendours too, and we are lucky enough to have a house that can withstand the winter cold.  In those circumstances, even winter can be attractive.  Goodbye summer.

Remember, Remember

The week has been busy and I have had a number of interactions with the United Kingdom’s national commemoration of the armistice at the end of the First World War on 11 November 1918.

Commemorative Poppies In Our Local Town, Nailsworth

Illuminated Commemorative Poppies In Our Local Town, Nailsworth

When I was in Lincoln last weekend I saw rehearsals for a memorial ceremony while I visited the cathedral.

Remembrance Service Choir Practice At Lincoln Cathedral

Remembrance Service Choir Practice At Lincoln Cathedral

Then, at the football match I went to see in Lincoln, there was a pre-match rendition of The Last Post, a minute’s silence and a collection by, amongst others, a man dressed as a huge poppy.  There was a similar pre-match marking of the armistice when I went to Oxford United’s stadium for another football game there.  On both occasions, the bugle playing was eerie and moving as the notes swirled around the windy stadia.

Remembrance Ceremonies At Oxford (Top) And Lincoln Football Grounds Prior to Matches With Forest Green Rovers

Remembrance Ceremonies At Oxford (Top) And Lincoln Football Grounds Prior to Matches With Forest Green Rovers

During my visit to London last week to see a band with Middle Son (MS), I also fitted in a visit to the ‘Beyond the Deepening Shadow’ installation at the Tower of London.  This consists of 10,000 hand-lit memorial flames and it was as impressive as the installation of bright red poppies spewing out of the Tower of London a few years ago.  The flames are a remarkable and imaginative way of marking the end of the First World War and the sacrifice of so many soldiers during its execution.

IMG_1296

The scale of that sacrifice became even starker to me as I visited another exhibition – ‘Shrouds of the Somme’ – at the Olympic Park to the east of London.  In contrast with the Tower of London exhibition where the crowds were enormous and the queues were hours long, the Olympic Park exhibition was very accessible and there was more time to think about what I was seeing.

1st World War Commemoration At The Olympic Park, London

1st World War Commemoration At The Olympic Park, London.

The main display here consisted of 72,396 shrouded figures – one for each of the British Commonwealth servicemen killed at the Somme whose bodies were not found – laid out in rows across a field.  There was then a separate set of the same shrouded figures – one for each day of the First World War – labelled with the number of servicemen killed on each day.  It was a very impactful exhibition.

The numbers of dead in the First World War are quite well known but still incomprehensible.  The 72,396 are just the dead whose bodies were not recovered mainly because they were simply fragmented and lost in the mud.  The 953,104 total dead represented at the Olympic Park are just those from the UK and the Commonwealth.  The 9 million soldiers from all nations who died were far outnumbered by the more than 20 million wounded and beyond that there was mental scarring beyond understanding.  It was a crazy, horrific war.

The nationwide commemoration and remembrance of the First World War – the centrepiece exhibitions I saw in London, the faces of soldiers etched on beaches around the country I saw on the TV news, the processions and the local displays and events, including a poignant and unexpectedly long roll call of the war-dead in our own little village – has all been very impressive and moving.  At the Olympic Park especially, I had time to reflect on the importance of remembering the disaster of past wars and avoiding a repeat.  The current rise of nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic makes the lessons of the past especially timely.  Unfortunately, it is one thing to remember the lessons and another to act on them.

On a jollier note, MS and I had a really good time watching Roosevelt, a German electro-pop artist.  I can’t recall smiling so much during a musical performance.  The music is straightforward and the next note always seems exactly as anticipated – does that make it predictable or just perfect?  Either way, we both had great fun seeing Roosevelt again.

Roosevelt At Oval Space, London

Roosevelt At Oval Space, London

Co-incidentally, he is from Cologne where we are having a Christmassy city-break next month.  However, we went to dinner last night with a couple who are fascinated by bio-dynamic agriculture, the annual equinox cycle and creativity tied into the seasons.  As usual, the discussions were fascinating but they didn’t want to talk about Christmas or our Christmas market visit until next month.  Instead they wanted to continue focus on the joys of autumn. They are right; the autumnal weather is still good and the colour on the trees and bushes remains marvellous.  Autumn is still out there waiting to be enjoyed.

I make no excuse for including yet another set of pictures from my walk into town this morning.  I am privileged to have the opportunity to enjoy these walks every day.

Autumn Views And Colour On My Walk Into Town

Autumn Views And Colour On My Walk Into Town

Funerals and Films

Hints of the wonderful summer just passed have continued to tinge our descent into autumn with further spells of warm and sunny weather in among the wetter, greyer autumnal days.

Wonderful Mid Autumn Day

View From A Neighbourhood Walk Today: Wonderful Mid Autumn Day With Beginnings Of Autumn Colour

My almost daily walks into the local town seem to have new colours to offer every day.  Although I loved my first full summer of retirement, especially as it was so marvellous weather-wise, I am now looking forward again to the difference autumn then winter brings.

Autumn Views On The Walk To Town

Autumn Views On The Walk To Town

The last couple of weeks have been relatively quiet as we have slipped into the cosiness of darker evenings in front of the wood-burner.  However, I have managed to fit in another trip to London.  Unfortunately, the prime reason for the visit was a funeral. In fact, I attended two funerals in two days – one in Gloucester, for a much-liked neighbour, and the other in Essex.  These were the first I had attended for a couple of years and I had forgotten how emotionally draining they are even when not for the very closest friends or family.

As in other activities, retirement has brought a new flexibility in being able to properly celebrate the lives of those who have died.  I was honoured to be invited and be able to attend both funerals and to hear recollections of both who had passed away.

The second funeral was for the father of my Best Man (BM).  I had met him and his wife a few times including at a couple of key life events: my university graduation and my engagement to Long-Suffering Wife.

Through a few quirks of coincidence, my marriage proposal to LSW took place at BM’s parents’ house about 35 years ago during a small get together with them and some close friends.  The details are a blur now.  But I do recall, with some embarrassment then and now, how the best laid plans ended up with me handing LSW some flowers and my proposal of marriage in the upstairs bathroom/toilet (that’s where BM and I had hidden the flowers!).  That wasn’t as romantic as planned but I also fondly recall us returning downstairs together with the flowers and beaming faces for the celebrations (highly justified as it has turned out!)

Attending these funerals has underlined for me the importance of doing at least some advance planning for these events so as to ensure that those likely to need to make the arrangements know one’s preferences.  In general, I don’t much care what happens at my funeral; I’ll not be there.  However, I am going to write down a few preferred dos and don’ts.  For example, I’d like cremation, a sustainably produced coffin, minimal or no religion, nice music, and pictures on the order of service.  I have some time, I hope, to set out my preferences but funerals (as if retirement hasn’t done so already) do bring home that life is absolutely finite; so I’m going to get on with writing down my guidance.

More positively, I have seen a few films recently.  LSW and I saw The Wife (very well acted, especially by Glenn Close) and A Star Is Born (tremendous entertainment and potentially Oscar winning performances from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper).  Also, I saw First Man (excellent technical effects) with Eldest Son (ES) while I stayed in London with him.

Additionally, ES often treats me to off kilter, downloaded films when I stay with him and this time was no exception.  Last month when I was in London, we saw The Endless (compellingly memorable, thought provoking and strange) and saw You Were Never Really Here (just strange) this time.  I love cinema almost as much as ES so these times with him, when we see films outside of the mainstream, are a good joint pleasure to enhance my London trips.

Another positive has been my transformation of the fruits of our crab apple tree crab apple jelly.  The jelly is a rather unusual texture – even more jelly-like than normal. But, I did make it on my own, I love the colour, and its tastes great.  I’m pretty proud of it.  Here is a picture of the apples on the tree and the resultant jars of jelly.