London Exhibitions At Last: Paula Rego and Jean Dubuffet

One of the things I have missed most during the coronavirus pandemic has been London and one of the things I enjoyed most during my London visits was going to the art and topic-based exhibitions curated there.  Last week, at last, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) visited London again for the first time since the first pandemic lockdown.  We both loved the blip out of our relatively rural semi isolation (notwithstanding our trips to Belfast and Edinburgh in the last year).

Back In London Among Its Familiar Landmarks!

During the trip, I saw two art exhibitions: one a life retrospective of Paula Rego (a contemporary Portuguese artist) at Tate Britain and the other a similar retrospective of Jean Dubuffet’s work at the Barbican (it’s now finished).  It was a welcome cultural binge.

The fundamental reason for our London trip was just to break up our routine for a couple of days.  Also, it was an opportunity to catch up with Middle Son (MS) and his partner in their new flat in Haggerston.  They recently moved out of their stop-gap rental of our flat in the Barbican, so that was available to us.  Although the flat is now bare and looking a little tired, it remains a very comfortable, central and convenient bolt hole for this sort of visit.  We are very lucky to still have it until we finally sell this retirement nest egg, probably, next year.

After driving up in our e-car (which in combination with the flat made the trip itself near free of incremental cost), the weather was kind enough to enable us to make a lengthy walk along the Thames Embankment to Tate Britain. 

The Thames: Bridge, Skyline And Unused Tourist Boats

There, the exhibition of Paula Rego’s work was substantial and comprehensive.  What I love about these elite retrospective exhibitions is that one can trace the development of the artists thinking over time while seeing the consistent themes beneath and between the changes in technique and subject matter.  Much of her work depicted the sexuality, strength and resilience of women in hardship; the Dog Women series was an example. 

Paula Rego: ‘Dog Woman’ (1994)

I enjoyed the exhibition a lot but suspect that was as much a function of the novelty of being in a classy exhibition as it was the art.

Paula Rego: ‘The Artist In Her Studio’ (1993)

The exhibition of French contemporary artist Jean Dubuffet’s work was also chronologically ordered to enable understanding of development of his ideas.  The work on show was more varied than that of Rego and I really only liked some of the series of work.  Again, though, some aspects of his style were satisfyingly constant – not least the strange, bloated heads on the figures in many of the works and the use of natural materials with unusual paint type combinations.

Jean Dubuffet: ‘Caught In The Act’ (1961)

The Barbican presented the works very nicely.  Some of the more colourful pieces were lit so they appeared luminous and the pandemic has made London art exhibitions less crowded than they were so there was plenty of room to view everything. 

Jean Dubuffet: Part Of His Performance Art ‘Coucou Bazar’ (1971)

However, although the Barbican tried, I didn’t really understand the Art Brut movement that Dubuffet first named and for which he was a lead exponent of through much of his career.  Maybe the video at the end of the exhibition that explained his counter-cultural aims would have been better placed at the start of the exhibition alongside Dubuffet’s quote (which sounded about right):

“Art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little.  Anything but bore”

Jean Dubuffet: ‘Les Vicissitudes’ (1977)

The weather was too nice to be indoors soaking up art exhibitions for too long.  Apart from the initial riverside walk to Tate Britain, LSW and I also tried out the new Uber riverboat service to get us back to our flat.  It was refreshing and it’s always good to see London from the perspective of the river.

Travelling By Uber Boat And More London Landmarks

We also went to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London.  We followed a newly signposted art trail (‘The Line’) south from the Park down the tangle of man-made and natural waterways leading back to the Thames. 

The area is, of course, changed out of all recognition since we lived in Bow in the 1980s.  Everywhere there are new complexes of flats but, in between, there are signs that the environment and leisure activity is being properly considered.  Certainly, the Olympic Park itself is a lot less bleak than when I last visited.  Now the planting and trees are maturing along the walkways.  I’m looking forward to visiting again and doing some more strolling around the Park and along the nearby waterways.

One Of The Sculptures Along ‘The Line’ Art Trail, East London (Thomas J. Price: ‘Reaching Out’)

LSW and I ate out at Smokestak which is an old haunt of mine and ours.  That was good but better was the dinner we had with MS and his partner at Bistrotheque.  East London seems to continue to be almost as well populated with good restaurants and cafes as ever despite the pandemic and the reduced customer numbers.  Drinking holes on the way to Bistrotheque at Signature Brew and, on the way back, at Ombra were conspicuously quiet.  But that just meant that we could get prime tables and attentive service; very nice!

I have a couple of long and often postponed gigs to see in September and October in London and, at some point, LSW and I will need to decorate the Barbican flat to make it ready for sale.  Those should all be opportunities to spend more time in London – even if these visits become swansongs – to take in more of the excellent exhibitions and art and architecture trails there.

The Olympic (West Ham United) Stadium and The Orbit

Meanwhile there is the significant and emotional matter of my Mum’s funeral.  Thankfully she died peacefully.  After a year or so in which she had, regretfully, to come to terms with being in a care home (a very good one as it turned out), in which she contracted Covid, and then in which she gradually faded, her passing was no shock.  Nonetheless, Mum’s funeral will be a sad closing of a long and fruitful life.  There will be tears and then we are compelled to move on with our memories.

Old Friends

With the relaxing of the coronavirus lock down we have been emboldened to travel further afield to see friends and relatives.  At the end of last month we went to Nottingham and Edinburgh and last week we visited friends in Eye, Suffolk.  It had been over a year since we had seen these old friends and over two years since our last visit to Suffolk.  There was much to catch up on.

Unexpectedly Spectacular View At Diss, Just North Of Eye

Once again, we had great Suffolk weather.  That showed off to best effect the improvements to our friends’ house and outbuildings, which had continued up to the lock down last year, and the private allotments that they have recently purchased and taken fuller control of. 

The Entrance To, And The Developing Harvest Of, Our Friend’s Allotments

These allotments are tremendous; they are colourful, well-tended and, judging from the health of the vegetables on show, fertile and not by savaged by deer or badgers.  I am particularly jealous of this last point having seen all my Jerusalem artichokes on my own tiny allotment plot excavated and eaten by relentless badgers in recent weeks.

Since our last visit to the Eye allotments, the wife in the couple has extended her animal husbandry alongside the vegetables, flower beds and an orchard cum meadow.  There are now pigs in addition to the squad of chickens and a grumpy, blind duck. 

Happy But Unsuspecting Pigs

There has already been a cycle of acquiring pigs, feeding them up and sending them to slaughter that the current pair Oxford Sandy and Blacks/Gloucester Old Spot crosses are blissfully unaware of.  Given how friendly and enthusiastic for life that they are, I’m not sure I could bear the emotion of farming pigs in this way but I have to say that the pork we had at dinner on the first night of our stay was delicious!

Eye Church In Morning Sun

Eye itself is a pretty town in which the wife in the couple seems to know everyone.  The town is a good size with a market and a nice range of independent shops.  It is surrounded by a mix of chicken factories and old airfields that are starting to be homes for small businesses.  One such is Bruha Brewing which we were able to visit (following my first and rather precarious cycle ride for several years) to sample their very satisfying craft beer. 

Big Fields, Big Skies

The town is also surrounded by arable farms criss-crossed by lanes and footpaths and we took ample opportunity afforded by the sunny weather to get our steps up to normal levels after the long drive to Suffolk.  There was time, too, to visit Wyken Hall Gardens and have a lovely lunch (again) at its restaurant, The Leaping Hare.  We have a lot of shared history with our Suffolk friends and it was great to catch up in such relaxed and attractive surroundings.

Views In Wyken Gardens, Suffolk

Then, this week, we had a visit from my best man (BM) who is another long standing friend from university.  Again, the formula of a pub visit, walking and a nice meal was a good, solid backdrop for a great mutual sharing of recent events and life developments.  BM’s life rarely seems dull and a recent hip replacement and impending retirement added to the normal interest.  If he doesn’t move on to a new job after all, perhaps we will be able to catch up more often.

Some Big Fields In Gloucestershire Too!
And We Have Sandy And Black Pigs In Gloucestershire Too!

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are starting to enjoy and plan more trips and visits as Covid lockdowns are eased to allow them.  Last month, for the first time for me in ages, we visited LSW’s aunt, cousin and his wife for dinner.  It was an evening enlivened by their dog amusingly pinching a third of the quiche (the rest that he left for us was lush!) and a spectacular view of a sunset over the Severn valley from their house. 

Sunset From LSW’s Aunt’s House

Now we are starting to schedule trips to Ireland, London, Scotland, Bath plus dates for local get-togethers with local village friends and neighbours.  Normality in retirement is returning.

Edinburgh: Athens of the North

There is an additional geographic centre of gravity in my life: Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh Castle

Eldest Son (ES) and his partner moved to Edinburgh from our flat in London in the New Year.  They have settled there and are due to have a baby there in November.  Last weekend, following relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over the last few weeks in both England and Scotland, we got to visit them and to see the city.

Their flat is in the heart of New Town.  This central area is the epitome of the town planning and developments that have given Edinburgh the moniker of ‘Athens of the North’.  Like a few other residential areas of Edinburgh, it is grandly Georgian with broad, airy streets.  It has well preserved, tall terraced buildings with colonnades and porticos redolent of Greek architecture, secluded communal gardens and, seemingly, a vista of a monument or an imposing public building at the end of every street. 

Dundas Street, Edinburgh. ES’s New Home

In ES’s partner we had a host who has lived in or near Edinburgh almost all her life so we had an excellent guide to the subtle differences between the different parts of the City.  The famous Princes Street has some great views of the castle and the Royal Mile is distinctive, but we preferred the adjacent, less crowded areas that were dominated by bustling, small independent cafes and shops rather than tired chains with their overblown price discount hoardings.

Princes Street, Edinburgh

ES’s flat is on the third floor of their building and the stairs are going to be challenging during his partner’s late pregnancy and, then, when the baby arrives.  So, as we walked around the city, we were considering the possible location of their next flat.  However, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I also found ourselves peeking at estate agents windows and thinking about our possible future move – for at least part of each year – to Edinburgh.

Looking Over The Water of Leith, Edinburgh

There are many steps to negotiate before any such move – not least some firm decisions from Middle and Youngest Son on where they are going to settle since we want to be close and accessible to them all. 

Alongside The Water Of Leith

We also need to come to terms with the colder and greyer weather in this ‘Athens of the North’.  We were fortunate that the weather was dry and sunny but we also experienced a misty haar that came in from the North Sea every morning to fill and darken the imposing streets.  That gave us a helpful taste of the climatic difference between Gloucestershire and East Scotland.  We are lucky to have options like Edinburgh as a place to live to think about but the weather has to be a consideration.

Carlton Hill, Edinburgh In A Morning Haar

We met ES’s partner’s parents while we were in Edinburgh and it was lovely to meet them at last.  They gave us a sample of the warm local hospitality and excellent restaurant quality.  Then on our final night in Edinburgh we went with ES and his partner to Timberyard which was one of the best restaurants we have ever been to. 

Timberyard, Edinburgh (Pic Courtesy Square Meal)

It was a memorable and lovely city visit – all the better for the delayed gratification caused by coronavirus.

On the way up to Edinburgh we took a detour to visit my Mum and to have lunch with my Dad in Nottingham.  Mum’s care home has, of course, been considerate but restrictive on visits until recently out of respect for the pandemic.  Although my Dad has been visiting Mum increasingly frequently, this was the first time I had seen her for a year.  Mum is frailer now following a bout of coronavirus but it was great and fulfilling to see them both.

After Nottingham, we stayed overnight in York in a very comfortable Scandinavian-influenced boutique hotel with a Viking name (Jorvik House) that LSW had sought out.  We had the time and the sunny weather to take in the main central sites and to have a relaxing drink or two overlooking the river. 

York Minster And Other Buildings Of York

We also indulged in a stop off on our way back home from Edinburgh.  The Tebay Services Hotel was very functionally comfortable and convenient.  Happily, we had time to slip off the beaten path home down the M6 with a visit to Orton Fells near Appleby and the town itself.  While walking by the river there, by very lucky chance, we followed the sound of a distant PA system and stumbled upon a very impressive harness horse race event.  We got to it just in time to see the big race and came away from the town exhilarated by a new, vibrant, energy-filled experience.

Unexpected Harness Racing At Appleby-in-Westmorland

LSW and I have been lucky to have escaped the worst disruptions that this blasted pandemic has thrown at us all.  Nonetheless, travel to see friends and family has been curtailed and, now those restrictions are relaxing, we are planning more trips like that to Nottingham, York, Appleby and Edinburgh last weekend. 

This week will be spent catching up with local village matters (including preparing for and manning of our local Climate Action Network stall tomorrow), personal administration and essential gardening.  Then we are off again – this time to see friends in Suffolk and a very different ambience to the ‘Athens of the North’.

An Anthony Gormley Statue In The Water Of Leith, Edinburgh

Birthday Past and Birthday Future

The last few weeks seem to have had a quickening pace.  Gradually, the easing of lockdown is formally (within the rules) and informally (just beyond the margins of the rules) opening up more social contact.  Spring is moving on apace and the garden is requiring increasing amounts of attention.  Our local climate action group has become more active and more of a time-suck.  And it has been my birthday!

Yellow Fields Between May Showers

My birthday week – and it did feel like the celebration was spread over a week – was full of lovely activities and moments. 

Youngest Son (YS) came to visit with his partner for a few days on his way to a video shoot in London.  Middle Son (MS) and his partner, living temporarily out of London and renting our ‘Tin House’ in a nearby village, came over to help celebrate, help YS get games started (he does love his Monopoly Deal!) and enjoy the birthday food and drinks.  On the day itself, Long-Suffering Wife’s younger brother, his wife and youngest daughter came over for dinner; we haven’t had so many in our house at one time for well over a year and it was great fun.

Birthday Fun In The Local Pub

Even the (birthday) walks in the local countryside felt special in that week.  We were joined on one of those walks by one of YS’s best friends and, so, one of ours.  He is an Australian rather stranded in London by the pandemic but as upbeat and entertaining as ever.  Stumbling through playing a Pub Quiz and then walking back through bluebell woods with him, YS and his girlfriend before collapsing in front of a cheesy film on the television, will be a lasting memory. 

Birthday Walk Through Kingscote Graveyard

To crown the week, my football team, Forest Green Rovers, won their final game of the league season to qualify for the promotion playoffs.  The last few months have been a struggle for the team but anything could happen over the next two or (if we get to the Wembley final) three games.  Next week will be tense.

Peak Bluebell Season

Even better, now the relative excitement of my birthday week has passed, is that there is a far more important birthday to come.  I could mean LSW’s in June but actually it is the real birthday of a grandchild!  If all goes to plan, I will be a Grandad by November. 

I’m so thrilled by the prospect and another lasting memory will be Eldest Son (ES) and his partner telling us on a Zoom call.  I shall also always cherish the recording of ES separately telling his brothers – that interaction was both funny and very moving as it captured the emotions of the moment between siblings so wonderfully.

ES and his partners’ joyful news has heightened our excitement around our upcoming trip to Edinburgh to stay with them for a few days.  We can’t wait to see their new flat there and how they live (while recognising that the latter will be rather disrupted later this year!) 

Local Wildlife – A Grey Heron

Life seems to be accelerating again and I just hope the coronavirus variants don’t slow life down again before we get to Edinburgh.

Paths Among More Yellow Fields

Nearing Pub Normality

Yesterday, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to the village pub: The Hog.  Whether relieving the coronavirus lock down at this point in vaccination programme and while new coronavirus variants are swirling about is sensible or not, I’m not sure.  But after almost 6 months of missing out on going to the pub, it felt like progress.  It felt like near-normal fun!

The Big Red Bus Bar Parked In The Garden Of Our Local Pub

The pub was well organised in catering for an excited bunch of villagers amid the continuing social distancing guidelines.  The pub garden was very tidy, new table service app worked, the sun was shining and the beer tasted good. 

The pub management are a lovely village family who have been very resilient during they took over the pub lease just before the first lock down last Spring.  They have done a lot of work to make the place a pub with a traditional, drink-focused and village feel.  The improvements inside and out look judicious and practical and all we need now is good weather without onerous social distancing.

Hopefully lock down will continue to be relieved (with just cause) and we will soon be allowed use of the inside of the pub as well as the (still rather chilly) garden area.  That way, we customers can benefit from all the effort and investment the management have made and the pub can again become a full, vibrant focal point for the community and for impromptu gossip and discussion.

The only downside is that the re-opening of the local pub will put pressure on my alcohol consumption.  I’ve done so well in the last year to reduce my alcohol units consumption and to increase alcohol-free days as advised by doctors and the press.  Hopefully the restraint of the last three months, in particular, has left me a sufficient contingency as I strive to meet my New Year resolution targets for 2021.  I can certainly see those targets are going to come under pressure now the pub has reopened, and I am enticed by the long awaited pleasure of beer drinking after weekend walks and on days of celebration – like pub reopening day, yesterday!

Recent life has otherwise been fairly unremarkable, although we did go on a new (for me) and delightful walk last weekend around Sapperton and Edgeworth a few miles north east from where we live. 

Walk From Sapperton (Top Right) to Edgeworth; Lovely!

I have also continued to busy myself with local village activities.  The Neighbourhood Plan which I helped develop many months ago, is finally being presented to the village for a referendum for approval or rejection.  After so much effort by so many over several months (nay, years!), rejection cannot be contemplated so posters and leaflets have been prepared to encourage a ‘yes’ vote.  I’m discovering some previously unknown nooks and crannies in the village as I deliver some of the leaflets.

More From That Sapperton To Edgeworth Ramble

Work with our village climate action group has also rumbled on.  Somehow, involvement has crept up to, I estimate, an average of over an hour a day.  The focus in recent weeks has been on a phone around of people in the village who have expressed interest in the group and who receive our seasonal newsletter.  Now the focus is on the Spring edition of that newsletter and on following up the points raised during the phone around including discussion of how we embrace the Ecological Emergency as well as the Climate Emergency. 

None of this is exactly earth shattering but it all takes time and, despite the availability of almost infinite discretionary time in retirement, I do need to maintain boundaries around this stuff.  Otherwise, I can see I will get frustrated by lack of attention to other areas of pleasure such as walking, reading and gardening (nothing gets in the way of watching Forest Green Rovers!).

I have also, rather fleetingly, been involved in a proposal to establish a Community Land Trust in the village.  The idea was to find funding from the village, loans and other financial means to enable purchase of a house and its 13 acres of woods and fields, and then run the assets from a Community Land Trust that would provide affordable housing and preserve the excellent biodiversity in the fields and woods. 

The opportunity was precipitated by the death of an old and rather famous activist in the village who had been generous with both the house and the lands by providing young people with accommodation and allowing community cultivation of some of the surrounds.  Unfortunately, the scale of the financing for the purchase and the short timescales in which the funding needed to be raised proved to be insurmountable obstacles. 

Entrance Sign For the Horsley Orchard On The Site Of The Land Proposed Community Land Trust

The idea has therefore died for now.  However, the need for affordable housing in rural areas like ours and the desire to increase local biodiversity remains and finding out how Community Land Trusts work was engaging.  It was good, too, to make some completely new and interesting acquaintances during the ultimately aborted process.  Maybe there will be a chance to get involved in similar projects in the future.

The Horsley Orchard – Now At Risk Of Further Abandonment Following The Demise Of The Community Trust Idea

Meanwhile, another trip to the local pub needs to be scheduled…….

A Jab In The Map Of Perfect Tiny Things

Dawn Walk – Perfect Start To The Day

A couple of weekends ago, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I streamed and watched a film called The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.  It was a slight but charming fantasy about a couple of teenagers in an ordinary American town experiencing exactly the same day over and over again.  The repetition of events allowed the teenage boy to map out a series of funny or spectacular moments that occurred during the day and then schedule to view them, or interact with them in different ways, during each daily repetition.  It was Groundhog Day with teenagers rather than Bill Murray.

A Little Film With A Good Message For Me

The ‘Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ was entertaining enough, but what made it memorable was that it resonated with our current situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  We are in what sometimes seem like an endless lock down; every day feels, rather weirdly, very much like the last. 

The film reminded me that we need to appreciate all the good things – even if they can often only be little things at the moment.  I need to do more of that despite, or perhaps because of, the back drop of the pandemic (and even while railing against all of the inequality, strife, climate emergency concerns and political shenanigans of the world).  What we can all do is take comfort from the tiny pleasurable moments in each locked-down day.

A Perfect Walk Among Tall, Straight Beeches In Conygre Woods, Kingscote

Those moments might be the sighting of a kestrel or a group of buzzards during an airy walk across the Cotswold Tops, or seeing a flock of chattering long tailed tits in the ivy opposite our house.  Recently, while on a walk with Middle Son and his girlfriend – in itself, a set of (slightly illicit) lovely moments – I saw a dipper and then, later, the iridescence of a kingfisher.  Another perfect thing might be coming across a particularly attractive moss-covered tree, or suddenly spotting the semi-wild but inquisitive pigs snuffling around in the local woods. Another perfect moment was seeing the result of my recent and hugely overdue haircut (courtesy of LSW).

Perfect Moss, Moss, Moss

Then, today, I had a welcome tiny moment when I had the first of my anti-coronavirus vaccinations.  The moment of the jab itself was painless but it still felt like an important instant that signals the start of a new phase.  Lock down may still have some weeks to run.  For a few weeks yet, meetings with friends and Middle Son and his girlfriend may continue to be chilly snacks in the garden, or bracing walks, rather than gatherings around cosy wood-burners or indoor dinners.  However, change and more frequent, and more obviously perfect, tiny moments are coming.

View Over Stroud While Waiting The Advised 15 Minutes Post-Jab

In any case, the progression of the seasons has helped provide a structure for time spent – we aren’t really living at a standstill.  Spring is here and every warm and sunny day now provides a hint of the summer to come.  The buds in the hedgerows are swelling and bursting, the birds have long been active and noisy, and the fading snowdrops are now outshone by anenomes, crocuses and daffodils.

Perfect Snowdrop Carpet

For me, the football season has also provided a structure to the chronology and a sense of progression over time. My local and favourite team, Forest Green Rovers, are doing very well. Watching every one of their games through an internet streaming service (now physical attendance at games is prohibited again) has been a real boon. Indeed, on the coldest football evenings, I’ve been very glad to be able to watch my team from the comfort of our living room rather than the frozen stand in our stadium. I am finding that the football season is providing a way – albeit a tense one – through the repetition and drift of time in pandemic lock down.

This has been my first post to this blog for a few weeks.  In part, that has been due to distractions due to a busy period with our local climate action group and, more recently, involvement with a local Community Land Trust project.  Also, though, those weeks have been dominated by a routine of relative inactivity so as to avoid the coronavirus risk.  There hasn’t seemed much to say. 

Walkers View On The Way To The Shops

I think I need to pay more attention to those transient, tiny, perfect moments in my routine and make the most of them.   But, also, I am hoping that my vaccination jab, and the end of lock down over the next several weeks, paves the way to a new context for those moments.  That context will include, once again, proper socialising, travel and substantial events; a map of large perfect moments.

Hope and Resolve in 2021

Yesterday, Storm Christoph, which has been battering and flooding many parts of the UK, brought us a dramatic combination of rain, wind, thunder, lightning, snow, bright sunshine and then a great sunset.  I suspect that we might see a similar drama in events and a variety of ups and downs in 2021 as we wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of Brexit and the normal hurly-burly of life.

Sunset Over The Garden After The Storm

Currently, the rather boring but necessary lockdown continues and Winter life revolves around meals at home, shopping for them, walking the local lanes and fields, reading books, listening to the (voluminous and ever changing) news, watching TV dramas in front of the woodburner, and sleep.  But the delivery of vaccines is providing some hope that, in a few months, we will be able to resume adventures around the UK and meet people normally again. 

Morning Mist On The Cotswold Tops

Yes, there are new variants of the virus and, yes, the death rate will rise yet further before it subsides, but there is expectation now that the current pandemic will pass (or, at least, become a lot less disruptive) during 2021.  Of course, I am dearly hoping that is the case.  However, I also hope that the Government does not hide behind an effective roll-out of the vaccines (assuming they manage that).  We must learn, and make transparent, the lessons learnt from doing almost everything too little and too late to combat the virus.  After all, this is hardly likely to be the last pandemic we need to deal with and we need to do far better next time.

Against the uncertain backdrop of pandemic and Brexit, it is hard to set concrete personal resolutions for the New Year.  The lockdown has induced a gentle lethargy in me (I’m one of the lucky ones).  I think it is going to take the fine Spring weather and an end of the lockdown to generate some proper enthusiasm to break that ennui.  So my resolution process this year is really to just continue on the path set over the last couple of years. 

For example, I will maintain my target of walking an average of over 15,000 steps a day.  Apart from a bit of garden pottering, that is really my only substantive exercise these days.  So, it’s good that I exceeded that target again in 2020 and I plan to do so once more in 2021.  That should be achievable, and be thoroughly enjoyable to achieve in our lovely countryside, provided I stay healthy.  Hopefully, many of those steps will be taken a little further afield than was possible in 2020.

Evening Mist In Our Valley

The 2020 resolution achievements I proudest of in 2020 were those relating to increasing alcohol-free days and reducing average alcohol units per day.  I beat my target of 40% alcohol free days by more than 10% – well over half or 2020 was alcohol free!  I also thrashed my 10% reduction target of decreasing my alcohol unit intake.  My tracking on the Drinkaware app has shown that I managed a 35% reduction in alcohol compared to 2019 and I now average 22 units/week.

That still leaves me well above the recommended limit of alcohol intake (14 units a week); so there is more to do.  However, there is a balance to be struck here.  Until I really can’t drink whiskey, wine or beer for precipitate health reasons, I need to weigh the benefit to my feelings and mental health with the physical risks of exceeding the rigour of what is recommended.  So many pleasures have been curtailed during this pandemic, reducing further the pleasure I get from what is now a relatively occasional drink is not in my set of 2021 targets.  I will just aim to at least repeat what I achieved in 2020 – that will involve will power sufficient to be challenging enough.

That, plus the continuation of walking, should help with my perennial objective of getting my weight below 11 stone.  By the week before Christmas, I had managed that.  However, for the second year in a row, the combination of mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, brandy butter and a major Christmas dinner – lovely as that all was – tipped me over the edge of the 11 stone marker just before year end and just as it did in 2019.  My resolution this year is to reduce my weight to such a degree by mid-December that I can enjoy those Christmas excesses without jeopardising target achievement.

Other resolutions from last year have been a bit of a washout.  I failed to listen to the news on the radio less and listen to music more.  There was just so much news from the pandemic, to Trump, to Brexit, that I just couldn’t stop taking it in.  Plus I failed to reach my target of reading 20 books (I managed only 13, a poor show given how much discretionary time I now have and how much I enjoy good fiction).  I resolve to do better in 2021.

Long-Suffering Wife and I failed, for obvious reasons, to achieve our resolution to get out together around the UK more.  We made it to Belfast for the first time but other holidays to Cornwall and Wales were planned then cancelled.  This year, when the virus allows, we will revisit Belfast where Youngest Son is establishing himself, and visit Eldest Son in his new home in Edinburgh.  We also have booked, rather ambitiously, a family Christmas on the west coast of Skye; if that comes off, the world really will have returned to something like normality.

Memories Of Exploring The UK In 2020; Belfast Lough

This time last year I said in these blogs: “I think that 2020 is going to be a far better year than 2019”.  In some ways it was in that we had no sons in near fatal accidents.  Now, I really do think 2021 will be far better than last year but who knows what it will throw at us.  Good job my resolutions are not critical work targets that must be met; I can relax, be flexible, go with the flow and just be content with pushing myself just a tiny bit.

Early Snowdrops – A Sign Of A Brighter Future?

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.

Shrinking Life Boundaries

I’m leaving October with the rain pouring down outside and the threat of a further significant tightening of the lockdown against the pandemic apparently imminent.  One can always expect the rain in the UK at this time of year but who would have predicted, this time last year for example, that life would be so constrained.  I certainly hadn’t imagined that retired life would be so narrow and boundaried.  I expected to be travelling, exploring and experiencing variety whereas, now, life has shrunk to very modest activities.

A Windy And Wet Autumnal Day From The Warmth Of Indoors

Of course, the little island of life that I have retreated to is very comfortable relative to many.  Despite all that one reads and hears on the radio, it is hard to put oneself in the shoes of a young intern now without an internship, a single mother without an income, or someone like my Mum cooped up in a care home without visitors.  It’s a tough period in which to be holding a poor hand of life cards in the UK and the deaths of those in the Channel this week hint at how much worse things are in some other parts of the world.

A few days ago we took Youngest Son (YS) up to Heathrow.  (He had been over from Belfast to drop off a car and do a video job in London which was ultimately, disappointingly cancelled due to a Covid-19 infection at his client.)  On the way back Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I listened to a radio programme hosted by Arlo Parks, a young British singer/songwriter, on the demise of live music during the pandemic.  As I listened, I realised that it is probably watching live music that I miss most in this constricted pandemic life.

Up Close With Zun Zun Egui at Cafe Oto (My Favourite Music Venue), London March 2015

One of the points made in the programme was that live concerts are more than just opportunities to hear live music that one likes or might like.  These concerts are short periods when pretty much everyone in the room come together for a common experience and somehow that lifts the listening to the music to a broader, collective emotional high. 

Mogwai At The Roundhouse, London June 2015 – One Of The Bigger Gigs I have Been To

This experience can be near perfect or fall flat; that is not always because of the quality of the music.   I have listed all the gigs I have been to since mid-2007 (368) and rated them as I went. 

Jazz Servant Quarters, London; A Tiny Venue With Nuria Graham

My ratings have, of course, been determined mostly by the quality of the performer – and that is not just the quality of the music but also whether the artist looked like they were enjoying playing, their engagement and the banter between songs, and the overall atmosphere they created.  But there are other factors contributing to the overall enjoyment and, therefore, the rating.  These include the quality of the venue and the audience. 

The Antlers At Union Chapel, London, April 2019

On that last point, I’m old-age and traditional.  I hate being in an audience where the crowd are more interested in shouting over the music at each other than listening and getting into the show.  I wonder why people go to a gig if all they want to do is chat to each other – just go to a bar instead why don’t you?  I’ve learnt which venues, in east London at least, are best for listening to the music and experiencing the togetherness that Arlo Parks and her colleagues on that radio programme talked about.  It’s that, and the anonymity of being in the crowd where everyone is focused on the stage, that I miss.

Faeland At Chapel Arts. The Last Concert I Attended

I’m missing visiting London, visiting exhibitions and live football too.  I’m regretful that I can’t travel – it looks like our planned trip to Wales next month is doomed.  But when one of my biggest worries is whether I will be able to get another haircut this year, I should quit moaning and appreciate the things I can do. 

So, in that spirit, here are a couple of pictures from recent, lovely woodland walks!

Stay safe!

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.