Ah, I’ve just seen the first swallows of the season.Two flew over my head, making a little chirruping call, so optimistic sounding.The buzz of a miniature light aircraft (of sorts) passes by my ear at the same time: a large black and red bumble bee whose furry body looks too heavy for its wings.It hangs low in the air, legs dangling, reminding me of a microlight.
And it makes me think of this song:
Squatting down on the path to pet the neighbour’s cat, who doesn’t seem to mind my somewhat absent-minded stroking, I'm distracted by tiny beasts busying themselves on the ground.I let my focus adjust incrementally like a camera lens, zooming in to the microworld at my feet.Ants, a cautious spider, a woodlouse.I wonder what their view of the universe is like.I attempt to envisage their surroundings from their perspective, like when you’re a kid and you lie on your back to look up at the ceiling, trying to imagine it’s actually the floor. (I loved my fantasy topsy-turvy room with its window just above ‘ground’ level and white stippled plaster instead of carpet, an upturned lampshade sprouting from it like a futuristic sculpture.) My mind idly follows this line of thought, just as my hand idly follows the curve of the cat's sun-warmed back. How might that stone, that leaf, my foot, look to an ant?And are we like mere ants in the vast garden of some other giant life-form?
Fortunately, the bee draws my attention away from this mind-boggling mental meander and instead to a dandelion, where it lands on the bright petals.I like the fact that the name comes quite poetically from the French for lion’s teeth, ‘dents-de-lion’ – I guess that refers to the jagged-edged leaves.The French themselves have a more blunt label for this plant: ‘pissenlit’ as in piss-the-bed, thanks to its diuretic qualities. A good herbal remedy, apparently. I've never tried it but my childhood pet tortoise, Twinkle, loved eating dandelion leaves.She frequently pissed on me too...Maybe this was just desserts for when I sometimes used to wrap little string harnesses around her shell so I could watch her carry an egg box behind her like a horse with a (very lightweight!) cart.Occasionally I'd set up small obstacle courses with objects to navigate around which, following that ant’s-eye-view-of-the-world line of thought, must’ve looked like some kind of Stonehenge equivalent to her. However, in spite of this humiliation, and the pissing, she and I got on well, and she would come running (ok, maybe not exactly running…) from the flower beds when I called her name. She was lovely.
And so my mind wanders on this sunny Spring Sunday: swallows, bees, dandelions... and a pissing tortoise.
Inspired by this (thanks, Singing Bear!) I just dug out a CD single that I haven't played in ages - a cover of the Neil Diamond song 'Solitary Man' by HIM - and I still think it sounds great. A combination of an Edward Scissorhands lookalike and some choppy, squealy guitar... mmm! Well, it works for me. Perhaps it's just a guilty pleasure?
There are more things to thank Finland for than just the Moomins! And they also do a mean cover of 'Wicked Game'.
I sat on the top deck of the bus as it made its way through Cambridge yesterday.I love viewing things from above street level, you see so much more.
To me it’s something of a schizophrenic city: ugly and beautiful, affluent and impoverished, and I’ve known it for a long time. I went to the art school there in the early ‘80s, just as Ronald Searle and Syd Barrett had before me.I should’ve had a good time back then but I think I was struggling with my own version of duality.On the one hand I craved independence, on the other I was immature and naïve.I didn’t finish the course and even when I was there I frequently disappeared (on the premise of drawing but rarely doing so).I took long walks down the less than salubrious back streets, preferring to rummage through piles of junk in the rather sleazy second-hand shops of the old Mill Road (I remember one shop where they seemed to specialise in guitars and porn!) over any wanders amid the more boastful facades of the famous university buildings.
Thirty years later, Mill Road has been regenerated but Cambridge’s better known historic heart now seems a little smaller against the new high-rises of its infills and outskirts, especially those I passed on the bus yesterday.These are now the boastful buildings, boasting of their modernity, their convenience for the commuter trains into London and their proximity to cultural treasures.Yet their windows look out onto congested main roads,industrial estates and multistorey car parks.
The bus stopped by one very new, grey, angular block, so far uninhabited by the look of it. Lined up on the inner sills of two of its large windows were dozens of empty beer, spirits and wine bottles.It was as if this building's mask of pristine sobriety had been betrayed by a secret binge drinker and it seemed to me like an abstract symbol of the whole city’s dichotomy.I wish I’d taken a photo.
Anyway, in spite of an odd ambivalence I have about the place it was still good to be in Cambridge.I was there to have lunch with some people I worked with years ago.On the face of it they may seem an unlikely group for me to know and we probably don’t have much in common on any deep level. But there are two extra factors that turn these reunions into a bit of a tonic for me too: the fact that I’m the youngest - and that I’m female!
Older men – well, certainly these ones, who have sailed the high seas in their former lives as ship captains and engineers – know how to make a woman like me feel good about herself!Never mind that I’m now heading towards the open jowly jaws of fifty, my companions will always have ten years and more on me.They are jolly and charming and even if we don’t share political views or lifestyles their company is pleasant and easy for a couple of hours.When I walk in to the restaurant I’m immediately boosted by their convivial greetings. There are jokes about who’s going to get the first hug and I jest back, with a confidence I didn’t even know I had, that they should form an orderly queue. Soft kisses on cheeks are exchanged alongside the “You’re looking well!”s.I must admit it feels lovely to face a roomful of cuddly chaps with arms outstretched.Please don’t tell me there is anything sexist about this - it’s just sweet and warm.For a few hours I feel more feminine and youthful than I have in ages, even if it’s only comparitively, because older men like these seem to have a knack for emphasising it, in the nicest and most harmlessly flirtatious way. Age and time become warped in their company - warped in my favour - and I’m not complaining.Lunch was good too.
On the way back to the bus stop I’m shown the rather bizarre Corpus Clock.Time is also warped by this striking piece of chronographic sculpture featuring a wonderfully creepy metallic locust. There are no hands or numbers on this clock, instead the time is displayed by blue lights shining through slits in its bright golden face.The locust sits atop it, rocking back and forth, occasionally blinking and moving its mouth, as if eating up the seconds as they pass (to quote Wikipedia). The clock’s creator, John Taylor, calls this creature the Chronophage – literally ‘time eater’ in ancient Greek. Apparently he deliberately designed it to be “terrifying” – a way of reminding us of the inevitable passing of time.“Basically I view time as not on your side,” he says.“He’ll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he’s salivating for the next.”
Ironically perhaps too, the clock is only absolutely accurate once in every five minutes. Sometimes the pendulum seems to stop, the lights lag behind and then race to catch up.Like life, it’s erratic and irregular, occasionally disturbing yet compelling.It kind of sums up my experience of Cambridge yesterday, the contrast of splendour and ugliness, my feeling of youthfulness - in spite of the reality of my middle age - against my fellow diners.Maybe it’s not just beauty, but time and age too, that are in the eye of the beholder?
Why on earth - oh god, why on earth! - did I decide to go to work that day in a huge, busy office... with no clothes on?
It had seemed a normal enough idea at the time, to just not bother to wear anything.Next thing you know, I’m there at my desk, surrounded by hundreds of co-workers of both sexes, all of whom are fully and respectably dressed.And there’s me: completely, utterly nude. Not a stitch on. There’s nothing I can do about it, because I can’t get home, so I’m stuck here all day like this and I’m really starting to think it’s a bad idea.Nobody’s called the police, or a psychiatrist, or my next-of-kin…. so it’s obviously not that weird in the scheme of things, but still I feel ashamed and uncomfortable and just wish I hadn’t decided to do it.Wish I could turn the clock back.People are looking at me rather disapprovingly and the awful sinking feeling in my stomach is increasing with every passing minute.
I am so relieved when I wake up – although, just for a second, as I blink in the light of the new morning, I start to wonder if I have actually done it.The sense of regret and of shame and of being the only one who has, for some unknown reason, decided to go totally starkers amongst all her clothed colleagues, certainly feels real enough - even if (thankfully) only fleetingly.
It had to be, didn't it? Those early (naughty!) Ants...
The other day I had reason to do a little research on what life was like for women in Britain in the 1920s.It really made me think.It was such an important era for my gender, perhaps the most significant moment being when the right to vote was finally extended to all women over the age of twenty-one in 1928. In the same decade, female students were first allowed to receive university degrees, having previously been able to pass examinations with the same honours as their male counterparts but without any entitlement to the educational qualification. Hard to imagine that now.
Largely due to the knock-on effects of WWI, fewer women were forced into domestic service and there were more opportunities for paid / better paid work in respected professions. Technological development (e.g. electric steam irons and upright vacuum cleaners!) also helped reduce time spent on housework and enabled greater independence. Whilst there was still a long way to go, it must have been quite a momentous time in the lives of many, and it must have felt as if at least some of the prior shackles of sexism had been irreversibly loosened. No wonder it was the era of the Flapper, and a time when women's fashions also liberated them from all those restrictive laces and hoops.
From 'Costume Through The Ages' James Laver
But you knew all that, didn’t you, so why am I mentioning it?It’s just that after I’d been reading about it, I was contemplating how far we’ve come and how fortunate I am to be female in the 21st century when I saw this young woman in town - just one fairly typical example of a certain demographic.It was the middle of the day but she was hobbling along in very high heels, clearly having difficulty with anything faster or greater than tiny, wobbly, tiptoe steps, and she kept stroking and checking her glossy but obvious hair extensions which I imagine must have taken some time to glue in. She reached into her handbag in such a way you’d be forgiven for thinking there was a highly venomous snake lurking in there.I realised when I saw her nails why she'd been so tentative – they were very long and each one, meticulously painted, was embedded with tiny gems.Obviously she didn’t want to risk damaging them by having to actually use her fingers.
If caring about how you look is a crime then I'm guilty too, with my love of make-up, addiction to haircuts and a jacket fetish, and I know I obsessed about my image terribly when I was younger, but hopefully never to the point where I was actually physically restricted to any significant extent. (Although... I hated going out in the rain because it made my carefully crafted spiky hair go curly and yes, that really bugged me...) But if it ever really impinges on your freedom then surely something must be wrong? I can't help questioning whether that young woman I saw exemplifies a current breed of female so imprisoned by their compulsion to look a certain way that they're in danger of turning into fragile, overly self-conscious mannequins - barely able to walk, barely able to use their hands, barely daring to move their heads for fear of snagging their false (and probably very expensive) locks. Pun intended. Perhaps they're daily slaves to the razor (or the wax or the Veet) too, for there is no greater sin than having body hair these days is there?And I can’t help but wonder if she or her friends ever peruse that other popular menu of Opportunities for the Modern Woman, with its à la carte breast implants (buy one get one free!), house botox and teeth whitening deals on the specials board.
I know there's plenty of pressure on men too, so this isn't meant to be some kind of feminist rant (I'd make a crap feminist, I like men far too much ;-) ). Just an observation.