Tuesday 31 October 2017

Scary scary night

Some while back I used to join up with a couple of friends a few times a year to go to gigs.  The problem was that we all lived miles apart so we had this convoluted way of meeting up.  I’d drive down from Suffolk to Pete’s house 50 miles away, then he’d take us to South Mimms motorway services to meet Tim who’d driven down there from Northants.   Then Tim would chauffeur us into London to the gig. 

So, getting there was fine.  And having a couple of decent gig buddies for company was absolutely great.  The part of the evening that really got to me was that third leg of the journey back at the end of our night out, the one where I had to drive that last bit home, alone through the early hours along mostly deserted country lanes.

Weary and frequently cold but not wanting to put the heater on in the rattling old Polo in case it sent me to sleep, that drive always seemed twice as long as it had been outbound.  The landmarks by which I calibrated my journey all started to blend into one.   But worse was the effect of my tired and over-active imagination. I had to fight with the more ridiculous fantastical fears that lurked in the back of my mind but which, in these dark and lonely conditions, gathered their own energy and jostled for space right up at the front, doing the stupidest things like turning lightning-struck trees into petrified witches, the shadows of road signs into gallows and kerbside shrubs into eerie, hunched over figures.  I can't tell you how many times I wondered why someone would be crouching motionless by the verge in the middle of nowhere at 1.30 in the morning. ... 

I never came across that lunatic axe murderer or the ghost of a headless horseman (of course I’d have told you by now if I had, it’d have been far more interesting) nor had an experience like Morrissey did on Saddleworth Moor. but by the time I arrived home it felt like it had taken all my strength to stay focused on the road and the radio and the promise of a warm bed at my destination, without thinking I’d witnessed something terrifying along the route.

Country lanes and empty fields are indeed beautiful on a sweet Summer afternoon but why is it that after midnight they transform into something far more sinister?!

Happy Hallowe’en….

John Atkinson Grimshaw - the master of a spooky moonlit scene

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Asperger's and Chris

I've just caught up with an excellent TV programme which, for reasons I can't really articulate, made me strangely tearful at times.  I was moved - moved by the nuances, moved by one or two things I felt in common, moved by the honesty, moved by the love of nature, by attitudes towards mental health and why we should value our individuality.  Just moved.  The programme was Chris Packham: Asperger's and Me.

You may already know from things I've mentioned before here that I feel great affinity and admiration for Chris Packham.  It's for many reasons - his deep love of nature is at the fore, but also his sense of outsiderness, his admission of social anxiety, and of course his musical and sartorial tastes.

I think a lot of us have a sort of autistic streak to one degree or another.  Not enough to affect our ability to function normally but perhaps enough to make some aspects of life trickier than we envisage it being for our peers.  Maybe just the merest hint of it, maybe not even something noticeable to anyone else, but the horrible feeling you get deep inside when you don't want to go to that party, or that wedding, or that work do, or whatever it is where everyone expects things to be a certain way and that way just isn't you.  When you feel in the minority - or maybe completely alone - for whatever reason, be it your interests, or your level of enthusiasm for something, or your lack of  enthusiasm for something else.  Where you don't feel you can fit in, because everyone else seems to do so with ease and so you must be the odd one out.  When you have to adapt the way you express yourself, when you tone down your inner voice that wants to rave about its weird passions that nobody else seems to get.  I think here, in this corner, it's a safe place.  But in the wider world it's sometimes hard to navigate.  Sometimes you have to fake normality.  Is that some kind of autism, being a bit unusual?  I don't know.  But I know that a lot of what Chris spoke about in his programme was absolutely relatable.

I'm pretty sure my dad would be diagnosed as having Asperger's if he were to undergo analysis.  An incredibly brainy, mathematical, logical man, he has no idea how to behave socially, how to dress or present himself conventionally, how to even be a 'true' father to my sister and me.  He's awkward, disconnected.  I see him in myself at times and I have to work at it.  I forgive him his inability to communicate normally with his own offspring.  It's just the way he is, and it doesn't make him bad.

My mum - very sociable and gregarious - was affected by mental health issues (clinical depression) and what with my dad... well, perhaps that's why I was precocious and difficult for a few years, maybe it's in that odd combination of genes!  I was happy to spend hours, days, on my own in my bedroom drawing, writing, reading.  My head was nearly always in a book - or making books of my own.  Or crouching outside on the step watching ants, studying woodlice, feeding lettuce to snails.  Hating new clothes, hating change.  Refusing to eat the baked beans that fell off the toast. Keeping a collection of butterfly cocoons in a plastic box.  Having to get back to my bedroom before the toilet flush stopped making a noise for fear of something bad happening if I didn't.  Daydreaming far too much.  It all kind of broke when I became a teenager. And then punk spoke to me, music and style and gigs and kindred spirits gave me an outlet.  It's okay to be a bit weird - embrace it.  You can be creative with clothes!  You can be creative, full stop.

Punk spoke to Chris Packham as a teenager too - it's easy to see why.

I really recommend watching it, if not already.  Here's the iPlayer link:


Thursday 12 October 2017


 “More parsnips than I know what to do with!” laughed the man as he showed off his basket of home-grown vegetables.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, except….  



… “It’s all so twee!” I found myself saying.

Honestly, I think I said it out loud on my own in the room. The reason being the man with his too many parsnips was in a TV advert for over 50s life insurance and that meant it was aimed at....(braces self)....me.  And maybe you too, either you now or the person you’ll be in just a few years’ time. 

I should add, it wasn't really the parsnips.  It was everything.  It was these advertisers' convenient vision of the over-50s – all pelmets and trugs and an oh-so-gentle sense of humour.   All tweed, velcro and lacy doilies. I felt so patronised!  I can’t bear being patronised and, oh god, I know it’s only going to get worse.  Fuck it. 

I’ve nothing against growing parsnips, just so you know.  You’re very welcome to show me your parsnips or any other homegrown root vegetables for that matter.  In a trug.  And I know all ads for any demographic are horribly generalised and broad, whether you're a teenager or a woman or a cat-lover or whatever, but it seems that the stereotypes for ‘older’ people simply haven’t been adjusted in decades.  They're more like a vision from the '50s than a vision of our 50s.  It’s as if once you pass 49 you instantly become some sort of sub-species, inoffensive and chintzy and dressed only in beige.  

These are not people like my peers and me - people who still go to gigs, or who like wearing pointy shoes, or who still have their old Joy Division albums in a dusty box in a room with an Andy Warhol poster on the wall, etc.  Insert your own version here.

(Note to advertiser: those parsnips can be inserted elsewhere.)

Monday 9 October 2017

Where the wild things are

There, under a large pot I moved this morning, was a beautiful, tiny newt. 

The woodlouse on the far upper right gives
some idea of scale

That’s why I leave this place a little wild.  Sometimes part of me feels a bit ashamed of my garden, because I know it doesn’t conform, it's not beautiful or tidy or planned, but then I have to remind myself:  it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. 

I leave this little outdoor space pretty much to its own devices, with the minimum of maintenance, and I know that it looks like I can’t be bothered.  But I just don’t want to bother all the wonderful things in it that are doing very well without me.   I don’t want to bother – as in trouble, or disturb - the perfect cycle of nature, the happy micro-world within its boundaries. 

For me the rewards are all I could ever wish for.  Like that beautiful newt, an unexpected find, the first I’ve ever seen here.   And like the hedgehogs that visit every night.  The things they leave behind – nearly always in the same place – are the next morning’s confirmation of their fruitful foraging and, I know it sounds bizarre to get a buzz from seeing hedgehog shit, but I really do get pleasure from that proof.  Like this one, so conveniently left for me directly on a leaf!

(I promise I won't make a habit of 
sharing my animal droppings)

It’s true, I spend a good ten minutes every morning searching for and then burying numerous little hedgehog turds.

Last year, the evidence of one sleeping under piles of twigs and cuttings beneath the hedge was the sound of it snoring.  Actually, a bit more than snoring; it was also emitting a noise that I can only describe as being like a Smurf with a smoker’s cough.  A hedgehog with a cough isn’t a good sign, meaning it may have lung-worm, but this one seemed to be doing okay.  Then one day in late Summer I heard something else  – some squeaking and snuffling and… a kind of suckling sound. Hearing this every day for a week or so, it dawned on me that she may have had babies…

…She had.

One of last year's hoglets

I can’t tell you how ridiculously happy it makes me to think a hedgehog chose to give birth and wean her young here.

Unplanned flowers and herbs proliferate too.  Lemon balm and feverfew grow of their own accord, wherever they like, along with pink and purple toadflax.  Forget-me-nots grow in the cracks in the ancient paving. Strong-smelling calamint blooms long into the Autumn, self-seeding on the path, where I leave it to brush against my ankles amid honeybees and butterflies.  Nettles are great in so many ways - I leave a good patch of nettles, and at this time of year so many of their leaves have been neatly folded up by caterpillars, sealing themselves inside with silk threads.  A bramble bush compensates for its outrageously sharp thorns with its long season of luscious blackberries. Vast mats of clover creep over the old concrete patio, plumptious woodpigeons peck at its leaves, bumble bees are drawn drunkenly to its heady scented flowers.  Ivy shelters gorgeous, huge garden snails and secretive wolf spiders.  Buddleia and honeysuckle do their own thing,the knock-on effect of their nectar’s attractiveness to small insects bringing in low-flying bats and swallows at dusk to scoop them up.

Dandelions in Spring are as pretty and bright as any cultivated plant, so why not leave them? Goldfinches which, like great spotted woodpeckers, look far too exotic to be British birds, cling to their long stalks bending slowly under their minimal weight, and pull at the flowers methodically, filling their beaks with the delicate seed heads, then depart with a tinkling chirrup, as if to say “Thanks!”

There are bank voles, woodmice, shrews.  A stoat appeared one day, as did a slinky little weasel looking for prey.  Grasshoppers and crickets....a frog under the shed... exotic-looking beetles with bodies that shimmer like jewels prompt me to read up about their species, get educated.  Somewhere below the surface a mole has been digging, I'm stupidly excited at the thought of this mysterious underground visitor.  There's no neat lawn to disrupt, so it doesn't matter. Blackbirds and dunnock chicks hatch in their nests, secure in the overgrown hedges where the sparrows roost en masse at night, treating us to a late afternoon chorus of quite unbelievable volume.  What are they chatting about?! 

Everything’s a mess and everything’s alive.   I wouldn't want it any other way.

Monday 2 October 2017

A bloody mess

Sorry it’s been a good few weeks since I’ve posted anything; no particular reason, just one of those phases when I’m not “feeling it” when it comes to writing - another temporary block perhaps.  And life, of course, puts other things in front of us, not that any of mine have been very interesting lately.

Today was a little out of the ordinary,  though!  I expected to be spending it drawing dragons for a new book, and if that sounds like a lovely way to spend time, I can confirm that indeed it is.  I love drawing and I love dragons.  I didn’t expect instead for Mr SDS to come home very early with blood all over his face.

Apart from numerous cuts and a swelling under his eye which looks like someone’s slashed it open and stuck an avocado stone under it, he’s okay - nothing got broken and he didn’t pass out after he smacked the gravel full pelt when he tripped and fell directly onto his cheek.   My dragons went on the backburner (probably quite appropriately) and I took Mr SDS to A&E.  His face was a bloody mess.

The NHS is wonderful.  I can't bear the thought that we could ever lose it; I’d happily pay more in NI, tax or whatever was needed to help keep it. And of all the things that could warrant a trip to A&E, something everyone surely dreads, it really wasn’t so bad.

Waiting in there for three and a half hours wasn’t so bad either, if you can find your own amusement.  It seems we were in stellar company, for among the names being called out there was a Tony Curtis, a James Dean and an Alesha Dixon.  What are the chances?  Of course none of them looked like their namesakes but I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to be in some kind of surreal Celebrity A&E Waiting Room.

 “I’ll have to mention this in a blog post,” I said.  And so....... !

Take care, everyone.

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