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The Colours of Lockdown

In many cultures rainbows are a symbol of hope. They appear sometimes as perfect arcs, often during a rainstorm, when the sun shines onto water droplets, shattering its white light into an array of brilliant colours. Everyone loves a rainbow.  It produces that frisson of excitement and wonder which is not dissimilar to watching fireworks explode in the sky.  There are many superstitions connected with this phenomenon – the most common being that there is a pot of gold where the rainbow ends.  There have been popular songs such as:  “Somewhere over the rainbow” about the yearning for freedom such as that which bluebirds enjoy when they soar over the clouds.

The earliest story about a rainbow is the one in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 9: 13 – 17, when God, after causing a flood to wash away humanity’s corruption, put the rainbow in the sky  as the sign of his promise to Noah and his family with the animals in the ark that he would never again destroy the earth with flood. The rainbow became  a symbol of hope, a new day, and a divine promise. And so it has been viewed through the centuries.

However in the 20th century  the rainbow has been adopted by movements of social change. In the 1960s a rainbow flag was used at peace marches in Europe and also at demonstrations against nuclear weapons, symbolising a desire for peace. In the 1970s, Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag for the LGBT community, and the rainbow flag became a symbol of pride, with the different colours representing ‘diversity’ in the gay community. In the 1990s Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the term ‘rainbow nation’ to describe South Africa, and this term was used by Nelson Mandela following the 1994 elections, when it became a symbol of reconciliation and unity.

Now in the 21st-century, with the world is living with the catastrophe and the suffering caused worldwide by coronavirus, in the UK we have reverted to using this age-old symbol once again.  Houses adorned with rainbows have become a common sight during lockdown, often in the form of children’s drawings put up in windows.  Rainbows have become a symbol of support for the NHS and public gratitude to all those who are working with the sick and the dying in our communities. It is aligned with the government exhortation to save the NHS.

During 2020 the rainbow with its arc of translucent colours has become once again a symbol of fervent hope that the pandemic will end. It won’t be tomorrow but it may be next year. It is almost inevitable that we will be entering another third lockdown in the new year. And no one knows how long it will last – but many of us suspect it will be some months before things improve with the rollout of the vaccine.

Our optimism is still in check. The future is uncertain. Let’s hope we can see the light and trust in the promise at the end of the rainbow, when the dark clouds finally disappear.

 

 

Painted Birds

I love owls.  We live in the countryside, surrounded by fields with sheep, rabbits, mice and the occasional fox, and woods with deer, a few badgers and masses of birds which also inhabit our garden.  Sometimes at dusk, we  listen to owls hooting across the woods and fields, and  have heard three different cries at the same time –  but the barn owl is the one that we hear most often.

I have been painting watercolours for over ten years now, and decided to paint a barn owl.  This is my effort on the left – and I have called him Cedric, for no particular reason other than that it is a wise-sounding name.

We also have buzzards, who wheel about the sky high above the garden watching for prey scuttling around below. There are the usual medley of garden birds including sparrows, robins, tits, blackbirds, thrushes and a wood-pecker.  And we have rather noisy crows and rooks too.

I also love exotic birds such as toucans though we don’t get them in England, of course. And peacocks who are very noisy and proud, flaunting their plumage.  I like storks too, or cranes as they are sometimes called. Two years ago I did a series of paintings on Aesop’s Fables, and my watercolour of The Peacock and the Crane is here:

 

The peacock boasted that he was very beautiful and colourful, and thought crane was very ugly.  The crane responded that the Peacock could only walk upon the ground, where as he could fly wherever he chose and had the freedom of the sky. My peacock looks disgruntled!

I am not particularly fond of crows, but I liked the story of the clever crow who was thirsty, and I did a watercolour version of the The Crow and the Pitcher, which is on the right.  The story relates that the crow was hot and thirsty and could find no water but spied a jug on a table but the level was too low for him to reach when he put his beak into the jug. He looked around and saw lots of stones and started to drop them one by one into the jug, and when the water level rose he was able to drink. Good solution!

My other favourite bird is the magpie, a cool dude in black-and-white who struts around scavenging for food. Just like Marmite, people either love him or hate him.  I’m a fan.

I use this wonderful bird as a symbol in my most recent novel, entitled “Dear Magpies”  where the main character writes to her long lost grandchildren on the other side of the world, addressing them as her Magpies.  There are more myths and stories about magpies than any other bird, so it seems obvious that very soon I should paint a joyous watercolour of a couple of magpies  (‘Two for joy’). The drawing  below is by someone else, far more accomplished than I am:

Slog through Snow, Blog into Spring.

This time last week it snowed.  Snow can be a big problem for elderly isolated people and stranded motorists but I defy anyone, when they open the curtains on the first morning after snow has fallen, not to gasp with wonder at the purity and beauty of the white blanket and the soft blotting out of normal sounds as if the volume of the world has been turned down. Magical!  Roald Dahl wrote in one of his final books, ‘The Minpins’, published posthumously : “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”  I celebrate other marvellous things in my life at this time – books, snowdrops, chocolate, poetry, wine and a loving man.

Whilst trawling back through my archives in this blog, I realise that my first post was in November 2008 – so I’ve been writing blogs about every other month for over ten years.  What was I up to at that time?  It seems that I was doing book signings for my collection of short stories called ‘Madness Lies and Other Stories’ which had been published in the summer. It was my first book and it took a couple of years to create the stories, so clearly I have been writing fiction for at least twelve years.  Though for much of my life I’ve been scribbling stories,  doing magazine articles, writing letters and keeping diaries.

So what am I doing now? My fourth book, ‘Dear Magpies’ is completely finished after many edits, which took over a year because I work in the property business. (I have to find time for creativity in between dealing with leaking roofs and blocked drains.) The novel, which is a story about a woman with a tragic past searching for her lost grandchildren, has been sent out to a number of publishers and agents, who take forever to respond – if at all. It is a waiting game, full of hope and disappointment, but I will get it published – because it’s good. Various editors and friends of mine have read it and tell me so.

Yesterday’s weather was dire – poor visibility, depressing rain and a chill wind.  But today the sun is shining – and my spirits lift. How simple and irrational humans are! With our elevated intellect that lifts us above instinctual animals and mere plants we wilt in the cold and dark but become optimistic and energised in the sunlight.  Creative talents, buried in the winter gloom, are beginning to stir and send up green shoots through the damp grass. Nature stirs. The urge to write is rising, inspiration lifts up her head, ideas sprout, words will uncurl. As Robert Frost says in his poem ‘Prayer in Spring’, we are “in the springing of the year.”


	

All at Sea

My other half has decided to spend about three months this summer cruising in a small 32ft boat around the British Isles – some 2,500 miles. He has persuaded some other lunatics to join him at various points so he always has another person on board to help crew the vessel and to keep him company.   I used to be a sailor but now I’m a landlubber so I am staying put and keeping the home fires burning – though this isn’t necessary as it’s one of the hottest, driest summers on record. The truth is – I’m working!  I’m running the family business and also getting some writing done. I don’t have to produce daily meals and  I don’t care if the house is untidy; I can eat and sleep as and when the mood takes me.  Though I do feel somewhat solitary, I find it quite liberating to be on my own for a while.  I even find time to do some gardening, and I am also doing some watercolour painting. 

Here is a one I did recently, which is my version of the famous painting of a gigantic Wave by the Japanese artist Hokusai and which depicts graphically a nightmare I occasionally have about my husband and his boat – all at sea.

 

Rare Road Sign

I was driving along a country road in Somerset recently and I came across this delightful road sign, which I’ve not seen before. Ever since reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’, I’ve felt that toads were quirky, undignified and should be protected. I’m pleased to see that the highways authority share this view.

I frequently see home-made signs outside houses or farms announcing: ‘Go Slow – Chickens Crossing Road’ or ‘No more Feline Fatalities Please –  We now have 5 Cats instead of 9!’  Some years back, when driving my children to school, we passed a building site, and came across a large sign saying: ‘Plant Crossing’.  My children were mystified, until I explained that from time to time large cauliflowers, huge carrots and mighty marrows marched across the road at this point.  I wonder why they didn’t believe me!

Teething Problems in Paradise

I have recently returned from a short holiday in ‘Paradise’ – or to be more accurate a tiny island in an isolated atoll in a wide ocean – or to be more precise: Fonimagoodhoo Island in Baa Atoll in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.  We spent a week on this delightful island, which measures approx 600m x 200m, encircled by a white sand beach and surrounded by a coral reefs dropping off into the deep blue ocean. The temperature was balmy, the sun beamed, the translucent water sparkled. Stunning! Attractive  restaurants and beach bars supplied delicious food and enticing cocktails and we walked everywhere in bare feet on tiny sandy paths beneath luxuriant green vegetation and trees. Glorious!

There was little else to do other than lie in the sun or retreat to the shade, doze, read books and swim. Bliss! In the clear water we found the way through to the edge of the reef where we snorkelled and watched the tropical fish as they swam around the coral. Wonderful!  I am a very competent swimmer and an enthusiastic watcher of fish.  I do not like to wear fins or wetsuits, and can swim happily for hours with just a snorkel and breathing tube.   There were three gaps through the inner reef which was shallow, which gave access to the outer reef edge where more and larger fish were to be found – including rays and reef sharks (Apparently they are harmless, although a few days before, I had seen one larger than myself swimming alongside me and my heart did beat a bit faster, but he lazily turned and meandered off.)

One morning, on our third day there, I was swimming along the outer reef from one end to the other in company with two others.  After about an hour, I was two thirds of the way along, when I suddenly had a sharp pain in my leg. I realised I’d been bitten when I saw blood clouding the clear water.   Then I saw this large yellow and grey fish (about 2½ft x 1ft in size) swim straight at me again, like an exocet, and this time he only managed a small bite, by which time I was flailing around and kicking trying to ward him off. Panic!  My fellow snorkeller watched it all happen and wisely kept clear. The big fish made three more runs at me, by which time I was swimming in the opposite direction towards the shore. Fear made me move fast. I soon saw that I was getting closer to the coral as the water became shallower (I had not come through the gap), so I had to slow down and swim carefully as the coral was a few inches below my body.

Back on the beach, I was taken to the doctor on the island, and he told me that the culprit was a giant triggerfish, which is known to be aggressive and occasionally bites swimmers. Usually they just nibble away at coral with their sharp teeth.  Mine was the worse bite he’d seen for a year, he cheerfully told me, as he stitched the wound. Painful! No more swimming, he said, and I should go onto antibiotics immediately. So no more alcohol either. Dismal!  But he was kind and changed the dressing each day.  I didn’t let the incident spoil my holiday – I read lots of books and sampled every single non-alcoholic cocktail on the island!  The wound was sore and became infected, red and swollen. But its alright now and there’s an impressive scab!

I discovered that Titan Triggerfish are often more aggressive than sharks, especially when you swim into their ‘cone’ – the space above their ‘nest’.  They patrol it and when they see an intruder, they raise up their top fin (the ‘trigger’) and attack.  I found numbers of videos on YouTube of triggerfish attacking snorkellers and nipping their fins. But none showed a triggerfish sinking its sharp teeth into someone’s leg!  I’m told I must not blame the fish – it’s in their nature. Their nasty nature!

Needless to say, back in the UK, the staff at my doctors surgery found the idea of my being bitten by a giant fish hugely amusing. I’ve found it raises a few laughs (but little sympathy) in the local pub. Why should it be so dreadful when a dog bites someone, and so very entertaining when a fish does?  I’ve been snorkelling for years in many different places and successfully avoided stingrays, sharks, sea urchins, poisonous pufferfish and stinging coral.  I’d never before encountered big triggerfish with their pointed teeth, but I shall keep well clear of them the future!  I shall flaunt an elegant scar on my leg. Every scar tells a story. And I’m a storyteller.

Good Riddance to January

January 2018 is memorable (or rather unmemorable) for having the longest number of sunless days and hours of any January since records began, so I’m told.  It was a dark, dismal, dank month – and – to add adverbs (now very unfashionable) to adjectives – it was dolefully dreary, dreadfully dire and deeply depressing. But it’s over now! February has blasted in with cold clarity, clear skies and a stunning super blue moon.  I woke in the early hours when the full moon was low in the sky gleaming slyly through the jet black spidery branches of a tree and saw a carpet of white snowdrops glimmering beneath. The lunar phenomenon was ghostly enough to haunt the imagination.  Such things have been known to send one mad. As the moon sank lower into a pallid mist and I crept back to my snug bed, I realised with elation that January had fled and February had dawned. It will get colder before it gets warmer. But, as the poet, Shelley, says: “If winter comes can spring be far behind?”

My Dragon won’t Listen to me

At last my voice is beginning to return to how it used to be, though it still sounds pretty ragged to me at times.  I lost it back in April and  I’m disappointed that it is still strangely hoarse.   It’s been stressful, though whether the inability to speak has caused the stress or whether stress caused the speechlessness I cannot tell!  All I know is that my voice has been weak and husky for three months. blue_dragon_webBut that wouldn’t matter too much, as my friends and family are used to me sounding like an old scratchy recording, but unfortunately my Dragon speech recognition software likes me speaking naturally and it hasn’t  taken kindly to me sounding like somebody with a dreadful sore throat. In short – it doesn’t want to listen to me!  When I try to dictate, the words don’t appear on the page with the ease and speed that they used to.  My dragon has gone on strike!  And I can’t blame the poor creature. I find it difficult to listen to myself.  I shall just have to type what I write as I used to do.  But I miss my dragon.  I’m sure that when my voice returns to normal,  the dragon will recognize that an old friend has returned and obliging reproduce my words electronically.  If not, I shall breathe fire!

Struck Dumb

speechlessnessNine weeks ago I woke up, tried to say good morning to my darling husband and found I could not speak.  I couldn’t even to croak – nothing!  Very strange.  My vocal cords had gone AWOL.  The evening before, having had guests for lunch, I noticed that my voice was a little weaker than usual. I thought nothing of it – I probably talked too much – as one does!

My dearly beloved, of course, thought it was a huge joke! I was more upset by his obvious merriment than I was by not being able to speak. ‘It’ll come back during the morning’, I thought and put off doing anything about it. I work from home – most writers do – and as I deal in the written words, I just got on with them – composing them in my head and storing on my computer as most writers do.  The doorbell rang once, and when I’d opened the door I gesticulated at the man delivering a parcel.  He nodded politely, as if accustomed to meeting people who could not hear or speak properly.  I signed for it and mouthed my thanks.

The expressions ‘losing your voice’ and ‘being struck dumb’ took on a whole new meaning.  I found I could whisper on the breath but few could hear me. There was no question of answering the telephone.  By mid afternoon, after an unusually peaceful and silent lunch with my dearest man who also works at home, I became a little concerned and resolved to visit the doctor the next day.  He wasn’t concerned at all and said I had laryngitis – inflammation of the vocal chords – and that it would probably go away soon, but if I still couldn’t speak after 8 weeks, he would refer me to the ENT Dept at the local hospital. I would have to be patient.  ‘EIGHT WEEKS!’ I shouted in my head, remaining silent.  Patience is not my strong suit.

Inevitably, a week later there was our village May Day Fair which me and my vocal other half attended. Unable to utter any sound at all, I decided to make a clown of myself by using placards to communicate (as in ‘Love Actually’), with messages such as:

‘Just call me a dumb brunette!’ or ‘ A writer without a voice!’ and ‘Let all rejoice. I’ve lost my voice, And don’t know where to find it.’  I found people tended to shout at me as if I was mad or deaf, so in protest I scrawled down:

‘I’m speechless not witless!’  The placard that people found most entertaining was:

‘Please no more jokes about how peaceful it must be for my husband – I’ve heard them all.’

A talkative woman (as I am), rendered speechless (as I was), had to be hilarious. But soon it became not only inconvenient but isolating. I had to get used to being ignored. As weeks past I began to think that perhaps my enforced silence was a punishment for being so effusive and so wordy.

I recalled that a few years ago, one Shrove Tuesday, my normally tactful spouse made the cardinal error of saying that I talked too much. Truth hurts so I snapped back that I would give up talking for Lent.  This was harder than I had anticipated, but I did keep it up for about 10 days, after which time I had to resort to whispering i.e. not quite using my voice. So I whispered for another week, during which time my best beloved and I went to Sunday lunch with friends.  I kept up the whispers throughout, which some of the other guests found strange whilst others were amused by my persistence in my Lenten protest.  But I couldn’t keep it up for 40 days. Whispering is tiring and I nearly lost my voice for real.

This time, when it is real, I find that people often whisper back to me, which is completely illogical when they know that I can hear very well, but just can’t make sounds. I ask people why they are whispering and they generally say, “Because you are.”  How crazy is that? What is even more crazy is that though my voice has returned during the last three weeks, I still speak huskily and sound as if I’ve been smoking 30 cigarettes a day for 30 years – which is very unfair as I’ve never smoked tobacco at all!

Three weeks ago, I went to the hospital and a doctor threaded a tickley line with a tiny camera into my nose and down to my larynx to see if there were any lumps. Fortunately there were none – to my great relief, though it was still inflamed – after 6 weeks.  I was advised not to shout or whisper, and suggestions included gargling, drinking lots of water (something I always do), and trying to relax (something I rarely do).  Friends tell me that occasionally I speak almost normally, but to myself, my voice still sounds croaky and when I’m tired it goes high pitched, loses strength and fades.  It’s now over 2 months and it’s no longer funny!  Perhaps I should ‘Leave it alone. It’ll come home, brimming with words. Don’t mind it.’

No Satisfactory Ending

I’ve just read a book by well-known author that was beautifully written, with an ingenious plot and memorable characters – but it did not have an ending. There was an intriguing story with tension, insights and twists but with no resolution. I expected, as one does with most books, to have a satisfactory ending, either dramatic and explosive or quiet and restrained. I was curious about how the conflicts would be resolved.  But nothing happened.  There was no ending.  The author just stopped writing and the reader was left in mid air.  I kept turning back to see if I had missed something, to see if there was some clue which might inform me what had happened to the characters, in whose lives I had become interested. But I could find no indication as to how the story ended. I felt let down. I suppose there are many events in real life that never seem to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Or else we don’t know how they end. So perhaps the author was trying to make this point. But I was disappointed. As a reader, I had invested some time in and emotional commitment to this book, and now I shall never know the end of the story. Am I justified in feeling cheated? As a writer of books, I think endings are extremely important. They don’t always have to be obvious or spelt out, but the author should not avoid the issue.  I like to have a quiet sigh – a moment of intense pleasure when I finish a good book. And then pick up the next one.