Re-imagining

On the autumn equinox we head for the sea.  Morning breaks on bold blue skies and whipped cream clouds.  Sea and sand sparkle under warm sunlight.   It isn’t quite low tide, but wide expanses of reef are exposed.  The promenade is full of people, who wander over the causeway to the lighthouse.

The beach is almost empty; the sea flat and far away.  The sandscape changes with each tide.  Today it is tossed with boulders swaddled in bladderwrack.  The sand is studded with lugworm casts and bird footprints.  That unmistakeable salt and sweet seaweed scent perfumes the air.  The sand martins that nest in the cliffs are gone, but there are flocks of birds out of reach on the reefs.  A curlew’s cry echoes.  Wind turbines turn slowly beyond the lighthouse and ships break the horizon.

Back on the headland, yellow grass is woven with bronze seed heads.  Yarrow and thistle are still in flower.  Sea buckthorn berries light up the borders.  We sit on the grass and eat ice cream.  There are always starlings here and a mob of them soon moves in.  At one point there are at least forty, hustling for treats.  Once they have decided there is no more, they swarm onto the grass, a sinuous horde, looking for earthier fayre.

The equinox ends with a sky full of storm light.  For two days rain falls and winds blow.  This is not a summer storm.  It is the arrival of autumn.  Outside the air seems charged.  Damp and rich and full of movement.  Though the leaves have barely begun to turn, the atmosphere is bronze.   On a day like this, anything can happen.  The fire hisses flames for the first time since early spring and the dog lies on his side in front of it.  The wind moans in the chimney.  The autumn equinox has passed.  Summer has fled but the season of magic has arrived.

In the aftermath, we walk to the dene.  For a while, our soundtrack is the hubbub of starlings.  I wonder if at dusk they join those at the island to murmur into darkness.  The sky is moody but dry.  A row of linden trees are beginning to curl and brown.  Small tree limbs blown off in the storms cover the ground.  The sports centre around the corner has become a test centre for Covid 19, a white marquee raised next to the skate park.

A gentle cheep greets our entrance to the dene.  Autumn is just flirting here.  Crisp bronze leaves lie in clusters; some of the trees are beginning to turn; but green is still the predominant colour.  Two wind turbine foundations on their way out to sea jut over the trees.  I watch through drooping willows as mallards circle the pond.  A pair of black-headed gulls have taken the high perches on the jetty, but one of them is ousted by another before long.  The moorhens cry occasionally, the gulls scream.

A clump of meadow cranesbill draws my eye to reeds starting to turn yellow.  Sprays of orange lilies and columns of yellow rattle mingle with sienna dock seeds.  Tiny fish dart away from my shadow in the burn.  The edges are full of berries.  Blackberries and rosehips, raspberries and haws, elder and snowberries.  A pair of crows feed on a discarded Yorkshire pudding.  Suddenly, a feather – grey and downy – falls from the sky, in a slow flight right in front of me.  I catch it before it reaches the ground.

On the way home, I notice the weeds between walls and pavement.  It has been the year of the weed.  Fewer grass cuttings and weed spraying has allowed some to appear that wouldn’t normally be seen and others to grow into monsters.

We may be facing another lockdown.  In this area of the country, Covid infections are rising again and there are new restrictions in force.  There is tension between those who think the restrictions are too harsh and those who think we aren’t doing enough.  We are still fighting for balance as we move into the most challenging part of the year.  But this is nothing new.  I watch a documentary that describes how the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century led to revolts and a re-imagining of the world.  That plague stayed for centuries, re-appearing every ten years or so to take its toll once more.  It feels, right now, like Covid is something that won’t disappear, but that we’ll have to come to terms with.

But for now, the seasons turn.  September moves into October and today, it seems, is arrival day.  Not long after dawn we walk to the park at the end of the street under an arrow of squawking geese.  If that wasn’t joy enough, there is soon more squawking in the air.  In the space of ten minutes, five separate skeins of geese fly directly overhead.  They are heading south.  I wonder where they will come in to land and what they will find there. I am thankful that I was here to witness their passing.

Moving

Days are slow in a year that moves alarmingly fast.  June sizzles.  Days too hot to do much of anything.  Too hot to walk far.  Too humid to move around.  I long for the sea, but reports of crowded beaches keep us away.  Then the heatwave breaks at last.  Wind wicks away heat.  Showers drench and thunder rumbles.  Relief.  But relief doesn’t last long.  June tips over into July and the wind dies.  The air is close and still once more, only the grey-tinged clouds offer any hope of respite.

I walk to the river, down to the old docks, under a broiling sky.  Gulls soar and somersault on the air currents.  The river chatters past in grey-blue peaks.  The yellows and purples of summer wildflowers are in evidence, but the gabion baskets have been crisped.  A few hardy clumps of valerian, nipplewort and wild parsnip remain, but mostly the rusty baskets sprout shrivels of yellow and brown.

There are fewer people around than at the beginning of lockdown.  A purple-haired man wobbles towards the ferry singing a song.  Further along, a family is fishing.  There is a cruise ship docked upriver at the marina.  It has been here for weeks.  Usually cruise ships visit for a day or two, but this one has nowhere to go.  I walk to the ferry landing to check on the kittiwakes.  They have made the barest of nests from seaweed.  Now covered in guano, they are like dusty wigs shoved on a shelf.  I think I can see three chicks among the chaos on the sill.

In the passage of this virus, this feels like the strangest time of all.  Everything is changing and yet nothing seems to have changed.  Rules are being relaxed.  I have hugged my mother-in-law.  I have visited work.  Many people are behaving normally.  And yet the virus is still here.  We are moving – sometimes slowly, sometimes too fast – inevitably to some kind of new normal.  I wonder if I have imagined these last few months in which everything was different.

My creativity has flagged.  The painting and drawing has paused.  I still don’t feel like I have anything to say.  My novel has been waiting for review.  Early this year it was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition.  Later,  it was identified as a ‘quality manuscript’ by a manuscript assessment agency.  They’ve asked to see it again once I make some changes, with a view to possibly recommending it to industry contacts.  And yet it sits there untouched, highlighters on top, ready to be looked at again.

I turn from the river and walk up the steep bank towards home.  The empty windows of the old school burst with vegetation.  Bindweed throngs the banks and brambles are in flower.  Halfway up, the rain comes: fat dollops of rain that soak me quickly.  It is the kind of rain that usually accompanies thunder, but there is no storm.  I revel in the reprieve from the heat and keep moving.

 

Line and colour

I watched the cherry blossom bloom and fall.  Then came the May blossom, until it too faded.  Dandelion petals shrivelled and became clocks.  The grass, uncut, flowered into lilac ripples.  Clumps of cow parsley unfurled and frothed.  It has rained only once in weeks of hot, dry days.  Plants yellow and crisp.  Leaves are seared from the trees.  Nature shows that time is passing, but there is little else to mark the passage of the season.  A sprained knee has kept me close to home and each day feels much the same.  Days blend into weeks.  The solstice is only a month away.  I’ve found I haven’t much to say.

I have moved from words to vision.  From letter to line.  I painted the songbirds that were my jewels of hope among the thorns of winter.  I drew life models along with thousands of other people through the BBC and had my sketch of a woman with a cello mentioned on the programme!  I imagined a version of ‘home’ in response to a theme on Grayson Perry’s Art Club.  I painted a portrait of Rankin with scores of others through Sky TV.  Now, I am painting illustrations for poems.  I have had nothing to say in words, but my creativity has flowed out in pencil and paint.

When I draw I try not to pursue perfection.  Too often when I want something to be good, it strips away the enjoyment, or stops me from doing it at all.  But there has been no higher purpose to my painting.  There has been just me, sat at the table with a drawing board, overlooking the yard, following lines and colours.   It doesn’t matter if they’re good pictures.  They weren’t made to hang on a wall.  Nor do they have any great meaning.  They are just shapes on paper or canvas that record, if anything, a slice of contentment in my day.

There is a movement towards recovery.  Lockdown is shifting.  We are allowed to go outside all we wish now.  There are dates for the re-opening of schools, shops and, eventually, libraries.  There are more cars on the road.  The grass has been mown in the park.  But mostly, movement is elsewhere.  It is not here, at my dining table, where I work and I paint.  It isn’t out there, where the washing sways in the sun and the plants could do with some water.  The children’s playground is still padlocked and tangled with weeds.  There are still queues to get in the supermarkets.  I’m not ready yet to leave this bubble.  I’ll stay here for as long as I can, in this place where creativity can flourish at its own pace.  

Meanwhile

Suddenly there are leaves.  Tissues of green illuminated by the afternoon light.  Dabs of lime like fireflies strung across dark branches.  Suddenly there are lacy florets waving from boughs of ash.  Spindly posies springing from maple twigs.  And suddenly there is blossom, wanton wild cherry blossom.  The trees have come to life and suddenly we will forget that they were ever bare.

There is a space in the town centre that was once a small bank.  Now, its empty rooms host abstract paintings and strange installations.  In the old, walk-in safe, a video plays of a buoy silently blinking Morse code over a dark sea.  Upstairs, artists work in makeshift studios.  Sometime in the future this will become a shop or a bank once more.  For now, it is known as a ‘meanwhile space’.  It is a pause between two existences: what it was and what it will become.  And in the meanwhile, it is a crucible for creation.

Lockdown is a ‘meanwhile space’.  A time between what we were and what we might become.  Our eyes have been opened to mountain vistas and clear waters, to clean air and wild animals roaming empty streets.  Amid the fear, uncertainty and boredom, many people are using this as ‘meanwhile’ time.  A time to do things they wouldn’t usually have time to do, or to prepare themselves for who they want to be when this is over.  We are baking, dancing, singing, writing.  We are learning and making art.  We have glimpsed the magic of what could be normal if we were to act as though we are a part of the world and not above it.

The physical world has shrunk again.  All the car parks have been closed along the coast to prevent people going there.  Life is something that happens nearby.  The life of my street is more important than ever before.  I pay closer attention to the Herb Robert flowering between the cracks in a neighbour’s path, the tiny hearts of shepherd’s purse in the gutters, the ivy leaved toadflax and dandelions growing out of walls.  The colony of sparrows on our street makes rowdy music as they flutter from the privet at the end of the lane, from roof to roof, all along the road.  Gulls glide over, wings lit up by the sun.  I can hear the crows’ soft caw as an undertone.  And in the night, foxes slink along the middle of the road.

Under the cherry trees in the park, bees hum and blue tits chitter.  The sun blazes white through white.  I sit against a gnarled trunk and feel the levity of the blossom.  The trees are parasols of light, voluptuous with snowy flowers.   It won’t last long, this perfect flowering, when the green of bud gives way to the burst of white.  After only a week there will be a tinge of brown to the blooms.  The ground is already littered with fallen blossom.

The grass hasn’t had its first cut of the season yet.  It is a shaggy hearth rug, patterned with daisies and dandelions.  Clumps of grass grow long and yellow at the tips.  There are whorls of cow parsley and tiny tree saplings that wouldn’t normally have had the chance to grow.  I watch my world from beneath the cherry blossom.  A recent poll showed that only 9% of Britons want to go back to ‘normal’ when this is over.  And yet we haven’t left the world behind, we have only left the way we normally behave in it.  I want to grasp this time, to wring from it anything that is extraordinary.  I want to be changed by it.  But meanwhile, there is cherry blossom and birdsong and the certainty of spring.

Lockdown

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This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Toni Morrison

The gabion baskets burst with wildflowers.  I don’t know if seeds were dropped into the baskets deliberately, or if they have taken the opportunity to root in the cracks.  As yet, they are mostly green.  But there are highlights of yellow,  pink and a touch of red.  So many varieties of flower, some in quantity, some no more than a sprig: coltsfoot, sow thistle and nipplewort, valerian, hairy violet and scarlet pimpernel; ribwort plantain, ragwort and bladder campion.  A handful of poppies has bloomed and soon the wall will be crimson with them.  I see my first ladybird of the year crawling along the wire.  My first butterfly, a red admiral, flutters onto a dandelion.

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It’s taken time to be comfortable at home again, without feeling the rooms were too small and that I had to escape.  When lockdown was just a whisper, I worried whether my panic attacks would allow me to cope with confinement.  Fortunately, they were more under control by the time lockdown became a reality.  I work from home now.  The days are often frantic.  I’m classed as a key worker, helping to provide access to critical services through our libraries.  Things change quickly, requiring a response.  I’m on my phone so often it burns my ear.

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Doggy lockdown is exhausting

But lockdown is also an opportunity.  An extra hour in bed, being at home for Winston, pottering around the house as a break.  Usually when I’m out at work, lunches are taken up with walking home and back to check on Winston.  Now I have the luxury of a half hour walk.  Each day I walk to the river, past the new houses on the bank shored up by the gabion baskets, past the former dry docks and on to the ferry landing.  There’s a steep hill to climb on the way back, so it’s a decent effort for a short walk.  I hear my first kittiwakes of the season.  Most nest further upriver on the Tyne Bridge, but for as long as I can remember there have been kittiwakes nesting on the two tall buildings at Ferry Mews.

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Rainbows painted by children appear in windows.  Every lunch time the clip clop of hooves announces the passing of a horse and gig taking advantage of quiet roads.  In lockdown, every day is Sunday.  Almost – though not quite – the Sundays of childhood, when shops were closed and the day was filled with family duty gatherings and school the next day.  I hated Sundays as a child, but I welcome the enforced Sundays of lockdown.   My days aren’t so different to those before.  Normal had already changed.  As yet, I don’t know anyone who has the virus.  It still seems far away.

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Winter returns for a few bitterly cold days, as it usually does in spring, but then it is gone once more.  In the park, the crows have begun re-building an old nest in a sycamore alongside the railway line.  He brings her twigs as she caws and settles into the nest.  They have become more territorial, chasing away gulls and wood pigeons, but they still swoop down for peanuts.  The celandine and the daisies are flowering.

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Once, I would have debated whether my writing had value in such times as these.  I would have worried that others had more important things to say, that my soft words were irrelevant.  But it’s in these times that we’re compelled to make sense of what is happening to us.  If you’re a writer,  you write.  If I don’t write now, in these strange times, then why write at all?  It doesn’t matter what I write about, it matters that I put one word in front of another.