Tuesday, 30 December 2014

ten thousand hours

Whilst enjoying a velvety coffee in my favourite cafe one winter afternoon, I chance to  overhear a fellow customer declare that excellence in a discipline is achieved only after ten thousand hours of dedicated practise.

The cafe is warm, softly lit, the murmer of conversation is comforting. Yellow light spills from the window onto the darkening world beyond the glass; it is the hour of dusk. I stir my coffee and ponder upon the magical equation proposed by my neighbour.

During the last week of November, I made seven, small, delicate studies of cloud formations, before losing confidence and coming once more to a tremulous standstill. Several hours were committed to each little study, nowhere near the number required for excellence, but my efforts marked something of a return to my practice, nevertheless.

A month later, no further drawings having been made, I retrieve the fragile pieces from the drawer in which I had hidden them from my censorious gaze, and lay them out on the floor of the back bedroom, in order to reappraise them. I am much relieved that I resisted the urge to destroy them; by so doing, I would have denied myself the opportunity of learning from them, vital steps marking my passage through the 'forest dark' would have been lost forever, and I would have again been floundering without the guiding light of their presence. As it is, each carefully dated study bears witness to my attempt to celebrate and understand the wondrous mutability of the clouds, each represents the sum of hours of work, carried out with a will to improvement.

I have still many more hours of such work ahead of me. At times my appetite for the task is fickle; weeks pass in which no drawings are produced, and I am again plunged headlong into the misery of doubt and self condemnation. However, thankfully, these painful intervals are  becoming shorter as my resolve strengthens, and sometimes I  experience the tiniest flicker of pleasure in my modest achievement, from which I gain a modicum of courage to continue. There are even days when I begin to believe that I tread the 'straight foreward path', the way forth from the darkness. I may yet come to behold the stars.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


It is plain to see that my mother's garden once bordered land unclaimed by urban development; at the foot of a neighbouring garden are two trees of the woodland, a sweet chestnut, and a walnut, both mature plants of majestic aspect. Every Autumn, amongst the prodigious fall of outsize papery leaves are to be found the fruits of each, glossy, bristle tufted chestnuts clad in spiny, floss lined jackets, gnarled and brittle walnuts. The crop represents a bountiful annual harvest for the resident squirrels, who bury both chestnut and walnut all over my mother's garden, frequently casting plants from flowerpots to hide their cache beneath the soft soil.

Emptied of their chewy, bitter kernal, the spent walnut shells resemble little boats, fashioned for the tiniest of passengers. Searching for a pastry cutter in the kitchen drawer of the rented house in Somerset, I unexpectedly come across a brown paper bag of these fragile craft, and remember gathering them in my mother's garden on a glowing Autumn evening, turning the fallen leaves with eager hand, guided by the last rays of a blood red sunset.

It was my intent to attach mast and sail to each, and set them afloat on the stilly waters of the pond, or launch them in my mother's bath tub, documenting the event with camera, but, my confidence having failed, instead thrust the paper bag to the back of the kitchen drawer, the idea to the back of my mind.

Dried earth from my mother's garden still clings to the shells; dust rains from the paper bag when I empty it. Sentimental, I cannot bear to sweep the dust away, returnng it to the bag with the shells, folding the bag over, and placing it atop the old piano, my repository for found and broken objects, abandoned birds nests, dried flowerpetals contained within sheets of tissue, paper fans, fragments of garden ornaments.

I remain unsure about the destiny of the sculptural walnut cases, feeling certain that there is potential for a piece of work, however modest, yet anxious that I may not have the ability necessary to realise it. The shells are lovely in their own right; perhaps a mast and tiny sail would appear amiss, as would a coat of paint. In my minds eye I envisage them bobbing amidst the glistening bubbles of a foam bath, motionless upon the crystal depths of the garden pond, marooned on a sea of creamy paper. Perhaps I should take a practical approach rather than a purely cerebral one; experiment, afix a mast and sail to one, at least, float them in sink, bath and pond, see what they look like. Or perhaps I should arrange them on the earth of my mother's garden, where I found them, setting them upright amid the rustling ocean of leaves, grouping them like a diminutive armada awaiting the command for battle.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


In an old wooden cold frame, fashioned by my father many years ago, we store the spent daffodil bulbs over the summer each year , having lifted them from the long flower beds of the front garden late in the spring after flowering, let them dry in the sun, and removed the yellowed foliage. Each autumn we add new, fresh bulbs to the colony before planting; every few years we replenish the entire stock. The task of planting the bulbs, later lifting them and setting them out to dry falls largely to myself, in my father's absence.

It happens one autumn, that we have too many to plant, and so the remainder are left in the cold frame at the bottom of the garden throughout the season. At the close of flowering time, when the planted bulbs have been lifted, dried, divested of their faded greenery and are ready for storage, we open the cold frame to discover that the surplus bulbs therein have flowered also. Fragile, dessicated blooms append each shrivelled, papery bulb, a tangle of pale gold and honey, exquisitely beautiful. My mother and I are profoundly moved by the sight. My mother whispers apologies; we are each conscious of guilt, and sadness for our unwitting negligence, for the plants unfailing and faithful response to the turning of the year, unwitnessed, unsung.

I cut the frail blooms from the shrunken bulbs, captivated by their beauty, and place them carefully in paper bags, anxious to preserve them, somehow to chronicle their effort, their ultimate, valiant expenditure.

Monday, 8 December 2014

image, text

A dear friend enjoins me to keep thinking, 'image, text', 'image, text'. This, after she read an earlier post entitled 'paper plane', which post comprises the digital photograph of a model aeroplane, and a text concerning my relationship with my father.

I am fast lodged in a period of sterility as far as making drawings is concerned and find myself instead much more inclined toward the act of writing, and the collection and arrangement of found objects, mostly from my mother's house and garden.

I must conjecture, therefore, that all is not lost, with regard to making visual work, it's just that my mind is not alive to drawing at present; rather is working in a different vein. If I were at all kind to myself, and to these fledgling ideas, I would pursue them with more energy, lay to rest my frantic, unassuageable desire to be drawing, for the moment, and allow myself to think as my friend bids me.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014


It is the time of Advent. Both of the little schools where I volunteer my assistance are preparing for Christmas. Nativity plays are rehearsed, songs sung, crowns, wreaths and cards are fashioned.
In Assembly we sing 'Away in a Manger', a carol that I remember well from my own childhood.

I am unprepared for the flood of emotion that causes me to falter on hearing the familiar melody and simple refrain. The closing words of the last verse pierce me to the quick. I can only hope that I will be fit for heaven at the time of my death, whenever that shall be.