My Grandparents: Intrepid Explorers

These are my grandparents, all the way from Australia, on a boat in Derwent Water. I think you can see from their expressions how much they like traveling, and boats, and how happy they are together. When they got on the plane in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago, they celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. In the past few years they have conquered, between them, pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer, a big heart operation and a knee reconstruction. We had a weekend with them in the Lake District, and now they’re meandering around Scotland, before boarding a ship to explore the Scottish islands. Wow.

They came over three years ago when I was doing my masters, and took me to Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg. Grandma has often repeated to me an old saying of her father: ‘Be happy, dear, there’s enough unhappiness in the world’. I’m pretty sure my grandparents have increased the balance of happiness in the world.

I don’t have any other pictures because our camera was playing up and we took most of the photos with G&G’s camera. Hopefully I’ll upload some when they drop past to visit me in July on their way home. It was supposed to rain all weekend, which it didn’t do, and we had a great time scouting around the little villages and eating cake. Especially in Hawkshead, the home of Beatrix Potter and the most amazing collection of freshly cooked tripple-decker cakes (strawberry and chocolate, blackforest, raspberry and pistachio, mmmm…). More on that later.

I really love the Lake District. I like how the colours of the hills echo the sky, and how incredible they look when the shadows of clouds move across them. It is a watercolour landscape – slate grey and copper, misty greens and pale blues. The mountains are not as tall or spectacular as some in the world, but they are beautiful and unique, quiet, magical. It is a place to come back to. A heart country.

We arrived back in Norway last night, after braving a taxi, a train, a bus, a plane, a ferry and finally the comfort of the snuggle-car. This whole land is covered in leaves now, it’s quite different from the place I left four weeks ago. Driving into Halden felt like coming home. It is strange to have a life split between two countries. I must now ease my way back into this Norwegian life, and use its peace to rewrite my chapter beautifully, while G&G meander around Scotland, and Leeds hums and bustles without me there to witness it.

Long Weekend

The past week has been a bit scrappy, as you may have noticed from the brevity of the posts. But I have made it through, and this afternoon I’m off to Liverpool and then the Lake District with my grandparents and radioactive man! Hooray! So I won’t be around for a few days, but I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Hope you all have a nice weekend too.

Creatures

I can’t help it – I love these things. I was looking for medieval squirrels, but I found these instead, on a site called Stumbleupon. Little creatures are great! I remember once I was walking around the duckpond near my parents house in Adelaide. I was so overjoyed by the little ducklings that I couldn’t help but share my excitement with a passer-by. ‘I know’, he said blandly, ‘I’ve lived here ten years’. As if that makes a difference.


My achievements for the day

Five big boxes, expertly packed and labeled, ready to be sent off to Norway. 100kg that I don’t have to think about when I move house next month. Yippee! I also ticked off a long list of odd jobs I’d been avoiding for ages. So a successful day all round, and tomorrow I can get back to thinking about the PhD.

Leeds Poem

The sky is low,
the buildings grey,
we need a multicoloured retro raindrop*
to brighten a day like today.

My usual ducky-optimism has slumped a bit for the past couple of days, because there is so much to do! Boxes to pack, to weigh and to post, contracts to sign, bills and cheque books to find, books to borrow, tickets to buy, words to write. But I’ll get there. And on Friday I’m meeting my grandparents and the lovie, and we’re going to the lovely Lake District! Just a few more days…

* see the duck songs post below

Dinner

After a year of living together and not seeing each other much, we have decided to be sociable. It’s fun! Last Sunday Em (aka Domestic Goddess) cooked dinner and tonight I did. Moroccan vegetable tagine – yum! See how amenable they all are to becoming characters in my story?

Ingredients

Tagine

Domestic Goddess

Domestic Goddess’s boyfriend

Guess who

The wine worked its wonders and by the end of the evening we were singing Duck songs. Any we could remember. I sang Schnappi too. I like Schnappi.

Writing

Writing has always been effortless for me. I think I have believed this myth long enough. The truth is, I sometimes find writing effortless, but most of the time it is hard work. When I was in High School I used to write a lot of short stories. I would draft them by hand, meticulously, ten to fifteen times. They would shrink to a tenth of their original size. I would weigh every word, and I perfected the rhythm of the sentences by reading them aloud. I liked the rhythm of the pen on the page, the sound it made, its rocking motion. I chipped away at those stories as if I were excavating crystal from rock. And it worked.

Poems, on the other hand, have always seemed like gifts. I can never force a poem. Sure, I edit them down, but they sing in my head until I get them right. It’ s the best feeling in the world. And if I don’t get them right, I abandon them. I haven’t written a poem I like for nearly three years.

My novel was another matter altogether. The challenge of structuring something so large stumped me for a long time. I wrote it in bits, like a patchwork quilt, then sewed them all together. This meant a lot of rearranging and rewriting to get the tone right. Genre was also an issue, as it seemed to shift. I often felt like giving up, but I had glimpsed something, a shining whole, and I needed to uncover it.

My friend Clare, who started her Phd in Leeds the year before me, writes gorgeous thesis chapters, structured in elegant loops. But I’ve been struggling. Working on my thesis chapter has felt like prodding a dead fish. Which is why I’m thinking about writing, in order to discover a new space, from which I can write the lovely clear prose I’m sure I’m capable of. I talked to both my supervisors about it this week. Stuart lent me a thesis to read, and was pleased I’d been having a look at Clare’s. The problem is that my chapter as it stands is rather flat and disjointed – it doesn’t build an argument or hold together very well. I told Stuart my problem was that in creative writing, the maxim is ‘show don’t tell’, and it seems to be the opposite in academic writing. He said no – academic writing can be allusive too, and actually needs to be. You don’t have the space to repeat the entire arguments of the theorists you cite. When you really know your material, you’re happy to make broader statements about it.

I’ve been analysing the structure of everything I’ve read lately. What seems to work is opening with an image which crystallises an idea, but also raises questions. You can return to the image later in elegant loops. This helps give the readers a sense that you know what you’re doing.

This morning I spoke to Catherine, my other supervisor. It was her idea to reflect on how I wrote my novel. She also pointed out the problem with my chapter is that I often force closure – as if I’m afraid of managing my material. I need to give it space to breathe, and I need to question my own summarising statements. She said it’s useful to look at other people’s work, but I shouldn’t feel like I need to copy it. There’s no template for a great paper. Loops are nice, but there are other ways of being elegant, too.

We also talked about the metaphors we have about writing. She said one of her collaborators once commented on a paper they were co-writing: ‘oh, it’s good now, it’s sinewy’. And as to my own metaphors? Excavation is definitely one of them. And singing. And dead fish. My masters dissertation is a bit like a river – fluid, but not enough sign posts. So how do I want to imagine my thesis? Glass comes to mind. Fluid when it’s red-hot, but holding its shape once cool. Clear when it needs to be, or coloured, or stained, or twisting upwards in a flourish.

I’ll end with a question. What are your metaphors for writing? I’d love to hear about them.

Happy Norway Day!

Today is Norway’s national day. They all dress up in traditional costumes, go on parades, and wave lots of flags. I bet the sun’s even shining. But I’m in Leeds. And M can’t even take any pictures, because, kind boyfriend that he is, he lent me the camera. So – happy Norway day! This is the best duck-girl and her friends can do.

Sea Song

Walking by the sea in the strong air

you think of girls who lie pebbling

the small rocks

who wait the echoing nights

by the hard sea’s moan.

You’ve seen them often

at the edges of sleep –

the girls with wind tangling

their hair and their skirts, waiting

not for war or love

or the tall ships battering

their grey stone coasts

or lonely eyed sailors

with gold caskets and cloth

from failing empires, jewels

from mountains beyond the sea.

They burn smoky sea weed

to warm the slow nights

the quick fading footprints in sand.

In your mind they wait

among red anemones with pointed hands,

driftwood shaped like water

and the salt bleached shells

hollowed by fingering waves.

Your songs twist in their ears

slip like pearls from their necks

but they wait to risk drowning,

to grow gills and slip to the old world

far from waves and wind

and sailors and their lonely eyes.

I wrote this several years ago, but Fifi’s lovely posts about the ocean, such as this one, and especially this one, made me remember it.

Three cheers for the BBC

I like English TV. I never used to watch TV in Australia, so I don’t really have much to compare it to. But this stuff is great. The documentaries and antique shows are my favourite. I used to watch the property shows at breakfast time but the prices of all the houses got too depressing. There are some pretty good comedies too – ‘Allo ‘Allo is my favourite of the golden oldies. The best antique show ever is Bargain Hunt with Tim Wonnacott. Perfect to watch at lunch-time. He wears a different bow-tie every day.

Some of the documentaries are just brilliant. Tonight was the last of a series of three entitled Victoria’s Empire, by the comedian Victoria Wood. She traveled around Africa, Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia etc interviewing people, pointing out statues of Queen Victoria, and making funny comments. It was educational, hilarious and heartbreaking. Although she explored its atrocities, there remained a touch of admiration for the empire over which the sun never set…

The English are also very good at nature documentaries. I saw a very nostalgic one about Wensleydale last week. The sentimental music was a bit overdone, but I couldn’t help tears forming in my eyes when they showed an old couple who have a Christmas tree farm in a remote corner of the dale. Two red squirrels decided to move in next to them, and the woman watches them everyday through the kitchen window. Red squirrels are beautiful and very rare. The nasty American grey squirrels have taken over most of England. The red ones are bright red and have little tufts of hair behind their ears. Oh they are lovely!

A documentary last year introduced me to the incredible water shrew. Shrews are little mouse-like creatures with long pointy noses. Water shrews swim around in little ponds and catch shrimp! Some people are so fond of them that they join a shrew society and set harmless traps for them just so they can have a look at them and let them go again. My housemates were very unimpressed when I told them this story. I don’t know why.

Leeds: the good, the bad and the ugly

The Good

The Bad

  • The motorways
  • The pedestrian crossings (cars speed up when they see you)
  • My neighbour’s toddler (or so she says. All day.)
  • My neighbours
  • My neighbour’s taste in music
  • The Merion Centre (smelly and grim)
  • Morrisons (very stressful grocery shopping)
  • The quality of the vegetables
  • It’s a big city
  • It’s not York

The Ugly

  • Friday night (if you think Leeds-girl looks cold, she probably is. They probably are.)
  • My neighbourhood (more on this later)

For a comparison with the other half of my world, click here.

Happy Birthday little blog!

One month old today. This calls for a little celebration, or at least reflection. Do I like my little blog? Yes, yes I do. Here’s why. It’s a little virtual house, all of my own. I can paint it whatever colour I like, and no one leaves dishes in the sink. It’s fun to note down my daily observations, and to have an outlet for things I’m thinking about. And it’s been so wonderful discovering other blogs out there – I think I’m making new friends.

I started the blog to help stay in touch with family and friends, and to help me keep track of myself. I thought it might make living in two different places a little easier. I’m still in the early stages of this experiment, but I think it does. As well as keeping track of my own life, it opens up a whole new world. The life of a phd student can be a bit isolated sometimes, especially as I’m spending half my life away from Leeds, and the blog-world offers a counter to this.

I was talking to my brother yesterday about the whole anonymity issue. He said he wouldn’t feel comfortable exposing himself in this way. The funny thing is, before I started the blog, I felt a bit the same. I’m naturally a private person. Any fears evaporated as soon as I started. You only post what you want to post, after all. My brother raised the possibility of things coming back to haunt me, and what potential employers might think, but I don’t think I need to be ashamed of liking cats and trees and paragliding holidays. Or even of having the odd self-doubt. It might be interesting to record the highs and lows of my PhD here – it’s so easy to forget the journey once you have the sparkling finished product.

The other thing is whether keeping a blog has actually changed the way I live. And it has, a bit. When I first started, I noticed that even as I experienced things I would be composing sentences in my head, working out how best to describe them. As I’ve always been interested in writing, this wasn’t really a new thing, but it was strange to have it back with so much force. It’s toned down a bit now, which is probably a good thing. But I guess what a blog encourages most of all is a tendency to see your own life as a narrative. We do this anyway, but a blog is one way of expressing it. Three cheers for you, little blog, and best wishes for a long and happy life.

Exam time in Leeds

The University of Leeds is absolutely crazy at this time of year. The undergraduates are everywhere: crammed into the library, sprawling out over the steps, puffing away in the gym, queuing in the supermarket, talking in excited bunches in the sun. It’s called exams. I’d forgotten about it, and the library was impossible to work in, so I abandoned my good intentions and went and bought books instead. And took some pretty photos.

Doing a PhD

Doing a PhD is not as easy as it sounds. I know it doesn’t sound easy, but it’s still harder than it sounds. I didn’t expect to have this much trouble with it. I’ve actually been feeling a lot calmer and happier about it this year than previously, but I can’t call it plain sailing. I’m discovering (repeatedly) that having a flare for language carries you so far and no further, and while that will always be nice, a PhD requires a lot more than poetic flourishes.

Nagging doubts: I’m not cut out for this; everyone else is finding it much easier/writes more quickly/doesn’t have to make so many changes to their drafts; there may not be a job at the end of it anyway; they made a mistake by giving me funding; they’re disappointed in me. Ah. Put like that it doesn’t sound so bad – nothing I can’t place firmly at the back of my mind while I get on with the real work.

I’ve always felt awkward about receiving feedback. I remember, in primary school, seeing it as torture. And when I was learning the flute, my teachers often had to coax me for ten minutes before I’d play them anything. As an undergrad there were no problems – just friendly comments on the bottom of my essays. But now it’s different. There’s always something that can be improved. My two wonderful supervisors gave me brilliant and very detailed feedback today, but I had to concentrate very hard in order to hear their helpful suggestions over the litany of doubts outlined above. I’m afraid I respond best of all to a pat on the head, but that’s not really their job.

Well, that’s the story. Not so terrible after all. Now, back to the chapter.

Hikers in the Mist

Yesterday I climbed Ingleborough with the Leeds uni hiking club. Ingleborough is one of my favourite places, and one of the three highest peaks in the Yorkshire Dales. This status (its height, not my fondness) has led to the construction of the ‘three peaks challenge’, where you climb Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent, all in one go. This is 37.5 km, and a couple of years ago I did it in 10.5 hours, though I could barely move afterwards. Yesterday it was just Ingleborough, but unfortunately we didn’t get much of a view! We also got soaked to the bone (well, to the socks and the undies, which is worse), and spent far too much time standing around in the wind and the cold, waiting for stragglers or looking at rocks. The walk leader was a geology student – fair enough if the sun is shining. But it was nice to get out of Leeds. It’s such an amazing mountain, speckled with white limestone. Hopefully one day I’ll see it again in fairer weather.

Meet Mr Cat

Mr Cat lives next door, but we love him best. As far as he’s concerned, the street belongs to him – he’s the king of the courtyards. Mr Cat has many names, but none of them do him justice: Dipstick, Stumpy, Tripod. How undignified. Mr Cat is the perfect gentleman. He wears his suit and tails in style – down to his white gloves, his moon-green eyes, and his white-tipped tail. He’s missing his left hind-leg, but that doesn’t stop him – he can climb the stairs in a flash. His proudest moments include depositing a mouse first in our kitchen, and then in our bedroom. He jumped in my window the first night I slept in my room, and many since. He likes tuna, thick duvets, corners and high places. He knows how to get what he wants. Here he is with my housemate Vic and me, a little weary of our enthusiasm.

Worlds within worlds

This is a photo of the pin-up board above my desk. It’s a collage of places, people and images that mean things to me: Australia, England, Europe; flight, dreams, creatures, stories. Some of them are gifts, some of them I’ve collected on my travels. In the right hand corner is an echidna painted by a French explorer in the early nineteenth century. It’s a birthday card from a friend. Above it is a stained glass window of the Canterbury pilgrims, which I bought in Canterbury Cathedral when I first arrived in England nearly four years ago. In the middle, I’m launching my paraglider – the most amazing feeling. Second from the left at the bottom, is a painting of Kandinsky’s bedroom. I saw this at a Van Gogh exhibition in Melbourne when I was fourteen (it was next to a painting of Van Gogh’s bedroom). I just loved it: the colours, the light, the cheerfulness and practicality of the room, the thought of Kandinsky sitting there, calm and happy, painting it. I bought a postcard, and when I got home I made an enlarged copy of it with coloured pencils. It took hours. I don’t have it any more, but I can remember the feeling of colouring every brush-stroke, every shadow, the weight of the pencils on the paper.

I like the idea of artists painting their bedrooms. Here is my bedroom:

It’s perfect, except when the neighbours play loud music or yell at their toddler. It feels good to put pictures of it here – another little piece of my world. This blog is becoming a bit like my pin-up board – a collage of disparate elements placed alongside each other. It’s not always easy to leave bits of yourself all over the world. But look – they’re all here.

The Caravan of Love

Here is a wonderful construction created by the very clever Michael. To view it, click play, but then click pause and wait till it’s fully loaded (when the red line is all the way across). This could take a few minutes, but it might be very fast. Then you can press play. If you don’t do this it will stop and start and not come out properly. And it’s so lovely!

England’s green and pleasant land

Got back to Leeds today. It’s always a bit of an anti-climax, but I’m sure I’ll survive. The train ride from Manchester was beautiful though. Whenever I come back to England from Europe I’m struck by how lovely and how appealingly English England is. Especially so in May, with the fat, fluffy trees like something out of Legoland, the green fields interspersed with bright yellow fields of canola seed, the hedgerows blooming, and the stone walls meandering over the landscape. I seem to have a penchant for national theme tunes at the moment, and I couldn’t help but hum ‘Jerusalem’ as I sped along in the train (in the tunnels in Norway, it was ‘The hall of the mountain king’). The odd birch tree looked rather pale and thin beside the blooming crests of the other trees. I took a photo of the huge chestnut tree outside the English department.

If only the rest of Leeds was so green! This was just before I ducked into the cramped, sweaty student gym to work off some of that German chocolate. My heart wasn’t really in it, though, so when I got home I took a picture of my new socks. These never fail to cheer me up.