- I don’t want to put all my books in boxes.
- Or my clothes.
- Let alone miscellaneous objects.
- I don’t want to scrub the skirting boards by hand.
- I don’t want to decide what’s junk.
- I don’t want to contemplate taking apart the heavy bookcase.
- And then there’s the water bill people.
- Frozen pita bread is not enough incentive for breakfast.
- And, and, it’s warm in here.
- Mr Cat agrees.
Q: What do you do with your last five quid?
A: Buy chocolate.
I’m back in Leeds, and it’s raining. Has been for two weeks, apparently. Leeds-girl looks rather dashing under her pink umbrella. And Jemima is happy enough to be snuggling in. I am very happy that our house still has internet connection – I was thinking we wouldn’t. Means that I still have this snail-shell blog to creep into. There’s so much to sort out this week but I don’t want to think about it yet. Think I’ll read a novel set in the Norwegian middle ages. Don’t want to leave the mountains and sunshine and fragrant summer air behind altogether.
From reading this blog, you’d be forgiven for thinking that doing a PhD comprises eating copious amounts of brownies, playing with sugary fish, and cavorting in the mountains and lakes of Norway. I actually do a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, and a lot of writing, too. I did make a new batch of PhD food to get me through the last few days of my chapter rewrite, and it did help. But what amazed me the most was that a chapter which had seemed like a lost cause suddenly started making sense, and all the disparate parts started gelling in exciting ways, and, lo and behold, a coherent argument emerged. That’s my opinion anyway. We’ll wait and see what the supervisors have to say about it.
I was going to write a detailed post about exactly how my chapter started working, and what it felt like, for my own benefit more than anything else. But it has been a tiring day, and I’m not sure how much there is to say. I always hesitate when restructuring things because while I’m in the middle of it I feel like I’m losing control, as though the whole thing is likely to blow apart and float aimlessly away. Of course this doesn’t happen. It inevitably improves. For all my watery metaphors, what writing really feels like is glowing points of light. That’s right, little stars, and when things start coming together, they begin pulsing, and overlapping, and talking to each other, and arranging themselves in new and deeper patterns. Yep. That’s how it feels. It all starts pulsing inside me, and it’s all my head and body can do to keep up, to hold on to the ideas, to type down the words before they float away again. It’s exciting when this happens, but I suppose it’s the culmination of the work put in during the times it doesn’t feel like it’s working, when it’s plodding and uninspiring. I’m glad I managed to write that down, cos it reminds me how happy it makes me, how it’s the best feeling in the world, even though it leaves you drained, exhausted.
Back to Leeds tomorrow, which is a bit sad. Only three and a half weeks, though, before I get to meet the lovie in Germany! I’ll be very busy – first moving house, then participating in the International Medieval Congress. I’m looking forward to the congress. And I’ll be very happy once I’ve moved – no more nasty neighbours. This time next week I’ll hopefully be unpacking.
Last night we celebrated mid-summer, first with a group of Norwegians, and later with three Swedes. Midsummer is a big thing in Sweden. A May-pole is involved. And lots of schnapps, and silly songs. And dances. We just got the schnapps and silly songs. It was great! Here are some Norway pictures, to keep me going till next time:
I kept meaning to take a picture of the lupins which have been thronging the roadsides for the last three weeks but are now beginning to fade.
Go, little fishies, go!
My name is an exotic flower in your mouth
I taste its strange new petals on your tongue.
‘There must be poems about this,’ you say.
‘There are,’ I say, ‘and good ones too.’
‘No, this – the moonlight on your lover’s breast –
whoever designed it got it right.’
And I am glad to be a body, warm and smooth
for light to sculpt, for hands to stroke.
I watch the grey dawn gather in your eyes
and need no other sun
as though I were a creature formed from your rib,
named only by your tongue.
And we finally allow ourselves to sleep
only for the pleasure of waking
Three years ago today I met M. in the train station in York.
It was raining.
We bought our tickets, and sat on the train to Leeds.
‘Are you okay,’ he said, ‘you’re very quiet.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’m fine.’
We sat on the train some more.
In Leeds we watched the rain falling in the river.
We ate tiramisu.
We wandered the shopping arcades, their ceilings ornately decorated with scrolls and oranges.
We drank mango lassi and ate vegetable curry, and talked, hesitantly, about people we both knew.
In the theatre, that evening, the seats were narrow. I could feel his leg next to mine. I sat very still. I watched his hand in his lap. On the stage, the actors cavorted to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. The words surged and tumbled. It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black… And somewhere, between two lines, he lent towards me and whispered ‘come a bit closer’. And I did.
We held hands all the way back to York. I still have the ticket.
The Norwegian guidebook has some very rude things to say about the ‘unappetising caramel colour’ of this stuff, but I think it’s one of the best things about Norway. Not everyone agrees – the lovie can’t stand it. Made with a mix of cows’ and goats’ milk, brown cheese is sweet. Yep. Which makes it perfect on good bread with honey or jam. There’s actually lots of different kinds – you can get it made purely of goats’ milk, which makes it quite pungent, or just of cows’ milk, which is even sweeter. After extensive research, I have decided that this variety is the best. To begin with I accidentally bought the reduced fat version, which is not nearly as creamy – bad. The Norwegians traditionally eat this stuff for breakfast, and I am happy to follow suit. Half the fun is slicing it up with the cheese slicer – essential.
The very clever lovie has found these beauties. They pump up in five minutes, and then you’re away! They’re called dive-yaks, and are made so that you can paddle out to a spot and then go diving, something we won’t be trying. But they work just fine for paddling around.
This lake is a popular bathing spot for Halden residents – there were lots of kiddies paddling around. We saw ducklings, and a baby seagull chick on a rocky island. Its parents weren’t too pleased when we tried to take a closer look. And we saw waterlillies, up close.
Recently I was reminded of the wonderful Australian artist Claire Souter, who used to live in the town where I grew up, Mt Gambier, South Australia. She used to exhibit regularly in the area, and I would run into her work every year at the Penola Festival, where she made a habit of winning the John Shaw Neilson painting prize, and I made a habit of winning the youth sections of the Max Harris Literary Award. She has since moved to Queensland, but she is still painting. Her gallery sounds like a wonderful place – you can read about it, and see many more of her beautiful pictures at her website.
I own the painting pictured above, or one very like it (I have a feeling it has two birds, but it is in Adelaide and I can’t check). It’s from a series called Green 1999, which was based on French lace patterns. I love it because of the layers, the stillness, the movement. It is at once lace and a jewel and a mosaic and a plant and a bird, flying. The green capsules which hover on its surface at once contribute to the sense of flatness and give it extra depth – you feel like you could reach out your hand and pick one up. But how do they stand up like that? There is something enchanted about the painting – it’s like a glimpse into a magical moment captured in skeins of fabric, of glass, of light. I bought it because the bird reminding me of a small dragon I was writing about at the time, who would have been happy there.
My parents own one of her paintings too, but I couldn’t find a picture of it. It’s golden light falling over a table. It’s beautiful. Here is another bird.
And here is the sea:
Souter has also painted several series based on medieval stained glass windows. I love them – the colours, the light, and again, the layers. She works with glazes a lot (very thin layers of paint applied over areas of the canvas) which I think helps her to achieve these effects.
You’re just going to have to go to her website, these few paintings are just a taster. Recently she has been painting the thick rain-forest foliage of her new home. I think there are themes running through these paintings – a fascination with surfaces, with light, with patterns and the natural world. I love the way she layers different surfaces that treat light differently – the autumn leaves and the stained glass windows, the skeins of waves on the beach. And the way she plays with the surface of the paintings – the capsules on the lace, the leaves on the glass, the watermarks on the rain-forest paintings. The word ‘surface’ can sometimes be used disparagingly – as though it is less important than depth. But it is through surfaces that we apprehend the world – our skin is a surface that can touch and feel other surfaces, our eyes apprehend light on the surfaces of objects. Souter paints surfaces with gentleness and delicacy – light rests on them, shines through them, floods around them. Yet again I am reminded of one of my favourite Les Murray poems, ‘Equanimity’:
… a field all foreground, and equally all background,
like a painting of equality. Of infinite detailed extent
like God’s attention. Where nothing is diminished by perspective.
Paintings and images copyright Claire Souter. Used with permission.
Last night I started reading a short story by William Morris, ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’. I didn’t get very far into it, because it was time to sleep. But a few sentences on the first page reminded me of one of my favourite places in all the world. The story is told in the voice of the master mason of a church built six hundred years ago, and destroyed two hundred years ago.
No one knows now even where it stood, only in this very autumn-tide, if you knew the place, you would see the heaps made by the earth-covered ruins heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves, so that the place where my church used to be is as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour.
The mason goes on to remember the church. He can only remember it clearly in autumn,
. . . yet it was beautiful in spring, too, when brown earth began to grow green: beautiful in summer, when the blue sky looked so much bluer, if you could hem a piece of it in between the new white carving; beautiful in the solemn starry nights, so solemn that it almost reached agony. . .
I too remember a church. The beautiful Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales. I love walking around abbey ruins. Reivaulx Abbey and Whitby Abbey are also among my favourites. I love how crumbling stone arches frame the sky, how outlines of windows once decked with stained glass now show the dazzling patterns of cloud and sun. I love the ground, where the monks have walked and slept, and I love how the wind sweeps in. The sky seems an appropriate ceiling, and the shifting weather a worthy heir to the monks’ prayers. But I always try to imagine how it would have been – the windows glassed, the arches roofed, the walls painted. There is a melancholy about such open, broken places.
I was thinking these very thoughts as I wandered the ruins of Bolton Abbey, thinking how wonderful it would be to see this place as it was then. And then I turned a corner, and found a door, opened it, and stepped inside.
The nave of Bolton Abbey is still in use. You can attend church services. There is a roof and windows, paintings on the walls. I hadn’t known this, and it seemed like an apparition come to life, a fragment of history. The wall paintings aren’t old ones, but they are lovely. Twining stems of lilies cover the back wall. This seemed right, too – nature brought inside. The abbey is set in the most wonderful grounds – there is a river with stepping-stones, and thousands of trees. You can walk along the river and then up into the dales – truly a magical place, ‘as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour’.
Cross-posted at The Little Book Room.
Tonight there were wild roses tangled in the long grass on the fortress. Every time I go there something has changed. Flowers have bloomed, or died, the grass is longer, the leaves thicker. Tonight the light was milky – a thin sheen of cloud covered the sun. Below the fortress, the river gleamed and the town waited, grey and quiet. The roses made me think of Klee, who confuses flowers and stars.
Today I have been writing – rewriting. Drawing out the strands of my chapter, testing, pulling. I remember once saying that editing is safe compared to the dangerous brightness of writing something new. But it’s not. Editing is scary too. It’s all about choices – making connections, moving paragraphs, extending this, chopping that. And before I find my structure I must dive into the raging mass of it, see what can be done, work blind, sometimes. Try things.
I remember that I have the best job in the world. Well, it’s not really a job, but I get paid. I get to write about poems I love. And it’s flexible – I can write and read in Norway as well as I can in England. And it’s exciting, because in all this reading and writing and endless rewriting, I am reaching towards something new. And if sometimes there are roses and sometimes stars, and sometimes there’s just darkness, waiting, that’s okay too.
By the way, the stars are metaphorical. And the darkness. In Norway, at the moment, the sky stays as blue as this painting.
We are very excited. We are also quite tired, mildly sun-burnt, and covered in odd little scratches and bruises. We just got back from two days paragliding in Hemsedal, central Norway (about five hours north-west of Halden, half-way between Oslo and Bergen). This picture was taken last year in Austria, but I’ve included it in order to give you non-paragliding types some idea of what it’s all about. Basically it’s connecting yourself to a big kite and flying with it. The wing folds up and fits in a backpack, along with your helmet and harness. You then drive, or climb, or ride a chair lift up a mountain, set it all up, take a few steps, and you’re in the air! That’s me, launching.
This trip, the snuggle-car performed admirably, as you can see below. Not only transport, but a home away from home.
Hemsedal is gorgeous. The tops of the mountains are still streaked with snow, which as it melts pours down the mountains in streams and waterfalls. We met up with the Oslo Paragliding Klubb. They gave us a lift up the mountain in their minibus, and then it was a 20 minute slog up to the launch site, pictured below. Very very pretty – mountain tops all around, purple flowers on the heather, patches of snow. But I was concentrating on carrying my 15kg backpack.
Here’s the exciting bit – we got 5 flights over two days!!!! (Once, in Austria, we got 7 flights over three weeks.) Until now, I’ve flown with radio contact, but this time I did it all myself! One of my launches went wrong – I was dragged along the rubble and have a grazed elbow to prove it, but that didn’t stop me getting up straight away and trying again. The landing site was on a golf course. We were told to please not land on the greens. The hardest thing about landing is judging when to come in. I got it right most times, but once I was too high, which meant I missed the landing field and… landed in the green. Oops. I stood up sheepishly, and about fifteen Norwegian pilots were staring at me. But I did it right next time. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to fly. To just step off a mountain and into the air. I love it. Love it. Here is the lovie coming in to land in his beautiful brand new Atis II.
This is (apparently) what my drawing says about me:
You are driven and ambitious and tend to make radical moves to reach your goals.
You are a thoughtful and cautious person. You like to think about your method, seeking to pursue your goal in the most effective way.
You like following the rules and being objective. You are precise and meticulous, and like to evaluate decisions before making them.
You are ambitious and optimistic, determined to prove and advertise yourself.
When I first read this list I thought – wrong, all wrong. But maybe the clash between caution and making radical moves effectively describes the circular bind I find myself in sometimes. But precise? Objective? Meticulous? Don’t think so. Stubborn, dreamy, romantic, intuitive. That’s more like it. Or maybe I’m blind to myself. Oh well. It was fun drawing the picture.
Thank you everyone for all the good wishes (due to my mother’s clever ploy of wishing me happy birthday a day early)! The sun is shining its little head off and the sky is blue, and a birthday in mid-summer is a wonderful thing. Makes a change from my wintry June birthdays in Australia. Michael’s parents sent me a singing box stuffed full of German chocolaty goodness. Yep. The box sings happy birthday. It’s light activated, and woke us up this morning around five.
Apart from that, I’m getting used to being 28. Sounds serious, though I know that due to my round face and youthful demeanour I can pass for 22. I think this will be a good year. If I finish my chapter segment I might even bake a cake.
The very interesting Eglantine’s Cake has a lovely meme which I have pinched. Here it is.
Four of my favourite jobs
- Picking pears in the Magary orchard in the Adelaide hills. This has to go first although I only did it for a month. Rain or shine (mainly shine but the rain was fun too), someone would turn up at morning tea with scones in a basket and tea in a jam jar with your name on it. Exactly how you liked it.
- Tutoring English 1 at the University of Leeds. Don’t know if it really counts as a job considering the ratio of pay to working hours, but it was terrifying and I loved it.
- Working as a home care worker for the Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Association. I did this for over two years. Had its low points, but many high ones too, and it changed my life.
- Putting documents in alphabetical oder at the University of Adelaide enrollment office. Payed a lot better than any thing else I’ve ever done.
Four of my favourite local places
- The festning
- The lake we cycle to
- Kid. A shop that sells cushions and curtains. I just look. I like cushions.
- Our loungeroom. Cosy cuddly tree-house room, with river views in winter.
- The Brotherton library
- My bedroom
Four of my favourite foods
- Spaghetti with tuna and broccoli
Four of my favourite international places
- Lechtal, Tirol, Austria. A mountain and a valley where you can fly.
- Yosemite National Park, California. My first big holiday with the lovie. Beautiful.
- The Yorkshire Dales
Four people I’m tagging.
- You, you, you and you. 🙂
Here is my housemate Vic, celebrating handing in her masters dissertation, just over a week ago. Hooray!!! I’m sure she’s still smiling. She did a masters in postcolonial literature, and her dissertation was on two feminist Maltese writers (a novelist, Lou Drofenik, a Maltese-Australian, and a poet, Maria Grech Ganado). Vic comes from Malta. It was really fascinating – feminism seems to have arrived in Malta a lot later than in the rest of the world, and how these Maltese women engage with their Catholic heritage is really interesting. Anyway… I have loved living with Vic – her enthusiasm, passion and dedication is inspiring. She did her masters part-time over two years, while she worked full-time. I want to wish her a fun last few months in England, and I’m slightly envious that she’s heading home to a warm, sunshiny, seaside country soon.