In Helmsley Walled Garden.

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In the cool damp of a mid ~September afternoon
The garden is using all its senses.

The scent of a thousand nameless flowers
creeps through the mist as the rain strokes the leaves.

A few hardy bees drain summer’s nectar
down to the last, elusive drop.

A garish shout of dahlias scorns the dwindling light,
flaunting themselves like blowsy matrons.

A fading sunflower turns its head,
searching for what remains of the sun.

A flock of Goldfinches chatter a path across the borders,
dipping and plundering.

Slowly the ragged tints of autumn are catching fire
among the soft pastels of a sumer that is loath to leave.

Only the seed heads keep their thoughts close, swaying smugly.
Tomorrow is their secret.

In Ampleforth Abbey.

Silence becomes something tangible,
something active,
something real.
The smallest sound cries out in pain
ricocheting off the walls,
demanding attention.

This is a vaulted store of mystery,
a repository of unspoken needs and requests
sent out into the empty air
by those who have come and gone.

Light falls softly on pale stone
shattering coloured glass into action.
The thin sound of a tiny bell
shivers in the air.

The long lines of hard pews
hold the memories of those who sat there,
believing or wondering.
The bored, shuffling, anxious faithful.

Unlit candles,
Empty lecterns
Silent choir stalls,
the veiled dome on the altar,
have time to spare.
They can wait.
Steadily the space breathes out,
heavy with longing.

I breathe in the smell of dust,
burning wax,
heavy fabrics,
old books.
The scent of history.

Solemn faces from the past
people the emptiness.
Questioning, watching, enduring.
I have no answers for them.

Suddenly the organ explodes into swirling cadences.
The walls vibrate, savouring the sound.
The empty space lifts up its head,
remembering,
and the unseen multitude around me
stand to sing.

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The Lost Child.

A princess danced on the beach today,
exulting under a clear blue sky.
She kicked off her slippers and flexed her toes
allowing her feet to fly.

Spinning and twirling she slipped away
down the lighted road across the sea,
scattering salt water up into the air
alone, alive and free.

Empty and sodden her slippers now rest.
The days of their pomp have passed.
They lie there and wait for the sound of her feet
on the day she returns at last.

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Short Story: A Summer Let.

Margaret Johnson says the last time our village had a summer as bad as this was in 1965. Robert Raymond says it was 1988 and I say it was 2002. I am right. I am right because that was the year that the storms brought a beautiful young man to live above the post office and I can still see him with the warm rain running off his cheeks, water drops sparkling on his eyebrows as he told me that he loved me. He didn’t mean it, but I believed him and that is what mattered.

I first saw him in late April, sprawled out with a book against an outcrop of grey rock at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent, just above Hull pot. He was thin as a whip with long legs and dark hair that was catching the late afternoon light. It was the kind of face that made you stop and stare and when he looked up from his reading he caught me doing just that. He threw down his glasses and looked back at me, smiling. He was used to stares.
“Have you read Kerouac?”
“Do I look like the kind of person who has read Kerouak?”
His smile widened.
“Perhaps.”
I sat down next to him and he put his glasses back on and started to read out loud. Half an hour later I was still sitting there and it didn’t seem strange at all.

After that first meeting I got into the habit of looking for his dark blue waterproof up on the hills. We walked together in the rain and I slowly found out about him. I found out about his love of blues music, the way that a muscle in the side of his face would twitch when he was listening and his very limited wardrobe. In return I told him about…… well not much really. I just liked to hear him talk. After a few weeks of chance meetings that were nothing of the kind I thought that I had got to know him. You never really know anybody else though. I learned that.

He touched me for the first time as we climbed up the steep pile of rocks close to the summit. I almost slipped on the damp surface, made slippery by fine drizzle and he stretched out a hand to stop me falling. After that things changed very quickly. Three days later we kissed for the first time and after that nothing was pretending to be random or casual any more. I threw myself at him like a wet puppy dog. By the beginning of June he was soaked.

That July was a helter skelter of laughter, promises and tightly held hands. He could make me laugh. Always. I don’t remember why now, only the laughter. Laughter in a quiet corner while the raindrops chased each other down the closed windows of an empty pub. Laughter as we made things up about complete strangers walking past. Laughter as we watched a sheep defiantly trying to butt its way through a dry stone wall. After watching that sheep a single, quiet “baaa” from him at an inappropriate moment was enough to convince anyone within earshot that I was completely brainless. In a way I suppose I was.

Quite ordinary things were made special because I was doing them with him and before long doing things with him became the only point. I only existed in his presence, a pale, bewildered moth revolving around his flickering point of light. I could see nothing else. It was a lot for him to live up to.

I remember one single day up in Swaledale, a flashbulb memory of the kind of perfect August day that can come out of nowhere up in the hills even in the middle of the worst of weather. We lay, cocooned at the edge of a field full of uncut hay and wild flowers, wrapped up in each other, while cloud shadows chased each other across the tops of the fells. The scent of damp leaves floated over our heads. It was a moment where everything else seemed far away. We were in our own safe place and nothing could touch us. We could be like this forever. I said so. Forever is a dangerous word. Once you use it it can’t be taken back.

It was from that moment that he started to run away. It took time of course. When someone runs away inside their head you can’t see them receding into the distance. You think that they are still there next to you. They are saying and doing all the right things, but this is an illusion. They are long gone, believe me, long gone before you even notice and it is too late to call them back. His summer lease was up. He asked for his deposit back with a single sentence in answer to my tearstained question.
“I suppose I said those things because I knew it was what you wanted to hear.”
By late September he was gone. He took away the best part of me. I have been told that I should hate him, but I can’t do that. It would be like hating myself.

Recording Britain at Sheffield Millennium Gallery, on tour from the V&A.

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Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, Protest house, Cardiff, 2001, Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

‘There will be little point in saving England from the Nazis if we then deliver it to the jerry-builders and ‘development corporations’ Herbert Read.

Recording Britain was an art project which began in 1939. At a time of great change when everything was under threat both from war and internal social changes a group of artists were commissioned to paint “places and buildings of characteristic national interest”. 1500 watercolours were produced and the collection, now held by the V&A forms a highly selective and often quite romantic record of what the artists saw. There is something very moving about the way that it was the individual vision of a group of artists which was chosen as a means of documentation using the gentle and traditional medium of watercolour. It was both a small gesture of defiance and a message of hope for the future, a wistful celebration of what the country might be about to lose and a way of saying to the future this is who we were.

Sheffield’s Millennium gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition from the V&A of some of the work which was produced. There is a lot of simple beauty to enjoy. A wonderful John Piper of a tithe barn at Great Coxwell in Berkshire bursts with drama and presence. Edward Walter’s pencil drawing of Fish Street in Shrewsbury has a magical sense of light and distance as the cathedral glows in sunlight behind the shadowed half timbered buildings. A watercolour of Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire by Stanley Bodmin shows the sweeping movement of the water as a narrow boat glides down the Grand Union Canal, the curve of a bridge echoing the current of the water. Sometimes the threat to this beauty is made explicit, as in a watercolour of the the potteries in Stoke on Trent by Alan Ian Ronald where the havoc being wreaked on this pastoral idyll is clearly visible, smoking chimneys providing a vision of hell.

What really made this exhibition fascinating for me, while I enjoyed the beauty of the early images, was the way that more recent work had been added alongside them. This moved the focus forward and allowed the exhibition to look beyond a freeze framed period in time and explore different ways of recording the zeitgeist of a country. Human feeling and human activity is at the forefront. Ingrid Pollard’s portrait of a black woman alone and isolated in hill country, a bizarre image by Tony Ray of a well to do couple having a fancy picnic in a field at Glyndebourne in 1947, surrounded by cows and sheep, and a very elegant work by Richard Long recording a six hour run from Dartmoor to Exmoor in 1957 as a simple, understated traced line from an ordnance survey map.

The most powerful of the modern images, for me, was Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane’s large imposing photograph, Protest House. It is a house with the whole of its frontage transformed into a shout of pain, a protest about a life which has gone very badly wrong. I spent a long time looking at it, there is a lot to digest. Words leap out at you, words like neglect, abuse, exclusion, apathy, humiliation, injustice,torment. The whole sad story has been laid bare in forensic detail over every available surface so that the world will finally be forced to listen to someone who feels that they have been “left to rot”. It is one of the most powerful pieces of outsider art that I have ever seen, a cry straight from the heart.

This is a very cleverly chosen and thought provoking selection of images and I enjoyed both the contrasts and the sheer beauty of the work on show very much.

Feed the birds. Me and Dewey.

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A single image can bring back so many memories…………………

This simple little photo, probably taken in 1963, is me feeding my pet throstle Dewey. Even the word throstle, which I was taught, is unusual now- it is a word from old English which was still common usage for a song thrush or a mistle thrush in the East Riding of Yorkshire back then. Feeding Dewey was a regular event. We had a large garden where my grandfather, a retired farmer, used to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables. There was a small orchard of apple trees and it was good hunting ground for birds, especially when he was digging. They regularly became quite tame as he would throw them worms. There were plenty of insects for them too as he gardened organically without necessarily even knowing the word. I had a very close relationship with everything that I saw in it.

This photograph was taken in the days before people recorded their every special moment at the touch of a button and it would have been quite carefully planned. Dewey used to come to the back door, but not always, and someone needed to be ready. Waiting for a photograph to be developed was quite nerve wracking. You had no idea whether it had actually come out or not until you opened the packet. No second chances as film and developing was expensive. There would have been some satisfaction when this one turned up. My generation generally has a very fragmented record of their early past- it’s a very different story now.

I used to have a special trip into York to get a pair of those cut out Clarks sandals at the beginning of every summer- just one pair and they were expected to last. I liked having my feet measured on the special gauge because it didn’t hurt and it made me feel special. I had wide feet and I was quite proud of that for some reason. Even though each pair of new summer sandals looked exactly like the ones that I am wearing in the photo shoe shops were still exciting because you had to wait to see the shoes taken out of a box, fetched down from high up on the wall by an assistant who had to climb a ladder or disappear into a storeroom at the back. I usually chose red and I was always allowed to walk out of the shop wearing them. I loved that.

In those days little girls always wore dresses, even when they were racketing around making dens between the apple trees and our high privet hedge. I still have my favourite one from this period, bright turquoise with rows of little white daisies sewn on and vertical stripes. That was my best dress and this one is a more everyday one but they were always in the same style. We weren’t princesses- more like mini Alma Cogans. Only the material changed.

The cardigan would have been hand knitted by either my Auntie Jean or my mum’s cousin Joyce. Knitting wasn’t something that you made a fuss about- it was quite an ordinary thing to do- but every family had one or two women who were particularly good at it and they were kept very busy. You didn’t buy jumpers.

Just behind the door there is a small rag rug. These rugs were handmade by my gran and my Aunty Edie from old cut up winter clothes and they were laid all over the house behind doors, next to beds and in front of fireplaces. The pieces of rag were pulled through a piece of loose weave, strong backing material with a special hook and they made simple colour combinations and patterns. Nothing was wasted- ever. I might well have walked on fragments of a frock worn by my great grandma. In her book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal Jeanette Winterson describes rugs like this as lying around the house like damp dogs and I know exactly what she means. The big ones were very heavy and took a long while to make. Worn out summer clothes were made into patchwork quilts and dusters.

The step that I am standing on is the back door step which led into the kitchen- we rarely used the front door. My gran used to put down a rubber mat in front of it and scrub it regularly. She wore a cross over pinny and I had to keep out of the way. When she cleaned the back kitchen she used to make a train of chairs for me and sit me in one of the middle ones. I was quite happy on my own sitting there shouting choo choo while I could hear her bustling about in the next room.

Growing up in a household which was run by a couple born in Victorian times gives me a link to the past which someone of my age is lucky to have and I have always valued it. It might have been the swinging sixties but not in our house…….. or at least only on our tiny black and white television.

So near and yet so far.