October 2022

Autumn didn’t rush into October. Early in the month the trees still held lots of greenery, although walking around the Common it wasn’t unusual to hear the light thump of an acorn hitting the ground, and occasionally have one hitting me on the head, my hand feeling for the dent that it had made. By the middle of the month things were beginning to turn but summer still held on to the year, its warmth stretching through the middle days.

I have been thinking about how we interpret what is around us. How real is our reality. We had a lecture on reality and how we make our own at the Buddhist Centre early in the month. It’s a subject that has interested me for a long time, that adage that no two people see the same thing. When I look at a landscape, or a work of art, or any scene that at first glance seems to remain the same, I know that by looking at it I change it. My presence, my interpretation of the scene is altered by my own experience, how I am feeling at that moment, how my past informs my present, how observant I am. I like the thought of the ever-changing moment, that all that is real is the actual moment, then it is gone, followed by the next atom of reality.

We have a line of small sculptures in the garden that Alison has collected over the years. They are discarded industrial products, graphite teeming nozzles for use in the Sheffield steel works. Alison sees beautiful shapes, receptacles for plants and polished rock, the repurposing of an object outside its intended environment, the grey surface lifting the colours of nature, a historical artefact that is incongruous in a suburban garden, except perhaps in Sheffield. I see a river of bright orange molten metal, men wearing thick green glasses, and white silk scarves around their necks to soak up the sweat from the heat of the furnace. Of dust floating through shafts of light in a cathedral of power, the hum of electric arc furnaces throbbing through my feet as I walk past, a ribbon of steel flowing from the sky into moulds, then being cooled outside the melting shop, the heat radiating across space and through the windows of a bus on a wet drab winter day. Each image, Alison’s, and mine, are just as valid, just as real, both stemming from personal experience.

The autumn warmth gave us chance to eat outside surrounded by the golden colours of the season and the dogs sending messages by telepathy for any morsel that was to be had. This was breakfast, after walking the dogs and giving them their morning meal. We enjoyed homemade bread, something that Alison has become expert at, and jam. We like cups for coffee, these are part of a set we bought 19 years ago from David Mellor who in turn had bought them from a hotel in Italy. The plates are made by the monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Colville near Leicester. I’ve been visiting the abbey for many decades, it’s a place I have grown to love, the monastery and church designed by Pugin, has simple clean lines that are reflected in the pottery which has a utility about it that is reassuring, stable, and is allowed just to be.

Mid-month and happily recovered from a cold we headed to Paris for a late celebration of Alison’s birthday. We travelled by Eurostar, always my favourite way to get into France. It was the first time we had been since Britain left the EU, so I was interested to see what it involved and a little anxious about long waits and delays. We sailed through the security having allowed plenty of time. Travel to and from EU now means crossing two borders on each side of the channel. In between the two borders is a 20m space that, I guess, must be no man’s land. It’s quite a shock of an example of what leaving the EU means in the real world, no longer an abstract concept of cost and freedom, but two physical barriers that question a person’s intent. And for the first time in a long time, a passport that had to be stamped.

We met up with friends at the Bibliothèque nationale de France to view the Marcel Proust exhibition. The exhibition detailed how he made the work À la recherche du temps perdu, with pages from his notebooks and manuscript, his edits and annotations, little pieces of text cut and pasted in different places. I was interested in Proust’s editing process as this is a part of writing that I really enjoy. Going over any piece, removing words, re-defining a sentence, moving text to improve the narrative, and making space. I think this is the most important skill I have learned that it is what I take out and the space I leave that improves the work. It is a workman like process, sanding and reshaping the words, taking time, understanding how the piece flows, until finally I see it appear from the page, and it is always a surprise.

At the Pompidou Centre there was an exhibition of the work of Guiseppe Penone. We’d seen his work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the setting in that gloriously landscaped park reflecting his interest in the life of trees. His trees were there, at the Pompoidou, looking like a tree skeleton that had been whittled away until only the core remained. I used to do something similar with carrots as a child, nibbling the outer flesh until only the sweet inner core was left, then I would enjoy the juicy prize slowly, something from now reaching back decades and making it real again. The exhibit I liked the most was Respirare L’ombra. A room made of bales of bay leaf, gradually decaying, and as they do so, change the smell in the room and therefore the room itself. It was like being on the inside of a woodland and seeing out into another world.

Back home by the end of the month and there has been little rain, the drought restrictions still in operation. When rain did finally fall it was a proper deluge, the gutters of the house overflowing with the torrent that was pouring down, the ground absorbed it in the first few inches then streams self-formed finding the easier softer way downhill. After, petrichor was lifted by the sun, it’s a smell that I love, reminding me of re-growth and a permanence of earth, that no matter what humans do, this planet will outlast us all. By the time the month was reaching the end the paths in the Common woodlands were speckled with gold leaf. The final day brought a morning walk passed through a veil of mist hanging from the trees, with a slight nip in the air signalling a promise of winter. I caught sight of lone walker and dog both in their own space within a landscape. It’s a time of reflection for me, balancing up the scales of a year, seeking perspective on all that has happened.

This month I have read George Saunders (A swim in a Pond in the Rain), David Lodge (Nice Work), John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps), Flannery O’Connor (A Good Man Is Hard to Find), Natasha Brown (Assembly).

Quite a mix of styles and times. In, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders takes several pieces from Russian writers and strips them down to explain what he thinks the writer is doing. It’s a good book for learning about narrative arc, about the flow of a story, about what is and is not necessary. Writers covered include Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. The issue I have always had with Russian writing is that I keep tripping over the names of the characters, and this breaks the flow of the reading for me. I start to concentrate on how I am pronouncing the names, is it correct, is this how it sounds. The story I liked best, for entertainment and skilful use of narrative arc and language was, Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy. It just confirmed to me what a great writer he was and that I need to read more of his works.

I liked Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. This is a short story that does not hide what is going to happen, and it still a shock when it does. I have never read any of her work before and this has whetted my appetite from more. The prose is stripped down. The story simply, gruesomely told. The end is inevitable, and I wanted to shout at the victims, to wake up, see what’s happening. It made me think how we, as a society, are today in Britain, and whether we need to wake up to what is happening.

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