Tuesday, 4 February 2014

To swell the buds within - February

"We are tired of our huts and the smoky smell of our clothing. 
We are sick with the desire for the sun
And the grass on the mountain."
 ("Late Winter Song", The Paiute People: the Great Basin, North America)

The American poet William Cullen Bryant said that sunshine in February "tints the buds and swells the leaves within." I have valiant little rosebuds starting to yawn in the back garden and some daffodils already sticking two fingers up through the frost, but the air is decidedly dank and any sunshine seems half-hearted. With more wet and windy weather forecast throughout February and well into March, the shortest month of the year may well seem like a long drag through the hedgerow.
Here in the northern hemisphere, February is seen as the third month of our meteorological winter. In fact January and February were the last two months to be added to the Roman lunar calendar: the Romans considered winter to be a dull, dormant and therefore month-less period! February remained the last month of the year until around 450 BC. The month was named after the Latin word "februum", meaning purification. The Roman festival of Februa was held mid-month and featured rituals of cleansing, deliverance and renewal. The word is also associated with fevers; February has always been a month of lingering chills and winter aches and pains.
The Old English name for February was "Solmonath" - literally "mud month". At least in Finland some of the stark, expectant beauty of winter is captured in their name of "Helmikuu"; "the month of the pearl", recalling the frozen droplets on leaves and branches. Aside from mud, the month has long been associated with violets and amethysts, symbolising purity and sincerity of feeling, humility and wisdom.
It's very much a time of renewal and affirmation in the natural world. Jokes and smiles from friends often pop through lack-lustre mornings and gloomy afternoons like spring shoots and I thought I wold share some of the more "cleansed" ones here; thanks mainly to JR. May the shortest month of the year be as long in memories and as full of laughter as the advent of another spring should be.


"Awake My Soul"  Mumford & Sons

"No sign of spring, save that the catkins fill,
And willow stems grow daily red and bright.
These are days when ancients held a rite
Of expiation for the old year's ill,
And prayer to purify the new year's will."
("A Calendar of Sonnets: February", Helen Hunt Jackson)

"From December to March, there are for many of
us three gardens:
the garden outdoors,
the garden of pots and bowls in the house,
and the garden of the mind's eye."
(Katherine S. White)

"Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour."
( John Boswell)

"The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size."
(Gertrude S. Wister)

"Winter is Nature's way of saying Up Yours!"
(Robert Byrne)


Sunday, 2 February 2014

The ride: Chinese New Year

"If you hurry through long days, you will hurry through short years."
 (Chinese proverb)

Friday 31st January saw the start of the fifteen days of celebration of the Chinese New Year, also known as "Spring Festival". Welcome to the Year of The Horse. I went to my local Morrison's to hunt and gather vegetarian spring rolls and chilli rice crackers on Friday, only to find they'd sold out of both.
"For Chinese New Year I suppose?" I suggested to the pretty and very eager sales assistant.
"Oh... I don't know. What is it?"
"Year of the Horse," I said helpfully. She suddenly looked quite disturbed.
"No! No we weren't one of those shops. We never sold that!"
She carried on glaring at me as I scuttled off to capture my blueberries and M & M cookies.
Catholics aren't supposed to set any store by horoscopes; this I know and appreciate. But my mother was an Irish Catholic and very much an Aries; therefore she maintained that most horoscopes were rubbish and never came true but read them religiously (pun intended) everyday to see just how rubbish they were and anyway, Aries people were strong and passionate and made the best Catholics. When I was thirteen, a lovely old nun called Sister Mary Clare remarked on my birthday that I was most unlike any Piscean she had ever encountered; apparently more feisty and strong-minded. She deduced I must have had "a lot of rogue planets around" when I was born. Indeed.
She also remarked that I must be more like my Chinese horoscope, confirming that I was born in the Year of the Tiger. Tiger people are allegedly fearless to the point of being rash; lively minded and kind, but will always go their own way, often against all advice. Energetic, but prone to injuring themselves... There's also a Chinese saying that once you jump on the back of the tiger, you may find it impossible to get off in one piece. Hmm. Well, I've always loved the character of A. A. Milne's Tigger; he also liked to jump up and climb things with no real idea of how to get down again.
I read today that Tiger people have a special affinity with Dog, Dragon and Horse folk. The Year of the Horse is said to be one of strong ideals and opinions surfacing and emotions bubbling away under the surface until they must erupt. Typically, it's said to be a year of shocks and volcanoes. Sadly, I was pondering this as I heard the news about Mount Sinabung erupting in North Sumatra, Indonesia, killing at least fourteen people.
 The Chinese zodiac is based on the five elements of earth, water, fire, wood and metal which influence the universe and interact with the twelve animals of a cyclical zodiac, resulting in specific characters for the year of that animal and those born at that time. This is an ancient calendar system, originating in the Han dynasty about two hundred years before the birth of Christ.
Those born in the Horse's year can be expected to be active, animated and independent. I for one hope this year proves to be all of those things, but also one of great peace. The past year seems to have been one of division and strife, with increasingly loud  but vacuous celebrities, bigots and politicians... Yet last year the Catholic Church found in Pope Francis an active, animated and independent pontiff; also a man who promotes great peacefulness in all that he says and with all that he does. He was born in the Year of the Rat; Catholics are probably not meant to calculate their pope's Chinese birth-sign either. Must be the Tiger in me.
Unable to find my spring rolls, I've gathered together some old Chinese proverbs from various sources. They sing true individually but also sit together beautifully and read like a very spirited prayer. Whatever your sign or symbol, may truth be the most fitting element for us all this year.

"Chinese Proverbs for the New Year"
"When the wind of change blows, some build walls; others build windmills.
No wind, no waves.
If the wind comes from an empty cave, it's not without a reason.
Teachers open the door. You must enter by yourself.
Don't fear going forward slowly; only fear the standing still.
A book that remains tightly shut is simply a block of paper.
Deep doubts grow deep wisdom.
Better to have a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.
You may dream different dreams while always sleeping on the same bed.
Not only can water float a boat, it can also sink it.
An ant may well destroy a whole dam.
Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Only one who can swallow an insult deserves to dine like a man.
Good medicine often tastes the most bitter.
Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend's forehead.
With true friends, even water drunk together is sweet enough.
A dog won't forsake his master because of his poverty; no babe ever refused his mother's breast because of her homeliness.
There is only one pretty child in the world and every mother has it.
Not the cry, but the flight of the wild duck, leads the flock to follow.
Not wine: men intoxicate themselves. Not vice: men entice themselves.
Mankind fears an evil man but heaven does not.
If heaven made someone, earth can find some use for them.
If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.
One joy scatters a hundred sorrows.
Fragrance will cling to the hand that gives the flowers.
An inch of time is an inch of gold but you can't buy that inch of time with an inch of gold.
Make happy those you have near; those who are far will surely come to you.
The bird doesn't sing because it has the answer; it sings because it has a song."

"Forget the favours given; remember those received."
(Chinese proverb)
"Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?"  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (version of U2's original song) 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Epiphany - Star of Wonder

 "Without the quest, there can be no epiphany."
(Constantine E. Scaros)

 "Epiphany Poem"

The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.
The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.
The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.
The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.
The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.
                                                   (George Mackay-Brown)

I've always liked the sound of the word "Epiphany". I probably use it far too often, way out of context and largely inappropriately. I also know some very charming and articulate atheists who enthuse about their "epiphanies" and "road to Damascus" moments.
The Christmas story tells us that wise men and uneducated shepherds alike followed an uncharted and unusually bright star as a celestial augury; many might find this naïve in these times of out-of-this-world technologies such as space telescopes and particle physics. We've witnessed eclipses of the moon and sun, the appearance of "new" stars and planets, asteroid storms and catastrophically extreme weather; the latter, all too prevalent in our Christmas and New Year news. Sometimes jaded about disasters in the Great Elsewhere, we call it misfortune closer to Home.
When I was little, someone told me the sun was the morning star. Far from being scientifically correct, it seemed very comforting. It still does, even after discovering the joys of the late lamented Sir Patrick Moore, Professor Brian Cox and of course Doctor Who. Our solace in familiarity and continuity evolves from childhood fears: the moon lights the night and the sun will be there to greet us in the morning.
Maybe we're so keen to establish continuity, order and control, unravelling the mysteries of the universe as we harness new ways to exterminate mankind, that we take for granted the true wonders of our lives. A Facebook friend pointed out today that the sun really is always waiting beyond the dark, stormy skies and unprecedented tides. Aside from being our morning star, the sun never actually sets, blazing in the Great Elsewhere while we sleep. We've lost the wonder of things we cannot recreate or fully capture because they support our everyday existence.
The thing I find most haunting about George Mackay-Brown's poem for Epiphany is that it makes no mention of the traditional gifts associated with the magi. Frankincense, gold and myrrh would be heady gifts for an infant even by Kardashian standards. The real gift from these learned and respected men was that they acknowledged wonder and followed faithfully into the unknown; an epiphany for them and the greatest gift of all to themselves, as much as any offering they could make to an unknown baby born in a barn.

"There's nothing better when something comes and hits you and you think 'YES'!"  
(J.K. Rowling)

 "I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking."  
(Albert Einstein)

 "I had an epiphany a few years ago when I was out at a celebrity party and it suddenly dawned on me that I had yet to meet a celebrity who is as smart and interesting as any of my friends.”

"Looking into the spirit of others is sometimes like looking into a pond. Though we aim to see what's deep in the bottom, we are often distracted by our own reflection."
(Katina Ferguson)

"The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany."
(Rebecca Solnit)

"God's voice is usually nothing more than a whisper, and you have to listen very carefully to hear it. But other times, in those rarest of moments, the answer is obvious and rings as loud as a church bell."
(Nicholas Sparks)

"These are maybe the most exciting stars, those just above where sky meets land and ocean, because we so seldom see them, blocked as they usually are by atmosphere…and, as I grow more and more accustomed to the dark, I realize that what I thought were still clouds straight overhead aren’t clearing and aren’t going to clear, because these are clouds of stars, the Milky Way come to join me. There’s the primal recognition, my soul saying, yes, I remember."
(Paul Bogard)

"I always like those moments of epiphany, when you have the next destination."
(Brad Pitt)

"Lark in the Clear Air"  Cara Dillon (version)

Monday, 6 January 2014

'Twas the Twelfth Night after Christmas...

(All photos: Gigi, album)
"And all those sayings will I overswear;
And those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbèd continent the fire
That severs day from night."
(All quotations: "Twelfth Night", William Shakespeare) 
I used to feel quite melancholy on the evening of "Twelfth Night"; I don't like taking decorations and lights down and packing away Christmas for another year. Traditionally, I think many people believe that's exactly what the twelfth day of Christmas is: an ending of festivities, sensitivities and niceties.
Twelfth Night for the western Christian Church also commemorates the Epiphany, from the Greek word meaning of striking or unusual appearance; when some learned men and others followed an exceptionally bright comet to Christ's birthplace. The eastern churches also celebrates the infant's baptism by John the Baptist around this time, although their adherence to the Julian calendar would bring their Epiphany to around 19th January in our New Year diaries.
Some confusion persists in whether Twelfth Night falls on 5th or 6th January. The old Celtic tradition of the new day starting at sundown rather than midnight seems to pull the twelfth day of Christmas back to 5th January. My Mum always said it was unlucky to leave the Christmas decorations up after Twelfth Night; so the Roman Catholic me went off to mass to celebrate Epiphany yesterday morning and the half-Oirish, superstitious me made sure the lights, garlands and beads were down by midnight.
Particular attention has been paid to Twelfth Night for many centuries. It marks the end of a traditional winter festival that actually starts on All Hallows Eve back in October. It feted the pagan "Lord of Misrule", who turned the seen world upside down and reversed fortunes; so kings would become peasants and vice versa. In theory of course.
Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" or "What You Will" was written especially to be performed on this date. His play has many reversed elements, including a leading female role disguised as a man and a servant who pictures himself as a nobleman. The Christian story poignantly and pertinently turns the world upside down, with nobles and wise men humbled by a newborn baby and shepherds chosen to witness the birth of a king. Interestingly, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is the only one of his plays that makes no reference to children at all.

Initially this morning, my home and garden looked quite bare without festive decorations. My long-suffering Christmas tree (Noel), now in his ninth year and his biggest pot ever, has come a long way since his own humble beginnings as a "disposable" Christmas decoration for the mantelpiece. He was the tiniest of the small potted pine tree cuttings in the Lewisham branch of Sainsbury's; he looked pathetically cute when I bought him for £1 as a little extra for Mum and my cat Sooty. He now guards my Brighton back-yard and I have to stand on the storage bench to fix his star properly. In my eccentric little way, I like to think he enjoys the dressing up, although that wouldn't be unusual in Brighton, even for a tree.
Between work shifts and 'phone calls, I managed to get all the trimmings untied and unravelled in time, fortified by crumpets with humours and cranberries; another quirk of mine. My sister gave me a bottle of Celtic mead at Christmas and I've discovered this goes down very neatly with ginger ale. My blogger friend Pagan Annie has said she's pleased that the blog is continuing, but would like more recipes. So included here for her is the traditional recipe for the old wassailers (literally, "apple howlers"), who drank as they sang as they went at both Halloween and Twelfth Night.
It would be lovely to see the twelfth day of Christmas as a new chapter of kindness and hopefulness, rather than the packing away of merry togetherness, gratuitous cards, gifts and greetings and goodwill to all with the tinsel and baubles. Family, friends and faith in the future really should be forever. not just for Christmas.

"Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents."  

"But rather reason thus with reason fetter:
Love sought is good but given unsought is better."
The Lambswool Wassail

1.5 Litres (3 x 500ml bottles) of traditional real ale or traditional cider
6 small cooking apples, cored
2 tablespoons of grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon of ground ginger
150g brown sugar (Demerara)
Preheat the oven to 120C.
Prepare the apples in advance, so they're ready when you want to put them into the ale to serve.
The apples should be fully cored, with no pips.
Lightly grease the baking tray. Place the apples on the baking tray about 6cm (2 inches) apart – they will swell.
Bake the apples at 120C for about an hour, so they become soft and pulpy and the skins are easy to peel away.
In a large thick bottomed saucepan add the sugar and a small amount of the ale (or cider) and heat gently.
Stir continuously until the sugar has dissolved. Then add in the ground ginger and the grated nutmeg.
Stir, and keeping the pan on a gentle simmer, slowly add in all the rest of the ale.
Leave for 10 minutes on a gentle heat.
Take the baked apples out of the oven to cool for 10 minutes.
Break open the apples and scoop the baked flesh into a bowl, discarding the skin.
Mash the apple pulp while it's still warm, into a smooth purée.
Add the apple purée into the ale and whisk.
Warm everything through for thirty minutes, on a gentle heat, until ready to drink.
Whisk again for a couple of minutes, vigorously frothing the drink up.
The apple froth will float to the surface, looking "woolly"!
To traditionally froth drinks up they were normally poured continuously between two large serving jugs to get air into the drink.
Ladle the Lambswool into heat-proof mugs or glasses, topped with some grated nutmeg; share, drink and be merry!
"A Spaceman Came Travelling"  Gregorian (version)

"Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them."

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

In haste, as Time flies...

 "Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering "It will be happier"..."
(Alfred Tennyson)
"A Morning Offering"
"I bless the night that nourished my heart
To set the ghosts of longing free
Into the flow and figure of dream
That went to harvest from the dark
Bread for the hunger no one sees.
All that is eternal in me
Welcome the wonder of this day,
The field of brightness it creates
Offering time for each thing
To arise and illuminate.
I place on the altar of dawn:
The quiet loyalty of breath,
The tent of thought where I shelter,
Wave of desire I am shore to
And all beauty drawn to the eye.
May my mind come alive today
To the invisible geography
That invites me to new frontiers,
To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
To risk being disturbed and changed.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more."
                                                               (John O'Donohue)

"Hard Times Come Again No More"  (Paolo Nutini, version)
"Auld Lang Syne"  (Eddi Reader, version)
"If I Should Fall From Grace With God"  (The Pogues)
"The Parting Glass"  (Ed Sheeran, version)

Go safely, go peacefully and go well; may you always have something to come back to. If you're still reading this blog after such a long absence, I hope to see you on the other side of midnight!
The Peace Angel (War Memorial) Brighton
"Through all that you reach for, may your arms never tire."
(Irish proverb)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Storm damage

 "One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken."
(Leo Tolstoy)

The storm that crashed against the south coast of these islands before ripping it's way upland on the 27th and 28th of October has inevitably left it's mark on Brighton. A local estate agent told me he'd been retrieving TV aerials, roof tiles and garden furniture from his rental properties from literally high and low across the city. Having previously walked the seawall at the marina, apparently the largest in Europe; I was staggered to see footage of the waves dwarfing the wall and the yachts, almost reclaiming the manmade enclosure to the open sea.
"Storm St Jude" was named after the patron saint of lost causes, arriving with a crash on the eve of his feast day. It certainly carved a desperate path; I'm respectful that tens of thousands of people across this county and others were left without power for days and that four people lost their lives in the UK. A further thirteen people have died as Storm Jude evolved into Cyclone Christian, wreaking destruction across northern and eastern Europe.
My little house is a hundred and fifty years old and full of leaks, creaks and gremlins on a daily basis. Faced with torrential rain and predicted gusts of more than eighty miles an hour, I brought in garden mirrors, lanterns, tree baubles and next door's cat and tied down everything else; including Noel the seven foot Christmas tree after even he was blown over in his ridiculously heavy pot. The house, Ginger Tom and I braced ourselves. I watched my tall pear tree appear to double over against the wind at around two in the morning, while the guardian angel sun-catcher in it's highest branches (I couldn't reach her without a ladder) was whipped about mercilessly.
As Monday opened up and the winds dropped to a manageable 60, I realised that my house and garden were largely intact. A section of guttering has loosened, but then Jonathan Seagull has been using it as some kind of high-rise latrine for a couple of years. All the paint above my bathroom window has ripped away, taking a layer of mortar with it, but I've never liked that stale buttermilk colour and intend to paint the house a zesty yellow as soon as possible. My windows seem spattered with every kind of seaside muck that could be airborne, but they're due a cleaning anyway.
In the garden, only one of a few marooned tree baubles didn't make it; even the tiniest, most delicately budded patio roses and fuchsias have only conceded some petals. The pear tree has uncurled to it's full height; the angel still miraculously spinning round at the top. I went round oohing and aahing, patting potplants and shrubs reassuringly, while Ginger watched from the safety of the kitchen step, clearly bemused that he'd spent a day and night sheltering with an idiot.
The BBC's southeast reportage seemed to focus on Brighton, with one hapless reporter stationed on the pebble beach in front of the skeletal West Pier. Blue-faced in his puffa jacket and woolly beanie hat, he flapped about a bit and spluttered that this type of weather was not uncommon on this windy little edge of East Sussex. Worryingly close to the waves himself, he stressed that the Sussex police had warned folk to stay away from the piers and indeed the sea for the next few hours, just as a hardy local family splashed past him while he struggled to stop his microphone from hitting him in the face.

I was thankful to see the West Pier still standing, albeit at a more precarious angle than ever before. The pier was built within a year of my little workmen's terrace and it's remains are Grade II listed, one of only two piers in the UK to be granted what should be a level of protection. Not that the West Pier has been shielded from outrageous fortune in any way in her long history. Yet, after three fires, the great storm of 1987 and several others, countless horrendous winters (including each one since I moved here) and even being crashed into by an RAF fighter plane in 1944, the West Pier has never been completely destroyed.
On several occasions, the structure has had to be partially demolished for safety reasons. Now completely severed from the shore, the pier is nonetheless increasingly part of this city. The remaining fretwork seems to float in the rising and falling tides; her fragility belies the Victorian engineering that keeps her cast iron legs firm in the seabed. Now frequently compared to am upturned fruit basket or burned out wedding cake, she was known as "The Pleasure Pier" in her heydays, I know some people find the pier a sorry sight. Technically, she's been terminally deteriorating since the 1970s; to those of us who love her and find her beautiful, the West Pier is constant to the point of persistence and embodies the spirit of the city of Brighton.
Walking down to the West Pier after St Jude, I wasn't surprised to see several others standing in the cracked sunshine and sea breeze, all there for the same reason. One very dapper middle-aged man with what I think was a French accent described her as "wretchedly lovely". I think the West Pier is a bit like a Bronte heroine; ageless and virginal but fatally bedraggled in sodden hooped petticoats. For every person who sees the old pier as an eyesore that should be completely dismantled, there will be many more who cherish her as an essential part of Brighton beach's skyline. Her iconicity has swelled as her original purpose built structure has diminished.
It's been weeks since I've posted on this blog. I almost wish I could say it's been due to sheer volume of work, being away with friends or even just doing possibly unmentionable, hedonistic things. Alas, I can't rely on any of these excuses.
It's true that I've been working rather difficult hours, but the most complete story of my extended writer's block is that my heart just hasn't been in it. My heart has been scuttled away like a deflated little bird. Like the West Pier, it feels like it's had the stuffing kicked out of it. Aside from any continuing neighbourhood unpleasantness, beyond the bereavement, unemployment and upheaval of fortune of the past few years, it felt as though something had finally broken me. One gust just too harsh, one wave too fierce. Mark Twain once said that a broken promise was better than none at all; much as I admire Mr Twain, I've often thought him uncharacteristically, utterly wrong on that one. Promises hold both the recognition of long held wishes and our hopes for the future; a broken promise or dream damages who we've been and scars who we've yet to become.
A few people who actually read this blog but have never met me realised something was wrong and I'm grateful for their concern and wishes. My friend Lin put it quite bluntly: "Not blogging, not talking: not you! Sick??" My confidence in myself and my instinctive faith in others is obviously dented, but I find I'm still here, just as the West Pier is right where I left it. Sometimes, the strength isn't in holding firm against the break but in what you do with the broken pieces. In circumstances that I guess were quite different from Mr Twain's, Oscar Wilde noted that broken hearts allow God and love to seep in. And so you can either focus on what's tearing you apart, or on what's holding you together.
Storms like St Jude unleash the omnipotence of nature but also magnify the resilience of even the smallest plants and creatures. For some reason, "The Lightning Strike" has always been my Snow Patrol song: I have the expressed permission of Mr Lightbody to add it to this post that breaks my writer's block! I'm sure my little house, for all it's cracks and groans, will stand beyond the end of my years; I hope the West Pier might do the same. Even with feet of iron, that kind of fortitude feels as organic as that of my pear tree or the tiny buds on my patio roses. I guess it's all in the foundations.
*Especially at this time for Gill A, Luci, Marian and Stuart*
"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."
(Ernest Hemingway)

"Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is the glue."
(Eugene O'Neill)

The West Pier Trust:
"The Lightning Strike (What If The Storm Ends)"  Snow Patrol
 "What if this storm ends
And I don't see you,
As you are now
Ever again?
Painted in flames,
All peeling thunder;
Be the lightning in me
That strikes relentless"
(Gary Lightbody)

"The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks."
(Tennessee Williams)

Monday, 23 September 2013

Friends in high places

Jonathan  (all photos: Gigi, album)
"The gull sees farthest who flies highest."
(Richard Bach)  

Sometimes, it can seem that the very people we care about or lean on leave us, whether voluntarily or reluctantly. Affinities, vows, rings, paper and words; the things that are seen to bind can fall away quite suddenly. And sometimes, animals seem to appear through the cracks in our daily lives, nudging their way into our conscience and our consciousness. Even long domesticated animals remain wild at heart. We may cage them, harness them, clip and tag them,  ply them with treats and catnip, but they still choose whether or not to love us. It's true that some animals see their humans as a consistent supply of ready meals, yet even so they may never develop a brand loyalty to us. And the unsolicited and unbound companionship of a truly wild and free creature is always a precious thing. 
Jonathan Seagull didn't so much nudge as muscle his way into my life, bill first, through the catflap I inherited from the previous home-owner. Ginger from next door has only just mastered it, after more than two years of cajoling, nagging and motivational pep talking from me. It has a Perspex flap, so I can see which neighbourhood scally-cat or fearless fox has come calling.
Very shortly after I moved into the little house, I heard an insistent and quite irritated tap-tapping at the catdoor one squally night. It spooked me. Peering from the darkness of my kitchen on my hands and knees, I saw a wild-eyed gull staring back at me. I looked. He looked. Suddenly he flapped and bashed the catflap again. In true Hitchcockian-blonde-I've-seen-"The Birds"-style, I screamed. He screamed back. After a while, he hopped onto my garden bench, setting the security light off. From the back window, I could see what a big bird he was. Herring gull; full grown, sharp eyes, impressive bill. And a gammy left foot which he couldn't quite put down. Just as he was about to give up and started to spread his wings, I opened the back door.
"Hello Mr Seagull. How are you?" Even I realised how pathetic this sounded. The bird lowered his wings, cocked his head and surveyed the human he'd chosen to call on, resplendent in mini leopard print bathrobe and flipflops. I'd never seen a gull look disparaging before; I've now become familiar with that look.  "My name's Gisele, Mr Seagull." Seldom in my life have I felt so foolish, which is saying something.
"Mr Seagull" would quickly became "Jonathan", after the title character in one of my favourite books. Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" is a soaring analogy about spirit; the story of a seagull's search for perfection through flight. After feeding him oven chips that first night, I assumed he would never return to my staunchly vegetarian home, but I did hope. My Dad used to rescue and tend to injured birds back in south London; most of them returned to the skies. One distinctive and clearly grateful pigeon called "Roucal" returned to my Dad's nesting box and bird-table for many years. But I had no real experience of seagulls.
I couldn't get near to his sore foot of course, but as he snapped at the chips I gathered that it was tender underneath. I realise now that he wouldn't have been able to swoop for food or perch properly to eat it. It was raining persistently when Jonathan first arrived and there were muddy puddles forming in the cracked cement in my backyard.. As I scattered his second serving of chips, I thought I might try a few drops  of TCP in the puddles he was hopping through. I had no idea if this might be beneficial in any way, but eventually I realised he was staying relatively still in one doctored puddle.
He stayed for about an hour, until there were no more fresh chips and he'd tired of my wittering. He flapped up and out into the darkness, leaving me and my bathrobe drenched, starving and startled by the whole episode. The next morning I ventured out to clear up any soggy leftovers and possibly a copious amount of droppings. A splutter of feathers rushed down from my back roof. I assume he'd slept there overnight.. Still largely balancing on one leg, he ate my breakfast crumpets with unconcealed disdain. He flapped off skyward after another hour and I headed off to the laptop to Google the life and culinary loves of the herring gull.
Jonathan's foot healed over the next couple of months. We discovered that he liked raw broccoli but not asparagus, was partial to cat biscuits and over-ripe tomatoes and would tolerate my vegetable fingers in the absence of fish.  He loved salmon flavoured cat treats but spat the cheesy ones out at me with ferocious accuracy. His love of all things spud rivals my own; maybe Jonathan had an Antrim mother too. As he healed he was able to sit on my garden bench and table and perch on the old shed. As his landings and take-offs became more adventurous, he terrorised the other garden birds and traumatised next door's cat. He monopolised my large basin birdbath, sometimes completely up-ending it during crash and splash landings.
He's even ventured into the kitchen when I've left the backdoor open without properly acknowledging his presence. He's filled my front and back guttering with moss and more unmentionable things as he's gradually commandeered the whole of my roof. His bad-boy landings in a confined space have destroyed pots, plants and lanterns. He quickly learned how to manipulate the security light and will still tap at the catflap from time to time, his calling-card. 

Out front, Jonathan will sit on random parked cars outside my window and flap about while I'm on the 'phone. Unattended for too long, he will crap all over the cars, from bonnet to boot. He craps on my garden bench and table, on my neighbours' washing and even on the cat if possible; and once on me, which I feel was memorable for both of us in differing ways. I know this is said to be lucky, but it feels terribly unfortunate at the time.
More than two years since he first knocked at my catdoor, his visits have become far less frequent but I now know not to worry if he doesn't appear for a month or more. People nod sympathetically when I say I know he'll always come back. Herring gulls have been known to have long memories and can live for twenty to thirty years. Jonathan seems quite determined to me and I probably seem quite devoted to him. I think he was the gull equivalent of a sulky mid-teen when he first arrived. Although I've learned that they're not pack creatures, he's sometimes landed with a couple of smaller but quite hooligan mates in tow, as though I've opened a Wild Bean Café in the garden. Ginger the cat has been jittery for days afterwards.
I love the ubiquitous presence of seagulls in this city. It's possible to feed them by hand along the seafront and they're a natural alarm clock. Some gulls are screechers, some are squalers, others laugh. Jonathan Seagull is a particularly loud laugher. "Ahahaha!" announces his arrival or passage overhead, pitched somewhere between machine gun rattle and a young Sid James. A couple of months ago, he sat on my roof for over an hour, periodically cackling at a friend and I as we attempted some DIY in my garden.
This summer, he felt comfortable enough to bring his lady-seagull to my roof, copulating quite noisily and somewhat precariously on top of my chimney pots. Of course, he laughed all the way through sex as well. I tried to carry on painting my plant pots as best I could, embarrassed but incredulous at his stamina and her forbearance. Herring gulls tend to mate for life, unless one of them falls off a chimney pot.in the throes of passion.
I appreciate that not all Brightonans are as fond of our increasing seagull population. I've often heard the expression "rats with wings"; it's true that the omnivorous gulls are natural scavengers. Brighton is a city of seaside kiosks and pavement cafes, spawning kerbside binbag collections and overflowing communal bins. As the gulls become more urbanised, they see rooftops as handy inland cliffs. This summer, hundreds of gull chicks had to be rescued by local conservationists after sliding of roofs (the chicks; hopefully not the conservationists). Over the past couple of years, the pond in Queen's Park has become a seagull nursery, with some kindly residents keeping a wary eye on dozens of chicks while the adult birds are off being hunter-gatherers.
I've never really liked the word "pet" as a term of possession. I'm as much Jonathan's human as he is my gull. I'm probably not his only human, but his presence in my garden and in my life is pretty special. On the absolute downside, Tippi Toadlet seems to have disappeared and I often fear for the smart slow-worm (called Norris, of course) who frequents the far corner of the garden by the fig tree. But the friendship of Jonathan Seagull has been an unexpected blessing.
During the bright, hot days of August, Jonathan sat on the lowest part of my roof for an hour or so, cackling and posing for photos, which I've shared here. This weekend, grey and dank, he turned up again; watching me watching the cat watching him. In the midst of the unpleasantness from some featherless neighbours, he's been an untethered yet calming presence. However, his decision to crap on my neighbours' washing line yet again can't really have eased the situation.
He can and will always fly away. With the graces of flight and speed, he travels to places I will never see. Yet somewhere on the map of a seagull's life, I'm one of the points called home. I've often thought it fortunate for Jonathan that God directed a beleaguered seagull to an animal loving potato eater. I suspect Jonathan knows that I'm the fortunate one.

 "Jonathan Seagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the reasons that a gull's life is so short, and with those gone from his thought, he lived a long fine life indeed."  
(From "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", Richard Bach)

"Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect. -And that isn't flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn't have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there."
(From "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", Richard Bach)

"Bird On A Wire"  The Neville Brothers (version)
"God loved the birds and created trees. Mam loved the birds and invented cages." 
(Jacques Deval)

Saturday, 21 September 2013


Jane Cattell (photo: Gigi, album)

"We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. You  playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do."
 (Marianne Williamson)

I did finish my poem for Jane and was moved to find it included in the Order of Service for her funeral last Wednesday. Even thought the occasion was obviously a sad farewell to a much loved wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend, the service and the gathering afterwards were particularly heart-warming and inclusive. It was abundantly obvious that "gathering" was one of the countless things that Jane excelled at. So many friends from all over and from across the years, some of them not really knowing any of the others that well, all gathered in by Jane's talent for friendship and nurturing. A gorgeous tribute to one who loved to entertain and whose essence really was "the life and soul". It doesn't dilute the spirit of a person to become many things to many different people: what a wonderful endorsement of the gift of life.
Jane's legacy is also so evident in the composure and closeness of her family. Her baby granddaughter looks uncannily like a miniature Jane, all flaxen hair, big brown eyes, expressive mouth and an early burgeoning love of shiny shoes and handbags. At eighteen months, she's already enchanting and obliviously determined to find out what's going on.
Jane's eulogy, crafted by her family, recalled Jane's longstanding love of rock group Status Quo. Beneath the perfectly tousled hair, pretty prints and crystal vowels beat the heart of a rock-chick.. I can so readily identify with this, although for me it's always been Springsteen. I wanted to include Debussy's "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" with this post, which is achingly sad but also full of light. Then I realised I must include the skinny-jeaned wide boys. For me, one of their finest moments was when Status Quo opened  the Live Aid concert at the special request of another demure but ultimately ballsy blonde lady, called Diana. And so, sitting surprisingly comfortably together, they're both included here; because when one's toasting a Lady, more is more.

"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim."
(Nora Ephron)

There are those who move between the days
with insistent grace and insouciant style,
gathering momentum
into a Hermes handbag;
and from year to year,
a timepiece of classic constancy,
all honey-glazed hair and generosity of smile;
ticking seamlessly from friend to parent to partner
and all the moments in-between.
There are those who fall
with inexorable subtlety,
an opiated ballet;
languid of limb and tirelessly elegant.
Length of years counts for little
in the passage of an enigma;
I wish I had known you better,
but like the dainty drawer fragrances you gave me,
glimpses of lavender amid my bargain colours,
your presence has been sleek
yet lingers like newness on gossamer,
defying gravity and grief.

"We must never confuse elegance with snobbery.
Fashion fades, style is eternal.
The most beautiful make-up of a woman is passion."
(Yves Saint-Laurent)

From "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair"  by Claude Debussy...
...to Status Quo  at "Live Aid", 1985, and "Caroline"

The National Amyloidosis Centre: 
 x Thank you to Brian and Jane's family for making me feel so welcome x