I have a new stick whittling knife. It’s still in its plastic packet, though, because I haven’t motivated myself to start using it yet. In one sense I am a wild woodsman who turns the detritus of nature into beautiful and meaningful objects – that’s the sense of not-quite-happening or a parallel universe. Like many of the great things in my life at the moment, it only exists in my head.
It’s possible to become overwhelmed by world events to the point where one can feel utterly powerless. When this happens, it’s important to have little projects that take you away from trying to think a path through the issues. I also feel that public demonstrations are good, but they need to be balanced with more personal creative acts which have some kind of mundane, but powerful, meaning.
So when I’m carving my sticks – and this only happens in my head right now, but I will start doing it again soon – each one is finished in a different way and given a different name or title. So, for instance, the next stick I finish – when I finally take me new knife out of its packet – will be called The Stick I Made As An Initial Response To The Rise Of Right Wing Populism.
I’m sure it will help me – in my personal search for equanimity, as well as in my desire to create a more equal, just and tolerant world.
Today I walk the neighbour’s dog again. On my return leg I am reminded that the rubbish bin at the top of one of the nearby streets has gone missing. We walk back around to the next street, but the bin has been taken from there, too. That hasn’t stopped an accumulation of rubbish, of course. In the way that the light from a star shines down to us millions of years after the star itself has died, so refuse will continue to accumulate for years on an empty street corner due to the historic placement of the bins.
I phone the council and, voice rising in indignation, explain that it just will not do. Somebody says that somebody else will get in touch with me. Probably write a letter. And the ‘somebody’ wouldn’t be a ‘person’, it would most likely be a computer – the actual person on the end of the phone doesn’t actually say that, I just know. I sigh inside. I do that a lot these days. The actual person on the end of the phone didn’t make the decision about the bins. It’s not her fault.
The dog then does a massive crap, but the tennis ball he’s been holding in his mouth starts to roll down the hill. Should I continue to clear up the dogshit or chase the ball? Life is full of tough decisions like this. I decide to do the right thing and clear up the mess, but luckily for me the ball comes to rest on something sticky – I think it’s a big patch of 24 hour old vomit (brown with a hint of red… Merlot mixed with kebab?). I walk the dog back to the house, slightly concerned at the realisation that he can’t shit and hold a tennis ball in his mouth at the same time. What sort of dog is that?
Back at the house I’m feeling slightly guilty at getting on my high horse about such a trivial thing as bins. I need to get things in perspective. It’s Donald Trump’s inauguration tomorrow, for God’s sake. I should be complaining to the council about that. Or out on the streets. What the hell is wrong with me? What is that saying? – that evil triumphs when good people turn into stupid wankers, or something…
Then my youngest son comes home and says that his school have decided to scrap afternoon playtime.
“I’m going to do a petition,” he says, looking very earnest.
“Good to hear,” I say.
He frowns. “Dad…”
“What’s a petition?”
It’s a Sunday and it’s a gardening day. Except it isn’t. The rain is constant. Not lashing, or pouring or even just drizzling. Just there all the time like a boring droney person you sit next to at a dinner party. Everything in the garden is just out of reach today because of the rain. It’s going to be hard work even putting some stuff in the wormery.
Instead I focus on making really good bacon sandwiches for the two oldest kids. But teenage kid no. 2 is not happy. It’s a different kind of bacon – from Tesco, in a different wrapping. Free range dry cured bacon. From Devon.
“It’s the wrong kind of bacon, Dad.”
It starts to snow. My youngest son has been waiting all year for this. “Ha ha ha!” he shouts, looking out of the window. He’s already in his pyjamas, but slips some trainers on the end of his feet and runs outside. He stands looking at the sky and laughs again, doing a strange jig with his arms outstretched. Then he stares at the floor and his smile vanishes. “Where is it? Why isn’t the snow still there?”
“It’s crap snow,” I tell him.
“It’s not fair. I want to go sledging.”
I bend down to inspect the snow depth. It’s about 0.001 mm. Not quite enough to justify a trip to Hampstead Heath.
“If it’s really deep tomorrow, will you come and get me from school so we can go sledging?”
I look at the sky, then the ground. Finally I sniff the air*.
“OK then – it’s a deal.”
* Meaning – have already checked the BBC weather forecast for the next day.
Recently a friendly and generous neighbour gave us a bike. Or to be more precise he gave the bike to me so that I could give it to our 14-year-old son, who has been making do with a tiny BMX with a rusted seat. This new bike is full-size with narrow racing wheels and and he (our neighbour) has swapped it for “something more practical”. I tentatively asked him how much he wanted for the bike, even though I didn’t really want a bike, but he said no it’s fine. No problem. This was five months ago. Our son has no intention of riding the bike. It is still under a large tarpaulin sheet in our front yard.
My wife suggested to me this could be my opportunity to start riding a bike again (she is a born-again cyclist so loves the idea of trying to convert me). I did spend my childhood cycling everywhere, never without my wheels. At university, too, I biked all over the place. But since coming to London I have learned to love walking, love the freedom it gives and the possibility of being spontaneous and changing direction going into bookshops, nipping into Italian cafes for lunch, jumping on a bus that you like the look of, popping into a museum. Or just sitting down with a book. Or deciding to get lost. Cyclists will tell me you can do all these things with a bike. But I’m not so sure. There’s something about cycling that is goal-based, with too much emphasis on “getting there”. I like to think it I live by this quote from Rebecca Solnit:
“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin USA)*
(Of course all this has nothing to do with the fact that the last time I rode a bike regularly was in my early 20s, when I was doing over twenty miles a day cycling to work in the Norfolk countryside and something about my bodyshape meant my arse got really big and muscly and my trousers stopped fitting properly. Nothing at all.)
* Actually I don’t really live by that quote. It is a true and lovely quote, but I have my own quotes. The trouble is they’re in my head and hard to access – unlike Solnit’s quote which I found on the internet at the amazing Brainpickings site.
A few weeks ago I started walking my neighbour’s dog. The neighbour is ill and can’t do the long walks at the moment. For a while the neighbour was in hospital and the dog lived with us. The kids were excited, especially the boys. They loved the cuddles, the face licking and the hairs all over the place. Now my neighbour is back home and so my neighbour’s dog is back home too. Every day I aim to do one big park walk with him.
Part of me resents this intrusion on my personal time. Life is busy enough as it is and that Totally Uncommercial Great Lincolnshire Graphic Novel won’t write itself. But there is something about my neighbour’s dog… he is happy and he spreads happiness. Maybe all dogs are like this, I’ve just never noticed. Plus time seems to slow down when I’m with my neighbour’s dog. I have started truly noticing things again in the park, something I haven’t done since I used to walk small children (very slowly) around here.
Today I sat on the slopes in the middle of the park and threw a saliva covered tennis ball repeatedly for my neighbour’s dog to chase and bring back. My neighbour’s dog will do this all day if I let him. If I would play ball. But I do have other commitments, I say to my neighbour’s dog – but he doesn’t listen. I counted 100 throws one time recently, then got bored with counting and just concentrated on the basics – ball, saliva, throw.
My neighbour’s dog urinated 30 times today and did a massive shit. I successfully managed not to get dog shit on my hands as I was clearing it up. I’m learning. I am the pupil. My neighbour’s dog is the teacher.
Walking back home on a warm evening I’m thrilled to see a black cat cross my path halfway down Finsbury Park Road. I’m already anticipating the good luck vibes, when a second black cat emerges from the shadows a couple of doors further down. It waits and watches me. A double black cat path-crossing… it’s a confusing situation. Does it mean twice as much good luck or (more likely) does the second black cat erase the good luck of the first? Or perhaps even create bad luck? If this is the case, are there any complicated hand signals I can offer that might block this black cat magic? I’m confused and contemplate crossing the road… but the second cat makes a run for it and nips in front of me – clearly a genuine crossing of my path.
These could be long term Luck Cats, in which case it might be several years before I can safely say what the final result of this strange incident will be. Interestingly*, it would seem that it’s only in Britain that black cats symbolise good luck. Everywhere else in the world sees them as bringing bad news.
* Obviously I’m using the word “interestingly” to mean “not-very-interestingly”
Walking down our road I see a pile of interesting looking bits of electronic gear near to a bin. It’s an old turntable, with a wood veneer finish – possibly mid to late 70s. 1975 I’d say, at a push. It seems broken beyond compare, but maybe could be fixed up. In a reflex action I bend down to scoop up the record player then a voice in my head asks “Where, exactly, is this going to go?” and I stop myself. For many years I would find shelves at the side of the road and bring them home, sometimes as part of a meaningless and open ended DIY project. I have also brought a large amount of musical objects into the house, mostly stringed instruments but also organs and keyboards. We are running out of space, even in the ‘music’ room. Maybe I could start using the attic cupboards, except they are full of paintings, illustrations, masses of notebooks and folders, books, things, stuff.
I take a deep breath and stand up, walking slowly away from The Incredibly Beautiful Old Thing That Could Be Mine If Only I Loved It Enough To Take It Home. “It’s a broken piece of junk,” I tell myself. I know I’m lying. But I head back towards the house – in the direction safety.
I manage not to turn round.
It’s the last day of January. A high pitched, instantly recognisable call comes from down in the vale amongst the trees. Possibly it’s one of those new Samsung Galaxy phones, though I doubt it. It can’t be a cuckoo, can it? Surely it’s too early by about four months. It’s a sound that brings back memories of long early summers of childhood, of greenery and big skies. I consult one of my many gardening books and it looks like it might be a wood pigeon pretending to be a cuckoo.
Why would a wood pigeon do that?
A football has come back from next door. It’s one my eldest son lost two or three years ago and looks sad and worn, as if a family of foxes have been regularly sharpening their teeth on it. My son has pretty much gone off football since the ball disappeared – though to be fair he lost about six balls altogether, whacking them high over the fence while trying to do extravagant keepie uppies. One day those balls will probably all return. But it will be too late for my son, who now is too busy playing Shoot Smash Gore Scream 3.0 on a regular basis to worry about football.