Wednesday, August 29, 2012


I don’t have a studio like a proper painter. And an ordinary house is no place to paint for someone who can knock a jar of painty water off a coffee table or a bookcase with a grand gesture or a careless flick of an elbow. 
Painting: Reflections

The garage is the obvious place to do it. No worries about mess.  However it is full of grease and glue, paint (the wrong kind), firewood, garden implements, nuts and bolts and other metal things including the car. And it’s too dark unless the tilt-door is open, and then it’s too cold or windy.  Except in summer.

I have tried setting up the easel on the deck. It was a charming idea: bees buzzing, dappled sunlight, flowers, the scent of freshly mown grass, maybe a straw hat on my head – very French provincial, and sometimes it helps to at least look the part. But flying insects consider wet-paint irresistible and frequently commit hari-kari rather messily in it. 

So, a room in the house seems the only option. The only room that isn't otherwise used for eating, sleeping, cooking, entertaining or watching television is my office, the place where I work. It already contains three bookcases, a filing cabinet, a large desk (door-size), the computer and its accessories, an armchair and the other chair, and two radios – one tuned to cosy, mindless background music, pop and piffle, and the other to worthy stuff like the news and documentaries. But this room has to also, sometimes, accommodate an easel and all the other messy paraphernalia that goes with painting pictures. In fact this room is where, at home, I spend most of my life, winter or summer.

How absurd that is. I should use the big room, the living room, for living and working. There is a log burner and a heat pump (which I never use). There is plenty of light and space. It's handy to the kitchen for coffee and nibbles. The deck is beckoning, right there through the sliding doors, ready to soothe in those times when the words slither about in my head and disappear into crevices, when the ideas that seemed so promising, so brilliant in the middle of the night melt into nothing, when the paint turns to mud.

But there are problems about working in the living room – the painty water for a start. And there is something ridiculously suburban about not wanting to greet casual visitors by waving a paintbrush, or indeed while peering at a computer screen and surrounded by books and papers. That's all kind of private. It's where the magic happens, but only when I'm done, not while I'm in the middle of doing. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


On the radio the other day I heard that women wished they had learned some of the domestic skills that their mothers and grandmothers had, like making jam, knitting, sewing on buttons and rustling up a Victoria sponge.

Painting: Waterfront
Surely we've moved on. Except for sewing on a button, no one needs to do any of that unless they want to. And anybody can replace a button. Here's how: thread needle with cotton, tie knot at one end, hold button in place on fabric with thumb and forefinger and poke needle through little holes in button, back and forth, until it stays put. Tie another knot. Cut thread. It's cheaper than buying a new shirt. An alternative is to staple the shirt sleeves together like my uncle Buster did.

As for the rest, I was reminded of my friend Felicity, whose professor had a chat to her before she was married. He asked if she could cook. She said she could, a little. The professor looked worried: had she told her fiancé that? Yes, she confessed.  He pursed his lips: do you think it was wise, Felicity, to tell your husband-to-be that you can cook? I was also reminded of a famous film star (male) who said of a famous film star (female) who had enjoyed a luminous career as a perky but innocent young woman, that he had known her before she became a virgin.  

The lesson is that you can't regain lost virginity and you can't unlearn a skill. If you let on that you can cook, you can't take it back, you end up doing the cooking, and many a woman has rued the day her mother handed her a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl and showed her how.

Making jam, now. That takes hours in a hot, steamy kitchen, and by the time fruit has been stoned, prepared, weighed, boiled, tested and bottled, you won't feel like cleaning up the sticky mess left behind by the process. There are now many excellent jams on the supermarket shelves. That's progress. No one knits unless they actually enjoy doing it, for many reasons. Knitting a jumper, say, takes weeks or even months, the wool is expensive, and knitted garments are widely available, cheaper factory-made, and usually machine-washable. As for Victoria sponges, what's wrong with picking one up at the bakery?  That's progress too.

The reason why hardly anyone does any of those chores now becomes clear: it is easier, quicker and often cheaper to buy stuff.  A haberdashery shop will even sew on a button if you've run out of staples, leaving more time to spend on more interesting pursuits. Which could of course be knitting.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Whenever I put my elbows on the dining table now I do so with a silent apology to my elders and betters. It's hard to ignore old rules, and while no disapproving grandmother ever leaned over with a fork to lever my elbow off the table, that's how many children learned. Elbows on the table, along with talking with your mouth full and eating peas off a knife, was a breach of good table manners, and good manners mattered. Once upon a time parents only needed to say "manners!" with a warning frown to bring a child into line.

Painting: Orange

Some of the old rules seem absurd today, and there is sometimes a clash between generations. So you get people yelling a lot at the television during "Downton Abbey" or "Pride and Prejudice" because they know that in those days they didn't do that, whatever that was. For example young women, unless very grand indeed, would not remain seated if an older woman came into the room.  Mr Darcy, however displeased, would never leave Elizabeth Bennett in the middle of the dance floor when the band stopped playing, he would escort her back to her family.

Not so long ago Noël Coward, writing to T. E. Lawrence who was hiding in the Royal Air Force as 338171 Aircraftman Ross, began his letter with "Dear 338171 (may I call you 338?)".  This was of course a joke, but underlying that was a principle. Coward understood the etiquette around the delicate process of advancing an acquaintanceship to something closer, to what was called first name terms.

That concept has now lost all meaning because everybody is on first name terms with everybody else, even strangers. I get mail with "Hi [first name]!" from a number of sources simply because I have been required to put all my names into their little boxes and they, by default, assume that the first name is the right name and that it is a friendly way to address someone. I never use my first name, don't like it, and have often not answered to it by mistake. It makes me cringe, especially when people telephone and say "is that [first name]?". Obviously they don't know me or anything about me, and it's hard not to slam the phone down before finding out what they want.

I don't think that it is a friendly practice because it debases the word. A friend is someone you have come to know, trust and like. Using a first name implies that we have progressed from stranger to friend, and to assume otherwise is not good manners. P. J. O'Rourke said that good manners were a combination of intelligence, education, taste and style. I would add sensitivity.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I wonder if the souls of those who sailed the lonely seas a century or more ago now roam the ether wringing their hands and accosting people like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who drew his cross-bow and shot the albatross. They should.  If Euterpe's passengers and crew were anything to go by, they dealt to an eye-watering haul of marine life and aquatic birds including, sad to say, the magnificent albatross, in the name of sport.

On the voyage of 1879 my great uncle Alec started it.  He was fourteen, and sailing to New Zealand with his father, the almost legendary Captain Phillips. It is, for me, a mournful story as recorded in the ship's newspaper. It seems that Master Phillips tossed out a baited line, tempting an albatross to alight on the water and take a bite. The bait proved fatal to the bird for it had hardly got it into its mouth than it felt something was wrong, but all its efforts to regain freedom were fruitless.

After being drawn by the beak through the water the bird was finally hauled on board.  It made desperate efforts to bite its captors so the bill was taped shut for safety. The albatross measured ten feet across the wings from tip to tip and its "plumage was a beautiful white colour with slight tints of primrose". After being paraded for the excited passengers it was, of course, killed.

Alec's albatross was the first of many on that voyage, but the man responsible for catching most of them was Mr Harry Middleton, described as "our excellent bird-catcher". He dried the skins and made them into muffs, the feet were used for tobacco pouches, the wing bones apparently made first class pipe stems from 18 to 24 inches long, and even the skull was preserved and even (ugh) stuffed.  These trophies were auctioned off or given away, and the bodies were thrown overboard as being too tough to eat.

How could they? we now ask, with our greater knowledge, understanding and sensitivity. But in those days shooting, spearing and fishing for anything that appeared on the vast, empty, lonely ocean was a welcome distraction, and presumably no one thought about conservation, let alone compassion. The world was teeming with resources and a few birds and fish counted for nothing. But there were thousands of sailing ships, and hundreds of thousands of bored passengers looking for something to do. Now we have to save what's left.

If the ghost of my great uncle Alec should appear before me, like the ancient mariner, whingeing about not being able to sleep for guilt, I'd be tempted to sock him in the eye.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


 ... was in London. A chimpanzee at Chessington Zoo went wild. He saw me, went really, really still, and glared. Next thing, he started chattering, shrieking and throwing things through the bars of his thankfully solid enclosure. Banana skins, apple cores, scrunched up paper, cigarette packets – anything that people had thrown at him, he started throwing at me.  And he was a dead shot. It was definitely me he was after, because when I moved he changed direction, never taking his angry eyes off me for a moment.  It was, I think, my home-made, acid-green sweater that set him off. It was a seriously horrible colour and it probably hurt his eyes.
Painting: Summer

People gathered to watch. And laugh. Some laughed so hard they buckled at the knees. Others, even the friends I was with, provided more ammunition for the chimp by picking up what he'd thrown and tossing it back.  A wide circle of empty space grew around me as people melted away to a safe distance. It was rather mortifying to be the target of a monkey's rage.

That's probably how a certain Mr Sorrentino, apparently a reality show person, felt last year when an upmarket clothing manufacturer offered him a substantial payment to stop wearing their clothes. They were concerned that Mr Sorrentino’s association with their brand could cause significant damage to their image. I don't know what Mr Sorrentino did to deserve that, but I do wonder where it could end. Will there be more manufacturers, and maybe even department stores, being picky about the people who wear their clothes?  

Once upon a time, on good days, I used to scrub up not too badly. The acid-green sweater and other horrors were long gone. Nowadays I dress for comfort, and the current fashion climate – casual, bordering on slack – suits me fine. I try not to sink so far as to attract the kind of slur that Jonathan Swift was moved to utter when he said of someone that she wore her clothes as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork.

Thank goodness for op-shops, of which I am a loyal customer. They have a huge selection of clothing, from cheap and cheerful to designer seconds. Nobody hovers at your elbow. They don’t fuss about their image. I hold to the illusion that, at least when I bought them, most of the leisure clothes in my wardrobe are good quality op-shop.  Monkeys can please keep their opinions to themselves.