Posted by: Jenny | Monday, 8 August 2011

Chicken Licken

One of the joys of young parenthood for me was the opportunity to read to my children. Old, well-known favourites like Winnie the Pooh, as well as new classics (well, new when my children were young) such as Mog the Forgetful Cat. I still delight in seeking out new books, and attractive editions of old favourites, for other people’s children.

My mother evidently shares this passion for children’s books, and would often contribute to our library. She found a reprint of a book we both recalled from my childhood, Teddy Bear Coalman – a delightfully illustrated tale of a day in the life of a coal delivery man in post-war Britain, who just happens to be a teddy bear but otherwise lives in a 1950s world of coal fires and petunia-lined, square front lawns.

I soon found myself classifying children’s books into those which were entertaining to children and adults, and those which appealed to children but were tedious in the extreme for the parent reading the story. All of the titles mentioned above fall into the former category. But the day came when Mum presented me with a Ladybird book of the story of Chicken Licken, with the words “I bought this for your children because you made me read it to you, over and over again, when you were a child!”

The story, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, goes like this. Chicken Licken receives a knock on the head and thinks that the sky is falling down. He decides that he had better go and impart this important information to the King. On the way, he meets various other, equally pea-brained birds (Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey etc) who join him in his quest. “So Turkey Lurkey, Goosey Loosey, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky and Chicken Licken all went to tell the King that the sky was falling down”. You get the idea. Fortunately, just as you are beginning to hope that there are no more varieties of domestic fowl for them to meet on their interminable and pointless quest, they encounter Foxy Loxy. You can work out the rest…

I can understand my mother’s motivation in wanting to get back at me for my own childhood delight in repetitive stories! And I have to say that my children loved this, as well as The Big Fat Turnip, The Gingerbread Boy and countless other stories with not much plot but a lot of repetition. Why is it that young children enjoy repetition so much? Even a less boring story (or song, or game) breaches an adult’s boredom threshold long before the child tires of repeating it.

Posted by: Jenny | Friday, 29 July 2011

In London

What strikes me immediately about London is how young everyone is. To begin with, this is exciting. The places buzzes.

People are mostly in a hurry. They are constantly talking (except on the Tube, of course) and much of the talk is loud and frantic.

The art gallery caters to an older, rather genteel population. Retired, educated couples are furthering their education. But it is a weekday afternoon, and although the school holidays have started, perhaps Tate Britain is not the first choice of entertainment for families on a fine summer’s day.

I relish the freedom of traversing the city on my Oyster card. I let myself soak up the youth, diversity and dynamism of the population, and feel enriched by it. By the end of the day I am physically tired, and mentally over-stimulated. One day in London is about enough for me! Now I’m ready to return to the provinces.

Posted by: Jenny | Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bloggers’ block?

This is my first blog post for almost six months. Why? It is not that I have not been writing. I have even written a couple of pieces that I had intended as blog posts, but I failed to post them.

I don’t consider myself to be enough of a writer to claim to know, from first-hand experience, what ‘writers block’ might feel like. But I don’t think that my creative instincts are ‘blocked’. It is, rather, the expectation that I have of myself that my first post after such a long silence should be something spectacular, or at least worthy.

This is why I decided to post this short piece analysing my lack of commitment to my blog in recent months. I hope that it will unblock the path and allow me to start posting regularly and more frequently.

Posted by: Jenny | Monday, 25 October 2010

On the East Devon coast

The train to Exmouth leaves St James Park at 11.41. It is a three minute walk from where I am staying, and I arrive ten minutes early. A train consisting of just two coaches chunters slowly through the station, without stopping. I am dismayed. Is the line so infrequently used that you have to wave your arms or phone the driver to get him to stop?

But then one or two more people arrive on the platform, and I realise that that our train hasn’t arrived yet. On time, the train arrives and stops. We all – and there are half a dozen of us – get into the front coach. There are six stops on the journey to Exmouth, so the train never really picks up speed. At each stop, it picks up and sets down passengers. The service is evidently well-used.

Sitting on the train, I consult the OS map I had the foresight to bring with me. I realise that, instead of spending the afternoon pottering around Exmouth, I can head for the South West Coast Path and walk along it as far as Budleigh Salterton. It seems to be about four miles each way. True, I don’t have the ideal footwear, having brought with me only trainers and no walking boots. But over such a short distance and in dry conditions this shouldn’t present too much of a problem.

So I walk along Exmouth’s streets, down to the seafront and along a busy road for several minutes until I reach the start of a footpath heading up the cliff.

View over Littleham Cove

The path affords beautiful views over the Exe estuary and out to sea. I can make out Starcross, Dawlish Warren and Dawlish, and later what must be Teignmouth comes into view. A good number of walkers are taking advantage of a fine, clear day in autumn, and all along the path I encounter families, younger and older couples, and, more rarely, the occasional lone walker like myself. A woman walking with her eager young grandson explains the different types of rock that can be seen along the coast, from a vantage point above Budleigh Salterton: “here you can see the red cliffs of Devon, but at Sidmouth they turn white and continue like that right the way round to Kent.” I chip in “and you can find fossils”. Grandma takes up the bait and starts to discuss fossils with the child.

Budleigh Salterton is not as busy as Exmouth, but still has its share of people out and about. The fish and chip shop is losing business by staying closed on a Sunday, but a couple of other cafés do a good trade. I find myself a table in the sun, and enjoy a pot of tea and a ‘Budleigh crab’ sandwich while I write a postcard. The map shows me two alternative routes back to Exmouth: I could walk back the same way I came, with the sun glaring in my face most of the way, or I could follow a disused railway line from Budleigh to Exmouth which has been made into a National Cycle Trail. This presents the risk of having to step out of the path of the cyclists on the route. I decide to take my chances, hoping that at this end of the season and at 3.30 in the afternoon, there won’t be too many cyclists about.

The Budleigh Salterton to Exmouth cycle track

Unsure of my way to the start of the route – despite my 1:50 000 map – I ask directions. However, when I encounter a road labelled Station Road, I ignore my instructions and follow it. Soon enough I am on the cycle track, comfortably shaded and with occasional signs of its former use, mainly in the form of solid brick-built bridges. This short railway was opened in 1903 and closed in 1967, and never made a profit.

Arriving at Exmouth station in good time for the 17.10 train, perhaps the thing that has surprised me most on this outing is the extent to which this train service is used. There must be at least 150 of us boarding the small train that runs only as far as Exeter’s mainline station, St David’s. It is Sunday, and there is at least an hourly service all day. The last train leaves Exmouth at a minute to midnight. One explanation might be that the fare structure is kept low. My excursion today (excluding lunch) has cost me a total of £3.50. And it was worth every penny.

Posted by: Jenny | Monday, 30 August 2010

Time management and creativity

My friend was absolutely right: it is very difficult to value oneself enough to make the time for creative activity. Somehow I always feel guilty that I am not doing something more useful. Even writing this blog post seems self-indulgent, when there are so many more worthwhile things I could and ‘should’ be doing.

So I try to pace myself, marking my days (at present blissfully uncluttered, with no commitments over the Bank Holiday weekend and a temporarily absent husband) into chunks of time.

The morning is for cerebral activity: writing letters and e-mails, household admin, charity admin, business admin for Martin, work on a Bahá’í histories project and preparation for other Bahá’í service activities. If I get something worthwhile done by lunchtime, I feel that I have earned the leisure to do something less ‘worthy’ in the afternoon.

The early afternoon is a time when I can easily find myself staring at a computer screen, idly browsing the internet, starting various tasks but finishing none. So I have learned to use this time for physically active, restful or ‘right-brain’ activities. I might sit down with a book, go out for a walk, get on with housework and laundry, or do some gardening. Gardening is apt to take over, and at tea-time I may still be out in the garden or greenhouse. Since coming back from the Bahá’í Academy for the Arts, full of enthusiasm for watercolour painting, I have decided that this is the best time of day to get down to some painting. Like gardening, it is a contemplative process and I get completely immersed in it. It is not easy to put down, and the afternoon can quickly pass by if I have no other commitments.

Here’s my latest achievement:

Harvest from our greenhouse

And here’s my critique of it:
I am pleased with the colours, though the tomato is a bit pinker than it should be. I like the way the shading and highlights have worked on the pepper and aubergine. You can still see pencil marks on the shadows, so I won’t do these in future. The sun, and hence the shadows on my subject, moved from the time I did my initial sketch to the time I painted! Perhaps this is why the tomato doesn’t really appear three-dimensional. And finally, yes the tomato does look unnaturally large in proportion to the other vegetables. The pepper and aubergine are in fact small varieties. It’s not just that they are further away – and neither is it a mistake in the proportions of my drawing!

Posted by: Jenny | Monday, 23 August 2010

More splashing around

Here are some photos of my work from the week. At the time, I was quite pleased with my achievements. All praise must go to our excellent tutor, Rachel Collins. Since arriving home, setting up my ‘studio’ (the table in our guest room) and attempting an exercise similar to one we did in class, I realise how much I still have to learn.

Nevertheless, I am determined to continue painting if I possibly can.

This is how we learned about glazing with different colours - instant landscape!

Using negative space painting to give an impression of depth

Eggs and eggshells - a study in leaving white space, observing shapes, shadows and colour

Posted by: Jenny | Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Splash!

‘Splash! Dive into watercolours’ is the title of the course I am attending all this week at the Bahá’í Arts Academy.  It’s an apt name, for not only is the course a very intensive and fast-paced introduction to the art, it also involves a fair bit of water splish-sploshing about.

I had intended to write a day-by-day account of my experiences.  But this has proved to be too ambitious, and the course itself is time-consuming and tiring enough to leave me with little energy to write as well.  But now, on Day 3 and already half way through the course, I’ll begin.

Today we have been learning about ‘glazing’: the technique whereby you apply a layer of paint onto a painted surface that has previously dried.  The action can be repeated as many times as you like.  It allows the artist to build a picture using negative space painting.  This involved letting a shape come to the foreground by painting the spaces around the shape.  It is how watercolourists achieve the impression of white, and pale tints, without using white paint.

So much for my non-technical description of the techniques we learned today.  What was the process we went through, and how did it feel?

Yesterday afternoon (or in my case, evening) we painted a ‘variegated wash’ onto several sheets of paper.  Two small, one larger.  This morning we took two separate small sheets and created simple landscapes by putting on one wash after another, in layers which we dried thoroughly between each application.  It’s hard to imagine – photos might help here.  You get a different but equally pleasing effect if you do this using the same colour paint or different colours.  Using different colours allows you to see how the colour of the glaze interacts with the colour of the layer below.
Next, we took the two small sheets we’d prepared yesterday, and did something similar with them, producing another, slightly more interesting landscape effect.  Then we prepared a variegated wash with jagged edges, and while that was drying we began our first ‘negative space’ exercise, writing our names by painting out the spaces between the letters.  Strange how some people found this really challenging and others were quite comfortable doing it.

When the jagged-edge wash was dry, we used it as the base for a slightly more complex negative space exercise, by drawing a row of tree outlines and painting in the spaces, and then drawing another row of tree outlines in the gaps between the first trees, and painting out the spaces again.  Can’t picture it from my description?  Probably not, unless you’ve done this sort of thing yourself.  It was small and intricate work and I found I loved it.  The most unpredictable thing was the effect of combining the colours.  In this case, I was pleased with my combination of blues, greens and purples.

Now for a larger and potentially more challenging piece, building on the same approach.  We took leaves (yes, real ones) and drew their outlines onto the larger sheet with the variegated wash that we had prepared yesterday.  Then painted out the negative spaces.  Then drew on more leaf shapes and painted out the spaces again.  You could go on and do this several times more.  But I found the process less enjoyable than with the small forest version, and the end result much less pleasing.  I think I need to learn a lot more about juxtaposition of colours, and how colours look when they are combined.  Maybe my painting will look better tomorrow, when it’s dry.  But I doubt this somehow.  OK, the process was interesting and the technique no doubt useful, indeed essential to master.  But this painting is not going to form part of my portfolio!

—————-

And that’s how this course has been for me, really.  Some exercises have been fun, and the result both useful and attractive: ‘mixing chickens’ on Day Two, for example (an exercise to get us used to different ways of mixing colours, and the colours you end up with when you do).  Some have been utterly frustrating, such as when, on Day One, I didn’t have the patience to wait for one area to dry before beginning to paint the space next to it, and so the colours ran into each other when I didn’t want them to.  But I learned from the experience – and that’s what it’s all about.

Other processes remain a mystery at this stage: the ‘mandala’ project had me fired up when I started it, and I produced a design which I am very pleased with, but somehow when I started painting it didn’t work any more, and I secretly wonder whether I will ever finish this particular project.

Am I going to be a watercolour painter?  The jury’s out on this one.  Ask me again at the end of the week.

Posted by: Jenny | Sunday, 28 February 2010

On writing – and not writing

There are times when I feel like writing, but I just don’t know what to write.  And there are other times when I don’t actually feel like writing at all.  I know that I can ‘make’ myself write by just turning to the page (or screen) and writing any old thing that comes into my head.  Julia Cameron (a writer and artist who has published a very useful and practical book on the art, The Right to Write) calls these ‘morning pages’.

Sometimes my morning pages will deliver a piece of writing that I find meaningful or valuable, and worthy of sharing.  At other times it really is a load of drivel.  I just have to sit down to write, and see what comes out.

What I have not yet managed to achieve, other than in a couple of highly artificial exercises, is any creative work of fiction.  My writing goal is to write short stories.  I don’t feel I have a novel ‘in me’ – and in any event, I enjoy reading stories almost as much as, or perhaps more than, I enjoy novels.  So the short story seems a natural genre to start with.  A short story is also something that I can publish myself, on my blog.  And it is something that, even in these days of electronic media, might be taken up for publication by a magazine.

Although… I am not at all sure that I am seeking a wider readership.  Aside from the very few things I have published on my blog (with its rather small readership) or read aloud on a writing course, all my writing so far has had an audience of one: me.

So it seems I have uncovered a psychological hurdle in my journey towards becoming a writer.  I am afraid of revealing too much of myself to others.  I am not sure I actually want my work to be read.

Another psychological hurdle became apparent to me when I carried out one of the writing exercises in Julia Cameron’s book.  She asks the student to list the people who have been an obstacle to his or her creative expression.  After some reflection I recalled that I had a teacher, when I was 13 or 14, who actively discouraged me from writing stories.  I don’t even recall her name.

As a child, I had loved making up stories – both in play and on the page.  I continued to write highly imaginative stories in my early teens, and in my first years at secondary school I had an imaginative (and also young) English teacher, Miss Swift, who appreciated and encouraged my writing.  Then I moved schools, and found that my stories about people, with settings drawn from my experience and imagination, full of dialogue and following a plot that developed as I wrote, were no longer flavour of the month.  The type of ‘creative writing’ that my new English teacher required was descriptive, theoretical, analytical – in fact the opposite of ‘creative’ in my view.

My subsequent years of school and higher education (and I was fortunate enough to attend good schools and an excellent university) turned me into a young adult who could present a clearly-worded argument and write a precise report.  I’ve never looked back – until now – and my creative writing skills have never recovered.

Until now.

Posted by: Jenny | Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The ‘Ben archive’

Today I started going through the boxes and files of documents left by our son Ben.  I have been meaning to do this for quite some time.  At first, I couldn’t really face it.  Then more recently, I have found the task quite daunting as I don’t really know how to go about it.

The weather is dreadful and I am not tempted to set foot outside the house, even to wander down to the greenhouse and inspect the plants.  I have no social or work commitments all day.  I have the place to myself, with husband and son both away.  What better opportunity to start on the mammoth task?

So I begin with a file of things, most of which are notices or testimonials about Ben after he passed away.  One is a notebook which I don’t recall having seen before, put together by young Baha’i friends of Ben’s  a few days after he died.  They were attending a youth conference together over New Year 2006.  Each has written a short memorial to Ben.

It is touching to read these young people’s comments.  Already, they are four years older and their lives have moved on.

I make a few more entries on the blog that I have started in Ben’s memory.  That’s enough for one day – this kind of task has to be taken in small doses.

Posted by: Jenny | Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Honeybourne Line litter pick

Thankfully it was a dry morning on Saturday, when 25 people got busy on the Honeybourne Line cycle path in Cheltenham to pick up litter and tidy the area.

Meeting at “Ben’s Bench” on the cycle path, they worked hard for an hour.  Malcolm Walls, of Cheltenham Borough Parks Department, said “It’s great to see the local community get out and take responsibility for the environment.  We’d love to see even more people doing it!”  The Parks Department provided tools and bin bags for the volunteers to use, and took away the bags of litter afterwards.

Many of the people who took part remember Ben Lockwood, who died in a road traffic accident on Christmas Eve 2005, aged 24.  The first litter pick was organised on Ben’s birthday in February 2007, when the bench was dedicated by friends and family and members of the Rendezvous Society.  A litter pick has taken place every February since then.

Rendezvous has been associated with the cycle path since it was first planned in 1985.  Young people from various countries gathered in Cheltenham for a youth conference that summer, and helped to clear the undergrowth from a section of the line near Malvern Road.  Ben came along then, as a toddler, and when he was older he took part in another youth conference organised by Rendezvous.  The Rendezvous charity celebrates its 25-year anniversary this year.  Maz Eshraghi-Yazdi was one of the original youth volunteers from 1985.  He joined the litter-pickers on Saturday, with his own two children, Ryan and Kian.

Ben was a member of the Bahá’í Faith, and it is important to Bahá’ís to do good deeds in the name of the departed.

Ben’s father Martin Lockwood, a member of the Bahá’í community and Rendezvous member, said “As I cleared the area around Ben’s bench, it was wonderful to receive so many appreciative comments from passers-by.  It feels really good to be doing something to benefit the community.  We found ourselves clearing more brambles than litter this year.  Thanks to the respect that the people of Cheltenham have for their surroundings, there was less litter lying around!”

Volunteers had travelled from as far afield as London and Swansea to join in, but most of the helpers were local to Cheltenham.  After an hour of hard work, everyone enjoyed a bowl of hot soup at St Marks Methodist hall.

See you there next year!

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