A New Hobby

After some badgering by the husband, I’ve got myself a new hobby – as apparently knitting, reading and writing this blog don’t seem to count. Although there was some misunderstanding when I told him what I’d taken up and he wondered where I’d hidden the special equipment – it seems he thought I’d send ENGRAVING and wondered when I’d discovered my artistic talent.

My new hobby is actually GRAVING and is nothing more suspect than looking at old graves, of which the South of England has more than a fair few. I’ve always liked cemeteries anyway so it seemed a natural progression to actually look at some of the headstones and make notes of the graves which caught my attention, either because of the epitaph, the architecture or the occupant.

However, there are a few rules to graving, mostly due to the fact that it’s good manners to behave in a certain way when consorting with the dead, so I set out here a very basic etiquette for any would-be gravers:

1. Please respect where you are. I know this is common sense, but it’s surprising how many people just seem to ignore it. This means don’t sit on the grave (dancing on them is completely verboten, no matter how much you hated the deceased), don’t let children or animals run riot around the graveyard and do not damage the headstone. These are people’s relatives; I’m not sure I would be entirely happy if someone came along and wrote “Kevin Loves Doreen” in permanent marker on my gran’s headstone – so don’t do it. Also, no loud music and no parties. Really, what kind of people would do that in a graveyard?

2. Alongside this goes please respect other people’s beliefs. What I mean is that if you visit a Jewish or Muslim cemetery and you are not of the faith, don’t assume that your ideas are better than theirs. Equally, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, keep that one to yourself as well, especially if a nearby grave happens to have visitors. Most graves are also in churchyards, but don’t let that put you off if you are not of the faith – you won’t burst into flames, I promise you.

3. Do not take rubbings of any gravestone without permission. Keep a notebook and pen and write it down, or in this day and age of mobile telephones, take a photograph. Equally, unless you are personally acquainted with the deceased, don’t leave flowers or any kind of memento – and whatever you do, no matter how dead the flowers are, do not remove anything left by anyone else. It’s not for you to do.

4. Do not attempt to look for a grave if there is a funeral taking place nearby. That’s just rude.

Otherwise – enjoy a nice day out, take some sandwiches (clear up after yourself, obviously) and a thermos and spend a lovely peaceful day outdoors. Makes a change from staring at a screen, doesn’t it?

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Chintz Makes A Comeback

Every so often I find myself glancing through the pages of a fashion magazine, usually because I’m stuck in the hairdressers (or doctors) and I’ve left my book at home. However, I have noticed that the so called fashion gurus are suggesting that chintz is making a comeback – and not just for home furnishings.

In its purest form, chintz is a glazed calico invariably printed with a floral pattern on a pale background, but the distinctive patterning has lent itself to designs on everything from pottery to wallpaper. The patterns are large and bold and often block-printed on a background of pale or bright colours, such as lemon yellow, pale green or ivory. The majority of chintz fabric was initially used for upholstery and it was not unknown to find curtains, bed covers, cushions and chair coverings all made from matching fabrics. That must have dazzled the eyes! It wasn’t long before unglazed calico and cottons were printed in similar styles, which also became known as chintz. Think Laura Ashley, but brighter with bigger patterns.

Chintz has been in and out of fashion since the late 17th century and before the production process for making chintz had been perfected in Europe, it was actually illegal in England and France to import it. This ban was lifted once the dyeing and printing process was understood and replicated in English cotton mills in 1759. English chintz added its own original designs to Indian, Persian and Mughal designs of early chintz.

As I say, it seems to be making a comeback – heaven help us – with large, bright floral patterns on a variety of jewel coloured backgrounds – and even black. Much as I love flowers, I’m not sure I like chintz. It will always remind me of a particularly uncomfortable armchair that I once sat on, which had been covered in a yellow chintz fabric that felt waxy and rigid. I didn’t like the chair, I didn’t like the feel of the cloth and I’m not sure I fancy swanning around Sainsburys in my finest curtain fabric. I can see this being another fashion trend I give a miss.

Jon’s World – Philip K Dick

Time is one of those things that any science fiction writer worth their warp drive has to deal with sooner or later and, like reality and memory, is a concept that Philip Dick had a great deal of fun with. This story is a lovely example of why time travel is an inherently bad idea, but given a little spice with suggestions that mental illness may not be what we necessarily think it is.

Jon’s father, Ryan, has built a time machine with the intention of going back in time to steal the plans for an AI which, in their world, was used as a weapon and essentially turned Earth into a nuked out wasteland with small habitable patches. This actually reminded me a lot of MegaCity One from Judge Dredd if I’m honest. However, it is noted very early in the story that Jon is mentally ill, suffering from realistic hallucinations of an idyllic, agrarian culture – which in turn reminded me of Ancient Greece for some reason. Ryan goes back in time and achieves his mission, but makes a crucial mistake by killing someone who wasn’t meant to die…

Alternate history, where one crucial event in the past did or didn’t happen and thereby creating a different reality, is an entire science fiction subculture of its own. Some of it is very good and some of it – well, unreadable is about the best thing I can say. Dick’s treatment of it in this story is very cleverly done and very enjoyable, even if it’s not remotely subtle and you can spot the end half a mile away. It’s sad in places, exciting in others and not badly written. I found reminders of lots of things I’ve read/watched in the past, which just goes to show how influential Philip Dick’s ideas have been over the years.

Busting Some Goth Stereotypes

Or in other words, how to respond to certain things you will almost certainly hear (and I certainly have over the years):-

1. It’s a phase, you’ll grow out of it – Well, I stopped growing when I was 12, and I was quite the baby bat at that time, so perhaps that explains a lot. I have said previously that I don’t believe Goth is a phase; it’s an entire philosophy of life and so it would be very difficult to grow out of if it provides meaning.

2. You’re a bit morbid – On the contrary, I think the Gothic attitude towards death is entirely healthy. We face death head on, it doesn’t scare us and we understand that it’s an important aspect of living. Without death and decay, life itself cannot exist; it’s just that rather than pretend it doesn’t happen, or it’s a terrifying thing, we approach it rather more rationally than that.

3. You’re all psychos – That only applies to me at Victoria station on work days. Seriously, though – some Goths do have mental health problems, but then so do some non-Goths. Perhaps by not trying to put a brave face on it, or brushing it under the carpet, but acknowledging that the thought processes might be a bit skewed is actually the healthier option?

4. You’ll regret that when you get older – Said to me after every piercing, tattoo and new corset. I’m still waiting. Basically, if you’ve thought carefully about it and have made the decision carefully, regrets don’t enter the picture.

5. You’re all miserable – Some of the funniest people I know are Goths, but then I love black humour. Perhaps it’s that we find other things funny than the “normal people” do.

6. You’ll never get a job looking like that – I’ve got one. Many Goths of my acquaintance have well paid positions in professions ranging from sciences, medicine, law and journalism through to the creative arts and music. I have found that many Goths are fiercely intelligent, which can only help them when looking for paid employment.

7. It’s just another uniform – I disagree strongly with this. Not all female Goths try to resemble Morticia Addams, nor do all male Goths seek to look like Marilyn Manson. There’s more uniformity on the racks at Primark. If a girl wishes to wear black bondage trousers and a Cradle of Filth t-shirt, or a lad would rather dress like Lord Byron, then fair play to them.

8. You’re all devil worshippers – Not quite sure how this one comes about, but I think it has something to do with the fact that there is a fair bit of pagan or pseudo-Christian iconography on the scene. People often forget that the devil is, by and large, a Christian concept – and if you’re not a Christian, you can’t really believe in the devil, so you can’t worship him. The Old Gods are a different matter, and if idiots wish to brand them as devils, it says more about them than about you.

9. You’re too fat/old/young/disabled to be Goth – And the person who said that is too stupid to understand a sensible answer. Don’t dignify them by trying to provide one.

10. You’re not a real Goth – The only possible response to this is identical to that given to number 9 above.

I hope this is of some help to interested readers – and of wry amusement to others – but if you choose to walk the path, walk it your way and do it with your head held high.

My Life In Books

Okay, I admit it – I nicked this idea from The Guardian because I think that actually it’s quite fun and really makes me think about what kind of books I like (and loathe). It was, if I’m honest, also surprisingly difficult to do and there’s every possibility that the answers could change if I were to do it again in a year or two. So here we have it – my life in books.

1. Book That Changed My Life – Very probably My Year of Meat by Ruth Ozeki, which I read years and years ago but not since, even though I have a copy. What I learned about factory farming put me off eating meat for life. I think that’s a fairly significant life decision, don’t you?

2. Book I Wish I’d Written – There are two contenders for this, but I’m going to opt for the obvious one and say The Children’s Book by AS Byatt. I fell in love with it within pages of borrowing it from the library so immediately picked up my own copy so I never had to part with it again – and I don’t regret that decision one jot. I really, really wish I’d written it.

3. Book I Would Give as a Present – That depends on the potential recipient, but I do wish more people have read Lust for Life by Irving Stone. It’s a fictionalised account of the last decade or so of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and used his letters to his brother as the basis for the novel. It’s wonderfully moving and I really feel I understand his paintings a little better. This is the other book I wish I’d written – that’s how much I love it.

4. Book I Think is Overrated – Anything by Dan Brown. Now I appreciate that he can write books that sell by the truckload, but the stories are badly written and in a couple of cases, not very original. I don’t see what all the fuss over Fifty Shades of Grey was about either, and that’s another example of “poor writing that sells a lot”. I’d love to know how they do it. Is there a form I have to fill in?

5. Book I Think is Underrated – Albert Camus’ The Rebel. It’s not the easiest read, and I am the first to admit that, but it’s well worth the effort. The breadth of his learning is astonishing and he makes some fascinating points which I hadn’t really considered before.

6. Book That Changed My Mind – Moby Dick, although I had to wait until my mid-forties to tackle it, but it was worth it. I hadn’t realised how cleverly written it was and – despite some of the subject matter – I really enjoyed it, but it’s not for everyone.

7. Book I Couldn’t Finish – Finnegan’s Wake, and I have tried. Honestly, three times I’ve started it and the furthest I got was page 23. I just can’t do it. The bloody thing’s impossible and I’m convinced that anyone who claims to have read it is lying through their teeth.

8. Book I’m Ashamed Not to Have Read – I’m not ashamed, but I don’t like admitting that I dislike Jane Eyre. So many of my friends love it but I’ve never really got on with the Bronte’s and I find Jane Eyre really irritating.

9. Book That Made Me Cry – Lust for Life (see above) gets me every time. I just can’t help getting emotionally involved. Mind you, I also cry at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, so that just proves I’m a sentimental old bat.

10. Book That Influenced Me – Too many to mention, as I have stolen something from pretty much everything I’ve read, including how not to do it. Perhaps my biggest influence is a friend of mine, Suzie Grogan, who has written a number of books now. She’s clear evidence that there’s nothing quite as effective as getting on with it when you want to write a book. And her books are brilliant to boot.

Social Media As A Means To Inadequacy

I’ve been unfriended on Facebook again. It happens periodically and often for reasons I never find out, but given that I don’t have a great many friends to start with, I notice. I don’t let it bother me though; there are always reasons and frankly, I don’t let social media govern my life anymore.

I think I read somewhere that the average person has 300 friends on Facebook and roughly 200 followers on Twitter. I believe figures are similar for Instagram and Tumblr, but as I’ve never used those, I can’t comment. I recently deleted my Twitter account (and don’t miss it) but at its maximum I had 50 followers. On Facebook, I have 45 friends and at least two thirds of those are people I’m related to. Followers come, followers go; some block, some just never follow back; some keep turning up like bad pennies no matter how many times you hit the “ignore” button. And if you don’t have many followers, like me, it’s very easy to read things into this that simply aren’t there.

For example, I was recently unfollowed by someone I’d always considered quite a good friend. We’d met in real life, and knew each other really well. I’ve no idea why she’s chosen to unfriend me, but I’m certain there are reasons behind it which will become clear in the fullness of time. It would be very easy to view this as a personal slight, but I don’t. It may just be that I don’t view social media as that important any more. It’s a method I use to keep in touch with people on a regular basis that is cheaper than the phone, quicker than a letter and often more entertaining when animal photos are involved.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of measuring one’s popularity by the number of “likes” or “retweets” one gets on social media; but that’s not a true measure of popularity at all. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into myself, and it’s been a cause of great pain and upset in the past. It’s really important to remember that there is more to life than social media. In fact, there’s an entire world that doesn’t involve a computer screen. Revolutionary I know, but I’ll share one nugget of wisdom with you – since I’ve stopped measuring my life by social media, I feel a whole lot less inadequate.

Serial Writing

One of the things I have noticed reading The Hound of the Baskervilles recently is how obvious it is that Conan Doyle wrote it for serial publication. Many of the chapters have cliffhanger endings – none more notably than the famous quote “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” – and all of the chapters are quite short, as if the reader’s attention span was on the limited side. I’m not sure how many items were published in each edition of The Strand Magazine, so it may have been necessary for writers to ensure that their work stood out and encourage readers to buy the next issue and find out what happened.

Serial publication was a common method used during the Victorian era, when many novels were published in three volumes and were often expensive. By printing instalments in magazines, authors could reach a much wider audience, who did not need to spend a great deal of money on literature. Given that there was no such thing as television or radio, many evenings were spent in reading aloud stories and articles from magazines and newspapers; it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that different members of the family read different stories out to each other. It’s what I would do.

Some authors, such as Charles Dickens, had the means to publish their own work serially, as Dickens owned and ran the magazines All The Year Round and Household Words, which also published the works of his friends Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. However, the majority of other authors were not so lucky and had to fight for publication in an extremely competitive world, so their stories had to be exciting and end in a way that left the editors demanding the next instalment.

Obviously, with the advent of cinema and television, serial writing turned into another form of drama; soap operas and weekly thrillers all required audiences to return to find out what happens next. Cheaper books and fewer fiction magazines also led to serial publication dying a death. Stephen King tried to revitalise it with the initial publication of The Green Mile, but it didn’t work out too well, and the novel sold better in a one volume edition. As far as I’m aware, nobody else has tried it since.

The techniques of serial writing are always useful; if it keeps readers turning the pages and interested in your story, it can’t be a bad thing. Just try not to include the footprints of a gigantic hound.

In the Country of the Blind is the One Eyed Man Really King?

One thing that I’ve learned from reading Day of the Triffids is that being sighted may not necessarily be the best thing. Admittedly, you’re aware of the location of triffids, so are less likely to become their next meal – but you’re also just as likely to find yourself at the mercy of a blind person intent on using your sight to keep himself safe. This happens a number of times in the novel, where sighted people are basically used as minders, to find food and shelter and protect their blind charges from triffid attacks.

This led me to thinking whether having sight in a world where it is a minority is actually a good thing. It forces one to consider arguments about disability very carefully; just because deaf, blind or otherwise disabled people may be in the minority is that necessarily a bad thing, or do they have other advantages over “normal” people? (I put “normal” in inverted commas, because there is no real definition of normal and I don’t really want to get into an “us and them” argument). Clearly, some of the blind people in Wyndham’s novel were clever enough to see a way to manage their situation – admittedly by slavery – and it’s also apparent that not all of the sighted people are adjusted enough to make the best of their terrible situation.

It’s an interesting thought that in the land of the blind (or deaf, or wheeled or whatever), the fully able many not necessarily be king. There are disadvantages to being fully abled in that the blind are well adjusted to working in the dark; the deaf have adapted to noisy environments; and so on. I don’t know whether it’s true that some disabled people have improved function in other senses (i.e. the blind have better hearing, or the deaf a better sense of smell) but I can see how that would work. It’s a fascinating way to consider how being disabled may not actually be such a terrible thing after all.

Militant Deafness

I read a paper recently how some academics believe that deaf people should be considered an ethnic or cultural group rather than a disability. There’s certainly an element of tribe and communal spirit within the Deaf world which is very strong – and often rather militant, and not in a pleasant way either. I was appalled to read of a very talented deaf musician who has been sent death threats because she speaks and sings, rather than signs exclusively. Clearly, the senders of these threats haven’t considered how she’s supposed to sign while playing the ukulele, but I’ll move over that. I think there’s a crucial point they’re missing here, which is that she went deaf as a child due to connective tissue problems, so had already learned to speak and to adapt her musicianship to allow her to “hear” through vibrations in the floor.

I’m not a fan of this militant ghettoization, mainly because I can still hear (not well), was educated in mainstream schools and don’t sign very well. I don’t think I’m alone in being someone who has had to learn to be deaf, if you like – I wasn’t born deaf, I started to lose my hearing as a child – and so I’ve grown up talking and playing my records too loud and so on. Why should I be penalised by people within the Deaf community for my upbringing? I understand and appreciate that people who were born Deaf have totally different experiences, but I don’t understand the need to be so divisive? What about hearing children of Deaf parents, or Deaf children of hearing parents – how do they fit into this worldview.

It does remind me a little bit of the radical lesbian feminist movement in the early 1970s. These were women who may not necessarily have been lesbian in the truest sense of the word – that their first choice partners would always have been other women – but have elected to have lesbian relationships for political reasons, i.e. that men are the enemy and heterosexuality reinforces the patriarchal status quo. It’s fundamentalism at the end of the day, and I think all three of my readers know what I think of that.

However, it would be wrong of me to suggest that militant deafness does not exist. It’s a part of the Deaf community and we must live with it, whether or not we agree with it. I feel that deaf people (and their nearest and dearest) ought to learn to sign, but I’m not convinced it ought to be their exclusive method of communication, especially if they are in a predominantly hearing environment (such as a school). It puts incredible pressure on people who have become deaf at a later stage (i.e. having previously heard and learned to speak) to learn to sign in order to be accepted as part of the deaf community. Surely that can’t be right.

Bug Ugly!

Don’t panic – this isn’t anything like as large as it looks. The acorn weevil is tiny and can often only be seen under a microscope – which given how it looks, is probably no bad thing. Have you ever seen a more peculiar creature? It reminds me of nothing more than a medieval plague doctor.

At the end of the weevil’s beak are two tiny pincers which it uses to bore a hole into the side of a young acorn. It lays its eggs inside the kernel and as both the acorns and larvae grow, the larvae will eat their way out of the acorn leaving just a shell. Infested acorns are easily spotted by the tiny holes in the kernel. What with the weevils and the gall wasps, it’s amazing any intact acorns actually manage to become oak trees!

I must admit that when I first saw the acorn weevil, I was fascinated by the large round eyes and tiny little beige hairs covering its face. It looks like some kind of cute alien. It’s the angled antennae on the beak that fascinate me; that must be a unique feature. It’s not one I’ve seen before and I’m not entirely sure of their purpose – any resident entomologists out there who could explain it for me?

That said, acorn weevils are a pest and if you have an oak tree, it might be an idea to keep an eye on any fruits it produces as the grubs will hibernate underground before developing into adults and climbing into the trees to cause their havoc.