Chesterton Fen – a walk on the wild side

Yesterday the sun shone, so a perambulation was called for. Out the front door; pause on the pavement to toss a coin. Down the river on the Chesterton side. Boats, reflections, beautiful effects of low winter sunlight. So far, so routine (which isn’t a complaint – I never forget how lucky we are to live here).

On the way home Andrew proposed a variation: up the footpath and then home along Fen Road, past all the mobile-home parks and the Roma houses that lie between the railway line and the A14. A small step out of familiar territory into a totally alien world.

There were dogs. Two slim, tentative, curious ones came out and gave us a friendly sniff. Two huge shaggy Alsatians gave me a fright by barking, but those were chained up in a driveway.

There is money on the Fen. There are shiny 4x4s with personalised number-plates, and some of the houses are really grand, with imposing gateways and trim little stable-blocks for the trotting horses (trotting races are very popular with the Roma).

There’s poverty as well, of course: some of the mobile homes aren’t big at all, and some of the plots are very packed-together. But it all looks tidy enough, at least as far as you can see from the road.

There’s industry there, too. Beyond Silverman’s (known to anyone who’s had to economise when furnishing an office) there are lots of little industrial units. Motor repairs; upholstery repairs; landscaping. Practical stuff. Services, mainly, rather than goods.

And the settlement is expanding still. Builders were at work as we walked past.

Most Chesterton people never venture over the railway line except to follow the river. Would I, without Andrew? Probably not.

Art and competence

Silence here has gone on longer than I expected. Curiously, a long silence is harder to break than a short one (I find this in personal correspondence, too). It seems as though you have to write something important, not just the usual trivia.

So, a few days ago when out for a walk in the sun at midday (trying hard not to be SAD this year) I was very pleased when a really good idea for a profound and fascinating posting popped into my head. And of course the predicable then happened.

I can still remember what was going to be the second half of it, which was (I do distinctly recall) the less interesting bit. This was about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to attain world-class competence at anything. The question that occurs first in reaction to this is: why only 10,000 hours and not even more? The answer seems to be: because nobody ever has more than 10,000 hours to spend. So in fact, if you turn his statement around, you get the answer to a more interesting question, which is: how do we decide what world-class competence is, or what it should be? And it seems that our definition of world-class competence is: “That degree of competence that can be attained by the most able individual after spending as much time practising as anyone can ever find the time for”.

The corollary is that our concept of world-class competence is not an absolute – if the world changes in such a way (for example by the invention of new technology) that an able individual can attain a higher degree of skill in less than 10,000 hours, then we will cease to value competence at the level that we previously judged to be world-class.

Ah, now I remember what the first half was about! There’s nothing like starting to write for unblocking the memory, after all. It was about realistic visual art and its relationship with graphic-arts technology.

Think about Vermeer. He put in his 10,000 hours, for sure. Achieving the effects that he achieved in paint on canvas is slow. But what would a modern-day Vermeer be doing now? I’m certain that he’d start with a camera in his hand, and use Photoshop and a graphics tablet. And that means that he’d be able to produce his results so much quicker. Anybody with a reasonably good eye for composition and colour, and a taste for arranging objects and lighting, can get halfway to producing something like a Vermeer these days by using those tools. The competence that he worked so hard to attain is now pretty easy to come by. Perhaps he could have got it in 1,000 hours of practice. What would he have done in the following 9,000 hours? What would our understanding of the possibilities of art now be?

I will go hundreds of miles just to look at an original Vermeer. I don’t quite know why, when I can look at a reproduction any time. This is another piece of the puzzle, though.

The uses of travel

The Office of the Brand of Abu Dhabi explains (in yesterday’s Guardian) whom it is trying to attract:

They are people who use travel to enrich themselves, always seeking new experiences in new countries … They want unique experiences that feed their sense of discovery. They reject the sameness that increasingly dominates their lives … they crave authenticity, exclusivity, quality.

I feel … targetted. Though I’m not planning a trip to Abu Dhabi any time soon (it would involve flying, for one thing, and generally speaking we don’t). But is that why I travel? It seems so shallow, when you put it like that.

On Tuesday afternoon, on the way to the Albert Hall for Prom 64
(on the final leg of our journey home from Rosenheim via Brussels, trains all the way) after an hour or so browsing the treasures displayed at the British Library (Jane Austen’s own writing-desk, on which the cancelled chapters of Persuasion are displayed—the actual writing-desk! the very pages on which she wrote, with all the crossings-out and second thoughts right there!), I was trying to explain to Andrew why I choose to take the laptop with me on trips these days and to keep up with my email, rather than getting away from it all as he does.

My reasoning is that if I make myself available to my correspondents, especially my customers, as I go, then I can travel far more than I otherwise would (at the cost of a small sacrifice of time while going along). But why do I want to travel more? My home is nice enough, modulo the climate—it’s not a mystery, of course, why anyone would want to get away from the English winter, damp and grey as it is, but why travel at this time of year? The reasons that occurred to me at the time had to do with foreign languages, with being somewhere different (whatever that means), and with feeling the sun on my skin (it’s been a wet summer here).

Hazards of thoughtless editing

Editing is not rewriting. The edited text is not (should not be) the text the editor would have written, if the editor had been commissioned to write the copy instead of the author. It is the text the author would have written, if the author had been perfectly well informed and perfectly skilled. In some ways, therefore, editing is harder than writing.

If you don’t mind bad language, you will be amused by Giles Coren’s tirade on this subject.

The rider as Alexander teacher

Now that I can usually keep my balance without having to grab hold of the horse’s mane, we are getting on to the finer points in these riding lessons. For example, when cantering on a circle, I am instructed to raise my inside hand a bit. Why? Because its presence near the horses shoulder is discouraging him from bending.

This puts me in mind of Alexander lessons (which I had, several years ago). The Alexander teacher rearranges your body by means of the lightest of touches. It seems like magic. It appears that this works on horses, too.

Art, speech and planning

One of our neighbours is Michael Gillespie, the sculptor. We went to his open studio recently, and Andrew asked him to what extent he plans in advance the way his abstract sculptures will develop. He replied that it’s like speech: do you plan exactly what you’re going to say before you start talking?

A while ago I was talking with Alan about what it’s like to do your job in a foreign language (he uses German every day and even chairs meetings in it). He said that he thinks German-speakers plan their speeches more carefully than we do. Before you launch into one of those long sentences with the verb at the end you have to know where you’re going!

Maybe it’s the same with sculpture: perhaps you would plan it more, or less, depending on the medium you were using. As with spoken languages, some materials might lend themselves to spontaneity while others would reward a more premeditated approach.

Trail-riding in South Wales

Two days’ trail-riding at the Cwmfforest centre (“Trans-Wales Trails”) earlier this month. This is my delayed trip report. Executive summary: it was great, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I recommend this place for all levels of rider (you choose which ride to join depending on your competence, and they provide what sound like really exciting challenges for the very experienced – of whom I am not one).

The horses are lovely, and obviously a well-cared-for and happy herd. Their friendships are respected and their individual quirks known and understood. Care is taken in matching riders with horses. My partner was Tristan, 27 years old, about 14.2 hh and with perfectly working brakes. Brakes had been my main worry (it’s a long time since I last went out hacking), so he was definitely the right choice for me. Accelerator a little dodgy, maybe – but its improvement was dramatic after the first morning, once I’d started carrying a stick. He was safe and sure-footed on the slippery ground, and quite friendly too. His conversation was a bit limited – he tends to the taciturn, unlike his owners – but he did communicate a few interesting observations to me along the way (e.g. “Look, there’s a llama in that field! It’s weird!!” and, several times, “Here’s where we canter! Isn’t cantering fun!” followed shortly afterwards – usually after about a hundred metres – by “On the other hand, maybe at our age trotting would get us there just as well, don’t you think? The others are bound to wait for us at the top.”)

It rained a lot. Well, it is Wales! They lent me a long waxed-cotton riding coat, explaining that my Rohan coat and waterproof chaps would be fine to protect me, but the riding coat would protect the saddle too. I’ll buy one for myself before I do this again (which I’m going to). Hard to believe that it was July when I surveyed myself fully equipped for riding out on the first morning: rugby shirt, fleece, body-protector, waxed cotton coat; my thickest jodhpurs, boots, suede half-chaps and full chaps on top; and my fleece-lined waterproof winter riding gloves. I was worried about getting too warm, but it didn’t happen. On return I started stripping off wet and muddy things ready to have tea, and got all the way down to my underwear before I found a dry layer. At the end of the second day my boots collapsed. (Good! I’d been wanting to replace those anyway, so now I can do it without guilt.)

I like the way you are given responsibility for your own horse. (Of course, they check the safety-critical bits to make sure you have done them right.) You take a headcollar and catch your own horse, groom it, and tack it up. At the end of my second day I was asked to take Tristan up to the indoor school (part of the herd was being kept in that night because of the weather forecast) and put him in with the others, all by myself. This involved persuading several of the keener youngsters to stay inside the gate while I opened it, led him in, and then opened it again to let myself out. An interesting challenge.

The Turner family have attitude – I’m sure they wouldn’t be unhappy with that verdict (though they might dispute my choice of word as being too trendy). I have the impression that entertaining themselves by making their guests talk is part of what they find rewarding about their job – besides their obvious love for their horses and the place where they live, of course. After three days in their company I already have the feeling that we are old friends and that I know a lot about them, and vice versa. Meals at Cwmfforest are taken around the family dining table, which seats ten, and guests are challenged with direct questions and provocative statements of opinion, designed to elicit a response. A robust defence of one’s own views in turn is met with approval. Guests are expected to sing for their supper! I like the Turners, though in theory I shouldn’t (their line tends towards the countryside-alliance, health-and-safety-is-ruining-everything, why-should-we-be-in-the-EU, representative-democracy-is-not-the-answer, vegetarianism-is-unnatural end of the spectrum).

It’s an interestingly cosmopolitan place. Nobody at Cwmfforest is Welsh, as far as I can tell. The patriarch and matriarch, Mike and Maria, who built the business from scratch and have been there since 1970, are South African and Bavarian respectively (she does the cooking – Bavarian food, yummy! – just what you need after all day in the saddle). Paul, the son who now runs the riding business, sounds English-posh (I asked him how come, as he’s lived here his whole life, and he explained that he’d been to a boarding school). The extended family includes two Swedish women, one of whom works for them during the summer season and was my riding escort on both days (an impressively competent rider). Other guests while I was there included three Germans, so the conversation around the table had a tendency to switch languages as it went along. I was amused to hear overtones of Welshness creeping into the (very fluent, but accented) English of the non-native residents. I love the way Maria ends sentences with “isn’t it?”, for example. And some of the vowel sounds that Emilie uses are neither English nor Swedish.

I took a few photos.