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.

Things I noticed when I became lighter

I was looking for this posting this morning in order to show it to a friend, when I discovered that it didn’t exist. I thought I’d posted it ages ago. The material here comes from a notebook entry that I wrote in August 2007, to record some observations before their novelty wore off.

  • I can submerge myself in the bath. No longer must I decide which bits to leave sticking out of the water.
  • My flexibility has increased (despite not having done any exercises to improve it): I can curl my legs up underneath me on the sofa, for example, and it is much easier to wriggle on and off the bed in the boat.
  • My ability to deal with heights – to balance on ladders, etc – has improved (though it’ll never be great in comparison with that of the rest of the population). I noticed this first when going up the ladder to the loft to try and find some old clothes that would fit me. It’s also very noticeable when boating, and helps a lot.
  • My bone-structure has come into focus. Running my hand over my face is interesting – the jawline, in particular. I have quite a nice facial bone-structure, it turns out. It seems to be quite delicate: the kind of face that looks best with light, delicate jewellery.
  • Wearing jewellery, especially necklaces, is fun again! Some of them simply didn’t fit at all before, and some didn’t look right. Some of the chains now need shortening, in fact.
  • My thighs no longer brush against each other when I walk (this was a new and exciting observation in the third week of August). It felt odd at first, rather as if I were walking with my legs held wide apart.
  • My wedding and engagement rings, once so tight that removing them was only possible with the help of cold water, had become so loose that they were in danger of falling off. I was able to remove them by shaking my hand a bit. I spent that month wearing an elastic band around my finger to keep my rings safe, and took them to the jeweller in September to have them made four sizes smaller.

Dutch girls

Something that strikes me as odd in Amsterdam is the existence, side by side, of two radically different ways of being (or looking) female. Two styles. The Red Light District style—the naked body, make-up, red fabric, black leather etc—and the scrubbed face, denim, bike-riding, no-nonsense types. We speculate that there is even a cross-over between the two. Are there young women who arrive by bike wearing their jeans, undress, put on the make-up and stand in the window? This whole juxtaposition seems to us Dutch and not English. We are similar but not, after all, the same. [See also ‘Dutch Girl’ by Lisa Yuskavage, recently acquired by the Stedelijk Museum. Nice modern take on Vermeer!]

Another clue to the difference in cultures might be the lack of attention to safety precautions on the city’s many building sites. Andrew has noticed builders on scaffolding without hats, and items being lifted and lowered with no safety barriers, while pedestrians walk beneath—not just on one site, but generally. Is this (I speculate) another facet of the same basic attitude that gives rise to the existence of the coffee shops and the prostitution?

If I were younger I would start asking at this point “and is it a good or a bad thing?” But these days I don’t think in those terms nearly so much. It’s an interesting thing, that’s all. It gives rise to some consequences that are probably good, and some others that are undesirable. On balance, would I choose to live with it or not? I’m not sure. My answer might depend on how lucky I was feeling when you asked me. My optimistic self would find it refreshing. My pessimistic self might be scared.

Generation gap

[OK, so now I’d better actually write some stuff.]

Recently we’ve established social contact with the son of one of my cousins, and his girlfriend. Nice young people. It’s been a curiously disturbing experience, though. Here are people who are a whole generation younger than us, but nevertheless adults. Weird. When you reach middle age you think (well, I thought) that life would run out of novel experiences to show you. But it doesn’t.

On not writing

Well, I haven’t been.

Or reading, either, in fact.

I’ve been in a state of transition, and I don’t find such states conducive to processing much in the way of input, or to producing much in the way of output. I now have the impression (though only time will tell whether I’m right about it) that smoother water lies ahead. This might be a good time to start the blog again. Let’s see.

The art of living well

I’ve been reading, with great pleasure, French women don’t get fat. It’s a supremely elegant book, both in content and in presentation – and inspiring, too.

Actually I bought my copy several months ago but couldn’t get through it then. It seemed to be promoting an ideal that was so far out of my reach as to be depressing even to think about. Not in the least inspiring.

Now it is different: I’m most of the way through my weight-loss program (with 16.8 Kg gone at the last count, obesity already a thing of the past, and entry into the ‘healthy’ range – BMI 20–25 – anticipated later this week) and am thinking hard about my future relationship with food. The book is a delightful companion on this part of the journey, and has already given rise to several pages of my notebook covered with new ideas for ways of living differently and better.


Alan Little tagged me in a recent posting. This is what I’m supposed to do:

  1. Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.

  2. People who are tagged write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.

  3. At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment and tell them theyre tagged, and to read your blog.

  4. If you fail to do this within eight hours, you will not reach Third Series or attain your most precious goals for at least two more lifetimes.

The chance of my responding to anything within eight hours is remote, especially this week, but fortunately I have no idea what Third Series might be – so I guess what I don’t know won’t hurt me – and I don’t believe in reincarnation anyway. Here goes:

  1. I’m not a night owl any more. Maybe I never was, really. I wake early (around the summer solstice, very early indeed) and am most active early in the day.
  2. I haven’t been on an aeroplane since December 2005.
  3. I’ve lost about 12kg of body fat in the past 7 weeks. (It’s OK, don’t worry! I needed to lose it, it’s a medically-supervised programme, my doctor approves, and I feel much better for it).
  4. Tomorrow is our tenth wedding anniversary.
  5. I love to dry laundry outdoors. I study the weather forecast and wait till it’s going to be a good drying day before starting the wash. I arrange the clothes in patterns on the line: first a row of T-shirts, all with orange pegs, then a row of socks, all with yellow ones…
  6. I owned a horse for a while, a few years ago. It didn’t work out well. It was a learning experience.
  7. I’m scared of heights. It’s a problem when boating sometimes (especially when negotiating deep locks).
  8. I visit Venice most years, usually by train (the night train from Paris is best). I mean the Venice in Italy, of course, not the one in California.

The difficult bit, as Alan found, is thinking of eight people who might not mind being tagged. I don’t read very many blogs. Here are the least unpromising seven from the list in my feed reader:

  1. Rod
  2. Animoose
  3. William (but his blog is really too serious for this kind of trivia)
  4. Vicki and Alasdair (though given their posting frequency, a response is unlikely)
  5. Tromey
  6. Derek
  7. Paul Butcher? Unlikely, though – his is not really that kind of blog

I’m editing this post to remove people from the list if they don’t want to play. My original 8 is now already down to 7!

Storm in a teacup

While dramatic floods are causing mayhem in the rest of the country, all there is to report from our stretch of riverbank is … a cow in the water. There is much very localised excitement. I called out the Pindar, who turned up half an hour ago with a rope but is waiting for his team. Meanwhile the cow has got itself out of the river and is grazing on our neighbour’s back garden – which would be fine except that the only way back to where it’s supposed to be is via the road.

Family history

[ I haven’t posted much lately. Lots going on but it’s not really blog material. Meanwhile the following might be of interest. I wrote it a few months ago for one of my nieces, who was doing a school project on family history. I’ve checked with my immediate relatives and nobody can think of any reason not to post it here. ]

I heard you’re doing a project on family history and I’ve been thinking about what sort of thing you might want to know. Here are some of my thoughts. Remember that these (especially the “general ideas” that I’ve written first) are only one person’s ideas, and other people might have different ideas. It would be good to check with other people rather than just believing everything I have written.

General ideas about our family

In this section I’m going to write down some general things that I think are unusual about our family when I compare it with some other families. I’m very interested in patterns, so when I am thinking about history I look for things that happen over again in similar ways, so that they make a sort of pattern in time. (Sometimes I might go too far with this, though – I might think that things are following a pattern when actually they aren’t.)

I don’t know the whole history, of course, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about people from four or five generations of the family, so these ideas are based on those stories.

Moving to new places

The first unusual thing is that our family doesn’t have its roots in one special place. Some people, when you ask them to tell you their family history, will talk about a place (or perhaps a few places). They’ll say “That’s where we come from.” Even if they live in a different place themselves, they feel that there is a special place (a house, or a village, or a city) where their family really “belongs”.

Our family isn’t like that. In most generations, after our ancestors grew up they decided to move away to a different place to live. Nowadays lots of people do this, but in past times it was not such a normal thing to do. Our family was ahead of the times! I like to think that this is because they were clever people. They looked around at the world, and thought about what they could do best themselves, and moved to a place where they could make the best use of their own abilities.

Of course, the sad thing about all this moving around was that quite a lot of the children grew up without having relatives nearby. In other families (like part of my husband’s family, for example) there were cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents all living a short walk away.

On the other hand, a good thing about it was that they had relatives a long distance away, so they could go and visit them, and learn about how things were different in other places.

Here’s a suggestion for your project. Make a map of Britain and mark all the places where people in our family have lived. You could even draw arrows from one place to another to show how people moved. This might be quite an interesting bit of the project.

Women who do interesting things

In many families, the family history is really a history of just the men. The women only come into the story because they are the daughter, or the wife, or the mother of a man who did something interesting. They didn’t do interesting things themselves. In our family it’s not like that. The women were often in charge and made the decisions about what to do. I like that (because I’m a woman!).

Getting involved with politics

Several people in our family, particularly on Granddad’s side, have been very concerned about things that don’t seem to be fair (there are lots of examples of this kind of unfairness, such as some people having more money than others, and so on). Rather than just saying “that’s the way things are and there’s nothing you can do about it”, many of us have tried to make things better. Quite a few of us have done this by joining the Labour Party. Others didn’t agree with all of the Labour Party’s ideas but have still tried to make things better in other ways.

Of course, we haven’t solved all the problems of the world! But there are some things that we can point to, some changes that have happened that really have made things a bit better for everybody, where we can say “I helped to make that happen – maybe if I hadn’t bothered to get involved, it wouldn’t have happened at all”. This is very satisfying.

Stories about particular people

I expect you’ve already looked at the family tree and been given a list of who is who. These are just some extra stories to fill in the details. Please ask me if you need more information to understand how these stories fit into the big picture. I haven’t written about all the interesting people because I didn’t have time – it would fill a whole book!

Murdina Alice Crown (later Murdina Alice Winter): Grandma’s mother

Her family came from Sunderland, and I’m pretty sure that her mother was Irish. (Check this with Grandma because I can’t quite remember!).

She preferred to be known as Alice. I think she didn’t like the name Murdina because it’s an unusual one and she was a no-nonsense kind of person who preferred names to be more ordinary. She didn’t like “making a fuss” about things. I think it’s rather a nice name – it’s an ancient Scottish/Gaelic one originally. If it had been my name, I would have used it!

She must have been a clever girl, because after leaving school she trained to be a teacher. In those days very few girls went to University and you would only be able to do that if you came from a rich family. Training to be a teacher was the next best thing.

She married a man called Thomas Winter. He had various different jobs but didn’t earn a lot of money, so it was very lucky for the family that she was a teacher, because this gave them a home as well as money. The teacher in a village school in those days would be given a house that went with the job, so they lived in the School House, first in a village called Cliff, and later in a village next to the sea on the east coast of Yorkshire, called Atwick. Atwick was a very small village, so the school was very small too, and children of different ages sat alongside each other – there weren’t enough children to have separate classes for different ages.

(Murdina) Alice and Tom had two children, Margaret (your Grandma) and her elder sister Jean. Both of them went to the village school, so they were taught by their own mother until they were 11 years old. After that they would go to Bridlington on the bus, to the High School. It was a long bus ride, too far for children younger than 11.

When Murdina Alice got too old to work any more, she retired. By then there were even fewer children living in the village, and the education authority decided to do something different about teaching them (I’m not sure what happens now – perhaps they get a bus to somewhere nearer than Bridlington). So the school house wasn’t needed any more, and they let her and her husband stay there. They lived there for the rest of their lives. The school itself stood empty for quite a long time, but eventually it was converted into a community centre for the village.

There was an article in the local newspaper about her when she retired. Ask Grandma about this – she’s got a copy of it.

She was very musical, and used to play the piano and also the church organ. She was very good at knitting and crochet as well.

Frederick Woodall: Granddad’s grandfather

He grew up somewhere in the Midlands (Stoke-on-Trent, maybe?). I don’t know a lot about him (Granddad can tell you more, I’m sure). He was a tailor and also a Quaker. He moved to London.

He used to make tailor’s chalk (a special kind of chalk that is used for drawing lines on cloth so that you can cut it out accurately). He made white tailor’s chalk for normal use and a blue version for drawing on white cloth because white marks don’t show up on white cloth. He invented a way of making the chalk into solid pieces like little cakes, by pressing it into shape in a cylinder and then squeezing it out and chopping pieces off. To give the pieces an edge so that they could be used for drawing, he would rub them on pieces of white cloth.

One day he washed out some of the white cloths that he’d used for making an edge on the blue tailor’s chalk, and he noticed that they seemed to come out a very bright, clean-looking sparkling white. He realised that the blue colour in the blue tailor’s chalk made white cloth look “whiter than white”. He mentioned this to a man he met in a pub, who paid him £10 for it. This other man then went to a company called Reckitt and Coleman, who made washing powder, and sold them the idea. For many years afterwards they sold a special blue washing powder called Reckitt’s Blue, which was based on this invention. Ten pounds doesn’t seem like much money for such a good idea, but this was a very long time ago and money was worth much more then, so actually, thinking about it now, it doesn’t seem like such a very bad reward.

I don’t know anything else about him or his wife.

He had several children, and they all (as far as I know) went into the tailoring business. Some or all of them moved to Eastbourne, on the south coast of England. They were all Quakers. There were two daughters who never got married, and lived to be very old. Younger people in the family called them “The Aunts” and were quite scared of them – they used to boss everyone else around. I met them once when they were very old and I was a very little girl (younger than you are now). Ask Granddad about them.

There was also a son in this family, who was…

Henry Woodall: Granddad’s father

I never met him. He died just before I was born, but I have heard quite a lot of stories about him.

One of the special things about being a Quaker is that Quakers refuse to join in when there is a war. They won’t join the army, the navy or the air force, because they don’t believe that being violent is ever the solution to any problem. They even refuse to join when the government is telling everybody to join, which happens sometimes in history (not very often – only when there is a really big war going on). This is called being a Conscientious Objector.

When Henry Woodall was a young man, the First World War happened, and he was a Conscientious Objector. Instead of joining in with the fighting, he decided to do something to help make things better, so he joined with other Quakers who were organising an ambulance service to rescue injured soldiers from the battlefields. He had to be very brave to do this, because it was very dangerous to go onto battlefields where there were lots of bullets and bombs. He probably spent more time in those dangerous places than a lot of the soldiers did, so he was quite lucky to come out of it alive.

He was given some medals later on for what he did with the Quakers’ ambulance service. (Your Dad has got these medals now – ask him to show you). Another interesting thing happened because of this later on, after the war was over: one of the men he had worked with in the ambulance service had a father who was called Ramsay MacDonald. About six years after the war ended, Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister (he was the first ever Labour Prime Minister), so Granddad’s father got to go to a party at number 10 Downing Street for all the people who had worked on the ambulance service.

He lived on for another 40 years after the end of the First World War. As well as being a tailor, and carrying on being a Quaker, he was very good at playing bowls. He won a lot of cups and trophies for this.

He was married to…

Evelyn Avis (later Evelyn Woodall): Granddad’s mother

I don’t know much about her early life or her parents. I think her family didn’t have very much money. She was quite clever but she had to leave school quite young to get a job and start earning money. She started work as an apprentice tailor in the Woodall family’s business, and this is how she met Henry, who later on became her husband. I don’t know whether her family were Quakers or whether she became a Quaker after meeting him, but anyway she was one for all the rest of her life.

She and Henry set up a tailoring business together in Eastbourne. They lived in a tall house. The ground floor was the shop, where customers would come to be measured and to choose the materials for their clothes. At the back, behind the shop, was the workroom where they would cut out the clothes and sew them together. Upstairs were the living rooms and bedrooms.

Henry was a very skilled tailor but he didn’t have the ability to manage a business, and would not have been able to do it on his own. The business worked well because both of them worked at it together. A woman came in to help in the house and look after the children so that Evelyn had time to work at the tailoring business. (I suppose the proper word for a woman who does that sort of job is a “servant”, but I think that gives the wrong impression because they weren’t the kind of rich people who you think of as having servants – they just needed somebody to help out because of the business).

The Second World War caused a big change in their lives. They were too old to need to worry about being involved in the war itself (only young adults get told to join armies and navies etc usually, and by this time they were middle-aged, not young any more), but the war still caused them big problems. Because Eastbourne is on the south coast, German bombers would fly over on the way to London, so lots of their customers moved away and went to live in places they thought were safer. Now there were not enough people left in Eastbourne who wanted to pay to have their clothes made, so the tailoring business stopped making enough money to pay for the family to live. Evelyn and Henry therefore had to move.

They decided to go and start again in a town called Abergavenny in South Wales. It must have been difficult for them, starting up their business all over again in a new place where nobody knew them. I don’t know why they chose Abergavenny. There were very few Quakers there, and most of the other people were Welsh. They must have felt very left out to begin with. But eventually it worked out alright, and they found enough people who wanted to pay to have clothes made. They also found a house that was arranged in the same way as the house in Eastbourne had been, with a shop and a workroom on the ground floor, and the living rooms upstairs, and they stayed there all the rest of their lives.

Lots more people…

Oh dear! I’ve been typing all day nearly, and I’ve left so much out. I’d better stop now and get some work done. If I have time, I’ll write again and fill in some more facts about other people.

Some things on the Web

Here are some things you can find on the Internet about people in our family.

Granddad has done lots of research work in computer science and mathematics. Here you can see a list of some articles he has written. Actually that only shows a few of them, just the most recent ones. There is a famous computer science textbook by Donald Knuth called The Art of Computer Programming. Granddad is mentioned in this! His name is in the index. Maybe you could include a photocopy of that bit of the index in your project.

Here is a bit about the village of Atwick. (There is a caravan site at Atwick. You could go and see what it’s like. The sea there is very cold!)

Here is a website about the Quakers.

By the way, if you want to know anything about me, you can look at my personal website.