Déjà vu

These are notes for what might become an essay one day. It’s a big theme and I’m not sure I will ever write it up properly. The elements are:

  • Chapter 12 of Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: ‘In oval mirrors we drive around’: on experiencing a sense of déjà vu;
  • My own experiences of revisiting, after an interval of three(?) years, the half-remembered city of Lecce (‘I went in there—I’m sure I did—and there’s something to see in there, something quite grand, I think …’);
  • A visual illusion—an infinite regression—caused by two not-quite-parallel mirrors (see photo), which in turn reminded me (déjà vu!) of …
  • The downstairs front room in my grandmother’s house, long ago: the ‘shop’, as it was still called, though it hadn’t really been one for years—where there was just such an arrangement of mirrors, endlessly delightful to small children, and presumably also, though in a quieter way, to the ladies of Abergavenny in former days as the fit of their tailored costumes was altered (Granma with a mouthful of pins, measuring, tugging, adjusting with a confident hand—as she still did for us as children, though I never saw her with her paying customers).

Venice Biennale 2009 – first impressions

[Some jottings from my notebook]


Lots of site-specific work (it’s a meme! —first saw it with that American guy a few shows ago—v powerful piece about slavery etc with the weird black Murano glass chandeliers). Examples this year: Giardini; the Venetian blinds in the Korean pavilion; giveaway postcards of Marghera in the Corderia.

Stuffed cats so far: German, Russian.
Stuffed dogs: Nordic; USA (several, but not, I think, real ones).

Several works obviously feminine in style (use of textiles, domestic interiors). Amused to find that we were nearly always guessing the gender of the artist correctly (yes, discovered later that the Korean one was a woman, too).

Scandinavian gay dead writer most impressive so far, but it was a pity they had to include an explanation. Other half of that show (the Danish/Nordic pavilion) is v good too (and feminine, by way of contrast, and also bleak).

Russian pavilion is a ghost train! The automatic artist drawing circles is genuinely creepy. French one is a black prison with black flags inside. Lots of bleak stuff about—recession?

Spanish paintings a bit like our own Gail de Cordova. Nice chairs in there too (with bark on!).

Jef Geys (Belgium)—nice counterpoint to the Simon Baron-Cohen autism/Aspergers book (which I was reading at the time). Collection/classification is a pervasive theme (influence of Damien Hirst).

Yoko Ono quote found in the bookshop: the glass is not half empty. It is 100% full, half with water and half with air. Yes!

In between the good stuff there is a lot of sixth-form (puerile) art. Too much text. Using text in visual art is hard (see Keith Tyson or Tracey Emin for successful use). A beginners’ book on drawing and painting that I read years ago recommended always rendering text illegible if it occurs in the scene, otherwise it draws the eye and distorts the viewer’s response to the composition. Like all rules, this is to be broken, but only by those who know what they’re doing.

More to follow, and photos of the art, when I get round to it. See Biennale website meanwhile.

Now I know where the river goes

I knew it in theory before; but there’s knowing and then there’s knowing.

I started walking, alone, from my own front door, at about 2pm on the last Saturday of September. I didn’t have time really but it was the last good chance of the year, with the weather set fair and dry and no work deadlines that couldn’t be made to wait. I’d spent the morning on my most pressing errands and chores, and then I sent out a brief announcement to some people who might want to come with me, but really not giving them enough notice, which was sort of intentional. Best to set off alone.

The first day’s route was familiar. I’d walked this way before, and boated along it many times. No surprises, just best-foot-forward. I was excited by the plan, and racing the sun, and I made good progress. From home to Clayhithe along the west bank; across the bridge and following the east bank via Upware to the next bridge; across again to Dimmock’s Cote.

Sunset overtook me at Pope’s Corner, and I paused on the bridge to watch it and to wonder what was going to happen next. But luck was with me, and there was half a moon, and the path was straight and level along the top of the floodbank. I strode into Ely railway station at about 8pm. Andrew met me at Cambridge and took me out to dinner. Nice.

Day 2 suffered a bit from a slow start. I was stiffer than I’d expected to be, and took a bath to remedy it. And then the usual faffing-around with email and what-have-you. Train, eventually, back to Ely, where William joined me. He, an efficient blogger, has already documented the weirdly convoluted goose-chase we were sent on by the Fen Rivers Way Association’s booklet. We would have done better following the OS map, which tells you to keep close to the river, even though this means walking along a road for part of the way.

We rejoined the river at Queen Adelaide bridge, and here I finally managed to pick up the rhythm of the previous day, and get into some kind of a stride again. River straight as a ruler; strong sun (glad of my hat). But the lack of pace in the early part of the morning meant that we reached Littleport after Andrew had, and then I needed a rest and some sustenance at the Black Horse, so it was 3pm before he and I bid farewell to William.

Then I set off with Andrew—and immediately made a strategic navigational error. I’d left the OS map for this section on the boat, and failed to buy another copy that morning, and so I was relying on the Fen Rivers Way Association’s 1998 booklet, which told us to cross the river to the east bank. This didn’t work out well. The floodbank is mostly unwalkable, and the A10 is ferocious. Never doing that again. (Subsequent research shows that this section of the official path has been moved to the west bank.)

Once we reached the county boundary, though, things got better. Norfolk looks after its walkers, even if they aren’t on an official long-distance path. And just before the boundary there is the Ship Inn, where the Brandon Creek meets the Ouse, and it is Cambridgeshire CAMRA’s Pub of the Year, and very nice too. Though we only troubled it for a cup of tea on this occasion.

Onwards, fortified by tea. Floodbank now well maintained and walking good. Dusk approaching, though. Eventually the bridge: Ten Mile Bank. Or was it? We were utterly flummoxed. Nothing was as described in the booklet—bridge different, and no trace of the pub—not even its foundations! No shop, no nothing. Well, we crossed anyway to the west bank, where we knew we wanted to be, and shortly afterwards passed St Mark’s Church, the one thing in Ten Mile Bank that seemed to answer to its description in the book. So this probably was Ten Mile Bank, or at least some weird parallel-universe approximation to it.

There was nothing in the village to detain us, so we set off north again. From here to Denver the path follows a minor road, so it didn’t much matter that it was getting dark again. But when we reached the Jenyns Arms I’d had enough. Spurned their food (we’ve tried it before); sat over a drink or two while a taxi came out from Downham Market for us. To the station; to Cambridge; to our usual Sunday-evening takeaway with the usual friends—rather later than usual, though. Web search: discovered the truth about Ten Mile Bank!

Monday morning started with the now-familiar flurry of chores, email, getting ready and just-getting-a-few-things-done-first. And a mad dash into Cambridge to buy a new OS map—not making the same mistake twice. Which resulted in my just missing, at Waterbeach, the train that Shona had caught in Cambridge. So I drove to Downham Market. The train is a lot quicker! It was well after midday when she and I eventually set forth from Downham Market station car-park. Never mind; short day, today.

The first job was to get back to the previous day’s endpoint, the Jenyns Arms. We accomplished this by walking along the Relief Channel, a route I knew already from an earlier boat-related adventure. There were cows, but they were not hostile. After a brief survey of the Denver Complex and its tourist information boards, and a pause, seated on the floodbank across the road from the Jenyns Arms, to consume our M&S sandwiches, we doubled back along the eastern bank of the Great Ouse itself, walking along what is, effectively, a very long narrow island between the river and the Relief Channel. The turf under our feet was close-cropped by sheep, and springy—if it hadn’t been for the thistles, I’d have tried walking barefoot. There were cormorants. We saw a narrowboat waiting outside Salter’s Lode, presumably for the tide (had they been there all night on the mudbank?—the tide was approaching the top as we passed them). In the distance, a long way ahead of us, a huge, white and mysterious building loomed [to be explained in a footnote later]. We admired the flour mill at Downham Market from all angles, and the trim little houses behind the floodbank—the countryside is all very well, but human things have a special fascination.

Downham Market flour mill

I don’t think I’ve ever done a significant walk with another woman before. Alone, yes. In big mixed groups, yes. With a man, yes. The odd thing was to be walking with a companion who had a shorter stride than my own. I’m accustomed to lengthening my stride to keep in step.

We reached Stowbridge by about 4. Pub present and correct, but, sadly, closed on Monday afternoons. Never mind. Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen wasn’t a great deal further on, and its pub was open. From there, after a rest, to Watlington station (less than a mile by road), and thus to Downham Market again (which felt like a buzzing metropolis after the emptiness of the fens), where we collected the car and drove home. A pleasant, companionable day.

I took the Tuesday off from walking, to catch up on things that couldn’t be made to wait any longer.

Wednesday morning: preparations accompanied by a flutter of excitement. Today might finish it! Taped up my poor toes with Elastoplast Extreme, William’s parting gift from Sunday. Packed sandwiches for a long haul. Resumed walking (alone) at Watlington station, by first backtracking to Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen and there ascending the floodbank once again. Glad to be on my own today, so that I could without embarrassment let my battered feet dictate the pace. At Wiggenhall St Peter I found to my astonishment that the ruined church nestles just behind the floodbank. I’d visited it before from the road and never understood this. You can’t now, of course, climb the tower, but the view from it must have been splendid. At Wiggenhall St Germans there was a pub, and I had soup and a pickled egg, and carried on. Crossing the Tail Sluice felt like a significant step, so I sent a triumphant tweet from the top, and my husband phoned to congratulate me. Solitude is not what it used to be.
I entered King’s Lynn just as school was turning out for the day, and it felt weird to be among people again—kids, mums, bikes. Now what? Fantasies of afternoon tea gave way to the reality of the ferry schedule—last boat back at 6pm, and an extra three miles round by the bridge if you miss it. Tea could wait; the unknown beckoned, though my feet weren’t entirely happy about it.
So I followed the channel downstream out of West Lynn. First past the docks, the river busy now with proper, serious shipping, putting to sea on the turning tide. I decided to go on for an hour and then think about what to do next, while there was still time to get back for the ferry. But an hour brought me to a smelly and unattractive stretch next to the sewage works, and I thought, no, this can’t be the end of it. Something will turn up. So I went on. And so it was that, as the sun was slowly sinking, I found myself in a perfectly, wonderfully desolate spot, and finally I could (more or less) look out at what just about qualified to be described as the sea. And I was happy, and it was done. And now all I had to do was to get back to civilization.
Which turned out to be incredibly easy. I didn’t deserve to be so lucky, but that’s the story of my life in a lot of ways, and at least I don’t take it for granted. Well, not all the time, anyway. I turned inland, and there was a farm, and the farmer said “Are you lost?”, so I explained, and he drove me to the village (Clenchwarton) in his Land Rover. Very kind. He clearly thought I was mad when I told him what I’d done, but we parted friends. And then I found a bus stop, and I was just typing the magic code into my phone to get bus information when a taxi drove past! Here, in the middle of nowhere. And I waved, and it stopped, and yes, it could take me to King’s Lynn railway station.

So that was that. I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll do sixty miles in ten years’ time, but it might be a nice goal to keep in mind.

The places I’ve been

This is pointless really, but I enjoyed doing it, so I suppose somebody might enjoy looking at it:

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).

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.

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.