Exploring the real world… divine inspiration

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

August, 2018

As I sit down in my garden preparing to write this month’s article for The Gudgeon, I can hear a Sunday morning church congregation. Their collective larynx rises in adoration and prayer, and I’m reminded that the human voice is the greatest of all musical instruments – apart from mine which sounds like a rusty hinge.

Listening to their hymns floating in the air causes me to ponder on the extent to which, in Bradford on Avon, religious life is all around us and for many, within.

At article-writing-school there was a sign that read: ‘Beware Writing About Religion’. The gnarled old hacks who tutored us would wag their nicotine-stained fingers and wheeze: “Find another subject unless you know what you’re talking about.” And they taught us to write about bridges and dogs and railway stations instead.

But it’s hard not to touch on the subject of religion when you live here. Especially for an inquisitive agnostic like me. Take bell-ringing. I stand in my garden watering my cucumber on a Monday morning and I hear the distant peal of church bells. Sally and I go for a late walk on a Wednesday night and we hear another distant peal. Why are bells ringing at all these random times?

Of course, I’m sure they’re not random. I just have no idea what’s going on (which, to be fair, is the natural state of an agnostic). I sometimes wonder if the bells are talking to each other and then I wonder if anyone is pulling their ropes. And then I lock all the doors.

But I do find the peal of bells comforting. Perhaps because I associate the word ‘peal’ with a positive, joyous mood – as in, ‘peals of laughter’. Interestingly, we have a friend coming to stay who has a phobia of bells – Kampanaphobia (that’s the fear, not his name). He’s going to have a great time especially when we show him around all the churches.

That will be quite a task. During my daily walks I’ve counted fourteen places of worship and I’m sure there must be more. They’re part of the fabric of the town. Part of its shape, its sound, its substance.

Some are more famous than others. The Anglo-Saxon church of St Laurence is the ecclesiastical town celebrity, appearing in both Simon Jenkins’s Great English Churches and Betjeman’s Best British Churches. St Laurence was a tough cookie. He was martyred on a gridiron with hot coals but allegedly called out, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.” He’s now the patron saint of chefs and comedians.

What also blows my mind is that this church contains a piece of fossilised tree thought to have been shaped 150 million years ago. That’s insane. Whenever I see that piece of ancient tree my brain stops working and I have to be taken outside and sat down.

My favourite place is the Chapel of St Mary Tory. Perhaps because it was once a hermitage and a pilgrim chapel on the route between Glastonbury and Malmesbury, it fosters in me a sense of quiet contemplation. I could sit there for hours, still and silent, and think of nothing and anything. Which, coincidentally, is how I write articles.

And that reminds me: I have a deadline to meet. I should stop pondering and start writing. The old hacks at article-writing-school were very firm on that. They had another sign that read: ‘Always Hit Your Deadline’. I suppose if I’ve ignored one diktat then the least I can do is follow the other. The question is, what shall I write about?

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Running up that hill

Cycling

An Other’s Look is now 75% funded. If we were on the London-to-Brighton bike ride we would now be seeing signs for Ditchling Beacon… which means the last push will be hard and I might fall off.

So with just 25% to go I need some help to get this book over the hill and down to the finish line.  If you’ve been thinking of supporting An Other’s Look but haven’t, then please do. If you know someone who might like An Other’s Look, please send them a link to my Unbound page. If you are a mysterious wealthy benefactor or a hitherto unknown distant relative with pots of money or Dr Evil looking for a way to atone for your past misdemeanours, or you just can’t bear these messages any more, then please give me a push.

It’s been a journey. I’ve approached everybody I know to the point that I am best avoided. I’ve handed out so many leaflets that people now give them to me. I’ve emailed, messaged, tweeted, and posted to the extent that I’ve become more virtual than real. I’ve given talks, readings, been on the radio, made videos, written articles, clung to people’s ankles – and 103 fabulously wonderfully generous supporters have pitched in.

But this last hill still looks awfully steep.

To support An Other’s Look please click here.

 

 

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Exploring the real world… station therapy

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

July, 2018

Nature hurts and nature heals – that’s my observation. Take stinging nettles. Whenever Sally and I walk along a country path a group of stinging nettles will look up, notice I’m wearing shorts, nudge each other and lean in to give me a good stinging. Every single time.

But I don’t mind because there’s always a clump of dock leaves waiting with their soothing sap. Gardeners call them weeds, I call them heroes. Pain and relief in close proximity – that’s how nature works. It’s the same with bee stings and honey; minor accidents and injury claim lawyers. Left alone, ecosystems balance themselves out.

And it’s the same with the BoA ecosystem. Example: whenever I catch a train to Bath it’s delayed. I don’t know why, it must be something to do with me. But the disappointment stings like a nettle. The antidote to this is the perfectly packaged place of well-being that is Bradford-on-Avon Railway Station – a place I would go to even if I wasn’t expecting to catch a train (which is, in effect, what I actually do).

For a start, the station’s name has hyphens (come on, we all know that’s how it should be), and there are plants and gardens to look at maintained by volunteers from Friends of Bradford-On Avon Station – which shows how nice this station is, it has friends. I can relax in the shrubbery or run up and down the zig-zag slope, or calm down in one of the waiting rooms.

The waiting rooms are cleaner than my house and they have interesting information on their walls such as the station’s history, framed posters from bygone times, and a plaque thanking the local community for its input to the station’s improvements. There are also special thanks to the Heart of Wessex Rail Partnership and the West Wiltshire Rail Users Group. I’d like to thank them too.

In the ticket office, Sandy, one of the front-line staff who are there between 06.30 and 13.30, six days a week, gives a regular masterclass in friendly, professional and informed customer care, fielding questions about train times, connections, best routes, facilities in Bradford on Avon, what the weather might be like next year and how to cure the common cold. Okay, maybe not those last two but pretty much everything else.

The pub cats, Cheese and Onion (do you know which is which?) show up to take the heat out of the morning commuter queue and everyone knows that stroking animals is therapeutic – unless it’s a bee or an angry rhinoceros in which case you mustn’t stroke them at all, ever (see my note on honey and injury claim lawyers).

Coffee can be bought from The Coffee Girl, the mobile barista who is normally outside the station in the mornings, and if necessary there is fast access to the river in case I decide to swim to Bath.

Looking west from the station towards Avoncliff, I can just see the two open crossings which form part of our walks and where I usually get attacked by those darn stinging nettles. I wouldn’t stop taking those walks for the world, nettles or not, just as I wouldn’t stop travelling by train, delays or not. Pain and relief in close proximity, that’s how it works. And as I wait for my train I’m reminded that there are worse ways of passing the time. I could stand there all day. Sometimes I have to.

(The Gudgeon features an excellent regular column, Railway Tales, which offers far more knowledge on all things railway-related than I ever could.)

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Cartoons

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s of the last century (oh that feels bad) I had a brief but rewarding period drawing cartoons for a magazine called the Freelance Informer. Sadly, that fine magazine for the IT contracting industry has long since published its final issue but it remains a treasured memory.

I drew six panel cartoons and five strip cartoons. They are dated – this was a time when desk top publishing (DTP) was a new thing, and ‘cutting and pasting’ still meant just that (I have kept my scalpel) – and, to be honest, they’re not that funny or even that good. This was never going to be a career because I can’t draw. But I was young and immortal and knew no better. And I liked them.

Looking at them now I’m struck by their innocent air and clean finish. I remember taking great pains to remove all the working lines. and simplify the outlines as much as possible. That minimalistic approach, the polishing to hide the hard work, rears its deceptive head in almost everything I do these days. Blame the 60’s and the cartoons of Hergé and Schulz and Mad magazine. I do.

Foolishly, I didn’t keep copies of the entire magazines, only the pages on which my work appeared – again, my youthful vanity – but I do know the volume and issue numbers, so if anybody is out there that knows the dates please do share them with me. Specifically, they are:

  • Volume 5 numbers 8, 11, 12, 14 and 15
  • Volume 6 numbers 18, 23 and 24
  • Volume 7 numbers 8 and 13
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Exploring the real world… our three twins

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

June, 2018

As usual, we’ve left it late to book our summer holiday. Every year Sally and I promise ourselves that next year we’ll be more organised; that in February we’ll do some research, make decisions and get everything booked in plenty of time. In my mind’s eye I’ll be like Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne – travelling light with a backpack and a good book.

But that never happens. Every year spring arrives and we’ve not even begun to think about summer and in the end we book something last minute in late autumn. And I look like Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, not Jason Bourne.

When I was young we holidayed in Cornwall every year in August. That was before there were fast roads or direct routes; when travelling from London to Penzance took us two days. Mum, Dad, my sister, my Nan and I would squeeze into the family Fiat 125 which was essentially a small and unreliable oven, and amuse ourselves with travel games and summer specials and packets of Spangles while Dad shouted at all the other cars. I still feign sleep whenever I hear the phrase, ‘Exeter bypass’.

Happy days.

For me ‘Summer holiday’ conjures up images of sunny skies and balmy breezes and being away and carefree, and waiting for the AA on a grassy verge next to an overheating Fiat.

I was musing on this as I cut through from Westbury Gardens into St Margaret’s Hall car park and I saw the Octagonal Twinning Garden. I’d not noticed it before but there it was (and still is): a beautiful stone mosaic; a piece of public art celebrating Bradford on Avon’s twinning with Sully sur Loire (another town with an ambivalent approach to hyphens) and Norden, and West Wiltshire’s twin, Elblag.

Perhaps it was because I was thinking about summer holidays but the colours in the mosaic reminded me of warm seas and Cornish rock pools; and the images of butterflies, birds and fish made me want to go on a picnic and fall asleep by a river.

Were the Fates intervening, I wondered? Should we go on holiday to Sully sur Loire or Norden or Elblag – or all three? I rushed to the library to check them out but it was Tuesday and the doors were locked, so I rushed to Uncle Google instead.

I discovered that Elblag is in northern Poland and has a canal that was named one of the Seven Wonders of Poland – that must be the over-achieving twin. Sully sur Loire is in north-central France, sits sur Loire and dates back to medieval times just like Bradford on Avon. We’ve been its twin for over 25 years. Norden is in Lower Saxony in Northern Germany, on the shores of the North Sea. We twinned with it in 1969 – which was the same year that our Fiat blew up on the Exeter bypass.

Friendship and understanding between the municipal siblings is promoted by local twinning associations that also facilitate visits, arrange social events, publish newsletters and generally keep the connections alive. And in a world of shifting politics I think that is a very important function.

All this talk of twinning has got me thinking. What if, in each of these other towns, there is an author who looks like Captain Mainwaring, and one writes for a magazine called Le Gudgeon, one for Der Gudgeon and one for Ryba. Wouldn’t that be great?

Only one way to find out. Time to book a holiday.

(Apologies to all if my translations fall short of accurate.)

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Weeding words (not in an Elmer Fudd sense)

This is my incomplete but sometimes useful list for when I am down in the weeds of editing. I’m sure you will have your own lists but these are the words, phrases and elements of punctuation that regularly get the secateurs treatment.

Words:

  • actually
  • almost
  • appeared to
  • by (unwanted passive writing alert)
  • could
  • definitely
  • hopefully
  • in fact
  • just
  • less (vs fewer)
  • little
  • perhaps
  • quite
  • rather
  • really
  • seemed to
  • so
  • while
  • with (see ‘by’)
  • would

Plus:

  • any adverb
  • American spelling or not (depending on where you’re standing)

Punctuation

  • too many commas (or too few) – I, over-comma
  • hyphens – I over–hyphen
  • semi-colons – I love semi-colons; too much;
  • double full stop at the end of  a sentence or paragraph..
  • double  space following a full stop
  • missing full stop at the end of a paragraph
  • “” vs ‘

Feel free to add your own items in the comments box below.

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Exploring the real world… it’s a dog’s life

(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)

May, 2018

You know that moment at night when you look up into a clear sky, and it just looks dark and empty, and then suddenly you see one star and then another, and soon the entire upper region is full of the things? Well, I’ve had the same experience with dogs recently. Not up in the sky – that would be worrying – but pretty much everywhere else.

I’m a dog-friendly person. When I was young and the continents were forming I had a dog called Scamp. I learned to walk by dragging myself up on his ears. We went everywhere together, Scamp, me and his ears. Unfortunately, Scamp was training-challenged. His idea of going for a walk was to run as fast as he could until he was a tiny dot in the distance, and then hurtle back until he was a tiny dot in another distance. It was pointless throwing a stick or a ball, he would just eat it. He had two states of being: asleep and massively excited.

Scamp would have been massively excited to live in Bradford on Avon. He would have made so many friends; eaten so many balls. Every evening Sally and I walk beside the river and double back along the canal. We chat about the day, watch the wildlife, admire the narrowboats, think about which beermonger to stop in – but recently, all I can see are dogs. And every time I see one I shout, “Hey, Sally, we’ve got to get a dog,” and then I bore her with the same old tale about how Scamp was once so massively excited to see my granddad sitting in a chair that he ran down the hallway, skidded on the floor, jumped onto my granddad’s lap and urinated all over him.

I love that story.

Anyway, I have a theory – the dogs are running Bradford on Avon. There, I’ve said it. They’re busted. We’re onto them. They’ve organised themselves, formed committees, possibly issue newsletters, and they are in control. They own us. Seriously, next time you see a dog and a human attached to a lead, ask yourself, who is walking whom?

Look at the evidence: pretty much every pub in Bradford on Avon is dog-friendly, and most of the cafés and restaurants too. There are dog clubs, dog walking services, dog boarding establishments, doggy day care, poop-scoop areas (although I have to ask: what is going on with those black bags hanging in trees?) and places to attach leads. I searched online for “bradford on avon” “dog sitting” and it returned 3,980 results in 0.62 seconds – and our broadband is really slow. There’s no doubt, this place is dog heaven.

And surely the centre of dog operations is the wonderfully impressive Doghouse in the middle of town. This is obviously Dog Council HQ, the hub, the nerve-centre. Those clever canines distract their owners with coffee, cake and a shop full of useful accessories, and make their dog decisions and issue their dog orders while they are being professionally washed, groomed and nail-clipped. I wonder if, now that I’ve gone public, my name will appear on their agenda?

So it’s out there: the dogs are in charge and I can only be thankful that Scamp isn’t here because he definitely wasn’t cut out for high office. Who knows what decisions he would have made – he would have unleashed (pun intended) dog anarchy onto the streets of Bradford on Avon.

It is strange the things that Sally and I talk about, now that the nights are light we can’t see the stars on our evening walks.

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