Monday, 30 May 2011

Onwards and upwards

It's been a fortnight of inspiration. Occasionally I start to wonder what I'm doing, living in a city, working in an office, holding my breath between opportunities to rant about spittle-spotted streets and light-fingered neighbours. All these things can be detrimental to maintaining a clear view of my own values and sense of purpose, leading to maudlin wine-induced spouts of malaise. What is the point of all this?

Well, one answer is that here I am floating about in a bubbling cauldron of creativity and culture. I started with a visit to a print-maker's fair at Leytonstone library, and encountered the charming and funny illustrations of Walthamstow and other bits of London life by Jesse Richards. When I get around to building the website for my novel, Jesse is currently my first choice for creating the map of the book's stifling seaside town, if he'll do it.

Soon after I received two welcome messages. Firstly a kind and talented poet I met on a writers' retreat has printed out eight copies of said novel and circulated them amongst his adolescent students at school. I will soon be receiving feedback straight from the teenager's mouth, which may be devastating but will also be the most useful set of comments I am ever likely to get on my writing. Thank you Richard! Secondly, a WW2 parachute I bought in a flurry of artistic impulse on Ebay was now on its way to me. I plan to print images such as the below onto it and, well, see what happens.

Then another kind writer whipped out a Tate membership card at an opportune moment and I was whisked into the Miro exhibition at Tate Modern. Thank you Martin! I left feeling as though I had been filled to the brim with colour. Part of me felt guilty, on the way round, for enjoying many of his paintings on a purely aesthetic level without really wanting to understand the political anger that drove so much of his creativity. It was such a pleasure just to drink in the energy of the colours and forms, to wallow in them. I wondered whether Miro would have minded. It was the pure visual assault that left the greatest impression on me in the end, a favourite being the mouth-watering yellow of 'Drop of water on the rose-coloured snow:'

I also loved some of the titles, as I hadn't been aware of these surreal almost-jokes before. One was a work of art in itself really: 'Girl with half-red, half-brown hair slips on the blood of frozen hyacinths of a burning football field.' This, combined with the abstract shapes on the canvas, provoked a pained discussion between two women beside me.

"Where's the burning football field?"
"Right there." (pointing at slab of red)
"No, no! That's the red half of the girl's hair, see?"
"Well where are the frozen hyacinths then?"

Where indeed.

Finally, I have spent a most inspiring day touring the Henley Arts Trail, buying beautiful things made with the utmost care and skill by lovely, enthusiastic people. I particularly loved real seashells turned into solid silver by Meryl Weir and subversive crockery by Este McLeod, in whose garden studio I would happily live. It would be the best inspiration for weird and wonderful stories I have seen in a long time.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Cross-processing, my new favourite mystery

View from Niarbyl cliffs, Isle of Man

 At some point this summer I plan to learn how to process black and white film, with the help of Rachel's Darkroom in Walthamstow. I've tried reading about film processing online, but the alchemy of it all is still so mysterious to me that the details never really stick. I firmly believe in the virtues of 'knowing how' over 'knowing that' so learning by doing is my aim.

However, the last few rolls of 120 to pass through my Diana camera have all been slide films, which require cross-processing to be made into negatives, instead of projectable slides, and then printed like 'normal' photographs. Again I've no idea how this is done, but there are added layers of mystery here: why do some slide films produce orange-tinted images when cross-processed, while others tend to turn green, or purple, or blue? Does anybody know?

 my Provia slide film images go bleached and bluish

There is surely an explanation, but that doesn't make the result of the process predictable, it would seem. Today I took a cross-processed negative to my local photographic developers to ask for an enlarged print. The extremely knowledgeable man who works there, and does all the procesisng and printing himself, sheepishly asked if I had my original 4x4 print with me. I didn't. He said that, without referring to it and making adjustments for the second print, there was no guarantee that the enlargement would resemble my original in its shades, contrasts and colours. In fact, it probably wouldn't.

 my Velvia slide film images turn orange and pink

I was tempted to hand over the negative anyway and leave my enlargement's hues to fate, but decided against a fairly expensive risk. However, I did wonder whether to hand back the whole film for a second round of standard-size printing, just to see how the results would compare to the first set. Maybe a different person producing the prints would make different adjustments, and who knows what the effects might be on the images? Mainly there's hope that some of them might be improved. Eventually, I hope to uncover the truth by doing it myself, but in the meantime I am enjoying the mystery.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Folklore: inspiration

A few days back in one of my favourite places, Ty Newydd, at the end of April, made me re-engage with what most inspires my writing: folklore. During my wonderings and wanderings, I have tried to come up with reasons why folklore fascinates me and lights up my imagination. However, rather like romantic love, I think it is one of those things that runs deeper in me than my rationalising conscious can fathom. All the same, these are still reasons to love learning about folklore, even if they do not add up to the whole tale of why I do actually love it so.

Timelessness. I love to be plunged into the ancient, or even just older, worlds that historical folklore opens up, where a decent axe blade counts as technology and four days on horseback as a commute. Of course, there is modern folklore, and urban myth, and these can be equally as fascinating in the insights they provide into the human psyche and the zeitgeist of a time; they show how superstitious we remain, even if we no longer believe in fairies (Some of us, anyway. Pity the poor souls).

Nature. Folkloric customs and beliefs, and the tales that demonstrate them, involve an engagement with the natural world and all its details that can have the effect of engaging me with those things, even under an electric light in front of a laptop. It makes it easy to see how nature could appear magical, and powerful, and lets me wallow in worlds where trees matter and computers don’t exist.

Universal, microcosmic. The minute details of local folklore let us into tiny microcosms of human life, all of them unique and surreal and terrifying in their own ways. As an example, take the motto of the Clan of Chatton in the Scottish highlands: ‘Touch not the cat, gloveless.’ There’s an explanation out there somewhere (their crest included a cat) but it is beautifully bewildering to be fed such tidbits. On the other hand, folklore reveals universals of human existence, such as the need to find explanations for unfortunate events and the need to guard against despair with fortune-inducing rituals.

The deep nudge. I already claimed that human beings are still superstitious, and while I don’t salute magpies or throw spilt salt over my shoulder (well, not if anyone is looking) I feel something stir in my mind when I read about the superstitious beliefs of people from other times and cultures. It’s not that they seem reasonable given common knowledge at the time – often they are far from reasonable – but they tug at something human. Perhaps it is because they stem from greater, better desires, to protect oneself and one’s kin, to be able to live in the world you are given without going mad with confusion… and if a rowan branch will protect the cows from witches out to steal their milk, why not tie one above the barn door?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Too much to tell

Here, in no particular order, are some of my memories of the last few weeks. I will be thinking about them, and no doubt writing them, for months to come.

Clambering up Snowdon
2am poetry
Shaking lambs’ tails
Creative clarity
Bluebells and rushing rivers
Beech leaves in light
Cold beer, hot sunshine
Swallowtails mating
Bats in blue dusk
French car boot sales
Kir in pine shade
Digging earth
A running red squirrel
Finding my voice again
Gay cockerels and mother hens
New friends
Sculpture on spiky hillsides
Barbecuing potatoes
A swim with a view
Long winding drives
Quilts full of history
Monbazillac 1980
Insolent cuckoo calls
Literary inspiration
My long-lost freckles
A bounding hare
Laughter in the dark
Spanish swifts
Astonishing words
Wisteria scent
A mind full of green
Sharing tales of vice
Welsh voices
B&B: Benedictine and brandy
Blurred stars
Warm stone
Sweet aches

The last – generosity – has characterised my experience everywhere. The people I have met have given me meals, wine, humour, shelter, words, ideas, insight, affection, beauty, and best of all a restored faith in humanity. Thank you to all of you!