Today’s Google image is of William Tell – who was he?

Today’s Google pic looks like this:

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Who can see an image like that and not be intrigued?

Briefly, William Tell is a Germanic folkloric character who was forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son because he (the father) had failed to bow in respect to a hat placed on a pole by the newly appointed Austrian reeve, Albrecht Gessler. (Other people’s children, hey?)

William of course managed the feat (he strikes me as being the German equivalent of Robin Hood – a stupendously gifted marksman having to deal with a ridiculous, power-crazed little overlord). Legend has it that William drew two arrows before shooting, because if he failed and hit his son he planned to use the second on himself.

Here’s a 1554 rendering of the legendary scene (notice His Excellency the Hat on the pole next to the ghoul-eyed son):

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Weeds and flowers (flash fiction)

0c10743a07da171182eadcf5c62b7f39It was a Tuesday and I was at Shari’s weeding behind her day lilies when it popped into my head that I loved him. I didn’t miss a beat with the trowel, but that’s not to say the realisation had no effect on me, because it did. From his crooked bottom teeth to the scar on his jawline that I’d given him during our handstand efforts at Mitchell’s Park when we were seven, he’d never occurred to me as a romantic candidate.

I edged over to the little patch of garden that I actually cared about – the patch around the statue Shari’s mom had chosen – and found I couldn’t dislodge the idea. It was certain that I loved him. But I never got to tell him, at least not so he could hear me. That weekend I just had to lay down my flower like everyone else and then walk away.

Running to lose yourself, or is it to find yourself?

Nothing was to be heard, only the steady plea of the wind across the moor and the susurrus of the grasses closest to me. I knelt down on one knee, intent on listening to this raw environment but also needing refuge from the wind. My fleece was zipped up to my chin, and I could feel cold sweat sliding down my neck.

I had left the sheep farms well behind me to follow a path of heavy slabs that led across the crown of the mountain, past a line of lambing shelters and then on towards what appeared to be nothing but past-prime heather and dirt blending into mud. Tiny raindrops started to settle themselves onto my face as I knelt, but I didn’t turn back. This place – this rough expansive place that belonged entirely to me in that moment – was a place I wanted to store within me. I couldn’t rush it.

So I hovered there for insensible minutes, knowing it would all have to last me a very long time.

~

Megan’s UK diary: Ted Hughes Arvon Centre, Lumb Bank, West Yorkshire. The art of life writing.

Life writing is simply what it suggests – writing that is rooted in the experiences of real life, whether biography or memoir, or something akin to that. One of the best things I discovered through my week-long residential course at Lumb Bank was the clarity and authenticity that life writing afforded me in the story-telling process.

Photo by Phil Champion

Photo by Phil Champion

Lumb Bank was originally built by a mill owner in the C18th. Eventually Ted Hughes bought it, and his wife, Sylvia Plath, is buried in Heptonstall, the hilltop village less than a mile away.

This area of West Yorkshire is full of hills and dales, tight lanes, moors and forests, sheep farms, abandoned mills and steep villages.

The view from my attic bedroom

The view from my attic bedroom

During an Arvon residence course, which takes in about 17 writers per course, you take part in morning writing workshops, cook one meal (in team), attend evening readings, have one-on-one tutorials with the two published authors leading the course, and still have free time in the afternoons to write, gaze at the abandoned mill, chat in the garden, concoct plum-based mulled wine, and, in my case, hop up and down over every bunny spotted on the lawn and then go get lost on the moors.

We were an eclectic bunch, ranging in age from 20 to 84, coming from England, Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria and South Africa, and presenting a mix of personalities and perspectives. As a group, I imagine it could easily not have worked, and yet it did. It really did. The success of it had something to do with all the hours spent around the diningroom-cum-workshop table where we got to know each other through conversations as well as through each other’s writing. We laughed hugely (sometimes we downright crowed), occasionally we gasped, and also occasionally we cried, because, well, this was a life writing course, and life isn’t always neat or pretty.

Here are the lovely and talented writers that now make up the group Subtext:

All the lovely people that now make up the writers' group Subtext.

Megan’s UK diary: The past glory of Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

That is why I love England. It is so little, and so full, and so old.

– Robert Speaight

Dunstanburgh Castle is a massive ruin on a headland of the Northumberland coast and is the biggest castle in the county.

Unusually, it wasn’t built near to a village or town, so the only way to reach the castle is by walking across a lovely stretch of about a mile of coastal grassland …

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The remains of the massive gatehouse:

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This field of gorgeous grasses, of which you’re only seeing part, and which houses a small community of sheep, all lies within the walls of the castle.

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Dunstanburgh Castle was commissioned by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1313. Lancaster was the richest and most powerful baron of the day. It was intended that Dunstanburgh outdo the castles of his uncle, Edward I, and cousin, Edward II – a bold move!

This is the Lilburn Tower to the north:

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From the Lilburn Tower you can see Bamburgh Castle to the north. Bamburgh Castle was Edward II’s key stronghold in Northumberland. Lancaster’s increasing power and ambitions eventually led to his execution.

John of Gaunt took possession of the castle in the late C14th and did some revamping. In the C15th it was twice besieged during the War of the Roses. Thereafter it fell into disrepair and eventually ruin, but during its heyday it was one of the biggest, grandest and most imposing castles in the land.

Grasses growing on top of the eastern wall …

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Megan’s UK diary: Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

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How do you become the King of Castles? I suspect by letting folks know that if they come at your walls, you will shoot them dead …

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… that’s right, you really will … you will bring out the big guns!

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But this is necessary when you’ve got so much ‘stuff’ in the family to protect:

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~

 

 

 

Megan’s UK diary: Summertime, and the living is easy at Newton-by-the-Sea

A poor woman from Manchester, on being taken to the seaside, is said to have expressed her delight on seeing for the first time something of which there was enough for everybody.

(Sir John Lubbock)

These are some photos from my visit to Newton-by-the-Sea in Northumberland.

View from up on the dunes:

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You know how folks in the West, when seeing an image of African children playing with a primitive ball on a dirt field or smiling over a slice of watermelon, are prone to say something like, ‘Ah, bless – see how happy they are with so little!’? I must say that travelling around the UK I find myself thinking things like, ‘Ah, look at them little British kiddies making the best of their cold, blustering summers to visit the beach!’

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A simple shot:

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I like the pattern of the water and the sand in this photo …

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In the photo below, it is as though someone thoughtfully placed this lifebuoy up on the hill expressly for the sake of photographers. It’s probably a clichéd pic in the opinion of experts, as it’s reminiscent of an emotional film finale where the fallen knight’s sword is stuck in the ground and the camera gives us a low-angle, sky-backdrop view, so that our hearts might soar to transcendent heights … , but I lapped it up with the freedom of the novice:

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Here we have a sparrow. I asked him to show me his right side …

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… and then I asked him to show me his left side. (He said he looks good from both sides.)

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This puts me in mind of these verses from Matthew 10:29-31:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Ah, how romantic …

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… unless that’s his mother. I really can’t tell.

A view of Dunstanburgh Castle:

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More about Dunstanburgh in a future post.

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For more ‘Megan’s UK diary’  posts, go to The green spaces of Sheffield and Jane Austen & Edinburgh Castle at night.

For other photography posts, go to Edinburgh shows off and Buttercup view from Stirling Castle.

For a history and photography post, go to Haddon Hall (the perfect mediaeval castle & location for Jane Eyre).

Megan’s UK diary: Haddon Hall (the perfect mediaeval castle & location for Jane Eyre)

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Two Englishmen, having climbed the Matterhorn, were regarding the wonderful view that stretched before them.

‘Not half bad!’ commented one of them.

‘No,’ replied the other, ‘but you needn’t rave about it like a love-struck poet!’

I thought on this quote, having come across it only that morning, as I strolled around Haddon Hall. You see, Haddon Hall is WONDERFUL, and my thoughts were thus in the territory of superlatives and exclamation marks.

A mediaeval castle in the Peak District, Haddon Hall is a quintessentially Norman building, square and solid, believed to have been built in the C12th. It is a romantic castle, containing everything from the Middle Ages that delights us in today’s world: battlements, very low doorways, a chapel decorated to the hilt, wildly uneven flagstone floors, and I could go on, but you are getting the picture, aren’t you, clever reader?

Moreover, the family who own the Hall, the Manners (it has been in their family since the C16th), has thankfully not gone the common route of restoring it to within an inch of its life. There still isn’t a perpendicular anything, anywhere. Some of the stone steps are curved into almost non-existence in the middle as a result of centuries of footfalls, and the decaying wooden chests and ill-fitted windows have been left alone.

wish I had the capabilities of the love-struck poet ridiculed by the Englishman above, because the only words that presented themselves to me to describe Haddon Hall were words like lovely, outstanding, amazing, and truly wonderful. Bleugh! The frustration of living in a society where such words are regularly used to describe getting the parking spot you wanted or a tasty sandwich, meaning that when I want to really express that something is special, I can either go with one of them, and sound bland, thereby failing to capture the imagination of a hyperbole-drenched readership, or I can go all Italian and really do risk sounding like an overwrought poet whose been sniffing heavily on deadly nightshade. Not great options either of them.

I will have to satisfy myself with something very simple. I will say that, to the C21st tourist, the castle is perfection.

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The Long Gallery, with a mom in it. My mom, in fact.
Long galleries, apart from their other uses, were intended as places where residents could find exercise, no matter what the weather. Elizabethan ladies, moreover, didn’t expose their skin or clothes to sunshine, so they could either walk the gallery or I suppose do sit ups in their bedrooms?
Is anyone else put in mind of Bingley’s sister asking Elizabeth to take a turn around the room with her?

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A very impressive old tapestry, coupled with some fresh oranges to give the room a lived-in feel.

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The garden was bursting with summer flowers, and as such was delightful in the special way that only English gardens can be. During my visit there were English roses, day lilies, thistles, agapanthus lilies, nasturtiums, yellow daisies, deeply purple clematis, red-and-white fuschia, and too many others to list. It was a garden of every colour.

IMG_2011One of the most striking things when you stepped out into the garden was the abundance of white butterflies (also called cabbage whites). They were everywhere, as were the bumble bees and wasps. I’ve perhaps never seen such a ‘busy’ garden.

IMG_1933The Jane Eyre connection

I also rather enjoyed discovering the Jane Eyre connection with Haddon Hall. The 2011 Jane Eyre film adaptation with Mia Wasikowski and Michael Fassbender (how fussed are we really if Mr Rochester is decidedly good-looking this time round?) had Haddon Hall as Thornfield Hall.

I recognised the little pavilion where Rochester and Blanche Ingram play at keeping a feather in the air, the courtyard where Rochester drags Jane off to the church so they can marry, and the narrow stone bridge that leads to Thornfield Hall. The romance of the castle and its grounds are so well suited to the romance of Jane Eyre – a gold sticker for the film’s location manager, please!

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Tra la la … I’m never wearing my C19th gown at the right moment.

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For more posts on castles and stately homes, go to:

Megan’s UK diary: Chatsworth House forever

Megan’s UK diary: Jane Austen and Edinburgh Castle at night

Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.

Megan’s UK diary: A day in the Peak District

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Fields, separated by dry stone walls, above the small village of Litton

 

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Old caravan, overgrown with rose bay willow herb and rowan berry

 

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Fanciful mushrooms in a garden on the outskirts of Tideswell

 

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View from the road between Litton and Tideswell

 

Megan’s UK diary: Edinburgh’s New Town & old maps

Edinburgh’s New Town, which was built between 1765 and 1850ish, is a very orderly, Georgian part of the city, with a grid road system completely at odds with the organically higgledy-piggledy nature of the Old Town. Up until the C18th almost everyone lived squished into the tenements up in the Old Town, as that was the place considered safe from outside attack because it was within the city walls. (Safety from germs, disease and foul smells, however, was not to be found within the walls.)

Only in the second half of the C18th was it finally felt to be safe enough to expand outside the city walls. So the New Town began to be built, and it has since been hailed as a masterpiece of city planning. The wealthier accordingly moved out of the Old Town en masse, helping to thin out that overly populated area.

The Edinburgh Book Festival is a contained festival within the broader Edinburgh Festival, and all talks and discussions are held within Charlotte Square, which is located in the heart of the New Town.

During the Festival Charlotte Square is given over to various tents and these tents house the talks, a coffee shop, and 2 bookshops. A covered walkway surrounds a central grass area filled with umbrellas and deck chairs that each boast a bookish quote, like “Don’t pay attention to her. She reads a lot” and “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read”.

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I think I enjoyed my first talk the most of the three I attended. It was a presentation by Simon Garfield on “How Maps Define our World” (and I love maps). Coincidentally, the map I know better than any other is the one of Scotland, as when I lived in digs my one roommate (a McGregor) posted a map of Scotland on the back of the toilet room door, so for 5 years my time in there was spent memorising various firths, lochs and Hebridean islands!

One point Garfield made was that maps used to have a more personal edge, revealing conjecture, belief, and worldview. Nowadays they’re about science and accuracy, and as such are rather homogenous. The only ‘personal’ aspect I can find in modern world maps is the placing of one’s own continent at the centre of the map.

In days of yore, however, elephants and ostriches could be drawn to fill in spaces in Africa where nothing else was known, and heaven and hell could be inserted above a parcel of land, showcasing the theology of the cartographer.

Incidentally, California was drawn as an island for two centuries. It is still rather a world to itself at times.

I really enjoyed this modern (but less scientific) map that Garfield showed of London:

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For other travel posts, go to Lindisfarne: A Holy Island, Wanderlust and the Amalfi Coast, and How to ruin a pleasant morning jog in the bush.

Megan’s UK diary: Sir Walter Scott (the greatest author never read)

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It’s hard to get a full-length shot of the Sir Walter Scott Memorial, simply because it is so dang BIG. In fact, it’s the largest monument ever built anywhere to a writer, and stands at 61 metres tall (that’s more than 18 storeys!).

I generally think a single great shot speaks louder and more eloquently than multiple shots, but I wasn’t able to produce any one shot I was completely happy with, so I’ve included this next shot as well, as it better shows the heftiness of the monument …

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… while this next shot, I’m hoping, conveys how tall it is …

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You can climb all the way up to the very top balcony of the monument by way of an extremely – I stress, extremely – tight stone spiral stairwell. It’s not too bad to begin with, and you can reach the first and second landings fairly effortlessly, but the final two stairwells tested me, and I had to remind myself that I do not suffer from vertigo, dizziness or claustrophobia, all three of which suggested themselves to me.

IMG_1563The main problem was that the upper stairwells have no windows, and so you’re acutely aware of the numerous tight revolutions of tunnel both above and below you (while being unsure exactly how far above or below you they extend), so there is no quick escape in either direction. That, at least, was my issue, and I’d entered the memorial with nary a concern in my head.

I’m a little miffed with this picture, which shows the entrance to the one stairwell, as I don’t feel it accurately portrays how narrow the upper stairwells are. The final portion can’t have been any wider than a foot and a half. I seriously think larger folk would come unstuck in that part (unstuck insomuch as they would of course become actually stuck).

The Scott Memorial was built by the Scottish people from a desire to show ensuing generations just how highly the man was esteemed by his own generation. The monument is impressive but also rather ungainly. This is what Dickens, a big fan of Scott, wrote of it:

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Ah, Dickens, you always say things so much better than any of the rest of us could ever hope to!

Scott (1771-1832), a poet, novelist and playwright, played an important part in the Scottish Enlightenment, which was a sudden burst of Scottish intellectualism, innovation and creativeness, centred in Edinburgh. Importantly, he invented the historical novel, blending fictional and historical characters based in a time before his own birth. Dickens, Thackeray and others acknowledged him as their predecessor in this.

His importance to the Scots was and is about how he helped to foster a renewed interest and pride in their own, distinctive history, and about how his works brought Scotland greater international recognition and fame.

Last week I visited the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum on Lady Stair’s Close. The museum focusses solely on Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns. While there I was interested to read the preamble to Stuart Kelly’s book Scott-Land, wherein he ponders over the immense popularity and impact of Scott in his own time and how he helped to shape a nation’s identity, and how he is yet completely overlooked and unread today. To this I have to say: so true. I’ve never read a single one of his works, and I love historical fiction. Rob Roy has sat on my bookshelf for years, but when it comes time to pick up a new novel, I always pass over it for something else. Why is that?

Linked to this, I’ve always had a hard time even remembering him in the distinct way I do other authors. What I mean is, I find that Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson are forever confusingly entwined in my mind, and whenever I think on either of them, I have to pause and ask myself: okay, so which one is it again that wrote Treasure Island?

The same goes for Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas – I know that I know who wrote what, and yet I must always take a silent moment to re-establish it in my mind every time I think on any of their works anew. Am I horribly Anglo-centric? Yet I know other French authors, like Jules Verne most obviously, and I don’t muddle him up with anyone else. It’s really rather perplexing.

However, having stood high up on that top balcony of the Scott Memorial, with my back pressed ever so firmly against the inner wall whilst I looked out (but never down!) over all of Edinburgh, I hope this confused entanglement of Scott and Stevenson will, at long last, be laid aside.

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For more “Megan’s UK diary” posts, go to Edinburgh shows off or Chatsworth House forever.

Another history post: Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.

Other posts interested in the classics: Jane Austen and Edinburgh Castle at night, William Makepeace Thackeray and battle lore, and Bookcases, bedtime reading, libraries and story-telling.

Megan’s UK diary: Jane Austen & Edinburgh Castle at night

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There’s so much going on at the Edinburgh Festival, and not only strictly-speaking Festival things, but also other events capitalising on the crowds that the Festival brings. Like the Jane Austen evening we stumbled upon that was being held by Charlotte Chapel, a church that can be found in the pretty pedestrian, bunting-lined Rose Street. Like pilgrims, we journeyed to Rose Street on Friday evening to attend the event, secure in the knowledge that any evening devoted to Austen would be a good one. We arrived, and, intriguingly, were among a crowd of women only.

While queuing to go in we were all given an Austen quiz to fill in, and from thinking I would dominate I was instead chagrined to realise I knew very few of the answers with any certainty. For example:

– Who can say what the title of Pride and Prejudice was originally going to be? Options: “First Impressions”, “Elizabeth and Darcy”, or “Pemberley”.

– Also, which actor prompted a phone call from the Jane Austen Society to the director to complain that he was too handsome to play his assigned role? Options: Greg Wise (Willoughby), Hugh Grant (Ferrars), or Colin Firth (Darcy).

(Answers at the end of the post.)

It was a small, intimate affair – maybe 100 of us, tops? – and I really enjoyed it. One lady played Jane, sitting at the desk in the picture above, and she would read aloud extracts from Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, wherein Jane would introduce her latest book and explain the primary themes she addressed in it. Other women from Charlotte Chapel would then appear, dressed in regency costume, and read relevant extracts from the novels. Sometimes snippets from some of the TV/film adaptations were also shown. My only complaint is that they used the BBC Emma when wanting a scene from that story, and I can’t stand that version; the 1996 McGrath version is superior in every way, from casting to directing to editing to … well, yes, everything. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam forever!

Some of the titbits that most struck me were:

– Jane was very concerned with showing a development in self awareness in her heroines, and often her lead males too, Elizabeth and Darcy being prime examples. Only Fanny Price didn’t really need a journey of self-realisation, but rather it was those around her, like Edmund, that needed to learn a thing or two about themselves.

– Of all her heroines, Jane liked Elizabeth the best. Me, I have more sympathy with Emma and Anne.

– Jane dreamt up the independent and wilful Emma in response to complaints from her readers that her last heroine, Fanny, was too much of a doormat.

At the very end, a 30ish, single lady from the church chatted about how Jane’s preoccupation with marriage was very understandable, given that women of that period could only find any kind of financial or practical security through a husband. She then asked why, as modern women, we are still as preoccupied with romance and marriage, since we no longer need it to be financially secure? She pointed to our desire to have a relationship with someone who will love us and meet all our needs. Jesus, she said, is the only one who can actually be that person for each of us.

Charlotte Chapel seemed a really lovely, motivated church, and I was glad to have visited. I really admire them.

Afterwards, we walked home, a stroll of at least an hour that took us first through Princes Street Gardens, then up and over the Mound, before dropping us down again alongside Bruntsfield Links and our little res. As a South African, I have to give a nod to the awesomeness that is a late evening stroll through the city without a care for safety. So, yes: a big nod to that.

This is the beautiful sight of the castle at dusk, as seen from Princes Street Gardens:

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Answers: “First Impressions” and Hugh Grant.

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For more posts from “Megan’s UK diary”, go to Chatsworth House forever, The green spaces of Sheffield and Edinburgh shows off.

Megan’s UK diary: Edinburgh shows off

Edinburgh is beautiful. I visited it for just 24 hours a while back, but was sufficiently captivated (not a word I use lightly) that I have always maintained I will return. Now I am here for the Edinburgh Festival – lucky sausage that I am – and I am seeing it at its best; the streets are overflowing with all sorts of interesting people, the sun is shining (not warmly, but at least it is there), and the late evening hours are about pink, streaky clouds and expansive parks filled out with lounging, relaxed people.

This is the view from the university residence where I am staying. The photo was taken at about 9pm. I love the romantic architecture, the warmth of the brick face as lit by the last, low rays of the sun, and the pretty, broad leaves of the trees, which were swaying in a bracing, night-is-coming breeze.

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For more “Megan’s UK diary” posts, go to The green spaces of Sheffield and Chatsworth House forever.

Megan’s UK dairy: The green spaces of Sheffield

Getting lost in new places is wonderful. In fact, I rather make a point of it. This morning I went for a jog, paying little attention to where I was going, just darting right or bolting left as the whim took me, because that is how I discover the best, most unexpected gems.

Today I managed to do a loop (loops being life-giving, backtracking the opposite), starting from Walkley and finding my way down the valley into Philadelphia and Upperthorpe, areas that are new to me. En route I found a charming warren of pedestrian paths in and around a housing estate (first moment of self congratulation), then I came across the Philadelphia Green Space, a small, elongated stretch of forest, footpaths and playgrounds (second moment of self congratulation).

“Phil”, the little bird on the educational signs dotted around Philadelphia park, told me all sorts of interesting things during my stint in his park, like the fact that 1/3 of Sheffield lies within the Peak National Park, and that although Sheffield is very urban and industrial, the city prides itself on its ubiquitous green and open spaces and is the greenest city in Britain.

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My mum, who was born in the 50s, remembers how in the decades after WWII the rose bay willow herb could be seen everywhere, from bombed buildings to wastelands, being a tenacious sort of plant that will settle in the most unlikely of places, like this one here, which has planted itself in a roof gutter.

 

I realised as I jogged about, smelling the damp, cut grass and smiling at the tiny white daisies that have already shot up in the short grass, that I always talk about how I love to travel when in fact I detest travelling. I’m a motion ninny, for one. Moreover, who doesn’t lose their joie de vivre when unable to sleep on an overnight flight? But what I do love is having all the travel behind me and then getting to explore new places. And Britain is one of my favourite places to explore, having so much in such a small space and containing things like public footpaths (the lure of which cannot be understated), ancient, crumbling buildings, Starbucks, and bus drivers that call you “love”.

So travelling:

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But exploring:

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Whenever it’s time to wind my way home after an explore, I crouch down and study my footprints, sniff the air, lick a finger and put it up in the breeze … no, just kidding of course, I read the signs and if necessary stop a local and ask them to share their knowledge of local topography and road names.

I’ve realised that a neat and effective trick when it comes to exercising is to charge off downhill at the beginning, when you’re still full of energy, life and bravado. Eventually, when you start to feel somewhat weary, you consider that it might be time to turn around and find your way back. The hike then begins, and by the time you finally reach your destination your muscles are nicely kaput. You can then pull yourself across the threshold of your abode, climb up a kitchen chair and slide into a nice bowl of cereal.

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My blogging spot while in Sheffield

Megan’s UK Diary: Chatsworth House forever

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I have something of a love affair with Chatsworth House, but you’d have to know me very well to know that. So when I met up with an old friend today, and she suggested several things we might do, I stopped her after the mention of Chatsworth with an understated, “Oh, that would be nice – let’s do that.” So off we went.

Driving through the Peak District has to be one of the most pleasant experiences a person can have. Purple heather was everywhere, pinky-purple rhododendrons were everywhere else, and the sun kept breaking through the clouds as though to say: I know you’ve travelled far to be here, so I won’t let them nasty clouds ruin your day.

We reached the car park and decided to walk through the grounds instead of going inside, all the more to embrace the perfection that is an English country estate in summertime. We thought we would walk to the folly on the top of the hill, but the dirt road we followed never quite wound its way there, and so we enjoyed green lawns and grouped deer instead. By the end of our walk, my friend and I agreed that we’d not only caught up on the past 3 years, but had, in the chatty manner of girlfriends, set much of the world to rights 🙂

Here are some photos from our stroll:

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The golden entrance gate

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An Austenesque house

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Not only the biggest mushroom I’ve ever seen, but also a concave, chalice-like one!

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I’m trying to get close to them deer, but they had the measure of me…

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I’m in the UK for 6 weeks, and have decided I’ll write some “Megan’s UK Diary” posts. I’m in Sheffield at present, heading to the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow, and then many places besides. I’ll keep you posted with anything interesting I see or learn. 🙂

Flash fiction: Running to the Karoo

Suddenly and unexpectedly even to me, I swing on the steering wheel, peeling into a small lay-by that boasts a dirtied bench and table and one scrawny, dust-covered tree.

I pull up harshly on the handbrake, turn off the engine, remove the key, put my hand on the door handle – and then pause. A forty-ton truck barrels past, causing my car to rock, then there is silence. The powerful, marrow-reaching silence of the desert. I let go of the door and drop my head against the steering wheel. Shoulders sink forward and I allow the already fast-falling tears to land wherever. I start to hear the horrid little gaspy noises that my body makes when it is truly venting.

The tears are hardly new – they have become a way of life. They were the threat that caused me to leave Durban early that morning, so early that I missed the hadidas’ coarse wake-up call. That was almost a thousand kilometres ago, but even with windows down for some of the way my emotions managed to keep pace and it is clear that nothing has been left behind on the road. The heartache, the fear – they are still with me in the car. They have dogged me devotedly for months. But then, how can anyone be so pathetic as to think you can outrun them? We all know I could travel to the farthest place on the planet – please, I could travel to the moon – but I would take them – I would take me – with me. There is no escape. Only the reality, more real now than ever in the silence, that I will have to work through every wrenching thought, withstand every fresh wave of pain, and sit it out. For however long it takes. There are no shortcuts in anything, and one must let life play itself out.

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Image from The Max Files (visit themaxefiles.blogspot.com)

Enervating Karoo air is seeping in now the air conditioning is turned off. What am I even doing here? I swore I’d never travel this road again. But a broken heart changes things – things you knew deep down you would never think or do are the things you now say and do. At times you watch yourself move though life like an impassive spectator, curious to see what will happen next.

Last night I woke up around 2am and lay staring at the ceiling, a strip of light from the crack in the curtains illumining a line of nothing. My soul screamed out against it, and in the austerity of deep night time I felt myself thrashing against the cruel confines of my story …. I told myself that I refused to lie there again fighting the void. I would react – I would do something unconsidered, something incited. So I had climbed into my car, and headed cross country.

Before true wakefulness arrived, and before I began to feel feeble with hunger and fatigue, I topped the escarpment and saw my first kopje. Clinging to my overwrought desire to express my situation, I pressed down further with my foot, willing my 1.4 litre capsule to blast past the gentle willows and pretty cosmos and enter into the waste of the Greater Karoo. When I finally reached it, a blessed leadenness set in for a couple of hours. The whirr of rushing car was all that filled my ears. But eventually the flatness wore off, as I knew it would, and the mirages on the sun-soaked tar began to look especially real through a fresh wash of tears.

By and by I stop crying. I look up and around, squinting into the hurtful light. The potholed earth of my lay-by looks scorched and the stones intolerant, as though they themselves have endured too much to know any sympathy. An empty can and a few chip packets crowd around the base of the tree. It is an exhausting scene. But the mundaneness of the Fanta logo sobers me a little.

Right, I tell myself, time to wipe your face and get out of the desert. The drama must end.

Still, I step out of the car. The heat is everywhere, instantly; a month ago I would have railed against the air for pressing itself all over my battered existence, but I no longer have energy for poetic pain. My face quickly feels tight with evaporated tears. I walk to the edge of the scrub, where I stand quietly, hands loose at my sides, and look out over an emptiness I understand.

~

If you enjoyed reading this, I’ve written some other flash fiction:

Smug

A picture worthy of a story. Jemmica

A picture worthy of a story. The day Shelley became brave

Michael had opinions.

Movies can’t touch WWII

Promotional poster for Band of Brothers.An elderly man in my church fought for South Africa in WWII in Italy. He has watched some of the highly acclaimed filmic takes on the war, such as Band of Brothers, and the other day made the comment: “Those movies and shows are nothing like how it actually was.” I appreciate him saying that as it’s a helpful reminder to those of us of younger generations that even the most seemingly realistic takes on war never in fact attain to the actuality of it.

Some of the most obvious reasons for this are: there’s no soundtrack to reality, there is absolutely no slow-mo in life, and story arcs are often beyond our recognition, being messy and (seemingly) arbitrary from a personal and/or societal perspective. (I do still believe in a metanarrative, being a Christian, but I don’t think that means individual lives on earth can always be neatly understood by us in the here and now.)

None of this is to say we shouldn’t portray history and past tragedies through art, but it does suggest the importance of educating moviegoers as to the techniques and prerogatives of filmmakers so that they are aware of the artifices being employed and the gap that therefore exists between what they see and reality. Realism is the art form that comes closest to portraying something recognisable; the danger therefore is that the unthinking viewer might be inadvertently duped into thinking “this is the reality”. When critics say things like “how accurate” or “how true to life” a film is, one could wrongly take that to mean the film depicts a (past) reality. Not even documentaries can do that.

What films can do, however, is evoke emotion, stimulate concern or interest, present facts and scenarios, suggest experiences, and many other things I’m sure spring to the mind of any students of film reading this – I am just making the observations of an armchair movie enthusiast. Films and TV shows have value, to be sure, and we all know their impact can be profound, but when I say they can’t touch WWII, I simply mean it’s important to remember that they are always a far cry from the reality of living and fighting in the war.

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For past posts on WWII, we have Brushing up on WWII and WWII, Socrates, Rwanda & personal boundaries

Another post in my History category is Lindisfarne – A Holy Island.

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A new epidemic: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

FOMO strikes me as an epidemic, fed by today’s very (read ‘overly’) connected world. People are invited to do this or that, or are at this or that place, but then they’re fretting over whether or not they should have accepted a different invitation, gone and done something else, and so it goes on… Exhausting, and, in fact, rather self-deceiving if you ask me.

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Learning to live in and savour the present moment is widely accepted as a good thing, but no way that’s going to happen if you’re always concerned that you’re not ‘where it’s at’. Tobias Jones, in speaking about globalised universalists, argues:

“As with television, the universalists stretch our horizons so far that we forget where we’re from and where we belong. So we’re all paranoid that we’re not where it’s at. We keep travelling.” (Utopian Dreams)

Permit me to take what he’s said (which I agree with 100%) and amend it here and there so it applies to a smaller-scale context, which is what most of us face in our day-to-day lives:

Television and mobile phones and social media and apps and online news stretch our horizons too far so that we forget or undervalue where we are at and what we are doing. Consequently we are all paranoid that we’re not where it’s at. We keep flitting about, trying to remain ‘unfettered’, trying to be in the right place at the right time so that we won’t miss out.

Hence a society peppered with folks who clearly suffer from FOMO.

I miss people just committing. I don’t like this keeping-your-options-open mentality. Knowing that one can communicate and (re)arrange plans at the last second, people have lost the ability – or perhaps willingness – to organise their lives and say, ‘Why yes, 3 weeks from tomorrow I am free and I would be delighted to join you for sun-downers on the beach.’ This ‘No, I just wanna first see if something better will pop up’ (which of course is not actually said but the message is still heard loud and clear) is terrible.

I don’t really enjoy the company of such folk – you can tell who they are, because you quickly get the sense that they’re not settled in your company (individually or as a group), that their minds are on other places and other people. Call me self-obsessed, but I like it when I’m in the company of people who have a sense that I’m valuable and my presence is a good thing and not a hindrance. I don’t think that I hang around such people anymore – I did for a long time but I’ve learned to wean them out of my life. I think that, ironically, FOMOs never feel they’re where it’s at because they never let themselves be fully at any one place.

Choice is sometimes unhelpful. We can overestimate its value, because if we always have choice open to us we find ourselves constantly wondering if we made the wrong one, thinking about what could have been instead of what is. I’ll quote Jones again, because he’s very eloquent on the matter:

“Choice, once a promised land of individual liberation from fate, has turned out to be a disappointment […]. It means we mourn what we haven’t chosen rather than enjoy what we have.”

That’s a profound statement, and obviously has implications that go far beyond just that which I’m discussing in this post, but it certainly also applies to the issue encapsulated in this neat little colloquialism of FOMO.

One person at a time, starting of course with ourselves if need be, I think we should go retro and reclaim lives where we make choices, stick with them, and believe that wherever we’re at is where it’s actually at for each of us. Whatever anyone else may be doing right now, and whatever fun they may be having, I’m content with my ‘at’, which is in front of my computer, finding the words to share this diversionary thought …

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If you enjoyed reading this, I think you’d also be interested in reading WWII, Socrates, Rwanda & personal boundaries.

Breaking out of the boxes we’ve placed ourselves in

I don’t know if this is the case in all cultures, but looking back I realise that somewhere during our time in high school my friends and I started (with the help of others) to make definitive assumptions about ourselves, and to put ourselves in boxes that have permitted us to pursue (with a degree of confidence in our abilities) certain avenues while essentially putting up roadblocks in front of others.

For instance, the areas of skill I settled on for myself were: academics, languages, performing arts. As I grew older, the extroversion required for performing arts slipped away, and so all I was left with was academics and languages. While I did and do still love those areas, how sadly restrictive to have them be the only avenues open to me!

Ruled out were the following: sports, crafts and design, technology and mechanics, among other things. In my (fear-of-failure) mind, I felt I was ‘allowed’ to put myself out there and expend time, money and effort on my so-called strengths, while my non-strengths were essentially off limits because ‘I’m not sporty’, ‘I’m not good at crafts’ and ‘I don’t have a mind for mechanics’.

It has taken years and years for me to shed this unhelpful mind-set. I am gradually learning now to experiment with and enjoy many of the areas that I’d previously ruled out.

I perceive there to be a widespread notion that when you have particular talent in one area you somehow ‘owe’ it to yourself and the world to devote yourself to it entirely so that you can go as far with it as possible. I see this as often limiting us, as we develop restrictive mind-sets about who we are and what we can (and should) do. To be sure, if that one thing makes you come alive and brings light and freedom into your life and that of others, then yes, just go for broke, but for many of us perhaps more freedom and joy will be found in spending time – lots of time even – doing activities that ‘achieve’ nothing, and which will never be of a level or skill to warrant marketability, applaud or fame. (I won’t go down this road again, as I chatted about this idea in relative depth in Think less, do more).

I find that I no longer wish to box myself in – not in any shape or form – and I hope to be able to encourage my nieces and nephews and others to refuse a narrow defining or delineating of who they are. I just hate it when I hear someone say “I can’t sing” or “Maths is beyond me”. Why the need for such blanket declaratory statements? Perhaps you won’t be a recording artist, but you still can and should sing if you enjoy it. And maybe you fail maths at school, but don’t let that limit the opportunities available to you later in life should you decide that you are going to pick it up again and pursue something that requires skill with numbers.

So in breaking away from my pre/misconceptions about myself, I’ve started, for example, to fiddle around with various crafts and decorating. Inspired by a pin on Pinterest, I made a boardless pin board on my office wall, and I stick things up and beautify it to my little heart’s content. It makes me happy when I look at it. And the other day I wanted to watch my old Star Wars video, so I climbed behind the flat screen and fiddled around with plugs and (much to my surprise and delight) actually managed to hook up the old video machine with the TV, which resulted in a victory dance on top of the coffee table. As you can see, I am truly enjoying the ‘unboxing’ process, giving myself the space and freedom to do and be many things.

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My boardless pin board – letting my craftsy flag fly, even if it has holds no merit to anyone but me