It’s August bank holiday – the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of autumn. Keats wrote, ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, not ‘Season of soggy cereal crops’. You used to know where you were with the seasons. Not any more. Everything’s topsy-turvy, seasonally. We’ve had warm winters and soggy summers, early springs and late autumns. The birds and beasts don’t know if they’re coming or going. There are lots more bugs about, because there haven’t been the hard frosts to kill them off, while seabirds off the Scottish coast have failed to breed because the small prey they feed on have all swum north in the milder seas. We may not face the same sort of flooding as those unfortunate people in Cornwall did the other week, but the seas are rising, and our Suffolk coastline is retreating.
Last Saturday I went to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was the second time I’d been. Last year’s winner, Charlotte Harris, painted a canvas four feet square of her grandmother, just her head and shoulders. The old woman’s skin has a translucent fragile quality. She’s looking down with a pensive expression – what was she thinking? What stories could she tell? This year’s winner, Stephen Shankland, painted a mother and child; nothing like those we see in religious paintings, but a real flesh and blood young woman looking straight at you, while her baby plays with a ring. The artist has captured a moment, probably with the aid of photographs. It’s almost impossible to paint small children and animals in the same way that you can paint an adult – they won’t keep still.
A contributor to our village newsletter let off steam this month about those who drive too fast through the village (which is illegal anyway), park inconsiderately, and ride excessively noisy motorbikes. But it’s not just teenage motorcyclists who shatter our rural peace and quiet. If it’s fine today, a so-called ’day of rest’, you can bet that quite a few grown-up people who’d like to think of themselves as upright, considerate, law-abiding citizens, will be creating a noise nuisance to rival the motorcyclists.
I refer to the racket from power tools – shredders, mowers, strimmers, hedge trimmers, and the odd chain saw and drill. It’s so much quieter on a weekday when their owners are all at work. I’m wondering how I can get an Anti-Social Behaviour Order for them. There’s new European legislation aimed at the manufacturers of power tools, enforcing noise levels, but what about the people who use them? There you are, just about to take a nap in the garden in the shade of a tree, when someone starts making a noise like an extremely loud raspberry or a monstrous angry bee, and it goes on, and on. If they’re not doing that, they’re playing the radio out of doors so you have no choice but to listen to it, or retire indoors and shut the windows.
I’ll be a pensioner in a couple of weeks. Does that mean I’m old? I don’t feel it, but I probably look it to small children who only see grey hair and wrinkles.
I don’t plan to grow old gracefully – where’s the fun in that? And the older I get, the less patience I have with people who waste my time, such a tele-salespeople, or whingers. I’m more inclined to speak my mind, which some find a less than endearing habit, but I think one can be too polite for your own good sometimes. I mean, if someone’s talking rubbish, I might not actually say ‘Don’t talk rubbish,” but I’m more likely to say, ‘I don’t agree.’
That splendid actress Anna Massey was interviewed for one of the broadsheets last week about her role as Aunt Jemima Stanbury in Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, which finished on the BBC TV last night.
I love that name – Jemima – though I can only think of one other, and that’s Jemima Puddleduck in the Beatrix Potter stories. Anyway, I digress…
Ms Massey was asked about her character’s disdain for artifice, such as the girls in the story who wear hair pieces, and she responded by saying, “I don’t like artifice either.” She spoke of people who have botox injections to smooth out facial wrinkles, “To me, the most interesting thing about a person’s face is the journey it expresses.” Ms Massey has a wonderful face, pert and bright-eyed and full of character. Perhaps because my own physiognomy betrays my age and experience, I tend to regard older faces as far more interesting than the bland prettiness of young girls or the smooth good looks of young men, but then I’m no longer a pretty young girl on the lookout for good-looking young men – O, I don’t know though…
The English poet William Wordsworth began and ended his life in April. He was born on April 17th 1770, and died on April 23rd 1850. In 1843 he was made poet laureate.
Wordsworth is associated with the English Lake District, where he began and ended his life. A lot of his work celebrates the beauty of Nature and the English countryside. The Wordsworth poem I know best is the one about daffodils, which many of my generation were expected to learn by heart at school – “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” and so on. The poem was inspired by Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, who recorded her impressions of the daffodils in her journal in April 1802.
The trouble with poems like Wordsworth’s Daffodils, and some well-known bits of Shakespeare, is that they’ve become devalued through being force-fed to generations of schoolchildren who didn’t understand them, but recited them in a da-de-dah sort of sing-song voice. Then there’s the bit about lying on his couch, “in vacant or in pensive mood”, which sounds a bit soppy. P G Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster might have been inclined to call anyone who lay about on couches, dreaming about daffodils, “a drooper”, which is how he described Madeleine Basset; “one of those soppy girls riddled from head to foot with whimsy”.
My mother used to recite a daft poem at this time of year: “The spring has sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the birdies is?” Tennyson was a little more eloquent when he wrote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
I don’t know about thoughts of love, but there’s definitely something in the air at this time of year, besides pollen. I heard something on the news the other day about fertility treatment for childless couples. Apparently you have more chance of conceiving during the summer months, when the days are longer and lighter. They haven’t worked out the science bit yet, but why should we humans be that different from other species, most of whom breed in the spring and early summer? Now that April’s here, the birds are nesting, the buds are bursting, the grass is growing and there are ducks wandering along the lanes, looking for nest sites, oblivious to the traffic. The natural world is all fecundity and renewal.
If whoever bombed the Madrid trains aimed to make those living in crowded European cities feel more vulnerable, they’ve probably succeeded, if only because it’s hard to ignore the films and pictures of the aftermath. Without paying a penny, euro or dollar, modern terrorists gain maximum coverage from the modern media, encouraging a siege mentality. The trouble is, the more frightened people are, the less clearly they think about the threat, and how to deal with it.
In countries like Columbia or Northern Ireland, ordinary people have been living with terrorism for years. Across Africa and Eastern Europe, random acts of violence are commonplace. That’s terrorism too – it just doesn’t make the news so often. Killing people in ones and twos doesn’t attract the same sort of publicity or sense of outrage as the destruction of the Twin Towers or the Bali bombing.
Charles Darwin was born on 12th February 1809. He didn’t do especially well at school, being more interested in bugs and beetles than in Latin grammar. His father thought he ought to study medicine, but Charles quit medical school after less than a year, saying he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He went to Cambridge instead, and developed an interest in geology and natural history.
As you know, I do funerals. That is, I conduct Humanist funeral ceremonies. Some think there’s a form of etiquette for funerals. What matters, surely, is being well-mannered, considerate, and sensitive to the feelings of the bereaved. I don’t think it matters what you wear, as long as you behave in a respectful manner.
Strangely, some of the rudest, most disrespectful people I’ve come across have been buttoned-up elderly women who’ve talked in carrying whispers throughout (they’re probably the same ones who talk during the matinees at the Wolsey Theatre), or deaf people who’ve ignored the available loop system, sat at the back, and asked their neighbour ‘What did she say?” every few minutes. I have, so far, resisted the urge to tell them to shut up.