A wild slim alien


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How to get home on a Thursday night

Shake hands all round, collect the money.  Bemoan your own shooting, congratulate someone else on theirs. Walk to the car, assessing joints for aches beyond your usual level of tolerance, calves for the likely onset of cramp, and the whole of your body for bruises.  Put the balls in the boot.  Get in the car, take out your lenses and replace them with your glasses so you can better see where you’re going. Put on some music, most likely something softly introspective after all that hard running, Sandy Denny or Gene Clark, say; the Ramones were for psyching you up on the outward journey.  Turn right out of the car park onto the road into the centre of the village. Take a sharp left at the first of the double roundabouts, trying not to kerb the tyres as you usually do.  Pass the village hall and the social club on your right, the more unlikely pairing of the art supplies and fish and chip shops on your left, then further on, the castellated Catholic church with its white marble statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a crenellated platform.  All the while, review the game in your head – what you could have done better than you did (plenty), and how you could have avoided that haze of red mist (deep breaths, and count. To. Fucking. Ten next time). Settle for longer than perhaps is healthy on your one moment of glory, a sweetly-struck shot from distance that bent into the top right-hand corner of the goal.  Mentally opine that even Paul Scholes might have proud of that one.

Go over the bridge that crosses the dual carriageway, looking to the left and into the far distance for the progress of the setting sun, incidentally taking in how thick the traffic is on the road to which you have lost more hours of your life than you would like. Slow for the right turn which takes you into the narrow lanes of the cross-country way home – what your daughter used to call ‘the den-y way’.  Now you are into the thick of greenery which rises from each side of the road like a wall, until a grassy meadow opens out on the left-hand side.  It’s dotted with trees, and at times during the year, cows.  Through it runs a stream, swift and shallow and gurgling.  Stream and road meet at the bare minimum of a stone bridge, where once, before Tarmacadam, there would have been a ford.  Look to your left here, to take in that gurgling stream, and the way it leads the eye through the trees and into the meadow, suggesting summer picnics, or at least that you stop and lie in the bosom of its long grass and soft turf to daydream for a while.

Just after the bridge, pass a couple walking their two dogs – whippets, by the look of them.  The woman has auburn hair; the man’s sandy wisps inevitably seem somewhat nondescript in comparison.  Slow, so as to be ready for any sudden movement of the dogs.  Let the couple linger in your mind as you drive on, imagining the life they might lead together.  The road bends this way and that, following the course of the stream, so do not go above 30 mph in case you need to brake suddenly, either for cars coming the other way, or – unusually – for frogs, since on this stretch of road, there is the only red-bordered triangular caution sign for amphibians that you have ever come across. But you have never spotted nor knowingly squashed one.

Slow down again to pass the narrow house which sits alone on its own triangular island in the middle of a junction, and keep at the same speed  for the row of houses whose doors open out onto the narrow road.  Watch for the white cowls of a pair of oast houses over the top of the hedge on the right, before entering the first of the high-banked ancient holloways.  Notice again how the roots of the beech trees break out of the bank much as reanimated skeletons might out of the rotting wood of coffins, and how their ivy-covered limbs rise close together to create the sense of enclosure; shelter or captivity depending on your mood.

Emerge from the darkness to pass the beautiful farmhouse, the stream acting as its moat.  Where the way forks, keep high and right as the other alternative drops away to the left, the wending river visible between the two roads.  Feel the motion and blur of glinting water and sun-dappled greenery hit your retinas.  Imagine how many millions of individual leaves you are passing, and let the cow parsley which crowds the verges take you back to cycling the country roads of your childhood.

Pass the entrance to a larger working farm on your right.  A little further along, a bungalow stands on the left-hand side, with pasture for horses opposite.  Then once again it’s back into holloway darkness, the old way-turned-road running roughly straight, but veering and weaving as once the trees will have dictated that countless generations of walkers and riders should.  Walkers and riders who had a purpose to their walking and riding.

Sunset

 

And now here again the road emerges from the enclosing trees; over the top of a five bar gate, the sky opens out above the fields like a fanfare or a crescendo.  Slow to take in the colours of the sunset, and if they are at all out of the ordinary, stop to take a photo.  See the disturbed rabbits scamper away as you get out of the car.  Sheep are grazing in the field; all but the closest to you pay you no mind.  Climb a couple of rungs of the gate and brace yourself against it.  Depress the touch-screen button on your phone and hope that you’ve caught even half of the sky’s resplendence.

Drive on, continuing straight for a few hundred metres, then remember to slow for the hidden-from-view right turn; it’s easy to overshoot.  After the farm on the left, it’s time to enter the deepest, darkest, sleepiest sleepy hollow of holloway, where you hope not to encounter a car coming the other way, for after a moment of face-off, one of you will be forced to back up, often for some distance before being able to reverse-sidle into a passing place dug out of the banked earth. Startled birds break cover and dart from one side of the hollow to the other, too quick to distinguish their species, and always making the other side before the car passes. On the canopied tunnel goes, a ridge of hardened mud formed during the winter lining the centre of the road, until coming to a sharp left-hand bend, you must necessarily slow to nothing much at all; once around it, accelerate to compensate for the rising plane of the road.  At the top of the rise, a driveway opens out on the left; the entrance to the grounds of a nursing home.  The break in the trees allows you a quick glance at the view that the residents enjoy at their leisure, across the gentle slopes of the valley through which runs the little stream you were following earlier.  It’s an archetypally glorious green and pleasant view and invariably when you catch a glimpse of it, you remember the time you ignored the ‘PRIVATE’ signs, turned in and parked up to try and surreptitiously capture it, though in your hurry you did not manage to do the view justice.

Now it’s the downhill run, your car a bobsleigh through the ice of the close-pressing trees.  If the way is clear, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to take it a little faster than you ought, the ghost of Marc Bolan always a caution at your shoulder.  At other times of day, it has to be taken slowly, for invariably then you will meet and need to stop for horses, their stables marking the end of the bobsleigh run.  At which point, a left turn would take you past the stately pile where a classic rock song and its host album were recorded, but you swing slowly round the blind corner to the right and begin to make a slight ascent, taking care to avoid losing your front left-hand wheel to the worst pothole in the whole of the county, if not the country.  Now there’s another downhill run, but this time of two cars’ width, so you can take it at greater speed than the rest of the journey has allowed. Pass the wooden chalet-style house with its summer evening porch, and the driveways leading up the hillside to what you imagine may well be similar woodland-style lodges.  Slow for the junction by what in winter is a dank, murky, uninviting swamp of a pond, but which in the last of the light on a summer’s day is transformed into a haven of burnished reeds and a fitting home for a pair of swans.  Turn right onto the main road, and accelerate into another ascent, notable less for its housing and more for the beautiful copper beech which gives the road its name.  Try as you might not to set off the electronic speed limit reprimand, despite the incline, you will most likely fail.

Turn right at the mini-roundabout by which the garage stands and from which the one-stop shop is visible, and drive along the straight perimeter of the enclave of roads in which your house is set till you get to the pair of bus stops, one on either side of the road; signal right.  Turn the right-angle right, and head down the dip, at the bottom of which is another right-angle right into your short, narrow road.  No need to signal here at this time of night.  Drive slowly up its crest to the end, park up under the shade of the sweet chestnut and oak trees, and turn off the engine.  Wait for whichever song of Sandy’s or Gene’s is playing to end, and allow its associations to settle back into the sediment of your mind.  Gather yourself and your bag together.  Open and close the wrought-iron gate, taking the key to the front door from your bag.  The lights are on and you are home.


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Super 8 stories, Super 8 dreams

Super 8 reels

It was a treasure trove that my mother handed over to me about ten years ago.  Film from an age when childhoods were not routinely captured as moving images.  She entrusted the box to me as her eldest child – or possibly her most technologically literate (it’s the eldest’s prerogative to say things like that) – and tasked me with transferring the 36 reels of Super 8 footage to DVD.  Which is what I had done, with the help of John Ross of Moving pictures.  And now, once again, it feels like time to take these old films out of their shoe box. Or rather, upload them to YouTube.

Each reel lasts three minutes twenty odd seconds.  That’s two hours of film, all told.  Enough to make a movie of my early childhood, of my parents’ life before upping sticks to another part of the country.  A skilled film editor could make something of them all, could take this random jumble of chronologically muddled Super 8 reels and perhaps transform them into a tale of the times, full of suggestion and pathos.  But I am not that skilled editor of film.  All I can do is present the footage more or less unedited, as they were shot, and try to make some sense of them with words.

The films come from what you might call the golden age of my childhood, before my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce.  Those are stories for another time; and though inevitably what happened subsequently adds an optical or a mental filter to the projected images, what I really want to concentrate on in writing about each reel of film is the life before me, the captured colours and tones and the sheer otherness of the not so very distant past.  The otherness, and the eerie similarities, as one generation succeeds the next.

The films have no sound, and tempting as it is, I’ve decided not to superimpose a musical soundtrack.  There are only the moving images to watch, and my accompanying words to read, if you’ve a mind to.  Bear witness to these small fragments of lives as they were lived forty years ago, and then perhaps set the Super 8 projector in your own mind running, in an effort to relive the earliest parts of your life.  And if that seems too highfalutin’, then simply enjoy this historical record of a particular place at a certain time, all shot in the glorious, faded colours of Super 8.


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Lunchtime caterpillars

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding binomial names beautiful.  While the peacock butterfly’s is the Greek-sounding Inachis io, the elephant hawk-moth’s is the more typically Latin-sounding Deilephila elpenor.

My daughter noticed them first, crawling up the stems of the fuchsia by the gate.  Three, no, four elephant hawk-moth caterpillars, monstrously magnificent, almost too large to be supported by the stems of the flowers.  We both went for our cameras.  Snapping them discomforted one sufficiently that it carried out its deterrent trick of retracting its head and trunk-like neck into its thorax, which consequently swells to enlarge those conspicuous eye-spots.

Elephant hawk-moth caterpillar

As well as rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium), elephant hawk-moth caterpillars are rather partial to fuchsia.  We left them to feast, reasoning that while the hardy fuchsia could probably cope with their nibbling, the caterpillars could not cope without it.

Possibly they are common-named as much for their excrement as their trunk-like neck; it looks like little logs of elephant dung, the kind that Chris Ofili used to use to prop up his paintings.  Returning the next day, we found plenty of it peppered around the fuchsia’s pot.

I had hoped to document their transformation, but I’m afraid there is a sad end to the story.  We won’t see them pupate or become fully-fledged pink-winged moths, because those conspicuous eye-spots weren’t enough to deter a local feline from playing with them as it might a mouse; and my daughter and I could not be there to defend the fuchsia night and day.  A case of caterpillars besieged and eaten by cat.

But here to finish is the best photo I could find of this beautiful moth from elsewhere (West Yorkshire, to be precise).  One day I hope one flutters by me, and by you too.

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Photo of adult elephant hawkmoth by Rachel Lucie Johns.  Photos of elephant hawkmoth caterpillars by awildslimalien.


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The shape of clouds

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‘I became a story sailors tell, the one about the old captain who travels the earth looking for the comfort the ocean used to give him, reading the shape of clouds as he once read the swell of waves.’

I’ve not long finished taking photos of the sky every day for a year.

I introduced the idea here; and here’s where the story ends.  Inevitably, given the subject, no matter how hard I tried to vary what I captured against or underneath the sky, there was an ever-increasing sense of repetition.  But that was an accepted part of it for me, to record the points at the ends of my regular itineraries and the skies above them.  Of course, there was seasonal repetition too.  Overcast skies seemed to dominate for long stretches of the year, but if you look hard at those skies, there are a thousand shades of grey, while blue is merely a continuous spectrum depending upon where you are looking.

It’s not the first time I’ve undertaken to do something of the sort.  In 1998, I attempted to record everything I ate and drank in the course of a year, following Georges Perec’s lead, though his Attempt at an inventory of the liquid and solid foodstuffs ingurgitated by me in the course of the year nineteen hundred and seventy-four was cumulative (‘One Belon oysters, three coquilles St-Jacques, one shrimps, one shrimp croustade…’ etc) rather than a day by day affair, as mine was.  For example, I can tell you that on February 16th 1998, I ate and drank the following: ‘Porridge, toast with hummus and celery, lentil shepherd’s pie and broccoli, one can Castlemaine XXXX lager, malt loaf, white grapes.’  Perec’s drinking (largely wine, rarely beer) was somewhat more refined than mine seems to be, to judge from this one entry.  And while his list is a journey through classic French cuisine, my entries have the matter of fact flavour of historical record buried in a time capsule, rather like ledgers detailing the outgoings of the great houses of the nobility in previous centuries.  They summon up the time and the young man I was, the man I am still – but also the man I am not, the man I am no longer.

This too will stand as a record of a year.  I’ll see the framing of certain skies and know exactly where I was on that day; or there won’t be quite enough to tell and I will have to scratch my head to remember, if I can.  I’m sure I learnt things about myself as in early 1999 I looked back across what I had eaten during the previous year (not always as wholesome as was the case on February 16th), though I confess I no longer remember what it is I learnt.  I’m not sure I was any more certain about the worth of this latest year-long project – sometimes it seemed an exercise in futility, although for the most part it felt like a valiant undertaking pursued for all the right reasons – but I’m prepared to have a stab at what I think I may have learnt from looking at the sky so much for a year.

I learnt to turn around and look behind me.

I learnt the limitations of the frame and to avoid the brightest part of the day.

I learnt how to be patient, to wait for the right sky.  I learnt that the sky doesn’t care for your troubles, though it may sometimes seem to mirror your joy.

I learnt that in a coastal town or city, seagulls will always photobomb your pictures – often to good effect, it has to be said.

I learnt the names of previously unfamiliar types of cloud, though sadly my year of photographs does not include any examples of either lenticular or noctilucent clouds.

I learnt that the most beautiful skies would always elude me.  Even now, a couple of weeks after the end, I see them from the car, and I cannot always be stopping to capture them, or I’d never make it to my destination.  Coastal skies, and skies from on high looking down over the plain beneath a line of hills.  Porchester Castle at sunset or sunrise.  Dawn, with the skeletal big wheel by the travellers’ camp site before it, strands of cloud like combed candy floss detaching from a cumulus mass in the wind.  A mackerel sky over the common.   Clouds like distant mountains.  Endlessly spreading cumulonimbus above the Isle of Wight, their splendour undimmed for being seen through the institutional grubbiness of my window at work.  Clouds like those depicted in Old Master paintings.  God skies, you might call them, without necessarily believing in God.

I learnt that you can never stop looking at clouds and seeing shapes in them.  Horses and dragons, VW Beatles and ships of the line.  There goes Italy, hotly pursued by a somewhat misshapen Australia, and coming after the countries, a sparrowhawk followed by a peacock.  I often thought of Peter Benson’s novel, The shape of clouds, the clouds being those which chase a retired sea captain to an abandoned, remote Cornish village, the clouds which witness his late-flowering love with the film star of both his early years and his dreams.

As I drive with my daughter, we play the shape of clouds game.  One evening recently, we saw a cloud resembling nothing so much as a giant heron gliding, migratory and magnificent in its thermal determination to get where it was going.

The skies that I captured are unrepeatable. They were mine, but I had the urge to share them, and I managed to sustain that across a whole year, save the single day that I missed, when a few words had to stand in for a thousand possible pictures.  So, though I more or less succeeded, I also failed, judged against the standard I set myself.

But at least I managed to end on the high note of a rainbow, to make up for the one I missed in the Highlands of Scotland, stopping the car in a lay-by on the way home in the fading light on the very last day of the sky-snapping year.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainbow that late in a day before.  And so it became both my final sky and my covenant with you, the viewer.

See you on the other side of the rainbow.

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Breakfast butterfly

Peacock butterfly

That’s a butterfly at breakfast time rather than one for breakfast, you understand. A peacock (Inachis io, and not the first to have featured in these pages) lighted on my arm and seemed happy with where it had landed, staying long enough for my daughter to grab my camera and shoot these pictures.  Settled magically in the crook of my arm for those minutes, the butterfly seemed a blessing, or perhaps a reminder or gift from a muse.

And then as I tried ever so slowly to sit down at the table so that my daughter might better capture it from above with the camera, it took fright and flight and was gone.

Peacock butterfly


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Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly

Thomas Heatherwick

Christmas card sent by Thomas Heatherwick to Wilfred and Jeannette Cass, 2010.  On display at the Cass Sculpture Foundation.

The source quote (originally ‘Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly’) comes from a chapter entitled ‘The Eternal Revolution’ in G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy.

Thomas Heatherwick