Monday 27 August 2007

Not musing but distracting

Well it's a bank holiday - and a lovely sunny one, too - but some of us are at our desks regardless. Sigh, groan. Actually, I don't mind that much - it's always good to feel that one is catching up with the in-tray on days when the house is quiet and there are no emails or phonecalls to distract.

Quite clearly I am not getting on with my work while I rattle off this latest 'musing', however. Although, given the dictionary definition of the word ('A product of contemplation; a thought'), neither this post nor most of my previous offerings properly qualifies. Perhaps the blog should revert to its former name. I changed it because I thought it might be offputting . . . but now I suspect that it was wholly accurate!

Here's another poem by David Britton. It was written to accompany a painting of the same name, which I hope soon to be displaying in the David Britton gallery on my main website.

Salcott Cattle Marshes

A herd of thoughts
Crosses the sky slowly.
Their mood and their demeanour
Are taken from below
From the long stretches
Without feature curve or glamour.

These salty bitten marshes
Where so few men go
Where the slow passage of cattle
Takes a long summer's day
For the traverse and the returning
—Here can a mind first settle
Then move on, unlearning
One by one, the soft illusions.
Here come strange airs and clearnesses
Strayed from another world.
No warmth in the judgments made
But the mind takes them, is saned
And fortified, sensing a hope
That must not yet be spoken
Beyond that fine blue line
Of the far horizon
Where the rigour ends, where the dooms are broken.

Some fascinating recent posts on the Mersea Wildlife site gives a much better account than I have done of the strange climate-swings we've been experiencing here (and some far better photos, too!)

Better get on with my work . . .

Sunday 26 August 2007

Sunshine and moonshine

Another gloriously sunny day. Walked along the beach from West to East Mersea in the afternoon, to Fen Farm, where the children are enjoying a few days of Enid Blytonesque adventure. It's only a three-mile trek, but it always seems to take the best part of an hour, crunching through shingle and splashing through the oyster-shell strewn mud.

The crowds were out with their buckets and spade and kites, but only in clusters around the beach huts, and further east the camp and caravan sites. In between were long stretches of emptiness.

Tramped back again between sundown and moonrise - this time sticking largely to the sea-wall. In the caravan sites, thousands of TVs flickered behind net curtains, backs all turned to the perfect southern sky, where a pale yellow moon was rising through pinkish clouds. Near the campsites, however, the smell of barbecues was enticing and kites were still being flown in the twilight breeze.

By the time I reached the Victoria Esplanade at West Mersea, it was dark.

'Look how the pale Queen of the silent night
doth cause the ocean to attend upon her,
and he, as long as she is in sight,
with his full tide is ready here to honour;
But when the silver waggon of the Moon
is mounted up so high he cannot follow,
the sea calls home his crystal waves to morn,
and with low ebb doth manifest his sorrow. '

(from 'Sonnet of the Moon' by Charles Best, 1608)

Saturday 25 August 2007

Carnivals and kilts

Well it is most gratifying to know that this blog is read and responded to by the Powers That Be (apart from my chums at the Pentagon, of course - not that they ever respond). My last post bemoaned the atrocious and unseasonal weather in these parts. Then just two days later, 'ping' the Summer Weather Switch was flicked and here we are, basking in our second day of Mediterranean sunshine and heat. Thank you!

Mersea Carnival on Saturday, and Small Doyle No 3 on the Mersea Dance, Parisian-themed float - which won Best Float Prize! - Hooray! Hurrah! And how we all cheered.

The Mersea Dance prizewinning float!

Boudica - Colchester's own Samba Bloco

Members of the Brandeston Jazz Band, playing 'Careless Love'.

Spent a jolly afternoon at the Legion Field, munching pasties, ice-creams and candyfloss and perusing all the stalls - one of those timeless sort of events which would not have been out of place in Walmington on Sea circa 1940.

A communique from Roy Hammans apropos my last post, brings news that he has now collected his fabulous Mersea Boat Hulls photos into one gallery, here. An almost edible celebration of the evocative beauty of peeling paint. I should also mention, for the benefit of all those interested in photography, that Roy shares his long and enthralling list of photography-related links here. The list is aptly entitled 'So many links, so little time . . . ', but, hey, there are always the wee small hours when everyone else is in bed and so should you be, but . . . just one more link . . . and one more glass of wine/can of Guinness . . . and another link . . . and another . . . Life is short, but visiting these links will make it all seem worthwhile!

G'wan, g'wan (as another, more famous Mrs Doyle, famously urged) . . . you know you want to . . .

Excitement now mounting vis-à-vis my lovely sister's forthcoming wedding. Second round of chemo now out of way - again, with minimal side-effects, thank goodness - she is now counting the days. And so am I, but not in a good way, because Small Doyle No 3's replacement bridesmaid's dress has yet to arrive (first attempt went very badly wrong and is best forgotten about, but at least I secured a full refund!). I am remaining calm. At the moment.

It has been agreed that Small Doyle No 2 - who's to be an usher on the day - will wear very smart new charcoal lounge suit, rather than mini-morning suit, which somehow looked more like fancy dress on a 10-year-old than anything else. He is very pleased about this, and also with his tartan waistcoat, which will echo that of the bona fide Scottish groom. (The only semi-bona fide Scottish Best Man, on the other hand, has, from the start, insisted on full kilt ensemble, worn, moreover, the 'traditional' way, so we are all looking forward to accidentally dropping our contact lenses/lipstick/nacho chips on the dance floor at the evening ceilidh. Ho ho, as if.) SD No 2 will not be wearing the Doyle tartan which is his by right, because it would completely clash with the colour scheme for the day. Horrors. (Incidentally, I note that the characteristics of the Doyle tartan are listed as 'Green for its Irishness; Red for the warlike Danish Vikings; Gold for glory and wealth'. Hmm, well, a bit of the latter wouldn't go a miss, thankyouverymuch. Too much of the Blarney and too little of the glory and wealth in this particular branch of the clan, unfortunately.)

My own family name, Holmes, means (or so I believe), 'meadow lands near or surrounded by water, grassy plains; sometimes an island'. Altogether gentler and less . . . er, 'warlike', on the whole. And could account for a very marked penchant for islands from an early age (despite having been dragged up in land-locked Berkshire).

Thursday 23 August 2007

Yet another Thursday Miscellany

What is this awful, damp, dark, dismal weather doing here in AUGUST, I'd like to know! Brrrrrr. So uninviting. Here's a reminder of what it was like here a couple of weeks ago:

Hard to imagine now, as we shiver in our woolly socks and zip ourselves into cagoules. Didn't venture out at all today until I took my younger daughter to her Street Dancing lesson at the new Mersea Dance School at 6 pm. The classes have only been running for a few weeks, but with ballet and tap lessons on Wednesdays, as well, Small Doyle No 3 is loving it.

Good to see that Laura Frankstone has posted up some more of her Suffolk/Essex sketches on her gorgeous Laurelines blog. Today's collection are mostly of the famous Friday night Jazz club at The Fleece, Boxford but there's another one of West Mersea too.

Just been looking at the latest work by one of my favourite contemporary photographers, Jean M Laffitau. Jean is a Parisian (descended from a line of notable painters), now living in Saarbruecken, Germany. Dramatically striking, intense black and white images of musicians, dancers and actors, absorbed in their work, are the images for which he is probably best known. If you visit his website, though, do take a look at his nudes as well - he approaches the subject in a way that's completely different from the tedious norm.

From one of today's great photographers to one of my favourites from days gone by. A few weeks ago I mentioned another Parisian, Eugene Atget, whose legacy is at once a systematic cataloguing of the features of his great city and an anthology of the most elegiaic visual poetry imaginable. He was my first photographic love! Next came Edwin Smith. One especial favourite of mine is his Didmarton Church, Gloucestershire, 1961. Apart from those published on the sites linked above and here, there is a dearth of Edwin Smith's images available to view on the net. The best way by far to appreciate the essence of his work is by browsing through Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith by Robert Elwall, published earlier this year. And as if my recommendation were not enough, here are reviews by Hugh Massingberd and Paul W Faust which I hope will convince you that this needs putting on your Christmas list.

It was only quite recently that I discovered what a remarkable artist Edwin Smith was in other media - for example his wood engravings and lino cuts. If you've had the time to click on them, you will have noticed that several of these Edwin Smith links take you to a wonderful site run by photographer Roy Hammans. You will need a few spare hours to browse through his black and white and colour photographs, but they will not be wasted hours, I can assure you. Of particular interest to muddy islanders (and friends of muddy islanders) will be Roy's series of Mersea photographs: from boat hull landscapes (also here), to his special takes on the rather more familiar views of the island.

Actually, I'm now wondering why I prefaced this post with three such lousy, amateurish snaps - hardly an appropriate taster for the feast of photographic mastery on offer to those who care to get clicky with all these links. Oh well . . .

Tuesday 21 August 2007

'The Galleries of the Morning' and other bits and bobs

Painter, poet, friend and fellow islander David Britton has asked me to publish some of his poems on the internet so that they reach a wider audience. It is my intention sometime soon to create a new website dedicated to his words and pictures, but in the meantime, here is one which was first published in Poetry Monthly.

The Galleries of the Morning

What was that gallery of our youth
- bare boards, white walls, the
exposed and scarlet girders?
Those python heating-pipes, so big and friendly
strolling around the room?

Was it a delusion
that spirit-filled dry light we bathed in
that illimitable hope without us
and within?
We strutted through like gods awakening
the spirit swelling out
our blowsy shirts
like sails taking the wind.

One painting stays with me -
a breakfast table, as big as a barn door
a chequered oil-cloth, white and blue
a huge brown egg in its cup.

It was a morning, and mid-morning
workshop-mood, where clarity and hope
light spirit, and a heightened key
are magnified, keep all else out.

Clear of the mist, of the dank
marshes of the world, the vague
pain of the dawn -
the ache of afternoons, the sadness of curators, wardens, caretakers -
the tired feed taking to the streets
that lead westward only on a twilit evening.

More to follow in the next few days and, of course, as soon as the new David Britton website is up and running I will be sure to let you know.

Good to see that Laura Frankstone got back home safely after her week's stay on the Suffolk and Essex coast. She has already posted some Mersea sketches on her 'Laurelines' blog . Here's a quick one she did of my younger daughter while she was with us on the muddy island (published with Laura's permission):

Well, I finished The World According to Bertie in a couple of days and it was, indeed, every bit as delicious as I'd hoped and expected - truly time spent in the company of good friends.

If you haven't read any of its predecessors, you will certainly need to start at the beginning of the series, with 44 Scotland Street. The books appear first in serial form in The Scotsman newspaper and are liberally peppered with references not only to real shops, streets, bars, galleries and landmarks, but also to real-life Edinburgh people, too - some famous, like Ian Rankin, but others less (or completely un-) familiar, so that only those 'in the know' realise that that are not fictional creations. But this doesn't feel cliquey or make the reader feel excluded. On the contrary, it rather adds to the 'cosiness' of the whole experience. Like drinking tea out of a blue Spode cup. (If you've read the book, you know what I mean!)

I'm feeling somewhat bereft now that the cover has been closed on Domenica, Angus, Cyril et al, but at least it means I can return to Pauline Rowson's Tide of Death, which I very rudely interrupted, mid-flow, in order to leap on the latest from Alexander McCall Smith.

You can see Pauline talking about her forthcoming marine mystery novel, Deadly Waters, on her blog .

Monday 20 August 2007

Why does the Pentagon visit my blog?

Hi there, good people at (aka The Pentagon) - do you visit people's blogs to induce a state of Orwellian paranoia in blameless Englishpersons, or is there genuinely something about small muddy islands in Essex, UK which interests you? Do please get in touch, as I'd love to know.

Saturday 18 August 2007

A chilly regatta and some garden thoughts

Well what a cold, wet, windy day for the Mersea Regatta! Such a shame, after the few short weeks of 'real summer' weather. Stayed home, in the end, with relays of snoozing children, exhausted from their overnight camping trip. They were all recovered in time to catch the fireworks and funfair, however. By the time they returned, besmeared with candyfloss, I was exhausted and in need of a snooze myself, having spent the best part of the day at my PC, wrestling with a large legal textbook.

Brain insufficiently engaged to think of anything interesting to write, I have decided to fill what would otherwise be a blank space with some photos from my island garden. Still mourning the loss of my White Garden, which was a challenge (it was even plagued by obligingly white weeds, in the form of rampant greater bindweed) but (when all was going well) a source of great delight, I seem to be 'moving on' via a pinky-purple sort of phase - mainly in pots, it has to be said, since this is not to be a permanent abode.

'Here's flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun
And with him rises weeping.'
Shakespeare, Winter's Tale IV.iii

'I know that if odour were visible, as colour is, I'd see the summer garden in rainbow clouds.' Robert Bridges, Testament of Beauty

'It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.' Robert Louis Stevenson

'O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies in herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities.' Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, II.iii

'Land of the hill and heather; Land of the awful weather; Land where the midges gather - Scotland the brave.' (The three white ceramic objects behind the lump of driftwood, to the right of the rope, are from a dismantled telegraph pole on the Isle of Mull, 'rescued' from the side of a loch, one chilly springtime eleven years ago. This is the first time a 'use' has been found for them - and even now their utility is somewhat debatable - but I hope they will feel at home near the lovely spiky heather.)

'Hanged up in houses, [lavender] doth very well attemper the aire, coole and make fresh the place to the delightand comfort of such as are therein.' John Gerard, 1597

'To-day, red blue; bells hang happily off the mossy edge of the steep ditch across from the iron graveyard gate.' from Fuchsia by Mary Guckian

'How fair is a garden amid the trials and passions of existence.' Benjamin Disraeli

Thursday 16 August 2007

Sketching in the wind and whiffs of gramarye

Two days spent in the delightful company of Laura Frankstone. In the UK for a week all the way from North Carolina, Laura has been staying with friends in Woodbridge and popped over to Mersea mid-week, to fill some pages of her sketchbook with vignettes of island life, enjoy some of our famous local oysters at the Mersea Oyster Bar, and discuss the publishing of her Paris Sketches in book form. Between pub lunches, sketching trips and publishing talks, some impromptu art masterclasses delighted the children and some resulting work will be posted here when time allows.

The Muddy Island put on a bravura display of every kind of available weather (all except snow, thankfully) in quick and gusty succession, but Laura took it all in her stride. Having lived in Scotland while studying at the Edinburgh College of Art , she is well acquainted with the depressing dampness of the average Great British Summer. High winds have been a feature of the Muddy Island this week - even during the frequent interludes of cloudless skies and blazing sunshine. The annual Round the Island sailing race had to be cancelled as a result, much to everyone's disappointment, but with luck the rest of Regatta Week will go off according to plan.

Meanwhile, received an email from Susan Angebranndt of Green Chair Press. In response to my recent comment on her wonderfully inspiring blog, she offers another poem by Christopher Morley (and I shall forever be indebted to Susan for having introduced me to his work) - this time on the theme of 'Smells'. For someone who has not only been musing on the timelessly evocative aroma of printer's ink, but also recently been up to the elbows in plum jam and whose younger daughter came home with best white tee-shirt covered in pungent red marine paint, after she'd been 'helping' someone who was working on their boat . . . this simply could not be more perfectly apt. Enjoy:

Why is it that the poet tells
So little of the sense of smell?
These are the odors I love well:

The smell of coffee freshly ground;
Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
Or onions fried and deeply browned.

The fragrance of a fumy pipe;
The smell of apples, newly ripe;
And printer’s ink on leaden type.

Woods by moonlight in September
Breathe most sweet, and I remember
Many a smoky camp-fire ember.

Camphor, turpentine, and tea,
The balsam of a Christmas tree,
These are whiffs of gramarye. . .
A ship smells best of all to me!

['gramarye' means magic, or occult learning, from the Old French 'gramaire' or book of magic.]

(Susan - I promise that my future blog entries will not simply consist of material copied from your own!)

Oh, and finally, pressed for time as I am, I couldn't allow to go un-noted the fact that my copy of Alexander McCall Smith's The World According to Bertie arrived two days ago. I've been too busy to give it the attention it deserves, but have indeed abandoned my other reading projects in favour of Bertie and made a start and, yes, it is fully expected that 'unalloyed joy' will do very nicely to describe the experience. I shall be alone later, while everyone else, plus hoardes of everyone else's friends and relations, are eating baked beans under canvas (canvas being something under which I have never - since my seminal Florence Experience - been found, and never will be again while there is a protesting breath left in me), so I am looking forward to a long walk and a perfect solitary night in with Bertie and the other residents of Scotland Street.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Inky coincidences

How strange life is sometimes. There was I, babbling on about my father's Adana printing machine yesterday and, I have subsequently learned, at precisely that moment he was clanking away - kerchunk, kerchunk - printing some invitations to my sister's apres-wedding ceilidh. The first time he has wrestled the machine out from under the stairs and inked it up for many a long year.

The wording on the invites includes an email address, but he hasn't got an @ character, so has used an 'O' and family members are busy turning Os into @s by hand before they are all sent out. How sweet. But isn't it amazing that the nostalgic smell of printing ink should have wafted 100 miles or more north-eastward at that very instant, and been, in part, the inspiration behind yesterday's blog?

I did not enquire whether the invitations have been printed on those peculiar deckle-edged cards. I await the arrival of mine (always assuming that I have been invited!) in the post in due course.

I mentioned last week a forthcoming Ivor Gurney event, War’s Betrayals, at Colchester's Headgate Theatre on 22 September. Since then I have discovered this comprehensive Ivor Gurney website .

Finally, on the subject of poems, here's one I discovered courtesy of the Green Chair Press Blog that I noted yesterday. It's called At the Mermaid Cafeteria by Christopher Morley (d. 1957) - and will chime with anyone who's ever tried to write poetry:

TRUTH is enough for prose:
Calmly it goes
To tell just what it knows.

For verse, skill will suffice–
Delicate, nice
Casting of verbal dice.

Poetry, men attain
By subtler pain
More flagrant in the brain–

An honesty unfeigned,
A heart unchained,
A madness well restrained.

Monday 13 August 2007

Ampersands &c

Looking at that photo of the bookshelf with the sea-junk on it yesterday reminded me how much I love ampersands. As you may have noticed, I have a couple of nice old wooden ampersand printing blocks. If one sniffs them very carefully, behind the beeswax polish, one can still smell the printer's ink.

The ampersand has a venerable history. Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was Cicero’s slave and then, as a freed man, his secretary, is credited with having invented it around 63 BC.

And the phrase 'et cetera' was expressed in written and printed form as '&c' long before it was abbreviated to 'etc'.

There's an interesting potted history of the ampersand here, including an illustration of part of a page from a Venetian book of 1600, in which 14 ampersands of five different designs are liberally inserted into the text. And the Adobe site gives more examples of the huge variety of ampersands, old and new, which are still available to typesetters and designers. I've set some of my own favourites here (click to enlarge) - as you will see, the best and most intricate ampersands are usually the italicised versions.

I find the whole world of letterpress printing completely intoxicating. As a child, I played around with my father's Adana printing machine, which was brought out with great ceremony four or five times a year in order to print invitations (on strange deckle-edged cards tinged with pink or green, which seemed outdated even in 1966), headed notepaper, and on a few occasions, Christmas cards.
At school I went to Printing Club in the art room at lunchtimes, and learned to 'compose' - drop metal type into place with tweezers, backwards, on a metal 'composing stick' and then wedge lines of type into a block for printing, hammering it all in with a little wooden mallet to get it nice and tight. And the the ink . . . . ahhhhhh, the ink. That smell is so deeply ingrained it has quite possibly worked its way into my DNA. Why on earth did I give it all up? Must have been the distractions of O-levels or A-levels or boys or something, probably. I don't really remember. Now I'm merely an observer - an occasional collector of books from the likes of the Jardine Press - and a sniffer-out of all things inky.

I discovered this enchanting blog recently, and on it, amongst other delights, a link to this excellent short film about letterpress printing, which celebrates the sheer physicality of the impressing of paper with ink by metal, the glorious machinery involved and the human endeavour of it all.

Comparing it with what I do - sitting here, 'typesetting' books on a screen and turning them into pdf files which get sent over the internet to be digitally 'printed' somewhere far away - brought to mind the difference between train travel today and the days of the great steam locomotives: the blandly efficient and the gloriously 'alive'; the noise, the smell, the human pride in powerful machinery, properly mastered and achieving its purpose perfectly. Ooooh, it's easy to get quite carried away!


Living by the sea seems to have sparked a compulsion to pick up things noticed on the beach and bring them home. After just nine months here, this is becoming something of a problem – there simply isn’t room for everything. More importantly, it raises the question: why on earth do we do it?

In my son’s case, the answer is fairly straightforward: he brings home driftwood so he can work on it with his tools and turn it into guns. Naturally. He is 10. He has also made model ships and is currently working on a ‘garden sculpture’ as a wedding present for his aunt. My 5-year-old daughter brings home shells and interesting pebbles. They are very pretty, and this is justification enough in her eyes. For my own part, I pick up shards of blue and white patterned china – and, most greedily, seaglass.

But . . . what on earth to do with it all? That is the question. Well, a lot of the pebbles and shells get, sort of . . . erm, ‘recycled’ in the garden, I have to admit. The china shards and the seaglass are piling up on the chest in the hall.

(The hand-coloured etching, '"2 oz Prawns" , incidentally, is by Karen Fardell.)

Some odd bits of wood and rope and oyster shells have ended up on top of a bookcase.

Larger bits have been arranged 'artlessly' in the garden, for that insouciant coastal-living look. So far, so good. But this represents less than a year’s worth of beachcombing. My big worry is . . . what will it be like after half a decade – or longer? At what point, precisely, will one be forced to call a halt to all this scavenging?

One of those lazy/busy weekends – making jam (what a year it is for plums – they are everywhere – people are giving them away, and I never say ‘no’!); walking the dog; an island boot-sale (books, my hopeless weakness – came home with a dozen or more); a quick foray inland to get some bits and pieces from Poplar Nurseries; buying plants from stalls outside people’s houses on the way back (so much more satisfactory – and FAR cheaper! – than visiting a chain garden centre – I picked up some absolutely amazing, and enormous, fuchsias for £3 a go from nice lady in Copford, which would have rendered little change from £20 in Wyevale, and I just know that they’ll be stronger and thrive better than the hot-housed, imported kind).

Lots of garden tidying up; lunch on Sunday at the Courtyard Cafe, at the Mersea Island Vineyard; and rounded off the daylight hours on Sunday with a quick run down to the Hard with son and dog, to burn off all that jam and catch the end of the sunset.

Have just availed myself of this great offer on train tickets to book a short break on the Scottish east coast in October, so I can stay with Rachel Sharp and visit some galleries in Edinburgh and catch the Richard Long exhibition, with any luck. Yippee, can't wait!

Friday 10 August 2007

Painted ladies, farmers and pet lambs

We seem to be in the midst of what, if it weren’t so delightful, could almost be called a ‘plague’ of butterflies here on the Muddy Island. Woke up a couple of days ago and stepped outside the back door to find myself standing in a cloud of painted lady butterflies. I have never seen so many all at once – there is a buddleia bush in a neighbouring garden, but these seemed to be ignoring it, happily fluttering around in the bright sunshine just for the sheer joy of it. It seems to be an island-wide phenomenon, and was recorded later the same day on the Mersea Wildlife site, and is the subject of much of today’s posting by our Country Park ranger too.

From butterflies to Butterfly Lodge Farm, a few miles inland on the Colchester Road – home to a herd of charming goats who provide milk for the excellent Caprilatte ice cream, to which I and my children have recently become fairly addicted. Not everyone appreciates the flavour of goats’ milk. I happen to like it very much, and in any case I don’t think it comes through very strongly in this ice cream, owing to the 36 mouthwateringly delicious flavours – amongst them Honeymoon Pie, Tiramisu, Belgian Chocolate, Funoffee Delight, Strawberry Crush – the mere naming of which has been enough to make me need to rush urgently to the freezer (but I will hang on a few moments more while I finish today’s musing/rambling/half-meaningless waffle). Caprilatte ice cream won farmer Warren Gough the Farmers Guardian Best Young Farmer Producer Award at the 2007 Waitrose Small Producers Awards.

Desperately worrying times now for farmers just now, of course, given the current foot-and-mouth scare, though it seems from today’s latest news that it is being contained in Surrey. Let’s hope so. The thought all those Butterfly Farm goats . . . ugh, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

From goats to sheep, and a visit to the Sheep Poo Paper website to stock up on their greetings cards, made from . . . yep, that’s right, sheep droppings, gathered in the foothills of Snowdonia, which are then sterilised, washed and turned into paper. No trees of any kind are harmed in the slightest way in the manufacture of a sheep poo paper card, and, honestly, you can’t smell a thing. For the environmentally aware, as well as for people who, like me, find the concept of sending their aunt a birthday card made from poo deeply, childishly hilarious . . . these are just the ticket. (Hey, that’s an idea - sheep poo tickets - you saw it here first © me.)

While I fully appreciate that grown-up goats are more charming and intelligent in every way than silly grown-up sheep, there is nothing quite like a baby lamb. When I was about 6, on a springtime family holiday in Grasmere, I ‘adopted’ a newborn lamb. He was very, very sweet, and the only grey one in the field. I visited him every day and named him (ahem, well I was only 6, remember) ‘Woolly’.

My grandparents kept goats and I have always meant to get a couple myself, when I’m ‘grown up’ (so not long to go now, then . . .). But I still like the idea of finding a successor to Woolly one day, too, and I’m clearly not alone in this little hankering. For those who fancy adopting their very own pet lamb (with none of the hassle, or all that raw material for greetings cards lying about the place), then visit this amusing site. Not only can you adopt a real lamb (choose from thousands of photos!), you can play SwapLambWar, send a free Lamb Postcard, and even paint a real sheep pink or blue by donating £1 on the Paint My Sheep Pink page. You can also, should you wish, send a lamb on holiday . . .

Hmm, well, I think that’s quite enough of that.

Thursday 9 August 2007

Curlews and call centres

My sincere thanks to the friend who, continuing the theme of curlew poems, sent me a link to this poem by Jeremy Hooker on the Poetry Archive website. Not only can you read the poem, you can also hear the poet reading it. Hooker says that he 'tries' to 'capture the haunting cry in words' and in my view he succeeds beautifully. A quick visit to the homepage of the Poetry Archive will be enough to get anyone going back and dipping in on a regular basis.

Isn't it sad when voicemail messages disappear of one's phone? A message on my mobile this morning warned me that some of mine were coming up for deletion in the next [different voice: 'three'] days, which reminded me of a poignant radio play I listened to, probably a couple of years ago, in which a woman had lost her dear friend (? daughter/sister . . . my memory of the facts is vague) in some catastrophe and the only link she retained with her loved one was a voicemail message, which was about to be deleted in [different voice: 'two'] days' time. What stayed in my mind was the mounting desperation with which she tried to get some sense out of the telephone call-centre staff - 'Where will the message go?' 'It's been recorded, so there must be a copy somewhere that can be saved for me? - It must exist somewhere. Why can't I keep it forever? Why can't you make an exception and not delete it? Please?' Of course, nobody could help. She listened to the voicemail for the very last time and then it was gone, forever, and with it her last tangible connection with her friend. It was a devastating scene.

Well, I'm off to see Shrek III this afternoon, so I'd better get on with some work while I can. Enjoy the curlew poem, and if anyone comes across any others on the same theme, do please send them along. I can feel an anthology coming on!

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Rachel, Alexander and Angus

An email from Rachel Sharp this morning reminded me that I haven't mentioned her gorgeous new-look website here yet. Here's just a taste of the lovely new original works she has on view in her online gallery*.

I've been a devoted admirer of Rachel's work (and indeed of Rachel herself!) for several years - ever since the day I first saw her brilliant watercolours of flowers and fruit. Her paintings are filled with light and colour, and it was no great surprise to discover, once I got to know her, that Rachel's list of 'favourite artists ever' is almost identical to mine!

The crucial difference between us, however, is that while I merely studied art history and haven't picked up a paintbrush with intent to create for more years than I can remember, Rachel applied her studies of, for example, Matisse , Vuillard, Dufy and Rothko in the development of her own artistic vision and technique. The results speak for themselves.

Rachel's work has been exhibited at the New York Studio School Gallery; the Chautauqua Gallery, New York; Splash Gallery, Somerset; Paisley Museum and Art Gallery; and Transmission Gallery, Glasgow amongst many other venues. Born in the American Mid-West, Rachel now lives on the Berwickshire coast, in Scotland, and as if being such a gifted painter weren't enough, she is also a writer - her article on the artist Georgia Russell will appear in the December issue of American Style (Georgia's extraordinary works can be viewed at the England and Co Gallery, London ) and she has also written for the Scotsman newspaper this year.

To buy signed, limited edition prints of a selection of Rachel's paintings, including the widely admired Yellow Jug (original pictured below) - which was specially selected for the 2006 Aspect Prize exhibition - click here.

Multitudinous thanks to Julian Roskams of Etica Press Ltd for explaining very carefully, in words of one syllable, several times, exactly how to make the clever links with which today's blog is liberally sprinkled. I just know I'm going to have a lot of fun with this!

Finally, apropos my small-hours blog last night, you can see Alexander McCall Smith talking about his book Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams here.

The Scotsman reviewer said of Dream Angus: 'This last tale is perhaps the finest I have ever read from McCall Smith's pen.' While the Daily Telegraph (and it's not often you will read the name of that particular newspaper in this blog, I can tell you!) said that is is a '[g]em-like piece of work, slim and polished, and written in a very different voice from any of his other novels.'

Easily seduced as I am when it comes to poems and songs featuring curlews, I'll leave you with the words of a traditional Scottish lullaby about Dream Angus:

Dreams to sell, fine dreams to sell,
Angus is here wi’ dreams to sell o
Hush my wee bairnie an’ sleep wioot fear
Dream Angus has brought you a dream my dear

Can ye no hush yer weepin
A’ the wee bairns are sleepin
Birdies are nestling, an’ nestling’ the gither
But my bonnie bairn is waken yet

Dreams to sell . . . (Chorus)

Hear the curlew cryin’ o
An’ the echoes dyin’ o
Even the birdies are cuddled up sleepin
But my bonnie bairn is weepingreetin

Dreams to sell . . . (Chorus)

Soon the lavrock sings his song
Welcoming the coming dawn
Lambies coorie doon the gither
Wi’ the yowies in the heather

Dreams to sell . . . (Chorus)

There's a lovely version on this collection of Celtic lullabies by Lynn Morrison.

* Image © Rachel Sharp 2007.

Four Scotsmen and an oystercatcher . . .

Ran to post office (as best I could in blazing sunshine and wearing flip-flops) at 5.10 pm just in time to get a parcel sent Special Delivery to East Kilbride. Emerged from post office at 5.20 pm to that wonderfully nose-tingling smell of rain hitting scorched tarmac. By 5.22 pm, and still some several hundred yards from home, I was completely drenched, the road was a river, and I was carrying my flip-flops lest they float clean off my feet. Ahem, Mr Weather Man, wot is goin' on, please? Not a blue drop to be seen on your confident yellow forecast for the Colchester area this morning, I note.

Just visited Alexander McCall Smith’s very nice website . A copy of his latest novel, The World According to Bertie, is on its way to me from Amazon. It should rightfully go to the bottom of the pile of yet-to-be-read books on my bedside bookcase, but I have a feeling (actually, I’m completely certain), that I will drop all other reading matter the instant it arrives and read it from cover to cover, ignoring all interruptions. McCall Smith is like no other – his fan-base is wider and more varied than that of any other writer I’ve come across. He cuts across boundaries and defies categorisation. Readers either ‘get’ him or they don’t at all. He’s one of those writers whom it is impossible to recommend to other readers, because one can simply never tell whether someone’s going to like his novels. There's a minimalism to his writing, a consistent lightness of touch, yet also a profound sense of wisdom, humanity and - well, 'goodness', really, I suppose - but never in remotely sickly or facile sense. The title of one of his novels, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, just about sums up how I feel about AMC’s books – they're cosy, familiar yet challenging, stimulating yet deeply reassuring, ultimately rather sweet and delicious and you just want lots, lots more.

As soon as I discovered, several years ago, that the first of the 44 Scotland Street stories was going to be serialised in The Scotsman newspaper, I signed up immediately to receive a free electronic copy of that august publication (why are publications always ‘august’ when one is grubbing around for a tired old clich√©?) every morning in my email inbox. Silly me. Only subscribers to the exclusive PAID FOR (at vast cost) version of the e-Scotsman were allowed to read the serialised novel. Might have guessed. A cryptic clue in the title of the publication, you say? Oh, surely not! You cannot possibly suppose that I would stoop so low as to indulge in any lazy cross-border stereotyping? The very idea.

Suffice to say, I had to wait almost a year and then fork out a double-figure sum of my English Pounds before I could get my hands on, and my eyes inside, the first in the Scotland Street series. By then I was already a devotee of the Mma Ramotzwe series.

Before he became a best-selling novelist, as is now well known, Alexander McCall Smith was a Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, and co-author of Mason and McCall Smith's Law and Medical Ethics, now in its seventh edition (although while it still bears his name he does not, I believe, any longer contribute), which was for many years published by Butterworths (before they sold it to Oxford University Press). For a number of its Butterworths editions, the book was copy edited and typeset by me. I didn’t ever actually meet AMC, however, because his co-author, the delightful Professor Ken Mason always co-ordinated everything. This is, of course, now a source of mild regret – it would have been good to meet the man in his ‘before he was famous’ days (although, of course, he was justly renowned in the world of legal academia and far beyond, long before his novels were widely published).

Anyway, this was meant to be a very short posting to say – do please have a look at the AMC website – it has charming animated illustrations by Hannah Firmin and the incomparable Iain McIntosh , and you can, should you wish, join a forum in which to discuss his works.

As usual, I have rambled on for ages. When does a musing turn into a rambling? Now there’s a Thought For The Day. If anyone can shed any light on this, do please get in touch.

Finally, for the strange tale of the Mersea oystercatcher who was attacked by an oyster, see Mersea Wildlife Blog .

Tuesday 7 August 2007

Still blogging along . . .

I am so new to this blogging game that I hadn't realised how much I didn't know about it all until I started looking at and some similar 'how to' pages late last night.

More than a month since I started Musing from the Muddy Island, I'm still a little surprised that I started a blog at all! That I did so ran entirely contrary to my previous views on the subject (a sort of grumpy 'who do these self-obsessed, self-publicising, self-just-about-everything people think they are, assuming that anyone's going to be interested in them and their opinions? hurrumph' - was the general drift).

But I found that I was increasingly using my main website - which I wanted to keep essentially as a 'professional' window on who I am and what I do in the world of book and art publishing - as a parking space for small bits of personal news, Mersea Island news, poems, youtube clips, etc etc etc. A blog seemed more suited to such oddments. So I signed up and then felt far too shy to write anything at all for days and days. But now I seem to have got going. I don't think that this blog has yet achieved a very distinctive character or 'feel' of its own, but I am quite enjoying the randomness of it all, actually.

Giving substance to inconsequential thoughts, while allowing bigger, more difficult thoughts somehow to float out into the ether disguised as fluff and nonsense. Looking inward, reaching out. Sharing thoughts, ideas, images, places; acknowledging people and things that influence me; having little snippets of 'conversation' with unknown visitors . . . it's all surprisingly stimulating and already I think I would miss it if I had to stop.

Oh dear, it seems as though I have been comprehensively seduced. Possibly by the sound of my own voice. Which is almost certainly A Bad Thing.

Inspired by my brief mention of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach a couple of days ago, brand new blogger, Julian Roskams was kind enough to send me his own (considerably more extended and articulate) thoughts on the novel. I suggested that he should post it on his blog, and he did, and you can read it at . I fear that I am going to have to re-read the book before I am able to come up with anything half so eloquent.

Thanks for the tip about html links, Julian. I've wrestled and struggled but I still can't get them to work. Och well . . .

Monday 6 August 2007

Lost for words again . . .

. . . . well, very nearly.
If you click on the pics, they will fill your screen. Completely.

Sunday 5 August 2007

The Company Shed, West Mersea

Visited West Mersea’s justly famous Company Shed on Friday (see also here and here and here and also here, for some strikingly good photos of Richard Haward, owner of the Company Shed, harvesting Mersea oysters (go to 'food' and then 'oyster fishermen' )). Waiting for me at one of the closely packed, unadorned tables (it really IS a ‘shed’ – there’s sea water on the concrete floor and absolutely no frills whatever) was an old friend from way back (well, 'old' in the sense that we go way back – he’s only half a decade older than me . . . but then I’m getting on a bit myself, but . . . that still doesn’t make us ‘old’, thankyouverymuch).

Anyway, this youthful friend and even more youthful moi sat ever more squished into one corner of our table as the crowds piled in to sample the unique delights of the Shed. You have to take along your own wine. Sadly for me, some other people on our table hadn’t realised this, so my generous friend had already decanted half the bottle he’d brought for us into their glasses for them before I’d arrived. Luckily, I had brought some bottles of water, so at least thirst was not a problem, and neither was standing up afterwards. The point about the Company Shed (or one of its many points) is that it serves fish and only fish. In addition to drinks, you have to supply your own bread too. But the fish is the freshest you will find – you know this because large bearded chaps in wellies stride through the seating area from time to time bearing giant lobsters and the like. Fishing boats are moored just outside the back door.

Munching our way through a vast platter of assorted seafood and a side-order of lobster, we caught up on a year’s worth of gossip, discussed his recently finished first novel (which I had been allowed the privilege of reading in manuscript form a few months ago), and agreed that Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is quite the most extraordinary and brilliant book either of us had read all year. Coffee in the garden at The Coast Inn was followed by a pleasant crunch along the beach at (very) high tide on one of the hottest days we’ve enjoyed this summer.

Had a bizarre incident with my mobile phone earlier on Friday, though. It alerted me noisily to the fact that it was out of memory, so I started deleting messages, reading them as I went, and then, later, received texts from various people asking why I had just sent them a blank message! Was this the heat affecting the telephone or what? No idea. But it was rather alarming . . .

And speaking of phone alarms – the ringtone on my mobile, which also serves to wake me every morning, is currently the opening bars of the third movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. It’s not Michelangeli playing, but one can’t have everything. It’s a lot better than the awful built-in noises that came with the thing and I never start rummaging for my phone when I hear someone else's ringing, either!

I've just changed the Mersea Island link on the top of this blog so it takes you straight to the island's fab new portal at .

The self-publishing revolution

Delighted to see that long-term publishing colleague and friend, Julian Roskams of in Malvern, has joined the world of blogging. Welcome to blogspot, Julian!

Julian’s debut posting offers an interesting assessment of the self-publishing revolution – how self-publishing resources such as Lulu and ‘print-on-demand’ services have opened vast new horizons for people who wish to see their words and/or pictures in print without first having to be ‘accepted’ by a traditional publisher. At the same time – ironically, perhaps – it has also given publishing services providers like Julian (and me, of course!) the opportunity to work with all kinds of people with whom we would previously never have come into contact.

Helping individuals to knock their texts into shape before publication, offering advice on the design of their pages or covers, or simply holding out an experienced hand to guide those with little or no experience of the publishing process – this is an exciting new role for us. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, I'm a great fan of the whole photobook concept, and have a number of such projects in the pipeline. I’m also currently working on a number of non-fiction manuscripts for people who’ve contacted me via my website, , in search of self-publishing advice. And I know that assisting self-publishers is a rapidly expanding and successful aspect of Julian’s business too. Changing - but interesting - times.

Saturday 4 August 2007

Saturday cloudscape

30 degrees, a warm breeze from the west, visited bootsale and farmers' market then spent remainder of day on beach with younger daughter. Took picnic but no books, so counted shells and played I-spy and watched kite-surfers and the Cobmarsh rowing competitions; bought fresh shellfish and ate ice-cream on jetty, cooling our toes in the high tide, before setting off for home. This is what the sky looked like all day long.

Thursday 2 August 2007

Birthplaces, books and bus shelters

I discovered recently that the place of my (protracted and difficult) birth, all those years ago, Battle Hospital, Reading (which closed for NHS business in 2005) is to be redeveloped as a large branch of Tesco and a drive-thru MacDonalds. This I find mildly depressing. Not because I feel the place should be marked with a blue plaque or anything on my account (necessarily), but because there is very little romance in taking one’s children (or perhaps, in years to come, grandchildren) to a fast-food outlet and proclaiming: ‘on this very spot, my dear ones, your [grand]mother was dragged, unwillingly and by a variety of increasingly desperate methods, into this world.'

Birthplaces hold a special fascination for a lot of people. They certainly do for me. I’ve never made a point of visiting blue-plaques in any particularly systematic way but, certainly, to gaze upon the building wherein some special person breathed their very first breath can be an overwhelmingly moving experience. And it can be quite an emotional moment to happen upon such a place unexpectedly and by chance. Thank heavens for those who take the trouble to locate and record these often perfectly ordinary-looking dwellings, so that future generations may see and understand their significance.

Following on from my musings the other day about Atget and his modern counterparts – it’s now unbelievably easy to turn such photographic records into a jolly nice-looking book, using, for example, or, in the UK (more expensive but you save on the shipping costs), (and I can personally vouch for the excellent service and quality of the latter – see ). You can print as many or as few as you want and – presto! – all your Christmas present problems solved at a stroke. Get a crateload delivered to your door, sign copies for all the Special People in your life, wrap them up in nice paper, and wait for the gasps of astonishment, admiration and gratitude to come flooding your way on 25 December. Far nicer (and cheaper!) than something less personal you’d otherwise have to trek round your local Department Store searching for (possibly in a state of some agitation on Christmas Eve or thereabouts).

I’m currently involved in planning something similar for David Britton ( – a selection of his paintings and poems, which he wants to have ready in time to celebrate his 70th birthday later this year.

Speaking of whom . . . . David popped round this morning, en route to Oxford, with a folder full of his poems, which he has asked me to publish online, so that they can be enjoyed by a wider audience. Most of them have been previously published in poetry magazines and elsewhere, and many of them relate in one way or another to painting and to art in general – both his own and that of artists he admires. So watch this space and over the coming month or so – it will take me a while to type them all in and make sure I havnt maid eny speling mishtakes.

I’ll certainly be featuring some of them as my ‘poems of the week’ during August, thus banishing the pesky Lute Poem from my site – at least for the time being. Someone contacted me to say that it is featured on a bus shelter [sic!] somewhere or other and was there attributed to Anne Barnard, so that clinches it then. Yeah, well, right, if it’s on a Bus Shelter – recognised down the ages as hallowed repositories of truth and wisdom - it must be true. Obviously.

Miscellaneous Thursday things II

Hooray, Dougal is back, with some fab new photos of East Mersea and its wildlife, including a small bat lounging around on his kitchen floor .

Looks as though Anne Barnard is coming out tops in the Great Lute Poem Debate already (see yesterday's blog). I'll give it another few days and then I'll change the attribution on my Contact page at . Once this tag is indexed by Google, however, I may receive some other correspondence, so looks as though this one might, as they say, run and run.

Email this morning from artist Laura Frankstone, who's coming over to the UK very soon, and is planning to spend a day here on Mersea while staying with friends in Woodbridge. So keep an eye on her fabulous art-blog next month for sketches of Essex and Suffolk coastal life.

And while on the subject of art, forgot to mention an enjoyable few hours yesterday spent in the company of David Britton (see ), sorting through and photographing dozens more of his paintings, which I will soon be publishing as signed giclee prints, as well as some which he wants me to sell for him online. More news on all that soon, both here and on . Looking forward to David's forthcoming event at Colchester's Headgate Theatre on 22 Sept, War’s Betrayals, a dramatic unfoldingof the life of Ivor Gurney, in Gurney's own poems and songs, from pre-war Cotswolds to First World War trenches, to post-war disillusion and mental breakdown. Performed by David (Reader and Narrator), Valerie James (Soprano), Tim Torry (Bass) and Alan Bullard (Piano). Not to be missed.

Thursday seems to be Miscellany Day here.

Wednesday 1 August 2007

A question of attribution

Now, here’s an interesting conundrum: the poem below was posted on the ‘contact’ page on my main website, , as my new ‘poem of the week’. I couldn't remember who wrote it, but the website on which I located it, , says it’s by Lady Blanche Elizabeth Lindsay (b. 1844):

Alas, that my heart is a lute,
Whereon you have learn’d to play!
For a many years it was mute,
Until one summer’s day
You took it, and touch’d it, and made it thrill,
And it thrills and throbs, and quivers still!

I had known you, dear, so long!
Yet my heart did not tell me why
It should burst one morn into song,
And wake to new life with a cry,
Like a babe that sees the light of the sun,
And for whom this great world has just begun.

Your lute is enshrin’d, cas’d in,
Kept close with love’s magic key,
So no hand but yours can win
And wake it to minstrelsy;
Yet leave it not silent too long, nor alone,
Lest the strings should break, and the music be done.

Then today somebody who’d been looking at my website got in touch to say that it was in fact written, considerably earlier, by one Anne Barnard (1750-1825). Naturally, I Googled straight away and, sure enough, the first entry that came up for the poem, , attributes it to Anne Barnard and to be found in Burton Egbert’s The Home Book of Verse. The second entry is the one I originally found, which ascribes it to Blanche Lindsay and appearing in Edmund Clarence Stedman’s A Victorian Anthology. And these seem to be the only two entries on the matter (although there’s no shortage of other poems concerning hearts and lutes, including one by Benjamin Disraeli: My heart is like a silent lute/Some faithless hand has thrown aside/The chords are dumb, those tones are mute/That once sent forth a voice of pride . . . etc etc etc).

Soooooooo, who is right? Who is this poem by? Can anybody out there help? Please leave a comment if you can!*

Scampi and chips from the island chippery tonight: With lashings of mushy peas, naturally. What could be nicer, unless it be fresh from the Tobermory Chip Van ? There’s a review at which gets it absolutely right. The fish is so fresh it’s practically wriggling in its batter, but I have to confess that, delicious though the fish is, I’ve a serious penchant for haggis and chips. Well, when in Rome etc (except that I suspect that it’s laid on mainly, or possibly exclusively, for the tourists, rather than the locals). Unfortunately, it was far too early in the evening to contemplate washing it down with a can of Guinness, but I have my eye on one that I noticed in the fridge for later on.

Raced out for a walk round the boatyard at around 8.30, hoping to catch the most glorious light and fabulous drifts of lacy clouds, but sadly by the time I’d got down there, the sun had disappeared behind a low bank of thick cloud and the best of the light was gone. I took some photos but they came out looking very dull. Still, at least I burned off about two and a half chips’-worth of calories in the process.

Did you know that Anthony Burgess had a tortoise called Bucephalus? I used to, but had forgotten, until something suddenly reminded me today.

*Re which, I have now set up this blog to allow comments, but I get to read and ‘moderate’ them before they are posted. Unfortunately, there are lots of people out there posting blog ‘comments’ which are in fact a load of old spam (as if our email in-boxes weren’t full enough of the stuff already) and I have no intention of allowing my blog to become a repository for ads for anatomical enhancements of one variety or another. It also means that, if you so desire, comments can be for my eyes only and not for public display.