Books, shops and genteel black holes

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

“A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.” 
Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! 

The above quotes are by two of my favourite authors and they very much encapsulate how I feel about bookshops. I have recently been extremely busy with work and, returning from a long business trip, I got to thinking about the importance of books and bookshops in my life and, more importantly, my sanity!

Books have always figured largely in my world. I fought against them as a child, mainly because the repeated phrases drove me insane. I can still quote one particular book with intense savagery today (for those of you who grew up as I did with the Sali Mali books, you’ll understand what I mean). In self-defence, my infants teacher started me off on a series aimed at 7-10 year olds. I was five at the time and it was my first introduction to an entire new world of wonder and enchantment. I was hooked. I devoured those books, desperate to know what adventures the Griffin, the Pirate and the Mermaid would fall into next. By the time I hit secondary school, my reading age was that of a sixteen year old and I was insatiable. I had also discovered the joy and lure of a good bookshop and nearly all of what money I had at the time was spent within the portals of the local bookshops.

Bookshops still intoxicate me. I have several that I patronise, some here, some there, some online. I prefer independents, though there are some good chains out there. This is  the first in an occasional series of my favourite bookshops – and of a few tea shops too. I will include web address, where they exist, in case you’d like to look them up too.

Watkins Books, 19-21 Cecil Court, London ( http://www.watkinsbooks.com/ )

450px-Watkins_books_in_Cecil_Court_2013-04-25_13-00

Taken from Wikipedia

Hidden away between St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road, London, Cecil’s Court is full of little gems, but I go there because of Watkins. Trading since 1983, it specialises in books on the esoteric. Just as you never know what sort of book you may come across in Watkins, you also never know who you may meet. Spaced across two floors, as soon as you walk in the warmth of the place surrounds you. The staff here are genuinely knowledgable about their subject and are invariably welcoming and friendly. As well as books on religions of all kinds, magic, self-development, earth mysteries and Celtica, they also stock books on health, astrology, nutrition… The list goes on and on. They also stock divination cards, crystal jewellery and CDs, which range from New Age to Early Music. A very wide breadth. They arrange regular free evening events with some of the authors whose books they stock – no need to book. If you happen to be in the area, just drop in. You can also get a Tarot or palm reading here every day of the week. Their loyalty scheme gives a really good discount once you have collected enough stamps (unfortunately only available on books brought in the shop at present).

I try to make a point of visiting here every time I am in London. It’s a little haven of comfort and happiness in a manic world. A place to while away a magic couple of hours away from the pressures of the everyday.

Why not let me know what and where your favourite bookshops are?

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Filed under Books, Simple pleasures

Autumnal Beauty

Giant Hogweed umbrel

Giant Hogweed umbrel

Autumn has to be one of my favourite times of the year.

I love the smell of the earth as leaves fall and vegetation begins to die back. The wet depth of the heavy dews, carpeting the world in sparkling iridescent diamonds. The liquid golden light that touches everything, but especially autumnally-coloured leaves, with syrupy fire. The crisp cool mornings that open out into gloriously warm, blue domed days. Screaming winds and driving rains that send you scurrying for the comfort of a warm blanket and a steaming cup of tea. 

Additionally, it is still a fecund time of the year, with flowers still blooming in a last gasp farewell to the summer. Preparations are also underway for the winter, and for next year’s spring.

Ivy berries , which will darken as winter approaches

Ivy berries , which will darken as winter approaches

Next year's catkins

Hazel tree with the small nubs of next year’s catkins showing

It is also the time of year to look for fungi. We are on heavy clay here, clay which usually bakes solid in a summer such as the one we have just had. Last year, however, was incredibly soggy, so the earth still gives underfoot, even after this year’s heatwave. Indeed, in some places it still squelches, especially after a good night’s rain. These conditions are, apparently, just what the fungi around here were craving. Everywhere you look, everywhere you thought to place your foot, there you will find mushrooms. Large mushrooms, small mushrooms, each with its own weird beauty. I am not an expert on fungi, and therefore leave them firmly where they are. This is why I have made no attempt at identifying the mushrooms below, as so many types look like other types. Poisonous ones look like edible, or the other way around. Indeed, one particular edible mushroom commonly found in the UK is known as the Deceiver, simply because it looks so alike other types of fungus! If you do wish to collect wild mushrooms for consumption, I would locate an expert forager who can teach you what to look for, as not even the best text book can convey every condition of growth safely.

FungiField mushroomsShaggy ink capphoto 4

As you can see, a wondrous diversity and a quite striking beauty. Not surprising, as there are approximately 15,000 types of fungus to be found in the UK alone. A lifetime’s study for the dedicated mycologist, all waiting on his or her doorstep.

There are also a few late butterflies still to be seen, though they are getting fewer and fewer in number now. Here is a Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) feeding on a late chive blossom. Interestingly, the species name of urticae comes for their preference for nettles (genus Urtica) for laying their eggs.

photo 1

All in all, this time of year is magical in its diversity. Beauty is sharper, clearer than in the more opulent summer. Soon, the scent of woodfires will start to perfume the air, the first frosts will silver the world and the bare, beautiful bones of the landscape will be seen. A season of pleasures will be over, but with the promise of yet more pleasures to come.

What autumnal beauties will you find?

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Filed under Seasonality, Simple pleasures

Tread Softly Because You Tread On My Dreams

The post’s title is borrowed from W. B. Yeats’s poem He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven, a beautiful commentary on the fragility of human love and the hopes and dreams that go hand in hand with it. This post is not, however, about love. Or rather, it is about love of a different kind; love of the Earth.

 

Taken from Pinterest

Taken from Pinterest

Climate change has been much in the news recently, and whether you believe in it or not, no one can deny that we are now far removed from a world where we live in tune with the environment that surrounds us. You only have to look at the beautiful British countryside to see this. Beautiful, yes; but not a single part of it is truly natural, as every part of the British Isles has been shaped by man. Left to itself, this would be an island of dense woodland. A squirrel could travel from Land’s End to John O’Groats without ever having to leave the tree canopy or place a paw on the ground. Clearance by man has reduced the woodland to a few remaining, isolated stands, and created the much patched landscape we know and love today. Heathland has to be managed, or the heather would disappear and the trees reclaim it – and the ecosystems now dependent on the heathers would suffer. We have changed the face of the planet and are still changing it. The Industrial Revolution turned us from being mainly rural- to mainly urban-dwelling citizens. The city conurbations grow unceasingly as once distant villages become part of the commuter belt.

We live in an era where everything is ‘disposable’. Everything that needs a stitch, a nail, a few hours time to repair is simply thrown away with no thought for the environmental or economic worth of the disposed-of item. We buy, buy, buy, always wanting the next new thing until a newer, brighter, all-singing, all-dancing one comes along to replace the last thing bought. We seek a better life in the bottom of our wallets and in the bright impersonal lights of the shopping centres, rarely stopping to think whether or not we actually need the things we buy to solace our soul.

I am currently between two houses, since I’m clearing my home of seven years to move back to my childhood home. I have seven years’ worth of my own stuff to sort through and dispose of – my chosen charities are doing well. My childhood home is in an even worse case. I am the fifth generation to live here and, accordingly, there are five generations’ worth of stuff to sort through. Countless books, dozens of dinner services and, for some strange reason, around 6 dozen sherry glasses. As a result, I am yearning for a simpler life, one less dependent on stuff and more dependent on what I do with it. I am beginning to realise that I have enough, and always have had. As a consequence, I have looked at the stacked piles and recognised that I will probably not need new plates, pans, glasses, table linen, cutlery or serving dishes in my lifetime. I will need baking tins however – my great-grandmother’s are finally on their last legs. I am getting rid of all that I do not need, and clearing space in my life to breathe, to be, to grow.

I have also adopted two rules: the first is,  ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,’ as William Morris urged, though I have added or has incredible sentimental value to this; and the second is one in, one out. Everything I do not need is either sold, given to charity, reused or repurposed and, only when all useful life has been consumed, thrown away. Papers are burnt and the ashes added to the compost heap. I have honed my closet (well, almost!) so that I get maximum oomph from the minimum amount of clothes. I use what I have. I am planning a garden to grow my own organic vegetables. I make sure that the land here is a haven for wildlife of every kind. I make my own moisturisers and cleaning supplies and am slowly moving away from a dependency on paraben-derived products. I use metal pens which can be refilled and buy recycled paper whenever I can. The next project is to learn to sew, so I can start making my own curtains and cushions, reusing materials gleaned from elsewhere in the house. I tread as softly as I can on the face of this beautiful, raddled, wonderful Earth of ours. It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it is what I can do and so I do it.

Do I feel better for the doing? Absolutely.

This isn’t an excuse to shame you or urge you into doing what you can. That is ultimately your choice and nobody else’s. This is a personal love letter to the planet that is my home; and in the same way that I look after my parents with respect and love for all they have given me, I can do no other than do the same for the planet that ultimately gave me a place to stand while I develop and grow.

Generations

Taken from Pinterest

This really is a beautiful world, and we should never be in danger of forgetting it.

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The Gentle Art of Travelling

Istanbul at night

Istanbul at night

I have recently been travelling for work. Something I used to tell myself I hated doing and also something I used to do with as bad a grace as I could manage.

Recently, however, I’ve realised – or at least admitted to myself – that I actually really like the entire process. I love having time to myself, time to breathe, time to think, time to just be. I also love the feeling of going somewhere new, seeing something I’ve never seen before, savouring the feel of a new experience. I love the fact that I’m alone, and can do whatever I want outside of work hours. Go out with any colleagues that are around? Sure thing! Eat early and curl up with a good book? Not a problem! Stay up late in the bar watching the ebb and flow of other lives passing by? Of course! Go for a walk to explore that interesting-looking cemetery seen through a taxi window? Why not?!

I take my comforts with me, comforts which turn a cold, impersonal hotel room into a home from home. My stash of different teas and my barley ‘coffee’. Soothing CDs, usually New Age or Early Music that ease me into relaxation of an evening. Since many hotels do not allow candles, a small votive holder and a small bottle of frankincense oil to perfume the room. Just fill the votive holder with hot water and add a few drops. Simplicity itself. A Kindle stuffed with books I want to read: old favourites, as instantly soothing as sucking your thumb; challenging factuals I can get my teeth into; and a few historical romances for when my brain hurts and I don’t want to think.

This time, my business trip took me to Istanbul. Istanbul! A city imbued with romance, courtesy of the Orient Express. A city redolent of a more elegant time. A city with a new experience on, quite literally, every corner. Most of all, however, a city I have always wanted to visit. Since first reading about it (I think it was in an old crime novel, or possibly a vampire tale, though I misremember which), I have had visions of myself visiting the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace and eating heaps of baklava and Turkish delight.

Since this was a business trip, the visits didn’t happen, and since I am wheat intolerant, I didn’t get to eat any baklava either. I’m not repining, however, as I did at least get to sample the Turkish delight. Much nicer than the ones you get in this country.

I have learnt that in this life, you have to grab any opportunity that comes your way. Such as the glorious view from the restaurant a colleague took us to one evening. A wonderful antidote to the usual stresses of the day.

Istanbul at night. The Topkapi palace on the left, the Blue Mosque slightly right of center

Istanbul at night. The Topkapi palace on the left, the Blue Mosque slightly right of center

One day, I will go back and see the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace close up, although they will be hard pushed to match the magical impression of being seen lit up in the night under a full moon with their lights reflected in the ever-changing waters below. Someday. Another item to be added to the only to-do list that matters. The one graven into my soul.

Grab your memories where you may. They’re insurance for later on.

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Filed under Istanbul, Simple pleasures, Travel

Weekly Photo Challenge: An Unusual POV

This week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge is An Unusual Point of View (or POV). Since I’m always looking for the photograph-less-taken (although I am guilty of more than my fair share of ‘chocolate box’ pictures too), I thought that I would contribute my little mite to this topic. So here goes. Here are my (slightly) unusual viewpoint pictures…

Cardiff nightscape - the Millenium Stadium

Cardiff nightscape – the Millennium Stadium

This caught my eye one evening – the struts to the left are two of the Millenium Stadium’s scaffold structure in Cardiff city centre. I love silhouetted buildings against the sky – for once, it worked!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chicago buildings

Chicago buildings

Chicago buildings

 

 

 

 

 

These were taken in Chicago. Once I saw the city skyscrapers and office blocks reflected in the ‘Bean’ I couldn’t resist these shots. If you look really closely, you can see me taking the photo…

 

Shadows

Shadows

This was taken on a walking trip on a very, very hot day. We were standing in a huddle waiting for a couple of our group members to catch up, so I took the opportunity to capture an alternative group photograph.

Tree Fern leaves

Tree Fern leaves

And finally…
I’ve always loved the architectural qualities of tree ferns. These leaflets almost look like railroad tracks.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the post!

Have a good week!

 

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Those Simple Little Pleasures…

…Or, Why Little Things to Great Things Lead

Too cute!

It seems that everybody these days wants to be happy. Which, of itself, isn’t a bad goal. It’s just not one that I think is sustainable. 
 What?! I hear you cry!
Before you switch off in disgust or start yelling at the screen, let me explain myself.

To my way of thinking, happiness is a big event in your life. It is a swelling of emotion from a constant background to a peak – usually associated with a particular moment or event – and then, inevitably, it subsides. Leaving the person who experienced that happiness looking for another hit. This is why I believe that although happiness has its place – and a very important place – in life, it cannot sustain either the spirit or the person from day to day.

Enter simple pleasures stage left.

Day to day, I aim to be content. Not exactly a fashionable attitude in this ‘must have the best’ world of ours, but an eminently sustainable one. Contentment is the background radiation to my life against which the surges of happiness and joy stand out in technicolour beauty; it is the constant that allows me to experience life in full, never dreading disappointment or the fear that I could never experience such joy, such emotion again for I know, day by day, that what I have, what I do, what I feel is enough. It is pleasure taken in being alive, in the simple pleasures of life, in nurturing my soul on a daily basis. It is the blanket of comfort I throw over my days knowing that if I am troubled or sick, in pain or down, that it will pass and I will once more be myself.

I never realised, until I deliberately thought about it, how many simple pleasures I have in life. Or how each little pleasure, stitched together into a larger whole, provides layers of comfort, of direction, of tiny joys burning into the fire of continual contentment.

The first sip of a really good cup of tea. The fragrant waft of steam from the open oven door when the loaf of bread is ready. Noticing something new whilst travelling a route taken every day. Discovering a new author. Taking notes as I read. The way polyphonic music both moves and soothes my soul simultaneously. Opening a new magazine and wondering what new lands I will journey to. That sudden lift of the heart on witnessing a bird take flight. Watching waves crash against the shore during a winter storm. Reading a cookery book, dreaming of the dishes I will someday conjure.

None of these things, taken singly, amount to much. Their power lies in the moment, that tiny little lift to the spirit that is then maintained by noticing the next small thing. This is the crux of contentment for me, the ritual of noticing the small graces of my existence and of acknowledging them, however silently.

Unless we keep an eye out for our little pleasures, they pass us by. We gulp the tea without tasting it, the steam from the oven is merely inconveniently hot, the route travelled just another task in the daily grind, the book or magazine just an hour’s diversion, the waves crashing on the shore only noise and wetness. Beauty unseen, joys dampened, comfort disdained.

Treasure the little moments, for they truly lead to great things.

Treasures hide where they may. Search for yours today.

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Cameras, joy and staying awake

Some days, I just stumble along in a half-awake daze, not really engaging or interacting with anything. Later on, I will try to remember that day only to come up with a blank. I can remember nothing about those 24 hours I lived through beyond a few vague impressions, because for every second of that period I was on auto-pilot, not waking up enough to order my brain to remember.

Yet, when I go someplace new, do something important, or visit a place that inspires me, I can look back and remember so many images. This is because I was awake to my surroundings and engaging and ordering my brain to notice and see.

Then I realised – I can engender this sense of sharpness, of aliveness, simply by carrying a camera. Obviously, I don’t wander around the house or supermarket – or into business meetings –  with a camera clutched in my sweaty hand, but when I am doing something or visiting somewhere I want to remember, where carrying a camera is not only permissible but a must, then the eye of the lens really does come into its own.

Simply staying awake to picture opportunities makes it more likely I will spot something interesting I would otherwise have missed. Such as the sign for Milkmaids Passage in Green Park, London.

Milkmaids Passage, off Green Park, London

I was looking at the Georgian houses lining Queen’s Walk when I spotted this sign – a sign that the friend I was with hadn’t registered. In fact, he hadn’t noticed that a passage existed, let alone the fact that it had such a romantic and rural name.

All too often we trundle along, never looking up or around, never seeing the glories that surround us, inhabiting our own little inner world and wondering why nothing interesting ever seems to happen to us? Why we never seem to meet the interesting people mentioned by others? Why life only seems to happen to those others?

It is because we do not engage. We do not seek outwards beyond our own skins. We do not live dangerously by letting the mask slip, just a little, so that others can see the jewels hidden underneath. It is because we are sterile creatures of wary habit, unwilling to risk all so that we may truly live. Harsh? Perhaps so: but consider now the most alive person you know and then think on how they are always ready to interact, to share, to exchange, to learn, to grow. They retain a childlike curiosity and wonder the rest of us suppress. They treasure the child within, let it show them the way.

Stained glass windows,  High Kirk of Edinburgh

Stained glass windows, High Kirk of Edinburgh

Had I not been gazing at the glorious stained glass windows of the Thistle Chapel in St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh (more properly known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh) with my mouth open in wonder, my awe momentarily open to all who saw me, I would never have got chatting to an inspirational young man fighting cancer with dignity and humility. I never learned his name, but he inspired me to not take life for granted and, indirectly, I owe this blog to him. To his courage in looking at what could be a very short rest-of-his-life with fierce joy and a determination to fully live it around a demanding therapy timetable. The picture above will forever be tinged for me with a faint sadness and with everlasting joy and gratitude.

“There”, I thought, in imitation of John Bradford, “there but for the grace of God go I…” *

Notice, witness, be present, live.

Carrying and using a camera – being aware of the potential for a jaw-droppingly, earth-shatteringly beautiful image that will speak to everyone, or a picture that will be meaningless to most but that will whisper a thousand images into your mind every time you see it – sharpens your attention and heightens your awareness of your surroundings. Helps you to stay alive to the moment, the emotions, the beauty, the pain. The image in the lens becomes a microcosm of life, a stepping stone that marks the path to being truly alive.

“But what about the Milkmaids Passage?” I hear you cry.

No one knows for sure exactly why this passage has been given this name – or at least, I could not find a reason in any of the sources I consulted. My own particular theory, however, is as follows. Green Park used to have a herd of milk cows – a rural fancy for the urban Londoner. For a small fee, the maids attending the cows would milk them and provide their customer with a glass of warm, fresh milk, direct from the teat. I rather like the idea that this custom was immortalised in an obscure little alleyway off the park. I am, in all probability, completely wrong, but until somebody can point out, quite definitively, the true derivation of the name, I will hug my little romance to myself, a signpost to a day’s compass where I remained awake to every grace.

What signposts do you treasure?

* John Bradford was a Protestant who, whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London for crimes against the Catholic Mary I (Mary Tudor), saw criminals being led to their deaths and spoke his famous line, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” He was burnt at the stake on 1 July 1555.

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Living life – every day

Those four little words sure look rather superfluous. After all, if you are alive, then you are already living your life, every single day of it.

My point here is that rather than living life, inhabiting every last crumb of it, filling the stadium from side to side and in its entirety, mostly, I merely exist. Though it’s amazing just how much has turned out right, even with my (inadvertent) attempts to mess everything up.

Now, however, a sense of mortality has kicked in and I find myself gazing over my shoulder at my own finite deadline. I could ignore this new cue just like I’ve ignored every other one in my life, but I rather like the urgency created by it. Rather than existing I am, for the first time, pondering how to cram my existence to overflowing with life. I want a sense of endless abundance, of life bursting my seams. Most of all, however, I want to know that the very fact I have lived has meant something. Even if that something is only meaningful to me.

This is why I have chosen the picture of Stonehenge as my header. This was taken at dawnbreak one summer’s day from within the circle itself, gazing out over the surrounding sacred landscape. No, it wasn’t midsummer and I wasn’t surrounded by hordes of white-robed druids. This was a tour guided by a bona fide archaeologist. We wondered at the circle. Walked the sacred landscape. Clambered up hill and down dale. Appreciated the numinous. Lived – and this is the important thing here – actually lived in the moment we were inhabiting.

This is what I want for myself. A life lived in the moment, full of wonder, appreciation, fully inhabited. Where the numinous is welcome, but the everyday is loved. A quest handmade for me, a modern-day, battered, tired, tries-so-hard warrior with a dicky digestive system and allergies. Whose eyes are often watering so hard from pollen that they can’t see the path, let alone the destination. This is why the journey is infinitely more precious than arriving and why every experience, every knock, every sneeze, every moment of inattention overcome lines the path for others to follow. Come. Join me.

You may enjoy the ride.

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Filed under Life, Minfdulness, Stonehenge