All posts by Maria

Deceptions of Solitude

My exhibition Unlost Places II (Deceptions of Solitude) is in the Art Pane Relief windows at The Workers Gallery, Ynyshir, CF39 0EN between 20th September and 3rd October 2021.  So in a departure from the usual tongue-in-cheek stuff, this month’s blog is for those people who can’t get to Ynyshir or for the ones who want a bit more information about the artwork.

About Unlost Places

Unlost Places is a project which uses various methods of creative expression to map the metaphysical features of landscape and in particular, the spiritual legacy that lingers in ancient places.  Unlost Places I reflected on the Iron Age hillfort of Mynydd-y-Gaer on the Glamorgan Ridgeway.  Unlost Places II is centred slightly further west on Mynydd Llangeinwyr.

Mynydd Llangeinwyr

Mynydd Llangeinwyr is not a mountain by any commonly accepted measurement of altitude but those who live on its slopes or in its shadows happily dismiss the evidence of spot heights and contour lines on maps.   Mynydd Llangeinwyr may be more aligned to “the high, steep hill” of a dictionary definition but when you cross the ridge in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims or stride along the Old Garw Road, rutted by generations of drovers, when you pause at the Bronze Age Burial Mounds of Bryn-y-wrach and look across the long, empty horizons and grass strewn slopes and know that thousands of years ago some other soul stood where you stand and saw the same things, then who is to say there is only one way to define a mountain?  Unlost Places II consists of interpretations of Mynydd Llangeinwyr through the prism of the existence of two individuals – the eponymous Gwrach of Bryn-y-wrach and St Ceinwyr who is remembered in the spring, church, llan, mountain and village that bear her name.

Art-Pane-Relief Window Gallery

Both windows follow the same premise:

  1. textile art to represent an aspect of the physical landscape together with bells to indicate the presence – real, imagined or potential – of the numinous or spirit of place
  2. a collection of small dolls which illustrate the journey through life that all individuals undertake and which leads some to consider the possibility of a greater scheme
  3. the poetic tercets (3 lines, 7 syllables in each line) end with the phrase “deceptions of solitude” giving credence to the possibility of such a scheme
  4. a larger doll to embody the female protagonist associated with each place
  5. textile art which reflects upon the spiritual legacy in the location
Window One – Bryn-y-Wrach
The Last One

Hand embroidery on machined appliqué, various fabrics. The usual translation of Bryn-y-wrach is the Witch’s Hill.  Less well known is the tradition that the last sheaf of corn to be harvested was known as the Gwrach.  It was left standing in the field as shelter for the spirit of the land over the winter months.  The following spring the Gwrach would be ploughed into the soil to ensure a good harvest.

The Barrow Wights

Stump dolls, various fabrics.  Barrow Wights are described in folklore as small, scurrying creatures who tempt passers-by to enter the realm of the fae or otherworld.

Gwrach

Poetry

Text printed by hand onto hand-made paper with a collage of watercolour painted leaves.  Three composed poetic tercets describing the enduring legacy of folklore traditions.

Y Wrach

Doll

Doll with hand embroidery on machine appliqué, needle-sculpted face and an internal armature for support.  According to folklore, all crossroads were haunted by a witch who appeared as a beautiful woman.  Having ensnared a traveller, she would turn into a crone or hag before disappearing.  The traveller would never be seen again.

Crossroads

Textile Art

Hand embroidery on painted canvas.  Illustration of the concept of genius loci – the spirit of place.

Window Two – Llangeinwyr
Llan

Textile Art

Free form knitting.  Contrary to popular opinion a “llan” is not a church but a stone-walled enclosure.  The original llan lies to the north of the current churchyard and it was in this field that I threw a ball of wool down the slope then walked after it, knitting as I went.  The finished piece contains field debris such as moss, dried grass and tufts of sheep wool.

Pilgrim/Prayer Dolls

Stump Dolls

Stump dolls with crewel embroidery stitches.  Haptic experiences like the handling of beads are associated with prayer and contemplation in many religions.  The patterns on these dolls are finger traceries which fulfil a similar purpose.

Ceinwyr

Poetry

Text printed by hand onto hand-made paper with a collage of watercolour painted leaves.  Three composed poetic tercets relating to the stories surrounding St Ceinwyr.

St Ceinwyr

Doll

Doll embroidered with medieval stitchery, needle-sculpted face and internal armature for support.  Tradition links St Ceinwyr with the Mountain Ash tree so this is depicted on both sleeves and the panel of the doll’s skirt.  St Ceinwyr was said to have the ability to turn snakes into stones and many ammonites were found near the places she lived.  These spiralled shapes are stitched into the fabric.

Numinous 9

Textile Art

Hand embroidered collages set on a mirrored background.  The underlying concept which links both windows is that Christianity imposes a pattern and order of behaviour to replace the colour and texture of  self-hood.  In exchange the individual has the promise of a heavenly existence.  The collages of Numinous 9 represents the 8 stump dolls – highly coloured in Window One, monochrome and simplistic in Window Two.  The ninth patch and the mirrored background reflect the viewer both metaphorically and literally.

Parting Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed a browse through Unlost Places II (Deceptions of Solitude).  I suspect next month’s blog will be less intense mostly because I am spending October cat-sitting, harvesting the garden, walking a half marathon and catching up with all of my mentoring clients who have patiently taken a back seat while I’ve been stitching all day, every day recently.  Plenty of potential there for tongue-in-cheek stuff.

 

 

 

 

First Up Against The Wall

I hate Zoom.  I haven’t tried Teams but I rather think I might hate that too.  Both of them – as well as Google Meet, Skype and Webex, in fact all video conferencing platforms – are likely to be on my list of things which are first up against the wall when the revolution comes.  And do you know why?  Because no-one has ever given me instructions on how to cope with seeing myself in a little box on the screen, so I’ve got to assume the fault lies with the technology and I want revenge.  Why, oh, why, instead of watching other participants as they speak am I transfixed by my overgrown fringe, how saggy the skin on my neck looks and whether I should wear or take off my glasses?  I must presume that it’s because the designers of digital tools want me to stare, bug-eyed and vacuous, into infinity instead of looking interested in what’s being said.

Um. Sold 2013

And the other thing I hate about Zoom et al is the “Shall we go round the room with everyone just saying something to introduce themselves?”  At a proper meeting this sort of thing is rehearsed informally as everyone settles into their seats and waits for facilitator to organise their slides.  By the time the introductions are being done you get a sense of what sort of thing to say and how long to talk for.  Not on Zoom though.  Which is why I want to apologise to everyone who I met for the first time on a Zoom training course yesterday.  It had been organised by Carol at Applied Arts Scotland  and Irene of Craft Scotland and was part of their Resilience Programme.   Not surprisingly, I was miffed even before we started because I would have much preferred to have gone to Scotland to be trained rather than sit in my gloomy workroom which overlooks a grey concrete yard instead of heather-strewn hills and glorious lochs.

Caledonia Way

By the time it was my turn to speak I had lost track of reality and in particular, I had lost track of the fact that there were other people on the Zoom  watching my pixelated face droning on and on about completely irrelevant and nonsensical whimsies (and probably losing the will to live as well).  Of course what I should have done was think in advance about what I was going to say.  This has never been a problem in face to face encounters but for some reason, Zoom makes me speak in a most un-me-like way.  I am renowned amongst those who know me and have the courage to express such an opinion, for being succinct to the point of curtness.  This ability deserted me yesterday because in introducing myself to these 11 strangers, for some reason I decided to roll back the clock fifty years and whitter on about my very brief teaching career.  From that point I brought in imaginary floaty balloons, a resumé of ALL the adult education studies I undertook in my 20s and the fact that we now only have one chicken left but that she is 10 years old and still lays the occasional egg.  Sadly none of this had anything to do with the subject of the meeting.

So in the unlikely event of a revolution and someone asking me for my choice of what’s first up against the wall, I reiterate that it will be Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, Skype and Webex.  In the more probable circumstance that I will soon be involved in another video conference – and, just in case anyone on yesterday’s training is reading this – I have pinned a piece of paper to the wall in front of me and out of  the webcam’s range which reads:  “Hi, I’m Maria.  I have a portfolio of activities.  I am a textile artist and writer inspired by the legend, landscape and people of Wales; I am a dollmaker particularly interested in the social and cultural history of dollmaking as a domestic craft and I also work as a freelance mentor and strategist where I specialise in lifelong learning and craft business start-ups.” One minute instead of twelve and not a floaty balloon or geriatric chicken in sight.

The tide of life

 

Sea scape

Anyone else with a creative practice spent the last year staring at the horizon, hoping that the tide of life would start to ebb and flow again? It’s not that I haven’t done things or made stuff – I have;  it’s just that an awful lot of it had no eventual purpose.  I like to exhibit what I make and for that to happen, I need exhibitions.  In the past if no-one has asked me to join in an event, I’ve been happy to hire a space myself and fill it with anything and everything that I’ve created.  It’s a bit of a gamble ego-wise and it wouldn’t suit everyone but usually it works out for me.

stand at fair

2020 was a no-no year for exhibitions though, wasn’t it?  And 2021 isn’t looking much better so my interest was piqued a couple of months ago to see a call-out for submissions at one of my alma maters, Hereford College of Arts .  They intended to hold an exhibition to mark International Women’s Day.  Sadly my pique got distracted by some domestic crisis or other and the moment passed.  And that would have been it except that on Monday, 22nd of February (that date’s important so retain it for a couple of minutes) someone sent me a link to the same exhibition call-out.  This time all was calm in the house so I took a closer look and found that the event would be called the Unchained Library and submissions should be in the shape of book spines with a fictional title about how the artist had viewed or been affected by the pandemic.  Aha, I thought, this looks promising: make something small, no restrictions of medium, for a place I know (and love) and – this very much to the point – free of charge to join in.

Photograph by Dan Salter
(CRC Illustration)

When’s the closing date? Thursday, 25th February.  Did you retain the information from higher up the page?  If not, go back and check it now.  Normally I can use something that’s already made or almost finished to submit if time is short but nothing in my bag of tricks looked even remotely like a book spine so I had a choice: forget the exhibition or pull out all the stops and produce something at high speed.  I knew I’d need to get whatever it was in the post on Wednesday to meet the the Thursday deadline – so on Tuesday I decided to do a bit of extreme creativity, art against the clock.

10am
11am

 

1pm
2pm
3pm
5pm

I wrapped it up, addressed the parcel (accurately, with postcode), put my address on the back, took it to the post office, got it weighed, stamped (expensively) for next day delivery and waved it farewell as it disappeared in the midday collection on Wednesday, 24th February.  Sadly it didn’t make it into any of the virtual exhibition images that appeared on the HCA Facebook page.  That would be because yesterday it came back in the post, unopened.  So if anyone wants to do another exhibition of fictional book spines, do get in touch.  I’ve got one ready.  In the meantime,  I have abandoned staring at the horizon and adopted a new attitude to the tide of life – come and get me, I’m waiting for you.

 

Art in Unexpected Places

Back in 2018 I decided that what I really, really wanted to do was a PhD.  I’ve got a degree in Creative Writing and an MA in Contemporary Crafts so naturally I thought I should apply to do a PhD in Geography.  I wrote a proposal based on Unlost Places and badgered some very pleasant (and extremely patient) academics to find a supervisor who would be prepared to let me wander about the ancient tracks of Wales writing poetry, sketching and piling stones into land sculptures.   For various reasons (mostly to do with not having £25,000 going spare) I never actually applied to study.  It turns out that this was no bad thing on two counts: firstly, since March 2020 wandering opportunities have been limited and secondly, I have come up with several other potential PhD research ideas.

field sketch

One of these is called “Art in Unexpected Places”, although it will have a suitably intellectual subtitle when I get round to writing the proposal.  It all started on one of my local walks in the first lockdown (one hour, once a day) when I was seeing how far I could get before having to turn homeward and saw this outside a local farm.

When restrictions eased in the summer I did some lane walking in West Wales and found other examples of hand-crafted roadside art.

names

I know that it is much cheaper to make a sign than buy one but I had the impression that there was more than cost involved for the West Walians.  I think there was an element of affection for the subject,

house sign

an opportunity to show a sense of humour,

cow sign

express some individuality

horse head

or just be creative.

pig

So next time you’re thinking of downloading and printing off a rainbow for the kids to colour in, bear in mind that I might be walking past and my PhD will need something a bit more original in the window if you want to be included in my research.  And incidentally,  even official signs can be quirky and original – this one on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is one of my favourites and probably will get a whole chapter in my thesis.

sign

If you’re a pleasant (and extremely patient) academic, I still haven’t got the £25,000 but feel free to get in touch.  There’s bound to be a funding stream somewhere we can tap into.

 

Firebreak Autumn

In the cloudswept hills of the Western Lands, Hallowe’en fell in the middle of Firebreak Autumn and whilst everyone knows that hacking a pumpkin to bits with your trusty axe is time well spent, it still left 16 empty spaces on Maira Big Thumb’s calendar.  One day was spent celebrating a harvest safely gathered in,

harvest

then on another she tidied her hovel,

interior decor

and of course she went for an obligatory Autumn walk through the local park.

Then she wondered, what can I do next?  Well, in the middle of a pandemic, with massive economic uncertainty and people fearful about what the future held, Maira Big Thumb decided to do what every self-respecting Viking does – come out fighting.  Thus it was she spent the rest of the days of Firebreak Autumn learning the dark arts of starting a small craft business.  When she was wise in the lore of setting up an on-line shop and could cast the spells of search engine optimisation, she knew she would be able to help other folk do the same thing.  Now, thought Maira Big Thumb, the people will have something to occupy them when they can’t go out, they will be able to make little pots of money and they will understand how any kind of craft makes anxiety go away for a bit.

And when the day came for Firebreak Autumn to end, Maira Big Thumb realised there was just time for a little rest before she ventured forth into the world to start rampaging and pillaging once more.

#bekind #makepeoplesmile #stayhome

 

Does My Thumb Look Big In This?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve got Viking ancestry.  I’ve long suspected as much by the way I search the television schedules for programmes which Neil Oliver is presenting, particularly if he’s wandering around the bleak landscape of Scandinavia (though to be honest, anywhere north of Birmingham will do).  And my tendency to visit Viking re-enactments whenever I see them advertised is also a bit of a giveaway – I like the crafts, I like the clothes, I like the opportunity to throw an axe without worrying what the neighbours will think.  Recently I even considered whether I should do one of those DNA tests which breaks down your genetic origins geographically although, to be honest, I pretty much know that on one side I’m Slavic and on the other Welsh, with some French and some English bits.  The only hope for Viking origin comes from Grandad Charles Iden’s ancestors but given that an Osbert de Iden landed in Sussex during the Norman Conquest and had a village named after him (proving that he was either a close mate of William or a land-grabbing bully), it’s a very thin and wispy hope.

Luckily though, two things have come to my attention.  Firstly, in his programme The Vikings – which I recently watched for the umpteenth time – Neil makes the point that the eponymous Northerners weren’t afraid to venture out into the world and there’s even evidence that they got down into the southern reaches of Europe.  Secondly, I found this photograph of my great grandmother Felicité Marie just before she left France for Wales in the early years of the 20th Century.  French, my eye!  Have you ever seen a more Viking looking woman?  A glare that could freeze the marrow in your bones.  And I bet there’s an axe hidden in that hat.

Buoyed with this new found certainty about my ancestors, I decided I should put my Viking-ness to good use.  The Stay At Home and Stay Local messages prevented me from rampaging or pillaging but when Nalbinding appeared on the Heritage Crafts Association (https://heritagecrafts.org.uk) list of endangered craft skills, learning how to do it seemed like a perfect way to channel my inner Noggin the Nog.   Only two things stood in the way of my Viking credentials – a name and a saga.

The Saga of Maria Big Thumb, Multiple Loops and the Oslo Cast On

In the valleys of the West, where the high moorlands meet the grey, cloud-swept skies, in the cool summer evenings that seem longer this year than most, a solitary woman works at her wool crafts and thinks of tales to tell. 

A shadow had fallen across the land and from the Senedd, the order was given to lock the gates and close the bridges.  An edict was issued that people should keep to their hovels and only venture out to search for toilet paper, baking powder or pizza bases.   Tucked away safely in her little cottage, Maria Big Thumb unwrapped the parcel of wool which had just arrived from her allies in the north and knew the time was right to learn the almost lost Viking craft of nalbinding.  

Ffffff the 1st

After much searching in the forgotten temples of Google, she found an old pdf with drawings of small, dainty hands and caused it to be printed out.  Maria Big Thumb spent many hours trying to understand it and even read the words out loud to see if that helped:

“Wrap the yarn around your fingers 3 times” – yes, simple. “Grab the eight between your fingers” – what eight?  Where did the other five come from?  “There are now 3 thumb loops” – where did the five go?  And how did the thumb join in? 

Hint (said the pdf): Say to yourself, 2 loops stay around the thumb, 2 loops get picked up on the needle.

“Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 2nd

Later that evening, when Maria Big Thumb had calmed down, washed her glass and put the empty bottles out for the recycling, she decided to call upon the god Amazon for help.  Soon a book, illustrated with fine coloured pictures of beautifully manicured fingers arrived.  Maria Big Thumb threaded up her needle and resolved to start again.  On page 27 she found instructions for nalbinding beginners to follow.  “Take the yarn and hold it in the left hand” – yes, simple (but she remembered thinking that last time).  “Fold the big loop to get smaller loops so the result resembles half a looped square” – what big loop?  And what does half a looped square look like? “Pull the needle through the loop and it will become the first loop” – what loop?  WHAT LOOP?

 

Hint (said the book): If you only have one loop on the thumb, you can take the needle through both mouse ears at the same time. 

“Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 3rd

Risking the wrath of the law, Maria Big Thumb ventured down to the corner shop for the magical potions which would help her understand these strange words but try as she might, and even after the recycling bin was overflowing, they remained dark and mysterious to her.  In the end she realised she had no choice left.  She had worshipped at the temples of Google and she had made offerings to the god Amazon.  Now it was time to go to Valhalla itself; she resolved to consult the great deity YouTube.   “Foolish Maria Big Thumb,” boomed the voice of YouTube, “you have failed because Google sought to teach you in the ways of the Left Handed Start and Amazon tried to trick you with the Finnish Stitch. 

Hint (said YouTube): If you had come to me straight away you would have learnt the Oslo Cast On and all things would have been well.  Better late than never though, so look at this video of a woman with unchipped nail varnish and let’s get on with it.”

“Ffffff, Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Epilogue

Thus it came to pass that Maria Big Thumb learnt the skill of nalbinding and achieved Level 1 NVQ (Norse Viking Qualification).  She eventually hopes to progress to study for a Level 2 NVQ specialising in yelling loudly and beard plaiting.  Current circumstances mean that Maria Big Thumb is furloughed from her work placement raiding fishing villages on the Scottish coast.  In the meantime she is considering cleaning her nails and washing her hands before featuring them in photographs.

If all goes well, the next blog will appear mid-August.  Until then

Stay Safe, Be Kind, Keep Smiling.

The Mystery of the Missing Marshal

Note: Any similarity to individuals, locations or events is entirely coincidental.  See last month’s blog (In All Our Dreams) at the bottom of the page for cast of characters. Enjoy your visit to Woollyton.

7am

Vince has just finished setting out the course for Woollyton’s Midsummer Run.  He sits on a bench, unscrews the cup from his battered Thermos flask and pours his coffee.  Mrs Vince – long-suffering and saintly – provides him with refreshments for all of his volunteering obligations.  On the occasions when duties coincide with cold or wet weather she diligently tops up the sweet, black coffee with a generous tot of rum but today, with the sun shining and a warm June morning ahead, Vince’s coffee is just coffee.  She has, however, thoughtfully packed a biscuit for him to munch on.

Vince dunks the digestive rather than munches it and thinks about the success of the Saturday morning runs.  Getting Olga the Opera Singer to give the pre-race briefings meant there was no need to buy a megaphone, although recently Dr Lizzy (the First Aider) has complained that the way Olga rolls a cigar up and down her thigh as she sings instructions to the music from Carmen means some of the runners are breathless before the race starts.

The only Saturday which wasn’t a success was the one when Mike the Marshal went missing.  Vince frowns as he recalls talking to the police, being interviewed by a reporter from The Woollyton Bugle and even – Vince nearly chokes as he gulps his coffee too quickly – having to answer an email from HQ asking for an explanation.  And why?  Because Roger had forgotten the three notes that Mike had given him to deliver.  The first had been to Vince saying that Mike had to leave his marshal post early as his flight to Amsterdam left at 1pm; the second was to Mrs Mike telling her that he’d been called away on urgent business. (Mike never explained to his wife why his business trips involved him being away for weeks at a time before he returned, suntanned and with a wallet full of cash, but to be fair, she’d never asked for details either.  She just thought he was more attractive bronzed than pale and was very happy to deal with the excess money); the third letter, addressed to his boss, said that his grandmother was seriously ill again and he’d been called to her bedside.  Apart from briefly marvelling at the recuperative powers of Mike’s grandmother who, for years now had suffered bouts of sickness around the time Tom Jones was in concert somewhere in the world, Mike’s boss did nothing more than tweak the staff rota for the following month and thank God for the existence of zero hours contracts.

Vince’s frown disappears as he remembers it all worked out in the end because Roger eventually found the letters and posted them.  Since then Mike had sent several postcards to Betty for her to display in The Sticky Bun and some exotic spices for her to try out in her cake recipes.  He’d even enclosed a packet of seeds for Upstairs Annie to plant on the allotments so she could grow her own hay.  And now that Nellie the Knitter and Brian Behind the Paper had won the lottery and gone on a world cruise, there’d be no more complaints to deal with.  Vince finishes his coffee and smiles contentedly.

8am

Sticky Betty sets up a table near the start line with complimentary buns for all of the runners.  She has finally used the spices Mike sent her from Amsterdam and because today is a celebration, she made an even stickier than usual topping.  Sticky Betty is sure they’ll be very popular with everyone.

9am

Most of the runners have eaten Sticky Betty’s spiced buns even though common sense told them to wait until they’d finished the race.  Rod has produced a red satin cape and led a riotous arm-waving, foot-stamping warm up session alongside Olga’s rendition of the pre-race briefing to The March of The Toreadors.  As Vince blows the start whistle, over on the allotments a curl of smoke rises up from a bonfire and wafts across the course.  Upstairs Annie has scythed the hay she was growing with the Amsterdam seeds and set the stubble alight to clear the ground.  As the runners pass by on the first loop the smoke has dissipated into a pungent, greyish haze and by the time they approach on the second loop, Vince wonders if he needs to remind the clubs about taking the race seriously because the runners seem to be doing a Conga into Woollyton Woods.

10am

Vince checks his watch.  He sent Roger into the woods more than 15 minutes ago to look for the runners and there’s been no sign of him since.  Vince shudders as he anticipates having to deal with another HQ email but then sighs with relief as a lone figure walks out of the trees and heads for the finish.  Rosie strolls over the line and raises her arms in triumph, claiming victory for walkers the world over and dismissing the disappearance of all the other competitors as irrelevant.

11am

Vince decides that he will have to send a search party into Woollyton Woods.  He looks around and realises he is alone in the playing field except for Rod and Olga who are doing an Argentine Tango near the still smoky allotments.  Vince puts on his Run Director vest, his brave face and follows the taped course into the trees.  It’s not long before he hears a man’s voice singing.  Soon he reaches a clearing full of runners who are swaying back and forth to the music.  Upstairs Annie is carrying a smouldering pile of hay and a misty cloud hangs in the air.  Standing on top of makeshift stage is the gyrating figure of a black-shirted man.

“Mike? Mike? Mike?” calls Vince.

“Delilah,” chant the runners.

“Why? Why? Why?” Vince takes a deep breath and starts to feel a little bit dizzy.

“Delilah,” the runners chorus.

“So before – I sent Roger a note saying I’d be back today – they come to break down the door.” Mike’s voice booms out and his hips swing from side to side.

Vince’s hips feel an urge to do the same.  He briefly wonders whether his replacement will cope and then decides there’s only one way to find out. He pushes his way through the crowd to stand next to Mike on the stage, puts his NHS orthopaedic surgery under stress it was never designed for and along with everyone else, goes for it.

“FOR-GIVE ME, DE-LI-LAH, I JUST COULDN’T TAKE ANY MOOOOOOOOOORE!”

Email from Run HQ to Vince

Hi Vince, We heard you had a special Run last Saturday.  Would you like to tell us more about it?

Email from Vince to Run HQ

No.

 

The End.  My next blog should (fingers crossed) appear in mid-July.  Until then #staysafe #bekind #keepsmiling

In all our dreams

 “We should show life neither as it is nor as it ought to be, but as we see it in our dreams.”

Anton Chekhov

I’m going to write a whodunit.  Not a gritty, gory crime novel – they’re too much like real life and for the moment, I’ve had enough of reality.  And not one of those brooding melodramas set in a beautiful landscape where everyone is gorgeous looking, under 40 and affluent but with no obvious source of income.  No, I’m going to write an old-fashioned mystery with a collection of eccentric characters – all with dodgy alibis and skeletons in the cupboard – who lurk about suspiciously and generally undermine the efforts of the police to bring the guilty party to book.   Back in 2007 when I was concocting a detective story for my Creative Writing degree, Rob Middlehurst (my tutor at the University of Glamorgan) advised me to sketch little life stories for my protagonists to make their part in the plot believable.  If he’s reading this, he’ll be pleased I sort of paid attention.  Even though I am still without a detailed plan of how the tale will unfold – it involves blackmail, jealousy and a compost heap on the village allotments – I think my characters’ backgrounds are very realistic.  It’s just that there was no sketching involved – only some scraps of wool and too much time on my hands.

 

Vince the Volunteer

Every village needs a Vince.  In Woollyton, Vince organises the parkrun that starts off with two laps of the playing field before following a footpath into a glade of trees.  Local legend tells of lost treasure buried in a cave somewhere in the Woollyton Woods and says that those who stumble upon it either go completely mad or are never seen again.  Vince seems as sane as any other Run Director, muttering to himself about things he’s forgotten to do as he pegs out the course at the crack of dawn each Saturday.  He never goes into the woods though, preferring to send a marshal who will stand alone beneath creaking branches until the last runner passes and then collect the tape which marks the route before heading back to the playing field.  Last month Mike the Marshal didn’t return at the end of the run.  Not to the finish line, not to his house where Mrs Mike had lunch on the table and not to his job the following week.  “Just as well,” said Vince to the policeman who came enquiring for information, “I’ve got a spare hi-viz jacket and plenty of tape so I can send someone else into the woods next week.”

Sue the Stretch

What Sue really wants is for everyone in Woollyton to take up Yoga, thus making her business plan for a naturist retreat called Yogi Bare irresistible to the bank manager who needs to agree her loan application.  In the meantime, she has to be content with daily classes for the clothed and faithful few at the Community Centre.  Except, of course, on a Saturday morning when the parkrun takes place and Sue has to yield all of the car parking spaces, the changing rooms and the little cafeteria (The Sticky Bun – tea/coffee and, you’ve guessed it, a sticky bun  for £2.50) to Vince and the runners.  This she does with all the magnanimity of someone who can adopt the position of Downward Dog and stay in it for 47 minutes without her digestive system announcing its existence to the world.

Olga the Opera Singer

Half of the residents of Woollyton are sceptical of Olga’s claim that she once sang in Milan and the other half say that anyone who hangs around the bars in Milan on a Saturday night will end up singing so her lack of modesty doesn’t necessarily imply talent.  Olga proves her case (one way or the other) by taking up position at her bedroom window each evening  after the Channel 4 news bulletin and letting rip with an aria.  This cultural largess has been raised at council meetings in the Community Centre where compensation for broken glass in the cold frames and greenhouses on the allotments nearest her house is consistently refused.

Upstairs Annie

Annie is one of those people who is rarely seen without a bale of hay in her arms.  Quite why this is has never been established as she doesn’t keep animals and lives in a tiny flat above Woollyton’s only shop, with not even a flower box to call outside space.  Those who have taken up Annie’s invitation to drop by for a nice hot cup of tea (that is, virtually everyone Annie meets on her hourly quad bike rounds of the village) are quick to say that Annie isn’t a gossip but she does know about most things that go on in Woollyton.  And when they’ve said that, they wonder where she gets the money to pay for the hay, the quad bike and the petrol she has to buy to make hourly rounds of the village.

Rosie Right to Ramble

Until the parkrun was launched, Rosie was the only person who wandered the paths through Woollyton Woods.  Now each Saturday people come from miles around, double parking their cars on verges and blocking driveways.  For a while Rosie tried to rally opposition to Vince and his marshals but to no avail.  Then she signed up on the parkrun website, got a barcode of her own and began joining in every week.  She is very fond of rambling in the rain and on days when the weather is particularly inclement, Rosie enjoys walking the route – very slowly – and waving to the cold, sodden hi-viz heroes who grin back at her through gritted teeth and send silent messages of a speedy finish followed by  cramp in both calves.

Betty the Sticky Bun Baker

When Betty took over the Community Centre café, it was on the understanding it would be developed into a healthy eating outlet, a hub for home cooked meat free, gluten free, dairy free but money expensive meals.  However in response to public opinion, Betty reneged on the terms of this unwritten agreement and announced that the entire menu would consist of sticky buns but with some exceptions.  Thus, on Bank Holidays and other auspicious occasions (many of which occur on Saturdays), Betty expands her repertoire – and the waistlines of her customers – by offering fried bacon and sausages layered in doorstep thick slabs of squidgy white bread served with great steaming mugs of hot milky chocolate at a cost all of her customers are more than happy to pay.

Nellie the Knitter and Brian Behind the Paper

Nellie and Brian celebrated their retirement by building a little bungalow in a peaceful spot near a grassy meadow and calling it “Paradise”.  Then the owner of the grassy meadow had the nerve to die and leave it to the residents of Woollyton as a playing field.  To add insult to injury he also left a strip of land to become allotments for the villagers and enough money for them to build a community centre.  Soon “Paradise” was anything but peaceful and one Saturday Brian took a felt pen and scrawled the word “Lost” on the house plaque.  That was the day Nellie abandoned crocheting granny squares and began knitting fair isle socks on 5 needles with a provisional cast on to the double rib cuff and Kitchener cast off at the arrow point toe line.  It was also the last day that Brian was seen as he’s been behind a paper ever since.

Rod the Runner

Every morning Rod squeezes himself into a pair of lycra shorts that were tight fitting when he bought them 3 years and 4 kilos ago.  He’s convinced that those 4 kilos are upper body muscles but many people who view his jogging form from behind would disagree.  Rod, being the Chairman of the Community Centre Committee, had to pretend to welcome the arrival of Woollyton’s parkrun but in truth, he always felt that running was too serious a business to share with the general public.  He even had to give up on his ambition to develop a wholefood restaurant at the Community Centre when one by one the rest of the committee, thanks to Betty’s persuasive skills, voted for the Sticky Bun alternative.  All of these things he writes about over and over again, in long, poetic letters to the only person in the village he had ever loved.  Letters which he seals with a smudgy kiss and never intends to post. Although once, a carelessly left open window and an afternoon breeze saw one of them waft from Rod’s desk and land, like litter, on Woollyton’s playing field.

I started knitting the little people just for a bit of fun but as so often happens, one thing has led to another.  Let me assure you – and particularly the people who I know personally – that whilst there may be a knitted resemblance to some of my friends and family, any links to dodgy alibis and skeletons in the cupboard exist only in my imagination.  Admittedly I haven’t worked out who among them is going to be the amateur detective, the culprit or the unreliable witnesses but I think I have populated Woollyton with more than enough eccentricity.  I wouldn’t be surprised to start getting messages from those within my social circle fairly soon suggesting the roles their character could play and which Hollywood star should take their part when the film rights of my whodunit are sold.   To them I would say –

“In all our dreams!”

Now, are there any publishers out there reading this?