Category Archives: aspirations

SPARKLE

There you are child. Come sit by the fire and I’ll explain your duties. I’m not getting any younger, about time I had someone to help with the chores. Hopefully you’re not afraid of hard work. Everyone expects me to drop whatever I happen to be doing, wave a magic wand and turn their problems into happy-ever-after. Well I’m having to be far more discerning these days. Clients are making all manner of impossible demands since the princess sold her story to Messrs Grimm. I know times are changing but being immortalized in print is hardly ideal when one needs complete obscurity for dreams come true.

Personally I’ve never seen the need to advertise when word of mouth has proved perfectly satisfactory. You see I earned my reputation by never refusing a wish once committed, even where the final outcome seemed totally impossible. It’s taken many years to perfect these happy endings and I don’t accept disappointment lightly. I know there’s been some criticism regarding my latest case but nothing was due to my failings. Such a pretty girl but working as a skivvy did nothing for her language. I’ve a cache of spells for making even the most lacklustre girl appear glamorous, that’s really quite easy, and Prince Charming fell hook, line and sinker for her beauty, but I never guarantee what the far-distant future might hold. I suspect the Prince formed some early misgivings at the wedding breakfast after being seated next to the bride’s step-mother. Brimming with intellect she was not. After she’d drowned her sorrows in the ‘never-ending’ champagne she enquired about my services for her other daughters. One must be discreet but there are some things even I can’t fix.

Is it any wonder we fairy godmothers are a vanishing breed? Recently I was even accused of elitism. But surely one has to have standards. We can’t go granting wishes to just anyone who happens to recite the magic words and I’ve rarely received any on-the-job support so is it any wonder my methods are somewhat out-dated. Once upon a time I trained another apprentice, far younger than you; taught her how to grant simple wishes so I could concentrate on providing a better-ever-after service but she wasn’t comfortable with the world of fantasy and so very slovenly she failed to drum up any real sparkle and without sparkle there’s simply no magic.

Many thought me foolish for choosing such a calling but the truth is I’ve always aimed high and it didn’t take long to discover I was blessed with natural aptitude for happy-ever-afters. And servicing an exclusive clientele keeps me out of mischief, although there have been times I felt tempted. You see it’s never been about limitless riches, in fact in Cinder’s case it was in memory of her mother, poor soul. In the deep distant past I granted her wish to attend an exclusive finishing school but then, without so much as a by-your-leave, the little fool fell head-over-heels in love with a clothier’s son. I’ve always said that untold wealth is rarely the best basis for wedded bliss. Agreed, he was handsome, but lacking even basic people skills. When she died of a broken heart he was soon hoodwinked by that money-grabbing witch and her repulsive daughters. I daren’t think what would have become of young Cinderella if I hadn’t been alerted to her fate. I’ve an excellent informant in Rumpelstiltskin; he may be old but keeps his ear to the ground. Yes…I’ve heard the rumours about blackmail but needs must as the saying goes. I’ve learned to stay on my toes.

Speaking of toes I wish I knew how to put to a stop to those wicked red shoes but I never dabble with vanity, my talents being better tuned to match-making. I wish I could boast a career of infinite successes but, be warned child, during my formative years I made some dreadful mistakes. It’s easy to forget that nightmares are born from misused spells. Take heed from the sorcerer’s apprentice… such an impossible boy. And never, ever, underestimate the opposition, particularly if they favour dressing in black. Nor should you be persuaded to allocate any form of responsibility to dwarves. At best they can be scatterbrained but once in their cups there’s no reasoning with them and I can’t agree that manual labour offers any excuse for wholesale inebriation. Snow White was almost lost that day. Another lesson learned, as they say, which is why I now insist on complete jurisdiction from the very beginning. Reputation is everything.

Obviously I worry about the future. After that last fall I rather lost the will to fly yet I dread what the future of true-love will be without some sort of magical intervention. I can’t be alone in suspecting that the current generation of princes lack back-bone? Last time I chose an eminently eligible consort to wake a beautiful princess with a single fateful kiss he proved such a limp lettuce I was obliged to prune the undergrowth before he’d enter her chamber. While I agree one hundred years of neglect had left its mark I anticipated a little more gusto.

Now child, would you mind dropping off this pumpkin on your way past the lodge and don’t take any nonsense from the mice. If you must use the wand keep within your capabilities and, be warned, magic doesn’t work once they’ve forgotten how to dream.

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Filed under aspirations, Christmas, Entertainment, fiction, Imagination, Make Believe, Nostalgia, Uncategorized, Writing

Farewell Stiff Upper Lip

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On Saturday one of our oldest customers came to our workshop because she needed a ring re-sized. It was commissioned 35 years ago by her husband and she reminded me that when the ring was made Michael and I had just started our jewellery business and were still working from home. ‘It was so cosy’, she said, ‘and my husband loved looking at all the lovely designs before deciding on our commission. He used to look forward to coming to the workshop and watching Michael at work. Although he died many years ago whenever I come to visit he seems to be here with me.’ We both shed a few tears as we slipped down memory lane.

There was a time I wouldn’t have empathised so openly. My parents didn’t approve of sentiment and in order to please them I learned to conceal whatever I felt (good or bad), truly believing that if I didn’t allow my emotions any scope they might diminish or at least become more manageable. However the opposite happened, some emotions hurt more than physical pain, and then I discovered that if I articulated what I felt (on paper and in secret) I could actually cope. So I began to write prolifically. Gushy poems (as teenagers do) alongside many many pages of fast-action stories where my plucky heroine would make the world a better place. Of course nobody ever got to read these outpourings but writing helped abscond the pain.

I’ve always felt I’ve somewhat failed in the maturity stakes. Surely being grown-up means emotion gets easier to contain? My mother rarely attaches sentiment to anything (the only old things she keeps are photographs) whereas I can’t bare to let anything go if I feel an emotional attachment. I still have the tiny leather purse my best-friend Janet gave me on my tenth birthday, just before she emigrated to the USA, and the hand-made elephant Michael gave me on my fifteenth birthday. If our last house hadn’t burned to the ground I’d still have all the gushy poems and story-filled exercise books but perhaps that disaster did me a favour. Very little survived and what I keep in store is doubly valued.

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My Parent’s Wedding Day, Brighton 1953 

At the same time my elderly customer and I were reminiscing a young bride-to-be and her fiancé arrived to collect their wedding rings. All the metals we’d used had been recycled from their own old and broken jewellery and they started to describe the store of precious memories contained in these new-made rings – treasure not of our making. Also could we extend great gran’s string of pearls so the bride could wear them on her wedding day? They already knew the pearls were made of glass but wearing them would bring another memory to the occasion and everyone knows the rhyme – Something old, Something new, Something borrowed, Something blue – only the last sentence is often forgotten, A silver sixpence in my shoe.

Silver and gold have always been valued. Metal is a solid, hold in your hand, reminder of what something is worth. Though not a coinage we use today the very fact a sixpence is made of solid silver makes it immediately desirable. But the value of sentiment is immeasurable. Even now (in their mid-eighties) my parents rarely show emotion and generally appear detached. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand that they don’t mean to be unfeeling but in their eyes sentiment is an act of self-indulgence, they prefer to show what we British like to call a stiff upper lip, but I’m finally bidding good riddance to such total self-restraint because I was born a melt-in-the heart sentimentalist.

impression of shakespeare seal

Shakespeare’s Seal

 

 

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Filed under Ancestry, aspirations, courage, Culture, Experience, Family, Feeling, fiction, Life, Memories, Roots, society, Tradition

The Mathematics of Dressmaking

When I worked in London one of my skills was to make patterns. At the time I was working for a company that produced very expensive one-off coats and each pattern was made to fit an individual customer. Our clients were mostly the rich and famous who didn’t have time to do more than one fitting so my patterns had to be accurate. When I began it wasn’t my area of expertise but I enjoyed the challenge and having made clothes since I was six it didn’t seem difficult although my boss called my method ‘applied guesswork’.

Most people are familiar with commercial dress-making patterns, flimsy tissue-paper sheets which are highly inaccurate and produce mixed results. I’ve had terrible failures with such patterns and when you’ve spent a fortune on beautiful fabric it’s really sad to find the result of your labours isn’t wearable. So I can sympathise with Sir Christopher Zeeman, emeritus professor of applied mathematics. When he couldn’t find a dressmaker to make a dress for his wife with the piece of hand-woven silk he’d brought from Thailand (it wasn’t long enough) he decided he would make it himself.

dressmaking

First he measured his wife carefully and worked out her ‘area’ in square inches. He’d never made a dress before and thought a sleeveless summer dress with a simple princess line would be the most simple to design and make. Luckily he produced a mock-up using an old sheet, because it all went horribly wrong.

I was particularly intrigued by the negative curvature at the small of the back.’ He said when discussing the problems during a lecture at Gresham College. ‘I slowly began to realise that I did not yet understand the basic mathematical problem of how to fit a flexible flat surface round a curved surface.’

Being ‘mathematical’ he decided he would analyse the best means to produce the necessary ‘fitted’ effect and discovered what a dressmaker calls a ‘dart’. Then, after a long and well-reasoned study of darts, he decided to write a mathematical equation that could provide the correct ratio required for a perfect fit – ‘the first approximation is to assume that the cross-section at the hips is a circle of radius r, and that at the waist is a smaller circle of radius r-x. Hence the hip to waist ratio is 2π(r-x).

But then he encountered the ‘different vertical asymmetry’ between his wife’s back and her front. No more negative curvature, in fact there was the added problem of a bust. Subsequently he had many sleepless nights considering the best way to finish the dress because ‘there was a deep topological obstruction, analogous to the impossibility of unknotting a knot.’

Lady Zeeman commented that her husband so enjoyed his delve into the mathematics of dressmaking he worked on several projects, still in frequent use.

My point being that many English schools dropped the teaching of dressmaking when the National Curriculum decided in favour of more ‘technical studies’ such as computer skills but perhaps they would have been better taking Sir Christopher’s approach to problem solving?

class-in-dressmaking

 

 

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Filed under art, aspirations, Crafts, Education, Experience, innovation, society, Understanding

Roaming

It’s good to be back. I’ve been away since mid-September and although I generally thrive on travel the last few weeks I’ve been homesick to such an extent I couldn’t bare to access the internet or even check my e-mails.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

Looking down the garden mid-summer.

It didn’t used to be such a wrench. I’ve been globe-trotting since child-hood. Dad was a civil engineer and most of his ‘projects’ were based overseas. We hardly lived anywhere longer than a couple of years so rarely put down roots. Home never meant belonging and I grew up believing that mine was a ‘gypsy’ soul. Friends were always few as I itched to move on, to discover just what lay beyond the next horizon. What ties I owned were weak and unsentimental. Yet I was always jealous of people who ‘belonged’ and wished I could claim one place as home. And I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved history. While the present world is always in flux there is a sense of permanence about things past. History exists in the mind’s eye and therefore can’t disappoint or betray expectations. Anyway, that’s my excuse, or perhaps it’s more an apology?

With that in mind our latest round of travels began in Italy, in the Bay of Naples to be exact, a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years. We opted for an eight-day tour because we’ve learned from recent experience that popular sites are virtually impossible to enter without serious forward planning (of which we are incapable) and specialist companies secure priority tickets over individual tourists.

On first arrival I did begin to question that logic, especially when caught-up in rush-hour traffic along the Bay of Naples. Then we enter a series of tunnels culminating in a seven kilometre run which ejects us dramatically onto the rim of cliffs hovering above Sorrento and images of 1950’s movies starring Audrey Hepburn or Sophie Loren transpose my view. Azure seas lap beneath an undulating conurbation of white-washed villas clinging, rather haphazardly, to the cliff-tops; of course it’s entirely breath-taking.

Sorrento

It takes another airless hour to reach our hotel, crawling through narrow lanes packed with traffic, negotiating hair-pin bends not designed for cars never-mind tour buses. We drop fellow passengers at city-centre hotels and wish our destination was closer. However our choice of accommodation proves worth the wait, we have the best view in Sorrento, high above the bay and tucked amongst high-staked vines and olive groves. Our home for the next week is the traditional, family-run Hotel Vue d’Or, and within minutes of our arrival we are flopped, like jetsam, on the marble-tiled balcony, sipping cold beer and expiring in the heat like true Anglophiles.

Hotel Vue d'Or

Next morning, after a solid night’s sleep, our first day unwinds slowly. I sit on the balcony, writing down my thoughts and impressions. Although not yet nine o clock heat seeps down the mountains, crimping at the shade. Sunlight, unleashed, breaks with utter force, smothering, impaling, disturbing, discomforting. A distant mountain is ablaze. Soft grey smoke gathers, suspended like a balloon above the red glow of flames. The smoke sits slovenly and impassive. There isn’t a breath of wind.

Fire mountain

By mid-day the northern horizon hangs grey while small, bee-like planes skim across the smoke dropping buckets of water onto the flames. They seem an ineffectual nuisance. The sun’s brilliance filters through a smothering haze. But far below me sits a turquoise pool, shimmering invitingly. The hotel is clamped onto the mountain-side like a concrete rock, surrounded by red-tiled roofs poking through the dark green mantel of ancient olive groves. The air smells potently of charcoal smoke and hot-house herbs.

The week holds a fast-paced itinerary. There’s no more time to sit and stare as the bus arrives to take us to our first destination. Worse, except for one other day, we have to be ready to leave by 7am. No leisurely breakfasts, no sitting by the pool and wondering if the fires will be subdued, we have an agenda to pursue. I begrudge the means but this is modern tourism, I can’t afford the time, never mind the wider elements of a true ‘grand tour’.

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Fast-food outlet, Roman style

Coming into Pompeii for the first time it was mind-blowing to think this city was seven centuries old before the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Seven hundred years of trading with the known world, of ambitious families accumulating wealth and substance in a city perfectly situated for growth and expansion. Even though it now lies in ruins it still possesses an arrogant beauty. No wonder its citizens were reluctant to abandon their hopes when a series of earthquakes shook Pompeii’s foundations to the core ten years before the final destruction came.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

The forum, with Vesuvius lurking behind.

Of course those with real money were able to leave, to abandon their villas by the sea. There is evidence they packed up their riches and left slaves to guard their properties. In fact one of the earliest finds, during the excavations of 1748, were the skeletons of several men who’d been trying to tunnel into the city not long after its annihilation. More recent archaeology has proved they were attempting to recover a large chest containing the combined household silver of a wealthy aristocrat. Historians think it quite possible there was the offer of a generous ransom but poisonous gases still pervaded the site, sealing the treasure-hunters’ demise. And they probably weren’t the only victims because local legend proclaimed the site not merely dangerous but ‘damned’.

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

Plaster of paris cast of citizen lost in despair

So Pompeii was largely forgotten. While boiling mud extinguished its existence, the massive eruption diverted the river which bound its wealth and subsequent lava-flows changed the lay of the land until the sea fell back from its harbours and the surrounding marshes became mosquito laden backlands where few dared to linger.

To be continued…

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Filed under aspirations, Culture, Disaster, History, Hopes, Rome, Travel

The Artist

It was no more than a garret. Pitched windows cast mute sunlight. Seasons of grime danced with dust. Marooned by forsaken canvases the artist posed at his easel, far too engrossed to acknowledge visitors. Ardent fingers stroked muddy gouache into a sullen landscape. It was his agent’s suggestion they should throw open the studio so patently the little man should take full responsibility for clients.

Pierre, clad in simpering Sunday best, was steering an elegant woman through the shambles, taking particular care her generous skirts didn’t engage with discarded canvases. The silly man never did recognise when a painting was finished and dry.

‘My mother thought herself something of an artist.’ The client had an elegant voice, symptomatic of her class. ‘An unfortunate obsession.’

Pierre was nodding respectfully. ‘Artists! Such passion?’ And keen to illustrate the virtues of his young protégée poised in front of a glowering masterpiece.

The woman’s flamboyant millinery concealed the look on her face but studying the picture closely she enquired. ‘What is the subject?’

‘Notre Dame. It is early morning; mist is rising from the river.’ Pierre had become well-versed in avant-garde techniques.

‘I see nothing but fog.’ Grey dust swirled as their client marched towards the next canvas.

The artist didn’t stir from his easel, being posed in the far corner. Closing his empty eyes he tossed fronds of tousled dark hair from his fore-head, and brooded. Discarded underfoot, like flotsam on a beach, were the charcoal sketches of blurred memories never destined to become art.

‘And what is the theme of this study?’ The relentless woman had manoeuvred behind the artist in progress.

‘The church of Sacre Coeur at dawn…’ Pierre began confidently.

But the lady interrupted. ‘And has the artist ever availed himself of taking the air at dawn?’

‘The artist prides himself on beginning every study en plein air.’ Vigilant in his praise.

‘Yet another study of Paris in fog?’ She waved a gloved hand dismissively.

The artist applied paint with such passion his easel screamed across the floor. He wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t give the client that pleasure.

After an agonizing pause she continued. ‘I find Paris too indulgent of artists with a fascination for fog.’ The pitch of her voice rose to an unremitting crescendo. ‘They must persist in starving until they comprehend how these bland creations fail to inspire.’

Pierre looked forlornly towards his artist. Spine rigid, head otherwise engaged, he laid down his brush and took up a knife.

Derwentwater winter

Good manners being integral to business Pierre remained impeccably polite. He escorted their client downstairs and out into the street. Only then, concerned for his artist, did he run briskly back up to the garret, more than slightly out of breath.

‘Madam was over-critical, please don’t be dispirited.’

Laying down his knife the young man stepped back from the easel, wiping his paint-swabbed hands on a rag while considering his latest creation.

Pierre shook his head sympathetically. ‘Of course we are bound to attract the curious, those whose interest is not entirely aesthetic.’

‘Oh she never intended making a purchase.’ The artist’s attention remained set on peeling paint from each awkward finger.

A sudden perception engrossed the agent. ‘You’ve met the lady before?’

And turning from his ruined masterpiece the artist brandished a smile. ‘That lady was my mother.’

February 2012

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What is Creative?

chesset

According to a recent government think-tank craftspeople can no longer be considered ‘creative’. Given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries they ‘classified’ a craftsperson as a ‘manufacturer who follows fixed procedures to produce articles by hand’. No creativity required! Having spent most of my life working in what I consider to be ‘creative industries’ I’m appalled, especially when the same report praises desk-dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants for their creative input. At a stroke my status is downgraded to unimaginative; lacking innovation, artistry or aesthetics. But hasn’t there has always been an element of snobbery towards makers who actually get their hands dirty?

I was brought up on the premise that it’s exemplary to make things by hand. When I studied at Art College William Morris remained the oracle and he believed that losing respect for the past meant the future was in trouble. Making is in our genes – from making food to making clothes, mankind learned hand-skills in order to survive. But hand-skills are developed through creative intellect passed down from master to apprentice, and Morris challenged Victorian industrialists for failing to recognise this fact.

For some archaeologists the humble sewing needle marks the most crucial advance for prehistoric societies. This simple tool allowed our ancestors to finally crawl out of their caves. Needles meant clothing fashioned from raw animal skins could be made to fit. And clothes that fitted made winter hunting expeditions more endurable. Better diet meant survival rates improved and life-spans extended, enabling clans to pass greater wisdom and experience onto the next generation. The beautiful paintings left in caves remain the only evidence of their life stories. And of their instinct for creativity.

It took thousands of years before primitive societies discovered how to farm in such a way they could sustain life without the need to wander. And it was no doubt during this period a wider range of craft skills were perfected. Whether making vessels to store water, or weaving textiles or tanning leather to make clothes, people were discovering how to manipulate whatever materials they discovered in order to improve their lives. Perhaps that’s why the current government boffins think crafts lack creativity, because we’ve been using these processes for a very long time. But even if societies did have to produce everything required to sustain life there’s nothing to say they didn’t enjoy the process, people who work with their hands are nothing if not resourceful.

Each stage of early intellectual development can be credited to a breakthrough in manufacturing techniques brought about by craftspeople. Without skills honed from manufacturing hand-crafted products the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Blame glassmakers on the island of Murano for the invention of spectacles. And Guttenberg was apprenticed to be a jeweller, that’s how he learned the techniques necessary to ‘create’ moveable typefaces.

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It might take a given set of procedures to make a product by hand, but craftspeople are perpetually innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and it’s in their nature to explore and experiment. But an experienced craftsperson does not separate the workings of the hand from the workings of the mind. There is no such distinction. Neither do they baulk at getting their hands dirty.

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