There I was, snuggled in bed, too tired to read, but reading anyway, beginning another collection of weird tales from the collections of the British library. Entitled Weird Woods – Tales From The Haunted Forests Of Britain, I was just a few words into John Miller’s introduction when I sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake. Miller begins his preface to the anthology of woods-based narratives thus:
“I grew up three miles from a haunted wood: Oxney Bottom, a name which still gives me shivers. You’ll find it on the road from Deal to Dover on the Kent coast, though it’s not a place you’re likely to stop… but if you did somehow end up in Oxney Bottom, you could tell straight away that there’s something uncanny about it. The road curves as it dips and takes you down into a hollow. Whatever the weather, it’s suddenly darker and colder there… the trees are thick enough to imagine that looking at them five hundred years ago would be the same as looking at them today. There’s no sign of the eighteenth-century house, or the ruined chapel, or the well where a young girl fell to her death in the 1960s. There’s a grey lady – the story runs – who will come out of the woods at night, limping into the oncoming traffic and then melting into the air…”
I turned to my husband, read Miller’s words out loud, and a few seconds later, a plan was formed. We would find the haunted woods of Oxney Bottom and make this jaunt into the arboreal uncanny our last excursion of this strange lost year.
We set out on the afternoon of December 30th, wrapped in scarves against the cold, but not dressed at all suitably for the horse-churned paths of treacherous mud. Admittedly, we may have trespassed a bit, daring one another to walk over a fallen section of fence so we might go deeper into the woods, where the colonies of aspleniums were at their most lavish. We encountered a structure of bent trees, fashioned by nature in homage perhaps to the old chapel mentioned in Miller’s preface. It made for a pleasingly eerie set-piece in the noiseless woods. Ivy was rampant, the trunks of trees rippling with its arteries, and the woodland floor upholstered with thousands of dark green leaves, which, like fish scales, reflected what little light remained.
The quality of silence reminded me strongly of my wanderings in Abney Park – not so much the absence of sound, but an abeyance, these woods waiting for us to leave so it might go back to whatever secret rites our presence had interrupted. Disappointingly, we didn’t catch sight of Oxney Bottom’s grey lady, or even the damp spectral form of the unfortunate girl who fell down the well all those years ago, and we didn’t dare go deep enough to find the walls of the ruined chapel itself. Instead, we enjoyed the curious sensation of time-travel, being the only things moving through an otherwise ancient woodland, a site which long since pre-existed us and would likewise go on without us too.
On the cusp of the new year, I wanted to avoid any further musings on 2020 as they might relate to the pandemic, not least because I suspect the ‘new year’ is going to feel a lot like the old one – at least for a while. Instead, I’ve gathered together all seven ‘Lost In Fields’ films as my swansong to a strange, slow year that was not without its simple pleasures and rich in moments of beauty.
“As usual, I’m spoiled for choice with subject matter in Chapter 14, there is SO much going on, and quite a few new characters appearing who would be great fun to illustrate. In the end, though, I couldn’t resist painting a skull with his brains showing so Doctor Ossifer it is this week. I’ve added a rather strange, shadowy background to the image, a nod to 1920s German Expressionist film, as Doctor Ossifer has Teutonic roots and I’ve recently moved to Berlin myself where some of those films were made. It’s tempting to go about the city speaking in Doctor Ossifer’s German accent and shouting at people, ‘It’s fascinating to meet you’ – but I mustn’t!”
Andante quasi lento e contabile, the third movement from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Admittedly, the lower 4th floor of a brick-built brutalist building is an unlikely fount of yuletide nostalgia. Even so, whenever I listen to Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, it is to this particular corner of this particular edifice my imagination travels first.
The corner in question is the base room for the undergraduate animation programme for which I was course leader, up until my resignation from the role in July 2019. Originally, there was very little ‘kerb appeal’ about this corner of the campus; the space in question had no natural daylight, and its ceiling dominated by a defunct network of ventilation tubes and vents. Over time, my staff and I transformed the unprepossessing bunker into a much envied cocoon of warm vibrant colour, modelled after a cinema foyer, complete with galleries of old movie posters, vintage folding cinema seats, and warm, pooling circles of light. I loved seeing the base room brimming with staff and students – as noisy together sometimes as a roost of parrots – deriving secret pleasure from the oft-repeated rituals of pushing chairs back under the tables after the students had left for their respective classes and restoring order to their scattering of film books, magazines and chocolate wrappers. On occasion, I feigned annoyance at their messiness, their apparent inability to eat a sausage roll without fountaining flakes of pastry over the base room’s rich red carpet, but in some heart-and-sinews way, I didn’t mind at all.
I likewise enjoyed the base room when it was empty and quiet, the orderliness and hush following the end of the autumn term, the majority of our students having upped sticks for Christmas. In direct conflict with edicts from campus managers and their kind, my colleagues and I would conspire to create further opportunities for our keenest students to continue working on campus in the days running up to the big holiday shut-down. In this one small way, I was trying to do as I’d been done by, recalling how supported I’d been made to feel by the teachers and tutors who’d populated my own educational experience; how it felt when my a-level art teacher trusted me to continue working in the classroom long after the school day was over; how it felt when he offered to make me a cup of instant coffee too, this simple erasure of hierarchy between master and the apprentice; how it felt during my Foundation Art degree, when the technician allowed me to work early, or late, in the workshop – because I was trusted; what it felt like to be a valued part of a community, where creativity was a shared act of support and time-giving, an existential thing more glorious than the precise letter of someone’s job description or the increments of a clock-face.
Thus, with a few industrious students scattered throughout the various studios and computer rooms, I myself would sit, not in my office, but rather at the large lozenge-shaped table in the middle of the base room, and finish off whatever remaining workload remained – usually writing heaps of feedback. The base room boasted a very large LED screen television and set of powerful speakers, and when the mood took me, I’d play Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony at some considerable volume, it’s third slow movement filling the long empty corridor outside with its midnight-clear and swirling snow. I suppose I fancied myself as an Edward Scissorhands figure; while Edward produced wintery effects where once there was none by shaving blizzards from blocks of ice, I sent Hely-Hutchinson’s darkling dream of winter whirling out of the base room to meet the opening doors of the campus lift, always thrilling slightly at the idea that my foot-sore wearied colleagues might delight, as I did, at finding their workplace enhanced so unexpectedly.
This is what I tell myself, such is the chicanery of nostalgia. My colleagues more likely wondered why I appeared so intent on propelling Christmas before me when there was no one around to care or notice, spraying Hely-Hutchinson’s seasonal music about the place like one of those blowers of artificial snow. For some of them, I may have struck a rather tragic figure, sitting alone at a large communal table in a largely deserted brick fortress. Their ear-buds packed tightly into their ears, my students were, in most cases, entirely oblivious to the ice and nightscape of Hely-Hutchinson’s third movement blowing past their respective studios – and if they were listening, they were probably rolling their eyes.
I don’t really know what anyone else was thinking if and when they heard Hely-Hutchinson’s music moving through the quiet conduits of the empty building – spooky, magical, wonderful, like the advance of frost. I’ll more confidently tell you what I was thinking. I was thinking, ‘This is how you do it!’ This is how you see off the barbarism of the fluorescent lights and long walks of grey non-slip flooring! This is how you unfurl the dark-bright heart of a Narnian wood within the confines of a concrete silo. This is how you turn an ordinary corner on an otherwise ordinary day and find yourself somewhere magical.
The other thing I know is this: whenever I hear the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I miss my former colleagues, all of us always knackered, all of us true-believers in the job-at–hand, and I miss all those twenty-somethings with their explosive sausage rolls and unicorn-coloured hair. I miss them, as I miss their delight in acts as simple as my donning a ridiculous santa hat, or handing around a mass-produced tin of mass-produced chocolates, recognising that delight for what it was – the trust generated by the moments when tutors choose to make themselves back into people. And yes, I miss pushing in all their bloody chairs.
But rather like one of those mass-produced chocolates in those big mass-produced tins, this specific bonbon of Christmas nostalgia is wrapped around a softer centre, for baked inside this Proustian madeleine is another. That I cleave so affectionately to Hely-Hutchinson’s atmospheric conflation of The Coventry Carol and The First Noel has as much to do with the age I was when I first heard it, as it does with the particular merits – or otherwise – of the music itself.
First and foremost, Andante quasi lento e contabile reminds me of my father in ways both welcome and less so. Hely-Hutchinson’s music carries inside it a very pure memory of my family, and thanks to the internet, I can be super-exact about its temporal coordinates: Christmas Eve, 1984, a little after 5pm. Our Christmas tree is sitting on top of the triangle-shaped coffee-table, squidged between the armchair and the sofa and throwing up scintillas against the rice-pudding sheen of our chip paper wallpaper. Dad is home early from work, and we’re all waiting for the final episode of The Box Of Delights to begin, the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s novel. For its signature tune, The Box Of Delights has taken the plucked harp from Hely-Hutchinson’s take on The First Noel. I don’t know the provenance of the music then, but I absolutely delight in the way it calls immediately for the hairs on my arms to rise in anticipation of what it to come. I’m fizzing with a curious brew of ‘Christmasness’ and dread, with pleasure and suspense – with pleasure in suspense. As the gas fire hisses, filling our living room with luxurious heat, I realise this is Christmas right here, right now; that it lives not in the brash adverts for children’s toys, or on Top of the Pops, but here, in this moment of exciting suspenseful darkness, here in this haunted music-box of a Christmas carol. For the record, it’s not just me, as someone wrote in the Radio Times back in 2015:
“The Box of Delights made a big impression on those who saw it when it originally aired more than three decades ago on BBC1. Mainly because it somehow managed to be the image of snowy Edwardian chocolate-box perfection, and pretty bloody creepy at the same time…”
That dad was home to watch this final episode with us is no small part of why this memory endures so powerfully. In common with my future self, who will later propel Hely-Hutchinson’s music out into the empty spaces of a near-deserted University campus in an effort to transform it for others, my pleasure at watching The Box of Delights was a pleasure doubled because it was pleasure shared. That my dad was there, taking this fantastical journey with me, seemed to be of special importance. Our family felt very close that Christmas Eve, drawing closer, Hely-Hutchinson’s music helping us towards each other with all its mystery, threat and promise of magic. This was the start of Christmas proper, the front door shut against the cold, work finished, school a distant memory, and the embargo on that year’s special purchases of Paynes Chocolate Brazils and Turkish Delight finally lifted.
In March of the following year, my father would leave us for another life with another family. Realistically speaking, this last Christmas spent as a family was surely a strained and miserable episode for my parents, and I think for my older brother too, who knew all of it before me. I wonder what they were thinking about as Hely-Hutchinson’s music began to play on our television? At least two of us were dreaming about journeying to another world entirely. It beggars belief I failed to intuit some of what was happening before it happened. Or maybe I did? Maybe the proof of what I knew is found in everything I’ve already written here, the import, clarity and preciousness of this perfect Christmas memory deriving from a child’s desperate act of magical thinking.
When, as sometimes happens, I find myself crying at the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I always try to figure out why. It is not a simple grief, because sometimes the tears feel like they are the physical expression of a surplus of hope. They squeeze out of me, silvered and involuntary. I suspect they are tears of frustration too, of disappointment with the synthetic sentimentality of the Christmas season and my struggle to go on feeling it – any of it. Hely-Hutchinson’s music surely makes me yearn for long walks at midnight on Christmas Eve, crumping across thick snow, and I think, if one day I do take a walk like that, I will come to understand how to ‘do’ Christmas again in some profound, legitimate way, and that it will fit with me again, as I think it once did.
And when I cry a bit, yes, I’m missing all those bloody students and the feeling being there for them gave me. I think, hand-on-heart, what I’m experiencing when I hear Hely-Hutchinson’s Andante quasi lento e contabile is loss – the loss of the child I once was and will never be again, and the loss of the children I don’t have and will never have, that pyjamaed tribe for whom I know I could get Christmas right; a sprinkle of ghosts and shadow, a perfect fragrance of clementine spritzed with my thumbnail, and all this imagination of mine poured into theirs, children I would never leave.
The house I grew up in had no central heating, only the gas fire in the living room. There was no double-glazing either and it was quite normal to wake up and see your breath in the bedroom. It was also common to find ice on the inside of the windows – frost ferns of extraordinary beauty.
In response to this music, I wanted to capture those patterns of ice, but the weather here is stubbornly mild and ordinary. Undeterred, I set about recreating the sorts of photographs I might have taken, but had to rely on some digital transformations, taking an image of an actual frosted fern taken in my garden several winters ago, and pressing it against a window of my own invention. When the first of these images coalesced, I gave a small cry of delight – for yes, here they were again, those delicate veneers of ice, just as I remembered them, and for a moment at least, I was my small pyjamaed self.
Then it was back into Photoshop for a judicious crop or two and a sprinkling of tweaks, to produce this final set of frost ferns. Many thanks to Dee for helping me achieve digitally what I was unable to produce photographically. As I type this, the weather here remains drably wet and decidedly unpretty, my windows opaque, yes, but with condensation and a few chalky streaks of seagull shit. Fingers-crossed the depths of winter might still provide some real-world opportunities for nice ice!
This week’s Throwback Friday leap back in time is very sleight. These photographs were taken as recently as Sunday, as we left the house in the late afternoon to walk around in the subdued Tier 4 environs of Whitstable, a few hours after the UK government had ‘cancelled Christmas’. Like many I suspect, all I really felt was a sense of relief, having long since concluded the ‘5 days of Christmas’ relaxation was a remarkably stupid idea.
It was wet and windy on our walk about the town, where even the snoozing fishing boats were bedecked with fairy lights. Up at Whitstable Castle (not really a castle at all), its facade painted in red and green light, one very tall tree was dressed in lights to impressive effect. Funny, how persistent ‘festiveness’ can be, little squizzes of finer feelings igniting spontaneously, unprompted by television adverts or the syrup of Mariah Carey, but produced instead by each and every plucky wreath hanging on the front doors of Whitstable’s narrow quiet houses.
This week, the woods remain lovely, dark and deep, as dreams of snow and ice continue to characterise this suitably festive Kick-About, with new works inspired by the third slow movement from Hely-Hutchinson’s 1927 A Carol Symphony. The Kick-About has been running for thirty-four weeks and was started, in part, as a response to the first lock-down. Throughout this time, our fortnightly shindigs have been a constant source of anticipation, comfort and satisfaction and I just wanted to say a big thank you to all my fellow kick-abouters for your creativity, conversation and always, the surprises. A big thank you too to all those who comment, who participate, who browse, and who share. Now go have yourselves a very merry Christmas!
“This painting isn’t what I had intended – but then again what is these days! In my mind I had envisaged carol singers and a merry Christmas card type scene. Alas it all went rather pear-shaped, so this is one I did earlier. I suppose it has a rather snowy and bleak look about it, but if you just keep walking around the corner and over the hill, there is little village hidden away and yes, I can hear the sound of Christmas carols drifting across the fields. Merry Yule tide and a peaceful New Year one and all.”
“The wonderful piece of music for this week’s kick about prompt has been wafting through the flat today, reminding me that Christmas does have some very nice things about it, once I forget about all the things I’m supposed to associate it with these days. I used to love this time of year as a kid, less so as I’ve got older and feel pressured to have somebody else’s version of Christmas and not the one I want.
I made this collage a few years ago, putting a few of my favourite wintry things together to create a version of Christmas I’d actually like; snow, the winter landscape, a cosy lit window, a jet black sky studded with hard bright stars. If you stepped inside that house there’d be a real tree with very beautiful decorations and real candles. Oh, and Christmas pudding and custard – now I’m living in Germany, I’m missing Christmas pudding soooo much, they don’t do it here!”
“The music of this prompt felt very christmassy and warm indeed. To me, nothing feels more christmassy than going for a walk in the countryside of Ireland, where the invigorating air hits you with pure refreshment and the frost glistens the shrubbery and flora. I spent a lot of my time, when I was a young lad, outside, building rickety hideouts and treehouses with my friends and cousins. Going for a walk near my family home always feels like I am dipping into my memory vault, where walking past a bparticular tree will spark a memory of us building and climbing away; walking through the grasses of the fields reminds me of being cut by barbed wire, and being so dumbfounded by having fun, I didn’t realise I was bleeding with barbed wire marks in my palms.
I remember the beehive camouflaged into the ground of one particular field; I can only imagine the sight of us all running and screaming our heads off as we ran for our lives from the angry hive – after we’d awakened it! Memories like that are scattered around the countryside of Ireland. They echo as I stroll past them, and now I am older I can really appreciate them. Although all the hideouts and treehouses are dismantled, and our worn-down trails filled by vegetation again, the clean air and bright stars haven’t changed.
Although isolation has, for now, stopped me from revisiting those actual areas of my past, I remember them as I walk through the bogland surrounding my Mam’s house, where I know I would have been in my element too. I am still drawn to those picturesque areas and the crisp, clean air – and I really appreciate the little bird houses built into the trees to shelter the birds in the bitter winter. I still walk past a particular tree and think – that would have been a good one to climb.”
The house I grew up in had no central heating, only the gas fire in the living room. There was no double-glazing either and it was quite normal to wake up and see your breath in the bedroom. It was also common to find ice on the inside of the windows – frost ferns of extraordinary beauty. In response to this music, I wanted to capture those patterns of ice, but the weather here is stubbornly mild and ordinary. Undeterred, I set about recreating the sorts of photographs I might have taken, but had to rely on some digital transformations, taking an image of an actual frosted fern taken in my garden several winters ago, and pressing it against a window of my own invention. When the first of these images coalesced, I gave a small cry of delight – for yes, here they were again, those delicate veneers of ice, just as I remembered them, and for a moment at least, I was my small pyjamaed self.”
“As an 11th hour coda to my efforts at faking frost, I sent my resulting images over to CGI-whizz, Deanna Crisbacher, and asked her to have a kick-about too…”
“… and this last image is where Dee and I met in the middle to produce one more.”
“The musical selection of seasonal carols made me think of the cosmos – not just the return of the light this season celebrates, but the vast circles of time and space to which we belong. But how to show this in a concrete way? I turned to sacred geometry – the Seed of Life and the Egg of Life, images based on seven circles as a framework for the whole of creation, forms that also echo the tones of the musical scale. For my collages I used images from 2 of my reference books–Majestic Universe and Space Odyssey. It was a learning process, fitting all the pieces together like a puzzle, but I eventually approached the images I had in my mind. And for the poem, a seven line form–appropriately named Pleiades. Its six-syllable lines also reflect the 7 + 6 circles of the Egg of Life mandala.”
in the beginning, dark– isn’t it always?—then inside the seed, the egg, illumination—orbs invoking each other, imagined, conjoined, kin– instruments of (re)birth
“Listening to Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, I found myself wondering about the meaning and roots of the word “Noel”; why the Coventry Carol, also featured in this piece, could sound so gentle and loving when it was about the mass slaugher of children; and generally, how tradition and custom allowed us to sing of the Christmas story, without really registering the words at all. So I have tried to restore some of the words most associated with our Christmas carols back into the context of the original event – a re-telling of the nativity, which is all mine, illustrated with some beautiful paintings, which aren’t.
I’d also like to wish each of my fellow Kickabouters a safe and peaceful Christmas, and a much happier New Year! Thank you for making this year so much better than it might have been. Love and virtual hugs to you all.”
“Chris Rea once sang “I’m driving home for Christmas” Over the years I have often found myself doing the contrary. Whether it was for work or escapism, I would often find myself in a red and white queue, wending my way up some motorway or other. Rea shares an empathy with his fellow travellers, as they sit in their cars waiting to continue their journey to meet loved ones. I often experienced it in a different way as I was driving on those dark evenings; I was leaving home going somewhere, not back to family or to the out-of-town shopping centres, or to the supermarket to get the turkey dinner and this congestion Rea sentimentalises was a hindrance. I craved the dark mornings, or the late-night finishes. I knew the people on the roads then were the same as me, their purpose not driven by consumerism or sentimentality but by necessity.
Come Christmas day I would often find the ceremony of the event claustrophobic and melancholic. As the darkness settled in, I would make my excuses and leave. The streetlights led me somewhere – and away from something – neither the ‘somewhere’ nor the ‘something’ were tangible or important – the act of travelling was the goal. I would simply travel without a whim or care, but inevitably the ley lines of the world would draw me to the coast, where I would park by the harbour and watch the dark waves for a while before reluctantly returning home. Whichever way I experienced my Christmas lights, there was a freedom on those sodium drenched roads, no top-to-toe tailbacks, no red lights all around.
Now, having had a family, my house has had its share of being festooned. Christmas day isn’t so much of a chore, even with in-laws and pets and the general hullabaloo. I can even survive the most banal Christmas hit (just), but occasionally there is still that yearning to travel and experience those quiet routes again.”
“A mini mystery with a touch of fairy tale. We will pretty much all be indoors this year (especially if the rain goes on) so I’ve brought the spooky woods into the house and paused the singing… With luck it’ll resume. Winter Solstice! Light is on its way. Meanwhile, I hope everybody has a cosy creative few days with positive thoughts for 2021.”
“Well there you go – 2020 is almost over. I am a humbug from way back, so this really was a challenge! I guess I sidestepped it by jumping to a new year’s message, hopefully as treacley as the music. Based on some pics of cockatoos in Centennial Park – such wonderful clowns – which were taken a few weeks ago with grevilleas and bush cherry flowers, which are out in the garden now.
To all the kick-abouters Season’s Greetings and best wishes for a bright shiny 2021. It’s been marvellous seeing all your beautiful works.”
We have the lovely Gary Thorne to thank for our next Kick-About prompt, which will no doubt come as a very welcome distraction from all things titivated, gilded and ‘Christmassy’. Gary presents us with simpler fare this week – left-overs from the great feast, perhaps?
Taken a few hours before an 80’s themed birthday party back in late February, these photographs of my fancy dress preparations have since accrued an improbable poignancy. It was a moment of silliness, which saw me attend the party as a hirsute amalgam of Cher, Bonnie Tyler, Jon Bon Jovi… and, anachronistically, Roy Wood from Wizzard.
What’s a little sad about these portraits is not so much the slow, inexorable tragedy of my hairline, but that this fancy dress party was the last large communal gathering of 2020. Shortly after these photographs were taken – about three weeks later – the UK went into its first lock-down in response to COVID-19. I can’t help but marvel now at how close to me my friend is sitting as he applies my rock-star eye make-up, his hand on my shoulder, his fingers touching my face. This same friend and I haven’t been this physically close since.
When I look at the image of the long crowded table, everyone sitting cheek-by-jowl (or wig-by-wig), it looks like a scene from another time completely, some historical tableau.
My wookie-sized wig is upstairs in the attic, hibernating – like the rest of us. Perhaps, when the time comes, the bells ringing out, strangers in the streets dancing arm-in-arm, I’ll stick it on my head again, backcomb the fuck out of it, and dance along in the crowded streets too.
“I moved to Berlin a couple of years ago and one of the things Berlin is very good for is second-hand bookshops. My favourite one is just up the road from where we live and one of my recent purchases is a book about the British artist Graham Sutherland. During the second world war Sutherland was an official war artist and some of the images he made from this period were included in the book. They really chimed with ideas that were springing to mind whilst I re-read Chapter 13 of Chimera last week; dark pits and claustrophobic tunnels, grinding machinery throwing up sparks, and a glowing, molten-hot colour palette. Kyp finds himself in a nightmarish place in this chapter, it seems to be a case of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’!”