As the temperature continues to drop, I’m hankering after a blast of Summer heat and colour. Yesterday afternoon, the falling snow went from quick, dry powder to lilting goose feathers, and our small garden was transformed. I took the photograph below from our kitchen door, snowflakes settling on the toes of my woollen socks. Beautiful though it certainly was out there, I couldn’t help but fast-forward the scene before me. The snow has buried the snowdrops and the hellebores, but strange to think all that saturated summer colour is buried out there too, embers, already stirring under the frozen earth.
There’s a reason why the sympathy cards we buy don’t include, above their sombre, understated images of flowers, statements like; ‘Your Feelings Are Wrong! This Isn’t A Loss, It’s An Opportunity!’ or ‘Buck up! You Need To Regard This Moment As A Challenge!’ or ‘Shame On You, Whinger! Your Feelings Of Grief Constitute A Failure Of Resilience!’
Of course, we wouldn’t accept those sentiments from a sympathy card. We’d know them to be unforgivably insensitive, inaccurate, and crashingly stupid. I wonder why we accept these retractions of empathy elsewhere?
Grief is the response to the loss of something to which a bond or affection has been formed. We establish these bonds whenever we take an idea deep into our care. Grief is a consequence of making values-based commitments. Grief is a consequence of deciding to belong. Grief is the price we pay for identifying strongly with someone or something. Grief is a measure of quality time invested, of the number of f**ks given.
Back when I was working as a course leader for a successful undergraduate degree programme, I grieved surprisingly often. These were the micro-bereavements; the introduction of yet another new credit framework satisfying some arcane efficiency-or-other, with its immediate effect of killing dead all the amenities of my existing units and the nuanced teaching and learning cultures they’d come to support; or whenever senior managers pressurised my staff to ‘revisit’ their assessments to ensure they aligned more readily with the institutional bell curve, a measurement surely as doltish as any wayward algorithm; likewise, senior management’s relentless emphasis on the narrowest possible definition of student satisfaction and its – shhhhh! – magical effects on grade inflation.
All the many moments like these – unremarkable, ubiquitous, bureaucratic, impersonal – would nonetheless elicit real sadness from me, not the boo-hoo variety, but a much more insidious grief, triggered by the casual depreciation of my heartfelt values as an educator.
In my role as co-director of an online learning design agency specialising in supporting other educators to deliver exceptional online learning, I find myself conflicted. These past strange months, I’ve talked with, Zoomed with, and mentored a large number of teachers, who are meeting the changes wrought by Covid with varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence. In some ways, I find myself in the role of the ‘smiling face’ of change management, as I work with tutors to help them feel more at home in the online teaching space – even going as far as suggesting how some of the characteristics of online learning might enhance their teaching more generally, which I believe. A large part of the successes of my tenure as course leader stemmed from my early embrace of online communities in support of learning and student engagement, and from ‘flipping the classroom’ through making available a rich curricula of quality online video resources.
So my conflict stems, not from insincerity, but from a failure of hypocrisy. I recall very well how often I wanted to slap the smiling face of my own ‘change-managers’ for their breath-taking insensitivity; for the glib way they’d dispense with my feelings of loss by characterising them as recalcitrance, as bloodymindedness, or as pitiable ingenuousness in the face of the irresistible sweep of neoliberalism.
My conflict stems from all those recent conversations with teachers of different kinds in their various institutions, like the late-night email I received from the passionate, highly experienced teacher in textiles, who simply couldn’t stomach the thought of her imminent Google Classroom training, in all its pale comparison with her actual classroom. It wasn’t stubbornness. It wasn’t sloth, and it wasn’t technophobia. It was all much simpler than that. She was being expected to muster enthusiasm for taking on a new pet after her own beloved dog had just been flattened by a car.
More recently, I talked with a senior lecturer, who admitted to feeling physically nauseous at the thought of another day in front of his laptop; another day, on his own, in his room, on his laptop, his face pushed up against the faces of his students, yet devoid also of contact with them, and likewise his colleagues, and with all the smaller, less tangible things once combining to produce the culture of his course and its successes. Green around the gills and exhausted, he sees all of this from his strange remove, as all the things that once felt certain struggle to remain so, his own identity included.
This is the special hopelessness of the bereaved, the secret they keep for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Despite the acuity of their loss, despite their discombobulation, they still get up, get dressed, feed themselves, feed the cat – and teach on Microsoft Teams to a classroom of learners with their cameras off.
I’m seeing bereavement everywhere. Sure, individuals are grieving the way things ‘used to be’, but not, I think, because they’re Luddites, or dinosaurs deserving of a jolly big meteor, but rather because their identities are in crisis. They are not who they used to be, and yet the speed of change in the sector insists they bury these feelings in order to satisfy everyone else. Worse, there is as much shame around as you want: shame, because you don’t know how to use Zoom or Teams or Classroom or whatever; shame, because a part of you cannot be bothered to grow, or learn, or adapt, while your heart still smarts; shame, because you suspect your students are unhappy (which they likely are, because, yes, they’re grieving too); and shame, because you just want things to go back the way they were, while other bright and shiny people proselytise about the future; and where there’s shame, there’s resentment, and where there is resentment, there is anger, and so it goes.
Now, before I meet other educators in my role at Ding, I make myself remember sitting quietly in my chair at the presentation of the university’s Business Plan, being cheerled into ‘seizing opportunities’ at the very same moment my incumbent identity was being effaced. I remember to empathise, which is to listen, and extend condolences by showing patience. So I never think, ‘Oh no! Here is another late-adopter’. I don’t think, ‘Why are some academics so bloody difficult?’ I’m thinking, here is just another someone estranged from who they once where and what they once knew how to do, and I’m minded to read frustration, reluctance, resistance and ‘shut-downness’ for what it likely is; bereavement working its way out.
There’s a reason the sympathy cards we buy don’t say ‘Your Feelings Are Wrong! This Isn’t A Loss, It’s An Opportunity!’
At last some snow – not a huge amount, and of the dry, powdery variety, but the wind chill has been fierce. That said, we went out for a very brisk walk yesterday, along the beach, past the oyster beds and up towards Seasalter.
Leaving the beach, we walked over the sea wall and along the short cut-through, to one side of which there is a large basin of tall, tufty grass. The snow and ice had turned the grass into a motionless sea, frozen boisterously in cresting undulations. As black and white landscapes, the provenance of the resulting images is difficult to discern, this patch of wild scrub roaring like unleashed flood water.
Back in April 2020, I had this to say about my decision to set up the Red’s Kingdom blog:
“If I can be said to have an ambition for this blog, it’s simply this: to build another inter-connected world of sights and sounds – however loosely connected! I’m going to be talking about projects old and new, and I’m hoping to invite some of the creative people I know and work with to feature as guest authors and artists. I’m pretty sure I’ll be talking a bit about the stuff I’m watching too and gathering in some of the writing I’ve published elsewhere. In short, this blog will seek to be a coalition of elective creative activity – mine, and other people’s. I’m very much looking forward to throwing open the door to Red’s Kingdom and inviting you to accompany me on my continuing adventures in sight and sound…”
But as it turns out, I made a mistake back then, for while it’s true Red’s Kingdom has indeed developed into ‘coalition of eclectic creative activity’, in no small part due to the wonderful contributions of the Kingdom’s many and diverse Kick-Abouters, I missed something out. When I invited visitors to the blog to accompany me on ‘my continuing adventures in sight and sound’, I should have added ‘scent’ into the mix too.
Making scented soy wax candles in my kitchen in Whitstable
Over the past year, and prior to the UK’s first lock-down, when I suspect many people’s thoughts turned to the therapeutic value of making, I’ve been developing an idea for a range of scented candles. Written down in black and white like that, I can’t help but reflect on how improbable that may sound – certainly to those who know me well, and even more so to those people who only know me from what I choose to put out on here. Are these scented candles somehow a bit uncanny, perhaps? Do they have a nasty surprise in them, an unwelcome bit of grit, or chink of razor blade? Are they somehow spooky, or kooky or fragranced bizarrely? Nope.
That said, this particular project has been an exercise in the art of conjuring, a magical act of sorts, of seeking to isolate the olfactory character of a particular place – and specific moments in that particular place – and capture them in creamy containers of soy wax.
The particular place in question is ‘The Old French House’, the rooms of which might be familiar to some on here as the settings for my various forays into long-exposure photography. Whenever I visit this old stone-walled farmhouse, I am encouraged to respond to its atmosphere, silence, privacy and space in different ways. It was here, for example, the powerful sunlight and surrounding plants worked together to produce these cyanotypes. It was here too I wrote the screenplay for the animation that gives this blog its name. It was at the big wooden table I wrote – and rewrote! – the manuscript for my children’s adventure Chimera Book 1, often working late into the night, the heat of the day leaving all the old wood of the house in sighs and creaks. It was here too, I was taken so suddenly by something as prosaic as a pool cover clogged with winter leaves.
The Old French House
In addition to all these other responses, there has always been my keen relationship to the smell of the old French house, combinations of herbs, old wood, green wood, smoke, citrus, geraniums; dry, aromatic scents, cooler botanical fragrances, and all the combinations thereof. It is what heat and time and rest smells like. It’s the fragrance of basking, of unfilled hours.
In truth, I see little difference between this project and, say, all those long-exposure photographs, in so much as I’m trying to capture something intangible. Okay, less pretentiously, I wanted to create some really lovely candles that smell like you’re on holiday, and set about doing just that through an iterative process of mixing essential oils, wick sizes and containers until I was happy with the result. My long-suffering husband was charged with walking in – and out – of rooms, to gauge the success or otherwise of each new combination, and my mum and stepdad stumped up some of the developmental costs, a family affair indeed!
With support and guidance from Whitstable’s number one florist and lifestyle guru, Jane at Graham Greener, I was able to trial the range on other people’s noses (said florist’s husband, for example!) and their feedback was great, giving me the confidence to take everything a bit further.
Long story short, the candles are now stocked at Graham Greener here in Whitstable and, as of this week, The Old House Candle Company has a website and online shop. (Notice I’m missing out all the anecdotes about producing candles that a) didn’t burn or b) smelled strange. I did all those things and more). This is a small ‘cottage industry’ operation, with everything produced in small batches, and produced simply and with a minimum of fiddle – and unfortunately the candles are only available in the UK – so if you’re reading this somewhere further flung, apologies in advance.
Ultimately, my plan is to develop other ‘Old House’ ranges – for example, ‘The Old Victorian Glasshouse’ – think orange blossom and lime – so the site takes its inspiration from the romance of old spaces in general, with their worn surfaces and simple comforts, and from the following quote from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space:
“The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”
This was another of the empty rooms at No 351, the grand, sprawling house in which I locked myself for an overnight vigil in late July, 2016. I recall I was getting pretty tired by now, subsisting on packets of almonds, and the sudden surges of nervous energy bequeathed me by every unexpected noise, every ruffle of startled pigeon feathers, every creak of the building’s timbers. Still, I was quick-witted enough to go on capturing the various glowing manifestations that followed me about No 351’s chambers – including these three, standing by the hearth as if in conference, their backs to the memory of the fire.
The idea for this short story came quickly. Making it work on the page took longer. In large part, I was responding to the idea of ‘the nip’, the idea of friction, abrasion and tensions tying people together in impossible knots – and the idea too that the security of a bond in certain circumstances might require a lot of nip, and how unfair and confusing that might feel for the person on the receiving end. Quite where the image of the static caravan came from – or why – I don’t know, but as soon as it parked up in my imagination, as the setting for the story, I got thinking about the chicken-legged hut inhabited by Baba Yaga, the witch figure from Slavic folklore, and then more elements fell comfortably into place. I must say I found exploring the relationship between the boy character and the witch exhilarating and I enjoyed writing this story very much, despite its rather grim scenario. I’m finding that participating in the Kick-About has the effect of doing away with procrastination and driving me towards getting stuff done within certain constraints. I would never have written this story were it not for Jan Blake’s prompt, and I most certainly wouldn’t have finished it!
“Here I have a painting called ‘Unravel’. Not a knot supposed to hold or anchor, then it will not work, having lost the nip. But I see it as a knot of the heart, which is finally finding a way to disentangle and on its way to separate and free the separate bits and pieces.” Inks on paper 76 X 57 cm.
“I was walking through a park near where we live in Berlin recently and I noticed that all the leaves of the hops and traveller’s joy had been stripped away, leaving a seething mass of twisted and knotted stems. Aha, I thought – the kick about! The writhing stems had all grown around each other, squirming over the shrubs and fences, they were rather lovely, wet and glistening after rain, and retaining a surprising amount of colour. I’ve drawn a study of the stems, with some dried, curled up dead leaves trapped in the nets.”
“‘Tying the knot’ brings up images of 1950’s bride magazines, bended knee, white net, sparkly bits… So that’s where I went, fossicking around in my studio, finding what I could to knit an image or two together. The nip, I think, could be the commitment made? This is the traditional engagement stage – maybe pressure exerted to get there, or even to stay there? It all hangs on this in order to get to stage two. Perhaps that’s the true tie, but I like the unpredictability of the promise, sealed with a reflecting star on a finge, .a doorway to respectability. Definitely (thank goodness) part of a time warp, not entirely obsolete, but so many other ways to get that ‘nip’.”
“It’s been a long time since I did any macrame, but I love to embroider, entranced by everything about it–the floss itself, the color and texture, the rhythmic and repetitive motions that are so like meditation, the gradual revelation of something new. I’ve done a lot of embroidery on paper, but I couldn’t remember ever trying French Knots, also called Seed Stitch. My mandala papers are fairly sturdy, so I painted one, inspired by Monet, and searched through my embroidery floss boxes for similar colors. Besides their practical and decorative uses, knots can symbolize many things, from the vows of marriage, to a puzzle to be solved. They are connected to threads of all kinds, and thus the interweavings that form and support all of life. The French Knot is a simple stitch–wind the floss 3 times around the needle and reinsert it into the hole made by bringing the thread to the surface–but like many simple things, it’s easy to become tangled up if you aren’t paying attention. Something that applies to all creative endeavors involving fibers. I’ve used the Badger’s Hexastitch form for my poem.”
I thread the needle and spirit passes into matter returning to the center of the (w)hole
I twine the floss around the needle—one two three– casting strands into knots spelling rhythmic patterns
I pause to connect what lies hidden below the coiled surface—roots binding up and down to between
“I have a feeling I’ve not quite tightened the knot properly, and things have just quietly slipped away, making me no worthy seaman, but it’s a nice sunny day for having the boats off their mooring! Perhaps it suggests the up-coming summer-staycation on the North Kent coastline.” Oil on prepared paper 40cm x 50cm
“I had many options with this Kick-About, as Ireland’s heritage is teaming with Celtic knot and rope references in art jewellery and clothes. I decided to do a mash-up of different perspectives, one inspired by the picturesque Aran islands off Galway Bay, specifically the Aran sweater, knitted for the fishermen. The jumpers are made from the wool of the sheep that populate the fields in the islands, and retain their natural oils, meaning they are water repellent – ideal for Irish weather! Because the sweater is water repellent, the fishermen wouldn’t feel the chill from getting wet while out fishing.The stitches in an Aran sweater are used to signify different important factors, such as the diamond stitch representing the fields in the Aran Islands and which bestows health and success, while the cable stitch represents the fisherman’s ropes, and promise safety and good luck while out fishing. The combination of different stitches are divided into different clans for each family name of kinship in Ireland. Around the borders of my designs is the diamond stitch central to the specific Daly clan Aran sweater. The overall theme of these designs seeks to reflect Ancient Celtic artwork, including the triple spiral; the Irish believe everything happens in 3’s and can symbolise the mental, physical and spiritual self or birth, death and rebirth.”
“I found the highly descriptive quote of tying a knot a little queasy and unnerving and I could feel it somehow more than I should have. It brought me to the idea of the knots and ropes imagined as gory body-horror, but retaining the intricacy and functionality of their original purpose. Quite how I made that leap I am not so sure, but it was certainly enjoyable making these as if I were some sort of mad artisan butcher.”
“I guess, when seeing the rather charming front cover to one of the versions on the book of an old salty sea dog blissfully tying a knot, I couldn’t help but think in a nautical direction. Then, as a page of loosely tied knots started to emerge, so did pirates. Ropes and knots seemed symbolic in some way for how I draw and fill endless sketchbooks. Some loose ends, some ideas connected firmly, some pulling away into the meaningless unexplored abyss. I think to pursue the head honcho with his hands tied up would be the next step here, which I may well do.”
“I can remember my dad showing me how to tie a Sheepshank knot and a Round turn with two half hitches. I think I did manage to master them at the time but I’m knot so sure now! (Ouch). Anyway I have decided to stick to what I know best i.e: the knots used in embroidery and crochet. The rectangular brooch was made using an old buckle as a frame, the oval pendant a piece of shaped wire, while the coaster began life as a large circular earring. All of these objects have various threads, wool and fabric knotted and looped on top. The bright pink wire was made in the manner of french knitting then flattened and sewn onto the design. My other piece of work is an embroidered knot garden worked many years ago and getting a bit faded now, but I thought it was appropriate.”
“The tree won me over again this week, and this tree in particular, as it reminded me of Mexico. I saw it from a very cranky bus travelling around an enormous canyon that seemed to be creating its own knots by winding round and round and up and up. I was astonished to see trees perpendicular to the rock face. The painting is just a memory and it reminds me of Chinese paintings of those trees on top of misty mountains that the Chinese love. I wanted to express the heat and dust of the Mexican canyons, rather than the cool misty hill tops of China. I think I have a way to go the grasp that sense. The other couple of drawings are of repeating patterns that knots can make, as in this netting. So graceful when they are hung out, so lethal in their use.”
“The idea for this short story came quickly. Making it work on the page took much longer! In large part, I was responding to the idea of ‘the nip’, the idea of friction, abrasion and tensions tying people together in impossible knots – and the idea too that the security of a bond in certain circumstances might require a lot of nip.”
“Knots – the topic had me all bound up – what will the world be like in the future – knots leave traces about the nip mark and there will be plenty of those to be revealed in the coming months. I began with a sketch of a garden knot as a starting point then did a couple of James knots – I feel like I need unknotting here in Sydney – can’t begin to imagine what you must feel like in the UK!”
Many thanks to our regular Japan-based Kick-Abouter, Tom Beg, for our new prompt for the Kick-About 21, which casts us off in a completely new direction: the very mechanics of forming ideas and making them understandable by others no less! See you all on the other side.