Books Landscape Life

The blue of the sea

I started reading ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (by Daphne du Maurier) because we were going to Fowey in Cornwall for the weekend, where she lived (see below).

Despite the bravura opening – ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days’ (she certainly knew how to write an opening sentence) – I was struggling to get into the book and, though making sure to take it with me, needless to say didn’t even open it when down there. Then I read this paragraph:

… I paused and looked back over the sunken fence. The wagons were silhouetted on the further hill, and the waiting horses and the moving figures black dots on the skyline. The shocks of corn were golden in the last rays of the sun. The sea was very blue, almost purple where it covered the rocks, and had that deep full look about it that always comes with the flood tide. The fishing fleet had put out, and were standing eastward to catch the shore breeze. Back at home the house was in shadow now, only the weather-vane on the top of the clock tower catching a loose shaft of light. I walked slowly across the grass to the open door.

The lyricism of this passage brilliantly captures the Cornish coastal landscape, and deftly, imperceptibly, draws you into the scene with the use of ‘that’ – . ‘had that deep full look about it …’ You are there.

This is followed in the next sentence with ‘the fishing fleet had put out’ … echoing the inexorable movement of the tide, in and out, and of the ebb and flow of life – and death. We are perfectly in the landscape, and in the moment of the story, experiencing timelessness and the passage of time, and change, thinking about the past whilst moving towards the open door of the future.

Now I’m enthralled.

Plans … and life.

What started out as a spur of the moment, kind of work-related plan for a long weekend in Cornwall became something else entirely as we tried to set out on the Friday – the day of the heaviest snowfall in Dorset for twenty years.

And no, we didn’t admit to the policeman, who turned us back barely five miles from home, where we were really headed. That we were trying to make a 150 mile journey ‘in this weather’. We finally managed to slide back home, and waited out an hour with a cup of tea but, unable to settle, we once more took to the road, this time heading south and west as opposed to north and west. But not for long. A lorry had spun on the road, creating miles of tailback. We had to turn back home once more.

But Saturday morning broke in dazzling, frosty sunshine, so we headed out again and this time made it all the way. So we finally got to see the blue of the Cornish sea, in bright February sun. Even if we didn’t, this time, get to the gates of Menabilly, one of the inspirations for Manderley:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

Life Work life

If we do not change direction …

… we are likely to end up where we are headed.

I like this quote, a Chinese proverb brought to my inbox in David Allen’s ‘Productivity Principles Newsletter.’ Gives a different angle on (and is probably the source of, come to think of it) the now too familiar ‘if you keep on doing the same thing, you’ll keep on getting the same results.’ And also throws a side glance on the also now very familiar exhortation beloved of business gurus and coaches – never give up.

But what if one is headed in the wrong direction? Change tack, must be the answer. And how do you know if you are headed up a blind alley or just about to turn a corner? That’s the 64,000 dollar question, especially in these times of crunch. But, to be sure, the first thing you (by which I mean, of course, I …) need to do is to take stock of the situation; get a hold on where you are …

David Allen, productivity guru of GTD (Getting Things Done), has good stuff to say on this too:

Capture. Get the data. Acknowledge what’s true. (We have ____ in the bank. Our expenses are ______ . I feel insecure and apprehensive. There are no debtors’ prisons.) And clean up. This is when it’s super-important to identify and get a handle on all the open loops pulling on your attention.

Clarify. Identify the outcomes and projects you now need to focus toward, and of course, what actions you need to take. (Re-do personal budget; talk to partner re: asset inventory.) Get all your attention-grabbers processed. And leverage the heck out of the two-minute rule. Being an instant executive is the best cure for transcending a funk.

Organize. Get your lists and systems current and complete. Your psyche needs the freedom that affords to concentrate and direct your thinking.

Reflect. You may need to do Weekly Reviews daily. You must keep situational awareness vital and present to be able to trust your intuitive responses, which you will be calling on frequently. Regularly engage in forest management (instead of tree-hugging), so you can see smoke from a distance.

Engage. Keep moving. Pick an action and do it. Don’t get hung up on priorities. It’s much easier to control a boat that’s got way (momentum through the water) than one simply at the effect of the currents. It’s easier to know your priorities by taking an action that’s not so important than by stressing about them.

This is where getting control morphs into gaining perspective, and the Horizons of Focus come into play. Obviously goals and plans and job descriptions may need a recalibration. But, in addition, give yourself permission to acknowledge and take advantage of the deeper conversations with yourself and other key people in your life that will undoubtedly come closer to the surface in rough seas. …

The point is to make what you’re doing conscious and directed, instead of reactive and contracted. I’m not an advocate of a Pollyanna positive-thinking philosophy. Pretending that life is rosy when that’s not your experience is self-delusional and counter-productive. Rather, GTD is a positive-directional approach. Certainly being able to maintain a positive vision amidst the challenging and often messy day-to-day stuff is a wonderful life skill to hone. But you may need to be judicious and pick your battles. Though the storm you’re in is probably going to make you stronger and wiser, right now you might not like it. Your choice is how you get through it – as victim, or as captain/commander. In other words: life’s a bitch, and what’s the next action?

Pick the right battle.

You can sign up to the GTD newsletter at

Books Life Music

It is written

I’m still buzzing from seeing Slumdog Millionaire at the weekend. A stunning film pulsating with life, brilliant colour, sadness and joy. It’s beautifully shot and well worth seeing on the big screen. We were right up at the front, in the second row (by chance rather than design), and – once the eyes had adjusted! – the images completely filled our field of vision. Awesome.

Playful, engaging, thought-provoking, this modern Dickensian fable plays with questions of chance and destiny in a thrilling and satisfying way, balancing light and darkness, terror and pity, laughter and joy. See it!

Otherwise, last week was one of loss – Updike and John Martyn. Two Johns; only just realised that. Here are a couple of my favourite Updike quotes, by way of In Memoriam:

Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.

Sex is like money; only too much is enough.

Can’t resist a thrid:

We are most alive when we’re in love.

And finally … can’t end today without a mention of the snow, this evening giving a satisfying crunchiness as I fed the pigs.

May you never lay your head down,
without a hand to hold.
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

Just like I’m greeting some brother of mine,
you know that I love you true.
You never talk ‘n’ judge me behind my back
and I know that there’s those that do.

Oh, please, won’t ya please, won’t ya bear it in mind
love is a lesson to learn in our time.
And please, won’t ya please, wont ya bear it in mind for me?

John Martyn


Hail to the (new) Chief

the guardian

… So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

What a great moment.  Yes we can – Now we must.

Books Landscape Life Poetry Work life

Be drunk

‘You have to be always drunk’ wrote Baudelaire, and how right he was. Right now, I’m drunk on this frozen landscape, and drunk on trying to capture its beauty and the play of light in the crisp, rosy dawn.

Drink in the moment. Cold pastoral!

Be Drunk

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

by Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Louis Simpson

Cold stream

Books Design Language

The beauty of good design

Danger - weir

… is that it ages gracefully. And stylishly. Because it has integrity.

This sign, alongside the Stour at lower Bryanston, says what it needs to say in a plain, simple, appropriate font, and just keeps on geting better as the years pass.

Photograph taken during a morning walk with the dog in the present cold snap. The winter festival (just kidding), with added illness, provided some time for reading, including Kingsley Amis’s classic first novel, Lucky Jim where he is already firing on all cylinders:

‘I just wondered,’ Beesley said, bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis. ‘I thought I was probably right.’

Skewered in a single aside. An object lesson in making words work. Not far from Proust’s less harsh but equally damning characterisation of Dr Cottard in Swann In Love who was ‘never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest …

And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: ‘Do you really mean that?’

I was very pleased to be given This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes. A good, easy read which bounds along engagingly: Chocolat meets The Life of Pi, with added donuts. Enjoy.

Finally, with best wishes, a thought for the new year (where danger ahead also threatens). This from one of Jeanette Winterson’s recent newsletters:

Do it from the heart or not at all

Happy New Year.

Work life


Having made the mistake last week of allowing myself to be persuaded by my doctor that, because I had a virus, anti-biotics would be no help, this week I simply phoned, stated in no uncertain terms that I felt no better, and a script was left ready for me to collect.

Now the question is – do I keep to the stated dose, or if I double it might I recover twice as quickly? Whilst I think about this I’ll have to get on with the bit of copy editing and typesetting I need to get finished, despite the pounding headache etc., and consider whether I should say anything further to the publisher and author about the comment currently included in the text about strict muslim societies. I want it to be left in, so don’t want to be persuading others to take it out. And, after all, it’s not my decision. But, then again …


Journey to Armenia

Just emerging (I hope!) from a bout of flu. Bad for business but good for re-discovering some of the books on my bookshelves, most particularly Journey to Armenia by Osip Mandelstam.

I have this book in several forms, best in two editions from the Redstone Press: a spiral bound edition and as a beautifully produced ‘book in a box’. The text of both is the brilliant translation by Clarence Brown, with an introduction by Bruce Chatwin.

I did a search at the Redstone site, and sadly both editions are currently unavailable. However their diary for 2009 looks good and Santa, if you’re listening, the special edition of Ants Have Sex in Your Beer by David Shrigley would make a fine present.

But back to Mandelstam – some of the most beautiful prose you’ll ever get to read, from a great poet who perished in Stalin’s Gulag.

What is there to say about the climate on Sevan?

The golden currency of cognac in the secret cupboard of the mountain sun.

And if you haven’t already read Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam (his widow) – don’t delay. Two of the most important books written in the twentieth century.


The end of the world as we know it

With the news as it is, blogging on almost any topic seems trivial, but I guess life goes on (hopefully!)

The crisper weather over the last few days produced some fabulous sunsets, stretching the dying embers of the day across the sky in an awe-inspiring display of colour. It has been the best time for walks, and the picture hardly does justice to the scene but – to fall back down to earth – puts me in mind of classic Hollywood Biblical epics, and the (probably apocryphal but entertaining) story about John Wayne as a centurion.

JW is at the foot of the Cross, in The Greatest Story Ever Told (or similar), as the sky turns to night and storm.

Director: ‘That’s good, John, but this time could you try saying it with awe’
JW, looking up: ‘Aww, he really was the Son of God’

It’s hard to take a sunset seriously again.

But it also points up how difficult it is to create a sense of awe and wonder in words, or describe a state of grace. Even the great Alighieri is not as convincing about Paradise as he is about Hell.

In recent times the most determined effort to create awe (and shock) has involved weaponry, not words.

If the comparison is not too trivial, the equivalent, in words, is surely the long, long sales page on the web which seek to bludgeon and exhaust the reader into submission; and taking action? I have my doubts as to whether this strategy is as effective as it once might have been. It looks a fairly tired formula now. And, even more certainly, invites disappointment for any reader sufficiently seduced to respond.

Google’s recently released Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide suggests the way to sustainable success lies in producing solid content in a form that is clear and easy to follow. In other words: Good, well structured copy.

More on this to come; But in the meantime, this link will take you to Google’s webmaster blog where you can download a free copy of Google’s SEO Starter Guide.


Helen Yorke

Helen Yorke, concert pianist
Helen Yorke, concert pianist

Internationally acclaimed pianist Helen Yorke is giving another series of recitals at her home in Dorchester (Dorset, England) later this week – on Thursday, Friday and Saturday 20th, 21st and 22nd November, starting at 7pm. The programme will include some Bach, Schumann and Rodrigo.

Helen’s recitals offer a rare opportunity to listen to a world class pianist in intimate surroundings and are not to be missed.

I attended her first recital series back in the Summer. Being so close to the piano, which is played so brilliantly, is a totally involving experience in which you really feel the power of the music.

Helen has given piano recitals worldwide, and worked with American singer Renee Fleming for over a decade. She presently teaches at Trinity College, London and at the Birmingham Conservatoire. This summer she also gave recitals at the Buxton Festival and Dartington International Summer School.

Tickets are £10, including interval drinks and canapés. Contact Helen on 01305 264038 to reserve your tickets.

Work life

Fun, work and success

There was an interesting article in the Guardian last Saturday the 8th (Nov) on what the net generation expects in terms of work. The net generation is defined as those in the 20s now entering the workforce, in other words, those who have grown up in the digital age.

Author Don Tapscott writes that ‘Net-geners feel that working and having fun can and should be the same thing. And that ‘Net-geners like to get things done through collaboration. He refers to observations by Tamara Erickson, a widely respected expert on organisations and the changing workforce,

…this generation is not turned on by status or hierarchy. They want to do challenging work, but they don’t necessarily want organisational responsibility. Their dream job, she says, is something like this: a job with a problem or dilemma no one knows how to solve and lots of great people to work with.

Isn’t that the ideal work situation? In fact, isn’t this 60s culture re-defined; a more corporate take, with the focus on work as opposed to dropping out? Bring it on, I say, and hopefully there’s room for an oldie in there somewhere.

Where I might show my age is in the net-geners apparent desire to hear from their managers constantly, on a daily basis preferably. I think I could do without that kind of scrutiny – or even praise. But one note in the article did grate: ‘To be sure … They [organisations] need to compensate people so they’ll be encouraged to work effectively…’

Where did that ‘compensate’ come from, presumably meaning (in the U.S. mould) pay. What are you making amends for, or recompensing? It’s an entirely individualist approach that sees work as taking something away from the individual, as opposed to an opportunity for the individual to contribute. Especially inappropriate in this context (of work as collaboration) and in light of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book on the nature of success – ‘Outliers, The Story of Success’ – as featured in the Guardian and Observer yesterday. (Ah. Topicality at last!)

Gladwell, a good example of someone who has put the fun (as well as hard work) back into work, in his new book debunks the idea of the solitary genius:

Gladwell’s contention is not only that success is the result of a complicated mix of social advantages but also that the insistence that some individuals have extra-special gifts and talents, are geniuses in particular fields, or pull themselves up by their bootstraps, is incredibly destructive to society’s idea of itself. ‘No one,’ he says, ‘not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.’ (from Tim Adams’s cover story in the Observer 16.11.08).

It’s time to embrace the era of collaboration.

‘Outliers, The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Allen Lane on 27 Nov.

Music Uncategorized


A week after the event, Obama’s victory is still thrilling and has brought with it a ray of hope. Even some supportive words from Tony Blair have failed to completely dispel the mood of optimism.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

As Leonard Cohen sang last night on stage in Bournemouth.

Try as I might, and believe me I’ve tried hard, I have never been entirely convinced by Cohen as a novelist or, even more so, as a poet on the page. But as a songwriter he hits it, note perfect.

(Well, ok, not every time; ‘Chelsea Hotel’ is a horror, clunky and tasteless, the least refined song he has ever written. But thankfully they didn’t play it.)

He hasn’t been on tour for about 15 years – as he said at one point, “The last time I was here, I was sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream,” – but from the moment he bounds (yes, really!) onstage and you hear the signature honeyed-gravel tones of his voice, you know he’s back at the top of his game.

What becomes clear, over the course of the evening, in the most exciting and involving way, is the quality of the songwriting. And that, as song follows song, the performance becomes truly an event in which we are all, performers and audience alike, there to serve and keep alive these songs that achieve a very special resonance, that penetrate and make a real human connection and, hell, I’m going to say it, songs that fill your being with a profound sense of joy and celebration. Of the possibilities of language and music, and of human beings and the tangled web of contradictions that we live.

In short, if songs are a promise, that promise was kept.

‘So Long Marianne’ is heart-stoppingly perfect. ‘Suzanne’ thrillingly on edge, that somehow seemed to make afresh that most iconic of songs. ‘Who by Fire’ was given a sumptuous introduction by Javier Mas on the bandurria (or the laud!). The musicianship throughout is truly excellent, and the evening is carefully plotted and shaped, the attack of the more recent songs counterbalanced by the more contemplative classics.

‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’, a gorgeous mixture of celebration, longing and regret; the ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ bathed in blue light. And what better night than the 11th of the 11th for ‘The Partisan’, realised beautifully. What’s to say about songs that you haved live with throughout your life? A certain amount of relief that they still stand up; a certain amount of surprise that they seem to be getting even better with time.

Almost at the end, in the final encore, they played ‘Democracy’, with the gleefully satirical refrain ‘Democracy is coming to the USA’. Obama’s victory maybe offers a chance to join in on the chorus:

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on …’

Of course, other celebratory options exist – as subscribers to Jeanette Winterson’s November message will know:

‘… I delayed the site updates this month because I wanted to wait until after the election. I did not, though, shave my pubic hair as instructed by more radical friends in the US, to shout the statement NO MORE BUSH.

But I think we can all have a drink…’

I thoroughly recommend Jeanette Winterson’s monthly newsletter. Her writing is always witty, elegant and full of insight. Most importantly it celebrates life, living and good writing. Sign up to it by following the link from

Cohen’s autumn tour, meanwhile, heads off to London, Birmingham, Paris, Brighton and Manchester. Catch it if you can. You won’t be disappointed.


Language and silence

Pink clouds

It’s not that often that I’m pleased with a photo I’ve taken, having something of a perfectionist streak and only too ready to see faults. But I was really pleased to see this one come up on the computer screen. I took it one evening last week while out walking the dog and, in the meantime, of course, had completely forgotten about it.

As autumn slides into winter – almost literally this year with so much rain – it’s great to catch a perfect moment as dusk falls, the soft pink-edged cloud against the dark blue of the oncoming dark. No stars yet, just the moon. And just me, and the dog, in the landscape. A Nick Drake moment. A threshold moment. Between day and night, between language and silence. Between contemplation and foreboding.

I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way … *

This hinterland is explored by Sara Maitland in ‘A Book of Silence’, published by Granta on the 13th Nov, and featured in both the Guardian and The Observer last weekend. From the excerpts published, this looks like one not to miss and a sparkling addition to recent writing immersed in the landscape, such as John Deakin’s ‘Waterlog’ and Kate Rew’s ‘Wild Swim’ – ‘It passed. The dawn was bright. The cotton grass danced among the tussocks …’ – and I was reaching for my walking boots.

‘Silence does not seem to be a loss or lack of language; it does not even seem to be the opposite of language. I have found it to be a whole world in and of itself, alongside language and culture, but independent of it. It comes from a different place altogether.’

So here I am, sitting on my doorstep in the sunshine, looking out at my huge nothing. I don’t feel worried about falling over the edge of a bottomless chasm, but rather I have a sense of moving up a level, into some finer, cleaner air.’

[Sara Maitland, ‘A Book of Silence’]

And so here also am I. Back working from home, on my own, after an ill-judged business (business? hmmm!) partnership was put out of its misery (and not before time).

Clearly – returning to the photo for a moment – it would be better, for the composition, if the moon was a little higher and further to the right. But just this once I’m willing to let it go. It is what it is. I am where I am. I’m not saying I didn’t consider photoshop, but this is no time to paper over the cracks. At the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month it’s time to start afresh, on solid ground.

*lyrics from Pink Moon by Nick Drake