A visit to Henry Moore’s house

It’s been about a month since i last blogged. Hard to say why it’s been so long really. I suppose part of the reason may have been a stressful, not to mention tedious report which has been absorbing my energies at work. But another reason is that i’ve stuck to my plan of going out to see exhibitions and concerts this summer.

This weekend just gone i realised a much cherished plan to visit Perry Green in Hertfordshire. This was the sculptor Henry Moore’s home till he died in 1986 and is now the headquarters of the Henry Moore Foundation. The main attractions are the huge stone and bronze works scattered around the grounds but his studios have also been converted into indoor galleries where you can see smaller works and, most poignantly, blocks of stone he was working on at the time of his death. Yes, he was still sculpting aged 88!

Double Oval #1

First though there was a tour of Hoglands, the house itself. The name made me smile, just because it made me think of Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts, but the house wasn’t particularly magical: just two small cottages knocked together and decorated in that hideous mixture of beige fabric and dark wood which passed for style in the 70s. The murky French paintings on the walls didn’t help: Courbet, yuck.

I did like the coffee table covered with little sculptures and other objects – well, not the coffee table itself, that was vile; but the fact that Moore and his wife were so matter of fact in their attitude to art. They didn’t worry about things getting broken or damaged; these precious objects were there to be touched and handled. We were told this by our guide, one of a team whose task it is to welcome and educate visitors whilst ensuring they don’t damage anything. They do a great job and really do make you feel welcome – very different from some art institutions.

In what used to be the office we found a clue to how the Foundation had managed to survive the lean years of the past few decades, a time when its master’s reputation seemed to ebb away (although thanks to the Tate exhibition it’s seen a revival this year). Moore’s assistant’s desk was pointed out to us. Apparently, the first person to hold this post had been quite small so a small desk had been bought. When his successor proved bigger the Moores didn’t buy a bigger desk however but simply stuck wooden blocks under the legs of the one they already had. You can take the lad out of Yorkshire…

Double Oval #4

Out in the grounds the sculptures were covered with a sheen of rainwater. That wasn’t a bad thing as it turned out; it made them even more tactile, especially those cast from bronze – a material i don’t normally like. I have to touch sculpture, as i’ve said in earlier posts. Here i could touch away to my heart’s content and i did. Some of the other visitors looked at me askance. I let them look.

I couldn’t get over how different the works looked when you were there with them. In photographs, especially small photographs, they’re flattened and diminished; but there in front of you, behind you, to each side of you, they dominate the landscape – and yet belong to it too. There were two great bronze ones i loved. The first was angular, a mass of joints. Its name was “Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae 1968”. The second was called “Double Oval” and was, well, a double oval. This is the sculpture which is shown in the photos in this post. It was formed of two separate pieces placed alongside one another and you could walk in between them. The gap was like an enchanted passageway.

Later, after a good cup of tea, i walked back along the Hertfordshire Way to Bishop’s Stortford. I got lost, stung by nettles and rather wet but what else would you expect on a walk through the English countryside? There was a lovely little village a mile or two before the town, the kind with a church, a duck pond and not much else. Eventually I arrived at the railway station where i caught my train home, tired and happy.

Thorley pond

And that concludes this first post of the month. Hopefully, now i’ve got going again i’ll keep going.

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A happy day

For the past week i’ve had the hay fever from hell. So extreme did it become that on Wednesday morning it woke me from my sleep and on Thursday evening i had to abandon my plan to attend Bridget Riley‘s lecture at the British Museum. She was going to be talking about how figurative drawing eventually evolved into abstract art. It was a bitter disappointment.

The peak seems to have been reached however and now, thankfully, the blight is subsiding. On Saturday i woke feeling… well (yes, it took me a while to identify the feeling) and headed off with a friend to see the exhibition of Henry Moore‘s sheep at the Hertford Museum. It was only one small room but perhaps all the more delightful for that. At large exhibitions you tend to develop exhibit fatigue by the time you’re half way round and individual pieces, particularly the smaller, more delicate ones, get lost amidst the masses of objects you’re trying to experience, analyse, appreciate. I think there were no more than twenty-five etchings and a few sculptures at yesterday’s exhibition.

henry moore - lamb & mother

The fact that they were etchings was a surprise in itself. I have the book Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook* and i’d assumed what we were going to see were the original ballpoint and pencil sketches from it. Not so. It seems the popularity of the sketches inspired Moore to produce a group of etchings from them. My two favourites: one of a black-faced sheep, its eyes fixing you with a suspicious glare, and one of lamb suckling from its mother, its legs bent as it twists its head beneath her belly to reach the udder. I love the fact that Moore is able to create pictures which are so touching and individual from animals which are usually experienced as blank, anonymous white blobs on the landscape. He says in the “Sketchbook”:

I began to realise that that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had an individual character.

Another advantage of small exhibitions – but also a disappointment – is how few people seem to visit them. You can wander back and forth between pieces, making new connections; whereas at major exhibitions the experience is often more like queuing at an ATM. I suppose a lot of it comes down to the lack of publicity but i think it also reflects the fact that most of the time people rarely look further than a few national museums when they’re searching for things to see. I include myself in those people. Londoners also tend to have a kind of mental block about venturing outside London, unless the event is a really big name affair.

River Lee - Hertford

After the sheep, the walk. This i did by myself as my friend doesn’t do long walks. My aim was to follow the River Lee as far as i could towards London. I made excellent progress, helped by the fact that the walk is all on the flat and, even more, by the fact that navigation is largely a no-brainer: you follow the river; where it goes, you go. It’s been canalised and a towpath runs along its edge. I missed the twists and turns of a natural river, but not as much as i’d expected and the reason for that was the river – and often the towpath – was crowded with ducklings, goslings, cygnets and baby coots. Plus their proud parents of course. At first it was mainly geese, who – be warned – are very protective of their young (one nearly ran me off the towpath); but later on i saw what looked like a duck nation: i have never seen so many at once and almost all of them had a fleet of ducklings in tow.

At Ponders End i was forced to accept that the light was fading and call it a day. A happy day.

* Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook; ISBN: 978-0-500-28072-0; pub. Thames & Hudson (1998)

Last year’s trip to Turkey

I’m off to Turkey again next week. When i went last year for the first time i hadn’t yet started this blog, but i did record my impressions in a series of emails to friends. I thought i’d edit them a bit and present them here, so people can see what a wonderful time i had. Hopefully, it will be just as good this year – but without the face masks!

The first email was sent on the evening of Saturday 9 May, the day after my arrival:

I arrived as per schedule yesterday and, along with all my fellow travellers, was met by face masks and thermal scanners at Istanbul airport. I made my way to my hotel via the metro and tram systems, dodging “helpful” locals who wanted me to know that i’d much prefer their establishment. Exhausted by this accomplishment i then collapsed on my bed (after sending the obligatory “hello, i’ve survived” text to friends and family, those with mobiles anyway).

Today i journeyed over to the Golden Horn to buy my digital map and then took the ferry over to Üsküdar, changing continents as i did so! I followed instructions passed on to me by an Iranian-American doctor i’ve been chatting to on Twitter and found my way to a little artsy café, tucked away on a back street in an area called Kuzguncuk. It was only a 15 minute walk from the ferry terminal but there wasn’t a tourist to be seen. The food was great but even better was not being hassled or scammed, which is what happens in the cafés round here in Sultanahmet (the historic and therefore the tourist quarter).

I came back via Topkapı Park where i befriended a cat which was being hassled by a Turkish toddler. It was a poor skinny little mite and i would have liked to have fed it but i didn’t have any meat or cheese on me. One of the things i don’t like about Istanbul is the treatment of animals. I’ve seen three or four half starved stray dogs since i got here, standing around looking like they don’t know what they’re doing in the world. The stray cats look a bit healthier and are treated with a bit more kindness but not with much more understanding. To be fair though, this is the first predominately Muslim country where i’ve seen people with pet dogs and those animals do look well cared for as do the much more commonly seen pet cats.

Istanbul itself is a stunningly beautiful city. At times you feel like you’ve wandered onto a film set, it’s just too exotic and spectacular. Apart from the mosques with their minarets there are the rows of beautiful old houses, typically painted shades of ochre, the surprisingly numerous parks and the Bosphorus which is a strange blend of sea and river (i can see it from where i’m sitting in the hotel). Of course, there are slums too, but even those look better in the sunshine.

The people themselves are a strange blend of traditional and modern. It’s most noticeable in the women. You see girls that could be from London or New York and others that are are scarfed and clad in long coats. Obviously you can see the same dichotomy in the UK but those are mostly second generation immigrants. On the surface, at least, everyone seems to coexist happily enough.

Tomorrow i will probably explore the European side of Istanbul. If i can overcome my horror of crowds i might even visit one of the famous sights such as the Blue Mosque or the Topkapı Museum. And then on Monday i’m hoping to either go on the Bosphorus cruise or go on a cruise to the islands.

Tuesday morning of course i move on to Fethiye and the Lycian Way…

It’s a shame there wasn’t able to find time to write another email during my time in Istanbul because on this first day i was really just adjusting to the shock of being in a new city, a new country; but after that i was too busy exploring. Reconstructing the next few days from memory, two places stand out: the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I stood for the best part of twenty minutes leaning on a great stone wall on the upper level of the Haghia Sophia. It had been worn smooth, that wall; and my mind filled with awe at the thought of the number of people that would have taken – thousands of them. I felt surrounded by ghosts. Mind you, i also felt surrounded by cameras: all around me i could hear and see their flashes going off, as people photographed the famous Byzantine mosaics.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul - 2009 May 9

It was quieter in the Blue Mosque (thankfully). I remember being captivated by the intricate patterns of the decorations and pleased to find i could read some of the Arabic inscriptions. Even more than the Haghia Sophia the mosque radiated tranquillity and serenity. Mind you, unlike the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship – still alive, if you like. Coming out, i was depressed at how few people made a donation to the man on the door; and even more depressed to hear a group of blue-rinsed American women discussing “how many mosques” it’s necessary to see in Istanbul before you can say that you’ve “done them”.

A lane in Kuzguncuk - 2009 April 9

I had no intention of trying to ‘do the mosques’ or any other kind of building. With only one full day left in Istanbul i didn’t want to spend my time indoors. Instead i went on a boat trip along the Bosphorus which turned out to be a magical (if rather windy) experience. At at the far end we disembarked and followed a (not very well marked out) path to the ruins of a castle , accompanied by a friendly local dog.

Dolmabahce Palace seen from the Bosphorus - 2009 May

The next day i wandered around the modern centre of Istanbul, Beyoğlu (which i preferred to Sultanahmet), before heading off to the airport. There i sat all night in the waiting area (gazed at with suspicion by a group of Turkish pilgrims) so that i wouldn’t miss my onward flight to Dalaman Airport. I was off to the south and the next part of my trip: a walk along part of the famous Lycian Way. A few days later (15 May 2009), i sent the following update:

I am now in a backpackers’ hostel called George House in Faralya, a small village one day’s walk into the Lycian Way. I originally planned to stay here for no more than two nights but it’s such a wonderful place i have decided to stay one extra day.

That’s not the only reason actually: the fact is the Lycian Way is hard going! Most of the paths are scree rather than mud based, which means that the ground often slips under your feet. Moreover, the paths are rarely level: you are either being taken high into the mountains (in the morning) or back down towards sea-level (in the afternoon). Think Mt Snowdon – and this is the ‘easy bit’! Add to that the weight of the pack (and i kept mine relatively light) and the heat of the sun and you soon start to feel exhausted. Spectacular scenery though and at one point i came across a herd of horses wandering around by themselves in a copse.

Back to the hostel: what makes it so special? Well, it’s a simple place but the owners are very friendly and hospitable, providing free Turkish tea all day long, delicious breakfasts and evening meals and on one occasion spontaneously producing a cake that one of the ladies in the family had baked. The hostel is perched up high on a cliff above a tiny strip of land called the Butterfly Valley. You feel miles above the world here. There’s a lovely swimming pool (which hardly anyone but me seems to use) and breathtaking views of the sheer cliffs on the other side of the valley. There is a path from the hostel down to the beach but it’s extremely steep and at one point you have to use ropes to lower yourself down. As a result i confess i’ve just not bothered. The best thing about the hostel though is it’s one of those places where people actually talk to one another – not just in the sense of chitchat but also conversations of depth about issues such as art, politics, religion, literature, philosophy… you name it!

Amongst the other guests at the moment there’s a deeply thoughtful young Turkish man, an Argentine-Canadian engineer (and would-be photojournalist) and a very eccentric Czech architect/photographer, who is obsessed with European culture and the dangers of Islam. A young German couple have just left: they were philosophy graduates and very serious. Up until yesterday we also had a Taiwanese teenager touring Turkey by himself. He was a quirky boy, in many ways older than his years, and his attempts to learn Turkish from the Turkish man via his heavily accented Chinese English were quite comical.

Finally, we have Brian, an Australian in his 50s of ‘independent means’. He lives in Turkey and is trying to develop new walking paths in this area. Brian is a real character: dramatic and intelligent, gossipy and mysterious, industrious and laid back. We discussed Kate Clow, the creator of the Lycian Way. He has a number of criticisms to make of her, the most serious being that she mapped much of the trail along routes that had been identified as sites for potential new roads. As these roads are built the picturesque goat tracks are replaced with wider bulldozed lanes and then, inevitably, asphalt roads. This explains why to my surprise the first half of the goat track i followed on Wednesday showed up on the digital map that my GPS uses: the map makers include planned roads as well as ones already built. Bryan feels that the Lycian Way is doomed as a long distance path for this reason, but he also thinks there are many other tracks which could be joined together as walks, tracks which do not lie on routes intended to be converted into roads and which should therefore remain inviolate for much longer.

I may go for a (backpackless!) walk today from here to Kabak, the next place along the Way and then come back here tonight. Then i can skip the Kabak leg of the trail tomorrow and move straight on to the next leg. There are regular dolmuşes (minibuses) so getting to Kabak shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively i may just swim in the pool and sit around reading my book, a novel by a Turkish writer called O.Z. Livaneli called ‘Bliss’. I bought it in İstanbul, despite strong resolutions not to burden myself with anything more to carry. Well, what do you expect me to do when i find myself in a street with four or five bookshops!? I don’t regret it in any case as it’s turned out to be a great read. I will probably leave it here when i finish it to supplement the meagre selection of English language books in the hostel library. Either the Germans are far more generous in donating books or the English language books are more popular and so get taken more often.

In fact, far from going on a ‘backpackless’ day walk to Kabak so that i could skip it, i went on as far as Kabak and then no further. The heat was overpowering and the next section of the path sounded rather uninspiring; the real reason i went no further though was because i’d fallen in love with George House and wanted to return.

About half way between Faralya and Kabak

George House

Horse in a copse on the way to Faralya (from Ovacık)

Tree with a Lycian Way waymark

Yellow and gold wildflowers near Faralya

Purple wildflowers

The sea was blue!

On Tuesday 19 May i emailed my friends:

I’m back in George House in Faralya after 3 nights in Kabak where i investigated the coastal trail and swam in a deserted crystal clear cove (giant flat boulders beneath turquoise seas). In many ways though the best bit was the walk to and from Kabak. The path climbs up and then follows a ridge most of the way before descending at the other end. The profusion of different wild flowers up there is startling and there are turtles/tortoises. We met one during our walk back this morning and he rather reluctantly condescended to be photographed before lumbering off into the undergrowth. Kabak itself is also beautiful. The hostel where i stayed (The Olive Garden) is perched up high above the bay and the view is glorious, particularly first thing in the morning.

Tomorrow i will travel to Kaş (via Fethiye). I’ve got two days there before i have to travel back to Fethiye and then (alas!) back home.

My trip to Kaş, a pretty town on the south coast, turned out to be quite an experience in itself, as i wrote after my arrival:

Arrived in Kaş yesterday afternoon after an unexpectedly wonderful day – despite intermittent heavy rain. After spending my final few hours at George House discussing languages, mapping and the journey of life with Brian the Australian and Öner the Turk i reluctantly took my leave and headed up to the main road to wait for the dolmuş to Fethiye.

While i was waiting a Turkish family (man, woman, little girl) came past in their car and stopped to ask about the route to Butterfly Valley. They asked me where i was headed and offered me a lift. We passed the journey with the parents demonstrating how much English their 3 year old daughter already knew before she eventually fell asleep. When we got to Fethiye they commented that they might as well carry on since it was still raining and in the end they took me all the way to Kaş (stopping at places like Patara Beach on the way), where they insisted on buying me dinner. Now that’s what i call hospitality! They were very interesting people too, not least because Sylvia, the wife, is a member of the Armenian minority. We had some very interesting discussions about the way Turkey is headed and also about Turkish films and literature; they were very pleased that i knew anything about these things as it’s not their usual experience of foreign tourists.

Anyway, i’ve signed up for a boat tour today and then i want to go back to the bookshop i found yesterday down a little side street. I bought a Turkish novel in translation (albeit not a very good translation) and i’d like to buy some more. I won’t be doing any more trekking now so the weight of the books isn’t a problem.

I note that by this point i was signing myself off ‘the Turkish Adventurer’! The boat trip was more interesting than i expected it to be, in large part because of the conversations i mention below:

I’m back at the hotel now following my boat trip round Kekova island: interesting, but more for the conversations than the ruins. Somehow, outside of Time Team, remains of ancient buildings soon start to blur into one another: this is a Lycian wall because their stone architecture was influenced by the techniques they used to carve wood; whereas this one is Roman because the wall is built from stone blocks and this one is Byzantine because it’s built from bricks. By the time we arrived at the Ottoman Era i was lost and, if i’m honest, bored.

We were meant to be able to swim as well but the relatively cool weather and rain put everyone off except one Turkish couple. Mind you, apart from me, a Turkish family (the afore-mentioned couple plus their young son & a set of grandparents) and a French-Canadian couple the other people on the trip were all elderly Germans, members of a watercolour club. Once we got out of the harbour they got out their painting kits and began working in earnest. No conversation was possible.

Conversation was possible however with the French-Canadian couple, Alain and Marie. They were lovely people, retired teachers who now enjoy travelling the world. We talked about how they feel about being Canadian: Marie said that in Canada she identifies herself as Quebecois, not French-Canadian but is nevertheless not a Quebec Nationalist. When she travels abroad she does identify as French-Canadian, largely because she doesn’t think many people would know what Quebecois means, but also because she is proud of the positive reputation that Canada has: liberal, tolerant, inclusive.

I also had some great conversations with Dilek, our guide, a funkily fashionable girl: purple cargo pants, pink nail polish, long henna tinted locks. She lived in London for 5 years and misses it. People complain about London when they live there, she says, but it has something distinctive and eclectic about it which you find yourself craving when you leave. I said she’s probably right but i still want to leave!

We also talked about Turkish attitudes to travel and cultural diversity. She confirmed what i’d read – that it’s expensive for Turkish people to travel abroad: passports are expensive and they have to pay a tax to leave Turkey on top of the expense of the visa for the destination country. And that’s assuming they can get the visa. At least three separate people have told me they’ve been refused visas for Britain and these are educated people looking to visit as tourists, not would-be dole artists.

She said that the problem goes deeper than that however: the intense propagation of Turkish national identity has tended to make people both inward-looking and wary of diverging from the norm in any way. Some people actually take a pride in the fact that they have no desire to travel outside Turkey. She advised me to visit İzmir, which she says is the most modern and forward-looking city in Turkey, much more so than İstanbul. Mind you, she does come from İzmir…

After more conversation about Turkish novels in translation, the pros and cons of commuting and her forthcoming 3 month trip to Guatemala to learn Spanish we returned to Kaş and the hotel. Then i set off to re-find the bookshop i’d discovered the previous day. This was easier said than done. For a small town Kaş has a lot of nooks and crannies. Eventually i did find the shop and bought two more Turkish novels in translation – and was rewarded by a joyful smile from the owner. I don’t think she sells a lot of those books.

Tomorrow, as i think i’ve already said, i have to return to Fethiye. I can’t believe that will be my last day! Tonight though i am going to pretend i’m staying here forever. And, more immediately, eat the dessert the waiter has just brought me.

That was the last email i wrote during my trip. The next day i took a (very comfortable) bus back to Fethiye, which i realised almost instantaneously was not a place i wanted to spend any time in. After lunch, i caught a bus to Dalaman Airport, which was even less inviting, and ended up travelling to Istanbul a day early after changing my ticket. I spent the night in the airport. My final memories of Turkey are of wandering aimlessly about the stacks of Turkish Delight piled high for tourists seeking last minute presents. No matter, it was a great holiday. Here’s hoping this year’s will be just as good. I leave you with this picture of Ollie, Turkey’s greatest dog and a resident of the Olive Garden guesthouse in Kabak:

Ollie, possibly the friendliest dog in Turkey


It is getting lighter!

Christmas is over and a new year is almost upon us. Traditionally this is a time for reflections and resolutions but for me this is time out. I’ll reflect and resolve as best i can in January. It’ll help take my mind off the cold and dreary darkness. Did you enjoy your Christmas? I enjoyed mine, but then i almost always do. Some part of me returns to childhood at Christmas, and while i don’t regress as far as actually believing in Father Christmas, i do get that same thrill of anticipation. It feels as is anything could happen.

This year i stayed at home in London, instead of trekking up to North Wales as i usually do. On Christmas Eve, with all the food bought and my presents arranged round the Tree –  a real tree this year! – i settled down to watch (and of course listen to) carol services from Cambridge and Llangollen; and later watched Midnight Mass from Westminster Cathedral. Carol services make Christmas for me, but i can’t sing so i prefer to observe them from afar where there is no danger of being “invited” to participate. Afterwards, i took myself off to bed, glancing sadly at the Christmas Tree on my way. Every year the same thought: if only it were possible to have both the magic of the gifts round the Tree AND the gifts themselves. Never mind, at least i’ve got gifts.

In the morning it was time to unwrap and marvel at all the things i’d received, especially the books. There were over twenty of those ranging from a bilingual selection of poems by the Bangladeshi poet Shamsur Rahman to a biography of the actor Claude Rains and Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine. My favourite however was a book of facts and photographs about the place where i grew up. It was written by a local historian and my mum went to a great deal of trouble both to source the book and then to get it signed for me by the author. About half way through the book i found a photo of my old headmaster, he of the beige everything.

I also got a CD containing a reading in the original Anglo-Saxon of the poem Beowulf. I am very excited about this but am waiting for the companion present to arrive which is the bilingual Anglo-Saxon/Modern English edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem. I want to be able to follow the text as it’s being read. And i got jigsaws: three in all. Equally pleasing, the presents i bought for friends and family all seemed to go down well. Panic over.

Later in the day i walked over to a friend’s for tea and chat. Christmas Day is a wonderful day to go walking as hardly anyone seems to leave their house. The snow had all melted. Only on the way back, walking along the river, did we encounter ice. After that it was two days full of a cold and feeling sorry for myself; but once that passed i was able to go out walking again and journeyed across London to spend a very pleasant day with friends. It was just a shame that making that trip meant i had to meet commuters who were working through the Christmas period. It rather spoilt the magical feeling that time had been suspended. Again, never mind. Good friends are a treasure – and, anyway, there’s a limit to the number of times that even i can sit watching The Sound of Music.

Now i am home again and waiting for the New Year. Unlike Christmas this depresses rather than excites me. I think i am always aware of how little i have accomplished. But it’s also because once New Year’s Day is over time starts flowing again. The spell is broken. By Monday i’ll be back at work and hoping that, for once, January – that interminable month – will fly by. I comfort myself with the fact that we have now passed the darkest point in the year. It is getting lighter! Remember that.

What to do…?

There are so many things that i would like to do; and I would do them, I tell myself – if only i could find a way to do without sleep and/or win the National Lottery. It seems to me that with each year that goes by i have less free time, and often the free time i do have isn’t really free. It’s packed with ‘things that need doing’ and tinged with guilt because something somewhere is always waiting to be done or else someone somewhere is always waiting for me to get in touch with them. Now i know that there are many, many people in this world who are worse off than me but, nevertheless, this is frustrating.

Of course, work is the main culprit. I could write at tedious length about the way that work tends to eat more and more deeply into your life the longer you pursue a career, however i’ll spare you! I don’t think it’s just that in any case. Part of the problem, in my opinion, stems from an increasing realisation of your own limits. Early on in life it still seems entirely possible that you can learn each and every language that you might want to speak; visit each and every country in the world; read each and every book that interests you.

Gradually, that optimism fades. You become aware of time ticking away, notice the way that it seems to be forever speeding up, and begin to grasp that you do not in fact have an infinitude of possibilities. This process begins while you are still a child on the day that you comprehend that you won’t ever be an astronaut or a professional footballer. You surrender your impossible dreams but still, at this point, retain your great hopes.

Bit by bit the erosion of confidence proceeds. You discover the tyranny of money. Hopes follow dreams into the sea of limitations and constraints, careers and bills; and so it goes on. Look around you: how many people are there camped out on a last little island of ‘next year’s holiday’, ‘a new car’, ‘paying off the mortgage’ – or just ‘having enough for this week’s groceries’?

I daresay it’s my colleague’s recent death which has put me in this frame of mind but i’m very aware of how marginalised my inner life has become. Struggling, in a state of exhaustion, to read a book on the train home does not constitute having time to think. Similarly, my tired tramp along the road from the office to the railway station does not qualify as ‘a walk’.

What to do…? Some things seem obvious: time spent pursuing other people’s routes to happiness, when these are not also your own, is wasted. Yet, this is too pat. We have obligations to our friends and families. Our happiness, such as it is, stems at least partly from the time and effort those people have invested in us. We have obligations to the world as a whole for that matter. Likewise, it’s all well and good pontificating about not being in thrall to material things; but material things – books are also material things for instance – form an important part of what a truly happy life means to most of us.

I’m never going to be able to do without sleep and i’m never going to win the National Lottery. Really, what to do?

The grey mist

I was reading a blog the other day in which the author was talking about depression. Not for the first time I was struck by how misunderstood this is as a phenomenon. Even the name is misleading: depression – at least in my experience – is not so much an experience in which you feel ‘low’, as one in which you feel distant, separated even, from the world on the one hand and yourself on the other.

I suffered a serious bout of depression a few years ago and my most vivid memory, in so far as you can describe any memory from that period as vivid, is of sitting in a restaurant by the river with a friend and looking through the window at the people outside. I felt as if some invisible but unbridgeable chasm separated us; almost as if we were in two different worlds. Actually, it was as if I wasn’t really in the world at all. My emotions seemed to be enveloped in a kind of grey mist and I just couldn’t find them, no matter hard I tried.

The only way in which the depression lived up to its name was in its effect on my energy levels. I couldn’t run or exert myself in any way that required enthusiasm. Fortunately, walking – always one of my favourite things – was still possible; and so I would force myself to go out each day and walk as far as I could along the river.

This was during the ‘acute phase’, the five weeks I was off work. The depression lasted for about six months in all and for most of that period I had to work or at least try to. Looking back it’s clear I should have stayed off longer but, like many people afflicted by ‘the black dog’, the two feelings that didn’t desert me were shame and anxiety. The absence of physical symptoms – or at least symptoms that can be definitely attributed to depression – tends to make you feel like a fraud, or as though you’re perceived as a fraud by others. Returning to work before you’re ready is one of the ways in which you ‘apologise’ for your illness; and also one of the ways in which you try to hide it.

Signing up for prescriptions of anti-depressants is another way. This has the additional benefit of legitimising your sickness (you wouldn’t be taking ‘medicine’ if you weren’t ‘ill’); and provides everybody – including you -with the reassurance that something is being done. I know that for some people the drugs do work, but for me it was definitely more a case of showing willing. I didn’t notice the slightest impact on how i felt; whereas when I came off the drugs the withdrawal effects were, by contrast, all too noticeable.

In the end, the depression didn’t ‘lift’ any more than it ‘descended’ on me. What happened was simply that the mist cleared and the chasm narrowed; and I began to feel not necessarily more cheerful, but just something.