I have done poorly at writing this for a month. I lack time, I lack discipline, I lack inspiration. Tonight, I opened up my mother’s old button tin for my husband to find a button, and memories ambushed me. The Little Grey Rabbit card game I used to play with my brother and sister, with the buttons acting as tokens. The favourite buttons we all used to fight over. Then the buttons from my dad’s cardigans, and the buttons from my mum’s blazer. The buttons that were sewn onto the childhood dresses I wore, including one particularly itchy red knitted dress. The buttons that looked like unbaked pie crusts. We stood and looked through the contents, then my husband chose a candidate suitable for trouser security and I replaced the lid. An old tin that originally held shortbread petticoat tails, watched over by a lurid Loch Ness Monster. Now Nessy is the guardian of a treasure trove of circular plastic and metal. Sets of buttons with one missing, kept by in case another turned up to complete the set, their garments now long gone. My parents’ reluctance to relinquish the past married to an ethos of make do and mend.
I am an avid watcher of The Great British Bake Off. It wasn’t always so. I dipped in and out, but it wasn’t priority viewing. I watched the last few episodes of series three in 2012, and then last year I succumbed to peer pressure and watched the fourth series in its entirety. Who knew that a dozen people in a tent making cake, bread and pastry could be so entertaining? Cake is one of my most favourite things in the world. I also like freshly baked bread. I have many friends who bake. One bakes professionally, one has a blog documenting her successes and accidents, most just do it for fun. I even know someone who bakes on a narrow boat. I liked baking with my mum when I was a kid, and I baked cakes when I was at university, but now I rarely have the ingredients in the cupboard and never seem to find the time. Plus, it’s much nicer when someone else bakes for you. Today’s picture is one of the cupcakes my friend who is a professional baker made for my mum’s birthday. There’s a book theme because Mum used to work in a library.
Hayao Miyazaki retired from film making this year. His sixth retirement. There is speculation about the future of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio he set up with Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahara in 1985. Miyazaki himself seems to think it’s all over. Suzuki is allegedly thinking about pressing pause on production. Who knows what will happen? My husband’s favourite Miyazaki film is Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind. Mine is Porco Rosso. His most famous are My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away. His last film for Ghibli was The Wind Rises. One of the reasons I like his films so much is that they have strong female characters. Miyazaki has said he has been influenced by the female children’s authors Ursula Le Guin, Eleanor Farjeon, Diana Wynne Jones and Philippa Pearce. Some of his films are influenced by his childhood experiences as the son of the director of a company that made rudders for aircraft. He was pretty much an unknown quantity in the West until Princess Mononoke got picked up for US release. Then he won an Oscar for Spirited Away. Here is he is toy form, designed by Martin Hsu of Disney and manufactured by Bigshot Toyworks.
I love apples. I love their shape and colour, and the sweet-sour taste of them. I try to eat an apple every day, but when February has passed and the only things in the supermarket are imported varieties that lack punch, eating an apple a day starts to feel like a chore. It used to be that we only ate freshly picked apples for six months of the year. Now apples are picked under-ripe for storage, then forced to ripen artificially. Apple lovers never used to reject an apple on the grounds that its skin wasn’t perfectly smooth, perfectly shiny, perfectly unblemished. I, too, pick through the trays of apples in the supermarket all year round, trying to find the most attractive, sometimes sacrificing flavour for the sake of a daily munch. Some of the apples have brand names protected by trademarks. I buy them and feel uncomfortable, although I don’t know why. My favourite apples are all traditional British cultivars – russets, pippins, cox’s and pearmains. They are small, crisp and juicy, and only available through the autumn and winter. I look forward to British apple season. There’s something in the tartness of our fruit that suits the national character.
This piece of pottery comes from the Corris studio near Machynlleth. It is stamped with the initials DW. I bought it from the Arts Centre on the Penglais Campus of Aberystwyth University when I was a student there. I bought it as a present for my mother. When we cleared her house last year, I brought it home with me. It is made in the colours of the mountains and valleys of mid Wales. It speaks with a mid-Welsh accent, gruff with slate and deep with purple heathers, rich and verdant as a forest. A daydream in ceramic form, it looks like the cottage I always wanted to live in as a child, nestled halfway up the hillside that looks over the fishing town of Abermaw, which is also known as Barmouth. It sits in the window of my house, and occasionally I sit in my chair in the window of my house and look at it. I wish myself inside it, with a fire in the hearth making the smoke rise from the chimney. I long for it, although I have never been there. It does not exist. Or rather, it exists, but only as a beautiful ceramic wish.
The sailor dropped the bottle from his hand. He looked across the white expanse of snow and saw a sign. Its once pristine surface was now cracked and pitted where metal had encountered too much oxygen. He saw flaws that could fracture at the slightest blow. The sign was wider than it was high by a measure the sailor could not calculate. He could not see the thing to which it was affixed. The background surface was white, obscured by snow. He had the sense of a container in the way the light fell across the dazzling background. He wondered at the words embossed upon the sign. NOT TO DROP MORE THAN 5 CWT. Another sailor flashed before his eyes, cowering beneath the shadow of a large wooden mallet. A heavy load, a weight, a pressure. A pounding and a whiteness. All things are made to bear a certain amount of pressure. All things have the strength to push so far, and no further. The temptation, he seemed to understand, was to build up steam and drop a pressure greater than can be borne. This, he seemed to feel, was to be avoided. A two-fold harm and a twin destruction.
Off to one side of the Irwell’s navigable flow lies a stub of the old Manchester and Salford Junction Canal. The lock gates are decaying. The winding gear for opening the gates is rusted and cobwebbed. The detritus of modern life bobs in the murky water. I have photographed this lock with no destination before, but always from the pavement, looking down. Today I ventured down the steps, to an area that had been repaved, set with benches, intended no doubt as a pleasant place for pedestrians to pause, linger, enjoy the aesthetics of the disused lock. This mini pleasure garden is now as disused and abandoned as the lock. I wandered around. The winding gear interested me, with its short, stubby handle on one side, and the square, tapered spindle for the windlass on the other. The canal originally stretched east from the Irwell, passing through four locks of which this preserved but decrepit remainder was the first, to reach the Rochdale Canal. Intended to remove the need for offloading cargo at the Irwell and carting it across the city for its onward journey, the timing of its construction was bad. It opened just as the railways became popular.
Teapots suspended above a shopping street, spinning gently in the wind. Teapots and tea cups floating among a municipal flower arrangement. A strange combination. Was it some mad hatter who came this way and left behind his arrangements for an afternoon snack? Would he be cursing now, in front of some bare table, cloth spread virginal white, expectant, waiting for the cups, saucers and teapots that are the symbol of his existence? Would he be tearing out his hair? As I paused to take the photograph, the wind blew, tail end of ex-Hurricane Bertha, whipping along the high walled confines of New Cathedral Street. The teapots swung and spun. Trails of ivy stretching tendrils after the wind’s gusts, as though hoping to keep it, not wanting to let it go. The light was all wrong, the background of high end shops not clean, but the quizzical sight of teapots and tea cups spinning above a shopping street was too much to resist. The teenage sons of a sweating, shopping father looked at where my lens was pointed. “Kettles?” they said, walking past. Teapots I thought. There is a difference. I walked on, my picture taken. The father paused, looking back.
As I walked out (one late summer afternoon), I spied brambles on the rough ground by the canal. They stretched their spiny arms through the fence that keeps unwanted visitors out and tried to tempt me with their rainbow of berries. The green drupelets had the first blush of colour’s change upon them. Others were a bruised red, but some were already the dark purple that stains teeth and lips and tastes good in a crumble with custard (purple is a fruit). I resisted their pleading and walked on. But not before I paused to take their photograph. The curled, brown, scabby remains of flowers not yet swollen into berries dotted the rainbow cluster like a pox. Flowers like these are such tragic creations. Blowsy in their first flush, sending out perfume as a signal to bees to come hither and pollenate, they descend rapidly into crabby old age, all brown and wizened, before their swollen bellies metamorphose into brambles. But then, what joy those brambles bring with their sharp taste of the end of summer, their warmth of the start of autumn. Perhaps in a few days, when the blush has passed through red to purple, I will return.
Green bug with a bronze shield for your back, you landed on my car door while I was inside the supermarket. When I produced my camera, like a crazed, bug-stalking paparazzo, you scuttled short distances along the paintwork, alongside the window, oblivious to your own reflection, only conscious of some larger, looming threat. I snapped. Blurred, I fixed you in digital pixels imprinted on my memory card. Blurred and over-exposed, a shadow of yourself that I would later manipulate pixel by pixel to try to bring you back to life. I got into the car. You didn’t budge from your resting place. I started the engine and edged out of the parking space. You calmly climbed on slightly suckered feet up the window, distracting me as I drove with your bright colours. Anxious about your tiny body bending to the wind, I slowed down, pulled over, came to a halt. You relaxed. I watched you through the window, reluctant to drive off, but also wanting to take you home. I started to open the window, hoping to entice you in, away from the wind. It was then that you revealed you had wings. It was then that you flew away.