Monday, 30 April 2012

The swifts have arrived - finally!!

At long last, 2012's cohort of Swifts has finally arrived, a week later than last year.   I keep an eye out for them every year as they're the most amazing birds - the fastest flying in the world, squealing with delight at being in each other's company, they bring me such absolute joy.  I've spent much of the last week staring at the sky, looking for tiny crescent shapes, high up in the clouds, when I finally spotted the first one today, about an hour ago.  Within about 20 minutes there were about a dozen more, and lots more will be arriving from Africa now over the next few days.  One of the best things about the allotment was that the houses surrounding the allotment site provided nests for these summer visitors and they'd swoop and dive at breathtaking speeds just above our heads - I'll miss that now I've given up my plot.

Friday, 27 April 2012

2nd art class - Da Vinci needn't worry....

Yesterday was the second of my Drawing and Painting classes.  I learned my lesson from last week and took a change of clothing with me, as I'd be going from coolish and monsoony conditions outside, to overheated (due to the previous Life class) indoors, so a t-shirt and sandals came with me.  I needed them too.

But onto what we learned.  Today was a series of quick exercises based around a still life.  The tutor put together a group of objects - there was a large cylindrical earthernware jar/vase, much in the shape of a wastebasket, in front of it (as I was facing it) were two tall thin stone bottles with a third, Victorian, stone bottle to the left.  On the right was a squat, round black glass vase and in front of it a polystyrene sphere.

The tutor (Kim O'Neil - a professional artist trained at Central St Martins) started by showing us how to use a photographic frame/mat to look through at the still life and decide which bits of it we wanted to draw.  I decided to just focus on the three bottles and the large vase.  Kim said we were going to do a series of quick exercises and we'd use about half a dozen pieces of paper.  A word of warning - I'm about to show the world the pictures that I created even though they're rubbish really but I figured it might be interesting to keep a record of any progress that I might actually be making!  The exercises she made us do were actually really interesting and not something I would have done if I hadn't been told to, so - here we go!

The idea of these quick drawings is not to produce anything particularly proficient but to start to look properly at a group of objects, with more of an artist's eye for composition, proportion, relationships between objects, that sort of thing.

To begin with, Kim asked us all to just do a quick 10 minute drawing of the still life without any input from her.  This was mine (the paper is A4 size):

The first exercise she made us do was to position our easels so that we couldn't look at it, and to draw the same still life but without looking at the paper.  Yes.  Without looking at it.  The idea being that, actually, we'd all be surprised at how much improved our proportions would be and how much more accurate it would be.  An interesting idea but anyone with half a brain cell could see there's no way on God's good earth that a drawing could be improved by not looking at the paper.  And, indeed, so it came to pass.  These were my three attempts which got progressively worse!:

The next exercise was the opposite.  Kim made us look for a minute or two at the still life to try and memorise it because we would now be drawing it without actually looking at it - drawing it from memory.  This was mine - not too bad although the bottle on the left needs to be further back:

The next exercise allowed us to look at both the objects and the paper, but we were not allowed to lift our pencils off the paper once we'd started drawing.  We could stop the pencil moving while looking but we had to keep it on the paper:

The next exercise was similar - the pencil had to stay on the paper without being lifted off at all - but this time it had to be kept moving, even when we were looking at the objects and not the paper.  Remember we were having to do these as quickly as possible as well.  I quite enjoyed doing this exercise and thought the results weren't too awful:

The penultimate exercise was, in many ways, the most interesting and most challenging.  We had to hold the pencil in the other hand.  I'm massively right-handed, to the extent that even my right shoulder is bigger than my left.  Kim said that it often happens that when she gets her classes to do this for the first time, there's usually one or two people who find that, because they're now activating the other side of their brain, something happens and the scale and proportions in their drawings are more accurate.  She said that one of her previous students found this happened so profoundly that she now blocks out her drawings with her left hand to get proper proportions, then switches to her normal right hand to add tones, shading and detail.

I found this quite uncomfortable because, as I said, I am so right handed and I have such little fine control with my left hand but it was interesting. This was my effort - I think there was a difference, albeit slight:

Finally, Kim got us to do a last, extremely quick 5-minute drawing, using any of the techniques, to see how it compares with the very first one we did:

It's much better, I think, although not brilliant.  Not only is it bigger on the paper but I felt more confident using the pencils and graphite stick, and in just using the space.

Next week we've been instructed to bring in a picture of a face.  It can be from a magazine.  This is so we can start to look at portraits and facial proportions.  Apparently, at some point, we're going to end up doing a self-portrait.  I may or may not show you that one!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

One year older but not much wiser...

At the time of my last post I was 48 years old.  I am now 49.

Yesterday a friend of mine gave me a lift to the garage to collect the Big Car from having its MOT.  In the back seat was her delightful youngest daughter, 12 year old Jamie.  Mum and I were chatting and she was telling me how her other teenage kids were astonished/horrified/sceptical of the fact that both her and their father quite often forgot how old they were.  I said that happened to me too and I frequently have to work out it from the year I was born.  Jamie piped up from the back to express her disbelief that anyone could forget how old they were - inconceivable!

I explained that once you get to about 21, the only birthdays that really matter from then on are the ones with a '0' at the end of them - 30, 40 and so on - and all the others just sort of blend into one really.  She was really surprised by that and stated that it was important to celebrate your birthday because 'you're one year older!'  Bless.  I told her that, when you get to my age, you don't actually want to be one year older.  I love her, she's such a poppet.  And I'm horrified to realise that in checking how old she actually is (I have a birthday calendar on which I've put the years people were born so I know exactly how old they are), I realised that I completely missed her birthday on 10 April!  I know why I missed it, it was slap-bang in the middle of my week of menopausal misery when I was barely capable of getting out of bed, never mind anything else.  I have just sent her a very apologetic text - I don't like missing peoples' birthdays.

So, how was mine?  It's always a tricky question for me to answer.  I always, always feel disheartened as it starts looming into view.  I've learnt over the now-49 years I've been alive that birthdays very rarely ever live up to expectations.  And I've had one or two truly horrible ones over the years.  This one wasn't too bad at all.  TLH, through no fault of his own, didn't manage to get me anything so I told him that he could pay for my drawing and painting course, and materials; his relief was palpable.  He also managed to get out of work at a reasonable time for once and took me to the refurbished The Percy Arms pub in nearby Chilworth (it was gutted by fire a couple of years ago and has just reopened) which does the best steak this side of the Atlantic.  And, yes, I had steak.  Yum yum.  He also brought home an extremely chocolatey birthday cake - hooray!

I didn't get many gifts but what I did get was fab.  My lovely mum gave me a huge box of chocolates and a most unusual orchid (I have a small collection of orchids) that is totally upright with flowers growing on each side of the stem (sorry pics are a bit murky):

And the very wonderful indeed Ms Katyboo gave me two glorious 1970s original one-disc Wedgwood Sheringham glass candlesticks in the most luscious Amethyst colour (yes, there are a pair but for some reason I only photographed one):

Beautiful, non? A few cards were received from relatives and lots of well-wishes on Facebook, and with that I entered my 50th year on the planet.

So what else has happened since I was last here?  The appalling weather has conspired to keep me indoors and out of my running shoes for over a week.  It really has been that rainy here.  Constant, bloody rain, and not just drizzle but proper heavy rain.  As a friend of mine said, 'Drought, my arse'.  Indeed.

The result of this was that I failed to do the Clandon Park Run on 21 April that I signed up for back in March.  The course is mostly cross country, across fields and through woodland.  I was envisaging Somme-like conditions and really, really didn't fancy running knee-deep through mud that had been churned up by 100+ runners in front of me, so I decided I'd give this one a miss and look for something else in the summer to do, perhaps a 5k run.  I felt incredibly guilty about not going and cross, as well.  I'd been really looking forward to doing it and had geared my training (such as it is) towards doing it, so it felt like a huge let-down to not go in the end.  But I honestly don't think I would have enjoyed it very much so hopefully it'll be to the good.

And still the rain has fallen this week - I finally managed to get to go out yesterday as, amazingly, it remained dry and even *gasp* sunny.  I decided to just go out for 2.5miles/4km but, as I've been sitting on my expanding butt all week, figured I'd push myself a bit to see if I can up my speed.  And, astonishingly, it worked!  Last week I was running at an average pace of 15:08 and 15:04 minutes per mile but yesterday managed to turn in an average pace of 14:25 minutes per mile!  And it felt like I was doing 'proper' running for the first time too, not just a shuffly-jog type thing, so there's definite improvement.

The other thing is that I've started my Drawing and Painting for Beginners adult education course.  It's always a bit daunting walking into a room of people who already know each other, but everyone seemed pretty friendly and I'm quite good at bluffing bonhomie to folks I don't know so it was fine.  The room was stinking hot, though, due to the fact that there had been a life drawing class in there in the morning and the model - who is, of course, nude - has to be warm!  I'd walked up a hill and then several flights of stairs to get to the class so was, rather attractively, sweating as if I was in a sauna, and continued to drip until about halfway through the class!  My next class is tomorrow and I'm going to have to dress appropriately, I think - t-shirt and sandals, no less!

Anyway, this first class involved looking at tonal shades - basically shading and shadows.  The teacher gave us all a plastic ball and got us to look at where the light was falling on it and where it was darkest, and how the shadows fell, etc.  She got us to have a go at drawing it first without any instruction from her, then she would talk us through the tips that a 'proper' artist uses and guide us through a second, more directed, go at drawing it, to show us the difference.

This was my first go (again, apologies for the darkness of the images, they were taken with my phone, but I think you get the idea):

And this was my second go:

Somewhat improved, I think.  The teacher said it was fine but a little tentative, so I think I'm going to have to get bolder with using the pencils and graphite stick.  Next class is tomorrow so I'll report back.

I think that's all the news from my little corner of Jones Towers for now, so I'll bid you adieu and will check in again when I have something even vaguely interesting to share with you all!

PS.  Every year I keep an eye out for the first sighting of Swifts and they're late this year.  2011 they arrived on 21 April, in 2010 it was 22 April.  Mind you, with this shitty weather, perhaps they've decided to stay in Africa a bit longer!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Normal service has been resumed

And I'm back.  Normal me has arrived.  This week has been such a total write-off as far as I'm concerned that it feels like it should be Tuesday rather than Friday.  No matter, it's good to be back no matter what day it is.

In fact, I'm feeling so normal that I went out for a run, my first one for exactly a week.  And seeing as how, for the rest of the month, I've been going out more or less every other day, not being able to go out for a week was rather unfortunate, especially as I've only got a week to go until my first ever 'proper' run.

But, I'm pleased to say, it actually looks as if the unwelcome week off from running has done some good - I decided to just do 3 miles today and even with a couple of walking intervals I was thrilled to see when I got back that I'd done it in the fastest time yet - 15:08 mins per mile.  Considering that when I restarted running again this year back in February I was doing about 17 mins per mile, I'm pretty pleased with this improvement.

The run on Saturday 21 April is only 4km/2.5 miles and I'm confident that I can do that in under 40 mins, Inshallah.  After that I'll start looking for another race.  It'll probably be a 5k and as they're more common than 4k races, I shouldn't have much difficulty in finding one to join.  I know there's one in Godalming for the Queen's Jubilee on 4 June but I checked the website and it said the ominous words 'hilly' and 'undulating'.  Now I like going for a run but I'm not a masochist - you can keep your hills, so I think I'll give that one a miss.  The furthest distance I have gone so far, when just out for a run on my own, is 4 miles/6.5km, so I may start looking for 7k races as well.  But we'll see, I don't want to push anything and end up injured.

And while I'm here I'll give you an update on the broad bean scenario - I took the wise advice of the eminently sensible Alienne and got myself some growbags, picked them up in the middle and created two smaller, rounder bags from each one, and planted the broad bean seedlings into them.  They've been there about a week now and seem to be very happy:

I've got about two dozen Sugar Snap Pea seedlings that I need to plant out as well when they're a bit bigger.  They're a little wee still:

I have some quite large pots that I can put these in, or I may get more growbags.

Also, this morning I rang the local Adult Education Centre and discovered there were two spaces left on the Beginners' Drawing and Painting Class so I've enrolled!  Hooray!  I love taking classes and it's been absolutely far too long since I did.  I need to get an A3 pad of cartridge paper (I already have one of watercolour paper but I don't think that will do), some pencils (I'll have to dig my ones out from when I did my archaeological illustration course about 10 years ago - blimey, ten years ago already....) and a 'graphite stick'.  I'm not sure what that is but I think it's what they use these days instead of charcoal.  No matter, Godalming has a fantastic little art supplies shop so I'll find all I need there.

Finally, we've had a series of extraordinary weathery things happening this week.  Yesterday we had the most tremendous hailstorm with thunder and lightening, that left at least an inch of hailstones in about 30 seconds!  It was amazing.  But a couple of days before that we had a rain shower of monsoon proportions that left us with a rainbow that started in the garden of the house opposite me and a sky that looked like it was on fire:

It was fantastic and all completely gone in about 15 minutes, just leaving the sky dull and overcast.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Well, I can do without this....

(Starting this post I see that Blogger has changed again *sigh* I wonder how long it'll take me to get the hang of it again)

Please take this past week away.  Do what you wish with it, I do not want it.  I'm emerging from another menopausally-induced depressive state and it fucking sucks.  I have cried more over the last 3 days than I have done over the previous 3 years at the very least (probably longer - I'm not a crier).

I've felt miserable and so, so sad.  And so full of self-pity that I was disgusted with myself while bawling my eyes out about how I've wasted my life and no-one loves me.  Because it's bollocks but the emotions become so overwhelming that you just can't ignore them.

I was recently reading on a board I frequent that tears shed from emotional stress are different to those shed at other times (although what other times they would be I don't know...physical pain maybe?) and scientific testing of the actual liquid in those tears show they contain stress hormones.  So, in effect, one of the reasons you feel better for having had a good cry when you're depressed and upset is because you're ridding yourself of some of these hormones via your tears.  I dunno.  I'm not a scientist but I remembered this while in the depths of despair yesterday morning and just decided to let it all out, in the hope that I could get rid of it.  So I ended up curled foetally on the bathroom floor, sobbing my heart out into a towel and hoping the neighbours couldn't hear me.

I'm not sure I felt much better because I ended up with a thumping headache on top of still feeling tearful and miserable.


I woke this morning actually feeling quite a lot more like me, at least up until about an hour ago, when a wave of misery overcame me again and I ended up having a little weep while sitting in the bath (I was actually having a bath, I wasn't just sitting in an empty bath with my clothes on, you understand).  Seems I'm not quite out of the woods yet.  This malarkey all started on Monday with the arrival of a 2-day late period which also left me extremely bloated and nauseous (so much so I thought I'd got a stomach bug) as well as headachey.  And then the misery started.

Good grief.

This week has been a complete and utter write-off, and it's all down to my stupid, stupid, bloody hormones.  If I can get my act together, I think it might be wise to visit my Traditional Chinese Medicine man and see what he can suggest because I'm going to go absolutely doolally if every month ends up being like this.

However one good thing has come out of it.  While I was pondering the uselessness of my life and the fact that I'm an enormous waste of space, for some reason the thought of finding a local adult education art class came to mind.  I like to think of myself as being a bit on the arty side, I've dabbled here and there, and always enjoyed doing art at school but haven't had a 'proper' class since then (and we're talking late 1970s here).  So yesterday, once I'd stopped crying enough to be able to see the computer screen properly, I got online and found a 10-week beginner's drawing class on Thursday afternoons for a couple of hours starting a week today in nearby Guildford.  I emailed for further details and have just had a reply that there is space on the course so tomorrow I'm going to phone up and book it.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Any ideas where I should shove my beans?(!)

[Be warned this will be a very picture-heavy post as I'm taking you on a tour of the acres of grounds surrounding Jones Towers]

Further to yesterday's post when I announced the demise of my allotmenting days, I've been starting to think what I should do with the many-ish broad bean and pea seedlings that I'm nurturing in the plastic-houses:

I've had a quick look online and it seems it's possible that I could pop them in some containers and they might work.  Of course, in an ideal world, I'd be able to plant them into the ground but once you've had a look at what my garden's like, you'll see that ain't really gonna be possible here.  Not really.  Although I might be able to find a leetle space, it's looking more and more like containers are going to be the way forward here.

If you've read my blog in the past, you'll probably be aware that I live in a three-storey, tall, thin end-of-terrace townhouse built in 1964. The builders shoe-horned the houses into the cul-de-sac where we live and gave us all the smallest possible gardens they could get away with.  Fortunately we live on the side of the close which has the biggest gardens - my friends who live opposite have a teeny-tiny paved courtyard at the back of theirs which is just about big enough for a rotary washing line, some garden chairs (not that they get any sun in the back garden on that side of the street) and a few pots.  At least we have a meagre amount of grass that we can call our own.

Plus the houses on our side of the street are built into the side of a hill so our garden has an element of terracing and verticality involved.

Look, I'll show you.  And I'll make no apologies for the state of the garden at the moment - I know there's lots to be done, even in such a small space!

This is the patio bit which is on the ground floor outside our downstairs back door:

This picture was taken at about 12.30pm and this is the furthest the sun ever really gets into it - hence a bench placed where it is, under the study window.  There are four pots with bamboos against the wall on that side to provide a bit of a screen.  At the base of the wall facing the bench are planted ferns (the old brown fronds need cutting back) and hostas, because it's damp and shady there.

Standing now with my back to those bamboos facing the other way:
There are three blue ceramic pots with more bamboo.  As you can see, it's really very shady down there.  I also have two tall aluminium pots on each side of the bench; each of them contains a Sambucus Nigra, a plant with lacy black leaves that shows up beautifully against the white walls.

The top of the wall down here was, I think, used as a bed once but one of the previous owners (badly) laid bits of broken paving slab on it instead, so I use it as a place to put containers with tall growing plants in whose heads enjoy being in the sunshine but also don't mind a bit of shade.  It's also the main thoroughfare through our garden for the local cats.  Indeed, one of them has just knocked off a broken bit of paving slab:

So here there's yet another bamboo in a terracotta pot, next to a large Fatsia Japonica.  Those who are keen of eye might also spot a pale green Hellebore in the bottom left of the top photo - this was a self-seeded plant that found its way into a gap between the crappy paving stones.  In the bottom picture you can see really how uneven it is.  It's actually quite dangerous because I have to walk (crouch, more like) along this when I need to get to my Dicksonia Antarctica Tree Fern which is in a blue pot (you can just see the pot in the first photo of these two), on the other side of the bridge.  Oh, this is also where the honeysuckle that winds its way through the railings on the bridge starts from.

You can also just make out the start of the first, steep, flight of steps that take you up from this ground floor level to another, small, area of patio and the bridge:
This area looks like this:
The primroses have self-seeded themselves between the paving slabs.  (Those with beady eyes might spot a small furry black and white face peering round a pot at me - this is Bruno Williams who lives next door and is Sylvester's nemesis.  He's also adorable and the most helpful cat I've ever met.  He wanted to know what I was doing and if there was any way he could assist). It's pretty narrow here and I already have another tall aluminium container which has an artichoke in, a rosemary bush, a pot with mint, another pot with Dicentra Spectabilis and a large container with a small pink Phormium (which has been overrun with grass - this might be a good candidate to clear out and use for beans or peas):

The bridge goes from our upstairs back door and leads onto this level of the garden:
I try to keep the actual wooden decking slats of the bridge free from too many pots because of the water seepage and algae-growing factors, but I have to admit that the far end of the bridge, where it joins the narrow patio bit looks like this:
There are some tatty pots here with ornamental grasses, a dark red Heuchera in a matching pot and a Mystic Spires Blue Salvia in a pale blue square pot.  The bridge gets very sunny and this corner gets the sun in the morning.

On to the four steps leading up to the first bit of lawn, with young Bruno being helpful, as ever:
There are, as you can see, pots here, containing ornamental grasses, snakeshead fritillary and oregano.  These steps are very narrow indeed, only one pot deep and it's hard not to fill them up with pots during the summer!

We have two areas of lawn, both very small.  This is the first area and is the largest.  Here I'm standing on the top step and taking pics from left to right:

On the left hand side I recently cleared some plants and did some hard pruning.  I removed all the lower branches of the large conifer tree, cut down two smaller conifers but left their stumps and roots in the ground, and pruned back a large colourful bush whose name escapes me for the moment.  As you can see to the left of the photo below, the soil here is very thin, full of roots and the ivy is just itching to get into it.  Towards the right of the photo, there are Day Lilies, bluebells, a hellebore and a Chinese Peony.  All crammed in that little space.  This side of the garden barely gets direct sunlight and, if it does, it's not until evening.

The right hand side of this bit of lawn has 4 or 5 Callicarpus bushes which are there for the purple berries in autumn. The soil here is bad - let's face it, the soil's bad through the entire garden - and it's very dry:
There are tulips and bluebells in here somewhere, as well as grape hyacinth.  I took this sitting on the bench we have here, as this spot gets the sun all afternoon.  Just to the left of where I'm sitting there's this:
which is a ramshackle collection of things in pots including a Stephanotis, a small Chinese palm and a Gertrude Jekyll rose.  There's also some tulips and a Japanese Maple in there for good measure.

At the end of this bit of lawn, there are two more steps leading to the upper bit of lawn where the tatty shed, the bird feeding station, and the plastic-houses live:
There's a retaining wall here, on both sides of the steps.  On this side, the left, there's a gap where I took out a dying Hebe and I think the green thing on the right is a Pyracantha.  It's damn thorny, I know that.

The other side looks like this:
The tall, beige plant is a Chinese Zebra Grass which has to be cut down to the ground every year - I'm currently halfway through the process.  There's a garden ornament here too, in the shape of a metal pole with another pole across it with two metal birds on one end, weighted with a glass sphere at the other end, that spins round erratically in the wind.  Right next to it is another Japanese Maple.  This one goes red in autumn, the other I mentioned earlier goes yellow/orange.  The large conifer you can see behind it, with upward pointing branches, is a Christmas tree I planted out one January, several million years ago, when it was about a foot tall!  It's a gorgeous shape and has the most beautiful dark rose pink pine cones but its roots do mean that the ground underneath is as dry as a bone.

This is where the plastic-houses and rusty incinerator live:
Where the incinerator is positioned is where I did actually dig a very, very small veg patch about 5 years ago, before I got the allotment.  I'm not really sure I want to do that again, although, thinking about it, I could possibly put in some raised beds here, especially as the ground is so hard and rubbish.....

Immediately to the left of the plastic-houses there is a huge Fuschia bush that also needs pruning back to the ground.  It takes up an awful lot of space but, having said that, its location is grim - there's a tall wall covered in ivy right behind it, a shed on one side and the fence on the other, so it doesn't get much sunlight in the afternoon but at least it's sheltered, I suppose:

I used the dalek compost maker for a while - it's tucked into a corner between the wall and shed - but found it only attracted rats which then made nests inside and underneath the shed.  It also didn't make compost because it was in the shade!

The area to the other side of the shed is just sad.  It's a dumping ground, pure and simple.  It's where I've chucked my unloved and unneeded pots that won't fit in the shed itself, together with some larger prunings:

And down the side of the shed is even worse *hangs head in shame*:
Yeah, needs a really good clear out, I'd say!

So, standing with my back to the shed, looking back down the garden, it looks like this:

If you've made it this far you deserve a medal, and my thanks for joining me on this tour of the estate grounds.  It's not going to appear in the RHS Yellow Book any time soon, is it?

And while it may look a bit like there's loads of space for me to plant the broad beans and peas into the ground, there isn't really.  It's going to have to be containers, I think, unless any of you lovely readers have any other suggestions?