The Creeping Tide

There was no denying it. We had reached that time of the year when the endless struggle between man and nature resumes. From a brief respite, the conflict soon begins again in earnest.

By man and nature, I refer to myself and the garden. I try to put it off as long as I can. My refuge is the autumn that cuts back and halts the endless advance. My kick back time is the winter months that sweep in with a withering and unyielding wind.

But fearfully I watch for any sign of spring. More fearfully, my wife watches for me. She will puncture casual conversation with observational remarks about the grass beginning to grow, the shoots beginning to show. At this point I can still resist, for these are just gradual beginnings. The growth is slow. The change barely registers.

But nature, with its annoyingly natural order of things, begins to speed up.

The remarks come more frequently-the weeds that are sprouting through every concrete crack, those dastardly dandelions that carpet the lawn.

I remark on the beauty of these yellow flowers- the first to give the garden colour this year.

An ominous silence.

Spring begins to herald summer, and the comments become more caustic. The solar lights don’t come on at night because they sit in the shade of the grass. When the kids go out to play we will have to tie a length of rope around their waists so we don’t lose them in the wilderness. They are too young to be trusted with sharp implements such as the machetes they will need to beat a path to the front gate.

Things begin to build and gather pace.

Last year was bitter-sweet. It was the wettest year on record, summer was a washout. Picnic time was limited, but so also was my gardening opportunities. And, if there was ever the danger of a window of opportunity, I employed a bullet point presentation:

the health and safety aspect- you can’t use the lawnmower with wet grass you know, electricity and all that.

the aesthetics: trampling all over the garden after rainfall would soon reduce it to an unsightly mud heap

the sympathy appeal: my postman’s knees were playing up

the wildcard: you look beautiful darling

Somehow I made it to autumn, glorious autumn, in all its marvellous consistency. Let those leaves fall, this is a record-breaking rainfall year you know. It may look untidy, but soon it will be concealed by lovely snow.

But now this year, this weekend. I harbour a secret desire, and keep it close to my heart. It is that I plug in the lawn mower and it does not work. ( And the strimmer went in a skip the year before.)

But I knew that this was a long shot.

I couldn’t do the garden the week before as Jen was in work and I had nobody to watch the kids-yes this came clearly under bullet point no.1: health and safety.

But Jen would be here this weekend, so I would be free to take up the struggle.

To be honest, I wasn’t worried. Not only was this a weekend, it was a bank holiday weekend. An absolute banker when it comes to bad weather. I paid lip service while keeping an eye on the Sky Sports schedule for the next few days.

Then I opened the blinds on Saturday morning.

Blue sky.

I closed the blinds and opened them again-still blue sky. The dandelions shone gold in the sun. Cue a desperate suggestion that has hitherto never appeared on my bullet point list before:

why don’t we wait until the dandelions turn into sugars for the kids to blow?

Weak I know, but I was desperate.  But then, way out of left field, my wife suggested I could always do it tomorrow as this weather was forecast to last. I snatched her hand off. Sucker-did she not know that this was a bank holiday weekend? No way it would last. Result.

Sunday morning, and the old open blinds routine: blue sky. My heart sank. Resistance was futile, I knew it, the wife knew it, the garden knew it. And besides, the kids wanted to play out. My strategy was reluctantly drawn, the time of commencement agreed. And then-salvation came in the form of visiting family.

Kill the fatted calf. Caffeinate the cups. Let the conversation flow.

It was unimaginable that I would stay out toiling in the sun while we had visitors. That would be  just downright bad manners.  I drew the conversations out, retraced reminiscing steps over long-covered ground. I got through the day by distraction.

And then- today. I woke up this morning knowing that this would be my last stand. My only hope lay in the weather.

It was sunny. Unbelievably sunny. Not only on a bank holiday weekend, but this-the bank holiday day. On the heels of the worst year on record it was totally unexpected. In resignation I retrieved the mower from where it had hibernated for the last eight months in the shed with the spiders.

I plugged it in, giving the switch a quick squeeze with little hope. Yep- it worked.

The skies were unobscured by cloud. The gate stood firmly shut against visitors. One last check of my mobile- no one was  offering an escape route. The long grass danced in great swathes of joy. I turned to see my family at the window watching, my son clutching a football, my daughter all smiles, my wife dreaming of a rockery.

More white knuckled than green fingered, I always knew that I would have to start sometime, it was always a question of how long I could string it out for.  And once I did it would grow back faster than ever. Time to pick up the mantle and the secateurs.

How soon the seasons pass. Better get on with it.

Just for future reference, does anyone know a good raindance?


Orkney is my most favourite place in the world. Haven’t been to the Knap of Howar yet, but it’s on the list.

Creative Industrial

Much of a recent windy week in Orkney was spent crawling on all fours through the low, extruded passages of Neolithic buildings. The abundance and integrity of structures dating to around 3,500 BC is mind boggling. However, sitting on a five thousand year old bench sheltering from the wind inside the Knap of Howar, I found myself idly wondering how I would arrange things if this were my house. The features of everyday life are easy to recognise in the hearth, work bench, bed box, partitions, even the Stone Age built-in storage wall. On the remote island of Papa Westray, the visitor is free to explore, occupy, experience and imagine unsupervised, unencumbered by interpretation boards and visitor centres, happening across ancient sites almost inadvertently whilst walking on the beach.

cuween hill cairn

The exposure, repair and presentation of these ancient buildings is emphatically archaeological rather than sociological or architectural. ‘Waste’ has been cut…

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London Postscript

“Enough of the birds!” was the title of an earlier post, taken verbatim from my wife’s exasperated refrain.”Enough of the birds! Write about something else!”

Well I feel the same way now about London. After documenting my three day trip and then my return to Wembley, I think I have posted about our capital city now ad nauseam. It is time to settle myself right back into more familiar territory.

Anchor myself once more in the Greater Manchester area.

Get gravy with my chips.

Sorted. Innit?

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But one final thought:

I am not saying the traffic in London is bad, but this local cab driver is able to get an extra  chapter in before he makes the lights.

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A commuter’s Hell.

A bibliophile’s Paradise.

And many hours spent watching the meter in Purgatory in between.

Now-put the meter on. Let’s head north.

My Community Mourns

As the world reacted with outrage at the news footage of the two men who butchered that 25 year old soldier to death in broad daylight on the streets of  London on Wednesday, the horror felt nationally turned to shock locally when we learnt that the soldier was from this town, indeed this very estate, on which we live.

Once Drummer Lee Rigby’s name was released, the realisation spread like wildfire.

Our town was immediately catapulted into the centre of the media eye as various news crews descended upon it. Satellite news vans currently line the street where my wife’s parents live. The playschool which my son attends has been closed today as the community centre that hosts it is acting as the focal point for the local residents to come together in mutual support and solace. At the sports centre a book of condolence has been opened for people to sign and leave sympathetic messages. British and English flags are beginning to be displayed from windows and car aerials.

I didn’t know Lee personally, but I know people who did. This is a typical neighbourhood where everyone is just one place away from knowing everyone else.

Nationally there has been reports of sporadic attacks on mosques, with demonstrations being mooted for the coming days.

But here in Lee’s hometown the first response was to gather together, offering prayers and lighting candles for Lee and in support of his family. His sister attended the vigil, and we were told that his family appreciated the community coming together on behalf of them and their son.

Emotions are understandably high at the moment, but the ideal that we strive to reach for must surely be one of peace. Peace starts with the individual. And the individual starts with inner peace.

In this town, this multicultural town, that has been rocked by this senseless, brutal murder, it is a thought we need to cling to as the initial shock wears off and anger gathers momentum.

I will leave you with two quotes from two individuals who were both proponents of the path of peace, but neither of them passively so.

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” – Gandhi

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King

These are sentiments that we should echo in what will be some difficult times ahead.

Our focus should be on Lee, his family, each other.


London Day Three: Neolithic Glimpses

This post has a higher word count than I normally commit myself to, but it is the images that I want to share with you all so please bear with me.

As a lover of history and archaeology, it is all about layers. Layers and eras.

The era that enthralls me the most is the Neolithic era.

The Neolithic really was the time when ‘we’ began to become ‘us’. Our hitherto continuous lifestyle changed to one more recognisable to us today. We left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind for a more settled way of life. With cattle and crops we adopted farming as the way to survive. We began to develop a relationship with the land, putting down roots. Burying our dead in monuments and tombs that we could re-visit and interact with, rather than just leaving them behind as we followed the migratory routes of our food sources.

Instead of merely experiencing the landscape, we began to change it.

I have visited many surviving, Neolithic stone sites in this country, from the famous Stonehenge in Wiltshire in the south, up through Castlerigg in Cumbria and Kilmartin in Scotland  to the most northern places in Orkney. They constantly draw me and effortlessly capture my wonderment and imagination.

From the Neolithic period there also survives countless examples of a creative and artistic culture- be it the strange symbols engraved on tombs whose meaning is now lost to us, the artwork painted  on cave walls, or the inscribed drawings on bone and tusk, all paling in comparison to the beautiful and exceptional sculptured figures that have been unearthed.

The reason I visited London was in order to see an exhibition entitled Ice Age Art: Arrival Of The Modern Mind, which was on at The British Museum.

Artifacts from all over the world had been gathered together in this one place and I was determined not to miss this opportunity to see them.  Sculptured models, jewellery and drawings representing people and animals, all on display side by side.

There were many examples of the depictions of animals and creatures that these early people  would have encountered, some familiar to us now, some long gone, like the mammoth.

People more artistic than I were gathered around the exhibits, sketching in notebooks copies of ancient drawings made on ivory and antler.

One such work is this drawing of two deer made on the lower leg bone of a reindeer around 12-14,000 years ago and found in France.

Two deer

Interesting though these artworks are, it is the carvings that really capture my interest, and I want to share some of my favourite ones here with you.

Here is the head of a Lion, (probably once attached to a full body) made of mammoth ivory, from Vogelherd Cave, South West Germany. It is around 35,000 years old. I wonder what the significance of the crosses are? Many such animal figures feature  markings like these. Do they convey a message that a contemporary observer would have immediately understood?


Here are ‘Swimming Reindeer’ made from mammoth ivory, from Montastruc in France. They are 13,000 years old, putting them at the end of the last ice age. The artist knew the animals that he created, and unlike some pieces that could have been created by anybody at that time with the inclination, this was the work of a gifted, competent individual, confident in his or her craft. As the only female deer that have antlers are reindeer, it makes identification of them certain. And amazingly, due to the female pelt and the fact that males normally lose their antlers after rutting, this depicted scene can be placed in November or December.

swimming reindeer

Stunning though these animal sculptures are, it is the human figures that particularly fascinate.

The Lion Man, below, made of  mammoth ivory, is from Stadel Cave on the Hohlenstein, Germany.  This is the world’s earliest figurative sculpture, at 40,000 years old. This piece shows that the person who created it, and the people who it was created for, were capable of imagination. This wasn’t a reproduction of a creature that these people were familiar with, such as the previous animal carvings we have seen, or the animals that can be found replicated on cave walls. This was an imagined figure, a lion with human-like characteristics. Did it have shamanic, symbolic purposes? What we can say is that this shows that the mind behind its creation was capable of new concepts, and not just of reproducing  known, familiar forms.


lion man face

Compare the similarities of the Lion Man’s head with the lion’s head at the beginning of this post.

Below is a male figure with articulated head and arms, made of mammoth ivory, around 26,000 years old. It was found placed on the skeleton of a man in a burial in Brno, Czech Republic. The body was surrounded by bones of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. With a vast number of other items discovered in the burial, the man was of obvious exceptional status. It has been suggested that he could have been a shaman. His skeleton showed signs of him having suffered a painful disease of the joints. Did his suffering and disability mark him out as special?

With movable limbs and head, this is a puppet-like sculpture. The head and torso have opposing holes allowing it to be moved with a stick, and seems also to have had movable limbs. Did the movement of this creation represent, or replace, his own limited movement, perhaps in the spirit world?

Perhaps the man buried was the ‘puppeteer’ of this figure, who used  it to enact certain stories or myths. The connection of man and puppet transcended death.

All we can do is speculate.


puppet shadow

In firelight, the use of shadows against a canvas tent, or cave wall, would have added a dramatic, theatrical sense.

Today we probably find puppet shows a bit tame, but in one of my usual moments of synchronicity I stumbled across this photograph of children at a  puppet theatre in Paris, 1963. Look at the reaction on those kids faces!

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(photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

The puppet must have had a purpose, and an intended audience.

The Lespugue Venus, below, is the figure of a woman, of mammoth ivory, found at Lespugue Cave in France. Incised lines indicate a long hairstyle falling onto her shoulders. This bowed-headed figure is famous as the work which fascinated Picasso, who owned two replicas of the piece.

How amazing that the work of an unknown, ancient artist can still inspire  artists today 25,000 years down the line.

Picasso woman Picasso woman two

This rear view seems to show some kind of skirt or apron hanging down from below the hips.

back view

This sculpted portrait head, below, probably broken from the body of a female image, is made again from mammoth ivory and was found in Brassempouy cave in France. At 25,000 years old, it is regarded as one of the greatest ivory masterpieces of all, and one of the earliest realistic representations of  a human face and hairstyle (although the hair has also been interpreted as a wig and a hood.)

It reminds me a little of a personalised chess piece.

Was this based on a real person who lived and breathed our air 25,000 years ago? It gives a limited sense of hairstyle, or headwear, of the time.


This last figure, below, is my favourite, I was drawn to return and study it once more when I finished viewing the exhibition.

Between 25 and 29,000 years old, this is the world’s oldest known portrait. It was found at  Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic. (Another figure found at this site was given a tomograph scan in 2004, and found to have the fingerprint of a child upon it, who must have handled it before it was fired. How great is that?)

It is a woman whose face shows a twist to the smile, and the left eye droops. Thinking back to the disability of that  man of Brno, associated with the puppet, could it be that this person was similarly marked out as special due to some type of birth defect or paralysis? Maybe it is the result of an injury in some dangerous encounter?

There has been a skeleton of a woman found in a burial at the site which shows evidence of serious injury to the head and left side of the face, from which she was helped to recover. Of course any connection cannot be proved-but it is intriguing to think that we could have the model and subject together.

I cannot help but look at this face and feel that I am looking at someone who actually lived 29,000 years ago. Just the very nature of the deformity to the face suggests this is not a ‘Goddess’ or archetype representation but a real, blemished, person.

Who were you? How did you live? What were your beliefs?


woman two

Remains discovered at this site shows other individuals with signs of disabilities, suggesting that the disabled underwent different burial practices to everybody else who were probably exposed to the elements and then scattered. Were they placed back into the womb of the earth and somehow ‘made right’, or given back to Underworld Gods that had made their mark on them by disfigurement? Were they set apart from everybody else, and given special, social status?

There is so much we don’t know. A lot of the artifacts in this exhibition were deliberately broken before being buried or placed in the caves or in the ground. Was this a way of signifying the end of their use to the living, and were broken to be made right in a similar fashion to the disabled? I think of places such as the  Barnhouse settlement that I have visited in Stenness, Orkney. After continual use for 700 years,  it was suddenly abandoned and was deliberately destroyed in the process, seemingly by its inhabitants. Was this a way of designating  it to be no longer of use to the people, and now it served as homes for the ancestors?

Are these carved figures now for the purpose of the dead? Items of importance for an Otherworldly voyage?

I find this period of our history fascinating-there is so much that we don’t know, but there are many hints and tantalising glimpses inviting us to try and make connections and understand the reasoning of our early ancestors, and how they experienced the world around them. Glimpses of expression that has passed down to us like an inspirational thread.

In my enthusiasm and insatiable curiosity, I  thought I would share such glimpses with you. There were many other items in the exhibition that I have neglected to highlight-maybe a future post, yes?

R.I.P Ray Manzarek

I was just about to retire to bed tonight when I heard of the passing of Ray Manzarek, the great keyboardist with The Doors and the main perpetuator of the Morrison-as-shaman myth.

The group formed after a chance encounter between Ray and Jim on Venice beach. History hinges on such casual, random moments.

I sometimes forget that all those from that psychedelic, hippy generation are now pensioners. The ones that got this far anyway.

Turning now to the great music that you left us.

R.I.P Ray.

From an old Doors fan- give my regards to Mr Mojo Risin’.

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