Some thoughts on reacting and contemplating and the bipolarity of life

openhouseforbutterflies18 Image via Brainpickings.

We’ve run out of coffee so I went out with Gerry this morning (it’s Saturday, he’s going to the market) to get a cappuccino. As I walked back a thought struck me about stress, about reacting and contemplating. I’m in a reactive phase right now, I’m a pinball pinged around from one task to the next. The fact that all of those things are interesting and give me joy is irrelevant. What struck me in a cloud of coffee fumes in the elevator was the bipolarity of life.

There are periods when a lot happens, when life rushes by as stream of things to do and days disappear without you even really knowing how. Later, when you find yourself in a slightly quieter phase and look back at these periods they take on a golden shimmer, you remember them as life being lived fully, the rawness of it, the back-against-the-wall-coming-out-fighting, it all seems a lot better later on. They become periods of action and laughter and stress and tears.

But how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard writes, so are why the periods of busyness are the ones I enjoy the most?

What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

“It’s a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time”, that’s what it means to be busy. It protects us from the big picture.

Then there are periods when the stream dries out, the wind stops blowing and time rolls on like tumbleweed. These are occasional contemplative phases, weeks and months when the cogwheels jam and work is slow. There is time to think, to contemplate, to read, to look behind you and to look ahead. Sometimes these are sad periods, sometimes they are soft and philosophical. After a while of slowness my mind starts gnawing on itself, I worry, invent bad things, I become anxious and then I’m gratefully plunged back into a period when everything happens at once and there is enough going on for me to stop ruminating.

It’s feast and famine, it’s sowing and harvest and the quiet winter months. Perhaps this is simply the bi-polarity of life. Perhaps this is only my life, or the life of the self-employed. What I need to remember is that a period of action is normally followed by a period of inactivity. Then the cycle starts again and I remind myself how lucky I am to be alive.

A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live. – Bertrand Russell on boredom.

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Hello coffee, right now you’re my very best friend

coffeeeee Image via pinterest.

So, life. Sometimes everything happens at the same time. And then it all stops. And then it all goes a bit mad again. At the moment I’m still in a period of “everything-happens-at-once-ness”. I’m sure it can get worse, I’m sure it’s possible to be even more stressed, but I’d rather not spend too much time thinking about that. I’m actually quite happy, as long as there is coffee around.

Here are a couple of things I’ve done lately:

– Seen Richard III in Leicester.
– Done a lot of frowning while figuring out how to write an extensive piece on the UK economy (I’m looking into the productivity gap, it’s very interesting).
– Tried to prepare for our up and coming trip to Japan. We’re leaving in two weeks!
– Served gin and tonics at the opening night of Gerry’s show at the Long White Cloud – go and have a look at it if you’re in Hoxton, the prints are up for two weeks (and there is excellent coffee).
– Upped my caffeine intake significantly.
– Googled art studios in London as we’re losing our lovely place next to Hackney Road. Developers have bought the land. They’re kicking everyone out and we have to leave. It’s sad. It’s life. We move on.
– Finished my third ever fiction manuscript. Not sure what will happen to it yet. My first book should probably have stayed in the drawer, the second one I still need to edit. And now that I’ve finished a third one I’m itching to start a new project. Writing makes my mind purr.

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A very British murder or why I love detective fiction

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There was a woman on the platform at Hackney Downs this morning. I looked at her for a while. She was well dressed, fashionable, her coat looked expensive (although I can’t really tell these sort of things). Her roots were showing, badly, half her hair was blond, the other dark. Why would someone who was otherwise so stylish leave it like that? Perhaps she was growing it out, perhaps it’s some trend that’s passed me by. It made me wonder and I came up with the seed of a plot, a woman found dead in expensive clothing with roots showing, not many people might make a big deal out of it, but some would, the right kind of detective would. That would be the small detail that makes the case.

I’m thinking about these things because Gerry and I watched a great three part documentary about the history of British detective fiction. It’s presented by historian Lucy Worsley and looks at how the British fascination with murder started in the 1800s, re-telling the stories of famous cases and finally examining why crime novels became so popular between the wars, the period known as the golden age of detective fiction.

That’s when Agatha Christie started writing her books. That’s when the detection club for British mystery writers was formed. It was a secret society in a town full of them. You had to swear allegiance to the club by placing your hand on a skull. It was all quite eccentric, British, funny. These were writers who didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously.

There was even a list of rules for them to follow.

  • The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  • All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  • Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  • No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  • The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  • The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  • The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Agatha Christie inside the library at Greenway House. Image via pinterest.

I love this type of detective fiction, it’s my guilty pleasure. I have read most of the Poirot books and I would happily read them again. There is something so satisfactory about the neat endings, about there being a solution. Christie and her peers gave their readers comfort. Their great detectives could make sense of the most horrible of crimes, they offered a sense of calm and an escape in a world that was sometimes frightening and chaotic.

This is what some crime and detective fiction still does. It shows us darkness, but leaves us with a happy ending, a solution, a feeling that things might be OK after all.

I read somewhere that crime writers are amongst the jolliest to hang around at literary festivals, presumably because they exorcise all their anger, fear and sorrow in their books. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s a pretty cool thought.

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You don’t know the whole story yet

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A couple of days ago I stumbled across this taoist tale on the internet. I’ve read it before. Sometimes, when I was younger, I thought this was an annoying attitude to life. Why can’t the old farmer just get excited and happy. Now, when I’m older and going through a period when things are stressful, sometimes confusing and there is a lot of change happening in the lives of some of my loved ones, I think this is a pretty comforting and lovely piece.

An old farmer had a horse. One day it ran away and his neighbours offered sympathy.“What bad news”, they said.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied, “but we don’t know the whole story yet.”
The next day the horse returned, bringing with it three wild mares. The neighbours said: “What great news!”
The farmer simply said: “Maybe, but we don’t know the whole story yet.”
The next day the farmer’s son was thrown by one of the mares while trying to tame it, and broke his leg.
“What bad news,” the neighbours said.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied again. “We don’t know the whole story yet.”
The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to draft young men into the army. They took away all the neighbours’ sons, but left the son of the farmer because he was unable to walk.
The neighbours were desolate at losing their sons, who they feared would go off to die in a war, and were envious of the farmer because he still had his son at home.
But the farmer said, “Let us all wait and see what happens – we don’t know the whole story yet.”

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London’s lost rivers

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A while ago i stumbled across a book about the rivers that used to run through London. This place was once criss-crossed by streams and rivers leading to the Thames. Over the years many of them have been drained, pushed underground, hidden and destroyed. But some are still there, underneath our feet.

hidden rivers in london Image via pinterest.

The Tyburn

The river Tyburn, runs from Hamptstead through Regent’s Park towards the heart of the city, Mayfair, Green Park and Westminster. There is also a bit underneath Buckingham Palace where its path is unknown.

In the middle ages Oxford Street used to be called Tyburn Road and some suggest the river crosses the street in the area around Marbel Arch, where the road has a small dip.

The river has also been spotted in other places. When Grays antiques on Davies Street was renovated in the 1970s a stream was supposedly discovered running through its basement. Apparently the river can still be found in said basement, complete with goldfish.

The outfall into the Thames can be seen west of Vauxhall Bridge, where a plaque lists the river’s route.

fleet street Image via pinterest.

River Fleet

This is perhaps the best known of London’s hidden rivers. It also flows from Hampstead Heath and in to the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. It was a major river in Roman times and is named after the Anglo-Saxon word fleot, which means estuary. Now days it’s slightly less majestic and exists as a large underground sewer.

What’s left of the river flows down through Camden Town and continues to King’s Cross, beside the church of St Pancras, which is said to be one of Europe’s most ancient sites of Christian worship, dating back as the early fourth century.

After King’s Cross the Fleet follows the line of King’s Cross Road, down to Farringdon Road to the Thames where it spills into river from an anonymous arch hidden beneath Blackfriars Bridge.

When the Metropolitan Line was built in 1862 the river was buried under Farringdon Road, supposedly you can still hear water through a grating in the front of the Coach and Horses pub on Ray Street.

london's lost rivers Image via pinterest.

River Walbrook

The Walbrook is one of London’s shortest rivers and it’s a bit of a mystery. I’ve included it here because it’s one of the old rivers that run through the areas of London I know well. It’s not clear where it once flowed, but it’s thought to have started somewhere near the junction of Curtain Road and Holywell Lane in Shoreditch.

It’s possible that Shoreditch was named after a sewer ditch which flowed into the Walbrook. Like most of the city’s old rivers it’s now a sewer.

For more information about London’s rivers check out the London’s Lost Rivers website.

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