Mountains

Foratata

I’m missing the mountains. Which means it will be that much more wonderful when I get to walk in them again. Meanwhile, patience! Draw them. Close my eyes at night and walk down paths like this in my mind.

Path in the Pyrenees

We spend our summers out of Madrid, up in these great Pyrenean mountains and my wife and I notice within about a week how much of their calm and solidity they lend us. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, how they teach me not to worry about difficult current events. They’ve seen a thousand centuries of human troubles come and go – wars, famines, power-shifts, pandemics – they understand better than anyone that everything passes sooner or later. A year or two for us is like a second for them. So they smile quietly and seem to whisper, ‘patience, patience…’

Road to the Col D’Aubisque, France

Well, while we wait to get up to the Pyrenees again I’m reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, an absolute delight of a book. I’d forgotten how much I like reading a beautifully written travel book. I’d forgotten how much I like tales of the road. He took 3 months off to drive 10,000 miles around America aged around 58. He thought he’d lost touch with his country and wanted to get a feel for it again. Sounds like a very good idea to me.

I feel an urge to reconnect with the rawness of Spain that captivated me the moment I drove into this great country for the first time in 1997:

…ferry tickets led my friend Tom and I on a long drive to Spain, crossing the border from Andorra, high in the Pyrenees, on 31st of December, 1997. Nothing much at first. Just cloud cover, thick fog and isolated villages whose defining feature was rain. Then we picked out a tiny road on the map, the C1311, that would lead us in the right direction. Immediately the monotonous Pyrenean gloom cleared to reveal a precarious road perched on the edge of an infinite vista of arid, broken foothills that stretched scraggily into the distance – it looked like an image of the American Badlands. We passed a flock of thin, floppy-eared sheep, then spotted our first Spaniard, a shepherd, an ancient man squatting by the side of the road who raised an arm and smiled. I was smiling too, caught in the clutches of a fairy-tale landscape, entranced.

We drove all day, down from the mountains, over endless empty plains, past contours and colours I had never seen before, chiselled gorges shifting to endless horizons, fields of swirling purple and red earth – so un-Northern European, what happened when you crossed the Pyrenees? – and finally, in darkness, we arrived in San Sebastian.” (Excerpt from my book Errant in Iberia)

I owe a lot to the Pyrenees. That day, long ago, was like driving through a magic portal down into a completely different world that’s plotted my life out for me ever since.

Turner Sea and Skies

Our four-year-old’s Turneresque sea

The watercolour above, by our 4-year-old, sent me straight off looking for William turner paintings. I knew it reminding me of something…

It has elements of Turner’s wild, typhonic “Slave ship“:

The Slave Ship, William Turner

… of the motion of his Rain, steam and speed:

Rain, steam and speed, William Turner

And the peace of his Norham Castle, Sunrise:

Norham Castle, Sunrise, William Turner

If you can find it, I highly recommend Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr Turner with Timothy Spall, a fantastic film.

Funny, isn’t it. You can spend a lifetime learning how to paint the absolute rawness of nature – at its most peaceful or its most wild – like William Turner, or start your lifetime painting things that have just the same wildness or peace when you are four:

By our 4-year-old

Great Oaks, Invincible Summers

A Great Oak

One of my favourite ways to feel better is to draw a massive oak tree. Draw it right off the page. Fill it with strength and life. I highly recommend it.

I’ve been thinking about Albert Camus again a lot these days. His idea that in the face of the crazy absurdness of our existence, there is a wonderful response: get outside, stroll along a beach, play some football, enjoy the sunshine, and (when possible) have lunch at a cafe with a friend – basically enjoy life in whatever way the moment allows (more on this in my Being Happiness podcast ep.7 on the meaning of life.)

I’m sure you’ve read this quote of his: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” (from Return to Tipasa)

I feel like that these days. This is proving to be a hell of a winter, but we all have an invincible summer inside. It’s part of human nature, it comes in the pack! And it’s worth rediscovering. When I’m drawing oak trees, listening to lovely music, when I get outside for a walk, enjoy loving available company, play, write, enjoy a great meal, read wonderful books, lie in bed enjoying the sound of the rain, then I’m in touch with my invincible summer. I’m on the right track.

Sometimes a decision has to be made on waking in the morning. Tired, a little grumpy, lying there in bed, I think, “O.K., which way do you want this day to go? Grumpy or Happy?” And I think, “Happy”, and the effect is immediate. In fact it’s a question that can come up again and again throughout the day. The happiness choice can be made every time – if I’m lucky enough to remember in the moment that I do have that choice.

And days… each day is exactly all that we have got. This from the wonderful Awareness by Anthony de Mello (I really recommend listening to the very wise, very funny audiobook version, the original talks by him, you can get it on Audible):

“You want to hope for something better than what you have right now, don’t you? Otherwise you wouldn’t be hoping. But then, you forget that you have it all right now anyway, and you don’t know it. Why not concentrate on the now instead of hoping for better times in the future? Why not understand the now instead of forgetting it and hoping for the future? Isn’t the future just another trap?”

Yes! We “have it all right now“. The future is completely out of our hands, but how we deal with today isn’t. The capacity for wonder and joy and delight in any one given day is in our hands. Which way we turn, what we choose to let in, how we choose to live this day – our decision.

Most days I get it wrong and get lost somewhere along the way, but deep down I know this: that I don’t want to live with a furrowed brow. I don’t want to invite things in that are going to furrow my brow. I want to live brightly, pursue things that make me happy, read things that make me laugh (P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves is currently taking care of that) and have a good time. Why not? Really, why not? Camus got it – the world is mad, existence is completely bizzare – go and enjoy it!

I’ll end this post with another blooming great oak tree. Just like the invincible summer, within us all, there lies one of these as well.


Fiction: A Day Off – A Short Story from Madrid

I got an email from my son’s school:

Your son was not present at roll call this morning at 9 a.m.

Shit. Again. This had already happened about a month ago, twice in one week, we’d grilled him about it, but he wouldn’t tell us anything and we had no idea where he’d been or what he’d done. This new email indicated it might become a habit, and we needed to act more decisively. He was 12, way too young to be doing this sort of thing. I talked to my wife and we came up with a plan. If we knew where he was going, what he was up to, maybe we could act more effectively.

So when he got home that night, we said nothing about it, and the next morning, when he left the house, I waited about a minute, then followed him at a safe distance. He’s a headstrong kid, not taken to looking back, always moving forwards, so I knew I was pretty unlikely to get caught. It was he who was going to get caught today – red-handed, in the act – and I was feeling pretty excited about the prospect of that. I’d nab him. That would be the end of his skiving off school.

His route to school was as follows: walk 5 minutes to the local commuter train, get on it, head out into the suburbs four stops, get off, walk the remaining 5 minutes to his school. Where, I wondered, would he deviate? Or would he just go to school today after all? He got to the train station on time, me trailing behind, and wham, instead of going straight up the steps to the platform for his trip out to school, he crossed under the bridge, and ascended the steps to the opposite platform, where all the trains headed straight into the centre of Madrid – totally the wrong direction. We’re on! I thought, and went rushing up the steps behind him to collar him there and then and stick him on the train to school.

Continue reading “Fiction: A Day Off – A Short Story from Madrid”

Feathers

My daughter left this feather on the kitchen table this morning. She picked it up somewhere. It’s funny, usually I’m really grumpy about feathers, ‘They’re dirty! Leave them outside! Wash your hands!’ – mean-dad stuff. But today this feather got me out of a real funk. A Thursday-morning-existential-void. Actually, a grey-Thursday-morning-in-February-existential-void… doesn’t get more voidy than that!

Well, the feather seemed to be saying, ‘have you seen how lovely I am? And I’m just a feather. Nothing to do today, just sit here like this, being me…’

Yes, thank you! I thought, nothing extraordinary to do today, it’s February for goodness sake, just enjoy being, that’s already enough!

Fiction: Everything Will Be Alright – A Short Story

A long time into the Great Crisis, when people were fed up already and there seemed to be no end in sight, a billboard appeared on the main road into the city, with the following message in big, green, block capital letters: “Everything will be alright”.

Everyone who drove into the city, or passed in the train, could see this billboard, and for some it was a source of great solace, putting a smile on their face. For others it was something to sneer at, and their frown got deeper as they raced into town. But no-one missed it.

Soon, all of the empty billboards on all of the roads into the city (and there were many in those economically difficult times) began to display the same message, “Everything will be alright”, and when all of these were full, all of the spare outdoor advertising space in the city itself, every space you usually see ads, began to display the same message. When all of this space had been bought up, the message began to appear in newspapers, and on screens, and soon there wasn’t a person in the city that hadn’t seen it over, and over again, “Everything will be alright”.

Great debates started about the origin of the message. “It’s just some company, wait for the brand to appear behind it next”, people would say. “It’s probably some religious congregation, trying to sign us up”, others thought. Many took it at face value, didn’t care where it came from. In such horrible times they needed to hear it so much that they took it to heart, and looked out for the message everywhere they went.

Of course it became a subject of media frenzy. Talk show hosts asked politicians, stars, even the nation’s best philosophers, “Will everything really be alright?” Heated arguments were televised between those that smiled and said, yes, of course it will, and those who sneered and said, this is a gimmick, and who are you trying to kid?

Very soon, it seemed everyone had formed their own opinion or decided for themselves, whether in the end everything would be alright or not. And long after the media had got bored of it, and moved on to other things, the messages stayed up in and around the city, in newspapers and on screens, “Everything will be alright”. The people who really needed to hear it would look at the message day after day and feel gratitude, some would even weep, so desperately did they need to keep hearing this. The sneerers, meanwhile, began to feel unsure of themselves, and while pretending to ignore the messages, secretly glanced at them again and again as they passed them in the street, or flicked over them in their morning paper. They were quite unsettled by it.

Months passed and the Great Crisis continued, no end in sight. The messages not only stayed, but multiplied. Every bit of advertising space that became free displayed the same message. The media got involved again – there was little else to talk about, and this time investigative journalists doubled their efforts to find out who was behind it – the government (everyone agreed this was unlikely), big business, the Vatican? But the advertising agencies couldn’t, or wouldn’t say, and the origin continued to be a mystery.

What was certain was that a subtle change came over the city. People walked with a new lightness under foot. People smiled at each other more. The sneerers sneered less. Parents and school teachers shouted less at the kids. Everyone began to notice this and comment on it. “Is it the messages?” they asked. “I think it’s just the arrival of spring,” others replied, “that’s why everyone’s in a better mood, because the weather’s on the up”. Still, no one was sure.

One day, everyone woke up and discovered that all the signs all over the city had disappeared. They turned to their newspapers and screens, but the message appeared no more. Uncertainty invaded the city for twenty four hours, two days, three… The news picked up on it. Headlines appeared, “Will everything still be alright?” People imagined the unknown advertiser had run out of money. They felt disappointed and hurt. Even the sneerers, who had been sneering a little less these days, seemed to be a little put-out.

A week passed and no more messages appeared. All of the billboards in the streets stood empty, like a challenge, what now? What to believe? Which way are you going to go with this? Everyone was perplexed, and forced to look deeply inside themselves for an answer. I can’t tell you what they all felt, but I’m going to tell you about a conversation I overheard between a little girl and her father as they wandered through the streets.

She was about 5 or 6, and obviously very bright. She’d liked the billboards and the message very much, and since the day she’d first seen it, she’d skip along repeating it to herself over and over again, “Everything will be alright.” It made people smile when they saw her, pure childish joy coming down the street.

“Daddy,” she said, “where did the messages go? I liked them.”

“No one knows,” said her father, “they just disappeared”.

“Is everything still going to be alright?” she asked.

“I’m sure it is,” he said, “What do you think?”

She didn’t reply at once, and her father didn’t press her as she seemed to be deep in thought. They wandered into a plaza where a few people sat at a cafe terrace beneath low shade trees in front of a very old church.

“That church,” said the little girl, “is very old.”

“That’s right,” said her dad. “About 800 years I think.”

“It must have seen so many things,” said the little girl. “Like the mountains have. And the sun. They are so old they’ve seen everything… I think they laugh at us when we worry about things. They’d say, don’t worry, of course everything will be alright.”

“There’s your answer then!” said her father.

The girl wandered over to an empty advertising hoarding in the middle of the plaza.

“I’d like to paint colourful pictures of mountains and the sun and old buildings and put them up all over the city where the messages used to be,” said the girl. “Then we wouldn’t need those messages ever again, we’d just remember to look up at the sky, or at very old things, or big trees, all those things that have seen so much, and then we’d always remember that everything will be alright”.

They started walking again and turned down a side street, and every time they passed an empty billboard or advertising space she’d think of the nice picture of the sun or mountains or great trees or ancient buildings she’d put on it.

As soon as they got home, she pulled out her paints and got straight down to work. Within weeks many other children had joined her. An advertising agency offered them free outdoor space to display their pictures and help putting them up around the city. Of course, the media got hold of it, so other advertising agencies followed suit. Soon every billboard and hoarding and newspaper and screen were filled with bright, colourful children’s paintings, and by the time the Great Crisis ended, the city was full of colour and life.


Fiction: The Man On the Steps – A Short Story from Madrid

Madrid’s Retiro Park

On the steps up into the Retiro park, on the corner of the Glorieta de Mariano de Cavia, there was a man who sold secondhand books. Four short flights, the steps wound up under low hanging branches, that gave the entrance a tropical feel in summer, and the bookseller would sit half way up the steps in the hottest part of the day, or out in the open at the top in cooler weather and in the winter, when the sun would warm him on the coldest days. There was a low wall running the length of the steps, and off around the border of the park at the top, and after taking his books from a battered old suitcase every morning, he would lay them out along its length, and sit down next to them to read.

He always wore a thin, ancient suit, no tie, topped by a thick coat in winter, and after saying hello to him on my way into the park for many months, always pausing to check out his books, I became friendly with him and discovered his name was José. He wasn’t a pushy seller, and most people who wanted to buy one of his books – mostly old Spanish novels, the occasional art book – would have to rouse him from his reading to get him to tell them the price.

One day I decided to get rid of a lot of books from my house. I had about 500 books at home, and encouraged by Thoreau’s Walden to live a less cluttered life, I decided to release all of the one’s I’d read and thought I’d never read again. I thought of José, that I could give him the books and he could sell them on the steps. Getting rid of a lot of books is harder than it looks, and this seemed like an easy option. Clearly this was his only source of income and I thought he would appreciate some free stock, even if my books were mostly in English. I stuffed a plastic bag with fifteen or twenty and took them to the steps.

“I’m having a clear out of books, would you like these? They’re in English, but someone might like them.”

Hombre, claro,” he said, of course, and he took the bag and removed the books one by one, carefully laying them out on the steps. There were a handful of Orwell novels, books on writing, some Lorca translated into English, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and a big coffee-table book on Moorish architecture. This last one he seemed particularly pleased with.

Gracias!” he said, smiling with genuine gratitude. Great, I thought, a useful outlet for my old books. I told him I’d bring more the next day, and headed off for my walk around the park.

On my way home an hour later, I found him packing his suitcase. “Amigo!” he said, “I sold the big book about architecture 5 minutes after you left, for 20 Euros!” He was clearly delighted, and knocking off early.

“I’ll see what else I can bring you tomorrow,” I said, and went home to prepare another bag of books.

Continue reading “Fiction: The Man On the Steps – A Short Story from Madrid”

The View from the Window

The Neighbours Window

There is a beautiful house over the road from us. Huge plant behind the window in their front room. I’ve been meaning to draw it or paint it for weeks. Their window from our window. The tree in front. The leafless creepers on the wall. And that plant – it glows such a rich green in the morning light.

Today I had a day off, a late breakfast, and afterwards I stayed at the kitchen table and vowed not to move until I discovered what I really wanted to do today. Not just go and open the computer and do the usual fake-work admin cr*p I do when I don’t know what to do with myself. So I sat and waited and ideas kept popping into my head, and I’d knock them away, ‘no, don’t really want to do that… nope, or that…’ After about 20 minutes of this I thought about grabbing the iPad and painting the house opposite at last. Yes! I really did want to do that!

Dancing in the kitchen

In my A to Z of the great great joys of life D is for Dancing in the kitchen. Tonight it was some New Orleans Jazz. Glass of red wine. Taking some black and white pictures of the rain on the window, street-lights, reflections – making supper and dancing in the kitchen.

Put me in a mighty good mood…

“Dad’s very happy tonight!” – Yup!


The Joy of Walking with Trees

What joy yesterday heading out with the camera on my phone to walk and walk and take pictures of trees! My wife loves the deep blue sky in the photo above, but I’m a sucker for black and white:

What a delight to wander around looking at tree tops in the evening light…

Free joy! Available every day! No cost!

– “What’s the good news?” they ask the philosopher.
– “The beautiful lines in the winter trees.”