The treasure inside the nutshell: talent that goes unnoticed.

It’s interesting to think about talented people and to stop for a moment and really take in just how good they are, in terms of their skills being so much more than what we know as average. I often use myself as the average against which to compare others, but in many ways, I don’t even make the average mark.

I like running a bit, not a lot: I can run along a beach for a mile or so, simply because of the freedom and the fresh air and the sound of the sea – it sort of buoys me along. But at speed, or for the duration of a marathon? No way. I look at the Paula Radcliffes of this world with awe – I’d never be that good, not if I trained for a millennium. And other sports men and women amaze me: Trent Alexander Arnold is only 22 years old – do you remember that perfect corner kick against Barcelona? And look at Tour de France riders, each gruelling day in the heat and the mountains, and those scary descents? I’m not even average when it comes to a comparison with those fit and courageous people.

Let me try and find an average – I have an A level in Art. I’m an average painter, perhaps. Or I used to be – I’m way out of practice and I never considered myself to be particularly good. So, if I go to an art gallery, it doesn’t matter who I look at – Turner, Van Gogh, Tracey Emin – the artists have so much more skill than I do. Or Music – I love music, and I dabble very badly and inconsistently. Then I consider the skills of real musicians, classical, rock, jazz, and I’m way below average. Again, I’m awestruck by the jaw-dropping skills.

I’ve just read Sarah Winman’s novel, Still Life. Utterly gob smacked. She’s taken her writing to another level. True talent absolutely sings.

Which leads me to wonder whether those special people, those with huge talent, magnificent skills beyond us all, will always rise to the top. Talent always shines, of course. But is it necessarily the case that everyone will see it?

No, it isn’t. Van Gogh, the ‘misunderstood genius,’ only sold one painting in his lifetime. Emily Dickinson’s incredible poems were edited furiously to conform to society’s norms and then only seven of them were published. Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t afford food, and died an impoverished alcoholic, yet he was one of the first to introduce the world to his stylised detective-fiction stories. My favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, published only a few of his poems during his brief life: he died of typhoid in 1889, his last words being ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’ He was bipolar and had battled depression. But his poems are stunning.

So, it follows that there are some super-talented people out there who are seldom noticed. At least Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson became famous for their genius, albeit after they had died. But there are many incredibly talented people whose skills remain unsung. I’m sure of it – I taught theatre to so many kids who had no idea of their potential and little in the way of self-belief to push beyond the expected ceiling they felt kept them and their expectations low.

My brother is one such person – a blinkered secondary school ignored his many abilities. He can do things that amaze me, both in terms of painting and engineering and in logical thinking, but of course that goes unrecognised when the only expectation of a  student is to be quiet, to conform and to copy from a book. No wonder he was a rebel.

And there’s a friend of mine, whose name I won’t mention as it will embarrass him. We worked together for years. He was a lowly paid technician and jack-of-all-trades who was asked to perform appliance tests and fix small electrical faults. But on sports days, open days, publicity opportunities or at theatre events, a huge burden of work was thrown at him because of his talent, because he was the only one capable of shining. It was seldom recognised, apart from a bit of fleeting thanks or a brief flurry of quickly-forgotten compliments, but the man was a genius. He produced lighting sets, films, recordings of exceptional quality without the proper equipment; sometimes he resorted to using his own equipment, or even having to buy it. The world took him for granted. ‘Oh, could you just… it will only take a minute.’

Then this exceptional man, a gifted musician, a film maker in his own right, would be given a mammoth task, a short deadline, no financial recompense, no change of status, and he’d come up with breath-taking work beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He was way, way beyond the average, and he certainly surpassed his pay grade and everyone’s expectations. Let’s hope he’ll be remembered for it properly at some point…

Unsung geniuses are amongst us everywhere. They may seem insignificant to others, like the small kernel of a nutshell, but they are made of solid gold. I could mention a musician I know who is such a focused maestro he can’t operate a mobile phone. I know writers, actors, editors, teachers, nurses, engineers, people whose gifts are magical and a joy to behold, and yet these people remain humble, unaware of the extent of their gifts and often underappreciated.

So, this blog post is for you all, those of you who maybe don’t even know how special you are, how strongly your gifts shine, how you are so far beyond the average, you are solid gold, you are diamonds. I can’t remember who said it, but this quotation puts you right up there, where you should be. And thank you for sharing your gifts – you make the world a wonderful place.

‘Skill reaches the ceiling, talent reaches the mountaintop, excellence reaches the sky, but genius reaches the stars.’

The Egg

This week I finished writing a novel, some 97, 000 words that I’m quite pleased with. It’s a story of a woman and her neighbour on a quest to discover something new after a life-changing event, and it contains a secondary character I love to bits, an impressive lady who speaks her mind and is very focused on getting what she wants, which is all honourable and for the good of everyone. I’ll say much more about that particular novel later.

Then a new idea for a story came to me this morning, the tale of three very different women who emerge from various incidents together to discover a new future. I don’t want to start it yet – I want to think about it and let ideas bubble. So in the interim, I’m reading a lot of very different books – I have a pile of five novels I’m going to enjoy over the next week. Then I’m extending my time in the gym, walking in the spring sunshine (despite the cold), and scribbling a bit.

I belong to two writing groups and this gives me the opportunity to create new bits and pieces, scribbling over lunch time cups of tea or in the spaces between reading and planning a new idea. I like trying out new thoughts and different styles, so here’s a bit of verbage I wrote based on a picture my daughter painted. It’s about a mythical creature, or rather, the beginning of one. It’s probably a metaphor too. We’ve all been locked down for far too long…

Sending best wishes. xx

The egg

The ocean is like glass, the surface still, soundless, stretching to the horizon.

Then in a flurry, a sudden movement disturbs the silence, a ripple, a whirling funnel of water, and the egg falls, leaden, heavy, until it sinks and settles on the seabed.

In the murky light, the egg lies on sand, undisturbed.

A fish darts past unaware, another, larger, in pursuit.

The egg sits, perfectly round, alabaster white tinged blue, pink flecked, the size of a fist.

At the bottom of the sea, the water is darker.

Everywhere is vast, gloomy, graveyard-still: the egg is motionless.

But beneath the shell’s hard surface is the scratching of a small hoof, nail scraping against a hard wall, a fast rasp.

It stops.

There is no sound, just silence, a pause, then a repeated grating sound rattles inside, solid against solid, a persistent tap-tap.

The beginning of a crack appears, an imperceptible fissure in the egg’s smooth perfection.

For a moment, an intake of a breath holds, there is nothing, then a frantic chipping, a harder kick, the shell wall splinters open and the sides of the egg shatter in two, like breaking porcelain.

A damply white creature stands on four weak legs in the centre of the shards.

Wide eyes blink once, then she stretches her neck, lifts nimble hind quarters, tries for the first time to unfold skeletal wings.

 She staggers, one step, another, and pauses, sinking back on soft thighs.

Gazing around underwater, she breathes out bubbles, then she blinks, snorts pearl droplets through black bead nostrils, and tries her wings again.

They unfurl like wide fabric, pushing water, extending above her head, and suddenly her legs are firm and she stands, white furred, feather winged, strong.

One leap, hooves sinking back into sand, and she is up, cutting through the ocean, slicing the surface, water becoming clean air in her lungs.

She is swimming, surging forward, then her wings spread and she lifts up, away from the ocean, a creature of sea and sky, leaving foam splashes of surf in her wake.

 Airborne, she strives for the sun, wings beating, clouds above and below, her eyes wide.

She is free and her future is open as the bright skies.

Appreciating ‘Dappl’d Things’ during lockdown

During the difficult lockdown moments when the sun isn’t shining and the world looks quite bleak, when people no longer have a reliable source of income and they can’t buy some foods or they have to queue at a distance to get them; when we all miss the simple things like going out for a coffee with a friend or watching the sport on TV, I find one of the best answers is to try to engage in some positive thinking.

I’ve always thought it was a good thing to make a list of positives when we feel a bit low, and there are some definite positives at the moment, one of which has to be the glorious weather we have been enjoying these past few weeks. I’m also enjoying reading wonderful books and watching a serial on TV I’ve never had time for in the past. I’m getting lots of writing done and there is time to tend to the garden, to listen to music, to go for long walks and to stop and think about and discuss the fascinating issues our communities are faced with right now.

Two of the many things I love and am most grateful for are words and nature. I’ve always been fascinated by words and languages and I enjoy reading and writing poems, blogs, songs and articles where I try to choose the right words for the right effect. Being able to walk outdoors in nearby woodlands gives me time to think and often words and ideas come to me and start to gel into some sort of plan. 

Yesterday, I was walking in my favourite stretch of woodland when I came across a dappled area, where the trees were filtering the sunlight on the grass and I began to think about how much I love dappled things. It’s the idea that something isn’t just one colour: everything is marked with darker spots or rounded patches, dark against light. I began to think of other dappled things that are beautiful: horses, cows, cats. Shakespeare uses the word ‘brinded’ to mean dappled, patterned or tabby, as in the witch’s line ‘thrice the brinded cat hath mewed’ in Macbeth. It’s that shade again, light on darker brown, a mottled effect.

Then as I trudged through the dappled glade, I thought of my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote Pied Beauty, a lyric poem or curtal sonnet praising God for creating beautiful variegated things. His poem implies that the world is transitory; he suggests that  everything in the universe is destined to end or alter apart from the unchangeable beauty of God. It struck me that, whatever our religious beliefs, the poem is apt. We live in uncertain times and yet nature is always there for us and, of course, we need to take good care of it in return.

What I love most about Hopkins is his striking choice of language and the ‘sprung rhythm’ he uses when he writes, a clever use of stressed and unstressed syllables. For great examples of this, look at the poems The Windhover and God’s Grandeur by Hopkins. I love the way he uses powerful words that have visual impact; he uses language cleverly, selecting evocative words and choosing effective repetition such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme. 

A Victorian poet, Hopkins’ life was tragic. He went to Balliol, Oxford, a promising academic. He became a Jesuit priest; he was probably bipolar and never published his poems in order to subdue any feelings of egotism. He was forty four years old when he died of typhoid in Dublin. Despite bouts of severe loneliness and melancholy throughout his life, his reported last words were: ‘I am so happy, I am so happy, I loved my life.’

Against this background of sadness and self-denial, Hopkins’ love of nature and his religious fervour, which is often written so powerfully that it seen akin to physical or erotic love, is astonishing. The Windhover, for example, parallels the flight of a bird of prey and the glory of Jesus’ life and crucifixion: it is a poem rich in symbolism: the bird buffeted in the wind is a metaphor for Christ’s divine revelation to mankind.

I digress: this blog post is about a walk in the woods, thinking about words and looking at pretty colours from the sun as it filters through the trees to the shadows on the grass. Dappled things are wonderful to look at and, during these times when pasta and rye flour may be in short supply, you will find me down in the woodlands walking in a glade where the sunlight falls onto the ground in attractive blotches. 

The poem below will explain it much better than I can and I hope you will enjoy Hopkins’ choice of language as much as I do. Whether the reader is religious or whether he or she just likes a good walk outdoors and enjoys the feeling of being immersed in nature, it is a poem that might bring inspiration or even comfort in these troubled times.  

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things 

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced –

fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

 

Dappled 2

Mellow Fruitfulness

It is autumn now. There is something new, something sharp, a scent of change in the air every morning and the fields are damp. A soft mist rises and leaves are already falling from trees. Autumn is a time when, if it’s not raining, it’s good to go for a walk and breathe cool air, watch crows whirl and pull clusters of blackberries from the prickles to take home and cook into something delicious, courtesy of autumn.

Or it’s a time to sense winter’s first ice on the wind and contemplate the bite of the cold, whether the central heating will work this year and then start to chop firewood.

Summer months are long and fickle, some days gloriously warm, some much less so, but although the weather controls much of what we do – and it’s at this point that it’s appropriate to remember those people whose lives are caught up in storms,  hurricanes, avalanches and forest fires – we are lucky that we can decide whether we allow the weather to dominate our moods and actions.

Pathetic fallacy is wonderful in literature –the storms on the moors in Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein‘s violent lightning, Ophelia’s broken willow branch in Hamlet –but of course, it is a fallacy. Nature isn’t a metaphor for human emotions.

I went for a walk last Thursday, a three mile stroll along the country lanes, and the rain was drumming on the hood of my coat, but it was exhilarating. It’s interesting how the imagination works in time with the rhythm of squelching footsteps, and how new ideas form when we force our heads to become empty. Ted Hughes’ brilliant poem  Thought Fox explains it so well: prints begin to form in the mind and then on the blank page at the point when we don’t force them.

Image result for Fox in snowMy thoughts during the walk drifted to think about people who will find the winter’s temperatures challenging. People who live in damp accommodation, who can’t afford heating bills. Many people have nowhere safe to live: communities who travel are in need of warmth and welcome; those who are homeless are really at the mercy of the elements. For those of us who are fortunate, winter is about log fires, toasted crumpets, steaming mugs of hot chocolate and it is precisely that feeling of being safe, warm and comforted which we all need. As the cold weather approaches, wherever we live in the world, adequate food and clothing are important, shelter, someone to visit and talk, to help break the monotony of loneliness.

My garden has a great quantity of fruit this autumn and I have a freezer full of stewed apples. I’ve given bags away, to friends, relatives, the Amazon driver, anyone who will benefit. My neighbour has a bowl of Bramleys at the bottom of the lane, for anyone who wants them. And that really is a metaphor, sharing our abundance with those who have none.

When winter comes, being cold is part of the fun. We all hope for snow: not the snow which is hazardous to drivers, but the white drifts which pile high in the hills and we can walk for miles, our breath like mist, and go tobogganing on tin trays and come home with red cheeks and melting clumps of ice on our boots. Winter is not to be feared, as long as we look out for each other.

Of course, if we are lucky with our health, another spring will come around. Crocuses will peep through the hard soil, the pale sun will deepen to a rich yellow and then summer will be with us again. There will be more apples to share, more long evenings around the barbecue with friends and more days strolling on the beach with that special person.

So each moment, whether warm or cold, is to be welcomed, embraced and enjoyed. We are fortunate if we can watch drizzle from the warmth of a room, behind a window, our feet too hot against the radiator.

I spend a lot of time writing during the winter months . My desk is in front of the window and I can see pigs, sheep, fields, trees, brambles. The pylon. I spend a lot of time not looking out of the window. On the computer screen, the thought fox is pressing its little prints on the keyboard and there are pictures, images, ideas, wild and whirling words. But when I glance up and see the rain battering the glass or the grey sky hanging like a tarpaulin, I realise I’m lucky. I can always go and put the kettle on, sit in front of the fire, have a cup of tea.

Image result for log fire and crumpets