Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day One

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day One

As a form of gentle preparation for Christmas, I hope to post a short piece daily, either prose, poetry, a picture or possibly a story. They might be deep, they might be light, funny or even shallow (at first glance)

Day One:

Simple things:

Little oranges, easy-peelers, satsumas, clementines, mandarins.

I’ve never been able to peel oranges. Each time I try, it separates nail from nail bed and I end up with sore fingers. But the little citrus fruits that appear in the shops during late November and into December are a boon. Each perfect sphere is filled with zest and juice and I can actually get into them. The spurt of essential oils fills the room with bright, vibrant scent that up lifts and cheers; the taste, tangy and sharp but sweet and refreshing at the same time. Once so expensive they were the fruit only royalty could afford, I can buy them by the box load and eat five or six at a sitting. Once, when we had a wood-burning stove, I would dry the peel on the step of the stove and the fragrance of toasting orange peel filled the house. In a few days it was dry and brittle but still packed with volatile oils, it acted as a natural fire-lighter when I came to get the fire lit of a winter evening. We take them for granted now, but to find one at the end of a Christmas stocking was a joy to many in the past. There’s usually a huge bowl of them in my living room over the festive season, complete with their deep green leaves, the sheen disappearing as they dry out. An orange is used to symbolise the world in the lovely Christingle services: a red satin ribbon around the middle, a candle in the top and the fruit itself studded with small sweets, raisins and sometimes monkey nuts.

Museums of the World ~ Museum of Perfume Bottles

I’m going to start collecting pictures of museums, especially unusual ones and the following one I found in La Rochelle. I didn’t go in, largely because I was unsure if there was an entrance fee and I had a humungus backpack on and was sure I’d break things….

I collected perfume bottles in my dim and distant youth; I have some rare and possibly valuable ones hidden away. I wish I’d dared to go in…but I am sure the museum would have been relieved that I didn’t. Bulls in china shops are nothing in comparison…..

(edit: for all those who happened here trying to find Perfume museums of the world, try googling the Fragonard one in Paris. I know it exists as I drove past it )

La Source ~ the wellspring

Springing up….

Or showering down…?

I am fascinated by water in all its manifestations and this exhibit called La Source (The Wellspring) was mesmerising as it changed colour as it flowed….

Eglise Notre Dame-La-Grande ~ Poitiers

This amazing place is the church in the centre of Poitiers. Originally most churches were painted like this during the Middle ages, but few have the paint still intact. The pillars, walls and ceiling are painted in geometric designs of great complexity and colour, and though the paint is not as vivid as it once must have been, it still dazzles.

The front of the church is carved in beautiful depictions of Bible scenes and at night colours are projected onto it to simulate how it looked before time and weather washed the paint from the facade.

Outside in the square musicians were playing a medieval style music with modern instruments and equipment and I shivered. Poitiers has a long association with the Troubadours, and these men had filled the same role.

A lovely afternoon, and I’d love to go back one day and explore properly.

To boldly go….

 This is my entry into Shafali’s Story telling carnival;

To boldly go…..


The director’s voice carried sharply over the clatter of the set and the cast seemed to slump at the word.

OK, everyone, take five. It’s looking good!”

Most of the cast shuffled off in search of doughnuts, coffee and in at least one case, a double vodka, but Jemima stayed put, happily ensconced in the captain’s chair. Unwilling to leave a place it had taken her so long to reach, even for a much needed break, she shifted her posture and let her body relax. Her role required that she sit with ramrod straightness but the rigid plastic moulding of the chair meant her tail-bone would be rubbed raw if she didn’t shift a little. She considered asking for a cushion but it wasn’t something her character would use, so perhaps it would be refused.

It had taken so long to get here, in so many ways. So many miles, so many bitter disappointments and let-downs too. She would have graduated top of her class at stage school were it not for the prejudice of the tutors.

To put it bluntly my dear,” said the principal. “For a woman, actual acting ability makes no odds at this age. It’s all about looks. And yours, well, what can I say?”

She had hidden her tears and soldiered onwards, taking on role after role that typecast her as ugly and evil. Often the only work she could find was as an extra in horror movies. Landing her first speaking part (and in “Lord of the Rings”, too) was a triumph; but it was tempered by the bitterness of knowing she’d so wanted to play an Elf, or a Hobbit at the least. The make-up girl had carelessly remarked she liked “doing” Jemima as she didn’t need quite so much make up or prosthetics to fit her for her role as Orc as many of the others did.

Of course it was only a matter of time before she moved into sci-fi. The beautiful bimbos who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag would have brief and scantily clad roles and then vanished once their looks lost their freshness. But character actors like herself flourished as they just improved with age and experience. In this film, her character had sufficient screen time and lines to count as a major character and for the first time her name would be up their in the credits as Co-star. Hmmm….Co-staring Jemima Riddick. It sounded great to be up there with the big names and not lost in the small print at the tail end of the credits.

The make-up was itching and her prosthetic ears were burning her real ones; the glue was sometimes a serious irritant to sensitive skins like hers. But that was a small price to pay. Other roles had required that she shave her head and she’d been glad to be able to have her own hair and not even a wig for this one.

To tell the truth, she was amused at once again playing an evil villain. It was hysterically funny that human beings still equated beauty with goodness and ugliness with evil, or it might have been had not this misconception led to tragedy on grand scales. The witch hunts for example had claimed vast numbers of females whose only crime was to be old and unattractive. She was so glad she had not been here then; there had been progress of sorts in the intervening centuries.

In her last report she’d said so too, but had also added that it was still so far from the kind of world her people would ever wish to work with.

Perhaps another five or so hundred years,” she’d written at the end.

In the meantime, she’d grown rather fond of this barbarous little planet and had elected to stay a little longer and see it progress. Her acting career was really starting to blossom and unlike her colleagues who’d worked here during the witch-hunt era she faced nothing worse that ridicule and obscurity if she failed completely.

One day these naked apes would grow up enough to understand that what was inside a person was what mattered, not the exterior, and in the meantime she intended to enjoy the many innocent pleasures this little planet offered. That included the art of film-making and she intended to make her mark on this world and show the folks back home what a gal from the wrong end of the nebula could do with a bit of time and patience, not to mention hard work and persistence.

Of course, she could have chosen a more pleasing exterior to start with; there had been plenty in the catalogue. It had been done many times in the past and humans had dubbed them angels or gods, worshipped them briefly and then more or less disregarded them. This way was longer and harder, for sure, but she and her people were in no real hurry. Unlike Penelope Cruz, she had all the time in the world; back home she was barely considered adult yet. It was very much the thing, doing a gap year working with the under-privileged and disadvantaged.

The cast were mooching back onto set and Jemima snapped her spine back to it’s correct stance and waited for the director’s orders.


Inwardly, Jemima smiled and twisted her face into its trademark scowl and started barking out orders to her crew. If only they knew how a starship was really run….!

Grow your own gorgeousness

Grow your own Gorgeousness (now on Amazon) 

A gorgeous review of a truly awesome book by a truly wonderful lady.

I’m a bit jaded when it comes to books. I don’t get a thrill any more out of that whole sensuous thrill of the new book smell and the crackle of paper. It might say something that the only books I truly enjoy buying these days are empty journals with fabulous covers and a wide expanse of empty clean pages just waiting for something profound and wonderful to be written down on them. I have enough of these stacked up to prove my liking is growing into an obsession and yes, most of them remain unsullied by my pen and remain as beautiful voids.

I used to be a real book lover, believing that a book is something sacred. In recent years I came to revise that thought and believe them to be simply vessels for information alone, whether it is for stories or for more prosaic use like recipe books. The book had for me ceased to be something to be cherished as a sacred thing.

Until a few weeks ago, that is.

On to my door mat there flopped a parcel containing a book that redeemed book-kind from the mundane, paper and ink containers they had become.

At first I gazed at the hand-painted cover and didn’t dare open it. It was bigger than I expected, heavier and somehow, dare I say it, weightier. I felt like a neophyte at the temple, watching the priestess at her work and sneaking a peek into the Holy Book.

Opening it, I began to read and felt a tiny sea-change in my psyche just by the process of reading. You know the magic books read in The Mummy movies? Like that but good… I can’t explain it easily but there was real earthy raw magic in this book, the kind that gives your spine a little tingle and gives you butterflies in the tummy when you thought you were too old for that kind of thing.

The premise for the book is that we are being diddled out of our true beauty and life-force by what author and artist Bethan Stritton calls The Dangling Carrot of Ideal Beauty and we deny our own unique and very special beauty because of it. And make ourselves very miserable into the bargain.

If I could only get into a size 8 jeans….”

If only I had perfect skin…”

If only my hair weren’t so unruly/fine/thick/grey….”

If only I were taller/shorter….”

I bet you all have a few of these wails you have said at some time or other. I have. I do, daily.

But this marvellous book is not a self help guide or a fitness get-into-those-size-8-jeans guide. Nor is it a Chicken Soup for the soul style book. It’s a book that defies category or genre or type or anything but one word:


It doesn’t tell you How to, or should or must or any of that stuff we’re all sick of. I’ve read and thrown away a dozen books of that sort. I never even look at them now because I feel it’s probably hopeless and I’m a lost cause. In essence Grow your own Gorgeousness simply tells you this:

You are beautiful.

See it, accept it.

And with the words(which are handwritten and smudged in places) and the hand drawn illustrations), comes something I didn’t think was possible:


It’s a very tiny hope, I admit. For three days after I first read it, I managed to look in the bathroom mirror without loathing myself quite so much. I’m a tough case and it’s going to take a while but while I have this book on my knee now, I can feel that hope seeping back into me and maybe, I will begin to accept myself and love myself.

This is a book for anyone who doesn’t feel quite as they would like to about themselves. It’d be a good book for a new mum, who is worrying that her stretch marks. Or for your mother when she’s feeling that while grey might be the new black, it just isn’t what she wants. Or for yourself for those dark days when you feel that there are slugs who are more lovely than you are.

My husband took it to show the women he works with and they were all blown away by it and all want to buy copies and give them to sisters and best friends as Christmas presents.

Throw away your scales and snuggle up in an armchair by the window instead. We are bright, inquisitive, powerful women. We can choose to turn away from the Dangling Carrot of Ideal Beauty and get some peace..or just a cup of tea.”

This is NOT a book for the nit-pickers, the spotters of lint and dandruff on the collars of others, or those with manicured nails who look down on those of us with clipped nails and rough palms or those who like their books glossy and perfect and homogenised and STANDARD. It’s raw and earthy and imperfect but all at the same time it is complete and itself and astonishingly attractive both in its sensuality as a book and the philosophy is expounds.

It’s simply Gorgeous….

Swallows Wings and Sparrows Falling


Swallows wings and sparrows falling:

a little of what goes on in the psyche of an over-sensitive soul.


I was walking along the road, heading off to the post office with a small parcel to send to my father, when I noticed the swallows over head. To me there is something about the swallow that approaches aesthetic perfection and seeing them in the sky above me brought a sudden and entirely unexpected surge of tears. The angle of the wings, the clarity of the colour against the blue of the sky and the sheer purpose-driven perfection of their flight was all at once impossible to bear. Beauty is sometimes unbearable, because of its fragility, its brief perfection and my own impossible aims to emulate it. I’d have like to have been physically beautiful. In my dreams I sometimes am, but in those dreams, there is always a mirror that tells me the ugly truth.

I chase beauty in many forms: seeking to create it in my own head, either in terms of what I write or in what I feel. Perhaps that’s why I am, for lack of a better term, a bit religious. If I’d been a little less self conscious, I might have become a stalker of beautiful people, gazing at them like impossible works of art. Actor Johnny Depp has eyebrows like swallows wings; the curve and the line of them cut across his face like the wings of the bird cut across the sky. If I’d been a little shallower, I might have believed that this beauty made certain people somehow qualitatively better than others.

When it comes to the books I read, that quality of beauty draws me too. The intense experience of reading prose so smooth and delightful, even in describing both tragedy and horror, that it is not like reading at all but more like living the story, is a rare and wonderful one. There’s not many writers who can do that for me.

But when it comes to daily life, both the visual beauty and the beauty of the world beyond it combine to make it hard for me to leave the house some days. The swallows today made me shed a few tears of over-brimming emotion; a little uncomfortable but nothing drastic. A day or two earlier, something a little different but still avian nearly undid me completely. As I walked home with my dog, she pulled me to the side of the road to show me something. In the gutter, there lay a young hen sparrow. I picked her up and she lay floppy and unresponsive in my hand, her body warm and fluffy and her little feet remained unstiffened. There was no blood and no sign of injury. I breathed on her and stroked her head. Nothing. She was perfect but she was gone.

I took her to the little bed of shrubs near the shops and lay her there. I wasn’t sure if she were dead or just stunned. When I got home I told my husband about it and he told me that sparrows, especially young ones will faint if frightened. Literally, they faint, pass out and become unconscious with fear or alarm.

She might well have been alive,” he said.

There’s a passage in the Gospels (Matthew 10: 29)  where Jesus says about not a single sparrow may fall without the Father knowing and caring about it.

Perhaps it was meant to be that I picked her up from the dangerous place she had fainted in and put her somewhere safe to recover. But it’s my love of beauty that means I haven’t gone back to see if she’s still there. I want her to just have fainted and to have recovered and flown back to her family.

Summer Came Quickly

Summer came quickly


Summer came quickly this year,

Scarce a breath between

Daffodils and blooming may;

Blackthorn and whitethorn

Overlapped in flowering bliss.

Leaf buds unfurled so fast

I could not map their progress,

Leaping from tight knots

To silken green in moments.

The general rumble of rooks

Minding their business in treetops

Passed to the chaotic conversation

Of growing families in days.

The scent of new-mown grass

Hangs on the evening air

Like celestial incense burned

To honour the return of the Sun.

Summer came so quickly

Now I must mourn the Spring.


Pied Beauty

                               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 áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
        Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
            With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

                                                Práise hím. 
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

I love this poem because it gives me the words and the images to be happy and less self-tormenting about being imperfect. In fact it tells me that my imperfections are what make me beautiful. Imperfect is a bad word.

I am a work in progess, sure but I will be that until the day I die, and since I do not know when that will be, now, at the end of this day, I put down the hammer and chisel and the paint and sandpaper and say, “This is good for today,” and go and put my pjs on and wipe off my warpaint and snuggle up in my comfy but unglamorous dressing gown of fleece and have done worrying.