Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Spring has sprung

Odd how so many of my thoughts and musings drift towards the seasons. I must be practically Pagan. Except, everyone around me seems utterly obsessed too. The first thing we do when we wake up is tear open our curtains and peer up at the sky, checking to see what the day will bring. We rave about the sunny days and then soon come to loathe them. We giggle at the winter and its flurries of frost – and then moan about this too.

It is scientific fact that sunshine makes us happy. When we absorb sunlight, the levels of serotonin increase in our brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that contributes to our wakefulness, which, in turn, puts us ‘in a good mood’.

Sunlight also increases our Vitamin D levels (through the ultraviolet rays). Vitamin D helps boost serotonin and keep it high.

Now Spring is coming. You can smell it in the air. It is late – but it’s coming. In my local park, crocuses are emerging, daffodils protruding from their long-suffering green stems. And it all looks stunningly, amazingly, fundamentally beautiful: to have made it through a long, harsh winter – and to know that they’ve made it too. We are survivors.

But I wonder why this is beautiful. Perhaps it is just the colour: long swathes of violet that collapse over everything. A sheen, a gleam, then an explosion of yellow. That bright, piercing, wincing blue sky…the kind you get rarely, when there is absolutely no cloud cover. The kind that looks almost superficial and Photoshopped.

Perhaps it is linked to this expectation of sunshine. To this expectation of serotonin coming our way, marking an end to all the SAD-stricken people around us.

But I don’t like to be deterministic. Science must have a role to play in beauty – yes. And I certainly can see the connection between beauty and happiness.

But beauty tends to less simple that this suggestion. It is complex and unwieldy and tricky and distorted. It can coil around ugly things, too. There can be beauty in grey clouds…though usually if they have broken up a chain of otherwise boiling, blue-hot days. Or they are large and blooming, crumpled and cumulus. There is something somehow special and unique in them.

We humans love patterns: anything that breaks a pattern and anything that asserts a pattern. It is well argued – well known – that we are a pattern-seeking species. And the seasons form the ultimate pattern; the ultimate, beautiful, spectacular certainty. They combine continuation and disruption in 12 beautiful months.

With winter, comes spring; with spring, comes summer; with summer, comes winter; and thus, we return.

In these desperate times, in our uncertain lives, it is no wonder we watch the seasons pass with a sense of marvel that never tires, that never loses its lustre. It is something to mark our lives against. It is something to convince us we will never fade, we will never fail…we will never die.


Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ageing - a kind of beauty?

Interesting that we see the ageing process as slowly stripping the face bare of what we construe to be ‘beauty’. And yet scientific research from the University of Newcastle really tackles the issue of what we deem ‘beautiful’.

I was listening to the radio the other day, eating my oatbix, just minding my business: thinking of the day ahead, wishing I didn’t have to wake up at 7am every morning. And then this piece came on that made my put my spoon down and go: “Wow”. I love moments like that.

I didn’t really care about the what fors and the whys behind the university findings. Apparently, they are trying to find a way to decelerate or prevent the effects of ageing. I’m not sure they will actually do this, and the whole thing is a potentially thorny moral issue; although, in theory, concerns with ageing don’t have to just be about our obsession with physical appearance – all of us want to live longer and be healthier. That’s just our instinct.

But anyway. The bit that made me sit up and take notice…the bit that made me think it worthy of this blog…of being an ‘encounter with beauty’: the reasons 
why cells age. I hadn’t really thought of this before…

Cells age because they deliberately
 switch down. It is like an act of euthanasia, an act of love. When a cell detects serious damage to its DNA, it sends internal signals that keep it from dividing, as they should do to stay healthy. If we didn’t age, our bodies would probably be riddled with cancer. For cells with serious damage that don’t switch down – they tend to go that way.

I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. In the mirror, I saw my eyes puffed up, with tiny creases underneath; the skin getting crepey, the lines on the forehead. And this is only the beginning. I am 27 years old.

Sometimes it makes me bite my lip and want to scream that the very air itself, the very stuff that life is made of, with its swirling free radicals, is what is changing my face, making it something not mine anymore, but something stretched and distorted, and waylaid by existence.

But to look at these wrinkles as my friends, my safeguards, a source of sustenance, self-preservation: what a beautiful twist of irony, that the things we attack with expensive face creams and Botox surgery, which we consider violently ugly, are performing an act of self-sacrificing beauty.

Because, yes, beauty can be function; can be form. It doesn’t have to be literally what’s in front of your eyes. Does it?

But maybe soon I should go deeper into physical beauty and my own personal battles…another time, another entry. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Away We Go…and, yes, more snow

A beautiful scene in the chucklesome, heart-warming film from the ever-wonderful Dave Eggers (screenplay).

A married couple, truly happy, deeply in love. How often does that happen in a film? No, there are no extra-marital affairs. The plot does not unravel a big global conspiracy and they aren’t caught in a do-or-die situation. She doesn’t get cancer. He doesn’t lose his job and they start to fight and so he takes to drinking heavily and hitting her occasionally.

(And yes, these things might all happen over the course of time, once the credits end, and this fictional couple carry on living in their fictional world. But, equally, they might 
not. They might not!)

They are happy. She is heavily pregnant. She is crying into her hands, she is moaning “I’m so uglyyyyyyy.” He slides up behind her on the bed, spooning her, affectionately, but not sexually, at all. Not yet. Not now.

He prises open her hands and he says “I find you beautiful. I’ll still find you beautiful if you get even more enormous. If it takes you a year to shake off all the fat. If you NEVER shake off all the fat”. Of course, he has said exactly the wrong thing. His wife looks like she might be angry, but then the humour of him trying so hard, but getting it so wrong, whacks them both hard, and they collapse into giggles and the cuddling comfort of two people that know everything about the other but are still undeterred. In fact, they are all the more determined.

It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s true and touching. And because love gives – or should, if all works well – the gift of being found beautiful, every day, for the rest of your life, no matter what comes, and no matter your age. It’s corny, yes. And sickening for singletons. But if you’re single – you have it to come. And when it happens – it’s amazing. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s alchemy, magic. Suddenly your base metals are transmuted into invaluable gold.

It’s starting to snow again. The days have gone back to being bone-achingly cold.

But here is a poem by Robert Graves:

She tells her love while half asleep, 
In the dark hours, 
With half-words whispered low:
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And put out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
 Despite the falling snow

Coiled up life; stored up energy

Can you discern beauty through ‘taste’? Or does beauty always have to be something visual and tangible?

I’ve been asking myself this over the last few days. The week seems to have been dominated by food. From a trip to a Michelin-starred restaurant as a one-off with friends (verdict: meh; but my mates said it was wasted on a vegetarian). To a meander round
Borough Market with the sun on my back.

Rows and rows of gnarled up mushrooms, looking like alien life forms: mottled shades of brown. Some even purple or red or yellowy. A big, bold artichoke, wrapped in spiky, fleshy leaves that clung like petals on a flower. In fact, every stall was just like a flower bed: deep smartings of colour, a rush of aroma. It’s a shame that we don’t tend to think of fruit and vegetables (or food, generally) as art, though we write poems galore about flowers. To me, a wavy, golden pepper is every bit as beautiful as a daffodil; an aubergine as mysterious as a hyacinth.

These things also give us life. They are coiled up sunshine; they are stored up energy. And, god, they taste good.

I ate melt-in-the-mouth
Comte and cake and vegetable burgers, and I sipped a hot apple and cinnamon drink that trickled down my throat with a warm, syrupy movement that was comforting and nostalgic – almost like cough medicine (though it tasted a lot better). I swooned, closed my eyes, I murmured appreciatively. But was I dabbling in beauty?

I know most aestheticians and philosophers would say no. But I would argue that to exclude any sense data is to elude a true definition of beauty. When people find something beautiful, it is seldom through eyes alone. When I find a field beautiful, it is because I also smell the lavender; feel the soft, feathery touch of the grass on a leg; maybe I taste the pollen that drifts languidly in the air. And then there is another aspect, a kind of additional sense and I don’t know what I’d call it. That every scene, every detail, and every thing we encounter is coated in context. Maybe that field has extra beauty because it reminds me of country drives in my childhood; when my mum sung along to the radio, and the windows were wound open. Maybe it also makes me think of the scene in
A Room with a View: a film I caught late once on TV in my early adolescence. And I stared and I stared at Daniel Day Lewis and Helena Bonham Carter, and I thought I’d never seen a couple more beautiful and sumptuous. And my heart beat fast in my chest and I later came to recognise it as the acceleration of puberty.

Food is beautiful because it also has context: happy meals, happy times. The people I’ve loved who have fed me. Who have fed me out of love and for love.

To me, beauty is anything that transports. Beauty is anything that lifts. Beauty is anything that gives sheen to the humdrum, even if the veil is thin.

Photo courtesy of
Nicola photographs flickrstream.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Help yourself

I heard this song, recently, in a film called Up in the Air. You may have heard of it. It stars George Clooney and has received an awful lot of pre-Oscar hype.

I must admit to being a little disenchanted with the film. It felt confused as to the sort of message it wanted to convey. At times it seemed to fetishise the lifestyle of the travelling batchelor; at others, critique it. Parts of the film felt dreary and overstretched. Sometimes it sagged to reveal a big concaving nothingness.

But then there were moments of hope; of light; of sweetness. Some might find those bits the worst bits of the film - I know the film critic, Mark Kermode, did.

But I couldn't help but get drawn into those parts the most. The wedding scene, when George Clooney's character dances with his female friend... I won't divulge plot spoilers, but there was so much aching, hesitancy, so much fear of 'letting go' and showing a side of himself he had hitherto hidden. A straining for intimacy, a foraging for connection - despite one's best efforts. It underpinned the entire passage, and left me with a lump in my throat.

All this is done with no dialogue. Just the sound of the music and a few askance glances, a few fumblings of hands.

I think I find the song beautiful because I find ascension beautiful; triumph beautiful. We've all been there. Feeling lonely and vulnerable and scared to expose ourselves. Can there be anything more beautiful than showing a secret part of ourselves and then finding it accepted?

As the song goes..."We believe in everything that you can do / If you could only lay down your mind".

It may be cheesy, but I adore it. Take it away, Sad Brad Smith:

Sunday, 17 January 2010


The magic is already melting as if it were never there.

And the days have lately been filled with broken down trains; slippy, sliding cars; 'ice', mouths snapping out the word in disgust and trepidation; cold that gathers in cold, that seeps into the bones and never lets go. London has been a united wail of curses, of frustration, of people sighing and shaking their heads: "Will it never melt?"

But, at the beginning, when it all started and seemed new.

Everyone stomped through the powder with their mouths agape. They couldn't believe it. It had snowed! It had settled! And when it started to snow some more, they stopped what they were doing and lifted their eyes to the sky in bewilderment. People in offices turned from their keyboards and stared out of the windows for a minute or two, silently taking it in. People on buses put down their newspapers and gazed in wonder as this white, wintry carpet was unfurled on the world.

Back then, all you'd hear was "Beautiful"; "Magical"; "Pretty"; "Wow".

It's interesting to me that people can be united in their view - to some extent - of what's beautiful and what isn't. And they seemed to be in universal agreement that this was a thing of beauty. All the blogs I have been reading lately have also been about snow -
Elspeth Thompson, the gardener and writer, wrote a particularly lovely piece. She too used the word 'beautiful'.

But why is it beautiful?

Is it because it casts an eerie glow that speaks to us of never-ending light?

Is it because it separates difference and renders everything the same? Things lose distinction and all is on level footing – oh, how we'd like society to operate along the same lines, although it never can and never will.

Is it because of the overwhelming white, the white that makes us shield our eyes and blink back awe? White isn't, after all, an absence of colour, but all the colours of light combined. Once again, snow amalgamates everything and assimilates it into something – a united thing that hides the details, the drudgery, the dirt.

No wonder white speaks to us (symbolically) of innocence, truth, purity and goodness. No wonder we have ‘black magic’ but would not have white; ‘ America calls the Presidential residence the 'white house', but would not call it black. White is the colour of clouds, of daylight, the foam of the sea. Black is the colour of night, of absence, of what floods our senses once we sense to be.

The snow is also beautiful because it is unusual. A rare occurrence. Perhaps Inuits call snow beautiful, but I don't know. Probably not. The everyday usually isn't. We come to expect it, demand it, and it loses its power - sometimes unfairly.

What the Inuits DO have is a far greater capacity to appreciate the function of snow. They use words like
aput -  'snow on the ground'; gana - 'falling snow'; piqsirpoq - 'drifting snow'; and qimuqsuq - 'a snow drift'.

We just say 'snow'. We stumble around adjectives but that is all it is to us – snow.

Perhaps analysis corrupts our sense of beauty.

Perhaps snow is beautiful because we do not truly understand how it transforms the fast, invisible, dispersing, disappearing rain into this thing of substance that flutters down from the sky and cleaves to the ground. How it melts in our hands but stays steady beneath our feet.

How, for a little while, it makes the impermanent seem permanent. 

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The freedom to dream

Now my flat is stripped bare of the pretty little lights that basked us all in a star-like glow. The Christmas tree sits outside, in the snow, and routines return to normal.

This is the year 2010. I have no idea what it expects of me, or I of it. As usual, I have hopes for the year, but not resolutions. To call them that word is to ignore the unpredictability of life, which is something that entrances me, in all its defiance, its waywardness, its sense of adventure. And sometimes, as the flipside – its disappointments, meanderings and sudden abruptions.

But, I hope. I hope that I do all or some of these things:

  • Go on holiday with my university friends to celebrate ten years of knowing each other. TEN YEARS. That deserves celebrating, especially as these people saw me finally emerge from my chrysalis. 
  • Also celebrate ten years, in late December, with my warm and wonderful boyfriend, who is all the serotonin I need. 
  • Start growing some vegetables. Start growing anything
  • Write for more websites. 
  • Write more, full stop. 
  • Learn how to fix bicycles. 
  • Learn how to swim. 
  • Do the naked bike ride – get rid of my inhibitions and recognise that it’s all just flesh and form. And raise money for a great cause too. 
  • Try to fill a god-shaped hole. Meditate? Read more poetry? Volunteer work? 
  • Build a nest somewhere out of this small town
  • Invest money wisely. 
  • Learn how to knit (the basics). 
  • Appreciate my family all the more. 
  • Engage with the countryside. Flee the city sometimes. 
  • Go to the ballet. (I have never been.)
  • Stop being so socially phobic, so worried about what people are thinking, so self-analysing. Forge connections and let them do the rest. 
  • Just be a nicer person. 
  • Keep a list of all the films I watch, the plays I see and the books I read. Score them so I can know which were my favourites by the end of the year...(geeky, I know, but how fun?). 
I am a compulsive list planner, as you can probably tell. Sometimes the ambitions are just too big and everything falls apart at the seams. Sometimes I manage to do it and enjoy the thing all the more for knowing I can ‘cross it off’.

Occasionally I think this is a bad, dirty habit. If I spent less time writing down lists, I might actually do things.

But I also think there is something beautiful about these lists: something that reflects the beauty of a New Year start.

Although the change of date is humanmade and arbitrary, it is still a ‘wiping slate’ moment. The clock strikes midnight and people give themselves permission to hope, to yearn, to imagine the impossible – the freedom to dream.

And I am dreaming. I am dreaming of a year that is perhaps more inward, more of mind than matter. But a year where I prove myself to myself, and vanquish hard feelings. Why not? I can do it. That is the spirit of January. “I can do it.” “I can give up smoking.” “I can lose weight.” “I can give up my job and backpack the world.” Whether we do it or not, thank god we are trying. That god we are forgiving ourselves and beginning again. 

So this is Christmas

And what have I done? Well. Not much. Two thousand and nine ranks as a relatively uneventful year and, in my book, that is a blessing that cannot be appreciated enough. There were no huge dramas, no surges of stress. I kept my health intact and so did the people I love. I forged even tighter links with friends and family. Work staggered on: but never soul-destroyingly. I had a lot of fun and spent a lot of the days following Christmas putting together a photo album of the year’s ‘best ofs’. It was hard to edit it all down to even three hundred. Now I have a photo album that heaves with the weight of three hundred smiles, meaningful glances, sunsets, tides, cats and wine-clinked gazes. It may be a lot of paper, but it somehow draws me much closer to all those special memories than a digital image could.

I adore Christmas. Sometimes it is a little like being stubbornly in love with someone after he has hit you, abused you, cheated you and left you for dust. You can’t even rationalise it anymore (with the stressful shopping trips and Boxing Day rows) but all you know is that, somehow, for some reason, the love is still there. It’s one of those loves that burns deep when you are little, fades out for a few years, and then flickers back into being as you get a bit older.

I’m trying to resist the return to morbidness, but evidently failing. You see, one of the reasons I think people love Christmas is because it returns you to youth. Not only that but it makes you re-remember your parents when they were young too. When you heard them franticaly wrapping presents in the downstairs living room while you were meant to be asleep. When you were left there, thinking: what are they doing when there’s a Father Christmas? When your mum, her eyes extra wide, a smile fixed on her face, said that Father Christmas brought all the presents to the house, but of course he didn’t have time to wrap them all up, so of course mum had to chip in and wrap a few too!

Christmas is crystallised memory, a beautiful fossil. It strips away age and dissolves people into their purest form. Whether your ‘treat’ moves on from a Scaletrix set to a glass of vintage port or some Jo Malone candles, the expression on your face stays the same. The uncurling smile, a burst of being in the eyes. You wanted something and you were given it. What can be more primal than that?

Yes, I suppose that there are (justifiable) concerns about consumerism, but the Christmas can be as uncommercialised as you want it to be. You can see that expression in people whether it’s something big or whether it’s something small, like the pull of a cracker. It’s about forgetting the chores, the daily grinds, the panics, and dabbling in fun and insensible glee. It’s national permission to indulge. It’s our form of hibernation. A burrowing away with, hopefully, the people that make us smile – whoever they may be – and, for one day, becoming children together.  Seeing us beyond the shackles of age and duty.

Whether you are atheist, theist, or agnostic like me, Christmas has its purpose. Personally, I think the facts are incontestable: Christmas is Pagan in origin. To declare that does not deny the existence of Jesus Christ – if that’s what you believe – but instead understands that the event was a ‘moveable feast’ that the Christians pinned on to a pre-existing Pagan festival.

Oh, and we need it. Whatever you celebrate. These nights are dark and the days are short. Ice expands on asphalt. We buckle down and we soldier on, trying to remember the spring.