Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Jane Austen bicentenary: it's been 200 years Janey, and we're *still* reading you.

Hey you.  There's a link to a free Jane Austen-themed download at the end of this post, but first you'll have to put up with me getting a little sentimental ... 

At some point today, maybe after I've left my calling card at some grand house, or tried in vain to find someone to dance with at a ball, or had an intellectually stimulating bickering-fest with a brooding hero, I'm going to sit down for a gossip with my good friend Jane. 

Not that we've met. 

Not that that matters. 

Because, when you read a Jane Austen novel you quickly become her friend. You're right there negotiating the social niceties of early 19th Century England with both her and her bright, observant, witty heroines. You're surrounded by chatter and drama and biting commentary, you're meeting new, alarming or eccentric characters, creating strong friendship bonds with kindred spirits and - after so many false starts and missed connections - you're falling in love. 

And today - July 18th 2017 - marks 200 years since the death of the woman who managed to fit all of that life and entertainment into just 6 timeless novels. (Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Or 7 books if you count Sanditon the unfinished/finished by another author novel that some of us are reading as part of our Jane Austen Summertime Book Club - the #sanditonalong!)

All from a woman who struggled all her career to be taken seriously and who died at 41. (I keep welling-up writing this, I find her story and talent so inspiring. I'm also 41 and I'm trying to string a together a romantic novel so ... little wonder I'm nearly weeping into my keyboard here!)

Just 6 books, published over just 6 years; a tiny sliver in time for an author who has gone on to be read and loved throughout the world for 200 years. 200 years. Good on you Jane. Good on you. 

A little Austen bicentenary reading for you: 

Well, for a start there's those 6 classics to dive into. 
  • I will admit I haven't read them all ... yet. I've got Mansfield Park and Sense & Sensibility still to go. If you're new to Austen - dig out a copy at a charity shop and give it a whirl; the language and style can be a tricky  pattern for moder readers to slip into ... but it's worth it in the end. I swear I laugh out loud while reading (and not in that fake 'Oh yes, look how much I understand this high-brow literature' way; but genuine LOLs. #truejaneaustenstory
And there's still time to dip into Sanditon along with us this month. 
  • I haven't finished reading it yet, and there's still plenty of time to join in. If you find one of the editions that's completed by another author it's all kinds of interesting to wonder how Austen herself would've finished the story ... and how close - or otherwise - the alternative writer's ending might be to her own!
Plus there's a collection of well known authors discussing their favourite Austen novels...
  • ... which featured in last weekend's Review supplement in The Guardian (featuring a lovely illustration by Romy Blumel) but you can find the articles here online.
(It's OK, yes, I do know that Austen didn't use a typewriter ... I just wanted to sneak this little treasure in in here as I found it for an almost criminal £5.00 in a charity shop this weekend. And I thought you'd like to see it!)

And finally...

Penguin Random House spotted our #sanditonalong and have been in touch to bring the Signature's Essential Guide to Jane Austen' to our attention! 

  • It's a 29 page, free-to-download PDF booklet containing 12 essays on the Austen canon (you just need to supply an email address to gain access to the download, simply follow the link here.
  • And don't worry about it being some dry, academic paper (although, to be fair, I'd probably read some of those too) as it contains such entertaining titles such as '10 Jane Austen Quotations for the Vehemently Single' and - the one that caught my eye first '6 Jane Austen Novels Ranked by their Sexiness'!   
And, while I'll definitely give that piece a fair crack of the whip ... it'll take quite some powers of persuasion (no pun intended) to convince me that there's anything sexier than Mr Knighley in Emma. (Although, I'm willing to admit that might have had something to do with casting Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 adaptation of Emma  ...).

Quick, someone fetch me a chaise longue ... I'm feeling a little overcome.

If there are other Jane Austen bicentenary related happenings and publications you think I should have thrust under my nose ... then thrust away! 

In fact - feel free to launch into any and all Austen-themed chatter in the comments - or across my social media homes:

The more Austen-themed gossip and stories we share ... the more richly Austenite our commemorations will be! 

But before that ... how about we raise a glass, or a cup of tea in a fine china cup, to our good friend Jane?

To Jane. Cheers!   


Disclosure: This is not in any way a sponsored post. I have not received payment for mentioning anything here, I'm sharing the freebie-reads with you purely for the love of Austen!

Monday, 17 July 2017

A visit to RSPB Saltholme nature reserve. (There's cake involved, because, there's *always* cake involved.)

Hello, hello. 

You'll often find me sharing photos of our trips to art galleries, museums or nice little shops;  y'know, the kinds of places I can wear a nice skirt and a big necklace and where there's plenty of opportunity to stop for tea and cake? But today's post is a little different because ... we've actually been outside, in nature, under the (damp, British-summertime) sky where we filled up on birdsong and reed-rustling and, yes, OK, obviously there was cake too. Naturally. We're not complete savages. 

Disclosure: Last Saturday I was a guest at RSPB Saltholme where they waived the usual £5.00 per car entry fee in return for a blog post and some social-media sharing about my visit. I did not receive payment for this post, I wasn't asked to mention anything other than how they have Family Activities running throughout the summer, and all views are my own. Because ... can you imagine me agreeing to let someone put words in my mouth? Exactly. 

So, now that's out of the way, lace up your walking shoes and grab your binoculars ... we're off on a nature walk ...

RSPB Saltholme welcome sign

RSPB Saltholme is a nature reserve in Teesside, just outside of Middlesbrough. If you can find our landmark Transporter Bridge, you can find Saltholme, the bridge is visible from right across the reserve (see if you can spot it in the background of my photos). 

And if you can't find the Transporter Bridge when you're in Middlesbrough then just stop someone in the street and they'll point the way, or just look up and it'll be there, plus it's bright blue so ... you can't miss it. You could even use a visit to Saltholme as an excuse to have a trip across the Transporter too because, as the name suggests, it 'transports' vehicles/pedestrians across. Anyway, you've distracted me now by asking about bridges, where was I? 

Oh, yes, I was in jeans, trainers, and a coat (although my socks did have fringing on them and I did manage to squeeze in a big necklace under my hoody) and I was on a nature reserve, under a damp sky, trying to be a good blogger while keeping my camera out of the rain!
Last weekend they hosted their annual 'Woolly Weekend': a celebration of all things sheep-ish, as the site keeps sheep to graze the grasslands.

If you follow me on social media you'll have seen more images and video of the day, but I'll just show you a few photos of that here, because I want to show you what you'll see if you're visiting Saltholme during the rest of the year (they're open every day except Christmas day!)

As for those sheep, we watched them being sheared both with traditional clippers:
And modern electric shears: 
You could actually buy the fleeces from these sessions and, while I was tempted, I resisted ... what would I have done with it? I suppose I could've tried my hand at spinning it ... but maybe I'll leave that to the professionals:
And we watched this beautiful breed - whose fleece is so dark they looked like dense, dark, shadows with horns:
... being rounded-up by some very willing sheep-dogs:
 (ahem .. anyone notice the bright blue iconic bridge anywhere in the scene?)

The Environment: 
Speaking of dogs ... Saltholme is a dog-free zone, only assistance dogs are permitted on the reserve. 

I know I joke about my dog-phobia (because, oh my, if I didn't ...) but anyone who:

  • has a phobia themselves,
  • or has seen one of my dead-eyed panic attacks, 
  • or who knows just how many activities I can't bring myself to do because of it ... 
... will know the absolutely debilitating restrictions it imposes on my life. So, being able to walk around in nature, without having to worry about an off-the-lead dog bounding up to me is a freedom I'm rarely afforded.

Truth be told - I did have to get James to tell me that there weren't any dogs there - just to hear it, to double-check - but after that, I was OK. I was free to enjoy being outside without anxiety, something I guess many other people take for granted? (I don't know ... I can hardly conceive that some people aren't constantly vigilant and hyper-aware while they're out and about! It's like when you think about how the internet works; you know it's true ... but you still don't 'get' it.)

And Saltholme is an oasis in more ways than one. 

It allows me to enjoy the great outdoors, it provides food and habitat for a huge variety of birds and wildlife, and - like many places on the industrial side of Teesside - it nestles itself amongst major works sites, making it a complete natural haven in the heart of man-made industry:
And it's the land itself, the combination of wet grassland, reed beds and meadows that contributes so much to its eco-system: 

What your visit might look like: 

If, like us, you have a general - rather than comprehensive - knowledge of birds, then don't be put off; there are plenty of guide-books, signs, wall displays, and real-life guides to help you work out what you might be looking at. And currently, in the visitor centre:
 ... there's even a chance to catch-up on what the nearby seals are doing on their 'Seal Cam Live!':
From the visitor centre you can take one of two exits to explore the reserve, we headed out towards the Transporter side where we headed past the various gardens and play areas, along part of the Lake Walk and down to the hide at 'Paddy's Pool':
From here you can pull up a chair, wind down a window and get a closer look at some of the birdy happenings (can you tell I'm not an official 'twitcher'? What gave it away?)
 From here you can take a number of routes across the reserve, we opted for a wander through the wildflower meadow:
It was extremely peaceful and there were plenty of photo opportunities!
BTW: this was a pathway cut into the grass, but the majority of paths on the reserve are suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs.

From here we dipped into the 'Wildlife Watchpoint' another cosy spot to pause and take in the scenery:
Here we watched clumsy moorhen chicks trying to get their long ungainly legs to cooperate with the rest of their bodies, and, we're pretty sure we spotted a water-vole bumbling under the surface at the water's edge!
The combination of lackadaisical ducks and swans gliding over the water, the background noise of rustling reeds, and all that fresh air very nearly sent me to sleep. Next time I can't nod-off I'll know where to come ...
 And, if birds aren't your thing, you could stop off for some mouse-spotting!
This little mouse house  linked up to a woodpile outside so, if you're lucky, you might catch yourself some mouse-action (not a sentence I've ever envisaged writing ...).

Back on the Lake Walk we stopped for a closer look at the reed beds:
If you've been visiting me here for a while now you might remember that I've visited Saltholme in winter on several occasions when they host their annual 'Soup and Starlings' events. There we get to watch tens of thousands of starlings swoop and swirl in their 'murmurations' - the en masse air-ballet they perform - before dipping down to spend the night among the reed beds. (You can see some of my photos from those events in these older blog posts.)

So it made a change seeing this habitat in summer and not on freezing - I'm-wearing-30-items-of-clothing-and-my-eyes-are-the-only-visible-part-of-my-body - afternoons in December and January! 
And it was here that I saw something  my parents really would've found really useful when I was little!
There are at least three occasions in my childhood where they could have deployed a Lifehook.

At least three.

Where you can take a break:
And, after all that walking, watching, ducking out of the rain and feeling the sun, wind and rain on our faces all in the space of 4 hours (as a British summertime will regularly offer) ... we were ready for lunch.

And when I say 'ready' I mean ... the 'give me the homemade beef chilli and rice AND a slice of lemon cake, right now, thanks, OK, great' kind of ready. I know you know that kind of 'ready'.
Fortunately the Saltholme visitor centre has a lovely cafe upstairs so there's no need leave the site to find sustenance. And, once you've finished your cake and had a glance around the gift shop you're either good to go back out for another wander, or head home feeling smug about all the wholesome activity you've enjoyed.

Oh, and tired. You'll be feeling tired too; that proper, healthy 'fresh air' kind of tired.  So it's bye for now Saltholme. See you again sometime! I'm just off for a nap ...

Further Information:
To find out more and keep up-to-date on their special events:

Right, you can kick off your walking shoes now, I want to hear from you ...
  • Have you been to Saltholme already? What did you see? Did you have cake?
  • Maybe you've visited your own local RSPB reserve? American friends - maybe the American Bird Conservancy organisation is your equivalent. What kinds of things do you do there?
  • Maybe you too are looking for dog-free spaces to enjoy the great outdoors, if so, I hear you. Ask at your local reserve to check the dog situation there.
Also, I've been told recently that I appear to do weekends well plus there seems to be lots of exciting things happening near where I live. If either of those things are true - it's only down to:
  • Putting in a little bit of extra effort, when all I often want to do on Saturdays is sit still and maybe, at a push, throw an M&S meal deal in the oven. 
  • Following all my favourite local-ish galleries, museums etc on social media to be in with a chance of spotting their new exhibitions/events etc.
  • Using the planner app on my phone, with reminders, to keep track of key dates. 
And, honestly, there really isn't anything  unique about where we live, if anything, there's a distinct lack of cultural activities to be had in the immediate area; but we're willing to regularly travel anything up to around an hour or so away from home to see the interesting stuff.  

And perhaps where we are particularly fortunate, it's in living somewhere that sits happily within a comfortable half-hour to an hour's drive away from a wide variety of town, country, and coastal locations to choose from for a visit. Turns out it's not all grim 'oop North' you know.  (At this rate my next gig should be with Teesside tourist board!)

Don't forget to check out RSPB Saltholme if you're in the area ... or even if you're an hour away. And if you're  further afield, then I hope you enjoyed walking alongside me on our virtual visit.


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

I've been exhibited! Snipped Tales at the 'Blimey!' pop-up exhibition

Well, hang me on a wall and call me art! I've had one of my Snipped Tales featured in a pop-up mini-art exhibition.

On Sunday James and I went to Darlington (about 30mins from home) to visit postcard No.29, in an exhibition of 200 postcard sized works of art. 
Hosted as part of the 10th birthday celebrations of the Darlington-based arts group Blimey!, the 2 day exhibition was held in an empty unit in the main shopping centre: 
Earlier in the year I saw the call they put out for small, 10x15cm, works and thought ... 'Mmmm ... what do I do that would fit on a small card like that ... ?' and the answer was pretty clear. Happily the new snipped tale I wrote for the occasion, was accepted and so off we went to see it amongst 199 of of its peers: 
I began with the idea that it was Blimey!'s birthday and sifted, browsed and snipped until a full festive tale emerged, titled 'Warm Glitter' (which, makes me feel slightly queasy for some reason, like ... how/why - exactly is it warm?) Here's a closer look: 
And here's the whole thing, complete with a splatter of warm glitter ... 
There was a public vote element to the exhibition - which I didn't win - (not that I expected to!) ... but I did enjoy browsing the work to find a favourite to vote for. Here are a few that caught my eye ...

I liked the geometric shapes and the dark figures on these:  
And I loved the little people on this one titled 'My Family': 
This one - featuring a mirror - caught my eye:
I enjoyed the colours of the smudged paint on this: 
And these rich shades are just gorgeous: 
Strangely though, I forgot to photograph the one I voted for - which, no, wasn't my own! But it was another text-based piece though.

As I was placing my vote I saw James take his voting slip over to the wall, where I assumed he was getting the name of the artist he was voting for. And I felt a little pang that - OK, so there was no way I was going to win the public vote, but I thought I could have counted on his! 

Hours later, when we were back home, while folding laundry I couldn't keep it to myself any longer: "You know," I said, not heartbroken, just a bit surprised, "I can't believe we went all that way and you didn't vote for me!" 

Well ... he wasn't amused. "What makes you think I didn't vote for you? Of course I did!" ... and it turned out it was just the number of my piece he was looking for on the wall (which you had to write on the voting slip). Oops.

In long-term relationships there are few times you don't mind being the one in the wrong. But this time round, I was OK with it!

Thanks to everyone at Blimey! Darlington for inviting my 'Warm Glitter' to your birthday party! It was fun to see my work on a wall for the first time since school!  

As for my snipped tales in general, I've submitted various other pieces here and there this year and next week I've got an interesting snipped-project coming up as part of my MIMA 'Writer in Residence' residency ... but I'll be able to share more on that once it's done. 

And - apart from the book full of them -  I'll no doubt continue to find new ways to spread my strange little papery philosophies from here on in. I'll keep you up-to-date with any developments! 

See you soon, 


Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Time Machines exhibition: Palace Green Library, Durham.

Hello time travellers!

Well, you are time travellers, kind of. You're certainly not reading this over my shoulder, in real-time, as I type (I just turned round to check).

You're reading this in the future. Well it's my future, which is your present. And now ... that last sentence is in the past for both of us. And all of this baffling time-switching is exactly why I usually avoid time travel talk; getting my head around the nitty-gritty technicalities is my Kryptonite.

And yet I was drawn to the Time Machines exhibition at Palace Green Library, Durham (ends 3rd September 2017) because its subtitle is: "The past, the future, and how stories take us there"; because stories ... stories I can do ...
Disclaimer: As usual (because no one ever pays me to do these things!) this is in no way a sponsored post. I (and by "I" I mean James) paid for the tickets to the exhibition from my/his own pocket.

Exhibition location:

If, like me, the only thing you really know, or can remember, about Durham is the location of the Cathedral then, you're in luck! Because Palace Green Library is - funnily enough - on 'Palace Green', the area in front of Cathedral's front door. And if you can't find the Cathedral in Durham ... you're really not trying hard enough!

Here's the library which, at the risk of sounding cretinous, is rather delightfully Hogwartian:
Once inside you can browse the Time Machines exhibition (which has a £7.50 entry fee) across two main rooms plus a linking room where you can sit and read some of the time-travel themed books they have on hand. It even contains an unexpected, but hugely welcome, discussion of racial and gender diversity in time-travel which impressed me no end. Plus you can also make your own contribution to the exhibition using sticky-notes ... but more on all of that in a minute!

If you're up for it you're welcome to buckle yourself into the time machine and I'll take you back in time to my visit to the exhibition ... or maybe it's just a leap forward to a time when you find yourself visiting there yourself ... either way, let's go ...

Exhibition contents:

The exhibition begins in a space decorated with intriguing suspended clock-faces with an audio soundtrack of ticking and themed music setting the atmosphere:
Here you'll find a display of old timepieces alongside texts about time, some of which date back to the 1490s. The 1490s! They're incredible specimens, exquisitely made, and preserved, and are useful in illustration the way religions and philosophers have tried to interpret and understand time across the last 500 years. 

It's from here that we get to pass though our first wibbly-wobbly timey wimey portal ... hold on to your hats ...
You OK? Make it in one piece? Can you still feel all your extremities? Well stop it. We haven't got time for that! 

I like this photo I grabbed of James passing through the portal because - even though it's entirely our of focus - no - because it's entirely out of focus, it looks like Scotty's beaming him up:
Yes, yes, feel free to *insert your own 'Kirk' related joke here*.

Now we find ourselves in the main body of the exhibition which houses various time-travel themed texts, including H.G Wells's original manuscript for The Time Machine.
Now, I'm no great sci-fi / fantasy reader, but James is so I was mainly expecting to enjoy the exhibits on his behalf. However, the curators have clearly put in an effort to appeal to a wider audience.
There are discussions about the general paradoxes of time travel, but please don't ask me to explain them ... it hurts my head; along with time-related experiences that I could relate to like precognition and de ja vu:
Along with time-related experiences that I could relate to like precognition and de ja vu. 

(Did you see what I did there? ... Ah, I'm such a wag.) Anyway ...

There are also some fun interactive elements to keep visitors engaged including an old phone you can pick up, and dial, to hear book excerpts read aloud:
Plus there's also an app you can download which provides you with additional audio and video. We didn't read about that element until we'd finished looking around, but if we were to visit again I'd definitely give it a go. 

After browsing all the displays in that area it's time to head through another portal:
And this time we're heading back ... waaaaaay back ... to the start of the universe ...
In a darkened room with a cosmological theme you'll find an intriguing wrap-around film and sound experience. Here we experiencing the dawn of time:
And here's a book that tried to explain it all ... the book which contained Einstein's Theory of Relativity:
And if all that high-mindedness has has overly taxed you ... how about we go and let off some steam with the help of a Post-It?

Audience participation:

Around three walls of the next exhibition space runs a timeline pointing out key dates in fictional and non-fictional history; as well as questions such as 'Who would you like to go back in time to meet?' or 'What would you go back in time to see?'. And you're welcome to add your own contribution using the sticky-notes provided:
And, seriously, I could have photographed hundreds of those little notes! It was such a rich seam of both comedy -intentional and unintentional. (Like the kid who wanted to go back in time to see turtles. We reckoned his parents just don't fancy a zoo trip and would rather keep him ignorant!)

Along the timeline some people took this as an excuse to speculate on - and give the definitive answer to - the idea of time-travel in general ... 
(Text reads: "If backwards time travel were invented ... where are they?" "I'm one"). They walk amongst us!  

As do Bill and Ted fans: 
... and competitive Whovians: 
And ... as we move along the timeline and into predictions for the future we discover ... 

... a jaded Game of Thrones viewer:
... and even more jaded house-sellers:
(Text reads: "We will, at last, have found a buyer for our house and will not be doomed to die in Thanet. Although it is sunny there".)

... and - is it just me or - do you get the feeling Jane wrote this herself in an act of wishful thinking?
And finally, I don't want to upset anyone but, someone has predicted ... dun dun dun ...
Surely not? Say it aint so!

But, before we get too disheartened, the final room of the exhibition really is something to be happy about.

Diversity in time travel: 

Once upon a time, at any other given point in history, (embracing the puns) an exhibition such as this - hosting iconic, well known, lauded texts on a given subject - would usually be populated purely by works by dead white men. 

And, quite naturally, such pieces do feature here with works from H.G Wells, Plato, Dickens, Einstein etc. But, it's by no means another case of  'pale, male and stale' culture-hogging here as there's been a clear effort to include works by women and people of colour.

Because now, in 2017, it really is time that representation matters to cultural curators, and fortunately here, it does.  The final room of the exhibition asks 'who owns the future':
In this room you'll find works by black and women writers on display and a serious look at the role of time-travelling storytelling within the feminist and racial equality movements. This is accompanied by and a fabulous short video installation about how black creatives (writers, graphic artists, musicians such as Beyonce) have incorporated time travel and futurism in their works in order to look to a brave new world.  My favourite line from the film - the one which made me want to cheer and punch the air when it splashed across the screen - read: "The masters of the present are not always the masters of the future".  

I think I need to see that on a T-shirt, like, yesterday. (Which should be possible now we know there is such a thing as time travel. There is. It's true. I read it on a Post-It.).

But, seriously, those are the kind of conversations I'm looking for in my cultural consumption these days. I'm interested in hearing about, and seeing work from, a diverse range of perspectives across gender and race and - if curators, directors, producers, editors etc can't find a way to include people other than straight white men in the topics they've chosen to explore, or the stories they've chosen to tell, well ... then they should be looking for a different story.

The Time Machines exhibition could easily have been another collection that limited itself to documenting the activities of 'important' white men, but it didn't. It made the effort to tell a new tale ... and it's all the more interesting for doing so.

BTW: the mirrors in this final room are simply begging you to Instagram them! And I won't let them down on that front, although ... it is a pity that in this particular one, the phrase 'The clock is ticking' stretches right across my groin area ... jeez ... alright, alright, keep your opinions to yourself please! ;-)

Further details:

If our virtual TARDIS-spin of a tour around the Time Machines exhibition has sparked your imagination then here's where you can find out more:

Note: if the £7.50 the entry fee feels a little steep, then you might like to know that the cost does include 2 return visits before the end of the exhibition. I would advise, that to make the most of your time there, download the app (we didn't!), use the interactive phone, sit and linger with some time travel books, write a sticky note (and feel free to tag me in it if you share a photo of it on social media), watch the film ... and take Instagram-worthy shots in the mirrors.

So tell me time-hopping friends ... what do you think?

  • Now you've had a general overview of the experience do you fancy visiting the exhibition in 'real life'? 
  • Have you already been? Or have you just enjoyed me dragging you around the exhibition from the comfort of your sofa?
  • Where/who would YOU want to visit from the past
  • What do you predict for the future?
  • Have you recently visited an exhibition which made an effort to be inclusive (without being tokenistic)?
  • And ... do time travel storylines baffle you too? I think the last one I tried to get my head around was the Ethan Hawke movie 'Predestination' ... I just can't get that looping of time thing, like the events which happen that change the future - or is it the past - and which bits have to have happened in which order to make the next things happen. Nope, I give up. I'm putting on a romcom instead. ;-) 
As always we can continue this conversation via any of my online homes:

And I'll see you here or there, soon, or later on, or maybe even in the past ... I don't know ... I might need to read up on those time-travel paradoxes again ...