Off the Rails

You might expect that, now I am at leisure and living beyond the end of that line, I’d have had lots more opportunities to write, and would be producing blog posts by the dozen – but in fact it’s not been until now that I felt one coming on. It’s partly the need to reorientate my perspective on everyday life, while at the same time getting to grips with all the jobs around the house and garden that have been neglected until now. And of course I don’t any longer have that strangely stimulating combination of movement, crowding and solitude which, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, daily train travel provides. So far I’m actually finding less time to read, rather than more – a matter I shall have to put right.

But, behind it all, I do feel some sort of altered perception quietly forming itself. I’m finding a quiet pleasure in repetitive, mentally undemanding tasks – maybe many of us need more of this sort of offline activity in which to make some sort of space to stretch our mental limbs. However for now, I’d just like to revisit my first week of retirement, which was something in the nature of a holiday. We did a little bit of gentle travelling which gave me plenty of opportunity to just look, in the spirit of innocence that I wrote about last time. And so here are a few highlights, revisited with the help of some photos and not too much commentary.

The middle of the week saw us in Sussex, up on the South Downs. I hope this picture, taken in the high clump of trees known as Chanctonbury Ring, gives a feel of the day:

Chanctonbury RingAnd a few days after this rare rural idyll, we were in  a city – Norwich, which I often visit for family reasons. Like all cities which have a long and rich history but are still thriving, there are piquant juxtapositions of old, young (and perhaps middle aged) wherever you look. Here’s one I happened to record:

In NorwichOr there is just the old – sun on the cloisters at Norwich Cathedral:

Norwich Cathedral cloistersAnd in the cathedral itself, there’s an evocative artwork by the Brazilian sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco:

Ana Pacheco sculptureWe are told it’s based on a scene from Virgil’s Aenead – Aeneas carrying his father from the ruins of Troy. I found it quite compelling – it’s the size of the faces, and the way their expressions are rendered, that commands your attention. The style seems like a blend of contemporary and medieval, giving a sense of the timelessness of the emotions depicted; and the cathedral setting adds to this. It put me in mind of some of the topics I’ve thought of writing about here: current attitudes to religion, and how humans and their ways of thinking can change (and also how they don’t change) across time.

More about the artwork here while the exhibition is on.

Venice and the Hand of God

Commuting days until retirement: 460

Venice02It’s now two weeks since the Venice visit I mentioned last time, and I haven’t had sufficient reflection time to conjure up a blog about it, or about anything else for that matter. But looking at some of my photos has brought it back to mind – so here we go.

Venice06It has been the first time my wife and I have gone there together, if we discount an impossibly hot day spent there 12 years ago with the children, who then still were children. This time, among the beautiful, ancient architecture and the rampant tourism, it struck me how there is nowhere else I know that history mixes so intimately with brash modernity. Everywhere you are surrounded by the fading grandeur that Italy does so much better than anywhere else. Like a party of very elderly ladies on Blackpool beach, the clustered buildings wrap their gothic dignity about them, persisting serenely among the seething bees’ nest of tourist activity that has its focus in the scrum of St Mark’s Square.

We approach the square on a warm day over a crowded canal bridge, and as we climb the steps we are buffeted by our fellow tourists’ backpacks and factor 10 smeared elbows. Just as Venice05we reach the top, the Bridge of Sighs comes into view, and there’s a frenzy of digitally simulated shutter clicks. On we go, and brave the queue to get into the Doge’s Palace, then being rewarded with its gorgeous art and architecture. We pass under Tintoretto’s spectacular battle scenes, and before leaving walk through a long succession of halls filled with vicious medieval weapons of war. They shift your perception from Venice as a graceful old lady, to appreciating it as a city state jealously guarding its position in the rivalry and commercialism of the middle ages.

On, and out into the warren of alleyways among the buildings packed between the canals. Muscular men scurry around the strolling tee-shirted and camera-clad visitors, dragging laden trolleys of goods to restock the tourist shops. The background sound is of the canal water slapping against the mildewed brickwork, where pink stuccoed gothic descends into its muddy, hidden foundations. We take a vaporetto to see the city from the water, and my first, uninspired photo from the boat turns out to have an addition I don’t notice when I took it:

Venice04It adds something to what would have been an unoriginal image – the hand of God? Well if  so, it’s conspicuously absent thereafter. One day and a few mosquito bites later, we set out for some of the outer islands. On Murano there are the glassblowers, nonchalantly practising their lifetime, unfathomable skills in front of us gawping tourists.

Burano1And then Burano, where we are struck by the leaning church tower, which I hadn’t known about. Well, the hand of God has had hundreds of years to do something about that – but no luck.

This island is known for its colourful houses – apparently if you want to paint your house here you have to apply to the local authority, which will graciously assign you a colour. We spent some time wondering whether the washing hung out at the front (very Italian) was deliberately colour co-ordinated with each house.

Burano2Next stop, just opposite Burano, is the peaceful, rural island of Torcello – seeming particularly quiet and pastoral after Venice itself. My only pious intention of our visit was to go to the church of Santa Maria del Assunta, one of Europe’s oldest. It boasts spectacular 11th century mosaics over the altar. I was lucky enough to see these, nearly 30 years ago, on a work trip, and wanted to refresh my memory. We realised the time had got to 5.45, and our guide book said it was open until 6. But the sign when we got there, in English: Last entry 5.30. We tracked down the man in charge, but he was adamant. No go. So the hand of God was not willing to make another appearance on our behalf.

Ah well – next time, perhaps – if He grants me another 30 years.

It’s commuting, but not as we know it

Commuting days until retirement: 487

No commuting this week: we are spending our Easter holiday, as we have for several years now, on Scilly, a group of islands 30 miles off the coast of south west England. And this break in the usual rhythm of my life is a chance to – among other things – think about the differing rhythms of some other lives. I believe the island where we are staying, Bryher, is the smallest inhabited one of the group – it has a permanent population of about 80, added to seasonally by people like us.

Imagine an island about two miles long, with the mildest climate in the British Isles. Its south-eastern end, sheltered, with palm trees and colourful flowers, has an almost tropical feel (Green Bay), while its north-eastern extremity consists of moorland covered in heather and ending in cliffs facing out into the Atlantic storms (Hell Bay). To live here is to be permanently surrounded by exceptionally beautiful, almost deserted, scenery. In order to enjoy this you’d have to accept being cut off from the mainland – in the sense that it requires an expensive boat or plane trip to get there. You have phone, TV/radio and the internet, of course (eagerly adopted by these islands when it arrived), but work here mostly consists of farming or servicing the tourist trade – in other words a lot of tough manual labour.

But there are other blessings: almost no motorised transport, apart from tractors, quad bikes and a few Land Rovers, and a complete absence of crime. Nobody locks their doors, and if you’ve ordered food from the shop it may be delivered while you’re out, neatly put away in your kitchen or fridge. It’s perfect for idle holidaymakers like us: there’s a hotel, two other restaurants, a well-stocked shop and, as of this year we discover, even a pizza takeaway open two evenings a week.

Scilly-commute0Commuting, where it exists, is of course something completely different – maybe by boat, between islands. Young children here commute to school by a short boat trip to the next island, and older ones board weekly at a secondary school on the largest island. But here’s a commute which I rate as the most desirable I have ever come across. There’s an artist who works on the island, and has what seems to be a good living. Paintings in his recognisable style appear in hotels and other settings around the islands as well as the nearby mainland. The island hotel has adopted a detail from one of his paintings as its logo, and he sells prints and merchandise to many of us tourists. In the picture below you can see where he lives and where he works. This is a commute that I could put up with indefinitely.

Scilly-commute2