Tuesday, January 26, 2016

January ticking over

I don't seem to have checked in here for a bit. An agreeable number of small, fairly constructive projects and events have been occupying me, here are one or two.

My first week or so of recording for Librivox. I've used them a lot over the last couple of years, and very much admire the aims and ethos of the project, an appreciation which has grown since actually becoming involved, it really is a work of patience and integrity. It struck to me as a worthwhile and useful outside activity to which I could commit some time and effort without in fact having to leave the house. It does demand, however, an early start - for quiet, solitude, concentration, lack of self-consciousness and free time on the big computer -  respecting external deadlines, learning some new technical stuff with the software which I find not intuitive and fairly challenging - they don't turn anyone away because of their reading skills or lack of them, but do insist on the recording quality being as good as possible and a level of self-editing with it. I also find that it's helping with the lack of focus I mentioned before; reading with a view to reading aloud demands an attention to detail and meaning, like making yourself chew small mouthfuls. I'm getting over my intense, if fairly normal, dislike of my own recorded voice, and possibly improving it a bit, trying, with care but not too much artifice, to smooth out the staccato crackle I always thought made me sound like a petulant six year old, and the occasional sliding into sloppy Estuary vowels (Hertfordshire isn't quite on the Thames estuary, it's true, but it's heading that way.).

All of which is doing me great good, and it's also rather fun.

Early morning recording session

As may be seen, my recording arrangements are rather makeshift. I very quickly realised that the flimsy cheap desktop microphone is unsatisfactory, or rather unsatisfying, since with a bit of fiddling with the software an adequate sound track can be achieved, but I find myself hankering for something better, more solid, more directed, which doesn't require balancing on a pile of books and total physical immobility other than moving one's lips, and, I admit it, which looks rather more the business. Another volunteer compared it to taking up tennis, at first you make do with your cousin's old cast-off racket, then when you start really enjoying the game you start wanting a good one of your own. So I've got a rather nice looking Samson on a little stand on order; it's cheaper than a tennis racket, honestly.

While with many of the more obscure texts one might be inclined to wonder why bother to record them and who will ever listen, I can see that that's not entirely the point, it's really more like archiving or even archaeology, a question of faithful and patient excavation and recording, in the broader sense of the word. Yet despite all the work that Librivox have put in over the last ten years (and they don't object to duplication anyway), there are plenty of interesting and delightful books still unrecorded.  So far, and it's been fairly slow going to get the hang of what I'm doing, I've recorded half a dozen Alice Meynell poems, one of a collection of Irish folk and fairly tales, collected by Yeats and Lady Wilde and others, about a smartarse atheist priest who gets his comeuppance, and I'm working on two chapters of the second book of William Morris's The Well at the World's End, of which I'm also listening to the first book. Odd to be immersing so in Victoriana, much of it so heavy, ornate, ponderous and melancholy, like some of the furniture I grew up with. Yet beyond the distracting noise of the language, Meynell's 'thees' and 'thous' and aura of religiosity, and Morris's sometimes quite impenetrable emblazoned mediaeval pastiche, sometimes some true and fresh psychological awareness or sweet originality of observation shines through. Good to be renewing my fondness for Morris too, apart from anything else, I think, despite the historical image he has sadly inherited of Rosetti's put-upon cuckold, consoling himself with beardy, romantic Utopianism and pretty curtains, he honestly liked and wanted to understand women in a spirit of real generosity, friendship and admiration.


Still knitting plenty, of course, amongst which my first foray into Icelandic wool, which was in fact three balls of the standard (ie pretty heavy) weight Lopi which I bought not in Iceland but Amsterdam back in September. I felted a sample of it, and went on to make a felt hat. Long ago I had a Nepalese round hat, a kind of pill box shape with a gold-yellow crown and a coloured patterned band around it, which fitted perfectly and always made me feel good. Don't know what happened to it, but I've often thought I'd like to re-create something like it. On this occasion I did not succeed.

The combination of the felting and the depth of the crown looked kind of nice off but wearing it feels like my head is being squeezed inward and upward (can't bring myself to enlarge this photo).  I made the design myself, tulips from Amsterdam, I'm fond of yellow tulips and like ochre shades but can't wear any great expanse of them. However, I have found another use for it as a receptacle for other knitting.


Trouble is the tulips are upside down, I should have stuck with an abstract pattern. It would work quite well as a busker's hat for collecting money in.

I've been on a mitten-making binge too, here are a couple of mitten still lifes.

I find homes for them or keep them.

Even more totally frivolous playing about with colour, I discovered this site, where you can make those kind of colour palettes I see all the time on Pinterest and elsewhere. You simply upload a photo URL, or use one they randomy generate, to pick out colours and make a palette selection, either by clicking directly on an area of the photo or using the grid of shades which the software automatically extracts for you. Here's one from a photo I took of the lake in Reykjavik in the twilight:

and another of a Reykjavik street view, I loved having mountains at the end of the street

and another of darling Molly in the garden on a summer day, not long before she left us

People use them supposedly for decorating schemes, or quilts, or their next season's wardrobe, or whatever, but while I like to imagine knitting handsome Icelandic wool pullovers from the colours of the townscapes, I probably won't get around to it, really it's just a way of pleasantly idling a few minutes when I doubtless ought to be doing something more useful.

Like pulling the school bus out of the ditch just up the road, where it finished up on a morning of scarcely visible black ice which took everyone by surprise:

Not having access to the heavy plant required for this task, I couldn't have done this, though I did go up and offer the lady driver shelter and a cup of coffee, and to commiserate with her on her vehicle's de-roaded state, sharing with her the memory of the time when a full cement mixer truck had done the same thing and had to be left there overnight, no longer turning so presumably the concrete within must have solidified and had to be extracted by heaven knows what process. She declined the coffee as she was waiting for her boss to come and sort things out, the children having been already transferred to another bus. Indeed, a surprising number of people appeared as from nowhere, offering their help and company and curiosity, including Victor of course, next to whose patch the event occurred:

Then Ludovic from next door-but-one who works for the municipality  in some capacity with gear and tackle and some other blokes with a van and the shiny blue commune tractor arrived and the consequent confab lasted a good hour or so, by which time I, like Victor, had retired back to the house, taking photos from the upstairs window. Finally the bus was removed from the ditch and driven off, and life in the village resumed its habitual January quiet.

Which quiet I am greatly enjoying, with some worthwhile projects and agreeable home-based activities, a few other plans still untroublingly small on the horizon. The ice on the road was exceptional, the winter is generally mild and manageable. I walk often, dance sometimes, scarcely visit the garden, mull but don't mope. Sic transit January. Time to go make postcards of my sister's quilts.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Speakers, 'phones, swifts and winders: in praise of stuff

In Jan Krul's Werel-Hatende Nootsaackelijke (On the Necessity of Other Worldliness) the poet wrote that "an overflow of treasures afflicts the heart and buries the soul in the deepest travail"... The playwright Vondel, no Calvinist, warned in similar terms that Amsterdam was "smothered and softened from such an overflow of goods [stof]"

The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama.

I've been thinking about stuff. Interesting that almost the same word was used the Dutch at that time (early 17th century) with much the same sense as it is now: things you didn't need, worldly clutter, unnecessary material overload. And people had the same ambivalent relationship with it, seeking to acquire it and feeling guilty about it, or claiming to. Sometimes the guilt is about it being to one's spiritual detriment, sometimes that it will get in the way of our human relationships, or that it will soften up our collective moral fibre. It was ever thus, as the above quotes, and many more, way back to scripture and the Roman Empire at least, show; dualism may have been condemned as heresy but there has always been a tension for human beings between matter and spirit, it seems to me, with a fear that the former is the enemy of the latter.

I tend to think I'm someone who neither has, needs or wants too much stuff, but then don't we all? Yet I'm always somewhat wary when I hear tirades about the rampant materialism and consumerism the world is apparently sinking under, partly because I can't quite believe it, though I dare say it's true, that people are really so obsessively greedy and materialist and wastefully acquisitive, spending (like all the Athenians and strangers which were there) their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear - or to acquire - some new thing. Also though, I often feel such tirades to be a rather knee-jerk, glib unsatisfactory reaction to our relationship with stuff. 

One of the most frequent truisms, and good money has been spent, I've heard, on studies to establish it, is that happiness is not to be found in the acquisition of goods, of the latest toy or piece of technology, but in joyful interaction with our fellow humans, and in enjoyable experiences. I'm a bit sceptical about the two things being necessarily related, but that aside, what's most of the stuff people acquire for, in fact? Communication, contact, furthering their relations with their friends and relations - indeed the problem often seems to be not that people are becoming remote and alienated from each other that they have too much unremitting connection and availability demanded of them. Otherwise, though, the stuff we acquire serves to help us enjoy the experience of music, film, reading etc, or to research and get closer to all the obscure and wonderful and fascinating things the world contains. Surely these things can be food for the soul? I know there are people who love and hoard useless trinklements, but I think mostly, as we get older anyway, that what we want is to pursue, experience and hold in the mind or the hand for a moment, our idea of beauty, whatever form that takes. I know this is the ideal, and that technology can also be used to further hatred and abuse and all things toxic and ugly, but either way, matter is no more or less than the means to the spirit. 

So I'm quite in favour of stuff I think, within reason. Among that which I personally acquired this Christmas (I order it then give the parcels to Tom to give to me at the appropriate time), was a small Bluetooth speaker - (it's only taken me about fifteen years to know what Bluetooth means)

(black object on the left)

This was in order to listen to podcasts, music and other audio from the small computer anywhere, usually while sitting on my backside making more stuff to fill the world, as can be seen. It's rather bothersome, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I find now that simply reading alone is becoming quite difficult; I grow restless and find it hard to concentrate, I need something in my hands, knitting of course, but it's not really so easy to do both. I don't know why this is, I fear too much knitting is quite literally scattering my wits (if wits can be literal, being an abstract concept...); I've grown too used to sitting and allowing my thoughts to wander. On the other hand, knitting alone, long tracts of time with just wool and my meandering, often repetitive and inconsequential, sometimes troubling, thoughts, can become heavy or just boring; improving listening is the answer, mind and hands being put to work at once.

The speaker was OK, good to be without the wires so I didn't end up tangled up in yarn and cable like a woolly-minded suicide bomber, or a knitting version of those telepathic people the Shadows put in their space ships in Babylon 5, or something, though the range isn't great. However, part of the point was for Tom and I to be able to retire to our own little bubbles of conciousness sometimes without disturbing each other, and having the speaker chuntering away didn't really serve this end. I found I could stick the cabled headphones into it, but that rather defeated the purpose, and anyway, doing so caused the speaker itself to pack up altogether, so I sent it all back and replaced it with a set of wireless headphones, which are so far so good, and a very cheap, supposedly waterproof, speaker for the odd occasion when it might be useful.

Our on-line retail haul of electronic-related stuff
In fact it seems to me that technology, rather than increasing it, is tending towards reducing the physical stuff, simplifying and minimising the volume of the hardware, aiming towards smaller and smaller units performing more and more functions, and more of these taking place directly on-line. I don't go in for very much of this myself; my 'phone is a 'phone, with an extra mobile one to be mobile, my camera is a camera, with a card which I stick in the big computer to download and edit the photos there, my e-reader is pale grey with buttons. This is because I don't care to replace things till I have to, am rather lazy about learning new operating skills till I have to, and while all these things are getting cheaper all the time too, I think I can still save more money by making do and mending and bolting on extra bits if I have to, which was how I saw the Bluetooth stuff. After all the excitement with that, as a gesture of frugality, I thought it would be a good idea to prolong the life of our fourteen year old dumbphones, which were needing to be kept almost continually on charge, so that I frequently forgot to take mine out with me, by getting them new batteries. Unfortunately, while the batteries were apparently unused, with their stickers still in place, I imagine they may be nearly as old as the mobiles, and don't seem to hold the charge much better than the old ones. Never mind, they cost little, and it puts off decisions about replacement a little longer. 

In fact I am wilfully reluctant about phones, or about vocal telephonic interaction anyway, as I may have said before, though I know a smartphone would allow me to avoid it by being able to text and e-mail anywhere, as well as other benefits. It turns out the main use of the wireless speaker is to use it in conjunction with one's 'phone, so one needn't can't under any pretext curtail a 'phone conversation. Awful idea, a kind of telephonic Sartrian huit clos, IMO. 

Or else people use them for Skype. 

'Skype's marvellous!', asserts my 80+ year old friend J, 'I can be on it with so-and-so for an hour, it's free, and you can see the person!'.

'I'm sure,' I reply 'but I don't want anything to do with it'. 

I've been dragged into Skype conversations with her family, I feel horribly trapped, self-conscious, intruding and intruded on, and everyone looks weird. I'm sure it's just me, and I'd probably get used to it if I had to. Most of the people I know who really love it are grandmothers. Pace Skype users, I know you're the normal sensible ones and I'm not.


Stuff, of course also has the old sense of fabric, cloth, which I suppose has always been one of the ways in which conspicuous consumption could manifest itself. I like stuff like that, too; though I really don't trouble with or spend much on clothes per se, I certainly accumulate more than I can ever use of the stuff that makes stuff. Some of this comes in skeins (or hanks, maybe there's a Brit/US divergence there), which are lovely and solid and feel like something very ancient in their design. Problem is you can't knit from wool in the skein, so it needs to be wound. Tom has always been very good about taking on the traditional tamed man's role of holding and moving the skein for me to wind, but he's not always available, and also, hand wound balls are round, the wool being pulled from the outside, so they bounce around and get dirty, and are a nuisance, even if you don't have a kitten around to do the archetypal kitten thing.

So, I treated myself to a swift and a winder.

The swift is the thing you stretch the wool onto, which takes the place of Tom. This one is an Amish design, very simple with just a stand, arms and moveable pegs, but remarkably smooth and fast in its action, and I do believe a thing of beauty.

The winder, well it winds. But it does it in such a way that instead of a bouncy round ball you have a delightful little cylindrical cake of wool, which remains stable while you draw the thread from the centre. This is formed in such a way that the wool is layered in a kind of honeycomb construction:

Boxing Day afternoon was spent in a blissful whirl, swift and winder spinning in hypnotic wise, winter sun through the window, colour and feel of yarn through my fingers. It took me back to childhood Christmases, when one had toys and things to make things with to set up and play with and put to work; till one put away childish things and only had books and records and such like, things where the interaction was, if not more passive, more within the mind. I had forgotten the pleasure. 

Sadly, I very quickly wound up most of the yarn I have in skeins, even resorting to turning the tapestry wool into tiny cakes, and have no more to play with. It's tempting to go out and buy more, or go internet shopping for it, just for the fun of winding it, but I'll have to knit some up to make room for it first. 

Enough's enough when it comes to stuff.

Turn it off and KNIT something!:
'Turn it off and KNIT something!'