A letter to the Mars dweller

Hello to the citizen of Mars, reading this blog decades in my future. I like to think that blogs and the 'old' internet will prove to be a valuable historical research tool, in the same way that day to day diaries from the past are so fascinating to we Earth dwellers in the 21st century. I keep this blog occasionally updated for you, and for myself, so that my fifteen year old blog story doesn't suddenly end with a mysterious disappearance.

Despite a two month hiatus, for no other reason than I have nothing in particular to write about, I am surfacing again to record my experiences of the uncertain and often frightening period we find ourselves in; by the time you, dear Mars dweller, read this, it will have been given a name and doubtless many books and articles will have been written about it. So for you, my nameless reader, out there on another planet, these are the details of my life at present, inconsequential and trivial as they are. And despite some difficulties, I count my blessings every day.

For the time being, my Etsy shop is closed. It's the longest period I've taken it offline and I did it with sadness and some trepidation, as it was a valuable source of  income, albeit a modest one. However it's impossible for me to post any parcels now; before 'lock down' (and not being near a Post Office) I could wait at the post box at the top of the road and hand prepaid parcels to the nice postie who collects the mail, but it's not a risk I'm prepared to take now, for her or myself. 

Joe is a key worker - he has his ID and a covering letter from his company, in case he gets stopped by the police. He has no choice but to go to work, as a mental health support worker. We are minimising his contact with people as much as we can; he gets a taxi to and from his place of work, paying online beforehand (to avoid cash). Previously he kept the cost down by using the 'school bus' in the mornings and evenings when he could, but of course even that stopped two weeks ago. As a key worker, he gets a fare discount, which helps. His company were ahead of the curve with the situation and were already taking stringent measures a week before the government announcement. So he's as safe as he can be, though I am happier when he is at home.  

Food is not too bad. Living in the countryside without nearby shops or a car means that I always have at least two weeks worth of store cupboard and freezer food in hand. Almost all of our grocery shopping was, before this, done online. I took delivery of our last order ten days ago; a third of it was missing (and naturally those things were the things I wanted most; flour, pasta, rice etc). As my Etsy shop is shut, it will be the last delivery for sometime, while we haul our belts in. I have had several periods in my life when I was young and fending for myself, when I had little or no food and went hungry for days, living on one small meal or often nothing at all. More recently, Joe and I have been through similarly tough times, and had to ration food in order to pay the mortgage. So living simply is not an issue and I'm grateful for what we have, because there are people in far worse situations than we. 

Joe buys what he can from the 'we sell everything' shop near his workplace, just once a week to minimise contact. As long as we can get milk, bread and baked beans, we will be fine.

(I never thought I'd see the day when pasta become a once a week treat though; I hope that anyone who has stockpiled fifty bags or so actually eats it eventually).

We live a secluded life as it is and I have never been so thankful to be where we are. Yet even here, in the Shropshire countryside, the normally busy road outside the cottage has been eerily quiet. At any other time this would be a cause for relief, but not under these circumstances. My day to day routine has barely changed; I've been out in public twice in the last five months and barely talk to anyone in 'real life' apart from Joe and the occasional video chat with a best friend. I'm an introvert by nature, but I do, strangely, like the 'chatter' of other people's normal lives going on around me and I miss it. 

There was a day, back in 2013, a few months after Andy died, when I was in the bedroom, on a summery Sunday afternoon, trying to play my guitar. It was silent, save for the odd car passing. I was slowly coming to terms with my loss and finding myself so totally alone, unable to easily get anywhere for human interaction, in a strange county where I knew no-one.  It occurred to me that I could die, there and then, and nobody would realise for at least a week. During that terrible period, I looked loneliness and isolation in the face, trembled and then I stared it down. I slowly accepted that this was how things were and built a life in which I could cope. It's rather bizarre that this limited way of life is temporarily the norm globally, and while I am adjusted to living in my small bubble, I feel for those who need day to day human interaction.

One day, hopefully, this will be over. Our world will return to some kind of normal, though drastically changed and with great sacrifice by so many, especially front line health workers, our modern day heroes. So to you, my future reader from Mars, I send a little wave from the past and to anyone else reading this at present. Stay safe, stay at home if you can and be kind, because without kindness, we really are borked.

(P.S - find me more regularly on my Instagram account)


Little white buttons

While searching through an old sewing basket the other day, I came across these old linen buttons. I've had them for many years and they are not unfamiliar; usually I  simply admire the packaging and place them back, but this day, I took a proper look at them. I'd guess they are Victorian in age, or at the latest, Edwardian. Most of the buttons are still there, unused. They have a robust metal plug in the centre, because after all, they were almost certainly everyday shirt buttons and had to be hard-wearing.

I looked more closely and realised that they were all neatly blanket stitched around the edge - and such tiny stitches. Although this shouldn't have been a surprise, because the packet does proudly boast 'hand-made' on the cover. But hand made by whom? As an everyday item, they would have been made in their thousands - mass produced, but not by a machine. I have a feeling that whoever made these would have been in much need of the pitifully low wage that would have been paid for the creation of these 'Superior Quality' buttons. 

Those painstaking little stitches have been preying on my mind as I wonder - who made them? I think it's safe to assume that this would have been 'women's work' or even a task for children in those days. Were they paid by the hundred? Per packet? How many of these innocuous buttons would have had to be stitched, in order to earn enough for a loaf of bread? Was anything paid at all? After all, workhouses and homes for 'bad girls' or single mothers were very much a feature for poor people back then, often perceived as feckless and undeserving. Perhaps sewing these was a required unpaid task to stop the 'Devil making work for idle hands'. 

Let's not forget that linen frays quite badly, especially at this size, so careful handling and concentration would have been required.

I think those industrious hands and fingers would have been quite sore at the end of a day's work, whoever was making them. So I put the packet back in the old basket where they live, with mixed feelings and sent a thought out to the anonymous sewer, who stitched these workaday buttons so beautifully, for so little reward.  


Unstitching and restitching

I've been playing around with embellishments for a while now and am very much enjoying adding fancy bits to my work. I'm not sure whether to call it 'darning' or 'weaving' - I think possibly darning, as it is working on top of a surface. Anyhow, one evening this week I spent some time adding some embroidery (or darning) bling to a tail, using a rather lovely tangerine Perle thread. 

It's a bit thicker than the Danish threads I've been using. I don't know whether it was the change in feel, or that I was tired; but it didn't work. I plodded on regardless. Always a mistake when you have that nagging gut feeling that you should stop. Now.

By the time I'd finished,  knew it was wrong. I'd also pulled some dark brown wool fibres up into the darn, muddying the glorious colour. Time to put it down and think about bed. 

Looking at it the next day, I knew what I had to do. Tiny sharp scissors did the job.

The problem wasn't with the darning addition, but with the area I was working on. The tail need to be longer and more rooster like. I set about adding extra tailage. (Not a real word).

Much better. More balance. More working area.

And start again.

*Some time* (two hours) later. I can't think why I didn't do it it like this in the first place.


Untangling the threads

I've been using these threads a lot recently, on some new needle felt work. They are mostly Danish flower cottons. They are harder to get hold of in the UK, but I much prefer them to the thicker, stranded DMC embroidery threads. I've had mine for over twenty years and have always stored them in a vintage 1960s chocolate box, which has become more battered over the years.

The colours are subdued, but have a natural richness to them which I love. However, as you can see, they have become somewhat muddled. Tidying this rainbow melange has been on my 'to-do' list for a very long time. And this year, I finally tackled it. 

Gradually and over several days, I untangled the rats nest of threads, finding it strangely soothing and most satisfying to see the neatly wound pile of card bobbins growing. There are little lessons to be learned, in that brute force will not make a knot disappear. The thread has to be gently coaxed and drawn out softly.

Coincidentally, I have been rummaging through old papers and discovering notes and poetry snippets scribbled out many years ago. One caught my eye. The poem, rather like my tangled threads, needed some rearranging and tidying. I'm not sure why I wrote it, or what I was doing at the time, but it does express some of the quiet comfort to be found in 'doing' with one's hands.


There is darkness around her.
In the darkness, a basket.
She lifts the lid.
The shadows shift.

There is light in her hands.
In her hands, a needle.
The needle flashes.
The darkness retreats.

There is silk in the needle.
In the silk, a song.
The needle flies.
The silk sings.

The day begins.


Starting and finishing

Since losing Andy seven years ago, I find that the New Year doesn't really start until after the anniversary - for want of a better word - of his death. So today marks the finishing of my little batch of cards that I began painting a few weeks ago. It's also the first set of hand made cards I've made since then, intended for a few friends, especially those I don't have much contact with. 

I'm very aware that I have a tendency to drag these things out, so last year, when I had an idea for a design (and knew I wasn't going to do it then), I scribbled it down in a sketchbook.

When I came back to it, I redrew it slightly - just a biro scribble to give me a traceable image.

And an even rougher draft, taking away the loosely shaped 'pond'. I should add that the original plan was to make a lino cut, but the front room, where my press is set up, is unheated and freezing at this time of year.  I decided to hand paint them all.

I had in mind very rich, seasonal colours, but I couldn't make it work. Now I was starting to get myself in a bit of a knot about 'The Card'.

So I lightened the colours up and removed the background. It all went a bit pastel, but that was OK as it was a New Year card after all.

I printed the inner greeting out. In a perfect world I would have letter pressed it, but I couldn't face the cold print room and a need to just get it done led me to my trusty computer printer. Then I made a classic 'me' mistake and painted the first one up on the wrong side. Ho hum.

But  I took a deep breath and carried on. Not just painting, but adding coloured pencil and then not one but two grades of graphite pencil detail. Just to make it more of an effort, because I do have a tendency to make a meal of things.

And now it is the time of year that I dread the most. Some years are better, some worse. But today I have finished my final 2020 card and feel some small sense of achievement. My desk is clear and ready for my own personal New Year. I will make a pie for my lovely Joe and be thankful that I not only survived the worst time of my life, but somehow found the courage to love again. 

From the three 'Fish Kings', Joe and myself, I wish everyone reading this a belated Happy New Year. Here's to all our tomorrows.


Little boat on button wheels

Good ideas can jump on you suddenly and not always at the most convenient moment. I was working on something else entirely in my studio, when an idea for a funny little boat on button wheels popped into my head. I do try to be disciplined about not 'project hopping', as it only leads (in my case)  to muddle and half finished things, so I did what I have always done and grabbed a spare scrap of paper - part of an old receipt in this case - and scribbled it down hastily.

The next day, I put aside twenty minutes to sketch it up properly. while it was still fresh. I do like a nice, tidy sketch, but there is something joyous and free about the very first little thumbnail, with its amendments and notes.

I won't be able to tackle this for some time, but there is already a corner in my mind that is considering the very important issue of - what buttons to use?


Old lane connecting

This is a tiny, pot holed lane that connects us to the nearest shop. You go down a hill, up a hill and there, lurking to the side of the road, is the dark, tree lined entrance to a narrow, muddy uphill track that is still used by locals and farmers. It is quite extraordinary the size of tractor that comes through here; it is quiet at this time of year, but in the summer I have been forced to climb up into the bank, hauling Marjorie, my dear old bike, up with me, to give way. A few weeks ago, the lane was closed due to a mudslide completely blocking it off.

There is a wider lane, further along, but I prefer this one. The high banks indicate that it has been used by travellers - whether by foot, bike, or indeed, tractor, for many years. In the end, it plateaus out to show the broad vista of the Shropshire landscape and the surrounding hills.

The shop itself is about two and a half miles away. It's a nondescript affair on the side of a busy road,  consisting of a garage, Post Office and general stores. While not particularly picturesque, it's a valuable asset to those of us living in the area. I enjoyed my cycle there, bought my few things and made my way home.

We have had weeks of heavy rain and parts of Shropshire have been badly flooded. Today was a stunner though and even the brooding Wrekin in the distance, showed its head above the trees.

The one village I pass through (more of a hamlet really) is best seen from a particular gateway, where the squat, squared church tower can just be made out and the trees cast long winter shadows.

After a mild autumn, the cold is creeping in and finally the leaves are turning, their colours glowing in the remaining puddles, a reminder of the less clement weather we have endured recently.

Heading home, and free wheeling back down into the tunnel of trees, on the old lane. I have to slow several times, to avoid going down deep potholes, but when I arrive home my head is swirling with images of an ancient road that has connected our remote clusters of houses and cottages for centuries.


Pink Fir Apples

The field next door has been ploughed for the first time since I moved in, seven years ago. It's somewhat dramatic, but I do like a nice spread of tidy earth.

The time has come to sort the vegetable patch, depending on the weather of course.  One of the small crops of potatoes I planted in the Spring were Pink fir Apples. I first came across these many years ago in Waitrose (not my usual shopping habitat, but it is good for wandering round, window shopping).  They were rather expensive for my budget, but I bought some, as I liked the quirky shapes. They were quite delicious and I've tried growing them twice since, with limited success as they never grew to anything much.

However, I gave them another go this year and we had an initial dig in July. Again, I was disappointed with the size. Three plants gave us this amount of tubers, which when washed, looked alarming like baby rats. They were excellent though, steamed and buttered. 

Before I gave up on Pink fir Apples once and for all, I did a web search for tips. and discovered to my surprise, that they were not, as I had always presumed, 'earlies', (summer croppers) but one of the longest growing main crop potatoes, needing at least two months more in the ground before harvesting. So we left them. And waited.

Last night I took my big garden fork out into the dwindling light and began digging under the now-dead top growth. What a difference three months had made. I couldn't help but wish I'd done my research beforehand, as the first baby crop would have been so much more prolific had I left them to grow. However, lesson learned and something to aim for next year. 

I've had quite an interesting response to these on my Instagram account - they do still seem to be a rarity over here, though some people have tried and enjoyed them. An Argentinian follower told me that over there they are known as 'Papines' or loosely translated, 'little potato', so I'm guessing that they are a more exotic species in the UK than the traditional King Edwards, but well worth growing if you don't make my initial mistake and dig them up too before their prime.


Ewe Tree

After being flattened by what can only be called 'the first lurgy of winter', I finally got  round to finishing off a small artwork I began several weeks ago, 'Ewe Tree'. As you can see, it was inspired by one of my recent needle felted landscapes 'Shepherd's Cottage'. I recorded the initial stages on my Instagram account - this not only shares my work process with my followers, but also helps my flagging confidence when I get to the horrid mid-way stage.

I love layering barely tinted washes. They are left to dry naturally (no hair dryer short cuts). I keep an eye on each wash as it dries out, until I am sure I can safely leave it to finish off overnight, with no unintentional blotches. Then I put down the punchier colour work.

But to return to the horrid mid-way stage. This is when all the colour work is done and the whole thing has an fuzzy, unfinished look. Time to tighten it up with some minimal pencil work, which pulls the whole thing together. There is a trick to knowing when to stop, so that the lovely granulation and natural paint patterns can work their visual magic.

This piece was specifically designed for the round window mount that it comes with, but I have left the surrounding 'bleed' that you can see in the above picture, for alternative mounting. 'Ewe Tree' is, as I write, available for sale in the artworks section of my Etsy shop.   

Having achieved my first finished artwork of the year, I ordered some professionally printed Giclée art prints on lovely Hahnemühle Photo Rag Pearl 320gsm paper, as I know that not everyone can stretch to buying an original artwork. They are available with mounts in the prints section of my shop, with free UK shipping.

The prints are also presented in the same sized mount, but being slightly larger, the aperture size is bigger. Again, I have left the surrounding area underneath intact, as I am sure that not everyone is as obsessed with circular art as I am and may have their own idea about how they would like to view it. 

If they go well, I will be delving into my archives to have other artwork made into prints. And of course, picking up my paintbrushes again.