So Strange

Mark Hearld


Breakfast and worktable in one - Little Owl drawn out and ready to cut. 


Sublime Noise

Kevin Gardner, Waco, Texas

After a long dismal March - clouds nearly every day, relentless cold temperatures, and more rain than has ever been recorded in the first quarter of a year - spring has arrived in full glory here on the first day of April. For a few brief moments it was possible to bask in spring's sublime noises. As I took my daily constitutional, I heard not only birdsong but the laughing voices of children flying kites in the park. For a moment, I was oblivious to the terror around us, and my heart sprang up with hope. Then an ambulance went screaming by, and reality returned. A kite slipped back to earth. Back indoors, I take solace once again in the sublimity of Beethoven. 'Mir ist so wunderbar', the quartet from Fidelio, holds hope for today and the dark days to come.


Hello From the Hudson Valley

Sue, Lower Hudson Valley, New York

I have had an experience…  one made more poignant by the isolation we are all feeing and living now. The experience came via a fellow Instagramer… lacuevadecarracuca… a uniquely talented artist who lives on top of a mountain in Spain with dogs and horses. We have followed and have liked each other’s images (many of mine have been of my two dogs, Bo and Jay) for awhile now but have never communicated beyond that… until now.


This is the message I received: 

“Hi Susan, I have painted a small image of Bo and Jay. Do you mind if I put it on Instagram”  

(Bo our older dog died in February and we continue to feel incomplete without him). And there on my screen was the most eloquent tribute to him and to Jay. Not only beautiful, the picture of The Boys captured their personalities, their souls and the lovely dynamic which had flowed between them. It even included an antique french pottery hare from an earlier IG post of mine.  


As it happened, just when I received this image, Jay and I were on one of our peaceful, deserted, early morning hikes alongside a river. I had been thinking about Bo just then and wishing he were with us. He would have loved being there. In that moment, lacuevadecarracuca brought him back to me.  


A short while later, I received another message from lacuevadecarracuca to say that when the current virus situation has eased, she would like to send me the painting as a gift.  


With that, I no longer felt isolated from Bo…. and from what isolated living does not eliminate from life… kindness and thoughtfulness.


From the South Downs

Stephanie, Midhurst

Yesterday, I should have been travelling to Birmingham for a workshop on the Royal Literary Fund’s archive - another piece of work now moved online. After spending much time writing since lockdown, I decide that the cancellation of Birmingham gives me time to be practical and construct the flat pack greenhouse bench which I’ve left in its packaging for a few days to ensure it is virus free. The mystifying minimal diagram means I remake the wobbly thing several times. Curiously, the one specific written instruction is about finger-tightening only. Soon, my fingers are raw from screwing and unscrewing bolts and trying to make the screw holes fit together.


During my second attempt, a lovely neighbour who rents the back field from the local big estate, chats with us over the fence (at a distance). By some slippage, the chat segues from the virus causing society to rethink its values, to education, to science classes and then to questions of creationism over evolution. I don’t know why such a conversation should make me feel so anxious and uneasy. I like my neighbour very much – she’s kind and warm – and brought us a jar of jam when we moved in twenty-four years ago, but I feel uncomfortable discussing whether there is a creator and whether scientists themselves really believe in evolution. No doubt my mind should be on something bigger, but I’m distracted by the puzzle of the bench. She says, ‘We Jehovah’s Witnesses know where we stand in the stream of time.’ Her words resonate with the imagery of poets, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne, searching the universe for light and meaning. I read books about the history of the twentieth century, and understand some things about post-war life, the influences that shape and condition us, yet never think of where I stand in the stream of time in a bigger sense. Our neighbour ends our chat by urging us to look up creation on the JW website. I suppose normally she would knock on doors and now these mysteries are moved online, like everything else. We probably wouldn’t have had such a conversation before the pandemic, with life and death so overtly in the air.  


When we finally carry the gleaming greenhouse bench into the greenhouse – or excuse for a greenhouse (two storms and a pheasant mean there is only one complete side and much flapping plastic) – I realise that I don’t need to know the truth of creationism or evolution. Does it matter which is true? I move my seed trays and pots into place, hoping for life, health and nature to continue. On which thought, I go in and wash my hands for more than twenty seconds.


'The Drowning Dog'

Clarissa Upchurch, Wymondham

One of the most poignant paintings of a dog is the one which was painted by Goya on the wall of his house near Madrid in the early 1820’s. It is one from his series labelled ‘The Black Paintings’. Yes, a warning, we are going to get morbid now. Today is probably a black point in a trajectory on the sensation graph of my mind and heart after more than a week in isolation and hearing too much bad news! Besides the weather is dull and cold which adds to a feeling of desolation.  


Goya wasn’t feeling too great either when he moved in and started his paintings on the walls of his house. I am not going to give an art history lecture here. There is some information on the internet and the Prada, Madrid website is marvellous for viewing the painting.   


Goya, being deaf meant he was probably feeling isolated and alone. His painting of the dog has that feel about it. The dog in the overwhelming space, its head just above the bank of brown earth. Its eyes look very alert but also resigned.   


The painting led me to think of a writer friend who is deaf who voiced her fears over the long weeks and months ahead while she is trapped in her home. She is a very gregarious person, full of life but she will struggle to remain positive. I am also reminded of an ex- student struggling with anorexia. She has just been in a hospital for months as she was close to death. She is now on her own and I fear for her sanity and wellbeing. My oldest friend aged 93 had a stroke recently, was discharged after a week but is ill at home and needing antibiotics.   


‘Wiggins’ looks alert too but in a ‘take me for a walk’ sort of way, head cocked slightly, his eyes boring into mine. He has become resigned to floating in a nebulous space in the drawing (well it’s a pastel painting really) but he also looks very grounded. I am growing very fond of him and wish I could take him for a walk.


Without Art

Dawn Cliff, Yorkshire

Well, once again I have been missing for two days - I know it’s not as though I have anywhere to be! Actually plenty of places I feel I should be - with my dad readmitted and testing positive for the virus - with my mum in isolation and told to watch out for symptoms over next few days - with my youngest son (happy birthday darlin) but instead doing as I should but it’s difficult not to feel guilty. We are in contact by phone (except dad direct) and all have a chipper Yorkshire sense of humour so trying to keep one another’s spirits up. Next door, bless him a hyperactive builder who is obviously struggling with isolation has decided to jigger pick his drive up which sounds like giant dental treatment at its worst and Mollie the dog is convinced it is the beginning of the apocalypse so cannot settle for love nor money.  

I spent some time with John Berger the other day but the calming effect seems to have dwindled somewhat. Done some gluing and sticking but the jigger picking interfered with what little patience I had and it turned more into a thumping session with more paper stuck to me than any other surface! Spent some time with Gaugin and Francis Bacon inbetween phone calls although on reflection Francis wasn’t such a good choice for times “ a la stress”! I have Mark Gattiss documentary on Aubrey Beardsley for later (thoroughly enjoyed his doc on John Minton), phone by my side and aah - yes - I think the drilling has stopped- every cloud! Love Dawn x


We got this! This could be cool!

t, Rural Norfolk

I missed contributing yesterday. Aside of a sense of utter deflation as months of hard work culminated in launching a website with none of the planned events in place to support it, I also decided it was time to go to the supermarket. The one distracted me from the other, and everything else and I will admit that I was cranky.  


It took me until 3pm to pluck up the courage to get in the car and leave the village. I had decided it was better for me to go and shop in one big store than risk visiting multiple small stores. Not least because I can, and others locally are far more reliant on those little shops. I had no idea what to expect, but what I found was a peaceful orderliness. I was offered a trolley and pointed to a sanitiser bay. And then in store, within boundaries, I was able to do my usual random zig zag.


People were noticeably different, more engaged. There was heightened awareness of others, many smiles where previously there were none, and an elegant dance as trollies inevitably passed too close; a swerve at corners, a pause at an aisle already taken, a shimmy on passing. I was oddly reminded of the choreography of Akram Khan and could see the dancers on stage spinning with their trollies. The shadows that created would be incredible. The single checkout queue was long, but moved along efficiently, all so much more civilised than the usual scrum. Men were at work putting up screens at checkouts, my lady didn’t have one yet, they’d been promising all week, it was impossible to maintain distance. It occurred to me that all the other precautions; the myriad floor stickers, the bollards and signs channelling shoppers around the new traffic system, were undone as we all funnelled past the same checkout staff. 

I got everything on my list, the supply chain is clearly fine, for now and I realised just how much food must be sitting in warehouses for that to be the case. And I wondered how long it would last.  


I was relieved to be home. It wasn’t an unpleasant trip, but I didn’t like it, I didn’t like the hush, and wariness, and awkward smiles and more than anything, I didn’t want to see up close how abnormal things are out there. Aside of tenfold pedestrian traffic past our front wall (literally, 10 walkers a day where there might usually be one) it is completely possible to hide from the world out here, and pretend for moments that all is unchanged. I avoid the news, the constant speculation and factoids that are as unreliable as anything else we’ve been fed by the media in recent years. And I try to stay positive for the teen, whereas in fact, I suspect his pragmatism and positivity is carrying me. 


My closest friends are in the Netherlands, France and America. I hate the distance more than ever before, I am grateful they are safe, I ache for cancelled visits and trips, when we had rare and precious opportunities to spend time together. I hope the savings that went into those trips can be recouped at some point, and like everyone else, I try not to worry constantly about finances. I am enjoying the immense talent appearing in all walks of life as people turn to humour and creativity to pass the time. It is possible to feel there is nothing to be done, but in fact, there is. One of my favourite quotes: “Patience is not passive; on the contrary it is active; it is concentrated strength.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  


This afternoon, we have decided, it is time to bring out the board games. I'm going AFK now. I may be some time...


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

Shopping here has become even more peculiar, but at the same time thoughtfully secure: we needed gas for our cooker. Our hardware store now operates from the back door on a ‘one out, one in’ principle - just one person in the shop at any one time, and a notice imploring us not to browse. Since a big part of going there is to browse and impulse buy, the experience is a bit alien. The butchers next door has moved on from that modus operandi to serving from a table wedged in the doorway so no-one goes inside at all. You ask for for chops/sausages/whatever at the door, they wander off and get it, come back with the contactless card machine, push the bag like it was contraband towards you across the table and hold the terminal for you to present your card. No touching the terminal please. No physical contact, and all from a relatively safe distance. Good natured queuing outside, of course; that’s ok - it’s as much for my sake as theirs, more, probably. In response to this retail safety feature, ‘contactless’ is being increased from £30 to £45 this week.


The local General Auction Sale is on hold for the forseeable, so no rubbing shoulders among the good ol’ boys and tattooed wimmin of Acle, no rummaging in the household clearance boxes, no ‘barking’ of the guys on the travelling butchers wagon, selling their dubious meat. The little town has gone dark with the loss of the market, the hairdressers, the builders merchants, the mower shop, the pubs, the cafe. 


On the upside, it seems good things do come to the isolatory door of he/she who waits... friends bring me half a cabbage. There shall be greenstuff!

Yesterday’s briefing from No. 10 brought the awful news that we’re now at 2352 dead. Also, a new harbinger of doom: an early sign is loss of smell/taste. And, under mounting public pressure, a new pledge to get testing volume up. There are thousands of Health Workers at home in precautionary isolation, maybe unnecessarily - we need 16,000 for the new Nightingale Hospital alone. Shamefully only 2000 out of the 500,000 workforce have been tested. Also, still no news of sensible provision of protective gear for hospital staff - Southend Hospital threatens removing staff from danger if supply is not remedied... doctors throughout UK are dying.


National Treasure David Hockney greets us from self-isolation in Normandy with a new collection of Spring inspired drawings and advises us to rejoice in Nature, Food and Love - as they are, finally, all that matters.

Wimbledon, the Edinburgh Festival and Glastonbury are cancelled for this year. Probably Burlingham Open Gardens will have to declare similarly.


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

Checked my diary and found that on 2 April last year we were in lovely Wensleydale, where we revisited the Dales museum in Hawes. By chance a printmaker called Hester Cox was printing from the original wooden blocks created by Marie Hartley to illustrate the 1930s book on Wensleydale. Only a few days before we had been admiring the woodcuts in the book. Such are the simple pleasures in life that we miss most.

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