Of things moveable and immoveable

Of things immovable…

December opens and the starter gun for the race to Christmas reverberates around our household.

Today, the crossfire centres around a gentle but long-rumbling battle over the 4ft x18″ length of pine which forms the top of the old seld, (‘seld’ being the word used in south Wales to describe the piece of furniture which most of Britain would think of as a ‘welsh dresser’).

 

 
 

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The seld has dominated the same wall of my family’s living space for the last eighty years. I’ve been familiar with its shelves for only half that time but the pieces of china and silverware displayed there have barely moved since 1924, other than to be ritually washed or cleaned once a year and then replaced with reverence.

The very first time they were placed there it would have been by my grandmother’s hands, tentatively deciding exactly where each of her new wedding presents should find its future ‘home’. In fact the seld itself was a wedding present, commissioned by the groom’s father as a copy of their family seld which still stands today – as it has since 1902 – in their rather grander house next door. My roots run deep in this small patch of earth.

I say ‘tentatively’ both because I can imagine the care with which she would have handled her delicate treasures and also because she would, no doubt, have felt intense pressure to please and placate her formidable new and neighbouring mother-in-law who considered the marriage to be ‘beneath’ her only son. In fact I can almost feel her fingers tremble across the decades, grasping for the approval which never, ever came. Nonetheless it was a happy match, marred only by her ill health and the continual struggle to purchase medical care out of the meagre wages of a stonemason.

On her relatively young death in 1944, care of the seld – along with the household and its habitants – fell to her 18 year old daughter Edna. And from that day on, it understandably took on a new, almost shrine-like importance in the household. Even 20 years later, I grew up learning the catechism of not just where each item went but also of each piece’s provenance, documented in my grandmother’s hand in an inventory titled ‘our list of wedding presents’. There were stories, too, surrounding some of the items, which gave the yellowed piece of paper an extra dimension, the givers reaching out across the decades to make my acquaintance. And on Edna’s death in 2001, care of the seld passed to me. It is quite an inheritance; both ancestral blessing and burden; the last of the ‘immoveables’.

The word ‘immoveable’, of course, suggests an utterly unchanging state. It will not shift; I cannot budge it; this parrot is extinct. To hint, as I’ve just done, that some things once immovable have now shifted is to rather question the absolute intransigence of the situation. It undermines the ‘im’. It provokes reasonable queries like ‘how hard did you really push in the first place?’

I’d answer that the wake of bereavement is a long drag. At first any physical reminder of loss – a bare wardrobe, an ugly ornament stashed away or a favourite chair removed, even though its emptiness just hurls back bleak echoes – screams betrayal, infidelity. Everything is immoveable.

But time heals grief – no matter how large the hole – first numbing, then patching, then, eventually, mending. Its darning yarn may not match perfectly, there will be days when you feel the needle digging in sharply, but one morning you will wake and find that it no longer matters so very much. And as those days pass, things that were once immovable, actions that were once unthinkable, will be both moved and thought.

As the years have passed then – bit by bit – the things I want to have around me have started to gain supremacy and other items have disappeared. Some (almost all things I consider to be ‘mine’ from the past and as such much easier to part with) have gone to charity shops. Things dear to others have been packed away. I’m not saying that what’s left all passes the William Morris rule of thumb, some items still being of purely sentimental rather than aesthetic or practical value, but at least it’s me who’s fond of them. And the result is an eclectic but happy mix of ancient and modern, not a mausoleum within which only the living end up buried.

 

On the mantelpiece, un-growling china dogs sit haunch by side with glowing chunks of labradorite. The wall cupboard now clinks with a large selection of glasses as well as the tea-set only brought out for funerals and my grandfather’s large collection of bibles, hymnals and improving tracts have been usurped by DVDs. That was a tough one and I still feel I ought to take one or two of the titles out of there…

 

 
 

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The ‘feel’ of the house is changing too; ‘serviceable’ dark wallpaper has been stripped off to reveal the beautiful ‘ugly old’ walls and bare board ceilings have been liberated from the ‘so practical’ blank chess board of polystyrene tiles – a task which brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘immovable’, each of the four blobs of tile cement gluing each individual tile in place having to be sanded off, blindly, overhead. I’m sure they formed the ‘nyah nyah ni nyah nya’ taunt in Braille.

 

The seld, however, is the last bastion. Although I have my own collection of special pottery which would look perfect there… although I’d love to strip off the old varnish, to alter the altar requires me not only to dishonour the union of my grandparents but also to tread on the toes of three generations – and that’s a big potential ‘ouch’. So in six years, nothing has been removed from it and only one item has been added; a tiny pewter ladle, its bowl cast from a limpet shell. A gift from mum’s dearest friend, it intuitively felt ‘special’ enough to gain ‘seld status’.

Of molluscs…

Limpets, incidentally, are interesting creatures – and fairly immoveable in themselves, as any crab-bait gatherer will know. Although they first become sexually active as males, they eventually ‘grow up’ to be female… clamped tight to the rock whenever above water level by their single ‘foot’ and mucus (from which I suspect polystyrene tile adhesive is manufactured). When submerged, they wander around (by undulation, rather than hopping) and graze on algae – sometimes actually ‘gardening’ it. They ‘home’ too, but need to follow a trail of scented mucus back to base, making their potential as carriers of even particularly unimportant messages a tad limited…

Of tradition…

Anyway, the limpet ladle needs no trail, looking very ‘at home’ already as its dull lustre harmonises with silverware now polished less often than it ‘ought’ to be. It stands out only in that it’s the only item in the seld which is actually being used… I make excuses for its employment on the grounds that it is pressed into service only during November and December and then only for the weekly feeding of the Christmas cake with brandy. And never on a Sunday.

 

 
 

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It feels right though; the ‘specialness’ of the spoon and the ceremony of fetching it from the seld both adding to the sense of ritual begun by the gathering and weighing of ingredients, the stirring and the wishing. Indeed its employ feels so ‘fitting’ that I think it has potential to gain ‘tradition’ status – given a couple more years.

Why a couple more years? Well, a friend recently shared the hypothesis with me that something could be said to be a ‘tradition’ or ‘traditional’ once it had been thrice repeated; e.g. handed down through three generations of a family, or even carried out for three successive years. I intuitively like the theory; it ‘feels’ traditional in itself; in fact I can almost hear a horny handed druid explaining to a bunch of initiates that in three years’ time, using ‘this ‘ere golden sickle’ to gather the mistletoe would become a ‘tradition’… perhaps each Christmas…? Well I did say almost

In fact every act which we now perform in the name of custom must once have been new; it’s traditional for traditions to emerge and evolve. Indeed for me, that’s part of their fascination; the traceable touch of history shaping and moulding, the hint of something ‘perhaps much older’ slumbering beneath.

Interesting, too, are the deep human wants which evoke the need for traditions, stories and sayings; our necessity for a toolbox of deed and word with which to bring a sense of the momentous to the mundane, or to impose order and meaning on our chaotic lives.

Comfort can be found there too of course, but then so can pain when circumstance enforces change. Is a place at a table ever so very empty as the first Christmas after someone’s passing? And so we modify our customs to ameliorate the hurt and lessen the yearning. We move the table, or swap places, cook a goose instead of a turkey or change the route of the post-dinner walk and after a few years of doing things the ‘new’ way they become the traditional. The evolution and adaptation of the familiar and familial is a process as necessary as clearing out old wardrobes. unless we intend strewing our own lives with mothballs. Our immovable feasts budge just a little, the thrice theory providing the castors.

Of Robins…

One feast in (or just outside) our household is particularly moveable though.

“I’m just going as far as the robin…” is not, perhaps, the most easily accessible of sentences, but to me it makes perfect sense.

 

It translates as ‘I have in my hand a can of mealworms. I intend walking down the garden just as far as is necessary to feed my robin’. Today that meant half way down the top garden before I was spotted. Yesterday he came to meet me out the back, just feet from the door. Tomorrow it might mean going as far as the top of the steps and having to call him. But wherever we meet, it will be ‘as far as the robin’.

 

 
 

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Where we met today lies on the extreme southern boundary of the territory he is holding this winter, some 60 or so feet from last year’s nest site (as the robin flies). To the north, the whole of the quarry garden belongs to him, but I’ve no idea (and no way of ascertaining, beyond hanging out in a wet field) how much further his invisible ‘my-line’ extends.

I understand though that you could fit a dozen robins’ winter territories onto one football pitch (assuming a reasonable food supply, not just meat pies and death burgers), so it’s possible that the quarry’s natural boundary is also his at the moment. In the breeding season, robins double their small holding, which, unless they end up mating with a neighbour (I think of some of mine and shudder…) must involve quite a springtime shuffle.

Of course that’s still some time off, but, having caught a surprise snatch of cheerful ‘summer’ song from mine a few days ago, I suspect he’s already brooding on the joys of spring.

For pairing between robins often begins around Christmas. It’s marked by the male carolling upbeat courtship from a high perch, as opposed to the melancholic territorial song he’s been muttering at all and sundry from the bushes for the last few months. His change of tune from the bleak midwinter blues to ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ acts as a stimulus to local females to come-a-courting, but – mystifyingly – the male will often sing enticingly until a female feather-tip-toes into his territory and then chase her away – forcibly. Perhaps it’s simply the instinct to mate vying with the instinct to drive away any red-breasted creature… I prefer to think that anyway than to anthropomorphise any ‘treat ̉’em mean keep ̉’em keen sentiment’… I’m sure robins have more sense…

Anyway happily – for the survival of the species if not feminist discourse – the female robin proves determined even in the face of such apparent ambivalence and returns repeatedly no matter how unwelcome her early advances may appear. Also fortuitously, the male eventually comes to his senses. He stops chasing her off and suddenly drops from his perch to the ground where he repeatedly stands a little way ahead of the female, singing until she advances towards him.

This behaviour, which I’ve heard described as the ‘song and following ceremony’  – and which I was lucky enough to witness in the quarry a couple of years ago – is immediately followed by a high speed chase, the female pursuing the male around his territory. At first I assumed that it was the male trying to chase the female off again, but then, every so often they would pause to duet, lovebirds in harmony.

And then the female leaves… perhaps to return, perhaps not, for she also, during this period, visits other local singers – and it is she who will eventually decide which will be her mate.

I hope my robin is chosen again this year; I’ve no idea at what age females begin viewing male robins as ‘past it’, but this will be at least his sixth season – quite remarkable given that the life expectancy of a robin is just over a year. I’ll soon know if he is anyway, for instead of devouring all the mealworms he’s offered, he’ll start carrying a couple away to feed to his partner, presumably to reassure her of his capabilities as a hunter-gatherer. I wonder if she watches from the wings and has sussed out that he actually just knows a good takeaway?

 

He also re-adjusts his own boundaries, becoming more demanding and more confident about flying straight to my hand; I let him off ‘performing’ for his food over the winter months and simply sprinkle a pinch of mealworms on a nearby surface for him, but if he finds a mate, he’ll be impatiently buzzing my hands in search of food again – the action which first prompted me to try proffering lunch on my palm.

 

 
 

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I doubt I can convey how extraordinary it felt when he first stood there, gripping a finger and pecking at my skin, nor indeed the magic of having him trust my hand as a perch for the last five years… But then perhaps he has gone down in robin tradition as The Bird which tamed a human and trained her to feed him? ‘I doubt I can convey,’ He told the flock ‘how extraordinary it felt when she first stood there offering her finger…’

I’m under no illusions though – I know deep down that my bird in the hand is there thanks only to cupboard love. It adds up to roughly £120 a year in mealworms… but I reckon I’m getting the bargain… and there are numerous free gifts that come with the special relationship.

For he’s now so un-phased by my presence that I’ve been privileged to witness all sorts of behaviours that only serious robin-watchers might otherwise be privy to. I’ve videoed him almost comatose with fear of I-still-know-not-what (not the best of ‘action clips’), I’ve seen him rotate his head 180˚, I’ve watched him sunbathe, and swinging upside-down on a twig to drink a dew-drop… He’ll stand and tell me off if I’ve got my hood up…

Of birdsong…

He’ll even sometimes stay and bubble mellifluous sub-song at me when he’s finished eating… an experience I hope to share with ‘Listening to Birds’, a research project which is studying how we perceive, identify and ‘make sense of’ birdsong. I was particularly interested (and relieved to learn) that one of the researchers found it hard for years to recognise or differentiate between certain birds’ songs even though visually familiar with many species – a difficulty I can both empathise with and am frustrated by. To have someone else say ‘yes, it’s not easy’ definitely helps.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I’ve grown up so accustomed to the surround-sound of birdsong  filling the quarry that it’s taken on an ambient quality… it is there but I do not often actually perceive it. For my attention to be grabbed – to achieve active listening – some newcomer has to add an unfamiliar voice to the chorus. And because of this I can recognise a siskin’s or greater spotted woodpecker’s call, but would struggle to describe those of the ever-present finches and tits.

‘Oh gosh, listen to the birds…’ say visitors. Oh gosh, yes, I should.

 

 
 

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Of fear…

And I should have listened to the robin this morning. I’d been watching the sky get darker and darker as the minutes passed and knew what was coming. We may not have 40 words for rain in west Wales, but I bet you that anyone who’s grown up here can differentiate between at least 40 different shades and types of black clouds, and will be able to issue a fairly reliable 4 minute warning of impending precipitation. ‘I’m just going as far as the robin before the rain comes…’ is, then, a frequent variation on a traditional theme.

This morning however there was no sign of him. I called, I whistled… I descended the steep steps to the quarry itself… but robin came there none. Telling myself off for immediately starting to think of him as ‘poor dead robin’, I re-trod my route, leaving a hopeful, hopeless little pinch of mealworms at one of our favourite meeting places.

Then, about 30 yards from the house, the sound started. At first I thought I’d whistled up a wind – and yet a glance told me that the leaves of the huge eucalyptus were eerily still. Besides, the noise was getting measurably, steadily, louder in a manner utterly alien to wind. I can only describe it as an ever-amplifying mixture of hissing and far off-applause – as if some giant, very divided audience marched to meet me. And the most disturbing element was that my now very active listening told me that it was approaching from almost everywhere…Whatever it was, it was very strange, very big and coming to get me…

It kindled utter fear in my gut; dark, panic-filled flight or fight terror… I felt the small of my back concave as I ran…

 

I’d almost reached the house by the time relief started to drop like a none-too-gentle rain from heaven; hailstones – huge ones – spattering around me like grapeshot.

Of ambush…

Still shaky with adrenaline, still shaking small nutmegs of ice from my curls and almost tearful with relief, I sat at the table and glanced across the room. My keenly-honed senses spotted the change at once. There, on top of the sacred seld – along with the four Christmas puddings which traditionally sit there this time of year – was a black box. A hi-fi speaker to be precise, the latest element of the surround-sound that’s been creeping into the household bit-by-bit for over two years now.

The arrival of any new black or silver plastic box in our home is presaged by the coming of the magazines… What Hi-fi, Which Home Cinema, Whither Couch Potato… all announcing the imminent arrival of…

At almost a fiver a shot, Tom knows that if he buys sufficient numbers of them regularly enough, I’ll eventually work out that it’s cheaper to just get whatever it is he’s hankering after. Immediately.

And mostly that’s it; struggle over. Although I was brought up accustomed to all the muffled output a phonograph (with Fablon over what I later discovered to be the speaker) could muster, I do love music – and I have come to appreciate good sound quality. I take a bit of persuasion… after all, I have Calvinistic Methodist roots, but in general, a better amp? Bigger, bassier speakers? Bring ’em on…

Surround sound though has been – and still is – a sticking point.

As with most of our hi-fi purchases, we travelled to Richer Sounds in Cardiff to listen first. It’s a great shop, even if the guy there STILL twitches after the time I worked my way through almost every speaker he could offer in search of an elusive bass thump I associated with the Eurythmics’ ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’… about a minute into the track. It wasn’t until we got the 3ft, floor-standing MS206s installed in our small cottage that I discovered that I meant the very start of ‘Love is a Stranger’…

Anyway, twitch or not, he’d managed to set everything up ready for us, sat politely through my brought-from-home offerings (no, not Lennox Live…) and then slipped a macho all-action DVD into the player. I yelped. I protested. Being shot from behind the sofa is home entertainment? I think not… We came away with an innocent-looking single pair of speakers and the subject, I thought, closed.

Then a few months ago a BARGAIN emerged… a multi-channel amp which, Tom explained, would allow us to wire our speakers ‘separately, like real music aficionados do…’ or allow us to run speakers out to the kitchen…

It all sounded so reasonable… sensible even… that I didn’t realise I was being encircled until his birthday came in November and I asked the traditional ‘is there anything in particular you’d like?’ question. ‘Well,’ quoth he ‘we’ve already got the front speakers and the amp for surround sound…’  Oh have we now?

I think he believes that I am stealthily being de-sensitised to my aversion. One by one, the bits have appeared and have become part of the furniture… even the seld. And I can’t really object to that, because it was me who decreed that they certainly weren’t going to be wall mounted either side of it. And if he wants to have six speakers positioned around the room, that’s fine. It’s having to listening to them that I object to. And of course until they’re all connected up that’s not going to be an issue.

I have, then, two lines of defence left… Jude’s two last stands.

The first is the cable question. Living with techno-man in a house where electric sockets were obviously seen as potential plugging-in points for tools of the devil leads to rather a lot of plastic spaghetti… and just a few -eminently reasonable of course – grumbles, the latest of which is that whoever decided that all speaker cable should be flat and white obviously doesn’t share my repugnance for interior décor with a tapeworm theme.

And given that the said cable is going to have to circumnavigate our (deep blue) living room, I’ve, understandably asked to be involved in choosing it… and it’s amazing just how long it can sometimes take me to make a decision… Well, they’re all so similar, aren’t they?

It won’t work forever of course… but it’ll hold the speakers off at the pass just now. And when forced to capitulate, I’m looking forward to perusing a wide range of cable clips… in fact I wonder if there’s a Which Audio Attaching magazine?

The last card up my sleeve though is the happy knowledge that the seld is actually just a large hollow box… filled with things that rattle quite alarmingly if disturbed. I’m trusting that the first time anything louder than a Christmas cracker goes off in a film, the whole thing will turn into a mass of gently vibrating crockery.

‘Oh, yes, we’re thrilled with our surround sound – it’s so realistic… you should hear it on films like Raging Bull 3 – Loose in a China ShopThe Battle of River PlateClose Encounters of the Third Flying Saucer Kind…’

In fact I can almost imagine my mum and grandmother grabbing an end each and shaking…

Mind the limpet ladle ladies…

Of links:

 http://www.interpretingceramics.com/issue001/welsh/welsh4.htm

More about the old seld and mum talking about it

http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/blueplanet/factfiles/molluscs/limpet_bg.shtml

More about limpets

http://www.myspace.com/seanmdonnelly

Traditional or modern? Try the 2 beautiful lullabies here…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/walesonair/database/pembrokeshire.shtml#content

Definitely traditional! Some ‘pwnc’ singing from my corner of Wales, a Preseli ‘rave’ and an interview with a lovely lady…

http://www.abdn.ac.uk/birdsong/

‘Listening to Birds’ Contribute to the birdsong project…

http://www.myspace.com/juanamolina

A woman who reflects birdsong in her lovely music

http://www.torro.org.uk/torro/severeweather/hailscale.php

How to measure hail!

http://www.hificables.co.uk/

So very much to choose from… 

 

 
 

 

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~ by Jude on December 7, 2007.

2 Responses to “Of things moveable and immoveable”

  1. Although as I have gently aged and my hearing has become less demanding of the perfect audio experience – encouraging me to rid myself of multi-piece hi-fi systems and making do with the convenience, if vastly inferior sound quality, of an iPOD holding all my music – I have to admit that I am still a slave to surround sound. Even Corrie has to come at me from 5 directions. Those wires though……………………

  2. Ahh yes… In my youth I remember plaited coloured speaker cable and summers as long as barley sugar twists… As I keep trying to point out to Tom though, it is traditional at gigs for the audience to semi-surround the performers, not vice versa…

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