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Moments of wonder

Photograph: Mark Wickens

In this period of social distancing, video calls have become the forum for a vast range of weird and wonderful experiences. So, when my professional photographer friend suggested we attempt a photoshoot via facetime, I was intrigued. 

I was in East London, phone in hand, while Mark photographed me on his iPad from his Brooklyn apartment. We tested out different backgrounds, which included me clambering behind a plant while Mark photographed me as he stood behind some artfully arranged fronds. There was a surreal still life set up – a pile of books, a small cactus, some onions and my face amongst other random objects!  And finally my favourite – the last photo of the call – showing my face partially obscured by a large, empty glass jar, an apt metaphor for the contracted lives many of us are currently living. 

The experience made me appreciate just how many details there are to consider when shooting someone’s portrait – the quality and direction of light, camera angles, distance, the intensity of one’s gaze. It is precisely such small details that now form the bulk of my daily existence. In a world where I’m confined to a single space and seeing the same two people every day, I have come to notice and appreciate the beauty of simple things; that refreshing burst of cool air when I open my bedroom window in the morning, the way the shadows shift across the living room throughout the day. For these fleeting moments of wonder, I am very grateful.

Click here to see more of Mark’s work.

Eloise Maxwell

Hope and joy in the time of Corona

Life is full of firsts and we certainly find ourselves chalking up a lot of these in the strange times in which we find ourselves. 

None-more so than the virtual choir rehearsal I found myself attending recently. I’m a member of multi-award-winning Amersham A Cappella, the national champions of the ladies’ barbershop world. We’re an ingenious bunch, with an infectiously enthusiastic MD, and we will not be defeated by the mere constraint of not being able to meet in person.

And so I found myself in my study at 8pm, connecting to Zoom and 58 of my AAC team mates.  I was expecting an hour or so of attempted virtual singing, a bit of chat and most of all a laugh.

What I wasn’t expecting was the overwhelmingly emotional experience I had – I hadn’t appreciated just how much I’d been “getting on” with the rapidly evolving global situation, and suddenly seeing all my compadres, but not being able to physically be with them, really brought it home.

But part of that experience was also about joy (we did have a laugh!) and hope. It turns out that 58 people singing together on Zoom doesn’t really work – the delay makes it hilariously awful! But we could connect, we could see and be with each other for an hour, and that connection was extremely powerful and much needed psychologically. 

Perhaps my evening could be summed up best in the words of the latest song we’re learning – 

“I’ve never felt this strong.

I’m invisible how could this go wrong? 

No, here: here’s where we belong. 

I see a road ahead 

There’s a road ahead

I would dare to tread…”

Emma Haigh

When a chair is not a chair, it’s a lesson in life

A new language has entered our vocabulary – BL, DL and AL.  Before Lockdown, During Lockdown, After Lockdown. This is a story from that bygone era, BL.  In late February (it seems an age ago) I went on a Windsor Chair making course. It lasted five days and, astonishingly, I came out with a beautiful chair which I now sit on in my study.  It is, of course, perfect in every way! But all the credit goes to James Mursell, our teacher.

James has run these chair-making workshops for over 15 years and he’s a master at taking a group together through a complex process.  He’s also a master at passing on some life lessons.

Belief: there is nothing in my background that said I could do this.  I’m neat and tidy but not overly practical. I own a hammer and screwdriver – that’s it.  But James made us believe we could do this. From the moment we started he had complete confidence in us.  There was never any doubt in him or, ultimately, in us. He made us believe we could make this chair, beautifully.  And we all did.

Step by step: the order we did things in made perfect sense.  Every new process was explained. As the end approached, the instructions got shorter, tighter.  On Friday we were set very precise steps, one by one. James knew we would be getting tired and that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.  That’s when mistakes are made so he slowed us down. Brilliant.

Get your ending right: On Friday afternoon we fitted our chairs together in a final flourish, said our goodbyes, and set off home beaming.  Over the weekend I thought he had missed a trick by not allowing us time to give it a first polish. I was wrong. As it was, we left on a high.  When you polish something for the first time, all the nicks and bumps show up and it takes 4 hours for the oil to dry. It wouldn’t have been such a triumphant moment.

Perfection is not the goal:  Perfectly made chairs are manufactured.  Handmade chairs have a lovely imperfection running through them.  As soon as he suggested this, we relaxed. If all the spindles weren’t precisely the same, that was ok.  In fact, that was the goal.

Parent/child: My chair is my child!  I love it. I’ve witnessed its conception, birth, early years and adolescence all in five days.  I know all its characteristics and flaws, every curve and line, nick and quirk. Put it in a line up with all the other chairs on the course and I could pick it out in an instant.

This is not as easy as it sounds

On Friday I ran a painting session for a friend’s daughter.  She’s 6. When I Skype her, she’s raring to go – smock on, a pile of paper, paints, water, pencil and four brushes.  She’s wearing a baseball cap which is lucky as I’m wearing my painting hat and don’t want to appear over-dressed. I also have my dining table covered with various paraphernalia including a jug of flowers, just in case.

We kick off drawing and painting a long, thin, pheasant feather which I hold up.  It takes no time at all. Then I hold up a ceramic angel we have hanging on the wall.  It has lovely features including a decorated dress, an intricate wing and a golden halo.  Bish bash bosh – done. I’m beginning to sweat a bit. On instinct I suggest we make something up – how about a caterpillar?  That gets a nod of approval and we’re off. I’m dropping in subtle hints about detail (all those feet, what different colours are you going to use?).  It’s green. We’re done. Seeing as she has a vase of flowers on her table I say that we should each draw our own flower arrangement. Whilst I’m trying to get my head round the various different daffodils and the flowering red currant in front of me, she has gone for the minimalist approach.  Four flowers, green stalks, two pink, two yellow. Enough. Miraculously, the hour is up so we sign our work.

For next week I say we’re going to do portraits of Mum and Dad and she can suggest what they wear.  A gleam comes into her eye. I’m praying she suggests her Dad wears his kilt. All that detail …

Alastair Creamer

Maos @ Blue Mountain School

This was a big event on an intimate scale.  On the night we went, 10 lucky people (we were 2 of them) sat round one long table and were served 16 courses.  Alex, Eddie, Sarah and a host of chefs moved around us like worker bees producing nectar.  There was an atmosphere of calm authority and we were carried along on a culinary cloud in which time (and cost) were secondary to the succession of mind-blowing tastes and explorations.

“Beef fat aged lobster, red gooseberries and cherry tomatoes” (course No 8) is like saying “Visit the Lake District”.  It’s a set of instructions.  Tasting it, and then having that linger on your tongue and in your memory for days afterwards, is similar to walking in the Lakes on a sun-filled Autumn afternoon.  The experience ingrains itself in your mind.

Alastair Creamer

New Music: Let’s Eat Grandma

Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth have been Let’s Eat Grandma for 6 years.  They’re 19 and have two albums to their name.  On a lovely Friday afternoon, their set finished with Donnie Darko, an 11 minute track.  This is a sophisticated, slow-burn of a number – it’s not just a ‘song’.  It builds and grows and then tails away. I bought them some vegan carrot cake afterwards (it’s a long story).

It’s so exciting to come across two musicians who could literally go anywhere with their music.  They could write pop songs or symphonies, jingles or film scores.  They have an imagination that circles the world.  They like clapping games, lying on the floor mid-song, dancing.  To ground all this, they’ve experienced loss (Jenny Hollingworth’s boyfriend died earlier this year and they cancelled their US tour).

I have new music coming out of my ears but these young women have stood out.  It’s not always perfect and there are some aspects I might change, but they cut through because they are taking risks and making big statements.  They have a lot to say.

Mary Farrell

To Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann

Recommended by a colleague, this 120-page parable contains a lovely idea – give well.  First you have to give more in value than you take in payment.  Thereafter it’s about the quality of your giving.  How well do you serve people?  Abundantly place others’ interests first.  Suspend self-interest.  The most valuable gift you have to offer is yourself.  The key to effective giving is to stay open to receiving.  It reminded me of one of my favourite quotes: “I see that I must give what I most need.”  (Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces)

I came away from it thinking that giving could become a way of life that many of us could entertain.  Give attention, ideas, time, care, energy.  Make other people feel good about themselves.  I found two small lessons in here for me.  First, don’t judge so much.  Appearances can be deceptive.  Biases are rife.  Second, pay attention more.  Notice things and stay curious.

Alastair Creamer

Singing with Nightingales

I cannot remember another occasion when my senses were so cranked up. Sam Lee has been holding these evenings for years. The pace and staging is informal and unfolding. From the moment we come across white anenomes in the woods (a sign of ancient woodland, they grow at a snail’s pace compared to bluebells), I let go and embrace whatever comes my way. When we reach the place, the nightingale sings, a glorious sentence, pauses, then sings an entirely different sentence. Sam sings back. It’s a conversation rather than a duet, a reply, a question, a chat.

Our sensorial range at work is pretty limited. For many years we’ve been encouraged not to bring our selves to work, not to explore and express ourselves, not to go into the far reaches of our senses. Times are a-changing and with them, workspaces. How we work together now draws on more of who we are, our full emotional range. Those sensorial tentacles are stretching themselves!

Alastair Creamer

Do unto others…

The benefit of new experiences. It happened to be hot Yoga and hot Pilates, but it could have been anything. Having never done either of these before, of course, I couldn’t do most of it! I could feel the child in me rising up, exasperated. 

As someone who is constantly asking people to do something new in every session I run and create, this was boot-on-the-other-foot time. A sobering experience. At Clorox, we planned the Bold Immersions to fall across two days to help those who needed reflection time, the space to make sense of their experience and gather their energy. A break does wonders. What seemed impossible yesterday is not so impossible today.

Alastair Creamer

Awash with colour

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the V&A in London, has been extended to 1 September. Please go and see it! The exhibition spans the fashion house’s designs for the last 70 years and in that time some amazing names (Dior, Saint Laurent, Galliano, Raf Simons etc.) have gloriously maintained the essence of Dior which, for me, is style, sophistication and creative innovation.

This was a triumph of design. The settings for each space expertly and beautifully off-set the drama of the creations. Rooms were themed (‘Garden Room’ with paper flower garlands, the ‘Ballgown Room’).

I came away punchdrunk. There are certain colours I wear and other colours I love around me. This exhibition was off the scale colour-wise, and it was thrilling! It made me want to understand how colour affects me.