I stopped working last Friday afternoon so I could have some time off before the summer ends. Work in my case being the PhD I began last October, following the year’s worth of MA I’d just completed at the University of Liverpool. And none of which I’d have considered to be work at all for many of the earlier years of my life. But I’m delighted and grateful for the unsought opportunity to be doing this late on learning, and so I’ve been working on it as thoroughly and consistently as I know how for coming up to two years now. And therefore needed some time off like we all do. Even though it’s an unusual time where so many of the usual time off options are not an option.
So I won’t be going away anywhere, especially as I wouldn’t want to anyway. Being perfectly happy where I am. Which this morning is once again the Sunlight Garden allotment. Here with me, and writing in safely distanced silence, is my university friend Abi O’Connor. We’ve been meeting here since this level of contact became ok. At first for weekly talks through progress on each of our PhDs, then in the last few weeks adding in another morning session for this sociable writing. Which is working well for both of us. Even if I’m not writing directly PhD stuff this morning this has become part of the rhythm of our lives, how we’re getting through this time. Along with occasional and welcome support from our academic supporters it would be no exaggeration to say that over these months Abi and I have become our own university here. A place where neither of us is having to think and work mostly alone. And it’s working really well. Here this morning, as is usual on these mutual Wednesdays, one of my classical music playlists is on while we work, accompanying the birdsong and sounds of the wind rippling through the polytunnel and the nearby trees and bushes. It’s an intermittently grey day, but in here we have the light and the company we both need.
For my own writing this morning I’m going to think through some things I’ve done and thought about since that stopping of work last Friday. I’d got to a natural break in my work writing where I’d completed my studying of utopia, at least for now, and so was generally open to these other thoughts and pursuits that have turned up.
The first of which was to start reading a book that was definitely nothing to do with my work. So I began “Negative Capability” by novelist Michèle Roberts, which she describes as “a diary of surviving.” I’d heard about it a few weeks ago through Tracey Thorn’s New Statesman column where she recommended it as a good read about how to get by and even get on with creative work through difficult times, such as the one were living in. The title is a quote from Keats, and in the author’s case her diary is written through a year in which her successful career has stalled, her latest novel is rejected through several rewrites, but she gets on with the writing of the something else that is “Negative Capability” anyway. And sitting here now with her book open on a split screen with this writing I can see that, even though it’s supposedly not work, I’ve highlighted parts of it as though I’d be quoting from it in some academic essay. Like this beautiful sentence about the absence of a deceased friend:
“There was an Ambroise-shaped gap in the landscape.”Michèle Roberts
Then going on to talk about Keats’s recommendation that routine would help with re-entering “A composed and composing narrative,” such as this one perhaps and the having of a routine I’ve already mentioned?
So it’s a sort of novel and it’s sort of work too. But at least reading its beautiful paragraphs these past few days has slowed me down. Not that I much like reading it on an iPad, not really. The awkward holding and page turning simply not as satisfying for me as a real book. But I’d rather read it than not read it, so on I’ll continue.
Throughout the lockdown wildflowers have been a constant presence. Mainly because of my partner Sarah’s ‘Identiplant’ horticulture course which has sent her a new family of wildflowers to look for and study every couple of weeks. Meaning I’ve gone out searching with her, at first as a helping photographer, then increasingly as a fellow course participant, aware and appreciative of wildflowers and Sarah’s knowledge as never before in my life. So on Monday we continued our wildflower hunting across the river from here in Port Sunlight River Park. A former landfill site that’s now a few years into being transformed into something glorious. A great big hill “Half a metre higher than the Anglican Cathedral” Sarah tells me, where we found more than sixty wildflower species as listed below in her notes. And from where, whenever we turned around we could see either the Liverpool waterfront or, downhill the other way, look across Port Sunlight and Wirral to the hills of Wales. A great place and a magical afternoon out that we highly recommend.
Also much noticed, appreciated and listened to in these days since I decided to take some time off has been the early music of Joni Mitchell. Though I mostly listen to what can be roughly described as classical music now I’ve loved Joni Mitchell for decades, and think of her middle period music around “Héjira” as sublime. Meaning I hadn’t much listened to her earlier music for most of those decades. Until Sarah Walker on BBC Radio Three included “Song to a Seagull” from Joni’s first album in a sequence of classical sea pieces on the Sunday morning programme I always listen to and it fitted perfectly. All of the time since its writing having turned her early music into something close to timeless now. As gloriously delicate and yet hardy as a field of wildflowers. These words from “Morning Morgantown” being in my head as I’m writing this:
“Now the only things I have to giveJoni Mitchell
To make you smile to win you with
Are all the mornings still to live
In morning Morgantown”
“All the mornings still to live.” Yes.
Then yesterday my friend Jane Hobson sent me something beautiful about life and death by Jan Blommaert, a Belgian socio-linguist I’d never previously heard of. It’s an article called “Looking back: What was important” which he published on his blog in March this year, where he follows the news that he’s been diagnosed with a terminal cancer with a look back on his life as an activist-academic. And ends with this:
“I am happy to stop here.”Jan Blommaert
I only read the whole of his article early this morning so I’m nowhere near ready to sum it all up in a paragraph or two here. But I will mention a couple of resonant things he says about being democratic:
“I grew up and studied in the welfare-state educational system of Belgium…very much a product of a big and structural collective effort performed by people who did not know me.”Jan Blommaert
Going on to describe how that has always made him feel a responsibility to make such learning as he has gone on to gather available to anyone who might want it. He loathes the commodified academic publishing industry and so has spent his life as an activist-academic in ways you can go and read about, for free, because:
“Everything I write is first posted on a blog (this blog)”Jan Blommaert
Inspiring and reminding me of so much. Including the putting of more of my academic stuff on here. Because I too am doing the learning I’m doing as a result of the structural collective effort of so many. For which I’m as grateful as he is, and therefore want to make constantly sure I do work that matters, is useful to anyone who might need it, and won’t disappear into some academic cul-de-sac.
So to end for today, the time off and the writing of all this has got me thinking some new thoughts. Which is, as ever, a pleasure. For which much thanks to all this week’s mentioned companions, friends and inspirations. To you too for reading. And for the time off, I’m grateful for that.
And for all those mornings still to live. Of course.
And now Abi and I have a quarter of an hour left of our allotted writing time here in the Sunlight Garden. Which I’ll use to see if I can add some photographs and get this published, from this one morning’s social writing with a friend.