Arctistic Licence

Northern Lights

I’ve just come back from Iceland.  I went there to:

  1. celebrate the end of my first term at college
  2. use up my annual leave allowance
  3. see the Northern Lights

Having arrived very late last Tuesday evening, I spent the following day exploring the pretty little city of Reykjavik and was booked on a trip to see the Northern Lights in the evening. At around 8.30pm, I was picked up from my hotel with other excited tourists and we were driven out to that evening’s best vantage point.

During the hour long drive, the guide talked us through all the factors that might mean seeing – or not seeing – the lights. The list was long and one of the biggest factors seemed to be luck. As my family will attest, I am quite lucky, so didn’t see this as being an issue. We were nearing our destination when the guide suddenly stopped and said – “Look, they’re over there, on the right!” I was sat on the left side of the bus. “Can you see them?” she asked. Straining as far as my seatbelt would allow, I looked and looked for them but saw only my own reflection. She then said that they’d disappeared from the right, and were visible through the front window of the bus.  I was sat towards the back. Again, they disappeared almost as soon as she announced their presence.

A short while later, we arrived at our destination. We were on the coast, next to a church with neon lit headstones in the cemetery. It was a beautiful, clear night. The guide set up her camera and tripod and it was at that point I understood the images I’d seen of the Northern Lights had all been taken with a professional camera with a very slow shutter speed. She explained that only then can the vivid colours build up enough to create the impressive pictures we’ve seen in holiday brochures. Otherwise, the colours are usually too transient to be seen.

We drove onto another viewpoint, but the lights remained elusive – even to the guide – and after an hour of waiting, we were driven back. As we hadn’t seen the Lights, we were given the option of going again the following evening. The next day, I travelled to the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle. When I got back to my hotel in the evening, the trip to see the Northern Lights had been cancelled due to bad weather.

On my last day, I went to the Tourist Information Centre. There, amongst the racks of postcards was an image of the Northern Lights, taken, no doubt, with a professional camera on a slow shutter speed.  So I took my own picture of it, with an iPhone and an Instagram filter.


First Impressions

I started my art course today.

Unsurprisingly, most of the morning was spent with introductions and filling out forms. I sat beside a young man who was perspiring with nerves, and a girl with plugs in her ears who seemed very shy.

The course tutor mooted the idea of having a Student Representative but advised we nominate a peer next week when we might have learnt some fellow students’ names. I quite fancied the role of Student Rep myself, although while I was thinking about whether I would have enough time to make the commitment, a bearded man with square rimmed glasses threw down his gauntlet and announced his intention to stand for the role. I learnt that up until two weeks ago, he had worked for a trade union. Despite bearing a passing resemblance to Gerry Adams, he could be a good choice.

Once the forms had been filled in, and we’d been introduced to each other, we started to draw. Today, the emphasis was on developing our observational skills through line drawing. We started with a still life of just three objects, spaced widely, to draw on a sheet of A1 in charcoal. Although we only had three objects to concentrate on, it was difficult to accurately reflect their sizes and distance in relation to each other and most of our early marks were rubbed out, each time leaving a ghostly impression of our mistakes. Gradually, more objects were added to the still life, which made it easier to understand the spatial relationship between them and the marks became bolder.


Fine Art

After I finished my GCSE Art, I vowed to myself I’d never paint another picture again. It took me twenty years to break this promise but during Summer last year I took some time out from work and went to a drop-in painting class in Deptford.


I enjoyed it so much, that I decided I wanted to do more, so spent the next few months attending class after class, evenings and weekends, to build up a portfolio with which to apply for a more protracted period of study. I went to ‘Painting for Beginners’, ‘Painting Continued’, ‘Drawing for Beginners’, ‘Drawing Continued’, ‘Introduction to Watercolours’, ‘Creative Sketchbook’, ‘Painting from Photography’ and a few more drop in classes when I had the time.

At 6.30pm yesterday evening, I had an interview for the only course I’ve applied for.  It’s a two year course in Fine Art timetabled around work commitments (because you’ve still got to pay the bills, right?).

At 6.45pm yesterday evening, I was offered a place on the course.  Just like that.  No nail biting wait, no unreturned ‘phone calls or rising tension when the postman comes.  Just a simple “Yes, we’d like to offer you a place”. I start in September. I’m happy.


A Prefect Day

Like most schools, mine had a competitive house system. There were six in total and they had the rather grandiose names of: Trelawny, Leofric, Courtenay, Grandisson, Temple and one other I forget. They were named after dead bishops and each house was represented by a colour. I was in Courtenay which was red. Perhaps it was a happy coincidence but many other girls of auburn origin in the school were also in Courtenay and most of the girls with blond hair were in Trelawny which was yellow.

Occasionally, the homework I managed to hand in on time might be awarded with a housemark; a pink slip of paper for outstanding work that would be posted into a wooden box. Then, at the end of each term, all the housemarks were counted and the names of those with the most were read out in assembly for prize-giving. However, as well as being the house with the most ginger people, Courtenay also had a lot of brainiacs. I may have been ginger but I was not a brainiac and in my seven years at the school, there was only one occasion I can remember where my name was called out during the housemark count.  On hearing my name, I stood up on shaky legs and excitedly started making my way through the row of chairs, only to be dragged back to my seat by another pupil who said “YOU don’t go up!  You only got third place!!”

So I was never going to make House Captain. Or Head Girl. Or Deputy Head Girl. And with mild asthma, flat feet and appalling hand/eye co-ordination, the post of Games Captain was also ruled out. But in the sixth form, I did hope I might be made a Prefect. The odds of this happening were much better as there were always lots of Prefects.

Sadly though, the teachers had other ideas and I ended my school career without a sniff of a title or any badge of honour. In fact, the only thing I’ve ever won on merit was a darts trophy at the Sidwell School fête when I was twelve. I scored 62 which was the highest score of the day.

Yesterday afternoon, I went back to my former school for the first time in nineteen years. It will also be the last time as the school is closing down at the end of the term.  I walked to the school arm in arm with my two best friends, Charlotte and Jessica. Charlotte was Form Captain seven times but both of them also missed out on the honour of being a Prefect. So, I decided to right this wrong and will be forever grateful to where, for the reasonable price of £3.44 each, I bought three Prefect badges. Yesterday, shiny badges proudly pinned to our chest, we strode around our former school, chatting to teachers and pupils and for one gloriously hot sunny afternoon, we finally got to be a Prefect.


Secret Valentine

photo (7)

Eleven years ago, I was at drama school. Since school, I’d harboured a dream to be an actress and after a successful audition, was a student on an intensive acting course at a drama school in Birmingham. The course was emotionally and physically draining and by February we were all in need of a boost.

So, on February 13th 2002, my friend Cath and I went into WHSmith in the centre of Birmingham, and bought twenty Valentine’s Day cards. That evening, we both set about writing a card for every single student on the Diploma course so that the next day, everyone would feel special. We disguised our handwriting on each card by using different pens, opposite hands, capital letters…etc. so that each card looked to be from a different admirer. Then, in the morning, we seized an opportune moment and hid the cards on a table in Reception behind a huge bouquet of red roses that had arrived for one lucky person. Mid-morning, the cards were discovered and handed to us. Everyone took great delight in receiving them, and even more in trying to guess who the author/authors were. I admit to feeling a little smug when our drama tutor compared two of the cards written by me and said authoritatively, “They’re obviously written by different people”. Cath and I acted as baffled and excited as everyone else and it remained a secret between us until after we’d left drama school.

As I left the building that evening, the gentleman on Reception asked if I’d received my delivery.  “Yes, I got a card with everyone else!” I replied.  “I don’t mean that” he said,  “I mean the flowers”. And there, still sitting on the table that we’d hurriedly left the cards on hours earlier, was the huge bouquet of red roses.  Which just happened to be from a secret admirer, to me 😉

My Funny Valentine #3

In the run up to Valentine’s Day this year, I’m marking the occasion by sharing a golden sample of my illustrious dating experiences.

On Monday, I recounted the story of “Fishgate” and yesterday, “Fringe Benefits“.  Today, I share with you “Pinter-rest”.



A few years ago, I was seeing C and realised that Valentine’s Day was pending. I was reluctant to do anything at all, but when we talked about it one morning during the commute, he cried “We must!” in a voice too loud for a packed tube, and took it upon himself to make the plans for evening.

Knowing that I like both food and theatre (and probably in that order), he surprised me first with a meal. At McDonalds. Apparently it was an “anti-Valentine’s meal” – a stand against commercialism – which caused (him) much amusement.

Afterwards, we went to see a lengthy play by Harold Pinter. In the warm theatre, and after having stuffed himself with a burger, fries, onion rings and a chocolate milkshake, it wasn’t long before C dozed off, and for the first act, Pinter’s infamously long pauses were punctuated with loud snores from the Upper Gallery.

My Funny Valentine #2

I like Valentine’s Day. I love the role of bemused bystander, watching the girls in work expectantly waiting all day for a show of affection from their loved one, or spotting couples after work through restaurant windows sitting in uncomfortable silence with each other as they struggle to think of something to say.

This year, I’ve decided to mark the occasion by sharing a golden sample of my illustrious dating experiences leading up to the big day itself.

Last night, I shared the story of “Fishgate“.  Tonight’s story, “Fringe Benefits”, is below.


Fringe Benefits

I was also fifteen when I went out with K. It lasted but a week, only this time I was the one who was smitten.  For a public schoolboy he was a little bit edgy. He drove a scooter and had a shaved head except for a fringe at the front. The Saturday he called round my parents’ home for our date, he’d fashioned his fringe into three thin dreadlocks which hung limply in front of his face. This, in my eyes, only added to his coolness. When I asked what he’d used to style his hair, “Window Cleaner” was the response.

That afternoon, we walked around the perimeter of Heavitree Park (twice), stopping off for a kiss at every other park bench. We walked hand in hand into town, had a McDonalds and later I waved him off at the bus stop. I was in love.

The following week, he waited for me every day after school to walk me home. Only I was nowhere to be seen. I found the strength of my feelings for him too overwhelming to even contemplate meeting him in person and hid in the classroom, paralysed by my passion, until eventually, he just gave up waiting.

Tomorrow’s story is Pinter-rest

My Funny Valentine #1

I actually like Valentine’s Day. Which is rare for a singleton. I love the role of bemused bystander, watching the girls in work expectantly waiting all day for a show of affection from their loved one, or spotting couples after work through restaurant windows sitting in uncomfortable silence with each other as they struggle to think of something to say.

Valentine’s Day this year will be spent like many others; by myself. Thankfully, my mother no longer spends the postage on sending me a card with ill-disguised handwriting. As well meaning as the gesture was, the charade of pretending I received a card from a secret admirer was getting a little tired by the time I hit my thirties.

This year, I’ve decided to mark the occasion by sharing a golden sample of my illustrious dating experiences leading up to the big day itself.

Today’s story is Fishgate.



I was fifteen the first time I received a dozen red roses. I didn’t really fancy R, the boy who sent them, but he was smitten with me and told me so through the language of flowers. The only time I remember having a date with him involved me going round to his very large family house. He grandly showed me every single room, including the well stocked wine cellar during which he made his move. Unfortunately, that evening, he’d had fish for dinner and had neglected to clean his teeth afterwards. Our romance was short-lived.

Tomorrow’s story is Fringe Benefits

A different perspective

I played truant the other night.  It was week five of my ten week drawing course and in the absence of a half term holiday, I decided to give myself the week off.  It wasn’t all down to rebellion though.  A couple of nights previously, I attempted a 5k run with my local running club and for the next two days developed an impressive Keyser Söze limp after the shock I gave my poor knees, so didn’t relish the thought of standing at an easel for three hours.

My drawing course this term is taken by a scruffy little Greek man who has but one working eye.  I’m not sure if he teaches perspective but it should be interesting if he does. I haven’t worked out yet if the other is glass or real, but his frequent tripping over easels all seems genuine. We spent the first week drawing a paper bag, and the second the same paper bag but crumpled a bit.  The next couple of weeks we drew the chunky bits you get in posh pot pourri from a job lot the tutor had bought from a charity shop. Except mine looked less like seeds and more like an eyeball and a willy.



The class is mixed, though mainly women; some accomplished, some a little neurotic. There’s a lovely man who always places his easel next to mine.  He smiles the whole time and gives my work a constant stream of compliments.  At least I think they’re compliments; he tends to talk at a level only audible to bats and dogs so I struggle a little to hear him and don’t even know his name.  There was also a hottie in the group which got me momentarily excited. He’s still in the group but I no longer find him hot.  That stopped abruptly the moment he spoke and I discovered he sounded like Joe Pasquale.

But the course has made me realise that I don’t actually like drawing; it’s a means to an end to make my painting better. Having said that, I hope I still like painting – it would be a bit of a barrier to becoming an artist if I didn’t like drawing and painting (though it hasn’t stopped Damien Hirst).  I’ll find out soon as my next painting course starts on Saturday…

Gift Recycling

My mother is a very shrewd shopper. She was the youngest of five children, with three elder sisters and one brother, brought up in a tiny coal mining village in South Wales. Having been born during the war, rationing would have been the norm, and that, plus being the recipient of her three elder sisters’ clothes, has helped make her the savvy bargain hunter she is today. Now retired, she will often pop to the local supermarket just at the time she knows they start their daily reductions.

She was shopping in charity shops long before the goods they sold were labelled “vintage” and as a result, my brother and I often received recycled clothes and gifts for our birthdays and Christmas which padded out our stockings considerably. My brother was fortunate enough one Christmas to receive an electric toothbrush, many years before everyone else had one. It was still in good condition and the only sign it had been used before was the trace of pink toothpaste encrusted between some of the bristles.

A couple of weekends ago, Mum and I went to Prague for a winter city break to get us in the festive spirit. Prague was beautiful, but cold. Apart from a pair of salopettes that don’t fit anymore, I don’t have many clothes suitable for winter (I have neither the storage space nor the inclination for a top box full of Aran jumpers), so I was grateful that Mum had brought along some spare thermal vests.  One of the vests was formerly owned by a lady called Doris Rew. We know this because it still has her name stitched into the back of it. Doris must have been a short plump lady because the vest was short and baggy on me, but I was still appreciative of its warmth.

Christmas is a time for giving thanks.  So, in a post-gift contemplation, I’d like to thank Doris Rew for donating her vest to the charity shop, and my mother for the sometimes offbeat, quirky but always unpredictable presents over the years, given with love.


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