Art Creation Creativity David Abram Earnestness Generativity Meaning Nature Patience Spell of The Sensuous

Oh, Hello (Leagrave to Harlington Walk)

This post is part of a series of reflections/walks/land art pieces which I’m filing here and on Instagram as a project under the title Spell of The Sensuous. Route info & GPX for the walk itself can be found here.

Just past Willow Farm, heading toward the Harlington Mill Nurseries, a woman strides towards me with her with her shaggy, long-haired German Shepherd. She too is somewhat shaggy looking: deeply tanned, blunt featured, piercing blue eyes. She asks me if the footpaths and bridleways have been comfortable to pass through, not too snaggy with brambles and nettles. I see the blades of some long-handled pruning shears poking out of her rucksack.

On this Sunday afternoon when lots of people are in the pubs of Harlington watching the football, or at home, she is out clearing country paths for Max and I.

I thank her for doing this, and as I walk away, but only later recognising how deep that gratitude runs. This unnamed human creature is a Path-Clearer. I think of everyone involved in the conservation, preservation, and repair of these routes I use to walk through the countryside. It is valuable work. 

 You know sometimes you can get a tune stuck in your head, which is called an earworm. Or a thought, which is called a thoughtworm (it’s not, but maybe it should be). What about if you get a catchphrase or a meme stuck in your head? Such is the case with Oh, Hello

It’s not a catchphrase most people on this island would recognise, coming as it does from a series of skits created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney in a Comedy Central Series that ran from 2013-2015. I have just discovered the Kroll Show via a recommendation from Stephen Metcalf of The Culture Gabfest, and all thirty episodes have been a near-constant delight.

The Oh, Hello segments, where Kroll plays the 70-something Gil Faizon, and Mulaney, his sidekick George St. Geegland make me feel gleefully happy. Everyone bangs on about how Mulaney is the genius of this comedy duo, but I think Kroll is a particular kind of genius too. I get the sense that one aspect of his genius is to be a path-clearer, to not get in the way of other comedians, to enjoy their spotlight when they’re basking in it too. 

Their Too Much Tuna skits are the acme of their genius. When writing this, I thought I might spell out why the two minute sketch below is not only hilarious but profoundly symbolic and symptomatic of our current cultural and political climate, but then I realised I could save myself the work of doing that by just playing the thing to you.

Feel free to email though if you need a breakdown, though I fear it might kill some of the joy of just vibing with the piece. And if you don’t just-vibe with it, my longwinded explanation probably wouldn’t amplify that for you anyway.

They say that if you have an earworm, you should sing the whole song from start to finish as it’s the subconscious mind’s way of trying to remember or hold onto the rest of the song. Not sure if that’s the case, but what do you do with a thoughtworm? Or in this case: a kind of comic meme? In the last few weeks Faizon & Geegland’s Oh, Hello has been playing in my ears at the oddest of times. It’s also become a kind of sonic ligament in my relationship with Max.  

So maybe I don’t entirely want to get rid of the spell of those words, but rather pay homage to them. And this is how you do that: 

1/ Stopping to give Max some water, you admire the concentric beauty of a number of tiny pine cones scattered throughout a small grove of pine, the clump so dense that you have to waddle into it to do your collecting. 

2/ You fill a bag with your pine cones, and then continue along the route of your walk, hoping to find a spot where you might spell something out with your cones. Barton Hills National Nature Reserve seems like a fitting canvas.

3/ A woman smoking with a table of pals at the pub where I stop to get a tea asks me why I’m hoiking around a Waitrose bag packed to the brim with small pinecones. I tell her that just five minutes away from this pub where she is sitting with her family, these pine cones all but carpet certain patches of ground. She looks at me as if I am talking about a distant planet. Her daughter admires Max’s haircut. 

4/ Barton Hills Nature Reserve is a beautiful series of hills and vistas. Are not these milk thistle ((Silybum marianum) bracts, below, as gorgeous as stars? See how they also mimic or advertise their own remedial properties – for other than being used to treat the bubonic plague and promote digestive health, they are equally good as galactagogues: catalysts for increasing the production of breastmilk in nursing mothers. 

 5/ I start the spell as the sun begins to set. When it is made, a very happy, loved-up Jamaican couple in their 40s stroll past. They spot the piece and somehow it adds to their enjoyment of the place and each other. This is an added bonus. 

6/ Spell made. Max and I continue with our walk, back to Leagrave (we did this walk back-to-front, starting at Harlington, which is more ensconced in countryside than the once-small village of Leagrave, now just another suburb of Luton). 

“Consider the pine tree!” riffs Seth Godin, in one of his marvellous audio essays gathered as Akimbo (the one I am listening to is on “Genius”): 

“Not just any pine tree, the Jack Pine. If the weather gets hot or dry, the Jack Pine starts producing pine cones. Two kinds: male at the top, female at the bottom, so they don’t self-pollinate. Hundreds of pine cones. If one of the seeds at the top of the tree gets fortunate, it will get pollinated, by some pollen from a different Jack Pine tree. And then, more than a year later, that pine cone will land on the ground. And then, perhaps, there’ll be a fire. Because it takes a fire, or a heat of over 120 degrees for that pine cone to open up, and spread its seed. And then, then, it starts to get interesting. Because that seed might land on fertile ground, because there has been a fire. And it might germinate and grow. But it’s right next to hundreds, or thousands of other Jack Pine seeds. And a ratchet kicks in, so that if a tree is one inch taller than the tree next to it, it gets more sun, so it grows a little bit faster. And now it’s two inches taller, or a foot taller, or three feet taller. And then all the other pine trees fail to grow. And that is why the earth isn’t covered from top to bottom with pine trees. Because only one in a million actually goes up.”

And the other 999,999? 

They too existed. 

Two of them even had and extra-carefully-chosen pride of place in forming the “comma” of my temporary piece of land art, the comma separating but also holding together the  OH and HELLO.

All of it created with pine cones near Barton-Le-Clay (Streatley) on Sunday 15th September, 2019, at four minutes to seven in the evening.




Art Creativity Poetry Koan Sublimation

With Every Work of Art, You Learn

Take a look at this painting.


You might think it’s the most amazing painting in the world, you might think it’s awful. Whatever you think about it is your business. What I’d like to share about this painting, and for that matter all art, is the transformative nature of an image, a song, a poem. I really believe in the power of art to transform us, often in quite magical ways.

Beth is 63. Her mother died when she was 2 years old.  Her father, a lorry driver, left her in the care of a local woman who was cruel and abusive to her and her two older sisters. When she was 10, she and her sister tried to run away. They were caught and taken back home, but at least Dad now knew what had been going on, and sacked the bully. She was 14 when her father remarried. This was to a woman Beth liked a great deal. Beth thought things were taking a turn for the better, and the family she had dreamed of having was now finally coming together.

Dad died a year later in a traffic accident. Her stepmother tried to be a Mum to the girls, but it was a fraught process as they had little shared history and she was mourning the death of Beth’s father too. Beth left school with one O-Level and moved to London where she started working as a secretary, and then, over the years became a valued member of a large HR department. She is now retired. Beth is incredibly intelligent, sensitive, self-aware, and very accomplished at pleasing others: going the extra mile to make other people happy.

For over three decades now, Beth has been married to Peter who is five years younger than her and works as a business consultant. They have a son in his late 20s. Peter has cheated on Beth during their marriage. She has found these betrayals devastating, leading to both physical and mental ill-health in both cases. They have had couples counselling. She has tried to work through this with him. Although their marriage wasn’t perfect, as no marriage is, Beth has loved Pete and their somewhat one-sided, co-dependent relationship: him calling the shots, and her abiding largely with his needs.

At least until a month ago, when Beth found a (paper) folder in which Pete had filed all the emails he’d sent to his last batch of paramours, including all his hotel and restaurant receipts. Beth has decided that Pete will never be able to commit to a monogamous union and she is now divorcing him.

What has this got to do with the painting you ask?

As you can imagine, the divorce and the tearing up of their family home is incredibly hard for Beth. She comes to our sessions in pieces and walks out of them, slightly more together, but still very broken. I have encouraged her to find words that speak to her in this place of despair, and she found this poem which gave her some solace. In our last session though, she arrived with a card bearing this image. And a story of how she and the painting had met.

She’d been sitting in a local coffee shop feeling lost in painful thought when she looked up and saw this image of a ballerina which spoke to her. She wasn’t sure how or why, but on reflection, we surmised that perhaps it was perhaps that combination of fragility, but also strength, of a kind of turning-in, back to oneself (I’m thinking here of Walcott’s Love After Love) that felt like a balm for her soul. She stared at the painting for ten minutes or more, and then asked the waitress if any of these paintings were for sale. They were: a local artist, who agreed to sell Beth the painting.

Pete has refused to move out of their shared house while divorce proceedings go ahead. Beth cannot stand being in the same house with him anymore, so has decided to rent a small studio flat before thinking about where she would like to go next. “This painting is the the first thing I’m going to hang in the flat,” Beth tells me. “And I know that every time and every day I look at it, it will bring me peace and joy and consolation.” Her somewhat bossy older sister doesn’t think much of the painting and believes Beth paid too much for it (the painting cost her 350 pounds), but Beth doesn’t care. She knows it’s worth every penny. And I think so too.

My mother is an artist, a vocation which she stumbled upon in her third age, just a few years younger than Beth is now. She also sells her work to people who fall in love with her images online, or in some of the small galleries that have displayed her paintings.

If you paint, make music, write poetry, or whatever your creative outlet is, know this: your work matters. Even if it only matters to your family, or to yourself, or to a complete stranger who experiences something of your life-force in the work and something in them shifts in the process.

[All names and some significant details of the above piece have been changed in order to safeguard the anonymity of those involved.]