Reflections and observations on life in general.

An island of rainbows

Last weekend, despite an unpromising weather forecast for medium to strong winds and likely rough seas, from a kayaker’s point of view, I joined others on the Isle of Arran for a couple of days of sea kayaking on the coast of this lovely island.

I must sleep now, to edit this later in the week. For the meantime, here are some photos of my own highlights of the two trips we made…

Words will follow…

I watched friends..

Burning Art – C.Terrell 2019

A long time ago, I watched friends destroy a thing I’d just created.

I was not angry, not sad, not aware of any feeling of hurt or even betrayal. The work was done, an ephemeral assemblage of rocks and driftwood in an unlikely balance on the shore. The purpose for me was in the making, not the duration of its existence. I was content to walk away after a few minutes of contemplation of the result and let whatever would happen proceed: wind, tide, the slow action of gravity over friction, a stranger’s deliberate action or even just the passing of the conditions that allowed such unlikely balance to persist.

“as if seeing another person create and express something represents a …. threat”

I made no intervention, watching from a low clifftop on that bright, sunny evening, nor did I comment on it later. I saw an opportunity to practice letting go of my involvement in the work, to watch events and to observe and notice the questions and sensations that arose in my mind and body; questions of friendship and the nature of these relationships, feelings of disturbance arising and settling within my body, questions about my relationship to my own creative products and of others’ reactions and responses to these things.

On several occasions, I have noticed that there are people who seem deeply unsettled by other people’s creativity, to the point of saying or doing something that will contain, devalue or even damage it, as if seeing another person create and express something represents a fundamental, if sub-conscious, threat. I’m curious about this, is it motivated by fear, anger, jealousy, feeling slighted or somehow displaced, briefly, from being a centre of attention? Is it something else entirely?

In those moments, as I sat apart and watched, a seagull gliding by on warm evening air, I felt I’d got to know another side of these friends, a better measure of the nature of these relationships.

Ephemeral or enduring? Which of these words will describe a particular relationship? Back then, I began to realise that how much its existence depends on conditions is what determines the durability of any relationship. Experiences since then have given me a clearer understanding of this. Friendship, like stacked rocks, can depend on an unlikely conjunction of conditions, sometimes as unlikely and ephemeral as those small boulders on that distant beach; wind blows, tides advance, somebody throws a stone or tries to add another…

C.Terrell 2016

Secret Places.

walking through woods,

finding secret places,

imagining tree-houses

in which to sit and breathe the

rich green-brown-scented air,

and watch as

clouds reveal the sun,

leaves reveal the fall.

Evening views and wine

It’s Friday and it’s been a productive day, preparing for the increasing return of students to school, putting things in place, and in motion. Much has been happening in the wider world, this week, but my energy is focused on my day job and then on building what I hope will be the foundations of something new, interspersed with the mundane tasks of maintaining my body and mind, a car, my dwelling, even putting out some food for the birds in this cold and hungry time. I am of necessity concentrating on what I can best influence and change, just now. This leaves me with a small nagging sense that I should be in some way “doing my bit” in the bigger issues and, to some extent I am, within the limits of the time and energy I have.

And so, after work, a sunset walk to the estuary:

The tide is changing,
Quietly, unseen,
But a new land is emerging,
While stars rise
And fall and 
Restless birds call and fly and settle
For a short, nervous, while
On mud and marsh, 
A pause in a lifetime of alertness 
And change.
Time to open wine from 
Nearby neighbours and
Speak the tongue of another;
Keeping bridges open,
We will need them again.

Have a good weekend.

evening view across the Forth to the Ochil Hills

The Rumour of Distant Birds… and Guns.

Yesterday dawned crystalline clear and cold, ice crystals sparkling in the sunlight on nearly every surface outside. I had seen the weather forecast and planned to walk down the estuary to a spot at the southern end of the old Kincardine swing bridge to make some video clips for an online course I’m putting together. I wanted to walk there, welcoming the exercise and opportunity to spend time in the outdoors.

The brilliant white of snow-topped mountains against clear bright blue skies tugged at my heart and for a while I felt a surge of yearning each time I gazed towards them, imagining the feel of my boots on hard-frozen snow and the sharp cutting sensation of breathing sub-zero mountain air, the sense of a vast blue-white spaciousness all around me.

Three things helped me allow that yearning to pass through: recognising the need for supporting the present self-restraint on non-essential movements, wanting to get the video footage and make real progress with a project that’s taking more time than I had hoped. Also an awareness that this feeling is part of something deeper, an attachment to or desire for something hard to articulate but that I need to find inside myself, whatever the situation around me; to examine this blue-white spaciousness experience… where is it really happening?

As I walked through crisp and crunchy grasses on the estuarine meadows, wary, alert flocks of waders and water-birds whistled, curlewed and took flight, too far away for my phone camera to capture in more than pixellated impressionistic quality. Far off, in woodlands on the north side of the estuary, guns boomed sporadically, like blots of ink flicked at a brilliantly coloured painting. Birds transformed to dishevelled bundles of feathers for the pastime of the well-fed. I kept on walking, sending a wish for the shooters to experience my quality of eyesight when they looked up, to see no more than a pixellated impressionistic quality of flight too fleeting to aim at. The ink faded in the brightness of the light, thoughts and impressions flashing like the scintillating light on needles of ice.

Standing beside the water, later, by the squat legs of the old bridge, whose swinging days are, sadly, over, a spacious peace settled, regardless of the rumble of motor traffic over the bridge. Wisps of water vapour rose from the sunlit walls of the drainage canyons cutting through the meadow towards the mud flats. Flocks of birds gathered a few hundred metres away, looking relaxed and at ease on the mirror-smooth water. Far off clouds of steam and vapour rose from the Grangemouth refineries, looking today like cloud-factories in a pristine sky. The mud underfoot was hard-frozen, crunching like mountain snow, while around me I felt a blue-white-green expanse; estuary or mountain top? No real difference, now, land-water-sky blending.

On the walk back, following the dyke that keeps new fields from becoming lagoons at high tide, I saw four Egrets rising from a drainage ditch below me, the first time I’ve ever seen them myself here in the British Isles. My video camera has no zoom and my phone has no image stabilisation, so a few seconds of captured flight are too vague to share here. One of the birds flew by when my phone was deep in a warm pocket, a perfect photo that will never be, except in my mind and memory, repeating the bright white of the Ochil hills against the sky, a graceful movement on blue.


Today, on the way back from work in Stirling at sunset, thick mist and fog was rising from the River Forth. I drove down to the riverbank at South Alloa, sensing misty mysterious photo opportunities; I was rewarded.

Across the water, in Alloa, the industial sites sent muffled continuity of machinery sounds across the smooth grey-reflecting water. The first day back in the school, almost empty of staff and students, has been productive and positive, I felt a relaxed calm despite the intense and increasing cold creeping all around with the damp mist.

It would have been fine to float and slowly paddle, as silently as possible, along the invisible interface of water and misty air in my kayak… another day, when the tide is higher. I could glide over to Alloa Inch and into hidden channels among the settling birds there, what was farmland now a reserve. Their evening calls were drifting over through thickening grey mist. Occasionally, I saw a shadowy form flying through the mist, fading just enough into view to be perceived before fading away again and leaving just a harsh call behind.

I stood for a few minutes, warming my hands in my pockets, looking out beyond the edge of the muddy bank and into the grey space of water and air, a small flock of indistinct water birds moving slowly against the current and away towards the invisible island. I felt a deep winter evening stillness, a pause before going home to the fragile privilege of warmth and light and food. I thought of how it would be to sleep here tonight, in a thin shelter, wrapped in as much clothing as possible, with only cold food to eat, which is all the birds have, after all. I recalled winter mountain camping, sitting inside the entrance to my tent, eating, washing up and then sleeping as soon as possible, conserving warmth but comfortable too, breathing the warm air inside the sleeping bag; my human equivalent of putting my beak beneath my wing to sleep.

The car was still slightly warm inside, I had digital tasks to do this evening, it was time to return, to make soup, to type and download and make sandwiches. And as I turned on the radio, the rumour of distant guns, from across the bigger water, where the fragile birds of democracy, constitution and law are looking for an opportunity to rest and roost and rearrange their feathers.

I send you all hopeful good wishes.

Hush, it’s Hogmanay …

I haven’t written much this year, not for the lack of motivation but because I’ve been too occupied with work that, fortunately, continued through most of the Lockdown, some making projects to complete the outfitting of the skin-on-frame kayak that I made and finished last January, getting enough exercise to keep my sanity and re-evaluating plans, ambitions and attitudes.

This is, apparently, a Rat year, according to the Chinese Zodiac, which was my birth year. For myself it’s been pretty good, despite the disruption, tragedies, divisions and instability of world and national events; here in the UK especially. I’ve had to call upon those Rat qualities of adaptability, resourcefulness and a willingness to turn and learn new approaches and skills. I’ve had some reality-checks too, which have given me the opportunity to review and appreciate what I’ve got and to find a new calm in accepting what I had been struggling against for longer than I should. Some lessons take a few iterations to sink in fully.. my stubborn tendencies emerging there..

I had hoped to be able to write something more profound and insightful at this point but my energies have been focused on laying the foundations of something I hope to build into a secondary income stream, I feel I have a head full of “Work in Progress” signs sometimes! Keeping a balance of activity has been more of a challenge than usual for me, yet I have managed to be productive overall and I feel more focus and clarity than I have had for a long time. The challenges of the Covid pandemic and the slow-burning anger I feel at the Brexit debacle remain, the latter to be turned in a positive and useful direction in a number of ways including doing what I can to maintain and build links with people in EU countries and cultures – learning a European language is starting to feel not just unusual in UK but an act of subversion; now THAT would have been a better way to promote the French lessons at school…!

There’s half an hour to go… I shall stop here and wish you good health, lasting happiness that doesn’t depend upon circumstances, good and nutritious fruits of your labours in the coming year…. we need a healthier diet than we’ve had of late, eat well.

Dreams and Mist.

The season of mists is upon us.

Spiders are gathering dreams,

Carried on air and sunlight,

Storing them for winter nights.

Rethink – questions for a new “Normal”?

Midsummer evening paddle to 3 bridges (12)

Over this last week, from 22 June, there has been an excellent series of thought-provoking and necessary talks and discussions on BBC Radio on the theme of re-thinking, well, everything! The range of topics is huge;

“what could “normal” look like after the Covid-19 crisis? Rethink, a unique collaboration between BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 Live and World Service will ask just that.”

“Profound topics will be picked up and pondered. Do we have a different understanding of what it means to live a good life? Has there been a refocus on who and what we value the most in society? We will have the opportunity to rethink all aspects of our lives: the way we travel will be scrutinised, the future role of sport discussed, how we assess individual health risks will be considered and even how coronavirus could change our ideas about intimacy.”

The contribution I would like to make to this timely discussion takes the form more of questions rather than statements of opinion, “policies” or positions.  Open questions expand the mind to a range of possible solutions and to further questions and exploration, they allow wider involvement of people, ideas, perspectives, experiences.  At a time of uncertainty and profound, challenging, change, we need to ask fundamental questions and make genuine changes that involve as many people as possible in making a change of course towards a healthier future.  Opinions and positions tend to narrow down thinking and encourage defensiveness and aggression, which we are seeing a great deal of at present.

I may offer a little elaboration on some questions, below, but these are some suggested components of possible solutions.  The reality is that no one person has a monopoly of useful ideas, those who believe they do tend to turn out to be dictators and demagogues and those who turn to them for all the answers are inevitably, eventually, disappointed.

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1. How would our society look and feel if we value and reward the skills of caring, healing and supporting others’ well-being at least as well as the skills of managing or making money for others?

The COVID pandemic and earlier ministerial statements about “low-skilled” workers has brought to the fore the issue of the disgracefully poor pay and conditions of many people whose skills lie in caring, supporting well-being and health and other essential tasks and production.  Widespread public expressions of appreciation for key workers and the National Health Service has been welcome and indicates a favourable atmosphere for change but it does not remedy a deep-rooted problem in our society.

Most of our organisations and institutions still resemble pyramids, the “workers” forming the base, numerous and low-paid, too frequently regarded as “low-skilled” or having low-value skills, and the “management” forming the upper layers, fewer and well- or highly-paid, regarded (or self-regarding) as having “high-level skills” and high value; without the base, the summit would collapse.  Indeed, this “pyramid” conceptual model embodies a hierarchy of value that is not related to the actual interdependence of everybody in the organisation nor in wider society; in my experience I have seen no evidence of any greater levels of competence in the “upper” layers of organisations or government than at the “base”.

I propose inverting this model, indeed replacing it with that of a tree, where the front-line “producers” equate to the leaves and fruit, the “management” and “leadership” to the roots and trunk; all roles are necessary for a healthy tree and all parts need nourishment but the fruit is what is most highly valued, that’s why the tree was planted. “For healthy fruit, you need good roots but the roots are only there to grow the fruit”.

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2. How would our society look and feel if all citizens had a home, as of right, rather than depending upon their ability to pay for it?

We have seen some commendable, if incomplete and temporary, measures taken to provide shelter and food to people who are homeless, in the last few months.  The issues of insecurity of tenure, lack of availability of affordable housing (whether to rent or buy), empty second and investment homes,  limited home building and lack of access to self-build options, etc, continue to grow and are at best tinkered with through policies chosen carefully not to rock the housing market boat. This is pushing increasing numbers of people, into desperate situations and may lead to very bad social consequences.

Solutions for this would need to enable movement, for all the reasons people have, and to maintain the availability of homes for the long-term, not just a temporary “hand-out” that just enlarges the pool of homes as investment opportunities.  There is the question of the transition from a housing market, that relies upon shortage of supply and competition for its own existence and growth, to housing as a basic social infrastructure for all that is no longer subject to corrosive “market forces”.  Some existing “industries” would become redundant but new ones would emerge, perhaps moving skills from selling land and property to entirely new areas of need.

Solving this problem requires questioning our concepts of “ownership” of land and property, it offers the possibility of liberating every citizen from the burden of insecurity that drains the creative and social potential of very many people and facilitating much wider participation in society, culture and the economy.  There are precedents, such as the mass-construction of prefabricated homes for people made homeless by the Blitz, we can do this, it is a solvable problem.  Whether we do so or not is a choice.

2020 24-5jun Forth Airth & Stirling (1)

3. How would our society look and feel if all citizens had their basic needs provided by that society?

By basic needs I mean here: Safe shelter, sufficient warmth, safe clean water, access to enough food, access to medical/dental care, access to education and justice, enough clothing, opportunities to engage in social and cultural activity.

The UK Government’s Furlough scheme, along with moderately effective support for self-employed people and those who lost their jobs, has been an interesting step in this direction, or perhaps more accurately in the direction of a Universal Basic Income, which has been discussed increasingly widely in the last year or two.  My own general view is, to repeat a point above, that it offers the possibility of liberating every citizen, especially those in undervalued and underpaid roles, from the struggle to meet basic needs that drains the creative and social potential of very many people and thereby could enable much wider participation in society, culture, education and the economy.

How would we afford this?  How would this be funded for the long term?  Creative ideas are needed, for sure, including discussion about the relationship and respective obligations of citizen to state and society. We would need to look again at how we value and reward skills and work, how we define what it is to be “productive”, agree the scope of what we mean by “basic needs”, agree a definition of what is required to be a qualifying “citizen”, and more.

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4. How would our society look and feel if all citizens had full access to the law and justice, regardless of ability to pay for it?

This is increasingly denied people, through a combination of obscure and complex language in framing our laws that requires specialists to translate it, maintaining and raising the cost of access by the “gatekeepers” ( the legal professions ) and the continuing withdrawal of support for citizens to get their services without the financial means.

I believe we need to begin, immediately, drafting new and redrafting old legislation in such a way that an average school-leaver can realistically, with a little effort, understand effectively those laws; certainly those relating to most aspects of daily life (I acknowledge there has been some progress on this).   In addition, we should make greater use of Artificial Intelligence and computing power to make all of our laws freely accessible and comprehensible, so that people are freed from complete dependence upon specialists to interpret those laws.  We should be enabling anybody to defend themselves in court with a realistic chance of success, should they so choose.

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5. How would our society look and feel if transport infrastructure and building developments were designed to make it safe and easy for our children* to use them, independently, by walking, cycling and using public transport?

During this Lockdown period, we have seen a massive and welcome surge in cycling in the UK, to the point where cycle shops have run out of stock; I am still unable to get replacements for some basic worn parts on my own bike!  This has come about through the Governments of all UK nations explicitly encouraging cycling as one of the approved forms of exercise, good weather and, above all, wonderfully peaceful and quiet roads. There has been much positive comment on this and discussion on how this upturn in healthy activity and travel might be maintained.

I am involved in campaigning for safe, direct, coherent and convenient walking and cycling infrastructure and this “child test” is something I raise often when talking to local government representatives at meetings – “would you, and elected council members, be happy for your children to use this on their own?” The responses I have had to asking this question have usually been silence.

I see many examples of poor and incomplete, often dangerous, design that few parents are happy to use themselves, let alone allow their children to do so – the situation in the Netherlands now is a good example of the opposite, where people of all ages and abilities can and do travel actively on coherent, complete and safe cycling and walking networks.

We need a shift in priorities and the design process from movement of motor vehicles to the movement of people; design first for people of all ages and abilities walking, cycling/ using mobility aids, public and commercial transport.  When that is complete, then for the needs of people in private motorised vehicles. We should design out the need for people to own private motor vehicles, for our individual, social and environmental health.

(*By children I mean here an average 12-year-old.)

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6. How would our society look and feel if our prisons were transformed to become places of education and healing?

Can we transform our ancient collective desire to wreak revenge and suffering on those who break laws and do real harm? So far this has been an approach that mostly fails both to re-form or even deter people who commit offences and do harm to others.  There have been many attempts to change prison systems to make them more constructive, perhaps re-constructive, and ultimately useful institutions but there seems to be a consistent failure of political courage and will to see this through in a coherent way, certainly in the UK system.

There are some who must be confined and kept out of wider society because they are fixed on harmful attitudes and behaviours but most offenders can return to society and should be able to do so having dealt with some of the causes of their offending, the causes of the choices they made.  It seems that most prisons make the problems worse, leaving us all the worse off in the long term.

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7. How would our society look and feel if we decide to “live well with less” instead of “live well for less”*?

If we continue what many seem to have discovered for themselves during the Lockdown, that we can be happier with less consumption, that there are more important things than “stuff”, what might be the longer term implications for our society?  How might we change what we do to enable everybody to enjoy equal opportunities to participate fully in a vibrant and creative society?  How much are all these things interrelated?

(* – the latter is the Sainsbury’s slogan: I am neither endorsing nor criticising them here, it just captures the idea neatly.)





David Lammy MP, in the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign (which I support fully), demanded recently that the Government cease prevaricating and simply put into action, now, the many recommendations and findings of previous inquiries and commissions; he is right.  []

There are also many other changes that we need to make in society, the UK and worldwide, which is currently on a very bad trajectory indeed.  A lot of people have begun to realise and experience on a small scale some of these necessary changes in the last few months.  Some changes need to happen now, others need some deliberation and the involvement of all citizens in shaping the change.

We have a great opportunity in this period of adversity and time for reflection to change course, to bring about a society that is not just “sustainable” but that is likely to be enduring, through becoming fairer, enabling all citizens to realise more of their potential, reducing our destructive consumption of resources and replacing it with “circular” models of resource production and use; a society more likely to enable most people to experience enduring happiness and fulfilment – isn’t that the whole reason for being here?

Keep well, ask questions, re-think..

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Apart but not isolated: walk, look, smell, listen…

I’m fortunate, living here, very close to the Forth estuary and no longer in the constraints of a flat (apartment), in that I can take my daily permitted local exercise* (see below) by foot or bike along a few hundred metres of lane to the river banks or a little further into dense and gently-managed woodland, each with their hidden wonders to discover.

One advantage of having been told to work at home, for which I’d already prepared, seeing the way things were going, is that I can do so to timings that suit my own energy and motivation levels better than the standard working day.  The work tasks I can do here are necessary but dull and repetetive admin, so it’s important to me to ensure I make best use of any good weather spells and the best daylight to take my permitted local exercise*.  If I could find a way of making a living that involved always working with this degree of flexibility, I would do so, anyway, while it lasts, I intend to enjoy it.  This is one way I’m approaching the enforced (and, I agree, for now, necessary) self-isolation that most people around the world are enduring right now.

Getting outside, even just into the small garden space I have (and very much appreciate), is important to me.  Taking walks within the constraints of, as far as possible, staying in my home zone is opening up opportunities for me to explore my local area in more depth and gradually find more hidden refuges for a restless mind to rest a while, stop, open out the senses and experience to see and hear beyond our busy and cluttered but self-centred human preoccupations.

I’ll share a few images and words from this, as time goes on.  For now, my work motivation is returning, so here are a few photos from the last few days.  Maybe some more and some sketches to follow.

* – permitted local exercise* … how easily have we fallen into accepting and, largely, complying with this immense constraint on our liberty?  While most agree that it is at present a necessary, provided temporary, measure to take, we must remain aware of and awake to the implications of this and the various forms of “emergency” legislation that have just been passed, with little real scrutiny.  If we want to return to a relatively free society as we get to grips with the COVID19 pandemic (and I am confident we will, despite the widespread incompetence and rampant dishonesty of governments), then we MUST keep questioning and challenging, responsibly, all of these constraints.  We have an opportunity to consider seriously the kind of society, institutions and “economy” (in its broadest sense) that we want to live in and participate in; a subject for a future article.  This extended “winter” is a time, as with the season itself, for new seeds to prepare for germination and when “spring” does return, those that grow leaves first tend to grow tallest.  To be continued.  

Wishing you well, wherever you are.

Stay well, prepare the seeds.

As if in the early days.

I’ve just read an article in the Independent about the continuing divide within the “United” Kingdom over the issue of the European Union:

I’ve refrained from writing about this topic so far, despite very strong feeling about it, in part because I have had my own priorities to focus upon and that has felt the more constructive and useful option. However, the issue of this, in my view, deeply mistaken and possibly disastrous decision to leave the EU is not going away, even if Coronavirus is giving our government some respite from Brexit scrutiny.

Here in Scotland in particular, this is an important matter that may well (and I hope does) galvanise more people to want to dissolve the chronically debilitating Union and have the confidence to make Scotland more psychologically as well as economically self-reliant, whatever our future relations with the rest of the British Isles nations and mainland Europe.

For most of us as individual citizens, though, it is too easy to become consumed from within by our feelings of impotent rage or despair at the venal stupidity of too many of those who stand for and whom we collectively (and unbelievably) vote into power. The way I’m trying to navigate these particular storms is, like a kayaker on a rough patch of water, to keep focused on what is within my own small radius of influence and control; that’s about one to two metres in a kayak! Here are a few points I try to keep in mind and follow:

  • Persevere,
  • improve your own bit of the world, even if it’s only by being polite and pleasant to people different to yourself ,
  • do not collaborate in spreading hatred and division, refrain from joining in the laughter and the “Likes” at the racist (etc) jokes that you may hear, or from reinforcing others’ narrow views and ignorance
  • maintain and build links at any level with our neighbours,
  • learn a European language and encourage your children to do so and to look outwards and upwards,
  • plant trees, literally and metaphorically, either way, accept you will never see what they grow into but you can be confident it will be something good,
  • question and look behind the facades of bullshit and lies peddled by most media and a majority of politicians,
  • vote wisely, for the best, not the loudest,
  • to quote/paraphrase Alasdair Gray: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation
  • persevere.

It’s windy and showery today but I may take my kayak out to a sheltered bay for a gentle paddle around and short exploration, keeping it easy as it’s a solo trip.

Happy Sunday, whatever the weather.

skin-on-frame kayak