The tea has come

The thing about knowing you’d be cancelling a trip back to Ireland is the minor detail of the tea. The amount of tea in the teabox started deteriorating awfully quickly when I a) started teleworking and b) stopped drinking Coke Zero and coffee. It was already looking tight that I’d make it to the trip home to April anyway, but when April was swimming in a sea of cancellations and lockdown risks, it became necessary to act quickly. So 160 teabags were ordered and this morning arrived in between two conference calls. How beautiful. I don’t need to panic again now until I’ve drunk at least 100 cups of tea. That gives me time to order some more and not quite run out.

Anyway, day 2 teleworking was half and half; the morning spent at home, the afternoon back to the office for what may the last time for some time. All the conference calls were this morning which was badly planned on my part; I have a data cap. The plus side is that it was nice to be back in the office. Bigger desk. Two screens. Proper keyboard. Very quiet which is usually a bonus.

Walked home. You now have to queue to get into the supermarket, at least at 6pm anyway. I don’t know how this is all going to work. Social distancing means you have to stay away from people; I don’t know how many people the grocery store allowed in but there were about 10 queueing outside. I hope it’s quieter at 7am. I hope I am up at 7am.

ON the other hand I want a life where I don’t have to be up at 7am to go queue at the grocery store. There’s something all wrong with that. It reminds me of those spy books set in the 1970s and 1980s, talking about the queues in Soviet Russia.

Someone asked me what was it like there. “So, What’s it like there, Treas?”

Well, you have to queue to get into buy toilet roll at the moment but anyway. No what strikes me most is the quietness. Coincidentally, as I write this, 2 cars pass the front of the apartment. This is a lot. My street, which is usually jammed non-moving at 8am has been deserted these last few days.

There don’t seem to be so many aircraft floating around either although I don’t always hear them so the data is incomplete.

I talked to three people at the office today, maintaining the required gap of 2 metres, and then, when I came home, I realised the only people I will actually exchange words with in real life for the next few months will be the people on the cash desk at the grocery store. It’s a sobering thought. At least one of the cash attendants today was wearing a mask. I could see him through the window while I considered whether to queue or not.

The strange part is talking to Ireland. They are … getting there. Not quite up to the level of queuing to get into the grocery shops, and they haven’t banned people from going out yet. Hope that does not change any time soon. It’s not that I actually want to go out and run ten kilometres – I don’t – but a 2km walk is near mandatory or I am completely screwed. I have a 70 sqm apartment. I’d be hard pushed to walk between the living room and the kitchen enough times to make 2km.

On the group chat at work, we’ve been exchanging recommendations of YouTube videos for getting exercise when stuck at home. All of these recommendations have been matched with fables of the injuries people got when they were doing those exercises. I am somewhat skeptical.

So, there’s a growing list of things I regret not doing since Christmas. Nothing earth shattering. I should have bought a printer. I could do with a second desk. I need a million more shelves. The rapid reorg of my life to facilitate home working has led to any number of Luxembourgish eco-bags containing art materials, fabric and general stuff swished off my desk. It’s really strange to be thinking along those lines.

Today was Saint Patrick’s Day, well, it still is. I don’t think they reattributed it to Saint Andrew just yet. The first track that came on is a recently favourited track from a Zoe Conway album that she did with Julie Fowlis. It’s a setting of a Mairtín O Direáin poem called Faoiseamh a Gheobhadse. You can find it on YouTube.

Zoe Conway and John McIntyre

Mairtín O Direáin is my favourite Irish language poet. In fact, I think this is a reflection of my tastes in poetry which tend to the very accessible, very simple but also, very deep. Anyway, I wasn’t familiar with this but the general thrust of this is that he finds peace, walking on the shores of his homeland, amongst his people.

I feel that quite a lot these days mostly because I’m not entirely sure how to get the peace that comes from walking by the sea. I fake it by using the sound of waves on someone’s Soundcloud. It helps. Currently the most exciting thing in my life is that the number 30 bus goes by every 20 minutes. That’s a side track by the way. I was going to talk about the similarities to some random extent I see between O Direain in Irish, and my favourite Irish English language poet who is Patrick Kavanagh. Some account on twitter has been pushing a photograph of Maud Gonne lately and I have been taking the view that as well as not being totally lost on his Nobel winning poetry, William Butler Yeates doesn’t strike me as having fantastic taste in women.

This is very judgmental of me of course. Maud Gonne was probably a perfectly lovely woman. And I didn’t like WB anyway.

Moving swiftly onwards, I have yet to develop a Home Working Listicle. I still haven’t worked out how not to go completely mad but there are two reasons for that a) I don’t have time because I have to cook and therefore I have to wash the ware and b) I’m learning Lord Franklin in DAGDAD on the new guitar so help me god why did you make Luka Bloom so talented. I’m not learning his version of course. I’m making up a perfectly good one of my own

But mostly, I’m not gone mad because of the screen. Three days in with the screen and Oh I am in love.

The sewing machine might be in trouble.

It’s a strange world

I’m in Luxembourg, one of the richest countries in the world. I’m working from home for the foreseeable and glad for the right to be able to do so. The Luxembourg government ordered that all the restaurants and cafés and pretty much any non-essential businesses apart from groceries, pharmacies and banks should close. A lot of people cannot work from home and a lot of them today aren’t working at all. Not sure whether post offices are affected but I’ll try to find out. I have a Seanad vote sitting here when I find someone to sign the identity paper that came with it. It would be pretty annoying if my first time to exercise a right to vote in the Seanad got stymied by a virus.

I went out for a walk after work this evening, and after I had been to my local grocery store to get food – they were clean out of pretty much everything but they did have a reasonable selection of pizza. Hopefully tomorrow they will have some meat and a few more vegetables. They had installed their response to social distancing. They painted a yellow line on the floor, a bit like at passport control, and confused the hell out of many of their customers who did not know where they were supposed to stand. The queuing set up will take a while to get used to, I think, and I’m going to struggle because they make you stand right with the display with a whole pile of chocolate miniEggs for Easter. The temptation to just get some chocolate is Almost Too Much To Bear. The supermarket was curiously full of parents with children too. It was like being at Mass on Christmas morning with a lot of excited children’s voices.

The walk though, that was strange. There was no traffic; the odd jogger giving me 2 metres and practising their social distancing. Every ten minutes, a bus went by, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so few cars. And you could smell things. You could smell the pile of woodchip that they’ve spread somewhere near one of the schools not too far from where I live, and the wood that some workmen had thrown in a skip near the supermarket. Normally I would not notice these things, but in the quiet…it’s seems like every sense is a bit more intense.

We’re really right at the start of this experience I think. I hesitate to call it an adventure; and anyway elements of it I hate. But it’s going to have the oddest impact on the most mundane parts of my life. My electricity bill is going to completely sky rocket. I’m here all the time, and computers which were switched on maybe two or three times a month are now on at least 5 days a week. And there’s a screen. And I use so much more of my internet data allowance. And I’ll drink so much more water. All because I am here.

All day long. Mostly listening to Icelandic soft piano music in the background, except for the inevitable conference calls. Why am I using so much data again? It’s lonely. My weekend reading list filled up with “how not to go crazy while teleworking” but to be honest, the biggest issue for me was how to stop working. The odd thing reminds you. The need for bread and the fact that if you don’t get there in time they are out of bread. There might be a few rolls left if you’re lucky. If you don’t need bread, it’s possible you miss normal knock off time.

We have the tools to stay in contact; I keep a chat window open with my team and they are great. It’s not really the same as dropping down the corridor to them, but hey, we do it. And I stay in contact with a few other people who work elsewhere. We swap stories. One of my friends said that one of his joys was that he could work on a Windows machine again (heh). The world has discovered – once more – when something must happen, it will happen.

I saw a comment on twitter during the week that people should, if possible, journal what this time was like; historians in the future would value it. And to try and handwrite it as handwritten papers tend to last longer than digital records. This stunned some techbros on the thread actually. This, I don’t really see as journaling the experience of what might turn into much more of a lockdown, more a mind clearing exercise for me.

It’s hard to say what normal will be when all of this is ended. I don’t think we’re going back to how life was 3 weeks’ ago. In some ways, that might be attractive. Walkers could very easily take over the streets given how few people will be driving. It’s hard to say how many airlines will survive the complete and utter standstill in travel that is coming. It’s hard to imagine how long this is going to take. You try to predict it based on experience elsewhere but it’s not getting normal in Italy any time soon.

I like to think that maybe, there will be some recognition of the need for all of us to work together and that the ability to do this, the will to do it, will stand to us later on. That the need to refocus ourselves will cause us to take that step back and smell the sweetness in the air, from two metres away, of course.

In the meantime, we take each day as it comes.

Easter, Luxembourg

It is Easter Monday and I am engaged in a normal enough tradition for me; listening to the Hall of Fame Countdown on Classic FM. 

I missed it last year, when, apparently, the 1812 Overture swooped in from nowhere to claim the Number 1 spot. It made a change from the dirge that is Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. Don’t get me wrong – VW has a couple of pieces that I really like. The Lark Ascending, however, is a classical B side for a record that didn’t make the top 100 singles chart. I question the taste of Classic FM listeners some times. They’ve put both Bruch’s first violin concerto and Elgar’s cello concerto outside the top ten. You can find the chart here

Interestingly, I’d love to see a chart of the recordings they chose to play. I’ve heard Daniel Barenboim’s name a lot today. 

Anyway, apart from that, Easter in Luxembourg in 2019 has been absolutely gorgeous. It’s hard to believe that one week ago we had snow and it made a valient attempt to stick, freeze and generally cause confusion. This weekend has been absolutely stunning. I had planned to spend the weekend sewing but so far, I have spent it washing fabric, looking at the weather and thinking, you know what I have that new camera 

So yesterday I did a 6km walk around Luxembourg. It’s the walk I inflict on visitors, more or less, with a few bits left out. Out of the 126 photographs I took only 26 made the cut. 

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This is near the tram stop at Theater. I’ve always loved this art installation but the strength of the sunshine made it particularly memorable yesterday. 
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This is Fondation Pescatore, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, residential care home for elderly people in the world. It opened in 1855. Near it is a memorial to all the soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. The building is a mish mash of styles, but the main entrance is neogothic. The place also has an outdoor gym and a lot of lovely places for residents to sit and take their ease. 

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Near Fondation Pescatore is the Pfaffenthal lift, which is a glass elevator, but not quite in the mode of Willie Wonka. This is the view from the top. 

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This is the old jail. It’s been renovated lately and it’s connected to the old court house buildings which are in the possession of the Luxembourg government now. I believe the court house houses the Department of Foreign Affairs. A key piece of information is that this place had a mobile guillotine for dealing with justice swiftly, as it were. 

If you go to the City of Luxembourg Museum, in one of the galleries there are a set of drawings of Luxembourg when it was a fort. There are very few representations of Luxembourg as a fort as drafting any imagery of it was concerned an act of treason which could put the fort at risk. I wonder sometimes how many wannabe artists bit the dust on this one. 

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This is the building now housing the Department of Foreign Affairs. It was recently renovated and on Open House Day (which was in the height of summer last year), you could do tours of it. If I remember rightly though, we could not take photographs. That being said, it’s a stunning building and I love the front of it. 

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Nearby is the Palais Grand Ducal, which you can usually tour on Saturdays in July and August. Worth doing, mainly because it is a stunning building, but also, because it’s got a great map room. The building was not originally built as a palace but as an administrative building, and it was occupied by the Nazi soldiers during World War II. They painted over some seriously old wall art with white wall paint – you can see remnants of it here and there. But it was wanton destruction all the same. I loathe war. 

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A two minute walk away you’ll find the double spired Notre Dame Cathedral which has some distinctions in my experience – one, it is the only cathedral which is not fully detached (it has buildings attached either side) and it has the most beautiful pillars which are beautifully and abstractly decorated. The organ is not too shabby either. Plus the sun was shining in the stained glass windows. I could not resist them. 

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This is looking towards Pfaffenthal from the viewing spots near the legal district. There’s another elevator here to get you down to the lower level but this one is drilled into the rock so no glass elevator. 

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Finally, this is the current Town Hall in Luxembourg (there’s actually another one which I didn’t include in yesterday’s gallery. You’ll find this building on Knuedlerplatz. 

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I love Luxembourg. 

Today then was Easter Monday and clearly I have not been here on Easter Monday before as I was not familiar with the ceramic fair. Especially, they sell a lot of bird shaped ocarinas. The city was full of children playing their ocarinas which means the place echoed to the sound of whistling birdies. 

It. Was. Packed. And overwhelming. There were stalls every where. There were a few buskers around including a very decent slide guitarist. And the queue outside the ice cream shop was unending. 

I bought a hand blender lately

I’m going to spare you an ode to the iron I bought; I haven’t yet unpacked it. 

But I bought a handblender yet. You don’t need to know any details about it except it has a metal blade attachment, came with a cutter tool that resembles a baby food processor, and it also came with a jug type thing. That jug type thing, and the metal blade attachment were my selection criteria, that and not costing 120E while not being a supermarket own brand that I have never heard of. 

I wanted to make my own smoothies. I wanted to do this because most smoothies I buy seem to have added sugar in them. I don’t want or need this. I have a basic recipe and it goes like this. 

You will need the following stuff

  • a hand blender
  • something to blend the stuff in
  • a citrus squeezer of some description. 
  • a knife. 
  • a dessert spoon
  • a banana or some papaya
  • strawberries or blueberries or mango
  • some no-sugar added natural yogurt. I use a set yogurt with very low sugar content
  • some orange juice
  • some ground ginger, 
  • a lime

Here is how you do it:

  • Chop some (say, four) strawberries/some mango, some blueberries) into your something to blend the stuff into. 
  • Chop the banana/papaya into that something
  • Add the juice of one lime, or half a lime if you are a wimp
  • Add “some” ground ginger. Err on the side of caution (I like a lot, but that should be no reflection on you. 
  • Add two dessert spoonfuls of yogurt
  • Top up with orange juice. I generally advise against the stuff with pulp as cleaning that out is a hassle, particularly by hand. 
  • Use the blender to liquidise everything. 
  • Remove and rinse the blender attachment immediately. Dried on smoothie is a bitch to clean off. 
  • Decant some smoothie into a glass. Enjoy. 

I bought a sewing machine lately

On Good Friday, 2019, to be precise. I had been angling for one for around 10 years but had never quite….got there. Until now. 

Sewing

I had a conversation with a friend lately on the question of clothing; we both focus on the comfort of clothing, in my case, because I am so damn glad to find clothes that fit me that the colour matching is completely a secondary concern. I am Between Sizes. I have always been Between Sizes because I have DD cup breasts. It doesn’t matter what size I am, I am between sizes. 

I live with it. 

The problem is when you find clothing styles you like and the vendor discontinues them. I have serious issues sourcing nightwear at the moment, and swimsuits are a hassle too, causing a decision to quit Speedo after nearly 25 years of loyalty to the brand. And it occurred to me that in theory (note those two words as they may come back to haunt later) it should be possible to dismember clothes I like but which are no longer respectable to wear in company (that would be those two purple/lilac coloured tops, there, which I bought at least 7 years ago but refuse to give up because I like how they fit) and use them to creat basic patterns, particularly the non-stretchy fabric (that would be that last remaining shortish satin nightdress that I need to fix the dart on and really should throw out as I can’t even begin to remember when it was bought but we’re probably talking ca 10 years ago). 

One of my friend bought an overlocker. No, I didn’t know what one of those was either but she made a skirt using it, and it did not appear to have been a particularly high mountain to climb. I am a logical person sometimes. I reason, this works like computer stuff and knitting patterns. There are instructions, you follow them, and 10 years later or so, when you get around to finishing stuff, you have a wearable. 

I kind of need a shorter timeline than ten years would be helpful but recent experience of finishing two doilies started ten years ago gives me a fresh view of my motivation sometimes. Anyway. I went looking at the three sewing machine shops and found one with staff I liked/found friendly/found helpful, and agreed to buy a Brother A16 sewing machine. It cost 30E more than its older brother, the A15. The A15 was a beautiful looking machine. The A16 was a bit boxier looking. I asked what the difference was and was told that the needle threading mechanism was easier to work on the A16 to the A15. As I expect to have the machine for at least 10 years, I ignored the more esthetically pleasing A15 and bought the miracle of engineering that was the A16. The fact that the single most common complaint about the A15 in amazon reviews related to the needle threading and my lack of patience with that may have contributed. The shop sales staff trained me in threading the needle and the bobbin, several times, and away I went. 

I’m nothing if not ambitious. I bought a whole pile of fat quarters and plan to make some napkins for my house and for my sister’s house. I can’t wear these of course, but I need to get the hang of basic stuff like a) sewing in a straight line and b) putting enough thread on the bobbin so as not to run out in the middle of something. I also need to read the manual. 

Sewing

But on Good Friday, I felt it would be a good idea to unpack it and try and figure out how I was going to fit it into my desk area. I have no other options – the desk where I paint and write blog entries is also where I will be sewing and cutting. So I also decided that sewing would be useful. 

Sewing

So yeah I had a go at sewing, and trying to style photographs of me sewing. 
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That was about my fourth attempt. I put up a hem and tried parallel lines too. Then I looked up YouTube videos and tried to figure out how I would make some napkins. It turned out the answer was “buy more fat quarters”. So I went back and did that. 

Then I discovered you had to wash and iron fabric before you sewed it. So I have about a dozen and a half fat quarters drying on the clothes horse and a deep desire to iron stuff so that I can start making napkins, either later today, or tomorrow. 

The washing them…was interesting. I’m starting to wonder if I should like, tack them before hand given that the edge threads are prone to rip. Some one of the blog instructions I read stated that you could do like 8 napkins in 2 hours but she didn’t include washing, drying or ironing in that time, as far as I can see. 

In general though, I have found the sewing world remarkably honest. You need stuff when you are starting off. It’s not a case of “just buy yourself some needles and away you go”. No. 

Buy the following items. 

  • sewing machine
  • scissors
  • needles for your sewing machine
  • pins
  • probably a pin cushion
  • chalk marking pencil
  • iron
  • ironing board

Where the scissors are concerned, issue death threats should someone be dumb enough to use your new and recommendedly the best you can afford to buy fabric scissors for anything other than fabric. I have no potential victims so I think I will be okay. But it’s refreshing that they recognise that you need to invest a certain amount of money up front. I had to buy an iron and ironing board for example. And I need to find homes for all these things. 

I bought a camera

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Most people who know me going way back online know me because I used to take photographs. In particular I used to take kitesurfing photographs on the beaches in Ireland, and occasionally elsewhere. 

Five or six years ago, I completely lost my mojo, actually, it might have been longer. There were various reasons for this, although I think the main one was that I tended to have a lot of back ache which I put down to carrying the camera bag. Since December 2016, every single photograph I have taken has been with a Samsung phone, or once or twice, an iPad. I started drawing and painting. I didn’t miss carrying 25 kg of camera gear around with me. Even when I toned it down, the extra camera bag was always heavy, or awkward, and I had other stuff to carry. In truth, I’d done everything I could do with the kites and while I was planning to look at macro photography, I also packed up my life and moved to Luxembourg. For the first time in nearly 15 years, an SLR did not come with me. I did not seem to miss it. 

I certainly did not miss the back pain, that was for sure. And I took some really sweet photographs with the camera on my phone, particularly of fireworks on National Day in Luxembourg. Then in December, I took photographs at a work do and discovered two things a) I still really liked taking photographs of people, and b) I still really liked processing photographs, in particular, choosing what to do with photographs. And that was when I discovered that the phone’s camera wasn’t enough. It struggled with white balance when lights were tinted. One of the things I had to clean up in a lot of photographs was a tango coloured cast. Because the phone image format was jpg, there was not a lot I could do. I wanted a RAW file. 

I was not going to get that from my phone, and while I know there are a ew phones around which do have some sort of digital negative formats, I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy a phone just for its photo file format. 

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About 5 years ago, I had to put a photo book together for a family event and in the course of producing this, I located a lot of photographs of my dad and the rest of his clan when he was young. That was when he told me his mother had brought a Kodak Brownie from America when she came home to marry my grandfather and that she always had film in it. 

This tied in to one of the reasons I liked having a camera in the phone. You always had something, at least, to catch a moment. 

I like that idea but I wanted more than the phone could do for me. I know that mid level cameras are dying off because the phones are getting so good for a given value of people’s needs. I also knew I did not want to start another DSLR habit. I bought my 40D (my second one, actually) in 2009. Normally I had looked at updating it but I had the sense to realise I was using it so rarely it probably wasn’t worth my while to replace it. Photographers suffer from gear acquisition syndrome. I owned a lot of lenses; I needed to decide whether to stay EOS or whether to switch to Sony, or to look at the impact of going mirrorless. And all of that was still pointing at a steadily growing gizmo collection. I wanted something different. I wanted a compact camera that did raw that could live in my handbag. Always there, like my grandmother always had her Kodak Brownie. 

So I bought a Canon Powershot G7X a couple of weeks ago. Events eventuated and I really only got a chance to play with it today. 

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A couple of things happened. It seems, for some reason, to be easier to pick the camera and go out, than it does for any other reason. It is a strange sort of company. Unlike drawing, I don’t need to find somewhere to work for an hour. I pull it out of my handbag, struggle with the controls but it’s there, and it is obvious to me that the way I look at the world is very different to the way I look at the world when I have a camera in my hand. The basics don’t change, and I can do Av, Tv, Manual, depending on what takes my fancy. I find that high ISO has improved beyond all recognition but then, let’s face it, ten years have passed. It would want to have. 

I don’t remember missing the camera for the last 2 and a half years. I only know that when I had it with me today and I was out taking photographs, the world felt different to how it feels when I go out for any other reason. It’s easier to get lost in the moment. 

A lot of the photographs I took in the past depended on serious zoom capabilities. I don’t have that any more. I want to live in a world where I use that camera, and work within its limitations. I have no doubt that at some point, I will get frustrated by the lack of 500mm.

But it has been fantastic to be back dealing with Adobe RAW and digital negatives. It is like a friend has come back. 

Thread journey



This is The Doily. 

I bought the pattern and the thread when I was on holiday in Nice in the South of France in 2010. I bought a load of thread at the Bergere de France shop – they’ve discontinued the product since which is a real pity. The doily has been under production since about then as I probably started it while I was still in Nice (bored, hotel room alone in the evening). It went through about 5 house moves, and was lost across one (so I started another one, from a pattern also bought in Nice with more thread also bought in Nice). I finally finished it about a month ago. 

I’ve always loved the colour – I call it ballet pink and I like those pastelly shades for some reason. I wasn’t sure I’d have enough thread in the end (but I did, and have some left and now don’t know what to do with it). 

I’m really proud of it because it took a lot of work. It’s not the first doily I have finished (there are two others, one of which I’ve lost so I hope it turns up in the storage boxes still in Ireland. In a way, I find it hard to believe that almost 9 years have passed since I bought the thread and started it. Life seems to be flying. But most of all, I love that it represents a simple truth: if you work at something, you will get to the end, at some stage. 

Pencils and Sharpeners

I bought a pencil sharpener today. 

As my sister pointed out, I probably actually have a pencil sharpener already (just a few) so…uh? 

This is an antique/vintage one. It is an FTE Modell 120 – no idea when it was built, but late 1960s is favourite. It is manufactured out of Bakelite. It reminds me of an old telephone. It looks nothing like a phone. 

FTE Sharpener


[oh god the new editor is killing me here]

I like the shape of it. 

I have a lot of sharpeners. There are various reasons for this a) finding myself caught in flagrante delit of needing to sharpen a pencil, b) losing them and c) hoarding good ones in case I lose them. My definition of good tended to be “Faber Castell”. 

This was fine except I have now a lot of pencils and they aren’t all the same size. There are a bunch of pencils which are slightly larger than standard. I could not keep track of which pencil sharpener fitted which pencils but often, it was very much “whichever one fits this pencil is not one of the 7 sharpeners I happen to have to hand”. As an additional problem, I could not sharpen charcoal pencils in any of my handheld pencils without killing both blades and pencils. So in desperation one day I bought the Staedler rotary sharpener. Sure, it was more expensive than the hand helds I had, even the brass ones with the killer sharp blades, but then, so were the charcoal pencils that I was going through like they were going out of fashion. The only other rotary sharpener I could find at the time was the Caran d’Ache Matterhorn, either standard or limited edition, and being Caran d’Ache and solid metal, they were way over the odds for testing. 

The Staedtler worked nicely. It’s plastic which I wasn’t so lost on but there’s decent capacity for shavings, and it sharpened the charcoal pencils. A month later I bought a limited edition Matterhorn for no other reason than I liked it. I refuse to sharpen the charcoals in it which is why I have two mechanical sharpeners on my desk. This brings us to today’s purchase of an FTE. I use pencils at work and I wanted a rotary sharpener. I wanted it to be a bit more solid than plastic, but not as expensive as the Matterhorn (which is jewellery level pricy). The vintage fair seemed a possible source and the FTE rocked up at it. The seller knocked 5 euro of the price, and it was much less than the cost of a new Staedler, so I bought it. It works. I’ve sharpened a Blackwing in it. So the FTE is going to work. 

FTE was a manufacturer I wasn’t familiar with, so I looked it up. It was a factory in the GDR – and apparently when the sharpeners were sold in the 1960s they cost 13.50DM which by the standards of the time was not cheap. 

I see a lot of them on eBay.de and they aren’t uncommon as such – the ex-East block seemed to make a lot of mechanical sharpeners as I’ve seen Czech models on sale too, nearly all Bakelite. I like the shape of this and it put a reasonably decent point on the pencil so I’m happy enough about it. 

But

god it is a rabbit hole though, these mechanical sharpening machines. The standard colour of the Matterhorn is grey. I want it. I also want the Red limited edition (no longer available) and the Black limited edition (no longer available). And there are a couple of really nice AW Faber ones of which I want one particular one. I have visions of a shelf of about 8 mechanical sharpeners… and a lot of people going “what is she like?”

Yesterday was International Women’s Day

My social media sources flooded with IWD, with promotions, with hashtags, with exhortations to talk about the inspirational women in your career who helped you along the way. 

I am not a fan of Women’s Day. Its existence reminds me that women are systematically discriminated against and expected to accept whatever small crumbs come our way. There is always some chorus of basses and tenors singing about the lack of a Men’s Day. (it is November 19th by the way; the fact that it appears not to be such a big deal speaks volumes about how much men care about it and campaign for it)

I wanted to think about the things that would make being a woman easier in today’s world. One of those things would be Not Being Embarrassed About Your Period. A sanitary towel or tampon falls out of your handbag? No big deal. 

Being on your period? No big deal. You have an accident? No big deal – it happens to us all. For my lifetime, though periods were handled as something to be hidden, something to be embarrassed about. When I look back at some of the men in my life, they could handle discussing contraception; they could not handle me having sleeping problems because my period was due in 2 days. 

Plus, as it happens today I accidentally flicked a sanitary towel out of my handbag while looking for a sketchbook. I’m now 46 so I don’t give a damn any more but I also know that for years, I would have been scarlet. 

So that’s one thing. 

I was also thinking about inspirations, and if I’m honest, one of the women who I wish was around when I was 18, 19, is Federica Mogherini. I think she’s great. But I don’t want to talk about her right now. I want to talk about someone completely different. 

I grew up in Ireland and I was born in the early 1970s. I spend a lot of time on Irish social media and I can tell you, young people today really have no concept of what Ireland was like back then. Reeling in the Years does not even come place. I want to sing the praises of one, unknown, not famous woman who changed my life in a very significant way in June 1980. I don’t even know if she is still alive. 

The rhythm of life in Ireland came with various rites of passage, of which the second major one after starting school at the age of 5, was, and remains for many people, the First Holy Communion. When I was a child, you got this in First Class. 

So at the age of 7 and a half, one Saturday in May,  I was clad in a short white frilly dress, wandered up the church, and got Communion for the first time. There was a sort of party in the school afterwards, at which my mother strictly ordered me not to even consider the idea of going near an orange, much less trying to peel it. Part of the deal with being in the Communion class was something altogether more secular. It was a school trip. 

We didn’t have many of those in school in Ireland when I was a child, certainly not in most of the small local schools in towns where both major employers had challenges from time to time. But the Communion class got to go away for a whole day. By tradition, it was a trip to Dublin Zoo. 

We lived 150 miles from Dublin Zoo, and the most logical way to get 80 or so 7 year olds to Dublin was to shepherd them onto a train into a reserved carriage, and have them picked up by bus in Heuston Station and then shipped out to the Phoenix Park to pay attention to the exotic animals we could not imagine. I had never been to Dublin and to be frank, I don’t think I had been on a bus before either. 

Anyway, Ireland of the 1980 had a bunch of limitations which meant I think the sole option for bus hire would have been CIE’s Dublin city bus service. So a double decker arrived to take us to the zoo. 

Most of the women I knew at that time were teachers, nuns or nurses. All of the teachers in my school were female. We knew the boys’ school for the Second Class and upwards (ie, older than us) had mostly male teachers but most of the men I knew at that time were mechanics, truck drivers, creamery managers or some such. 

We had the Veritas encyclopaedias and in the page describing the kind of jobs people could do, women had just 2 of the 8 jobs described; teacher and nurse. Every other job was a man’s job. People talk about how important role models are in the tech sector today, in politics, and the idea of ensuring that language isn’t exclusionary. Images can be very exclusionary. 

Anyway, back at Heuston Station, my all female cohort of teachers discovered something highly unusual about this bus. It was so extraordinary they made a point of pointing it to an army of 7 and 8 year olds who really only wanted to go to the zoo and see the penguins. 

The bus driver was a woman. It was, to be frank, unique in any of our experience. 

It is nearly 40 years since I made my Holy Communion, but I still think of that moment – almost a Kodak moment in my life; stamped on my memory – when I realised that if a woman wanted she could be a bus driver. That a bus driver did not have to be male. 

We talk about the importance of role models. I don’t know who that woman was but frankly, she made a massive change to my view of the world when I was 7. And the impact of that change on my life has been immeasurable. 

Anyway, I was busy, yesterday, on International Women’s Day and like I say, I just want periods not to be a subject of embarrassment or shame. But when we talk about inspiration and role models, we need kids to see them, not just teenagers, or early career researchers or students.  

Art live

I don’t own a television and mostly I don’t miss it. This is because I spend more time watching stuff online, on my phone, than anywhere else. 

One of my treats are living sketching videos on Instagram and especially, Alex Hillkurtz’s channel. I did two workshops with him last year and basically he is great. 

His live sketching evenings are lovely to watch, lovely to listen to and his output is always gorgeous. I’m envious although to be fair, he puts in a lot more time than I do. 

His website is here. His instagram is here