My Rivers: The Ouse

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“A river can give a city its very soul… We think of them pragmatically, as conduits of commerce, which is certainly one of their major gifts to us, but generally we overlook the spiritual benefits they bestow on the community living on their banks”
– Thomas Moore

The rivers in York are historically important, they are the reason the city was formed here.  They provided trade routes to the sea and were routes for people to travel along.  But the importance of the Ouse goes beyond the river herself and into the fields that follow her.  These floodplains, the ings, have been important to man, to plants and to other animals and have shaped both the landscape and the culture of York.  They have also allowed the city to survive the regular flooding of the river.

Reflection

“Yorkshire’s rivers have been an important factor in man’s history, in the settlement and growth of towns and cities and in the formation of industries.  Wetlands can help man control the force of water, particularly during flooding.”
– Wild Yorkshire

It is this flooding that is key to the ecological and economic value of the land.  Sediment carried into the flood plains replenishes the land, increasing its fertility, and leaves it ripe for crops.  These fields produced agricultural produce which could then be exported along the Ouse herself, creating one half of an import export chain which brought raw materials and valuable goods into the city.

The fields grew hay which was used to feed sheep, cows and horses in the winter and the cycles of flooding and haymaking along the Ouse inspired poet Andrew Marvell in the 17th century.  The ings would also provide resources such as gorse and peat for fuel.  Willow collected from the river banks was also important and could be used to make baskets and fish traps.

Skeldergate Bridge (edited)

The history of the ings goes beyond what they could offer in terms of resources.  In 1639, King Charles I was staying in Kings Manor and, according to a member of his retinue, his “chiefest pleasure here was to ride downe into Clifton Yngs and have his nobilite about him, and see his cavaliers on their brave horses.”  Horses were not uncommon on the ings with records suggesting they were used as a location for racing since the Roman times.  In 1709, Clifton Ings became the official venue for York Races although it would later move to the Knavesmire, where the races take place today, after the Ouse flooded and the races had to be cancelled in 1729.

In the 19th century ice skating became popular on the frozen fields along the Ouse and the ings were mentioned as a skating venue at least as late as 1902. The other sport I am aware of with links to the Ouse is swimming. NB, the current is strong and the river has taken many lives over the years, please don’t try this.

As well as a fascinating social history, the floodplains are also a crucial habitat for birds, plants, insects and mammals.  In terms of plant life, the riverside is home to numerous species including:Reed Sweetgrass, Slender Tufted Sedge, Meadow-Rue, Meadowsweet, Northern Marsh Orchid, Ragged Robin, Large Bittercress, Guelder Rose and Field Garlic.

In recent years five species of bat have been found living along the river, utilising bridges as roosting spots.  There are also mice, voles, squirrels, shrews, moles, hedgehogs, rabbits and deer.  Evidence of otters suggests a slow recolonisation.  When it comes to birds there are a variety of species of ducks and geese alongside mute swans, gulls and songbirds.  The common frog, the common toad and the smooth newt are all found widely along the Ouse corridor.

Follow the leader

Perhaps the most scientifically important species to live in the floodplains of the Ouse is the Tansy Beetle.  It makes its home on the Tansy plant and is incredibly rare.  It has been christened the Jewel of York and is a beautiful, iridescent beetle with a coppery sheen.  According to myth, Victorians so admired the beetle that they used it as sequins… Not a good way to keep a species alive!

Like many waterways, the river Ouse also winds its way into folklore.  One story set in York is a spin on the ring in the fish tale.  I’ve also seen this version elaborated on but still, at it’s essence, the ring and the fish, a fable which goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and is found in various parts of the world including Norway.

Perhaps a more localised belief is that if you drop five white stones into a special part of the Ouse as the Minster clock chimes 1am on May Day morning, the surface of the river will show you a reflection of anything you desire to see, whether it be in the past, present or future.

So, it seems very appropriate to be posting this on the last day in April.  Go ahead and see what the river can show you!


I owe a lot to Martin Hammond who wrote Deep Meadows and Transparent Floods, The Story of the Ouse Ings.  It’s a well researched interesting look at the historical, social and environmental tale of the floodplains and is available from Carstairs Countryside Trust.

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The Rivers Running Through Me

“We are all caught by a river.  This, I think, is what catchment means.  Every fragment of landscape slides to one river or another and our feet are sucked into the mud wherever we stand… A river is mire than the ribbon of flow at the foot of a valley.  It is the distillation of that valley.  A river is the expression of us and we are rooted in it.  The meandering relationship between the shaper and the shaped is revealed time and again: the rivers of childhood surge through memory and water the formation of the self.  Rivers are in the blood.  Rivers get under the skin.  Rivers stay with you when everything else moves on.”
– Charles Rangeley-Wilson

There was a brook near the house I grew up in.  For a small child, trying to explore and play, the banks were high and the trickle low.  There was a noticeable difference between summer and winter and you could stand on a rickety wooden bridge and peer down.  Later, once I’d grown a little more, I could clamber down to the water.  Splash about in wellies.  You wouldn’t want to go barefoot.  It wasn’t that sort of stream.  Getting back out was harder, wet boots slipping against the muddy slopes, hands grasping at clumps of grass and pulling your body weight up with the faith that the roots would stay loyal.

I looked it up recently.  It flows into the Mersey.  Not surprisingly.  But I’d never thought to think about it before.  This was my brook, this little stretch, and I spent very little time thinking about where it came from and where it went after.  My world was contained, and with that, so was the flow of the water.

Had I been a more courageous or adventurous child, perhaps I would have followed that stream bed in my little blue wellies.  Perhaps I would have twisted and turned with it, the water level rising and rising until it flooded my boots, drenched my socks.  Eventually sweeping me off my feet and pushing me along until the brook-now-river spat me out into the Mersey.

The Mersey was a feature of my life.  Echoed by the Dee on the other side of the peninsula.  We went on the ferry across the Mersey on a school trip.  I remember my finger had been trapped in a toilet door that morning before we left.  We traipsed round the slavery museum and walked around the docks.  But like most people, when I traversed the river, it was normally going under not over it.  The Kingsway and Queensway tunnels.  You needed to have change to get through.  These days I suspect they take credit cards.  An anxious child, I always held in my mind that question, what if?  What if the weight of the water became too much and the tunnel could no longer bear to stand up?  What if it started to crack?  What if?  What if? These worries echoed through the tunnel until we emerged into daylight.  Stunned by our survival.

The River Dee on the other hand, was exclusively crossed by bridge.  No ferry here.  No tunnel.  From the Wirral, you can see across the Dee to Wales.  You can walk out into the Dee at low tide to reach the uninhabited Hilbre Islands.  Again, what if? What if? Rung loud in my ears as we crossed at low tides.  Warnings of sinking sand and a vivid imagination.  What if?  What if we got the tides wrong and were stranded on the island?  What if?  Always, what if?

A safer way to experience the Dee is to stand on the front at Parkgate with an ice cream in hand.  The water itself is too far away to touch and the land between is marshy and is now an SSSI – A Site of Special Scientific Interest – I believe.  The river used to reach the walls.  It used to crash up and over them.  It fed into an open air swimming pool, my Granma told me about it.  Perhaps, a hundred years earlier, here too I’d have heard those endless what ifs?

You would think, from this, that perhaps I don’t like water.  But I do.  I love water.  I love the sea, rivers and lakes.  I love their beauty but I have a respect for their darker side too.

Leaving the brook behind, I headed east to the River Ouse and the Foss.  York.  A town built on rivers.  A town which once had a healthy respect for water.  Floodplains allowed the river to rise and fall, allowed her to live on her own terms with her own rhythms.  These floodplains have been built on in places, showing no respect for a river who bursts her banks many times in a year.  An attempt to control the uncontrollable.

 

Sited where the Foss joins the Ouse, York was a very strategic settlement.  The two rivers providing natural defences as well as communication and supply routes in and out.  Romans built jetties and wharves and warehouses here.  Vikings arrived with their shipbuilding and navigation skills.  York, through the Ouse, was connected to the entire world.  Liverpool would come to echo this, the Mersey replacing the Ouse when it comes to commerce today.

By the late sixteenth century, larger sea going ships couldn’t reach York, the rivers were filling with sediment. Shortly after, in 1715, Liverpool’s first dock was built.  I moved in the opposite direction to trade.  York’s rivers, no longer used for commerce, today host pleasure boats, historical cruises and an ice cream boat.

The riverbanks gained importance as the river itself lost some of hers.  This fertile land was used for agriculture and today there are four SSSIs along the banks in York; Clifton Ings and Rawcliffe Meadows, Fulford Ings,  Naburn Marsh and Acaster South Ings.

For me though, it is not the trees or shrubs or flowers or rare beetles which make the river Ouse a magical place although they do add their charm.  For me, meeting the Ouse as an adult in a new city, it is the memories that pull me, that draw me into the currents. I met the Ouse in a more academic, detached kind of way. The way that adults meet rivers.  There were no wellies splashing or scampering up and down banks.  Instead, the Ouse is a patchwork blanket with strands of emotion tying together moments and woven with facts.

The Ouse will always be the river I walked along with my love.  It will always be the night I went for a walk with my close friend and it rained and we were tipsy and took off our shoes and ran home.  The conversation I had with another close friend about the death of her mother.  The days when depression had wrapped itself around my heart like bindweed and threatened to squeeze my lungs and I stood staring and staring on a platform over the river.  There was the night I returned from a protest and it was pitch dark and my friend walked me home despite going far out of his way and we encountered a creepy shadow and both held our breath.  Sitting on the steps, watching geese scare overly brave tourists.  Ducklings floating by, defying the strength of the currents.  This river undoubtedly runs through my veins.

For the second and third years of my life in York, I would walk along the river path to town.  Doing so makes you acutely aware of the seasons and cycles, the life of the river.  Some days that walk would be impossible, underwater.  Other days it was borderline and the waves would lap dangerously close to the path.  The river wove itself into my life in those years, I became attuned and aware of her character.  She has her twists and turns, her placid days and her violent deadly moments.  She is both life giver and life taker.  We have our own rhythms, but both are the same.

Apart from my first and fourth year in York, I have never been more than a stones throw from the Ouse.  One of those years my bedroom looked out onto a tributary of the other river, the Foss, but that was a year of intense depression and detachment and I never knew that beck like I do the Ouse.

The Foss, thought to be from the latin fossa, meaning ditch, is a stranger to me.  The waters run and mingle and become the Ouse and it is only when coupled with my river, that I know the Foss.  It is like the partner of a friend.  You see them through the eyes of your friend, you know them as part of your friend but you do not know them truly, not in their own right.

“The many waters I’ve known as part of my own personal world – rivers, streams and lakes – have taught me, shaped me, and given me a sense of values.”
– Thomas Moore

The Mersey, The Dee and The Ouse.  These are the rivers which run through me.  These are the rivers which shape me.

Watery words

There are many many different words for bodies of water.  We have the ocean, seas, bays, estuaries, springs, rivers, lakes, brooks…

And on top of the geographic language, there are interesting regional words and this is what I want to look at.  I’m honing in on Yorkshire and northern England as that’s where I live but even with that focus there are still many words so here are just a few:

  • Beck – a stream
  • Blatter – a puddle
  • Carr – boggy or fenny copse
  • Foss – waterfall
  • Gill – deep rocky cleft or ravine, usually wooded and forming the course of a stream
  • Grain – the point where a stream branches
  • Ing – wet meadow, especially one by the side of a river
  • Keld – deep, still, smooth part of a river
  • Mell – sand dunes
  • Moss – bog or marsh
  • Mytholm – meeting of waters
  • Ness – promontory, cape or headland
  • Sike – a small stream, often flowing through marshy ground
  • Slack – hollow in sand or mud banks on a shore
  • Slake – stretch of muddy ground left exposed by the tide; mudflat
  • Sleck – mud at a river where the tide comes in and out
  • Strand – shore
  • Tarn – a mountain pool or small upland lake

As well as there being a vast array of words to describe different types of water, it is also interesting to look to the names of the individual bodies.  For example, in York, we have the River Ouse which some people believe comes from the celtic word usso*, which literally means water.  Other Yorkshire rivers are also named for water (such as the river esk from isca and the river don from dana) and we find yet more rivers being named after celtic nymphs and goddesses.

*another theory is that it is derived from udan, a Sanskrit word for water

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As I discussed a few months ago, we can gleam a lot about the history of a place when we turn to their names.  The same is true of water.  For example, if we know somewhere is called Ings, we know that is likely to have been used as a flood meadow in the past, even if this is no longer the case.  Another example is the wonderfully named Blubberhouses gets its name from the medieval blubber, used to describe the foaming or bubbling of the sea, and probably referred to the turbulent flow of the River Washburn.

The famous Knavesmire Racecourse gets its name by combining a person’s name with a landscape descriptor; Knorr (a personal name) and myrr (meaning marsh).

Thanks to Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks and his twitter feed for both informing and inspiring this post.

Links

It’s raining, it’s pouring…

On rain: “It covers the flat roof of the cabin and porch with insistent and controlled rhythms.  And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognise, rhythms that are not those of the engineer”
– Thomas Merton

How we talk about rain is very important I think.  I explained a bit about how language shapes our views and rain does not fare well in this.  As a society we equate rain with some sort of terrible thing which is happening to us personally to make our day go badly.  We attempt to avoid the rain, hurrying under umbrellas from building to building and cursing if our feet get wet.  How much stress would we save ourselves if we accepted the rain and were thankful for the good that it does.

“Of course, the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city… the streets, suddenly washed, became transparent and alive and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that the urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness , it’s baptism and its renewal.”
– Thomas Merton

Having said all of that, I am not a fan of the rain.  Rain means I have to wear my wheelchair waterproof if I want to leave my flat.  This means I have to have someone with me to get it on and off as I can’t do that myself.  It also makes it hard to go into shops etc as it makes me take up a lot more space, it’s not easy to get on and off and my hand is under a cover so the controller does get wet.  This means I only have my left hand available and if I want to check my phone or pay for anything I have to scrabble around underneath the waterproof with my left arm which is covered in droplets of water.  So despite all the effort I have to go to, I still get a bit wet.  And I can’t go out on my own.  And I can’t go out on my own if there’s a high chance of rain and I’m not going to be near any helpful strangers.  NB, not all strangers are happy to help, I’ve had people say no when I’ve asked politely if they could help me out of my waterproof.

So, my feeling about rain feels justified.  The lack of appropriate aids makes the rain quite debilitating.  But for most people this isn’t the case.

The power of rain

Despite everything I’ve just said about rain not being evil, it is immensely powerful.  It wears down rocks and soil into tiny fragments over time.  It plays a key role in dissolving certain rocks and it causes devastation and destruction in the form of floods.

York

It is floods that I’m going to focus on here.  I live in York, a city prone to flooding.  It floods every year, normally several times and sometimes quite severely.  You might have seen news coverage a few years back of David Cameron standing in flood water, that was at the end of my street.  Aside, don’t stand in flood water, it can be dangerous, it can have stronger currents than you think and be deeper than you think…

Flooded

2007 floods

There are two rivers which run through the centre of York, the river Ouse and the Foss which converge in the city.  The Ouse is the principal drainage basin in Yorkshire and is formed by the Ouse Gill Beck and the River Ure, Swale and Nid as well as a number of tributaries.  Interesting aside, until 1757 the Ouse was a tidal river.  The River Foss originates in the Howardian Hills, north of the city.  York’s floods tend to occur because of heavy rainfall and/or melting snow up river.

We know that York has experienced devastating flooding with records going back to 1263 AD. Notable floods occurred in 1947, 1948, 1982 and 2000.  More recently, there were serious floods in 2007 and 2012 as well as the 2015 floods.

Whilst there are many measures in place to reduce the impact of floods in York, it is not a problem that is going to go away.  Lets face it, we’ve had almost a millennia to figure out options!

Reflection

Forgive the image quality, this was 2007… Trees standing in water is a common sight in York.

But why does York flood so much? Well, it turns out this seems to be on the GCSE Geography curriculum based on my google search!  It’s obviously a multifaceted answer:

Firstly, York is a vale and the Yorkshire Dales to the east are steep which means fast runoff from the slopes into the rivers.  It also means less water infiltrates the soil as there simply isn’t time for it to be absorbed.

Secondly, this problem is exacerbated by the impermeable clay which means water can’t soak into the ground.  As well as clay, the Dales are also made up of limestone which is very permeable and allows the water to pass through very quickly.  Combining this with the first reason basically means there is nowhere for the rain or snow to go other than down into the river.

Thirdly, at higher altitudes vegetation tends to be heather and moorland which doesn’t soak up much of the water or slow it down very much.  Another factor which means more water in the river.  There are some trees in the area which do intercept the water but deciduous trees only do this when they have leaves, and the worst of the floods tends to be in winter.

Human impact has a role to play as well.  Use of land for arable farming means less plant life to suck up the water, deforestation means less trees to do the same and urban developments also play a role.  Tarmacked roads, housing estates and shopping centres all mean water has less chance of being absorbed into the ground so instead it makes it into sewers, drains and ultimately the river.

Climate change is also playing a role in York floods.  We are experiencing wetter winters which of course means more water in the river which means there is less space for additional rain water.

But whilst the floods in York cause a lot of damage which involves a lot of money to sort out, they don’t tend to cause much in the way of injury and death.  Many other parts of the world are not so lucky…

And that is a topic for another day…

A journey through place names

This month’s day trip was to the Yorkshire Coast!  We started off in Bridlington with a walk along the promenade and it’s wonderful fragments of writing etched into the stone slabs.  I had a very short walk on the sand which was so nice but very hard work so I quickly returned to the path and the wheelchair.

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This was followed by lunch in the car next to some bushes filled with chitter chattering little birds, sightings however remained elusive.

Then up the coast a bit to the fantastically accessible Bempton Cliffs where we think we saw Gannets and Guillemots as well as Corn Buntings, Tree Sparrows and Chaffinches.  On the way back to York, we saw a bird of prey, a Kestrel I think, hovering by the side of the road and eyeing up a nice mid afternoon snack!

In terms of weather we had a really strange day!  As we headed to the coast we hit a long patch of dense mist and about a mile from the sea it started to rain but had stopped by the time we parked up.  It was breezy but stayed dry for us.  And then, just after lunch, the light changed and the sun turned into a pinkish reddish ball that looked so much more like the moon that the sun.  As we drove home, the light kept changing and felt so much more like a crisp winter’s day.  I think it was down to sand in the air and such but I’ve never seen it have such a dramatic impact on how the day feels.

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The sun

During the journey, we passed through a vast array of interesting place names which give hints about what the land used to look like, if you know how to interpret them.  Before we dive into some of the detail, I want to give the example of York to show how place names can be important to us.

  • In 71AD, Romans established the city as a fortress and called it Eboracum.  This may have been taken from a Celtic personal name Eburos which is related to an old Celtic word for yew-tree.
  • Romans left in the 5th century and by the 7th century, Anglo-Saxons moved in.  They changed the name to Eoforwic.  One suggestion is that they did this because it was related to their word eofor, wild boar.
  • When Vikings arrived in the 9th and 10th century, they adapted the name to become Euruic, Jorvik and/or Jork.  Over time this became York.

From the history of the name we can hypothesise that York was an area of yew trees which was rich in wild boar.  Neither of which are true today but potentially shed light on what the land looked like in the past.

Another example is Salton, which has nothing to do with salt.  Instead, the place name is derived from the old word for willows, sealh.  Despite the draining of the land and the disappearance of the willows, we get a glimpse into the landscape of the past, remembered in it’s name.

York to Bridlington, a selection of place names:

  • Gate Helmsley – Gate is from the Norse for road or street and Helmsley is Helm’s forest clearing.  It might also refer to a piece of dry land surrounded by marsh.
  • Kirkby Underdale – Kirk comes from the Norse word for church and dale comes from either Anglo-saxon word for valley or the Norse word for valley, they are very similar.  It could be an entirely Viking place name or it could have been altered by them.
  • Fridaythorpe – ‘Frigedaeg’s outlying farm/settlement’, with thorpe being a norse suffix.  This personal name may be based on Frigg or Freya, the name of the Old Norse god of fertility from whom we get the name of the day called Friday.
  • Wetwang – Probably, ‘field for the trial of a legal action’ although it’s controversial as at first glance it seems to suggest the wet field.  However the nature of the land doesn’t fit with this.
  • Garton on the wolds – ‘Farm/settlement on/near a triangular piece of ground’ in the ‘forest’.  A gore was a triangular plot of land, tun comes from a word denoting dwellings and wold comes from the anglosaxon for woodland
  • Nafferton – like with garton, ton means dwelling so we have ‘Nattfari’s farm/settlement’.
  • Bridlington – ‘Farm/settlement connected with Berhtel’.
  • Sewerby – recorded in domesday book as Siwardbi that is to say Siward’s farm.
  • Flamborough Head – Fleinn was possibly a personal name or could be from the noun for hook and burg tells us that it’s a fortifcation or there’s some sort of defensive work there.  Another suggestion is that Flam comes from a word for arrow.
  • Bempton – ‘Beam farm/settlement’ ,ie., made of beams or possibly, ‘tree farm/settlement’, indicating it was near a prominent tree.

One of the key things you can see by looking at Yorkshire place names is how much more woodland there used to be.

Serendipitously, this article popped up on twitter about disabled access to the countryside and using place names and maps to access nature differently. 

The most useful tool I found for looking into place names was from Nottingham Uni.

Unlocking images hits the marketplace!

So the time has come to unveil the unlocking images shop…!  At the moment, I’m focusing on Christmas cards but in the new year I’ll be opening it up to include more general photographic and art cards as well as prints and other surprises!

In the run up to Christmas, 50% of the profit from any purchase will go to the Violet Chambers fund.  This amazing fund lets children and young people who are looked after in York apply for funding for a meaningful and memorable experience. Previous applications have included spa days, a trip to a show in London etc.

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Historic Objects of Conflict and Desire

Today I went on a one day course with the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the Yorkshire Museum.  It was a writing course but the title was Historic Objects of Conflict and Desire.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect at all but it was a really good day.

We were given a short tour of the museum which focused on particular objects and a bit about the history of them as well as the people associated with them.  For example, we looked at a tombstone which was commissioned by an ex soldier in memory of his wife and two children, a betrothal pendent made from Whitby jet, the York Helmet etc.

One of the exhibits we looked at was made up from things found in the Roman baths that were used by the legions (townspeople used a different set of baths).  There was pieces of jewellery, a jet ring, grooming instruments, buttons and beads.  There were also gemstones which fell out of rings because the steam, and contrasting high and low temperatures, caused the glue to fail.

Once we’d looked at the artifacts and handled some of them we started to write.  After a quick warm up we were asked to choose one of the objects that we’d seen that morning.  I went for the gem that had come loose from a ring in the baths.  The tutor then guided us through some questions to develop a piece of writing from the perspective of the object.  I found the questions really helpful and will try and use them again as a prompt:

  1. What are you?
  2. What are you feeling?
  3. Where would you rather be?
  4. What relationships do you have?
  5. What do you dream of doing?
  6. What worries you?
  7. What would you like others to think of you?
  8. What is the best thing you’ve ever done?
  9. What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?
  10. What makes you feel guilty?
  11. What is your favourite time of night or day?
  12. What is the point of your life?
  13. How would you like to be remembered?

A gemstone in the sewer

I am a beautiful gemstone.  I am feeling lost, cool, dirty.  I would rather be surrounded by silver, not filthy sewage.  I am surrounded by others, also parted from their owner.  We are all discarded.  I dream of sparkling in daylight, shining in the sun.  I worry that I shall be stuck here forever, never be found, never reunited with my soldier.  I hope he misses me. I want others to see me, admire my smooth edges, the hues within me.  The best thing I ever did was bring luck to my master in the fight of his life.  I saw him glance at me, fiddle with me and his face grew braver.  The worst thing I ever did was relax.  I didn’t hold on tight enough and now I’m being punished.  I feel guilty, without me, how will he survive the next battle.  Without me, he has no luck.  My favourite time of day was the golden hour before dusk.  I would shimmer and glow and I know that makes my master proud.  He flashed me around, showing off his status.  The point of my life is beauty and luck.  I hope he remembers he.  I hope he remembers me with regret, with grief.

We then carried on to other exercises which started to bring in conflict.  It turns out I avoid conflict in my writing as much as I avoid it in my life…!