Body use old and new

Making chainmailSummer holidays

Tense shoulders, strained eyesight and sore backs are not an invention of the modern world.  This became clear when I time-travelled back to the Middle Ages at a French village festival recently. Watching demonstrations of medieval crafts and pastimes I saw how easily these everyday activities could lead to poor body use.

The village was a stronghold for Knights Hospitaller from the 12th century onwards, so the first person to catch my eye was the maker of chain mail.  He let me feel the weight of a square he was constructing.  This really was heavy metal – ten to thirteen kilos per suit – and hot, absorbing the heat of the sun when outside.  Each suit took three months to make, working eight hours a day.  Foot soldiers were protected from head to hips, but the full metal jacket for knights on horseback weighed more heavily, extending as far as the knees.







In the history of metalworking, chainmail preceded full body armour. It was cheaper to make and allowed more flexibility. But with all that weight it would have been difficult to keep upright and breathe without restriction. Using a sword was hard, according to my knight in shining armour, as the padding under the mail restricted movement in the wrist.







I moved on, taking in the breezy walk of a man carrying a large leg of ham, while the signwriter patiently finished his work before the tavern opened. The blacksmith wielded her hammer with balanced ease in the heat of the portable forge, and I dodged down a side street to watch the patient skills of the lacemaker.

Carrying a leg of ham

Tavern signwriter







Blacksmith at work

Wearing glasses and working confidently in bright sunshine, she talked through the complex and colourful pattern she was following. The local buildings have thick stone walls and few window openings, and I saw that without daylight or electricity the process of lacemaking would take its toll on the eyes. I saw how easy it would be to peer ever closer, worrying about mistakes and increasing tension in the arms and hands.

Lacemaker at work






Of all the people I observed that day, the falconer seemed most at ease.  A professional rather than a villager dressed up, he seemed at one with the birds of prey, perhaps because he used his voice and body carefully to keep the hawks calm and show them what he wanted.

He moved quietly and quickly, ahead of the birds, ducking through the crowds to give excited spectators the experience of an owl swooping silently over their heads. He put on a show while keeping a watchful eye on the mood and hunger of each bird as he called them back to his comfortably outstretched arm.

Stallholder on phone






There were few phones, screens or laptops on display at the festival. But I saw plenty of opportunity for peering, straining, making excess effort and pulling down rather than standing tall, moving freely and looking up and out. I realised it’s not the activities we do that create tension, it’s us.





Black mirror walk

Sheila Ghelani summons us from scrying with her black orb
Sheila Ghelani summons us from scrying in the square with her reflective black orb

Summer holidays

I’ve been on two nature wanders, as I experiment over the summer with looking and walking in different ways. The first, with performance artist Sheila Ghelani, complements the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition on nature.  Twenty of us, one barefoot, set off on an overcast afternoon into the roar of London’s Euston Road. Holding small round black mirrors Sheila had made for us, we wondered how to find nature so close to one of the capital’s most polluted streets.

Sheila was one step ahead.  She had determined our route in advance by placing her own black mirror on a map, drawing round it and picking ten places to pause.  We would be walking through hidden green spaces under the shadow of the mirror. No going beyond the edge.

Map for a black mirror walk
Map for a walk under the shadow of a black mirror

Black mirrors, or Claude glasses, are practical and mysterious.  They have been used by landscape painters and travellers to frame and appreciate views – their dark reflection saps colour, giving an abstract quality to what you see.  John Dee, the 16th century mathematician and astrologer, kept his in a sharkskin case, and would ‘scry’ or foretell the future by peering into its depths.

Sheila Ghelani's photo of John Dee's scrying mirror
Sheila Ghelani’s photo of John Dee’s scrying mirror

Under a threatening sky we held up our mirrors like 19th century tourists, contemplating the view behind.  In a garden square we paused to sketch like landscape painters, drawing obliquely through the glass.  And we walked backwards in the damp grass, holding mirrors up to check the path behind, noticing the quality of our steps, the uncertainty but also the freedom from our usual walking habits.

Hiroshima memorial tree
Hiroshima memorial tree where we scryed for foresight

Close to the end of the walk we paused by the Hiroshima memorial tree to look more deeply into our Claude glasses and ‘scry’ into the future, pondering ageing, mortality and change.  I still have my mirror, in its velvety drawstring case. It will travel with me for reflection and new perspectives.

My second walk was briefer, with haiku poet Annie Bachini.  Ginko or haiku walks are an integral part of the Japanese haiku form of poetry.  You go out into nature, alone or with others, notebook in hand, and take a short walk to observe, listen and draw inspiration from your surroundings.  Despite the rain, our brief trip into another of London’s garden squares was surprisingly fruitful and we came back with a starting point for our first haiku.

Reflecting in water
Our barefoot walker had not worn shoes for 30 years



Angles and Spaces

Owl (2016) Bronze
Owl (2016) Bronze by Terence Coventry – stillness yet the possibility of effortless movement

Term 4 (of 9)

Recently I came by chance on a sculpture exhibition, mostly of birds and animals (Against The Tide at the Pangolin Gallery). Something about the steel and bronze creatures reminded me of what I’m learning in my training, but it took a while to work out what.  I think it’s a sense of internal space, coupled with angularity, creating stillness and movement at the same time.

The sculptures were by Terence Coventry (1938-2017), a Cornish pig farmer who returned to sculpture in his fifties, and died earlier this year.  In a short film from 2010, Coventry said

“My interest is in trying to express form in a rather angular way, in simplified planes… Parallel space or parallel lines are not going anywhere.  But if you’ve got an opening space or a closing space, it’s either being compressed or opened up… so the space around it is doing something as well as the three-dimensional form”.

He was talking about birds taking off into flight, having observed them for many years while ploughing his fields. But his words reminded me of the internal angles and spaces we need in our bodies to create poise and ease of movement.

Spaces come in various guises and places.  To stop us clamping our arms tightly to our sides, we imagine having space under our armpits to hold a ripe tomato or small egg without breaking it. As our bodies lengthen and widen under the teacher’s hands, we find more space in the torso and ribcage for our internal organs and our breathing becomes less forced.  As we bend or sit down, we keep the space from sitting bones to the top of the spine as one piece, so we don’t shorten ourselves as we move up or down.

When we lie on the floor in semi-supine at the end of each day’s training, we think of expanding internally, allowing the space between joints to increase. We also take up more space externally, in our daily lives – I’ve got taller as I’ve done more Alexander work and I’ve gone up at least one shoe size as my feet have opened out. I’m more conscious of the space I take up in the world, whether passing through a crowded street market or sitting on a busy bus, rather than shrinking myself to fit with other people and their requirements.

The angles in Coventry’s figures create an opposition between body parts – limbs, wings, torso -that enables balance or movement. As I progress in my training, I’m starting to think of the body in a simplified way, as a series of angles – head and neck to hip joints, hinging with hips to knees, and knees to ankles. If we can keep the internal spaces open, lengthened and not compressed, then the angles between joints spark off one another to send us up from sitting to standing in one easy movement. Or they hold us, like his bronze owl, balanced easily within ourselves, ready to fly off effortlessly when we need to.

In some of Coventry’s pieces there is a narrowness and stiffness that is the opposite of what I am looking for. Even so, in the sculptures I saw, he used angles and spaces to suggest dynamic movement, balance, strength and possibility. I’m moving away from compression and beginning to open up, and I think that’s why his work so resonated with me.

Bird I and Bird II (2015) Bronze
Bird I and Bird II (2015) Bronze
Cormorant I and Cormorant II (2011), Bronze
Cormorant I and Cormorant II (2011), Bronze
Table I (2016) Steel and glass
Table I (2016) Steel and glass
Swifts by Terence Coventry
Swifts II (2013) Charcoal on Paper
Boar II (1999), Bronze by Terence Coventry
Boar II (1999), Bronze
Acrobat (2016) Bronze
Acrobat (2016) Bronze
Joyrider IV (2016) Bronze
Joyrider IV (2016) Bronze
Woman Releasing Bird Large (2016) Bronze
Woman Releasing Bird Large (2016) Bronze
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel
Monumental Steel Swimmer (2017) Steel