I can still see it now: the hand-made razor-cleaning-brush holder, approx. three inches by half an inch, knitted in uptightly-tense garter stitch in DK wool in variegated tones of blue by my 7-year-old self.

The HMRCBH lived in Dad’s razor box for a long time and I remember my delight in how delighted he was to receive it (or at least, how delighted I felt he was, which was what mattered). But though the giving and receiving of hand-made items remains a very special thing—which I still enjoy, and which Kirstie et al increasingly encourage us to do these days—that’s not actually the most important thing about blue petering, for me. It’s what the doing of it does for the do-er.

What exactly is blue petering? Well, for as long as I can remember this has been both a verb and a noun in my life. It’s not necessarily about Tracey island, tinsel-wrapped coat-hanger advent decorations, or even sticky-backed plastic. It’s any kind of creative activity in which you can get lost, and hence end up feeling found.

A bit of a cosmic way of talking about cutting and sticking, you might think. I know. But I believe it’s true. There’s something truly magical about getting absorbed in matters right-brain-ish, creative, solitary, and often messy. Spending a couple of hours absorbed in your hobby—be it crocheting, chainsaw carving in your shed, mosaic-making, cake-decoration, mucking about with photos on your computer, cooking—can transform your mood. While doing it you are quite likely to be processing other ideas, issues, dilemmas: a bit like having a pan of stock on the back burner, reducing to a concentrated and useful deliciousness while you’re busy getting on with other things. So today I write in celebration of blue petering: those pastimes which absorb us, satisfy us, and in so doing translate us from one state of being to another.

Somewhere or other Clive James says something like (I can’t remember the exact quotation, sorry) ‘happiness is not an end in itself but exists as a by-product of absorption’. I find that utterly recognisable. I feel so different before, during and after a blue petering session. The preparation can involve a lot of pottering: gathering of materials, making a cup of tea, sorting through supplies, perhaps choosing something to listen to, putting on your House Clothes (you know what I’m talking about). Even before that, it could well have involved the delicious choosing of materials, browsing in shops or online—selecting precisely which colour of wax you want; feeling the texture of that particular fabric; assessing how the grain will lie in that chunk of wood—that one, on the left, just over there. As a child I never could afford the wood-effect sticky-backed-plastic (or whatever) that the BP presenters used to lavish on their dolls’ houses (improvising the bathroom furniture from matchboxes and toothpaste lids was always a particular challenge). Hence, what joy I now take—and how lucky I feel—in being able to choose the printable-vellum, or a yard of floral trim, or whatever the current equivalent is. It’s not about spending huge amounts, but being able to choose a little bit of exactly what I need.

And then you get going, and there’s the pleasure of your hands being engaged in something; and the reduction of decisions to only the most immediate, and usually do-able: do I want red here, or green? Should that glitter go here, here and here, or just over there? do I crop the shot here, or leave the second tree in? a touch more salt…? Oh, the joy of knowing, when there’s so much in life that’s unknowable, or at least, very difficult to know. Blue petering is about trusting your instinct, trusting something primal inside you. It’s about being taken to a private place inside yourself where no conscious thought or social interaction is necessary. You don’t always need a room of your own to have a room of your own: that’s what blue petering can give you, even in the midst of a noisy house or the most hectic of, say, Christmases. And you emerge from this time-out refreshed and renewed.

Some years ago, when I was really very ill indeed, and not sure if I would ever be able to function in society again, let alone be gainfully employed, I mustered my courage to go to a bookbinding course at a local arts centre. From the very first session, where we spent hours learning the best way to fold paper (use a bone folder, and work from the centre out, not from one end to the other) and deal with the related issue of creep (yes, creep: that thing that happens when you fold a few pages together and the free edges no longer line up neatly): from that first session I was hooked. Since then, book-binding has been one of my key blue-petering activities. Though I leaned some very formal styles, and still make those, I have recently been enjoying working in a more fluid way—using up odds and ends, and envelopes, and junk mail, and packaging, and upcycled vintage book pages, and yellowed sheets of music, and vellum, and fabric, and lace, and old maps, and anything I can get my hands on, and turning all these into what I call wonder books. They’re variegated, various, vulnerable (all that vintage paper); they’re full of fold-outs and pockets and secret hidden places, and notebooks within notebooks within the notebook, and spots to tuck things away in. (There’s a squillion videos about the basics of this on youtube, but the real joy has been making the style my own.)

I made a wonder-book for a friend’s 50th in November, and then in December did loads of late-into-the-night blue petering, partly preparing stuff to sell (see the bumblebee gallery in Kendal) but mostly making presents. As you can see, the degree of mess involved was extraordinary. But the satisfaction was commensurate. And an unexpected and marvellous offshoot has been that, as I use my own wonder-book as a place to journal, I’m getting into a whole new area of blue petering: working with mixed media to capture experiences and support my midlife, hormonally-impacted, shot-to-shit memory. I’m making something to read in the nursing home: treasure then, I hope, but, oh, already such treasure now.

This post’s title comes from a poem* which explores how being in love takes us out of time; or at least, out of consciousness of it. Jings, we’re lucky to fall in love ever in our lifetimes, let alone often. But blue petering can give us, repeatedly, a sense of respite from time, worries, discontents. You can forget your troubles and soothe your soul. What a wondrous thing it is.

So: what gives you your blue petering fix? I would love to know.


*Read the poem here: ‘Meeting point‘.

2 comments on “thing 10: ‘time was away and somewhere else’: blue petering”

  1. I love this one, really inspired me to try fit time for creativity back into life. I clearly need to given I’m reading this in the kitchen at 3am because I couldn’t sleep for thinking of all the things I haven’t done!!! Thank you for reminding me of the feeling of getting lost in creating.

    • Emma, I’m so glad you found it inspiring: thank you for letting me know (though I’m sorry to hear that busy head has you sleepless in a January-cold kitchen!). I’m really aware of the fact that my lack of all the responsibilities that come with having a family is part of what gives me time to be creative. It’s one of the – advantages isn’t the right word, but one of the things which I can appreciate. There’s the pluses of it just being me, as well as the minuses; just as there are the minuses of having a family, as well as the pluses…

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