Tripping on the Ordinary

Tripping on the Ordinary continues the author’s explorations of the extraordinary nature of everyday things and experiences. Some of essays look at the unexpected cargo carried by a moment, some are focused on how much can be hidden within apparently straightforward objects, whether these are natural or of human manufacture (a girl’s ear, a leaf, a butterfly-wing cigarette box, a vulture’s egg). Like previous collections, the book draws on a wide range of reading and contains some reflection on the impact of reading on a life. Also included is “Images of Hallow Hill,” an extended meditation on how we come to understand the meaning of a place, and “Splinter,” which considers how we might best handle an awareness of the horrific dimensions of history. Tripping on the Ordinary concludes with an addendum containing four short pieces that invite readers to think about the nature of the form of writing represented by the book. These four concluding pieces offer a quartet of reflexive discussions on the essay and the art of essay writing.

Please note that this is a work in progress. As such, what’s said here about Tripping on the Ordinary should be regarded as provisional. It’s intended to be indicative of what the new collection will look like rather than giving a photographic portrait that will match the final published version point by point.

This is how the Introduction currently begins:

When I say that one of the pleasures of growing older is the increased incidence with which I trip, people are puzzled. They assume I’m talking about falls — the kind the infirm and elderly are prey to. But how could these be regarded as a source of pleasure? And, looking at me, it’s immediately apparent I’m nowhere near the age or condition where this becomes a worry. Decrepitude — supposing I ever reach it — is a long way off. But when I compare my progress through the days as it was in my teens, twenties, even thirties, with the way I pass through them now, the contrast is quite marked. The image that comes to mind to sum it up pictures, on the one hand, a vigorous striding across flat ground, my speed and fluency of motion unimpeded by obstacles; on the other, my course is regularly punctuated by stumbles as I trip over all sorts of cusps and lips and ledges — the scattered multiplicity of protrusions with which previously flat-seeming surfaces now turn out to be encrusted. Like any summary, this one is a simplification. It doesn’t mean I never tripped when I was young, or that sure-footedness always eludes me now. But, in the main, it pinpoints accurately enough a significant change in orientation, a different way of perceiving life’s terrain, which began, I think, when I was in my forties.

Typically, tripping is occasioned by catching your foot on something that sticks out, or that’s hidden — unevenness in paving, say, or a bramble treacherously snaking across a country path, unseen amidst the soft, lush grass. Or, deep in thought or conversation, or otherwise distracted, it’s possible to miss what’s wholly obvious — like the steps at a building’s entrance — and stumble on what’s open to plain sight. A trip can also be deliberately engineered if someone sticks their foot out as you pass. These are the common meanings of “trip” — its literal sense — when the ordinary rhythm of your tread is ambushed by some little mishap. It’s usually no more than a trivial upset, unless you’re unlucky enough to lose your balance completely. Then you “measure your length,” as that apt phrase has it, and end up on the ground.

When I say that I can trip on an old cigarette box inlaid with butterfly wings, or on a blown vulture’s egg, on a girl’s ear, a line of prose, or an oystercatcher’s heartbeat, it should be evident that the way I’m using “trip” deviates from the literal meaning of this term. That ordinary, plain meaning should be kept in sight — it provides a stabilizing taproot on whose anchoring strength I wish to draw — but the trips I’m concerned with in this book are metaphorical; they don’t involve any actual falling down.

The kind of tripping detailed in these pages looks at the way in which things previously seen as run of the mill — places, objects, events — now strike me as remarkable. The once smooth surface of their ordinariness has ruptured into a profusion of tripwires not previously suspected. They act at once as barricade and maze, blocking my way past them and drawing me into their labyrinths. I trip on what I once took in my stride. My steady progress through what used to be the unproblematic territory of the everyday is threatened by things that seem to thrust out the leg of their presence as I go past, causing me to miss my footing and measure my length upon their ground. Lying there, dazed, I realize I’m in a vast, mysterious acreage not glimpsed before, though it must always have been there. It’s that acreage Tripping on the Ordinary explores; the breathtaking expanses that lie secreted within even the most familiar territory.

All kinds of things can make me stumble at their threshold, lose my balance and tumble into the hidden dimensions they contain. A strand of hair, glimpsing a sparrowhawk, the images a place calls forcefully to mind, are among the instances I’ve included. They beckon me into the labyrinths of their unexpected presence and unfolding, where I walk amazed, marvelling at what has gone into sculpting the architecture of their individual, bounded forms. The tangle of events and outcomes that had to happen for me to be at the precise coordinates of time and place that resulted in these trippings is also a continuing source of wonder. Even something that’s as slight in seeming consequence as a single fallen leaf can create a ledge on which I stumble. It conceals a massive temporal tonnage that beckons me into the depths of entrancing strata lying stacked beneath its flimsy form. I trip on things that have become engorged, pregnant with the fecundity of their stories. Their dense mesh of narrative complexity tells how something came to be, how one thing connects with another. I scarcely noticed this narrative richness before; I passed by unsnagged by anything beyond the obvious, following the simplified tales of the everyday. Now I’m far more susceptible to getting caught in a tangle of complicated storylines; they act like bolas and fell me.

"For the secret life of an essay is to lift the veil on the process of thinking, that most intimate of acts, to reveal not a thought, but thinking."

Patricia Hampl

Top of page


  • Introduction
  • Pulse
  • A Line Made by Reading
  • Defeated by Starlings
  • Splinter
  • Voice Box
  • Images of Hallow Hill
  • Ferret-Watching in Brynsteffan
  • Admonition
  • Listening to the Music of a Vulture’s egg
  • Prisoners of Memory
  • The Shadow of Something Higher
  • Ear Piece
  • Welcome to the World
  • Leaf
  • Addendum: Four Short Essays on the Essay and the Art of Essay Writing
    • A Blind Spot in the Ornithology of Letters
    • An Irish Essay(ist)?
    • Hair’s-Breadth Meditation
    • Ars Poetica and the Essay
Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the heart and its blood vessels

Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the heart and its blood vessels (c.1513), held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan.

An oystercatcher

An oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) by Andreas Trepte.

A curlew in flight

A curlew (Numenius arquata) in flight, photographed by Charles J Sharp, sharpphotography.

“Pulse,” the first essay in the book, dissects a moment that’s framed by the simultaneity of three heartbeats briefly arrayed in a vertical line and beating together as a bus goes over a bridge: an oystercatcher’s, as the bird flies under the bridge; the author’s as he sits in the bus; and a curlew’s flying above bridge and bus. The oystercatcher’s heartbeat becomes the main point of focus. Leonardo da Vinci’s question (written beside his drawing of the heart) is one that’s also posed by “Pulse”: “How could you describe this heart in words without filling a whole book?”

Autumn foliage of a tulip treeA tulip tree flower

“Leaf” — an early version of which appeared in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (February 2018) — is a journey through the memories, ideas, and associations sparked by a single leaf fallen from a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). The photographs show (i) the autumn foliage of a tulip tree that was taken from Ireland and planted in the author’s garden in Wales, and (ii) a flower on the tulip tree outside St David’s University College library. Both trees are important points of reference in the essay.

The lid of a souvenir cigarette box from a ship sunk in World War II

The lid of a souvenir cigarette box from a ship sunk in World War II (note that the blue background is made from butterfly wings). In “Voice Box,” this box is used as a kind of keyhole to look into the author’s father’s life, in particular the cruise he took in 1939 aboard the ship in question, T.S.S. Vandyck.

A Griffon vulture’s egg

A Griffon vulture’s egg (with coins to show scale) — found by the author in a junk shop in Ireland when he was a boy. It provides the starting point for a memoir/meditation that takes in aspects of Tibetan mortuary practice and philosophy, touching on aspects of “sky burial” and teachings about the bardo plane in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The earliest musical instrument yet discovered, a Stone Age flute made from a vulture’s wing bone, is also brought into play.

Hallow Hill, St Andrews

Hallow Hill is an ancient burial site in St Andrews, Scotland, where Pictish peoples laid some 500 of their dead to rest in the seventh century. “Images of Hallow Hill” is an exploration of the place as it is today, looking at how past and present interact, and how images that have no obvious connection with a place can come to exert a strong influence on the way we see and understand it.

A Roman seal box

A seal box, of Roman manufacture, dating from the first to third centuries AD. It was found in a child’s grave when Hallow Hill was excavated. How it came to be in the Picts’ possession is unknown. “Images of Hallow Hill” includes this section: “Because it is so well preserved and so intrinsically appealing, and because it lay buried on a child’s lap for fourteen centuries, I find the seal box a particularly potent object — so much so that it’s become a kind of triangulation point for Hallow Hill, pulling it into focus and gently nudging my thoughts and feelings into their particular alignments. The seal box almost acts like a compass, though one that doesn’t point unerringly to the True North of what happened. Instead it swivels uncertainly between that and my reading of the evidence; it provides a hinge, opening a tiny portal into the history I imagine happening in this place.” Made of bronze and the appealingly named “millefiori” — meaning “thousand flowers” — a technique of using coloured glass, this beautifully worked artefact is now kept in a secure low-humidity museum store and is not on public display.

J. Arnold Benington looking into a sparrowhawk nest

In “The Shadow of Something Higher,” a sparrowhawk kill is used as a pivot to swing between two theologies of nature, two very different ways of looking at/evaluating the natural world, one held by the author, one by his friend and teacher J. Arnold Benington (pictured here looking into a sparrowhawk nest).