Sunday, July 05, 2020

All over instagram

The tall climbing peas have been eaten by mice, the blue banana squash has just about survived but I left it too late for aztec broccoli. The best result so far, which Giya and I ate last night with her home-made pizza, is a French lettuce, Reine des Glaces - Queen of the Ice. The seed's traceable back to 1883, but I chose it for the name.

I've become an allotment bore but in lockdown it's more than early cucumbers and constant rocket. I put my hands in the soil, cut bamboo poles in half, pinch out tomatoes, shrug my shoulders at the peas and plant another row of something else. The heads of other allotment holders sit on hedges. When I open the gate with the fierce black cat who stalks (and attacks) any dog in the street, I enter hours without words.

I've found it impossible to read during lockdown, other than for work. I used to get through three or more books a week. Now the radio show for Reverb, workshops, looking at friends' collections and skimming The Guardian online in the mornings is the sum of it. Sometimes I find a Public Domain Review essay or a long read but I can't concentrate. Spiralling into doom I'll never write again, my books have sunk without trace, no-one wants to read anything by an old woman. I argue with myself, give way, none of it matters, but it does, stand up...and so it goes. The old doubt, never being good enough, the old Catholic legacy, the scholarship girl......

Then at 7am I empty the freezer of last year's fruit, turn it to jam, making space for the next crop. I walk with Giya and Beth on the Downs where the Long Man of Wilmington is etched into chalk.

I'm slowly getting over Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I no longer take a photo thinking I'll post it. I no longer think in post length bites. I realise I've been feeding those doom feelings for far too long on social media and competitive rankings I've felt forced into. I want to delight at amazing metaphors, a new way of seeing, a new voice.

And so the allotment feeds me literally and emotionally more than ever. It is like magic in the way it keeps the dread at bay. The plum tree is laden, each branch is heavy and drooping. The tomatoes are staked. The cucumbers are clinging onto netting. The queens of ice are filling out among October's main crop potatoes. The first yellow courgettes are a couple of inches long and the chard is showing its rainbow colours. The allotment is the great leveller, waving its sea-green ribbons, rioting about enclosure, my semi-rural rebellion within this city by the sea.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

#Instagram poetry

Bless #Instagram for my clone

with quotes from X1V Sonnets from the Portugese 
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My life, I admit, is little more than photos
of police cars in disabled bays, on pavements,
obscure quotes, birthday cake, attempts
with biscuits, pasta, sourdough, all I've grown -

from fatter to a glut of plums. So clone, 
since I've posted so little to measure
up to, love me for love's sake, that evermore,
now you've broken in, you're my reflection

in a place I won't revisit this lifetime, memory
of a silent pool where nothing's moved 
or sung since that girl drowned. Mum told 
the story on a walk. Picture me there, copy 

my duckface and I'll picture you by a lockbox,
devoted bot, headless browser, mimicking 
the numbers I twist into place, pirating Diptic 
collages, libations from me and my Ixus. 

Bless your punctuation of my name, formally
messaging my friends. A creature might forget to weep.
If thou must love me I donate my past asleep,
unaware of APIs. Is it you Logan or Richard953?

Oh, bot herder, spam bot, love on, reserve hotels, 
sit on flights, scrape and crawl for me, mutate,
mutate, mutate. I bless your trick of thought
the cloud you live in. Bless #Instagram, my clone.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

When my Instagram clone stole the garden buddha

If I could clone myself I wouldn't have done it on Instagram. I went there because of misplaced optimism. Everyone was talking about Instagram poets and I had quite a few short poems, they'd be good wouldn't they? 

I've always seen myself as technically competent. I had one of the earliest Macs, as a young reporter I was shown the offices where Eddie Shad was revolutionising newspaper production. 

I've fitted new memory into a laptop, I've sorted out problems with broadband, I've backed up and backed up, changed passwords....I joined Facebook. And that was where my Instagram clone was conceived. 

If I imagine a clone, it's a 65 year old woman in allotment clothes bending over a line of lettuces in someone's memory - not truly a clone, but a quick charcoal drawing, or the kind of monoprint my friend Jane Fordham makes. 

But no, the clone trying to con good people out of cash is me with a fullstop interrupting the name I've had since childhood, Jackie. The name I shared with a magazine and wife of a president. 

The clone has copied everything I've posted, including a desperate change of profile picture, from portrait of me at Kings Lynn Poetry Festival by my publisher Tony Ward, to mum's garden buddha. When the clone stole the buddha it was the last straw. I downloaded a stock photo of a can of spam and made that my profile pic. 

I've reported the impersonation to Instagram five times, included proof of ID (passport and driving licence), and other Instagram users have reported it too. But it takes up so much time. So I've gone for full deletion after temporarily disabling it. Minutes after deleting, I had an email from Facebook saying they haven't received acceptable ID that matches information on the account. I guess it was also from a bot. In my pointless reply to the bot I wrote: 

"I've just deleted my genuine account, so if you want, as a company, to be seen to enable fraud and impersonation, be my guest....I have decided to withdraw totally from social media in order to protect my name."

I've discovered people who tried for months to get Instagram to delete a cloned account and I can't be bothered to go head to head with the deep capitalists to secure such a tiny place in the sun where the bots are rampaging through beautiful places with their fundamentalism, botox and lies.
Mum's garden buddha and cat. The buddha's face was one of my
profile pics which the Instagram clone stole with impunity. 

I was leaving social media anyway. Instagram was something I rescued from the charity shop bag. But last night, I looked at my followers. Men with steroid arms and tattoos, women pouting, boardroom men in suits, men topless hugging dogs, men claiming to be religious and after a good woman, all of them with numbers after their names. 

There it was, photo proof of the bots. And I realised as I blocked them, that my complaints to Instagram would also be dealt with by bots. 

I feel a bit sad that there's someone pretending to be me after all the work I've put into my writing. 

There is now only a cloned account on Instagram purporting to be me: jack.iewillspoet
Note the full stop is in the middle of my first name. 

But I can't do any more to limit the fraud. It seems cloning is thriving despite public pronouncements by Instagram. I did all the company asked to prove I am who I am - jackiewillspoet without a full stop - but my name, punctuated randomly, now belongs to a criminal clone, fed, watered, prayed to and cheered on by Instagram. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

28 years

Twenty-eight years ago today I woke up as a mother. My son was born in the early hours of the morning on June 13 1992. I was 37 years old. Yesterday he, his girlfriend, my daughter, my mother and me celebrated with strawberry cake and sandwiches.

Before birthday tea, thousands of us stood silently on the seafront to demand changes to how my son, my daughter, their dad and millions of other black people are treated in the UK. As a white woman I've not experienced racism, I've experienced its by-products. I've tried to comfort my children, stand up for them, listen to them. I've witnessed them and their dad humiliated by teachers, bosses, so-called friends, parents of so-called friends, neighbours, the police, random strangers, security guards, shopkeepers, their peers.

I have been forced to listen to extracts from my father's diary read aloud in which he referred to the father of my children in terms I couldn't write down here. I have been told this act had nothing to do with race (of course not, I am white) and all to do with me.  I have witnessed this tactic adopted gratefully by white liberals who believe we won't notice as they turn the objects of their discomfort into aggressors.

I didn't have a clue what I was embarking on as a mother. I'd never been around babies. The family I was brought up in was self-contained, almost hermetically sealed. There was no laughter, no socialising, no sharing small children and babies around. My father's bitterness and racism tainted our lives until my mother had enough and left. I was 21.

When I was eight, I remember my grandfather carving lamb at one of the Sunday lunches we endured in Wembley. He stood to carve, at the top of the table. Behind him, the main road, changing demographically. It was 1963 and 15 years since Empire Windrush docked in Essex. Even then, so young, I felt uncomfortable with the language my grandfather used to describe his neighbours. Beside me, two younger brothers. Beside me, my mother, cowed, my aunt, cowed, my father, nodding.  So I should have known what I was embarking on as a mother bringing up black children. The hard bits, anyway.

Twenty eight years on from the morning after that birth around dawn on June 13, after I'd looked down on the seafront, over the waves, the horizon, the sky from the hospital tower block, we reminisced about the maths teacher who humiliated both my children, now an alcoholic. Mum and I heard my children describe not one, not two, but multiple teachers' abuses of power. This was not the 1950s, it was post millenium, in a school described as one of the best comps in the UK.

We sometimes remember a man with flickering eyes like a lizard who accused my son of threatening him, whose racism was so intense and shameful that just thinking about the incident makes me shake. The people paying him couldn't grasp or admit it, so they spent months turning it around until they had a story in which my son and I had threatened them. They told their friends, their cleaner, their workmates. They built a narrative that was repeated until it reached people I knew.

Incapable of admitting they'd employed someone who had behaved so dangerously, so transgressively - god forbid they couldn't be racist - they convinced themselves they were victims.

Yesterday, we didn't need to state what my children learned from birth, that racists are dangerous and to be avoided. When I saw a video of the woman in Central Park calling police because a black man asked her to put her dog on a lead, I remembered lizard-eyed man, my shaking hands, my nausea, my fear.

We have all seen the contortions of truth deep racists and covert racists share and live with while planning for a post-lockdown holiday "somewhere hot." Eavesdrop, hear them complain among themselves that they can't say what they like anymore, we've seen them adopt victimhood and transform it into firearms and fists or deflect attention away from change.

My children have taught me unpicking racism is a long game. That like all good crime stories, there are innumerable false statements of truth and plot twists. People may pretend a poster in a window can erase a decade of racist behaviour but what do you think?  I've learned that despite having black children I can also be racist but I hope I have learned to challenge myself. To be self aware. To listen when I am challenged.

What I never anticipated all that time ago was that my life would be divided in this way and I would learn so much. But the racists, overt/covert, pissing on war memorials or avoiding the seafront Black Lives Matter protest for a walk in the country, are on the wrong side of history. No amount of playing black music, going to Womad, buying Fairtrade makes privilege righteous.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

About race

I hope I'll be able to go to the Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton on 13 June. It's down at Madeira Drive. It's going to be socially distanced and silent. But most important of all, it's my son's birthday.

More than before and after coronavirus, I think we will in future talk about before and after the killing of George Floyd. Before, those who would talk about race were predictable. Those who didn't want to hear shuffled awkwardly or were extreme in their opposition. Now, there is a deluge of demands on black people to explain. As if the UK is playing a massive game of catch up.

The only poems I've written directly about race and racism relate to the visits we made as a family to South Africa. The rest of the time I felt racism was not for me to address. I felt like a trespasser, even with black children.

Don't get me wrong. I challenged racism when they told me about it, but none of us could challenge it all. Did I, as a mother, begin to feel this was something we all had to put up with? Was I less aware of the physical dangers to my children, their father than I should have been?

I wonder now, if it wasn't until incident after incident during their teens that I really understood the police were never going to protect my children. I understood this when they were babies, on a trip to South Africa, when apartheid was to all intents and purposes still in place. But in the UK? Did I do enough to challenge racism? In hindsight, probably not. But what is enough, what is the bare minimum?

I believed I was politically aware. But not aware enough about race and racism. I think it would have taken too many books and far more courage than I had in me to be an activist when they were growing up. My energy went on making them feel confident about their identities, on finding black Lego, Playmobil, dolls, action men, books with black children in, hair products.

I began to write about race and bringing up my children only when my daughter left for university. And even then it was difficult. Even with that distance. A voice in me said you have no right. It still says you have no right. I've silenced it for a while. I've written the book. It's prose, not poems.

My son's due date was June 16, Soweto Day. He arrived early. He'll be 28 on June 13. If we can, we will stand in line on Madeira Drive as a family. My daughter will be 26 in September. It won't be the first time all four of us have stood against racism but it will be the first time we have protested against it together in the UK.

Sunday, May 31, 2020


The week a woman threatened a Black man in a park because he asked her to put her dog on a lead, the week an American cop put his knee on a Black man's neck and murdered him....
It's too much.
I've been afraid for my children for years as they grew up in the UK and faced racism. We've experienced the system of apartheid when we've visited their father's home but I would never want them to travel to America.
I wrote to Gary Younge when he left America, explaining in the Guardian he was leaving because of his son. He was the only other person who'd expressed fear for his children in that country in such a way I could relate to. I thanked him for bringing racism and its dangers down to basics.
There are things I can't write here because they're not mine to write. But I can speak out. And now is one of those times. If you don't know what racism is, you have to educate yourself. That is your responsibility. And if you are ignorant, do not expect tolerance of that ignorance.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Found sound in the graveyard

Dignity PLC - men who run many of the UK's graveyards, including
Downs Cemetery in Brighton
I'm at the allotment with an H1 'handy recorder' to do another week's poems for Radio Reverb's lockdown literature hour. It's a quirky show, with short stories, archival sounds of rain and birds, and me, reading poems from writers in and around the city, plus a short writing prompt at the end.
The producer likes a bit of ambient sound with the poems, as I do and me and the birds get on well.
But I have to choose my moments because even in lockdown, city life is not so quiet. At first there's birdsong - the robin, blackbird, the blue tits nesting in my shed, squirrels in the lindens, sparrows and gulls. There's traffic along the top road and rev of motorbikes because that cut through's an invitation to accelerate with fences on either side and ramshackle sheds. You could be anywhere, it's no-woman's land with its plastic bottle roofs and chairs made into fences.
I'm in the greenhouse wondering if I need to bring the recorder under cover because it's windy. Then in the distance it starts - the strimming - way down near the crematorium chimney belching grey smoke minute by minute. I try and look through the fence but the ivy's grown up. I wander down the path and there they are - men with machines and vans.
The grass has hardly had a chance to go green after the last shaving, but they're revving their strimmers and moving around the gravestones. I can feel my heart. This pack approach. I wander back to the shed and abandon the poem recording. I'll record the strimmer choir. It moves closer. I bend towards the mike, speak the time and date. The men and their machines are unstoppable. Stones, sticks, anything alive is thrown 15 metres one way and another. Nothing survives a petrol strimmer, not a frog, hedgehog, grass snake or slow-worm. Not a chick, a mouse, a squirrel.
(In Bristol, an allotment association has ruled petrol strimmers can only be used between 10 am and midday and only for 30 minutes. "Petrol strimmers emit noise  at a particularly high-pitched frequency which causes noise pollution to many.")
I bow down to Bristol pioneers and wonder about moving. Everyone knows, don't they, that petrol engines are noisy? It was a Texan who invented the petrol powered string strimmer in 1971 and that good ole boy made millions. Before him, you'd scythe and use a variety of hand-tools, or sheep. They were still sending sheep into the graveyards in Surrey in the 80s.
By now the strimmers are deafening, me, the fence, the badger sett, the dead.  I have to leave them to their destruction and wander home, download the recordings and listen back.
Bringing the sound to my desk, I feel the same panic and wonder if there's more to this. I think about beauty, I research sound pollution, I find just one good piece in the Financial Times about noisy garden machinery . The packs of men in harnesses stinking of petrol are rampaging as we speak through parks, allotments, graves, random patches of roadside grass, razing them to dust. They're paid by councils and cemeteries, by owners of large country estates.
I'm thinking about sound as art, found sound, how to bring this to boardrooms, meeting rooms, earbuds, about what it does to the body when it goes all spring and summer. I'm wondering about recording the leaf blower over the road, the power washer, the angle grinder, the electric saw, and putting them on a loop.
But they are already playing in the background at funerals, at weddings, at children's parties, at picnics, during intimate lunches, brave conversations, admissions of love. They drown out dreaming. They're what we've allowed.