Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Reading the signs, framing the hole

The thing about a sign is the other places it sends you rather than the instruction it wants you to abide by.

I was on Palace Pier for the starling murmuration just before sunset and there are a few more of the retro postcard-style stage sets you can stand behind and put your head in for a photo.

Have so many people been stuck and unable to get out again? I stood and tried to replay the scenario and came up with ears.
William Kentridge

The classic sign is the one that tells you not to throw stones at the sign. Yes, it does exist. It exists in a poem by the brilliant Matthew Sweeney, but it also exists in reality, in Donegal, which is probably where he got it from. It is a sign invented for meditation, a koan to prove that logic isn't enough in life.

One of the best signs, or notices I've seen, was on a lamppost along Queen's Park Road a couple of years ago. Under a poster for the circus, featuring a tiger, was an A4 sheet asking for sightings of a missing cat. I was on my way to a meeting and I wondered if the person who'd put it there had hoped everyone who passed by would see the joke, or at least, remember it enough to look at home in sheds or cellars, in case a cat had sneaked in out of the rain and cold.

I always meant to go back and take a photo but didn't and eventually both posters disappeared and now exist only in my mind. But I saw  another one pasted on top of a poster.

Missing cat, Lewes Road
The randomness of these signs reminds me of the great artist John Muafangejo from Namibia whom William Kentridge describes as one of the great artists of the region, using linocut and text as "an emblematic anti-colonial art form". Kentridge uses text in an intriquing way in much of his art and while often Muafangejo's text is an integral title, in some prints, it is also an explanation, or context. The graphic starkness of his work gives these titles and his text its power. 

Muafangejo died at just 43 in 1987 from a heart attack. He'd suffered from depression but after his breakdown got a degree and taught art in South Africa.

I hadn't planned to remember this man or his work. I saw it first the year he died in London when a friend was working at the South Bank Centre. He's particularly known for his piece, Hope and Optimism in spite of the present difficulties - an understated title if ever there was one, given the context he was working in at the time. Some of his work, too, resonates in the work Risenga did when he was studying - there is the same simplicity, power, reminders of another way of life.

And his role as a documenter of contemporary life reminds me too, of the family story told on a gravestone in one of the cemeteries behind me.

Here is a list of the children of Thomas Francis and Helen Hayward and how old they were when they died:

Helen at five years old
Thomas Frances seven years later at 18 years old
William Burdett seven years later at 19 years old
Frank George three years after that at 18 years old
Charles Henry six years later at 19 years old.

Which in itself, brings me back to the apocryphal small ad quoted by Ernest Hemingway and devotees of flash fiction about unworn baby shoes.

Sometimes a story needs a lot of words, sometimes very few.
Or sometimes those words aren't telling a story, but pointing to a way into one you will make up and navigate for as long as you need or want.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Words for old and earth

'Pantywaist' is one of the synonyms for old woman that most engaged me when I began to explore language and ageing.
I can see everything the word suggests as I can visualise where 'old sock' comes from too, 'prune' and even 'dusty miller'.
They are soft, material and contain folds where meanings can rest or gather.
The word 'mossback' is harder to understand, but when I read 'badgerly' I think of what a former neighbour once shouted at me when the two bands of grey at my temples began to define me.
The world 'elderling' sounds almost sweet, compared to 'wrinklie' and there are times I wouldn't take exception to being called 'stricken' or 'vintage'.
But one of the words I am perhaps most intrigued by is 'beldam', a switch of letters away from uproar or asylum, and which sounds as if it should come from the French, 'belle dame'. It doesn't, it's a tricksy word and actually according to the OED, comes from the word for mother, extending into 'grandmother', 'great-grandmother', an ancestor....and then the word switches tone and turns into a 'furious raging woman,' 'virago', a 'loathsome old woman', and the all-familiar hag or witch.
I'm in this thesaurus-browsing mood because I'm struggling with a title for the collection in waiting, poems that grabbed the baton from the menopause and try to understand these years leading up to and away from the great signpost of 60.
The collection began with poems picking apart synonyms like 'crate' and then I meandered around the house, picking up loose beads and empty bottles. I found a batch of old letters and as we all do, wondered where time had gone, I sat in the shed at the allotment and I thought about mud. Even the South African poems, which are always there, are about death and time.
But just as 'pantywaist' appeals for its childishness and glimpse into a past of paper bags and brass scales, I want this collection to have a seam of delight and discovery, of 'vintage' rather than 'frump'.
I ended up online with a dictionary of old Sussex dialect, and synonyms for 'mud' (like gawm and slubber) took over from old. I was looking for a crossover beyond the cliches of fossil and oxidated, of musty and crock, but then I began to think about worm-eaten.
I think of the handfuls of compost worms that break down the peelings and egg shells, red, shiny, desirable. I think of the warnings about how few harvests we have left, the soil exhausted. Is this a bridge I can cross? I am in a place I understand. This is is where earth comes in with its old Friesian, old Saxon histories. Is this the earth of beldam or gawm? A place to tread, a stratum, something to cultivate, a place to bury the dead, a lair, a terminal, the opposite to sea...the planet and so on.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

On Ilkley Moor

For most of the time there were red grouse in the heather, in the air (briefly), on a rock or a wall, making their characteristic noise. It's nesting time and Sunday was warm. What a difference the birds must have felt after days of snow.
And for most of the time I walked, there was no-one.
I briefly chatted with a couple about Simon Armitage's poem, Puddle, lodged in water, looking a little like two fallen gravestones. It foretold the wetness to come on the path beyond the mast - and if I'd known how wet -
I might not have carried on. I sank through snow into mud. It filled my boot. I circled water, trying to find solid ground. I sensed the bog deepening each time. I thought of the names on my scrap of paper where I'd drawn my map and decided my only route was the stone wall, to cling to it, to use its lower stones as steps and hope that the snow pushed up against it would take my weight for as long as I could get past the next expanding delta of water.
I made it slowly to the plantation I'd marked on my sketch and stood on a solid path before I eased my way down to another wall that kept the larches away from the heather, and here the grouse kept up its grumbling, totally unafraid. It was meant to be a four to five hour walk but the succession of bogs made it longer, as did being tired by the cold, and losing the path when the plantation thinned out.
When I came across a large flock of ragged, nervy sheep in the heather and heard the high call of a curlew, I realised how tired I was.
My gum was threatening an abscess, had been draining me of energy and I knew there was a way to go before I could go down.
I spotted a red coat in the distance. I'd lost my sense of direction.  But Ilkley, fortunately, has a massive crane and watching the red coat led me to its yellow frame poking out of the valley.
I found a path down from the moor. Through mossy, ancient woods I stopped on a bridge over a waterfall, said hello to a family on a bench. I walked down to a road, past garden gates and snowdrops, my Sunday no longer the moor, and the curlew - Ted Hughes' 'web-footed god of the horizons' - was far behind me, in another world.

Friday, March 02, 2018

A wheelie case full of avocados

I can't pass a small brown avocado without remembering the vervet monkeys on Risenga's hillside in Venda, a place filled with birds, a place Giya's just come back from, reminding me of the heat, the wildness of the north and its lure, and how I understand her decision to stay in Venda rather than try and navigate Johannesburg again. It was on her 18th birthday trip in 2012 that I last bought a large net bag of small brown avocados - 20 of them for less than £1 - and so, in the Open Market today, with Maude, I experienced one of those slippages of time and place, passing a crate on sale for £5.

I think I said to Maude that the monkeys loved them. But not here, where there's snow on the ground and the water in the birdbath's freezing over as quickly as I smash the ice and refill it. We were off to pay homage to Maplins and offer our condolences, both of us fans of the place. So I thought I'd get the avocados on the way back home.

Luckily we also passed a wheelie suitcase in Chestnut House charity shop and I've been looking for one cheap after doing my shoulder in going to Leeds in January. I'm feeling flush today, having had some work and it was good to splash out on a suitcase and to think of all those avocados for a fiver. We did the pilgrimage to Maplins and on the way back passed a Greek cafe with delicious looking pastries in the window. Maude asks if we should have a coffee and we're in like a shot, asking for the menu.

We unpeel our layers, order snacks and sit catching up. Outside the snow starts again and we make our way back to the market. The avocados fit perfectly, some of the squishy but there must be 30 of them at least. I wonder what I'll do with so many. I thought I'd halve them with Maude but she can't carry them.

And lugging them back up the hill, unpacking them, along with very ripe Brie, I realise that if I feel homesick for a place I barely know, for those little monkeys watching from the trees, for the quartz stones in the ground and trees that seem older than memory, how pleased I am that Risenga has, at least, a date in his mind for when he's going back.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Paradise garden

In the Quran, the garden is a symbol of paradise, and it's easy to understand why.

I've been lucky - most of my life I've had a garden, or been close to a public garden. My son's first outing, a week after he was born, was to the rose garden in Preston Park. I took Giya there too, as a new baby.

The children rolled down the sloping lawn at Mum's in Tunbridge Wells, we came home with bunches of flowers in summer. And now in Brighton, I've had my own garden for about 23 years. In fact, Risenga and I decided on the house I live in because of the apple tree in the back and the flint wall.

The garden's been the place of children's parties, teenage parties and quiet, early sun. Amampondo - Nelson Mandela's favourite group - played marimbas outside one June and when Risenga was giving drumming lessons years ago, he'd stretch goat skin and tighten his drums there.

The garden's entered poems as if it owned them, as the allotment, up the hill, does too.

Last week I was in Vauxhall Gardens - a far cry from the pleasure gardens known to Hogarth - writing poems based on conversations with people wandering through or stopping at the temporary shed that advertised me as poet in the garden.

The late Sarah Maguire was a trained gardener and wonderful poet. In fact many poets I know are gardeners. It seems we need a break from words.

It is a challenge writing poems to order, after passing conversations with strangers, sometimes only the length of the path through the garden.

 I wasn't quite the poet for hire, tapping out lines on the spot for those who wanted them. Apart from a poem for Valentine's Day, commissioned by the friend of a man who'd forgotten to get anything for his partner.

But a selection of what I wrote will be on display at the Garden Museum in March, alongside photos of the park and perhaps of me chatting to people with dogs or children in the drizzle.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Keeping Fabrica's doors open

At the end of this week I'll be at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton with Jane Fordham, marshalling writers and artists who've collectively raised more than £5,000 to keep it going.

Fabrica launched a crowdfunding campaign early in February to raise £20,000 after losing a local authority grant.

Jane and I organised a Draw-a-Thon and Writing Relay to support the campaign. We have 25 writers signed up to share the contents of their minds for 30 minutes with the public - as they write, their words are going to be projected onto a screen.

The artists, meanwhile, will be drawing for five hours non-stop to earn their sponsorship! They'll be allocated paper and a pencil, free tea, coffee and biscuits and the chance to stretch once an hour. There'll be more than 30 of them, drawing from models or imagination, between 11 am and 4 pm on Saturday 24 February.

Jane and I met through Fabrica more than a decade ago and have been talking about work, ideas and collaboration ever since. We went to the Avignon festival in a Fabrica group of gallery educators, then back independently a couple of years running. Fabrica started our writing/drawing collaboration so that was the starting point for our event. But it's not just our event now. Brighton's creative community is galvanised to show what this city centre gallery, always free, always provocative, always engaged, means to us. What the arts mean. Why doors need to be kept open.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lockers, Joseph Beuys and gallery assistants

Excess Baggage Group, based in Hayes
is now the private arm of left luggage
and lost property at UK stations
There were once lockers at Leeds train station, I am being told by a man who works for Excess Baggage. I imagine there were, I say. I remember the lockers at Brighton station. They ran all the way along the wall opposite the last platform, a wall now used to display photos of smiling over-50s, all doing active things like gardening, playing guitar etc. not a single one with a grimace or frowning at the camera being pointed at them as they go about the hobby that keeps them useful, busy and in the company of other over-50s. Not one of them is a complainer because to complain is to commit the sin of negativity and when you are negative you die.
I'm, meanwhile, taking my own photo of how much it would have cost me to leave my bag for a morning in Leeds. Customer services, only responsible for Northern Trains, quite rightly say I am wrong when I ask to complain about being misled at Hebden Bridge Station. Are there left luggage lockers, I asked? Yes. The customer services woman says, well he was right. There are. But I can't afford them, I reply. But he didn't mislead you, she says. And she doesn't have any complaints forms anyway.  So who do I complain to about the cost? Network Rail is responsible for the station. She won't let my mistake drop. The information I was given was correct, she says again. We've moved on I say. She's still insisting as I leave. There's no-one else in customer services. What, after all, do they do if they don't even have a complaints form? There's plenty who do pay it, she adds.
At the Network Rail office they don't take complaints of any kind in person. I have to go online. They have no idea why Left Luggage has been privatised. It's all about making money now. My shoulder is aching.
But the guy at Excess Baggage is local and remembers the lockers, as I do mine in Brighton. Lockers big and small with varying charges and keys with a hefty plastic knob on so you couldn't lose them.
So why did they get rid of them, I ask? I was sure I knew the answer. It would be the same as the one I was given earlier at the art gallery where I turned up with my bag - having lugged it all the way from the station - and asked for the cloakroom. And same as the one I was given when I went to the tourist office to complain about a lack of cloakroom. I was sure the answer would be terrorism.
Scala Napoletana by Joseph Beuys, 1985
Although, to be fair, the guy at the tourist office can't bring himself to say that word, anything close to it in fact. He says "well, you know..." as if the reason for getting rid of a cloakroom is a guessing game, or an intimate disease. And when I don't play but instead ask for a complaints form, he can't find one either. A woman in the queue says I'm being rude and by then perhaps I am. I've carried my bag all the way from the station and no-one seems to understand why I'm cross that there's nowhere to put it.
Rudeness is something else. There is confusion about rudeness and complaining nowadays. When I open my mouth to ask a question, hackles often rise. It's quite primitive and very obvious. An identikit image of rudeness tends to be old and female. It has embossed on its forehead: I HAVE ENDURED 60+ YEARS OF DOING THE RIGHT THING AND LOOK WHERE IT GOT ME.
So I think people in authority sense this person has nothing to lose when she asks to speak to the manager she can see hiding in the back office with his feet up. Is it any surprise she speaks her mind? She has been redefined as trouble.
Well, that's me, actually. I am given some plain paper to handwrite my complaint on and I leave it with my email address. Do you understand why I'm cross, I ask? Some of the tension diffused, the manager does. But he can't help himself, you'll have a reply within 15 days, he says. We both know the reply will be meaningless, a waste of time. The word terrorism sits between us like a returned loaf of bread with a dead frog in it.
Robert Tait Mackenzie's
Four Masks of Facial
Expressions: Violent Effort,
Breathlessness, Fatique
Exhaustion   1902
The manager of the art gallery, who's hanging around reception for some reason, does use the word and in a managerial way, his chin jutting out and his eyes fixed on me, challenges me with his body to consider the absence of a cloakroom as unreasonable. 
My bag over my shoulder, people with dripping coats or shopping, up against terrorists....who would be so unreasonable as to complain about the absence of a cloakroom?
The Brighton lockers, now erased by lines of smiling old people being busy and not complaining, went when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel. The postbox and rubbish bins went at the same time.
The Leeds lockers, the man at Excess Baggage informs me, went when kids put fireworks in them. But terrorism was the excuse, he says. We have a scanner here, you see, he says. For the luggage.
My decision to take a few hours in Leeds on my way home from Hebden Bridge is because there's an exhibition of work by Joseph Beuys.
But I am defeated. I'll just lug my bag around the gallery. In the first room of his work, there's a very kind invigilator, who's heard some of the discussion at reception. She comes up to me. You can put your stuff in the corner, love, and I'll keep an eye on it, she says. She's kind and concerned. I feel as if I can fly around the felt, the sledge, the tins and the floorpaint, light as a feather.
Then into the next room where Scala Napoletana is installed, and the long ladder is projected onto the back wall, in shadow. The invigilator sitting with the ladder and great heavy weights has gloves on and is well wrapped up. It's cold. I dump my bags to take a photo and look around. I sense he's nervous about me not being with my bags and he says, watch your bags, people come in and steal them. They can have them - I tell him about what left luggage costs and he reckons it's the same as all day parking.
Briefly I see my little bag in the space a 4x4 would take up and wonder how it became so dangerous and so expensive.
There are lockers next door, he tells me. I am not sure I've heard right. Is this Beuys speaking? Is this man his channel? The revolution is in us! The social order is overturned! There are lockers....
And indeed there are and I am allowed to use them. They are free. They are made of oak and each key has a number on, a small coloured tag. I have number 13. Next to the bank of wooden lockers is a coat rack, with coats on it as I remember from the past.
And now I am a smiling old woman, looking at all the galleries have on show - Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein, Paula Rego. I am happily the shadow of the ladder on the wall and I am glad of the kindness of gallery attendants, who live with these artists and because of that, are able to resist and be human.

....Added value quote on Beuys by Allan Antliff, provided by Jane Fordham, my artist collaborator: "That December, Beuys and fifty students demonstrated how direct action could work by sweeping paths through a small public forest in the city of Dusseldorf that was threatened by the planned expansion of a tennis club," writes Antliff. 
"They marked the trees that were to be cut down, exposing just how devastating the destruction would be. Beuys issued a call to 'Overcome the dictatorship of the parties, save the forest!' and distributed a poster announcing 'Let the rich beware, we will not yield. Universal well-being is advancing."