Friday, May 11, 2018

Summer's cabinet

Summer, from a cabinet made
by Cottier and Co. 
Sorrel's trying to go to seed, the parsley patch and lovage are growing taller and one of the angelica plants I kept going over winter has barely grown but already has a flower head. That will be the end of that.

My path from home to allotment is five minutes up the hill and for much of spring and summer this is the extent of my travelling. Mum once told me about a man who took his runner bean plants on holiday with him (in the UK, obviously) and I am becoming that person.

This week I've watched a fight between blackbirds lasting much of the afternoon, a blackbird chasing off a jay, a young fox meander along the top path as I was watering onions, look me in the eye as it cocked its leg against a fence post, and wander confidently into the next patch.

I've woken at 5.30 to pick rhubarb, I've started to dry herbs, I've found strawberry plants in long grass and transplanted them into boxes full of compost. I've weeded the raspberries and discovered shallots in a sea of forget me nots. There is a lot more to do.

In the back garden, I've found a place to hang a hammock and fallen asleep in it. I've sat in the shade of the plum tree and watched lime leaves sparkle in the wind and sun.
Travel chest by John Sell Cotman

When I drop into social media I no longer feel part of the industry of creative writing, of opinions and debate. While I'd like to be in this world, I don't know what it takes any more.

Potatoes and beans are reliable. The creative writing world I'm witnessing is beginning to feel like the noisy universes of Asda and Coca Cola.

It feels easier to be in the green, potting on, planting seed, cutting edges and nurturing the mint. Soon the blocks of bright blue forget me nots will hand over to drifts of ox-eye daisies and spiky foxgloves. Then the pink geraniums, the big yellow trumpets of squash and courgette.

Part of me would pack a trunk tomorrow if I had the chance. Part of me still wants to sit and share poems into the early hours with a glass of red. But I think most of me has my feet in the dew and wants more of that freedom.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Buffalo, frog and fox

I don't know how this watermarked print of buffalo ended up in my allotment shed. Behind the glass, somehow, seed casings, the sky stained by rain. It's been in the shed since the children were little, perhaps I brought it from the house, unable to throw it away. The flat, distant background is unlike any of the places I've seen buffalo - in the Kruger National Park, in woodland. And those were different buffalo, perhaps, with a harder, lumpier head, less graceful curve of the horns.

But the stain, the seeds, the reflection in the glass and the dust on the glass, all seem to lift the trio of buffalo into a more heavenly dimension, so this is no longer a print but a collaboration between the original painter, the printmaker, the framer, time and circumstance.

Likewise, the print made by a fox on the allotment in our days of snow - a series of hyphens by the plum tree drawing the line between me and it, night and day, between life in houses and life outside.

And it leads me to the memory of a sunny evening when a young fox sat down on the path and I carried on weeding, talking to it as I would to a child.

But doesn't every encounter with a fox build into a story that compels you to describe its skinny, careful legs, its big white tipped tail, its athlete's leap over the wall?

I think of the cub that fell into the window well, its mother's screams, the cat's astonishment as it ran towards the back door, hid behind the fridge, how Justine and I strained to release it at 3am because she'd also been woken by the vixen's distress, how I hope it found her when it ran back into the night.

I think of the older cub, shivering in the same window well all night until I heard its scratching and managed to cover it with a blanket. It was so cold, it let me carry it to the cemetery without any fear, let me put it down between gravestones in the tall grass behind my house and it almost didn't want to give up the warmth of the blanket. I had to shake a corner of it to encourage it away from the night anticipating its death.

And in a pond to the other side of Rob's plot, on a sunny false spring afternoon, a survivor of the snow and ice dragged itself up from the bottom for a little warmth.

I look past it to the pale and splayed shapes of the dead and bloated, trapped under thick ice and wonder how it survived. Watermarks, a pile of logs, a pink blanket printed with paw marks...our signs of life.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Three and a half days

Whose is this begging bowl and what could a woman want from the mist? That's the 14 word 'hurst' poem I wrote at the beginning of the month when I had three and a half days away in Shropshire on an Arvon Foundation tutors' course.

My begging bowl was full - half the course fee was paid by the Open University for professional development. What I wanted from the mist, which didn't lift from Tuesday to Friday morning, was, well, blank pages.

By that I mean I needed to fill pages, which I haven't been doing. So why not try a short story. And in those three days, yes, I did and I cut it by a quarter. It felt good to cut. It felt nervewracking to read it aloud. Pregnant woman with swan - it's the title of a print by Joseph Beuys.

In those days at the Hurst, on the border of England and Wales, a house surrounded by trees, I walked in the morning or afternoon. The woods were noisy with chainsaws on one day, wet and streaming every day, busy with birds on another day. I found a line of nesting boxes like terraced houses, I found the Hurst's monkey puzzle tree and its redwoods.

In the verges, wild strawberries were in bud but everything else was two weeks behind Brighton. By the pond, there was a carpet of ransoms.

Three and a half days go by quickly. Four breakfasts, four nights sleep. But the tutors, Ann Sansom and Chris Wakling worked us hard, set us off on endless writing threads, shared ideas for tutoring - filling what space was left in the begging bowl.

There was no internet, limited phone reception. At the end of the week, I went to Subway in Craven Arms before my train to pick up emails. I'd missed nothing much.

In three and a half days the food I left in the fridge at home wasn't even off. There was one letter on the table. A couple of missed calls.

I came home with a short story on a memory stick and three and a half days of ideas I may go back to, but don't feel I have to. They came, after all, from looking into the mist.

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.