Saturday, February 15, 2020

The rapunzel flower and other species

Frost in April by Malachi Whittaker
Frost in April, it has happened, as has Frost in May (by Antonia White) but so far this winter, not a lot of frost yet. There's time, as the titles of these classic novels suggest, to be caught out.
Planting one or two things out in the garden yesterday I heard the school children's march in town - it was still, the sound of drums and shouting carried all the way along Lewes Road, up the hill, towards the Downs which are under such threat, the nature reserve now in the council's plans for housing.
It is easy to feel hopeless, just writing emails to people with such ready answers.
On my way to the allotment I passed Ian sitting on Rob's, listening to the radio and preparing to take down the rest of Rob's greenhouse. A few of his friends have been keeping an eye on things while he's unwell. The vine in the greenhouse grew so big last summer it broke through the glass roof.
I dragged three heavy bags of compost, heavier with rain from being stored outside, along the path. One for the small greenhouse, one for a large terracotta trough I'm earmarking for salad leaves, another for a cold frame that I need to put a roof on.
The birds were loud and in the cemetery the grave-digger was busy with the small digger he brings in on a trailer. The days of men with spades are gone, as are the days of people with scythes. It is impossible now to consider the damage. Ian and I moaned about leaf blowers, petrol powered. The lunacy of them.
Anthrax fly from Fabre's Book of Insects
I've resorted to researching prophesies, signs and auguries. How birds and other animals know before we do what is coming. There was a time I could smell rain. I was probably a child or possibly a teenager.
This is the year to re-learn, study old books recording the behaviour of insects and birds, to refresh the knowledge I might once have been handed by a grandparent.
Part of Rapunzel flower, not a poem
The city is oppressive. I want to be the robin above myself on the apple tree, an owl in the night.
Yesterday, I wrote about a property developer and I woke up feeling polluted by my own words. They are not the song. It is useless now to rage about idiocy, traffic and this uncontrolled rush to extinction.
I wrote Rapunzel flower, not a poem, years ago at Chesworth Arts Farm in Horsham. It's a six-part list of species. I was entranced by the names. I have always been. Give me lists of species and I'm in a sweet shop.
I watered the compost I'd put in the polytunnel, cut back brambles and protected the cabbages I planted last autumn. I transplanted mizuma from a row of spicy leaves last time I was there and it's survived but it's a gamble. There may be frost, still.
In the small greenhouse I found a big irridescent black beetle, dead on one of the beds. It was a jewel. I put it on a dried artichoke flower. A greenhouse still life.
I won't cut the lawns front or back this year. I'm transplanting forget me nots from the allotment where they've self-seeded everywhere, and ox-eye daisies. I'm careful to dig up tiny self-seeded foxgloves when I find them and save them into pots. It might help.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The places white men create

It is an eye catching slogan on this portacabin by B&Q on Lewes Road. A use of language aimed, I'd guess, at suggesting a certain level of responsibility, especially taking into account the company's name, U + I.
It's a property developer, which is probably not a difficult assumption to make, but a property developer that likes to brand itself as different.
Sadly, there's not a lot to distinguish it from any other on Lewes Road. In fact, what it's doing there is actually pretty shocking.
Brighton's always been low rise but the new developments increasingly being given the green light are high. This spot, on Lewes Road, used to be open. It was an old Territorial Army training centre and on the other side of the road there was a car park that created a wide and open run up to one of the old factories, taken over by the University of Brighton.
Who'd have thought so much could be crammed into so little space? The ghosts of the Territorials checking their kit and marching on the spot have barely room to bend over and tie their bootlaces. The new age slogan-branded portacabin sits next to a site going up and up and over the road another site going up and up and with the road the same width as it's always been, there's a massive wind tunnel in the making. When they cut the ribbons and open the sliding doors, I for one won't be on that cycle lane both for fear of road rage and the gathering of gusts from the sea.
But anyway, U + I, a new type of developer, according to its website. Which may be what attracted the council. So I took a look.

The management team. Three white men.

The leadership team. Five white men.

The non-executive directors. Three white men and three white women.

Really? In this day and age?

Friday, January 31, 2020

Ron Finley and guerilla gardening

I nearly cried when I saw Ron Finley's TED talk, shared by someone on Facebook, describing the food desert of the district he lives in, the endemic bodily sickness of people who barely see a vegetable and when I heard him describe his gardening as graffiti.

I think of the power invested in people who are generally remembered as big thinkers, the people who transform landscapes, like Capability Brown, who stock glasshouses with orchids, who re-wild acres of land they've had the money to buy....I think of most of us, the lucky ones with a square of garden, others with balconies and pots, others with nothing but a strip of grass and where I live, that's being parked on.

I think of the women who hold the secrets of growing everywhere in the world where this still happens, where it's not a hobby but a necessity and I think of my daughter watering pots of seeds in the nursery where she works, the kids' delight as they grow.

And Ron Finley, describing gardening in the city as defiance. If kids grow kale, kids eat kale, he says. I thought of the pathetic planters on Lewes Road and abandoned, unlet allotments at Tenantry Down. We need people like Finley to remind us of what's right, of what can be done with energy and drive.
Planters, Ravenna, Italy

It's not guerrilla gardening, but up the hill the community orchard continues to grow.

The questions for each city or urban area will be different, but in Brighton green spaces are seriously under threat from building, parking and strimming. Can we change? Can we make gardening radical and real, not just rhetoric?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Happiness or a contract with gossip?

My birthday hangs around blue Monday like the last fruit on the tree, apples clinging to bare branches by the roadside. And I've often felt grim in January and February, although much less so since a friend lent me a sun lamp a few years back and I realised that was the solution - get outside on sunny days, be in the daylight.
by Tove Jansson

It's easier now I'm semi-retired. I can go out when I like, more or less. And every Thursday I have a trip to Haywards Heath where I run a reading group for young people in Chalkhill.

Tove Jansson
This work has been essential income, but also essential to how I think about writing. Stuck in bed with a cold and cough for a couple of days, I took some time to try and find more material to read these young people. I want uplifting stories and poems. I want writing that takes them away from the dark rectangle in their palms they've grown up with, that awful tunnel of judgment, misery and despair, from criticism and pettiness, from bullying.

Uplifting. It should be easy, surely? And yet I'll be half way through a story and it turns, or the language changes and the 'fucks' and 'fucking' comes in. I'm no prude, I don't mind it too much, but I can't read it aloud to young teenagers. It's not allowed.
A contract with gossip

There are few short stories for teenagers, I've realised, that allow them to escape. Publishers seem to think teenagers need to read about bullying, abuse, suicide, self-harm, sex, dysfunctional families, harm to animals, you name it. I'm sounding old fashioned. But there's a difference between acknowledging problems exist and picking at scabs.
Ali Smith

An example: Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal. I read extracts from this new novel for teenagers and it is gripping. This is fantastic writing by a woman who knows what she's doing. I wish she wrote short stories, but I'll go with this. Michael Morpurgo, David Almond, Malorie Blackman....

When I asked on Facebook I wasn't sure if people got what I was asking for. Uplifting? Why? And what is uplifting? It's hard to define. Here are some of the short stories I've read which I felt went some way towards expressing an insight I was looking for, into whatever we mean by happiness or contentment, a moment with our spirits rather than being trapped in the dark glass rectangle of a contract with gossip and damage.
Gcina Mhlope
Elspeth Davie

Tove Jansson stories -including The magic forest and Snow

The Enchanted Morning by Malachi Whittaker

Half of What Atlee Rouse knows about horses by Brett Anthony Johnson

Writ and Last by Ali Smith

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Moths of the New World by Audrey Niffenegger

The Toilet by Gcina Mhlope

Boy in a Ford by Hugh Atkinson

May Malone by David Almond

The carpet with the big pink roses on it by Maeve Brennan

Through the tunnel by Doris Lessing

A weight problem by Elspeth Davie

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Fame, patriarchy, capitalism and everything else that's wrong

Work by Anthony Burrill -
words from a woman in a
supermarket queue
I spotted this little broadsheet in the background of a film on a rich and famous internet billionaire who lived in his office high above one of the world's megacities. It was like seeing a rare moth being pinned to a piece of card - a sentiment appropriated for its font and design.
Those of us brought up to describe the glass as half full, to appreciate the luck and privilege of our birth, have been too anxious in recent years to be nice. I trace my own awareness of this overwhelming positivity to 2000 when I worked as a poet in Unilever.
My cynicism was not nice in that environment where 'no' and 'but' were banned in favour of 'yes, let's build on that' attitude was as bad as my bad teeth - socially embarrassing.
And I knew this. It's why I stayed in the corner at parties. I never mastered the wit, irony, joshing (a public school term) that determines who may enter the club and who won't.
But truth be told, I was conned.
While I'm washing out baked bean tins in every weather, nothing's changing.
Fame determines who gets honours, money and work.
Patriarchy determines who gets the same. Oh come on, you know. I don't need to explain.
Capitalism is simple. No, you can't gather wood, you have to buy it from me. No, you can't put a shack in that wood, you're trespassing. No, animals aren't sentient they are raw material. If I build a factory here, I have the right to bottle and sell that water, to empty my shit into that water, to divert that water, to drain and dam that water.
You work for me. I decide what I pay.
What was that you said, yes? Or did you argue?
I am increasingly exhausted by trying to do the right thing, to be reasonable, to hear both sides. I am sometimes exhausted by living on next to nothing, by being invisible because I am not famous. By spending seven years on a book of poems that won't sell more than 500 copies.
Yes, of course, what matters is family, a roof, a patch of land to grow fruit and vegetables, a cat who purrs at me, being able to pay for the electricity.
But I am part of society, despite Thatcher's greatest efforts all those years ago, and yes, I want to be part of society and to believe those of us without power, influence and means can be heard.
Let's celebrate those who are ignored, who are good at what they do, who have been improving their art, writing, musicianship for decades, let's look up to people for their stamina, belief in the craft, for their quietness (often), for integrity.
Can we?

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Seeds and quiet

A local garden centre sorted out the summer's seeds for me in the gap between Christmas and New Year, with a 50% off sale. I bought handfuls, from purple kale to sunflowers, tomatoes, beetroot, beans.
At the allotment yesterday the wren was in full song, the robin hopeful of worms as I weeded and cut back raspberry canes.
It has become vital work to grow what I can, to be kind to the small patch I have and enable wildlife to live as it should, without the threats modern life has brought. At friends' houses this year so many conversations were about what we can do. About individuals shifting our focus from jobs to the environment.
Hedgehogs, insects, bees...the threats to wildlife are within our control - petrol-powered strimmers, petrol-powered leaf blowers, chemical-based insecticides/pesticides/weed killers.
Can we transform more open spaces like cemeteries, verges, patches of grassland into meadows?
Not if there is an obsession with cutting back to bare earth, not if cars are allowed to park on every open space, not if we resist conversations about quality of life in cities.
The German government is banning leaf blowers, Farmer's Weekly is promoting a switch to quieter, battery powered strimmers, the RSPCA is urging gardeners to think again before using lethal power tools, hedgehog rescue  wants strimmer operators to be aware of the damage they do.
Would that this was a year of quiet, when power tools are silenced.
On my way to B&Q before Christmas I stood and watched two men with leaf blowers on a basket ball court attempting to blow leaves through a gate onto a verge. The wind blew the leaves one way, the men followed with their blowers. A couple of brushes would have been quick and silent. They were working for Brighton and Hove Council. Turned up in a petrol guzzling van. Used petrol to battle the wind.
I have been told that if I don't want to put up with strimming noise on my allotment I should wear noise-cancelling headphones. What have we become, when that is seen as acceptable advice? With so many green councillors now, can our city be brave?

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Are you happy with pessimism?

I have never known another way of being. Secondary school: too quick to react, over-emotional, opinionated. At Portsmouth Poly I stood up with my friend Beanie to propose a motion about sexual harassment as the rugby club shouted from the bar. On strike almost as soon as I was given my first job. And so it went on.

Trouble-maker, big mouth, stirrer, wrecker, the oldest of three, only girl and brought up Catholic. My soul was done for when I questioned the actual meaning of transubstantiation and turned to Camus.

It's a role I chose. I put myself forward for positions in the National Union of Journalists and loved the challenges. I was young, had energy and believed in unions. Later I encouraged my children to challenge wrong-thinking and wrong-doing.

Now a female, wrinkled poser of questions with a grey head, I google search complaining and find psychology advises me to avoid it and what's more, shy away from complainers too. Searching psychological tics is almost as dangerous as looking up the causes of physical symptoms but then I found Kathryn Norlock.

She's a philospher so thinking is her profession. When I read, on her website, "I am happy with pessimism" I cheered and the cat purred.  I reckon I'm right down the middle in the half full and half empty camp. It largely depends on the weather and my finances. But I'm drawn to Norlock for other reasons too. She's co-editor of the Feminist Philosophy Quarterly which features some fabulous essay titles and subjects, including power in care-giving (a question at the heart of discussions in the Eye Witness reading group I've been running).

About 'Can't Complain', Norlock writes, "quotidian, unconstructive complaining sometimes fulfills important social functions, including the amelioration of loneliness and affective solidarity, for the sake of others as well as oneself."

She describes it as mindful attention to shared suffering.  Norlock has also written about forgiveness, how women are expected to forgive more than men and I begin to find a context, a way of thinking I'd forgotten in the daily grind of dodging transits beached on pavements, HeartFM-filled shops and loud talking men on trains. It is to fly beyond the personal, beyond anecdote and turn to thought.