Monday, October 09, 2017

A landscape before the US invaded

Freya Stark in Italy
"The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no-one is surprised." Freya Stark quoted in The New Yorker.

I thought I was immune to brainwashing because I'm a writer. And it may be that I am more tuned into how language is manipulated, jargon introduced as normal, how spin is engineered to be invisible. But in the early hours of the morning, during a rare night of insomnia, a travel memoir published in 1970 reminded me again how quickly images attach themselves to words, how quickly one view is replaced by another.

I was deep into Freya Stark's book, The Minaret of Djam - her account of an unorthodox journey to an isolated 12th century structure in a wild province of Afghanistan - and it's thrilling, in places beautiful, often thought provoking. She was in her mid 70s when she made this incredibly demanding trip and she allows herself the freedom of comment that comes with age. It is very easy to be with her, even though I am never likely to be so adventurous.

I so rarely suffer from insomnia that when I do it doesn't bother me - I decide to sleep during the day and enjoy the sounds of foxes outside.  So I keep going and am near the end of the book when I come across her description of "the wide pasture lands and climbing skylines of Helmand...." and in the last pages of the book, what she sees on the road towards Kabul and Kandahar.

"Caravans of firewood, and cows in long lines returning, moved beside us along a far-stretched avenue of pines; they were making for the city in the dusk."

Freya Stark
Helmand and Kandahar have never before been places of pasture and bazaars selling fine white shirts, in my mind. They are inextricably fused to helicopters and patrolling troops, drones and ambushes. And the next morning, I was so ridiculously grateful to Stark for this early hours revelation that I couldn't stop reading extracts to Mrisi. Listen to this, and this, and this.

I didn't set out to challenge my preconceptions about Afghanistan. Stark ambushed me, in the best possible way. And I am grateful for that experience, for the insomnia. I wonder, if I hadn't been so alone in the early hours, with just the foxes playing outside, if I'd have realised, with such force, the fragility of language.

Woman's Hour interview in 1976.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

What makes a biosphere?

Looking towards Brighton from Seven Sisters.
On my way to the allotment gate this morning a woman stopped me with a petition. Will I sign it - the council's changing the school catchment areas. Kids from the street I live in will have to travel beyond the next suburb and further east, almost into Kipling's former home of Rottingdean to get to school. Kids won't be able to walk to school or back home in winter because most of the way the road's isolated and unsafe. The bus service isn't bad, but how many parents will opt for driving their kids to school? More cars on the road....

Is it fair to suggest Brighton's problems are self-inflicted? And what turned it, despite those of us who moved here for its oddness, into a city obsessed with appearance, shopping and weekend tourism? While lending developers money to build the i-sore, the council allowed the rest of the seafront to decay, subside and erode. Far too late a campaign is trying to preserve the beautiful Madeira terraces which the council would probably rather demolish with the excuse they're too expensive to repair - an excuse you'd expect from a shark-developer but not a council with such a unique heritage. There used to be a 1930s saltwater outdoor pool near the marina. It was demolished. Now someone wants to build a new one.

When bankers were given bonuses for crimes against the rest of us, Londoners were buying houses off Elm Grove over the phone. The council allowed family homes to be turned into eight and nine bedrooms and let by shark-landlords. The enviable crescent of council houses opposite Brighton university on Lewes Road is now almost exclusively student housing - privately rented. Landlords make £700 a month for each room, often let individually rather than as a share because there's more money that way. So by 2014, Brighton had become the fourth most unaffordable place to live in the UK - house prices rose 42% in just seven years since 2007.

I stand chatting to the woman and her small daughter who may have to go to a school stranded between an out of town suburb and a village that has nothing in common with Brighton other than a coast road.

Produce from March to October this year, with kale, parsley
and leeks through the winter....
I wander down the path and pick tomatoes, green chilli peppers, chard and squash. I find a bag of apples an allotment neighbour has left me.

The allotment's been giving all summer, the freezers are both full, I've used up most of the jam jars. I've dried herbs and made raspberry flavoured vodka. This has been a fantastic year for growing most things. Garlic's not been brilliant, but I grew cucumbers. In a damp couple of weeks the slugs ate all my new lettuce seedlings but up until then I'd had salad until it bolted.

None of this has anything to do with the woman and her petition other than where I was when I signed it. Except it does, because this year I have started to be afraid for allotments. My fear is like a secret I don't want to share. It began with a Green council that did nothing with the unique opportunity it was given by the electorate. It continued with Labour councillors who betrayed socialism.

So I worry that a commitment to ordinary people isn't part of our local politicians' thinking anymore and that they have been seduced by retail, stag and hens, bar and coffee culture, by landlords and that word economy which they pretend helps locals but in reality means our kids have to move back home or to Worthing and beyond. I worry that individuals growing food (despite Jeremy's passion for his allotment) doesn't feature as strongly in Brighton's credentials as a World Biosphere Region, as a private company promoting expensive green roofs. I worry when the council implies it is encouraging children to walk or cycle to school and in fact it is doing the opposite. How else will it shaft us?

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Small group poetry workshops in Brighton


City Road, Cardiff, corner of Shakespeare Street. 
There was a time when I said my name and the response from kids in schools would be: Jackie Chan, never Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Collins, Jackie Brown, Jackie Stewart or Jackie magazine. The most common response from people of my generation was to repeat my name as Jackie Wilson...

And while I love that song of his, 'Higher and Higher', when I was working in schools a lot, Chan's name was the one I heard more often connected to mine. So I felt somehow in the presence of the kung fu master on those occasions and in the spirit of Chan's own words: "I do small things, I try to do good things everyday," I am running three small group poetry workshops for just six people starting on September 30. 

Big workshops of 15 or more have their place - they can be incredibly dynamic and exciting. But this autumn, I want to focus on the connections that happen in small groups. 

Limiting numbers will allow more time to read back work and for discussion. Each workshop will combine reading poems by contemporary writers with a number of writing exercises to generate new work. 

The workshops will take place in Brighton from 11am - 4 pm on Saturday September 30, Saturday October 14,  Saturday October 28. Each workshop will cost £40, payable in advance (no refunds for cancellations seven days or less before workshop). 

So, contact me by email: willsdotjackieatgooglemaildotcom - make sure you include a return email address and if possible a telephone number. Deadline for booking all workshops is September 22. 

Workshops will only run if there are six people booked in for each date - I will confirm with interested participants on September 23. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Anticipating a turning point - how the South African book is finding itself

Mrisi with Pip, the puppy, at the house in Mashau
The sun was hot on our backs yesterday as Mrisi, Giya and I sat in a row at the top of the scaffolding, painting window frames on our home in Brighton. Mrisi was playing music on his phone, mopeds went by noisily and when we took a break, a crowd of crows filled the sky in front of us for a moment and then flapped away, cawing.

A couple of days earlier, Risenga was also here, scraping, sanding, his head in the eaves. It's that time of year - autumn suggesting itself in a cold night when it would be reasonable to light a fire, even in August. There's fruit to pick, herbs to dry, jam and chutney to make.

Of course it is possible to mend a sash window yourself and make good your own house. I have been working every day on a second draft of the South African book, which I feel is turning into a different kind of travel memoir - one in which I return four times to the same place, investigating my responses to it after gaps of several years, curious about what I notice has changed.

The South African book isn't an objective analysis of this amazing country, how can it be in the circumstances, and that is now one of its most liberating factors as I write. The working title has changed from Venda Sun, which I am still attached to, to Road to the North, which is boring. I am still working from my diaries and increasingly from photo albums to help me remember, or at least, to help me describe some of the landscapes, moments, conversations that happened in 1994, 2002, 2005 and 2012.
Mashau from the hill behind Risenga's house

Those are the dates of my trips with the children and Risenga, although Mrisi didn't come on the last one.

I am looking at maps and Google earth, although neither of these are time travellers, so I have to make up some of the details I missed in 1994, 2002 or 2005. I have added and discarded linking sections in which I explain what's happened between trips. I will probably keep them out - how can I summarise eight years of our family's life?

But creating the linking chapters has at least given me a bit of a timeline, a sense of the bigger historical events happening on either side of our journeys and in one case, as we sat around a fire in Mashau.
Elephants in the Levubu River, Kruger National Park
I am checking the spelling of place names and asking Mrisi, Giya and Risenga what they remember.

Increasingly I am fascinated by memory, what I seem incapable of summoning up, by the completely different stories Risenga and I have in our heads about the same incident and then what has lodged and why. 

I couldn't find my way back to a turning on a dusty, eroded track between villages, when we'd been through a ford and wondered if we'd make it to the tar road again, but I can feel the red dust in my throat and see a lush field ahead. I can recall endless plantations of oranges and lemons beside the road near Tzaneen (I think) and a young woman in Mashau talking about how little she was paid to pack macademia nuts but I have no idea what roads we took to Lake Funduzi. 

I am pleased I came to the end of the second trip before I took a break to do the painting. I am half-way through this big re-write and the next trip, 2004/5, will be hard to go back to. It's a turning point which contains a 21st birthday, a wedding, a tsunami, a blood-red moon and an introduction to Mashau, a village at the foot of a hill where priests pray and the devout go to fast. 

Giya with Grace (front left), Mercy (front right)
and a neighbour at Caroline's wedding
in Venda

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Basilicas and friends

The bells are ringing on Lewes Road for Sunday mass and when I opened the curtains at 7.30 the sky was clear. The first thing I did, before feeding the cat even, was to print out an early draft of a new collection, make coffee, fruit salad, go back to bed and read it.

When Jane Fordham and I were in Ravenna recently, two things in particular struck us both - one was the natural paradise captured in stunning Byzantine mosaics we were seeing every day, the other was that whenever we were at a loss, we ended up on bikes at the old port. Cycling along the empty canal road, past abandoned warehouses and allotments tucked away on reclaimed plots felt like a walk on the Downs.

Since coming back from Italy I've been struggling with a way back into drafting the prose book on South Africa and doubting the place of the poems I've been writing over the past four years.

In Bologna and Ravenna, I set myself the challenge of reading Clive James' translation of Dante's Comedia. Actually, Inferno was a romp -no trouble at all reading this. James' translation is accessible, energetic and very easy to get through. I gave Purgatory a miss and went straight to Heaven, which, frankly (and nothing to do with James) is boring.

But what also came up as Jane and I were discussing the glory of mosaics - and she's an expert - was the brilliance of the colour, the birds, flowers and overall, a sense of joy that comes from these centuries-old images.

Unlike Torcello's black mosaics with their vision of hell, Dante's explicit, violent revenge on his enemies, these Byzantine masterpieces celebrate how fabrics fall, celebrate pattern, gesture, greenery to such an extent that you can feel the breeze through the curtains, hear the women's feet on the marble floors and the sheep calling in the rocky hills. Small gold tiles were the solution to taking unwanted people out of the frame - walls of gold, in fact.

And the religious message, while present, never felt intrusive. Perhaps this is what links the basilicas of Ravenna with its old port - room to think and wander.  No-one hurried us as Jane drew, took pictures and looked.  The occasional coach party or group of kids came and listened to a guide explain it all, and went. Then we were virtually alone with these Byzantine mosaic makers again, Jane laughing at where someone had run out of a shade of blue and bodged it, or questioning a disembodied hand at some curtains.

I wrote every day but not with purpose and that was fine, I wanted to allow things to emerge, not sure anything would. And when we got back it was frantic. Giya's graduation in Cardiff, Airbnb guests, house cleaning, the bathroom ceiling to re-paint, the allotment and finding ways of using courgettes. I planted far too many. The raspberries had started, blackcurrants needed picking and I wanted to get hold of some mirabelles before professional scrumpers stripped the trees up at the racecourse.

Then I looked at my notebook and found a couple of poems. I put them into lines, I felt like taking risks, I left lines in I might have cut, even weeks ago. But I returned to doubt, the weight of everything that's being published, that's been published, that is about to be published, to the weight of that question, whether it's worth anything.

I had a workshop to do and stared out of train windows for the two four-hour journeys, there and back. I filled and emptied the washing machine endlessly. I took one of the poems to a group I belong to in Brighton. And an off-hand comment about my prose book to poet Robert Hamberger resulted in him reminding me of those female titans, Austen, Rich and Woolf and how they fought silence. Another Brighton poet, John McCullough posted a quote from Hart Crane on Facebook about the importance of waiting till instinct assured him everything was assembled as it should be. My friend, the fabulous poet Moniza Alvi talked me through doubt on the phone, Rachel Rooney and Allie Rogers at lunch yesterday came up with strategies.

Friendship has broken me through the doubt and if that sounds sentimental, I'm not bothered anymore. The old man behind Jane in this picture is breaking rocks for the road we cycled on. His life was harder than mine will ever be. But I'll guarantee that when he filled his water bottle, it was with friends and when he staggered back to sleep, knackered, he was going over the day with friends.

My new collection is stitched together with letters, some from old friends, with memories of friends, with the fruit and veg I've eaten with friends, with allotment friends, school friends, old boyfriends, with neighbours who became friends and with the absurdities of ageing I swap with friends.

Can I thank them enough?








Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Twenty five years a mother

Yesterday I marked 25 years as a mother by transplanting seedlings, cutting grass and weeding and by visiting the friend of a friend in hospital - the same hospital where I gave birth, once in June, once in September - months of summer and autumn raspberries. 

Mrisi, my first, born on a blazing hot June 13 in 1992, was off to Leeds to celebrate, do some recording and release a video for Mamela, his new EP. This Is Jazz Standard magazine calls it a work of "resilience and conscience" describing Mrisi as Brighton's truthsayer. 

When he was interviewed by the Huff Post at a Grime4Corbyn event pre-election, he said, "A man they want to vilify that much has to be dangerous - but dangerous in this sense is a good thing, he’s dangerous to the establishment.”


Giya, born in 1994, is in London putting up her degree show, They Came from the Water While the World Watched, a sequence based on religion and colonialism, at Seen Fifteen gallery in Peckham with fellow documentary photography students. It opens on Friday 16 June, Soweto day. She was interviewed about her work recently by the website Nataal

Picture by Giya Makondo-Wills
from the series
They Came from the Water
While the World Watched
She says about photography, "I hope to continue to make work that has something to say and encourages young people from black, mixed, minority and underprivileged backgrounds to tell their own stories through the arts."

Which leads me to the work of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the launch of an anthology celebrating her, later this month on 29 June in London. Before The Golden Shovel anthology, you could have asked quite a few poets in the UK to name a favourite poems by Brooks and they'd have probably looked blank. She's far better known in the US, where her politics, her advocacy for poetry, her exploration of Black lives, ensured she won a Pulitzer prize. 

I have known her poem The Bean Eaters  for a very long time and it often comes back to me because it's so sparse yet vivid. It has a haunting quality of light, too and a timbre. 

I'm proud to have a small poem in the anthology, written after my last trip to South Africa with Risenga and Giya in 2012 for Giya's 18th. I got the date of our trip wrong in the poem title - Johannesburg 2013. The Brooks poem I chose to base mine on is "The Near-Johannesburg Boy." She explains on the Emily Dickinson archive, "I decided to write this poem when I found myself hearing on T.V. that little black children in South Africa were meeting in the road and saying to each other, "Have you been detained yet?"" The lines of hers I used are, "A Black Boy near Johannesburg, hot/ In the Hot Time." 

It is entirely possible that Brooks' old woman in "The Bean Eaters" may have influenced this poem too, making an appearance as Risenga's grandmother selling corn. That place where she sold corn was established as a landmark in the city in 1994 when we first went....not quite the start, but close to the start of my 25 years as a mother. 

And in the same random vein... - on Friday 16 June at Waterstones in London, the Seren anthology, Writing Motherhood is launched. I'll be at Giya's opening. But the poem I have in that anthology is about her....

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Cracking not quite writer's block

There are many writers who'll scoff at the idea of a block but I know it's real and although I'm resisting calling this particular period of time a block, something is holding me back. But it doesn't take much for something to happen which opens the door a crack, temporarily, to allow me to see the possibilities of jumping in again. 

What sorts of things? 

Finding the poem below by Denise Levertov which I kept from an old calendar. It was the poem chosen for July 4, although I don't remember the year. 

Wind and walking by the sea for the exhilaration of what it does to the waves, hair, clothes and face. 

Brendan Cleary ringing as he walked up the hill with a bottle of wine to share it on his birthday, talking about old bluesmen and women and wanting to go to New Orleans. 

Weeding, cutting back, picking lettuce and lovage, mint and micro-greens. 

Talking with Robert Hamberger, such a generous man, such a gifted writer, who has counselled me with pretty much the same sentiments as Levertov.

So on election day, of all days, I am reassured by what she shares in this poem - confidence that I do have what it takes to write again. It's only a question of attention, of being there, of making that cross...

Witness
Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
Denise Levertov from Evening Train (1992)