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'....my 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.

Friday, November 29, 2019

A kingfisher at Charleston

Common kingfisher: photo by Charles J Sharp sharpphotography.co.uk
Mum and I are sitting by the pond at Charleston farmhouse after visiting the Omega exhibition of  designs by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Robert Fry.
We've wandered out from the cafe, where sparrows flew freely over the tables, hopped around the floor and perched on a chair next to us.
There are still flowers in the garden - roses, a hollyhock - among tall dried heads of globe artichokes.
Fish have been making circles in the pond and Mum needs a rest so we sit on a bench in the sun.
We've had days of rain. In the cafe there was no music other than birdsong. It's the same outside - quiet visitors allow birds the air.
Then a flash of colour. A kingfisher is unmistakeable. I saw one on Sunday streak down a drainage ditch when I was on a bus to Cork airport. Now another, here on a Friday afternoon, settled in a tree directly opposite.
We watch. A group of three women stands behind and waits. They move off, it leaves, comes back and then the dive. It carries the fish to another perch and we watch a flickering in bare branches, the sun on scales, the bird's head shaking and then stillness. The bird flies off.
As we stand to go, move towards the thick water to look at the fish, they come in a mob, used to being fed and poke their open mouths above the water level.
I remind Mum of the kingfisher we saw when we walked near the house she moved from in Tunbridge Wells. I remember the kingfisher that used to live on the river at Elstead when I was a child. Both of us, I think, needed to see that bird today in the sun.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Is it time to sink a well?

Mid-November and still we haven't had a frost. So the nasturtiums that colonise the bed by my back door without any help every year are still green and producing flowers.
Just inside the back door is a shopping basket of windfall apples I'm working my way through, but it was a bumper year and the freezer's full, I've run out of jars and there's only so much chutney you can make.
Today's a day for slicing, maybe, and dehydrating what's left.
The rain, well, the rain....If I could sink a well in the cellar, I'd save a fortune because I live on chalk and below me is water.
"The Chalk of eastern and southern England is the most important groundwater reservoir in the UK."
It strikes me it's time I learned more about water and who has access to it. I began to wonder about private water sources when I noticed the golf course up the hill had sunk a well to water the turf. This was a few years ago. But it chimed because not far away is the Woodingdean Well, one of our most bizarre but illuminating local stories. Then a friend who's a builder mentioned how often he finds old wells in Brighton cellars.
So I'm beginning to ask myself how is it that private companies can just dig down and take it out? This communal resource of ours. And it's happening all over - not just mining companies depleting ancient (really ancient) aquifers, but soft drinks companies taking out spring water, bottling it and re-selling it at a profit.
"Almost all bottled waters are groundwaters. They are collected from springs or boreholes selected because the sites are generally in upland areas remote from sources of pollution, and they provide a water which does not contain undesirable chemicals such as excessive nitrate. Many have very low concentrations of dissolved constituents, and some are carbonated artificially."
I have been convinced for years there's a water source near my house. There is a website, Find a Spring but it's not of much use. Is it time to seriously consider a borehole and the potential of a well? 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Reading in translation

Cavafy's work on a wall in the Netherlands


There were a few brief weeks when I was still working for the Open University when I tried to learn ancient Greek.
I took textbooks with me on train journeys and it was this time that year I was on my way to Kings Lynn Poetry Festival when the poet Kit Wright wandered down the carriage and sat next to me.
I was trying to do some homework. The course demanded at least 15 hours a week. What was I thinking?
I was explaining my difficulties to Kit, who was gently baffled, when a guy opposite me chipped in. Well, I'm Greek and I wouldn't try, he said. We laughed. It was a glorious autumn day. I had a new book out. Life was good. 
What I do remember of my attempt at the language was, even early on, realising that where a word was in a sentence was everything. I should have done it when I was more elastic.
I took liberties with my basic translation exercises and my tutor wasn't impressed.
So when the poet Janet Sutherland suggested that our reading group look at the work of Constantine Cavafy we were going to have to decide on a translation. How on earth do you do that? We went for a scattergun approach. We'd look at a few. 
John McCullough started the discussion going on Facebook and we met last night at Kay Syrad's house in the wilds of the country outside Ringmer, the rain pounding on her roof, with translations from 1951 onwards. 
I'd bought a Chatto version by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard and others brought translations by George Economou with Stavros Deligiorgis, John Mavrogordato, Avi Sharon. We missed out Daniel Mendelsohn and Rae Dalven - we were juggling enough and even the Keeley and Sherrard versions differed. 
Maria Jastrzębska talked about her work as a translator from Polish and Slovenian and the difficulties of translating this man's writing unfurled as we compared lines, openings and endings. It was a treat to hear the poems read by John and Rob Hamberger, gay men living now who don't have to hide their work or their sexuality. 
We were intrigued by how Cavafy belongs to another era - sharing his work only among friends while we manically self-promote, worrying about book sales, public readings and 'getting our name out'. 
I remember the joy of translating from French when I was studying and I would love to rediscover that close attention to building bridges, to the relationship between words within sentences that is different to the attention I pay to my own. 
Recently I came across a translation from Welsh of a passage I know quite well from using it in writing workshops. I'd believed the translation I used was good but this new one was astonishing. It made me think about the original in a totally new way. It opened up my own sense of that writing. 

Monday, September 23, 2019

And so the rain came

It came as I walked up the hill this morning and caught me at the allotment gate. It came as I walked back home, but only lightly and this afternoon the sky changed.

The sun, the light, the warmth have been a treat but growth's slowed down on the plot, as it should. It's the equinox.

So it is time to think of baked apples, although what I can't forget to do is digging out my MOT for tomorrow at the crack of dawn.

I'm doing another week of dog walking but it's going to be a bit different to the two weeks in summer when I wandered up to Rottingdean windmill twice a day in blazing sun.

I can already feel the rain whipping in off the sea - the forecast for tomorrow is that it's going to be torrential.

There's a young man's funeral tomorrow. I saw him in his buggy with his mum in Kensington Gardens when I moved to Brighton, and the memory stayed because he was so beautiful. Years later my daughter would become friends with his sister. That passing image of him and his mum held my future. His name is Louis and he was too young.