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."

Thursday, January 11, 2018


I went over to mum's last night and we were looking at instruction videos on putting up a polytunnel. I am researching them at the moment - tempted by the best, but aware longevity might not be the most important box to tick. There's a difference of about £200 between the best and the first I looked at.  It reminded me of a poem I had published years ago in The Frogmore Papers, based in Lewes, that I never included in a collection but which now feels like a forerunner to a more recent, and yet to be published poem about Mum's new garden. This older one is about the garden she left behind in Tunbridge Wells, with its bouncy lawn and views over a valley, where we fell asleep in summer and ate under an umbrella. Where Mum had a writing shed with wallpaper.

My mother’s garden

She’s trying to decide where to put an eyeless male head,
so it won’t scare her. Maybe in the wygelia

or among the delphiniums? She grows colour, patches of light
and shade, hiding places. She has benches to follow the sun.

She offers sanctuary to the wind from Greenland, carrying
strands of silk, rustling leaves and snow, stocking wilder beds

with hellebores, succulents. Her garden overlooks a valley
decorated with country houses. It’s calmed by poppies,

white clematis flowers big as side plates. The fence is heavy
with roses and honeysuckle. Sparrows wash in their own stone bath,

squirrels steal peanuts from the feeder. Listen to the steam train
hoot. A gardener needs to sing to her seedlings.

She’s accompanied by the robin, millipedes and flint spearheads. 
She likes the rain on her neck, percussion of a rake on stones.

My mother’s garden takes time. It flows from her fingers
and she digs time into the borders, sows it in her smallest pots.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Drinking from a decent cup

Designs for decorated cups
by Alfred Forrester 1804-72
I woke up about five this morning and it was too cold to get up so I finished The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, the story of two women in their eighties who are neighbours in Cape Town - one is white, the other black.
South African history's dealt with lightly - this is a story about two women trapped in their sorrows, told well, often surprising.
And one detail that stood out was Hortensia's need to drink out of a decent cup. I've noticed that an Airbnb couple will choose their cups and stick with them for the weekend. I have a preferred coffee cup and another tea cup. Part of the joy of visiting Jane Fordham is a choice of gorgeous cups - each of them a story.
January's a difficult month. Sometimes it feels like it's thrown together in the worst recesses of the mind. I had a few of those hours yesterday but also a stack of books to help me out.
My mood was challenged by the complexity of guilt and regret that Omotoso explores. History overlaid on personal experience provides a good shake out of self-pity.
Owl being mobbed - detail from a 13th century bestiary
in the British Library
A couple of other news stories did the same. Oprah Winfrey became the first black woman to receive the Cecil B DeMille lifetime achievement award. And in accepting it she delivered a history lesson. What made the greatest impression on me was her link between Rosa Parkes and Recy Taylor. The history she summarised so skillfully in her speech echoed in Omotoso's novel as I read through the early hours - different continent, same racial injustice. And then there were two other stories sending good messages:  Toby Young, the journalist friend of Boris Johnson (the only explanation anyone needs), resigned before he was sacked and Carrie Gracie, a BBC presenter and China editor resigned in protest at pay differences for men and women.
Juvenile dotterel, Borgo Bonsignore beach, Sicily
September 2015
Another consolation out of all proportion exists in my photo of this bird. It stood on the beach in Sicily a couple of years ago for most of the day, watching the sea. I had no idea what it was. A chance find on Google images suggests it's a juvenile dotterel - a member of the plover family. The bird migrates from the icy north, where it breeds, to a belt stretching from north Africa to Iran for winter. Like the phalarope, males incubate eggs and look after the chicks.
Which brings me again to Alan Paton's brilliant novel about Africaaner life. Too Late the Phalarope explores a family in which the only book allowed in the house is the Bible. The son who offers his father a book of birds, therefore, is bound to challenge the status quo.
So many invisible lines between books, memories and news....all of them stories.
Since Sicily, watching the dotterel, I've loaded far too much on its young back. Discovering its identity, I can now admire it and hope it had company for the remaining miles as it flew over leaking boats coming in the opposite direction - all of those passengers just wanting to drink from a decent cup.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The wreath has wings

My Christmas wreath, studded with rosehips and orange berries from a neighbour's hedge, is moving and it has wings. Risenga calls me into the hall.

Through the glass of the front door, we make out a blackbird, unsteadily perched on the holly and evergreen branches I've wrapped around with ivy. It's come for the berries and every day it will come back until the wreath is bare.

Has it been a year of birds, any more than other years?

There were the countless mosaic birds of Ravenna and the birds on the TV aerial outside the Airbnb flat. There is the resident robin on the allotment and flights of goldfinches, endlessly busy wrens.

There are cormorants at the marina and today, a pair of pigeons crowding into an opening in the chalk on the undercliff.

A gang of sparrows keeps up its chatter between Liz's garden next door and in the shrubs around my bird bath, waiting in turn to drink and wash.

I've read some fine poems about birds. I have remembered birds on a hillside in South Africa and continue to be haunted by a bird I watched for hours on a beach in Sicily as it stood almost motionless, itself watching the horizon.

And each late afternoon, I seem to look out of the window at the exact time a group of starlings is heading to the pier for the daily murmuration before sleep.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A hand reaching out of the sky

My daughter emailed to ask for a list of Black poets for a course mate and yes, I had some solid suggestions, but to make sure I hadn't forgotten anyone crucial, I did a google search.

Was it the time of day, was it a freak accident? What indeed happened for Google to place, at the top of my results, a blouse (black) with 'poets' sleeves' or a black sofa which a company has awarded the name 'poet'?

The world's four most valuable brands sit in our hands - Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Google's owner has claimed the word, Alphabet and Apple the fruit of late summer and autumn (and, for some, paradise). Facebook has claimed our hands themselves.

And so I look to the hand coming out of the clouds. When I saw it in Ravenna I thought it was in the sea, not waving but drowning, to quote a fabulous English poet. Now I know, thanks to Jane Fordham, it's coming out of the sky and it's about to give a thumbs up.

Not the blue thumbs up of a like but a thumbs up to fear. Yes, I confess to posting pics of a new haircut and other pointless information, like this outside a pub on Lewes Road. And so time gushes away.

Is the hand that prefers to swipe and like, rather than dig and harvest to blame for the insects disappearing - hoverflies, wasps, house flies, beetles - and with them larks, swallows, swifts?

And is the hand coming out of the clouds the one to help me (and you) up onto the roof for a better view?

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?