Sunday, June 24, 2018

Summer's patterns

It's been a week of hay fever and as a consequence, nights coughing, days of trying to suppress a cough.
I've coughed my way through Birmingham's streets, eaten nearly two packets of cough sweets and drunk flasks of a garlic/thyme/lemon/ginger and honey concoction.
I've wandered into Muji and stood in front of diffusers for temporary relief. I've held my head over a bowl of steam infused with Olbas oil.
In between I've been in training for an exciting new job from September - running a reading group for a child and adolescent mental health unit. I am one of five other writers, all of us former Royal Literary Fund fellows, who will be rolling out a fantastic scheme piloted by novelist Babs Horton in Plymouth.
The RLF has run reading groups for several years but Babs decided to run one for young people. Her initiative has been so successful that six more writers are helping to roll it out in England and Wales.
Despite my hay fever, the constant cough, my shuddering shoulders and fear of disrupting any quiet moment, two days of training in Birmingham, led by Babs with support from novelists Katharine McMahon and Kerry Young was inspirational.
It's good to feel inspired again as I wind down from the work I've come to rely on. Good to have something to look forward to - as good as visiting Ludlow Jane, afterwards, taking a train sideways across to the borders to sit in her garden, to feel on holiday for a day, to meander around a quiet town with castle walls, a market at its centre and pick up dress patterns in its charity shops.
We talked about Jane's new coaching work and our children.
And as we walked along the river in the green, trees hanging over the water, ducks behind us, giant hogweed looking magnificent, a wren darting into undergrowth, a thrush flying up from the path, I was back to my own adolescence in Surrey, when I'd ride to the River Wey on my bike with friends.
So when it came to returning to Birmingham for Josephine Corcoran's book launch - What are you after? - I had to read a poem about the summer I was 15 when everything in the universe was just right for a moment.
And that was the time when I was also learning properly how to make clothes. So I feel I am back at some point on this big circle when I am meeting myself again. The tea dress is one of three patterns I found in a forest dog charity shop in Ludlow and this week I'll be at Fabricland, looking for prints.



Thursday, June 14, 2018

The thing about diversity

by William Kentridge
I was working on a local paper and a colleague and I decided to write a feature about how difficult it was to get around our cobbled town centre in a wheelchair.
Neither of us are wheelchair users but we borrowed one, I sat in it, she pushed and we wandered around trying to get into places. I was young and naive, if well-meaning.
Later, I met a much older colleague of the editor, a man in a wheelchair, on another job.  He took me to one side. He'd seen our feature. It was a good idea, he said, kindly. But why didn't you use someone who was a genuine wheelchair user?
I've never forgotten this gentle tap on the wrists.
So when there's yet another row about diversity, caused by an opinionated person who makes a living from being in the public eye, I remember that man's subtlety. I wouldn't ever have agreed with his politics but however far apart we were on Thatcher (yes, it was those years), he knew what he was talking about when it came to access. He lived it.
My friends know I'm partial to a good rant, to playing devil's advocate from time to time, to challenging established norms or ways of thinking. There's a lot I don't understand in current diversity debates and I find it frustrating, because I used to. It's awful to feel like an old fart who's been left at the bus stop but even in the old days, it was complicated, it's just that I knew the debates and the boundaries.
Take a local government race equality officers conference in Birmingham decades ago.  All afternoon there's infighting - men v women, women v women, African v Caribbean. The potential for disagreement seems infinite and it's the same at any conference, regardless of subject.
This is when I begin to understand diversity is as complex as humankind. In the bar that night I meet a woman I know from the music scene. What are you doing here? she asks and I ask the same. She says she's with the band, assuming I know which band.
I collect an iron from reception and get in the lift. There's a man cushioned by minders. Alice Cooper. So that's the band she meant. In the same hotel, here is this man who was once at the vanguard of rock and roll, who gave us the chant, 'School's out for ever', and local authority officers who are now at the vanguard of equal opportunities law.
How do these stories mesh, the wheelchair, Alice Cooper and race equality? They are meshed by degrees of separation or familiarity, by the way we all cross over, all the time.
by William Kentridge
It is tempting, yes, to jump on the diversity bandwagon.
I have undoubtedly been guilty of it since the crass mistake of my 20s. Most recently I have complained about ageism and it was only a couple of weeks later that I realised, embarrassed, it was a shout as I tried to shoehorn myself into a place of complaint.
It was the shout of privilege and it was saying, don't forget about me.
The thing about diversity is perhaps to ask more questions, to listen and be slower to express an opinion.
It is to be less afraid of being seen as an oppressor and, in fact, to assume that to someone, somewhere, I and you and they, are and always will be, an oppressor. Then, perhaps, we can talk about.......

Monday, June 04, 2018

Solitude and old dresses

I woke up this morning thinking about a blue dress I bought when I was a student in Portsmouth in 1974 and there were more secondhand clothes shops than supermarkets. It was already retro - 1950s, probably. It's handmade and has one or two intriguing details - a small flap of fabric by the neck which I imagine is reinforcement for a brooch, and tiny shoulder pads - enough to give it some shape, stitched down pleats to give it body.
It was far too big for me in 1974 and I pulled it in with a thick belt because I was young and thin.
I've carried three of those dresses I bought in Portsmouth days with me. The pink and black one fitted better. I remember wearing it to a pub we went to sometimes for Sunday lunch, where strippers were normal family entertainment.
This morning I was wondering if the me who pulled in my belt and put on a pair of black patent leather DMs to go with it, would be happy with the me who fills it out now - how I've turned out - the me who's wearing it for Giya's one shot with a large format camera during her foundation photography course.
The third is a taffeta cocktail dress, worn to parties and gigs. I saw a replica of it once in an exhibition in Brighton museum and if I tried to zip it up now, it would split.
I think of these dresses after two days on the allotment, not alone because it's been busy, but feeling the solitude of changing times. I used the phrase 'semi-retirement' for the first time the other day, nervous about it, but needing to be honest.
I have a passport photo of myself in the pink and black dress with my hair up, from days when I was working on a local paper - probably taken for a union card. I wore it on a summer afternoon boating on the Odiham canal. It might have been June. There were meadows, flies above the water, red brick bridges at every few metres and trees hanging over the water, filtering the sun. Everything was green. Mark and I, Beanie and her boyfriend had a picnic, the rowing boat tied up at the canal path. We were in the dome of summer and our hands were young.

Friday, June 01, 2018

White cat and speckled fox

The white cat jumps out of long grass behind the lavender, purring before I've even put my hand on its head. It bounces onto the bench and butts my arm. I've just put my bag on the table, said hello to Jeanette.

It's wearing a silver collar and momentarily I think of Marilyn in diamonds. I'm tempted to sit down, like this is a matinee and join in the purring. Jeanette calls over, it knows you're a cat lover. Hers has just died and she's off to Spain for six weeks - because the cat's dead. He died on her last trip away. Cats who come up here are young, nearly feral, or lost.

But I can't sit down. I have a list in my mind. I have to pot on the kale and check the cucumbers. I paid £2.60 for four cucumber seeds. They have germinated, but one has a distorted leaf. These are destined for the polytunnel. I check the lime tree because I want to collect its blossom this year. And it's time to pick elderflowers, but ideally with the morning sun on them. The mint patch is filling out, the lovage and parsley are about to flower.

I've just thrown a banana skin under the table when I see the fox. S/he is nervous but brave and wants food. I'm not going to feed it. Someone saw it with a pigeon in its mouth recently and that's how it should be. Its eyes are burnished, nearly the same colour as the fur of its face. Its stare is uncanny. My greeting sounds patronising.

The cat, of course, has gone and left me with a photo of itself lounging on the bench. The fox settles by the plum tree, scratching itself, looking at me. I am mesmerised. In the cemetery trees, a blackbird's sounding a warning.

I carry another watering can to the polytunnel and soak the salad leaves. A slug has eaten the coriander seedlings. I rescue an exhausted bee. My legs are aching and I've been stung by red ants. My table's full of plants to find spaces for - pumpkins, squash, purple sprouting broccoli, kale, ragged jack, more runners. The leeks need to fatten up more and I need to go home.

The sun's going down and I can hear a fire somewhere, people chatting. I stop at the top of the hill to take a picture of the sky - red and blue above hills and houses. Behind, the white cat and the fox are in their own worlds and I'm back to mine.




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.