Sunday, September 09, 2018

The bin says break the rules

The bin caught my eye on a morning walk around the neighbourhood this week. I've become a person I would have called straight when I thought I was a rule breaker. But I wasn't. I just had very short purple hair.

So I thought about self-imposed rules - I don't eat meat or fish. I don't drink gin or cow's milk. I walk somewhere every day. I recycle and reuse, don't watch daytime TV.

I don't remember the rules I may have imposed on myself in childhood although I do remember a visceral dislike of Brownies because of its rules. I loved the rule of cleaning a bridle after a ride, the smell of saddle soap. I was terrified by Father Walker and catechism classes.

I am slowly coming to the conclusion that the bin would be more interesting if it urged me to Break the rule because
Wet paint - please don't let your dog wee on this wall
it's now become a headline in a self-help magazine encouraging me to a second (twilight) career as an entrepreneur or marketing executive, or a retirement gap year.

I fantasise that I may already be breaking rules - how a woman of my age should behave, the rules of poetry. And there are pages of allotment rules I couldn't quote. But if there's anyone awake in the house that's chucked this bin out, they'll be wondering why I'm taking so long over a photo of their rubbish.

What comes next is pregnancy, birth and the terrible twos.  I wonder how long these books have been on the shelf and I can't stand in front of them for long. A trio of what to expect books, almost the counterpoint to rule-breaking but actually how could I forget how many rules there are here, in this confusion of mother and child, in the endless doubt and need for a definitive answer in the early hours of the morning when the crying doesn't stop?

The rules of breast feeding, breast pumping, of school and diet, of sweets, of phone or no phone, and how long a teenager should stay out. A bafflement of rules and so often no choice but to break them.

And now, living back to back, stacked on top of each other, squashed together queuing for doctors, dentists, stamps, petrol, cash, the bar and the cinema, in such close proximity to each other, so needing to be different, to be distinguished from the next person in the queue, the opportunity for that small thrill of breaking or making a rule has become a kind of treat. So while marketers write revolution onto bins, chalked on the pavement is a plea for courtesy (mutual respect) and written on the wall is the most confusing sign of what we've come to.

Monday, August 13, 2018


Semi-retirement isn't a state I ever imagined myself in or admitting to. I thought it smacked of the shops selling grip bars for the shower and powered armchairs that propel you to your feet.
Then in April, on a tutor's retreat at The Arvon Foundation, which I hoped might generate some work, I realised I was mad. It wasn't going to happen. Time to stand aside.
Over a few walks in the rain under monumental trees, I accepted that knocking on closed doors was a waste of energy and, frankly, demeaning. I began to try the sound of the phrase I'd been avoiding.
How efficient it is, and precise. It has an official ring, as if it's been conferred, like an honour.
I wander around my city of bins, pick endless cucumbers, chat to the allotment fox and try to avoid Facebook spats.
I earn just enough to live on through Airbnb, on doing a bit of cleaning for a friend. I don't spend money. I am frugal, mean. I make bread, I eat what I grow (mainly), I don't go to the cinema, subscribe to Netflix, go to festivals or eat out.
I'm running a reading group in the autumn and that's it. I'm semi. Like semi-conscious, semi-darkness, semi-automatic, semi-literate. Semi-retired.

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.