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.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

The allotment can not be relied on as a place of tranquility

Lewes Road, Brighton
When Audrey Sharma, an environmental health officer from Brighton and Hove Council wrote to me about strimming noise she couldn't have been clearer about its right to exist, in a legal sort of way.

Audrey bends over backwards to defend the owners of the enormous cemetery stretching from my house to my allotment.

"The cemetery has been operating in this area for over 100 years and anyone moving to the area would have known this and could reasonably expect to hear grass cutting to go on....."

Audrey wrote to me not because I wrote to her, but because I wrote to local councillors about the fact that the cemetery planned to strim every working day during the summer, all day. They told me so because I am apparently the only person who has ever complained about it.
Hell - Torcello

The councillors perhaps thought it was a matter for environmental health. Apparently not. Nor was the allotment officer interested, despite the fact that at least one woman on the same allotment now can't go during the week in summer because she is so affected by the noise.

Back to Audrey's reply, which is hard to follow in places because of grammar, non-sequiturs, cutting and pasting of legal documents.

"You do not own or ‘occupy’ you’re an allotment and I am not able to consider whether noise arising on a council owned allotment is a statutory noise nuisance, as the purpose of this use is growing fruit and vegetables or flowers and allotment activities are leisure activities of choice.

"Whilst I realise you want to partly rent the allotment for peace, this is not it’s primary use. Noisy machines are routinely used on the allotments; council staff carry out strimming of vacant plots from time to time, use chain saws on trees for up to 4hrs at a time, and so on.

"Allotment users also reasonably use various noisy garden equipment (there is roughly one complaint from near neighbours per month about noise from the allotment).  Formal steps can and are taken where users are unreasonable e.g.using powered equiment before 7am. The allotment can therefore not be relied on as a place of tranquility."

That last line is the kind of statement I hope will come back to haunt the abandoned plots. In that sentence and this context, allotment and cemetery are interchangeable.

I expect noise on Lewes Road, noise from storms over the sea and Downs, from playgrounds, farms, factories and building sites. But the trouble with Audrey's acceptance of noise is that it is detached from quality of life and in her terms, merely another legal issue.

An acquaintance will have to endure noise on a neighbouring site for the next six years. They're building a leisure centre. A friend in a basement flat has noise from both sides, above and in the walled gardens. When one neighbour stops, another starts. In my stretch of street, a sunny Saturday is a signal for at least three petrol powered strimmers, hedge trimmers or electric saws. On working days it's open season.

When I moved to my house, the cemetery didn't use strimmers. They brought them in 10 years ago and even then, the noise wasn't at the level it's at now. They use the cheapest contractors who don't train operators, so the grass is strimmed down to dust while the guy holding the strimmer listens to music. They strim even where there are no graves.

Noise pollution affects animals and plants as well as humans. The humans it affects tend to be those of us who are poorer and can't buy the silence of the suburbs or countryside, although even that is no longer a given. In the UK national park authorities are allowing off road four wheel drives to rip through the silence of the wilderness for £200 a day and I'll bet someone's making money from jet skiers roaring at the beach.

What is not quoted is the right to quiet.

Has it, with the right to a view and the right to light, become another legal concept rather than one in which we can talk about quality of life?

Silence regenerates the brain and the older you are, the more difficult it is for you to filter out noise. I live in a city by choice. I love the energy of it. But can we have a discussion about noise and who's most affected by it that doesn't start with the right of all machines and operators never to be checked?

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Friable Earth

Cover painting Allotment by Jane Sybilla Fordham

I like people and in A Friable Earth there's a lot of them - one of the first soil scientists, dead friends, Sylvester Stallone, allotment neighbours, nurses, damaged people, workmates.
Over five years the poems in the collection worked with one another - I thought I was writing about the allotment but actually the poem was about me growing older. I worried about a young homeless man sleeping in his car near my allotment gate. I remembered an old boss who was an amateur entomologist.
I wanted to get across the feeling of being dismissed for being 'badgerly' or off balance and explore some of the words used to describe old women, crate being one.
So inevitably, the poems refused to be categorised or themed - many of them are reflective, some are mini-narratives, some question the nature of the language we use to describe others, and now in my sixth decade on the earth, there are elegies.
I found a stash of letters in the loft and they became starting points. As in most of my previous collections, there is a clutch of poems that come from a visit to South Africa.
The book wouldn't be in the world without the support of Tony Ward and Angela Jarman who run Arc Publications. Like other independent poetry publishers, they keep contemporary poetry alive and available.
Now to find the readers.......

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Black Brighton

A German poster from 1974. Thanks to Wikipedia
It's early on a Sunday morning and I'm listening to Bear Grylls talk about religion. But what I'm more interested in is the title of a London pastor's book, We Need to Talk About Race.

It sounds familiar for all sorts of reasons. Race is, he says, often taboo. He discusses 'othering' and distancing of black people and the enormous problems this creates for individuals. We've been talking about this at home a lot recently. Othering is intensifying. But it's not talked about. It opens the door to passive aggression, it justifies acts of discrimination, it allows all kinds of nasty human behaviour. So, good it's being raised.

Significantly, though, the writer, Ben Lindsay is not featured in the programme publicity. Instead there's a photo of Bear Grylls. Be realistic people will say, it's about who's most news worthy.

But Lindsay's not just a pastor. He's an expert on youth violence, knife crime and gangs, he's devised strategies to deal with it and so he is newsworthy. And for another reason too - for the cover design of his book and its title. The Christian publisher, SPCK, has been accused of ripping off Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race. 

Two things here then. Isn't it tragic that a publisher can imagine the only thing that will sell a book about race is another book about race.

And the BBC decides a survivalist is more interesting than a black pastor and black expert on how to tackle violence, despite the discussions happening about racism in the wake of the orange one's tweet, despite the continuing deaths of black teenagers in the war-zone that London's become.

Our talks around the table at home often shock me. I hear things about Brighton and its people, about how the police behave. I hear what's happening in London. I hear about subtle and not so subtle racism. We talk, we talk, we talk. And now I am looking at my city preparing for Pride and the posters declaring openness. I was on the bus when I saw one of those posters in a charity shop - something like "a closet is for clothes not for people". It was a bit clunky but it clunked until I imagined those same posters celebrating Blackness. According to Wikipedia the slogan Gay is Good was based on Black is Beautiful, but while to celebrate queerness is now an annual event in cities worldwide, I try to imagine Black Pride (with thanks to Mastercard) on the same scale.

Imagine a festival of Blackness featuring Black youth. Imagine Black in the Park. Floats in a Black is Beautiful Parade sponsored by Barclays, British Airways and so on.

Look at the images of photographer Kwame Brathwaite, photos of Angela Davis and Marsha Hunt. They're what I mean. These photos made a big impact in days before we were saturated.

Anyway, in this meandering I wandered around the years of my teens when Black is Beautiful was a political movement and Black Pride was nothing to do with queerness.

I am proud of my city for its support of Pride (although not for  commercialising and disempowering a political movement). But I'm ashamed of my city for how little it's done to deal with racism, the racism my children have encountered since they were TINY, for the hostility they've been shown by police, security guards, people in authority who know nothing about them.

And it's already happened - in the US, the Million Women march reminded us Black is Beautiful in 1997. Time to do it again. I'm not black. I can't put myself in a black man, woman or child's shoes. But I am the mother of two young black people and they make me proud.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Write or fight?

A friend rang the other day when I was at the allotment, watering. We talked as I lay the hose down under the runner beans and butternut squash, as I left it to soak the compost in the polytunnel.
Are you writing? He asked and I laughed.
Summer's not the time to ask me that question. It's growing time and I'm not a regular writer anymore. I don't get up down at dawn and bang out a quota.
When I earned a living from it, sitting in courts, council chambers, checking the prize bull and rabbit at agricultural shows, asking Golden Wedding couples how they'd stayed married so long, I wrote all my waking hours.
I wrote when I wasn't being paid for it. I wrote more when I was freelance. I wrote speculatively. And then I started writing poems. I've written since primary school. And I didn't think I'd be able to do anything else, except in my teens when I wanted to be a riding instructor.
My friend had read a short story of mine and said it might make a novel. I laughed again. I don't have the stamina. But I have three attempts at novels somewhere. I have a travel memoir, I have several more short stories.
The question, why write, is constant. Here I am and why write is next to me, carping away like a bitter old bastard.
I was standing in the kitchen earlier, ironing a shirt. I was thinking about writers I know, about our Facebook posts, tweets, statuses, how we cluster in groups, how some win prizes and many never win a thing.
The evening before my friend rang I was dozing under the plum tree. I was woken up by a racket and realised it was a couple of wrens. I wondered if there was a cat nearby, but it wasn't the usual alarm call. I looked harder, there were five, six birds in the branches - parents and fledglings. A noisy flying lesson was going on. The young must have just left the nest.
I told my friend. Someone who's not a poet might tell you that would make a poem, he said. There are enough poems about wrens, I said.
I didn't mean that. How can there be a limit to poems about wrens? I won't write a poem about the flying lesson but his comment reminds me of Michael Longley and the wrens that nest in his poems.
Thankfully this is where I leave the carping bastard why write? on the sidelines as I dive into in poems I admire, short stories that take me somewhere bizarre. The weeks when I find any excuse, when I fantasise about re-arranging the weedkiller displays in Dobbies as an act of resistance or make a shirt, bake, clean, wander down to the charity shop, are just my way of grappling with the bastard.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Always learning

Wednesdays this month mean early starts and the M25 for two stops only. I'm running writing workshops at Wisley RHS Garden in Surrey for Daisyfest and the M25 is so unpredictable I allow myself an extra hour for the journey.

I stopped running writing workshops last year and declared to myself, friends, family that that was it. I was going to give away all the materials I've collected over 30 years but didn't quite get round to it.

And then a friend contacted me. Could I step in at the last minute? I'd be working in an orchard.

Yesterday I learned there's an apple tree called the Bloody Ploughman and that green woodpeckers forage on the ground for ants. They poke their long beaks into ant colonies, just as people poke termite mounds with sticks to retrieve grubs. An adult woodpecker was with a young one, feeding it. We watched through gaps in the rows of apple trees Wisley is preserving to maintain the diversity of species.

One of the young people in the morning workshop found the Bloody Ploughman being trained into an arch and couldn't stop repeating the name, he was so delighted with it. We stopped and read the label as we were doing a walk in the style of Hamish Fulton - counting steps, looking, observing, noting what we saw. 

I had never heard of the Bloody Ploughman, being more used to apple names like Pippin, Jazz, Golden Delicious. The story behind its name is a gruesome reminder of class and the brutality of land ownership. I never knew woodpeckers foraged on the ground. I'd forgotten how much I love the ideas in Hamish Fulton's work and I think I'd forgotten how exciting it is to write a new poem.

Artist friend, Jane Fordham reminded me words are objects, suggested writing words on boards and doing tree rubbings, which went really well. We put boards up against the trees, we used tracing paper and graphite pencils to capture the bark.

For the afternoon, I went back to the work of two women poets, Alice Oswald - the new Oxford Professor of Poetry, who it transpires worked briefly at Wisley - and the brilliant poet and novelist Penelope Shuttle.

I read Oswald's poem, Fox, from Woods Etc which is a love poem to a vixen and I understand that, utterly. And I read Orchard Upstairs by Penny Shuttle for the love of imagined places and celebration of women. We made up new names for apples, we made up orchards in unlikely places, we watched crows, woodpeckers and pigeons beyond the pavilion where we were writing and later I wandered back to the car past fountains, water lilies and immaculate borders of colour.