Thursday, December 28, 2006

The chest of drawers left outside the house has gone already. Three bags of books taken to the charity shop, all the recycling done. This suspension between Christmas and New Year has galvanised me into clearing a few corners, making some space. I will not make a list of resolutions but I have been sticking loose photos into an album. I'll be sewing buttons on shirts next, going back to the knitting that I haven't touched for months.

The street is quiet, friends are away and I've managed to avoid going anywhere near town where no doubt it's sales mania. But this damp, still, suspended weather has done wonders for the soil and digging at the allotment has been a pleasure. I've even discovered some garlic and have been thinking about the planting scheme for spring. Some of my purple sprouting broccoli has survived the slugs and there's some self-seeded spinach looking healthy and luscious, along with a few remaining leeks.

Two cats visited as I dug the other day, a well fed black tom and a pretty little tortoiseshell. My favourite weeding is the herb patch. I was given an allotment book for Christmas and it's given me renewed enthusiasm, as well as determination to grow on a lot more under plastic this year because there's no doubt that seedlings stand a better chance of survival from slugs if I bring them on first at home and transplant. I'm going to try chillis this year for the first time and want to grow some different varieties of squash because they seem to love our soil.

Borlotti beans will be a definite repeat, too. They were prolific, as were the potatoes and the french beans. I can't wait to start planting.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Women I used to meet at the nursery school gates 10 years ago are on their second marriages now: new homes, new living arrangements, children in the role of step-children, some with new siblings by blood or by arrangement. I meet them at Christmas parties, invigorated and glossy with news. We find different common ground: work and the demands of teenage sons or daughters. We swap solutions on dealing with drinking, sleepovers and the imposition of rules. We attempt to remember how we behaved and move on, not really wanting to admit to our own pasts and the many, imaginative ways we sidestepped parental authority.

Then we slide into comfortable nostalgia. How easy it seemed, despite the terrible tantrums our children threw as they began to articulate themselves into this seaside city, always offset by the wonderful dreams they shared with us, the eccentricities they displayed on the bus or in cafes.

At the Tarnerland nursery Christmas party, parents and children were welcomed by Cherry, the head, in a tutu, wings and roller skates. Cherry was one of the most inspiring and instinctive teachers I have ever met. She allowed my son to live in a lion suit for an entire term, understanding his need to roar. She allowed my daughter to slip into the nursery kitchen with Margaret, the cook, to bake biscuits. The nursery garden epitomised summer. I wonder if there is a nursery that adults could go to when they need to rediscover that freedom?

More nostalgia at another Christmas party that I went to with Fred where Alan was sat in a chair in the front room, suited and smart as usual, opening the inside pocket of his jacket to show us his embroidered name. So we talk of the seventies and early eighties, the pubs and the gigs, the people we were, the people we've lost track of. Becoming more sentimental as mulled wine worked its spicy way through the blood.

The year's turned. Yesterday I saw another woman from those old days (so many of us moved to Brighton), walking along Lewes Road. I recognised her amazing hair, long, thick and blond, and in town saw a red net skirt in a shop that reminded me of parties in Guildford, the skirt that I made in net with lace on top. How it's now in a case on top of my wardrobe, together with a maroon tafetta cocktail dress, a leather mini-skirt, polka dot trousers that I used to wear for Sunday afternoons at Dingwalls in Camden Lock and a linen trouser suit I wore to Jane's wedding.

To Be Worn Again is a shop in Brighton selling retro clothes. I browse the rails, touch fabric just like the dress I wore to my first school disco, psychedelic angles and swirls, a front zip with big gold ring. That print like a balldress my mother had, my inadequate memory of it, but an impression of enormous, full petalled blooms, its gathered skirt, scoop neck.

It's interesting, too, trying some of these clothes on, to notice how many of them are home-made. Tailored to fit, the hems, poppers, hooks and eyes, hand stitched, the skirts lined. There are darts for the busts, no scratchy labels to irritate your neck, the seams are finished properly.

I used to make clothes. I learned from watching my mother, then properly at school with Sister Short, who called me Smiler and allowed us to make skirts not much wider than belts only after we'd mastered the skills of darning and mending sheets, sewing nightdresses and french seams.

I've made shirts for two men I've lived with, hats too, for both of them. I've made dressing gowns for my children and dressing up costumes from action figure to Elizabethan lady. It's a while since I've made anything for myself but I remember the pleasure of working in a fabric shop, having every Saturday to run my hands over the rolls, to appreciate the quality of Liberty varuna wool or the best quality fine cotton print. During that job, in 1973, the three day week meant the shop was lit by candles. Amazingly we stayed open and sometimes even sold stuff.

For a few moments of aided nostalgia there's a retro website: http://www.retrowow.co.uk/retro_britain/70s/70s.html
which also briefly reminded me of driving to Winchester with my parents, Mungo Jerry on the radio, the summer of 1970, and the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations in Portsmouth in 1977. I left home in 1974 to do my degree at Portsmouth poly and spent 1975-1976 in Caen at the university there, coming back to drought. My student years ended in 1978 - the winter of discontent, Patti Smith's amazing Because the Night, Talking Heads' Psycho Killer and the raucous long-lived party tune YMCA.

All that and the year's not even officially over yet. But long nights, parties and resurrecting the past, must follow as inevitably as hangovers follow red wine.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Say Berlin to your friends and collect reactions. Put them together with the Cold War, mass surveillance, Love Parade, JFK's iconic statement, "Ich bin ein Berliner" the year he was assassinated, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and Berlin's own version of Pride - Christopher Street Day. No city's simple and for anyone over 50, this city is still west and east, the cultural division we were brought up on. Berlin's as symbolic as Soweto, another city that so readily conjures division, and visiting the Potsdamer Platz, where glass and steel have occupied noman'sland, is like standing on the corner of Vilakazi Street where Mandela used to live, watching tourist minibuses and souvenir sellers.

But what better place for poetry? Isn't it the pull between places that makes us write? A quartet of poets in Berlin, reading at the Humboldt and Free Universities. We were invited by the gentle and hospitable writer, John Hartley Williams, editor of the most recent issue of Hard Times, a literary magazine for English speakers in the city. There was the amazingly prolific Robert Minhinnick whose work's coiled with energy and comes back at you on unexpected trajectories like a ball on elastic, Tim Liardet, currently shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize whose prison poems show us what a true interrogation of self means and explore the truth of relationships far beyond those enforced by incarceration, and Jeremy Over who invites you to daydream with him about rain on a window and takes you into images that no hallucinogenic drug could hope to match. Plus me, tottering through the streets on my first night in new red shoes with ribbons rather than laces. I thought they were right for Berlin, somehow.

Yes. Bars, restaurants, the river and trees outlined in lights. A Christmas tree on a crane above the Brandenberg gate, the Soviet war memorial, Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, in Treptower Park. Yevgeny Vuchetich was the sculptor of the 13 metre high figure of a Russian soldier with a child in one hand and sword in another that dominates the memorial. Vuchetich died in 1974. He also has a sculpture in the UN garden - Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares. The architect of the space was Yakov Belopolsky, who died in 1993. After the memorial he worked mostly on enormous housing schemes in Moscow.

This kind of public space defines a city. A space, like Hyde Park, which brings you back into yourself and away from the duty of keeping one foot moving in front of another on behalf of the paymaster. We visited late in the afternoon. The sun was going, the light was that perfect knife-edge of change. Somehow the memorial demands silence. Even the traffic noise is kept away. Perhaps it's the symmetry, so utterly controlled, that makes you withdraw into your own chaotic self. If the place had a roof, it would be a cathedral, but the columns are there in the planting - poplars and weeping silver birch - and the tomblike blocks with reliefs on. It is also a graveyard, so it's fitting the place should generate respect in us.

Peter Eisenman, architect of the Holocaust memorial near the Brandenberg gate, also chose symmetry to create his space. While Belopolsky, though, designed something open and devotional, Eisenman's space is tight, claustrophobic and scary because he uses the idea of symmetry to warn us.

Oh, you could play in his labyrinth, but as you go deeper in, you become more aware of the darkness of the blocks and their unpredictability. And while you know you might see a familiar face popping out from behind a monolith, that knowledge doesn't diminish your fright when it happens. It might even enhance it. Eisenman said he wanted to create the impression of a field, of waves and have no single entrance or exit. I was intensely conscious of daily life going on around the edges, visible from any point, but felt, too, that this labyrinth was truly a secret and alarming place to be.

Back to Brighton late on Thursday evening, nerve endings seriously raw from the litres of wine and beer, so it was soothing to go to St Peter's church for my children's carol service. My daughter was singing in the choir and we belted out Christmas hymns. They'd decorated the house, too. So I arrived home to sparkling lights in the fuschia tree and front window and tinsel hanging from the mirrors. Berlin's lights must have sneaked into my rucksack with the wonderful poems I listened to and brought back in my head.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I met Ifor Thomas at a reading in London this week. He began his set with a poem about cling film that had the audience rolling around. But it wasn't all laughs. He also read from his compelling book, Body Beautiful, based on his experience being treated for prostate cancer.

His poems, like those of Julia Darling in Apologies for Absence and the work of Brighton-based poet Bernadette Cremin who's written about her experience in a neurological ward, should be read widely. They're immediate, accessible, they add an important dimension to debates about patients and hospitals.

The venue in Tottenham Hale's called The Room. It looks like a terraced house, then you go in - to a beautiful tango studio, mirrored wall, light wood floor. It's run by Anthony Howell and Richard Tyrone Jones - Anthony's also a tango dancer. Neither of them was dressed as Father Christmas, but Richard had a nice reflective jacket and noisy watch.

The pace and the standard was set high by Musa Okwonga, who opened - and what a scorching poem he read about a young gay man coming out to his Ugandan family. Musa's work is taut, rhythmic and rhymed in the long tradition of English political satire. Hard to follow, but follow I did and it was fun to read some new work mixed in with poems from Party and Fever Tree, ending with the very new Love Song for Fidel Castro.

Free mulled wine all night, so I was able to take full advantage of that, once my reading was over and I could lounge back on floor cushions for Rhian Edwards, a young performance poet who read, among others, a grisly piece about cooking a lover and eating him. It was gruesome.

Then of course, Ifor. A star. And off to the pub because there was just not enough mulled wine left in the orange segments at the bottom of the pan to satisfy that post reading thirst for more alcohol and, more importantly, gossip. For the first time in many, many years, I saw a bottle of Mateus Rose on the bar. I was talking to someone about Mateus Rose recently. The wines of our youth and our parents. Well, some of us, the over fifties, that is.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"The rush of rain against the glass
Is louder than my noisy mind...."

Two lines by Edna St Vincent Millay who I was thinking about as I was woken up this morning by another storm. It sounded like the window was going to be forced in. I stood on the seafront last night just before I met a friend for a drink and felt its strength. It was just after 8pm, a waxing moon, the sea was raging - white surf, black patches of weed dragged off the rocks and groynes - and the wind pounding round corners.

I can't imagine being land-locked. Not being able to do this. Maybe this also draws me to Millay. Her love of the sea: "water sucking the hollow ledges, Tons of water striking the shore."

I'm reading Millay a lot at the moment. I like her modernity and the way she writes about love, lust, sex, convention and brings in spectacular lyrical imagery too.

What I would give to have written lines like: "The young are so old, they are born with their fingers crossed; I shall get no help from them." or "And there is no driftwood there, because there is no beach; Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach;".

Millay's work is drenched in longing, always summoning up another place, another person, a need to dig deeper and deeper, to mine every moment in case it's snatched away. Take The Fitting, which uses the idea of a woman having a dress altered because she's lost weight - Millay uses this ordinary scene to create a drama so intense and compelling, the whole poem is charged with the unspoken story of a love affair and all the tension that suggests. It's a brilliantly sexy poem but so quietly done.

Her belief, in all her work, is that life should be lived at full pelt. There is no point in holding back, in standing on the sidelines. She's the champion of risk: "He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs.......The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins, In an orchard soft with rot."

Carcanet Press does a good Selected Poems.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Suffolk skies this week, glimpses of Constable scenes and a scoot along the beach at Sizewell just for a reminder of that wonderful sea. I was staying in Halesworth from Monday to Thursday, working for The Poetry Trust, running poetry workshops for teachers.

The Poetry Trust is a fantastic group of people. They work non-stop organising the annual Aldeburgh Poetry Festival that happens on the first weekend of November each year - unmatched in its brilliance, its breadth, the fun, the challenge it presents - then throughout the year other events like a schools tour, a reading at the Snape Maltings, workshops and courses.

What energy from all involved... but particularly the passion for good writing that flows from Michael Laskey its chairman, a brilliant poet himself and editor. I was chuffed to be back working with them because I had such a good time during the festival in 2003 when I was poet in residence. Maybe, too, it works so well because yes, it's run by poets! Naomi Jaffa its director is a poet, Dean Parkin on programming is a poet, Jane Anderson on education is a poet. They know good writing.

So, this is how work can truly stimulate me. The workshops were exciting and engaging, people sparked off one another, wrote honest and surprising poems and luxuriated in the time they had for themselves.

On Thursday morning I sat in Halesworth church for an hour and a half of silence, staring at the stained glass and writing about saints.

Bonus of the week - being able to buy a pamphlet of Alastair Reid's poems that the Poetry Trust published to coincide with a reading he did for them this year. His work is largely out of print. Shocking.

Added bonus of the week - hugs from my kids this morning, who both climbed into bed with me and it felt like they were toddlers again. My daughter's question, after 'hi mum', was 'what did you get me?' ! My son winced when I told him how long it took me to walk the length of Halesworth's main street.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My 14 year old son was searched by the police for the first time this week. He was at school for a drama club that had been cancelled because it was a half day. Police turned up on the site in a van and immediately started to question him, searched his bag, then him. Is this a rite of passage for teenage boys nowadays? He was frightened and shaken. He was worried about walking home afterwards. I talked to him on my mobile until he arrived at a place where he felt safe. He needed someone with him.

I felt like a line had been crossed for him and for me as a parent. I'd been expecting this, I guess and now it has happened. I wish it hadn't. I wish those same police officers had taken some interest in how he was feeling after what they put him through. What it feels like when a stranger assumes the worst of you and is too lazy to question him or herself about their own motives.

Teenagers have always been seen as trouble. I remember getting on a bus at the bottom of my road when I was about the same age and an elderly woman I sat next to, tutting in disgust, muttering something about filthy hair. It wasn't actually. It was just long. I was on a bus in London the day that my son was searched. A group of schoolgirls got on, making loads of noise, but they weren't offensive, they were just young. A man, maybe in his late fifties, started shouting at them about the noise, then started taking photos of them with his phone. I wanted to confront him, but didn't have the courage.

Teenagers are still children. They are experiencing so much for the first time, feeling everything so intensely. Can't we try and remember how it was for us?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prince Charles' birthday. Now I'm no royalist, far from it. I remember one of my first acts of public defiance - refusing to stand for the English national anthem in my local cinema in Farnham. Bizarre to think what might happen now if it was played at any of the multi-screens around the country. Would there be an outbreak of uncontrollable laughter, uncomfortable shifting in seats, or would teenagers just assume it was a Dom Joly joke and that they were all on camera?

The national anthem came onto Radio 4 this morning to honour the man who's so enthusiastically upheld the royal tradition in sexual politics. I'd forgotten what a part it played in my childhood. It introduced the Queen's speech that, like millions of others, we had to watch religiously at Xmas and seemed to have been broadcast at the drop of a hat, really. In my mind it's inextricably linked with poor lip synching. I never learned the words. They must be very simple. Even at my terribly strict convent school, where we were taught how to curtsey to royalty and address bishops, they didn't teach us the words. Perhaps they assumed we had all been brought up on them.

I suppose I was at a disadvantage since I'd never been part of any uniformed youth group like brownies or guides, where I guess you must have to know the anthem since you have to parade with flags on national occasions and be patriotic. I went to brownies once, at the age of eight, when we moved to Farnham in Surrey. The brownie hut was just up the hill from our house and brown owl was a large, overbearing woman. There was a fake toadstool about the size of a milking stool (milking stool? you know what I mean) in the middle of a bare village hall. There was a mass of terminology about the uniform that I didn't understand, lists of badges you could go for which meant ticking more lists, communal singing and the ritual that finally sealed my decision to flee, circle dancing round the toadstool.

I still can't see a combination of brown and yellow without thinking of that evening. Walking down the hill with my mum afterwards asking if I could please have riding lessons instead because we hadn't bought the uniform yet, so there'd be no waste.

Perhaps if I had stuck with the toadstool I might have known the words to the national anthem and been able to sing along lustily this morning. I might have known a lot about knots, too. Anyway, Charles deserves a good birthday as much as anyone does, I suppose. Actually, for his lemon Duchy biscuits more than anything, despite the cost of them. Coincidentally, yesterday, I was thinking about Camilla and whether she should be a national symbol of waiting, held up to support the zen way.

I have just returned from a week's writing in Wales. A cottage on the Gower, fantastic view of the sea, walks above rocks. The house where I was staying was surrounded by a golf course. To go for a walk you had to look left, right and left again, just in case a ball was launched in your direction. I tasted Old Wood beer, brewed locally, for the first time while watching Wales play the Pacific Islands. It was a good combination.

It was an intense dose of that unique rural/seaside atmosphere which is so uplifting. Rocks talk, so do woods, mud and streams. To see houses with no road leading to them is a delight in the 21st century. It's a relatively gentle transition to London but what struck me first was a brilliant red tag on the side of a building as we were nearing Paddington. I realised I hadn't seen any in my week hiding away with notebooks.

Then getting on the train at Victoria I meet my next door neighbours, so we chat for nearly an hour and amazingly we haven't done that for months because our lives just don't coincide the way they did when the children were little and we hung around in parks for whole mornings or afternoons. Big hugs from my kids and lovely, lovely news. My daughter chosen to talk about personal and social education on behalf of her entire year group (13 forms) to a school visitor and my son invited to do a guest spot with a local rapper who's currently finishing off an album. It was wonderful to see them and those two achievements were icing.

Now to see of any of the poems I've been teasing out of my psyche will transfer from scribble to screen.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hugo Williams, at a reading in Essex recently, said the past was a poet's source material. Winter arriving somehow sharpens that awareness. Today is sharp and bright. It reminds me of the first weeks as a student, away from home, in Portsmouth. A sense of everything being possible, new people, names. So I think of the Florist pub down the road from Adelaide Street where I lived after a year in Caen, the tiny terraced house I shared with Ralph and John, then Ralph and Leslie. Beanie, little Steve, Moira and Caroline - fine art students - next door, the guy I served at the union bar every Friday night who looked like Mick Jagger. That first autumn was an introduction to semiotics, Saussure, gigs in the union and Stendhal.

When I left and started work on a newspaper in Guildford, autumn was the end of the silly season, the desperate phone round of contacts for anything that might make a paragraph or two. I met up with an old friend the other day, over from Los Angeles. John, we worked together on the paper. We were into music, had many friends in common, we even suffered a newspaper law course together.

It was wonderful to see him and meeting him again was a reminder of myself, wild and nearly thirty years younger. I think we have to revisit ourselves, remind ourselves of what we've neglected and forgotten. Not dwell on the 'old days' but be conscious of what's discarded. Why did I stop riding? Was it because I associated it with childhood and I wanted to leave childhood behind? What have I kept of those old lives?

The past punctures the present. I can see a Morris Traveller and be catapaulted back to my first car, seal grey, and driving through the night with Mark, the first man I lived with, towards Cambridge. We were driving because neither of us had the courage to make the first move. The tension in the car was astonishing. I vaguely remember two friends in the back, but god knows who it was. At one point in the early hours of the morning a police car pulled up, parallel with us, looked in curiously, perhaps for the source of the massive exclamation mark that must have been hanging over the roof as we drove.

Halloween allows the dead to interrupt our present too. Whether or not you believe in the afterlife, and I don't, it makes sense to celebrate them when it's dark even before the afternoon's over and you feel as if you're living more and more in the border of night and day. So a dreamlife takes over. And tonight, after I read ghost stories to my kids, it's not just the dead I think about, it's the way writing meanders around that border, needs that border and uncertainty. Just as summer supplies the energy, winter's the time to explore the psyche and all that accumulated memory stored in a body.

Monday, October 23, 2006

So still today after the wind that's been shaking the windows. It's raining and I'm tied to the computer with a list of jobs to do. The house is quiet, despite half term. I did a reading at Guildford Book Festival last week, organised by one of my Open University students, Gareth. He showed a film he's made of people reading poems in the street - poems they were given. It's an amazing film because of how enthusiastically everyone responds to the challenge and because it focuses on the words rather than who's written them. The personalities we experience are those of the readers.

Today I received an anthology called The Book of Hopes and Dreams, published by Bluechrome. It's to raise funds for Spirit Aid, a charity providing medical aid to people in north east Afghanistan. More than 100 poets have contributed, including Margaret Atwood and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many more big names. There's a tiny poem of mine in there too. Buy it to support the charity and for a snapshot of contemporary poetry. Another good anthology came out earlier this year from Oxfam, it's a CD, again with about 100 poets on, called Lifelines. It's available from Oxfam bookshops and funds also go to the charity. I have a poem on it from Fever Tree.

Next week, more workshops, then it's quiet for a time. Time for some writing, to try and shape my next book some more. Swim, too, but in the pool now. It's too cold for the sea.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

I've been judging a poetry competition. It's been hard because of the number of poems I've had to read and because of the insight it's given me into what people think poetry is.

It's like a mirror of contemporary culture, many very competently written pieces, polished and clearly thought about, but little that challenges me. Many writers have appropriated a style of language but ignored the fact a poem has to do something else. I blame the new formalists. There are many in the poetry world, the cliques who hold court in universities and conferences, at prize givings and festivals, who have set language as the key criterion, beyond meaning or substance.

I'm not suggesting that every poem should make a big statement. It's tempting to choose poems that seem to do that because of course there's big prize money here and we're a society obsessed with the concept of value for money (is that in the number of words or ideas?). I want poems to make me think and feel different, that create their own world and rules. There are not enough people who are willing to challenge the norm and the norm-setters.

So I think poetry's confused. It shows in the many poems that eloquently describe nothing. I want a poem to lift me, to stay with me, to jump into my mind on the train or in the morning when I wake up. I want it to be that nag at the back of my mind when I'm talking to someone, the reminder.

So, I've been reading Penelope Shuttle's latest book, Redgrove's Wife, which describes everything that's important. It's a magnificent book. Also Robin Robertson's Swithering, which is also totally engaging. These are reassuring. LIke Vicki Feaver's The book of blood.

I have been reading them in between reading competition entries, together with Neruda's Captain's Verses - the most astonishing book of love poetry there is. I've adored Neruda's work for years. Food and love. He can't be matched.

I have to make a final decision about the winners today.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Pessoa did nothing but write. He wrote all the time. All his different names, characters - so many. There wasn't tv to distract him. I bet Neruda wasn't distracted by tv, either. Or Plath. Emily Dickinson wasn't. I don't know when I had time for tv. It's not even as if it's living. Most of the papers become irrelevant if you don't watch tv. You don't understand the celebrities, the stories, the news angles.

There is no time in the evenings for tv. Maybe a DVD if I'm organised and haven't been out at work. Right now, when I have to work outside home, I have just about time to make supper and phone calls, check e mails, maybe put washing in the machine and wash up. Then the evening's gone. So I write in the mornings. I write my morning pages and then catch moments during the day. On the train, waiting for a meeting, between meetings, at lunch.

Then a poem will surprise me. And I'll know it because it fights its way out of prose, or I instinctively, unconsciously, shorten the lines as I'm writing, and then time starts to stretch and I don't want the moment to stop, like talking to someone you really like, like a good evening out, like a fantastic conversation that's taking you somewhere you've never been before. The poem feeling is a bit like lust in the early stages, tantalising, infinitely stretchable.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

I'm lucky. Sometimes I spend all day just talking to people about their writing, ways to kick start it, why do it. We sit together and write. This is part of a leadership programme. We write about people and places, play with ideas. That's all there is to write about. It's what we are. I've been remembering all sorts of people I thought I'd forgotten.

Writing with Fiona.
We try out similes and metaphors. Anxiety is like a rope bridge over a stream, handwritten letter marked Personal, the glass on the edge of a table. Anxiety is the pause at the top of a wild mouse, moment before the plunge, being unable to drive, anxiety is pale as veal.

Writing with Isabel.
My ancestor, the one who apparently drove a coach and horses into the sea - who told me about this? Was it Frances, my grandfather or my father? He's Cornish. The place of unhappiness for the Welsh. The place where an illusion is broken.
How do you drive horses off a cliff?
So it's night and he knows the cliff. He's paced it, done his research. There would be a track, maybe gates, some light - a nearly full moon, maybe. He's drunk beer, fed the horses well. Perhaps there's something he can feed them that makes them half-drunk too. He's reciting the old testament. A doctor, he's told his wife he's expected at the old man's house in the other village, the one with pneumonia.
He's cold, there's dew. What's in his mind? It isn't money. Delusions. This coach and horses is driven all the way down the lines of this family, the doctor at the reins, horses frothing by now, sweating, his black top hat shaking, his doctor's bag beside him on the seat containing scalpels, tweezers, bone saws and tranquilisers.

Writing with Frank
Veve is a friend of the fire-eater. He's chubby and the most important thing about Veve is he has an old 2 CV. He's around the campus but I only really notice him when we are about to go off to Brittany for the summer to find work. The fire-eater, who I'd met through Helen and Denis, and I think Denis met him in a launderette, desperately needed work. But I wondered even then, if he was actually capable of it. He had a thing about rubber bands. Every time he saw one, he'd pick it up and then there'd be an elaborate explanation, paranoid story about the coincidences and meanings behind each sighting.
Veve's a chauffeur who drops us at the farm in Brittany and then takes the fire-eater off to another farm where they'll be working. I'm left alone with a guy who's due to cycle down south. Who lives there. And I'd give anything for that moment again.

Writing with Diane
Aunty Jean wears rubber gloves all the time. I'm in her kitchen and they're dripping washing up water, or she's talking over the fence with mum. She doesn't have children. I don't know how old she is. She's just rubber gloves to me. Her fingers not flesh but a yellow, textured, unbreathing coat. Her hands are always facing down, into the sink, pointing at the garden or the path. The garden that's next to ours, but ours has a cherry tree that gives boxes full of fruit, dark red and sweet, when the birds don't get it. Mum climbs the ladder, rigging black cotton between the branches. Or does she? This is the garden I sit in at lunchtime, home from school, refusing to drink milk. Mum's insisting. I won't go back to school until I drink it. I'm gagging on it. I loathe milk.

Writing with Erica
I am dunes near an estuary where water mixes, where there are uncertain currents. I change shape constantly and in hollows are the remains of fires where people gather at night to hear the sea, to talk, to love and admire the sky. I am the border between the beach and fields.

These are the things we write about. And more. I am rushing through notebooks, my lovely books from Sukie, lining up on my desk. Memory is fascinating. You can write your way back into these hiding places and unearth the most amazing detail. You are your own interrogator, your own private detective I suppose.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Thor is the name of the guy I speak to this morning on the helpline when I can't send e mail. Sky is the name of the guy who installs my wireless router. It's good to know these great forces are on hand to help with technology.

Last night and today must have made up for the absence of rain this summer, surely? It's been battering the glass and the sea last night was wild, the wind tunnelling up Waterloo Street when I dropped a friend off there, strong enough to wrench the car door open.

But I must buy stamps, bread and cheese, so I'll have to dodge the rain. My daughter says she prefers winter. She likes to curl up on the sofa with a book and a blanket and the fire roaring. Yes. It feels right now to have a change of season and pace. A different kind of light.

I woke up thinking about my old maroon velvet curtains. How I'd meant to dye them over the summer. I bought them about 20 years ago from a shop in Aldershot. They were secondhand and are very old, lead weights in the hems. Striped now, where the sun's bleached them. But fantastic for keeping out the draughts. I'll have to wait for a drying day, now, or a day that's cold enough to put on the heating.

I have a reading coming up at the Guildford Book Festival on October 19. I'm looking forward to trying out some new poems. To getting a feel for the shape and pace of the new book. A friend read through it the other day. She said it was a woman's book and optimistic. I hope so.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Captain Beefheart in Paris, Alexis Korner in Crondall folk club, Fela Kuti at Glastonbury, Ian McKellen in Windsor, Michael Longley in London, Sharon Olds at the Old Ship in Brighton, Jim Perrin at Ty Newydd in north Wales. These are performances I will remember for the whole of my life.

But I was talking to Jane about if you should ever tell someone what impact they'd had on you and what would they do with that? I don't entirely know why the people on this list made such an impact. Beefheart was strange of course. The venue was a massive warehouse. I was there alone. It might have been during my year in France between 1975 and 76. Alexis Korner was with my friend Helen and her boyfriend Reg. We drove there, probably, in his three wheel Reliant Robin. I remember his astonishing voice. He was doing a solo performance, it was a small club. It must have been sometime between 1968 and 1972. Fela's Glastonbury performance was the first and only time I went. He came on as the sun was setting, of course, it was that key slot. The sky was shot with red. Those Nigerian guitars just kept on going with their driving lines, the enormous band working together, the bottle neck guitar, the talking drums.

Ian McKellen was a young Hamlet. My mum took me as a birthday present. He was amazing. I'll always associate him with Hamlet. He was perfect. I even remember what I was wearing. A light brown Biba dress, empire line, with long tight sleeves that went into a V on the hands and hooked over my middle finger.

I went to London to see Michael Longley with Eva and Don. We were friends in Brighton. I met them through Matthew. Gorse Fires had just come out and it knocked me out. But it knocks me out even more now. I was most impressed, I think, apart from his reading - quiet, clear, uncluttered, confident, just like his work - by the fact that he'd not written for 10 years. This was an emergence from that silence.

Sharon Olds at the Old Ship was in the days when Brighton Festival knew the meaning of poetry. She read with CK Williams. But she stole the show. Don, Eva, I and Matthew were at the bar at half time. We couldn't find the words for what we were witnessing. She was astonishing. It was the first time she'd read in the UK, I think. She was first published here by John Harvey of Slow Dancer Press. Then she was taken up by Cape. The festival literature office was a guy called Adrian. He put on some stunning poets. Another year there was Derek Walcot, Miroslav Holub before he died....some fantastic events. All gone now.

Then Jim Perrin in Wales. It's maybe too early to work out the long term impact of his reading. Just that it was a fluke we heard him. About 16 of us in the library at Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales. Our planned guest reader was ill. Jim stepped in and read work that was so engaging, precise, concerned and emotionally raw, I knew it was one of those astonishing moments when you can't quite believe how lucky you are. He's a poet, writing in prose. A genius. And it was a full moon. The gods are doing a good job when they send you moments like this.

Monday, September 18, 2006

How do you keep the writing bubble around yourself when there's e mail, work, the phone? How do you keep the world away when you have to do the shopping, the washing, make sure the fridge has something in?

I want a year just to write. Without having to worry about earning a living. Just writing. What could happen with all that time? Wake up, write. Get up, write. Go for a walk or a swim. Write. Have time to not write, just let ideas compost. Take ideas off into strange little corners. Experiment.

There's no such thing as a sabbatical when you're freelance. By 51, if I was in teaching or academia, I'd probably qualify for a sabbatical or an exchange or something as a kind of reward for sticking with it for so long. Not that I'm so unique, I'm not arguing for special treatment, but when you're freelance there's no off days, no coasting or treading water. When you're ill you don't earn. When you're on holiday you don't earn. When your kids are sick or someone dies, there's no compassionate leave. No company medical room, company counselling service or gym membership/gift vouchers for this, that and the other sports centre.

When the writing bubble's around my head, like those old fashioned cartoons of space men, a glass bowl, I don't care about all this because I'm not thinking about it. I'm thinking about how I can make the words go together so that someone feels a sense of recognition, surprise or goes off in a dream themselves.

But when it goes and the more rational, critical me emerges from it, all sorts of things set me off. Like literary festivals where you search poetry on the website and it comes up: no matches found. Yes. I did that the other day. Like literary supplements where there's not a single reference to poetry or poets from anywhere in the world. Anywhere in the world. How many countries is that? How many languages? How many poets are there in the world? How many people writing lines that could stay with you for life. That could alter how you see everything, or even just alter how you see something for moments. And who's being reviewed in our literary supplements?

A random selection: Inside the Mind of the Grand Prix Driver: The Psychology of the Fastest Men on Earth - Sex, Danger and Everything Else.....

I was in WH Smith in Brighton once. I went to look for a poetry section. There it was, squashed in with drama and most of the drama was those understand Shakespeare readers for GCSE. I asked an assistant for a ruler. I measured the shelf space and asked him, so this is how many centimetres WH Smith feels is right for centuries of world poetry and drama is it? I know what you mean, he said. I'm an actor. My daughter started dragging me away.

Then there was a branch of Waterstones once, in Croydon, I think. The poetry stopped at S. I searched everywhere for poets with surnames from T to Z. There was nothing. I stood in line for the till. When I got there I asked where all the poets after S were. Oh, we didn't have space. There aren't that many so we stopped it at S, she said. The bloke behind me starts reciting a few. I join in. Before we know it there's a shopful of people chanting for the post-S poets.

Well, not exactly. It was just me and the bloke behind. Who volunteered Yeats as maybe a pretty important one to include. And I thought Wordsworth. And there are many others. I, of course, was looking for Wills. Well, I might as well have been searching for £20 notes.

But how is it, just how is it, that all these nonentities with nothing to say can carry on saying it in columns, biographies, radio chat shows, TV (I don't have one but there must be loads) when actually, they could be using that space to quote poetry, to interview poets, or if they don't do that, at least to interview kids in care, kids leaving care, women bringing up four children on benefits, the old bloke who's ranting at his dog, anyone in this country trying to make ends meet, anyone in this country trying to find somewhere affordable to live.

So, when the lyrical bubble bursts, this is what comes out. If you don't like it, scroll down to the bit about Wales. This is why I need to stay in that writing bubble for a good year. Otherwise I become really bad tempered.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Storm to storm. The summer's been joined together by lightning. As I was driving up my road last night it forked horizontally across the horizon, over the racecourse where I walked in the morning and five racehorses galloped along the chalk ridge towards the golf course and a high view of the sea.

The sky's rumbled and cracked so much this summer, then the sun's beat down again. A week in Dorset, camping, lazing in the woods and staring at the night sky. The meteorite display surprised us all, it was so clear you could see the trails. Then a moon rising over a cedar of Lebanon. A week in the Blackdown Hills, singing with Yvette and Chartwell - English folksong mixed with mbira and Zimbabwean melody; a sound journey with Juan on the last day, his singing bowls, shakers and voice reviving me, drawing out a reserve of energy I'd forgotten about.

Then a week in Wales again. It draws me back. The heron still in the same spot, meandering from estuary to shore. A family of swans, four grey cignets, the old broken boat by the river even more broken now, but still there, still showing its bones; and the spine of hills that contains a bay. Upstream, the river's white noise rushing over stones, adds to that sound journey in the Blackdown Hills and ponies move from the dark of the trees towards the water, too, slow, heads down, rubbing against a trunk, flicking tails as if they were witnesses.

Lightning and the full moon have silvered this summer. There is so much still to write. The winter will be a time to do it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A summer off, I hope. Nothing but swimming and wandering. I've been so busy that I wonder if I've forgotten how to write. This evening another blazing hot day is ending in a storm. The sky's dramatic and the rain's started to hit the path to the front door. I watched a woman on a red lilo floating on an almost flat sea this morning. The picture seemed to sum up Brighton.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the Avignon Festival with two friends and work colleagues. We were taking part in workshops and watching performances. It was a luxury to see so much work, to witness the incredible dance of Joseph Nadj and the art work of Miguel Barcelo in the Eglise des Celestins. Nadj's piece, Asobu, was based on the writing of Michaux - bizarre, hallucinogenic images.

There were incredible storms in Avignon. We finally saw the Nadj piece at past midnight in the Palais des Papes. It was the company's second performance of the night - the previous day it had been cancelled because of the rain. The dancers' energy was astonishing.

The week fed me. It took me out of the mundane. Back into the surreal.

Monday, May 22, 2006

My notebook's full of stuff, other people's stuff, planning for work, snatched moments when I've managed to put down a few ideas. But it's a good notebook. It came from Sukie, they're based in New England House in Brighton. They do lovely travel journals and diaries you write your own dates in. But why do notebooks not have a mix of lined and plain paper? Well, cheap ones don't anyway. I'd like to try a sketch now and again.

It feels like we've had nearly six months of winter. Still no long hot days. Just rain.

I've been concerned with keeping slugs off my seedlings. They've also had the lupins, as they did last year.
I've been downloading birdsong because I'm up so early I thought I'd try and identify the dawn chorus. There's some good stuff on the BBC website.
I've had my bike mended at last.
I've been remembering people like Aunty Jean and a boy called Clifford.
I'd like to tour the coast of Britain in a camper van. But I don't have a camper van.
I remembered the swimming pool attendant from South Street, Farnham. The pool was demolished. Do you demolish a pool?
I've been weeding between the rows of spinach and leeks.
I've been writing lists.
I've been wondering how to get rid of about 200 copies of my second book, Party.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

On the Eurostar to Paris on 31 March and I get a phone call. I've been planning this trip for ages, promised it last year to my daughter because I went to Paris at 11. So on her 11th birthday I said I'd take her before she was 12. It's taken a few months to summon up the cash, but then I went for it. Looked on Railbookers for cheaper tickets and booked a hotel near Bastille in the Marais.
Anyway, we're waiting in Waterloo to leave and I have a call from a guy in Poole asking if I'd be able to do a reading with Kit Wright the following Saturday. Fantastic surprise, lovely to be asked.
So, having had four days in Paris which were wonderful because we did the Louvre and as many of its amazing paintings as we could take, the Eiffel Tower when I got vertigo walking down, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, as well as the lovely discovery of Eglise St Eustache just near Les Halles - being restored and we didn't notice it in the guidebook. We went in because of some painted glass in a door.....then it opened up into this magnificent place. My daughter lit candles in Sacre Coeur and St Eustache. It is a ritual some of us have forgotten. We only light them for atmosphere now, not to remember. It's good to be reminded of these things by your children.
Oh, a river trip, too, and the views from the top of the Beaubourg where a cake costs 10 euros.
So it's been all holiday.....came back to a workshop and then I was off again for the weekend to Poole with a friend. A walk along the cliffs from Worth Matravers in the Purbecks before the reading, then a lovely audience at the Lighthouse in Poole and some good new poems, as well as old, from Kit, then another longer walk around Old Harry and to Swanage from Studland on Sunday.
I want some space to write now. Looking at the madness ahead in May and June when I barely have a day to myself. More readings would be good, so I can try out more new poems.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Early in the morning and, as Fleur Adcock, that wonderful poet wrote, the small worries start flooding in and they stand around you and hassle you.

I've been bothered by the worries of trying to earn a living recently - the frustrations of bureaucracy, relentless boring e mails that waste my time, of unspoken and hidden agendas, of people jostling for position and imagining there is such a thing as a career in poetry. What a joke!

I have to remind myself that at its best, and it can be brilliant, poetry is play. I know a couple of artists who understand this better than anyone, people I've worked with and it has seemed like fraud being paid for buying lovely paper and pencils for people to write and draw with! An environmental scientist, too - we've wandered around looking at bat holes in oak trees and phantom midge larva.....

......it is possible to have fun at work, but why are there so many pen pushers around, dulled by ticking boxes, assessing us, meeting targets, repeating government jargon that should be kept where it belongs, in Whitehall, and not allowed out to bother us?

My pet hates in jargon at the moment: COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS, REFLECTIVE PRACTICE, CREATIVE PRACTITIONER......
Other pet hates: people who claim to be a poet/performer/musician/film-maker/dancer/dj/storyteller......and more.....all in one. How many titles does one person need? Or is it just a question of covering all the angles for paid work?

Anyway, off the soapbox......here's another poem from the Commandments series. I thought I'd put it up because there's so much about religion at the moment and I know I'm an expert having endured years at a convent.

And then, a very recent one. I decided I'd post it because I performed it recently and it was fun. I know quite a few people who'd fit into this category. It's maybe a newer direction for me - not quite stand up comedy, but less lyrical anyway. I can't see the lyrical stuff fading away, but I like it when the wacky ones come along. Maybe they're a by product of waking up at 5 am. Actually today it was 3.30 am. Well, it gives me writing time!

--------

The other woman

She has more sex than a grain mountain,
trades it on world markets and knows
where he is when you don’t.

She texts him the entire Kama Sutra,
promising to fork French patisserie
into his mouth, sweet with custard.

The other woman’s like new neighbours
erecting a six foot fence, who don’t tell you
builders will be drilling on Saturday morning.

Alert and supple as a contortionist,
she can stretch a stilletoed leg to the ceiling,
write her name with the heel.

The other woman can summon fog
out of a clear sky, dilate her pupils
so wide a man will fall in, gratefully.

She’ll try and get into bed with you, too,
lift a corner of your duvet,
to stake a claim on the mattress.

The other woman waits until your parking space
is free, then nips in with her Renault Clio,
the neat boot stuffed with underwear.

---------

Don’t take my name in vain

What makes you think an alphabet will do,
or curls of gold, elaborate calligraphy?

Your hymns, chants, songs, satisfy
only yourselves. Even your science tries

to mimic me. Your stories sanctify
God, Allah, Yahweh,

a line of men you try to conjure
with incense, honour with fasts.

You repeat my name along the chapel
corridor, bow to me five times a day.

You meditate for hours under a beech
tree, light candles incessantly.

Zeus, Buddha, Odin. Every name
you’ve given me is wrong.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

It seems a long time away, but in May this year there'll be an event in Brighton bringing together filmed poems based on the theme, Place of Birth. It's part of the Festival Fringe.

Here's the poem I was commissioned to write. And below it, I've included notes I wrote for the animator, Mark Collington, explaining some of the imagery. His animation is a homage to Aubrey Beardsley and adds enormously to the poem. I've always loved Beardsley's work and Mark's an expert on his life. The animation explores Beardsley's fine style, as well as his fascination with the alphabet.

In Alphabetic, I wanted to explore myths about birth as well as the idea of the foundling. A starting point was Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest with its famous Lady Bracknell scene. The poem is written in a nursery rhyme style because I took the alphabet as a starting point, anticipating adult readers or listeners will refer back to his or her experience reading aloud to children, or being read to.

Alphabetic
(the A to Z of birth)

Here’s baby A, swaddled in a bin-liner
dressed in a sweatshirt his mother wore,
bouncy B’s exit was recorded on camera,
her head clamped in the beak of a stork.

Clever mite C dropped from an ambulance
in the hospital car-park, name on a tag,
and D’s the famous embarrassment
left at Victoria station, in a handbag.

E is the bundle a postman delivered,
F, bought from an Argos catalogue,
this little girl, G, was made in a factory
and H reared by rabbits, found by a dog.

Brothers I and J emerged from a toilet,
and cheeky K arrived with the chips.
L was grown on daddy’s allotment -
as you can see from the soil on her lips.

Look at M, the cat brought him home,
N, fat slug, and her gooseberry bush...
O, a surprise, was delivered by aliens
and P raised from clay by Prometheus.

Now, Q, the original test-tube baby...
R, a beauty, is cloned from her mum.
Watch out for S, born on a ski-slope,
and mythical T, the size of a thumb.

An addict, already, U screams for crack,
V is damned by original sin.
W’s winched from floods in Mozambique
and X is cut from the guts of her twin.

That’s twenty-four, just two more to come.
Out of the waves, swims foam baby, Y.
Arms raised, she leads to the very last one -
Z, a star made of darkness in a distant sky.

--------

Notes to Mark, the animator on the creation of Alphabetic:

A is the archetypal foundling, accompanied by a memento of his mother, B represents the idea of the child delivered by a stork (the beak refers to a forceps birth), C introduces the concept of a new birth myth told to curious children by parents or grandparents who don’t want to deal with the facts of life and D is the reference to the Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and Lady Bracknell’s famous phrase ‘a handbag?’ E, F and G are more modern birth myths - there seem to be an awful lot around. H is a reference to the idea of a wild child (Tarzan, Romulus and Remus etc. etc) reared by animals after being abandoned or lost by parents. I & J are a reference to the idea of a teenage mother hiding pregnancy and giving birth alone, K is another birth myth. L has shades of a creation myth - in many stories, the original people come from the earth. M refers to that phrase, look what the cat dragged in, so I suppose it comes out of the idea of self-esteem, N and the gooseberry bush is another classic myth, but fat slug is a phrase a lot of people seem to use about newborn babies - I did - it’s affectionate, though. O the surprise is obvious but there are these bizarre stories from the American mid-west about people being abducted by aliens and being made pregnant...P and Prometheus - in Greek mythology, he created the first people from clay. Q refers to that question why can’t I get pregnant? As well as the questions about fertility and ethics. R a beauty brings in the issues about cloning and why it would be done if it ever happens widely. S is the idea of the action mother (supermum?) and T refers to the story of Thumbelina, who slept in a walnut shell and was a gift to a woman who couldn’t have children. U as a crack baby - I think it was the sound I tuned into here (you - the other, distanced, nameless baby) and V is the shape of the snake’s tongue who tempted Eve into sinning (original sin). W is the baby who was born in a tree in Mozambique during the 99/2000 floods - I thought of the branches of the tree being rather like the shape of the letter. X refers to the possible shape of a scar and this came from a story I read about a baby being cut out of the body of a 7 year old, an unseparated twin. Y is Athene, the goddess of love who was born from the foam of the waves and Z - Zeus, god of the sky as well as the end....space, the unknown, the mystery of where we come from, the idea that we are stars before we are born, we have time on earth and go back to being a star after we die.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A picture from Aldeburgh November 2005.