Monday, January 26, 2009

Sandstone Dreaming and Fernando Pessoa



Sandstone dreaming was a poem written with a group of very young primary school children and transferred, word by word, comma by comma, onto clay. I thought of it this morning flicking through last week's Sunday Times over toast. I saved the news review for the amazing pic of Obama. Yesterday there was no time for a paper, I was scrubbing plaster spots off tiles and bannisters. Maybe I was reminded of the poem because of a feature about parents pushing their kids to succeed and what I love about poetry is its quietness, its integrity, particularly for children. Poetry gives kids an escape, especially in a classroom dominated by results and targets. It's a wormhole that becomes a sanctuary - almost as good as building a camp in the woods. More than anything, poetry is a place you visit alone. Every smell in that place is unique, every sound. And the words you find there can reproduce the excitement of any experience you want.

Funnily enough, escape was at the forefront when I was doing my accounts the other night. Jane Fordham and her partner David helped guide me through the labyrinth of an online tax return and relieved me of so much stress that the next day I felt renewed. But David reminded me about Pessoa, the Portugese writer who adopted at least 14 different identities (I exaggerated, I think, when I tried to tell David not all of them had been discovered) and wrote throughout his life, but when he died in 1935 only one book had been published. He was virtually unknown.

Now, of course, his importance is celebrated, whether or not his views are. A poetry International web feature on Pessoa argues: "It is sometimes said that the greatest Portuguese poets of modern times are Fernando Pessoa: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos."

Alberto Caeiro: "I have no ambitions and no desires./ To be a poet is not my ambition,/ It's my way of being alone."

It's a tortuous route, I guess, from sandstone dreaming and an online tax return to Pessoa. It gets more tortuous. Because what I really wanted to write about, before I was hijacked, was that old Sunday Times news review and three references in it that I found rather shocking, I guess. I have been aware for some time of the widening gap between so-called opinion formers (chattering classes) and the group of people I know. Once I was maybe on the fringes, as a freelance journo. Now I'm decidedly not. The chasm is financial, intellectual and moral.

Featurette 1 by Rachel Johnson refers to a George Monbiot campaign against Agas (could you make this up?). She defends her aga in her Devon home for being "our only means of cooking and heating apart from log fires). Aaahhh.....but the postscript adds: "I also have an Aga in our basement kitchen in London......" When I think of Agas I remember the one Risenga's mother had in her corrugated iron home in a squatter camp on my first visit to South Africa in 1994, the year of the first election. When the whites clear out, they hand stuff over to their servants. Lots of Agas were inherited in this way. After the elections whites felt safer visiting the tin cities their servants lived in. So what did they do? Aware of the rise in the value of agas, they went round collecting them back, offering the smallest amount of cash they can get away with. (Reminiscent of Maupassant's short stories) Anyway, Johnson didn't mention that stuff. But what did she think she'd convince us of?

Featurette 2 was about middle class interns and featured Gemma. We are told that daddy had helped a company director friend into an exclusive golf club so in return she got work experience, which in turn led to a job in PR.

Feature 3 took up a lot of space. It was about women and money. Sooooooo in touch with the times, it quotes a senior editor at Elle magazine on paying the nanny: "I have to say 'How much is it?' or I'll say 'I'll sign the cheque. Can you just fill in the amount?' I feel so much better when I don't have to ink out that large sum." Margarette Driscoll, the writer, comments: "Women are not just reluctant to talk about money, it seems; they don't even want to think about it."

She might want to eavesdrop on almost every conversation I have with my neighbours, friends and even total strangers in a queue at a till.

Hey, Margarette, the problem isn't women talking about money - it's listening to the right women. Women know they're being conned, fleeced and robbed on so many levels but people like you aren't looking outside the Ivy and Groucho.

At least teenagers are thinking........ at least the ones I know, who aren't cocooned by agas and nannies and private education. I know who I'd prefer to have a conversation with over supper.

(The milk tooth is still there. The Maryland bridge was faulty and had to go back. A three week reprieve.)

Pessoa at Poetry International web: http://portugal.poetryinternationalweb.org
Potter Julian Belmonte: www.julianbelmonte.co.uk/

Thursday, January 22, 2009

William Maxwell The Chateau



The allotment has been on my list of worries - neglected since the autumn when the council began to change the locks and had not got round to sending letters to me instead of the friend I used to work the plot with. But hooray! I now have a working key and on Sunday was there, cutting the raspberry canes and clearing brambles. There's so much to do and this must be the year of raised beds, especially if there's another wet summer and slugs are rampant again.

What has happened to time? In between cooking, shopping, washing clothes, cleaning the house (badly, it has to be said), feeding the cat and attempting to earn a living.....I stop around 8.30 at night, I reckon, when kids and cat are fed, washing up's done and I have a couple of hours to watch a film before bed and an hour or so of reading. Maybe the film should go. That would leave my existence pared back to the absolute basics. Being hard up is time consuming. You have to cook proper meals because they're cheaper. You have to shop carefully. You have to walk places rather than take the car, you repair clothes.

I was glad to see that a novel I found in a charity shop and loved, The Chateau, by William Maxwell, was in the Guardian's top 1000 novels list. But I was sorry that Moniza Alvi didn't win the TS Eliot prize this year. She deserves it - her book, Europa, is brilliant and relevant in a way that very, very few collections of poetry are. Alvi is consistently under-rated and ignored and I don't understand why. I guess this is the fate of writers who are ahead of their time. Writers who maybe make their contemporaries feel uneasy because their work is so original. Europa deals with post-traumatic stress, rape, the anxieties and pressures of modern life...... I guess at least the winner was female.

Anyway, back to Maxwell - an editor for the New Yorker for 40 years and it shows. His prose is so sharp, his eye absolutely clear. Another New Yorker I've been reading is Mark Doty. What a good poet he is....and a nice man. I met him only once at the 1995 TS Eliot award when my first book was shortlisted. He said nice things about my dress - a sleeveless shift of big black sequins. It's folded carefully away for my daughter. But you can't sit down in it because you bend the sequins, so it's a propping up the wall or dancing party dress. Doty's latest book is Theories and Apparitions. I'm reviewing it for Warwick Review, edited by Michael Hulse. Good to have space to do it justice. Good to have time to really think about it. Anyway, the book's incredibly thought provoking and humane. It's big (metaphorically speaking, not literally) and generous, open minded and kind. Some of his Apparitions poems, though, reminded me of the Brighton poet John McCullough's wonderful homage to Frank O'Hara.

Today I lose my last milk tooth. A week off 54 and one of the first teeth I had, the little one at the bottom in the centre of the jaw, is still in my mouth. But by this afternoon it'll be out. For a tooth that's meant to last about five or so years, it hasn't done badly. In fact I'd like my dentist to give me a pat on the back, really. But it's feeling loose. He reckons it might last another year, but I'm nervous biting an apple nowadays and I don't want it coming out the day before I have to go and interview someone for work. So he's going to glue a false one to the teeth either side, somehow. Rather that than a plate soaking in a glass by the bed overnight. I'm not ready for that yet.