Friday, December 28, 2018

Between years

Starlings, sunsets and a multi-storey angel are what the days between 2018 and 2019 seem to demand.

I swing between fidgeting and slumping, between being full of great intentions and grim thoughts dragging me back to the past like a stalker.

At four this afternoon the cat was purring on the bed next to me and I was dozing off.

I have five books on the chest of drawers - three borrowed, two from charity shops. I am dipping in and out as if I'm on a summer beach.

These days remind me of the mercury we let run onto the floor, between the boards, in the school science lab.

Bobbles of it rolling away, shinier than anything.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The snowy past and its answering voice

When the snow came that year it was thick and marvellous. The teenagers became children again, knocking on each others' doors as soon as it was light, reclaiming the road which was more or less impassable, although some tried and slid sideways into junctions and kerbs.
Tove Janssen reminded me of it as the autumn turned with her story, Snow, describing how snow changes the light, changes sound, turns us into hibernating bears. Dylan Thomas reminded me of it last week in his story, A Child's Christmas in Wales, which remembers throwing snowballs at cats, singing carols to an empty house and hearing a faint answering voice through the keyhole.
I am reading these stories in a Reading Round group for young people who have mental health problems, hoping to provide an hour in which something eases.
That faint answering voice is in this photo somewhere, behind one door, perhaps my future door. The past is so present right now as my adult children move into the next phases of their lives, one clearing out childhood's shoe boxes full of stones and essays, giving away hats that once were as powerful as crowns, the other looking over the water and finding work after years of study.
I hear the answering voice as I collect belongings, help bag them up, help store them away for now.
I find myself clearing out cupboards and being ruthless with cobwebs, wondering about painting the kitchen and about the pile of plastic boxes I've accumulated.
This mild December, the borage, fushia and calendula are still flowering, rain has stuck the windows shut and expanded doors.
Rain light doesn't encourage me to fantasies of hibernation but it does draw me to the windows, to the sun when it comes, to the sky at 4pm and the surprise of stars when clouds clear.
It is always a case of standing at a door or window and singing, to hear that faint answering voice, isn't it, understanding the voice isn't just from the past.
Royal Literary Fund Reading Round
Dylan Thomas reads A Child's Christmas in Wales
Tove Janssen's A Winter Book


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Singing again


There's a choir for people who are homeless, church choirs, choral singers, rock and gospel choirs, LGBT choirs, choirs just for women, choirs just for men. Some audition, some don't. Once I was in Jam Tarts, the Brighton choir run by Li Mills, now performing far and wide at festivals. I dropped out when I was working a lot of evenings and now there's a waiting list as long as my street. But Li runs three choirs - one a much less pressured daytime group, Wham Jam. So I am back, singing, with homework.

It has to be good, doesn't it, for a writer to experience words put under such pressure - repeated, harmonised, stopped and started again, broken up, mispronounced...

I am singing because I want routine, to have fun, to rehabilitate my lungs. I hadn't expected the singing to send me back to my writing and give it a different once over. The oldest Chinese poems, Shih Ching, are called song words.

Kwame Dawes explains better than I can in this interview with the LA Review of Books and delivers the phrase 'mistakes of sound' to explain what can damage a poem. So I shall go on singing as midwinter approaches, bleak and frosty.

Monday, October 15, 2018

More words for women than anyone can imagine


I've been collecting them for ever, since I discovered the Historical Thesaurus online and read it voraciously, gathered synonyms for 'woman' from there and other sources and put them together in a kind of word search format, on a postcard. There were no gaps between the words. Perhaps I felt embarrassed by the sheer misogyny they illustrated collectively, despite the loving, respectful and sweet words, which I wanted to put in too. 

Recently I've been bothered by social media viciousness, by an unfettered resurgence of misogyny, enabled by the politically naive and by cowardice. My upbringing, my political education emphasised mutual respect. Yes, I'm as flawed as you, but I believe in debate and as a writer, respect for people, for the languages we speak, for how we communicate, for differences we have. Dr Seuss, among others, is good on the insanity of wars about differences between us. When I put the first Words for women together, I wasn't sure how to define it. Not a poem, although it eventually went in Woman's Head as Jug. Not prose. There's no narrative.  It went into Binders Full of Women, the publication that was assembled when another US politican made an incendiary sexist remark. 

I feel the words being used against women now need to be more visible, less cryptic than a word search and so there are spaces between them in my latest version. The spaces represent hundreds of years of thought, abuse, love and hate. These are just the words in English and my lists are not comprehensive. They don't include swathes of slang from US or Australian English or from English spoken elsewhere in the world.

I'm no academic and wish I'd concentrated more in linguistics lectures when I was doing a degree. I have the Royal Literary  Fund to thank, in part, for the first Words for women, which germinated during a fellowship at the University of Surrey. My office was tucked away, the librarians didn't rush to promote what I was doing so I had time to browse the library. I found the linguistics section. There are so many lives I might have had and these shelves held one of them. But rather than regret, what came out of it was a card, imperfect, nearly in alphabetical order, of synonyms. My open mouth. 

Last night I went through my lists, ticking and adding. They need to be read together. The font on the most recent is Gil Sans MT. There are synonyms for girl, for prostitute, for mistress and old woman here. The oldest word is from Old English. Let's take care. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

The bass says more than words can

Nick Makoha's first collection, published
by Peepal Tree press in 2017
Nick Makoha's poems have been attracting attention in the UK for some time and rightly so. US poet Terrance Hayes says they 'animate in the space between story and song' and his work is an important contribution to British contemporary writing.

On the last morning of Winchester Poetry Festival, Makoha was reading with Karen McCarthy Woolf, who's also established a reputation for emotionally demanding material. The third poet, Katharine Towers, was shortlisted for the 2016 TS Eliot prize for her second collection The Remedies.

And the readings complemented one another perfectly - Makoha's are direct, sometimes hard to hear because of the violence they describe but they carry a sense of history needing to be channeled. McCarthy Woolf's are more personal, sometimes hard to access, fluid and uncompromising, while Towers stays in the natural world, her boundaries firmly established, the metaphorical landscape more familiar but still imaginatively sharp.

As I drank coffee I realised that this festival had a markedly different line-up to those I've been used to. And since counting the representation of women and other so-called minorities was good enough for Tillie Olsen, I did a count of the writers appearing at Winchester. It worked out well - about a third of participants were poets of colour and women (for once) outnumbered men.

Makoha said he wanted to stop feeling embarrassed at being Ugandan in an English space and McCarthy Woolf turned the language used to disparage migrants on its head with her poem telling the migrant narrative in the language of the super rich. She has edited a collection for Nine Arches Press, Unwritten, about the citizens of empire who faced racism despite their willingness to fight for Britain in WW1.

McCarthy Woolf's own poem for this unique anthology weaves three narratives in an almost documentary way. Later a Modern Poetry in Translation session, Profound Pyromania, explored the plurality of languages in Caribbean poetry, placing it far from the colonial centre of empire, as Vahni Capildeo put it.

Ishion Hutchinson went deeper into the influence of Lee Scratch Perry on his writing, explaining that dub had preserved the west African languages introduced into the Caribbean by the slave trade. Hutchinson explained Scratch Perry showed how music, particularly the bass, became a different kind of transport - away from daily life. Dub encapsulated the horror of the slave experience in a way words couldn't, said Hutchinson. Dance became a lamented joy, a journey through horror and a listener was overtaken by dub's deep oceanic sound.

Caroline Bird has had five collections published and she's only 32. The most recent, In These Days of Prohibition, came out last year. To my shame, although she's a regular performer, I've never seen Bird live and I was knocked out. It's her professionalism combined with her honesty, a sense of generosity of spirit that is perhaps a side-effect of her astonishing poems - she has a surreal, unfettered view of life, but also a deep humanity.

If I went to Winchester feeling a bit tired of poetry and wondering if it was relevant, I left in no doubt because there are these amazing writers putting life under the microscope and not giving up on the challenge to express what needs to be said, both personally and politically.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Whose land is our land?




The politics of land - where do poems take us?
Here Lies Our Land is a public poem by Kathleen Jamie on the site of a battle, which Winchester Poetry Festival last weekend raised as an umbrella over poets whose material is the natural world.

When I drove to Winchester on Friday the sun was bright and as I left the Downs landscape of Sussex behind, I felt my adolescence. Jamie asked where is this? Is it Hampshire?

Winchester was the start of my first holiday with Susan Wrigby, where I listened to an American boy sing Johnny Cash on a slope near the youth hostel and where I set off for the Isle of Wight. It was the year Hendrix played there, but I had to be home before the festival.

I grew up in Farnham, on a spur of Surrey jutting into Hampshire. And if I happen to pass through now, the county draws me back to itself with William Cobbett's words, the sounds of a folk club and walks among cowslips and brambles. I have always felt that link with Cobbett, himself born in Farnham, whose Rural Rides was on our bookshelf. 

In the Saturday morning session that was linked to a debate about climate change, the Suffolk based poet Rebecca Goss began her poems based on country jobs and I remembered an old bloke who lived down the road and set traps for foxes, the farmer who could trace his family back centuries, the blacksmith and the kennel owners - people from the county I grew up in, Surrey. Goss is well known for her searing collection, Her Birth (Carcanet) and told her audience she was still looking for the 'darker' side of Suffolk. She reminded us of the power of those early poems with 'Sarah' a stunning poem about female friendship. I never heard a nightingale there but Harry Mann's been chasing endangered species around the UK. Appropriate then, perhaps that his first poem was about the neurology of a nightingale. He is modern and experimental. It was right, too, that he left us in stitches at the end with a crazy sestina called Arnie’s Poetic, in the language of Hollywood.

Jamie was reading in the evening, so was present mostly as a contributor to a discussion on nature writing. Happy to be controversial, Jamie suggested it had stopped with Ted Hughes and has only recently re-invented itself. At this point I remembered the always challenging Peter Reading at another festival years ago in Kings Lynn where he laid into what he described as Hughes’ anthropomorphism of the animals he wrote about. And I wondered if this monolithic male, whose work, don’t get me wrong, I admire and read with pleasure, really was a dam or was it a distraction from many other, lesser known poets? 

I thought about Michael Longley and Gillian Clarke, for example, who write lyrically about the natural world. And I began listing in my head some of the others, including Pauline Stainer, Lee Harwood, legions of poets in fact, who are not national institutions. But like nature itself, poetry is various and the non famous, less read poets, like invisible insects, beetles and moths, belong to poetry's eco-systems and within these, to keep the metaphor going, there is an astonishing diversity. Let diversity be at the heart of our debates - there are many poets and many ideas...Winchester Poetry Festival appears to be conscious of diversity in all its meanings and that is refreshing. 

There are mistakes, often, in life that allow for the beautifully unexpected and in another Saturday morning session, the rule of three (the three poet reading) was broken when JO Morgan's car broke down. So for Let Light Be Enough, Cork poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa and Pascale Petit became perfectly balanced scales - Petit majestic and still, Ni Ghriofa deftly playing the music of her contemporary/historic mix. 

It was a world first for the festival - the first time Ni Ghriofa has performed in England, even visited, in fact, and therefore the first time she'd read from her second English collection, Lies (Dedalus Press). The pile of her books on the bookseller's stall was gone as soon as the session finished. I saw a woman whip the last copy away from another as the second hesitated. Ni Ghriofa read in English and Irish and she is a compelling, charismatic young woman. A volunteer afterwards was saying she could read a shopping list, her delivery is so musical. Something of her reminded me a little of Kim Addonizio, in the way she struck out the beat of one poem with her boot. And while her poetry is strikingly lyrical, it is also utterly modern; tied into Irish history, it speaks to a generation brought up on cracked phone screens and interrupted Skype connections. 

Petit's work is difficult, emotionally, but her stillness on stage contains its enormous implications and gives her phenomenal presence. Mama Amazonica, the collection she read from, won Petit a heft £10,000 Ondaatje Prize this summer - the first poetry to bag this prestigious award. Her material both goes to the core of being human as well as mental illness. Mama Amazonica conflates the sickness of a mother with the sickness imposed on the earth’s lungs, the rainforest and Petit’s images are astonishing - drawn from science, observation and myth they seem to hold modern life and release insights from where psyche meets science. And at Winchester, Petit gave the audience a taste of her next collection drawing on the landscape of Rajasthan, the birthplace of her grandmother whose Indian heritage was kept a family secret.

Continuing the world journey, the afternoon led into evening with poetry in translation from Iranian born Azita Ghahreman, Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji and Nicola Madzirov from Macedonia. Award winning poet Maura Dooley read English translations of Ghahreman’s work and Stephen Watts read translations of Haji’s. Madzirov has read in the UK several times and his work is now being translated by Carolyn Forche. His quiet stillness and the space around his words gives him the presence of a monk. He reminds us of peripheral spaces and the traces we leave. Ghahreman’s poems are forcefully visual and in Persian, the sounds are round and rich. Her collection Negative of a Group Photograph covers 30 years of poems, many written about leaving Iran for Sweden. “My tongue trips up when I speak of that journey,’ she writes and ‘my name here is neither immigrant nor exile.’

With Golan Haji’s poems drawing on the Odysseus story, this festival afternoon draws attention to the profound importance of translation in opening up the world, its ability to alter perceptions. And there is a need for that opening up as politicians become increasingly unreliable narrators and interpreters of contemporary life.

So onto Saturday evening and a trio of distinctive voices to end the second festival day, introduced by one of the creative directors, Sasha Dugdale, as compelling, generous and spiritually expansive: Vahni Capildeo, Ishion Hutchinson and Kathleen Jamie - each of them political, each of them fiercely rooted in places marked by conflict. Capildeo barely pauses for breath as her experimental, imagistic words pour out, as if all that has been suppressed must now be expressed. Hutchinson’s poems, like those of Derek Walcott before him, are steeped in history, play with the vernacular and language of the pulpit, are defined by the detail of the Caribbean and the symbolism of that detail. Jamie reshapes the reading space as a storyteller, refusing to translate from Scots, her sometimes awkward introductions a marked contrast to fluid and marvellous poems - where, like the basking shark she introduced us to in the Shetlands, she seems most at ease.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Avant garde jazz and dead poets

Years ago when there were still printers' pubs I went to the upstairs room of one of them in London to hear saxophonist Lol Coxhill performing with poet Bob Cobbing. It was an evening of sounds more than words and could have been a clash of cultures if Coxhill and Cobbing hadn't been so willing (and able) to take flack for their experiment in the interval and turn around the mood at the bar.

I was reminded of that night when Ian McMillan, another consummate performer, brought avant garde jazz into his final poem as he opened the Winchester Poetry Festival this Friday. For an hour, McMillan held his torch up to what a lifetime of writing means, showing us the family that has always loved words and his fascination for how we speak to one another, for what he describes as the battleground of language. Funny, high energy and wise, McMillan's enthusiasm is infectious and what his jazz poem said to me was that poetry is where we can all take courage but it's nothing without love.

Family was at least part of the soundtrack to the later evening reading, Taking Blood, featuring Gillian Clarke, Paul Batchelor and Leontia Flynn. Clarke read one of my favourite poems of hers, Blue Hydrangeas which flashes back to a childhood memory of her mother. Flynn's astonishing poem, The Radio, interlaced her mother's experience with childhood, when the soundtrack was Belfast, bombs and shootings. Batchelor's beautiful poem Pit Ponies drew on a memory of his father's, but he was also evoking the power of Edward Thomas.  And it's right, isn't it, that dead poets should take their place in the family album,  Clarke summoning Waldo Williams, Wilfred Owen and Hed Wynn, the shepherd poet from north Wales,  Flynn reading August 30 2013, her tribute to Seamus Heaney and as well as Thomas, Batchelor revealing his respect for poet Barry McSweeney?

The festival's themes are identity and sense of place, so let's go back to McMillan for a moment, chronicler of Barnsley and way beyond, comparing the quiffs of Elvis and Ted Hughes in a fantasy that imagines Elvis didn't die, but caught a boat to England and became Ted. As Winchester Poetry Festival chair, Stephen Boyce says in his introduction to the programme, contemporary writing and performance represent a "deep well". All the festival readings are at the Winchester Discovery Centre.






Thursday, September 27, 2018

Winchester poetry festival

On the cusp of winter, poets will be travelling to Winchester for a poetry festival that is growing into one of the best in the country.

Mixing readings with workshops and poets discussing individual poems, as well as a translation 'duel', Winchester Poetry Festival has fixed itself into this glorious time of year with a full weekend programme from Friday to Sunday - 5, 6 & 7 October.

Readers include some of poetry's big names such as Gillian Clarke, Vahni Capildeo, Pascale Petit and Ian McMillan but mostly poets who contribute to the enormously various landscape of poetry, like Rebecca Goss, Nick Makoha, Karen McCarthy Wood, Stephen Watts and Maura Dooley, poets writing from as many different perspectives as there are names. And this is what marks a good festival, programmed with thought, sensitivity and awareness as well as an international perspective, thanks programmer-poets Sasha Dugdale and Sarah Hesketh.

Some of these poets I've seen before, one or two I've read with in the past. I know the work of many of them. But while a festival is a chance to celebrate the work you love, as a reader and a writer, it's also a chance to fill up, to open up, to wonder about work you might not have been drawn to otherwise. Poetry belongs to, and thrives in these moments of change - personal, seasonal, political, social.

http://www.winchesterpoetryfestival.org/

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-retired

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.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Buffalo, frog and fox

I don't know how this watermarked print of buffalo ended up in my allotment shed. Behind the glass, somehow, seed casings, the sky stained by rain. It's been in the shed since the children were little, perhaps I brought it from the house, unable to throw it away. The flat, distant background is unlike any of the places I've seen buffalo - in the Kruger National Park, in woodland. And those were different buffalo, perhaps, with a harder, lumpier head, less graceful curve of the horns.

But the stain, the seeds, the reflection in the glass and the dust on the glass, all seem to lift the trio of buffalo into a more heavenly dimension, so this is no longer a print but a collaboration between the original painter, the printmaker, the framer, time and circumstance.

Likewise, the print made by a fox on the allotment in our days of snow - a series of hyphens by the plum tree drawing the line between me and it, night and day, between life in houses and life outside.

And it leads me to the memory of a sunny evening when a young fox sat down on the path and I carried on weeding, talking to it as I would to a child.

But doesn't every encounter with a fox build into a story that compels you to describe its skinny, careful legs, its big white tipped tail, its athlete's leap over the wall?

I think of the cub that fell into the window well, its mother's screams, the cat's astonishment as it ran towards the back door, hid behind the fridge, how Justine and I strained to release it at 3am because she'd also been woken by the vixen's distress, how I hope it found her when it ran back into the night.

I think of the older cub, shivering in the same window well all night until I heard its scratching and managed to cover it with a blanket. It was so cold, it let me carry it to the cemetery without any fear, let me put it down between gravestones in the tall grass behind my house and it almost didn't want to give up the warmth of the blanket. I had to shake a corner of it to encourage it away from the night anticipating its death.

And in a pond to the other side of Rob's plot, on a sunny false spring afternoon, a survivor of the snow and ice dragged itself up from the bottom for a little warmth.

I look past it to the pale and splayed shapes of the dead and bloated, trapped under thick ice and wonder how it survived. Watermarks, a pile of logs, a pink blanket printed with paw marks...our signs of life.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Three and a half days

Whose is this begging bowl and what could a woman want from the mist? That's the 14 word 'hurst' poem I wrote at the beginning of the month when I had three and a half days away in Shropshire on an Arvon Foundation tutors' course.

My begging bowl was full - half the course fee was paid by the Open University for professional development. What I wanted from the mist, which didn't lift from Tuesday to Friday morning, was, well, blank pages.

By that I mean I needed to fill pages, which I haven't been doing. So why not try a short story. And in those three days, yes, I did and I cut it by a quarter. It felt good to cut. It felt nervewracking to read it aloud. Pregnant woman with swan - it's the title of a print by Joseph Beuys.

In those days at the Hurst, on the border of England and Wales, a house surrounded by trees, I walked in the morning or afternoon. The woods were noisy with chainsaws on one day, wet and streaming every day, busy with birds on another day. I found a line of nesting boxes like terraced houses, I found the Hurst's monkey puzzle tree and its redwoods.

In the verges, wild strawberries were in bud but everything else was two weeks behind Brighton. By the pond, there was a carpet of ransoms.

Three and a half days go by quickly. Four breakfasts, four nights sleep. But the tutors, Ann Sansom and Chris Wakling worked us hard, set us off on endless writing threads, shared ideas for tutoring - filling what space was left in the begging bowl.

There was no internet, limited phone reception. At the end of the week, I went to Subway in Craven Arms before my train to pick up emails. I'd missed nothing much.

In three and a half days the food I left in the fridge at home wasn't even off. There was one letter on the table. A couple of missed calls.

I came home with a short story on a memory stick and three and a half days of ideas I may go back to, but don't feel I have to. They came, after all, from looking into the mist.




Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Reading the signs, framing the hole

The thing about a sign is the other places it sends you rather than the instruction it wants you to abide by.

I was on Palace Pier for the starling murmuration just before sunset and there are a few more of the retro postcard-style stage sets you can stand behind and put your head in for a photo.

Have so many people been stuck and unable to get out again? I stood and tried to replay the scenario and came up with ears.
William Kentridge

The classic sign is the one that tells you not to throw stones at the sign. Yes, it does exist. It exists in a poem by the brilliant Matthew Sweeney, but it also exists in reality, in Donegal, which is probably where he got it from. It is a sign invented for meditation, a koan to prove that logic isn't enough in life.

One of the best signs, or notices I've seen, was on a lamppost along Queen's Park Road a couple of years ago. Under a poster for the circus, featuring a tiger, was an A4 sheet asking for sightings of a missing cat. I was on my way to a meeting and I wondered if the person who'd put it there had hoped everyone who passed by would see the joke, or at least, remember it enough to look at home in sheds or cellars, in case a cat had sneaked in out of the rain and cold.

I always meant to go back and take a photo but didn't and eventually both posters disappeared and now exist only in my mind. But I saw  another one pasted on top of a poster.

Missing cat, Lewes Road
The randomness of these signs reminds me of the great artist John Muafangejo from Namibia whom William Kentridge describes as one of the great artists of the region, using linocut and text as "an emblematic anti-colonial art form". Kentridge uses text in an intriquing way in much of his art and while often Muafangejo's text is an integral title, in some prints, it is also an explanation, or context. The graphic starkness of his work gives these titles and his text its power. 

Muafangejo died at just 43 in 1987 from a heart attack. He'd suffered from depression but after his breakdown got a degree and taught art in South Africa.

I hadn't planned to remember this man or his work. I saw it first the year he died in London when a friend was working at the South Bank Centre. He's particularly known for his piece, Hope and Optimism in spite of the present difficulties - an understated title if ever there was one, given the context he was working in at the time. Some of his work, too, resonates in the work Risenga did when he was studying - there is the same simplicity, power, reminders of another way of life.

And his role as a documenter of contemporary life reminds me too, of the family story told on a gravestone in one of the cemeteries behind me.

Here is a list of the children of Thomas Francis and Helen Hayward and how old they were when they died:

Helen at five years old
Thomas Frances seven years later at 18 years old
William Burdett seven years later at 19 years old
Frank George three years after that at 18 years old
Charles Henry six years later at 19 years old.

Which in itself, brings me back to the apocryphal small ad quoted by Ernest Hemingway and devotees of flash fiction about unworn baby shoes.

Sometimes a story needs a lot of words, sometimes very few.
Or sometimes those words aren't telling a story, but pointing to a way into one you will make up and navigate for as long as you need or want.


Monday, March 19, 2018

Words for old and earth

'Pantywaist' is one of the synonyms for old woman that most engaged me when I began to explore language and ageing.
I can see everything the word suggests as I can visualise where 'old sock' comes from too, 'prune' and even 'dusty miller'.
They are soft, material and contain folds where meanings can rest or gather.
The word 'mossback' is harder to understand, but when I read 'badgerly' I think of what a former neighbour once shouted at me when the two bands of grey at my temples began to define me.
The world 'elderling' sounds almost sweet, compared to 'wrinklie' and there are times I wouldn't take exception to being called 'stricken' or 'vintage'.
But one of the words I am perhaps most intrigued by is 'beldam', a switch of letters away from uproar or asylum, and which sounds as if it should come from the French, 'belle dame'. It doesn't, it's a tricksy word and actually according to the OED, comes from the word for mother, extending into 'grandmother', 'great-grandmother', an ancestor....and then the word switches tone and turns into a 'furious raging woman,' 'virago', a 'loathsome old woman', and the all-familiar hag or witch.
I'm in this thesaurus-browsing mood because I'm struggling with a title for the collection in waiting, poems that grabbed the baton from the menopause and try to understand these years leading up to and away from the great signpost of 60.
The collection began with poems picking apart synonyms like 'crate' and then I meandered around the house, picking up loose beads and empty bottles. I found a batch of old letters and as we all do, wondered where time had gone, I sat in the shed at the allotment and I thought about mud. Even the South African poems, which are always there, are about death and time.
But just as 'pantywaist' appeals for its childishness and glimpse into a past of paper bags and brass scales, I want this collection to have a seam of delight and discovery, of 'vintage' rather than 'frump'.
I ended up online with a dictionary of old Sussex dialect, and synonyms for 'mud' (like gawm and slubber) took over from old. I was looking for a crossover beyond the cliches of fossil and oxidated, of musty and crock, but then I began to think about worm-eaten.
I think of the handfuls of compost worms that break down the peelings and egg shells, red, shiny, desirable. I think of the warnings about how few harvests we have left, the soil exhausted. Is this a bridge I can cross? I am in a place I understand. This is is where earth comes in with its old Friesian, old Saxon histories. Is this the earth of beldam or gawm? A place to tread, a stratum, something to cultivate, a place to bury the dead, a lair, a terminal, the opposite to sea...the planet and so on.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

On Ilkley Moor

For most of the time there were red grouse in the heather, in the air (briefly), on a rock or a wall, making their characteristic noise. It's nesting time and Sunday was warm. What a difference the birds must have felt after days of snow.
And for most of the time I walked, there was no-one.
I briefly chatted with a couple about Simon Armitage's poem, Puddle, lodged in water, looking a little like two fallen gravestones. It foretold the wetness to come on the path beyond the mast - and if I'd known how wet -
I might not have carried on. I sank through snow into mud. It filled my boot. I circled water, trying to find solid ground. I sensed the bog deepening each time. I thought of the names on my scrap of paper where I'd drawn my map and decided my only route was the stone wall, to cling to it, to use its lower stones as steps and hope that the snow pushed up against it would take my weight for as long as I could get past the next expanding delta of water.
I made it slowly to the plantation I'd marked on my sketch and stood on a solid path before I eased my way down to another wall that kept the larches away from the heather, and here the grouse kept up its grumbling, totally unafraid. It was meant to be a four to five hour walk but the succession of bogs made it longer, as did being tired by the cold, and losing the path when the plantation thinned out.
When I came across a large flock of ragged, nervy sheep in the heather and heard the high call of a curlew, I realised how tired I was.
My gum was threatening an abscess, had been draining me of energy and I knew there was a way to go before I could go down.
I spotted a red coat in the distance. I'd lost my sense of direction.  But Ilkley, fortunately, has a massive crane and watching the red coat led me to its yellow frame poking out of the valley.
I found a path down from the moor. Through mossy, ancient woods I stopped on a bridge over a waterfall, said hello to a family on a bench. I walked down to a road, past garden gates and snowdrops, my Sunday no longer the moor, and the curlew - Ted Hughes' 'web-footed god of the horizons' - was far behind me, in another world.

Friday, March 02, 2018

A wheelie case full of avocados

I can't pass a small brown avocado without remembering the vervet monkeys on Risenga's hillside in Venda, a place filled with birds, a place Giya's just come back from, reminding me of the heat, the wildness of the north and its lure, and how I understand her decision to stay in Venda rather than try and navigate Johannesburg again. It was on her 18th birthday trip in 2012 that I last bought a large net bag of small brown avocados - 20 of them for less than £1 - and so, in the Open Market today, with Maude, I experienced one of those slippages of time and place, passing a crate on sale for £5.

I think I said to Maude that the monkeys loved them. But not here, where there's snow on the ground and the water in the birdbath's freezing over as quickly as I smash the ice and refill it. We were off to pay homage to Maplins and offer our condolences, both of us fans of the place. So I thought I'd get the avocados on the way back home.

Luckily we also passed a wheelie suitcase in Chestnut House charity shop and I've been looking for one cheap after doing my shoulder in going to Leeds in January. I'm feeling flush today, having had some work and it was good to splash out on a suitcase and to think of all those avocados for a fiver. We did the pilgrimage to Maplins and on the way back passed a Greek cafe with delicious looking pastries in the window. Maude asks if we should have a coffee and we're in like a shot, asking for the menu.

We unpeel our layers, order snacks and sit catching up. Outside the snow starts again and we make our way back to the market. The avocados fit perfectly, some of the squishy but there must be 30 of them at least. I wonder what I'll do with so many. I thought I'd halve them with Maude but she can't carry them.

And lugging them back up the hill, unpacking them, along with very ripe Brie, I realise that if I feel homesick for a place I barely know, for those little monkeys watching from the trees, for the quartz stones in the ground and trees that seem older than memory, how pleased I am that Risenga has, at least, a date in his mind for when he's going back.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Paradise garden

In the Quran, the garden is a symbol of paradise, and it's easy to understand why.

I've been lucky - most of my life I've had a garden, or been close to a public garden. My son's first outing, a week after he was born, was to the rose garden in Preston Park. I took Giya there too, as a new baby.

The children rolled down the sloping lawn at Mum's in Tunbridge Wells, we came home with bunches of flowers in summer. And now in Brighton, I've had my own garden for about 23 years. In fact, Risenga and I decided on the house I live in because of the apple tree in the back and the flint wall.

The garden's been the place of children's parties, teenage parties and quiet, early sun. Amampondo - Nelson Mandela's favourite group - played marimbas outside one June and when Risenga was giving drumming lessons years ago, he'd stretch goat skin and tighten his drums there.

The garden's entered poems as if it owned them, as the allotment, up the hill, does too.

Last week I was in Vauxhall Gardens - a far cry from the pleasure gardens known to Hogarth - writing poems based on conversations with people wandering through or stopping at the temporary shed that advertised me as poet in the garden.

The late Sarah Maguire was a trained gardener and wonderful poet. In fact many poets I know are gardeners. It seems we need a break from words.

It is a challenge writing poems to order, after passing conversations with strangers, sometimes only the length of the path through the garden.

 I wasn't quite the poet for hire, tapping out lines on the spot for those who wanted them. Apart from a poem for Valentine's Day, commissioned by the friend of a man who'd forgotten to get anything for his partner.

But a selection of what I wrote will be on display at the Garden Museum in March, alongside photos of the park and perhaps of me chatting to people with dogs or children in the drizzle.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Keeping Fabrica's doors open

At the end of this week I'll be at Fabrica Gallery in Brighton with Jane Fordham, marshalling writers and artists who've collectively raised more than £5,000 to keep it going.

Fabrica launched a crowdfunding campaign early in February to raise £20,000 after losing a local authority grant.

Jane and I organised a Draw-a-Thon and Writing Relay to support the campaign. We have 25 writers signed up to share the contents of their minds for 30 minutes with the public - as they write, their words are going to be projected onto a screen.

The artists, meanwhile, will be drawing for five hours non-stop to earn their sponsorship! They'll be allocated paper and a pencil, free tea, coffee and biscuits and the chance to stretch once an hour. There'll be more than 30 of them, drawing from models or imagination, between 11 am and 4 pm on Saturday 24 February.

Jane and I met through Fabrica more than a decade ago and have been talking about work, ideas and collaboration ever since. We went to the Avignon festival in a Fabrica group of gallery educators, then back independently a couple of years running. Fabrica started our writing/drawing collaboration so that was the starting point for our event. But it's not just our event now. Brighton's creative community is galvanised to show what this city centre gallery, always free, always provocative, always engaged, means to us. What the arts mean. Why doors need to be kept open.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lockers, Joseph Beuys and gallery assistants

Excess Baggage Group, based in Hayes
is now the private arm of left luggage
and lost property at UK stations
There were once lockers at Leeds train station, I am being told by a man who works for Excess Baggage. I imagine there were, I say. I remember the lockers at Brighton station. They ran all the way along the wall opposite the last platform, a wall now used to display photos of smiling over-50s, all doing active things like gardening, playing guitar etc. not a single one with a grimace or frowning at the camera being pointed at them as they go about the hobby that keeps them useful, busy and in the company of other over-50s. Not one of them is a complainer because to complain is to commit the sin of negativity and when you are negative you die.
I'm, meanwhile, taking my own photo of how much it would have cost me to leave my bag for a morning in Leeds. Customer services, only responsible for Northern Trains, quite rightly say I am wrong when I ask to complain about being misled at Hebden Bridge Station. Are there left luggage lockers, I asked? Yes. The customer services woman says, well he was right. There are. But I can't afford them, I reply. But he didn't mislead you, she says. And she doesn't have any complaints forms anyway.  So who do I complain to about the cost? Network Rail is responsible for the station. She won't let my mistake drop. The information I was given was correct, she says again. We've moved on I say. She's still insisting as I leave. There's no-one else in customer services. What, after all, do they do if they don't even have a complaints form? There's plenty who do pay it, she adds.
At the Network Rail office they don't take complaints of any kind in person. I have to go online. They have no idea why Left Luggage has been privatised. It's all about making money now. My shoulder is aching.
But the guy at Excess Baggage is local and remembers the lockers, as I do mine in Brighton. Lockers big and small with varying charges and keys with a hefty plastic knob on so you couldn't lose them.
So why did they get rid of them, I ask? I was sure I knew the answer. It would be the same as the one I was given earlier at the art gallery where I turned up with my bag - having lugged it all the way from the station - and asked for the cloakroom. And same as the one I was given when I went to the tourist office to complain about a lack of cloakroom. I was sure the answer would be terrorism.
Scala Napoletana by Joseph Beuys, 1985
Although, to be fair, the guy at the tourist office can't bring himself to say that word, anything close to it in fact. He says "well, you know..." as if the reason for getting rid of a cloakroom is a guessing game, or an intimate disease. And when I don't play but instead ask for a complaints form, he can't find one either. A woman in the queue says I'm being rude and by then perhaps I am. I've carried my bag all the way from the station and no-one seems to understand why I'm cross that there's nowhere to put it.
Rudeness is something else. There is confusion about rudeness and complaining nowadays. When I open my mouth to ask a question, hackles often rise. It's quite primitive and very obvious. An identikit image of rudeness tends to be old and female. It has embossed on its forehead: I HAVE ENDURED 60+ YEARS OF DOING THE RIGHT THING AND LOOK WHERE IT GOT ME.
So I think people in authority sense this person has nothing to lose when she asks to speak to the manager she can see hiding in the back office with his feet up. Is it any surprise she speaks her mind? She has been redefined as trouble.
Well, that's me, actually. I am given some plain paper to handwrite my complaint on and I leave it with my email address. Do you understand why I'm cross, I ask? Some of the tension diffused, the manager does. But he can't help himself, you'll have a reply within 15 days, he says. We both know the reply will be meaningless, a waste of time. The word terrorism sits between us like a returned loaf of bread with a dead frog in it.
Robert Tait Mackenzie's
Four Masks of Facial
Expressions: Violent Effort,
Breathlessness, Fatique
Exhaustion   1902
The manager of the art gallery, who's hanging around reception for some reason, does use the word and in a managerial way, his chin jutting out and his eyes fixed on me, challenges me with his body to consider the absence of a cloakroom as unreasonable. 
My bag over my shoulder, people with dripping coats or shopping, up against terrorists....who would be so unreasonable as to complain about the absence of a cloakroom?
The Brighton lockers, now erased by lines of smiling old people being busy and not complaining, went when the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel. The postbox and rubbish bins went at the same time.
The Leeds lockers, the man at Excess Baggage informs me, went when kids put fireworks in them. But terrorism was the excuse, he says. We have a scanner here, you see, he says. For the luggage.
My decision to take a few hours in Leeds on my way home from Hebden Bridge is because there's an exhibition of work by Joseph Beuys.
But I am defeated. I'll just lug my bag around the gallery. In the first room of his work, there's a very kind invigilator, who's heard some of the discussion at reception. She comes up to me. You can put your stuff in the corner, love, and I'll keep an eye on it, she says. She's kind and concerned. I feel as if I can fly around the felt, the sledge, the tins and the floorpaint, light as a feather.
Then into the next room where Scala Napoletana is installed, and the long ladder is projected onto the back wall, in shadow. The invigilator sitting with the ladder and great heavy weights has gloves on and is well wrapped up. It's cold. I dump my bags to take a photo and look around. I sense he's nervous about me not being with my bags and he says, watch your bags, people come in and steal them. They can have them - I tell him about what left luggage costs and he reckons it's the same as all day parking.
Briefly I see my little bag in the space a 4x4 would take up and wonder how it became so dangerous and so expensive.
There are lockers next door, he tells me. I am not sure I've heard right. Is this Beuys speaking? Is this man his channel? The revolution is in us! The social order is overturned! There are lockers....
And indeed there are and I am allowed to use them. They are free. They are made of oak and each key has a number on, a small coloured tag. I have number 13. Next to the bank of wooden lockers is a coat rack, with coats on it as I remember from the past.
And now I am a smiling old woman, looking at all the galleries have on show - Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Jacob Epstein, Paula Rego. I am happily the shadow of the ladder on the wall and I am glad of the kindness of gallery attendants, who live with these artists and because of that, are able to resist and be human.

....Added value quote on Beuys by Allan Antliff, provided by Jane Fordham, my artist collaborator: "That December, Beuys and fifty students demonstrated how direct action could work by sweeping paths through a small public forest in the city of Dusseldorf that was threatened by the planned expansion of a tennis club," writes Antliff. 
"They marked the trees that were to be cut down, exposing just how devastating the destruction would be. Beuys issued a call to 'Overcome the dictatorship of the parties, save the forest!' and distributed a poster announcing 'Let the rich beware, we will not yield. Universal well-being is advancing."