Thursday, June 20, 2019

Brighton's filthy masterpiece - Lewes Road and the taxi driver's story

Lewes Road cycle lane car and lorry park
Poor old Lewes Road - a pollution corridor for years, with a barely functioning cycle lane and an environmental scandal growing under the radar. 

When bus lanes were brought in to get students to campus faster, cars diverted into residential streets off Lewes Road.

The most popular rat run works in both directions leaving Brighton and coming in. It goes past two schools, dense terraced housing and through the allotments. 

So far the council's only response has been to paint double yellow lines to prevent congestion on one of these 'alternative routes' and enable the traffic to flow rather than reduce it.

But if air pollution on Lewes Road was at one time so bad it breached WHO guidelines, why is it okay to divert cars, lorries and buses into areas of housing and past two schools? The taxi driver's story is the diversion was a cynical move to manipulate air quality monitoring results. 

Lewes Road, a masterpiece of failed urban planning, failed traffic management and filthy air. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Escape into snail trails

“When I was painting the Constellations, I had the genuine feeling that I was working in secret, but it was a liberation for me in that I ceased thinking about the tragedy all around me.” Joan Miro.

That tragedy was war and he couldn't have reached further away with his titles, all of them suggesting a world of the interior, not of blood, mud, camps and invasion.

"I find my titles in the process of working, as one thing leads to another on my canvas. When I have found the title I live in its atmosphere."

I have been going through old photos. This title of Miro's comes from my Mallorca album and I saw it in Soller station gallery/museum thanks to David Parfitt and Jane Fordham, who took me there.

But what I learned in five weeks in Mallorca has taken far more than five weeks to jiggle into place in my mind.

I have concluded fury is a brilliant motivator and not to be suppressed. I realise I like to work in bursts, that regular tasks don't produce anything more interesting, just more.

I appreciated, during two weeks alone, the brilliance of my friends and my family. I realise it's okay to shout over walls, that time is short. I remembered the title by Miro this morning when I saw an inexplicable snail trail on the runner in my hall. Inexplicable because there was no obvious way in or out. It belongs to Miro. The kitchen clock was wrong but the sun was shining.

Monday, June 03, 2019

The best book I've read

The rose chafer
The rose chafer looks like it should be on a necklace or a ring but I saw it yesterday on a chilli plant given to me by a friend and which I'd planted in the polytunnel.

I was digging up lettuce being reduced to lace by caterpillars, putting them outside in the hope they'll recover and birds will do the insect control for me. It was there, immobile, shining.

Like most things that live in the garden the rose chafer has its own role and its grubs are good for the soil even if it does eat roses, so I welcome it. If it eats the chilli plants, I'll pick it up and move it, but until then it's a sign the allotment's healthy and supporting more than me.

May's been a month of immersion - preparing plots, sowing and planting. Two friends and an allotment neighbour have provided the bulk of my plants because I was away at a critical growing time but my own seeds are now coming on. I've put french beans and runners out and repotted round courgettes to grow larger before they too fend for themselves. Sunflowers, lettuce, basil are to come.
Polytunnel early May

The big event was ordering half a ton of compost to build up the soil. Spring's been too dry and the plot's like dust. There's so little topsoil above the chalk below us but I'm now able to plant into the compost, hoping for more worm action too, because I'm digging less. I have three black compost bins and four other home-made compost heaps on the plot, but even that's not enough to keep the soil healthy.

My swing away from digging coincides with leaving large patches of self-seeded flowers for bees. Borage appeared early and Sicilian honey garlic has spread to several parts of the allotment. Every year the comfrey comes back in the same two places, on either side of the gooseberries, under the plum tree and it hums with bees.

Sicilian Honey Garlic
Demands of sowing, preparing and planting mean May and June preclude almost everything else apart from one day a week of work, seeing family and friends. Any writing I embarked on in winter stays in its folders. I struggle with myself, I feel guilty for my own inattention but the green tunnel of the path, nesting blue tits, wrens and blackbirds, the golden slowworm on the top of the compost, have me in their grip.

If I were to track my movements on a typical allotment day they'd make a cat's cradle of small trips to and from the water butts, polytunnel, greenhouse, shed, compost bins, tables, from the newly planted hazel tree at the top, to the old plum at the bottom, I zig zag between currants and lavender, planting out sweetcorn and watering onions. I marvel at the mullein moth caterpillar with its yellow and black markings continuing its beautiful destruction.

If I'm writing in my head I'm not aware of it but somehow I feel that this is more urgent than anything else I might do at the moment.

When I pick elderflowers to make cordial I smell childhood. It's so early, there's one other person around in the distance, trees curl over the path, the elder releases its scent, cow parsley (Queen Anne's lace/wild chervil), is still potent and sunlight comes through branches like it does in cine film.

A badger has dug up a bumble bee nest, probably soon after I'd been there with Giya and a friend of hers and sat by the fire as the sky darkened and robins chased the last of the light away.

The nest in the shed is a box of song. A crow carries off a small rodent. It's the best book I've read.

Bee friendly plants - a list from the University of Sussex
Wildlife gardening
Sussex butterflies
The Kings Fund report Gardens and Health

Oxeye daisies - typical meadow flowers

Friday, May 24, 2019

The difficulty of prizes and ageism

A prize shortlist is a telling thing. A litmus test, an indicator of the state of whatever the prize is being awarded for. 

Prizes comprise most of the news from the poetry world. Anyone on a shortlist has a better shot at readers - who are disappearing like topsoil and beetles

This year in the gallery of book covers and faces, all the faces are curiously unlined. Click on names and make your way through three categories, best collection, best first collection, best single poems. Dates of birth start to repeat. 1990, 1990, 1988, 1988, 1988, 1986, 1984, 1984, 1982, 1980, 1978, 1972, 1979,1977....the rank outsider is 1969. 

Not one poet who's published a collection or poem eligible for the 2019 Forward prizes is over 50. 

Should I write this? The hurdles come fast, like synonyms for oversensitive: touchy, paranoid, neurotic, awkward, difficult, thin-skinned, uptight, twitchy, emotive. 

Like racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism has a quantifiable impact on well-being and health, to such a degree that the World Health Organisation warns: "Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially "normalized" of any prejudice. 

"For older people, ageism is an everyday challenge. Overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media, ageism marginalises and excludes older people in their communities."

I belong to many communities - my street, my city, my allotment, my work. I feel increasingly out of place at work. An incident this week shocked me. I am still processing it. Which brings me to the poetry community. This community's taken decades to be serious about equality. 

Dragged to its knees by nepotism, old boy networks, bad old ways that set a 'standard' achievable only if you were a spitting image of someone else, poetry had to wake up eventually. It's teaching itself, slowly, about diversity. The thing about ageism is that it affects black, white, gay, lesbian, trans, blind, deaf....and it's global. It's a bit of a shock to realise that representatives of this community don't believe anyone born before 1969 has written anything noteworthy this year. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2019


The first thing I said out loud to myself as I drove behind the beekeeper on my way to the house, was 'asphodels, a field of asphodels'. The beekeeper would tell me their nectar made the champagne of honey. 
My brain had provided a plant name but I had no conscious memory of the flower.  I only knew asphodel as a flower of the dead.
Online searches tell me its constituent parts are used as glue (for shoes and books), to make bread, huts and cord. Persephone wears a garland of asphodels. Poets from Milton to Leonard Cohen give it a name check. The goats tear off its flowers.
Asphodel was the start of talking to myself. By the end of a week alone I was regularly bouncing thoughts off the walls of the courtyard I spent my days in, weeding.
Above me, birds flew between trees, roof tiles, rocks, water troughs and undergrowth. They swung on the wild euphorbia and as the days lengthened into April, I looked forward to the gang of sparrows making noise every evening, the familiarity of a blackbird's song.
The sheep came to visit almost immediately as if they knew they had a visitor. I went for a walk and came back to a small group of goats claiming the builders' bags by my hire car. The big male had horns as magnificent and curled as a kudu. A small female was pulling at leaves with two kids nearby. Then I heard the bells. These Mallorcan sheep have long faces, mournful but appealing, and floppy ears. I was going to get to know them better than I imagined because they'd be attacked by dogs.  

This was writing time. Five weeks as a house-sitter. The deal, an hour's work a day. I'd never have gone to Mallorca otherwise, never have stayed in a place like this, high above the sea, where north African invaders made it part of a prosperous caliphate in 902, terracing and irrigating the land.
Water is everything. It comes from the mountain and is directed into great rectangular pools along channels that were carved out of stone.
After the first week of furious gardening and a miserable day trip to Palma when I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake, I began to write properly. A story, then another, and another. At the beginning of April I decided to write a poem every day. I hadn't intended to write poems, my priority was short stories and editing When The Birds Carry A River, the travel memoir that has, in the past, been called Venda Sun and Road to the North.
In the middle of one night my phone alarm went off. Then I heard another alarm outside my window. I was alone, listening hard for footsteps. But it was another Mediterranean visitor, the Skops owl. And that would become another story.
Before long, friends were coming. We shopped in Carrefour, buying enough for a fortnight. The track to the house from a lethal turning off the main road was a feat of concentration, a 30 minute bump into potholes and ruts. There was no popping anywhere for something forgotten. On each journey I mentally forfeited the deposit on the hire car.
There were markets to visit, baskets to buy, and Amazon Prime as we stoked the fire at night. Then the dog attacks meant the sheep had to come out of the woods. A local farmer came to take away the young rams.
On every walk, asphodels, pine trees, euphorbia and on the terraces, olive trees and carob. Below the carob trees, the dark brown pods collect like punctuation marks. I needed to believe in writing again and when I came back, I did. On one of my last days at the house, when fog settled and stayed, I finished the editing I'd set myself. The dog was caught. The sheep were freed and Blue, an hour old when I first saw her (or him) went off with the flock back into the mountains.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The soil

This time last year
I empty three bins full of disintegrating plastic bags and plant pots, oil shears, move three blueberry plants because they don't like their spot with the raspberries. Perhaps under the trees they'll be happier.

I plant a trough of herbs for a friend - a long overdue birthday present - plus two pots of rosemary and oregano. I fish leaves out of the water butt with a rake.

I separate chives, pick purple sprouting broccoli and tidy the shed. I find balls to stick on bean canes in the summer, lengths of wire and string. I plant unidentified bulbs I dug up last year and left in the greenhouse.

I pay £15 for an allotment key and hand over four co-worker forms. I pot up some mint and check the leaf-mould.

I buy two bags of first and second early potatoes, some broad beans, find green manure seed and scatter a wildflower mix.

I put a box of wood in the shed for fires, kindling undercover next to a box of paper. I disturb a large spider and a millipede.

I chat with Jeanette.

I move a foxglove, bloody sorrel, stray bluebell and three herb roberts.

It starts to rain. I tidy the shed some more. I leave for home, forgetting the forget me nots I've potted up for the garden.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A whale and wandering womb

I dreamed about a whale in the sky and it turned into a murmuration of starlings heading for Brighton pier. So many birds have emerged singing in February sun - a blackbird in the morning, and walking with Julie and Roxy at Rottingdean, a charm of goldfinches mobbing a barn owl as it hunted. Larks were up and singing, and in the owl's easy flight, goldfinches' chittering, the afternoon expanded. I went to the allotment with Annie who's recording bumble bees. We talked about how social media has turned into a doom-merchant in the corner, sniping and groaning. Although kids streaming through Brighton streets and other cities made a whale. There were more goldfinches in the trees by the cemetery and just as Annie breathed 'a charm of goldfinches' we saw, among their bright flashes and high sounds, a kestrel. They were chasing it away. It doesn't take much of someone else's hope to feel it. It's like sourdough starter. So demonstrating kids and goldfinches set me looking through poems for my new book. Poems about the earth, letters from years ago and growing old. Many began after I found Virtue's Household Physician (1927). Woman's Head as Jug (Arc 2013) has poems on menopause but that's not the end of the story - the womb has so many travelling companions.
Work by Joan Lyons at Paris Photo 2018

Wandering womb

The womb is often out of its natural and proper place...*

I feel it pull at ligaments. 
It's the size of a mouse or turtle 
and can turn itself inside out 
like a glove. No surprise it wanders.

Think of a glove, conducting,
giving directions, all the places 
a mouse and turtle visit, 
compared to a womb, 

now joined in its ambling 
by a kidney, eye, spleen - nomads
seeking relief from a 24-hour contract 
to remain in the same body. 

Am I cruel to tempt my womb
of all body parts, back to captivity, anchor
it with stitches to this body-zoo,
to its natural and proper place?

* from Virtues Household Physician 1927

Friday, January 18, 2019

Dolly and Jolene - a taste for country

Source, Fair use,
I'm not too sure when I acquired a taste for country music and if it's a sign of age but the indy choir, Wham Jam, I've joined this winter includes a jazzy version of Jolene in its repertoire and it's incredibly pleasing to listen to and sing. 

Jolene, along with another country tune, is often on my mind, although when I try and practice at my desk, the cat leaves the room like a shot. Is she picking up on the tragedy?

Dolly is a woman to admire - she wrote the song and has performed it around the world. What does the cat pick up as Jolene starts up on the laptop? Tiger escapes the moment I start to sing along but I don't think I'm THAT bad. Everyone can sing, can't they? The quality of my voice, it seems, is irrelevant. I search the question, do cats like music? and unsurprisingly, there's a theory - a study from the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 

It seems cats like music so long as it's species appropriate. Researchers asked a musician to write three songs: Cozmo's Air, Spook's Ditty and Rusty's Ballad after test cats walked away from Bach and Faure. 

I'm not too bothered about Tiger disliking Jolene. It's the one she has the most extreme reaction to. The others in the set make her concerned. Perhaps it's not so much my singing as the fact that she's used to me being silent as I sit at my desk. The whole house is silent. She and I generally enjoy the silence, interrupted by the odd car passing, sparrows in the fuschia outside, Binky barking next door. Now I've worked out the BT blocking system, there's not even too many unwanted calls on the landline either. 

I wonder if there's something in the lyrics that Tiger picks up, a supremely human capacity for betrayal and jealousy, for theft and drawn out misery. Jolene is perhaps a robust reminder of the human world. But Dolly Parton is infinitely more interesting than whether cats like music because of everything she has overcome.  Her birthday, by the way, is 19 January. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Towards the sea

The song starts "A room with a window facing west/ Towards the sea". It's by the Staves and it's part of the repertoire of Wham Jam, the daytime choir I've joined this winter. As a newcomer, I'm daunted by the prospect of learning a set before mid March but this tune has stuck in my mind, particularly the line "Sing me a song, your voice is like silver...."

Sing me a song, your voice is like silver
It's an old metaphor but the melody's sweet and the invitation is lyrical. It was in my mind as I browsed Eurostar's £29 deals a few days ago, wondering if I could take some time out to stay at a friend's house in France. The question is still there in my mind, despite my decision to call myself semi-retired. The old work ethic nags and drowns out all idea of fun.

But then there are friends. Good, loyal, conscious and responsive friends, who remind me always of opportunity, of fun, of the need to make the most of what I have. And so this one friend, dear Michaela, texted me, "have you read your email?"

I'd been humming that line by the Staves as I cleared the front room, finding a space for Giya to work, filling bags with recycling. I felt like a sparrow brushing last year's twigs from the eaves and the sparrow gang was indeed outside at the time. So I went to my emails and could hardly believe what I was reading. There it was, that room facing the sea, and it was on top of a mountain.

It is as if that exercise of making the space for my daughter to work, the song, the earlier dream of travelling had become a living thing, had somehow found a place where thought and reality coincide and put an old Spanish house there, high above the sea, in a blur of green, ochre and blue. That the dream had, like the best secretary, matched the dates when I had no work, the time when I could risk leaving the allotment for a month, the time when Giya was here, and sung me that song.

I have neglected my writing over the past few months for all sorts of reasons. But I have a collection of poems to sharpen up, the South African book to continue editing and short stories to indulge in because I'm loving the looseness they create in me. I will plant two trees for my flights and ask favours of friends with strimmers and green fingers, to keep the grass down and bring on some seedlings. I have never felt so lucky.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Is the family mending?

It seems to have been happening forever and yet been compressed into a matter of months - one moving out, the other now engaged.

None of us makes decisions rashly. The happening forever starts with the children going away to do their degrees.

One leaving, two of us left. Then the second leaving and me left. Then one coming back so two of us again.

And just as the second comes back, the first moves in with his girlfriend. Now the second has shown me her ring.

Mum went out and bought a bottle of Bollinger, I drove over to her house with both children and partners. We toasted, we laughed and blew on the fire to get it going. It was suddenly cold and the sky was clear. As I drove them back along the seafront, the offshore wind farm sparkled, the stars sparkled, the seafront houses, car headlights and street lights sparkled.

I like to imagine my odd, fractured and skimpy family is mending itself, like bones, like bark, just as I realise that the grandfather I thought I'd found may not be the one. My children's new lives make the broken links to Ireland and beyond less important.

And through it all I have fallen in love with short stories - with the hard honesty of Doris Lessing's African stories, the snow light of Tove Janseen's winter book, and I am nervous even about hoping that a desire to write might be coming back.