Sunday, July 05, 2020

All over instagram

The tall climbing peas have been eaten by mice, the blue banana squash has just about survived but I left it too late for aztec broccoli. The best result so far, which Giya and I ate last night with her home-made pizza, is a French lettuce, Reine des Glaces - Queen of the Ice. The seed's traceable back to 1883, but I chose it for the name.

I've become an allotment bore but in lockdown it's more than early cucumbers and constant rocket. I put my hands in the soil, cut bamboo poles in half, pinch out tomatoes, shrug my shoulders at the peas and plant another row of something else. The heads of other allotment holders sit on hedges. When I open the gate with the fierce black cat who stalks (and attacks) any dog in the street, I enter hours without words.

I've found it impossible to read during lockdown, other than for work. I used to get through three or more books a week. Now the radio show for Reverb, workshops, looking at friends' collections and skimming The Guardian online in the mornings is the sum of it. Sometimes I find a Public Domain Review essay or a long read but I can't concentrate. Spiralling into doom I'll never write again, my books have sunk without trace, no-one wants to read anything by an old woman. I argue with myself, give way, none of it matters, but it does, stand up...and so it goes. The old doubt, never being good enough, the old Catholic legacy, the scholarship girl......

Then at 7am I empty the freezer of last year's fruit, turn it to jam, making space for the next crop. I walk with Giya and Beth on the Downs where the Long Man of Wilmington is etched into chalk.

I'm slowly getting over Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I no longer take a photo thinking I'll post it. I no longer think in post length bites. I realise I've been feeding those doom feelings for far too long on social media and competitive rankings I've felt forced into. I want to delight at amazing metaphors, a new way of seeing, a new voice.

And so the allotment feeds me literally and emotionally more than ever. It is like magic in the way it keeps the dread at bay. The plum tree is laden, each branch is heavy and drooping. The tomatoes are staked. The cucumbers are clinging onto netting. The queens of ice are filling out among October's main crop potatoes. The first yellow courgettes are a couple of inches long and the chard is showing its rainbow colours. The allotment is the great leveller, waving its sea-green ribbons, rioting about enclosure, my semi-rural rebellion within this city by the sea.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

#Instagram poetry

Bless #Instagram for my clone

with quotes from X1V Sonnets from the Portugese 
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My life, I admit, is little more than photos
of police cars in disabled bays, on pavements,
obscure quotes, birthday cake, attempts
with biscuits, pasta, sourdough, all I've grown -

from fatter to a glut of plums. So clone, 
since I've posted so little to measure
up to, love me for love's sake, that evermore,
now you've broken in, you're my reflection

in a place I won't revisit this lifetime, memory
of a silent pool where nothing's moved 
or sung since that girl drowned. Mum told 
the story on a walk. Picture me there, copy 

my duckface and I'll picture you by a lockbox,
devoted bot, headless browser, mimicking 
the numbers I twist into place, pirating Diptic 
collages, libations from me and my Ixus. 

Bless your punctuation of my name, formally
messaging my friends. A creature might forget to weep.
If thou must love me I donate my past asleep,
unaware of APIs. Is it you Logan or Richard953?

Oh, bot herder, spam bot, love on, reserve hotels, 
sit on flights, scrape and crawl for me, mutate,
mutate, mutate. I bless your trick of thought
the cloud you live in. Bless #Instagram, my clone.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

When my Instagram clone stole the garden buddha

If I could clone myself I wouldn't have done it on Instagram. I went there because of misplaced optimism. Everyone was talking about Instagram poets and I had quite a few short poems, they'd be good wouldn't they? 

I've always seen myself as technically competent. I had one of the earliest Macs, as a young reporter I was shown the offices where Eddie Shad was revolutionising newspaper production. 

I've fitted new memory into a laptop, I've sorted out problems with broadband, I've backed up and backed up, changed passwords....I joined Facebook. And that was where my Instagram clone was conceived. 

If I imagine a clone, it's a 65 year old woman in allotment clothes bending over a line of lettuces in someone's memory - not truly a clone, but a quick charcoal drawing, or the kind of monoprint my friend Jane Fordham makes. 

But no, the clone trying to con good people out of cash is me with a fullstop interrupting the name I've had since childhood, Jackie. The name I shared with a magazine and wife of a president. 

The clone has copied everything I've posted, including a desperate change of profile picture, from portrait of me at Kings Lynn Poetry Festival by my publisher Tony Ward, to mum's garden buddha. When the clone stole the buddha it was the last straw. I downloaded a stock photo of a can of spam and made that my profile pic. 

I've reported the impersonation to Instagram five times, included proof of ID (passport and driving licence), and other Instagram users have reported it too. But it takes up so much time. So I've gone for full deletion after temporarily disabling it. Minutes after deleting, I had an email from Facebook saying they haven't received acceptable ID that matches information on the account. I guess it was also from a bot. In my pointless reply to the bot I wrote: 

"I've just deleted my genuine account, so if you want, as a company, to be seen to enable fraud and impersonation, be my guest....I have decided to withdraw totally from social media in order to protect my name."

I've discovered people who tried for months to get Instagram to delete a cloned account and I can't be bothered to go head to head with the deep capitalists to secure such a tiny place in the sun where the bots are rampaging through beautiful places with their fundamentalism, botox and lies.
Mum's garden buddha and cat. The buddha's face was one of my
profile pics which the Instagram clone stole with impunity. 

I was leaving social media anyway. Instagram was something I rescued from the charity shop bag. But last night, I looked at my followers. Men with steroid arms and tattoos, women pouting, boardroom men in suits, men topless hugging dogs, men claiming to be religious and after a good woman, all of them with numbers after their names. 

There it was, photo proof of the bots. And I realised as I blocked them, that my complaints to Instagram would also be dealt with by bots. 

I feel a bit sad that there's someone pretending to be me after all the work I've put into my writing. 

There is now only a cloned account on Instagram purporting to be me: jack.iewillspoet
Note the full stop is in the middle of my first name. 

But I can't do any more to limit the fraud. It seems cloning is thriving despite public pronouncements by Instagram. I did all the company asked to prove I am who I am - jackiewillspoet without a full stop - but my name, punctuated randomly, now belongs to a criminal clone, fed, watered, prayed to and cheered on by Instagram. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

28 years

Twenty-eight years ago today I woke up as a mother. My son was born in the early hours of the morning on June 13 1992. I was 37 years old. Yesterday he, his girlfriend, my daughter, my mother and me celebrated with strawberry cake and sandwiches.

Before birthday tea, thousands of us stood silently on the seafront to demand changes to how my son, my daughter, their dad and millions of other black people are treated in the UK. As a white woman I've not experienced racism, I've experienced its by-products. I've tried to comfort my children, stand up for them, listen to them. I've witnessed them and their dad humiliated by teachers, bosses, so-called friends, parents of so-called friends, neighbours, the police, random strangers, security guards, shopkeepers, their peers.

I have been forced to listen to extracts from my father's diary read aloud in which he referred to the father of my children in terms I couldn't write down here. I have been told this act had nothing to do with race (of course not, I am white) and all to do with me.  I have witnessed this tactic adopted gratefully by white liberals who believe we won't notice as they turn the objects of their discomfort into aggressors.

I didn't have a clue what I was embarking on as a mother. I'd never been around babies. The family I was brought up in was self-contained, almost hermetically sealed. There was no laughter, no socialising, no sharing small children and babies around. My father's bitterness and racism tainted our lives until my mother had enough and left. I was 21.

When I was eight, I remember my grandfather carving lamb at one of the Sunday lunches we endured in Wembley. He stood to carve, at the top of the table. Behind him, the main road, changing demographically. It was 1963 and 15 years since Empire Windrush docked in Essex. Even then, so young, I felt uncomfortable with the language my grandfather used to describe his neighbours. Beside me, two younger brothers. Beside me, my mother, cowed, my aunt, cowed, my father, nodding.  So I should have known what I was embarking on as a mother bringing up black children. The hard bits, anyway.

Twenty eight years on from the morning after that birth around dawn on June 13, after I'd looked down on the seafront, over the waves, the horizon, the sky from the hospital tower block, we reminisced about the maths teacher who humiliated both my children, now an alcoholic. Mum and I heard my children describe not one, not two, but multiple teachers' abuses of power. This was not the 1950s, it was post millenium, in a school described as one of the best comps in the UK.

We sometimes remember a man with flickering eyes like a lizard who accused my son of threatening him, whose racism was so intense and shameful that just thinking about the incident makes me shake. The people paying him couldn't grasp or admit it, so they spent months turning it around until they had a story in which my son and I had threatened them. They told their friends, their cleaner, their workmates. They built a narrative that was repeated until it reached people I knew.

Incapable of admitting they'd employed someone who had behaved so dangerously, so transgressively - god forbid they couldn't be racist - they convinced themselves they were victims.

Yesterday, we didn't need to state what my children learned from birth, that racists are dangerous and to be avoided. When I saw a video of the woman in Central Park calling police because a black man asked her to put her dog on a lead, I remembered lizard-eyed man, my shaking hands, my nausea, my fear.

We have all seen the contortions of truth deep racists and covert racists share and live with while planning for a post-lockdown holiday "somewhere hot." Eavesdrop, hear them complain among themselves that they can't say what they like anymore, we've seen them adopt victimhood and transform it into firearms and fists or deflect attention away from change.

My children have taught me unpicking racism is a long game. That like all good crime stories, there are innumerable false statements of truth and plot twists. People may pretend a poster in a window can erase a decade of racist behaviour but what do you think?  I've learned that despite having black children I can also be racist but I hope I have learned to challenge myself. To be self aware. To listen when I am challenged.

What I never anticipated all that time ago was that my life would be divided in this way and I would learn so much. But the racists, overt/covert, pissing on war memorials or avoiding the seafront Black Lives Matter protest for a walk in the country, are on the wrong side of history. No amount of playing black music, going to Womad, buying Fairtrade makes privilege righteous.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

About race

I hope I'll be able to go to the Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton on 13 June. It's down at Madeira Drive. It's going to be socially distanced and silent. But most important of all, it's my son's birthday.

More than before and after coronavirus, I think we will in future talk about before and after the killing of George Floyd. Before, those who would talk about race were predictable. Those who didn't want to hear shuffled awkwardly or were extreme in their opposition. Now, there is a deluge of demands on black people to explain. As if the UK is playing a massive game of catch up.

The only poems I've written directly about race and racism relate to the visits we made as a family to South Africa. The rest of the time I felt racism was not for me to address. I felt like a trespasser, even with black children.

Don't get me wrong. I challenged racism when they told me about it, but none of us could challenge it all. Did I, as a mother, begin to feel this was something we all had to put up with? Was I less aware of the physical dangers to my children, their father than I should have been?

I wonder now, if it wasn't until incident after incident during their teens that I really understood the police were never going to protect my children. I understood this when they were babies, on a trip to South Africa, when apartheid was to all intents and purposes still in place. But in the UK? Did I do enough to challenge racism? In hindsight, probably not. But what is enough, what is the bare minimum?

I believed I was politically aware. But not aware enough about race and racism. I think it would have taken too many books and far more courage than I had in me to be an activist when they were growing up. My energy went on making them feel confident about their identities, on finding black Lego, Playmobil, dolls, action men, books with black children in, hair products.

I began to write about race and bringing up my children only when my daughter left for university. And even then it was difficult. Even with that distance. A voice in me said you have no right. It still says you have no right. I've silenced it for a while. I've written the book. It's prose, not poems.

My son's due date was June 16, Soweto Day. He arrived early. He'll be 28 on June 13. If we can, we will stand in line on Madeira Drive as a family. My daughter will be 26 in September. It won't be the first time all four of us have stood against racism but it will be the first time we have protested against it together in the UK.

Sunday, May 31, 2020


The week a woman threatened a Black man in a park because he asked her to put her dog on a lead, the week an American cop put his knee on a Black man's neck and murdered him....
It's too much.
I've been afraid for my children for years as they grew up in the UK and faced racism. We've experienced the system of apartheid when we've visited their father's home but I would never want them to travel to America.
I wrote to Gary Younge when he left America, explaining in the Guardian he was leaving because of his son. He was the only other person who'd expressed fear for his children in that country in such a way I could relate to. I thanked him for bringing racism and its dangers down to basics.
There are things I can't write here because they're not mine to write. But I can speak out. And now is one of those times. If you don't know what racism is, you have to educate yourself. That is your responsibility. And if you are ignorant, do not expect tolerance of that ignorance.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Found sound in the graveyard

Dignity PLC - men who run many of the UK's graveyards, including
Downs Cemetery in Brighton
I'm at the allotment with an H1 'handy recorder' to do another week's poems for Radio Reverb's lockdown literature hour. It's a quirky show, with short stories, archival sounds of rain and birds, and me, reading poems from writers in and around the city, plus a short writing prompt at the end.
The producer likes a bit of ambient sound with the poems, as I do and me and the birds get on well.
But I have to choose my moments because even in lockdown, city life is not so quiet. At first there's birdsong - the robin, blackbird, the blue tits nesting in my shed, squirrels in the lindens, sparrows and gulls. There's traffic along the top road and rev of motorbikes because that cut through's an invitation to accelerate with fences on either side and ramshackle sheds. You could be anywhere, it's no-woman's land with its plastic bottle roofs and chairs made into fences.
I'm in the greenhouse wondering if I need to bring the recorder under cover because it's windy. Then in the distance it starts - the strimming - way down near the crematorium chimney belching grey smoke minute by minute. I try and look through the fence but the ivy's grown up. I wander down the path and there they are - men with machines and vans.
The grass has hardly had a chance to go green after the last shaving, but they're revving their strimmers and moving around the gravestones. I can feel my heart. This pack approach. I wander back to the shed and abandon the poem recording. I'll record the strimmer choir. It moves closer. I bend towards the mike, speak the time and date. The men and their machines are unstoppable. Stones, sticks, anything alive is thrown 15 metres one way and another. Nothing survives a petrol strimmer, not a frog, hedgehog, grass snake or slow-worm. Not a chick, a mouse, a squirrel.
(In Bristol, an allotment association has ruled petrol strimmers can only be used between 10 am and midday and only for 30 minutes. "Petrol strimmers emit noise  at a particularly high-pitched frequency which causes noise pollution to many.")
I bow down to Bristol pioneers and wonder about moving. Everyone knows, don't they, that petrol engines are noisy? It was a Texan who invented the petrol powered string strimmer in 1971 and that good ole boy made millions. Before him, you'd scythe and use a variety of hand-tools, or sheep. They were still sending sheep into the graveyards in Surrey in the 80s.
By now the strimmers are deafening, me, the fence, the badger sett, the dead.  I have to leave them to their destruction and wander home, download the recordings and listen back.
Bringing the sound to my desk, I feel the same panic and wonder if there's more to this. I think about beauty, I research sound pollution, I find just one good piece in the Financial Times about noisy garden machinery . The packs of men in harnesses stinking of petrol are rampaging as we speak through parks, allotments, graves, random patches of roadside grass, razing them to dust. They're paid by councils and cemeteries, by owners of large country estates.
I'm thinking about sound as art, found sound, how to bring this to boardrooms, meeting rooms, earbuds, about what it does to the body when it goes all spring and summer. I'm wondering about recording the leaf blower over the road, the power washer, the angle grinder, the electric saw, and putting them on a loop.
But they are already playing in the background at funerals, at weddings, at children's parties, at picnics, during intimate lunches, brave conversations, admissions of love. They drown out dreaming. They're what we've allowed.

Friday, May 15, 2020

A flower that arrived by accident

Honey garlic, allium siculum. 
In the places where this is common, the Black Sea and Mediterranean, it grows in woods. It likes damp and shade. It appeared on my allotment when I was working at the University of Surrey as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. So, sometime between 2010 and 2012. 
I remember asking in the office, excited by this exotic droopy plant with gorgeous flowers. 
It arrived just like that and it's multiplied where it appeared and moved to the top of the plot where it grows among spring nettles, holding its head of flowers above clumps of stinging leaves, among the brambles. I leave the patch untouched because the robin, or a succession of them, always nest in the tangle of thorns. It's safe. 
The plant's other names are Sicilian honey lilySicilian honey garlic and Mediterranean bells. It's a bee plant and it's multiplying in the dry, chalky soil where it first appeared. I designated this a flower patch so I don't dig it over much, although this year I've had to pull out a lot of grass and Japanese anemone which is taking over. The ox-eye daisies too are rampant. 
Below this patch is the even drier lavender patch where I've also planted sunflowers and angelica. On the path side is a vine. 
When I see the buds of the honey garlic opening I realise how little I know. They open like moments when I read a poem and am somewhere else. They open like mistakes, accidents, chance encounters. 
And as they spread, I am less afraid of destroying them forever. 
Where did the first one come from? I've looked forward to it coming back now for nearly a decade. 

Friday, May 08, 2020

No words for it

Methane release pipes are one of the reassuring aspects of a walk in Sheepcote Valley and, for the time being, the site's immunity from redevelopment.
While I love to see violets, deadnettle, bluebells, gorse and more, this sight lifts my heart. Long may it stay, while the occasional field mushrooms get kicked to pieces by dogs and walkers.
I have few words for the lockdown weeks in. Not a lot to add to news and social media reports of anxiety, aggression, peoples' inability to distance themselves. I hear from people in small towns, in the countryside about empty streets and wandering troupes of animals.
In Brighton, yesterday, it was already Bank Holiday. I had to take Giya to pick up a phone that a company was able to repair. She's a key worker, helping keep a nursery open for other key workers' children, and she needs her phone. We also had to check on Mum and water the seedlings at the allotment. So we had a drive from Saltdean to Hove along the seafront. It was busy all the way - people on bikes, walking, in groups, in the water, on the beach, on the lawns, picnicking.
Trying to think positive, Giya and I wonder if people will live differently after this. The signs, though, as the RAC has discovered, are that driving is the new cycling.
There's so much traffic the benefits of lockdown must be reducing by the minute, like the power tools cutting through birdsong.
I've dealt with these few weeks by planting, repotting seedlings, preparing the ground for planting out the squash, courgettes, beans, cavalo nero, lettuce etc. I've been growing in the greenhouse and polytunnel.
I did my poem a day during April, assiduously, but my efforts were empty. I crave silence more and more, velvety silence that only birdsong can provide - birds being the only sound that makes silence true.
I hear it when I wake up, before the cars start cutting up my road. I hear it sometimes in the middle of the night. But by lunchtime, someone will be determined to strim grass down to a centimetre, someone else will have a power-washer they're going to get value out of again today, someone will plug in a saw rather than get one out of the drawer or off a hook. The guys over the road will use the electric saw in the front so we can all hear it.
In our street, in my city of Brighton, is proof that Margaret Thatcher's "no such thing as society"  hasn't just endured, it's gained ground. With the loss of silence, the loss of words, is the loss of public discussion about how we live together, what we give, what we can expect from each other, discussion about respect, rights, how to protect our quality of life above personal convenience and profit.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Radio poems

Chard, curly kale, sunflowers, a foxglove,
perpetual spinach and so on
When I'm not at the allotment planting, preparing for planting, potting on and watering, or working through the chapters of On Poetry, I've been recording poems by writers from in and around Brighton.

I was asked to do an interview for Radio Reverb by Anna Burtt who writes and presents the Brighton Book Club podcast and because of lockdown had to record my contribution at home.

Anna then asked if I'd do some poems for the Literature Hour on Wednesday mornings. I dug out the old Zoom H1 recorder I bought a couple of years ago and started to experiment, first recording on the allotment and then in the back garden.

My first recordings were very dodgy but I'm getting the hang of MP3 quality, input levels and how to prevent the wind from mucking it all up with a sock over the mikes.

And I enjoy the weekly routine of reading through poems, deciding on a theme, writing up my short script to introduce two poems and talk about them after I've read them. My slot comes after a short story and some ambient sounds that fit in with the theme which the Literature Hour presenter, Ben Noble, finds.  Last week the sounds were waves and then torrential rain.

I've read poems so far by Janet Sutherland, Helen Oswald, David Swann, Sasha Dugdale Robert Hamberger and Maria Jastrzebska. 

Sunday, March 29, 2020

On poetry and poems

April's job is to generate a decent enough first draft of On Poetry, commissioned by The Poetry Business in Sheffield.
It's been March's job too and in fact, it has occupied several months so far. Not every day, but present enough in my mind, like the tiny lion in the corner of the shed window.
I've been rediscovering poets from my bookshelf as I work my way through chapter headings, amending them and my synopsis of each, finding poems that will help make sense of what I'm writing about reading.
I'm no theorist, I don't like rules, in fact I realise I've spent my life resisting rules and joining nothing but a trade union. I've stood in the corner at parties, challenged the status quo and cut my nose off to spite my face, as my teachers might have said decades ago.
But if nothing else, this lockdown we're all in has given me space to think. I'm not writing poems or stories, but I am able to read and build up the layers of this draft, which moves from childhood to this moment now at the end of March, when one day it's warm enough to lie in the hammock and the next there's snow, then it's melting and the sun's out again.
I'm hearing of friends of friends who have had the virus, I'm reading first hand accounts written by people I know. I sat to eat lunch with my daughter and it was too difficult to talk about the days to come.
I'm now prepared to wait for an hour or more for the supermarket. To shop once a week. I am focused on this draft and planting seeds. This time last year I was looking after sheep and walking around an enormous estate in Mallorca, house-sitting. God it was a nightmare at times for all sorts of reasons but I had two weeks of almost total isolation. I walked, I wrote, I weeded and I shouted over the walls. Then I had visitors. It'll be a while yet, won't it? But I look forward to those meetings with friends again.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Why a bean needs earth and water

I have a small gang of sparrows in my front garden who move between the bird bath, mock orange, fushia and Liz's next door. They wake me up around 6, but I'm ready since the sun came out again.
A winter of rain, now the coronavirus and with it a pandemic of stupidity. At least there's the allotment.
Mum tells me all my grandfather wanted was a small-holding but he never got it, he was too busy trying to keep his seven children fed and looked after. A single parent, a poor Irish immigrant, he grew potatoes in the back garden but that was the extent of it.
I had an allotment first in my twenties but didn't put the time in. I was busy drinking, I was in a band, I had places to go. Then when my children were little I had the chance of sharing a plot. It's the one I still pay for - same shed, same greenhouse, repaired endlessly.
I've only just finished last year's potatoes - I stored them where the mice couldn't get them after my lesson last year. Not in the cellar!
I've started planting the seed I bought from the Real Seed Company - organic and not GM, so I can save that seed again from the plants I grow. Unlike Bayer (formerly Monsanto), the bio giant grabbing patents left right and centre, the Real Seed Company is bringing back old species and boosting them to protect biodiversity and the gardener's right to self-sufficiency.
My nasturtium seedlings are on the table in my garden and they're the colour of the flowers in this photo, taken last year when I was working at Wisley RHS gardens. I'd hoped for another project this summer, but the pandemic's put paid to that. In fact, there's no work apart from the allotment.
Yesterday, distanced by the width of our plots, several gardeners got down to the serious work of preparing the ground and planting.
Image: Imperial War Museum,
an allotment in Kensington Gardens
One of my gardening books, setting out work for each month, the planning of what goes where, how much yield to expect from seed, by weight, was written at the end of WW2, when the number of allotments in the UK had been increased enormously to boost domestic food production. It was named Dig for Victory,  that war campaign and everything was dug up for allotments and growing food - this included gardens and parks.
So when a note on the gate said that Brighton and Hove Council had decided to turn the water off for allotments I wondered who made the decision, what could be a greater priority than producing food, if they'd missed out on contemporary history, even the debates about food and air miles. I wondered why it was so hard for people to join stuff up.
And this is the most joined up thing I and many others have got in the absence of work, income (no pension - that too was snatched away), satisfying the need to separate myself from people and provide food. A seed is one of the most responsive items we know of - it will grow and produce a lettuce, or courgette, or a bean, a pea. But it needs earth and water.
And it turns out, happily, the note on the gate was some kind of mistake, bad information, and although my email to the allotment service was treated with contempt, fortunately a councillor also has an allotment. So she got the the bottom of it. It seems there's still a member of staff in Cityparks who knows where the stopcocks are. I hope they've drawn a little diagram, in the circumstances.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

That empty table

As a species, we're talkers. In cities, we're loud, filling space with noise as if we're terrified of what else might be there.
In 65 years I've heard arguments about ridiculous things and noise levels rise, daily, filling those historic spaces.
Social media is bursting with pictures of empty spaces so I'm adding my own, but the story behind this one happened last year, when I was not in the country. The beautiful red scarf was a present from a family friend, the three chairs were anticipating the arrival of more friends. I'd been alone for nearly two weeks when I set out this little tableau and I'd absorbed silence as if it was my natural state. In fact it wasn't silent - there were birds, sheep, goats and the occasional laugh of a child from far down in the village. Once I heard a motorbike, sometimes there were walkers on a path that crossed the valley and curved below the house.
The quality of that silence was a balm. I filled it sometimes with Amazon music - blues and the heavenly sounds of west African kora and song. I couldn't go this year and for many reasons I'm relieved I didn't. I decided this was a year of not flying but in the circumstances it feels like a gift of second-sight.
There's no point wishing life was otherwise, but I can't help it. Mostly now, I wish I could stay away from the non-stop chatter that passes as information and yesterday from a news report that was reminiscent of WW2.
I look at the emptiness of the table, then, in two ways. As an invitation to friends who'll be there in the future. And as a reminder of how as humans we tie ourselves up in talk and fear. Can we live differently? The table is back in the store-room. When it comes out again a lot will have changed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Virus diary

The first cases of the virus emerged in the UK when I joined the gym at the beginning of February. It was one of those New Year bargains, a half-price month and I'd had pain in my knee, the dodgy one, all winter.
The GP asked if I belonged to a gym to build up the muscles in my thigh. So I was all set, and then the virus. It landed in Brighton with a superspreader who'd been jetting around the world. For a short while, the city was the epicentre, with its small cluster of cases and health centres closing.
I heard about people who knew people who were shut up for 14 days and other than that it was impossible to find much out. So much happens in a month.
I went to the gym for about two weeks and then cancelled the membership. I enjoyed some of the classes but not the sweatiness of the place and young men hogging machines, checking their phones while they took a break. I didn't enjoy seeing myself in the mirror, the spreading waist and grey topped head. My hair's gone Einstein.
So I cancelled the membership and limped a lot with the knee. It's been cold and wet, difficult on the allotment to do much and the knee's stopped me walking as I used to. As for the pandemic, I'm unprepared, having done absolutely no stockpiling. I have a packet of paracetemol and one pack of loo rolls. We don't have a big store cupboard of food, although the freezer could do with running down before the summer.
But it feels as if virus days are turning into the life that semi-retirement should be, slower and ambling, with the pressure to do anything off - except plant seeds, check mum has what she needs and do a bit of cooking.
I've begun a trial of CPD oil for the knee and I'm continuing with a short story about a conference I went to once. The bathroom ceiling needs cleaning and painting. I have mending to do and there's always the sock drawer to be severe with.

Monday, February 24, 2020

These days will pass - a history lesson

I read the slogan from the top of a bus going into town. The Co-op in London Road had just closed and people were sleeping under the arcade. 

Behind a tent and abandoned duvet, through the rain, PLEASE BELIEVE THESE DAYS WILL PASS was like kindness from a stranger - a message to those people sleeping rough, to anyone passing by, to people going to and from work, driving into and out of town. The Tories were still celebrating, I think, but maybe my memory's playing tricks. 

Contractors have since boarded up that space in front of the Co-op. It's going over to students, like the other Co-op department store in London Road, like the old people's home at the bottom of my road, like the giant skywards newbuilds on Lewes Road. 

And it's hard to believe in change in our Brighton and Hove bubble, where although we are green and red, politically, actually within the city it seems that every centimetre of land is monetised and open to abuse, every service privatised, and if you are a free-roaming member of the public (as opposed to a tourist bringing cash in) you are the enemy. 

I for one need more of this beautiful slogan because as well as kindness, it made me think about the great historical changes we've seen and that yes, hard times do pass. And next to it more encouragement, not pressing anyone, just allowing the act to stand on its own, THE COURAGE TO SAY NO

So much works against that courage - an assumption that if you refuse anything you will be punished, built on from childhood, fostered by all those little cards placed in windows - abuse will not be tolerated. 

I don't know who made these posters but they make me want to buy wallpaper paste and do some printing. 

Like Led by Donkeys, intervening with simple and powerful messages on public buildings, I thank and respect these anonymous spreaders of optimism, as I thank the poets, musicians, painters and photographers who are documenting, in their own media, these difficult days and how to say no. 

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Seeds and seaweed

Such stormy weather so the other morning I had to take a bucket and bag down to the beach by the marina and collect seaweed.

There wasn't as much as I'd expected. Some driftwood, plastic, these dead creatures and the seagulls flocking over waves at the marina wall
no doubt for more of the dead.

A flatfish was pressed against one of the beach walls and one clump of bladderwrack I picked up reeked of rotting fish.

It's a resource I've neglected all these years in Brighton and with the potatoes chitting and storms, it's an obvious move to gather this free soil improver from the stones.

It doesn't go far. I need to make more trips. This is the year of the soil. It has to be. Of worms, of building up that poor foot or so of earth above the chalk.

I've ordered organic seeds this year so I can make a concerted effort to save seed for following years. I've been lazy, or perhaps not conscious of the importance of this. Of knowing how it's done. Of building it into the growing year and the plan for what goes where. It is time, I suppose, for a diagram of the beds, allowing for plants to flower, set seed, provide for years to come.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The rapunzel flower and other species

Frost in April by Malachi Whittaker
Frost in April, it has happened, as has Frost in May (by Antonia White) but so far this winter, not a lot of frost yet. There's time, as the titles of these classic novels suggest, to be caught out.
Planting one or two things out in the garden yesterday I heard the school children's march in town - it was still, the sound of drums and shouting carried all the way along Lewes Road, up the hill, towards the Downs which are under such threat, the nature reserve now in the council's plans for housing.
It is easy to feel hopeless, just writing emails to people with such ready answers.
On my way to the allotment I passed Ian sitting on Rob's, listening to the radio and preparing to take down the rest of Rob's greenhouse. A few of his friends have been keeping an eye on things while he's unwell. The vine in the greenhouse grew so big last summer it broke through the glass roof.
I dragged three heavy bags of compost, heavier with rain from being stored outside, along the path. One for the small greenhouse, one for a large terracotta trough I'm earmarking for salad leaves, another for a cold frame that I need to put a roof on.
The birds were loud and in the cemetery the grave-digger was busy with the small digger he brings in on a trailer. The days of men with spades are gone, as are the days of people with scythes. It is impossible now to consider the damage. Ian and I moaned about leaf blowers, petrol powered. The lunacy of them.
Anthrax fly from Fabre's Book of Insects
I've resorted to researching prophesies, signs and auguries. How birds and other animals know before we do what is coming. There was a time I could smell rain. I was probably a child or possibly a teenager.
This is the year to re-learn, study old books recording the behaviour of insects and birds, to refresh the knowledge I might once have been handed by a grandparent.
Part of Rapunzel flower, not a poem
The city is oppressive. I want to be the robin above myself on the apple tree, an owl in the night.
Yesterday, I wrote about a property developer and I woke up feeling polluted by my own words. They are not the song. It is useless now to rage about idiocy, traffic and this uncontrolled rush to extinction.
I wrote Rapunzel flower, not a poem, years ago at Chesworth Arts Farm in Horsham. It's a six-part list of species. I was entranced by the names. I have always been. Give me lists of species and I'm in a sweet shop.
I watered the compost I'd put in the polytunnel, cut back brambles and protected the cabbages I planted last autumn. I transplanted mizuma from a row of spicy leaves last time I was there and it's survived but it's a gamble. There may be frost, still.
In the small greenhouse I found a big irridescent black beetle, dead on one of the beds. It was a jewel. I put it on a dried artichoke flower. A greenhouse still life.
I won't cut the lawns front or back this year. I'm transplanting forget me nots from the allotment where they've self-seeded everywhere, and ox-eye daisies. I'm careful to dig up tiny self-seeded foxgloves when I find them and save them into pots. It might help.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The places white men create

It is an eye catching slogan on this portacabin by B&Q on Lewes Road. A use of language aimed, I'd guess, at suggesting a certain level of responsibility, especially taking into account the company's name, U + I.
It's a property developer, which is probably not a difficult assumption to make, but a property developer that likes to brand itself as different.
Sadly, there's not a lot to distinguish it from any other on Lewes Road. In fact, what it's doing there is actually pretty shocking.
Brighton's always been low rise but the new developments increasingly being given the green light are high. This spot, on Lewes Road, used to be open. It was an old Territorial Army training centre and on the other side of the road there was a car park that created a wide and open run up to one of the old factories, taken over by the University of Brighton.
Who'd have thought so much could be crammed into so little space? The ghosts of the Territorials checking their kit and marching on the spot have barely room to bend over and tie their bootlaces. The new age slogan-branded portacabin sits next to a site going up and up and over the road another site going up and up and with the road the same width as it's always been, there's a massive wind tunnel in the making. When they cut the ribbons and open the sliding doors, I for one won't be on that cycle lane both for fear of road rage and the gathering of gusts from the sea.
But anyway, U + I, a new type of developer, according to its website. Which may be what attracted the council. So I took a look.

The management team. Three white men.

The leadership team. Five white men.

The non-executive directors. Three white men and three white women.

Really? In this day and age?

Friday, January 31, 2020

Ron Finley and guerilla gardening

I nearly cried when I saw Ron Finley's TED talk, shared by someone on Facebook, describing the food desert of the district he lives in, the endemic bodily sickness of people who barely see a vegetable and when I heard him describe his gardening as graffiti.

I think of the power invested in people who are generally remembered as big thinkers, the people who transform landscapes, like Capability Brown, who stock glasshouses with orchids, who re-wild acres of land they've had the money to buy....I think of most of us, the lucky ones with a square of garden, others with balconies and pots, others with nothing but a strip of grass and where I live, that's being parked on.

I think of the women who hold the secrets of growing everywhere in the world where this still happens, where it's not a hobby but a necessity and I think of my daughter watering pots of seeds in the nursery where she works, the kids' delight as they grow.

And Ron Finley, describing gardening in the city as defiance. If kids grow kale, kids eat kale, he says. I thought of the pathetic planters on Lewes Road and abandoned, unlet allotments at Tenantry Down. We need people like Finley to remind us of what's right, of what can be done with energy and drive.
Planters, Ravenna, Italy

It's not guerrilla gardening, but up the hill the community orchard continues to grow.

The questions for each city or urban area will be different, but in Brighton green spaces are seriously under threat from building, parking and strimming. Can we change? Can we make gardening radical and real, not just rhetoric?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Happiness or a contract with gossip?

My birthday hangs around blue Monday like the last fruit on the tree, apples clinging to bare branches by the roadside. And I've often felt grim in January and February, although much less so since a friend lent me a sun lamp a few years back and I realised that was the solution - get outside on sunny days, be in the daylight.
by Tove Jansson

It's easier now I'm semi-retired. I can go out when I like, more or less. And every Thursday I have a trip to Haywards Heath where I run a reading group for young people in Chalkhill.

Tove Jansson
This work has been essential income, but also essential to how I think about writing. Stuck in bed with a cold and cough for a couple of days, I took some time to try and find more material to read these young people. I want uplifting stories and poems. I want writing that takes them away from the dark rectangle in their palms they've grown up with, that awful tunnel of judgment, misery and despair, from criticism and pettiness, from bullying.

Uplifting. It should be easy, surely? And yet I'll be half way through a story and it turns, or the language changes and the 'fucks' and 'fucking' comes in. I'm no prude, I don't mind it too much, but I can't read it aloud to young teenagers. It's not allowed.
A contract with gossip

There are few short stories for teenagers, I've realised, that allow them to escape. Publishers seem to think teenagers need to read about bullying, abuse, suicide, self-harm, sex, dysfunctional families, harm to animals, you name it. I'm sounding old fashioned. But there's a difference between acknowledging problems exist and picking at scabs.
Ali Smith

An example: Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal. I read extracts from this new novel for teenagers and it is gripping. This is fantastic writing by a woman who knows what she's doing. I wish she wrote short stories, but I'll go with this. Michael Morpurgo, David Almond, Malorie Blackman....

When I asked on Facebook I wasn't sure if people got what I was asking for. Uplifting? Why? And what is uplifting? It's hard to define. Here are some of the short stories I've read which I felt went some way towards expressing an insight I was looking for, into whatever we mean by happiness or contentment, a moment with our spirits rather than being trapped in the dark glass rectangle of a contract with gossip and damage.
Gcina Mhlope
Elspeth Davie

Tove Jansson stories -including The magic forest and Snow

The Enchanted Morning by Malachi Whittaker

Half of What Atlee Rouse knows about horses by Brett Anthony Johnson

Writ and Last by Ali Smith

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Moths of the New World by Audrey Niffenegger

The Toilet by Gcina Mhlope

Boy in a Ford by Hugh Atkinson

May Malone by David Almond

The carpet with the big pink roses on it by Maeve Brennan

Through the tunnel by Doris Lessing

A weight problem by Elspeth Davie

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Fame, patriarchy, capitalism and everything else that's wrong

Work by Anthony Burrill -
words from a woman in a
supermarket queue
I spotted this little broadsheet in the background of a film on a rich and famous internet billionaire who lived in his office high above one of the world's megacities. It was like seeing a rare moth being pinned to a piece of card - a sentiment appropriated for its font and design.
Those of us brought up to describe the glass as half full, to appreciate the luck and privilege of our birth, have been too anxious in recent years to be nice. I trace my own awareness of this overwhelming positivity to 2000 when I worked as a poet in Unilever.
My cynicism was not nice in that environment where 'no' and 'but' were banned in favour of 'yes, let's build on that' attitude was as bad as my bad teeth - socially embarrassing.
And I knew this. It's why I stayed in the corner at parties. I never mastered the wit, irony, joshing (a public school term) that determines who may enter the club and who won't.
But truth be told, I was conned.
While I'm washing out baked bean tins in every weather, nothing's changing.
Fame determines who gets honours, money and work.
Patriarchy determines who gets the same. Oh come on, you know. I don't need to explain.
Capitalism is simple. No, you can't gather wood, you have to buy it from me. No, you can't put a shack in that wood, you're trespassing. No, animals aren't sentient they are raw material. If I build a factory here, I have the right to bottle and sell that water, to empty my shit into that water, to divert that water, to drain and dam that water.
You work for me. I decide what I pay.
What was that you said, yes? Or did you argue?
I am increasingly exhausted by trying to do the right thing, to be reasonable, to hear both sides. I am sometimes exhausted by living on next to nothing, by being invisible because I am not famous. By spending seven years on a book of poems that won't sell more than 500 copies.
Yes, of course, what matters is family, a roof, a patch of land to grow fruit and vegetables, a cat who purrs at me, being able to pay for the electricity.
But I am part of society, despite Thatcher's greatest efforts all those years ago, and yes, I want to be part of society and to believe those of us without power, influence and means can be heard.
Let's celebrate those who are ignored, who are good at what they do, who have been improving their art, writing, musicianship for decades, let's look up to people for their stamina, belief in the craft, for their quietness (often), for integrity.
Can we?

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Seeds and quiet

A local garden centre sorted out the summer's seeds for me in the gap between Christmas and New Year, with a 50% off sale. I bought handfuls, from purple kale to sunflowers, tomatoes, beetroot, beans.
At the allotment yesterday the wren was in full song, the robin hopeful of worms as I weeded and cut back raspberry canes.
It has become vital work to grow what I can, to be kind to the small patch I have and enable wildlife to live as it should, without the threats modern life has brought. At friends' houses this year so many conversations were about what we can do. About individuals shifting our focus from jobs to the environment.
Hedgehogs, insects, bees...the threats to wildlife are within our control - petrol-powered strimmers, petrol-powered leaf blowers, chemical-based insecticides/pesticides/weed killers.
Can we transform more open spaces like cemeteries, verges, patches of grassland into meadows?
Not if there is an obsession with cutting back to bare earth, not if cars are allowed to park on every open space, not if we resist conversations about quality of life in cities.
The German government is banning leaf blowers, Farmer's Weekly is promoting a switch to quieter, battery powered strimmers, the RSPCA is urging gardeners to think again before using lethal power tools, hedgehog rescue  wants strimmer operators to be aware of the damage they do.
Would that this was a year of quiet, when power tools are silenced.
On my way to B&Q before Christmas I stood and watched two men with leaf blowers on a basket ball court attempting to blow leaves through a gate onto a verge. The wind blew the leaves one way, the men followed with their blowers. A couple of brushes would have been quick and silent. They were working for Brighton and Hove Council. Turned up in a petrol guzzling van. Used petrol to battle the wind.
I have been told that if I don't want to put up with strimming noise on my allotment I should wear noise-cancelling headphones. What have we become, when that is seen as acceptable advice? With so many green councillors now, can our city be brave?