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?