Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The best of us

The poppy through pigeon netting

I wake up and think first about sunflowers I've repotted, if I should have put fleece back over the seeds because it's been so cold. 

Yesterday, potting on calendula, the healing flower, I was thinking about Helen, my old school friend who died last month. She had hair the colour of those marigolds. 

It is a cliche to associate the allotment with release but I'm happy now with cliche. 

Actually the greatest release is from place claiming. It was purgative, freeing swathes of my front garden last week of ground elder, but what comes back like those bits of root is people staking claims on things. It becomes so distracting and interrupts better thoughts. I've left social media (well most of it apart from the one defining itself with the metaphor of a chain) so how do I stop feeling irritated with the world, with strangers who mean nothing to me?

I plant out mizuma, pak choi, telegraph peas and lettuce, I thank Jeanette for her gift of tomato and chilli plants, I joke with Dave about goji berries and when I do this, the only things jostling are weeds and vegetables. This helps. 

in the herb patch
I watch a long worm, feel how dry the soil is.....and when plants I put outside are scorched from a late frost, when I see first earlies showing and hope mice won't get beans I've sown in the greenhouse, I think of Emily Dickinson's, It will be summer - eventually. So with the earth moving on its axis because of climate change, I know I'm better off among billions whose focus is on growing vegetables, herbs, flowers - put to better work on the vocabularies, metaphors and rhythms of soil. 

And it's the time of year when the birds are everywhere with their beaks full of worms, there are queues on Wilson Avenue because the racing's started again, the foxes are busy at night and it's best really, if there's a top ten list of worries, to be concerned about the pea seedlings and whether the frost has had them, or slugs. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Truth and branding

Whatever you say...doesn't mean it's true

I hold my hands up, I was taken in by branding. It was the turn of the millennium and I had no idea how sophisticated an enterprise it was, making a brand - I couldn't equate this with burning a mark into a horse's rump. How I got my insight doesn't matter but yesterday I was walking down the hill from the allotment when momentarily all the storytelling and the glamour of it, the hotels and process of understanding consumers came back and, like remembering an embarrassing incident, I cringed. 

The prompt was an elderly hipster father on his driveway with a bottle of beer talking to his son in his early teens. The father's snow white beard and hair were immaculately cut and he was looking at his son's hoodie when I heard the word brand. 

And it provoked another discussion I'd had with my son at the allotment, when he was in his mid 20s and he was asking about plants and trees. 'My generation can give you the names of 10 brands without any trouble, but hardly a single name of plants or trees,' he said. He was pleading for knowledge of more than the world of buying and selling, a state of mind taken for granted in Europe and the US, the only system that's called on in these parts of the world to keep what is jokingly called the economy going. He was mourning. 

I can't be bothered to argue against what's happened in the 66 years since I was born because my arguments are unheard by anyone other than friends. I know most of us only directly influence what's around us, our own behaviour. But for speculation's sake, let's go back to the original meaning of brand, the damage and appropriation the word harbours. 

Take alphabet, one of the common words stolen by Google. Its companies claim to overcome ageing, they promote drone deliveries (think of that noise, the birdsong you love....the sound of sparrow wings in the shrub), they suggest they also have your mind on a property list. Are you for that?

Take the activity of branding and hipster on his driveway, imagining that the word brand is a shortcut to connect with his son and son's girlfriend. 

At home I watched a BBC documentary about a group of people in Ethiopia who weave houses with split bamboo, then another about a Masai woman who takes two days to make a wedding necklace. The documentaries weren't brilliantly made, but the people were interesting. A detox. What are we going to do to get out of this mess?

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Upcycling and mending

I extended this t shirt with a plain
cotton band cut from a skirt

If clothes tell stories, mine have recourse to all sorts of lives and I'm reluctant to let them go without being certain there's nothing to be done with them. And of course, there's always rags and patches, or stuffing draught excluders. Stuffing for draught excluders tends to be the fate of old knickers and single socks. 

Sashiko stitching helped me alter the neck
of this t shirt

A friend sent me some sashiko thread and needles when I was lining my dressing gown in the winter and I've used the technique to alter t shirts. I constantly pull at t shirts - I prefer boat necks so the thread and running stitch allows me to cut off the manufactured seam and strengthen the fabric. 

The charity Love Your Clothes asks us never to put old clothes in the bin. Not even pants. And fabric scraps? I've been cutting out bunting, sewing muslin face cloths and make-up remover pads, shopping bags, cushion covers, I'm about to embark on a parasol and am plaiting lengths of scrap fabric into a rope I intend to make into a mat. 

Repairing old clothes from Repair What You Wear (with youtube tutorials and PDF instructions)

Friday, March 26, 2021

Your space with the phoenix



And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don't let it go.

The quote is from Doris Lessing's 2007 Nobel Prize speech, which she titled, "On not winning the Nobel Prize." Lessing was 88 when she was awarded it, the oldest recipient. Her speech travels between people of privilege and poverty, to spotlight a young woman reading a section of Anna Karenin while she waits in line for water outside a store in southern Africa. Lessing concludes:

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is - we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

I was looking at the speech before a weekly reading group I run for the Royal Literary Fund at a hospital school for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. The group is for staff and young people and for an hour I read stories and poems. Yesterday I read Lessing's Through the Tunnel, a story about a child learning to separate himself from his mother, from his need to be accepted by other, older boys. 

It's gripping, brilliant. But because it didn't quite fill the time, I read another story by a less stunning writer, but interesting anyway, about a man reading War and Peace and listening each afternoon to a woman practising a song from Guys and Dolls. He's not so keen on Tolstoy but it gets him through. You see the link in my mind. 

I love this work. It's the best I've ever had. While it takes enormous amounts of time to find stories and poems that are suitable for reading to young people in crisis, the job reinforces that idea of the importance of your own space. Because that space isn't just for writing, for creating, it's for possibilities. 

When I go to bed I read. I have done that most of my life. When my children went to bed I read to them. Last night as I was finishing emails, far too late, I saw my son had sent me an audio file of a song. It's pure blues, his voice is deep, the piano and guitar remind me of all the blues I've listened to in my life since I bought my first blues album in the 1970s. Blues is that space, poetry, taking photos, which is where my daughter finds her space. Lessing wasn't special in knowing the realities of two societies, two ways of life but she used this speech to remind us

It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The shame of racism

A Black Lives Matter socially distanced protest summer 2020
The shame that racism invokes in white people is complex. Confronted with evidence, I might try and look for a reason that is not attributed to race - unable to acknowledge a truth that is not mine. 

Or I might feel under threat - am I guilty? How will I be made to pay? 

People mourned the death of Diana, Princess of Wales with flowers... now they're exposing fear of her son's wife with tantrums. 

It's impossible, in these hemmed-in days, to avoid a big news story. Harder when it involves the UK ruling class. Megan Markle's experience entering the UK's top family speaks to millions of ordinary couples in the UK who've faced, or are facing, the same question - do I stay or do I go? Am I a part of this family or do we, a new couple, go it alone? 

The other day I went for a walk with an old schoolfriend, a biracial woman brought up from the 1950s by a white family. She asked me what I thought of Markle's decision to talk to Oprah Winfrey. I'm no royalist and haven't watched the interview but the fall out reveals yet more about racism in the UK - the TV presenter's tantrum, public vitriol. And so it continues to polarise what racism means - distancing it yet again from being accepted as a common problem for each of us from one angle or another. Those with infinite privilege will not tolerate self-examination, are above all scrutiny and their followers follow, unthinking. I remember with a shudder my father's enthusiasm for Enoch Powell. 

In the days when the friend I walked with the other day was the only black person I knew, she was dealing with racism alone, from childhood. Years later I am the white mother of two black children, obviously adult now. Our experiences as a bi-racial family range from blatant bullying and aggression to stupidity, ignorance and almost laughable thoughtlessness. My children have lived with racism and as a mother I have had to learn how to help them deal with it. Their experiences of racism have happened within the personal sphere as well as the public, on the street as well as in school. 

All of this points to the need to listen and talk openly, the need for a new way of debating issues that matter and it's not going too far to expect new thinking from all of us.