Thursday, December 28, 2006

The chest of drawers left outside the house has gone already. Three bags of books taken to the charity shop, all the recycling done. This suspension between Christmas and New Year has galvanised me into clearing a few corners, making some space. I will not make a list of resolutions but I have been sticking loose photos into an album. I'll be sewing buttons on shirts next, going back to the knitting that I haven't touched for months.

The street is quiet, friends are away and I've managed to avoid going anywhere near town where no doubt it's sales mania. But this damp, still, suspended weather has done wonders for the soil and digging at the allotment has been a pleasure. I've even discovered some garlic and have been thinking about the planting scheme for spring. Some of my purple sprouting broccoli has survived the slugs and there's some self-seeded spinach looking healthy and luscious, along with a few remaining leeks.

Two cats visited as I dug the other day, a well fed black tom and a pretty little tortoiseshell. My favourite weeding is the herb patch. I was given an allotment book for Christmas and it's given me renewed enthusiasm, as well as determination to grow on a lot more under plastic this year because there's no doubt that seedlings stand a better chance of survival from slugs if I bring them on first at home and transplant. I'm going to try chillis this year for the first time and want to grow some different varieties of squash because they seem to love our soil.

Borlotti beans will be a definite repeat, too. They were prolific, as were the potatoes and the french beans. I can't wait to start planting.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Women I used to meet at the nursery school gates 10 years ago are on their second marriages now: new homes, new living arrangements, children in the role of step-children, some with new siblings by blood or by arrangement. I meet them at Christmas parties, invigorated and glossy with news. We find different common ground: work and the demands of teenage sons or daughters. We swap solutions on dealing with drinking, sleepovers and the imposition of rules. We attempt to remember how we behaved and move on, not really wanting to admit to our own pasts and the many, imaginative ways we sidestepped parental authority.

Then we slide into comfortable nostalgia. How easy it seemed, despite the terrible tantrums our children threw as they began to articulate themselves into this seaside city, always offset by the wonderful dreams they shared with us, the eccentricities they displayed on the bus or in cafes.

At the Tarnerland nursery Christmas party, parents and children were welcomed by Cherry, the head, in a tutu, wings and roller skates. Cherry was one of the most inspiring and instinctive teachers I have ever met. She allowed my son to live in a lion suit for an entire term, understanding his need to roar. She allowed my daughter to slip into the nursery kitchen with Margaret, the cook, to bake biscuits. The nursery garden epitomised summer. I wonder if there is a nursery that adults could go to when they need to rediscover that freedom?

More nostalgia at another Christmas party that I went to with Fred where Alan was sat in a chair in the front room, suited and smart as usual, opening the inside pocket of his jacket to show us his embroidered name. So we talk of the seventies and early eighties, the pubs and the gigs, the people we were, the people we've lost track of. Becoming more sentimental as mulled wine worked its spicy way through the blood.

The year's turned. Yesterday I saw another woman from those old days (so many of us moved to Brighton), walking along Lewes Road. I recognised her amazing hair, long, thick and blond, and in town saw a red net skirt in a shop that reminded me of parties in Guildford, the skirt that I made in net with lace on top. How it's now in a case on top of my wardrobe, together with a maroon tafetta cocktail dress, a leather mini-skirt, polka dot trousers that I used to wear for Sunday afternoons at Dingwalls in Camden Lock and a linen trouser suit I wore to Jane's wedding.

To Be Worn Again is a shop in Brighton selling retro clothes. I browse the rails, touch fabric just like the dress I wore to my first school disco, psychedelic angles and swirls, a front zip with big gold ring. That print like a balldress my mother had, my inadequate memory of it, but an impression of enormous, full petalled blooms, its gathered skirt, scoop neck.

It's interesting, too, trying some of these clothes on, to notice how many of them are home-made. Tailored to fit, the hems, poppers, hooks and eyes, hand stitched, the skirts lined. There are darts for the busts, no scratchy labels to irritate your neck, the seams are finished properly.

I used to make clothes. I learned from watching my mother, then properly at school with Sister Short, who called me Smiler and allowed us to make skirts not much wider than belts only after we'd mastered the skills of darning and mending sheets, sewing nightdresses and french seams.

I've made shirts for two men I've lived with, hats too, for both of them. I've made dressing gowns for my children and dressing up costumes from action figure to Elizabethan lady. It's a while since I've made anything for myself but I remember the pleasure of working in a fabric shop, having every Saturday to run my hands over the rolls, to appreciate the quality of Liberty varuna wool or the best quality fine cotton print. During that job, in 1973, the three day week meant the shop was lit by candles. Amazingly we stayed open and sometimes even sold stuff.

For a few moments of aided nostalgia there's a retro website:
which also briefly reminded me of driving to Winchester with my parents, Mungo Jerry on the radio, the summer of 1970, and the Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations in Portsmouth in 1977. I left home in 1974 to do my degree at Portsmouth poly and spent 1975-1976 in Caen at the university there, coming back to drought. My student years ended in 1978 - the winter of discontent, Patti Smith's amazing Because the Night, Talking Heads' Psycho Killer and the raucous long-lived party tune YMCA.

All that and the year's not even officially over yet. But long nights, parties and resurrecting the past, must follow as inevitably as hangovers follow red wine.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Say Berlin to your friends and collect reactions. Put them together with the Cold War, mass surveillance, Love Parade, JFK's iconic statement, "Ich bin ein Berliner" the year he was assassinated, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and Berlin's own version of Pride - Christopher Street Day. No city's simple and for anyone over 50, this city is still west and east, the cultural division we were brought up on. Berlin's as symbolic as Soweto, another city that so readily conjures division, and visiting the Potsdamer Platz, where glass and steel have occupied noman'sland, is like standing on the corner of Vilakazi Street where Mandela used to live, watching tourist minibuses and souvenir sellers.

But what better place for poetry? Isn't it the pull between places that makes us write? A quartet of poets in Berlin, reading at the Humboldt and Free Universities. We were invited by the gentle and hospitable writer, John Hartley Williams, editor of the most recent issue of Hard Times, a literary magazine for English speakers in the city. There was the amazingly prolific Robert Minhinnick whose work's coiled with energy and comes back at you on unexpected trajectories like a ball on elastic, Tim Liardet, currently shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize whose prison poems show us what a true interrogation of self means and explore the truth of relationships far beyond those enforced by incarceration, and Jeremy Over who invites you to daydream with him about rain on a window and takes you into images that no hallucinogenic drug could hope to match. Plus me, tottering through the streets on my first night in new red shoes with ribbons rather than laces. I thought they were right for Berlin, somehow.

Yes. Bars, restaurants, the river and trees outlined in lights. A Christmas tree on a crane above the Brandenberg gate, the Soviet war memorial, Sowjetisches Ehrenmal, in Treptower Park. Yevgeny Vuchetich was the sculptor of the 13 metre high figure of a Russian soldier with a child in one hand and sword in another that dominates the memorial. Vuchetich died in 1974. He also has a sculpture in the UN garden - Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares. The architect of the space was Yakov Belopolsky, who died in 1993. After the memorial he worked mostly on enormous housing schemes in Moscow.

This kind of public space defines a city. A space, like Hyde Park, which brings you back into yourself and away from the duty of keeping one foot moving in front of another on behalf of the paymaster. We visited late in the afternoon. The sun was going, the light was that perfect knife-edge of change. Somehow the memorial demands silence. Even the traffic noise is kept away. Perhaps it's the symmetry, so utterly controlled, that makes you withdraw into your own chaotic self. If the place had a roof, it would be a cathedral, but the columns are there in the planting - poplars and weeping silver birch - and the tomblike blocks with reliefs on. It is also a graveyard, so it's fitting the place should generate respect in us.

Peter Eisenman, architect of the Holocaust memorial near the Brandenberg gate, also chose symmetry to create his space. While Belopolsky, though, designed something open and devotional, Eisenman's space is tight, claustrophobic and scary because he uses the idea of symmetry to warn us.

Oh, you could play in his labyrinth, but as you go deeper in, you become more aware of the darkness of the blocks and their unpredictability. And while you know you might see a familiar face popping out from behind a monolith, that knowledge doesn't diminish your fright when it happens. It might even enhance it. Eisenman said he wanted to create the impression of a field, of waves and have no single entrance or exit. I was intensely conscious of daily life going on around the edges, visible from any point, but felt, too, that this labyrinth was truly a secret and alarming place to be.

Back to Brighton late on Thursday evening, nerve endings seriously raw from the litres of wine and beer, so it was soothing to go to St Peter's church for my children's carol service. My daughter was singing in the choir and we belted out Christmas hymns. They'd decorated the house, too. So I arrived home to sparkling lights in the fuschia tree and front window and tinsel hanging from the mirrors. Berlin's lights must have sneaked into my rucksack with the wonderful poems I listened to and brought back in my head.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I met Ifor Thomas at a reading in London this week. He began his set with a poem about cling film that had the audience rolling around. But it wasn't all laughs. He also read from his compelling book, Body Beautiful, based on his experience being treated for prostate cancer.

His poems, like those of Julia Darling in Apologies for Absence and the work of Brighton-based poet Bernadette Cremin who's written about her experience in a neurological ward, should be read widely. They're immediate, accessible, they add an important dimension to debates about patients and hospitals.

The venue in Tottenham Hale's called The Room. It looks like a terraced house, then you go in - to a beautiful tango studio, mirrored wall, light wood floor. It's run by Anthony Howell and Richard Tyrone Jones - Anthony's also a tango dancer. Neither of them was dressed as Father Christmas, but Richard had a nice reflective jacket and noisy watch.

The pace and the standard was set high by Musa Okwonga, who opened - and what a scorching poem he read about a young gay man coming out to his Ugandan family. Musa's work is taut, rhythmic and rhymed in the long tradition of English political satire. Hard to follow, but follow I did and it was fun to read some new work mixed in with poems from Party and Fever Tree, ending with the very new Love Song for Fidel Castro.

Free mulled wine all night, so I was able to take full advantage of that, once my reading was over and I could lounge back on floor cushions for Rhian Edwards, a young performance poet who read, among others, a grisly piece about cooking a lover and eating him. It was gruesome.

Then of course, Ifor. A star. And off to the pub because there was just not enough mulled wine left in the orange segments at the bottom of the pan to satisfy that post reading thirst for more alcohol and, more importantly, gossip. For the first time in many, many years, I saw a bottle of Mateus Rose on the bar. I was talking to someone about Mateus Rose recently. The wines of our youth and our parents. Well, some of us, the over fifties, that is.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"The rush of rain against the glass
Is louder than my noisy mind...."

Two lines by Edna St Vincent Millay who I was thinking about as I was woken up this morning by another storm. It sounded like the window was going to be forced in. I stood on the seafront last night just before I met a friend for a drink and felt its strength. It was just after 8pm, a waxing moon, the sea was raging - white surf, black patches of weed dragged off the rocks and groynes - and the wind pounding round corners.

I can't imagine being land-locked. Not being able to do this. Maybe this also draws me to Millay. Her love of the sea: "water sucking the hollow ledges, Tons of water striking the shore."

I'm reading Millay a lot at the moment. I like her modernity and the way she writes about love, lust, sex, convention and brings in spectacular lyrical imagery too.

What I would give to have written lines like: "The young are so old, they are born with their fingers crossed; I shall get no help from them." or "And there is no driftwood there, because there is no beach; Clean cliff going down as deep as clear water can reach;".

Millay's work is drenched in longing, always summoning up another place, another person, a need to dig deeper and deeper, to mine every moment in case it's snatched away. Take The Fitting, which uses the idea of a woman having a dress altered because she's lost weight - Millay uses this ordinary scene to create a drama so intense and compelling, the whole poem is charged with the unspoken story of a love affair and all the tension that suggests. It's a brilliantly sexy poem but so quietly done.

Her belief, in all her work, is that life should be lived at full pelt. There is no point in holding back, in standing on the sidelines. She's the champion of risk: "He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs.......The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins, In an orchard soft with rot."

Carcanet Press does a good Selected Poems.