Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Novels we read as teenagers or young adults have the most incredible power to capture the flavour of those years. When I resort to nostalgia and run through those personal icons in the pub or at parties I'm delighted to stumble onto common ground - Camus, of course, Fournier, Plath, Hughes, Gunn - but one name is rarely recognised: Rumer Godden.

I read her novel Greengage Summer as a teenager and the emotional power of that story has stayed with me. I wanted to buy it for my daughter this Christmas. The copy I read was my mother's, so I don't have my own to lend her. But my local Waterstones doesn't stock it because apparently she doesn't sell. This is the writer of Black Narcissus.

It wasn't a day for ranting....I had a list as long as my arm to get through and it's hard enough, isn't it, wading through the mountains of rubbish in a bookshop nowadays. There was a time when I could engage. I remember once being in Waterstones in the King's Road and was shocked to discover there was nothing by Jorge Amado on the shelves, while Archer took up several feet of space. The conversation with a very snotty assistant began with the usual brush off, the same as I received for Godden - "oh, he probably doesn't sell...." So, having time on my hands, I asked if he'd search what was in print.

I watched his face change as he scrolled down the list of Amado's work. There was an "oh" moment. Yes, Brazil's leading writer (who was then alive)......whose work summed up a continent, the late 20th century, who examines religion, relationships, contemporary life with such humanity and humour......didn't even rate a single title in the As.

How can booksellers claim something doesn't sell when they don't even give us the chance of buying it? Of course, poets know all about this. How many times do we hear that lame excuse - poetry doesn't sell? As my kids might's not on the shelves, it's not promoted, it's not given that little handwritten tag saying buy this because our staff like it.

But, back to Godden. I pick up second hand copies of her books whenever I see them and have a couple of 1940s hardbacks - War Economy Standard - of The River, and A Fugue in Time, the story of a house. When I found them I felt as if I'd discovered a piece of fine porcelain. It reminded me of days when I used to visit a small secondhand shop in the village of Compton with my mother, turning stuff over for the marks underneath. Godden's name was there on the shelf!

This is how A Fugue in Time ends (like a poem, and I hope I'm not transgressing any copyright law here, but the passage is so beautiful it has to be read in its entirety because it leaves the reader with a true sense of our place in time, and gently, so you can imagine it being spoken, the voice quiet and measured. Is there something of Dylan Thomas in this?).....

"And the house continues in its tickings, its rustlings, its creakings; the ashes will fall in its grates, its door-bells ring; trains will pass under it and their sounds vibrate; footsteps will run up the stairs, along passages; dusters will be shaken; carpets beaten, beds turned down and dishes washed; windows will be opened and shut; blinds pulled up, pulled down; the tap will run and be silent; the lavatory will be flushed; the piano will be played and books taken down from the shelf; brushes will be lifted up and laid down again on the dressing-table; the medicine bottle will be shaken, and flowers arranged in a vase; children will perhaps play spillikins, and perhaps they will not; but mice, for mice will be mice and their fashions do not change, mice will run in the wainscot and the family will set traps for them. "In me you exist," says the house."

She is a star, an original. A website dedicated to her says 2007 is her Centenary Year "watch the press for new editions of the books." I guess, since I rarely do much except flick through the books sections of the papers because they're too jam-packed with celebrity nonsense, I might have missed something.

Godden wrote novels, biographies, children’s books and poetry. She was born at Eastbourne in 1907 and died in Dumfriesshire in 1998. Her last book, “Cromartie versus The God Shiva Acting through the Government of India” was published by Macmillan in November 1997.

The same website includes a quote by Godden from her autobiography A House with Four Rooms, which I am determined to get hold of and read..."everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time but unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person"."

One of the most brilliantly expressed thoughts on writing and living I've read. Oh, and apparently she loved dancing.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My bank account has been unhealthy to say the least, but it's even unhealthier now because someone has been buying stuff in the States using my money and a cobbled together imitation of my card. My bank's fraud department spotted it, but not before several hundred quid had already been spent. This is the second time it's happened. The first time I didn't get anything back, but I guess all the banks are being vigilant at the moment because of the child benefits and driver's license cock ups.

My address has been used twice, too, to my knowledge, maybe more, by different men - one for a Sky subscription and the other for a Virgin phone. Isn't it strange that these institutions can allow people to use an address without proof of residence? I found out about the Sky man because Sky magazines kept arriving in his name. Eventually I managed to talk to someone, who said there was nothing wrong with anyone using an address they didn't live at. Yes? Sorry? The magazines stopped, but who knows if this man is still passing my home off as his.

The second man's name appeared, too, on a Virgin magazine, I think. Anyway, no longer polite, I opened whatever came through the post and there were details of his new phone account. Virgin did eventually take it seriously. But it was an interesting experience because both times I rang my local police. Oh, madam, there's nothing wrong with that. There's no evidence of fraud, I was told, by various patronising and rather irritated individuals. Apparently fraud only counts if someone's taken money from you.

So do I conclude from this that I can pick and choose an address to use whenever I'm asked for one and there's no offence committed? And lying about your identity or where you live isn't a crime? Okay......just so we all know the rules.

With that in mind, I think it's about time to concoct another identity. I was, briefly, once someone else. I was lent a swipe card to get into a staff loo in a very secure building. It was all above board. But now I think I'd like to be another person, with another address, for a bit longer. Who needs Second Life or virtual avatars when I could pass myself off as a mountaineer from Nepal or a dressmaker in Paris?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I'd like to be a visiting lecturer, I think it would be fun. There was once a man who dropped in to sort out oil rigs. His name was Red something....he was American, a troubleshooter and he, obviously, arrived in a helicopter. I'm not suggesting in any way that I'd like to travel that way. Apart from the noise, environmental damage and the cost, it would be a little too ostentatious for me. I'd like to visit by train, ideally, and be put up in a small but comfortable hotel with a good view of sea, rolling hills, mountains, a French chateau or Georgian crescent.

I'd happily lecture on anything. I'm quite used to picking up information quickly. At one time in my life I was nearly an expert in equal opportunities employment legislation. I could even quote laws and dates. But that kind of expertise dates very quickly. I was briefly an expert on the history of seatbelts and retail design. I knew quite a lot about organic cotton and fairtrade in the 80s, even the kinds of pesticides use on cotton. Today, snippets from a report I proof-read about methane and landfill gas kept coming back to me.

Mostly, I think I'd like to lecture on daily life and how to spend time without sticking to routine or a ten point plan. I was once asked, by an inspiring maverick businessman, how to encourage his staff to waste time. He picked up quite quickly I was good at that. We used to spend hours talking about nothing in particular, never bored. My lectures would include quotes from my neighbours, maybe photos of people mending cars or fences, a list of jobs I start but don't finish and a long justification for why my hall and landing haven't been decorated 13 years after moving in.

Or perhaps a lecture could incorporate a really random element and everyone attending could put a subject in a hat. I would pick one at random and waffle. I have yet to work out a reason for anyone inviting me to be a visiting lecturer on this basis. I may need an impressive CV or a profile. I may need to persuade influential friends to organise a conference and invite me as a speaker. I'd like to be able to command a large fee. I wonder if I could pretend my poetry books were not poetry at all. One could be an expert analysis of coastal defences in Morocco, another a thesis on social interaction and body language. Then there's the north-south debate represented by the growing conditions of different tree species and the changing landscape of religious belief. That might do it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I've been shopping at Lidl. Gone are the lines of Ecover bottles in my kitchen and loo, replaced by unfamiliar washing up liquid and loo cleaner. I'm buying on price now because I'm broke. I panic when I'm broke because I'm freelance. The only regular cash is a small amount from the Open University, a very small amount. So broke really does mean broke.

I remember my mother being broke, too, when I was a child and I look around to see there are plenty of others like me. As I write this, I'm reminded of a brilliant poem by Brendan Cleary about drinking in a pub during 'unhappy hour'. In a lot of his poetry, he writes about the extremes people go to when they're really hard up.

A large feature in the Sunday Times at the weekend about city bankers losing their jobs is like reading a fairy tale but without a moral or a single empathetic character. I can't imagine what it must be like to earn that kind of money, to have second homes, third homes, to eat out all the time, to drink champagne and fine wine, to have cars that cost as much as a house. Then there's all the statistics about how much food people throw away...

We really should be reading more of Stuart Hall. Christmas in consumerland isn't kind to those who are broke. One year, when the kids were younger, we spent it in South Africa. I explained to them that Father Christmas wouldn't be bringing them much because kids in the village didn't get anything. It may be one of their most memorable Christmases. They received one small present each.

This year I'm making a lot of my Christmas presents. Brighton's planning to ban plastic bags, so my small contribution is to make cloth bags. That might offset my temporary switch from Ecover. I'm also recycling old tights to stuff cushions. I have a friend whose parents used to make washers out of old hot water bottles.

Yesterday on Radio 4 there was a cooking programme. One of the guests' top books was one which reproduces wartime receipes. I've been using one of preserves for years since I found it in a secondhand shop. My Christmas chutney comes from it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I was a trainee on the Surrey Daily Advertiser when the National Union of Journalists supported a strike in local papers. It was a cold winter, there was snow and we had no strike pay. Our picket lines were entertaining. There was a lot of flirting. This is what picket lines should be for. I hope the Hollywood writers are enjoying the flirting.

One day we drove to support sacked strikers in Nottingham. The picket line was unlike ours in Surrey - it was boosted by miners. In those days other unions were allowed to do that. Thatcher put a stop to it, to satisfy home counties millionaires who make money from industry but like to live surrounded by trees. There used to be industry in Surrey - pottery on a massive scale from North Downs clay, gunpowder factories and tanneries. Chilworth and Gomshall were once ravaged by it. This is why Surrey is so wooded. All those trees, grown to power factories, took over when industry stopped.

That winter, emotions ran high. It was about sackings, the right to strike, decent pay, being able to pay the rent or support a family. There was talk of the MD wanting to spray our little picket line with printers' ink. The experience drew me further into the union and I was active in the NUJ for years. There've been a few high profile strikes recently - good for the unions who keep alive the principle of withdrawing labour.

I'm in favour of a general strike, actually, to draw attention to climate change. I remember the three day week and the miner's strike of the 70s. It was fantastic, memorable - candle light, talking, no tv. We're all much too taken in by the work ethic and certainly too attached to tv. Chuck it out....

Brendan Cleary and I have joked about poets going on strike, a fantasy the Hollywood writers bring back. I daydreamed about what might happen if poets got their acts together. We could choose anything, really. Solidarity with the Hollywood lot could be a start, or a list of our own demands: a lifetime's free notebooks, the right to lie on the sofa all day, to be noticed. Make up your own.

I started lyrical....the sea receding, unwatched, pens drowning in their ink, blah, blah, blah..... then thought of us all unbothered by words, in the moment; the zen of hoovering, piling washing into machines. Would wayward men return to wives? Would women poets put on red leather gloves and sit in cocktail bars?

Yes, I know, comparison's forced. Poets have no place on TV, the source of all evening entertainment, the box that keeps the country at work and in line and I struggle to sustain the daydream. A poets' strike's about as impossible to contemplate as lettuce growing on the dark side of the moon. Really, no-one would give a monkeys. How could we get one picket line together, and anyway, where would we picket?

But just one more try...there IS a picket line, it looks like this - Mr X the famous male poet, surrounded by the less famous, mostly women, is flicking through his collected poems and looking desperately for anything that might be socially engaged. He booms out an early sonnet about his grandfather mending a car.

Mr Y, the famous performance poet, surrounded by the less famous, mostly women, is pacing up and down, shouting about how he once worked on a building site, on the pavement outside Borders, followed by a security guard.

Miss Z, a wannabe famous performance poet, is reading from her newly published pamphlet on sexual deviance, dressed in a full-length sequin dress and feather hat.

Sitting on camping chairs with a barbeque as a make-shift brazier, is a group of middle aged men and women who look like teachers. They're holding placards with haiku on, drinking Rioja from plastic wine glasses and secretly hoping the police turn up to enforce the ban on street drinking, just so something happens.

One of them spots their teenage kids getting off the bus after school and calls them over, waving. The kids look horrified, their friends stare, they turn away laughing and wander into JD Sports.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

One of the delights of living where I do is a small swimming pool up the road, open at 7 am for those of us who can drag ourselves out of bed early enough to get a few lengths in before starting work. There are many regulars, some swim slowly and quietly, giving the pool a sense of calm, rather like, I imagine, a pool on a cruise ship. It's an old pool with natural light let in from the roof, a bit tatty, lockers at the sides and a balcony for spectators. During the day it's used mainly by local schools. It doesn't have the luxury of hotel or private gym pools, but I like its quirkiness. Years ago when I worked in Reading, at a news agency above a chip shop on Cemetary junction, there was a similar size pool that I used from time to time, with changing rooms around the sides. It too had the same unhurried atmosphere.

There's a lot I like about where I live. The sea, the Downs, visible from most points (I love to see the edges of cities, to know there's a natural barrier), the Pavilion and parks; most of all, today, with the wind up and sun shining, the elms that Brighton is still famous for. There's one almost directly outside my house and its shadows are moving in the rectangles of sash windows projected onto my front room wall.

I know my neighbours, I can walk into town and to the beach. We have local shops, buses at the bottom of the hill and a little park. One of the best local shops is a Turkish grocer's selling amazing olives and big round loaves of bread that taste nothing like ready sliced. Walking down London Road yesterday, I noticed a new Polish grocery and realised that the changes Brighton is undergoing have become visible in its shops - the black barbers on Lewes Road, the expansion of Taj, once a small specialist grocer in Hove, now a supermarket with branches in Western Road and on the corner of the Steine where the Job Centre used to be.

But the other night, walking to the station for the Lewes bonfire, there was graffiti on a window of an empty shop in Lewes Road. The graffiti asked the question - do we need alcohol on sale through the night until 4 am? This is the flip side of the changes in the city and what I am beginning to loathe about where I live.

I am sick to death of drug dealers, drunks talking loud on mobile phones outside my house at 4 am, cars speeding up my road to avoid the Lewes Road or Elm Grove, litter and dog shit.......I am sick of paying enormously high council tax when my street is full of litter, when the only contact any of my family has with the police is when they stop and search my son because he's a teenager and when I am told by the school that the only way to ensure he gets extra help with his GCSE maths is for me to pay for private tuition. His maths group (struggling) has a succession of supply teachers. The current one is a religious studies teacher.

It is now almost impossible to park here after 7 pm. Neighbouring streets suffer the same, cars are double parking overnight - dangerous and deadly for any of us unfortunate enough to need an ambulance or the fire service. We should have residents' parking up to 9 pm with a restriction on one car per household, but I am in a minority in having just one car. Most neighbours have at least two vehicles - car and van.

When a family moved out of the house opposite me, it was rented to students. I reckon they have at least four cars between them. Many more houses in Bernard Road are now rented out and the knock on effect is increasingly clear.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

An effigy of the pope appears through smoke reddened by a flare. In front of the pope is Guy Fawkes. Yes, it's that time of year in Lewes, again, when the streets are full of flames, fireworks are flung around and you begin to understand the lure of the occult and all its ceremony. I missed the big display but could hear the dull thuds of fireworks even in Brighton, like a battle in a distant town.

But I realised last night how much I enjoy walking in the dark, when it's cold. It's like cutting through something, it makes winter physical. On my way to the station, with Giya and Maddie, her friend, we lit sparklers and they fizzed across the level as if they were were five again. A couple were throwing fireworks around and the streets, even in Brighton, were busy.

But Lewes was utterly pagan. Great wedges of police in fluorescent waistcoats and radios cordoned off streets, stood in the middle of streets, directed people around the perimeter of the town but had no idea how to cross it. They must have come from all around. Some I asked came from Crawley.

We were herded into lines to get onto the train at Brighton station, herded between barriers as we got off at Lewes and herded through the town. The only time the crowd became scary was when people tried to force their way through in lines. Generally men, generally holding cans.

We started off at a small party to celebrate revolution but it took us more than an hour to make our way there - a walk that should have taken less than 10 minutes normally. Emilia, who was giving the party, was wearing a red scarf, white skirt and corset. She looked like she could lead an army! My concession to the revolutionary theme was to wear red, with a black beret.

It reminded me how exhilarating it is to go out at night in winter. Lights and fire can energise you when they're surrounded by darkness, when they're not there for comfort. It is a burning season and the pope looked devilish in the way unique to religious leaders who set themselves up as experts on hell and all its equivalents.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Perhaps a stinking cold is the body's way of standing back from life for a week or so, of placing you on a different plane to reflect and take stock, putting distance between you and the mundane. I have been making my way through these last few days with my ears muffled, my sense of smell dulled and my temperature raised just enough to make daily life feel an awful lot more frenetic than normal. Ironically this is the week I've been busier than for ages - four days of work, each of them workshops. I wonder if I would have been more anxious about them if I hadn't been bunged up with mucous. As it is, I actually enjoyed getting up at 6 and driving into Surrey, West Sussex, Kent where suddenly I'm aware of autumn, its mist, blazing trees and yellow tunnels into winter.

For two days I was working with the potter Julian Belmonte, making clay discs with children who first composed questions after listening to me read from Pablo Neruda's Book of Questions. These lines were rolled into clay sausages and cut into letters that they stuck around the edges of their discs and painted with different coloured slip. Julian will fire them. He and I are also commissioned to produce our own series of discs for the school to display.

Another day was a workshop for the Arts and Business Unleashed programme, this time working with adults, focussing on the use of journals, reflection, the craft of writing and yesterday with older children in a secondary school, again working with Neruda's questions and a wonderful poem by Penelope Shuttle called Inventing. A combination of coffee, lemsip and Locketts sees me through the day but by evening I'm ready to crawl under the duvet and last night was in bed by 8 pm. I need to time adjust to this early darkness.

Last night was the first full night of fireworks. Strangely there hasn't been the lead up to this weekend we've had in the past, when from the middle of October every night's been one of explosions. Perhaps there are fewer on sale. Perhaps people have less money.

This morning, though, is glowing and the cold feels as if it's weakening. I am keen to walk by the sea, take in this gentler sun and breathe. I've been inside all week, apart from Monday on the allotment, digging up the last of the potatoes. I've been fantasising about wilderness, longing for mountains, wishing I had the means for a trip to the Himalayas, Andes, even the Alps or Snowdonia would do......It may have something to do with a bizarre book I picked up when I bought those jumble sale Penguins: Bengal Lancer by F Yeats Brown. This is towards the end, in the chapter, Temple of the Undistracted Mind:

"Then Hastini capped him with: 'He who has seen Himalaya is greater than he who has performed all the worships of Kashi'.

"Hours had passed, and although it was not yet dawn, its foreglow had already lit three hundred miles of snow before me, remote and plumed with storms that never cease; yet in appearance so close and so quiet that it seemed to me that I might stroll there in an hour or two and bask in a white peace.

"The three now sat silent, with the old bitch at my guru's feet, looking over those titanic masses that have given India her fertility and her faith. In the increasing light, the clouds above them took the shape of beasts. A dragon pounced on the mountains of Nepal, a lizard with eyes of flame devoured a fly upon Nanda Devi, a sprawling giantess stretched her length from Trisul to Diwalghiri and searched the valleys with a luminous rapier.

"Surya had begun the skyey chase that never ends......"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Black Moon by Matthew Sweeney, Twenty One Sonnets by Gabriel Fitzmaurice, Songs of Earth and Light by Barbara Korun, Can Dentists Be Trusted? by Martina Evans, Lip by Catherine Smith......these are the books that have joined the teetering stack by my bed and which I'm gorging myself on. How many good writers there are around, how many points of view, how many pictures and ways of describing them.

Matthew read from Black Moon in Lewes on Tuesday night as part of Lewes Live Literature festival. He was on brilliant form and the book roots out strangeness in the world, tilts it even more and presents this dizzying accumulation of stories that belong to an older Europe, without borders.

Martina's poetry is both documentary and intimate. She's been working with Mark Hewitt, director of LLL, on a show that describes 'the Ireland of her childhood and forefathers.' She was reading last night and what a reading. I have never understood why Martina's work isn't better known. She knocks many contemporary British poets into the dunce's corner. This show illustrates the power and authority of her writing and shows her to be, without a doubt, among the most important chroniclers of 20th century Ireland, family and Catholicism.

I'm looking forward to Catherine's launch and to being able to share Barbara Korun's book with as many friends as possible, once I've sent off my cheque for five more copies! Yes. It's that good.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The sky's filled in when I arrive home this afternoon - on the jigsaw that's been at the end of my kitchen table for too long. I guess it's mum. The sun's blazing through the blinds of my room, low and autumnal. I've been in Limerick.

At 9 this morning I was walking by the river Shannon with Marilyn Hacker's Seine poems on my mind, oh and Langston Hughes' masterpiece.... Those and a weekend full of others breathed into the city during Cuisle, the annual poetry festival.

This generous river offers a picturebook castle, swans, wagtails and gulls. I could have walked all morning, trying to keep pace, simplify my overcrowded mind. How many discussions between the water and the mud? Would it take an oar or a rod to translate the river? Does the lorry passing over a bridge have anything to do with the cormorant?

On the bridge, by Jury's hotel, through the trees was a heron in flight. I thought of the cranes I became oblivious to in South Africa. Then the heron seemed like sadness returning. I walked faster and wondered if it was the whisky last night. My father's drink, my father's bleakness - a legacy of Merthyr. Then he's ahead of me as I walk under a bridge towards the castle. He disappears below a wall. I wonder if I imagined him, but as I look over the fence, I disturb him. He leaves the mud, flies off screeching, to a post in the water where he stays.

I sit on a bench and watch him hunched, compact, quiet. I'll put sadness down to late nights and booze, shift it by imagining poems floating as paper boats. I remember Cahal's celebration of gluttony and love, Michael's gift to his grandson, Barbara's birth of an angel, Theo's unforgettable vigil, Gabrielle's sonnets, Eilean's delicate surprises. These poems are still in my mind at the end of today as the clock heads towards midnight.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A notebook lost and found. I felt as if I'd lost a summer, the weeks of rain and sun, two holidays, my lists, scraps of started poems, ghostly, unborn. Then I wondered if it was lying somewhere in a drawer, case or under a sofa. In lost property. Did it get bored with my life and seek out another one, the way a cat does?

Perhaps it was wandering around another city, finding backstreets and a cafe where locals are chatting about the lottery or a neighbour's transgressions, a glass of chilled beer on the table.

I couldn't imagine where I'd left it. I searched under my bed, through the house, in every bag. And then I went to St Mungo's on Wednesday, as I did the week before, and there it was - on a chair in the TV room.

I swam this morning in a temper. So I pounded the pool until I'd worked it out of me. Now to return a pair of boots which have lasted about a month before falling apart. I used to believe that boots, at least, were made to last a winter.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Midnight Train to Georgia by Gladys Knight and the Pips is in my mind as I look out at the rain this morning. I wanted to start with the midnight train to Brighton last night, but that's the power of a famous title, it led me into that soulful refrain.

It's almost always interesting, that Brighton train - it has two destinations and divides at Haywards Heath, it's also the one that takes us all home after a night out. Some stagger on and fall asleep, risking ending up at the end of the line in Worthing or Eastbourne, serious penance for a few post work drinks. Some stagger on and chatter.

It was the chattering type who found me wide awake and still buzzing from reading at the Troubadour in Earls Court, a Coffee Poetry night organised by Anne Marie Fyfe that featured the astonishing US poet CK Williams, promoting his hefty Collected Poems, a sharp and witty Roz Goddard from Birmingham, reading from her great book, How to Dismantle a Hotel Room, and another American, Janice Moore Fuller, reading from her third book of gentle and humane poems, Seance.

And it was Seance that this chattering young man picked up off the table as he dropped into the seat opposite me. One of the more delightful conventions at poetry readings is the swapping of books, so I had Janice's and Roz's out of my bag and was looking back over poems I'd heard them deliver, discovering others and generally enjoying a post reading high - compensation for a day hoovering and cleaning the loo.

Oh, we talked about upholstery, job satisfaction and happiness and he liked Janice's poems. I was his second target. The first was a young woman on the other side of the corridor, working away at a project on Parnell, who looked at me nervously a few times as he tried to persuade her that history was taught wrong. But I just want to get to university, she said......As these things go, he lost the thread and after me he staggered down the carriage to start up a third conversation. I wonder how many of these fractured meetings took place last night. He seemed lost in his drunkenness, but I guess that's better than aggression.

The Troubadour was a gathering of very different styles and run with the generous, efficient spirit of Anne Marie and her husband Cahal Dallat. Both of them are good poets, kind people and Cahal is also a fine accordianist, who played us into both halves of the night.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pulse is a new poetry festival for Brighton put together by The South. It's long overdue. Since Brighton Festival abandoned anything approaching an intelligent poetry programme, there's been little opportunity for us lovers of verse to truly indulge ourselves in the word and celebrate with fellow practitioners of the word, the way people can in cities like Bath, Bristol, London and rural spots of Aldeburgh, Ledbury and Hay.

Tonight's the launch of Poetry South, a new anthology that includes many of the poets who live around here: the highly acclaimed John Agard and Grace Nichols, Next generation poet Catherine Smith, football expert Sarah Wardle, lyricist extraordinaire Brendan Cleary, classy and direct Lorna Thorpe, incredibly perceptive Maria Jastrzebska, artist Tom Cunliffe, Shedman John Davies, shepherd Tim Beech, quietly punchy Robert Dickinson....complemented by the wit of John O'Donoghue, surprises from Hugh Dunkerley and edginess of Sarah Jackson. I'm in it too, with four tiny poems written in the bizarre otherworldliness that accompanies finishing a collection - found like lost coins around the house, these poems.

Anyway, it's a fine anthology that might well signal something to the powers that run this city and the arts in it that our quirky literary heritage is being nurtured and developed.

Also during the festival, launches of pamphlets from John O'Donoghue - The Beach Generation - and John McCullough - Cloudfish.....both accomplished collections of new work that I can't wait to hold in my hands. They're bound to look good because PigHog's doing them and a PigHog pamphlet is a beautiful thing.

The festival ends with a poetry fair at the Sallis Benney theatre on Saturday October 6 - discussions, workshops, stands. There's a discussion about whether there's such a thing as a regional voice. It's troubling me, this idea. Could our regional voice be a wail about house prices, a celebration of the melting pot we live in or a desperate search for identity? Or maybe a mixture of all those things. More thought needed.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A young mixed race boy's face is printed large in the local paper, Brighton's Evening Argus. Before I see it, I've passed the billboards on Lewes Road villifying the city's 'worst teen'. The boy is 14. The paper names him, prints his photo, his address and names his friends.

The front page spells out the boy's 'life of crime'. Magistrates warn he's on his way to prison. A local policeman is quoted as saying he's one of the most problematic young people in the city.

I didn't see the paper until a neighbour brought it round last night. I couldn't bring myself to buy a paper that sold itself on the back of a teenager's sorrow. Yes. And utter desperation.

But I read it. I talked to my neighbours. I talked to my children. We were unanimous in our view that this is one of the most unforgiveable things to have done to this boy. He is still a child. Our children know him. We know what kind of life he has had and it's a life you wouldn't wish on anyone.

What justification is there to name a child of this age, to publish his photo and address? The law has always been that a child cannot be identified, so a special order must have been made by magistrates allowing the Argus to do so. Magistrates who should have known better, who also will have known about this boy's background.

How dare they do this? Has our society become so rotten, so utterly skewed, that drug dealers - KNOWN TO THE POLICE - can operate freely in my street, Lewes Road, the seafront and sell various illegal substances from a flat near my home to teenagers but this boy is publically shamed? That off licences throughout the city can sell spirits to teenagers without ID, but it's this boy who's shamed?

That's not even to mention the many other criminal activities that adults commit daily in this city.....the fencing, the conning, the pimping, assaults, the backhanders, the abuse of children......but the Argus, police and magistrates choose to villify a young, mixed race boy. Why? Because he's an easy target and there's NO-ONE to defend him and they know that.

When I was writing my dissertation on the underground press years ago, one of the books I used for research was a brilliant analysis of how society responds to outsiders - "Folk Devils and Moral Panics" is written by Stanley Cohen and was first published by Harper Collins in 1973 but has been revised three times. The most recent edition by Routledge in 2002 includes new material by Cohen on the demonisation of young offenders and asylum seekers.

Cohen's way into this was a study of mods and rockers and understanding how the media helps create a 'moral panic' and consequently inhibits rational debate. It is essential reading, perhaps even more important now that we are overwhelmed with media and ill-informed comment and are drifting inexorably to the right.

Our local moral panic has inhibited rational debate - there was none on that Argus front page or on the paper's website. The story is utterly one sided, which is also unforgiveable. But it has also inhibited any sense of moral responsibility for this boy, any sense of kindness, simple human concern about how things were allowed to get this bad for him.......we should all be ashamed.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

This is the cover image by artist Jane Fordham for my new book, Commandments, published by Arc in October. Jane is exhibiting her work at Espace Croise in Roubaix, France, between 24 November and 20 December this year. She works in sculpture and mosaic, but is now concentrating on painting and drawing.

She sent me this image when I e mailed her a poem that appears in the book. Jane's image, so uncompromising, seemed to sum up the collection and I'm grateful she let me use it.

The first launches for Commandments are at the Troubadour in London on October 8, Cuisle Limerick International Poetry Festival on October 19 and Lewes Live Literature festival on October 23, then Brighton on November 15. I'm starstruck to be sharing stages with CK Williams, Michael Longley, Theo Dorgan and Matthew Sweeney.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Apology.The much loved and missed writer Julia Darling used it in the title of her moving collection of poetry, Apology for Absence. It was Plato's title for his defence of Socrates. It has a fine and noble side. It can also make you feel like you have just crawled out from under a stone.

I am chewing over these things because I had to apologise to someone to keep the peace. Where do I stand on that, morally? Does it make me weak, a liar or a diplomat? The strangest thing of all was that all the time I was apologising I was thinking, 'Oh, X is going to jump in now and accept some responsibility, surely, apologise to me......' But X didn't. In fact, X compounded the situation by making more personal remarks, unapologetically.

I suppose we are all made differently. For some of us honesty, is paramount. It has uncomfortable consequences. So maybe that is why I am sick at the fact I couldn't be true to myself, that I traded a lie for a truce, sick at the fact that this other person couldn't acknowledge their part.

Does the end justify the means? In the simpler days of adolescence, the nuns might have labelled that lie a venial sin. It might have called for a couple of Hail Marys. If there was a plus side to Catholicism it was its acceptance of weakness and its Friday confessions, when you could start each week again with a clean soul.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


"About Poetry: Poetry is a fresh, new fashion catalogue bringing you an exclusive collection of relaxed modern clothes".

The company that runs readers' offers for the News of the World - Selective Marketplace Ltd, trading as Poetry. I wonder if they've trademarked the name? If so, how? If so, what does that mean for us? Should we start renaming the bardic tradition, then? Can we at last claim the catwalks of Paris, London, New York? The front cover of Vogue?

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I've raved before about the pleasures of finding books in secondhand shops. I was wandering along Lewes Road at the start of the summer, without a shopping list, and there was a jumble sale in the church hall. Jumble sales are rare nowadays, in the era of Ebay and carboots. They were one of my regular pastimes when I lived in Portsmouth as a student, in Guildford as a trainee journo. East Horsley and Shamley Green jumble sales were legendary, as my good friend Fred Pipes will know.

Portsmouth ones were a bit more hit and miss, but the Conservatives usually did a good job of chucking out quality. In those days I was on the look out for clothes. Coats were a must, especially in the summer. Retro was untapped and charity shops were still sweaty, grubby and haphazard.

I caught onto books later....I don't remember exactly, but I think I found a couple of lovely old children's books. Anyway, Lewes was a Scout's fundraising jumble and the bookstall was the usual mountain of Archer, King, Miles and Boon and Marion Keyes, along with outdated car manuals, how to save your life in three easy lessons, the molecular structure of the universe and cookery books.

Then there was a couple of yards of old Penguins. I was tempted to buy them all - it was at the end and they were shifting at 5p each. But I wanted to walk into town, too. So I opted for Vile Bodies because it's the original Penguin cover and in reasonable nick, and The Chinese Room by Vivian Connell because I'd never heard of it before. It's well thumbed (more of that later) and falling apart and disturbed me as I read it.

All the way through I was convinced Vivian was a woman. The Chinese Room is a remarkably book about sex and relationships which was made into a film in the 1960s. A wartime bestseller (published 1943).....and Vivian was a man, born in Cork in 1905, he died in 1981. He also wrote the plays Throng o' Scarlet (1941) and The Nineteenth Hole of Europe (1943). His other novels are The Golden Sleep (1948), The Hounds of Cloneen (1951) and September in Quinze published in 1952 in the US.

He got under the skin of both the US and UK legal systems. The Chinese Room was banned in the States and September in Quinze was apparently judged an obscene libel in the UK.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Literature, Connell travelled throughout Europe from the age of 30, living in Sussex and Sicily and settled in the south of France. Connell claimed his father taught him to read and write and the rest of his education was in pubs, hurling fields and riding to hounds.

There's an element of snooty dismissal in the scrappy biogs I've found on him but I can't fathom why. The Chinese Room is a surprise at almost every page and a very modern exploration of sexual repression. No wonder it was a best seller in wartime as barriers were crumbling (only to be rebuilt, temporarily, in the 50s).

I wonder if it could be the existence of some very old fashioned and now disturbingly racist images - the dark as "a nigger's scowl" - for example - or some odd residues of the class system. But those can be put down to the time it was written and don't dominate the fiction.

I'd say there are echoes of D H Lawrence and Gustave Flaubert. Post 1943, I'd say Connell resonates in the writing of J P Donleavey and to an extent, Jean Rhys. I wonder if Connell was read by Donleavey. It wouldn't surprise me at all.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Games to play in the car:

Guess which 4x4 driver is a drug dealer, arms dealer, chairman of an NHS trust.
Count lorry drivers on a mobile 12 inches from the car in front.

Games to play in the supermarket:

List the most useless jobs e.g. sewing poppers on Barbie clothes.
Try and fill a basket avoiding plastic packaging.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Jam Tarts, the choir I sing with, run by the modest and stunning Li Mills, is starting the autumn term with Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. When I first heard Amy on radio 1 singing that song, needless to say I hadn't a clue who she was. Radio 1 was on because my daughter was in the car and I can't drive and fight for control of the radio. Sometimes, though, there are pleasant surprises and hearing this song flung at me was one of them. It was so out of character for Radio 1. It was like revisiting my early listening, the growly old Alexis Korner, the blues, Patti Smith, but most of all she reminded me of Janis Joplin. This is probably a comparison that's been made a million times but since I have no TV, don't read a tabloid paper, or even a quality one regularly now, I'm out of touch with popular/celebrity culture. Anyway, Li played her to us on CD last night - our first session - so we could get a sense of the rhythm of the song.

I love Janis and I could really like Amy. Their voices go deep, reach into that Bosch-like place we visit in ourselves sometimes when we are troubled. I guess there are people who never visit that place. Just as most of us probably don't visit it as often as Janis did and clearly Amy is doing right now. I'm not capable of commenting on her personal life, especially as so many are. There's no glamour in addiction - I know this as I scrub the sticky squares off my skin, residues of nicotine patches....and struggle with the headache that's caused when I forget to put one on and go back to the roll-ups.

We are all responsible, though, aren't we, for glamourising her tragic, dangerous lifestyle? Living it vicariously in Sid and Nancy t shirts, our record collections, on our bookshelves. It's not just the tabloids, the TV, the record companies and the hangers on. I can understand her father in law's thinking when he pleaded with people to boycott her work. What is so desperate is the inevitability of each decade claiming its rock martyrs and the public's failure to give up its thrills, even faced with evidence of real illness. So - to the amphitheatre in Arles, maybe......

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Back in Liverpool, the same hotel, but the roadworks have gone so it was much easier to find. Before leaving for the train I was frantically picking raspberries and blackberries. I don't know why I feel the need to make jam before I leave for somewhere, but it has been a feature of this summer that I'm bent over the hob stirring boiling fruit and filling bottles just hours ahead of a journey. This morning I was in the cemetary with Giya, doing our usual round of the good blackberry spots, although she decided it was much too embarrassing and slumped by an angel as I filled my plastic bag. She did, however, take down some names which will go on labels later.

It seems colder here. I can't believe I was thinking of swimming earlier today. I didn't get round to it, but it was warm enough. I fear, though, that might be it now. I was sidetracked in ASDA, where I went to buy more sugar and left without it, but with bags of food, socks and boxers plus a cheap school skirt. This is why I have been trying to avoid supermarkets. It was packed. A beautiful Sunday afternoon and what are we all doing? Shopping. Admittedly we had nothing in the fridge apart from bottles of gherkins, some potatoes and yesterday's veg curry. So I felt under some obligation to stock up. But I know when I walk through those sliding doors, my brain stays outside.

Passing through Clapham junction, on my way to Victoria, I remembered a very old friend from Portsmouth Poly and a beautiful flat she had where I stayed once. For some unfathomable reason, as I looked at the towerblocks from the train I had a memory of a Japanese paper lantern and a mutual friend of ours called Kevin who might have had a brilliant career but who died of Aids at the height of the epidemic.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I have a hardback copy of Commandments on the table by my bed. It was at the post office, waiting for me when I arrived home from the Tribe of Doris, my annual outing to the Blackdown Hills with the kids. It's also a chance to meet Pete, Alison, Isla, Iwan, Graham, Ursula and Dan. How comforting those names are, back in Brighton, without woodsmoke under the full moon and tin mugs of red wine.

At Doris I danced and promised myself salsa lessons in winter, if only to try and become more familiar with my left and right, improve my co-ordination and shake my bum more often. I had a taster of Maghrebi dance, new to me and very sensual. It's associated with rai music and is subtler than bellydancing. My teacher, Amel, is a Sufi, so she also showed us how to spin, promising a point when you feel at one with the universe. I didn't get there, quite, but I could see how you might. At one point everything sparkled but the music stopped and the thread was broken.

Amel's classes were the most stimulating of the week for me. It's dance for the older woman - liberating, unselfconscious, witty, wise. I dabbled in one session of Brazilian percussion and got to grips with south African gumboot dance, too. It was a week when words were set aside, as sometimes they need to be, in favour of the body's other languages.

Also waiting for us were Jane and Erdem, Aysha, Dide and Kaya, good friends who are now in Ludlow after several years in Turkey. They were looking after the house, catching up with mates in Brighton and stayed on so we could grab time together before term starts again and we all become trapped in routine. Jane is one of my oldest and dearest friends, so it was wonderful she was here to toast the first copy of Commandments with a cup of tea in the back garden. She's seen quite a few of the poems in the book in their early stages and was an enthusiastic nightclub companion when I first moved to Brighton and neither of us had children.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Exclusion by your peers never stops hurting.

Last night at supper, a friend of my daughter was explaining how she was excluded by a group of friends. She's now trying to persuade her mum to let her change school.

The girls came across this group yesterday in town. My daughter had never met them before but they shouted at her, mocked her, insulted her, because she was associated with the girl they'd decided to exclude.

Most of us have some experience of this. I still remember the name of the girl who attempted to exclude me from a group I went from primary to secondary school with. I have no idea why she did it; probably for the sheer exercise of power. As a result my friendships became wide and non-exclusive. I hopped between groups and was happy to have allegiances with many.

I've retained this need for variety and loathing for exclusivity. It has informed my working life, my social life and my reading - particularly my reading. In fact I remember my English teacher's surprise I was reading Geoffrey Hill at the same time as the Liverpool poets.

Naively, I believe that by rooting around in the unknown, by being curious, by talking to people I don't know or haven't seen for a while, by challenging the received view, the orthodox, the conventional, I might learn something, I might be entertained, I might feel uplifted.

Which is why, ironically, on the same evening I received an email from a friend about the Poetry Book Society's decision not to give her book a recommendation. The PBS wields phenomenal power in the shark infested poetry world. How does it wield this power? Well, it's a case study in self-perpetuation. A couple of poets decide on a handful of books to recommend each quarter. One book is a choice and is sent to all members, a massive boost for that title. Selectors are in post for a substantial period and are instrumental in deciding who takes over from them.

The PBS dominates the TS Eliot prize, poetry's biggest publicity machine, and the repercussions of these quarterly choices and recommendations extend far - into decisions made by bookshops about which poets to stock, bookings of poets for festivals, invitations to submit learned articles or work to poetry magazines, other competition shortlists like the Whitbread and Forward, and newspaper coverage.

Sadly, the PBS and its decisions, has become a byword for quality throughout the world of poetry. A royal stamp of approval.
Those of us who are dismissed are expected to remain quiet in our provincial home and doff our caps to the aristocrats who've fought off all opposition to their right to shape the map of contemporary British poetry.

Some of these so-called opinion formers go for the jugular to keep poetry "pure", arguing there's too much being published, that formalism is the way forward and so on. These are the dirty fighters. Their tactics are akin to those of political spin doctors, public relations consultants. Their aim is to keep their brand names on the shelves and others off.

Other opinion formers cuddle up in the halls of academe, the Royal Literary Fund and book launches, hoping no-one will break ranks and let in the unknown, untried or rebellious. These are the camp followers, joiners of private members clubs. They support the dirty fighters by weight of numbers and keeping up appearances. They keep the bench warm. They are rewarded with editorships, fellowships and shortlisting.

But I remember the school bully. The impact she had was brought home to me at the kitchen table last night chatting to two 12 year old girls.

The PBS and its associated influence does the same. There is a cabal of names in contemporary poetry that should know better than to mistake personal opinion, an emotional judgement, for value judgement. It is time to challenge them.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Bowl of rice

Here is a bowl of rice -
for this your mother summons clouds
and disperses them.

She diverts rivers into each day of your life.
Birds sing for her in waterfields
drawing grain from stalk and leaves.
Mountains lend her echoes,
the snow from their peaks.

Her spoon serves a blessing of turmeric
to every lover you’ll know.
With it come bellows, a clink of charcoal,
fingers spread like rakes
through midnight’s shared groan.

Here is a bowl of rice -
for this your mother summons clouds
and disperses them.

There's a model of Brighton Pavilion in the Jubilee library at the moment, built by the Edible Construction Company, a group of artists that includes a woman I met years ago at Fabrica gallery, Emilia Telese. When my kids were young they used to think Emilia was a film star because she wears incredible clothes. She looked like a film star at the opening of the Rice Pavilion too.

The model's built from vacuum packs of risotto rice that are being donated to a food charity when the installation comes down. It fits perfectly into the massive glass frontage of the library. One of the issues it's trying to raise is food waste. Emilia asked me to write a poem (Bowl of rice) to go in a postcard pack produced for the installation. Rick Stein also donated a receipe for wild mushroom risotto. But looking through the pack, one card stands out. It's a single line: 40% of food produced in the UK is thrown away every year.

So many strands of thought are contained in that line, aren't they? A society gone wrong. Today I was sitting on a bench in Rottingdean, chatting with my mum about housing, property speculation, the impossibility of ordinary people being able to buy a home. She's a great advocate of world government and thinks it's the only way to redress the gross imbalances in place now. It seems impossible to imagine, though, when in this country now the phrase buy to let has been replaced by buy to leave empty.....people stacking up property, keeping it empty just to watch it rise in value so they have a risk free profit from it. How could a society that tolerates this kind of thinking make the leap to world government?

So we went on to talking about how some people seem to have more money than sense and got onto pet pampering. How just is it that there are hairdressers for dogs, shops selling beds, blankets, diamante collars and god knows what else for dogs, cats and probably guinea pigs? So there we are, on this bench in Rottingdean, setting the world to rights when a woman passes by with a very well groomed terrier. Well, I assume it's a terrier, I don't really know, but it has long hair and a few warts. Its owner tells us the dog is blind and going deaf, but she takes it to the vet every fortnight for a check up and has its coat cut every six weeks. The dog's had the same hairdresser for 16 years and its harness came from Harrods.

Later, when we'd had our cake and take away coffee on the beach and come back home via the allotment, laden with blackberries, more raspberries, plums and rhubarb (thank god there's some fruit at least), Mum admitted she didn't even dare look at me when Harrods was mentioned.

There was no food wasted at our table anyway. Mum brought supper and it was as if I hadn't fed anyone for weeks. Meat!!! Cake!!! Thank god she did. The house has been a youth hostel for the last couple of days. There was a crust of sliced white bread left and peanut butter. I did go down to the co-op yesterday but it was for bags of sugar to make jam. There'll be no shortage of that this year and I'm determined that even if my fingers are stained blue for days, I'll be stripping those brambles of fruit because every time I eat a ripe blackberry I have this strange double memory - one grafted onto the other - a flock of goats in a valley in Ardeche with a storm coming and a cafe in Paris drinking red wine with creme de mures.

About the only thing I've written recently, apart from bits of the story I'm nervous of calling a novel, is some notes for a series of poems on different fruits: raspberry, blackberry, elderberry are there on the frontline...I did one years ago called Graveyard jam, but I'm going to put the names of the dead on the jars the next time I go picking in the cemetary. It seems fair.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A clifftop field with views of north Cornwall's treacherous was worth the drive and even a couple of nights of torrential rain when despair seeped into the tent and I wished for enough money to buy myself and the four kids a flight anywhere, regardless of carbon footprint.

But the Eden Project - our wet day outing that turned out fine - cured me of such spoilt brat thoughts. It is a fantastic reminder of how we could be living within our own little patch and beyond.

In fact, the rain affected us badly on one day only, when we were forced to take refuge in a pub and exploited as only tourists can be when the rain's like stairrods and there's no chance of lighting the camping gas for a meal. I could rant for ever about greed, opportunism and absence of morality in certain parts of this country and sectors of the population. There were times in Cornwall when I wondered how much money was clogging up single track lanes in four wheel drives, why suddenly no-one can go in the water without a designer wetsuit on or a surf board under their arm, just how much is reasonable to charge for a portion of chips even if they are fried in Padstow.

But these furious thoughts couldn't stand up to an enormous, clear night sky, moments when when the sea from the coast path shone so bright it was solid silver, when the sea around the rocks was turquoise, when the surf was so exhilarating that being knocked flat by it was as good as a massage. It reminded me why I love these wild places and gave the kids other places to go back to, I hope, one day.

I woke up yesterday, our last morning, realising I hadn't read a thing, even the Neruda I'd packed.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

If I can get four kids out of the house and in the car for a five and a half hour journey to Cornwall in forty minutes, I'll be very, very lucky. But that's my goal this morning, waking up teenagers and herding them into the overpacked and ancient Mondeo for camping near some of Cornwall's highest cliffs.

When I get back, I'll be able to focus on work, but I need some wild, windy coastline, which is so much more bearable when it's sunny. I've been promising to show the kids the coast I went to with my parents as a child and this is the time to do it, now the sun's out at last. But it will be changed, I'm sure. Padstow is now linked with Rick Stein rather than gritty sandwiches. Never mind, the Cornish names will still work their magic and we'll be a short cliff walk away from Tintagel.

And when I get back I want, also, to see if I can summon up some good feminist support for a protest. There are three lap dancing clubs due to open in Brighton, one's the Spearmint Rhino that will admit men and women, the other two are men only. Thoughts in my mind so far are for women to reclaim Spearmint Rhino from the dirty macs with reading group outings, knitting circles and loud discussion groups. For the men only clubs, I think women should dress up as men and take over the place. I wonder, too, if we could enlist support from gay male friends to make our protests.

Alternatively, and this would be radical and probably cause quite a bit of fuss, I think it would be very interesting to have a mass naked protest by women outside all these places and see what happens.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

More devastation on the allotment. I couldn't believe even the tomato plants were eaten but the second planting of potatoes I put in has produced fruit - I've never seen that before. I collected the remaining broad beans, dug up some of the early potatoes, picked plums, raspberries and blackberries.

But it's a terrible year and a lesson to me. I've neglected it too much. I have to put in more manure next year, try new techniques against slugs and keep the weeds down. It'll probably cost me in wood chips and weed suppressing cloth, but if I don't do something radical, it'll be pointless carrying on with anything other than fruit.

It was one of those days yesterday. The car battery finally gave up altogether and a friend had to take me down to Halfords to fork out £60 for another, when I am so broke I feel like weeping. Being broke in the rain is even more extreme and the situation most guaranteed to invoke a bout of self-pity.

I'm at a stage with the novel now when I am thinking about the people in it an awful lot of the time. I have been holding back from writing this next bit because it feels important, because I started off not entirely sure what this man would do and he's taken things into his own hands.

Writing prose is a satisfying way of filling this time between delivering Commandments to Arc and waiting for it to be published in October. A few readings are trickling in now - one in Brighton will be a launch of sorts in November; there'll be others in Lewes, London, Folkestone and Limerick.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

In France there's a series of poetry books for kids - Gallimard Jeunesse - featuring major poets and they're incredibly good value - 3 euros. I bought a selection of Eugene Guillevic's work for my daughter, who, I'm delighted to say, has absorbed my love of the language. I'm drawn to his work especially at the moment because a novel I'm trying to write is set in a tiny village in Brittany where I worked one summer. Guillevic was born in Carnac, close by, and near where I stayed another couple of summers.

What sets a great poet apart is the simplicity of his or her language. Guillevic, in my mind, is in the same category as Neruda, Lorca, Holub, Plath - because he's paring language down in order to make the reading of his work an experience as natural as walking. Like a plate of cherries, a bowl of freshly picked raspberries, Guillevic's language has integrity, it relies only on its natural self, not on tricks and illusions. When a poet takes that decision - simplicity, the image, the placing of words - the reader can feel its emotional truth.

Guillevic writes this about poetry:

"When a poem arrives,
you don't know where from, or why,

it's as if a bird
came to rest on your hand......"

One of the last poems he wrote in 1997 was about a bird singing his songs back to him.

It wasn't many years before I first went to Carnac and the menhirs, that the little cul de sac where my family lived was flooded.

News on the radio yesterday and today reminded me of that flood - the army called out from Aldershot with sandbags, us wading down the road in wellies, the water nearly up to our knees. We were lucky, the water only lapped at our doors but houses further down the road, lower lying, had a couple of feet of water inside. It was such a tiny stream, but it needed a flood plain and it was obvious to anyone that the land on the opposite bank, below steep woods, wasn't enough for the stream to expand into.

I still remember the shock of seeing how the stream had become a fast dirty brown river almost without warning. This was the stream that most of the summer was dry, the stream we walked along towards pine woods, ducking through tunnels of willow and cow parsley. We sat in an enormous drainage pipe it was channelled into under the bridge, and gossiped.

Another winter the boy next door slipped on an old railway sleeper his parents had laid across the stream from their garden. He was young, small and the stream was full. He went under but fortunately his father was just behind him, raced along the bank and jumped in, dragging him out of the current.

A song is being sung back to us at the moment that we must do something about.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The latest summer storm is crashing outside. The air's grey with rain, the gutters can't contain the water, nor the drains. It's the last day of term and this morning the schools will be steamy with wet kids.

I've been back from Avignon for three days after a week in the sun, although when I arrived the Mistral was blowing and there was a chill in the evenings. The Mistral leaves you feeling like you've been in a sandstorm, your skin gritty, your hair sticky. It was my third year at the festival as a guest of CEMEA, which takes over schools in the town for the duration, running workshops and taking groups to events. I was there with Brighton based artist Jane Fordham and the two of us worked each morning - her drawing, me writing - then visited exhibitions and shows in the afternoons and evenings.

Jane introduced me to the work of photographer and filmmaker Agnes Varda who has an installation at La Miroiterie just outside the Avignon city walls. It's a celebration of the people who sheltered Jews during the second world war - photos and films. Varda's given this subject added power by speculating on who might risk their life in the same way now. What would it take at this point in the 21st century?

Political action and engagement was the over-arching theme of the festival and this year the focus was on words. The featured director, Frederick Fisbach, chose poet Rene Char's Feuillets d'Hypnos as the basis of his key piece at the Palais des Papes. This year is the 100th anniversary of Char's birth.

It was a brave choice and the experiment wasn't entirely successful. The Feuillets are a mixture of narratives about Char's experiences in the maquis, aphorisms and reflections on the nature of poetry. He dedicated the work to Camus and wouldn't publish until the second world war was over. His language and imagery can be dense and difficult so Fisbach had an challenging task. A company of actors read the Feuillets one after another from start to finish. The staging was difficult to understand, the role of the actors very unclear at times.

Jane and I talked and talked after the two hour show about what we thought Fisbach was trying to do. We concluded that he was attempting to question the relevance and place of poetry in a society that has lost all sense of engagement. We wondered if he wanted to show how hard it was for people to read poetry.

But there was a turning point in the piece, which was highlighted for us before we saw it by Natalie, a French woman staying at the same CEMEA centre. It was a story about a young man being beaten up by the SS and the villagers' response. Char's imagery is of the sea and water. As this narrative was being read, one by one people left the audience and took their places on stage. These were the 100 plus extras - local people - Fisbach had been working with to make another statement about political engagement.

Dressed in greys, blue, green, they gave the narrative an astonishing power and their presence suddenly focussed the readings, which were shared between them and the actors.

Fisbach allegedly admitted the task of staging Char had given him enormous problems. They weren't resolved, clearly, but regardless of the confusion, bits that didn't work, it was heartening to witness poetry being presented so raw in the most prestigious venue of the festival, to hundreds of people over three nights. At least Fisbach didn't resort to dance, video or music (well not much) to try and distract from the words. He was, in my mind, pretty uncompromising.

It's heartening, too, to see experiment and big risks when the arts in England at least seem so safe and self-conscious. The other one of Fisbach's pieces we saw was Genet's Les Paravents. Apparently regarded as unstageable. Well Fisbach made a brilliant stab at it - it was four hours long, a mixture of actors and puppets, with video and two narrators who also became actors.

The questions and images that arose during the week in Provence should sustain me at least through the summer, but probably longer. This year they were questions I feel particularly close to - how does poetry find its place, how much should a writer risk, what happens when you experiment with narrative, what happens when you experiment and fail?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A breakdown of arms exporters, conflict zones, size of armies and spending on weapons was free with the Indy on Monday. It's been interrupting my thoughts since I read it on the train to London. Picking raspberries yesterday evening, two boxes full, I was shocked by the number of slugs on the allotment and wondered what would happen if there was a Biblical style plague of slugs. This weather provokes that kind of thinking. The flash storms, the constantly heavy sky, the floods, create a sense of alarm anyway. But then all these hidden creatures come out. At night my back wall is crawling with slugs and snails. In the kitchen the other morning, a great leopard patterned slug was stretched out on the floorboards. Then there was the allotment. Well, there were vast nests of slugs. Everywhere I stepped, every time I moved aside a raspberry bush to look under the leaves for fruit, on the ground were seething accumulations of them.

And I wondered where I'd send a plague of slugs if I had the power. I think I'd want it sent to all those arms dealers who have hideaways and luxury mansions in Surrey and Virginia Water. This is how the Indy's little supplement worked on me. I imagined all these apparently respectable people with lots of money devoting themselves to their gardens in the home counties. Now if they are arms dealers, it may be that they have no conscience at all about using slug pellets. But my plague of slugs would be pellet resistant. They would be those great leopard slugs, the Arnold Schwarzenenegger of slime, immune to poison and intent on destruction. Not a single lettuce, hosta, dahlia or squash would survive them.

Imagine an infestation of slugs in Surrey gardens...millions of them - every leaf turned to meat. I could probably dream up worse plagues, actually. Slugs would be a mild one. Perhaps the vanguard, the first sign of what was to come, like Camus' rats dying in La Peste.....

Then I started thinking about how to describe the taste of raspberries to someone who'd never eaten one. That is a challenge I don't have time for now. Maybe next week. At the moment I have to set my mind to housing issues and the work I'm doing for a friend. I like the eclectic nature of freelancing when interesting subjects drop through the letter box and the way phrases make their voices heard - the idolatry of materialism. Mmmmm. I like that one. It fits with a plague of slugs. Oh, and a Cornish beer called Doom.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Brighton Hip Hop festival's funding has been cut. It's the only UK festival celebrating hip hop. Why should I care? Because my son has been writing and rapping with one of the organisations running it, a fantastic group of people called Audio Active. Their workshops have provided a focus for teenage boys - black and white - in the city to express themselves, to write and communicate what they feel about this screwed up world we live in. The festival's given them an opportunity to appear on the same stage as some of the UK's biggest stars, to learn about the discipline of creating work and performing it. To learn about what it means to be professional and dedicated. To learn about the power of words.

But the same old story seems to be played out endlessly in this city. No money for poetry, no money for hip hop, but plenty of cash for withies and string and clowns..... So the festival, on the seafront in July, just won't happen. Instead, some of the acts due to perform will be at Concorde 2 on Sunday trying to raise cash to keep at least something going. Why does this sound SO familiar?

Oh, there's the excuse of the olympics which is threatening to become one of the old standards, rolled out by the lazy to justify their inability to see beyond their own limited existence. But maybe, also, it's to do with the amount of money poured into organisations that play the funding game so well, that provide sponsors with good seats, with kudos, with press coverage and outcomes and well, we all know.....

The acts appearing at the Concorde 2 are waiving their fees. The flyer reads: Help Save the UK's largest celebration of Hip Hop Culture. The names mean nothing to me, but I like the sound of Dr Syntax. Inconceivable, isn't it, that the city can't back this one? But as an old hippie turned old cynic, maybe not. This is the website address:

Monday, June 25, 2007

I wrote a haiku once about Ellen's party. But that was a gathering years ago in Guildford. She had another this weekend and it was her 50th, so there were many conversations about this transitional, menopausal time, peppered with Jack Daniels and some singing. Ellen's in Jam Tarts, the singing group I've been part of but not part of for a few months and she invited them to perform at her party. I sneaked in at the back to join in with some old favourites, Lorelei, First of the Gang, Cockles and Mussells and it renewed my resolve to return to it in the autumn. Singing, like Jack Daniels, is not necessarily the only answer to anyone's problems but it certainly provides a distraction for the soul at times.

Maybe there's no other way through this bizarre time of change than to keep finding distractions. None of us appear to have an answer to those old insecurities about ageing, the expectations we have about quality of life and work, in particular, how we are less capable of putting up with nonsense.

The rain battering the street reminds me of my first night in Brighton, when I fitted a sheet to my bedroom window, put bedding on my mattress and went out in similar weather to find Ellen's house, where she and Jane were waiting to welcome me. I arrived soaking wet but exhilarated to be in the city so many friends were drawn to. Jane was here, too, for the party and staying with me. It was fantastic to get dressed up again and go out, as we used to. And there were some stunning heads of grey hair dancing through the decades.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Three nights in a hotel room, I'm glad to be home but I like Penzance and I'd like to go back later this summer to that part of Cornwall. The journey to Brighton was a marathon. I left at 4 pm and arrived home at midnight. One train with loos that didn't work, a switch at Plymouth to another train with a fault, so it was back onto the one we'd just left. With all that time to write, I could barely come up with 400 words of the prose I'm working on and notes for poems while dipping in and out of books.

With Brighton as my default setting, Penzance seems delightfully unspoiled and quiet. But I guess most places are quiet compared to this party city. The more often I leave it, the more I realise what a pleasuredome it is. I wonder if it's claimed me now? At some point, my ideal would still be a coastguard cottage on a cliff with the Atlantic just metres away. One day I want to live with the sea in my window, to wake up and go to sleep with it.

As I staggered to bed last night, my daughter woke and called for a hug. Her room was heavy with sleep, warm and scented with one of her many perfumes! It was a lovely welcome. Then this morning my son insisted on playing a new beat he'd composed. So at 7.30 am I was listening to rap - but this is no ordinary rap, there's piano and shifting rhythms, poetry, real poetry and synth like strings.

The journey felt like such hard work but just those two things were compensation enough. I woke to the sun and have spent hours on the allotment surveying slug damage, weeding and transplanting, staking up tomato plants and two aubergine plants I was given. Every squash plant has been eaten and all the beans gone. There may be time for a third planting. But I picked two large containers of raspberries, some potatoes, an onion and lettuce. I love walking back down the hill dirty, sweaty and carrying at least something I've grown. That's supper pretty well dealt with.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Today on Marazion beach, near Penzance, with a view of St Michael's Mount, I've been working with children from a local primary school. We've been making up new names for colours, writing Richard Long/Hamish Fulton style poems and watching kite surfers skim the waves.

The sun's been glorious, wind grabbing the surf. The tide's progressively gone out, revealing the causeway to the mount and people walking across the sand. Tomorrow will be classroom based, but being outside invigorates how we look at things, tunes our senses and perception of all that's around us.

When the sun colours the sea it seems to fill the body with water and silver. And the beach is littered with the most beautiful stones. So much to look at, the kite surfer entertaining us all.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

On the train to Cornwall, two posh teenagers, brother and sister, are waved off at Plymouth by their dad. The boy starts complaining about the state of the seats, claims he can smell vomit in a carrier bag. He chucks it into another seat, moves to a table closer to me. My heart sinks.

Their voices are loud with privilege and inheritance and they’re as expensively dressed. The boy’s wired. From vomit he switches to the announcements and for a moment is quite funny as he mimics a conductor’s increasingly desperate attempts to enforce the no smoking rule. But the humour’s brief. The two of them pull out of nowhere – it sounds like a private joke – a psychotic conversation about murder, torture and genocide of children.

Between Saltash and Liskeard they start to roll a joint. The sister doesn’t actually know how. She’s bluffing a lot and talking about the long rizlas she’s found, her arms wide, like the clichéd angler. They seem to have an odd relationship for brother and sister. Rizlas are mentioned several times a minute. Daddy by now must be back with his second wife. I’m speculating. There was something about his set smile that suggested relief.

Momentarily, they’re sweet in their naivity, desperation to shock. Mum’s mentioned. I was right. They’re going back to mum and the boy says we can get some of mum’s, meaning marijuana, remember she’s an alcoholic, he says.

How sad for these two kids, travelling between parents on a Sunday night with their packets of sandwiches, in the rain and back to whatever domestic arrangements she has. Not even the privilege suggested by the boy’s arrogance, clothes and accent, has protected him from this journey and the anger that straightens the peak of his cap. The two of them thrown into a relationship that borders on boyfriend/girlfriend rather than brother/sister.

They’re making a seven course meal of the joint. The boy’s ‘arsing’ and ‘shitting’ to try and up the shock value but the carriage is studiously unaffected. The announcer tells us we’re arriving at Bodmin and still the joint’s under construction, but one rizla’s torn and another’s been wrecked by water on the table.

She’s ‘arsing’ too and he’s talking to her, I imagine, in the way his father speaks to him when he’s trying to explain a problem. He’s holding the joint in the air for the carriage to see, while delivering a commentary on a woman walking along the platform with her case on wheels. Disgusting, he says and comments on a man’s weight. They’re talking more like brother and sister now, almost squabbling about the sister’s bodged second joint.

I’m wondering if they’ll be off to the loo to smoke them or if they’ll wait until they get off the train, hanging around for mum. By Par (for Newquay) they’re onto paedophilia and the story of a girl at school who had an affair with a teacher. The boy tries to make a joke of it but their heart’s not in it. They knew the girl. They say her name.

The sister goes to the loo. By St Austell they’ve run out of anything to say. The carriage is silent. They’re riding Cornwall’s spine on a Sunday evening when they’d probably rather be with friends, anything. The journey unravels back to the moment they got on and I can see now their father’s enforced jollity, over-compensating discipline, played out in the construction of the joint – boy and girl transformed into mum and dad – until they exhaust themselves and the train’s rhythm calms them back to themselves, the damp green outside softening the light between stations, becoming a ballad of home and simpler evenings before divorce and the intricacies of rizlas, all that rests on a teenager’s ability to roll a perfect joint, to forgive his parents.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The World's End is a gift of a name for a pub, isn't it? Especially when it's in London Road. I was diverted there by Brendan Cleary the other day, when I was off to the bank. I'd left myself so much time to kill that it was a relief to have something to do with it other than the mundane daily life stuff. Brendan is a good friend and a great poet but for some reason neglected, or overlooked. He and I have our own theories about this, most of which are too rude or bitter to write down, but somehow don't seem unreasonable to utter by the 4th or 5th pint.

Not that we went to those lengths the other day. It was mid afternoon and actually, I stayed on a pint of orange juice. It was a bit tricky having a conversation on the pavement, but it was a fine day and too gloomy inside. That goes almost without saying for a pub with that name. The lorries that pound out of Brighton mostly go down London Road. Sean O'Brien, another poet who used to live in Brighton many years ago, wrote a good ballad about London Road. He's gone onto Dante's Inferno now. I wonder if there's any connection?

I keep wanting to tell people I was at the World's End. It's like a man I know who's called Jesus. That too is a gift, when you tell someone you saw Jesus on Lewes Road. And for a moment they think you're mad or perhaps have had a bad day. It would be interesting to combine the two. Oh, I met Jesus at the World's End.....

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fifteen years ago, at dawn, my son was born. Strangely this morning I woke at about the same time and lay there travelling through those years. It's been hot today, as it was then and if there's any certainty in this sometimes disturbing, sometimes amazing world, it's that on June 13 in Brighton it will be hot. There hasn't been a day when it wasn't.

Fifteen years ago, too, my first pamphlet was published - Black Slingbacks - by Slow Dancer Press run by John Harvey, a lovely man and the creator of Resnick. The title poem of that pamphlet was about a woman being reminded of a man cheating on her as she was going through her accounts. A cheque book stub for a taxi brings back an image of a pair of shoes just inside the door of her boyfriend's flat.

Many people I've talked to have noticed how creativity seems connected to pregnancy and birth. Oh, of course, we moan about not having enough time and there isn't, ever. But I believe your first child comes with emotions you couldn't ever have imagined, energy too, presumably that served a purpose thousands of years ago and which, in our more reliable world can be the impetus for anything you want, as well as child care.

My fourth full length book comes out in October. It's called Commandments and much of it is also about rules being broken, relationships damaged by adultery. But I think it has humour, too, more wisdom than Black Slingbacks, and a wider remit, taking in religion, too, and the mind. I'm reading the proofs now. It's a nerve wracking process. Like having a teenager, maybe. I will have faith in it. That's all I can do.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Last night, alone on the allotment planting out tomatoes and lettuces, watering and weeding, tasting the first raspberries of the year that always catapault me back to childhood - I have no control over that link whatsoever - I drank a can of lager and listened to magpies. A man walking along the top road said hello and did I know of any interesting sheds? Occasionally, from behind the bank of brambles that shield my patch from the cars, I caught bits of mobile conversation, girls arranging where to meet, discussing types of make-up and who else would be at the party.

My two children were both at parties and now, after years of intense mothering, I'm in another phase where these patches of free time are delivered to me. They feel so precious, I don't like to waste them. What does that mean, to waste time? I want to savour them and put them to some use, to match what I do in this time to how important and special it is. Because it represents the transition they are going through from child to adult. A transition that is at a much earlier stage for my daughter, but my son, 15 this week, is immersed in it.

It takes some imagination to cast back so far to that time. I can summon up moments, feelings and atmospheres. The places are easy, they're imprinted, aren't they, on us, those landscapes of childhood and adolescence? I can stand myself in certain spots, the only time travel that's feasible right now, and maybe something happens in my brain to take me back to those moments...

There was the long walk from the Frensham Road to the kennels where I worked. The bus dropped me at the end but then I had to find my way to where I worked so early in the mornings that in winter it was dark. The pond was to my right and to my left were woods. I can't remember if I ran, possibly I did because I do remember the fear and the feeling that I had no choice but to make for work - behind me was the road and more stretches of common leading over the hill to the other pond.

I can remember, too, the phone box on the recreation ground and the swings where I sat with friends. The smell of the horses at Clive's stables and saddle soap in the tack room.

But because it's summer, perhaps my strongest memories right now are walking along the stream, cow parsley almost as tall as me, towards the main road for the 19 bus into town, in a purple crepe skirt and stripey shirt. On the other side of the stream there were some guys cutting the grass. John Mayall's Turning Point was in my head as I walked.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

My first swim of the summer was last week on the Jurassic coast in Charmouth. It was baptismal, one of my earliest outdoor swims for many years and I lay on my back in the water looking towards the fossil packed cliffs, wanting the moment to stretch forever.

Perhaps it has and I'll come across it again years later preserved for me like a tiny crystallised ammonite neatly defining a grey pebble.

I am writing about a summer when I was 17 and events, thoughts, situations I'd forgotten are emerging as I write, tampered with of course by the years in between. Many of them may only contain elements of so called reality and many of them did not happen at all but I'm placing them there because I want to try and summon up a small village in Brittany, a time in the 1970s and an incredible summer.

The more I write, the more energy I seem to generate for this story I am still reluctant to call a novel, so I've given it a title, The Cathedral. Perhaps none of it is original or will be worth reading. Perhaps I'm only using it to see me through this summer until Commandments appears, to ease me through that time when poems are so hard to write because the to-be-published collection has exhausted the stock of them.

I have been writing early in the morning. It's one of my best times anyway for writing, but I think it's helping with the connections I want to make, links between people and novels, thoughts and events, places and language, the past and present. The exhaustion it provokes in me may also help find a state of mind that's more open to bizarre links.

Maybe that seems pretentious. The way I've put it down seems abstract but I've been drawing hard on the novelists I read at that age, re-reading Camus, Orwell, Huxley, Greene, Godden (Greengage Summer knocked me out) and on my way back from Dorset, listened to a novel that my mother encouraged me to read, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I still need to find Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier. I think I've lost my original copy. Camus, I'm reading in French and English, depending on what I have in the house.

Re-reading these books serves two purposes. One is to try and recapture a spirit, or at least approximate it, that may have been partly down to a mix of this fiction. Another is to try and understand what made these books so compelling to me at that time.

It is an intriquing process and added to research about the period and place, utterly pleasurable, utterly addictive. So different to the process a poem goes through.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Margaret Hodge's reported comments that white Brits should be given priority over new immigrants when housing's allocated are so deeply suspect as to be incredible.

I listened to the radio thinking she must have been misreported. But this was Radio 4. So reliable. Her comments are what I might expect from an extreme right wing Conservative because these days, not even a moderate Tory would dare voice what Hodge said.

Hours after hearing her opinions, my daughter came home from school and told me a 12 year old in her year had been beaten up because he's from Pakistan. He was on a life support machine, a trainer brand imprinted on his face.

This is the reality away from your dining room and cosy constituency office, Hodge.

It's the boys and girls at school, in parks, on their way to and from football or basketball, visiting friends, who feel the impact of this racist rubbish adults spout.

You should know better. You're well enough in tune with how the media works to be aware of where your comments would go. Let's hope they lead to you being deselected when your local party picks its candidates again.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mildew has hit my tomato plants, so together with the slugs' decimation of my bean seedlings, I'm prompted to wonder how on earth I'd manage if this meant the difference between eating or not, later in the summer. I guess I'd do what I am doing and that's planting again, but I don't know if it'll be too late to bring on more tomatoes in time. The beans will no doubt be fine and shoot up.

I met some more of my OU students yesterday at a poetry day school in Croydon and have spent two weeks marking assignments. Today must be a day for digging again. I wonder if this sense of another place is part of a writer's toolkit? Although my other place is only the allotment, it reminds me of the opening of a poem by Edward Thomas called Digging - "Today I think only in scents." I often need a break from words or from making sense in words, as opposed to that direct link between body and the world that happens through the senses. The link that children have and that we lose so quickly if we're not careful.

The sun's out and it promises to be dry. And now I'm a taxi service again. Duty calls.

Monday, May 14, 2007

John Wyndham's The Chrysalids was published in 1955. I picked it up in a charity shop recently. The back cover describes it as set in a world paralysed by genetic mutation. The story's compelling, told by a boy in an isolated community attempting to purify itself through violent, uncompromising intolerance of any so-called deviation from the norm. On the fringes, the deviants live and further afield, monstrous plants, animals and wasteland where nothing grows.

I count this among one of the best novels I've read recently and coincidentally it complements some of the others found like treasures in charity shops, After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party. This seam of reading began with a re-reading of 1984, by George Orwell, that set me off on rediscovering novelists of my teens.

What happened next was confirmation of and renewed admiration for the storyteller's ability to foretell the future, to warn, to predict, to prepare. Yes, these masters of story telling are oracles of a kind. We know that, but need to remind ourselves sometimes when we're surrounded by the white noise of advertising that pushes publishing's latest money maker. We know the best writers dig deep into human behaviour and show us ourselves in a way no confessor or therapist can do, because the novelist, short story writer or poet puts us in context.

Who knows what research went into these novels written about the world we are now living in. Maybe scientific journals, maybe a magpie attraction to odd news stories, maybe daydreaming. Greene's is the least futuristic, but nevertheless somehow deeply oracular and reads as a horribly appropriate parable for today.

As a counterpoint to this compelling prose, I've been indulging, and yes that is the only word for it, in Michael Longley's Collected Poems that arrived from Amazon the other day, significantly cheaper than my local bookshops since I bought it with a copy of Rene Char's poems and Mary Oliver's - both in the Bloodaxe world poets series.

Longley's poems are such a delight and rather like spending time in the landscapes he summons up - his work engenders a sense of peace, of understanding and reassurance of elements back into their rightful places, rather like burning frankincense, actually. I guess the common denominator in his later work is the wisdom it gives off.

The Collected Poems is also fascinating for mapping Longley's poetic journey. When I did my MA many years ago, I wrote my dissertation on the influence of Dylan Thomas on Sylvia Plath - clearly there in her early work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her chronologically for that dissertation, witnessing how she'd developed, looking back to poems that were indicators of where she'd go. It's the same reading Longley - there are early signposts among some of his clever and more self-conscious poems, of the clear sighted, confident and humane writing he offers us now. And I realise as I work my way through, how he's our foremost writer of elegy, clear that lives should be celebrated and marked in poetry.

Mary Oliver's also a great discovery and I'm looking forward to reading this collection properly. Rene Char, too. I'm reading him in anticipation of a visit to the Avignon festival in July.

Domestically, a French boy staying with us as part of an exchange that my daughter did in February. Poor boy, it's been stair rods of rain, other than on Saturday when she was singing and playing sax on the seafront, then we wandered through the Laines for the Streets of Brighton festival. But from the day he arrived it's been storms, wind and deep, deep puddles. Today he's in London. I hope there's a let up. How far away that mini-drought of April is. All my bean plants, nearly, eaten by slugs. I am wondering if I'll be able to grow more on, use the propagator. I dread to visit the allotment. It'll be devastation, I know. I had the most beautiful row of lettuce seedlings. I am already mourning them.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Brighton Festival begins today and the city can truly preen, since it's voted itself into history with the largest concentration of Green councillors in the country. The children launch the festival with a parade through town - an excuse for Brighton mums to put on fairy wings while dads take charge of landrover-sized buggies. The Green vote in Brighton's fantastic. Years ago, a socialist puritan, I wouldn't have dreamed of voting in any way that might have split Labour. But I remember years of Thatcherism and the desperation as values were discarded left, right and centre. I felt relief when Labour seemed to regain ground, but oh, that old moan is so true - this Labour lot are Tories in disguise.

Labour in Brighton has been shamefully cowardly, pandering it seems to superficiality and gloss, making deals with private developers in education and major community projects like the library. There's been no evidence of really new thinking. It's a council that has promoted the view that the seafront should be built on, that has failed to curb the ludicrous numbers of cars now clogging once quiet streets, that has failed to do anything about the rise in private landlords cramming terraced houses to the brim but giving nothing back to communities, that has failed to provide facilities for young people but instead encourages the police to stop and search innocent teenagers at will so they become utterly disaffected...the list goes on.

Labour's seen that it ignores Brighton's individuality at its peril. Here, we don't tow any line. Another example of lack of imagination, lack of intelligence, lack of humility that goes with tiered seats, mayoral chains, invites to the party - I've never met a Labour councillor. Not once in about 19 years in the city has one ever knocked on my door. You don't deserve a vote if you can't knock on doors.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The front page of our local paper the other day showed pictures of a gang on the beach kicking a boy in the head. The pictures were from a website and had been taken on a mobile phone. On the news also, a suggestion that schools should teach kids manners.

Is there an absence of imagination happening here? I'm astonished, firstly, that in a large group of kids not one, or two, or three, felt able to intervene. I'm astonished that there were no passers-by, or perhaps there were and again, no-one intervened. Oh, and where were the police who regularly stop and search kids who are doing nothing?

Yesterday's Observer featured child soldiers. A page or so apart, a full page on Denise Van Outen. In the magazine, a piece by a writer about how proud she was to obtain a Sainsbury's bag. Rosie Boycott's found rural bliss.

I'm confused as to why any of that, other than the piece on child soliders, was of any interest and I'm not surprised teenagers are confused. Celebrity's out of hand and what does it convey to us? None of us matter unless we're famous. If no-one else will film you, you film yourself and your friends. You upload it. You achieve notoriety.

The piece on child soldiers, impressive as it was, was based on a book by the American Dave Eggers. The African writers who've tackled this didn't apparently warrant the same space.

If we need to teach kids anything, it's how to make decisions for themselves. Let's have classes on going against the flow, resisting the status quo, challenging received opinions and perhaps then, we'll have different front pages and a media we can be proud of. Oh, and as for manners. I was taught how to curtsey to royalty and address a bishop when I was at school. I haven't had to use either yet. The most valuable lessons I had were Sister Short's sewing class and with two teachers -English and religious knowledge - who never tired of debate.