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.