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......"