Thursday, December 18, 2008

London Road Post Office

Into the holly hedge this festive season go the post office, ntl, Barclays, all insurance companies and the allotments office at Brighton and Hove Council.

The post office, for obvious reasons, but chiefly for its decision makers' apparent inability to leave their desks. If I knew who to invite, I'd call them down to London Road post office for mince pies and a retro experience because the London Road post office reminds me of Romania when the Wall was still up.

I went on a press trip to Romania in the eighties. We were accompanied by a communist party official at all times. We visited Vlad's castle in Transylvania, some astonishing painted monasteries, saw black robed women in lines in the fields, a beautiful young gypsy woman in a cafe (and heard plenty of stories about Romanian racism) and toured coastal resorts with sixties names like Sputnik. We were taken to a department store where there was nothing on the shelves but crystal bowls.

This is the department store the London Road post office reminds me of. The post office is on the ground floor of an old Co-op, remarkable for its marble staircase, its size (dominating London Road) and always clean, large loos. It used to have a great toy department and handy fabric and haberdashery section. Then it closed but the post office stayed - tucked away in a corner of the vast, empty building with one or two cashiers at the most, not a single chair for the long line of pensioners who queue even out of season for an hour or more to get served.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Retail sourcing

A girl in the art shop's asking a boy she works with how to make a skirt. He's doing his best - telling her she needs a paper pattern. I guess he might be a fashion student, probably at Brighton. I'm looking for cheap gold and silver paint. It's that time of year. I'm going to decorate my own wrapping paper. But I'm side-tracked now by a bargain bin of reduced beads by the counter and can't resist butting in.

Do you want a skirt with a waistband? No. Do you have a skirt you want to copy? Yes. So I explain. Sister Short would be proud. I explain how she can lay the skirt out on newspaper and draw a pattern. I explain the need to allow for seams, that it's easier to seat a zip at the back than the side and no, she doesn't need to take the original apart - the secret's in ironing, pinning and tacking.

I guess no-one needs to learn to sew now. Clothes are so cheap. But on the news today there are reports workers in Bangladesh earn about 7 pence an hour for making clothes for supermarkets and the British high street. There was a turning point when I realised it was cheaper to buy clothes ready made than fabric and a paper pattern. It wasn't a life affirming epiphany.

So I cheer when I hear of supermarkets' drop in profits. Two moments from my past: for an 80,000 report in 1999 about retail sourcing and merchandising, I had to research case studies - Kingfisher, one-time owner of Woolworths, was one and I wanted Tesco too. I trekked up to London for a meeting with Kingfisher's then chief executive. I'd been allocated 30 minutes, grudgingly. When I got there it had been cut to 15 minutes. The corporate affairs man knew I was coming from Brighton. Couldn't we have done it on the phone? The chief executive spent those 15 minutes avoiding eye contact, fending off questions with ready-made replies and breaking paper clips into ever smaller pieces.

Tesco's corporate affairs man at the time told me I couldn't use them as a case study because I wasn't important enough.

I still wouldn't want to share a meal with most of the individuals I met or talked to in the course of writing that report. I began to loathe the retail industry. There were some good guys. A chief executive who used to work for Oxfam - he had integrity. A couple of the trade unionists I spoke to. Fair Trade campaigners.

Let the others spend a week working in a battery chicken shed, sewing jeans, putting cheap CD players together, breathing fumes at a plastic mouldings factory. And what would they conclude? That retail now is a worthy human endeavour or a shabby waste of human imagination?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

to the heart of November

Light 's short but the quality's delicious. I've nearly reached the last of the cooking apples - one or two are rotting now in the bowl, bruised from their fall. The fridge is full of puree and apple cake. I could make scones with the rest.

Behind drawn curtains I listen to wood burn and spit. Night falls in the afternoon. Heavier covers weight the bed.

The wardrobe bulges with jumpers again. Scarves and gloves fill pockets. Wild winds send the kitten scooting around the house.

This month, its hedges, are red with wine and hips. I feel a closing in, a wrapping, a change. I browse recipe books. Walk lit crescents on hillsides. I organise photos. Mend.

I drive through a tunnel of beech trees to the heart of November, pace a vast silver bay to visit its soul.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Towards the end of a glorious Sunday I walked with my daughter to the Chattri on the Downs for the opening of the Brighton Sacred Music festival. The event, based on ritual, was conceived by a performing arts duo called Red Earth. All of us who'd made the short trek from a road off the A27, just a mile over the fields, took part in what my daughter called 'a slice of Doris'.

It was so perfectly Brighton, but the best of Brighton - a gentle, quiet, spiritual hour or so with incense, cymbals and temple bells with white flags blowing and shadows stretching. My neighbours, Clare and Pete found it on a walk with their dog, Nyati was there - she'd reminded me about it - Razia was there because she's one of the organisers...

The last time I went to the Chattri was an afternoon scramble with poet Maria Jastrzebska and Atlas literary magazine editor Sudeep Sen, who was in Brighton for a poetry festival. That visit coincided with the opening of the shooting season - guns lined up along the hills in the distance, shots rocked the valley and we watched the beaters' progress nervously. Added to that, the fields were full of jumpy cows with late calves.

The Chattri means umbrella in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. Built from marble and granite, it's where 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated during the first world war. Their ashes were then scattered in the sea.

On the monument, in Hindi and English there's this inscription: 'To the memory of all the Indian soldiers who gave their lives for their King-Emperor in the Great War, this monument, erected on the site of the funeral pyre where the Hindus and Sikhs who died in hospital at Brighton, passed throught the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly affection dedicated.'

Around 12,000 Indian soldiers, wounded on the Western Front, were hospitalised around Brighton, some in the Royal Pavilion.

There's a free event each afternoon at 5 pm all week - each one a ritual opening up of north, south, east and west points. Razia will be there on Tuesday to open up the east.
Razia Aziz Between Heaven and Earth: songs of love and devotion from India and Pakistan.

Monday, September 29, 2008

"......categories like black writer, woman writer and Latin American writer aren't marginal anymore. We have to acknowledge that the thing we call literature is more pluralistic now, just as society ought to be. The melting pot never worked. We ought to be able to accept on equal terms everybody from the Hasidim to Walter Lippmann, from the Rastafarians to Ralph Bunche." Toni Morrison.

Whenever I go to a poetry festival this is the question I revisit. I'm just back from King's Lynn, where the programme was indeed broad both in terms of the styles of the writers participating, their personal aesthetics and their backgrounds. But I've been troubled for a very long time about the notion of who defines writing quality and how it's assessed - and this is another reason for flagging up Morrison's quote.

British poetry is taking its time to acknowledge society's pluralism, even to acknowledge different points of view. And British poetry is defined, all too often, by a small band of intellectuals who are maybe not that inclined to welcome uninvited newcomers. Sometimes I feel like the received version of British poetry is defined by safety, by invitation, by restraint.

One term of abuse, for example, the easy dismissal, that irritates me is domesticity. It's used by both sides. The traditionalists, defining what is a good subject for poetry, twist and turn between rewriting the classics, working class roots, playing with the ideas of dead philosophers...dealing in traditional form, irony and cleverness. For the avant garde, any hint of the personal and by implication the domestic, suggests the dead hand of the everyday and dullness.

But on this battleground of the kitchen floor, there's a deep hypocrisy. Let's look at the domestic. When men write about food they are applauded. When women do, they are dismissed. When men write about love they are only doing what they have always done. Women are accused of sentimentality. When men write about their children they win prizes. When women do they are mawkish.

Few of these intellectuals defining our poetry and its qualities would dare disagree with Morrison's view. Yet when there's an opportunity to listen to work they are unfamiliar with, that is written outside their narrow boundaries - an opportunity presented to them effortlessly, on a china plate even, with cake and tea, do they take it?

Adel Guemar's State of Emergency, Lorna Thorpe's A Ghost in my House, Paul Stubbs' The Icon Maker and Will Stone's Glaciation were four of those opportunities at Kings Lynn. All of them are poets writing outside the expected. You'd probably rather not listen to Guemar's delicately sinister poems borne of Algerian torture and oppression. They reminded me of the attention to detail in Leon Golub's paintings, the gold watch on the wrist of the executioner.

And you might grimace uncomfortably at Lorna Thorpe's uninhibited poems of the body, charting that unknown place between men and women. Paul Stubbs, taking as his starting point the paintings of Francis Bacon, is signalling his intention to unsettle and as he delivers, the crow on the roof joins in. Then there's Will Stone's melancholy, the quiet exploration of that state of mind that is so taboo to those in bed with irony....

I believe the more people who write, publish and offer up their wares, the better. How can there be too much poetry? Those who fear it are those who fear exposure, who fear their views on what is good and bad will be overturned.

Those who cannot listen to the new are dead. If there is a formula for a healthy mind, I'd say a regular blast of whatever you define as the classics and a brisk daily walk through the margins with whoever invites you.

Personally, I'd rather risk wandering through the graveyard slot and be reminded of what unites us all than sleep through the afternoon.

And as a postscript, I want to read poetry that comes from somewhere deeper than esoteric footnotes, I want poetry to be loving, sexy, angry, jealous and passionate, not preening and self-conscious. Give me Neruda, Lorca, Plath, Edna St Vincent Millay at her best.....those who follow in the tradition of the old ghazals describing midnight and all it contains.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I've been writing about a forest the way I normally write about the sea. I thought writing had left me but I'd started a piece before the summer holidays and woke up one morning understanding how I could go back to it. I cannibalised other poems, bits from my notebook and shaped what I'd already written. I felt as if I was hammering metal.

It's a piece based on 20 prints by Jane Fordham, whose work is on the cover of Commandments. Jane showed me the prints, I wrote and showed her some words, changed them and then Jane decided on an order for her images, I wrote again and finally decided I needed an underlying narrative, but not an obvious one, that would bind 20 self-contained three line poems.

A turning point in the process was realising that another poem I wrote while I was working on the prints, a poem I thought was nothing to do with Jane's work, could do some of that binding I needed. Another turning point was showing a rough early draft to some women poets I meet with every month, who liked the very spartan bits and who suggested it could do with a regular form.

It is an amazing challenge working like this. It's an exchange as well as an opening up. It's like someone describing a view and pointing out all the stuff I might have missed. Sharing the excitement of making something new, though, also seems to extend the pleasure. It certainly makes up for the washing machine breaking down on Sunday.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

There's an intriquing job on offer at the moment: head of culture and lifestyle. It's for Hull City Council and the accompanying pictures in the ad are of an illuminated old building, an ultra modern one, a djembe drummer and blond girl in a swimming pool. I wouldn't expect, of course, a local authority to be at the cutting edge when it comes to visuals. It would test anyone's skills, but the copy below it reveals why our arts are in trouble.

"As a corporate team player, you will bring your experience and ability as a strategic and inspirational leader, a successful track record of delivering change, and an understanding of the impact of culture on our priorities for the city and its people...."

Wouldn't a year 11 kid be ashamed to have written that? Swap 'culture' for 'drugs', 'public transport', 'cycling', green issues', 'energy', 'the health service', 'recycling', 'policing' or any other issue a local authority might be involved in and it makes no difference.

And how can you be head of lifestyle? As if all those different lifestyles were formed below in a pyramid, somehow arranged hierarchically. And cultures....or cultural practices (? unclear, too), dotted between them. I wonder what the bottom line would be and the top two?

The obvious thing, of course, is to look at the website. And that clarifies the bizarre placing of the word Veredus at the bottom of the ad. Veredus, unsurprisingly, is a consultancy the council's using. It means post-horse (pony express, mule train etc. etc.). And it's part of Capita.

So, it's also no surprise the language of this advert, the job description and person specification are interchangeable. That's how to make money - create a format and sell it hundreds of times just changing the date, place and time.

But back to the job. Perhaps the head of culture and lifestyle should be an expert in, um, culture? A poet or sculptor, a film-maker or song writer, a director, conductor, composer - there's plenty of us around who've clocked up a fair bit of experience. Maybe she could have lived several different lives.....a spot of single parenting, a bit of travelling, a couple of years as a carer, a year or so in tipi valley or in the hills around Carcassonne?

Apparently this is not a priority. The first thing listed under knowledge is "Extensive knowledge of the financial, legal and social environment within which Local Authorities operate." The second is: "In depth financial and commercial awareness, with strong analytical skills and an excellent aptitude for developing innovative solutions to highly complex problems."

Ah, so we're looking for an accountant are we? Well, not an artist. Not a teepee dweller. The sixth and final requisite in the knowledge section is this: "A comprehensive understanding of a wide range of Cultural Services."

Hull, hijacked by consultantspeak. They're not alone - there's barely a public organisation in the country with the courage to speak like its workers.

Shame on you Hull, city of plain talking Philip Larkin, who for all his failings summed up the post-war navel gazing of wealthy, industrialised 20th century cultures with a brilliant two lines and well placed expletive.

Shame on you for not even referring to some of Hull's poetic icons Larkin, Marvell and Dunn.

So I'm proposing the city council might be besieged by applications from some of its cultural icons. Some of us remember the days Micky Mouse worked long hours in Fleet Street. is the website where you can download the job details.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

It might be a rather cliched image of summer, but at least it contains some colour. Bright wellies and neon bootlaces were some consolation for wading through Somerset mud at our annual visit to the Blackdown Hills and the wonderful Tribe of Doris.

Doris is a summer camp rather than a festival and works you hard if you let it. I chose beginner's African dance this year and the songs of the Orishas. The dance was a fantastic daily workout to prepare me for winter. The singing reminded me, as it always does, that the soul needs sound too.

I have written virtually nothing this summer other than brief notes in my travel journal. I'm still on the post-Commandments plateau and my confidence in the poetry returning is being tested now that I'm back at home. On the cliff path, in the marquee, around the Doris fires and standing in the back line of the samba reggae dance class, it didn't seem to matter. Now it's a test of faith.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The two faces of Cornwall.

There'll be much chattering about English holidays after this summer of tightened purses and rain.

I've just returned from 10 days in a county I have fond childhood memories of, blue with cold from swimming and surfing, still transported by the smell of traditional, thick, vanilla ice-cream and the feel of turf on a cliff.

There weren't many sunny days on this holiday and perhaps too much time to reflect on the nature of English tourism. I was offended by the flags to St George, by the confederate flag, too, flying on our campsite, by the appearance of gollies in the campsite games room grab machine and an aggressive display of them in a Newquay shop window.

How much do you forgive when the coastline gives you so much to dream about?

Walking on the coastal path between Watergate Bay and Mawgan Porth, I chatted with my son about hell and what it might be like. He brought it up and I don't believe in an afterlife, but like him have always been intriqued by the nature of hell. Coincidentally, I'd taken Dante away with me and had just started it (CH Sisson's version). I showed him the diagram of Dante's levels of hell and read bits aloud as the rain pummelled on the tent one evening before he and the other three teens crossed the campsite field to the games room for the night. Yes, Dante was a hit.

But all of us felt uncomfortable with Cornwall's blatant absence of black people, with these gollies - relics of an England I was glad to see the back of when I left Surrey. We felt uncomfortable, too, walking on those tiny roads being buzzed and squeezed into fences and puddles by four wheel drives. I've never seen so many in one place. Everyone wears a wetsuit to go into the water. So much ostentatious wealth.

Last year, in Tintagel, my son saw a golly in a gift shop. He held forth, to an amused audience, about this discovery. The shop assistant didn't understand, or pretended not to, the point he was making.

And then there's the Cornish flag. So reminiscent of the Breton one. It flies among the St George's crosses, too, over the caravan parks and tented villages. Perhaps the golly's face superimposed in one of its corners?

But the kids want to go back next year! They made loads of friends, they hung around and gossiped, they stayed up late and sat at cafe tables, tried surfing and didn't get up till midday. My daughter even said she'd like to live in Cornwall. Its coastline, the deep blue of the sea on a good day, caves, clean sand and stunning coastal path that I wish I'd seen more of, all these elements energise the soul. The sea, of course, can take those gollies and reduce them to rags in no time. And all night, the sea's just fields away, so endlessly inventive.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This is Madosini, a traditional Xhosa musician from the Transkei in South Africa, now based in Cape Town. She came to Brighton last night to say hello - the last time we met was years ago when the children were very little so there were the usual oohs and aaahs to celebrate their growth towards adulthood. Madosini's playing at Womad this weekend, which I can't make, but at the kitchen table after supper, she played for six of us, her voice stretching into the back garden and over the walls, seeping into the last of the light and the dark blue sky. She made sense of the word charisma.

Her visit was like a marker, in a way. It's my son's first proper camping trip alone this weekend, at Womad, with friends and after she'd gone to bed and we were sitting chatting, he said it felt like Christmas Eve. I keep returning to the same sense of awe when I think of what it's like to be a teenager, in the summer, with all that scented time ahead, long evenings and beaches. My daughter's only just finished school and she's still in wonder at the thought of weeks without uniform, packed lunches and registration.

But back to Madosini. She's known in South Africa as the queen of Xhosa music. She's the most accomplished player of the mouth harp and jew's harp, which she was taught by her mother. She also plays the instrument so associated with capoeira, the berimbau, but it originated in southern Africa and there is called the uhadi. Her music's part of an important tradition, linked to ceremony and everyday life and she's sought out for performances and collaborations. She's currently working with some classical violinists but at Womad is performing solo.

Her work's available on the net but Madosini's yet to become rich from it. She's been ripped off and exploited shamelessly at times. Now she's supporting her seven grandchildren, alone.

She's a generous woman. As we listened last night, it was like a gift from her village, moments that more than made up for not being able to make the trek along the M4. Madosini's music has a depth and emotional integrity that's truly rare. She's apparently a great story-teller and I could imagine how she'd so easily sweep an audience away. A solo album, Power to the Women, is on Melt 2000 Blue Room. You can find her on YouTube too.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of the everyday. What Madosini does is start there - with tunes to send a child to sleep, rhythms to wind down to at the end of the day, simple refrains that everyone can repeat. She draws power from the everyday, she makes it special and for that reason I think, she is so important. She has the insight and experience of life to know that it is how we live from moment to moment that determines who we are. She also has the confidence to stay with those traditions and not be deflected. Like Neruda in many ways, in his odes for ordinary things, in his repeated celebration of love and his final questions - that pepper everyone's days.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I walked to the Jack and Jill windmills on Sunday with my daughter. The views from the Downs path leading from Ditchling Beacon are wide and heartening. We walked through a flock of sheep and herd of cows with their calves. At times the sky was a spectacular deep grey but we weren't rained on. Earlier, I'd dug up potatoes and picked more broad beans, my favourite vegetable. The early raspberries haven't come to much but the later ones are looking promising. There are already ripe blackberries, which surprised me and another odd feature of this summer is how advanced the Bramley apples look.

But I've been infinitely more bothered by reports of the video showing Omar Khadr sobbing under interrogation at Guantanamo Bay. As I listened to the Radio 4 news on the way back from my mum's yesterday, to an interview with one of his lawyers and some of the audio from the interrogation, I thought about my own kids, about all I've read by great writers on incarceration, state violence, political dirty tricks and I wondered how this child could have been locked up so young and abused in this way. The lawyer's descriptions of the pre-interrogation treatment (described so callously as the frequent flyer programme) are unlikely to ever leave my mind.

How can Guantanamo exist anyway? I happily boycotted South African goods during apartheid because of state-perpetrated violence. Are we asleep now?

In Brighton, police are allowed to break up groups of teenagers in a park under a little publicised by-law covering more than two people gathering together. It is not applied to large groups of mothers and toddlers who meet there for picnics. It is not applied to informal football matches. It is not even applied to street drinkers. But it is applied to young people.

We are in danger of demonising teenagers to such an extent that they are dehumanised and we forget they are children, still. Have we lost our imaginations to such a degree that we cannot remember how it was to be 14, 15, 16? At 53, sometimes, I struggle to take myself back there...particularly when my own teenagers are being intransigent or irritating. But I can still remember the extremes of those years - the elation, the almost indescribable sense of being alive, and the self-doubt, the fears.

Children should not be locked up. Full stop. And with equal certainty, Guantanamo prison should not exist. We must challenge lazy politicians, we must make connections, we must be vigilant. It is time to do some homework on our rights. Poems From Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak was published by the University of Iowa press last year.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Virgin of Flames is a novel by Chris Abani set in Los Angeles about a mural artist. On the back cover Walter Mosely suggests Abani has rewritten the American story. Its descriptions are original and vivid and as the title suggests, Abani uses the running metaphor of Catholicism and devotion as a backdrop in a number of ways. This novel puts humanity into the city the way Whitman does but there's a nod to the Girl with a Pearl Earring, I reckon, in its concentration on the artist - lots of details on how Black (the hero) makes his colours....

Black engages me, too, because he incorporates lines of poetry in one of his murals. I first encountered Abani when I picked up his collection of poems, Kalakuta Republic a few years ago and was knocked out by it. The collection is based on his experience as a political prisoner in Nigeria between 1985 and 1991 and isn't easy reading, but essential for anyone concerned about freedom of expression and the consequences of forgetting its importance.

What was a coincidence, though, was watching Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law last night and delighting in its leisurely, witty and humane world view, in Tom Waits, of course, and the way Whitman and Frost, those American giants, were knitted into the narrative. It took my teenage kids, used to snappy, action driven narrative and colour, a while to get into it, but they were entranced too.

Abani aside, I've been thinking about African writing again. I was reminded of Amos Tutuola by a friend and how much I love his slant on narrative, but I've lent his books and I don't think I have anything of his left on my shelves. But I read Andre Brink, for the first time thanks to my local library and plan a return to Nawaal el Sadaawi from Egypt, the wonderful poet Jack Mapanje and Ellen Kuzwayo.

It isn't easy being a writer. For most of us it's fitted in between earning a living and for women, looking after children. For writers in so many other parts of the world, add into that mix, censorship, political violence, domestic violence and few opportunities to be published. Many writers serve their apprenticeships over long, long years without recognition or support. I'm indebted to one of the publishers in this country, Saqi, for introducing me to that collection of Chris Abani's. Buy it. And from Algeria, another important voice is that of Soleiman Adel Guemar, whose collection, State of Emergency, is published by Arc. He'll be at the Kings Lynn Festival in September.

Monday, June 30, 2008

This is part of a wall painting on show at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum near Goodwood. I was there on Sunday with Fred Pipes and Maude Casey for an event organised by Mark Hewitt - an architectural picnic with music in the museum's unusual Gridshell building. The Gridshell has a roof as rolling as the Downs.

The Sussex Weald is a gentle landscape and just what I needed for a Sunday outing. Just looking over the fields and being outside on a perfect day is a balm but the museum contributed a hamlet of rescued old buildings smelling of woodsmoke, noisy geese and a working mill from Lurgashall producing stoneground flour. We ate Sussex goat's cheese, my home-made apple chutney and tomato mustard I bought on Saturday in Hove from a local producer. The sun shone and sheep slept under the trees. Feverfew, fennel and broad beans filled the cottage gardens.

We remembered paraffin stoves and the three day week when shops opened by candlelight. We talked of how the lifestyles on 'display' at the museum are barely a generation away from our own experience and in many parts of the world, still being followed. What I love about the place is the houses without possessions - as if by being there, you detox yourself for an hour or so of this angrily acquisitive century.

This is the wall of an old market place - saved and rebuilt. It's the size of a large bedroom.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Li Mills runs a choir in Brighton, Jam Tarts. I used to belong but I don't like to be flakey and after a run of non-attendance because of different domestic complications, I asked her to fill my place. I miss it and may be able to get myself back in one day, but in the meantime, Li and I are meeting up to write songs. She has a couple of different song writing musician partners and I've been invited into this loose co-operative to help with the words.

Last night I was round at her place with a bottle of 10 year old Great Wall Chinese red wine! The song we were attempting lyrics for was upbeat and bouncy. It was fun to insinuate the odd edgy lyric, to subvert the good humour. I never wrote lyrics when I played at playing bass in a band. Lyrics were written by the guitarist, my then boyfriend, who was obsessed with Tom Waits. I find it hard to listen to Tom Waits without thinking of him, actually, and a long drive in my old Morris traveller through the fens, when we were summoning up the courage to kiss.

Writing these lyrics is a bit like playing a game. What do we want to say here? Where does the stress fall? How much can you stretch a word? Is this a conversation? Who's talking, who is the singer talking to? When I write poetry, the only landscape is my own, that in my head and how familiar it feels sometimes. I feel as if I go back to the same places endlessly, obsessively looking for something else to pull out of them or inspect within them.

Writing with Li, I am questioned, put on the spot and have to see differently, make words fit into the tunes she's sung with blank vowels and consonants over the tracks someone else has composed. And it fits perfectly into my mood, which is to be stretched. The other project, an artist book with Jane, is also progressing. I'm refining, cutting, pruning the lines I've come up with in response to her amazing prints. The big question is narrative. Is there enough of one embedded in the connections I've made between words?

What started me off on this track, though, was an e mail from a friend I haven't heard from for ages. For some reason it began a trail of thought about domesticity and how little it's valued in the arts. As we were listening to our tracks without words, though, Li played me a Kate Bush song, Washing Machine.

I'm going to blast it from the CD player, unapologetically.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A sacred cow makes the best burger. I've always remembered that graffiti from a toilet door in Portsmouth when I was a student there more than 30 years ago. For some reason this morning I woke up with an incident in my head from a festival last summer. A festival I'll be off to this year, too. I was standing in a queue for hot chocolate and chips with my daughter. It was late and cold. Something made me turn around and the guy behind me said "salaam aleikum." I replied with "hello". He repeated his greeting increasingly aggressively and I repeated my reply initially confused and then it dawned on me what he was doing. It took four repeats for him to give up. I could smell alcohol on his breath and he had a packet of Golden Virginia in his shirt pocket.

I didn't give the traditional Muslim reply for two reasons. Firstly because his greeting was not given in peace, but mostly because I am not religious. I will use it with families I know, to be polite, but something about this man made me very uncomfortable and my instinct proved right - he was chippy and looking for a fight. (Why does that remind me of George Bush and the way he's always used his religion, I wonder?)

How easily they can happen. A friend of my son was down for the weekend from London. He's a teenager and a target for stressed-out city dwellers whether they're his peers or older. He was amazed at how chilled out this seaside town is! It made me re-evaluate the place and last night I went up to the racecourse with my son. We looked east towards Rottingdean, over Whitehawk, so neatly arranged in the dip. We looked west towards Worthing and I realised how self-contained our home is. We could see the Downs behind the city, empty of buildings and lights. The sea was clear and the sky a band of pink and grey with interruptions of darker grey where it was raining.

Where we stood was once an iron age fort. Its position is perfect. We talked about the weekend and him turning 16. As a teenager I loved to walk with my mum. Talking was so much easier with that rhythm going. I guess it was talking about stress, race and religion that jogged my memory of the festival, plus the fact that some of the friends he's met there were down for his birthday. What amazing young people they are - confident, bright, respectful, articulate and sensitive - and they put many adults to shame.

The poem "Lucretian" by Peter Reading is one of my favourites on religion. I've quoted a verse below. This appears in his Collected Poems published by Bloodaxe in 1996. Buy it.

"Religio-magico-malice -
remember the slaughter at Aulis
when innocent Iphigeneia
was sacrificed by her own father,
deluded devout Agamemnon,
who thought that to summon a breeze
which would speed his fleet to Troy
he must first placate bloodthirsty Artemis
with a welter of gore and guts
and the mumbo-jumbo and cleavers
of a pack of murderous priests...
(Remember, also, Khomeini
and Tomas de Torquemada.)
How much idiot evil
gormless theists engender."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Matthew Sweeney read at Sussex University last week and it was a treat. He talks about the 'jag' in his poems that give them such knowing humour and unselfconscious wisdom. He was also selling some tiny one poem booklets, printed traditionally and hand set (with tweezers and magnifying glass!). On from Matthew's early evening reading to Lewes for a meal and back to Brighton for the launch of Brendan Cleary's new book, Some Turbulent Weather. Brendan's reading, too, was amazing - sharp, streetwise and tender.

Both these poets are prolific writers. Brendan is uncompromising in his ambition to write only poetry, to live as the writer of poetry. Matthew's latest book, Black Moon, was shortlisted for the 2007 TS Eliot prize but he's already close to finishing a new one. He read many of these new poems and as he introduced them explained how they'd been written during a series of different residencies throughout Europe.

So this is my point - every writer needs time away from the demands of daily life and ideally some different views. It's always been the case and almost always produces results.

But the concept of 'buying time' to write has fallen by the wayside for many of us, particularly women, who cannot apply for residencies lasting longer than a week or two, who are maybe unable to leave the country, who do not have a specific project or book deal, but want a few days to experiment. The Arts Council grants for artists no longer support time to write without a book deal. Other sources of cash for writers seem incredibly thin on the ground.

I was chatting to a woman recently, another single parent who's a writer. She's had a gap of nearly 20 years since publishing a critically acclaimed novel. Those 20 years have covered bringing up children and single handedly supporting the family. I know how little time there is left over after shopping, washing, cleaning and so on. A woman reviewer (shame on her) once made a snide comment in print about me only being able to work up a sweat cleaning the kitchen floor.

These issues are important. I heard on the news yesterday about the rise in poverty for children and pensioners. Somewhere along the line the discussion about daily life and how we get through it or make it worthwhile, has been hijacked by those with cleaners, gardeners, au pairs and paid dog walkers. Yesterday, too, my daughter asked me what the phrase 'disposable income' meant. Funny how two words can contain such vast differences - from a tenner a week to a grand or so......

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

I visit MacDonalds rarely. But I've discovered it has wifi and since my own wireless router packed up, my laptop's not had much of an outing. So here I am, pretending to work but scoffing blueberry muffin and drinking black coffee. I haven't the courage to visit the allotment. Most of the purple sprouting broccoli seedlings I had at home have been shorn off at the stem by snails. I planted some beautifully healthy spinach seedlings the other night.....and then it rained.

So this afternoon, instead, I've been tidying up the topiary sculpture in my privet hedge. Appropriately, it's a massive snail. I think it's only right to pay homage to these creatures. I've been wondering if I could bring myself to eat them. But my guts might complain after more than 30 years as a vegetarian.

This MacDonalds is squashed between an aircraft hanger size Tesco and supersized M&S. There's always a bizarre collection of people here. Families out for the evening meal, people like me, just wasting time, and in front of me an elderly man's clearly doing his accounts. He has a calculator, bank statements and what looks like a ledger spread out on the table. The emptiness and echoing out of hours feel is appealing. It feels like we're all in transit, especially when M&S closes and it's just MacDonalds and Tesco.

I'm generally not a fan of late night shopping. This is partly because I've always been a dormouse and late nights send me to sleep. I prefer to go to bed early with a book than stock up on groceries. And since I work at home, a trip to the shops is often a good break from the screen. But recently, my screen break's been walks with a neighbour who has a new puppy - a sweet little springer spaniel.

We do the walk I love the most, the racecourse and beyond. Today the sea was the right colour, a clear blue. I could see the white band by the shore where the chalk stains the water. There were rabbits, magpies, larks and a bird of prey. Plus a helicopter heading for the racetrack that seemed to hover above us for a few seconds as if it was checking us out. On an afternoon like that I want to liberate the tent from the cellar and take off. But this weekend's spoken for. I'm doing a reading for Ware poets in Hertfordshire on Friday night. I was billed as a slam poet but I'm assured they'll be relieved that I'm not.

Maybe I could reinvent myself for the night? But I don't know that I'd have the skill. When I told my son about my billing, he laughed. As a rapper, he's pretty scathing about slam poets. I guess I'd rather be one thing or the other. Slam poets often strike me as being between two places - either comedy or rap. And there probably aren't any over 50 anyway. So I'll be reading from the books, then.

Friday, May 30, 2008

I applaud women who speak out about inequality, especially nowadays. But women who use feminism theoretically and don't have the guts to apply it get a disappointed thumbs down.....I have been through one of my faithless-about-poetry patches and it was fuelled by an email on who might succeed Andrew Motion as poet laureate.

This bandwagon's a bit like any stagecoach crossing a dark wood...those archetypal highwaymen are somehow comforting, aren't they? If you don't let ethics intrude.

Imagine inside this stagecoach are the favourites for laureate. According to the Guardian they are Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and James Fenton. For what it's worth, I reckon it's between Duffy and Armitage. I think Fenton's a bit too distant. I'd add in John Agard, who truly is a poet of the people, with utterly superb credentials, and Moniza Alvi who's less well known, maybe, but is nevertheless taught in schools (as Agard, Duffy and Armitage are) and writes superb, topical, relevant and truly accessible poetry. And while we're at it, Grace Nichols, another remarkably accessible poet.

The Independent's contribution is to list five other female contenders: Jackie Kay, Wendy Cope, Fleur Adcock, Ruth Padel and Lavinia Greenlaw.

This is where the journey becomes more interesting. The Indy's list is based on a press release that went out earlier this week. I was forwarded it by a fellow poet. At first reading, it makes a valid point - there's a vast number of good women poets in the UK who are ignored when it comes to big prizes. Let's use this occasion to celebrate them. Fantastic. Of course. I'm all for that.

Then the press release - which, incidentally came from the Ledbury Poetry Festival director, Chloe Garner - quotes a few names as contenders. On top of the first batch of contenders she adds some more....Now, these names are good poets but not all would be laureate material by any stretch of the imagination. One of these extras has just two books out, another just three.

I was amazed someone in that position could be naive enough to suggest names with so little experience they'd never be in the running - even if they were men. Apart from anything else, it's handing ammunition to anyone who's inclined to disagree with the fundamentals of equality. When I wrote about equal opportunities in the 80s there was regular discussion about people being set up to fail by liberalism or cynicism. Have we learned nothing?

I could speculate why some of these other names were quoted. I fantasised that maybe this woman director would give a voice to those of us writing in the margins. So I thought I'd look at the Festival line-up and do a head count of men and women appearing there. Given this blazing press release about the "many splendid female poets from all generations" writing in Britain today, I was hoping for ample evidence of us in the programme.

Hmmm. A quick count reveals a rough split of about two thirds to a third. Yeah, the gender represented by the two thirds is the boys. And those splendid women poets from all generations are yet again gagged.

Comments in an email, maybe, to Ledbury, asking for a money-where-your-mouth-is programme for next year?

Monday, May 26, 2008

My basil and coriander have been eaten by snails. I picked four off my mini cucumber plants. My new rocket seedlings, looking so promising, are stumps. I have a sense that I've been here before.

The last time I was at the allotment was Friday afternoon and evening - before the rain. I dread to look at the damage the rain's done. There were many promising rows of lettuce and purple sprouting brocolli. I will look tomorrow sometime.

The state of the world bears no comment. Why can't we stop shopping?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

My eye has been twitching for days from reasoning with teenagers about creating a passage between clothes on the floor, endless washing, cleaning, shopping, meetings about work and worrying about money.

Negotiating and juggling are the downsides of liberalism. How easy it must have been back in the day, as they say, when food was seasonal and children obeyed their parents or were beaten.

Now the school's let the GCSE kids out and I have a teenager on roam setting, with revision to do. It's a freelance mother's nightmare. Do the educationists who make these decisions never consider how a lone parent will be affected? At least a few weeks ago I knew he'd be in lessons, with teachers who were being paid to get him through a few exams.

Now, I go to a meeting in London and he's off to the beach because the summer's back again. Can you at least make some notes of what you have to revise? I ask. Write out a revision plan before you go out? Give yourself a schedule of what you're going to do each day?

I come home and the CD player's on an extension lead outside the bathroom. It's the only sign of life, apart from jam on a knife and a lone trainer at the bottom of the stairs.

My other teenager's off to Paris with a friend. She seems to spend her time channel hopping - just back from Monet's garden and this time she'll be right in the centre of my favourite city, a stone's throw from the Louvre and the Marais. It's her friend's birthday treat and the weather forecast's brilliant. I am deeply envious but delighted, too, that she's inherited my love of the place. She's promising to bring me postcards from the Louvre and I'm wondering how I can go back to the city myself, soon...

When she's wandering around the Place des Vosges, I'll be marking, but on Saturday I'm off to a party being given by a wonderful woman, who is one of the brightest and most well read I know - and before that to see Helen Dunmore speak at Charleston festival because the OU, my very part-time employer, is sponsoring some events.

Charleston is always entertaining as an exercise in monied Sussex people watching and eavesdropping on the name droppers sitting behind you on the excruciatingly uncomfortable plastic chairs. I go there with my toes already curling, but it has a lure, nonetheless. It's a museum piece, a reminder of power and snobbery, of what wealth can do for the arts.

I was there last Sunday for a biography event and had a rather delayed realisation that biography is the middle classes tabloid reading, their justification for raking around the bins and dusty cupboards of dead heroes. Which would explain why biography is so popular - it fits perfectly with tell-all misery memoires that pad supermarket shelves and supply quantities of vicarious thrills, voyeurism and judgement......

What the middle classes haven't cottoned onto yet is organics for the brain. When I was writing about retail there was heavy resistance from senior retailers to admit there was an organics movement. I remember the edict coming back from our editorial board - the public's not interested.

Hmm. It was a Canute type statement and we knew they knew it. They were just trying to buy time. But who's making the point about brain food: poetry, translations, the big novels of ideas? Read Moniza Alvi's forthcoming collection of poems, Europa and Barbara Korun's Songs of Earth and Light. Read Neruda,, Auster, Plath, Longley, Popa, out the poets.

Here's the dark chocolate, fresh chard, home grown new potatoes, crisp pears and good bread. Here's the rich red wine to keep the heart going.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The caravan bit the dust when my clutch threatened to set fire to Bernard Road, towing it off for a couple of days in Horam. A hill start's a tricky thing with that kind of weight, but trickier still for a novice. The AA man whose breakdown van forced me to stop on the hill directed me through the narrow gap waving away the fumes and laughing but I wasn't convinced I had the energy to become a scourge of the A303 and spent two nights on a deserted campsite with my daughter and her friend, sleeplessly trying to work out a route home that avoided driving uphill. As the sun set on the second night, rather gloriously red, the Downs seemed malevolent between the trees - enough to make me realise I have enough excuses to be anxious without imagining being pulled downhill by an unstoppable mobile home.

So the caravan is back with its original owner, which means it's in our road with a For Sale sign on. I think a trailer is more my scene and would at least make some use of the £200 I spent on having a tow bar fitted to my car. A trailer would take the bits that make camping more comfortable - a table and chairs, the barbeque, and the kids could fit in the car without knees round their necks because the rucksacks are where their feet should be.

I have just finished Martin Amis's Money and it's revived contemporary fiction for me. I wish I could write like that. It has the sweep of all great fiction, wisdom about society and is superbly obsessive, swings beautifully between the US and UK, grandness and grubbiness and should be required reading for anyone with a hankering for Hollywood. I particularly like the way Amis plays with rules - supporting characters are cartoonlike (and why not when the interest is in the self-obsession of the narrator) and pretty undisguised stereotypes, it's constantly self-referential (of course, given the name of the narrator), and it takes great pleasure in uncovering the tricks of storytelling. I'm so pleased I didn't read it before. It's a masculine novel and at one time, I'd have taken offence, I think, and misguidedly.....

It's distracted me, at least, from the nonsense of the pet charity bringing rabies into the country, pathetic do-gooders 'rescuing' dogs from Sri Lanka with all the incumbent costs etc. and nothing about the disgrace of kids without water - oh, all that we know about poverty and the rest of the world, but these dreadful people carry on with their sentimental, self-serving activities. And I am whooping and crowing about the prospective property crash. Let the rich and the speculators come down to our level. In fact, let them become the ice-cream van bouncer that Amis created for John Self when the Hollywood illusion went down in an alley.

Friday, April 11, 2008

When the black cat from up the road stretched into the fuschia outside my front window and started sniffing at a nest, I banged on the window and shouted. The resident blackbird, numerous starlings and blue tits have been almost as busy as me, flying around with straw and hair. The crows keep to their peaks and the great carnivorous seagulls to the rooftops where soon they'll be screaming and yelling all day long, when they're not dive bombing postmen and schoolkids. Yes, those are annual events and seem to mark the start of the silly season.

But spring's sense of promise is an odd one this year and I'm hard pressed to work out what kind of promise is on offer with this combination of snow, rain, cold sunshine and the odd balmy hint of summer. Just looking at bikinis and summer dresses lined up in the shops makes me shiver and unleashes a profound sense of dread and doubt.

I'm on the verge of handing over some cash for a second hand caravan. Yesterday I had a tow bar fitted to my car. So I'm going to become one of those annoying people trundling down the A303 with a queue behind. The major challenge is going to be learning how to reverse it. I have some tuition lined up and am impatient now to get out there and use it. It feels like a dollshouse - everything in its place and secured, everything in miniature. But last summer's rain stopped me camping as much as I wanted. I just can't cram enough into my car with kids and clothes to make camping comfortable when there are stair rods of it. A caravan and tents is ideal - there'll be a retreat and I won't have to break my back bending over the camping gas for fry ups because the caravan has a hob.

I'm hoping I'll be able to give it an outing at least once this holiday before the school summer term starts in earnest, my son enters GCSE season and my quiet time between 8am and 4 pm is invaded.....for some odd reason the schools set the kids free before the exams start, for 'revision' time at home. I can't think of anything more ridiculous and unlikely. I was virtually chained to my desk the summer of O levels. All that remains in my memory is lists of dates, ink stained hands and pages of geography that got me nowhere.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Research is an addiction. A relatively harmless one, unless you literally can't tear yourself away from the screen.

But all the dead ends, spoofs, pompous middle aged American men who set themselves up as chairmen of a one man band, who give themselves ridiculous titles and pose in front of a 1960s desk and pot plant, with expensive teeth and over-groomed hair, all those grimly disappointing places are worth it when you find a good poem.

A few years ago I was poet in residence at Lever Brothers, that became Lever Faberge, that became Unilever. One of my tasks during a relatively long association with the company was to send a weekly poem to people - to provoke thought or entertain.

One week I decided to send a found poem. To me, a found poem is a moment of delight, recognition, surprise that exists in a headline, an idea, a few lines, an overheard conversation, graffiti, a snapshot, a view or something you encounter unexpectedly.

This particular found poem emerged from research I was doing at the time into water. I'd been led to it by an Adbusters magazine (September/October 2001) report on inventions by the Intermediate Technology Design Group. I encountered Adbusters when I used to write about retail and was so desperate to find an alternative to regurgitating press releases about warehouses and distribution networks. Retail is unremittingly bland, despite the desperately glamorous advertising. But that advertising is led by brands, whose spending is obscene.

Adbusters is still virtually a lone voice challenging this criminal waste of cash and squewing of values. Somehow, though, in among the hilarious spoofs, I found a reference to a project in Nepal. The project I REMEMBER finding was called the Dew Line and it was the name given to a water collecting scheme.

Yesterday I found it again. It's even better. It's name's even better, certainly in my mind a few notches up.... this is Fog Collecting. Thick fog in the mountains of Nepal is harvested as clean water, drips from mesh screens into tanks for villagers who have no other fresh water.

It's brilliant. For its concept, for its execution....everything about it. That's what I call new thinking. Oh, and another wonderful example is Helen Storey's disappearing dresses, which have led to an innovation which could really change the world. Both websites are in my links.

There are a couple of other sites I've found too, that resonate steadily and both are collections - one the Rosetta project is a collection of languages and a campaign, too, to preserve what is disappearing as fast as Amazonian forest, the other a collection of traditional wisdom and knowledge mainly from India but with a worldwide remit, the Honey Bee project.

The Billboard liberationists remind me of a postcard of graffiti that I've had since I was a student. This is more than graffiti, this is seriously planned and project managed! Check out the link to Reverend Billy on their site. It all reminds me of those brilliant French anarchists who were around in the sixties and seventies (strings of nostalgia here).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Three days ago I left a deserted sandy beach in Thailand for an 18 hour journey home. The time difference meant I left Mai Khao in Phuket at 8.30 am and arrived back in Brighton at 11 pm. I crossed the Himalayas and was knocked out by their size. I lost count of the number of magnificent rivers, endless straight roads and tracts of untouched land passed below me.

It's the first time I've been away from my kids for two weeks but luxury hotels have e mail and wow, that made a difference, certainly to me, if not to them. The mobile phone, too. My travelling standards were formed in my teens when there was neither. So I still set off on a journey mentally preparing myself for cutting off contact completely with anyone I know, with the saved coins for an emergency phone call tucked away. Of course it's not like that. I rang my daughter from Patong to quiz her about the bag she wanted me to buy her! It felt crazier doing that than walking through the lunatic streets of the resort rampant with consumerism and designer knock offs.

Phuket is a great introduction to Thailand. It's a place of resorts and contrasts. You can't pretend to be other than a tourist because of your appearance. You have to accept dual pricing and that bargaining is a myth, possibly shored up to justify the almost European costs. What I loved about Phuket were the glimpses of everyday Thai life - buffalo in the fields, chickens under baskets by the roadside, the minah birds and geckoes, songbirds in cages outside corrugated iron shacks, coconut milk green curry and spicier red curry, the smell of fish cooking everywhere even though I don't eat it, the long tailed boats in every bay and the thud of the sea.

I arrived to work at a conference on hair. The conference hotel was infused with the scent of frangipani. Staff lit an essential oil burner in my room every night. Breakfast was a buffet of fresh fruit - pomelo, pineapple, mango, papaya and a strange polka dot fruit with pink skin. There were three pools, one of which I tried to swim in every day first thing....when I had it to myself. A short stroll away, Nai Yang beach, one of the island's most laid back and least commercial.

The conference was crazy but there were highlights: meeting the hairdresser Andrew Barton, what a lovely bloke, realising humour is an astonishing survival mechanism, witnessing the self-deception of men who would be leaders but are not, being in the tropics and absorbing the light, seeing fire balloons make brief constellations in the dark, meeting people who know how to have fun, realising I can function after 36 hours without sleep, being given the chance to scuba dive and overcoming the terror of pulling myself into nothingness with a rope.

After the conference I stayed on with Sophia, a young woman I was working with who also wanted to see the island. We went to Surin beach, a bit further south. The hotel was equally luxurious but the resort wasn't as quiet. There was a lot more building work. The beach was beautiful and we tried to do some sightseeing - one day taking a long tailed boat to Coral Island for snorkelling among parrot fish, another day visiting Phuket town and not realising it was a public holiday but on the way back, stopping off at a Golden Buddha and wandering around it in the darkness - so much more moving somehow than in searing sun. We visited Chalong Wat, another Buddhist temple and eventually ended up at a beach bungalow at Mai Khao, north of our starting point.

Mai Khao is in the national park and renowned for being a beach where the turtles lay their eggs every year. But apparently they don't anymore....Mal and Koy who run the campsite/bungalows are an Anglo-Thai couple. Mal's from Norwich, Koy was born in the village inland from the beach. Her grandmother planted the coconut plantation and cashew trees that stretched back to the road. It's years since they've seen turtles - according to Mal they're yet another victim of plastic bags.

All around the island are memorials to the tsunami and houses for dispossessed spirits. Sophia and I both picked up on an undercurrent of melancholy. At Mr Kobi's bar in Nai Yang where we had lunch a couple of times there's a photo of him, fat faced and jolly, before the tsunami. He's thinner, more haggard now, although he laughs and jokes.

Then, hours after we arrived at Mai Khao, we were told a Swedish girl had been murdered in neighbouring bungalows and found in the sea by her friend. She'd walked down the beach, towards the airport and Nai Yang at 10 am and been attacked by a man who'd been spotted with binoculars.

Suddenly we were anxious. Arriving at the bungalows after most of our time in resorts had been enough of a contrast between sheltered pampering and real travelling. Both of us, independently, almost asked the taxi driver to stay. We'd been used to phones, concierges, endless people to order a taxi, walls between us and the world. This place was raw. On the beach among causarina trees and coconut palms.

The murder made reality even more extreme. The beach looked different. The basket of bright flowers I'd noticed there, thinking it was a tsunami memorial, became more poignant and desperate. The beach became a place of police and angry villagers, a crime scene.

It may be possible to travel and stay in resorts, remaining untouched by a place and its people other than on the level of daily greetings. Phuket is the first time in my 53 years I've been in luxury hotels of this kind and I can see the lure. They're utterly relaxing, a wonderful abregation of responsibility - I forgot to mention the massage - and truly a holiday from the daily grind. Our experience at Mai Khao provided the flip side of travelling that reminds us to tune in, as the old hippies used to say. If we hadn't been there, I'd never have woken up to the drum of the sea instead of air conditioning, heard coconuts thud to the ground rather like apples do in my garden in autumn. We might not have noticed the corrugated iron shanty homes and taken Mal and Koy's dog, Wrong Way, for a walk on the beach and passed only a couple of loungers.

And new resorts are being planned for that remaining unspoilt stretch. It's hard to imagine them, but half of Koy's grandmother's plantation has already been cut down for luxury holiday flats and a swimming pool.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Swimming this morning, I was thinking about an event I helped out at yesterday, organised by Creamer and Lloyd. One of the speakers was Dick Mullender, an expert in how to talk to people. Among the many aspects of talking he covered was body language and conversation, the impact of asking questions and how to listen. He spoke, too, about trust and truth. He's an inspiring man and has learned his skills as a negotiator for the police force with people in crisis, when every word and gesture counts.

It led me to think about that old idea of wisdom and how it's manifest. Wisdom, in my mind, is linked with kindness and understanding as well as experience. People I've met whom I feel are wise also have the capacity to digest what they've experienced and find the core. The poet, Michael Longley, has the wisdom of a lifetime of writing and reading. When he was asked to talk about poetry in Limerick last year he said that at the heart of all great poetry is love - love drives a poem into being. It was a delight to listen to him.

I suspect wisdom is a quality that grows at its own pace. The compost it needs is thought and time. I guess this is why the archetype of the wise man is a monk on a mountain, and the wise woman is detached from the world by her age. At some point, though, a lifetime of listening and doing synthesises.

And this is also a time when good conversation comes into its own, when talk can lift and energise you like a mental massage. I have several friends whose company I know will always be sparky, whom I could listen to for hours. Reminds me of Walt Whitman in Song of Myself: "I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen......"

Thursday, February 21, 2008

When you're 53 and still living on £21,000 a year, before tax, bringing up teenagers, £5,000 a year away from benefits that might cut your council tax, you wonder about a lifetime of working and why you've done it.

I am earning less now than before I had children, less than when my children were babies. My earning power, it seems, as my experience has grown, has gone down.

Part of the problem is writing poetry. I earn nothing from it. I earn little, too, from most teaching work. The very part-time Open University job pays about the same as cleaning might. Most of my income is from self-employment, which means no holiday pay, sick pay, enhanced pension contributions, no perks, company car or paid time off in lieu.

Added to this, I am crap with money. In these days, when the economy is based on money earning money, this could be an even bigger problem than the poetry. I am no economist, clearly, but from experience of watching people I have realised wealth comes from a combination of elements: inheritance, opportunism, investment, property.

Is anyone out there working? Ah yes, Stuart Rose's underclass outside the M25. Outside the ring dividing us from the superrich, there are builders, plumbers, shelf stackers, cleaners, teachers, mechanics and writers. We know everything costs more, but most of us haven't quite caught up with the shift that's taken place in our collective UK mentality.

It's this: we are not encouraged to produce anything except wealth and profit. Money makes money, celebrity makes money, houses make money, youth makes money. Ripping people off, too, that makes money. Selling bottled water and refusing tap water makes money, telling people they need new brake discs when they don't makes money. Small print and asterisks on adverts make money. Selling shoes that last a month because they're 'not meant to be worn everyday' makes money.

When I started in journalism, pay on the Surrey Advertiser, owned by the Guardian, was dreadful. It was a sign of things to come and I should have paid attention, but I loved to write and I believed in freedom of expression. I was an idealist - we need to debate, to examine, to question.

I have survived as a freelance longer than I ever had a 'proper' job. My output? Hundreds of features on everything from equal pay to school mergers, poll tax to the sale of a circus, a crumbling country house now lived in by pop stars, from racism in Liverpool to children leaving care, land rights and travellers to a holiday in Romania during Communism.

I've interviewed ordinary people about how they do their jobs, some brilliantly, some badly. I helped write a book on design for the lovely Rasshied Din, the only man who's ever taken me to Bond Street. I've written an 80,000 word analysis of how goods are sourced and sold globally and been shocked in the process, but particularly by a man from Tesco, edited a book of writing by Sudanese refugees who wouldn't talk about the new wave of Rackmans, written two plays (unproduced), three novels (two unfinished), four books of poetry, a pamphlet (reprinted) and been in several anthologies.

I've taught, tutored and facilitated people from backgrounds as diverse as international law and banking to crack dealing. Kids with a vocabulary of single syllable words, to the gifted and talented, kids in expensive public schools and failing inner city ones. I've run workshops in luxury hotels and youth centres with slashed plastic chairs.

So I'm wondering, not bitterly, but genuinely......why am I earning less now than before I did even half of that?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A rat in the kitchen, my end of year tax form and paying the tax brought January to an anxious end. In fact, I was so disturbed by the rat that I couldn't even go out the night of my birthday, although a lovely walk along the seafront during the day with Li Mills compensated. And she bought me lunch at Maroccos, when really I should have bought her lunch, she's been such a star helping my son with his Brit School audition.

A couple of years ago at Tribe of Doris (our annual August pilgrimage to the Blackdown Hills) I did a session searching for my spirit animal. It was a rat. I wondered, then, about this creature turning up in my kitchen the day before my birthday and why it affected me so much. I'm not squeamish. I've shared my house with mice before, but it was the speed the rat shot across the kitchen when I was in there, with my daughter, a long dark line, that made me scream and then kept me awake that night. Each time I went to the kitchen I stamped my feet. I really didn't want to see it again. But I was working in the front room just before my walk on my birthday, the kids at school, it was very quiet and I had slippers on....I wandered towards the kitchen and saw it again. Sauntering this time.

Was that the message I needed? Maybe very appropriate - saunter, don't rush. It would be lovely to slow down to a saunter. Winter doesn't seem to allow it. Twice, sometimes three times a week in the mornings now I'm trying to pound the pool, work off some of the anxiety that winter induces. Mostly anxiety about money. Oh that is such a boring obsession. I hear myself, all the time now, turn off lights, don't have a bath, don't waste food, turn down the heating. Something's lost and the calculator switches on in my brain, what's that going to cost? My daughter's shoes, another old chestnut, seem to last under a month before they're growing holes.

Everyone I know agrees that everything's gone up. Price fixing everywhere. We live in a society where competition's the mantra but hollower than a blown egg. Stuart Rose seems to be the only voice of dissent - mouthing off, rightly, about London being the home of the international super rich and the rest of us, outside the M25, watching the wealth gap widening. Forget north south divide....when did we stop talking about haves and have nots? When did it become the role of the chief executive of a multi national company to point out what politicians have forgotten, in their London of four wheel drives, restaurants, taxis, clothes and comfy salaries? Well, good for him. I think we should be applauding M&S and I never thought I'd say that. I like their new ethics and I like the fact that Rose has the confidence to put those complacent politicos to shame.

I'm not alone in my money worries. Most people I know live with a calculator in their mind at the moment. No thoughts but pound signs. Reminds me of Dylan Thomas's letters - jam packed with money stuff.

Would the super rich like to swap for a week? Or my local politician?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions is mind-expanding. I came across it in Borders last year and read it greedily. When I lost it at a school I'd been visiting I felt bereft until a replacement arrived from Amazon. I don't know all of Neruda's work - he wrote so much it's going to take a while - and have already raved about The Captain's Verses. I'm waiting for the postman to deliver his Odes to Common Things but for now I'm back into the questions.

In composing these, Neruda was mining our most primitive drive - curiosity and inventiveness. It's curiosity that's moved us around the world, driven us to dissect, learn, stare, listen and dream ourselves into the inventions and theories that follow. He was also placing himself in the mind of a child and there's probably no more creative state.

When I worked full time as a journalist, questions defined my daily life. I asked questions that I wanted answers to. I was taught, as an indentured trainee, to avoid questions that required only yes or no. As I became more experienced, I learned that the silence following an answer could often lead to an even fuller or truer response. I learned that after asking a question, I had to trust silence and sometimes ask again in a different way.

I hated the foot in the door questions - how do you feel? - that are such blunt intrusions. I also knew we're all nervous about how our answers are used.

When I am writing, I start with questions. I was once told that the poem was not in the question but in the answer I struggled to provide. That's valid. But reading Neruda, I am more aware of how I am full to the brim with questions.

Questions can be awkward. Remember those moments when a child asks a difficult question on a crowded bus, in front of acquaintances? A question that can't be avoided or shuffled off....that may be so intensely personal you want to disappear.

Questions are at the heart of love, equality, freedom of expression and civil liberties. When we turn away from questions, turn them back on the questioner, imprison the questioner, mock her, intimidate her, threaten him or disadvantage him, we betray what makes us human.

Most of the questions in Neruda's book are enough as can fill a train journey from north to south of France. One is enough for a day. Attempting to answer them all could provide a lifetime's work. He could have written them as aphorisms but he didn't. Why? The aphorism is a statement, entertaining but essentially arrogant.

A question is a distillation of humility and exploration - both qualities that make his work so great.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Poetry's pool of prize money is a limited one - annually, the Forward and TS Eliot awards are the big gains, worth £10,000 and £15,000 respectively. In the absence of significant arts council funding to poets, they are significant. When one book scoops both awards, as Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book, has just done, there's a good deal of scurrying around and questioning.

O'Brien regularly wins prizes, as does his fellow big hitter, Don Paterson. It seems that once a poet's on that shortlist and prize winning trail there's no stopping them. The massive exposure they receive ensures they are read, that their work is known, that any new work is stamped with the authority that comes with fame and consequently, reputation. Prizes bring jobs, too, more offers of work, commissions, invitations to read and so on.

Those on the shortlists fix their smiles afterwards - the confident and the generous praise the winner's success, the drunk say things they hope won't be repeated, the permanently insecure are confirmed in their insecurity. Those left off the shortlists altogether exchange consoling e mails or postcards.

There were some significant poets on this year's TS Eliot shortlist - notably Edwin Morgan, Matthew Sweeney, Sarah Maguire and Mimi Khalvati. Just one, Alan Gillis, came from a smaller publisher, Gallery. And all the books on the list deserve to be read, to be given time and respect.

But can we hope, too, that those who have made the big league will consider what they can do for poets whose work doesn't make headlines? I don't mean ensuring a smooth path for young successors, appointing newcomers who you believe are deserving - I mean that they will look around and read the books that were born around the same time.

.....Get to know them, as you know your neighbours, bring them together and enjoy their diversity, the new routes they offer, the different ways of using language and metaphor. Read them with the respect you wish your work to be given and be generous, responsible with the power you've been handed......

I was once told a story about a famous poet who was complaining about the number of other poets writing. His listener replied that without all those others around, his status would be meaningless.

We celebrate diversity in plant life, insect life. We speculate about what cures may be waiting to be discovered. I think it's time to take stock, as poets, of the fantastic range of work being published and make it our responsibility to celebrate that range rather than insist there is only one way. Surely we have the imaginations to do that.

Edwin Morgan
Matthew Sweeney
Mimi Khalvati
Sarah Maguire

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Opposite the funeral director's at the bottom of my road the other day I met a woman I know vaguely and because it was so close to the new year we stopped to chat. I asked about her kids and she about mine. On that grim corner, in the late afternoon, the pavements wet, the traffic as always, noisy, she told me the story of a boy who's just dropped out of university, who sits at the dinner table dribbling because he's so stoned, who takes ketamine, methadone, cocaine, anything to lose himself. A boy she imagines will one day be homeless from his inability to care for himself, to care about anything. She told me cocaine's cheaper on the streets than it's ever been, that he can get anything he wants within minutes.

Is it us, is it money, is it the city, is it absence of expectation, is it tv? My local authority has a campaign to clear the streets of chewing gum. That's our message for the new year. And there are children at local schools who are stoned in classrooms. Who smoke crack in the playing fields. Who are out of their heads on skunk and drink all weekend, playing chase with community coppers and occasionally police dogs.