Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sheep in fog

Sylvia Plath's poem sums up this afternoon on the racecourse, at least its title does. The urban flock on a single slope isn't as dramatic as Plath's hills and her sheep are merely hooves. But her dolorous bells became two foghorns, one bass, one treble, taking turns as the neighbour's dog raced into oblivion. I was disorientated, navigating by blackberry thickets. Other walkers were silhouettes - faceless, impossible to identify as man or woman until we were just a couple of feet away. It was my first walk since emptying a box of Milk Tray almost solo. I've been nurse, scribe, briefly a path clearer and mostly a cook and cleaner. As January sidles closer I dread the days of invoices, bank statements, receipts and accounts. I have shoved everything into the same shoebox under my desk for 12 months. Last night I watched Baraka and realised how little of the world I have seen. So Plath's dark water was ahead of me as I walked to the twin warnings pulsing from the sea.

The hills step off into whiteness
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them 

Sheep in Fog, Sylvia Plath

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hip hop theatre

In the streets of Brighton, an agent provocateur and mischief maker, "a body without bones," cultivates arson and murder.

Dizraeli's rap drama, Bonfire Night, was reincarnated at the Pavilion Theatre last night, generating enough energy to power Brighton's Christmas lights.

The writer, a cast of teenagers and the relentlessly innovative youth arts organisation AudioActive earned their foot-stomping curtain calls.

There were a dozen young people in the play, first put on in 2009 with a cast of four. It's a modern morality play, a tale of the supernatural and its script has the satirical edge of Alexander Pope, interrupted by lyrical reflections on teenage life.

It would be harder to find a better example of arts for young people than this. Rappers Tom Hines (who did a guest appearance in the play as an incompetent copper) and Dizraeli work as tutors for AudioActive, a Brighton based organisation that's raised the status of hip hop in the city thanks also to the unremitting commitment of Adam Joolia.

I declare an interest. These men have given my teenage son life-changing opportunities. They prove the point of writing and composition, why you keep appointments, rehearse and what stage presence means.

Tom is one of the best freestylers in todays UK hip hop scene. He's been working with AudioActive for about 2 years. Two of the cast, Jamal and Mrisi, are also featured on the ITV Fixers Christmas single, Common Ground, downloadable on iTunes.  Bonfire Night cast: Tom Sissons, Jamal Ali, Mrisi Makondo – Wills, Emma Blu, Sam Maryon, Jordan ‘Rizzle’ Stephens, Sami Doleh, Dizraeli, Tom Hines, Alex Lynch with rappers Ryan Jupp, Alex Massarella, Jermaine Heat, Jake Bradford, Seeya, Ro Ocean.

Links to AudioActive, Dizraeli, Hines & ITV Fixers:
Hinesy Hines
ITV Fixers

Friday, December 10, 2010

The demonisation of 'No'

In 1990, I went with Jane B to Trafalgar Square to protest against the poll tax. We were people watching from the National Gallery steps, making our statement quietly and enjoying the carnival. In an instant, it turned. Mounted police charged, people scattered and we managed to get into a pub before they locked the doors. It was later reported as a riot, with demonstrators painted as aggressors. That was not what we saw. We saw a wall of police on horses coming for us without warning, provoking panic and with it justifying almost any tactic the police cared to use.

In 1986, I was working for INS News Agency in Reading and was sent to Stoney Cross in the New Forest with a photographer because the agency was tipped off about a massive police operation to evict new age travellers. At dawn a line of police moved into this peaceful, problem-free settlement,  forced whole families out of their vans which they then towed away. Thatcher's response to 'no' was bring in a Public Order Act and prepare the ground for her successor John Major to outlaw a whole way of life with the Criminal Justice Act. 

So when a friend rang me last night in a state of shock after the student protest in London, the demonisation of 'No' was one of the things we talked about. Let's face it, when thousands of students walk out of college and school to demonstrate about their right to education, it's embarrassing, isn't it? Better not to have them on the streets. 

I believe what I've been told by people in the protests about police being provocative, heavy-handed, offensive and aggressive because I've experienced it on countless demonstrations and in most other dealings with police. Hostility and rudeness is too often the first response to the most innocent question. 

I believe the friend who tells me she was almost impaled on a spiked fence when police charged down Victoria Street with utter disregard for people's safety, because she has no reason to lie. 

I believe my daughter when she tells me about teenage friends who were beaten up by police on two separate demos because I've been on picket lines and seen what happens when adrenalin runs.

You can write the script and apply it to almost any demo: David Meynell, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, in charge of the operation, said a peaceful march had been "completely overshadowed by the actions of about 3,000 to 3,500 people in minority groups"....The Home Secretary David Waddington is expected to make a statement to the House of Commons on the rioting tomorrow. That was how the BBC reported the poll tax 'riot' in 1990. Sound familiar?

So, without wanting to join the conspiracy theorists, but bearing in mind all that we know about dirty tricks, unregulated activity in the name of national security and what the last Tory government did to the unions, the rights of assembly and trespass laws.....shouldn't we be concerned about kettling, allowing mounted police to charge children, keeping the streets clear for Christmas shoppers? If kids can't protest, we can wave goodbye to demonstrating about wars, national security, corporate culture, free speech, tax evasion, bankers and corruption.

Found in Marseille by my daughter

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Snow Pavilion

Sometimes Brighton Pavilion finds itself. Today is one of those days. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Snow shrine, Sweats and a performance of Weight

The African statue with his back to the wall has lost his legs to woodlice over the years he's been outside. Today he looks like a Beefeater guarding a glass of ice and a summer  lantern.
Last year the teenagers were out the first morning of snow in the dark chucking snowballs, but this year the cold and the cuts seem to have inspired an adult weariness, fewer sparks of excitement.
I'm looking forward to moving slower, leaving the car, interrupted routines. The onslaught of increasingly mind-blowing Tory plans has been exhausting. And last week was busy - I read some of the new 'Sweats' series at the Red Roaster, an event with Brendan Cleary and Matthew Sweeney to launch Matthew's new book, The Night Post which brings together a selection of older poems. It's always good to hear Matthew read and always an honour to share a mike with him. He's a one-off and his influence has yet to be fully acknowledged.
I always look forward to a monthly workshop with other women poets. We get together in London to share feedback on new work, so I took a poem that has spun off from 'Sweats'. Trying to explore menopause has become a pivot for a certain kind of new work, much more pared down. This approach has undoubtedly been influenced by the comments of the excellent poets in the workshop.
Back to Brighton and a pit stop before going with my daughter to see Weight, a dramatisation of three of Catherine Smith's stories, directed by Mark Hewitt. It is great theatre, minimal and true. Two stories are disturbing, graphic and gripping. Catherine and I had discussed the explicit images in one of them and whether they were appropriate for a teenager. Neither of us was really surprised they turned out to be tame by teen standards.
The third story, surreal and uplifting, describes how a woman discovers flying, post 50, so I went into the Lewes night a few inches off the ground thanks to Catherine. The stories are from her new short story collection, The Biting Point, hot off the press and available from Amazon or Speechbubble Books:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The years

I began working as a journalist in 1978 immediately I finished my degree and I was lucky to find a job so quickly. Lucky, as well, to have been working ever since virtually constantly. I totted the years up  - 32 of them and all spent writing or, more recently, encouraging others to.
Most of my working life I've been freelance. It's allowed me a four day week, even less, from time to time. It allows me to put washing in the machine while I'm working at home, be around at the end of a school or college day.
The downside is no paid holidays, time off sick and - an issue that may seem a luxury - no paid time to experiment. I gave myself three months this summer to concentrate on poetry and now I want more. It was overdue but I want more of it. In 32 years I've had just one other equivalent block of time, in my 30s, when I spent a summer in France after a relationship ended. The only other work breaks were when I had my children - I could afford about 4 months when I had my son, 5 when I had my daughter.
I wish I could convince myself that it's unreasonable to expect more, that the freedom I've had freelancing more than makes up for the absence of a pension and retirement time. I wish I could use scraps of time better.
But there is no substitute for prolonged thinking time, for what it can yield and the opportunity it offers for chasing a hunch, for daydreaming, for experimenting.
Someone once told me I should write down what I wanted. This is my desire. To find a way of funding six months uninterrupted by work of any kind to write more of the poems that emerged in the summer.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pheasants and sunrise

Ludlow butcher - shooting season
When I was 17 I worked at a chateau in Brittany teaching a 12 year old boy English and helping with domestic work. This Ludlow butcher dunked me momentarily into that Breton summer.
I haven't seen as many dead pheasants since (one of the main family occupations was rearing and selling them).
Ludlow was final stop on a half term road trip that started with Wales for a college open day, Cardiff to see Pete and Alison, then Ludlow to drop in on Jane. The drive towards Llantwit Major was drenched in autumn sun, a Dylan Thomas of a journey filling the car with light. Giya and I clocked up nearly 700 miles.
I'd almost forgotten it was possible to leave the house, I was so tied into post summer cleaning and clearing, waking before dawn and working or reading. There were advantages - autumn sunrise. When I was finishing Commandments I spent the first week of November in Gower. The light was still round and burnished, dawns pink. The drive west and this dawn reminded me I must find time to immerse myself in that way again.
Elms on Hartington Road - another October dawn
Our road trip ended on Friday in time to make a surprise joint 60th birthday in Guildford for Mandy and Nigel. I met them when I started as a trainee on the Surrey Daily Advertiser and needed somewhere to live. The problem was, I was on strike.
Those days seem impossibly long ago, written in black and white pics, re-made in films or novels.  In a review of Made in Dagenham the excellent Telegraph critic Charles Spencer remembers the cameraderie of our long strike as well as the cold on the picket lines.
Mandy and Nigel took me in anyway and I was their lodger for many years. We were all so young.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The urge to clear

Water's entering my cellar from the front garden and a broken soakaway and an unidentified leak next door. Damp wanders through the house with its smell and condensation. So there's a trench in the front garden and bags of earth and chalk from under the kitchen to dry it out. The dehumidifier's been going since the beginning of summer, the cellar hums constantly.
And I'm starting to associate this permanent drone with that recurring question - what is poetry for? I was reading recently at Lauderdale House in London with poets Lorna Thorpe and Shanta Acharya, plus George Hyde, translator of Mayakovsky. On the way from Brighton, on the train, Lorna and I were passing it between us. We didn't arrive at any conclusions, but maybe talking was enough to dispel some of the isolation that question induces.
Perhaps doubt is a motivator to write if it doesn't tip over into paralysis. The poet James Berry once said to me that writing was just about stamina. It is important just to keep going, not to worry about writing poems that don't make the grade - eventually they will.
I gave myself the summer to write and looking over the results I wonder how three months produced so little. But I guess anything is a bonus cradled in the autumnal urge to clear and re-arrange the furniture that this space also seems to have delivered - some basic need to prepare for winter, stack the logs, dig out the hot water bottles and stack up the recycled paper for another go at poems.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

October afternoon Brighton

Urban sheep - Brighton council's flock on Whitehawk slope
 My neighbour's little springer has been wary of the council flock of sheep ever since she was a puppy and first saw them. Of course, they aren't totally free when they graze the slopes of Whitehawk - there's an electric fence. The now grown dog associates the sheep's baaing with that pain in her nose, the jolt backwards into brambles, and yesterday wouldn't go within a hundred yards of them. So I slogged up the steepest bit of the walk, masochistically, and she ambled up a much gentler incline. The sheep are a peripatetic curiosity - have even made an appearance at one of the local secondary schools - and at one point several of my friends were tempted to apply for the urban shepherd job advertised in the local paper. But Whitehawk's exposed - the wind comes straight off the sea and while it's still a great place to meander in autumn, by January it's a bitterly cold ridge. The compensation, in winter, is the clear blue frosty skies and the sort of display I caught yesterday, when the sun was forced through gaps in the cloud cover onto the sea.
Silver sea

Often up on the ridge with the golfers to my left and sea in front, I imagine myself a long way from Brighton. Whitehawk is a causewayed enclosure, a camp older than Stonehenge and one of a dozen in England although there's nothing to tell us dog walkers, wanderers or even the travellers who stop here every summer, about its history. Several ancient burials have been found here - it was apparently a place people gathered for big events and rituals. Now they gather for racing and bank holiday markets. There used to be a souped up car meeting at the racecourse and sometimes there are wedding fairs. In the summer, travellers left a small boat beached on the turf. Down towards the tip you can sometimes smell methane from the pipes sunk into the earth. And on hot days you can take a path and find tents in a circle among the brambles.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Project Gutenberg, pastries and poems

An illustration from Banckes's Herbal 1525,
featured in Eleanour Sinclair Rohde's The Old English Herbals,
published by Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg is what the internet's best at - creaking open the doors of the world's storehouses, offering a sample of random, bizarre, quirky and classic books on every subject since printing began in the 15th century. It hardly needs saying that the project is named after the man who invented moveable type and therefore modern printing.
Last year I spent far too much time browsing Gutenberg and I've returned to it recently because I'm researching an idea to slot into a sequence I'm writing. 
I stumbled across this great work The Old English Herbals by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde published in 1922.  This summer I was singing the project's praises to a French patisserie chef at the wonderful youth hostel in the hills. 
I guess the research I'm doing is similar to that of a chef. So much of what we all do is similar, in fact. It's all about ingredients, timing, truth and state of mind. And while on the subject....when I'm reincarnated, I want the name Wynkyn de Worde.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Written by Lorna Wood, published by Harrap in 1948,
illustrated by Susan B Pearce 1878-1980.
"I'll manage," said Mrs Stiggins, and taking down the muslin curtains from her room, borrowed Nurse Bobberty's sewing machine and made Ameliaranne a perfectly lovely party dress.
Ameliaranne Goes Digging was a present from my aunt Mauya in Australia when I was five and became one of my favourite early reads for two reasons - the  illustrations and the appeal of its ending:  the hero doesn't have a dress to wear for tea at the manor so her mother makes her one.
It's a timeless conceit. Erykah Badu uses it in one of her films, except a cocktail dress is made from a tablecloth.
The idea in that book has been perhaps one of the most liberating of my life - if you don't have it, make it. I don't have the skills to apply that universally. I'm no carpenter or builder, but I bought a sewing machine for my 21st birthday and haven't been without one since. In fact, that machine is right now at the mender's - it's an industrial size Singer, built like a tank and magnificently reliable. I think it's why we still have a dressing up box and why I'm currently manically making jam/chutney/jelly/cordials...I thought about Ameliaranne when my son was showing me the Erykah Badu song on YouTube and then again when my daughter showed me a picture of Julia Roberts with a bright, hippy style bag and asked where she could get one. It was handmade, a one off, so I said I'd try and make something similar.
We were talking about this on Saturday at Chesworth Arts Farm open day - the conversation touched on what value we give to what we make in relation to manufactured objects made valuable by branding. And yet I remember, a decade ago, while helping designer Rasschied Din with his book, New Retail, we interviewedVittorio Radice, then CEO at Selfridges, who was convinced custom-made, unique, one-off would become increasingly dominant.
Of course he was right. And that's where those skills learned from having to make do with what's around us might be valued again. Anyway, my daughter liked the bag. It came from the sewing box, a pile of fabrics I always mean to do something with, a broken necklace, the button tin, a cushion cover I couldn't throw away and a scarf I found in the charity shop down the road.
Chesworth Arts Farm:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tesco, society and Machiavelli in Lewes Road, Brighton

Community garden, not Tesco in Lewes Road
Tesco is using property developer Alburn to secure land next door to a small and much loved Co-op in Lewes Road, Brighton.
It clearly intends to force the Co-op out. The site, once a garage, was derelict until local people turned it into a community garden. It has changed the atmosphere of Lewes Road, a choked traffic funnel in and out of the city that you cycle on with your life in your hands.
Perhaps policy makers at Tesco don't know what's going on here but they could take a trip down from Cheshunt HQ. Or maybe Sir Terry Leahy could get on National Express from his home in Cuffley. He'll be familiar with the issues, since his neighbours tried to say no to Tesco as well.
The police and diggers moved in before dawn to evict a sleeping man from the garden, put 6 ft barriers around the site so no-one can see in and destroyed everything in it by floodlight. Alburn took legal action against a founder of the community garden to stop the original occupation. People moved off but another group moved on - that's the strength of public opinion about how this site should be used.
Old style thinking, old style tactics, old style use of the police and legal system. Tesco is supporting night-time raids, destruction of a community garden and bullying tactics against an individual.
What will the community gain? Lorries, cement mixers, delivery vans.. Modern thinking is for greening cities, using urban space to grow vegetables and fruit, not feeding an old addiction to competition. It's a bit like a gambler not wanting to give up the horses. And that's another apparent use for the site - alongside Tesco, a betting shop.
"A prince, then, who would be powerful should have no care or thought but for war, lest he lose his dominions..." wrote Machiavelli in The Prince
Tesco may believe Lewes Road, home of funeral directors, cut price booze, betting shops, Spar, Co-op, the Trades and Labour club, a high Anglican church, St Vincent's charity shop, the best Turkish deli, is part of its dominion, but Lewes Road doesn't need a Tesco.
Check out Tesco's corporate website for its green claims - they were quoted below but it appears my blog has been tampered with - I certainly didn't blot out the lines below. 
And what a shame because I was about to write an update - Tesco has apparently now decided it's not interested in the Lewes Road site.........As a global business we have an important role in helping to minimise climate change. To achieve this, in 2009 we committed to: (
  • becoming a zero-carbon business by 2050
  • reducing the emissions of the products we sell by 30% by 2020
  • helping our customers to reduce their carbon footprint by 50% by 2020
  • halve emissions from our 2006/7 baseline portfolio of buildings by 2020
  • new stores built between 2007 and 2020 to emit half the CO2 of a 2006 new store
  • reduce emissions per case delivered by 50% by 2012...  And its claims about supporting local communities: In every country where we operate, we work with local communities to provide jobs and services and support local causes. We are committed to being a good neighbour. At Tesco, we believe in society – the idea that people depend on each other and that, working together, we can support each other and achieve much more than we can alone. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August journal

Hiding in the hills
I did my time - three years camping in Cornwall with four teenagers every summer. It was fun, but wet. This year I needed sun, preferably non-stop for two weeks. I was granted my wish. There was just one morning of rain from the moment I left Brighton on August 5 and returned on August 19. The mistral was blowing when the TGV pulled into Marseille, but it helped acclimatise me and Giya to southern French summer. In fact, it blew on and off throughout our stay. 
We both loved Marseille, pitching up with our rucksacks and gradually finding our way further and further from the tourist routes around the Vielle Port. A day kayaking gave us our first sense of the calanques and this was where we were headed next - the wild maquis west of Marseille, stretching to Cassis, distinguished by precipices, turquoise bays and absence of water. 
It was the place to hide, recharge, rediscover why I love France, the language, walking and wilderness and how could I have imagined six days was enough? Of course it wasn't, but there was another booking to adhere to, a train to catch. 
Last night, sweaty with a cold whose only benefit is today in bed, catching up on all I've been meaning to do since arriving home, everything in my feverish dream was yellow. Not lemon, but a deep sunflower yellow- the colour of the place that hid me and Giya in the hills for six nights. Walls that barely show until you're up close to them on a dry, stony path. Walls that shelter aloes, pomegranates and figs, views of fireworks and double rainbows distorted into columns by storm clouds. 
Returning to Marseille after the calanques could have set me against the city. The youth hostel seemed noisier, not such good value, lunch became a tussle with the voice that muttered 'rip off' constantly. It was easier to spend the day walking through the maquis, sitting on a pebble beach, staring at climbers, boys jumping off rocks. Easier to be satisfied with a ripe nectarine, yesterday's bread, because it was so far to walk to a shop.
Waiting for the cathedral to open in Aix 
to see the Burning Bush triptych of 
Nicolas Froment
But Marseille did acquit itself, of course - the stalls of honeyed pastries we came across one evening, covered in wasps, great wedges out of the baking pans....the Egyptian-run takeaway that had been recommended to us and was indeed where we'd been told, selling flat breads with chicken and a vegetable sauce that we ate on a pavement outside Monoprix....the mix of skin colours and languages, the wait for sunset because of Ramadan, the bag of over-ripe apricots we bought in Noailles that cost less than a euro because it was the end of the day, the tall buildings off the waterfront being done up, the balcony after balcony that set me dreaming and everywhere, reliefs of women jutting out of the stone like figureheads of ships.  
And between walking, wandering, occasional moments of frustration, tiredness, being disturbed by strangers in the dormitory, I managed one or two ideas for a sequence I'm writing. It's been surprisingly hard to get back into the collaboration - the first two days work felt like Jane and I were starting again. But on the third day we had a breakthrough and are now working towards an installation that takes words off the page in ways that should provoke some thought. 
Next summer I must have a month in those hills.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Borage time

Borage is straggling all over the allotment now and its blue flowers are some consolation for losing all the peas to badgers. I've been writing and gardening - the two activities complement each other perfectly and I can see why so many writers I know do both enthusiastically. I've also been clearing out books to create space out of the clutter and dust that seem to have gathered since the winter. July's gone in a flash but has provided some poems and August will offer more, I know. It's good to have the focus of working with Jane Fordham at Chesworth - what a place that is for quiet and pursuing the thoughts that so often escape unnoticed. I want to be surprised. I've just finished a quirky novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Written in a different time, with a totally different perspective on life, like the book Living in the Country I took to Chesworth with me that was all about self-sufficiency and first published in 1939. Both books seem strangely appropriate to this era we're in now, when I feel we're on the brink of terrible social division again - joblessness, poverty, prejudice and schisms - and it's being ushered in so enthusiastically by those with an interest in stopping any debate about just why so many individuals in this country are earning so much, even in retirement.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

What can a doctor learn from a vet? Cats, appointments and waiting rooms...

This mysterious graffiti appeared overnight on the sandy cliff at the end of the tiny road I was staying in for a week in Albufeira. At night, the cats wandered around on this precarious stretch of wasteland with its sheer drop to the beach. Netting attached to the base of the cliffs bulges with rubble and for the first time I saw a cat on a beach, stalking a small bird......

So the day after returning from Portugal my daughter goes down with the shits and is in real pain for two and a half days/three nights.

Now, it's easier to get an appointment for our cat to see the vet than it is to see a GP at our surgery. The system works like this - the phone lines open at 8.30 am and you sit with automatic redial immediately they open if you want to stand a chance of seeing a doctor.

I got through at 8.40 am and there was just one appointment left in the afternoon. Is that any good for someone who's been gasping with pain for the last two nights?

I don't know how many people our five GPs attempt to look after. It's probably thousands. I don't know, either, how much they earn because I can't find it out or find a way of looking for it.....but a friend told me recently that most Brighton NHS GPs who are in their own practice are earning at least £100,000 a year. I wonder if they have to file public accounts?

It's not good enough. The last time I was in the surgery, with my daughter, for a vaccination booster, the place was dead. It was more hushed and bereft of natural light than the church down the road. It doesn't add up. Receptionists chat behind the counter, the tv screen's silent and the sick public is kept as far away as is humanly possible, treated with contempt, suspicion and condescension.

By contrast, at the vet's there's a healthy and ongoing dialogue between friendly receptionists and cats, dogs, rabbits or budgies in the waiting room......there is natural light from the large windows onto the car park and a sense of helpfulness.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Privilege of Rain

There is a new book out with Waterloo press in Brighton - The Privilege of Rain by David Swann. It was launched last night at an intimate little theatre in the North Laines. Dave could have done with a larger venue, actually, for this book, because it is top quality and we were crammed in.

The book's a mixture of poems and prose which works very well, perfectly pitched - the poems pause you, keep you in the intensity of a thought and image, while the prose stretches you into reflection, conversation, the bigger environment that the work comes from. And that's the key - this is the result of a prison residency that Dave did for a year in Nottingham. Dave's now a lecturer at the University of Chichester and a thoroughly brilliant one at that - generous, dedicated, honest and charismatic.

So it was a good launch and one that also highlighted the richness of writing going on in Brighton right now. Squeezed around the table with me - Robert Dickinson who has a new novel and collection just out, Helen Oswald, whose new collection will be launched at the end of May at the Red Roaster. Naomi Foyle was compering.....and I was reminded of John O'Donoghue's brilliant collective name for what's going on in and around this city by the sea - he calls it the Beach Generation.

It's always rather dangerous doing a name check but here are some of us: Helen, Naomi and Robert of course, plus Lee Harwood, John McCullough, Catherine Smith, Janet Sutherland, Maria Jastrebska, Bernadette Cremin, Robert Hamberger John O'D himself, Lorna Thorpe, Ros Barber, Brendan Cleary, Hugh Dunkerley, Sarah Jackson, Tom Cunliffe and of course Grace Nichols and John Agard....and I'm sure I've missed some out. These are poets writing for the page, poets committed to the printed word and all that implies - rigorous editing, drafting, concern with form etc. etc.

There's a host of performers too that I wouldn't dream of trying to list for two reasons. One - they're essentially polarised into poets and MCs. If I had to choose, my sympathies there lean more towards the MCs, if only because my son's a rapper. And I have a problem with quite a lot of the performance poetry - it's either a carbon copy of what people THINK the beats were doing (and guys - Ginsberg did it best, he can't be copied....oh, and Patti Smith is a one off, too) or it's half-way towards stand-up comedy, half-way being the operative phrase. I used to defend performance poetry and try and resist the separation but two recent experiences have had me spitting blood.

At one of these I was a participant but left feeling like the aunt in the corner at the party, not quite sure why I'd been invited.

At another, all I could think of was WIGGER. White men have not yet earned the right to be satirically racist. When a man on a stage pretends to stick a bone through his nose and drones on in mock pidgin English about savages and penis size - apparently ironically - he's lucky his audience is too polite to drag him off stage. He was also lucky there wasn't a single black person in the audience. Bad move. Bad poetry. But he's apparently very what does that say about standards?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Two weeks left of the Surrey fellowship

I have two weeks to go at Surrey University and I'll be sad to leave my glorious, light-filled eyrie on the third floor of the library. I look over rooftops, down past the Senate building to the Surrey hills and layers of trees. It's felt like a very private year, so close to clouds and air conditioning vents, aerials and ladders.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Unknown woman poet wins prize

Eleanor Ross Taylor apparently doesn't do readings, her work's been out of print for years but at 90 she's been recognised by the American Poetry Foundation and given the Ruth Lilly Award. I'll be buying her book.....she writes about my life in a way that feeels uncannily accurate. Reading her work on the web gave me the same shiver as when I discovered Selima Hill and Edna St Vincent Millay.

This is what Kevin Prufer writes on the US National Book Critics blog:

'Her speakers are most often mothers and wives thinking about their grown children, the complexities of marriage, and (increasingly in the later poems) their responsibilities to the dead and their own impending demise.'

Here are some tasters of her work:

from The Diary (Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems 1960 - 2008, Louisiana State University Press)

Contrary to belief, the word diary
means undivulged; clues trail
the pages and the trail breaks off,
scent's lost. Wandering is
the only way out of this place.

And you can read the next poem, Woman as Artist, at

I’m mother.
I hunt alone.
There is no bone
Too dry for me, mother...

And another woman writer who deserves much more recognition is Stevie Davies, based in south Wales. Her latest novel, Into Suez is published by Parthian. It's one of the best contemporary novels I've read - it has an international sweep, it's honest, brave and emotionally wrenching. The plot is incredible and the characters walk off the street they are so real. It questions so much about world politics and modern life that I was bowled over by how she knitted it all together. This novel must be read and should win prizes.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What writing does to you

In Wiltshire, around 1957

I woke up with a poem a week or so ago. It was one I'd been resisting writing. I'm not convinced it's a good poem and I wasn't comfortable writing it. But I knew I had to get to the end of it. It's a poem that takes me back to my first collection and the material that formed it over ten years or so. Writing can stop time and revive you, like, I imagine, meditation. When you are rearranging the words, making each one work, keeping the channel open to its fullest, it's life at its best. Then comes the crash. It's as if the material and the adrenalin of the composition keeps you going, keeps you sharpened and alert, but as it sits on the desk, in the folder, your moods begin to play. Satisfaction moves to doubt, perhaps, and sometimes the emotions that you recalled in the process are rekindled. It was like that with this poem I wrote recently.

Writing, though, can also make sense of a time of your life. Here's a blog by novelist and playwright Sue Eckstein, whose recent book, The Cloths of Heaven (Myriad) is a must-read. She's blogging about her current experience of losing part of her leg:

Monday, April 12, 2010

A new collection growing

A new collection's gathering as I find more time to write - spurred on by blowsy blossom and a trip to Ludlow to see Jane. Ludlow's exceptionally quiet compared to Brighton's constant sirens, car alarms and 4 am drunks and although I was there for less than a week, it's recharged me. I've come back home feeling determined to make more time for writing.

The more time I spend with friends, the more I want to write poems that make sense of our lives, of passing 50, of the changes that happen often outside our control. Just before I left, I was sifting through poems I've written over the last few years and I realised they fell into three groups effortlessly, that maybe I even had a start and a finish.

This collection feels like I've grown it organically. I want to give it three months intensive work this summer and I think it'll be nearly where I want it to be.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

An obsession with anthologies

Words for Women - new work by Jane Fordham and Jackie Wills

I picked up rumours about a new anthology of British poets a few weeks ago. They felt like code. The anthology was known as IP and poets had started to complain about not being in it.
It reminded me of my early days in Brighton, when I was beginning to write again. I had met some poets here who were friends of a friend and we too became friends. I knew nothing about poetry politics then but in 1993 an anthology, The New Poetry, was brought out by Bloodaxe. At least two friends were outraged because they were not included.
I still remember my sense of bewilderment - how could they feel slighted about something so ephemeral?
I understand arguments about equal representation and am quick to protest if this hasn't been taken into account. It seems IP has more women than men in it, which is a good thing.
But that issue aside, what is behind the obsession with anthologies?
An anthology is a plaything. It's as close an editor can come to writing a manifesto without starting with 'I BELIEVE'. It is quickly dated; soon has only historical or sentimental interest, like a school photo.
So those clamouring to be included are like kids running to a camera for their grins to be magnified around the world, anxious ones waiting in the VIP queue at a nightclub, hoping to god their name's not been left off the guestlist.
Have poets become dandies, so desperate that the anthology is equivalent to the must-have bag? How can poets, whose work is with words, be so taken in by marketing?
The anthology is:
- an exercise in power not taste
- an exercise in pragmatism
- a means of favouring potential enemies
- a display of tribal identity
- the lazy compilation album
- a snapshot of the editor's bookshelf
- a status symbol
- sometimes, rarely, a brave attempt to right wrongs
There are some good ones: my favourites are Faber's book of eastern European poets and Paul Auster's anthology of French poetry, a brilliant anthology of native American poetry I am glad to have on my shelf.
But the kind of anthology that is advertised, reviewed and held up as representative of British poetry is not, has never been, will never be, an indication of quality.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Disappearing languages

This is a poem written on rocks on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells - one of several outcrops around the town that are still odd and out of place in Kent's relatively flat landscape. Writing on stone is always, for me, a reminder of the Rosetta stone and how I wish now I'd paid more attention to my linquistics lectures when I was studying for my degree. It's always the case, isn't it? My lecturer was an oddball eccentric who found it impossible to communicate (ironically) and I remember nothing of his lectures during the three years he must have taught me other than the name of Noam Chomsky. But since discovering the Rosetta Project on the internet I've wanted to learn more about languages and thought. I'm starting with Vanishing Voices, published by OUP. The facts it's throwing out are astonishing: most of Australia's 250 aboriginal languages have gone. At least half the world's languages may die out in the next 100 years. The authors, Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine compare the preservation of languages with the need to protect biodiversity. : "Each language is a living museum, a monument to every culture it has been vehicle to," they begin.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ty Newydd in February

A week at Ty Newydd is always a tonic. I was working with the writer Tom Bullough, whose novel The Claude Glass is a disturbing and brilliantly written story about childhood. We were with a group of young people from all over Wales, sponsored by their local Rotary clubs to stretch their writing and they did just that. There were snowdrops in the woods by the river and each morning the sky was a reminder to look up....

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Therapy and A Disaffection

David Lodge's novel Therapy is a true book of the 1990s when celebrity was in the wings, feeding on easy cash, TV and an emerging mania for self-promotion. It's about a sitcom writer with an obsession with Kierkegaard. Lodge makes some interesting statements about writing and journals: "The pen is like a tool, a cutting or digging tool, slicing down through the roots, probing the rockbed of memory...." and "A like talking silently to yourself. It's a mixture of monologue and autobiography."

But as I read it there was another book on my shoulder. Eventually I realised what it was. It reminded me of James Kelman, whose wonderful novel, A Disaffection, I encountered in the late eighties and haven't re-read but will do now. Therapy opened the door to Kelman's character, Patrick, who keeps up a running commentary throughout the book about Holderlin, the German writer who was ignored during his lifetime but subsequently influenced Rilke, Hesse, Celan and Trakl. Holderlin was a poet-thinker as Kelman is a novelist-philosopher. From Holderlin, tumble Heidegger and Derrida.....

Like Therapy, A Disaffection is a book about looking inward and in that sense, the nature of writing, language and thought. But it's a very different book - where Lodge is easy to read and English, Kelman is confrontational and much more experimental. He's been compared to Beckett and is an important writer.

He belonged to a writing group run by Philip Hobsbaum whose other participants included the poets Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead. All have distinctive styles, all challenge our use of language and how we write down the words that come out of our mouths. Kelman is also incredibly outspoken about literary prizes, willing to articulate what many wouldn't dare.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hags and lads

Another whiteout this morning in common with with most of the UK, and I've already eaten my packed lunch. Is it a primitive reflex when temperatures drop? I shouldn't be eating. I'm planning a party. A friend surprised me last night by offering to bring salad. I had anticipated cheesy puffs from Lidl and dips, plus drink and dancing. I guess people might expect pies, bread and cheese. I'm surprised by the enthusiasm for it, but then there were so few parties over Xmas. I invited someone I hardly know by mistake on Facebook and there is a shortage of men. I am not going to any more women-only parties this year.

How does that no single men thing work? Say the 50 something men are with 40 something women. The forty something men are with 30 something women. The 30 something men are with 20 something women. So that leaves two floating groups - 50 something women and 20 something men. Society's hags and lads.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Camouflage and a new year

From the entrance to Petworth Park we couldn't see the deer. We walked through the beeches around the car park and up the hill overlooking the lake. Down in the dip we heard a dog and then saw the herd moving. As we focussed we realised there were scores of them, some lying in the winter grass, totally invisible. Even those grazing merged with the background and later, when we walked around the lake, the landscape had claimed them back again.

I was at a friend's 50th birthday yesterday afternoon, the tables groaning under the weight of cake and savouries. The talk was of teenagers and school, of college and choices. A friend who's a great champion of children's rights was talking about how difficult it is for teenagers to challenge the status quo, compared to how it was for us, growing up in the sixties. We want teenagers inconspicuous and tame, quiet and compliant - camouflaged, basically.

Listening to a piece on the radio this morning about the need for greater airport security I heard an interviewee suggest that air travellers should be prepared to be checked up on in the interests of safety. That there should be background checks on passengers from certain countries as a matter of routine and whatever rights might be compromised were sacrificed to greater safety.

Like rights to take photos in the street, to ask questions of institutions, to challenge wrong, to submit those in authority to scrutiny. How many of us want to question a bill, bank, utility company, local authority and are halted by an impossible automated answering system, are fobbed off by a standard reply, by a customer service line that is peopled by untrained junior staff without the knowledge to deal with a question?

Let 2010 be a year of questions, of examining the camoflauge, of being visible and of finding ways to loosen the tightening loop. Let us take photos in public, or as my friend Jane Fordham suggested, draw in places we're not meant to and see what happens. Let us ask awkward questions of insurance companies, banks and telephone companies and let's rediscover the power of boycott.

Then, perhaps, we'll begin to value that fabulous energy teenagers are infused with and see it as something of worth.