Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cabbages heavy as bones

Summer's hit me with one of its drive-by colds. I was thinning out lettuces on Monday, parched and wondering about the craving for so much water. Then yesterday, a day of cleaning the house and I thought it might have been the dust. But no, by 5 pm I was well and truly ill.

Typically, the sun was out. I used to go down with tonsillitis twice a year - in spring and autumn when the weather changed. My immune system must be a lot better now - I was young then and burning the candle at both ends.

There is nothing worse than staring out of the window at the sun and feeling like you can hardly drag yourself off the sofa. But sitting up in bed this morning with breakfast, I went back to a collection of The best British short stories 2013 I found in a charity shop, edited by Nicholas Royle and was struck by Jackie Kay's Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon, a subtle story about fantasy and its role in our lives.

What I admire about Jackie Kay's style is how natural it is, how vernacular. There's no barrier between the reader and writer, no sense of the writer trying too hard, playing tricks, being self-consciously literary.

Liz Lochhead once said to me how much she rated Kay's short stories and as I read more of them, I agree. I feel the same about her poems and in fact, she's the same when she reads her work. There is no artificial distance, no pushing away. It's the opposite, in fact, with Kay. She invites you into her world by being so natural, so reassuringly like an old friend.

Kay can do anything she sets her mind to, and this is the encouragement I need to finish the first draft of Venda Sun, the South African diaries. I'm on the last journey - 2012 - and a shopping trip to Louis Trichart when we fail miserably to find decaffeinated coffee but etched forever on my mind is the size of the cabbages in the back of a van on the road.

I look at the little heads on my plot, eaten by slugs and woodlice, struggling in the chalky, flinty soil that I didn't manure enough in the winter and I remember the cabbages in Limpopo, larger than a woman's head, ear to ear in patches of fertile red earth, dense and heavy as bones.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Herring gulls and housing benefit

The first enormous explosion from someone's fireworks at 11.30 last night lifted herring gulls off the rooftops and they screamed together in the darkness, circling and warning.

The high calls of their chicks, nestled between chimney pots, cut through the days and evenings. On my way down the hill from the allotment I see them on several rooftops, perched between the unused stacks, fluffed up and solitary, guarded by a parent. On the beach older chicks tag along after a parent or in the street, neck out, with the same complaint, "feed me."

Sometimes there's a massive commotion and the gulls circle protectively or aggressively. I've seen crows and gulls in great air displays. Pigeons stay well away from the gaggles around bin bags and with good reason. In Venice, herring gulls were introduced to keep the pigeon population down and from a vaporetto, Jane and I saw a gull with its beak stretched to bursting point as it appeared to be swallowing a pigeon whole.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee says, "the total herring gull population is now at its lowest level since monitoring began in 1969-70." Botulism from rubbish tips is one theory for their decline and fewer discards from fisheries. According to the RSPB there are only 140,000 breeding pairs in the UK - the herring gull is red listed.  JNCC adds, "Between 1969-70 and 1985-88, the UK herring gull population decreased by 48%. This decline continued between 1987 and 1990, with a subsequent recovery by 1994. A further drop in abundance is apparent after 2000…"

Giya was telling me yesterday how she was on the pier with her friend Polly and they'd seen a seagull steal a doughnut from a man who ranted about his loss: "disgusting and outrageous". Then there was the dog and David Cameron on BBC Radio Cornwall, suggesting a 'big conversation' about herring gulls. Mum and I once watched a man on a beach in Devon throw his bag of chips into the air in frustration and friends of Mrisi's lost their very expensive Brighton chips - no-one had warned them. Everyone has a story of a seagull mugging. But haven't we settled in their territory? And as my reading group asked when we were reading Margaret Atwood, can we imagine a sky without birds?

A herring gull can live for half our three score years and ten and is apparently doing well on Brighton and Hove's rooftops, living off our rubbish. The council says people are annoyed by its noise, but they're annoyed by wonderful, chattery, sociable starlings too, who are also threatened because there are less worms and leatherjackets for the young and all the old buildings are being repaired, so where can they nest? And if we're talking about air displays, the starlings are the business...

A neighbour complained to me in early spring about the dawn chorus waking her up. I look forward to March and the beginnings of it. I look forward to the allotment and the blackbird pair who follow me around, who sound warnings of cats, the female who yesterday flew so close I could feel the movement of air from her wings, the male flashing down to Rob's tayberries. They're still feeding young, so they're often on the ground where I've been weeding or watering.

The old gardening books all write about planting enough to share. I was talking about this with Rob yesterday after he called me over for a brew and we watched the blackbird on the berries.

Sometimes it's frustrating, this sharing. I had a reasonable crop of peas, but the squirrels knocked them down eventually. Some of the broad beans have been nibbled and sweetcorn's a waste of time - badgers know exactly when it's ready and they demolish the lot.

But I'm happy to leave the new currant bushes to the birds while they establish themselves. I'll net them next year. Today I'll take the net off the gooseberries because I've had the crop and the stragglers are open to whatever can bear their thorns. I'll do the same when I've finished picking the netted black and red currants.

And I was delighted, when I was searching to identify the bird Mrisi and I saw on a walk last week at Ditchling Beacon - it was a yellowhammer - to find that it's the mascot of the number 79 bus, which takes you all the way up to this Iron Age hill fort. Which is something of an antidote to the despair I felt at Cameron's sudden interest in talking about seagulls rather than housing benefit for all our young people without trust funds and inheritances.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

I thought about writing a fan letter

From Forest Choir, a series of prints by Jane Fordham
and a poem I wrote in response.
Does anyone write fan letters anymore? In my worn school cardboard case with its rusted catches (the kind with a tartan-style lining) I have an autograph book. Among my aunt's things when she died was another autograph book. 

Autographs aren't quite the same as fan letters, but amount to something similar, an acknowledgment of respect perhaps, in writing. 

With an autograph, the admirer's asking for the idol's unique signature. With a fan letter, the admirer wants their name to be read. The autographs in my book are notes from friends or family - my friends' signatures are round, immature, under jokey verses. My aunt has one celebrity, it seems, a Disney illustrator whose signature is a picture of one of the seven dwarves. 

I wrote a fan letter not too many years ago to a writer I admired. I wrote an email to another asking for help with my writing. I'm not entirely sure what the link in my head right now means, but it's mixed up with Margaret Atwood and it's come to me since I finished Maddaddam, the last in her trilogy.

It's nearly midday and I haven't been able to concentrate on anything else other than a short interruption to mend Giya's jeans before she goes to work. But Maddaddam seems to me to mix up the physical act of writing with healing, with the web... 
Blackberry from the 6th-century
Vienna Dioscurides manuscript

The elder tree's one of the recurrent symbols in the trilogy, particularly after Pilar's death. Atwood focuses on the elder berry, a superfood that can be dried as a substitute for raisins and which is ranked even higher than blueberries; a berry I've made into tincture and cordial, jam (mixed with blackberries) and chutney. It's everywhere on the racecourse and in Sheepcote Valley but several years ago I transplanted two seedlings from my garden to the allotment to provide shade. One was in the wrong place and impossible to move, so I cut it down before it grew tall. 

The other, on the edge of the raspberry patch, has become the other half of an arch with a bay tree, and this year produced its first really good crop of blossom. I've taken some for elderflower cordial and am leaving the rest for berry cordial, if the birds don't get them first. 
Elder blossom
The symbolism of the elder is ancient but I suspect Atwood's interest in it comes also from her passion for birds. One year Sheepcote Valley was stripped of berries almost overnight. It was uncanny. There must have been a migrating flock, or perhaps other food was scarce. Most domestic birds eat elderberries, but it's also important for migrating birds like the lesser whitethroat, warbler and blackcap. It supports several moth caterpillars too. The Woodland Trust floats the theory that since the anglo saxon word for the tree, aeld, means fire, the hollow stems of the elder were used as bellows. Apparently stems were also used for flutes. I don't know enough to know if that's accurate, but I have assimilated the folk knowledge that elder's associated with death and the devil. However, the berries are antioxidant and anti-viral, supposedly very good for boosting the immune system, contain iron and vitamin C. Elder helps you sweat. 
Project Gutenberg

Google 'elder symbolism' and all sorts comes up. I did and inevitably the goddess tree appeared. This website calls the elder 'the queen of herbs' which is Pilar's role in the trilogy as a gardener and bee keeper. And it appeals on another level too, the elder being associated with witches, old women. Cutting down a tree (as I did) apparently unleashes a witch. I'm intrigued to know where she's living. In the windowless shed with the nests, maybe?

Ashbolt Farm, which sells elder products, says the tree was in every herb, monastery or farm garden because every part of it was important. Ancient wisdom (another website) says this about it: "Elder indicates the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end. Life in Death and Death in Life." So this is my fan letter to Atwood, as the blossom's coming to an end and the berries are setting. I never spoke with her when she read at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival the year I was also reading - I was too shy. 

But I'd like to tell her how much I've enjoyed the links she's made between Pilar and the elder, that I've been reading her trilogy as the tree's come into blossom, while making cordial and as the berries set.  I'm mulling over Pilar, Toby and Blackbeard and a suggestion, in that tentative record keeping, of old pharmacopeia. One of the books I carried with me from home in Farnham (one of my first independent buys) was Culpeper's herbal. One of the ways I lost myself as I began writing poems that ended up in WHAJ was to read about old cures online. I've lost a lot of those links somehow, but the title poem contains what's left of the reading. Atwood's trilogy, particularly this summer reassures me about growing, picking and drying as I attempt to get back into writing and move on. 

At Yale University Library there are some curious artefacts like
The Game of Medicinal Herbs (yes, a real board game).
At the British Library there are some fascinating digitised manuscripts.
Here's an interesting man, Thomas Hatsis and here's a link to Nicholas Culpeper who made herbalism accessible. 
Growing herbs. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Swarm collector

A good friend used to say he couldn't write in winter. It was too dark, too busy. He saved it all up for June when his teaching ended.

I have never analysed which time of year's most productive, but a skeleton's taking shape, sketched out by work I do for the Open University, my Royal Literary Fund reading group and a day's work (sometimes two) a week for a friend, which is providing an almost clear summer.

Late winter/early spring's been so busy I've been putting writing off, not even putting a notebook in my bag and I have a stack of cheap ones from Seawhites. I wrote in Venice in April. Nothing since then.

I often struggle to write. There's always a plateau after a new book comes out but that was 2013 and this is about more. Am I too easily distracted, as school reports, year on year, claimed. Is it possible to harness this?

I said jokingly to friends that I'd happily live on the allotment this summer. On the allotment I have no problem concentrating. Also, I've been reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy - am midway through Madaddam, the final novel - and I identify with the Gardeners. (It's hard to get out of Atwood's head, though, to cope with the day to day and not see doom in everyone and everything.)

Dystopias notwithstanding, I love the routine of spring and summer.

Planting the first lines of seed in the mini polytunnel.
The first rocket, the first lettuces, new potatoes.
The smell of elderflowers in the sun and tasting the first cordial.
Weeding to the honey scent of rocket flowers.
The stickiness of angelica flowers.
Keeping courgette plants alive.
The spread of squash.
Fresh artichokes. Raw peas. The first raspberries.
Calendula, ox eye daisies, foxgloves, borage, comfrey, poppies.
The blackbirds - foraging and singing.
Wren's wings against my face in the shed.
The wren's nest, its entrance lined with a feather.
Robins nesting twice in Rob's shed.
The blackbirds' warning calls that cats are around.

Summer's short and busy. Sometimes frustrating. Yesterday I transplanted two lots of lettuce seedlings. Today the rain's torrential and unlikely any of them will survive the slugs and snails that crawl out of the grass and from under planks.

I can relate to Atwood's Toby, talking to her bees, her belief in the power of honey and herbs. A couple of weeks ago I had to stop digging compost from one of the more twiggy piles because I disturbed a colony of earth-nesting bees.

Another allotment bee loves raspberry leaves. It flattens itself against the leaf and I think it cuts into it. The tiny bees love borage. Bumble bees apparently live in clumps of grass.

Recently I received an amazing email from the allotment department. The subject line was "Bee swarms on allotment plots".

This summer we have received a significant increase in the number of reports of bee swarms on allotment plots. If you have a swarm on your plot the first thing you will need to do is to identify the type of insect involved….Honeybees: Beekeepers are happy to collect Honeybee swarms but the volunteer Swarm Collector may ask for expenses/donations to cover their fuel….Bumblebees & Solitary bees: Bumblebees & Solitary bees should be left where they are and are harmless if left in peace. Swarm collectors will not collect them and pest control will not destroy them.

Swarm collector. Mmmm. The bees loved the angelica and are all over the comfrey and I was drawn to that phrase. It excited me so much that I had to read the email to a friend.

There was a swarm on a house in the street a couple of weekends ago and it prompted my neighbour to tell me I had mason bees in my house. She took me upstairs to show me where they were getting in. She watched them from her bathroom. And I was reminded of seeing the mason bees in Much Wenlock, hunting for a space in a stone wall on my way to the poetry venue.

I guess, I'd tell anyone anxious about not writing, that it doesn't matter. Live, read, dig and look.

And I have been enjoying reading, particularly Charles Simic's translation of Vasko Popa. I've enjoyed Popa for years, ever since I found his white stone pebble sequence.

Over 38 years he wrote 8 collections of poetry. There's so much else about Popa that I feel drawn to: a tantalising reference to him setting up a library of postcards (which I've struggled to find anything about), curses in his anthology of folk tales.

There's a sample of his last poems on the Anvil Press page and more of them here.

So in the struggle to write, Popa is some consolation: his trust in the old, the dreamlike, the dirt on the hands, the everyday, folk wisdom….and the phrase that Ted Hughes used about his work, "purged of rhetoric" like the natural world, like the allotment, where all that matters is the quality of the soil and the weather.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Clearing the mind

I set off ridiculously early for Aldeburgh the other weekend because I had a reading at the Pumphouse at 4 pm and the M25 is so unpredictable. It was clear almost all the way so with at least three hours to spare I had time to wander around a car boot sale, where I bought chilli plants, a flask and strawberries, as well as an old gardening encyclopaedia.
I at my lunch sitting on the grass by my car, which reminded me of childhood and picnics on the way to Cornwall by the sides of roads or on the edges of fields.
Then I wandered into Aldeburgh, parked at the reading venue and walked around the place where I spent a month more than 10 years ago, as a poet in residence.
It was a beautiful day, windy, sunny and the town was packed with tourists. It was also an open house weekend and on a little track going into the reeds, I thought I'd found a path away from the town towards the sea.
This is what I came across. How it reminded me of Surrey.
There was another sign in the same black felt tip capitals telling me it wasn't a footpath and to check my map.
So I turned around and walked along the seafront, then back through the town taking photos of roses in people's gardens and on walls.
I also noticed an exhibition in the Peter Pears gallery, which always has poetry related work during the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.
The fish caught my eye but when I tottered up the stairs and saw the work I found it really moving.
John Craske's embroidery of the rescue of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Normandy during WW2 is unfinished but magnificent. His pieces aren't finely stitched, but that's not the point. They were also done as therapy. What they do have is an amazing sense of the sea's life, of its movement, of danger. Craske was a friend of Sylvia Townsend Warner and the writer Julia Blackburn has just published a book about him.
The reading in Aldeburgh, with Tiffany Atkinson, was like a holiday: a weekend away, the sun, a beautiful cottage for the night, beer and a wander around Halesworth afterwards with new Poetry Trust director Ellen McAteer. She writes an interesting blog with a feature on protest art. Well worth looking at.
So since then I've been trying to clear out my mind to write. It's been too cluttered, like my house, and full of worries about damp, dust, cracks in walls, cobwebs, peeling paint, cracked window glass and at the forefront of my mind, the cat's habit of using the space outside Giya's room as a toilet - which I thought I'd put an end to by strewing lavender on the carpet.
So she switched to the kitchen and although she is still using the litter tray for wee, she now poos in the same spot just by the table.
She used to go outside until new neighbours brought a big fluffy cat that insisted on sleeping on our sofa and terrorised her.
Now she ventures outside if I'm in the garden, but otherwise is much too nervous and the consequences are daily deposits in the kitchen. I tried a new tray full of sand. She did a shit next to it.
I have made a cat repellant spray with eucalyptus and lemon and today she goes to the vet for her annual check up and cat flu booster jab so I'm going to pump them for advice, given what that 10 minutes generally costs.
Mind clearing's easy. The allotment has my body and soul for as long as I want.
But I still have to earn money. And I want to write again after months of feeling drained by teaching on a course in Brighton, when one student's appalling behaviour convinced me it wasn't worth the risk or the energy.
So I quit. I have two teaching commitments left - the Open University and a residential course for the Poetry Trust as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, The Aldeburgh Eight. Ellen took me to see the place where we'll be working: Bruisyard Hall a magnificent place in Suffolk that we eventually came to the day after my reading via various single track side roads.
The Aldeburgh Eight is incomparable to most workshops I've done in the past. Closest perhaps to the pleasure of a week's residential course at Ty Newydd or for the Arvon Foundation, but with even fewer participants. I'll be tutoring with Peter Sansom, who I admire enormously as a poet and publisher. I also know he knows how to run workshops and scrutinise poems.
Clearing out enough space for writing means appreciating the good work, like the Aldeburgh Eight, and being brave enough to stop the time-consuming, fiddly, draining one-off workshops - a single day or two hour slot - which now I struggle to see the point of. Too often, they're tagged onto events to tick a community involvement box, to satisfy funders, to expand an audience. Too often workshops represent the worst kind of tokenism - shamming involvement in the arts for a particular group for the time the workshop lasts and then snatching it away, just as their expectations are raised. I don't want to be part of that cruel game anymore.
But the Royal Literary Fund reading group carries on and copywriting work for a friend. Hopefully the OU course will also recruit enough students.
And breakfast yesterday with Brendan Cleary revived my enthusiasm for the summer's poems after reading his new work.

The Aldeburgh Eight
A piece on John Craske in The Guardian