Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Girls' school reunion

We wore dark, light green and brown stripey blazers and Fred Perry shirts, lace up shoes and dark green skirts, brown leather gloves. In summer, the skirts of our pale green cotton dresses ballooned with yards of fabric, harking back to the 1950s. They went with white cotton gloves. Our berries had red pom-poms on. These uniforms came from Dickens and Jones where, in the old fashioned school uniform section, we were measured and assessed. Luckier parents secured hand-me-downs.

After hockey, our thigh muscles burning, we dragged our sticks up the hill from the bottom field. We fought in the locker rooms. On the bus home we shared gelatine sweets shaped like milk bottles and cough candy twist. I can so easily spin myself back to the wooden-floored corridors smelling of dust and polish, the assembly room stage, the fabric seated tubular chairs put out in rows for the audiences, and the nuns in procession on a Friday along the chapel corridor.

A portrait of Empress Eugenie hung in the old part of the school, her eyes following each girl that walked the long corridor to the beautiful wood-panelled library. It was in that corridor, with its sweeping staircase up, where the parents of boarders arrived for visits and their children said goodbye again.

This week's reunion week - one old school friend tomorrow night, another three on Saturday afternoon. We were at Farnborough Hill Convent College between 1966 and 1973 - all of us 11 plus girls, sharing playing fields and lessons with the daughters of diplomats and more, certainly a lot wealthier than us.

In this week, I had an email too from the Old Girls' Association. In a moment of sentimentality I signed up for a lifetime's subscription to the Old Girls' newsletter and occasionally I recognise a name, its news of weddings, births and deaths the most universal truth.

Even in 1966, the resident nuns were dressed in floor length black robes, their hair covered, their faces framed in stiff white bands. At some stage, brown below the knee skirts were brought in and the younger nuns who decided to wear this new uniform were also allowed to show a couple of inches of hair.

Helen, Kathy, Angela, Dee - we have been in and out of each others' lives in different degrees since 1973. I must be two stone heavier than I was then. I am wrinkled, my hair is grey. Angela and I have witnessed each other ageing, Dee and Helen I only caught up with last year, Kathy I haven't seen for at least 10 years and then only briefly. All of us now past the big landmark birthday - the next (in the time it took us to go through secondary school and start our lives) will be 70.

Which leads me to browse the websites of the Poetry Foundation and Academy of American Poets and the final verse of a poem by the much neglected Rosemary Tonks, from her poem 'Oath', published in Bedouin of the London Evening, Collected Poems, by Bloodaxe Books (2014). Mindfulness - that's the order of the day, as a newer friend, Mary, and I were reminding ourselves over an careful January supper of beans and water.

And not for the waterpools would I go back
To a Universe unreal as breath – although I use
The great muscle of my heart
To thirst like a drunkard for the scent-storm of the trees.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Work on the Venda Sun continues

This tree in a park in Palermo reminds me of South Africa - the giant trees of the Kruger National Park as well as the old tangled trees on Risenga's land in Venda. It also reminds me of the fallen oak I used to climb in Windsor Great Park as a child and the yew in Stanmer Park cemetery which Mrisi and Giya played in when they were small.

I showed the Venda Sun early draft to a good friend Roger Moss who gave me some brilliant advice and so I'm back to the story now, trying to make sense of my own fascination with South Africa, trying to make sense of being nearly 61 (a matter of days) and finding the threads that will bring my diaries into my present.

Reading gives me confidence to dart around within memory and between Europe and the tip of the African continent. Family too.

I still don't know what to call it. Most of the time, when someone asks, it's 'the South African diaries book'. I should start to call it by its name. There's a way to go but I am basking in the indulgence of writing again. Loving the freedom. Today, at 5.30 am, it felt like being part of a dawn chorus in the dark.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nest clearing and brown bananas

Nest in a hat - allotment shed
Wandered to the shop this morning for eggs and bread because Brendan was coming for a bath - his boiler's broken. So breakfast, then, too and Giya was off back to Newport, having put me through some interesting trials for her latest project. The most painful involved putting my feet into the freezing cold pond on the allotment, the most exposing was standing in my swimsuit pretending to dive into the water butt. Am I really looking forward to seeing the photos?

When I got back with the bread and eggs - loving the brightness of the morning, golden sun despite the frost - I noticed feathers and straw under the porch and by the side of the front door. Sparrows have made their home in a hole in the eaves and I reckon they've started noticing the dirt and dust with this sun, too. Either that or a rat's got to them, but I don't think so, I hope not, they were in the fuschia bush yesterday fussing a lot and making so much noise the wren joined them temporarily.

Brendan's good at emphasising the positive so the phrase of the morning was it's better to be here than in the other place and indeed it is, especially when there's a glow from the window rather than grey and I haven't even needed the sunlamp that dear Fiver lent me before she went away.

In fact, Brendan's visit was well-timed as the postie had delivered another batch of rejected poems and  he'll always put the poetry world into perspective, or rather, be quite clear about his place and mine. An Archers for us poets might be reassurance of some kind that acceptance is far more unusual than rejection. Or perhaps just a poet in the Archers, as a character, the way that Downton made the Dowager's butler a secret writer (played by my great friend Jeremy Swift btw, who did his best once many years ago to teach me bass, well enough anyway so I could appear on stage). So far, that particular mailing (3 batches in the post) hasn't been successful. I blame the time of year I sent them out - beginning of November, not particularly auspicious. How polite, though, Maurice Riordan is, with a nice little handwritten note.

We're not in the premiere league, says Brendan, and they probably get far too much through the post anyway. And he's right, on both counts, but what else is there to do but write and hope that people will find the poems when they need them. Although for that to happen they have to be somewhere other than just on my desktop and in a black folder by my window. So they will go pinging out again, now that I have some more stamps.

Much more to the point is that Giya's hard drive, her second in a matter of months, has failed and her logic board needs replacing and her macbook's not even three years old yet. Fortunately she has a warrantee but has to pay more than £100 for her data to be recovered and reinstalled on the new hard drive.  So we were talking about that on the phone - her on the train back, me trying to do some planning for a workshop and choosing poems - this afternoon. Two weeks now without her laptop, or maybe more, and her most recent and brilliant project at risk….

I can hear the sparrows outside again. I can't imagine how a rat would be able to get into the eaves. I've never heard any scurrying in the loft. No, I reckon they're spring cleaning. It's this glorious sun and now the sky's glowing pink which is good enough reason for another wander down the road - preparation done for Saturday, emails answered, PDFs made and printouts printed. Kids outside the house are on their way home from school, discussing brown bananas and for some reason that's also a prompt for a cup of lapsang. What first, a wander or lapsang?

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Becoming madam

From Goya's Witches and Old Women Album
I was in the small hardware shop near St Bartholomew's Church looking for an old style of curtain rail runners that the big DIY shops don't stock anymore. I asked the man at the till. He found me a packet but then I realised I needed another. I went back to the racks, couldn't find one of the same make and held the sample up to another I retrieved from the back, trying to judge if it was right. I wanted to be sure. 

That was when I heard him say 'madam'. I'm called 'madam' more and more frequently and with the same inflection. My daughter or son might call it passive aggressive. I hear nothing passive in the inflection.

Given that many men are with younger women, women who are with men my age might only now be entering menopause. They are still dyeing their hair and straightening it. They still go on hen nights and girls nights out.  I'm done. I'm on the freedom road with only a dodgy knee at the moment and root canal treatment next week.

Which of course the man in the DIY shop doesn't know. He can't see me carrying bags of horse manure. Does he see anything? What IS behind the constrained growl in 'madam'?

On bad days 'madam' makes me fear men of my age are not compatriots. Close friends are exceptions. Friends' husbands or partners are exceptions (as a rule). I sense others are growling like a dog in front of a mirror. 
From Goya's Witches and Old Women Album

Tainted with spoiled girl or brothel keeper, it's shorthand for 'annoying old bag'. So when someone calls me 'madam' with a particular inflection do they think they're getting away with it? 

Because he didn't say: "I found you the right ones, what are you looking for now?" "Do you need another packet?"I sensed the man at the DIY shop saw something else when he looked down the aisle of his nearly deserted shop at me measuring up my curtain runner and said: "Is there a problem with the packet I found you, madam?" There was hesitation before the emphasis on 'madam'.

Did he see me pulling out stray hairs on my chin and above my lip, choosing comfortable shoes above heels, browsing in Millets and Wyevale instead of Top Shop and Miss Selfridge? Did he see me washing plastic bags to re-use them, awake at 4 am with a trashy charity shop novel, making a pan of soup to last the week? Was all that on his CCTV?

I curse myself for caring, for the hyper-sensitivity of a hangover, because liberation is to not give a fuck. But like giving anything up, I'm dragged back to caring.  

A woman half my age at a workplace starts a sentence: "Given your age and your size.....", Facebook hammers home failure, the man at the vegetable shop looks through me and expresses surprise when the young man he serves says I was there first. 'You could be sisters,' another man in another DIY shop says about me and my mother. Yup, there's only 21 years between us. A woman I know expresses surprise I have a waist.

Now truly in the age of 'madam' and to stay sane, do I tell the truth loudly, drop stuff and leave it on the floor and appropriate 'Sir'? Is it better served with a laugh - does 'madam' perhaps deserve the response: 'sire'?