Friday, December 29, 2017

The wreath has wings

My Christmas wreath, studded with rosehips and orange berries from a neighbour's hedge, is moving and it has wings. Risenga calls me into the hall.

Through the glass of the front door, we make out a blackbird, unsteadily perched on the holly and evergreen branches I've wrapped around with ivy. It's come for the berries and every day it will come back until the wreath is bare.

Has it been a year of birds, any more than other years?

There were the countless mosaic birds of Ravenna and the birds on the TV aerial outside the Airbnb flat. There is the resident robin on the allotment and flights of goldfinches, endlessly busy wrens.

There are cormorants at the marina and today, a pair of pigeons crowding into an opening in the chalk on the undercliff.

A gang of sparrows keeps up its chatter between Liz's garden next door and in the shrubs around my bird bath, waiting in turn to drink and wash.

I've read some fine poems about birds. I have remembered birds on a hillside in South Africa and continue to be haunted by a bird I watched for hours on a beach in Sicily as it stood almost motionless, itself watching the horizon.

And each late afternoon, I seem to look out of the window at the exact time a group of starlings is heading to the pier for the daily murmuration before sleep.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A hand reaching out of the sky

My daughter emailed to ask for a list of Black poets for a course mate and yes, I had some solid suggestions, but to make sure I hadn't forgotten anyone crucial, I did a google search.

Was it the time of day, was it a freak accident? What indeed happened for Google to place, at the top of my results, a blouse (black) with 'poets' sleeves' or a black sofa which a company has awarded the name 'poet'?

The world's four most valuable brands sit in our hands - Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Google's owner has claimed the word, Alphabet and Apple the fruit of late summer and autumn (and, for some, paradise). Facebook has claimed our hands themselves.

And so I look to the hand coming out of the clouds. When I saw it in Ravenna I thought it was in the sea, not waving but drowning, to quote a fabulous English poet. Now I know, thanks to Jane Fordham, it's coming out of the sky and it's about to give a thumbs up.

Not the blue thumbs up of a like but a thumbs up to fear. Yes, I confess to posting pics of a new haircut and other pointless information, like this outside a pub on Lewes Road. And so time gushes away.

Is the hand that prefers to swipe and like, rather than dig and harvest to blame for the insects disappearing - hoverflies, wasps, house flies, beetles - and with them larks, swallows, swifts?

And is the hand coming out of the clouds the one to help me (and you) up onto the roof for a better view?

Monday, October 09, 2017

A landscape before the US invaded

Freya Stark in Italy
"The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no-one is surprised." Freya Stark quoted in The New Yorker.

I thought I was immune to brainwashing because I'm a writer. And it may be that I am more tuned into how language is manipulated, jargon introduced as normal, how spin is engineered to be invisible. But in the early hours of the morning, during a rare night of insomnia, a travel memoir published in 1970 reminded me again how quickly images attach themselves to words, how quickly one view is replaced by another.

I was deep into Freya Stark's book, The Minaret of Djam - her account of an unorthodox journey to an isolated 12th century structure in a wild province of Afghanistan - and it's thrilling, in places beautiful, often thought provoking. She was in her mid 70s when she made this incredibly demanding trip and she allows herself the freedom of comment that comes with age. It is very easy to be with her, even though I am never likely to be so adventurous.

I so rarely suffer from insomnia that when I do it doesn't bother me - I decide to sleep during the day and enjoy the sounds of foxes outside.  So I keep going and am near the end of the book when I come across her description of "the wide pasture lands and climbing skylines of Helmand...." and in the last pages of the book, what she sees on the road towards Kabul and Kandahar.

"Caravans of firewood, and cows in long lines returning, moved beside us along a far-stretched avenue of pines; they were making for the city in the dusk."

Freya Stark
Helmand and Kandahar have never before been places of pasture and bazaars selling fine white shirts, in my mind. They are inextricably fused to helicopters and patrolling troops, drones and ambushes. And the next morning, I was so ridiculously grateful to Stark for this early hours revelation that I couldn't stop reading extracts to Mrisi. Listen to this, and this, and this.

I didn't set out to challenge my preconceptions about Afghanistan. Stark ambushed me, in the best possible way. And I am grateful for that experience, for the insomnia. I wonder, if I hadn't been so alone in the early hours, with just the foxes playing outside, if I'd have realised, with such force, the fragility of language.

Woman's Hour interview in 1976.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

What makes a biosphere?

Looking towards Brighton from Seven Sisters.
On my way to the allotment gate this morning a woman stopped me with a petition. Will I sign it - the council's changing the school catchment areas. Kids from the street I live in will have to travel beyond the next suburb and further east, almost into Kipling's former home of Rottingdean to get to school. Kids won't be able to walk to school or back home in winter because most of the way the road's isolated and unsafe. The bus service isn't bad, but how many parents will opt for driving their kids to school? More cars on the road....

Is it fair to suggest Brighton's problems are self-inflicted? And what turned it, despite those of us who moved here for its oddness, into a city obsessed with appearance, shopping and weekend tourism? While lending developers money to build the i-sore, the council allowed the rest of the seafront to decay, subside and erode. Far too late a campaign is trying to preserve the beautiful Madeira terraces which the council would probably rather demolish with the excuse they're too expensive to repair - an excuse you'd expect from a shark-developer but not a council with such a unique heritage. There used to be a 1930s saltwater outdoor pool near the marina. It was demolished. Now someone wants to build a new one.

When bankers were given bonuses for crimes against the rest of us, Londoners were buying houses off Elm Grove over the phone. The council allowed family homes to be turned into eight and nine bedrooms and let by shark-landlords. The enviable crescent of council houses opposite Brighton university on Lewes Road is now almost exclusively student housing - privately rented. Landlords make £700 a month for each room, often let individually rather than as a share because there's more money that way. So by 2014, Brighton had become the fourth most unaffordable place to live in the UK - house prices rose 42% in just seven years since 2007.

I stand chatting to the woman and her small daughter who may have to go to a school stranded between an out of town suburb and a village that has nothing in common with Brighton other than a coast road.

Produce from March to October this year, with kale, parsley
and leeks through the winter....
I wander down the path and pick tomatoes, green chilli peppers, chard and squash. I find a bag of apples an allotment neighbour has left me.

The allotment's been giving all summer, the freezers are both full, I've used up most of the jam jars. I've dried herbs and made raspberry flavoured vodka. This has been a fantastic year for growing most things. Garlic's not been brilliant, but I grew cucumbers. In a damp couple of weeks the slugs ate all my new lettuce seedlings but up until then I'd had salad until it bolted.

None of this has anything to do with the woman and her petition other than where I was when I signed it. Except it does, because this year I have started to be afraid for allotments. My fear is like a secret I don't want to share. It began with a Green council that did nothing with the unique opportunity it was given by the electorate. It continued with Labour councillors who betrayed socialism.

So I worry that a commitment to ordinary people isn't part of our local politicians' thinking anymore and that they have been seduced by retail, stag and hens, bar and coffee culture, by landlords and that word economy which they pretend helps locals but in reality means our kids have to move back home or to Worthing and beyond. I worry that individuals growing food (despite Jeremy's passion for his allotment) doesn't feature as strongly in Brighton's credentials as a World Biosphere Region, as a private company promoting expensive green roofs. I worry when the council implies it is encouraging children to walk or cycle to school and in fact it is doing the opposite. How else will it shaft us?

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Small group poetry workshops in Brighton

City Road, Cardiff, corner of Shakespeare Street. 
There was a time when I said my name and the response from kids in schools would be: Jackie Chan, never Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Collins, Jackie Brown, Jackie Stewart or Jackie magazine. The most common response from people of my generation was to repeat my name as Jackie Wilson...

And while I love that song of his, 'Higher and Higher', when I was working in schools a lot, Chan's name was the one I heard more often connected to mine. So I felt somehow in the presence of the kung fu master on those occasions and in the spirit of Chan's own words: "I do small things, I try to do good things everyday," I am running three small group poetry workshops for just six people starting on September 30. 

Big workshops of 15 or more have their place - they can be incredibly dynamic and exciting. But this autumn, I want to focus on the connections that happen in small groups. 

Limiting numbers will allow more time to read back work and for discussion. Each workshop will combine reading poems by contemporary writers with a number of writing exercises to generate new work. 

The workshops will take place in Brighton from 11am - 4 pm on Saturday September 30, Saturday October 14,  Saturday October 28. Each workshop will cost £40, payable in advance (no refunds for cancellations seven days or less before workshop). 

So, contact me by email: willsdotjackieatgooglemaildotcom - make sure you include a return email address and if possible a telephone number. Deadline for booking all workshops is September 22. 

Workshops will only run if there are six people booked in for each date - I will confirm with interested participants on September 23. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Anticipating a turning point - how the South African book is finding itself

Mrisi with Pip, the puppy, at the house in Mashau
The sun was hot on our backs yesterday as Mrisi, Giya and I sat in a row at the top of the scaffolding, painting window frames on our home in Brighton. Mrisi was playing music on his phone, mopeds went by noisily and when we took a break, a crowd of crows filled the sky in front of us for a moment and then flapped away, cawing.

A couple of days earlier, Risenga was also here, scraping, sanding, his head in the eaves. It's that time of year - autumn suggesting itself in a cold night when it would be reasonable to light a fire, even in August. There's fruit to pick, herbs to dry, jam and chutney to make.

Of course it is possible to mend a sash window yourself and make good your own house. I have been working every day on a second draft of the South African book, which I feel is turning into a different kind of travel memoir - one in which I return four times to the same place, investigating my responses to it after gaps of several years, curious about what I notice has changed.

The South African book isn't an objective analysis of this amazing country, how can it be in the circumstances, and that is now one of its most liberating factors as I write. The working title has changed from Venda Sun, which I am still attached to, to Road to the North, which is boring. I am still working from my diaries and increasingly from photo albums to help me remember, or at least, to help me describe some of the landscapes, moments, conversations that happened in 1994, 2002, 2005 and 2012.
Mashau from the hill behind Risenga's house

Those are the dates of my trips with the children and Risenga, although Mrisi didn't come on the last one.

I am looking at maps and Google earth, although neither of these are time travellers, so I have to make up some of the details I missed in 1994, 2002 or 2005. I have added and discarded linking sections in which I explain what's happened between trips. I will probably keep them out - how can I summarise eight years of our family's life?

But creating the linking chapters has at least given me a bit of a timeline, a sense of the bigger historical events happening on either side of our journeys and in one case, as we sat around a fire in Mashau.
Elephants in the Levubu River, Kruger National Park
I am checking the spelling of place names and asking Mrisi, Giya and Risenga what they remember.

Increasingly I am fascinated by memory, what I seem incapable of summoning up, by the completely different stories Risenga and I have in our heads about the same incident and then what has lodged and why. 

I couldn't find my way back to a turning on a dusty, eroded track between villages, when we'd been through a ford and wondered if we'd make it to the tar road again, but I can feel the red dust in my throat and see a lush field ahead. I can recall endless plantations of oranges and lemons beside the road near Tzaneen (I think) and a young woman in Mashau talking about how little she was paid to pack macademia nuts but I have no idea what roads we took to Lake Funduzi. 

I am pleased I came to the end of the second trip before I took a break to do the painting. I am half-way through this big re-write and the next trip, 2004/5, will be hard to go back to. It's a turning point which contains a 21st birthday, a wedding, a tsunami, a blood-red moon and an introduction to Mashau, a village at the foot of a hill where priests pray and the devout go to fast. 

Giya with Grace (front left), Mercy (front right)
and a neighbour at Caroline's wedding
in Venda

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Basilicas and friends

The bells are ringing on Lewes Road for Sunday mass and when I opened the curtains at 7.30 the sky was clear. The first thing I did, before feeding the cat even, was to print out an early draft of a new collection, make coffee, fruit salad, go back to bed and read it.

When Jane Fordham and I were in Ravenna recently, two things in particular struck us both - one was the natural paradise captured in stunning Byzantine mosaics we were seeing every day, the other was that whenever we were at a loss, we ended up on bikes at the old port. Cycling along the empty canal road, past abandoned warehouses and allotments tucked away on reclaimed plots felt like a walk on the Downs.

Since coming back from Italy I've been struggling with a way back into drafting the prose book on South Africa and doubting the place of the poems I've been writing over the past four years.

In Bologna and Ravenna, I set myself the challenge of reading Clive James' translation of Dante's Comedia. Actually, Inferno was a romp -no trouble at all reading this. James' translation is accessible, energetic and very easy to get through. I gave Purgatory a miss and went straight to Heaven, which, frankly (and nothing to do with James) is boring.

But what also came up as Jane and I were discussing the glory of mosaics - and she's an expert - was the brilliance of the colour, the birds, flowers and overall, a sense of joy that comes from these centuries-old images.

Unlike Torcello's black mosaics with their vision of hell, Dante's explicit, violent revenge on his enemies, these Byzantine masterpieces celebrate how fabrics fall, celebrate pattern, gesture, greenery to such an extent that you can feel the breeze through the curtains, hear the women's feet on the marble floors and the sheep calling in the rocky hills. Small gold tiles were the solution to taking unwanted people out of the frame - walls of gold, in fact.

And the religious message, while present, never felt intrusive. Perhaps this is what links the basilicas of Ravenna with its old port - room to think and wander.  No-one hurried us as Jane drew, took pictures and looked.  The occasional coach party or group of kids came and listened to a guide explain it all, and went. Then we were virtually alone with these Byzantine mosaic makers again, Jane laughing at where someone had run out of a shade of blue and bodged it, or questioning a disembodied hand at some curtains.

I wrote every day but not with purpose and that was fine, I wanted to allow things to emerge, not sure anything would. And when we got back it was frantic. Giya's graduation in Cardiff, Airbnb guests, house cleaning, the bathroom ceiling to re-paint, the allotment and finding ways of using courgettes. I planted far too many. The raspberries had started, blackcurrants needed picking and I wanted to get hold of some mirabelles before professional scrumpers stripped the trees up at the racecourse.

Then I looked at my notebook and found a couple of poems. I put them into lines, I felt like taking risks, I left lines in I might have cut, even weeks ago. But I returned to doubt, the weight of everything that's being published, that's been published, that is about to be published, to the weight of that question, whether it's worth anything.

I had a workshop to do and stared out of train windows for the two four-hour journeys, there and back. I filled and emptied the washing machine endlessly. I took one of the poems to a group I belong to in Brighton. And an off-hand comment about my prose book to poet Robert Hamberger resulted in him reminding me of those female titans, Austen, Rich and Woolf and how they fought silence. Another Brighton poet, John McCullough posted a quote from Hart Crane on Facebook about the importance of waiting till instinct assured him everything was assembled as it should be. My friend, the fabulous poet Moniza Alvi talked me through doubt on the phone, Rachel Rooney and Allie Rogers at lunch yesterday came up with strategies.

Friendship has broken me through the doubt and if that sounds sentimental, I'm not bothered anymore. The old man behind Jane in this picture is breaking rocks for the road we cycled on. His life was harder than mine will ever be. But I'll guarantee that when he filled his water bottle, it was with friends and when he staggered back to sleep, knackered, he was going over the day with friends.

My new collection is stitched together with letters, some from old friends, with memories of friends, with the fruit and veg I've eaten with friends, with allotment friends, school friends, old boyfriends, with neighbours who became friends and with the absurdities of ageing I swap with friends.

Can I thank them enough?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Twenty five years a mother

Yesterday I marked 25 years as a mother by transplanting seedlings, cutting grass and weeding and by visiting the friend of a friend in hospital - the same hospital where I gave birth, once in June, once in September - months of summer and autumn raspberries. 

Mrisi, my first, born on a blazing hot June 13 in 1992, was off to Leeds to celebrate, do some recording and release a video for Mamela, his new EP. This Is Jazz Standard magazine calls it a work of "resilience and conscience" describing Mrisi as Brighton's truthsayer. 

When he was interviewed by the Huff Post at a Grime4Corbyn event pre-election, he said, "A man they want to vilify that much has to be dangerous - but dangerous in this sense is a good thing, he’s dangerous to the establishment.”

Giya, born in 1994, is in London putting up her degree show, They Came from the Water While the World Watched, a sequence based on religion and colonialism, at Seen Fifteen gallery in Peckham with fellow documentary photography students. It opens on Friday 16 June, Soweto day. She was interviewed about her work recently by the website Nataal

Picture by Giya Makondo-Wills
from the series
They Came from the Water
While the World Watched
She says about photography, "I hope to continue to make work that has something to say and encourages young people from black, mixed, minority and underprivileged backgrounds to tell their own stories through the arts."

Which leads me to the work of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the launch of an anthology celebrating her, later this month on 29 June in London. Before The Golden Shovel anthology, you could have asked quite a few poets in the UK to name a favourite poems by Brooks and they'd have probably looked blank. She's far better known in the US, where her politics, her advocacy for poetry, her exploration of Black lives, ensured she won a Pulitzer prize. 

I have known her poem The Bean Eaters  for a very long time and it often comes back to me because it's so sparse yet vivid. It has a haunting quality of light, too and a timbre. 

I'm proud to have a small poem in the anthology, written after my last trip to South Africa with Risenga and Giya in 2012 for Giya's 18th. I got the date of our trip wrong in the poem title - Johannesburg 2013. The Brooks poem I chose to base mine on is "The Near-Johannesburg Boy." She explains on the Emily Dickinson archive, "I decided to write this poem when I found myself hearing on T.V. that little black children in South Africa were meeting in the road and saying to each other, "Have you been detained yet?"" The lines of hers I used are, "A Black Boy near Johannesburg, hot/ In the Hot Time." 

It is entirely possible that Brooks' old woman in "The Bean Eaters" may have influenced this poem too, making an appearance as Risenga's grandmother selling corn. That place where she sold corn was established as a landmark in the city in 1994 when we first went....not quite the start, but close to the start of my 25 years as a mother. 

And in the same random vein... - on Friday 16 June at Waterstones in London, the Seren anthology, Writing Motherhood is launched. I'll be at Giya's opening. But the poem I have in that anthology is about her....

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Cracking not quite writer's block

There are many writers who'll scoff at the idea of a block but I know it's real and although I'm resisting calling this particular period of time a block, something is holding me back. But it doesn't take much for something to happen which opens the door a crack, temporarily, to allow me to see the possibilities of jumping in again. 

What sorts of things? 

Finding the poem below by Denise Levertov which I kept from an old calendar. It was the poem chosen for July 4, although I don't remember the year. 

Wind and walking by the sea for the exhilaration of what it does to the waves, hair, clothes and face. 

Brendan Cleary ringing as he walked up the hill with a bottle of wine to share it on his birthday, talking about old bluesmen and women and wanting to go to New Orleans. 

Weeding, cutting back, picking lettuce and lovage, mint and micro-greens. 

Talking with Robert Hamberger, such a generous man, such a gifted writer, who has counselled me with pretty much the same sentiments as Levertov.

So on election day, of all days, I am reassured by what she shares in this poem - confidence that I do have what it takes to write again. It's only a question of attention, of being there, of making that cross...

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
Denise Levertov from Evening Train (1992)

Friday, March 31, 2017

The questions I should have asked before giving my writing away for nothing

It seemed innocent - someone I've known for a long time asked if I'd write a poem in response to a artist's print. The project involved many writers, mostly working in the commercial world. At the end, there'd be an exhibition.

'There's no money in it I'm afraid.'. And that was fine because we'd worked together and I trust him.

I spent time with the print and it grew on me. The other night I went to a London gallery for the exhibition opening - prints and texts hung alongside one another.

I know nothing about the commercial side of the art world. I no longer expect to make money from poetry. Once I could, as a by-product, through residencies or running workshops. But I've learned to live frugally and now my income comes from teaching an Open University course and renting a room on Airbnb.

So I was taken aback to see my poem, printed on nice paper on a letterpress machine (in garamond, for those of you interested), framed and on sale for £150. This was the sum the gallery felt made it 'accessible' to buy!

My first feeling was the absurdity of seeing this piece of paper smaller than A4 in a frame. I'd imagined it was going to be a creative exercise, the typesetting and hand-printing. But there it was, really just a piece of paper in a largish frame.

The friend who invited me to take part was as surprised as me that these texts were going to be on sale to the public. I'd been told I could buy it myself for that price (!!!) to cover the cost of printing, framing and exhibiting. Surely this small thing in its very ordinary frame couldn't have eaten up £150? That would support me for a week.

I looked at it and realised everyone along the way - the printer, the framer, the gallery (in one way or another) was getting something out of this exercise. Even some of the other writers were using it for marketing their companies.

What had I been thinking? Well and truly duped, I hadn't been told it would be sold to the public, I hadn't been told more than one copy was printed, I had to fight for a complimentary copy of the catalogue.

The next morning emails pinged to and fro, entering the absurder uses of language, how people seek to justify themselves, muddying the waters.

I went to the allotment, spoke to friends, I went to PigHog at Grand Central and introduced the wonderful poetry of Janet Sutherland and Mandy Pannett - quiet, considered, thought-provoking. Before I went to PigHog, I read the email that had really set me on fire and replied, "You cannot sell my work."

Oh, I was flattered to be asked and how dangerous is that? It meant I didn't ask questions. Yes, I was out of the habit, out of the loop, out of the world. Yes, I've been living in a kind of forest of my own off Lewes Road - foraging for work and not paying attention to the rules of the city. But - foolish old woman - I was dazzled to be asked.

Questions I should have asked

Who is funding this project and how? What commission does the gallery receive from the artists' work? Where is the agreement over how my work will be used? Will more than one copy be printed and if so, why? Will I receive a complimentary copy of the catalogue? What does the gallery get out of it?
Picasso jug in Cardiff Museum
What made me sweat as I walked up Trafalgar Street to Grand Central for the poetry last night was the gallery's remarkable unwillingness to explain the economics of this exercise - exactly what the printing and framing had cost and the costs of the exhibition. And no-one, it seemed, was interested in engaging with writers' rights in the chain of artistic production. It was the gallery throwing the word 'exploitation' into an email when I had asked in very polite and restrained terms for facts that made me see red and see the tactics I'd been bombarded with on Facebook.

Yes, these were Trump tactics - bluster, confuse, refuse to answer.

Saddest of all, I really like the artist whose work I was linked with. She's talented, interesting and aware.

I will not give my work away again. If I am asked, I will reply, "Find me someone to repair my car for nothing."

But it has  helped me understand artists friends' reluctance to engage with the gallery system and why artists are setting up their own.

The Before I Die wall was in Brighton for the Sick festival. There have been more than 2,000 in 70 countries. The original wall was made in New Orleans by artist Candy Chang.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Poets who write prose

Asda's female gnomes
With just 30 minutes in the library before it closed yesterday I focused on the travel section. The style of writing on my mind right now comes from W G Sebald's cross-genre The Rings of Saturn, translated by good friend and one-time publisher Michael Hulse and re-released at the end of last year with a new cover by Peter Mendelsund.

Actually, I went to travel after I'd found Sebald's The Emigrants, so I had a dose of him to carry home, and then I saw Joseph Brodsky had written an essay on Venice, Watermark. Nostalgic for the place, that came off the shelf and then I was looking for something that doesn't exist, I suspect, something that might give me a context for Road to the north, the book I've just finished a significant draft of. Sebald's been in my mind a lot as I've been writing it, which isn't to say I claim to be at that standard, just that it's been good to have a voice in my head that wasn't always mine, moaning.

I do like prose by poets. I realised, when I had three books, that all of them are by poet/prose writers and the third is Jean Sprackland. Her book is Strands, A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, and this appeals for all sorts of reasons - because I live by the sea, because I met her once a long time ago when she was working for the Poetry Society, because I admire her poetry and now her daughter's work. I've just lent Kathleen Jamie's two books of essays to a friend, she's another poet who writes beautiful prose.

Brighton Marina
There are perhaps far too many books on those travel shelves about walking great distances to make a statement or to change a life. I have come to prefer a less ambitious focus that allows more interesting thought and associations. With a massive mountain in front of you, how can you consider the washing up? But sometimes you need to think about the dregs, the left over bits of lettuce and the rim of oil on the bowl.

Jonathan Swain, a Brighton artist, has a fabulously sideways view of most things, particularly the urban. He walked to Switzerland and recently alerted me to the new developments at Brighton Marina. So the other night I ended up at the marina, after going to watch the starlings. I was at my desk all day, needed to move. When I arrived at the pier it was closed. But I caught the last of the murmuration before they swooped underneath it to roost. Last night I stood on the pier, chatting with a couple down from London for the night. It was freezing but a good show. They seem to intensify the shapes they make just before they roost. And then the pier sings from end to end.

So that was after I got my books out and then I walked home pretty quickly, I was so cold. But the other night, when I couldn't get onto the pier, I needed a much longer walk and after the pier, walked along Marine Drive. It's a little lonely, although joggers use it and I was a little jumpy. Behind me the sky was stormy and by the time I arrived at the marina it was dark. I nipped into Asda for the loo, was greeted by the gnomes and went home on the bus which did an entire circuit of Whitehawk
Asda's male gnomes
and a small turn through the outskirts of Pankhurst, down to Queens Park Road, before ending up on Elm Grove. I'm sure there was another I could have taken. The days have been like this. Writing/work, then an afternoon walk, waking up unsure of what day it is and occasionally mad bouts of either clearing, or yesterday, cutting myself a fringe which really doesn't suit me. The fringe fiasco's as if I need an excuse not to go out for a couple of months while it settles down. It won't grow out that quickly, but I'll have to get used to it and not feel sick about it.

What makes Sebald an early blogger, really, are the photos that go with his prose. Rather like Jack Robinson's Days and Nights in W12
although the CB Editions (his publisher's) website claims it's far cooler than Sebald.

I was given Days and Nights in W12 by the wonderful Nigel Jenkins, now dead, another walker and poet-prose writer who explored Gower, Swansea and in Gwalia in Khasia, the Welsh in India

Road to the north is based on four trips to South African between 1994 and 2012 but it's also about growing up in Surrey and finding myself in Brighton. I've been writing it since I began transcribing the diaries in 2012 and finding in them a certain structure and shape, I've been adding to them since.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Kissing in public

You walk down Queens Road from Brighton station, heading for the sea, past Boots, the clocktower, Waterstones and Nationwide, on either side the megapubs that blossom at weekends and you can already see the sea, if you're lucky, winking. Past the Odeon and down the subway which always stinks of piss, but you can hold your nose, and you're there, on the seafront.

If you cross overland, so to speak, you'll see this statue pretty soon. Through its perforations you also see the sea. The kissing statue, or its proper title, Kiss Wall , by artist Bruce Williams says something about Brighton, that many tourists encounter it before they head for the pier and wander down the slope towards the beach cafes.

A friend has up on her wall a loveheart with the message, Never Forget How to Kiss.

For those of us who are single, kissing sometimes feels like ancient history. But the Kiss Wall reminds me, whenever I see it, of Edna St Vincent Millay's poem, What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII), such an important poem to me that I did a tribute to it. Millay isn't afraid of admitting ageing, or being flakey (unremembered lads) or being sentimental (the rain / Is full of ghosts tonight that tap and sigh). Its last three lines make me want to weep, or at least try and track down that old rollerblader who chatted me up once in the eye hospital. Now if ever there's a task for the summer...

In her work, Millay writes about clothes, sex, and is utterly uncompromising. Read this advice To a Young Poet on the Academy of American Poets website.

Staying with the US, the Creative Review did a piece a few years ago on where the Make Love Not War slogan came from. Is it maybe a bit too 21st century to try and attribute authorship to a slogan? Nevertheless, it reminds me of how everything was opening out in that decade. More sentiment, maybe, but look at one of the slogans from Paris in May 1968:

"Beneath the cobblestones is the beach."

And finally, back to the Kiss Wall, another from Paris that says something about where we could go right now:

"The more I make love, the more I want to make the Revolution, the more I make the Revolution, the more I want to make love."

Monday, January 23, 2017

A story of jobs and growth that UK business doesn't want told

Everyone's talking about trade deals. And with trade deals, business. For the UK has stuff to sell. Statistics show weapons, cars, drugs, crude and refined oil. But mostly we're selling services.

And this is where it becomes interesting for those of us working in the arts. The arts aren't on in the trade deal agenda. Cars are mentioned, financial services and other exports. But as The Economist warned recently there's no "golden era of trade" coming. I mean, the US bans haggis imports!

Quite a lot is not being told. And consistently off the agenda is a story the Tories themselves describe as one of the UK's greatest successes. The arts and the artists, the writers and publishers, the music and get the idea.

Creative industries have created more jobs that any other sector and increased UK exports.

So why are we being force fed the language of monstrous men whose names we can't bring ourselves to mention? Why does the news every morning, at the moment, sound like an episode of Taboo?

Is it because this story will generate panic, envy and fury among those whose vocabulary is governed by phrases such as: going forward, track record, brand awareness, digital penetration, like-for-like. This story of how, against all odds, almost mythically, the uncontrollable, free-thinking, rebellious individuals who make up the creative industries have made good, despite refuting the language of powerpoint, team-building and mission statements.

More than made good, in fact. Ed Vaizey, a former minister for culture spelled it out: "The creative industries are one of the UK's greatest success stories...."

That's me, that's my friends Jane Fordham, David Parfitt, Michaela Ridgway, Suzannah Dunn, David Kendall, Moniza Alvi and many, many more. That's my kids, my ex and my mum. It's my dedicated and inspiring publisher, Arc in Todmorden, Fabrica Gallery in Brighton, it's the Poetry Business in Sheffield and Modern Poetry in Translation, it's PigHog poetry, it's Rich Mix in London and The Dark Horse magazine in Edinburgh. It's AudioActive and all the struggling promotors of music, spoken word, the small presses, the editors, the painters, photographers and curators.

The facts overturn the stereotype of the artist with her head in the clouds who's afraid of business. Of the bumbling creative who's incompetent with cash and figures, of the radical who's ideologically opposed to making money. Because despite ourselves we are generating work and we're good at it.

So this raises questions. Firstly, why suppress a success story? Censor it almost?
Giya Makondo-Wills,
documentary photographer

Is it that we have no lobbyists and vested interests? Is it that we are small and speak our minds? That we satirise the establishment's attempts to pull the wool over our eyes with 'alternative facts', an establishment that would rather ignore the facts and pay subsidies to the failing businesses of friends?

The story at its most basic nests in the Creative Industries Economic Estimates (January 2016), Department for Culture, Media and Sport. A press release from the time states: "The UK's creative industries are now worth a record £84.1 billion to the UK economy....British films, music, video games, crafts and publishing are taking a lead role in driving the UK's economic recovery, according to the latest Government statistics.

"The figures show the sector growing at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy - generating £9.6 million per hour. And this success is set to last, with a strong line-up of British talent and creativity in 2016 promising yet another blockbuster year ahead."

I'll repeat that: at almost twice the rate of the wider UK economy.....

Vaisey's department found:
- The rise in Gross Added Value (GVA) of the creative industries between 2008 and 2014 was 37.5% higher than any other sector.
- The Creative Economy had grown by a quarter (24.9%) since 2011, at a rate faster than the whole of the UK economy, which grew by 12.1 % over the same period."
- Creative jobs are increasing at a higher rate than the rest of the economy. It is responsible for 1 in 12 UK jobs.
-  Exports are increasing.
- The Creative economy has grown by a quarter since 2011 "at a rate faster than the whole of the UK economy, which grew by 12.1 per cent. This rise has primarily been led by the growth of the creative industries."

Mrisi Makondo Wills
A year has passed and Ed Vaizey has been replaced by Matthew Hancock who it seems is best known for setting out on foot to play cricket at the north pole in 2005. He developed frostbite. And perhaps politicians like him and the wild-haired blonds, are why we hear most from the manufacturing lobby promoting their arms, planes, cars, construction, drugs, electronics, plastics, nuclear, furniture, textiles, space inventions, food and drink.

So I'll turn to the late John Berger to explain why the powerful are afraid of the arts: "I can’t tell  you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumor or a legend because it makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honor."

In these days of unemployment, of the endless unfolding other world of Twitter, those of us who are in the creative industries must prepare our crib sheets to tell the story no-one wants told.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Becoming unemployable

When I woke up after nearly two weeks of several types of cheese, crackers, wine, cake, pastry, sauces, spirits and above all, chocolate, the drive to clear shelves that started before Christmas and was suspended for present-swapping and eating came back even stronger.

It was as if I was standing at the tree recycling space on the Level, breathing in the smell of forest.

This month I am 62. My last summer was ruined by neighbours' endless building work and for some reason it still bothers me. Perhaps because the summers in front of me are numbered. Or that I needed to get manure for the allotment. Recently I had been dreaming about being surrounded by giant fish.

Whatever the reason. I woke up, went to my laptop, opened Gmail and wrote my resignation. I've thought about that decision quite a bit since. It halved my already diabolical income (around £9,000 pa) from so-called teaching. But the course I was 'teaching' on has been a nightmare from the start and I felt more mistreated than I have since I worked for Goldsmiths University for a year. In fact, when I queried the fact that it wasn't teaching, I was told I wasn't meant to be. I was meant to be moderating.

The Literary Agency, Curtis Brown, puts it succinctly in publicity for its own creative writing course: "Right now, writing schools are multiplying like mould on jam."

The Open University, my employer, describes the group of associate lecturers it employs to deliver its creative writing courses as "a vibrant and experienced group of over a hundred and fifty practising writers". Its website adds: "Since 2003 The Open University has recruited over 30,000 students to its undergraduate creative writing modules. These have proved enormously popular with students…."

I have had a lot of respect for the OU, particularly in the quality of the course materials for A215, the course I still work on. I admire its clarity in marking criteria and the care it takes to discuss marking criteria among ALs each year. But let's face it, as an AL I am cannon fodder. I am delivering a course other people have been very well paid to write, I probably put in more hours than I am paid for (most ALs do) and have next to no contact with the far better paid academics based in Milton Keynes. I have never felt valued, let's say.

It's a capitalist arrangement, of course. I work, I am paid. At my age why would I need anything more? Well…. every year in September I am kept waiting to see if there will be enough students to re-employ me. I have been working for the OU for at least 10 years and I still don't know, year on year, if there will be work in September.

Many have written about the exploitation of casual staff. I don't quite qualify as that with the OU but it is still precarious. There is no career progression. The OU charges each student £2,786 for the course I've been working on for a decade. On average I have a tutor group of around 15. My group, therefore, generates income for the OU of more than £40,000 and I am paid around £5,000.

It doesn't take a major intelligence to work out that creative writing's a money spinner. As Curtis Brown so aptly puts it, there are plenty of courses out there being delivered by people like me who are earning a pittance to enable institutions to make profit.

And the one I rather rapidly realised wasn't for me will be earning a fortune. But I felt like I was working in a call centre.

I am as sick of these unchallenged arrangements in which working conditions are regarded as irrelevant, or an inconvenience, or something to be put up with out of desperation, as I am of the books gathering dust that went to the charity shop on December 21, the plates, cushions and old sleeping bags that went to Shabitat the same day.

Fucked over by the government so I can't claim my pension till I'm 66, I am now earning less per day than I was 25 years ago. So I am increasingly intolerant and have decided that this year is an experiment in being frugal and shuffling off the exploiters. It may leave me with no work at all. It may be I've become unemployable.

The one light on the horizon, excuse the cliche, is the Royal Literary Fund, which is (aside from the National Union of Journalists) probably one of the only institutions in the UK that respects writers, pays us properly and has our interests at heart. The current wave of strikes on public transport may be irritating, but I say, go for it and thank god someone is still standing up for working conditions.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The history business

Two ugly sisters, apparently, in Hever Castle
The car was warning me. As we approached Hever Castle on the winding roads of the Sussex/Kent border, a sharp ringing started up underneath our seats. We drove into the mist, trying to ignore it, Giya's boyfriend battling with car sickness.

Although I've been to Hever a couple of times, Jan Willem is a fan of castles. He's visiting from the Netherlands and had missed out on seeing Hever the last time he was here. It's not easy to get to on public transport, but in the Christmas/New Year limbo, with industrial action on top, I took pity and said I'd drive.

I made sandwiches, packed slices of Mum's Christmas cake, mince pies, nut brittle, filled three flasks with tea, coffee and hot chocolate and we were prepared.

It was cold and damp when we got out of the car near the jousting field, and wandered towards the house. I was surprised by how busy it was and then we turned a corner. In front of the castle, masking our view of the entrance across the moat, was a funfair. Later I would notice the deafening music, but for now, we headed over the moat and into the courtyard clutching our tickets.

It took a while to sink in, but a bundle of rags hanging from a window was Rapunzel. A badly pasted sign told us the castle had a pantomime theme. Far worse was to come.
The largest Christmas tree made it impossible
to appreciate the portrait of Henry.

There were a lot of visitors, too many to fit into its small rooms. And someone had been determined to put a Christmas tree, garland, baubles or table decoration in every available corner and on every surface. It was impossible to stand and look or even consider the story we were walking through - that of Henry VIII, who cut off the head of a woman who was brought up here and then gave the house away to another of his wives.

Where was the story of incest and adultery? Anne's role as the mother of Elizabeth 1? Why were these stories being shoved aside in favour of badly presented summaries of fairy tales?

Anne Boleyn
We pushed on, bemused by each new tree (wasn't one enough?) and clutch of baubles. A wicked witch sat at one of the windows with a bottle marked poison. Seven small beds (belonging to the seven dwarves) were pushed up against the wall in the Staircase Gallery and a confused tourist asked his partner what they were there for.

We found Sleeping Beauty in King Henry's Bedchamber - the four poster randomly draped in strands of plastic ivy - and Snow White had been put up in the Waldegrave Room's  four poster, which was "decorated" with birds.

Thumbs up from Snow White for the birdsong CD
I failed to count how many trees were crammed into the 16th century long gallery along with a mysterious round tent for children under 16 only, as I tried to peer behind them at historical stuff on the walls, stumbling on towards another display of mannequins, including Cinderella's ugly sisters who appeared to be dressed in an amalgamation of bargains from the British Heart Foundation, Poundland and a joke shop.

And towards the end of the gallery, a prince and princess stood in a white and silver grotto.

Elizabeth 1 - Anne's daughter

Pantomime at Hever,
Risenga in front of a
Prince and Princess
enjoying a white Christmas
There was a queue to leave after we'd trooped through the torture room, featuring Robin Hood and where someone had thoughtfully placed a couple of child-sized bows and arrows in another window well.

So, to our picnic....we headed for a spare table and started to unpack until we realised that there was a hidden speaker in yet another festive display and it was pumping out volume. There was nowhere to hide. We bagged a spot under a heater where it was marginally quieter and decided to head for the lake (via the maze) for some peace from the tat, fairy lights, tasteless versions of Christmas and forced jollity. Even the topiary had been draped in lights.

As well as being acclaimed for its collection of Tudor portraits, Hever's won prizes for its gardens. The lake walk was a relief from the relentless tackiness of the house - mist over the water, Canada geese in flight, the willows and pavilion. Then we saw the blue and lime green LED floodlights beaming through the mist (the lime green was flashing).

The only truth in the day, the only really uplifting moment, was watching the geese lift off from the end of the lake and settle again in the sky's reflection under the mist.

I wondered if I was wrong to moan about the tat and baubles in every corner of a mainly reconstructed interior until I gasped out loud at the drab Sleeping Beauty, utterly without magic or anything in fact to make a story work, in her tired wig and dressing up costume, in the bed of this vicious king.... and the woman next to me said 'Yes'. She also had been wondering what the hell Hever was thinking.

And I realised I was embarrassed. Because we'd brought a visitor from the Netherlands, because there were tourists from Japan, the US, France, Spain, Germany, China, also squeezing through these rooms that they'd been lured to by the history business. It's bad enough having to discuss Brexit.

I was embarrassed that someone had not considered historical accuracy - the Tudor masquerades, mumming, the importance of the Lord of Misrule. I was embarrassed by the shoddy quality of it all, which seemed to indicate the paying public really didn't matter because having travelled all this way, who was going to make a fuss and ruin a day out? I was embarrassed because I have been to many historical sites in my years of travelling and only once, in Tenerife, seen anything as bad as Hever's gaudy attempt at Christmas.

As we walked back to the car we wondered why, if they wanted installations to reflect the seasons, they (whoever they is in the management of the castle) hadn't employed light artists to do something outside and set designers to do something inside. Or maybe history doesn't matter now, or the visitor history in fact an inconvenience for those in the history business? And why was the only room they didn't touch that of the Astor's?

Hever Castle is owned by Broadland Properties Limited. It is a member of the Historic Houses Association.