Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Are you happy with pessimism?

I have never known another way of being. Secondary school: too quick to react, over-emotional, opinionated. At Portsmouth Poly I stood up with my friend Beanie to propose a motion about sexual harassment as the rugby club shouted from the bar. On strike almost as soon as I was given my first job. And so it went on.

Trouble-maker, big mouth, stirrer, wrecker, the oldest of three, only girl and brought up Catholic. My soul was done for when I questioned the actual meaning of transubstantiation and turned to Camus.

It's a role I chose. I put myself forward for positions in the National Union of Journalists and loved the challenges. I was young, had energy and believed in unions. Later I encouraged my children to challenge wrong-thinking and wrong-doing.

Now a female, wrinkled poser of questions with a grey head, I google search complaining and find psychology advises me to avoid it and what's more, shy away from complainers too. Searching psychological tics is almost as dangerous as looking up the causes of physical symptoms but then I found Kathryn Norlock.

She's a philospher so thinking is her profession. When I read, on her website, "I am happy with pessimism" I cheered and the cat purred.  I reckon I'm right down the middle in the half full and half empty camp. It largely depends on the weather and my finances. But I'm drawn to Norlock for other reasons too. She's co-editor of the Feminist Philosophy Quarterly which features some fabulous essay titles and subjects, including power in care-giving (a question at the heart of discussions in the Eye Witness reading group I've been running).

About 'Can't Complain', Norlock writes, "quotidian, unconstructive complaining sometimes fulfills important social functions, including the amelioration of loneliness and affective solidarity, for the sake of others as well as oneself."

She describes it as mindful attention to shared suffering.  Norlock has also written about forgiveness, how women are expected to forgive more than men and I begin to find a context, a way of thinking I'd forgotten in the daily grind of dodging transits beached on pavements, HeartFM-filled shops and loud talking men on trains. It is to fly beyond the personal, beyond anecdote and turn to thought.

Friday, November 29, 2019

A kingfisher at Charleston

Common kingfisher: photo by Charles J Sharp
Mum and I are sitting by the pond at Charleston farmhouse after visiting the Omega exhibition of  designs by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Robert Fry.
We've wandered out from the cafe, where sparrows flew freely over the tables, hopped around the floor and perched on a chair next to us.
There are still flowers in the garden - roses, a hollyhock - among tall dried heads of globe artichokes.
Fish have been making circles in the pond and Mum needs a rest so we sit on a bench in the sun.
We've had days of rain. In the cafe there was no music other than birdsong. It's the same outside - quiet visitors allow birds the air.
Then a flash of colour. A kingfisher is unmistakeable. I saw one on Sunday streak down a drainage ditch when I was on a bus to Cork airport. Now another, here on a Friday afternoon, settled in a tree directly opposite.
We watch. A group of three women stands behind and waits. They move off, it leaves, comes back and then the dive. It carries the fish to another perch and we watch a flickering in bare branches, the sun on scales, the bird's head shaking and then stillness. The bird flies off.
As we stand to go, move towards the thick water to look at the fish, they come in a mob, used to being fed and poke their open mouths above the water level.
I remind Mum of the kingfisher we saw when we walked near the house she moved from in Tunbridge Wells. I remember the kingfisher that used to live on the river at Elstead when I was a child. Both of us, I think, needed to see that bird today in the sun.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Is it time to sink a well?

Mid-November and still we haven't had a frost. So the nasturtiums that colonise the bed by my back door without any help every year are still green and producing flowers.
Just inside the back door is a shopping basket of windfall apples I'm working my way through, but it was a bumper year and the freezer's full, I've run out of jars and there's only so much chutney you can make.
Today's a day for slicing, maybe, and dehydrating what's left.
The rain, well, the rain....If I could sink a well in the cellar, I'd save a fortune because I live on chalk and below me is water.
"The Chalk of eastern and southern England is the most important groundwater reservoir in the UK."
It strikes me it's time I learned more about water and who has access to it. I began to wonder about private water sources when I noticed the golf course up the hill had sunk a well to water the turf. This was a few years ago. But it chimed because not far away is the Woodingdean Well, one of our most bizarre but illuminating local stories. Then a friend who's a builder mentioned how often he finds old wells in Brighton cellars.
So I'm beginning to ask myself how is it that private companies can just dig down and take it out? This communal resource of ours. And it's happening all over - not just mining companies depleting ancient (really ancient) aquifers, but soft drinks companies taking out spring water, bottling it and re-selling it at a profit.
"Almost all bottled waters are groundwaters. They are collected from springs or boreholes selected because the sites are generally in upland areas remote from sources of pollution, and they provide a water which does not contain undesirable chemicals such as excessive nitrate. Many have very low concentrations of dissolved constituents, and some are carbonated artificially."
I have been convinced for years there's a water source near my house. There is a website, Find a Spring but it's not of much use. Is it time to seriously consider a borehole and the potential of a well? 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Reading in translation

Cavafy's work on a wall in the Netherlands


There were a few brief weeks when I was still working for the Open University when I tried to learn ancient Greek.
I took textbooks with me on train journeys and it was this time that year I was on my way to Kings Lynn Poetry Festival when the poet Kit Wright wandered down the carriage and sat next to me.
I was trying to do some homework. The course demanded at least 15 hours a week. What was I thinking?
I was explaining my difficulties to Kit, who was gently baffled, when a guy opposite me chipped in. Well, I'm Greek and I wouldn't try, he said. We laughed. It was a glorious autumn day. I had a new book out. Life was good. 
What I do remember of my attempt at the language was, even early on, realising that where a word was in a sentence was everything. I should have done it when I was more elastic.
I took liberties with my basic translation exercises and my tutor wasn't impressed.
So when the poet Janet Sutherland suggested that our reading group look at the work of Constantine Cavafy we were going to have to decide on a translation. How on earth do you do that? We went for a scattergun approach. We'd look at a few. 
John McCullough started the discussion going on Facebook and we met last night at Kay Syrad's house in the wilds of the country outside Ringmer, the rain pounding on her roof, with translations from 1951 onwards. 
I'd bought a Chatto version by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard and others brought translations by George Economou with Stavros Deligiorgis, John Mavrogordato, Avi Sharon. We missed out Daniel Mendelsohn and Rae Dalven - we were juggling enough and even the Keeley and Sherrard versions differed. 
Maria Jastrzębska talked about her work as a translator from Polish and Slovenian and the difficulties of translating this man's writing unfurled as we compared lines, openings and endings. It was a treat to hear the poems read by John and Rob Hamberger, gay men living now who don't have to hide their work or their sexuality. 
We were intrigued by how Cavafy belongs to another era - sharing his work only among friends while we manically self-promote, worrying about book sales, public readings and 'getting our name out'. 
I remember the joy of translating from French when I was studying and I would love to rediscover that close attention to building bridges, to the relationship between words within sentences that is different to the attention I pay to my own. 
Recently I came across a translation from Welsh of a passage I know quite well from using it in writing workshops. I'd believed the translation I used was good but this new one was astonishing. It made me think about the original in a totally new way. It opened up my own sense of that writing. 

Monday, September 23, 2019

And so the rain came

It came as I walked up the hill this morning and caught me at the allotment gate. It came as I walked back home, but only lightly and this afternoon the sky changed.

The sun, the light, the warmth have been a treat but growth's slowed down on the plot, as it should. It's the equinox.

So it is time to think of baked apples, although what I can't forget to do is digging out my MOT for tomorrow at the crack of dawn.

I'm doing another week of dog walking but it's going to be a bit different to the two weeks in summer when I wandered up to Rottingdean windmill twice a day in blazing sun.

I can already feel the rain whipping in off the sea - the forecast for tomorrow is that it's going to be torrential.

There's a young man's funeral tomorrow. I saw him in his buggy with his mum in Kensington Gardens when I moved to Brighton, and the memory stayed because he was so beautiful. Years later my daughter would become friends with his sister. That passing image of him and his mum held my future. His name is Louis and he was too young.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

The allotment can not be relied on as a place of tranquility

Lewes Road, Brighton
When Audrey Sharma, an environmental health officer from Brighton and Hove Council wrote to me about strimming noise she couldn't have been clearer about its right to exist, in a legal sort of way.

Audrey bends over backwards to defend the owners of the enormous cemetery stretching from my house to my allotment.

"The cemetery has been operating in this area for over 100 years and anyone moving to the area would have known this and could reasonably expect to hear grass cutting to go on....."

Audrey wrote to me not because I wrote to her, but because I wrote to local councillors about the fact that the cemetery planned to strim every working day during the summer, all day. They told me so because I am apparently the only person who has ever complained about it.
Hell - Torcello

The councillors perhaps thought it was a matter for environmental health. Apparently not. Nor was the allotment officer interested, despite the fact that at least one woman on the same allotment now can't go during the week in summer because she is so affected by the noise.

Back to Audrey's reply, which is hard to follow in places because of grammar, non-sequiturs, cutting and pasting of legal documents.

"You do not own or ‘occupy’ you’re an allotment and I am not able to consider whether noise arising on a council owned allotment is a statutory noise nuisance, as the purpose of this use is growing fruit and vegetables or flowers and allotment activities are leisure activities of choice.

"Whilst I realise you want to partly rent the allotment for peace, this is not it’s primary use. Noisy machines are routinely used on the allotments; council staff carry out strimming of vacant plots from time to time, use chain saws on trees for up to 4hrs at a time, and so on.

"Allotment users also reasonably use various noisy garden equipment (there is roughly one complaint from near neighbours per month about noise from the allotment).  Formal steps can and are taken where users are unreasonable e.g.using powered equiment before 7am. The allotment can therefore not be relied on as a place of tranquility."

That last line is the kind of statement I hope will come back to haunt the abandoned plots. In that sentence and this context, allotment and cemetery are interchangeable.

I expect noise on Lewes Road, noise from storms over the sea and Downs, from playgrounds, farms, factories and building sites. But the trouble with Audrey's acceptance of noise is that it is detached from quality of life and in her terms, merely another legal issue.

An acquaintance will have to endure noise on a neighbouring site for the next six years. They're building a leisure centre. A friend in a basement flat has noise from both sides, above and in the walled gardens. When one neighbour stops, another starts. In my stretch of street, a sunny Saturday is a signal for at least three petrol powered strimmers, hedge trimmers or electric saws. On working days it's open season.

When I moved to my house, the cemetery didn't use strimmers. They brought them in 10 years ago and even then, the noise wasn't at the level it's at now. They use the cheapest contractors who don't train operators, so the grass is strimmed down to dust while the guy holding the strimmer listens to music. They strim even where there are no graves.

Noise pollution affects animals and plants as well as humans. The humans it affects tend to be those of us who are poorer and can't buy the silence of the suburbs or countryside, although even that is no longer a given. In the UK national park authorities are allowing off road four wheel drives to rip through the silence of the wilderness for £200 a day and I'll bet someone's making money from jet skiers roaring at the beach.

What is not quoted is the right to quiet.

Has it, with the right to a view and the right to light, become another legal concept rather than one in which we can talk about quality of life?

Silence regenerates the brain and the older you are, the more difficult it is for you to filter out noise. I live in a city by choice. I love the energy of it. But can we have a discussion about noise and who's most affected by it that doesn't start with the right of all machines and operators never to be checked?

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Friable Earth

Cover painting Allotment by Jane Sybilla Fordham

I like people and in A Friable Earth there's a lot of them - one of the first soil scientists, dead friends, Sylvester Stallone, allotment neighbours, nurses, damaged people, workmates.
Over five years the poems in the collection worked with one another - I thought I was writing about the allotment but actually the poem was about me growing older. I worried about a young homeless man sleeping in his car near my allotment gate. I remembered an old boss who was an amateur entomologist.
I wanted to get across the feeling of being dismissed for being 'badgerly' or off balance and explore some of the words used to describe old women, crate being one.
So inevitably, the poems refused to be categorised or themed - many of them are reflective, some are mini-narratives, some question the nature of the language we use to describe others, and now in my sixth decade on the earth, there are elegies.
I found a stash of letters in the loft and they became starting points. As in most of my previous collections, there is a clutch of poems that come from a visit to South Africa.
The book wouldn't be in the world without the support of Tony Ward and Angela Jarman who run Arc Publications. Like other independent poetry publishers, they keep contemporary poetry alive and available.
Now to find the readers.......

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Black Brighton

A German poster from 1974. Thanks to Wikipedia
It's early on a Sunday morning and I'm listening to Bear Grylls talk about religion. But what I'm more interested in is the title of a London pastor's book, We Need to Talk About Race.

It sounds familiar for all sorts of reasons. Race is, he says, often taboo. He discusses 'othering' and distancing of black people and the enormous problems this creates for individuals. We've been talking about this at home a lot recently. Othering is intensifying. But it's not talked about. It opens the door to passive aggression, it justifies acts of discrimination, it allows all kinds of nasty human behaviour. So, good it's being raised.

Significantly, though, the writer, Ben Lindsay is not featured in the programme publicity. Instead there's a photo of Bear Grylls. Be realistic people will say, it's about who's most news worthy.

But Lindsay's not just a pastor. He's an expert on youth violence, knife crime and gangs, he's devised strategies to deal with it and so he is newsworthy. And for another reason too - for the cover design of his book and its title. The Christian publisher, SPCK, has been accused of ripping off Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race. 

Two things here then. Isn't it tragic that a publisher can imagine the only thing that will sell a book about race is another book about race.

And the BBC decides a survivalist is more interesting than a black pastor and black expert on how to tackle violence, despite the discussions happening about racism in the wake of the orange one's tweet, despite the continuing deaths of black teenagers in the war-zone that London's become.

Our talks around the table at home often shock me. I hear things about Brighton and its people, about how the police behave. I hear what's happening in London. I hear about subtle and not so subtle racism. We talk, we talk, we talk. And now I am looking at my city preparing for Pride and the posters declaring openness. I was on the bus when I saw one of those posters in a charity shop - something like "a closet is for clothes not for people". It was a bit clunky but it clunked until I imagined those same posters celebrating Blackness. According to Wikipedia the slogan Gay is Good was based on Black is Beautiful, but while to celebrate queerness is now an annual event in cities worldwide, I try to imagine Black Pride (with thanks to Mastercard) on the same scale.

Imagine a festival of Blackness featuring Black youth. Imagine Black in the Park. Floats in a Black is Beautiful Parade sponsored by Barclays, British Airways and so on.

Look at the images of photographer Kwame Brathwaite, photos of Angela Davis and Marsha Hunt. They're what I mean. These photos made a big impact in days before we were saturated.

Anyway, in this meandering I wandered around the years of my teens when Black is Beautiful was a political movement and Black Pride was nothing to do with queerness.

I am proud of my city for its support of Pride (although not for  commercialising and disempowering a political movement). But I'm ashamed of my city for how little it's done to deal with racism, the racism my children have encountered since they were TINY, for the hostility they've been shown by police, security guards, people in authority who know nothing about them.

And it's already happened - in the US, the Million Women march reminded us Black is Beautiful in 1997. Time to do it again. I'm not black. I can't put myself in a black man, woman or child's shoes. But I am the mother of two young black people and they make me proud.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Write or fight?

A friend rang the other day when I was at the allotment, watering. We talked as I lay the hose down under the runner beans and butternut squash, as I left it to soak the compost in the polytunnel.
Are you writing? He asked and I laughed.
Summer's not the time to ask me that question. It's growing time and I'm not a regular writer anymore. I don't get up down at dawn and bang out a quota.
When I earned a living from it, sitting in courts, council chambers, checking the prize bull and rabbit at agricultural shows, asking Golden Wedding couples how they'd stayed married so long, I wrote all my waking hours.
I wrote when I wasn't being paid for it. I wrote more when I was freelance. I wrote speculatively. And then I started writing poems. I've written since primary school. And I didn't think I'd be able to do anything else, except in my teens when I wanted to be a riding instructor.
My friend had read a short story of mine and said it might make a novel. I laughed again. I don't have the stamina. But I have three attempts at novels somewhere. I have a travel memoir, I have several more short stories.
The question, why write, is constant. Here I am and why write is next to me, carping away like a bitter old bastard.
I was standing in the kitchen earlier, ironing a shirt. I was thinking about writers I know, about our Facebook posts, tweets, statuses, how we cluster in groups, how some win prizes and many never win a thing.
The evening before my friend rang I was dozing under the plum tree. I was woken up by a racket and realised it was a couple of wrens. I wondered if there was a cat nearby, but it wasn't the usual alarm call. I looked harder, there were five, six birds in the branches - parents and fledglings. A noisy flying lesson was going on. The young must have just left the nest.
I told my friend. Someone who's not a poet might tell you that would make a poem, he said. There are enough poems about wrens, I said.
I didn't mean that. How can there be a limit to poems about wrens? I won't write a poem about the flying lesson but his comment reminds me of Michael Longley and the wrens that nest in his poems.
Thankfully this is where I leave the carping bastard why write? on the sidelines as I dive into in poems I admire, short stories that take me somewhere bizarre. The weeks when I find any excuse, when I fantasise about re-arranging the weedkiller displays in Dobbies as an act of resistance or make a shirt, bake, clean, wander down to the charity shop, are just my way of grappling with the bastard.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Always learning

Wednesdays this month mean early starts and the M25 for two stops only. I'm running writing workshops at Wisley RHS Garden in Surrey for Daisyfest and the M25 is so unpredictable I allow myself an extra hour for the journey.

I stopped running writing workshops last year and declared to myself, friends, family that that was it. I was going to give away all the materials I've collected over 30 years but didn't quite get round to it.

And then a friend contacted me. Could I step in at the last minute? I'd be working in an orchard.

Yesterday I learned there's an apple tree called the Bloody Ploughman and that green woodpeckers forage on the ground for ants. They poke their long beaks into ant colonies, just as people poke termite mounds with sticks to retrieve grubs. An adult woodpecker was with a young one, feeding it. We watched through gaps in the rows of apple trees Wisley is preserving to maintain the diversity of species.

One of the young people in the morning workshop found the Bloody Ploughman being trained into an arch and couldn't stop repeating the name, he was so delighted with it. We stopped and read the label as we were doing a walk in the style of Hamish Fulton - counting steps, looking, observing, noting what we saw. 

I had never heard of the Bloody Ploughman, being more used to apple names like Pippin, Jazz, Golden Delicious. The story behind its name is a gruesome reminder of class and the brutality of land ownership. I never knew woodpeckers foraged on the ground. I'd forgotten how much I love the ideas in Hamish Fulton's work and I think I'd forgotten how exciting it is to write a new poem.

Artist friend, Jane Fordham reminded me words are objects, suggested writing words on boards and doing tree rubbings, which went really well. We put boards up against the trees, we used tracing paper and graphite pencils to capture the bark.

For the afternoon, I went back to the work of two women poets, Alice Oswald - the new Oxford Professor of Poetry, who it transpires worked briefly at Wisley - and the brilliant poet and novelist Penelope Shuttle.

I read Oswald's poem, Fox, from Woods Etc which is a love poem to a vixen and I understand that, utterly. And I read Orchard Upstairs by Penny Shuttle for the love of imagined places and celebration of women. We made up new names for apples, we made up orchards in unlikely places, we watched crows, woodpeckers and pigeons beyond the pavilion where we were writing and later I wandered back to the car past fountains, water lilies and immaculate borders of colour.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The devil's own job - warnings from a dead gardener

Blossom on my Bramley in spring
Practical Gardening and Food Production in Pictures by Richard Sudell was first published in 1940 and reprinted for at least 15 years. It is the one gardening book I have nearby all the time. It's old fashioned, some of its advice has probably been superceded but it has a list that made an impression.

It's the 18 varieties of eating apples most commonly grown in the UK that you can harvest from the end of July to the end of October. Some will keep until March or May the following year, so you could have apples to eat for 10 months. For the other two, you could have them bottled or dried.

Then it lists the cookers: Bramleys, Early Victoria, Golden Noble, Lane's Prince Albert, Lord Derby and Newton Wonder, and continues with varieties of pears, plums, damsons, cherries, berries and currants. All this information is in the Fruit Garden section, which includes how to cordon trees and lay out an orchard.

When I asked Facebook friends for poems about apples they came thick and fast. It's all for a project I've been asked to do at Wisley RHS Gardens in association with Daisyfest, a Surrey arts organisation. I'm stepping in at the last minute, delighted to be asked, delighted to be thinking about apples and orchards. Of course writers love apples for their symbolism, their names, their history - there are more than 7,500 cultivated varieties - for the myths about youth, fertility, life, their persuasive power, temptation, knowledge, sin. Then, the apple's relationship with bees, bee-hives and honey...Apples are like languages but who would have known that commercially most are grown in China? (Ah, the apple's ancestor came from the mountains of central Asia.)

When, after suggesting lines by Sappho, poet Sheenagh Pugh pointed out the word orchard was withdrawn from a junior dictionary (not relevant to youth) I looked again at Practical Gardening and searched Sudell. He was also a famous landscape architect and issued his own warnings about class and big money 80 years ago.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sudell said: "it is our job to see that the new Britain arises on better lines than the old." (to Geoffrey Jellicoe, 21 March 1941, Landscape Institute membership files).

"The present ruling class will never radically change Britain," he wrote, adding that at the end of the WW2  "all the vested interests will drop back into their old positions of power and prestige and we shall have the devil's own job to get things done." (31 March 1941, ibid.).

Sudell also designed the roof garden in Dolphin Square, London, that has recently focused attention on the ongoing battle between the vested interests he mentions and those who still want a new Britain. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

My grief at the loss of silence.

Graves left silently unstrimmed
I search the word silence and the first result I read is for a period drama, followed by a horror film. It isn't until page 3 of the results for this single word that I find a lone dictionary definition.

I am searching because silence is almost impossible to experience where I live. By silence, I mean the absence of persistent intrusion, an opportunity to listen to wind, birds, rain, trees, insects.

My summer days are filled by petrol strimmers and angle grinders. My train journey is filled by overspilling earphones. I have stopped using the library because it is so disappointing.

All religious practice is built on silence. Neuroscientists have shown the brain renews itself when we are silent. The benefits of silent meditation on body and brain are proven. So why is no-one defending silence?

The manager of a cemetery behind my house, bordering my allotment, recently told me there will be strimmers operating every working day this summer. The noise reaches into my days in the house, my days on the allotment. I find it almost impossible to explain the grief I feel at the loss of silence.

What will it take to recalibrate a search for silence that brings up, before anything else, Marshmelo, Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Scorsese, IMDb, Facebook, Rotten Tomatoes and a list of movies about hearing loss?

Read Lotte Kramer's short poem on the importance of silence, chosen by Carol Rumens for The Guardian. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Brighton's filthy masterpiece - Lewes Road and the taxi driver's story

Lewes Road cycle lane car and lorry park
Poor old Lewes Road - a pollution corridor for years, with a barely functioning cycle lane and an environmental scandal growing under the radar. 

When bus lanes were brought in to get students to campus faster, cars diverted into residential streets off Lewes Road.

The most popular rat run works in both directions leaving Brighton and coming in. It goes past two schools, dense terraced housing and through the allotments. 

So far the council's only response has been to paint double yellow lines to prevent congestion on one of these 'alternative routes' and enable the traffic to flow rather than reduce it.

But if air pollution on Lewes Road was at one time so bad it breached WHO guidelines, why is it okay to divert cars, lorries and buses into areas of housing and past two schools? The taxi driver's story is the diversion was a cynical move to manipulate air quality monitoring results. 

Lewes Road, a masterpiece of failed urban planning, failed traffic management and filthy air. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Escape into snail trails

“When I was painting the Constellations, I had the genuine feeling that I was working in secret, but it was a liberation for me in that I ceased thinking about the tragedy all around me.” Joan Miro.

That tragedy was war and he couldn't have reached further away with his titles, all of them suggesting a world of the interior, not of blood, mud, camps and invasion.

"I find my titles in the process of working, as one thing leads to another on my canvas. When I have found the title I live in its atmosphere."

I have been going through old photos. This title of Miro's comes from my Mallorca album and I saw it in Soller station gallery/museum thanks to David Parfitt and Jane Fordham, who took me there.

But what I learned in five weeks in Mallorca has taken far more than five weeks to jiggle into place in my mind.

I have concluded fury is a brilliant motivator and not to be suppressed. I realise I like to work in bursts, that regular tasks don't produce anything more interesting, just more.

I appreciated, during two weeks alone, the brilliance of my friends and my family. I realise it's okay to shout over walls, that time is short. I remembered the title by Miro this morning when I saw an inexplicable snail trail on the runner in my hall. Inexplicable because there was no obvious way in or out. It belongs to Miro. The kitchen clock was wrong but the sun was shining.

Monday, June 03, 2019

The best book I've read

The rose chafer
The rose chafer looks like it should be on a necklace or a ring but I saw it yesterday on a chilli plant given to me by a friend and which I'd planted in the polytunnel.

I was digging up lettuce being reduced to lace by caterpillars, putting them outside in the hope they'll recover and birds will do the insect control for me. It was there, immobile, shining.

Like most things that live in the garden the rose chafer has its own role and its grubs are good for the soil even if it does eat roses, so I welcome it. If it eats the chilli plants, I'll pick it up and move it, but until then it's a sign the allotment's healthy and supporting more than me.

May's been a month of immersion - preparing plots, sowing and planting. Two friends and an allotment neighbour have provided the bulk of my plants because I was away at a critical growing time but my own seeds are now coming on. I've put french beans and runners out and repotted round courgettes to grow larger before they too fend for themselves. Sunflowers, lettuce, basil are to come.
Polytunnel early May

The big event was ordering half a ton of compost to build up the soil. Spring's been too dry and the plot's like dust. There's so little topsoil above the chalk below us but I'm now able to plant into the compost, hoping for more worm action too, because I'm digging less. I have three black compost bins and four other home-made compost heaps on the plot, but even that's not enough to keep the soil healthy.

My swing away from digging coincides with leaving large patches of self-seeded flowers for bees. Borage appeared early and Sicilian honey garlic has spread to several parts of the allotment. Every year the comfrey comes back in the same two places, on either side of the gooseberries, under the plum tree and it hums with bees.

Sicilian Honey Garlic
Demands of sowing, preparing and planting mean May and June preclude almost everything else apart from one day a week of work, seeing family and friends. Any writing I embarked on in winter stays in its folders. I struggle with myself, I feel guilty for my own inattention but the green tunnel of the path, nesting blue tits, wrens and blackbirds, the golden slowworm on the top of the compost, have me in their grip.

If I were to track my movements on a typical allotment day they'd make a cat's cradle of small trips to and from the water butts, polytunnel, greenhouse, shed, compost bins, tables, from the newly planted hazel tree at the top, to the old plum at the bottom, I zig zag between currants and lavender, planting out sweetcorn and watering onions. I marvel at the mullein moth caterpillar with its yellow and black markings continuing its beautiful destruction.

If I'm writing in my head I'm not aware of it but somehow I feel that this is more urgent than anything else I might do at the moment.

When I pick elderflowers to make cordial I smell childhood. It's so early, there's one other person around in the distance, trees curl over the path, the elder releases its scent, cow parsley (Queen Anne's lace/wild chervil), is still potent and sunlight comes through branches like it does in cine film.

A badger has dug up a bumble bee nest, probably soon after I'd been there with Giya and a friend of hers and sat by the fire as the sky darkened and robins chased the last of the light away.

The nest in the shed is a box of song. A crow carries off a small rodent. It's the best book I've read.

Bee friendly plants - a list from the University of Sussex
Wildlife gardening
Sussex butterflies
The Kings Fund report Gardens and Health

Oxeye daisies - typical meadow flowers

Friday, May 24, 2019

The difficulty of prizes and ageism

A prize shortlist is a telling thing. A litmus test, an indicator of the state of whatever the prize is being awarded for. 

Prizes comprise most of the news from the poetry world. Anyone on a shortlist has a better shot at readers - who are disappearing like topsoil and beetles

This year in the gallery of book covers and faces, all the faces are curiously unlined. Click on names and make your way through three categories, best collection, best first collection, best single poems. Dates of birth start to repeat. 1990, 1990, 1988, 1988, 1988, 1986, 1984, 1984, 1982, 1980, 1978, 1972, 1979,1977....the rank outsider is 1969. 

Not one poet who's published a collection or poem eligible for the 2019 Forward prizes is over 50. 

Should I write this? The hurdles come fast, like synonyms for oversensitive: touchy, paranoid, neurotic, awkward, difficult, thin-skinned, uptight, twitchy, emotive. 

Like racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism has a quantifiable impact on well-being and health, to such a degree that the World Health Organisation warns: "Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially "normalized" of any prejudice. 

"For older people, ageism is an everyday challenge. Overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media, ageism marginalises and excludes older people in their communities."

I belong to many communities - my street, my city, my allotment, my work. I feel increasingly out of place at work. An incident this week shocked me. I am still processing it. Which brings me to the poetry community. This community's taken decades to be serious about equality. 

Dragged to its knees by nepotism, old boy networks, bad old ways that set a 'standard' achievable only if you were a spitting image of someone else, poetry had to wake up eventually. It's teaching itself, slowly, about diversity. The thing about ageism is that it affects black, white, gay, lesbian, trans, blind, deaf....and it's global. It's a bit of a shock to realise that representatives of this community don't believe anyone born before 1969 has written anything noteworthy this year. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2019


The first thing I said out loud to myself as I drove behind the beekeeper on my way to the house, was 'asphodels, a field of asphodels'. The beekeeper would tell me their nectar made the champagne of honey. 
My brain had provided a plant name but I had no conscious memory of the flower.  I only knew asphodel as a flower of the dead.
Online searches tell me its constituent parts are used as glue (for shoes and books), to make bread, huts and cord. Persephone wears a garland of asphodels. Poets from Milton to Leonard Cohen give it a name check. The goats tear off its flowers.
Asphodel was the start of talking to myself. By the end of a week alone I was regularly bouncing thoughts off the walls of the courtyard I spent my days in, weeding.
Above me, birds flew between trees, roof tiles, rocks, water troughs and undergrowth. They swung on the wild euphorbia and as the days lengthened into April, I looked forward to the gang of sparrows making noise every evening, the familiarity of a blackbird's song.
The sheep came to visit almost immediately as if they knew they had a visitor. I went for a walk and came back to a small group of goats claiming the builders' bags by my hire car. The big male had horns as magnificent and curled as a kudu. A small female was pulling at leaves with two kids nearby. Then I heard the bells. These Mallorcan sheep have long faces, mournful but appealing, and floppy ears. I was going to get to know them better than I imagined because they'd be attacked by dogs.  

This was writing time. Five weeks as a house-sitter. The deal, an hour's work a day. I'd never have gone to Mallorca otherwise, never have stayed in a place like this, high above the sea, where north African invaders made it part of a prosperous caliphate in 902, terracing and irrigating the land.
Water is everything. It comes from the mountain and is directed into great rectangular pools along channels that were carved out of stone.
After the first week of furious gardening and a miserable day trip to Palma when I wondered if I'd made a terrible mistake, I began to write properly. A story, then another, and another. At the beginning of April I decided to write a poem every day. I hadn't intended to write poems, my priority was short stories and editing When The Birds Carry A River, the travel memoir that has, in the past, been called Venda Sun and Road to the North.
In the middle of one night my phone alarm went off. Then I heard another alarm outside my window. I was alone, listening hard for footsteps. But it was another Mediterranean visitor, the Skops owl. And that would become another story.
Before long, friends were coming. We shopped in Carrefour, buying enough for a fortnight. The track to the house from a lethal turning off the main road was a feat of concentration, a 30 minute bump into potholes and ruts. There was no popping anywhere for something forgotten. On each journey I mentally forfeited the deposit on the hire car.
There were markets to visit, baskets to buy, and Amazon Prime as we stoked the fire at night. Then the dog attacks meant the sheep had to come out of the woods. A local farmer came to take away the young rams.
On every walk, asphodels, pine trees, euphorbia and on the terraces, olive trees and carob. Below the carob trees, the dark brown pods collect like punctuation marks. I needed to believe in writing again and when I came back, I did. On one of my last days at the house, when fog settled and stayed, I finished the editing I'd set myself. The dog was caught. The sheep were freed and Blue, an hour old when I first saw her (or him) went off with the flock back into the mountains.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The soil

This time last year
I empty three bins full of disintegrating plastic bags and plant pots, oil shears, move three blueberry plants because they don't like their spot with the raspberries. Perhaps under the trees they'll be happier.

I plant a trough of herbs for a friend - a long overdue birthday present - plus two pots of rosemary and oregano. I fish leaves out of the water butt with a rake.

I separate chives, pick purple sprouting broccoli and tidy the shed. I find balls to stick on bean canes in the summer, lengths of wire and string. I plant unidentified bulbs I dug up last year and left in the greenhouse.

I pay £15 for an allotment key and hand over four co-worker forms. I pot up some mint and check the leaf-mould.

I buy two bags of first and second early potatoes, some broad beans, find green manure seed and scatter a wildflower mix.

I put a box of wood in the shed for fires, kindling undercover next to a box of paper. I disturb a large spider and a millipede.

I chat with Jeanette.

I move a foxglove, bloody sorrel, stray bluebell and three herb roberts.

It starts to rain. I tidy the shed some more. I leave for home, forgetting the forget me nots I've potted up for the garden.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A whale and wandering womb

I dreamed about a whale in the sky and it turned into a murmuration of starlings heading for Brighton pier. So many birds have emerged singing in February sun - a blackbird in the morning, and walking with Julie and Roxy at Rottingdean, a charm of goldfinches mobbing a barn owl as it hunted. Larks were up and singing, and in the owl's easy flight, goldfinches' chittering, the afternoon expanded. I went to the allotment with Annie who's recording bumble bees. We talked about how social media has turned into a doom-merchant in the corner, sniping and groaning. Although kids streaming through Brighton streets and other cities made a whale. There were more goldfinches in the trees by the cemetery and just as Annie breathed 'a charm of goldfinches' we saw, among their bright flashes and high sounds, a kestrel. They were chasing it away. It doesn't take much of someone else's hope to feel it. It's like sourdough starter. So demonstrating kids and goldfinches set me looking through poems for my new book. Poems about the earth, letters from years ago and growing old. Many began after I found Virtue's Household Physician (1927). Woman's Head as Jug (Arc 2013) has poems on menopause but that's not the end of the story - the womb has so many travelling companions.
Work by Joan Lyons at Paris Photo 2018

Wandering womb

The womb is often out of its natural and proper place...*

I feel it pull at ligaments. 
It's the size of a mouse or turtle 
and can turn itself inside out 
like a glove. No surprise it wanders.

Think of a glove, conducting,
giving directions, all the places 
a mouse and turtle visit, 
compared to a womb, 

now joined in its ambling 
by a kidney, eye, spleen - nomads
seeking relief from a 24-hour contract 
to remain in the same body. 

Am I cruel to tempt my womb
of all body parts, back to captivity, anchor
it with stitches to this body-zoo,
to its natural and proper place?

* from Virtues Household Physician 1927

Friday, January 18, 2019

Dolly and Jolene - a taste for country

Source, Fair use,
I'm not too sure when I acquired a taste for country music and if it's a sign of age but the indy choir, Wham Jam, I've joined this winter includes a jazzy version of Jolene in its repertoire and it's incredibly pleasing to listen to and sing. 

Jolene, along with another country tune, is often on my mind, although when I try and practice at my desk, the cat leaves the room like a shot. Is she picking up on the tragedy?

Dolly is a woman to admire - she wrote the song and has performed it around the world. What does the cat pick up as Jolene starts up on the laptop? Tiger escapes the moment I start to sing along but I don't think I'm THAT bad. Everyone can sing, can't they? The quality of my voice, it seems, is irrelevant. I search the question, do cats like music? and unsurprisingly, there's a theory - a study from the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 

It seems cats like music so long as it's species appropriate. Researchers asked a musician to write three songs: Cozmo's Air, Spook's Ditty and Rusty's Ballad after test cats walked away from Bach and Faure. 

I'm not too bothered about Tiger disliking Jolene. It's the one she has the most extreme reaction to. The others in the set make her concerned. Perhaps it's not so much my singing as the fact that she's used to me being silent as I sit at my desk. The whole house is silent. She and I generally enjoy the silence, interrupted by the odd car passing, sparrows in the fuschia outside, Binky barking next door. Now I've worked out the BT blocking system, there's not even too many unwanted calls on the landline either. 

I wonder if there's something in the lyrics that Tiger picks up, a supremely human capacity for betrayal and jealousy, for theft and drawn out misery. Jolene is perhaps a robust reminder of the human world. But Dolly Parton is infinitely more interesting than whether cats like music because of everything she has overcome.  Her birthday, by the way, is 19 January. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Towards the sea

The song starts "A room with a window facing west/ Towards the sea". It's by the Staves and it's part of the repertoire of Wham Jam, the daytime choir I've joined this winter. As a newcomer, I'm daunted by the prospect of learning a set before mid March but this tune has stuck in my mind, particularly the line "Sing me a song, your voice is like silver...."

Sing me a song, your voice is like silver
It's an old metaphor but the melody's sweet and the invitation is lyrical. It was in my mind as I browsed Eurostar's £29 deals a few days ago, wondering if I could take some time out to stay at a friend's house in France. The question is still there in my mind, despite my decision to call myself semi-retired. The old work ethic nags and drowns out all idea of fun.

But then there are friends. Good, loyal, conscious and responsive friends, who remind me always of opportunity, of fun, of the need to make the most of what I have. And so this one friend, dear Michaela, texted me, "have you read your email?"

I'd been humming that line by the Staves as I cleared the front room, finding a space for Giya to work, filling bags with recycling. I felt like a sparrow brushing last year's twigs from the eaves and the sparrow gang was indeed outside at the time. So I went to my emails and could hardly believe what I was reading. There it was, that room facing the sea, and it was on top of a mountain.

It is as if that exercise of making the space for my daughter to work, the song, the earlier dream of travelling had become a living thing, had somehow found a place where thought and reality coincide and put an old Spanish house there, high above the sea, in a blur of green, ochre and blue. That the dream had, like the best secretary, matched the dates when I had no work, the time when I could risk leaving the allotment for a month, the time when Giya was here, and sung me that song.

I have neglected my writing over the past few months for all sorts of reasons. But I have a collection of poems to sharpen up, the South African book to continue editing and short stories to indulge in because I'm loving the looseness they create in me. I will plant two trees for my flights and ask favours of friends with strimmers and green fingers, to keep the grass down and bring on some seedlings. I have never felt so lucky.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Is the family mending?

It seems to have been happening forever and yet been compressed into a matter of months - one moving out, the other now engaged.

None of us makes decisions rashly. The happening forever starts with the children going away to do their degrees.

One leaving, two of us left. Then the second leaving and me left. Then one coming back so two of us again.

And just as the second comes back, the first moves in with his girlfriend. Now the second has shown me her ring.

Mum went out and bought a bottle of Bollinger, I drove over to her house with both children and partners. We toasted, we laughed and blew on the fire to get it going. It was suddenly cold and the sky was clear. As I drove them back along the seafront, the offshore wind farm sparkled, the stars sparkled, the seafront houses, car headlights and street lights sparkled.

I like to imagine my odd, fractured and skimpy family is mending itself, like bones, like bark, just as I realise that the grandfather I thought I'd found may not be the one. My children's new lives make the broken links to Ireland and beyond less important.

And through it all I have fallen in love with short stories - with the hard honesty of Doris Lessing's African stories, the snow light of Tove Janseen's winter book, and I am nervous even about hoping that a desire to write might be coming back.