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.