Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A four day week and the garden of England

In 1986, after a morally challenging weekend at work when I was briefed to ask a pop star's wife if she'd had an abortion or a miscarriage, I handed in my notice. I had no job to go to. I also decided I'd never work a five day week again. I was 31, I worked hard and wasn't paid extra for my productivity. 

My decision was emotional and unnegotiable. And after seven or more years I wanted to control my own time. I've been self-employed, with bouts of part-time PAYE work, ever since. That's 35 years now. 

I had to turn off the radio this morning when one of the old-style productivity is all 'management consultants' went off on one about how Unilever's experiment of a four day week was all a terrible idea and there was no proof it would benefit companies at all. 

Leave the room, old men, if you can't cope with people living differently. Your kind of old style thinking is what's turned Kent, the garden of England, into a lorry park and open-air toilet. It's enabled property speculation and endless crime disguised as progress. Time for scepticism about your ability to tell us what to do. Time to think.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Understanding the vocabulary of power

The darkness made it seem later than it really was and there was nothing left on iPlayer so I started Industry. As I binge watched I realised it was Wolf of Wall Street with more noughties emotional sass.  The decadence Martin Amis has portrayed far more graphically in his 1984 novel. 

A tax bill dropped on my mat. I began browsing Covid contracts, corporate websites with passport photos of white men, rich lists. I wondered about their hobbies, I found the vocabulary of hedge funds: pooled funds, returns, alpha, derivatives, swaps, gearing, short-selling, futures, options, warrants. 

I think I might write letters to these people. But what would I ask them? Why me and my friends don't sit around tables discussing pooled funds? How far away we are from powering the planet? Is my alienation age-related? Is it class? Is it education? 

"So the superrich do indeed seem to be moving further and further away from the rest of society."

This sentence ends a 2020 report by global insurance and asset management company, Allianz. A few years back Oxfam used Credit Suisse's annual global wealth report to show what the world's rich are worth. This year's contains a similar pyramid: 1% of the adult population – accounts for 43.4% of global net worth at the end of 2019. A couple of years ago Dominic Frisby predicted by 2030, 1% will own two thirds of global wealth. The Credit Suisse report this year identifies industries with most billionaires: 1. finance and investment 2. tech 3. fashion and retail 4. real estate and 5. food and drink. 

But we're still not talking about money - what we earn, how we earn it and what being at the level of hedge funds and three figure (or more) income actually means. The vocabulary of power is ring fenced by those who do understand it. If I really understood how big money was made, what it takes to trade x for y, make that phone and sell it at that price, make, transport and sell a beaded dress....why property developers are making money on government grants, why the UK funded a buy one get one free meal deal during a pandemic. If I was properly financially and economically literate, would that shift to 1% owning 66% still be the next decade's safest bet?

The ad campaign above became meaningless when a rich boy went for a drive up the M1 and bumbled around Cumbria in his Land Rover. We still joke about it. He got off. Who can teach me what I need to understand Gates, Ortega, Buffett, Helu, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Ellison and Bloomberg and their trajectories? Their place in the world compared to mine. 


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Soil and ageing

Most old gardening books have a section on soil. Gardeners know they must know the soil, what grows best, what not to bother with, how to keep it healthy. 

I'd be willing to bet that knowledge of the soil was once far more widespread among people relying on being able to eat what they grow. 

In the FAQs of the British Society of Soil Science is the humbling fact that soil is responsible for 90% of what we eat. 

As a late contribution to World Soil Day, the title poem from my recent collection, A Friable Earth (Arc Publications 2019), came from thinking about looking after the earth, the old Sussex words for mud, and ageing. 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

One I found earlier

I took this in Paris when I was there for Paris Photo. It was pre-pandemic. The stag, although a model, feels like freedom.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Made, mended and Black Friday

Mustard shirt £28.80 made
on minimum wage
I bought the fabric cheap when a shop closed. I didn't have a garment in mind, but thought it would soften and fall well. I'm telling the story of this mustard coloured shirt because of Black Friday's notorious little black dress sold by a retailer with a ridiculous name for under £1. I don't know where the shirt cotton came from but I paid about £3.50 a metre in a closing down sale. The shirt's taken up about 2 metres of fabric - it's wide and long, the sleeves are wide at the top. And crucially, the body of the shirt's cut from one single piece of fabric. 

I copied the pattern from an old white linen shirt I wore to death and Giya wore too until it was ragged and unmendable. First I took it apart, then I traced each component part onto pattern paper. It took about a day to cut out and put together - a little longer than the next one will because I'd never made it before. The front facing, around the neck, took most time - pinning and ironing. 

So what is the monetary value of this shirt? £7 for fabric, an element for thread and electricity and then my time. Let's cut that day by half, assuming the next one will be quicker and write off research and development time. What is my time worth? Minimum wage - £8.72 an hour for me? Do I allow for age and experience? A certain level of skill (although I'm not a trained tailor)? Is the fact it's handmade (some might say bespoke) of value? That elements of it are recycled (the pattern, for example). That I'll re-use much of the old shirt probably as face wipes since it's well-worn, soft linen. The minimum wage would bring it to £21.80 for 2.5 hours work, adding in the cost of fabric, it rises to £28.80 and what do we add in for energy and thread. What is it worth? And where does it sit next to a dress costing less than £1? It's the how I'm interested in first because of all the implications. Which brings me to a selection of garments recently made, mended or amended.....

Peacock dress
Peacock dress for Giya
Shirt from a pattern
of a silk shirt bought in 1991
Dress from fabric
Hilary bought in 

Sleeveless jacket
from East I took in and

My favourite autumn/winter cardigan, mohair
bought secondhand in Portsmouth in 1978 or 9,
seams restitched endlessly. I'm looking
for new buttons. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Marquez and the material world of writing


I sat for a full day at the computer on Friday and forgot the material world. The end of a week of neglecting the world and thinking far too much about writing. I didn't sew, I made a loaf of bread and was back at the keyboard. 

I slept badly the other night and read a whole collection of stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Strange Pilgrims, which has its own strange story attached. In telling the story of this collection, Marquez reveals he increasingly found himself unable and unwilling to write in pauses between books. He turned to journalism to keep himself engaged. I have felt that disassociation and in me it turns to disillusion. But I know my own medicine and I hadn't been taking it. The earth. I went to the allotment in the drizzle. 

A chilli plant in the polytunnel isn't doing well, but well enough for its harvest to be ripening and what a red. In the other greenhouse, tomatoes are still ripening. I pulled up all the plants in the polytunnel, worried about blight and gave away the green fruit. But the greenhouse is draughtier and blight hasn't taken hold. So I'm still picking tomatoes and wonder what this means for the future. I cut the buddleia, pruned gooseberries, weeded and turned two compost piles. I planted some lettuce and pea shoot seeds in the polytunnel and tried to fix a wheelbarrow. I came home with chillies, carrots, a turnip, rocket, tomatoes and chard. 

At 3 am, reading Marquez - and it's a mixed collection, not all the endings are entirely believable - I was reassured. Writing needs a material world - food, people, animals, wind and cars...Maria dos Prazeres, teaching her little dog to cry and find the plot she's bought in the cemetery for herself, a man obsessed with a woman he sleeps next to on a plane... 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Think big

Think big was the mantra of my childhood, a symptom of sixties optimism, opportunities and seizing the day. I didn't question it. There were other things to worry about, like war. 

Soon it'll be a year since the first lockdown. I'd begun to think small, from force of circumstance - I have enough clothes and shoes, books, pens, paper, jam. I've paid off the house. I grow vegetables and fruit on my allotment. 

Month by month I've been shifting my expectation of what I can live on downwards to the £7,000 a year the state pension will give me at the end of January. Lockdown has helped. Nothing to spend money on. 

Big thought bothers me. Where does it live? In theory, in entitlement, in big statements, literary, artistic, economic, social, in tabloid headlines, gatherings. What does it take to think small? Is my fear about big thought, just that - fear? 

In the poetry I most enjoy, a writer hones in on detail that carries a metaphor. This may or may not be consoling, its aim may or may not be to drop an insight into the world I know and change it slightly. I have been struggling with poems of big ideas, poems disrupting narrative, language and syntax to the point when language is useless. I am reminded of cardboard box man leaving number 10 with his disruptive ideas. I wonder where big ideas will lead, not to understand a poem because it is so far from what's spoken, in a place without tunes or meaning, just an individual performing the big idea, with other individuals. 


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Trickey and the lambs


Walking with Helen on Thursday. We start in Woodvale, my favourite of Brighton's cemeteries, through the Lewes Road gate next to the Gladstone pub. Helen leads us up the path on the right hand border of the cemetery because she wants to show me the grave of Thomas Highflyer, a child slave. Helen cleans the gravestone regularly and we talk about how many other slaves there must have been in Brighton, whose histories are unknown. 

We tramp up to the top and Bear Road, crossing into the City Cemetery which I never visit, but there's a growing copse there and a tree commemorating a friend of Helen's. It's high up, we drink coffee and eat coconut rock cakes, look out towards the sea. The windfarm turbines are hidden in mist. As we do a circuit, she shows me the immaculately looked after graves of young German men, all of them dead in 1918 and we wander back towards the road. Two couples are sitting by a grave with champagne - the women are twin daughters of a mother who died two years short of a century. It's her birthday. 

Across the road again, back to Woodvale and down to my favourite spot, where the stones are overtaken by tree roots, where mausolea are like play houses, where my children used to marvel at stone angels, swords, lilies. Here we find Thomas Trusty Trickey and wonder at his name. We pass Mathildas and Marthas, sons and daughters, overblown and excessive memorials, others whose names are covered in ivy, down to the small mausoleum whose stained glass has been stolen and Helen tells me to stand on a fallen stone to look inside. 

The ceiling shines with mosaic and in the curve is a lamb. I'm back in Ravenna with Jane, looking at a Byzantine ceiling to love. I would never have seen it if the stained glass had remained. 

Up the hill again, onto Bear Road and into Downs Cemetery, the one that backs onto my house. Helen shows me the memorial to a young boy she knew, killed in a car crash. We walk around the rose garden, up towards the top corner, near the allotments. Mine's just over the fence. 

Here there are new graves, many with photos, ornaments. The Irish flag flies over polished marble. Into the quiet, a strimmer. We gape at it, the need for it now, as winter blows in. Behind us, a fox stops and stares at the strimming man too, all of us interrupted in our silence. The fox, eyes on the noise, wanders towards a trio of crows and stops for a scratch. Shortly afterwards, it makes its way back up the slope. 

The next morning I'm talking via Zoom to another friend about lambs to the slaughter, the chasm between us and them. The news is of another trickster leaving with his cardboard box. We talk about worlds of the rich, dead, fox. The times when we could travel, our separation from the continent we thought we belonged to, that name Thomas Trusty Trickey and the other Thomas on the other side of the cemetery valley, a child slave. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Superman and a phantom ship of souls

 Saturday November 7

I cycled to Shoreham. It was glorious. On the way, the wind at my back, harder returning, of course. 

It was as busy on the seafront as a summer bank holiday, and so many bikes. But I wonder why men in lycra think a seafront cycle lane busy with hire bikes and clapped out old things like mine is for them?

The best bit about cycling to Shoreham is going through the port, over the lock and up into the outskirts with its hidden alleys, recreation grounds and level crossing. 

After the crossing behind Dunhelm Mill I came to a queue of cars stretching back to the main road, bad tempers, horns beeping for MacDonalds drive through. 

But I was still thinking of the ship of souls I watched pass from the harbour towards the open sea between queues on both sides of the lock, of cyclists, families, small children and dogs. What's in it, a mother asked her son. Wood, he guessed. He might have been right. 

Passing the docks at a certain point the smell of timber from Scandinavia is intense. 

Overlaid on the smell of timber were domes beyond the beachhuts in Hove, like soul eggs Phantom was carrying away. 

They are appearing everywhere. 

Monday November 9

My first Zoom poetry reading tonight for Cafe Writers. I walked in the afternoon through Woodvale Cemetery. As soon as I climbed the steps after the coroner's office the smell of damp wood was overwhelming. I used to walk here all the time when the children were little, when we could get through into Woodvale from Downs, the cemetery behind my house. I've barely noticed autumn colours this year but the beech was a joy and a pair of woodpeckers, squirrels, holly berries. 

I missed the wilder path because I wanted to do a loop up to the racecourse and home back down the hill. 
Superman's part of a series I've noticed around the city, a lot of them damaged, but he's high up enough to escape. Is he in a relationship with the occupant?

I spent much of the day preparing for my reading, whittling it down to the necessary 15 minutes, deciding on the mood. I kept one poem about a death, but decided I needed to read poems with life in, and some hope. 

I ended saying I feel (as a baby boomer) a responsibility to be optimistic. To be able to reassure people in their teens, twenties, thirties, that they will make change happen. 
This is not ignoring what's been happening in the world, but acknowledging it's action time. Big time. 

I read Watering, Last Smear, The Blue Moon of Mouaz-al-Balkhi, The Ancestors, Love Sonnet, No News - all from A Friable Earth - and three new poems, ending with The New Life, which, I hope, speaks for itself. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2020


I was waiting outside a tiny local chemist, the size of a large wardrobe really, and inside a man was talking to the assistant, the pharmacist was at the back of the shop and a woman was filling her bag with whatever she could grab off the shelves. 

She saw me looking at her. I looked away and then she came outside, standing with her back to me, pulled a label off a make-up bag and stuffed bottles into it. I wasn't going to confront her. I went into the shop and the man she was with also left. 

I asked the assistant if they had CCTV. She looked alarmed. I explained what I'd seen. The young pharmacist overheard and rushed out into the street. The assistant and I, plus another man who'd come in said, "Don't chase them." The man worked in a garage, he said, and even with CCTV people were always stealing. The company had a no-confrontation policy. 

The pharmacist didn't find them but I wondered how a company could allow its staff to be at risk. I'm against most surveillance because we are far too watched and overlooked, but now Boots has sold its shop for housing, this little chemist is the only place to get a prescription on London Road and, well, the place is dodgy at times. 

I wrote to the head office and asked if they understood the risk they were putting staff under because word will have got around there was no CCTV in that tiny shop. I went past with a friend the other day. She went in to buy eye drops. There were cameras. The email worked. 

Sunday, November 01, 2020

The flow

Air by Adriaen Collaert 1560-1619
Is there anything for it but going with the flow? I have been making a beautiful dress of peacock feathers for my daughter. It hangs like silk, it shines and the sleeves billow. The material's a nightmare to sew but it's taken a lot of my time. 

I'm not short of time right now. Like most of us. But all of us are facing another month of reminders that we can't take time for granted. 

Sewing keeps me busy, keeps me from brooding and in between rain yesterday I got out on the racecourse for a walk. The sun was blinding, the wind beating in from the east, spray crashing over the marina wall. 

I walked to the pier but had missed the starlings. My foot started to hurt and I sat on a bench looking towards Shoreham as lights came on, the sun gone. 

The list on my desk includes putting up the winter curtains. I've pulled up the remaining tomato plants in the polytunnel, filled a bag with green fruit, a bag of ripe and ripening. A child in a witches hat ran down the path past the allotment. I thought it was Monday, but it's still Sunday. There are already fireworks at night. 

In the room where I sew I listen to a small clock and wind in the trees at the border of the cemetery. It's somehow reassuring, the metronome of the second hand with the wild rushing of wind in the remaining leaves. The sounds of the back garden, the tall sycamores and linden trees, always remind me of the opening line of Ted Hughes' poem Wind, "This house has been out at sea all night." 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

An ancientry, an elderling, a pelt

Now 65, a figure spoken in the news almost daily, I've become one of the old. Not in my mind. Not in my being. Not, I believe, in my state of health. But as a fact and statistic. 

I've often browsed the Historic Thesaurus for synonyms for woman,  wife, mistress, prostitute, girl. Scanning these lists I think about our roles, sexuality, duties, freedoms. They remind me how language limits and liberates, how it compels me - like picking at a wound. 

Last night a friend was helping me cut matted clumps from the fur of my ageing cat. She was describing conversations with a parent, the delicate to and fro of offering support, it being refused, the way it's refused, the push and pull of need, duty, kindness and frustration. 

This morning, a news item warned Covid 19 may be around for five years. The interviewee was saying let the young mix, let them love and travel because they need to. The old (as well as the poor, homeless, unemployed, long-term sick) will be protected if people making decisions are doctors, scientists, public health experts - not politicians. 

And for some reason, this more generous and compassionate approach took me back to lists I made after words for women - words for old, an old person, old people. They move between sweet, hilarious and cruel: wintered, over-old, eldern, ripe, oldly, well-aged, well-stricken, far, declined, grey, antiquated, badgerly, crusted, long in the tooth, mature, veneral, senile, gerontic, post-reproductive. An old person....ancient, elder, pelt, oldster, elderling, relic, wrinkly, crumbly, geriatric, veteran, Methuselah. Many old people: an ancientry, a more.

Jonathan Swift invented the Struldbrug, a category of old person above the age of 80. Since, in his story, octagenarians are immortal their powers are limited,

"As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal or economic, not even for the decision of meers (metes) and bounds." (Gulliver's Travels, 1726)

I'm proud to be a life member of the National Union of Journalists and in its bulletin on reporting age it reveals, "There are 500 words or phrases defining old, about 10 are complimentary while the rest are derogatory and many - as in 'old maid' - doubly insulting."

One of the striking differences in attitudes I noticed visiting South Africa was respect among Black communities for older people. And so my children learned it and I'm proud of the honour they show their two grandmothers. 

In the ancientry I've joined there is potential for rebellion. I'll fight for my children's generation to have the freedom I enjoyed. But I won't be written off by narcissists clinging to the masthead of youth. The proverb says, old age, though despised, is coveted by all....or, every age has its book. 

Thursday, October 08, 2020

A broken doll and refugee tales


My broken doll, my oldest surviving toy along with a threadbare teddy, has lost her hands and her hair's coming off. I don't know where she came from but I do remember showing her off once to some removals men when I was small. They rescued us when the car broke down. 

My mother bundled us into the lorry and I couldn't sleep. I was too aware of the claustrophobic darkness and noises I couldn't identify. 

When they opened the back of the lorry outside our house in Ascot, when Mum put the lights on in the hall and made cups of tea for the men who helped, I rushed to show off my doll. 

As memory goes, creating links randomly, across time, ignoring conventions, my memory of being in the back of a lorry and arriving home safely, is a prompt to The Lorry Driver's Tale, a story from Refugee Tales, that I read a couple of times to groups. It's one of three volumes published by Comma Press, about the experiences of people trying to reach the UK. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Writing and sleeplessness


At 3am today I was writing a list of what's growing on my allotment. It seemed like a solution to sleeplessness. I'm lucky - insomnia's rare for me but there are times when old anxieties stand around the bed and won't stop their chatter. 

And this afternoon I was in the place I was writing about. In the early hours I believed I was generating a brilliant idea for a series of poems. This afternoon I was only interested in fixing the bench, putting away netting, picking tomatoes, the last of the raspberries and blackberries, planting onion sets and transplanting some parsley. 

A good friend, who's a much better known writer, reminded me the other day that we met when we were 30, so we've followed each other's progress for more than three decades. Both of us have reached a point when we are questioning if we can carry on writing poems. It's not that she doesn't want to. Or me. But there's a doubt in both our minds. 

Mine is where my place is. It's good to ask that question. My allotment is a small patch of poor land on the Downs. It delivers flint tools, good conversations and a feeling of making a difference. At the moment it's more satisfying than writing because I belong there. It's easy to belong there - all I have to do is plant, harvest, weed, tend. Perhaps I have just written my manifesto for poems and that was the real point of the early hours list. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The goddesses of sewing

The earliest bone needle, estimated at 61,000 years old, was found in a South African cave, not far from Durban. I know this because I've been trying to find anything about the history of sewing in the country. Why? I came across this photo of young women and girls in Elim, Limpopo, a place we passed through each time we went north from Johannesburg to visit Risenga's family. The sadness of this photo hit me. I had to know more. 

It was 1896 and the days of colonialism, European so-called values and so on. You know the story. I barely know South Africa but I remember being struck by the skill of women there when it comes to making. Crochet, bead work, embroidery, hand-sewing, anything....In fact, one of my proudest moments may be when an elderly woman asked me where I'd bought a small beaded bag I was carrying. I told her I'd made it - out of the leg of a pair of Mrisi's trousers, embellished with beads I'd taken with me in case I was bored. 

There are goddesses of sewing the world over, but I want to read the history of sewing from that early needle discovered in the Sidubu settlement (where, incidentally, archaeologists reckon they've found the first beds). Here are some of the people who can truly lay claim to the art of sewing, living in the country where the first garments were stitched together. Let's wonder again, at who writes history and who's left out. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Clearing out and re-arranging

I have a box of leads in the hall and a pile of books. A bag of clothes on a bed and a bag of duvet covers. I have invented a use for scraps of fabric. 

I have re-organised empty jars, my cookery books and spices. 

The mental re-arranging's next. This year's accounts. Deciding what I mean by clearing out. Do I burn all I've started and not finished? 

Have a bonfire of bureaucracy on the allotment? The accounts are always a thing that linger somewhere in my gut until they're done. 

This print is Inside the Clothes Market, by William Connor.

Friday, September 18, 2020



Our first family holiday in years with all of us, apart from Mum, was over bank holiday weekend. We all wanted to spend time together before Giya left for the Netherlands, for good. 

So we drove for hours up the M1 to Cumbria, cursing at signs for Barnard Castle, notorious now as the place where a government advisor tested his eyesight during lockdown. 

We had managed to book a week at Dufton youth hostel. I've been a member of the YHA for years and got an email about exclusive hire. It worked out cheaper for all of us than a cottage in the south of England. Well, a cottage anywhere. I won't go on about lockdown profiteering...

We walked every day, bar one. We chatted. I prepared myself, I thought, for an empty house again. This is the third time. Every morning I wake up I think, oh yes, it's just me. It's the habit of 28 years of motherhood. Listening for the other breath in the house. 

We brought home, I think, an appreciation of silence. We saw red deer, buzzards, a red squirrel (well, Giya did), two hedgehogs and many beautiful sheep and cattle. Oh, and horses outside the pub. No surprise there, we were so close to Appleby. 

When the children were little, we often went to empty, wild places. In the kitchen I have two horseshoes that a farrier gave the children in Wales, at the end of a long walk in the hills. We have porcupine quills from Risenga's land in South Africa. The silence was good. The company was good. We ate well. 

Friday, September 04, 2020

Movement of sheep

It reminded me of transhumance, the centuries-old tradition of moving sheep and cattle from the high pastures of summer to lower, safer ones for winter. We were at the end of a walk back to Dufton in which we missed a footpath, found a hen who'd escaped the battery farm and carried it to a safer, free-range home. 

After the chicken, we passed a shed of cows who should have been in the fields. We passed fields of bullocks who wanted to play. We heard dogs howling in kennels as we ate our lunch in a thick wood. And as we went deeper through the wood, we saw pheasant cages. The dog send them flying upwards. We gathered up feathers. I remembered working on a pheasant farm in Brittany when I was 17. 

We were back on a road we'd walked at the start of the week when a woman, possibly my age, flew out of a farm track on a quad bike, the sheepdog balancing on the back. Behind her was a flock of sheep. She asked us to stay back, not to alarm them. More walkers came down the road. The sheep filled the track turned right and through the gate we'd just left. 

We hung back when the track emptied. The other walkers pushed on, led by a man in red knee high socks. It was hot, we were dawdling in the wake of such excitement, such a mass of creatures in a rush. The farmer had mentioned the green lane we needed to take and we were on it when we saw two men on quad bikes at another gate in the distance. The first sheep straggled through. We pulled ourselves up the bank, holding onto the dog, as this second flock rushed past, skittery, unnerved by us watching. 

The hills were emptying of all the creamy dots that weren't rocks. Some of the second flock were lame, some very young, many had curled horns. This flock seemed endless, one after the other rushing past the stone wall opposite us, the dog whimpering, straining to be free and with them. There was one left that wouldn't be persuaded to follow. Neither the sheepdogs nor the men on quad bikes could shift it. We passed it squeezed up against the wall, its head into the stone. At the end of the fields we were on the road up to High Cup Nick, a box of drinks and crisps on the kerb with an honesty box. We sat and opened the flasks. Then noticed bikes up on one of the hillsides, rounding up more. 

A woman came out of the house and we asked what was going on. They were separating the young rams from the flock. They'd be lamb chops, she joked, adding quickly that she wouldn't be eating them. Then the ewes would go back to the hills. So it wasn't the same as transhumance but it had the same power. The hill farmers had chosen the day of our walk because the weather was fine. They did this once a year. And I remembered helping with the same separating of mothers and sons when I was in Mallorca. That was when the ewes got away, left for the woods and called for two days. For now they were together, although small batches of rams were already being driven down the road in a trailer. 

Who can think of that? The industrial scale of slaughter. The chickens kept in darkness. Pigs transported in lorries on crowded motorways. It used to be different. It doesn't match up, what we are doing. 

We followed this last flock down the road with other walkers as they flowed into one field, carried on into the village, were guided into another. These flocks had given us something, shed an element of the hills as they ran past the walls into lush fields. But I'm still trying to work out what it was. 

Photo from The Scottish Farmer by Wayne Hutchinson

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

An ancient Greek fish and washed up sunglasses

What does an ancient Greek fish have in common with a pair of sunglasses washed up on the beach 17 centuries later?  The fish rests on a poem by writer Aratus, translated into Latin by Cicero, and it is filled with words taken from another text possibly written by Roman historian Hyginus about the stars, then copied out in the 9th century. Truly a melting pot. 

Creating a workshop series is demanding but social distancing and lockdown make things more difficult. Add the restrictions of Zoom and needs of people with learning difficulties living at a residential centre in Surrey, The Grange. I worked with the same centre last year at Wisley RHS Gardens using words on and off the page and for that, I drew on more than a decade of conversations with the inspiring artist Jane Fordham

Every workshop is different and although I have books full of plans, I had a 16 week programme to write up thematically and practically. I needed to go back in time. At the Public Domain Review I found gold. 

It was the Aratea, an extraordinary fusion: 

Each page of the Aratea has a poem on the bottom half — written by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus and translated into Latin by a young Cicero — describing an astronomical constellation. This constellation is then beautifully drawn above the poetry; the drawings however are themselves made up of words taken from Hyginus’ Astronomica.

The Getty Museum's, The Leiden Aratea, Ancient Constellations in a Medieval Manuscript, describes it as a ninth-century copy of an astronomical and meteorological treatise based on the Phaenomena written by Aratus who lived around 315—240/39 B.C. 

The sunglasses above came from this year's programme.  

Email discussions between me and Sharron at The Grange have been integral. Sharron's using lightboxes, green screens, film and slo-mo to record creative work and enable it. She reminds me activities need to be collaborative, generate discussion, merge words and images as well as provoke thought. 

The process is elastic as this ancient manuscript is elastic in its texts, writers, images and concepts spanning 2,000 years and still exerting influence on the sunglasses, themselves based on a poem by George Mackay Brown. 

The twin to this series is a weekly workshop I'm running for Creative Response in Farnham, the town where I grew up. Both are funded by Disability Arts in Surrey  under the theme Regrowth and the charity is extending the project further with podcasts I record of writing prompts. My own writing went on the back burner for a few months after A Friable Earth came out at the end of last year. Lockdown coincided with that dry period, augmented by demands of the allotment. Then I deleted my social media accounts and the odd poem began to write itself line by line. I'm writing alongside participants from Creative Response as we smile at each other in rectangles on laptops and tablets. I feel incredibly hopeful, all of a sudden as if the ancestors were looking out for me

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Lifelong learning

The quote on the bench is from Kate Chopin's book, The Awakening and yes, I agree, as do masses of walkers and cyclists hugging seafronts all around the coast, because we're all up against it, aren't we, needing the rhythm of waves hitting stones or sand or rocks, needing wordlessness. 

I've resisted writing much about lockdown because it seems to be another trigger for argument, so many of us wound up by isolation, frustration, doubt. Are we separating into camps, ideologically, drawing our lines in the surf according to age, health, where we are in our lives, the homes we do or don't have, whether we live in a city or the country? 

I heard this morning about a marriage and then about a landlady giving long-standing tenants a month's notice in the hope of cashing in on the UK government's suspension of stamp duty. I've had so many discussions about the future of work and reinventing how we do things.  And this morning I heard that phrase in my mind which I've encountered often but it always felt rather easy: lifelong learning. I associated it with evening classes, or attempts to keep the retired busy. Its association, then, was that it wasn't essential, more of a deliverer of hobbies for the economically useless. 

But as I teeter, months away from getting my state pension (at last, six years late), I get it. Forty years or more of work, and still going, I am learning at a pretty intense rate, along with other writers who've relied on face to face teaching, facilitation, being present in rooms with people who want to read and write. 

We are experimenting with Zoom and other meeting platforms. But all the body language is somehow blurred in the tiny windows showing faces in living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens. So how do we find a way to communicate the brilliance of writing encapsulated in that quote on a bench between Brighton and Shoreham?

One group I'm working with has adapted to Zoom, with another we're adapting. I thought I knew what worked when I was asked to run some sessions early on, but I'm learning that there are so many other things at play too - people who aren't used to being alone at home, expectations, fear, frustration. The same things that drive us to listen to the sea, to be with friends. 

Learning, or re-learning, what empathy means. Not to point fingers, attribute blame, force a pre-conceived package of ideas, but wander sometimes, listening. Pausing, sometimes, before answering. 

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Your mum and prizes

What a fantastic image this is, a photo I took of hoardings down by the marina last year, I think, winter anyway, on a stormy day. 

It reminds me of sweets we shared on the bus back from school, of the dilemmas boys face in rap battles, of my own mum, obviously, of being a mum, of all the conversations we have about family. 

Such a simple painting, so deeply affecting because of all those thoughts and more: the shades of pink, the taste, slightly fizzy, competitions to see how long you could make a sweet last, sticking your tongue out to prove you still had a tiny sliver. That sliver making you the winner. 

I was thinking about prizes this morning. How leaving social media has relieved me of them. How they've been put away for me until a friend is selected and momentarily I can celebrate with them. In fact a friend, the poet John McCullough has been celebrated recently and I am delighted for him. 

But then I thought I'd look for a list of poetry prizes and I found one on the Poetry Society website. I also found this statement: "The competitions and prizes are a central part of The Poetry Society’s work."

Knackered from not sleeping last night, from then having to go to pick on the allotment before the rain got worse, I don't read it as an uplifting statement of intent. Oh dear. The Academy of American Poets, whose website I often use, states it was founded "to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry."

A prize, a competition win, is great for the money - support for years of writing without much payment. But to make these two things central to your work?  Your mum will say well done when you do well. But you hope she won't make it a condition of loving you. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A folder labelled missing

I'm not writing. I've repeated it more times than I'd like since my last book came out in October last year.

I am not going to the writing groups that have turned virtual. I am delivering writing workshops and one to one sessions on Zoom.

So when a friend cancelled an arrangement for me to help her write a letter this morning, I thought I'd scour the desktop.

Is there anything I've forgotten? Anything I've written in a moment I've forgotten? I look in the writing folder I keep. Nothing. I am smarting from an agent's stock reply pretending to be personalised. I know I shouldn't be. So many people who want to be published, who should be published.

I search for a new poems folder. Nothing. I'm stumped now - really, nothing? And then I notice the folder I've labelled MISSING.

Was I trying out a dark, lockdown joke on myself?  There they are. A handful of poems, like the handful of beans I picked the other day, the handful of first blackberries from the tips of green clusters.  I read through and tinker with some lines. Missing. Yes. It fits.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

All over instagram

The tall climbing peas have been eaten by mice, the blue banana squash has just about survived but I left it too late for aztec broccoli. The best result so far, which Giya and I ate last night with her home-made pizza, is a French lettuce, Reine des Glaces - Queen of the Ice. The seed's traceable back to 1883, but I chose it for the name.

I've become an allotment bore but in lockdown it's more than early cucumbers and constant rocket. I put my hands in the soil, cut bamboo poles in half, pinch out tomatoes, shrug my shoulders at the peas and plant another row of something else. The heads of other allotment holders sit on hedges. When I open the gate with the fierce black cat who stalks (and attacks) any dog in the street, I enter hours without words.

I've found it impossible to read during lockdown, other than for work. I used to get through three or more books a week. Now the radio show for Reverb, workshops, looking at friends' collections and skimming The Guardian online in the mornings is the sum of it. Sometimes I find a Public Domain Review essay or a long read but I can't concentrate. Spiralling into doom I'll never write again, my books have sunk without trace, no-one wants to read anything by an old woman. I argue with myself, give way, none of it matters, but it does, stand up...and so it goes. The old doubt, never being good enough, the old Catholic legacy, the scholarship girl......

Then at 7am I empty the freezer of last year's fruit, turn it to jam, making space for the next crop. I walk with Giya and Beth on the Downs where the Long Man of Wilmington is etched into chalk.

I'm slowly getting over Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I no longer take a photo thinking I'll post it. I no longer think in post length bites. I realise I've been feeding those doom feelings for far too long on social media and competitive rankings I've felt forced into. I want to delight at amazing metaphors, a new way of seeing, a new voice.

And so the allotment feeds me literally and emotionally more than ever. It is like magic in the way it keeps the dread at bay. The plum tree is laden, each branch is heavy and drooping. The tomatoes are staked. The cucumbers are clinging onto netting. The queens of ice are filling out among October's main crop potatoes. The first yellow courgettes are a couple of inches long and the chard is showing its rainbow colours. The allotment is the great leveller, waving its sea-green ribbons, rioting about enclosure, my semi-rural rebellion within this city by the sea.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

#Instagram poetry

Bless #Instagram for my clone

with quotes from X1V Sonnets from the Portugese 
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

My life, I admit, is little more than photos
of police cars in disabled bays, on pavements,
obscure quotes, birthday cake, attempts
with biscuits, pasta, sourdough, all I've grown -

from fatter to a glut of plums. So clone, 
since I've posted so little to measure
up to, love me for love's sake, that evermore,
now you've broken in, you're my reflection

in a place I won't revisit this lifetime, memory
of a silent pool where nothing's moved 
or sung since that girl drowned. Mum told 
the story on a walk. Picture me there, copy 

my duckface and I'll picture you by a lockbox,
devoted bot, headless browser, mimicking 
the numbers I twist into place, pirating Diptic 
collages, libations from me and my Ixus. 

Bless your punctuation of my name, formally
messaging my friends. A creature might forget to weep.
If thou must love me I donate my past asleep,
unaware of APIs. Is it you Logan or Richard953?

Oh, bot herder, spam bot, love on, reserve hotels, 
sit on flights, scrape and crawl for me, mutate,
mutate, mutate. I bless your trick of thought
the cloud you live in. Bless #Instagram, my clone.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

When my Instagram clone stole the garden buddha

If I could clone myself I wouldn't have done it on Instagram. I went there because of misplaced optimism. Everyone was talking about Instagram poets and I had quite a few short poems, they'd be good wouldn't they? 

I've always seen myself as technically competent. I had one of the earliest Macs, as a young reporter I was shown the offices where Eddie Shad was revolutionising newspaper production. 

I've fitted new memory into a laptop, I've sorted out problems with broadband, I've backed up and backed up, changed passwords....I joined Facebook. And that was where my Instagram clone was conceived. 

If I imagine a clone, it's a 65 year old woman in allotment clothes bending over a line of lettuces in someone's memory - not truly a clone, but a quick charcoal drawing, or the kind of monoprint my friend Jane Fordham makes. 

But no, the clone trying to con good people out of cash is me with a fullstop interrupting the name I've had since childhood, Jackie. The name I shared with a magazine and wife of a president. 

The clone has copied everything I've posted, including a desperate change of profile picture, from portrait of me at Kings Lynn Poetry Festival by my publisher Tony Ward, to mum's garden buddha. When the clone stole the buddha it was the last straw. I downloaded a stock photo of a can of spam and made that my profile pic. 

I've reported the impersonation to Instagram five times, included proof of ID (passport and driving licence), and other Instagram users have reported it too. But it takes up so much time. So I've gone for full deletion after temporarily disabling it. Minutes after deleting, I had an email from Facebook saying they haven't received acceptable ID that matches information on the account. I guess it was also from a bot. In my pointless reply to the bot I wrote: 

"I've just deleted my genuine account, so if you want, as a company, to be seen to enable fraud and impersonation, be my guest....I have decided to withdraw totally from social media in order to protect my name."

I've discovered people who tried for months to get Instagram to delete a cloned account and I can't be bothered to go head to head with the deep capitalists to secure such a tiny place in the sun where the bots are rampaging through beautiful places with their fundamentalism, botox and lies.
Mum's garden buddha and cat. The buddha's face was one of my
profile pics which the Instagram clone stole with impunity. 

I was leaving social media anyway. Instagram was something I rescued from the charity shop bag. But last night, I looked at my followers. Men with steroid arms and tattoos, women pouting, boardroom men in suits, men topless hugging dogs, men claiming to be religious and after a good woman, all of them with numbers after their names. 

There it was, photo proof of the bots. And I realised as I blocked them, that my complaints to Instagram would also be dealt with by bots. 

I feel a bit sad that there's someone pretending to be me after all the work I've put into my writing. 

There is now only a cloned account on Instagram purporting to be me: jack.iewillspoet
Note the full stop is in the middle of my first name. 

But I can't do any more to limit the fraud. It seems cloning is thriving despite public pronouncements by Instagram. I did all the company asked to prove I am who I am - jackiewillspoet without a full stop - but my name, punctuated randomly, now belongs to a criminal clone, fed, watered, prayed to and cheered on by Instagram. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

28 years

Twenty-eight years ago today I woke up as a mother. My son was born in the early hours of the morning on June 13 1992. I was 37 years old. Yesterday he, his girlfriend, my daughter, my mother and me celebrated with strawberry cake and sandwiches.

Before birthday tea, thousands of us stood silently on the seafront to demand changes to how my son, my daughter, their dad and millions of other black people are treated in the UK. As a white woman I've not experienced racism, I've experienced its by-products. I've tried to comfort my children, stand up for them, listen to them. I've witnessed them and their dad humiliated by teachers, bosses, so-called friends, parents of so-called friends, neighbours, the police, random strangers, security guards, shopkeepers, their peers.

I have been forced to listen to extracts from my father's diary read aloud in which he referred to the father of my children in terms I couldn't write down here. I have been told this act had nothing to do with race (of course not, I am white) and all to do with me.  I have witnessed this tactic adopted gratefully by white liberals who believe we won't notice as they turn the objects of their discomfort into aggressors.

I didn't have a clue what I was embarking on as a mother. I'd never been around babies. The family I was brought up in was self-contained, almost hermetically sealed. There was no laughter, no socialising, no sharing small children and babies around. My father's bitterness and racism tainted our lives until my mother had enough and left. I was 21.

When I was eight, I remember my grandfather carving lamb at one of the Sunday lunches we endured in Wembley. He stood to carve, at the top of the table. Behind him, the main road, changing demographically. It was 1963 and 15 years since Empire Windrush docked in Essex. Even then, so young, I felt uncomfortable with the language my grandfather used to describe his neighbours. Beside me, two younger brothers. Beside me, my mother, cowed, my aunt, cowed, my father, nodding.  So I should have known what I was embarking on as a mother bringing up black children. The hard bits, anyway.

Twenty eight years on from the morning after that birth around dawn on June 13, after I'd looked down on the seafront, over the waves, the horizon, the sky from the hospital tower block, we reminisced about the maths teacher who humiliated both my children, now an alcoholic. Mum and I heard my children describe not one, not two, but multiple teachers' abuses of power. This was not the 1950s, it was post millenium, in a school described as one of the best comps in the UK.

We sometimes remember a man with flickering eyes like a lizard who accused my son of threatening him, whose racism was so intense and shameful that just thinking about the incident makes me shake. The people paying him couldn't grasp or admit it, so they spent months turning it around until they had a story in which my son and I had threatened them. They told their friends, their cleaner, their workmates. They built a narrative that was repeated until it reached people I knew.

Incapable of admitting they'd employed someone who had behaved so dangerously, so transgressively - god forbid they couldn't be racist - they convinced themselves they were victims.

Yesterday, we didn't need to state what my children learned from birth, that racists are dangerous and to be avoided. When I saw a video of the woman in Central Park calling police because a black man asked her to put her dog on a lead, I remembered lizard-eyed man, my shaking hands, my nausea, my fear.

We have all seen the contortions of truth deep racists and covert racists share and live with while planning for a post-lockdown holiday "somewhere hot." Eavesdrop, hear them complain among themselves that they can't say what they like anymore, we've seen them adopt victimhood and transform it into firearms and fists or deflect attention away from change.

My children have taught me unpicking racism is a long game. That like all good crime stories, there are innumerable false statements of truth and plot twists. People may pretend a poster in a window can erase a decade of racist behaviour but what do you think?  I've learned that despite having black children I can also be racist but I hope I have learned to challenge myself. To be self aware. To listen when I am challenged.

What I never anticipated all that time ago was that my life would be divided in this way and I would learn so much. But the racists, overt/covert, pissing on war memorials or avoiding the seafront Black Lives Matter protest for a walk in the country, are on the wrong side of history. No amount of playing black music, going to Womad, buying Fairtrade makes privilege righteous.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

About race

I hope I'll be able to go to the Black Lives Matter protest in Brighton on 13 June. It's down at Madeira Drive. It's going to be socially distanced and silent. But most important of all, it's my son's birthday.

More than before and after coronavirus, I think we will in future talk about before and after the killing of George Floyd. Before, those who would talk about race were predictable. Those who didn't want to hear shuffled awkwardly or were extreme in their opposition. Now, there is a deluge of demands on black people to explain. As if the UK is playing a massive game of catch up.

The only poems I've written directly about race and racism relate to the visits we made as a family to South Africa. The rest of the time I felt racism was not for me to address. I felt like a trespasser, even with black children.

Don't get me wrong. I challenged racism when they told me about it, but none of us could challenge it all. Did I, as a mother, begin to feel this was something we all had to put up with? Was I less aware of the physical dangers to my children, their father than I should have been?

I wonder now, if it wasn't until incident after incident during their teens that I really understood the police were never going to protect my children. I understood this when they were babies, on a trip to South Africa, when apartheid was to all intents and purposes still in place. But in the UK? Did I do enough to challenge racism? In hindsight, probably not. But what is enough, what is the bare minimum?

I believed I was politically aware. But not aware enough about race and racism. I think it would have taken too many books and far more courage than I had in me to be an activist when they were growing up. My energy went on making them feel confident about their identities, on finding black Lego, Playmobil, dolls, action men, books with black children in, hair products.

I began to write about race and bringing up my children only when my daughter left for university. And even then it was difficult. Even with that distance. A voice in me said you have no right. It still says you have no right. I've silenced it for a while. I've written the book. It's prose, not poems.

My son's due date was June 16, Soweto Day. He arrived early. He'll be 28 on June 13. If we can, we will stand in line on Madeira Drive as a family. My daughter will be 26 in September. It won't be the first time all four of us have stood against racism but it will be the first time we have protested against it together in the UK.

Sunday, May 31, 2020


The week a woman threatened a Black man in a park because he asked her to put her dog on a lead, the week an American cop put his knee on a Black man's neck and murdered him....
It's too much.
I've been afraid for my children for years as they grew up in the UK and faced racism. We've experienced the system of apartheid when we've visited their father's home but I would never want them to travel to America.
I wrote to Gary Younge when he left America, explaining in the Guardian he was leaving because of his son. He was the only other person who'd expressed fear for his children in that country in such a way I could relate to. I thanked him for bringing racism and its dangers down to basics.
There are things I can't write here because they're not mine to write. But I can speak out. And now is one of those times. If you don't know what racism is, you have to educate yourself. That is your responsibility. And if you are ignorant, do not expect tolerance of that ignorance.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Found sound in the graveyard

Dignity PLC - men who run many of the UK's graveyards, including
Downs Cemetery in Brighton
I'm at the allotment with an H1 'handy recorder' to do another week's poems for Radio Reverb's lockdown literature hour. It's a quirky show, with short stories, archival sounds of rain and birds, and me, reading poems from writers in and around the city, plus a short writing prompt at the end.
The producer likes a bit of ambient sound with the poems, as I do and me and the birds get on well.
But I have to choose my moments because even in lockdown, city life is not so quiet. At first there's birdsong - the robin, blackbird, the blue tits nesting in my shed, squirrels in the lindens, sparrows and gulls. There's traffic along the top road and rev of motorbikes because that cut through's an invitation to accelerate with fences on either side and ramshackle sheds. You could be anywhere, it's no-woman's land with its plastic bottle roofs and chairs made into fences.
I'm in the greenhouse wondering if I need to bring the recorder under cover because it's windy. Then in the distance it starts - the strimming - way down near the crematorium chimney belching grey smoke minute by minute. I try and look through the fence but the ivy's grown up. I wander down the path and there they are - men with machines and vans.
The grass has hardly had a chance to go green after the last shaving, but they're revving their strimmers and moving around the gravestones. I can feel my heart. This pack approach. I wander back to the shed and abandon the poem recording. I'll record the strimmer choir. It moves closer. I bend towards the mike, speak the time and date. The men and their machines are unstoppable. Stones, sticks, anything alive is thrown 15 metres one way and another. Nothing survives a petrol strimmer, not a frog, hedgehog, grass snake or slow-worm. Not a chick, a mouse, a squirrel.
(In Bristol, an allotment association has ruled petrol strimmers can only be used between 10 am and midday and only for 30 minutes. "Petrol strimmers emit noise  at a particularly high-pitched frequency which causes noise pollution to many.")
I bow down to Bristol pioneers and wonder about moving. Everyone knows, don't they, that petrol engines are noisy? It was a Texan who invented the petrol powered string strimmer in 1971 and that good ole boy made millions. Before him, you'd scythe and use a variety of hand-tools, or sheep. They were still sending sheep into the graveyards in Surrey in the 80s.
By now the strimmers are deafening, me, the fence, the badger sett, the dead.  I have to leave them to their destruction and wander home, download the recordings and listen back.
Bringing the sound to my desk, I feel the same panic and wonder if there's more to this. I think about beauty, I research sound pollution, I find just one good piece in the Financial Times about noisy garden machinery . The packs of men in harnesses stinking of petrol are rampaging as we speak through parks, allotments, graves, random patches of roadside grass, razing them to dust. They're paid by councils and cemeteries, by owners of large country estates.
I'm thinking about sound as art, found sound, how to bring this to boardrooms, meeting rooms, earbuds, about what it does to the body when it goes all spring and summer. I'm wondering about recording the leaf blower over the road, the power washer, the angle grinder, the electric saw, and putting them on a loop.
But they are already playing in the background at funerals, at weddings, at children's parties, at picnics, during intimate lunches, brave conversations, admissions of love. They drown out dreaming. They're what we've allowed.