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.

Friday, May 15, 2020

A flower that arrived by accident

Honey garlic, allium siculum. 
In the places where this is common, the Black Sea and Mediterranean, it grows in woods. It likes damp and shade. It appeared on my allotment when I was working at the University of Surrey as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. So, sometime between 2010 and 2012. 
I remember asking in the office, excited by this exotic droopy plant with gorgeous flowers. 
It arrived just like that and it's multiplied where it appeared and moved to the top of the plot where it grows among spring nettles, holding its head of flowers above clumps of stinging leaves, among the brambles. I leave the patch untouched because the robin, or a succession of them, always nest in the tangle of thorns. It's safe. 
The plant's other names are Sicilian honey lilySicilian honey garlic and Mediterranean bells. It's a bee plant and it's multiplying in the dry, chalky soil where it first appeared. I designated this a flower patch so I don't dig it over much, although this year I've had to pull out a lot of grass and Japanese anemone which is taking over. The ox-eye daisies too are rampant. 
Below this patch is the even drier lavender patch where I've also planted sunflowers and angelica. On the path side is a vine. 
When I see the buds of the honey garlic opening I realise how little I know. They open like moments when I read a poem and am somewhere else. They open like mistakes, accidents, chance encounters. 
And as they spread, I am less afraid of destroying them forever. 
Where did the first one come from? I've looked forward to it coming back now for nearly a decade. 

Friday, May 08, 2020

No words for it

Methane release pipes are one of the reassuring aspects of a walk in Sheepcote Valley and, for the time being, the site's immunity from redevelopment.
While I love to see violets, deadnettle, bluebells, gorse and more, this sight lifts my heart. Long may it stay, while the occasional field mushrooms get kicked to pieces by dogs and walkers.
I have few words for the lockdown weeks in. Not a lot to add to news and social media reports of anxiety, aggression, peoples' inability to distance themselves. I hear from people in small towns, in the countryside about empty streets and wandering troupes of animals.
In Brighton, yesterday, it was already Bank Holiday. I had to take Giya to pick up a phone that a company was able to repair. She's a key worker, helping keep a nursery open for other key workers' children, and she needs her phone. We also had to check on Mum and water the seedlings at the allotment. So we had a drive from Saltdean to Hove along the seafront. It was busy all the way - people on bikes, walking, in groups, in the water, on the beach, on the lawns, picnicking.
Trying to think positive, Giya and I wonder if people will live differently after this. The signs, though, as the RAC has discovered, are that driving is the new cycling.
There's so much traffic the benefits of lockdown must be reducing by the minute, like the power tools cutting through birdsong.
I've dealt with these few weeks by planting, repotting seedlings, preparing the ground for planting out the squash, courgettes, beans, cavalo nero, lettuce etc. I've been growing in the greenhouse and polytunnel.
I did my poem a day during April, assiduously, but my efforts were empty. I crave silence more and more, velvety silence that only birdsong can provide - birds being the only sound that makes silence true.
I hear it when I wake up, before the cars start cutting up my road. I hear it sometimes in the middle of the night. But by lunchtime, someone will be determined to strim grass down to a centimetre, someone else will have a power-washer they're going to get value out of again today, someone will plug in a saw rather than get one out of the drawer or off a hook. The guys over the road will use the electric saw in the front so we can all hear it.
In our street, in my city of Brighton, is proof that Margaret Thatcher's "no such thing as society"  hasn't just endured, it's gained ground. With the loss of silence, the loss of words, is the loss of public discussion about how we live together, what we give, what we can expect from each other, discussion about respect, rights, how to protect our quality of life above personal convenience and profit.