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."