Wednesday, December 15, 2021


It looks up at me and I wonder how I thought I could bin it. I don't know which of my two children made it, but it has survived in the glass cabinet on the landing. 

The cabinet houses placeless things - a candle from Nelson Mandela's 80th birthday cake, nursery school handprints, a bunch of door keys, spidermen, Barbies, three tiny lead toys my aunt had as a child and two silver coins I found in the fireplace when we moved in. 

When my last reading group stopped a couple of weeks ago, I was released into proper retirement. I began to think about how artists (writers, musicians, photographers, painters etc. etc) have been distracted by the X Factor effect, needing to be a winner. How our job is not to produce all the time, or win, but to make, to practice, trust time spent doing (apparently) nothing, trust instinct. 

Rob Hamberger was round last night and we talked about Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, her hidden clues. A couple of days ago I walked Polly, my friend's dog, through Queen's Park, onto the beach where we met Luca and her owners (photographing her with an old 35 m). I dropped round to Annie's on the way back, sat on her steps and talked until the dog demanded we go. 

I wake up without dread, answer to no-one. I've made marzipan, Christmas cake, vegan mincemeat, tea cosies. I've ironed table cloths and watched squirrels on the back garden fence. I've thought about the fox in my jumpers that night.  I've begun speaking French again thanks to Sian. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Another to survive my cull

The first novel I read by Abdulrazak Gurnah
 was By the Sea.  Like Paradise, the one I'm reading now, it survived my series of book culls. Gurnah's writing, as you'd expect from a winner of The Nobel Prize, is faultless, expansive, thought provoking. 

His writing proves he understands and loves people. It has that quality essential to all success, empathy and an ability to connect. I am at the point in Paradise, when I am afraid, not of the brilliant characters he's introduced me to, but of European expansion within the continent of Africa. He is showing it as it happens. 

These two novels of his both speak to the reason why he was awarded the Nobel Prize this year, "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

Friday, November 12, 2021

Heron by a pond in Utrecht

When I saw the heron at a pond in Kanalenailand I remembered the herons of Amsterdam and from then on, from my first day to my last, there were birds. 

from manuscript Der Naturen Bloem
by Jacob van Maerlant, 14th century Dutch poet
Utrecht is a large, prosperous, booming city. I've never seen so many shops. But in the district where Giya lives, like others around the city, there are strips of canal, ponds, a vast river and greenery. You pass an enormous weeping willow when you come off the tram. 

Although this is seven minutes on the tram from the city centre there are ducks, moorhens and herons and above them, a constant conversation between gulls, crows and pigeons. I didn't see lots of smaller birds, although I heard starlings singing as they gathered to roost one evening. 

It's the first time I've been able to visit my daughter's new home and it felt like another (there are so many) new stage of our lives. 

Their flat is warm, light, welcoming. From the living room you look out onto trees and grass. The sun streams in through big picture windows. She's happy. 

In the city and their neighbourhood I didn't see a single drunk, hear anyone shouting or fighting. I slept until 9. On my way home I saw migrating geese. Brighton seemed a world away and I was glad of that. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

A plunge neck and new wardrobe

Spectacular designs
from Naomi Ito's official website

I've named the screenshots slash neck, plunging neck, Vogue, Simplicity, McCalls, empire line, vintage, Vogue copy

Yes, retirement time is becoming sewing and sowing time. Giya was here for a week and we had a lot to catch up on. Flowers and clothes. I was tidying up the edges of a shirt I made her, amending a shirt she bought. I was listing summer (end of July) flowers and what's either side because summer as we know has become unpredictable. 

Then the dress of the day. I went into google, coming back endlessly to the same thing - nothing was quite right.  Initially she asked if I could adapt a Liberty pattern I made up for her before she left for the Netherlands but I was reluctant. Was I good enough?  After all, this is for a garment that's going to be in photos for the rest of our lives. And the fabric will be pricey. Yes, I'm making the wedding dress. 

The latest pattern is beautiful, the pattern itself provided as a downloadable PDF by a newish French company. Given that Giya and I spent a disappointing day in London, the internet saved us. Or at least I hope it has. Did she find the pattern scrolling through Instagram on the train on the way home, or when we were sat by the fire later? After hours with one idea in our heads, plunge neck, slit skirt, interesting sleeves, she found a design that fired her up. 

I haven't made up the pattern yet, neither did I print off 50+ pages of A4. I took it to a copyshop. The biggest challenge will be drapery. Technical but important. As for London... We headed first to John Lewis in Oxford Street because in my mind was an entire floor of fabrics and pattern books. My best Saturday job when I was a teenager was in a fabric shop in Farnham. To me a fabric shop is still a preview of paradise. Fabric, after all, is human history. But....John Lewis. 

Tucked away beyond kids stuff, including gruesome toddler clothes in the style of a country gentleman, is a corner with a single amalgamated pattern book and a range of fabrics I'd describe politely as an excuse. Yes, we found dupion silks Giya and I both liked the look and feel of, there was nothing else I couldn't find in Brighton. Onto Liberty... The prices, another world neither of us is part of. I should have known my past really is as lost as the blouse I made out of tana lawn decades back....

Onto a small haberdashers nearby where I bought sashiko thread, hooks for a vintage lace coat I've pressed onto Giya, and a helpful young assistant who recommended looking for patterns online. 

Disappointed, a bit tired, shocked by crowds, by a man collapsed outside Liberty surrounded by police and paramedics, a helicopter circling overhead, by the unfamiliar consumerism of Oxford Street we decided to buy our fabric in Brighton. My task now is to try this pattern out and see how it falls. It's going to take more than one dry run. 

I feel honoured as well as terrified. 

I'm growing some of the flowers. I'm making the dress (with, I anticipate, help from my friends.) I'm increasingly grateful we have Ditto in Kensington Gardens, where I bought a length of fine black linen years ago that is still my favourite shirt and where a helpful guy explained about ramie, made of bamboo. 

What I did pick up in John Lewis, though, was a standalone book of patterns by Japanese designer Naomi Ito that made me more energised than I have been for a long time. So as well as the dress is a new everyday wardrobe for me. I've been tracing the pattern pieces and am ready to go. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Where do I go to love my city?


Do you see that word LOVE graffitied
on the window of the old Coop?

The pavement's shrinking on Lewes Road, the cycle lane, what little there is of it, too, as bin bags spread and the council suggests we keep rubbish in sheds. 

Any shortcomings of communal bins and wheelie bins were vehemently denied by the many who claim to be experts in bin bags.  You'd think they were plated in gold, they offered such solutions to us, the un-initiated and ignorant public. 

Once I spoke to a man called Sean about my small black dustbin which he insisted I had to replace with a wheelie bin, so deep I can't reach the bottom. Neither can the bin men, who now leave my rubbish because contrary to what Sean says, they don't attach it to the lorry, they transfer my rubbish to another wheelie bin. 

I can't imagine bending my whole body into my bin to grab a small, pungent bag of cat litter, which is all my household generates. But Sean was adamant. If I put my dustbin out my rubbish wouldn't be collected. He threatened me with a communal bin. And his threat was serious - being played out city wide. 

Does it need to be like this? Banks of bin bags partying with traffic fumes on Brighton's second most polluted road, booming to the sounds of mobile speakers by night and angle-grinders by day. I loved my city once. I don't blame Sean, only as trenchant as his paymasters demanded. Next there'll be vans motoring around the streets at night depositing pizza boxes and last night's take-aways on corners, as landlords do with sofas when the students move out. 

Is there a conversation here? But where do I go to talk about quality of life? Is there a place to imagine a different daily reality? Because the council has failed on traffic, on public transport, on housing, on noise, on recycling, on care of the young and the old.... It enables parking on pavements, skateboards and bikes on pavements, and now great mounds of rubbish. Where do I express my righteous anger? My sadness at the bureaucrats and the Seans. 

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Letting art help us

Alice Walker was as much a part of my late 20s and early 30s as the pink bass guitar I played badly and long union meetings in the pub discussing pay, equality and solidarity. 

She's a writer I've discovered again and again since the heady 1980s, always with joy. And so with my pension burning a hole in my pocket and a new source of books - NOT AMAZON - I ordered her memoir, The Same River Twice: Honouring the Difficult, because I can rely on her to show me a new view. 

I admit I've been questioning the point of writing, of creating anything. I've been reading, walking aimlessly, trying to write but doubting. Friends have tried to convince me to write for the sake of it and I've resisted that too. But Walker can be relied upon to set me back on track. 

Here it is, in her preface, at the bottom of the first page: "Art is the mirror, perhaps the only one, in which we can see our true collective face. We must honour its sacred function. We must let art help us."

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Ageism comes out to play in Brighton

Choreographer Liz Aggiss
English Channel in 2015
Photo by Joemurrayfilms,
via Wikimedia Commons
Brighton and Hove has an Ageing Well festival in progress. I picked up a glossy (expensive) brochure in London Road Sainsbury's and took it home to read with a cup of lapsang and almond cake.

I'm flicking through the programme - origami, cookery, drawing for beginners, dancing with teenagers, taking photos on your phone and my antennae are waving around like sparklers. I sense ageism coming out to play.

I look closely at a couple of events. Art in the 21st Century reads:

"Join us to try out and explore some of the many creative and fun things we can do using a computer, including photography, creating artwork, making your own music, learning a musical instrument, singing, crochet, crafts, dancing, poetry or another creative activity."


"A special Festival session of Age is a Stage, our playful and creative performance workshops for the older generation (50+) who still feel young. Come along and see what we do at these weekly sessions; no experience is necessary, just a willingness to break the rules, be creative, be silly, be playful and look at the world with a fresh eye."

When I think of Art in the 21st century names that come to mind immediately are Bernadine Evaristo, Paula Rego, Liz Aggiss, Jane Fordham, Annie Lennox, Tracie Chapman, Agnes Varda, so I recalibrate myself. But I wonder who thought this one through and who do they mix with? Why include crochet in a screen-based event? Is it a surrealist happening? The second session, for "the older generation who still feel young", I also struggle to grasp. It's that phrase 'feel young' that suggests we haven't a chance, in our normal state of not feeling young, but a little bit peaky or realistic about the years we carry with us, of ever being silly again.

Agnes Varda
collaborating in her
Fifty year olds are working. Sixty year olds are working. Seventy and eighty year olds are working. We are at the top of our game after a lifetime of trying. I don't recognise myself or my friends in this apology for a festival which might at least have stretched itself a little into a creative debate about what it means to age well (or badly), to question the politics of ageing for Brighton's older writers, artists, musicians, film makers, photographers, dancers, actors, producers, designers etc. etc. Was it one challenge too far for dullards who scatter exclamation marks around like glitter to make up for the lack of real excitement?

Public money perpetuates the stereotype of older person as passive consumer/social incompetent and/or inexperienced in matters of sewing, baking, computers and origami. Someone who's forgotten how to do things but might want to pick them up again....What has it cost? I can't even use this glossy coated brochure to light the fire.

What can we do? There are many ways of seeing. Paula Rego's self-portraits after a fall, resisting the adjective 'silver'. I like the Verandah poems of Jean Binta Breeze, how Fabrica Gallery engages with the issue of ageing in its programming and outreach, how Liz Aggiss demands we think about what it means in her performance work. It's about tuning. And we know how to do that. Right?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Nature notes from a new generation and country souvenirs

I was a journalist writing about local government when I came across a report called 'Keep Them In Birmingham'. 

Published in 1992, supported by the (then) Commission for Racial Equality, its author Eric Jay was a community relations officer in London, and he was looking at racism in south west England. 

Twenty nine years on from those very different work years, I came across a fabulous poem by Louisa Adjoa Parker - Dear White West Country People - on the website of Little Toller books and through it, a link to a project she's been running that goes to the heart of what identity and belonging means in the UK. 

The question that gives the project its name is 'Where are you really from?' And what Louisa is addressing cuts deep into how life in the countryside is presented. So I looked out that report again. At the end of the foreword, Michael Day, chair of the CRE concludes: "The essential starting point must be to question the assumption which so many appear to have accepted uncritically, that ‘there is no problem here’. This report makes that belief untenable; racism in the south-west is evidently a problem, and a serious one which requires urgent attention." 

1992 was the year I had my son and in 1994 my daughter. I've been wrestling with a sort of memoir of my own about life as a mixed race family in the UK in the decades straddling the millennium, questions of identity, how to ensure children do not feel lost. I'm still wrestling with it but I've signed up for a course on how to write memoir with Katy Massey, writer of 'Are We Home Yet?'

Louisa's own website tells you all you need about her poetry, short stories, consultancy and forthcoming memoir with Little Toller books. Her memoir and others that tell a different story are essential if the cacophony of reflections on the countryside from white men is to be re-tuned. 

The title of that old report is brilliant, just as Louisa's project name is, and her poem title, which reminds me of Danez Smith's, Dear White America. I think, too, of poet, Roger Robinson's poem, Day Moon about a black men's walking group. 

So the bravery and challenge of the 1990s is informing a new generation of nature notes. And as a sort of non-sequitur, in our cellar is a big election poster for UKIP that my son retrieved from the side of the road in the Sussex countryside. Yesterday, as an electrician crawled around looking for a cable to put in a new socket, I remembered, hastily explained why it was there, that I didn't....that it was a souvenir....nothing to do with me....but yes, I remembered, they were everywhere. Like the asbestos notice on the stairs into the cellar that reads: NON WHITES ONLY, which Risenga rescued from somewhere in South Africa. These souvenirs, hey?

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Summer of soul - or you get what you're given

 My old schoolfriend and I dived into the waters of adolescence this week. The sun was on the sea and I was breaking my lifetime rule of never watching daytime TV. But this was an exception. This was a chance to watch the prizewinning Summer of Soul (Or, when the revolution could not be televised)

It's on Disney Plus but, well....we put our feet up and were in Harlem, 1969, at a cultural festival spanning six weeks which, as we now know, coincided with Woodstock and the moon landings. In 1969 we were 14. 

Nina Simone in 1967
It was a year of some of the best music around - Marvin Gaye's 'I heard it through the grapevine' (Gladys Knight performs an earlier, slower version in Summer of Soul), Desmond Dekker's 'The Israelites', Stevie Wonder's 'For Once in my Life', Jimmy Cliff's 'Wonderful World Beautiful People', Diana Ross and the Supremes, 'I'm Gonna Make you Love Me', and the anthem, 'The Tracks of My Tears' by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. 

Of course there were others that year, swimming around in those adolescent waters: Witchita Lineman, Je T'Aime, Where do you go to my lovely? but those Motown hits reach deep. I wasn't going to clubs at that age (my father wouldn't even allow me to go to a youth club). I didn't feel part of any scene. I hadn't even started my periods. But these Motown tracks ground me in the emotional territory of adolescence with all its optimism, anger, developing awareness. 

Anyway, back to Summer of Soul. Shocked, but not surprised, that another aspect of black history's been so suppressed, we watched, we hummed along, we marvelled at the clothes (elegant, original, inspiring, daring), the normal body sizes of women singers, the power of the music and the politics. I'm not going to spoil anything here, but I understand why this film languished in a cellar. It is dangerous, even now. To established thinking in the US, UK, Europe, the whole northern hemisphere that's still enabling endemic injustice and overt racism. Nina Simone's performance is electric. 

How many times during our watching did we say to each other, "Nothing's changed"? And googled if any UK cinema's screening it?  

If I could sit every 14 year old down to watch it before winter comes.... And I'd say, make the music, write the lyrics, be proud of yourself and resist, ask the questions that are asked so pointedly about so-called achievement that has been replayed this summer by the world's richest men.  

Desmond Dekker sang, "I get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir/ So that every mouth can be fed...." and Jimmy Cliff asked us to "look at the world / And the state that it's in today."  

Friday, August 27, 2021

Foraging in Brighton

Tarragon, grown by me, dried by me

I open the top gate to the allotment and look down towards the plum tree. The top and middle height branches are bare of the green fruit I'm looking forward to collecting. Under the tree plants are trampled, pots knocked off chairs and table.  Someone, or more than one, has brought a ladder and stripped all the fruit from head-height up, leaving just over-ripe yellowing plums, bruised, rotten or squirrel damaged and unripe maroon plums that are the rootstock the green was grafted onto. I write a note and tie it to a branch warning anyone who thinks they can steal any more they'll be on camera. My new allotment neighbours have lost all the fruit from their tree, the allotment rep too. 

I caught a woman once helping herself to raspberries from my plot with her floaty skirt and trug over her arm. She claimed to be foraging and that it was allowed. I told her to fuck off and she got the message.  

But this morning my daughter sent me an Instagram screenshot - a local restaurant boosting its cred with news of plums from a forager. Not the same plums as mine, thankfully, but it got me thinking again about foraging and how it might be misunderstood on so many levels. 

A friend tells a story in which I rant about foragers at a party and true, I will, given half a chance, after an encounter with foragers en-masse, led by a truly misguided guide from a Brighton organisation, a tribe with buckets and ladders off to strip local trees they claimed no-one knew about.  Well if you're a forager and reading this - we locals know about these places and trees,  and we pick for ourselves, not for sale and not for making money from courses. Sad to say, foraging has become commercialised like everything else by Brighton's capitalist hipsters. In the late stages of the worst kind of capitalism it's not just restaurants, but now events that are commercialising wild food. 

How, in whose philosophy, in whose book is this acceptable? So here are just some of those boasting about foraging or foraged food (it includes a journey into the soul) gleaned from an initial websearch. I'm sure there are many, many more lurking in woods, car parks and on footpaths. 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Passport or blunt instrument?


I am double vaccinated, I vaccinated
my children, I am not anti-vaccination

Caroline Lucas has written back - she's been lobbied by plenty and promises to oppose compulsory vaccinations against Covid 19, if it comes to a vote. 

That's a big IF. It presumes, also, public consultation and a level of debate. One of the first questions is how we establish a difference between vaccine hesitancy and opposition to compulsory vaccination.

In the clamour of the pinging app and Olympics, can medical ethics make itself heard?

The ethics professionals, scientists, medics are already on this - they have been for a while because compulsory vaccination's not new. 

One of the voices in the BMJ's Journal of Medical Ethics, is Prof Julian Savulescu who compares compulsory vaccination, in relation to the public good, to conscription, paying taxes and compulsory seat belts. Having examined compulsion and possible payment for vaccination, he argues: "An alternative “payment” model is to pay those who vaccinate in kind. This could take the form of greater freedom to travel, opportunity to work or socialise. With some colleagues, I have given similar arguments in favour of immunity passports." 

Ahh, the passport, so reminiscent of BREXIT...

Gratefully, the UK government's rushing its recycled metaphor to the printers, earbuds in to block out the distracting ideas (and warnings) being shared among professionals.   

Again, the BMJ reports: "With France and Greece going for compulsory vaccination for healthcare workers, The NHS Confederation has said that the current approach of encouraging uptake through informed consent is the preferred option. The BMA is also calling for targeted engagement and possible alternative mitigations against transmission for people who are not vaccinated. Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, called compulsion “a blunt instrument to tackle a complex issue.”

"Peter English, former editor of Vaccines in Practice and immediate past chair of the BMA’s public health committee, told The BMJ, “The problem with making things mandatory is that it often creates a backlash, and you can get more people refusing to have the vaccine because they are being forced to. The general view is that mandatory vaccination should be a last resort.”"

Will people whose area of expertise is medical ethics be heard among Johnson's populist clamour that has more in common with Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia?   

A briefing paper on UK vaccination policy from the House of Commons library is scanty to say the least, murmuring:  "The effectiveness of mandatory vaccination policies is not clear...."

The UK's only compulsory vaccination, against smallpox, was in force between 1852 and 1948.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Resist division and distraction

This was a message to Trump in 2020
The ways people resist, those who resist, union meetings, demonstrations, days of strike or picketing, the clear thinking of writers like Toni Morrison and Jackie Kay, the activism of young women and men...

I am casting around and every conversation I end up in on the allotment path, at the open market, on the phone, at Mum's, in Jane's garden, at the beach, veers into, what the hell is happening? We are worried but are we feeling just a bit too paralysed to act?

This regime of Johnson, Patel, Gove and company has taken Thatcher's model of destroying the unions and is determined to eradicate any resistance that is hanging on in this culture silenced by reality TV and shopping. Its strategy - divide and distract. Sound Orwellian?

This was a message to Europe in 1968

On the day the second multi-billionaire takes his rocket to the edges of the atmosphere, with barely a critic to be heard, I am at my limit, wondering who will raise their voice to question what these plunderers are doing?

Brendan Cleary rang yesterday to read me two new poems over the phone. They're very dark, he said. He seemed worried. I thought of Brecht: 

“In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. /About the dark times. ”

Civil liberties are snatched away as we're distracted. These are the first things a pick-pocket learns. 

I know I'm barely scratching at this problem, but here is today's letter to Caroline Lucas, my MP.

Dear Caroline

I am writing because of the announcement that the Tory government intends to make anyone attending a large gathering show proof of Covid vaccination in order to enter. 

I am double vaccinated, so I am not an anti-vaxxer. Both my children were fully vaccinated against all childhood diseases. I defend vaccination and its role in eradicating terrible diseases wherever people claim to be against it. I personally remember the impact of polio and I celebrate vaccination's role in medical advances. 

However, vaccination must be a personal choice made by a parent or an individual and while I will debate with those who decide to remain unvaccinated, all of us need the freedom to make that decision. I understand, also, why people in their 20s are sceptical, given the mounting list of this government's lies. 

So I am urging you as my MP to resist this increasingly authoritarian government's move to undermine the most basic freedom, i.e. an individual's freedom to choose  medical treatment. I urge you to question the legality of any such legislation and work with other MPs in order to ensure it is never realised. 

None of us know the long-term effects of this vaccine and while at the age of 66 I felt I could take that risk, I understand anyone in their 20s being more sceptical. There is every reason to distrust this government when it comes to the rights and lives of most ordinary people. 

So we cannot allow a policy of this kind to be implemented in a democracy. It will create more divisions in our society, but perhaps this is what the Tories are hoping for? 

For the obvious reason that every individual should be allowed to control what goes into their own bodies, to the less obvious reason that this government is determined to restrict our civil liberties, by force if necessary, please ensure that the arguments are put forward and that any justification this is for the public good is challenged every time - both in the House of Commons and in the media. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Be kind - a Scrabble sign


I was walking back after checking the sheep on Whitehawk Hill with Helen, who's a lookerer, and last week we were up there admiring a new lamb, possibly an hour or so old, finding its feet, eventually feeding, waiting for the farmer, as another ewe with a lamb moved closer to the new mother. We sat on a log, looked out towards the sea, shivered in the wind and realised how lucky we are. 

This week, Helen had brought her binoculars to help her count the sheep better and there was a third lamb, like the one from last week, with sandy legs and face. On our way back I spotted the scrabble letters made into a sign and stuck to a wall near the racing stables. I don't know why it reminded me of a short story by Edna O'Brien about war. In it the violent death of a woman and family cow are linked, not in a crass way, but to explore sentience, kindness, whatever the absence of cruelty is...

Yesterday when I went with Bernadette to Crawley I had an idea it would be nice to visit Ardingly Reservoir, because I've never been. It's not easy to find, visitors not encouraged it seems and when you get there, activity not encouraged either. While children from the private schools splash around in their racing skiffs, canoes and yachts, the general public is left under no illusion - you are not welcome. 

You also can't fail to notice the number of signs at the reservoir, which appears as a very large blue shape on the map, but which is not marked on the road and you're tempted to give up on the approach, there's so little information. You pass the private school and its prep school and the impression settles that this is all their land, nothing to do with the public, but you remind yourself this is South East Water, you are paying your water your mind is the sign on the gate warning DON'T GET LOCKED IN as you bump into a car park and there's really very little encouragement to do anything except get back in the car and leave. We stagger up a slope, look at the grey water, the public footpath sign by the gate is knocked over and we get back into the car and drive away. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Mavis Cheek's end of the millenium novel on sexual freedom

The dedication "to the honourable women and men of this planet who struggle and may fail but who nevertheless attempt the good" is a hint to the sweep of Mavis Cheek's thought provoking novel, Aunt Margaret's Lover, published in 1994. 

I'm ashamed to admit it's the first of her novels I've read but I'll be looking for more because I couldn't put it down. It's not just that it's funny and modern, covering sexual politics and single parenting, but it's shot through with tragedy, a healthy loathing of the rich who collect art as an investment and a clear-eyed view of how we muddle through. 

I am glad I refused to let a Daily Mail quote on the front cover put me off. There are several different covers for this book - QE1 is the one I found, but others highlight the personal ad much of the story's based on. I am glad I was so desperate to read something funny that I found Mavis Cheek. She knows about the art world - look at her website - and she is a champion of good writing as opposed to celebrity. There is a difference. In fact, she's a founder of "the Marlborough Literature Festival which aims to put authorship, rather than celebrity, back at the heart of literature festivals."

For that alone, I am on the verge of writing a fan letter. And because she has been a Royal Literary Fund fellow, I feel a sense of being in the same community, although certainly not at the same level. 

I'm sure she has masses of fans and people who would be surprised how late I've discovered her, but I'll shout it here, she's one of the best. Aunt Margaret's Lover centres on a woman's hunt for a lover for a year, April to April. And it's superb. I won't be putting this back in the charity bag. Aunt Margaret is a self-taught picture framer, a woman who brings up a child alone, and she has informed views about the art world. 

The novel's worth reading for one early scene at a gallery alone, when Aunt Margaret and a wealthy woman collector trying out her new electric wheelchair, disagree about Picasso's late etchings. These feature strongly in the novel too, adding a brilliant focus for commentary on people with money. 

Ignore the reviews putting it in the category of light summer reading, it's furious, damning, complex, subversive and feminist and in a interview on her work, Cheek herself says, " I’m a feminist to my bones without even trying. Girls are doing brilliantly at school and university but that’s still not reflected in the balance of the world. Look at Zaha Hadid – who was virtually number one in a field of one so far as great women architects were concerned, and boy she paid for it."

She adds, "I’ve fought my battles over the years with The Great Unliberated Male – and I’m a little bit tired of it."

I haven't been as delighted or surprised by a novel for a long time. It seems to me there are women  expressing what matters who must be sought out. 

Her website's fabulous, especially the bit about comedy women in print and how women writers are dismissed or sidelined, or their books are bought by men for their girlfriends, wives, sisters etc. etc. 

Friday, May 07, 2021

Dervla Murphy, woman of the future

Our own travels with children - Risenga, our children
and their grandmother, end of
the continent, South Africa, 1994

This morning the cat chirruped me awake at 5.30 so I reached over for the last pages of The Island That Dared, Dervla Murphy's account of three journeys to Cuba with her daughter and grandchildren and alone. It's a big book - more than 400 pages - but also creatively and intellectually. I found it in Saltdean, and Cuba's been on my mind - Risenga planned to go this summer but the musicians he was planning to meet recommended he put his trip off. 

I first encountered Murphy's writing when I was teaching for the Open University and although I haven't read loads of her work, she captivated me in two of her African books, Cameroon with Egbert (John Murray 1990) and South from the Limpopo: travels through South Africa (John Murray 1997). It's the time of year to read about planting but at night I sleep most often to fiction. On the floor outside my bedroom sit Djuna Barnes, Tolstoy, Doris Lessing, Thomas Lynch, Anita Desai, Fadia Faquir, Toni Morrison, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Drabble. 

After a lifetime, Murphy's a superb storyteller - 90 in November this year, her intellect, capacity for interpreting and understanding, shimmer in the pages of The Island That Dared. She feels like one of the last public figures to stand up for a way of life that is anti-consumerist, anti-corporation, pro-people. In her rare interviews she celebrates ordinary people, isolation, self-sufficiency. She's compassionate and different - a woman whose creative independence has to be essential to a viable human future. 

When I read a while ago that she admired Freya Stark, I read Stark's The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan (John Murray 1970). It was from Stark I learned about Churchill calling for the use of chemical weapons in the region. Murphy covers the use of chemical warfare in Cuba via dengue fever and swine fever. I find it almost impossible to imagine the isolation and courage of these women, travelling alone. 

As I've come to the end of Murphy's three trips to Cuba, I've wondered about coincidences of thought, my interest in symbiotic relationships in the natural world. One of Murphy's themes in her Cuban journeys is how the country's poverty, self-sufficiency and emphasis on education and research has primed it to be a leader in sustainable living. As I read and later talked with Jane, I felt a deep grief for the future we are falling to - drugged by retail and hospitality we are allowing moneymen, loathsome and morally corrupt corporations to destroy its achievements. 

I've been driving my writing towards optimism but struggle with how deeply embedded the absurdly monied have become to our thinking.  Murphy reveals the lengths Cuba's opponents went to to undermine socialism. But otherwise, in a rare Guardian interview in 2009, her advice to anyone wanting to travel becomes advice for life. While she's in no doubt travel of the kind she's done is long gone, she urges travellers to immerse themselves in the journey.  

"Abandon your mobile phone, laptop, i-Pod and all such links to family, friends and work colleagues. Concentrate on where you are, deriving your entertainment from immediate stimuli, the tangible world around you," she advises. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The best of us

The poppy through pigeon netting

I wake up and think first about sunflowers I've repotted, if I should have put fleece back over the seeds because it's been so cold. 

Yesterday, potting on calendula, the healing flower, I was thinking about Helen, my old school friend who died last month. She had hair the colour of those marigolds. 

It is a cliche to associate the allotment with release but I'm happy now with cliche. 

Actually the greatest release is from place claiming. It was purgative, freeing swathes of my front garden last week of ground elder, but what comes back like those bits of root is people staking claims on things. It becomes so distracting and interrupts better thoughts. I've left social media (well most of it apart from the one defining itself with the metaphor of a chain) so how do I stop feeling irritated with the world, with strangers who mean nothing to me?

I plant out mizuma, pak choi, telegraph peas and lettuce, I thank Jeanette for her gift of tomato and chilli plants, I joke with Dave about goji berries and when I do this, the only things jostling are weeds and vegetables. This helps. 

in the herb patch
I watch a long worm, feel how dry the soil is.....and when plants I put outside are scorched from a late frost, when I see first earlies showing and hope mice won't get beans I've sown in the greenhouse, I think of Emily Dickinson's, It will be summer - eventually. So with the earth moving on its axis because of climate change, I know I'm better off among billions whose focus is on growing vegetables, herbs, flowers - put to better work on the vocabularies, metaphors and rhythms of soil. 

And it's the time of year when the birds are everywhere with their beaks full of worms, there are queues on Wilson Avenue because the racing's started again, the foxes are busy at night and it's best really, if there's a top ten list of worries, to be concerned about the pea seedlings and whether the frost has had them, or slugs. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Truth and branding

Whatever you say...doesn't mean it's true

I hold my hands up, I was taken in by branding. It was the turn of the millennium and I had no idea how sophisticated an enterprise it was, making a brand - I couldn't equate this with burning a mark into a horse's rump. How I got my insight doesn't matter but yesterday I was walking down the hill from the allotment when momentarily all the storytelling and the glamour of it, the hotels and process of understanding consumers came back and, like remembering an embarrassing incident, I cringed. 

The prompt was an elderly hipster father on his driveway with a bottle of beer talking to his son in his early teens. The father's snow white beard and hair were immaculately cut and he was looking at his son's hoodie when I heard the word brand. 

And it provoked another discussion I'd had with my son at the allotment, when he was in his mid 20s and he was asking about plants and trees. 'My generation can give you the names of 10 brands without any trouble, but hardly a single name of plants or trees,' he said. He was pleading for knowledge of more than the world of buying and selling, a state of mind taken for granted in Europe and the US, the only system that's called on in these parts of the world to keep what is jokingly called the economy going. He was mourning. 

I can't be bothered to argue against what's happened in the 66 years since I was born because my arguments are unheard by anyone other than friends. I know most of us only directly influence what's around us, our own behaviour. But for speculation's sake, let's go back to the original meaning of brand, the damage and appropriation the word harbours. 

Take alphabet, one of the common words stolen by Google. Its companies claim to overcome ageing, they promote drone deliveries (think of that noise, the birdsong you love....the sound of sparrow wings in the shrub), they suggest they also have your mind on a property list. Are you for that?

Take the activity of branding and hipster on his driveway, imagining that the word brand is a shortcut to connect with his son and son's girlfriend. 

At home I watched a BBC documentary about a group of people in Ethiopia who weave houses with split bamboo, then another about a Masai woman who takes two days to make a wedding necklace. The documentaries weren't brilliantly made, but the people were interesting. A detox. What are we going to do to get out of this mess?

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Upcycling and mending

I extended this t shirt with a plain
cotton band cut from a skirt

If clothes tell stories, mine have recourse to all sorts of lives and I'm reluctant to let them go without being certain there's nothing to be done with them. And of course, there's always rags and patches, or stuffing draught excluders. Stuffing for draught excluders tends to be the fate of old knickers and single socks. 

Sashiko stitching helped me alter the neck
of this t shirt

A friend sent me some sashiko thread and needles when I was lining my dressing gown in the winter and I've used the technique to alter t shirts. I constantly pull at t shirts - I prefer boat necks so the thread and running stitch allows me to cut off the manufactured seam and strengthen the fabric. 

The charity Love Your Clothes asks us never to put old clothes in the bin. Not even pants. And fabric scraps? I've been cutting out bunting, sewing muslin face cloths and make-up remover pads, shopping bags, cushion covers, I'm about to embark on a parasol and am plaiting lengths of scrap fabric into a rope I intend to make into a mat. 

Repairing old clothes from Repair What You Wear (with youtube tutorials and PDF instructions)

Friday, March 26, 2021

Your space with the phoenix



And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don't let it go.

The quote is from Doris Lessing's 2007 Nobel Prize speech, which she titled, "On not winning the Nobel Prize." Lessing was 88 when she was awarded it, the oldest recipient. Her speech travels between people of privilege and poverty, to spotlight a young woman reading a section of Anna Karenin while she waits in line for water outside a store in southern Africa. Lessing concludes:

That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is - we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.

I was looking at the speech before a weekly reading group I run for the Royal Literary Fund at a hospital school for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. The group is for staff and young people and for an hour I read stories and poems. Yesterday I read Lessing's Through the Tunnel, a story about a child learning to separate himself from his mother, from his need to be accepted by other, older boys. 

It's gripping, brilliant. But because it didn't quite fill the time, I read another story by a less stunning writer, but interesting anyway, about a man reading War and Peace and listening each afternoon to a woman practising a song from Guys and Dolls. He's not so keen on Tolstoy but it gets him through. You see the link in my mind. 

I love this work. It's the best I've ever had. While it takes enormous amounts of time to find stories and poems that are suitable for reading to young people in crisis, the job reinforces that idea of the importance of your own space. Because that space isn't just for writing, for creating, it's for possibilities. 

When I go to bed I read. I have done that most of my life. When my children went to bed I read to them. Last night as I was finishing emails, far too late, I saw my son had sent me an audio file of a song. It's pure blues, his voice is deep, the piano and guitar remind me of all the blues I've listened to in my life since I bought my first blues album in the 1970s. Blues is that space, poetry, taking photos, which is where my daughter finds her space. Lessing wasn't special in knowing the realities of two societies, two ways of life but she used this speech to remind us

It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The shame of racism

A Black Lives Matter socially distanced protest summer 2020
The shame that racism invokes in white people is complex. Confronted with evidence, I might try and look for a reason that is not attributed to race - unable to acknowledge a truth that is not mine. 

Or I might feel under threat - am I guilty? How will I be made to pay? 

People mourned the death of Diana, Princess of Wales with flowers... now they're exposing fear of her son's wife with tantrums. 

It's impossible, in these hemmed-in days, to avoid a big news story. Harder when it involves the UK ruling class. Megan Markle's experience entering the UK's top family speaks to millions of ordinary couples in the UK who've faced, or are facing, the same question - do I stay or do I go? Am I a part of this family or do we, a new couple, go it alone? 

The other day I went for a walk with an old schoolfriend, a biracial woman brought up from the 1950s by a white family. She asked me what I thought of Markle's decision to talk to Oprah Winfrey. I'm no royalist and haven't watched the interview but the fall out reveals yet more about racism in the UK - the TV presenter's tantrum, public vitriol. And so it continues to polarise what racism means - distancing it yet again from being accepted as a common problem for each of us from one angle or another. Those with infinite privilege will not tolerate self-examination, are above all scrutiny and their followers follow, unthinking. I remember with a shudder my father's enthusiasm for Enoch Powell. 

In the days when the friend I walked with the other day was the only black person I knew, she was dealing with racism alone, from childhood. Years later I am the white mother of two black children, obviously adult now. Our experiences as a bi-racial family range from blatant bullying and aggression to stupidity, ignorance and almost laughable thoughtlessness. My children have lived with racism and as a mother I have had to learn how to help them deal with it. Their experiences of racism have happened within the personal sphere as well as the public, on the street as well as in school. 

All of this points to the need to listen and talk openly, the need for a new way of debating issues that matter and it's not going too far to expect new thinking from all of us.  

Monday, February 15, 2021

Ancestors and missionaries - a new book

She made her first photo book when she was at primary school after asking her dad to drive her around the Christmas houses, lit up and pulsing. She used a child's 35mm film point and shoot camera and we sent the film off to be processed. 

This week I opened the pages of her first published photo book, They Came from the Water While the World Watched, a collection of images taken in South Africa and in English missionary archives.

The title - in itself amazing - comes from work she made for her degree show and continued for her MA, work examining missionaries and their attempts to destroy the ancestral religion of her father and grandmother. She shows people in their church clothes and by the water, a man holding a python, a sangoma, a woman with traditional tattoos on her cheeks. Her work shows her love of the ancestors and her respect for her father's country, South Africa. 

I make no apology for being immensely proud of my daughter, Giya Makondo Wills, for the gathering of work in this book, for her determination and humanity. At just 25 she has already gone further in her understanding of the world and how it works than I could have imagined at the same age. 

Now she's teaching at the Royal Academy of Art (Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten) in The Hague just months after moving to the Netherlands to live with her partner. 

They Came from the Water While the World Watched is available from Lost Light Recordings in a limited edition of 50. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A fish plant and word on repeat

Comfrey, a great companion

I rarely remember full dreams but sometimes wake up with striking fragments, like an oval and silver fish, brilliantly shining, hung on a stem like a pendulous flower and last night a word that might have been compensation, but not in the legal sense, and in fact, turning over this word, it had something of compassion in its meaning. So while I was dreaming, I knew exactly what word it was, but awake, trying to recall it, I realise I was making it up to fill the space between compensation and compassion, to join them together. In my dream, it seemed this word came up several times, a word that represented beauty and justice, like the silver fish, both of them illusory but I am sure the word I am looking for exists somewhere, in one of the world's millions of languages and silver fish hang from stems, but underwater, on the seaweed I've been gathering after storms, to feed the allotment. I wonder, too, if these two striking fragments have anything to do with the research I've been doing on companion planting as I prepare for sowing and spring?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The dirty business of complaining - who left the lights on?

The Quality Street tin of seeds has been at the end of the kitchen table for a few days and last night I went through checking what was in date, what might never germinate. 

I saved tomato seed in autumn on kitchen paper but I've run out of lettuce, carrot, turnips and want to try swede again. Should I bother with sweetcorn and broad beans, the badgers' favourites? 

Growing has become my one defence against despair. I don't know if I still believe in speaking out against what I think is wrong. I don't know if an individual has any power left. 

The racecourse up the hill has four searchlights fixed to the roof of its grandstand and pointing towards Whitehawk estate that are on all night. They're visible from the bottom of Wilson Avenue. What are they on for? To show us the invisible horses racing around the bend from the golf course, past the nature reserve the council wants to build on? 

I wonder about the foxes who live and hunt there, birds that can't sleep, sheep grazing just over the fence who also need to sleep, all the other mammals and insects whose territory this is for much more of the year than the few days horses pound the turf and people bet money on the fastest. For these creatures, living by the racecourse, there is no night. And for anyone looking up from the bottom of the hill, there are searchlights as if we were all culpable and suspect. Why?

I wondered about writing to the racecourse to ask when yesterday I read yet another piece about the sixth extinction and how light pollution affects insects. 

There's a lot of talk about citizen scientists. But citizen witnesses who hold business, the powerful, the elected, to account? Where do we speak out now that it has been proven social media favours extreme conflict to create traffic, to generate information, to make money?

After a lifetime of believing it was my duty to speak out, I wonder if it's time to shut up or murmur instead to the seedlings. I have asked the racecourse owners for an environmental policy, for what it's worth. 

But my success rate is low. In my recent history of writing to local councillors and businesses about noise pollution, air pollution, traffic diverted past primary schools, cycling, the most immediate impact I had was after I contacted investors in the cemetery business. After emailing these finance men in the last lockdown I had a phone call from as cemetery business exec. However, it's disheartening to spend so much time in the role of old mad woman complainer. And this, I suspect, is the secret weapon of those who continue to pollute with impunity. We are conditioned to crave big white smiles and positivity, not the dirty business of asking questions. 

Friday, January 08, 2021

Family history and the New Forest

I found The Chimney Sweeper's Boy by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) on my daughter's bookshelves and its as compelling a novel about writing as I've read. I don't normally like writers naval gazing because it feels like a writer's run out of real life to explore. And it takes a while for the chimney sweep to come in but I was glad of him as an anchor, a job that's not as old as time, but that spans generations from the 19th century to present day. 

But what drew me in more was how my reading was in step with real life. I was continuing family history searches to make the most of a one month sub I bought to view online documents. I'd almost finished the novel when I decided to track down one of mum's uncles. 

Mum has little to go on, even the numbers of uncles and aunts she had, such was the chaos and poverty of her upbringing. But there was an uncle Eddie in her stories and a basic family tree on a family search site that other relatives (unknown to me) have put together. There was mum's mum with five older brothers and younger sister but no Eddie. 

I figured the gap between the youngest and their mother's death might have delivered another child and hit gold. School records for Emery Down at the end of the 19th century, turn of the 20th, gave me my grandma Ida, my great aunt Ethel and great uncle Eddie and led me to more of this family story - a child who died before he reached school, another dead at the end of WW1, one untraceable, without a death to his name, my great aunt later looked after by one grandma, Eddie by another, my grandmother by an aunt, their mother dead. 

At 1.30 am, when I found the school records and scrolled through lists of Whites and Veals (family surnames), I felt reassured somehow, by occupations in the school records: labourer, laundress, dairyman, charcoal burner, painter....going back generations in Emery Down and Lyndhurst. 

I felt it made sense of Mum's deep love of the New Forest, even though she knew nothing about her mother's connections with it until recently. 

Meanwhile Rendell as Vine concludes her own brilliant story about family history by embedding a story within it that makes sense of everything. 

I should be so lucky.