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. 

Monday, January 04, 2021

Meeting Merle and Liana again after decades

Merle, a fabulous

Pressing on with re-reading the forgotten and neglected on my bookshelves, I took down Paule Marshall's early short stories and Martha Gelhorn's Liana, both published by Virago. I was in my first job in the 1980s and although I wasn't highly paid, I was single, so my pay packet was my own. And I bought books endlessly. It was a good decade - Virago and The Women's Press were pumping out the work of exciting writers like Marshall,  championed by Langston Hughes, the great poet of the United States. She died just over a year ago. 

In her introduction to Merle and other stories, Marshall quotes Czeslaw Milosz saying "Language is the only homeland." From this she explores the importance to her of the spoken word and women at the kitchen table. I'm fond of the kitchen as a place of poetry but had forgotten Marshall's essay. Or perhaps I didn't feel its relevance at the time I first read the book. I do now. I don't have Marshall's experience of growing up with a language that was so markedly different spoken and written. But I am interested in the lines that are drawn around what we write about and how the kitchen table is, even now, regarded as somehow inferior as a landscape for writing. 

But I've promised a dear friend to stay off the soapbox for a bit. So what struck me about the title story, Merle, this time round was how complete it is, how intense and affecting. Merle's story still matters, is still relevant, is frighteningly prophetic. I'm going to rediscover her novels next, also on my shelves. Sadly Marshall's disappeared from Virago's list, as has the great US journalist Martha Gelhorn, whose novel Liana I also dragged out of the block of green spines. 

I was uncomfortable sometimes reading Liana - Gelhorn doesn't hold back from showing white disgust towards the poverty of black rural life in the Caribbean. Liana is her vehicle for exploring power and race, and she does it unflinchingly. But it's good, sometimes, to feel discomfort about something else with the pandemic raging. 

I'm no novelist and I'm sure those of us who write poems can be proud of other achievements, but what compelled me, re-reading these two writers, was the truth of their characters. I believed in these women, both of them flawed and therefore, at times, difficult to like. 

And I'm grateful to Marshall (RIP) for bringing that Milosz quote to my attention, for reminding me of the poet's responsibility - to explore the language of home, whatever that is, and by doing that, find the equivalent truth to these novelists' creations. 

Friday, January 01, 2021

Cholera and planting trees

It was another long evening with a fire lit, and time on my hands. I couldn't face scrolling through endless trash on streaming websites and I wanted total immersion in another life.  The Horseman on the Roof... yes, I like horses and Jean Giono is the writer of one of the most memorable (and prophetic) short stories I've ever read, The Man Who Planted Trees. 

Giono's one of the writers who exists in the margin of my reading history, as a discovery I keep discovering. I read his work, I am hooked, and I put it back on the shelf. I often think of The Man Who Planted Trees and I'll recommend it, but he's rarely in the forefront of my mind. So I curled up in a blanket and began reading about the horseman. We were not yet in Tier 4 but it was being threatened. And I almost laugh out loud when I realise I'm reading about the cholera pandemic of the early 19th century in Provence

The trouble is, the novel's absolutely compelling. To start with I'm hooked by descriptions of riding, of the empty countryside of Provence, and then by danger, human behaviour, the impact of a pandemic. It was the impact of cholera on people, Giono's insights into communities and how they respond to infections as well as power, quarantine and isolation, that kept me reading. 

I have consciously avoided reading anything about pandemics. I re-read Camus' La Peste a long time back and that's stayed on the bookshelf. And in fact, I don't remember anything about the horseman so perhaps I bought it and never read it. When I finished the horseman, I started to read about Giono. He was born and died in Manosque in Provence, published the horseman in 1951 - it's one of Le Monde's books of the 20th century - and he was a pacifist. He made The Man who Planted Trees freely available, and his parents were a cobbler and a laundress. I like the sound of him because I'm mired at the moment in family history and those are two jobs that have marked my discoveries - I found my grandfather's birthplace in Dublin because his father was a bootmaker, and when I found my grandmother on a census in the New Forest, she was living with her aunt, a laundress. 

He was interested in ordinary people. And that too, is what makes the horseman so compelling. For a novel in which you are literally stepping over corpses and reading forensic details about death from cholera, it is strangely optimistic. 

And most importantly, it takes me back to the shepherd who restored a valley with trees, which itself reminds me of the Nobel prize-winning campaigner, Wangari Maathai, the woman who planted trees, and who would have been 80 in 2020. 

Maathai began re-planting trees in Kenya in 1977, starting The Green Belt Movement across the African continent, focused on planting millions of trees. According to the Nobel Prize organisation, "she saw tree-planting in a broader perspective which included democracy, women's rights, and international solidarity..."