Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Squabble of Poets

The poetry café is happening again tomorrow. Last month it kicked off to a good start and I’m looking forward to the next, excited, slightly nervous, hoping the guest poet and musician turn up. Word has got about and it seems that poetry is something people want to make time for. But there is always a serpent in the Garden, isn’t there? Not the deadly kind perhaps but, you know, just something that makes you keep having to look down and watch where you put your foot. In this case it’s the worm of political (poetical) correctness, which has no place in poetry. Or does it? I am sure of nothing. I and the few others who are responsible for organising the Café have given ourselves a name which some people are objecting to either because they don’t get that it is playful and ironic or because they think that irony has no place. I have some sympathy, I am sick of the endless pastiche that masquerades as post-modern when what we need is real words, real stories – bread. But on the other hand I’m not on a mission to save the world, I’m doing this for fun as much as anything else and think our title is fun, energetic and (here’s a clue) arresting. For another clue look here. And we have already been talent-spotted by the county town library to organise a gig there on the strength of the name alone.

The problem is that one of “us” has now become uncomfortable with the name. He is a wordsmith of the highest order and doesn’t take words lightly, though I am trying to persuade him to do just that – to wear the name lightly and this, I think, will “redeem” it. We’ll see. He also has a problem with seeing us described in promotional literature as “a group of poets”. I am trying to meet him in this by thinking up a new collective noun. A pride of poets might be good, but the lions already have that and the larks have exultation; an apology; a posse; Feel free to offer suggestions.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Proof of the Pudding

Things are a bit unsettled in the Signs household. Having put these words down I realise that this is not particularly true. The household, apart from the cat giving herself therapeutic grass emetics and leaving mysterious puddles on floors and windowsill, is as normal. I am unsettled. Worrying too much is one of the things I secretly do, and the focus is often my children. Sometimes, though, there is good reason, as when distressed daughter telephones at two in the morning because of a volatile situation with boyfriend. The gremlin in my soul has whispered for a while that there would be trouble ahead and it does so now, but life goes on.

I have, as a direct consequence of the above, made a discovery: Fray Bentos steak and kidney pudding. I can explain. On a recent shopping trip to the supermarket (this kind of excursion being severely rationed at present), I decided to stock up with a couple of Useful items in case of worse to come in the way of M.E. debility, floods, snowstorms or any other kind of disaster, natural or otherwise. Anyone who has been here before will probably have picked up that I am pretty good about organic veg, lentils and such and eat, more or less, healthily and if I buy tins of anything it will tend to be of things like sweetcorn and kidney beans. I last had a Fray Bentos pie in the 1970s and here, I think, is a clue – that since the second series of Life on Mars began I, with Sam Tyler, have been beamed back to the 1970s and feeling a touch homesick for it. It is pure indulgence and escapism, but harmless unless you happen to find yourself stuck there. So I looked up at the flying saucer tins of Fray Bentos pies that I used to eat in the bedsit with the swarms of silverfish around the sink and fungus growing in the corner of the loo, and very acceptable they were too, eaten with Batchelor’s giant marrowfat peas. It would do for my son, I thought, when he needed something quick and substantial. It would be a novelty and I could sit and tell him about the good old days while he ate it. But my hand reached for the pudding instead. It was the promise of “made with Oxo gravy” that clinched it, and it was for me, not my son, that I wanted it. Food as mother never made it. I put it at the back of the cupboard and the back of my mind, but today, weak-limbed and worried about my daughter, with nothing in the house to eat but the hard end of a black unyeasted rye loaf and a jar of organic capers, and feeling hungry in the low blood sugar must-eat-soon way, I ate it. It was wonderful. There was too much of the pudding bit in relation to meat, but still. I wouldn’t have complained if I’d been served it in a proper restaurant with side-dish of steamed veg to accompany (which in this case I did not have). The down side is that I will need to schedule in another trip to the supermarket, and there may still be trouble ahead. I am, for the moment, fortified.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


The idea of the past being another country (“they do things differently there”) has become well-known since L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”. It’s so eloquent, even people who never read the book seem to know the phrase. Sometimes I think that, other than using a computer and mobile phone, I live more or less in the 1970s. It’s something to do with style – I think my clothes could fit quite unobtrusively into any of the last four decades, but it’s also to do with living out of London and not having a proper job. When I’m in a crowded place back in the Smoke, or travelling there – that’s when I notice how just-landed-from-another-place I really am. In my imagination London is as it was when I properly inhabited it, which was actually pre-children. I am surprised by the coffee shops and kiosks everywhere. I am surprised by the swarms of people and by the expressions on their faces. No-one, I mean no-one, looks at ease.

On the train to Victoria the other day I found myself wedged in with three people, two women and a man, probably in their twenties, all staring at the screens of their mobile phones. The man’s phone went off with the sound of crashing crockery – one of the new ring tones I’ve heard before. He answered in Polish and I amused myself seeing how many words I could recognise. He looked ill; pale with large pink spots on his neck. When he finished speaking he carried on staring at the small screen, pressing buttons. The woman next to me was pressing buttons too. I tried to read over her shoulder to see what message might be there but couldn’t. I love you, it might have said, or did you know there is an unexploded bomb on this train. But most likely it was

Hi what you up to?
I’m on the train nothing much - you?
Nothing much either you seen Tom around?
No, you?
Yes seen him yesterday he didn’t see me.

I imagined she would have a contract that would allow her to send a huge number of these messages each month. Endless hours. The woman opposite looked as unhealthy as the Polish man next to her so at first I thought they might be partners. She had spots on her face as well as her neck and was thin and pale, this last accentuated by her dark brown hair which was lush and seemed not to belong to her, as if a kind but thoughtless benefactor had taken a look at her and said, god you look awful, here – have this, and wedged a thick brown wig on her head. She stared at her mobile screen without pressing any buttons. She just stared and stared. She seemed not to have much in the way of eyelids. Perhaps there was a message saying her mother had died. Or her house was on fire, her children all gone. But she looked up and out of the window, then at the Polish man, then me. Her expression didn’t change and there was no gleam of anything in her eyes that suggested she took in what she saw.

A woman across the aisle suddenly grabbed at the holdall on the floor and rummaged. Looking for her mobile, I thought. But she lifted out a tattered blue A5 notebook and a blue plastic ballpoint and began to write in the book as though something vital depended on it. She carried on until we reached Victoria and even then, with the surge of people moving to get off, she was unwilling to stop. She pressed the tip of the ballpoint tightly with three fingers and covered line after line in blue-inked words. I could see that she had filled most of the notebook. It made me feel at home to watch her. She and her holdall could, like me, be from any decade, and the notebook was very 1970s. All she would have needed was a Bic ballpoint. It was only later I thought to read the signs – what I’m here for any road and decade. With notebook, travelling.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

freesias and chocolate (in memoriam)

The signs are not auspicious. I think I said the same on my very first post after throwing coins for the I ching at new year. Put it down to a melancholic temperament or the fact that my grandmother was a Jungian analyst and believed everything could be understood if only we knew how to read the signs correctly – I’m not called Reading the Signs for nothing, it’s in the blood, you understand. But listen: the cherry blossom that was so full of itself the other day has withered and gone brown as if to reproach me for wanting to hold back the spring. After a merry evening with friends at an inn last night, I and the others saw something wedged between the windscreen and the wipers of a car. It was a dead animal and looked like a weasel. On the drive home there were two more dead animals on the road – a fox and a badger, large and beautiful, curled around itself on the side of the road. Of course, as we know, spring is treacherous, the way it comes and goes leaving fragile things defenceless against the howling cold. Roads, fast cars, are unfriendly to wildlife. We knew this before Bright Eyes. And some people have a strange sense of humour. It was a joke, said the barman about the animal on the windscreen, we know the bloke, it’s ok, he did it for a laugh.

Still, the small birds are flitting around the apple tree and the buds there are tight closed, protected. Just over three years ago, on St. Patrick’s day, my father, son of the Jungian analyst, died in hospital after a stroke. On that day the signs were obscured. I lingered by a florist’s stand and bought three bunches of freesias to give to him because he loved the smell of them, (they reminded him of some childhood years in Capri) and also because they were three for the price of two and he always had an eye for a special offer. He died before I reached him.

He was an actor, more often out of work than in, usually chosen to play the all-purpose wop, spick or dago “baddie” parts because of his dark, sephardic looks, until the last few years of his life when he was suddenly much in demand. As a refugee from Nazi germany he was shipped out to Australia to be interned during the round-up of “enemy aliens” in this country. Actually they tried to ship him and the others out twice and on each occasion the boat was torpedoed, so they gave up and he stayed here. Years later a man who was on the boat with him said that my father had saved his sanity. When it seemed that the end had almost certainly come and they would all perish, my father sat on the floor below deck smiling. When asked what on earth he was smiling at, my father replied that he was thinking about wholenut milk chocolate.
“We’re going to die and you’re thinking of chocolate”! said the man. My father said yes, because it was something he very much liked so it seemed a good time to be thinking about it. Always one for the joke and merry jape, the sweetness of wholenute milk chocolate belongs to him, I think.

Though I didn’t see his death coming, I am sure that he himself had an inkling. Sitting up in the hospital bed, recovering (as I had persuaded myself he was), after a bowl of apple crumble he had enjoyed, he put the spoon into the bowl and looked at me.
“everything has an end", he said, "except for the sausage, which has two ends.”

It would have been about now that we buried him, the weather so rough, hailstones clattering on his box and the freesias we threw on it still closed up. The golden ones on my kitchen table are open, the sweetness of their fragrance intense. I am thinking of him. I am ready for spring.

Monday, March 19, 2007

winter drawers on?

We have suddenly moved back into winter. I suspect I am the only one around who is cheerful about this. I wasn’t ready for the spring hallelujah with summer hot on its heels. Every so often there is a clattering of hailstones as though some hooligan is throwing stones at the window, then the sky clears to blue and it’s blossom time again, then it darkens, the wind goes on the rampage, and so on. It’s changeable, like my moods, like my energy, and mainly inclement. I wonder if I am being mean holding back the spring just because everyone else will begin to frolic and I can’t, but decide on reflection that I don’t yet have power over the weather. And I do frolic, in my fashion, and intend to. But not yet. And I think of the old Golders Green joke:

A: Spring in ze air!

B: Vhy should I?


A: Vinter draws on.

B: Mind your own business.

My son is back from the dreaming spires for the holidays and is already getting down to serious revision for next term’s maths and philosophy exams. I don’t know what I think about this. It’s good that he is motivated, hard-working and not off his face on skunk all the time (or any of the time, come to that), but there seems to be huge pressure on him and his fellow students to excel at absolutely everything all the time. No space to hang out and talk about the meaning of life, and failure (anything less than the best) is apparently “not an option”. I don’t like it. Adding to the pressure is the fact that 300 pages of essential maths notes have gone missing between here and Oxford. They are probably in a black bin bag somewhere. Though he didn’t get the maths or exam revision genes from me (I didn’t make it past long division and relied on the staying-up-the-night-before method), it seems I did manage to pass on my chronic lack of organisation.

For the first time in a long while I have bowed out of a writing workshopping session tonight in favour of a trip to the supermarket. We had takeaway three times last week and, apart from the expense, it gets monotonous. I have a poem, though – one modest little thing I worked on so as to have something to bring for my monthly workshop in Lewes, and it isn’t even finished, it’s in two drafts. But it counts. It counts.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Back to Basics (carrots or potatoes)

Here is a dilemma: you have a small amount of money in your pocket, enough for either a bag of potatoes or a bag of carrots, but not enough for both. You have to choose. It’s been a few years, my kids were quite young and I probably chose potatoes. Those were the days. £20 would get a week’s worth of groceries (for a family of four) if you stuck to Safeway’s Savers. The baked beans, if anyone is interested, were rubbish. The sauce was anaemic and the beans shrunken. The egg yolks were grey. Someone must have tried very hard to make the Savers products nasty so as to teach people a lesson for being hard up. I learned how to make a hundred different things with a packet of red lentils. It’s ok now. I can get potatoes and carrots whenever I want, and Heinz organic beans.

My problem now is how to spend the small amount of energy I have. The Safeways Savers equivalent would perhaps be to couch potato in front of the TV most of the day. Crap on nourishment and taste but passes the time. I haven’t yet done this as my attitude to TV is the same as some people’s to drink; that it’s ok to have after 6 o’clock. Of course this may change. But at this point, after twenty odd years of M.E. and being nothing if not realistic, I still wake with that crazy bit of expectation still intact and shiny as a new pin – that today I will achieve something. It’s like a puppy straining at the leash for the chance to get out and run. Who has the heart to shut it away? Not me. It’s the nature of the beast, this preposterous vitality of unquenchable desire and expectation. Life, bloody hell.

So back to potatoes or carrots. It seems I can, even in a relatively good space, only do one “thing” a day. Creating a poem, workshopping, teaching a class, are all “things.” It’s why I’m having a gap year. Putting a post on this blog also can be, if I spend time thinking about it. Reading a book (for a sustained period) is. Shopping in a supermarket is. Having lunch with a friend. Of course I have become an essentialist. Unnecessary shopping I have already talked about elsewhere; I don’t do it and it pleases me to make a virtue of a necessity.

This is nothing new, so no sympathy please, I howled at the moon a long time ago – and still do when the fancy takes me or when I feel my neck and ears grow hairy. But I am open to some Good Advice, if anyone would like to share. I’m not an efficient organiser which is good because that means there is room for improvement. I like lists (see below) but never do ones that are particularly useful. I did do a timetable experiment once that involved scheduling in absolutely everything (including when and for how long to eat lunchtime sandwich) the night before.

I know what you’re going to say: why not rotate? Carrots one day, potatoes the next. Why didn’t I think of that?

P.S. Thought I’d bowed out, but I seem anyway to have made it through to the Battle of the Blogs final – here, if anyone is still interested, not sure that I am though it was fun for a bit and I appreciated the votes, especially as they weren't all from my mates (ok some were but not that many!) - and I’m rather enjoying Leesa’s blog.

Friday, March 9, 2007


I prefer the tick of a grandfather clock.
I prefer tock to tick.
I prefer a fairweather friend who drinks to my fortune to the trustworthy kind who feasts on my disaster.
I prefer relatives with brown eyes.
I prefer the smell of my father’s hands to sandalwood.
I prefer my coffee hot as hell with the kindness of warm milk.
I prefer wildflowers I can’t name.
I prefer hard apples that hurt my teeth to ones that are soft and easy.
I prefer hard people with soft hearts to soft people with hard hearts.
I prefer people who don’t talk about hearts.
I prefer people who notice the stars
I prefer the waning of the moon.
I prefer my own children to other people’s.
I prefer not to mention this.
I prefer gardens full of weeds.
I prefer kitchens that smell of old kippers to ones that smell of disinfectant.
I prefer the mongrel to the thoroughbred.
I prefer the migraine to the toothache.
I prefer counting sheep.

From the notebook, after reading this.

Taking a short blog break.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Good Enough?

After reading the interesting post on good enough parenting by Ms Melancholy I began to think about what it also means to be (or to feel one is) a good enough person. This is a particularly relevant question for the long-term sick or disabled, those who for one reason or another can’t assess this in terms of measurable achievement in the world. I suppose that anyone who does assess themselves in those terms is already not feeling good enough, and it should go without saying that every person, by virtue of being just that – a human being – has intrinsic worth. But everyone has their own unique identity and it’s good to consider what it is that makes us who we are, to name those things that you would never put on a CV.

At the moment, having a gap year, I have no paid work, no small children to look after, no particular status in the world and I don’t even sing in the local choral society any more. I remember Ms Pants (miss her, where’s she got to?) saying triumphantly in one of her posts that she was at that point in her life virtually untrackable - unmeasurable by Government standards, and this made me smile. She was talking about consumerism versus real quality of life, the former being one way that we can buy into ersatz rather than authentic identity.

My life is closer to the rhythm of my cat than to most people I know, unless they are very young or very old. I wake, do the things that are necessary to keep me nourished, clean and rested, keep in touch with friends and I write. The writing is one of the things that name me, and I’m not talking about fame. I have had only bits and pieces published and hope for the strength to do much more, but whether or not that happens it is, as they say, what I am for – this, and the teaching of it.

Feeling one is a good enough person, though, comes out of a sense of identity and this is hard to pin down, like a fragrance with its green or floral overtones, its musky bass notes, that has not yet been given a brand name. I never suffered, as so many other women I knew seemed to after becoming a mother, from loss of identity. If anything, that became stronger, though it wasn’t to do with being a mother, close as I felt to my children. It was just a sense of being there, walking the pavements with my two flat feet, having arrived and taken possession of myself. This, in spite of the fact that I was ill and becoming iller than I thought possible. Everything I wished for was part of the essence. Sometimes all I could do was sing and invent things, tell stories about the people that passed by the living room window, make stuffed animals talk and sweets come out of their mouths. It came from who I was, the person who liked to make things up - from that, and perhaps the unwillingness to accept things just as they are. I have never believed in just this physical, tangible layer of life. I am a believer in magical dimensions that live beneath the surface, behind the visible world, and that is also part of the essence. It has got me through days when all I can do is lie and look at strips of sky through wooden slats. Escape strategy perhaps, but also a sense of being connected to things; power and presence in a clear, starry night.

I’m not unusual in these things, and that’s not the point. And life may be easy or hard, humdrum or glamorous, and that’s not the point. The point is that those things that name a person, the substance of who they are, are most likely also to be the things that make them good enough.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007


So it’s round 2 of Battle of the Blogs

I am here , and so too is Ms Melancholy.

That’s So Pants (who kindly nominated me in the first place) is here

and in the immortal words of Shakespeare’s King Henry V :

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;”

So I thought I’d kick off by talking about my thyroid problems - just to show I can get stuck in. I am imitating the action of the tiger, though modest stillness and humility would be more becoming. It is like this: I have an immune system that does not know its arse from its elbow. It is, as I speak, trying to demolish at least one organ that I could name and is responsible for my having to take daily doses of thyroxine so I don’t fall flat on my face. It pretends to be working for me by declaring all-out war on, say, a harmless bit of pollen in the air. Actually it declares all-out war on everything. This exhausts me. Immune system doesn’t care. It is delinquent as well as stupid and stability is something it doesn’t suffer gladly. Thyroxine is either too little or too much. So I am unbalanced, one way or the other. At the moment it is the other, which is why I am up at an ungodly hour.

It’s dark and blustering outside, but I’m here with my anglepoise lamp and the circle of light it makes on the desk. No candles, but I am all set up for the theme of light in darkness and how the flame within grows brighter when the darkness gets bigger. But I’m not going to do that. There are people who keep going with no apparent source of light at all, or some for whom the going is too hard, brave soldiers. I’m one of the lucky ones.

And the hour is late, or early, depending on how you look at it.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Sweetest Downfall?

I have been smoking a cigarette. The Café Poet’s friend left some in the back of my friend’s car and they found their way to me. Let’s not be coy about this: I took them. I am a non-smoker and have been for ten months, but there were seven cigarettes in the packet when it came to me and there are now two. As penance I will cut short the long, deliciously confessional rant I might have indulged in.

I have been listening to Regina Spektor, her strange and whimsically melodious “Samson”. This does connect in some way to the smoking of cigarettes and how one is drawn to things, people, situations that bring downfall and disaster. Spektor’s song is a re-telling of the old testament story in the sense that it refers to the cutting of Samson’s hair and subsequent loss of strength, and it is Delilah singing, or possibly the woman who came before, can't make up my mind. You are my sweetest downfall, she says, I loved you first. This is one of the great pleasures of a re-telling; re-inventing and going into the consciousness of one of the characters in a story. I am drawn to the idea that Delilah’s betrayal of Samson may have broken her heart. Songs like this, and Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits, draw their power from the dark side of passionate love.

One of the people I was workshopping with last week left me an exercise which I haven’t yet done: write fourteen words about sex, then write a sonnet about death and include one of the sex words in each line. Almost too much of a good thing, you could say. When asked what I wrote about, I used to say “sex and death,” which was a joke but actually came pretty close to truth – not literally, but in essence, and nothing particularly unusual about this. Who doesn’t have a favourite writer who is grounded in this? Mine is Angela Carter, in particular her collection of short stories, “The Bloody Chamber.”

A cigarette is sex and death rolled into one. Doom and disaster with each sweet inhalation that keeps you wanting more, and actually the taste is a bit - I must admit - nasty. So why don’t I chuck them out? And why is the thought of them still so seductive?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Temporary Sky

They are back. For a short while it seemed as though I had imagined them all coming over the threshold, creeping around the house, dreaming by the kitchen window, looking out at the apple tree or lingering in the room at the top where you can look at treetops and sky, asking me questions about the chimneys and who my neighbours are. The Invasion of the House-Viewers. They come, they are charmed, then they go away and think about dimensions, stairs and the fact that you would need to go to Japan to find a smaller bathroom.

When they come, the house smells of sandalwood, geranium and lavender with a subtle background of coffee and there are poetry books on the tables and shelves. This is not a ruse. I like burning good-smelling oils, I always have fresh coffee in the morning and I read a fair bit of poetry, what with workshops and such. So it’s authentic – the house, with its original fireplaces, one wooden beam in the kitchen (never actually worked out why it’s there), its mouldings around the mantelpieces and original sash windows; and me, the real article with my books, my beads and my nag champa incense sticks. One woman came yesterday on behalf of her friend – casing the joint, as it were.
“Oh, I can picture her here,” she said. “She is artistic, are you artistic? It feels as though you are.” Well that’s me, lady, Spasticus Artisticus, only I don’t mention the illness and how it’s getting harder to crawl up and down the stairs. But she wasn’t looking at the books or the rose quartz so exquisitely placed in relation to the amethyst with its purple teeth glinting in the afternoon sun. No, she was looking at the hand-thrown pottery vase and the pictures on the wall, mostly bestowed on us by my late mother-in-law who was, god bless her, very artistic and made beautiful pottery artefacts as well as buying nice pictures for her walls. They lend me a quality that may or may not belong to me. It doesn’t matter. It’s lifestyle, supposed or actual, that people want to sense. Hence the notion of coffee and freshly-baked bread, flowers on the table. It’s all crap, you could say. Illusion.

But – everyone knows, or most people do, that you go into houses and can sense atmosphere, even when the people that live there are not present. Some have a smile you can feel in your body as you walk around the place and some make you feel as though you’d just walked onto the set of The Shining. This house smiled at me. I tried to shrug it off because of the dimensions, the stairs and etc. but it called me back to have another look. The woman who lived here before was an organic gardener. She showed my children where the blackberries were. The house was quite bare, hardly a picture, but the few things that were around – a piece of tree trunk she used as a stool and the wooden kitchen table (both of which she left us) were good and we felt the life in the house was good. She took it with her, the life she made, but left some essence of it behind too.

So I am glad people are charmed by the house. When we finally sell it we will leave something of our substance behind, but we’ll also be taking it with us. “Under purgatory’s temporary sky,” says Osip Mandelstam, “we often forget/that the happy repository of heaven/is a lifelong house that you can carry everywhere.”