Saturday, August 30, 2008

y cumen in

Summer is almost over. I know this because Real Life is beginning to kick in: daughter is back from Edinburgh and now has the grizzly (gristly?) task of finding some means of earning a living that isn’t a) too mind-numbingly ghastly to consider b) working behind a bar for tuppence an hour and c) immoral or illegal – while continuing to put heart into the work she wants to be doing; apples are falling from our tree with unseemly haste and Mr. Signs is making apple and damson jelly; every day we have blackberries; I am filled with equal amounts of anxiety and optimism; making resolutions. And today I did my first poetry workshopping of the season. True, we sat under a canopy of leaves while the sun beat down, it was hot and I wore my summer white clothes for protection, but still I say it is almost over and autumn will be here soon – the sooner the better, far as I’m concerned, let’s have a real one with a bit of bite to it.

And I begin again. Me and the small house and the cat. I live, for periods, hermetically. This is a word I picked up recently from a piece by Jeanette Winterson. It comforted me; to know that someone else lives like this for periods, and this person is a writer I like; that it is possible to be alone, sealed off from society, and still live creatively; because I am by nature social, sociable, but I have M.E. so in order to live in a way that is meaningful I have also to choose solitude.

I remember a nun from a special order, a solitary who lived by herself in a caravan, speaking of how intensely connected she felt to the world as she lived this way. It is true that living a busy life, constantly in the company of others can be strangely disconnecting. One may belong, in a sense, without Belonging. But the solitary way sometimes needs courage, especially for those to whom it doesn’t come naturally. On the other hand, it becomes also a habit, a different kind to the one a nun clothes herself in when she makes her vows, though there may be similarities.

I meet with writers. We share our work and in this way connect at a deep level. But we are, must be, each of us apart – really alone if we are to do this thing.

It will begin soon, autumn. Meanwhile there are berries, birthdays, an orange and almond cake; intimate others.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Heavens, where have I been? I mean a week in Edinburgh, yes, and then a poetry week back on home ground in Sussex, but where have I been? Not in my usual place, that’s for sure – a little bit out of the body; and it was great, folks! And me usually so sparing with exclamation marks! Taxis in Edinburgh are cheap compared to down South (£4 a trip, I mean to say) but on the whole I managed with all the walking this year, mostly drug-free. Mr. Signs and I were situated in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh old town, right beneath the castle. Last year we struggled to get beyond the haggis, chips and pies but this year we found all kinds of places, including one that served heavenly oysters and a ‘surf and turf’ combination of perfect steak plus pot of mussels cooked in cream and wine. Sorry to bang on about food before culture, but the importance of such to the general wellbeing and disposition of Signs cannot be overstated, especially as I have been doing (my version of) a Stone Age-type diet that seems to be, if not strengthening, a little less enervating than other kinds, and you can do lots of calories without doing extra weight (they ate crème brulee in Stone Age times, right?). I couldn’t keep that up in poetry week as I ate at the college where it was based – healthy vegetarian, with all the grains and pulses that go with it, but my body registered the difference strengthwise; back on home ground, too, the clay soil does tend to exert a gravitational pull – I should live on granite really, it suits me best.

But anyway, culture: I have been doing it, people – I almost said so you don’t have to but of course everyone has to or we will all go to the dogs. Sometimes one suffers, and it wouldn’t be Edinburgh Festival without a turkey or two, or something really dire. Last year it came in the form of a folk concert and this year it was a one-man show, full of sound and fury that signified nothing that I ccould identify, with a guy who looked as though he had taken one too many acid trips in his mis-spent youth and was therefore, despite all the sound, not quite or even remotely in the body from whence it came. And to boot, the show was in an underground vault of a place that absolutely reeked of mould and made the insides of my nostrils prickle, so I had to make an exit before the end, leaving Mr. Signs and a friend to make the best of it while I sat in a bar wishing that I were still a smoker. Absolutely everyone, it seemed, was smoking, even those of a certain age who should know better. I know better and wish I did not. Still, there was coffee and taiblet (they also ate fudge in Stone Age times, I believe).

The good things were many. We saw Jerry Sadowitz again – not as thrilling an experience as last year, but still worth doing, even if only for the quality insults; the comedian Stuart Lee – fabulous and I’ll see him again if I get the chance; a Mighty Boosh-style comedy group from Melbourne called Simply Fancy – so delightful that one forgets to complain about the airless room they performed in (despite relentless rain outside, many of the smaller venues were stiflingly hot); a Russian folk group called Koleso that we only went to see because one of the women caught the eye of Mr. Signs as she waved a flyer and her cleavage at him, and at first I thought it was going to be another turkey because of all the red lipstick and promise of “Russian heartbeat”, but it was thrilling, and we bought the CD afterwards; extraordinary flamenco dancing and singing – the real, unadorned thing; a foot-stomping Blues Brothers cover show suggested by my friend’s daughter. Just some of the things that come to mind.

But the highlight for me was seeing the performances of the Signs children. True, I’m their mother. Had I not been, I don’t think I’d have gone to see a show like Strippers & Gentlemen, and though the words “physical theatre” and “multi-media” had prepared me for the idea that this was something out of my usual experience, I had no real idea what I would find. We went twice, each time in the company of different friends. It was an astonishing production. The review from Three Weeks called the show “something great” and said “through dance, mime and spot-on dialogue the faultless cast explore ideas of contemporary sexuality, self-respect and morality. Set to a thumping high-octane soundtrack, this perfectly intense promenade performance will have you questioning your own ideals from the word go. Impeccably directed, involving and revealing, this must be one of the secret gems of this year's Fringe.” It had some other sparkling reviews, and a couple that were not quite so enthusiastic, including one by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian who didn’t, to my mind, really get it – but still, three stars in the Guardian for a show devised by people fresh out of drama school is not to be sniffed at. For me, hand on heart, it would have been a highlight whether my daughter had been involved or not. The co-director did wonderful things with sound, lighting and film and at moments I felt as though the experience was like walking into a poem where everything becomes, as it were, illuminated from within. Of course everyone’s experience of a work of art is different. Mine was that it was (in the words of my friend) poignant and beautiful.

We had to leave Edinburgh the day before son’s jazz a cappella group were due to perform because of my poetry week; but we were treated to a special preview performance in the living room of the flat they all shared and it was glorious; not just the music, the arrangements, the fact of all this fabulous sound coming from twelve voices, but the sheer work and discipline, the energy and enthusiasm that went into everything. They performed to full houses most days.

The arts: what would life be like without? I don’t ever want to find out. And so, as my lovely departed Dad might have said at the end of a long letter, here’s hoping that this finds you as it leaves me – in the pink.

More on poetry and stuff anon.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Signs En Route

Yesterday I went for a walk on the forest with my ancient friend. At the age of eighty seven and three quarters, she is not as near ninety as I thought. She has a face that is more carved on than WH Auden’s and is a tiny hobbit of a woman, with a dicky heart and a ridiculous amount of energy. Mr. Signs picked her up from Gatwick airport where she had just arrived from a holiday in Siberia, with a German friend in tow. They were holed up for a couple of nights in Irkutsk en route to St. Petersburg and hadn’t had baths for weeks because there was no hot water in any of the taps. They were high in spirits and in strong body odours, and lovely company as we padded over the beautiful forest terrain with the heather all coming in the meadows and the sun looking down through the trees. She makes eighty seven and three quarters look like a breeze, being almost weightless and of a sunny and tranquil disposition. She is the closest thing I’ve got to a fairy godmother and I reckon she could get me to the ball without a wand, a pumpkin or a coach-and-four. An old refugee, she was with my mother in internment camp in the Isle of Man, those days when the Brits were locking up all the Jewish forriners in case they were spies or in cahoots with Madalf Heatlump. She never married but spent her life looking after special needs children in Camphill communities.

After a lunch of red lentil and vegetable soup, the black Russian bread she brought with her, cream cheese and radishes, I was flat out, literally, on the bed; but agitated by the thought of all I needed and wanted to get done before going away, and immediately on my return. My lilac jacket came back from the dry cleaners clearly untouched (they just hadn’t bothered or forgot to do it) and this threw me into a spin – it just seemed horribly inauspicious that simple thing like that couldn’t be sorted, and I so wanted something for being bright and gay (original meaning) in Edinburgh, where my daughter’s play, Strippers and Gentlemen, has been awarded five stars by the Festival newspaper, Three Weeks and been called “One of the secret gems of this year’s Fringe.” Imminently expecting something to appear in the Guardian, who have been to review it – but one never knows. On account of having to be back for the poetry week, I'll be missing son's gig with his band of jazz singers, as they don't start until the 17th. Will try and catch them in rehearsal.

Well I may be gone some time, folks, but hopefully the blog’s loss will be the notebook’s gain. I gotta write more pomes and, well – I just gotta write more. Sick of competition judges who do not seem to recognise my towering genius, I’ve started to send things out to poetry magazines, beginning with The Rialto. Apparently they take forever to get back, but hey – I got all the time in the world.

This time tomorrow I’ll be on the train reading Nasim Marie Jafry’s novel, The State of Me, which is not just good – it’s M.E. brain-friendly.

Keep rockin, people.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Summer Shorts

Summer can be difficult. First of all there is the heat – this year there hasn’t been much, but the few days we had last week threw me into a condition where I thought I was on the brink of Serious Relapse. If the heat goes on then I do tend to adapt after a while, but clear and crisp is what suits me best.

Also difficult is that summer is a time when things happen – good things, like the Edinburgh Festival, and children of Signs doing stuff in the fringe; and hot on the heels of this, the poetry week that I have been coordinating and organising. This year I will not be tutoring - just being there, involved, giving a reading of poems, will be enough.

There is a list of practical things that need to be addressed before the weekend. Son is moving all his stuff to the new Oxford residence for the final year. Someone nearly ninety years old is coming to stay a night. She likes things to be clean and tidy. Perhaps I should put everything, including myself, into a black bin bag.

I am remembering some graffiti I once saw chalked onto the wall of an old, disused hut on some deserted northern beach:


Friday, August 1, 2008

The Key of the Kingdom

Today I saw a collection of keys set out on a friend’s kitchen table. The one that caught my eye was a tiny grey key attached by a ring to a small padlock with metal clasps on the sky-blue body of it. The metal clasps were designed so that they held the blue like lips. It reminded me of the key and padlock that used to belong to the lock diary I had as a child.

I wanted to be like Anne Frank with her imaginary friend, Kitty. But the lock diary was a heavy, plastic, embossed brick of a thing from Woolworths and each day was sectioned off, a small space, because it was a five-year diary. So the things I wrote were small and unelaborated.

I went to Primrose Hill today.
Deirdre came and we had cake.

Deirdre was the masseuse who came to give my mother treatments. Her husband was a political prisoner in South Africa. After the massage treatment she would sit on our living room floor which had under-floor electric heating and eat cake and talk. She always stayed a long time. She said her life was hard, she had two daughters and didn’t know when she would see her husband again. She was fat and cheerful as she spoke but she said she just had to take each day at a time and that was how it was to live with a broken heart. I didn’t put any of that in my diary – there wouldn’t have been room, and even if there had been, would I have set it down? I wanted to be passionate and upbeat like Anne Frank. Even when she was railing against the unfairness of the adults and saying how it was to live hidden away in an attic for so long, she had a voice that sang in full-throated relish of life and all its particulars. A five-year diary with a small space for each day would have been no use to her at all. It allowed no room for the particulars or for reflection.

If I’d had the kind of writing book that existed in my imagination, what might I have written? The key to the kingdom of the articulated inner life was not yet forged. The small diary key did not, in any case, really provide a safe and secret place. It was held shut with a thick band the same colour as the cover. At my boarding school some girls nearly cut it so as to look inside – the temptation to look into secret places is strong. And anyone could have bought an identical diary from Woolworths and used the key to look inside. This happened to a girl I knew, and so her mother found out that she had let a boy put his hand inside her knickers.

I lost the key to my diary and had in any case abandoned it. It lived for a while in the loft of my mother’s flat and then I don’t know what happened to it. Perhaps it still exists somewhere with the words that were written into it:

I went to Primrose Hill today.
Deirdre came and we had cake.
Daddy sent me a postcard.
I have got a new red beret.