Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow on the Edge

Inspired by Cuspie, some photos of where I be, in deepest Sussex. Cheating, because they are taken by my neighbour-over-the-road who has a talent for this sort of thing.

The last photo is of Signs Cottage, the lit up window our living room.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Life Goes On - Bra

I recently went to a shopping mall - I had to, the bra situation wouldn't wait any longer. I went to the M & S lingerie department for a "fitting". A nice woman, softly-spoken with a look in her eyes that suggested she had seen it all before (the state of my underwear, my soul, me) took my measurements and brought me a selection. I tried them on for size, decided they would do and bought the lot because, as I told the nice woman, I didn't want to be coming back for another three years or so. There was a depth of understanding in her nod. You have to be in the right frame of mind for a bra-fitting, she said. Which I never am. Nor in the right frame of body, and I am not talking about the size of my Bristols. If I had spilled the beans right there in the cubicle, about the sheer cliffs of fatigue and how the mere notion of shopping mall finds me perpendicular in Babylon as I remember Zion (may the words of my mouth, O Lord, be acceptable in Thy sight), she would have sat with me and wept. At such times one depends and projects mightily on the kindness of strangers. But anyway, the story does not end there, for when I got home I found that two of the bras did not fit and had nasty hard plastic things that dug into my armpits, so back I go today for refund, for swap. Business concluded I return to the car and find myself trapped on level five for forty five minutes, it is a quarter to five, everyone wants out and there is gridlock. I telephone Mr. Signs who telephones the shopping mall who promise to alert Security. The situation resolves eventually, as things do.
Brighton tomorrow, taking mother shopping the day after, meal out with writerfriends on Thursday, curry night with neighbours on Friday, carol concert Saturday - life really does go on. And my story too, bursting to be written and asking for my undivided attention.

Monday, December 7, 2009


We were given early Christmas presents last night by son, who has today left for India, where he will be for five months or so. Then this morning he said, oh I nearly forgot, and gave us each one of those round chocolate orange things, the dark one for me. I baked gingerbread biscuit shapes for his journey, but he only took a few as they wouldn't have allowed it through the check points. I was dithering about whether to go to the airport. Didn't in the end, muscles hurting, I said goodbye in the kitchen, he left with his dad. All grown up, the lovely boy, he was four years old our first Christmas here, we gave him a dark doll and he named it Reuben.

I am eating gingerbread stars, hearts, little men that look like the figures on exit signs, and wedges of chocolate orange. The cat howls and does not know why, but I do, and I tell her that he will be back in May.

All day it has been so dark. I went out and bought more candles.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Own Brand

Perhaps it is not a surprise that I didn't manage 50,000 words in November. I should say, though, that I was "on track" half way through the month, just before going down with flu proper. My revised target was then to reach 30,000 by the end of the month, that representing a respectable 1,000 a day, and I am exactly 399 words short of this - a bit annoying, but still. I did what I could, and it has been worth the doing, for I now feel that 1,000 a day is manageable - just - and I have, in spite of everything, produced something I want to carry on working with.
I am post-viral, very, and this is the real bastard, not the actual flu which conducted itself in a predictable and proper fashion - one feels ill, yes, but it is a normal, healthy kind of ill with stages and resolutions. This too will pass. I had a scary bout of asthma, not too bad, but reminding me of the time I was hospitalised with it and each out breath felt as though it might be the last. I have the toothache - nothing (apparently) wrong, but something has agitated the nerve, which hammers most insistently to be acknowledged. Hello nerve, hello tooth. Talking of which: hello heart, hello psyche. Yes, I know, but would you ever just pipe down and let me get on with, you know, things.

So here we are again in advent which, for the whole of the civilised world - in my neck of the woods at any rate - means shopping. Though not for me because, as you know, shopping never was or will be my thing. I was standing in a post office queue the other day gawping at the quantity of cut-price sweets and biscuits on the shelves (post office is in a Co-op store).
Doesn't that look disgusting, said the woman next to me, and for moment I was thankful that the shelf display was there, having its (unintended) effect. For I love chocolate as much as the next person, but there is nothing like a heap of Celebrations and Cadbury's Roses to make you sicken at the excess. The same woman (a village acquaintance) said, I think that everyone who did all their Christmas shopping in June should be shot. And though I might feel that to be a step too far, I cannot but applaud the spirit. I will achieve grumpy old womanhood yet. Ok, I have bought advent calendars and beeswax candles. There will be a feast at Christmas, as is right and proper. The Signs children will get some money because that's what is needed, and little gifties to open, because they are good for the soul, and Mr. Signs will get - well I don't yet know what, as The Wire is all finished, but something. Actually, he has made a list this year and although this may appear to contradict everything I have just grumped about, I do like a man who knows what he wants. And everyone else will get a jar of home-made (but not by me) chutney or jam.

Me, I might have put silk underwear on my list, but actually I need them now because of the cold so I have ordered some from Patra - silken long johns and vests. The creative unconscious is a strange beast. I recently wrote my first ever proper sex scene (bear with me, this is relevant) - proper in the sense that it describes two people who are actually Doing It, whereas usually I tend to come at these things (shut up) more obliquely. By this I do not mean euphemistically, you will find no "she felt the length and breadth of his desire" in my works - forsooth. Focussing on apparently unrelated particulars can sometimes be more potent than zooming in on the act itself, but this time the story asked for it, so I obliged. And blow me down with a feather if silk underwear (thermals, actually), didn't find their way into the scene, yes, and on the male character too, not the female. There he stood in his white undergarments, very fine he looked too, and it did occur to me that if only I could bring myself to get the brand name in I might be onto something lucrative. She felt the depth and quality of his Patra thermal long johns. No, I couldn't possibly.

Happy advent, peeps. The light shineth despite the Celebrations. And that's quite enough brand names for one post.

Friday, November 20, 2009

I have been speaking to the National Pandemic people and it looks as though I may have swine flu (it seems to have come in the wake of chest infection). Not that they can tell for sure, obviously, but enough boxes were ticked for them to suggest a) contacting my gp and b) taking antivirals. I tried to do a and then hung up after waiting for ages, not their fault but it's tiring at the end of a line with a high temperature, more tiring than doing a little blog post. Temperatures are a good thing, they burn things away, and I will try and stay with it for a bit. I am not persuaded that taking antivirals is necessarily a good thing. I don't know. My gut feeling is not to, so I'll go with that.

I gave Son a lift in the car yesterday and sneezed. Bugger. He is due to travel to India to work for several months on 7th December and has work commitments until then. He is away this weekend, saying goodbye to friends (just as well), Daughter was due to come with lovely new boyfriend on Sunday for lunch, and to collect important things for a project she is putting on in London. "I can't get ill now," she says, "I just can't." So Mr. Signs will have to go to the station and hand the heavy bag of photocopied material over at the station and not breathe on her or the boyfriend in case he is incubating. In fact, neither of us should breathe on anyone at all for - I need to look up how long. I probably shouldn't even be breathing on you, folks.

There is a nagging voice that says, you brought this on yourself by blasting away on the NaNo. You knew it was too much, didn't you? Shut up, I say. And when this is over I am going back to it - The Writing, I mean.

Meanwhile, I'll be spooking around the place and dreaming.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I have reached the half way mark of 25,000 words, a day behind target but still. Apart from the fun of the game (a truly essential element), and of doing it alongside some lovely others (so one is not entirely alone at the coalface) it has been sheer, hard , hacking-a-path-through-mountain slog. This is the long haul, you see, and I've never done that. It's like being in labour, when you suddenly experience a profound respect for all the other women who have been through this. Novelists, both published and unpublished - anyone who has actually done this thing of seeing a story (plotted, plotless, prosaic, poetic, whatever) through to the end: Respect!
And life does its best to get in the way. Why wouldn't it? It is such an unnatural thing to be doing, this out of the body thing with ghostie characters who inhabit one's imagination, take on substance and are unpredictable or too predictable, like people but not. I have been in my red and white pyjamas all day, with chest infection, feel awful and M.E. god has turned his baleful and venomous eye on me. Actually, he has been doing this from the outset, but today he sat on the bed with me and said: think you got away with it? Payback time!

And - get this - the writing isn't making me happy. Well who said that it was supposed to do that? Occasionally I get a grim kind of satisfaction because I can feel the pick hitting the seam, but mostly I feel a bit shite about it all, although not as shite as I would feel if I were not doing it.

I spoke with my London-based writing fiend the other day. She is working on her novel and has expressed how she feels about her particular work-in-progress. She loves it with a steadfast, dedicated and pure love. It is a source of joy, close to her heart, her attention to it has made it so. I can see the potential for this, even though we (work-in-progress and I) are are not at this stage in our relationship and it is an uneven and precarious kind of courtship.

A measure of Blogoslavian distraction feels like a good thing.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Two good things. Well, more than just two, but the ones I will mention have to do with The Writing.

For firstly, five of my poems are out in the latest (No. 48) edition of Obsessed With Pipework (subtitle: poetry with strangeness and charm), and one of them is called Reading the Signs. I really like this quarterly, and not just because the editor was good enough to take my poems. It has the look and feel of the kind of pamphlets one used to come across in what I shall euphemistically call a more rockanroll decade - something that has a cobbled together kind of look, but it is cobbled with artistry and soul - not to mention strangeness and charm. I subscribed to it when blogfriend and writer Ms Pants had her poems published there, and I have read every copy since (unusually for me) from first poem to last and been pleased to see some erstwhile writing cronies from Hackney days represented there. With neurologically challenged brain, it is difficult to keep finger on the pulse and read, as well as digest, everything that one would like to. So OWP is a very good thing for me, nicely made, with concentrated poetry nourishment I appreciate.

For secondly, I am - as I cavalierly bragged in the last post - taking part in this year's NaNoWriMo, and I have bashed out exactly 10,0005 words in six days. This is, to put you in the picture, exactly five words more than I need to be on track for my 50,000 by the end of the month. It is testing my strength to the limit, but so far so good, and look - I am even putting up a post as well. Muscles are aching, eyes are smarting, but this feels like a breeze compared to the hacking-a-path-through-the-mountain that is fiction-writing. Someone, but I can't remember who, described it as such and I felt it was, as far as my process was concerned, accurate. I know what is on the other side of the mountain and have a rough idea of what I might need to do in order to get there, but the path is made with much effort and with no guarantee that you are really heading in the right direction, but if you keep going you are going to get out somewhere, and if it is not exactly the spot you intended, never mind. I have written short stories, poems, bits of novel, but never yet actually done the long haul. When I reach the pearly gates I would like to say that I had a go. And this, I suppose, for better or worse, is it.

You will surely be wondering about Shrink, and where he fits into all of this. Obviously I have had to let him go - the road was, in every possible sense, too long, arduous and expensive and, well, all things must end, even psychoanalytic therapy. At the back of my mind, also, was the image of Woody Allen in Sleepers, waking up some time far in the future and working out that he might just, at this point have completed his psychoanalytic treatment. Don't ask me if it has done any good, I probably won't know until half way through my next incarnation. What I do know is that the notion of banging one's head against a brick wall, and how good it feels when you stop doing that, resonates.

Laters, comrades.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Just Juice

Up the Smoke again to visit the Daughter, the very walls of her lovely little flat (that looks like something created especially for a theatre set) breathing out the atmosphere of creative endeavour, the libretto and musical score of her recently completed musical bearing witness. She cooked prawn and spinach curry for us. I touched in with a dear Smoke-based writerfriend. Bliss. For it has been intense on the domestic front here at Signs Cottage, with Son back working all hours at all sorts to get money for travelling, and Mr. S also time-stretched with work and shrink-training, not to mention artistic creations, some of which now grace the wall of Daughter's flat. (And what am I doing as in, you know, Doing, you are wondering - I will get to that anon - probably).

The one who does the cooking/laundry/dishes is she who isn't out earning money. Stands to reason, and it isn't as though one actually resents it or as if anyone were taking advantage and not pulling their weight around the place. Everyone is doing their best. But it is a problem because of my energy/strength situation: how to fit in The Writing and not just come to it late in the day when it is quite hopeless to think of serious, sustained endeavour. Clue: when I was in the Smoke they had take-away suppers - fish and chips one night and curry the next. Lovely girlperson who comes once a week to clean vacuumed the carpets, cleaned the kitchen floor and changed bedlinen. When I absent myself, life goes on, I can just as well absent myself by going to the study as by going elsewhere and we are all grownups here. Life with small children is a different kettle of fish altogether. But. It does not feel good or right to welcome home the hard-pressed gentlemen folk of the house with nothing and - here is the nub - they and the Daughter are important to me and deserving of my attentions and when chips are down they come first in the scheme of things.

But still. I am determined to crack on with writing project and so have set myself the ridiculous challenge of doing NaNoWriMo this year. The idea came about as I sat outside on my birthday after having too much cake and coffee. Someone said, why don't we do it and I of course, at once, said yes lets, and then if it all went pear-shaped I could blame her for suggesting it. London writerfriend, who knows my situation and is realistic, said I should busy myself with appropriate warm-ups for the rest of this month, so I have been sustaining myself with instant coffee and chocolate, with no observable ill effects, bearing in mind that one is always feeling ill effects of something or other. No, but this is very encouraging, because I will save much time not shopping for and preparing biodynamic salads and raw vegetable juices. My juicer has, in any case, gone back to the chemist that sold it to me because of the particular make being recalled for potentially dangerous flaw in the works. I take this as a Sign - why wouldn't I? Organic juices are time-consuming and preparing them may be hazardous to your wellbeing. Coffee and chocolate rock.

Fifty thousand words in a month? Ha! Watch this space.

Monday, October 5, 2009


I was sitting on the patio in the sunshine, it was my birthday, I had eaten a great quantity of coffee and walnut cake and drunk two mugs of coffee, there was very possibly sugar rush and caffeine high. I was bragging about my fall and how quickly I had recovered from the jolt to my spine and the bash to my head (which has left a distinctive little Harry Potter lightning-shaped scar on my forehead). The gods, having nothing better to do and feeling, perhaps, irritated by the number of apples that have ended up rotting sweetly on the "compost" heap at the end of the garden, decided to kick in and give me a bad back, weeks after the event. So now the base of my spine is inflamed, or something, and the osteopath says that I should not sit, especially at a desk, for long periods, and I should go out for "several" short, brisk walks each day so that the disc settles back. Or something. And as I sit here, I look out and it is raining. The writing has suffered a bit of a dislocation also. The gods (I knew this already), do not like interruptions, and when there are too many losing the plot is as easy as losing your way on the mountains when the mist comes down; and you have run out of Kendal Mint Cake; and you feel as though you could just lie down and sleep; but you know that this is not really an option. So you go on.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Yo Ho Ho an' a bottle o' Amstel

Avast there, me hearties! Arrr, just so there be no mistake, today be International Talk Like A Pirate Day, and why should a lily-livered landlubber such as I not dip a toe into the briny? I be sitting on me auchsels wi' a jug o' grog nicely warmin' the cockles o' me insides, the vittles a-roastin' in the bung hole. Arrr, a plump chicken, an' assorted roots, wi' shallots thrown in for good measure, me scallywags, en't no festerin' bilge-rat can accuse Cap'n Signs o' bein' a mean-fisted swabbie.
I be ponderin' on this an' that, lookin' ahead t' th' graduation ceremony o' me son and a-realisin' that me preferred clobber o' purple leggins won't cut a dash among th'addle-brained boffins in the land o' dreamin' spires, but shiver me timbers if I be fool enough to be chuckin' pieces of eight at some scurvy clobbermonger for a piece o' schmatter* that won't see daylight from one end o' th' year to next. So purples it be, me hearties, arrr, and I'm a-thinkin' ye scurvy rascals 'd expect nothin' less from Cap'n Signs.
It bein' the 'versary o' me birth next se'ennight, me ol' mate be a-musin' 'pon what might gladden the 'eart of a wordy beauty such as I. He be full o' the joys o' i-phone, a-gazin' at the damn thing and a-downloadin' applications, such as a pox-ridden sudoku-solver, from th'internet – and now he be of a mind to get one o' th 'poxy things for me, but I be havin' none o' it, bein' a simple (as in honest, ye scurvy lubbers) sign-readin' sea-dog, wi' no need o' fancy booty to keep me treasure chest warm.
So that's the long an' short o' it, me scallywags. I'll close wi' trustin' this finds you as it leaves me – in th' pink an' addled wi' grog – pleased to be firin' a cannon through yer porthole – an jus' remember: when in doubt, say “Arrrrr!”

*it is a well-known fact that many pirates have more than a streak of yiddish in them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

books, buddies and backbone

Peoples, hello. I was waiting for Ms North to put up something on her blog about winning the Kelpies Prize, drumming my fingers, wondering what my small tribe of dearly beloved writer friends have in common, and I think it is that no sooner have they dashed off one fine thing than they are on with the next and attending to the work in progress rather than trumpeting about the one that has just been published, though trumpeting, one feels, is in order.

So yes, she, (a.k.a. Janis Mackay), did win it, and I was there to witness the event which took place in a beautiful building close to the Edinburgh book fair, with wine, crisps, chocolate muffins and sweeties in little dishes – well it was a children's book prize, and it was Scotland. It will be published by Floris at the end of October and it will be lovely – a story about a boy called Magnus Finn who is half selkie. I have always been drawn by the selkie and even wrote a short story myself about one of them. Ms North has written an adventure story. I remember speaking to her on the phone after she had begun it. She was working on another project at the time but something on the beach where she lives caught her attention, she says, and she went home and the story of Magnus began. In her own words about this here. So it goes with creative process. You go hell for leather after one story and then another one comes and pulls at you.

Another long time writer friend I would like to trumpet is Wendy Wallace, whose book Daughter of Dust was published by Simon and Schuster in August. In Wendy's words:

Leila began life in an orphanage where most babies had been abandoned after being born outside marriage. Later, she uncovered the complex story behind her abandonment. She met - and looked after - her mother, and discovered not one father but two. She sang for President Numeiri, and came within a breath of living on the streets...
I met her when in Sudan in 2007 researching a piece for Woman's Hour on the issue of abandonment. In northern Sudan, babies continue to be born to unmarried women, despite the strict Islamic laws. Mygoma orphanage continues to receive abandoned newborns.
Leila's story moved me. I wanted to tell it, and she had always wanted it told. We formed a close friendship and agreed that if we succeeded in finding a publisher, we would split any proceeds.

Most important to Leila is that people in Sudan and elsewhere think again about their attitudes to those without families. The aim of her charity - Sunrise - is to dispel the stigma faced by 'children of sin' and its message is simple. "We are not guilty."

I love this book. I love Wendy's writing. She has a talent for creating mood and place (from which the story unfolds) which catches at the breath. I hope the book grows wings and is read by many. You can find it on Amazon, in Waterstone's or Borders under Biography, or you can order it for the discounted price of £6.50 plus £3.00 p&p (UK 1st class) by contacting Wendy at

Already mentioned (and on my sidebar), if you haven't already spotted it, is Julie Corbin, whose first book, a thriller called Tell Me No Secrets was the only good reason I found for staying awake into the small hours. An erstwhile student of mine, she came into the classroom and one knew from the outset that she was one of those can write/will write people with both talent and determination.

Three writers, all different, but what they have in common is something I can't really find a satisfying word for: they are dedicated to the business of writing and have given themselves to the work, for the love of it, the doing of it. The success, when and if it comes, is good, but they are busy with the new work – dedicated.

Next post will have something about the life and strivings of Signs. But for the moment, suffice to say that today I fell on the patio, bashed my head and put my back out. But I wrote my thousand words.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Festival Again

Off to Edinburgh again tomorrow, looking forward to all of it. Daughter is staying in London this year, bashing on with her nearly-finished musical and working. A fun shopping trip with her today (me, who usually detests shopping for clothes!) - both of us bought lots of lovely things in the high street of my nearest little town, quickly, painlessly, and cheaply. High spirits.

Son will be playing geetar in a show called Miles Ahead with other jazz musicians - at C Venue, if you happen to be there and into Miles Davis.

Ms North has been shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize with her story, Magnus Finn and the Ocean Quest and the Signses will be there at the award ceremony on Wednesday when the winner will be announced.

I will be taking the notebook along, probably not writing much in it until my return but one must always show willing, even on holiday.

There is so much auspiciousness in the air, I can taste it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


What do writing people do when they are not writing the magnum opus? Get together with other writing people and play daft writing games; which is why I ended up with three slips of paper. The first slip said “Ringo Starr”, the second “discovering a great secret” and the third “the surface of Mars”. It's a bit like the Radio 4 programme Just a Minute where people have to speak for one minute about any subject given to them, but in this game you have to write (for a bit longer than a minute) incorporating the three disparate things written on the slips of paper. It's amazing just how much bollocks one can write in a situation like this. Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that I had Ringo, at the insistence of his wife, seeing a new-age Beverley Hills therapist with beads and feathers round his neck who calls himself Star Bird, (but his real name is Eric) and feels an immediate connection to Ringo because of the name.

My name isn't really Starr, says Ringo, it used to be Starkey.
Still has a star in it, says Eric, and it's one powerful birth name to be blessed with – having the key as well as the star. You can unlock secrets, my friend.
I guess, says Ringo, but he never felt that connection. Stark raving mad was what they used to joke about, him and his mates in the playground after school, or stark bollocks naked. Hey Starkers, they used to call – you comin' ou' toni' or wha'? Good times, they were, hanging out with the lads, ribbing each other and throwing wolf-whistles at the girls on a Saturday night (he liked the blonde ones).
Richard, says Eric – mind if I call you that?
Sure, says Ringo, whatever (christ, was that the time, they still had forty five minutes to go and already he was feeling bored, wishing he were by the pool downing a couple of Buds).
Richard – Star Key – how do you feel about having a re-naming ritual?
Ringo doesn't know about that, and his wife usually tells him how he feels about things.
We could do it right here and now, says Eric – reconnect you to your name of power, words are magic, Richard, I think we both know that. I'm a great admirer of your work, by the way.
Oh, thanks.
I'd just like you to shut your eyes and imagine you are stepping out of the body – will you do that, Richard?
Sure. He could get forty winks, perhaps, make the time pass more quickly.
You are going up into the sky, flying at the speed of light, away from earth itself. You find yourself in outer space – what do you see?
No forty winks then, he had to answer questions. Planets, says Ringo.
Planets is good, says Eric. And I wonder which planet you are going to choose. Look carefully, Richard. Venus is beautiful with all its greens and blues, perhaps it beckons you. Mercury, now there's a gem, Saturn is majestic and brings untold wisdom – and then there is Mars, the warrior's planet -
Chocolate, thinks Ringo, with soft fondant and caramel encased in its dark embrace.
Mars, he says. A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

You will just have to believe, as I do, that he does in fact discover a great secret.

Ok – I have been having problems: the Signs hard disc self-destructed and seeing as we hadn't backed anything up since November there has been a bit of bother, some things being quite lost, though others (mercifully) alive in hard copy. We are re-configured now and backed up to the hilt. Never trust a computer, says a friend of mine – they always let you down eventually. The notebook never does, though.
So back to it I go.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

white sky

In January I recorded in my bedside notebook:

Looking out at the black, bare branches on a thick, white sky. I love this small outlook onto rooftops and trees. Though I never see people, it makes me feel less alone, as though I am out there, a part of that piece of landscape, and the fact of my being grounded here doesn’t matter so much.

Today is the first of August, and I record:

The branches most visible to me are still black, and the sky is thick and white. I think the rain will never stop. But today I would not, in any case, know what to do with a blue and golden day, especially if it were hot. The rain and sky are therefore a kindness to me, they cover me like a blanket, similar to the light duvet I am lying under now. I spoke to a friend who is recovering from cancer. She had been out for a morning walk and the lake, the people with their dogs and all the morning runners, all the life in the park, was beautiful. Life was beautiful. Yes, I said, and yes.

Friday, July 24, 2009

touching in

It is going well, this new phase I have stepped into. I am not entirely sure what makes me say this, other than a sense of something small but vital having clicked into place, despite the usual health and strength issues. Sometimes the simple fact of making a decision is enough to get things moving in a different direction, and I have recently made three decisions, one of which already promises to bear lovely fruit.

I have realised that I am screen-sensitive to a degree I had not appreciated. In other words, it is much better for me not to spend very much time in front of one, especially if it belongs to a laptop, and more especially if it involves a great deal of reading. Typing up what I have written, which doesn’t take long as I am a speedy touch-typist, is fine. Thank goodness for the notebook. I have still to find the completely perfect ballpoint – but perhaps one never does.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Not The Last Post

It isn’t as though I took a long trip away or did anything spectacular, I just went for a few days to the far north of Scotland. But time in another place can do the trick, especially if you don’t (I don’t, can’t) travel very much. And it has been growing for a while, this feeling that perhaps the time has come for me to retreat a bit further, so as to find some new ground beneath my feet. I have already given up so much in the way of work, groups and projects that I spent time and strength building up. It was necessary, I couldn’t carry on living always at the end of my tether. What did I think? That my new, serene life would lead me to green pastures and springs of living water from which I could drink and be strong again? That I would find a way to order my life so that I could be (to quote Ben Okri) an “essentialist” – take up my pen and write, and all manner of things would be well?

The spirit was always willing, it is ardent and steadfast. But my M.E.-afflicted mind and body fail and fail. We all sing this song, those of us who have lived for many years with M.E. We try not to but out it comes, from the breast, because we want so badly to live our lives and do the thing that is in us to do: paint, take photographs, write, sew, plant, create. We try, but sometimes there is such a small space in which to be alive, and then we think we should do the decent thing and shut up about it but we can’t, it goes against nature. Keep howling, raging, singing, one must, and keep breathing. I have been touched by many voices here in this virtual world that became, for a while, a hearth for me. People come and go, they take on names that become a channel for some essence of them, and when they go or disappear, it matters.

So I don’t want to do that – disappear - at least not without saying goodbye. But retreat is in order because I don’t have the wherewithal to keep posting much if I am going to bring more substantial focus to the writing I still hope to do. I began this blog as a kind of simple reflective practice (I say simple, but I used initially to edit my posts) and to see what might emerge. I didn’t anticipate that it would become an actual place with real people who mattered to me, or that there would be so much fun to be had in the exchanges. Good times.

But back to the I-Ching, which is where I began when I started the blog: Care of the Cow, it seems, does not necessarily bring good fortune and the Ridgepole is always in danger of breaking, and knowing these things does give a kind of freedom. I am also reminded, as though that were necessary, that the Wanderer has no place to lay her head. It doesn’t do to be too literal about these things, but the motif is there quite plain and I have my knapsack here at the ready. I am packing the notebook, the ballpoint and a strip of Nicorette chewing gum. Anything else I should remember? Oh yeah, my sweet little razor-sharp Opinel knife, because you never know. And I quite fancy the thought of whittling while I’m whistling by the fire on a dark night.

I will be putting my head through the door now and then, coming back for the occasional rant or Tweet (as in Twitter, but don’t worry, I’m not going down that road), and I’ll be looking in on y’all, emailable as usual and - gawd! As my dear old Dad liked to say when someone was taking too long hovering on the threshold: "forgotten, but not gone."

Or as my great aunt Linchen always used to say:
“Geh mit Gott, aber geh.”

I should go.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Far North

Here is the lovely house where we stayed. Like mine, it is on the edge - but in this case it is hard by the sea rather than forest, these windows look right onto it. It is cloudy in the photo, but we sat underneath the umbrella in bright sunshine, to eat and to read and write.
This is my new best friend - a border collie called Flora who goes every day into the sea, either to swim or just stand and look out to sea, meditating on the horizon or watching trout leap from the water. She is both intelligent and hyper-active and, having no sheep to herd, needs four walks a day and is inclined to chase the chickens if she gets bored. Not the kind of dog that I would be able to keep, more is the pity, but it suits Ms North perfectly for when she is not writing and teaching she is walking with Flora and both are in their element.

Here is the beach that is right by the house. The photo was taken very late at night, it never really gets dark here in summer.

And just to prove that the skies really were (mostly) blue. A view from the side of the houses across the river. The place is a small hamlet, there are no shops to speak of, unless you count the hut that sells bedding plants and motor oil. We ate fresh mackerel caught by someone who goes out in his boat every night to fish.
While we were there, Ms North saw one of her poems published as one of the runners up in the Mslexia poetry competition - and the next day a letter came with the news that her children's story has been shortlisted for the Kelpies prize. She will be reading from it at the Edinburgh Festival, when the results will be announced - and perhaps (nudge, nudge) update her blog with all the news. Auspicious? I should coco.
So I am back to my own particular edge and rather missing the granite beneath my feet, but fired up for something or other, and thinking about new strategies for doing more of what I want to do - the usual damnable restrictions notwithstanding.
More on this anon.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

all points north

On Sunday there was a family party chez Signs, given exclusively for the family members of Mr. Signs, as many as could be gathered on that particular day, some of whom I had never met and he barely knew. There were about eighteen of us in all, Mr. S being disappointed that more were not able to come, and me relieved. While they looked at old photograph albums and generally caught up with each other on the patio, I put finishing touches to the buffet, drank spritzers, rolled a couple of Golden Virginias and lectured the daughter about the evils of alcohol and cigarettes.

The day before, I had discovered that some of the attendees were extreme vegans, so no chance of cocktail sausages and tinned pineapple chunks with Gouda cheese cubes on sticks, or a vat of Coronation chicken. Googling vegan fingerfoods was useless, it all required making from scratch. But still, I am now in love with Discovery fajita powder and wholemeal wraps. You just sautee a large quantity of veg, add powder - and wrap. Tinned chick peas and assorted beans are also, as everyone knows, a good vegan thing – I uncanned and mixed with with “oriental” tahini dressing (made up on the hoof). There was also bulghur wheat tabbouleh, sushi and guacamole dip with crudités plus other things for carnivores and fish-eating, gluten-avoiding vegetarians. In the end there was far too much food and I offloaded a quantity onto my lovely vegan neighbour. I used to do this sort of thing a lot but am out of practice, not just with the catering side of things but gatherings in general, unless they have some clearly defined focus such as choral singing or poetry. It has to be said that I am no longer (was I ever?) a party animal – unless it is a party where I can sing Bohemian Rhapsody on karaoke. Just saying this in case a couple of people look in and wonder if I was just pretending to enjoy myself at the garden party the other week. No, look, I am contradictory. I am not a party animal but sometimes go to parties and have a lovely time, especially if someone else is doing the food.

I could complain about the heat but won’t as the weather is due to change soon and then I will be complaining about the rain. In any case, Mr S and I are going to Caithness the day after tomorrow to stay with Ms North and partner in their lovely house on the beach where you can sit in bed and look out at the sea. Ms North and I will be doing The Writing while Mr. S explores the terrain, reads and relaxes. We also plan to eat, drink and talk to seals. There is one who has recently taken to hanging out on that bit of beach and I am hoping s/he will stay around and let me come close enough for some eye contact.

Whenever I go to my hairdresser she asks me where and when I am going on holiday. She and her husband have about seven a year so no sooner has one holiday been taken than the next is within sight. You must like Scotland a lot, she said last time. Because you keep going there, don’t you? Yes, I do. And I do.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Midsummer Invocation

Today was the Feast of St. John and midsummer’s day. In days of yore, and even more recently, if you happened to go to a Steiner school, there would be bonfires lit and people would jump over them for luck and courage, and to frighten off the evil spirits. I have no lit bonfire but want my measure of luck and courage, and to give the message that any spirits whose intentions are questionable have no place in the house and being of Signs. One can but try. So I have lit a candle. It is just a humble IKEA tea light as I am out of beeswax candles (on which I tend to stock up in the autumn), but a flame is a flame and the village Wise Woman once assured me that wherever a flame burns the forces of the will are strengthened. I suppose this could work for good or ill, depending on whose will forces are uniting with flame. The salamanders (fire elementals) are neutral in the sense that they will go to work, whatever. So I resist the urge to call on them and the angels to smite my enemies with a great smite and such a thing would not in any case be seemly.

There was a yoga teacher I once knew briefly. I forget what kind of yoga – I was very keen at the time but I didn’t keep it up. What I still remember, though, are the words with with he began each session:

may all beings who live on the earth be free from fear.

Just that. It feels to be as much of the essence now as it did then.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I interrupt this show to tell you that

I hired a couple of detectives and now have conclusive proof that our dear friend Anna FomP has been abducted by alien nuns and is living in seclusion somewhere on a remote island, but which remote island I am not at liberty to reveal. My informants did, however, go undercover and take this photograph - there's Anna on the left, just after being forced to take her vows by the mother superior. She is now known as Sister Boffinata of the Journals. And below is the cave that she sleeps in, it's actually one of the more luxurious ones. The thing about this particular order is that they are very big on Lent. So big, in fact, that it's always Lent and never Easter, which means that they are always doing penance of one sort or another.

Anyway, I'm sure you'll be grateful that I've kept you up to date with the situation - well someone had to. Do her a favour and pay a visit to her house. Word has it that if you make a big enough noise the sound will reach her, even in the murky depths of the cave.

Monday, June 22, 2009

I Capture the Sweetshop

Every so often I try to get myself organised so as to be a little more productive than I am. This doesn’t usually work out very well because Malignant Entity hears about it and sabotages, but still: I have sometimes managed to do certain things that I wouldn’t have done if there hadn’t been some kind of plan or readjustment made. The plans and readjustments are not always the active kind, often they involve cutting out something else and usually the something else is given up unwillingly.

I sometimes read the blogs of writers from the land of focussed productivity and it is like pressing my nose against the window of a richly-stocked sweet shop. I want very much to taste the sweets I see, can almost feel the buttery slide of a striped peppermint humbug or the fizz of a strawberry sherbet in my mouth. But twixt them and me is fixed an impenetrable glass wall through which I can only look, and my pockets have only small change. The looking, though, is better than nothing and I still want to know there is a world out there and in there.

I wrote those two paragraphs last night and suddenly realised I needed to sleep. Now I see I have been rambling about sweets and clearly I was having another blood sugar swing and jars of sweets are in any case not the best image to stand for the actual doing of things, but let it be. So, I have a sequence of poems I would like to complete and a number of writing-and-process sessions scheduled. I have completed bits and pieces that I plan to put inside envelopes and send somewhere. I am waving a protracted goodbye to Shrink just as we were in danger of actually getting somewhere, but the driving was killing me and the writing, so that’s that. Back to the square on the board that isn’t quite square one or Go To Jail but isn’t much further on the road to capturing the castle either – and look, I am coming up with crappy images again, I could never stand Monopoly, probably because there never were any castles there to capture, and I have never been much of an entrepreneur.

I should go. Because otherwise I might begin to list the various things that are cluttering up the fragile soul space of Signs and then this would become a confessional blog, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just as confessional poetry is not necessarily a bad thing (and if you are Anne Sexton it is a very good thing indeed – for us, I mean – it didn’t save her). But I think if one is going to do the confessional then there’s no merit in being coy, it needs to be done properly, hammer and tongs and hell for leather, so to speak, and if done in the right way it is not (as everyone always fears) self-indulgence but something big and generous, and one takes one’s hat off to the blogger who does this.

No really, I should go.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


You no longer exist, Wild Man of the Woods. But every time I go into the forest I expect you and am startled by your absence. How can it be only me here – me and my kind, in recycled rubber shoes, padding across the forest floor where nothing runs, hides and seeks but a few grey squirrels?

There are deer also, they venture out at night and get killed on the road. But what would you do here? The forest is not as large or wild as it once was and you too might wander onto the road, get caught in the headlights, your face for a brief moment illuminated, before the crunch. We read signs that tell us to go slow, there are deer and sheep. Another sign might say Caution: Wild Men of the Woods.

You have made yourself a garment out of bracken, deerskin and black bin-liners, something to protect you from the cold, perhaps. Around your neck there is a bone attached to a piece of string, bird feathers in your matted hair. Where is the mother that raised you – or were you suckled by the wolves? We do not see those either, and their absence is as loud as yours.

Alone in the deepest part of the forest where even the forest rangers seldom go, you squat on the thickest branch of an oak and open your mouth. From your throat comes the call of a woodpecker, and sometimes the long howl of a wolf.

One day some children find you – a brother and sister out with their parents for a Sunday walk, an autumn adventure with flasks of apple juice, peanut butter and marmite sandwiches. The parents are a little way behind and do not see what the children see: a wild and hairy man squatting on a branch, his genitals exposed, grey feathers stuck into hair the colour of rusted leaves, eyes like the big round letter O in their alphabet book, and inside the two Os it is black and shiny with staring. They stop and look, you stop and look.
Mum! Dad! shouts the boy.
You’re a funny man, says the girl. Are you a troll?
Dad! says the boy, Dad!

And then your nostrils flare, you growl and you are gone, disappeared.
He was here, say the children when the parents arrive. He wasn’t wearing proper clothes, I saw his willy, says the girl. The father pretends to have a look: well now, I wonder where he could have got to. The mother lays down a blanket for a picnic.
I’m not pretending - he was real, says the boy, and he will keep saying it, even when he grows up. There will be the story of a wild man in the forest. His parents are pleased he has a vivid imagination.

When they have gone, you come back and sniff the ground where they were sitting, pick up a half-eaten sandwich, put it into your mouth and spit it out. You go to your secret place under the Yew where there is a stash of berries.

Later you will kill and pluck a bird.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

bohemian rhapsody

Back into the forest on the weekend, a friend from London staying with me. We visited my tree, I think it is a Yew but am not absolutely sure. It is huge and ancient, with roots that spread out like gnarled but elegant fingers. I am not ashamed to adopt a tree companion. We have a proper regard for each other. With each meeting I become more tree-like and the tree looks increasingly human, so there is some essential exchange of energy going on.

I think the apple tree is going to survive as only a few branches have the burnt-to-a-crisp leaves, the rest are ok, and I can see little newborn apples dotted around that look as though they have a good future ahead of them. Some of them will eventually become apple jelly.

I had another occasion to perform, at my friend’s garden party on Saturday – spot of karaoke in the marquee. Bohemian Rhapsody, it was. I have always wanted to belt out scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango - thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightning - Galileo! etc. Obviously I wasn't doing it completely on my own, but it still took guts.

And yesterday, as if the heavens opened in reply, there was thunderbolt and lightning, and a clattering of hail, followed by hot sunshine, which has continued into today. It being the birthday of Mr. Signs I should expect nothing less, as he has decreed that the sun always shines on the day of his birth. Sceptics might say that it is fortunate his birthday falls in mid-June, but he maintains that it is all to do with having the right attitude. I am, as ever, reading the signs.

Friday, June 12, 2009

bashing on (because sorry, I really can't think of a title today)

Well, that was good. One of the benefits of building up to doing a reading is that it makes you polish things up a bit and think about the various themes you are working with. It may sound a bit fey, but that isn’t always clear – at least not to me – when one is writing the poems. It is the work itself that tells you. I had the pleasure of reading with Sarah Salway and Julie Corbin, I was nicely sandwiched between the two, and I see that Salt writer Vanessa Gebbie (whose short stories I’m coincidentally about to read and who I briefly talked with last night) has written about the evening on her blog. Chuffed. And lovely that Daughter and a couple of dear friends were able to come, despite difficulties thrown up by the London tube strike.

Thanks to those who commented in the previous post, and – wouldn’t you know – as it turned out I didn’t have time to read the poem. But your efforts were not wasted! It was one that was almost headed for the virtual bin, but I have decided that Version Two will stay, and in the fullness of time (how I love that phrase, so adaptable) it will find its place.

Yesterday was also the day that Son did the last of his finals exams which, because of the R.S.I. (which became Tennis Elbow and then something else) he wrote entirely on a keyboard in a room with (his words) “all the other cripples” – may the angels bless their endeavours. So now it’s party-time for him, and a space with nothing scheduled but whatever it is he fancies doing.

And today is the Signs wedding anniversary, which we almost forgot (though Mr. S swears he didn’t). No chance at all of my cooking anything, we’re going for a curry. I am almost excarnated with sleeplessness but in that Mickey Mouse kind of state where you can keep walking on air and not fall into the ravine as long as you don’t look down. Tomorrow a friend is coming to stay, there is a big bash of a party we have been invited to, not usually my thing but it’s hosted by one of my lovely weekly writing people, there will be beautiful music and ambience and I will enjoy.

Have a good weekend yourselves, Peeps.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Nation Decides

Oh this is ridiculous. Poetry reading coming up on Thursday and I’ve decided I need to rewrite most of the poems I planned to read, which obviously isn’t going to be possible. Also, I haven’t got any funny ones. Well, I have got one, but it’s about how to turn yourself into a poisonous snake so won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. And I have decided I want to take the opportunity to get in a few M.E. poems – two of them are ok, but there is one where I can’t decide which version works best.

So, dear Reader Peeps, this is where you come in: I’ll put up both and you decide which one gets your vote. I could also do with a decent title, if one suggests itself to you. Thanking you in advance for doing a beleaguered Sign-reader a good turn, and – who knows – I might do the same for you one day.

Version One

I am your litmus paper, if you like;
watch my colour turn from live to nothing
and that should tell you something.

I am your singing canary, let’s say,
that goes before you into darkness,
and when the music stops, you know.

I am closer than you think.
You may have sensed me:
a coldness in the limbs;
the odourless lips of a still-born rose.

I am trying to tell you things,
but I only have this language:
a bloodless complexion;
this deathly silence.

Version Two

I am your litmus paper, if you like;
watch my live colour turn to nothingness.

I am your singing canary, let’s say,
that goes before you into darkness.

I am closer than you think.
You may have sensed me.

I am trying to tell you things
but have only this language –
a coldness in the limbs,
this deathly silence.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

rolled purples

There is something about being cold in summer that is much more chilling than being cold in winter. Another day of the claustrophobic and cold white sky weather. Sun seems well and truly blocked out, rain is on the way, I have just switched on the central heating. I grow old, I grow old, I will wear the bottom of my purples rolled – which reminds me, there is more T.S. Eliot on the box tonight. It clashes with a film called Signs, but what do I need to watch a spooky film about crop circles for? The Signs are spooky enough in my own front garden: there is something wrong with our beautiful apple tree. Some of the leaves have shrivelled and look burnt to a crisp. The tree doctor says if it is caused by insect infestation it will survive, if it is our deadly enemy Honey Fungus the tree will most likely have to be cut down. We lost a silver birch last year to that. This comes hard after the loss of our cherry tree,

two weeks it flowered in my kitchen, the scent of it painful,
like losing a sister,
like taking a bride from the altar, husbandless

– a snippet from work in progress. I observe that when I write about beauty it usually comes with pain and I also observe that I don’t write many funny poems, or if they are funny then it’s not obvious to anyone but me (someone did once say I had a kind of sly humour but neither of us were sure if that was a compliment).

And back to the trees: our next neighbour but one has cut down an ash tree. I’m sure there was a good reason for it but it has quite changed the view when one looks out of the window at the back of the house. There is always a tree issue in these parts, the forest is all around us and everything that is not forest wants to be. What with that and keeping the elementals happy one has one’s work cut out.

It has been a difficult week, I’ve been myaligicmusclebound and mainly housebound – without the former the latter would be fine in my little house, albeit with compromised view, but my neighbour (not the hot cross bun one) has had scaffolding put up by the side of his house which is hard by the side of our house. There have been days of banging, scraping and raucous banter, and I am spoiled with so much silence and birdsong, not used to the noise.

Certainly it is time for the rolled purples.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Ho hum, I’m really not sure that there is much of anything I particularly want to say. I particularly don’t want to say anything about: a) the business at Oxford concerning Derek Walcott and Ruth Padel, the whole thing has been yuck and I really can’t bring myself to care who they appoint; b) the media circus business with Susan Boyle and the Britain’s Got Talent frenzy; c) the fact that the intensely boring and depressing Big Brother is about to go into its tenth year.

Good, that’s got those out of the way. We can talk about the weather obviously – it’s been great here in Blighty and even a cold winter-lover like me can’t help but feel as though something potentially splendid and redemptive has finally come and announced itself after the god-forsakenly chilly spring we have had. So, well, but as we’re all mostly agreed on that there probably isn’t very much more to say except that it is worth bearing in mind that (it being England) weather will probably be changeable. But you don’t need a sign-reader to tell you that, you can watch the BBC weather forecast.

I have got a list of things for June jiggling about in my brain. It is the cat’s birthday on the 8th. - she will be fourteen. I used to make an effort and stick candles into a tin of Sheba and sing happy birthday to her but she didn’t really appreciate the gesture or seem to mind when I forgot. The Signs wedding anniversary falls on the 12th, the birthday of Mr. Signs on the 16th and we are having a Signs gathering extraordinaire (his idea, I blame the therapy training) later in the month – members of his side of the family, many of whom he has not seen for years and who I have never met. I will not yet allow myself to think about this. Son of Signs clobber will all be coming back to Signs Cottage from Oxford at some point. There are poetry readings to attend and a book launch. Oh, and I will be giving a poetry reading on the 11th that I am feeling strangely nervous about.

I’m sure there was something else. Yes, a creativity day chez Signs. You will be wondering what a creativity day is: well, it is a day on which we (me and two of my long-standing writing cronies) get together and create, in other words we write stuff. We do this regularly anyway, but on a creativity day we do it for longer and with knobs on. And food.

What I always say is, when you have nothing to say, write lists – which is basically what I seem to have done here. I have been very restrained actually, there is much more I could have added to the list. I’ll be back when some of the items have been ticked off.

Have a nice month.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Repetitive Strain

Yesterday Son of Signs sat the first of his finals exams. Instead of sitting in one of the magnificent halls in the University of the Dreaming Spires he was in a dusty room set aside, with keyboards, for those who have repetitive strain injury and are therefore unable to handwrite. There were a couple of anxious days when he appeared to be up against a wall of no-can-do and demands for doctor’s note (on a bank holiday weekend). But then the senior tutor sprang into action on his behalf and lo, there were possibilities, including the services of a scribe should he have wanted that (he didn’t). Plus, he saw a decent nurse who didn’t just chuck him a tube of ibuprofen gel. RSI is common in Oxford undergraduates who are building up to finals, May sees so many wandering around with the telltale white arm slings, that it has become something of a joke, until you actually get it yourself – three days before the beginning of exams.

The thing about children growing up is that you can’t march in and deal with things on their behalf any more. Otherwise I’d have been in milord proctor’s office with a sawn-off shotgun and a plethora of potent curses, obviously. This kind of approach does often bring about results. But on the other hand one also risks making enemies and alienating people so it’s good to have other strategies at the ready, such as who do you have to f*ck to get the necessary equipment/piece of paper/antibiotics or whatever it is that a particular situation demands. Shotgun and curses is more my style, but I can also do gracious beleaguered lady gratefully grovelling, and have done to good effect. I never said I was proud.

I have got a new, blue (second hand) office chair as the other one has been wonky for a long time. It cost £100 but we got it at the “special price” of £90 to take account of the scratched paint on one of its black feet. I have just looked online and seen that we could probably have got something similar, new, for the same price as it is an older model. Sometimes it doesn’t do to dwell on things. I will also not dwell on the fact that my posterior and coccyx seem to be missing the old wonky chair and find this one a bit bruising.

I continue to dwell on the issue of how I can establish a workable writing routine given the lengthy periods of recovery needed between one activity and another. Given the unpredictability of my condition there is no solution that readily offers itself but I will not cease from mental strife nor will my pen or keyboard rest easy till I have built – actually till nothing. I just find that if I am not writing I do not rest easy, nor do I wish to. Today is a recovery day, though, and perhaps a catching up on reading day: short stories (Runaway) by Alice Munro for the book group next week.

Next year in Jerusalem.

Friday, May 22, 2009

- or just imagine you are a teapot

All I can give you right now is teapots. You can take your pick from a mouse, a cupcake or a basket of fruit teapot and imagine that you are sitting somewhere near to one of them eating a toasted teacake with butter, somewhere in the middle of nowhere anyone (apart from those in the know) knows about, and you are sipping your Earl Grey tea from a china cup which has just been poured (incomprehensibly, given the circumstances) from a stainless steel pot. All the interesting teapots are just for show. Imagine you are on your own, with a notebook, writing words about teapots and toasted teacake.
If you are looking in here for the first time - hello. I do other things apart from teapots and teacakes so feel free to trawl around the labels on my sidebar and look around. But on the other hand, there are worse things to contemplate. I should tell you that in my own home I have a standard Brown Betty which does the job nicely, and a very serviceable cafetiere of the usual kind. I have always liked coffee best but tea is on the ascendant.
I am going to the Brighton Festival tomorrow, up the Smoke again on Sunday.
Back anon ere May be out, most likely.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rose of Signs

I am going to the Smoke today, staying with my daughter who has just moved into a flat in the East End, which is where she began her life over 23 years ago. It is her first time living alone, but she is near friends and has the company of her trusty piano, which once belonged to my father – it’s essential in her life for both work and pleasure.

As usual (when there is planned activity afoot), I slept very little last night. But there is a substantial quantity of sleep in the bank from previous nights, and this may see me through. In any case, I feel stronger than I have for a while and there is a strange and fragile elevation, which belongs to the morning.

There is a red rose growing outside my house. It wasn’t there last year and I can only think that the biodynamic gardener who occasionally comes to help keep things from getting over-wild, put it there, took a cutting from the back garden. The look and scent of it is so intense I can hardly take it in all at once, but it will not last long.
The fact that from one day to the next things change sometimes seems nothing short of miraculous

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"all by yourself in the moonlight"

It’s really dire when it comes down to blogging about blogging, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s akin to writing poems that are about writing poetry – some publishers actually include that in their submission what-not-to-send guidelines, but do I care? I wrote one of those and not naming any names but a certain ex-editor of Poetry Review thought it was brilliant, which just goes to show that you should always write whatever you want to write and people will either like it or they won’t.

Having said that, I’m not about to say anything brilliant and insightful about blogging here, I’m just going to reflect a bit. This is really why I began blogging in the first place – to reflect about creative process, life and stuff, I had no particular agenda and was open to whatever might emerge, as long as it was clear (it probably wasn’t always) that whatever did emerge of a personal nature was not a plea for emotional support, reassurance or advice. I appreciate all (well most) comments, but the ones that please me the most are those that either take some kind of pleasure in the words I’ve put up, for whatever reason, or those that take off and turn into real conversation/debate or a bit of seriously playful nonsense. Regarding the latter, there have been some truly exquisite times in the comments section where we have made it up as we went along. I do like that kind of thing, and remember how when my daughter was little the games she liked were always about making things up – creative play in action, not knowing where it might lead or what may unfold. That’s actually the way I tend to write, for better or worse – it does sometimes help to have a map of where you might be heading; novelist writerfriend, if you are looking in: I am working/planning to work on this.

So, but: I have M.E. and have said as much in my profile. The fact of this is so huge and affects so much of life that not mentioning it would really be like trying to hide the elephant in the room. This is a place where I have sometimes lamented, spoken about the loss that comes with a condition such as this, but I have also on occasion stood back and simply looked at what it might mean in terms of creative process, how one thing might affect another. Having it has perhaps made me more of a “ditch poet” (one who looks at what is close up and near by) than the other kind of writer I might have been.

It has recently been levelled at me that I tend to sit on the edge of debate about M.E. – that I don’t get involved with the ‘dirt’. This is quite true and is worth thinking about. On the one hand I could say that it simply doesn’t draw me, it’s not what I do nor do I think I would be as effective as many of the people whose names appear on my sidebar, so I leave the activism to them and will sometimes lend my voice in support and offer appreciation for their efforts – we would be significantly the worse off without them. I was that kind of feminist also. I never went on marches, never put myself in the line of fire (writing a couple of poems for Spare Rib really doesn’t count) and I benefitted from the work of many brave and energetic women. It wasn’t laziness or cowardice, it was simply not the kind of thing I did, my gifts, such as they were, lay elsewhere and I never felt informed enough about particulars to offer something significant to any debate. The support I did give was more of the “ditch” kind.

I don’t offer an apology. I come here to do what I do and I don’t have an agenda so sometimes it’s a bit of this and a bit of that, and occasionally I shine a torch when the moment feels right and the fire is there to do it. Also, it was never my intention to be an M.E. blogger in the sense of that being the primary focus. If I had severe M.E. this might very well have been the case, but I am, as a blogfriend recently put it, sometimes “on the shitty end of moderate” and at other times just moderate – one of the more fortunate ones therefore. If I write about M.E., the point (for me) is really about the writing of it, whether the words are working in the way they should and giving utterance to something or other. I don’t always know what that something or other is when I am writing it – that goes with the territory of reflective practice I reckon.

I wanted to put up a youtube of “All By Yourself in the Moonlight” by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band from years back but can only find the original song they took it from. Bonzo’s version had rude words and was funny, but this will have to do:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sick Potato

I would like to put up a post for ME/CFS International Awareness Day, but guess what? I am having a bad patch. Last year’s post still stands, I reckon, and I am wondering what else there is to say – perhaps this: that you can have the illness for a long time and still fuck up, as I have done over the last year, by overdoing or refusing to listen to myself because there was something I wanted too much. Thus far I have refused to face up to the fact that regular driving trips of any length make me ill. I have now been given conclusive proof that this is so. Mea maxima stupidissima. The previous post was a cheat, I had it in reserve, but the cupboard is bare now. I have notebooks full of words but sometimes reading through them feels like looking at a blueprint of loss. Other times the words are a stream that becomes river and the river overflows, is always in danger of overflowing and there is no defence, you just have to carry on building and planning, living as though there were no catastrophe imminent, as though you were not hearing the rumble of thunder that warned of a torrential downpour, believing in the spaces of sky, the clarity that burns everything back to blue. I echo myself and the many others, sounds trickling into the stream. Our voices are legion.

I will just have to give you a snippet from everyday life on the Edge where there is a shop that sells biodynamic vegetables and fruit. It also sells hand-dyed silk scarves, soaps made from olive and hemp seed oil, skin creams made with essential oil of rose and lavender and books about how to grow your vegetables according to the rhythms of the moon. I always meet Patrick there. He is an imaginary character who has materialised off and on for several years and I have grown quite fond of him. He rifles through the discounted fruit that is bruised or over-ripe, examines the black marks on a golden pear, weighing up the consequences of spending less money but risking a mouthful of disappointment where there should be juice. The apples are perhaps a safer bet, but even with those you can never be sure once they are past their best.
“It’s a nightmare,” he says, “a bloody nightmare.” His pessimism reassures me and is constant. We are living in the last days and there is a sense of companionship, of us both being in it together. Never mind the rumblings, the catastrophe is here and we are in it. This brings its own kind of illumination which gives a sense of purpose to the day. It is, as he says, a bloody nightmare, and our task therefore is simply to get through it heroically and with a bit of panache. Everything that happens to Patrick is a sign of the imminence of the end of the world as we know it, he is a sign-reader after my own heart. There is only one thing he will not pronounce on, and that is his illness, my illness, the Condition. If you ask him how he is, referring to his state of health, he will smile ironically and say, “musn’t grumble,” then turn his attention to a pock-marked potato as though apprehending a culprit.
“You see what’s happening? The seasons are fucked, there’s too much rain or none at all, and nothing can grow any more. Look at the size of that! Ever seen a sick potato? You have now.” He pushes his metal-rimmed glasses back up to the ridge on his nose, from where they keep slipping.
“And you?” he enquires. “How you?”
“Same,” I reply, “musn’t grumble.” He nods vigorously, as though I had made a very interesting point, even though all I have done is to echo him.
“That’s right,” he says, “that’s the way, we carry on – have to. Who else is really in the know but us? Bloody nightmare, but what can you do.”

I feel like a hero navigating some spectacularly dangerous terrain and he and I are, for a space, comrades in arms against the terrible thing that is manifesting right now in the withered grape and the yellow sere on a cabbage leaf.

Peeps and Comrades - greetings to you from the edge.

Thank you, Rachel.


Sunday, May 10, 2009


I woke at some ungodly hour thinking about stink bombs. I can explain. At some point in the next couple of months we will have to find a way of clearing out the loft. Son will be arriving home with all his stuff and though he will come and go, his stuff will need house space for a while. Therefore some things will need to go loftwards, but loft is full and, apart from Signs children's art works and old soft toys I have gone blank and can't remember what is up there, apart from a 1960s chemistry set (unused) my dad gave me for Christmas one year.

It is still in its cardboard box, everything in its place: the glass vials of blue, yellow and red crystals, the pipette, a thin pamphlet of instructions, unread. On the box is a picture of two children, a girl and a boy, that remind me of my Janet and John early reading books. She is neat and wholesome in tight plaits, he is smart and keen, short back and sides, holding a vial up to the light.

It was the Enid Blyton books about girls’ boarding schools called St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers. All human life was there, but there was no complexity. If you were a girl who liked to be pretty and neat, this was what you manifested in all you did. Ditto if you were good at lacrosse and team games. The sensible girls who held the social structure together never did anything reprehensible and if one of those did, say, utter one small untruth or throw a paper dart at mam’zelle in the heat of the moment, she would suffer the purging effects of inner remorse until all was made clean again. She would in due course be made head girl. There was the fat one who ate too much, stole other peoples’ tuck and was lazy, the shy one with problems who would be taken into the protection of the sporty one and go on to develop some artistic gift such as playing the violin, and then there was the odd-ball, slightly out on a limb with a touch of the Tomboy about her and cheerfully self-sufficient who was tolerated and indulged by the rest because she was a decent sort and frightfully clever. She played practical jokes and got away with it. She had a chemistry set. She made stink bombs. She might set one off on a particularly auspicious occasion when parents and teachers were gathered together and the girl no-one liked because she was so vain and up herself was about to make a long speech no-one wanted to hear. The stink bomb sent everyone rushing outside onto the lawn to have their cool lemonade and cucumber sandwiches and the clever, naughty girl was severely reprimanded but the headmistress had a twinkle in her eye. The twinkle followed this girl around like a charm. She could write her own script. She could duck out of things she didn’t want to do (embroidery, hockey practice), she could build a crystal radio set and make stink bombs. She had a secret tree house in the grounds where she kept her treasures: old medals, stamps and coins, a daily journal like a kind of lighthouse keeper’s log book; her chemistry set. When the school goody-two-shoes found out and reported her, it was goody who got the flack for being a sneak, not clever individualist stink bomb-maker. And when the time came for a heroic act, she would come and save the day – rescue the new first-former from the blazing fire. Decent.

More importantly, she had a life that was her own, one that I coveted. I possessed a journal, all I had written into it so far was the words for Raggle Taggle Gypsies but I could work on this. The boarding school would come and with it my chosen persona. All I needed was the chemistry set. I must have flicked through the pamphlet once at any rate. There was no reference to stink bombs. You could mix one substance with another to make something else happen, melt the crystals down and make a large one. I was not interested. But still, I had it.

My boarding school was not like St. Clare’s or Mallory Towers. People were less fathomable. My own nature too was a mystery to me. I was not brave, clever or charismatic or resourceful enough to learn how to make a stink bomb. I read books and found that reading about such things was more to my taste than putting them into practice.

But still. The box has come with me, moved from place to place for decades. The crystals have congealed and hardened. The pink on Janet’s cheeks has faded and John seems altogether insubstantial, as though touched by a wraith from the land of Mordor. There is a yellow and a blue that is never seen on children’s packaging any more, not even in Eastern Europe. The set is what we might now call long past its use-by date; untouched, yet still touched by the glamour of its original promise. I'll never bring myself to open it or throw it away.

Friday, May 8, 2009

bad face day

ok, I won’t beat about the bush: I’m having an ugly day. Just so there is no confusion, it’s me that is looking ugly, not the day, which has turned out to be a bit of a stunner after a very cold and miserable start. I tried to ignore the creeping ugliness and want to assure you that I am not given to endlessly looking into the mirror as life is just easier that way, but I bump into myself every time I go into the bathroom (mirror above the wash basin), sit down on my bed (mirror on dressing table opposite) and walk into the living room (full length mirror on side wall as one enters). And then there are bits of mirror in supermarkets (I have been doing the shop) that catch you unawares. Before we go on, can I just tell you something? When Mr. Signs and I were first courting his best mate espied me at the window and said, “who is that sultry Levantine beauty”? I have probably mentioned this before, it is one of the things I trot out now and then, because I’m not meaning to brag here, but it seems that there have been moments when I might have been considered a bit of a looker – not that I enjoyed it as much as I could have because I never thought I was. Truth to tell, now that I am in the late summer (shut up) of my years and there is a little less in the looks department than before, I actually appreciate myself much more. But not today, even though I am wearing the Purples (shell suit trousers, cashmere top, purple-winged faux antique dragonfly brooch).

I can’t put my finger on what exactly is wrong, and my thoughts (in case you were wondering) have all been, if not beautiful, quite respectable and even creative – I spent the morning writing some meandering thing about getting lost in the forest and though it is unlikely to walk away with the national poetry prize it is all grist to the creative mill and not deserving of this physical thing that has been laid upon me today. I know that M.E. godbastard is not pleased with me for having gone out on a forest walk two days in a row, he is humming around my system like a hive of angry wasps, has painted my face a greener shade of ecru, drawn bags around my eyes and carved wedges into the two vertical lines on my forehead. And what is it about one’s hair that always goes on strike and flattens itself horribly just when you need barnet support?

Fortunately I do not have to show myself to anyone but Mr. Signs this evening, and in his eyes I am never anything less than loveliness personified; or if I am, he has the exquisite courtesy never to tell me, and on a day like today I will have the exquisite self-control not to ask.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

wild things

People still don’t really know about Edge Village, the surrounding countryside - or the forest, which is ancient, huge (the largest free public access place in the south east) and famous for Winnie the Pooh and his mates. People scratch their heads when I tell them where I live and even those who are half an hour’s drive away, in Lewes, usually barely register the place and mostly haven’t been there. If it weren’t for the Steiner school and college, which does continually attract incomers, no-one would know about it at all. I could go for walks in any number of places, get myself completely lost and feel quite sure that no-one would be likely to pass by. I keep this idea in reserve for when things get too much. But what often sustains me when things do get too much is this idea that I live on the edge of a wild place, but it is a wild place where I feel kindred. Even when I can’t actually get out into it, I know it’s there, the forest, just close by.

The bluebells are everywhere now, in a week or two the bracken will have obscured them. I still haven’t got the hang of my digital camera and don’t seem able to capture the exact quality of light, may have to take on board that taking photographs isn’t going to be my thing but am tempted to get a digital photograph for idiots book before giving up.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Raising a Glass to Carol Ann

Well I was going to let the weekend go without mentioning the laureateship , but now I find I don’t want to do that. The reason is Carol Ann Duffy, she and I go back a long way. Granted, she is very probably not aware of my existence, but that hasn’t stopped us having a relationship. I remember coming across a poem of hers in the newspaper before her name became well known, tearing it out and putting it in the drawer of my bedside locker, memorising it without trying to. I bought every book of hers, lifted out poems to take to the classes I was teaching so that I could prove to the poetry-shy that poems could be both accessible and good, that you could write out of strong emotion, that poetry didn’t have to be clever. I think that Mean Time is my favourite collection, but all of her is good. I found Rapture, which won the T.S. Eliot prize, full of imperfection (many of the poems would have been picked to pieces by the kind of poetry workshops I was attending), but glorious – and perfection in poetry has never interested me. I thought it was something of a triumph that it won the prize because if she could do this then so could the rest of us – write imperfectly, from the heart and with that kind of lyrical intensity that is so often (or used to be) put down as being just “confessional” women’s writing. Yes, times have changed.

On Newsnight Review last night she spoke powerfully and looked like a high priestess. Poetry, she said, comes out of silence as much as anything else – this in response to Andrew Motion having apparently gone dry during his period as poet laureate, because of the pressure and lack of privacy. Andrew would write again, out of the silence, and all manner of things would be well.

The sonnet, she said, was like a prayer. I had thought of the sonnet as a song, an utterance, a raindrop that reflects the whole garden, but never a prayer. The poem that I tore from the paper and learned by heart was a sonnet she called Prayer, and it goes like this:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre

be done by as you did

I have done it again: overdone it; and now have to undo the doings that I did, and also but not only dismantle the commitments and say goodbye to Shrink, which in psychoanalytic is usually a long, drawn-out goodbye but will have to be a little less so. It’s a pain in every sense. I now know without a shadow of a doubt that I cannot do regular driving trips of any distance, it’s madness, I should know better, I do know better. My bones and muscles are not happy, actually they are furious about something or other (the driving seat, the desk chair?) and I should have seen an osteopath this morning but cancelled. Too much. Brain hurts, I am dizzy, an unhinged marionette, excuse me rabbitting and do feel free to wander off while I talk to myself, but if you are still here and interested:

Today: there is poetry workshopping, it’s a once monthly group and I’ve let go of so much else I want to hang on to this one.
Tomorrow: nothing in the day but people coming for dinner, this has been planned and re-planned for months. Chicken tagine and fruit fool, can prepare in advance, but.
Monday: niece is coming for the day (also planned and re-planned), needs to be collected, picnicked, taken to a local May fair – nothing loud and brash, more of a garden party plus with people dancing around a maypole, tea and cake, arts and crafts.
Tuesday: shrinky (see above), and later a dear and much-travelled friend coming to stay for a couple of nights, can’t re-plan this as she has work to do in the area and anyway. I’ll have to say that I won’t be up to any conversation until
Wednesday: nothing planned, but.

Yesterday I wrote 1,000 words and it felt good. But afterwards it felt like I was doing the browbeating, heavy, leather, resurrection shuffle. But without actions and music.
I am somewhat unravelled, reader, the yarn is everywhere

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

fresh from the words

A stunning early opening to the day: sky a deep, improbable, midsummer blue; trees and lawns lit up and light-reflecting, yet the spring wedding is still white blossoming on the fruit trees and my body registers that it is cold. The photo doesn't catch the luminescence, but I'm putting it up anyway.

There is a crystal clarity that sometimes comes in the early hours, even to such as me who wakes after feverish sleep with a sense of foreboding gathered in the limbs and around the heart. I am doing too much of one thing and not enough of another. I am needing to take stock, revise, begin again. Thank goodness that there is always this possibility, as mornings like this remind.

I’m putting up a Morning Has Broken youtube (it’s kitsch but its kindred and it’s Cat who is still good – or he was then), and I was having a bit of trouble because the only decent vids I found had subtitles that put “fresh from the world” when it should be “fresh from the word”. One letter, but a world of difference. But this one will do. Listen to the tremor (it's good, Cat) and the words - yes - by Eleanor Farjeon.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


It was at this time of year that the earth acupuncturist first came here. He is also a cranial osteopath and I went to see him on recommendation, as one does, in the hope that something or other might shift. He had two cats that worked with him. On my first visit the orange one jumped onto the bed where I lay waiting for treatment and sat on my stomach and the black one sat on the window sill close by my head and stared at me. On my second visit the orange cat sat by my head and the black one took up position on my stomach. I like cats, I said, on the point of asking him to move them. But he said they were his assistants and told him where he needed to focus. He had thin fingers that clasped my head and smelled of pepper and herbs. He had long magician’s hair and grew his own marijuana in earthenware pots. He liked to visit the houses of people with my condition, he said, to do a little work there, make sure that everything was healthy. He would charge a fee of fifty pounds.

When he came for the appointment he went first to the apple tree in the garden and stood underneath its blossoming branches where he took a tin out of his pocket and rolled a cigarette. He was having, he said, a sacramental smoke before beginning the work. He came with long metal rods which he stuck into the ground at various angles outside our house on the rough, unmade road. The neighbour’s children came to look and asked him what he was doing. He said he was making the road better but when he came inside he took me and my husband aside. There are black streams underneath the house, he said. The metal rods were to neutralise the negative effects and I would feel better soon. I told him about the underground rumblings in the other house in London. He nodded and said that he would have expected as much because that was what happened with people like me. You choose to live on the black streams, he said. You don’t know it, but you do.

It goes like this: we choose to live on the black streams in order to take the darkness and make it better. In doing this we use a great deal of strength and many of us become sick, unless we are cats. Cats, said the cranial osteopath, always sit on the black stream points in houses and if properly attuned will sit on a person’s weak meridian fault line so a healer will know where to work. His cats, for example, had properly located the line of my caesarean scar which might appear to have healed but appearances are deceptive. My cat always lay on my side of the bed which was directly over the black stream which ran underneath our house. The cranial osteopath couldn’t at that time (though he did subsequently) enlighten me as to what it was about a stream that made it black, or why people like me would choose to live above it, but I am artistic and I can work with metaphor. Do the black streams run in people too?

People keep telling me there is a reason for things that happen. I would like to be comfortable with this. Of course I understand that if you smoke two packets of cigarettes a day for thirty years you are more likely to get lung cancer than if you never smoked, that if you fall into a stream you get wet. If this, then that. Consequences. I know someone who puts her trust into something called the Universe. It knows why the lighting struck her house and shattered all the glass in the window frames and why her son fell from a tree and broke his leg on the first day of the morning of the holiday she had saved for a year to afford. She believes that the Universe knows what we need and that we are rewarded if we put our trust in it.

I don’t, but never mind. The streams are clear now. I picture them running like veins beneath the ground’s surface. Dark or light, I tap into them.