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