Monday, October 28, 2013

Before Winter

Time flies – is that the date?  But look, I have been hellishly busy with matters arising.  Ok, I have had an autumn relapse and barely left the house, but living with M.E. is a full-time occupation – some Sylvia Plath lines come to mind: I do it exceptionally well, I do it so it feels like hell.  It feels closer to the truth (though less poetic) to say that I do it so it feels just about ok. I no longer care if what people have is a vision of the genteel invalid lifestyle.  If you want the the nitty gritty about living with M.E. you can easily find it but I have done my time at that particular coalface, I think.  Just picture me a bit (but not unattractively) off-colour in soft yoga pants  looking out over treetops with my notebook, a china cup of Darjeeling on a tray, some thin arrowroot biscuits on a plate and a flaming chrysanthemum in a slender vase.  The yoga pants are true, the rest not so much, especially the arrowroot.

 On the weekend we moved our bed to the back room with the best view.  Son, whose room it was, came to help.  So I really do look out at treetops and sky and I am happier about this, and the new, uncluttered space, than I can begin to express.  New spaces always promise new possibilities. Soon, very soon, life gets (relatively speaking) busy.  The writing and the workshopping are wanting one’s focus and vitality.  It is the lovely Daughter’s birthday this week and we will be heading to the Smoke for a small family gathering and sleepover.  Next week we will be going away for a while to the Jurassic coast and after that we will be in deep, dark winter. 

 It may be for these reasons, and others which I don’t here identify, that I go blog-silent for a space.  And if that happens you will know that I am not dead, but sleeping, like Snow-White after biting on the poisoned apple.  I am as pretty as she, and as stupid.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

woz ere

After Space Odyssey.  But instead of a sheer monolith there are two identical concrete posts sticking out of the ground.  Each has a vertical protuberance which might (if looked at in the wrong way) represent fertility or spirit of regeneration.  There are no apes breaking skulls and throwing bones into the air - just me having a walk and remembering how I used to sit under the oak tree here when these posts were part of a bench.  It was a good enough bench but one part of the seat fell away and was not replaced so sitting on it was not as comfortable - though this was not a reason, as far as I could see, to remove the rest of the wood, especially if you are not going to replace it with something.  The empty posts have been there for some time now so clearly there are no plans for a new bench.  But no plans to remove the posts either and they look kind of - emasculated.  Either that or disembodied, like a couple of ghosts who have lost their way to the hereafter and hang around to spook us.  Conjoined twins who have lost their conjoinedness.  This is not some inner city blasted heath, it's the Ashdown Forest (this bit on the edge of a golf course) with proper conservators and the kind of people who would report this type of thing.  Perhaps someone thought that they would do nicely as an art installation.

It isn't as though I have great memories of sitting on the bench, beautiful as the surroundings are.  I wouldn't have wanted a bronze plaque on it saying "in memory of Signs who had so many happy moments here".  I was usually trying to find some strategy for dealing with M.E. and all its attendant symptoms plus crushing fatigue.  It isn't far from Signs Cottage so going there would often count as my walk and activity-of-the-day.  I think it was probably here that I first began talking to myself.  It came from looking up and saying things to the oak tree who was not often in the conversational vein, so I made up the responses, which was not unrewarding.  But it was not fun either, even if it might have helped with the poetry.  I do not associate this ex-bench place with fun.  I spilled a few things that were never brought to utterance anywhere else.  The twin ghosts are not saying anything.  But they (and the oak tree) are guilty of harbouring my secrets.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nine Hundred Miles

Into autumn.  All summer I was drawn to the cold sea at Brighton.  I went into it, became accustomed and stopped flinching.  I began to understand how people did this all year round, and why.  It shocks the body into a kind of alertness – wakes it up.  On one of the colder days there was just me in the sea and a woman in a pink rubber bathing cap, the kind you don’t see any more.  There was a faint smear of matching pink on her lips.  I pictured her applying it earlier, preparing for her date with the sea.  She had English sea-blue eyes.  She said, I like to do this until December, but I don’t like it so much when the boys have gone.  She meant the lifeguard who sits in the small enclosure made of deckchair material, between the yellow and red flags.  Lifeguards are there from May until October.  The other person on the beach was an old man, very thin, a little bent but sprightly, and he hopped over the stones barefoot as though all of him was used to this and at home there.  Stones no longer cut his feet, his skin was tough enough to withstand the wind and the rough sea only made him stronger.  I was there with M.E. and my clutch of auto-immune diseases, pretending to be like them.  Later I would have to balance the benefits against the after-effects.

I seize the days any way I can - pretend to be strong.  It doesn’t make me strong but sometimes it lends me something I can put about me like a temporary cloak – a cloak made of thin, diaphanous material, not suitable for rough weather, but it’s something and it covers me for a while.  Same with sleep and insomnia.  Some nights I lie for hours knowing that I am not asleep but I keep lying there faking it, which is nothing like the real, deep sleep that renews you, but it is something.  And it can happen that if you pretend enough you fall into the real thing for a while – the wellness, the dream-time, and you gather something ( that dense, warm substance tinged with rose and gold) in the core of you.

How hard can I pretend?  I can take on the sea, I can sleep underneath insomnia, but I don’t know what to do about my mother’s husband, who has decided that I am to be an enemy.  A good old family friend (doctor/psychotherapist) tells me that mother’s husband suffers from paranoia.  He needs his enemies.  He has also nominated one of his own daughters and hasn’t spoken to her for years.  When she was three years old she screamed when he tried to lift her from a bus.  He has not forgiven her.  My supposed sins are many and there is less reason to forgive.  If I begin to look at myself through his eyes then each apparently innocent remark, or even the act of bringing a cake on a plate, can hold an unexploded bomb of malign intent.  If the evil is not in me then the danger (for him) might be that it runs riot in the rest of his world. 

So I know that I am in a sense serving a useful purpose.  But it doesn’t make anyone happy, and to be thus nominated has brought that other substance into the core of me.  It is a grey, cold substance made of fear – a strange sense of guilt also, as though the evil he perceives is becoming an entity in its own right.  It may not belong to me but it needs somewhere to call home.

I have been filling myself with chocolate, with sweet things and with the pierogi my Polish friend brought with her – she filled half a suitcase with them, enugh to stock the freezer and still give some to my children.  The chocolate and pierogi help but there are blood sugar issues to be considered and inner DJ has Sinead O’Connor’s 90s song on a wailing loop (but nothing – I said nothing can take away these blues), or Joni Mitchell (I wish I had a river I could skate away on).  My mother, who was not allowed to come to my recent birthday gathering, is only minutes away from me by car.  She wants to see me, loves outings, fish and chips in a café, a walk on the forest, the yellow gorse flowers that are always in bloom.  We had a terrible relationship for years but things had come right between us – the possibility of gold and the substance of rose.  Her husband would prefer things to be as they were and is now her keeper.  Nothing can take away these blues.

If I can’t meet with my mother then it is easier to be closer to the sea than the forest, where she also lives.  I flit between one location and the other, give myself the illusion that my feet don’t properly touch the ground, pretend that I am always on the move or a seagull (how my mother could imitate their cries) – in flight.  I love sitting on aeroplanes and trains, being in transit, and wish I had the reasons and/or resources to do a lot of this. I'll get on the train at East Grinstead with a harmonica and pretend that I am going nine hundred miles ....


Sunday, September 1, 2013


Good morning from Brighton.  I say this because I had a good night, meaning that I slept, more or less, right through and got an actual very-much-needed nine hours.  I think there are ghosts here that help with this.  The ghosts are not of dead people but of the previous occupants - a lovely family with two small girls.  The children slept in the bedroom and the parents on a sofabed in the living room and despite the fact of lack of space surely driving the parents bonkers, they and the flat had a lovely vibe.  The mother was French, softly-spoken and the father wore a gold earring and had a voice that was both camp and masculine.  He told me how much they had loved the flat.  The children were quiet, but in a happy, absorbed way.  The little one was still a baby, carried around on her mother's hip.  I heard the mother sing a short phrase to her in French.  I imagine that she sang to her children at night when they were going to sleep and that the walls of the flat absorbed the songs and the mood.  After we had bought the flat someone emailed to ask me if the walls were happy.  Anyone with even a trace of poet in them knows that walls are never just walls (small nod to Freud who said that sometimes a cigar was just a cigar) so I got the question.  And yes, they are.  The walls of Signs Cottage also.  This is one of the reasons we decided to live there, even though there wouldn't be enough space to swing a cat.  Also, we are not people who would ever wish to swing a cat.  But the Signs Cottage walls have other moods also, they are more complicated, as you'd expect from walls that are covered with so many books and where much has to be fitted into small spaces.

From the small balcony of Brighton flat you can look down and see the sea, which rises up like a blue or grey wall, depending on the weather.  Sometimes it is possible to forget about perspective and imagine that it is a wall that dissolves the closer I get to it and becomes something I can immerse myself in, as I have been doing whenever possible.  I think I will go in again today as the water temperature is 16.9 (I can check this online), the warmest it has been so far.  For many people this is much too cold but my body has become accustomed to it - welcomes it, even.  I don't know if I am in my element, but it does in some measure restore me to myself.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Consider the Lilies

I have been following someone on Twitter who is living, with his partner, a shoe-string existence, house and pet-sitting, couchsurfing or camping out in a tent.  By hook or by crook they earn a bit of money here and there, but mostly they live (quite cheerfully, it seems) well below the poverty line.  It’s partly choice – they don’t want to make the compromises necessary to secure a regular income, and partly necessity – they weren’t earning enough to pay the rent on their flat.  I keep following because I want to see how long they can keep this up and whether they end up making their fortunes, as I think they hope to do, from various projects they have on the go.  It seems to me that they are exercising a kind of biblical faith in the idea that their needs will somehow be met.  My interest isn’t just the vicarious thrill of living through other people's adventures: I feel a parallel situation in my own life. 

If money is a form of energy then perhaps one can look at physical energy/vitality as a kind of money.  If so, then I am also living on a shoe-string.  Sometimes there are long stretches of almost nothing – a few pennies here and there; or there is money in the pot but I spend it all on one activity.  I had a week or so recently when I thought I was flush, but I misjudged.  I went for dips in the sea, did some workshopping, saw people, took walks.  It can be like going into a restaurant thinking that £20 will cover everything and being landed with a bill for three times the amount.  And emotional stress is like the leak in the roof that might cost hundreds of pounds and puts you into debt.  Actually, I am nearly always in debt.  I don’t put hours of rest into the black hole of the energy deficit, I spend what I have when I have it - blow the lot.  I am deep in the red and ignoring it.  Well, not quite.

Last night Mr. Signs and I went to a friend’s book launch in London.  What is it about coming back from the Smoke that always makes the journey feel twice as long?  At Victoria station I bought a special offer large packet of Revels and another of Minstrels, knowing I would need the sugar surge to keep me upright.  We ate the Revels last night and I am making my way though the Minstrels today.  Sugar, chocolate etc. is like borrowing from a loan shark to deal with a pressing debt or to buy drugs (coffee is also a loan shark, but more of a gentleman – there is room for negotiation).  On the train I sat opposite a woman who had a stonking great hardback of scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘Dianetics’.  I flashed my slightly smaller hardback of my friend’s new book and saw her look wistfully at it before falling into an open-mouthed sleep.  I noticed that her carefully belipsticked mouth was neat and pretty, and why this should have struck me as poignant in the circumstances I am not sure, but sugar probably had something to do with it.  I was alive to nuance.  A very drunk woman staggered along the aisle wanting to know if the train was going to Balham, which it wasn’t (opposite direction) then pointed ferociously and with intent at the alarm button, but because she was so drunk she kept missing it.  This kind of thing is no more or less than one expects on the late train home. 

Why am I here when I might be working at the novel (it is growing at roughly 1000 words or so a week), washing the pile of dirty dishes (also growing) or lying in bed paying into the deficit?  In part because I recently contributed to Scintilla Poets in Conversation, which put a link to this blog, so it seemed fitting to put up a post.  But also, dear Reader, it’s good to talk.  Why else would I have carried on doing this for six and a half years?  Hang the expense.

On we go – me and the two hippies who are slow-travelling on a journey to god knows where, as we consider the lilies of the field.  I will be doing a reading with the Green Room Poets at the Poetry Café in London on Friday – admission is free, and there will be a ragtime pianist, plus the Daughter who will be singing the jazz and the blues.  So be there – in spirit, if not in body.  And wish me luck and potent chocolate for the journey home. 

(Photograph courtesy of the Daughter, taken at the Petrie Museum where the book launch was held).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Subtle Notes

In Brighton, where I have been intensely occupied listening to seagulls.  They have been in full voice here, even at midnight, when the ululation bears no resemblance to the cat's mew or querulous chatter one sometimes hears in the day.

Attending to these has not really left room for much else, but yesterday I found myself (don't ask) sitting in a white room with a psychic medium who claimed to have a message for me from a dead relative whose name began with B.  If there were any possibility of finding a connection I would have done so, even with going into second and last names, but of B there was no-one I could bring to mind, nor of the colour orange and pots of marmalade which were manifesting somewhere in the astrality.  I would very much like to have heard from my communist/atheist father-in-law who made a promise that when he passed over and if the possibility ever presented itself then he would communicate, with a very particular message that we agreed on.  But his name began with O and we never touched on the subject of marmalade, though he did eat it on toast every morning for breakfast.  There was another message for me - not from B but a different entity - which was a suggestion that I take my aged mater to tea.  Joke?  Mater did actually ring me a couple of days ago to say that her deranged spouse ("he's nuts") had gone out and so the coast was clear for a visit - but there wouldn't have been time for me to get there before his return.  The seagulls have been talking endlessly about all this, debating between themselves about the best way to proceed, but so far there has been no consensus.

Went to my first ever proper wine-tasting last week - arranged by the Signs children as a post-birthday treat for their dad.  I am not a wine sophisticate.  All I ask is that my whites are crisp and clean and my reds are smooth and mellow, and I seem to miss the subtler 'notes'.  Perhaps it is something like being colour-blind or tone-deaf, I just don't get the essence of berry, leather or earth that the others picked up. The exception is perhaps Rioja, which to my mind tastes of my dad because it was his favourite wine.  I couldn't drink much and didn't feel like availing myself of the spittoon, so took a couple of sips and shared the rest out - apart from the dessert wine, which I loved because it tasted of honey.  Even so it was enjoyable hearing our Guide talk us through the various wines.  I love an Enthusiast and it almost doesn't matter what the subject is, though tasting as one goes along does give substance to it.

The real question, when all is said and done, he said as we neared the end of our session, is: does this wine make my life better?

A first response might be that this is a big ask of a bottle of wine.  But what a fabulous question.  And how might it be if one applied this to almost everything?  Obviously the morning cup of coffee would get an unequivocal thumbs up, but the cigarette begins to get complicated.  Yes - but then again possibly no.  And when applied to human relationships - where to begin?  There are, as I am sure the psychic medium would agree, a whole tangle of karmic as well as emotional cords that bind us to each other and every grown-up fule kno that "life isn't all ha ha hee hee".

I am prepared to compromise.  If not actually life-enhancing, then at least it has to be quaffable or at any rate not downright unpleasant.  Anything sour and toxic?  Spit it out and don't have any more of it.  And finish up with something that brings a taste of honey.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Slings and Arrows

Good news.  My doctor has given the thumbs up to coffee, chocolate and smoking.  Ok she is not a GP, she is the alternative kind who dispenses small sugar pills with exotic-sounding names and occasionally some lines of verse by Rudolf Steiner – but she is also a proper, medically-trained doctor.  Just in case you want to argue.  But why would you?  Here is the low-down: if you have low blood pressure, coffee first thing is brilliant and much healthier than any medicine that might be prescribed; stress is much worse for you than cigarettes and if the latter helps with the former then smoking can be seen as a health measure; chocolate, and sweet things in general, can help to bring “organisation” into the body.  Obviously one does not want to bring any of this under the harsh light of sensible scrutiny.  She would probably throw wine into the mix but the sad fact is that I can’t tolerate more than a little of this.  If it were otherwise I might, like the mater’s husband, begin drinking before breakfast and carry on till bedtime.  He is nearly ninety, so clearly it hasn’t done him any harm, unless one factors in what feels suspiciously like paranoid personality disorder, but that may have nothing to do with wine.  At time of writing he is not allowing the mater (who has Alzheimers) to have contact with me – hence my smoking as health measure.  It has been a time of stress and upset.  One has weathered this before, but this time it feels more entrenched and there is no telling how the situation will resolve.

Last night I felt too sad to eat.  This morning I breakfasted on kiwi fruit, fried fish and latte, made with my lovely Bialetti espresso-maker.  I breathed in the scent of mint and roses, given from my friend’s garden, now in a jug on the kitchen table. I am thinking about how the exhortation (in school hymns, in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio) to Be Joyful sometimes struck me as peremptory but actually makes a lot of sense.  Joy may sometimes come as a kind of grace, but mostly we have to do it for ourselves.  For some this is an extraordinary achievement in the face of overwhelming dreadfulness.  For me there is enough else to be joyful about to make it a properly sustainable activity.  I spent a couple of nights with daughter in Hackney last week and met with son for lunch.  My children are loving and beautiful = Joy.  I left my phone charger at daughter’s flat but neighbour had a spare one so she didn’t have to send it in the post.  The washing machine broke down and we thought we would have to replace it but then Mr. Signs (though he didn’t know how) fixed it.  While these might not come under the heading of Joy, it is still worth celebrating small wins of the more mundane kind.  As Tesco so eloquently puts it: every little helps. 

I got drunk in the middle of the day on Saturday.  I can’t remember when that last happened, and when it did it was probably for a more cheerful reason than wanting an anaesthetic for the emotions.  The after-effects (discounting the physical) were such that on Sunday I felt moved to attempt a visit to the mater’s house, making myself believe that the substance of good will and sanity would triumph over the forces of darkness, and that all manner of things would be well.  It was not a success.  Perhaps insanity is contagious, or the after-effects of drunkenness more interesting than we know, but I climbed out of the car outside Signs Cottage and announced that I was Jesus Christ.  My neighbour (the one with the roses) exploded with laughter = Joy.  The next day we went for a walk and I found a piece of twig with a catapult-like fork at the end of it.  It either represents a sling of the kind that David used against Goliath or a two-fingered salute. Whichever, it seemed to be an auspicious Sign.  Back outside my neighbour’s house, a young sparrow in mid-flight hurled itself against her kitchen window and fell dead at our feet.  The milky-white film was over its eye and there was no reviving it. 

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?  And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will (Matthew 10.29)

We wrapped the lovely creature in kitchen roll and binned it. 

The sparrow was not sent as an omen to forewarn me.  And I am not Jesus Christ. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Three Weddings and a Funeral

Is it time for a post?  Already Italy seems a distance away – in time, I mean.  Obviously it is a distance away from Forest Edge, Blighty, where I now sit looking out at autumn again, which is what we always seem to come back to these days, even in June.  The wind is even now tearing at the wild cherry tree, whose days are numbered because it is growing too close to the garden studio and is altogether too huge and obliterating (I will miss it though, and the wood pidgeons whose home it has become). 

 In Puglia there was wind too, but there was plentiful blue sky, gelati, cherry trees whose fruit we  picked and ate by the handful, focaccia baked in the wood-fired oven in the grounds of the organic farm where we were based.  Am I talking about food again?  It was not all about the food, though it almost could have been (extraordinary slow-cooked dinners each night, with bottles of Primitivo and home-made liqueurs).  It was about being in Elsewhere.  No-one spoke English.  I mean they really didn’t, not even a bit of it.  At the farm we managed with French and German and amazingly some of my ancient grade E Italian O level came back to me.  Not enough, however, to properly converse with the wild-eyed man who accosted us on a narrow stone path at the extraordinary Matera caves which had been dug out of rock and had housed people (including the desperate, malaria-stricken poor in the 1940s, as described by Carlo Levi in Christ Stopped at Eboli) for centuries.  The man led us to a small cave-church, talking at high speed.  When I asked him if he spoke French he became incensed.  He pointed to the arcane etchings on the walls and black and white photographs of peasants from decades past.  I understood enough of what he said to make out that no, he damn well didn’t speak French, he was an Italian, and moreover he liked people who were intelligent and cultured, and what the hell were we doing there anyway with stupid questions like that.  He handed us a leaflet with details about a local B and B which we didn't need but allowed me to say grazie. 

 I was keen to see the insides of a few churches but whenever we went inside one there was something going on.  May, as Mr. Signs pointed out, is the time for weddings, and we inadvertently gatecrashed on three of them, standing at a respectful distance at the back.  A small church in Polignano looked as though nothing much was going on.  Inside, there were people in some of the pews praying and another couple dressed in black (but that was not unusual) near the front, with their heads bowed.  As we came close they turned their heads to look at us.  I smiled and then saw that between them was an open coffin and guessed that a funeral service would shortly commence.  Back outside, I realised that we had gone in holding cones of gelati which we had been licking.  I felt a sudden impulse to go back inside, apologise and explain; also to sit with them for a while, by the dead person, for what reason I didn’t know.  I was from Elsewhere, I might have (but not really) said – and also Elsewhere in my own country because of a chronic disease which was generally not understood, and which had prevented me from spending time with my father before his death, I had not reached the hospital in time to say goodbye and after he had died they whipped his body into the mortuary and that was the last anyone saw of him, but if there had been a church like this with a place to put his open coffin I might have sat and kept him company in the days between his leaving the world and going into the earth. 

 We finished our gelati, got into the hired car and went back to the farm to read and wait for dinner. 

 In Conversano there was the annual festival of Maria delle Fonte, with processions through the ancient streets, girls like white birds in their first communion dresses, serious-faced men with medals on their black jackets carrying the cross with Christ crucified and a banner of the Madonna with her right hand held over her breast, looking mildly affronted.

Why do you keep wanting to see these things? said Mr. Signs.  It’s all about misery.

A woman’s voice through a megaphone intoned Ave Maria and made a long address to the Sanctissima Madonna.  In the narrow cobbled streets people, most of them old, who did not go to the actual procession stood or sat on chairs outside their houses dressed in their best clothes and joined in the Ave Marias.  I became desperate for somewhere to sit and something to eat.  A café in the square sold cold beers and tuna fish salad.  The younger people ate, smoked and talked in loud voices ignoring the processions, and the older people stood and mouthed along with the loudspeaker voice. 

 We flew back to England from Bari and took the opportunity to visit the church of St. Nicholas, which is mentioned in all the guide books. It is an important church because the Saint (the original Santa Claus) passed by on his way to Rome and chose Bari as his burial place.  Mr.Signs pointed to a bigger than life statue encased in glass.  He sported a gem-studded golden halo and a flashy golden ring on one of his fingers. 

I said, who is that?

Who do you think? said Mr. Signs.  Would you buy a used car from this man?  He pointed to a box full of coins and another stuffed with notes.  And he wants your money. 

I put half a euro into the box and lit an electronic candle for my Dad. 

 Our last lunch was in a small, hidden away café of the kind that tourists don’t usually find where we had what was probably the freshest fish I have ever eaten.  In Italian, I asked the name of this kind of fish. 

Orata, said the owner, and then: is in English Sea Bream. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Mi dispiace ma non e possibile così"

So Mr. Signs and I are off to Italy day after tomorrow and this, basically, is the Italian that I have managed to learn so far.  For those not proficient in the lingo it means, I am sorry but it is not possible this way, and it will have to serve me in all kinds of situations because we are going to southern Italy (Puglia) where English is not generally much spoken.  The daughter, who in a few weeks learned Spanish well enough to get by on a recent trip to Cuba, was a brilliant role model but somehow we haven't been able to follow through.  It will be ok as long as I am not in urgent need of a lavatory, although come to think of it, with a few appropriate gestures it might do nicely.

A couple of people have asked me if I have begun to pack and Prepare.  This would be a very good idea, but I never do this until close to midnight of the day before, thus ensuring that I don't get much sleep before the inevitable early start next day.  What I am doing is reading Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi which is set about a hundred kilometres from where we will be staying, and we plan to visit the caves at Mantera which is not far from there.

I have only been to Italy once, to a beach resort near Rimini with my sister and grandmother when I was eleven.  This will be nothing like that.  We are staying on an organic farm where the owner invites people to hear the sound of people's steps along the lanes, see the hands that placed the stones, feel the toil and sweat of those who shaped the land so as to be able to draw from it what they needed to live, but without depriving it of its life force.  A life force which still exists in some places and those who know how can hear its very breath.

I wonder if I will be one of those who know how to become all ear so that I can hear the very breath.  Spirit of place is a powerful thing, as I have sometimes experienced, and not for the faint-hearted.  Of course, one can do this just as well at home as abroad - feel the breath and being of a place.  But sometimes the shock of a new encounter can awaken the sleeping faculty.  The forest was never so present to me as when I first came to live here, and then it was on a particular day in a particular spot, unannounced and unexpected.  Something was revealed and laid bare, and the vision (if that is the word) I had is something I have never been able to properly put into words, and it only came once.  But once is enough because it isn't something you lose.

In my late twenties, sitting alone somewhere in the Austrian Alps because even then I was not strong enough to keep walking up with the others, spirit of place came with such force that I was not fully able to meet it and literally hid my face.  At the time, I thought it (the presence) might have been God.  But I think it was the land and the mountains that asked, as all places do, for me to say who I was.  And then the only position I could take was: mi dispiace ma non e possibile così - though obviously I did not say this in Italian or, in fact, any spoken language.

I think I need to prepare another phrase - just in case.

Ciao amici.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Celebrity Bear

Three songs from a musical the daughter wrote.  

If you would like to vote and help her get through to the finals of a competition for new musical theatre composers you can vote here.  Her name is Rose Lewenstein.  You'll find her in the third column.

You will also see a link there to the other submissions.  I'm obviously a bit partial.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Rampant Heart (or Cooking the Books)

I’m still tripping over old notebooks even though I thought I put most of them in the attic.  It would be ok if I just let them be instead of dipping in and reading them – if I kept the lid shut.  Instead, I open the box (the hardback covers) and out they fly, all these unfinished stories, bits of almost-poems, chronicles of life with my constant companion, M.E.  I feel as though I am rifling through someone else’s writing, taking in the good, the bad and the ugly with a kind of dispassion.  Reading old notebooks is like spying on oneself, not altogether comfortable.  That person then is not this person now, but one is implicated.  She was not necessarily expecting all the words to be read by another, which I now am.  Grudgingly, because I want to be better than her, I admire her – particularly how she negotiates the business putting down words with being, at times, so ill that she can hardly hold the pen.  She keeps trying to push on, though she shouldn’t.  Some of what she writes is so overblown I want to rip out the pages.  But there are lines that take my breath away and I am half tempted to nick them.  I have in fact done this and cobbled together a poem from notes taken when she was in the far north of Scotland.  It was the image of a brown bird on a rock, perched on a leg as thin as wheat grass.  This is the image that stands at the heart of something-or-other, and my workshop group also liked this particular line.  But I have now looked up wheat grass and found that it is not what I had in mind (the dry kind with some kind of kernel and whispy stuff on top) – it is green and people use it for juicing and promoting health.  Bugger. 

But anyway.  I have other poems standing like greyhounds in the slips ready to go, but I’m not letting them.  I have submission block.  It takes a kind of courage to send work off, particularly if one has to put it in an envelope with a covering letter.  It takes a stronger heart than the one I feel precariously beating in my breast.  Ok, that last sentence is awful but now you can tune in to what I experience when looking over old notebooks.  Precariously beating is not good, by anyone’s standards, particularly if it is a heart.  Long ago my sister and I decided to compose the worst poem ever and present it at a family gathering.  We called it The Rampant Heart (even without the qualifier, this is a dodgy word to have in the title).  The last line went: it is too late, oh funfair of my fate!

Though actually, this does kind of speak to me now.  I’m going to send those damn poems off.  In the funfair of my fate, it’s not yet closing time.




Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sun Day

This morning I was looking out on a Brighton sun-day, after a properly muscular mug of coffee and a roll-up, thinking that this may after all be the best of all possible worlds and if freedom time cometh not soon then perhaps it is already here.  Catch me later in the day and there might be a different picture.  The weather could have changed, the coffee will have worn off and I would be thinking sensible, depressing thoughts about the roll-ups.  Seize the day and fritter it, is what I was thinking.  The day never allows much of itself to be seized in any case so  I need as much fun as can reasonably be packed into a couple of hours.  This means breakfast in one of those cafes where the croissants and bacon are crisp and they are generous with the coffee refills followed by a walk along the sea-front with an ice cream cone.  Fun usually always involves food of some kind.  Well I can report that a fabulous breakfast has been had, plus freshly squeezed OJ, and look - the view from the window post noon is still sunlit and I am, dear reader, on account of breakfast top-up, still caffeinated - just.  A walk along the sea-front was a step too far because, although these windows allow you to believe you're in the south of somewhere other than England in April, it is still cold out there, and windy.  I am still having a good time.  The great upside of chronic illness is that those windows of time when one doesn't feel wrecked are almost always good.  The world is charged with the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins).  The world is charged with life - and also sometimes caffeine (Signs).

Good times used also to mean booze and hanging out with friends - my thirtieth birthday party was a champagne breakfast in my Bethnal Green flat.  BG is trendy these days, but it wasn't then, you could buy a flat cheaply and - oh halcyon days - pay the mortgage on it even if you didn't have a proper job.  This year I will be twice that age.  I no longer do booze apart from the occasional small glass of wine.  I do friends, but given certain restrictions one doesn't hang out in quite the same way, and a window of blue sky and sun, watching Brightonians cross the road to buy newspapers or milk at the corner shop, can feel as though one has been at a very pleasant social gathering.  One doesn't have the voices, true, but the voices in one's head are (mostly) very good company and often illuminating.  Joan of Arc might have said the same, before they burned her.  Time for a herb tea, I think.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

still winter

I can't say anything more about Thatcher's demise than hasn't already been said better, and eloquently by La Baroque.  But I have been surprised by how miserable I felt after hearing about her death - because of a sudden, renewed apprehension of how much we lost as a consequence of her reign.  Her corpse is being treated like royalty here, so the word 'reign' seems apt.  I am also miserable about the singing and dancing and the raucous street parties.  The household is divided because Mr. Signs thinks it is an important symbolic act to stamp on her memory and sing.  I see what he means, but we are still living the aftermath, nothing that was broken can be put together again and there is no evidence that the meek will inherit the earth. 

And also: I feel there is something about death itself, an actual physical death, that asks for some kind of respect - for the death itself.  If nothing else is sacred, then surely this, where the Hail Mary (I am not RC) asks for special intervention for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death...  

And also, it is still winter.  Still. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I Wish I Was Dreaming Of You

I am unashamedly promoting this vid that my son wrote for the Zig Zag Birds.  He is singing it too.  I love it.  Ok, it's my son, I would say that.  But if he had nothing to do with it I would still love this and other Zig Zag songs (which you can find on the side, on Youtube).  They are retro with a twist and remind me of the kind of songs from the 70s that I would want to play over and over.  Anyone remember Andrew Gold's Lonely Boy  and Never Let Her Slip Away?  He comes to mind, but there are others too so feel free to remind me of them.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

back to basics

It seems a while since I have talked about shopping.  I am pleased to report that I do even less of it now.  I did buy a jumper in December, but that was because I realised I only had one jumper that I properly liked and I had the clairvoyant sense that we were in for another unforgivingly cold winter.  I think I have the clothes thing sorted: two jumpers and two trousers plus silk thermal undergarments in the winter and the same two jumpers and trousers in spring and autumn, minus the silk thermals, which can then serve as indoor 'leisurewear'; thinner trousers and a selection of tops for summer.  Pushing the boat out a bit with summer as it is unpredictable.  Footwear, as you know, is basically either Uggs or Birkenstocks.

Occasionally one needs Accessories.  So it was that I recently found myself in a shop with a voucher left over from Christmas.  it was a voucher I had planned to give Stepson.  I lost it, bought him another and then found it again in the new year.  I decided to spend it on a handbag because mine is on the small side - it can accommodate a Kindle but not a a book.  So I bought a bag, got home and found it was useless and suddenly very ugly when one put anything into it.  This is the kind of thing that happens when I shop, it took three attempts to get the right Uggs.  It's ok because I returned the bag and now have the voucher again.  No harm done, apart from the expenditure of energy.  But on my second trip I decided to see if I could get a couple of bars of soap.  Not easy, as I have banged on about here.  I was in East Street in Brighton and had the choice of any number of shops, including Crabtree and Evelyn, Lush, L'Occitane and Space NK.  Call me mean, but though I am delighted to get posh soaps as gifts I am not prepared to go into double figures for a couple of bars of what is supposed to be an everyday commodity.  In supermarkets, Dove is still cornering the market, as far as I can see.  But Imperial Leather seems to be making a come-back.  After my handbag-return trip I went into the ragged corner shop opposite Brighton flat and bought a couple of bars for a pound each.  Success.  Apart from other considerations, it smells of decades past, which were not necessarily better than the decade I now find myself in but gives a sense of continuity rather than a sense (increasingly) of feeling oneself to be an extra-terrestrial with no direction home.  Of course in the old days Imperial Leather was marketed as something that could give us all the experience of a little daily luxury (see below).  Not that we were fooled.  I mean, who was washing with lard and ashes, even in the seventies?  And it would have been perfect if she had said Bognor instead of Tahiti.

I am going to the launch of a friend's poetry book tonight.  There are many I miss, but this one is possible because it's in Brighton and I have allowed a night either side in the flat.  A group of us have met above a pub in Lewes each month for several years, to workshop poems, and she is taking us for a meal beforehand to celebrate.  And tomorrow is the neighbour's annual Good Friday bun party.

If I don't see you before Easter, have a good one.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ecce Homo

St. Patrick's Day was not a significant date for me until 2004 - because my dear Dad died on this day.  Today is the ninth anniversary of his death.  This photograph of the two of us effectively captures something of how I feel when I think about him.  In worldly terms, he was not a 'successful' man.  He was an actor, often out of work until the last years of his life when he was suddenly quite busy and in demand.  Having the looks of (as a friend once put it) "the universal Wop, Spick or Dago" he would often play the role of the foreign baddie who was bumped off.  He was a good actor though, and sometimes parts did come along that allowed him to show something of what he could do.  He was a modest man and not, by nature, a Networker.  He didn't make efforts to go to the right parties, get in with the right people who might have helped his career along.  He did not have the knack of making money - whenever he tried to do something clever with money it was a disaster.  There is nothing outstanding that one could put on a CV and point to saying, Look - he did this, and this, and that. But each year that passes I have a growing sense of what it was that made him who he was.  I would like to find a word for it, but nothing comes to mind other than goodness. 

He was a good man.  Why do I say this?  It isn't about what he did (he did of course do good things, but that isn't the point) or that he loved each of his six children and they love him (though this is perhaps more to the point).  It is about what he was, and I suppose that this must have something to do with what was alive in him.  When I think of him, I smell apple and spice, and the sandalwood soap he liked to use (this and wholenut milk chocolate were the gifts we most often gave him).  I don't think that he literally went around all the time smelling of these things, but the essence of them are what express, for me, his substance - the sweetness of the man.  His laughter was always infectious because it came from the well of his sweetness, which included his sense of the preposterous, the overblown and ridiculous.  It would stream out at inappropriate times, in the company of bureaucratic officials who were checking his papers (East Germany) or on stage, in the middle of someone's important soliloquy.  He was a well known Corpser - an actor who might get a fit of laughter during a performance.  When the other actors spotted him they caught it too and a couple of times the curtain had to come down. 

He was not always laughing. Sometimes when out of work, he whiled away the moments that lengthened like shadows, stood on the threshold between one room and another as though listening for the rhythm of the day.  But in the middle of such times, there might be a moment like the time my youngest sister asked him to play the piano while she danced, and then insisted that they change places: "I play - you dance."  I never saw this, but it was a story he liked to tell.  Every now and then I picture him dancing in the dustbeams by the grand piano, lumbering around like an old bear doing a turn of tricks, carrying on until the music stops.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Spin And The Shine

Well I thought I had moved into what is euphemistically called a Better Patch, but I might have slithered back a bit.  Not actually into the Pit itself, but none of us (I am talking M.E. obviously) wants to be headed in that direction.  Still - it helps to put a spin on things.  That is probably true for most of us and has the virtue of being good for everyone else as well as oneself.  Some might say it is almost a duty.  In my church-going days (as a practising-because-I'm-crap-at-it-Christian) I liked the part where the priest said, Lift up your hearts!  The congregational response to that is, We lift them to the Lord, but I think just the lifting up in itself is probably good enough, and I bet my best china cake plate that the Lord concurs.  I would say that putting a spin is just doing that, really, and very much hope that it doesn't amount to the same thing as Positive Affirmations, which don't engage the heart and are therefore just lies.  There is no need to positively affirm anything.  Even if you are of the 'Life Is Shit And Then You Die' school,  heart-lift is achievable even if it is in spite of rather than because of.  Nothing wrong with that. 

I recently became Facebook friends with a certain well-known journalist (erstwhile 'hip, young gunslinger' at the NME, to give you a clue).  We don't know each other in RL but have a couple of FB friends in common so I took my chances and she is of a generous disposition.  There are many things to enjoy about her various writings and pronouncements and, speaking for myself, one can use a bit of vicarious cheer now and then, or even on a daily basis.  For a start, she begins each day with Boker TOV, Motekim! which is Hebrew for Good Morning, Darlings!  It somehow works particularly well in the Hebrew and gives a small shine to the moment, even when it is followed by a youtube link to a band singing a song one doesn't share an enthusiasm for.  As she lives in Brighton and loves eating, drinking and good cheer, I had a fleeting fantasy of meeting up with her at English's Oyster Bar, chewing the gossip plus several courses of delicious things and drinking Black Velvet, which is a champagne and Guiness combo the mater introduced me to at Sheekey's (another fish place) in London. You can't let too much reality bleed into a good fantasy so let us assume that I can still drink tankards full of Black Velvet, that I would not be fazed when we were joined by a group of her sparkly-witty friends, and that when I spoke about how I mostly write about sex and death (with the definite emphasis, these days, on death) I would make it sound like the fun kind.  I might also lob in that I was recently long-listed for the National Poetry prize (poem all about someone choosing his coffin), though I suspect that doing this would neither impress nor endear me.  In the end, my inner introvert would fuck things up. I would ask the wrong kind of questions - the kind that lead to dark places, as you'd expect of a sex-and-death merchant - and I would wince if the jokes became too cruel.  Or it would be nine o'clock and I would suddenly turn into a slipperless M.E. pumpkin.  Ah well - fun while it lasted.

But what am I going on about?  For this very evening Mr. Signs and I will be going out to a new gastropub eatery recommended by my friend the Cake Lady, in honour of his successfully reaching another milestone in Shrink-training.  And also, tomorrow being Mothering Sunday, today is Mother's Eve and a fine and proper time to celebrate.  I have already cheated and opened the beautiful card from my daughter, with words that bring a shine to the heart.  Sometimes you don't need the spin.  It's just all there, and manifest. 

Laila tov, motekim.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

These Boots ... (2)

On a visit to London to see the young Signses, I poked my head into Hackney's Mare Street.  The last time I was there was in November 1991, shortly before we left the Smoke to go and live on the Edge.  I went into a shoe shop to get myself some Doc Martens lace-up boots and prattled in uncharacteristic fashion about going off to a place where you needed a strong pair of boots to walk around in.  The shop assistant was tired and bored, but I felt a pressing need to talk about where I was going, to visualise myself in the new life, sure-footed and purposeful in my new boots, roaming over open heathland where the gorseflowers bloomed and through the forest, gathering heather to put in vases on the window sill, and shiny conkers.
"These boots," I said to the shop assistant, "are definitely made for walking."
"Comfortable, are they?"  She had never heard of the song.
"Wrap them up," I said.  "Are ya ready, boots?"
The shop assistant said she hoped I would enjoy my holiday.  I told her it wasn't a holiday.  I don't think she would have replied whatever because people didn't say that so much in 1991.

There is still a shoe shop in the same spot, and a Macdonalds across the road where I sometimes took the children for a treat.  Further down, there is the Hackney Empire and the Town Hall.  It was too cold to go far and I had a train to catch. 

I knew when we left that we were burning bridges, that we would never be able to afford to come back.  I was right about that and the prediction that Hackney would become trendy.  If we had waited until now to sell the house we lived in and move, we would be in the money.  But I would still do the same thing, even though I hardly ever did get to use the boots for the serious walks I had in mind because M.E. came with me and rarely allowed it.  And truth to tell, they are not particularly comfortable.  At my rate of serious walking, it took about five years to wear them in at all.  I have also sported them at occasions such as performances with the local choral society when formal black dress is required, and they have served me for weddings, funerals, posh meals out.  As anyone who knows me knows, I don't 'do' shoes, other than Birkenstocks and Crocs in summer, Uggs and trainers the rest of the time - nothing with anything you might call a heel. 

The mud on the boots testifies both to the fact that I do occasionally get out and roam in the places where I imagined I would go when I bought the boots and that I am not someone who polishes shoes very much, because this mud is pre-Christmas.  I can't help thinking about Van Gogh's painting of black boots, especially with one leaning slightly against the other, like the less dominant twin.  The heels are hardly worn down at all so I imagine they will easily do me for another
twenty or so years. 

I'll keep you informed. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bio tex (a human stain)

Funny how something like this can unearth a memory.  It came up the other day when Son had a washing machine disaster with red trousers that coloured everything else pink.  I suggested he try and remedy the situation with Bio tex.  And then I remembered Donna.

She lived in one of the expensive houses at the bottom end of the mews that ran by the side of the flats where I lived as a child.  Her house had wrought iron bars across the windows on the ground floor and a door bell that went ding dong when you pressed it.  Her family was from the States, where they would rather have lived, but the father's work kept them in England.  They looked down on my family because we did not have money, or if we did then there were no visible indications of it.  My family looked down on Donna's because they had no culture, or none that my family recognised, and the fake antique coach light over the front door was a sign of this lack.

I can't remember how she and I met - probably in the mews where I sometimes played with my sister.  Donna was always nicely turned out in dresses or skirts, white ankle socks and penny loafers on her feet.  My sister and I were, by her mother's standards, scruffy and when not at school we usually wore trousers and scuffed shoes.  Donna's mother told her to remind me to wipe my feet on the mat when I came into the house.  She rarely addressed me directly, but I felt her eyes on me.  She was tall, straight and thin with long, shiny fingernails, always dressed as though for a special occasion.  Unlike my mother, she did not go out to work.  She eyed me from their gleaming kitchen or from the cream-covered sofa where she sat with a box of chocolates, reading a magazine or watching television.  Donna was nervous of her mother and exceptionally careful not to do or say anything that might displease her.  It was easy to do this, particularly with dirt or the possibility of it.  I was told never to sit on the cream sofa in case I made it dirty.  Donna was punished if she came home with a mark on her clothes.  When we went to the playground she wouldn't go near the sandpit.  She brushed the seat of the swing with the palm of her hand before sitting on it.

One hot day in my kitchen when we were having my favourite drink of raspberry cordial with soda water and ice, some of the cordial syrup spilt on the white kipper tie that lay on her chest, over the navy blue dress.  Donna had protruding front teeth that bit into her lower lip whenever she was nervous.  They bit hard as she looked at the stain.  She whispered, my mother will kill me.  I understood the situation well enough not to suggest that the tie could just be washed.  It was not just the fact of having marked something, though this in itself was bad - a sign of disrespect, lack of care and wilfulness.  The raspberry juice would leave a stain on the white that would not wash out.  My mother will kill me, repeated Donna.  I pictured her mother's face as she stood on the threshold between kitchen and shiny parquet-floored hall.  Even when she was not angry there was the sense that she was looking for a mark - some point to which she could direct the fury that simmered beneath the tight lips, the dark eyes that moved over one's face and body like searchlights looking for the fault.  Though she might not literally kill Donna,whatever punishment was delivered would be fearsome.

I rummaged under the kitchen sink where we kept detergents.  I remembered something that had once been used to make a cloth white again after wine was spilled on it.  On the cardboard box it said to soak in cold water but I boiled a kettle, filled a bowl with hot Bio tex solution and put the kipper tie in it.  Almost at once, the stain turned blue and then began to fade before our eyes.  As the material whitened the colour came back to Donna's face, and after ten minutes all evidence of stain had disappeared.  I fetched the iron and ironing board and pressed the tie until it was dry.  And we lived happily ever after and at some point went our separate ways - I to boarding school, she back to the States.

But the stain does, in a sense, endure.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

It's all about the ♥

I have got a Waitrose special Valentine's meal deal for two for twenty quid.  If you want to know what's on the menu (and why wouldn't you?) it is: a starter of smoked salmon and lemon pate, main course of Gressingham duck (red cabbage + mangetouts), dessert of chocolate and passionfruit assiette.  Plus a box of Belgian chocolates and a bottle of Rioja.  Candles, incense and music I got, plus partner. We have been together for over thirty years, and twenty eight years ago, having stated very clearly at the outset that he would never want to marry, he proposed to me.  Never mind that it took more than eight years for us to get round to doing it, and by then our two children were born and old enough to come to the wedding dressed in elephant suits.  The gesture counts. 

Romantic love - the heightened kind that has the power to transform your world.  It isn't just about me and him.  It isn't just about you and whoever you are with, wish you were with, desire, yearn for, think about in secret, blast with curses and tears, celebrate in sweetness and flowers.  In every good friend I have had since childhood there has been an element of romantic love.  The freckled red-head who built dens in the bracken made something happen to my heart (I could feel it filling up) when she called me her best friend, and again when she later chose someone else instead of me.  The friend who moved schools to be with me, and whose trust I betrayed.  The ones who matter, and not just the friends and lovers.  The niece who stares at you as though seeing you for the first time and says she loves your face. The small sister with a fever who waits up late for you to come home from boarding school. The children.  On bonfire night, a few days after my daughter's birth, I felt every firework in the sky (seen from a hospital window) was incandescent with the fact of her existence.  When my newborn son first looked at me I understood afresh what it meant to know someone - the shock of recognition.  And what about the brief encounters, the connections that are good for nothing but the particular moment, which might be in a train, a conference hall or a post office queue?  Times when you catch a person whole, or they catch you, though nothing comes of it that you can name, but something is changed - the heart is stretched, made bigger.  Perhaps not romantic love, but almost. 
And the animals, can I mention them?  Not just my own cat who loves, in her fashion, and though it is to some extent about the food, it is more than this (I meet her at the point of need and she restores my soul); once you really love an animal, you learn how to love the others more, even if you are a lapsed vegetarian.  It's a hard world, and ultimately (as someone said to me the other day), we all forgive each other.  I don't yet believe this, but I want to.  Perhaps this is a step away from romantic love.  And so is Raymond Carver's 'Late Fragment', but I will put it here all the same.

                           And did you get what
                           you wanted from this life, even so?
                           I did.
                           And what did you want?
                           To call myself beloved, to feel myself
                           beloved on the earth.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Loungewear Monday

I spent the morning re-fashioning a poem for tomorrow's workshop.  Result: something better than the original but I can't be sure, I am still too close to it.  I would have liked to carry on with other writing but really, a morning's work is the most I could do and in order to do it I had to not get properly dressed but go straight to it after my morning coffee before the small egg-timer of energy substance ran out.

I am still in my brown yoga suit, which serves for sleepwear on cold nights and also as loungewear in the daytime when one is not going out or expecting to receive guests.  Loungewear is a delicious word, all the better for being a euphemism and, in the context of my life at any rate, completely ridiculous, especially as I do not have a lounge but a sitting room.  Leisurewear was also a contender but perhaps taking it a step too far and when I am doing Leisure I get properly dressed.  I find that I am missing my purple 'crushed-silk-effect' shellsuit trousers and can't remember why I eventually decided they had to go.  I could wear them anywhere - in bed, outdoors, with a sweatshirt or with cashmere jumper and pearls.  I have looked for something similar on eBay, without success.

There is a thin layer of snow on everyone's garden shed.  Winter is not loosening its grip yet.

Monday, February 4, 2013


In my first week as an Eng Lit student at university one of the lecturers eyed us balefully and said, you're here to read and if you don't want to read, fuck off.  Another one told us that most literature was really very boring - just in case we were expecting to enjoy ourselves.  So that was us put straight.  A bit rough, but it was the early eighties, we were mainly women, used to being told like it is by men of a certain age.  As time went on, I could to some extent see where they were coming from.  I had worked for a number of years and was there on a mature student's grant.  This and the fact of no fees to be paid seems almost unthinkable now.  With a little paid work in the summer, I was well able to live on the grant.  And I loved everything about being a student.  The younger ones would often arrive at tutorials smudge-eyed, smelling of last night's party, not having read the text of whatever it was.  I was much sought-after in the ten minutes or so before a class for the quick summary that would allow them to bluff their way through the session.  I was not bored by much, except for The Faerie Queene which sits on my bookshelves unread, the portrait of Gloriana on the front still measuring and finding me wanting.  I thought Tristram Shandy boring too but persevered as everyone (even the hardened party people) seemed to think it was cool.  Later, it would allow me to bluff my way through conversations about post-modernism.

Cut to when I began teaching creative writing classes.  I suppose I could have echoed what my erstwhile tutor said but my preferred way was to give a short reading list, the first item being Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming A Writer'.  I was pleased to see that it was placed at number two of Hilary Mantel's ten rules for writers (the first being to get an accountant).  Brande had the belief that although there were varying degrees of talent, everyone could write.  I believed this too and simply assumed that everyone who came to class - even the man who said he was there because his wife insisted he get himself an interest and the art class was full - was there because they wanted to write.  And everyone did.  We began almost immediately, writing in class and reading it back.  People found that if there was no space to worry or censor, they were more brilliant than they imagined they could be.  I would set a writing task for students to do at home, which they brought back to class the following week.  Mostly they always did.

Being a writer is perhaps subtly different from Becoming - though I think we are always doing that, wherever we are on the writing road.  Being a writer means you have reached that point where you know that this is what you are for, whatever else you have to do to earn money or to meet other commitments; this is what you have to come back to.  It may be that you stop doing it for long periods because of health, lack of time or writers' block (yes, even experienced and famous writers sometimes get it and some have recovered with Dorothea Brande), but the soul is uneasy until you get back to doing it.  And then the time comes when you might have to say to yourself: you're here to write and if you don't want to write, fuck off. 

Dorothea Brande puts it more delicately.  But she does say that if after a period of time you find that the resistance to writing is stronger than the impulse to do it - then it is better, dear reader, to find something else to do. 

One of my favourite Twitter hashtags:  #AmWriting. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

"I will arise and go now" .... ?

Drove back from Brighton yesterday, listening to Sounds of the Seventies on Radio Two.  Almost anything from that decade, especially the earlier part, is good by me, especially when driving, but when I think seventies I tend to think Crosby Stills Nash and Young.  Back in the day I used to sing in a band - me and three guys, I wasn't great shakes on the guitar but I could play a bit and sing.  We had quite a repertoire, and whatever we did tended to sound like Crosby Stills. We mostly sang in my living room and kept the neighbours awake, but we did sometimes do actual gigs for which we were sometimes paid.  Fame with a small 'f' - yes, this was my decade and I would bask in the memories were it not for the fact of our name, which was Innisfree.  Do not ask why.  It is one of those things which pricks me into a small sweat of perplexed embarassment, especially on sleepless nights.  Of all the W.B. Yeats poems I knew, Innisfree was by no means my favourite, nor was there any likelihood of my going there (it doesn't exist by that name). And, in any case, nothing we sang had anything to do with Ireland.  I just liked the sound of the name and it seemed then to carry the right kind of resonance for the person I wanted to be which was a bit of a hippy.  The "bit of" is important here, because I wouldn't have been much use at being the real thing.  But I looked the part - a bit: hair falling over the breasts, tie-dyes, beads, and I smelled of patchouli.  The problem was that people used to ask why we were called that, and because I was the one who chose the name it was up to me to explain, which I couldn't.  We were hired by an Italian restaurant in Golders Green one new year's eve.  Along with our usual repertoire, we included Hava Nagila, which we were obliged to sing seven times over as the whole restaurant joined in and got up to dance.  At the end a man in a yarmulke asked who chose the name and looked baffled: nice Jewish girl like me singing Hava Nagila, choosing something like Innisfree. 

I sometimes tell the twenty-year-old me: don't choose that because in many years down the line it will niggle at you.  You will remember blissful nights singing, we are stardust, we are golden, and how it was possible at that time, in that place, to really believe this and the person who said you sounded just like Joni Mitchell.  But you will wince every time you remember Innisfree.

The twenty-year-old doesn't listen.  She wants to be airy, happy, free.  She chooses a name that sounds like those things.  I secretly love her for this. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013



Well, Sisters, this is what we have been waiting for: ballpoint pens made specially for the Ladies.  My attention was drawn to these on Facebook and I felt moved to share.  All these years we have been struggling to get our words down with ordinary Man-pens, like fish attempting to get about on bicycles.  In my opinion there hasn't been anything like it since they invented the side-saddle, and I feel that my brilliant career is now assured.

You might like to read some of the Amazon reviews.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

the other life

When going through the notebook, one often comes up against the self that wrote things one has no memory of writing.  It happens because I tend to use one notebook for everything, including journal-writing, the ongoing prose thing (I will not say the N word) and poems.  It works best for me that way.  When one notebook fills up I buy another of a different colour. 

Much of what I write in the notebook is not shared with anyone and there are good reasons for this.  But I have recently felt the impulse to communicate something more about the reality of life with M.E., not so much on my own behalf (I already do this) but because I know people who have it in a more severe form.  They live, you might say, in "another country."Very occasionally I touch its borders.  The fact that I set this down is testament to the fact that I am, at time of writing, in a stronger state:

The slats again.  I see the sky through those, and only if I have been awake enough to ask M to open them.  In the daytime I don't like to be shut away in the dark.  Sometimes I ring his mobile from the house phone, or I ring the house phone from my mobile, on days when he is working from home, downstairs or in the garden studio.  I say, please can you open the slats for me?  And if I know he is coming up I ask for a drink of mint tea.  If I get up too quickly I feel faint, dizzy and sick.  That is why M walks up two flights of stairs to open the slats so I can see the sky through them.  Often there is just white, and raindrops on the window pane.  My eyes are still hungry for the light.

If it is a bad day and I know I will be lying there for a long time, I ask him to lift the blinds completely.  Then I can see the branches of a tree across the road, and I can see the tops of tall evergreens further away.  The more I raise myself the more I see.  But if I carry on lying down there is mostly just sky.  That square of window has been witness to what no person has ever heard. 

What is the sound that comes in the silence from someone who has looked out of the same window at the changing sky for many years?  What is the sound of one hand clapping?  It is nothing.  It is nothing.  It is the sound of time that moves past in clouds, in blue sky, in moon-bright or moonless, it moves through seconds and minutes and days and weeks and years.   One time you looked at the sky with a child's warm head near you.  Then the child was gone.  Or you looked at the sky while hearing your daughter's voice as she talked on the telephone and you smelled the tobacco smoke from the cigarette she was smoking at the bottom of the house.  Then the voice was gone.

I cannot begin to express how the outline of bare branches against the sky consoles and grounds me - joins me to the earth where I live so precariously.  If someone were to come and cut down the tree it would leave me emptied into sky.  All of us, those people who are like me, fear death.  We fear it because it stalks our living, our lives.  And the truth that has no strength to speak its name is that twent-five per cent of two hundred and fifty thousand of us lie each day in almost complete darkness, and no-one knows what to do for them.  They are too sick to live, but still they live, and though some might choose to die - to have death pure and simple rather than life that is deathly - still many do choose to live the life they have, even so.  They greatly desire life, and they love it and grasp the nettle of it.

Sometimes when we lie there looking at sky, or at the slats or curtains that keep the light from hurting (if we are not strong enough for sky) we feel connected to the earth, we feel her bones, her ravaged body, we put our mouths to the breast of the earth.  Her milk is poisoned, her body violated, she is holding us to the best of her ability.  Look how the black branch puts out shoots.

My road is an unadopted road, it is rough and uneven so not many cars pass by.  People walk their dogs or parents come with children.  These are the voices I might hear.  I miss the cockerel.  When I first came to this house, this room, a cockerel sounded each morning many times over:  cock-a-de-doo!  He annoyed the neighbours but never me.  I loved him from a distance for his voice which came into my consciousness like the sound of someone beloved, I could sleep through it or when I was awake it put life into the morning.  He has been gone for a long time.