Sunday, May 11, 2014

Rock Concert (and Other Animals)

The inside of Signs Cottage is about to have a white lick of paint. Not so much a facelift as a cheap, damage-limitation makeover.  For this reason, and others which I am not yet at liberty to disclose, serious de-cluttering is happening here.  Or not.  Because how do you throw out a perfectly good stone with a cluster of smaller stones glued onto it that someone once called a Rock Concert and gave you as a present, and it sat on the window ledge above the kitchen sink of wherever you were living for forty years or so?  It is has neither use nor beauty, but the stones have eyes that look at you and remind you of the person you once were and still (in a sense) are, even if you have forgotten the name of the person who gave it to you (I think she was called Lindy, and she moved to Australia). 

And what to do with the toy dog your son brought back from some local fairground, where he either won it at a stall or was given it as a consolation prize?  Such a cheap, synthetic apology of a thing, it ought never to have been brought into existence in the first place.  But exist it does, with a kind of transcendent optimism in its bearing and expression that declares its complete freedom from all pragmatic considerations or aesthetic sensibilities – and it too has eyes and looks at me.  It is hard to throw away anything with eyes. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is easier to lose people than these inanimate Things.  With people you can do it casually, haphazardly, gradually.  You don’t have to put them into a black plastic bin bag, (and if that is what you do with people then obviously you are not the kind of person I want to have dealings with).  You can say, I’ll call you, let’s meet up some time, and then just let it not happen.  You can even say, I don’t love you any more, and know that whoever it is will still be out there somewhere, living their lives.  If I throw these things away they will simply cease to be because they depend on me for their existence. 

I know what you are thinking:  they are just things, and as such have no feelings.  In which case, you have never read The Velveteen Rabbit, who was made real by virtue of human love. It’s a children’s story, but no less true for that.  Perhaps it would be overstating things to say that I love these two things, but we are (it seems) in relationship.  And this complicates things.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Stormy Weather

We are probably in deep trouble.  Things have been happening.  I have noticed this before and kept quiet, but now everyone can see: many parts of Albion are under water, we are storm-wrecked and even respectable politicians are speaking about climate change and how when the dice are loaded it is time to acknowledge that “something is going on.”  It has been suggested to me (by someone I happen to hold in high regard) that if I were to begin blogging again it might in some way help to forestall the worst-case end-of scenario.  So that’s why I’m back here, doing my bit to save the world.  I can’t make any promises, but we’ll see how things shape up.

Blogging is like sex.  I can say this with some authority, having been away from it (the blog, I mean) for some months.  The more you do, the more you want to, and if you stop doing it you begin to lose the urge to the point where blog-celibacy becomes the new normal and if there isn’t a pressing reason to do it then why bother?  When I began this lark there was no Facebook or Twitter on which to fritter one’s time and attention.  There was just this talking into mysterious cyberspace where people may or may not be looking and listening and there was the sense that one was doing something a bit weird because one’s friends and familiars didn’t do it and the general thinking seemed to be that only perverts and very important people did it.  Then suddenly everyone did and now if you send a poem somewhere they automatically assume you have a website.  We are all promiscuous now. 

I never did come thinking I had anything particular to say – that was for people who wanted to write essays or the big Novel. But I was happy to go with the John Cage method of having nothing to say and saying it.  These days I do have things to say, but I am not saying them because a) there are people who might keel me if I did and b) I have discovered that it is possible to leave things unexpressed and still exist with a kind of equanimity.  Someone very dear to me, a writer whose name I can’t mention even though he is dead now because I might be keeled if I did, came to the end of everything he had to say and stopped writing.  It was the beginning of a long, dark, annihilating end for him, and when I’m on my way out that’s not how I want it to be.  I’m still doing poems and working on the novel, albeit so slowly that no-one would know, but I’m hanging on by the skin. 

I still have M.E. and until they find a cure or a way of addressing the symptoms, dealing with this is a large part of my life’s work and there are many days when all I can reasonably expect of myself is cloud-and-sky-watching from the bed or the adjustable chair in the living room.  It sounds quite nice when set down like this in black and white, but really it isn’t – not when one wants to be doing and writing, and also it isn’t necessarily sky-watching as the Normals might think of it, because one feels very ill.  FYI that is what we call those of you who live without chronic illness: Normals.  Makes us sound a bit special, perhaps, like those in the Harry Potter books who are possessed of magical abilities, as opposed to the Muggles who are just ordinary.  And I suppose we do develop certain faculties.  But we’d trade them in a breath to be a Muggle sans M.E. 

Am I back?  For this moment, it looks that way.  And the storms have died down. 


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).