Saturday, 11 July 2020

I Worry About Plumbing

I wonder if Ennio Morricone ever replaced a washer, or tightened the grub screw on a bath tap? I am thinking this as I listen to his composition, 'Gabriel's Oboe'. Morricone died this week, as one day I will, and I didn't know till now that he was an avant-garde classical composer: that he regarded these seldom-heard works as his important ones.

This existential mood of mine is driven by sleep-deprivation and by the fact that my hot bath tap is broken. The mixer taps are new, so not strictly broken, but loose. But it might as well be broken as no water comes out. I'm worried I won't be able to fix it despite having 'plumbing previous' (see my first ever blog). The sleep-deprivation is explained by the fact that my main occupation, my job, has been tough this week, and by the fact that my new neighbours have woken me twice in six days with their parties - at 4.30am. 4.30am!  You've got to admire them, or curse them, or hate them for being young, or go round and ring on the doorbell and ask them politely if they could turn it down and then go and sit out on the garden watching the late glow of dawn, the seagulls uplifted and up-lit by pink light.

Sitting on my garden, I tried to think of all the times I was annoying when young as a way of developing greater tolerance to those who probably look at me as slightly less than a real person on account of my being 55, in my pyjamas and having wild lockdown hair. When I was their age, I thought my parents stuffy for going to bed at 9pm on Saturday nights before church on a Sunday. I was much less considerate than I might have been. There were times when I returned to the vicarage to creep up to my attic bedroom close to dawn to fall into a decaying and guilty sleep. Forgive me, father ...

Sitting there, on the roof, as dawn brought the day into focus, I thought about the avant-garde part of my life - not my main occupation, not the lecturing job for which I am infamous to several hundred social work students past and present, but the part of me that I want to fulfil as much as possible before I die: the poetry part. The words that swim through my head, that arrange themselves on the page. I thought about the way that the main stuff squeezes this less-known part until it squeaks, needs attention, needs to lie in the bath because there is no chance of swimming pools opening any time soon, and I need my body to be weightless from time to time. I thought with gratitude of Anna's Poetry Breakfast at Home, of Andrew, Carol and all the people who see and respect this part of me.  
Poetry Breakfast - find the wonderful array of readings and music hosted by Anna here.

Thank you.

And now it's nearly 9.30am and I'm not floating into a dawn sleep because I want to catch Abbey Hardware when it opens to buy a set of Allen keys and ask advice, through my mask. I don't have what I need to fix my tap, which has a screw loose.

'Gabriel's Oboe' is a soothing part of the soundtrack to 'The Mission', a violent film I'd watch again, even though it's about an appalling history. Colonisation. Conversion. Corruption. Compromise. Cardinals ... Morricone's soundtrack is just right, as it is for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Cinema Paradiso. 

Ah Ennio. Rest in peace. Thanks for all the music, especially the stuff that's impossible to find on YouTube, that's swamped by your main fame. Forget I ever mentioned plumbing.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

I Mend My Bicycle

On my way to see a friend yesterday, I punctured my front tyre. Not deliberately, you understand. I was enjoying a downward stretch when my front wheel juddered. Twenty metres later, the tyre was flat as a flip flop.

The queue at the bike shop was short-ish, but by this stage I'd pushed Boudicca two miles in the heat, was bothered, needing lunch, so when it was my turn, I booked her in for a repair. Only then did I find out that the waiting time would be 8 days. 

Previously, when I've had a puncture, I've been able to get it fixed as a 'walk-in' job. But everything is different. Cycling has become the new ... cycling. Freewheeling brings a sense of freedom at a time when freedoms are curtailed. And people are buying electric bikes like they're in fashion. Everybody suddenly needs a bike shop to fix the bikes that have lain in sheds for years, or to show them where the on switch is.

You'll realise from the title of this blog that something else happened after I left the shop. As a matter of fact, what happened, dear reader, was that I drew inspiration from this very blog. Back at the start of things, hadn't I bought a new washer? Hadn't I fixed a leaking tap? Hadn't I boasted about this in public, and also about my other skills: shelf-fitting, and ... well, other stuff. Why not buy an inner tube and fix my own bike? 

I took courage and a credit card in my hands after lunch, ambled back downhill and re-joined the long-ish queue. Two Americans were buying electric bikes. A man was getting his electric bike fixed. Another customer struggled to fit two electric bikes into one car boot, refusing the assistant's suggestion of taking off the wheels. The car park was gridlocked; the shop staff were calm, impressively kind. 

Forty-five minutes later, I reached the front of the queue retrieved a rather relieved-(or exasperated?) looking Boudicca, and bought an inner tube. And a Brompton Toolkit. Expensive, but think (as I did) of all the money I was saving.

This magnificent piece of design includes tyre levers, and a spanner - all I needed, plus the advice of a YouTube video, to change the inner tube. It's gorgeous, and fits inside a sleeve that can be stashed inside the bike frame for future emergencies.

Monday, 22 June 2020

I Channel the Feelings of a Geranium

As lock-down eases, pigeons have been taking liberties, disregarding my guidelines and landing in my window boxes. This behaviour leads to crushed plants and irritation (not photographed). It has also scared away the blue tits. 

So far, in an effort to communicate the rules, my rules, I've resorted to:
  • deploying kebab sticks arranged like pikes ranked on the edge of the window box in the 'at charge for horse' position, 
  • shouting, 
  • hanging a CD of jazz poetry from the bird feeder. 

Using the CD as a means of shiny distraction /disorientation rather than buying purpose-built shiny distractions saved me £12. This action brought enough calm for me to consider responding to a prompt from Jean Atkin as part of a poetry course I'm taking.

So, my fourth and I hope final, effort to deal with the pigeons has been to channel the feelings of a geranium: the one on the right of the photograph below. This geranium shares my thoughts about the importance of boundaries. 


I’m rooted to the spot, boxed up on this ledge
with trailing lobelia and other plants whose names
I’ve been told but have forgetten … and you?
You’re coming onto us like a crash-landing,
all plump mass and feathery undercarriage.
(And those ugly toes, angled like dead twigs!)

Remove your backside from our broken stems!
Lift your fifteen indistinguishable greys from our pinks!
Repent your savaging of shoots, your squashing of leaves!
Be gone! Scram! Piss off from our miniature Eden!

Saturday, 6 June 2020

I Organise My Things

An advantage of a colder, greyer weekend day in lockdown is that it leaves time for organising things. I mean, I do a lot of organising Monday - Friday, but this is focused on other people's things. Last week, for example, I organised essays by marking them, and organised names on a spreadsheet, and organised some interviews.

On sunny weekend days, I like to organise my plants - I ordered six geraniums last week from Pomona Grocery and spent last Saturday morning blissfully sequencing them on my rooftop garden. At the same time, I noticed that the rescue-hosta is coming into bloom, and that the blue tits seem to have been put off visiting the feeder by the vocal presence of pigeons.

This Saturday, so far, I've been inside, organising things like poems, my website, and, well, poems. It takes longer than you'd think.

It takes hardly any time at all, however, to organise an event on Facebook, which is what I have done for Sunday 13th December 2020, 5-6pm. This is the Sunday closest to Beethoven's 250th birthday ... I think. He was baptised on 17th December 1770, which leads historians to believe he was born on 16th December 1770. Not knowing for sure which day one of the greatest ever artists was born hasn't stopped me organising things for a celebration.

In contrast, I know exactly when my younger son was born. It was 20 years ago last Thursday, at four minutes past 9pm. An hour later, we were on our way to hospital, but that's a longer story.

Here's Jonty, in Beethoven's birthplace: Bonn, July 2018. 

Beethoven and my son dance through my sequence of twenty poems, Great Master / Small Boy. To mark Ludwig's big day, I will be reading the whole, around 45 minutes' worth, either on-line, or maybe, if allowed, in closer proximity. Things being back to new normal by then, the shops will have closed, it will be dark, and you might be wanting to sit still in the warmth, amongst poetry friends, listening to my voice. This is the same voice that sent someone to sleep recently, after I'd organised them into a meeting on Zoom. So if it has to be a virtual event, that will have its particular benefits. We will be amidst that busy, shopping time of year, browsing stores, or the interweb. You will need a doze, or a dose of Beethoven.

It seems a long way off, but organising this thing has given me a sense that's been missing for a while - a sense of a plan, I suppose.

Here's a poem from the sequence, which appeared in a recent edition of Poetry Wales, chosen by Jonathan Edwards:

Before You, 4th June 2000

I’m in labour in the bath.
I’m a whale,
a ship in full sail
beached on the rounded island of myself,
by thirty-odd years and thirty-nine weeks
and your sheer impetus.

Your fist
(or knee, or elbow)
prods at the surface.
I prod you back.

These are the last hours before I’ll see you,
come to learn your sex, your starting weight,
how your heart will beat in air.

I wallow in this human mystery –
and you already know me inside out.

Monday, 18 May 2020

I Socially Distance

I sat out this morning on my garden. A roof top garden is a garden you sit on not in. Prepositions are powerful.

I've made it my own, organising a set of pots into various patterns and non-patterns over the past weeks, adding stones from my collection of stones, and half tiles from what remain of my February bathroom improvements.

Releasing the stones back into the semi-wild has been a Good Move, for them and for me. Previously, they'd perched on shelves in my living room, reminding me, in complicated ways, of trips to the beach, holidays, a catastrophically painful relationship. Outside once more, they are in their element, in a bigger context.

This morning - let's get back to it - blackbirds came to the dish of water I've left out for the blue tits. I mean, any bird can have a drink or a bath in the dish, but it was the blue tits which inspired my benevolence.

The second blackbird to come was bold. He drank five beakfuls, stretching down to fill his lower beak, then tipping his head back to swallow. All this within two metres of me. Well, within two metres of my head. My feet were considerably closer.

Here's a photo of my feet, dish nearby, minus the blackbird. I didn't want to move to photograph him whilst he was drinking. But he was there, in all his sleek black orange-beaked glory. Trust me. I was reading, so sitting very still. (The book? A Guide to Statutory Social Work Interventions - The Lived Experience:  sorry Anna).

My feet were (let's go imperial) three feet from the bird. It was my head that was socially distanced.

Over lunch, I chatted to my son about the meaning of social distance.  He pointed out that his head is socially distanced from his feet, unless he's engaged in yoga.  A reason to stop doing yoga, if you were looking for one, I said.

This confusion seems to be widespread - why else would some people veer into hedges or oncoming traffic when another person approaches, and others keep doggedly moving forward, passing by, bringing our heads no more than two feet apart.

The blackbird was at just the right distance from me for me to appreciate his bold glory. We both kept safe. He left after his drink to sit on a nearby branch. His song stretched from there to here, causing soundwaves to vibrate my maleus, incus and stapes -  reaching right inside of me.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

I Reap What I've Sown / Not Sown

Finding a garden unexpectedly on the flat roof at the back of my home has been a gift from lockdown, slow down, sit down, hunker down … down the stairs I go each morning, doing my yoga moves as I climb out of the window at around 10am. This is the time when the sun comes round the rooftops, or rather the rooftops tilt further, letting the sunshine through. From that point, on a fine morning, I have about two and a half hours before the earth tilts me back into shade.

I've adjusted my working habits to suit, and I'm reading more books - Rights and Wrongs in Social Work by Mark Doel works even better in fresh air. I can't see my laptop screen outside, so it has to be paper, and it has to be one of twenty books I hustled from my office when I knew it was likely I'd be away from the campus for a while.

I've adjusted my horizons to suit, have explored the 12 metre length, 1.5m width of space, finding more pleasures - in particular the luck of a pot bound hydrangea with newly sprouting flowerheads.  My friend, G K Anarchist, socially distanced a bag of compost for me, and I cycled over to pick it up from outside his home. On the way back, I pushed my way up Wyle Cop, my bike tripled in weight. I quarantined the bag for a couple of days, before opening it up, digging my hands into its dark richness, then liberating the hydrangea into wider, deeper soil.

I've adjusted my cooking to suit the herbs in the garden. I'd always considered coriander exotic because of its association with spicy dishes, but it turns out to be surprisingly easy to grow from seed. The leaves I've harvested so far taste miraculously like coriander, so I made a celebratory meal of butternut squash curry, homemade naan,  rice, mango chutney and yoghurt - then garnished the lot with a first sprig from the largest coriander plant.

I've adjusted my choices to suit,  aligning myself with my son Jonty's vegetarianism, his decision based on thoughtful consideration. I've slipped into it, and to the excitement of my weekly veg box from Pomona - a Shrewsbury grocery store which also delivers, if requested, maple syrup and lavender plants.

I've adjusted my swims to the size of my bath, easing myself under water as each day ends, into the comfort of warmth and lemon soap, into the sensation of almost floating: a nod in the direction of weightlessness.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

I Find a Garden

At the top of the first flight of stairs to get to my flat from the front door is a window. Beyond the window, a forbidden flat roof. When I say forbidden, it's a roof on which a couple of years ago a decorator planted his ladder. So it's not exactly forbidden, and it's safe enough.

Since the benches have been taped off, I've been longing for somewhere to sit in fresh air. All week, my mind's been wandering to the flat roof. And yesterday, I was in conversation with an on-line community of people who seek greater connection with nature and themselves by paying close attention.

The inspiration of that community had me climbing out of the window, onto the roof. Having a reduced allocation of physical courage, I took many safety precautions, including a sturdy box on which to stand to make getting back through the window easier.

I sat in the courtyardbehind my flat, one floor up. A bee buzzed overhead, a blackbird sang. The still-bare trees (invisible to me from my home until now) stood still. The scent of  hyacinths in my window box filled the air.

Growing in confidence, I began to explore the space. It's about 2 metres wide, and 6-7 metres long, edged with a low brick lip, capped in stone. The roof surface is gravelly, mossy, and there are four raised skylights which must illuminate the shop storage rooms below. I found a potted Hosta - its leaves perfect from a lack of slugs.

Two black rubbish bags looked untidy in one corner. Thinking I'd dispose of them, I looked inside - they contained old compost, plastic pots, two long, shallow plastic trays, the tangled rootballs of forgotten plants, leaf mould. A gift. All I need, with the seeds I've been germinating for my summer window boxes, to make a garden.