Thursday, 11 July 2019

I Ace Wimbledon

My first appearance at Wimbledon was on Court 2. Getting there involved planning, diligence, holding my nerve and the support of my team - a team which knows how to meet the criteria, complete the paperwork (a form, and then another form, and then a stamped addressed envelope, a wait, another form, another envelope, many more stamps).

Fortunately, my team comprised my Longest Serving Friend who has been negotiating the ways of Wimbledon for years, and taught me everything she knows, trained me up, drove me hard. "Sign here", she said, putting the ticket application form under my nose. After winning the tickets, we needed to work out a strategy for play. It involved staying for the week at Wimbles Farm , East Sussex, a train from East Grinstead, and sun cream. 

Wimbles Farm is paradise for those who want to get off-grid, on the ground and out of doors.  The first night I unzipped my tent, made my way out for my 2am nightly stop-off, and entered a sky which was velvet-indigo, deep with constellations, strewn with the Milky Way. The view of our pitch the next day was no less extraordinary:

We could have spent the whole week in Eden, but left for bike rides, swims and, last Wednesday, Wimbledon. After our train ride, we watched nine hours of tennis in what felt like a moment of joy. The day was dense with drama: loose balls  an art form as they were collected up by the precisely trained skills of ball girls and boys; grass courts edged to perfection; line judges performing a synchronised dance of standing up and sitting down between games; gods on court who gifted us with out-of-this-world visions of grace, speed, cunning, flight and power, and the occasional outburst of mortal frustration. Wawrinka, Opelka, Halep, Buzarnescu, Anderson, Tipsarevic: names worthy of any pantheon. We took sides, grew to care about each shot, each game: got caught up in it all. It was wonderfully exhausting.

Back at Wimbles Farm, we spent evenings chilling wine in shop-bought ice, cooking risotto and sitting by the fire. Daytime, we discovered the Cuckoo trail - a disused train line, now cycle route. One day we rode to Eastbourne, and Fusciardi's ice cream parlour, then took the train on to Lewes and the wonderful Pells Pool.

On our final morning in paradise, we noted a dead grass snake on the path as we rode to a lake graced with rushes and water lilies. We undressed by the water's edge, clambered down and swam around in widening circles, before floating on our backs and looking up at the clear sky, letting happiness soak through our skins.

Monday, 17 June 2019

I Become Set To Music

As a Christmas present, Jonty gave me the gift of possibilities. He offered to make one of my poems into song. This is one of those loaves and fishes presents - something more than the sum of its parts: a gift of multiplication.

The starting sum in this particular equation was gluttony - a collecting up of all the candidate poems. They became a group in themselves: at least a sextet of some of my favourites. I had to reduce them down, so subtracted the narratives, the wistful, the greedily over-familiar - I watched out for something playful.

iniquity leapt up saying "Pick me! Pick me!" This cheeky poem drew envy from the others, with its consciously written psychological ambiguity and dark streak. It came to me after listening to Handel's Messiah. "All we like sheep have gone astray. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" sing the chorus early on in this oratorio. Somehow, Handel and the choir make this straying and sinning sound like a lot of fun. Try lazing around and then dancing to the Messiah - that is what I was doing the evening that iniquity came to me. You will not disappoint yourself.

Having been published in Magma, I have confidence in iniquity. I wanted to give my son material worthy of his attention. He was open to the suggestion, took iniquity  away, thought about it and showed it to his composition tutor. She squared up to the poem, calling it (Jonty reported back), "A work of genius!"  I watched iniquity puff itself up easily into the shape of pride.

Jonty took iniquity and months later gave it back to me having multiplied it by Schoenberg, by the dialogue between mezzo soprano and piano, by youthfulness and by his joyful creativity.  He has added layers of meaning and interpretation to this poem which does not immediately lend itself to a musical setting. Listening to it, I had the feeling, both rare and visceral, that he had seen straight through me, given me so much more than I could ever have imagined or asked.

Here's the link to the song on Bandcamp -

iniquity …

I like the word
how it feels
tongue flattened to roof for the in
release for the second short i
cheeks and lips drawn for qui
lips bared for the ty

it’s a total mouth experience
say it
four syllables of tense   relax   pout   spit

say it looking in the mirror
come on to yourself
relish the way you look like this
limbering up     for what? 
wine    women     sin

it puts everything at your disposal
a life-ful of bite and sound
of going into yourself
trying out all love’s addictions

say it
play it out

you lucky devil

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

I Work In The Cold

It's unseasonably cold and wet. You don't need me to tell you that, unless you live somewhere else. The rain came down and the floods went up today, and I got my feet and trousers wet on the way from the station because firstly I left my umbrella at the side of a marquee on Saturday, and because secondly the water was coming up from the pavement as well as down from the skies.

The renovations happening in my part of the building at work seem to necessitate the door to the outside being left open. I suppose this is for convenience. Also, the heating isn't on, which is good because it's June, and not good because it's nothing like an averagely warm June, and someone's leaving the door wedged open.

I sat down at my desk, damp. I got on with the sedentary nature of administration, marking, answering enquiries. A slow day, a misplaced day which should have been spent on a trip to the International Slavery Museum on the waterfront in Liverpool according to another plan which I'm glad, in the end, didn't come off.  There's a best-not-experienced quality of cold on the dockside in Liverpool when the wind whips off the Mersey and the rain comes along with it.

You can't make an omelette without cracking eggs. They can't renovate a building without leaving the door open, ripping up floors, making dust and pulling down the ceiling. I can't always stop the cold from creeping in, taking hold of my hands.

But I can go home, run an early bath, get into my pyjamas and heat a bowl of soup, as if it were already November.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

I Have A Lane To Myself

At the baths this morning, there was one lane roped off from the rest of the pool - a strip of almost-blue 25 meters x 1.5 meters. There were other swimmers, but no one had chosen this water.  I slipped in at the shallow end, paddled off. Couldn't believe my luck.

Having space I can call my own, both in time and square meters, is something I wallow in. I think I used to be a bit out of my depth when faced with space with just me in it - questions and insecurities would bubble up How fast should I go? Are people deliberately avoiding me?  Will I get lonely? 

No one joined me in the lane - I had a full hour to myself breast-stroking up and down, turning on my back for a spot of back crawl, easing the ache out of my spine. The water was cool, warmed in places by the sun streaming in through the glass roof. I emerged at peace with myself and my body.

I luxuriate in those moments when I get 4 seats round a table on the train to myself, or when I have a whole evening at home in which I can freestyle, or when my work room buddy is away on holiday and I can indulge my musical tastes more freely. La Mer. The Trout Quintet. Peter Grimes.

I'm aware that being alone within four walls can be intensely isolating in different circumstances. I do not take for granted the freedom I have to step out of delineated space.

Later, after my swim, I cycled to the weir and sat on a bench in the sun drying my hair, my bike propped up beside me. A fellow cyclist came over to admire her - she is striking. We chatted for a while about her colour, Lagoon Blue, about folding bikes, about cycle lanes, cycling on the left and then about the way strength and speed diminish with age. Paul had just emerged from eight months of illness - it was his first bike trip out since October. We idled pleasantly around in our conversation against the tumbling sounds of weir water cascading, splashing and foaming, rushing downstream. 

Saturday, 27 April 2019

I Glow With Pride

Parenthood can make me sweat, involving - without being metaphorical in the slightest - pushing, uplifting, hauling, accompanying, wiping, skipping, smoothing, sifting, sorting ... but right now, I’m simply glowing.

If I said that my sons’ choices to pursue post-school education in the creative fields of fashion and music never caused me a minute’s perspiration, I’d be disingenuous. Fashion in particular is a highly competitive applied art, requiring a complex range of skills, knowledge and aptitudes. These include life drawing, pattern cutting, design, embroidery, tailoring, draping, photography, and graphic design, as well as the study of the history of fashion, philosophy of art and research methodology . And then there are the skills and labours of developing and planning whole collections, liaising with models to wear and present them.

I’m glowing because my son Gabriel has won an award which recognises in a tangible way how much he has achieved in his learning of the skills of fashion design. Five years ago, he had an emerging interest in clothes and how they're made, but he'd never used a sewing machine. So we attended an evening class at Shrewsbury College where his teacher, Johanna, took his interest entirely seriously. Since that initial affirmation, he’s branched out, cut loose, taken risks, pursued an unconventional and challenging path.

In February, Gabriel applied for this, advertised in the Shrewsbury press by the Shrewsbury Arts Society:

Celebrating the Golden Jubilee of The Arts Society

After a highly competitive process, the judges described his application and interview performance as outstanding. He displayed a depth of knowledge and passion which convinced them to give him the financial award aimed at supporting a young artist from the Shrewsbury area embarking on a career in the arts.

This is an accolade and it's a practical one too. Studying fashion is expensive in terms of materials required: over four years of a foundation degree and BA, he has used / will use hundred of metres of fabric, tens of thousands of metres of thread, needles, buttons, zips, buckles, Velcro, interfacing, paper, ink, not to mention chicken wire, safety boots, paints, dyes and glues. The award will be a great help towards these costs.

So I’m glowing - proud as can be of my son who is forging his own way, delighted that fellow artists have recognised his talent and commitment.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

I Buy A New Washer: I Calculate My Figures

I Buy A New Washer: I Calculate My Figures: There's something going on around my middle that I'm trying to work out. One of the workings out I am doing is swimming. A recent tr...

I Calculate My Figures

There's something going on around my middle that I'm trying to work out. One of the workings out I am doing is swimming. A recent trial membership offer at the Quarry Swimming Baths meant that I swam five times in ten days and this worked out at £1 per swim.

Four of those swims happened on workdays before work. It has come as something of a surprise to me that I am able to swim 660 metres, half of them towards my desk, half of them in the opposite direction, and still arrive at work on time, albeit with damp hair.

Based on that experience, I have signed up to a year's swimming membership. So far, the swims I have swum under membership terms have worked out at £95 each. If I swim 188 more times in the coming year, I will get the cost back down to £1 per swim.

Whilst I'm swimming, I try to remember the number of the length I'm on. This helps me to arrive at work on time. If I say to myself  "TWELVE" (never out loud) as I start length 12, it's somewhat confusing, as I've actually completed 11 lengths. There's something about this that feels like cheating, but equally, I can't get my head around the idea of length zero. If I think about all this too hard, I lose count.

So far, according to the tightness of my jeans, my motivating central concerns are not yet worked out. I carry forward other benefits into my days, however. A fuller sense, after one of those early baptisms, that my life is mine, and everything in it. And the whiff of chlorine emanating from my skin.