Friday, 14 September 2018

I Believe In Myself

For those of you who don't know Shrewsbury,
this is an artist's impression of Wyle Cop:


And in this photograph,
notice how people are struggling to walk up the hill.
If it was enlarged we might
see that they are wearing crampons:

And so, as I approached Wyle Cop on my bike this evening I muttered something along the lines of:


My legs didn't pay attention, kept pushing the pedals round,
whilst inside my head all I could hear was this: 


By which stage I'd reached the top.

Friday, 31 August 2018

We ❤️ Mountains

There are 17 of us on this family holiday, so I’ve been wondering how to write about it. A communal experience needs a communal voice, so I’ve consulted the others.  “What should I write about?” I asked them. There has been a wide range of responses.

I first came here 49 years ago with my parents and 3 older brothers. Today, 15  of us getting into the cable car up to our walk to Elsighorn weighed in at 1 tonne. Or so the digital display on the cable car read.  We weighed the same on the way down, having carried up our lunch, eaten it after our descent from the summit. (2 were missing from today’s trip because of the demands of revision. But I’ve been asked not to write about that, especially as for others, this holiday is about rest - staying half board in a hotel, not having to think about cooking, shopping, washing up.)

Adelboden, Canton Bern, is a place where people work hard at continuity. There is little sign of change. There is little sign of decay. The shops in the main street are mostly the same as the ones we first saw in 1969. The place where we’ve been for ice cream treats, Tearoom Schmid, is the same tearoom we couldn’t wait to visit when we returned in 1975 and 1981.  The Coupe Danemark - vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce - is still on the menu, and still costs around 10 SF, although back then we got many more francs for our pounds. The stationery shop is set out in the same way - shelves of brightly coloured paper down one side, calendars opposite, islands displaying postcards, small boxes of paper clips, paper napkins bearing the Swiss flag, and other gifts and essentials. The chalets, which are lined up in the village and scattered on the hillsides, are still showing late displays of red geraniums. They conform to a shape and are made from wood. Newer chalets are roofed with tiles, though get further into the mountains and many are still roofed with wooden shingles.

The bears we saw in Bern yesterday, despite their expanded living quarters, looked depressed. They used to occupy a circular concrete pit. Now they have the river bank of the Aane, water to bathe in and trees to climb.  But they’re still fenced in.  Necessarily - we understand that. They’re a symbol of stifled creativity - or a symbol of Bern. It depends how you look at things.

In 1969, the first thing that happened to us children was a telling off. We rolled down the grassy bank in front of Pension Hari not realising that all grass is flesh - or milk - and someone’s livelihood. The cow is almost sacred here, and the sounds of their bells hanging around their necks are mellower than the peal of any church bells. We saw the cows being brought down from the grassy high summer alps, being walked through the village, their heads decorated with flowers, readying for colder weather.

This time some of us got told off for playing in the newly added ball pit. Not me, obvs.

Compared to holidays we had when younger, this holiday has been pretty much the same. Except there are more of us, and everyone is over 18. And it’s so easy. Last time we came en masse, in 2010, some of us - a lot of us - were under 18.  Not me, obvs.

The generations and the newcomers and the longest-serving family members have mixed well. Something new is the hot tub.  This has helped the mixing up. It’s a lovely place to relax after toiling up a mountain. Which reminds me, something that’s the same has been the weather.  Hot and clear blue skies for 2/3 of the time and low cloud and rain for 1/4. And a wonderful thunderstorm makes up the difference. It all goes down in the mountains. Or up - Mars rose red and bold two clear nights in a row to the right of Lohner.

Something that’s changed is that Wildstrubel’s flat top has a thinnner layer of snow on it than we’ve ever seen. This melting fact kept me awake for a long time the other night. But those who walked down beside the waterfall from Entsligenalp took longer than planned because it was so beautiful and they kept stopping to look.

There are amazing tall sunflowers in vases all over the hotel even when the sun is hidden by cloud or the Earth’s rotation. If you buy beer from the supermarket, they let you hire a crate to carry the bottles and refund you 35 cents per bottle when you return them.

The sunflowers weren’t here when we worked here, at the hotel, my brothers and I, one by one in our year between school and university. It’s odd how we can be nostalgic for something we didn’t particularly enjoy - but there was so much on offer in addition to the loneliness and isolation felt on living away from home for the first time. Learning to ski. Learning German (Swiss German). Chocolate. Being paid into a Swiss bank account. Learning how to wrap a boiled egg in greaseproof paper. Dreaming for the first time in a foreign language.

Each morning we’ve had the evening’s dinner menu given to us. When it said ‘Brokkolisuppe’, even those who don’t know German could feel they were getting the hang of things.

The cable cars are equipped with ladders and an escape hatch in their roofs. Is this reassuring, or not?

There are people who aren’t here. Hi to Ben, Becca, Naomi and Hannah.  Wish you were here.

One of the last holidays with Mum and Dad was here in 1987. Mum wanted to come another time. She loved the Swiss Alps - loved the purity of the air, the infinite variety of views of the mountains - glowing red at sunrise or sunset, and the friendship of people who shared her faith: the family Hari who welcomed us here after our parents had helped them out in London in the early 60s. Katie’s not here either: our stepmother joined in with everything in 2010, including speeding down the Rodelbahn above Kandersteg.

The way the Swiss have developed their countryside but have done it in a way that preserves so much of what is enjoyable is admirable, and much appreciated by marmots. The public transport deserves a mention all of its own.

Even as I write this, games are being played: Bananagrams, pool, table tennis - and some of us are going to re-watch the Sound of Music, sing along to ‘Climb Every Mountain’.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

I Thwart An Intruder

I was leaving for work this morning, and a man was trying to get in through the front door. With a key raised to the lock. As I opened the door, there he was, hand in mid-air, key pointing towards me like, well, an assertion of his rights.

My first thought was: Who are you? My second thought was: Who the hell are you?

In my job, I always have to be prepared to thwart. Most of the time, I enable and facilitate, but sometimes it's imperative that I block a route, signpost an alternative way.

"Is this the hotel?" the man, bent on intruding, asked
"No." I answered.

He pointed at the doorbell of my neighbour downstairs. It's just an ordinary doorbell - has nothing of the look of a hotel about it.

"This is the hotel," he stated in the manner of someone who knows he's right.
"This is not a hotel," I retorted, in the manner of someone who knows she's right. 

He was trying to get past me.  I stood like a door in the doorway - flat and tall, spreading myself out to fit the frame.

"It says D. Hall," the man said pointing at the bell. "That's the hotel."
"This is not a hotel. That's my neighbour's bell." I didn't know how to get through to him: he was careering on certainty. 

Then, the penny dropping for me, but not him. I pointed round the corner. "Go that way.  It's the Drapers Hall you're looking for."  I might have added, sarcastically, You're welcome, or, Have a nice day! But I don't multi-task. 

He set off and disappeared around the corner to the hotel which looks nothing like my front door. He hadn't apologised, omitted to offer something like Silly me! or You must think I'm very rude! 

I let the door slam behind me: hurried to work, a full day's worth of thwarting already behind me. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

I Mix A Drink

Back in the extraordinarily hot part of the summer, in Antwerp, just two weeks ago, as things were cranking up to a climax of oven-ready heat, we sat at a cafĂ© table and drank iced tea.  This drink took an immediate place in the top ten of my 'most welcome drinks ever'. It followed a trip to the Swedish Detention Centre (aka IKEA, Wilrijk branch) and a tussle over a double bed, and a table. It followed the discovery that when you rent an apartment in Belgium, the previous occupants will have taken out all the light fittings so that assembling the tussled-over flatpack later in the evening becomes impossible. Not even the EU can protect you from some experiences. 

The iced tea gained extra ranking points as I drank it with my son and his friend, though it still doesn't come quite as high up the rankings as the banana milkshake I drank in the German Dairy in Chiang Mai, N Thailand, in 1987 when the temperature was similarly around 35 degrees, but the humidity was at a level I didn't know existed till then. In that case, I'd been backpacking for four weeks and not encountered any dairy products. That milkshake went straight to my bones.

There's nothing like sitting at a table after something exhausting, like backpacking round Thailand or pushing a trolley around IKEA, and being served a drink. There's the choosing, the short wait which feels like a long wait, and then the arrival of a tray, bright glasses, the drink sharpened by stacked ice and lemon slices, and then the exquisite relief of the first mouthful. 

I recreated that drink by mixing two pints of cooled camomile tea with the juice of two lemons, sugar to taste, ice, lemon slices and sprigs of mint. I took it to work in a flask, and, though it didn't make it into the top ten most welcome drinks ever, I was grateful for it and all its summer associations as I sat at my desk, looking out at the clouding sky, planning the year ahead. 

This evening, I mixed myself a banana milkshake. 

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

I Unfold A Bicycle

Here is my new bicycle. It is folded. Note how compact she is - note how well she tones in with my copy of Findings by Kathleen Jamie.

I like concision: appreciate things which are said in the smallest amount of space, but which unfold to amount to almost everything. Kathleen Jamie's short essays are a bit like my new bike - perfectly designed and rendered, sparse and yet able to take a reader on vast journeys.

You may be wondering why this post isn't called, I Fold A Bicycle. The reason is that I may need the verb 'Fold' to describe my current back problems, and I have a rule (which I break only through ignorance or deliberate fault, never through weakness) and that rule states that I cannot use the same verb more than once in my blog titles. I find it a comfort.

This is my bicycle, unfolded. Note how well she tones in with my favourite possession - a portrait of my youngest son by Gabriel, my eldest son. When I first saw this portrait in an A level art exhibition two years ago, I nearly exploded with joy, reminding me of my feelings at a school concert (I Disgrace You By Exploding). When I look at the painting, which I do often, everything that's important to me unfolds. 

My new bike also tones in quite well with the packet of paracetamol which I am taking to try to ease my back problems. Once my back's sorted, I'll be unfolding the maps, finding new routes out of town.

Blog post dedicated to Helen Lucas, who first showed me the way. 

Thursday, 19 July 2018

I Disgrace You By Exploding

It's three weeks ago now, but the final chords of Busoni's piano arrangement of Bach's Chaconne in D Minor are still ringing in my ears. Maybe it's because of the commitment with which you played; maybe it's something to do with the heat that evening and since then: a heat in which everything expands, rises; something to do with returning to Cosy Hall, Newport, Shropshire, to re-record the first half of the concert ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Here you are, intent at the piano, as I noticed all those years ago in my poem The School Concert.  And we were intent too - your audience. Intent on the music, on your youthful confidence in attempting a huge programme. Beethoven. Brahms. Bach. All the Bs. And as if that wasn't enough of a challenge - three pieces for guitar by Villa Lobos. And Chopin to conclude. You have such style. 

Son, you don't know this, but last night 
at the concert, I disgraced you by exploding.

I try to hold myself in at these events - those occasions when my heart threatens to give out, give up, give over, give in to the pride, terror, passion of watching you play the music. 

It was when you were sat, back straight,
intent at the piano and all my love for you
crescendoed into beats so loud they surely 
drowned out your perfect notes.

Performance is communication, and you communicated power, youth, hope beyond perfection. And in the Brahms Intermezzi, tenderness. And through the Villa Lobos something else - playfulness and intensity. Most of all, you communicated passion for the music and the sheer pleasure in skill resulting from hours and hours of practice. 

I had to shut my eyes at times. It wasn't that I wasn't sure of you. I wasn't sure of myself. 

I shut my eyes, controlled my breathing
as at your birth.  It was as useless 
as it was then, and my life burst out of me
flooded the hall red with all the years 
since our final strain of childbirth.
I wrote the poem after the first school concert - this concert was the last marker of your school days. A flourish before what comes next - holidays, student life, moving on, finding other patterns and rhythms. 

Last night, they applauded you 
as they should've done then, when
open-mouthed, you sang cries to the new world. 

And, oh yes, I have privileges. I got to hear the first half again, when we went to re-record it the following week, having discovered that it hadn't recorded first time. And here it is ...

Live at Cosy Hall
Jonty Lefroy Watt
Click on this link for Jonty's Albums on Bandcamp - £3 to download. CDs also available. 

Thursday, 5 July 2018

I Watch Football

My mother told me once that when I was born, my eldest brother was disappointed to find out he had a sister. With two brothers already, a third would have meant that two-a-side football could have been a feature of childhood. (It's okay - I've had therapy, and my brother is a big fan of my poetry, so no hard feelings.) But if you should hear me, in this World Cup season - by way of fitting in - say that I understand the off-side rule and that I'm an Arsenal supporter, please don't ask me any follow-up questions to which the answer isn't Thierry Henry.

Since being overlooked for the 2018 England Football team, I've been trying to make sense of my footballing career. It started in the back garden, where I filled in as player number 2 for whichever team was going to lose. We wore the grass to muddy patches and I insisted on short hair and trousers, wincing whenever the ball came too close.

Growing up in Highbury, I went once (or maybe twice) to an Arsenal game sporting the red and white striped scarf knitted by my grandmother (I Return To Highbury). This same grandmother took us for Christmas treats to the Arsenal restaurant. Everything about those occasions seemed exotic and red - tomato ketchup, napkins, paper chains, the Arsenal emblems.

I can put a date to one of the most exciting moments of my childhood - 1971 - when Arsenal won the double and we were allowed out of a church service, dressed in choir robes, to cheer the successful team parading their trophies from the top of a double decker bus travelling down Highbury Grove. Even God recognised the need to acknowledge such a miracle.

Whenever there was a big game we were invited to Auntie Margaret's flat to watch it. I loved these occasions for the comforting sight of moving pictures; and the tea and Jaffa Cakes. Whenever Arsenal or England lost, though, I thought that maybe if I hadn't been watching, the result would've been different.

Despite all this experience, I realised early on that I would never be able to rely on football for an income, so I trained to be a teacher as a back up plan, and kept secret my plan to be a poet. There are some parallels between classroom management and captaining a football team, and some parallels between football and poetry, but not many.

On Tuesday, my eldest son and I watched England's precarious win over Columbia to reach the World Cup quarter finals. The crowd's reaction to the see-sawing of the teams' fortunes was not that different from the reaction of the crowd at the game I went to last year at Marine AFC in Liverpool. In minor league football the same passionate response was evident in the chanting, shouting, cussing, roaring song, and criticism of the referee's decisions. Everyone in the crowd seemed to enjoy having an expert opinion, based, no doubt, on years of footballing experience. But despite the similarities, I found Tuesday's game uncomfortable to watch: the behaviour on the pitch ill-mannered, uninspiring and tense with unwarranted aggression. Many of the players had a disdain for the referee which overshadowed and diminished the rare flashes of talent and inspiration.

If I'd been on the pitch for the England v Columbia game - say if I'd been picked as captain after a long career - I would've have tried to get my team mates and the opposition to simmer down. "It's just a game," I would've explained. Once I'd got their attention with this surprising news, I would've followed this with something about how it's the joining in that matters, and that both teams would achieve more football through co-operation and respect for the referee's decisions, even if they would have made different ones in his position.

I think that might have made all the difference.