Wednesday, 31 December 2014

I Burn The Old Year

This afternoon, we wielded axes. We pulled down dead tress.  We chopped up wood. We built a bonfire.  We struck matches.  We lit paper.  We waited for the fire to take.  We stood back from the flames.  We warmed our hands.  We watched sparks fly up.

I imagined the sparks as all the plentiful, beautiful life-giving moments of my year of 2014.  They shone bright as love through the smoke.

I thought of the smoke as the happenings of my 2014 which have fogged my happiness.
As dusk fell, the smoke faded to invisible, disappearing into the darkness of this year's last twilight as the sparks flew up higher: up and up, shining bright and brighter.

Monday, 29 December 2014

I Hire A Bicycle

The topic of scars came  up over Boxing Day breakfast.  M and I compared notes whilst other stories were occurring elsewhere around the table. I was delighted to find something else in common with her: we both have scars on our knees from childhood cycling accidents involving gravel.  Come to think of it, I can't remember a cycling accident I've had  that didn't involve gravel.

I've had my current bicycle for 25 years.  It's the one I inherited from my mother and I am very fond of it both for the sense of connection I feel to her and because it's a good bike. It has an aluminium frame and five gears, which I've always found to be plenty.  I don't ride it often as I keep it in the garden shed and bringing it out to the road through the house takes time, involves tricky manoeuvres and, usually, tyre marks on the walls.

One of my ambitions for my stay in London this Christmas has been to hire a Boris Bike. These can be hired from a 'docking station', used and then deposited at any of the other docking stations around central London.   The emphasis on short journeys is reflected in the costs: after the initial registration fee (£2 for 24 hours) it's free for the first 30 minutes, then costs £1 for up to an hour, £4 for up to 1 hour 30 minutes, etc.  

A desire to own one of each of things we only need to use occasionally - lawn mowers, salmon kettles, carpet cleaners, fitness machines - seems odd to me.  Shared ownership of some things makes sense, even if each of the bikes in the Transport for London scheme has to advertise a bank for the initiative to be workable.

Usually with my ambitions, the hardest part is putting on my shoes.  Yesterday, my natural inertia was overridden by the enthusiasm of the company I'm keeping.  After that it was just a case of following the lead of my longest-serving friend Helen as she wove our strand of cyclists through the warp of London streets, and then through Battersea Park, towards an excellent lunch. 

Later, we hired bikes again to cycle along the Thames embankment from Chelsea to Somerset House to see the Egon Schiele exhibition.  It was a bright afternoon: the sun confident, already seeming to have recovered from its midwinter low, the London air perfectly dry and cold, the streets, relatively  uncluttered for this post-Christmas-excess exercise, still sparkly with tiny lights.  My bike felt sturdy,  unphased by the occasional flashes of lycra passing us by.  Speed is not what a Boris Bike is about.

We reached Somerset House nine minutes before we were due.  I can't remember a journey through London I've enjoyed more.  

Sunday, 21 December 2014

I Replace A Washer

There have been problems with the washer I replaced back in February.  I think this is because the washer I used wasn't the exact size of the washer space in the tap.  I revisited my repair a couple of months ago, and recently the tap has been dripping again.

When I named this blog after my first washer buying experience, I was unwittingly linking my sense of self to the functioning of a bathroom tap. Each day of dripping has felt like a small erosion.

Yesterday, I bought three new washers of varying sizes. I enjoyed the way I could choose them from a selection, and take them away in a small white paper bag.  It reminded me of pleasure I used to feel at buying a quarter of spearmint pips or peanut brittle. 

Today, I located a spare hour and the right spanners, turned off the water at the mains, unscrewed the tap and tried out the washers.  The first one was too small, the second too tight; the third seemed just right.

It has worked, for the moment, this Three Bears approach to plumbing.  And it seems important to tell you about it.  

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

I Celebrate My Birthday

My birthday was yesterday, but I have been celebrating it since June.  This is because this is the year in which both I and my longest-serving friend Helen turned fifty and we decided to do one thing per month to celebrate from our forty-nine-and-a-half birthdays until our fifty-and-a-half birthdays.

The problem with winter birthdays is that they aren't very good for camping.  And the problem with celebrating a birthday just on one day is that there's a 5/7 chance of being at work.  So in order to do the things we've wanted to do to mark our 100 years, we've had to take control.

In June we went camping on the Lleyn Peninsula; in July, we went to see Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre; in August, we drank red wine simultaneously; in September, we spent a weekend at Helen's parents' home in Somerset; in October, we re-read Anne Michaels' novel Fugitive Pieces; in November we met up in Shrewsbury at Theatre Severn; later in December, we will be spending half of Christmas together.

I've managed to squeeze in other celebrations, like my favourite ever birthday party.  This involved poetry, good food and wine, and a variety of amazing people from most parts of my life, including a few I'd never met before, but have now.  And yesterday, a class of my students brought in food to share after the morning lecture.  There were a lot of crisps.  I like crisps.

Yesterday evening, at the restaurant, my youngest son announced, 'This could be the worst wrapped present ever,' as he pulled the still warm and slightly creased slow movement of his first piano sonata from under his blue shirt.  And then my eldest son produced a card he'd drawn, 'The background's after Rothko,' he said, 'and there's an L on it because L is the Roman Numeral for 50, so because your initials are LL, fifty is your perfect age'.  The moment I saw the music, the moment I thought about the L, I felt as if every planet in the solar system was aligned.  I never realised before that the music of the spheres is the tune of  'Happy Birthday To You'.

It's been a wonderful thing, this uber-celebration.  And the great thing is, there are still five months of it to go.

Friday, 14 November 2014

I Steady My Nerves

It feels liked a dream - I've wanted to be a poet since I was eight, and on Monday I read my poems to an audience of approximately 450, and to Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, with whom I shared the stage at Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury.

I'm not quite sure how I managed it, both the being asked to read by Anna Dreda, who is Wenlock Books and Wenlock Poetry Festival, and the standing on the stage in the spotlight.

I didn't have an ambition to read with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke - that's because it didn't enter my head that it would be a possibility.  And I have never been to a show at Theatre Severn and thought, "I'd love to read my poems from that stage."  It wasn't a case of, as Abraham Lincoln put it: "I will prepare and some day my chance will come."  (We all know what happened to him in a theatre.)

I suppose the advantage of that is that the whole experience, from Anna suggesting it to the final echo of applause, was, for me, what Raymond Carver describes as Gravy.  Do you know Carver's poem Gravy?

Realising my luck, I wanted to honour the trust that had been put in me.  I wanted my sons, who were listening to me read for the first time, not to be embarrassed by me.  I thought hard about which poems to read.  I tried combinations out loud.  I asked my sons if it was okay to read poems in which they feature.

When I'd decided, I printed them in font 16 so I wouldn't need to negotiate my glasses (which I usually leave on the top of my head).  I glued the pages into a book, wrote notes for myself.

At about 4pm on the day, my inner child wanted to tear up all these ideas and start again.  I felt a sense of despair.  My poems bored me. I felt the need to write new ones.  "Who do you think you are?" asked my inner critical parent.

Fortunately, my inner adult has quite a loud voice, and she told me that I needed to stick with my decisions and get into my frock.  And my inner, nurturing parent said, "It'll be fine."

My younger son said, "I'll make you a cup of tea."

My eldest son said, "You look great, mum."  "How should I have my hair?" I asked his girlfriend, "up or down?"  "I like it down," she said.  "You look like a poet with it down."

Later, backstage, I listened to the growing murmur of voices in the auditorium as it neared 7pm.  The quality of sound piped into the green room was one of anticipation of pleasure - like a flock eager to be fed, but not ravenous.  They'd already had a chance to enjoy a wonderful variety of poetry being read in the foyer - it sounded like an audience that had been warmed.  The mood in the green room was relaxed, positive, encouraging.  I drank half a glass of white wine.

I won't describe the reading.  If you were there, you had your own responses.  You were part of an audience which radiated attention.  The mood on stage was one of mutual respect and support.  Throughout, I felt as if I was amongst an extended family of friends and relations who were saying, "Go on.  Go on, then.  Do your thing."

Saturday, 1 November 2014

I Run A Temperature

I like idioms.  I haven't quite figured out why, but to me, they make complete sense as culturally acquired language.  They can be smooth and seamless, they can cause a stir  - they include metaphor, simile and cliche, often without owning up to any of these.

One idiom I've been running this week is a temperature.  Or the temperature has been running me, more like.  It's okay, I'm getting better, and it was sporadic and never very high, but it's stopped me in my tracks.  Or rather in my bed, my own bed, which I've had to make.

I've had to abandon all sorts of plans.  Two poetry readings.  My longest-serving friend's 50th birthday.  Most of some animation workshops I'd been looking forward to.  It's not been a big deal in comparison with what many people have to put up with, and amazing friends have brought me soup, made me tea, offered me chewing gum, cut me some slack, and have generally bailed me out and stood in for me: Anna, Nadia, Barry, Lucy, Cathy, Ian, Helen, David, Iolo, Kathy, Hilda ...  but I'll be glad to get back into the swing of things.

As I'm not contagious, however, I've ploughed on regardless a couple of times: to the graduation of a year's worth of social work students yesterday, for example.  I wanted to be there by hook or crook.  It's irreplaceable, that moment of witness, so I'd have been feeling even more out of sorts if I'd missed it.

I know the drill of graduation.  Its medieval pretensions, its echoes of Hogwarts - in many ways it's not my cup of tea and I worried about causing a scene by fainting -  but despite feeling washed up, by the end of the ceremony I was over the moon.

It'll take me a while to get back up to speed, but in the meantime, I am glad, that amidst the physical discomfort and psychological uncertainty that illness brings, I pushed my luck, and saw the Class of 2014 on their way out to take the world by storm.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

I Unpick A Seam

When I walked into the sewing class with my son, the air molecules shifted.  It's strange how the reaction of a group can be felt as a frisson, a gasp, of atmospheric pressure.  Eighteen women recollected themselves, smiled, accommodated to the idea of sharing cutting tables, machines and space with a good-looking young man.  I stood up straighter.

My project for our six weeks of dressmaking classes is to make two pairs of pyjama bottoms; my son's is to make as many t-shirts as he can from a 4 metre stretch of wide black cotton jersey.

Having cut out my fabric, I predicted that I would complete the first pair of pyjama bottoms within the two hour session. I offered my son advice about cutting out. He, meanwhile, was unpicking the sleeves from an old t-shirt to use as a template.

When my mother taught me to sew, she showed me how to undo a machined seam by cutting through the tiny ladder of tight stitches using a Wilkinson Sword razor blade. Handling the blade felt dangerous - an adult secret.

One-and-a-half hours into yesterday evening's session I held up my work.  It looked like nothing; or rather it looked like a large replica of a diseased heart - a slack set of pouches with small tubes  protruding.  It looked like nothing you'd want to wear in bed, under any circumstances.

With my crumpled work in my lap, I watched my son as he draped black jersey over a mannequin and threaded a needle with cotton.  He looked confident, happy, fluent.

"Can I borrow your unpicker?" I asked him.  He chucked it over, smiling.  These days, I use a purpose-made hook with a sharpened edge to cut through my mistakes.

"Thought you were being a bit optimistic," he said, drawing long white stitches up the side seams of his new design.  Then, "You can't use pins in conjunction with an over-locker, so I'm doing tailor tacks."

"Ah," I said.  "What about the neckline?  It looks a bit ..."

He turned to me, grinned.  "It's in the Brutalist style," he said.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

I Make A List

Picture Frame
Badminton Court
Post Office

Sunday, 12 October 2014

I Mourn My Mother

Some poems I wrote for my mother - they are all quite old now.  She died 25 years ago today.  I loved her deeply and am grateful for all she was.

In duty, without complaint, rise early,
take dawn’s sheen to the day.
Dust particularly what is unseen,
sweep up any flakes of ingratitude,
stitch loose threads into purpose, and
cleanse from your mouth the unspeakable;
do this quickly, before is added
tarnish to steadfastness, loyalty.
Unwrap, slowly, the gift of evening,
soothing the uneasy earth with music,
surrender yourself to laughter,
catch the sparkle of late-night exchange,
dream of the eternal and possible.
Live full, not fast.

The days do not admit your face,
your image somehow fading in the light.
Yes, there are the photographs,
the chair on which I drop my clothes.
Sometimes there is even a look of you
in my son’s dimples, when I put up my hair;
but there is also the end-to-end claim
of the present, the squeeze of the young.

So yours is the half-wakeful space,
the small-houred time where,
dreamful, I drift amongst
fragments of your story:
I strive to place them, piece them,
fit them together.

It is fitting, this blazed-red end,
this final heave of summer heat
sustained into your fraction of a season.
The earth is giving you all the glory
of the autumns you are owed,
saving its most till your last.

It is the trees which know best,
gold-framing the bedroom window
where you lie, opening an eye
to greet them; these trees which have
marked your life in so many quarters:
bare, green, broad and shedding.

Now, most innocent you,
fetched up high on the drugs
we have fed you,  remark,
wistfully, on the teddy bears
ambling, picnicking in the branches;
untethered now, you join them.

If I opened this tin,
if I opened this tin again,
this tin, which was yours and is mine;
if I were to grasp, twist, slide, lift,
reveal the ribbons, clasps and bands
which held your lovely, lively hair;

if I, reckless and wanting,
were to open this tin again,
I would breathe in the last fragrance,
residue of the smell of you,
captured, kept, for a time, in this tin
which was yours and is mine.

Sally Lefroy - 1937-1989

Saturday, 11 October 2014

I Pay To Be Waxed

I dreamed last night that I am going to die soon - in the next few weeks if the people I assumed to be experts were to be believed.  The strange thing was that I felt perfectly well.  I was pretty upset about the prognosis because I love being alive and, amongst other things, I have a party to look forward to.

It was a relief to wake up.  I checked my body for signs of imminent demise.  None.  I mean, there are many imperfections, but most of them aren't, as far as I'm aware, fatal.

In the past, the things I don't like about my body have stopped me from living fully.  I remember being 17 in a heatwave in Sweden and refusing, despite my Swedish friends' incredulous protestations (it was Sweden for goodness sake!) to wear shorts.  I spent two wonderful weeks of blue skies, islands and boating trapped in dungarees in a strange closed-circle of self-consciousness.

Since then, I've learnt to look at my body square-on, to experience it for what it is.  It's been a sort of existentialist awakening - taking on board what Sartre calls le vĂ©cu,which is something to do with the validity of lived experience as a form of knowledge.

So, on waking this morning to find that I am (as far as I know)  perfectly healthy, I thought about whether to keep my appointment at the salon.  Reason argued that subjecting myself to pain in an effort to reach a constructed ideal of female beauty would be a trivial way to spend half an hour of the time that remains to me.  Experience has taught me that acting on the knowledge I have about what gives me the confidence to take my clothes off leads to a freedom to engage with life more fully.

I may go for a swim later.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

I Consider My Height

I am five foot ten.  And maybe a half.  I can't be sure because I haven't measured myself for years (I've been too busy measuring envelopes) but I seem to be about the same as I was when I last looked.

My above-average-for-a-woman height seems to be, judging by the comments I get, the first thing people notice about me.  That's if I'm standing when I meet them.  If I'm sitting, and then stand up (because I was brought up to do that) it might be the third or fourth thing. 

My sons are both taller than me and now in serious competition for tallest place.  They delight in patting, and then resting their chins on the top of my head.  Friends or strangers feel free to remark on their heights. What is a bit different, however, is that above-average-height-for-a-boy seems to be regarded as an achievement.

I've found that it is useful to be a tall woman for some things.  Examples are: the Goal Keeper / Shooter positions in netball, getting things off high shelves for people who are afraid of tall men, and wearing extra long skirts that have been reduced in the Monsoon sale.

But it can be a social disadvantage to be a tall woman.  Consider the market for websites devoted to the phenomenon of 'tally-smally' celebrity couples: a couple in which the woman is taller than the man is regarded as somehow 'freakish'. 

I find I am attracted to people because of the depth of their souls and the warmth of their hearts.  Sometimes they are taller than me, sometimes shorter.

I wish, as with all defining characteristics, my height could be seen solely for what it is: a genetically determined fact about which I can do nothing.  Though on reflection, I'm not completely powerless .... I could buy some high heels and break the six foot barrier, and a few toes into the bargain.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

I Misplace An Apostrophe

Yesterday I misplaced my car for 40 minutes and was awarded a parking ticket.

I decided straightaway not to be annoyed with  myself.  I remember all too clearly my mother standing weeping in the gloom of an upper level of a multistory car park at Heathrow Airport having received a parking fine.  Money was very tight, and the £10 was needed for many other purposes.  So whilst I could have thought of approximately 1,000 better ways to spend £35, I decided to think of saving £35 instead.  I even considered, as a longer-term strategy, adding a category to my monthly budgets for 'Fines Resulting From Breaches Of The Rules'.  If it goes unspent, I could use it for books, or shoes, or earrings, or a bottle of mellow red, or towards motorcycle training.

Today, however, I misplaced an apostrophe in an email sent to over 100 people.  I'm finding it hard to reconcile myself to this mistake exposing, as it does, the hypocrisy of my intolerance of punctuation errors in my students' work.  My reputation for this stance is such that one of my tutees recently sent me message which read: Saw this and thought of you. It included a picture of this quotation:  "I don't judge people on race, creed, colour or gender.  I judge people based on spelling, grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure".

I've marked my student's work for three years now and, in addition to discussing many ethical issues, we've enjoyed friendly banter about the use of pronouns, semicolons and hyphens.  Of course, every time he's questioned my judgement he's been wrong.   He is about to graduate - I'm delighted about this.  It's entirely his achievement (he is uncommonly good at using apostrophes) but the satisfaction of seeing a student start and then complete a degree is considerable.

I'm sure the pleasure that this student feels in his success will be increased by his enjoyment of my latest mistake.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

I Count My Lip Salves

To make tidying up more interesting this evening, I decided to count my lip salves. I didn't set out with the intention of counting anything, but after I'd tidied my bathroom shelves, it seemed the obvious thing to do.  This is because I found two tins of Vaseline lip salve, a Nivea stick and a chocolate-mint flavoured stick.  I also found a little tube of intensive lip care cream which I cannot recall buying.

After this, I wanted to assess the extent of my lip salve purchase / storage situation.

I was brought up to count my blessings, and whilst this is a commendable thing to do, it has never really cheered me up.  Once I'd decided to count my lip salves, each one I found brought me the satisfaction of rediscovery.

Emptying my coat pockets, I found a tube of strawberry scented lip gloss.  I put some on immediately.  In the pockets of my leather jacket, I found another tin of Vaseline.  It must have been 3 for 2 on Vaseline sometime last winter.

I suppose the problem with counting blessings is that it's often been other people who have told me what my blessings are, whereas really, it's a matter I need to decide for myself.

Tidying out my bags isn't usually a feature of my cleaning routine, but the bottom of my work bag proved a productive place.   I found a tin of Nivea raspberry flavoured lip cream (possibly my favourite), the stick of real beeswax balm which was a present from the USA (the most effective in my collection),  and a tub of Body Shop pineapple flavour.  Its companion (2 for £5) honey flavour, is in my drawer at work.  When I bought them, I intended to give one of them away, but it's obviously far too late for that.

Monday, 15 September 2014

I Measure An Envelope

Once upon a time, I stuck stamps on envelopes with carefree abandon.  Although I can be verbose, my letters are lightweight, always coming in at under 60 grams; this used, if I remember rightly, to be the maximum weight in the first tier of postage costs. 

Last night, I wrote a postcard to a friend.  It's a large postcard which I bought at the Poets Laureate exhibition at Holyrood Palace: Stephen Raw's calligraphic interpretation of a Carol Ann Duffy poem.  I won't say which poem, as that might spoil the surprise.  I put the card in an A5 envelope to protect it on its journey.

I love receiving letters: I love guessing who the correspondent is from the way in which my name is written; the intimacy and anticipation of sliding my finger along the flap; unfolding the paper; interpreting the character that handwriting lends to expression.

These days, I rarely risk posting something with an enclosure, or something of a non-standard size, without having it checked.  The ritual to which letters and packages are subject at post offices has an element of the absurd and, despite the intention of standardisation, the random.  It involves jabbing them at a plastic sheet, into which slots of increasing size are cut, until they pass through to the other side. 

Postmistresses and masters can vary in their approach to the fake letterbox ritual - some being cautious and distant, looking for a packet's easy and rulebook clearance, and others trying to squeeze a packet through the narrowest possible slot, whilst giving me a conspiratorial nod and wink.

Today, I have found myself in charge of the postcard's destiny having discovered a book of six first class stamps in my purse.  On the back of the book it tells me that these stamps are valid for an item up to 240 x 165 x 5 mm in size.  Fortunately, I also have a ruler to hand.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

I Put Up A Shelf

I've always been intrigued by shelves which appear to stick to the wall with no visible means of support.  I was rather hoping that they are fixed up using sellotape, or possibly blu tack, or a mixture of the two.  But no.

Earlier this week, thinking I might improve my life by having somewhere other than the floor to put my book / alarm clock / glass of water at night, I bought a 'floating shelf' from Argos.  It was suspiciously cheap.

My foray into plumbing taught me that when carrying out practical tasks, it's a good idea to follow a process and not to rely on instinct.  So tonight, when I decided to put up the shelf, I read the instructions, checked the pack contained the right number of screws, and assembled a spirit level, drill, screw driver and pencil.

An hour later, I stood back to look at my new and sagging shelf. It had no visible means of support.  I considered possible remedies, including blu tacking my book, alarm clock and glass to it to subvert gravity.  

Tomorrow, I'm off to the hardware shop to buy a better class of rawl plug, and maybe to ask a burly man for some advice.  

Sunday, 7 September 2014

I Choose Ten Books

It's funny how we are rarely asked to choose twelve of something, or fourteen, or even sixteen,  We are thoroughly decimal in the way we ask questions about our influences.

I've been asked twice recently about which ten books have most influenced me.  My first answer was a list.  I've been more expansive this time.

Some books inspire me to write.  An example of this is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which I was reading when I wrote my sequence of poems, 'The Gathering'.  The priest in Gilead, the narrator, reminds me of my father, a priest, even though I've never had the insight into his mind which Robinson's novel gave me.

There are books which have filled me with longing for a different life. Growing up in London, The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder made me want to be part of a pioneering family, travelling in a covered wagon with a father who built houses in woods, on prairies, by lakes, and protected his family from bears; with a mother who would boil up precious maple syrup tapped from trees in the forest, and then show her children how to make candy patterns with it in the snow, before they ate it - a rare, sweet treat.

There was the Reader's Digest book - Scenic Wonders of Australia -  given to me for a birthday (10th?).  I still haven't been there, but in my mind I see the pictures: the red rock, the scale, the aridity, the muscular kangaroos (nothing like Kanga), the expanse of salt lakes in the west, where apparently I have lots of sheep farming cousins.

There are books which have made me laugh, and which date me beyond the understanding of my sons - The Young Visiters - Daisy Ashford, 1066 and All That - Sellar and Yeatman.

There is Quarantine, by Jim Crace, which made me start to think that a man he calls Jesus was a man, and that, whoever this man was, to be a man: a pissing, sweating, starving, hallucinating man in the Judean desert is a more glorious and incredible thing than to be a demi-god, a god, a goddess.

There are books in which every word is placed like a finger on my spine, on my mind, on my breast - books which are utterly beautiful psychologically, emotionally, physically, like Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels, and (I think, but it may be too soon to say) On Poetry, by Glyn Maxwell.

There are books which are clear as cool water like Tove Jansson's The Summer Book.

There are books about the agonies and resolutions of love - A Grief Observed - CS Lewis, Birthday Letters - Ted Hughes, Elegies - Douglas Dunn, Mansfield Park - Jane Austen, Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy, Middlemarch, George Eliot ... and Brahms' Intermezzi played by Glenn Gould.  Is this also a book?  I think it might be.

I Skin Eleven Peaches

It's rare to find good peaches in the UK, so when I saw some yesterday - large, ripe, plump and mellow - I had to buy them.  I was looking for inspiration for a pudding for a friend's leaving do, and then, there they were, sitting on a supermarket shelf, all soft and peachy, demanding my attention.

I bought twelve.

Whenever I buy peaches, I think of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Frog and Peach sketch, and of TS Eliot's  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Baked peaches are best skinned, so I put the first six peaches in a bowl and poured boiling water over them.  Not much happened, and then I remembered that to skin a peach, it's necessary to score a line around its circumference.

I must have listened to the Frog and Peach sketch two dozen times and it still makes me laugh.  It's not the jokes - there are some.  It's the absurd audacity of Peter Cook's character and his lament over his catastrophic restaurant, which serves only two dishes (Frog a la Peche and Peche a la Frog), that I love.

As I was preparing the second batch of six peaches for skinning, I decided to keep one back.  Having remembered the scoring technique, the skins slipped easily off the remaining five.  I halved and stoned the eleven peaches, arranged them in a dish, sprinkled them with cinnamon, a little sugar, and a lot of sherry.

Whilst they cooked (forty minutes at 180 degrees C, if you need to know) I  thought of Prufrock's self-conscious wondering about whether to attempt to hide his bald patch / wear white flannel trousers / eat a peach.

I ate the twelfth peach over the sink, juice running down my chin, onto my blouse.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

I Shake Crumbs From My Keyboard

Today, I picked up my computer keyboard, turned it over, and shook.  Out fell the crumbs of lunches long forgotten, and other unidentifiable crud.  Apparently, computer keyboards can harbour more bacteria than toilet seats.

Shaking out my keyboard only occurs when I have either got stuck on a particularly difficult task, or when I am feeling intense existential angst and seek the fulfillment which comes from cleaning something.

When I'd swept up the debris, and turned the keyboard back over, it didn't look any cleaner.  

Other things I do in acts of random cleaning include washing the seals around the inside of the dishwasher and dusting the floor underneath the piano.  

There's nothing like task avoidance for getting a fairly pointless job done.

I use various implements for deeper keyboard cleaning.  I've never had the recommended can of compressed air to hand, so I improvise using pencils, uncoiled paper clips and the corners of folded paper to lever out the fluff which collects between keys.  Each little furry clump that I extract represents a moment of satisfaction.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

I Read A Slim Pamphlet

I read a new pamphlet of poetry earlier today.  It's called Mending The Ordinary and it says on the cover that it's by me and published by Fair Acre Press.  I was a bit surprised to see my name on it because it's a collaboration, and the work is full of other people's ideas.

I have, for example, taken some of the poems to workshops where poets have commented on them and offered useful suggestions, often about leaving words out. One of the things I like about the pamphlet is its white space - I'm grateful to everyone who helped me to increase and shape this.

Many of the poems are inspired by people I love.  Other readers may sense their love for their children or their mothers or their friends appearing in the poems in some way. The poems owe themselves to those things which can only occur in the context relationships.

And I'm aware of the way in which the poems are ordered and how much I like the trajectory as it is, and how the rightness of the order took me by surprise again this time round.  They don't appear in the order in which I set them out originally: this order is so much better.  Nadia Kingsley, who designed, edited and published the pamphlet, worked out how the poems could sit together and showed me what she meant.  As we discussed it, I saw that what she was suggesting was completely and obviously right.   It's a particular gift of hers, this pairing and linking of poems, this being able to visualise how they'll look when the pages are opened and turned,  how they'll speak to each other across the fold.

It's a privilege to be read.  It's a privilege to have my work taken seriously, examined, shaped and then given back to me like this.  My name is on the cover, but this pamphlet is not a solo act.

Mending The Ordinary is published by Fair Acre Press at  £4.99.  It's also available at Wenlock Books.

Monday, 18 August 2014

I Collaborate With Alex Ramsay

I wrote five poems last week.  And they're keepers.  They will probably develop, become more streamlined and robust, but each has its core, which will remain.  They are five of twelve written for a collaboration.

This unusual proliferation is due to an invitation from Alex Ramsay in the spring to write poems in response to photographs for his exhibition, Os.  It is also something to do with having a deadline, with a sense of commitment to Alex's work - which I've always loved - and a desire to rise to the occasion.

I recently asked a poet whether he ever collaborates.  'Only with myself', he said, twinkling.

Collaboration involves conversation both with the work and the artist.  It demands intimacy, trust and vulnerability.  For me, it feels a bit like getting my kit off in broad daylight.  And I'm nearly fifty.

The conversations Alex and I have had have been about his philosophy of photography, about font size, about how elephants eat, about wine, about resurrection.  We've discussed the many meanings of the Latin word Os (bone, mouth, mask ....) before it declines into oris, or ossis.

In terms of process, I've been carrying around copies of Alex's photos in my bag for weeks - getting them out to look at whenever I can.  Making notes.  Writing, discarding.  Staring out of windows.  Looking again.  Writing, discarding.  Waiting for an authentic response.

Responding to Alex's work in poetry has been a privilege, and brought a satisfaction which collaborating with myself doesn't.  Ars gratia artis.

 Event 15 of the Presteigne Festival is at the Workhouse Gallery on Monday August 25th at 11.00am 
Liz Lefroy will be reading from her latest work Mending the Ordinary while Alex Ramsay will give an outline of the thinking behind the exhibition Os - tickets £6.00 from the Festival box office ( or 01544 267800)

Monday, 4 August 2014

I Eat Jammie Dodgers

I am wondering whether I will eat another jammie dodger.  I've eaten three so far and just poured myself a gin and tonic.

As a child, I was allowed two biscuits a day after school, with a cup of tea.  Mum would buy malted milk and ginger nuts in turn.  We called malted milk 'cow biscuits' and I used to eat the patterned edge first, leaving the cows grazing in the middle till the end. If the ginger nuts ended up in the tin at the same time as the malted milks, everything tasted of ginger.

When I went through my chubby stage, Mum substituted a satsuma or an apple for the biscuits.  It felt like a sacrifice but I'm not sure it made any difference.

A woman from church, Auntie Margaret, bought jaffa cakes whenever she invited us for tea.  The meal she served was always the same: veal and ham pie, tinned potatoes, tinned carrots, jelly made with evaporated milk - then the jaffa cakes.  Once, the tea turned out to be her birthday tea, and I asked her if she was 21.  It took years for me to realise why she laughed and seemed so pleased.

There was a quiet story that went around that Auntie Margaret's fiance was killed in the second world war. I think that's why my brothers and I were often lent to her for trips out.  It was a good idea in theory, but no one ever asked us if we wanted to go.

There are eight jammie dodgers in a packet, and I've never been taught any specific rules about gin.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

I Respond To A Tagging

There is a phase on Facebook at the moment for focusing on positives.  The routine is to post three positives in your status and tag three people to do the same for five days.  This is my response.  As usual, I'm messing with the rules and listing fifteen things all in one go.

1.   I know how to change a washer, thanks to Justin's patient instruction.  
2.   I sport temporary tattoos on a regular basis, thanks to Barry's thoughtful present
3.   I can smell lilies, thanks to Natalie
4.   My back is feeling fine, thanks to physio advice from Penny
5.   I am looking forward to a big poetry reading in November thanks to Charlotte buying me that ticket for a Carol Ann Duffy / Gillian Clarke reading three years ago, and because of Anna's belief in me
6.   I ate lunch out with my beautiful son Jonty yesterday, thanks to having my full time contract extended as a result of Wulf's hard work
7.   I smiled when I got home the other day despite feeling awful, thanks to Kathy sending me a glorious poem and Lucy's hilarious and truthful postcard
8.   I have precious memories of talking with poet David Whyte, thanks to Will inviting me over for supper
9.   I will be icing gingerbread later, thanks to my mum teaching me how to bake
10. I laugh often and like a drain, thanks to the wit of my sparkling son Gabriel
11. I am waiting for my next pamphlet to arrive from the printers, thanks to Nadia's willingness to take on my work, Kev helping me to proof read, and Jeremy's kindness
12. I am spending today typing up new poems, thanks to Alex asking me to collaborate on his exhibition of photographs
13. I am getting a bit better at badminton, thanks to Jonathan showing me how to serve
14. I call myself a poet without shame, thanks to Ted, Jim, Deb, Philip, Joyce, Sue, Peter, Paul, Ryan and Peter, and all the other people who've encouraged me to listen to my own voice and to speak so I can be heard
15. I feel secure in the midst of change, thanks to the constant utter pleasure of knowing my longest-serving friend Helen for forty years

We are all connected.  I see others' homes, lives and families being blown apart and I weep.  

I think of my own life and the people in it, and I know that life is made full of wonder through love.

Monday, 21 July 2014

I Witness A Power Struggle

Go on, threaten your two-year-old child who is frightened of having his hair cut. 

Go on, offer him an ice cream as a reward if he sits in the barber's chair, then threaten lack of ice cream as a punishment when he refuses.

Go on, say you'll take him home and put him to bed at 4pm because he's been disobedient. 

Go on, raise your voice.  Up the ante.  Smack him.  Reduce him to tears.

Tell him if he doesn't have his hair cut he'll grow bunches tied in pink ribbon.

Tell him he'll look like a girl.

Feel better?  
Saved face?
Proved something?

After all, you're so much bigger than him.

Friday, 18 July 2014

I Publicise An Event

I am very proud of my cousin, Helena Attlee, author of The Land Where Lemons Grow.   She's my second cousin, which means that her grandfather and my grandmother were brother and sister.

I loved my granny.  She sat in the corner of my childhood sitting room, smoked Woodbines, read Jane Austen (which she pronounced 'Orstin') and knitted extraordinarily complicated Fairisle jumpers, doing these three things simultaneously. Smoking was banned in the 80s in our house, but I still relish the smell of cigarette smoke in wool, and the clickety click of knitting needles.

The first time I became properly aware of Helena was when she gave me my first rabbit, Percy.  He was brought up from Kent in a red travelling cage.  Although he didn't smell of smoke or wool, I loved Percy too, and he went on to father 21 baby rabbits with Peter, my brother David's rabbit.  This proliferation was due to the happy inability of the vet to tell that Peter was, in fact, Peta.

I learnt through tending my rabbits that love can grow to fit the number of rabbits you are blessed with, and that each death is an enduring sorrow.

Helena will be leading a creative writing workshop inspired by the gardens of Aberglasney on Saturday 26 July 2014.  You should go if you can.  

I can't remember why Helena gave me Percy,  but if you go along to this workshop, you'll spend the day exploring the different atmospheres of Aberglasney's unique gardens with Helena and creative writing tutor Emma Beynon.  It'll be quirky and imaginative, and they'll use extracts from Aberglasney's rich literary heritage to inspire writing and develop your understanding of the garden.

I expect your creative ideas will breed uncontrollably.

Here are the details:

The workshop runs from 10.30 – 5.00 pm costs £60, to include tea and coffee, but please bring a packed lunch.
For further details and to book a place go to: 
Or contact Helena:  01544 260592 or Emma: 07722 170 782

Twitter: @WriteOpenGround

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

I Walk Like A Penguin

Sometime yesterday my back became painful.  It didn't happen in a moment - I didn't get the feeling I've sometimes had in the past of sudden slippage whilst lifting something awkward, or bending to wash my face at a basin - that 'Oh no!'-crunch-twang moment.  I realised something was wrong when I started walking like a penguin.

Walking like a penguin involves a bit of a shuffle, a waddle from side to side, and small steps.  My feet don't lift far off the ground; so there is little speed.  There is no dignity.

When my son was in year 5, we went to see 'March of the Penguins' for his birthday treat.  Some of his friends giggled and wriggled in their seats throughout.  I was mesmerised.

There's something about an emperor penguin's extraordinary struggle for survival which demands respect; something about the way the males and females take turns to incubate their one egg per couple per year to give themselves a chance of procreation; something about the cooperation of the group as they shuffle around, eggs balanced on feet, seeking to share warmth through an impossible Antarctic winter.

And there is something so comically vulnerable about a penguin negotiating the ice on foot.  In the sea, they cut through the water like swift black arrows.  On land, they waddle like middle aged women with back problems.

Monday, 14 July 2014

I Feature In A Dream

As I was waiting to order a coffee at the work cafeteria this afternoon, Sarah came up to join the queue and told me she'd dreamed about me last night.

It was a good opener, because, whilst I have always liked her, our conversations have usually been in passing, and I would never have expected to play a part in her subconscious life.  Apparently, I'd cooked a casserole and taken it round to her house, because I knew she was having her kitchen done.

Sarah's demeanour towards me as we approached the counter was as appreciative as if I had actually served up my Best Sausages in Red Wine Gravy with Added Carrots Casserole.  I wondered if I'd cooked the potatoes in the casserole or separately on this occasion.  She kindly overlooked the fact that, in order to be able to deliver the casserole to her doorstep at 6.30am, I'd have had to stalk her to find out where she lives.

Sarah pointed out that her kitchen isn't actually due to be done for another week or so.

Since that coffee, I've been wondering if I've ever appeared in anyone else's dream.  If I have, I don't suppose for a moment that I cast myself in such a good light.

I like Sarah more than ever for having dreamed about me so kindly.  I must ask her for her address sometime.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

I Return to Highbury

I am an Arsenal supporter for a reason - I grew up in Highbury, North London, and, although I only went to one Arsenal game during my childhood, the red and white striped scarves my granny knitted for me and my three brothers helped me to tie up my identity.

Now, whenever I stay in London, I stay in Brixton which is at the other end of the light blue Victoria line from Highbury.  When I arrive at Euston from Shropshire, I have to turn south deliberately, though I'm always tugged north.

Yesterday, on a whim, I decided to go north. Once I'd given in to it, my body remembered the journey, remembered the length of time it takes to travel from King's Cross to Highbury and Islington, the longest tunnel on the underground.  I remembered to turn right on the platform as I got off the tube, to bear right on the stairs, then left at the top before reaching the escalator.

There've been some changes in the ticket hall: there are automatic barriers activated by the touch of Oyster cards, the additional platforms for the new overground lines, the new way out.  But the ticket offices are exactly where they were when my mother used to buy my season ticket for my journey to school.

It's twenty-five years, nearly, since I've seen my mother.  It's thirty-five since the last time I came past the ticket collector to find her waiting, just inside the entrance, within earshot of the cries of the seller of the Socialist Worker.

It didn't happen often, but I loved being met by her, then walking up through Highbury Fields, chatting about my day as we passed the Georgian terraces, the pool where Vera taught me to swim, the grass where I found out I was good at hitting a rounders ball, the tennis courts where we pretended to play at Wimbledon, the netball courts where I spent hours practising my shots.

Before I was old enough to travel on my own, I used to walk the same route with her back from the library, from the swings. from visits to parishioners.  At one point, where two parallel paths are divided by black iron railings, I'd habitually go to the left, my mother to the right.  Yesterday, I noticed that the gap created by a missing railing, through which I used to wriggle eagerly to get back to her, is still there.

Friday, 4 July 2014

I Change My Mind

All my life, Bach has been my favourite composer.  My first albums were The Brandenburg Concertos - 2, 4 and 5 on one disc, and 1, 3 and 6 on the other. Decca.  Whilst my friend Rowan was carving Donny Osmond's name into the lid of her desk with remarkable precision and dedication, I was dreaming of extending my collection to include the Double Violin Concerto.

For the last year, my son has been working his way through the set of Beethoven Piano Sonatas I bought for him last summer.  He tells me that Saint-Saens could play them all by the age of ten.

Earlier this week, in retaliation for an impossible question about which waterborne disease I would most like to catch, I asked my son why he prefers Beethoven to Bach.

He told me that Bach doesn't have Beethoven's wild passion, that  Bach is too perfect, that Beethoven takes him by surprise: breaks the rules.  "Bach wrote like a machine," he said.

The world did not end but it shifted.  I felt a loss of innocence. I felt my heart switch allegiance in an instant.  Felt the guilt of betrayal.  And in that moment I changed my ideas about the tattoo I have been thinking of getting.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

I Hitch A Lift

In an episode of  Radio 4's 'Four Thought', Jono Vernon-Powell talks about the long-lost art of hitchhiking.  He found that the majority of those in his audience who were over 45 had hitchhiked, whereas the vast majority of those under 45 never had.

Fortunately, I am over 45.

I loved hitchhiking as a student.  I loved the risk and the freedom of it.  The risk of meeting people. The freedom of cost-free travel and uncertainty.

I have memories.  Of Brendan, his careful answers to my questions from the back of his sage green BMW whilst, unfortunately, my boyfriend sat next to him in the front.  Of John's red umbrella on  the seat next to me, whilst, unfortunately, my friend Helen sat in the front, chatting with him about the pleasures of Newcastle upon Tyne.

And I've never forgotten the lorry driver and the moment he produced a long knife.

Last August, I gave two beautiful women a lift from Edinburgh to Church Stretton.  Chatting to Lien and Marit rekindled my desire to stick out my thumb, take a ride.

On Sunday, I went for a walk that turned out to be longer than expected because I couldn't work out which way up to hold the map.  By the time I reached my destination, I was running late, had marking to get back to.  I decided to try to hitch a lift. It was a rural area.  Local traffic.  Low risk.

My thumb felt awkward.  I couldn't remember which way to present it - should it point up or out?  My arm be extended or bent?   Once I'd worked it out, I grew more confident.

In the next ten minutes, thirty or forty cars went past.  I became less hopeful.  Then a 4x4 passed, stopped a few yards in front of me.  The familiar feeling of triumph.  The trot to the open passenger side window.  The brief exchange of information.

The driver shifted stuff off  the passenger seat, apologising for the mess.  She was on her way to visit her father in his new nursing home, and she talked non-stop about his move: about how she'd eased the process by telling him the home is a posh hotel, that the staff provide room service; about how happy he is.

When she dropped me off, I felt the loss of a parting.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

I Lose My Way

I don't often go into town on a Friday night, but last night was the badminton club social so I made an exception.

We met in a nightspot, or was it a club, or a bar?  I'm not sure.  I'd never been there before.

Because the drinks were paid for out of the kitty, I drank too much.  My Protestant upbringing has taught me two things: to drink in moderation and never to miss a bargain.  In a situation where these two things are in conflict, I've learnt that the latter imperative has moral superiority.

I tried to leave the bar / club / nightspot at about 11.30 pm, an hour after my usual bedtime.  Due to the lateness of the hour, I was confused and couldn't find the exit. I ended up on what I can only think was some kind of dance floor, because within seconds I found myself swaying from foot to foot opposite a man who looked far too young.  "How old are you?"  I shouted.  "Forty-five," he lied.  I felt claustrophobic and scanned the glass walls, looking for a way out.  I spotted the exit.  "Got to go to the toilet," I said.

I made it to the cool air outside and walked home through silent streets, relieved and giggling.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

I Pitch My Tent

Last week, I camped on the Lleyn Peninsula, overlooking Bardsey Island.  I was with Helen, my longest-serving friend: separate tents.  It's our secret of great camping: 2 x two-person tents.

My tent does not have plug socket, Wi-Fi or shower.  My tent has a library, a cellar, a wardrobe, a narrow bed. When, in the morning, I let out the body fug of my night's breathing, it has infinite space: cubic yards of the stuff, all the way up to the sun, and all the way to the moon which rose each night through strands of cloud, growing to fullness by the week's end.

Camping transforms cooking, washing and dressing to play.  We walked the coast path in the day and in the evenings, drunk on air, played house, played at dressing up, played with water.  We cooked risotto for nights in a row with decreasing ingredients and increasing imagination.  We wore tea towels on our heads to keep off the sun, tattooed our arms with dragons and anchors, called each other names, rolled Welsh place names and old stories around our mouths, and, laughing serious, made plans about dancing to ward intruders off our sacred territory.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

I Squash A Banana

When I emptied my rucksack this evening, I found a blackened banana at the bottom.  I put it in this morning firm, bright and yellow, intending to eat it with my lunch.

Montaigne advised that we mustn't regret, only reflect.  

I have squashed bananas before, and reflected on them. I have considered buying a yellow plastic banana-shaped case to protect my in transit bananas.  When I've squashed more than one banana at a time, I've made cake from them, counted my good fortune.

But try as I might, looking at this squashed banana: its skin split, its flesh oozing out, its smell tainting everything that had been in my rucksack: my purse, my pack of tissues, my Patti Smith CD,  my umbrella, my book about lemons, it's regret that I feel.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

I Start A New Poem

Somewhere, this flight ended
It comes back to what I can’t work out: when exactly did I lose
control over the Atlantic?  You give me no explanation 
and I don’t think I've given you anything that amounts to a reason, yet
something unnamed has been lost though there is no evidence
except in my body which is scattered with messages
(I have come to understand they will never be read).

I sorrow this sorrow though I am not insensitive.  I believe 
the lives of the disappeared have an infinite significance.  And this? 
This is just love, love, which I've always feared - and you've known - has
a trajectory.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

I Question My Identity

I went swimming earlier and I swam faster than the swimmer in the lane next to me.  At first I thought I'd made a mistake, that I was much slower, that he'd been lapping me.  I swam breaststroke for two lengths with my head out of the water to check what was going on.

At certain times of day there are three lanes in the pool marked: Fast, Steady and Plodder. I used to choose Plodder every time.

Labelling theory says that our identities are influenced by the terms used describe them, and that words like Fast, Steady and Plodder can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Another of the ways in which we construct our identities is to notice the ways we are similar to and different from each other.  That's why our identities shift depending on the context we're in.

When I went swimming with Lucy last week, we chose the Fast lane, because I felt more daring in her company and didn't worry what people would think about my relative speed.  All the time I was in the fast lane with Lucy, I felt fast because, though she has to rein herself in when we go walking, we're well-matched in the water.

On the way out of the pool today I looked at myself in the mirror.  I was wearing my swimming costume with its go faster stripes.

Friday, 23 May 2014

I Summarise Eliot's Four Quartets

Burnt Norton

It's about time.  How it passes and stays still, and how this is a matter for regret and for dwelling on loss.

East Coker

It's about time.  How it passes and how sexual potency lessens with age, and how this is a matter for regret for lost love.

The Dry Salvages

It's about time.  How it passes and how this is a blessing and a curse, and how desire is experienced differently in the moment and in the memory, and how this is a matter for regret for lost innocence.

Little Gidding

It's about time.  How it passes and you end up in the same place you started, and how this would be a matter for regret to the point of not setting off in the first place if you knew it in advance, which you never will.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

I Glue My Fingers

Last weekend, I knocked a blue and white pottery bowl from its place on my desk.  It broke cleanly into three pieces.

A little while later, I put the pieces onto some newspaper, squeezed superglue onto their unglazed brown edges and held them together to reform the bowl.  When I released my grip, it fell into four pieces.

Undeterred, I applied more glue to the porous surfaces to fix the newly broken piece together.  When I let it go, the break had not mended, but my index finger was stuck to my thumb.

My mother bought the bowl from the Aldermaston Pottery thirty-five years ago.  When I was a teenager in the 1980s, most people associated Aldermaston with the UK's nuclear weapons programme and CND's protests.  I associate its name with beautiful pottery.  My mother bought a few items at a time and over a period of about ten years she built up a dinner service complete with soup bowls, dinner plates, mugs, pudding bowls, serving dishes and a coffee pot.  We used it every day - it was too lovely to save for best.

Prised apart, my fingers felt as if they had been flattened and lost their prints.  I spent the rest of the day rubbing them together, trying to regain their identities.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

I Dance Alone

I didn't feel at ease until I learnt to dance alone.

There was nothing to learn, except to understand the need to push back the table, to dress for the dance as if dressing for a lover, to choose music which moves with itself.

There was nothing to learn, but that the moment I kick off my shoes, the moment I turn down the lights, the moment I dance for myself, is the moment I feel free.

Friday, 9 May 2014

I Catch Three Trains

In order to get home from work today, I caught three trains within fifty minutes, this despite there being a direct line from Wrexham General to Shrewsbury and roughly one train per hour in each direction.

One minute into my first train journey, I realised I'd left my purse on my desk.  My purse contained my return ticket, my Shrewsbury Coffeehouse loyalty card, and everything else.  I searched through my bag, calculating my chances of getting past the ticket barriers at Shrewsbury and managing a weekend without my bank card. I searched through my bag again.  And again.

I got off the train at the next station and crossed over the bridge to the opposite platform.  Four minutes later, I was headed back to Wrexham.

I spent the six minutes it takes to travel from Ruabon to Wrexham General imagining what I'd say if the guard came along the carriage checking tickets.  I regretted wearing my pink coat.  By the time we reached Wrexham, I still hadn't decided on the best approach.  

Back at the office, I found my purse where I'd left it.  

On my way out, I bumped into a colleague.  We chatted about the day, solved a few issues and laughed at some absurdities.  

As I walked to Wrexham General, I wondered whether buying a return ticket to Ruabon for my earlier free journeys would be interpreted by Arriva Trains Wales as a sign of my gratitude  for the benefits of their timetabling.

Monday, 5 May 2014

I Sing A Solo

When listening to choral music, as I have been this evening, I find it hard not to sing along.  A particular temptation is How Beautiful Are The Feet from Handel's Messiah.  This is a lovely solo aria, and I am not a soloist.

The good thing, for everyone else, is that I usually restrict my singing along to times when I'm alone.  I know intellectually that my voice adds nothing to, and in fact detracts from, any performance by a well-trained soprano.  But I love singing, and as a girl in a church choir, I used to dream that one day I would be asked to sing a solo part.

My singing along got a bit out of hand at a party I went to last Christmas.  Past midnight - and past a few bottles - my lovely host was at the piano accompanying various songs which everyone else seemed to know. Noticing my floundering attempts to join in, she kindly asked me if I had a request.

Without missing a beat, I suggested How Beautiful Are The Feet.  No one else knew it, but I didn't let that stop me. Everything seemed possible on a starry winter's night with friends, good food and wine.  I waited for the intro, then stood and sang, much to everyone's surprise.

I sang recklessly, with abandon and without attention to details of rhythm and tune.

The next morning I woke to a dawning realisation, and burst out laughing.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

I Love My Sons

My younger son's most frequently asked question at the moment is, "Mum, who's your favourite child?"  He's nearly 14, and smiling.

I could give the obvious answer, "I don't have a favourite", but his question makes me want to do better.

Loving my sons is like being a traveler in an infinitely beautiful and varied landscape.  I don't know how big the scope of it is, because when I look to the horizon, I see no limits.  Some days, I walk through grassy meadows, some days I stumble across windswept uplands, some days I hurtle through streets of the city, some days I wander along the shore, some days I pick my way across floors strewn with damp towels.  There is no path, but there is a sense of purpose. The signposts are in a language we choose to ignore.

My sons travel together, but often in opposite directions.  When they come across each other, they tussle and they laugh.  They do not need to greet each other, but they wish each other good night.

When I look back over my shoulder, I see where we've come from and where we are going.  When I look up, I feel a surge of gratitude.  When I look ahead, I am curious, and run to catch up with them.

Both of my sons are my favourite child.  Each of them occupies his own space and dimension. There is no contradiction in this, as you'll know.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

I Think About Smacking

I've been reflecting on my strong reactions to the threat of violence prompted by watching Shaun of the Dead yesterday evening. 

My psychotherapist, peace be upon him, taught me to recognise that strong emotional reactions are rooted in childhood experience.  I'm still slow to catch on to this, so it took me twelve hours to realise that last night's fear of zombies linked directly to my fear of my father.

Growing up, I lived under the threat of smacking.  The terror was not in the smack: physical pain sucks, but my father never delivered anything that left a bruise.  I lived in a state of wariness, of trying to work out whether his anger was on its way.  He would rarely lash out - the punishment was delivered as ritual:  "Come into my study, repent and say sorry, bend over.  Thwack."  There was a zombie-like, slow, deliberate inevitability about it all which terrified me.

I can understand my father better intellectually now I'm older.  He needed to work at home.  He was tired.  Four children create a lot of noise and energy.  He was hemiplegic.  That doesn't negate the ongoing impact of my experience.

People talk about forgiveness as a solve-all for the injuries of childhood.  It's never worked for me.  I think awareness of ourselves and our emotions, and compassion for ourselves, is where it's at, and where we can move on and grow.  The rest follows.

Once, I played deliberately noisily outside my father's study with one of my brothers.  I think we wanted to provoke his anger so that we were in control for a change.  We bounced balls, sang songs and jumped down the stairs, and sure enough, he emerged to tell us off.  I can't remember if he smacked us on that occasion, but I felt triumphant.

I Hide Behind Cushions

Shaun of the Dead, rated 15, is a zombie comedy film -  I watched it this evening.  I did laugh, especially at a scene of multiple zombies choreographed to 'Don't Stop Me Now!' but at times I had to hide my eyes behind a cushion.

The threat of violence, especially when mixed with suspense, scares me.  I knew I was being manipulated, I knew it wasn't real, but film a zombie from behind and then make her turn round really, really slowly, add a menacing soundtrack with a rising bass line, and my heart starts beating faster.

Marathon Man was my first 15. I watched it on TV during the long school summer holiday after O levels.  I was bored, and in love with Dustin Hoffman.  I wasn't in love with him enough to watch the dentist scene to its conclusion.

I'm not scared of much.  I can pick up spiders and slugs if necessary.  I can do heights, flying and standing in front of a class; I don't mind injections, and I camp on my own.  But I've hardly ever watched a film certified as 18.

There's something about the visual limits of a film screen, about facial expressions and gestures combined with mood-altering music - something about what is suggested as happening just out of shot - that plays havoc with my imagination.  At times this evening, zombies were in the sitting room, or just outside the window, about to force entry.

Monday, 14 April 2014

I Hammer My Thumb

I was titivating the garden fence yesterday, when I hammered my thumb.  The incident had a cartoon-like quality: as soon as I'd hit my thumb, I knew it was going to happen.  Fortunately, it didn't swell to the size of a tennis ball and turn purple.

Half the fence blew over in the winter winds and last week this section was replaced by fencing professionals.  The new half looks almost IKEA in its fresh, uncluttered, linear perfection, whilst the old half looks a shambles.

I decided to disguise the join with a piece of trellis. I sawed the trellis to the size of the first old panel, then nailed it to the fence posts either side.  The business of hammering was very loud and, for a moment, I was worried about disturbing the neighbours on a Sunday afternoon as clear and fresh as Scandinavia.  Then I remembered that someone a few doors down had been singing along to ABBA with the windows open earlier in the day.  Then the hammer slipped, and I swore.

The trellis piece looks like an over-sized, vertical waffle.  I've threaded it with honeysuckle, virginia creeper, and a few strands of a giant breed of periwinkle which I was given years ago, and which returns every spring, despite my attempts to dig it out.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

I Reach My Peak

"Look at it this way, mum," advised my son after badminton club today.  "You're nearly fifty, and the only way is down, so each day is your peak from now on."  This after a comment from me about his play improving week on week and mine staying pretty much the same.

I've been thinking since then about when I might have peaked, and what peaking might involve: if it extends beyond the physical and intellectual and, if not, what signs would indicate emotional, psychological or spiritual peaking; why we talk about 'peaking' when most states of being are hugely complex; whether anyone ever knows they've peaked other than in retrospect; how, if we were aware of peaking, this would surely cause a sense of loss which would detract from any sense of peaking being a triumph.

On reflection, I decided to take my son's comment as wisdom: as a thirteen year old's version of Carpe Diem.  

And on this basis I went out this evening instead of staying in.

Friday, 4 April 2014

I Grow My Hair

I've never had long hair.  What I mean is that I've never had hair that ends about halfway between my shoulders and waist, or halfway between my shoulders and the point halfway between my shoulders and waist.  

It may have been my mother who first told me that human hair grows half an inch a month.  I checked this with Paul recently and found that, forty years later, this is one thing that hasn't speeded up.  By this reckoning, my hair will reach a reasonable definition of long by December.  

At school, I envied the confidence of girls with long plaits.  I noticed the way three strands of hair could be interwoven to form something with the look of the weight of rope. I admired the way darker shades of hair were brought to the surface. 

Having my hair cut by Paul is one of my chief pleasures.  Over the past twenty years, I must have spent eighty or so hours chatting with him.   When I leave his salon, my hair feels like it's meant to.

WikiAnswers makes many suggestions about  how to promote hair growth.  As with most self-help advice, the tips include eating nuts and seeds, avoiding bleach and taking regular exercise.  

I mentioned my hair-growing plans to Paul in January.  His advice about growing my hair longer was to have less cut off.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

I Write About Crisps

This is a blog tour. It's not like one of those sinister chain letters when breaking the chain may lead to bad blog luck.  No, no. It's a way of getting people to know about writers and their blogs.  Each blogger answers the same four questions.  Here are my answers:

What are you working on?
My new pamphlet of poems, 'Mending the Ordinary' to be published in May by Fair Acre Press. And my non-extruded Crisp Sequence for the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.
How does your work differ from others of this genre?
I'm not sure that it does, though I have never used the words 'iridescent' or 'ethereal' in poems.  Not even my Crisp Sequence.
Why do you write what you do?
Because I find it satisfying to distill everyday extraordinary experience into words - intellectually, emotionally, psychologically and physically.
How does your writing process work?
I eat crisps and then I think, "I want to write a poem about that flavour I can't quite put my finger on: the feeling of loss mixed with desire (salt and vinegar) or joy mixed with terror (prawn cocktail), as expressed in that wave of a hand, or scrape of chair, or the unspoken affection of sharing a pack".  But I don't think it quite like that.  I feel unsettled by something I've noticed.  I connect this feeling to an image or happening, and I write it out till it feels a bit more slotted into place.

Here are some other blogs to read ...

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

I Join A Club

A couple of weeks ago, I was playing badminton with my son, and towards the end of our hour, Steve and Ross on the next court asked for a game of doubles.  I didn't know they were called Steve and Ross till we lost to them conclusively and they invited us to join their club.

When I was a teenager in Highbury, two brothers, John and Len, ran a badminton club on Saturday evenings.  John had lost the sight in one eye due to a squash ball accident, so he occasionally missed a shot. Len never did.

In the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, I was paired with Len for the club competition.  Len explained that this was because I was the youngest and taught me to play a tactic called 'front and back'.  This meant he ran around at the back of the court retrieving the shuttle with style and speed, whilst I batted the occasional net shot, sometimes over the net.  Len was the kindest man I knew, and showed me how to do stealthy serves with the feathered shuttles.

On my first visit to Ross and Steve's club, not one of my stealthy serves was stealthy.  They passed no comment about this and were very welcoming.  This evening, I rediscovered the knack.  The stealthiness involves serving short, just over the line, towards the outer edge of the court.  The angle of the serve is therefore rather obtuse.

When Len and I won the competition, it was was one of the unexpected moments of my childhood.  I was given a keyring and a round of applause.  I can still see the keyring's hexagonal silver sculpted edge and dark blue plastic centre inlaid with '1977'.

I kept my keyring for years.  After it broke, I put it with two sixpences, a thrupenny bit, a gymnastics colours badge and several buttons in a drawer in my bedroom.  I haven't seen it since the house move after my mother died when everything got a bit confused, but I can still feel the weight of it in my hand.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

I Listen To The Radio

Yesterday evening, I spent two hours lying foot-to-foot on the sofa with my son revising his presentation for French GCSE entitled, Mes Vacances.  I was a little perturbed initially to find that he'd written me out of a holiday I took him on last summer, but understood when he explained that he didn't want to have to get to grips with the feminine.

I listened to his presentation again this morning, with the result that I was a little later than usual leaving for work.  This was just as well, otherwise I'd have missed the Poulenc which played as I was  pulling into the car park.  I nearly missed it twice as I'd started listening to Radio 4's The Life Scientific, but lost track of the scientific early on, so switched to Radio 3.

When Poulenc's piece was announced, I heard it both as Les Chemins de l'Amour and Les Chemins de la Mort.  While I was listening to the intense beauty of the arrangement for cello and piano,  I found myself wondering if death in French is masculine or feminine.

I thought for a while about how love is a little like death, and not just because of la petite mort. 

I find French easier now than when I had to learn it myself.  I think it's something to do with not having to revise for exams.  Much of it remains a beautiful mystery; but I love the sounds, and the feel of it in my mouth.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

I Launder My Watch

I have found my watch.  It fell on the floor as I pulled my duvet cover out of the washing machine.  I hung up the cover and put the watch on a radiator.

I'd looked for  my watch earlier when getting dressed. I searched on my chest of drawers and on my desk, then had to catch the train for work. Whilst delivering a lecture, I glanced at my wrist twice, then had to ask my students the time.  After I'd  looked for the third time, one of them took off his watch and handed it to me.  It felt solid,  like it would withstand the pressure of a dive to a depth of 30 metres, and a spin in a twin tub.

There are many things I wash that I don't mean to: swimming goggles, coins, elastic bands, shopping lists, tissues. Whites with blues.

The watch reminds me of my father because, though he didn't choose it, I bought it with money that he gave me. 

I can't recommend putting a watch into a washing machine, but mine looks cleaner than it has for a while, and, after an initial stutter, it's caught up with itself.

Monday, 10 March 2014

I Go For A Swim

I've never been a Brownie, but I went swimming with a dozen or so this evening.  This wasn't intentional, but when I arrived at the pool, a lesson was in full flow.  I heard a girl say that Snowy Owl was teaching in the shallow end, so I decided to do widths mid-pool.

For some reason, when I go swimming I usually count what I do.  It's easy to get competitive, and easy to feel a sense of failure, so this evening, because I haven't been swimming for a while, I didn't count.

There's a cost-benefit analysis to be carried out in relation to swimming.  It's an inconvenient activity, involving, as it does, getting wet.  I weigh up my desire to feel weightless, against the feel of cold air on my drying skin; the sense of muscles stretched, against the post-swim frizz of my hair; the peace of good tiredness against the £4.90 plus 20 pence for the locker, the avoidance of breathless exhaustion against the knowledge that it would cost £0 to go jogging.

A banner at the side of the pool informed me that a 30 minute swim would burn 350 calories.  I wasn't quite sure on which side of the analysis to place this information.

At ten minutes to the hour, the Brownies got out and the lifeguards divided the pool length-ways.  I switched direction and, as I swam breaststroke towards the deep end, saw a boy surface-diving like a pearl fisher to touch the bottom of the pool 12 feet below.  He came up straight, his mouth pressed tight against escaping bubbles.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

I Learn My Lines

When I perform 'The Seven Rages of Woman' as part of Threesome, I recite my poems from memory.   At first, I thought it would be easy to learn lines I'd written myself off-by-heart, but it isn't.

The way I do it is by repeating the words aloud over and over as I drive to work.  As a result of learning my lines in this way, the miles go by less noticed, and  I once arrived unexpectedly in Nantwich.

When I write, there is something about the act of writing words on paper which helps to create the poem.  For me, a poem starts with a spoken or thought phrase; I write the words down to develop the idea.  Unlike some poets, I can't find poems solely in speech or in my head - I make them by hand.  Maybe this explains the challenge of learning them.

If I forget my lines in performance, I make up new ones.  I think I can do this because  I've spent years standing in front of students having to make things up on the spur of the moment. When I say, 'make things up', I don't mean that I lie.  I mean that I reconstruct my knowledge there and then in response to their questions.  

The lines of poetry I make up are the ones I've forgotten, but in a different order.  When I leave one out altogether,after the show, I feel a sense of loss.

My next performance is in two days' time.  I'll be talking to myself in the car tomorrow.