Sunday, 31 December 2017

I Edit A Book

My new year's resolutions for 2017 were to run 5K in under 30 minutes, to complete a 10K run, to find a publisher for my first collection of poems, and to use the blow torch I was given several Christmases ago to make crème brulée.  I have done none of these things.

There's a technique within Narrative Therapy which involves retrospectively re-telling negative scripts in a positive way. Instead of saying, for example, "I only got socks for Christmas," one could say, "I was given more socks  than I expected for Christmas. My relatives are thoughtfully concerned about the welfare of my feet. In fact, my feet feel cherished. And what's more, those socks came in a matching pair." *

I look back, then, at 2017 as the year in which I ran personal bests at four different parkrun courses in 3 different countries; as the year in which I came 16th in a parkrun, and in one race (the same one in fact) was the 5th female, and 2nd in my age group. It's the year in which I ran the Race for Life for the first time, the year in which I have run 140 parkrun kilometres.

2017 was the year in which I ate my first and last crème brulée doughnut, and this in Antwerp, my new favourite city. Eating the doughnut was such an incredible experience I thought my heart would burst.

And 2017 was the year in which I edited my first book of poems. Not my poems, but the poems of my dear friend Morar Lucas. Since the summer, we have been working together to shape her work into her first collection, Retrospective. Ordering the poems which she wrote over a period of forty plus years, pairing them across pages, working out how to produce all the bits of a book - cover, author photo, blurb, dashes, commas, hyphens, cover photo, spine - with the help of Morar's children Helen (my longest serving friend), Richard and Edward, her granddaughter Helena who is working on a linked website, and my dear friends Emily, Kev, Mike and Ted has been an amazing experience. Morar has been gracious about my editorial suggestions, and (fortunately) is rightfully delighted with the result. I could see from the outset what she couldn't - that the separate poems on their separate pages would together become a whole thing: a strong voice speaking of motherhood, family, faith and nature which deserves to be heard. We launched her book yesterday amidst family and friends in Somerset - the quality of silence as Morar read was palpable. The applause unanimous. The book sales techniques of her grandchildren Izzy and Johnny just on the right side of unscrupulous.

So 2017's resolutions are fulfilled in better ways than I had the imagination to invent. So I will make the same ones for 2018.  Let's see what happens.

* NB I didn't get any socks for Christmas.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

I Alter My Time Zones

It has been noted by one or two devoted readers (thank you) that I have often posted this blog in the middle of the night. I have long realised that, rather than being an unaware insomniac, my settings have been wrong. I've been unable to work out how to fix them. Today, with the help of an expert, I have been able to alter my time zone from GMT minus 8 hours (Pacific Time Zone: useful if I was writing from the Pitcairn Islands, which I'm not) to GMT plus / minus no time at all: useful if I was writing from Shrewsbury, which I am.

Last week, I switched time zones by crossing the Channel, entering GMT plus 1 hour: a time zone with darker mornings and later dusks. The shift of an hour reinforced a sense of separation from my usual routine, though it got me up at 7am with the bonus of a feeling of having had a holiday lie-in.

Geographically, Britain has been determinedly distant from the  main landmass of Europe for 10,000 years or more - since the end of the last ice age. It's also currently separated by currency, language, well-surfaced roads, and expressions of Christmas which include, in most shops, proficient and very welcome gift-wrapping.

On this visit to Belgium, I felt these differences as I always do: as something to be welcomed, something fascinating to do with the wonderful, intricate, subtle diversity of human cultures. I envied Antwerp its central square on a cold and damp December evening with its publicly provided chimineas, its cathedral bells chiming out Wham's 'Last Christmas ...' - a church with a giant outdoor nativity scene, and a tongue in its cheek, surely.

Britain is soon to be separated from Europe by more than these existing differences, though no one seems to know by quite what, except, we have learnt recently, different coloured passports, and, as many have experienced for a while now, a deeper and troubling sense of anxiety.

I'm back in GMT, although in that special part of GMT that's called the Fourteen or so Days of Christmas, when time stretches out and contracts in equal measure. This is the zone in which there's not enough time to get every chore done before Christmas Day, but where there's time (once the moment of giving up on ideas of Christmas perfection has passed and we've settled instead for incarnation) to listen to Bach's Christmas Oratorio in its calming entirety: to listen to it sung in German, as I'm doing now.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

I Tire Of Damsons

Twenty-something years into being a regular damson jam maker, I can finally admit that it's not my favourite flavour.

Don't get me wrong. Damson jam is sharp, it's dark purple, it sets easily. The problem of the stones can be overcome by sieving. The problem of a glut can be overcome by freezing, then making jam in batches month by month, as I am doing this year. And it provides a source of thoughtful presents for relatives. Okay, a source of presents.

I am not unappreciative of the damson as such. I am not really ungrateful.

But, forgive me, oh damson, you have limitations. Lacking the popularity of raspberry, the easy-going nature of strawberry, the usefulness of apricot (sticking marzipan to cakes), the yoghurt-friendly texture of blueberry, you are destined to be homemade. Mainly, it would seem, by me. You speak of low-maintenance back gardens or self-seeded trees at park-sides; you speak of damson gin, damson ketchup, damson chutney, damson cheese, damson fool, damson crumble, damson bloody anything when there's no late frost in April and you and your mates turn into an avalanche.

Sorry. I got carried away. It's just that there have been pounds and pounds and pounds of you and I've been denying myself alternatives.

I am not really ungrateful - but I do find myself addressing a fruit in public.

Why this confession? This confusion. I think I need to let it be known that I have switched to blackcurrant. It went like this ...

I mentioned to my LSF (Longest Serving Friend) that I'd been out to buy her some jam. It was August. I was in London, presuming on her hospitality; presuming to the extent of finishing a pot of blackcurrant jam which had been nearly full on my arrival a few days before. (There was some unopened damson in the back of her cupboard).

Blackcurrant jam, I'd learnt by day 3 of my stay, is delicious, complex, dense, sophisticated: textured but without the annoying seeds of raspberry, the hairiness of rhubarb, the inevitability of strawberry, the lumps lurking in apricot which make an even spread almost impossible. I think I must have said something about this loudly to my LSF.

Last week, my LSF came to stay en route to Snowdonia. Her bag was unusually heavy, I noticed.  I wondered for one horrified moment if she'd bought camping equipment. But she unloaded 11 heavy, hard, cylinders, individually wrapped - my birthday present. They sat on my table whilst we went off and had a lovely weekend tramping about.

After she'd left, and being well brought up, I only unwrapped 3 of the jars before my actual birthday. After 2, I detected a theme. Opening the third was just to make sure, because of my increasing excitement.

Suffice it to say, that in addition to the half jar I brought back from Wales, I now have 11.5  jars of dense, sophisticated, complex, textured, sophisticated, much-travelled, thoughtful, sophisticated blackcurrant flavour of the highest quality to accompany my toast and butter for the next year six months. Or thereabouts.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

I Answer A Question

Toiling uphill in the Tatra Mountains in Poland last June, my friend Richard, brother of my longest serving friend Helen, asked for advice about how to read poetry. 

Breathless from exertion, I was unable to provide a succinct or  relevant answer. My thinking and talking in circles at high altitude to someone for whom poetry isn't an habitual reading choice must've been the reason for my stiff and aching legs that evening.

R, H and I had spent the few days before in Krakow, and, amongst other things, completed the parkrun near to a statue of Wojtek, the soldier bear. Richard was instrumental in ensuring this tribute was installed in memory of the bear who fought alongside Polish troops in World War II

Back in the UK, when I'd regained sea-level and the use of my thigh muscles, I produced a PowerPoint, and sent it to Richard by way of a belated answer to his question. Wojtek provided me with the illustration I needed to make the point that the relationship between reader and poem, in the end, is a personal one.

This weekend, walking in Wales with Helen, I was reminded of those steep Tatra climbs by my aching calves - so, we had another look at the PowerPoint. Six months on, I've worked out how to turn it into a video.

How To Read A Poem

Monday, 20 November 2017

I Fox About

Fox News

Twentieth Century Fox

Fox Fur Heights

Fox on the Rocks

Fox With A View

For Fox's Sake!


Stuffed Fox

Fox Hunting


The Miraculous Appearance of St Basil

Foxtrot Oscar Xray Yankee

Saturday, 11 November 2017

I Lean Towards Butter

 .... is what my son said in answer to a question asked at our cousins' home over lunch recently.  The question was, "Would you prefer oil or butter on your potatoes?"  He was given the only vote and made the right choice.

I've liked olive oil since I met it as an adult, but butter has been with me from the beginning. Butter. Butter melting into mashed potatoes with a twist of black pepper.

Butter. Is there anything like it? I've never been convinced by the alternatives.

"Why," a friend commented once in relation to another question, this time a butter or a yellowish olive-by-name-but-not-by-nature-spread question, "would anyone put emulsified engine oil on her bread?"

Butter. I lean towards it like I lean towards blue skies, meadows, mountain air and clean streams.  I lean towards it as I did to the Little House on the Prairie books, where I first read about how it is made. I lean towards my son making butter like it's a lost art, whisking cream till it separates, straining out the buttermilk for pancakes, paddling and patting the solids into shape.

I lean towards the cool smooth straightforwardly rich taste - towards French butter, slightly salted, twenty minutes out of the fridge, spread carelessly on a torn piece of fresh baguette, or still-warm scones, or cut into a baked potato with a dark, crisp skin. I lean towards it in cakes: I lean towards it in curries.

I lean towards butter, but I try not to fall into it. I attempt moderation. I understand the pitfalls - the valid arguments against: arguments about cholesterol and intensive farming.

Some of these have lodged themselves as reminders around my waist.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

I Post #metoo

John Berger's book, 'Ways of Seeing', which I read for the first time last year, made me cry.  Specifically the third chapter.

"A man's presence" he writes, "suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you." In other words, it is a presence of power.  In contrast, "a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her" (1972, p. 46).  He is writing in the context of visual art - specifically in a discussion of the meaning of the female nude.  And his text is almost as old as me, but still it resonates. 

Berger's thesis hinges on the idea that men survey and women are conscious of this surveillance. I think there is a deep truth in his work. My collusion with the consciousness of being looked at  was built as I grew (don't paint your face, don't wear a short skirt, be modest, don't lead him on, don't go to the disco, don't, don't, don't) became my very fabric, my stooped stance, my lowered-eyes demeanour.

I grew up colluding with the idea of my sexuality as troublesome, Eve-like, and it felt burdensome, sinister. I looked for a hiding place.

You might quibble with Berger: with my response to his text. It's so binary his talk - male / female, men / women: it's 2017 and we are moving on from binaries. 

But I read his work again and it pierces me. And now this. The decision whether or not to post #metoo.

What's the risk?


It's not much, in itself, to align myself with the vast majority of women and some men who can relate to my first such memory, the one of the man in the park on my walk to the tube to school.  I was 13, had never seen the flaccid rope of a grown man's penis before, did not know for a moment what I was looking at, so looked. And I can still see it swinging improbably, him passing to my left, about six feet between us, neither of us missing a step (what, what, What?) - can still feel the punch of shocked realisation, the loss of not-knowing, remember my friend disbelieving me when I told her later, standing on the station platform, .

So many, many other things I will come to remember. Some of these will include physical assault, some will involve people I trusted, some will make me fear for my life.

Dear child.
Dear, dear girl.
Brave teenager with her face set forwards.
Brave schoolgirl who went on to her physics lesson.
I sorrow with you, hold my arms around your shame.
For all that was yet to come - remember your courage, your own gift of survival.
You will come to a place no longer at odds with yourself -
your stride will lengthen with the rage that is rightfully yours.
And I love you for it.

And so I come to this:
Me too, dear heart. Me too, sweet precious girlchild. Dear Liz.

And look! Look at the crowds striding in the same direction.
We were never, after all, alone.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

I Applaud A Performance

Lucy Aphramor is hot.  You can tell this from the cover of her book, Raise The Roof.  She is shown sharp with style and she looks you in the eye. If she had a gauntlet, she'd be laying it down.  Behind her are the flames of a burning home.

It is typical of Lucy, ever-generous, that proceeds from the sale of Raise The Roof are going to support her friends Leela and Jamie, who, she says in her preface, have stuck with her through thick and thin, and whose home burned down earlier this year.

Raise The Roof is the book of the show. Lucy is the Naked Dietician and I first saw her performance in its entirety in Edinburgh, on the Fringe.  I've kept my ticket from that day as a souvenir.

I want to remember that performance because it was brave and bold: in fact, it was incendiary.  Lucy's monologue is a weaving of stories of injustice, of heartbreak and oppression, into something that's alight with energy and hope. Always serious, she plays with words in a way that's clear with enjoyment and raises some chuckles amidst the intensity.

So to take the opportunity to see the performance again at the Quaker Meeting House in Shrewsbury last Sunday evening was, for me, obvious. At a time when the news is full of miserable stories about the abuses of white male privilege - women groped and raped, young black men singled out, children shamed about their body shapes - Lucy challenges the status quo - the assumption that simple sound bites: for example, eat less, move more, dispensed by the Powers-That-Be-So-Simplistic, can redress the injustices resulting from inequalities built into the very fabric of society. Whilst this a personal statement, it inevitably calls us, the audience, to consider living differently:

         for right now I am on fire gut-busting for an exodus from stasis
         so almighty it incites the gods in each of us to hurl up everything
         they worship   sacred  secular  profane   inflame a new way 
         of doing being praying grieving growing speaking thinking longing
         loving listening fucking that does justice justice

It's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in one sitting. Hearing it again, I realised it's impossible to hear the density of Lucy's text and absorb it in two sittings, but it was definitely an advantage to hear it twice. And buying the book for a longer look makes sense.

On Sunday, the audience was focused and able to hear each word, each lift of hope and ecstasy, each plunge into despair and pain.  Lucy's command of her words, her amazing memory for them, left us free to soak, washed over by wave upon wave of a searing yet playful narrative which includes the deeply personal references to self-harm and discrimination, and the deeply political longing for injustice to be brought out into the clear light of day, seen for what it is.

Friday, 6 October 2017

I Feel At Home

It was my eldest son who said it out loud first - "Mum, you fit in here."  We were in Antwerp buying small electrical items for his new home, wondering at this city, its zigzag frontages, its mercantile heritage.

Antwerp is in Flemish Belgium: in Flanders.  The language is Dutch: Flemish Dutch.  In those simple facts lie layers of history, politics and numerous cultural sensitivities with which I am only just becoming familiar: sensitivities which this blog may in some way trample across unwittingly - I hope to come to understand more of the complexity, and may need to re-write parts of this in future.

My son expanded on his verdict by saying that I look like many of the women we passed. I'm tall and apparently I dress in middle class Dutch style. His analysis fitted with my feelings.

I have often felt at odds in new places - in Thailand I was too tall, in Paris too casual, in Bari too pale, in Los Angeles too introverted, in Scandinavia too jealous - whereas on arriving in Antwerp, even when driving on the right, I felt immediately at home. 

It wasn't just the weather which settled me, although the grey rain with its moments of intense sunny glory set the backdrop.  It wasn't just everyone's (but everyone's) ability to speak English during a week in which I struggled to commit any more Dutch than the words 'dank je' to memory. I knew I was amongst a tribe I recognised.

From this tribe, the Plantin and Moretus families emerged in the 16th century to establish a phenomenally successful printing business, and the Plantin-Moretus is amongst the best museums, no, it's the best, I have ever visited. The two oldest surviving printing presses in the world live there amongst drawer upon drawer of beautiful fonts.

So far, my son is settling well to his three year BA course in Fashion Design.  I'm hoping to pay several visits to Antwerp during this time and said as much to my Uncle Bob on the phone last weekend.  "Of course, my dear" he said, ever-affectionate, "our Huguenot ancestors were in the cloth trade in Flanders and they fled persecution back in 1570 or so."

My uncle's reminder explained in some way that sense of alignment that comes to me from time to time, when for a moment it feels as if the world, quietened for a while from the clash of empires, fits snug as the new coat I bought yesterday for my niece's wedding. When I got the coat home and looked properly, it turned out, of course, to be Dutch.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

I Compare Two Audiences

Royal Albert Hall Saturday 23rd September 2017
Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Notes on the Audience

Flash photography? In a place this size? With the lights down and the sublime music of Beethoven it's like watching a badly choreographed, underwhelming firework display.  If you are going to use your camera turn off the flash AND the sound you twerps and oh, you're clapping after the first movement; well, I mustn't judge - it's just a convention to remain silent but it IS Beethoven and I hope by the time the 9th comes on you'll know not to clap until the end and why oh why are you eating, and eating noisily - yes, it is the Emperor Concerto which is a popular piece but it's not the bloody Nutcracker and whatever you are chatting to your neighbour about ,can't it wait because the Royal Albert Hall acoustics are bad enough as it is without the competition of what is not even an apologetic whisper and surely you could have used the interval to rummage around your bag which is the size of Wembley stadium and I am going to turn around and smite you with my Paddington stare if you don't shut up ... there I did it (and am I a musical snob for wanting to listen to music in quiet I mean I know that sometimes people have to cough and that can't be helped but talking - talking! - why did you even bother coming and if you realised I'd booked these tickets back in February to enjoy an evening with my son whose favourite piece is the 9th and which I have never seen live before and which I want to be memorable for the right reasons would it make any difference?).  Oh, and there you go! Clicking away during the slow movement which is so sublime that I want to cry and shout at you for the sake of all of us who want to listen and I think I will stand up and leave and I think I will stand up and walk down and into the orchestra to be as close as I can be to the cellos when they pick up that theme which is the most amazing moment and even you lot with your rustling and your chatting and your flashing and your clicking can't ruin this - the voice of joy rising from the deepest place in the whole wide world.

Much Wenlock Pottery Saturday 30th September 2017
Voices for Change - An Evening of Poetry to mark 100 Thousand Poets for Change Global Event Day

Notes on the Audience

I look out at  people, listening with all of themselves.  You are still, intent, serious about this: focused on what's happening now.

Thank you.

Friday, 22 September 2017

I Live In The Present

I Wake Up In Bed
I Regret My Late Night
I Push Back The Duvet
I Turn On The Shower
I Wash My Hair
I Turn Off The Shower
I Towel Myself Down
I Roll On Deodorant
I Decide What To Wear
I Put On Some Clothes
I Change My Mind
I Brush My Hair
I Swap My Jumper
I Squeeze An Orange
I Boil The Kettle
I Moisturise My Face
I Boil The Kettle
I Apply Mascara
I Make Some Tea
I Dry My Hair
I Make A Cheese Sandwich
I Drink Tepid Tea
I Pack My Bag
I Lock My Door
I Descend The Stairs
I Ascend The Stairs
I Check My Door
I Walk To The Station
I Stop Off At Waitrose
I Queue For Free Coffee
I Meet A Stranger
I Hum A Tune
I Buy A Ticket
I Chat To The Ticket Seller
I Catch A Train
I Take Out My Book
I Turn To Page 254
I Stare Through The Window
I Remember Something Sad
I Take Out A Pen
I Look At My Hands
I Write Something Down
I Put Away My Book
I Disembark From The Train
I Arrive At Work
I Work For Eight Hours
I Rush For The Train
I Take Out My Book
I Turn To Page 254
I Read About Willem
I Mark My Page
I Get Off The Train
I Lope Up The Hill
I Reach My Home
I Hug My Son
I Boil The Kettle
I Make Some Tea
I Drink Hot Tea
I Mix G And T
I Add A Slice Of Lemon
I Cook Ham Hocks With Sweet Potato Fries And Green Vegetables
I Apologise To Vegetarians
I Whip Up Blueberry Pancakes
I Share Pancakes With My Son
I Recommend Vanilla Cream
I Enjoy Eating Seconds
I Chat About Shostakovich
I Put On My Pyjamas
I Boil The Kettle
I Blog My Day

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

I Review A Collection

The Knives of Villalejo
Matthew Stewart
Eyewear Publishing 2017

Those of us caught in mid-life, between generations - our children to one side, our parents (alive or dead) to the other - will find much that resonates in Matthew Stewart's first full collection. 

Expressions of loss: of his father, primarily, but also of the contents of his childhood (including an elegy to the dying art of milk delivery: Milko - "by the ebbs and surges of daily pints you knew who’d grown, who’d aged, who’d upped and left") exist in tension with the fearless tug of his child's growing. Stewart explores this mid-state primarily in the ordinary incidents and objects of a daily life, albeit a life lived between West Sussex and Extremadura.  So some of the ordinary is extraordinary, as exemplified in this exquisite moment:

Home Comforts

Until you’ve lived in a country
full of kitchens full of saucepans
that slowly creak to the boil,
a kettle won’t seem to whistle
like the owner of a loose dog
calling it back, calling it home.

Whether he is disposing of his father's ("small electricals?") razor at the dump, taken back in a gasp to the moment his father's teaching him to tie a tie, or Making Paella with David, "learning how to shell langoustines, exploring their cartoon-alien faces and train-track bellies", Stewart uses what's viscerally familiar, what's most noticeable only when it's gone, or shifted, or seen through a different, younger life, to draw us in: his sparse, precise language, engendering curiosity.

Though these poems are accessible at one level, there is nothing simple here. They are to be read and savoured like a complex wine with a minimalist label - to be sipped, held in the mouth a while.

Matthew Stewart will be reading at Shrewsbury Poetry on Thursday January 4th 2018

Saturday, 2 September 2017

I Set Fire To My Table

Back in the height of summer, you know, when the clouds were lowering over the horizon just as the school holidays started, my friend Emily and I plotted a small party, mainly to celebrate her birthday, which is today (Happy Birthday, gorgeous), but also to continue the warming process of my new home.

I've moved into my home gradually.  Dawn downstairs reminded me that it's been five years, near enough, since I started buying it.  I shared it for three years in a system called 'nesting' (more of this one day, maybe) and for the past 18 months, it's been all mine. 

Wanting to ensure we had at least one guest, Emily and I created Hugh Jape, a mannequin dressed for the occasion in one of my son's hand-made coats and draped in fairy lights.  We stood him in welcome, at the bottom of the stairs, calm as anything.  We discussed food, seating, dancing, ice, candles.  We discussed my new table, the quality of its oak grain, and the need not to damage it with water.  We protected it with a plastic table cloth.

What happened to my table halfway through the party was entirely my doing.  It involved tea lights and the careless placement of a packet of poppadums (Waitrose). Back in the 70s at school, we used to shrink crisp bags in the oven and wear the miniaturised Smiths Salt and Vinegar or Cheese and Onion packets as badges.  The bag of poppadums didn't shrink - it burst into flames.  The plastic cloth underneath quickly followed suit.

My first reaction was to try to put out the flames with the second pack of poppadums (Waitrose). Maybe one guest brought both packets (thank you, and I'm sorry).  I completely forgot about the fire triangle (heat, fuel, oxygen) in my haste.  Fortunately, Mike hadn't, and he calmly poured water (sparkling, natch) on the table top fire.

Afterwards, Mike said that what'd come to hand first was lemonade, but that he'd had enough time to choose sparkling water.  I was glad about that, as the smell of burning sugar added to burning poppadum and plastic would've lingered.

As it is, the smell is nowhere to be smelt today and I am urged, once again, towards gratitude: I'm so grateful that the party didn't end in a panicked alarm, that the table isn't damaged, even though in the few minutes of Ted and Mike doing the clearing up and re-dressing-the-table-in-a-duvet-cover-process I had reconciled myself to its imagined imperfections.  

Yes, the cloth with its gaping charred hole had to be thrown away (along with the now-laminated poppadums) but what of it?  What of the small losses in comparison to the warmth of my calm-as-Hugh-in-a-crisis friends who have seen me through to this gift of a place, this sanctuary of rest and creativity.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

I Publish A Poem

For the Class of 1982, South Hampstead High School - written after our reunion in 2015, and published here in eager anticipation of seeing you again next week.

With love, and immense gratitude for being friends to me in childhood.  After our last reunion, I realised how SHHS gave me the beginnings of intellectual freedom - a significance I hadn't understood before.

School Reunion

We came imagining others would’ve attained diamonds -
against expectations, we find we’re in this together:
turns out we always have been, though we hadn’t understood till now

how close are the every ways in which we intersect.

We meet few people in the time we’re given: life’s shorter even
than we supposed.  Those long-ago women held up as examples - 
Boadicea, Elizabeth, Florence, Emmeline, dear, dear Anne Frank,
(whose story we were told, as if we could grow up to change her ending)
- great as they were, none of them were with us in French or Biology,
so we looked to each other for inspiration, asked: “What will become of us?”
sang ourselves out at the end of each school year, sentimental transitions
towards this wet summer’s afternoon: the fullest I can remember. 

It's abundant – we eat and drink: even our dead talk with us.
Our schooldays are always between us: everything still to be discovered.

I Break My Phone

My first and last resort, in terms of fixing anything electronic, is to turn whatever it is off and on.  So, when my phone froze this morning I switched it off, then tried to switch it back on again. 


A few hours later, and my phone is in bits at the repair shop.  It's waiting till Tuesday for further attention, and even then there's no assurance that it's fixable.

I use my phone a lot.  I text people I want to meet.  I send thinking of you messages.  I take photographs and edit them.  I check Facebook, check the train timetables, check the weather, check the time, check my diary.  For a while, I checked my previous night's snoring on a 'sleep app'.  I check my pocket, my bag for my phone before I go out.

And there are the other things. I jot down poetic thoughts in the Notes section when I'm caught short of pen and / or paper. My phone, small though it is, holds in its circuits much of what makes up my life - conversations, appointments, ideas, memories, connections - all those words: all those words and all those pictures. 

I joked to a friend last week that our conversation must be sparky, because my phone felt hot in my hand as we exchanged messages.  I even speculated about spontaneous combustion. 

Were I a different sort of person (an electronics engineer, for example) I might have recognised the heat I've been feeling in my phone - and the freezing I've been seeing - as actually significant.  Instead, I've been choosing, as I so often do when noticing phenomena, to interpret these things as metaphors.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

I Slay My Father

A few years ago, it was probably a Thursday, my therapist sat me opposite an empty chair, put a cushion in it and said, "Your father is here.  What would you like to say to him?"

The skill of the therapist is in judging the moment, in providing the safe space in which this can take place.  At the moment this happened for me, I'd done at least a year's work, maybe more. 

I'd arrived for that first therapy session desperate - full of shame, tears and self-loathing.  I'd been in that state before in my life, many times.  I'd been to four previous counsellors, come away from them, emptier, stiffening my lip.  But this time, it was for real: an hour a week, hanging on in there, counting down the days till the next session. Perhaps it was because I needed to talk to a man.  Someone intelligent enough to see and courageous enough to challenge my tricks.  Someone who knew about Christianity and its doctrines from the inside.

As with any therapy, it's the quality of the relationship that matters more than the paradigm or techniques.  After a few months, I felt accepted in that therapy space.  I felt there, for the first time in my life, that it is okay to be me. Only then was it safe to tell my father what I thought.  It wouldn't kill me.

And I raged at him.  I raged about his harsh faith, how it trumped everything with the fear of damnation.  About his hitting me for my own good. His lack of protection. His lack of affection. His need to control me.  His sexist attitudes.  His fear of anything that could be construed as sexual expression.  About his rules, his bloody rules about everything.  About his homophobia. Most of all about his dragging me into his beliefs, without allowing any space for real questions, making me say the words, week after week.  About his shaming of me from the pulpit that Sunday Evensong when, like some sort of terrible god, he spoke his discipline from on high to me in front of the whole congregation.  I was six, or seven.  Why was I even there?  The joylessness. The daily fear.  The repression.  The depression. The saying that children's spirits must be broken. The actual saying of that.

So I told him, the him sitting in that chair resurrected somehow, that I hated him.  In fact I screamed and cried it.  And I told him, triumphant through my tears, that it hadn't worked - that my spirit is damaged, but not broken.

And when my therapist spoke, I turned to him and shouted, "I haven't finished yet!"  Even he looked, for once, surprised, taken aback by the force of my anger.

I can't remember all I raged, and I'm glad about that.  I do remember saying that I no longer wanted his internalised voice, my Critical Parent, to rule my life.  It was the expending of the emotion, the pent up (I'll say it again) rage, that finally chased his dread voice from my mind.

At the end of it all, I looked at the chair, and it was empty.  I was exhausted, peaceful.  It was like that moment in Star Wars when, sliced by a light sabre, Darth Vader's cloak crumples to the floor with a sigh, deprived of its puffed up illusion of menace.  Does that even happen as a scene in Star Wars?  I don't know.  Even if it didn't, that is what it was like.

If you are one of my father's many continuing fans, I don't apologise for this blog.  I am his daughter - these are my truths and telling them is necessary for me. They will be different from, and don't diminish, yours.  I know he was loved and admired by many, and maybe, had he not been my father, I could have admired him too.  His courage in the face of disability, his uprightness

Is this my Larkinesque moment, my This Be The Verse

The closest I got to reconciliation with my father was after his death, when I wrote this poem.  As with all true poems, it revealed something to me in the writing - something in it is an act, despite everything, of love, of hope.

In the Pub Garden

That summer’s afternoon, we had returned
grown and growing on.
In the pub garden
we witnessed your gravity fail, and smiled as
you slid earthwards
via two halves of cider and a good lunch.

Propped up unevenly by the fence
you slurred your way into contentment:
rosy, full, mellowing, bardic.
Unencumbered, you succumbed to living,
undignified and glorious,
growing earthy and stained from common grass and soil.

Later on, leaving you, I know that this
is the recollection I will choose to sift
from the swept up heap of you
which has so often cornered me.
I wonder if you saw this softening,
felt it too?

Saturday, 24 June 2017

I Race For Life

My venerable and trusty car has passed her MOT, but not without failing it first.  Some work to the suspension and brake pipes, and way hay!  She and I are good for another year and this morning I walked to pick her up from the garage.  I didn't run because my legs are a little stiff from mountaineering in Poland.

I've just checked the definition of 'mountaineering' - a word I don't think I've used in relation to myself before - and it is: the sport or activity of climbing mountains. Run and race are other words I haven't used much, largely because the Race for Life was my first running race since an egg and spoon race in 1974.

Like mountaineering, running is a thing that can make my legs feel stiff, but having completed 20 parkruns, 5K doesn't leave me feeling terrible any more.  In any case, running the 5K Race for Life was made so much easier by the amazing support of all those who sponsored me (thank you), and by the fantastic pink atmosphere in the Quarry Park in Shrewsbury (where I bumped into Annette and Fern, also running).  The Race for Life was made very simple by thoughts of friends living with cancer: people whom I love and want to show that I love by doing something useful.

Since the Race for Life, I've run the parkrun in Krakow, after which I went off to do some thoroughly enjoyable mountaineering with my longest serving friend and her brother in the Tatras.  I thought of my friends whilst I was there too.  Having arrived home yesterday evening, I decided to rehabilitate my legs this morning by walking the couple of miles to pick my car up from the garage.  When I got there, on the front seat was the bill (reasonable, considering) and a five pound note: a donation that I was given the night before the Race for Life.

I am always delighted to see £5, but I was particularly pleased to see this note as I've been feeling a bit awkward since I realised I'd mislaid it somewhere (but where?) in my car.  My excuse, had anyone accused me of carelessness (which no one did) is that I was handed it just after I'd seen an amazing chamber production of Verdi's Rigoletto.  To differentiate this from other operas, it's the one in which boy meets girl, trouble ensues, then tragedy ends it all badly. 

I'm pleased my car's still on the road, that my legs are easier after this morning's gentle walk, that the money's come back to me (via Dave and my trusty car) to go on to its rightful place with Cancer Research UK, and that the £337.50 I raised by running the Race for Life will be used to help beat (to quote one friend) feccin' cancer and the feccin' awful things it does to people.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

I Vote Labour

I voted Labour today, and I was given a boiled sweet at the polling station.  The not-quite-humbug was given unconditionally. 'Why?'  I asked the polling officer.  'Because you might need a sugar rush to make up your mind,' she answered.  I didn't, but I took the humbug anyway.

Yesterday evening, I sent my brother a text to wish him good luck.  He is standing for re-election as a Conservative MP.  My good wishes were genuine - he's my brother, he's full of talent, and I like and admire him as a person.  He has a solid reputation as a constituency MP who cares and works hard for his constituents.  His job isn't easy, and he faces abuse, particularly around election times.  I don't agree with most of his political views, but I love him.

The problem with party politics is that it's not nuanced.  It doesn't easily allow for liking and respecting people with different views: those whose intentions are genuine and who are honest and trustworthy.  It doesn't allow for wanting a part of the Green Party manifesto to be bolted onto the Labour manifesto, or for the Liberal Democrats' clearer ideas about Brexit to be taken into consideration.  It doesn't allow for the fact that whilst I voted Labour, I would have preferred a candidate who lives in her constituency.

But I voted Labour because I see the current Labour Party manifesto's promises as containing the greatest number of smaller and larger beacons of hope in the bleak and troubled social, economic and political landscape of 2010s UK.

I work at a university.  I have seen the way that the increasing commodification of higher education has gradually eroded the sense that learning is both a right and a privilege: an opportunity for exploration and personal growth, for development of tolerance and a love of thinking. The Labour Party's bold promise of an end to tuition fees sends a flurry of excitement and hope through my heart and mind.

Growing up in Islington North, I first voted in the 1983 General Election when Jeremy Corbyn was the new candidate for Labour.  I didn't vote for him.  I was brought up to mistrust the radical left-wing approach of Islington council, to be fearful of its progressive moves, particularly in the area of gay rights.  I was brought up to think that Christian values = Conservative politics.  I was brought up not to think for myself.  These are not my excuses - they are my explanations.

I've come to voting Labour today via talking with Gary, a retired miner my LSF and I lived opposite in Durham during the 1980s miners' strike.  I've come to voting Labour via discussions with numerous other friends of all persuasions, via reading, via experience.  Most of all, I've come to vote for Labour via working with people like Emmett, Nathan and many others who, because of the stigmatisation of people with disabilities or mental illness, because of the marginalisation of people who are older, or in the care of the local authority, because of the oppression of people at the margins of society, live in fear of further dispossession, of social isolation, of cuts to their benefits, of loss of independence, dignity and meaning.

What I saw when I read the Labour manifesto for this election was an opportunity for me to express my support for policies of respect and hope for making a society in which people can live less fearfully, and in greater trust of each other.

Because I love my brother, I don't want him to lose his seat tonight, and because I love the people I know who are struggling within the NHS, education and other public services, I don't want him to win it.  Living with contradiction is a life's work, but in the end, I have voted Labour.  Democratic principles allow me to be true to myself, and still love people with whom I disagree. 

In the end, when we vote, most of us are simply people doing what we think is best at a particular moment in history.  Most of the rest: all the ridicule, name-calling and shaming of each other - behaviour which the best and wisest politicians avoid - is humbug.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

I Outlive My Mother

I've just worked out the number of days my mother lived.  It's 19,166.  I then worked out the number of days I've been alive.  As of today, it's 19,166. When the identical number popped onto the screen, I felt momentarily ... well ... weird.

19,166 days is approximately fifty-two-and-a-half years.

I've never calculated the number of days anyone's lived before.  To do it, I used my favourite search engine and entered 'calculate the number of days between two dates' and found (should you ever feel the need to do the same).

And why did I do this today?  It's not as if my home is clean and tidy, and I have finished writing all the poems I want to write, and that novel, and sorted out all the bags and boxes still languishing in my loft since my move last year.  It's not as if I had nothing else to do. 

How I got to this point is this:

Walking back home this morning, my younger son pointed out a sign in Shrewsbury town centre for the Race for Life.  "You could do that, Mum," he said.  When we got home, I signed up for it, and, as part of that, Cancer Research created a sponsorship page for me.  I thought of the people I know who've died from cancer, and those who've lived through it, and those living through it, and of one  friend in particular.  And I thought of my mother who died of breast cancer, and because I've had some awareness that I'm approaching fifty-two-and-a-half, and because I've got a day off work, and because I am very creative when it comes to putting off housework, I've been idling around on my laptop and in my musings.

From there, where I've got to is this - that the significance of the 19,166 days I've lived equalling, for this day only, the number of days my mother lived is about the alignment of some things.

What aligned today is significant but not because of that number.  It's more to do with my son encouraging me to take up the parkrun; his interest in my progress; our going shopping on a day in half term; our walking back a particular route because of the particular shopping he wanted to do; his noticing the Race for Life advertisement; his prompting me to sign up for the run.

The alignment is to do with the love we and his big brother share, and within all that, our particular love for music - a love he'd also have shared with my mother, a pianist, whom he never met, but whose material substance somehow shines through him in a way that belongs only to him every time his fingers, long as hers were, play over the piano keys, and every time he smiles his smile, which, like hers, is a bright shaft of sunlight illuminating and soothing whatever any day's sadnesses might be.

Friday, 26 May 2017

I Design A Triathlon

Even though I've been participating in the parkrun since last November, two of the words which do not come to mind when I'm asked to introduce myself as part of those share-two-fun-personal-facts ice breaker sessions at the beginning of training courses are: 'Athletic' and 'Prowess'.   I'm more likely to contribute 'Highbury' and 'Islington', for example. 

Having said that, the fact that I can now run 3 miles non-stop and without feeling awful is very important to me. It means I can dance around my living room more energetically, and for longer.  This is information I'm keen to share in the right circles, so each Saturday, at about 11am, I exchange athletic information with my longest serving friend (LSF).  She messages me the details of her parkrun: her time, her position in the field, the time of the fastest woman in our age category, and any other interesting facts, like what she had for breakfast. I reply with my, consistently slower, time. 

A couple of weeks ago, in response to her time of 26'52", I replied 2 hours 39". Unable to face the commute from the Outer Hebrides, I'd missed the previous two runs but this fact alone didn't account for my plunging statistics.  The reason for my personal worst was that, the parkrun being cancelled, I'd decided to go on a run of my own, and to top it off with a swim. 

My LSF remarked that all I needed to do was a bike ride and I'd have done a triathlon.  I'd already reached my physical limit, so I wondered if drying my hair after the swim - by far the hottest event - could count as the third activity. 

My LSF is one month and 6 days older than me, so when she said no, I knew I'd have to come up with something else. Generous to a fault, she suggested that playing the flute might count, and added, by way of encouragement, that her friend G has a triathlon of champagne, white wine, red wine.

The parkrun is cancelled again tomorrow for another event, so I'm considering what tomorrow's triathlon will be.  I think it might include dancing in the rain.

Friday, 12 May 2017

I Spill Some Oats

Earlier in the week I broke a Japanese teacup: part of a set of six my parents were given as a wedding present.  I broke it in the process of cleaning my living room windows to let the sun in more clearly.   I keep the cups on the window sill where their delicate-thin china is well-lit, their blue glaze offset against the white paint.

Making flapjacks this evening, I spilt some oats.  I did this as I was using a peg to close up the bag.  Before I could secure the opening, the bag slipped in my hands and some oats tumbled onto the kitchen floor.

And I have a scab on my shin from where I banged it climbing up the loft ladder to put my suitcase away after my trip to the Outer Hebrides.

Breaking the cup prompted the memory that my parents' wedding anniversary falls in May. I checked the date in my birthday book, and realised that on Sunday 14th it will be 60 years since they married in Salisbury Cathedral. 

Neither of them is alive to celebrate, and the date would have passed without me thinking of it had I not dropped a pane of double glazing Perspex onto the teacups.  As it is, for the past couple of days I've been imagining 1957: my mother just turned twenty, my father thirty-two; she so full of romantic dreams, he so full of his faith.  What an act of courage and innocence. 

What I've came to thinking is how extraordinary it is that those six cups survived as an intact set for so long.  And how amazing that only one of them broke.

As for the oats, before sweeping them up I took a picture of my kitchen floor.  It's a galaxy:

I've kept the pieces of teacup - I will glue them together, or I'll make something with them: take a leaf out of my cousin's book.  This is the cousin who's broken enough china to create a beautiful mosaic to frame his kitchen window.

And my shin?  It's nearly healed.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

I Rave About The Hebrides

You can find my review of the Station Café in Crianlarich on TripAdvisor.  It's entitled: "I haven't eaten a sandwich like that since 1991".

As far as Berneray in the Outer Hebrides is concerned, I haven't been on a Scottish Island like that since 1986 when, filled with post-finals joie de not having to revise any more, my longest-serving friend Helen, her brother Richard, Dave, Sebastian and I filled up a Ford Cortina and headed for Mull, in the Inner Hebrides.  We spent a few carefree days in full sunshine on white beaches and plunging (yelling with cold) into the turquoise sea. 

Here are the pages from my photo album of those days.  Allow for fading:

The others are all now quite respectable.  Helen usually sits the right way up, for example.

I don't think Dave drops pudding on people's heads these days:

Or leaps at such an angle:

I had had no idea Mull existed before I went there.  I saw Tobermory, puffins and otters for the first time.  We went on a trip to Staffa and saw hexagonal rocks.  We bunked up in a Youth Hostel in the days when you were put on a toilet cleaning rota.  It was glorious.  We were the Famous Five on an island adventure, though none of us was a dog and we didn't drink ginger beer.

I had no idea Bernaray existed before Anna and Hilary started talking about it, and about their home there. But Ted, another longest-serving friend, and I have just got back from seven days of sunshine on white beaches, paddling in clear seas, walking around breezy headlands, collecting exquisite shells: and all this in near solitude.  I was reminded of my 1986 Mull-happiness.

This is the West Beach of Berneray on Bank Holiday Monday:

This is what I had to buy in the island's small but perfectly stocked shop (an excuse for ginger beer in the Lobster Pot tearoom next door):

This is the access to the beach on North Uist where poet and artist Pauline Prior-Pitt took us after an excellent lunch, which included the best salmon I can remember eating, peat-smoked from the island's smokerie

This is the sea, and a token gesture of clouds, it being Scotland:

This is the sea, the sky and a glimpse of the machair, a rare natural habitat for which the Uists, Barra and Berneray are renowned, and which will be flowering soon:

This is Ted, questing for cowries, a theme of the week.  He found seventy:

These are my shells.  There are eleven:

This is me, camouflaged in white and blue:

This is sun on the water on the return from our day trip to rock-tastic Harris:

This is my Trangia stove, a transitional object and all I need (plus Lady Grey teabags, a thermal mug and matches) for a really good brew:

We sat in the garden drinking Prosecco in the evenings, feeling slim, smug and lithe as we watched the seals lumbering on the rocks.  Rocks a bit like this:

And apart from that, this is why I didn't want to leave.  The last day.  West Beach.  Just look at it!

And this was the sandwich at Crianlarich, which gravitated me with a doughy flump.  The tea was okay:

Friday, 14 April 2017

I Inspect The Small Print

Yesterday, I had my eyes tested.  I'd received a voucher and I'm a sucker for a free offer, and I've noticed a deterioration when reading, so I'd booked myself an appointment.

The optician engaged me in witty banter about my occupation, wondered whether I could teach him anything.  I doubted it.  I suspected he was bored, weary of repeating the various tests in a windowless room - puffing air into my eyes to test for glaucoma; photographing an image of my eyeball; and then getting me to read traditional letter charts.  I felt, seeing as I was a non-paying customer, that I had to be amenable, so I expressed my concern about the length of time it takes for NHS fees to be paid (up to a year), and I chuckled when he suggested I read the row second from the bottom which was to all intents and purposes illegible.  As for the bottom row, it was a series of fuzzy dark rectangles. 

Slipping various lenses into the frames sitting on my nose, the optician asked me if they improved (or disproved) my vision.  In the interests of being helpful, I gave answers which sounded like disclaimers on advertisements for financial services, "Well, that one makes the letters easier to read but they all have a shadow which is a bit distracting so it may improve my vision,  or make it worse, depending on other factors."  But I was cut short.  Did the lens make it better or worse?  Yes. Or No?

I came out with a prescription and went to the desk.  A short discussion about glasses ensued, and I said I'd wait to visit with my son, so he could help me choose frames.  I was (secretly) thinking that I possibly wouldn't bother after all, glad that my eyes (though a bit worse for seeing print so small I probably wouldn't really need to see it) had been declared healthy.

At the moment I was asked to pay for the test I produced my voucher from my bag with a modest sense of triumph at my organisation.  "That'll be £25.00 please," the assistant said.  I looked at the voucher again.  I read it properly for the first time. 

Free Eye Test 
with every new purchase of glasses.

Perhaps it's not my eyesight that's the problem.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

I Increase The Volume

There are times when nothing will address the condition of being human, this particular experience of being human, except very loud music. So the volume's up, and it's Mahler 7.  Because Mahler 7 is sweeping, exhilarating, soulful, poignant, mad, grandiose, wild, melodramatic, experimental, desperate and sincere. 

Why the Mahler, and the volume?  (I expect my neighbours are asking the very same).

If I tell you that today, on "I'm Still A Mother A Week After Mothering Sunday Sunday", my younger son gave me a present of my words (This Is Not To Exaggerate) set to his music (for Soprano Solo and String Quartet) - if I tell you this, you'll know why I have felt like bursting from the sheer pleasure at the fulfilment of one of my deep desires (to have my words set to music by my son) and at the sheer terror at the fulfilment of one of my deep desires (to have my words set to music by my son).

It's exhilarating, it's terrifying, this joy.  There's so much love in it, and there's so much I cannot express.  So I'm listening to Mahler, who seems to know how I feel.

I wrote This Is Not To Exaggerate coming out of deep loss and grief, and out of the relief of being able to speak about it: its coming to me was a gift - it was enough to be able to articulate it, but it was another gift to have the poem recognised by people I trust and admire.

And then this, my son's music: another gift, another joy, another transformation.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

I Text The Poet Laureate

"Yours, Friday evening, 8pm. Okay?"  is what I texted to the Poet Laureate this morning. I've always admired her, and she's been instrumental in some of the highlights of my life so far, in particular endowing the Roy Fisher Prize.  When I won that back in 2011, I finally came to terms with myself as a poet, even saying the word close to my name on occasion.  But I didn't mean to invite myself round, especially on a Friday night when she will have had better offers already.  There's respect from a distance, there's gratitude, and then there's overfamiliarity.

There's a danger with texting / emailing and so on, of sending the wrong text to the wrong person, or the right text to the wrong person, or the wrong text ... you get the picture.  I did this once before, explaining to one person what I thought about another (who, in my defence, had hurt me) only sending it to the another by mistake. It led to a free and frank, robust and, in the end, very healthy conversation.

As the background to this morning's mistake, I'd meant to text my good friend Carol, as we need to rehearse for our upcoming performance of Still Life.  When I explained to her what I'd done, she texted back LOL!!!!

As for my first text, I'm still waiting for a reply.