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