Sunday, 30 December 2018

I Sit Near Helena Bonham Carter

Taking inspiration from the recent observation that I am neat (I Welcome A Review),  I have been unpacking the rest of what I moved from my old house, and organising it. The stuff has sat in bags, plastic boxes and bin liners for over two years, awaiting these last few rare days in which a space of unallocated time has coincided with a bout of energy.

Amongst the possessions which have followed me around since childhood are two black and white school photographs from 1974 and 1979. Once every 5 years, the entire school population - junior and  senior schools - assembled on the netball court. Benches were dragged out from the gym, chairs lined up for the teachers to sit on and some sort of photographic scaffolding erected so that all of us (around 700, I think) could stand or sit whilst the cameraman took 2 shots on a rolling camera.

The photograph my parents chose to buy came unframed, rolled up and secured with elastic bands. My father recommended that I write a list of the names of everyone I knew on the back, in case I forgot, but instead I drew a biro ring around my friend Rachel.

Forty-four years later, I can remember the names of all the girls in my class. I'm sitting next to Hope, who is sitting next to Deborah, who is sitting next to Sian, who is sitting next to Clare who is sitting next to Vicky who is sitting next to Rachel.

I wasn't sitting next to Rachel in 1974 because I was taller than her, and we were arranged in height order. I can confirm that I was the tallest in the class because I can't quite be sure of the name of the girl on the other side of me, as she was in the year above. In this section of the photo, all you can see is a strand of her hair. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure she was called Amanda.

There's no problem identifying the girl in the year below, sat in the middle of the front row, cross-legged and sitting up straight. She, like me, had a fringe and she also appears in the photo from 1979.

We've been sitting close to each other, Helena Bonham Carter and I, in this photo for years, though by the looks of it, those of us in the second row might have been kneeling for most of that time, as we look rather uncomfortable.

Whenever I've moved home and come across it, I've unrolled the photo and studied it, before putting it away again. It's time, I think, that I got it framed.  

Thursday, 27 December 2018

I Welcome A Review

A good review is validation - it says, all your hard work was worth it, it demonstrates that you've been understood - heard.

 In this world where so much competes for the attention of our audiences, a positive review is evidence of the fact that someone has taken a moment out of the hurly burly, and the rough and tumble to give attention to my labours - it's a recognition, person-to-person.  It the communication of appreciation of the essence of one's being. 

So when I turned on my computer this morning, and read a positive review, my spirits lifted. Usually, for the sake of modesty, I prefer the good news to filter through, and maybe to reach social media via someone else, but hey, what the heck, it's Christmas! - so here goes:

"Amazing guest! Very punctual neat and friendly It would be my pleasure to host them again  :)"

Steven. airbnb host, Antwerp

 All those years reaching into my soul and working at my housework techniques have at last paid off. I’m off to hire a carpet cleaner to celebrate.

Friday, 21 December 2018

I Am Grateful

Yesterday, I visited Ypres in Belgium. I was travelling back from Antwerp with my sons, and Ypres was only a little out of our way to Calais, the Eurotunnel and home. Each time I make this journey - and I have made it four times in the past eighteen months - I cross over what was the Western Front, the main theatre of battle in the First World War.

It's a flat landscape - unremarkable in many ways - and on a wet December day it was easy to imagine the mud and the cold of winters spent dug in to trenches a hundred years ago.

There was something about duty in this visit - something about my sense that showing my sons this part of history is part of my parental role. When I was a child, this was history I could almost touch, hear and see: in the hand of my Grandfather, who served in the Canadian Air Force; in the Remembrance Day clank of the medals of 'Pop' Gayford - the verger at my father's church; and in the rolled up trouser leg of the man I saw on my walk to school each morning who (my mother explained to me) had had his leg blown off by a shell.

After Ypres (which you must go to if you haven't yet) we stopped off at the Hooge Crater Cemetery. I parked the car at the side of the road and we walked back towards the cemetery gates. The wind had picked up, blowing the rain into our faces. We walked through the iron gates. There was no one else there.

The first of the white graves read: 'Four Soldiers of the Great War'. The one next to it, Five. Those numbers struck a deep note of sorrow. Earlier we'd read names on the Menin Gate, discovered namesakes, wondered at the sheer scale of the monument. But these nameless graves - Four and Five - what those numbers represent, what they must mean ...  this and something about the beauty of the white stone and the careful placing of the graves, the diligence with which they are kept - these things brought tears to my eyes.

I went back to the car to get my camera and coming back, saw my sons silhouetted at the bottom of the cemetery, so alive, so full of hope and energy, and coming home for Christmas.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

I Brag About My Sex Life

I'm trying to increase the readership for this blog, and you are the subject of a rather unsophisticated experiment.

But the fact you are reading this says quite a lot about you.  As well as me.



Sunday, 25 November 2018

I Appreciate the Sabbath

The fourth commandment in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is to Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. The story went that God, after six days of creative activity, needed a rest. This rest day, within my culture, is taken to be Sunday, and this is still reflected in the UK in restricted shop opening times and quieter roads.

The Sundays of my early adulthood largely followed the patterns of my childhood, and were filled with going to church, helping out with Sunday School, and cooking roast lunches. These things tended to make me tired, but if  I didn't do them, the guilt I felt after wrestling with myself was just as exhausting. 

Within these Sabbath days, there were some lovely moments, such as crispy roast potatoes, singing Bruckner's Locus Iste, and going for late afternoon strolls in Attingham Park.

It took a while to de-programme myself from the expectation that waking up on a Sunday meant it was time to get spruced up for church / heat up the oven for a chicken / prepare (last minute) for whichever activity I'd volunteered to run.

Since I have stopped going to church, Sundays have come into my week like new gifts. At first, a novice at this new-found freedom, I treated them a bit like Saturdays: days to catch up on work and chores or to rush around seeing friends. These days, I've put myself under a new commandment - that is, to Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it wholly devoted to bike rides, walks, writing poetry, eating simply cooked food and lounging around watching films. I find this to be an entirely satisfactory means of recreation.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

I Comfort Myself

Forms of comfort are required on a day for needing comfort - a day of resignations, resignation and a sense of toppling into need. I've been holding out, but today, on the way home, the need for fish pie, peas and a good glass of Chenin Blanc came over me like a retreat.

Brexit is in the air like the smell of broken drains, lingers above and around other chaos, and I care about this and about the people who are unwell - so many loves -  and I am wanting to go back to my head in my European mother's lap, to lying down on the sofa with my head in her lap whilst she strokes my hair.

Back to the child in me, then - and I need to be held whilst the world rocks, burns, plays with fire and what it does not understand. My mother is dead and Europe is breaking. And meanwhile a girl that I know is thought to be beyond rescue.

Oh but what can I do to save this! Nothing. Not one thing. And I have tried - eeking myself out across weeks, marching on Parliament like I could make a difference and rocking up each day to an office growing slowly unfinished.

Don't look for sense here. I've eaten it already - fish pie, peas and a good glass of Chenin Blanc, then a bath up to its bubbles and my warm bed.

Monday, 22 October 2018

I March With 700,000

I tried out a virtual reality headset at work today. There was a reason for this, but it would take too long to explain. For a brief moment, though I didn't know what to do with the controls, I was in some sort of game inside a shark cage. A Great White swam overhead. Though I knew it wasn't real, this was frightening.

On Saturday, I went with my longest-serving friend Helen and her brother Richard (who'd flown in from his home in Poland) to march from Park Lane to Westminster to demand, very politely as it turned out, a vote on the final Brexit deal. It was a fine day: the skies were a deep blue - the colour of Europe, the sun a yellow star. Our freedom of movement was limited by the sheer number of people who'd turned out.

Not much about Brexit seems real yet, except the menace of it. It's felt like a game at times - with two sides (not in their usual opposition ranks) arguing with each other, running around in circles, caged by what's called over and over again a democratic process - one which no one seems to have understood fully: a process set in motion for a reason that's hard to remember. The sharks (Farage, Johnson et al) swim overhead from time to time, free to go where they please.

I'm not really the marching type. On Saturday, there were thousands who were much better at it than me: better dressed in flags and EU make up; better at chanting, blowing whistles, banging saucepan lids; better organised with witty placards and banners. These thousands 'incorporated' us - took us into the body of their passion and fervour - let us out for a cup of tea half way - took us back in to their sense of hope.

And this is the reality I came away with: not so much the expectation that the march will influence the political process, but a sense of relief at the good-natured, good-humoured determination shown by so many who stood up and shuffled along for what they believe in, and who will go on being European whatever the so-called 'deal'.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

I Topple Over

Bringing into mind the circumstances of my fall yesterday, I think 'over' is the most accurate preposition to use in my blog title about the event. This is because, when I hit the kerb [it was dark, I was riding my bike, the kerb leapt out into the road unseen at a jaunty angle] I went sideways but remained almost bike-bound.  I grazed my left knee and hand. If I'd toppled 'off' or 'from', I might have received a more symmetrical pattern of injuries.

All in all, I felt lucky. I got upward a second after I'd hit the pavement, and cycled away, composing within my helmeted head a letter against the Council about a) the kerb design and b) poor / defunct street lighting. 

When I texted Mike, a more seasoned cyclist, concerning my fall, he replied: "You'll learn how to jump off the bike eventually with poise and alacrity. Even in an emergency." This cheered me amongst my wounded pride and bruises. Not only had he used more customary prepositions, I like the words 'poise' and 'alacrity' even though I hadn't, up until then, thought of including them during my letter to the Council. 

My new bike seems to have come with a free side helping of righteous indignation about poorly planned and / or absent cycle lanes within the beautiful town of Shrewsbury.  I cannot ride towards the railway station from my home [1/4 mile] without a) riding amongst a pavement, b) riding the wrong way through a bus lane, c) riding the whole way throughout the one-way system (a mile or more - more!) or d) walking, and pushing my bike beside me. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

I Print Off My Poems

I have just printed off my sequence Seven Days in New York City. It takes about 20 minutes to read out loud and I have a 20 minute reading tomorrow, in Bristol, here:

I will be reading alongside my Bristol friend Paul Deaton, who is a thoughtful and sensitive poet of lovely images and moments. My Bristol Niece will be there and Bristol Liz, who is one of the Durham Liz's, (or should that be Lizes?).  I haven't been to Bristol for 2 years, since my lovely Bristol Niece's wedding.

I have to rush down after teaching year 2 on Wednesday and rush back on Thursday morning to teach year 1 in the afternoon, otherwise I'd have liked to have hung out in Bristol a bit, put to rest some memories, pop down to see my adoptive mother in Somerset and read her my latest poems about violas and Viennese whirls.


Sunday, 30 September 2018

I Reflect On Loss

In the October week before my mother died, my father asked me to take him to East Ham. He'd been a curate there in the early 1950s, before he met her.

He said he wanted to remind himself that he could live without her.

This morning, I'm listening to the Brandenburg Concertos on the day before my youngest son leaves for university. These are the first LPs I owned, given to me when I was 10  or 11 by my father and mother on the occasion of my confirmation, at my request. My parents had other recordings of the music, but I wanted my own.

Year after my father died, my stepmother, with whom he enjoyed some very happy years after my mother's death, gave me a book of poetry.  It was inscribed by my father to a woman he had loved whilst living in East Ham, who had returned the book to him.

I'm not sure where I've put the little silver cross also given to me by my parents when I was confirmed, and I have not known what to do with this book of poems. It's in a box somewhere in my attic - ah, now there's a metaphor!

The hours we spent in East Ham were strange - my father had never taken me before, although he'd mentioned this part of his life because he needed to explain why he supported West Ham FC.

The feelings I felt on reading the inscription in the book of poems, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, were something about loss, and the way it's wrapped up in the way we hide ourselves from each other, and how this hiding is often necessary.

This morning, I am listening to the Brandenburg Concertos on the day before my youngest son leaves for university to read music. Over the past forty years of listening, my favourite has shifted from no.4 to 6.

Later, I'll tell my son that I love him, and that I'm glad he's got the confidence to go to university to study the subject for which he has an extraordinary passion.

Monday, 24 September 2018

I Cook WIth Apples

I am currently tree-less and so a colleague's gift of a bag of cooking apples was especially welcome. For her, they represent excess - for me, an invitation to abandon.

When boxes of apples are left out, free to passersby (and with spare bags kindly provided), you know that goodwill is close at hand.

I carried the apple bag on my lap on the train on the way home, the smell of garden and autumn liberating my journey. When I got back, I went out for an unnecessary bike ride in the chill of the late evening sun.

Of all the fruits that are for cooking, apples are my favourite. This is why:
  • Core one, preferably a Bramley, score a line around its girth, stuff the centre with dates, crystalised ginger, sultanas and cinnamon, sit in a shallow dish with water and a sprinkle of demerara sugar, and bake at 180 degrees till it has spread its middle to a fluffy, pale confection. Serve with custard as my mother used to.
  • Peel and core three or four, slice and sprinkle with cinnamon, set in a dish with a dash of water, cover with crumble mix (oats, SR flour, demerara sugar, butter, ginger) bake at 180 degrees till the apple is soft. Eat with crème fraiche in the dark looking out at the moon, and then cold, for breakfast.
  • Peel one large apple, chop into small pieces, mix with SR flour, demerara sugar, sultanas, an egg, milk, butter, cinnamon, bake at 180 degrees. Leave on the side with a note for your son who's out with friends. APPLE CAKE - eat me.
  • Peel and core one large apple to stew and eat with a pork chop. Unless you're vegetarian. In which case, sprinkle with sugar, and eat from the pan with a wooden spoon.
  • Peel and core the rest until you reach the end of the bag. Cut the good pieces out of the one that is going brown. Stew the lot with a handful of sultanas and chopped dates. Cool, and keep in the fridge and when you dollop a spoonful onto your morning porridge, the heat of the porridge will warm the apple, making the whole just right, as if you were Baby Bear herself.
What a gift, the apple. What a temptation to joy and pleasure. How obvious to pick them or rescue the windfalls from the ground. What a generous and comfortable liberty. 

Friday, 14 September 2018

I Believe In Myself

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


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

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


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


By which stage I'd reached the top.

Friday, 31 August 2018

We ❤️ Mountains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 August 2018

I Thwart An Intruder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

I Mix A Drink

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

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

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

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

This evening, I mixed myself a banana milkshake. 

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

I Unfold A Bicycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 July 2018

I Disgrace You By Exploding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 July 2018

I Watch Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that might have made all the difference.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

I Try To Stay Cool

Living on the top floor has advantages - no footsteps overhead, a roofscape that is as good as any view I've lived with, in-built climbing-stair exercise, some separation from the bustle of a thriving town.

But heat rises - and as the day goes on, it traps itself under the roof, accumulates in the late afternoon sun, slumps on the sofa and is reluctant to move. And heat gets trapped behind the glass of my office window when the sun swings round to the front of the building in the afternoon.

During this heatwave, I've been giving considerable attention to keeping my cool - leaving curtains drawn when I leave for work, closing the blinds in my office at noon, circulating air by opening windows, doors, turning on fans: leaving them on whilst going for evening walks by the river ... getting things moving.

As a child, I slept in a London attic room, and in the summer of 76, I learnt to take a bucket of water to bed with me and, when I couldn't fall asleep, to sit on the edge of my bed with my feet in the relief of tepid water.

Sleep comes more easily these days. At lunch time, I've been spreading a rug under a tree in the university courtyard, dozing for a while.

I nearly lost my cool yesterday - by 4pm my office had reached 30 degrees. My computer screen was pumping out its bright, dry demands. The train home was busier than usual and when I got back, I received some unwelcome news that niggled away at an old, familiar hurt. I felt sweaty, defeated: I got myself into a stew.

I couldn't simmer down, so quite late, after nine, took myself out for a walk. Before I'd got 200 yards, I saw Emily pass in her car. She stopped, got out, and we hugged. We went for mint tea, sat in a courtyard under an indigo sky, chatted about Scotland, mountains and secrets. We giggled a lot, and made plans for wild swimming, and I found my way back into peace.

How cool was that?

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

We Finish With Frasier

One of the comic situations which recurs in Frasier is the moment when another woman ends her relationship with him, usually because of some clumsy misdemeanour: he's accidentally dating two women and they find out about each other, or he calls his date 'mother' in a moment of intimacy, or he brags about his date's celebrity identity, losing her confidence in the process. Much of the humour depends on the way in which, as a psychiatrist, Frasier struggles to apply to his own life the insights he has, and those he ought to have.

In a final twist of plot, both my younger son and I have finished with Frasier, or rather with the eponymous series. After a year, probably two, spent watching each episode of each of the eleven seasons, we finally reached the last one.

We've enjoyed the ritual - sitting side-by-side on the sofa for twenty minutes of undemanding entertainment, which often had the satisfaction of a well-crafted line of script, or an exquisite moment of acting from David Hyde Pierce (Frasier's brother, Niles), or a great put-down from Roz, or simply the panoramic view of Seattle from Frasier's balcony: a backdrop to the series which is apparently not visible in this precise way from any actual apartment. Such was our commitment to the Crane family, that when John Mahoney (Marty Crane, Frasier and Niles' father) died earlier this year, we texted each other our sympathy. I felt gratitude for all the laughter  he (and his dog Eddie) gave us.

Although I didn't think I would be, we were both ready to finish with Frasier when we did. Those early seasons sparkled with wit and originality: by Season 11, the predictability of plot trajectories and the increasing unlikelihood of Niles and Daphne's long-going romance were not sufficiently balanced by wit. I grew tired of Frasier's ineptitude: of the inevitable moment when he would dim the apartment lights, flourish the remote control towards his high-end hi fi in an attempt to set the mood for yet another first date. It was becoming irritating - either he or I would have to move on.

The slow decline eased the ending. And so it was that we finished with Frasier without regret - or maybe, in the end, it was Frasier who finished with us.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

I Complete My 51st

I have finished my Fiftieth (50th) parkrun, but that was last week's news. Today, I ran my Fifty-First (51st). I was fuelled and inspired by the cake and candle Lucy Jay (LJ) gave me to celebrate.

I ate my slice of cake whilst my younger son ate a slice of his birthday cake, leftover from Monday's celebrations of his 18 years. We discussed the significance of 18 (voting, marriage without asking parental consent, drinking in pubs, 18 films). We discussed 17 and driving, then 16 (marriage with asking parental consent, age of consent).

He asked: Who'd want to get married at 16?
I said: Well, I did.
He said: You've changed.

We wondered if reaching adulthood is a process, or attained on one day, or, for him, at 9.04pm on Monday.

For my 50th parkrun, I dreamed of achieving a Personal Best (PB). I ran a harder than usual course in the grounds of beautiful Montacute House in Somerset with my Longest-Serving Friend (LSF), achieving a Personal Worst (PW). So, rather than hanging up my trainers and resting on my laurels, I got up today with renewed determination, did what I thought was a brisk run around my familiar Shrewsbury course, achieving a Personal Average (WTF).

My 50th cake was very good - almond and blueberry - for which it was absolutely worth waiting Two Hundred and Fifty Kilometres (250km).

My son said that the cake I made him, topped by a floppy-haired Hugh Grant, shows that I understand him completely. Now that's what I call a PB.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

I Papier-Mâché

When we were young, papier-mâché meant newspaper made soggy with home-made flour and water glue, and the anticipation of a hill to go alongside the model train set, and the expectation of mould a few days later.

More recently, as part of projects at work, I've learnt techniques which involve more sophisticated PVA glue, and a microwave for speedy drying. Occasionally, this has resulted in small fires. I used these methods to perfect my Allen Ginsberg and 'Scream' Emoji masks. Time well spent, I'm sure you'll agree.

Tearing up something in order to put it back together with glue, and from there making something which will probably only give pleasure to its maker (and that a temporary pleasure) might seem a pointless activity. But there are things which need tearing up, and this can be therapeutic.

I did a lot of ripping in Antwerp recently, acting as assistant to my son for his latest fashion design project - a red top. Biased or not, I enjoyed the wit of it - creating a red felt jacket and embellishing it with papier-mâché pieces made from The Sun, The Mirror, The Mail and The Star bought at considerable cost to my sense of dignity (I Blurt Out Loud). My son had no idea The Star even existed, and this after he'd seen proof of it.

The papier-mâché on this occasion was made by pasting strips of absurdity (MEGHAN IS NO BRIDEZILLA) to a chicken wire stole, layer upon layer, then leaving it to dry before applying varnish. No microwaves were involved but there was a lot of giggling.

Here's his creation - modelled by a co-student, photographed and then painted by him. There's a strength here and a hope: her resolute gaze steady behind what threatened to mask, distort and limit her vision.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

I Look Back At Schooldays

School - one way or another, I've been going to it for thirty, no, thirty-eight years.

I went to school as myself - sometimes with a hop and a skip, sometimes sullenly.  Not creeping like a snail, but weighed down, perhaps by unfinished homework.

I went to school, briefly, as a trainee teacher - into schools in Bristol with hope and adrenalin sloshing around somewhere in the region of my stomach.

I go - have been going - to school for longest of all, as a parent to two boys. 

Here's my youngest on his first day at school, his older brother leaning over him, gently protective.  Look how they match - their coats, their uniforms, their collars poking out.

Tomorrow is the last of the school days.  Yes, there are exams to come, but this is it: this is the moment I've been anticipating - one of those beginning-endings which lift my perspective from the day-to-day, and which lead me to take a long view backwards, forwards, inwards.

I already miss the routine of it - the pattern of my years. The start of the autumn term, which brings late summer heat along with new shoes, oversized shirts, and an upgrade to the next class.  Then the darkening, cooling mornings, the frenzy of preparation for performances, the exhaustion of December before the wide winter skies of January, the walk or drive home under the architecture of leafless trees, red sunsets long before bedtime.

And I'll miss summer sports day which in later years has become athletics day - the day of the year I'd take off work to sit on the grass and watch young people do ancient things - throw javelins, jump hurdles, throw a discus, then run like fury in baton-tied teams.

Then those glorious slumps into long summer holidays - endlessness: endless freedom.  The sheer stretch of it out all the way over August.

For years, we made Monday 'Sweet Day' (why do people choose Friday? - Friday has enough built-in joy).  Monday needs an additional energy - a rationale like chocolate, or ice cream.

We made the best of Mondays and we made the best of the work-juggle - the rush to the school gates for pick up, the days of illness which had to be managed somehow. The exhaustion at my desk, at their desks, the morning after a school concert had gone on past the watershed. 

I'm proud of the way we've have made the best of the my sons' years at school: all that learning done in-between the need to conform - sit down, stand up, be quiet, speak, stand, walk, run, no holidays in term time, no exaggeration of uniform... all that learning we've done, leaning into each other, holding onto ourselves with both hands.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

I Advertise Poetry

I make a habit of getting involved in the organisation of poetry events - this coming Sunday, I'll be introducing and listening to over thirty poets and musicians as part of a celebration of Wenlock Poetry Festival - the festivals that have happened in previous years, and the ongoing work which happens, with less of a public flourish but with as much dedication, in-between times.

At these events, I am always amazed at the different and complementary ways in which poets express themselves - the variety of styles, the emotional range, the sense of commonly experienced life events expressed uniquely.  I know Sunday will be no different - it's why I keep on getting involved.

This week, I've held a new born baby, sat with someone who's in the depths of depression, congratulated a friend on her marriage, heard of the death of a friend, and yes, done housework, run for a train, seen cherry blossom, despaired at the news from Syria, and felt warm in the sun and cold in the wind.  Life is full, life is hard, life is amazing, life is tragic, life is hilarious - forgive these clichés - but I use them here to illustrate why I have this habit of getting involved in organising poetry events. For me, it's in listening to others make their own sense of these things that I can begin to do the same, and on Sunday, this sense will be made in word and music.

If you haven't already got tickets, just come along on the day, or follow the advertised links below.  It'd be lovely to see you there. 

Friday, 27 April 2018

I Blurt Out Loud

I broke the habit of a lifetime this week, and bought several copies of the Sun, Mirror, Star, Mail - for me, these papers are beyond the pale.

The papers carry stories, such as that about Alfie Evans, which grapple clumsily with issues of life and death, parental choice, the right to life, the right to die, the place of medicine in our lives all under the piercing headline, MY WARRIOR.

When I bought these papers: Sun, Mirror, Star, Mail, Express ... I included the Shrewsbury Chronicle amongst them. I was on the look out for red tops, and the word CHRONICLE appears in bold red text.  On the cover of the April 19th edition is the story of Grace Currie who was evicted from the Shrewsbury Hotel after mistaking the symptoms of her cognitive impairment for drunkenness.  Shame on them.  I know Grace through her artwork, recently exhibited at Theatr Clwyd in Mold as part of Nathan Davies' Save the Welsh Independent Living Grant campaign.  Her work is full of the truth of lived experience.

I also included the Daily Telegraph - as on the cover Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was pictured in her red dress, straight out of hospital with her son, newly born on St George's Day.  CRY FOR MUMMY, ENGLAND AND ST GEORGE, quipped The Sun. Another red top moment.

I'm sending these newspapers to Antwerp where my own son is designing a jacket, a red top, as part of his fashion design degree.  They will be torn up: made into papier mache. The programme he's enrolled in has received an inarticulate roasting in the fashion press this week following the news that a third year student took his own life a few weeks ago. Students have since been talking to the press about the huge pressures they face on the programme, but the (necessary in so many ways) resulting article is poorly written - perhaps adding to, as much as alleviating, the confusion and sadness, rather than showing a pathway through it.

When I bought the papers, I blushed at the till as I fumbled with my purse. I provided an explanation in bold headline print to the sales assistant:  "THESE ARE FOR A PROJECT"; "I'M DOING THIS FOR MY SON".  The assistant barely looked at me, handing me my change as if what I was trying to say was already fit for tomorrow's chip papers.

Friday, 13 April 2018

I Scoff My Emergency KitKat

My emergency KitKat has served useful purposes today:

ONE - It lay in my unopened drawer, more than a month after I put it there. It signalled (to whomever might have been interested - probably only me -) that I am, in fact, capable of restraint. As long as I hide the chocolate.

TWO - I noticed it [having opened my drawer at 8.17am to look for a paper clip] for the first time for a couple of weeks. The sight of it gave me hope.

THREE - At 3.34pm, when drinking a cup of coffee, I chose to eat it.

FOUR - Yum.

FIVE - My emergency KitKat transformed scoff into a transitive verb.

SIX - Without it, I would have scoffed today. I scoff.

SEVEN - The objectification and consumption of a KitKat saved me from scoffing. An unkind thing to do.

EIGHT - It also reminded me of the other use for KitKats, and the reason I had a spare, emergency KitKat in the first place: their suitability for use as piano keys.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

I Affix A Toilet Roll Holder To My Shower Room Wall

Four years ago, I picked up a toilet roll holder in a charity shop for £1. It was still in its packaging - an important virtue, I feel, in a second-hand toilet roll holder.

This weekend, I bought the necessary fittings to affix it to the wall next to the toilet.  When I say 'I bought', I mean, a kind friend said he was going to Abbey Hardware. I asked my friend to pick up a couple of rawl plugs suitable for plasterboard, gave him the money.

Abbey Hardware has featured here before.  Forget Harrods (once reputed to sell everything): Abbey Hardware is one of the best shops in the world - a shop where it's still possible to go in, be served immediately by someone able to answer any question which begins with, 'Have you got one of these ...?' - a shop where the revelation of something pulled from a pocket, or drawn on a scrap of paper, or pictured on a phone, is met with serious attention.

For the past four years, the toilet roll holder has been asking to be fixed to a wall.  It took me two years to make the choice about next to which of my two toilets to locate it.  I can't explain the delay of two further years - not adequately, anyway.

Four years and two hours after buying the toilet roll holder, I screwed it to the wall in the shower room. I used a spirit level, a pencil, and a Phillips head screwdriver.

It wasn't that difficult, really.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

I Thank My Younger Self

During yesterday's school concert , I got one of those throat tickles that makes my eyes water.  It came out of the blue, and within a few seconds I was struggling to contain a cough.  It arrived in the second half, and I'd bought a bottle of water at the interval which I quickly opened. The water soothed my throat and I didn't interrupt the young man who was giving a solo from Les Miserables his full and intense purpose.

Only an hour previously, I had expressed my gratitude to my former self, the one who'd thought to leave a packet of mints in the car for those occasions when, on arrival at a school concert after a long day at work, my mouth feels fuzzy with the coffee drunk at elevenses.

Those acts of water and mint, coming so close together, were kindnesses, forethoughts, on behalf of my slightly younger self to my slightly older self. So I said, "Thank you, Liz," out loud.

So too the plastic bag stashed in my handbag, the tissue in my pocket, the plaster in my purse, the emergency £20 note under the cover of my mobile phone - all these are thoughts I've had for my future self for which I may, one moment in the future stood at a till, or having cut my finger, or reaching for my purse and finding it gone, be grateful.

It's easy to say to myself, "You Idiot!" those times when I late for a meeting and have to hurry, or when I accidently throw away a piece of my car when cleaning it or checking the tyres, or when I set fire to my table because I hadn't thought about the combustibility of packs of poppadums; but I've noticed that practising compassion to myself includes not only going easy on myself when I didn't anticipate the future as it turned out to be, but also acknowledging the small triumphs of preparation which make my days better.

There are more memorable kindnesses too: this evening I'm grateful to my slightly younger self for having the forethought to buy two tickets six months ago for the live transmission to our local cinema of a performance from the Royal Opera House - a Bernstein Centenary celebration in dance and music.

The celebration of Berstein's work was full of wonder, power, depth, rhythm and grace. A performance of the Chichester Psalms, to which the Royal Ballet danced Yugen, moved me unexpectedly. The choir sang in Hebrew; the set was simply monumental, the red costumes flowed against the sensitive lighting: all this adding to a sense of sacred space.  The dancers were sculpted like immortal beings, moving to the music with fluency and power, to a plan thought out long in advance.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

I Receive Royalties

Chatting with a friend today, she told me about seeing the Queen when in London earlier this week. "Did she look like the Queen?" I asked. "Yes!" came the reply, along with photographic evidence.  Republican or Royalist, you'd have to admit she looked dazzling and very much like herself in a bright orangey-red coat and matching flamboyant hat.

I have had encounters with royalties of my own today.  A four figure (plus decimal point) sum was paid into my bank account courtesy of ALCS - the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society.  This made me feel, for a moment, like a poetry princess.

Like most famous people, The Queen is shorter in real life.  Very early one morning, I once saw the Royal Train on the platform opposite me on Shrewsbury station.  I thought I saw a curtain twitch. And once I saw Peter Ustinov in the Oriental Hotel, Bangkok.

I earned the taller-than-I-expected royalties because I registered my poems published in anthologies, and my own pamphlets, with ALCS.  I did this after I'd seen a friend's post on Facebook about this organisation which collects money on behalf of writers from libraries, and those who've legitimately photo/copied their work.

When I receive money which comes from my poetry, I like to spend it on something memorable. I think I'll be spending these royalties on a meal out with my sons and heirs.

Friday, 9 March 2018

I Languish In Bed

I can tell I'm getting better because there is a new splodge of paint on my bedroom wall. 

Last Sunday, I was chatting to my eldest son on the phone when I was felled by a virus, not that I admitted it at the time. My eyes started streaming and I choked on my words. Always one for a bit of healthy denial, I told him that my response was probably an allergic reaction to some cut lilies I had bought which were starting to unfold their petals after a couple of days in the warmth. The fact that I have never reacted to lilies like this before didn't strike me as a reasonable objection to my theory. I couldn't possibly be ill, I told him and myself, as I've had the 'flu vaccine and I'd made it through the winter in good health and wasn't going to be caught now.

By evening I was in a position of defeat - horizontal, lying on my side with a tissue under my nose. And for the next three days, that's pretty much how I stayed, with occasional forays to a sitting up position and my laptop whilst I reassured myself that the bits of the world for which I feel a keen sense of responsibility were doing absolutely fine without me.  I leapfrogged Ibuprofen and Paracetamol and went off lots of things including coffee.

Then yesterday, I got dressed at midday, went to the shops to get more pills, and on the way back, picked up a paint sample pot. Within 15 minutes of being seized by the idea of decorating something, and soon, I'd dolloped a small patch onto my bedroom wall.  I then sunk back into my pillows, feeling more peaceful.

As for the sudden onset of decorating fever, maybe it was the result of staring for too long at four walls this week; or maybe it arose from the need to feel a sense of achievement after being taken out of my daily routine - that deeply ingrained work ethic which says that ill or not, progress must be made!

Two days on, that paint splodge has become a mark of comfort: something about an intent almost as convincing as a fully painted wall. I've fallen for its pale light blue-grey - a fresh, clean hopefulness. Maybe on my brief trip outside, I was caught by something else - by the sense that spring, with all its promise of new and bright colour, is at last in the air.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

I Parallel Park

Once, I lived in a one-way street with tightly-bound on-street parking. I was an expert at parallel parking on the left-hand side of the road.  Looking over my shoulder, I could, thanks to power steering, nudge my way into a space just longer than my car and end up with it neatly straight, placed at a few inches distance from the kerb.  I might wake up the next morning to a broken wing mirror and a curry splatted onto the windscreen, but at least I knew my angles.

I thought this skill for keeping things on the straight and narrow was, like making brownies, one I had acquired for life. But it turns out it was just for particular situations, and my son kindly pointed out to me the other day that, whilst my brownies remain roughly square, my parking has become skewed.

Parallel parking is an occasional activity these days - I travel by train as much as possible, and when I do have to park, it's usually in a marked out space, or a street-side so ample and so generous that I can drive into a space headfirst.

For reasons of basketball, though, last week I had to get into a small space: mercifully left-hand side. It took me five, or maybe seven, attempts of backing in, checking the kerb, realising I was adrift, heading out to start all over again. My son sat patiently with me throughout, occasionally opening his passenger door to look down and see where we were up to.

It was a companionable sort of dance this - me edging in, him checking, me edging out, him offering encouragement, me edging in, him checking, us chuckling, me edging out, him commenting on his game's highlights to pass the time before I edged in again. 

Back home, we concluded I need more practice, or less practice. Either way, I'm up for it.