Thursday, 11 July 2019

I Ace Wimbledon

My first appearance at Wimbledon was on Court 2. Getting there involved planning, diligence, holding my nerve and the support of my team - a team which knows how to meet the criteria, complete the paperwork (a form, and then another form, and then a stamped addressed envelope, a wait, another form, another envelope, many more stamps).

Fortunately, my team comprised my Longest Serving Friend who has been negotiating the ways of Wimbledon for years, and taught me everything she knows, trained me up, drove me hard. "Sign here", she said, putting the ticket application form under my nose. After winning the tickets, we needed to work out a strategy for play. It involved staying for the week at Wimbles Farm , East Sussex, a train from East Grinstead, and sun cream. 

Wimbles Farm is paradise for those who want to get off-grid, on the ground and out of doors.  The first night I unzipped my tent, made my way out for my 2am nightly stop-off, and entered a sky which was velvet-indigo, deep with constellations, strewn with the Milky Way. The view of our pitch the next day was no less extraordinary:

We could have spent the whole week in Eden, but left for bike rides, swims and, last Wednesday, Wimbledon. After our train ride, we watched nine hours of tennis in what felt like a moment of joy. The day was dense with drama: loose balls  an art form as they were collected up by the precisely trained skills of ball girls and boys; grass courts edged to perfection; line judges performing a synchronised dance of standing up and sitting down between games; gods on court who gifted us with out-of-this-world visions of grace, speed, cunning, flight and power, and the occasional outburst of mortal frustration. Wawrinka, Opelka, Halep, Buzarnescu, Anderson, Tipsarevic: names worthy of any pantheon. We took sides, grew to care about each shot, each game: got caught up in it all. It was wonderfully exhausting.

Back at Wimbles Farm, we spent evenings chilling wine in shop-bought ice, cooking risotto and sitting by the fire. Daytime, we discovered the Cuckoo trail - a disused train line, now cycle route. One day we rode to Eastbourne, and Fusciardi's ice cream parlour, then took the train on to Lewes and the wonderful Pells Pool.

On our final morning in paradise, we noted a dead grass snake on the path as we rode to a lake graced with rushes and water lilies. We undressed by the water's edge, clambered down and swam around in widening circles, before floating on our backs and looking up at the clear sky, letting happiness soak through our skins.

Monday, 17 June 2019

I Become Set To Music

As a Christmas present, Jonty gave me the gift of possibilities. He offered to make one of my poems into song. This is one of those loaves and fishes presents - something more than the sum of its parts: a gift of multiplication.

The starting sum in this particular equation was gluttony - a collecting up of all the candidate poems. They became a group in themselves: at least a sextet of some of my favourites. I had to reduce them down, so subtracted the narratives, the wistful, the greedily over-familiar - I watched out for something playful.

iniquity leapt up saying "Pick me! Pick me!" This cheeky poem drew envy from the others, with its consciously written psychological ambiguity and dark streak. It came to me after listening to Handel's Messiah. "All we like sheep have gone astray. And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" sing the chorus early on in this oratorio. Somehow, Handel and the choir make this straying and sinning sound like a lot of fun. Try lazing around and then dancing to the Messiah - that is what I was doing the evening that iniquity came to me. You will not disappoint yourself.

Having been published in Magma, I have confidence in iniquity. I wanted to give my son material worthy of his attention. He was open to the suggestion, took iniquity  away, thought about it and showed it to his composition tutor. She squared up to the poem, calling it (Jonty reported back), "A work of genius!"  I watched iniquity puff itself up easily into the shape of pride.

Jonty took iniquity and months later gave it back to me having multiplied it by Schoenberg, by the dialogue between mezzo soprano and piano, by youthfulness and by his joyful creativity.  He has added layers of meaning and interpretation to this poem which does not immediately lend itself to a musical setting. Listening to it, I had the feeling, both rare and visceral, that he had seen straight through me, given me so much more than I could ever have imagined or asked.

Here's the link to the song on Bandcamp -

iniquity …

I like the word
how it feels
tongue flattened to roof for the in
release for the second short i
cheeks and lips drawn for qui
lips bared for the ty

it’s a total mouth experience
say it
four syllables of tense   relax   pout   spit

say it looking in the mirror
come on to yourself
relish the way you look like this
limbering up     for what? 
wine    women     sin

it puts everything at your disposal
a life-ful of bite and sound
of going into yourself
trying out all love’s addictions

say it
play it out

you lucky devil

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

I Work In The Cold

It's unseasonably cold and wet. You don't need me to tell you that, unless you live somewhere else. The rain came down and the floods went up today, and I got my feet and trousers wet on the way from the station because firstly I left my umbrella at the side of a marquee on Saturday, and because secondly the water was coming up from the pavement as well as down from the skies.

The renovations happening in my part of the building at work seem to necessitate the door to the outside being left open. I suppose this is for convenience. Also, the heating isn't on, which is good because it's June, and not good because it's nothing like an averagely warm June, and someone's leaving the door wedged open.

I sat down at my desk, damp. I got on with the sedentary nature of administration, marking, answering enquiries. A slow day, a misplaced day which should have been spent on a trip to the International Slavery Museum on the waterfront in Liverpool according to another plan which I'm glad, in the end, didn't come off.  There's a best-not-experienced quality of cold on the dockside in Liverpool when the wind whips off the Mersey and the rain comes along with it.

You can't make an omelette without cracking eggs. They can't renovate a building without leaving the door open, ripping up floors, making dust and pulling down the ceiling. I can't always stop the cold from creeping in, taking hold of my hands.

But I can go home, run an early bath, get into my pyjamas and heat a bowl of soup, as if it were already November.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

I Have A Lane To Myself

At the baths this morning, there was one lane roped off from the rest of the pool - a strip of almost-blue 25 meters x 1.5 meters. There were other swimmers, but no one had chosen this water.  I slipped in at the shallow end, paddled off. Couldn't believe my luck.

Having space I can call my own, both in time and square meters, is something I wallow in. I think I used to be a bit out of my depth when faced with space with just me in it - questions and insecurities would bubble up How fast should I go? Are people deliberately avoiding me?  Will I get lonely? 

No one joined me in the lane - I had a full hour to myself breast-stroking up and down, turning on my back for a spot of back crawl, easing the ache out of my spine. The water was cool, warmed in places by the sun streaming in through the glass roof. I emerged at peace with myself and my body.

I luxuriate in those moments when I get 4 seats round a table on the train to myself, or when I have a whole evening at home in which I can freestyle, or when my work room buddy is away on holiday and I can indulge my musical tastes more freely. La Mer. The Trout Quintet. Peter Grimes.

I'm aware that being alone within four walls can be intensely isolating in different circumstances. I do not take for granted the freedom I have to step out of delineated space.

Later, after my swim, I cycled to the weir and sat on a bench in the sun drying my hair, my bike propped up beside me. A fellow cyclist came over to admire her - she is striking. We chatted for a while about her colour, Lagoon Blue, about folding bikes, about cycle lanes, cycling on the left and then about the way strength and speed diminish with age. Paul had just emerged from eight months of illness - it was his first bike trip out since October. We idled pleasantly around in our conversation against the tumbling sounds of weir water cascading, splashing and foaming, rushing downstream. 

Saturday, 27 April 2019

I Glow With Pride

Parenthood can make me sweat, involving - without being metaphorical in the slightest - pushing, uplifting, hauling, accompanying, wiping, skipping, smoothing, sifting, sorting ... but right now, I’m simply glowing.

If I said that my sons’ choices to pursue post-school education in the creative fields of fashion and music never caused me a minute’s perspiration, I’d be disingenuous. Fashion in particular is a highly competitive applied art, requiring a complex range of skills, knowledge and aptitudes. These include life drawing, pattern cutting, design, embroidery, tailoring, draping, photography, and graphic design, as well as the study of the history of fashion, philosophy of art and research methodology . And then there are the skills and labours of developing and planning whole collections, liaising with models to wear and present them.

I’m glowing because my son Gabriel has won an award which recognises in a tangible way how much he has achieved in his learning of the skills of fashion design. Five years ago, he had an emerging interest in clothes and how they're made, but he'd never used a sewing machine. So we attended an evening class at Shrewsbury College where his teacher, Johanna, took his interest entirely seriously. Since that initial affirmation, he’s branched out, cut loose, taken risks, pursued an unconventional and challenging path.

In February, Gabriel applied for this, advertised in the Shrewsbury press by the Shrewsbury Arts Society:

Celebrating the Golden Jubilee of The Arts Society

After a highly competitive process, the judges described his application and interview performance as outstanding. He displayed a depth of knowledge and passion which convinced them to give him the financial award aimed at supporting a young artist from the Shrewsbury area embarking on a career in the arts.

This is an accolade and it's a practical one too. Studying fashion is expensive in terms of materials required: over four years of a foundation degree and BA, he has used / will use hundred of metres of fabric, tens of thousands of metres of thread, needles, buttons, zips, buckles, Velcro, interfacing, paper, ink, not to mention chicken wire, safety boots, paints, dyes and glues. The award will be a great help towards these costs.

So I’m glowing - proud as can be of my son who is forging his own way, delighted that fellow artists have recognised his talent and commitment.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

I Buy A New Washer: I Calculate My Figures

I Buy A New Washer: I Calculate My Figures: There's something going on around my middle that I'm trying to work out. One of the workings out I am doing is swimming. A recent tr...

I Calculate My Figures

There's something going on around my middle that I'm trying to work out. One of the workings out I am doing is swimming. A recent trial membership offer at the Quarry Swimming Baths meant that I swam five times in ten days and this worked out at £1 per swim.

Four of those swims happened on workdays before work. It has come as something of a surprise to me that I am able to swim 660 metres, half of them towards my desk, half of them in the opposite direction, and still arrive at work on time, albeit with damp hair.

Based on that experience, I have signed up to a year's swimming membership. So far, the swims I have swum under membership terms have worked out at £95 each. If I swim 188 more times in the coming year, I will get the cost back down to £1 per swim.

Whilst I'm swimming, I try to remember the number of the length I'm on. This helps me to arrive at work on time. If I say to myself  "TWELVE" (never out loud) as I start length 12, it's somewhat confusing, as I've actually completed 11 lengths. There's something about this that feels like cheating, but equally, I can't get my head around the idea of length zero. If I think about all this too hard, I lose count.

So far, according to the tightness of my jeans, my motivating central concerns are not yet worked out. I carry forward other benefits into my days, however. A fuller sense, after one of those early baptisms, that my life is mine, and everything in it. And the whiff of chlorine emanating from my skin.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

I Avoid Traffic On My Way To Radio Shropshire

I set off down the steep gradient of St Mary's Water Lane to the River Severn. It is not so steep as to be too much so. I cycle along the river path, bumping over the cobbled stretch under the bridges upon which Shrewsbury railway station is built. From here it's a flat run out to the weir.

The weir-water is calm and silvery-smooth: recent flooding turbulence is a memory - there's a hint of white froth bubbling the surface where the descending water rejoins the flow of the river.

The path ends in a road and the road runs by the river. Just past the island, a goose is being goosey - stretching its neck and greeting the morning. I pass joggers, cyclists, and early walkers. There are no cars. The air is clear, hopeful.

Often we nod to each other, us early-risers, say, “Hi!” in the conspiracy of those who know that to be up and out on a spring morning is one of the best things, especially as, despite everything being muddled and angry in some places, here the sunlight highlights the whites and pinks of blossom, searches out the lime green of emerging leaves.

The only cars are parked cars. I turn right through sleepy bungalows, and then right again onto the cycle path but then choose left, not the route to the canal path. The sign points to Mount Pleasant, as if that is a state of being that is still possible. A gradual gradient up, and yes, it's pleasant in the cool air, the cindered path just right for a bike, or for a walker, or for a bike and a walker passing going in apparently opposite directions. The walker adjusts his direction slightly, curves leftwards to leave me more space to pass, says, "Hello!".

Crossing the main road at the lights, I take to quiet residential streets for a while - then it's back to a cycle path over the railway bridge and past more houses, stirring into their Saturday. There's no jeopardy even in the last stretch, though it takes me, briefly, onto the main road.

At the radio studios, I chat with Liz, producer, and then Ryan Kennedy, and I catch up, talk poetry, talk the weather, talk the clocks changing. I get to Carol Caffrey's poem, read 'The Moorings'. It's as beautiful as this morning - holds loss, grief: is freefall with light grace, afloat with hope. - I read Carol's poem at 39 mins 10 seconds

Monday, 4 March 2019

I Party Long Into the Night

It's not often my friends turn 130, especially the ones who aren't Hobbits, but that's what is happening in February and March to Graham 'n' Ted, two of the sweetest, dearest of them.

The idea for a party was mine - at least, I'll claim it as such. It might not have been, but it scarcely matters. What happened was, there was an idea among poets that G and T, GKA and Big Ted, could and should and would share a party, because together they are making 130 years young.

At the heart of the party was the dance. Not just any dance, but the sort of dancing that people do from start to finish because it's so compulsory in a lenient way. That's to say, the folks operating the vinyl decks, Mike and Hattie, made it easy in their choice of songs. Who wouldn't dance, raise their hands, smile to Free Nelson Mandela, especially those of us who are approaching, are at, or past, 130 combined years with our nearest and dearest. We remember it, you see: the special hope of the early 1990s, when we were grown up already, and some of us were, or were about to become parents, but still it seemed possible (and I mean everything) because peace broke out in several ways in several places.  South Africa. Northern Ireland. And the Berlin wall had already fallen.

In the centre of the party were two of the sweetest, dearest of men. Men who embrace the dance of a party, of friendship, of love in all its forms. Men who rock being men in the modest, kind and strong in-a-good-way - way that honours all the women that know and love them. And all the men too, come to think of it. In the centre of the party was the hope of love and peace - and it was a sober happiness.

That's the thing - this wasn't some slurred, blurred feeling of numbed contentment. This party had the natural joy induced by two hours, more, of stamping, swaying, grooving dancing, and a magnificent jointly brought along buffet and Mike's excellent raspberry and almond cake - you see, after an hour of this dancing around in yellow boots, GKA in his top hat, Ted whistling, I noticed that everything that's difficult about being 130, all that knowing the world in its complication, fell away. And what came around was simplicity. No matter our imperfections, some of the messes we might have made along the way - no matter our successes and achievements. This was so straightforward, dancing together, wreathed in music, in the friendship of years, and in deep acceptance and the kind of loving that exceeds categories, and will still be there tomorrow, and the next day, and for the next eleventy years.

Happy Birthday, GKA!  Happy Birthday Ted!  We love you. And here you are, cutting the cake:

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

I finish a book ...

not for the first time, of course. I have finished many books before, and sometimes I have started them all over again. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series which I have read four or five times, perhaps as an antidote to my Inner-London childhood. As I walked up from the station this evening talking to my work friend, we discovered that we remembered the same passages about making maple syrup candy in the snow and building log cabins from scratch. 

I finished War and Peace a few weeks after I started it in 1979.  The explanation for my dedication is partly Tolstoy's genius, and partly the crush I had on a guy I wanted to impress. I had my response ready should he ever ask me what I was reading. 

But over the years, things have changed. As an academic, I have developed the dry and necessary habit of getting what I must from a book - using the index and chapter headings to find sections which give me the essential point or definition. It's rare in these circumstances to read a whole text. And it's not often I read a collection of poetry from cover to cover in one sitting. It does happen: Douglas Dunn's Elegies. But usually, I dip in, mull over, and stare into the distance, get distracted. In short, I've developed unsatisfactory habits.

My habits have become so unsatisfactory, that I turned up to my last book group struggling even to remember the title of the book we were to discuss. It's a lovely group, and I joined in the discussion from my position of ignorance incurring no judgement, but I realised I had reached a new reading low.

So I've taken enormous pleasure not only in reading, but also in finishing Maggie O'Farrell's I am I am I am in two sittings (it could easily have been one had not work intervened). This experience of utter book-absorption reconnected me to the feelings I had on those childhood afternoons as they grew into dark evenings when, propped on one hand, I resisted all calls of nature as I wandered around Narnia, or Northanger Abbey, or 221B Baker Street. 

O'Farrell's beautifully structured book recalls 'seventeen brushes with death' and does so with vivid immediacy. She achieves that remarkable balance that is so compelling - revelation woven seamlessly with recognition. She led me through her deeply moving stories, to encounters with my own fears and existential experiences. And I am grateful.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

I File Irritating and Unnecessary Demands

When I got home from work, I emptied crumbs from my toaster whilst hanging about the kitchen, waiting for my supper to cook. Emptying the toaster of crumbs involves removing the crumb tray (into which a thimbleful of crumbs has fallen), emptying that, and then inverting the whole thing and giving it a good shake.

In order to clean up my email inbox, I have created a folder named 'Irritating and Unnecessary Demands'.  This allows me to file irritating and unnecessary demands away from the main workings of my email correspondence. 

In most contexts - beds, tables, work surfaces, inside toasters - toast crumbs are an irritating, although necessary, by-product of toast-making and eating. 

The irritating and demanding emails do not seem to me to have the virtue of being necessary in any context apart from one in which they have been deemed necessary. This is why they are irritating. 

 When I'd shaken as many crumbs as a could from my toaster, I wiped up the pile, and put it in the bin. In terms of crumb volume, the pile may have amounted to a hot cross bun in other circumstances.

In a culture in which nothing has happened until it has been measured, I draw comfort from the small action of turning my inbox upside-down, and shaking emails into a folder which I have named 'Irritating and Unnecessary Demands'. 

Now that my toaster is clean, I'm looking forward to toasting a bun, and smothering it in butter. This is guaranteed to reduce my irritation to zero for the time being. 

Sunday, 20 January 2019

I Arrange My Mugs

When Mike made me some mug shelves, I thought he had solved my mug storage issue once and for all. However, this weekend, in-between marking and eating Lindt Salted Dark chocolate (an activity directly linked to the marking) I've been mugging about.  You see, although I have 30 more mug spaces at my disposal, I still have more mugs (et al) than spaces.

There are a number of approaches I could take to this conundrum. Let me say up front that donating mugs to any of the large number of nearby charity shops is not an option. To illustrate my point: although I do not actually like the design of the St Hugh's College mug and neither does my younger son (shelf 3, Mug Shot #1), he left it with me when he returned to university after Christmas saying that it would remind me of him in his absence. It does. (In any case, I donated another mug to him for use there. In addition, I passed on a couple of mugs to my eldest son for his Antwerp apartment back in the autumn. So I had already shown storage foresight).

   Mug Shot #1                        Mug Shot #2                        Mug Shot #3

In Mug Shot #2, I have arranged all the mugs which represent aspects of my identity on shelf 2. Thus we have Poet, Anarchy, Mum, Liz. This shelf would sum me up nicely, if I didn't undermine aspirations to be an Anarchist with my need to order my mugs by a set of rules. It's possible I'm undermining my Poet identity too by spending time sorting mugs when I could be sorting words into lines.

The rule of Mug Shot #3 is one of colour. The two rows of blue are my favourite. But this arrangement contravenes the mug rule, as, like the other mug shots, it contains objects which aren't mugs. Like jugs. 

Where I've come to is that I like this mugging about, this muggling along, this mugfulness, this living in the mugment.

Choosing mugs by coordinates (three mugs along, four shelves down) keeps my approach to tea drinking mug-half-full. The tea accompanies the marking and the Lindt Salted Dark chocolate, so there really isn't an issue at all. 

Sunday, 6 January 2019

I Pick LPs At Random

I've a new game - I go to my shelf of LPs (I've just counted and there are just over 200) and pick one at random.  I slide out the record from the packed line-up and see what I've got.

Last night, it was this:

I listened willingly, intrigued by the choice of cover. Who knew Brahms Violin concerto could induce that Saturday night, post-wedding celebration feeling? (Hogarth apparently).

This morning, it was this:

And what an awakening! Only yesterday, I was talking with my son about Stravinsky and national identity in music, and here he is, in deep conversation with Isaac Stern. 

My collection is mainly made up from records which belonged to my parents. It's a rich inheritance which sat unused for years in the attic, waiting for the vinyl revival. And now they've come into their own - move over Apple Music! Step aside Spotify and your playlists! This is where it's at: highlights from Don Giovanni sung by this crowd:

And Schubert's wonderful quintet played by a bunch of guys in the days before classical musicians had to pose, ripped and made-up, or draped over a violin:

Style is not absent from my collection. A later addition to my collection is this - picked up at a charity auction in aid of SAND - Safe Ageing No Discrimination. You might need to look them up. You won't need to look this performer up:

So I've been working and listening to LPs, and the odd EP, getting up every 20 mins or so to flip over the disc, or choose another.

And in amongst my mood has been the pervading sadness felt at the death of a dear friend this week. She's been in my thoughts constantly, but when I picked out this LP I could hear her voice clearly in my head:

"Pull yourself together Missus, for Christ's sake. Have a hot chocolate and never forget who you are or where you're headed ... "