Sunday, 19 June 2022

I Sense An Ending

My friend, John Rae, husband of my godmother Anne, has died. John collaborated with me on the book of this blog, sending me line drawings through the post during 2020 when we were in lockdown. The drawings were, and are, a source of joy. 

It occurs to me, as I write, that today in the UK is Father's Day. I've checked the apostrophe, and yes, correctly, it comes before the s, but my inclination is to shift it after the s to honour the several father-figures in my life. 

The part of fatherliness that John Rae showed me was twinkle and fun, with serious giggles. If you need evidence for this, just look at his interpretation of life through drawing. Here's a sample of what he drew to accompany the edited blog entries that appear in I Buy A New Washer:

 I Find A Garden:

Just from reading my words, John was able to capture the spirit of my rooftop sanctuary. This felt, and feels, like a connection, a 'being heard' - something I crave, the thing that motivates me to write.

I Pitch My Tent

I thought often of John as I was holidaying last week with my longest-serving friend. We were camping in Norfolk this time, and one day, we arrived in Norwich:

I thought of other friendships that have come to an end, whether through death or separation. I felt sad. Nearly 50 years after first setting off for Norwich (see, I Arrive In Norwich) I finally went into the cathedral, experienced evensong. The music, the company of other Lizes, the stained glass - all these became a still point in my turning world. 

John was a skillful artist, architect and teacher. A humane man - much loved. After our book was published, I received notes through the post from many people asking to buy a copy. The majority of these were friends of John and Anne's. All spoke of long friendships, with affection and admiration. 

With death comes ending, as well as a continuation of thought and feelings. My thoughts and feelings have, this past few months, been circling around ideas for next poems. I've written little down, but I must get onto this in order to grow a little more. I also need to work out how to put up a curtain pole so that the curtains I bought in Norwich hang straight. 

So without either a bang or a whimper, I end this blog here. 

I Am Read.
I Thank You.


All drawings by John Rae

I recommend trying to get hold of his Sketchbook of the World -  

Sunday, 22 May 2022

I Read Jung (With Dog)

Having finished Ulysses, I've gained the confidence to read other books that have been tapping me on the shoulder for years. One such is Jung's Memories, Dreams and Reflections, recommended to me by  Anne. It's as if, having climbed Everest, I can consider K2 (though I'd like to make clear this is a metaphor - I have attempted neither, and if I did, I would need to be carried or air-lifted down at some point).

I'm currently dog-sitting a beautiful lurcher, and she and I take long walks together. Sometimes, on these walks, I listen to the birdsong in the woods, or the lambs bleating in the fields, and sometimes, I plug myself into my phone and listen to a book. And this is how I've read Jung. 

It's not an easy read - though parts of it are. That would be my review if asked for a line for the back cover. 

As Jaffa was trotting about, this is what I heard the other morning, and it illustrates my summary: 

"I never think that I am the one who must see to it that cherries grow on stalks. I stand and behold, admiring what nature can do." Carl Jung - Memories, Dreams and Reflections. 

When I heard this, I stopped and typed it into my phone to remember the wisdom.  

I called Jaffa to me, and she came up, looking hopeful. I read out Jung's words to her and she looked at me with her deep, kind eyes, hoping for a more edible treat, or perhaps something on the interpretation of dreams, then trotted off, ears flopping gently with each step. She urinated on some bracken. 

Jaffa understands life as the stream passing by, as Jung describes it, into which she occasionally makes a contribution, or dips her paw, her tongue, her whole body. I have a tendency to try to make cherries grow on stalks. Jaffa doesn't. When she offers her contribution to the undergrowth, she does it because she is a dog, not because she hopes to make cherries grow in a pine forest. 


I finished Jung's book on that walk, and, as with Ulysses, I'll read it again one day, and perhaps understand a little more. In the meantime, I understood enough to know that my life is much richer for having read the book.

Jaffa is asleep as I write this, maybe dreaming of rabbits.  

Thursday, 10 February 2022

I Say Yes

I've finished reading James Joyce's Ulysses in time for its centenary year. This wasn't my plan when I picked it up for the first time in, when was it? 2009 I think. It's taken me twelve years with many pauses, re-starts, pauses. 

The copy of the book I bought at the Keele University bookshop (I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the time, was open to influence) has travelled with me, sat on various shelves, its spine cracking, the edges of its pages yellowing. 

The book was recommended to me by Scott McCracken, by Miss Cooper, by Jeremy Fisher, by Pope Innocent III, by Sue the Librarian, and all of them in it for the literature. I took it with me to France, to Italy, to Wyle Cop, to Ceredigion, and even to Dublin itself. It weighed me down with its great reputational promises and its respectable unrespectability. I began to think it had defeated me.

What is it to be so famous and to represent a formidable pinnacle of literature, to become reading for the super-diligent? By degrees, Ulysses became a monument to a decline in concentration, to my perception that the pandemic and Facebook between them had done for my ability to read at length. What I could manage had been reduced to Guardian articles, or, on a good day, Billy Collins' poems.

In the process of finishing Ulysses I think I read the first Episode, Telemachus, five or six times. In consequence, this may be the section I'll remember second best of all. I'd go far as to say it's an Episode that I understand. 

What helped jumpstart my 2021 attempt was the way my son Jonty, now also reading the book, treated it as if it were, well, just another book. He looked Ulysses in the eye, as if he were equal to it, which he is. And in doing so, he showed me that I am too. "It's really funny," he said. 

What? Funny?

This was the tip I needed, and when I got far enough into the swing of it, I also laughed out loud, even guffawed at times. I skipped lightly over the parts I couldn't make head nor tail of, seeking out the plentiful, juicier moments. Soon I was halfway through, then three quarters. I could hardly believe that the end was so nearly in sight. It was as if I had started reading downhill.

What I hadn't expected, even so, was how I would be swept away at the end in a rush of supreme recognition. How is it possible that it took me so long to get to that place, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, with all its rampant recognisable humanity? 

As I had also unloaded my reading troubles on Carol on our long car journey to our performances in Devon last August, I gave her the good news in November. It's done. For my birthday, she gave me the apron of the book to mark my achievement - it felt as good as any prize-giving, and although I'm wearing it at every opportunity, the apron's still clean - it's a reading apron after all. 

The final reading was all done and dusted in less than a year among the bed sheets and pine cones and sometimes with the sea lapping at my feet at Fairbourne. Penelope is the most wonderful thing I've ever read because it's wonderful, and because it came like that cold beer, crisps and pie I ate all at once at the pub at the foot of Cader Idris after misreading the largescale OS map on the descent.

So yes to the book which sat on my shelf plump and teasing with its thousands upon thousands of tiny pawprint words yes the twelve years the eighteen episodes yes the rollicking kidney of Irish history fried up in memory yes the guffaws yes the blushes and the winding boredom with another mug of coffee yes the classical religious literary references assumed in hours of lying there propped up on one hand making no sense and then sense coming unravelling its freewheeling veracity all over the inside of my imagination and yes yes I will read it again Yes.

Friday, 24 December 2021

I Unwrap Three Gifts

In the years we knew each other (not enough) GKA brought surprise into my Christmas Eve, or whenever it was we were able to get together with a few friends. He brought presents for us all - treasures he'd found on his meanderings round the charity shops of Shrewsbury. On these evenings there were no expectations, no disappointments, only the excitement, the wonder of a child's Christmas.

I'll tell you about three of these gifts, ones that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life, because that's how it rolls, isn't it? (Graham would've liked this touch: to be cast as all three wise men in the nativity play -- at last).

The first gift is gold and green -- a precious casket which says You are special. It contains a paperweight, and a paper.

It's gold - pure and true, heavy, precious, rare. 

The second gift is strong, saved for an emergency which hasn't yet happened. Souvenir from another land and time - if I need to open these tiny bottles one day, I expect what will remain is perfume, a prayer of alcohol and malt, of memories of holidays, of those holy days of happiness. 

The third gift is the place Graham still is, all residue of him. To wrap this for me was what he was like -- he found the solar system in an Oxfam shop, then gave it away. And with this must come the last poem -- the one he read to us in the park in September.


I will bury my bones beneath the earth

grow flowers from my soul

trees will feed from my essence

I shall be forever untarnished

eternal gold

I will scatter my ashes across the sky

fly like flocks of birds

like moths before the moon

I shall become the wind

travel fast

until I burn

yeah! burn in the heart of the star

Graham Attenborough, 2021

And there's something else. A gift which couldn't be wrapped. And it's this -- that it's possible to dance to Handel's Messiah, and that joy when doing this is inevitable. After we'd opened our presents, we'd push back the  coffee table and prance around: And the Glory of the Lord. All We Like Sheep. His Yoke is Easy. Hallelujah! 

Here he is, wearing a coat made by Gabriel. Here he is. My beloved friend. Here he is - Graham, GKA, Gray: half fallen angel, half risen dervish. 

Love to you, love to you all, at Christmas. 


Sunday, 5 September 2021

I Ready For Change

A change is coming. It's in the season - I am readying myself, need to prepare physically, mentally, for some experience or action. 

And so, I've started to read again. It's not that I stopped, but that I've been consumed by work, so eaten up by its immediate demands that I could hardly look at poetry, fiction, non-work-non-fiction, for the pain its absence causes. I think this shying away has been a sort of self-preservation too: to read great poetry and great fiction is to encounter the world in truth not found in sociology texts, rarely expressed in academic articles. To read what's written from the heart of experience is to know without doubt that freedom does not come from working harder, smarter, having what's been cited to me as a 'can-do attitude' (as if unquestioning obedience were some sort of virtue).

I've read The Great Gatsby again. I've read the newly controversial Some Kids ..., have just begun Beethoven, A Life in Nine Pieces. I'm enjoying making headway with Ulysses - hadn't realised how much fun it contains. I've dipped into the work of Adrienne Rich, Kei Miller, Philip Gross, Andrew McMillan, Gillian Clarke, Gerard Manley Hopkins, TS Eliot ... into the books which have been waiting patiently for me: my poet friends and familiars. They've soothed me, reconnected me to wider, deeper spaces. 

And I went swimming again this week in the reservoir. I had been waiting all August for the clouds to clear, the temperature to rise. The sun has been elusive, but when I turned to friendship, to LJ (who never shies away from experience or action), I found I could risk the plunge, even in 16 degrees under cloud. I went in not hot but bothered, came out cleansed. We sat afterwards in our usual spot, drinking tea, and the clouds cleared enough for there to be blue and gold. I carried the water's coolness into my evening, to the warmth of a poetry picnic in the park with friends. I began to remember who I am being, why I am doing. 

I Take the Plunge - drawing by John Rae

Sunday, 29 August 2021

I Scrape My Toast

The rasp of my knife

against charcoal, smell of fire:

an autumn hunger.

Drawing "I Burn the Old Year"  ©John Rae,

From I Buy A New Washer (and Other Moderate Acts of Independence) - available from, The Poetry Pharmacy, Castle Bookshop, Pengwern Books

Saturday, 7 August 2021

I Harvest My Crops

In the spirit of lockdown, and by way of testament to enduring friendship, I've been growing potatoes on my roof garden in tubs given to me by my longest-serving friend last Christmas. Everything to do with this process has been slightly more complicated, but much more enriching, than pandemic shopping: taking compost out of storage in my attic, climbing out of the window to plant seed potatoes ordered online during the #th lockdown, working out how to water the tubs in the dry spells with arcs of water poured from a watering can from the same window. 

After the problem-solving, and the anticipation, the harvest has been so satisfying - searching through soil to find, well, to find these:

I've staged this harvest, taking only enough spuds at a time for the next meal in order to achieve that tub-to-table-in-20-minutes freshness which has been the whole point, or at least a good part of the point. I've served them with mint from the window box, and roasted them with rosemary which grows next to the mint. With the next and final serving, I plan to smother then in buttery sage - the window box sage is flourishing, having been dug up and sent to me by Morar by Royal Mail last autumn. She'd read I didn't have any to go with my parsley, rosemary, and thyme (I Bottle Abundance). 

The rest of the point of the harvest has been to do with the pleasure of engaging in the physical world, the necessity of it. The joy of it is the reminder that growth often takes place out of sight ... but oh ... this is beginning to sound like it's heading in the direction of a sermon ...

You're right, dear reader: I'm going to use my potato harvest as a metaphor for creativity. You see, all the while these Charlottes were growing underground, I've been working on poems hidden in a file on my computer since 2019, now published by Fair Acre Press. I'd originally hoped their coming to light would coincide with Beethoven's 250th birthday in December 2020. This late harvest has also come in stages: a Zoom launch, a reading at the Poetry Pharmacy, and then a performance in mid-Devon on a summer's evening of extraordinary heat and calm. 

Carol Caffrey and I had hatched the idea of a joint event back in the spring when our host, Richard Higgins, was looking for productions for a short season of open air events. It had seemed, then, so theoretical, so impossible: the chances were that it would never happen.

And then, it did. 

Our journey down the M5 and through the high-hedged lanes was long. When we saw our names in huge letters on arrival at Brushford Barton, it was as if we had dug our hands into the soil, and, unbelieving until the moment of contact, found potatoes ... 

The following evening, in the house's beautiful enclosed courtyard, Carol's performance of Music for Dogs was wonderful as ever. I've seen the play six, maybe seven, times and it's just as well, as this time I was on sound desk duty. As she performed, in addition to the pre-recordings, extra barks floated across from the nearby lawns - Carol integrated these into the story like the pro that she is. She was amongst dog-lovers, and the audience loved her and the play, laughing and sighing in all the right places. 

When it was my turn, I read, for the first time, the whole sequence of GREAT MASTER / small boy, finding inspiration from the company of Beethoven himself. Richard had placed a wonderful carving of the Master next to me on the stage, complete with a 250th birthday candle.

For the two days we were at Brushford Barton, the world felt complete - a place of kindness, of hospitality, of growth and creativity: a place in which it is safe to be an artist, to bring new things to the surface, and to enjoy them in company.