Tuesday 14 November 2023

I Find Myself

Questions of meaning and existence have been circling in my thoughts all my conscious life. Who am I? Why, how, if, what, and where? If I added up all the time I’d spent pondering, I could’ve made several more dishes of macaroni cheese, and possibly finished my novel. 

It’s come as something of a surprise to me, therefore, to find that I’m located on an intersection in Hobart, Tasmania. In the end, finding myself has turned out to be as simple as looking at a map.

I’m not saying that therapy, writing poetry, making risotto, and camping haven’t had their parts to play in me finding myself. It was in a therapy session, after all, that I made the decision to travel to Australia in 2023, something I’d been pondering since Miss Smith’s feedback on my geography project in 1976. And it was by choosing to camp in Wales with my longest serving friend for years that I saved enough holiday money to afford the airfare.

When planning the Hobart part of the holiday that I’m taking with my younger son, I was browsing a list of restaurants. Up popped the suggestion of ‘Lizzie & Lefroy’. I gasped and stretched my eyes, consulted TripAdvisor. 

At this point, for clarity, I should say that my family and friends called me Lizzy/Lizzie when I was younger. Some of them still do. The spelling fluctuates - y (my parents’ choice) ie (nearly everyone else’s). I dealt with this inconsistency by simplifying things to Liz back in the 1980s.

Lizzie & Lefroy sits on the corner of Elizabeth and Lefroy in north Hobart. It has the most extensive gnocchi menu I’ve ever seen. 

We found it easily this evening and were welcomed by very warm and friendly staff. The walls were lined with Australian wines. The beers from local breweries. There was a log fire in a central glass-sided stove. 

Noticing my name on the booking, the waiter shook my hand, said: “You’re royalty here!” 

Eating delicious beetroot gnocchi and zucchini on a Tuesday in November with my son in my namesake restaurant was a special moment. Eating their sophisticated version of macaroni cheese  (Mushroom mac & cheese croquettes : Pyengana 12-month aged cheddar, garlic crisps, fresh thyme and parsnip cream) was a perfect in-body experience. 

It was all delicious and lovely. All my questions have been answered. I am, it would seem, where I eat.

Sunday 24 September 2023

I Exhale Deeply

Since learning that yoga is not, in fact, a sinister cult but a really useful way of caring for my back, I regularly breathe out deeply. This is something I've done both in classes, and in front of 'Yoga with Adrienne' and her free YouTube videos. 

When younger, I did breathing exercises for wellbeing by default when playing the flute. A lot of my lessons were spent with my teacher encouraging me to develop breath and diaphragm control. I had no idea how useful a life skill this was as I channelled a column of air into a top C. 

More recently, I exhaled deeply on opening a box of copies of Festival in a Book - A Celebration of Wenlock Poetry Festival. I had been holding my breath for two weeks: between the moment of pressing send on the final proofs and lifting out the first book. I breathed even more freely when Anna Dreda, Festival Founder, said she loves the anthology created in honour of her Festival and its legacy. 

It has struck me since that the publication of a book of poetry is, in some ways, an exhalation, a letting go. A breathing out of thought and word and music into the world. Breath and word. The word made paper. It can't be taken back now. And it will become part of other people's breathing, internal and external, when read. 

And so, here she is: the editor, not the book, breathing out, relaxing on the festival's famous knitted poem of Carol Ann Duffy's "The Bees" knitted a decade ago by a large number of volunteers and still as vivid as it was then (photo by Emily Wilkinson, poem now resident at the Poetry Pharmacy, Bishops Castle). 

The poem makes a wonderful yoga mat. 

To buy a copy of Festival in a Book, a Celebration of Wenlock Poetry Festival edited by Liz Lefroy, please email 904press@gmail.com  Cost £15 plus p&p (2nd class UK = £2.40) 

Here's the line up you can enjoy:

Thursday 7 September 2023

I Draw A Comparison

 Back in the days when I was known as Elizabeth by my school teachers, I compiled a project called 'Western Australia'. I was in Lower IV 26. 26 was the room number, Lower IV was year 8. In her feedback, written on a pale orange card, my Geography Teacher, the lovely Miss Smith, wrote: ELIZABETH: mainly WESTERN AUSTRALIA. In the corner of that card, she drew a fairy penguin. I've had a soft spot for penguins ever since.

On the other side of the small card, Miss Smith wrote this: "Your nice grassy folder had some original and interesting ideas in it, with good illustrations. The range of relevant information was wide, from Continental drift to Camels, and even though you veered from your subject by discussing the Barrier Reef, it was still a good effort. A(-)". 

Not much has changed in my approach to projects since 1976-7. The anthology I've been working on, Festival in a Book, A Celebration of Wenlock Poetry Festival, also has some original and interesting ideas in it, most of them not my own. The illustrations (by Emily Wilkinson) and design (by Gabriel Watt) are a bonus. The range of relevant poetry is wide in terms of the Festival itself, and the poets also veer (as you'd expect them to do) towards love, childhood, loss, celebration of nature, and death. 

A brackets minus. What a mark. Thank you Miss Smith. In old school terms, A was for near as damn excellent considering your age and stage, and minus was for not quite. The brackets? They were for but nearly. My project was: not quite near as damn excellent considering your age and stage, but nearly. I was very happy with this grade. If the anthology is judged by contributors and readers as: not quite near as damn excellent considering her age and stage, but nearly, I'll be delighted.

Maybe it was that carefully-wrought mark and Miss Smith's recognition of the effort I'd made that set in my 11 year-old head the bouncy thought that one day I would visit Western Australia, and the other parts of that country-continent that aren't WA but are closer to it than South Hampstead High School, 3 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3. It's certainly been a thought leaping kangaroo-like around my head for a few years: a thought I put into action back in the spring when I booked tickets to Perth, via Singapore. I leave in 5 weeks, once I've completed the distribution and launch of the anthology. 

And now that I've made the analogy between these two projects 46 years or so apart, I'm wondering if there's an equivalent of the Barrier Reef in Festival in a Book - a whole section that's crept in because, well - who wouldn't want to put the Barrier Reef (and Tasmanian Devils and Koalas) into a project on Western Australia to liven things up from a baseline of sheep farming, wild flowers, mining, endless sunshine, and salt lakes? 

My 'Western Australia' project has maps of the places I'm going to visit soon: Perth, Denmark, Margaret River. It has useful advice about the climate. I'll be able to identify the common wax-flower if it's still common and found over areas of coastal sand heaths, usually growing from four to eight feet in height with a mass of white to pink or rose-red flowers. I've shaded in areas of one map of the whole of Australia with 'areas with more than 15 people per square mile' - so I'll know where to look for night-life, and in which direction I need to face to make it to Melbourne, Sydney, Katoomba, Hobart, and Launceston. And all the time, I'll be on the look out for penguins. 

Tuesday 22 August 2023

I Mark Time

This past year, I have been working on a book - an anthology of poems which includes many of the UK's leading poets and many of us who are less leading, but no less keen. It's a farewell to the Wenlock Poetry Festival, to be published on 1st September 2023, and it's proving to be a form of closure for that vibrant and popular annual event. In order to facilitate this publication, I have set up a new venture named 904 Press. This is because when I was chatting to my eldest son in a cafe in Hereford about the idea, he asked me how many publishers there are in the UK, and at that moment of Googling, there were 903. "I'll be the 904th," I said. When I searched the question again earlier today, I discovered I'd helped the answer grow to 906. 

Ross Donlon who set up Mark Time Press thought more deeply about the name for his imprint, but we nevertheless arrived at similar places, I think. Mark Time publishes books that mark a place in time, just as 904 Press marks a very specific moment which, were it to be created today, would be 907 Press. 

Publishing: it's all about the moments of decision, dear reader. My friend, Jen Hawkins, makes her moments of decision public on Wednesday 23rd August in the Poetry Pharmacy, Bishop's Castle, when she launches her pamphlet, Moth: Mark Time's latest arrival. Jen has been writing and performing her poetry in Shropshire for several years, and we have enjoyed hearing her read at events. Her friends have encouraged her to set them down more permanently. What publication of her pamphlet /chapbook /collection does is make these poems into a tangible decision, and that decision is to print them now, in a precisely chosen word order, and with details of punctuation, weight of paper, cover image, and price - what price poetry? - finalised.

Committing to commas, semi-colons, and cover layouts is an act of courage not demanded of us in the day-to-day virtual or verbal worlds where mistakes can (usually) be corrected at the touch of a few buttons, or with a cough and repetition of a line. It may not feel like it if you haven't done it yet, but be assured that the process by which Moth, The Bone Seeker (Thirza Clout), Body of Water (Emily Wilkinson), Lucidity (Ross Donlon), and I Buy A New Washer (Yours Truly) (all published by Mark Time) came to be in print form is a matter of precise, finite, and often late-at-night-squeezed-into-the-rest-of-life decision making. It's also a matter of kind discussion with our editor, Ross, of benefitting from his poetry wisdom and skills.

It's the finite, deadline bit that's so difficult: a form of existential angst, made manifest. Never mind that saying, the one about 'abandoning poems'; when you publish them on paper you have to release them carefully, tenderly, precisely, and, it may surprise some, soberly, and after lengthy and serious thought. This is because you release them to the possibility of changes of mind, misunderstandings, and (oh horror!) typos, as well as joy, understanding, and connection.

In the end, to be published is to allow oneself to be vulnerable. Jen Hawkins has taken this on board generously, letting her readers in to see her words and emotions, dancing 'like moths / around dying embered love / drawing ever closer'. She unpacks her 'pixelated patchwork / jigsaw of a heart' for us: a heart which includes sorrow and grief, as well as birdsong and a deep appreciation for ice cream... 

Congratulations, Jen, for marking this place in your time. Graham Attenborough, GKA, whose friendship you celebrate in what I am very partially going to call my favourite poem in Moth, would have loved to have been here, and he would be so proud of you. 

And congratulations to all of us, Mark Time authors and beyond, who commit ourselves to be known a little more fully, a little more deeply: to marking our time on paper. 

Thursday 20 July 2023

I Fall Short of a Food Mile

Potato season is opening, just as raspberry season is closing. That's what's happening locally, at least. When I say locally, I mean within a third of a mile of my kitchen work surfaces. According to my parkrun experiences, a mile is around 2,000 of my paces. 

I harvested the first of my roof garden potatoes (20 paces there, 20 back = 40 paces) this morning. I am growing them in the tubs that my longest-serving friend gave me even though I've been letting the rest of the roof do its own thing. 

Harvesting this year's first portion of potatoes made me think about tonight's supper, though it was only 9.30am. I felt a little dejected, in view of the potato triumph and the fact that I was getting my hair done this afternoon, that I wasn't going to be cooking for anyone else this evening. I decided, notwithstanding, to gather some mint and chives from my window box (8 paces there, 7 back = 55 paces).

As the day went on, a plan started growing in my imagination which was this: to make my supper for one an occasion by cooking a meal for the first time in my life entirely from ingredients I'd grown and gathered myself. 

I wasn't dependent only on my window box and rooftop garden for supper as I've been helping Pete with his garden since last autumn (600 paces there, 600 back, or thereabouts). I offered to help him out boosted by my onion success last year. I've been enjoying planting and tending to runner beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, courgettes, aubergines all through the cold spring, hot June, wet July. 

After having my hair done, I went round to Pete's (+ 600 = 655 paces) and picked tomatoes,  rhubarb, four remaining raspberries, a courgette, quantities of sage and thyme. I dug up a couple of onions and located the first runner bean. (Thank goodness no one else was expecting supper - I wasn't prepared to share that bean or those raspberries).  

On the way back (+ 600 = 1,255 paces), I picked blackberries from the hedgerows by the River Severn (+ 0 paces as I was going that way anyway). I tipped these ingredients out of my bag onto my work surface to join the potatoes, mint and chives. 

potatoes + red onions + runner bean + tomatoes (green and yellowy-orange) + garlic + courgette + rhubarb + blackberries + raspberries + rosemary + sage + thyme + chives + lemon verbena + mint

Here's what I did with them and my Duolingo French lessons (plus olive oil and salt, and butter, of course):


 Menu 20th July 2023

Plat Principal

Pommes de terres, trois facons
Tomates vertes frites, avec oignon rouge, ail, haricot vert, thym
Feuilles de sauges sautée à l'huile d'olive 
Petite courgette au four 


Rhubarbe braisée au coulis de mûres et baies de saison

A Boire

L'eau Salopian avec feuilles de menthe

Thé à la verveine citronée

I made an occasion of a meal for one, all in well under a food mile and with my hair sleek and tidy. The runner bean came into its own among the fried green tomatoes, baked courgette, deliciously sweet onion, and crispy sage leaves. I cooked and sieved the majority of the blackberries to make an intense coulis to accompany the braised rhubarb and a few whole berries. 

After it had all been translated, there was nothing leftover from today's supper. Judging by the number of red flowers on the runner bean plants, I can look forward to haricots verts plural suppers very soon. 

Sunday 25 June 2023

I Come 100th in my 100th

There’s no such thing, not any more at least, as a free parkrun t-shirt. I’m glad I didn’t find this out until after my 100th parkrun yesterday. Here I am, sweating my way to the finish in many degrees of heat in London’s Brockwell Park. My longest-serving friend was on the finish line camera in hand, having cleared the course and recovered her breath before I rocked up.

And here’s the t-shirt I was expecting to get to mark the occasion. When I reached 50 runs, I received the red one: an incentive gift from parkrun. 

It’s taken me a long time to get from 50 to 100. In-between the two milestones, a bad back and lockdowns meant I missed many parkruns and many were cancelled. I've been quipping that my motivation has been the free t-shirt. It's been a means of self-deprecation, of saying that I'm not serious about running, not really. 

Checking the parkrun website today, I've discovered that by 2021 the cost of sending out free t-shirts had become unsustainable due to its popularity and the numbers of people reaching milestones. I’d missed this news item, and I appreciate the development as a very good thing. UK parkrun statistics are impressive: there are 790 event locations in the UK If you'd attended the Norwich Christmas Day parkrun in 2019, you'd have been in a crowd of 1360 runners. The record number at my regular course, Shrewsbury, is 733. Running in a community helps me to keep going, and I suspect it helps the millions of park runners worldwide too. 

So, I have to admit, the free t-shirt banter has been a decoy. I parkrun because it makes me feel great: alive and thankful that I can move my body. The run itself can be hard to get into some weeks, but I’ve learnt to give myself a better chance of enjoying it by having a regular Friday night bedtime, stretching before and after runs, and by drinking plenty of water. Parkrun has been the means by which I’ve started to listen to my body more closely and to notice what it needs.

And parkrun, with its way of looking on the bright side, has been good for my mind too. My younger son encouraged me to get a personal best for my 100th run. Not a chance, I said, mindful of the heat and Brockwell Park's hills. But then I did. I ran this particular course faster than the other time I ran it, meaning my results email said: "Congratulations on setting a new Personal Best at this event!" It also turns out I was the 100th female finisher on my 100th run. I managed that statistic without even trying. Parkrun - it's a glass half-full event.

What I’m noticing right now is that my body needs a new t-shirt, and so for that matter does my soul.  I’m going to get onto the website and order one just as soon as I've finished this blog, and what's more, I'll pay up more than willingly. 

Sunday 18 June 2023

I Inflate My Pyjamas


The first thing to say is that I got it wrong. Now that I'm back on-grid, I've been able search inflating pyjamas for life-saving. I came across this video from the US Navy which I strongly recommend you watch rather than following any of what follows (if at any point you think I must try this at home.)

I Inflate My Pyjamas

But you too may be of an age to have inflated your pyjama bottoms while engaged in Bronze / Silver / Gold awards in school swimming lessons. 

I walked with my schoolfriends to the Swiss Cottage baths. This memory came up for me while holidaying with my Longest-Serving Friend in North Wales. 

Did you wrestle with your pyjamas while treading water and fifty years later wonder why, if it was even possible? My Longest-Serving Friend said she did.

We were eco camping to stave off the world for a while, so standards plummeted, and Tuesday was sticky with heat, risotto, sun cream, and fly repellent.

We made a plan, took our pyjamas to change into after swimming. Here's the lake - the water a warm-cool blue: more France than Snowdonia.

We walked in without gasping, swam about, cooled off. The paddle boarders were few and distant. The mountains looked on, thirstily. 

Dressing pragmatically (straight into pyjamas) we talked about swimming and long-ago pyjamas: fly-sewn-up, patched at the knee, handed down from brothers. 

We returned to the lake and working from memory, I submerged my pyjamas, then tied a knot at the end of each leg. I blew in through the waist.

My Longest-Serving Friend took on the drowning. She splashed about, trod water, swam what would've been lengths, said, help

I knotted and blew. We laughed and I blew. I tied  more knots. She said, I'd be dead by now. We giggled; but it's no laughing matter, drowning.

They were right to teach us to aid each others' survival. Two to a cubicle, we learned to wriggle out of wet costumes. We sat together through Maths in damp cardigans.

I tried to remember. My pyjamas inflated for seconds, a tartan balloon, before sinking. There's no way I'd have saved myself with these half-memories.  

That day was perfect - the lake calm and warm. It was total immersion, a cleansing joy. We swam about, came out pure and new, soothed and happy. 

We came out saved, buoyant.