Friday, 28 December 2007

Three Wise Passengers, and Stars of Wonder and Delight





So it was a little crowded but the guard on the platform laughed rather too heartily for my taste when I showed him my seat reservation.

"Due to cancellations we are trying to fit three train loads of people on one train and you will all have to change at York, we suggest that it is no good shouting at any passenger sitting in your reserved seat as all reservations have been suspended".

I managed to catch this announcement from the corridor next to the toilet where I was ensconced on my own luggage plus a rather large rucksack owned by a north sea oil platform worker trying to get back to Aberdeen in time to be lifted out for a twelve day shift over Christmas and the New Year on Platform Delta One. I learnt a great deal about life on the rigs over Christmas and why this man was prepared to leave his wife and children to work there. He was desperate to get a foot on the housing ladder and Christmas and New Year shifts paid really well. "Enough to make up for not seeing your children over Christmas?" I asked him, enough to buy them a better future off the rough crime ridden estate they currently lived on, it transpired. "I can speak to them by web cam", he added.

I felt sad for him and his children but at the same time he was very vocal about wanting to do the best he could for his young family and hopefully in years to come his children might remember that their Dad only spoke to them by web cam on Christmas Day because he loved them. I thought that there might be a happy ending, he may buy a house off the rough estate but then the marriage might fall apart because he is away for such long stretches at a time and then he will still be talking to his children by web cam or email or text for every Christmas to come.

I think sitting on the suitcase was making me cynical. However worse was to follow, the 4.15pm Christmas Handicap Train Race at York....a frantic pelt of passengers up steep stairs, over the bridge and down steep stairs to a distant platform to another train only to find myself sitting on my suitcase yet again in a corridor. I think , the halt, the lame, the elderly and those with large suitcases had distinct handicaps in this race. It was myself, a man on crutches, who had he told me broken his foot two days earlier, a very jolly but very pregnant woman and a very elderly lady who had with the wisdom of age packed a flask of coffee and sandwiches, who were crammed into a tiny stretch of corridor. The guard shook his head in an inn keepery sort of manner and informed us there were no seats left anywhere he could direct us to and he was unable to demand that younger more strapping passengers give up their seats to the halt, the lame,the elderly and those with child ( I feel I fell into those with big suitcases category although I am not so proud that I won't admit that the other categories, apart from heavily pregnant might also fit my state of being ). However bless his little National Express Train Company socks, the guard stood in the automatic doorway, which was now permanently blocked by suitcases and shouted in a very loud voice, " I have a gentleman on crutches,an elderly lady and a pregnant woman standing in the corridor would anyone like to do something about that?" He then added with a sort of wistfulness, " It is Christmas you know. " And lo as if Moses had struck the Red Sea, or a star from the East Coast had guided them, the luggage in the aisles parted and an Aussie back packer, a young girl with heavy black eyeliner and two nose piercings and the oil rigger I had sat with in the corridor on the Christmas Journey Part 1 gave up their seats for the lame, the elderly and the pregnant and a merry time was had by yours truly in the corridor with afore mentioned heroes.

I decided oil rigger would live happily ever after in his nice house in a better area and live to enjoy many a Christmas with his children in person and that Goth girl and back packer, who were getting on famously with the help of oil rigger's proffered cans of Carling Black label, would exchange e mails and meet up next year in Sydney, where more cans of lager, words of enduring love, if not bodily fluids would be exchanged. It's heading towards a New Year I am determined to keep the hope of happy endings buoyantly alive and living in the fens and I am determined to look for small moments of delight and wonder, such as those that can occur in a crowded railway carriage.

I have now become temporarily addicted (is that a paradox, the concept of temporary addiction? ) to Tyne Daly's readings of Edna St Vincent Millay poems.

Here with my best and most sincerely felt wishes to you dear reader for a happy 2008 is her reading of As Sharp As In My Childhood. May your 2008 be full of wonder and may the fingers of delight hold you very tight( stick with the reading until the end and you'll get my drift).

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Pass the Bread Sauce and Memories of Chocolate covered Brazil Nuts





So Christmas is nearly here. I am off up north to colder climes, icy cobbled streets and hills. The Boo is busy chasing after a small Dolly Parton of a chicken and I have requested a surfeit of bread sauce. As a child bread sauce was reserved for Christmas and it still holds a hint of luxury and delight. I have been known to eat bread sauce sandwiches on Boxing day without anything else involved which I suppose amounts to a sandwich with a bread filling, the weight watchers carbohydrate killer. Each of us must have foods that conjure Christmas family memories. Father is chocolate covered brazils and pickled walnuts, brother is endless packets of crisps, mother is a trifle that was so rich and alcoholic that one small bowl full could lead to a failed breathalyser test. As for me, I will be recalled as bread sauce and perhaps a honey glazed ham.

I watched Heston Blumenthal create a Christmas meal this week on TV. One course involved an up market stock cubes covered in edible gold leaf, frankincense tea and a spoon to eat it all with made of myrrh. All this was to summon the spirit of Christmas via the theme of the gifts given by the three wise men. No doubt it was intended to be unique but I could do the same thing with a packet of Walkers crisps, a bowl of chocolate covered brazils, a dollop of trifle and a bucket of bread sauce at 1% of the cost.

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas dear reader and that you get to indulge all the best memories you have of Christmas, culinary or otherwise. If you have no such good memories may this be the year you start to create them as it is never too late to make a memory that can have you wallowing in nostalgia for years to come.

Be with you again after the Yule jollities, providing I don’t go arse over tip down some icy cobbled hill. May you still have a childlike joy in all the small Christmas things just like this.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A last cigarette with Edna at Christmas Time




A friend sent me a link to an American poetry theatre site ( see link on right) and there I stumble upon ‘Only until this cigarette is ended’ by Edna St Vincent Millay read beautifully by Tyne Daley. Actors often over egg the poetic pudding when they ‘recite verse’, the words can be lost in the search for performance but I think she judges this beautifully. Why did I dwell on this poem for so long last night? I have always liked it and I do think Millay’s poems don’t receive the attention they deserve outside of the States. She was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and she made no secret of her bi-sexuality and her ‘open’ marriage in an era when such things were still kept in the closet except amongst the artistic Greenwich Village circles.

I have always liked this poem but importantly some poems have the ability to sneak upon you during quiet moments and make you think that the poet has crawled inside your skull and for a brief while has taken up residence there, so perfectly does a poem fit your thoughts and mood.

I sit here by the fire in the scattered light from fairy lights and read letters and cards from people who once loomed large in my life but are now shrunk to the size of an annual Christmas card. If I still smoked it would indeed be a cigarette moment. I do tend to get nostalgic and sentimental at Christmas. I weep along with James Stewart running through the snow covered town yelling ‘I’m alive’ in A Wonderful Life . I want Lassie to come home or those two dogs and a cat to complete their journey in the customary re-runs on Boxing day. I want all those young soldiers playing football in No-man’s land on Christmas Eve to live to see a grand old age.

Some people just slip from your life gradually, inching away down a long corridor towards the door in soft slippers. Other disappear with a flurry of bells, whistles and hob-nail boots, intent on new beginnings having been a brief whirlwind in your life ( have I mixed my metaphors there, can whirlwinds wear hob-nail boots, would a whirlwind in hob-nail boots also whistle and ring bells? They could, indeed they could, on Planet Blogger). There are always those who, as Millay says in the poem, are difficult to recall in physical detail and yet you know their presence in your life was important and the sense of them stays with you forever (Alzheimer’s permitting).

The reverse is also true I know that I have crept quietly further and further away from some, as is the natural way of the world and also been a brief hob-nail flurry in the lives of others. I hope they may as they open my card recall some positive sense of me.

I feel only the steely hearted amongst you will be able to resist thinking of someone in particular with a little crease to the heart as you listen to this poem but then I am far from crease resistant, particularly at Christmas, others of you may be less easily crumpled.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Taking Stock of Sunsets and Turbines in the Fens



Don’t Ask Me, Love, For That First Love
(Extract)

Don’t think I haven’t changed. Who said
absence makes the heart grow fonder?
Though I watch the sunset redden
every day, days don’t grow longer.

There are many kinds of silence
none more radiant than the sun’s
Sun is silent in our presence,
unlike love, silent when it’s gone.

Mimi Khalvati

I was driving across the Fens this week, past a group of twelve huge monumental wind turbines just as the sun was setting behind them. These twelve turbines never cease to amaze me, they tower across the flat reach of the fen and can be seen for miles, appearing to dance from side to side of the car as the road through the fens twists and turns towards them.

Old Fen roads follow the old sheep tracks that meandered through the fens before they were fully drained. They get from A to B in a strange sort of dalliance with the landscape, Fen men took their time in the past and never took a straight line as that could end up in a quagmire, true deep darkest fen people are still inclined to eschew the straight line when trying to arrive at some destination. They are not great talkers but regard the conversational landscape as something to be negotiated with care, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it leaves them room to manoeuvre and take stock. I think they do that well in the heart of the fens, they take stock; there is, of course, a huge stretch of horizon to take stock of. Perhaps it is a rural rather than fen trait, the ability to stand and take stock of things. Presumably the saying derives from watching your livestock or counting your beasts in an intense and careful manner.

Given the spectacular sunset, in which the whole sky took on the appearance of a bubbling cauldron of fire and the brooding outline of the wind turbines against this backdrop, I pulled over onto the verge and decided to take stock. I got out of the car and just looked for several minutes.I suddenly recalled I had the camera in the car so I took some pictures, one of which is at the top of the blog. Now perhaps taking stock should have meant just staying with the moment and watching that sunset slowly wind down. I have this concern that capturing the moment forever photographically can often mean that actually you lose that moment forever, as you become swept up in the minutiae of technology. Of course we now want permanent reminders of happy events, occasions, family, sights we have seen. A memory now can often be inextricable bound to its photograph to the extent that I do have some family photos which I am sure have allowed me to construct a memory rather than recall one. I have several memories of some events that I can still recall because I made a mental note at the time to emblazon the moment on my mind, print it permanently on my own synaptic hard drive but do we trust the memory? Before photography I am sure events and faces just slipped away but now we can refresh an event a face on a daily, even hourly basis should we wish to.

I heard on the radio that in the States they are having great success helping Alzheimer patients retain short term memory by fitting them with a tiny camera and a small screen that they can watch back to show what they have done that day, that hour, two minutes ago. It acts as a kind of constant stream of visual memory for them. That’s where I put the keys because I can see myself putting them in the fridge on the playback. This process apparently not only helps them recall things but also prevents the memory deteriorating. This would suggest that seeing something after it has occurred, re-enforces not just that event but our total ability to recall things. I do play a sort of video in my head when trying to remember something; it has a filmic quality to it. Before the invention of film, the cinema, any form of moving visual representation how did people refer to that , probably by just saying they ‘re-lived’ an experience. The mind’s eye is a very ancient term for seeing what we have experienced. Are we unique amongst the animals to be able to re-create past experiences visually? There are those who have difficulty doing that but who recall by other senses; sound, smell, touch. I worked with someone who could repeat things she had heard accurately years after, including boringly a number of Queen’s Christmas messages to the nation.

I was once however fascinated to talk with a man who had been blind from birth who assured me that he had ‘visual’ dreams, dreams in which his ‘minds’ eye’ functioned. He told me other blind people also had this experience. Does that mean we are hard wired to experience dreaming and perhaps memory in a visual way? Does the taking of a photograph appeal to our innate sense of wanting to capture something visually? Now we have the means to capture an experience in a physical way and keep it locked in our computer or in the album does our capacity to remember clearly become damaged?

I tend to think the camera is a mere blink of the eye in terms of evolution and that we just have to learn to slow down and take stock more and memories can still be made and retained. Those people that return with a viewfinder experience of their holiday definitely don’t take stock enough. Like The Fast Show I intend to make that phrase my motto for the coming year. ‘Today I shall be mostly taking stock’. In fact I think I might even have a T Shirt printed and take a photo of me in it to remind myself to do it. I could sell them to others and start a whole ‘taking stock’ campaign; it could become a total lifestyle choice.

I will look forward to being fitted with a small personal video recorder and screen in due course so I can find my car keys which have indeed been placed in the fridge before now.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Playmobil Bollywood Dreams and the Terminator Virus








So like the Terminator of bugs the vomiting has returned with a vengeance, packing the punch of an Arnie Schwarzenegger. I have now given up the battle of going into work as only lying rather still and drinking water seems to help but oh the boredom. I have therefore hauled the laptop into bed with me. It may be a cold bedfellow, unable to soothe the fevered throbbing brow and is less than cuddly (should someone come up with a pleasantly tactile laptop there could be money in it) but at least it is responsive to my need to search for fantasy holidays and playmobil animations on Youtube to take my mind off somatic things.

I was on a writing week-end with someone who had just written a full feature length script about the Hundred Years War to be acted by Playmobil characters and was fascinated. After hearing about this and going for a curry with this writer and others from the course I ended up dreaming of a Bollywood movie starring these little fellows. An excess of spice can bring on strange but in this case rather interesting illusions. The Boo was rather fond of Playmobil I recall, although the Sylvanians did win hands down in the end, I think it was the idea of having a whole families of rabbits, badgers, cats and hedgehogs ensconced in a schoolroom with tiny plastic books or beside a horse drawn caravan huddled round a plastic camp fire that won her over; plus the strange plush that they were covered in ( note the triumph of the tactile over harsh plastic ).

Playmobil figures for anyone not familiar tend to have jobs or are history related figures Red Cross doctor, Viking, male midwife, female pirate, Roman soldier, Turkish paramedic, knight, woman police officer, suppressed medieval peasant, construction worker ( complete with steam roller and crate of German beer originally but this accessory had to be withdrawn after a protest by the West German Construction Union). Being designed and produced in post war Germany I think they tried to err heavily on the side of social responsibility or education. Apparently the designer decided that the faces should all have eyes, no nose and very Cheshire Cat grins, like a child’s drawing of the human face. They have strange grooves round their heads so that their tiny plastic hats/helmets/turbans/scarves could snap on, although more often than not these accessories disappeared up the hoover with a horrible crunching noise. If you need to refresh your memory or your German watch this animation.Hang on past the opening credits and I think you will be suitably impressed by the moving tortoise formation of the Roman army and the use of the catapult...trust me, as The Boo did an animation degree I am now aware of such work as a sheer labour of love and the anal personality, demanding perfection, that this German animator must have had as he moved all those little Playmobil joints.

I did discover as I searched the web that there is porno Playmobil and Playmobil snuff animated movies out there but I do think some small helpless plastic figures were severely embarrassed or hurt in the making of these films and some rather warped American High school kids obviously amused.
I am expecting to have a rather fevered dream about these figures tonight. Bollywood was fine but hopefully nothing more nasty becomes entangled with them in my psyche especially as I was listening on the radio to yet another report of a mass shooting in America. The killer, a young man, according to his own words wanted to be famous. The cult of celebrity has strange and damaged bedfellows. Perhaps those weird and more worrying playmobil animations have their place in the world; if he had acted out his fantasies with plastic figures and tiny plastic guns with playmobil at least some families would be having a happier Christmas but of course that would not have put his face posthumously on the front page.I referred to my current virus as The Terminator but of course to put things in perspective we all know there are real terminal situations out there that deserve more blog time and after all it is a mad world and we are all connected in the end.

* Thanks to Lydia for sending me the video

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Chewing Gum targets, a festival of light and Dannie Abse



I am recovering from the virus creeping round the fens that involves much vomiting and pounding of the head ( think really bad hangover without the aid of alcohol). In the olden days of yester yore Fen ague was a known phenomenon, in fact many died of malaria in the past. I suspect anything that caused a temperature and shivering was labelled Fen ague much as TB was a label given to anything that involved paleness and coughing. A label for an ailment is comforting in fact simply a number or barcode would give the average suffering punter something definite to hang onto in the shivering hours. The R48 Virus sounds much more special, more worthy of sympathy that an indefinite ‘a virus’…even plague had a definite ‘the’ placed in front of it to lift it above common or garden plague.

After being shut in the house I decided I should get some fresh air and decided to share my virus with the good townsfolk of the small market town where I live. There was a cheery Dickensian themed Christmas fair today to celebrate the switching on of the town Christmas lights. Don’t think Blackpool, don’t think well known celebrity from 'I used to have a face that you thought you remembered from an episode of The Bill Get Me Out of Here' shipped in to pull the switch, think more along the lines of one largish Christmas tree and the market square decked out in a few stars hanging above the new boards that have appeared tied to lamp posts saying ‘Stick Your Gum Here’. These boards are a new phenomenon placed at eye level they provide a window into the world of chewed gum. The aim of course is to stop people spitting their gum out on the street where, OAP’s, small children and unlucky dogs can end up being glued to the pavement on a stretchy string of chewing gum. However the sight of the chewed remains of someone’s gum stuck to these small boards , decorated to look like targets is very off putting, particularly when you still feel a little queasy. I suppose some bright environmental type person thought that making the boards look like archery targets would encourage the local gum chewing fraternity to practise spitting out their gum in order to get a bulls eye. Of course anyone walking innocently along whilst this new sport is in progress may risk gum in the eye or hair.

I once had someone spit chewing gum onto my hair from the balcony of a cinema. It is difficult to get out, someone advised me at the time that you could get gum off clothes by putting them in the fridge she did not seem to think this advise was pretty useless in my circumstances, unless of course she thought I was up for sticking my head in the fridge overnight. In the end I had to cut it out which left me with a rather Toni and Guy, bed head hair cut pre the era when hair was teased and waxed and gelled into looking precisely unkempt.

Anyway, I’m going off piste again, the ‘place your gum here boards’ seemed to be populated with a variety of masticated gum this morning as I trudged round the Dickensian market. Dickensian seemed to mean some ladies behind stalls making the effort to wear a simulated poke bonnet and cloak. Despite the poor weather, people arrived in droves and I was again reminded that small towns can be a joyous place to live in. I was greeted at least every ten steps by someone I knew, families with small children danced to the steel band up on the hastily prepared stage. Children were genuinely excited about the Christmas tree and the lights and I slapped myself across the wrist for being so churlish about their sparseness. I have been reading some Dannie Abse poems recently and one on particular, reminds me to celebrate those brief and passing things. The last two stanzas of his poem O Taste and See go


Toast all that which seems to vanish
like a rainbow stared at, those bright
truant things that will not keep;

and ignorance of the last night
of our lives, its famished breathing.
Then in the red wine taste the light.

A sense of community is a precious and worthwhile thing to foster. Santa arriving on a boat up the river while local people laugh and cheer as the local brass band plays Winter Wonderland is one of those warm fuzzy moments of community or perhaps it’s a seasonal affected disorder that is making me so sentimental or maybe the indefinite virus hanging on round the edges of me. I did not try the mulled red wine on offer but I did try and taste the light, if nothing else.

The town lights are not as spectacular as these at Jo’s Garage but they suffice to make life a tad cheerier.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Drama on the radio and an episode of 'Lost' in a small hotel.



I spent the week-end in Norwich on a radio writing course with Jonathan Myerson. Much was learnt about the nature of plots, dialogue, icebergs where the huge back story below the water supports the small but perfect play above the surface, nesting by actors (small nervous ticks that get them settled into dialogue….Ahhh…Well… Mmmm etc). In the end the listener craves a story and not just an experience but hopefully a good story can give you both.
I stayed in an old hotel in the city centre near the cathedral and kept getting lost. It had a Tardis element to it, being deceptively bigger than its exterior would suggest. As I followed the number signs looking for my room I seemed to go down to go up and left to go right. I felt I was gradually becoming a character in an Escher drawing wandering endlessly in a confined space; doomed to travel up and down staircases but never to arrive. Once I found my room I tried various routes to the outside world. One led me to a door marked Quiet Exam in Progress..did that mean “Do not come through” or did that mean “Come through but be quiet”. It had taken me several staircases and long corridors to find this door which seemed to offer the prospect of escape. Do I follow my trail of hotel shortbread biscuit crumbs back from whence I came or go through the door? I peeked through the small port-hole window in the door, several people had their heads bent over tables scribbling furiously.

I used to hate that feeling standing outside an exam room waiting to go in. Pens and pencils clutched to my fast beating heart. I still have the odd nightmare when I find myself outside an exam room having done no revision and having no idea what the exam is. Of course such anxiety dreams are common but are they particularly English or only amongst those exposed to a particular educational system? Exams serve as the metaphor for fear and anxiety. An exam dream is the subtext for falling short, failing, not being good enough what do those people dream of who have never taken an exam. Probably such people have far more pressing and real fears; death, famine, war and pestilence…exams don’t make the grade as a horseman of the personal apocalypse.

So to return to my Escher experience…. I peer through the window and a man looks up and catches my eye. He gives me a look as if he too feels he is trapped in an Escher drawing with no way out. I turn round and retrace my steps; up, down, round, back, left, right and haven’t I been here before?

I see a sign in the foyer that announces that the Institute of Marketing is holding exams in the Oak Room. Marketing, now there is a stairway not to heaven but to hell.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Jo Shapcott, fields of Higg Bosons and weightier matters




I was reading Pavlova’s Physics by Jo Shapcott on Friday night in bed. By a strange synchronicity there is an article in the Guardian this Saturday about the physicist Peter Higgs, the man who is responsible for the theory that initiated the search for the mysterious Higgs Boson or God’s Particle, as some have named it. I do want to assure you dear reader that I do not search for a poem to support the strange unravelling of my mind and thoughts in this blog, it actually happens the other way round. I read or hear a poem and somehow connections are built in my rather warped psyche. It is probably more of an organic dialogue, a chicken and egg puzzler, the big bang as cause and effect, life as past, present and future…chronology being less important than we may assume. We are of course obsessed by the question what came first but a linear universe and a linear life can be smoke and mirrors. Perhaps I am being effected by having watched the film Donnie Darko for the third time last night and still being satisfyingly mystified as to the finer points; the discussion of which I will leave to the geek and cult fans who proliferate out there in the temporal vortex.

However this article helped feed my penchant for physics in an understandable form. I did Pure Maths A Level back in the prime of my unbounded and untrammelled synaptic pathways' youth and purely ( excuse the weak pun) because I saw it as beautiful; a mathematical theory, co-ordinate geometry and an algebraic solution to a problem that just exists solely to be solved by such means, was somehow beautiful. Mathematical theories have a rhythm and a pulse to them; much like a brilliant poem in a form. If this then this, but this can unexpectedly open up that which leads to all these etc etc. There is also this response by physicist Simon Hands, who works at the Cern Accelerator, to explain what a Higgs Boson is and why proving its existence is important. It was written in response to a challenge to explain it all on one side of A4.It is a theroetical physics version of a haiku.

I defy any poet or creative writer not to be interested in the particular and the universal that this branch of particle physics looks at.

We only have mass because we move through an invisible field, how we move through that field determines our mass, some of us are more effected than others and therefore are weighed down more and move more slowly. Others can pass through it relatively unburdened and I use the word relatively in a theoretical sense. The proof of this field lies in destroying at great speed that which we know of already and looking for something we only surmise to be there. The grass has always been greener in another field but will we then know how we are as a mass? Can we change anything by knowing how we achieve mass or have mass thrust upon us? Is understanding this in itself its own importance, if how we move through an invisible field explains why we are something made to and of matter? When we broke open an atom we became at the same time Shiva Destroyer of worlds and the creator of light and heat in a kitchen or school. Does God's particle have a beckoning finger?*

Dear reader I think this theory may undoubtedly account for why I now have greater mass, and I am apparently getting heavier, I am merely moving too slowly through fields. This is a function of my greater inertia as it takes a greater time and effort to get me moving these days. Yes dear scientific readers out there, I do know that mass and weight are very different things, I needed to clarify that as I have a greater sense of gravity about me these days and also a greater love of chocolate.

* I think I have this phrase engraved on my psyche from Andre Mangeot's poem 'Forecast' about forthcoming ecological disaster due to global warming

Monday, 12 November 2007

Dark car parks and Little Miss Sunshine



So there I was sitting in a Tesco car park waiting for a friend to do her shopping. I knew that should I go in the display fairy and the retail wizard would weave their spell and I would come out having bought unnecessary stuff. Of course a great deal of stuff is unnecessary; Maslow’s hierarchy of need puts air freshener and quilted toilet paper very low in the heirarchy. Such consumer goods shouldn’t muscle their way into any hierarchy at all; if stuff were people, quilted toilet paper would be Victoria Beckham, Peter Stringfellow or Paris Hilton. Avoiding entering temples of shopping is my current mode of pursuing retail atheism.

So I sit in the car and adopt a vacant and blank expression as one does when waiting in a dark car park. A car parks opposite me, a man gets out and disappears into the store with a small child. In the back is another child about two years old strapped into a car seat. He waves at me, I wave back. Time passes after twenty minutes I start to think that a man who leaves a child alone in a locked car for that length of time is rather stupid, worryingly stupid. I inform the security guard on the door, who nods and says it is stupid but people do it all the time. Am I being stupid? I am not a knee jerk responder to the current paranoia about children left alone; I would have been worried a year, several years, many years ago at the same behaviour.

My mother forgot about me once when I was a few weeks old and left me outside the Co-op in my pram for over an hour whilst she went home, made a cup of tea and wondered what she had forgotten in the shop. I was still there when she returned. That was in the so called halcyon days of relaxed child care pre Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. Children could be let loose then with just a bottle of Vimto and a bag of crisps. they were allowed to roam the hills, canal banks, streets and bomb sites and no harm would befall them, not the sort of harm that happens at the hands of strangers. The statistics show clearly that 99% of physical and sexual harm to children happens within the home, within the family. The bogey man usually has his feet under the family table and is in the family photo album.

After thirty minutes I decide to ask the Customer services to page the owner of the car with registration number XYZ 123 and point out that he has left a toddler alone in it. I watch the man arrive back at the car, look through the window at the now sleeping child, turn and walk back into the store. Should I have said something to him personally, I am not afraid of confronting anyone, should I have even asked customer services to request he return to his car, the child was now sleeping after all and did not appear distressed? What has bothered me most is that the security guard said that it happened a lot and didn’t seem at all worried. In his favour no young child to my knowledge has choked to death or met with a serious accident unattended in a Tesco car park, no child has been abducted from one. Perhaps I am becoming a busy body, a sticky beak, a nosey parker, a ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’? His look seemed to convey that. So be it, if I can manage to avoid buying unnecessary consumer items perhaps I can also avoid not buying into the ‘best not to get involved’ culture of someone else will sort it. Leaving a minor unattended is a criminal offence, if I had told the security guard someone was trying to break into a car and steal it would he have reacted differently? Sadly I think he would; cars, property, stuff after all is far more important and in need of safe guarding

On a totally different note, I have sent off a fishing letter to a recommended literary agent re the novel. It is still the definite article, now the very definite article after feedback from writers whose opinions I value. So we shall see, feels a little like entering your child in a beauty pageant, it’s my Little Miss Sunshinestrutting her stuff but like the VW camper it may need a push

Monday, 5 November 2007

Aldeburgh and the story of the Irish man, the American and the Palestinian who walked into a hall





I came back from Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last night and immediately retreated into a darkened room to recover. It was a good week-end for many reasons. One reading in particular on the Saturday night was so good that I want to wrap it up in some soft tissue paper, put it in a beautifully crafted box and bring it our now and then to remind myself of what poetry is capable of.

Often at festivals there is a lots of comparing going on, poets listening to other poets often veer towards comparison. You know what I mean, the kind of comments whispered in dark alley ways by small huddles of audience members, teased out by wine in two am sea view rooms or argued about over pork scratchings in pubs

Poet A wasn’t as good as when I heard them read in 1989 in a small dungeon in Transylvania, Poet B’s new collection isn’t as good as their seventh, the one about wheat, I’m surprised Poet C is still alive, Poet D has changed publishers that would account for it, the old publisher would have never let the one about the verucca get into the collection, Poet F is wonderful on the page but their reading whilst hovering two feet off the floor was distracting, Poet G was wearing fuchsia lycra, it detracted somewhat from his work he is far better when wearing ecrue. How on earth did Poet H ever get that published, as Poet Z had their nude poems banned in certain American States?

The reading I treasured this week end was by the Irish poet John F Deane,the American prose poet Louis Jenkins and the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali( translated by Peter Cole for a new Bloodaxe collection of his work). Read in particular the poem Meeting at an Airport available on this link and you may understand why the line 'and I worship the middle hours of the morning' will stay with me for a long time.

The links will give you a flavour of their work. All I will say is that readings which make you cry not in a sentimental manipulative way but by the sheer joy of what words can conjure are few and far between. Such readings do not illicit the comparison virus they simply make you want to aspire to be the best you can be as a writer and to reflect on why the right words in the right order can be so very very right.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Satsumas to a Mini Munch and U A Fanthorpe's Ghosts



So Halloween approaches and this week small children in various costumes ranging from the half hearted Harry Potter, the under bandaged Mummy and the ghoul mask purchased from Tesco will be knocking on my door. There are a number of children on the estate who have firmly embraced the American cultural imperialism of Halloween. The Pentecostals a few doors up turn children away with a short lecture on the perils of Satanism which seems to be effective. I of course look at their little shining glow in the dark faces and give them stuff.

Last year their little faces became less than shiny when I placed fruit into their outstretched palms. I felt virtuous; I had saved their teeth from a fate worse than decay and contributed to their five portions a day. Jamie Oliver eat your reduced fat heart out. I thought this was a win:win situation all round, whilst a little uncomfortable with the extortion racket of trick or treating I had put a positive spin on it. Threaten to throw eggs at my door small Frankenstein and I will come at you with a wholesome Satsuma. Last year one small child did pull up her Scream mask and ask if I had any sweets or money instead, the other children in the party hovered expectantly. I stood my ground clutching my bowl of oranges before this mini Munch and no eggs flew. I was rather proud of myself; trust me they are a tough lot round my way and the good Christiam evangelicals up the road who only sort to save the childrens immortal souls had their door egged!The local enfants terribles are happy to run the risk of a bit of divine retribution. Suffer the little children in their mind encompassed being given sweets whilst dressed as the anti-Christ. Satsuma offerings to the dark powers on All Hallows Eve may not have been their idea of a suitable propitiation but it works for me.

Of course I don’t believe in ghosts or things that go bump in the night (except my old fridge) but I think I saw one once but that’s another blog post. The sort of ghosts I do believe in, however, are some that U.A. Fanthorpe writes about in her poem Seven Types of Shadow

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Act of Making, George Szirtes and the Muse in ordinary shoes




The poet George Szirtes asked a question on his blog (see link on right) and on Facebook 'What is it like writing a poem?'. He also provides a link to Andrew Shield's blog as well to help stir up the discussion. The piddling box on Facebook allows for brevity and pith but not expansion so below is my attempt at some sort of answer. I like a good bit of blogger dialogue it makes me remember someone is out there reading all this stuff!

The Act of Making

I sometimes have cause to work with children who have an autistic spectrum condition (significantly it is no longer regarded as correct to refer to it as a ‘disorder’). This condition can take many forms and express itself in many ways. A couple of years ago I came across this definition of autism.

Autism can be seen as a disturbance in personal psychology in which the conventional use of language, reaction to stimuli, interpretation of the world, and the formation of relationships between events are established sometimes out of temporal sequence, in extraordinary ways and follow unusual patterns.

It seemed to sum up for me the state I enter when I am writing a poem.
George Szirtes refers to Don Paterson writing about the pre-language state but I think there is also a hyper state of language when the conventionalities embedded in our synaptic pathways from our first encounters with sound and the meanings we give and are given to those sounds are momentarily discarded and new pathways taken within the brain.

Research as to how the brain of a person who has an autistic condition responds to words has been undertaken. It shows that very different areas of their brain are fired up when they are exposed to verbal stimuli. They approach words and language differently, often in a more deeply personalised and concrete way. This would explain why idioms are a nightmare for them to deal with frogs in throats, raining cats and dogs, pull up your socks can lead to problems and puzzled expressions. The concept of irony, metaphor and simile has to be taught to them. When I say ‘You have ants in your pants today I mean you are wriggling about as if you had them in your pants and I am not saying you have real ants in your pants.’

Such problems with language are not a function of intelligence or creativity. It is nonsense to have this view of autism as a condition in which people cannot be creative or express emotion. I have worked on using metaphors, similes and poetry with some children with this condition and never cease to be amazed at their ability to express themselves brilliantly in language.
‘He was as prickly as a row of ones’ ‘The day was as grey and thin as my sister in her faded pyjamas.’ ‘The clouds were like liquidised bone’
‘She cried like she was trying to wash it all away’ ‘He smelt as if he were trying not to smell of anything’.

The above are just a handful of examples from children with this condition, examples I wish I could steal for my own work!

I think when I write at my best ( everything is relative Mr Einstein ) I funnel my mind into a state of autistic focus in which that description of autism above holds sway. Things connect in a different and unconventional way and I interpret the world both the inner and outer in other ways. However to that experience, unlike those who have an autistic condition, I can bring other experiences; social skills inherent in communication and means of expression in language, which is I suppose where the craft of writing and the re-drafting experience come into action. I have to say that on a number of occasions the energy and that sense of travelling to ‘another place’ (I am loathe to use the word heightened as this has implications of superiority rather than difference) become lost in that re-writing and editing process. I suppose the best writing attempts to keep this journey but ensures it isn’t a self indulgent one.

So to summarise when I write I think I become focused to almost a quasi autistic state when temporality, conventions of language and connections become unconventional. I even become almost over sensitised to the point where loud sounds, particularly sudden ones becomes painful (as is the case with many autistic people). At home I even have certain obsessions or routines like the need for a mug of tea and certain things around me. The world around me can become so fluid that I have taken a couple of heartbeats to actually recall where the hell I am and in the case of fiction once, who the hell I am, when I stop writing. This of course is only peculiar to me and may make me sound mad but then I think writing is a disciplined form of madness. I am in all other respects quite sane ( but I would say that wouldn’t I ) but when things or ideas have been whirring in my head for a certain length of time the only relief for me is to choose this small private so called psychological disturbance. This ability to choose and continue to choose is maybe one explanation as to why some writers and poets have experienced the distress of no longer being able to come back from the journey or disappear into a bottle to ease the crossing of some undefined boundary.

All the above may sound a touch over the top but I tried to address the question asked as honestly as I could. The act of making is for me essentially the act of becoming.The Muse may not shuffle in like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (a terrible cliche portrayal of just one very particular rare kind of autism) but he or she (lets not be gender ridden here) does have a kind of disjointed awkwardness as if they are not quite comfortable in their everyday ordinary shoes.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Emperor Ming, Pot Plants, Cromwell and Beautiful People




So the liberal emperor Ming (can the liberal democrats have emperors?) has packed up his pot plant, put his desk tidy and framed photos into a small cardboard box and moved out of his office. Was he too old and doddery to lead a political party or a victim of rampant ageism? Who knows, perhaps it isn’t age, it’s a question of being photogenic. Robert Retford is older than Ming I believe but I think he might not have been pushed out so quickly as the camera loves him. Gordon Brown is not exactly the stuff that the camera dreams of but then he did slip in on baby faced Blair’s coat tails. Cameron, a good looking boy, looks at least half way decent through a lens and no doubt this was a factor in his choice. Is it really about age, I tend to think it’s about how those that choose think the shallow voting public will see their chosen one. I am sure given the choice between a gorgeous looking articulate fascist who is at ease in front of the camera and an old crone of a liberal who can’t seem to get the hang of being media friendly there may be some who would be swayed purely by the media package they are presented with. How can you run a country if you are really ugly and are not at ease with Jeremy Paxman? Are only the beautiful fit to govern? In the past of course our leaders could get away with not looking the bees knees as there was no television or photographs. Disraeli, Gladstone, Canning were less that gorgeous but they played the wise old sage card really well then better than MacMillan or Alex Douglas Hume (now there was a man who’s screaming skull looks certainly put off the voter)

I have a small problem with only the young ( under 50’s) being thought capable of governing but I have the greater problem with the concept of only the beautiful. This may of course be based on the fact that I am not photogenic; I hate being photographed and know that should my photograph be placed on a book the sales would probably dip. I am told this is a woman’s issue. Men do not have this as an issue however I note that many male writers and poets have photographs of their younger selves on their book covers. Personal vanity or a certain belief that how you look may lose you punters, just as in politics, seems to quite pervasive. Would I ignore a book simply because the author is old and ugly? Being perverse I might actually buy a book because the writer has a long track record and shed loads of life experience and their face on the dust jacket looks suitably raddled by a life lived. I know of course that the use of that word ‘ugly’ alone is very un PC. People have their own kind of beauty, both physical and spiritual, no one is ugly everyone is beautiful, literature and politics is too important to take account of such facile and superficial things. Did I see pigs flying past my window as I was typing just then? I note that publishers and the market often refer to a new young writer but not a new beautiful/handsome writer but now and then you have a sense that they are implying the latter comes with the former.
I watched a new reality show the other night it was to choose classical musicians for a high profile recording and media contract. Those that played well but as one judge said weren’t easy on the eye seemed to be having an uphill struggle to be in the running. Character was useful but the violinist with long dark hair and classical good looks got the benefit of the doubt whereas the more acne ridden ones got the boot. It perhaps was ever thus but with quick access to TV and images, who you are and what you are gets packaged and presented in terms of how you look. Byron of course could sell a good media package but the older Wordsworth and probably Tennyson would have been urged to keep their photo off their latest collection these days or at least have a very small one managed by photoshop. I urge myself to think that age and looks is totally immaterial in the world of literature, people who buy books and poetry collections don’t give a damn about such things. I urge myself but I keep catching the tail of that flying pig in the corner of my eye.

I come from the fens where Cromwell roamed the fields as a boy poking things with a big stick. He famously ordered an artist to paint him warts and all…no photoshop for him. Here was a politician who was at pains to present himself as he was. No doubt if he were around now his media advisers might be advising discreet wart removal at the very least but more probably there would be dark rumblings within the Puritan Party and before you could say ‘No camera close ups at the party conference’ Oliver would be packing his pot plant.

I post above the picture of a Brazilian man who won 'The World's Most Beautiful Man Contest'. Now be honest this blogger, if he turned up on my doorstep as a local politician would I be more inclined to give him the time to explain his policies? If he were an unknown poet would I be just a tad more open to hearing him read at a local venue? Gentlemen and ladies who prefer blondes you will have to image whatever rocks your boat to answer that question!

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Broken Things, Fairy lights and Lavinia in the Arctic




Bit of a tiring few days flying around on the magical mystery poetry/literature tour bus in East Anglia. Delivering poetry in two village halls with friends, attending launch of a new collection of short stories in Norwich. Broken Things the collection by Padrika Tarrant deserves to be read, it is writing that is staggeringly authentic, beautiful and at the same time unnerving. This is not a flog blog moment, dear reader, just me pointing you towards a wonderfully different read. It was Cambridge last night for the launch of a series of poetry readings in Michaelhouse kicked off by Tobias Hill and Helen Mort.

I was working on the door at this last event, trying to decide whether asking someone if they were a discount ie OAP could be slightly risky but then decided that if they should look dejected at actually being thought to be over 60 I could comment that I thought they might be a mature student which would also entitle them to a discount but I think they saw through this. I did manage to glance up and say to a couple entering that I really liked their necklaces as they were really glitzy. They turned out to be the Mayor and her companion who had been invited to attend the launch event. I stood by my initial comment that the mayoral jewellery had a wonderful Las Vegas glitz about it but with a slight understated British twist. They took it in good part, or appeared to just to get by the mad woman on the door.

I have always been a bit of a magpie regarding shiny baubles and if left to my own bad taste devices I could festoon myself with shiny objects and being a tall woman could look like a gaudy Christmas tree, probably a Scots Pine. The Boo and I have always felt that Christmas is an occasion for festive over ornamentation, wind up dancing turkeys and singing snowmen on illuminated plinths. Once my new set of lights were put up in my front window three years ago I decided that I liked them so much I would keep them up there. This may account for any bad luck that has befallen me since as my mother would rumble ominously about any seasonal festoon left up after twelfth night. In my defence I would add that it is a mere net of lights that can pulse, chase, flash or simply twinkle and not a full extravaganza of Santa Claus and reindeer that might look a little out of place in June.

I am a sucker for a fairy light, I have them draped in large vases, round banisters and entwined in willow sticks. It may be that single-handedly I can cause a surge in the national power grid when I switch them all on. I may be ecologically unsound in finding solace in small lights. Candles may be more ethnic but are, given my accident prone nature, more dangerous. I have eco-friendly light-bulbs all round the house and then I have the fairy lights; I live in a house of light paradox. They may be twee, they may be passé, they may be an interior decorator’s nightmare but they make me happy, especially when the nights start to grow darker. I am sure ever since man discovered how to make fire, not just heat but light has been embedded deep in our evolutionary psyche as a means of warding off the dark, the forces that sit out there in the blackness and night and wait to pounce. From the night light in the child’s room to people with SAD syndrome staring into light boxes there are so many instances of light being both protector and endower.

There is a downside to this quest for the light however as I have noticed that true dark is a rare commodity, these days you have to travel miles to stand in the dark. When is the last time you stood in a place outside with no light pollution at all, just star and moon light? Answers on a postcard , naming the best experience of the dark to this blog ( no sexual encounters on blankets or off blankets in woods, beaches or caves will be allowed). Moon and starlight have suffered from an over romanticised press of course but we may be rapidly forgetting what others in the past knew of the dark. If they knew what it was like to stand or walk in the night, relying only on the eye to grow accustomed to the dark and shadows, they would also experience the value and the particular quality only the light of a full moon and the stars can give. Lavinia Greenlaw in her poem Blue Field tries to evoke her particular experience of light in the dark whilst in the Arctic snowfields.

Will our urban eyes gradually evolve so that we can no longer adjust to the dark, will we grow to be creatures only of the switch, bulb and fluorescent tube? Who knows, meanwhile I switch off my ceiling lights and navigate round my house some nights by fairy light, a small pretence at moving in starlight.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Heated Words on Home and Louis Macneice





King’s Lynn Poetry Festival was, as usual, great fun and full of good poems and interesting poets. The reading I was involved in seemed to go very well, I tend to judge by a quick head count of those nodding off, the laughs at the funnier parts and the volume of Mmmmm at the serious parts. The invisible swingometer of the poetry audience would appeared to have swung our way.

The final discussion about Auden and MacNeice on the Sunday afternoon was interesting, not least for the small tornado that suddenly sprang up to stir up the after-lunch unruffled waters. In the green corner Irish poet Matthew Sweeney intense and vocal declaring MacNeice a truely, madly deeply Irish Poet and not just by virtue of the location of his birth but by his immersion in Irish culture and poetry. In the blue corner the poet Anthony Thwaite who shared an office and many a drink with this same poet over a number of years when they both worked for the BBC. He declared that apart from enjoyable holidays in Ireland MacNeice told him that he undoubtedly saw himself as English. Both had an arm of the dead poet and were keen to pull him into their corner. I think the best comment was by another panellist who simply said that when MacNeice wrote letters once from Europe he said he just wished he was home and no-one but the poet really knows what he meant by that. Yet at the same time we all know what he meant, most of us have a sense of home, albeit the space within four walls we create for ourselves to feel comfortable in, physically and emotionally.

Birth place, family, given culture, embraced culture, the whole rag bag of life experiences and our history feed into that word home. The absence of feeling at home haunts many who find themselves permanently separated from home. Norwich I know has declared itself ‘A City of Refuge’for persecuted writers and their families. Can a refuge ever be seen as home is it by its very nature, transient, a place between, a place to catch your breath.

Many years ago I worked as a volunteer at the very first Woman’s Refuge in London set up by Erin Pizzey. It was a a refuge in the full sense of that word and yet to those women and those children it was never home, it was an address where they could feel safe for a while.

Home is surely more than just a place of safety, vital though that is. A child of parents who constantly refer to another place as their home may learn to assimilate the idea of being in two places at once, inside two different skins, two countries, at once. I don’t know how a sense of being home is achieved, there is no recipe; take one house in a familiar or preferred landscape, fill with those you love and/or feel comfortable with, surround with others who also follow there own home recipe and who allow you to follow yours in peace and active goodwill. No that’s Utopia, I have met people who have felt that home was despite rather than because of all those ingredients. There are those who have lived in one place or in one family all their lives and never feel at home there, and there are those that can find true home in a sudden epiphany of place or people. Home can be a matter of geography, home can be people, home can be that which is simply familiar. Does it matter where a writer or a poet finds home? Do writers create their home and their refuge in the words? Is it always easier to know when you are not home than when you are? Is home sometimes a fantasy concept, the equivalent of the cottage with roses round the door? Adam and Eve probably argued with the angel with the fiery sword that they needed to go home because only paradise would tick that box? Should we go all pop psychology and not only love ourselves and embrace the moment but also love and embrace where we are and just agree to call it home? I doubt we can ever do that.

When MacNeice wrote Carrickfergus did he see Ireland as home or just a place he once lived in. Perhaps it was just one of many places in his head he called home, perhaps we all have more than one home and if we are very lucky always some place of refuge.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Apple Paring in Autumn and Galway Kinnell





Off to King’s Lynn Poetry Festival this week-end to read with fellow poet friends. I am currently putting final touches to novel and writing a radio play synopsis and early draft script so of course poetry and the writing thereof seems like forbidden fruit and thus all the more tantalising. The right words in the right order apply to all writing but paring down in a poem feels different to pruning a novel. A novel can take on the form of a massive overgrown hedge requiring major garden tools and hacking whilst swearing. Of course the delete, cut and paste tools on the computer are the major garden tools required, allowing for a certain amount of topiary to take place so that an unkempt hedge can begin to take on the look of a cockerel, chess piece or indeed a novel. A poem however is lovingly pared word by word, sound by sound.

I used to take pride in being able to shave an apple very slowly in one continuous spiral strip. I originally learnt to do this as I was told as a child that throwing such a long piece of peel over your shoulder was meant to reveal the initials of the man you would marry. It took me a while to learn that I was not destined for the arms of an Oscar, Otto, Octavius, Oliver, Otis, or Owen; the physics of apple peelings always lending itself to O. However I do keep up the practice and note that Orlando Bloom may be free at some point…now there is a man with a sufficient quantity of O’s in his name to auger well for any footloose and fancy free parer.

Apple trees and apples have always been a source of myth and superstition; throwing crab apple pips on the fire to find out which one will explode in order to find who is a true love, the golden apple in Greek myth, the forbidden fruit depicted in art as leading to Eve’s downfall. It is late apple season, crisp bright autumnal weather and in the local fen orchards you can smell the fallen apples and see wasps woozy from feeding on them staggering around like Saturday night drunks in search of home. They will look for a fight if you get in their way, though they tend to move slowly and co-ordination is a problem. If one comes at you your best bet is just to stay still and nine times out of ten they’ll simply miss you as they lurch past. They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them I was always told.

There are lots of harvest festivals going on in schools, children bringing in tins of olives, jars of pesto and sun dried tomatoes in the better class school as gifts for the elderly poor of the parish. I’ve heard ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ at least four times this past week being practised by children who won’t have a clue about ploughing or scattering but do know that Tesco’s and Waitrose and Asda have everything you want available at all times being flown from all over the world. The seasons become blurred and the idea of celebrating a harvest even in rural communities becomes something else. Is it that nostalgic end of summer, that slow loss of light; the dark mornings, the dark early night? Is harvest home everything being pared down to just the need for shelter, a fire and food, albeit an artificial electric log fire in a house where the rent is crippling, a glass of wine from Chile, cheese from France, a chunk of bread made from American wheat flour and an apple flown in from New Zealand? All is safely gathered in and you can smell autumn with a slight back hint of coming winter in the air. A good time to pare down a little, to shave off some excess, sit down with some words and just get down to basics. I love autumn.

I leave you with the wonderful American poet Galway Kinnell and his poem about autumn fruits and words.Go on admit it, you thought I’d go for the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness bloke didn’t you?

Friday, 21 September 2007

Knight or nightmare?




So enough of the crying at the sad movies more of the possible nightmare on Elm Street or rather Fen Drove. There I am yesterday morning driving across the fens on the quiet back roads. Crisp early morning sunshine, favourite CD on, my own private little bubble wending its way through the countryside and then out of a side road pops Mr BMW. Fine Mr shiny silver series umpty umpty BMW, overtake whenever you like, nothing coming , happy to let you zoom your way into the horizon. But no he sits on my back bumper, positively sucking on my exhaust. I slow, he slows; I speed up, he speeds up. I examine his face in the rear view mirror. Bland, he could be any man between forty and fifty, expressionless no outward indication of psychopathy. I take some very obscure back roads, short cuts, lonely droves. He is still on my tail. I refuse to get paranoid and become merely annoyed. I was enjoying my quiet all to myself fen and there is this man in his car intruding into my personal driving space. I decide to pull in and let him overtake but he pulls up behind me. Now paranoia is kicking in, he is pointing towards the back of my car. Is this a ruse, does he want me to get out and then I will be dead meat? Every gory urban legend I have ever heard kick in. Severed heads on the roof of cars, mad axe men, serial rapists.

Stupid woman I say to myself , I’m over six foot and know how to look after myself, I get out to look at what he is pointing at, careful never to turn my back on him, he sits in his car and watches. This of course involves me a certain crab like approach to the boot which must make me appear rather odd. The strap of my lap top bag is sticking out of my boot. I open it put it back inside and close the boot. I mouth a thanks, he nods, still same bland expression on his face and drives off.

I return to my car and suddenly I think what the hell was I doing saying thank you to a man who has followed on my tail end for 9 miles without indicating why he is doing so, not even a gesture. I have to presume he thought he was doing me a favour, he probably even went miles out of his way to follow me to do me this favour. BMW man may have felt he didn’t want to panic me by making signals about the strap whilst I was driving or flash his lights.

Dear reader am I being stupid here, the strap was sticking out but the boot was closed. He may not have known that, perhaps he feared that my boot would fly open at any minute and disaster would strike? Perhaps actually when I got out of the car I wasn’t the sort of victim he was after, should I feel affronted that I wasn’t deemed suitable; too old, too fat, too tall, too badly dressed, too odd with my crablike way of walking. I have worked through all the permutations that may have been running through his head and still I keep coming up with the idea that what he did was definitely a little weird but then it may be that I am being an overly harsh and judgemental woman.

Male friends tell me that gestures of chivalry can be so easily mistaken, leaving men open to being accused of all sorts of inappropriate conduct. Never stop and ask a woman the way, never follow a woman too closely on a night street, never inadvertently make a comment in front of any female work colleagues that could be interpreted as a double entendre. A lone woman, a dark night, an empty building, an isolated area are recipes for a nightmare for the man who wishes to be gallant but at the same time totally safe from any false accusation or misinterpretation. Genuine acts of good will can never be misinterpreted, not so unfortunately. Those knights in shining armour have to think twice now before offering help; it could be safer just to walk on by. I think of all those men in the past couple of years who have stopped to help me change a tyre on a dark wet night on a lonely road, another man who chased me down an empty midnight street to hand me back the purse I had dropped, the man who followed me down a dark back street to tell me I’d left my car lights on. Were they wrong? Of course not. Was I worried about them following me or approaching? Not really but then I am a woman of a certain size who can knee my weight if needs be. I was thankful that they had helped me and I am sad for them and for other men that may have had to think twice before a spontaneous act of human kindness. I have no answers to this conundrum, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Apathy can be the least slippery path to follow, how sad. So should I be complaining about Mr BMW’s act of kindness perhaps not but it still felt weird at the time but I may have an over active imagination that's something I hold my hands up to in fact I've fostered it, most writers do.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Atonement, the weeping woman and Roy Orbison on Earwaxharvester



Let me preface this post with the proviso that there is much to make me cry about the real world, cause for real tears and real distress but I take that as a given. If anyone attempts to lecture me on the total fake sentimentality engineered by the media and others I refuse to go and stand in the corner with the emotional dunce’s hat on.

I went to see Atonement on Friday and predictably I cried at the end; the whole packet of tissues, snivelling and deeply unattractive snotty kind of crying much like that of Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply. Friend had to pat and stroke my arm in the sort of way one would try and calm a howling Great Dane.

I am a total sucker for those film directors and writers who know how to push the right buttons. I can even weep in foreign languages and subtitles, (note to self good title for a novel or a poem. The Woman Who Wept in Subtitles.. a bit like sub textual grief but in a larger font) Of course I know I am being manipulated, even when I know what the ending is going to be, as in this case. I can, despite this, still come out of the cinema with damp mascara wandering down my cheeks and the hung over panda look. I am that specific person they think of when they are creating the weepy buttons.

My intellect can reel off words like cliché, predictable, smaltzy, lowest common emotional denominator, trite and formulaic but there I am with the tissues piling up around me like a small white nest. There is nothing wrong with a good cry, very cathartic, very cleansing. Nothing better than a wet cold Sunday afternoon and an old black and white film, Mr Chips dying, Ingrid Bergman marching those Chinese children over the mountains and getting there. Plus you can hurl all your small and inconsequential minor and even ancient miseries into this one permitted blubbering pot. I can rest safe in the knowledge that I can’t be regarded as self pitying when I am getting weepy over a mere film, a TV programme, a book etc.

So there I am weeping over fictional characters from a novel translated to celluloid. Here in this particular story of course is one of those human baseline prime regrets; the case of the life not lived, the road not taken and living with the knowledge that you have ripped choices away from others and yourself by your own actions. Hindsight, like water and fire is a good friend and a bad enemy. And then of course amidst all this emotional fest, turmoil and soggy tissues part of my brain is also thinking, how can they have travelled any road at all when they never had real legs or real choices in the first place? The only choices ever made were by the writer, the director or who ever is selling me the story. Thanks be to those who can perform such magic; the art of creating any narrative is always a form of manipulating the reader or the audience; the real talent may lie in how well it is disguised.

So I leave you with Roy crying and Celia trying not to sniffle too much

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Writing on white tribbles and Anne Sexton



Over a meal at the Peterloo Festival I discussed with HW and AD the old saying that ‘happiness writes white’.

Despair, misery, grief, anger and depression seem to nurture a far greater number of good poems. Should a poet feel personally content and happy in the present they usually have to delve into a time when they weren’t happy or look outward to situations in the world that are far from happy. It is far harder to get in touch with your 'inner happy' and reflect upon it let alone write about it. Are we somehow superstitious that if we examine our own happiness and put it into words it will disappear or become lessened?

Poets and writers don’t seem to think this of unhappiness, a whiff of a personal trauma or misery and things start getting cross filed into the potential poem pigeon holes, even if the poem may not be written for years. We usually like to be in touch with our inner Nelly-no-friends in the playground, misunderstood teenager, unrequited or inappropriately requited lover, the screamer in the skull…all this begs to be written on, words scratched onto its hard surfaces. Our inner happy on the other hand scurries away screaming and demands to be left alone in its happy fluffy warm and fuzzy state. It is so much easier to write on a hard surface than on a soft fuzzy one, it isn’t so much about the colour as the texture.

Of course our inner unhappy tends to speak in a universal language, it is its own Babel fish for all to understand and when we read of it we can hear echoes of our own unhappiness and that is both seductive and engaging. Happiness however seems more particular and tailored to wrap round the one body it inhabits; unhappy is more of a whore she'll wrap herself round any passing stranger. Anne Sexton was a woman who knew all about depression and plunging naked into the dark pools of mental illness whilst letting us watch her try to keep afloat there in her poems. In the end, of course, she didn't keep afloat and I sometimes feel almost guilty at reading some of her open confessions about that struggle.

She, amongst others, exemplifies so well the way poems can almost articulate the unspeakable, as she describes it in her poem ‘With Mercy for the Greedy’

they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.

Of course I would rather be deeply happy than unhappy, which might be a statement of the obvious and some may feel that the current state of the world demands we reserve a certain part of ourselves for unhappiness/anger/despair. Having written about our inner fuzzy happy world I keep thinking of the early Startrek episode ‘ The trouble with tribbles’ happy purring soothing creatures that seem to grow exponentially and threaten to take over The Starship Enterprise. Perhaps this episode was a metaphor about the trouble with happiness; it can grow, make you complacent and eventually clog your engines.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Technological Cats with e mail and Alan Brownjohn




A friend in Prague e mailed after reading my blog and suggested I try hoovering my camera and if that fails a hairdryer. The former may extract stray hairs, sand, grit or general detritus that make be causing the problem. The latter may dry any damp that has entered the camera and buggered it up; either way I had nothing to lose but alas no miraculous cure.

I recall a friend who, to start his car, had to strike it in a particular place on the steering column, a relative who for many years used a pair of pliers to turn the knobs on her cooker as they all gradually fell off and I am the maestro of the photocopier at work which has the temperament of a thoroughbred and whilst it can do all sorts of wonderful things just short of making you a cappuccino requires soothing kind words now and then to get the required result.

I have long believed that inanimate objects are affected by human pheromones; anger, rudeness etc can result in a machine remaining inoperable whilst a kind word, a firm but pleasant attitude can get you the required results. Machines may be state of the art electronics but they can sniff out a Luddite, which accounts for those machines that stubbornly plough their own furrow by way of response.

Someone at work is very techno-phobic and approaches all computer based activities as if being asked to control a vicious Rottweiller. I watched as she tentatively clicked on print and the printer proceeded to spew out the same document again and again although only one had been requested, in the end she had to yank out the plug as it wouldn’t even acknowledge its own off switch. It reminded me of the Sorceror's Apprentice in Fantasia as Mickey Mouse tries in vain to stop the broom fetching water. Given today’s news about additives effecting behaviour it may be likely that the printer was acting like a Rottweiller on a batch of E numbers.

This anthropomorphism of objects is of course ludicrous, illogical and downright stupid but yet I still talk to my car, computer and even microwave now and then. Years hence some scientist may discover that human pheromones do affect sophisticated electronics and I will lean back in my state of the art electric wheelchair and tell it I knew that all along.

Alan Brownjohn in his usual witty manner examines the strange and mysterious relationship between humans and technology in this poem.
As he points out some things can never be controlled by technology and cats will never have e mail…although I note they are some that have their own profile on Facebook which is rather spooky perhaps some cats have the right sort of pheromones.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Obsolescence. Arvon, magic knickers and Hugo Williams



I have engaged in some retail therapy with a good friend who has recently lost her mother. By lost I mean in the ‘died’ sense rather than the misplaced. I am the one who tended to err on the misplacement side in the past when my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s,shuffled off at a rate of knots in Motorway Services or Garden Centres. She was once brought back by a neighbour several doors away having nearly made it as far as the petrol station on the corner and I hadn’t even missed her. My friend would not mind me writing this, as humour, we have both long known, is our way to deal with some things. So retail therapy involved magic knickers for the funeral for her as the little black dress was a bit tight now. We laughed when we discussed that the feeling of being supported is quite important on such occasions.
My retail experience involved trying to get my digital camera fixed. Cambridge abounds with geeky camera shops, I’m not talking run of the mill Dixon’s here. I produced my digital camera, just over a year old so just out of warranty and they leapt back as if I had placed a large turd on their counter. No-one wanted to even pick it up, it was a rubble glove job to them…a Praktica..I could see that they couldn’t even bring themselves to mouth the word. Praktica, the scum camera manufacturer of the earth I tended to read on their horrified faces.
It’s not worth mending; no-one will do it for less than the money you paid for it. £90 I know is cheap but over this amount to have a power button work seems a bit steep. In built obsolescence murmured one shop assistant. It’s not designed to last much longer than the warranty. I presume there is some internal clock that ticks away the countdown to its own obsolescence. 364 days, 365, 366 bingo, I am out of here, dead, non-functional, an ex-camera much like the Python parrot.
I scooped my turdish camera gingerly back into my bag and tried the next camera shop, same story. They all said the same, some tried to disguise their sneer better than others, some tried to sell me a better camera, full marks to the young lad who told me that I’d done well to get a years worth of crap unfocused, pixel challenged photos out of it. One man seemed to need to inform me about the whole economics of the camera industry, Praktica don’t actually make cameras at all they hire factories in the third world and masquerade as camera manufacturers.
I had to resort to buying a packet of seven pants for a fiver in Marks and Sparks to cheer myself up. No doubt someone will tell me down the line that they have been made by non pukka pant manufacturers in a sweat shop in Cambodia and I will again sink under a wave of guilt at my incompetent politically incorrect shopping plus afore mentioned pants will probably disintegrate after the second wash, when their in-built obsolescence alarm clock starts to ring, I just hope I'm not wearing them when the bell goes.
I note they had a new reality type programme on Channel Four last night, this time a green reality…people who applied thought they were probably going to a rain forest to help out the stressed planet but no they have put them on a British landfill dump site for four weeks and told them to survive on what they can scavenge. The tattooed joiner who is part of the group thought building a shelter out of waste timber was a doddle, perhaps he could try building a small bijoux dump side apartment out of obsolete Praktica cameras?

Of course, dear reader, observant as you are, you will have noticed I haven’t mentioned my Arvon Course. I will sum up; inspiring and challenging tutors,people in the group full of laughter and also interesting talented writers of all hues, ages and situations. Having received boundless encouragement and enthusiastic feedback from the tutors about the novel I have set to work on it yet again with re-newed vigour. The question came up on the course that often the first novel you write is your learning experience that you put away under the bed and move on from. Having now been told that this was not the case with mine and that it had very strong little legs indeed it behoves me to try and ensure the legs at least get a chance to totter down some public highway at some point.
The poetry, also much positive encouragement and feedback again but importantly I reminded myself how much real private joy writing and crafting a poem can give you.
Off to the Peterloo Festival down in Devon to read this week-end, will alas, be unable to bring back atmospheric photographs of Dartmoor and Hugo Williams but don’t get me stated on that again. I leave you with this poem by him, that always makes me think of my mother off down the road on her strange shuffling travels with her zimmer. One of her favourite phrases as the Alzheimer's began to take over was that she was 'past her sell by date' perhaps she instinctively knew about the bodies in-built odsolescence.