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.