Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Death of Woolies and the Old Year

So today is the last day of trading for Woolworths, the pick and mix will be no more, the place that as a child I wandered clutching pocket money and over priced dreams of stationary involving neon crayons and holographic pencil cases. This was the place where my daughter stared longingly at the My Little Pony Grooming Parlour and saved up for the pleasure of owning the Sylvanian caravan she saw in the sale there. My mother, when pregnant was stopped by a lady in Woolworths near the gloves, she always used to add when telling the story, who told her that I would be a girl and would be born on the same day as my great grandmother. Woolworths had a particular smell when I was a child, wrapped sweets and wooden floorboards. Generations of children were bought school shirts and cardigans in Woolies and there were strange gadgets to purchase that chopped veg or polished cars to within an inch of perfection. Every passport and identity card I have ever had were accompanied by photos taken at booths in Woolies, where you hung about by the kitchenware section at the back of the shop waiting for your serious face to drop out of the slot, still damp from developing fluid.

So all things pass and become labelled as saccharine nostalgia; Wimpey Bars on every corner, sweet shops where you could buy loose sweets in conical bags, standing on bridges whilst steam trains passed underneath covering you in smoke, X-ray machines in shoe shops to show how well your feet were served by Start-rite shoes, women selling ice-cream tubs and Kiora from trays in cinemas during the interval, intervals themselves when you had two films for your money. A Woolies turned a place into a town, only a town could have one, a Woolies made you urban not rural. There was a sameness about them that was a comfort no matter where you found them. So goodbye Woolies, I will miss you. I tried to keep you going by buying CDs, DVDs, stickers, magic cleaning foam, mops, Cinderella dresses for small girls, Easter eggs, advent calendars, chocolate and cola bottles but alas it was not enough. Perhaps there is a shop heaven to which such places go and when we die we will be able to walk down streets lined with all those high street shops that made us feel ‘at home’.

I drove home from Christmas in Durham listening to a programme of film music and was surprised by how much music from film is deeply engrained in my psyche. Hear a few bars of some tune and you can watch yourself watching, watch who you were with, where you were. New Year always seems to trigger a certain nostalgia, seeing where you have been allows you to consider where you are going. The ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas yet to come need each other. The economic climate is rather dodgy, what the future holds may be worrying but look what we’ve been through and yet we still manage to dance in the kitchen to Motown, laugh at bad jokes in Christmas crackers and toast each other in cheap sparkling wine when Big Ben chimes midnight. Life is more than survival but even surviving is cause for celebration, so bring on 2009 whatever it brings is going to be better for the joy of still being around to savour it.

And if you sometimes long to remember a memory conjured by place and chance encounter and you also want seasonal snow, forest, deer and just a little nostalgic magic that New Year can sometimes bring try this Hayden Carruth poem on for size. He is one of those American poets little known over in the UK who deserves better recognition.

And if things seem a little gloomy there is nothing like Thomas Hardy’s poem The Darkling Thrush, written at the turn of the 19th century when the Twentieth century seemed to hold a lot of foreboding.Perhaps given that businesses are going under and the soundtrack of our lives at present seems to be the sound of the tightening of belts it is a time when we all want to be party to some ‘blessed Hope’ of which we are yet unaware.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Viruses, clutter and Adrian Mitchell

Post Salt beano I took to my bed with the flu which managed to turn into pneumonia and necessitated two days in hospital with an oxygen mask and antibiotics dripping into me at a sedate pace. As is the nature of hospitals you are shoved into a bay with a mixed batch of humankind, illnesses and a mixed bag of visitors until the winter vomiting bug hit the ward and we happy few in the end bay were quarantined off as we weren’t manifesting any of the symptoms. Visiting was restricted and those allowed in had to be gloved and gowned, we were a small colony of non-vomiting illnesses amidst a heaving sea of nausea. A lady in her nineties suffering from dementia spent a great deal of time chatting to endless non existent people in a chirpy manner and any real presence was seen as a delusion in a topsy turvey way. I and an old chap in the next bed managed short bursts of conversation in between longer bursts of oxygen, you learn back stories quickly in such circumstances. Old soldier one of the first soldiers into the concentration camps in 1945, ‘after you’ve seen that whatever comes your way is always somehow smaller, not unimportant but smaller’, he tells me. So we all lie there nodding with our small little problems and things become proportionate, the Christmas preparations left undone, the cards unsent, the general buggeration of being ill this close to Christmas.

I returned home, rest up being the major prescription. So I have rested up over the last few days and watched more TV than is good for any brain. I am impressed by how many ways DIY, antiques and house hunting can be packaged for public consumption. I watch a whole house being ‘made over’ in an hour and wonder how the paint can possible be dry and whether the recipient of this make over is smiling merely for the camera whilst beneath the smile is worrying about where on earth she is going to put all the accumulated crap the interior decorator/stylist has piled outside. Everyone has crap, stuff that doesn’t blend in with a clean line minimalist interior. Life laundry may be a good thing at times but the idea of someone tossing out ornaments etc that have lurked on shelves for years makes me more than uneasy. Sentiment tends to lessen cutting edge décor. I am waiting for ‘clutter chic’ to come into fashion.

I was sorry to hear about the sudden death of Adrian Mitchell, friends and I read with him once and he was a kind, generous hearted man who always sort to make poetry something accessible to all and especially to children. He famously said , “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.". Here is the link to him at The Poetry Archive so you can choose for yourself which poem you would like to read.

I have a poem in Ink, Sweat and Tears if you fancy a strange take on Walt Whitman's poem I sing the Body Electric( Post date is 23rd December 08).

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a peaceful New Year dear reader. May the bugs and virus’ stay well away and in 2009 may you find whatever it is you are looking for, even if you don’t think you have lost it and may you be ‘surprised by joy’ at least once a week.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Horse Hospital, Lighthouses and Seven Degrees of Separation from a Novel

Went to a Christmas beano held by Salt Publishing in London at The Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury. A strange place reached by a very narrow steep ramp with upright slats every yard, I presume to allow the sick horses to gain some purchase on the stone floor. Odd that they should site a horse hospital upstairs but then when it became a horse hospital in the eighteenth century, London was a crowded cheek by jowl place and all those horses pulling cabs and carts and coaches presumably needed somewhere to go when sick. The city on a Friday night was still cheek by jowl and the pub opposite was packed with people decked in mistletoe and holly and Santa hats. I am at an advantage in crowded pubs as I can a) see the bar and b) see the exit and the loo signs. However I suddenly remembered why I find big cities at once exciting and annoying there are too many people funnelled into too little space.

I once did an essay on the psychology of crown behaviour back in the mists of academic time and it was quite scary stuff, people in crowds act differently, there is a tension between individual survival and the pack/herd instinct. People if frightened enough will stampede like cattle and also the closer people are packed together the more individual inhibitions will decrease relative to the extent of the incursion into their personal space. Everybody has a notional personal space around them, derived from personal and cultural factors. There is the famous study of United Nations cocktail parties where the movement of people was mapped and those from cultures where personal space was minimal were constantly driving back those from cultures where personal space was very important. This created a sort of wave motion in the room,some advancing to decrease personal space whilst they talked to someone and those retreating to maintain it.

In the seventies I had a serious accident which involved me in wearing a neck brace which prevented me from lowering my chin. Now at my great height there is either a great deal of chin lowering going on to talk to people when standing up or as I usual do I take a few steps back to decrease the angle that any person I am conversing with has to tip their head. So with the neck brace a considerable amount of personal space was required if I was to hold a conversation where I could actually see the person I was talking to. Some people did not get this they advanced, I retreated, my smaller friends at the time could be literally standing under my nose and I could miss them. I tried to maintain the quiet dignity of a magnificent lighthouse at the time, revolving slowly to scan the room at parties. I became very atune to lighthouses as entities, that is why when I met Miranda Landgraf another writer, through a writing award scheme, I was fascinated by her wonderful book based on her grandfather’s experience of going mad in a lighthouse in Ireland and his subsequent incarceration for years in an institution standing motionless gazing out of a window like a human lighthouse. You can read extracts from the novel here, it is beautifully written and a fascinating story.

See how my mind works I start with sick horses, lurching from there to busy cities, crowd psychology, personal space, broken necks and seamlessly into lighthouses and from there to a book…see you are never more than seven degrees of separation from a book or a poem. Forget the seven degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon try it with literature.

I was sad to hear of Oliver Postgate’s death this week, there was a wonderful homage to him in the Guardian. It was essentially the simplicity of his animation and the almost hypnotic narration he provided that makes him special. It is the old adage that you can give a child a large cardboard box and with imagination it can become anything, Postgate allowed a child room to manoeuvre with their imagination, he allowed a child to suspend their disbelief which fosters imagination. So often the media seem to think that children need the visual and narrative to be watertight. I think most children are born with huge amounts of imagination and disbelief comes to them naturally it is only as we grow older that we often find the imaginative leap harder. I could believe a lot of things, I could imagine a great deal but so often I have to keep cross checking as to whether I am being gullible, naïve or not acting like an adult, whatever that act may be. It’s probably why I still feel comfortable watching Bagpuss , the Clangers or Noggin the Nog; not because of some nostalgia fest but because it taps into the bit of me ( and of many others I suspect) that can so easily believe mice talk and a soup dragon exists.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Who knows where the time goes in the fens?

So I was driving between appointments across the fens, wondering why flat is so often scorned, why flat is the name given to the emotion that doesn’t quite achieve depression but hangs around like a monotonal bad smell. Flat can be interesting, flat allows other angles to display themselves. One tree on a flat horizon becomes the epitome of tree, it is tree magnified, it is tree underlined in bold, it is tree before the fall from the edge. So as I think tree thoughts or should that be tree in the singular I listen to Sandy Denny on the radio and I take all the Sandy Denny vocals from the back of my head and dust them off. I am not a huge Fairport Convention groupie but her singing always created something special, she had that vocal alchemy that can turn an ordinary leaden song into gold. Why have I not listened to this woman for so long, she is like the tree in the fen, something essentially itself. Now that may sound like a load of meaningless philosophical twaddle and indeed it might be but it is my twaddle and the twaddle means something to me. I am being very definitive today it must be the onset of the countdown to Christmas and the panic this can engender. If I embrace the zen of tree perhaps I will not rush round the shops like a headless chicken or a rootless tree buying stuff. Christmas can become stuff fest and stuff your face fest. Last year I had a sickness virus that made stuffing of the face far from wise and I was all the better for it, although the Boo, who I stayed with last Christmas did point out that the custard and other rich delights she had taken pains to buy in for visiting mother went uneaten.

So what has the Zen of fen tree and Sandy Denny’s voice got to offer me…well a sort of calm, a sort of sense that panic is not an option , that being a little more chilled is ok, Christmas, like time, will happen and all will be well. I found this acoustic track of Sandy Denny singing Who Knows where the Time Goes and I listened to that voice. Sandy Denny died in classic ‘rock and roll’ circumstances, the fall down the stairs, the booze, the never quite fulfilling all the brilliance of that voice. If you listen you can almost hear that end in her voice, she knows something about where time goes before she lives it.
Just take five minutes out to really listen to this track, close your eyes and let her voice wash over you, it deals a little with those, ‘have I got to face the shops at Christmas’ hyperventilation and the 'should I buy the ham now or later' anxiety.