Sunday, 29 November 2009

Floods, The Comfort of Things and the Poet John Lyons' Cooking

A wet Sunday but nothing like Cumbria where people must view the rain, any rain now, as an enemy, a taker of homes, possessions, livelihood, lives. Our local river still remains within its banks but the floodplains near the town look sodden as if just another jugful of rain will tip them over the edge into fen mere where no dog walker can pass and the swans and Canada geese float on a memory of meadowland.

I have an 8 minute radio piece up on the Audiotheque website about water and the draining of the fens, it’s called Isle ( scroll down to find it, I can't guarentee this link will work after more updates have been added to the site). This is a experimental sound website run by De Montfort University which has some short play pieces like mine but also some interesting soundscapes etc. Having lived in the fens for many years and been fascinated by it’s history, water, its encroachment and its loss, has been at the core of its social and economic history and still is. There are attempts being made now to return areas back to its original mere and marshland state. Such projects are valuable but they only show you a gnat’s bite of how the area would have looked in the sixteenth century and earlier, pre-drainage. It was a huge undertaking to drain the fens and in fact was never truly successful until the steam engine’s invention that allowed water pumps to be more effective. Windmills were never really up to the job but for a while covered the countryside.

As you drive beside the dykes now the roads are raised up due to the shrinkage of the land once it was sucked dry of water. It always seems odd driving across the fens at night beside a raised drainage dyke on one side and a huge dark drop on the other down to the fields. Sometimes, as it did the other night as I drove back from Ely (The Isle of Eels), it feels as if the world is almost tilting as the camber of the road veers towards the drop. The road snakes across the landscape sometimes letting go its grip on the raised drainage dyke and meandering off to follow old sheep tracks and ways that existed through the meres long before they were drained. As you snake around late at night you can see headlights appearing and disappearing way ahead as they follow the road. The road does indeed resemble an eel more than a snake I feel. eels were once prolific in the fens; one medieval scribe noted that at times they were so plentiful you could almost walk on the backs of eels for three miles across one stretch of the fens. However whilst the snake has been turned into a verb the humble eel hasn’t , although 'to eel' sounds as if it ought to merit a verb especially in wet or sodden landscape. Even in a downpour in the city one has a sense of the mass of people on pavements twisting and turning like eels to avoid each other, shopping bags, umbrellas. They eel down the pavement sounds right to me, it also conjures up that knotted mass of eels and the flow of water. I must find out what the collective noun is for eels, I presume there is one.

I was driving back through the fens from Ely because I had been to the launch of John Lyons’ new book published by Peepal Tree, a great press for all Afro-Caribbean writing. Cook-Up in a Trini Kitchen is joy of a book if you like poetry and food, it contains great recipes for all kinds of Trinidadian dishes, many with a twist on them . John did the launch in a bookshop whilst also cooking some of the dishes. The smell was heavenly, although the smoke detector did have a moment when hit by a waft of steam from sizzling onions herbs and spices. The book contains some of John’s artwork ( he originally trained and continues to be a visual artist of some repute) as well as some prose pieces about his childhood in Trinidad and some poems that speak to the recipes. As John said Trinidadians take their pleasures very seriously and food and having fun is high on their agenda. I tried some of the dishes and can personally recommend the Christmas cake recipe but suggest you don’t eat too much as you may be well over the limit given the amount of rum, cherry brandy and port it contains. It was one of those joyous occasions when poetry nestled so easily into the other delights of the senses and the poems John read just added to the flavour of the evening.

What else have I done this week, well I’ve started reading a wonderful book given to me by a friend written by a social anthropologist who just writes so well that his material jumps off the page at you and some pieces almost make you want to cry at their poignancy and insight into peoples lives.. It is called The Comfort of Things by Daniel Miller. It is book that investigates the things 100 people in an ordinary London street surround themselves with in their homes and what significance these things have for who they are and how these things give meaning to their lives. It is so glib to say materialism is a bad thing, this book shows how stuff or even the absence of stuff can be heartbreakingly meaningful and is not simply an indicator of how a person rates their standing by possessions. The first chapter contains a piece called ‘Empty’ and shows a man 74 years of age who lives in a flat surrounded only by furniture and items that have a functional necessity. The sterility of his surroundings is so marked that when he is asked questions about his past life it is no surprise that his story is quietly desperate and devoid of any real human contact and warmth that began for him from birth. I started to cry as a read it.
The next piece in the book is called ‘Full’ and gives the chaos of an extended family whose possessions are simply an extension of their love and warm contact with each other. The description of their house and all its many decorations at Christmas and all the laughter and stories each decoration and bauble held for the family may seem like some sugary Dickensian Christmas card. However I was left with permission to gaze round my house full of books and objects that many would deem ready for the jumble or Charity shop, from whence some of them actually came, and feel absolutely ok about it (not that I have ever felt not ok but now and then moments of life laundry do creep up on me).

It is that time of year so I have baubled up the willow canes I keep in a pot of sand in the living room and have hung gold and red bunches of grapes and extra cherry red Christmas lights to go with the ones that bedeck it all the year round plus other ornaments that are old friends at Christmas. I have a feeling, as the cherry red lights look so warm and comforting, they may stay up there now past Christmas and add to the stuff of my life. That’s ok. I’m not going anywhere and the Boo will have to clamber over all this when I go or am shuffled off into accommodation for the bewildered and dazed. I have however promised not to collect old newspapers and milk bottles or anything that might attract rats a la Miss Haversham. The Boo is equally squirrelish about some stuff, as was my mother, so this genetic trait may be passed down through the generations. I can travel light when needs be but home for the past twenty-eight always has a sense of people and warmth about it that some stuff of mine signifies. It may be an age thing but I think it is a stuff thing. Ask many of those who have lost things in the floods in Cumbria and on their faces you will see it is not always about the monetary value of possessions it is about all those things that gave home its meaning.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Birthdays, Age and Tightrope Walking with Larkin

I had a birthday this week-end, I have no problem with birthdays they roll by whether you want them to or not so I like to embrace them as an increasingly familiar old friend. Twenty was wonderful, thirty was wonderful, forty was fine, fifty was interesting, sixty my next one I shall encounter with a zero will bring a bus pass, heating allowances and best of all I anticipate the feeling of empowerment that I have earned the right to not bother about what people think about me. If truth were told ( and truth is not always best told but probably less damaging that untruths told in the long term) I feel that at fifty –eight ( pause whilst I have to recalculate from last year). It would be a lie to say I did not care how others perceive me, that way lies slight madness and those blouses you find in shops that cater for ladies of a certain age. You know the ones I mean, tiny paisley patterns, maybe with trailing things that can be tied in bows at the neck. I still squeeze myself into jeans that are a triumph of corsetry over breathing and have T-Shirts that have slogans on. I was once told by a very glamorous perfumed and couturier bedecked lady that no woman should ever wear T-Shirts saying anything past twenty-five, unless it is a small discreet designer logo and then only if the designer is expensive enough. This woman was obviously wrapped in silk pashmina as she exited the birth canal and her mother probably only broke into a slight glow throughout labour.

I have little dress sense, no glamour ( as defined by afore mentioned designer woman), I often manage to achieve an effect through sheer serendipity, sometimes in the tumble of the drawers and wardrobe an outfit comes together by some strange law of permutations of what is nearest to hand. It must be a bit like the probability of winning the lottery, now and again you may win a tenner ( a near decent outfit) which makes you feel that a jackpot win( bloody great) is not totally impossible. At 6’ 3”( I’ve lost an inch along the way somewhere) you tend to get noticed when you enter a room, if you then add to that clashing colours and items of clothing from various decades that would make the words ‘an interesting mix of styles’ seem overly generous….. then you have a statement but in my case more of a exclamation ( probably best described by an exclamation mark).

I watched a couple of programmes on TV this week designed to cater to the over sixties. Gok Wan managed to persuade a lady over seventy to wear only iced buns for a photograph by calling her angel and ‘my darling’ every other sentence. In the other programme some doctors revealed the joys of the older body falling apart. Age is a bit of a bugger; it gives with one hand and takes with the other. Of course life is always about balance; the balancing act just gets a little more difficult as you get older, the wire a little thinner, you have to put your glasses on to see where you are going and the drop is a tad more daunting and you wonder if that slight twinge as you walk across the abyss signals a future hip replacement.. Of course I wouldn’t say I was as pessimistic as Larkin though and birthdays, any birthdays should be fun.

PS, The photograph at the top of the page was taken by my friend Martin Figura, a professional photographer and poet. I asked him to take photographs of my mother's bungalow a week after she died and then a few months later after it has been cleared. This may seem macabre but the photographs I knew would be strangely beautiful and continue to remain very poignant for me. You can see more here at his web site with a shortextract from an explanatory text I wrote to accompany the work.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Philip Levine, Seagulls and Keats

I don’t seem to have posted for a while dear reader, events have rushed at me like a herd of stampeding wildebeest ( I am imaging that scene from The Lion King when computer generated animals populated the screen). Aldeburgh Poetry festival threw up a lot to be savoured most of all Philip Levine who has been a poetry hero of mine since I was 16 years old. Someone showed me his poem The Horse and I had this epiphany about what poetry can do in the world.

Philip Levine was interviewed about his life and that session alone would have been worth the price of the weekend. He was taught by Lowell and Berryman. Lowell he said was a terrible teacher whilst Berryman never turned up drunk to a lecture and was a brilliant teacher. He recounted a tale of an incident when he and Berryman had gotten very drunk together and fell asleep on Berryman’s bed. In the morning they were awakened by a telegram boy announcing he had a telegram for a 'Mr John Berryman'. Berryman sat up in bed and stared at Levine, “Are you John Berryman?” he asked with no hint of joke in his voice. “No” replied Levine, “In that case the telegram must be for me,” Berryman told the puzzled telegram boy. “I hope it’s from Saul Bellow,” he said, “He has money these days and I need to keep in with him.”

There was an interesting discussion with a panel of the great and the good about whether all poetry is ultimately about sex and death and another one about whether there is anything that could be deemed the female poem. The general answer seemed to be yes and no, which is the usual answer you get from such discussions. Jo Shapcott the chair of the second discussion wrote about this in an article in the Guardian some days later.

I spent a great deal of time watching the gulls wondering if they were engaged in poet spotting, trying to guess by their plumage which walkers along the strand of beach would be looking at them in a poetic way. There were a number who seemed to have been extras in The Hitchcock film the birds as they had obviously engaged in a few method acting lessons and could do menace quite well, digging deep into their inner vulture maybe. The sight of someone with fish and chips sent them into a whirling feeding frenzy and I didn’t help much by hurling them the odd chip which they could take on the wing, like a dog I once had that specialized in grabbing a Frisby in mid air.

So what will I remember from Aldeburgh 2009 .

• Crying after Philip Levine had finished his reading on the Sunday afternoon, as I knew that this would probably be the first and last time I would hear him read. Over forty years since I read The Horse sitting on a bus on the way back from school and suddenly all the noise and yelling on the top deck drifted away and I was somewhere else.
• Being impressed by the enormity and agility of the seagulls
• Tom Paulin giving such a close reading of some poems that it was at an almost sub atomic level, I could almost hear the sound of the rhymes, half rhymes and vowel forming in the movement of the air.
• The people at the quiz who got such high scores that it revealed an almost unhealthy level of poetry knowledge.
• The poor woman who trapped her toe in the chair in front in the hall where the reading were held and let out the most primal of screams that caused everyone in the place to freeze and stare.
• This year making sure I had enough time just to sit and look at the sea without having to rush between events

Since returning from Aldeburgh I have been to a great reading by Roddy Lumsden and Tom Warner

I think I need time to digest all the poetry I have accumulated in my head over the past couple of weeks. There is such a thing as poetry constipation, when so much has been consumed it can cause a blockage. On top of all this I went to see Bright Star, the film about Keats and Fanny, so much angst, so much longing, so much coughing.