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.