Thursday, August 18, 2016

My first taste of cous cous, 1975

I first ate cous cous in a basement room on the university campus in Caen, Normandy in 1975. I don't remember how I met the guy who lived there and cooked for me, I could never recall his face.  I could be sitting next to him anywhere and not know he was that young man.

He cooked the cous cous on a single electric ring we had in our rooms. Why do I have an image of looking down from the cobbled square, from a point towards the edge of the square, not far from the looming lecture blocks where I went for a course on cinema and never returned?

He belongs to the time of Michel, Patrice, the fire-eater and travelling circus. But he's in a basement with a bowl of buttery, crumbly grain, a sweet spicy sauce of potatoes, carrots and lamb with chick peas and red peppers.

It's a taste I'd go back to years later with Mark who had a thing about harissa, who made cous cous properly and who I bought a North African cookbook for, which I kept when we split up even though it was useless to me, a vegetarian by then.

The young man in that basement is fixed in the colours of a dim electric light - kind, generous, now utterly unknown to me, and I often think about him.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How the garden feels after a difficult one to one session

It wasn't counselling, it was a one to one consultation with an expert about work. It wrang insecurities from the most blissful day, it exposed every rock pool of self-doubt.

So in a couple of hours before dusk, I managed to heavily prune two weigela (which I will cut down today), decided to hack out a winter honeysuckle, dragged kilometres of bindweed out of flower beds and made a plan to lop the jasmine covered sycamore. I want light in.

I chose to prioritise time over money and work a four day week. I chose to write poetry, which is generous with personal reward but mean with external affirmation. I chose not to have a career. And just as I often wake in the morning nowadays wondering if this will be the day the chickens come home to roost (all those bad choices translated into medical conditions), the consultation was a day of reckoning.

So why would you want to do that? Why not be happy with the way things are? Be 22 again and play. Feel alive. Don't wait for the space, make the space you need. 

It's taken a while for the penny to drop. To realise just how full the world of writing is of people who come to it late from successful careers, where they've learned how to be successful. They aren't afraid of wanting it all and aren't afraid of what they must do to achieve it. They aren't afraid of success and strategy.

Does success matter? In itself, no, but some kind of external validation does, certainly when you've been at it for years. I fear it is too late for me. I fear that this is what the session I went to was about. I fear the garden will feel my fear. How can I be positive? Write.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Ladies of the arts

I went into the Pound Shop on London Road for a pad of lined paper. I'd been for a walk with Jane and we passed a shabby black painted temporary building on the beach near Concorde 2. We were curious about it, what it was for, and a man standing outside mending the doorway told us it contained an 'immersive experience' about time.

As we were leaving he said we could email him and he'd give us tickets (they were selling for £18, pretty steep given the experience only lasted an hour). 'You are obviously ladies of the arts,' he said.

I thought I'd stop off in a cafe and do a bit of writing to cement the status he'd conferred, but I didn't have a notebook. Then I saw a novel by someone I know in the books section. The pound shop's not a destination for books, but it's always worth checking the shelves for the remaindered gem. Hers was one I'd been meaning to read. And that led me to The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee.

All that MacMillan says about this Korean writer is that he "has sold hundreds of thousands of books in his native Korea. One, Deep Rooted Tree, was made into a popular TV series."

It's brilliant. As immersive experiences go, I have to thank the man at the black chipboard shack on the seafront, because if I wasn't so determined to explore why I was so put out by that title, Ladies of the Arts, I wouldn't have found the novel. It mixes poetry and prose in the most inventive way and now I want to know more about this writer but I can find almost nothing, although I have discovered the name of the poet the novel centres on - Yun Dong-Ju who died in 1945 two years after being arrested as a 'thought criminal'.

It's a book about how we are shaped - how a moment listening to a woman playing piano can influence your whole life. It is about writing, words and violence. And I'm so far only half way through.

Jung Myung-Lee was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015. Is it his choice to limit the biographical information on this fascinating book? Translator is Chi-Young Kim.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Where did June go?

Marble female figure 4500-4000 BC,
from the Aegean islands
Sometimes a month passes day by day, as June has. Rain, trying to get washing dry, endless admin, finishing things off, oh and marking at the start of the month.

Things broke - the phone developed a ring tone on constant, like an alarm, the Mac began to heat up and freeze in the middle of a crime drama, the reading group ended and the cat started to piss on the carpet. Mornings I was on my knees with white vinegar, scrubbing the wet patch.

The blow heater broke. Birds nesting in the brickwork by the kitchen sat on the washing line and shat on pillowcases I'd put out to dry. Airbnb guests came and went and the weeds grew tall on the allotment because of the rain.

Battalions of slugs ate everything I planted, every seedling that came up, they hid under the rhubarb, planks of wood, in the herbs, they stripped the four sunflowers I'd nurtured in the greenhouse.

The washing line broke with sheets, jeans, towels, the lot on. June passed and then there was the referendum. Days on Facebook. Still trying to break the habit.

But at the end of June I had the proofs for the Workshop Handbook from Arc. It's nearly ready. August is the month for Venda Sun. The odd poem emerges in between. I talked with Jane for Pighog at 88 London Road about our collaboration.

I bought a dehydrator for the soft fruit. At last the summer raspberries are starting to ripen, two weeks later than normal. There are black, white and red currants. Anarchist colours. Gooseberries and new potatoes.
18th century tea bowl in the Metropolitan Museum

And yesterday the Poetry Library dug out Black Slingbacks from a 1990 edition of The North and used it as their poem of the week.

Funnily enough, I might have written it at around this time because it came out of doing my accounts one year and finding a cheque stub for a taxi from the flat I shared with Mark off Jamaica Road, when there were still local shops down there, with grills on the windows.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Not writing for money

Trained as a journalist in my early 20s, I've always expected to be paid for what I write. Okay, when I began writing poetry more seriously I couldn't imagine that it could compare. But nevertheless, I still valued my time in £s. When I wasn't earning through journalism (and I have been freelance for all but seven and a half years of my working life) I was conscious of what I wasn't earning when I was trying to write poems.

Writers are polarised, it seems, about whether it's right to be paid to write. When I began earning money from running workshops or doing poetry residencies, I was able to cut back on the amount of journalism I did to keep my family housed and fed. Three times in my life I received grants to take time out of that constant struggle of looking after small children and being the wage earner. I was incredibly grateful for time to focus and think. Did what I produced meet 'objective' quality standards? I don't know. The grants were awarded to buy time to write.

A novelist friend once told me that she'd become aware of this privilege when she was travelling and meeting writers who fitted everything into their daily, working lives without the luxury of public subsidy. Yes, I know people who do that here. With public funding shrinking, it is the norm.

But what started me thinking about it again, apart from a thread on Facebook started by writer and publisher Charles Boyle, was arriving at the age when it is impossible to find paid work and wondering what I was going to do in the five years before collecting a pension.

Since becoming a seaside landlady with Airbnb, I've found the distance it gives from my own expectations is a massive relief. For years I was judging myself by what I could earn from writing and whether or not I'd be in line for a residency, grant or workshop. I had periods when the pressure was off, with Royal Literary Fund fellowships and the reading round - temporary and part-time jobs designed for writers that also released me from some of the insecurity of freelancing.

But with the reading group ending in June and just one surviving job providing a very small income, I thought I was facing serious problems. Airbnb has liberated me from that worry and from my own ridiculous equation i.e. literary work means I am valued as a writer.

It no longer matters. Washing sheets, changing the bed and cleaning the loo makes me happy. If I have a piece of writing on the go, I can think about it. If I don't, it doesn't matter, I enjoy the shine of the sink. Writing has gone back to being something I do for the love of words. Work provides me with a succession of fascinating people. I thank god for the sea, pier, Royal Pavilion and a washing machine.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Talking to the blackbird mother

A week or so ago I realised there was a blackbird nest in my shed when I noticed the mother fly into a corner.

The shed has no door and when Jane and David re-roofed it last year we left a broken slat at the back because it's always got nests in. Once I found one in a carrier bag another in an old hard hat, both hanging from nails.

I was worried that the blackbird might desert the nest with me clanging around looking for tools and the gas stove I keep in a big metal trunk. So the first time I went in, knowing she was there high in the corner, instinct made me speak to her. I found myself saying, it's okay, I'm just getting some things, I won't hurt you.

The nest is well disguised and built over a rusting, disused frame for a garden hose. It's dark in the corner and impossible to see the nest from outside. My eyes have to adjust before I can make it out. But then, when she's sitting on it, her tail is up against the wall and she faces the door. I can just see her speckled throat.

She's absolutely silent but watchful. I have made an effort not to clang around too much and she is such a presence in the corner that I feel as if I'm almost genuflecting to her. Perhaps it's my Catholic upbringing.

There are millions of blackbirds in the UK and the sound of the blackbird is one of the most familiar, along with the robin and chattering sparrows.
Jeffery Boswall, an expert on birdsong writes on the British Library website:

"The blackbird has been called the Beethoven among birds. The cock sings long, beautifully shaped phrases, well-defined in time and tone. The effect is mellow, flute-like and musical. Joseph Addison (1672-1719) wrote "I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs".

I have no idea if the blackbird mother understands anything when I talk to her, or even if she recognises the tone of my voice as unthreatening. She is, after all, not domesticated and not a mammal.

But something about the interdependence that I witness on the allotment, the birds' use of our sheds, the males following us when fledglings need feeding - their beaks alive with worms - makes me feel it is natural to talk to her.

Perhaps it's her silence, the shed changed once I knew she was there. She is one of the commonest birds, her song is one of the most familiar to me and here she is, demonstrating the cycle of survival - a cup-like nest made of straw and twigs, lined inside with mud and grass. She sits incubating the eggs for a couple of weeks.

I don't think it's ridiculous to believe she might be conscious that I am not a threat. Her biggest predator is the cat once the fledglings are out of the eggs.

And perhaps I talk to her because it is also on the allotment where I've become more aware of the communication between species - the mobbing calls, the tic, tic alarm calls and frantic activity that happens when a cat appears, the birds tracking its progress for one another from canes, shed roofs and shrubs. Or perhaps I talk to her grateful for the language humans share with birds. According to the New Scientist, we share the same singing genes.

Coincidentally, Jeffery Boswall was born in Brighton and died in 2012….and this time last year saw the amazing show at Fabrica Gallery, Dawn Chorus by Marcus Coates. Often in my mind.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Beautiful wrecks

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so. 
(WB Yeats, The Circus Animals' Desertion)

A couple of years ago, Jane Fordham was showing me a small sketchbook she'd started, recording objects that were important to her but which had no apparent value. We'd started making books and wondered if this was a theme we could work with. I took a selection of objects over to Jane's for her to draw while I wrote about them.

There were a couple of old watches, a Maltese doll, an empty miniature perfume bottle, box of rouge once belonging to my aunt, my children's birth tags and other bits. The writing became, mostly, three liners and I collected them together under the title, Library of Dust. Jane and I didn't make books that time but more recently we've gone back to the idea, our starting point being a collection of synonyms we'd worked on in the past: words for women.

Different strands of writing are coming together - letter poems, some from the Library of Dust, others about ageing - all with a female eye. I hope we manage to find somewhere to show this collaborative work because what's important (for me) is that it's taken its time. It feels silted or composted or aged and part of its surroundings.

This is what I grasp, along with my small amount of work, as a kind of identity. Being freelance all my working life has had more advantages than not. I keep my own hours, I work in natural light with a window on the street, I can wander into the garden when I like, I can put washing in the machine and when the children were little I could work in the evenings if I needed to.

But the transition from full-on work and parenting to this state is difficult. I swing from celebrating being able to spend days at the allotment to worrying about what will happen in the summer when I lose more than half my income. This year, one batch of regular work disappeared, for another the fee was halved. Before Christmas a regular day a week was cut. So regular paid work - from an annual contract renewed each September and itself not guaranteed - goes down to about £4,000 a year. The Minimum Income Standard calculator for the UK, developed by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, estimates I need £17,102, "So that your income, after tax and benefits adjustments, is enough to cover what the public think is needed for a minimum acceptable standard of living".

Without work, what am I? For several months I've been on the verge of renting a room. I had one major challenge - to stop the cat shitting outside the room I was going to let. Yes, I managed. Then a succession of jobs I've put off for years - painting the gate, putting my house number up on the wall, painting the green slime off the back wall, painting (most of it has involved painting) doors and ceilings, cleaning mould from shower curtain and grout.

I still see peeling ceilings, cobwebs, sash windows stuck or rattling, cracked panes of glass. I think of the beautiful wrecks I've stayed in in hot countries and hope for forgiving visitors, who'll appreciate a great range of teas and big kitchen table.

I think of all the standards applied to a house and then the standards that apply to this transition I'm in. This morning the sun's shining, Giya's just brought me a plate of home-made lemon biscuits and mug of lapsang souchong. I can hear the radio and above it, sparrows in my neighbour's tree. Some are nesting in my eaves. The sun's warm in the back garden and the bluebells, primroses, miniature daffodils are in flower.

At my Royal Literary Fund reading group earlier this year, we looked at the poem, 'Spare Us' by the late Dennis O'Driscoll (from Dear Life, Anvil 2013) - a poem about spring and about dying. O'Driscoll encapsulates the desperation of watching the world renew itself while poems around it contemplate dying.

All this amplifies the reality of transition. On a good day, nothing matters but the moment and I can go to poets whose work makes sense of that moment, a poem I read by Vicki Feaver in The Compass magazine about ageing. It's called All Kinds of Horses and is an optimistic, joyful read.

Then there are the other lines from the 'Circus Animals' Desertion' by WB Yeats which I used to have above my desk. I wrote them over a drawing by  Duncan Grant but they've faded in the light:

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

And there is a ladder propped up that I must get back to, the one leading to the South African diaries and Venda Sun, that memoir about race, children and how a troubled country could come to mean so much to me because of the people I became connected to there.

I was stalled for a while by feedback (useful and brilliant) which in different words to Yeats pointed me to the place he ends his poem with. I was frightened to go there and perhaps still am.

But as painting the gate and putting up the house number has shown, I will be satisfied by finishing what I've been putting off. I will be.