Friday, November 24, 2006

Suffolk skies this week, glimpses of Constable scenes and a scoot along the beach at Sizewell just for a reminder of that wonderful sea. I was staying in Halesworth from Monday to Thursday, working for The Poetry Trust, running poetry workshops for teachers.

The Poetry Trust is a fantastic group of people. They work non-stop organising the annual Aldeburgh Poetry Festival that happens on the first weekend of November each year - unmatched in its brilliance, its breadth, the fun, the challenge it presents - then throughout the year other events like a schools tour, a reading at the Snape Maltings, workshops and courses.

What energy from all involved... but particularly the passion for good writing that flows from Michael Laskey its chairman, a brilliant poet himself and editor. I was chuffed to be back working with them because I had such a good time during the festival in 2003 when I was poet in residence. Maybe, too, it works so well because yes, it's run by poets! Naomi Jaffa its director is a poet, Dean Parkin on programming is a poet, Jane Anderson on education is a poet. They know good writing.

So, this is how work can truly stimulate me. The workshops were exciting and engaging, people sparked off one another, wrote honest and surprising poems and luxuriated in the time they had for themselves.

On Thursday morning I sat in Halesworth church for an hour and a half of silence, staring at the stained glass and writing about saints.

Bonus of the week - being able to buy a pamphlet of Alastair Reid's poems that the Poetry Trust published to coincide with a reading he did for them this year. His work is largely out of print. Shocking.

Added bonus of the week - hugs from my kids this morning, who both climbed into bed with me and it felt like they were toddlers again. My daughter's question, after 'hi mum', was 'what did you get me?' ! My son winced when I told him how long it took me to walk the length of Halesworth's main street.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My 14 year old son was searched by the police for the first time this week. He was at school for a drama club that had been cancelled because it was a half day. Police turned up on the site in a van and immediately started to question him, searched his bag, then him. Is this a rite of passage for teenage boys nowadays? He was frightened and shaken. He was worried about walking home afterwards. I talked to him on my mobile until he arrived at a place where he felt safe. He needed someone with him.

I felt like a line had been crossed for him and for me as a parent. I'd been expecting this, I guess and now it has happened. I wish it hadn't. I wish those same police officers had taken some interest in how he was feeling after what they put him through. What it feels like when a stranger assumes the worst of you and is too lazy to question him or herself about their own motives.

Teenagers have always been seen as trouble. I remember getting on a bus at the bottom of my road when I was about the same age and an elderly woman I sat next to, tutting in disgust, muttering something about filthy hair. It wasn't actually. It was just long. I was on a bus in London the day that my son was searched. A group of schoolgirls got on, making loads of noise, but they weren't offensive, they were just young. A man, maybe in his late fifties, started shouting at them about the noise, then started taking photos of them with his phone. I wanted to confront him, but didn't have the courage.

Teenagers are still children. They are experiencing so much for the first time, feeling everything so intensely. Can't we try and remember how it was for us?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prince Charles' birthday. Now I'm no royalist, far from it. I remember one of my first acts of public defiance - refusing to stand for the English national anthem in my local cinema in Farnham. Bizarre to think what might happen now if it was played at any of the multi-screens around the country. Would there be an outbreak of uncontrollable laughter, uncomfortable shifting in seats, or would teenagers just assume it was a Dom Joly joke and that they were all on camera?

The national anthem came onto Radio 4 this morning to honour the man who's so enthusiastically upheld the royal tradition in sexual politics. I'd forgotten what a part it played in my childhood. It introduced the Queen's speech that, like millions of others, we had to watch religiously at Xmas and seemed to have been broadcast at the drop of a hat, really. In my mind it's inextricably linked with poor lip synching. I never learned the words. They must be very simple. Even at my terribly strict convent school, where we were taught how to curtsey to royalty and address bishops, they didn't teach us the words. Perhaps they assumed we had all been brought up on them.

I suppose I was at a disadvantage since I'd never been part of any uniformed youth group like brownies or guides, where I guess you must have to know the anthem since you have to parade with flags on national occasions and be patriotic. I went to brownies once, at the age of eight, when we moved to Farnham in Surrey. The brownie hut was just up the hill from our house and brown owl was a large, overbearing woman. There was a fake toadstool about the size of a milking stool (milking stool? you know what I mean) in the middle of a bare village hall. There was a mass of terminology about the uniform that I didn't understand, lists of badges you could go for which meant ticking more lists, communal singing and the ritual that finally sealed my decision to flee, circle dancing round the toadstool.

I still can't see a combination of brown and yellow without thinking of that evening. Walking down the hill with my mum afterwards asking if I could please have riding lessons instead because we hadn't bought the uniform yet, so there'd be no waste.

Perhaps if I had stuck with the toadstool I might have known the words to the national anthem and been able to sing along lustily this morning. I might have known a lot about knots, too. Anyway, Charles deserves a good birthday as much as anyone does, I suppose. Actually, for his lemon Duchy biscuits more than anything, despite the cost of them. Coincidentally, yesterday, I was thinking about Camilla and whether she should be a national symbol of waiting, held up to support the zen way.

I have just returned from a week's writing in Wales. A cottage on the Gower, fantastic view of the sea, walks above rocks. The house where I was staying was surrounded by a golf course. To go for a walk you had to look left, right and left again, just in case a ball was launched in your direction. I tasted Old Wood beer, brewed locally, for the first time while watching Wales play the Pacific Islands. It was a good combination.

It was an intense dose of that unique rural/seaside atmosphere which is so uplifting. Rocks talk, so do woods, mud and streams. To see houses with no road leading to them is a delight in the 21st century. It's a relatively gentle transition to London but what struck me first was a brilliant red tag on the side of a building as we were nearing Paddington. I realised I hadn't seen any in my week hiding away with notebooks.

Then getting on the train at Victoria I meet my next door neighbours, so we chat for nearly an hour and amazingly we haven't done that for months because our lives just don't coincide the way they did when the children were little and we hung around in parks for whole mornings or afternoons. Big hugs from my kids and lovely, lovely news. My daughter chosen to talk about personal and social education on behalf of her entire year group (13 forms) to a school visitor and my son invited to do a guest spot with a local rapper who's currently finishing off an album. It was wonderful to see them and those two achievements were icing.

Now to see of any of the poems I've been teasing out of my psyche will transfer from scribble to screen.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hugo Williams, at a reading in Essex recently, said the past was a poet's source material. Winter arriving somehow sharpens that awareness. Today is sharp and bright. It reminds me of the first weeks as a student, away from home, in Portsmouth. A sense of everything being possible, new people, names. So I think of the Florist pub down the road from Adelaide Street where I lived after a year in Caen, the tiny terraced house I shared with Ralph and John, then Ralph and Leslie. Beanie, little Steve, Moira and Caroline - fine art students - next door, the guy I served at the union bar every Friday night who looked like Mick Jagger. That first autumn was an introduction to semiotics, Saussure, gigs in the union and Stendhal.

When I left and started work on a newspaper in Guildford, autumn was the end of the silly season, the desperate phone round of contacts for anything that might make a paragraph or two. I met up with an old friend the other day, over from Los Angeles. John, we worked together on the paper. We were into music, had many friends in common, we even suffered a newspaper law course together.

It was wonderful to see him and meeting him again was a reminder of myself, wild and nearly thirty years younger. I think we have to revisit ourselves, remind ourselves of what we've neglected and forgotten. Not dwell on the 'old days' but be conscious of what's discarded. Why did I stop riding? Was it because I associated it with childhood and I wanted to leave childhood behind? What have I kept of those old lives?

The past punctures the present. I can see a Morris Traveller and be catapaulted back to my first car, seal grey, and driving through the night with Mark, the first man I lived with, towards Cambridge. We were driving because neither of us had the courage to make the first move. The tension in the car was astonishing. I vaguely remember two friends in the back, but god knows who it was. At one point in the early hours of the morning a police car pulled up, parallel with us, looked in curiously, perhaps for the source of the massive exclamation mark that must have been hanging over the roof as we drove.

Halloween allows the dead to interrupt our present too. Whether or not you believe in the afterlife, and I don't, it makes sense to celebrate them when it's dark even before the afternoon's over and you feel as if you're living more and more in the border of night and day. So a dreamlife takes over. And tonight, after I read ghost stories to my kids, it's not just the dead I think about, it's the way writing meanders around that border, needs that border and uncertainty. Just as summer supplies the energy, winter's the time to explore the psyche and all that accumulated memory stored in a body.