Monday, March 19, 2007

Huddersfield this weekend for a reading. The snow/hail beat down on Sunday morning and there was a harsh wind. It's years since I've been to Huddersfield and it was a long trek for relatively small audiences. But Brendan Cleary was reading too, so we gossiped all the way back to Brighton on trains that regularly slowed to walking pace.

I visited Nanholme Mill, where my publisher Arc is based, for the first time. The range of poets that Arc publishes is impressive - an astonishing collection of work from overseas and in translation, all the more incredible given the time it demands from the powerhouses behind it, Angela Jarman and Tony Ward. Arc is publishing some of the major poets of the time in its Visible Poets series edited by Jean Boase-Beier: Tadeusz Rozewicz from Poland, Turkey's Cevat Capan, the Slovakian, Mila Haugova and utterly astonishing Catalonian poet Gabriel Ferrater, among many.

On the way up, on Saturday, I read an essay by Susan Sontag, written just before she died in 2004, delight in its wisdom and philosophy of writing. Sontag puts it so well, quoting herself answering the question, what should writers do? "Love words, agonise over sentences. And pay attention to the world."

The first session in Huddersfield is about reading - several of us on a panel answering questions about what we read. Each of us could talk for hours about what we love to read. Each of our answers show how random and eclectic our reading is. Interesting, too, how our performances, Brendan, Pete Kalu and me, in different ways, cover sexual politics, race, dispossession and identity. I love the sparks that are made between poets when they read together, the links that show themselves between apparently different work both at the time and in quieter moments, later.

Sontag's writing about fiction, the novel, how a novelist tells a story by enlivening time and animating space. But she diverts to poetry for a while and this is what sticks in my mind from her piece: "A great poet is one who refines and elaborates the great historical store of metaphors and adds to our stock of metaphors. Metaphors offer a profound form of understanding...."

Reading widely, reading poetry, feels like the only way I know to keep my thinking refreshed. To find new paths, to challenge and question. How easy it can be to do this with the vast stock of writing available to us - contemporary and historic. But let's sidestep the stacks of 3 for 2 offers and root around on the library or bookshop shelves, on the net, in second hand shops for the single books that are written by the unknown, unfamous and discover new ways of thinking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

At last Oona King has turned the table on the debate about teenagers and revealed just how many of them feel unsafe when they go out. Check out the charity 4children and its Make Space review - yes, it has discovered what many parents of teenagers live with daily: society is letting teenagers down because they don't have safe places to go and they don't feel protected by adults.

When police and politicians dismiss young people with such distancing terminology as 'youth' or 'hoodie' or 'vandal', when all they talk about in relation to young people is anti-social behaviour or ASBOs, can we even hope that teenagers are granted the respect they deserve? Can we even hope that these adults, who should be looking out for children (yes, many teenagers are still children) will be taken to task for their inexcusable neglect?

Teenagers feel vulnerable. Boys, in particular, live in constant fear of gangs and gang attack. Yes, even in not very big cities outside London, Manchester, Glasgow......Gangs that seemingly without hindrance can enter their school grounds, hang around outside school gates, target particular kids, take over local shopping centres and police unable to distinquish between those who are causing the trouble and those at risk. Why, I wonder? Is it anything to do with the fact that they're never out of a car? That they don't seem to walk anywhere or know anyone anymore?

So teenagers risk hanging out in parks, learning the hard way that gangs are rampaging round the city and come home with hair-raising stories about being chased, beaten up, having to hide in gardens, or with stories about being randomly stopped and searched by police.

There isn't a single place in this city where they can drop in at times convenient to THEM, where they'll feel safe, valued and welcome. Thanks Oona King and 4children for taking the time to talk to teenagers.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The start of Louise Gluck's new book, Averno, reminds me of Sunday on the allotment, planting my first seeds out. I've put some in pots under glass, but it was so warm on Sunday and there was a dug over plot all ready to rake, so in went short rows of lettuce, leeks, beetroot, spring onions and chard. It's always a risk at this time of year. If there's a wet April the slugs decimate the seedlings. We'll see.

So up there I saw Dave Swann, a great guy who's organising a reading at the Sussex Arts Club tomorrow night - poets, fiction writers, singers. It'll be fun if I can shake off my cold. If I can't I'll just have to sink a couple of glasses and dose myself up with lemsip beforehand. Dave's reading some of his prison stories, which are brilliant, and Lorna Thorpe will be reading some of her amazing poems, too. Plus me, with cold, and others. Anyway, Dave took me round this plot, laid out by a gardener.

Amazingly, it's the same size as mine, but looks like another world. There are sheds, nooks and crannies, different levels, all sorts of things in tyres, a brazier on a pole, seats made of logs, pots, tiny beds packed full already. It reminds me of gardens in magazines or books. The guy who's designed it left me a squash once on my plot as a kind of welcome. I found it, yellow, by the path. It was a lovely gesture.

So I have a mission to bring some texture and levels to my very flat and one dimensional space. I've pruned the beauty bush in the back garden and have two loads of twigs in jars, trying to root them. A willow hedge is appealing, too. I've loved willow since living in Farnham where our house had a willow hedge backing onto a stream at the bottom of the garden. I know that once the raspberries start growing again there'll be some height, and the bean poles always make it look more interesting and productive. But it's an exposed patch and hedges or fences would be some protection against wind, too, and give a little shade. I'd love to build a bender. That may be a project for these days when I have no work.

I've just finished Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer. What a chilling and depressing story that was. Brilliantly told, with captivating passages of philosophy, questions about why we only have one word for love to cover so many types, the age-old discussion about prolonging life and the nature of good and evil. Its ending is truly shocking. So that spurs me on to re-read Brave New World and I was hunting around the bookshelf the other day to try and find The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. I was convinced they were published in the same volume. Maybe I was wrong. Anyway, they're lost but I'm determined to read more of him.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Equal pay for women comes as a surprise to local authorities? How are we meant to swallow that one? Has the gap between rich and poor, men and women ever not been an issue? So how did it fall off the agenda?

Many years ago I saw the sociologist Stuart Hall speak. He was talking about how our lifestyles, those of the reasonably solvent, were shored up by society's acceptance of poverty. Poverty keeps wages down. It's not a hard concept to understand, is it? And women accept poor wages, not because they agree with them, but because they have no choice. Poor wages go with casual work, part-time work, work that doesn't demand round the clock availability and extra hours. None of this is rocket science. But instead of discussing how dreadfully people are paid, what appalling conditions many people work in, why trade unions are no longer a real force, what are the topics discussed over lunch and in the pub? Celebrity weddings and models' eating disorders.

I heard the other day how a woman in her fifties, working at a cafe attached to a very large shop, was paid below the minimum wage. She took home about £350 a month and worked six days a week. No overtime.

So, still on pay and what's left over after council tax, food, bills and endless annual insurance premiums that preclude most claims because of the ridiculous excess attached to them.....Brighton Festival brochure has been released. Ahh, that old chestnut. How reassuring to see the Festival is accessible to those of us who live here and who don't have cash to flash. Minimum ticket prices for the Read more books section (it was once called Literature) are £7.50. Tickets for Charleston, the haunt of the Sussex green wellie brigade, start at £9. Or you could fork out £45 for La Traviata at the Pavilion. Even the Hip Hop dance theatre event, presumably aimed at teens, is charging £10 for under 25s.

But good old festival. Clearly it's not aimed at us who cluster in the streets in Hanover, off Lewes Road or further out in Whitehawk and Moulescomb - there's now a special late night train service back to London.

Brighton and Hove is one of the funders of the festival. I wonder how the politicians think those of us bringing up families on less than £20,000 a year will afford tickets? Perhaps the fringe is for us, or maybe the artists, writers and musicians that Brighton so loves to flaunt when it suits should start exposing the awkward truths of life here.

Streets of Brighton? Smeared in dog shit, double parked and overcrowded. Read more books...but not at the Jubilee Library. In Classical company....(restricted view only).