Monday, April 30, 2007

The front page of our local paper the other day showed pictures of a gang on the beach kicking a boy in the head. The pictures were from a website and had been taken on a mobile phone. On the news also, a suggestion that schools should teach kids manners.

Is there an absence of imagination happening here? I'm astonished, firstly, that in a large group of kids not one, or two, or three, felt able to intervene. I'm astonished that there were no passers-by, or perhaps there were and again, no-one intervened. Oh, and where were the police who regularly stop and search kids who are doing nothing?

Yesterday's Observer featured child soldiers. A page or so apart, a full page on Denise Van Outen. In the magazine, a piece by a writer about how proud she was to obtain a Sainsbury's bag. Rosie Boycott's found rural bliss.

I'm confused as to why any of that, other than the piece on child soliders, was of any interest and I'm not surprised teenagers are confused. Celebrity's out of hand and what does it convey to us? None of us matter unless we're famous. If no-one else will film you, you film yourself and your friends. You upload it. You achieve notoriety.

The piece on child soldiers, impressive as it was, was based on a book by the American Dave Eggers. The African writers who've tackled this didn't apparently warrant the same space.

If we need to teach kids anything, it's how to make decisions for themselves. Let's have classes on going against the flow, resisting the status quo, challenging received opinions and perhaps then, we'll have different front pages and a media we can be proud of. Oh, and as for manners. I was taught how to curtsey to royalty and address a bishop when I was at school. I haven't had to use either yet. The most valuable lessons I had were Sister Short's sewing class and with two teachers -English and religious knowledge - who never tired of debate.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Kicking through the web's red herrings and attempting to revive my OU students' tutor conference with some markets for their writing, I came across the magazine Active Life and a piece on the hippie trail. Well, yes, those who were 20 in the late sixties and early seventies are getting on now. And the piece was an interesting analysis of independent tourism and how it's changed, what we expect.

But this isn't totally the point. The point is that I then gravitated to a literary magazine, which will remain nameless because I was so appalled by its approach I don't think it deserves any publicity at all.

Now I was still in those heady days when ideas were being kicked around, authority was being challenged and there was that post 1950s optimism. Yes, it was powerful, the drive to create something different after rationing and the strictures of a highly marshalled, ordered way of life where everyone had a set role and didn't move from it.

Anyway. Whenever I think of the sixties I can still remember the little hippie bell I wore around my neck with such pride because my dad bought it in San Francisco in 1968. I can remember the feel of tarmac on bare feet in the sun. I have few photos of myself as a teenager but in two of a handful I have a rucksack on my back. I didn't do the hippie trail, I spent time in France.

The point about this massive leap from Active Life to the unnamed literary magazine is that the literary magazine read like a corporate website. There was a list of aims and objectives, there was an offer of CONSULTANCY SERVICES, there was an educational programme, visions and mission statements. Now, in my mind, a literary magazine ought to be offering visions of the kind experienced by Blake, Ginsberg and Coleridge, not of the kind concocted by consultants.

The point of this rant is the terrible realisation that those you imagine are your allies can't always be trusted and that little hippie bell around my neck started ringing as I read......

The arts world has been seduced by corporate vocabulary without understanding what that mindset can do. I'm not dismissing companies who use that language. They need to - they're in business and many of the people I've worked with in business are highly creative, driven and interesting characters. They know what they're being paid to do and do it well.

But what use is business vocabulary to the arts? And what happened to individuality? The unnamed magazine may just be one of those wannabes that populate the arts. A bullshitter, talentless and cowardly. More driven by networking than originality.

Give me honesty, outspokenness, authenticity and courage. Where does it live?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Work's crashed again and I feel as if I'm becoming more unemployed than employed - withdrawn from the world as most people know it, with the occasional invite to the party. As a result I'm barely even reading a paper, because it's not quite the same sitting at the kitchen table as on a train. My news comes from Radio 4, which isn't too bad, but can be irritating. I don't know where poetry's gone, but it's disappeared somewhere over the Downs or along Lewes Road.....neglected or kidnapped, who's to say, but I haven't written anything that I'd call a poem for weeks. Pathetic scribbling, sometimes, in my notebook and all this time on my hands. Some of it I've spent on the allotment, some of it on prose and with the prose, a seemingly insatiable need to research this, that and the other. Well, various bizarre but connected topics ranging from Breton collaboration with the Nazis to pheasant farming. Perhaps one day it'll all come right and together.

I'm making a stone garden on the allotment with flints sieved out of the soil. There was a rather isolated looking lavender bush and I thought I'd offset that particular shade of green that lavender has with white and grey. It has expanded from there. The patch is stony anyway and has an upturned zinc bath with a tabletop on it, plus a bench made from a plank and a newly made fire container. So it's crazy to try and grow anything there, anyway. I like the look of stone gardens and like the idea of making one from my own stones, not stones bought in bags from the garden centre. And on the subject of the garden centre. What have garden centres become? Once a place to buy plants, now another shopping opportunity. I suspect you'll be able to buy the weekly groceries in garden centres soon.

Thank god it's rained. But I think every school should have an allotment and every child should learn what it means to grow food. Maybe if more of us grew food, more of us would be aware of what it takes, of why climate change matters when seedlings are either swamped by flash floods or shrivelled in the sun. Take your pick, really, this year, how can we know what the next few months have in store after the last few days?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Liverpool's Georgian streets around the Anglican cathedral were all I remembered, but much smarter than 20 years ago, of course. During the day we were based in Hope Street and on Wednesday evening were taken on a tour of the city's ghost landmarks - the two guides being part of a company called Shiverpool. It was fun, less scary than it might have been in the dark, but yes, shivery, given some of the stories we were told about the grimmer aspects of Liverpool's history. And the guides were young actors, very accomplished.

It's been tricky coming down to earth after the intensity of the time there and lack of sleep. There's rap booming downstairs and a siren, perfectly timed between beats, somewhere on the main road.

In the Indy today, a column by Jerry Hall, who's going on an Arvon course to write poetry with Hugo Williams. Could this mean that Arvon, that brilliantly kept secret, is discovered? That residential writing courses become the next thing for celebs to do, rather than festivals? But good for Jerry Hall, actually, acknowledging that there is some benefit in learning the craft from established writers, and Hugo Williams is one of the best around. Good for her, too, signing up for a course on which every student takes a turn with the cooking and washing up when she probably has the means to pay for one to one teaching. In fact, the more I think about it, the more impressed I am. Arvon, and its Welsh equivalent, Ty Newydd, is wonderfully democratic, down to earth, and one of the best places there is to spend a week focussing on words - reading and the writing them.

Let's hope she puts word around that there's a lot of good poetry being published, too.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

It's four in the morning, as the old song goes. I think it may be Leonard Cohen......outside my hotel room is a tower with the city's radio frequency in yellow lights, below is the pizza place, Ask, picked out in red neon, where I ate last night. I can't find a way of turning the air conditioning off and it's keeping me awake. There are six pillows on the bed. Whoever needs six pillows? The wifinetworks here are mostly password controlled and the hotel I'm staying in charges a small fortune for internet access in the room, which astonishes me, given what the room must be costing. I'm not paying, but I resent lining the pockets of opportunists. This truly is where the word fleece seems appropriate.

I meant to save a piece in the Indy the other day on Ian Hamilton Finlay. It was celebrating some of his neon work. I had no idea he worked in neon and was delighted to see his monostitches mentioned. There's a wonderful poem of his called Ring of Nets and of course, the other lovely one is Blue Sail (I think that's the title).

Sitting on the tube on my way to Euston yesterday I was wondering what lives my children will have when they're independent. Whether they'll have all the emotional resources they need. Someone once said to me that leaving, going away, was like dying. I can see that, in one way but I think it might be flawed.

Anyway, I'm alive and in Liverpool but so far have only seen it in the dark. The station is grand, though, and has a sense of arrival, of occasion, its two massive clocks greeting you with the time, its two domed roofs showing off their girders. I'm looking forward to seeing the city's Georgian streets. Many years ago I came here and was taken around Toxteth and Granby. I was writing about race equality at the time. Liverpool 8 was a pretty angry place and with good reason.

I've brought the book The People of the Sea by David Thomson with me. It explores the legends of the selkies - seal women. It's a while since I read it. I'll enjoy re-reading. I'll enjoy seeing the sea again. This air conditioning makes me wonder if I am actually on the earth or maybe this hotel room is a capsule and everything around me is a hologram.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday on the beach and a heat haze, too. The house is quiet without a film crew and now the street is quiet, too, although the beach is packed with weekenders and day trippers.

It's too cold to swim yet, but I feel pleasantly tired from a bike ride and for now, just looking at the sea's enough. Maybe by May, I'll have the courage to go in the water. A bluebottle's flying around my desk, another sure sign of the change in weather, and suddenly I've noticed blossom everywhere.

I've been reading and looking at Richard Long's Mirage, a book of photos and descriptions of walks or lines and circles make in mud, with stones, bark, slate, flint. Many of them made at remote and wild parts of the world. But some of the walks are closer to home. It is amazing what visual artists can do with an idea, how they can allow it to take them over, or maybe it's a question of confidence - taking the risk of being obsessive.

Then I think about how a path is made by goats, or sheep, or people just walking from one place to another over years or decades, even longer. And I wonder if that, too, is art? The chalk paths over downland, rough with flint....or muddy tracks next to a river, leading to an estuary.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

My house has been invaded. There are cameras, tripods, mikes and cushioned bags all over the place. I chop onions with a cyclops lens focussed on my fingers. I put washing into the machine and hope the camera's not pointed at my bum. So how has it come about? My son picked up a flyer at his youth centre about a series on teenagers and parents. Ever since he was tiny, he's been attracted to cameras and indeed he is a natural performer. I was eventually persuaded. Or is it the case with a teenager, that I was eventually worn down into agreeing?

It has been interesting, fun, tiring and emotionally taxing. Interesting to see the process, particularly as we don't watch much tv - don't have it in the house - and to witness the mechanics of making a programme. We are the behind the scenes bit of it and I truly wonder how anyone could live with a crew for longer than a few days. The two women making the programme are lovely. Talented, professional, easy to get on with and sensitive. They are bright and they have clearly done a lot of thinking about this programme. So we couldn't wish for better people to do this, but it's still hard. I'm not used to being watched or to being interviewed, but the other thing is having to think about the relationship I have with him. Suddenly the way we live is under scrutiny and I am questioning everything. If I'm asked, who's your hero? and I don't have an answer, what does that say about me?

Most of it is positive, though. The self-reflection's inevitable and maybe I take it too seriously. The rest is about having fun and finding ways of showing what our life's like in a typical week. For a freelance there is no typical week. And it's also the easter holiday, so again, it's not entirely typical. But it's an insight and it will be interesting to see how they put it together.

Outside our mini big brother experiment I have some work at last and my seedlings are growing on the windowsill, in the propagator and under glass outside. There was a row showing on the allotment but since the rain I'd be willing to bet they've been decimated by slugs. I hardly dare look, but I'll be up there soon.

The cooker's broken, the laptop's still at the menders. I particularly loathe the fact that I paid a lot of money for the cooker (SMEG) and the laptop (MAC) and in five years I've had to have the cooker mended three times, which is beyond the pale, I reckon. The laptop's been into the service centre once already, had an entire erase and install and cost me days on the line to the helpdesk and it's ONLY SIX MONTHS OLD. That is outrageous, isn't it?

I'm freelance. I bought it because I need it for work and some patronising, arrogant little man says to me that he can't let it go until it's passed all the right tests and no, madam, I can't possibly tell you when you might have it back........I THOUGHT APPLE WAS MEANT TO BE THE EASY ALTERNATIVE TO PCs. Look at the adverts. I've used a Mac since the old Classics. I saw Eddie Shah create a newspaper on macs. I was an utter convert. But I'm wobbling big time. I'm tempted to graffiti all over the posters, actually, but I won't, I'll have to write some letters.