Saturday, July 28, 2007

More devastation on the allotment. I couldn't believe even the tomato plants were eaten but the second planting of potatoes I put in has produced fruit - I've never seen that before. I collected the remaining broad beans, dug up some of the early potatoes, picked plums, raspberries and blackberries.

But it's a terrible year and a lesson to me. I've neglected it too much. I have to put in more manure next year, try new techniques against slugs and keep the weeds down. It'll probably cost me in wood chips and weed suppressing cloth, but if I don't do something radical, it'll be pointless carrying on with anything other than fruit.

It was one of those days yesterday. The car battery finally gave up altogether and a friend had to take me down to Halfords to fork out £60 for another, when I am so broke I feel like weeping. Being broke in the rain is even more extreme and the situation most guaranteed to invoke a bout of self-pity.

I'm at a stage with the novel now when I am thinking about the people in it an awful lot of the time. I have been holding back from writing this next bit because it feels important, because I started off not entirely sure what this man would do and he's taken things into his own hands.

Writing prose is a satisfying way of filling this time between delivering Commandments to Arc and waiting for it to be published in October. A few readings are trickling in now - one in Brighton will be a launch of sorts in November; there'll be others in Lewes, London, Folkestone and Limerick.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

In France there's a series of poetry books for kids - Gallimard Jeunesse - featuring major poets and they're incredibly good value - 3 euros. I bought a selection of Eugene Guillevic's work for my daughter, who, I'm delighted to say, has absorbed my love of the language. I'm drawn to his work especially at the moment because a novel I'm trying to write is set in a tiny village in Brittany where I worked one summer. Guillevic was born in Carnac, close by, and near where I stayed another couple of summers.

What sets a great poet apart is the simplicity of his or her language. Guillevic, in my mind, is in the same category as Neruda, Lorca, Holub, Plath - because he's paring language down in order to make the reading of his work an experience as natural as walking. Like a plate of cherries, a bowl of freshly picked raspberries, Guillevic's language has integrity, it relies only on its natural self, not on tricks and illusions. When a poet takes that decision - simplicity, the image, the placing of words - the reader can feel its emotional truth.

Guillevic writes this about poetry:

"When a poem arrives,
you don't know where from, or why,

it's as if a bird
came to rest on your hand......"

One of the last poems he wrote in 1997 was about a bird singing his songs back to him.

It wasn't many years before I first went to Carnac and the menhirs, that the little cul de sac where my family lived was flooded.

News on the radio yesterday and today reminded me of that flood - the army called out from Aldershot with sandbags, us wading down the road in wellies, the water nearly up to our knees. We were lucky, the water only lapped at our doors but houses further down the road, lower lying, had a couple of feet of water inside. It was such a tiny stream, but it needed a flood plain and it was obvious to anyone that the land on the opposite bank, below steep woods, wasn't enough for the stream to expand into.

I still remember the shock of seeing how the stream had become a fast dirty brown river almost without warning. This was the stream that most of the summer was dry, the stream we walked along towards pine woods, ducking through tunnels of willow and cow parsley. We sat in an enormous drainage pipe it was channelled into under the bridge, and gossiped.

Another winter the boy next door slipped on an old railway sleeper his parents had laid across the stream from their garden. He was young, small and the stream was full. He went under but fortunately his father was just behind him, raced along the bank and jumped in, dragging him out of the current.

A song is being sung back to us at the moment that we must do something about.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The latest summer storm is crashing outside. The air's grey with rain, the gutters can't contain the water, nor the drains. It's the last day of term and this morning the schools will be steamy with wet kids.

I've been back from Avignon for three days after a week in the sun, although when I arrived the Mistral was blowing and there was a chill in the evenings. The Mistral leaves you feeling like you've been in a sandstorm, your skin gritty, your hair sticky. It was my third year at the festival as a guest of CEMEA, which takes over schools in the town for the duration, running workshops and taking groups to events. I was there with Brighton based artist Jane Fordham and the two of us worked each morning - her drawing, me writing - then visited exhibitions and shows in the afternoons and evenings.

Jane introduced me to the work of photographer and filmmaker Agnes Varda who has an installation at La Miroiterie just outside the Avignon city walls. It's a celebration of the people who sheltered Jews during the second world war - photos and films. Varda's given this subject added power by speculating on who might risk their life in the same way now. What would it take at this point in the 21st century?

Political action and engagement was the over-arching theme of the festival and this year the focus was on words. The featured director, Frederick Fisbach, chose poet Rene Char's Feuillets d'Hypnos as the basis of his key piece at the Palais des Papes. This year is the 100th anniversary of Char's birth.

It was a brave choice and the experiment wasn't entirely successful. The Feuillets are a mixture of narratives about Char's experiences in the maquis, aphorisms and reflections on the nature of poetry. He dedicated the work to Camus and wouldn't publish until the second world war was over. His language and imagery can be dense and difficult so Fisbach had an challenging task. A company of actors read the Feuillets one after another from start to finish. The staging was difficult to understand, the role of the actors very unclear at times.

Jane and I talked and talked after the two hour show about what we thought Fisbach was trying to do. We concluded that he was attempting to question the relevance and place of poetry in a society that has lost all sense of engagement. We wondered if he wanted to show how hard it was for people to read poetry.

But there was a turning point in the piece, which was highlighted for us before we saw it by Natalie, a French woman staying at the same CEMEA centre. It was a story about a young man being beaten up by the SS and the villagers' response. Char's imagery is of the sea and water. As this narrative was being read, one by one people left the audience and took their places on stage. These were the 100 plus extras - local people - Fisbach had been working with to make another statement about political engagement.

Dressed in greys, blue, green, they gave the narrative an astonishing power and their presence suddenly focussed the readings, which were shared between them and the actors.

Fisbach allegedly admitted the task of staging Char had given him enormous problems. They weren't resolved, clearly, but regardless of the confusion, bits that didn't work, it was heartening to witness poetry being presented so raw in the most prestigious venue of the festival, to hundreds of people over three nights. At least Fisbach didn't resort to dance, video or music (well not much) to try and distract from the words. He was, in my mind, pretty uncompromising.

It's heartening, too, to see experiment and big risks when the arts in England at least seem so safe and self-conscious. The other one of Fisbach's pieces we saw was Genet's Les Paravents. Apparently regarded as unstageable. Well Fisbach made a brilliant stab at it - it was four hours long, a mixture of actors and puppets, with video and two narrators who also became actors.

The questions and images that arose during the week in Provence should sustain me at least through the summer, but probably longer. This year they were questions I feel particularly close to - how does poetry find its place, how much should a writer risk, what happens when you experiment with narrative, what happens when you experiment and fail?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A breakdown of arms exporters, conflict zones, size of armies and spending on weapons was free with the Indy on Monday. It's been interrupting my thoughts since I read it on the train to London. Picking raspberries yesterday evening, two boxes full, I was shocked by the number of slugs on the allotment and wondered what would happen if there was a Biblical style plague of slugs. This weather provokes that kind of thinking. The flash storms, the constantly heavy sky, the floods, create a sense of alarm anyway. But then all these hidden creatures come out. At night my back wall is crawling with slugs and snails. In the kitchen the other morning, a great leopard patterned slug was stretched out on the floorboards. Then there was the allotment. Well, there were vast nests of slugs. Everywhere I stepped, every time I moved aside a raspberry bush to look under the leaves for fruit, on the ground were seething accumulations of them.

And I wondered where I'd send a plague of slugs if I had the power. I think I'd want it sent to all those arms dealers who have hideaways and luxury mansions in Surrey and Virginia Water. This is how the Indy's little supplement worked on me. I imagined all these apparently respectable people with lots of money devoting themselves to their gardens in the home counties. Now if they are arms dealers, it may be that they have no conscience at all about using slug pellets. But my plague of slugs would be pellet resistant. They would be those great leopard slugs, the Arnold Schwarzenenegger of slime, immune to poison and intent on destruction. Not a single lettuce, hosta, dahlia or squash would survive them.

Imagine an infestation of slugs in Surrey gardens...millions of them - every leaf turned to meat. I could probably dream up worse plagues, actually. Slugs would be a mild one. Perhaps the vanguard, the first sign of what was to come, like Camus' rats dying in La Peste.....

Then I started thinking about how to describe the taste of raspberries to someone who'd never eaten one. That is a challenge I don't have time for now. Maybe next week. At the moment I have to set my mind to housing issues and the work I'm doing for a friend. I like the eclectic nature of freelancing when interesting subjects drop through the letter box and the way phrases make their voices heard - the idolatry of materialism. Mmmmm. I like that one. It fits with a plague of slugs. Oh, and a Cornish beer called Doom.