Monday, June 30, 2008



This is part of a wall painting on show at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum near Goodwood. I was there on Sunday with Fred Pipes and Maude Casey for an event organised by Mark Hewitt - an architectural picnic with music in the museum's unusual Gridshell building. The Gridshell has a roof as rolling as the Downs.

The Sussex Weald is a gentle landscape and just what I needed for a Sunday outing. Just looking over the fields and being outside on a perfect day is a balm but the museum contributed a hamlet of rescued old buildings smelling of woodsmoke, noisy geese and a working mill from Lurgashall producing stoneground flour. We ate Sussex goat's cheese, my home-made apple chutney and tomato mustard I bought on Saturday in Hove from a local producer. The sun shone and sheep slept under the trees. Feverfew, fennel and broad beans filled the cottage gardens.

We remembered paraffin stoves and the three day week when shops opened by candlelight. We talked of how the lifestyles on 'display' at the museum are barely a generation away from our own experience and in many parts of the world, still being followed. What I love about the place is the houses without possessions - as if by being there, you detox yourself for an hour or so of this angrily acquisitive century.

This is the wall of an old market place - saved and rebuilt. It's the size of a large bedroom.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Li Mills runs a choir in Brighton, Jam Tarts. I used to belong but I don't like to be flakey and after a run of non-attendance because of different domestic complications, I asked her to fill my place. I miss it and may be able to get myself back in one day, but in the meantime, Li and I are meeting up to write songs. She has a couple of different song writing musician partners and I've been invited into this loose co-operative to help with the words.

Last night I was round at her place with a bottle of 10 year old Great Wall Chinese red wine! The song we were attempting lyrics for was upbeat and bouncy. It was fun to insinuate the odd edgy lyric, to subvert the good humour. I never wrote lyrics when I played at playing bass in a band. Lyrics were written by the guitarist, my then boyfriend, who was obsessed with Tom Waits. I find it hard to listen to Tom Waits without thinking of him, actually, and a long drive in my old Morris traveller through the fens, when we were summoning up the courage to kiss.

Writing these lyrics is a bit like playing a game. What do we want to say here? Where does the stress fall? How much can you stretch a word? Is this a conversation? Who's talking, who is the singer talking to? When I write poetry, the only landscape is my own, that in my head and how familiar it feels sometimes. I feel as if I go back to the same places endlessly, obsessively looking for something else to pull out of them or inspect within them.

Writing with Li, I am questioned, put on the spot and have to see differently, make words fit into the tunes she's sung with blank vowels and consonants over the tracks someone else has composed. And it fits perfectly into my mood, which is to be stretched. The other project, an artist book with Jane, is also progressing. I'm refining, cutting, pruning the lines I've come up with in response to her amazing prints. The big question is narrative. Is there enough of one embedded in the connections I've made between words?

What started me off on this track, though, was an e mail from a friend I haven't heard from for ages. For some reason it began a trail of thought about domesticity and how little it's valued in the arts. As we were listening to our tracks without words, though, Li played me a Kate Bush song, Washing Machine.

I'm going to blast it from the CD player, unapologetically.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A sacred cow makes the best burger. I've always remembered that graffiti from a toilet door in Portsmouth when I was a student there more than 30 years ago. For some reason this morning I woke up with an incident in my head from a festival last summer. A festival I'll be off to this year, too. I was standing in a queue for hot chocolate and chips with my daughter. It was late and cold. Something made me turn around and the guy behind me said "salaam aleikum." I replied with "hello". He repeated his greeting increasingly aggressively and I repeated my reply initially confused and then it dawned on me what he was doing. It took four repeats for him to give up. I could smell alcohol on his breath and he had a packet of Golden Virginia in his shirt pocket.

I didn't give the traditional Muslim reply for two reasons. Firstly because his greeting was not given in peace, but mostly because I am not religious. I will use it with families I know, to be polite, but something about this man made me very uncomfortable and my instinct proved right - he was chippy and looking for a fight. (Why does that remind me of George Bush and the way he's always used his religion, I wonder?)

How easily they can happen. A friend of my son was down for the weekend from London. He's a teenager and a target for stressed-out city dwellers whether they're his peers or older. He was amazed at how chilled out this seaside town is! It made me re-evaluate the place and last night I went up to the racecourse with my son. We looked east towards Rottingdean, over Whitehawk, so neatly arranged in the dip. We looked west towards Worthing and I realised how self-contained our home is. We could see the Downs behind the city, empty of buildings and lights. The sea was clear and the sky a band of pink and grey with interruptions of darker grey where it was raining.

Where we stood was once an iron age fort. Its position is perfect. We talked about the weekend and him turning 16. As a teenager I loved to walk with my mum. Talking was so much easier with that rhythm going. I guess it was talking about stress, race and religion that jogged my memory of the festival, plus the fact that some of the friends he's met there were down for his birthday. What amazing young people they are - confident, bright, respectful, articulate and sensitive - and they put many adults to shame.

The poem "Lucretian" by Peter Reading is one of my favourites on religion. I've quoted a verse below. This appears in his Collected Poems published by Bloodaxe in 1996. Buy it.

"Religio-magico-malice -
remember the slaughter at Aulis
when innocent Iphigeneia
was sacrificed by her own father,
deluded devout Agamemnon,
who thought that to summon a breeze
which would speed his fleet to Troy
he must first placate bloodthirsty Artemis
with a welter of gore and guts
and the mumbo-jumbo and cleavers
of a pack of murderous priests...
(Remember, also, Khomeini
and Tomas de Torquemada.)
How much idiot evil
gormless theists engender."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Matthew Sweeney read at Sussex University last week and it was a treat. He talks about the 'jag' in his poems that give them such knowing humour and unselfconscious wisdom. He was also selling some tiny one poem booklets, printed traditionally and hand set (with tweezers and magnifying glass!). On from Matthew's early evening reading to Lewes for a meal and back to Brighton for the launch of Brendan Cleary's new book, Some Turbulent Weather. Brendan's reading, too, was amazing - sharp, streetwise and tender.

Both these poets are prolific writers. Brendan is uncompromising in his ambition to write only poetry, to live as the writer of poetry. Matthew's latest book, Black Moon, was shortlisted for the 2007 TS Eliot prize but he's already close to finishing a new one. He read many of these new poems and as he introduced them explained how they'd been written during a series of different residencies throughout Europe.

So this is my point - every writer needs time away from the demands of daily life and ideally some different views. It's always been the case and almost always produces results.

But the concept of 'buying time' to write has fallen by the wayside for many of us, particularly women, who cannot apply for residencies lasting longer than a week or two, who are maybe unable to leave the country, who do not have a specific project or book deal, but want a few days to experiment. The Arts Council grants for artists no longer support time to write without a book deal. Other sources of cash for writers seem incredibly thin on the ground.

I was chatting to a woman recently, another single parent who's a writer. She's had a gap of nearly 20 years since publishing a critically acclaimed novel. Those 20 years have covered bringing up children and single handedly supporting the family. I know how little time there is left over after shopping, washing, cleaning and so on. A woman reviewer (shame on her) once made a snide comment in print about me only being able to work up a sweat cleaning the kitchen floor.

These issues are important. I heard on the news yesterday about the rise in poverty for children and pensioners. Somewhere along the line the discussion about daily life and how we get through it or make it worthwhile, has been hijacked by those with cleaners, gardeners, au pairs and paid dog walkers. Yesterday, too, my daughter asked me what the phrase 'disposable income' meant. Funny how two words can contain such vast differences - from a tenner a week to a grand or so......

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

I visit MacDonalds rarely. But I've discovered it has wifi and since my own wireless router packed up, my laptop's not had much of an outing. So here I am, pretending to work but scoffing blueberry muffin and drinking black coffee. I haven't the courage to visit the allotment. Most of the purple sprouting broccoli seedlings I had at home have been shorn off at the stem by snails. I planted some beautifully healthy spinach seedlings the other night.....and then it rained.

So this afternoon, instead, I've been tidying up the topiary sculpture in my privet hedge. Appropriately, it's a massive snail. I think it's only right to pay homage to these creatures. I've been wondering if I could bring myself to eat them. But my guts might complain after more than 30 years as a vegetarian.

This MacDonalds is squashed between an aircraft hanger size Tesco and supersized M&S. There's always a bizarre collection of people here. Families out for the evening meal, people like me, just wasting time, and in front of me an elderly man's clearly doing his accounts. He has a calculator, bank statements and what looks like a ledger spread out on the table. The emptiness and echoing out of hours feel is appealing. It feels like we're all in transit, especially when M&S closes and it's just MacDonalds and Tesco.

I'm generally not a fan of late night shopping. This is partly because I've always been a dormouse and late nights send me to sleep. I prefer to go to bed early with a book than stock up on groceries. And since I work at home, a trip to the shops is often a good break from the screen. But recently, my screen break's been walks with a neighbour who has a new puppy - a sweet little springer spaniel.

We do the walk I love the most, the racecourse and beyond. Today the sea was the right colour, a clear blue. I could see the white band by the shore where the chalk stains the water. There were rabbits, magpies, larks and a bird of prey. Plus a helicopter heading for the racetrack that seemed to hover above us for a few seconds as if it was checking us out. On an afternoon like that I want to liberate the tent from the cellar and take off. But this weekend's spoken for. I'm doing a reading for Ware poets in Hertfordshire on Friday night. I was billed as a slam poet but I'm assured they'll be relieved that I'm not.

Maybe I could reinvent myself for the night? But I don't know that I'd have the skill. When I told my son about my billing, he laughed. As a rapper, he's pretty scathing about slam poets. I guess I'd rather be one thing or the other. Slam poets often strike me as being between two places - either comedy or rap. And there probably aren't any over 50 anyway. So I'll be reading from the books, then.