Monday, 28 February 2011

Tuesday Poem: Baba Marta Day

1st of March is Baba Marta  (Grandmother March) Day in some areas of eastern Europe.  It's a day set aside to honour grandmothers.  So I thought I'd post the poem I wrote about my favourite grandmother.  She was a wonderful person, but very superstitious.  When we were about eleven or twelve we used to have great fun playing the Weedja board with her and she claimed to be able to see spirits and auras and to have second sight.  She taught me to read palms - which I do for fun, though I don't believe in it at all.


For Annie Sutherland

She kept a broom behind the door
to sweep away unwanted guests
and sprinkled spilt salt over
her left shoulder for the Devil,

avoided the green coat
bought before her husband died,
touched wood and counted magpies —
one for sorrow, two for joy.

White heather on the mantlepiece,
May blossom always outside
red and white flowers never
in the same vase or someone died
before the moon waned.

Two teaspoons on a saucer,
tripping upstairs meant
something borrowed, something blue —
but never marry in black
or wish yourself back.

The year the clock stopped
and she put her own foot first
through the door on New Year's Eve
she knew would bring the black-haired man
with owls' feathers in his pockets
to steal her soul.

© Kathleen Jones

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Friday, 25 February 2011

'Even the Rain' in Berlin

Not to believe in the possibility of dramatic change is to forget that things have changed, not enough of course, but enough to show what is possible. We have been surprised before in history. Indeed, we can do the surprising.”

[Historian Howard Zinn.]

I've spent the last few days in front of the television watching either the latest news from Christchurch, or the unfolding events in the Middle East, with very troubled feelings. The Avaaz organisation are asking for money to provide mobile phones and communcations equipment for the protestors. Do I contribute, as I would like to, or does that make me a terrorist? Under the strict definition of the term, I suppose the answer would have to be yes. Personal beliefs (even in Human Rights) are no defence against the support of insurgency against a regime in power, though hopefully Gaddafi is not going to arrest me!    

In between I've been watching the Bafta saga with a certain amount of incredulity. Our mainstream cinema seems to largely ignore what's going on in the world around us. The Kings Speech is a large helping of chocolate cake; the Social Network a quirky docu-drama.   A bit of light relief is very welcome, but it's hard not to wonder, sometimes, if Hollywood exists in a golden bubble.  You have to go elsewhere to find films that reflect what's happening to the human species.

A small budget film, 'Even the Rain', has just won the Audience Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Set in Bolivia, it’s a film within a film. It tells the story of a director who goes to Bolivia to make a film about the colonisation of South America by the west. But the people he’s filming amongst are caught up in a battle fuelled by the government’s desire to tax the water supply - the so-called ‘Water Wars’. It’s about a different kind of exploitation - economic colonialism. The two stories parallel each other, providing some interesting insights. The film is topical because it’s also about the power of the people to fight for what is right and escape from the clutches of clinically insane, psychopathic dictators.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Update from Christchurch

Have just managed to talk to my daughter - a great relief!  Meredith is camping out in the garden in a tent because it simply isn't safe to be in the house.  Two friends whose own house was completely demolished are there as well.  There's intermittent power, but no water or sewage.  Thanks to the dress rehearsal in September (though no one knew it was back then) she had emergency supplies in the garden shed and so they are managing to survive.  A lucky escape though - she had just driven through the centre to drop someone off in the square.  Half an hour later .......  
So, fortunately she was giving the kids lunch in the dining room when she felt the first rumble, instinctively knew this wasn't just another aftershock, grabbed the kids and dragged them straight out of the french doors into the garden.  We had all found out in September that if you don't get out in the first seconds you're unable to move at all.  I have terrible memories of being unable to even roll out of bed, while Meredith was on the floor trying to reach the children's bedroom.
This time her husband was on a business trip to Auckland - a very long way away.  No flights or trains, so he has had to hire a car and drive.  24 hours after the quake he still hadn't arrived, but was hoping to make it within a few more hours.
Meredith told me about things that had happened to her friends - too awful to repeat here.  There is obviously considerable loss of life in the suburbs, not just in the city centre.  Every family is affected in some way by loss of life, injury or property damage.  There isn't a single person in the city whose life will be the same.   My heart goes out to all of them - one feels very helpless -   if only thoughts were actions.....

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Sorry no Tuesday Poem again.

I was just about to post a Tuesday Poem when news began to come in of the Christchurch earthquake. I have spent the last few hours trying to find out if my daughter, her husband and two little grandchildren were safe. She lives in the centre of Christchurch and the timing was such that I knew she would have collected little Jack from nursery school and might have been shopping, or going to Sumner Beach (which has been devastated by rockfalls).
Thankfully, although not able to speak to her, we've had a message that they are safe and unhurt, though living in a tent at the moment.
I can't describe my feelings when I watch the news footage - the horror that all those people are living through. September was bad enough, but we all lived through it. This time is different.
To everyone in Christchurch - and I know there are Tuesday Poem members living there - we hope you are safe and are thinking of you constantly.

I will try to post the poem tomorrow.
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Saturday, 19 February 2011

How NOT to Handle Rejection!

I've been frantically busy this week - my entire life seems to have caught up with me as well as a number of important deadlines and my poor blog has been entirely neglected!
So, to make amends, here's a humorous take on rejection which I loved.  Thanks to Candy Gourlay for the link.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Getting a bad review

Waiting for reviews of your book is rather like lying down - naked - on a railway line and waiting for the train to come along. Sometimes it stops and you can breathe a sigh of relief, get up , get dressed and go home for tea. Sometimes it just goes straight on.

I suppose I should feel flattered to get a whole page in the Guardian from no less than Hermione Lee, but the mauling I got more than cancelled out the plus factors. I’m used to reviewers who don’t like what you do - if they say so fairly and frankly with respect for the author and the work they’ve put in, that’s fine. But I’m not used to unkindness and I did feel that this review crossed the line.

My CV of well respected and sometimes award-winning biographies, is swept aside. I am apparently the ‘biographer of an assortment of women writers’. And then there’s the way I’ve written this one. Ok, so Hermione doesn’t think my structure works - that’s fine. And I can even accept that a style of narrative that a dozen other reviewers have found ‘enthralling’ doesn’t appeal to her. I'm willing to defend my choices. But I thought her final blow was just an inch or so below the belt. She ends:

Kathleen Jones's relation to her subject reminded me of Ida Baker, as perceived by Mansfield: faithful, attentive, true as steel, flat-footed, and unbearably irritating.’
Ouch!! But I’m determined not to let it get to me - I’ve had fabulous reviews from authors such as Helen Dunmore, Jacqueline Wilson, Lyndall Gordon and Vincent O’Sullivan - most recently Pamela Norris in the Literary Review. I just don’t think Hermione has really understood what I was trying to do and it wasn’t her sort of book. But I could wish that she’d said it a little more gently.

I hope this doesn't sound like sour grapes - every author has to accept bad reviews with good grace.  You just have to carry on putting pen to paper.    

Monday, 7 February 2011

Tuesday Poem: Pat VT West

The outdoor rotting wooden fire escape

he ushers you up leads* into a cluttered flat
where you perch on his bed to be served doorstep slices
of organic bread piled high with smoked fish
and with clots of home-grown jam.
Jazz is spinning on the record player.
You think we are both aging poets now.
From shelves in another book-infested room
he picks out for you New Selected Poems. On the cover
Denise Levertov wears red as if she might be gushing blood.
Out from between its pages swoops a yellowed cutting:
a recipe for gooseberry fool. You read

some days, living alone, there’s only knowledge of silence ....
solitude within multitude seduced me early ...
what magic denial shall my life utter to bring itself forth?

Pat VT West

* For non-Brits ‘leads’ are the lead-lined inside sections of rooftop parapets - sometimes part of fire escapes for attic flats.

I met Pat in Bristol in the 1980s. We were both single parents, both poets and writers struggling to establish ourselves, both living in rooftop flats. She was older and more experienced than me and I admired her sheer tenacity and courage. Pat had made a little garden on the leads outside her kitchen window, I used to sunbathe on mine on hot days but my efforts to grow things out there didn’t succeed. We drank a lot of wine, read a lot of poetry and argued. Pat was very active in the feminist movement and often despised me as a ‘wet’. She struggled - like most feminists at the time, with the idea that men were the enemy, which could never be reconciled with men as the object of desire. How can you make a relationship with a man she used to ask me? Why not? I used to say. And then that other question that vexes single mothers - How do you bring up sons responsibly? Pat had two sons - both healthy and growing like her rooftop garden. Her relationships with men were less successful. Her poetry, even at its most personal, was always political.

We formed - with poet Liz Loxley - a small poetry in performance collective called Invisible Lipstick and published two pamphlets - Invisible Lipstick and Rumours of Another Sky. We read in shopping malls and arts centres and pubs and schools, sometimes with an improvised music group called Vanilla Allsorts. It was more post-feminist than feminist (much to Pat’s annoyance) and great fun! Here’s the three of us - Pat is the glamorous one without the hat.

Kathleen, Pat, Liz

Sadly Pat died in 2008 from cancer at the age of 69 - still writing, still performing right up to the end. The poem comes from a collection called ‘It was not & never would be enough & ...’. Published in 2010 by Rive Gauche Press.  Copyright the estate of Pat VT West, reproduced by kind permission of Rohan Van Twest.

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Saturday, 5 February 2011

Do We Need Libraries?

There is much agitation among readers, writers, parents and community groups at the announcement of cut-backs to our library system here in Britain.   In many areas it's proposed that libraries should be closed and the premises sold off to provide Council savings.   My first reaction has been absolute horror. Anything that promotes books has to be good.  But then I began to think very carefully.  In the last couple of years I've hardly been through the door of my local library at all - I don't seem to be using it any more.  What has changed and do the government have a point?

I owe everything to the library system.    When I was a small child, living in one of the most remote areas in England without electricity or television, my imagination was fed by books. And those books were supplied by a travelling library van which arrived at the bottom of the main road once every three weeks.  I can still remember the excitement - skipping along beside my mother on the long walk down to the van, wondering what books I'd be able to choose.

Later, as a writer with young children, the library provided a quiet haven in which to write.  It also meant that living in a rural location didn't cut me off from research - the library would order me any book I needed for a straight 50p admin fee - some came from America, some from the British Library.  I couldn't have written my early biographies without these facilities.

I didn't earn much as a single parent, so when the libraries began to stock CD's and DVD's I was able to borrow music and film free of charge for those long evenings in.  And before I was able to buy my first computer,  I rented internet time by the hour in my local library.

So what's changed?  Why am I not using them any more?  One reason is money.  The libraries have been stretched so many ways they are strapped for cash, buying fewer books and charging customers the full fee for services.  I very rarely order books there now - a British Library loan for an out-of-print book will cost me £7.00 and I can usually buy a second hand copy of the book I want from the Oxfam Book Barn for under a fiver.   There are also fewer of the biographies and novels I want to read on the shelf - for new publications or prize-listed fiction there's such a long waiting list, I've usually acquired a copy myself by the time my name comes up.  In fact I've given up putting my name on the list.   The reference sections of my local libraries have fared even worse, being drastically reduced, and - let's face it - most of the information they once supplied can be found on the internet now.

The travelling libraries are a thing of the past as modern transport networks have improved.  Our libraries are also going to have to adapt to the introduction of new technologies (including E-Books) - they're going to have to find new roles in the community.  If we want libraries then we're going to have to help them to survive by defining what we want from them and then fighting for it.

Readers' Groups! I can hear you say.  Yes, they're great and a very important part of  developing relationships between readers and writers.  But many of them meet in people's homes or arts centre cafes instead of the libraries and whereas the library used to purchase a 'set'  of particular titles for ongoing use, some local groups have told me that they prefer to purchase their own copies of the books rather than borrow.

Readings/workshops by writers?  These are rare now, since the libraries don't have the money to pay for them - it used to come from Literature Development funds which have been starved almost to extinction by recent cut-backs.  Bookshops host them more often these days, but you're expected to do it as publicity and the shop hopes to recoup any expenses from sales.

Me - aged three and already addicted!

But one of the absolutely essential functions of a library is to introduce young children to books.  Campaigns such as 'Books for Babies' can make such a difference.  I want all children to experience the kind of pleasure I used to feel, trotting down the road towards the Library Van, for another dose of the drug that became a lifetime addiction - books!

My favourite library - the old reading room at the British Library

So the problem seems to be the commercialisation of everything - the Library is reduced from a service, educational, focussed on reader development, providing a community resource - to a function that can be costed and judged by the number of people who use it and the values of  commercial management-speak.  The same commercial values are being applied to other nurturing services - like health and education.  I can see that things need to change, but we risk losing something very, very, precious.

The Guardian are running a live blog for the Save-the-Libraries Campaign.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Two Useful Blogs

I've just stumbled on two very interesting blogs for writers and book-lovers.  The first is an online magazine called The View From Here.  There's a free version, but you can also subscribe to a digital copy of the printed magazine too.  I like the look of it (the freebie) and there's a good article by Elizabeth Baines on the value of creative writing tuition.

Then there's a brand new blog by Suzi Feay, who used to be the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday, until the credit crunch forced a few re-arrangements and she lost her job.  The blog is called Suzi's Book Bag and it promises to be good  - and with comments from authors such as Susan Hill and Nicholas Murray, how can it not?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Tuesday Poem: Replay

My father strides across the yard
slim, thirty, shirt-sleeves rolled purposefully up.
A milk pail clanks in his hand.

My mother stands at the door
bare-foot. Last summer's Sunday dress swings
as she turns - dark hair, long to her shoulder.

I am nine.  The sunlight on the river
crackles like broken glass.
If I want to, I can sit on this bank forever.

Just a little nostalgia here.  I was recently going through a box of old photographs and found many that related to my childhood on a farm in the lake district.   I love the way you can re-run memory sequences like videos at the back of your head.  It all exists there - nothing is lost.

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