Thursday, 31 January 2013

Christchurch: the missing city

Cathedral and City Centre
 It's two and half years since the September quake in Christchurch.  I was there, in the centre of the city and walked round the streets, in a state of shock, in the hours following the quake.   This is my first visit since and we spent a day walking round the streets you're still allowed to walk down, looking at the devastation.

Many buildings have already been bulldozed, and the ones that are left are waiting for demolition.  Some of them look OK, but when you go closer you can see the cracks, or the unnatural tilt of the walls.  In some cases, the buildings were brand new before the quake, but floors and concrete beams are cracked right through.
 I don't think the rest of the world really knows what it's like for the residents here - they've all moved on after the initial shock.  But shops, wine bars, businesses, restaurants, swimming pools, libraries and other amenities have all vanished - ordinary life has changed for ever.
Every pile of rubble represents someone's life or livelihood

An older, historic building they're trying to preserve.

I visited friends who are living in rented houses - quake damaged, but not so damaged as their own houses and they're still waiting to have them either replaced or repaired.  Lives in limbo.  Others have lost businesses or jobs.  Many have moved away.  I met a woman who was too frightened to come into the city at all and only shops on the perimeter.

This row of houses has fallen despite attempts to shore up the shattered buildings.
 The re-start project was interesting - a whole street of shops and coffee bars set up in brightly painted containers.
You can hardly believe it's all containers!
 They use containers for everything here - even just blocking the roads to protect from rockfalls.

Sumner beach used to be my favourite place.  Now many of the houses are abandoned as unsafe, and some of them have ended up at the bottom of the cliff, or are left suspended, like bombed out houses in a war zone.

But the most poignant is the site of the CTV building where so many people died.  There are flowers and tributes tied to the fence and on the other side of the road, chairs are set out - one chair for each person who died.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Tuesday Poem: All Over by Helen Lowe

All Over

On that first afternoon
it was all about noise:
sirens, the continual tuk-tuk-tuk
of helicopters, and the slow drone
of planes airlifting in supplies—noise
and the smell of smoke
hanging in a pall
across the inner suburbs
as the CTV building burned.

But in the days following
I recall the silence of a city
where daily business had all but ceased,
cars off the road, people staying home—
or fled. And at night, the profound darkness
of a power blackout. On the evening
when the street lights blinked back on
we were out walking in the blue dusk:
the light overhead flick-flick-flickered –
then the whole street was bathed
in saffron haze, illuminating
the far side of the road
and a friend outside the wreckage
that had once been her business.

My friend’s father, helping her,
had just lost his home, and she,
looking dry-eyed at collapsed bricks,
said simply: “It’s over. It’s all over.”

© Helen Lowe, 2011

I'm in Christchurch which was changed forever by three huge earthquakes - September 4th 2010, February 22nd 2011 and June 13 2011.  I was there for the first earthquake and the terrible aftershocks (more than 90 in the first 24 hours) and still remember the horror of it.  Helen's poem captures the surreal atmosphere, the sounds, the images, the stoicism of people caught up in the destruction of their lives.   I felt it was a fitting commemoration of what the people of Christchurch, and the surrounding countryside, have been through. Thank you Helen for letting me post it here.

Helen Lowe is an award-winning (as in big, international awards) Christchurch poet and novelist, author of Thornspell, the Heir of Night, and the Gathering of the Lost.  Check out her publications and her website here.

Please take a look at the Tuesday Poem Hub for more poetry and check out the Tuesday Poets' contributions in the sidebar.  It's a feast of poetry!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

It's definitely New Zealand

Could it be anywhere else?  This country is just so beautiful - it always knocks me out.    I'm typing this looking out of the window at a golden field of barley rippling away across the plain to a deep blue evening sky with a full moon suspended just above the horizon.  A few moments ago a large Marsh Harrier was sweeping the field for supper.  To the right, the port hills rise, rather like the Lake District fells - a russet colour, just catching the last glow of the sunset.  I've played with my grandchildren, met Bounce the cow and drank more than I should have of NZ white wine. Bliss.  Yesterday we were on the beach, walking along a very wild stretch of  coast with a strong wind blowing.

 We started out on Monday in a sodden Pietrasanta after 36 hours of torrential rain.  The railway station was flooded and to get to our platform we had to climb through a metal fence, throwing our suitcases over the top!
Flooded Station at Pietrasanta

Northern Italy was covered in snow - very alpine, and shiveringly cold.

From the train near Turin
On Wednesday evening, after long delays (snow in Milan, fog in Dubai, chaos in Bangkok) we finally made New Zealand - late, jet-lagged, filthy after three days in the same clothes - but very, very glad to be there.  Now, body and soul have just about re-connected after a quiet day at Akaroa, looking at the sea.   I didn't know how tired I was, mentally and physically, until I got here.


Monday, 21 January 2013

Nocturne: Dennis O'Driscoll

Time for sleep.  Time for a nightcap of grave music,
a dark nocturne, a late quartet, a parting song,
bequeathed by the great dead in perpetuity.

I catch a glance sometimes of my own dead at the window,
those whose traits I share; thin as moths, as matchsticks,
they stare into the haven of the warm room, eyes ablaze.

It is Sunday a lifetime ago.  A woman in a now-demolished house
sings Michael, Row the Boat Ashore as she sets down the bucket
with its smooth folds of drinking water . . .

The steadfast harvest moon out there, entangled in the willow’s
stringy hair, directs me home like T’ao Ch’ien;  A caged bird
pines for its first forest, a salmon thirsts for its stream

Dennis O’Driscoll
Weather Permitting, Anvil Press

The Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll died suddenly on Christmas Eve aged only 58.  I’ve recently been reading his collection ‘Weather Permitting’ and enjoying his work.  The poem above is the last poem in the collection and its mood, both elegiac and prescient, seems a suitable choice for today’s blog.  Dennis seems to have been a poet who made his own way, regardless of fashions, and with total disregard for notions of marketing.  There’s a kind of quiet joy in his language and I love the ‘Irishness’ of the images.  Seamus Heaney wrote a beautiful obituary in the Guardian, click here to read.  New and Selected Poems is his most recent collection and it contains poems included in Weather permitting.

Dennis’s acclaimed 2008 interviews with Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones,  published by Faber, is available both as a paperback and on Kindle - I’ve just loaded it on mine to read while travelling.

I’m currently in the air somewhere (hopefully) on my way to New Zealand and for the next few weeks will be featuring some New Zealand poets as my contribution to the Tuesday Poem. 

If you’d like to read more poetry, please take a look at the Tuesday Poem website and check out the poets in the left-hand sidebar.

Nocturne from Weather Permitting, Anvil Press 1999

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Off to New Zealand and Cambodia

Almost packed -  things piled up on the bed to go into already full suitcases.  Probably forgotten several essentials!  We are heading for summer down under, but NZ can be cool with a southerly wind blowing straight from Antarctic.  We're leaving a very wet Italy - torrential rain with a gale blowing and you can't even see the sea.  For once, no regrets about leaving.

Have stripped the bed and scrubbed the floors and dusted the corners.  Odd how the prospect of another woman staying in your house motivates you into cleaning mode!  A friend, who is also a sculptor, is house-sitting for us and feeding our cats while we're away.  This is really good, because last year all the pipes froze during February when we were away for two weeks.  I've just been making lots and lots of lists and leaving pieces of paper around the house to let her know where everything is and how it works.

Now is the scary bit - leaving, turning the key in the lock, dragging the suitcases up from the olive grove to the car park and setting off (by train) for Milan.  From there we catch a flight to Dubai, then another to Bangkok, then somewhere else, and probably the Galapagos islands for good measure, since this is a ridiculously cheap flight.  We set off on Monday morning at 7.30am and get to Christchurch New Zealand at 3.30pm on Wednesday!  I'm really thrilled at the idea of seeing my daughter and her family again after two years, but a bit nervous at the prospect of having to give a lecture in Wellington.

I will be blogging with pics about all the places we go to.  On February 16th we're on our way back via Cambodia and I'm really looking forward to another visit there.  We won't have internet access on the islands we're going to, but I'll put up some pictures as soon as I'm back in cyberland again.

Now I've got to go and scrub the kitchen floor - will be so exhausted I'll sleep like a baby on the plane (fingers crossed!).

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Poetry and Plagiarism

It's been an amazing week in poetry.  The TS Eliot Awards had a record audience - established by the poet's widow, Valerie, who died recently, the Award has been gaining in significance.  It's financially very valuable and so prestigious, even being nominated is an honour.  This year the short list included one of my own country-men - fellow Cumbrian Jacob Polley, who has just published his 3rd (only his 3rd!) collection, The Havocs.  It's on my Kindle at the moment. 

The winner was one of the most idiosyncratic contemporary poets - Sharon Olds.  I think she's one of the most important poets living today, but not everyone likes her confessional, incredibly intimate, style of poetry.  Like Joni Mitchell's lyrics, her poetry is about everyone who's ever been part of her life and it's very explicit. Everything laid surgically bare. There's a brutal honesty about it that can be very moving, but also sometimes a little voyeuristic.

 'A normal person wouldn’t want their experience in the public square,'  Sharon said in an interview. 'But I’m not a normal person.' I've often wondered whether she learned to shock in order to get attention.  But that's perhaps a mean thought - I met her once and she is a very kind and unassuming person. She has a personal grace that is very attractive. Her latest collection, Stag's Leap, is about her divorce - the moment her husband left her for another woman. I haven't read it yet, but I've just popped it onto my Kindle to read while I'm away.

I prefer to read poetry in paperback rather than on the Kindle but have been very disappointed by the non-delivery of Sarah Salway's new collection, 'You do not Need Another Self-help Book', ordered from Amazon and lost by an Italian delivery firm who claim not to be able to find my address.  165c is right next to 165 and 164, on the main street with a post box and a big board with my name on it.  Everyone in the village knows where the mad Englishwoman lives.  The village shop (about 300 yds away) even knows me by name.  Could the delivery man not ask?  I plucked up courage (and my best pidgin Italian) to ring up the firm and was assured that it 'was at this moment being delivered'.  But alas ......

This week was also the week that Christian Ward, a 32 year old poet from London, was held to account for plagiarising a number of other poets. - the number increases daily as more poets recognise their work on his website.  His(!!) poems won competitions and were published in magazines and anthologies until a sharp-eyed member of the public noticed that his 'haunting' winning poem Deer on Exmoor was virtually identical to Helen Mort's poem Deer. Only the place names had been changed.  The result was the withdrawal of the prize and a small item in the local paper.  But then the internet took over, and the national press and then the international press, when it became clear (the power of digital communication) that he had plagiarised poets round the globe.  Compare Christian Ward's poem 'The Neighbour' on p.12, with  'After Neruda' (click on Work) by Tim Dooley. Since then the blogosphere has been crackling with victims. The extent of the fraud is breath-taking!  How he expected to get away with it in today's world of social media I don't know.  But presumably he felt that the world of little poetry magazines was obscure enough to hide in.

It's a writer's worst nightmare;  particularly if, like me, you have a retentive memory that picks up words and phrases like a magnet.  I go over and over every line checking that I haven't inadvertently used someone else's words or images.   Most of us acknowledge our 'borrowings' and poems sometimes become conversations between their authors.  Christian Ward didn't just borrow the odd phrase - he stole the whole lot!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Another Addition to the Capezzano Zoo

When we came back from England after Christmas, we noticed a cat huddled under the rubbish bins in the recycling area where we park the car.  A new cat - a long-haired dark tortoiseshell.  It came towards us in a friendly fashion, so not a wild-cat. But, we thought, probably belonging to a neighbour. 

 Every day when we came back from shopping, or when Neil came back from the studio, the cat would be sitting on the side of the road, beside the path to our house and would try to follow us home.  We tried shoo-ing it away - cats love second homes, but we didn't want to poach someone else's cat.  Then we noticed that it was hanging around our house and getting into big fights with our two resident wild-cats.  It was so desperate for food that it would risk being mauled to pieces just to snatch something from their saucers.
What? Me?
 We realised that it was starving and had either strayed, or been abandoned.  Given that it was near the rubbish bins and didn't have a collar we suspect the latter.  He (appears to be neutered male, but his hair is too long to be sure!) is stick thin under the long coat and thoroughly domesticated - has probably never had to fend for himself in his entire life.  He skulks in the house and we feed him inside, since our two feisty females savage him the moment he goes out.

We're about to leave for New Zealand and Cambodia at the weekend and will be away for 6 weeks, so our new refugee will just have to take his chances.  A friend is house-sitting and cat-feeding.  Will he be there when we get back?  How many more starving cats are we going to end up feeding?  Neil's beginning to think that I'm something of a cat magnet!

Friday, 11 January 2013

Wildfires in New Zealand

Video Link:

It isn't just Australia where the landscape is burning up in the extreme heat - normally temperate south island New Zealand is being barbecued too.   My daughter lives at Prebbleton, just outside Christ Church (having moved to a 'safer' place after the earthquakes) and was evacuated from her home yesterday with no warning.  The police came to the door and they had to leave immediately and had to abandon the cow and her calf and the cat with no time to spare.   Within 40 minutes the wildfire had changed from a wisp of smoke on the horizon

to a raging inferno with flames 65 feet high tearing across the landscape driven by strong winds.

 Four families in Prebbleton tragically lost their homes and livelihoods as it swept through.

 My daughter was one of the lucky ones - the blaze was halted at a road less than half a mile from her house.

They were allowed back today, but the area is still blistering in temperatures above 30 degrees and there's a constant firewatch as the grass is tinder dry.

I feel deeply sorry for the families who lost so much in a matter of minutes and, as a mum, am still worrying about my daughter and her little family.

In a week's time Neil and I will be on our way to Christ Church and - since the last time I was there I was shaken to the bone by a major earthquake - I'm really hoping not to witness any more of nature's wildside this time! 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The 90th Anniversary of Katherine Mansfield's Death

Katherine's last photograph
Today is the 90th anniversary of the death of Katherine Mansfield - one of the icons of 20th century literature.  She died from tuberculosis, a couple of months after her 34th birthday, leaving behind 4 collections of short stories and a huge mass of unpublished journals, letters and fragments of fiction.

She died at Fontainebleau, in Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, haemorrhaging to death in front of her husband on the very day he had come from London to visit her.

Katherine had known she was going to die, though she preferred to ignore it and just get on with life.  Her struggle to come to terms with the death sentence that was advanced TB sometimes makes harrowing reading, but her courage is humbling.  Three months before she died, as she made her decision to go to Gurdjieff, she wrote in her diary:

'Risk! Risk anything!  Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices.  Do the hardest thing on earth for you.  Act for yourself.  Face the truth.'

I don't think for a moment that she believed that Gurdjieff could cure her with his spartan regime and musical exercises.  I think she went to find a safe haven, something a little like a hospice, away from the people she loved, whose grief had become a burden.  It was probably, she wrote in a letter 'the soul's desperate choice'.

In Katherine's notebook she writes of  what she wants. Not death and darkness and the paraphernalia of sickness;  but to feel that she is walking towards life and light.  She wants 'the power to live a full, adult, living breathing life in close contact with what I love - the earth and the wonders thereof, the sea, the sun.  All that we mean when we speak of the external world . . . I want, by understanding myself, to understand others.  I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be - (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it's no good - there's only one phrase that will do) - a child of the sun.'

Strange things happen after the death of an author.  They either sink gracefully from view, or their work develops a life of its own, marching forward into a future they could never have imagined, read by people in bizarrely different circumstances, finding meanings they never consciously intended.  In Katherine Mansfield’s case, her husband, the editor and critic John Middleton Murry, was so full of guilt at the way he’d treated her when she was alive, he made it his life’s work to preserve and publish everything she’d ever written.  His obsession with her ruined the lives of his subsequent wives and created a poisonous legacy for his children and grandchildren.  His second wife was so desperate for his attention that she turned herself into a replica of Katherine Mansfield in order to please him.  Murry really believed that their daughter was in some way ‘Katherine’s daughter’ and that’s what he insisted she be called. The damage percolated through three generations.  But Murry’s obsession did mean that Katherine’s work was preserved for the future and her genius, both as a writer of fiction and a memoirist, were recognised.
John Middleton Murry at work
It was Katherine’s private journals that I fell in love with when I was 16 - the personal journey of the young woman from New Zealand, adrift in London, lost in a quagmire of love and ambition, and negotiating those treacherous gate-keepers of literature - the Bloomsbury lions.   Her courage in facing her own personal tragedies - giving birth to a still-born baby on her own in Germany as a disgraced teenager, the diagnosis of TB, her belief in love as a healing force - still moves me.  Then there were her intense relationships with DH and Frieda Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and the American painter Anne Estelle Rice.  She went to parties in Paris where Modigliani and Beatrice Hastings threw each other out of windows and set alight to the apartment; attended seances with Aleister Crowley; spent evenings with Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey. 

This was a woman who made the most of her short life, even as she trailed like a gypsy from health resort to health resort, frantic to find a cure.  Katherine was a very remarkable woman as well as a brilliant writer and her early death was a tragic loss, not only for her friends and family, but for literature.

 Within the last couple of weeks Neil and I have published an e-edition of my biography (originally published by Penguin NZ and Edinburgh University Press in UK).  I’ve updated the biography to include new information that has come to light in the last few weeks (exciting new discoveries!) and included lots more photographs from my own archives.  It's very reasonably priced at £5.10, so even the most impoverished Mansfield fan can now afford it!

Available on
and on Kobo 

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Pagan Customs in Capezzano

Last night was Twelfth Night - not celebrated much in northern europe apart from being the night everyone takes down their Christmas decorations.  Oh, and a play by Shakespeare! But at one time Twelfth Night was celebrated more than Christmas or New Year.  It has a very, very old history - the Romans called it Saturnalia and it was a bit of a pagan riot.

In this area of Italy it's still a Festa and it's the night that La Befana, the witch, flies abroad and brings a stocking full of gifts to good children - sticks or ashes to the bad, a bit like Santa Claus.  La Befana may be the modern incarnation of an old goddess called Strina, who was possibly called something else by the Etruscans.
La Befana and her attendants visiting a house.
 In our village they have a house to house procession - one of the old ladies of the village dresses up as La Befana and is accompanied round the village by attendants and the town band.  There's much laughter and drinking of hot punch, before collecting in a courtyard to sing the 'Befana' song.

La Befana vien di notte,
con le scarpe tutte rotte,
ai bambini piccolini, lascia tanti cioccolatini
ai bambini cativoni, lascia cenere e carboni.

Singing in the courtyard.
 These days some Christian stories have become mixed with the traditional ones and La Befana is followed by the Three Kings from the nativity story, but there's no crib.

Walking along the narrow streets, carrying candles with the music and the crowds and the symbolic figures in fancy dress, feels very powerful.  You definitely feel part of a community.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

We're back and so is Berlusconi

Winter sun on the olive grove

Three days back from England and already the grey cloud and the freezing rain are distant memories. It’s one of those days in paradise when the sky is a serene blue, and the sea reflects the sun’s warmth like a mirror.  It’s a four island day, when we can see the Tuscan archipelago - Gorgono, Capri, and Elba, as well as the mountainous bulk of Corsica on the horizon.  I ate my lunch on the terrace and planted pansies under the plum tree.  The first wild narcissi are just appearing in the olive grove and it really feels like spring.

Not all is well in paradise, however. While we were away in England there was something of a political coup here in Italy.  Cuts and searing taxes have made the technocrat prime minister Mario Monti very unpopular here.  There has been squabbling among other parties (Italy has dozens) and some party leaders have been unseated on corruption charges.  Suddenly Silvio Berlusconi (having survived corruption and under age sex charges) has arisen from the political tomb and thrown himself back in the ring, precipitating Monti’s resignation and an election in February. 

Berlusconi in a glass coffin - the sculpture that shocked the Italian art world.
 Berlusconi is promising to cut taxes, wave a magic wand and restore prosperity, but with a struggling Italian economy and a hidden 40% level of unemployment among young people, his rhetoric looks a bit empty.  However, he has both money and power - most things here are owned or controlled by him and his family in one way or another - so anything is possible.

Another, more personal reminder of the fragility of everything economic. Out here we rely on internet banking and last night I discovered some strange, unauthorised transactions on the account.  A phone call to our bank seems to have fixed things, but it was an anxious moment. It seems as though this electronic, everything-connected world we live in, is a dangerous place.