Sunday, 29 May 2016

Appleby Horse Fair - the fun begins

It's Appleby Horse Fair, and the town suddenly turns into the wild west as thousands and thousands of gypsies and tourists pour into it.  For the travelers it's a get-together, a traditional horse trading event and there are harness races.  For the tourists it's all very picturesque.  This year the businesses in town are hoping to make enough money to make up for the devastation of the floods, and the sudden arrival of summer weather is an added bonus.   But, sadly, there's another side to it.

I've spent today erecting a fence against horses - and humans.  Unfortunately very necessary.  Last night there was a disturbance outside which I ignored, since there was only one of me and a group of very rowdy people on the river bank, but this morning the big, riverside door to the mill was lying face down on the riverbank and the ground floor open to the world.  In town a shopfront had been smashed in and other damage reported.  It's very sad that this ancient event has to be marred by violent public disorder.  A few individuals.
The horse on the left had to be led through the ford - he was terrified
I love watching the horses being put through their paces.  Today there were several young horses being introduced to the water for the first time - one or two were very reluctant.

Others were loving it.

 And there were the usual family gatherings for washing and grooming.  I have a feeling that the fair is going to be very busy this year - so many horses and people so early (it hasn't officially started yet) is a good sign.
Temporary fix
I'm going to bed tonight feeling a little more secure, with the fence almost complete and the door hammered back into its frame and secured by boards.  The drawbridge is up and the boiling oil on the hob! 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Sunday Book: The Green Road by Anne Enright

This has been on my bedside table ever since it came out in paperback, waiting for the right moment.  I tend to read non-fiction when I'm writing fiction and novels when I'm writing non-fiction. I've been deep into The Green Road this week.  I love Anne Enright's way with words, the spare, laconic dialogue that says only as much as you need to know about the characters' emotional states and their relationships with each other.  I love the metaphors and the images - always used sparingly and never wasted.  This is Rosaleen trying to describe the fragmentation of her own mind.  She feels as though she is wearing someone else's coat and living in someone else's house:

'Rosaleen was living in the wrong house, with the wrong colours on the walls, and no telling any more what the right colour might be, even though she had chosen them herself and liked them and lived with them for years.  And where could you put yourself:  if you could not feel at home in your own home?  If the world turned into a series of lines and shapes, with nothing in the pattern to remind you what it was for.'

The family story is told in a series of episodes across several decades, each one centering on a different member of the family.  It's an interesting structure that presents a fascinating portrait of the Madigans and their journey towards independent lives. There is Hanna, the youngest daughter, sensitive as an open wound; Dan, the eldest son, struggling with the call of religion and his own sexuality;  Emmet expiates his guilt by becoming a charity worker, using his work to escape irksome family ties;  Constance, the eldest, feels most responsibility for her manipulative, self-involved mother and dreams of escape.

And then there is the narrow, green road to Boolavaun, their father's old home where their grandmother lives without any modern conveniences and wrings the necks of chickens for their Sunday dinner.  It symbolises their roots, which are always trying to draw them down despite their mother's ambitions. She is a Considine, a cut above the Madigans she married into.

Anne Enright was made Irish Laureate in 2015, based in University College Dublin
It's a very Irish novel, set in an Ireland already feeling the push and pull of Europe's Celtic Tiger. Everyone is out to make a quick Euro, but the old Ireland is still there underneath threatening to undermine it all. The legacies of conflict, of famine and separation, the influence of the Catholic church are only just beneath the skin.  They're never specifically mentioned, but are a given - the sub-text of everyone's lives.

In the second half of the novel, Rosaleen summons them all home for Christmas for a reunion that will be as momentous and difficult as they anticipate.  It is beautifully written to the very last word; prose that rolls around in your mind, echoing in your ear, as the flavour of a particularly delicious meal, eaten slowly, lingers on the taste buds.

The Green Road
by Anne Enright

Penguin Random House UK

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Tuesday Poem: 'Stone' by Em Strang


The Nights are the hardest.
It’s the time of year, the harsh wind.
But the truth is
the horses have left; they’re not lost.

“Excuse me, I’ve lost two horses.
One’s grey with pit-black eyes
and the other’s called Nightbird.
Have you seen them?”

Her yard is awash with the wind - rolling buckets
and bits of plastic flicking in the gloom.
She’s standing there in old black boots
and trousers two sizes too big for her.
She’s familiar, but I don’t know how.

“Neither seen nor heard,” she smiles.

But she knows what horses look like.
She knows they have strong legs and tails,
that they cross fields we can’t see,
from one white world to another,
somewhere warmer, somewhere brighter.

I’m waiting in the cold with a straight back
and broad shoulders, trying to hold the place up;
to slow things down and bring something back,
not just my horses. . .

Extract from Stone by Em Strang
illustrated by Mat Osmond
Reproduced with permission
Published by Atlantic Press, 2016

I listened to Em Strang perform this long sequence at The Stove in Dumfries.  The curtains were drawn, the candles were lit and in the audience there was the silent anticipation of storytelling.  Hearing a poem actually performed, from memory, is a wonderful thing.  It comes alive as part of a dialogue between poet and listener.  The performance was further electrified by Em Strang’s elegiac interjections into the poem, between sections, in another language. It sounded like Old Norse, or Icelandic - ancient, declamatory, pleading - and it made the hair on the back of the neck stand up. Later, Em explained that the sounds are made in the demands of the moment, like improvised music.  In another place and time it would have been called ‘speaking in tongues’.  In the room above the café at The Stove it had a shamanic quality and it suited the poem, which has all the characteristics of a folk tale - mysterious, dark, and powerful.

It begins with the arrival of a stranger:

“I’ve brought you something,” she says,
putting her hand in her pocket
and holding the thing out.

But, like most of the gifts in fairy tales, this one is loaded with significance.

The gift is hidden in a rag
and weighs more than I thought.

It is a stone, smooth and perfectly shaped as an egg. Things begin to go wrong, the horses leave and even the climate begins to behave differently.

The long, cold nights begin in May or June
and seem to go on forever
as though there are no years anymore,
there are no seasons.
In February I’ve seen hawthorn flower
and fruit swell
and swallows come.

It’s hard to tell,
but the horses left in June, I think.

The illustrations, by Mat Osmond, fit the text beautifully.  This is a poem I will go back to often.   If you get the chance to listen to Em Strang performing Stone, then don’t miss it!

by Em Strang
Illustrated by Mat Osmond
Published by Atlantic Press

Em Strang is one of the editors of the Dark Mountain Project and her first collection, Bird-Woman, is coming out with Shearsman in September 2016.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Gardening, Poetry and thoughts on Belonging.

No Sunday book this week - I've been too busy trying to salvage the flood-wrecked garden while the beautiful weather lasts, and putting together a workshop on Home and Belonging.  There's nothing like gardening for making you think about the latter.  It's a long-term occupation. A magnolia tree I planted twenty years ago has only recently grown as tall as me.  It has survived, though I've lost a wisteria that took seven years to flower but died because it didn't enjoy having its roots in a swimming pool.
That was my garden under there - 4 times in December!

This is what it looks like now, with a temporary fence
I've lost most of my beautiful old roses, a thick flowering hedge more than two metres high, nurtured for a couple of decades.  I mourn their poetic identities.  Mme Albert Carriere, Cardinal Richelieu, the Queen of Denmark, Park Direktor Riggers. My Scottish rose, Stanwell Perpetual, appeared to be making a recovery, but has since had a relapse. Only the deep red Dublin Bay (pruned to a skeleton) and the French aristocrat Giselaine de Feligonde seem unperturbed. The Rambling Rector is still rambling and Paul's Himalayan Musk as rampant as ever, though both had to be drastically cut back to untangle flood debris.
Parkdirektor Riggers RIP

Stanwell Perpetual in better days
Meanwhile, I've been preparing for a workshop on Home and Belonging and what they mean to us. It's such a complicated thing - we use 'home' in such a loose way and although it ought to be a comforting safe environment, often it isn't.  Belonging is very personal - why do we feel, passionately, that we belong in particular places - places we may not have any close connection to?   It made me think very deeply about cultural identity and environmental attachment and migrancy and exile and how we can carry the knowledge of who we are with us wherever we go.  American author Barbara Kingsolver, writing about the displacement of First Nation people by western settlers, put it this way: ‘They called their refugee years The Time When We were Not, and they were forgiven, because they had carried the truth of themselves in a sheltered place inside the flesh, exactly the way a fruit that has gone soft still carries inside itself the clean, hard stone of its future.’ 

Place seems particularly important to writers and so many of the great writers have been exiles - James Joyce in England and France, Katherine Mansfield in Europe, D.H. Lawrence in Italy and Mexico -   it's a very long and interesting list. Is there something about exile and 'not-belonging' that inspires writers to create?  The philosopher Edward Said said that we are all 'creating a house of words to dwell in', and I love that image.

On Saturday evening, after the workshop I drove north into Scotland to Dumfries, to an evening of 'eco-poetics' called Wheat, Otter, and Stone, featuring three amazing poets, Susan Richardson, Em Strang and David Mark Williams. One of the things I loved best about the reading, was that it wasn't a reading but a performance.  Seeing and hearing poets perform their work from memory is a whole other experience! The theme fitted with everything I'd been working through in the morning - our relationship to the landscape around us, and the way we interact with it in the process of 'belonging'. Eco-poetics, I've discovered comes from two Greek words: oikos [meaning household or family] and poïesis [making, or creating], so that it quite literally means the creation of a dwelling place, or home-making.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Tuesday Poem: Captain Fly's Bucket List - Agnes Marton

Fasten your seat belt and prepare to take off for a unique experience.  There's a warning from the poet at the beginning to expect 'non-existent words, distortions, unusual punctuation and layout, mixtures of different languages' and strange juxtapositions.  It's poetry then!

Agnes Marton is a linguist speaking Hungarian, English and several other European languages fluently.  Playing with words comes naturally in this collection of poems.  She is also a highly original visual artist and that also informs her work.  Captain Fly is the hero of this collection:

'I've been to soup and sauce and horseshit
humming my zazzy-zilchy hymns,
proud 24/7
of my unmarked wings.'

He watches 'the blurred Wolf Moon/through canopied lids'.  'I want it all,' he sings, becoming a metaphor for capitalist economics.
'I want to be the Demon of the Compost Heaps,
full but hungry.'

Unfamiliar uses and juxtapositions of language challenge and disturb the reader, presenting the invented vocabularies of magical beasts.  One section is called 'Sharkening', there are 'twink-attracting forces', and mentions of the 'infiltrating Solange'. Sometimes the linguistic gymnastics seem to go too far and then suddenly they amaze and delight.


Not my hoof!  I am swirling,
I am the thunder, I am the stars.

Who else and what for?
The don't-you-hurt guys,

The stunt.  Coffee with white crime.
Poach as approach, uneasy,

Inox traps shining nighttime.

This is poetry at the edge of understanding.  We need it.  We need people taking big risks and pushing boundaries to take the stiff upper-lip and starched shirt out of an art form that has become (in the UK anyway) increasingly institutionalised.  Once you make poetry a university discipline you put it into a strait-jacket - even Captain Fly can't in one of those!  Without subversive voices it leads either to a uniform pap or silence.


My grandfather was a safari soul.
He slipped away
before it became a trend.

He sent a lion's tail -
quite a gift.
We used it as a duster.

I collect postcards of the wild.
We don't have albums
with faces to cheer.

Cat got my grandmother's tongue,
my mother's tongue.

I inherited roaring silence.

Copyright Agnes Marton 2016

Captain Fly's Bucket List was launched at the Poetry Society in London on the 5th March and music composed by Vasiliki Legaki as a setting for 7 of the poems was performed in London on the same day.  Published in English in Budapest and not available on Amazon (like many small poetry presses).
More details about the collection and orders at this website
Agnes will be the Festival Poet at the Mondorf Art Festival in Luxembourg in June 2016.
Captain Fly's Bucket List has been long-listed for a Saboteur Award.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Sunday Book: If Women Rose Rooted, by Sharon Blackie

You know it’s a good book when you feel compelled to scribble all over it, underlining sentences, writing YES!! in the margins. This book isn’t just good, it should be required reading for every woman over 16 and men too.

It makes important statements.  I was one of those women in the 70s and 80s who felt excluded by feminism because I actually liked men, and I was also worried by the messages it gave out - that you could have it all, that you could shatter the glass ceiling by storming the men’s elevator, dressed in a suit.  Equality became simply the right to walk in men’s shoes.  “There were a lot of women who believed that the only way to succeed was to out-man the men," Sharon Blackie observes.  Feminism dis-empowered women by devaluing the qualities of Femaleness that made them powerful. Feminism inadvertently reinforced patriarchy instead of challenging its fundamental values.  A 19th century poet observed that ‘There is no equality that does not take account of Difference.’  To make people ‘the same’ is not to make them equal.

One of the passages I underlined in the book is this:
. . . when women seek success and ‘equality’ in a male-dominated world, then in order to achieve it we must act like men, play by their rules and, if they deign to allow us, join their societies and institutions.  We are judged by masculine criteria for success - and inevitably we fall short, because we are not men.”

We live in a deeply patriarchal world – most politicians, lawyers, scientists and corporate directors are men.  You have only to look at photographs of international conferences - the G20, COP21, NATO, the UN, the European Commission, to see the truth of that.  Rows of grey suits with the occasional woman in a coloured jacket - like something from a ‘spot the odd one out’ game.  There are good reasons for this.  It begins with a story common to three of the world’s major religions, who have shaped, and still dominate, a large part of the world’s history and politics.  It affected me, as it affected Sharon, at a fundamental level it is hard to escape from.
The story I was given to carry as a very young child, the story which both defined me and instructed me about the place I occupied in this world, accorded no . . . significance to women.  In this story, woman was an afterthought, created from a man’s body for the sole purpose of pleasing him .  In this story, the first woman was the cause of all humanity’s sufferings: she brought death to the world, not life.  She had the audacity to talk to a serpent.

This story has had consequences, not just for our major institutions and the deep psychology of our culture.  It has led us to the current crisis, both economic and climatic. The world that men have made isn’t working. “Our patriarchal, warmongering, growth-and-domination-based culture has caused runaway climate change, the mass extinction of species, and the ongoing destruction of wild and natural landscapes in the unstoppable pursuit of progress.”  More women live in fear of violence or displacement than ever before.  Something needs to change.

And what needs to change is the empowerment of half the world’s population by realising the potential of older stories which validated the particular strength of women – mythologies we categorised as pagan and therefore as forbidden knowledge. These still exist among indigenous, First Nation people – where the male and female principles are in balance, two halves of a whole, each equally valuable and both necessary for a healthy environment.
Sharon Blackie near her home in Donegal
The environmental consequences of a male dominated, corporate, capitalist culture, are catastrophic. Think Alberta Tar Sands.  First Nation women are among the most prominent groups resisting their expansion, and they are being very effective.  They aren’t hampered by a cultural narrative that tells them that ‘God had indeed given humans dominion over nature – and over women’.  It was this thinking that ‘paved the way for the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution, which systematically laid waste to the planet on a previously unimaginable scale, and at an unprecedented speed.’  It also fostered the belief that ‘we are separate from nature’ and above it, which has had such tragic consequences.  Sharon Blackie knows about this stuff - for quite a long time she was part of the corporate culture in Britain and the USA.

In ancient times, women were often the guardians and protectors of the natural world.   Sharon Blackie wants us to re-take that role.  We need to “remake the world in the image of [the ancient] stories.  To respect and revere ourselves and so to bring about a world in which women are respected and revered, recognised once again as holding the life-giving power of the Earth itself.  We can reclaim that image in each of us: the creative, ecstatic, powerful feminine that each of us embodies in our own unique way. Lacking it, it is no wonder that we are grieving, alienated, imbalanced – that we cannot find a way to belong to a world which denies us permission to be what we are, and which teaches us to cover up not just our bodies but our feelings, our dreams, our intuition.

This may sound a bit ‘new agey’ and I can hear a slightly mocking, sceptical laugh or two out there.  But it is a profound truth.  If we are going to save ourselves from the terrible consequences of human-created climate change, then women have a big role to play.  Throughout the Climate Change Movement, it is women – many of them First Nation – who are leading the way.  Naomi Klein is among the most prominent female voices in the world today.  If you’ve read This Changes Everything (and if you haven’t, why not?) Then you must read ‘If Women Rose Rooted’.

If Women Rose Rooted . . .  The power of Celtic woman

by Sharon Blackie

September Publishing 2016

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Tuesday Poem: The Zulu Girl - Roy Campbell

When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder,
Down where the sweating gang its labour plies,
A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder
Unslings her child tormented by the flies.

She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By thorn-trees: purpled with the blood of ticks,
While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled,
Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks,

His sleepy mouth, plugged by the heavy nipple,
Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds:
Through his frail nerves her own deep languors ripple
Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.

Yet in that drowsy stream his flesh imbibes
An old unquenched unsmotherable heat—
The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes,
The sullen dignity of their defeat.

Her body looms above him like a hill
Within whose shade a village lies at rest,
Or the first cloud so terrible and still
That bears the coming harvest in its breast.

Roy Campbell
1930 Faber and Faber
A Memoir written by his daughters
The South African poet, Roy Campbell, isn't much read these days, which is a pity.  TS Eliot thought he was one of the best of the poets to emerge between the wars. I find his work very powerful - like Dylan Thomas, he sometimes seems drunk with words and rhythms and a passion I personally find intoxicating.  He was also, like Dylan Thomas, a bit of a hell-raiser (they once tried to out-drink each other), apologising to his wife in poetry - describing her as a woman who had been 'through all earthly treasons true' - though that poem was written in 1929 before he found out about her own indiscretions!  Roy, in his life, out-played that by-word for swash-buckling - Ernest Hemingway. But, after his support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Roy Campbell was quietly 'blacklisted' in the conservative literary community. Fascism was dangerously out of fashion.

He was also at swords-drawn with the Bloomsbury Group who he referred to as 'Bloodless parasites' and condemned them as a literary elite who harmed the development of literature.  The fact that his wife had a passionate affair with Vita Sackville West sealed their fate and he published a lively satire called the Georgiad full of vindictive rage.  

In other spheres he used his satirical gifts to great effect.  On contemporary South African novelists, and their failure to get to grips with the realities of the political situation there, he wrote:
'You praise the firm restraint with which they write -
I'm with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where's the bloody horse?'

In Zulu Girl there's a sense of brooding horror about to be unleashed.  It's a warning that is not only prescient of  twentieth century South African history, but has a warning for us too.  We're leaving Syrian and Iraqi children to starve in refugee camps in acres of mud without facilities, having closed the doors on their parents.  How will they regard us when they grow up?  What consequences are we so blindly creating for the future?  There is no ambiguity in our situation - it  is 'the first cloud so terrible and still' of the approaching storm, 'that bears the coming harvest in its breast'.

Roy Campbell was killed in a car crash in 1957 aged fifty five.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Sunday Book: Sometimes a River Song by Avril Joy

Sometimes a River Song is a lyrical novel about a young girl who lives on the river boats of the Mississippi with her family.  Aiyana’s never known anything else, but America’s being gripped by a depression and times are changing. It’s a brutal, subsistence life on the river. ‘River rats is what the townsfolk call us and they don’t mean good by it,’ Aiyana says.  Her father is more violent than most of the men in his community.  He is particularly cruel towards Aiyana, for reasons she doesn’t understand until later in the novel. ‘. . daddy say I belong to the river and I belong to him and he will do with me as he see fit’.

She thinks it’s because she was almost drowned as a baby and has a number of health problems as a result. And she is the only member of the family with red hair.  Her difference makes her quiet and watchful. Unlike her brothers and sisters she’s never been sent to school and she has never learned to read or write.  She has to teach herself in secret because she knows that knowledge is power.  She plans her escape, but time and time again she is pushed back.  Her freedom eventually comes in a very unexpected way.

This is one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time.  The narrative itself is song-like in the way the prose moves.  It reminded me initially of Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, mainly because the narrative voice of the girl is so distinctive and haunting.

The author, Avril Joy, was the first winner of the Costa short story award, with ‘Millie and Bird’. That story has been much anthologised and my reading group absolutely loved it.  Avril’s written three previous books, all very different from each other.  I’ve enjoyed all of them, but this is definitely her best.  I could have gone on listening to that voice for ever.

Sometimes a River Song is published by Linen Press, a boutique publisher specialising in women’s writing.  It’s also available from Amazon as an e-book and, from 27th April, in paperback in all good bookshops (and Amazon whatever it says about delivery!).

Linen Press - Fine writing by women for women

Order direct from Linen Press

Also by Avril Joy

Millie and Bird - Tales of Paradise, Iron Press, 2015
The Orchid House - Room to Write (currently free on Kindle Unlimited)
The Sweet Track - Flambard Press

For more information please visit Avril's website 'Write what you love - love what you write'.