Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Cloud Chamber by Janet Sutherland

in a new light       the river
water weightier
than oil or slub
viscous slip
beer-bottle brown

you notice don't you
language clarifies

or chant these slim diminutives:
rivulet     rill     run     burn     beck
runnel     freshet     torrent     force     jet
and riveret (now rare or obsolete)

none of them hold
    such corrugations welded from below
    such heavy fish
etched as with acid from cast steel
these gate-keeper
herons       iron posts
charting a route
you might well walk beside

bright air above
cloud trails      scraps      gnats      slant swifts in flight

© Janet Sutherland

Watermarks Anthology, The Frogmore Press, 2017

I thought about this poem the other evening when, after a very long, hot drive from the southern end of England, we finally arrived back at the Mill on the banks of the river Eden.  We had a 'carrier bag' picnic with salads and wine bought at a service station on the motorway and then, looking at the weir - calm and cool reflecting the evening sky - we stripped off and threw ourselves into the beer-bottle brown water and let the river wash the journey away.  I lay in the river (which smells unromantically of ducks) and watched the clouds drifting across as the swifts wheeled and screamed overhead searching for low-flying insects. 

We live in the country of burns and becks and are familiar with torrents when the river is in flood and its weight pushes everything in front of it. The 'gate-keeper/herons' stand guard on the weir every morning in the ever-changing light. 

I'm a great fan of Janet Sutherland's poetry, which doesn't always follow the route you expect it to.  I particularly liked her collection Bone Monkey, from Shearsman.  Bone Monkey is a shamanistic creature from mythology, who keeps popping up in different disguises.  Sometimes he's 'a grinning ape', or 'a bone-thin workman with a sly look', or 'a hangman in a tattered vest'.  He's a trickster - out of time, elemental.   The poetry is similarly slippery  - always shearing off in unexpected directions and difficult to pin down for analysis. I like to be surprised;  I like to be taken out of my comfort zone.  I want my hair to stand on end when I read!

One of my favourite poems from the collection is a beautifully crafted, more conventional poem called 'My Red Morocco Jack Boots'.  Bone Monkey is currently an English Gentleman abroad in Illyria in 1846 and definitely up to no good when he spies a vulnerable Serbian woman.

There are seven stations between Belgrade and Alexnitza
where changing horses takes an hour.  At Pashapolanca
we had bread and slivovitz then lay on hard board
and slept very soundly.  In white caps and German blouses,

Turkish trousers, with twelve yards of stuff, and jack boots
(mine were red morocco) our cavalcade moved off.
At night the path was very striking, summer lightning
pierced the dense foliage.  I am not a Romantic . . .

If you would like to read the whole of the poem, this is the link - 

 You can buy Bone Monkey from Amazon.co.uk 
Janet's poem 'Cloud Chamber' is featured in the Watermarks Anthology of Wild Swimming published by Frogmore Press.  You can buy it here.   

Saturday, 24 June 2017

A crazier, sadder week you could hardly describe

I think the stars must be in an alien alignment - or I would if I was medieval, or of a superstitious nature. At a personal level it's been chaotic. I have been up and down to Kent trucking sculpture, I've been to/through London twice, given a talk to the James Street Literary Salon, done my last Reading Round in Cumbria and a poetry reading in Yorkshire. All against a background of terrorist attacks, the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower, the Brexit shambles, Trump idiocy, massacres in Syria and Iraq (mysteriously ignored by mainstream media obsessed by Theresa May's facial expressions and the Queen's hat), a cholera epidemic in Yemen (ditto) and the ominous rumblings of a middle eastern showdown between Qatar (where I used to live) and its opponents.  Now it's Saturday and I'm trying to remember where I left what remains of my mind.

Shoreham sculpture trail was one of the high points.  Some wonderful sculptures (some of them Neil's) in a water meadow belonging to one of the houses, with spectacular roses scrambling through trees.  There was a river, a pond and a boat house.  When you have a lot of money, you can afford tranquility.  With Grenfell Tower on the news as an ever present monument to inequality, it was impossible to ignore the wealth and privilege we were surrounded by.

One of the best things was being able to see my grandchildren.

This was not a dinner gong but a magical crescent moon sculpture, by Marigold Hodginson, which can be rocked to and fro.

The down side was having to spend a sweltering day at 33 degrees, driving a white van from Kent to the Lake District via a jam-packed M25!

I took a train down to London again the following day and it was even hotter.  Although officially only 34.5 C max, the sun beating off the pavements and buildings created a sauna - one street thermometer I saw read 40 degrees.  London felt as though it was simmering.  The air crackled. There were armed police everywhere. I'm very glad I don't live in the capital.  Sadly, the Moomin experience I had tickets to visit was cancelled because of the heat.  I've loved Tove Janssen's books since I was a child. They are very philosophical - layers of meaning that children don't necessarily pick up.  But adults do.  The cancellation made me very sad.  If this is climate change - it can only get hotter and more difficult. In Comet in Moominland, the comet scorches the earth as it flies past and all the animals have to take cover underground. That's exactly how London felt.

 At the James St. Salon we all sweated unapologetically.  I was giving a talk on switching from conventional to Indie publishing and there were a lot of interested authors - all well-published but now struggling with their current publishers and dissatisfied with the system.  There is very little transparency in main-stream publishing;  you get paid once very 6 months, no-one tells you how many books have been printed/are out on review/in bookshops and publisher's accounts sheets need an accountant to decipher them. As an Indie author you get paid every month and you have a dashboard that shows exactly where every book has gone.   I recommended the Alliance of Independent Authors' website for help and advice.

The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum was an absolute delight and well worth queuing through the new security system to get into.  They've erected a tent in the courtyard and you have to queue behind crash barriers to be screened.  The exhibition itself was very unexpected.  As well as the beautiful indigo paintings of the Great Wave and the views of Mount Fuji there are notebooks, personal material, and a lot of other paintings and prints that show just how versatile he was and also what a fantastic sense of humour he must have had. This is his painting of a summer thunderstorm, complete with bare bottoms as robes are blown aloft by the wind.

And this is himself as an old man.  He admitted that he had large ears.  Hokusai believed that as an artist and master craftsman he got better with every decade that he aged.  'I did nothing worth looking at until I was 70,' he insisted.  Some comfort there then!

After hot, crowded, jittery London, the Settle Sessions couldn't have been more of a contrast.  Settle is a beautiful old town in the Yorkshire dales, next to Giggleswick, home to Alan Bennett.  The Folly, where the poetry readings are held, is a Grade 1 listed building gradually being restored.  Alan Bennett has been involved in the fund raising.  It was a fabulous venue and very enjoyable poetry from my 'partner in rhyme' Ron Scowcroft, published by Wayleaves Press.

Now looking forward to a cooler, quieter week at home. Please. Oh, and could we have some more cheerful news just for a change?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Watermarks Anthology of Wild Swimming - Jenny Arran

The Mountain's Voice

Slate smooth.
Amber through darkness.
Tannins of peat and sheep
cropped turf.
Water of rock
and rain
to stillness.

In this dark pool
under the sky
rock body
holds time
in liquid form.
The mountain's voice.
Its quiet insistence
ripples my listening thoughts

Wrapping its cold question
So neatly around my offering
of warmth
I would dissolve
For its answer.

I swim.
In a dim liminal memory
of time kept silence.
And the quiet grass
and the shining sky.

© Jenny Arran 2017

Watermarks Anthology

edited by Tanya Shadrick and Rachel Playforth
The Frogmore Press 2017, £7.99

This is just one of the poems from an anthology dedicated to wild swimming.  It’s a collection of poetry and prose that celebrates the wild and our connection with the element of water before and after birth. There are some well-known names in this collection, Janet Sutherland, Graham Burchell, Lindsay Zier-Vogel, Jill Munro, Maria Jastrzebska, and Mark Fiddes, alongside some new and exciting voices.

Putting together an anthology is never easy.  This was the editors' brief: "we called for work by writers who find inspiration in or near lidos, lakes, sea pools and other wild swimming places. The writing had to be short (a maximum of 1000 words for prose) but supple. We sought work full of quick turns, graceful strokes or surprising dives into the depths: writing which had us catch our breath, laugh in delight or shiver a little." Tanya and Rachel have succeeded brilliantly.

There’s some interesting experimental work here.  I particularly liked Holly Dawson’s ‘Unswimming’ - part prose part poetry that tells the story of a pregnant woman who is drawn to the river at the bottom of the garden even though her husband tells her it’s unsafe. He plans to block it off with a wall and a decked terrace.  But the ‘I’ of the story has much more primitive instincts.   ‘The river pulls me to it.  A surging strength picks up the mallet and demolishes half the river wall. There’s something fierce within me that only water can contain.  The river says: Do what you will, I’ll still go on and on.’

There’s a lot of humour between these pages, alongside the exhilaration and the sense of danger.  These are the last lines of The Non-Swimmer by Jill Munro, a poem about a woman who ‘longed for the security of the flailing label – ‘Unable to Swim’.

Instead, she swallowed hard, girded and glided with her skill;
river-swimming under waterfalls, rock-lined coastal plunges,
then Sweden’s lakes for a water-lillied Valkyrie crossing,

joining nine naked women swimming to their new-found freedom
beneath the wet crackle of a thunderstorm brewing overhead.

Mark Bridge is an eel mocking our eco ambitions.  ‘You buy Tuna that’s described as ‘dolphin friendly’. . . . Like you think tuna is an aquatic labrador, wagging its idiot tail in greeting as a dolphin swims past.  But eel, the mysterious genius eel, we’re novelty cookery ingredients.  Smoked, sliced and served with a poached egg. . . What sort of perversity is that?’ [Mark Bridge eeeooo].

There’s a strong attachment to place in many of the contributions, whether it’s Galway in Ireland, the frigid waters of Iceland, a glacial lake in Canada, or a waterhole in the Australian bush, there are innumerable ‘metaphorical junctions’ as Richard Mabey called them. Swimming can be an ‘immersive experience that anchors body and mind in the present moment and connects us to the elements and the seas around us from which we draw our being and are restored on a deeply physical level’. [Tim Martindale, Galway Blues].

This is a fantastic collection of stories, vignettes, poems and eco-writing for anyone who loves the element of water in ocean, river, and lake.

Writing by lido lovers and wild swimmers

edited by Tanya Shadrick and Rachel Playforth
published by The Frogmore Press, 2017

Jenny Arran is a visual artist. She grew up in North Wales, loving the wildness, rivers, rocks and the sea.  Her poems and paintings reflect a sensory and relational connection to nature.  She swims regularly in Pells Pool, as well as the river and sea near Lewes, and takes her children, on holidays, to the pool in her poem.’


Saturday, 17 June 2017

The healing power of the natural world

Emily Dickinson, who suffered the trauma of epileptic fits, was often confined to the house and the company of family and a few close friends in order to avoid the stigma of public convulsions. (See Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon)    It created an air of mystery about her as she became increasingly reclusive.  Emily found that wandering in the countryside and garden was a healing experience and many of her poems mention wild flora and fauna.  She kept a pressed flower collection - quite a popular pastime in the 19th century - and became something of a botanist.  Her 'Herbarium' has recently been digitalised by Harvard university library as it is now too fragile to be handled. The pages are both beautiful and sad, arranged in Emily's own fashion and labelled with her tiny writing.

In the middle of the chaos and horror we now find ourselves in, the natural world is incredibly therapeutic.  It's sheer beauty and peacefulness is a comfort and a joy.  I've been out on the sunny river bank this morning, looking at the flowers and trying to forget, just for a moment, the terrible things on the news channels.


The river, still decorated by the corpses of winter trees, is flowing steadily over the weir as it usually does in summer.  The mill pool is mirror-still except for the ripples made by fly-catching brown trout, and the banks are yellow with Mimulus and the purple and white shades of Dame's Violet.

The Rambling Rector is gambolling happily up the cliff and through the pink elderflower, competing busily with the golden hop (which has abandoned the garden and gone feral!).

The roses are all beginning to open in the sun.  This is a French aristocrat called Ghislaine de Feligonde.

Now, calmer and more peaceful than I was, I'm off to catch a train to Kent to become white van man again and face the madness of the M25 on Monday!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Tony Walsh - Net Worked - Poetry and Politics

Nick Laird, in his Guardian article, 'Poetry is always a form of political intervention',  makes the case for poetry as the perfect weapon against demagogues.  "Populism claims to love the people but of course it hates the individual, and poetry is one mode of opposing that. It only deals in individuals, while its trust in complication is at the far end of the verbal scale from the demagogue’s three-word phrases framed as hoarse imperatives.”

Nick argues that it is language that is the most effective weapon, for both sides. We have to beware ‘Alternative Facts’.  “Those who would harm us, and have us harm others, target the language, as Orwell and Huxley and others described. The discourse is debased. . .  There is a terrible violence done to human thought when the official discourse normalises lies, racism, sexual violence. Poetry is one kind of civic response to the barbarities of the two-bit huckster’s spiel, his slogans, his dog whistles: it insists on an attempt to speak the truth, even if, as Dickinson has it, it tells it slant.”

He goes on to say that “To read poetry, to return to a space for second thoughts, for complexity, for empathy, for words that are not defensive or aggressive or divisive or belittling, renews a faith in language and stillness, and a courage in the possibilities of protest, of “speaking truth to power”.” Poetry is an ‘ethical space’ and it enables us to imagine the reality of other people’s suffering.

This is Manchester poet Tony Walsh's poem about the surprising result of the UK elections and the part that young people played in it.  Warning:  Strong Language!  He doesn't pull any punches.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Appleby Horse Fair 2017 - Submachine Guns and Winter Weather

It's Appleby Horse Fair weekend - all hatches battened down, windows boarded up, roads closed and the most intensive police presence I've ever seen.  Armed police were particularly visible - not a normal occurrence.
Rather blurred, but they don't like you taking pics.
The attendance this year has been much less than usual - fewer horses and caravans - fewer tourists. The main reason probably the appalling weather.  Temperatures have been down in single figures at times and grey, wild, wet weather all day.  The wind has been the most unpleasant feature.  It has been 'blowing a hoolie' as we say up here.

Down at the Mill we usually get a lot of horses and campers, and the river sees a lot of action as they run the trotting horses and the gigs through it, but the river's been closed for much of the weekend because of the high water levels.

Still, we've seen some beautiful horses.  These are a few of the best.

This gorgeous three year-old Shire horse from Shropshire was being harnessed on the river bank. His owner told me it was the first horse he'd ever broken by himself.

Proud Owner

Normally the horses would be 'swum' in the deep parts of the river.  Not this year though.  This stallion, with his man and boy, was just pludging around in the shallows.

The horses spend a lot of time tied up outside the pubs waiting for their owners!

A lot of horse dealing going on here.

These are the trotting horses showing off their paces on one of the lanes around Appleby.  They really fly - taking a photo is very difficult! By the time you've pressed the shutter they're out of the frame.

This guy had four in hand - one harnessed to the gig with two younger horses on each side and one tied to the back.

This is one of the Vardas, drawn by a matching pair.  A lovely sight.  But they were on their way home, leaving because of the weather.

And you can see why.  These children were all dressed up for a good time and not enjoying the mud at all. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Sojourner Truth - Ain't I a Woman?

Delivered at the Women's Convention, Ohio, 1851

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of  kilter.  I think that, 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.  But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.  Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!  And ain't I a woman?  Look at me! Look at my arm!  I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?  I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well!  And ain't I a woman?  I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me!  And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head;  what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers "Intellect!"] That's it, honey.  What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes rights?  If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from?  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman!  Man had nothing to do with him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!  And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

Sojourner Truth

I thought today we needed something optimistic and inspirational.  I'm not posting this from a Feminist perspective, but as an example of Hope in the face of what look like insurmountable odds.

Who could have thought back in 1851 that there could be equal rights for men and women, people of colour and people with skins of a different shade?  It took a very long time to win it, but those later victories were built on the efforts and the rhetoric of activists like Sojourner Truth.  She was an ex-slave and Christian convert, born into slavery as Belle Baumfree.  She escaped from her owner in 1826 with an infant daughter, living with protectors in New York State where limited emancipation was given in 1827.  She changed her name when she became a member of the Evangelical movement. Sojourner is most famous for winning a court case against her former owner who had sold one of her children illegally to a plantation in Alabama.  She was the first black woman to win a case against a white man. Her life didn't get much easier.  When a man, a Christian evangelist she kept house for, died she was accused of poisoning him, but was acquitted of the crime.

We have never needed more of Sojourner Truth's courage and persistence than we do today.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Theresa May is not a Feminist

Watching Theresa May on TV or in Parliament is excruciating.  She may have risen to the highest position a woman can aspire to – de facto head of state – but one thing’s for sure – she ain’t no feminist.

Neither was Margaret Thatcher.  In fact the only service Mrs T did for Feminism was to make girls realise that their dreams of occupying the highest positions could actually come true.  They too could one day become Prime Minister. You didn’t have to be Lady Di and marry a prince to get to the top.

Theresa May has to constantly watch her back
But wholesale smashing of the glass ceiling didn’t happen.  In fact, the cause of equality for women (both in opportunity and in fact) didn’t advance much, if at all.  Many would say that women’s lives got harder.  They were increasingly expected to juggle family, careers and – since Mrs T introduced ‘Care in the Community’ by abolishing a lot of useful institutions – many were also acting as carers. The pay gap between men and women stayed much the same despite the Equal Pay Act, passed 45 years ago.  It currently stands at an average of 13.9%, though the gap gets wider the higher up the tree you go.

Understandably, given the above, the number of women in public life didn’t increase under Thatcher. It did under a Labour government, but they did it by introducing unpopular notions such as ‘positive discrimination’.  But women are still outnumbered 4-1 in Parliament and there are few women in Theresa May’s cabinet.  If you want to depress yourself further, click this link to the Fawcett Society's statistics of women in positions of influence in society.  There are currently no female political editors of a national newspaper.

Mrs Thatcher's cabinet of men - a lonely position

Women like Theresa May  and Margaret Thatcher are probably less likely to be sympathetic to Feminist issues for several reasons:-

1.  They have had to fight their way to the top – if they can succeed then why can’t other women?

2.  They have fought their way to the top –  by embracing a man’s view of how the world works and becoming complicit in a system created and controlled by men for thousands of years, for the benefit of men.  Women who acquiesce in this are endorsing the system that has created gender inequality.

3.  They have fought their way to the top – by adopting male criteria about what power looks like.  They have accepted Masculist values.  To change a system where Feminist values are seen as ‘weak’ is to appear weak yourself.

4. They have fought their way to the top.  These powerful women, like powerful men, rely on powerful men to support them.  The Tory coffers are filled by male billionaires – and no, they aren’t Feminists either!  In Parliament they also have to rely on a largely male support network among politicians.  Mrs T was taken down by Rottweiler Geoffrey Howe.

Theresa May knows that her closest associates would like her job.  Far from supporting her, the other women in the Cabinet would like her job too.

It is the system of government and finance throughout the world that has created inequality for women.  It is not female friendly. (It’s not friendly to men either, but that’s another blog!) It is a system created by men, because until recently women didn’t even have a vote, let alone a voice in the decision making.  Until relatively recently women weren’t even allowed control or even ownership of their own assets. The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882 – two years after my grandmother was born, but it didn’t cover everything.
It's amazing what women can achieve when they pull together

A woman was a perpetual child at law - she had no right to a separate legal identity of her own and if she had to sue she had to do so through her ‘next friend’, who had to be a man. Why do you think the marriage service asks ‘Who giveth this women to this man?’  She was given by the father to the husband – a transfer of property.   The woman whose marriage failed  could not have custody or control of her children who ‘belonged’ to her husband.  A widow had to have her finances administered by her male relatives who were often far less competent than she was.  History is riddled with women whose fortunes were frittered away by their relatives. (Sara Coleridge was one of them). Some of these outrages weren’t legally sorted out until the second half of the 20th century.

Feminism has made some strides, but not enough.  We live in an unequal society, one where the plight of women across the world is parlous – punished for being raped, kept as prisoners in their own homes, subjected to every kind of human rights abuse across a world increasingly becoming a war zone, denied control over their own reproduction in many countries including the USA, still excluded from a lot of career roles and public office because of their gender.

The world created by men like Vladimir Putin, Bashar al Assad and Donald Trump does not look attractive.  We need a new system – a true democracy that takes no account of gender, religion, class or ethnicity.  A true meritocracy.  I would like to hope that we can get it, but based on the political madness I see around me I’m not optimistic.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: Remembering Norman Nicholson

On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks

............They cut up the carcass of the old ironworks
Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house:  they shovelled my childhood
On to a rubbish heap.  Here my father's father,
Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava
To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor
And boil round the workmen's boots:  here five generations
Toasted the bread they earned at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit
And the town thrived on its iron diet.

The Faber and Faber edition of Norman's Collected Poems
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Lake District poet Norman Nicholson, who is being remembered more and more for his fervent environmentalism. He spent his life in Millom, a mining town at the southern end of the Lake District, and some of his best poems are about the interaction of human beings with the environment. They record the de-industrialisation of the north and the human as well as environmental cost.  This is another extract from the poem describing the attempt to restore the area to something resembling a natural landscape:

Drowned under stagnant water, chimneys felled and uprooted,
Slagbanks ploughed down to half their height, all cragginess,
Scrag-end and scree ironed out, and re-soiled and greened over . . .

But now, the residents and workers are pensioned off along with their  'hopes, gains, profits,' and desperations, with little to look forward to other than the newly built 'Old People's Bungalows'.  'The town shrinks and dwindles'.  His stark description of a landscape devastated by heavy industry will ring true for anyone who has witnessed it.

Reservoir tanks gape dry beside cracked, empty pig-beds;
And one last core of clinker, like the stump of a dead volcano,
Juts up jagged and unblastable.  Stand on the rickety pier,
Look left along the line where gantry and crane and coke-bank
Ten years ago blocked all the view - and now you're staring
Bang at Black Combe.  The wind resumes its Right of Way.

In another poem on the Closing of Millom Ironworks, Norman describes the men who 'morning after morning' stand out side the churchyard gate 'Hands in pockets, shoulders to the slag,' - the fathers of boys he was at school with, all without work.  'It's beautiful to breathe the sharp night air', Norman observes,  but what use is all this beauty if there is no work? Whichever way the wind is blowing, 'its a cold wind now.'

Many of Norman's most famous poems have a strong environmental message.  'Windscale' was written just after what is now regarded as one of the world's worst nuclear emission disasters of the 20th century, though it was downplayed at the time.  Norman privately blamed his wife's breast cancer on the radiation.  He was also acutely aware that the planet couldn't sustain human beings in the way we were behaving.  'Elm Decline' is a frightening poem describing deforestation and the consequences of industries that 'channel a poisoned rain' down onto the land.  In 'Gathering Sticks on Sunday', he writes of  what he sees as the consequences:  ....... 'soon,

The living world of men
Will take a lunar look, as dead as slag,
And moon and earth will stare at one another
Like the cold, yellow skulls of child and mother.'

There will be a celebration of Norman's life and poetry on Saturday afternoon  in St George's Church, Millom (where you can also see his commemorative stained glass window) at 2pm.  All welcome. Various members of the Norman Nicholson Society (including me) will be reading his poems and talking about his life. 

If you'd like to know more about Norman Nicholson's life, my biography 'The Whispering Poet' is available on Amazon or to order from all good bookshops.  Paperback £8.99 and Kindle edition £2.58

Sunday, 28 May 2017

What to do with Stuff? Writer's Stuff.

The Mill is enormous and, even with lodgers occupying some of it, often defeats my efforts to keep it basically clean and tidy, let alone well-maintained and orderly!  And, as Neil is usually in Italy, it is a one-woman battle.  With so much space and so little time, it's tempting to allow 'Stuff' to accumulate. But, lately, with Neil away so much, we've been talking about down-sizing.  The floods, too, have precipitated a re-think of what we keep and where.  The ground floor and mezzanine workshops are no longer safe.

I am having a clear-out.

Every book I write generates a vast amount of research, manuscript notes, photo-copied material, correspondence, newspaper clippings - the list is endless (and that's not counting all the files on the computer).  Lately I've been looking at the stacks of plastic storage boxes and files and wondering what I should do with them all.  Most of this material is never likely to be revisited by me.  If I was to be run over by a bus tomorrow (as my grandmother used to say) what on earth would my children make of it?  And then there are all my notebooks and diaries, kept since I was fourteen, family memorabilia inherited from my parents and grandparents.  I can hardly move for boxes.  Something has to be done!!
Just one book's worth of boxes (and I've written 17 of them!)

Recently I took the first steps to organise its disposal.  One of the biggest collections of material concerns Catherine Cookson, including autograph letters to and from her and her friends, as well as letters from her agents and publishers.  There are also the tapes she dictated, telling a confidential - and very controversial - version of her life. There are photographs and a few objects that belonged to Catherine and her husband, and the whole research trail that led to the discovery of her father's identity.

I offered it as a gift to Newcastle University's Robinson Library and they accepted.  It seemed the most suitable place to house Catherine's archive.  I delivered it the other day in the back of my car and it was a great relief to watch it all being wheeled off on a trolley. I'm not responsible for it any more, and the general public will be able to have access to all this original material.  It's where it belongs - beside the Tyne.

Now all I have to do is work out what to do with the remaining sixteen boxes of 'stuff'! 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

I wasn't going to post a Tuesday Poem today because yesterday I was in Manchester and felt too tired to do anything when I got back last night.  I fell into bed without realising the terrible events that were unfolding in the city I'd just left.  Today I feel unbearably sad, not just because of what has happened, but also because of what some people are going to use the tragedy for. The images of grieving parents and injured children will spark a wave of anger and hatred directed towards innocent people who just happen to share a religion or a place of origin with the perpetrators. Hate has somehow become acceptable.

Visiting Europe so often, I see images in a media less squeamish than ours about showing unedited news items.  Pictures of dead and mutilated children - parents carrying their bloodied offspring to hospitals that have also been bombed.  It's difficult to avoid knowing what is happening in the Middle East.  Perhaps this 'shielding' is what is preventing people here from understanding the direct link between events there and terrorism here.  We have to think about why this is happening - not talk uselessly of 'radicalisation'.  The most radicalising thing of all is to see your families, your compatriots, your friends, being blown up by bombs, missiles and drones that have a 'Made in Britain' or 'Made in the USA' label on them.  The Middle Eastern countries, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, are being destroyed by weapons made by us in the west and sold to states who are not scrupulous about using them or selling them on to terrorist organisations.  Hundreds of thousands of child refugees face starvation, deprivation, drowning and statelessness to escape the carnage.  We have given them a cold shoulder rather than the support they deserve.

I am too sad to cry about the mess we have created or the suffering of the people involved.  The feelings are like a physical pain. And I look at our so-called 'leaders' and despair. The landscape is indeed desolate 'between the regions of kindness'.

Naomi Shihab Nye 's father is a Palestinian refugee, her mother American.  She is an award-winning poet and author currently living in the USA.  "Her poems are based on heritage and peace and are connected to her experience as an Arab-American. Her work has been acknowledged by many journals and reviews throughout the world. In 2009, she was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets."  

Many thanks to my Facebook friends for sharing this poem. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Guilty Pleasures of Cosy Crime

Okay, so I like Cosy Crime as much as I like Nordic Noir. I admit it.  There’s only so much psychopathy I can take.  Alone in the Mill, in the middle of the night, I turn to Cosy Crime, where everybody (except the victim of course) ends up safe and sound and nobody mourns the murdered soul because obviously they had it coming to them. Anything else is just a little too real and likely to render me sleepless and paranoid about every tiny noise.

I’ve always loved solving mysteries, in the way that I love puzzles of any kind, so crime fiction has been an addiction since childhood. (Remember Nancy Drew?)  Agatha Christie was on the bookshelves at home, but I always found her books rather cold and clinical. My mother had the Father Brown mysteries by G.K. Chesterton and, although I didn’t like them as much as she did, I liked the idea of natural justice that they put forward.  Father Brown’s solution to the case didn’t always involve the police – but the punishment always fitted the crime.

James Runcie’s Grantchester mysteries seem to follow this tradition.  The 32 year old hero, Canon Stephen Chambers, has a privileged position as an Anglican priest – people tell him things and feel that he has a right to probe their consciences and ask awkward questions about their private lives. The stories begin in 1953 and continue through to 1977, so we see the character develop.

I prefer the Stephen Chambers of the books to the TV detective priest, because the books are more literary (he’s very well read is our Stephen) and there is more moral subtlety. I don’t mind his religious dilemmas, even though I’m an atheist, because he is much more of a Doubting Thomas than Father Brown ever was.  Less smug too, and very human. The TV adaptations make Chambers far too black and white.  I watched a couple of them and then didn’t bother to watch again.  The books are more ‘real’.

What I do like about the stories is what they reveal of village life with its hierarchies, jealousies and snobberies – the gossip and the secrets that are never really secret.  And they are very well crafted- Runcie is a formidable writer, not surprising given his personal history.  He is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, born in Cambridge, so he writes of what he knows.  He is also a film maker, novelist, TV producer and playwright, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His CV is awesome.
James Runcie - a kind of southern Alan Bennett
All right, so they are a bit cosy –  but everyone has their comfort read.  And I was once married to a clergyman’s son, so it takes me back into a world of baffling parochial and diocesan  intrigue and the splitting of microscopic moral hairs.  My late father-in-law (St John's College, Oxford) also read the grace in Latin and, as he was a widower, the single women of his congregation were given to throwing themselves at the vestry door (metaphorically speaking). There was a great deal of material for fiction.  I can see where James Runcie gets his plots!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: All the People in Hopper's Paintings by B.H. Fairchild

All the people in Hopper's paintings walk by me
here in the twilight the way our neighbors
would stroll by of an evening in my hometown
smiling and waving as I leaned against
the front-porch railing and hated them all
and the place I had grown up in. I smoked
my Pall Mall with a beautifully controlled rage
in the manner of James Dean and imagined
life beyond the plains in the towns of Hopper
where people were touched by the light of the real.

The people in Hopper's paintings were lonely
as I was and lived in brown rooms whose
long, sad windows looked out on the roofs
of brown buildings in the towns that made
them lonely. Or they lived in coffee shops
and cafes at 3 a.m under decadent flowers
of cigarette smoke as I thought I would have
if there had been such late-night conspiracy
in the town that held me but offered nothing.
And now they gather around with their bland,

mysterious faces in half-shadow, many still
bearing the hard plane of light that found them
from the left side of the room, as in Vermeer,
others wearing the dark splotches of early
evening across their foreheads and chins that said
they were, like me, tragic, dark, undiscovered:


                   . . . . . Why was their monotony 
blessed, their melancholy apocalyptic, while 
my days hung like red rags from my pockets

as I stood, welding torch in hand, and searched 
the horizon with the eyes and straight mouth 
of Hopper's women? If they had come walking 
toward me, those angels of boredom, if they 
had arrived clothed in their robes of light, 
would I have recognized them? If all those women 
staring out of windows had risen from their desks 
and unmade beds, and the men from their offices 
and sun-draped brownstones, would I have known? 
Would I have felt their light hands touching

my face the way infants do when people
seem no more real than dreams or picture books?
The girl in the blue gown leaning from her door
at high noon, the gray-haired gentleman
in the hotel by the railroad, holding his cigarette
so delicately, they have found me, and we
walk slowly through the small Kansas town
that held me and offered nothing, where the light
fell through the windows of brown rooms, and people
looked out, strangely, as if they had been painted there.

There's a quality in the work of Edward Hopper that's instantly recognisable - the lonely, isolated people who appear the same even in social situations - the lonely isolated places, like the iconic gas station in an abandoned wayside halt.  Isolation in the middle of civilisation.  And that's one of the qualities of B H Fairchild's poetry too.  Some of my favourite poems are those that deal with the dust bowl tragedy on the prairies of America.  The Beauty of Abandoned Towns has 'Bindweed and crabgrass shouldering through asphalt cracks, rats scuttling down drainpipes, undergrowth seething with grasshoppers.' while sunflowers bang 'their heads on a conclusion of brick, the wind's last argument lost in a yellow cloud,' and broken windows flash 'the setting sun in a little apocalypse of light'.  These later poems are quite political in their condemnation of an agricultural policy that ploughed up 'ancient plains of short grass that fed bison', to plant commercial crops that turned the prairies into dust 'I look back/to see the sky turn sick with darkness,/ a deep brown-green bile boiling up to smear/the sun dull as rusted-out tin siding'. [Dust Storm, No Man's Land, 1952]   

Commerce, the poems seem to say, doesn't make us happy.  Ordinary people's lives changed with the creation of 'the lords of grain'.  At first: 'The bumper crop in 1929.  I stood on the front porch, dawn rolling over me like a river baptism because I was a new man in a new world, a stand of gold and green stretching from my hands to the sun coming up.'  But later the vision from the front porch was more sinister: 'I still tense up when an afternoon sky darkens.  A roller would come in, dust up to eight thousand feet.  If you were in the field, you were lost until it cleared.  Or dead from suffocation.'  

I've only recently discovered B H Fairchild (why is American poetry so little known in the UK?) and I'm knocked out by his poetry.  The stories that are told in these poems - the way lives are illuminated, just as the light falls in a Hopper painting, revealing only just enough, but creating an air of mystery.  One of his early poems is typical of both content and style - called 'In a Cafe near Tuba City, Arizona, Beating My Head against a Cigarette Machine' (which is a poem in itself!)  It begins; 'The ruptured Pontiac, comatose and tilted on three wheels,/ seems to sink slowly like a drunken ship into the asphalt' and continues into an analysis of relationships, past and present, apocalyptic events and the incoveniences of being broke.  A minor incident, the breakdown of a car, becomes a major poem.  Fairchild's work comes from the lost heart of America, Trumpville, where hopelessness and despair motivated a massive vote against the establishment.  If you want to understand that, read BH Fairchild's poetry. 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The scent of Lilac and Katherine Mansfield

The lilac tree in my garden is suddenly blooming - up here in the north spring comes late with frequent frosts, even in May.  But lilac is very resilient - it grows with the determination of a weed. There's hardly a farm or cottage in the Lake District that doesn't have its lilac bush at the gate.
My lilac in a jug
 Lilac has a strong scent - you either love it or hate it.  I love it because it means spring has really arrived.  And it has other associations too. First, it reminds me of Katherine Mansfield.  She also loved lilac, but it represented a tragic and (for her) deeply shameful period of her life.  Katherine, only a teenager at the time, was pregnant with her lover's child.  It was 1909 and having a baby out of wedlock was one of the worst crimes a nicely brought up girl could commit.
Katherine when she was in love with Garnet Trowell
Katherine was on her own in London, trying to pursue a career as a writer. Becoming pregnant threw her into panic.  She married her singing teacher, a man she didn't love, and left him on their wedding night because she couldn't bear to share a bed with him.  Her mother arrived from New Zealand and immediately bundled Katherine onto a train for Bad Worishofen - a small spa in Germany where inconvenient health problems could be dealt with out of the public eye.

The Pension Muller, where her baby was stillborn.
Katherine's lover, the 19 year old Garnet Trowell, had been separated from her by his family. Grieving, distraught, she wrote him a despairing letter from the train. 'Dearest, there is so much to tell you of . . .'  It would never be posted. Everywhere on the journey there was lilac growing in back gardens. 'At the German frontier where all the baggage was examined . . I went out of the station and ran down a little path and looked over a fence.  Lilac filled the air - it seemed almost smudged with lilac, washed in it .' For the rest of her life lilac had a special significance - its colour 'like half-mourning', and its perfume which was tainted by the loss of her lover and the death of the child she was carrying, stillborn after a premature labour. It was an experience she was never able to talk about, even to the man she eventually married.

My lilac loving father.
For me, lilac is all about my father.  It was one of his favourite plants, and when he died my uncle bought me a lilac bush to plant in the garden to remember him by.  So, now I remember two people - my father and my uncle, both dead, when the lilac comes into bloom.

It's been a dry winter here and a very dry spring.  We have had long days in April and May with sun and cool easterly winds.  The garden is parched and the River Eden as low as I have ever seen it.  The weir is high and dry, with only a thread of water going over it in the middle.  The winter's driftwood is still piled up on the weir waiting for a decent flood to carry it downstream.  But after the terrible floods of  Storm Desmond in 1915 I'm quite happy to have a little drought. Apparently the wind is changing direction tomorrow to the more usual westerly breeze from the warmer Atlantic, so I guess that means rain!  It will ruin the lilac, so I've picked as much of it as I can.

Low water at the Mill.

Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller by Kathleen Jones, published by Edinburgh University Press and Penguin NZ