the view from my window

November 2, 2014

This is the view from my studio* window. I love it.

Battersea View

Battersea View

That big blue gasometer has been part of my skyline for very nearly 25 years. I think it’s beautiful, in a rugged, industrial way. But the gasometer has been decommissioned. It’s being dismantled. You can guess what’s going to replace it – luxury apartment blocks with a smattering of so-called affordable housing, retail space, a ‘vibrant community’. Behind the gasometer you can see one of the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, another landmark close to my heart. In all the time I’ve lived here, the Power Station has stood empty, slowly, criminally crumbling. Now at last the site is being developed. The chimneys, no longer sound, are being painstakingly disassembled. New chimneys will be built using the same materials and methods to replicate the originals. I’m glad that Battersea Power Station is being preserved, restored in some measure. But I’m uneasy about its new function – a vast shopping/leisure/office complex – and even more uneasy about the surrounding explosion of luxury apartments. My neighbourhood is changing. A bespoke dog grooming service has opened just along the road. New 4 bed townhouses have gone up, a snip at just under two million pounds (you’ll get 50 quid change from that). I’ve always liked Battersea’s edge, its slightly shabby side, its radical history. I know I’m lucky to live where I do. I know too that this is part of London’s story – constant change, areas falling in and out fashion, in and out of prosperity. Suddenly this is happening on my doorstep. Those London plane trees just outside my window weren’t there when I moved in. They were planted several years later, once the covered car park that used to connect my block to the one opposite was demolished. Now I hear birdsong as well as traffic and planes flying into Heathrow. And I still can’t quite believe I’ve lived here for a quarter of a century, longer than I lived in my home town of Melbourne. I’ll post another photo of the gasometer below, in all its glory a few weeks ago during our prolonged Indian summer. I’m going to miss it. Though, if I look the other way out of my window, there’s a handsome red brick railway bridge and a tiled archway underneath, where youths loiter and dodgy deals are done, I imagine. I can’t see that view changing any time soon.

*By ‘studio’, I mean the room where I have two big desks and my computer. It’s a second bedroom used as a study. But, pretentiously, I like to refer to it as my studio. Gawd ‘elp me.

 

Battersea gasometer, October 3 2014

Battersea gasometer, October 3 2014

somewhat hampered

October 18, 2014

Late last Friday night, on the mean wet-leaf strewn pavements of Manchester, I slipped and landed on my right hand. Pain, spectacular bruising, impressive swelling. Very British. Didn’t want to make a fuss. Soldiered on. Ibuprofen. Visiting friends, taking in sights and culture. Back to work Monday. Resigned to not cycling so buy weekly zone 1 & 2 tube pass. Struggle on using left hand for mouse and non-fluent typing. Swelling subsiding but thumb still extremely sore and not very bendy. Friday day off. GP fully booked. Walk to walk-in-clinic and advised to go to A&E for X-ray. Pleasant afternoon in waiting room reading Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf. Amazing patient NHS staff. X-rayed. Upshot: fracture near base of my thumb. Temporary plaster cast and back next week to see hand specialist. Spirits low. Looking at 6 weeks no cycling. Worse, left hand is useless at writing. HAVE to write my journal every day. Visceral need. Hold pen between index and middle finger right hand and scrawl. Develop Eimear McBride style, terse incomplete phrases. Fracture will heal. Bone will be stronger. Poor maligned left hand.

poem for the left hand

poem for the left hand

right hand

right hand

The theme of this year’s National Poetry Day was ‘Remember’, encouraging people to share a poem they know by heart. With about a week to go before the big day – Thursday 2nd October – Nick and I decided to try to memorise John Keats’ untitled sonnet, reputedly the last he wrote, which starts ‘Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art…’. And which Jane Campion chose as the title for her swoonsome and devastating film about the relationship between Keats and Fanny Brawne. Nick wrote out the poem and BluTacked it to the back of the kitchen door.

P1030663

Bright star, kitchen door, between my niece’s height on her last visit and approximate height of Keats

We studied it as tea brewed or dinner cooked, and took turns reciting it to each other. I learnt that ‘Eremite’ means hermit, and found some lines came more easily to mind than others. By Monday, I pretty much had the first eight lines, repeating them to myself as I cycled to work, and was able to text them to Nick once I was in the office. He replied with the last six lines as he walked up to Clapham Common tube, thankfully without walking into a lamppost or colliding with another pedestrian. I was struggling though to remember the closing sestet, so on Tuesday evening I transcribed the sonnet (I’m sure this in itself helped) and stuck it to the back of the toilet door.

P1030665

Bright star, toilet door

More studying, reading quietly to myself, reciting on my cycle to work and on one occasion performing the poem to Nick in my best sarf Lahndon accent, and I was almost there. But those repetitions of ‘for ever’, that tricksy rhyme of ‘soft swell and fall’ with ‘unchangeable’, and trying to remember which lines use ‘upon’ rather than ‘on’. O but what a beautiful thing it is, with the movement from the star’s far-distant gaze on earth to the poet ‘pillowed upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast’, and o the ache of it!

On Thursday morning the alarm went at 6:25, and without lifting my head from the pillow or opening my eyes I whispered the sonnet to Nick, word perfect. It will be interesting to see if I can still remember the poem in its entirety in a few months’ time. But I certainly feel the imagery and many of the phrases are now lodged quite deeply in my memory banks.

 

I’m still thinking about

September 21, 2014

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon, which I finished reading just over a fortnight ago. The premise of the novel is intriguing: 40-something Elisa Macalaster Brown is driving home on one of those long straight American highways on a hot day in July. She’s returning from her annual visit to her younger son’s grave in the town the family left a year or so after his death in a joyriding accident. As she’s driving she focusses on a crack in the windscreen, only, after a moment’s distraction – noticing a crushed can by the roadside out of the corner of her eye – when she next looks at the windscreen the crack has disappeared. The car, she realises, is different: newer, air-conditioned, not her sort of car. And her body has changed: fleshier, her clothes unfamiliar. Her handbag’s the same, but not all of its contents. She is the same person – documents in a conference folder on the passenger seat confirm her name – but not the same in all sorts of unsettling ways. When she arrives home – same address, same house but decorated differently – her husband is still Derek, but his behaviour is changed, more affectionate, and physically he now seems more attractive. And in this world, this other life, she soon discovers, her job is no longer as manager of a bio-tech lab but an administrative role on campus; and most astoundingly, both her sons are alive, though estranged and living on the other side of the country.

The novel brims with ideas and questions. As a character, Elisa is utterly believable. Her background is as a scientist, so she uses her scientific knowledge and understanding to try to figure out what has happened, what is still happening, to her. At first she thinks she may have had a stroke, but other possible explanations also open up. Has she slipped into a parallel universe? Has she woken from a kind of amnesia or psychotic hallucination? And what role does the internet play? Early on, as she is desperate to fill in gaps in her new life, to be able to carry on without being detected, the digital world is a godsend. She reflects that in the past a physical object, such as a letter or a piece of clothing ‘was the conduit to what could be known about a person. . . Now, you search first, remember later. We don’t need memory anymore – the internet has replaced it.’ There’s some dark humour, especially in the passages relating to Elisa getting to grips with her new job and negotiating the joint therapy sessions she has apparently committed to with Derek. But there is I think a kind of psychic terror running through the book, which makes it compelling and troubling. And immensely thought-provoking. What is the nature of consciousness? How would our lives be different if we’d made other choices? Who determines what is real, especially in an increasingly virtual world? Who the hell would be a parent? I was thoroughly inhabited by this novel. It seems I still am.

hippo haiku

September 3, 2014

Late yesterday afternoon we walked up towards Vauxhall, along the narrow and uneven pavements of Battersea Park Road and Nine Elms Lane, construction sites lining both sides of the road. Then tucked in to follow the river path and soon spotted up ahead, in the cloud-darkened waters, a large curved honey-coloured structure being towed towards the south bank at Nine Elms. The new floating sculpture from Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, commissioned for the Totally Thames festival, the marvellously named HippopoThames. We joined the crowd gathering to greet London’s latest interloper, and before long the sun came out to bathe her (I think this hippo is female) in golden September rays. There were a few stands set up with activities for kids, some free refreshments, and a river archeologist showing some of the objects, both ancient and more recent, found along the length of the Thames. London’s writer development agency Spread the Word were there, encouraging people to write haiku or other pieces inspired by Hofman’s installation. We picked up an exercise sheet each and found a bench slightly away from the hobnobbing hubbub, and set about our homework. That’s what it felt like. And then this is what I love about writing: despite the doubting voices in my head – I’ve never written a haiku. I feel exposed. All my ideas are trite and obvious. - a phrase formed, I groped around at the outer edges of my brain and dredged up another, I wandered over to gaze at the river and the friendly hippo; and finally, there in my notebook, a haiku took shape.

tethered river horse
smirking from tidal massage.
a sunburst of wows.

 

HippopoThames, Nine Elms, 2 September 2014

HippopoThames, Nine Elms, 2 September 2014

Sunlit rear view

Sunlit rear view

Hilaire:

I’m very pleased to have one of my poems published on The Stare’s Nest – a newish site with some great, socially-engaged poetry. In my own small way, I hope to highlight the injustice of Shaker Aamer’s continued detention in Guantanamo Bay.

Originally posted on The Stare's Nest:

Letter from Battersea
to Shaker Aamer, Guantanamo Bay.
The park is much the same.
Spring arrives earlier each year.
First, snowdrops, in stealthy clumps,
nodding their hope to the sodden ground.
Crocuses, sudden cups of lilac,
saffron, ivory, trumping St. Valentine’s Day—
cruel anniversary of your rendition,
your unmet son’s birth.
And still a coming-up of daffodils;
blizzards of blossom on leafless trees;
catkins twisting towards detachment.
Birdsong and nesting exist in this place.
I press words into the page—
forget-me-nots sewn in your name.
Down the road,
they are laying the foundations
of the new American embassy.
Good neighbours,
we are preparing our welcome.
See our banners. Hear our chants.
Free Shaker Aamer.
Bring him home.
 
Shaker Aamer is the last British resident in Guantanamo Bay, where he has been held since 2002. He has never been charged and was cleared for release in 2007 but is still…

View original 110 more words

Nothing has really happened until it has been recorded. This quote from Virginia Woolf is printed on the back cover of Frances Spalding’s Virginia Woolf Art, Life and Vision. How true, how true, I want to say. I recognise this sentiment; it’s the source of my early and on-going compulsion to write a journal. To write. So I will record here what a marvellous, moving and inspiring experience it was to visit the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition about Virginia Woolf, curated by Frances Spalding, exploring Woolf’s life and work through photographs, paintings, letters, manuscripts and books. The photos include childhood snaps of Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket; four dreamy portraits of Virginia aged 20; some striking shots by Gisèle Freund of Virginia and her husband Leonard at home in Tavistock Square in 1939; a sequence taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in 1926 that reveals a relaxed, cheerful and elegant side to Woolf; and a rather odd photograph of Virginia Woolf with T.S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne, who stands slightly to one side and appears to hover an inch above the grass, her eyes a white blur. The exhibition is a reminder that Woolf was right there at the centre of Modernism, reading Proust and Joyce’s Ulysses as they were published, engaging in a literary dialogue with Katherine Mansfield, bringing out an edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land via the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard founded. Indeed, Eliot performed his long poem to the Woolfs over dinner at Hogarth House, which Woolf subsequently recorded in her diary: ‘He sang it and chanted it and rhythmed it.‘ Her most productive years, in terms of novel-writing, seem to have been those spent in London from the mid 1920s until the outbreak of the Second World War, the great metropolis providing stimulus on many levels and, as Frances Spalding puts it, ‘made her aware of the mutability of the self’. At the heart of the exhibition is Woolf’s writing, her letters and voluminous diaries and most of all the novels. There are first editions with beautiful jacket designs by her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. But it’s what inside, of course, that matters, that lasts. The words and ideas, the exploration of consciousness, of our fleeting time in this world and the marvellous brute continuance of nature and the universe. I’m currently immersed in To the Lighthouse. And I’m excited that there is still so much more for me to read and discover, including Frances Spalding’s handsome biography.

Just over a week ago Fourth Friday held their summer party at the Poetry Café, and I’ve been thinking about it, off and on, since then. I almost didn’t go, feeling a tad lacklustre, a bit drained by the humid weather and slightly dreading what the conditions would be like in the café’s basement, which can be close and stuffy even in winter. But it turned out to be a wonderfully uplifting event, and this despite the fact that a lot of the poetry we heard had quite a dark edge. Thankfully, there were several fans in action in the basement. We were offered a free glass or two of bubbly and some nibbles, and thanks to some strategic bag-placing by fellow open-miker Jill Abram, I luxuriated in a comfy armchair instead of the usual hard plastic orange seat.

The Crispy Hot Club performed Django Reinhardt inspired tunes, and their foot-tappingly, knee-jigglingly irresistible music contributed to the French flavour of the evening. Host Hylda Sims read a sequence of tender yet funny poems arising from an intense platonic relationship with her much younger French lodger, Jean-Noël, several years ago. She also sang a great version of Chattanooga Choo Choo, backed by the band, with two of her own verses celebrating the joys of travelling by Eurostar and arriving in Paris. I wanted to book a ticket there and then. In the second half, Hylda’s poems drew vividly on her now annual summer visit to Jean-Noël and his family in la France profonde. I’ll be thinking about her on le quinze août and the strange local festival where young men try to sever the head of a dead goose suspended above the main street.

The other featured poet was Jon Sayers, who warned us his themes for the evening were war, accident, disaster and unemployment. His first poem, The Marble, was a hilariously deadpan account of a childhood game with potentially disastrous consequences for his elder brother. Another poem, Mr Levy, about his optician of many years, also had a strand of tragedy running just below its affable surface, and a sense of quietly-building panic. In fact, that mix of humour and terror was present in most of his poems, often rooted in the absurdities of his day jobs as copywriter and voice-over artist. For his second set, Jon read some of his own translations of Jacques Prévert poems from Paroles, and spoke passionately about their continuing relevance, Prévert’s humanity and his empathy for all suffering creatures. The poems sound charming, almost nursery rhyme-like at times, but there’s a dark vein running through them. I was particularly struck by the poem Barbara, which could be read as a simple love poem, but is also about the devastation wrought on Prévert’s home town of Brest during the Second World War, with its recurring, urgent refrain ‘You must remember‘. The multi-talented Jon Sayers also sang in French un chanson with lyrics by Prévert and a haunting melody I vaguely recognised; Les Feuilles mortes known in English as Autumn Leaves – the French ‘dead leaves’ is stronger, and, Jon maintained, this is another poem about war. He gave a defiantly angry rendition of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime – a song from the Depression about the fate that awaited many US First World War veterans – the breadline. Jon remarked that war seemed to be on many of our minds, with the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. One of the poets from the floor, whose name unfortunately I didn’t catch, read a powerful poem Poppy, on this theme. And another, Alfred Todd, recited his poem The Debris, memories of playing in the ruins and rubble of east London bombsites when he was growing up after the Second World War. Impossible to listen to this and not think about today’s children in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine. . . In Covent Garden, it was a warm night, and those of us at the Fourth Friday summer party were lucky to experience some great music and thought-provoking poetry.

Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014

Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014

Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014

Crispy Hot Club, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014

Jon Sayers, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014

Jon Sayers, Poetry Café, 25 July 2014

extra time

July 20, 2014

Inspired by today’s BBC Sport Prom, which explored parallels between music and sport, I thought I’d share this poem I wrote several years ago after my first couple of visits to the Proms.

At the Proms

We remember not to hum along.
Wide-eyed, ears pricked,
we clasp each other’s hands
to stifle rogue conducting,
dampen the itch
to pomp out beats
with the timpanist.
Between movements
we practise sotto voce asides,
seat shuffling, staccato coughs;
then scrum the bar
for half-time drinks.
Our chit-chat’s strewn
with sporting idiom;
how every player—brass, wind, strings,
the patient striker of the single bell—
pulls together with a common goal.

What I’m straining for, second half,
fingers digging and pulsing your palm—
the whole hall behind me—
what I’m hooked on
is this restrained urging towards
the final detonation of applause.
Bravo! One nil! Encore!

the P word

July 13, 2014

Poet

I don’t easily describe myself as a poet. Labels of any sort are generally problematic to some degree. Scratchy. What’s my problem with ‘Poet’? In some mouths, it can sound like an insult. Perhaps I’m subconsciously adding ‘Minor’ or ‘Failed’ in front of ‘Poet’. Certainly, there are many people, including members of the wider writing or literary community, who don’t ‘get’ poetry, some to an almost pathological degree. The P word will induce shudders, a complete communication shutdown. Or there are others for whom the term ‘Poet’ seems to conjure up floaty flowery visions, indolence perhaps, and a not-quite-patronising response along the lines of ‘That must be lovely….‘. If only they knew the agony of each bitterly-fought phrase, the caffeine addiction, the endless troughs of self-doubt. And then this is the deeper issue, that I don’t feel I can truly call myself a Poet. Poet with a capital P. Serious and difficult. Someone who eats sleeps breathes poetry. Someone who who could dare to imagine a slim volume of their poems nestling on a bookshelf alongside Sappho, Keats, Plath. Okay, so I do at least read poetry, and I do subscribe to half a dozen or so small lit mags, and yes I write poems – more so in the last few years, and better poems, I hope, whatever that might mean – and I send them out into the big wide scary world and sometimes they are ACCEPTED. But often after I’ve read quite a bit of poetry, I crave prose; and in the same way, after writing a few poems I’m usually hankering to write whole narrative sentences, a story of some kind. So, ‘writer’ is the label I’m most comfortable with. Of course, the caffeine, the self-doubt etc. go hand in hand with prose as much as poetry. So I doubt I’ll ever be able to wear this badge with confidence:

Writer

By the way, never ever EVER call me a ‘Poetess’.

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