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’.

No, it’s not a dodgy dance move. This was a special antipodean edition of the monthly poetry event The Shuffle, which took place last night at the Poetry Café. Co-hosted by Cath Drake and Gale Burns, the evening featured eight Australian and Kiwi poets, and I was very pleased to be one of those invited to read. There was a lovely vibe to the evening and it was great to hear such varied voices but with some common themes coming through. Cath asked each poet how they thought where they grew up influenced their writing. This is a tricky question for me, and probably worthy of a separate blog post, as I have quite an ambivalent relationship with Australia, and it’s also tied up with my relationships with my family. There’s a tension that I think will never be resolved, and that does feed into my writing. I found Laurie Duggan’s response interesting; he mentioned that he has lived in a number of different places and  feels his focus is local – wherever he is, he draws from his current locality.

Claire Potter, originally from Perth, started us off, reading poems rooted in childhood and reaching back into her grandparent’s experience of migration, tenderly evoked in a poem about her grandmother’s slippers. She finished with a longer poem, titled (if I remember correctly) Three steps outside the TAB, full of vivid imagery of suburban heat as a child waits for her grandfather outside a betting shop. I was next up and suddenly more nervous than I anticipated, though I’m told that didn’t show, and I read four poems from Triptych Poets, which seemed to be well received. Rowena Knight followed, the first Kiwi poet, and again migration was one of the themes explored in her poems, as well as the complexity of identity. The poem Flotation (again, I hope I’ve got the title right!) is a beautifully poised imagining of her mother’s six week journey to New Zealand, aged 14, having the run of the ship as her parents are dazed with seasickness and the enormity of their decision to emigrate. For Rowena, her experience of migration came aged 13, as her mother returned to the UK with her daughter, and another poem ached for childhood words whose meaning didn’t cross the seas: dairy, lollies, bach. The first half ended with Cath Drake reading poems from her recently published pamphlet Sleeping with Rivers, which won the 2013 Mslexia/Seren poetry pamphlet competition. Cath observed that one thing she thinks Australians are pretty good at is family dysfunction, and went on to read House of Bricks, all the more powerful for the matter-of-fact tone: ‘My parents made a hearty roast/in our house of bricks and that’s what counted.’ Sunken Garden stayed with me, each detail so precise and telling, quietly elegiac. There’s a lot of watery imagery in Cath’s poems, and I found her poem Octopus, despite my aversion to eight legged and tentacled beings, very sensuous.

Laurie Duggan, originally from Melbourne, and prolifically published, got the ball rolling in the second half. He read half a dozen or so poems from The Collected Blue Hills, pieces concerned with landscape and sparseness and cut through with dry humour. Laurie’s laconic performance was definitely one from the leave-them-wanting-more school, so I’ll be searching out more of his work. Next up was Rachel Smith, who grew up on a farm in New Zealand’s North Island. I was blown away by Rachel’s reading, her poems saturated with heart-stopping phrases, and her delivery just about perfect, giving space to the lines and allowing each poem to breathe. The penultimate poet of the evening was Katherine Gallagher, a very engaging presence who delighted us with anecdotes of British attitudes towards ex-pat Australians in the 1960s and 70s. Many of her poems displayed this irreverent edge, while others, such as Hybrid, expressed more directly an attachment to the country she left all those years ago. It was inspiring to hear a poet approaching her 80th year read with such verve. Diana Pooley rounded the evening off, reminding us that Australia has the most urbanised population in the world. By contrast, she was raised in outback Queensland and most of the poems she read last night reflected this almost pioneer background. Poems rich with the local vernacular, with the weather and landscape and livestock. I could picture the scene so clearly in Heatwave, the children sleeping out under the stars, sounds of the animal world all around them, an understated sense of awe. Understatement, telling detail, warmth and flashes of deep despair – these were some of the antipodean flavours on offer last night.

not a football in sight

June 17, 2014

Sunday afternoon. The previous night, England lost. It seemed a good idea to stretch our legs and get a breath of fresh air, and an even better idea to take advantage of the fact that in under 45 minutes we can walk to Tate Britain. Grey skies and a stiff breeze hurried us on, through Battersea Park and then along Grosvenor Road, beside the Thames, and the rapidly changing riverfront. Then up the steps of Tate Britain and ahead into the Duveen galleries, pitched straight into Phyllida Barlow‘s breathtaking installation dock. Immersive isn’t quite the right word. Overwhelming is nearer. Teetering ramshackle structures of rough planks and spray painted cross struts dominate the first gallery. From these, huge rusty-looking freight containers dangle precrariously. The fact that the containers are actually made from polystrene and foam doesn’t diminish their impact. I still ducked as I walked beneath and around them. Some are burst open, revealing a splurge of messy stuff inside, like crushed meringue. Mess, excess, waste. As you move through the galleries there are more large scale sculptures: accumulations of wooden posts like a giant pile of pick-up-sticks; a towering column of cardboard held together by slapdash bandages of yellow, orange and pink tape; more knocked-together wooden structures, rather like the underside of a pier, topped by overhanging bundles of carpet and roofing felt, plastic sacks stuffed with scap material; a giant cardboard cylinder suspended from the ceiling; plywood panels daubed in muted pastel colours are tacked to something like a spectator stand gone wrong. The more I looked, the more I saw. I thought about flotsam and jetsam, about low value and no value materials, about consumption and overabundance. About unconventional beauty, and finding aesthetic pleasure in the ordinary and the discarded. dock is more than something to behold, it is something to experience and be inhabited by.

Friday evening. Fifty or so people gather in a corporate art venue, the Bloomberg Space, for Errors Hit Orient. Nick and I are here because I saw a tweet from Studio Voltaire about the event, mentioning B.S. Johnson. We’re not quite sure what to expect. The idea sounds a bit mad, but definitely unmissable. Someone is going to read football reports written by B.S. Johnson, accompanied by live electric bass. We mill about in the auditorium, sipping our complimentary beverages, and speculating about the other attendees and what drew them to this event. Football fans? Lovers of experimental literature? Art buffs? City workers beginning their Friday night with a bit of culture and a free glass of vino? The performance is one of a series of events for DOES THE IT STICK, curated by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. There are brightly coloured foam sculptures, like children’s building blocks writ large, arranged in the auditorium; a mural of some distant planets and stars on one wall; and a giant cartoon-like house front, that looks like it belongs on the set of Play School. All very cheerful.

Eventually, we’re let through to the performance space, overlooking an atrium with views up into the Bloomberg offices proper. I’m glad to see that most of the staff seem to have left by now. And soon, Chris Evans plugs in his bass, Will Holder picks up a cordless mike, and this odd marrying of elements begins. As well as Evans’s noodling bass, there’s a looped soundtrack of vinyl record surface noise (I think!), rhythmic hand claps, and a whirring that rises in pitch and speed and then slows, builds and fades, creating a hypnotic tension. Layered over this soundscape, Holder reads eight match reports written by B.S. Johnson for the Observer in the late 1960s. In a word, it’s brilliant. It works. Johnson’s reports are mordant and subversive. One starts, roughly, ‘The political truism that it is easier to maintain the status quo than overthrow it was apparent when [football team] met [another football team]…’ In another report, Johnson compares West Ham’s repeated unsuccessful attempts on goal to the repetitive blurred pattern of a carpet. He uses litotes liberally, and Holder’s reading brings out the gritted-teeth feeling just below the surface of many of the reports, Johnson sitting through tedious games and wringing what fun he can from his turns of phrase. ‘Meanwhile, back in defence. . .’ being one memorable instance. In his account of an FA Cup tie between Canterbury and Torquay, there’s a lovely detail of two cranes rising into the Kent sky at the start of the second half, quickly punctured as Johnson goes on to say this was not an omen of a reversal of fortunes for for the home side, who were roundly beaten. Errors Hit Orient – a mad idea and a truly inspired event.

 

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