September 25, 2016
On Wednesday afternoon I witnessed a thought-provoking performance, strung. It took place in the grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital, and tied in with the opening of the Bethlem Gallery‘s Reclaiming Asylum exhibition.
strung was devised by artists Jane Fradgley and Shane Waltener and performed by dancer Laura Glaser and sound artist Zoë Gilmour. A video iteration of strung is showing in the gallery, created with the videographer Antonia Attwood. One element, then, of strung is collaboration.
Another element is the magnificent cedar tree, site and heart of the performance. The Reclaiming Asylum brochure refers to it as a ‘Lebanese cedar tree.’ I’m not an expert, but having checked my RHS Encylopedia of Plants and Flowers, I’m inclined to think it’s a Blue Atlas cedar, with its silvery smoky blue foliage.
The sound element of the piece was provided by Zoë Gilmour. Beneath the wide skirts of the cedar tree, to one side of the trunk, she’d set up with her cello, a small amp, some effects pedals, microphone and minimal percussion. For the two hours of the performance she created a subtle slowly changing soundtrack of looped cello phrases and percussive sounds. Plucking, strumming, brushing her bow on the cello strings; shaking a rattle; whispering into the microphone. Sometimes the sounds carried and sometimes they didn’t. Wind blew through the tree, dislodging clouds of fine dust. Traffic passed on the nearby hospital road. Under the tree Zoë responded to the movements of the dancer or was it the other way round? How much was improvised, thought out on the go, and how much choreographed and mapped out beforehand?
On the other side of the tree trunk dancer Laura Glaser – dressed in white trousers, white plimsolls, white long-sleeved top and wearing her long straight brown hair loose – moved back and forth between the lower branches, weaving a net with red twine. Her hands made small quick skilful movements, tugging, knotting, testing and stretching the twine. She seemed purposeful, focussed. I walked around the circumference of the tree, glimpsing the performers between the spreading branches. The tree gave off a spicy scent. And then unexpectedly (to me, anyway), Laura climbed through an opening in her woven net and began clambering over it. These were slower, tentative whole body movements as she navigated and extended the net structure. Rolling, grasping, tumbling into the cocoons and hammocks of the red twine web. Stretching and contorting herself, like a cat exploring and inhabiting a confined space. Lying along one of the branches. Climbing higher and continuing to unravel the twine and twist and knot triangular pockets between trunk and branches. As Laura tested and stepped from one spot to another the lower branches rippled like the hem of a flamenco dancer’s dress and the tree released another waft of dusty spicy scent. The cedar is also a performer.
The afternoon was warm and sunny; the eve of the autumn equinox. People lingered, soaking up the golden light and immersing themselves in the unfolding performance. We wandered through the hospital grounds for a bit, holding our thoughts, as far as the small orchard where apples lay quietly rotting in the long grass. Heading back towards the performance, I could hear the mellow tones of the cello carried by the wind. I liked the correspondence of the plucked cello strings with the rhythmic weaving. The dancer’s agility and fragility. I thought about trust – as a performer, trusting the twine, trusting her skill, trusting the tree will hold her. Tree climbing as emblematic of childhood freedom; innocence. The woven structure reminding me of cat’s cradles and also a safety net. We stood and watched the end of the performance, as Laura climbed down through the net one last time and walked out from the sheltering reach of the cedar tree. Something quite beautiful and moving happened that afternoon.
The video version of strung is showing at the Bethlem Gallery until 11th November.
September 10, 2016
When did I first notice the magical little world contained in a front garden on Macduff Road? I can’t remember exactly, but for years it’s been one of my local landmarks, a spot I’ll swing past on my way back from the park, wondering what’s changed, stopping to gaze in childish delight. The front garden is little more than a small rectangular bed behind the low front wall of a rundown single-fronted terrace house. Between two bushy trees, a small riot of horticultural juxtaposition: moss, ivy, African violets, trickling water, cut flowers, tinsel, toy ladybirds, painted acorns. The details changed regularly, often reflecting the current season or festivities. Here’s a photo of part of the garden several years ago. There’s a Christmas card tucked in as a backdrop and silver Christmas trees from a garland creating a fenced pathway to the house on the card.
I hardly ever saw the gardener. A glimpse, perhaps, of a stooped figure in the doorway on a summer’s evening. The front window, mostly obscured by foliage, always had the curtains drawn. And at the top right, a toy panda, somehow pinioned against the glass, and encircled by silver stars.
Recently, the garden’s looked a little neglected. Fewer seasonal details. No more cut flowers skilfully knitted into the scene. Then, on Wednesday evening, after a stroll around Battersea Park, we swung past 10 Macduff Road and the fairy garden is no more. Ripped out. The panda gone, too. The house cleared, it seems. Such a sad, sad sight. And the fate of the gardener? I can only guess. I hope she knows, or knew, that some in the local area treasured the magical world she created. I’ll miss it, for sure.
August 18, 2016
When I was growing up, my family referred to our soft toys as ‘chaps’. As far as I’m aware, this is a family coinage, rather than a generally accepted term for teddies and other cuddly beings. I’m not, on the whole, nostalgic for my childhood, which says a lot more about me than about my family. But when I hear or read the word ‘chaps’ my primary association is a comforting/comforted feeling.
I still have my teddy, who is simply called ‘teddy’, and is FEMALE as were all my chaps. I remember this strongly – I chose or decided to identify them all as ‘she’s. There was also one rather chunky and not so cuddly four legged creature, that had been removed from a set of wheels – I guess a walker of some sort – which I concede now was a dog but as a child I insisted was a cat. We always had cats in the family, never dogs.
I can’t now remember whether teddy came with me when I first travelled overseas or whether I smuggled her into the UK at a later date. Most of the time she sits on top of a box on top of the filing cabinet in my studio. A quiet, comforting chap, she is.
August 4, 2016
Nicholas Royle wrote some lovely words about my writing in Time Out back in 1996, as part of a feature profiling four up-and-coming London writers. I’m still not there yet (wherever ‘there’ may be) but the support of people like Nicholas Royle is what keeps most writers (wherever they are) plugging away. My novel The Sea Between never saw the light of day – a good thing in retrospect. A few years later though my next one, Hearts on Ice, did make it into the bookshops. Nicholas Royle is still a great champion of writers and a darn good writer himself. Happy Throwback Thursday!
Scroll right down for an enlarged extract of the bit about me.
July 11, 2016
I overcame my PoFestPhobia and travelled up to Ledbury on Saturday for a brief taste of the largest poetry festival in the UK in this, its 20th year. And I have to report, it was a rather joyful experience!
First stop after we arrived late morning: the Walled Garden, where we caught the tail end of the Poetica Botanica reading, with contributors to Adam Horovitz’s project reading their ‘healing herbs’ poems to an audience seated on a semicircle of straw bales. We hooked up with my friend Joolz Sparkes, who was on Day Nine of the festival, and seemed relaxed and not in the least crazed after all that time in a poetry bubble.
After a spot of lunch, it was on to the Panelled Room in The Master’s House for 20 minutes with Matt Kirkham. We arrived at the almost packed out room just in time, and Nick and I found ourselves sitting front row centre, less than a yard from the lectern. This was the closest I came to a poetry panic, but I soon calmed down and enjoyed Matt’s reading, which included poems from his forthcoming Templar collection The Dumbo Octopus. Two poems that struck me strongly were The Whip and The Driver’s Mother, saying so much through the telling detail of one moment or image. Matt shared a poem by Ashraf Fayadh, as part of a joint initiative by the Ledbury Poetry Festival and English PEN to highlight ‘poets at risk around the world’. And he finished with a short extract from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, written in 1938, but sounding chillingly contemporary.
Next up, a visit to the Emergency Poet and her ambulance parked on the High Street. While Joolz and someone-very-close-to-me went for a full consultation, I helped myself to a poetic pill to counter Existential Angst from the Cold Comfort Pharmacy, overseen by the charming and calming Nurse Verse.
We booked into our B&B in time to see Serena Williams win the Wimbledon Singles Final – a record equalling 22nd Grand Slam title. The BBC coverage included a sequence with Serena reciting the poem that has apparently inspired her magnificent achievements: Still I rise by Maya Angelou. A great testament to the power of poetry.
A walk up into Dog Hill Wood for a beautiful view beyond Ledbury of the Herefordshire countryside; a tipple or two in the poets’ hangout, the Prince of Wales, where a weathered local silenced the bar with his impromptu and moving rendition of a folk song based on the myth of Odysseus and Penelope; chips eaten sitting on a bench outside the Market House while the world slowed down; then time to head over to the Comunity Hall for a Gala Evening of poetry and music, with Carol Ann Duffy and Friends.
The Gala Evening was compered by the ubiquitous and inimitable Jill Abram, one of the many volunteers at the the festival who keep the whole show running. In the first half, Carol Ann Duffy read a selection of her poems interspersed with virtuoso horn and pipe playing by John Sampson and the occasional witty or acerbic aside from Carol Ann. After the interval LiTTLe MaCHiNe owned the stage, giving their all in a storming set that included versions of Byron’s We’ll go no more a roving and a progrocktastic take on Jabberwocky. They can mine a mournful vein too, as with Gillian Clark’s Overheard in County Sligo or Adlestrop by Edward Thomas. What better way, though, to end their encore than with the rousing rabble cry of John Rety’s A poet offers his wares?
The main event of the festival for me, though, was the following morning, back in the Panelled Room for 20 minutes with Joolz Sparkes: Me Old China. Joolz themed her set around celebrations and relationships, and had written some of her poems on china plates, cups and saucers as a nod towards the Festival’s 20th anniversary – china being the traditional gift for this occasion. There were cup and saucer haiku, and a poem by Mahvash Sabet, currently imprisoned in Iran, read from a plate. Joolz talked about the feeling of being part of a community that the Festival engenders, before performing her Girls’ Night Out poem, which celebrates close female friendships. Barnacle is a short tender meditation on sticking things out. And reminding us to notice and cherish those things we take for granted, Joolz read her ode to the humble plastic bag. It was an assured and heartwarming performance. Brava, me old China!
July 8, 2016
There’s not been much let up since my Thrive residency came to an end. On Sunday 26th June I travelled far north (for a south London gal) to perform at Finchley Literary Festival‘s closing event, the Poetry and Music Palooza hosted by Anna Meryt. The locals were friendly and it was a fun and uplifting evening, despite the drizzle and recent events. Here’s a YouTube clip of my reading. Thanks to Anna for inviting me to read, and to David Gardiner for filming the event.
Then on Wednesday 29th June I took part in my first Stanza Bonanza at the Poetry Café. Billed as a ‘war of words’ between the Clapham and Reading Stanza groups, I was a little nervous, as I’m not keen on poetry as a combative activity. Thankfully, it was all very good-natured, and I volunteered to read first for Clapham so I was able to relax then and enjoy the rest of the evening. The winner? Poetry, of course! And, well, half the Reading team seemed to have connections to south London, so really…
After a bit of a London Undercurrents lull (Joolz and I have both had a lot going on) we’re pleased to have two poems published in the 10th issue of Lunar Poetry magazine. The launch reading was on Tuesday in Peckham and as Joolz was away, I read for both of us.
I’ve also got two poems in issue 13 of morphrog, which has just gone live. Hurrah!
The community roof garden is keeping me busy in a very rewarding way. It’s not just the produce, but the strawberries and raspberries taste fantastic and we’ve had some delicious beetroot. There’s also been a football tournament taking place in France, you may have noticed. And on Monday I was filmed reading a poem in a polytunnel. But more about that another time.
June 20, 2016
So, I’ve done it. I can update my writing CV to say I was Poet in Residence at Thrive Battersea for the Open Garden Squares Weekend 2016. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience — both the run up to the weekend, spending time in the Herb Garden and the Old English Garden, sitting, thinking, observing, making notes; and the weekend itself, just gone, as I shared the poems I’ve written with visitors to the two gardens.
In the Herb Garden, I hung haiku from the branches of a black walnut tree. I also tied a few laminated poems to benches in both gardens for people to happen across. Rather than schedule readings for set times, I decided to offer individual readings as people dropped by, which I thought would suit these peaceful and slightly hidden-away pockets of Battersea Park. This meant that, apart from friends who’d come specifically to support me, I had to approach people and ask them if they’d like me to read them a poem. Wonderfully, most people I asked were receptive, and this led to some lovely conversations about poetry, gardens and personal memories of the park. Several people mentioned they also write poetry, and a couple of them read a poem of their own to me in return. I also had a bunch of poem postcards printed, with a short acrostic poem about Thrive, so people had something tangible to take away from my residency.
With thanks to Thrive, The Poetry School and London Parks and Gardens Trust for this great opportunity. And a big thank you to everyone who showed an interest and listened!
Photos kindly taken by Nick Rogers.
May 30, 2016
It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for a poetry reading than the Old English Garden in Battersea Park. Here, on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I read some of my garden themed poems as part of Thrive‘s Chelsea Fringe Festival week of events.
The weather was kind to me, with warm sunshine breaking through on both days. I had a small but attentive audience on each occasion, including some of Thrive’s hardworking gardeners and volunteers. The poems I read broadly reflect my own ongoing journey into gardening, and it was lovely to share some of the poems I’ve written over the last few weeks as I’ve spent time in the gardens Thrive manages.
It’s only three weeks now until the Open Garden Squares Weekend on 18th and 19th of June. By then I hope to have a decent crop of new poems. For now, here’s a recent haiku, plucked from the Thrive Herb Garden:
tall mauve irises,
poodle-proud. one rainbow shade
in time-lapse garden.
May 17, 2016
For the second year in a row, the Poetry School has teamed up with Open Garden Squares Weekend to offer mini residencies in London parks and gardens to emerging poets. Last year, my residency never quite got off the ground, so I’m delighted that this year I’ve been matched up with Thrive in Battersea Park.
I already have a connection with Thrive, as they partnered with the Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden to provide a horticultural therapist for the weekly gardening club we set up last year. Thrive is a social enterprise that uses horticulture to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. In Battersea Park, Thrive manages four gardens, including the Herb Garden and Old English Garden, which will be the main focuses for the Open Garden Squares Weekend.
Thrive is also running a number of events during the week 23rd to 29th May as part of Chelsea Fringe Festival. I’ll be spending time in all four Thrive gardens that week, observing and gathering material for new poems. I’m also pencilled in to give a short poetry reading at 3pm in the Old English Garden on both Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th May. It’s a beautiful setting and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good weather.
The Open Garden Squares Weekend is 18th and 19th June, when gardens are at their peak, according to my Thrive horticulturalist. And for some reason I’m thinking about biennial plants, which put on leaves and store food in their first year, and wait until the second year to send up a flower stem and bloom. Roll on June.
March 26, 2016
The plane trees outside my window are still bare. But they are visited regularly by a pair of birds I think I have successfully identified as magpies. I’ve checked both my Michelin I-Spy Birds book and Hamlyn nature guides’ Birds. The latter describes the magpie’s call as a hard, rapid rattling ‘sha-sha-sha-shak’. I’ve heard this sound off and on, in between the trains, planes and refuse collections, and wondered what creature or machine was making it.
Now I’ve matched up the sound with the two handsome black and white birds that glide in, alight on a thin branch, hop around, sometimes seem to stare back at me, and then gracefully take wing and flit off elsewhere. Long tail feathers. Black that is shot through with petrol blue and emerald. Yes, these appear to be European magpies. Australian magpies are different, you see. It’s only taken me twenty odd years to realise that.
Recently, I’ve noticed one or other bird fly in, rummage about among the leafless branches, and then fly off with a long twig in its beak. After a fleeting stopover on the roof of the nearby Chinese noodle restaurant, our fearless magpie reaches its destination in the high branches of a mature plane tree whose roots are breaking up the brick paving outside my block. It didn’t take me too long – certainly less than twenty years – to twig that this pair of magpies is building a nest. I’m very excited for them. This is one housing development n Battersea that I have no objection to.