not twiddling my thumbs

February 22, 2015

In my rebellious teenage years, if I expressed my desire to be a writer, the immediate ‘helpful’ suggestion was that I should  pursue a career in journalism. I knew strongly this was not what I wanted to do, nor did I want anything so conformist as a career. So I made a conscious decision to keep my paid employment quite separate from my creative life. And for a long time this has worked, sort of, for me, especially when I’ve been able to negotiate part time hours. I’ve held various roles in the Housing Association sector (not for profit – nice box to tick), ending up in IT as a Data Quality Analyst.

Increasingly, though, I came to feel that the disconnect between what I currently spend 28 hours per week doing in the office, and my real passion – my ‘outside’ writing life – is not healthy. Several months ago, a second-hand copy of How to Find Fulfilling Work turned up in our flat. Written by Roman Krznaric, it’s published by The School of Life. I set aside my sceptical hat, chose a notebook with a bird on the front, and scurried off to my secret café at lunchtimes to read Krznaric’s book and think about my exit strategy.

escape plans

escape plans

Then life intervened. I fractured my right thumb, and more life-changingly, I suffered a bereavement. Around the same time, I finally paid off my mortgage. In the new year I returned to The School of Life book and my notes, and stuck a galvanising Post-it note, in my still wobbly right-hand writing, above my computer at home.

Hillel exhorting Hilaire

Hillel exhorting Hilaire

Reading How to Find Fulfilling Work helped me clarify what will give me more meaning or fulfillment in my work – using my talents and reflecting my passions – as well as understanding why I’ve shied away from this in the past. And to recognise that I’m ready to take that leap now. One of the key messages is to ‘act now and reflect later’, and I’m in a fortunate position to be able to afford to take a very radical sabbatical. With no return date. So at the end of January I handed my notice in, and I finish work this coming Thursday. My plans are open, rather then vague. I’m looking forward to some time out, to write, and to explore possibilities. And if I have a minor panic and start to wonder if I should instead have stuck to analysing data, there’s some great anarchist graffiti on a nearby building to remind me I’ve made the right choice.

Live Free or Die, Queenstown Road

Live Free or Die, Queenstown Road

Hilaire – Reborn

February 16, 2015

Hilaire:

I’m very pleased to have this poem published on The Stare’s Nest today. The poem is dedicated to Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet and translator with Asperger’s syndrome. In  2012, having already been held in detention without charge in the UK for 6 years, he was extradited to the US – without any prima facie evidence being provided to a British court – and held in solitary confinement in a supermax prison awaiting trial. I started writing to him in prison last year after I met his brother Hamja at a poetry event, where he read one of Talha’s extraordinary poems. Thankfully, Talha finally returned to the UK as a a free man last autumn, following a ‘time served’ sentence from the US judge, who in her judgement rejected much of the prosecution evidence and stated that Talha was not and never had been a threat. If you’re not familiar with his case, there is more here: http://freetalha.org/about/

Originally posted on The Stare's Nest:

Reborn

for Talha

‘I will experience what very few ever do in this world: life after death.’

Letter from Talha Ahsan, Northern Correctional Institution, Connecticut, 28 May 2014

To experience life after death

is to hold your face up to rain,

each drop soft-sharp, soul-piercing.

To breathe in air vibrant with fumes

and sweat and spice, the dancing particles

of adjacent lives.

To walk in unbounded space

along streets and lanes,

through parks, across commons.

To walk until your feet bleed

and your ears shimmer with every

newly-heard city sound.

To lie on a bench and feast

on London’s heavenly sky.

To sleep again on sheets

washed by maternal hands,

smoothed tight against nightmare.

In your own time tell

how it was

how it is

in your own words

in your own

good time.

Hilaire grew up in Melbourne but moved to London half a lifetime ago. She has had…

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February’s looking up

February 6, 2015

Poor old January. Too often a long dark month to get through. Now you’re behind us, and February’s here, the shortest month whose lengthening days speed us towards spring. So it snowed overnight on Monday, and the wind is Siberian, but there are snowdrops in the park, and buds on the magnolia trees.

This bright morning I walked down to Battersea High Street to check out Raynsford’s greengrocers, following a friend’s recommendation, and was not disappointed. Blood oranges, four for a pound. Blood oranges! Sunshine wrapped in citrus peel.

And this afternoon, for the first time since I fractured my right thumb, I ventured out on my bicycle. I’ve been itching to get cycling again, though my thumb’s not yet restored to full flexibility, and I’m still building up its strength. So this was a trial run, in the relative safety of Battersea Park. Four circuits, varying the pace, practising gear changes, making sure I could brake, battling headlong into that Siberian wind. How exhilarating it felt! But, being a cautious bod, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to tackle peak hour traffic, especially after dark. That will come. And beyond this, I’m hatching plans. Changes are afoot. February is definitely looking up.

Ch-ch-ch-cheers!

Ch-ch-ch-cheers!

a story about a novel

January 18, 2015

Once upon a time, I came across a collection of short stories titled Suck My Toes in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne. I bought it, for the title, and the cover, which featured a pair of Blundstone boots, my favourite footwear for many years. I’d never heard of the author, Fiona McGregor, and if you’re UK-based, chances are you’ve never heard of her either. I read the collection of interlinked stories and loved it. I loved the writing, the sensibility, the characters who were often between places or lovers or their own sense of self. And although as far as my Australian identity is concerned I’m very much a Melbournite, and McGregor most certainly is a Sydney-sider, I responded strongly to her descriptions of that city, to the smells and sounds and weather woven through the stories, so that Sydney became one of the shifting, restless, flawed characters that I couldn’t help becoming fond of.

I loved the book so much I read it twice. Several years later the now defunct lit mag PROP asked me to write a piece about a favourite short story collection. I wrote about Suck My Toes and sent a copy of the article to McGregor’s publisher in Australia. At some point I bought her first novel, Au Pair, which was published before the short story collection. I have less vivid memories of reading this, though the subject matter – a young woman escaping overseas to forge her own identity – is close to my heart; and now that I’m a signed-up Francophile, the novel’s Parisian setting surely means it deserves a second reading. But the point of this story is that ever since I first encountered Fiona McGregor’s writing, hers is the name I look for whenever I’m in a bookshop in Melbourne. And usually I am disappointed.

Jump to a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs one afternoon in early December. I’m in Melbourne on the briefest of visits and for the saddest of reasons, but as I half-heartedly scan the shelves I light upon Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor. Published in 2010 by Scribe, and with a glowing endorsement from Christos Tsiolkas on the cover; second-hand, a bit scuffed, but new to me. I hug it to myself. I buy it. I wait until I am back home in London and then one night in bed I start reading this big novel about 59 year-old Marie King, recently divorced, living in the family home on Sydney’s north shore and rapidly falling apart. A novel about family, loss, greed and self discovery, as Marie begins to transform herself through the ink and friendship of tattoo artist Rhys. The novel gets under my skin. I’m reading late into the night and I’m too involved to make notes, to jot down those glittering sentences that conjour up Sydney, the house, Marie’s beloved garden; the prolonged hot dry summer that is the backdrop to the novel, and one of the sub-themes – the environment, climate change, the marks we make on the world. There’s a good sprinkling of social satire throughout the novel as well, but also a sense that Marie and her adult children are grappling with some of the issues facing Australian society today. I can see why Tsiolkas is a fan. And I don’t want the novel to end even though I’m racing towards the last pages and I know there’s no happy ending. But the book lives on, in memory, as people do. And from the author note I learn that there is at least one more Fiona McGregor work for me to seek out.

The year is nearly out. Here are a few of my highlights of 2014.

Ravel Day on BBC Radio 3 Friday 7th March was dedicated to the music and life of Maurice Ravel. I marked the day on my calendar as soon as I heard about it. His 139th birthday, so not a traditional landmark anniversary. Nicely quirky. Like the man. On the day, we stayed in, Radio 3 on in the bedroom and living room, and streamed through the computer in the studio. I remember smiling a lot, feeling warm, charmed, uplifted. All the music he’d written played during the course of a single day – not prolific compared to many other composers, but what sparkling beauty and subtle variety. Interspersed with the music were contributions from Ravel experts and enthusiasts, and a delightful audio tour of Ravel’s small, eccentric house near Paris presented by Sara Mohr-Pietsch. There were pieces I know and love, such as Le Tombeau de Couperin, and discoveries such as the one act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges with a libretto by Colette. I can’t imagine ever tiring of listening to Ravel’s music.

Orpheus by Little Bulb Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre I’m not a big theatre-goer. But this was more than theatre. This was cabaret meets Hot Club jazz meets Greek tragedy on a rain-soaked Saturday night in May in the magnificent Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice transplanted to 1930s Paris, with Django Reinhardt and his infectious music centre stage. A multi-layered and inventive musical drama performed by a prodigiously talented and energetic cast. They sang, they played, they acrobatted, they mimed, they acted as stage hands. And when the show was over, they took their instruments and passion and gave a free gig in the Scratch Bar. Tremendous.

#readwomen2014 Joanna Walsh‘s Twitter initiative/campaign/consciousness-raising hashtag has been inspiring and thought-provoking. An attempt to redress the imbalance between the number of books written by women compared to the number of books by women that are read and reviewed, it has influenced my fiction choices in particular this year, and got me going on a bit of a Virginia Woolf jag (To the Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room, as well as Frances Spalding’s Virginia Woolf – Art, Life and Vision and Alexandra Harris’s 2011 Woolf biography), which in turn has prompted me to delve into Katherine Mansfield‘s stories. Of course, this issue doesn’t disappear at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I was excited to receive two novels by Marguerite Duras for Christmas, which I’ll be adding to my 2015 reading pile.

Discovering Rosemary Tonks At the end of October, we went to The Disappearing Poet at Kings Place, an event organised by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, exploring the poetry, lives and disappearances, a century apart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Rosemary Tonks. It was a stimulating evening, especially the contributions from very-much-present poets George Szirtes and Matthew Caley, but the real highlight was purchasing the new Bloodaxe publication of Tonks’s collected poems Bedouin of the London Evening. And then reading these flamboyant, rich and strange, brave, EXCITING poems. I love her arrogance, her swagger and contrary revelling in the rank, rotten and sordid. Poems steeped in the fogs and grime of London, and unafraid of the declamatory, the exclamation mark, that poetic gasp of O! Poems I want to carry about with me, dip into, reread, knowing they will continually surprise me.

London Undercurrents  This is the poetry project I’ve been working on with friend and fellow poet Joolz Sparkes for the last year and a half and a bit. It’s been my main writing focus for this period, and although we’ve individually tweeted about our collaboration, it’s only in the last few months that we’ve started to read some of the poems at open mics, as well as sending them out to magazines. We’ve had some very encouraging responses at readings, and were utterly thrilled to have four poems published in the latest South Bank Poetry magazine (issue 19). You can read more about our project on the blog we’ve set up here. In the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and starting to research ideas for more poems voiced by south London women. Roll on 2015!

poem for my right-hand man

December 21, 2014

bless your hands

for double-bowing my laces
as tenderly as a parent
on their child’s first day at school

bless your hands
for finding their feet with hooks
and zips; the ins and outs
of the wrap dress

for honey on my crumpet
and moreish chilli pasta
bookending fractured day

for keys slotted home
and the right CD in the player—
Tilbury ivory-precise over Feldman

bless your hands
for abandoning roll-ups,
for the flare of a match
relayed to wick instead

for framing your thoughts
in fluent gestures
for marking my words in your little red book

bless your hands most of all
for knitting themselves
seamlessly into mine

About a year ago, our local greengrocer closed temporarily for a radical refurbishment, including the addition of a flat over the shop. We resigned ourselves to several months of mildly-aggravating and bit-more-expensive fruit and vegetable shopping in the nearby supermarket, softened by the anticipation of when-Thurgoods-reopens, hoping it would be perhaps a little smarter but still a good and proper greengrocers. With the odd stray apostrophe. Scaffolding went up. A new storey went up. Months passed. Scaffolding came down. Metal shutters covered the shopfront. Estate agent sign appeared: Maisonette for sale. The maisonette sold. Every time we passed, the shutters were down. Only today, as I headed up Queenstown Road, I noticed a light, the shutters up, and this sad notice taped to the window:

Thurgoods

Thurgoods – Notice of Closure

 

So, farewell, Dave and family. There is so much I will miss. Already miss. Loose bunches of fresh spinach, that came with their roots still intact, mud on the leaves and the occasional small stone. The brief appearance of blood oranges early in the year that told me spring was on its way. The cheap bunches of daffs or scented narcissi – 3 for £2 – too good a deal to resist. In late May, bundles of English asparagus, tender spears perfect for roasting or adding to risotto. Then Cyprus potatoes caked in red earth, and the excitement of sighting the first Brussel sprouts of the season. Brown paper bags for mushrooms. Choosing one or two onions, a handful of carrots, just the amount we needed and no excess packaging. And Dave with his friendly welcome, and always remarking that we brought our own bags. A bit of chat about the weather, or football – they were Fulham through and through – while Dave weighed and packed and son Joe or Mrs Thurgood (ashamed to admit I never learnt her first name) rang it all up on the cash register. Have we kept a receipt? And no more Brussel sprout Christmas card slipped into our bag beside the pots and sprouts and parsnips in chill December. The shop is empty, newly painted. I rather dread what its new incarnation will be. Patisserie? Charcuterie? Designer-boutique-whateverie?

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.

 

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