half a dozen joys

It’s not been the easiest year, but here are a few things that have brought me joy:

Flickerbook by Leila Berg, published by CB editions. I have read quite a lot this year but this is the book that immediately comes to mind as my favourite. I loved it from the very first page. Berg’s autobiography is so sharp, vivid, funny and believable. It really gave me a sense of being inside the mind of a very young, very curious girl, growing up in the Jewish community in Manchester in the early 20th century. Truly a joy to read, even as the story gets darker as the rise of fascism and the Second World War overshadow her adolescence.

The Beatles’ song Blackbird performed by tenor Allan Clayton with the Aurora Orchestra. I’m not a big Beatles fan but when I heard this version on Radio 3 I was captivated. You can listen to it here. I could listen to it on repeat all day.

Mending my own clothes. Yes, I can sew on a button, maybe stitch a bit of a hem that’s come unstitched. This year I have tackled slightly more tricky repairs, inspired by Repair What You Wear, in an attempt to extend the wear of clothes I already own and love. I’ve darned a lot of holes in my jumpers, and restitched the seams on pair of gloves, which were coming apart where the thumb joins the main part of the glove. They’re not invisible repairs, I expect I’ll be re-darning some of those holes, but I find the process meditative and rewarding.

Gazing up at the sky. Or gazing out of the window at dawn, seeing the sky lighten and briefly smoulder as the sun rises. The sky over the River Thames. Clouds, sunsets, contrails. All this colourful changing drama for free. Never fails to lift my spirits. Well, okay, some days a sky of low brooding clouds mirrors my state of mind too closely, but mostly, yes, looking up at the sky is a tonic.

Yoga. A new departure for me, and one I probably wouldn’t have tried if not for the free community yoga sessions on my estate delivered by Live Karma Yoga in partnership with The Foundation LBT. I did a couple of sessions last year, but it’s really since the summer this year that I’ve been going regularly. For that hour on my mat, I’m focussed on breathing and following the yoga flow. I’m getting better at balancing on one leg (yay!), and have surprised myself with some of the positions I can achieve. But really it’s about the unconditional support I feel in the group, and focussing on my wellbeing for that one hour in the week.

I took in an orchid plant earlier this year and have kept it alive! Look at this beautiful spread of flowers. All I’ve done is soak it in water for half an hour once a week, and say a few encouraging words to it. I can’t see anymore buds coming through, so its glory days may be over, but it has brought me so much simple joy.

Wishing you and your loved ones brighter days in 2022.

Happy Wombat Day

Today is Wombat Day, a day to celebrate those wonderful marsupials found only in Australia.

The only time I remember seeing a wombat in the wild was as a child, on a slushy snowy mountainside, possibly Mt Buller, on a day trip with my family. It was probably the first time I’d seen snow too. The wombat was large, sturdy, and somehow mysterious. Despite its bulk, I seem to remember it vanished from sight almost as soon as we’d spotted it.

I have one wombat poem, which is currently out on submission to a magazine. If it doesn’t find its way into print before next year’s Wombat Day, I’ll publish it here.

I think we could all do with more wombat content in our lives, so here are couple of photos from Unsplash, a great site for free to use images. And on a more serious note, wombats, like many of Australia’s unique species, are under threat from habitat loss, disease and the effects of climate change. You can find out more from WIRES, Australia’s largest wildlife rescue organisation.

Wombat grazing in the Tasmanian wild!
Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash 
“Sleeping Wombat”. A young wombat enjoys a nap.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash 

January was my August

I’ve been thinking about that ‘back to school’ feeling that many on this side of the world associate with the end of August and the beginning of September. For me, as I grew up in Australia, January was the long summer school holidays and the new school year began in February. August was winter, and we had two weeks school holiday in September, as the days grew longer and signs of spring appeared.

It definitely feels like summer is ending here in England now. There’s a distinctly autumnal feel to the air, and a creeping sense of melancholy. In Australia, it’s still summer in February, when schools return, and I remember sweltering hot schooldays in February and even March. In primary school, the quarter pints of milk for morning playtime were left outside, in direct sun (according to my memory), which put me off milk for a long time. I think our mother asked the school to excuse my younger sister and me from this warm, souring, drink.

But back to January. I wrote a poem about this month, as part of a South Bank Poetry workshop I did several years ago, led by Katherine Lockton. The poem was published in Brittle Star issue 39, and I thought I would share it here.

Summer Hols

January was paddleboats,
mint choc chip in a stale cone,
sunburn dressed in cold black tea,
French cricket on the beach
and the mad zigzag dash
provoked by march flies.
January was salt and sand
and high hot winds delivering
a peppery frisson of bushfire smoke.
January was Back to School sales
in town. January was endless
like boredom. One long 
Sunday evening of
low-level dread.

elusive equilibrium

Yesterday was not a good day. The weather in my hometown Melbourne can be so changeable we say it has ‘four seasons in one day’. My mood is often like this too, but yesterday it was relentless cold drizzle with a major storm brewing. Anxiety that I could not shift until early evening when I gave myself a good talking to in my journal, pinpointing and writing down what was feeding these anxious feelings – some of which are in my control, such as obsessive checking of social media; and others which are not – other people’s behaviour, for example.

So I’m reminding myself of the things I know help to keep me grounded, such as writing first thing, before checking emails or social media; reading after lunch; reading when I can’t sleep; making lists; exercise. Earlier this year I attended some free Mindfulness and Writing sessions on Zoom, run by Adrienne Hannah and Bev Schofield. It was a wonderfully supportive and stimulating experience, and the mindfulness practices in particular I found really helpful at a time when I was feeling very stressed.

I also recently stood down as Chair of the committee that manages my local community garden, after three and a half years in the role. I’m still involved, as a committee member and regular volunteer, so it’s not a clean break, and for various reasons I don’t yet feel I’ve fully dumped that load. But it’s definitely lighter. I’m not though ready to write my tell-all memoir My Life as a Garden Chair – that one will have to wait for a while!

Of course, in the background – well, no, mostly in the foreground – are the ongoing pandemic and the incompetent (to put it mildly) management of that situation by the government; climate crisis hasn’t gone away; and this year, for me, several personal griefs. So it feels strange to experience highs alongside this – wrong, even – but they are there. So, if you’ll forgive me, here are a few good things that have happened for me recently. I hope there are some good things happening in your life too.

Wandsworth Poetry Week 2020 took place between 28th September and 2nd October. Every evening a reading and conversation with a different poet premiered on the Wandsworth Town Library Facebook page. On Wednesday, Joolz Sparkes and I read from and discussed our London Undercurrents collection. We had great fun recording our reading and chat with librarian Kate Halabura, and I think this comes across in the video. It was a fabulous series of events to be involved in – all the videos are on the library’s Facebook page and will be available on YouTube soon – do check them out.

Last year, I organised a last minute reading at a local café for National Poetry Day. This year, I emailed the Wandsworth Art team to suggest they feature some of Wandsworth’s poets on their new website, which celebrates arts and culture in the borough. Happily, they were up for that! I suggested some poets to include, and they added some more. You can read the feature here.

I was delighted that Emma Lee reviewed indoors looking out on her blog recently. I also had some lovely feedback from a friend:

Re-read your Indoors Looking Out collection. I really like the birds and animals – freer than us. Favourite decoration is ‘Middle distance, fog . . .’ Love it. Another favourite ‘day by day, more light . . .’, the line ‘human life alone kept on ice’. Glad to have it – thank you. – Sharon 

illustration and script by Stephen Graham

Lastly, I am every-cliché-for-delighted that my short story The Red Suitcase is going to be published later this month by Nightjar Press. I’ll write more about this shortly, so watch this space.

meet my teapot

May I introduce you to my teapot? I made this teapot when I was a teenager, still living at home in Melbourne. In fact, the date I inscribed on the bottom of the pot tells me it was on the eve of my 18th birthday that I crafted this rather lovely object.

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I have very vague memories of going to pottery evening classes with my younger sister. I don’t think I ever really got to grips with using the pottery wheel, but this project was different. Pieces of clay were cut out and presumably shaped around a mould. The inside is glazed and there are strainer holes where the spout is attached to the pot. Look at that cute lid! It seems miraculous to me now that I created this teapot. I had so little confidence then, especially in any physical or practical activity I undertook.

For a long time the teapot resided in my parents’ kitchen. At some point it travelled overseas and joined me in London. My best guess is that my brother, an expert packer, packed it for me to take in my hand luggage on one occasion when I was travelling back to London after a trip home. Then for another long time it sat on my kitchen bench, unused, apart from a period when Nick and I deposited spare change in it as a way of saving holiday money.

Then last year, concerned about microplastics in tea bags,  we switched from tea bags to loose leaf tea, and suddenly my teapot came into its own. We have a couple of individual tea infusers, as we’re not always in synch with our tea intake, but most mornings we start the day with a pot of tea. It’s so civilised.

teapot cropped

I wrap a couple of napkins around it as a makeshift tea cosy, though the pot seems to retain heat pretty well on its own. The little green jug, which I bought from a charity shop, holds our oat-based milk alternative. And then, with the radio tuned to BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, we’re set for a couple of cups of tea each in bed before we face the day.

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Cheers! Drinking tea in bed

doing nothing

I find this very difficult. To do nothing. Switch off. Be in the moment. I’d like to get better at it. It’s been a busy year, and mostly for wonderful reasons – visiting my family in Melbourne at the start of the year, then the excitement of launching and promoting London Undercurrents, the poetry collection Joolz Sparkes and I had been working on together for five years. And devising and running a poetry workshop on endangered species, reading, writing, and not doing my accounts. On the downside, not sleeping well, taking ages to recover from a virus, only to feel ill again a short time later. Maybe my body is trying to tell me something?

I was looking forward to a quiet August. But then my local community garden got funding from Wandsworth Council to run a programme of events for the community over the summer holidays – hurrah! The only catch being that we had a very short period to organise everything, promote the programme, deliver it – with a small team of volunteers. August has been busy. And stressful at times. Anyoldhow, I am trying to ease off, and to learn to do nothing once in a while.

And it just so happens, one of the “activities” on offer in the garden’s summer programme is a Do Nothing Club on Thursdays 4-7pm. Nick and I came up with this idea a while back, walking home one evening and discussing ways of trying to get more people to visit the garden. I recalled my first visits to the garden, bringing veg scraps for the compost, and not knowing what else to do, though I loved the place and the idea of a community garden. Nick talked about feeling uncomfortable sitting reading, for example, while others are working in the garden. How about promoting the idea of Doing Nothing, a time to simply enjoy being in the garden without any pressure (real or imagined) to do something. Of course, doing nothing as a valid and important pastime is not original. I spotted Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, in a bookshop window recently. I’m sure there’s a plethora of texts, theories and ancient wisdom on the topic. But sometimes personal experience is the best teacher.

So on the first Thursday of the Do Nothing Club, I headed over to the garden around 5pm. I took my journal with me. I sat in a favourite spot, on a bench in the herb maze, and the quiet, polite leader of the Club, none other than Nick, brought me a fresh mint tea, then left me in peace. I stretched my legs out, sipped mint tea, wrote an account of my day in my journal. Listened to the bird song – swifts, I think. Noticed a ball of string tucked between branches of the gorse bush. Left it there. Gazed at the weeds growing between paving stones. Left them alone. Spotted Nick picking blackberries. Decided that must be okay, since he’s the Leader. It was hard, doing nothing, but got easier. I felt the joy of being in that unruly beautiful urban space – simply being there. Practice makes perfect, I guess. I’m off there now, for the last session. And soon, a week away in rural France. Où je fais rien, peut-être.

Do Nothing relax

a month away, & looking ahead

It’s a week now since I got back from a month away in Australia, visiting family in Melbourne. I’m finally over the jet lag, and getting back into the swing of London life. I was very glad that Nick could come with me on this trip, my first “home” in nearly 3 years. It makes such a difference having a companion on the long plane journey, and while our time in Melbourne was pretty much full on family stuff, we had a few days away together, which was great.

I’d thought I might write a little while I was away, or revise some poems, but apart from writing my journal and a few postcards there was no time or head space for creative writing. Yes, it was summer and the weather mostly fantastic. But there were days when you could smell smoke from bushfires burning several hours’ drive from Melbourne, and official figures (reported in The Age on 2 February) showed the mean monthly temperature across Australia exceeded 30 degrees for the first time. This is not good news.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed eating al fresco: breakfast, lunch, dinner (though we suffered from mozzie bites). We imbibed rosé (me) and local pale ales (Nick). I was quickly addicted to the iced coffee and gelato at Il Melograno.

 

We went to a fascinating free tour at the State Library Victoria, focussed on archive material about the Kelly Gang that the library holds, including some of Ned Kelly’s armour and one of his boots. I remember years ago sitting in the circular domed reading room of this beautiful library, feeling like a fraud as I tried to write. I still haven’t completely shaken off that feeling.

At Heide Museum of Modern Art, we took in the Mirka Mora exhibition, an affectionate retrospective of an artist who had a long creative life, showcasing in particular her distinctive drawings and soft sculpture dolls. A life-affirming show!

 

Towards the end of our trip, we headed down to Port Fairy for a few days on the Shipwreck Coast. Highlights included walking to the lighthouse on Griffiths Island, a tranquil and other-worldly place, where we saw black wallabies up close. Shearwaters hatch their chicks in burrows in the sand here, so you have to stick to the designated paths. We also watched some of the Commonwealth Championship Sheep Dog Trials, which happened to be on at Gardens Oval in Port Fairy when we were there. I was surprised the dogs only had 3 sheep to herd, but then that seemed hard enough. I found it quite mesmerising, another rather other-worldly experience. And I swam in the sea every day. Very invigorating.

 

Although it took me longer to adjust to being back than I expected, and despite the toxic political climate in Britain at the moment, London is still the place I want to be. It feels like the beginning of the year to me, and I’m very excited that Joolz Sparkes’s and my poetry collection, London Undercurrents, is being published by Holland Park Press on 28th March. The day after Nick and I got back, I received advance copies of the book – it’s a real book, with a stunning cover, a spine, and more than 5 years’ worth of research and writing inside. WOOHOO!! We’ve had our first review, thanks to Emma Lee, and in a couple of weeks’ time we’re going to be reading from and talking about our collection at the London Book Fair no less!! The days are getting longer, my community garden thinks it’s already spring, so, yes, I’m grateful that there’s quite a bit for me to look forward to in the next few weeks and months.

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homecoming

 

breaking the dream drought

There was a long stretch when I didn’t seem to be dreaming. Certainly, I couldn’t remember any dreams when I woke in the morning. I can’t pinpoint when this began, but it bothered me.

There’d been a period, many years ago, when I’d kept a dream diary of sorts, but I’d fallen out of the habit. I’d still dreamt, but at some point in the last year or so the dreams seemed to have dried up. It didn’t feel right.

Then, in early September, we spent a week in rural France, visiting Nick’s dad. I ignored emails, and hardly looked at my phone. My holiday reading included Josephine Corcoran’s wonderful debut collection What Are You After? Some of her poems are directly framed as dreams in the title. Many more have a dreamlike quality, with richly strange detail, or the odd logic of dreams. I felt more keenly what I was missing.

And then – hallelujah! – I started dreaming again. It was so dark and so quiet at night and I slept like the proverbial log. And when I woke in the morning, I jotted down my dreams in my holiday notebook.

Since we’ve been back in London, I’ve allowed the emails, the phone, to encroach again. I don’t always sleep well. But I have a notebook by my bed and when I wake, if there are dream fragments still floating around in my head, I scribble them down. I can’t prove it, but it feels like recording my dreams helps me to remember more of them. I don’t know if I’ll turn any of these into poems or stories, but I feel a little more anchored, somehow, knowing my subconscious is whirring away while I sleep. And how delightful to wake this morning and recall I dreamt about kittens last night:

a rambling friendly house  summer feel  long grass  wooden verandah
kittens – tabby, & one that was black with a leopard pattern in its fur – so silky – trying to catch them & bring them inside

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Poetry and dream diary

busy elsewhere

Three months to the day since my last blog post! What on earth have I been doing?

My biggest news, in case you missed it, is that fellow poet Joolz Sparkes and I have been awarded Arts Council research & development funding for our London Undercurrents project. This has been my main focus since September, and will be for the next few months, so this is where most of my blogging and writing energy is going. Do check out our blog for regular updates, and we’re also on Twitter: @L_Undercurrent

garden chair cropEarlier this year I took on the role of Chair at my local community garden. I’m learning a lot, not necessarily about gardening (though it’s funny how some of my fellow volunteer gardeners suddenly look to me as though I’m an expert), and it’s an ongoing struggle to balance the admin and organising with the core purpose of the garden – which is to promote the use and enjoyment of a beautiful green space to the community.

Perhaps one day, there’ll be a tell-all memoir My Life as a Garden Chair.

I’ve also been busy stitching an A3 size panel as part of a community art project devised by Richard Grayson for Matt’s Gallery. I saw a call out for participants earlier in the year, and as the workshops were being held locally and no previous experience was required I thought I’d give it a go. There are 42 separate panels, designed and stitched by individuals from different backgrounds and with a range of stitching or textile experience (zilch, in my case), and together they will make up the phrase BOREDOM IS ALWAYS COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY. That’s a quote from a text by Guy Debord, and is one of the factors that attracted me to the project. I was pleased to find that I’d randomly been given the letter A to design and stitch, given that I was a complete beginner. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process and, having stitched my last stitch just a few days ago, I feel a great sense of Achievement. The full phrase will be exhibited locally early in 2018.

Then there was the (paid) role I applied for but didn’t get… though I came close, having jumped through quite a few hoops, or over a few hurdles… but I think I’ve got enough in my plate for the time being.

proud stitcher - finished