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

 

 

 

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notes towards a blog post

notes for blog post

scatterbrain I’m not feeling very focussed at the moment.

ARTEMISpoetry Hurrah! I have a poem accepted for the next issue of ARTEMISpoetry, due out in May.

Re-Mixed borders e-pamphlet It seems a long time ago that I was poet-in-residence at Thrive in Battersea Park for Open Gardens Weekend 2016. Now The Poetry School has published an online pamphlet with contributions from poets who took part in last year’s Mixed Borders scheme. You can view the pamphlet here. It’s well worth a wander through this virtual poetry garden, or you can skip straight to my patch on pages 54-56.

Orbis joint second/third readers’ prize Woohoo! My poem Apology, published in Orbis issue 176, was voted 2nd or 3rd (the email was a bit unclear) in the Readers’Award for that issue. A small but welcome cash prize, and a lovely glow of appreciation. Each issue of Orbis features readers’ comments on poems from the previous issue they’ve voted for and it’s interesting to read the different interpretations people bring to a poem.

Dangerous Women This was a brilliant year-long project from the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. They posed the question: ‘what does it mean to be a dangerous woman?’ and then posted different responses every day, from International Women’s Day 2016 until IWD 2017. I wrote a piece about Unica Zürn, the German surrealist artist and writer, whose work and life have fascinated me for a long time. I was delighted to be involved in this project and all of the contributions will remain on line for at least a year.

Thrive Chelsea Fringe I’m very pleased that Thrive have invited me to take part in their week of events for the Chelsea Fringe Festival, running from 20th to 26th May. I’m hoping to write some new poems and plan to give a short reading in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park on Friday 26th May. I’ll post more details once our plans start to take shape.

gardening & admin I find it tricky sometimes balancing the different pulls on my time (many of which are ones I’ve signed up to and feel committed to). I get a lot of joy spending time in my local community garden, helping maintain it and seeing it flourish. This time of year is exciting, noticing changes every time I go up to the garden. The admin side of things is harder graft, a necessary toil, but the outcomes are often less immediately tangible. Lots of parallels with writing (when it’s going well and you’re ‘in the zone’) and the chores of submitting work and putting oneself out there.

morning is sacred My new mantra. Basically, don’t check emails, social media etc. first thing. Sit at my desk and write or do some writing related activity (such as making notes towards a blog post…). Also known as writing first. Easy to say, harder to put into practice. But I’m practising.

Instagram & Pinterest I’ve recently diversified my potential sources of anxiety and distraction by becoming active on Instagram and Pinterest. I’ve been on Pinterest for a while actually, but prompted by the Dangerous Women project I started pinning images of or about amazing women who have inspired and influenced me. Scrolling through that board makes me smile and reminds me there is hope. So far I have found Instagram fun and not too time consuming.

Which brings me back to scatterbrain. I wonder why I’m not feeling very focussed at the moment?

both ordinary and extraordinary

I went to a talk recently, organised by the Battersea Society, about an unlikely pair of spinster sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who helped at least 29 Jewish people escape Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The invited speaker was Louise Carpenter. She’d researched the sisters for a potential biography but eventually realised there wasn’t enough verifiable material to justify a full length book. She did though write a long article for Granta about the sisters. Carpenter described the sisters as both ordinary and extraordinary, which helps explain why they and their story are so fascinating. What they did to help refugees flee persecution is also profoundly relevant today.

Born in Sunderland in the 1900s, the sisters lived most of their life in Battersea in the family home. According to Carpenter it was an almost Calvanistic household and their upbringing, while Christian, was ‛emotionally austere’. There was no music at home. The sisters had an incredibly close bond, and when Ida much later wrote a memoir it was almost entirely written in the first person plural – we. They followed their father into the civil service, working in clerical and typist roles.

Their first extraordinary moment seems to have been when, in their early 20s, they attended a lecture and heard an aria from Madam Butterfly. The world of music, and opera in particular, opened up to them. They saved up and bought a gramophone, bringing music into the family home as they collected opera records. They started attending live opera, queueing for hours for cheap seats, which was all they could afford on their small civil service salaries. Carpenter spoke of the sisters developing ‘celebrity crushes’ on certain opera stars. In 1924, they hatched a plan to travel to New York to hear a singer whose voice they loved perform. After two years’ scrimping and saving they had sufficient funds to book third class berths on a boat to New York, taking with them gowns and capes for the opera that they had sewn themselves. This adventure must have emboldened them, proving what they were capable of achieving if they put their minds to it. If they could travel to New York to attend the opera, why not the continent?

Jump forward to the 1930s and the Cook sisters were frequent visitors to European opera houses and welcomed into opera circles. Ida had started writing short pieces for a fashion magazine and subsequently found her literary calling as one of Mills & Boon’s most popular authors. Through opera friends, the sisters gradually realised the increasing danger faced by Jewish people under the Nazi regime. At this point Jews were allowed to leave Germany but without taking any money or possessions with them. They also faced obstacles trying to find a country that would accept them. Britain, like many countries, required sponsors and financial guarantees. Having helped the daughter of opera friends settle in Britain, the Cook sisters could not turn their backs on other cases that came to their attention. Their continental opera jaunts became a cover for smuggling out jewellery and other valuables that would provide financial security.

Carpenter recounted how the sisters would travel down to Croydon airport on a Friday evening (Louise taking leave for the Saturday; Ida had left the civil service as she was now earning much more from her romantic novels), fly to Cologne and then catch an overnight train to Frankfurt. They would spend the weekend meeting potential cases through an agent and collecting the valuables they were to smuggle out; as well as, of course, attending the opera in the evening. They arrived in dowdy clothing wearing no jewellery, and brought with them labels from British fashion houses to sew into the designer clothes and fur coats they returned to England in – travelling back by train and overnight ferry so as to leave by a different port and minimise the risk of arousing suspicion. Much of their spare time was taken up with organising sponsors and gathering small donations and subscriptions that together would cover one refugee’s financial guarantee. They ploughed most of Ida’s Mills & Boon earnings into their efforts to help individuals escape.

In her memoir We Followed Our Stars (now republished as Safe Passage) Ida reflected:

Until you refuse to recognise defeat, you never learn how much an individual can do.

People sometimes said to us, “But what an extraordinary idea! What do you think private people can do? This is a matter for governments and international committees.”

We always replied, “We will go on until something completely stops us. Why not?”

That something was the outbreak of the Second World War. By then, they had helped at least 29 Jewish people flee Nazi Germany. They never felt fear, Carpenter said, going on to explain that she meant they felt no fear towards the people they were helping. Just as today people (even Presidents of so-called freedom loving countries) are fearful of those seeking refuge from the most desperate circumstances, in the 1930s Jewish refugees were often viewed with suspicion, resentment and outright hostility.

Yesterday, I was amazed to see a story about the Cook sisters featured on the BBC news website, originating from the Tyne and Wear region. On Friday, Holocaust Memorial Day, Sunderland Council unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Ida and Louise Cook at the entrance to their childhood home. Plans for a similar plaque outside their Battersea home have apparently fallen through. I’m happy though for Sunderland to share the story of two ordinary sisters who did some pretty extraordinary work. It’s a story that can’t be shared enough.

 

 

before dawn

pre-dawn

I woke before dawn and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I got up, made myself a cup of tea and sat on the window ledge in the studio with a blank sheet of paper and my pen. I wrote whatever came into my mind – which was mostly those things which were already in my mind and stopping me from falling back to sleep. This was my view, and I gazed at it for a while and felt quite peaceful. The bare tree looks like it’s strung with Christmas lights, but the glowing red and white spots are safety lights on cranes on the Battersea Power Station development site. It’s never truly dark here nor totally quiet. A bird sang. I could hear traffic on Battersea Park Road. A few more lights went on in the building opposite. There was a sense of the day beginning; a handful of people heading out into the still dark morning. Nearly time for my day to start too. Luckily, I had nothing too onerous to do today; no schedule but my own. So no need, then, to feel guilty about a second cup of tea, in bed, next to my sweetheart.

autumn makeover

Don’t panic!* I’ve finally bitten the bullet  and revamped the look of my blog. It’s been on my mental ‘to do’ list for ages. My top ‘want’ was a larger and more readable font. I’ve gone for a similar layout and taken the opportunity to change the header image – something I may do more regularly now. I’ve also added a search option and changed the blog post archive to a neater drop down list. I’ll probably make a few more tweaks over the next week or so. If you notice anything missing or links that don’t work and so on do let me know.

*Instruction to self. Panic over.

chaps

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.

teddy

rhythm and balance

or balance and rhythm. Two key elements in any good piece of writing. And thinking about time, how I use it, how to structure it, I realise this is what I’m aiming for: rhythm and balance. I’m resistant to timetables. The word ‘routine’ gives me the horrors. But balance and rhythm — yes, these feel like useful concepts; words I’m comfortable with, that I’m happy to latch onto.

So, in pursuit of rhythm and balance, I’ve come up with a few none-too-original maxims and techniques.

writing first
I made this my mantra when I took a sabbatical several years ago, and I’ve come back to it. It means not looking at emails first thing. It means get up, have a shower, get dressed, make breakfast to eat at my desk and start scratching words onto a blank page. Or pick up that story or poem where I left off yesterday and keep writing. Don’t allow the world in yet. Two, three mugs of coffee. Write.

coffee break reading
A perpetual angst — the piles of unread books and magazines. But now I have my trendy ceramic pour over filter cone, the process of making a coffee takes around five minutes. It has its own rhythm. While I’m doing the rinse-bloom-pour over performance, I’ve time to read a poem or two, an article or a review. I’m nearly on track to finish the winter edition of Mslexia before the spring issue arrives.

part week planner
I developed this when Nick and I had overlapping work patterns. And our week still divides somehow into two parts: Saturday to Monday; Tuesday to Friday. Another rhythm. I write the days in French because — alors, pourquoi pas? The ‘ongoing’ section gets carried over to the next part week planner. We tick things off. We add things in. The part week planner does not replace lists — oh no, we have numerous lists! I think its main benefits are the at-a-glance view of the next few days, and the reflective moments as I draw up the next part week planner.

P1050398
my non-patented part week planner

he naps, I read
I haven’t quite cracked this one yet. Nick has definitely cracked the first part. An afternoon nap has been part of the rhythm of his (non-work) days for many years. I feel woozy and headachy if I lie down during the day. On the other hand I do often experience an afternoon slump — nothing to do with the three or four coffees I’ve drunk in the morning, of course. So I thought sitting quietly and reading for an hour or so after lunch might help balance out the seesawing mood, as well as gradually whittling down one of the piles of unread books. I’ve managed it a few times and it is pleasurable and satisfying to read, for example, a short poetry pamphlet in one sitting. Those emails can wait. Yes, really, they can wait.

 

pale green fingers

Gardens and gardening have been a bit of a them this year. There was the Poetry School’s Mixed Borders scheme, which didn’t quite work out for me, and my continuing involvement with my local community roof garden. That involvement always felt rather timid and tentative to me, all tied up with my own insecurities and lack of confidence around the nitty-gritty of actual gardening.

So when Louisa, the tireless chair of our community roof garden, asked if I’d help organise a gardening club, the aim of which was to encourage people just like me – hankering to garden but not knowing where to start – to learn a few basic skills in a supportive environment – well, I could hardly say no. With funding from Wandsworth council, the Doddington and Rollo Community Roof Garden partnered with Thrive to offer 10 free weekly sessions on Wednesday afternoons for local people keen to learn about gardening. Thrive provided a horticultural therapist to be our gardening expert, and we recruited 14 enthusiastic wannabe-gardeners for our inaugural Gardening Club. Count me in!

We started in mid October and continued right up until this week. Most of our sessions have been out in the garden, getting stuck in with weeding, pruning, cutting back and some mammoth bulb-planting sessions, thanks to a generous donation of bulbs from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association as part of their Bulbs for London scheme. Marc, our Thrive horticulturalist, has imparted lots of useful knowledge and tips, and given us a broad overview of plant life cycles and soil types. All delivered with a dry wit.

these boots are made for gardening
these boots are made for gardening

I’ve overcome, to a certain extent, my squeamishness about getting my hands dirty (gardening gloves, provided by the roof garden, help!) and encountering worms and other creepie-crawlies – not the eight-legged kind, mind, but Marc’s with me on that one. I’ve just about got the hang of annuals, biennials and perennials, and I know the difference between a rhizome and a stolon. Marc’s mnemonic: stolons stay up, rhizomes don’t. Most importantly, I’ve got my gardening outfit sorted: a pair of old cycling leggings, black cycle top, two hooded jackets and that pair of purple wellies I bought years ago and have hardly worn since – until now.

The Gardening Club has been the best sort of hard work and a lot of fun. Thanks to Marc at Thrive, fellow garden committee members Donna and Hadas, not to mention Louisa, and especially the great bunch of Gardening Club recruits who’ve pitched in and helped transform a large section of the garden. Roll on, spring! By then, I hope to have written a new poem, provisionally titled ‘Things My Horticulturalist Says.’

this rose

rose

This rose knows nothing about Paris, Raqqa, global pain.

This rose is silent. It is a wordless song of colour and perfume.

This rose is not aware of climate change. It blooms when it is ready. Mid November – why not?

This rose grows on a rooftop in Battersea. When the garden is shut it continues its rose-existence. It does not miss me.

When I lean in to sniff its rain-fresh scent, does it sense me?

When I say hello, does it hear me?

Does it know it is a balm for my atheist soul?

 

 

immigrant is not a dirty word

I am an immigrant. Have you heard of this campaign? Have you seen the posters? What an urgent and vital voice it seems at the moment.

I am an immigrant too. I was born and grew up in Australia. I lived in Melbourne until my early twenties when I decided to move to London. My father was Scottish, which means I have dual Australian and British nationality. An accident of birth.

My story is not extraordinary. I wasn’t fleeing persecution or civil war. All I had to do was obtain my British passport and purchase a one-way ticket to London. My reasons for migrating weren’t economic, but personal and probably a bit mixed up. I arrived in London at a time of high unemployment. Ironically, one of my first jobs was working in an Unemployment Benefit Office. I remember the long queues on signing on days, and the antiquated ticker-tape computer, which was operated by a rather fierce woman, feeding the tape into the machine to send data to Reading. Happy days.

I am acutely aware of my privilege/luck/good fortune/luxury—to have the choice of two countries to reside in—both relatively stable and with all the first-world trappings we take for granted. I’ve been able to fashion my life broadly as I’ve wanted, and my struggles are mostly around writing and seeking some kind of creative fulfilment (whatever that might mean).

Yet on our doorstep, desperate people risk their lives to escape deeply desperate situations. There is an issue around language, here, and it matters at some level I think. In many of the reports I’ve read about Calais, and the boats sinking off the coast of Libya, and the abandoned lorry in Austria, the tragic victims are referred to as “migrants”. The word “refugee” seems to have gone missing. To my mind, the word “migrant” diminishes or disguises the extreme plight which such people are fleeing. A few other terms worth rehabilitating would be “humanity” and “compassion”.

We’re full of awe for nature’s epic migrations. Why do we find it so hard to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, similar tenacity and spirit in our own species?