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

 

 

 

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.