2016 reading analysis

Nick and I often discuss what we’re reading and I’ll usually mention when I’ve finished a book. Recently I realised that he’s been keeping a note of what we’ve read and the date each book was finished for several years (those innocent queries: When did you finish it? What’s the name of the publisher?). As I’m often fretting about whether I read enough and whether I’m reading widely enough, I thought it would be interesting to carry out a data analysis exercise based on all the books I’ve read this year. Stick with me! This will be fun!

Headline statistic: I’ve read (finished) 53 books this year. I don’t need a formula to work out that’s roughly one book a week. Or exactly one book a week if 2016 is regarded as a 53 week accounting year (as it is in some contexts, being a leap year). I better define ‘books’ I guess. It includes pamphlets and chapbooks (poetry and short stories) and one poetry map. Overall, I’m quite pleased with that grand total: 53.

Now, let’s break that total figure down a bit.

categories

A good mix of fiction and poetry, but perhaps I need to broaden my reading out to include more non fiction. I’m a little surprised at this, but maybe I’ve read less research-type material this year.

Now, the biggie. How did I do on gender balance?

gender
1 – Female; 2 – Both Female & Male; 3 – Male

59% of books I read were by female authors, and 9% by a mix of female and male authors (e.g. anthologies). I’m pretty happy with this. Interestingly, when I look at a breakdown by category, on the poetry side the gender mix is closer than fiction, where I’ve read a lot more by female authors.

category-by-gender

The next area to consider is how diverse my reading is in terms of ethnicity.

ethnicity
BAME – Black and Minority Ethnic;  Mixed – mix of BAME & W authors;  W- White

So, this is definitely an area I could improve on. When I break this down by category, I can see I’ve done a little better with poetry – 4 out of the 20 poetry books were by BAME authors, but on the fiction side only 3 of the 28 were. I’m missing out! Here’s my reading challenge for 2017 then: read more books by authors from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

I also looked at how many of the books I’d read were translations, as this is another concern that’s been floating around – that we native English speakers read so little work in translation. Nine of the 53 books were translations – all of them fiction, making up around 32% of my fiction reading. That’s a lot better than the 7% of UK fiction sales that are translations according to a recent Guardian article. I’ll give myself a gold star for that – or une étoile d’or, since most were translations from French.

And the final fascinating statistic I’m going to hit you with is that 13% of the books I read in 2016 were library books. I could probably – certainly – increase that next year. I’m trying to borrow more books for a number of reasons – to save money, to save space, and not least to support libraries, which are amazing and vital resources.

Many thanks to Nick for diligently gathering the raw data that made this reading analysis possible. Here’s the analogue device in which he’s been recording the data:

reading-notebook
original data source

Wishing you all a very happy and fulfilling 2017!

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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.

hip hip

Two of my poems appeared in print this week, a lovely boost as I’m in a bit of a writing lull at the moment.

One poem is published in Brittle Star issue 39. I really like the mix of poetry, short fiction and articles in Brittle Star, and the magazine is nicely compact and handsomely produced. The new issue was launched at the Barbican Library on Wednesday evening. We missed the start due to various tube disruptions, but enjoyed readings by Michael Farry (over from Ireland), Jayne Marshall (who’d flown in from Madrid and beguiled us with her story Wxndering), South Bank Poetry founder Peter Ebsworth, Oxford-based Rachel Thanassoulis, Sarah Marina (published for the first time but surely not the last) and Kaye Lee, who nearly made me cry with a poem based on her experience of working in a nursing home. My poem, Summer Hols, originated in a South Bank Poetry workshop earlier this year, led by Katherine Lockton. In fact, it’s the second poem to come out of her workshop that I’ve had published – the first, Apology, appeared in Orbis no. 176.

The other poem to make it into print this week, In the hairdresser’s chair, was commended in the Second Light Poetry Competition and subsequently published in ARTEMISpoetry issue 17. I’m really chuffed about this. The competition was judged by Alison Brackenbury, whose work I admire very much. ARTEMISpoetry is the substantial bi-annual journal from  Second Light Network, which promotes and supports women poets aged 40 and over. If you fit that wonderful bill (a woman, a poet, aged 40 or over) you should seriously consider joining the network.

Interestingly, In the hairdresser’s chair started life in the first poetry course I did back at the beginning of 2015, ‘Poetry of the Body’ tutored by Pascale Petit at Tate Modern. At the last session, Pascale brought along a true or non-reversing mirror. We each had a go sitting in front of the true mirror (seeing yourself as you appear to others) before writing a self-portrait poem focused on the face. Staring into that mirror was an extremely uncomfortable experience for me and tapped into some very deep emotions, so I’m glad I was able eventually to fashion a strong poem from it. Shifting the writing into the third person helped!

writing ‘not yet Eden’

not yet Eden is the title of the poem I wrote for Lucy Cash’s film A Song for Nine Elms. I explained how I got involved in Lucy’s film in my last blog post. Lucy had asked me if I could write something that was, loosely, from the roof garden’s point of view. I wanted to try, but I was conscious that, having just written a bunch of garden-themed poems for my Thrive residency, I needed to approach this poem in a different way.

I’d flirted with form a little with the Thrive poems, writing two acrostic poems. The second of these turned out to be a brute, so when I finally nailed it just in time for the Open Garden Squares Weekend, the satisfaction was tremendous.

I’m still averse (ahem) to strict rhyme/meter forms in my own writing, but I wondered whether some form or constraint might help me with this poem. I started making notes, thinking about the ideas Lucy and I had discussed – about resilience, and gesture, and the traces left in the garden by visitors, human and otherwise. And not any old garden – this would be a poem centred in, and arising from, the Doddington and Rollo Community Roof Garden.

A special place, with a long name. What if I wrote the poem using words containing only letters from the garden’s name? I listed out the individual letters – ten consonants, including y, and all the vowels. Not the tightest Oulipian restriction, but it got me started, jotting down words and putting together some short phrases. It forced more to be more inventive, now that certain useful or favourite words were unavailable. No h, so no the or then. No s, so no so and not many plurals. No quite or moist or how or when. And yet, I had fruit and ragged unity. I had feral cat commotion. I had gift and, of course, community. Food and rootle and microclimate. I had, after a week, a poem that I hope conveys something of the beauty and necessity of this garden, its not-quite-anarchic, not-yet-Eden quality, as it quietly gets on with ‘growing community & a garden’ in the heart of Battersea.

not-yet-eden-notes
beginnings of a poem

reflecting on A Song for Nine Elms

We had a busy Saturday in the Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden recently. A shared harvest lunch, followed by an inspiring and practical workshop, Growing Edible Plants in the City, led by Sue Sheehan of Incredible Edible. And then, in the community centre downstairs, the first screening of the film A Song for Nine Elms, made by artist Lucy Cash with involvement from the local community – including me. I wrote a poem for the project, and appear in the film reading the poem as I sit in the polytunnel in the roof garden.

I want to write here about my experience of working on this project and some thoughts about the film after that first screening. I’ll write a separate blog post about the actual process of writing the poem for the film.

I first heard about the project, under the title Nine Songs for Nine Elms, when Lucy Cash, and Anna Ramsay from UP Projects, visited the roof garden last winter to meet the Wednesday gardening group and tell us about the project. It’s funded by Berkeley Homes, one of the big developers in the Nine Elms area, with UP Projects curating the commission in partnership with Wandsworth Council and the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership’s Cultivate programme. I was immediately sceptical. I’m very ambivalent about much of the development happening on my doorstep, and its impact on the local community.

Lucy talked a bit about her ideas for the commission – to create a song cycle for Nine Elms, which would also be a film – and that she wanted to involve local people and incorporate their stories and memories of the area. I wasn’t forthcoming. I wanted to get on with gardening and, frankly, I felt distrustful. Who are these people? Why are they trespassing on my territory?

Over the following weeks, Lucy occasionally dropped by the garden, offering to help and also introducing us to the composer Fraya Thomsen who would be writing the music for the song cycle. Aside from my caution about the corporate funding, I couldn’t really grasp what the ‘end product’ of the project might look like. I remained guarded, though I warmed towards Lucy and Fraya, who showed a genuine appreciation of the roof garden and its place and role on the estate.

Then one cold Wednesday afternoon in spring, there were just two of us in the garden when Lucy and Fraya called by. We chatted and I opened up a bit about my reservations, which Lucy understood, and then I completely let my guard down and fessed up to being a writer. My fellow gardener Enid expressed similar sentiments, while revealing that her talents include acting and singing. Lucy wanted to work with both of us, and Enid is the narrator on the film, her mellow voice linking the different sections together. And here’s a story – Enid and I have lived in the same block for many years but only got to know each other last year through our involvement with the roof garden.

I was busy for the next couple of months with my residency at Thrive in Battersea Park, but I met up with Lucy and Fraya a couple of times to discuss how the project was evolving and what my input might be. We agreed that I would aim to write a poem from the point of view of the garden (approximately!). By early July, I had a poem, and we spent an afternoon filming in the garden. I was rather nervous but tried to focus on reading the poem well and not rushing. After three takes, Lucy was happy, and we moved on to the most fun part for me. One of Lucy’s ideas for the film was to include shots of people posing as Charlotte Despard in different locations – standing with the left arm bent and resting on the hip, and the right arm raised and fist clenched, echoing the striking photo of Charlotte Despard, in her nineties, addressing an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square. I donned the long black skirt Lucy had brought along, clambered onto a low brick structure and struck the pose. How fierce I felt!

Cut now to the Doddington & Rollo Community Centre and the premiere of A Song for Nine Elms. The nerves were back – would I die of embarrassment? – but also excitement and curiosity. Other locals who’d participated, including children from one of the primary schools, and volunteers and friends of the garden, were also in the audience. The film did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece, with the garden at its centre. It honours the history of the area, starting with its pre-industrial era, when an orchard flourished on the site  now occupied by New Covent Garden Market; embraces Battersea’s radical heritage, perhaps best exemplified by Charlotte Despard (who I’ve written a London Undercurrents poem about); and reflects some of the concerns felt by local residents about the rapid changes taking place in the area – as well as our sense of connection to this place. One of the songs features Battersea’s motto ‘Not for me, not for you, but for us’, and the film ends with a quiet manifesto sung by local children. I’m so glad now that I got involved. And thankfully, I didn’t die of embarrassment.

The film is showing at StudioRCA Riverlight on Nine Elms Lane from 2nd to 9th November between 12 noon and 5pm. If you’re in the area, do drop in. More details here.

overdue debut

Last Saturday I braved the downpour and headed up to Kings Cross for a special evening at SLAM – the launch of four Green Bottle Press pamphlets. I’ll declare my bias at the outset.*  I was there for one poet – Claire Booker – and this post is mostly about her pamphlet Later there will be Postcards. Overall, it was a lovely event in a great venue. Green Bottle Press publisher Jennifer Grigg introduced the evening and read three poems from Radish Legs, Duck Feet by Sayuri Ayers, who lives across the pond, so wasn’t able to make the launch. The two other pamphlets launched that evening were Life Room by Ivonne Piper, reading in front of an audience for the very first time; and Teaching a Bird to Sing by Tracey Rhys, tough and touching poems arising from her son’s diagnosis of autism. Four very different voices, from an adventurous new press.

But back to the star attraction of the evening, as far as I was concerned. I’ve known Claire for several years, having met her at Loose Muse when I first got back into writing and performing poetry. Claire’s poetry is often wickedly funny but she can equally write biting satirical poems (not easy to carry off, but Claire manages it with flair) and subtly powerful poems of loss and anguish. Claire is also a generous supporter of other poets, and encouraged me to join the Clapham Stanza group, the Original Poets, which I’ve found very beneficial. So it was great to see lots of support for Claire at the launch – my London Undercurrents buddy Joolz Sparkes, Agnes Meadows from Loose Muse, some Clapham Stanza stalwarts, and faces from Beyond Words, which Claire also regularly attends. After the readings, there was a rush to buy her pamphlet and we formed a disorderly queue at Claire’s table to get our copies signed.

This week I’ve been reading her pamphlet and finding new layers and resonances in poems I thought I already knew, as well as savouring poems that are new to me. Though many of the poems deal with aspects of grief or a loss of some kind – parents, a fading or changed love, childhood – they are never maudlin. Claire’s interest in visual art feeds into her poetry, and her poems are rich in telling  details and striking colour and imagery. Dreams provide surreal and dark material, as evidenced by the opening poem The Night Mare. There are no ‘filler’ poems here; this is a substantial pamphlet, the work of a mature poet, who knows when to wield her wit and when to let the gaps – the unsaid – say it all. A long overdue debut. Congratulations, Claire!

*I think this is known as ‘Full Disclosure’, which sounds like the title of a Claire Booker poem.

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.

strung

On Wednesday afternoon I witnessed a thought-provoking performance, strung. It took place in the grounds of Bethlem Royal Hospital, and tied in with the opening of the Bethlem Gallery‘s Reclaiming Asylum exhibition.

strung was devised by artists Jane Fradgley and Shane Waltener and performed by dancer Laura Glaser and sound artist Zoë Gilmour. A video iteration of strung is showing in the gallery, created with the videographer Antonia Attwood. One element, then, of strung is collaboration.

Another element is the magnificent cedar tree, site and heart of the performance. The Reclaiming Asylum brochure refers to it as a ‘Lebanese cedar tree.’ I’m not an expert, but having checked my RHS Encylopedia of Plants and Flowers, I’m inclined to think it’s a Blue Atlas cedar, with its silvery smoky blue foliage.

The sound element of the piece was provided by Zoë Gilmour. Beneath the wide skirts of the cedar tree, to one side of the trunk, she’d set up with her cello, a small amp, some effects pedals, microphone and minimal percussion. For the two hours of the performance she created a subtle slowly changing soundtrack of looped cello phrases and percussive sounds. Plucking, strumming, brushing her bow on the cello strings; shaking a rattle; whispering into the microphone. Sometimes the sounds carried and sometimes they didn’t. Wind blew through the tree, dislodging clouds of fine dust. Traffic passed on the nearby hospital road. Under the tree Zoë responded to the movements of the dancer or was it the other way round? How much was improvised, thought out on the go, and how much choreographed and mapped out beforehand?

On the other side of the tree trunk dancer Laura Glaser – dressed in white trousers, white plimsolls, white long-sleeved top and wearing her long straight brown hair loose – moved back and forth between the lower branches, weaving a net with red twine. Her hands made small quick skilful movements, tugging, knotting, testing and stretching the twine. She seemed purposeful, focussed. I walked around the circumference of the tree, glimpsing the performers between the spreading branches. The tree gave off a spicy scent. And then unexpectedly (to me, anyway), Laura climbed through an opening in her woven net and began clambering over it. These were slower, tentative whole body movements as she navigated and extended the net structure. Rolling, grasping, tumbling into the cocoons and hammocks of the red twine web. Stretching and contorting herself, like a cat exploring and inhabiting a confined space. Lying along one of the branches. Climbing higher and continuing to unravel the twine and twist and knot triangular pockets between trunk and branches. As Laura tested and stepped from one spot to another the lower branches rippled like the hem of a flamenco dancer’s dress and the tree released another waft of dusty spicy scent. The cedar is also a performer.

The afternoon was warm and sunny; the eve of the autumn equinox. People lingered, soaking up the golden light and immersing themselves in the unfolding performance. We wandered through the hospital grounds for a bit, holding our thoughts, as far as the small orchard where apples lay quietly rotting in the long grass. Heading back towards the performance, I could hear the mellow tones of the cello carried by the wind. I liked the correspondence of the plucked cello strings with the rhythmic weaving. The dancer’s agility and fragility. I thought about trust – as a performer, trusting the twine, trusting her skill, trusting the tree will hold her. Tree climbing as emblematic of childhood freedom; innocence. The woven structure reminding me of cat’s cradles and also a safety net. We stood and watched the end of the performance, as Laura climbed down through the net one last time and walked out from the sheltering reach of the cedar tree. Something quite beautiful and moving happened that afternoon.

The video version of strung is showing at the Bethlem Gallery until 11th November.

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strung 21 September 2016

 

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strung 21 September 2016

 

 

farewell, unknown gardener

When did I first notice the magical little world contained in a front garden on Macduff Road? I can’t remember exactly, but for years it’s been one of my local landmarks, a spot I’ll swing past on my way back from the park, wondering what’s changed, stopping to gaze in childish delight. The front garden is little more than a small rectangular bed behind the low front wall of a rundown single-fronted terrace house. Between two bushy trees, a small riot of horticultural juxtaposition: moss, ivy, African violets, trickling water, cut flowers, tinsel, toy ladybirds, painted acorns. The details changed regularly, often reflecting the current season or festivities. Here’s a photo of part of the garden several years ago. There’s a Christmas card tucked in as a backdrop and silver Christmas trees from a garland creating a fenced pathway to the house on the card.

macduff-2
Detail, front garden, 10 Macduff Road SW11. January 2013

I hardly ever saw the gardener. A glimpse, perhaps, of a stooped figure in the doorway on a summer’s evening. The front window, mostly obscured by foliage, always had the curtains drawn. And at the top right, a toy panda, somehow pinioned against the glass, and encircled by silver stars.

Recently, the garden’s looked a little neglected. Fewer seasonal details. No more cut flowers skilfully knitted into the scene. Then, on Wednesday evening, after a stroll around Battersea Park, we swung past 10 Macduff Road and the fairy garden is no more. Ripped out. The panda gone, too. The house cleared, it seems. Such a sad, sad sight. And the fate of the gardener? I can only guess. I hope she knows, or knew, that some in the local area treasured the magical world she created. I’ll miss it, for sure.

macduff-road-now
Devastation, 8 September 2016