Monday, 17 July 2017

On trying to live an ethical life

Like most people I try to lead an ethical life, but it’s not easy. Every aspect of your life has an impact on other people or on the planet.  And, as a writer, used to analysing and reflecting, you can’t shut yourself in a dark cupboard and hope all the difficult issues go away.

The state of the planet is the one concerning me most at the moment.  Last week I went to a showing of the film A Plastic Ocean, made by a very distinguished team who worked on David Attenborough’s  Blue Planet series, and it's narrated by journalist Craig Leeson who started out looking for the rare and elusive Blue Whale in order to film a documentary.  What happened next was horrific.  The diving team surfaced under a curtain of plastic pollution, much of which was going into the whales’ stomachs.  As their search for the whale went on, they found more and more plastic accumulating in even the remotest parts of the ocean.

The plastic pollution of the ocean has intensified over the last decade to numbers that make your hair stand on end.  Millions of tons of plastic waste go into the ocean every WEEK.  And most of  it comes from us and our addiction to single-use plastic.  Supermarket carrier bags, drinking straws, fast-food trays, freezer bags, take-away cutlery, bottles of water . . .  on and on and on.  Some single-use plastic has an active life of only 10 minutes.  The film showed the consequences for wild life and I have to say that it was upsetting. Endangered species are dying of starvation because they have stomachs full of plastic.  Albatrosses are feeding plastic to their chicks, turtles are mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, whales are sieving it out of the water instead of krill.

I have been trying not to buy plastic carrier bags from supermarkets - but I’m not perfect and there is always the time I forget to bring any with me. I try to recycle, but it’s not easy around here because the council don’t collect and it all has to be driven to the dump. I carry my own water bottle, but sometimes on a train I end up buying water in a bottle because there’s no way to get a clean refill.

It’s clear that we have to do something before the ocean becomes a huge refuse dump for humankind. The film offers a number of solutions and carries a message of hope.  We can’t get rid of plastic entirely - it’s too useful, but we can drastically reduce our consumption of single use items.  My local shops offer paper bags for produce, which I always take.  But we could do more.  In New Zealand my daughter gave me some supermarket fruit and veggie bags as a present.  They’re made from mesh fabric with a drawstring at the top and are washable.  They’re completely transparent and replace the plastic bags that supermarkets encourage you to use to put your fruit and veg in and which invariably get thrown away as soon as you get home.  If everyone used these it would cut out an enormous amount of plastic waste.

These new thoughts are affecting my reading habits too.  E-readers are made from precious metals, plastics and other finite materials and the manufacturing process is not eco-friendly (or human friendly either as they’re often made in the ‘3rd’ world by poorly paid workers).  A paper book is made from trees, which means that trees have to be planted and grown in large numbers.  As trees help to take carbon out of the atmosphere, maybe that’s a good thing?

The dilemmas are everywhere.  How does one lead an ethical life in the 21st century without retiring off-grid to live in a log cabin in the woods?

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Tuesday Poem: Monsoon Poem by Tishani Doshi

Because this is a monsoon poem
expect to find the words jasmine,
palmyra, Kuruntokai, red; mangoes
in reference to trees or breasts; paddy
fields, peacocks, Kurinji flowers,
flutes; lotus buds guarding love’s
furtive routes. Expect to hear a lot
about erotic consummation inferred
by laburnum gyrations and bamboo
syncopations. Listen to the racket
of wide-mouthed frogs and bent-
legged prawns going about their
business of mating while rain falls
and falls on tiled roofs and verandas,
courtyards, pagodas. Because such
a big part of you seeks to understand
this kind of rain — so unlike your cold
rain, austere rain, get-me-the-hell-
out-of-here rain. Rain that can’t fathom
how to liberate camphor from the vaults
of the earth. Let me tell you how little
is written of mud, how it sneaks up
like a sleek-gilled vandal to catch hold
of your ankles. Or about the restorative
properties of mosquito blood, dappled
and fried against the wires of a bug-zapping
paddle. So much of monsoon is to do
with being overcome — not from longing
as you might think, but from the sky’s
steady bludgeoning, until every leaf
on every unremembered tree gleams
in the abyss of postcoital bliss.
Come. Now sip on your masala tea,
put your lips to the sweet, spicy skin
of it. There’s more to see — notice
the dogs who’ve been fucking on the beach,
locked in embrace like an elongated Anubis,
the crabs scavenging the flesh of a dopey-
eyed ponyfish, the entire delirious coast
with its philtra of beach and saturnine
clouds arched backwards in disbelief.
And the mayflies who swarm in November
with all their ephemeral grandeur to die
in millions at the behest of light, the geckos
stationed on living room walls, cramming
fistfuls of wings in their maws. Notice
how hardly anyone mentions the word
death, even though the fridge leaks
and the sheets have been damp for weeks.
And in this helter-skelter multitude
of gray-greenness, notice how even the rain
begins to feel fatigued. The roads and sewers
have nowhere to go, and like old-fashioned pursuers
they wander and spill their babbling hearts
to electrical poles and creatures with ears.
And what happens later, you might ask,
after we’ve moved to a place of shelter,
when the cracks in the earth have reappeared?
We dream of wet, of course, of being submerged
in millet stalks, of webbed toes and stalled
clocks and eels in the mouth of a heron.
We forget how unforgivably those old poems
led us to believe that men were mountains,
that the beautiful could never remain
heartbroken, that when the rains arrive
we should be delighted to be taken
in drowning, in devotion.

© Tishani Doshi
Source: Poetry (July/August 2017)

If you’d like to read the latest issue of Poetry online, which also includes Ocean Vuong, this is the link.

Tishani Doshi comes from southern India.  She was born in the city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras, in 1975, to a Welsh mother and Gujurati father.  She has published six books of poetry and fiction. Her essays, poems and short stories have been widely anthologized.

In 2012 she represented India at a historic gathering of world poets for Poetry Parnassus at the Southbank Centre, London. She is also the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award for Poetry, winner of the All-India Poetry Competition, and her first Book, Countries of the Body,  won the prestigious Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2006.  It was launched at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, on a platform that included Seamus Heaney and Margaret Atwood.

Tishani's debut novel, The Pleasure Seekers, published by Bloomsbury, was long-listed for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

She currently lives on a beach between two fishing villages in Tamil Nadu with her husband and three dogs.  Tishani Doshi is also a gifted dancer.

Her latest book is  The Adulterous Citizen – poems stories essays (2015)

If you’d like to know more about Tishani Doshi, this is the link to her website: -

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Dear Friend, from my life I write to you . . . Katherine Mansfield and Yiyun Li

The writer Katherine Mansfield is one of those extraordinary authors famous as much for her personal journals as for her fiction.  Her notebooks contain some her best writing, partly because when she wrote in them she wasn't bound by the constraints of narrative or publication as they were perceived at the time.  She was experimenting (not always successfully), exploring her motivations and the very darkest aspects of her own psyche. Hampered by illness, often on her own, her journal became her closest companion and recipient of her most intimate thoughts.

Yiyun Li

The Chinese author, Yiyun Li, admits being influenced by Katherine Mansfield to a considerable degree.  Her latest memoir takes its title from a line in KM's journal, 'Dear Friend, from my life I write to you in your life'.   Like Mansfield Yiyun Li has a problem with identity.  She is Chinese, American, a writer, a scientist, a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, a friend, an exile, a depressive, a survivor, charting a passage through her life dragging them all in her wake.  Katherine Mansfield,  living in exile from her homeland, also felt a fragmentation of her personality.  'True to oneself!' she asks her journal. 'Which self?  Which of my many - well, really, that's what it looks like coming to - hundreds of selves.'

Yiyun Li, brought up and educated in China, has difficulty with the 'I' word. She admits that she hates it. 'The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles'.  In the Chinese language, the 'I' word is not often used and under the old regime such individualism was not encouraged.  It was usual to use the impersonal pronoun, or to use 'we'.  In China,  Yiyun Li observes, 'Living is not an original business'.  There is also considerable exposure in writing about oneself. 'To write one has to give up protection fundamentally.'

She feels that she no longer belongs anywhere and quotes another favourite author, the Irish John McGahern, with envy: 'The people and the language and landscape where I had grown up were like my breathing'.  She longs to feel that, but, 'The paths I walked by myself in Beijing are gone.  Even if the city had remained unchanged, I have turned away from the people and the language and the landscape'.

But Yiyun Li is 'haunted', a word which she explains is derived from the Middle English hauten (to reside, to inhabit), also from Old French hanter (to inhabit, frequent) and Old Norse heimta (to bring home, to fetch). 'When we feel haunted,' she writes, 'it is the pull of our old home we're experiencing.'
The author adopts a fragmented, journal style at the beginning of the book, morphing into longer narrative passages. The book was written after a period of suicidal despair and hospitalization - a period of self-interrogation that led to the memoir. Yiyun Li was a rebel in an institutionalized China, also in conflict with her 'wrathful and possessive' mother.  She explores her relationships with her homeland, her family, with literature and the process of integration into American society.  '. . . cruelty and kindness are not old stories,' she observes, 'and never will be.'

Finding Katherine Mansfield's journals was a life-changing moment for her. 'I devoured her words like thirst-quenching poison.'  She read the notebooks 'to distract myself' and cried over them.  'What a long way it is from one life to another,' she observes, 'yet why write if not for that distance'?

Katherine Mansfield, with advanced Tuberculosis, at her desk.
Yiyun Li destroyed most of her own journals and letters before she left China.  Others she put in sealed boxes and has never opened them. 'One crosses the border', she says, 'to become a new person.'  That person speaks a new language that takes on new meanings.  One English saying struck her very hard - 'To kill time'.  She interpreted it differently: 'no one thinks of suicide as a courageous endeavor to kill time'. This original take on her adopted language gives her writing a very particular flavour.  'Language is capable of sinking a mind', she asserts. In renouncing the mother-tongue, a great deal gets erased from memory.  This loss, she admits 'is my sorrow and my selfishness'. 

As the title implies, this is a self-conscious narrative - not just 'an argument with myself' but a dialogue with an unknown, unseen reader.  It is extraordinarily direct.   But she states firmly that, 'A writer and a reader should never be allowed to meet.  They live in different time frames.  When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer.'  From my own point of view, I'm not sure that this is true.  My books are never dead to me - instead they develop rather frightening lives of their own and threaten to gallop off and become feral.  And I love meeting readers to continue the dialogue that begins on the page. But I am not Yiyun Li.

This is a wonderful book and the author's self-examination is threaded through with Katherine Mansfield's equally ruthless self-analysis.  It made me think critically about the art of memoir and journal-writing, as well as concepts of identity and belonging.  I've also ordered Yiyun Li's volume of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and I'm looking forward to reading it. And many thanks to my friend Mel U, who has a wonderful book blog - The Reading Life - who emailed me to tell me about this book!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Tuesday Poem: baby grand by Allie Spensley - Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2015

my father showed me how a piano could cleave a room
like a fault line, how a dance could keep you deathless:
the eighty-eight teeth in a piano's mouth chewing up

strips of sheet music like so many pieces of bubblegum.
my father had pounded his fingers into skeleton keys
and molded their locks out of smooth ebony and ivory.

he wore ragtime like a coat and sipped jazz like hot
tea with lemon and spice, danced his way across the
underground platform because there was a sort of music

written on his bones, notes wrapped like handcuffs
around his wrists, rhythms coursing through his
syncopated veins, his piano was his cross and he bore it

through windy city december, from hubbard street
down to west belmont, his face reflecting neon light,
his body buzzing with the notes of the trumpets

like a hot vibrato on his skin, my father's only altar
was a midnight jazz joint; music was his finest language
so I couldn't blame him if he cursed arpeggios all up

and down our kitchen walls, couldn't blame him
if his magic fingers twisted in my mother's hair to
make music that was sour as a dying trombone,

couldn't blame his "please, i'm trying to practice,
just leave me alone, my music, i'm sorry, my music."

© Allie Spensley 2015
Reproduced with permission.

The Young Poet's Award, for poets between the ages of 11 and 17, was founded by the Poetry Society in 1998 and funded by the Foyle Foundation in 2001. Entries are usually in excess of 12,000 poems from all over the world. The judges have to sift out 15 young poets for their prize-winning list.  Not an enviable task, but it often throws up some remarkable results.

Ever wondered what happened to all those emerging poets? Allie Spensley was one of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year in 2015.  Her poem ‘baby grand’ was the one that stood out for me in the Poetry Society anthology of winning poets, so I thought I’d find out what she was doing now and tracked her down on Facebook.

Allie is from Avon Lake, Ohio, a small town on the shores of Lake Eerie, and she’s now a sophomore at Princeton University, New Jersey. She's been a prize-winner in other poetry competitions too, including Writing for Peace. Her work has been published in The Guardian, and BOXCAR Poetry Review, among others. It's a brilliant start for someone so young.

According to her online profile, she’s been writing for as long as she can remember, but only started seriously reading and writing contemporary short fiction/poetry a few years ago. Allie is passionate about education, particularly in areas with low literacy rates or where girls are prevented from attending school.

In this poem, I love the lack of capitals and the way the lines run on.  I like the use of images and metaphors and the way the poem leans into darkness towards the end.  There's an undertow of menace.

I think we might be going to see a lot more poetry from Allie Spensley in future - I certainly hope so!

PS  congratulations to the Young Poets of 2016,  Malika Booker and W.N. Herbert picked out 15 entries from more than 76 countries. It's a very diverse selection.  You can see them here.

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Unfinished Life of Lyubov Popova

When I visited the Revolution exhibition  of Russian art at the Royal Academy, one of the artists that interested me most was a woman called Lyubov Popova.  Her paintings were striking and very beautiful.  But there were only a few and even fewer details of her life.  I wondered why.  What had happened to Popova?
Lyubov Popova photograhed by Alexander Rodchenko
On the internet I uncovered the story of her life.  She was born into a wealthy and highly educated family in 1889.  Her father was a textile merchant and patron of the arts.  Her mother also came from an artistic family.  Popova's precocious talent was encouraged from the beginning.  Initially she was taught at home, then at the Gymnasium in Moscow before entering the private studios of some of the best artists in Russia, studying Cubism and Futurism, developing her own blend which she called Architectonics.

Lyubov Popova - Architectonic
Popova travelled widely in Russia looking at the tradition of Icon painting. She was also interested in European Renaissance art - particularly Giotto - and in 1913 she went to Paris to study there, following this with a tour of France and Italy, returning after the outbreak of war in 1914. She studied with Cubists Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger. Her privileged background made all of this possible.
Lyubov Popova - Female Study

Initially the war and the increasing instability in Russia had little effect on Popova.  She became interested in Constructivism and worked for a while in the same studio as Vladimir Tatlin.  Then she was admitted to the studio of  Kazimir Malevich who was an enormous influence on her.

The lives of every artist in Russia changed with the revolution in 1918.  After this, the approval of the State was necessary for your work.  Many were unable to work under its restraints and left.  Popova remained.  In 1918 she married the art historian Boris Eding, with whom she had a son.  The following year, with Russia in chaos, Eding died of typhoid fever.  Popova was ill, but recovered.

Popova continued to paint, but began, like many other artists, to use her talents to design everyday objects.  She was particularly interested in fabric and fashion.  Her paintings reflect this fascination with patterns. Popova, alongside another female artist, Stepanova, laid down strict conditions for working as artists in commercial conditions, trying to achieve a measure of artistic freedom.

In 1924, Popova's young son contracted Scarlet Fever and died.  Two days later Popova also died - the life and career of a brilliant artist cut short.  She was only 34.  Her younger brother, Pavel, became the guardian of her estate and reputation.  As with the author Katherine Mansfield, who died at the same age and almost in the same year, it would be very tempting to go into the 'might-have-beens', but instead it is better to look at what had already been achieved.  Lyubov Popova left a huge body of work, some of it utterly stunning.

The Life and work of Lyubov Popova

Lyubov Popova - Encyclopaedia Britannica

Exhibition history - MOMA

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Cloud Chamber by Janet Sutherland

in a new light       the river
water weightier
than oil or slub
viscous slip
beer-bottle brown

you notice don't you
language clarifies

or chant these slim diminutives:
rivulet     rill     run     burn     beck
runnel     freshet     torrent     force     jet
and riveret (now rare or obsolete)

none of them hold
    such corrugations welded from below
    such heavy fish
etched as with acid from cast steel
these gate-keeper
herons       iron posts
charting a route
you might well walk beside

bright air above
cloud trails      scraps      gnats      slant swifts in flight

© Janet Sutherland

Watermarks Anthology, The Frogmore Press, 2017

I thought about this poem the other evening when, after a very long, hot drive from the southern end of England, we finally arrived back at the Mill on the banks of the river Eden.  We had a 'carrier bag' picnic with salads and wine bought at a service station on the motorway and then, looking at the weir - calm and cool reflecting the evening sky - we stripped off and threw ourselves into the beer-bottle brown water and let the river wash the journey away.  I lay in the river (which smells unromantically of ducks) and watched the clouds drifting across as the swifts wheeled and screamed overhead searching for low-flying insects. 

We live in the country of burns and becks and are familiar with torrents when the river is in flood and its weight pushes everything in front of it. The 'gate-keeper/herons' stand guard on the weir every morning in the ever-changing light. 

I'm a great fan of Janet Sutherland's poetry, which doesn't always follow the route you expect it to.  I particularly liked her collection Bone Monkey, from Shearsman.  Bone Monkey is a shamanistic creature from mythology, who keeps popping up in different disguises.  Sometimes he's 'a grinning ape', or 'a bone-thin workman with a sly look', or 'a hangman in a tattered vest'.  He's a trickster - out of time, elemental.   The poetry is similarly slippery  - always shearing off in unexpected directions and difficult to pin down for analysis. I like to be surprised;  I like to be taken out of my comfort zone.  I want my hair to stand on end when I read!

One of my favourite poems from the collection is a beautifully crafted, more conventional poem called 'My Red Morocco Jack Boots'.  Bone Monkey is currently an English Gentleman abroad in Illyria in 1846 and definitely up to no good when he spies a vulnerable Serbian woman.

There are seven stations between Belgrade and Alexnitza
where changing horses takes an hour.  At Pashapolanca
we had bread and slivovitz then lay on hard board
and slept very soundly.  In white caps and German blouses,

Turkish trousers, with twelve yards of stuff, and jack boots
(mine were red morocco) our cavalcade moved off.
At night the path was very striking, summer lightning
pierced the dense foliage.  I am not a Romantic . . .

If you would like to read the whole of the poem, this is the link - 

 You can buy Bone Monkey from 
Janet's poem 'Cloud Chamber' is featured in the Watermarks Anthology of Wild Swimming published by Frogmore Press.  You can buy it here.   

Saturday, 24 June 2017

A crazier, sadder week you could hardly describe

I think the stars must be in an alien alignment - or I would if I was medieval, or of a superstitious nature. At a personal level it's been chaotic. I have been up and down to Kent trucking sculpture, I've been to/through London twice, given a talk to the James Street Literary Salon, done my last Reading Round in Cumbria and a poetry reading in Yorkshire. All against a background of terrorist attacks, the horrendous fire at Grenfell Tower, the Brexit shambles, Trump idiocy, massacres in Syria and Iraq (mysteriously ignored by mainstream media obsessed by Theresa May's facial expressions and the Queen's hat), a cholera epidemic in Yemen (ditto) and the ominous rumblings of a middle eastern showdown between Qatar (where I used to live) and its opponents.  Now it's Saturday and I'm trying to remember where I left what remains of my mind.

Shoreham sculpture trail was one of the high points.  Some wonderful sculptures (some of them Neil's) in a water meadow belonging to one of the houses, with spectacular roses scrambling through trees.  There was a river, a pond and a boat house.  When you have a lot of money, you can afford tranquility.  With Grenfell Tower on the news as an ever present monument to inequality, it was impossible to ignore the wealth and privilege we were surrounded by.

One of the best things was being able to see my grandchildren.

This was not a dinner gong but a magical crescent moon sculpture, by Marigold Hodginson, which can be rocked to and fro.

The down side was having to spend a sweltering day at 33 degrees, driving a white van from Kent to the Lake District via a jam-packed M25!

I took a train down to London again the following day and it was even hotter.  Although officially only 34.5 C max, the sun beating off the pavements and buildings created a sauna - one street thermometer I saw read 40 degrees.  London felt as though it was simmering.  The air crackled. There were armed police everywhere. I'm very glad I don't live in the capital.  Sadly, the Moomin experience I had tickets to visit was cancelled because of the heat.  I've loved Tove Janssen's books since I was a child. They are very philosophical - layers of meaning that children don't necessarily pick up.  But adults do.  The cancellation made me very sad.  If this is climate change - it can only get hotter and more difficult. In Comet in Moominland, the comet scorches the earth as it flies past and all the animals have to take cover underground. That's exactly how London felt.

 At the James St. Salon we all sweated unapologetically.  I was giving a talk on switching from conventional to Indie publishing and there were a lot of interested authors - all well-published but now struggling with their current publishers and dissatisfied with the system.  There is very little transparency in main-stream publishing;  you get paid once very 6 months, no-one tells you how many books have been printed/are out on review/in bookshops and publisher's accounts sheets need an accountant to decipher them. As an Indie author you get paid every month and you have a dashboard that shows exactly where every book has gone.   I recommended the Alliance of Independent Authors' website for help and advice.

The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum was an absolute delight and well worth queuing through the new security system to get into.  They've erected a tent in the courtyard and you have to queue behind crash barriers to be screened.  The exhibition itself was very unexpected.  As well as the beautiful indigo paintings of the Great Wave and the views of Mount Fuji there are notebooks, personal material, and a lot of other paintings and prints that show just how versatile he was and also what a fantastic sense of humour he must have had. This is his painting of a summer thunderstorm, complete with bare bottoms as robes are blown aloft by the wind.

And this is himself as an old man.  He admitted that he had large ears.  Hokusai believed that as an artist and master craftsman he got better with every decade that he aged.  'I did nothing worth looking at until I was 70,' he insisted.  Some comfort there then!

After hot, crowded, jittery London, the Settle Sessions couldn't have been more of a contrast.  Settle is a beautiful old town in the Yorkshire dales, next to Giggleswick, home to Alan Bennett.  The Folly, where the poetry readings are held, is a Grade 1 listed building gradually being restored.  Alan Bennett has been involved in the fund raising.  It was a fabulous venue and very enjoyable poetry from my 'partner in rhyme' Ron Scowcroft, published by Wayleaves Press.

Now looking forward to a cooler, quieter week at home. Please. Oh, and could we have some more cheerful news just for a change?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Watermarks Anthology of Wild Swimming - Jenny Arran

The Mountain's Voice

Slate smooth.
Amber through darkness.
Tannins of peat and sheep
cropped turf.
Water of rock
and rain
to stillness.

In this dark pool
under the sky
rock body
holds time
in liquid form.
The mountain's voice.
Its quiet insistence
ripples my listening thoughts

Wrapping its cold question
So neatly around my offering
of warmth
I would dissolve
For its answer.

I swim.
In a dim liminal memory
of time kept silence.
And the quiet grass
and the shining sky.

© Jenny Arran 2017

Watermarks Anthology

edited by Tanya Shadrick and Rachel Playforth
The Frogmore Press 2017, £7.99

This is just one of the poems from an anthology dedicated to wild swimming.  It’s a collection of poetry and prose that celebrates the wild and our connection with the element of water before and after birth. There are some well-known names in this collection, Janet Sutherland, Graham Burchell, Lindsay Zier-Vogel, Jill Munro, Maria Jastrzebska, and Mark Fiddes, alongside some new and exciting voices.

Putting together an anthology is never easy.  This was the editors' brief: "we called for work by writers who find inspiration in or near lidos, lakes, sea pools and other wild swimming places. The writing had to be short (a maximum of 1000 words for prose) but supple. We sought work full of quick turns, graceful strokes or surprising dives into the depths: writing which had us catch our breath, laugh in delight or shiver a little." Tanya and Rachel have succeeded brilliantly.

There’s some interesting experimental work here.  I particularly liked Holly Dawson’s ‘Unswimming’ - part prose part poetry that tells the story of a pregnant woman who is drawn to the river at the bottom of the garden even though her husband tells her it’s unsafe. He plans to block it off with a wall and a decked terrace.  But the ‘I’ of the story has much more primitive instincts.   ‘The river pulls me to it.  A surging strength picks up the mallet and demolishes half the river wall. There’s something fierce within me that only water can contain.  The river says: Do what you will, I’ll still go on and on.’

There’s a lot of humour between these pages, alongside the exhilaration and the sense of danger.  These are the last lines of The Non-Swimmer by Jill Munro, a poem about a woman who ‘longed for the security of the flailing label – ‘Unable to Swim’.

Instead, she swallowed hard, girded and glided with her skill;
river-swimming under waterfalls, rock-lined coastal plunges,
then Sweden’s lakes for a water-lillied Valkyrie crossing,

joining nine naked women swimming to their new-found freedom
beneath the wet crackle of a thunderstorm brewing overhead.

Mark Bridge is an eel mocking our eco ambitions.  ‘You buy Tuna that’s described as ‘dolphin friendly’. . . . Like you think tuna is an aquatic labrador, wagging its idiot tail in greeting as a dolphin swims past.  But eel, the mysterious genius eel, we’re novelty cookery ingredients.  Smoked, sliced and served with a poached egg. . . What sort of perversity is that?’ [Mark Bridge eeeooo].

There’s a strong attachment to place in many of the contributions, whether it’s Galway in Ireland, the frigid waters of Iceland, a glacial lake in Canada, or a waterhole in the Australian bush, there are innumerable ‘metaphorical junctions’ as Richard Mabey called them. Swimming can be an ‘immersive experience that anchors body and mind in the present moment and connects us to the elements and the seas around us from which we draw our being and are restored on a deeply physical level’. [Tim Martindale, Galway Blues].

This is a fantastic collection of stories, vignettes, poems and eco-writing for anyone who loves the element of water in ocean, river, and lake.

Writing by lido lovers and wild swimmers

edited by Tanya Shadrick and Rachel Playforth
published by The Frogmore Press, 2017

Jenny Arran is a visual artist. She grew up in North Wales, loving the wildness, rivers, rocks and the sea.  Her poems and paintings reflect a sensory and relational connection to nature.  She swims regularly in Pells Pool, as well as the river and sea near Lewes, and takes her children, on holidays, to the pool in her poem.’

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The healing power of the natural world

Emily Dickinson, who suffered the trauma of epileptic fits, was often confined to the house and the company of family and a few close friends in order to avoid the stigma of public convulsions. (See Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon)    It created an air of mystery about her as she became increasingly reclusive.  Emily found that wandering in the countryside and garden was a healing experience and many of her poems mention wild flora and fauna.  She kept a pressed flower collection - quite a popular pastime in the 19th century - and became something of a botanist.  Her 'Herbarium' has recently been digitalised by Harvard university library as it is now too fragile to be handled. The pages are both beautiful and sad, arranged in Emily's own fashion and labelled with her tiny writing.

In the middle of the chaos and horror we now find ourselves in, the natural world is incredibly therapeutic.  It's sheer beauty and peacefulness is a comfort and a joy.  I've been out on the sunny river bank this morning, looking at the flowers and trying to forget, just for a moment, the terrible things on the news channels.


The river, still decorated by the corpses of winter trees, is flowing steadily over the weir as it usually does in summer.  The mill pool is mirror-still except for the ripples made by fly-catching brown trout, and the banks are yellow with Mimulus and the purple and white shades of Dame's Violet.

The Rambling Rector is gambolling happily up the cliff and through the pink elderflower, competing busily with the golden hop (which has abandoned the garden and gone feral!).

The roses are all beginning to open in the sun.  This is a French aristocrat called Ghislaine de Feligonde.

Now, calmer and more peaceful than I was, I'm off to catch a train to Kent to become white van man again and face the madness of the M25 on Monday!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Tony Walsh - Net Worked - Poetry and Politics

Nick Laird, in his Guardian article, 'Poetry is always a form of political intervention',  makes the case for poetry as the perfect weapon against demagogues.  "Populism claims to love the people but of course it hates the individual, and poetry is one mode of opposing that. It only deals in individuals, while its trust in complication is at the far end of the verbal scale from the demagogue’s three-word phrases framed as hoarse imperatives.”

Nick argues that it is language that is the most effective weapon, for both sides. We have to beware ‘Alternative Facts’.  “Those who would harm us, and have us harm others, target the language, as Orwell and Huxley and others described. The discourse is debased. . .  There is a terrible violence done to human thought when the official discourse normalises lies, racism, sexual violence. Poetry is one kind of civic response to the barbarities of the two-bit huckster’s spiel, his slogans, his dog whistles: it insists on an attempt to speak the truth, even if, as Dickinson has it, it tells it slant.”

He goes on to say that “To read poetry, to return to a space for second thoughts, for complexity, for empathy, for words that are not defensive or aggressive or divisive or belittling, renews a faith in language and stillness, and a courage in the possibilities of protest, of “speaking truth to power”.” Poetry is an ‘ethical space’ and it enables us to imagine the reality of other people’s suffering.

This is Manchester poet Tony Walsh's poem about the surprising result of the UK elections and the part that young people played in it.  Warning:  Strong Language!  He doesn't pull any punches.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Appleby Horse Fair 2017 - Submachine Guns and Winter Weather

It's Appleby Horse Fair weekend - all hatches battened down, windows boarded up, roads closed and the most intensive police presence I've ever seen.  Armed police were particularly visible - not a normal occurrence.
Rather blurred, but they don't like you taking pics.
The attendance this year has been much less than usual - fewer horses and caravans - fewer tourists. The main reason probably the appalling weather.  Temperatures have been down in single figures at times and grey, wild, wet weather all day.  The wind has been the most unpleasant feature.  It has been 'blowing a hoolie' as we say up here.

Down at the Mill we usually get a lot of horses and campers, and the river sees a lot of action as they run the trotting horses and the gigs through it, but the river's been closed for much of the weekend because of the high water levels.

Still, we've seen some beautiful horses.  These are a few of the best.

This gorgeous three year-old Shire horse from Shropshire was being harnessed on the river bank. His owner told me it was the first horse he'd ever broken by himself.

Proud Owner

Normally the horses would be 'swum' in the deep parts of the river.  Not this year though.  This stallion, with his man and boy, was just pludging around in the shallows.

The horses spend a lot of time tied up outside the pubs waiting for their owners!

A lot of horse dealing going on here.

These are the trotting horses showing off their paces on one of the lanes around Appleby.  They really fly - taking a photo is very difficult! By the time you've pressed the shutter they're out of the frame.

This guy had four in hand - one harnessed to the gig with two younger horses on each side and one tied to the back.

This is one of the Vardas, drawn by a matching pair.  A lovely sight.  But they were on their way home, leaving because of the weather.

And you can see why.  These children were all dressed up for a good time and not enjoying the mud at all. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Tuesday Poem: Sojourner Truth - Ain't I a Woman?

Delivered at the Women's Convention, Ohio, 1851

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of  kilter.  I think that, 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.  But what's all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere.  Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place!  And ain't I a woman?  Look at me! Look at my arm!  I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?  I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well!  And ain't I a woman?  I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me!  And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head;  what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers "Intellect!"] That's it, honey.  What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes rights?  If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from?  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman!  Man had nothing to do with him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!  And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.

Sojourner Truth

I thought today we needed something optimistic and inspirational.  I'm not posting this from a Feminist perspective, but as an example of Hope in the face of what look like insurmountable odds.

Who could have thought back in 1851 that there could be equal rights for men and women, people of colour and people with skins of a different shade?  It took a very long time to win it, but those later victories were built on the efforts and the rhetoric of activists like Sojourner Truth.  She was an ex-slave and Christian convert, born into slavery as Belle Baumfree.  She escaped from her owner in 1826 with an infant daughter, living with protectors in New York State where limited emancipation was given in 1827.  She changed her name when she became a member of the Evangelical movement. Sojourner is most famous for winning a court case against her former owner who had sold one of her children illegally to a plantation in Alabama.  She was the first black woman to win a case against a white man. Her life didn't get much easier.  When a man, a Christian evangelist she kept house for, died she was accused of poisoning him, but was acquitted of the crime.

We have never needed more of Sojourner Truth's courage and persistence than we do today.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Theresa May is not a Feminist

Watching Theresa May on TV or in Parliament is excruciating.  She may have risen to the highest position a woman can aspire to – de facto head of state – but one thing’s for sure – she ain’t no feminist.

Neither was Margaret Thatcher.  In fact the only service Mrs T did for Feminism was to make girls realise that their dreams of occupying the highest positions could actually come true.  They too could one day become Prime Minister. You didn’t have to be Lady Di and marry a prince to get to the top.

Theresa May has to constantly watch her back
But wholesale smashing of the glass ceiling didn’t happen.  In fact, the cause of equality for women (both in opportunity and in fact) didn’t advance much, if at all.  Many would say that women’s lives got harder.  They were increasingly expected to juggle family, careers and – since Mrs T introduced ‘Care in the Community’ by abolishing a lot of useful institutions – many were also acting as carers. The pay gap between men and women stayed much the same despite the Equal Pay Act, passed 45 years ago.  It currently stands at an average of 13.9%, though the gap gets wider the higher up the tree you go.

Understandably, given the above, the number of women in public life didn’t increase under Thatcher. It did under a Labour government, but they did it by introducing unpopular notions such as ‘positive discrimination’.  But women are still outnumbered 4-1 in Parliament and there are few women in Theresa May’s cabinet.  If you want to depress yourself further, click this link to the Fawcett Society's statistics of women in positions of influence in society.  There are currently no female political editors of a national newspaper.

Mrs Thatcher's cabinet of men - a lonely position

Women like Theresa May  and Margaret Thatcher are probably less likely to be sympathetic to Feminist issues for several reasons:-

1.  They have had to fight their way to the top – if they can succeed then why can’t other women?

2.  They have fought their way to the top –  by embracing a man’s view of how the world works and becoming complicit in a system created and controlled by men for thousands of years, for the benefit of men.  Women who acquiesce in this are endorsing the system that has created gender inequality.

3.  They have fought their way to the top – by adopting male criteria about what power looks like.  They have accepted Masculist values.  To change a system where Feminist values are seen as ‘weak’ is to appear weak yourself.

4. They have fought their way to the top.  These powerful women, like powerful men, rely on powerful men to support them.  The Tory coffers are filled by male billionaires – and no, they aren’t Feminists either!  In Parliament they also have to rely on a largely male support network among politicians.  Mrs T was taken down by Rottweiler Geoffrey Howe.

Theresa May knows that her closest associates would like her job.  Far from supporting her, the other women in the Cabinet would like her job too.

It is the system of government and finance throughout the world that has created inequality for women.  It is not female friendly. (It’s not friendly to men either, but that’s another blog!) It is a system created by men, because until recently women didn’t even have a vote, let alone a voice in the decision making.  Until relatively recently women weren’t even allowed control or even ownership of their own assets. The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882 – two years after my grandmother was born, but it didn’t cover everything.
It's amazing what women can achieve when they pull together

A woman was a perpetual child at law - she had no right to a separate legal identity of her own and if she had to sue she had to do so through her ‘next friend’, who had to be a man. Why do you think the marriage service asks ‘Who giveth this women to this man?’  She was given by the father to the husband – a transfer of property.   The woman whose marriage failed  could not have custody or control of her children who ‘belonged’ to her husband.  A widow had to have her finances administered by her male relatives who were often far less competent than she was.  History is riddled with women whose fortunes were frittered away by their relatives. (Sara Coleridge was one of them). Some of these outrages weren’t legally sorted out until the second half of the 20th century.

Feminism has made some strides, but not enough.  We live in an unequal society, one where the plight of women across the world is parlous – punished for being raped, kept as prisoners in their own homes, subjected to every kind of human rights abuse across a world increasingly becoming a war zone, denied control over their own reproduction in many countries including the USA, still excluded from a lot of career roles and public office because of their gender.

The world created by men like Vladimir Putin, Bashar al Assad and Donald Trump does not look attractive.  We need a new system – a true democracy that takes no account of gender, religion, class or ethnicity.  A true meritocracy.  I would like to hope that we can get it, but based on the political madness I see around me I’m not optimistic.