Monday, 29 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: Remembering Norman Nicholson

On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks

............They cut up the carcass of the old ironworks
Like a fat beast in a slaughter-house:  they shovelled my childhood
On to a rubbish heap.  Here my father's father,
Foreman of the back furnace, unsluiced the metal lava
To slop in fiery gutters across the foundry floor
And boil round the workmen's boots:  here five generations
Toasted the bread they earned at a thousand degrees Fahrenheit
And the town thrived on its iron diet.

The Faber and Faber edition of Norman's Collected Poems
Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Lake District poet Norman Nicholson, who is being remembered more and more for his fervent environmentalism. He spent his life in Millom, a mining town at the southern end of the Lake District, and some of his best poems are about the interaction of human beings with the environment. They record the de-industrialisation of the north and the human as well as environmental cost.  This is another extract from the poem describing the attempt to restore the area to something resembling a natural landscape:

Drowned under stagnant water, chimneys felled and uprooted,
Slagbanks ploughed down to half their height, all cragginess,
Scrag-end and scree ironed out, and re-soiled and greened over . . .

But now, the residents and workers are pensioned off along with their  'hopes, gains, profits,' and desperations, with little to look forward to other than the newly built 'Old People's Bungalows'.  'The town shrinks and dwindles'.  His stark description of a landscape devastated by heavy industry will ring true for anyone who has witnessed it.

Reservoir tanks gape dry beside cracked, empty pig-beds;
And one last core of clinker, like the stump of a dead volcano,
Juts up jagged and unblastable.  Stand on the rickety pier,
Look left along the line where gantry and crane and coke-bank
Ten years ago blocked all the view - and now you're staring
Bang at Black Combe.  The wind resumes its Right of Way.

In another poem on the Closing of Millom Ironworks, Norman describes the men who 'morning after morning' stand out side the churchyard gate 'Hands in pockets, shoulders to the slag,' - the fathers of boys he was at school with, all without work.  'It's beautiful to breathe the sharp night air', Norman observes,  but what use is all this beauty if there is no work? Whichever way the wind is blowing, 'its a cold wind now.'

Many of Norman's most famous poems have a strong environmental message.  'Windscale' was written just after what is now regarded as one of the world's worst nuclear emission disasters of the 20th century, though it was downplayed at the time.  Norman privately blamed his wife's breast cancer on the radiation.  He was also acutely aware that the planet couldn't sustain human beings in the way we were behaving.  'Elm Decline' is a frightening poem describing deforestation and the consequences of industries that 'channel a poisoned rain' down onto the land.  In 'Gathering Sticks on Sunday', he writes of  what he sees as the consequences:  ....... 'soon,

The living world of men
Will take a lunar look, as dead as slag,
And moon and earth will stare at one another
Like the cold, yellow skulls of child and mother.'

There will be a celebration of Norman's life and poetry on Saturday afternoon  in St George's Church, Millom (where you can also see his commemorative stained glass window) at 2pm.  All welcome. Various members of the Norman Nicholson Society (including me) will be reading his poems and talking about his life. 

If you'd like to know more about Norman Nicholson's life, my biography 'The Whispering Poet' is available on Amazon or to order from all good bookshops.  Paperback £8.99 and Kindle edition £2.58

Sunday, 28 May 2017

What to do with Stuff? Writer's Stuff.

The Mill is enormous and, even with lodgers occupying some of it, often defeats my efforts to keep it basically clean and tidy, let alone well-maintained and orderly!  And, as Neil is usually in Italy, it is a one-woman battle.  With so much space and so little time, it's tempting to allow 'Stuff' to accumulate. But, lately, with Neil away so much, we've been talking about down-sizing.  The floods, too, have precipitated a re-think of what we keep and where.  The ground floor and mezzanine workshops are no longer safe.

I am having a clear-out.

Every book I write generates a vast amount of research, manuscript notes, photo-copied material, correspondence, newspaper clippings - the list is endless (and that's not counting all the files on the computer).  Lately I've been looking at the stacks of plastic storage boxes and files and wondering what I should do with them all.  Most of this material is never likely to be revisited by me.  If I was to be run over by a bus tomorrow (as my grandmother used to say) what on earth would my children make of it?  And then there are all my notebooks and diaries, kept since I was fourteen, family memorabilia inherited from my parents and grandparents.  I can hardly move for boxes.  Something has to be done!!
Just one book's worth of boxes (and I've written 17 of them!)

Recently I took the first steps to organise its disposal.  One of the biggest collections of material concerns Catherine Cookson, including autograph letters to and from her and her friends, as well as letters from her agents and publishers.  There are also the tapes she dictated, telling a confidential - and very controversial - version of her life. There are photographs and a few objects that belonged to Catherine and her husband, and the whole research trail that led to the discovery of her father's identity.

I offered it as a gift to Newcastle University's Robinson Library and they accepted.  It seemed the most suitable place to house Catherine's archive.  I delivered it the other day in the back of my car and it was a great relief to watch it all being wheeled off on a trolley. I'm not responsible for it any more, and the general public will be able to have access to all this original material.  It's where it belongs - beside the Tyne.

Now all I have to do is work out what to do with the remaining sixteen boxes of 'stuff'! 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

I wasn't going to post a Tuesday Poem today because yesterday I was in Manchester and felt too tired to do anything when I got back last night.  I fell into bed without realising the terrible events that were unfolding in the city I'd just left.  Today I feel unbearably sad, not just because of what has happened, but also because of what some people are going to use the tragedy for. The images of grieving parents and injured children will spark a wave of anger and hatred directed towards innocent people who just happen to share a religion or a place of origin with the perpetrators. Hate has somehow become acceptable.

Visiting Europe so often, I see images in a media less squeamish than ours about showing unedited news items.  Pictures of dead and mutilated children - parents carrying their bloodied offspring to hospitals that have also been bombed.  It's difficult to avoid knowing what is happening in the Middle East.  Perhaps this 'shielding' is what is preventing people here from understanding the direct link between events there and terrorism here.  We have to think about why this is happening - not talk uselessly of 'radicalisation'.  The most radicalising thing of all is to see your families, your compatriots, your friends, being blown up by bombs, missiles and drones that have a 'Made in Britain' or 'Made in the USA' label on them.  The Middle Eastern countries, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, are being destroyed by weapons made by us in the west and sold to states who are not scrupulous about using them or selling them on to terrorist organisations.  Hundreds of thousands of child refugees face starvation, deprivation, drowning and statelessness to escape the carnage.  We have given them a cold shoulder rather than the support they deserve.

I am too sad to cry about the mess we have created or the suffering of the people involved.  The feelings are like a physical pain. And I look at our so-called 'leaders' and despair. The landscape is indeed desolate 'between the regions of kindness'.

Naomi Shihab Nye 's father is a Palestinian refugee, her mother American.  She is an award-winning poet and author currently living in the USA.  "Her poems are based on heritage and peace and are connected to her experience as an Arab-American. Her work has been acknowledged by many journals and reviews throughout the world. In 2009, she was elected as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets."  

Many thanks to my Facebook friends for sharing this poem. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Guilty Pleasures of Cosy Crime

Okay, so I like Cosy Crime as much as I like Nordic Noir. I admit it.  There’s only so much psychopathy I can take.  Alone in the Mill, in the middle of the night, I turn to Cosy Crime, where everybody (except the victim of course) ends up safe and sound and nobody mourns the murdered soul because obviously they had it coming to them. Anything else is just a little too real and likely to render me sleepless and paranoid about every tiny noise.

I’ve always loved solving mysteries, in the way that I love puzzles of any kind, so crime fiction has been an addiction since childhood. (Remember Nancy Drew?)  Agatha Christie was on the bookshelves at home, but I always found her books rather cold and clinical. My mother had the Father Brown mysteries by G.K. Chesterton and, although I didn’t like them as much as she did, I liked the idea of natural justice that they put forward.  Father Brown’s solution to the case didn’t always involve the police – but the punishment always fitted the crime.

James Runcie’s Grantchester mysteries seem to follow this tradition.  The 32 year old hero, Canon Stephen Chambers, has a privileged position as an Anglican priest – people tell him things and feel that he has a right to probe their consciences and ask awkward questions about their private lives. The stories begin in 1953 and continue through to 1977, so we see the character develop.

I prefer the Stephen Chambers of the books to the TV detective priest, because the books are more literary (he’s very well read is our Stephen) and there is more moral subtlety. I don’t mind his religious dilemmas, even though I’m an atheist, because he is much more of a Doubting Thomas than Father Brown ever was.  Less smug too, and very human. The TV adaptations make Chambers far too black and white.  I watched a couple of them and then didn’t bother to watch again.  The books are more ‘real’.

What I do like about the stories is what they reveal of village life with its hierarchies, jealousies and snobberies – the gossip and the secrets that are never really secret.  And they are very well crafted- Runcie is a formidable writer, not surprising given his personal history.  He is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, born in Cambridge, so he writes of what he knows.  He is also a film maker, novelist, TV producer and playwright, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. His CV is awesome.
James Runcie - a kind of southern Alan Bennett
All right, so they are a bit cosy –  but everyone has their comfort read.  And I was once married to a clergyman’s son, so it takes me back into a world of baffling parochial and diocesan  intrigue and the splitting of microscopic moral hairs.  My late father-in-law (St John's College, Oxford) also read the grace in Latin and, as he was a widower, the single women of his congregation were given to throwing themselves at the vestry door (metaphorically speaking). There was a great deal of material for fiction.  I can see where James Runcie gets his plots!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: All the People in Hopper's Paintings by B.H. Fairchild

All the people in Hopper's paintings walk by me
here in the twilight the way our neighbors
would stroll by of an evening in my hometown
smiling and waving as I leaned against
the front-porch railing and hated them all
and the place I had grown up in. I smoked
my Pall Mall with a beautifully controlled rage
in the manner of James Dean and imagined
life beyond the plains in the towns of Hopper
where people were touched by the light of the real.

The people in Hopper's paintings were lonely
as I was and lived in brown rooms whose
long, sad windows looked out on the roofs
of brown buildings in the towns that made
them lonely. Or they lived in coffee shops
and cafes at 3 a.m under decadent flowers
of cigarette smoke as I thought I would have
if there had been such late-night conspiracy
in the town that held me but offered nothing.
And now they gather around with their bland,

mysterious faces in half-shadow, many still
bearing the hard plane of light that found them
from the left side of the room, as in Vermeer,
others wearing the dark splotches of early
evening across their foreheads and chins that said
they were, like me, tragic, dark, undiscovered:


                   . . . . . Why was their monotony 
blessed, their melancholy apocalyptic, while 
my days hung like red rags from my pockets

as I stood, welding torch in hand, and searched 
the horizon with the eyes and straight mouth 
of Hopper's women? If they had come walking 
toward me, those angels of boredom, if they 
had arrived clothed in their robes of light, 
would I have recognized them? If all those women 
staring out of windows had risen from their desks 
and unmade beds, and the men from their offices 
and sun-draped brownstones, would I have known? 
Would I have felt their light hands touching

my face the way infants do when people
seem no more real than dreams or picture books?
The girl in the blue gown leaning from her door
at high noon, the gray-haired gentleman
in the hotel by the railroad, holding his cigarette
so delicately, they have found me, and we
walk slowly through the small Kansas town
that held me and offered nothing, where the light
fell through the windows of brown rooms, and people
looked out, strangely, as if they had been painted there.

There's a quality in the work of Edward Hopper that's instantly recognisable - the lonely, isolated people who appear the same even in social situations - the lonely isolated places, like the iconic gas station in an abandoned wayside halt.  Isolation in the middle of civilisation.  And that's one of the qualities of B H Fairchild's poetry too.  Some of my favourite poems are those that deal with the dust bowl tragedy on the prairies of America.  The Beauty of Abandoned Towns has 'Bindweed and crabgrass shouldering through asphalt cracks, rats scuttling down drainpipes, undergrowth seething with grasshoppers.' while sunflowers bang 'their heads on a conclusion of brick, the wind's last argument lost in a yellow cloud,' and broken windows flash 'the setting sun in a little apocalypse of light'.  These later poems are quite political in their condemnation of an agricultural policy that ploughed up 'ancient plains of short grass that fed bison', to plant commercial crops that turned the prairies into dust 'I look back/to see the sky turn sick with darkness,/ a deep brown-green bile boiling up to smear/the sun dull as rusted-out tin siding'. [Dust Storm, No Man's Land, 1952]   

Commerce, the poems seem to say, doesn't make us happy.  Ordinary people's lives changed with the creation of 'the lords of grain'.  At first: 'The bumper crop in 1929.  I stood on the front porch, dawn rolling over me like a river baptism because I was a new man in a new world, a stand of gold and green stretching from my hands to the sun coming up.'  But later the vision from the front porch was more sinister: 'I still tense up when an afternoon sky darkens.  A roller would come in, dust up to eight thousand feet.  If you were in the field, you were lost until it cleared.  Or dead from suffocation.'  

I've only recently discovered B H Fairchild (why is American poetry so little known in the UK?) and I'm knocked out by his poetry.  The stories that are told in these poems - the way lives are illuminated, just as the light falls in a Hopper painting, revealing only just enough, but creating an air of mystery.  One of his early poems is typical of both content and style - called 'In a Cafe near Tuba City, Arizona, Beating My Head against a Cigarette Machine' (which is a poem in itself!)  It begins; 'The ruptured Pontiac, comatose and tilted on three wheels,/ seems to sink slowly like a drunken ship into the asphalt' and continues into an analysis of relationships, past and present, apocalyptic events and the incoveniences of being broke.  A minor incident, the breakdown of a car, becomes a major poem.  Fairchild's work comes from the lost heart of America, Trumpville, where hopelessness and despair motivated a massive vote against the establishment.  If you want to understand that, read BH Fairchild's poetry. 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The scent of Lilac and Katherine Mansfield

The lilac tree in my garden is suddenly blooming - up here in the north spring comes late with frequent frosts, even in May.  But lilac is very resilient - it grows with the determination of a weed. There's hardly a farm or cottage in the Lake District that doesn't have its lilac bush at the gate.
My lilac in a jug
 Lilac has a strong scent - you either love it or hate it.  I love it because it means spring has really arrived.  And it has other associations too. First, it reminds me of Katherine Mansfield.  She also loved lilac, but it represented a tragic and (for her) deeply shameful period of her life.  Katherine, only a teenager at the time, was pregnant with her lover's child.  It was 1909 and having a baby out of wedlock was one of the worst crimes a nicely brought up girl could commit.
Katherine when she was in love with Garnet Trowell
Katherine was on her own in London, trying to pursue a career as a writer. Becoming pregnant threw her into panic.  She married her singing teacher, a man she didn't love, and left him on their wedding night because she couldn't bear to share a bed with him.  Her mother arrived from New Zealand and immediately bundled Katherine onto a train for Bad Worishofen - a small spa in Germany where inconvenient health problems could be dealt with out of the public eye.

The Pension Muller, where her baby was stillborn.
Katherine's lover, the 19 year old Garnet Trowell, had been separated from her by his family. Grieving, distraught, she wrote him a despairing letter from the train. 'Dearest, there is so much to tell you of . . .'  It would never be posted. Everywhere on the journey there was lilac growing in back gardens. 'At the German frontier where all the baggage was examined . . I went out of the station and ran down a little path and looked over a fence.  Lilac filled the air - it seemed almost smudged with lilac, washed in it .' For the rest of her life lilac had a special significance - its colour 'like half-mourning', and its perfume which was tainted by the loss of her lover and the death of the child she was carrying, stillborn after a premature labour. It was an experience she was never able to talk about, even to the man she eventually married.

My lilac loving father.
For me, lilac is all about my father.  It was one of his favourite plants, and when he died my uncle bought me a lilac bush to plant in the garden to remember him by.  So, now I remember two people - my father and my uncle, both dead, when the lilac comes into bloom.

It's been a dry winter here and a very dry spring.  We have had long days in April and May with sun and cool easterly winds.  The garden is parched and the River Eden as low as I have ever seen it.  The weir is high and dry, with only a thread of water going over it in the middle.  The winter's driftwood is still piled up on the weir waiting for a decent flood to carry it downstream.  But after the terrible floods of  Storm Desmond in 1915 I'm quite happy to have a little drought. Apparently the wind is changing direction tomorrow to the more usual westerly breeze from the warmer Atlantic, so I guess that means rain!  It will ruin the lilac, so I've picked as much of it as I can.

Low water at the Mill.

Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller by Kathleen Jones, published by Edinburgh University Press and Penguin NZ

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Tuesday Poem on Wednesday - Emma Press launches the Aunthology!

Today is the launch of Emma Press's latest anthology - the Anthology of Aunts (apparently Aunthology was one of the titles facetiously suggested!) It's being launched at a poetry party at the Star of Kings, Kings Cross, from 7pm to 9pm.  I was supposed to be one of the readers, but have been forced to drop out for personal reasons. Which is a pity - it's going to be a fantastic event.  I've only had a glimpse, through the Emma Press blog, of the contents of the anthology but they seem as varied and fascinating as you'd expect from this innovative poetry press.  Some of the poets have been writing prose pieces on the blog, with photographs, about the aunts they either loved or hated, or sometimes about the experience of just being an aunt.  My contribution is about my Aunt Hilda, who was really a great aunt in a big extended family where the 'greats' were sometimes younger than my parents.

Broken Biscuits

Aunt Hilda was a packer at the biscuit works,
sorting the custard creams and plain digestives,
bringing us bags of crumbed fragments
that tasted of each other, dipped in a hot brew.
The teapot was glazed with tannin inside
and out, its bitter tang offset with reject pink-
iced fancies. When Hilda cuddled me, I wriggled
free from the tight press of her arms and the need
I sensed at five or six but couldn’t name.  I  told
my mother that I loathed the odour of vanilla.

Hilda was late-married to my uncle Fred, a nervy
mother’s boy marched to the church door – we were
told – by brothers of the bride he never made
a wife.  She wept daily at her sister’s kitchen table;
broke open on the bus to Blackpool screaming
that God would make her pregnant with the child
she longed for.  Sectioned to the Bedlam
we were all afraid of, bare rooms that stank of urine
and singed hair, Hilda, shocked into sanity but altered,
walked with us in the garden, quiet with blank eyes.

Fred was obsessed with cleanliness, feared
germs, contamination; wouldn’t shake your hand.
And when he sickened like a child she fed him
with a spoon, nursed him, washed his clothes,
winding him into the sheet she hoped
would be his last.  She found release among
the company of women on the packing line,
fattened on that sweet diet, smelling of chocolate
and vanilla, consuming the crumbs, never the whole thing.

Copyright, Kathleen Jones, 2017

From The Anthology of Aunts, Emma Press, 2017 

If you'd like to buy a copy you can get one from Emma Press on the link above, or purchase from Amazon. 

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Tuesday Poem: Featherweight by Angela Readman

The farrier hands me a stone like an egg, clefted,
heart-shaped enough. I pocket it, laden with love.
On the way home, I rush past a hush of reeds and
picture a walk down the aisle.   We’ll marry on a
Monday when the church costs less. I will wear a
plain shift,  loaded  with only one shade of white,
watermarks ironed off my back.

Outside  the  woodshed,   Mother  bites  the  webs
of her hands to black scabs.  I nod.  We speak only
hisses.  Our  eyes are varnish,  keep  what we don't
say intact. She knew it was coming. I'm old enough.
Eventually I was going to be loved.  She lights the
swan skin. It burns like a sigh.The air plucks smoky
strands, wisps dust a chalked moon.

The skin felt too big,  hand-me-down feathers too
heavy for flight. Then, it  fit like a blizzard, down
between  my  legs  tickled  my petticoat to shreds,
swept  my  skinny legs  up.   It  was  the same for
her, I suppose  -  all this flying and loving and not
knowing how to stop.  The steel of our wings can
break first love's back - we do not know our span.
Boys  who got  too close snapped,  spines  skinny
rushes whistling in the wind.

The skin spits. Mother pokes ash, her neck is a coat
hook hanging up the moonlight.

I, too, will marry a man who never saw me as a swan.
He will not know as birds we miss nothing. Yet when
he kisses me, softly, woman, I miss my beak.

Copyright Angela Readman, 2016

from The Book of Tides, Nine Arches Press, 2016

When William Carlos Williams was writing about poetry in 1939 ('The Poet and His Poems' -note the male pronoun!), he came to this conclusion:-

                   It should

be a song - made of
particulars, wasps,
a gentian - something
immediate, open

scissors, a lady's
eyes - the particulars
of a song waking
upon a bed of sound. 

The poems in this collection are definitely very strong on particulars and they also rest on a bed of song, lyrical and rhythmic.  The language is as jagged and demanding as the north east coast, where the rocky shoreline meets one of the most dangerous northern seas, notorious for its tidal rips and sudden storms. I heard a poet say recently that the kind of poetry they most detested was the 'polite, English variety'.  Angela Readman doesn't do polite poetry.  Her lines don't wander elegantly across the page (thank god!).They never take you where you expect and they throw up the unexpected word or image like glittering pebbles, or pieces of sea-glass.

Readman's poetry makes you work for it - but the close attention it deserves is worth every second. These poems are crammed with allusions and references and there's a constant undertow of myth and folktale.  

Angela Readman was born in Middlesborough and lives in the North East and this is reflected in the language she uses - the odd 'Geordie' rhythm and dialect word.  There are some wonderful words. One of the most accessible poems in the book is Rose Petal Jelly - deceptively simple. It begins . .

The apples drip slow as September
dabbing sun to the rain, juice
slips over the glazed lip of a jug.

Outside, a resilience of roses hold
in the wind.  we feel petals open, jagged
caruncles in the corner of our eyes.

Caruncles are apparently the small red bumps at the inner corners of our eyes.   I love poetry where the poet is obviously having a fiesta with language. I like poetry that brings me particulars, wasps, gentians, a lady's eye, roses, apple jelly and then goes on to show me more.

In the poem above, Featherweight, Readman is referencing the old myths about women who are also swans, or geese, but who will relinquish their magical heritage of shape-shifting to marry a human man who knows nothing of their double life.  But the poem is more than that - it's about the cost of marriage for women, that egg-shaped stone, laden with love, that comes with a big price. I was a seventies feminist, so don't tell me that women can have it all - fabulous careers, wonderful relationships, perfect homes, perfect children, a creative life.  You can't.  You have to choose whether to have the cake or not. Never mind the eating of it.  In the Confessions of a Selkie Readman goes back to the same subject:

You can spot a woman who once had a different skin.
Our eyes are mourning lockets set into rockface. . .
The lives we could have lived are charcoal . . .

But these are also poems about female power, as the mother in the title poem -

Like that, the old lass could switch into a ship's mast,
stood on that cliff, air wringing a swell of hips
out of her skirt.  Then she was Ma again . . . 

flick, at licked pages in her big Book of Tides,
I watched her spit and tie the sky up, a snap
of fringe knotted into a handkerchief slipped
into a breast pocket.

The ideal poem, for me, is one that you can engage with on first reading, but that has a landscape behind it if you're willing to explore. I'm really enjoying this collection, reading and re-reading and wandering about in a salt-stained landscape.  I shared one of the poems with my Friday reading group and they too loved it, finding layers and layers of meaning when they dived in. It's what makes Angela Readman an award-winning writer of both prose and poetry.  One of my favourites in this collection is 'When We Don't Talk About the Weather' which begins:

The moon washes up to the window as you undress.
Outside, fishermen haul out the stars in their nets.
The sheets are an albatross, flapping over us. . . .

and goes on:

You lap me up like a drunk, open-mouthed for rain.
And I keen, the knot of me untied, absent loves
unmoored into storms without the anchor of a thought. 

I'm happy to be carried out to sea on lines such as this!

The Book of Tides is published by Nine Arches Press.  Angela Readman won the International Rubery Book Award in 2015 for her book of short stories, 'Don't Try This at Home'. Her story 'The Keeper of the Jackalopes' won the Costa Short Story Award (2013) and her story 'Don't Try This At Home' was shortlisted for the same competition the previous year. In 2013, Readman won first prize in the Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition, judged by Kathleen Jamie. She won the National Flash Fiction Contest, and the Essex Poetry Prize in 2012 and was placed second in the first Short Story Competition in 2011. She has won New Writing North awards, and won the Ragged Raven longer poems competition . In 2005 she won The Biscuit Poetry competition and publication of a collection Sex with Elvis.

Also available on Amazon. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Northern Powerhouse? - Northern Poorhouse! Reality in the North

Remember that great Tory initiative, the Northern Powerhouse, blazed abroad by George Osborne? Want to understand why so many people up here voted for Brexit?  Just come and take a look.  My local town, Penrith, is a prime example.  It's a small market town of about 15,000 inhabitants with a long history. There are Viking graves in the churchyard and a very substantial sandstone castle opposite the railway station which was the Northern residence of the notorious Richard III.  Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in the George Hotel in November 1745 while marching south to face the Duke of Cumberland's army at Clifton (3 miles away) for the battle that would end the Jacobite Rebellion. The small department store at right angles to the hotel, Arnison's, was owned by Wordsworth's mother's family and the Wordsworth children spent a lot of time there after they were orphaned.
Market Square with Arnisons (top facing) and George Hotel on the right.
The main sources of employment are tourism (we're 3 miles from the Lake District National Park), farming and service industries for the population.  There used to be a big bakery, but that closed. Building and transport have also been big employers in the past but house-building has been in the doldrums since house prices rose beyond the reach of local people and the transport industry has been badly hit by cuts. Even so there's almost full employment around here and staff have to be recruited from elsewhere for the hotels and restaurants in the summer (usually eastern Europe). Cumbrian ambulance services were also short of 27 paramedics which had to be recruited from Poland. Our health services are challenged by the geography (big distances and fells and lakes to be navigated). You can wait for at least an hour for an ambulance around here - and that's for an urgent call-out. GPs are also in short supply (my practice has only part time doctors and a long waiting time for appointments) and there's only one hospital with a fully functioning A&E and that has been (until a few weeks ago) in special measures.  Food banks are booming as the cost of accommodation eats up the low salaries of young families.  You get the picture.

Empty arcade - A vision of the future?
Before the financial crash there was a big 'Rural Regeneration' initiative, bolstered with European money.  Their idea of rural regeneration was to create more shops.  If this sounds absolutely bonkers, then it is!  We have a reasonably static population with limited funds - wages are low around here.  If you build shopping malls the same amount of spending money is going to be spread around these new outlets as well as the existing ones.  The plans were put on hold when the financial crash of 2008 happened, but then revived as a sure fire solution to 'Rural Recovery'.  Nothing anyone said in opposition did any good.  So rows of little shops were bulldozed down and their proprietors put out of business. A large car park also vanished.

We've got streets of empty shops
A big shiny new shopping mall was created - Penrith New Squares - as well as two new supermarkets.  We got a Booths (northern Waitrose) and a Sainsburys. Predictably two or our existing supermarkets went out of business as a result. One of them was a Coop department store which was very good value for money and could also cater for any household need you could think of.  You now have to go to a big city to get things like that. Only Aldis is thriving here.

They're all 'To Let'
That was 2011 - now, 6 years later the shopping mall still lies empty.  It has an eerie feel to it as you walk through. Who is going to rent these shops?  Certainly not the businesses that were bulldozed down - they can't afford to.  And there aren't the customers to justify anything else.  A couple of units have been occupied - Sports Direct has moved in, but seems to have a permanent sale.  And we have a Boots opticians that is usually empty. There are empty shops and offices in the old town centre too. I mourn the money that has been spent, the small historic streets that were demolished,  and the political ideology (which makes no economic sense) that shopping is somehow the answer to our contemporary ills. You can only spend your way out of a recession on huge amounts of borrowed money and look where that got us in 2008.
Angel Lane is still standing, but others were demolished to make way for New Squares.
The north is not thriving - it's hanging on by its fingernails with low-paid, seasonal jobs and zero hours contracts. There's an increasing elderly population as people from the south sell their expensive real-estate and retire to cheaper houses in the north.  Some areas are already referred to as 'God's Waiting Room'.  The Brexit vote was intended by many (though not all) as a slap in the face to the government's increasingly south-facing policies (summed up by a recent cartoon 'Weather Warning: Snowfall affecting the unimportant 70% of the country may hit London') .  In an area with a sitting Tory MP who has a huge, unassailable majority, there's little anyone can do to protest at the ballot box and that is democratically dangerous. What's the solution?  I really don't know.  Certainly some form of proportional representation (as in Scotland) and more autonomy for the North.  Anyone got any good ideas that don't involve shopping?

Monday, 24 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: - Mapping Emily (and Wuthering Heights)

“I have to remind myself to breathe – almost to remind my heart to beat! . . . I wish I were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free.” 
Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights

My lungs refuse to breathe.
I struggle; visualise the bronchi
as the diagram of an estuary, or a tree
branching out towards the open sky,
veined by the dark shadows of vessels
carrying the bright oxygen of the blood.
The intake and output of necessity.

This is my heart, thudding like the wing-beats
of the red grouse that startled
from the bracken. The pulse of it against
the bone – a metronome beating time.

My eyes are on the horizon, confused
by sky, the complications of path and rock,
pillows of gaudy sphagnum, the microscopic
yellow suns of Tormentil, bracken unravelling
like knitting, the burnt skeletons of heather and
the ruined steadings burying themselves
under turf and nettle. This is truth.

This hand, knocking on the window;
the angular knuckles, fingers that can tear
meat and sinew from the bone, no gentleness,
but a strong grip on the pen, dipping its sharp nib
into the well, inking hard words in a small space,
needling the pages into a book, giving an identity
to this passion coffined in five feet six
by sixteen inches wide.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

From Mapping Emily, published by Templar Poetry, 2017

Emily Bronte painted by Branwell Bronte

I wrote  several of the poems for 'Mapping Emily' at Ponden Hall - the original house that Emily Bronte used for Wuthering Heights and Anne Bronte for Wildfell Hall.  The two younger Bronte sisters spent a lot of time at Ponden, partly because it had a good library, but also because Branwell was friends with the son of the owners.  Ponden Hall is where the Bronte sisters took refuge after the Crow Hill Bog Burst, an explosive landslide on the moor that terrified everyone in the vicinity.
Charlotte's Stone

The waterfall they often walked to.
 Ponden is on the edge of the moors, a wild enough location not far from Haworth, and it's easy to walk the paths the Bronte sisters took to the waterfall, and to Top Withens, which is identified so often as Wuthering Heights the Bronte Society have erected a plaque categorically denying it.  Ponden was named as Emily's inspiration by both Charlotte Bronte and her father.  A (now withered) pear tree in the garden was apparently planted by a member of the Heaton family, its owners, to please Emily, who declined his advances.

Ponden Hall as it was, and is now. 

Many of the original features remain.  Upstairs there's a box bed you can shut yourself into, with the small window that Cathy tapped on when she returned to haunt Heathcliff.

Staying there is a wonderful experience.  I was lucky that Sally Wainwright's 'Walking Invisible' was being filmed while I was there and I was able to walk round the set they had built up on the moors, representing the Parsonage, the graveyard and the centre of Hawarth as it used to be in the Bronte's time.

Rambling the paths that Emily walked daily was magical.  I suffer from asthma and walking uphill is sometimes a struggle for my damaged lungs; but it also gave me an insight into the challenge that Emily faced, walking the moors with advanced turberculosis.

Emily was fearless, writing poems of passion and fury such as 'No Coward Soul is Mine', and a novel that transgressed the Victorian moral code with incest, illegitimacy and extra marital love at its core.  She was the most physical of the Bronte girls, kneading bread, chopping meat and bones, beating her dog with her bare fists until they bled.  Yet those hands wrote some of the 'tiny books' you can see at Haworth parsonage museum, with minute print and delicate stitches to sew the small pages together.  She was the tallest of the Brontes, but almost unbearably thin - her coffin was only sixteen inches wide.

I'm launching 'Mapping Emily' at Keats' House in north London at a reading with Irish poet Olive Broderick, on Tuesday 25th April, at 7 pm.  The event is free and there is wine!

You can buy the book from the publisher, Templar Poetry, on this link and eventually on Amazon.

The Concept of Leadership - and the mess it's got us into

Another round of elections, none of which seem to make life any better, and I can hear that word being bandied around on every TV or radio channel and it leaps out at me from every newspaper article on the stand.  Leadership.  That's what it's all about isn't it?  That's the most essential quality to look for in the top job. The reason we should be going for anyone except Jeremy Corbyn. Right?
Corbyn - an honest man?
It seems it's not enough to have integrity and a set of rational, humane and economically sound policies.  You also have to have this elusive quality that gets you on TV and across the front pages of newspapers and has everyone trooping after you like the Pied Piper, no matter how daft or draconian your politics. Why are we so sure that the attributes of ruthlessness, cunning, speciousness, and ability to dominate others that we require of a leader are desirable qualities? I can't help but think that 'Leadership' is the last thing I'm looking for at the moment.  I just want someone intelligent and capable, with some kind of vision for a better future for my kids. Someone I can trust not to blow up the planet, who might just try to make sure there's still a planet there with a tolerable environment for my grandkids to grow up in.

A supreme leader
When you begin to think about it, leadership isn't exactly something to be admired.  Mrs Thatcher had it in spades.  Presumably Donald Trump has it, since so many people were conned into voting for him.  Tony Blair had it, and he followed Leader George Bush into one of the most damaging wars of the 20th century. Hitler had it;  Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot - almost certainly Attila the Hun.  So now you can see why I'm not sure it's a desirable quality. Look where it gets us.

Not a poster boy, but a very effective prime minister
Before the age of TV and mass media a glamorous image and a corporate reputation weren't so necessary in a politician.  One of our most effective prime ministers was Clement Atlee, who won a huge Labour majority just after the second world war.  He laid the foundations for rebuilding the shattered UK economy and established the National Health Service.  Atlee was not a natural public figure - a shy, clever man who, as Deputy PM in Churchill's administration, had been the one who handled the detail behind the scenes, with a tremendous depth of knowledge.  But a poster boy he certainly was not. Yet he has had a great influence for good in shaping our lives throughout the second half of the 20th century.  Michael Foot, another intellectual with no public image, didn't fare as well, nicknamed 'Worzel Gummidge' in the press.  He led Labour into an election they lost spectacularly and was quickly replaced. He is sometimes referred to as 'the best prime minister we never had'.
Gordon Brown being humiliated by the Daily Mail
Gordon Brown was vilified by the media for his lack of leadership skills and polished image.  Yet his record as a Prime Minister will bear scrutiny for a long time into the future and his integrity and honesty were impeccable.  The Tories have also had their PR problems.  They ditched Alec Douglas Home, not because he wasn't clever enough to do the job, but because he looked like Skeletor on television.

Another question that bothers me - we're supposed to be a democracy, not an autocracy or dictatorship -  rule is by cabinet committee.  So why do we need a Supreme Ego to lead us?  Why? I'm beginning to think  that until we deal with this, we're doomed to keep on electing the politicians we deserve - leaders like Donald Trump.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: - Remember to be Kind

You have no idea,
absolutely no idea.

Sixteen, all imagination and deceit;
you can play anyone
except yourself.

It won’t go well; there will be times
you’ll wish yourself dead, somewhere else, anywhere
but the place you’re in.

Wanting to belong you’ll plant yourself
in foreign soil, sending your roots down deep

only to tear yourself up, bleeding, time after time, moving
your tent like a nomad across the world.

(Remember to read the instructions, the small print,
never hope for the best. )

Refuse to be seduced by roses, fast cars,
their owners, sentimental music, sunsets.

(Love, like belonging, is an uncertain partnership).

Claim your own space, never be afraid
to step out into unknown territory, armed only
with words.  They will serve you well.

Love fearlessly, give everything,
and never, never regret the consequences.

Listen for your own inner music:
it has something important to tell you.

Laugh, dance, drink wine and always
remember to be kind.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

I've been dipping in and out of NaPoWriMo.  I find it impossible to write a poem a day - sometimes it's a prompt I don't like, often just too busy/tired, but I'm trying to write something every day, even if it's only a few jottings.  The prompt 2 days ago was to write a letter.  I've also been asked to write a 'letter to my younger self' for the Royal Literary Fund website, so it's been in my thoughts for a while without me doing anything about it.  So I sat on a train and did a freewrite, starting with the first words that came into my head when confronted by my sixteen year old self,  'you have no idea' - and this is the result.  Still needs knocking about a bit, but I'm daring to share. 

On the left is a picture of me at 16 - all romance and no sense!!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Leading a Double Life and the Carpenter of Lampedusa

Writers are supposed to be good at leading double lives.  'We write to taste life twice,' wrote Anais Nin. 'In the moment and in retrospection.'   But I not only have a writing life, I have an English life and an Italian life.  I'm always amazed at how easily I slip into my Italian skin.  There's a slowing down, a tendency to linger over sensual moments - food, wine, the sun slipping into the Mediterranean, conversations with friends, sliding your fingers through a rack of silk lingerie (ridiculously cheap) in a street market, shop window displays that are colourful works of art, a stucco building just catching the pink and amber rays of the setting sun.. . .  perhaps I'd better not go on.

I'm a small part Italian, on my mother's side, so perhaps the susceptibility is in my genes.  The Italians are a more sensual people than we hardened northerners. And then, Italian life is so attractive, centred as it is around the table with family and/or friends.  So much of life here is sitting in the piazza with a coffee or a glass of wine (depending on how broke you are) chatting to people.  Then there's the alluring workman's lunches, the 'pranzo di lavoro', with home cooking to die for and the local wine thrown in.
'Pranzo' with friends on our terrace
Because my partner works in a community where almost everyone is an artist or a technician, or makes their living in some way from sculptors and painters, there's always a gallery opening with free prosecco and nibbles and much hugging and kissing, and often live music as well.  There are pop-up exhibitions, and impromptu affairs in people's back gardens.  Life is more sociable than you can ever imagine.
Neil at work
But under all this conviviality beats the dark heart of Italy - a precarious banking system, a political and economic system as corrupt and crony-ridden as any in the 3rd world, a massive unemployment issue among young people, taxation at 50% of everything, an increasingly unstable climate, and a refugee problem that dwarfs any other European country.

Most of them are from northern Africa.  The ones who have made it this far north, make their living from selling trinkets to tourists, or parking cars in the chaotic car parks in town.  Very rarely do you see anyone begging.  But they do hassle you and many people give them money to go away.
My favourite street trader, Mortela, who never hassles!
Further south, in the poorer 'Mezzogiorno' (roughly translated 'afternoon') of the country, the problem is much worse. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees are rescued from sinking boats every week. Hundreds more die.  Anyone who has read about the optician of Lampedusa and his courageous actions, while out for a quiet afternoon sail, will have been moved by the decision he had to make. 'How do I save them all?' the optician asked, faced with hundreds of drowning migrants he knew could not be hauled aboard his little boat that would hold only 10.  That he saved so many, at risk of sinking his own craft, is a tribute to human courage.  But he is still haunted by the others he couldn't help. 'We were terribly traumatised afterwards,' he said, and his wife had to be hospitalised. Since then he has worked to help the refugees, whatever the personal cost.

Italy is more charitable than many other countries - but one does wonder when that will begin to crack under the pressure of numbers in a region that is already one of the poorest in Europe.

In the small museum in Pisa, among the precious medieval icons, there is a single rough cross on a pole.  This was made out of two planks from wrecked boats by Francesco Tuccio, the Carpenter of Lampedusa, who has made memorials for each of those who died in the crossing.  Its simplicity brings you up short among all that gilded inconography.  The values of Christianity and Islam - the two religions that straddle the Mediterranean, are charitable and compassionate.  They have been undermined by fear and overtaken by the brutal, uncaring values of property, wealth, and the pursuit of power through oppression and dispossession.  While the Un-United Kingdom inspects its own entrails with a magnifying glass and shuts the door on a few hundred orphaned children, Italy's generous people are opening weary arms to embrace desperate people every day of the week.  That's only one of the reasons why I love this country.

One of our spectacular sunsets over the Mediterranean
How much longer, given the UK government's chosen Brexit path, will I be able to live a double life? Probably not much longer, which is unbelievably sad.  My partner is already packing up, affected by the new and horrible exchange rate, anticipating the withdrawal of health care and visa problems that are in the pipeline.   He hasn't booked the flight home yet though, so there's still hope! 

Monday, 10 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Revolution - Tatlin's Flight


It is machine, eviscerated, just
a grace of polished ash and canvas

the elegant equivalence of flight

I stand under its shadow
watching the cage of  ribs
rotating dark and light

on a white screen; a metaphor
for all our airborne dreamings.

Long spokes - the aluminium pin feathers
of its wings - scissor across
the backdrop simulating naked aviation

the fish-shaped tail tilts up, nose down,
a structure arrested
in beautiful fall, what is left

of himself and the revolutionary music
trapped - a gigantic insect - revolving
in the moment of its execution.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

Photo Hettie Judah, Instagram.

It's NaPoWriMo - and I can't write a poem a day.  Maybe a poem a week.  This poem (still in progress) came out of a visit to the Revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy.  Tatlin's Glider, 'Letatlin', suspended under the dome and lit so that images are projected onto the canvas backdrop as it rotates, was one of the most interesting things I saw.  I could have sat for hours watching the images changing, in a silent simulation of flight.

Vladimir Tatlin was a Russian artist and architect and is usually mentioned alongside Malevich as one of the most influential artists of the revolutionary period, though the two had violent disagreements.  Tatlin became a 'constructionist'.  He was fascinated by the flight of birds and constructed many 'gliders' in an effort to facilitate human flight.  He called them 'Letatlin' - a play on words.  'Letat' is the Russian word for flight and he combined it with his own name.

There were many other wonderful things at the exhibition - film footage by Eisenstein, a lot of paintings and sculptures by Malevich, Kandinsky, and other major painters of that period. There is some wonderful photography, and propaganda, as well as ceramics and textiles, showing the struggle that artists had to conform to the political agenda and still make a living. There are portraits of Anna Akhmatova and her lover, the artist Nikolai Punin, who was sent to the Gulags by Stalin and died there. One of the most moving parts of the exhibition was the Memory Room where you can sit and look at a screen projecting images of some of those unfortunate people Stalin sent to the camps. Civil servants, teachers, doctors, workers, writers, artists, students. Some of them survived, but many of them were shot or died of ill-treatment.  It's not often that an exhibition is able to give you a glimpse of a whole culture, but this one does.  It's a chilling taste of what it is like to live as a creative being under authoritarianism.  Let's just pray that it never comes back. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Tuesday Poem: Thirteen Shades of Black

There is the black of a young raven
which is blue;

and the event horizon at the centre of a galaxy
beyond which is an absence of light;

the fluttering fabric of a hijab in the courtyard
of the women’s mosque, a dark sail
‘veiling human-kind from God’.

The bones of a tree, inked
on a winter horizon.

A Jaguar; all burning eyes, white teeth and darkness
in the Amazon rain forest.

The dress my mother treasured
Chanel style; the one every woman
should have.

The dark sink-hole at the centre of an eye
you disappear into
upside down.

The purple-black of a bruise
after the failure of love.

The mildewed winter coat my grandfather kept
for funerals and weddings
green at the cuffs and pockets.

Malevich in Lenin’s Russia, painting his revolutionary square;
a black symbol of the new art.

The bloated corpse floating in the loch;
the faceless killer, child abductor.  This is NOIR.
You are too afraid to sleep but
can’t stop watching.

The almost seen, out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye
dart and flutter of a bat – a flitter-mouse
of fur and leather, writing its character on the dusk.

New school shoes; their black Cherry Blossom shine.

Blacking out. An absence of consciousness,
the spinning vortex of the fall.  Which is gravity.
Which is black.

© Kathleen Jones 2017

How many of you have been doing NaPoWriMo?   National Poetry Month - that good intention to write a poem a day for a month?   I definitely can't keep up - my life has been so busy I haven't even managed to blog for a couple of weeks now.  But I am trying to at least think around a subject every day.  I found Jo Bell's 'A Month of Poetry Prompts', which she created for the 52 project, very useful and I've been having a go at some of them.  

Yesterday was a command to write a new take on 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens and the response by RS Thomas, Thirteen Blackbirds Look at a Man.   So this is my version of thirteen ways to look at something - written appropriately in the middle of the night.   Some bits are contentious:  does gravity have a colour?  But if gravity is associated with dark matter then, yes, it's probably going to be black. Unconsciousness certainly is.  And there will be some who question my inclusion of no. III. on the grounds of cultural sensitivity.  But one of my most potent memories is sitting in the women's mosque in Shiraz and watching a billowing hijab against the light - the quote in the third line is taken from a Muslim text explaining why it might be necessary to wear one - the idea of covering one's head in the presence of God is also common in Judaism and Christianity.  As children we had to wear a dark head covering to enter a Catholic church.  In Spain and Italy women still do.

Someone is bound to point out that it should be 50 Shades of Black, but then I'd have been up all night!!

Jo Bell is also posting a poem a day this month, with commentary, on her blog - and very good they have been.  This is the link.