Tuesday, 21 January 2020

One day I'll swim the channel...but not here, I'm afraid

About forty years ago I taught myself to swim in Bacup baths. Since then, I’ve swum on a fairly regular basis in pools all over Greater Manchester and Lancashire, London, Devon, Cornwall and anywhere else I’ve happened to be living, working and holidaying.
So many pools, some old, some new, some quirky, some like glass cathedrals, but always the same swimmers: beginners, improvers, dynamic torpedoes, and people who simply want to claim a bit of quiet for themselves – all ploughing up and down, up and down. 

When I moved to Witney in Oxfordshire, one of the first things I did was join Windrush Leisure Centre. Swimming after work is calming and strengthening. I was entering my 50s and keen to maintain good health. They do laid-back evening sessions which are quiet and focused. 

I remember meeting a woman who was swimming the channel. "How many lengths is that?" I asked. "1,416." She said it had changed her whole lifestyle. She felt better than she'd felt in years. Another woman I met was swimming right up until the week before she gave birth. Her labour was virtually painless and only lasted a couple of hours. I decided there and then I'd do the Channel challenge, but then someone high up decided we would swim in rectangles from now on. I checked out the other local pools. Everyone was still swimming up and down. Only Witney was banning lengths. Bizarre, but I had no reason to think that swimming wouldn't continue to be an invigorating and inspiring part of my weekly routine.

The thing I’ve noticed with pools that have one or two basic rules is this: people don’t dive bomb and run along the sides or attempt to plunge head-first into shallow water; they get on with what they've come to do and hardly anyone comes to any harm. Swimmers are generally a rather friendly polite lot and altercations are very rare. We manage to glide past each other without mishap and try to give way to less confident people as well as steer clear of superheroes aiming to complete mega-lengths in record time.

At Witney, however, there are lots of rules. One lane is fast and  clockwise, one is medium and counterclockwise, another is slow and clockwise, and the larger bit is for general use and goes counterclockwise, so you have to decide if you’re fast, medium or slow or whether you belong to some other category like floaters, couples engaging in foreplay or people who want to have a pleasant chat in the shallow end. There are also a handful of swimmers who are Very Committed to the Rectangle and this is a category completely unique to Witney.

Now, I’m not fast, and I doubt very much if I’m medium, so I dived into the deep end and began swimming in the slow lane in a clockwise fashion, which is impossible, given it’s only a lane’s width. I discovered this when someone reprimanded me for bumping into him whilst doing backstroke. "By the way," he said. "Shouldn’t you be in the medium lane?" I apologised and swam under the ropes to the next lane, but of course, I forgot which direction I was supposed to be going in and got told off again. "By the way," the next person said. "Shouldn’t you be in the slow lane?" 

The thing with rules is the more you have, the more confused people get, and the more confused people get, the angrier they are. I regularly get told off for being at the wrong speed. Nobody knows what the official rectangle speed is supposed to be, but most people have their own opinion. For the floaters it’s a nice bobbing along tempo; for the couple indulging in foreplay and the those having a conversation in the shallow end, it’s zero knots per hour; as for the rest of us, it seems that whatever you do is wrong, unless you're the person who's doing it right.

I’ve been punched by a woman who thought I was too fast, had fingernails scraped along my skin by people who wanted me out of their way because I was too slow, been bashed by flailing arms and even barred from entering the shallow end. One morning a gang of three stood legs apart and arms stretched out to prevent me getting any further because I was doing lengths. “But there’s no sign up today,” I said. The rules, you see, can be quite arbitrary. “But WE swim in rectangles,” said one gang member. “We LIKE rectangles.” “No problem,” I said. “I like lengths and we’re allowed to do what we want today.” I called the sleepy guard over. “She can do whatever she wants,” he mumbled. So, I continued my lengths and the gang of three glared at me for the remainder of the session and got some sly kicks in when he wasn't looking.

I should mention that these are adult sessions. They can, on occasion, be utter bliss after a 12-hour day. You turn up at 9 o’clock and, if you're one of only half a dozen people, you really can just plough up and down for a whole hour at your own pace. 50 – 60 lengths before bedtime is the best de-stresser I know. Unless the guard enforces the rectangle on you because one of the gang of three has just turned up at 9:35. “It’s for safety,” he explains. “But we’re grown-ups and there are only four of us. Why bother heating up the middle of the pool if we’re only allowed to go round the outside?" He doesn't answer.

Witney surpassed itself last week. I turned up to discover a significantly reduced general bit swimming counterclockwise. It was sad watching the floaters bobbing like gentle potatoes amongst the Very Committed to the Rectangle gang. The frottaging couple was there, and the conversationalists were in full swing, so there was barely room to turn a corner. However, the slow lane was free so I took my chances and dived in. To my left were the mediums and, next to them, the superheroes powering along nicely. Farthest away was the reason for the sudden squishing up of the general bit: something that appeared to be aquaprayer. That’s novel, I thought. There was a lot of kneeling and standing and some walking about and an enthusiastic instructor making prayer hands.

I got to length 32 and was feeling stronger and stronger, having settled into good deep diaphragmatic breathing when a man crashed into me. “Sorry,” we both said, because we’re adults, then he politely informed me I was going the wrong way. I turned around and blow me if they hadn’t exchanged the slow clockwise sign for a medium counterclockwise. I wasn’t just going the wrong way, I was going the wrong speed. I apologised again and swam under the rope and joined the floaters, frottagers and chatterboxes. It was chaos, but worse was to come. The guard suddenly decided to remove the ropes. Now we were all in it together and no one knew whether they were supposed to be fast, medium, slow, praying, clockwise, counterclockwise or what. The only people who seemed utterly unfazed were the frottaging couple and the two potatoes floating slowly towards the exit.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Pensions and Passes and the Passion of Politics

This year I turned 65 and five months later can now claim my pension and free bus pass (thank you successive Tory governments for making me wait so long). 

2019 also happens to include the financial year I found myself working 50-60-hour weeks and three weekends out of four in an effort to make what I earned in 2005. Not many organisations pay the Royal Society of Authors’ or the Poetry Society’s recommended fees. Not many, I suspect, can genuinely afford to. But if a plumber or a builder needs to be called in, you can bet that their asking price will be accepted. The UK has never valued the Arts in the same way.

Artists can't afford to live on fees that are pegged back to what we were earning over 10 years ago. Despite this, we slog on, many of us working well past our retirement ages. We do this because we're often passionate about the work we do. You can seldom stop an artist producing their own work anyway. We need to write, paint, compose, sing, dance etc. It's like breathing to us. But our work with people often has a political charge, or at least a moral impetus guiding it, and that is, in some ways, more like collective breathing.

It's generally recognised these days that participation in the Arts has a profoundly positive effect on people’s wellbeing. Care homes, hospitals and day centres, as well as schools and community organisations want us to facilitate workshops in growing numbers, and because they're strapped for cash (thank you again successive Tory governments) they take advantage of our passion and commitment.

I’ve lost count of the requests I've had with a fee offer that's the equivalent of what I was getting in 1995. Yes, you read that figure correctly.  Seriously, would you expect a plumber to work for what she or he was earning 24 years ago? I have friends who are in their 70s working ridiculous hours. The government may be blithely telling us that austerity is over – but over for whom?

To be honest, I don't want to fully retire. However, I would like to look after my health a bit more. Thank you, Freedom from Torture, for inadvertently sparking the opportunity.

As many of you know, I have been working with FfT clients in Newcastle as well as initially in Middleborough. The poet DorothyYamamoto, who is a member of Oxford Stanza II, is also a keen supporter and she edited an anthology of poems to raise money for the charity. I’ve discovered supporters in the village where I live, too. The circles widen and overlap like Venn diagrams.

Enter an email into my Inbox telling me about an initiative by Edinburgh FfT member Moira Dunworth to cycle from Hastings to her hometown to raise much needed funds. Moira is my age and retired and can do these things. She also has political awareness and passion and guts and determination in abundance.

Can I offer my support? Great Dog on a bike! Can I? I must! My other big passion is cycling. No way will my work schedule allow me to volunteer for more than a local stage, but I can at least join Moira and Shelagh King (also retired who has teamed up to do the whole 865 miles).

Before I can change my mind, I sign up, put the word out amongst friends and colleagues for sponsorship, then set about earmarking dates and times in my busy schedule for training.

As the weeks go by and the £s start rolling in, the miles accumulate on my speedo, and, as the miles accumulate and my fitness levels improve, I find I'm spending less time in my office and more sunny summer evenings whizzing past fields filled with bird song. The work still gets done. Somehow, I've managed to compress more in less time. My head is clearer and the £s – my wages – also begin to roll in following some stern reminders to agencies that have mislaid my invoices, or simply mislaid the will to pay me.

On the day I achieve pensionable age and can apply for my free bus pass, I have satisfactorily completed some 200 training miles and an array of local hills, including the White Horse at Uffington, six funerals, three baby namings, one wedding, eight writing workshops in Newcastle, six in Norwich, numerous meetings and endless hours of preparation and planning, a seven-day exchange visit to our sister poets in Bonn, manuscript readings, translations and a handful of scrappy notes for poems that may or may not come to anything.

The stage 5 ride from Oxford to Milton Keynes is a doddle and deeply pleasurable and the company of the riders is warm and generous. Our leader, Joanna, sets the perfect pace. Somehow, we arrive two hours ahead of schedule, and disband in brilliant sunshine after team photos. I’ve raised £564 – thank you, generous friends and colleagues – and the entire team, including Violet Hejazi who has learnt to cycle in order to do an 85-mile stretch, has raised nearly £12,000 to date, plus gift aid. I am painfully aware that the funds really should be coming from central government for the vital work that FfT does, but so should funds for a lot of charities. It’s the same old story – the powers that be taking advantage of people’s passion and commitment, our will to generally improve the lot of humanity.

That evening I meet up with Moira and Shelagh again for an excellent Turkish meal. “Bonne route,” I wish them as we hug and say our goodbyes afterwards. “Work less,” says Moira. “Do good things better.” 

Put that pension to proper use, in other words.

Friday, 31 May 2019

Choosing the Open Space

Not long now till Oxford Stanza II's return visit to Bonn. We have many exciting things planned, not least a reading at Anno Tubac and a mask making session with music and performance, as well as our usual workshops at the Arp Museum and plenty of opportunities for food and merriment.

Our theme for this visit is Toni Morrison's quote "I refuse the prison of I and choose the open space of we." Never have international links been so important.

The Creative Future workshops in Newcastle are coming to an end now and I shall miss working with everyone there, as well as miss the warmth and friendliness of the city itself. I keep saying I will treat myself to a leisurely visit there one day. Perhaps later in the year...

Creative Future workshops will begin in Norwich as from next month, and continue into July. Again, I shall be working with asylum seekers and chiefly younger people on this occasion. Where there are language difficulties, interpreters are often a help, but it is also true to say that when the desire to communicate is strong, the meeting ground of ideas is fertile with inventiveness. I have had conversations with people at bus stops when neither of us spoke a word of each other's language. One can always act out a verb and mime or draw a noun.

My last bit of news is a charity bike ride for Freedom From Torture. Some team members are doing the whole Hastings to Edinburgh trip. I'm afraid I only have time for the Oxford to Milton Keynes leg - a mere 40 miles. Do sponsor me - or sponsor any of the other team riders. One of them has only just learnt to ride a bike and she's doing 85 miles, I believe!

For those who don't know, Freedom From Torture is the only UK-based human rights organisation dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of torture survivors. Your donation could provide counselling, group therapy and ongoing support for them. It will help give someone hope and strength on their journey to recovery.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Two Events, Two Cities, and a Coat

An exciting week coming up. On Sunday, The Coat of Two Colours is being performed at the Royal College of Music. Oliver Vibrans, a talented composer who has worked in theatre and for radio, and I have revisited this work since its première in Cambridge, and are looking forward to seeing it in a new setting. 

The Coat explores what happens when two communities, who work side by side and hold everything in common, witness an event from entirely different perspectives. It is a tale for our times, it is a tale for all times, and its answer lies, perhaps, with the next generation.

Do come, if you are in London.

Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall
Sunday 28th April 
5 pm

The event is part of the Great Exhibitionists series and is free, but tickets are required. Book here. 

For those of you who live further north, the other exciting occasion is The Studio of Sanctuary Celebration Event at the Art House in Wakefield on Thursday May 2nd. Don't forget to cast your votes in the election before attending, though! I shall be popping along to my local polling station before boarding the train for what promises to be a heart-warming occasion.

Studio of Sanctuary
The Art House
Drury Lane

Thursday May 2nd
5 - 7 pm

Refreshments and Music
Studio of Sanctuary Plaque unveiling
Readings and Prizes for the 2018 Writing Competition

And after that I'm in Bonn working with the renowned Dada war alles gut writers in June. But more about that in another post.

In the meantime, here are some links for you:

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Blossom, Creeping Doubt and Belly Buttons

The days are lengthening, the trees are fat with blossom and tiny leaves, the birds are singing me awake every morning and the sun has been shining for several consecutive days now.When you hear that your poem, along with five others, has been chosen by Ian Duhig to celebrate 40 years of the National Poetry Competition, you begin to wonder if things can't get any better. But they do. Wakefield, City of Sanctuary, recently hosted a poetry competition and it has also selected a poem of mine as the winner. So, yes, I admit it, I am grinning from ear to ear.

But it's funny how winning a competition or having your work published can affect you. Pleasure is, undeniably, the first emotion you feel. It's nice to be rewarded for your hard work. But then comes a strange sort of creeping doubt. Why didn't they choose someone else's poem? Surely there must have been some better than mine. And when you read the other poems, you really do wonder why yours and not theirs.

Having been a judge myself, I know how nerve-racking it is to choose a winner - even if there is one poem and one poem only that is shouting at you from the pile. It is impossible to be 100% objective. What about your mood that day? And the collection you were reading the night before? And your particular penchant for this and your dislike of that? Or your inability to understand what a certain poem is about? Some poems have to be read again and again before they start to grow on you and become firm favourites. Who am I to judge? That has always been the  question I have wrestled with when placed in this position. If you are one of a panel of judges, you learn how contrary some decisions seem. One judge may change another judge's mind by an observation that shows up the other judge's oversight. And let's face it, not all nuances are perceived in the same way.

These are understandable reasons why some people despise competitions. The ultimate choice is always subjective, even if there is consensus. But does this mean that competitions are without value? The dilemma, of course, is something editors are faced with. Sooner or later a decision has to be made, otherwise there would be no poetry magazines or books and there would be no festival readings. And there would therefore be nothing to aspire to. This is where I have to come down on the side of competitions. Aside from the  monetary gain - and let's face it - most poets are stony broke - there is one essential fact. Someone whose work you respect has chosen a piece of work on the basis that it is of a high standard. Now, we might disagree about what makes a good poem, but it's surprising how many winners have made it into my own personal list of favourites. Think about your favourite poets. Think about why you like some poems and not others. Think about the last poem you read that made you see the world anew or even differently. Someone chose that poem. Perhaps you did. You heard it read in a workshop and you said "I like that." You didn't say that about the others. You only said it about that one. Why?

I find myself in good company today - read the poems that Poetry News will be featuring - and rather than doubt, I find I am filled with a desire to be more rigorous, more accurate and honest, more attentive to language. If someone's imagination thrills me, then I have new questions to ask of my own ability to fling open doors and windows. Doubt is only useful when it leads to a desire to stretch and test boundaries. Navel gazing is just navel gazing, and unless you have a desperate need to make sense of belly buttons in a truly dynamic and startling way, you should resist it.

So, thank you, Ian Duhig. And thank you to the person or people of Wakefield - I am looking forward to meeting you all at the Art House on May 2nd. And finally, thank you to every poet who has fed my wonder and imagination and taught me to think more deeply about the world.

Poetry Society Members Poems in Poetry News

Hear and read Ian Duhig

The Poetry Society

Wakefield City of Sanctuary

Friday, 8 February 2019

Snow and Sanctuary and Some Serious Thinking

What plans have you got for 2019? Quite a few people have asked me this. We like to give shape to our lives, don't we? We like to have things to look forward to, especially when there are things we dread. I refuse to use the B word in this blog. The world is a mighty big place and the current fiasco will continue with or without our consent.

Let's talk about snow! What fun that was - for some of us, anyway. Bodmin Moor would't have been my chosen route knowing all that weather was rolling in. Sorry if I sound smug. But really, the only thing I'd get in a car for in that situation would be to do a funeral - and yes, I have on at least one occasion done that. Otherwise, this is where you'll find me. Skiving off, because we only have one life and it's important to live it well if you can.

There's something marvellously focusing about snow. Its ability to transform everything that's familiar is remarkable. Everything sounds different for a start. There is an absence of smell, which sharpens your sense of it. You suddenly become aware of that morning's soap on your hands when you take your gloves off to blow your nose. A passing muntjac has left its scent on a hedge. There. And now it's gone. Colour shocks. Red berries. A dog's pink tongue. And then there's that stinging sensation when a blizzard whips up and snatches at your face. Lovely, that feeling of being alive and alert to the fact.

And still the daffodils that came up on Christmas Eve persist. And still the crocuses and the snowdrops pierce the green that follows the thaw. Spring is not far away. The birdsong has already changed. There are pairs of dunnocks, house sparrows, blue tits and even robins in the garden. I spend hours looking at birds through my binoculars this time of year. 

Here's another B word that fills me with joy. Bonn. I am looking forward to a return visit in June. The relationship between Stanza II and Dada war alles gut goes from strength to strength. We are still sharing our work and still translating and workshopping our poems. We have a joint reading planned for June 10th at Anno Tubac, which boasts Bonn's oldest cabaret stage. More news to follow in subsequent blogs, so watch this space.

Wakefield is a City of Sanctuary. It is proud to host asylum seekers. I shall be reading at their poetry competition celebratory event some time soon and it will give me much pleasure. I am also heartened and excited by the Afghan Women's Orchestra Project in Oxford. They will be performing with the Orchestra of St. John's at the Sheldonian on Sunday 17th March. Click here for more information and to book a seat. And tell your friends. Better still, bring your friends.

Recently, I attended Refugees’ Experience of Grieving the Dead - a seminar organised by the Death, Dying and Bereavement Group, Open University and the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath.

It's important to move away from Eurocentric perspectives now and then. I work with refugees on and off throughout the year, so this seminar was enormously useful. It was valuable on many levels, not least with regard to humanist ethics.

The talks examined our human (micro) responses to the (macro) machinery of global catastrophes like war, famine and political oppression. How do people living in refugee camps bury their dead? How can they honour/commemorate those who died in their homelands if they are displaced and can't return there? If a relative has been disappeared or has drowned in the Mediterranean, how can a person grieve? What, then, is the nature of that grief? We considered people who were locked into a frozen state of bereavement and how we might create rituals that offer some kind of solace or at least formal recognition. There were some extraordinary accounts of human endeavour and compassion - repatriation of bodies to Senegal, the task of identifying bodies that had been washed up or rescued, opening up personal family graves to accommodate strangers' loved ones who had died. There are many individuals doing hugely important work. 

Bereavement is seldom considered by NGOs. Bereavement is never considered by politicians/populations wishing to keep refugees away from their borders. Big serious issues here - emotional, psychological, cultural, religious, ethical...I shall be signing up to attend more of these seminars and very likely their conference later this year.

For those of you who are interested, here are some links:

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

The Travels of St. Cecilia, gets its première on 22nd November. As I said before, I'm coming out of retirement as an actor for this, so it's a one-off.

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music and thereafter, any resemblance ends, because this cantata is a joyful and often totally bonkers romp celebrating Oxford's twinning relationships with Bonn, Grenoble, Leiden, León, Perm and Wrocław.  It's a deliberately jolly antidote to the horrors of Brexit and Fortress Britain.

Bring your friends. Bring your family. Bring a spirit of international friendship.

Speaking of which, I have no photos yet of the Peace Poetry event on Sunday 11th November at Beckley Village hall, but I can report that it was very well attended. An enormous amount of money was raised for both Peace Direct and Jalina Myhana, the poet who had come all the way from Florence only to be detained at Gatwick, fingerprinted, and deported to Milan, miles from where she and her British husband live. He was also denied entrance to this country. Fortress Britain gets uglier year on year. Eva Wal, our German poet, noticed a hostile environment at the airport as well. It is deeply depressing.

On the positive side, we had some marvellous poetry commemorating mothers - they are too often forgotten in remembrance events - written and read in both Arabic and English by Syrian poet Muradi Bakir. There was poetry from German and Austrian poets of the First World War, again, read in their original language and in translation. There were contemporary poems written in direct response to these, as well. German poet, Eva Wal, played a film she'd made with young people. It was a beautiful meditation on peace and time.

The whole event was deeply nourishing and I am proud that the perspective was determinedly international and forwards looking, as well as humble and reflective about our shared pasts.

Do have a look at Eva's blog to see what we got up to during the marvellous exchange between Bonn poets Dada War Alles Gut and Oxford's Stanza II. I still can't believe how much we managed to cram in.

Links for you: