Monday, 25 September 2017

Quietly flows the river...

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus  said that no person can ever step in the same river twice because it is never the same river and the person is not the same person. However much we may wish to go back, however much we may wish to repeat the same experience, we are stuck in the present, going forward. Stuck is the wrong word, of course, because  the present is always changing. If stasis exists it is entirely of one's own construction. It exists in the mind.

Last week was the tenth anniversary of my sister's death. Ten years. That's supposed to be a milestone, isn't it? But that's also a construction. Every day since her death has been a different day. I am a different person to the one I was when I received the phone call that September night and I really wouldn't want to swap the new me for the old me. Which is not to say I don't miss my sister and it's not to say that I don't still love her and wish her by my side. But grief can't keep up with the living. Our footsteps outmatch grief in nearly every instance I can think of. There are very few people who enter the two dimensional world of stasis.

And yet...

There has been a fundamental shift in me. My capacity for happiness has been altered. I'm talking about profound happiness here. Happiness is different to having fun. Anyone can have fun. Happiness is deeply layered. It's like love. It is love, perhaps.

Nobody could make me laugh like my sister. She made me laugh in a way that was like being joined to her. Her hair, which was the colour of sunshine, had a texture that reminded me how her presence could fill an entire room. She was like light itself.

I used to find strands of her hair in random places after she'd come to England to visit - on a jumper, on a cushion, on the page of a book. And there were those occasions we'd both think of the same thing at the same time or we'd buy each other the same present. Then there was the last holiday together.

I flew over to Tucson for her 50th birthday. It was the happiest holiday of my life. I thought that then and I thought that afterwards when I was flying back and that's the way that holiday has been ever since. No other holiday has ever matched it.

We had fun - plenty of it - and we had moments of quiet contentment. We walked every day, we drove into the desert, we watched tumultuous rain running down from the mountains into the city run-offs, we talked about death and severance,  we shared the awe that comes from looking at a human body stripped down to its tendons and vascular system in an exhibition and it was pretty much the same curiosity that held us spellbound when a tarantula crawled like a slender hand down the wall into her yard one night. We were so used to sharing, so used to sitting side by side, so used to just being with one another.

And then it was all gone.

My picture is of the River Vecht near Ommen in the Netherlands. I chose it because I took so many photos of it during my last evening camping there and every shot is different. I also chose it because the holiday I had this summer has been my happiest holiday in ten years. It has been the equal of the holiday I've just been describing.

Perhaps I was just ready for happiness to enter my life again. But I think it was more than that. I suspect happiness has to be earned. I spent the whole year prior to it learning German. It's not been easy. In fact, I've found it quite a struggle. I also signed up to an exchange visit with Oxford poets to poets and artists in Bonn. Trying to translate your own work and reading in German as well as in English was, frankly, more than a little unnerving. I also worked flat-out before I went away - I did a two month stint without a single weekend off. The prospect of the holiday was starting to become more than a little significant. There was the mileage involved. From Hoek van Holland to Uelzen and down to the Black Forest and then up to Bonn and back through the Netherlands again was fairly demanding. It was going to be sad-sweet too - post-Brexit, post the deaths of some really close friends, not to mention the climate of mass migrations and terrible violence in the world. There was something keenly alert in me as I set out for Harwich at the beginning of August, something resonating in a way I couldn't easily describe.

First off  was the sea, where I always begin and end up in my poems and stories, and the stunned realisation that these days the Atlantic doesn't play much of a part in my emotional world. I was longing to swim in the North Sea, which I did more or less on my arrival. And I couldn't wait to get on my bike and cycle amongst the dunes, which I did, or test out my rather limited German, which I also did. I was prickling all over with life.

Next I had to buy a Plakette for the Umweltzonen and new tyres for my car. Talking tyres with blokes in a garage is like speaking a different language anyway. Talking tyres in German took it to a whole new level. And so to Lüneburg Heath which this time of year is covered in purple heather and a fabulous campsite with an ice cold pool fed by ditch running off the Ilmenau river. It rained for three days, but there were such moments of clarity - a tiny tot with a top-knot sitting in the middle of a blanket just being herself underneath the dripping leaves and splashes of birdsong, a man swimming silently in the rain, sitting in the sun picking dirt out of my cycling cleats after grappling with a schlecht and schlammig cyclepath for several kilometres, the sudden smell of chamomile, a raven's call from a far off tree.

Trying to find clarity at Bergen-Belsen was not possible, though. In the end you give up, because the scale and depth of human cruelty is just beyond you. It has gone on for centuries and it continues even as I write this. It isn't a tragedy. I think of a tragedy as something quite incidental. Holocausts are deliberate. The extermination of native populations in the Americas and Tasmania, the African slave trade, Pol Pot's massacres, hundreds of thousands of women burnt at the stake as witches, this unspeakable horror of Nazi death camps, Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, the persecution of Yazidis...

And yet...



These mittens were made by a Russian woman at the camp. A little girl who had been deported to Bergen-Belsen without her parents used to visit her in the hut where people could get potato peelings. The woman gave her a turnip on her first day. The little girl used to go every day. Sometimes the Russian woman was there, sometimes not. Sometimes the woman had something for her, sometimes not. One day, a very cold day in January, the woman gave her these Handschuhe. She'd made them from the threads of blankets. The girl never saw her again. Yvonne Koch is in her 80s now and she gives talks to young people. She became a research doctor and worked on an AIDS project. Her message today is strongly humanitarian. But for the Russian woman's kindness, that little girl may not have survived. There is human warmth even in the most forsaken of places. We must never forget that.

I drove down to the Black Forest in the second week and in some ways the next nine days felt like a healing process, though I'm not sure what healing can actually take place after witnessing such horrors. Perhaps it isn't healing then. Perhaps it's more of an adjustment, a shifting of perspective, a search for context to give some kind of shape to the narrative arc of human experience.

I understand now why every German I spoke to  lit up whenever I said I was holidaying in den Schwarzwald. It has always held a place in my imagination, but for German people, it's the imagination of the blood. Here is a landscape of folklore and storytelling, rich with symbolism and archetypes, and there's something amazing about a green that is so dense that it is actually black. The skyline is a sequence of dancing curves. Everywhere are the calls of crows and ravens and soaring birds of prey. Closer to, is the liquid sound of nuthatches and the shy peeps of bullfinches. Tiny flowers nestle in the crooks of rocks and fallen logs. Sapling firs grow out of the root balls of upended pines that have tumbled down a slope in a storm. Rainbow fungi hug the sides of trees. Pools of rainwater reflect the sun and sky. Small streams trickle between banks of thick moss. You tread quietly in these places. You listen more. You accompany yourself in a way that you never could in a city or town.

I walked for miles. I cycled for miles. I climbed hills and swooped down into magnificent valleys. Sometimes I just sat and and looked.





I wasn't exactly ready for Bonn - any city seems a strange and alien place after such stillness - but I was refreshed and looking forward to meeting everyone. Bonn is Oxford's twin city. Both cities are celebrating 70 years of their twinning agreement. It was a brave thing to set up in 1947. Today, we have regular exchanges of choirs and student groups. This was the first between poets and artists, or certainly the first I've been involved with. Preparations had been under way for some time and we were probably all feeling a little nervous.

Our reception by Dada war alles gut couldn't have been warmer or more generous. We quickly began to establish good working relationships and after a rehearsal were very likely as ready as we'd ever be for the public performance with Diana Bell's 'Big Question Mark'. Open air readings are notoriously difficult and we had to deal with a failed microphone, a helicopter, a plane and church bells as well as local traffic. Nevertheless, people seemed to be listening really very closely as we read in both languages.

Diana's installation was easier to engage with. It generated a lot of discussion. Her key questions were -

Where do you come from?
Where are your roots?
Where do you belong?

These are not easy to answer. I have always believed I could live almost anywhere in the world given the right set of circumstances. My answers might be different if I were to be displaced or forcibly removed and held against my will. The longing for home when you're behind bars is like starvation and bereavement rolled into one.


My hosts, Eva and Oliver, were extraordinarily generous with their time and hospitality. It is a privilege to be accepted into the heart of someone's home. It can be quite daunting to open yourself up to a complete stranger, but we shared some lengthy conversations about our cultural heritages and about history in general. We talked deeply about so many things and we also spent a great deal of time laughing and knocking back a few beers in the process. It felt like a huge wrench when I eventually left to start the homeward journey. I hope we remain friends for a very long time.

The exchange entailed a visit to Bonn's Oxford Club - which I found rather quaint with its red telephone box outside and plates of crustless egg sandwiches and bland mini-pasties inside. Is this really the best Oxford catering can come up with? What about our Lebanese restaurants? What about my favourite little Jamaican haunt? Still, it was interesting to meet so many friends of Oxford.

Again and again I was asked why I've been learning German. I started in an on-and-off sort of way a number of years ago and it wasn't at all like my epic love affair with France which prompted me to learn French. It hasn't been a lavender, wine and literature courtship. It's felt more like righting a wrong. I had a German penfriend as a teenager whom I really regretted losing touch with, especially as our careers ran on parallel tracks in the end. When he died, I couldn't recover that lost ground. I couldn't read his obituary and I couldn't understand the songs he sang. Having German friends has been influential, too, and finally there began to grow in me a curiosity about my own language. When I embarked on reading and transforming the Grimms' hausmärchen for Kissing Bones, the journey truly started.

The Bonn poets were great to work with. We spent a marvellous day at the Arp Museum, where Dada war alles gut meet, exploring the work of Henry Moore and Hans Arp and learning about the history of the place. Eva Wal was an inspirational guide.

Nearly everyone was able to write something that day. I was so completely overwhelmed, I couldn't find my way into anything. Arp is an asterisk floating off the page to Moore's heavily underlined footnote. I got lost somewhere between the two. Moore always takes me inside my own body - it's the world of bones and ligaments and cartilage - the world my sister and I were so fascinated by. Arp moves with atoms and the ever-expanding universe. So, no, I haven't been directly responding, but I am currently preoccupied with the estimated atomic weight of a human being when it's alive and with the function of the atoms that comprise the human body when we are not. It's going to take a long time for something to emerge.

Our final reading together at Jacques' Wein-Depot was a treat. Without the distractions of traffic and church bells, we were really able to focus on each other's work. It was a very rich experience and, as always, wonderful to hear the poems in both languages. The rhythms are interesting. I had always thought that perhaps English and German were quite similar in many ways. They aren't. The unique syntax puts a completely different pressure on a line. Learning another language enables you to think more deeply about prosody and diction.

This is reflected in a much wider and more global context. Learning another language, learning about another cultures enables you to explore your own.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
                                                                                                         John Donne
Kein Mann ist ein Insel
Eine Gesamtheit für sich.
Jeder ist ein Stück des Kontinents,
Ein Teil des Ganzen.
Wäre ein Klumpen durch das Meer weggewaschen,
Ist Europa weniger.
Sowie, als ob es ein Kap wäre.
Sowie, asl ob ein Wesen deines eigens
Oder deines Freundes wäre.
Der Tod jeder verringert mich
Denn ich bin mit der Menschheit beteiligt.
Also schick nicht ze wissen
Für wen die Glocke läutet:
Sie läutet für dich.
                                                           Übersetzung: David Paley

Here is the Vecht again in the early hours of the morning before I left. As I cycled off to the car with my sodden tent strapped to the pannier rack, the day began changing...
                                                   and changing...
                                                                                                 and changing...





Links:

Diana Bell
Eva Wal
Oxford Stanza II


Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Spectrum of Light

What an enormously creative year this has been for so far.  Not personally - I have had very little time to write - but in terms of facilitating the writing and helping to nourish the imaginative landscape of everyone I have come into contact with. For several months I have found myself juggling five different jobs and many weeks have stretched beyond seven days till they've run one into the other in a seamless winterspringsummer. However, I can honestly say that I haven't wished myself elsewhere. I am constantly awakened and energised by people. And, of course, the nourishment goes two ways. I am very lucky to be doing this work.

Waving Hello has been a tremendous project. It culminated in a display in Bonn Square in Oxford of 3,000 paper boats made by the people we'd worked with as well as by passing members of the public. Each boat was placed in memory of the thousands of people who have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to find safety. We also remembered those who haven't made it. Even as we celebrated the wealth of music, art, poetry and storytelling that migrants bring with them, we recognised the appalling conditions that so often drive people to take such risks.

We read poems written by pupils from the schools we'd worked with - Buckland CE Primary and Blackbird Academy Trust schools Orchard Meadow, Pegasus and Windale. The poems reflected deep concerns for the safety and well-being of refugees and asylum seekers. Frankly, the humanity and compassion of these young citizens puts many of our politicians to shame.

We sang the songs that had been especially written by Arne Richards and listened to speeches from Asylum Welcome, Dr Ramzy from the Muslim Council of Britain and Isabel Knowland, who conceived the project.

Besides working with schoolchildren, we've worked with detainees at Campsfield House and have also enjoyed the support of the Ashmolean Museum. One of the highlights for us was the visit to Buckland School from women from BK LUWO. Filda Abelkec-Lukonyomoi's story of survival had a tremendous impact on all of us. I have nothing but praise for the teachers of the classes we worked with, too.

It has been a real pleasure working alongside Arne and Isabel from Oxford Concert Party - they've even had me singing and dancing and anyone who knows me will recognise that that is not an easy thing to achieve. It's been a pleasure, too, to work alongside Tony Lloyd whose fine printing workshops I have previously attended as a student. We missed our lovely Helen Kidd though and we shared her poem with everyone on the day.


Photo by Judie Waldmann
Still on the subject of poetry, I'm nearly at the end of my ten weeks at the OSJCT care home in Henley. We've produced a booklet of 40 poems and also a CD of residents reading poetry and singing Irish folk songs. There's also a splendid percussion rendition of rain to go with a hilarious poem about the real Dr Foster who went to Gloucester.

Again, I have been struck by the importance of music in these sessions. I have seen people transformed by a song or a passage of classical music. People who have been described to me as 'non-verbal' have spoken about things they've suddenly remembered.

One of the things I'm discovering about people living with dementia is that the capacity for creativity does not diminish when language becomes compromised. If the right word cannot be found, often a more wonderful and textured evocation will surface. Somebody told me she couldn't hear a thing when she held a sea shell to her ear. "But you're happening," she said suddenly. "And we're happening." And so we were, all of us.

My six month writing workshop tour of England finishes this week too. Creative Future run these workshops in conjunction with the Literary Awards competition. This year we've focused on Newcastle, Brighton and Birmingham and the wealth of writing that has emerged from each area has been really exciting. It's been great to see some of that channelled into the competition too, though as judges, we had no idea who had submitted work or indeed whether any had come from the workshops until after we'd chosen the winners. I have to keep schtum, though. No spoilers here. Wait and see when the winners are announced!

Photo by Judie Waldmann
Summer is the wedding and baby naming season and we celebrants can be kept very busy this time of year. As someone who does funerals as well, I feel I am involved with the narrative arc of human life. This ties in very closely with the art of storytelling as well as with poetry and music. All my jobs feel like they belong to the same spectrum of light. They're like colours balancing and bouncing off one another.

I'm hoping for some rainbow moments when I'm on holiday and finally able to write.



Monday, 15 May 2017

Those We Celebrate

In Memoriam


Last month, Oxford lost a wonderful poet and an inspiring, compassionate friend. Helen Kidd will be remembered for a very long time. She was so much a part of our lives. We will cherish her memory.  


I had the privilege to work with her recently on the Waving Hello project. She had a tremendous presence and wit and wisdom in equal proportions. She was delightfully wicked sometimes. Her humour was quite unique. I know for a fact she helped to keep colleagues at Ruskin sane when they were trying to work under the weird vagaries of certain management figures. She was indomitable. She never lost her humanity or her ability to see the funny side. She was tremendously dedicated to her students - and to her colleagues.


I remember the first time I met Helen. I didn't know it was her. I hadn't even heard of her. She was in a penguin costume waddling up the middle of Holywell Music Room where Oxford Concert Party were playing. I still had no idea who she was at the end of the concert. It was totally anarchic and somehow also quite sweet. There was an underlying vulnerability to the strange intruder.

The second time I met Helen, she was in human form. Her office was stuffed with books - she was terrifically well-read - and owls - she was also terrifically knowledgeable about birds. There were toys and daft jokey things of every description - her googly eyeballs had me in stitches. But soon it was down to serious business - a planned workshop for her students. What was I interested in bringing to the group? Did I need any photocopying doing? I could tell how deeply respected she was when she introduced me to the students. I could also tell how that respect was reciprocated. She was a brilliant tutor and also a mentor - I include myself here. She was rigorously honest, incisive and encouraging about my work.

Later, we would read together in Oxford at the Poems for Jeremy Corbyn launch and I would see then how dazzling she could be in her anger. She wasn't a righteous person, but she was darned right in my books. 

I only knew Helen for a short time. She has left an indelible impression.  

Poetry Reading at Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford 


I'm looking forward to being part of a tip-top line-up at Albion Beatnik Bookstore on Tuesday May 23rd. Antonella is a very interesting poet indeed and it will be a rare privilege to to hear her work. If you can make it, you will be richly rewarded, I am sure.







I recently had a marvellous afternoon in Witney Community Hospital gathering stories and poems from people on Wenrisc Ward. It's really heartening that my local hospital has taken on an arts coordinator and already it's easy to see the difference that's made. Clinical care is not enough on its own. People's emotional and mental well-being must also be taken into account. Do people who feel valued and respected make better recoveries? I don't know, but if their time in hospital is nourishing and memorable for lots of positive reasons, then surely that's a good thing. Also, one shouldn't underestimate the ripple effect. It can have a profound effect on the morale of staff. The NHS is being battered on all sides - by the government and by malevolent hackers. I'm not saying the arts are a cure-all, but at least we can re-affirm our humanity and creativity.


I've just begun working at Chilterns Court OSJCT home in Henley. This comes on that back of the Making of Me Project. The OSJCT are a very forward looking organisation and there seems to be a genuine willingness to roll out arts projects through all their homes. Again, I am working with the amazing Angela Conlon (pictured above with me).

And finally, another date for your diaries - Waving Hello  is going out with a splash - or a symbolic one at least. Here's Isabel from Oxford Concert Party doing a Blue Peter number:


Sail your own boat with your own message on Sunday 25th June 12:00 - 16:00 in Bonn Square, Oxford. Show you care. Tell the world that refugees are welcome here.

                                       This is my haven, won’t you come in?
                                       No longer a stranger, welcome my friend.

                                       Long was your journey,
                                       many the ways.
                                       Long was the passing
                                       of months, hours, days.

                                       Now you are safe and out of the storm;
                                       Here in the harbour, sheltered from harm. 


                                              Helen  Kidd


Saturday, 15 April 2017

From Blob to Blog

I have no idea how poets manage to find time to write a weekly blog, spend hours on Facebook and tweet all day long. Are they able to rattle off a poem in a few minutes? Do they sleep? Perhaps they live on a different space-time continuum altogether.

I really should make more effort though. My blog is is more of a blob. It sits there for months doing nothing.

So...NEWS! NEWS! NEWS!

Since my last update I've managed to win the Poetry Society's stanza competition, which was a very nice surprise. Lots of readings followed, one of which was at their AGM.

Belonging to a stanza group (mine is Stanza II in Oxford) is very rewarding. Not only do we workshop our poems (it's such an insular business, writing), but we also enjoy visits from other poets and artists. I am very much looking forward to joining my colleagues in Bonn this August for Diana Bell's Big Question Mark project. We shall be active participants in her outdoor installation and will also have the opportunity to meet and work alongside poets from Bonn that weekend. To that end, I am feverishly learning German at the moment!

Do check out Diana's website. She does amazing work: http://www.dianabell.co.uk/

The Making of Me project has concluded now. It has been a real joy working in OSJCT care homes around Oxfordshire and I have met many extraordinary people, not least one woman who at 100 years old could remember and recite Wilfred Gibson's poem 'The Ice Cart' in its entirety. I have never been able to commit poems to memory like that. I was utterly spellbound. So was the group I was working with that day.

Its a terrible thing to write off a human being once they've reached a certain age and we do a real disservice to write off someone  if they have dementia. In my experience, some of the most illuminating and insightful observations have come from people living with memory loss. The struggle to find words sometimes leads to really exciting linguistic constructions; access to the creative impulse seems far from lessened. A lack of inhibition can throw doors wide open. I don't think I left a single care home during this project without at least 90 individual and collective poems. Some looked back to a time of severe winters and ice storms; others reflected on the moon, childhood and early workdays. Some poems leapt to the interiors of radios and into the bowels of sunken ships. One poem most memorably described prayer as an act of listening and sharing - a poem for our secular times, though it would be hard to find a religious person who disagreed with what was being expressed.

If you want to eavesdrop on a Making of Me poetry workshop in one of the care homes, here's a link to Radio 4's Front Row. Once there, move the Seek Bar to 22:50 and you'll hear the amazing Jonny Fluffypunk in action. If you scroll further down the page, you'll see more about Jonny. He really is very gifted and dynamic.

Hopefully, the success of Making of Me will lead to further work with OSJCT care homes. Indeed, I am shortly to begin working with dance practitioner Angela Conlon at Chilterns Court in Henley (it's great fun working alongside other artists) and there are plans to explore mentoring relationships with activity coordinators and artists throughout the Oxfordshire. Watch this space.

Waving Hello goes from strength to strength. It's always tremendously invigorating working with Oxford Concert Party. This time we have  poet Helen Kidd and artist Anthony Lloyd on board. Waving Hello uses music, poetry, storytelling and the visual arts to examine migration and the rich cultural tapestry that is its inevitable  legacy. By the end of this summer we will have worked with four primary schools, Campsfield House IRC and women's refugee group BK-LUWO. None of this would have been possible without the support and resources of the Ashmolean Museum.

The Creative Future Literary Awards workshops are equally rewarding. Each month I facilitate writing workshops in Newcastle, Birmingham and Brighton for people who find themselves under-represented in literature  and publishing. One of the groups I'm most enjoying working with is Freedom From Torture. Between us, we have at least seven languages - probably more - and wisdom born from experience that is way off the Richter scale. As a couple of people said the other day - "...one hand cannot make a sound. We need to be together, like two hands."

And finally, I will be visiting Witney Community Hospital for the first time not as a patient with a suspected broken ankle or as someone with a gammy knee but as a writer with a bag of buttons and lots of pens and paper to see what wonderful poems and stories people can come up with. It's very easy to feel your identity has been totally subsumed by an illness and the hours of boredom can seem endless if you're hospitalised for a long spell. It's to Witney's credit that they have taken on Angela Conlon - yes, her again and I doubt she has time for Twitter and Facebook - as their arts coordinator. One way of freeing up beds must surely be to improve people's well-being, though I still think the NHS could do with a massive fiscal injection, never mind repeated boosters.

Lucky me. In this era of uncertainty I have a constant supply of work and it's also work I really enjoy. I am secure in my nationality, too. But it breaks my heart that my Polish and German friends are now wondering if they will be told to leave their long-established homes and families in post-Brexit Britain. There are many more who face an uncertain future, of course - not least, refugees and asylum seekers. Now, more than ever, our doors need to be open.

I am afraid of the slow steady march towards fascism. Pastor Niemöller - a man who made a considerable political journey in his lifetime - warned us:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak for me.

The growth of Islamophobia is alarming and the attacks on young asylum seekers standing at bus stops is insupportable. We may risk a lot by speaking out, but I am sure we risk even more by remaining silent.





Friday, 21 October 2016

I hear those voices that will not be drowned

The trouble with leading such a full and vivid life is that there is no time to post anything about it. Basically, I'm too busy. Even when I'm on holiday I'm too busy.

I had a marvellous two weeks camping, cycling and swimming along the south and south east coast of England. The beaches are a bit rough and tumbly with their shelves, but well worth braving the waters if there isn't too much of a swell. A mean temperature of 18 degrees might seem a bit chilly for some, but it was truly exhilarating. I love that tingly feeling you get when you throw yourself in. After a while, your body adjusts and you can swim for as long as you like.

Romney Marsh has always held a fascination for me. Years ago, when I first cycled there, it was marvellously atmospheric. Now, it's full of rumbling lorries and people wanting to get everywhere fast. Thankfully, Sustrans have created some excellent cycle routes and it's quite possible to enjoy a few hours of wind and birdsong and get a sense of the open sky. The landscape is very flat. It feels like it might go on forever, but the coast is not very far away. Highlights are RSPB Dungeness and Prospect Cottage - Derek Jarman's garden is a wonder - but do avoid intruding upon the new owner's privacy.

Aldeburgh, which I never seem to pronounce properly, so I always sound like a tourist, is an interesting town. If you like sea food, you could hardly find a better place to explore the tastes and textures of the local catch. I can also recommend the Cragg Sisters Tea Room. Their carrot cake  is probably the most luxurious you will ever eat. No trip to Aldeburgh would be complete without seeing Maggie Hambling's Scallop. It's quite remarkable and Britten's words resonate even more for me these days with so many thousands dying in their attempts to seek asylum.

That's Holiday Part I. It was followed by a week in which I was a wedding celebrant, a baby naming celebrant and also one of a group of artists meeting to discuss the possibility of working together on a project  involving refugees and asylum seekers, Oxfordshire schools and the Ashmolean Museum...more about that later.

Part II took me to France where cyclists are always given a car's width and the roads aren't pocked with holes and turned into death traps. Plenty of good swimming here, too. The long flat sandy beaches of Normandy are well known and I spent hours ploughing the calm waters. It was hard to imagine my stepfather in the D-Day landings when there were children playing with buckets and spades and dogs racing up and down.

Reminders of the carnage are everywhere and to be honest, I got sick of it. I felt nauseated by a tourist industry built on heroism and the machinery of war. All the roads are named after US soldiers - didn't the roads have names before? Must everything be memorialised? Then I saw something which made me stop and think. There was a sign by the stade near where I was camping. Here, where people play tennis and race round the track, had been a temporary graveyard of 5,000 men. Not far away, there had been two other temporary graveyards - some 14,000 men in total. It suddenly dawned on me that local people would have been witness to that. The young men would have been lying not just on their beaches, but in their fields and ditches, in the roads, by their houses - everywhere. Someone had to pick them up and bury them. The wife of the local maire took responsibility for the 5,000 graves. She placed flowers on them and took pictures to send to their families in the States. One of those men could equally have been my stepfather.

For every act of brutality, there is an equal act of compassion somewhere in the world. I was witness to and part of an act of compassion recently. A stillborn baby was found in a park in Oxford earlier this year. We buried her this week. We gave her a dignified funeral and people came from miles around to pay their respects and to mourn her. I described her as a bird that had fallen from the nest. She was the saddest gift we will ever know. Sometimes, it takes profound grief to show human beings at their best. I have no doubt that the people of Normandy were affected deeply by what they experienced and I know that such experiences percolate down through the generations, too.

Compassion and a commitment to the welfare of all human beings is something to celebrate. The artists I met with between my two holidays will be striving to fulfil that. We have recently had news that our funding bid has been met. I don't know about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but I do know that poets, musicians, storytellers and visual artists are part of the warp and weft of community - and by community, I mean the whole world. We do hear those voices that will not be drowned and we ask that they are heard by everybody. Welcome to our rough and tumbly shores.


Thursday, 21 July 2016

Eccles Cakes, Red Kites, a White Horse and an Exploding Hedgehog

After months of 60 hour weeks and working three out of every four weekends, after months of distinctly cool, damp, murky weather, Oxfordshire hit 33⁰, the sun came out and I decided enough was enough and took the following day off to do one of my favourite local rides - the 57 mile round trip to White Horse Hill. It was a mere 28⁰ and there was a stiff little headwind, plus I didn't eat the night before (it's customary to whack a load of pasta into your system in preparation for a bike ride), so my legs were decidedly feak and weeble. Ah, but the joys of birdsong and the majesty of red kites, the can of Coke by a bank of mallow and poppies, the fields of wheat and barley and the discovery of Uffngton Stores just when I was ready to drop.

The woman who served me was like a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat. There were no sandwiches on the shelves, but she rustled up a ham and cheese one from the back for me. When I confessed that I had an Eccles Cake craving, she produced a packet. I didn't know you could buy them in Oxfordshire. Eccles Cakes in Oxfordshire don't taste like Eccles Cakes in Lancashire, despite what it says on the packet, but never mind. I wolfed them down under the shade of a tree, then started on my sandwich. Happiness is easily achieved with food.

I saw my friendly magician leaving by the back door. She was heading home for lunch. I was going to wave to her, but another woman was striding purposefully behind her. She sped up and overtook her, then turned round to face her and block her path. She started jabbing the air with her finger. "I'm your manager!" she shouted. Jab, jab, jab. "Don't forget that!" Jab, jab.  The magician tried to walk past, but the manager grabbed her by both arms, pinning them to her sides. "Who do you think you are? I'm your manager! Grow up!" The magician said nothing. As far as I could see, there was only one person who needed to grow up and it wasn't the magician. Give me my 60 hour week and three out of every four weekends any day. I wouldn't want to work 9-5 for a woman like that.

I do a lot of counting when I'm cycling long stretches trying to ignore a headwind and aching shoulders. I make lists. Here are the birds I heard and saw:

house sparrows
tree sparrows
lapwings
rooks
crows
magpies
yellowhammers
chaffinches
chiffchaffs
linnets
blue tits
great tits
long-tailed tits
dunnocks
red kites
wood pigeons
collared doves
skylarks
blackbirds
thrushes
greenfinches
goldcrests
buzzards

There were even more species of litter:

MacDonalds fries cartons
MacCafe cups
Costa cups
crisp packets
jumbo crisp packets
Doritos packets
cigarette packets
Diet Coke bottles
Fanta bottles
Evian bottles
Vittel bottles
Sprite cans
Diet Coke cans
Ribena bottles
Red Bull cans
Coke bottles
Coke cans
Fosters cans
Strongbow Cans
Carling cans
Woodpecker cans
socks
sandwich wrappers
used condoms (well, better used than not, I suppose)
bin liners 
red bottle tops
and a rather nice blue gingham handkerchief

For the record, I put my Eccles Cakes and sandwich wrappers in the bin. The Coke can I chucked over a fence into someone's garden. Only joking. Of course that went in the bin.

There was a spectacular array of roadkill too:

1 badger, 1 fox, 2 white doves, 1 pigeon and 1 hedgehog swollen, rather alarmingly, to the size of a football. You wouldn't want to hit that with your front wheel. I think it must have exploded, because it was splattered right across the road on my return journey.

The view from White Horse Hill was more edifying. I have to get off and push my bike these days. All the things I missed when I was younger and able to dance about on the pedals - orchids and harebells, scabious, pink broom, beetles, dragonflies, simply taking a moment to stand and look behind me to see where I've been, allowing the wind to blow through my hair, hearing a distant skylark, watching the way the clouds stack up, just being - and being conscious of being. I can almost hear the grasshoppers when I look at the photo I took.


One of the joys of cycling is that for every uphill climb there's a freewheel down and, because you're burning up so many calories, you can happily eat your way from one pit stop to the next. So, ice cream under the shade of another tree, a stop off at Aston Pottery for tea and then home to a long, cool shower and a few stretches before the sun begins to dip and the fairy lights come on in your garden. Finally, there's always that deep unspoken gratitude you feel - thank you legs for still taking me places after all these years and thank you providence for not letting me end up like that hedgehog.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Bread for Everybody!

What an exciting few months I'm going to have. I've just finished my second poetry residency in Westgate House, one of the excellent OSJCT homes in Oxfordshire, and have already started on my next one at Isis House.

Hereford Courtyard's Making of Me project is unique in that it has a rolling team of dancers, actors and poets going into care homes for a period of ten weeks each. Each home will have had all three arts disciplines over the course of a year. Whilst many schools are under pressure to focus more  on Ebaac subjects, it is becoming widely recognised that the arts have an intrinsic value in older people's lives. I dread to think what effect academisation will have on the arts within our education system. I can only think that they will become increasingly marginalised.

Anyone who has read this blog or who knows me will know I have been banging on about this for ages, but the arts genuinely enhance people's well-being. The storytelling workshops I do for Newbury Corn Exchange's brilliant Memory Café are energising and fun. They also get people talking. Dementia is a serious issue. Our memories and our ability to share those memories are part of who we are. Our pasts shape our identities. The way we see the world shapes our identities. This is why so many care homes are now employing activity co-ordinators. Years ago, there was no such provision. It is entirely normal to want to share human experience with each other.

Why children should be different I have no idea. Their need is no less. I spent years working with young people at risk on a multi-arts project in Oxfordshire and I witnessed the blossoming of many an individual who left to go on to college or work. Years ago, when there was actually a youth service, I worked with young people on an extended performance poetry project. They have grown into fine adults who are giving an enormous amount to their communities. Never, ever underestimate the power of a damned good poem to change someone's life!

OK, that's a bit of a claim, but when I was working at HMP Long Lartin there was a prisoner whose life was changed by reading William Blake's 'Auguries of Innocence'. Something happened to him the day he came rushing into the writing workshop with the book in his hand. He began writing and thinking on a deeper level. He began seeing things more clearly and - this is crucial - he began to understand himself. He has since turned his life completely around.

Arts workers are generally paid a pittance. I regularly work a seven day week and quite often into the night. It's not unusual to be asked to work for free as well, as if our expertise counts for nothing. We do it, too. Such is our passion. But it isn't right and it isn't fair. Also, it says a lot about how many people view the arts. They are an add-on or they're a luxury. A plumber or a builder would never be asked to do something for free.

I really shall be zooming about soon. I am starting a national writing workshop tour of England next week. Once again, I am working with Creative Future - which really does respect its artists, by the way. From Newcastle and Middlesbrough to Preston, from London and Birmingham to Brighton and Plymouth, I shall be running writing workshops for writers who lack opportunities to develop and promote their work. I feel enormously privileged to be doing this. It's a wonderful thing to work so closely with people's creative impulses.

It's why I enjoy collaborative work so much. The intergenerational project with Oxford Concert Party in partnership with the Ashmolean Museum is starting the same week as the national touring begins. I love working with older and younger people and I greatly value working with musicians. Arne Richards and Isabel Knowland play a wonderful range of music - everything from Baroque sonatas and fugues to tangos and folk from Ireland and Eastern Europe. Put poetry and storytelling into the mix and being able to handle objects from Oxford's foremost museum and you have what is likely to be an extraordinary fusion of ideas and imagination.

There is great generosity amongst artists. It's only in the competitive world of buying and selling that back-biting starts, and even then, not everyone does it. Why squabble when the odds are stacked so heavily against you, when funding is being squeezed and cut right, left and centre? Perhaps it's understandable - like everyone fighting for the same crust of bread. But really, we should all be demanding bread for everybody - and not just artists.