All posts by Sue

Limestone, Laugharne and Delusional Goats

At the beginning of September we spent a week in Llandudno followed by a week in Tenby to explore the Welsh coast path.  Llandudno immediately satisfied one of my requirements for the perfect seaside town, a pier, but also supplied things I wouldn’t expect in a seaside town such as a surprisingly large outdoor paddling pool and excellent third wave coffee at the wonderful Providero café.  I decided another requirement might be my very first sword after discovering this unusual shop in Conwy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ormes, vast projecting limestone and dolomite headlands, dominate Llandudno’s classic curved bay.  The Vikings thought the headlands looked like sleeping serpents, hence the name (it’s where our word “worm” comes from).  Great Orme is full of surprises, not least of which are extremely handsome Kashmir goats who pose with little smirky smiles on their faces for their close-ups.  They are right to look so supercilious for they are descended from a pair taken from  a herd owned by the Shah of Persia and given to Queen Victoria.  They may even have been there longer as it is also said that a local squire brought them over from a Kashmiri herd in France and presented a pair to George IV. 

Goats have always been shrouded in lore.  The association with the Devil is well known, as he is usually depicted with horns and cloven hooves. However, goats were also thought to bring good luck, especially to farmers. In ancient Babylon, a goat was sent to die in the desert, in order that it could carry away the diseases of the people, and the Hebraic scape goat was driven into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the Jews. The Kashmir name for the wild goat is “Markhor”, which means “Snake eater” and goats are believed to kill adders by trampling on them and afterwards eating the remains. And it gets stranger…

The tradition of having goats in the military originated in 1775, when a wild goat walked onto the battlefield in Boston during the American Revolutionary War and led the Welsh regimental colours at the end of the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Another Welsh military goat, Taffy IV, served in the First World War.  William “Billy” Windsor I is a Kashmir goat from the same bloodline as the Great Orme herd although he was born at Whipsnade Zoo.  He served as a lance corporal in the 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh, an infantry battalion of the British Army from 2001 until 2009, except for a three-month period in 2006 when he was demoted to fusilier, after inappropriate behaviour during the Queen’s Official Birthday celebrations (headbutting a drummer) while deployed on active duty with the battalion on Cyprus. On retirement he was replaced by a wild goat from the Great Orme herd.

Another day, another walk, this time in the Conwy Mountain area where we met some of the feral Carneddau ponies which inhabit this beautiful landscape.  Of course, they have a story too.  Four hundred years ago Henry VIII ordered that horses unable to carry a knight in full armour should be culled.  These ponies escaped due to their remote habitation and are now thought to be unique.  They are sweet-natured and quite relaxed when it comes to being photographed.  I don’t think Henry’s men would have any problems capturing them today!

This area was truly intriguing.  We visited a bronze age mine, sat in a druid stone circle and marvelled at the weird concrete knuckles which form the sea defences at Llandulas – they could easily be acclaimed as an art installation.  We fell in love with tiny St Trillo’s Chapel by the beach at Rhos on Sea.  It only seats six and may well be the smallest church in the British Isles, complete with its own spring-fed well.

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And so on to Tenby where I could indulge my love of all things Dylan Thomas.  It’s possible that the first time Thomas aired Under Milk Wood in public was at Tenby and District’s Arts Club in 1953.   I love the 1974 film version of Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton as First Man, Elizabeth Taylor as Rosie Probert and Peter O’Toole as Captain Cat.  Burton was a drinking buddy of Dylan Thomas and there’s a very bad poem by Burton on the wall of Brown’s in Laugharne – Thomas’s local during his on-off residency in this lovely place.  I was struck by the number of Welsh speakers I was hearing and the wonderful musicality of the language which, combined with the unique voices of the preachers of his childhood, certainly influenced Thomas’s own sonorous reading voice.

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There’s a really good little museum in Tenby which has a room dedicated to Augustus and Gwen John, the artistic siblings, who were brought up in Tenby – “so restful, so colourful, so unspoilt” was Augustus’ very favourable verdict. Below is Gwen John’s Landscape at Tenby with Figures, painted at the end of the 19th century.

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Dylan Thomas famously stole Caitlin Mcnamara from Augustus John in 1936 when the artist foolishly introduced him to his young mistress.  Augustus John would have been 58 and Caitlin just 23.  There are stories of John chasing Thomas around the castle grounds at Laugharne when he caught him smooching with Caitlin in the car…  John and Thomas were regular drinking buddies so it clearly didn’t damage their relationship too badly…

Appropriately enough, in a glass case on the stairs of the museum are a rather fabulous pair of Dylan Thomas’s trousers in a grey-blue and white stripe with a rather swashbuckling sailor cut.  They were presented to the museum by Elizabeth Bowen whose father bought them from Dolly Long, Thomas’s housekeeper in Laugharne.  The trousers were stopping the rain coming in through an attic door and Dolly had no compunction about selling the souvenir to Dr Bowen.

Laugharne is still such a beautiful, unspoilt place and it’s well worth visiting The Boathouse where Thomas spent the last four years of his life with Caitlin and the children and pressing your nose against the window of Dylan’s Writing Shed a little further up the lane. The view over the estuary from The Boathouse is extraordinary – swathes of glistening water, quiet herons and such intense light.  “Off and on, up and down, high and dry, man and boy, I’ve been living now for 15 years in this timeless, beautiful, barmy (both spellings) town…” said Dylan of Laugharne. One of the first people to rent accommodation to Thomas was Richard Hughes, the author of High Wind in Jamaica who lived in grand Castle House and kept a very good wine cellar.

We did the Dylan Thomas birthday walk which has extracts from “Poem in October” to read at various breathtakingly lovely viewpoints.  It’s such a moving, contemplative poem, richly satisfying to read.  Here’s the first stanza:

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
   And the mussel pooled and the heron
           Priested shore
       The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
       Myself to set foot
           That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

It always makes me sad to read this poem and think that Thomas only had another nine years to live.  He died at the age of 39 and, I know it’s a cliché, but oh, all those unwritten words…  Dylan and Caitlin are buried together in the new graveyard at St Martin’s Church in Laugharne.  I loved walking around this pretty town, thinking about all the characters who inspired Under Milk Wood, although of course New Quay was also a huge inspiration and the film was shot in Fishguard, which seemed to fit the concept of Thomas’s Llareggub perfectly.  Thomas is very much a poet of place, steeped in the sounds and sights of Wales.  Do have a look at A Dylan Odyssey which is a lovely book containing essays by writers, artists and family members, all exploring the effect of Thomas’s surroundings on his work.  Oh, and if it happens to be your birthday (and you can prove it!) and you decide to do the birthday walk on that day,  then you can claim a range of freebies including a pint at Brown’s and coffee and welshcakes in  Cafe Culture as well as free entry to The Boathouse.  You do have to recite “oh may my heart’s truth still be sung ” every time but it’s a small price to pay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tenby was clearly the place to be if you were a writer.  George Eliot found literary inspiration in the town and also fell in love with George Henry Lewes there. Roald Dahl visited Tenby as a child every Easter, fondly recalling donkey rides, clifftop walks and the boat to Caldey Island.  He loved it so much he brought his own children there too.  Dahl’s Oslo born father had emigrated to Cardiff to seek his fortune in the 19th century coal boom.

It’s fascinating that the whole concept of the seaside town happened because 18th and 19th century wars meant the great and the good couldn’t go on their Grand Tours so the UK suddenly became a destination, followed swiftly by the craze for seabathing.  Originally the men would bathe naked but then were obliged  to bathe at one end of the beach only until a bell was rung at 8am!

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I wrote a great deal while we were in Tenby.  We walked, over several days, from Bosherston’s massive lily ponds to the wide sands of Pensarne, via the quirky castle of Manorbier, passing extraordinary jagged cliffs, the odd blowhole, booming caves, bobbing seals, military bases, cromlechs and moors.  We had torrential rain, gale force winds, rainbows and such strong sunshine I got my first peeling nose since I was a girl!

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I also realised how many Welsh poets I have on my bookshelves and what a brilliant contribution they have made to the canon.  So many poets with such an enviable facility with words: a lilt, a cadence, a turn of phrase that I would love to emulate – R S Thomas, Gillian Clarke, Dannie Abse, Samanth Wynne Rhydderch and Owen Sheers whose heartbreaking film-poem The Green Hollow, is a tribute to the survivors of Aberfan starring many stellar Welsh actors such as Jonathan Pryce, Eve Myles, Sian Phillips and Michael Sheen.

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Every year, at Christmas, we listen to Cerys Matthews’ evocative recording which weaves together Swansea memories of Christmas from elderly residents with my favourite out of all Dylan Thomas’s writing,  A Child’s Christmas in Wales.  This year it will have even more poignancy.

 

 

Summertime and the living is quirky…

There’s so much to celebrate in the UK in the summer and I feel particularly lucky to be living in North Norfolk.  Last night, strolling down to the beach to watch the sunset an excited family from Cambridge were taking photos of a seal lazily floating on its back.  Earlier in the year we did an extraordinary walk from Sea Palling to Great Yarmouth along the beach all the way.

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As you get closer to Horsey Gap you start to see seals.  We were quite chuffed at seeing ten lying on the tideline until we realised that the strange rock formations up ahead were also seals, packed liked sardines, hundreds of them, heaving themselves into and out of the sea, hissing, barking and emitting such appalling smells in their constant state of fish-fuelled excitement that by the time we approached Winterton we had to desperately seek refuge on the path running behind the dunes.

Friday mornings I walk along the beach with my yoga mat for a 7am yoga class on the pier.  If you look closely in the photo below you can see me doing a dodgy tree pose on the far right-hand side.

On my way to yoga yesterday, as I went past the cliff slopes where the Bagot goats spend the summer keeping the vegetation in order, I witnessed quite a bit of goat argy bargy as horns clashed and kids bleated.  They are a lovely sight and Delilah Bagot, the spokesgoat, is getting quite a lot of media attention and even has her own facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/delilah.bagot.1

We’ve had peregrines nesting on Cromer Church tower this year – all three chicks fledged recently and it’s now a common sight to see crowds looking up with state-of-the-art binoculars and scopes.  I’ve been going to the NWT nature reserve at Cley Marshes more often now I live at this end of the coast and was rewarded recently by the sound of a booming bittern.  I’ve always wanted to hear this and it certainly lived up to expectations.  It absolutely does sound like someone blowing across the top of a milk-bottle!  What a great mating call!

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A few weekends ago I was in Leeds with fellow poet Heidi Williamson for the UK’s first ever Prose Poetry Symposium.  It was such an energising event and included the launch of the Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry which I’m very proud to be in as it includes so many fabulous poets.  On the Sunday morning we had time for an amble through Leeds and came across a Kitty Café.  I’ve never been a great fan of Hello Kitty and was bemused that my usually very sensible friend was bouncing up and down like a six-year-old.  When Heidi could finally speak again she explained that the café was not a vehicle for a Japanese animation, but for a cat rescue organisation.  You pay a fee to go in, find a comfy place to sit, order your food, and then realise that the whole café is full of scratching posts, hammocks, ledges, catnip toys, catflaps and is actually a temporary home to thirty-three cats and kittens!

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Back in Norfolk and yet another trip to Great Yarmouth, a place I’ve become very fond of over the years.  It’s a fascinating mix of history, quirkiness, urban grit and the great British seaside in all its Kiss-Me-Quick glory.  We decided to forego the End of the Pier show in Cromer this summer and experience the Yarmouth Hippodrome Summer Spectacular instead.  The Hippodrome was built by George Gilbert in 1903.  It’s Britain’s only surviving circus building and one of only four in the world to have a water feature.  Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini performed there, Lillie Langtry sang there and Lloyd George held political rallies there.  In wartime it was used as a military shooting range.  Peter Jay (of Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers) bought the building, alongside others in Great Yarmouth, in the 1970s and restored the water feature in 1981 (the wooden floor of the circus sinks dramatically to reveal a circular water tank and spouting fountains…)

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I loved the fact that all the young women selling candyfloss and programmes and showing you to your seat transform into the circus dancers in the first half and the syncopated swimming troupe in the second.  The guy with the American accent selling popcorn turned out to be one of the extraordinarily athletic Chicago All Stars.  In the interval performers from all over the world put on their black crew gear and help to erect the scaffold for the aerial display.  It’s a real team effort!

After the show we went backstage to the Circus Museum where many of the performers were milling around, relaxing on sofas, although the Finnish trapeze artist seemed happy to spend her free time walking up and down a fellow acrobat’s back as he lay supine.  The Circus Museum features some of Peter Jay’s equipment and tour posters as well as a hoard of memorabilia which was found just lying around when Jay bought the building, including a programme, printed on silk, for the first ever show at the Hippodrome.  Some of the memorabilia is stored in the old stables where the animals were kept.

Another Great Yarmouth gem worth visiting is the Lydia Eva, the last steam drifter in the world.  You’ll find her on the South Quay.  She was the last boat to be built at the King’s Lynn Slipway Co in West Lynn as the local shipbuilders were on strike.  Named after owner Harry Eastick’s daughter, the boat was launched in June 1930 and has been lovingly restored.  If you want to know more about the Great Yarmouth herring industry then the Time and Tide Museum is the place to go – leave time for a visit to the Silver Darlings Café!

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Summer wouldn’t be summer without a reading list and I’ve been revisiting the classics this year, inspired by visits to two wonderful writers’ houses during our week’s holiday in Hastings.  First stop was Lamb House in Rye where Henry James lived from 1897 until 1914.  He wrote many of his most famous works here, including my particular favourite, The Turn of the Screw.  If you look closely at the photo on the left you might see a shadowy figure doing a little light haunting…  Joan Aitken’s book The Haunting of Lamb House is a supernatural tale featuring both Henry James and his friend friend E F Benson who lived there from 1914 onwards and who also wrote ghost stories.  Benson’s celebrated Mapp and Lucia stories are set in “Tilling” which was modelled on Rye.  Mapp and Lucia’s home, “Mallards” is, of course, Lamb House.  Rumer Godden, one of my favourite writers when I was a child, lived there from 1967 to 1974.  Her book, A Kindle of Kittens, is set in Rye.  I particularly adored Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, the story of two Japanese dolls and how their new owner, Nona, a homesick little girl, decides to build them a Japanese house.  I’m sure  my love of all things Japanese stems from learning, along with Nona, what the dolls might like to be surrounded with to lessen their homesickness.

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Our second writer’s residence was Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country retreat in Rodmell.  We walked along the banks of the Ouse from Lewes to Rodmell and it was hard not to imagine Virginia, on that fateful day in 1941, setting off from the house and walking into the Ouse, pockets full of stones.

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The house is utterly charming and the Woolfs clearly thought so too, despite the lack of home comforts.  Leonard said that he thought their daily life was closer to Chaucer’s than that of modern man!  Woolf was writing her seminal feminist essay A Room of One’s Own as her bedroom was being built at Monk’s House.  It had no internal links to the main house and was full of artworks by her sister, Vanessa Bell, and her niece, Angelica Garnett.

In the garden is the Writing Lodge, where Virginia wrote many of her novels and articles, even sleeping there on fine summer nights.  The house was a magnet for the Bloomsbury Group with T S Eliot, Maynard Keynes, E M Forster, Duncan Grant and many others spending time here and dubbing it Bloomsbury on Sea!

 

As well as revisiting some of the books in my classics collection I’ve also set myself a project which I’m calling The Paris Project.  I’m trying to read every book I can with the word Paris in the title.  I’ve come across some great ones so far.  I would recommend The Paris Wife by Paula McLain which is about how Hadley Richardson (the first of Hemingway’s four wives) and Ernest Hemingway adapt to life in Paris as impoverished Americans in the 1920s.  If you like a bit of time travelling then pick up futurist adventure Paris Adrift by E J Swift – a really intriguing read.  One Evening in Paris by Nicolas Barreau is a wee bit farfetched but it’s set around a cinema and is a bit of a paean to all those romantic city-obsessed Woody Allen films so you can forgive its foibles!

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And, of course, I’ve been reading plenty of poetry books – there have been so many good ones recently.  I’ve particularly enjoyed Witch by Rebecca Tamas, Threat by Julia Webb, The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, Everyone Knows I am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, and King of a Rainy Country by Matthew Sweeney.  The last is particularly close to my heart.  Matthew and his partner, fellow poet Mary Noonan, were in Paris at the same time as me in 2016 and staying very close by.  This collection of prose poems was Matthew’s response to Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris.  It’s a magical read but also a sad one as Matthew died soon after completing it.

So, look out for the quirky, wherever you are, it’s what makes life interesting.  I’ll leave you with a final image from a shop in Great Yarmouth which was in the process of closing down…

 

A Casa dos Poetas – Take Two!

For the second year running I’ve been tutoring and performing at Peter Pegnall’s brilliant A Casa dos Poetas (The Poetry House), a residential course which took place in mid-May in the charming Algarvian town of Silves.

Last year I stayed with five of the other participants up in the hills, this year we were based at La Colina dos Mouros and my room had a gorgeous view of the Castle which dominates the little town.

Some free time on the first day meant I could do more than just admire this stunning castle from afar.  Once inside there’s very little of the structure left, although the Moorish fortifications are some of the best preserved In Portugal.  It’s thought to have been built on a Lusitanian castro by the Romans and Visigoths and then expanded by the Moors who were there between the 8th and 13th centuries. Something that struck me was the presence of huge water tanks, essential when under siege!  One of these cisterns was hosting an exhibition on the Iberian lynx, which, once highly endangered, is being reintroduced. I used the words on the panels to create a found poem which served as an example for my workshop on this subject later in the week.  I’ve become more and more interested in different forms of found poetry and was particularly struck by Raymond Antrobus’s erasure/redaction of Ted Hughes’ poem The Deaf School, which appears in his award-winning 2018 poetry collection The Perseverance.  The act of erasure is a radical interaction with a text, but in this case I went for the more conventional excerpting and re-mixing.

 So, here’s a taste of the Iberian lynx (all words, including the title, found):

Feline Reintroductions

 When I was small my life was catching bees and making little beehives

I used to see lynxes

the wandering waddling walk

vertical eyes    long whiskers   fur like foliage

a short discreet tail

crepuscular carnivore of partridges

coelhos bravos

he can climb trees   swim

lynxes    I used to see   lynxes

The loose theme which tied many of the workshops together  this year was The Outsider – a very fruitful topic.  I spent a lot of time wishing I spoke Portuguese, not knowing a language makes you feel very alien and on the fringe of things, so certainly a very appropriate theme for the week.  I’m fortunate that I know enough Spanish to get by with menus and rough guesses, but not enough to really join in.   Was I a tourist?  Some of the time I was teaching and some of the time I was a student.  And then there we were on a hill looking across the river to the town, very much on the outside, looking in…  Not to mention that poets tend to be observers, placing themselves at the edge of things in order to record and transform…

Andrea Holland led a very thought-provoking workshop using Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina, one of my favourite poems.  Sestinas are so hard to write but here you barely notice the cyclically repeated endwords, so skillful…  You can read the text here.  It’s interesting to think of the child’s position, whether they belong in this house, or not:

http://staff.washington.edu/rmcnamar/383/bishop.html

Gérard Noyau once again encouraged us to provide a working translation of one of his father, René’s, poems, an extraordinarily complex piece dealing with the history of slavery.   René was a Mauritian surrealist poet so there were layers of both language and culture to unpick.  We worked in groups, drafting up a rough translation before putting our poet hats on and making the language work to the best of our ability. During the residential Gerard undertakes to translate some of our poems into French and discusses the final result in depth.  It’s such an interesting experience, it makes you question every word and nuance of meaning of the original and flags up cultural differences when you come across the untranslatable (back to the outsider again!).

The translation workshop took place on the roof of the Café Ingles which is our home from home for the week.  Smiling staff, led by the inimitable Carlos, welcomed us for several evenings and a few sneaky gazpacho and white wine lunchtimes!  I always enjoy performing my poetry at the Café.  Last year it was quite chilly in the evenings, but this year we were able to perform under the stars in the scented night air.  I’m hoping my performing skills were enhanced this year by a great performance workshop from Naomi Foyle – thank you Naomi for helping me to breathe!

And of course, Peter Pegnall held it all together for us, not only leading two workshops but arranging trips, guest speakers and various surprises, one of which was a performance by Rogerio Cão and Nanook, passionate poetry put to music and performed in the cobbled café courtyard.

We spent a day up in the hills in a beautiful villa where Manuel Portela, writer, professor and renowned expert on Fernando Pessoa, encouraged us to create our own work from Pessoa seeds.  Pessoa, and his multiple personas, all of whom write in different voices, represent the ultimate outsider, someone who is so Other their Self is lost in multiple guises, unpindownable…

Our hosts at the villa were Manuel Neto dos Santos and his partner, Bert, who made us a superb meal as well as giving us the run of their beautiful gardens and patios.  Manuel is an Algarvian poet whose words are permeated with melancholic longing and he has at least eight collections to his name.   During the afternoon he introduced us to a variety of other Algarvian poetic voices before we thanked our kind hosts with our own voices, performing words and music by the pool (and they still didn’t make us do the washing up!).

 

 

 

 

Our residency this year was a bit later than in 2018 which meant the stork chicks were almost adolescents!  As I sat on my balcony I could hear extraordinary clicking and clacking from all around and after a bit of googling discovered the most amazing fact: did you know  storks don’t have voiceboxes but communicate by clattering their beaks? I had a view of at least three storks’ nests from by balcony and if you walk in any direction in Silves you can feast your eyes on multiple nests, large and small and low and high.  One of the biggest is on the old Communist Party HQ next to the police station, but it’s tricky to catch on camera, the sun always seems to be in the wrong place.  I thought the storks deserved their own poem this year so this is a Japanese style effort, a sort of double tanka!

storks stir the mud

with trident feet

the knowledge of tide

in their slurried blood

they clack their beaks

like knife     like fork

swallows nestle

in the underbelly

of their cartwheel nests

sing like courtiers

to their voiceless kings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our afternoon off was bright and hot and most of us opted to go to the beach at Carvoeiro for a speedboat trip to the famous Benagil caves.  This whole coastline is like a magical grotto, turquoise water, limestone sea caves sculpted by sand and time in colours which reminded me of those glass containers you used to find at seaside places with differently coloured layers of sand (I think I had one which was lighthouse shaped).  The boat trip had to have a coda of an ice cream (pastel de nata flavour of course!) before a cold half-hour dip in the salty Atlantic.

 

 

 

 

 

In a way, I quite enjoyed my outsider status.  It meant I could be someone a little different for a while, in my head at least!  Once again, I felt very privileged to have taken part in this  week-long celebration of Portugal, culture, poetry and companionship.

Paris in the Autumn – DADA, Punk and Pistachio Eclairs

It was strange to be back in Paris, not least because I’d had several months of clean sea air and was used to feeling constantly and rather pleasantly damp from a mixture of sea swimming and beach walking.  Just the day before I’d been swimming in the North Sea and now here I was on the steps of Sacre Coeur! (Below is a photo taken from the 8th floor of my air bnb building.)

One of my aims this time in Paris was to explore the live poetry/open mic scene a little more thoroughly.  I began by attending the launch of the latest issue of “Maintenant” a New York DADA magazine.  It was an extraordinary evening from start to finish, down in the basement of the Cave on rue Marcadet.   I’m a great fan of experimental poetry and pushing boundaries and could appreciate that a lot of what went on was doing exactly that.  The main joy of the evening, however,  was discovering new poets who had an innovative and exciting way with words while still remaining accessible, and who you are unlikely to come across on the page as they are largely performance poets.  Boni Joi, an American poet, gave a muscular, dramatic performance, full of the flavours of Europe.  The biggest discovery for me was Henrik Aeshna.  Glittering eyes, a feral presence and the feeling that anything could happen as he threw jets of whiskey around and pages of poetry across the stage, but amidst the posturing there were moments of pure poetic beauty.  I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for bad boys, you know, that Kurt Cobain, Pete Doherty, Sid Vicious kind of thing…

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Aeshna is described as  “the anti-prophet of SchizoPoP Manifesto.  Rebel, intense, provocateur; bastard, visionary vandal, anti-anti-hero with a thousand faces. Profane pirate of signs and Poltergeist poet of inspirational carpe diem. All and Nothing. Henrik Aeshna’s school notebook poems are radically innovative – a wild stream of words and sensations, an unstructured syntax flowing out of the musical mud and fierce effervescence of Free Jazz, Post-Punk, Avant-Garde & Experimental Cinema ( Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Shuji Terayama, Jonas Mekas, etc. ), photography and street art, Beat Poetry, Dada-Surrealism & Situationism, and finding echoes in the travel journals and raging notebooks of outlaw adventurers such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Rimbaud, Villon, Li Po & Basho, Artaud, William Burroughs & Arthur Cravan…” .  To read more of this astounding description of his work and some sample poems go to: https://tsunamibooks.jimdo.com/poets-in-english-2011-issue/henrik-aeshna/

Other artists banged the on-stage piano in a brutal manner, used post-its to simulate copulation and enacted a rather engaging play across the room.  The evening ended in true DADA style with the final artist rubbing sweets on his genitals (yes, really, pants down stuff).  There was a point, but probably not one to share…

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My next venture was long-standing open-mic night Spoken Word at Au Chat Noir, a typically grungey and grafittied bar in Belleville, the old working class district which is now, with Oberkampf, the height of hip.  Spoken Word describes itself as a home for “creatives and lost anglophones”.  The majority of open-micers are American and the flavour tends to be quite young, political, stream of consciousness style readings. The emphasis tends to be much more on performance than it is in the UK.  One of the featured artists was Jennifer Blowdryer, who used to head up a punk band in New York in the 70s.  She was great fun, belting out songs and reading an essay about Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor from her new book.  The venue was an atmospheric basement space, with the calmest member of the audience by far being a short-eared rabbit who surveyed all that went on with a buddha-like tranquillity.  I read a couple of poems from Lumière to spread the word as it was thanks to my 2016 Arts Council funded residency in Paris that this pamphlet, a tribute to Paris’ cinematic heritage, came into being.

https://www.hedgehogpress.co.uk/product/sue-burge-lumiere-pre-order/

For my third and final exploration I went back to Culture Rapide, another grungey, graffitied bar in Belleville where I had read embryonic Lumière poems back in May 2016.  This meant I wasn’t heckled onto stage with cries of “Virgin! Virgin!” like other terrified newbies.  My slot followed Gertrude, a fabulous French transvestite who sang a song about working girls in Montmartre, resplendent in fishnets, beret and little black skirt.  And following me was the ubiquitous Jenny Blowdryer!   The featured act was Abdel Kader Wawi, aka 5919, a Lebanese calligraffiti artist.  The stage became an art studio as old film posters were stuck up and then covered with the most beautifully executed Arabic calligraphy of words suggested by the audience.  While he worked, two friends played guitar and sang, giving the performance a gypsyish/Moorish slant.

All three experiences were extraordinary and I felt privileged to have been a fleeting part of them.

I did, of course,  venture outside and went on long, sunlit walks on most days, sometimes clocking up around 10km in a go, but a further two highlights were both part of the thriving  cabaret scene in Paris.

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It was Paris fashion week and I decided the only way to properly celebrate this was to go along to the Folies Bergère and see Jean-Paul Gaulthier’s Fashion Freak Show – a cabaret spectacular which he had created to showcase his life in fashion, like peeking into his private diary.  Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to get a ticket as both Marion Cotillard and Paloma Faith were in the audience, along with other celebrities who I had no hope of identifying and a plethora of gorgeous men and women who all seemed to have modelled for J-P.  The show was fantastic, full-on dancing, electrifying music (chosen by Nile Rodgers), fashion shows featuring Gaulthier’s iconic confections and some brilliant projections including images of the young J-P watching Falbalas,  the 1945 film which was one of his earliest inspirations.  The film starred the gorgeous Micheline Presle as a woman seduced by a Parisian designer.  One of the highlights of the show for me was to see Presle in the huge on-stage projections, playing Gaulthier’s influential grandmother.  In one of those strange coincidences that makes life the colourful pageant that it is, I had a drink later in the week with my friend Juliette, who runs the fabulous Cine-Balade company and whose walks were hugely inspirational when it came to writing Lumière.  She had just interviewed Presle as she works for an organisation which restores old black and white films and one of Presle’s is hopefully slated for re-release.  Juliette had also worked with the team restoring Rue des Cascades which was one of the many films I managed to see while in Paris.  This 1964 classic is a little reminiscent of Les Quatre Cents Coups, very much seen from a child’s point of view and set in the Belleville/Menilmontant area.  It focuses on a boy’s reaction to his mother’s new boyfriend, who just happens to be black.

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The second cabaret experience, a visit to the Lapin Agile, is probably one of my all-time favourite Parisian experiences in the 40 years since I’ve been coming to the city.  You need to be able to understand French pretty well to really appreciate it, but just to go in and imbibe the atmosphere is worth the ticket price.  It’s a famous Montmartre cabaret dating from the 19th century.  It was bought by Aristide Bruant, comedian and cabaret singer, in the early 20th century to save it from demolition.  It became a favourite spot for struggling artists and writers including Utrillo, Picasso, Apollinaire and Modigliani.

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It also became famous for launching unknown musicians and singers on to greater things – singers like Georges Brassens and Claude Nougaro.  The evening starts with five or six singers and musicians around a table singing together, the songs are all French in origin and some date back to the fifteenth century.  Each musician has a solo turn, maybe with an accordion, a piano, a guitar.  There are songs by Piaf, Brassens, Bécaud and many more including Charles Aznavour, who, in his youth,  lived just below Montmartre in the 9th arrondissement and who died very recently at the age of 94.  The venue is dark, atmospheric, with old wooden tables and benches and paintings on every inch of wall space, including a copy of Picasso’s famous Au Lapin Agile.

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Paris, as well as staying the same in so many ways, is also changing rapidly.  The prevalence of street art is one of the most noticeable changes.  A great deal of tagging, but also, among the ordinary, the extraordinary:

 

 

 

 

 

And what about that eclair?  Well, I’m well-known for my predilection for réligieuse, those wonderful chocolate or coffee cream-filled choux pastry concoctions, but decided I should try something different as I wandered round the Batignolles area which seemed to have a delightful bakery on every corner.  Green is one of my favourite colours and the brightness of this pistachio eclair seemed to be calling to me.  It was one of those moments where, as a Frenchwoman I know says, “time stops on your tongue.

 

Abbeys, Monasteries and Convents – A Contemplation

 

I’m just back from two weeks in the Yorkshire Moors where it felt as if we experienced every type of weather ever invented and more!

For the first week we were based in Helmsley, and for the second week in a National Trust cottage just outside the gates of Fountains Abbey.  The sea, of course, was not a presence.  I was amazed how much I missed it as, recently, I felt that I was taking my daily glimpses of the sea from our bedroom windows a little too much for granted.  We were, however, close to some very impressive, fast-flowing, steep-sided Yorkshire rivers, namely the Skell and the Laver which are both close to Fountains Abbey and meet at Ripon, and the Rye, from which Rievaulx Abbey gets its name.  I thought a lot about rivers.  I grew up by the Thames and my dad was a boatbuilder so I knew how important they were from an early age – they provide food on the table for our family, for a start!  I’ve always been fascinated by how settlements develop by rivers and how we use them for both survival and entertainment.  Both Rievaulx and Fountains Abbey were Cistercian monasteries and what the Cistercians didn’t know about forcing a river to meet their own ends isn’t worth knowing.  The monks of Rievaulx were granted land north of the river and today, Rievaulx is still north of the river, but the monastery is somewhat larger than it should have been as yes, you’ve guessed it, the industrious monks (or, more likely, the lay brothers who did all the donkey work) moved it.

In the 18th century Fountains Abbey was used as a romantic ruin for 18th century aristocrats to enjoy as they explored the water gardens at Studley Royal as guests of the Aislabies.  John Aislabie, another who had the ability to see how river water could be manipulated, but for leisure this time, created the gardens after he was expelled from Parliament due to the South Sea Bubble disaster.  What a great retirement project!  There are wonderful views of the Abbey from many spots in the garden.

Studley Royal Water Garden in the eighteenth century

Thomas Duncombe of Duncombe Hall, on the fringes of Helmsley, went one better.  He had two romantic ruins – Helmsley Castle at one end of his estate and Rievaulx Abbey at the other.  He created Rievaulx Terrace – a high walk with temple follies from which you get wonderful views.  When we were there the serpentine wooded approach to the terrace shone with snowdrops and this became quite a feature of our walks, as did banks and banks of wild garlic.

Cistercians were a breakaway group from the Benedictines.  They wanted to go back to St Benedict’s original principles and prided themselves on being self-sufficient.  The river would have been used in the tanning and wool industries which made money for the Abbey.  It also would have been used as a sewer for the rather elaborate communal latrines.  Springwater was used to make small beer and for fresh drinking water.  The area around Fountains Abbey seemed to literally seep underfoot there are so many springs!  The monks didn’t wash frequently and then usually just their hands before dinner and their feet on Fridays in a religious ritual.  They only wore underpants (communal) when they left the grounds on monastic business and were allowed in the warming room twice a day for fifteen minutes.  Having experienced a few blizzards in the proximity of both these Abbeys, I am full of admiration for these men and the harsh life they undertook so willingly, although less so just before the Reformation when they had become as corrupt and decadent as the order they broke away from.  It’s always fun to spot Abbey stones in the local walls and houses from where the stone was pillaged once Henry’s men had taken all the more readily portably goodies.  King’s Lynn has a stunning late Tudor warehouse, Marriott’s Warehouse, which sports a lower layer of monastic stone.  It’s much easier to spot this little bit of history in Norfolk than it is in Yorkshire where the “acquired” stone easily blends into the local stonework.

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The monastic life is a fascinating one.  I’ve just finished Bitter Greens  by Kate Forsyth.  It weaves together the story of Rapunzel and the witch who imprisons her with the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the woman who wrote the version of the story we know today.  Fairy and folk tales were very popular in the literary salons of Paris in the 17th century and Charlotte would have known Charles Perrault who collected many of the stories still told today.  She sounds like a formidable character and, at one point, was exiled from the court of Louis XIV and sent to a convent.  Kate Forsyth brings this austere community to life and it is here that Charlotte learns about Rapunzel and can make comparisons with her own “imprisonment” in a cloistered community with little or no contact with the outside world.  The book would make a fantastic film, it has so many layers and sub-plots.  On the subject of films, one of my favourites, set in a convent in the Himalayas, is Black Narcissus starring Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh and Kathleen Byron as a wonderfully demented Sister Ruth, fatally lusting after David Farrar, the local British agent, in his unfeasibly short shorts.

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It was shot mostly at Pinewood Studios but that didn’t stop an enthusiastic cinemagoer writing in to say they recognised the particular spot in the Himalayas where filming took place!  Then there’s the Audrey Hepburn film, The Nun’s Story.  Hepburn is a particular favourite of mine and I find this film incredibly poignant.  It’s set primarily in the Belgian Congo but, towards the end of the film Sister Luke returns to Nazi occupied Belgium and, having always struggled with obedience, and forced into a series of compromises through the Nazi occupation, leaves the convent after being granted a dispensation from her vows. As a young girl, Audrey lived in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.  At one point, she was reduced to eating groundup tulip bulbs to avoid starvation.  I can’t imagine what memories this film would have evoked for her.  Audrey gets to play a nun again in Robin and Marian, a film she alledgedly only agreed to make at the insistence of her sons who couldn’t envisage why she would turn down the opportunity to act alongside James Bond (Sean Connery)!

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Sean Connery is also the lead in another great film set in a monastery.  The Name of the Rose is based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name.  It’s a murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery with many scenes taking place in the labyrinthine library.  At Fountains Abbey we discovered that he monks who made the beautiful illuminated manuscripts, laboriously inked onto vellum, were allowed to work in the warming room.  Cold fingers can’t write very well and this could be why I wrote little poetry during my Yorkshire sojourn!

I thought a lot though, and those thoughts have provided plenty of ideas for future poems.  Being so close to monasteries does make one feel very contemplative and I particularly liked one of the thought-provoking ideas at Rievaulx Terrace where visitors are invited to lean on sculpted pieces of trunk and just watch the clouds go by…

I recently attended a poetry workshop on Rain at the Troubadour Café in Earls Court, taught by the brilliant Anne-Marie Fyffe.  The subject was rain.  I was struck by how many  of the group participants had an affectionate relationship with rain.  It does cause mud, which was a feature of our holiday (my walking boots are still in recovery!) but it also helped to create those verdant banks of snowdrops and wild garlic… So it seems only apt to end on a picture of me at Pickering Station smiling through the raindrops!

 

Think Liminally!

 

I’ve always been interested in the idea of liminal spaces, that strange place which exists, or non-exists, between other things.  It’s a concept I explore a great deal in my poetry.  It could be the moment between sleeping and waking.  It could be a whole film.  Brief Encounter appears to be mostly set in a liminal space.  Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) meet on a train station and much of the action takes place here, particularly in the waiting room – a classic liminal space.  Their love-affair is doomed from the start – a brief passionate interlude, unrealised and unconsummated as both protagonists are drawn back to their sober, dutiful lives.  There are angsty, canted angles when Laura is in danger of going too far (there’s a very film noir kiss in an underpass, shadowy and sinister) or when her state of mind is unbalanced almost to the point of suicide.  The film has been called the “Anna Karenina of the home counties” with one critic scathingly saying “make tea, not love”.  Audiences at the time were famously irritated with Alec and Laura’s inability to “get a room”!  If you ever get the chance to visit the Carnforth Station in Lancashire, where the film was shot, you are in for a treat. It houses an excellent heritage centre with, at its heart, a celebration of David Lean’s 1945 classic.  You can even have tea in the faithfully restored Refreshment Room which sports huge, rather intimidating tea urns.

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My favourite liminal space, however, is the pier.  It’s not sea, it’s not land.   As soon as you step onto a pier life feels full of possibilities and difference.  Southwold Pier is surely the most unusual you’ll ever encounter.

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I last visited in December when Southwold beach was shrouded for hours in a thick sea fret and the pier only came into view as we were almost at the steps.  As well as great shops and cafes, the pier is home to Tim Hunkin’s “Under the Pier Show”, a superb collection of unique, hand-built, wacky machines (there’s also an amazing clock halfway down the pier which comes to life on the hour).  In the “Mobility Masterclass” you have to get gran across a busy road with her zimmer frame.  There’s also the deeply satisfying “Whack the Banker”.  The most recent addition is “airbednbug” where a few coins activate a sort of live storyboard about persecuted bedbugs – it’s charming – a comic strip come to life.  My favourite moment is when the bedbugs realise they have to move and are leafing through brochures to choose their next hotel to infest – genius!

Is a pier a truly liminal space?  A liminal space is one of transition and you could say that piers are really ends in themselves although in the past they probably fulfilled a clearer liminal role as some the first pleasure piers were where you would while away your time as you waited for a steamboat or ferry.  One of the earliest pleasure piers was Ryde Pier, built in 1813. There were working piers too, of course, (and still are today), like Wigan,  where passengers and cargo were loaded and unloaded.

If you’re a film buff like me then probably your first thought at the mention of piers was Brighton Rock.  There’s a great article at the link below

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/artsandculture/8273771/Brighton-Rock-stepping-into-the-black-and-white-world-of-Pinkie-and-Rose.html

about a Brighton Rock walk given by Julian Clapp.  The 1948 version of Graham Greene’s book stars Richard Attenborough as baby-faced evil personified, giving a stunning performance as Pinkie.  The film was an immediate sensation and also deeply disturbing for an audience reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, with some critics believing the film shouldn’t be shown.  Violence in films was always a concern, with those in control believing that it could have an adverse effect on the suggestible, mostly working class, cinema audiences.  Brighton Pier, of course, takes centre stage, with its ghost train, fortune tellers and the “make a record of your voice” booth, used to such great and poignant effect at the end of the film.  You can watch the clip below:

Many people who feel the 1948 version is the definitive one were not too keen on the 2010 remake with Sam Riley as the psychopathic Pinkie, and the reliably superb Andrea Riseborough as Rose, but I quite like remakes.  It’s always interesting to see how a new version of a classic addresses its audience.

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Richard Attenborough renewed his connection with piers by directing the iconic anti-war film Oh What A Lovely War! in 1966.  The archetypal Smith family’s experience of the First World War is played out through a series of elaborate tableaux staged mostly on Brighton’s West Pier.  It begins with General Haig selling the family entrance tickets to the “show”.  At one point, officers zoom down a helter skelter, the perfect metaphor for their heedless and naive decisions.

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Hunstanton Pier, or the lack of it, has been a bone of contention in this West Norfolk town for some time.  The pier was destroyed by storms in 1978 and the little which remained was more or less destroyed by fire in 2002 and subsequently removed.  Before its sad demise, the pier was immortalised in an Ealing comedy from 1956 Barnacle Bill, starring Alec Guinness.  Guinness plays a sea captain with seasickness who buys up the old pier and turns it into a non-moving cruise ship, a shipshape vessel which will never go to sea – so we are very much back to the strangeness of liminal spaces.   The success of the pier and its new role is very much to the chagrin of the local council who want to demolish it and modernise the promenade (plus ça change…)

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As a child, I had an aunt who lived in Hastings whom I used to visit so I have vague memories of the old pier which was destroyed by a fire in 2010.  It has just been rebuilt and looks stunning, I can’t wait to visit this stunningly modern new space which was named the UK’s best new building last year.

Image result for cromer pierNow I’m resident in East Runton and just down the road from Cromer, this, of course, is my new favourite pier.  It’s one of only five UK piers with a working theatre and I’m very much looking forward to booking my ticket for the End of the Pier show!  The pier itself has had a long and rich history with records of a structure going back as far as the fourteenth century.  At night it’s lit up in a magical way and acts as my beacon when I walk along the beach to Cromer on dark evenings.

Image result for in love with alma coganThe pier was the location for “In love with Alma Cogan” directed by Tony Britten.  Much of the action took place in the Pavilion Theatre and the plot revolved round Theatre Manager Norman’s resistance to a more commercial show.  Norman was played by Roger Lloyd Pack and the film was one of his last appearances on screen.  Lloyd Pack was well loved locally, he’d fallen in love with the area in the 1970s after acting in Joseph Losey’s The Go Between  alongside Alan Bates and Julie Christie and, as a result, owned a house locally.

 

So, my advice to you all is to have a liminal moment.  Stand and contemplate life in one of the places in-between – a stairwell, a waiting room, an airport – these are places where reality feels somewhat altered, places which only exist as a means of getting somewhere else or as a resting place.  Best of all, go and stand on a pier and enjoy not having to find your sealegs, experience the feeling of walking on water.  Buy chips, have a cup of tea, get your fortune told, admire amazing starling murmurations from Brighton’s ruined West Pier or at Aberystwyth.  A place of creative pause and contemplation.

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Small Pleasures

 

Life in East Runton is so different to anywhere else I’ve lived.  It’s just outside Cromer and is very much connected to the big, wide world by bus and rail, but a lot of the time it seems utterly apart, bubble-wrapped in a rather engaging time-warp.

On Christmas Day we decided to pop down to the beach before dinner.  At high tide we were regularly seeing a seal on the beach.  We were pretty sure it was the same one each time.  He (or maybe she, we haven’t quite got the hang of this yet…) had the same laid back attitude when people and dogs approached and a rather nonchalant way of arranging his  flippers which made him look as if he were personally greeting each passer-by.  We named  him Runty, not political incorrectness at all but merely alluding to his appearance on the beaches of East and West Runton.  On one memorable occasion I nearly fell over him on the pitch dark beach as we walked back from the cinema one evening.  So, we thought we’d check whether he’d made a Christmas visit to “our” beach.  As soon as we came out of our front door we could hear a brass band playing carols and there, on the Lower Common, was a five-piece brass band which played all the classics for around forty minutes.  They were three generations of the same family raising money for Parkinsons Disease.  The whole village turned out, there were hugs and kisses and Christmas greetings and children who’d decided to stay in the warm calling out of top-floor windows.  It all felt very cosy and Miss Marple, hopefully without the murders!  Another of my favourite screen depictions of a village is Bramley End in Cavalcanti’s thought-provoking 1942 film for Ealing Studios Went the Day Well.  Based on Graham Greene’s short story The Lieutentant Died Last, this was a propaganda film designed to alert the country about the dangers of being complacent about the possibility of invasion.  In the film, the villagers of Bramley End are far too trusting and are overrun by Nazi paratroopers posing as an English battalion.  There’s a cast of much-loved 1940s actors – Leslie Banks, Thora Hird (in her first major role), Harry Fowler, Mervyn Johns, Valerie Taylor, Patricia Hayes, Basil Sydney…  The village (actually the very pretty Turville in Buckinghamshire) is shown as an English rural idyll, depicting very successfully what we were fighting to preserve.

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All this makes me think of John Betjeman.  For me he is the quintessential poet of Britishness, probably because of his delightfully tongue-in-cheek take on xenophobia in his poem “In Westminster Abbey” with those immortal lines:

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots’ and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.

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On Boxing Day we set forth along the beach to Cromer Pier to catch the traditional Boxing Day swim.  Again, a lovely atmosphere with the whole town out in force.  We continued to Overstrand for a festive drink at The Sea Marge.  This is a gorgeous hotel, largely Arts and Crafts in style,  in a former Edwardian mansion house, once owned by Sir Edgar and Lady Speyer, great friends of the Churchills.  Winston and Clementine were holidaying here with their children just before the outbreak of the First World War and it was from here that Winston Churchill made the call to mobilise the fleet before hurrying back to London.  The house was one of the first in the area to have a telephone line. Edgar Speyer was an American-born financier with German heritage and, of course, at this time there was great suspicion of those of German descent.  The Speyers were ostracised locally and accused of disloyalty and treachery.  One of the accusations was that Speyer had been signalling to German submarines from the clifftop gardens of The Sea Marge.  The Speyers left the country in 1916, never to return.  Today the Grade II listed building has a very friendly bar where muddy boots are acceptable and you can play traditional bar games such as Shut the Box and cribbage at your table as you sample the local beers.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing Gary Oldman depicting Churchill’s role in the Second World War in The Darkest Hour which is out this week.

A highlight of the village week is the arrival of the Fish and Chip van in East Runton.  This sturdy red van appears at 6pm every Wednesday, ably commandeered by Paul who knows everyone’s location in the village, name and, more importantly, food order!

 

New Year’s Day was very different for us this year.  Normally it’s an anti-climax after all the sparkliness of Christmas but this year, at 5pm, we stood on the beach with the tide coming in and waves lapping at our wellies to watch the spectacular fireworks at the end of Cromer Pier.  There were thousands of people packed on the beach and the clifftop promenades, a wonderful communal way to bring in the New and say goodbye to the Old.   We let our salty wellies dry in the warmth and comfort of the Regal Movieplex in Cromer, watching The Greatest Showman.  Musicals aren’t usually my favourite genre but this was such a heartwarming, feelgood film,  impossible to dislike and a suitably vibrant and colourful follow-up to the fireworks.

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I don’t make New Year Resolutions, having decided at a young age that they only lead to disappointment in both oneself and the world.  Living in such a lovely rural and seaside area with great walks literally from our front door has made me live more for the moment and to relish them all, which seems as good a princile as any to take forward in 2018.

 

 

 

 

Merry and Bright!

 

I’ll confess right from the start of this blogpost that yes, I adore Christmas and everything about it, but particularly Christmas films and books and bracing walks by the sea.

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A few years after we’d moved to King’s Lynn we went to the fantastic Old Boathouse Café in Hunstanton for breakfast on Christmas Eve, but were distracted by something big and fishy-looking on the beach.  It turned out to be an extremely dead sperm whale.  It was quite young, so not as large as it might have been, but still an awesome sight.  I felt very privileged to be able to get so close to one of these creatures and he appears occasionally in my poetry, which is getting increasingly fishy and salty as we settle in to our new coastal home!

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I hope you have all discovered Candlestick Press www.candlestickpress.co.uk and their wonderful series of slim pamphlets, mostly poetry, which can be sent instead of a card.  There are a number of Christmassy ones including an annual series The Twelve Poems of Christmas, now in its eighth volume.  One of my favourite pamphlets is Gillian Clarke’s The Christmas Wren, a beautiful re-interpretation of A Child’s Christmas in Wales.  There’s a Welsh language version too!  Also worth checking out is John Lewis-Stempel’s The Wood in Winter – a transcendent piece of nature writing about the life of a wood in bleak midwinter. There’s nothing nicer than curling up under a fleecy throw with a glass of mulled wine and candles and reading Christmas poetry, preferably aloud.  Throw in a beautifully illustrated version of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and I’m in Christmas heaven.

If you’re looking for that perfect last-minute gift for someone who loves reading, I’ve discovered a new literary gift website, Bookishly, https://www.bookishly.co.uk/collections  They have the most beautiful gift packages, such as their limited edition festive gift box, A Christmas Carol Book Crate.   I’m rather taken with the idea of A Blind Date with a Book, where you get a surprise vintage book, beautifully wrapped, or The Coffee and Book Club subscription which gives you  a monthly vintage book and bag of coffee.  There’s a tea equivalent, Classics and cuppa, which sounds great too.

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So, given my predilection for all things Christmassy, it’s no wonder I’m completely entranced by Christmas lights.  The North Norfolk coast abounds in pretty villages with classy lights.  Holt is a must with the wonderful Bakers and Larner (a sort of Fortnum and Mason equivalent, but cuter) looking truly magical.  The fine city of Norwich is full of glittery snowflakes hanging from trees, and also has a Tunnel of Light… I love the idea of bringing light to the darkest time of the year: candles, fairylights, fires.  Perhaps we should all start celebrating St Lucia’s day on the 13th December as they do in Sweden.  Lucy was a young Christian girl, martyred for her faith.  She would bring food to the catacombs for persecuted Christians in hiding, wearing a garland of candles so she had both hands free to carry more food.  I once had a poem published in fab webzine Ink, Sweat and Tears http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/ which explored various ideas of light, including this festival:

The Chandelier Competition

 What would you use to bring light into our lives?

Candles? Crystal? Mirrors?  Sparklers?

Fireflies? Solar Trickery?

Your entries, boxed and bubble-wrapped,

must reach us by midday of the winter equinox.

 

Last year’s winner is a hard act to follow;

an intricate weaving of glow-worms,

darkness and moonlight;

a perfect equilibrium of chiaroscuro.

 

This creation lasted one night only –

the glow-worms devoured

both light and shade.

They lay, plump and dim in the dawnlight

like toothless vampires.

 

This year’s judges are our most northerly neighbours :

Icelanders, Greenlanders, Swedes and Orcadians.

They have all signed waivers

after the Danes’ scandalous looting

of last year’s runners up.

 

First prize this year is a month

in the southern hemisphere.

The darkness is coming.

Light a candle to Santa Lucia

and try your luck.

 

Image result for its a wonderful lifeI do, of course, spend quite a bit of time watching Christmas films.  I’m sure we all enjoy creating our own traditions at Christmas and for us Christmas Day can’t start until we’ve watched  It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) late on Christmas Eve.  I always cry at the end, even after multiple viewings.  James Stewart as George Bailey, in debt and trouble through no fault of his own, wants to die.  Clarence, the angel who’s trying to get his wings, rescues him by showing him what life would be like if there were no George Bailey.  It’s really a re-telling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Mr Potter as the evil banker – the bad side of Scrooge, and George Bailey as the benign banker who Scrooge later becomes.  Clarence is all the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future wrapped into one as he shows George the impact he has had on everyone.  The film has to be watched in conjunction with my favourite version of  A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version with Alistair Sim as a fabulously histrionic Scrooge, although The  Muppet Christmas Carol is a close second!  Paddington, voiced by the inimitable Ben Whishaw, is fast becoming a Christmas favourite.  I’ve been very interested in the discussions in the press discussing Paddington 2 and referencing Paddington as our outlet for Brexit frustration.  He is the classic immigrant and the various attitudes of the community towards him reflect our somewhat divided nation at the moment.

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I very much enjoy cooking at Christmas.  As a vegan/vegetarian household our food is non-traditional and features lots of salads and tasty nut roasts baked in pastry with lashings of red wine sauce and copious amounts of roast potatoes.  It’s always interesting to try something different at Christmas and my first Christmas abroad was in Israel on a kibbutz near Afula.  All the volunteers were given a day off and we had a feast featuring food from all over the world outside in the sunshine where I discovered the delights of Dutch apple cake which I still adore today.  The most unusual setting I’ve experienced was in the Rajasthani desert.  We were on a camel trek and our rather meagre Christmas feast was hijacked by three very suspicious-looking men who appeared out of nowhere heading for the Pakistan border.  Our guide nonchalantly explained later that they were heroin smugglers which explained why he was so  eager to give most of our food away.  Another year we had Christmas Day in Cochin where every Indian we saw wished us a Happy Christmas, to the extent, at times, of honking and shouting their greetings from cars.  We walked past window displays of Santas astride cotton wool snow and went to a Kathakali  (Indian dance) show, complete with a very memorable make-up demonstration which lasted longer than the actual performance.  Earlier that day I had been able to pander to my usual geekiness by visiting the synagogue with the beautiful blue cantonese tiles which Salman Rushdie describes in The Moor’s Last Sigh.

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So, wherever you are in the world, and however you feel about the festive period, be warm, safe and happy!

 

Going With The Flow

 

I’ve had some lovely responses to my blog about poetry in unusual places.  I’ve been to quite a few talks on the power of poetry recently.  One very interesting debate was led by Briony Bax (Editor of Ambit Magazine) at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival where the theme of poetry as a catalyst for change was explored with George Szirtes and Ralph Webb giving fascinating insights into poetry and revolution and the impact of social media on poetry (and vice versa!).  Here’s another interesting site on guerrilla poetics to enjoy:

https://www.google.co.nz/amp/flavorwire.com/402718/10-guerrilla-poetry-projects/amp

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This month I’m saying a fond farewell to West Norfolk as we move definitively to East Runton.  In the decade I’ve lived in King’s Lynn it occurred to me that most of my walks have either been by the coast or along rivers.  The Fen Rivers Way is one of my favourites and the section we do most often, Downham Market to King’s Lynn, is bleak and empty with very few, if any, other walkers.  Instead there are herons galore, standing at sentrylike intervals along the bank, and a family of seals who have colonised the sluice gate just as you reach the industrial edge of King’s Lynn.  The other section I do regularly is Waterbeach to Cambridge, the polar opposite – it’s like the Regent’s Canal towpath, full of runners, walkers, dogwalkers and cyclists.  What both lack, though, are benches, especially now the one by the ruined church at Wiggenhall St Peter’s has disintegrated! You can read Patrick Barkham’s lyrical account of this walk for The Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/jul/07/norfolk-fens-rivers-way-cambridge-walking-holiday

The Fen Rivers Way follows the Cam and then The River Great Ouse.

Image result for virginia woolfI’ve just finished The River by Olivia Laing which follows the course of another Ouse, the one in Sussex in which Virginia Woolf took her life in 1941 wearing her heaviest coat, pockets full of stone.  It’s a depressing but fascinating book, Laing had just split up with her partner and her sense of anxiety and unease permeates every step as she walks alone in deep contemplation.  Occasionally Laing launches herself into the water to cool down and revitalise, these are disturbing moments during which she seems to have little regard for her safety and I held my breath until the next page, willing her to survive.   I’ve just reviewed Elizabeth Jane Burnett’s Swims (Penned in the Margins).  This powerful collection is a long poem documenting twelve wild swims across the UK’s rivers, lakes and seas.  Each poem is an experiment, pushing at the page, seeking freedom from its confines and I thoroughly enjoyed the inventiveness of it.   The thought of wild swimming entrances me and I’m even thinking of investing in a wetsuit for all year round sea swimming.  Swimming is where I plan my writing workshops and solve poetic problems – that tricky last line, what to leave out, the perfect twist for a line, the revelation of the ideal form to fit the content of the poem – it’s as if the beat of my arms and legs sets up a problem-solving rhythm.

I’m currently reading Norwich-based poet Richard Lambert’s new poetry collection The Nameless Places (Arc) – the collection ends in a sequence following a journey made along the course of a river from its source to its mouth. The title of the collection comes from the poem“The Wind” with its first line Coming up the estuary over the nameless places/ evoking, for me, walks I used to do alongThe Wherryman’s Way which runs by the River Yare from Norwich to Great Yarmouth with its big skies, waste ground and marshes.

Image result for breydon waterAnother favourite river walk is the Nar Valley Way. We’ve walked from Gressenhall (near the source) back to Narborough several times and have done the Narborough to King’s Lynn stretch too.  It’s more valley than river, although the river does pop up in surprising places along the way.  My favourite stretch is Narborough to Castle Acre.  Early on in the walk there’s a distant view of Narford Hall, seat of the Fountaines, where in the 1960s Andrew Fountaine, founder member of the BNP created an annual Aryan camp.  Or perhaps we’re better off remembering Margaret Fountaine of South Acre, diarist, lepidopterist and explorer in an era (1890s onward) when this was just not “done”, especially as it seems that the much-travelled Margaret may have had an “affectionate relationship” with her guide and trasnlator of 27 years, Khalil Neimy.  The large number of monastic ruins strewing the countryside are a great feature of the walk, all found near clean flowing water to meet the monks’ needs.  Walking past The Stag at West Acre and then down to the Fords, you get tantalising glimpses of the ruined priory of West Acre before crossing the water meadows and coming out at the ruins of Castle Acre, a Cluniac Priory dating back to 1090.

Image result for hampton court palaceI guess it’s no suprise that I’m so attracted to rivers.  My father was a boatbuilder and I grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames so the river was always a strong presence through my formative years.  At the end of the road where I lived for most of my childhood was the Hogsmill, a tributary of the Thames which, one memorable evening, overflowed – I remember my mother furiously sweeping it back under the door.  Kingston was well situated for visits to Kew Gardens on the bus with twopence entry posted in the honesty box.  I would walk along the Thames to Hampton Court where under sixteens could get in for a couple of shillings.  It’s probably here that my love of history began as I devoured Jean Plaidy and stood with my eyes closed in the Haunted Gallery where Catherine Howard is said to have begged Henry for her life, hoping to hear her cries.

Image result for rupert brookeIt was in Richmond Park that I first independently discovered my love of poetry.  At school we did Charles Causley, Ted Hughes and the war poets and I began my longest poetic crush ever – Rupert Brooke.  I still have my battered copy of his complete works.  I used to take this to Richmond Park with a friend and a picnic and we would learn his poems off by heart and test each other over bread, paté and cheesecake.  He probably wasn’t the best poet England has ever produced but his death from septicaemia in 1915 at the age of 27 on a troop ship bound for Gallipoli  has preserved him for all time as the poetic golden boy,martyred by the First World War.  There’s something about his encapsulation of the English idyll which I, uncharacteristically, love.  One of the first plays I ever saw was a Brooke tribute, Sweet Wine of Youth, at the Overground Theatre in Kingston ( when it had a rather dodgy temporary home in what seemed to be converted public toilets round the back of C & A!).

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This means, of course, that another of my favourite walks is Cambridge to Grantchester,  along the Granta and through the watermeadows.  At the height of summer there’ll be students leaping in the river to cool off, others will be punting and, last time I went it was so hot a whole herd of black cows stood stoically in the shallows, blowing through their noses like bulls.  There’s always time for a pot of tea in stripey deckchairs on the lawn at the Orchard Tea Rooms dreaming of all those who once drank here.  The Orchard was first planted in 1868 and became a tea garden by chance when some Cambridge students turned up in 1897 and asked to be served tea under the apple trees.  The Stevensons who owned Orchard House then started taking in lodgers, one of whom was Rupert Brooke.  He moved out there from Cambridge in 1909 and commuted to the University by canoe.  Other visitors came out to see him, and were called the “Neo-Pagans” by Virginia Woolf.  They also included E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, Augustus John Maynard Keynes and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Alan Turing also enjoyed tea here!

And, of course, there’s TV series Grantchester based on James Runcie’s books.  I’m a great fan of James Norton, he scared the bejesus out of me in both series of Happy Valley, and also a great fan of detective series, but somehow I never took to the slightly Miss Marple/Midsomer Murders vibe of Grantchester”.  Don’t get me wrong, Norton looks great as charming vicar Sidney Chambers.  In fact, don’t you think he looks uncannily like Rupert Brooke?! The leafy village features strongly in the series, as do the appropriately costumed local residents.  It’s all a gorgeously appropriate cliché of Englishness, Betjeman would have loved it – in fact he must surely once have had tea at the Orchard Tea Rooms alongside his compatriots!

Image result for cambridge hot numbersAnd if tea really isn’t your tipple of choice then head back to Cambridge and check out Hot Numbers on Trumpington Street, just past the Fitzwilliam.  This roastery and cafe really does know its beans, specialising in single origin coffee. I’ve had the most layered and tasty coffees ever here so do give it a try!

 

Poetry for All!

 

It’s so difficult to answer the question What is poetry? and even more difficult to answer Why do you like poetry so much? – the latter often said in a rather confrontational manner!   I suppose I don’t really see poetry as separate from life, or not from my life anyway!  For me, writing poetry is as essential as breathing and not a day goes by without a line or two looping through my head, ready to be incorporated and crafted into a new poem.   We probably all loved poetry at school, learnt poetry by heart, enjoyed rhythm and rhyme, nonsense rhymes, the poems of Edward Lear, Roald Dahl, Hilaire Belloc.  In the past we would have listened to bards and troubadours bringing the latest news in ballad form.  We might have wooed our loves through poetry to show our education, our passion and our sincerity, or maybe begged a lyrically inclined friend to do it for us!

Image result for cyrano de bergerac Somehow, though, as we mature, many of us lose our way and poetry becomes something alienating and elitist, seeming to belong to an academic world of closely guarded secrets which only the chosen few can access.  I would say that poetry belongs everywhere, to us all, to the world and, although it has a commercial motivation, I’m delighted that the Nationwide Building Society are using poetry to speak to their wide-ranging potential customer base.  At the moment I’m following a course run by the Poetry School and tutored by Emma Hammond. It’s called Hyperspectacle and we’re exploring poetry which occurs in unexpected places – tweets, internet review forums etc  I feel quite evangelical about getting more and more people to enjoy poetry, to realise that they can’t like it all, and if they don’t it’s not their fault but to keep on looking until they find something that speaks to them.  There’s so much poetry out there at the moment, but it’s a bit like a dating website, you have to persevere to find your match!

So where’s the most unusual place you’ve seen a poem, or found a poem?  Some time ago I went on an excellent Poetry Day School organised by Writers’ Centre Norwich and tutored by David Morley.  He encouraged to write haiku, guerrilla haiku, and then hide them (on recycled and easily biodegraded paper of course!), perhaps in a shop display, tucked in a crack in a paving slab, in a book, up a drainpipe.  I tried this out with my students who very much entered into the spirit of the activity and posted their words through the doors of people they knew locally, hid them in bus-seat seams and slipped them inside menus!  And, on this note, if you haven’t come across The Guerrilla Poetics Project then do check out their website.  https://guerillapoetics.org/  Their manifesto was simply:

Returning poetry to the people by subversively putting it into their hands.

In order to do this GPP operatives covertly smuggled over 50,000 poem broadsides into select books in bookstores and libraries all over the world. The broadsides are still being found today, perhaps the next visit to your local library will turn up a guerilla poetry surprise!  They are things of beauty, I would so love to find one… Below is one of my favourites, there are a 1,000 copies of it out there so maybe my days of shaking the leaves of all the Jack Reacher books I devour in public libraries won’t be in vain!

One of the broadsides was found in a copy Jon Ronson’s Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness in a Book Clearance Centre in Wigan, so you never know!

We’re all familiar with commissioned poems in cities and landscapes.  It’s a wonderful use of poetry, integrating it once more into life and the everyday.  Simon Armitage recently took part in a site specific poetry project, Stanza Stones, with poems carved in places which more or less follow the Pennine watershed.

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The idea that these poems will weather in time, becoming fragmented and part of the Moors in different ways as they deteriorate seems a magical use of words to me.

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I’m also rather fond of Andrew Motion’s poem What If on the side of one of Sheffield Hallam uni’s buildings just as you come out of Sheffield Station purely for its in-your-face-can’t-miss-it boldness!

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When I was participating in The Ark project recently I tried to encourage the rest of the group to create a ‘live streaming’ event by writing their haiku on strips of cloth to hang in the garden and get windswept and washed away by the summer thunderstorms.

During the recent King’s Lynn Poetry Festival ten mannequin torsos were displayed featuring a new poem on each.  These were in aid of the charity Blue Smile which helps children with mental health problems.  The torsos had previously been displayed extensively in Cambridgeshire.  I believe they’ll be auctioned off early next year. I’d love to have one, they are beautiful objects.

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In a previous post I mentioned the Rain Jane project in Winchester where Jane Austen quotes appear only after it has rained.  I discovered a similar project in Boston and I guess, generally speaking, this is bringing poetry into the world of public art in a similar way to the stanza stones and Motion’s monolithic poem.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to get hold of  some of this special paint?  I’m very taken with “painting the town grey” , envisaging people stepping onto my poetry in the drizzle…

http://mentalfloss.com/article/80854/bostons-secret-sidewalk-poetry-only-appears-after-it-rains

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So, there you go!  Poetry doesn’t just have to inhabit the page.  Be bold, be a guerilla, get more of it out there!