All posts by Sue

Nostalgia in the City…

My craving for Paris has finally calmed down after five weeks back in the UK, so I clearly fell hook, line and sinker for the old flirt yet again!  My wonderful Paris flat landlord, Jonothan Green (who knows all there is to know about slang, check out Green’s Dictionary of Slang  – fascinating…) reliably informs me that the black guys on Rue Chateau D’Eau are not dealers (see May blog), but touts for the many African hairdressers in the locality – who says truth isn’t stranger than fiction?!

henri_cartier_bresson_bicycle-645x432Understandably, I’ve been writing a lot about place recently and I’ve been contemplating whether we remember places in black and white or colour.  This has probably been further fuelled by a visit to the fantastic Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.  It’s a really well curated exhibition, spacious and meditative with peculiarly haunting images: boules players discussing strategy in the snow, ancient prams full of wartime finds, a photographer taking a group of gypsies, the heartbreaking faces of mourners after the Rue de Charonne massacre in the 1960s and this wonderful image of a cyclist and stairway.  Strangely, when I think of Paris, the colours are very muted, almost wintery, in my mind.  Other places appear in my memory in quite clichéd colours, so India is saffron and bright pink and Mexico memories are in earthy, sandy, almost terracotta colours.  Try this yourselves, poets, it’s a good exercise – the colour of memory…  It reminded me of all those films which play with the idea of black and white and colour – A Matter of Life and Death (where heaven is black and white and earth is in colour), Stalker – a Russian re-telling of the Wizard of Oz combined with the marvellous Strugatsky Brothers sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic – here the Zone is in colour (where your dreams come true) and the contaminated  Russian industrial-scape is, of course, black and white.

chemexAnd if you do happen to be passing through Norwich, check out two fabulous cafes with their own roasteries and excellent craft coffee.  Little Red Roaster is at 1a St Andrew’s Street, also 81b Grove Road and they  have a good sized stall on the market too (52/53).  Strangers Coffee Company on Dove Street are the new kids on the block and at present are  for takeaways only.  If you fancy tea (and cake!) the rather eccentric Biddy’s Tea Room is good for people-watching and writerly inspiration – tucked away on Lower Goat Lane, it’s got a slight air of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and has a monthly bake-off and a clothes swapping evening, both of which sound intriguing!

The HurstI have just returned from an Arvon residential writing course taught by the most inspiring and generous poet-tutors one could possibly hope to have – Caroline Bird and Kei Miller.  Kei is a Jamaican poet and we did a lot of work on ideas around place in his sessions, fitting in beautifully with my current obsession (he was very patient when I started every sentence with “In Paris…”); while Caroline stretched our perception of what poetry can do to an alarming and quite brilliant extent.  All this took place in John Osborne’s old house, The Hurst, in the rolling English countryside near Clun.  Heaven!

Claire, Mon 1London, now there’s a place I always see in sepia… And most colour-appropriately I stayed there recently at an Airbnb in Bermondsey with two friends, Claire and Monika, who I hadn’t seen for around twenty-five years.  We’d all been in Israel together, kept in touch for an intense seven or eight years and then drifted apart.  We had a great weekend of catching-up and it felt as if we’d seen each other weeks rather than years ago.

So, three of my favourite places in London for caffeine, for just general amazingness or for writerly inspiration:

(Taken with my mobile phone.)

Verde and Company Ltd – gorgeous old-fashioned café and deli in a restored Georgian building opposite Spitalfield Market in Brushfield Street. It’s owned by writer Jeannette Winterson who wanted to keep the traditional spirit of the area going.  It’s a member of the Slow Food movement and is everything that the big coffee chains are not… Inside there’s a big communal table, a few tiny tables and lots of old Georgian silverware, outside there are benches.  The coffee is excellent and there are walls of translucent and expensive marmalade to reflect what little light sneaks in.  I love this area, it celebrates diversity from the Huguenot weavers who escaped persecution, the Irish weavers escaping famine, Jewish settlers, Bangladeshis in Brick Lane – it’s one of the liveliest, most happening areas of the capital.

  • Dennis-SeversWhich brings me neatly to my second London gem a stone’s throw from Verde and Company – Dennis Severs’ House at 18, Folgate Street. It’s not easy to describe this place and, be warned, it’s not open often, just Sundays and Mondays and your visit will be in complete, candlelit silence.  Severs was an artist who lived in this house much as its 18th century inhabitants had before him and thirty years ago he decided to share this experience with visitors.  The house is like a stage set and a time capsule, a series of paintings you stumble in to, seemingly just as the inhabitants have left – gaming dice flung on the table, a glass broken on the floor, a clock chiming, wistful traces of Huguenot weavers, the smell of oranges in the air…  Each room creates a different mood and evokes different inhabitants. The house’s ten rooms harbour ten ‘spells’ that engage the visitor’s imagination in moods that dominated the periods between 1724 – 1914. Your senses are your guide. Severs called this experience “still-life drama” and it works beautifully.  I’ve been going annually for years (I could swear the same black cat – yes, it’s definitely live! – skulks around the kitchen and front room, perhaps attracted to the cheeping of the stuffed canary…

I find it a profoundly moving experience every time I visit and would urge you to go, there’s even a pub opposite called The Water Poet where the Overlook Film Club meets…

  • Wilton's Music HallAnd the third treasure is Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley (about 10 minutes from Tower Hill tube station). The Victorian Music Hall itself is well worth a visit.  I saw a fantastic production of The Great Gatsby there a couple of years ago, it’s a wonderful shabby chic space that takes you back to the Good Old Days!  Best of all are the series of bar areas at the front of the music hall.  Wilton’s started life as a series of five 17th century houses, the largest of which was a pub and  which were later combined and subsequently bought and revamped by John Wilton in 1850.  The Music Hall he built was popular for around thirty years, with acts like Champagne Charlie (check out the 1944 Ealing comedy Champagne Charlie with Stanley Holloway and Tommy Trinder.) treading the boards.  There’s a good history of the site on the Wilton’s website  Nowadays it’s a great bar space, recently refurbished but losing none of its nostalgic charm.  The cocktails are excellent, there are great bar snacks and the space always gives me that goosebumpy “treading on history” moment…  And if you think it looks spookily familiar then it may be because it was one of Louis Lester’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hiding places in Stephen Poliakoff’s fantastic BBC series Dancing on the Edge.



Paris Part III – The Lumière Project

Sue on the rooftopsMy five week stay in Paris is over and I’ve written thirteen new poems.  This is more than my average annual output so I’m feeling very pleased and slightly smug.  The combination of one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world, the thematic starting point of considering films set in Paris and my own strong relationship with this city have all done the trick in more ways than I could have hoped.  I feel incredibly privileged to have had this opportunity thanks to the grant I received from the Arts Council to develop my writing over the next twelve months.  I was so excited by this opportunity that I’d already written the first of the thirteen new poems by the time the train pulled in to the Gare du Nord on Day 1!

Sue's Parisian StudyMy wonderful rented apartment in Cité de Trevise in the ninth arrondissement was just round the corner from Les Folies Bergeres in Rue Richer.  In one direction it was a15-minute walk to République along the Rue Chateau d’Eau which, at certain intersections was like a scene from The Wire, although thankfully far less threatening with cool black guys on the corners doing  lots of amicable shouting to each other, the giveaway being the large wads of money they were clutching….  Fifteen minutes the other way and I could be at Opéra Garnier and the Grands Boulevards or Montmartre and Pigalle.

julien2I spent hours wandering the streets checking out film locations, discovering that Julie Delpy’s flat in Before Sunrise was very close to mine in the hard to find Passage des Petites Ecuries.  One of Edith Piaf’s favourite restaurants Julien, a belle époque gem where I had a lovely lunch, was just round the corner.  Marion Cotillard got to sit in Piaf’s favourite booth when they filmed La Vie en Rose.


I did eight guided walks, five by the excellent company Paris Walks where I gained a real insight into the history, development and personalities of the city;  and three by the wonderful Juliette of Ciné Balades who visits film locations in specific areas, explains the history of the area and shows extracts of films on her i-pad as we stand in the very spot where they were shot. truffaut 2 One of my favourites was the Truffaut walk.  I began my stay in Paris looking for Truffaut’s grave in Montmartre Cemetery and after several fruitless, but very enjoyable, visits gave up until Juliette pointed me in the right direction and I finished my stay in Paris by finding him.  Strange how things come full circle…

The Paris Walks were in English, the Ciné Balades in French so, needless to say, one of the bonus elements of my stay has been the great improvement in my somewhat rusty spoken French.  Those of you who know me well will be able to imagine me launching into conversations with shopkeepers, security guards, swimming pool attendants, anything to speak French!  Ah yes, swimming pool attendants.  On my final night I swam 30 lengths in the wonderful pool in Rue de Pontoise, the very pool where Juliette Binoche tries to swim out her grief in Krystof Kieslowski’s Blue. Pontoise Swimming Pool Paris It was interesting to see how intensely blue they had made this environment in the film (otherwise it’s just a normal swimming pool colour).  It’s an art deco pool with two-tier changing rooms and rather an eccentric method of accessing them, hence the long conversation with the attendant – we ended up arguing which city was more beautiful, London or Paris.  Paris of course!

I met a really interesting artist and writer, Grace Ndiritu (check out as well as two talented prose writers, Rosemary Milne and Isabelle Llasera.  I was also very fortunate that the fabulous Irish poet and academic Mary Noonan was staying very close by on a sabbatical researching aspects of French theatre along with the equally fabulous Matthew Sweeney.  Paul Stephenson, soon to move to Brussels, was enjoying his last few weeks in Paris so I was able to get plenty of creative stimulation talking to these wonderful poets.

Shakespeare-and-Co.-Paris-BookstoreI first met Grace at Shakespeare & Company at the launch of Emma Beddington’s We’ll Always Have Paris, a witty memoir about failing to live successfully in the city.   I would strongly recommend checking out the events listings for Shakespeare & Company.  The new cafe next door has the best expresso in town and one of the best views (opposite Notre Dame no less!) and it’s a truly iconic bookshop with a fascinating history.  Sadly, the founder, George Whitman, died recently but his daughter Sylvia is carrying on the very good work.  I went back towards the end of my stay for a poetry reading by Jack Hirschman and Heather Hartley.  Heather Hartley’s excellent Adult Swim is well worth a look and Jack, well, he’s just a legend.  A Beat poet, sacked by UCLA for encouraging his students to dodge the draft, he read from The Viet Arcane, a collection that has been many years in the making. His delivery was pure Beat and after each passionately delivered poem his French translator took the stage and read beautifully crafted translations.  As we staggered outside we noticed that there were chairs in the little courtyard with relay speakers…. so my other recommendation is, always get there early for S and Co readings!

Cafe Culture RapideBoosted by Grace I went to the zany Café Culture Rapide in Belleville where they have open mic evenings and tried out two of my new poems on a very supportive audience, although slightly freaked out by the ritual that if it’s your first time there they shriek “Virgin! Virgin!” as you battle your way to the stage.

As well as following my nose and wandering like a true flâneuse, I also visited specific locations and one of my favourites was the Café des Deux Moulins where Amélie Poulain works in Amélie.  My top tip if you are in a hurry or broke, or both, is to stand or sit at the bar and knock back your drink.  My expressos were all around a euro using this method.  And my other tip is, if you can’t decide whether to have dessert or coffee or both then opt for a caée gourmand – you’ll get a selection of mini desserts from the menu all tastefully grouped around an expresso.

my placeDid I find a substitute for Le Charlotte en L’Isle (see Paris Part II – Rue de Lappe)?  I did indeed, the wonderful My Place in Rue St Lazare, bursting with Parisian shabby chic and lovely home-made food.


I saw a dozen or so films during my stay, partly because I wanted to visit cinemas which had appeared in French films (a particular trait of New Wave directors who loved to pay homage to the world of cinema).   One of the highlights was Cinema MacMahon, just off the Arc de Triomphe, a real gem of a cinema in glowing red velvet with the original ticket booth.  It’s the only cinema I can think of where it’s more essential to visit the ladies toilets than to see a film – this is where Jean Seberg climbed out of the toilet window to escape the cops and rejoin Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.  They were having a John Ford season so I saw How Green Was My Valley.

studio 28On the 11 May I met Jack Toye (Picturehouse Cambridge Marketing Manager) and Sarah McIntosh (Cambridge Film Festival Short Film Programmer) for a strong early morning coffee at Gare du Lyon and then waved them off, slightly green-tinged with envy, as they sped southwards for ten days at the Cannes Film Festival.  I compensated by going to iconic cinema Studio 28 in Montmartre to see the Cannes opening ceremony followed by a preview of the opening night film Woody Allen’s Café SocietyWhat’s so special about Studio 28?  Ah, so many things, for a start it has wacky chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau and it’s the cinema Amélie goes to watch the audience rather than the film.  It was one of the first arthouse cinemas in Paris, opening in 1928 with Abel Gance’s Napoléon and the scene of a riot in 1930 at the première of Buῆuel’s L’Age d’Or.

luxourA short walk from my apartment was the Luxour which soon became my local cinema.  It’s the most gorgeously restored 1921 picture palace opposite the elevated metro at Barbès Rochechouart so it could have been my local cinema  when I lived there in the 1980s but at that time it was the largest gay nightclub in Paris.  One of the many films I saw here was The Extravagant Mr Deeds, with my oldest friend and fellow cinephile Sally, during the cinema’s Capra season.

Lumiere BrothersI did a one-day research trip which was really enjoyable – a quick zip down to Lyons to check out the Institut Lumière, one of the places that can truly claim to be the birthplace of cinema as we know it today.  I stood on the spot where the cinematograph had been placed to film the Lumière factory workers leaving their shift, one of the earliest films and one which was included in the nine films shown to the first paying audience at the Salon Indien in the Grand Café (now the basement conference room in the Hotel Scribe on Boulevard des Capucines).

Site of the Lumiere Factory
Site of the Lumiere Factory







And finally, a very nice bonus was my friend and poetic mentor, Heidi Williamson, coming to stay to look through what I’d written and offer support and feedback.  Heidi is an excellent mentor and also a writing coach.  She gave me a really insightful coaching session on the way forward with my current work and ideas – check out her website  And in return I did a Sue’s Parisian Highlights Tour, watch out Paris Walks, there’s a new kid in town!

Paris flat tea

Paris Part II – Rue de Lappe

By the time I decided that university probably was a good idea after all, I’d lived and worked in London for several years, back-packed round Europe for a few months, lived in Israel for a year working on a kibbutz and a couple of moshavs and spent a very frugal month in Egypt sleeping on the beaches in the Sinai.  This was in the early 80s, just after the Israeli occupation of the Sinai had ended.  There was no tourist infrastructure at all, literally a beach.  We bought flatbread in the local village (often seemed to contain camel hair and dirt too, but probably because it was rolled on boards on the ground!) and trekked a mile or so  into the desert to buy tomatoes from the bedouin, and that was it – I got very thin!  Today Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba are, of course,  big tourist resorts and I feel privileged to have seen their previous incarnations.

Paris-Nord_2_-_Vue_aerienne_02By 1986 I’d completed my second year at the University of East Anglia studying French language, linguistics and literature with a teacher training module or two thrown in.  A year abroad in Paris held no fears for me until I discovered that I’d been assigned a really rough secondary school in the banlieue in Villepinte.  It wasn’t quite La Haine and there were some great kids in the school,  but I was locked in a cupboard, pushed down the stairs and had my naughtiest boys driving mopeds straight at me as I tried to walk to the RER station.  I later discovered that the most unpopular teacher who, coincidentally, had the most difficult class, had divided up her class in order to give me the most problematic elements of the whole school.  I remember the Directeur (head teacher) telling one of these boys off and the older brother coming in after school and beating him so badly he ended up in hospital.  I survived fairly unscathed and it helped me realise I probably wasn’t cut out for teaching children…

CalenticaI gave a few private lessons as well – I had a man with no voicebox who wanted to perfect his English pronunciation and also the wonderful Nicole, a pied noir  (French but born in the colonies).  We met in the queue for free tickets for the Folies Bergères.  She lived in a dreadful HLM (habitation à loyer modéré – sort of equivalent to our inner cities) in the suburbs with her four sons – Nicolas, three, Pascal, 13, Patrice, 15 and Jean-Paul 17.  When I went round after work I was never quite sure which son I’d be teaching.  It was good practice, a bit of pocket money and she always cooked me weird and wonderful food – wheat rissoles and calentica (an Algerian dish made with chick-pea flour) were my favourites!

paris_11_rue_de_lappeI rented a flat in Rue de Lappe, just off Place Bastille.  I had a few pots and pans, a mattress borrowed from a friend of a friend, an old school chair which I’d brought back on the metro from Villepinte, a folding table and a couple of boxes with scarves draped over as side tables.  I’ve just been watching Chacun Cherche son Chat (1996 dir. Cedric Klapisch) – made a decade after I lived there but still recognisable as this very run-down working-class district.  It was just beginning to gentrify when I arrived, artists’ studios and art galleries so I was constantly going to vernissages (first nights) for free wine and canapés (which is what the lads do in La Haine (1995 dir. Matthieu Kassovitz), although I was much more English and polite!).

imagesI’m starting to write about this time as part of the Arts Council project.  I’ve become very interested in creative geography, Lev Kuleshov’s (Russian film theorist in the early 20th century) idea of putting together different geographical locations, filmed at different times, as if they are all one seamless, unified geographic whole.  A really good example of this is the new film version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender – his castle is Bamburgh Castle on the outside, all rugged and Northern, and Ely Cathedral on the inside, gothic, candlelit lines which don’t fit at all with the outside but the illusion is persistent…

When I think of Rue de Lappe and the surroundings I see my life as a series of geographical vignettes – the bakery, the corner café, the market, the local late-night cinema, Père Lachaise cemetery  – but somehow in my mind they make one of those cute maps where everything takes a few minutes to walk to, all the boring bits and building sites (this was a the peak of Mitterand’s grands travaux, pretending to be Haussmann the Second with his President’s projects) are cut out.  And poetry is like this too, it has to cut so much out to work its magic…

3 LA VITRINEPsycho geography is both similar and different to creative geography, your own personal mood map of your local area… The place I feel most nostalgic about from this period in Paris is  La Charlotte de l’Isle –  a tiny  café and chocolatier on the Isle St Louis where I spent much of my free time writing endless letters (Chris and I had just got together) and notes.  Sadly, the café was taken over by new owners in 2010 after 38 years of pure magic and it’s now completely different and utterly unmagical…   Sylvie Langlet, eccentric chocolatière and poetess ran the shop and the teashop which were full of treasures, carnival masks, witches on broomsticks, gnomes and marionettes.  As well as proper hot chocolate, served in the front room and tiny parlour, she would also serve turkish coffee from an authentic shiny copper turkish coffee pot into tiny, delectable handleless cups.  Going to the loo meant you got to see the magical kitchen where Madame would use her antique moulds to make sculptural chocolate concoctions as well as fabulous chocolate dipped florentines.


The Musee d’Orsay opened in 1986 while I was there and one of the perks of being a teacher was having a free Museum Pass.  I wrote my year abroad dissertation on the Musee d’Orsay, which completely captured my imagination.  A state of the art gallery in a disused railway station.  One night I went to see a string quartet inthe cafe at the top of the building.  They played silhouetted against the huge glass clock face -it seems like a dream memory now,  so purely cinematic that it’s  hard to believe you actually lived it.

Clock at musee d'orsay

And, of course, I was going to see endless films.  The most memorable were Down by Law (1986 dir. Jim Jarmusch), Betty Blue (1986 dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix)  and Blue Velvet (1986 dir. David Lynch).  I was already a big David Lynch fan but Blue Velvet was something else… I was so sure I had misunderstood it (I went to the version dubbed in French rather than the original subtitled in English by mistake) that I went back a second time, accompanied by Lawrence Norfolk who was my best friend’s ex and happened to be in Paris too, just for reassurance that the story was as mad and bad as it seemed to be the first time around! (It was…)

So, it’s with these memories that I count down the days until my next Parisian adventure begins… Paris Part III will be coming in mid-May and I’ll have news of how I tackled five weeks dedicated to writing poetry!


Paris – Part I – Rue des Poissoniers


I spent the autumn and winter of 1980 in Paris. Just about to turn nineteen, newly graduated from my bi-lingual secretarial course at Kingston College of Further Education, I thought the world was my oyster. Was Paris ready for me and my brand new skill-set?

Well, apparently not…there was no work to be found for young, naïve, inexperienced English girls. We (my college friend Diana and I) clocked one job between us in three months and got poorer and poorer but it never really impacted on us due to a stroke of luck in our first week in Paris.

Disoriented and confused in the Hotel St Placide Paris_Saint_Placide_Metro_280109(which I later realised briefly appears in Truffaut’s poignant Antoine et Colette…) we perused the papers for work but instead found an advertisement calling all lonely out-of-towners to a meeting in a café on the outskirts of Paris. There, we discovered an amazing selection of people with varying motivations for coming along. Some had moved from the countryside to work in Paris, others had lived in Paris all their lives but were pieds noirs (ie French but had lived in the French colonies so were culturally very different) or second generation Paris-dwellers from immigrant families who didn’t quite fit in, and, strangest of all were a couple of chic Parisiens, very BCBG*, who seemed to look on the whole adventure as a kind of “feeding time at the zoo” experience.   Nevertheless, we all bonded with varying degrees of success and spent the next few months meeting up and having makeshift dinner parties at each others’ flats and generally living in each others’ pockets, literally in the case of D and myself as we were thrown out of our hotel for reporting a theft (long, long story…) and slept on various floors until the wonderful Jean-Paul from Brittany rented a flat at Barbès Rochechouart with room for Diana and me to sling our sleeping bags in a more permanent manner.barbes rochechouart

Our new home was on the corner of the Rue des Poissoniers in the North African quarter, opposite an Arabic grocers.  Bare boards, two rooms, one sink, trestles and huge plywood boards for tables, food on the window-sill for a fridge, no hot water but it was heaven to have our own space and I fell in love with the area.

arabic sweet shops paris


P1320975_Paris_XVIII_rue_des_Poissonniers_Nxx_rwkThe restaurants were mostly cheap couscouseries with windows full of brightly coloured Moroccan sweets. Women in beautiful African fabrics swanned up and down the roads and I can’t count the number of times the police stopped me because it was too dangerous for a white female to be walking around the area at night – I hated hearing the inevitable barrage of insults when I said I was on my way home…

But what about poetry? My diaries from this time were scattered with doom-ridden verses. I don’t remember being particularly unhappy and I’m glad these little fragments are no longer around, but what is happening is that I’m remembering more and more of my first experience as a pseudo Parisienne as I prepare for my current trip to Paris, and I’m beginning to write about it with more maturity and perspective (I hope!). One very strong memory that I’ve turned into poetry is sitting in JP’s 4CV outside our flat while he went to fetch something  (we were on our way to his parents’ farm in Brittany). Within minutes every surface of the car had been turned into a market stall – the local prostitutes leant on it and the guys who seemed to spring from anywhere and everywhere with things to sell festooned the bonnet and windscreen with exotic looking rugs (well, I assume, I could only see the underside of course). Jean-Paul unearthed the car expertly a few minutes later and off we went. I firmly believe that if he hadn’t been so quick I would have been sold along with the car!

Paris viewHowever poor we were, there always seemed to be money for the cinema. Brought up in Kingston-upon-Thames, a stone’s throw from London, and then studying languages, I’d always been a prolific cinema-goer, particularly of foreign films. Jean-Paul was a bit of an international cinema buff and I remember catching up on Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzula and Costa Gavras’ Z and the The Blues Brothers as well as Loulou and Mon Oncle d’Amérique, the latter perhaps flagging up the forthcoming golden age of Depardieu…  And, of course, the more I saw of Paris the more I came to appreciate what a truly cinematic city it was, a film-maker and photographer’s dream.


Above you can see the shameful addiction I developed at this time… the wonderful and wholly French patisserie – the religieuse – at that time in came in only two flavours, coffee or chocolate and if ever we managed to knock together a few extra francs Diana and I would buy one for each other.

My French improved as our circle of friends widened and, with Jean-Paul’s car constantly breaking down I had an excellent (for a non-driver) car vocabulary. I particularly remember Jean-Yves, the telephone engineer, who was an unexpectedly amazing cook; Jamel, who never stopped singing and Jacky, who lived in a tiny maid’s flat with a shower over his kitchen sink. Everyone seemed to live up endless flights of stairs in the tiniest rooms imaginable.

I started volunteering for three days a week at Amnesty International, typing, translating, filing, setting out the communal meal, learning more about the world than I ever thought possible.  I still have the reference they typed for me on that evocative headed paper…

AnarchyJean-Paul joined the OCL (Organisation Communiste Libertaire) which sounded very exciting – a French anarchist organisation for goodness sake! I went along a few times but, for anarchists, they certainly loved their endless meetings about “action”…

John Lennon was assassinated in December that year, and yes, I remember exactly where I was, stock-still in our bare flat, freezing cold in a huge Italian jumper I’d bought from the flea market , oversize man’s checked shirt and an ex-boyfriend’s too-big jeans, unable to believe what I was hearing. The Maze hunger strikes were on and I started to get more and more interested in left-wing politics, but also in art, in food that wasn’t all one colour… couscousBy the time my nineteenth birthday came in the November of that year I had a weltanschauung which was totally different to most of my contemporaries and this hunger for knowledge has never really left me. My second long stay in Paris was equally character forming and who knows what this third trip will bring!

And my hybrid knowledge of French continued – back in London I worked for the Royal Academy of Dancing as a PA and was their main translator for French and Belgian History of Dance and Dance Anatomy examination papers. This meant that when I joined a French t’ai chi class I was one of the few in the room able to move the right bits, but more of that in Paris Part II which will be posted in April.

*BCBG – bon chic, bon genre (eg stylish) – Paris  slang – almost the first phrase I learnt, but there’s a ruder version which was often applied to these two Parisiens…

Wide-eyed in Berlin…


Last September we spent 10 days in Berlin. It wasn’t my first time in this city and it certainly won’t be the last as it’s become one of my favourite European destinations. Every step you take feels as if you are walking on history, our history, the events that changed and shaped our world, changes which are still in evidence today.

Remnants of the Wall...
Remnants of the Wall…

I love the fact that Berlin is not a pretty city. It has some wonderful buildings and very pretty squares, but overall it has a gritty, urban, streetwise feel that doesn’t try to pander too much to mass tourism if you exclude the fact that Berlin has a museum on everything (Currywurst Museum anyone?), sometimes several (The Wall)…

And, of course, it’s a wonderfully cinematic city. As we walked around I thought of the angels in Wings of Desire, Wim Wender’s dreamy black and white depiction of West Berlin just before the Wall comes down, with Bruno Ganz as an angel who wants to be human, and Peter Falk (aka Columbo) as an already fallen angel…

Angels in Berlin...
Angels in Berlin…

One of the angels accompanies an old man as he wanders through the rubble and bare ground near the wall which can’t be built on (this site became the super futurist Potsdamer Platz, replacing a bombed square of the same name).

It’s a city of so many faces – Red Berlin, Hitler’s Berlin, Weimar Berlin, Bauhaus Berlin. In Aeon Flux, the sci-fi film starring Charlize Theron, the buildings look like an expensive Hollywood film set, but they were all filmed on location in Berlin, some old, most new – futuristic visions which mock Hitler and Speer’s dreams of a classical city.

The wind tunnel - Berlin/Adlershof
The wind tunnel – Berlin/Adlershof







We go on a guided walk to hear more about the extraordinary grafitti that covers any spare inch of blank space in the streets.

Graffiti - East Side Gallery
Graffiti – East Side Gallery






Suddenly, there, on Schlesischestrasse is  a complete blast from the past.  Barbie Deinhoff’s Fugidivafreundschaftclub. I visited this place years ago but feared it was one of those Berlin pop-ups (bars, cafes, squats) which are notoriously short-lived. But here it is, looking just the same although daubed in several more layers of thickly painted graffiti. I was so struck by this club that I wrote a poem about it – it’s in Kreuzberg, very near where the Wall would have been.

Barbie Deinhoff's Fugidiva Freundschaftsclub
Barbie Deinhoff’s Fugidiva Freundschaftsclub

The Divine Decadence of the Fugidiva Freundschaft Club, Berlin

Where East met West there’s a street of bars :
time-capsules of Wall-era deco.
At the fifth and final portico,
as the moon starts to sink,
a transvestite doorperson fondles us barwards.
Grubby Barbies impaled on the walls;
spangly pink t-shirts on plastic hangers
dangle like tarty chandeliers
in a smoky wonderland of pierced punks
perched on children’s chairs
and purple funfur ottomans.

There is no more vodka.

She drinks her tequila like a drunken angel,
laughs, and slowly licks my palm, and then
we, too, are divas for one fugitive night,
sealed with an unrepeatable kiss.

I insist on going to the street where the Coca Cola sign unfurls in Goodbye Lenin. Chris bravely shoots off with the camera to crouch on various traffic islands and gets a great shot.
goodbye leninI love this film, it’s so moving. Alex’s mother has a heart attack and goes into a coma just as the Wall comes down. She regains consciousness in a new Germany but mustn’t receive any shocks or she will die. Her son recreates East Berlin all around her, to save her life, for she has been a staunch but humane supporter of the regime. In tribute we go for a daytrip to Lübbenau so I can buy some Spreewald gherkins;  Alex searches the newly Westernised supermarkets for these as his mother is craving them, but ends up filling an old Spreewald jar with Western gherkins.

I start writing several poems but none of them are any good. I often write about places I’ve visited weeks or months after the event, letting the places ferment and settle until a line or two starts to rise to the surface.   And that brings me to the big question – what stimulates us to creativity? Silence? Coffee? Pots of tea? Nature? Absinthe!? I write best in cafes, it’s important for me to have a background buzz and to be able to observe everything that’s happening – I can spend all day doing this, ordering endless coffees and pots of tea (just as well given my upcoming Paris project of capturing Paris’s cinematic and literary legacy through poetry, as well as my decades long personal relationship with this city). My favourite local haunt is Peacock’s Café in Ely (around 100 loose-leaf teas to choose from…) – I’ve written so much there and the poems I write there all seem to get published – my lucky café!

Chris’s obsession with the third wave coffee movement (cafes which have a close relationship with growers and who brew using either aeropress or pourover methods which results in astoundingly tasty coffee) takes us to the wonderful Bonanza, right near the Mauerpark and, more importantly, right near the fantastic Mauerpark fleamarket where we discover Charity Children singing their wistful songs in what used to be no-man’s land in the Mauerpark.

Charity Children 2

Bonanza is too cool to write in, as you can see from the minimalist, slightly mad professor lab feel in the picture below. I’m too short to be comfortable on a bar stall and narrow counter arrangement and can’t effectively drink a coffee without spilling it, let alone wield a pen successfully, but it’s a great place and the staff were delighted at our enthusiasm for their coffee, plying us with the very expensive coffee rejected by a departing customer.


I’m still bringing up lines of possible poetry and am hoping to write a prose poem sequence about Berlin. Prose poetry has been an absolute breath of fresh air for me (move over Baudelaire!) and for the past two or three years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this form and falling more and more in love with it.

But more of that next month as preparations for my five-week stay in Paris loom…

In the beginning…


Sue at Impala Cafe, Schonhauserallee, Berlin
Sue at Impala Cafe, Schönhauserallee, Berlin

It was as I wandered, over-stimulated, heart in-mouth-excited, through the gritty and graffitied streets of Berlin that I realised I could combine my three loves – strong coffee, cinema and poetry into one supremely self-indulgent blog post a month. More of Berlin later, but first, of course, in true storyteller tradition, once upon a time…

…there was a girl, a girl who loved to travel and who ended up doing international marketing for her university department as well as going on exotic far-flung holidays back in the days when she was a salaried lecturer and not a struggling poet …

One of my earliest published poems (Mslexia issue 31) was a meditation on the endless souvenirs I would buy on my travels, beginning with a stolen artefact when I was very young and very irresponsible. It was probably worthless, but I still feel a flush of shame decades later when I relive this moment, can still feel my guilty hand closing over the terracotta shape in the original bat-black darkness…

My Life in Souvenirs

A rough terracotta pot from a cavetomb in Luxor,
disturbed bats streaming behind me as I sprint
on blistering red sand, back to the river.

A necklace of coins from the souk in Jerusalem
spreading its heaviness around my throat,
my collarbones, like a shackle,
in less than a week the clasp has broken.

A skinny child in Guatemala sells me ceramic animals:
a perky, spotted dog
clenching a stolen tortilla, round as the moon, in his jaws;
A bird of prehistoric proportions;
A portly pig with flowery markings;
A tortoise flattened by the weight of the world.

A blue and white cotton yukata from Kyoto
transforms me into a giant geisha.

Japanese mask
Japanese mask

Even though it’s Autumn, I buy a waxy parasol
for blossom-viewing days, and a happiness mask.

The stone Buddha-head from Vietnam
fits perfectly in my cupped palms.
I sink slowly to sit among the long shadows,
close my eyes in perfect imitation and,
with a serene half-smile,
wait for the sun to set.

As I began to teach film studies in ever greater depth as a freelancer my interest in film locations grew and I currently teach a series of day schools, for Cinema City in Norwich and evenings for the King’s Lynn Community Cinema Club, on films set in London, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin… hopefully the list is endless. So, yes, I have drunk whisky (Suntory, of course!) in the New York Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on more or less the same seats as Bill Pullman and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.

Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation

I even went back for a blossom cocktail during the day so I could actually see Tokyo rather than being all moody and jazzy in the dark… I’m not sure what it is about being in the place where scenes from my favourite films have been shot but the feeling is totally inexplicable – one of connection and the vicarious excitement of being part of this very exclusive world for a few minutes (or hours in this case…)

So, what can you expect from this blog? Thanks to a very generous grant from the Arts Council I’ll be spending five weeks in Paris researching and writing a poetry collection which explores Parisian film locations as well as the culture and cafes of Paris, so there’ll be at least a couple of postings from there as well as postings about zombie encounters in Hebden Bridge, dodgy divas in Berlin, City Lights in San Francisco and so on.   And prepare to share our (husband Chris will have guest appearances) increasing obsession with the third wave coffee experience that is taking over the coffee-lovers’ world.

I’ll be posting on the last day of every month and if you join me I can guarantee you’ll increase your dvd collection, your taste for coffee and café culture in general and pick up some great urban travelling tips.   And I’ll be sharing my poetic finds as well as my own poetry, written on the move.  Poets (I’m sure I don’t speak just for myself here…) are often found in cafes, scribbling on plain serviettes with borrowed biros as we live up to our absent-minded reputation and realise that all those gorgeous notebooks we got from supportive friends for Christmas are still under the tree…

Travelling Through Bookshop


And finally, a place which brings everything in this blog together – the marvellous Travelling Through Bookshop in Lower Marsh Lane near Waterloo which has shelf after shelf of books about travel, a great café with fabulous cakes and really good coffee and that’s not all!  It regularly hosts workshops organised by the fantastic Hercules Editions   I recently did a day workshop with brilliant poet and tutor Claire Crowther on writing a horror poem which included a screening of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, one of my favourite German Expressionist films.  So next month’s post has to be a focus on Berlin!

Dr Caligari and Cesare the Somnambulist
Dr Caligari and Cesare the Somnambulist