A Poetic Adventure in Portugal

 

I’ve just returned from my most recent poetic adventure in the beautiful Portuguese town of Silves as a participant in poet Peter Pegnall’s A Casa dos Poetas.  Peter has been running this venture for a number of years and it was an absolute pleasure to be included.  It’s basically a residential writing course but with a key difference,  as one of Peter’s main aims is to ensure that the local community is aware and involved.  We spent quite a lot of time at the wonderfully welcoming Café Ingles where, on the pretty roof terrace,  Andrea Holland gave a thought-provoking workshop.   The red-brick Moorish castle loomed above us, birdsong filled the air, the scent of mimosa wafted on the breeze, we could see orange groves and yes, it was all quite ridiculously poetic…

Photo by Phil Hawtin

From 700-1200 AD Silves was a Moorish stronghold and the remnants of the city walls these days are proving very popular with nesting storks.  The storks were a joy, the most spectacular nest was the one on the old Communist Party HQ complete with hungry storklet and I absolutely fell in love with the series of nests on the ruined pillars of a house down from the Café Ingles.

One afternoon I sat by the river and counted 12 storks wheeling overhead, a sight to behold.

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The Café was also the venue for a couple of poetry readings where we got to hear the strong and varied voices of the different participants.  We were extremely lucky to have Gérard Noyau with us throughout.  He translated some of our poems into French and it was fascinating to experience the translation process and be able to perform one of my poems in a different language.  Gérard’s father was René Noyau, the celebrated Mauritian surrealist poet, and he performed some of these poems too, with Peter reading the English translations which he and Gérard have been working on so meticulously. The Café was also the venue for a great workshop with Manuel Neto dos Santos, a Portuguese poet with eight collections to his name.  We listened to him read one of his prose poems and then roughly translated it with his help.  Once we had the bare bones we were able, in groups, to transform it.  Our aim was to make it sound as poetic as possible and as close to Manuel’s vision as we could.   It was a magical exercise and gave us all a real insight into the translation process, notoriously tricky when it comes to capturing the essence of a poem.  One of my recent discoveries is a collection of Moniza Alvi’s translated versions of Jacques Supervieille’s poems, Homesick for the Earth.  She spent literally years working on each version and they are beautifully crafted.  I find the whole question of poetry translation fascinating, including the question-marks over who has created the poem as the translator is often transforming ideas into words which are impossible to literally translate and adding their poetic voice into the mix.

I realised, to my shame, that not only were my language skills being sorely tested (I could read a little Portuguese thanks to a knowledge of Spanish, but the pronunciation was a real challenge) but I also knew nothing about the country which was hosting me so graciously.  At one point we had a talk from a longstanding local resident and headteacher about what it was like to have been a young man during the final days of the Salazar dictatorship and the Carnation Revolution of 1974, the anniversary of which had just taken place as we arrived in Portugal.

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Fernando Pessoa

Someone who lived through the early days of Salazar’s regime was Fernando Pessoa and, towards the end of the course we had a fascinating study day on Pessoa, led by Manuel Portela from the University of Coimbra.   As well as being a superb linguist, translator, poet and scholar with wide-ranging academic interests and qualifications, Manuel is an expert on digital literature and is creating an interactive, multilingual, digital archive of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet  which will eventually include creative responses to Pessoa’s writing.  This means you’ll be able to enter the archive as a reader, writer, editor and translator.  We were the guinea pigs for the writing phase of the project, taking phrases from some Pessoa extracts and using them as a launching pad for our own pieces.  I did not know Pessoa’s work before and it opened up a whole new world for me.  Pessoa wrote under his own name, but also used approximately one hundred and thirty six other names of which several were fully developed heteronyms, including Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, Barão de Teive, António Mora, Vicente Guedes and Bernardo Soares. Heteronyms are an extraordinary concept, behind these names were fully-imagined authors, each with a distinctive voice, persona and opinions.  He began creating these heteronyms from a very young age.  The Book of Disquiet is a fragmentary project, it has no narrative, each text begins in the concsciousness of the moment and much of it was written in cafes by Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s heteronyms.  Manuel’s digital version of the book means that it can be read in different ways which reflects how the book was discovered – pages and pages of disordered and fragmented writing in a trunk! Pessoa’s life, interests and writing could fill pages and he only lived to the age of 47!  A mysticist interested in astrology, the occult, Neopaganism, rosicrucianism, theosophy, the list goes on.  Pessoa spent some time in South Africa as a child and was fluent in English.  He once dreamed of becoming an English poet in the romantic tradition.

Our venue for Manuel’s workshop was the Quinta da Eira where five of us were fortunate enough to have been staying for the whole course.  This solid farmhouse, around 9km from Silves, with its resident dogs and cats and beautiful terraces overlooking the hillsides and lake was like staying in a living postcard.  I got out and about as much as I could into the surrounding countryside, walking, thinking, taking photos.  Whenever we went out for walks one of the farmhouse dogs would accompany us.

Simao was my companion on one walk. For the most part he waited patiently while I examined each beautiful wildflower but sometimes he got bored and gave me a hefty nudge.  One night, coming up the steep track in the dark a wild boar and her piglets ran across in front of the car, they were no bigger than kittens with crazily curly tails.   The landscape was immensely inspiring and I wrote the following poem to try to capture it:

Quinta da Eira, Silves 2018

 uphill, through terraced green

a dog with a bear’s long bones

sometimes in front  

sometimes behind

a watery hollow, edge peppered

with boarprints

wild lavender streaks the path

with fierce purple

cistus purpureus seeks the sun

a perfect freckle on each white petal

orange groves with fruit glowing

like Chinese lanterns

the heady dart of a swallow

here, it is easy to forget

easy to believe in alternatives

clouds graze the hill

bringing the storm

it will be brief

Peter and Andrea led some brilliant poetry workshops on voice and persona which helped enormously with the Pessoa study day and were very thought-provoking.   I also led a workshop one afternoon, designed to take participants out of their comfort zones and, despite the fact that we were on the lovely terrace at Quinta da Eira with distracting views in the sunshine, everyone rose to the challenge magnificently!

All in all, a stunningly successful venture and my brain is still trying to process everything we learnt.  What has stayed very much in my mind is that, apparently, poets in Portugal are revered and respected, quite right too!  Pedestal over here please!

 

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!

 

Poet By The Sea

 

Image result for east runtonAs you can see from the heading, I’ll be blogging under a new name from now on to celebrate our move from King’s Lynn to East Runton, a little village just outside Cromer near to where the late, great John Hurt lived.  I’ve already started writing more sea related poetry than usual so it looks as if it could be an inspirational step in the right direction and there are lots of great cafes to explore locally!

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At the moment, I’m obsessed with Jane Austen.  It’s 200 years since she died of what might, according to experts’ analysis of her detailed letters, have been Addison’s Disease.   I love her wit and the way she exposes all that’s wrong with the middle-class Regency world.  I’ve been watching the 1999 version of Mansfield Park with Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram and, somewhat surprisingly, Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas!  I’m interested in the the way Austen hints at parallels between the patriarchal oppression of women and the concept of slavery and all its moral dilemmas.  Fanny and Edmund object to slavery and reference Thomas Clarkson and the abolitionist movement, but they are both living thanks to its proceeds.  Fanny is the poor relation and Austen talks of the slavery of poverty, of which she was very much aware.  Edmund is the younger son who will have to make his own way in the world to a certain extent.  They are both dependent on Sir Thomas, the slaveowner, for their livelihood and happiness.  Austen’s stories brim with intelligence and, although it has been said that if she were alive and writing today her work would be classed as “chick lit” in that her main frame of reference is always The Marriage Plot, I feel that she does so much more in her writing than mere plotting and characterisation.  As P D James put it, “Mills and Boon written by a genius!”

Image result for bride and prejudiceI’m rather partial to modern cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen and Alicia Silverstone as a high-school Valley Girl version of Emma is one of my favourites, followed closely by Gurinder Chadha’s brilliantly cheesy Bollywood Bride and Prejudice.   I often find myself, just as Emily Blunt’s character does in The Jane Austen Book Club, asking What Would Jane do?

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And yet another reason for me to love Austen at the moment, there’s even a connection to Cromer!  The town was at the forefront of the burgeoning interest in seaside tourism and began life as a Regency bathing resort.  In Emma, Mr Woodhouse says,

 “You should have gone to Cromer, my dear, if you went anywhere.  Perry was a week at Cromer once, and he holds it to be the best of all the sea-bathing places. A fine open sea, he says, and very pure air. And, by what I understand, you might have had lodgings there quite away from the sea – a quarter of a mile off – very comfortable…”

Image result for winchester rain janeIn May this year I visited Winchester, paid my respects at Jane’s gravestone in the cathedral and absorbed the atmosphere of this pretty town where she lived out her last few months.  “I see more distinctly through the rain,” Jane once wrote and, with this in mind, there’s a wonderful trail through the town called Rain Jane.  If it rains, quotes from her novels magically appear on the pavements and disappear as the rain evaporates.

Image result for janes table chawtonI also visited the village of Chawton, where, in the cottage which is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum.  Here, Jane, her mother and beloved sister Cassandra finally had a place they could call their own, albeit briefly.  I stood reverently before the table where she wrote, trying not to be too angry at the tiny space she had to let her imagination run riot with the intricacies of hatching, matching and dispatching.  This anger led to my only Austen inspired poem, the imaginatively titled Jane’s Table!

If you do find yourself in this part of Hampshire, then the Sculpture Park in Churt is well worth a visit.  It’s really a giant open air exhibition showcasing around 800 pieces of work from approximately 300 different artists.  This means it’s also well worth revisiting as the pieces are all for sale and change constantly.  It’s set in ten acres of woodland and heathland with some quite steep parts at times as it’s set in a natural valley.  There are three lakes fed by natural springs which provide a stunning backdrop for some of the artwork.

https://www.thesculpturepark.com/

And once you’ve had your fill of art, pop over to Bel and the Dragon opposite the entrance for refreshments!  It’s a lovely country inn/boutique hotel, beautifully decorated, and all the rooms are named after Jane Austen characters!

Finally, for all you writers out there, the wonderful Jack Milgram has been in touch with his latest infographic 28 Boring Words and What to Use Instead.  Jane would have loved this, what a great rescource!

https://custom-writing.org/assignment-writing-services#boring-words

INTO THE ARK PART II

 

All photos courtesy of  The Ark: Center for Experimentation Grace Ndiritu Laboratories d’Aubervilliers, Paris

It was a strange feeling walking into The Ark for my first cooking duty before the other participants arrived.  I had had a busy day in Paris, gadding about and generally enjoying the urban buzz. How would I cope with being in Paris, but not in Paris?  The Ark took place in experimental arts centre Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, my home for the next 8 days. Aubervilliers is a traditional, industrial, working class commune, with a high proportion of African inhabitants.  Coming out of the metro Aubervilliers-Pantin-Quatre-Chemins, you’ll see people sleeping rough, cheap ethnic shops, lots of graffiti.  It feels edgy, urban, and very familiar.  As I entered the Labos premises I gave in my phone, camera, passport and money and mentally committed myself to the experience.  And what an experience it was!  The Ark was the brainchild of visionary artist Grace Ndiritu and, apart from myself, there were fourteen other participants from all over the world – Slovenia, Japan, Russia, Panama, France and the US.

There’s a website in progress about the whole experience which might be of interest:

http://thearkcenterexperiment.com/THE-ARK

Our aims were to create a sustainable community, similar to Biosphere 2.  Built 25 years ago in the Arizona desert, Biosphere 2 was originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space, it lasted for one mission only as the eight scientists who lived there for two years experienced considerable difficulties.   The Ark referenced this project but in an artistic, creative and playful sense – exploring what it meant to be part of a community of likeminded people who are concerned about the planet and its future, or lack of it.  What does it mean to be living in the Anthropocene era, the period when we look back at humanity’s impact on the Earth and comprehend that we are the generation who has the most awareness of this impact.  How does it affect us physically and spiritually?  Everything about the week was geared towards this consciousness raising.

Here’s the Ark’s mission statement:

The Ark is a post-internet living research/live art project on an epic scale. Part – scientific experiment and part – spiritual experience and is inspired by Ndiritu’s own experiences during the last decade, living on and off in New Age communities. It focuses primarily on Plants, Biology, Shamanism, Meditation, Food, Philosophy, Communities, Education, Architecture, Future of Cities, Democracy and Activism. 

Each morning we had a meditation session and spiritual exercises after a silent breakfast.  These were led by Rebecca Farr whose warmth and generosity enveloped us all.  She was a giant security blanket in human form!

The sessions followed the ayurvedic chakra system,  which is very in touch with humanity’s connection with nature. In the kitchen I worked with chef Denise Palma Ferrante, who had designed an incredible menu.  If any of you have been on retreats or courses before you will know what to expect from the food – quite ordinary, carbohydrate heavy and, if you are a vegetarian, fairly predictable. This was its polar opposite – Denise had devised a vegan/vegetarian/raw food/macrobiotic menu featuring cuisine from all over the world – Korea, Japan, North Africa, Mexico, India…  It too, followed the chakra system but worked down the body instead of upwards.   My fellow sous-chefs were Maxime, an artist, and Julian, a radical gardener.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meat and fish were introduced once The Ark went public and we came out of our bubble and it was at this point I discovered I was, surprisingly, the only vegetarian.  According to organisations such as the European Health Parliament, the World Health Organisation, Oxford University research scientists and organisations concerned with climate change such as Climate Central, eating as little meat and fish as possible, if at all, will really help the planet to support a human population for longer.  Replenishing the ocean and using the land to grow crops for direct human consumption would reduce global hunger and water usage.  It takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. This is the equivalent of taking a seven minute shower every day for six months.  It takes 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat.  It might also make us kinder, Ghandi said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent most of my free time curled up with my writing pad, exploring ideas and experiences poetically, always my way of processing the world.  My favourite place to do this was the garden, an inspiring and imaginative urban space with herbs, vegetables and flowers.  Particularly striking were the giant cardooms and the whole space was enhanced by the presence of Josette and Margeurite, the resident hens.  The yard gates were the limit of our world and as we socialised in the garden in the evenings we could hear dance music from the theatre next door.  There was also quite a famous boxing club there and we watched the comings and goings from afar.

Every day there were talks by academics who were part of the community.  A very positive aspect of The Ark was that whatever our role outside, inside The Ark we worked together, both in and out  of our comfort zones.  We had talks on the biosphere, women’s co-operatives, Amazonian agricultural systems, identity, art, gender and the Anthropocene and the structure of cults.

In the afternoons we made masks and costumes, led by talented artists Urara Tsuchiya and Anna Tanner.  This was for the grand finale of The Ark project– a street carnival parade of extinct animals, reverse Darwinism in action.  I was on megaphone duty shouting slogans in French and English through the bemused but entertained streets of Aubervilliers, resplendent in tie-dye and blue face paint!

 

 

 

 

 

 

During The Ark I led a food poetry workshop.  The exercises I chose were designed to echo our experiences and the first entailed writing haiku.  This Japanese poetry form’s  minimalist, zen-like, focused style paralleled our spiritual practice. Haiku traditionally focus on a contemplation of nature and the seasons, very much in tune with our garden shrine and plant communication exercises. Haiku are deceptively simple, they are extraordinarily profound and can be tricky to write.  The second part of the workshop celebrated the never-ending, pleasure-giving stream of amazing food which came out of Denise’s kitchen.  Below is Gleb, our Russian academic, in mid-composition.

I used U A Fanthorpe’s  poem “Harvest Festival” as a prompt.  I was both impressed and moved by the poetry the group produced.  The Ark forced us to explore our vulnerabilities and poetry is an effective tool for such exploration.  Words, associations, emotions and ideas seem to bubble up from the unconscious.  In the workshop I also wanted to celebrate diversity by encouraging participants to write in their own languages and to enjoy the musicality of the unknown.  This led to poems in Japanese, Russian, Spanish and French.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also had a mini-cinema showing films which echoed the ethos and concerns of The Ark, such as Her, Into the Wild, La Jetee, Incendies, Solaris, Inception, Cloud Atlas, Kumare and many more – films which explore different ways of seeing the world, the future and survival.  One film which kept coming to mind was The Martian, partly because Biosphere 2 was geared towards exploring how such systems could be successfully established on other planets.  In some ways Biosphere 2 was revolutionary, but in others it was a disaster.  Perhaps the fact that William Burroughs was one of the movers and shakers behind it should have rung a few warning bells?

I loved the way our community developed – after no contact with the outside world  it was both a wonder and a shock to communicate with the staff at the Labos after days of smiling but not talking and then to venture further afield to interact with the local community.  By the end of the day we were also dancing like mad to a great selection of music, with Max and Julian DJ-ing  as the street parade was followed by a public barbecue.  The following day the Labos opened to the public for academic round-table discussions.  The timing was perfect, who knows what would have happened if we’d been Arkees for longer,  as over the week we had gone feral – enjoying the outdoor shower (it was a really hot week), spraying each other with water to cool down,  gradually losing our flip-flops to go barefoot, eating with our hands Southern Indian style, wearing more and more makeshift outfits to cope with the heat (I ended up wearing the bit of cloth I’d taken as a pillowslip as a sarong for most of the week!).

I cried, I laughed, I vented – there was a deep and eerie interconnectedness with everyone in the group and in everything we did.  I re-discovered a sense of fun and creative play, took risks and made, and am still making, extraordinary discoveries.  And I wrote and wrote and am still writing, including a kind of haiku journal – here are a few entries:

trees cast their doubles                                                         the scent of cedar

on the wall – a theatre set                                                   sage, tobacco and sweet grass

for shadow play                                                                       thickens the still air

                                        lavender flowers                                                    

                                        on yoghurt – calyx and corolla                          

                                        like fallen stars                                                        

The final evening, just as we had accepted that we would have to go back to reality, the heavens opened and there was an apocalypitc thunderstorm with torrential rain.  Perhaps it was a sign that we should stay in The Ark if we hoped to survive?!

Since the project, I have become fascinated with the idea of Dark Ecology.  Tim Morton, a philosopher,  coined the term in his book Dark Ecology – A logic for future co-extistence. Its basic message is that environmental catastrophe has already happened so we need to focus our energies in different ways in an age of radical awareness and, indeed, rethink the whole idea of ecology.  There’s a fascinating article below about Morton:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/15/timothy-morton-anthropocene-philosopher

If your appetite has been whetted and you want to explore further, check out

https://www.thevenusproject.com/

By a strange coincidence (although by now I should know there is no such thing!), my latest Poetry Book Society bundle included “Fast” by Jorie Grahame, here’s the book cover blurb:

In her first new collection in five years—her most exhilarating, personal, and formally inventive to date—Graham explores the limits of the human and the uneasy seductions of the posthuman. Conjuring an array of voices and perspectives—from bots, to a holy shroud, to the ocean floor, to a medium transmitting from beyond the grave—these poems give urgent form to the ever-increasing pace of transformation of our planet and ourselves. As it navigates cyber life, 3D-printed “life,” life after death, biologically, chemically, and electronically modified life, Fast lights up the border of our new condition as individuals and as a species on the brink.

It’s a tough, but really worthwhile and satisfying read.

I still feel I’m catching up on sleep after an extraordinarily enriching experience, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, although I don’t miss my dorm bed!

RETURN TO PARIS – INTO THE ARK PART I

 

From 1-10 July 2017 I took part in a fascinating experimental art project at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, the brainchild of talented and visionary artist Grace Ndirritu.  It was an incredibly enriching experience in so many respects – fascinating participants, inspiration for writing a substantial body of poetry, wonderful food and recipes, interesting discussions and, above all, a deep and profound acceptance of our interconnectedness as human beings.  The Ark will be the focus of Part II of this blog but in the meantime have a look at the social media connected to the project and then join me in a couple of weeks to discover more!  http://thearkcenterexperiment.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thearkgracendiritu/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/The-Ark-Centre-for-Interdisciplinary-experimentation-426940181009500/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/thearkgracendir

Tumblr: https://thearkcenter.tumblr.com/

The Russian mystic, philosopher and mathematician Pyotr Ouspensky was very much in my mind during The Ark experience – his idea that everything is connected, that every part of the universe is pulsing with consciousness and infused with spirit.  One of The Ark participants, artist and critic Kayla Anderson was a self-described animist and conversations with Kayla and the other participants got me thinking about my attitude to philosophy and philosphers.

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As a teenager I underwent the fairly typical trajectory devouring Sartre, Camus and Kafka and thinking of myself as an existentialist and an anarchist well into my twenties.  Inspired by this I signed up for a term of philosophy during my first year at the University of East Anglia but couldn’t make head or tail of the course.  My abiding memory is of our lecturer hiding in a cupboard, presumably trying to prove something about being and nothingness.

I had arrived at The Ark with Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café – Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails to read – it’s an insightful look at how Sartre and de Beauvoir developed their philosophies. Once The Ark project started we were not allowed to leave the premises or have contact with the outside world (no phones, laptops etc) but in the time before and after The Ark I had the opportunity to unleash my inner (and somewhat rusty!) philosopher in Paris.

First stop Montparnasse Cemetery and a brief and heartfelt moment at the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – note to self: re-read The Second Sex asap!  One of the films I have re-discovered and come to enjoy a great deal is Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo.  Based on Boris Vian’s 1946 novel  L’Ecume des Jours  and featuring a character obsessed with the life and work of Jean-Sol Partre, Vian encapsulates post-Second World War angst in a book which can be seen as celebrating the magic of liberation while at the same time being unable to escape the oppression of the Occupation.  Vian knew Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus and was a significant player in the Parisian jazz scene.  He played trumpet at the Hot Club de Paris and was instrumental in bringing Duke Ellington to Paris.  Vian was one of the first supporters of Serge Gainsbourg – Gainsbourg would come to Vian’s shows at Les Trois Baudets.  Coincidentally (or not!), Gainsbourg is also buried at Montparnasse Cemetery along with other greats such as the poet Baudelaire, who is influential in my constant attempts to write flaneur poems; Jean Seberg, star of one of my favourite new-wave films, Breathless; Henri Langlois who ensured that French film was preserved and celebrated in a way that befitted its importance by heading up the Cinemathèque Française and who was the revered and beloved mentor of FrançoisTruffaut and Jean-Luc Godard; and not forgetting Jacques Demy, film-making husband of one of my favourite directors, Agnes Varda.

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Corinne Marchand as Cléo finding the courage to transform in The Dôme

So, the logical next stop had to be a wander down the Boulevard de Montparnasse, home to so many of the iconic cafes where painters, poets, philosphers and writers would discuss, argue and scribe.  A quick coffee in Le Dôme, where one of my favourite scenes in Varda’s Cléo de 5 á 7 plays out.  This is the turning point for Cleo, spoilt pop princess and the object of everyone’s desiring gaze.  She suddenly becomes the observer, the subject, a woman coming to terms with her own existence and potential death.  Then on to Le Select, haunt of Hemingway, Picasso and Chagall for a light supper before looping up and round to Boulevard St Germain and the Café de Flore to pay homage to the place where Sartre and de Beauvoir made it all happen…

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Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here two very unusual novels which provide different ways into how philosophy and everyday life intertwine and interact.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog is by Muriel Barbary, a philosophy teacher.  Two narrative voices are present in the novel – Renée Michel, the concierge of a luxury set of apartments on Rue de Grenelle, is a widow and auto-didact who hides her love of culture and her erudition behind the prickly mask and drab demeanour of a typical Parisian concierge.  Paloma Josse, suicidal teenage resident and novice philosopher is the other narrative voice.  We learn so much about ideas, connectedness and being through these protagonists, a tough but satisfying read.

The other novel is Denis Thériault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman which explores the idea of the haiku, inextricably linked to Zen Buddhism, and the concept of enso, this is a book unlike any other.  The French Canadian protagonist, Bilodo, is yet another character who hides his true self behind the mundanity of his profession.

As I wandered, thinking profoundly of course, towards the Seine, I noticed that the Ecole des Beaux Arts had an open studios weekend and popped in to see what the pupils of this prestigious school were up to – this is where Monet, Seurat, Renoir, Degas, Delacroix and Ingres, among many others studied and is a highly respected institution.

Philosophy feeds the mind but I do have a few recommendations for the stomach too.  For the first time I managed to a) find Du Pain et des Idées and b) not have to queue.  This gorgeous little bakery, dating from 1889, does the most delectable tarte aux abricots – the intensity of the flavours and the lightness of the pastry are worth every penny and the interior of the bakery is a joy to behold too with its beautiful toile de jouy style paintings.  Go here to find more on Christoph Vasseur’s philosophy (roots in the past but eyes to the future) https://dupainetdesidees.com/en/fabrication.html

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I spent a very contented morning at the beautiful Musée de Montmartre, this residential complex in Rue Cortot was where artist Suzanne Valadon and her troubled son, Maurice Utrillo, among others, lived.  The Renoir garden is a beautiful place for a coffee or lunch.  The buildings are among the oldest in Montmartre and with their shutters and natural gardens and view over the vineyards of Montmartre it feels as if you are back in the original village.   My goal for this visit was the Demarne Hotel – the building which houses the Museum’s temporary exhibitions.  Many impressionist painters lived and worked here as did Père Tanguy, the famous art dealer.  It was also home to Claude de la Rose, one of Molière’s troupe of actors but today it was housing the fantastic exhibition “Montmartre – Décor de Cinema” a celebration of the area as a cinematic location.  There’s so much to enjoy, it’s an excellently curated exhibition with a wealth of film clips.  There’s a whole space dedicated to Amélie, a look at Truffaut’s use of Montmartre Cemetery and Place de Clichy, but the two films which are now at the top of my wish-list were directed by Marcel Carné, La Porte de la Nuit featuring an incredibly detailed studio reproduction of the metro station at Barbès Rochechouart, which used to be my local, and Juliette ou La Clef des Songes which lured me in immediately with its air of doomed love.

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So, watch out for Part II of this blog when I’ll be in a very different environment living and working in an artistic installation and exploring ideas of community and sustainability.