A Casa dos Poetas – Take Two!

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

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

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

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

Feline Reintroductions

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

I used to see lynxes

the wandering waddling walk

vertical eyes    long whiskers   fur like foliage

a short discreet tail

crepuscular carnivore of partridges

coelhos bravos

he can climb trees   swim

lynxes    I used to see   lynxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

storks stir the mud

with trident feet

the knowledge of tide

in their slurried blood

they clack their beaks

like knife     like fork

swallows nestle

in the underbelly

of their cartwheel nests

sing like courtiers

to their voiceless kings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Write Place!

 

So, first of all apologies for the radio silence… my only excuse being that I didn’t realise how exhausting it would be to have two books out at once!  Do please, persuade all your friends to buy copies of Lumière and In the Kingdom of Shadows – poets are expected to do their own publicity/marketing to a certain extent and it’s hard to self-promote constantly (visions of people hiding behind pillars…)

I’ve been thinking a lot about good places to write recently.  Writers’ Forum magazine have regular features on successful writers and their writing spaces, most of them are large, rather impersonal offices so I guess being a poet and having only short pieces of writing to rest on my knee means that I seek inspiration very much out of my office space (which I associate with my freelance creative writing and film studies business).  My places to write often feature watery views and my second pamphlet, The Saltwater Diaries, (due out at the end of the year) was  mostly written during the transition period when we moved from King’s Lynn to East Runton, from an urban to a seaside environment.  I’m clearly not the only one to find watery places inspirational…

My oldest friend and I are celebrating the fact that we’ve known each other for fifty years, since our first year at Junior School, and we are trying to do lots of lovely things to commemorate the occasion.  At the beginning of April we went to Devon for a week and one of my favourite outings was a double dose of National Trust properties.

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First stop was Coleton Fishacre which Rupert and Lady Dorothy D’Oyly Carte built, partly on the proceeds of the D’Oyly Carte family’s success with the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.   A beautiful and inspirational place, the house is a 1920s masterpiece with grounds meandering down steep cliffs to Pudcombe Cove.  Guests would excitedly consult the tide times the butler would indicate on the special hall clock every morning.  An evening swim in the tidal pool at the cove would be punctuated by a bell rung from the house to call people back up for pre-dinner cocktails.  I don’t know if Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote anything there, or even visited, but it would be an idyllic place to write.  So many nooks and crannies, trees bursting with blossom, a brook running through the grounds, sea views from every room…

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The interior evokes the jazz age with art deco touches.  We were particularly taken with the cigarette cases full of sobranie cigarettes and the rather wonderful cocktail shakers as well as this superb cocktail cabinet.

Cocktail cabinet

We made do with a bottle of Espresso Martini from Lidl and some cocktail glasses from a charity shop in Babbacombe, accompanied by a re-run of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd featuring the inimitable David Suchet as twirly-moustached Poirot.  Why Poirot and not a CD of Gilbert and Sullivan?  Because our second property was Agatha Christie’s beloved Greenway overlooking the River Dart.

Agatha Christie and her family sat outside of their holiday home Greenway

This property was such a contrast to Coleton Fishacre where each room is set up as if an extremely tidy person has just left it, there might be a tennis racket in the corner, a beautiful nightgown on the bed or a vintage book open on the side table.  Agatha Christie’s house was the polar opposite,  full of the clutter of two avid collectors, cabinets of china and silver, walls full of prints and artefacts from Max Mallowan and Agatha’s archaeological trips abroad which inspired Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.  A big, beautiful, rambling house and certainly full of interest, but the fact which most suprised and fascinated me was that Agatha Christie would have a pot of Devonshire clotted cream at her side to dip into as she wrote and, as a teetotaller, instead of having wine with her dinner, she would sip double cream.  Apparently she also tried desperately to become a smoker as this was such a popular pastime, but never quite got into the habit!  I’m rather partial to a scone with jam and clotted cream, but I can’t imagine seeking inspiration to quite the extent Agatha did!

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The Library at Greenway features an unexpected treasure, a frieze painted during World War Two by Lt Marshall Lee, a member of the US. Coast Guard stationed at the house in the run up to the D Day landings. The commander wrote to Agatha offering to have the fresco painted out when the house was returned to the family, but she hurriedly wrote back that it would be a historical memorial which she would be delighted to keep.  It’s a beautifully executed account of particular moments in the war and it’s good to see what amounts to classy graffiti preserved in such a grand house!   When the house was  first requisitioned it was  used to house child evacuees.  It must have been extraordinary to be surrounded by such natural beauty when you had come from an urban home, for the grounds at Greenway are stunning and even contain a pet cemetery for Agatha’s beloved dogs.  You can walk down to the boathouse where Dead Man’s Folly was set and admire the wide and beautiful River Dart with stunning views of Kingswear.  I’m sure Agatha wrote more fluently and concocted even better mysteries thanks to Greenway.  This beautiful Georgian property continues to inspire with regular writer-in-residence programmes (the current is J R Carpenter).  This year the Trust is highlighting the curiosities in Max and Agatha’s collection and providing a writing prompt for a chosen object each month  – so pens out everyone!

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway/features/greenways-cabinet-of-curiosities

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So here I am, back home in East Runton and although I’m not fixated on double or clotted cream I have to admit that both my favourite places to write locally do involve food… I’m not averse to popping down to the beach with my notebook and sitting on a rock listening to the waves, or strolling up the beach to watch the sun go down, but there’s nothing like a cup of coffee at the Rocket House Café in Cromer, practically on the beach and with fabulous views of the Pier.  I’ve written countless first drafts there and polished quite a few later drafts too.  On a warm day I like the Reef Stop café on the promenade going towards Cromer. Noisy and full of hot, tongue-lolling over-excited dogs, it’s a great place to have a cheese toastie and absorb everything going on.  It’s always a wee bit breezier on the beach than inland so juggling napkin, notebook, pen and toastie in the wind can be a challenge!

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I do have an inspirational place which isn’t by the water.  I occasionally teach for Gaynor Clements at her gorgeous farmhouse in Elsworth which is the home of the Cambridge Writing Retreat.  I usually go up the night before and stay in Gaynor’s charming shepherd’s hut.  I always manage to do a bit of focused writing to get myself in the mood for the next day’s teaching, which takes place in the cosy farmhouse kitchen.  Go here for details of Gaynor’s tutors and courses: https://www.cambridgewritingretreat.com/samplemenu

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I’m a huge fan of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival which takes place every November and means this small Suffolk coastal town is swamped with crowds of poets – all friendly, open and eager to learn from each other’s performances and readings.  I must admit I haven’t yet written a successful poem in Aldeburgh, I’m always far too distracted.  I’ve been to some great workshops – last year I was lucky enough to go to both Jean Sprackland and Pascale Petit but, despite excellent tuition, over-excitement is not good for a poet’s brain (not this one anyway!) – too many new people to chat to and far too many brilliant poetry books to buy!  Poet Paul Stephenson curates the weekends expertly.  In 2018 my highlights were hearing Meryl Pugh read; having a go at translating a poem from Greek to English with Claire Pollard and Kostya Tsolakis; and last but not least in a weekend packed full of great events, the Queer Studio reading with Mary Jean Chan, Richard Scott, Alice Hiller, Danne Jobin, Swithun Cooper and Caleb Parkin.   I was involved in a really interesting session organised by Ambit Editor Bryony Bax and Fenland Reed editor Elisabeth Sennitt Clough in which we discussed the thorny issue of submissions and gender.

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Between readings it’s good to clear some headspace by stomping along the shingle beach in the wind to Maggie Hamblin’s beautiful, and controversial, 12 foot high scallop shell sculpture in honour of Benjamin Britten.  I’ve already booked my accommodation for this year’s festival and can’t wait to see the programme, watch this space as 8-10 November 2019 gets closer!

https://www.poetryinaldeburgh.org/

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As well as running regular writing workshops on all genres, I’ve also started offering mini writing retreats upstairs at Carberry’s Café in Norwich (Wensum Street).    This sitting in cafés mularkey by yourself is all very well, but it’s very difficult to motivate yourself effectively for a sustained period of time.  These mini writing retreats quite special days as, although they are untutored, the fact that I am present seems to wield an invisible discipline and help people to keep going.  We usually start with a bit of focusing and mindfulness before each participant moves to their own spacious table with views down the pretty street from a huge picture window.  The café staff will bring any drinks or food you want and run a tab for you so you don’t even have to disturb your writing with such mundanities as getting your purse out until the end of the day.  I organise a prompts table full of objects, articles, books and ideas just in case anyone gets stuck.  I’m there all day for advice sessions and generally get to see everyone twice.  The first time I did this the atmosphere was extraordinarily concentrated, one poet tidied up twelve drafts and created a new poem!

Now, to return to Agatha Christie – not only did she have a predilection for cream, she also ate apples in the bath while envisioning her murder mysteries… but she clearly isn’t the only writer with strange habits.  Charles Dickens always slept facing north, he believed it helped his creativity.  John Steinbeck needed two dozen perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk.  Virginia Woolf wrote like a painter, standing up and stepping back to get a different perspective on her writing,  while James Joyce preferred to lie on his stomach.   William Faulkner, predictably, would drink whiskey while writing.  Lewis Carroll wrote in purple ink.   Dan Brown finds hanging upside down helps him write… So do you have any strange writing habits?  I don’t think I do.  I’m more of a Gertrude Stein kind of girl, writing anywhere I can while the world goes on around me, but perhaps that’s strange in and of itself!

 

Paris in the Autumn – DADA, Punk and Pistachio Eclairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Yoga, Paddling and Poetry

 

Living in Cromer can have quite surreal aspects at times.  In May we had the plague of hairy caterpillars (oak precessionary moths).  These were all over the concrete prom and as their hairs are toxic there was a bit of a panic locally.  The plague also delayed the arrival of the Bagot Goats for their annual summer holiday.  The herd belongs to North Norfolk District Council and they come to graze on the Cliffside above the promenade.  They probably don’t know it, but they are carrying out an important role in habitat management.  Bagot goats are our oldest British breed, hardy, tame and fond of uplands.  This year there are 10 nannies and 9 kids and they are a sight to behold, although I have to say that most of the time they appear to be having a good rest on their sandy ledge.  Except on Fridays.  This is when I get up early to do Yoga on the Pier at 7am and the goats are usually already chomping away as I blear my way past.

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I’ve been doing yoga for over thirty years but this has to be the best class ever – doing downward dog and seeing the sea lap under the boards of the Pier is a unique experience!  I’m a great fan of paddling when it’s too cold to wild swim and sometimes just pop on my teva sandals and paddle to the class.  For as long as I can remember Chris and I have been popping to seaside places after work for a spot of paddling and ice-cream (these go together like fish and chips, bread and butter etc etc) usually Sheringham when we lived in Norwich as it was one of the few seaside towns to sell Ronaldo ice cream, and Hunstanton when we lived in King’s Lynn.  This week I paddled from East Runton to Cromer to a morning appointment and arrived sandy but refreshed.  Wet commuting is not unusual, I once did a day-trip to Basel to visit the Tinguely Museum and saw an extraordinary number of people swimming to work, or rather floating, letting the strong current take them downriver, office clothes firmly secured in inflatable drybags! During my time teaching in Switzerland I regularly swam in Lake Zurich, often morning and evening, to wake up and then wind down.  You always knew when you had swum to the middle of the Lake as two distinctive church towers suddenly merged into one, a little like an eclipse.  In the summer there’s a lovely ladies only pool on the River Limmat which turns into the Barfussbar (Barefoot Bar) once it gets dark.

In July we headed off to Ledbury for the Poetry Festival and some hillwalking.  It coincided with the first week of the heatwave and I found myself longing for cool coastal breezes. In search of respite we paddled in the Wye a couple of times, once just outside Hay-on-Wye and once in Hereford where I suddenly twigged why the town is situated there and why the water is so shallow (it’s all in the name!).

Elgar is associated with this area and it’s hard not to walk around without his wonderful music playing through your mind, especially as many of the friends he based Enigma Variations on lived in this area.  There’s even a statue by the River Wye commemorating Dan the Bulldog, who belonged to George Sinclair and inspired Elgar’s Variation on an Original Theme XI which tells the story of Dan falling into the River, paddling upstream to find an easy way out of the river and his triumphant bark as he reaches dry land!

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Sensory and Rye in Union Street provided us with much-needed third wave coffee (V60) and a delicious vegan lunch.   The unusual name comes from a part anagram of the name of the butcher’s shop originally on the premises (G Rowberry and Sons).

A choir were practising in Hereford Cathedral during our visit, their sublime voices filling the space and enhancing the discovery of Tom Denny’s extraordinary stained glass windows celebrating the life of Thomas Traherne, a contemporary of John Donne, and one of the metaphysical poets.  The detail and colours were unlike anything I’d seen before.

In pursuit of all things watery we did a Wells and Springs self-guided walk in the Malvern Hills.  The start point was one of my favourite and most unusually sited vegetarian cafes at St Ann’s Well.  It’s a steep climb but the reward of chocolate fudge cake is nothing if not motivating!  The drought was starting to have an impact,  with yellowing grass and bare patches on the hillsides, but underground there are a multitude of springs.  Malvern was very popular in the Victorian era when the health craze of “taking the waters” was at its peak.  The local water was bottled by Schweppes from 1851 until very recently.  Florence Nightingale, Lord Tennyson and Charles Darwin all took the waters and claimed considerable health benefits from this experience.  Wherever the springs emerge above ground you’ll find a small well, often built by philanthropists to ensure poorer people had a good supply of fresh water.  Below is the charming Westminster Bank Well just above West Malvern where, in St James’ churchyard lies the grave of M. Roget of Thesaurus fame.

You can drink from the wells in Great Malvern itself but the hillside wells often become contaminated so I resorted to soaking my baseball cap in each one we passed instead of drinking.  My hair and cap dried in minutes in the 30 degree heat.

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Tolkein and C S Lewis are strongly associated with Great Malvern.  They often came up from Oxford to walk in the Malvern Hills with their friend George Sayer, and would drink in the Unicorn Pub.  There are some gorgeous Victorian gas lamps in the town and the hills, often in quite incongruous places, and it’s believed that this is where C S Lewis got the idea for the lamp-post in Narnia where Lucy meets Mr Tumnus.  The hills are also thought to be the inspiration for aspects of Middle Earth and the landscape of Narnia.

I really enjoy films which explore the lives of writers and Shadowlands is a particular favourite.  Anthony Hopkins plays C S Lewis and Debra Winger plays Joy Davidson, the American poet he falls in love with.  Her death from cancer challenges his Christian faith and it’s a powerful and moving film.   The Happy Prince, which has just been released, explores fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde’s fall from grace and his days of exile in Paris.  Rupert Everett is superb as the ageing Oscar, as one critic put it, he was born to be Wilde!  I’m also fond of Zinnemann’s Julia with Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett and Winterton on the Norfolk coast standing in as Cape Cod.

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Ledbury Poetry Festival was a wonderful event to have on your doorstep as part of a walking holiday.  Ledbury is a very attractive market town and one of its many claims to fame is that John Masefield was born there – there’s still a firm of solicitors in town bearing that name.  Elizabeth Barrett-Browning lived just outside Ledbury so it certainly has poetic form!  The Festival takes place all over town; highlights were a storming performance by Hollie McNish, a superb reading by Sinead Morrissey, an insightful talk by Sarah Churchwell on Sylvia Plath and a brilliant analysis of Wallace Stevens by one of my poetry heroes, Mark Doty.  I attended two excellent workshops, one with Sinead Morrissey on the perils of abstraction and one with Kim Moore on hidden narratives.  Almost every shop window was festooned with poems and poetry books but of course Ledbury can’t compete with Hay-on-Wye which has a population of 1500 and over 30 independent bookshops!  So, what are your perfect holiday ingredients?  A simple combination of paddling, bookshops, specialist coffee, good walks and poetry certainly worked for me this time!

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!