Category Archives: Café Culture

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…

Image result for maintenant dada magazine launch paris

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!

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!

 

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.

 

 

Closing the Circle

 

A seven-day New Year trip to Paris to tie up a few poetic and cinematic loose ends made me think about circularity or boucler la boucle as the French would have it – a kind of “coming round full circle” or literally “looping the loop”.

What particularly made me think of this was where I was staying in Paris this time – for I was truly a poet in a garrett.  A teeny tiny apartment in a chambre de bonne, a maid’s room, on the sixth floor of one of those crumbling grey Parisian apartment blocks gathered around a courtyard.  I felt as if I were in a Marcel Carné film with Jean Gabin just about to burst in at his angst-ridden best…

If I pressed my cheek against the cold window-frame at a particular angle I could see Sacre Coeur…The flat was in Rue de Panama in the Barbès Rochechouart area, just round the corner from where I used to live thirty-six years ago.  I thought of my nineteen-year-old self, how naïve I was, what a rite of passage it was to come to Paris at that age and how the only advice the grown-ups gave me was “Don’t drink the water!” The whole area looks really shabby and threatening but isn’t at all.  My apartment block doorway above shows the run-down, gritty feel of the neighbourhood – there’s a very African/Arab vibe, great street markets and an incredible energy.  I particularly liked this hairdresser’s window round the corner!

 

 

 

 

 

Paris is changing, there are more people sleeping on the streets, more begging and heartbreaking ghettos of the latest refugees appearing, the equivalent to the bad old days when we had Cardboard City on the South Bank in London.  One of my friends who is living long-term in Paris has been brushing up on her Arabic and helping to run a Breakfast Club hoping that hot, sugary drinks and donated bread and nutella spread will mean that at least these destitute people start their day with some support and a shot of energy.  There are so many poignant stories, the two men with young children whose wives drowned as they made the dangerous crossing to Europe… and so many, many more…

One of the themes I was exploring this time was revolution and as well as a guided walk around the Odéon area with the wonderful Paris Walks http://www.paris-walks.com/   I visited the Conciergerie where Marie-Antoinette lived her last days.

One of the best things about Paris is being able to sit in cafes where the greatest thinkers and philosophers of our age have also sat.  I had  a coffee in  Café Procope, in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie,  the oldest café in Paris and a real gem.  This is where Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Rousseau, Danton (he lived nearby) and Robespierre would meet and discuss the issues of the day (not all at the same time I hasten to add as this would be chronologically and ideologically impossible!).  The café owns one of Napoleon’s hats which he gave to pay off a debt.  One of the causes of the 1789 Revolution was debt,  Louis XVI more or less bankrupted France helping out the Americans against the English in the War of Independence – without his help the War may have lasted a decade longer, but France may have been a very different place, perhaps with a monarchy still intact!  There are some wonderful films which reference the Revolution (although of course, there was more than one revolution as France was beset with them throughout the 18th and 19th centuries).  One of my favourites is A Tale of Two Cities – I’m a great fan of Dirk Bogarde and in this film he’s a potent combination of noble and dissolute!

To continue this revolutionary theme, I went to Versailles for the day and found that I couldn’t remember it at all although I’m sure I’ve been there quite a few times.  I love the scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is when frustrated Hollywood hack Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, has to endure a day with Michael Sheen as an irritating know-it-all lecturer when all he wants to do is follow his flâneur instincts and just be there. Gil time travels back to the twenties and the Belle Époque and Allen’s film was possibly inspired by a famous incident in 1901 when two academics, Charlotte Moberley and Eleanor Jourdain, claimed to have timeslipped back to pre-Revolutionary Versailles.  My strangest encounter was with a muskrat … I did a very extensive walk in the grounds to think and write and there he was, grazing on a little island in the hameau de la reine where Marie-Antoinette lived out her peasant fantasies.  I have no idea what he was doing there, presumably an escapee, but I felt I’d arrived in a parallel universe, one populated by giant rats!

 

 

 

I walked miles every day and wrote reams.  One of the film locations I visited was Place des Fêtes just of the Rue de Belleville.  This is where one of the mini-films in Paris Je T’aime takes place, directed by Oliver Schmitz, a very poignant section of this great film where different directors celebrate different arrondissements (see below).  Belleville is one of my favourites.  I know people who can’t leave the Left Bank but it’s too pretty for me, I need grit!

I also went to the Pure Café where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy chat in Before Sunset.  I wanted to try out their impossible geography and started at Shakespeare and Co where they meet at the beginning of the film.  It was great fun but took me hours (the joy of jump cuts!) so a much needed bowl of soup in this incredibly vibey local café was just what I needed.

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I did another excellent walk with the amazingly knowledgeable Juliette Dubois http://cine-balade.com/  on the origins of cinema .  As we strolled past the Opéra we talked about Audrey Hepburn as one of the iconic scenes in Funny Face takes place there.

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Audrey made seven films set in Paris and her relationship with the city is also the story of her muse-like status with designer Hubert Givenchy.  It’s hard to imagine Audrey in any other clothes.  I did a chocolate-tasting tour (I know, it’s a hard life!) in the first arrondissement and thought about Audrey as we passed all the wonderfully glamorous shops in this area.  I particularly liked the specialist cobblers next to the Christian Louboutin shop whose sole purpose (no pun intended…) is to put new red soles back on his shoes as they scuff so quickly!

A long-lasting obsession of mine is dolls (I’m not sure what an obsession is when it’s negative… a phobia I guess!).  I write about them quite a lot in less than complimentary terms.  Strolling through Montmartre I discovered La Halle Saint Pierre and in this old market hall, which is also an art gallery, an extraordinary exhibition by Gilbert Peyre who tells engaging and unusual stories through his electronic automata. I rather enjoyed his decapitated dolls but there were other treasures too.

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I really liked the installation Johnny Be Good where a dress shimmied and swirled and a pair of trousers shyly ducked and dived, although the peeing/flame-throwing teddy bear was rather marvellous too!

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So back to boucler la boucle… In a way, my obsession with film is all about coming full-circle as well.  I grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames which is where Eadward Muybridge was born in 1830 (and where he also died in 1904.  Muybridge is one of the early precursors to film as we know it today and Kingston Museum opened in 1904 to show his work.  Muybridge was a pretty colourful character.  He moved to America in his twenties and was a successful bookseller in both New York and San Francisco.  He moved back to England in 1860 to embark on a second career as a photographer.  He returned to the States and established a reputation as a very proficient photographer, taking some notable time lapse photographs of the San Francisco Mint. One of his passions was capturing movement photographically, you might know some of his famous sequences such as this one below:

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His growing reputation caught the attention of the Governor of California, Leland Stanford, who asked him to settle a bet.  Stanford was a racehorse owner and a businessman and the bet was, namely, whether a horse has all four feet off the ground when trotting and galloping.  Muybridge was able to settle the question (the answer is “yes” in case you are wondering!) by setting up a number of glass plate cameras along the track with the shutter of each being triggered by a thread as the horse passed.  San Franciscans are very proud of Muybridge and I’ve visited the site where his studio used to be.  San Franciscans lay a claim, along with so many others, to being the birthplace of film.  So what happened to Muybridge?  In true Wild West style he shot his wife’s lover but was acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”!  He carried on with his groundbreaking work of capturing motion, and that’s what film is all about really – capturing still images at such a speed that the eye is tricked into registering movement.  As Jean-Luc Godard said, “I want to tell the truth 24 times a second…” the number of frames our eyes process per second as we sit glued to the screen.

Well, I hope I’ve told the truth once a month for the thirteen months of this blog – this will be the last instalment as the Arts Council funded year draws to an end and I move on to different projects although I will always write poetry, watch films and drink good coffee in quirky cafes…  And I’m sure I’ll be back blogging under a different guise.  So maybe this isn’t  Au Revoir but A bientôt…

 

Walk, Think, Write!

 

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I am a camera with its shutter open,” states Christopher Isherwood in A Berlin Diary  part of the collection of short stories (Goodbye to Berlin)  which are the basis of the film I Am a Camera (starring Laurence Harvey and Julie Harris with the wonderful Shelley Winters as Isherwood’s landlady  – one day I want to teach a whole session on movie landladies!) and thus to the stage show and film Cabaret.  What did Isherwood mean?  He continues, “…quite passive, recording, not thinking.  Recording the man shaving a the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.  Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”  It’s a great analogy for the raw material a writer collects,  a series of bulging notebooks are a feature of most writers I know.  Probably the best film I have seen this year and one which really connects with Isherwood’s ideas is Paterson, directed by the legendary Jim Jarmusch.

Paterson is  the town where William Carlos Williams was born (his epic five volume poem Paterson was written between 1946 and 1958 and was inspired by Joyce and Eliot). Williams practised medicine, wrote prolifically and is eminently quotable.  He was the one, for example, who originally said, “It’s not what you say that matters, but the manner in which you say it.” He was writing at around the same time as Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and H.D. and is usually associated with the Modernist and Imagist movement of this time.  Paterson is also where Allen Ginsberg grew up (see Daniel Radcliffe as the young Ginsberg  in the 2013 film Kill Your Darlings).  In Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson is a poetry-writing bus driver played by Adam Driver who has lived and worked all his life in Paterson, New Jersey.  The film follows a week in Paterson’s life (both human and town).  Adam Driver’s character is a poet very much in the vein of Frank O’Hara and the New York School (and the Beat poets and Walt Whitman…).  His life is totally ordinary but he processes his days through the filter of poetry, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary through his beautifully selected words.   It is actually Ron Padgett’s words which are used throughout (superb poet of the New York School tradition) – they appear on the screen, slowly, thoughtfully as Paterson thinks and writes them.  It’s a mesmerising experience and one which illuminates the power of good poetry.  Quite often I will read a poem and think “So what?”  It’s a response to something which is either untransformed and too ordinary and anecdotal or to something so heavily transformed that it no longer contains meaning for anyone else apart from the writer themselves.  Go and see Paterson, watch and learn!

 

Adam Driver’s character  is beautifully placed to eavesdrop and observe from his bus-driver’s perch.  Frank O’Hara wrote lunch poems, minutely observing the New York life around him in his breaks.  I tend to write better after a spell of walking or swimming – both these activities involve regularity and repetition and draw the words from my mind in the patterns and shapes I need.  It’s not surprising, for surely we walk and breathe in our daily lives to the cadence of Shakespeare, our hearts beating to the unstressed/stressed rhythms of iambic pentameter?   Anything which puts us in touch with these natural rhythms can help to bring out our words in a more pleasing way.  Does coffee raise and change my heartbeat, making it more arrhythmic ?  Is this what makes my writing more erratic and experimental at times?  Hmmm…

And on this subject, I’m reading a fantastic book at the moment, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse which looks at urban walking from a female/feminist point of view.  Perhaps this is why I wrote so much during my five weeks in Paris.  I rarely stopped walking, becoming quite Dickensian in my need to tramp the streets and observe.  These resulted in five Flâneur poems but also meant that I had a great deal of raw material which I’m still only part-way through processing.  Recently I’ve also returned to a favourite text, “Walking” by Henry David Thoreau, an activity he describes as one which “awakens the senses and the soul” although, of course, Thoreau walks alone in nature not shoulder to shoulder with his fellow humans in the noise and grime of the city.

 

Inspiration is everywhere and repetition and regularity are not enemies to creativity but their very basis.  Many of my poems are inspired by film and most of them are films I’ve seen time and time again but re-visiting them means I always see something new, just like the bus driver in Paterson, going along the same route but finding different ways in…

Lately,  I’ve been looking at films about poets in order to explore their lives and inspiration cinematically – biographies on the page can often be too dry and academic for my taste.  There’s Bright Star which looks at Keats’ life, and Howl which focuses on the Ginsberg obscenity trial in San Francisco and is a wonderful mix of anger, animation and groundbreaking literary history.  One I’ve always wanted to see is The Bad Lord Byron starring Dennis Price, (who, in Kind Hearts and Coronets played Louis Mazzini, the disowned heir who systematically and brilliantly kills all his relatives – so I’m sure this will be a winner when I eventually source it!).  I’m also  looking forward to seeing  A Quiet Passion, the biopic of Emily Dickinson starring the fantastic Cynthia Nixon (Miranda in Sex and the City).  This set me thinking about who I would want to play me in the film of my life, should anyone be foolish enough to take this commercial risk!  My top choice would be Kirsten Dunst – she’s feisty, clever, quirky and a fantastic actress but, should she be unavailable, then I would love to have the amazing Nicola Walker – I am so looking forward to the new series of Unforgotten in 2017.  Walker is an actress of great intelligence and integrity and would do any poet proud!  So, who would you pick to play you?!

Then there are films which contain poetry.  One of my favourites is Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.  It’s one of my desert island films – so strange and compelling – a sort of dark, Russian re-telling of The Wizard of Oz… There is one section known as “Stalker’s Dream” which contains beautiful poetry by Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny, spoken over a slow-moving sequence where the actor who plays Stalker lies in shallow water and the camera explores the bizarre and symbolic environment which contains him.    You can watch it here:

To conclude these meditations on poetry and film, I feel extremely privileged to have been selected as one of the ten poets to work on a collaborative poetic response to the extraordinary documentary film “Battle of the Somme” (1916).  We’re being guided by fantastic poet Simon Barraclough (his We’ll Always Have CGI Paris is one of my top cinematic poems – follow this link to see what I mean! http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/26682/auto/0/WELL-ALWAYS-HAVE-CGI-PARIS ).  We’ll be showcasing our poetry prior to a screening of the film at the Cinema Museum in London on 4 February 2017.  Hope to see lots of friendly faces in the audience!

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A Smorgasbord of Experiences…

 

My year of working harder than ever on my own poetry, thanks to my Arts Council grant, is starting to wind down. So far this year I’ve written nearly forty poems which would be four years’ worth of work at my usual, non-funded, pace!  I have delivered all four “feature-length” Inspired by Film workshops connected with my ongoing exploration of how film can speak to us poetically.  I also delivered a shorter version at the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) conference where I hooked up with my two mentors on the Arts Council project, Maura Dooley and Heidi Williamson, who are also the judges for the Inspired by Film Poetry Competition.  There are more details of the project on my website – the final event is going to be a big open-mic celebration at the Picturehouse Cinema in Cambridge for everyone and anyone where we’ll hear the winning poems from the competition entrants and many more (30 January – pencil it in now!).  We all had a fantastic weekend at the conference – there were so many fascinating presentations and workshops and, quite frankly, what’s not to like about spending hours talking to other people who love writing and the writing world as much as you do?

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One of the highlights was a falconry demonstration where we met Charlie the Harris Hawk, Barry the Peregrine Falcon and Molly the Barn Owl.  The conference took place just outside Stratford-on-Avon and although most of us were too busy to go into the town (I have to say the heated swimming pool at the hotel was a big distraction too…) at least hobnobbing with raptors and wearing a big leather gauntlet made me feel as if I’d gone back to Shakespeare’s time – I rather fancy myself with elaborately embroidered sleeves accessorised with a merlin…

hanoi-lakeSo, my burning question to you this month is where is the most unusual place you’ve eaten or drunk?  I thought my answer to this might be drinking Vietnamese coffee at a tiny stall by the shores of the very urban Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi, watching elderly ladies doing t’ai chi; or maybe having Tibetan momo dumplings at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge where the excellent Lhamo’s Kitchen provides tasty lunches; or maybe tea and cake on a barge on Regent’s Canal.  Or more exotic still, having Christmas dinner in the desert in Rajastan with the camel I’d been riding snorting in a hideous manner nearby.  I didn’t realise how close we were to the Pakistan border until our guide insisted on giving the lion’s share of our quite meagre meal to two men who turned up out of the blue.  They turned out to be heroin smugglers so it was quite a relief that we’d all been terribly British and scrupulously polite…  I have fond memories of being in Kerala and eating at railway stations where the dhal and rice were served from buckets in a massive canteen with no cutlery in sight.  I just couldn’t get the knack of rolling my rice and lentils into a shapely ball…  Then there was the unexpected St Anne’s Well Cafe on the slopes of the Malvern Hills which did vegetarian food and even vegan cakes.  Breakfast at the Troubadour is also one of my favourites, it hasn’t changed since the 1960s and I always expect Bob Dylan to stroll in looking a bit hungover…Image result for vertigo into the bayThen there was the picnic we had by Golden Gate Bridge (I insisted on stopping at more or less the exact spot where Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster plunges into the Bay in Hitchcock’s Vertigo… )– tomatoes, hummus, tortilla chips, bright blue sky, ochre bridge and a sudden pod of dolphins arcing by…

cafe-britanniaBy far the most unusual culinary experience, however,  was on a recent trip to Norwich when Chris and I visited H M Prison in Britannia Road for no other reason than to have a mug of tea…  The prison is located in one of those gorgeous red-brick Victorian facades which seem to belie what goes on inside (workhouses etc…) and has the most amazing but deeply ironic views over Mousehold Heath and across the City.  And now you can enjoy the view  without having to bring your own flask and sandwiches as since 2014  the Café Britannia has been operating right at the front of the prison complex in the old barracks:  shabby chic  interiors, a terrace with great views, gorgeous cakes, great lunches, elegant afternoon teas, British bistro meals in the evening and bargain-priced Christmas dinners.  The staff are described as “low-risk inmates” who want to learn new skills and improve their lives.  I have to say that we received some of the best customer service we’ve ever had and there was even a slightly surreal moment when the cashier gave me one of the new five-pound notes in my change and commented that they looked fake…   http://www.cafebritannia.co.uk/

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Another highlight of our trip to Norwich was seeing dyanmic Appalachian tunesters “Furnace Mountain” at the Norwich Arts Centre.  The group were from Shenandoah in Virginia (am I the only one who weeps through the Gregory Peck civil-war epic Shenandoah?  What is it about place names in other countries which makes them so much more resonant than the familiar – Shenandoah, Hull, Ipswich, hmmm…).  I’m a huge fan of American roots/folk and Americana and some of the music the group played reminded me of the excellent soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’  O Brother, Where Art Thou.  I often use this film on my Road Movie courses.  It’s a great example of a road movie which doesn’t feature many roads (on a road movies course taught by a non-driver, I always like to add!) and it’s also a re-telling of the story of Ulysses which brings me to one of my favourite recent poems, Norfolk-based Laura Scott’s brilliant “The Dogs in Greece are Different http://poetrysociety.org.uk/poems/the-dogs-in-greece-are-different/which is a very clever take on the immigration/Greek crisis and references Ulysses’ faithful dog at the end.   There really are no new plots under the sun, just the most amazingly creative and different ways of re-telling those universals and making us engage with them and re-think them  in myriad new ways…