Category Archives: Cinema

The Lure of Wild Swimming

I’m delighted to announce that my new pamphlet (or chapbook as my American friends call it), The Saltwater Diaries, will be coming out in September.  The collection explores my relationship with the sea, formed over the last five decades and more, and features poems mostly written since moving to a house which is a seven-minute-walk from the sea.  Many of the poems mention swimming and, as it’s the season for sea swimming (well, for me, anyway, not being quite as hardy as some I know who swim all year round!) I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the joys of wild swimming.

First, a confession.  I didn’t learn to swim until I was twenty five.  Why, so late?  Oh, where do I start….?  My father was a boatbuilder and spent most of his life on or by the river, but he never learnt to swim, maybe a throwback to the days when sailors considered it unlucky as, if you fell into the water, it would prolong your death.  They wanted the sea to take them quickly and cleanly.

Water is one of my earliest memories as we lived in Broadstairs when I was very young.  I have a strong memory of burying a grandparent in the sand but can’t recall any details.  Perhaps this is a false memory – isn’t it what everyone is supposed to do at the seaside?  One of my favourite recent films, starring the superb Billy Connolly, is What We Did on our Holiday.  It’s a hilarious and touching tale of the effect warring parents can have on their children and Billy Connolly’s character is indeed buried by his grandchildren at one point.

Film Review: What We Did On Our Holiday, aka, British Kids Say the Darndest Things – We Minored in Film

I remember nearly drowning in a public swimming pool when I was tiny, and being hauled out by the lifeguard and resuscitated.  My mother said she wouldn’t take me swimming again as I’d shown her up.  I loved my pink towelling bikini even if I had nowhere to take it.

School swimming lessons didn’t really teach me anything except how to dodge the floats thrown at my head by our sadistic PE teacher, Mr Fernside – it made a change from chalk…

I could swim perfectly well with armbands out of my depth so I probably could swim without knowing it.  Bizarrely, I loved the smell of chlorine and that strange echoing atmosphere of swimming pools, even the wet chaos of the changing rooms where you could never get completely dry however much talcum powder you shook over yourself and everyone else.

Not being able to swim was never an issue.  I spent a year in Israel in the 1980s and whenever a chance arose I would be pootling in water and under waterfalls, sometimes up to my neck, sometimes led into deeper water by kindly friends holding my hands as if I were an overgrown child.  Surprisingly, I wasn’t particularly frightened of water despite my lack of ability.  I’ve swum in the Dead Sea twice, once from the Israeli side and once from the Jordanian side, once knowing how to swim, and once not. It doesn’t really matter in the Dead Sea, it’s so ridiculously buoyant that the only issue is how to get vertical again and get out!

Amazon.com: Wee Blue Coo Vintage Photography Man Dead Sea Umbrella Book Jordan Palestine Unframed Wall Art Print Poster Home Decor Premium: Home & Kitchen

Then, at the age of twenty-five, Chris and I went to Greece and he had me swimming with relative confidence on the first day.  Since then I’ve never really stopped, instantly developing a hunger for wild water and lap-swimming in any kind of indoor or outdoor pool.  I particularly love lidos and often swim in the wonderful Hampton lido.  On my bucket list is a swim in the Ladies Bathing Pond at Highgate/Kenwood.

Hampstead Heath

One of my favourite poetry books from the last decade is Elisabeth-Jane Burnett’s Swims, a haunting, experimental long poem that flows and intrigues.  There’s a review here:

http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2017/08/swims/

I so want to be by the poet’s side as she slips into the water and explores it.

Another ideal swimming companion would have been Roger Deakin, whose book, Waterlog, is a classic.  There’s a lovely documentary which was repeated on TV recently where Alice Robert’s follows in his footsteps and enjoys some fabulous wild swimming, including underground cavern swimming which looks incredibly scary.  She also discusses the differences between swimming in a wetsuit, a costume and skinny dipping.  I’ve only skinny dipped once in a water-hole in Arizona where you were made to feel very odd if you tried to cover up – kind of a hippy dip I guess as we were on a Green Tortoise holiday which seemed to mostly be run by people who’d come to San Francisco with flowers in their hair…  You can see the Alice Roberts documentary here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t9r28

Sadly, Roger Deakin died in 2006, so no more accounts of his watery exploits.  I love the fact that the University of East Anglia archive contains a pair of his speedos.  There’s a great obituary of Deakin here, a real celebration of a life very well lived:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/roger-deakin-412989.html

He seems such a quintessential English eccentric, swimming in his own moat every day and breaking the rules to trespass on private stretches of river in true entitled style.  He describes his attitude beautifully here:

Most of us live in a world where more and more things are signposted, labelled, and officially ‘interpreted’. There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.”

The Swimmer Burt Lancaster 24x36 Poster Bare Chested full length in back yard at Amazon's Entertainment Collectibles Store

In Waterlog, Deakin’s inspiration for swimming around as much of the UK as he can is John Cheever’s brilliant short story The Swimmer, immortalised in the 1968 film of the same name where Burt Lancaster (above) spends the whole film clad in a rather snazzy pair of belted black swimming trunks.  It’s an extraordinary story which I often use in my masterclasses.  You can read it here:

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/20cusliterature/syllabus2014-15/cheever_the_swimmer.pdf

So, what is it about wild swimming?  It feels elemental, adventurous, invigorating (it’s rarely warm!), primeval – yes, primeval is the best word – getting back to our human source – losing our ability to walk and discovering our watery roots.  We spend the first nine months of our consciousness floating in fluid so perhaps the need to be in water is part of our psyche.  Deakin clearly believes this too:

“When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached ourselves at birth. To swim is to experience how it was before we were born.”

Wild Swimming Brothers 🏊 on Twitter: "For a geothermal swim like nowhere else on earth visit the Víti Crater in Askja, Iceland #iceland #wildswimming https://t.co/OydxBFV71s"

Most memorable swims?  There have been so many.  One of the most striking from a scenic point of view was swimming in the Viti crater at Askja in Iceland (above).  In fact, all the swims I did in Iceland were memorable.  The Viti crater is like swimming in thick, warm, turquoise soup.  The Blue Lagoon (below) feels as if you are swimming in some kind of weird dystopian experiment.  Swimming in Icelandic rivers  means you have to be ready for the unexpected as the river can switch from freezing to very hot in just a few yards due to geothermal activity.

Acquisition offers put $286m value on Icelandic geothermal spa Blue Lagoon | Think GeoEnergy - Geothermal Energy News

I’ve enjoyed white water experiences in many countries, the most memorable being white water swimming down a river in Turkey towards the sea.  Not really swimming, more lying on your back in a life-jacket and pushing off as if you are on a giant, wild flume.

While trekking in the Amazon rainforest on a bird-watching trip our group took a boat across a tributary of the Amazon (don’t be fooled by the word “tributary” – they are pretty wide!).  We discovered on our return that another group had taken the boat back, we could see it clearly and tantalisingly moored on the opposite bank.  We were stranded.  Some of us decided to swim across and help the guide bring the boat back to “rescue” the group, a mission we accomplished with panache.  It was only afterwards we were told that the piranha native to the river will only consume human flesh if it is already dead and dying…

Blog- Detail page | Hotel Sternen Oerlikon

Switzerland is one of my favourite places to swim.  There’s a lovely outdoor wooden swimming pool on Lake Zurich, the Seebad Utoquai.  It dates from Edwardian times, as you can see from the picture above, and has a timeless elegance.  You can tell if you have swum to the middle of the lake if you see the twin spires of the Grossműnster become one.   I’ve also got a soft spot for the River Limmat which runs through Zurich – it’s such an odd feeling to be swimming through a city and watching city business carry on as normal from such a lowly perspective! I remember walking alongside the Rhine to the Tinguely Museum in Basel and seeing commuters swim to work with their waterproof floatbags containing their workgear.

In fresh water, I love seeing swans go by, unconcerned, as I quietly tread water; clearly you are not a threat when only your head is above water. I’ve been lucky enough to have great crested grebes carrying their young on their backs pass very close to me.  When I swim from my local Norfolk beach I have the privilege of seeing terns dive, cormorants doing a flypast, and even the occasional skimming swallow.

Today, as I write, it’s rainy and blustery, which doesn’t always stop me swimming, but I’ve just checked the surf report and there are 8 foot waves predicted.  Last week I trod on a weever fish in bare feet (not pleasant and not the first time either!) so I’m trying to be a more sensible wild swimmer – my list of rules so far is quite short but will no doubt increase with time:  wear surf shoes, check the surf height, don’t float and daydream and realise that you are farther from the shore than you should be etc

And the last, rather poetic, word has to go to the inimitable Roger Deakin:

Swimming is a rite of passage, a crossing of boundaries: the line of the shore, the bank of the river, the edge of the pool, the surface itself. When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world, in which survival, not ambition or desire, is the dominant aim.”

 

Paris – Absinthe, Cemeteries and Chanel!

 
I love the changing seasons, especially the time around Christmas when the days close in and, as a freelancer, I give myself permission to hibernate and catch up with my own reading and writing.  Where I live, just outside Cromer, has so much to offer over the Christmas period. I like building up new traditions and rituals around this time of year and these local events now feel part of our Christmas.  Before Christmas there was carol-singing accompanied by a tiny brass band on East Runton village green to raise money for charity –  a chilly evening with very welcome doses of hot apple juice and mince pies. As the band leader announced the last carol, the otherwise well-behaved dog in front of us let out a howl of anguish… On Boxing Day we wandered down to the Pier and watched hundreds of brave souls do the Boxing Day dip, some more than once!  The End of the Pier show brought glamour and humour to  a dark, windswept evening and the New Year’s Day fireworks lit up the new slate of the sky for us all.  Daily coastal walks cleared my head and I was ready for the Paris trip I’d planned for early January.

Image result for end of the pier show cromer"

 

To backtrack a little, in October I went to Paris to focus on writing more towards a new body of work called The Artificial Parisienne which is about ageing and identity and features a lengthy section on Paris cemeteries!

One of the highlights of my October trip was a visit to the Russian cemetery in Ste Genevieve-des-Bois, just outside Paris, where many of the White Russians who emigrated to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century are buried.  It really is a little bit of Russia, from the babushka who guards the gates, to the onion domed church and the gravestones with little doors for icons and candles.  The cemetery is planted with silver birch and cypress. I discovered one of my favourite film directors, Andrei Tarkovsky, was buried there, under a beautiful maple tree which was shedding its leaves in a most artistic way.  The main attraction though, was Nureyev’s grave.  I have never seen anything quite so beautiful.  His tomb is draped with a stone kelim covered in tiny mosaic tiles.  He was a big collector of Oriental carpets and this stunning artwork makes his grave the standout event of this cemetery.  I always regret not having met him.  When I was working at the Royal Academy of Dancing one summer I was planning the proposal for my undergraduate thesis and wanted to write about dance in Paris, particularly the Paris Opera.  My boss was a friend of Rudi’s and was going to organise a meeting, but unfortunately by the time my trip was planned he was far too ill to see anybody.

Image result for rudolf nureyev grave"

Another highlight in October was absinthe!  Having visited the Absinthe Museum in Auvers-sur-Oise last year I was keen to try it out –   it’s safe now and has become quite the trendy thing to drink.  My best friend, who loves Paris and speaks perfect French, came over for a few days and we found a lovely old family restaurant in Montmartre called Le Bon Bock where we could try this legendary drink.  The whole process is quite magical.  You put your special spoon over your glass of absinthe with a lump of sugar on it and drip water from the samovar style receptacle over the sugar – gradually your drink turns the cloudy green of a peridot stone, hence absinthe being called the Green Fairy.  It tastes a little like pernod and is quite potent but no longer rots your brain!  There are some gorgeous art nouveau absinthe sets around featuring Lady Absinthe holding the absinthe fountain aloft:

Image result for absinthe"

 

Overall, I was there for ten days in October and wandered the streets at length, learning so many new things about my favourite city.  I joined a tour of the covered arcades of Paris, which were designed to enhance the bourgeois experience of luxury shopping without getting wet or aggravated by the dirty streets. There used to be 150 of these, now there are only twenty left.  One of my favourites is Galerie Véro-Dodat where you can see Christian Louboutin’s shop and his extraordinary shoes with their infamous red soles.  This may seem out of step with the archaic grandeur of the arcades but there was a cobbler’s here in the past and people do bring their Louboutin’s to be mended as they want these extravagantly expensive shoes to last as long as possible.  The Galerie once had a sign saying No Dogs/No Parrots/No phonographs at the entrance as apparently a local eccentric would walk through playing loud music!

You can find out more about the passages here https://www.francetoday.com/travel/paris/once_and_future_passages/

One of my favourites is Passage Brady which runs between Rue du Faubourg St Denis and Rue due Faubourgh St Martin – it’s full of fabulously cheap and authentic Indian restaurants, all vying for your trade.  On Rue due Faubourg St Martin is the tiny Cinema Brady which shows a really eclectic range of films. Galerie Vivienne with its mosaic floors and gorgeous light-filled passages is a real visual treat.  I had lunch at Bistrot Vivienne which is full of old world charm.  It’s worth nipping upstairs to the loo to see the restaurant on the upper floor which looks like a 19th century brothel!

Image result for bistrot vivienne"

We also went on a Chanel walk with the wonderful Paris Walks organisation https://www.paris-walks.com/ I was shocked to discover that there was a law in France which meant women could only wear trousers in public with official permission or in special circumstances which was only revoked in 2013!  It was fascinating to hear how Chanel integrated so many aspects of her life into her art – her key colours of black and white and beige reflected the nuns’ habits in the convent where she was brought up and the sands of Deauville where she had her first shop.  She lived in a suite in the Ritz Hotel (the hotel whose bar Ernest Hemingway famously “liberated” as he swept in with the Allies to end the Occupation) overlooking Place Vendôme – the top of a chanel perfume bottle evokes a bird’s eye view of the square.  She often incorporated her birth sign, Leo, into her jewellery designs and the chain on a Chanel bag is said to be inspired by the nuns’ key chains. One of Chanel’s lovers was, allegedly, a Count implicated in the Rasputin assassination.  He gave her some Romanov pearls which began her love affair with ropes of pearls to complement an outfit.   The entwined Chanel Cs probably refer to Boy Capel, the love of her life.  She was an ingenious promoter – at the end of the war, to try and  get Chanel No 5 known internationally she gave little sample bottles to the GIs to take back to their sweethearts.

Image result for coco chanel"

My trip to Paris this January to tie up a few loose writing ends was very different to the October trip.  I’d planned the trip before before the General Strike was announced for 5 December.  Having lived in Paris on a few occasions, although the strike began a month before my visit, I knew what to expect and my heart sank… And yes, true to form, the transport workers were still striking a month later and have only just stopped! I arrived on Day 35 of the longest national strike in French history.  Two days of my very short stay coincided with mass demonstrations and throughout my stay it wasn’t worth taking the metro at all.  A large number of stations were closed and most lines could only run 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 trains.  Schools were closed on demo days and many small businesses were shut as employees were unable to come in and open up.  These were protests about Macron’s pension reforms and were combined on many days with the ongoing gilets jaunes demos about the cost of living.

Image result for marie antoinette sofia coppola"

Even with no transport it’s hard not to have a good time! Paris is a compact and very walkable city.  One of the highlights this time was the Marie Antoinette exhibition at the Conciergerie which looked at the fetishisation and commodification of her story in the very building where she spent her last few months.  I loved seeing Marie-Antoinette’s huge knitting needles, she could surely have taken out a few guards with these and joined those bloodthirsty women who used knit in the front row of the crowds flocking to watch the executions!  There was quite a big section on films which focused on Marie Antoinette’s story.  My all-time favourite is Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film which shows Marie (played by Kirsten Dunst) as a fashion-mad teenager surrounded by boxes of gorgeous confections as Madonna’s Material Girl blasts out.  I have a new favourite too.  Miss Piggy, dressed as Marie Antoinette and surrounded by piggy courtiers, dancing to the Bee Gee’s Staying Alive in an episode of the Muppets Show!

Image result for paris mosque hammam"

After all this intellectual stimulation I headed to the Paris Mosque at the edge of the Jardin des Plantes, an old favourite of mine – when I was poor and living in Paris I would come here for cheap mint tea and baklava in the lovely mosque garden cafe.  One of the mosque’s hidden secrets is a gorgeous Hammam, totally traditional and for women only with opulently tiled areas, steam room and plunge pool. Your first task is to slather yourself with savon noir to soften your skin ready for your gommage where a masseuse takes a scratchy glove and removes an alarming amount of dead skin.   I was adopted by a kind Moroccan family – mother, daughter and grand-daughter – who gave me a bucket of very fine savon noir and lent me shampoo!

Image result for lancome christmas tree kings cross"

It’s the little things in Paris which are the most pleasing.  Sitting outside a tiny café on Rue des Abbesses with a vin chaud looking at the twinkling Christmas decorations.  Queueing with all the tiny schoolkids and their mums and dads for a crêpe and eavesdropping on conversations about dance classes and parties. Finding a boulangerie on Rue de Caulaincourt run by a French/Japanese couple where I had a choux a la crème de matcha which was probably as close to heaven as I’ll ever get.  While the Paris Christmas decorations are tasteful and twinkly, I had to just give a nod here to the amazing Lancôme Christmas tree, in the shape of the Eiffel Tower and made out of perfume bottles, at St Pancras station!

Image result for degas at the opera"

Due to the strikes Paris was a lot quieter than usual so I decided to go the Musée d’Orsay and catch the Degas at the Opera exhibition – a wise decision – no queue at all, I got straight in on a Saturday morning.  This was a real nostalgia visit for me.  When I was living in Paris in the 80s during my year abroad I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Musee d’Orsay which had just opened (my alternative option after my interview with Nureyev was destined not to be…   All around me Mitterand’s Grands Projets Culturels were springing up – as well as the Musée D’Orsay there was the Louvre Pyramid, the Parc de la Villette, Institut du Monde Arabe, Grande Arche de la Defense and the Opera Bastille which was chewing up most of my beloved Bastille area.  I went to one of the first performances in Parc de Bercy, a version of Aida, as they were giving away free tickets to a sceptical public.   I can’t remember much about my thesis, but I do remmeber visiting the museum on a weekly basis and interviewing the director as well as watching a string quartet playing in front of one of the iconic clock windows of the old Gare. I think the views of Paris from the windows of the museum are the most wonderful thing about it.  The Degas exhibition was slightly disturbing, over 200 sketches and paintings of young girls exercising, rehearsing, relaxing, mostly behind the scenes.  Degas was a Paris Opera subscriber which mean that he could, three days a week, watch dance classes and stand in the wings of performances.  It all felt rather obsessive and voyeuristic and by looking at these paintings one is complicit in this obsession, a strange experience, somewhat akin to watching a Hitchcock movie!

Image result for skylon bar"

I raced back to London with notes galore and rough drafts of several poems in time to see the always fabulous T S Eliot awards. All ten of the shortlisted poets are so worth reading – Fiona Benson, Sharon Olds, Deryn Rees-Jones, Ilya Kaminsky, Roger Robinson, Anthony Anaxagorou, Karen Solie, Jay Bernard, Paul Farley and Vidyan Ravinthiran.  Great readings in another building which has huge nostalgic connections for me – the Royal Festival Hall, a favourite haunt of mine when I lived in Elephant and Castle.  I met a poet friend in the Skylon Bar afterwards for cocktails – great views of the Thames and the best cocktails, all named after singers, directors and actors.  I had an Akira Kurosawa and my friend had a Sophia Loren!

 

Limestone, Laugharne and Delusional Goats

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

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

Image result for caitlin and dylan

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

Related image

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Image result for bosherston lily ponds

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

Image preview

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

Image result for a child's christmas in wales

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

 

 

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…

Image result for au chat noir paris

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.

Image result for jean paul gaultier fashion freak show

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.

Image result for rue des cascades movie

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.

Image result for lapin agile

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.

Image result for le lapin agile picasso

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.

Image result for bagot goats cromer cliff

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!

Image result for elgar dog hereford

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.

Image result for gas lamp narnia lucy mr tumnus

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.

Image result for ledbury church lane

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!

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.

Image result for marriott's warehouse king's lynn

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.

Image result for david farrar black narcissus

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)!

Image result for the nun's story

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.

Image result for brief encounter

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.

Image result for southwold pier

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.

Image result for oh what a lovely war film

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.

Image result for barnacle bill alec guinness

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…)

Image result for uks newest pier

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.

Image result for starling murmuration brighton

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.

Image result for old boathouse hunstanton

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!

Image result for stopping by woods on a snowy evening

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.

Image result for tunnel of light norwich

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.

Image result for tiles synagogue cochin

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.

Image result for kathakali make up

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

 

INTO THE ARK PART II

 

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

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

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

http://thearkcenterexperiment.com/THE-ARK

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

Here’s the Ark’s mission statement:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

trees cast their doubles                                                         the scent of cedar

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

for shadow play                                                                       thickens the still air

                                        lavender flowers                                                    

                                        on yoghurt – calyx and corolla                          

                                        like fallen stars                                                        

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

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

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

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

https://www.thevenusproject.com/

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

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

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

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

RETURN TO PARIS – INTO THE ARK PART I

 

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

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

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/thearkgracendir

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

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

Image result for jean paul sartre

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.

Image result for cleo de 5 a 7

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…

Image result for cafe de flore

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

Image result for le pain des idees paris

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.

Image result for les portes de la nuit movie

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.