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.”

 

With Love from Lockdown

Is anyone else finding this stage of lockdown the hardest, the most uncertain and the most stressful? I’m probably going to stay with the former stages for a bit longer in a hopefully safe summer hibernation in quiet and lovely East Runton.  I am privileged to be able to do this and totally recognise that so many others do not have this choice.

Lockdown has been a positive experience from the micro point of view but extremely disturbing from the macro point of view.  The what-ifs and uncertainty, the heart plummet and increased heart rate with every newsfeed scroll and perusal of the weekend papers.

So, in this blog I’m going to focus on the micro and  the positive and share some of my lockdown experiences.  I hope you will all do so too in the comments section of the blog page!

Lockdown Highlights

  • Sunsets over the sea. We try to watch these a couple of times a week – they are always different – sometimes watercolour, sometimes oil, sometimes the sun hides behind angry monochrome.  One of the things which hasn’t improved over lockdown is our photographic skills, but this one’s my favourite so far.

 

  • Beach walks. Foam on the beach liked whipped cream from churned algal blooms; terns diving like tiny missiles; the changing texture of the sand underfoot and the thought that these were once part of much bigger rocks and stones, that we are treading on particles of pre-history; the occasional paddle with underlying thoughts of when the sea will be warm enough for me to attempt my first swim of the year; Cromer Pier as the light changes.

 

  • Local walks inland – we’ve seen the lambs grow from bouncy Easter newbies to plump-bottomed teenagers. The pygmy goats are still pregnant, as is the dun coloured donkey – come on girls, we want babies!

  • I’ve been enjoying a friend’s on-line diary/blog which he kept every day for at least 12 weeks to record impressions of pre-lockdown and lockdown. I didn’t realise that the Mass Observation project, which started in 1937 and continued into the 1960s, had been revived.  They’ve been recording the observations of ordinary people since 1981 and are particularly interested in responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.  The original project consisted of questionnaires and diaries kept by 500 volunteers, one of which was Housewife 49, Nella Last.  Her diaries have been published and were immortalised on TV with Victoria Wood in the role of Nella.  It feels an important time to record experiences, this is history in the making.  If you are interested in sending your observations go to http://www.massobs.org.uk/write-for-us/covid-19  for more information.
  • Cycle rides – we are gradually going a little bit further every time. When we lived in Norwich I clocked up around 100 miles a week cycling to work, into the city to meet friends and to the stables where the horse I owned for around 10 years would be impatiently waiting for his hack around Keswick Mill.  Some weekends we would cycle for around 70 miles for pleasure.  Then there was a 12 year gap where, once we relocated to West Norfolk, we tended to walk rather than cycle.  Now, we’re back!  We’ve cycled to Mundesley and back via the Quiet Lanes (Mundesley, sadly, always looks closed, lockdown or not), then another trip to Cley where we sat on the beach and watched cormorants and avocets fly past as we ate our sandwiches.  This week was the big one – all the way to Waxham.  As we hit the beach we could see a row of curious grey seal heads, like black periscopes, all turning to watch the spectacle of humans sitting and walking and paddling.  Waxham’s sands are punctuated by old style groynes and rocks and, as we clambered over each one, the same scene greeted us until we hit the jackpot – hundreds of seals, all different ages, basking on the beach, their low moaning calls muffled by the noisy waves.
  • New murals appearing in Cromer and Sheringham – lockdown art is a big thing from rainbows to chalk drawings on the seawalls.  Here’s my favourite.  Einstein on the Beach!
  • Chris’s harmonica lessons. I thought this might drive me slightly crazy but it’s actually been really endearing to hear his dedication to the cause.  The other day a shiny new harmonica arrived in the post with the all important 10 holes (he’d been struggling with an inappropriate 12 apparently).  His impression of a 1930s American goods train is slowly taking shape…
  • Chris’s 1960s viewfinder found in the loft of his childhood home and languishing in our own loft until very recently. We ration ourselves to a set of slides a day.  The commercial slides all seem to have been compiled in the 1950s and early 1960s: a very jingoistic set of Tarzan slides, bizarrely out of order Munsters and Mary Poppins.  There are also endless slides of Greece, Italy, Berlin – all very unprofessional with garish colour, people in the way and dodgy composition (yes, these are commercial slides you actually bought back in the day!).  It’s been totally engaging and an insight into what now seems a very innocent age of travel and entertainment.Vintage 1950's-1960's Sawyers 3-D 3-Dimension Viewer Model E ...
  • Poetry Events. Normally I have to limit myself due to time and travel but not now!  Every Monday night I “go” to an open mic poetry event in Paris.  It used to be held in the basement of Le Chat Noir but is now hosted by organiser David Barnes from his balcony near Père Lachaise.  It was once called Spoken Word but is now called Spoken World – the poets come from all over the USA as well as Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh and East Runton!  The Norwich Stanza group (peer poetry feedback) I belong to is now happening via Zoom (no more worrying about missing the last train home!) and I’ve joined another Stanza group in South Kensington.  I’ve been to lots of poetry launches and open mic events in London and next week I’m going to the launch of Katrina Naomi’s new collection, Wild Persistence, hosted by her Welsh-based publisher, Seren.  One of my favourite events was Jenny Pagdin’s Lockdown Stage which brought together a host of Norwich poets and two talented London guests too, you can still hear the readings via this YouTube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g32XN9tlcwo  Martin Figura and Helen Ivory are regularly hosting some great poetry readings from lockdown in The Butchery.  All this without shelling out for a single train fare.  The downside is that I’ve bought rather a lot of new poetry books, no, wait, that’s an upside!
  • I’m just writing my 20th new poem since lockdown although my creative energy is starting to flag a wee bit. There have been a lot of articles in the press about how productive Shakespeare and Milton were when they were, respectively, locked out of London and theatreland due to the Plague, or in prison.  My life hasn’t been quite so extreme.  I’ve very much enjoyed having time to curl up on the sofa in our garden room (more like a ramshackle conservatory-cum-lean-to, but we aspire…) and write.  The title of this blog With Love from Lockdown is also the title of the first poem I wrote after lockdown.  I was delighted when it was accepted for the Poetry for an Infected World, Postcards from Malthusia project by the two poets who run New Boots and Pantisocracies where you can find a series of interesting poetry projects. Go here to see the poems: https://newbootsandpantisocracies.wordpress.com/  I’ve always been interested in 18th century economist Thomas Malthus’s ideas.  His theory that if a species becomes too dominant then nature will find its way of redressing the balance seems to have considerable relevance today.  He’s known as the Gloomy Philospher but looks unfailingly chirpy in the portraits I’ve seen of him:

Thomas Malthus on Population

  • I’ve loved catching up with friends via Zoom, Skype and phone calls. So much more time to do this – I feel much more connected to my gang! It’s been wonderful to connect with friends in Europe and London friends who have, in the past, had such busy diaries it’s been like trying to find a tricky bit of sky on a giant jigsaw for a get-together.  Another upside is that I’m more technologically literate than I used to be, but that’s not difficult to achieve as I was a pretty low-level user before lockdown!
  • More time to read has been a real boon. I’ve got through piles of hitherto unread books and have been particularly enjoying exploring American poets including Ada Limon (The Carrying, Dead Bright Things), Mary Ruefle (My Private Property), Danez Smith (Homie).  Heidi Williamson’s superb Return by Minor Road is out officially this month (one of the many books delayed by the Coronavirus).  I love, respect and admire this book.  Heidi is a great friend and she has put her heart and soul and so much else into this collection which explores the primary school shooting at Dunblane where she was living at the time.  It’s so sensitively written.  An intensely profound meditation on love and loss.  If you do buy any poetry books during this period then do try to get them directly from the publishers as they are really struggling with no bookshops open to sell their authors’ work and the only launches possible are on digital platforms with no bookstalls…  Heidi’s is available from Bloodaxe  https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/search/  My latest read has been the bizarre and wholly wonderful Alice B Toklas Cookbook which describes all the recipes Alice would cook for her lifelong partner, Gertrude Stein.  They lived together from 1908 when Alice arrived in Paris, a refugee from the San Francisco earthquake, and were together until Gertrude’s death in 1946.  My favourite moment is where Alice serves a dish to Picasso and is told it would be more suitable for Matisse! I love this picture of them, they look really conventional but were completely groundbreaking in so many ways.

Legendary Lovers: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

  • T’ai Chi, qi gong, meditation and yoga. I used to do these so regularly but other things gradually pushed them into a minor role.  During lockdown I’ve been doing a combination of these practices on a more or less daily basis, with a bit of Pilates thrown in to try and strengthen by ever pesky wrists (weak thanks to a bout of tenosynovitis in my twenties).
  • I’ve learnt how to cut my own fringe!
  • Recipes – new and old – one of my best re-discoveries is the joy of cornbread and how much better the accompanying spicy chilli is with the addition of a bar of very dark chocolate.  It takes me back to my travels in Mexico, but that’s another story…

In the Time of Isolation – Separating the Sheep from the Goats

 
So much has happened since I last posted that it’s hard to know where to begin in terms of the strange new world we are living in at present.

My own journey to isolation started in Yorkshire.  At the time it seemed safe to travel and to go ahead with our two-week holiday, but that weekend everything changed in terms of both the political and public attitude to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Northern railway stations such as Leeds and York, usually so crowded you had to fight your way to the platforms, were completely deserted.  Trains were cancelled as drivers self-isolated.  We made it to Ilkley and walked on the Moors as much as we could before deciding it would be better to cut our losses and come home. Five days later, safely home in Norfolk, we were in Lockdown.

Charles Darwin Blue Plaque, Ilkley | Peter Hughes | Flickr

Ilkley was a great little town, the High Street flanked with blossoming trees and the moors looming at the end of the road.  Darwin was a fan of this area and would surely have loved its prehistory.  Once on the moors it does feel like a different world, there are stones marked with neolithic carvings (see the Swastika Stone below) scattered all over the rough terrain, craggy brooks and a rather enigmatic stone circle called The Twelve Apostles which might, or might not, be ancient.  The views from every point are sweeping, one way to Leeds, the other way to the Three Peaks – the weather was mockingly good throughout as we started planning our return.

 

 

 

 

 

There are far worse places to be locked down than East Runton.  We are very fortunate that our favourite local walks are all within the somewhat confused remit of one-a-day exercise as they all start the minute we step out of our front door.  It’s a time to appreciate the little things and to celebrate what we have access to.  I’m a Skype convert and have chatted to friends in Denmark and The Netherlands as well as having a virtual glass of wine with my best friend in London a couple of times a week.

It’s a time to be inventive with food too – infrequent supermarket trips mean there’s plenty of opportunity to delve into the back of the storecupboard and transform that slightly out of date chickpea flour into onion bhajis and calentica (a kind of North African pancake mix which I used to have a lot when I was in Paris in the 80s).  It might be time to try and make nettle soup too – we have so many locally and it’s been on my radar for a while!

Paternoster Square, shopping, events near St Paul's - Richard ...

Then there are the projects.  We’ll be working our way through our DVD box set of Wagner’s The Ring – my favourite opera(s).  I can’t describe the feeling when the first notes of Das Rheingold rumble out – primeval.  Foolish actions almost leading to the end of the world – perhaps not such a strange choice… Chris has dusted off a 10-hour History of Reggae from Mento to Lover’s Rock by Linton Kwesi Johnson so I might be a far better bet in pub quizzes from now on!  I rarely buy hardbacks but splashed out on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light having so much enjoyed the first two books of her Cromwell Trilogy.  As a writer I am in awe at how she makes the characters’ speak so naturally, and how she does this without using quote marks but the reader is never confused.  I’ve also bought Atwood’s The Testaments and two Ada Limón poetry collections Bright Dead Things and The Carrying – beautifully accessible poetry.  And Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities.  Check out both these poets at the wonderful Poetry Foundation website:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ada-limon

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/chen-chen

So, now to the sheep and the goats!  One of my previous blogposts featured the gorgeous Kashmiri goats of Great Orme, the rocky outcrop which looms into the sea and starts in the town of Llandudno.  Well, these goats are now international stars – a YouTube sensation.  Since the lockdown they have started to come into Llandudno and run riot.  They always ventured down in the past but now there are no humans to chase them back up to the hills.  Check out this article with accompanying video.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/video/2020/mar/31/goats-take-over-empty-welsh-streets-llandudno-coronavirus-lockdown-video

One of the most interesting things about the global lockdown has been the effect on nature.  I’ve been reading about Malthus, the nineteenth century economist and demographer.  His theory is that if one species becomes too dominant then nature will find a way of redressing the balance.  As we stay local for a few weeks and consume and travel less, there’s a neat bit of rewilding going on – less pollution, more birdsong.  There have been lots of news items about nature taking back Venice as the waterways become clearer.

There’s a very interesting writing project called Postcards from Malthusia which might be of interest:

https://newbootsandpantisocracies.wordpress.com/

Nature has always been prevalent on our favourite local walk.  It only takes 40 minutes but at the moment, in terms of what you can see in the Springtime, it feels epic!

The walk starts with a hedgerow full of glowing lime-green alexanders.  These edible plants were introduced to the UK by the Romans and known as the “pot plants of Alexandria” – every bit of the plant is edible and it’s often known as Roman celery.  It has a beautiful sweet scent, a bit like elderflower, and a tangy sap.  It’s too pretty to forage, but you never know…

Then, under the double-viaduct that separates the village into Top Common and Lower Common.  It was built in 1902 to bring holidaymakers to the coast from all parts of the country.

At this stage we always do a quick double-check to see if there are still nine classic white farmyard geese hanging out like bored teenagers on the green (there were twelve when we moved here).

 

Then on to Manor Farm which is just like the kind of farm you’d have as a kid, a little bit of everything – donkeys, sheep, lambs, hens, a cockerel, Muscovy ducks, sometimes goats, the occasional horse.

Up the road to check on the lambs.  In just a few days they have become more solid, less leggy and much calmer, less inclined to do their Harrier Jump Jet VSTOL (Vertical Short Take Off and Landings) leaps.  I can’t help thinking about military planes when I see these lambs.  Well, I do come from Kingston-upon-Thames where British Aerospace had their factory and it was almost mandatory to work there for a bit – I temped there for two summers and both my then boyfriend and my brother did their apprenticeships there.

Down the green lane to the pygmy goats.  These are hilarious.  I seem to have perfected some kind of fake Swiss yipping yodel which brings them running, bells clanking and I can get them to follow me along the fence line to the next gate.  The goat whisperer!

Then along the lane with views to Cromer Ridge and Incleborough Hill to the crossroads and back towards the village via the Big House and Britain’s first Montessori School.  Quick recount of the geese, back under the viaduct and home.  It’s a lovely walk, never tedious, always full of wildlife (buzzards wheeling, a green woodpecker calling) and wildflowers (the celandine are particularly beautiful at the moment).

On a pre-lockdown walk in February we took a friend up the Hill to see the Bagot goats who were overwintering here before being let loose on Cromer cliffs to do their bit as live lawnmowers.  I gather they are now self-isolating on Salthouse Heath but hopefully there’ll be a bit of Summer for us all, with a bit of the Old Normal seeping back into our lives.  Until then, stay safe everyone…

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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

 

Summertime and the living is quirky…

 
There’s so much to celebrate in the UK in the summer and I feel particularly lucky to be living in North Norfolk.  Last night, strolling down to the beach to watch the sunset an excited family from Cambridge were taking photos of a seal lazily floating on its back.  Earlier in the year we did an extraordinary walk from Sea Palling to Great Yarmouth along the beach all the way.

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As you get closer to Horsey Gap you start to see seals.  We were quite chuffed at seeing ten lying on the tideline until we realised that the strange rock formations up ahead were also seals, packed liked sardines, hundreds of them, heaving themselves into and out of the sea, hissing, barking and emitting such appalling smells in their constant state of fish-fuelled excitement that by the time we approached Winterton we had to desperately seek refuge on the path running behind the dunes.

Friday mornings I walk along the beach with my yoga mat for a 7am yoga class on the pier.  If you look closely in the photo below you can see me doing a dodgy tree pose on the far right-hand side.

On my way to yoga yesterday, as I went past the cliff slopes where the Bagot goats spend the summer keeping the vegetation in order, I witnessed quite a bit of goat argy bargy as horns clashed and kids bleated.  They are a lovely sight and Delilah Bagot, the spokesgoat, is getting quite a lot of media attention and even has her own facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/delilah.bagot.1

We’ve had peregrines nesting on Cromer Church tower this year – all three chicks fledged recently and it’s now a common sight to see crowds looking up with state-of-the-art binoculars and scopes.  I’ve been going to the NWT nature reserve at Cley Marshes more often now I live at this end of the coast and was rewarded recently by the sound of a booming bittern.  I’ve always wanted to hear this and it certainly lived up to expectations.  It absolutely does sound like someone blowing across the top of a milk-bottle!  What a great mating call!

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A few weekends ago I was in Leeds with fellow poet Heidi Williamson for the UK’s first ever Prose Poetry Symposium.  It was such an energising event and included the launch of the Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry which I’m very proud to be in as it includes so many fabulous poets.  On the Sunday morning we had time for an amble through Leeds and came across a Kitty Café.  I’ve never been a great fan of Hello Kitty and was bemused that my usually very sensible friend was bouncing up and down like a six-year-old.  When Heidi could finally speak again she explained that the café was not a vehicle for a Japanese animation, but for a cat rescue organisation.  You pay a fee to go in, find a comfy place to sit, order your food, and then realise that the whole café is full of scratching posts, hammocks, ledges, catnip toys, catflaps and is actually a temporary home to thirty-three cats and kittens!

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Back in Norfolk and yet another trip to Great Yarmouth, a place I’ve become very fond of over the years.  It’s a fascinating mix of history, quirkiness, urban grit and the great British seaside in all its Kiss-Me-Quick glory.  We decided to forego the End of the Pier show in Cromer this summer and experience the Yarmouth Hippodrome Summer Spectacular instead.  The Hippodrome was built by George Gilbert in 1903.  It’s Britain’s only surviving circus building and one of only four in the world to have a water feature.  Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini performed there, Lillie Langtry sang there and Lloyd George held political rallies there.  In wartime it was used as a military shooting range.  Peter Jay (of Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers) bought the building, alongside others in Great Yarmouth, in the 1970s and restored the water feature in 1981 (the wooden floor of the circus sinks dramatically to reveal a circular water tank and spouting fountains…)

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I loved the fact that all the young women selling candyfloss and programmes and showing you to your seat transform into the circus dancers in the first half and the syncopated swimming troupe in the second.  The guy with the American accent selling popcorn turned out to be one of the extraordinarily athletic Chicago All Stars.  In the interval performers from all over the world put on their black crew gear and help to erect the scaffold for the aerial display.  It’s a real team effort!

After the show we went backstage to the Circus Museum where many of the performers were milling around, relaxing on sofas, although the Finnish trapeze artist seemed happy to spend her free time walking up and down a fellow acrobat’s back as he lay supine.  The Circus Museum features some of Peter Jay’s equipment and tour posters as well as a hoard of memorabilia which was found just lying around when Jay bought the building, including a programme, printed on silk, for the first ever show at the Hippodrome.  Some of the memorabilia is stored in the old stables where the animals were kept.

Another Great Yarmouth gem worth visiting is the Lydia Eva, the last steam drifter in the world.  You’ll find her on the South Quay.  She was the last boat to be built at the King’s Lynn Slipway Co in West Lynn as the local shipbuilders were on strike.  Named after owner Harry Eastick’s daughter, the boat was launched in June 1930 and has been lovingly restored.  If you want to know more about the Great Yarmouth herring industry then the Time and Tide Museum is the place to go – leave time for a visit to the Silver Darlings Café!

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Summer wouldn’t be summer without a reading list and I’ve been revisiting the classics this year, inspired by visits to two wonderful writers’ houses during our week’s holiday in Hastings.  First stop was Lamb House in Rye where Henry James lived from 1897 until 1914.  He wrote many of his most famous works here, including my particular favourite, The Turn of the Screw.  If you look closely at the photo on the left you might see a shadowy figure doing a little light haunting…  Joan Aitken’s book The Haunting of Lamb House is a supernatural tale featuring both Henry James and his friend friend E F Benson who lived there from 1914 onwards and who also wrote ghost stories.  Benson’s celebrated Mapp and Lucia stories are set in “Tilling” which was modelled on Rye.  Mapp and Lucia’s home, “Mallards” is, of course, Lamb House.  Rumer Godden, one of my favourite writers when I was a child, lived there from 1967 to 1974.  Her book, A Kindle of Kittens, is set in Rye.  I particularly adored Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, the story of two Japanese dolls and how their new owner, Nona, a homesick little girl, decides to build them a Japanese house.  I’m sure  my love of all things Japanese stems from learning, along with Nona, what the dolls might like to be surrounded with to lessen their homesickness.

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Our second writer’s residence was Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country retreat in Rodmell.  We walked along the banks of the Ouse from Lewes to Rodmell and it was hard not to imagine Virginia, on that fateful day in 1941, setting off from the house and walking into the Ouse, pockets full of stones.

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The house is utterly charming and the Woolfs clearly thought so too, despite the lack of home comforts.  Leonard said that he thought their daily life was closer to Chaucer’s than that of modern man!  Woolf was writing her seminal feminist essay A Room of One’s Own as her bedroom was being built at Monk’s House.  It had no internal links to the main house and was full of artworks by her sister, Vanessa Bell, and her niece, Angelica Garnett.

In the garden is the Writing Lodge, where Virginia wrote many of her novels and articles, even sleeping there on fine summer nights.  The house was a magnet for the Bloomsbury Group with T S Eliot, Maynard Keynes, E M Forster, Duncan Grant and many others spending time here and dubbing it Bloomsbury on Sea!

 

As well as revisiting some of the books in my classics collection I’ve also set myself a project which I’m calling The Paris Project.  I’m trying to read every book I can with the word Paris in the title.  I’ve come across some great ones so far.  I would recommend The Paris Wife by Paula McLain which is about how Hadley Richardson (the first of Hemingway’s four wives) and Ernest Hemingway adapt to life in Paris as impoverished Americans in the 1920s.  If you like a bit of time travelling then pick up futurist adventure Paris Adrift by E J Swift – a really intriguing read.  One Evening in Paris by Nicolas Barreau is a wee bit farfetched but it’s set around a cinema and is a bit of a paean to all those romantic city-obsessed Woody Allen films so you can forgive its foibles!

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And, of course, I’ve been reading plenty of poetry books – there have been so many good ones recently.  I’ve particularly enjoyed Witch by Rebecca Tamas, Threat by Julia Webb, The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, Everyone Knows I am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, and King of a Rainy Country by Matthew Sweeney.  The last is particularly close to my heart.  Matthew and his partner, fellow poet Mary Noonan, were in Paris at the same time as me in 2016 and staying very close by.  This collection of prose poems was Matthew’s response to Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris.  It’s a magical read but also a sad one as Matthew died soon after completing it.

So, look out for the quirky, wherever you are, it’s what makes life interesting.  I’ll leave you with a final image from a shop in Great Yarmouth which was in the process of closing down…

 

A Casa dos Poetas – Take Two!

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

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

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

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

Feline Reintroductions

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

I used to see lynxes

the wandering waddling walk

vertical eyes    long whiskers   fur like foliage

a short discreet tail

crepuscular carnivore of partridges

coelhos bravos

he can climb trees   swim

lynxes    I used to see   lynxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

storks stir the mud

with trident feet

the knowledge of tide

in their slurried blood

they clack their beaks

like knife     like fork

swallows nestle

in the underbelly

of their cartwheel nests

sing like courtiers

to their voiceless kings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Write Place!

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

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

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

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

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

Cocktail cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.poetryinaldeburgh.org/

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

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

 

Paris in the Autumn – DADA, Punk and Pistachio Eclairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Yoga, Paddling and Poetry

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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