Walk, Think, Write!


Image result for cabaret

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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A Smorgasbord of Experiences…


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


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

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

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


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


Cowboys, Critters and Cannabis…


shane-posterThe second part of our US trip took us to the Wild West for a week exploring Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming and Montana.  I grew up on a diet of cowboy films, John Wayne in The Searchers, Alan Ladd in Shane, Gregory Peck in The Big Country and many, many more.   Seeing scenes from these films come to life – the razor sharp crags of the Tetons, the old, wise rocks of Yellowstone, herds of bison on the plains, a coyote leaping on a small critter and then chewing it at some length… was an extraordinary experience.

hunter-to-the-rescueWe rode out on a trail with Hunter who, reassuringly, packed a pistol as we had learnt the scary way that you are never far from a bear on the trails (eight sightings in eight days!).  Bat-eared moose deer watched us from between the trees and at one point Hunter sprang from the saddle, hoiked a handy saw from his saddlebag and cut down a tree blocking the path.  He was up in Wyoming for the season, away from his usual work as a cattle drover in South Carolina.  I tell you, I sure could get used to being called “Ma’am” in a Deep Southern drawl…

barnThere were so many poetic moments, my notebook was full of frantic scribblings, but what I was seeing was almost as difficult to capture in words as it was to do justice to in photographs.  How to describe the particular yellow of aspen leaves just beginning to turn in the Autumn sunshine?  How to describe the deserted Mormon houses and barns in soft green meadows with the towering, snow-capped Tetons as a backdrop?  What could capture the smell of sagebrush leaves rubbed between finger and thumb – a cross between cotton lavender and curry plant…

bison-jamOne of the best things about driving through the parks was the feeling that the animals were in charge as we got stuck in endless bison jams, elk jams, mountain sheep jams – seemingly no-one had told the animals that their traditional rights of way were now tarmac.


cowboy_burlap-bagWe were based for some of the time in Jackson Hole where we discovered the fantastic Wort Hotel as well as  The Jackson Hole Coffee Roastery which had varnished coffee sacks to create a highly original floor surface.   Coffee was mostly Twin Peaks style cups of joe – hot, vaguely satisfying and plentiful but we had to wait until Denver for a proper fix…

wort_hotel__detailThe Wort Hotel was built by homesteader Charles Wort in 1941 and its most famous feature is the Silver Dollar Bar. Charles bought 2032 uncirculated Morgan silver dollars from the Denver mint and most of them are embedded in the bar, although they do turn up in other places in the hotel too.  With its boardwalks and wooden architecture Jackson Hole was a popular location for the movies and many of the stars were attracted to the delights on offer in the Wort Hotel, not least some underground gambling.  big-sky-poster

Shane was shot here, as was The Big Trail (1930) with 23-year-old John Wayne making his debut as lead actor and also his debut on horseback…  Clint Eastwood shot the big fight scene in Any Which Way You Can in town and Kirk Douglas dimpled his way through The Big Sky…  Quentin Tarantino, not to be outdone when filming his trademark violent take on the Western in Django Unchained, used the iconic Grand Teton peaks to evoke the savagery of the times.


Our final destination was Denver, Colorado where I spent the whole time feeling somewhat light-headed and dizzy – it’s a mile high and although I’ve had far worse attacks of altitude sickness in Peru and Bolivia this was a bizarre, sustained feeling, especially as Colorado is the first state in the US to legalise cannabis and has more “dispensaries” (official outlets) than Starbucks!   I couldn’t imagine getting high a mile-high without falling over but many people seemed to be managing perfectly well.  Cannabis tourism has hit the roof and there are magazines devoted to the various issues surrounding legalisation, adverts for yoga clothes made from hemp and heartwarming personal stories about the medical usage of cannabis. One magazine advertised a High Tea for mothers and daughters featuring “edibles” no doubt gleaned from the countless recipes for hash brownies, hemp-seed cake etc etc

coors-field-closeupWe spent our first night at Coors Field watching  the St Louis Cardinals slaughter the Rockies against a picture postcard view of the mountains the team are named after.  In between innings I stocked up on veggie dogs, fries and homemade lemonade.  Even the Beats loved baseball, it’s the quintessential American game – check out Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Baseball Canto”:

Watching baseball

sitting in the sun

eating popcorn

reading Ezra Pound

and wishing Juan Marichal

would hit a hole

right through

the Anglo-Saxon tradition

in the First Canto…

molly-browns-houseWe discovered the story of pioneering, proto-feminist Molly Brown when we visited her fantastic 19th century Queen Anne style house with, it has to be said,  a slight touch of the Bates Motel….  This incredible woman was known as the “Unsinkable” – not only did she survive the Titanic voyage but she also insisted on turning round the life raft she was in to take on board more survivors.  Debbie Reynolds brings her to somewhat alarming life in the very cheesy Hollywood musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Harve Presnell as hubby J J Brown trilling his heart out in totally inappropriate operatic style.

Trying to find a good coffee place after our visit to Molly Brown’s we instead chanced upon Poet’s Row – six residential apartment buildings in Capitol Hil, all named after influential poets or authors. Would I be a better poet if I lived in the Spanish-Colonial Robert Frost building?  Could I write a best-seller if I resided in the Mark Twain art-deco style block?  Do you have a dream address and does it need the addition of a literary pseudonym for yourself to do it justice?  I will, in future, be Sophie Tindall of Brooke Heights…

denver-poet The Tattered Cover Bookstore became one of our favourite Denver haunts – an enormous, laid back place with a coffee bar, free literary talks and a fantastic range of poetry books and writing magazines.  I discovered David Mason, Colorado Poet Laureate, and bought his wonderful collection “Sea Salt”.  Mason’s language is simple and elegant, with a strong sense of place:

Necessity – David Mason

Below the blinkered traffic on the road,

almost unseen, the creek falls as it must,

called by downhill, called by the waxing moon…

Even the bookstore coffee didn’t quite hit the spot – for the right stuff check out Little Owl Coffee on Blake Street where the cool, beardy dudes treat it with the scientific respect it deserves.

rockmount-ranchwearSurely  the best shop of all has to be Rockmount Ranchwear  (www.rockmount.com) which even sells books of poetry for cowboys and cowgirls! “The West is not a place, it’s a state of mind,” declared Papa Weil, founder of the store and inventor of the snap shirt (so you can keep your collar and pockets down!).  Everyone who’s anyone has been to Rockmount and bought one of their famous shirts – their celebrity gallery features stars from Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Cary Grant and Chris Isaak to Bruce Springsteen, Matt Leblanc and Paul McCartney!  Second hand cowboy boots, Stetsons, checks and plaids, fleece and flannel, ponchos and bandanas – “No-one knew more about dressing a cowboy than Papa Jack.”

I Left My Heart in San Francisco…


ferlinghetti-quoteJust back from over three weeks in the States where our adventure began with a return trip to San Francisco (fifth visit to date…) where the streets are paved with poetry…



Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations (Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

First stop, as always, City Lights Bookshop to celebrate the Beat poets and their groundbreaking work.  Although the Beat movement started in New York just after the Second World War, by the 1950s it was firmly entrenched in San Francisco.   Poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso questioned mainstream politics and culture and battled against social conformity in new and refreshing ways, very much like our Angry Young Men movement in Britain, also a product of post-war disillusionment.  The bookstore was opened in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and published Ginsberg’s Howl, go to www.citylights.com/info/?fa=aboutus to find out more about this wonderful bookstore/publisher which retains its intimacy despite its popularity.



My favourite section is, of course, the Poetry Room upstairs and I always ensure I have plenty of time to sit in the Poet’s Chair in the hope that I’ll gain divine inspiration from the generations of poets who must have sat there before me.  Indeed, there’s even a notice to ask people to treat the chair with reverence – it’s a rocking chair and one over-enthusiastic poet (not guilty!) previously caused extensive damage.

the-poets-chairHere’s an extract from my imaginatively titled new poem “September in San Francisco”:




Rocking in the Poet’s Chair in City Lights Bookshop,

cool breezes from the alley below,

Lawrence Ferlinghetti speaks to me

in half-sentences with no commas of the gone world

and I understand for the first time.

 If you want to find out more about the Beats then the film Howl starring James Franco as Ginsberg and focusing on the revolutionary obscenity trial surrounding its publication is a great place to start.

coppola-cafeSan Francisco oozes cinematic references and while Chris had fun at the Oakland A’s ballpark I went on a Silent Film San Francisco walking tour.  It’s possible that if it hadn’t been for the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires which devastated the city that it would have been the hub of American film instead of Hollywood (although the famous San Francisco fog may have put off studio moguls…).  What better way to recover from a walking tour than a glass of chilled white wine, and what better place to sip it than Francis Ford Coppola’s very own restaurant, Café Zoetrope (www.cafezoetrope.com) which serves wine from his very own vineyard!  The café is in the historic Sentinel Building, one of the post-earthquake landmarks, which, at one point, housed a recording studio owned by The Kingston Trio where bands like the Grateful Dead hired the space.  Coppola bought the building in 1972 to use for his production company, American Zoetrope, which he founded with George Lucas. A number of Coppola’s films including the Godfather II and III, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, One From The Heart, The Outsiders, and Dracula were written, edited, or sound mixed there and the walls of the Café, which Coppola created in 1999, are full of fascinating Coppola memorabilia.  Oh, and my 2010 Chardonnay Director’s Cut (Sonoma Coast) was excellent!

flywheel-coffeeThe coffee scene in San Francisco is to die for, you can’t move for Third Wave Coffee shops.  One of my favourites was Flywheel Coffee Roasters in Haight Ashbury, just opposite Golden Gate Park.  The company was founded by Aquiles Guerrero, a Nicaraguan who grew up on a coffee estate so he certainly knows his stuff.  We discovered they also did vegan muffins which went very well with my cold brew coffee (steeped in cold water for 18-24 hours, this is one of the hot(!) new trends in the coffee world).  I also tried a nitro sample which is, apparently, the next step after cold brew.  The coffee is infused with nitrogen to give it a Guinness-like flavour – it’s really smooth and comes with a frothy head, it also packs quite a kick!

george-lucas-cranesAnother favourite was Blue Bottle Coffee which we discovered on a trip to Oakland across the Bay (coupled with a baseball game of course!).  We took the ferry – check out the cranes in the docks – they have to be George Lucas’s  (a local lad) inspiration for the huge white fighting machines in Star Wars.  Oakland is a strange city, blue-collar, run-down but also deeply trendy and happening and full of vintage cinemas!  Only one of the cinemas is still operating as such, The Grand Lake Theater, castro-double-billand we couldn’t factor in a visit this time but compensated with a double-bill at our favourite SF cinema, The Castro,  where even the usherettes became famous movie stars – Janet Gaynor started her career here!  The Castro is always an experience, a mighty Wurlitzer performance begins each show with cheesy classics.  The audience clap and cheer when the stars come on and are, overall, very interactive…  “Sunset Boulevard” was a joy, as always, and the accompanying film, “The Star” featured a wonderfully hammy Bette Davis.  At one point I did wonder if someone was holding up cue cards for her with the pauses marked in all the wrong places…

vertigo-sfSan Francisco’s most famous appearance in film is, without a doubt, Hitchcock’s Vertigo and we went on a fascinating “Hitchcock’s San Francisco” walk.  We did around six walks, all with the same organisation www.sfcityguides.org – well worth checking out.  I’m due to teach a Cities on Screen session on films featuring San Francisco so took lots of geeky photos but felt I should be swanning around in heels, a grey, tailored suit and a classy handbag like Kim Novak rather than jeans and flatties.

bad-advice-sfOne of the downsides of San Francisco is the number of homeless people in the downtown area living rough amidst the affluence.  How they manage to muster a sense of humour is beyond me, but the evidence speaks for itself!




Very Bad Advice Only $1


abandoned-boots-promptThose of you who come to my creative writing classes know that I’m an inveterate collector of images to use as writing prompts and, for all you budding writers out there, I thought you might enjoy these two photos, both taken in Yellowstone National Park which was our next stop for eight days of sparkling wilderness and bear-spotting!writing-prompt-steam


Happy Valley, Zombies and Ted Hughes


Lumb_Bank_The_Ted_Hughes_Arvon_CentreI’ve just returned from my second Arvon course under the Arts Council grant, this time at Lumb Bank, an imposing eighteenth century mill owner’s manse glowering down a steeply wooded hillside to where the ruined mill chimneys can still be seen. The concept of Arvon, the grandaddy of UK creative writing courses, was founded in Devon by poets John Moat and John Fairfax in l968 as a reaction against what they saw as a staid, dogmatic approach to teaching poetry.  Lumb Bank was Ted and Carol Hughes’ home for a short while and was leased to Arvon when Hughes suggested it was time to open a Northern centre.  The Arvon formula is the same in all three centres: two tutors, a guest reader mid-week and up to 16 anxious but starry-eyed participants.  Fantastic poets and tutors Jean Sprackland and Jacob Polley had fun with an ever-changing good cop/bad cop formula and knocked us all into better shape with grace, sensitivity and humour, coaxing (or, perhaps, ripping!) seven very different poems out of me in just four days.  Sean Borodale arrived on Wednesday night for his guest slot looking like a floppy-haired 21st century version of Keats to read his profound and erudite poems on subjects ranging from peeling and stewing apples to an extraordinary contemplation of a queen bee…

stubbings wharfThe weather was glorious except for the day I had cooking and washing up duty (sometimes the best-laid plans actually work out!).  I did a daily walk down to Hebden Bridge to sit by the canal with a beer at Stubbings Wharf or a coffee at The Den watching the sun on the painted barges and dodging the hissing geese before the steep walk back up via Heptonstall.  sylvia plath's graveSylvia Plath is buried in the new graveyard in this village which is a fifteen-minute walk from Lumb Bank.  I’ve been to this area quite a bit and was glad that I’d already “done” my Sylvia Plath poem some years back – it’s hard not to be influenced by these two extraordinary poets and hard not to let the beauty and harshness of nature overwhelm your poems.  There was even a cat called Ted, although it was from the farm down the road and turned out to be a girl…

The week was full of bizarre encounters and surreal coincidences.  Taking a breather on the pair of benches on a grassed over burial mound which look across the valley at the top of the lane from Heptonstall to Lumb Bank I got chatting to a walker from Barnsley who had done a great number of Arvon courses and whose strongest memory was of a poem by Heidi Williamson who was a guest reader on a course he’d done at Totleigh Barton.  When I said Heidi was a great friend of mine as well as my long-standing mentor he was, understandably, chuffed to bits and went off to tweet his news with a spring in his step!

Sarah Lancashire in Happy ValleyI discovered that one of the participants on the course had stayed in the same cottage in Mytholmroyd last April that Chris and I had rented in November during my birthday week.  One of my presents was  the first series of Happy Valley – it was a rainy week and we couldn’t stop watching it.  Sally Wainwright’s flawless script, superb acting from a wonderful cast, particularly Sarah Lancashire and James Norton, and the fact that every night we walked along the dark canal back from Hebden Bridge to Mytholmroyd, passing the exact spot where the chillingly psychopathic Tommy Lee Royce had been hiding, all added to the dark and rather magnificent claustrophobia which permeates the Calder Valley on  winter days.  Sally Wainwright went to school in Sowerby Bridge and most of her scripts touch on this area (Sparkhouse, Scott and Bailey, Unforgiven etc) and, of course, Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire’s character in Happy Valley, is often seen in Heptonstall at the graveside of her daughter Rebecca who is the invisible motivating factor behind the whole series. Calderdale has been used as a feature film location since Cecil Hepworth’s Helen of the Four Gates in 1920 and, with its sinister moor and heathlands, steep climbs, cobbled villages and solid stone buildings, it never fails to be a character in its own right.

wuthering heightsOn my birthday we walked from Haworth back to Hebden Bridge via Top Withens (Wuthering Heights to you and me!) on the kind of foggy day that just makes you want to write intensely passionate and romantic poetry (although I was slightly distracted by the fact that I’d turned my left eye into a giant purple puffball by picking a mushroom, trying to identify it and then rubbing my eye…)

The Last Man on EarthWe also had a rather more up-to-date and positively post-apocalyptic experience that week when we went to the fantastic Trades Club on Hallowe’en to see a screening of Last Man on Earth, a schlocky B-movie made in Italy at the height of the horror era in 1968 (adapted from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend  and remade under this title in 2007 with Will Smith. There’s also a 1971 remake, The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston).  It stars Vincent Price as Dr Robert Morgan who wakes every morning in his garlic- festooned house to go vampire hunting (the film’s baddies are a confusing mix of zombie and vampire).  The screening was accompanied with live music from Animat who used a mixture of their own brand of dubby downtempo music as well as an eclectic selection of tracks from their DJ archive including, inevitably, Thriller!  Holme Street, where the Trades Club is situated, is a cul-de-sac T-junctioned  by the Rochdale Canal and it tends to attract all sorts at night…  We emerged into the darkness to be met by a ragged bunch of men staggering around in an inarticulate manner with an excitable black dog, echoing the repeated scenes in The Last Man on Earth where Vincent Price encounters angry zombies every morning when he opens his door and he even inadvertently adopts a zombie dog (black, of course!).

floodMy visit this time was tinged with sadness, but also admiration.  The effect of the Boxing Day floods last year are still very much in evidence.  It has taken so long for many of the shops and houses to dry out that building and repair work has only just begun.  I was delighted to see that favourite bookshop The Book Case had re-opened, but shocked to see that their floodmarker for December 2015 was level with my eyebrows…  Overall, the atmosphere was positive and forward-looking, these people are tough and tenacious and their refusal to be defeated by overwhelming odds moved me considerably.

Cascara+LooseSo, finally, our quest to be the geekiest of third-wave coffee seekers scaled new heights this summer as I dropped in to the wonderful and aromatic Caravan (www.caravanrestaurants.co.uk/kings-cross.html) to buy some coffee beans and was introduced to cascara…  Cascara means dried husk or peel in Spanish and refers to the dried skins of coffee cherries which are now, in a further drive to be as eco as possible, collected after the coffee beans are harvested and used to make a kind of tea.  It’s a very strange experience indeed.  One of the baristas, sensing my interest, made me an iced cascara tea – it’s definitely the point where tea and coffee intersect and for all its pale straw innocence it packs a real punch.   The only similar kick was a drink I had in San Diego called an Electric Chair – coca cola with a double-shot of expresso and yes, my hair did stand on end, and yes,  I really did think I would never sleep again!


North Norfolk – On Location!


I, GeminiSo, this month we’ve been listening to I, Gemini.  Definitely the sound of summer, this is the debut album of Let’s Eat Grandma, Norwich-based teenage duo Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth, both are multi-instrumentalists as well as singer-songwriters.  The album is getting great reviews, it’s trancey, psychedelic pop, deeply weird and wonderful…  I’ve known Rosa since she was born as I’m a good pal of mum Adrienne and was delighted to discover that the band were playing twice while I was in Paris.  The first gig was at Point Ephémère, a trendy warehouse venue by Canal St Martin and the girls were playing as part of Rough Trade’s Pop-up Store on Record Store Day (Jour Disquaire).  Their second gig was at Les Trois Baudets in the Pigalle area, just up the road from the Museum of Erotica.  Adrienne and I went for coffee and cake at the Amelie café (Café des Deux Moulins) and then joined the girls, Lee, their technician and Philippe, the record label’s local rep, for dinner in the great café above the venue.  Let’s Eat Grandma played their brilliant brand of pixie pop to an appreciative and enthusiastic audience and I helped out for a few minutes on the merch stall afterwards which was dead excitingles trois baudets!

Let’s Eat Grandma have a cameo role  in one of the Flaneur style poems  I wrote over the course of three very long walks which encompassed practically the whole city.  This style of poem is, of course, inspired by Walter Benjamin, Edmund White and Baudelaire.  In a nutshell,  you walk and record your observations in poetry, prose or prose poetry.  The pace should be that of a tortoise.  I find this aspect more difficult than the actual writing as I am frequently told off by friends for walking too quickly!

I love walking and, as a non-driver, it’s how I get from A to B so I walk from both a practical and leisure motivation.  It’s an even greater joy when the days are long and dry when my perennial favourite is the North Norfolk coast path.  One great bonus in the past year or so for coffee addicts like me and Chris has been the discovery of Grey Seal coffee.  The roastery is in Glandford opposite the wonderful vegetarian Art Café www.art-cafe.org/northnorfolk which serves what must be the freshest coffee in terms of roasting to table.  Grey Seal is typical of the Third Wave coffee movement which is sweeping through the UK.  The roasteries and outlets have a stronger relationship with the growers and often use single estate coffees.  Caravan, near King’s Cross in London, even send their staff out to work with the pickers.   In December a Grey Seal café opened on the quayside at Wells and earlier in the year one opened on Westgate in Blakeney, a stone’s throw from the harbour. The coffee is excellent and the service is bright and friendly.  The Blakeney café has a tap built in to the counter to top up the doggy water bowl, used twice by thirsty quadrupeds while we sipped our expressos.  Dogs also get free biscuits, with the owner’s permission!

grey seal blakeneyWalking and writing are such complementary activities.  The rhythm of walking very much mirrors the rhythms of poetry and I often walk stuck ideas out into the open.  I rarely want to write in the style of a flaneur when I’m out in the countryside, it’s very much an urban style after all, a bit like Frank O’Hara’s brilliant lunch poems – you need a busy scene with lots of people and activity and a slightly grungy feel to the whole scenario.   When out and about in the great outdoors haiku are the perfect fit – I seem to compose them endlessly the minute I get a whiff of fresh air.  This Japanese poetic style is much loved by Westerners.  Short, delicate, just three lines and 17 syllables in total (although balance is more important than syllabic perfection), haiku are a great way to record impressions and their focus is usually the natural world and the seasons.  The great Japanese haiku master was Matsuo Basho (1644-94), one of my favourites by Basho is:

Autumn moonlight –

a worm digs silently

into the chestnut.

I always find this haiku really thought-provoking and slightly chilling… My attempts will never have his lightness of touch, but I do enjoy writing them as seasonal diary entries.  The ones below evoke happy walking memories for me:

common blues rise

like confetti in reverse

from the cliff edge.


Taste the salty breeze;

a flying carpet of knots

brushes the horizon.


A silken sphere of

tiny spiders becomes a hundred

fluttering abseilers.


Walking by the river;

a robin boldly leads the way

until the sky darkens.


bird footprints at low tide

etched on glistening mud like

marks on a clay pot


Each snowflake

a tiny crystal world

melting in my hand.


There’s also the haibun form – a mixture of haiku and poetic prose which is perfect for travel writing – find out more here http://contemporaryhaibunonline.com

Being out and about in nature much more means I don’t go to the cinema as much in the summer as I do the rest of the year, but thoughts about films and film-making are never far away and Norfolk has always been a very attractive location for film-makers.  It’s not as well known as other parts of England so can stand in for other places without being too recognisable.  Over time it has been Denmark, 18th century New York, The Netherlands, Sudan, India, Russia, France… as well as representing countless English locations.

flora le bretonOne of the first feature films to be shot in Norfolk was The Rolling Road in 1927 starring Flora le Breton.  Legend has it that the October sea at Great Yarmouth proved too much for the skimpily-clad heroine and she had to be saved by Carlyle Blackwell, her co-star, although some say she was saved not by the film’s hero but by Robert “Chickie” Drane, a Yarmouthian who was an acknowledged champion swimmer and lifesaver and allegedly doubled for Carlyle Blackwell in the aquatic scenes.

CHILI BOUCHIERAnother notable early film shot partly in Norfolk was Anthony Asquith’s 1928 Shooting Stars.  Chili Bouchier won a competition in the Daily Mail to become a film star and here she is as a bathing belle on Cromer beach.  One of our classic British films, The Go Between, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, was shot in Norfolk using locations at Thornage, Hickling Broad, Holkham, Heydon, Norwich, Melton Constable and Hanworth to evoke the hottest day of the year in 1900.  Norfolk is so held in time that I often feel I am walking in the past evoked by these films, until my next stop for an expresso shot at the defiantly 21st century Grey Seal, that is!

And a final tip for all of you interested in writing.  Luke Palder from ProofreadingServices.com contacted me to say they  have designed an infographic entitled “128 Words to Use Instead of ‘Very,'” located here: www.proofreadingservices.com/pages/very  Sort of a one-word focus thesaurus – “very” useful!



Nostalgia in the City…

My craving for Paris has finally calmed down after five weeks back in the UK, so I clearly fell hook, line and sinker for the old flirt yet again!  My wonderful Paris flat landlord, Jonothan Green (who knows all there is to know about slang, check out Green’s Dictionary of Slang  – fascinating…) reliably informs me that the black guys on Rue Chateau D’Eau are not dealers (see May blog), but touts for the many African hairdressers in the locality – who says truth isn’t stranger than fiction?!

henri_cartier_bresson_bicycle-645x432Understandably, I’ve been writing a lot about place recently and I’ve been contemplating whether we remember places in black and white or colour.  This has probably been further fuelled by a visit to the fantastic Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.  It’s a really well curated exhibition, spacious and meditative with peculiarly haunting images: boules players discussing strategy in the snow, ancient prams full of wartime finds, a photographer taking a group of gypsies, the heartbreaking faces of mourners after the Rue de Charonne massacre in the 1960s and this wonderful image of a cyclist and stairway.  Strangely, when I think of Paris, the colours are very muted, almost wintery, in my mind.  Other places appear in my memory in quite clichéd colours, so India is saffron and bright pink and Mexico memories are in earthy, sandy, almost terracotta colours.  Try this yourselves, poets, it’s a good exercise – the colour of memory…  It reminded me of all those films which play with the idea of black and white and colour – A Matter of Life and Death (where heaven is black and white and earth is in colour), Stalker – a Russian re-telling of the Wizard of Oz combined with the marvellous Strugatsky Brothers sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic – here the Zone is in colour (where your dreams come true) and the contaminated  Russian industrial-scape is, of course, black and white.

chemexAnd if you do happen to be passing through Norwich, check out two fabulous cafes with their own roasteries and excellent craft coffee.  Little Red Roaster is at 1a St Andrew’s Street, also 81b Grove Road and they  have a good sized stall on the market too (52/53).  Strangers Coffee Company on Dove Street are the new kids on the block and at present are  for takeaways only.  If you fancy tea (and cake!) the rather eccentric Biddy’s Tea Room is good for people-watching and writerly inspiration – tucked away on Lower Goat Lane, it’s got a slight air of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and has a monthly bake-off and a clothes swapping evening, both of which sound intriguing!

The HurstI have just returned from an Arvon residential writing course taught by the most inspiring and generous poet-tutors one could possibly hope to have – Caroline Bird and Kei Miller.  Kei is a Jamaican poet and we did a lot of work on ideas around place in his sessions, fitting in beautifully with my current obsession (he was very patient when I started every sentence with “In Paris…”); while Caroline stretched our perception of what poetry can do to an alarming and quite brilliant extent.  All this took place in John Osborne’s old house, The Hurst, in the rolling English countryside near Clun.  Heaven!

Claire, Mon 1London, now there’s a place I always see in sepia… And most colour-appropriately I stayed there recently at an Airbnb in Bermondsey with two friends, Claire and Monika, who I hadn’t seen for around twenty-five years.  We’d all been in Israel together, kept in touch for an intense seven or eight years and then drifted apart.  We had a great weekend of catching-up and it felt as if we’d seen each other weeks rather than years ago.

So, three of my favourite places in London for caffeine, for just general amazingness or for writerly inspiration:

(Taken with my mobile phone.)

Verde and Company Ltd – gorgeous old-fashioned café and deli in a restored Georgian building opposite Spitalfield Market in Brushfield Street. It’s owned by writer Jeannette Winterson who wanted to keep the traditional spirit of the area going.  It’s a member of the Slow Food movement and is everything that the big coffee chains are not… Inside there’s a big communal table, a few tiny tables and lots of old Georgian silverware, outside there are benches.  The coffee is excellent and there are walls of translucent and expensive marmalade to reflect what little light sneaks in.  I love this area, it celebrates diversity from the Huguenot weavers who escaped persecution, the Irish weavers escaping famine, Jewish settlers, Bangladeshis in Brick Lane – it’s one of the liveliest, most happening areas of the capital.

  • Dennis-SeversWhich brings me neatly to my second London gem a stone’s throw from Verde and Company – Dennis Severs’ House at 18, Folgate Street. It’s not easy to describe this place and, be warned, it’s not open often, just Sundays and Mondays and your visit will be in complete, candlelit silence.  Severs was an artist who lived in this house much as its 18th century inhabitants had before him and thirty years ago he decided to share this experience with visitors.  The house is like a stage set and a time capsule, a series of paintings you stumble in to, seemingly just as the inhabitants have left – gaming dice flung on the table, a glass broken on the floor, a clock chiming, wistful traces of Huguenot weavers, the smell of oranges in the air…  Each room creates a different mood and evokes different inhabitants. The house’s ten rooms harbour ten ‘spells’ that engage the visitor’s imagination in moods that dominated the periods between 1724 – 1914. Your senses are your guide. Severs called this experience “still-life drama” and it works beautifully.  I’ve been going annually for years (I could swear the same black cat – yes, it’s definitely live! – skulks around the kitchen and front room, perhaps attracted to the cheeping of the stuffed canary…

I find it a profoundly moving experience every time I visit and would urge you to go, there’s even a pub opposite called The Water Poet where the Overlook Film Club meets…

  • Wilton's Music HallAnd the third treasure is Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley (about 10 minutes from Tower Hill tube station). The Victorian Music Hall itself is well worth a visit.  I saw a fantastic production of The Great Gatsby there a couple of years ago, it’s a wonderful shabby chic space that takes you back to the Good Old Days!  Best of all are the series of bar areas at the front of the music hall.  Wilton’s started life as a series of five 17th century houses, the largest of which was a pub and  which were later combined and subsequently bought and revamped by John Wilton in 1850.  The Music Hall he built was popular for around thirty years, with acts like Champagne Charlie (check out the 1944 Ealing comedy Champagne Charlie with Stanley Holloway and Tommy Trinder.) treading the boards.  There’s a good history of the site on the Wilton’s website www.wiltons.org.uk  Nowadays it’s a great bar space, recently refurbished but losing none of its nostalgic charm.  The cocktails are excellent, there are great bar snacks and the space always gives me that goosebumpy “treading on history” moment…  And if you think it looks spookily familiar then it may be because it was one of Louis Lester’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hiding places in Stephen Poliakoff’s fantastic BBC series Dancing on the Edge.



Paris Part III – The Lumière Project

Sue on the rooftopsMy five week stay in Paris is over and I’ve written thirteen new poems.  This is more than my average annual output so I’m feeling very pleased and slightly smug.  The combination of one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world, the thematic starting point of considering films set in Paris and my own strong relationship with this city have all done the trick in more ways than I could have hoped.  I feel incredibly privileged to have had this opportunity thanks to the grant I received from the Arts Council to develop my writing over the next twelve months.  I was so excited by this opportunity that I’d already written the first of the thirteen new poems by the time the train pulled in to the Gare du Nord on Day 1!

Sue's Parisian StudyMy wonderful rented apartment in Cité de Trevise in the ninth arrondissement was just round the corner from Les Folies Bergeres in Rue Richer.  In one direction it was a15-minute walk to République along the Rue Chateau d’Eau which, at certain intersections was like a scene from The Wire, although thankfully far less threatening with cool black guys on the corners doing  lots of amicable shouting to each other, the giveaway being the large wads of money they were clutching….  Fifteen minutes the other way and I could be at Opéra Garnier and the Grands Boulevards or Montmartre and Pigalle.

julien2I spent hours wandering the streets checking out film locations, discovering that Julie Delpy’s flat in Before Sunrise was very close to mine in the hard to find Passage des Petites Ecuries.  One of Edith Piaf’s favourite restaurants Julien, a belle époque gem where I had a lovely lunch, was just round the corner.  Marion Cotillard got to sit in Piaf’s favourite booth when they filmed La Vie en Rose.


I did eight guided walks, five by the excellent company Paris Walks www.pariswalks.com where I gained a real insight into the history, development and personalities of the city;  and three by the wonderful Juliette of Ciné Balades www.cine-balade.com who visits film locations in specific areas, explains the history of the area and shows extracts of films on her i-pad as we stand in the very spot where they were shot. truffaut 2 One of my favourites was the Truffaut walk.  I began my stay in Paris looking for Truffaut’s grave in Montmartre Cemetery and after several fruitless, but very enjoyable, visits gave up until Juliette pointed me in the right direction and I finished my stay in Paris by finding him.  Strange how things come full circle…

The Paris Walks were in English, the Ciné Balades in French so, needless to say, one of the bonus elements of my stay has been the great improvement in my somewhat rusty spoken French.  Those of you who know me well will be able to imagine me launching into conversations with shopkeepers, security guards, swimming pool attendants, anything to speak French!  Ah yes, swimming pool attendants.  On my final night I swam 30 lengths in the wonderful pool in Rue de Pontoise, the very pool where Juliette Binoche tries to swim out her grief in Krystof Kieslowski’s Blue. Pontoise Swimming Pool Paris It was interesting to see how intensely blue they had made this environment in the film (otherwise it’s just a normal swimming pool colour).  It’s an art deco pool with two-tier changing rooms and rather an eccentric method of accessing them, hence the long conversation with the attendant – we ended up arguing which city was more beautiful, London or Paris.  Paris of course!

I met a really interesting artist and writer, Grace Ndiritu (check out www.gracendiritu.com) as well as two talented prose writers, Rosemary Milne and Isabelle Llasera.  I was also very fortunate that the fabulous Irish poet and academic Mary Noonan was staying very close by on a sabbatical researching aspects of French theatre along with the equally fabulous Matthew Sweeney.  Paul Stephenson, soon to move to Brussels, was enjoying his last few weeks in Paris so I was able to get plenty of creative stimulation talking to these wonderful poets.

Shakespeare-and-Co.-Paris-BookstoreI first met Grace at Shakespeare & Company at the launch of Emma Beddington’s We’ll Always Have Paris, a witty memoir about failing to live successfully in the city.   I would strongly recommend checking out the events listings for Shakespeare & Company.  The new cafe next door has the best expresso in town and one of the best views (opposite Notre Dame no less!) and it’s a truly iconic bookshop with a fascinating history.  Sadly, the founder, George Whitman, died recently but his daughter Sylvia is carrying on the very good work.  I went back towards the end of my stay for a poetry reading by Jack Hirschman and Heather Hartley.  Heather Hartley’s excellent Adult Swim is well worth a look and Jack, well, he’s just a legend.  A Beat poet, sacked by UCLA for encouraging his students to dodge the draft, he read from The Viet Arcane, a collection that has been many years in the making. His delivery was pure Beat and after each passionately delivered poem his French translator took the stage and read beautifully crafted translations.  As we staggered outside we noticed that there were chairs in the little courtyard with relay speakers…. so my other recommendation is, always get there early for S and Co readings!

Cafe Culture RapideBoosted by Grace I went to the zany Café Culture Rapide in Belleville where they have open mic evenings and tried out two of my new poems on a very supportive audience, although slightly freaked out by the ritual that if it’s your first time there they shriek “Virgin! Virgin!” as you battle your way to the stage.

As well as following my nose and wandering like a true flâneuse, I also visited specific locations and one of my favourites was the Café des Deux Moulins where Amélie Poulain works in Amélie.  My top tip if you are in a hurry or broke, or both, is to stand or sit at the bar and knock back your drink.  My expressos were all around a euro using this method.  And my other tip is, if you can’t decide whether to have dessert or coffee or both then opt for a caée gourmand – you’ll get a selection of mini desserts from the menu all tastefully grouped around an expresso.

my placeDid I find a substitute for Le Charlotte en L’Isle (see Paris Part II – Rue de Lappe)?  I did indeed, the wonderful My Place in Rue St Lazare, bursting with Parisian shabby chic and lovely home-made food.


I saw a dozen or so films during my stay, partly because I wanted to visit cinemas which had appeared in French films (a particular trait of New Wave directors who loved to pay homage to the world of cinema).   One of the highlights was Cinema MacMahon, just off the Arc de Triomphe, a real gem of a cinema in glowing red velvet with the original ticket booth.  It’s the only cinema I can think of where it’s more essential to visit the ladies toilets than to see a film – this is where Jean Seberg climbed out of the toilet window to escape the cops and rejoin Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.  They were having a John Ford season so I saw How Green Was My Valley.

studio 28On the 11 May I met Jack Toye (Picturehouse Cambridge Marketing Manager) and Sarah McIntosh (Cambridge Film Festival Short Film Programmer) for a strong early morning coffee at Gare du Lyon and then waved them off, slightly green-tinged with envy, as they sped southwards for ten days at the Cannes Film Festival.  I compensated by going to iconic cinema Studio 28 in Montmartre to see the Cannes opening ceremony followed by a preview of the opening night film Woody Allen’s Café SocietyWhat’s so special about Studio 28?  Ah, so many things, for a start it has wacky chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau and it’s the cinema Amélie goes to watch the audience rather than the film.  It was one of the first arthouse cinemas in Paris, opening in 1928 with Abel Gance’s Napoléon and the scene of a riot in 1930 at the première of Buῆuel’s L’Age d’Or.

luxourA short walk from my apartment was the Luxour which soon became my local cinema.  It’s the most gorgeously restored 1921 picture palace opposite the elevated metro at Barbès Rochechouart so it could have been my local cinema  when I lived there in the 1980s but at that time it was the largest gay nightclub in Paris.  One of the many films I saw here was The Extravagant Mr Deeds, with my oldest friend and fellow cinephile Sally, during the cinema’s Capra season.

Lumiere BrothersI did a one-day research trip which was really enjoyable – a quick zip down to Lyons to check out the Institut Lumière, one of the places that can truly claim to be the birthplace of cinema as we know it today.  I stood on the spot where the cinematograph had been placed to film the Lumière factory workers leaving their shift, one of the earliest films and one which was included in the nine films shown to the first paying audience at the Salon Indien in the Grand Café (now the basement conference room in the Hotel Scribe on Boulevard des Capucines).

Site of the Lumiere Factory
Site of the Lumiere Factory







And finally, a very nice bonus was my friend and poetic mentor, Heidi Williamson, coming to stay to look through what I’d written and offer support and feedback.  Heidi is an excellent mentor and also a writing coach.  She gave me a really insightful coaching session on the way forward with my current work and ideas – check out her website www.heidiwilliamsonpoet.com.  And in return I did a Sue’s Parisian Highlights Tour, watch out Paris Walks, there’s a new kid in town!

Paris flat tea

Paris Part II – Rue de Lappe

By the time I decided that university probably was a good idea after all, I’d lived and worked in London for several years, back-packed round Europe for a few months, lived in Israel for a year working on a kibbutz and a couple of moshavs and spent a very frugal month in Egypt sleeping on the beaches in the Sinai.  This was in the early 80s, just after the Israeli occupation of the Sinai had ended.  There was no tourist infrastructure at all, literally a beach.  We bought flatbread in the local village (often seemed to contain camel hair and dirt too, but probably because it was rolled on boards on the ground!) and trekked a mile or so  into the desert to buy tomatoes from the bedouin, and that was it – I got very thin!  Today Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba are, of course,  big tourist resorts and I feel privileged to have seen their previous incarnations.

Paris-Nord_2_-_Vue_aerienne_02By 1986 I’d completed my second year at the University of East Anglia studying French language, linguistics and literature with a teacher training module or two thrown in.  A year abroad in Paris held no fears for me until I discovered that I’d been assigned a really rough secondary school in the banlieue in Villepinte.  It wasn’t quite La Haine and there were some great kids in the school,  but I was locked in a cupboard, pushed down the stairs and had my naughtiest boys driving mopeds straight at me as I tried to walk to the RER station.  I later discovered that the most unpopular teacher who, coincidentally, had the most difficult class, had divided up her class in order to give me the most problematic elements of the whole school.  I remember the Directeur (head teacher) telling one of these boys off and the older brother coming in after school and beating him so badly he ended up in hospital.  I survived fairly unscathed and it helped me realise I probably wasn’t cut out for teaching children…

CalenticaI gave a few private lessons as well – I had a man with no voicebox who wanted to perfect his English pronunciation and also the wonderful Nicole, a pied noir  (French but born in the colonies).  We met in the queue for free tickets for the Folies Bergères.  She lived in a dreadful HLM (habitation à loyer modéré – sort of equivalent to our inner cities) in the suburbs with her four sons – Nicolas, three, Pascal, 13, Patrice, 15 and Jean-Paul 17.  When I went round after work I was never quite sure which son I’d be teaching.  It was good practice, a bit of pocket money and she always cooked me weird and wonderful food – wheat rissoles and calentica (an Algerian dish made with chick-pea flour) were my favourites!

paris_11_rue_de_lappeI rented a flat in Rue de Lappe, just off Place Bastille.  I had a few pots and pans, a mattress borrowed from a friend of a friend, an old school chair which I’d brought back on the metro from Villepinte, a folding table and a couple of boxes with scarves draped over as side tables.  I’ve just been watching Chacun Cherche son Chat (1996 dir. Cedric Klapisch) – made a decade after I lived there but still recognisable as this very run-down working-class district.  It was just beginning to gentrify when I arrived, artists’ studios and art galleries so I was constantly going to vernissages (first nights) for free wine and canapés (which is what the lads do in La Haine (1995 dir. Matthieu Kassovitz), although I was much more English and polite!).

imagesI’m starting to write about this time as part of the Arts Council project.  I’ve become very interested in creative geography, Lev Kuleshov’s (Russian film theorist in the early 20th century) idea of putting together different geographical locations, filmed at different times, as if they are all one seamless, unified geographic whole.  A really good example of this is the new film version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender – his castle is Bamburgh Castle on the outside, all rugged and Northern, and Ely Cathedral on the inside, gothic, candlelit lines which don’t fit at all with the outside but the illusion is persistent…

When I think of Rue de Lappe and the surroundings I see my life as a series of geographical vignettes – the bakery, the corner café, the market, the local late-night cinema, Père Lachaise cemetery  – but somehow in my mind they make one of those cute maps where everything takes a few minutes to walk to, all the boring bits and building sites (this was a the peak of Mitterand’s grands travaux, pretending to be Haussmann the Second with his President’s projects) are cut out.  And poetry is like this too, it has to cut so much out to work its magic…

3 LA VITRINEPsycho geography is both similar and different to creative geography, your own personal mood map of your local area… The place I feel most nostalgic about from this period in Paris is  La Charlotte de l’Isle –  a tiny  café and chocolatier on the Isle St Louis where I spent much of my free time writing endless letters (Chris and I had just got together) and notes.  Sadly, the café was taken over by new owners in 2010 after 38 years of pure magic and it’s now completely different and utterly unmagical…   Sylvie Langlet, eccentric chocolatière and poetess ran the shop and the teashop which were full of treasures, carnival masks, witches on broomsticks, gnomes and marionettes.  As well as proper hot chocolate, served in the front room and tiny parlour, she would also serve turkish coffee from an authentic shiny copper turkish coffee pot into tiny, delectable handleless cups.  Going to the loo meant you got to see the magical kitchen where Madame would use her antique moulds to make sculptural chocolate concoctions as well as fabulous chocolate dipped florentines.


The Musee d’Orsay opened in 1986 while I was there and one of the perks of being a teacher was having a free Museum Pass.  I wrote my year abroad dissertation on the Musee d’Orsay, which completely captured my imagination.  A state of the art gallery in a disused railway station.  One night I went to see a string quartet inthe cafe at the top of the building.  They played silhouetted against the huge glass clock face -it seems like a dream memory now,  so purely cinematic that it’s  hard to believe you actually lived it.

Clock at musee d'orsay

And, of course, I was going to see endless films.  The most memorable were Down by Law (1986 dir. Jim Jarmusch), Betty Blue (1986 dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix)  and Blue Velvet (1986 dir. David Lynch).  I was already a big David Lynch fan but Blue Velvet was something else… I was so sure I had misunderstood it (I went to the version dubbed in French rather than the original subtitled in English by mistake) that I went back a second time, accompanied by Lawrence Norfolk who was my best friend’s ex and happened to be in Paris too, just for reassurance that the story was as mad and bad as it seemed to be the first time around! (It was…)

So, it’s with these memories that I count down the days until my next Parisian adventure begins… Paris Part III will be coming in mid-May and I’ll have news of how I tackled five weeks dedicated to writing poetry!


Paris – Part I – Rue des Poissoniers


I spent the autumn and winter of 1980 in Paris. Just about to turn nineteen, newly graduated from my bi-lingual secretarial course at Kingston College of Further Education, I thought the world was my oyster. Was Paris ready for me and my brand new skill-set?

Well, apparently not…there was no work to be found for young, naïve, inexperienced English girls. We (my college friend Diana and I) clocked one job between us in three months and got poorer and poorer but it never really impacted on us due to a stroke of luck in our first week in Paris.

Disoriented and confused in the Hotel St Placide Paris_Saint_Placide_Metro_280109(which I later realised briefly appears in Truffaut’s poignant Antoine et Colette…) we perused the papers for work but instead found an advertisement calling all lonely out-of-towners to a meeting in a café on the outskirts of Paris. There, we discovered an amazing selection of people with varying motivations for coming along. Some had moved from the countryside to work in Paris, others had lived in Paris all their lives but were pieds noirs (ie French but had lived in the French colonies so were culturally very different) or second generation Paris-dwellers from immigrant families who didn’t quite fit in, and, strangest of all were a couple of chic Parisiens, very BCBG*, who seemed to look on the whole adventure as a kind of “feeding time at the zoo” experience.   Nevertheless, we all bonded with varying degrees of success and spent the next few months meeting up and having makeshift dinner parties at each others’ flats and generally living in each others’ pockets, literally in the case of D and myself as we were thrown out of our hotel for reporting a theft (long, long story…) and slept on various floors until the wonderful Jean-Paul from Brittany rented a flat at Barbès Rochechouart with room for Diana and me to sling our sleeping bags in a more permanent manner.barbes rochechouart

Our new home was on the corner of the Rue des Poissoniers in the North African quarter, opposite an Arabic grocers.  Bare boards, two rooms, one sink, trestles and huge plywood boards for tables, food on the window-sill for a fridge, no hot water but it was heaven to have our own space and I fell in love with the area.

arabic sweet shops paris


P1320975_Paris_XVIII_rue_des_Poissonniers_Nxx_rwkThe restaurants were mostly cheap couscouseries with windows full of brightly coloured Moroccan sweets. Women in beautiful African fabrics swanned up and down the roads and I can’t count the number of times the police stopped me because it was too dangerous for a white female to be walking around the area at night – I hated hearing the inevitable barrage of insults when I said I was on my way home…

But what about poetry? My diaries from this time were scattered with doom-ridden verses. I don’t remember being particularly unhappy and I’m glad these little fragments are no longer around, but what is happening is that I’m remembering more and more of my first experience as a pseudo Parisienne as I prepare for my current trip to Paris, and I’m beginning to write about it with more maturity and perspective (I hope!). One very strong memory that I’ve turned into poetry is sitting in JP’s 4CV outside our flat while he went to fetch something  (we were on our way to his parents’ farm in Brittany). Within minutes every surface of the car had been turned into a market stall – the local prostitutes leant on it and the guys who seemed to spring from anywhere and everywhere with things to sell festooned the bonnet and windscreen with exotic looking rugs (well, I assume, I could only see the underside of course). Jean-Paul unearthed the car expertly a few minutes later and off we went. I firmly believe that if he hadn’t been so quick I would have been sold along with the car!

Paris viewHowever poor we were, there always seemed to be money for the cinema. Brought up in Kingston-upon-Thames, a stone’s throw from London, and then studying languages, I’d always been a prolific cinema-goer, particularly of foreign films. Jean-Paul was a bit of an international cinema buff and I remember catching up on Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzula and Costa Gavras’ Z and the The Blues Brothers as well as Loulou and Mon Oncle d’Amérique, the latter perhaps flagging up the forthcoming golden age of Depardieu…  And, of course, the more I saw of Paris the more I came to appreciate what a truly cinematic city it was, a film-maker and photographer’s dream.


Above you can see the shameful addiction I developed at this time… the wonderful and wholly French patisserie – the religieuse – at that time in came in only two flavours, coffee or chocolate and if ever we managed to knock together a few extra francs Diana and I would buy one for each other.

My French improved as our circle of friends widened and, with Jean-Paul’s car constantly breaking down I had an excellent (for a non-driver) car vocabulary. I particularly remember Jean-Yves, the telephone engineer, who was an unexpectedly amazing cook; Jamel, who never stopped singing and Jacky, who lived in a tiny maid’s flat with a shower over his kitchen sink. Everyone seemed to live up endless flights of stairs in the tiniest rooms imaginable.

I started volunteering for three days a week at Amnesty International, typing, translating, filing, setting out the communal meal, learning more about the world than I ever thought possible.  I still have the reference they typed for me on that evocative headed paper…

AnarchyJean-Paul joined the OCL (Organisation Communiste Libertaire) which sounded very exciting – a French anarchist organisation for goodness sake! I went along a few times but, for anarchists, they certainly loved their endless meetings about “action”…

John Lennon was assassinated in December that year, and yes, I remember exactly where I was, stock-still in our bare flat, freezing cold in a huge Italian jumper I’d bought from the flea market , oversize man’s checked shirt and an ex-boyfriend’s too-big jeans, unable to believe what I was hearing. The Maze hunger strikes were on and I started to get more and more interested in left-wing politics, but also in art, in food that wasn’t all one colour… couscousBy the time my nineteenth birthday came in the November of that year I had a weltanschauung which was totally different to most of my contemporaries and this hunger for knowledge has never really left me. My second long stay in Paris was equally character forming and who knows what this third trip will bring!

And my hybrid knowledge of French continued – back in London I worked for the Royal Academy of Dancing as a PA and was their main translator for French and Belgian History of Dance and Dance Anatomy examination papers. This meant that when I joined a French t’ai chi class I was one of the few in the room able to move the right bits, but more of that in Paris Part II which will be posted in April.

*BCBG – bon chic, bon genre (eg stylish) – Paris  slang – almost the first phrase I learnt, but there’s a ruder version which was often applied to these two Parisiens…