Daybook: 19 January 2019

It was the first week of September 1976, I had just started in the Sixth Form at my London comprehensive. I still remember my keen anticipation as I walked down Wembley High Road to  equip myself for this new adventure. The chunky mug i bought in Bargain Basement,  a light pearly brown, softly metallic, with – I think – a sketch of Abraham Lincoln on one side, and some of his most quotable quotes on the other. Then to Marks &  Spencer for a packet of Dark Chocolate Ginger Biscuits, to add to my writerly survival kit.

I could see myself already inhabiting the Sixth Form ‘cafe’, half-curled in an armchair there, drainpipe jeans and a loose shirt, deeply absorbed in my work, sipping occasionally from my mug, nibbling a ginger biscuit without looking up.

I was 16 going on 17 and I wanted, everything. I took the stairs at Alperton Tube station three at a time, released from a dark and fearful family life, galloping into my bright future.  Me the Writer, the Poet, the Actress, the PR Person. My ignorance and arrogance were not even measured against anything, I lived in my own world and every door was open to me.

Many years later, I glimpse this avid girl as I sit in a sunny corner of my living room far in time and space from England, laptop balanced on my knees, poetry coursework and books strewn on the little table in front of me. I am fighting a strong sense of futility, a sneering voice that says you again, poetry this time? Too little, too late. Pointless and purposeless. Down the years there have been many handsome mugs, fresh notebooks, new pens and cunning bags to put them in – yet I did not break through, I did not create a growing sense of my voice,  a body of work, win any awards, make any waves.

Yes, I have written for money, for business, since 1993. I studied for my degree and got first class honours in Literature and creative writing. But except for short periods, I never really got the discipline of keeping a notebook, of shaping and sharing my thoughts. Now I come to writing half-ashamed, self-conscious and full of derision at trying again, unsure why I am doing this poetry course. Perhaps to prove once for all that talent is not enough, even discipline is not enough – you have to feel compelled to write every day, even if no-one will see it.  And I don’t feel that.

Just that I believe there is treasure there if I can find it. Reading, writing and thinking about poetry – enough lifetime left to love it if I can break through and let it speak to me, speak for me.




Free gifts

I’m getting a start on one of my NYRs on NYE. Yes, WRITING. It’s 23:27 and outside the fireworks are just getting going. (We always joke that it’s the town’s education budget going up in smoke). Indoors, it’s just me, F. and E., quietly watching TV – the way I like New Year to be these days.

Just watched the end of Season 2 of ‘This Is Us’. The one where _______ ________s. (Spoiler avert). And it happens in such an ordinary domestic way, making it more shocking. And before it happens, everyone is taking their home and family for granted, the kids all want to be somewhere else, they are bored and restless and want to go out. Not knowing that this was the last day of the rest of their lives.

I was telling a girlfriend today that at fifty-something I am all passion spent, that it’s too late and I never really ‘made it’ as a writer and why bother now. So every time I sit down to write, huge resistance sits facing me with a sneer. It is hard to avoid her eye and push through. I get bored putting down what I already know inside out, and I don’t want anyone I know to see what I am writing. Age has made me more private or more paranoid.How will I share what I feel and know, and who with?

But in the past few weeks, four friends and one angel have told me, out of the blue, that they think I have a special gift for writing. That I should continue, write poetry, fiction, memoir. Of course stupid me then thinks I hear ‘the call’ again, and puts me here at 23:40 on 31st December 2018 to get a head start on my ‘write every day’ item.

It has been a good, social, connected Christmas . Reading my 2018 diary, the recurring sadness was of isolation, alienation and the lack of community (which I created as much as anyone else) in our previous location. When we came back to this small village, we just wanted to downsize. We didn’t know that so many gifts of friendship, so many opportunities for engagement and re-engagement would be under the tree.

You can’t go out to buy apples next door without bumping into someone you know. My progress along our home street is like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, kissing the plumber’s dad, hugging the greengrocer, waving at a writer’s group buddy, murmuring greetings to dogs. Which is great on the days I can face myself and the world. The other days, I put on dark glasses and hat, wear black and do my best to avoid eye contact. But I still love being in the web of connection.

OK, I think I earned my last chocolate before Easter Sunday. Wishing whoever is out there whatever you want to happen for you in 2019. Thanks for reading.






Into the Blue

Wes Somerville’s sculpture: “Ancient or future memory of a place I’d like to spend time in’

Community writer and ANA member Jayne Skellett invited writers and artists to two dynamic writing workshops last month. Our playground: the newly-opened ‘Invierno Ardiente’ (Hot Winter) 2018 exhibition in our home town.

I wasn’t sure I should attend this workshop. After all my clients don’t pay me for playful language and I get put on the professional naughty step if my copy veers to purple. Which, unchecked, it does.

But once there, Jayne’s enthusiasm warmed the chilly November evening. “Are you a rock crumbler? Do you see straight circles, can you feel the gentleness of spikes?” she asked us, and went on to show us how we could.

Jayne asked us to pick an artwork that attracted us, and to describe our chosen piece, with synonyms, antonyms, contrasts, oxymorons and antitheses! The diverse and vibrant artworks on show offered exciting possibilities, objects on which to focus and language we could frolic with.

The show’s opening the previous week had been crowded, loud and bright. I’d walked around dazzled by the lights, by faces and voices both familiar and new, by everything that vied for attention with what was on the walls and on the stands.

Now I had the time, space and a mission to pay attention. And so I was drawn to Wes Somerville’s sculpture: “Ancient or future memory of a place I’d like to spend time in.” (Plaster, Perspex, LEDs; 60 x 40 x 23 cm).

On a plain black stand, its luminosity invites. Pure white curves soothe the eye and the sapphire glow through the arched entrance draws you irresistibly inside. I stood there for ages, just bathing my eyes in its tranquillity and simplicity, its gentle light. Like a visit to the hammam, “Ancient or future…” soothes and calms the troubled eye and brain, laying to rest all clamorous impressions and bathing the viewer in a liquid silence.

This is the beginning of a poem I scribbled after the workshop:

I swoosh into your
cooling smoothness,
blueminous pool

and lose myself

Slip into your freeze-flame lake
Like diving through a jewel…

Thanks Wes, for giving my senses a mini-break, and to Jayne Skellett, for creating this delightful workshop.


Daybook: 24 November 2018

24 November 2018
When Fred mentioned an acquaintance’s latest blog, it stung me. And her blog is very good, with observation and great photos and a touch of humour and irony. Damn the woman! Bless the woman! Got me writing again.

After a week of sunless days, this morning the skies are blue and the genial sun sets off a million carats in hedgerows and orange groves and everywhere there is green. Everything rinsed and quenched in a week of steady healing rain. Not the usual big storm with rushing streams of rain damaging trees and tracks.

I try to channel the joy I feel from Eddie, snorfling along in damp leaves and worse, the sun on his white back, enjoying this very moment. Find the joy in this life right now, not in some other where or when that is always just behind or before.

In the high street, a coachload of Cordoban elders have just disembarked. They stand outside waiting for their friends, faces turned to the sun, drying out damp bones, simply drinking in the light and warmth. Others linger over café con leche and their morning tostada, yet others stop and chat to friends in the street. It’s like a theatre stage where the lights have come back on. And even I, always a fugitive from the summer sun, even I walk on the bright side this morning.

30 November 2018 – MADRID
I’m at Starbucks Café, Principe Pío rail station (think Liverpool Street as a London equivalent). Munching a modest turkey sandwich and crisps, sun shifting in the skylight above. A notebook, three 0.7 tip blue pens and a renewed faith in the joy of purpose.

Divine intervention? Reading Anne Morrow’s diaries and letters (her beautiful mind and great heart on every page). Carlos surely channelling an angel to give me new energy as we talked. He is pursuing his dream of professional football coaching – at 57 years old; while doing right by his 90 year old Mum and even by the sad old dog he is caring for.

People pass my table in a constant stream. Many are dressed in drab navy, grey and black on this cold Madrid morning. Some are elderly and infirm. Younger people hurry past, still living in the world of hustle and have-to – what keeps them from despair?

Maybe now, with different eyes, I can see better. Maybe each of these commuters has a dream. An elderly woman next to me in the newsagent was looking for a particular type of goody-bag, one with the right cards her granddaughter needs for her collection. She found the right one, and smiled at me. Purpose doesn’t have to be heroic! She was anticipating her granddaughter’s joy at getting the cards. Suddenly the busy mall seems not tense, but jolly.

As the world’s troubles darken and deepen, I have been seeing through dark glasses too, all doom, all downhill. But just for today, I will allow myself to believe again, in friendship, joy, fun – and the pursuit of dreams.




Out of Darkness: Miners celebrate

A simple tribute to the miners of Orgiva on Santa Barbara day, 1 December

The first explosions went off at 9.00 am, while we were having breakfast. The dog leapt onto one chair and I fell off the other, then we clung to each other for comfort.

In town, police cordons festooned the street in front of the cathedral. In the Plaza, a huge tent was setting up lunch for around 100 diners. Had Christmas come early? For a select few, yes.

The 1st of December celebrates Santa Barbara. She is the patron saint of miners, and anyone who works with cannons and explosives. And at one time, half the men in our mountain town of Orgiva, south of Granada, worked in the nearby mines of the Sierra Lújar. They were continuing a tradition that stretched back 3000 years to Phoenician times, and only ended in 1989.

In his informative and entertaining blog, “Because They’re There” climber and muser Alen McFadzean writes about the history of the mines, and shares copious photos from his exploration of the area. Once yielding lead ore, silver and other minerals, the mines have now reopened to liberate the fluorospar, used in the Basque steel industry.

Alen went up to around 3,000 feet so you don’t have to, and I warmly recommend reading his account and seeing the photos.…/the-high-and-mighty-mines…/

Anyway, on our way back through town, we asked the growing crowd of bystanders around the church, whether the saint was coming out for a procession. “No,” said the elderly lady next to me, her eyes shining with anticipation. “They’re going to let off a socking great pile of firecrackers now.”

Fred and I made a run for it as the explosions began, and just reached our front door in time for the dog to hurl himself into my arms again.

Still, a happy day in Orgiva, for the remaining 30 or so miners and their families to reminisce about the joys and sorrows of mining life, and we wish them many more Sta. Barbara celebrations!

Photo: (With thanks to Fred Shively)

America the bountiful

IMG_1658Can a cookbook be righteous? Can right-minded recipes make all things well, and all manner of things?  Am I enjoying my TGIF G&T?

Yes, yes, yes.

I’m deep into the pages of ‘Glorious American Food‘  (Christopher Idone, [1985, Smithmark); a $50 book that I bought for a song in a bargain book store at the beginning of this restless century. Probably the shop in Bethesda, MD, where I solaced myself every Friday after a week of agency agony with some hardback treasure of photography, biography or foodography for myself or Fred.

Idone, an NY-based restaurant and catering consultant all those 30 years ago, worked with photographer Tom Eckerle to produce this beautiful book. It’s dedicated to “the farmers, the fishermen, the ranchers and the vintners who love this land.”

Together with Eckerle, Idone went on a pilgrimage around America, finding out and celebrating real food, soul food, food that comes straight from the air, land and sea and is dressed, cooked and presented in ways that have evolved from the time of the first settlers. Food with story.

Each region of the States is introduced with the story of how its classic dishes developed, from seasonal and available food, and classic dishes come with their own creation story. The writing is never flashy, but as real and true as the ingredients and dishes Idone celebrates.

‘Glorious American Food’ reminds us that classic American food originated from thrift, a sense of place and season, authentic ingredients, pride in good housekeeping and open-handed hospitality. In spite of Trump, police brutality and corporate callousness, I think and hope that this essential goodness can still be found all over the States.

A new edition of the book, as well as the 1985 original, is available on






Making my meter

In my poetry course, we’re looking this week at ‘How Meter’s Made’, the beat in the music of poetry.  And Tamar Yoseloff tells us “there are no rules, only established verse forms, the names of different meters, the way different poets through time have used meter, and ideas on best practice.”

I like the idea of established forms, setting me free to create within a set of rules. And though the whole Wordsworth, Browning, da-de-da-de-da thing holds no charms for me (that’s what comes of studying Victorian poets for months of my degree), I am partial to a delicious sonnet, to blank verse, or a clever villanelle.

This morning, I’ve read Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall’. It’s blank verse and he uses iambic pentamenter, (5 beats to a line, emphasis on second beat) but of course he varies it, makes then breaks that rule so subtly that the whole poem sounds like an old New England farmer in front of the fire, nursing a whisky, reflecting, meandering, thinking over his day. He captures a moment, really it’s nothing more than a passing thought, so clearly and honestly, that it comes down to me, through great distance, time and lifestyle, intact and true.

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ he begins. And later, in the last third of the poem, he repeats it:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.


And of course that sets me thinking about the Great Wall of Trump Jong-Un, the malevolent clown whom a playful god has set to reign over the Western world. And another line in the poem, when Frost muses on his neighbour’s insistence on mending the unnecessary wall between them:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
Move in darkness. Put up your wall. Frost’s imagined ‘elves’ will bring it down.




Talking Dirty: The Hammam in Fez

Hot and cold running buckets and your ego scrubbed away; the women’s hammam in mediaeval Fez is a different kind of spa experience.

I’m standing with three other women, two French, one English-speaking Italian; all strangers, all naked, and trying not to stare.  Fatima, who has just relieved us of our clothes and personal items, grasps my hand and pulls rather than leads me into an echoing tiled hall whose high vaulted ceiling is lost in shadows.  I have just entered the women’s hammam, the public baths in the mediaeval walled Medina of Fez, and something tells me it’s not going to be relaxing.

In the main hall, another 30 or 40 naked and glistening women are going through their beauty routines.  Some of them bathe alone, others take turns dashing water from sagging plastic buckets at each other.  One squeal registers hot water, two squeals cold.  The hammam space is large but contains no showers or shelves, towels or mirrors, nowhere to sit except the floor.  When the big buckets of water are empty, bathers refill them at the hot or cold taps either side of an adjoining room.  Many, though not all, of the buckets have handles.

As I study the green tiled walls with intense interest, a big dark-haired woman with breasts like boulders reaches up from her cross-legged position and pulls me down to join her on the slimy floor, arranging me face up, everything up.  It’s time for my hammam experience.

Rashida is chief tayeba, or bather, and biggest fish in the steamy shallows of the hammam.  I’ve seen my new Euro-companions prodded and pummeled, soaped and squeezed and splashed like toddlers.  As I join in their shrieks of laughter, I’m busy running escape scenarios but one look at Rashida and I know I’m not going anywhere.  You don’t argue with Rashida and not only because you can’t speak Arabic. With my head resting in her lap, I’m forced to gaze trustingly up into her stern face as she soaps me from head to foot.  It’s difficult to be assertive.

Pulling me up to face her, my legs uncomfortably entwined around hers, she pours watered-down shampoo from an outsize pink plastic bottle over my head.   I try to rehearse the French for “do please take care, I am wearing soft contact lenses,” but shut my eyes tight instead.   At that moment, I feel something raking my scalp in long, heavy strokes, as though I’m being groomed by a she-bear.  Unscrewing my eyes I can see a blue hedgehog, a plastic toothed brush for scraping burnt-on grease off saucepans.  Nothing to worry about after all, this must be the head massage.

Rashida kneads my flesh in short but energetic bursts, gratified whenever I let out a whimper of pain.  I’m twisted round and flipped over, can hardly tell where I end and Rashida begins.  Is that my foot tucked between her breasts?  It certainly is.  A frail island of someone’s new-mown pubic hair floats past inches from my nose, but like Alice in Wonderland, this now seems quite normal to me.

Waiting my turn for each procedure, I chat to the other bathers, stretching my schoolgirl French to the limit.  One old dark-skinned woman flashes me a gold-toothed grin, and offers me five million francs if I will marry her son.  I also make polite conversation with two young Frenchwomen, who assure me they are finding this experience ‘géniale’, and we exchange the usual small talk about the weather and where we are staying, raising the banal to the bizarre under the circumstances.

I’m called away from this cocktail party scene.  Rashida is ready for me again, and this is her grand finale.  She ‘massages’ my back as though she has a personal grudge against me; it’s like King Kong playing scales on an inflatable piano.  When she’s finished with me, she motions me to sit up, then with a firm push on my back, shunts me across the slippery floor.  I travel surprisingly quickly towards the rest of my group.

Back outside in the changing area, these once intrepid, assertive women travellers wait passively for towels and the return of our clothes.  I dry myself on what is surely a floor mat, hoping that the faded rust-coloured marks on it are part of its original pattern, and climb gratefully into my cotton and linen protective armour.

Clothed, I feel better already, more in control of my destiny.  When our hostess, Fatima, wedges herself next to me on the bench and asks insistently for my address (her son just happens to be planning a visit to the small town where I live in Southern Spain), I tell her about my big, jealous husband and our slavering dog before making a swift exit and hurrying back to my hotel.  I need to relax, and I really need a shower.



The Chocolate Song



About this poem:

The Chocolate Song comes from two exercises in rhyme and repetition in Routes Into Poetry, the excellent mini-course from The Poetry School in London.

Based on a poem called  I want to be your shoebox’ by Catherine Bowman. We were asked to write a new children’s rhyme. Or a ‘trail poem’ in which each line begins with the same word and leads to the next related image/idea. The perils suffered by girls from pre-birth to old age – and a child’s idea of what will save them.


Chocolate for girl babies snatched from the womb
Chocolate instead of a busy schoolroom
Chocolate to sweeten the rusty knife’s wound
Chocolate for girl children married too soon
Chocolate when childbirth spells young mother’s doom
Chocolate for young girls whom men abuse
Chocolate applied to a purple-black bruise
Chocolate to cheer up that victim of rape
Chocolate when water is two hours away. Twice a day.
Chocolate for women who have no say
for what their hard-earned coins will pay
Chocolate for cholera, typhus and AIDS
Chocolate to cherish abandoned old age

Chocolate for you and chocolate for me
Chocolate for girls who will never live free
Chocolate for children whose choice is of chains
Chocolate for horror, and chocolate for pain!

April 2017

The Rose Queen

Fading roses have a beauty of their own

Rose, from the Mortalitas series by Fred Shively, 2011.

This poem started out as an exercise in assonance, from the excellent ‘Routes into Poetry’ course, produced by the Poetry School in London. It’s taken a rather tragic turn.


In spring, beauty, resting on its maiden
voyage from the muddy root, pools
in ruby baubles on your thin bare arms,
and rain anoints you royalty.

Warm breeze whispers in your silken skirts;
the sun god scatters diamond dewdrops there.
Jewel-bright spiders diligently spin
you silver veils of gossamer.

As summer unfolds, your velvet robes unfurl
with rare perfume. You flaunt your ruby ruffles,
as courtiers bend reverent heads towards your heart,
their homage is its own reward.

Rich and reckless, you outstare the sun,
Though one by one, your maids of honour lose
their heads. One evening as you take the air
You shed a petal.

Then another.

Autumn’s armies strip you bare,
and take your crown. Raddled, wrecked,
you bow your head and fade to rest.
Till spring revives you to rain again.

Arpy Shively, April 2017