Passerby

Park Solitary Walking Man One Lonely Railway

Every day he goes out for a walk,
nods and smiles at everyone he knows
and every day he walks home, still alone

Always the same streets and café stops.
Always a chance: today he might connect.
Every day he goes out for a walk

looking for a passing word, a chat.
Coffee or a drink? Too much to hope,
and every day he walks home still alone

trailing his loneliness like a cloak,
certain that today he’ll make a friend,
every day he goes out for a walk

greeting mere acquaintance heartily,
exchanging banter and banalities,
every day he goes out for a walk and
every day he still walks home alone.

Purposeful and pointless, full of hope,
his longing ill-concealed beneath his smile
he takes his loneliness out for a walk
and knows that he will always walk alone.

31.05.19

A villanelle about T., who we see everywhere in town, waiting for nobody to have coffee with.

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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.

 

 

I

 

 

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:

INTO THE BLUE
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.

 

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.
https://becausetheyrethere.com/…/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)

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

Spa+Laaroussa+Hammam+Massage+a+Fes.
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.

 

 

It’s a dangerful life

My girlfriend is spending a few days with me in Malaga. This morning she showed me the news about the  massacre in Nice, where 80 spectators were mown down by a rage-propelled truck right after the Bastille Day fireworks.

And then she mentioned that just as she’d set off for her morning run (she’s a personal trainer and passionate distance runner), a car emerging from a garage driveway near our home had run over her foot. She screamed “back up, back up!” to the panicked driver, and then fell over, tearing a hamstring.

The woman driving the car was more upset than my friend, who is gentle and kind, and had to comfort and reassure her before she could go to casualty. It could have been much worse.

I have spent the whole day drifting around, doing absolutely nothing, waiting for my friend to get back. I’m thinking about the ugly thoughts, words and deeds swirling about the planet right now. Rage breaking out in gunfire and blood and in type on screens just about everywhere. So unpredictable and so inevitable.

I’m thinking, if we are at war, shouldn’t we be at war with the worst in us? Our hatred of ‘Muslims’ or ‘Leave voters’ or ‘Immigrants’ or ‘the one percent’? Or with drivers who could have been more careful? Or with irritation at my wasted day?

 

 

Write. That’s it.

My head is spinning. Am I in WordPress now? I haven’t created a Post here for a long while, and in the intervening weeks, WordPress is showing me a new face. I don’t have any of the familiar markers – I am just writing into thin air.

It’s Sunday and I am struggling with the whole writing thing.  It should be a joy. I should be eager to change into ragged shorts and teeshirt and go play in the gardens of my mind. Instead, like Oscar Wilde said about exercise, what I really want is to lie down until the feeling passes over. Preferably with a large mug of tea and any of the novels I have read countless times. Why should this be? I love words, I love words about what I love, but this doesn’t translate into writing the words down.

I can’t see the point. Maybe writing for a living since 1993 means that without an audience (in an ideal world, one who is a paying a fee) I feel that I am writing for nobody.  And it’s not as if I am out collecting extreme experiences. My life is as humdrum as the life of an 18th century country gentlewoman. (The clock’s loud ticking, the oceans of time). I don’t drive anywhere except to the gym, I don’t cycle, ski, skate, swim or run. An hour’s walk with Eddie the little white dog is a joint achievement, avoiding busy roads, vocal dogs, long stretches of harsh sunlight, and strange neighbourhoods.

So when I skimmed my weekly dose of inspiration and creativity, called Brain Pickings, I followed a thread about the importance of keeping a journal. And, yes, it is important. As is writing through self-doubt, boredom, hopelessness, laziness, noise and silence. Brain Pickings – worst name ever for one of the most generous resources online – is simply brilliant. Its creator, Maria Popova, shares ideas about creativity, love, life, the universe and everything, drawn from the great and good of this and other times. I recommend you subscribe to the weekly newsletter, from which you can jump off to dozens of related themes.

Thanks for reading this 10-min write, if you got this far. I am going to keep my journal for a week, and check in again next Sunday with juicy highlights. You?