Daybook 25 March 2017


Years ago my sister, my 15-year old nephew and his girlfriend had come over to visit us in our Andalucian mountain town. One day, we took them riding. The stable owner took one look at my sister and I, and prodded her oldest horses awake. We set off and soon fell far behind the proper riders in the line.

I remember that halfway round the trail, I was marooned in the middle of a grassy knoll, with my sister at shouting distance on the other side. I couldn’t make my horse move towards her (it was busy cropping grass), and she couldn’t make her horse move towards me. We could only shout and signal to each other across the field: “You OK?” We’ve often laughed about that day.

Lately I’ve been remembering our ride. My triplet brother and sister still live near London and I still live in Spain. But Mum, who bound us together in grumbling servitude, recently died. I haven’t been to London for months. Can’t really, unless work takes me there. I want to be there for my sister, I miss my brother. Yet with all of us needing either financial, emotional or physical repair right now, we can’t get together. Can’t get her over here for a much-needed break. Can’t bring or send her little luxuries to cheer her. We can only shout across to each other in hurried FaceTime calls or WhatsApps. “You OK”?

Sunday 26 March

Forgot to set the alarm last night.  Tottered out of bed at 7.45 am, deducting brownie points for lateness, then realised the clocks had sprung forward this morning. Mother’s Day in the UK. Mum, I send you virtually white lilies. And a big tub of purple hyacinths for the dining-room table. And a Mother’s Day card with soppy soft focus roses on the cover and a rhyming tribute inside. “To the best Mum in the world…” You craved these scraps of affection, so we tossed them at you, grudgingly like we did everything you clamoured for.

F…..has put his back out again. So yesterday I took Eds for his morning walk. Up into the pine and eucalyptus wood around the seminary. It’s our favourite walk, almost free of cars or people, I can let him loose to nose-surf along the grassy banks as we wind up towards the church grounds along the wide path striped with sun and shade.

Eds met a new puppy and mounted him enthusiastically several times. The puppy chased him and nipped his ear. So Eds rolled the puppy. And his person and I watched and laughed, in the fresh sunshine. All this joy, and all before breakfast! Dogs can do that for you.

Working on a poem, part of an exercise in assonance. The poems, they take so long, I get discouraged. Some of you post three a week. I know it’s not a competition. But just asking – will I get through to the next round?


Daybook: Saturday 18 March 2017


Ladies who brunch – Photo by Fred Shively, June 2014 Madrid

Daybook: Saturday 18 March 2017

Sat 11 March I am pottering along our sunlit Main Street, a favourite Saturday thing to do. The now-familiar shops and faces, bathed today in golden spring sunshine. This is my home and these are my people, even if they don’t know it.

As I pass the terrace of Café Israel, I catch Carmen’s eye. She’s with her young neighbour or helper, and beckons me over for coffee. Carmen, chain-smoking, small and frail, with her sad clown face. She lived in England for a few years, many years ago. Every time we meet, she brings out these bright scraps of memory, arranges them in the space between us.

“Caymrich…” Ah yes, I say, Cambridge, and we both muse on that for a while. “I prefer to Ockfor.” Oh of course, I say, Cambridge more beautiful than Oxford, no doubt about that. She beams and I beam back. Her companion takes no part, stares out to the street with a wry mouth. She’s doing this for the money; I recognise the look from several of Mum’s helpers.

Yes, after years of moving around, I belong here now. The gardens I pass on my walks with the dog are my gardens; I tend them with my eyes only. Since none of the pretty houses are mine, they are all mine, I choose a different one every day and imagine living there. A poem in here somewhere.

Sun 12 March: I read Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘Seventy Feet Down’. I’m transported to a stormy night at sea…the ‘leather-black waters’, the sea ‘exploding upwards…relapsing to slaver back down’ off landing-stage steps. You can hear it, almost smell it. “Radio rubs its legs, telling me of elsewhere.” Reading the six stanzas is like watching a sequence of quick cuts in a movie.

Working on a poem about a reunion that turned sour…I’ve published it in another post on this site.

Mon 13 March: Choir was a joy tonight as ever. My fellow soprano’s voices soar in the ‘ay vida mia’ of Los Arboles Altos; the ‘muyayayay’ of Bonse Aba. For years, I only wanted to sing oratorio, but some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve sung in the past two years have been African or from Eastern Europe.

For two hours every Monday, I breathe deeply, I sing, I laugh…but I still can’t catch what my delightful colleagues are saying in Spanish. Voices bounce off the hard floor and bare walls. I miss the key words and phrases, the jokes, the ripostes. After years here in Spain, I still feel like I am speaking in cuneiform. And I mind, awfully.

QUESTION: How can you ‘revise, revise’ when your poem’s structure is set on the page already and you want to change but seem stuck in that shape?

In answer, I was writing couplets as part of a poetry exercise this week but they weren’t the best for the poem. So I mooshed all the stanzas together again, and reformed it into two four-line stanzas and a couplet to finish. Much better.

Tuesday 14 March: South African anti-apartheid campaigner and distinguished judge, Dikgang Moseneke, says that journalists should “worship at the altar of truth.” I think poets should too. Not literal truth, “this happened then this happened,” but truth to the feeling, the moment they are trying to share.

Thursday 15 March: Well into Week 2 of getting up early to write for an hour or so. Aiming for two free hours eventually. Routine is the friend of the writer that’s for sure. Though my journal entry is aimless, rambling, and I’m still struggling with the poem. The second stanza is pat. I’m plodding, stating the bleedin’ obvious, getting on my own nerves.

Halfway through my hour, I briefly fall asleep. Realise I forgot to take my thyroxine tablet this morning. No wonder I went down like a tree.

Saturday 18 March: The trouble with creating this great habit of early rising is – you can’t have a lie-in any more. Your brain wakes up like an eager puppy at 6.00 am. So after staring at the ceiling for a while, I get up and go write. I finish my current poem, and do a 10-minute write (thanks Natalie Goldberg!) for a new poem. It’s about connection…

QUESTION: How many poems do you poets out there have on the go at any one time? Just one? Several? How do you work that?

Thanks for reading, I’m enjoying your work too. Have a good week.



Statue of Narcissus, School of Polycleitus.

Photo: With thanks to Egisto Sani, March 2016; Narcissus (Greek Models XVI)


You spring up to greet us, eager, lithe.
Bright eyes, bronzed face, long top lip descending
to a pout. Raven hair, ruffled shirt.
You sit upright, a dancer or a young lord.

And then you start to tell us of the years between.
Cheap myth pours out of that chiselled mouth.
She took my home and kids, bitch done me wrong.
You’re rolling your cigarettes scrawny, tight.

I glimpse that lip lifted, eyes narrowed, waiting to
pounce, in a shabby room stained with dirty sunlight.

March 2017

(Photo: With thanks to Egisto Sani, March 2016)





Daybook – 5th to 12th March 2017


DAYBOOK – 4th to 12th March 2017


When I fell off the hamster wheel of Washington DC work/life imbalance way back in 2003, I vowed that wherever life took me next, there would always be time for coffee. Coffee with a book, a notebook, a girlfriend, a happy husband. Today I managed to find time twice, with two friends I really like. Down-to-earth, rational women who I don’t have to handle, manage, mollify. Is that the test of a good girlfriend, that when you leave you feel better for seeing them, not relieved to be alone again?

I think us Baby Boomers will cultivate girlfriends more eagerly than previous generations. If we’re lucky, we’ll have longer to live than our parents, and more often, unpartnered or childfree lives. We might start writing more about strong female friendships, novels and plays and music, rather than lyrics about yearning for a new man.  Increasingly, I feel more excited about meeting a great girlfriend.

Took Eddie for our favourite weekend woodland walk in the hills around the city’s old castle. March winds, May warmth. The wind roared in the pines and eucalyptus, trees swaying in every direction, lit up copper gold by the setting sun, the whole hillside alive and glowing. Eddie met small dogs and big dogs, and was polite and friendly to all. And I nearly didn’t go.



Started working on a new poem, about a meeting we had with an acquaintance from years ago, now returned from Mexico and living near the city.

I’m working through a nifty and inexpensive course, ‘Routes into Poetry’ by Tamar Yoseloff for The Poetry School, based in London.  I want to stock a basic toolkit for crafting strong, sound poems. This week I’m experimenting with stanza structure. Using couplets to unfold a feeling that grew stronger as he spoke.

Question: Where do I go when I feel a poem is ‘done’? Sometimes by second draft I think I’ve captured the moment. Should I keep working at it, tinkering with it, or are there poems that don’t have to evolve over many drafts?

American poet Wesley McNair, in his excellent ‘Advice for Beginning Poets’, urges us to revise diligently. “Suspect the finished poem. Your evil twin wants your poem to be finished,” he says. So that’s a question.

Another question: Do I have to experience something personally before I can write about it? Did Yeats see a falcon soaring (or a slouching beast) in order to write ‘The Second Coming’? Or Coleridge spend much time in Xanadu hanging out with the man to write ‘Kubla Khan’? So I guess the answer is: no, you can also be inspired by something you read or in our day, see on screen or hear on radio.  The Bröntes touched the heights and depths of human experience from lives far more circumscribed than their imaginations.

I’d put my poetry away last summer, unfinished knitting. It felt too self-indulgent when so many girls and women are suffering and in danger. But this month I held it up to the light again, imagined the patterns I could make, and it made me happy.

So I ‘ve promised myself a reward for a month of writing practice: a subscription to Mslexia, the excellent UK-based magazine for women who write, which includes access to their online forum.  Not that I have to force myself, but I am so twitchy, so averse to entering that quiet place in my head, that I have to bribe myself into the habit. Do you ever feel like that, resisting what you love?  Hope to hear from you but writing anyway.


Saturday 25 Feb 2017

A year ago today. Fred and I walking back from a mediocre coffee in the city centre. I always think morning coffee will save me, or afternoon tea, or happy hour with a nattery girlfriend. Sometimes it does.

But not that morning. The coffee was just coffee. The café girl didn’t wait long enough for me to open my Spanish mouth and ask for something to eat. So I brandished a BioCentury rice cake under her nose, crunched it noisily and silently dared her to complain. Counted out the exact change for our coffees, and worse: I opened a bag of sugar and spilled most of it on the table, then moved my cup and saucer over to cover it and make it harder to clean. I left the cafe feeling mad, bad and empty of grace.

We started walking home. I twitched my leather jacket into place and shouldered my handbag. My fingers just brushed against the bottom of the zipped breast pocket and I felt something hard, round, hollow. It couldn’t be. I passed my fingertips over it again. I told Fred to stop and sat down hard on the window ledge of H&M. Delving inside the pocket, my fingers closed on my long-lost engagement ring. The ring I’d lost a year ago, the ring I had for 25 years. The ring Fred bought me in Harrogate, delicate Art Deco platinum circle with a baguette diamond flanked by two aquamarines (for courage and energy). A faerie ring for a slender English blonde, I always thought, but what did I care,  his vision was clouded with love and nothing was too good for me, sausage fingers and all.

The ring I dreaded telling him I’d lost, and when I did, he went mad and cursed us out of the bar we’d just been chatting in. Cursed me for a careless jade, as if I had just tossed the ring out with a chewing gum wrapper one day. I sulked for two days and then told him this was the end and I was going back to London. Which got his attention and contrition.

Now, perched outside H&M, I shouted, laughed and cried, light-headed with surprise and relief. In this, our silver wedding year, no other jewel could have been so precious, so heavy with experience and memories. Now it’s back home again, pillowed on silk in its morocco leather box, while I wonder what on earth I did to have it gifted back to me.

America the beautiful

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






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?








Explore – I have advice for people who want to write. I…

I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour — write, write, write.Wisdom from Madeleine L’Engle, quoted in her biography. Couple with Hemingway’s advice to aspiring writers and Virginia Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit L’Engle on writing and creativity.

Source: Explore – I have advice for people who want to write. I…