Saturday, 31 December 2011

Day 26 (for Terri): On the blank page I read

my parents' lost words: my mother's diaries that she threw away a few years ago, which she'd written every day since she was single, before my brother and I were born; the letters my father hasn't written; the things both my parents haven't managed to say; the secret fears they've told me when drunk or nearly told me sober and pretended after that they never said; the things I can't tell them

my brother's voice before it broke.  With my ear to the page I hear the tapes we made and recorded over.  I hear him shouting, 'Ambush!' as he jumps down from his oak tree in the Back Field and runs at me, a hogweed sword in his hand

my grandparents' and great-grandparents' stories; the love letters they cherished, burned or forgot about; the words they buried, choked on, whispered into reeds or holes in trees, or told the wind; the spidery or arabesque script of my ancestors back to the first boy who was taught to write; and before that, the timbre of their voices, talking, singing, crying, snoring; their laughter; their infant screams; their last breaths; the ticks and chimes of their clocks and watches; the sounds of their houses: doors banging, dogs barking, footsteps and the squeals of gates.

Days 30 & 31: Terminus; a Bulb, a Promise.

Illustration to Colin Hawkins' Witches

Because endings are difficult.

Because it's hard to end without beginning again.

In September I'll turn forty.  I should have evolved beyond caring, but I haven't.  I should be philosophical about it, say something positive about wisdom and self-knowledge and how I'm looking forward to the next enriching phase of my life, but I'm not.  I hate feeling unattractive.  I hate worrying that what I wear might be muttonish.  I hate that my hair has lost its shine and my skin's weathering.  I'm dreading my friends asking me how it feels to be forty.  The worst of it is of course that in a few years I'll look wistfully on this as my youth.  I'm afraid of illness, ageing and death, my own and that of the people and animals I love.  2011 was a year of shocks and hard lessons and it's left me scared of what might happen next.  I have lost too much, as have many of my friends and family; it has to stop.
However, it's traditional to say something positive at this time of year, so I'll tell you that I'm working on a new sequence, based on one of the Reverb prompts.  There's a patch of grass in my imaginary garden that's covered with the snouts of emerging poems.   I have a vague idea of some of their varieties and colours, but they'll probably still surprise me.

We keep growing, don't we.  That's one thing good thing about getting older.

I'm taking some time off public writing and won't publish anything here for a while.  Thank you for reading my posts and for your comments.  I hope 2012 comes kindly to you.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Day 29: The Last Toast.

 Illustration to Colin Hawkins' Witches

If only it were. We clink glasses again: 'Happy This.  Happy That.'  I take a gulp and the old woman with red eyes and hair like a winter tree climbs off my shoulders and retreats upstairs, muttering as she goes. 

She'll be waiting for me later, at three or four in the morning. She'll climb on my chest, spit in my face and spend the rest of the night pulling at my fingers and telling me I need to change my ways. 

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Day 28: Five Curses

Illustration to Colin Hawkins' Witches

They come too fast for you to stop them, too fast to notice.  They appear at first like stars falling but they aren't stars and they have no light of their own.  They are formed of the new elements: heart, lungs, feet, hands and head.

The Curse of the Heart makes you spit fire when you should be singing.  It scratches your belly and climbs out of your mouth when you're walking, scorching the ground and causing forest fires.  It has scales and wings and can tear out your throat with one bite.

The Curse of the Lungs makes you wheeze.  It breathes your air, starving you of oxygen and making you faint. It is grey, flaccid spongy.  It talks in a whisper, usually about its looming death and last wishes, and has clammy hands. 

The Curse of the Feet is all blisters.  It flaps as it walks and parts of it peel off.  It weeps a lot.  It is sticky to the touch.  It follows you about, pleading for you to slow down, but if you wait for it it will never quite catch up: it will twist a knee or an ankle and fall over, writhing and moaning with its arms waving in the air.

The Curse of the Hands has teeth.  Don't stroke it.  It keeps its back to the wall at all times, and tries to stay in corners, snarling at passers by.  You can poke it with a stick or throw it a sandwich.

The Curse of the Head splits wood for a living.  It carries an axe at all times and can chop down trees with three blows.  It kicks over boulders.  It will kick you in the belly if you let it.  Its nose runs often and its eyes are sore and dry.  It bumps into corners and trips over doorsteps.  You can push it over, but you must be fast and plan your getaway meticulously.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Day 27: Five Blessings

A morning in the garden, cutting back last season's herbaceous plants and chopping brambles; one of the serene days between Christmas and New Year when there's nothing pressing and you can drift from breakfast to bedtime.  The air was mild and full of early spring and bird song.  I watched Hellebore zip up and down the maple tree, and pounce on the soil from a plant pot I'd just emptied.  When I came inside Samuel was curled on the bed, sleeping off another late night.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Day 23: Shucking the Oyster

Photograph by Tony Sutton
Anything but the oyster!
Roll on the days of normal work.
I'm sick of not hitting the mark, 
not getting the knife into the hinge,
not twisting at the proper point.  
Roll on the end of hurrying,
of cuts, splashes, shell shards
for nothing more than
a plate of plates,
of winter rock pools: 
salt-water, jelly and grit.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Day 22: Speaking in Code

With my hand against my mouth I speak riddles
you wouldn't want to understand.  I whisper
so fast it's like a cricket, like a scratch,
like a car's gears grinding, like my car radio
when Cherubino was singing in and out of signal
and I got it: two notes, grind, one note, grind.
With my hand against my mouth I can gurgle.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Day 21: If you came this way at night

you'd probably catch me sleeping, having kissed the cats and Phill, written my diary and (if you arrived within the next few days) read a chapter of Marilyn Robinson's Home

Would you come by car?  It'd be wise: the rail service isn't what it used to be and there's no bus from the station, even during the day.  We're easy to find, just look for the alpacas.  They sleep in shifts, in case of predators, so you'd be bound to spot one standing in the middle of the paddock.

Would you knock, try the door or bring a ladder to set against the window ledge?  I'd hate to mistake you for a burglar, it could really blow my career, although at least if I hadn't already heard you I'm sure you'd tap me very politely on the shoulder to wake me.

I'd get up, of course, and make you a cup of coffee, perhaps offer you a peach.  We'd probably shuffle about awkwardly in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil.  I expect I'd ask you about the journey, make some smart-arse quip about the ways being deep and the weather sharp, and look up from the tea pot just in time to see you wince. Would you ask me about my work?  I can't imagine explaining it to you, at least not the new stuff.  I suppose we could talk about Ovid, though you'd probably quote him in the original and I'd feel all silk hat and Bradford millionaire-ish and have to make the choice between pretending I understood and knowing you'd think less of me if I owned up.  I might cover myself by asking you to move at that point so I could get to the fridge for the milk.

I'd worry about the number of DVDs in the house.  I can hear you saying, 'What's Farscape?' while you sit on the edge of the sofa, sipping from the unchipped side of your mug.

'Oh, that's Phill's.  It's Sci-Fi.  I think it's made in New Zealand.  Have you read any Leontia Flynn?'  I don't suppose it would be wise to mention Alice Oswald.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Day 20: My Fingers as People, a Dog and an Olive Tree

Today's instruction was to:

Draw an outline of your hand - then give each digit a face, hair, hat, personality.  Turn your fingers into: characters from your favourite book, opera, play of the year; members of your family; people you encounter in daily life or in your dreams; characters from a myth or fairytale; or something else.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Day 19: An Invoice (actually an End of Year Account) for 2011

Recipes for plover, lark and pigeon pies from Warne's Model Cookery


Tuscan bouillabaisse and Whitstable oysters in Sussex
Cornish paella
Mayfield and Cardiff curries
Pumpkin pie in Lewes
Thai curry in Finchley
Boeuf bourguignon in West Horsley
Italian white truffles at home.

Rusalka's tail
Mimi's hat
Isolde's potion
Captain Crawley's Ace of Hearts
Ippolit's diary
An armful of Sibyl Jardine's dahlias.

Hellebore, the morning I found her stuck up an oak tree, having called for her from first light and spent a sleepless night worrying because she hadn't come in 
Many mice and several slow-worms and birds from Samuel and Hellebore's paws.  


The deer I drove into one night a few months ago
My father-in-law Barry, who died in January
My lovely friend Lee, who crashed his motorbike in April
Very nearly my husband Phill, when he fell off his bicycle in August, hitting a car and the road
The many mice and several slow-worms and birds that Samuel and Hellebore have eaten
Two marbles from the front pocket of my new Florentine satchel
My belief that if I'm a good(ish) person nothing bad will happen to me
All hope that I will ever gain even a partial understanding of why we are alive.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Day 18: Gathering

Joan Sutherland as Olympia in Offenbach's Les Contes D'Hoffmann, photograph from the Richard Bonynge Collection

In my childhood jewelry box, among the broken charm bracelets; necklaces without clasps; belt buckles; clip-on earrings with sockets that once contained stones; brass buttons decorated with anchors; Indian bangles; beads made of shell, wood and coral, and a blackened silver pendant studded with amethysts, I find my great-grandmother's rose gold watch.  I set it to my time, rolling its hands clockwise around its face.  I wind it and hold it to my good ear: it ticks like a creaking whale-bone corset.  I hear my great-grandmother buttoning her boots.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Day 17: A Leaf

Fragment of wood or paper,
cut with a leaf-shaped cutter;
born of the shove of sap;
tanned to leather, tree hide.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Day 16: Now I know this:

 Margarito of Arezzo, detail from The Virgin and Child Enthroned (showing Saint Margaret swallowed by a dragon and escaping unhurt from its belly)
that the sun sets too early and rises too late at this time of year.  I learn it every winter and forget it again by June

that there are trout, leaches and heptageniids in the tributary of the river Rother, which flows along the bottom of our neighbours' paddock

that my perception of time is quickening and I keep confusing this year and last

that teaching other people to write can be as rewarding as writing oneself

that a small black, fuzzy-haired, green-eyed kitten and a ginger and white solemn-looking one have become two sleek and splendid adult cats

that I shouldn't have got drunk last night and that cask-strength whisky really must be diluted before drinking

that teacher-Sian should quote Pina Bausch to writer-Sian every time she picks up her pen: 'Remember, you need to scare me'

that my friends are quite brilliant and that every year I grow more amazed by their wit, generosity, courage and unique grace.  One of the few benefits of getting older is that I am increasingly able to appreciate, admire and feel humbled by the people around me

that, to misquote David Tennant in a recent interview with The Guardian, 'The things you think are going to change your life, often don't'

that last year and the two before it were about commitment.  This year I began the Years of Perseverance

that this body, brain and life are what I have, weak or strong, clever or stupid, upside-down, back-to-front, lurching or leaping.  It's up to me to make good use of them

that I am really, secretly Italian.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Day 15: Clinging to the Craft

Detail from Fra Angelico, Annunciation

It's a hard word to swallow; it leaves a lump.
It neither goes down nor comes up.
Its simplicity is shocking: it's neither long
nor difficult, nor is it
the first time you've used it.

It must have waited for your mouth
like glass in jam.  You spoke it trustingly
without checking first.
It's sharp with consequence;
you cough, regret.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Day 14: My best dress

is silk, a simple shift, cut to the knee and graded from first-dawn blue at the shoulders to clay brown at the hem.  It's printed with dragonflies, irises and bulrushes.  At the waistline, water begins, deepening to the hem.  When I smooth my skirt, there are droplets on my palms.  Leaves fall onto my shoulders, land in the water and turn skeletal as they sink.  Fish and frogs swim, and water snails bend stems of starweed and crowfoot.  Dragonfly nymphs climb stalks that grow against my thighs.  They dry themselves beside my ribs, test their wings, take their first flights.  Sometimes, if I lift a hand, one rests there a while. It's studded with emeralds.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Day 13: I Remember

'Wedding of the Painted Doll' was the theme of our Brownie Guide float at the village summer fete around 1980.   I'm the girl in blue at the corner with her back to the camera.  I remember my mother asking me a few times to look at her and she has a number of other photos from the same day, all with me either looking behind or in smeary profile.  Along with some of my fellow dolls, I seem to be distracted by the toy soldier, who's giving a bouquet to the bride.  I can't remember the names of the soldier (another girl) or the bride, but I know I was jealous of them both that day, the bride in particular.

Neither can I remember the names of most of the other girls.  There's Lynne Watson on the far left who, at around the time of the photograph, was indirectly responsible for my first romantic disappointment.  Our class was weeding one of the school flower beds one afternoon in the summer, when Charles Pasfield, whom I'd loved for many days, came over and told me Lynne was now his girlfriend and he hated me 'down to the ground.'  I said I didn't care but I don't think I fooled anyone.

Beneath Lynne are Sharon Panel, Rachel Morarjee and, looking straight at the camera, Claire Taylor.  Rachel, Claire, and James Bennett and I were the school witches. We spent break-times pretending to fly broomsticks and praying to the devil to make it thunder.  We used to say we'd flown to one another's houses the previous night, but found each other fast asleep:

'No, I wasn't sleeping.  I'd put pillows in my bed to make it look like I was there, but actually I'd flown over to your house and you were asleep.'

'Well, I flew over both your houses and the two of you were snoring like pigs.'

Day 12: Through the Looking Glass

 Detail from Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Evening

With the room behind me,
all walls and angles,
it's you I need.  I stare,
searching for focus,
a shape in the fog;
listen for a single tap
or a coin spinning.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Day 11: A Bestiary

 Detail from Judith Leyster, A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel
Claw stretch to paw stretch to shake fur and shiver.  Sneeze, blink, yawn and stretch again.  Leg-side down, thigh-side down, belly-side-rib-side-drop-the-lot.  Sniff damp.  Head shuffle-rub; rub again.  Whisker crush, ear squash, head goes over chin.  Over goes it all.  Wriggle along from tip of head to neck to shoulders, back and bottom.  Tail out.  Onto other side.  Ear twitch; scratch a bite.  Lick paw.  Ear pitch forward, paw squash behind.  Lick squash lick squash, pause.  Lick squash lick squash, shake.  Air ripples whiskers.  Coming rain.  Fluff in claw.  Nibble chew gnaw spit.  Tail lift, thwack.  Up.  Rain.  Twitch coat.  Go.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Day 10: Ointment, Unguent, Butter

Ice, pine resin and holly-berry juice on your hands.  Here's a balm to soothe the cuts, heal frost damage.  The sun slips into muddy earth.  It heats the heart, which you and I can't see.  Though it's cold on the surface there's warmth beneath; the first bulbs are rising from it.  The nights are long because the sun is heating everything from within.  Push your fingers into the ground.  When you pull them out they'll be red.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Day 9: In my pocket

One of the things I did buy.
I put the things I stole while I was queueing at the checkout: Little Bear Teddy Top Cones; chocolate waffles; Fox's Brandy Snaps; Scooby Doo! Freezerpops; Cadbury's Flakes; fifteen bottle of Becks; a case or two of Chablis; rolls of giftwrap; Sainburys Magazine; Duracell Ultra Power; a £20 Halfords Gift Card; a copy of Closer; three giant plastic decorations and a cardboard Christmas pudding; the cafe; the telephone; the pharmacy; the man who'd lost his daughter; the forget-me-not-blue of the coat of the woman in front; the three or four smiles from my fellow shoppers; the puddle in the car park; the crawl of trolleys like the crawl of cars; snatched conversations on nativity plays; 'Sorry's and 'Thank you's; my furrowed brow.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Day 8: An Echo

Illustration to the Rider Waite Tarot by Pamela Colman Smith

I tell myself I don't earn enough.  I say it in your tongue; whisper it beneath the sheets you paid for; pray it before I eat.  I feel it in the note you hand me, the pressure of your fingers on the edge, like a mouth, shutting.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Day 7: Lions, Tigers, Bears

I went out hunting for a poem, taking my notebook and pen.  Outside the northwest wind growled in branches, ripping leaves from trees.  I watched a herd of leaves scurrying to the roadside.  Clouds drew stripes in the sky; my ears stung and I wished I had a full pelt of fur to cover my face and keep me warm.

Day 6: St Nicholas - or a Gift

She has orange hair in plaits and a red cap and dress.
She carries nothing in her hands; I can carry her in mine.
If I scrunch her, she sounds like fire.
She smells of cupboards and cloth forests.
Flip her skirt over her head, there's a grandmother
with blue hair and a wolf's head hidden in her bonnet.

Day 5: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Home

A fast drive through cold London.  Orange night, orange clouds, white tiles in the Blackwall Tunnel.  The always unexpected right fork to the A21.  The darker dark of the Weald.

The sleepless oven clock.

A ginger cat cleaning himself on the bed beside me, a black cat sitting on my desk.

Three alpacas grazing in the paddock, three hens drinking from the pond.

Your voice coming from the room next door.  The hum of the house when you go for a walk.  I listen in Italian.

The last roses of the year.

The blue Formica of my desk. Its hardly-dare-touch-it cold.

Piles of dry washing in the spare room.  The washing-machine's song.  Your still-unpacked bag.

The sun, setting too early behind the oak tree.

The Time Out Guide to Florence and Mini Italian Dictionary among a pile of papers on the sofa.

A cup of tea, an extra jumper.

Waiting for my mother to get off the phone.

The smell of dead mouse; compost; woodsmoke; the fridge.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Day 4: Between Two Hills

The ground rises sharply as we follow the path.  The air smells of Bay and damp vegetation.  My hair curls around my face and the clouds are low over the hills.  We are almost alone here.  Two women who work at the garden's cafe talk quietly in the doorway as it begins to rain.  Even the plants seem quiet: they've drawn back into the ground and their remaining leaves are brown.  At the bottom of the valley, the Arno reflects brown and orange trees and cream houses.  Raindrops darken my page.

Day 3: Telling the Bees

Last night at the Teatro Comunale Mimi died again, while Rodolfo was looking the other way.  This morning we are walking around the church of San Lorenzo and, despite my protestant disapproval of the reliquaries and gold ceiling, I am moved.  My head is tingling and I want to cry.  I have come here like a broken king, carrying splinters of bone and coils of hair. 

The walls of the church are pale grey against the elephant grey columns, and the votive candles make yellow haloes.  I light a candle and pray for those who die while no one's looking.

Day 2: Standing behind me

in the Uffizi is Leonardo's Gabriel.  His stare is intense, and the folds of his blood-red gown weigh him to the earth.  He kneels and makes a gesture of benediction.  I drop a curtsy, but he waves me on and I realise I'm too old to be Mary and too young for Elizabeth.  Next to me is a Japanese girl in frilly shorts and thigh-high socks.  Her head is bent and there's a lily in her hand.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Reverb11, Day 1: The River's Source

Flying into Florence, I look down and see the Arno, greenish and slow-moving.  I lose sight of it as we touch down, but I like to think it's come through the the hills and valleys we flew over a few minutes ago, when I nudged you and pointed out a forest, and you said, 'Mmm, truffles', then went back to your book.  On the bottles of water we bought at the airport I read, 'The Acqua Panna spring is located within the 1300 hectare park surrounding Villa Panna, a fully protected nature reserve since 1564', and, elsewhere on the label, 'Refund at Collection Depots when sold in South Australia'.


 Illustration to Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales by Corinna Sargood

I've been in Florence for the past four days and have a lot of catching up to do here, especially as December is the month of Reverb 11.  For those of you who don't know what that means or who might be tempted to join in, I've copied the following open letter from Rebecca's site. 

Dear Inky-Fingered Friend,

You are cordially invited to join Sian and me for a December writing challenge!

Last year I took part in something called Reverb10. It was inspiring and fun and for 31 days I did lots of writing, most of which found its way onto my blog.

This year, instead of leading Reverb11 themselves, the Reverb folk have suggested we come up with our own writing prompts and create a writing community. And so, in the seat-of-the-pants way we embark on things together, Siân and I have decided to do just that.

Reverb11 is a way of reflecting on the year that has just past, and looking forward to 2012. You can use it to both celebrate your life, but also to mourn what you have lost over the past 12 months. We've come up with a list of 31 creative prompts, which we will be posting everyday on Twitter.

If you want to join us then all you need to know is that there are no rules about word count or about whether you write just for yourself (keeping your words safe in a journal) or to share what you create on a blog. I
t can be as private or public an adventure as you wish.

The prompts are intended to be the catalyst for some freewriting (or drawing): they can be ignored or changed or subverted. Rebellion is positively encouraged.

Today's prompt is:
The river’s source...
Happy writing!

Rebecca and Siân

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

This House Runs Backwards

Listen to the irregular click, that out-breathing,
unwinding wind, that widdershinning,
teeth-catching snap.  Press your ear to the almost
inaudible tick.  Press your cheek to a cog; feel it dip,
chilly as brass.  See windows flap open, hinges unscrew,
curtains dishevel their hems, floorboards flip dolls
into trunks with unlockable lids, and patches of sunlight
run down the walls.  See in the fridge the cheese
re-curdling; knives and forks in the slow-turning
kitchen whipping to the Aga to smelt.  And this sucking
thing at the letterbox is the past's mouth.  It comes
with a tongue to lick oil off the mechanism.

***This poem, along with an earlier draft of the one that now appears in my Profile, first appeared in Agenda: Dwelling Places

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

An Edit

I've recently subscribed to Gwen Bell's mailing list.  A few days ago Gwen asked of her own writing, 'Would it still be the work if nobody read it?'  Although I'm not sure I can answer Gwen's question, I'd like to explore some ideas I've had about blogging.  

Over the past weeks I've noticed a change in the way I relate to what I write here.  At first I worried myself into a tizz over what you, my reader, might think, and I felt that it would only take a clumsy sentence or an unoriginal thought (I have many of both) to destroy my career.  I still think that, some of the time.

However, I find that although I still press 'Publish' with my eyes screwed tight and my fingers crossed, I'm learning to think of this space as a part of my writing practice.  It may be public writing, but it's still practice.  Rebecca told me recently that she was blogging again partly in order to face her fear of being read.  I too am doing this to practice till I'm no longer so scared, to keep going until the words come out easily, as though you weren't there.

Today's picture comes from some notes I made a while ago for a book I'm no longer going to write.  I made it to try and understand the vision of Enoch.  An attempted map of heaven and hell seemed an appropriate illustration for today's post, which was originally meant to be about my weekend, but instead has turned out to to be an attempt to articulate thoughts that I have difficulty expressing, that is, to continue practicing. 

Monday, 28 November 2011

We Call this Friday Good

The days seem to canter past at this time of the year.  The sun's barely up before it's setting again, and I feel as though I'm pushed for time to publish anything here.  I took many notes and photographs over the weekend and thought many thoughts; so rather than let all my pretty things go to waste, here's the first of three tales.

I spent Friday with Terri at the British Library.  We met to proof-read part of the latest draft of her thesis, and sat together on our bench (it isn't really ours, but we scowl at anyone who's got there before us), honing what Terri hopes will be the last edit before she submits.  When we finished for lunch I took a photo of the gorgeous central tower of books that rises through the middle of the building.  Terri pointed out our reflections in the glass: 

On our tea-break, I made Terri a card from my cup-holder (actually I felt very ashamed because I'd forgotten it would be Terri's birthday yesterday). It had a tree for the T, an owl perched on the E and, high above, a waxing moon:

Terri said she was pleased I'd included so many of her favourite things.  The card was only missing a book, she said, so I drew one on the back.

Outside in the streets, cars and lorries pressed the leaves of the London Plane trees so flat, they looked as though they'd been painted on the ground:

Tomorrow I'll talk about Saturday, which seems a bit back-to-front.  Perhaps with the approaching Saturnalia the days are swapping around; so that last week is becoming this, and this week is turning into last year; in which case tomorrow I'll talk about tomorrow, or today, or someday.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Slow-worm, the Rise and Totter of Cat Rock

This is Samuel.  He is eighteen months old and he was born at the Kit Wilson Trust shelter.

During the day Samuel enjoys sleeping; being kissed and stroked and snuggling as close as he can get.  He has a purr that you can hear from the next room, a salmon pink nose and a Cheshire Cat tail.  His fur is roughish on top and smooth on his undercarriage.  When he stretches he spreads his toes like fingers.

He loves hunting.  In summer he catches up to four mice a day.  He growls when he brings them home, where he eats them quickly, sometimes chewing their heads while their back legs are still kicking.  He is an expert surgeon, cutting deftly around the bits he doesn't like (the 'gutsies') and spitting them onto the floor.

At night when he leaves the house, despite our best efforts to keep him in, Samuel leads a very different life.  Almost every evening he joins his friend Ozzy from the white house up the road.  They go either to Ranna and Tony Hurst's field, or to the old shed at the bottom of our garden.  There they rehearse with their band, Slow-worm.  Ozzy is the front man and Samuel's on lead guitar.

In the band's early days, when the hens complained about the noise, Samuel, Ozzy and Smudge (on bass) played so quietly you could hear the sparrows sleeping.  Unfortunately Muffin, the drummer, wasn't so considerate: 'F**k the feathers!' he would shout, while scooping out another paw-full of Gourmet Gold, dribbling meaty chunks as he chewed, chucking the empty sachet into the pond and hammering out a gravy-stained solo.  When Samuel came in at dawn he was invariably exhausted and spent the rest of the day sleeping on his favourite chair in the bathroom.  His paws flexed as he dreamed of chord shapes.

For a while it looked as though Slow-worm was going places.  First the boys won Battle of the Bands at the Chiddingly Festival. After that came gigs in Brighton, Dalston and finally, at Barfly in Camden, where they were spotted by Colin Meloy, who'd come over from the US to look for a cat band to support The Decemberists on their UK tour.  Samuel was beside himself with excitement at the thought of touring with The Decemberists: when he came home the next morning he shredded the carpet at the bottom of the stairs till the underlay showed.

The first two gigs in Glasgow and Birmingham went well.  The many hours spent rehearsing paid off and the band sounded great.  Even Muffin managed to keep his temper under control.  At Bristol Academy, however, it all went wrong.  During the after-show party, a young Siamese caught Muffin's eye.  He had got through a lot of catnip that night and, when the girl spurned his advances, he lost control and stabbed her in the eye with a Webbox Cat's Delight.  He was immediately arrested and The Decemberists had no choice but to sack Slow-worm.

With Muffin in rehab, Slow-worm needs a new drummer.  The boys have auditioned a few local cats and although Hellebore, Samuel's step-sister, can hold a rhythm, she says she'd rather stay in at night, playing Thing-on-the-String and climbing the bookshelves.  They've even tried working with Eddie, Ranna and Tony's Norfolk Terrier, but he gets carried away and chews the drumsticks; so auditions continue.

If you know of any talented young feline drummers in East Sussex or West Kent, Samuel and Ozzy would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


I can't think of anything to say to you.  The trouble is that every idea I have and every sentence I write, however banal, becomes indelible as soon as I press the 'Publish Post' button on my screen. My decision to add something almost daily means there's not much time to edit what I write: if I'm assembling a poem it takes months, even years to reach a point where I'd want the world to see it, but here I have to make sure that what I've written is vaguely presentable, then it's out.  I'm no journalist, that much is certain.  As soon as I've posted a piece I want to add a note saying, 'I'm sorry.  I'll try harder tomorrow.'  What's more I can't work on a post for more than two days before I chicken out of posting it.  I wrote a draft piece on Friday, continued it on Saturday and by Sunday I'd decided it was so self-indulgent that I would bring shame upon my house, my family and my ancestors by publishing the thing. 

Here's today's piffle.  You should leave while there's still time.  Forget what I said last week about feeling fabulous and full of creative zeal.  It's horrible.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Ace of Wands

This new habit of blogging whenever I can has brought with it a burst of energy.  It's a side-effect I didn't expect.  I've been tearing from blog posts, to poems, to the book I'm writing with Sinead, to preparation for the class I'll be teaching on Monday.  

I asked for a tarot card for today's post and picked the Ace of Wands, which according to Rachel Pollack represents a 'gift of strength, of power, [...] of the love of living.'  A E Waite lists some of the card's qualities as 'Creation, invention, enterprise.'  I certainly feel full of energy: alight with life, like the hand holding the wand in the Rider Waite deck.

Sandy says there's always a price to pay for these bursts of energy and in my quieter moments I wonder what this one will cost.  Last night I was too tired to do anthing more than lie on the sofa with Hellebore Cat and leave my copy of The Idiot unopened on the floor, so perhaps I'm paying the price as I go.  Pollack adds that the Ace of Wands 'teaches humility, for it reminds us that that ultimately we have done nothing morally to deserve [this] optimism and greater energy.'  Perhaps if I can accept that I've done nothing special to deserve my new-found vigour I'll be happy, or at least okay, to let it go again.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

What I put in my pocket on my way to the village

A poppy without a stem;

a torn fragment from a note someone had written on the back of a dental hygiene report;

one of fifty or so flowers that had fallen from a fuchsia bush;

a brass screw that I found near a house which was sold in January, whose owners have yet to move in and that's filled every week day with workmen;

an unravelling cord;

and a leaf with a hole in the shape of itself.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

My people humble people

This photograph hangs on the wall in my parents' dining room. The man on the left is Charles Stevens, my maternal grandfather.  He died of pneumonia at Christmas when my mother was sixteen (my mother has hated Christmas ever since).  I know that he was a skilled carpenter: I have a table that he made, which is carved, polished and delicately jointed.  I know that he worked as some sort of clerk, somewhere in London, and whenever I read 'The Waste Land' I think of him.  My mother has told me he was intelligent; my grandmother used to say he was kind and that they 'never went to bed on a row.'   

I don't know who his friends were.  I don't know his regiment, or in what year, or even what decade the photo was taken.  It's probably the early twenties: my grandmother was born in 1903, so I don't suppose my grandfather was old enough to fight in the First World War. 

Of course I could ask my mother to tell me more about him. I could have asked her last week while I was staying with her.   I wonder now why I didn't, especially as I avoided the subject quite consciously and asked her instead about other mysterious relatives in other photos.  Perhaps I'm scared that if she were to tell me time would run out for her too; and of course I'm terrified that I too will one day be just a photograph, if that.

Monday, 14 November 2011

This Well Holds a House

Wind the handle for the bucket that knocks at the side,
dislodging moss and brick flakes.  See the steam rise
from the chimney.  See, in the garden the ducks sploshing
for their sops; willows thriving in the mush; cool water
for washing and drinking, or warmed in the dark like a geyser.
See the beds and chairs and tables and windows, soft
as sponges.  See the laundry, never drying, where the web-footed,
wrinkle-palmed husband and the web-footed, wrinkle-palmed
wife are ringing out their babies to hang them in the shade. 

***This poem, one in a series of pieces inspired by Bachelard, first appeared in the online supplement to Agenda: Dwelling Places.  Time is short today and I haven't enough of it to write anything significant, but I've been meaning to post some of my published work here for a while.  Besides, I like this poem and feel sad that it'll probably be buried in Agenda's online archive.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Round Mid-November-o

This grey autumn day reminds me of my favourite Robyn Hitchcock song.  All of the colours are indeed running out: the ashes have already lost their leaves and in my garden the rugosa roses and apple trees have turned yellow.  Soon the only bright shapes will be holly berries, rose hips and Sylvia, the white hen you can see here on the lawn with her step-sisters, Ag and Hilda:

I took this photograph from my desk less than an hour ago.  Even as I look out of the window now, the colour and light are fading and the difference between the picture and my view is stark: it's growing dark faster than I can type, or at least faster than I can type anything half-way decent.   

Tomorrow I am going down to Dorset to visit my parents for a few days.  I'm running out of time: I have to pack, and to perform all the small but essential tasks I've been putting off for weeks.  The trees may well be completely bare before I write again.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Worthy is the... Butter, Sugar and Crystalised Ginger

I've been making Christmas cake, using a combination of recipes from my 1960 edition of Mrs Beeton.  Year to year I forget exactly what I've combined before from each recipe, so the cake is never the same, a little more spice one year, a little more treacle another, a different blend of fruit the next.  You can see from the copy above how spattered the page is with cake mix, flour and sugar.  I had to blow the bits off my scanner after I'd copied it.  This year, Hellebore also walked across the page and you can just about see her dirty paw prints about half-way down.

While I stirred the ingredients I listened to Handel's Messiah.  I am trying to find the ultimate recording of it. My old, battered tape of just the highlights, which I listen to in my old, battered car (with tape deck, radio and nothing else), I have had since I was a child.  In addition I now own three full recordings, including the lovely crystalline one made in 2006 by the Dunedin Consort that I listened to this morning.  The trouble is I lost my heart to that first tape and, though most of the Dunedin recording is infinitely preferable, no other 'Worthy is the lamb' and 'Amen' come up to the old one's standard: they have a huge, cathedral sound, though I probably think so because the tape's in such terrible condition that I have to play it full blast to hear it above the engine.  Of the other two recordings, both on vinyl, one is so hideous I won't speak its name, and the other, with Elizabeth Harwood and Janet Baker, conducted many moons ago by Sir Charles Mackerras, promises much in 'Worthy is the lamb,' but the 'Amen' goes so fast it leaves me feeling like I've had a awkward encounter with an inexperienced lover.

This afternoon's task is to make mince meat and, come to think of it, I do have a tape player in the kitchen....

Thursday, 3 November 2011

NaNoBlogMo & Bellini


For some months I've been as quiet as a stalking cat, though in truth my life has been less stalkish, more... I can't imagine what a cat suffering existential angst might do: develop mange perhaps.  My soul certainly feels a bit itchy: I've been worrying lots and achieving little, with nary a trace of feline grace.

Terri told me yesterday that she's cross with me for neglecting my blog; so I've decided to follow NaNoWriMo, up to a point, and publish something as often as I can over the course of November.

To kick off then, I'll tell you what Terri & I did yesterday.  First, we went to the Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids exhibition at the Horniman Museum, which featured gorgeous, elemental photographs of face-painted, season-honouring lovelies from across England.  I was happy to see so many photographs of Sussex events, including the Lewes bonfire, Eastbourne's Lammas Festival and Hastings' Jack in the Green.  There were also many pictures of osses, horn dances and straw men from other parts of the land, plus some particularly beautiful shots of  snowy Yorkshire, and I felt every inch a British topophile.

In the evening we went to the first night of La Sonnambula at the ROH.  Actually, it was a triple first: Terri popped her opera cherry and it was my first Bellini.  We sat in the gods, in the very cheapest seats, where the view was terrible but the sound wonderful.  Around us people coughed like nanny goats and someone's mobile phone rang, but we didn't care (well, we did a bit): we sighed and cooed (silently) and were bathed in the exquisite singing of Eglise Gutierrez. We were only sorry we had to dash for my train as soon as the curtain fell and couldn't join in the 'Brava!'s and uproarious applause.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


 Photograph from The Telegraph, 14th June 2008

On Saturday 30th, Terri and I will be giving another paper on abandoned houses at Birkbeck's Rubbish symposium.  The symposium and its preceding seminar (on Wednesday 27th) and film double-bill (Friday 29th) look like fascinating events and are free and open to all.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Agenda: Dwelling Places

The new edition of Agenda has been available for a few weeks. Within its covers can be found an interview with and essays on John Burnside, along with poems by Burnside and others. Two of my poems also appear, and Johnny's illustrations are featured on the front and back covers and throughout the magazine.

is currently available primarily through its website.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

London Rivers

London Rivers
A collection of poems by
Michael Baron, Robina Barson, Marianne Burton,
Janet El Rayess, Barbara Hardy, Nathan Hardy, Angela Inglis,
Alex Maunder, Jill Mylius, Val Pancucci, Sue Roe, Jennifer Tanner, Siân Thomas, Sandy Tozer, Ann Vaughan-Williams, Frances White, Jeremy Worman
Edited by Barbara Hardy
Images by Kate Hardy

ISBN: 978-1-908133-00-7 £10
If you would like a copy please order from:
Or from the Paekakariki Press at 4 Mitre Ave,(rear of 2 Greenleaf Road,)Walthamstow, London E17 6QG
Or via

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Museum of Witchcraft Residence

On Thursday and Friday I will be writing in residence once again at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle. Should you find yourself in Cornwall this week, please come and say Hello.