Monday, 29 October 2012

Tuesday Poem: How to Roast Chestnuts

Split the porcupine case
and shell them from their bed of white pith
unblemished - discarding those
already bored by worm.  Keep dry.
A roaring fire of wood, or charcoal.
Sprinkle salt till it turns blue
and sparks like a Roman Candle.
Place the chestnuts in a cast-iron pan
with holes to let in the flames
and roast until the skin blackens and
curls back from the wrinkled cerebellum
and they smell of ice fairs, hallowe’en
the street corners of a foreign town
all our northern childhoods.

© Kathleen Jones

Happy Hallowe'en everyone!  And do hop over to the Tuesday Poem hub for more contributions from the Tuesday Poets.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Difference between Italy and the rest of Europe

Time for some light relief on a dark, cold Domenica with a major storm system called Cassandra battering at the doors and windows and rain pouring off the roof like a waterfall.  This little cartoon film was put together by an Italian called Bruno Bozzetto - anyone who has ever tried to cross the road, queue for tickets, fill in an official form or figure out which coffee (out of about 35 alternatives) to order, will recognise the situations.  This is all true - I promise!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

We need to speak out about Child Abuse

If the Jimmy Savile case has taught us anything, it’s that we aren’t good at protecting young children from those who want to use them for their own sexual gratification.  It’s also exposed the fact that Feminism hasn’t done a very good job of empowering women to shout out about sexual harassment.

Talk to any woman confidentially and they’ll tell you of their experiences. When I first started work as a shy teenager, being groped was just one of the office hazards - it was whispered around that Mr S from accounts wasn’t one to be caught alone in the photo-copying room with, and never let X get you cornered in the cloakroom.  It just had to be endured - goodness! -  a junior typist making a complaint against senior management?  Never!  Like the pervert in the cinema, the flasher in the park, or the elderly clerical groper at the harvest festival supper, it was one of the facts of life you had to come to terms with.  Why, oh why, were we never able to stand up and shriek ‘get away from me!’.   Why weren’t we able to complain?

It was all about the abuse of power. It’s a potent aphrodisiac.  After I married, we were taken out to dinner by my husband’s employer with some clients, and his boss groped my legs with his hands throughout the meal under the tablecloth.  I had to keep smiling and chatting to the clients and he knew that I would.  Making waves wasn’t my style.  But why didn’t I make a fuss?  Why would it have been me who would have been blamed for ruining the dinner and probably losing the contract?

The other consequence of the Savile affair is that more and more women are beginning to talk about the abuse they suffered as children.  The problem is much, much more common than anyone realises, but we don’t talk about it and as a result people have the impression that it’s rare and couldn’t possibly happen in their family.  We need to talk about, not just Kevin, but Karen and Kirsty and Katherine.  In this case it’s Kathleen who is coming clean.  Those of you who are squeamish will probably stop reading the blog now.  But this is a story of hope and optimism - abuse needn’t ruin children’s lives if we listen to them and protect them.

My paternal grandfather was a paedophile.  He was a war hero, had been a champion boxer, was a charity worker in his community, a writer for the local paper and he ran an amateur dramatic society that toured the towns and villages of Cumbria.  He was given medals, had letters from the Queen and was generally respected and looked up to.  But there were people who knew something different.  Some of his colleagues at work were shocked by the photographs he occasionally showed them of young naked girls, which he kept in his pocket.  And (it transpired later) there had been an incident with a neighbour’s daughter which resulted in angry scenes and my grandparents moving house.  In those days it was called ‘being interfered with’.  

Then there had been an incident with a cousin, whose mother warned my mother that ‘Harry’ wasn’t to be trusted around children.  My parents thought she was simply imagining things - they were very naive.  We lived on a farm in a very rural location and my grandparents used to come out on the bus from Carlisle once a fortnight, stay for lunch and then go back in the evening.  Sometimes they stayed overnight.  I was about 9 at the time and my grandfather began cornering me in the house, when my mother was out helping my father on the farm, and getting me to touch him in ways I thought were disgusting.  Why didn’t I say something to my mother?  I’ve pondered that over and over.  I think because I simply didn’t understand what it was all about and I didn’t have the language to explain.  I’d been brought up to trust adults and to do what I was told.

It got worse.  In the afternoons my grandparents would walk down the country lanes to the village school to collect me and my young brother (he was around 4) from the school.  Mum was very glad of the break this gave her.  My grandmother suffered from angina, so sometimes my grandfather came alone.  And that is where hell really started.  On one occasion he took us into the woods that lined the road, stripped me naked and tried to rape me in front of my small brother.  It may have been my brother’s crying that stopped him going all the way.

I have a dim recollection, next morning when my mother was brushing my hair, of begging her not to let my grandfather pick me up from school.  But when I got out of the classroom that afternoon, he was there again.  I climbed over the playground wall at the back, with my brother, and came home across the fields - we both got scratched and muddy and I was told off for tearing my dress and not waiting for my grandfather.  ‘Whatever possessed you?’ my mother asked.

When, years later, I asked what it was I’d said that alerted them to what was going on, I discovered that it wasn’t anything I’d said, but something my brother had blurted out.  I know I was questioned and was very relieved to be able to tell them what had been happening.  The miracle was that I was believed, because I was an imaginative child who had difficulty discriminating between what happened in my head and in the world around me.  They were both equally real.
My brother and I aged about 9 and 4
I remember a family conference (without my grandparents). Then I remember my grandmother asking why my father no longer spoke to his own father.  I remember never being allowed to be alone with him again.  I was allowed to hate him, told that he was a ‘bad man’, and never, ever was I made to feel I might have been even slightly to blame.  It helped that I wasn’t the only family victim - there was a rumour that one of my uncles, accompanied by some friends, had met Harry in the street on his way home from work, put him up against a wall and punched him.  He’d been threatened that if he ever touched one of us again, they would kick his balls to pulp. That was working class justice.

When I was older, in my young teens, I had to make conscious efforts to keep out of the way of his groping hands at family events, and I was aware that he haunted children’s playgrounds.  I was angry with my family for not going to the police, believing that they had not done so in order to protect my grandmother and the family reputation.  I felt guilty (and still do) for all the child victims I was sure were out there, who had not had loving, secure families to protect them.  I didn’t realise just how much their decision to keep the police out of it had contributed to my own well-being.  When I began to study law and observed trials in the courts with the object of becoming a barrister, I became aware that if my parents had gone to the police, the process of law would have destroyed me.  The adversarial court process is a meat-grinder that abuses children all over again and often breaks fragile human beings completely.  We have to find a better way to prosecute abusers.

I am one of the lucky ones - I received what the victims of child abuse need in order to heal - I was believed, protected, allowed to hate, reassured that I was innocent.  I was also in a secure loving family unit with other male role models I could love and respect without fear.  I knew my paternal grandfather was a rogue male.  Later, as an adult, I read his privately written memoirs and realised that he too had probably been an abused child.  He was the illegitimate son of an Irish immigrant mother who took in lodgers who shared her children’s rooms and lived in the kind of poverty we can’t even imagine today. They were brought up as Catholics, but he was so fervently anti-catholic it makes me wonder about that too.  In the first world war, he was gassed, shell-shocked and badly injured in the trenches at Ypres.  Then he had the misfortune to marry a woman who hated sex and rarely allowed him into her bed.  The things I read gave me a different picture of  the man I’d grown up to hate. I found that I could feel compassion.
Harry in his WWI uniform
It took me a long time to write about my experience.  The taboos around talking about it are still very strong.  It first emerged as a poem, ‘War Hero’, eventually published in ‘Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21'.   The first time I read it to an audience I agonised for days about whether to read something so private and controversial (as I’ve agonised about whether to put up this blog).  On the night, reading it was a much more emotional experience than I’d expected.  But after the reading was over, a woman approached me as I was putting on my coat and told me, weeping copiously, that she too had been sexually abused by her grandfather and she had never been able to talk about it to anyone, ever.  We put our arms around each other and wept together.  I hope it helped her to tell someone. 

Of course it’s not just girls who get abused, boys do too - we need to protect our children better.  No point in telling them to avoid strangers - it’s more likely to be Uncle Bill, or even Aunty Trish - because women are abusers too (remember the Little Ted nursery scandal?)  We need to give children better information about their bodies and what it’s ok for people to do to them.  No namby pamby euphemisms - children can cope with truth.  And we need to look out for them - all of us.  It’s the culture of silence that allows paedophiles and sexual predators to operate.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Wetlands of Massaciuccoli

Looking back at the hills where we live

I've been very quiet on the blogging front recently - mainly because I've started writing my new biography of the northern poet Norman Nicholson, which keeps me very well occupied!  But everyone needs a day off, and as the weather at the moment is really wonderful - 28 degrees today - we headed off down from the hills without much thought as to where we might find ourselves - we just followed an interesting road to see where it would take us.   From our perch on the hillside we can see a mass of water and marsh land just to the south of us.  It's Lake Massaciuccoli and that's where the road went to.  We had been to the Puccini house at Torre del Lago on the 'tourist' side of the lake, but never to the wild, eastern side where the lake floods out over the plain in reedbeds and marshlands.  It was almost deserted and utterly peaceful as we walked out into the marshes.  All you could hear was the wind rustling the reeds and the occasional duck.
The lake from a hide.

There are wooden walkways out through the reeds, and bird-watching hides.  We saw herons and egrets and ducks, but not the falcons that hunt here, or the bitterns that nest in the spring.  Bitterns are so rare in the UK, we've made a mental note in the diary to come back here in April or May, just to hear them booming in the reeds. 

Massaciuccoli, we discovered, also has some amazing Roman ruins.  They are on permanent display, under shelters with wire fencing so that you can see, but not touch!   This is a rich man's mosaic floor.

And this is the more everyday variety.

This is one of the most beautiful landscapes we've visited here and we will be going back again and again. We are so lucky to be here.  I keep thinking that one day I will wake up and find that it's all been a dream, like the ending of a bad novel!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Tuesday Poem

This week I'm privileged to have one of my poems as the Tuesday Poem hub choice  - 'Glenn Gould on Orton Scar', from Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21.  I'm very grateful to Helen Lowe for choosing it and for her lovely comments.  It's a poem I wrote on one of those moonlit, frosty nights you get in the Lake District, driving home across open moorland, all alone in the landscape.  The feeling you get is very difficult to describe and I spent a long time editing what I'd written to try to share the experience accurately.

Why not pop over to the hub and check out what all the other Tuesday Poets are posting?

I'm also thrilled to learn that two of my poems were short-listed for the Bridport Prize - even though I didn't win any of the big prizes, it's encouraging to know that you can make it through so many thousands of entries.  Congratulations to the winners - can't wait to read the poems!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A Weird Week: Despatches from Little Athens

It's been a strange week - the weather turbulent;  one moment the kind of thunderstorm you have to stand at the door and watch, but the next temperatures of 27 degrees and the sun shining.  On Tuesday evening we went for a walk between showers and discovered the most beautiful house hidden in the woods at the end of a track, surrounded by overgrown olive trees and brambles.

It's obviously been empty for a long time and the roof has gone.  But it was one of those - 'What if we were millionaires?' moments.  Property here, even ruined houses in the woods, fetch unbelievable prices.  This one would probably be between 200 and 300 thousand euros.  At least one can dream ......

No, Neil hasn't decided to end it all - this is his home-made hoist to lift half a ton of marble!  He's been searching for the right marble to make a new sculpture, or more accurately, a group of three small sculptures that have to be carved out of the same marble. Finding the right piece has been difficult, because most marble has veins of a darker colour, and these angular shapes needed something plain.

Marble studios have been closing down all over Pietrasanta during the last year - the economic crisis is causing a big cut back on marble fireplaces, shelves, floors and other big items for houses, as well as sculptures.  In one of the closed studios we found what we wanted - a lovely piece of  white Greek marble, glittering in the sun in the long grass and the brambles.  The owner was glad to sell it and gave us a good price.  Marble is heavy, and the studio no longer had any cranes or fork lifts, so Neil improvised with a hoist.  A friend offered to transport it in his Ape - and this is what Neil posted to Facebook!

But everything eventually got fixed, and the marble is where it should be and Neil is back in the studio he's been using since the old one closed!

Because of its connections with art and sculpture particularly, Pietrasanta has been given the title of 'La Piccola Athene' - Little Athens.   But the sculptors working around Pietrasanta are getting fewer and fewer due to the crisis - they are a very small band now, but some beautiful work being done.  This is from the current exhibition in the Piazza - Bergomi's bronze figures.  Some people love them - but they're a little bit 'static' for me - they don't offer much for the imagination, except perhaps when photographed against the skyline.

And we've just had the closing party for an exhibition by Venezuelan sculptor Maria Gamundi, who creates the most beautiful, classical figures in marble and bronze.

My favourite was 'Comfort', which was displayed in an alcove, which gave it a spiritual aura, like a goddess in a shrine.  

Meanwhile, back in England, my children have suddenly become very grateful that their begging letters to Jim'll Fix It went unanswered.  I don't have any words to describe how I feel about that particular tragedy, but I do understand the culture that allowed it to happen and I may blog about that soon.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Small Stones Anthology: 'A Blackbird Sings'

I was one of the hundreds of people who took part in the 'River of Small Stones' project last January.  All we had to do was sign up to write a 'small stone' every day and post it up on the 'Writing Our Way Home' blog run by Fiona Robyn and Kaspalita Thompson.   What's a small stone?  Here's the definition from the introduction to A Blackbird Sings: An Anthology of Small Stones:

"A small stone is a few words or lines that describe a moment observed:  a fragment of prose or poetry that tries to capture something seen, heard, felt, tasted, smelled or experienced in the world.  When we write small stones we aim for an intimacy with whatever it is that is being observed;  we aim for an observation that is as true as possible."

I suppose the nearest analogy is the haiku, but for a small stone, the form is freer and there is no limit to length.

It's the first time I'd come across 'Mindfulness Writing', though I knew that Ted Hughes used to spend up to an hour looking intensely at something before writing about it and a French writer (?Guy de Maupassant) urged writers to observe; 'look at a tree until it looks like no other tree anyone has ever seen.  Only then can you describe it'.  I lead a busy life as a writer and found it hard to find even half an hour of stillness in my day to look at something - really look - and then write something.  Many of the things I wrote were trite, flat, cliche'd.  Often that singular 'thingness' of the thing escaped me.  But there were times when I connected with the world around me in a new way -  I realised that observing small things so intensely made them seem sharper, closer.

I found the experience valuable as a writer and I'm delighted that Fiona and Kaspalita have put together an anthology of just some of the small stones that were posted in January.  There are gems I missed on the blog and some favourites I now have a permanent copy of.  Oh, and there are two of mine :-)

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Tuesday Poem: Accidental Extra

I know the two people on the right, but who is the woman with her back to me?
This poem is in response to a writing prompt on Roz Morris's blog.  I've always been fascinated by the fact that we appear in other people's photos and the photographer has no idea who we are!  For most of them we're just street furniture. A walk-on part - film extras.

The Accidental Extra

Someone is looking at me,
a long way away.
Someone I don't know.
I'm walking across the Campo d'Oro
in Siena, sitting in a Polish cathedral
in a large hat, paddling in the
foam on ninety mile beach.
I smile at them, from the flickering
images of a video shot,
japanese camera, i-phone, super 8
I have a long history of accidental appearances,
the cameo, the walk on part,
grinning like a goon, moon walking,
click, and I'm yours, one of the incognito
in the back shot, part of your life,
fixed on film, in your living room
just for you.

© Kathleen Jones

Please go to the Tuesday Poem hub to find more poetry from around the world and check out the poets on the sidebar.

Ian McEwan on Ideas and Inspiration

Like him or loathe him, he's one of the most successful authors writing today.  This is his three minute video interview talking about how he gets ideas.  Found the 'spoof novel opening' idea interesting.

If the video doesn't run, you find a link to it here.

Friday, 5 October 2012

It all began at seventeen ........

The wannabe author!
Today I'm blogging over at Authors Electric about writing my first novel at 17, and my second and my third........   And about the struggle to create a novel that is 'an incredibly detailed forgery of an unlived life'.

"I wrote my first novel when I was 17 and it was a dreadful, Gothic affair - a blend of Wuthering Heights and Emmerdale, complete with estranged parents, child abuse, strange goings-on in barns, and unrequited love, interspersed with boring conversations about art and life.  I cheerfully sent my masterpiece to a publisher I chose at random in a book shop, and waited for fame to come calling...........'  Read More ...

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The [Wasp] Hornet Factory!

We were only in England for a couple of weeks, but, when we came back, we discovered that hornets had decided to build a multi storey apartment block in our utility room.  Doing any laundry, collecting brooms, mops, tools etc was impossible if you wanted to avoid being killed (I’m not exaggerating  - these insects are seriously dangerous).

We both hate killing any wild creature, but these hornets weren’t something we could share our house with. Each one was at least an inch long and quite fierce, and there were hundreds of them.  Neil got stung - he said it was like being hit over the head with an iron bar.  I managed to avoid contact - since even a small wasp produces an allergic reaction I can’t imagine what would happen if I was stung by one of these giants.  Getting rid of them was a very difficult business.  The adults could be killed with spray insecticide, but what about the young ones in the nest?

Neil took it off the wall with a spade, trying to preserve the beautiful structure intact.  There was an outer casing of thin card - fluted and woven in many different shades of cream and ochre.  Inside, three tiers of honeycomb made from chewed wood.  They were very heavy.

Cells that looked empty proved to have a tiny egg at the bottom - others had grubs in various stages of growth.  Many of the cells were sealed over with paper and these contained the pupae - magically changing from maggot to hornet.  Some of them were already beginning to chew through the paper lid and crawl out into the light.

We put the nest in a box in the wood next to our house and watched.  The process - from egg to adult was amazing to observe at such close quarters.  Sadly, without the adults to feed and nurture the colony, most of the grubs and insects died.

Hornets - at least in Italy - are aggressive and carnivorous.  Quite by chance, when out walking with some of the writing group, we came upon a hornet attacking a butterfly.  It chewed off the wings and then carried the struggling remnants up into the branches of a tree.  One of the group managed to photograph it on the ground with her I-phone.  Thanks Jillian!  You can just see the yellow body of the hornet against the wings - one already detached.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Tuesday Poem: Poems for Pussy Riot

I find it absolutely appalling that anyone can be jailed for writing a satire or making a non-violent political protest.  This week Pussy Riot are appealing against their prison sentence for performing a satirical piece about the Russian President. Hands up anyone who thought that Russia had become a democracy?  The English PEN organisation have put together an anthology of poetry in defence of the three young women who perform as Pussy Riot.  There are major contributions from poets all over the world and an introduction by George Szirtes.  Poems for Pussy Riot goes live today and you can find it here: -

Please take a look and support the campaign for intellectual and artistic freedom.  We in the west really don't know how privileged we are to be able to write with only minimal censorship.  In Russia I could end up like the girls below just for writing this blog.