Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Freezing in Italy

I arrived back on the late flight to Pisa last night.  The whole way from England to Italy there was nothing to see but cloud below the plane like a thick, grey sheep's fleece.  And this morning when I woke up, rain was pattering on the roof and blowing against the windows.  It's freezing cold here - the wind is icy, coming all the way down from the Arctic and the sky is heavy with cloud. Apparently it's been like this all the time I've been away.  Our neighbours don't know what has happened to the weather - it's just like England! 

Monday, 27 May 2013

Tuesday Poem: 'Wedding' by Alice Oswald read by Andrew Motion

I saw Alice Oswald reading at the 'Shifting Territories' conference last week and the way she memorises her own work and performs it completely knocked me out.  Her poetry had never really 'come off the page' for me before, but now I realise how oral it is - written to be spoken aloud.  She also plays with silence - leaving long gaps in the poems for the words to resonate.  She's working in the old bardic tradition, rather than the modern performance poetry genre, and it's very interesting.  I couldn't find a film on YouTube of her reading her own work (only part of 'Rockaby' by Samuel Beckett) but I did find this clip of Andrew Motion reading her sonnet 'Wedding' and explaining why he thinks it's great contemporary literature.
Click here for the link if the video won't run.

Please hop over to the Tuesday Poem hub for some more, very different, Tuesday Poetry!  This week the hub poem is

Four paintings by Kiri Piahana-Wong

And it begins like this - 

In the morning
the light touches the walls
like a painting
the morning sun falling in thin brushstrokes
her hair a dark tangle
his face blurred with sleep . . . . . . .

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Haida Gwaii art in London

For some time now I've been working on a series of poems based on the mythology of the first nation people of the Haida Gwaii islands off the north Pacific coast of Canada and Alaska.  Their art work has always fascinated me, particularly the house poles they erected in front of their houses, intricately carved from giant redwood trees. These poles tell the family stories of the clan who live there and often feature either the raven or the eagle.  So imagine my delight and surprise when I walked into the British Museum to see the Ice Age Art exhibition and there in the courtyard was a Haida house pole! It comes from the village of Masset on Kayang inlet - which no longer exists as a Haida habitation.  The chief's house was called either Goose House or Bear house and the pole that tells his lineage has been beautifully preserved. You can see the mythic figure of the Shaman with his Puffin Beak rattles near the top, and lower down there's a small man crouched on the head of the sea monster between the tail flukes of the whale.  Sitting at the top is the chief whose pole it is. Not a raven in sight though - Chief Wiah obviously had connections with the sea, since there are two sea monsters, a whale and an orca beneath him.  I'd love to know the stories they represent.

To come face to face with a Haida artefact was such wonderful serendipity!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

London on £50 a day (plus vat!)

This is what London on £50 a day (or night) looks like - the top floor of an international students' hostel near Russell Square.  The room is basic - a single bed, a sink, a battered wardrobe, and carpet you'd prefer not to put your bare feet on.  The curtain rail sags in the middle, there's no plug for the sink, you have to share a bathroom with 5 other people, and the radiator won't turn off.  It's the kind of room that might drive you to suicide, which is perhaps why the windows only open about 3" max!  But the sheets are clean, it's cheap and I couldn't afford three days in London any other way.  If you buy sandwiches and fruit in Tescos Express round the corner and eat them in the square - you can live cheaply in what is one of the world's most expensive cities. Happy days!!

Monday, 20 May 2013

On a train again . . .

Everything back in the suitcase, and off again in the morning, this time for London via Norwich.  It's a tortuous journey by public transport.  But if all the connections work, I'm hoping to meet someone who can tell me more about Norman Nicholson for the new biography. This is the most difficult aspect of biography - tracing family members and friends and hoping that their memories can give you the personal, background details of a life that will make the character come alive. 

Then I'm off to London tomorrow evening for a two day conference on 'Shifting Territories' - an exploration of nature writing and the poetry of place, with Jo Shapcott, David Morley and Alice Oswald.  This is not just a personal interest, I'm also hoping for some new illumination for the biography.  Norman Nicholson was certainly a poet who wrote from and about a particular place - his writing and the landscape he was rooted in were completely interlinked.

Sadly I'm leaving a garden being overwhelmed with weeds because I don't have time to dig it over. It breaks my heart to abandon a garden I spent 20 years creating, but maybe I'll have time to do something when I come back in June.
Ground Elder, nettles and goose grass with the odd bit of geranium!

And the river is very lively at the moment, creeping over the river bank and threatening the garden - unusual for the time of year, but the rain has been relentless.

The Plight of Women in the Middle East - Zahra Hussain

The brutal assassination of Zahra Hussain, vice President of the Movement for Justice party, in Pakistan on the eve of an election, is only a re-run of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007.  Intelligent, educated, committed women are not welcome in Pakistan's murky political world.

In the past 50 years the position of women in society in the Middle East has worsened rather than improved as a more fundamentalist and male-centred interpretation of Islam has taken hold.  We in the west often complain about the existence of the Glass Ceiling which limits our progress, but in the middle east the only ceiling women are likely to see is the ceiling of their own home, and they are less and less likely to get an education.  Last year a 14 year old girl, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in Pakistan for campaigning for education for girls.

Members of the Afghan Parliament debating a presidential decree that has protected women from domestic violence and children from forced marriage, refused to support its passage into law, which means that when President Kharzai goes (and he will) women and girls will no longer have that protection. That there was opposition to the decree from women shouldn't surprise anyone who has worked for the feminist cause.  In Afghanistan, women were told by men, and Mullahs, that they could no longer consider themselves Muslims if they supported the vote.

How we in the west fight the 'war on terror' affects the plight of women - and our record isn't good.  In Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan (to name only 3 countries) their lives are more difficult - and when we condone corrupt and brutal regimes in return for oil, or political support, we also condone their actions towards women and children. War - any kind of war - is always hardest on families, as powerful men (and sadly it is usually men) fight for power.  Somewhere, somehow, this has to stop. We have to make it possible for women to speak out without risking their lives. 

These are the things I worry about when I wake up in the night.  But it's four am, so I'd better put my soap box away and go back to bed!

Friday, 17 May 2013

Up to London in a posh outfit

Pussy cat, pussy cat where have you been?  Just been to London for the annual gathering of the English Association at the British Academy.  I didn't know anything much about the work of the EA before I was contacted a couple of months ago to say that I'd been elected as a Fellow.  The Association honours academics, authors and poets for their work in Literature in English, so I was very proud to have been put forward.  On Wednesday night a group of us were inaugurated and a very nice party it was, with wine and posh nibbles and a glorious view out over the Mall.  The company was pretty impressive too ( I apologise in advance for the name-dropping, but I was a bit awestruck!) - Hilary Mantel, Anthony Thwaite, Alan Brownjohn, Mario Petrucci, Mimi Khalvati and Lyndall Gordon were among the writers being 'elected', though not all of them were able to make the event.  I still haven't grasped the full significance of it, but have a feeling that the Fellows are not there just for decoration, but that we're expected to promote and celebrate literature in English and the practice of it, pushing for things like the new A Level in creative writing to encourage young writers.

Link here for anyone interested in the English Association and what it does.

I was very pleased to see that the EA was awarding Oscars for children's literature, in which independent publishers were prominently featured.  Winners included the hilarious 'Hippospotamus' for 4-7 year olds and the new Michael Morpurgo book 'Where My Wellies Take Me'  for 7-11 year olds. There's also a category for non-fiction and everyone gets a small golden statuette to pop on the bookcase.

I came out, a little giddy from the wine and the venue, into wintry sunshine with dark clouds threatening over central London, but feeling more optimistic about books and literature than I have for a while. There are still people who care about Books and Good Writing!!!!!

London with sun and cloud

Monday, 13 May 2013

Tuesday Poem: An Interview with Sylvia Plath

A Rare Interview with Sylvia Plath by Peter Orr in 1962 - in which she talks about how she began to write.

For more Tuesday Poems please go to the Tuesday Poem hub and click on the links in the side bar.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Fiesole - Etruscans, compensations and good company

A couple of days ago we took a day off, ignoring work and other boring stuff, and went across the hills to Florence, or - more accurately - its older sister Fiesole.  We'd never been there and had wanted to visit the Etruscan and Roman ruins for a long time.  But this time we had an extra excuse - our friends, New Zealand poet and author Vincent O'Sullivan and his wife Helen, were staying at Fiesole in a house once owned by the 19th century author of supernatural fiction, Vernon Lee - (born Violet Paget).  She was a friend of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, a lesbian and an ardent feminist.  Her extensive library is now in the British Institute of Florence. The Villa Palmerino is divided into apartments specifically for writers and academics on sabbatical, at affordable prices.  They are quirky, furnished in the old-fashioned Italian style and have a homely, lived-in feel to them.

Fiesole is on a hillside overlooking Florence and it has its own quiet beauty.  There's a wonderful Roman theatre, very well preserved

And an Etruscan museum with lots of interesting things inside.  This is one of the 7th century bc 'stele';

and this is a strange funerary jar that reminds me of the canopic jars in Egyptian tombs with the god Anubis on the lid.  One of the theories about the Etruscans is that they were originally the Hittites who migrated to Italy after drought and famine brought down their own civilisation.

We had a very good lunch in one of the terraced restaurants in the town and then took Vincent and Helen back to the house, which is out in the country, surrounded by tranquil gardens, perfect for writing and thinking or just soaking up the sun.  Not that there's much of that in Italy this spring.  The days are changeable - mixtures of hazy sunshine and cloud and rain.  Very cool too.  Last night we had to put on the heating!!
Vincent and Helen at Villa Palmerino

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Back to Italy reluctantly . . .

So I'm back in Italy again - or at least my body is.  Where I've left my mind I can't begin to guess!!  For the first time, I left Cumbria reluctantly.  The sun was shining, spring was starting to break over the river bank and my garden at the Mill desperately needed weeding - being choked with the nettles and ground elder brought by the winter floods.  I felt a real yearning to be in one place for longer than a week. All I can think is that I've just been doing too much travelling - too many suitcases, too many planes and trains.  But I can't stop because I've still got lots of research to do for the Norman Nicholson biography which keeps bringing me back to Britain.

Today I felt rather better because the sun - which has been very reluctant in Italy this year - did a bit of hazy shining, and - a month later than usual - the wild flowers are beginning to bloom in the olive grove in all their mad glory. 

Next week I'm on a plane again . . .  If the retreat at Moniack Mhor told me anything, it's that this crazy life of mine has to slow down.  I currently have two houses to look after in two separate countries, two gardens to weed, two lives to coordinate.  And it's too much.  Somewhere in the future, some difficult choices are going to have to be made.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Tuesday Poem: The Shape of the Wind


The Shape of the Wind

The wind has no colour
but the things it moves;
no shape but the gaps;
a tree fallen and the rib-cage
of a roof picked bare.
The wind has no voice
but the tuning prongs of chimneys
and wires, walls and masts
singing their frequencies - their
true notes and under-notes;
a howling orchestra of silent things,
the whole sky an up-turned bell
ringing and ringing in an ocean of air.

© Kathleen Jones 2013

The wind was one of the most memorable things about Moniack Mhor.  It howled round the house, buffeting windows and doors.  Outside you could hardly stand up against its invisible force.  But there was something exhilarating about this wind - the sheer power of nature.  It made my skin prick with goose-bumps and generated a feeling of excitement. I wanted to kick up my hooves like a frisky horse and run wild!  This was one of the poems generated in our 'silent' writing sessions first thing in the morning.  All I could hear or think about was the wind.

For more contributions from the Tuesday Poets, please go to the Tuesday Poem hub and check out the poets in the sidebar.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Tracking Kathleen Raine and Norman Nicholson

This week, the task has been to do more research for my Norman Nicholson biography.  Thursday was a beautiful, sunny, spring day and we went out to do some exploring around the various houses that have Nicholson connections.   For a short period, at the beginning of World War II, Norman Nicholson and Kathleen Raine were very close.  Kathleen had come north from London with her two children, after the break-up of her marriage, to find peace and quiet and creative space to concentrate on poetry.  She rented an isolated house in the Cumbrian fells above Ullswater, near a hamlet called Martindale.  The 'Old Vicarage' is a cottage - a long way from the nearest church - in the middle of a field, with the fells rising behind immediately behind it.  There are no near neighbours and Martindale is quite a long walk.  In the days when very few had cars, getting there by public transport would have been a challenge.  People walked for miles because they had to.  Kathleen Raine loved it and found the isolation perfect for writing poetry.

The Old Vicarage

Norman visited her there on several occasions and wrote several poems at her house.  Kathleen and Norman helped each other with their first collections and the title of Kathleen Raine's - Stone and Flower - is a quote taken from one of Norman's poems.  Many of the poems in Norman's second collection - Rock Face - were either written for Kathleen, or came out of their conversations and collaborations.
White dot near the woods on the skyline is Cockley Moor
Just across the lake, though a long way round Ullswater by road, you can just see a house on the hillside near the skyline.  This is Cockley Moor, which was owned by an elderly, wealthy patron of the arts called Helen Sutherland, who sponsored the painters Winifred Nicholson (no relation) and her ex-husband Ben, who had married Barbara Hepworth,  as well as Norman and Kathleen.  When Kathleen had to return to London to earn a living, Helen Sutherland looked after her children.   Norman was sometimes a weekend guest at Helen's house parties, which included writers such as TS Eliot.  Mixing in such aristocratic, wealthy, artistic circles was quite a challenge for a boy who had been born firmly working class in a terraced house in Millom.  Cockley Moor is a long, higgledy-piggledy, grey building, converted in the thirties from a farmhouse, cottage, and farm buildings to house Helen Sutherland's guests and her art collection.  Plus the chauffeur and the maid. The house was later owned by the astronomer Fred Hoyle.
Cockley Moor

Cockley Moor is remote - high on the fellside up a dead end road that leads only to a farm, with few other houses in the vicinity.  Far from big city light pollution, it must be an ideal place to view the stars on clear nights.

The view from the garden
 Wild, isolated and very beautiful, it's an odd place for a patron of the arts to live.  But according to Winifred Nicholson, Helen Sutherland had cold baths every morning, walked 20 miles a day, and lived on grapes, apples and lettuce.  Guests at her house parties had to live in a similarly spartan fashion and were penalised for being late for meals.  Sounds like lots of fun!!  

Friday, 3 May 2013

Spring has (finally) Sprung

It's been a long time coming, both in Italy and England, but finally there are signs of new life!  These are the first little ducklings I've seen - swimming with Mum on the weir.