25 October 2012

La Jeune Anglaise

A weekend in Paris. There was too much to do/see/absorb that I can write about and do justice to. So, I'm going to briefly touch on padlocks on bridges. I know that folk attach padlocks to the railings and bars of bridges in all sorts of places, in many different cities and countries. But I really took the time to see them in Paris. Golden nuggets clustered like barnacles over La Seine. Couples (romantics/best-friends/soul-mates) lock padlocks onto bridges between two separate shores, connecting them and making them one, to signify everlasting relationships, everlasting love. I'm not so sure about the everlasting part, but I do like the idea of remembering particular moments with particular people for ever and ever and marking these with something tangible. Tangible and, of course, highly romanticised. But in the French language, everything seems a little romanticised... And husky, gorgeously gutteral.

Padlocking things, for instance, like reading the denouement of Kate Chopin's The Awakening while listening to the incessant rain pelting down outside our Paris hotel. Like gulping red wine with my mother on a boat trip at sunset along La Seine and watching young women eat bread and drink with each other with their legs dangling over the edge above the water. Like seeing the Apocalypse all sun-bright in a sky-high stained glass window in the shape of a rose, one petal depicting the Whore of Babylon being carried away by the Beast. Like reading a novel based on Ernest and Hadley Hemingway's life in Paris in the upstairs library of Shakespeare and Company then buying a hardback pink-covered Ronald Firbank. Like coming across a rain-soaked leafy little museum in Renoir's studio and gardens all about Montmartre and the 'histoire, boheme, cabarets' in amongst all the glorious tat surrounding the Sacre Coeur. Like being floored by water lilies in an old orangery. Eight enormous canvasses curved around the walls painted deeply and heart-wringingly by Monet. I fell head-over-heels into that pond.

Like finding a revelation of an artist in a little room beneath these masterpieces. We found Chaïm Soutine. He was born in Jewish province in Minsk in 1893, then moved to Paris aged twenty, where he lived in Montparnasse along with other Eastern European artists. We stayed in Montparnasse for the weekend, purely by accident. Or, indeed, serendipitously. Soutine visited the Louvre regularly, and was enthralled by the old masters. He met Modigliani a couple of years after coming to Paris. Well, this friendship sealed my interest in Soutine, as I have a long-held adolescent love for Modigliani. [A framed blow-up study of one of his portraits as re-imagined by my thirteen-year-old self in oil pastel and batik hanging in the living room of my family home is an embarrassing testament to this.] Soutine was also befriended and sponsored by Madeleine Castaing. She had previously been an actress in silent films, then became an antique dealer. Soutine painted her portrait and it is STRONG. She is wearing a red dress and a fur coat, she has red lips and a long nose, she is beautiful, expressive, distinctive. Her eyes droop slightly at the outside corners and her her hands seem distracted, like her fingers are worrying each other...

The portraits have a wit, a humour, yet they show more. Like the haunting eyes of a little girl in La petite fille à la poupée. He was also an obsessive, as evidenced by his many series. Series of turkeys, rabbits, head waiters, valets, choirboys, plucked chickens and endless beef carcasses. It was all the idolising of Rembrandt that did it. Though Andrew Forge did say of Soutine that 'he can paint a dozen turkeys, and each picture is like the discovery of a turkey'. The many canvasses of beef carcasses are rather a treat. As the exhibition pamphlet describes, 'the viscera of the spread-eagled animal glisten with vivid reds'. Well, Soutine did have fresh carcasses delivered from abattoirs which he then sprayed with fresh blood to maintain the colour, so I guess they would glisten... Trees were another big thing of his. Sometimes many, at sharp and fluid angles in the wind, painted in a way to both contain and emphasise their wildness, sometimes a single focal point in the foreground. Soutine spent his childhood in Minsk where the idea of tree as protector was central to traditional rites and customs. A childhood in Minsk, then a death at the age of fifty in Paris. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. Picasso, Max Jacob and Cocteau all attended the funeral. This cemetery was first place we walked around on our weekend. We saw so many family plots, so many plaques, statues, all-out temples. Bodies piled down inside the earth so beautifully. We found the joint grave of Sartre and de Beauvoir, the pale stone covered in red and pink lipstick kisses. If only I had also tracked down both Seburg and Sontag, lying there beneath our wandering feet.

La Jeune Anglaise
I'm so glad Soutine came to light. I'm padlocking him for sure. This Young English Girl discovered him. La Jeune Anglaise. Though she resembles my mother a great deal more than she does me. Fitting, as this portrait is her favourite. Along with Woman Entering Water, the white-clad Rembrandtian figure flaunting what she thinks are knees like hers.

25 September 2012

Very Morris

If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up, he'll never do any good at all
A truth uttered by Morris

Everyone knows that William Morris was a pretty awesome guy; that flat pattern, floral motif, arts & crafts design vibe he had going on was all-out great. What I did not know is that the William Morris Gallery is only one swift bus ride from my front door to that of the museum's - the Morris Express if you will. The gallery is a house in Walthamstow that Morris lived in as a teenager. It's been newly spruced up for 2012, what with all the culture and festivities in London this year. The gardens and grounds out back are beautiful, with a specially designed William Morris Garden directly behind the house. The plants and flowers are supposed to represent different aspects of Morris's philosophies, ideas and artistic endeavours. I don't really know how a garden can reflect these, but I think it just needs some time to grow into itself.

Come back in ten years...

The first room is an overview of Morris's life, with a sculpture of his wondrous bearded head placed beneath these words emblazoned upon the central wall: 'I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.'

Morris is eminently quotable. I shan't bore with all the many many wise words and lovely phrases I scribbled down all over the gallery booklet. I covered three sides in tiny writing. A favourite is a section of a letter he wrote to his sister Emma - so ordinary yet a clear and intimate insight into the personality and humanity of a growing boy with appetites for everything:

'As you are going to send me the cheese perhaps you would set Sarah to make a good large cake, and I should also like some biscuits and will you also send me some paper and postage stamps also my silkworm eggs, and if you could get it an Italian pen box.'

There are also quotes from other notable figures in the world of art and literature about Morris written along and around the top of the ceilings in this first room. I reckon Engels summed him up with his alliterative description: 'a settled sentimental socialist'. And John Ruskin enriches this by stating grandly that 'Morris is beaten gold'. Well, he was certainly glowing with passions - for beauty, for politics, for equality, for nature, for workmanship, for ART. He loved stories, classical myths, Icelandic sagas and medieval tales. And moments of his life read like wonderful fairy tales and vivid anecdotal images. When he was six and settled at Woodford Hall, with its 50 acre park, he was given a suit of armour and rode around the grounds on his Shetland pony. A little later in life, when hangin' with all those wicked, riotous Pre-Raphaelite fellows, he dressed up in armour commissioned from a local blacksmith to model for the paintings. He got himself stuck in a helmet, 'embedded with iron, dancing with rage and roaring inside'. He married the timelessly-beautiful Jane, and daily life in the Morris household was a hoot, with guests playing hide and seek and pelting each other with apples in the garden. They lived in 'more a poem than a house' as Rossetti said of Red House in Kent, which is oh so on my list of places to visit and gawp at and revel in very soon.

The gallery is absolutely packed to the rafters with information, little tales,grand ideas, facts, artifacts, meticulously printed and illustrated books, paintings, sketches, furniture, carpets, wall-hangings, wallpaper, objets tres tres beau! I can only but glance across them here. But Morris's first biographer put it perfectly when he wrote that 'people dressed themselves with his wall-hangings, covered books with them, did this or that according to their fancy, but hang walls with them they would not.' I wanted to wrap myself in Morris, to touch and feel and luxuriate as well as look look look. 'I determined to do no less than to transform the world with beauty' said Morris. He's certainly transformed this little bit of Walthamstow.

Gallery grounds

11 September 2012

Lovetokens (lying lank)

On occasion I cloak myself in black, dig out my one pair of sensible black shoes that my mother bought me for my university interviews, pin back my flyaway hair and flex my muscles as I stand with loaded silver trays of champagne glasses at the top of the stairs of 50 Albemarle Street, the home of John Murray. I push drinks and the most beautifully crafted canapes upon the great, the good, the toffs of various foundations, associations and societies. Last night the quaffers and munchers were all members of The Byron Society. Interestingly (and disappointingly) there was no scandal, excess, incestuous love affairs or anything of the kind that Byron would have instigated or indulged in. They all seemed to leave for an early night.

This year marks the bicentenary of the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron also took his seat in the House of Lords in 1812. All this means that laid out in the ground floor display room at John Murray's are the objects, trinkets and letters that were left to the publishing house by Byron. It turns out that this means mostly hair.

The first thing I'm asked on walking into the kitchen area is 'Have you seen all the hair?!'. This was not the most settling thing to hear in such close proximity to canape preparation. But in the little room just along the corridor, there was indeed a great deal of hair. Two hundred year old hair. Belonging to the ladyloves of Byron. Ranging from rich auburn to chestnut brown, locks of female hair were displayed in scant coils tied with thread, ropes of little ringlets and, in one disturbing case, a thick cascade that curled down off the table. Faded handwritten labels dictated whose heads these samples were once attached to. The current John Murray urged me to stroke the dangling strands. I refused with a nervous grimace.

Alongside the hair were Byron's inner boots. He had very tiny feet. The right foot much smaller of course. Tiny feet and a rather large collection of hair.

1 September 2012

I have travelled home to Northumberland for two short stays in the past week and a half. The length of the country, four times over, provides time for reading. I am tackling Wolf Hall (finally). Hilary is supercool: blood, guts, and well-researched history made real. Snatches of humour too. I read this passage - which makes reference to Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland, who had been betrothed to Anne Boleyn before she made a play for the King - and had a little lol:

'My lady', he turns to Anne,'you would not like to be in Harry Percy's country. For you know he would do as those northern lads do, and keep you in a freezing turret up a winding stair, and only let you come down for dinner. And just as you are seated, and they are bringing in a pudding made of oatmeal mixed with the blood of cattle they have got in a raid, my lord comes thundering in, swinging a sack - oh, sweetheart, you say, a present for me? and he says, aye, madam, if it please you, and opens the sack and into your lap rolls the severed head of a Scot.'

Tru dat. Born and bred on delicious bloody oatmeal pud.

How lasses roll in Northumberland

25 August 2012


An image that lurks forever in the murky depths of my head is that of Sycorax breast-feeding her son Caliban. I watched Derek Jarman's dark imagining of The Tempest in my second year of university and it was the oddest, most grotesque, most dream-like film I had seen. Punk Miranda played by Toyah Wilcox - need I say more. However, after last weekend, I will associate new images with Jarman.

On the hottest Saturday of the year, we visited Dungeness. A flat shingle beach, the shore lined with fishing rods and put-you-up chairs, home to a simple stark lighthouse, and shadowed by the humming nuclear power station. Dotted about are wooden fishing boats, seeming as though they had unexpectedly beached, then dried and aged. And neatly spaced out along this flatness are cottages. They look like old railway carriages and are apparently hot property. The homes of poets, one would presume, if only they could afford them. On such a sunny day, they are idyllic living spots, but in winter and in storms they must be bleak. Beautifully bleak.

Prospect Cottage
Derek Jarman lived in Prospect Cottage. It is tar-black timber, with the window and door frames picked out in yolky-sun yellow. A Donne poem graces one side of the cottage, words made from raised wood, lines from the first and last stanza of The Sun Rising. Jarman created a curious shingle garden, all bizarre beach plants and found objects. Artworks of rusted metal and driftwood surround the cottage. Stone toads, craggy and puckered, sit with fixed painted eyes. The pebbles, rocks, and shells shift and crunch as endless visiting feet step unsteadily. Jarman, dead eighteen years, no longer lives here, but jazz filters out through the windows, and bright canvases hang over cream sofas. So someone calls it home.

fotos taken by F
Dungeness is other-worldly. As if to prove this, a little further along the shingle, a sign points to 'The Fifth Quarter Mystical Gift Shop'. A shirtless man sits outside its bead-curtained entrance, little furry dogs hump happily in welcome, and incense sticks burn with their sickening perfume. The tiny shop is filled with precious stones, mood rings, scented candles, dream catchers, glass lanterns, and a witch whose eyes light up as she cackles at those beach-combers lured in by the absurdity of it all. Perhaps a different kind of magic to that of Prospero or Ariel, yet Dungeness does invoke those famous lines of (the usually silly and insufferable) Miranda:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!

Jarman and his garden are two such wonders.

11 August 2012

Garden of Forking Paths

The Southbank is sunny and busy and smells of hot dogs and donuts and sounds like applause and laughter at the moment. I was walking from the Millennium Bridge along to the Southbank Centre this week and was constantly distracted by street performers, ice-cream stands, music, silent movie-style outdoor theatre, and throngs of people (both tourists and locals). It was a colourful warm walk. When I reached my destination, an entirely different atmosphere settled around me. A quieter one. I had come to see if aMAZEme really is amazing.

From Juxtapoz Magazine
Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, two Brazilian artists - Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo - have created a book maze. A labyrinth of 250 000 books. The books have all been provided by Oxfam and supportive donors who wanted to make 'getting lost in a good book' a reality. Any visitor can pick up a book and begin reading - as long as the book is returned to the maze before the visitor leaves. The piles grow as the maze spirals in to the centre, starting low then gradually becoming far taller than me so I could see so many book spines before my eyes. Such variety! Mills & Boon (Modern Heat) lies side by side Margaret Atwood. 'The Complete Kama Sutra' sits next to 'Insects in Britain'. There are picture books, annuals, cookery books, celebrity 'autobiographies', and many many novels all packed together to form walls of stories and histories. Ring-binded sheets of braille lie open on a low wall, looking like wide-winged embroidered birds flying atop book-scapes.

A little girl was settled down on the floor, bright cardboard pop-up pages spread all around her as people stepped over her small absorbed form. Words and quotes are projected in a blinding light onto the books, distorting them as they wash over the titles. They are also projected onto a crinkled curtain behind the maze - the quotes of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, Jean Luc Godard, Shakespeare...(not a lot of women I note, but there are certainly many women writers represented in the maze walls). Along with words, there are moving images projected in colour: fields, trees, sky, a man wearing a sculpted head of a bull as we follow him through different outdoor environments. Surrounded by stories. I was heartened to see that the maze was drawing people in. Browsing readers were picking up books, flicking through pages, occasionally taking them to the sofas on the maze outskirts. Encouragement to build up my walls of books as I travel forward. It's perfectly lovely to get lost every so often.

6 August 2012

Blume 4eva

A friend of mine who also grew up obsessively reading Noel Streatfield then Jacqueline Wilson then Judy Blume now works at a well-known children's book publishing company. This doesn't just mean picture books and pop-up bed-time stories. There is also the pre-teen/young adult market to consider. Knowing my love for the likes of 'Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret', she sent me the blurb of a new book she had come across at work. There were a great many capital letters and exclamation marks alongside the actual text of the blurb. This is because the American teen novel she was shouting about is pretty much perfection, and makes my life. Well, it would have made my life when I was thirteen. No, no, the blurb alone makes my life right now, and I must read the entire book ASAP. The back of Abby McDonald's 'Getting over Garrett Delaney' reads as follows:

Sadie is in love - with her best friend, Garrett Delaney. But Garrett has been oblivious to Sadie's feelings for him ever since he sauntered into her life and wowed her with his passion for Proust, not to mention his deep blue eyes. For two long, painful years, Sadie has been Garrett's constant companion, sharing his taste in everything from tragic Russian literature to art films to '80s indie rock. When Garrett leaves for a summer literary retreat, Sadie is sure that the absence will make his heart grow fonder - until he calls to say that he's fallen in love with another girl! Heartbroken, Sadie realizes she's finally had enough and that it's time for a total Garrett detox. Aided by a barista job, an eclectic crew of new friends (including hunky chef Josh) and a customized self-help guide, Sadie embarks on a summer of personal reinvention full of laughter, meltdowns ... and a double shot of love.

Garrett sounds like the kind of douche I would have thought was an absolute dreamboat. Things in the young adult world may have changed since the Blume years, but it can't be denied that there is definitely some teen-targeting genius at work here. Passion for Proust! Magic.

29 July 2012

One of four girls

In 1961, the American photographer Eve Arnold contributed to a project for Magnum Photos: a series of photographs of people who placed notices in The Times. Three young women posted the following notice in the personal column:

'This little girl goes to America. We three stay at home. Which little girl will come and share our Knightsbridge flat?'

Eve Arnold came to London and took this beautiful photograph. I could look into the steam of it all day. Eve moved to London in 1961.

One of four girls sharing an apartment

26 July 2012

Much Ado

Photo taken by a Shakespeare-loving South African outside the Globe
Once again the British Museum Reading Rooms have been re-jigged. They no longer house books and books and desks and books as they did when I first arrived in London, and how the likes of Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf experienced the space beneath that wonderful domed roof.

'Written up are the names of great men; and we all cower like mice nibbling crumbs in our most official discreet, impersonal mood beneath. I like this dusty bookish atmosphere. Most of the readers seemed to have rubbed their noses off and written their eyes out. Yet they have a life they like - believe in the necessity of making books I suppose: verify, collate, make up other books forever' Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf.

However, though shelved books may no longer line the perimeter of this museum centre-point, it is still very much home to WORDS. Well, it is right now at any rate. Some of the very best words written in Britain. The current exhibition is Shakespeare: Staging the World.

Obviously it's all tied in with the London 2012 thing (because EVERYTHING seems to be) but, y'know, maybe good stuff can come out of the whole Olympics business... Entering through a corridor while the sounds of theatre crowds surround visitors is a pretty excellent opening to the exhibition and I certainly learnt some interesting bits and bobs while wending my way round.

Shakespeare came up with the theatre term 'groundling' to describe the audience members closest to the stage; a groundling is a fish that lies on the bottom of rivers and gazes up at the surface with mouths open.

I was also unaware that the bard was accused of assault outside the Swan Theatre (a fact I learnt when looking at rapiers and daggers, reading about London's knife crime), as well as being a keen gardener in Stratford upon Avon (learnt while looking at contemporary gardening tools in 'The Forest of Arden' section, where music fitting for a melancholy lover was streamed on a loop).

There is a board or two all about bear fighting: bears, like actors, could become celebrities. Displayed behind glass is a skull of a bear which was excavated on the site of the Bear Garden in the 1980s. Its teeth were ground down so that she couldn't crush a dog's skull in a bite. I guess that would mean that the show would be over too quickly.

A portrait of Elizabeth I hangs on the wall, with the pale Queen carrying water in a sieve. This, of course, proves her virginity. Just like the Roman Priestess Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin. Obviously.

Also displayed are really beautiful and rather quirky livery badges in the shape of bears, harts and swans. And tiny cameos of the suicide of Cleopatra, complete with asp at her breast. If only these were sold in the exhibition gift shop.

Less beautiful, but just as interesting, are the calf's heart stuck with pins and the witch's cursing bone. The cry of 'Where hast thou been, sister?' echoes shrilly in this wing of the exhibition, with the bloodthirsty and bonkers 'Killing swine' returning the call. The witches voices sing and hiss and cackle on repeat. James I's treatise on witchcraft, Daemonologie, is open in a cabinet; he was paranoid about this particular subject. He blamed witches for the storms that could have killed him.

There are 16th century artists impressions of 'others', such as the Picts of Scotland. A portrait of a naked and 'wild' man, in a pose often attributed to gentility, is entitled 'The True Picture of One Pict'. Hmm, yes, 'true'.

Two huge globes sit next to each other. They are called the Molyneux Globes and were the first globes to be made by an Englishman. One is terrestrial, the other celestial. The clestial globe depicts the constellations as elaborate illustrations; Leo is a luxurious lion, Ursa Major a glossy-coated wild bear, and so on.

The most memorable and amazing object, however, is Sonny Venkatrathnam's 'Robben Island Bible'. This is a copy of Shakespeare's Complete Works which was disguised as Hindu scripture (it is covered in bright  Diwali cards) and kept by apartheid-era ANC prisoners in the 1970s on Robben Island, a prison off Cape Town. The inmates secretly passed the book around, and Venkatrathnam asked them to mark and sign their favourite passages. There are notes scribbled in the margins. Mandela chose lines from Julius Caeser, II, ii.

"Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once."

I think that all who ever used the Reading Rooms would probably feel it's acceptable for Shakespeare to take them over for a time. Him and his words.

18 July 2012

Moveable Feasts

So, I'm eating meat again. I hadn't eaten it since my sixteenth birthday. Eight years without meat. Interestingly, when I was twenty-two, I wrote a great deal about food. I had to plumb all depths to create a number of poems in a short space of time. I could write about food forever.

I wrote about cooking a goose at Christmas. I wrote: I am a vegetarian./I dream of eating meat.//Bloodthirsty dreams of medieval feasts,/glazed game, veins clogged with dripping./But the butchery is over,/I wake and hunt for raspberries instead.

I wrote about my father and I discovering an Italian restaurant that actually serves Zabaglione, his favourite, the rare dish that can still tempt his wavering sweet tooth. I wrote: ...they finish dessert,/folding napkins into boats.//She watches him fix his old tooth back into its hole,/all gum clumsy,/while her folds of flesh birth her own sweet tooth.

I wrote about inheriting hollow legs, which I tried so hard to fill. I wrote: ...she sweats over molten sucrose,/pours it down into ankles, mixes in pectin,/boils it up to make a viscous blood jam./Overripe fig flesh, bruised parma-violet,/clings to the marrow-sucked bones.

Etc etc. Bla bla. Lots of poetic overindulgence, enough to make you sick.

These writings are now old. They are about past cannibalisms and developing tastes. And were written when I was on the cusp of saying yes to everything. Eating meat is saying yes. It's stopping restrictions. I won't buy or cook it myself most likely, but I will take the opportunity to say yes to flesh when it presents itself, when it acts as lubricant or superglue in lovely social situations. (Didn't mean for that to sound sexual, more metaphorical...)

A friend of mine said yes big-time. He said yes to leaving the country, teaching in Mexico City for a five week spell, then cycling across South America for seven months. He will also have to say yes to meat - steak and rich red wine will fuel him. Though in Mexico, tequila is only 20p a shot. Shout yes to that!

From www.iwishyouwerehereproject.com

He is very much a traveller, seeing and living all that he can. I came across a project called I Wish You Were Here. The project is all about postcards and a woman named Marianne. Marianne loves to travel and has done widely throughout her life. She now has terminal lung cancer. I don't want to dwell on this heart-wrenching illness (my mother has just taken part in a 'fun run' to raise funds for 'cancer victims' - a term I struggle with as the word 'victim' can never have positive connotations - and she will regale you with a very pink tale of horror and hilarity and a perma-tanned Zumba-dancing motivational monster named Bunny if you so wish to hear it), but it does mean that Marianne can no longer travel. So her daughter has asked the world to send Marianne postcards from wherever they hail from, with three things the sender loves about the place they live in scribbled on the back. This is an excellent idea. The daughter scans each and every postcard, front and back, so they can be seen on the website. If Marianne can't take herself out into the world, the world can jolly well come through her letter box.

From www.iwishyouwerehereproject.com
She lives in Hackney Wick, only a couple of streets away from where I previously lived. The flat where I wrote a great deal about food in fact. And though she lives in the same city as I do, and only a stone's throw from my old home, I will write her a postcard. The three things I love about living here are overhearing conversations between every kind of person you could ever imagine on the top deck of London buses, being able to get cans of ice cold Tyskie and Red Stripe for a £1 each from local corner shops at all hours, and how I can walk across the Heath and visit Keats's house in snow in winter. Of course there are a million other things, and I would say yes to all of them and more.

4 July 2012

Read Sea

In the late seventies Michael stayed in a wooden hut by the hot and salty Red Sea for a spell. He shared the hut with a chap named Ivan. Ivan was (and I presume still is) half Venezuelan, half Russian. He was going to study at Harvard, but wanted to travel first. He took two bags with him. One bag was very small and held clothes and vital supplies. The other was very large and held books. The books were mostly Russian classics in translation. His first language was Spanish, his second Russian, but he read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev et al in English. Once he had read a book he gave it away. Michael's eyes lit up. He had run out of reading matter, so Ivan saved him with Russian literature. Neither Ivan nor Michael cried while reading the tragedy-spattered novels, as there was more than enough salt water surrounding them. The book bag emptied and Ivan travelled lighter, though his head was heavier with yarns of suicidal heroes and heroines and unsuccessful love affairs and soul-struck suffering.

I like to think that he then left Michael in a hut full of novels, walked out into the heat, and strolled through the parted Red Sea carrying just one small bag. I'm pleased that Kindles didn't exist in the seventies, as this little tale wouldn't have existed either.

6 June 2012

Raise me a daïs of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys...
                                  [A Birthday]

And so Christina Rossetti writes about the day she felt she was born to life, the day she really saw everything beautiful and anew. The birthday of her life has come to her because her love has come to her.

A Londoner who moved in avante-garde artistic circles, but was prone to depression. Well, I can't say that for myself. We may both love Keats, but where she turned to religion and became clinically melancholic, I am feeling as sunny as I ever have. Despite growing old. I celebrated one of the best birthdays last week.

I watched Harold and Maude only a fortnight or so ago, imagining the taste of oat straw tea and ginger pie enjoyed alongside chats and songs with Maude in her cluttered rail car home. Harold bestows an engraved gift to Maude ('Harold loves Maude'), which she accepts then throws into the sea so she will always know where it is. He fills her birthday, and her home, with sunflowers, large and bright and everywhere, like a forest with cake and organic champagne at its heart. It is her 8oth birthday, the age she decides she will die. When Harold happily claims that spending so much time with her is giving him vices, she replies 'Vice? Virtue? It's best not to be too moral'. YES. Of course I've been listening to Cat Stevens on repeat since.

Our end-of-May party at Lawn House was full of white and yellow posies, my birthday full of books. Better than paper sunflowers. I cut the flowers, arranged them in jam jars and placed them on every surface. A full house of friends, tobacco and gin. Birthday week of home-made devil's food cake, my favourite coffee and walnut cake, Waitrose chocolate cake, and pastel-coloured lemon cupcakes (twee-alert) with take-out coffee. Prosecco, red wine, and so much summer gin and tonic. Then rounds and rounds of fries and onion rings that we inhaled to soak up alcohol. All this I raised in place of Christina's birthday daïs.

The books I unwrapped are as vibrant as any peacock, any gold and silver grapes, any purple dyes. A biography of Virginia Woolf from someone who knows me so well, and who knows our noses. The poet Kathleen Jamie's new volume of nature writing, bought for me after I went on and on and on about the Norwegian whale hall full of enormous whale bones hanging from the rafters. A novel about a former university lecturer and modern day Socrates set in a hot London summer that was gifted with the message 'Read a good review and thought of you'. And money to be spent at my favourite second-hand bookshop, where I can browse for hours on a Sunday and stock up with pages and pages. Leaf through 'leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys' as it were.

12 May 2012


So, after saying I was going to see the Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern every free day for the past God-knows-how-long, I finally went. Following a huge bank holiday Monday breakfast-for-lunch for indulgent sustenance, I once again cursed like the blazes at my dratted umbrella and bussed it through another grey day to Southbank. The drizzle was fitting, as I wasn't feeling too enthusiastic about checking out Damien's retrospective blockbuster. I'm gonna put it out there: I'm just not that into him. I get some of the messages and ideas and all of that, but endless pharmaceutical cabinets...really?? So yeah, I may be a philistine. However, I did find quite a bit of the exhibition seriously beautiful.

Firstly there was 'A Thousand Years'. A huge glass vitrine. Maggots hatch, develop into flies, feed on a severed cows head, stick to the congealing pool of blood leaving it pockmarked with fly-prints. Many meet their end on an insect-o-cutor, which sounds like a ridiculous and terrifying B-movie contraption. Others survive to continue the cycle. The eyes of the cow's head were wide-open and milky.

In the next room was a more aesthetically pleasing take on this life-cycle exploration. 'In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies)'. White canvases are embedded with pupae so butterflies hatch from the paintings, fly freely round the room, feed on sugar water and flowers, mate and lay eggs. Then there is the more stationary version. 'In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays)'. Which is pretty much just that. Ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs laid out on tables surrounded by coloured canvases encrusted with varnished butterflies, and quite lovely for it.

Butterflies carry religious associations of resurrection. So symbolism dictates at any rate. 'Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven' is huge in scale. On arch-shaped canvases butterflies are arranged into patterns like medieval stained glass church windows. The triptych has a pleasing internal rose-like composition. Stunning against the white gallery walls. More arresting, however, is 'Black Sun'. A vast dark circle, the surface covered in clusters of dead flies that look like a paste of thick tar stuck with tiny insect legs.

From black to white. 'Sympathy in White Major - Absolution II'. A pale pastel disc-shape comprised of subtle butterflies displayed in circular patterns. The first part of the title is taken from Philip Larkin, who wrote that religion is 'That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die'. Though the poet that came into my mind as I walked through the butterfly rooms was Keats. In one of his many love letters to Fanny Brawne, he writes 'I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.' If we are to believe Jane Campion, Fanny opened her window to butterflies and trapped them in her room while she pined after her love.

In the centre of one of the butterfly rooms is 'The Anatomy of an Angel'. A white marble sculpture of an angel, but with a section of internal organs revealed, only visible from certain angles. In one of those sacred moments of poetic coincidence, I had started A.S. Byatt's Angels and Insects only a couple of days earlier. These are two novellas, the first about the naturalist William Adamson, explorer and collector of insects, the second about Christian Mysticism and communicating with angels. I hadn't yet begun the second novella, but the first seemed particularly prescient . William collects insects and butterflies and can't help but compare their habits to those of humans. His love-interest, named Eugenia (which is also the name of both a rare butterfly and the novella itself - Morpho Eugenia) makes decorative displays using butterflies. Well, blow me over with a feather (or, indeed, butterfly wing), for Damien is doing just that. Eugenia tells William:

'I have made a beautiful display - a kind of quilt, or embroidery almost - out of the earlier specimens you sent my father. I have pinned them out very carefully - they are exquisitely pretty - they give a little the effect of a scalloped cushion, only their colours are more subtle than any silks could be.'

I don't think I'm giving anything away (well, perhaps I am) when I say that their marriage does not last (for it turns out that she is actually more taken with incest than insects) and he leaves on another expedition. Which leads me to think it may not be such a good idea to paper my walls in butterfly wings, as beautiful as that may be. I would only have to watch them then decay around me.

Photographs courtesy of my gal-pal Frances

5 May 2012

100 Billion Suns

Katie Peterson
Glogaverstr 26
Berlin 1099

Wednesday 18th January 2012

Dear Mrs Urquhart

I'm sorry to inform you of the death of the star 6RB 120118B.

Yours sincerely

Katie Paterson

There were dozens of these letters, bearing different dates and different star-codes, all set out neatly and chronologically in a display case along one wall of a tiny white gallery. The artist Katie Paterson had written to The Haunch of Venison informing the gallery of the deaths of stars over the past year. Astronomical institutes notified her each time a star exploded. So she wrote a letter for each dead star. Most were typed, some hand-written, some on thick luxurious card, some on fine leaves of paper, some bordered, some with bright envelopes. All had the same jolly stamps and bore the same simple lines of death. In the final display case, the letters were no longer set out separately, but were piled up and overlapping. I glimpsed a date: 22nd April 2012. Only a week before I visited the exhibition.

Tiny multi-coloured perfect circles lay on the glass covering the letters. At first there were very few, only dotted here and there, but then they seemed to multiply and cluster as the number of star-deaths grew. I thought they symbolised the dead stars. It turned out they had been blown from a confetti canon behind me. 3126 pieces of paper had been placed in the canon, with each piece matching the colours of the brightest explosions of the universe - Gamma Ray bursts are the brightest, burning with a luminosity 100 billion times that of our sun. The canon was set to go off at 1pm for the duration of the exhibition, creating a miniature explosion of all the vast explosions in the greater universe in just under a second. Cool.

At the Venice Biennale 2011, one hundred of these canons were exploded around the city at anonymous locations at times, set off night and day, over major piazzas and narrow backstreets. Each explosion was captured in a photograph, some of which were displayed. Colours mid-air in the night sky, spots of paper mingling with leaves on the ground, smoke lingering from the canons. It looked like sequins had invaded the city.

A television was set up in the middle of the gallery space. It showed footage of ancient darkness. Darkness broadcast from the edge of the universe, from the furthest point of the observed universe, nearly 13.2 billion years ago, long before the Earth existed, when the first light began to form. I watched one minute of this darkness, the dark minute shown on a continual loop.

I visited this exhibition on its final day. Before the lights went out and all went dark. Apparently, during the hours of darkness, the gallery lights flickered in time with lightning storms happening across the world. There has been many London thunderstorms of late, so much lightning this past fortnight. The perfect time to celebrate stars. I wish it rained coloured-paper confetti instead of damp grey mists. I'm sick of being soggy. I'd rather be sequined.

23 April 2012

Prima Donna

I was at a bookshop in West London for an Authors' Club event the other Sunday. Which sounds hella more glamorous and pretentious than it actually was. I drank some wine, ate some crisps, chatted to the Club Secretary's wife about her undergrad studies, multiple careers, retirement activities and the second-hand bookshops in Cambridge for an age, was asked in braying voices if I was a 'writer' or 'publisher' to which I looked sheepish, then awkwardly browsed the bookshelves in order to look occupied as I waited for my friend to arrive. And so it was that I was snapped by the official photographer standing all alone, holding a glass of wine in one hand, and balancing a hardback copy of Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel in my arms, totally engrossed. Urgh. The lives of Civil War-era women - governesses, milkmaids, fishwives, nuns, defenders of castles, courtesans, countesses, witches and widows - brought into vivid focus, their 'weakness' questioned.

The last time I mixed with the Authors' Club I ended up in their private members club in Soho, beside a furiously hot fire, talking about homo eroticism in travel writing, getting blind drunk on red wine, leaving abruptly and rudely, and remembering very little. I admit that I was a pretty weak vessel that evening. Well, too weak a vessel for the amount of alcohol I was pouring down my throat.

The day before I was caught reading Antonia Fraser I went to the opera. A thing I have not done before. I saw Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House. At first it was all breasts. Breasts from a birds' eye view. Flocks of courtesans, all shapes and sizes, at the Duke's court, drinking, undressing, flirting and writhing. These were raunchy, rouged girls. Then we are introduced to Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter. A pure angelic soprano in a white dress. She falls in love with the Duke who sings sweet nothings to her and steals her heart. He, of course, is a cheating philanderer. Despite knowing he's been unfaithful, Gilda resolves to sacrifice herself for him. He's going to be murdered by a hired killer unless the killer can find another to take the Duke's place. So she dresses as a man (in a disguise that would only fool characters in a melodramatic and overwrought opera), enters the house where the killer dwells and is mortally wounded. I was screaming 'No, no, no!' inside my head at silly, silly Gilda. Of course she is not quite dead when her father finds her, providing the opportunity for a prolonged, though beautifully sung, death scene. She has a strong voice, and a strong force of (misguided) will, but I ultimately thought 'weak vessel'. The Duke cared nothing for her and she gave up her life for him. The Duke who sings the famous La donna è mobile - 'woman is fickle' - which goes on (and on) about how man is miserable if he trusts a woman, and that women are flighty, like a feather in the wind. He bloody gets away with the whole thing too.

La Maigre Adeline (1906) by Walter Sickert
THEN, a few days later, I saw a ballet. [An unusual week of treats. Though seats for £3.] I saw Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets. It was inspired by both Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper, the former being obsessed with the latter. The set was a perfect Sickert painting, the dancers artist's models brought alive and hot with blood. The ballet captures Sickert through six scenes of misogyny, passion, cruelty and murder. I was sitting in one of the upper slips, so there was a slice of the stage I couldn't see. At one point a model of Sickert is dancing in a red crushed-velvet dress. She passed out of my view then reappeared, pointed-toes first, in only a transparent slip. Very quickly this scrap of satin is also shed. The first scene depicts near-rape in a bedroom (made to look unnervingly beautiful) and ends with the woman's neck being slashed by her 'lover'. There are many more neck-slashings throughout, the dark, skin-pricklingly monstrous figure of Jack the Ripper a constant light-footed presence in the shadows of the stage.

Crimson negligees, nude slips, violent sex, women with fear in their eyes, thrusting then tortured men... And a husk of a woman, driven to madness, emaciated and balding, alone, shaking, convulsing on a brass bed in a bare room. Her wild dark eyes stared, unseeing, up into the gods of the theatre. It brought me to tears. A girl just along from me fell in theatrical swoon at the end of that scene (though she had been standing the whole time, and she probably had low blood sugar). The whole ballet was stunning and disturbing. A Sickert canvas made flesh. These women have the strongest physicality, the strongest sense of elegance and form, the strongest feel for character. It was hard to watch at times yet mesmerising. The bodies and minds that made it so are far from weak vessels.

30 March 2012


A guy I know is writing his PhD thesis on the poetry of Ian Hamilton. Every time I see him a bit of Hamilton talk understandably seeps in. However, it is another poet that always ends up gushing through the floodgates of our chat. Well, ever since I read the poem 'Goodbye' at any rate, which I sought out after the PhD-writing chap ardently urged me, gently quoting a couple of choice lines. It is so gut-wrenchingly tender it kills me. My mother's reaction to it was 'I can't do this, it's too perfect and I'm distraught'. Quite.

So now (obviously) I am obsessed with Alun Lewis. He was a young Welsh supply teacher who fought in the Second World War. He was also a writer of short stories and a rather extraordinary poet. One morning in Burma, 1944, after washing and breakfasting, he tripped on his way to the latrines. The fall caused his revolver to go off. The bullet hit him in the head, killing him six hours later. Officially an accident. Unofficially suicide.

I read his collected poems, but it was a collection of his letters that got me then broke me. A Cypress Walk is a record of all Alun's letters to Freda Ayckroyd. She was wife to Wallace Ayckroyd, and lived in Coonoor, southern India. Alun stayed with the couple when on sick leave in 1943. He fell in love with Freda, who safety-pinned his khaki trousers and felt warm flesh beneath his shirt. I need not say she fell for him too... Alun burnt all of her letters to him in case his wife Gweno, in Wales, found them. Gweno who he also loved. Gweno for whom he wrote 'Goodbye'. And, of course, 'Post-Script: for Gweno', in which he writes 'A singing rib within my dreaming side;/You always stay'.

But these letters are to his Frieda. He inserted an 'i' into her name, having never seen it written down. He inserted his 'I'. Himself in her name. He had written a short story years earlier entitled 'Attitude', in which the main character, a female version of himself, was named Frieda. Prophetic.

I have pages and pages of lines from his letters and poems copied down in my notebook. 'I think of you all the bloody time. Do you mind?' That line has become a kind of mantra, an incantation, a rhythm I walk to. That line is the letters. He asks her questions, continually, unrelentingly, like conversations in his mind and on the page when away from her. 'This isn't an answer or a letter - it's only a cup of coffee after lunch...'

They are full of idiosyncracies, lovely little odd things. The quotidien mingles with his thoughts of her: 'A soccer match, a disjointed conversation at dinner, a visit. To the reading room to see how things go: Oh and a longing beyond words'. He calls her Frieda Buttery. 'I'm as happy & crazy and serious as God the Father God the Son and God the buttered toast. I love & I love & I love, so damn you both. Do you know? How I love? What ways? What pretty ways? sometimes? Sometimes I love very badly, Frieda Buttercups.'

He asks her to send him books, mostly poetry. If one is in love with a woman who has access to poetry books, one may as well make use of this romantic and practical fact. 'Will you dance with me? Swim with me? Loll on the balcony over the shipping with me? Will you please bring Rilke with you, please please please bring Rilke with you to read in the night and perhaps one pellucid morning?' He also sends her books in return: 'There's a poem in that little Lawrence I sent you, written over a Bavarian river. Read it for what I mean, will you?'

One of the most charming things about these letters is how Alun signs off following the lengthy flayings of his heart. It's always different, with various arrangements of kisses and darlings and dears and how much he loves. 'xxxx your xxxx lover xx Alun'.

And then he died. But everyone should read A Cypress Walk. It doesn't take very long if you become obsessed. A whole war-time love affair in a slim book.

I discovered that somebody who had previously studied on the same poetry MA course that I took last year actually met Freda not long before she died in 2005. Apparently she made incredibly strong G&Ts, serving them well before noon. A woman worthy of love-letters.

21 March 2012

And she arrived in a whirl of fur and lipstick...

About a month ago I was sent an email requesting me to pick a date out of a handful in March, and to keep this evening entirely clear from around 6.30 onwards. A black and white image of a flapper girl - feathered, sequined, and sultry - was attached to the email. So the 1920s was my only clue. I recorded it in my diary as 'Mystery and Intrigue'. The fellow who sent me the email recorded it in his as 'The Secret Thing'. I rather hoped it wasn't a secret to him... Especially when, at the specified time on the evening of mystery and intrigue, he led me down an east-end alleyway to loiter under a bridge, him all slick in braces and brogues, me in a tasselled black backless dress and fur coat.

Under this bridge, it was Prohibition-era America. There was a hobo playing a harmonica, gangsters in sharp suits and fedoras, girls with feathers fanning out from curls, and loud Chicago drawls shouting into the night with that nasal whine. Hey, you headed for Fat Sam's? My companion was frisked by a policeman up against a brick wall, while molls in t-bar heels chatted away to the forming queue nineteen-to-the-dozen. We were led round the back of the art deco cinema, up some stairs, along a corridor and into a bookshop. The bookseller looked us up and down, opened a hatch in a bookshelf, then swung the whole bookcase open. We climbed through and entered the heart of the Troxy. Or rather Fat Sam's Grand Slam.

Future Cinema had created the perfect speakeasy. Bright white tablecloths covered large round tables. Steaming all-American pasta dishes were served in one corner - macaroni and cheese, classic lasagne - while candy-striped paper bags of popcorn and sweets, along with milkshakes, were on offer in another. Of course there was a cocktail bar. A blues band with double bass and trumpet played flawlessly on the smoky stage. All I could see were sequins, feathers, headpieces, flashing teeth and short shorts on dancing girls. Fat Sam himself naturally compered the evening, which included Leroy's boxing match in Slugger's Gym, a tapdancing bar-cleaner, piano accompaniment to a silent film, and Tallulah's sassy number. She's so sassy. I gotta get me some o' that gap-toothed slinky sass. And of course there was the odd noisy interruption when we all had to duck and lay low as Dandy Dan's men hit the joint. One of his men ran right across a row of cinema seating up top, a spotlight following his crazy stunt all the way.

Then the screen came down and the film began. If it was raining brains, Roxy Robinson wouldn't even get wet. Everyone sang along, whooped and guffawed. I love this film. We could have been anything that we wanted to be...we're the very best at being baaaaad. I would be Tallulah over Blousy any day. Then there was a pause before the final splurge showdown... We all donned ponchos and were passed paper plates loaded with foam. Anyone and everyone was sprayed all over and danced in the evaporating froth. You give a little love and it all comes back to you, la la la lalalala.

So it was a late night, getting home with pinched toes, necessitating a long Sunday lie-in. Then an afternoon of home-made scones eaten warm with cherry jam and squirty cream and watching the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. It really is 'the seventies does the twenties'. Soft focus, pastel palette, babycham glasses, water fountains, the Charlston, so much champagne, Mia's big-eyed melodrama and Robert Redford in a powder pink suit. SO HOT. And Irving Berlin's What'll I do on the gramophone by the pool. I've been humming it since. What'll I do when you are far away....

[picture from Encore Avenue]

11 March 2012

Live as well as you dare

On Thursday I received a postal invitation to an old school friend’s imminent nuptials to her beloved. I have to RSVP to her parents and buy something from a list at John Lewis. [I am also going to a baby shower in a fortnight, the invitation to which came loaded with baby-themed confetti – I made the mistake of Googling ‘baby shower etiquette’ as I don’t have a clue how one behaves at such a thing, but I was lead to lists of nauseating American sites that referred to the ‘mommy-to-be’ and allocated time to ‘ooh and ahh’ over tiny baby-gros. I laughed then I cried]. Thursday happened to be International Women’s Day. It was also the day we were sent a promo book at work entitled ‘Please God, Find Me a Husband’. I was on the cusp of repeatedly banging my head with my Women’s Lib placard and copy of ‘The Female Eunuch’ so that I would fall into a calm unconscious and therefore be a quiet and pliable woman, but then I took a closer look at the book.

It is a graphic novel by Simone Lia. The Simone Lia who is loved by my father and who wrote a very witty book called ‘Fluffy’ about a bunny rabbit in denial. This new novel follows Simone herself. She is dumped by email so asks God to find her a husband. This leads to her ‘Adventure with God’. She stays in a nunnery for a spell, goes to Australia in search of a hermit, finds a guy named Brett instead who makes her feel like Penelope Cruz, and ultimately discovers that she should stop whining about being some kind of spinster. She dances and sings with God, asks Jesus what his favourite fruit is (figs), and has a heart that wears an eye patch and has a wooden leg. So the book is actually pretty cool, despite the Bridget-Jones-does-Catholicism connotations of the title. And the woman has some kick-ass drawing skillz.

The fact that this book cropped up entirely unexpectedly was pretty weird as I went and saw Karen Armstrong give a talk just this Monday gone. The question was ‘What is Religion’. The answer…well, the answer was lots more questions. She was a clued-up and interesting speaker, but I wanted more about her. She had become a nun in her teens in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, then left her order seven years later. I read her account of all this in her autobiographical work ‘The Spiral Staircase’ many years ago, devouring it as though it were a very good novel. I’m going to re-read it, but differently this time, with a ‘mature and critical eye’. Now she’s all about the Charter for Compassion, which focuses on the commonalities in all religions, namely The Golden Rule.

A little while ago, I came across a letter. It was written in 1820 by Sydney Smith, addressed to a Lady Georgiana who was feeling out of sorts. I looked up Sydney Smith and found that he was the son of an epileptic mother, had a lively personality due to his French blood, and that he was reluctantly compelled to take holy orders. As a preacher he possessed vigour and liveliness, drawing crowds to Albermarle Street to hear him speak. He scorned enthusiasts, dreaded religious emotion, and was a great supporter of the education of women. He also had a rhyming recipe for salad dressing.

Anyway, here’s the letter:

Dear Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have—so I feel for you.

Here are my prescriptions;
1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75 or 80 degrees.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to you friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana.

Very truly yours,
Sydney Smith

Well, I agree with some of the points (amusing books and blazing fires are, of course, excellent things), but I do not agree with avoiding poetry or emotion. These are important. Especially for living ‘as well as you dare’.

29 February 2012

Gooseberry fool

I forgot to put my notebook in my bag this past weekend. This almost never happens. It's ironic because I've been carrying around 'The Golden Notebook' by Doris Lessing for the last week or so - a dense novel about a woman named Anna who writes in different coloured notebooks for different aspects of her life and fears she is going mad. My notebook at present is jungle-coloured and was a Secret Santa gift this Christmas just gone. But I didn't have it with me at the weekend.

So when I wanted to scribble things down, I had to use what was at hand. Which happened to be a green postcard I picked up in the Poetry Library a few weeks ago that has been floating around in my bag ever since. It has a poem on the front called Gooseberries by Edwin Morgan.

what I love about Hank
is his string vest
what I hate about the twins
is their three gloves
what I love about Mabel
is her teeter
what I hate about gooseberries
is their look, feel, smell and taste

My father has a similar view of this particular hairy berry. And he happened to be down In London, along with my mother, at the weekend. This meant that we 'did culture'. Therefore I have interesting things written down at angles in black ballpoint on the back of the postcard.

'The cannibalistic nature of the golden orb-weaver makes it impractical to farm them'. Well, farming cannibalistic spiders would be a bit of a nightmare. This rather poetic phrase is in regard to the bright yellow cape and shawl we saw at the V&A, made from the silk of more than a million spiders. Eighty people in the highlands of  Madagascar collected, harnessed and released wild spiders every day for seven years to produce enough silk. Part of the display was a vast watercolour sketch of the design for the cape surrounded by swirls of hand-written spider-poems and spider-texts that inspired it. I would love to swish that cape...

'This Living Hand (after Keats)'. In one of the corridors of the V&A was a display case that held a simple round medal bearing the words 'this living hand' in beautiful calligraphy. The paint used for these words is touch sensitive - it will fade or grow bolder when handled. A perfect pairing of object and poem.

'Picasso dined with the widowed Lady Keynes in 1950. He asked if she still danced. She said yes, and they danced together on the pavement of Gordon Square'. We went to the Picasso exhibition at Tate Britain, and my favourite part was the Ballet Russes room, with all the sketches of dancers, set designs and vivid ideas for costumes. Picasso created amazing visuals for 'Parade'. I had a bit of an obsession with Diaghilev a while back (still do). I watched documentaries, and read the 'The Bloomsbury Ballerina' by Judith Mackrell - a biography of the Ballet Russes dancer Lydia Lopokova who married Maynard Keynes and lived round the corner from the centre of my London world when I first moved here. Picasso drew her portrait. And, evidently, danced with her on ground that I have frequently skipped over.

'He draws noses like mine'. Large and sloping, one continuous line from top of forehead to tip of nose. Some may call these noses Roman, but I'm going to refer to my facial blight as a Picasso nose from now on.

'Coded portraits of lovers'. Picasso had a much younger mistress by the name of Marie-Thérèse Walker and she became his muse, brightly-coloured and made of curves. He painted her as though she was looking straight out of the paintings whilst also having one side of her heart-shaped face kissing the other, like a secret lover entering her portrait. The accents of her name face each other similarly. I love that the child she had with Picasso was named Maria de la Concepción. Marie-Thérèse hanged herself four years after Picasso's death, yet she was never a model for any of his weeping women portraits. She was always light and bright and happy in his pictures.

'Constable - I have done a good deal of skying'. We had to dash up to the Romantics exhibition. It's a pre-requisite when visiting Tate Britain. I admire Constable for using sky as a verb. Cloud-gazing is for romantics, and he does a pretty good job of pinning them down in paint.

Austen may have created rich novelistic worlds on a little bit of ivory two inches wide, but I think I got quite a lot onto the back of a gooseberry.

15 February 2012

'Find a rhyme and dip my pen in cocoa'

I was reading Rimbaud in the Poetry Library like the biggest nerd ever. I read Illuminations cover to cover in a sitting because of Patti Smith. She goes on and on about her Arthur in Just Kids, a memoir of her time with Robert Mapplethorpe, including the Chelsea Hotel years. She is the coolest woman, even if she occasionally slips into prose the deepest of purples. I don't care because her New York of the seventies still sounds like a dream. And Rimbaud isn't bad either - 'Desperadoes yearn for the storm, drunkenness and wounds'.

Dylan Thomas spent his final days in the Chelsea Hotel. Now he is cast in bronze in the Poetry Library. A man named Hugh Oloff de Wet created this artpiece two years before Dylan's death. Apparently the idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from the poet himself. On inspecting it, he stuck his own fag in the head’s mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it. I love Under Milk Wood more than anything. It’s the bees’ knees. I used to listen to Richard Burton read it to me on long journeys. Is there a thing more stirring and wholly romantic than ‘Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast’? No, there is not. He sings in a Welsh lilt of a little world of familiar and funny characters, who are also ‘whalejuice and moonshine’, and who live all the time in a comfortable bubble where ‘you can hear the love-sick woodpigeons mooning in bed’. Sounds just like outside my window in Northumberland, always at an ungodly hour.

From the Chelsea Hotel to the Poetry Library to the Fitzroy Tavern. I’ve been going to this Sam Smith’s pub for Alpine lager and wheatbeer since I was nineteen. George Orwell and Augustus John used to booze there. And Dylan Thomas of course. He left his manuscript of Under Milk Wood in the basement booths when pissed. Thank God it was retrieved. I met a poet friend of mine in this wood-panelled pub for more than three hours of poetry and pints earlier this week. He had bought me a collection of D.H. Lawrence’s poetry, with poems selected by Tom Paulin who also wrote the introduction. My mother loves Lawrence, having fallen for him in sixth form. My father's not so keen but raves about Paulin, who I always found a fascination on the BBC's Friday Night Review. So sardonic. And I love long-line free verse poetry that I read drunk on the bus home. Which is why this poet had picked it out for me. Lawrence is all about the ‘living plasm’. That’s not a euphemism, more his philosophy for free verse poetry. Of course, being Lawrence, he goes on about the pulsating, carnal self, but it can’t be denied that he gets a person going for some free verse. ‘Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds… Give me nothing fixed, set, static.’ Exactly. And his long-lines can rouse a subtle blush or two.

8 February 2012

The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches - e.e. cummings

On Saturday night, after a long pub evening in Paddington with very old friends, I unwittingly found myself in a perfect set-up for a Radio 4 play.

It was snowing. Flakes falling thick and fast. After a painstakingly slow couple of bus journeys I arrived at Archway at one o'clock in the morning. Forty-five minutes and a 39p packet of Dolly Mixture from a heated newsagents later, the bus that would take me all the way home still hadn't materialised. Fellow bus-shelter dwellers had bought cans of beer to keep them going. The stop had been crowded with chilly travellers when I first got there, but the crowd was rapidly diminishing as people were finding alternative ways back to their beds. By two o'clock we were a foot-stomping cluster, chatting away to stop our teeth chattering. Kevin, an actor, became our ringleader and proposed we tackle the walk home. Most of the stragglers lived in Crouch End, with just me and another girl hailing from Turnpike Lane. We rallied. Kevin bought a bottle of wine and we swigged as we tackled the now deep snow.

There was Louise, an American who worked in interior design and who had been at dinner party. She was wearing high-heeled boots so we had to go slow, staying at her pace and supporting her arm. She offered me her floor to sleep on if I didn't make it all the way back to Turnpike Lane.
There was Russell, also an actor and the more gregarious half of a lovely gay couple. His partner was quiet, cautious, and had luxurious hair.
There was Jess, originally from Hong Kong, who was very smiley and chirpy. The smiles hid her concern that her husband did not know where she was and would be worrying.
There was the nameless girl also headed for Turnpike Lane, who was like Bambi - long-legged and wide-eyed. She was oh so cold, so I lent her my mittens. She kept on walking off into the night, despite not knowing where she was going. Eventually she went so far ahead that we lost her. She had spoken of tea and biscuits and bed. I hope she made it.
And there was Kevin. Kevin of the iPhone map and bottle of wine and beard and booming voice. He had been in commercials in Japan for years and was now back on the London stage. He got me as far as Hornsey Station.

It was like Lord of the Rings. A journey, a fellowship. And London was spotted like a Yayoi Kusama installation. Members of the group dropped off one by one, sometimes exchanging numbers, details entered into phones as first names followed by 'Snow'.

I was the last of the group to get home, living the furthest away. It was three o'clock. I was sober and wholly awake. And soaked through. I hairdryered my body top to toe as my bed-sharer spoke of the night-time video games he'd been playing as he waited for me. I dreamt of the hot baked beans I'd eat on waking.

3 February 2012

The Solace of Objects

Charmed Life is a little exhibition at The Wellcome Collection. I wandered in on one of their Thursday lates. And yes, there is a Montaigne quote to kick things off. It seems that the soul…loses itself in itself when shaken and disturbed unless given something to grasp on to; and so we must always provide it with an object to butt up against and to act upon. Objects help anchor the soul.

There is a great deal of soul-anchorage going on in a calm, cream room of the Wellcome building. Displayed in a glass-topped horseshoe-shaped table are the gathered charms of Edward Lovett. He lived in Croydon in the late 19th/early 20th century, worked at the Bank of Scotland, and was fascinated by all things folkloric - charms, amulets, superstitions. He collected trinkets from all over London, from various origins and traditions, and treasured the objects and their meanings. Although he was himself dismissive of the idea that amulets could work as effective magical objects, he did make his younger son an amulet to wear against the dangers of the front during World War I. Unfortunately I was unable to find out if this protection was successful. Having just read and watched Birdsong I sincerely hope it was. Stephen Wraysford, protagonist and odd husk of a man, survived it and he was forever playing games of chance and carrying packs of cards, even if he did admit he pretty much made it all up.

The collection is a feast of horseshoes, shark’s teeth, a mole in a bag, a sheep’s heart pierced with nails, glass sea horses, coral and all manner of tiny treasures. There is even a lobster claw with a silver Virgin Mary inlaid into the base.
The charms have a very physical relationship to our bodies: the dead weight of a horseshoe above a bed, the pointed end of a belemnite ‘thunderbolt’ will prick fingers, a glass sea horse will snap easily in our hands if mishandled. Dangerous beauty, protection laced with threat. Belemnites were called both thunderbolts and Devil's fingers, so strange and talismanic were these fossils of squid-like sea creatures now extinct.

Each charm holds power and wards off some kind of evil or encourages goodness...
Fabric-covered horseshoes against nightmares.
Tips of rabbit’s tongues against poverty.
Acorn forms against lightning, as oak is home of the Thunder God.
Two acorns strung together as a cure for diarrhoea.
Twig of elder to cure warts.
Peony seeds for epilepsy.
Carved frog bones for fertility.
A witch cake made between the first and sixth of April every year to ward away witches.
Circular stones with holes for tying to a cow to prevent fairies stealing the milk.
Phallic iron door handles to avert the evil eye.
Wives of fisherman kept a dried seahorse on their breasts to facilitate the flow of milk.

And the many tiny shoes made out of all conceivable materials represent the path of life.
I'm very glad my own shoes led me to this cornucopia of charms. The necklace I wear most often is made up of a gold chain gifted to me by a bride when I was ten-year-old bridesmaid, a small and empty gold locket that used to belong to my mother, and an unashamedly faux-gold elephant pendant I received from a lovely quaint French girl who lived with us for many moons a few years ago. My charms. They hold so much weight it's a miracle my neck doesn't break. Miracles, and the fact that I never step on pavement cracks.

26 January 2012


I've been getting in too deep again. I wrote about them for a little project, and I thought it would be OK this time. I thought I'd move on quick, pretty well unscathed. But Ted and Sylvia always get me. Before I know it I'm listening to him read Lovesong over and over on youtube. I have a compulsion. It's the spider bite smiles, the promises that take off the top of his skull which the lover makes into a brooch, the heads like halves of lopped melons. It's Ted's voice free from any finalising tone, just stopping in the air, at the last line: In the morning they wore each other's face. I had to find the antidote to this heart-wrench.

So from lopped melons to moon-whales. I went to the children's section of the Poetry Library and took out a copy of Ted's Moon-Whales to pull myself out of the myth and just be a kid who likes words and weird things. I also wanted to look at some pictures. I picked out the version that is illustrated by Chris Riddell. His artwork is so distinctive and immediately takes me back to me being the dorkiest of kids, nicking The Edge Chronicles that were ostensibly bought for my brothers, my favourite being the Twig trilogy. His full-page Moon-Whales illustrations that spread out and into Ted's poems are rather moon-magnificent.

Who couldn't escape from an overwrought Ted rut reading about a Moon-Haggis with its 'crazy/Cruel hiccup'? Precisely. There is a moon counterpart to everything. Moon-flowers, moon-weather, moon-illnesses, moon-witches. Everything a kid can see and hear and feel and imagine. The Moon-Hyena shrieks 'laughter of dark hell,/Mad laughter of a skull'; it is wild and a little scary 'yet it is so full of love and joy that sing it must, or bust'. Interestingly, John Burnside wrote that his totem animal is the hyena only this week. Ted's totem has come to be the fox, though I think he has much more of the badger about him.

Moon-Whales is all about horrors. Perhaps not quite the antidote I foresaw. But Ted forces these horrors into rhymes, into songs. They don't all have happy endings but they are undauntedly, unwaveringly curious and quick, celebrating the odd and fantastical. The world is seen through a moon-mirror. It is dark and mad and funny and peculiar. It is not just for children.