Saturday, October 29, 2005

send them a herd of goats this Christmas

I just had to do a little piece on this Christian Aid catalogue, which is so wacky and unusual. It's an amazing collection of gift ideas, for Christmas or all-year round. There's a twist though - the gifts go to the people who need them, rather than to your friends and relatives, who will receive a Christian Aid gift card instead, with a picture to show exactly what has been bought on their behalf and how it will benefit some of the poorest people in the world.

For £30, you can buy a can of worms for Bolivian farmers to improve the soil. For only £24, a community tapstand of clean water can be installed to help prevent disease. £7 buys a vital stethoscope for Cambodian health workers and £11 provides a mosquito net for children at risk from malaria. More expensive gift ideas include: £55 for a latrine; a herd of goats to be 'revolved' from family to family for only £60; £150 to train a midwife; £370 to provide a Peruvian community with a rural library of 1000 books; earthquake-proof housing for £1,200, providing much-needed shelter for those left homeless.

You can get hold of a Present Aid catalogue by calling 0845 3300 500 during office hours. Alternatively, you can visit the Present Aid website by clicking here, and download their catalogue online.

As soon as I saw this, I knew it was a fantastic and unusual idea, so I hope that by passing it on, other people will do the same as me and send aid instead of the usual soap and socks this year.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

is poetry just another form of therapy?

Here at last are the photos and brief account of my time at the Torbay Poetry Festival that I promised you a few days ago. I'm still not entirely recovered - too much wine, not enough sleep, etc. But at least I'm able to get back to writing now. For this relief, much thanks, as I have a deadline for the middle of next month and another 15,000 words of my novel to write.

I drove down alone in the pouring rain to Torbay, as my husband was busy with work all that weekend and couldn't join me. Luckily, I already knew quite a few people there and soon made new friends from among those I didn't know, so I didn't miss him and was actually quite glad in the end that he wasn't there. Absent cats and over-active mice spring to mind!

The highlight of the festival for me was the lively debate on Saturday morning between proposer Geoffrey Godbert - 'Poetry is just another form of therapy' - and Moira Clark - 'Utter nonsense!'

My sympathies lay with Moira (and not just because she was wearing a waistcoat, which took me back to my snooker-playing days). The whole idea of poetry as therapy brings me out in a rash. Needless to say, commonsense prevailed and Moira won the debate without too much difficulty: 3 votes for, 9 against, and 10 cowardly abstentions.

Peter Porter was the guest reader at the Festival Supper, a sumptious affair which I heartily recommend for anyone thinking of attending next year. I did writhe a little at the ticket price on booking but the poetry reading by Peter Porter was excellent and highly entertaining - time to buy his Selected, I think - and the delicious three course dinner with generous amounts of wine was clearly worth every penny. I got pleasantly drunk and sat next to a man in a banker's suit who turned out to share my love of H. Rider Haggard's more obscure novels. What better way to spend an evening than discussing the literary merits of Nada the Lily over a bottle of dry white wine and a plate of raspberry pavlova?

I shall certainly try to make next year's Festival, which felt more like a warm and relaxed family reunion than a series of disparate poetry events. William and Patricia Oxley, the key organisers, managed to run the Festival in an efficient but wonderfully informal fashion, with many other helpers giving up their time to keep things moving smoothly. Patricia, of course, is editor of the intelligent and long-running Acumen poetry magazine, based in the South-West and publishing poets from all over the world. Poetry is their life, and that sense of enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge came across at every event.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

time for bed, said Zebedee

I've just returned from the Torbay Poetry Festival; here's a quick shot of the bay, taken a few hundred yards from one of the two main Festival venues, the Belgrave Hotel. Apart from the odd downpour, it was good weather for October, mild and even quite sunny on Saturday morning. I didn't need to wear a coat all weekend. I was also able to leave my car parked on the seafront for over 24 hours without getting a ticket, as there are no restrictions outside the holiday season. That proved particularly useful when I forgot my resolution not to drink too much and ended up staggering the long mile uphill to the hotel in the early hours of Saturday morning. There was a spicy beef pizza somewhere in there too, and perhaps a disagreement with a drunken Scotsman over the finer points of versification, but that story can wait for another time.

I'm still a little hung-over, if truth be told, so I won't go into too many details about the Festival itself until I've had a chance to sleep, take fluids and remember where I put my notes. Hopefully I'll manage to get some photos and text up on the blog tomorrow. Very briefly, the excellent Peter Porter was guest reader at the Festival Supper on Saturday night, there was a lively debate about poetry as therapy, and even Nelson got a look in at the Trafalgar Day readings.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

some dark little cottage

Although I should have been working, I spent an hour last night trawling through glossy brochures for British cottage holidays. Not because I want to go on holiday - what’s a holiday? - but because I’ve found that holing myself up in an isolated cottage, alone and preferably without the use of a television, helps me to write. Such isolation may not be required by people with few distractions at home - no kids, no spouse, no pets etc.. But for me, it’s a must. Once a year if I can afford it, I slope off for a long weekend or possibly a week, which is the longest I can spare away from the kids, to a tiny cottage somewhere in the most rural areas of the country. Preferably in winter when prices are cheaper and I can have an open fire in the evenings (which I love but can’t have at home because there are holes in our chimney stack and the smoke comes out horizontally instead of vertically, which fills the house with smoke).

Once installed in my dark little cottage, I tend to work until 3 or 4 in the morning most nights, sleep until about 10am, go for a walk in the crisp winter air and start work again at noon. Break for a late lunch and supper, about an hour each time. Maybe read for an hour around 11pm, to clear my head and get away from the keyboard. Then it’s back to work until my fingers hurt or I’m falling asleep over the keys.

To truly appreciate that sort of regime, I think you have to be used to living with small and/or older children, with the multiple interruptions and endless daily chores they bring - get them dressed, give them breakfast, empty the potty, wash the clothes, clean the kitchen, change the nappy, make the lunch, change the nappy again, play games, sort out the dispute over colouring pencils, mop up spillages, put on boots and coats, supervise garden playtime, wipe noses, tidy the living room, hand out Scooby snacks, handle phone calls, empty the potty, write out school permission slips, go shopping, reprogramme the telly after the baby found the remote, hang the washing out, bring the washing in, write thank-you letters and why-she-wasn’t-at-school letters to various parties, change the nappy again, read stories, make the tea, clean the kitchen, empty the potty again, get them into pyjamas etc. - all of which conspire to stop me writing or even thinking about writing for most of the day. And then I have to find time for my husband. It’s a miracle I ever get to update this blog!

I have five children, including three year old twin boys and a baby girl. I love them all dearly, and wouldn’t be without them, but some days I get up at around 6.30am with the youngest and don’t manage to start work until after lunch. Other days I don’t get to my computer until late in the evening, when the younger children are in bed and the older ones have their noses pressed to the television screen. I usually manage to write something most days, but would write a great deal more if I was secreted away in a remote cottage in the Scottish Highlands or the wilds of Cornwall for a week, with not a potty or runny nose in sight. Bliss!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


I'm utterly exhausted at the moment, so bone-tired that my eyes are trying to close even as I type this. I'm flogging myself half to death in order to complete a certain number of words on my novel before heading off to the Torbay Poetry Festival on Friday. It's odd, isn't it, how some days the words just flow, just cascade out of you, and other days you can barely look at the keyboard without wanting to retch. At the weekend, usually my most productive time, I couldn't manage more than 300 words over both days together. Yet I wrote over 2000 words yesterday, and nearly 3000 today. For no apparent reason.

I could put it down to astrological influence, of course, which is always a possibility, there being more things in heaven and earth etc., but it could also be a side-effect of having found a rhythm with this novel, like a runner 'hitting their stride'. I'm concerned, of course, that when I get back after this next weekend, my mind will be on poetry again and not prose. Which could mean disaster for this book, or it could simply inject a little grace into my prose and not affect my momentum at all. Only time will tell. Bedtime, that is. Goodnight.

Friday, October 14, 2005


This morning I found, in a local charity shop, this old Petite typewriter for children for only £0.99p. No ribbon but the stationers across the road soon provided a reel for an adult typewriter which did the job, if a little inconsistently. The kids were delighted with it. My youngest, seen hard at work here, particularly so. Her late grandmother was a prolific best-selling novelist; there’s more than a chip off the old block in her enthusiastic typing, tip of the tongue protruding.

Watching them hammer the keys took me back to my own first typewriter, not a plastic job like this one but a bona fide too-heavy-to-move manual typewriter; a battered hand-me-down with the letter ‘s’ missing on which I wrote my first novel, a kids’ fantasy which ran to about 20,000 words, the story of a caveboy who time-travels to a present day seaside resort and is befriended by a local girl who thinks he’s French. Written from the boy’s point of view, it was a similar challenge to the one Craig Raine faced when writing his Martian poetry. How to explain the sighting of a car from the point of view of someone who has not only never seen one before, but doesn’t even understand the concept of the wheel? Then there was the memorable scene where she introduces him to the traditional fish and chip supper, eaten out of newspaper on the seafront. Fantastic. I lost the manuscript long ago but I can still remember that book in some detail, I sweated over it long enough. I would have been about twelve years old at the time.

I work on a Mac now - is there anyone out there who still uses a typewriter? - but even now, the feeling’s the same. Whenever that blank document comes up on the computer screen, I’m straight back there, at that sticky-fingered toddler stage where you just feel compelled to fill up the white spaces, to leave your mark there, to create something, anything, where there was nothing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Poetry in Torbay

In just over a week’s time, I’ll be driving down to the Devon coast for the Torbay Poetry Festival. I haven’t had much time to think about it, because things have been hectic and I’m still trying to finish the novel I’ve been writing for nearly a year now. But I am looking forward to seeing some old friends at the Festival and also getting a rest from my many children. Not to mention my novel, which feels like a child some days, a monstrous uncontrollable child whom I love but can’t stand at the same time. I’ve been with it too long, I think, and need to let go.

One of the most annoying and also blessed things about writing a novel is how so many amazing ideas for other novels come to you while you’re in the midst of it all, struggling. Ideas which, at the time, appear to you like a flawless shining pearl in the darkness, beckoning you on to the bestseller list or towards the Booker Prize. All rubbish, of course, for once you begin a novel, those ideas which seemed so brilliantly luminous at the planning stages turn to dust in your hand and blow away, leaving you with nothing but the bare bones of a plot and - if you’re lucky - a good working title. Being inspired to write a 'different' novel to the one you're meant to be writing is rather like being Jesus in the wilderness, tempted with all sorts of goodies, if only you will turn away from your true path and follow evil instead. But as Jesus knew, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Of course the ideas that come in the midst of writing are not necessarily useless; rather, they’re like good friends who arrive unannounced while you’re busy with other things and need to be put off until another time, regretfully but firmly. So I scribble them down somewhere or create a document for them on my computer, and turn back to the novel in hand. Slowly, with gritted teeth.

While I'm away at the Festival, I may be tempted to turn a few of those ideas over in my head. But not too seriously; I will be there to hear poetry and drink wine, not to work. And my novel is not yet finished. Which means, as James N. Frey said in his hilarious book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, I need to say 'N'yet' to everything until it is.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Aldeburgh Festival 2005

Poets at this year's Aldeburgh Festival, 4th - 6th November 2005

Carole Bromley
Julia Casterton
Kate Clanchy
Peter Cole
Russell Edson
Roy Fisher
Rhian Gallagher
Chrissie Gittins
Lorna Goodison
Donald Hall
Michael Hamburger
Jane Hirshfield
Lorraine Mariner
Adrian Mitchell
Sinéad Morrissey
Aharon Shabtai
Penelope Shuttle
Iain Sinclair
Piotr Sommer
Michael Symmons Roberts

Musician: Steve Tromans

For more details of the Aldeburgh Festival, to read the Event Guide or make a booking, click here.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

national poetry day

It's National Poetry Day. This year's theme is The Future. But right now I'm thinking more of the past. Here's today's playlist. No apologies for content.

I Try -- Macy Gray
These Foolish Things -- Billie Holiday
Something -- The Beatles
Not The Girl You Think You Are -- Crowded House
Black Coffee -- k.d. lang
My Way -- Limp Bizkit
Shiver -- Natalie Imbruglia
Brass in pocket -- The Pretenders
All the Way to Reno -- R.E.M.
Things -- Robbie Williams
My Sarah -- Thin Lizzy
America -- Simon & Garfunkel
This Used To Be My Playground -- Madonna
Memories Of East Texas -- Michelle Shocked
Left To My Own Devices -- Pet Shop Boys
Life's What You Make It -- Talk Talk
Don't Dream It's Over -- Crowded House

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

welly and skelly

I had a fantastic time last night - shot 9-ball pool for a couple of hours, then went on to perform some of my new poetry at Night Blue Fruit at the Tin Angel in Coventry, my nearest city.

I’ve been really getting into 9-ball since going to watch a Pro Tournament on Sunday and realising how easy the game is. If the rack goes your way, that is. For instance, it seems to me that most balls will pot if you don’t welly them - as we used to say when I was playing snooker. Keep It Simple, Stupid is something to remember when playing 9-ball. And cushions are far more important than in straight pool or snooker. You have to use them on most shots, except the simplest of stuns. There’s a load of unnecessary slam-dunking goes on in 8-ball. For 9-ball, it’s cool running, easy touch, slide and glide, all pocket strength rather than welly. Not that you can’t blatter one in the far end occasionally. But even bucket pockets have been known to rattle a hard ball and spit it back out. So be aware.

Night Blue Fruit was superb, as always. The usual suspects up at the mic, a few wet-behind-the-ears readers - it’s a tough crowd for newbies!- and only one drunken heckler ejected this time, for remarking unfavourably on a poet’s genitalia. I read my new performance piece 'Night Blue Fruit at the Tin Angel', written in jaunty Skeltonics - after John Skelton, Henry VIII’s tutor and self-styled poet laureate - and got a good roar from the floor, in spite of the fact that it’s nearly 150 lines long. I didn’t have to queue for the loo once and my car was still where I’d left it by the end of the evening, with all four tyres intact. Impressive stuff.

Monday, October 03, 2005

in a net I seek to hold the wind

A Tudor moment, with a glance at Whoso list to hunt (whoever chooses to hunt). This sonnet by Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) is a personal favourite of mine. It's a loose translation of Petrarch but entirely Wyatt's own, possibly written about a clandestine affair he's reputed to have had with Anne Boleyn, speaking across the centuries of frustrated love, impossible love, love at a distance. A hind, of course, is a female deer.

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind,
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list to hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain,
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.

Noli me tangere = Do not touch me (poachers of the king's deer could expect the death penalty - as could poachers of the king's wife!)

This modern version of Whoso list to hunt comes from Hardiman Scott's edition of Wyatt's Selected Poems, which is published by Carcanet Press. Here's the back cover copy for those who'd like to know more.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), 'the first great English lyric poet', remains one of the most popular writer of Henry VIII's court, and the most romantic, given his entanglement with Anne Boleyn, which resulted - legend has it - in some of his most passionate and vulnerable poems. This book contains a representative selection of the work: all the best-loved poems and many lesser-known pieces which illuminate a complex and sophisticated sensibility. Hardiman Scott sees Wyatt as a modern poet before his time and demonstrates the impact he and his younger contemporary the Earl of Surrey had on the development of English poetry. Wyatt introduced the sonnet, terza rima and other Italian verse forms into English, and invented forms and processes of his own.

For those trying to remember the other much-anthologised poem by Wyatt, try this link to an online copy of his superb 'They flee from me that sometime did me seek'. More on Wyatt on this blog too, in an October 2007 entry.