Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: For the Year's Midnight by Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald is a very interesting poet - when she gives a reading she recites all her poetry from memory without a prompt, and she has a particular style that comes from older traditions of oral poetry.  This poem - Tithonus: For the Year's Midnight - is a solstice poem specially commissioned and performed at the South Bank with music on the nykelharp by Griselda Sanderston.  It lasts exactly as long as the midsummer dawn, linking the two solstices, and telling the story of Tithonus who fell in love with Alba (dawn).  Alba begged Zeus to make him immortal so that they could be together for eternity, but she forgot to also ask for eternal youth.   This BBC radio version of the poem is introduced by the poet Paul Farley, who is one of my colleagues at Lancaster University.

This is the link:

Alice Oswald:  The Guardian

The Tuesday Poem is on holiday until January, but if you'd like to have a look at what they've been posting during 2014 please follow this link.  

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Christmas Selfie

It wouldn't be Christmas without the obligatory selfie!  Neil and I have been going for a walk on Christmas day (whatever the weather!) and taking photos of ourselves for more than twenty years - propping cameras on walls and dashing back to pose without panting too obviously.  We have quite a few shots of the sky and blurred rocks, but also quite a collection of ourselves huddled in anoraks (Lake District weather is not clement in December) behind walls and on sodden hillsides - even one in a blizzard.

Neil and Kathy on Christmas day
This year I'm in Italy to spend Christmas with Neil.  Since I began work at Lancaster University in November, Neil has been forced to wash his own socks and cook his own meals, so the prospect of having someone to do it for him has been very welcome.  We don't go in for presents, but this year I got a collection of chocolates - so I think he's glad to see me!

We ate our Christmas lunch on a wild stretch of beach between Torre del Lago and Viareggio. Smoked salmon sandwiches, frittata, prosciutto and a bottle of prosecco.  And we sat and watched a grey and turbulent Mediterranean roll in towards us.  We had it all to ourselves.  Utter bliss.

Picnicking on a wild stretch of beach
Experts will note the John Lewis picnic backpack, (for professional picknickers) which was a Christmas present from daughter No 3 a few years ago.  There's even a cheese board and a wine cooler!

Wishing everyone the very best of whatever festival you celebrate at this time of year, and a very healthy and happy 2015.  

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: The Peace of Wild Things - Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, Wendell Berry

Katherine Mansfield once wrote 'the mind that I love must have wild places'.   I feel like that too - the need for solitude and the wild (both inside and outside). Christmas is a time when solitude can seem very hard to find! 

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips's claims that  'cultivating a capacity for "fertile solitude" is essential for creative work' 

The poet Wendell Berry, in a series of essays called 'What are People for?'  talks about  'the ennobling effects of solitude . . . gained only by surrendering to nature's gentle gift for quieting the mind:

“We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness...  True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.'

If you'd like to read more - there are two marvellous blogs on the subject with more of Berry's work.  One is at 'How the Light Gets In' 
The other is 'Brain Pickings Weekly'  'Wendell Berry on Solitude' 

For more Tuesday Poems from around the world, please visit the Tuesday Poem Hub where this week's main post is Emily Bronte 'No Coward Soul is Mine' - a poet who really knew about solitude. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Catherine Cookson Surprise

One of the nice things about writing biography is that a lot of the people you meet during your research keep in touch with you afterwards.  You suddenly have a circle of new friends and sometimes even become an honorary family member.  The Catherine Cookson biography was one of those.  I met some lovely people, particularly among Catherine's wider family.
Catherine Cookson with her beloved husband Tom 

Last week, as I was packing up to come to Italy for Christmas the telephone rang and it was one of Catherine's cousins from Australia who just happened to be staying in Cumbria for a couple of days and could she come and visit me with her husband?  It was a lovely surprise.  I flashed round with the duster and the hoover (does any writer have a tidy house?) put the kettle on and whizzed out to the Spar for some chocolate biscuits before they arrived.

The Australian Cookson Cousins, looking rather damp and cold on a bleak, Cumbrian winter's day.
It was a really interesting morning.  It turned out that both husband and wife were Catherine's cousins, through her husband Tom Cookson, and they shared stories of visits to Catherine's home when they were young and she was their much loved  'Aunt Kitty'.  I was able to give them copies of photographs and birth certificates and other family material you accumulate when you write someone's life story and it's all now on its way to Australia.

Such a nice surprise for a gloomy winter morning!  And it's spurred me on to revise my Cookson biography for re-publication after Random House withdrew their permission to quote from some of Catherine's novels and made it impossible to reprint the original.  When I get back to the UK after Christmas, I'm going to re-write the book without the quotes, but including all the new information that I have from family and friends. Watch this space!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: Being here, by Vincent O'Sullivan, New Zealand Poet Laureate

Tuesday Poem: Being here, by Vincent O'Sullivan, New Zealand Poe...:

It has to be a thin world surely if you ask for

an emblem at every turn, if you cannot see bees

arcing and mining the soft decaying galaxies

of the laden apricot tree without wanting

symbols – which of course are manifold – symbols

of so much else? What’s amiss with simply the huddle

and glut of bees, with those fuzzed globes

by the hundred and the clipped out sky

beyond them and the leaves that are black

if you angle the sun directly behind them,

being themselves, for themselves? I hold out

my palms like the opened pages of a book

and you pile apricots on them stacked three

deep, we ask just who can we give them to

round here who hasn’t had their whack of apricots

as it is? And I let my hands tilt and the plastic

bag that you hold rustles and plumps with their

rush, I hold one back and bite into it and its

taste is the taste of the colour exactly, and this

hour precisely, and memory I expect is storing

for an afternoon far removed from here

when the warm furred almost weightlessness

of the fruit I hold might very well be a symbol

of what’s lost and we keep wanting, which after

all is to crave the real, the branches cutting

across the sun, your standing there while I tell you,

‘Come on, you have to try one!’, and you do,

and the clamour of bees goes on above us, ‘This

will do’, both of us saying, ‘like this, being here!’

From Further Convictions Pending: Poems 1998–2008 by Vincent O’Sullivan. Posted with permission.

Helen McKinley has posted this on the Tuesday Poem website and I wanted to share it because it's so good. The second half of the blog is an interview with Vincent Sullivan - very well worth reading.  This is one of my favourite quotes.

'Some very good poets, like Robert Graves, insist that the least a poem should do is to make good prose sense. Others think quite the contrary – Wallace Stevens’ remark, for example, that ‘poetry should resist the intelligence almost successfully.’ The overarching fact of poetry is that it offers a swathe of possibilities, from total clarity to the most elusive symbolism. There’s no obligation to admire every kind of poetry, and there’ll always be enough of what we do care for us not to fret about what we don’t.'

If you'd like to read the whole interview you can do so here. . . . .

Monday, 8 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: The Moth Magazine - review

There are so many little poetry magazines, it's impossible to subscribe to them all.  I tend to pick and choose - buying one issue to see if I like it before I order a year's worth. Then next year I subscribe to another.  I've tried Magma, Poetry London, Poetry Review, Domestic Cherry, The Interpreter's House,  Rialto, and currently I'm trying out The Moth.

The Moth has beautiful covers
The Moth originates in Ireland, edited by Rebecca O'Connor and Will Govan, and it looks beautiful as well as containing a wide range of writing from all over the world.  The current issue contains an interview with Billy Collins, fiction by Sharon Boyle and some interesting poetry.  'The fish I would like to meet' by Catherine Ayres, vied for best title with 'The War Reporter Paul Watson's Obsession with Combat Sex' by Dan O'Brien and 'Ghazal of the Tonsured-in-Denial' by Killian O'Donnell.  The Moth website is showcasing one poem from the magazine - 'After Eavesdropping at the Temple' by Mike Casetta - (though not one of my favourites from this issue)

I pressed my ear against the wall
I heard a candle flame

sing a torch song to the sun
Burning in love

I beseech you
to let this burning

be how I reach you.
A gung ho moth yelled,

before flying headlong

into the fire.
I cringed when I heard it sizzle.

I flinched when another moth shouted,

& ran amuck in the belfry.
Cherubic laughter rang out

& kneaded manna
out of apparently nothing

as apparently nothing
needed kneading.

I started to speak in tongues
but so far I am able to bite each one.

The poetry is never boring, or middle of the road, or pompous, or precious, but it is clever and full of surprises. The quality of both the poetry and fiction is very high.  The magazine looks as good as it reads - whoever illustrates it is doing a fabulous job.  I also liked the fact that there's no long roll call of contributors showing off in the back.  Just their names.  The work speaks for itself.   It's a magazine I'd love to find mine in.  Submission criteria here. 

The Tuesday Poets are a group of 28 poets posting poetry from around the world every Tuesday. To find out what the rest of them are up to, please click on this link. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Secretly Scribbling

My mother’s younger sister, Aunt Joyce, died recently and on Monday I went to her funeral - a beautiful Humanist ceremony conducted in the hall just over the road from her home and attended by all her friends and family.  Afterwards we all had tea in her favourite tea-room.  It was as good as funerals get, but also rather sad because she was the last of my mother’s generation.  There’s no one left now to answer all those ‘do you remember?’ questions; no one to tell us who that strange woman in the hat was at the back of that photograph in 1935; no one to explain what happened to the uncle no one talked about.  And we, the next generation of family elders, were very conscious of our new roles as keepers of the family story, sharing memories and – sometimes – secrets.
Joyce and her older sister Ella - the blonde and the brunette
My mother had the reputation of being the bookworm of the family – addicted to books, she kept a record of her reading for almost 60 years, loving both poetry and prose. She never tried to write anything herself – not even a line of poetry, though she could recite reams of Shakespeare and Tennyson.  Mum’s younger sister liked to read, but wasn’t known for being ‘bookish’. So it was quite a surprise when, after her death, her son found an exercise book among her things called ‘Poems and Thoughts’.  Inside were all the poems she’d written over the years, secretly scribbling.

My mother's notebooks
One of them was a poem about my mother – the older sister she envied for her dark curly hair and her academic ability.  Joyce was blonde in a family of dark Anglo-Italians and never settled at school.  There was also a moving poem about nursing a husband (who hadn’t always treated her well) through Alzheimer’s.  They are very good poems – one of them read out at her funeral. How sad that she couldn’t share them during her life-time.

Poetry is a safety valve - something we turn to for emotional release. How many people scribble secretly?

PS - I was intrigued to discover that Aunt Joyce had read my novel The Sun's Companion - which included childhood memories of my grandmother and some of her friends - and she had recognised everyone. Not quite as fictional as I'd intended then!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

One Lovely Blog Award - some blogs you might like

I've been nominated, by novelist Jane Davis, for the One Lovely Blog Award - a meme, but a good one because it suggests blogs you might never have found.  I have lots of favourite blogs, so I'm including only a quick selection here.

I'm very impressed with Gerry's blog 'That's How the Light Gets In' - discussions of art and poetry that go more deeply into creative things than blogs usually do.  This week he's talking about the paintings of Anselm Keifer and the poetry of Paul Celan.  I always come away with something to think about after reading his blog.

If you're a novice writer, creative writing student, creative writing tutor, or just someone interested in another writer's take on the nuts and bolts of the business, you can't do better than Emma Darwin's 'This Itch of Writing'. 

I like writers' journals and blogs that are online journals, so Sarah Salway's blog, 'Sarah's Writing Journal', is one I look at regularly.

Then there's Wendy Robertson's 'Life Twice Tasted', (a quote from Anais Nin).  Wendy's blog is an honest reflection of the ups and downs of the writing life and the amount of work that goes into researching a novel.  Wendy is a best-selling author with more than 25 published books, who has enthusiastically embraced e-publishing, creating an organisation called 'Room to Write' in partnership with other North Eastern authors.

And where would we be without readers?  I love Mel U's 'The Reading Life'.  He shares a wide range of books (where he gets the time to read all of them perplexes me!) both classics and contemporary. I re-discover old favourites and find new ones to read too. One of the best book review blogs because he chooses what he's going to read across the whole spectrum of literature according to a particular literary journey he's on - at one point it was short stories, at another Irish literature.

Finally, there's The Bone Garden, the blog associated with Sharon Blackie's 'Re-enchanting the Earth' web site - because we need some magic and re-enchantment in our lives.  She quotes DH Lawrence -
". . . we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table.'

 Happy bloghopping everyone!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Tuesday Poem: Marinero Soy de Amor - setting of a poem by Cervantes

Marinero soy de amor
y en su piélago profundo
navego sin esperanza
de llegar a puerto alguno.

Siguiendo voy a una estrella
que desde lejos descubro,
más bella y resplandeciente
que cuantas vio Palinuro.

Yo no sé adónde me guía
y, así, navego confuso,
el alma a mirarla atenta,
cuidadosa y con descuido.
Recatos impertinentes,
honestidad contra el uso,
son nubes que me la encubren
cuando más verla procuro.

Oh clara y luciente estrella
en cuya lumbre me apuro!
Al punto que te me encubras,
será de mi muerte el punto.

This poem is by the Spanish poet and novelist Miguel de Cervantes and was set to music by 'anonymous', in the Spanish/Portuguese Sephardic tradition.  The result is a haunting folk song embodying what the Portuguese call 'Saudade' a mixture of longing, loss and homesickness - profound melancholy.  It's the music of exile.

The Tuesday Poets are a group of 28 poets from around the world who post a poem every Tuesday.  We're all very different!  To see what everyone's sharing, please click over to the Tuesday Poem website. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Afternoon on the river

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote that ‘to know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience’.  He thought that it was important for a poet to know every inch of their own acre in depth.  Observation is everything.

Spot the heron in the middle of the weir!
This is my acre. I’ve lived here for over twenty one years and I’ve walked along this river bank at least once a week for almost the whole of that time. The river is the first thing I see when I wake in the morning and the hushing noise of water over the weir lulls me to sleep at night.  In summer it glitters and sparkles; in winter it turns into a thundering brown torrent that sometimes runs through the ground floor.

Winter birch trees reflected in the river today
For the last three years I’ve been based in Italy and only back at the Mill once a month - occasionally for longer periods.  But a couple of weeks ago, when I was in New Zealand, I was asked if I’d like to have my RLF Fellowship at Lancaster University back. The answer, for a number of complicated reasons, was yes.  So here I am, on the river bank again, re-discovering my territory.

The river is looking its best in autumn and, even though most of the trees have shed their leaves, there’s the occasional torch still staring at its golden reflection.

The resident heron has his/her pitch on the weir, fending off all competition, though there’s another one hiding a few hundred yards downstream.

And the otters are still here.  A few days ago I was drinking my early cup of tea in bed watching the heron fishing on the edge of the weir, when suddenly there was a swirl and a flourish in the water directly under his beak.   The heron reared back in astonishment as the head of an otter emerged from the river to look at him before diving again.  The heron took flight, but the otter stayed in what was obviously rich fishing territory, rolling and diving like a seal, before heading back upriver.

Today the heron was about a mile further up where the river broadens out under shaded banks, the only evidence a big disturbance in the water and that familiar sleek body curving up and then down - gone before you can even think of getting a camera out.

Such glimpses of the wild are gifts.

A leaf floating among the clouds and trees reflected in the water.

Friday, 21 November 2014

National Short Story Week: Last Days, Lost Ways

This week is National Short Story Week in the UK - a time to celebrate short fiction, one of the most challenging and respected of literary art forms, though not one of the most lucrative.  Since commercial publishers turned their backs on the short story a couple of decades ago, it has been kept alive in little poetry magazines and boutique literary presses - usually surviving on Arts Council Grants. A few years ago its existence was considered to  be under such threat the Arts Council mounted a huge online campaign called 'Save Our Short Story'. Extinction seemed imminent.  But there are recent signs of a revival - mainly because it has been flourishing underground in the 'Indie' sector of publishing.

The ability to Self, or Indie, publish via Amazon, Lulu, Lightning Source, Smash Words and other paperback and E-publishing platforms, has left authors free to experiment with the short form - if you aren't going to be paid for it anyway, why not have fun?   Flash fiction, novels for mobile phones, Tweet Fiction - it's all out there.  Writers are sharing them on Wattpad, blogging them, Tweeting them and getting them into every sort of print, ink or digital.  There have been some notable successes - Northern author Avril Joy (above) was one of the first Indie authors to win the coveted Costa Prize with her story Millie and Bird. 

A couple of weeks ago, Authors Electric author Alice Jolly won the Royal Society of Literature's prestigious V.S. Pritchett short story award (judged by Margaret Drabble) with her story Ray the Rottweiler. Both authors have been forced into the Indie publishing sector because commercial publishers have rejected their work.

The last couple of weeks has also seen the launch of one of the first Indie short story collections, curated and published by the Awesome Indies collective, based in Australia.  Last Days, Lost Ways includes authors from all over the world and covers the whole spectrum of fiction genres - fantasy, speculative, historical, autobiographical, crime and flash. It's a serendipity mix - readers won't like every story, but everyone will find something to wow them. I was lucky enough to get two stories accepted for the anthology - one contemporary, one historical, so I have to declare an interest!  Stories I particularly liked included A Matter of Trust, creative non-fiction from American author Colleen Grimes, and Recipe for a Dinner Party where New Zealander Shauna Bickley cooks up a storm for her errant husband.

Some of the books I've enjoyed most lately have been short story collections.  One in particular stands out - by Irish author Nuala Ni Chonchuir - To the World of Men, Welcome.  A female author looks at the world with men's eyes and explores gender myths and stereotypes. The result is brilliant!

I also loved this one, Harvest, an Indie published collection of short-short and flash fiction from Kenyan American author Amanya Maloba.  As the title suggests, a lot of the stories are about food and our relationship with it.

Also recommended is a small press publication (if you like horror) of a short story by Elizabeth Stott 'Touch me with your cold, hard fingers'.   It's a limited edition difficult to get hold of, but her collection 'This Heat' is available through Amazon. 

And if you like short stories you'll love the little magazine FireWords  - crammed with interesting new fiction.

A couple more that might interest, including a Christmas short story collection just launched by Debbie Young (plus a shameless plug for my own Three and Other Stories!):

Debbie Young's Stocking Fillers, Just launched in time for Christmas

Monday, 17 November 2014

Tuesday Poem: Simon Armitage - The Great War - An Elegy

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, Simon Armitage was commissioned to make a documentary for the Culture Show.  He chose 7 stories, based on the letters and journals of ordinary men and women involved in the war, and wrote a sequence of poems which he reads for the programme.  This is the first of 4 short parts - I've given links below to the other 3 if anyone wants to see the whole thing. It's a fantastic documentary from a wonderful poet.

Part 2/4  Link is

Part 3/4 Link is

Part 4/4 Link is

There are 28 Tuesday Poets from across the world and we all try to post something on Tuesday. If you'd like to see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting please click over to the Tuesday Poem hub to read what's being featured.  This week's hub poem is 'Outpost' by Lindsay Pope

'The coast is a scribble. Stars are stored in a
wooden box on my shelf. It is more black than
white here. Like algebra but colder. . . .
Read More . . .

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hello Lancaster! A new beginning.

Well, it's day 2 of my new job at Lancaster University as Royal Literary Fund Fellow.  I've got an email address, a car parking permit, a computer, a coffee mug and a beautiful new office.  All I need now are students . . . whoops!  I mean Clients. Because we are in a new age of higher education and there's been a power-shift.  Fee-paying students have now become consumers.

This is my new office - the view isn't much but it faces southwest, so I get a lot of light.  There's even a comfy armchair in the corner for reading.

It's 3 years since I left Lancaster to go to Italy - 2 weeks since I was offered my post back - an email out of the blue while I was in New Zealand.  I did wonder if I was doing the right thing in accepting, but I'm surprised to find that I feel very much at home.  I'm not looking forward to the dark morning and late evening drives to and fro across the icy moors during the winter but there's peace and quiet here, space to work and a wonderful library just a few minutes walk through the campus.

All I need now are some students . . . I mean Clients!

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Tuesday Poem: Vanishing Point by Clare Crossman

On Northend Field at the crossroads behind
an ancient chestnut tree, a gate opens on to ten acres
stretching toward an eastward slipping road.

I go there when I'm unsure.
A green tunnel of trees opens
to where the wind blows a straight path.

Here's where Tudor kings listened to larks,
that still sing heedlessly, staking their ground,
between a seed factory and a black barn.

Never far from water:  there is a chalk stream,
tracing the sound of rain over gravel and disappearing
into land so flat it's an entirely empty page.

Under my feet silver coins were discovered
in the parsnip furrows.  There is nothing to fence
me in but air and a sky.

Out here in the world it is just an ordinary day.
Somewhere behind me a window opens
and ditches trace the edges of the vista.

Wires sing along the hedges;
in the distance two horses canter away
through the long grass at vanishing point.

Copyright - Clare Crossman, Vanishing Point
Published by Shoestring Press, 2013

When I was back in England earlier this year I heard Clare read from this collection and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Clare has a quiet gift for describing landscapes that shape themselves on the page like paintings. One of the long sequences in the collection, Artists Books, explores the way visual images are committed to paper by painter, printer and poet.
'Trees shudder to bareness,
their shapes dissolve.
Suddenly everything is colour . . .'

The people who inhabit Clare's landscapes are gently drawn.  This is Verity -
'She is brought into the ward barefoot,
someone on either side, her index finger
browned from rolling cigarettes. . .'

Zarrin is characterised by her Ossie Clark dress:
'. . . deep blue crepe
with a red satin sash and a neckline
feathered with hand-sewn overlapping leaves.'

Most of these poems have a contemplative feel and the poet's eye is often turned inwards.  The best poems are the long sequences - in particular The Night Ship which is a prize-winning series of poems set in the surreal world of a mental health hospital.
'On the night ship, keys for
drug-cupboards are the life-belts
tied on the watchman's waist.'

The characters who travel on it have complicated pasts and unique ways of looking at the world beyond the locked doors that are both internal and external.

'When neighbours ask she won't let them in,
makes a shrine of tree roots in the house.
When the ambulance comes, they
find her wrapped in an old blanket,
ready for leaving.'

Other reviewers have described Clare's poems in this collection as 'beautiful and unsettling' and I would agree with this.

You can find Clare Crossman's website here.

If you'd like to see what other Tuesday Poets are posting, please take the time to click over to the main hub here.  We're a group of 28 poets from around the world, New Zealand, USA, Europe, West Africa, Australia and Canada - it's a glorious mix! 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Environmental disaster in Italy

Just emerging from the fog of jet-lag after the long flight back from New Zealand via Singapore.  I hadn't even managed to unpack my suitcases when a friend, laden with shopping bags of bottled water, told us the unwelcome news that our water supply was contaminated with a poisonous - and possibly radioactive - substance called Thallium.  Out for a pizza, since there wasn't anything in the cupboard and I was too woozy to cook anyway, we had missed the police touring the streets the previous evening with loud-hailers as well as the television warnings.

But it's all on the internet.  Thallium is used as a rat poison - and also extensively in mining and industrial processes.  Here, in Pietrasanta, we're directly below some of the marble 'caves' and quarries.  The water, which we believed was pure - and tastes beautiful - comes down from the mountains.  Many of the 'caves' have big tailing ponds outside, so there's some local speculation that the recent catastrophic floods caused by extreme rainfall on Wednesday have caused contamination of the aquifers that supply drinking water. But it may be something else entirely.  No-one knows.

Most of Carrara was underwater after 6 inches of rain fell in few hours.
What's even more worrying is that the contamination was apparently first revealed by a private individual who (for reasons we don't know) paid to have his water tested and then blew the whistle. Who knows how long we've been drinking poisoned water?

So now we're forbidden to drink it, told not to use it in food preparation or cooking and advised not even to brush our teeth with it!  Water dowsers are being parked up in the piazzas and other public places and we have to fill containers from them.  Restaurants and bars have big problems.

Retained water, outside a quarry in the Alpi Apuane, used in the marble cutting process.
Quarrying on Mount Altissimo
If the source of the pollution proves to be the mining industry it will certainly add to the big campaign here to stop the destruction of the Alpi Apuani by extensive marble quarrying.  The mountains are being mined from within and also from the summit down, as in the picture above, where Mount Altissimo is being taken down block by block. But this is all speculation at the moment and we may never know where the contamination came from.

Carrara and the Mediterranean from the quarried out Alpi Apuane
This is such a beautiful place, but it just illustrates what damage human activity is doing to the planet - poisoning the eco-sytem that supports us.  The water problem will cost a great deal of money to put right, which will probably in the end have to be funded by the Italian people, not the water company that supplies it.  Italy is in deep economic trouble already.  There were demonstrations in Viareggio yesterday against hikes in nursery fees, school buses and school meals; demonstrations in Carrara (which was devastated by the recent 'bomba d'aqua') against the lack of action in providing flood defences.
I'm flying back to northern England tomorrow (brrrrrrrr......) leaving behind a difficult situation - but at least I'll be able to drink the water.  Though recent revelations leaked to the press about the state of the Sellafield Nuclear Processing Plant's containment tanks make me worry that the pristine environment of Cumbria's Lake District could soon be compromised.  Human beings simply can't be trusted with dangerous chemicals.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Making a House of Words - Writers in Exile

I'm reblogging my post for Authors Electric, two days ago, on the mixed feelings I have when travelling - the conflict between longing and belonging.  It's a problem for a lot of writers, but it's produced some fine writing. 

“I’m in New Zealand at the moment visiting relatives and friends and re-visiting much loved locations. It's a weird sensation being in a place where I've spent so much time over the years, but yet can never properly belong. There's a sense of both homecoming and exile.

Janet Frame
Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s best-known writers, wrote that ‘All writers are exiles wherever they live . . . and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land.’*1  Perhaps this is because, as writers, we have to stand outside our own experience and look at it objectively in order to write about it. We're always trying to get back to the 'lost land', those moments experienced and gone, at the core of our imaginative lives.

But many of us are also physical exiles. Few people live in the place where they were brought up and the moment you move away from your native territory and look at it from the outside things will never be the same again.  Your mind is always in two places at any one time.  The writer Edward Said - born in Palestine and an exile since 1947 - wrote that what we do as writers is ‘by necessity’, to make ourselves ‘a house of words’ to dwell in.*2

This is what the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield did when she emigrated to Europe at 18 leaving Wellington behind.  She couldn’t wait to leave such a dull, parochial place, but spent her whole writing life trying to recreate it.

Katherine Mansfield, writing at Menton
‘What is it that I do want to write?’ she asked her journal while living in France. And the answer was New Zealand. ‘Now, I want to write recollections of my own country. . . I want . . . to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the old world.’ Her New Zealand stories, Prelude, At the Bay, The Dolls House, are among the best short stories ever written.*3

Later, when she was dying of TB in her early thirties she decided that it did a writer no good to be transplanted.  Roots, she declared, were vitally important to the depth of our writing.  If we can't connect with them, ‘One reaps the glittering top of the field, but there are no sheaves to bind.’

Since I left my home in Northern England as a teenager, it’s a question I’ve spent a life-time trying to answer.  I’ve scribbled in the damp heat of an African rainy season, the scorching blast of a middle-eastern summer, snow in Scotland, 24 hour daylight in Russia, a rocky sea-shore in western Australia, monsoon in India, trains and ships and planes, an olive grove in Tuscany and currently the windy, cloudy, upside-down plains of southern New Zealand.

Wittgenstein wrote that our most powerful and formative experiences are those of our early years - the primal imprints of the landscape and social networks of our childhood.  These shape our imaginations for the whole of our adult lives. So my roots are firmly struck in the Cumbrian fells.  But I’ve spent my life as a nomad, travelling and living all over the world, gazing nostalgically back.

I recently wrote the biography of a northern poet called Norman Nicholson, born and brought up in Cumbria, who lived until he died in the same house he’d been born in.*4  Would he have been a better writer if he had moved away and gained experience and perspective?  My personal opinion was that he would.  There’s something about being able to stand outside and look in.  But Norman felt that his small town was a microcosm of the world and that he would have gained nothing if he’d lived elsewhere.  A difficult one to argue.  The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote that it took a lifetime to know just one small acre of the planet and that for a poet it was depth that mattered.

When you begin to think about it, there are an enormous number of writers who wrote in exile. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Mansfield, Ian Fleming, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, W.G. Sebald, Muriel Spark, F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . The list is endless.  So perhaps travel does, indeed, expand the mind and stimulate the creative juices.

I haven’t yet, apart from the Katherine Mansfield biography, written more than the odd poem about New Zealand, but something is beginning to shape itself into words - slowly, tentatively. So, who knows?  I may come back with something more than Whittaker’s chocolate and some beautiful photographs.  As you read this, I will be somewhere in the air over Singapore returning to Italy, en route for England, where I've just accepted another appointment as RLF Fellow in the Creative Writing Dept of Lancaster University.  Another move across Europe, yet another re-location.  The Philosopher Paul Carter wrote in Living in a New Country that, 'once the process of emigration has started, there can be no settling'*5, so it seems that all I will ever have is whatever house of words I can construct for myself."

*1 Janet Frame:  An Envoy from Mirror City
*2 Edward Said:  Out of Place
*3 Katherine Mansfield - The Storyteller
*4 Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet
*5 Quoted by Kirsty Gunn in Thorndon (another excellent book about belonging)

Monday, 3 November 2014

Tuesday Poem: After Making Love We Hear Footsteps - Galway Kinnell

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,  
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,  
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small he has to screw them on—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

Galway Kinnell, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” from Three Books.
To read the poem and hear it being read by Galway Kinnell click here

Galway Kinnell - another of those brilliant Irish American poets - has died. He was 87.  This is a poem I particularly love.

To see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting, please click over to the Tuesday Poem hub here . . . 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Christchurch Earthquake - 4 years on

The old, earthquake damaged, and the new
It's four years almost exactly since I came to Christchurch to take part in the Literature Festival and found myself in the middle of a 7.2 earthquake - experiencing weeks of aftershocks and witnessing the fracturing of a city.  A few months later, a particularly shallow magnitude 6.3 brought down many of the remaining buildings - already weakened by the earthquake swarm - and killed a significant number of people. The city centre was destroyed.

One of my 2010 photos
On my last visit, in February 2013, the city centre was a demolition site - cordoned off from the public - a landscape of skewed and damaged buildings waiting to be turned to rubble. It seemed impossible that the city could ever be reconstructed. There were even rumours that the city centre would be re-located to safer ground.  So, on this visit,  I was curious to see what had happened since then.

Christchurch City Centre 2014
Christchurch is a building site now - a developers' paradise.  There are cranes everywhere, scaffolding and piling on cleared lots.

Arts Centre
One thing that troubles me, is the length of time it seems to be taking to restore Heritage buildings. The arts centre is still shrouded in scaffolding, though work does seem to be going on there.

The Cathedral untouched - one end propped up, but no sign of restoration at all.

It's predicted that it will take the New Zealand economy almost 100 years to recover from a natural disaster of this magnitude, which I can believe, since most economies are struggling from the global economic slow-down anyway. But New Zealand's second city does seem to rising like a Phoenix out of the rubble.  This is the first time I've managed to get into Christchurch since I arrived four weeks ago.  It will be interesting to see what it looks like next time I come here.