Monday, 30 November 2015

Bears Not Bombs - and other stories

London Climate Change March
It was wild and it was wet, but that was the weather! No anarchy or water bombs.  One of the biggest demonstrations London has seen, but all went off in an orderly and good-natured way in spite of the storm. I was marching with Greenpeace and had instructions to assemble at Hyde Park Corner before joining the main march on Park Lane.
Ready for the Demo
Everyone had made an effort to be as colourful as possible and there were some very imaginative placards with good slogans including 'Make Love, Not Co2', 'Bears Not Bombs' as well as all the usual environmental quips. There was a lot of fantastic artwork to put my scribbled poster to shame. 'Disgusted of Tonbridge' put in an appearance too.

The atmosphere was like a carnival and, with more than fifty thousand people swarming into the park, it felt electric. There were polar bear processions

And even people dressed as Polar Bears.

A few zebras put in an appearance too.  Anything was possible.

I was lucky enough to be close to the old Fire Brigade Union engine they were using as a platform and able to listen to the speakers. Vivienne Westwood was electrifying (and terrifying!) accusing politicians of being criminals.  A Bangladeshi woman talked about the increasing salination of the land in her home country and how people are finding it hard to grow food.  Flooding is more frequent and in areas where communication is a problem the women have set up a network to warn each other so that their homes can be evacuated as the water rises.  The President of the Royal College of Nurses talked about the strain that climate change will put on the health service. But the star of the show was Jeremy Corbyn who in real life is a wonderful speaker and talks a lot of sense in a very authoritative way.  Climate Change, both now and in the future, is the greatest threat to international security and human well-being.

Corbyn and Westwood
When I see Labour MPs on TV spitefully accusing him of being a 'rubbish'  leader I now wonder who they are describing.  The roar of tens of thousands of voices yelling approval should reassure them that he is doing the job he was elected to do.

The diversity of the crowd was amazing. There were representatives of local councils from all over Britain, trade unions, the Royal College of Nursing, a lot of doctors, as well as environmental groups such as Save the Trees, Woodland Trust, Friends of the Earth, Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Druids, Ban Bombs, Ban Fracking, MPs of every political persuasion, but, tellingly, NOT A SINGLE CONSERVATIVE.  You might have expected that someone from the department of the environment might have come along to explain their intentions in Paris? Especially as they claim on their website . . . "We are the UK government department responsible for safeguarding our natural environment, supporting our world . . . Our broad remit means we play a major role in people's day-to-day life, from the food we eat, and the air we breathe, to the water we drink."  Their absence doesn't bode well for Paris.

There were also quite a few French people in the crowd, unable to protest in Paris.  Others were marching for French friends, with their names taped to their jackets.  In Paris thousands of shoes were arranged in the Place de la Republique to represent the people who wanted to march, but were forbidden to do so.  It is one of the most moving images I've seen.

It took me hours and hours to get home because the storms had blown trees across the railway tracks and brought down power lines.  Virgin Trains finally sent me to my destination with a small group of other travellers in a mini-bus. It was a fantastic day, and there was also the feeling that one was doing something  - even if only being one small voice in a huge crowd - but also the comfort of feeling part of a movement. As Caroline Lucas said in her speech, 'To change everything, you need everyone'.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Marching for Climate Change awareness

On Sunday I'm going to be in London for the Greenpeace 'March of the Polar Bears'.  Not so much Save the Arctic this time, more Save the World.  The March is part of a coordinated campaign in major cities all over the planet to make politicians aware of the gravity of the situation before the Climate Summit in Paris which begins next week.

I'm doing this because I'm increasingly concerned that the issue of climate change is going to be overshadowed by the Syrian crisis and discussion of whether or not we should  bomb the hell out of various middle eastern locations. The climate issue is of the utmost importance - being the catalyst for conflict all over the world and the biggest threat to our national security.  Most of the so-called 'economic migrants' from African countries are leaving because they are being starved out by extreme weather events and brutally treated by armed militias who take advantage of the fragile situation to create conflict so that they can seize 'power'. There's always money for guns. Southern Africa is experiencing a particularly bad drought at the moment - and in the north, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea are being badly affected by climate events. Poor countries (often with corrupt regimes) don't have the resources to cope with the displacement and need that climate catastrophe creates.

In Syria, climate change was the flash point for the uprising against Assad, where severe drought caused mass migration from farms to the cities. Among the homeless and jobless, protests against the government began to escalate and disaffected people were fertile ground for recruitment to what we now regard in blanket terms as 'terrorist' groups. Not all the groups fighting against Assad are Daesh - it's very complicated.

So climate change leads to conflict over scarce resources and the mass migration of hungry people. You can't bomb your way out of this.  Scientists tell us that this year we pass the red danger line of 400 mgms of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that global warming (the average) is already heading for 2 degrees (already passed in some places).  So the refugee crisis we're seeing from the Middle East and Africa is only a fraction of the displacement we are likely to see in the next decade. Does that scare you?  It does me. But there is still time to act.  I want the government to know that I care, passionately about the future of my children and grandchildren.

That's why I'll be standing on a street in London on Sunday morning with my placard, in the rain, just one small person trying to stand up for what I believe in.

Not so much the Arctic - more the World!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Tuesday Poem: Democracy by Dorianne Laux

With thanks to Jo Bell for sharing this poem, which I hadn't read before.
Refugee, Italy 2015
When you’re cold—November, the streets icy and everyone you pass
homeless, Goodwill coats and Hefty bags torn up to make ponchos—
someone is always at the pay phone, hunched over the receiver

spewing winter’s germs, swollen lipped, face chapped, making the last
tired connection of the day. You keep walking to keep the cold
at bay, too cold to wait for the bus, too depressing the thought

of entering that blue light, the chilled eyes watching you decide
which seat to take: the man with one leg, his crutches bumping
the smudged window glass, the woman with her purse clutched

to her breasts like a dead child, the boy, pimpled, morose, his head
shorn, a swastika carved into the stubble, staring you down.
So you walk into the cold you know: the wind, indifferent blade,

familiar, the gold leaves heaped along the gutters. You have
a home, a house with gas heat, a toilet that flushes. You have
a credit card, cash. You could take a taxi if one would show up.

Homeless girl, Victoria, British Columbia
You can feel it now: why people become Republicans: Get that dog
off the street. Remove that spit and graffiti. Arrest those people huddled
on the steps of the church. If it weren’t for them you could believe in god,

in freedom, the bus would appear and open its doors, the driver dressed
in his tan uniform, pants legs creased, dapper hat: Hello Miss, watch
your step now. But you’re not a Republican. You’re only tired, hungry,

you want out of the cold. So you give up, walk back, step into line behind
the grubby vet who hides a bag of wine under his pea coat, holds out
his grimy 85 cents, takes each step slow as he pleases, releases his coins

into the box and waits as they chink down the chute, stakes out a seat
in the back and eases his body into the stained vinyl to dream
as the chips of shrapnel in his knee warm up and his good leg

flops into the aisle. And you’ll doze off, too, in a while, next to the girl
who can’t sit still, who listens to her Walkman and taps her boots
to a rhythm you can’t hear, but you can see it—when she bops

her head and her hands do a jive in the air—you can feel it
as the bus rolls on, stopping at each red light in a long wheeze,
jerking and idling, rumbling up and lurching off again.

Dorianne Laux, “Democracy” from Facts About The Moon. Copyright © 2007 by Dorianne Laux.  With thanks to the Poetry Foundation

TheTuesday Poets are an international group, based in New Zealand, who try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the hub.  If you'd like to see what the others are posting, please click on this link. 

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Irish Stories of Mary Costello

Running a reading group has been a revelation for me.  The pressure of finding a new short story every week has taken me into areas of literature I wouldn't normally have ventured. And, without the recommendation of a friend, I wouldn't have found the wonderful Irish writer, Mary Costello. Elizabeth Stott, who writes short stories herself, recommended a collection called The China Factory, published by a small Dublin publishing house, Stinging Fly Press.  It came with a blindingly good endorsement from Anne Enright in The Guardian comparing the author to Alice Munro and talking about 'the accumulation of tiny pleasures', 'a satisfying and accomplished debut', and perhaps most perceptively, 'There is a kind of immaculate suburban sadness in many of these tales'.

Because this is the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, and the characters, still rooted in an older culture, are still inhibited by old customs and moralities, unsure of their identities, like battery chickens stepping out of the open cage for the first time. The events of the stories are the stuff of ordinary lives - a girl about to leave for college, taking a summer job in a china factory; the death of a child that breaks a marriage; a man in an unfulfilled relationship who builds a fantasy around a woman he once met; a girl who gives up her child for adoption.

This is Irish writing - easy dialogue that always says more than the words on the page, prose rich with images, every sentence poised musically against the others.  It has left me wanting to read more work by this writer  (she has a debut novel, Academy Street) and also asking the question, what is it about the Irish that makes them so good with words?

In an interview  for the Irish Arts Council, Mary Costello talks about writing the stories that make up this collection. She speaks with a characteristic humility.

"The greatest challenge with writing in general was - and is - self-doubt. For years I doubted that I had anything worth saying or any story worth telling, and even if I did, who would want to read it! I think this is a common enough anxiety in writers. And when you think about it, it’s not surprising, because it is absurd to think that anyone would want to read the stuff that rattles around inside our heads. Who do we think we are anyway? And what a cheek to expect complete strangers to invest time and money in reading our random imaginings. And yet we do it. Something in us needs to be heard . ."

She works hard and I was interested to find that she thinks 'voice' and 'tone' are the most important elements in a short story.

"The first draft is tough. Finding the right voice and tone is crucial. You have to be patient. You have an image of how the story should be, how the voice should sound, but of course the effort to execute these falls way short. So you keep at it and maybe something starts to show itself. Occasionally, you’re lucky and you hit on the voice early on, and things are a small bit easier then."

Mary admits that her primary influences are Alice Munro and J.M. Coetzee.  Her advice to new authors was once given to her:  "Write with your heart and don’t be afraid to bleed."

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Tuesday Poem - Ewan MacColl 'Moving On'.

'You better get born in some place else,
Move along, getalong, move, shift - Go!'

This is the ultimate song about social prejudice, racism and unwanted people - as applicable to refugees as it was to travellers - written by Ewan MacColl, sung here by the MacColl brothers, Chris Wood and beautiful descant by Karine Polwart.

The Tuesday Poets are an international group who try to post something poetry related every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main 'hub'.  If you'd like to see what the others are up to, please click on this link. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

Remembrance Day Tuesday Poem: Here Bullet by Brian Turner


If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

© 2005, Brian Turner
From: Here, Bullet
Publisher: Alice James Books, Farmington, ME, 2005

The collection Here Bullet chronicles Brian Turner's time as a serving soldier in the US army in Iraq.  It records the realities of war rather than philosophical musings about the rights and wrongs of armed conflict and the poem aren't sanitized for the squeamish reader. If we allow our governments to wage war and fund our armed forces to fight then we need to know what we are sending them into.

The wonderful thing about the poems in this collection is the way the poems engage with traditional Arabic poetry - its themes and forms. There are two other collections, Phantom Noise (which deals with post-traumatic stress) and My Life as a Foreign Country.

For more about Brian Turner and his poetry click here. 

The Tuesday Poets are an international group, based in New Zealand, who aim to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main website.  If you'd like to see what we're all posting this week please click here to go to the Hub. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

For the Love of Books

I've had a very busy two or three weeks - flat out with workshops, publisher's deadlines, academic work, and a half term spent with my two youngest grandchildren revising my child-minding skills. There was also a whole day spent on a train (5 hours each way) for a three hour meeting in wildest Wales.   But it was a good week in other ways.

It's not often that the readers of your books write to you and tell you that they liked them, but this week I've had no fewer than four letters or emails saying thank you. Staggering through the door on a wet autumn night with heavy book bags, totally exhausted, with a heap of damp mail clutched with gloves and keys, it gives you a real lift when you find, among the bills, a handwritten letter telling you how your book made someone happy.

As writers we more often have to take the knocks - the one star reviews on Amazon, critical reports from editors and agents, rejections from magazines - and so it's utterly marvelous to hear from a reader whose life you touched.  It's made me realise that, as a reader, I should be more pro-active in letting the author know I rated their book.  I don't get much time for reviewing these days, but I feel I should do more. It's such a wonderful morale booster!  So, thank you to all those fantastic readers who took the time to make my week.  One reader even sent me a photograph of his cat sleeping on the NZ edition of my Katherine Mansfield biography - brilliant!  That cat has taste . . .

Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller
Kindle Edition £3.32
Paperback Edinburgh University Press  £15.99
Hardback Penguin  £25.00

Poetry - is it just prose on short lines?

It's my turn to blog over at Authors Electric - this time on the subject of poetry.  Does anyone know what it is?

This is one of the trickiest questions on the Eng Lit syllabus - What is Poetry?  As a published poet I should know, but ......

I’ve just done an interview on this for a former member of Authors Electric - Roz Morris, who hosts the ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ blog, runs a fiction course for the Guardian Masterclass series and produces a radio programme called ‘So You Want to be a Writer?’.  Her questions meant that I had to think quite hard about the craft of poetry which, we discovered in discussion, isn’t that much different from the craft of fiction.

Poetry is a bit more concerned with the rhythm and music of language than fiction usually is; the musicality of words and their percussion. This means that sometimes the syntax can get overlooked in the sheer exuberance of the lines. Poets are allowed to have a bit more fun with words than prose writers.  . . .
Read More ......