Thursday, 30 October 2008

I wanna tell you a story

A while ago I said I would post a link to some stories I wrote...once upon a time. In fact I wrote them back in 2000-01 when Small Girl was a baby (and she liked long afternoon naps). The stories are what I did with my spare time (I know..I could have been cleaning...). I did try and get them published but I didn't really know what I was doing (so what's new?) and I had a toddler and then we moved and then I started writing more getting stories published (especially long ones) is not the easiest thing at the best of times.

Anyway you can now read them...if you rush. I read them the other day (expecting the worst) and do you know what...I was quite surprised. They're not half bad and whilst there is the odd dated detail (someone has a video collection instead of DVDs, some of the IT bits) I think they've lasted quite well. I should probably warn you that they are certainly adult reading matter though (sex, drugs, bad language...yes, yes and, er, yes...not gratuitous though, obviously). See what you think - just go to my usual website and click on the stories link. From the link you will see 8 clocks - each one leads to a story. Some of them are nearly short and some are really quite long...each one has a word count at the top. They are linked by the common theme of crowd-pleasing - someone in each story is a crowd-pleaser in some way. Most of them deal with fields that I have either worked in or been involved with. To help you pick a story that might interest you here is the rough guide -

2.50am - A tabloid journalist in a nightclub
7.00am - A film studies lecturer
1.00pm - A chick lit writer
1.30pm - A poet
3.00pm - Various people at a TV show
4.30pm - A DJ and journalist at a dance music awards ceremony
(and by dance music I mean house, techno etc. not quickstep and tango)
6.00pm - A community liaison conference type organiser
11.00pm - A club DJ

So - let me know how you get on.


Wednesday, 29 October 2008

More about the carry on

So all this talk of love and sex...any new poems from it all yet? Well...I wrote one on Monday night and it's pasted at the end of this post. It's a sex/love relationship poem I suppose...about the ends of relationships (how you feel, what goes wrong, how and why it happens). It's not about any one relationship of mine in particular, I should point out. I read it at the folk club here last night (where the guests David Francey and Craig Werth were brilliant, by the way) and it seemed to go down well (especially for its first outing). Verona (my partner for music purposes) said it's her favourite of my poems so far...lots of reasons for that...they can go in her memoirs...

When I picked up the pen to write 'Looking for clues' (the poem in question) I thought it was going to be a serious know...heartfelt, tragic, maybe a little touching...but obviously the poem had other plans and it came out as a funny, if still somewhat tragic, number instead. I like it when the poems surprise keeps the whole process exciting (you see... it is just like sex...and love...).

Then once it was written I realised I haven't written many poems this year that could be called funny or humorous. I don't think there's any real reason for that. I've been a bit ponderous of late, I suppose...what with all this blog debate and all...but there have been periods when I've written lots of poems with humour in them and maybe I'm just coming back in to one of those. It's not something I have any control over, I don't think.

There are lots of good things about writing poems with some humour in them (and please note I am not using the term 'light verse' – more on that later). Funny poems help a lot when it comes to performance that's for sure. I usually do a mix of comedy and tragedy when I read poems in public partly because that's just the way I am (highs and lows, always with the highs and lows...) and partly because I think it helps people to focus on the more serious poems if they have had some chances to smile and laugh as well (human beings are capable of such a range of emotions – let's not waste them!). Personally I think expecting an audience to sit still and listen to a lot of very heavy/serious poems is awful lot. For a start you'd better be absolutely AMAZING at what you do and/or have something really interesting to offer because 'amazing serious' is one thing (great...breathtaking...what we live for) but 'boring, pretentious, deluded and/or half-arsed serious', on the other hand, that is just funny...but for all the wrong reasons.

I also like the fact that you can say things in a humorous poem that can be just too painful (or close to somebody's bone) in a humourless one. And most of all I just love humour – it is such a marvellous of the greatest gifts we have (well, most of us...if we're lucky). It gets us through so many difficult situations, it makes life bearable, I can't understand why any writer would not want to use it whereever and whenever they can. Most of all I feel almost sorry for people with no sense of humour at all...and didn't Germaine Greer once say on a very memorable 'Question Time' that such people should be registered as disabled (she was making a point about how too many people view 'the disabled' as just 'other' as 'nothing like the rest of us' – it was a good inspired my poem 'Pay heed to the special need' too).

There are of course down sides to writing funny poems now and again too. Here are some of them (any excuse for a list).

1. Some people will call anything you write 'doggerel' especially if some of it rhymes (and they'll say it with a sneer, you can be sure of that). Have you noticed, for example, how the word 'doggerel' is almost always preceded by the word 'just'? I don't use the word 'doggerel' very often because I think it has such negative connotations (poor word – not really its fault people are so stupid...bit like dogs and their owners) but I did use it in my short poem 'The adult response' which goes 'Oh, you can call it dog-ger-el/ But what do you know?/ Bug-ger-all '. It's short and not so sweet and it was anthologised by the admirable poet and publisher Helena Nelson in HappenStance's 'Unsuitable Companions' last year.

2. Some people will use the term 'light verse' in much the same way. I wrote a follow up to 'The adult response' called 'The adult response – and another thing' and it goes 'Light verse/ Better than shite verse'. Are some people so clueless that they think all humour is light? Of the poems with any humour that I have written I would say that the majority have more dark than light in them. You can say something very harsh with a twist of humour and you could look at many poets to appreciate that but I'm going to call on Philip Larkin and his best known poem 'This be the verse' (how bitter is the humour in that one?). It's his best known for many reasons – OK, it's short and rude but it's also using a cruel humour to deliver a huge whallop of a message (Hah! See how I am not scared of using that word! Maybe McMillan is right and I really am bold...).

3. Some stupid people with limited outlook will think you are only capable of one kind of writing and that you are 'not to be taken seriously'. Yeh, because that Shakespeare...he just wrote a few sitcoms, didn't he?

4. Some people who can't write a funny line to save their lives will think it's easy and that anyone can do it. Go on then, after you.

There are probably other points to add to that list but I think that will do for now (what was that I said in the last post about whingeing..?). I was out last night and I'm a little weary (and by the way...go and look at David Francey's tour page...he's in the UK for a few more dates and he's well worth catching – great voice, great songs, really lovely and interesting Scottish-Canadian bloke).

And's the poem. After all the above it'd better be funny, eh? Bits are, bits aren't...such is life.

Looking for clues

When we said 'I love you' and one of us lied
When I turned up early and you just sighed
When I found I didn't care if you lived or died
That's when I knew that it wasn't really working

When you wanted hot sex and I wanted less
When you didn't seem to know what to do with my caress
When you were feeling great and I was just a mess
I knew then, also, that it wasn't really working

When you said you liked blondes and I've always been brown
When I couldn't hear your name without fighting off a frown
When just the sound of my voice could bring you right down
Then again I knew, it wasn't really working

When I took your hand and you gave me mine back
When a day with you was just stretching on a rack
Then I knew our journey had reached its cul-de-sac
Obviously, you and me, it wasn't really working

RF 2008

Monday, 27 October 2008

Hold that thought

Much as I hate to, as it were, interrupt us all in full flow...please just stop thinking about sex for a minute and head over to Juliet Wilson's Bolts of Silk. I had seen Juliet's Crafty Green Poet name here and there but it was via Claire Askew that I came to her Bolts of Silk page (so thanks, Claire). The Bolts of Silk page/site/blog is a gorgeous place - great images, striking name and I love the subheading most of all - 'beautiful poetry with something to say'. Amen to that...awomen too while we're at it. There is one of my poems on there today but it's worth keeping an eye on the page (or sending poems over too). No whingeing, no bitching...just good things over there.

Now you can get back down to the sex post below. If you must...


Saturday, 25 October 2008

Carry on or get it on?

Firstly thanks so much for all the comments on the last post - for all the love poems and links. I think that is possibly the post on this blog that I have enjoyed the most so far. There is something about love that can bring out the best in people, don't you think? (And if you haven't yet contributed it's not too late – get down there quick and tell me what your favourite love poems are...and also if you've any favourite love poems of your own that you'd like to share...) But's time to get on with part two. It's time for sex.

So – here we go! I said I would write about sex this time...and I will...and do you know what's funny? This must be the post I have least looked forward to writing since I began this project. I have been open, honest and as interesting as I can manage here on all kinds of subjects to do with writing, emotions, life and death but sex...all of a sudden I'm not quite sure what I want to say or how much I want to... expose. Sex, for some reason... or combination of not something I write about much and I'm not even quite sure why this is the case. I'm not shy. I'm not prudish. I'm not inexperienced – in fact I have plenty of material...maybe too much (maybe that's part of the problem). I'm one of those people who started young, who tried things...lots of things...who's been around a bit...whilst some of you, according to comments in the last post, 'met your true loves at 15 and have been together ever since'. Some of you, I suddenly realise, might be a bit shocked and lose all (or any) respect for me if I give away too much (after all sometimes bits of my past shock me!). And it's hard to talk or write about sex without exposing your own attitudes to sex and your own experiences – it is matter how much you disguise it or work it...your own past comes out somewhere.

For a few months I have been aware that sex is a subject that is conspicuously absent in my poems. I've been writing poems fairly regularly for over ten years and this is the first time I've even thought about writing anything overtly sexual. So is that odd? Is it because so much of my life during that time has involved looking after a small girl so I have been thinking more about her concerns (making friends, dreaming, dogs, toast...) than sexual matters? Or have I somewhere along the line turned into my mother (I can't quote her exactly but I'm sure, if asked, she would say sex is something you do, not something you talk about). After all, it's not that I think sex has to be mentioned all the time – absolutely not – it's more that I do, as I said last time, like to try and write about everything and I have most obviously NOT kept to this when it comes to sex. Have I really written nothing (nothing!) about sex? How can this be?

This week, in the interests of research, I went back and looked through all my poetry files (yes, Jim, the pretty coloured ones!). I found poems (and sometimes loads of poems) about:

art, belief, childhood and children, comfort, computers, coping, death, decisions, drugs, education, emotions, families, fear, friendship, graveyards, grief, happiness, history, housework, knowing, love, people and how they behave (lots of those), mental chaos, music (many aspects of), mysteries, nature (just a few – not like some of you!), nightlife, optimism, our modern world, perceptions, performing, places, politics, regret, Quakers, sadness, seasons, seeing, seeing things for what they are, snobbery, special occasions, stages of life (loads of those), struggling, survival, telling the truth, the future, the meaning of life, the Queen, travelling and other moving, truth, TV and other media, war, weaknesses, work, worrying, writing and many related matters.

But sex? Very little. I found one sexual reference in my poem 'Between the lines' (an odd little poem in the writing section of the website – written as a reaction to an annoying rejection letter...) and there's the little poem 'Sex and drugs' (which is in the little poems section of the site and is in my book). Then there's the line in 'Self-help shortcuts' that says 'explore sex fully'. Well, yes...I did that and partly because of that I also have one very long poem called 'If only I'd been a Catholic - I have so much to confess' but that is one of the very few poems that I have never put online and probably never will. As I say...plenty of material...not all of it information I want to make public (unlike Tracy Emin...maybe that exhibition I visited recently has also prompted this subject at this time).

So is this it? Is this where my fairly direct style of writing is going to run into problems...because finally there is something I don't want to talk about? And is that because of my daughter, or my partner, or other members of my family? Or is it because of other people I have been involved with in the past (some lovely, some quite repulsive)? Or is it just me – fucked up and frightened? Or fucked up and cautious? Or just sensible? Goodness, that would be a first.

Then I it shame? Am I ashamed of my sexual past? Not long ago I read an interview with poet Kate Clanchy (when her book about her Kosovan cleaner came out). I have quite liked some of Clanchy's poems so I was quite interested when I read in the article that Clanchy tells her creative-writing students to 'Write the thing you are most ashamed of, because that is where the interest lies.' (Daily Telegraph 13.07.08). Really, I thought...really? Because, you know, that's all very well if all you've got to be ashamed of is having a cleaner (oh, the shame of success – how many poets have cleaners anyway?) but what about the rest of us... who have driven along the B roads of life now and again (or, let's be honest, set up camp in them)? Those of us who have very...colourful back stories...what about us? And then it makes me annoyed (with myself, with society, with some aspects of certain religions) because I think why should sex be necessarily to do with shame? But these are still difficult times...women are 'liberated' and yet..are we? Is anyone? Do teenage girls in school feel any freer to talk about, say, masturbation, than my generation did (which was not at all...we wouldn't have dared to mention it whilst the boys, in my secondary school anyway, had wanking competitions in broad daylight – it's a strange world, eh?). I don't believe things have changed that much - writing about sex is still a big issue, it can still make a woman (in particular) very vulnerable indeed. Sex is still a tricky subject and maybe it always will be. It's that or 'Brave New World' perhaps...

Thinking, as I have been doing, about poems about sex (or poems with some sexual content) I tried to think of sexual or erotic poems by other writers that I have read and liked. I couldn't think of many. As we said in the last post about is very easy to fall into clichés when talking about both love and sex and the language of pornography doesn't help either, hijacking, as it has done, the whole business of sex. Isn't there an award for the worst prose writing about sex and aren't there usually lots of possible winners? Also sex, unlike love perhaps, can bring out the worst in people...far too often...lots of stuff you just really do not want to read (well, I don't...rape scenes in films...don't get me started...). But then the other day I picked up a book of poems secondhand in Edinburgh. The book is by Angela Readman and is called 'Strip'. It has lots of sexual content but my favourite poem in it so far is 'How to Make Love Not Like a Porn Star' which contains lines like “Let us not talk about the size of anything.” It is really very good indeed - a prizewinner (well in my world anyway). It looks at sex in a really interesting way. I'm not going to post the whole poem here but hunt down the's interesting.

The language of sex is another reason I think I have not rushed to write poems on the subject. Words to do with sex tend to either be very crude (dick, cunt, fuck) or very clinical (labia, penis) or very flowery (make love, caress...OK some of you may find 'make love' straightforward enough but in Middlesbrough in the 1980s, believe me, 'make love' was for wimps). I'm not sure any one of these sets really gets to the heart of sex in all its complications (well, I know it's quite often complicated for women anyway...I can't speak for how men feel). Sex is all of those things – crude and clinical and yet, sometimes, flowery and touching too (and that's one reason I liked Angela's poem so much – because it addresses that problem, that situation). Like many people (well, many British people at least), I have long avoided the sexual language problem by using humour – very often when I talk about sex I will make jokes, innuendos...even at the most intimate moments... and I don't think I'm the only one who does this. I was brought up by TV to a large extent and a lot of my sexual education came from TV humour - 'The Two Ronnies' (many innuendos), 'Morecambe and Wise' (very innocent in some ways but packed full of cheeky sexual jokes too), Benny Hill and, of course, the Carry On films. I LOVED the Carry On films (though I haven't watched any since childhood). I loved Kenneth Williams (but then give me ten gay men and I will always love at least nine of them) and I loved all the nods and winks and sexy jokes. Maybe I will write a poem this year about Carry On films...has anyone done that already?

So all this in mind, I sat down last week and tried to write a poem about sex (I know some of you don't write poems 'about' things...but I do...sometimes anyway). Now it's here I'm not sure if it is about sex - it is probably just another love poem (and I already have quite a lot of those). It's very new so it may yet change a bit. Who knows - it may be the first of many! I would be interested to hear about any of your own sex poems (Dick Jones posted one this week...and no jokes about 'well, he would, wouldn't he?' ) and I'm interested in other sex poems that you have enjoyed too (though I feel I may regret saying that...we are on the internet after all). Who knows (again)...maybe my Mum is right and I just shouldn't talk about it – maybe I shouldn't even be thinking about showing my soft places to the world. Oh, I don't's the poem.

Sex, at last

When we met you were so still
Someone I could not imagine
You believed so many things
That I had forgotten
Or maybe never known

You believed, for example
That sex and love could come together
That they could even hold fast
Two happy bedfellows
Two sides of happiness

I had been a different route
Seen sex from other angles
Known all the pits and pratfalls
The rings of confusion
Pain, guilt and tedium

You were surprised by my layers
Amused by my confusion
You kept things simple, basic
You knew full deep inside
The final score, the outcome

And much to my amazement
Here we are proving your point
Sex and love can stick together
Can cohabit long-term
Who would have believed it?

RF 2008

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

What time is love...

So I promised love and sex, didn't I? OK. Let's start with love.

I've written quite a lot of love poems – well, who hasn't? I've written about love affairs (successful and less so) and I've written about unrequited feelings and I've written about loving all kinds of people and things and concepts. I will admit it - I enjoy writing about love in all its many stages and forms and I have been, generally speaking, a big fan of love for most of my life (and here I'm talking about love in the widest sense - romantic but also passions, whims, addictions). I have thrown myself in headfirst, feetfirst and pretty much anything-you-like-to-think-of-first in many different situations and with regard to romantic love in particular...well, let's just say...I've given it plenty of attention. I've no doubt spent a lot of energy on love affairs that I could have been spending on building a successful career in something (anything...) but still, we make our choices, don't we? And then we live with them.

So why write so much about love? I think I just can't help it. You might remember that a few months ago I was, suitably, in love with the new CD from the band Chumbawamba (it's called 'The Boy Bands have won'). It really is a great album and quite different from anything they've done to date. There's a song about Larkin, you might remember me mentioning, but there's also a song on it called 'Sing about love' (the link will take you to the lyrics). It is a great song but I can't agree with the sentiment, no matter how hard I try. I know there is a lot going on in the world that needs attention but that never makes me want to stop thinking or writing about love. I know what they mean (and in some ways I agree with them) but then I do still sing about love (in poems and in songs) and I probably always will. I write about all sorts of other things too (I have a kind of vague ambition to write about everything, somehow, some time...) but I couldn't leave love out – it's so vital! In a way I can't help feeling what would be the point of writing poetry and NOT writing about love? It is such a fascinating subject, so loose, so changeable, so like poetry in a way. People are always trying to define poetry too aren't they, trying to pin it down, trying to find formulae for it (but they never will). Such is love, don't you think? Isn't that partly what makes it so desirable (and frustrating...)?

So maybe I'm a every sense...Byron always seems perfectly reasonable to me, after all. But these days if you're female and talk wildly about love (as I do sometimes) people tend to think your brain is mush and that all you want to do is read a lot of love stories or watch a lot of very bad love stories on film. In fact it's quite the opposite - I may be female and a bit mental but I assure you I do not watch non-stop 'rom-coms'. Formula films of any kind bore me really...if a film isn't going to surprise me in some way I'm not interested...and some of you know exactly how I feel about the Richard Curtis school of regurgitated romance ('Love Actually' being the lowest of low points – Thompson/Rickman excepted). The last film about love I enjoyed was Richard Linklater's 'Before Sunset' (partly because of the music). That film really thinks about love (though it probably helps if you have seen the not-really-so-good prequel 'Before Sunrise'). They talk an awful lot though (be warned) and not a lot happens...and yet it does. It's magic, you see...

I am also aware that all this talk of love and passion and 'poetry is like love' can be a bit vague and waffly and annoying for some of you logical, scientific thinkers. Sorry about that but really...come on...if we all agreed and thought the same wouldn't life be dull? Like a bad marriage? Not that I've ever been married...but you know what I mean. As I said not long back I've never wanted to be married but at the same time that has never stopped me being interested in finding something like true love. Despite being in many ways a sensible realistic, even cynical girl I have always believed (just to be awkward) that there would be a special someone who would be perfect for me – not a prince or even a husband but a someone, for sure. Along the way to my current beloved (and we have been together about eleven and a half years) there were, in fact, lots of other special someones (and some of them read this blog...awkward pause). Things did not work out with these someones for all the usual reasons – circumstances, incompatibilities or just because the other person was an idiot. Now and again I was the idiot too (hard to believe, I know).

But back to poems...I can't say I've ever sent poems out as part of a love campaign or anything like that (my own poems or anyone else's) and in fact, though I could list my favourite love songs from now till New Year, I don't really read much love poetry as such. Probably my favourite poem that mentions love (so far) is Larkin's 'An Arundel Tomb'. I'd be interested to hear your favourite poems that are in any way to do with love (especially, but not only, if they are less well-known ones). And plenty of poets read this too so maybe some of you might share your own love poems with us (links or poems... if they're not too long to fit in the comments boxes).

Of my own love poems people have liked 'Free love' and 'Diving' and 'Let me be your fridge magnet' (which is really about writing...and desperation...and love can be so desperate...hence the marriage of themes...). Also one person liked 'All in the tone' so much she read it out as part of a tour round the USA (she's a singer). All those poems are on the website under 'love' but I'm going to post a different one here today. The poem below is quite an old one – one of the first I wrote once I'd started concentrating on poetry instead of stories and articles and other stuff. It is about quite a corny subject – the old falling-in-love-with-tasty-foreign-bloke-while-away-on-gap-year business – except of course when it happens to you it isn't is AMAZING. I spent a year in Madrid and fell in love (at 19) with a Chilean man of about 25. The 'chileno' of the title is Spanish for Chilean man and you just say it chi-lay-no with the accent on the 'lay' (interestingly enough). He was older, wiser, a sort-of political exile (there are always lots of different levels of exiledom) and he was really very attractive (partly of course because he was nothing like the boys I had known in Middlesbrough growing up). He had read lots of books too – political theory even (and I was very impressed by that in those days). There were problems (his girlfriend for one...) but it was still a very exciting love affair and I very nearly didn't come home at the end of the year such was my devotion. Then in the end I did because, as I say, I'm a romantic AND a realist...and I had noticed that the girlfriend was still...the girlfriend and I was most likely the daft-but-to-him-at-least-tasty-foreign-girl-who'll-be-going-home-soon. Over 20 years on I don't regret any of it (though I did learn one lesson - I never got involved with anyone ever again who already had a partner of any kind). I had had plenty of previous entanglements and encounters but this was probably my first big love affair (with a capital L). I cried a lot when I came home...weeks and weeks of tears!

So here's my 'chileno'. It isn't in any particular I say it is one of my older poems and I wasn't even thinking about what I was doing – I was just writing, quite literally, from the heart. I love it as it is (faults and all) so I'm not going to change it now. I suppose if you wanted to call it 'randomly cut up prose' or something you probably could but you see I wouldn't care...because I sing about love...

And thanks to the KLF for the title to this post. I love them too.


Chileno on my mind

Hand in hand firmly
We walk
Through the medieval setting of the city
A touch on the flat-footed side
You walk meaningfully
Each step placed exactly
In place
The afternoon sun as ever
Makes walking hard
Makes buying ice-creams almost
A necessity

To treat you
Is all I want to do

Your smiling
Charming eyes
The sun to me
At 19
Have nothing to do with balls of hydrogen
Mean simply warmth and happiness
And lucky skin that gains a glow
You walk with me
Man made of sun
You walk with me
But never really see me
As I see you

RF about 1997 or so

Monday, 20 October 2008

Not a bus

Back in August (in that same post about my sort-of Quaker background) there was some discussion here about the phrase 'if there's one thing I know it's that we know very little'. At least one of you wanted the phrase to make its way into the Quaker poem that was also on that post (11th August). I said then it might turn up in another here it is...that poem. I wrote it the other week and it seemed a good time to put it up today. Usually titles jump out at me but for the first time ever no title was forthcoming so this one just bears its number. I think it will probably stick with this 'title' least for now. By the way I'm thinking about posts and poems about love and sex for later this week. Not that I want to draw you in with titillation or anything.

Number 254

This we know
We know nothing
Almost nothing
This is so

What we see
Currents crossing
Life gone shopping

How we sway
Sometimes waving
Half behaving
Half OK

How we learn
Tiny lessons
Heavy sessions
Turn by turn

RF 2008

Saturday, 18 October 2008

A real trip

(NB – anyone who's come here for a Martin Simpson review...please get yourselves down to the post below. Thank-you.)

Back on 11th August this year I wrote a post about my slightly Quaker background and posted my poem 'What you can learn from Quakers'. In one of the comments that followed Colin Will recommended the book 'Voyageurs' by Margaret Elphinstone because he thought it might be of interest (it's about Quakers in the nineteenth century, amongst other things) . Like a good girl I went to the library here in Montrose and was lucky enough to find a copy of the novel waiting for me on the shelf (it was published by Scottish publishers Canongate in 2003). I've just finished reading it and this must be International Week of Enthusiasm or something because 'Voyageurs' is a fascinating read and I insist – if you haven't already read it you MUST go and get hold of a copy NOW!

I haven't read a huge number of historical novels to be honest - I suppose mostly I read either modern novels set (more or less) now or classic novels set (more or less) in their own period. I did read a few of those cheap, silly historical novels when I was a teenager and I remember a lot of corsets and master-takes-slave-girl or mistress-takes-slave-boy (or now and again mistress looks at slave girl in interested way) scenes but I have to say they didn't make me long to explore the genre. However I am aware that there are also some very fine historical novels out there too and this one, I'm glad to say, is an example of how it SHOULD be done. It is an adventure story, an insight into life in Britain and North America in the early 1800s (from all sides and perspectives) and a very thoughtful novel about belief and love and more or less everything else you can think of. It is exactly what a great, big, fat 466 page novel should be – it is important and all-encompassing and clever and mindbogglingly impressive in its scope.

The story concerns Mark Greenhow, a Quaker and a farmer from the north-west of England whose sister, Rachel, has disappeared in 1809 in the US and Canadian border region. War is breaking out between Britain and the US as Mark journeys over the Atlantic and deep into unknown territory to try and find his sister. As he is a Quaker (and therefore a committed pacifist) this is a strange time for this character to be in this strange place and it makes for a really interesting tale as Mark travels with traders on land and water to hunt for Rachel. He meets all kinds of people (indigenous, immigrant and some of mixed parentage and culture) and he faces all kinds of situations that challenge his strongly held Quaker beliefs. Even if you have no knowledge or interest in Quakerism (or indeed any know what a heathen I am, deep down) the issues here will interest anyone who has ever thought about honour, love, simplicity, survival, war, peace or happiness (and that should cover most of you, I think).

I particularly loved all the details of Mark's travels. One thing I hate about modern travelling is the artificial or even superficial nature of it – you move but you can't even tell you're moving, you go everywhere so fast that you see nothing on the way – so I loved all the details of the horrible, slow Atlantic crossing, the long, slow canoe trips in Canada, the great long walks to get anywhere (hurray for great long walks!). I know it's easy to romanticise the past but the novel doesn't do this - that's just me...I am a luddite with travel if nothing else...I would happily uninvent the aeroplane tomorrow. Elphinstone (an academic) is far more sensible and I would say she gives a fair picture of the time – neither rose-coloured spectacles for the pretty period past nor dirt-smeared lenses for the filth and lack of air-conditioning - just a good balance, a total picture.

Whilst it took me a little time to get into this novel once the story really got going I was hooked and entranced and I would heartily recommend it. As it says in the introduction when Mark's diaries are found, Quakers feel 'the need to speak the truth plainly' so you know that most definitely I mean what I say and it is worth reading! Now I'm passing this copy on to my Mum because I know she will LOVE it (it has one story you can follow - not 8 stories all mixed up in different fonts for a start...). No doubt she will buy copies as Xmas presents for family and friends too (and Friends..she still goes to Meeting) so that just shows how one borrowed book can lead to sales for the author. So thanks, Colin, for a top tip and now you can get back to writing that script for our presentation training video...

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

How to love a song

Stop what you're doing...whatever it is! Go and listen to Martin Simpson at his MySpace page, buy or somehow get hold of his latest CD 'Prodigal Son' and/or go and see him live (dates on the MySpace page). He played the folk club here in Montrose last night and he was...well...pick your favourite great adjective and insert it here...he was stupendous...he was magnificent...he was really, properly brilliant.

Phew. I feel a bit drained to be honest. I'll try and get myself together...

Martin Simpson has been around the folk scene in Britain for a good long while – he's played with a lot of the big names of folk (as big as folk names ever get anyway). He went to live in the States for a good long while New Orleans... and a few years ago he returned to Britain and he now lives in Yorkshire. We are very lucky to have him back because whilst Simpson has long had a reputation as one of the best folk guitarists around what is really special about him is that he is now also a great singer, a great songwriter and a great selector of other songs from many traditions too. Last night in little old Montrose (to a packed, delighted crowd of some 130 or so) he played English folk, Scottish folk, North American folk, blues, a Bob Dylan song, songs by other writers of the past few decades and also some of his own very, very, very fine songs. It all blended together perfectly. It was just a joy to watch someone pleasing a crowd so completely and for all the right reasons.

Did I say how good it was?

You know those nights when the music is SO good that you just want to fly away...or disintegrate...or possibly even throw yourself at the musician's feet? It was one of those nights. Amazing playing (Simpson isn't just one of the best folk guitarists – he is one of the best guitarists, full stop), beautiful, apparently effortless and natural singing, fascinating lyrics, spellbinding tunes. Honestly...I know I get a bit excited about music sometimes but really...go and see Simpson at one of his shows if you are anywhere near any of the venues. Sit near the front. Forget anything else is happening...anywhere.

Or find a recording of his show at the Folk Proms at the Albert Hall in London earlier this year (the concert also featured Bella Hardy and Bellowhead). In an interview as part of the BBC4 programme Simpson was interviewed and talked of his love of songs. “We're all in it ...for the songs,” said Simpson plainly. Those few words explained to me simply and clearly how I've ended up at this point in my life listening to so much folk music (I didn't grow up with it, we only started listening to it so much when we moved to Montrose in 2004 and started going to the Folk Club regularly). For me there is nothing (NOTHING!) like a good song - especially when it's sung and played well (and by that I really mean with energy, understanding and a love of the whole process) and no-one knows that better than someone like Simpson. He can play and sing so many good songs – songs that are new and songs that have huge complicated histories – it really is the best of being alive.

Maybe I should stop now. The dogs are looking every sense.

P.S. The title of this post comes from Simpson's own song 'Never Any Good' which he wrote about his father. It isn't on the MySpace but it is on the CD 'Prodigal Son'. It's from this verse (and I just copied this from a fan site thing so it's just got the punctuation they have put in)

“You showed me eyebright in the hedgerow,
speedwell and travellers joy.
You showed me how to use my eyes
When I was just a boy;
And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature's ways:
The greatest gifts I have ever known,
And I use them every day.”

You have to hear it!


Friday, 10 October 2008

Anything can happen...

Oh my goodness. Very tired after a few crazily busy days in the city. Can hardly manage full sentences. Still I have a few things to get down before my brain curls up forever.

Firstly, thanks so much for all your comments on the last post. I hope those of you who didn't comment have been having a good think about the subject anyway...maybe you already do think about it...all the you didn't need me to prod you! Still, special thanks and huge hugs to those of you who were brave enough to name pieces of writing that you thought were (just maybe) your best so far. It's a fairly brave thing to get in print (even the luminous print on here) because, of course, if you say something is (just maybe) your best then you're risking others reading it and saying or thinking 'well, if that's your best...I don't like it must be really crap'. So Colin, Jim, Hope, Kat – extra hugs to you...and how uncrap you are! In fact, having spent a few happy hours with Mary Poppins in Edinburgh, I think you are all, without doubt, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Oh yes.

All our time away I was wondering (now and again) what I might suggest as the poems of mine that I'm most pleased with this far. I can't exactly ask you all to fess up and then sneak off quietly, not saying a word now can I? It is tricky though...for a start we change our minds all the time, don't we? Sometimes I know...a little confident about what I write...and then others...oh god...what am I doing, someone call the police! But still...I have been thinking about amongst the tourist here are a few thoughts on it all.

I called in to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery very quickly in Edinburgh. I really wanted to get the bus out to the Gallery of Modern Art but that fantastic bus service between the main art galleries doesn't exist any more (shame!). Still, just being in the Portrait Gallery made me think about the Joan Eardley self-portrait that I first saw there and which inspired my poem 'She's not there' (in book and on website under 'other people'). Certainly some people have liked that poem quite a lot but as it's about being crazy it's never going to be a favourite of mine. Being crazy may help creativity but it's a right pain in the arse a lot of the time. I will admit though that I like the last line and was pleased when that popped out. I like the second verse too. It cheers me up when I read that bit...I feel maybe all is not lost!

I went to the Inverleith House gallery in the Botanic Gardens too where there was an exhibition of work called 'Protest Pictures' by Richard Hamilton (who I'd never heard of, I must admit, but the title intrigued me). A lot of the work left me fairly 'yeh, well...' but I was struck by 'Desert Storm' – a painting about the Iraq War depicted on a TV screen with blood dripping out of the TV and the war looking like a board game (Risk? Diplomacy?). There have been a lot of comments in the media and arts linking modern warfare and video games, about people watching war on TV... but I thought this painting was a really good, clear, impressive, quite startling statement on the subject. I know some people don't like any art with a message but I like all sorts of things and I liked this. I don't really understand artists who don't want to work with and about issues that affect us all...I just couldn't work like that, personally but, yes...I know...we're all different. I have written one war poem ('Happy war' in book and on website under 'occasions') and I will admit that it is one of the ones I am most proud of so far. It is hard to write a poem about something so huge and important without getting into corniness and clichés and 'yeh, isn't all war terrible?' territory but I think this poem manages OK and says what I have to say without making anyone cringe (well, I hope so). I am proud of it and I know at least one ex-soldier who likes it too. So shoot me.

I've never been to the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh before...hardly been down that end of the city in fact...but what a beautiful sanctuary it is. Best of all it is so full of trees...and I love trees, any kind, all of them...I am a right old tree hugger! Another poem I am quite proud of is 'Save the trees (or else)' (in book, on postcard, on website under 'modern world'). I had been reading about Byron and came across a form he used called the ottavo rima so I tried it with that poem. I've never had much feedback about it so maybe I have done something poetically shameful but it is one of my personal favourites – short, packed full of ideas and I like the bit about sycamore keys because I remember collecting them as a child.

4.Wham bam
I did get to the Museum of Modern Art...a lot of walking that day (Beloved and Small Girl were at the zoo)...and I paid my hard cash to see the Tracey Emin exhibition. I didn't expect to rate it much...all the cynicism about modern art must be catching...but you know...I really enjoyed the experience. I don't think she is one of the best artists that ever lived or anything but I had a great time and you can't say that about many art exhibitions, can you? I laughed out loud (at the film where she has her backside stuck up in the air for most of it...poor security guard!), I shed a teeny tear (the little story about her as a little girl not being invited to a party – funny the things that prompt tears...), the video about dancing was great (my teenage years and Tracey's were...not that different), also I liked the big bold quilts (though I did itch to correct her bloody spelling!). I will admit it got a bit samey here and there and it is, in a way, all about her but then a lot of artists can be samey and a lot of the stuff that seems about can be about other people too – it is just life. Lots of women get raped as teenagers, lots of women have abortions and struggle to cope with their mixed emotions, lots of people struggle to live and be a bit sane - I really don't mind that she tackles all this stuff head on. She is English and yet so NOT at the same time because this is a girl who does not know when to keep quiet and be a lady! I even liked the famous bed and stood at looked at all the crap she had laid out around it for a while and kind of understood it. What is different about Tracey is that so many people (and women in particular - artists or otherwise) spend so much time covering up and hiding everything (their weak spots, their disgraces, their dirty bits, the bits of their bodies they don't like, their real natures, their desires) but Tracey does just the opposite and I kind of love her for it, I have to admit. I know a lot of 'serious art people' (quote from in-house mother) don't like her but if they're anything like 'serious poetry people' then...blimey guv'nor, they can't half go on (sorry, Dick van Dyke/Mary Poppins moment). On the wall at the start of the exhibition it says that Emin's work is 'deeply confessional and almost embarrassingly personal'...what a strange bunch we are, we humans, 'embarrassingly personal'! Doesn't anyone remember 'the personal is political' any more – is feminism so forgotten? I would say – go to the exhibition if you're in the area - there's a lot of good in it. You may not like all of it...and I guess a lot of it may be of more direct interest to women...but it shouldn't be really...babies, sex, art, sadness, get involved in this stuff too.
And a poem? It reminded me of one of my short ones called 'Girls learn this only once' (on website under 'little poems') and probably another little poem called 'Weirdo' too...and a whole load of personal poems....too many to mention! I am fairly unashamed about writing blatantly personal stuff sometimes. There are quite enough others doing the opposite. (P.S. Colin - I loved your fairly personal 'On saying goodbye to a brother'...very moving and some lovely the 'little clumps of madness'...).

5.Flying nannies
We all really enjoyed 'Mary Poppins' at the Playhouse Theatre and the tickets cost a bleeding fortune so it's just as well! The production has enough of the Disney but some new songs too. It didn't remind me of any poems – it was just good old fashioned escapism. Where else can you get tapdancing chimney sweeps, flying nannies and statues that come to life? Fantastic.

Like most kids, Small Girl is very keen on the whole Greyfriars Bobby business and this time we went into the graveyard for a look round. You'll be interested to know, Sorlil, that the leaves were indeed falling like rain so I may have to change my mind on your first draft (I did say I was undecided!). I love graveyards (and Kat's poem on the subject too). I have a graveyard poem called 'Optimistic afterlife' (on website under 'circle of life') and I think I have put it on this blog before. I don't think it is a great poem particularly but I am very fond of it and its sunny outlook. It gives me hope for the next phase (and those of us with no religion need hope too!).

7.Speaking of which
We went to the science museum called Our Dynamic Earth (the day-out no creationist should miss!) . Small Girl loved it...especially the whole lift-that-takes-you-back-in-time thing because of course she believed it completely (why would she not?). I learned a few things as we wandered through time (always necessary) and I particularly liked hanging out with the early life forms...they are so non-judgemental. Despite all my talk of hope I am also one of those people who firmly expects the human race to have run its course fairly soon and quite a bit of me is looking forward to it, I have to admit. Humans can be great but they can be really annoying as well (except you fine readers, of course). I have a poem about this subject too (hell, give me enough time I'll have a poem about everything...) and it's called 'Just like the dinosaurs' (in book and on website under 'circle of life'). People have liked it. I like it. I like the end...
'The what was hard and what was really
I think the last bit is very true and... I like truth. Overall.

So there you go...Edinburgh trip and poetry confessions all in one long ramble. Going to bed now. Very tired.


Monday, 6 October 2008

Simply your best?

We're going away for a few days (it being school holidays here) but I wanted to leave you with something to think about (other than tears and graves and death). So here's a subject! Let's forget about literary critics (tiresome creatures) and let's be our own critics a way. Can we handle it? Are we tough enough? Are we brave enough to dare to suggest that we might, you know...have done something least once?

I was reading something last week that mentioned (partly in jest) how all poets really want to write brilliant poems. Even though this was mentioned as an aside I still think there is a lot of truth in it and that it's a topic we don't talk about much (well, I've looked at lots of poets' blogs in the past year, for example, and I haven't seen much mention of it...everyone's very cautious, very modest, very lighthearted...about their own poetry...on the surface at least). There is lots of recommending other writers, lots of talk about how we work, about how we feel about magazines or criticism or publishing...but there's very little mention of whether any of us might ever think that anything we write might ever be any good. It's a bit of a...great unsaid. Don't you think?

And it's a strange business - particularly if you're British and therefore almost allergic to the very idea of showing off ('show some restraint, man, we're not Latins or Americans or people who show emotion!') - but the ambition must be there somewhere or we just wouldn't write at all, would we? Poets might not manage it very often but there is, somewhere in most of them, the desire to come up with a work of genius (or several, if possible)...I think there has to be. The same is true of other writers too...if you didn't want to write the best novel, the best play, on some level...if you didn't want to try and emulate your writing heroes somehow...why would you bother? It's not the easiest life or the easiest way to earn a living! But in all honesty if you write anything...well, at least a little bit of you does want it to be really, really good, doesn't it? You want to write the best poem ever on... at least one subject...the best love poem, the most moving death poem, the most unusual alienation of modern life poem, the finest sonnet...? If we didn't hope somewhere in our hearts, minds and insecurity complexes that we were capable of writing great poems we wouldn't even try, would we?

So my question is this...and it's a bit of a painful one...what is the best bit of writing you've done so far? What is the closest you've come to a great poem or any other type of great writing? It might be a simple poem, it might be a weighty novel...but I don't want modesty...I want truth! What is the best you have done so far (in your own opinion)? And what more are you capable of?

You may wonder what my answer to this question is. That would be a fair expectation...but I'm not going to answer right now - I wrote about myself quite a lot in the last post! I'm going to think about it very hard and get back to you when I get home. It's the kind of thing that might take a while to think about (so please don't rush to answer – take a while, think about it, it's kind of a sado-masochistic kind of a way perhaps). So often we think about what OTHERS think of our poems and our writings...will people like them, will critics like them..but what about us? What do we think of our own writing? It's all a bit embarrassing, I know, but that doesn't make it any less valid an exercise. I know there are all kinds of different kinds of good or great or genius – but you're clever people, you know what I'm talking about. What are you proud of? A poem, a story, a song, a letter, an article (it might never have been made public...but you can still tell its story). But think hard! And provide links or examples or other details if you're feeling really brave. I'd love to see them! A little pride in our work...that's not such a bad thing, is it?

And if you don't want to think about that then think about this...Small Girl asked me yesterday 'Mum, where do our words go once we've said them?' Hmmm. She is so easily the most poetic being in the house...damn her!


Saturday, 4 October 2008

No more tears?

When you meet me I am one of those people who comes across as pretty damned cheerful (I think). I smile quite a lot and even when I try not to I can't help myself making far too many light-hearted comments (some innocent, some quite the opposite...). In general (well, at least in public) I try to look on the bright side in a most Monty Pythonesque fashion and I suppose it is quite possible that I am more than a little least for some of the people...some of the time. Of course I'm not really that cheerful (you know!) but it's a habit, a mask (some of the time) and really it's just the way I behave around people. On the whole I like people – some more than others, obviously, but I am, as I think I've said before, a bit of a Pollyanna in this regard. I particularly like people who smile back at you in the street when they don't know you from Adam...and my experience is that it is often the people who have been through the toughest times who will be friendly and at least outwardly cheerful to strangers. If you've been through any kind of bad times you appreciate how important little things are – you know that a smile from a stranger can make or break a day or a hell, you smile back...what does it cost? This isn't true of everyone of course...but some of my loveliest, cheeriest friends are the ones who have been through experiences so horrendous that you would not wish them on even your worst enemies. Well, at least I hope you wouldn't...not really.

So last week... there I was being cheerful and sprightly as usual while all the time thinking about death and misery. It really was a week of gloom (on the inside anyway) - what with the talk of graves at Colin Will's and the dissing of poor old Frieda Hughes in the piece by William Logan (that I got to via Rob Mackenzie's Surroundings). The critic Logan may be right (I have read very little of her work) but the piece still made me's a fuck of a life Hughes has had. Of course she has been published and gets coverage...but how, why, when... Anyway, after some of these reads (also Sorlil's poem this week and the writing about rain question, in particular) the next step for me was all too inevitable...back to thoughts of death and suicide and misery and family and, like one of my still least favourite poets of all time (that'd be Plath, sorry fans), back to 'Daddy'. Oh gee (I got that from Hope), not him...not again!

Yes, indeed. Again. Reading about graves on Colin's blog (and especially Shug's comment about his mother) reminded me of the time I went to my Dad's grave for the first time in the late 1990s (he died in 1973 but we never went as kids or anything). It was so weird...I didn't really know him and yet pretty much as soon as we got there there I was crying, sobbing, wailing! I have a picture of me by the grave on that day...trying to smile...the me-and-my-Dad-holiday-snap that never was... but honestly, who needs to see that? Plus I was wearing a miniskirt...a very strange choice (I was proper mad then though). I cried so much by the grave that it hurt...and it was a Quaker graveyard, very plain and quiet and reasonable...not at all the place for histrionics. It rained some of the time we were there which seemed...apt... but almost the worst bit was afterwards when I went into a nearby charity shop (I am addicted to charity shops) and the song on the radio was Rod Stewart's 'The first cut is the deepest'. Considering my Dad's history (well..his ending anyway) this musical detail was so bizarre it was almost funny. I think I did even laugh. Ha ha bloody ha.

I wrote a poem not long afterwards about that day and the crying experience. I could have written a great long piece about grief and dealing with it...probably a whole psychology PhD (or a memoir...) but I didn't...I just wrote this one little poem. It's about crying and emotion and holding in and letting out and it did, pretty much, write itself. Like a good proportion of my poems it won't be winning any poetry prizes, I don't imagine. I put it in the book even though I knew it might one day form part of a 'this girl isn't a real poet' critique. The poem is no doubt too personal, too obvious, too clear...who knows maybe it's just too true. I don't think it's sentimental in the sense of 'having an excess of superficial sentiment' (believe me – the poem is fairly chilled compared to the day itself!)...maybe it is sentimental in the sense of 'resulting from feeling rather than reason' although...even that...there is reason in there too. I suppose if you called it childlike or naïve...I might have to give you that one. It is a kid's reaction to a kid's feelings somehow delayed and then relayed by an adult in a few lines. So, here it is...and thanks, as ever, for your attention.

25 year tears

Tears come
When they want to
When you let them
Only then

Tears saved
One by one for years
Appear strangely
On rainy days
In unexpected places
Feel comforted
By watery friends
Flow freely
Almost happily
Relieve tension
So clearly
Of long-forgotten
Constant grief


Thursday, 2 October 2008

Bits and pieces

It's been one of those bits and pieces, all-over-the-place weeks. Our house is full of plumbers for a start and they are very good, organised ones who get here promptly at 8am on the dot so I have to pretend to be a proper housewife person who gets out of bed in the morning early and all that. It's quite a strain. Also there's been a bit of post-good-show comedown going on. What am I on about? Well, last week our bit of the Brechin show went brilliantly and Verona and I felt invincible (a great feeling!). This week it's a normal week and we feel...kind of off-centre...bogged down in things, in life, in all our possible failures (as mothers, as people, as artists, darling...). I know all about ups and downs...about coping with highs and lows...I write about it all a lot...but it still doesn't make it any easier when it happens! I know life would be dull if it was on a level, always good...but I still hate being gloomy and pessimistic (as I have been this week). That student who won the lottery recently...I read in the paper that she is buying a car and the first thing (the VERY first thing) I thought was 'wouldn't that be terrible if she had an accident and the good luck ended up being the end of her?' Ridiculous, isn't it? I should get a job writing soap operas. Of course having had a manic depressive parent (or a depressive at least) doesn't help because you wonder how close you are to the wards at times like this when the moods go up and down (which is most of the time really). But then I look around and most of my friends are like this...most people are like this. Really I think highs and lows are just's only when for some reason you can't cope with them that the medical system gets involved (rightly or wrongly...often wrongly, unfortunately).

Anyway, I have been doing constructive things this week as well because I have been working with others to put together a very fine event for November. Basically I wanted to see Hugh McMillan read some poems and Dumfries is a long way from here so I'm getting him to do a poems and music show with me and lots of musicians in Edinburgh on Friday 14th November at the Forest Cafe. I hope some of you will make it there to see us both. We are calling the night 'Postcards from the Song' (see our respective recent books to work that title out) and the musical entertainment will be provided by special guests Kim Edgar, Pauline Meikleham, Andy Spiller, Kevin O'Donnell, Charlie Williamson and, of course, my pal Verona. We have set up a temporary webpage with all the details and links to everybody's sites here so go have a look, why don't you! I'm a bit nervous about it now...but really looking forward to it too. This will be a first Edinburgh event for me so there's nothing like strength in numbers. Plus Hugh is headlining (as they say in showbiz) so if no-one comes I can blame it all on him...

p.s. Adding this later...I knew I forgot to mention something...the whole financial armageddon business!It's so...strange...particularly for people like me who don't really understand how economics work anyway. One thing I do know is that there has been so much finance on the news that finally the financial correspondents (long time the wallflowers) are getting to be stars for once...quite the cover boys and girls. The best coverage of it all though is on Jon Stewart's Daily Show (a US show but on More4 here). There is no British show to match him (and his team) right now. The bit about the Jewish holiday thing the other day was brilliant.