Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Secret Eden

There are nights when I simply can’t sleep - not at all, as if I’m on some adrenaline high I can’t switch off. Last night was one of them.
I watched a fascinating programme on Diana Athill - who as a publisher edited some of the most famous 20th century authors - including VS naipaul, Jean Rhys, and Margaret Atwood. She is also an accomplished writer who has recently (at the age of 92) published a collection of memoirs called ‘Life Class’ - well reviewed, much hyped, but the excerpts I’ve seen are brilliantly written.
Then I looked at emails, wrote a little, went to bed at 1.45am, tossed and turned until dawn broke around 3. I got up and had breakfast, then went back to bed and read my book (the 2nd in Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy). I finished it around 5am just as the sun was beginning to touch the tops of the trees and decided to go for a walk up the river.

The early mist was just lifting off the weir like smoke and there was no one about. Only the wildlife. Sometimes you can glimpse an otter this early, but there were none this morning. Only a flotilla of geese on the water - parents and goslings.

The sky was an amazing pattern of mackerel cloud, perfectly reflected in the still surface of the river.

All along the bank are little secret gardens of wild flowers and trees - one a drift of cow parsley gazing at its own reflection.

This is my favourite - a secluded bank of butterbur and marsh marigolds and pink ragged robin.

Then through a little wood where two herons were arguing for territory, too quick for the camera. They croak and grunt and shriek and clack their beaks together, but noone seems to get seriously hurt.
The footpath up the River Eden is there for everyone, but this morning it was my own private paradise.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The Tuesday Poem

Jacob Polley

A Jar of Honey

You hold it like a lit bulb,
a pound of light,
and swivel the stunned glow
around the fat glass sides:

it's the sun, all flesh and no bones
but for the floating knuckle
of honeycomb
attesting to the nature of the struggle.

From 'The Brink',  Picador

Jacob Polley is a young poet who was born and brought up in Cumbria - my home county.  He's been getting a lot of recognition for his first two collecions - The Brink and Little Gods, and he's also written a novel 'Talk of the Town'.  I like this poem for the close-up observation of things -  it's as if he's using a zoom lens.  I'd never looked at a honeycomb in a jar quite like this before.
His website is at

Sunday, 27 June 2010

World Cup via Skype

As the England match wasn't being shown in Italy, and BBC TV streaming doesn't work outside the UK (why?), Neil hit on the brilliant idea of watching the match by dialling my laptop on Skype, while I placed the lap top in front of the TV so that the web cam picked it up.  The technology worked perfectly - unlike the England side, or the FIFA system which disallowed a clear goal - making nonsense of the whole game.  Modern technology is used by every other international sport  - to call the FIFA executives dinosaurs is to insult a dignified  and intelligent species whose extinction event was not their fault.   Certain individuals may well follow the dinosaurs into history after this debacle.  

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Margaret Atwood: "Our Cat Enters Heaven"

The International Conference on the short story has just been taking place in Toronto and generating a lot of interest which, I hope, is another sign that the short story is making a come-back.

Margaret Atwood's satirical story 'Our Cat Enters Heaven' is an offshoot of her recent novel, The Year of the Flood, where God's Gardeners believe that animals are their kinfolk and they all have souls and should be treated accordingly.  Margaret Atwood isn't a particularly fluent reader of her own work, but the story made me smile - a lot!

Friday, 25 June 2010

Pascale Petit and the paintings of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo’s life and work seems to be the source of quite a lot of literary inspiration at the moment, appearing in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna and in a new volume of poems by Pascale Petit called ‘What the Water Gave me’.

I’m interested in poetry and fiction based on biography, and so last night I went to a reading of the poems with a slide show of the paintings that gave them their titles. Pascale Petit was herself an artist, trained at the Royal College of Art, so I was also interested to see how that would inform the poetry.

Pascale said that she hadn’t felt constrained to work too close to the images, but felt free to create alternative images with the words. I did wonder whether the poems would stand alone, without the images they reference, and whether they would make sense to anyone who didn’t know about Frida Kahlo’s life. That’s a question I can’t answer, since I love the paintings and I’ve been fascinated by Frida’s biography since I first heard about her as a young girl.

The poems neither explain nor describe the paintings - they are a parallel reality, trying to inhabit the mind that created them, exploring the creative processes that made art out of trauma and suffering. Frida had polio as a child, which left her with a damaged leg and then her abdomen and vagina were pierced by the handrail of a bus in an accident when she was 18.  You can read Pascale's poem 'The Bus' here.  Frida's pelvis was also broken and she spent much of her life in pain,  trapped in what Pascale in Frida’s voice calls ‘the slaughterhouse of my body’. She also had to cope with her husband -  the slippery, egotistical Diego Rivera who appears in the poems ‘guzzling monkey brains/and hummingbird hearts’.

Les Murray has commented on the ‘powerful mythic imagination’ at work in Pascale’s poetry and there is a surreal gloss that characterises her work and sits easily with the surrealisim of Frida Kahlo’s art. Pascale doesn’t shrink from the graphic violence of the paintings, but the poetry does lack the sensuality of it - the velvet fur of the spider monkeys, swollen prickly pears, symbolically bleeding onto the plate, Frida with her hair loose, every strand a silky thread of desire.

The poetry is beautiful, precise, orderly, and very impressive.  It stands separate from the vivid chaos of Kahlo’s life.

My favourite poem of Pascale’s is  ‘The Hieroglyph Moth’ from her collection ‘The Treekeeper’s Tale’ and which is also connected to an image.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Tuesday Poem

(Italy 2009)

Today I felt the earth shudder
under my bare foot and
my head was dizzy as a ship at sea.

A cup shuffled along the shelf
and a green lemon dropped from the tree and rolled
across the cracked marble of the terrace.

For a second I was arrested
in the moment of lifting a jug of iced
water that slopped over the rim onto my toes.

The roof-tiles chattered as if
someone was running a thumb along the edge
of a deck of cards at Scopa.

And then a pause - everything still.
A breeze fluttering the leaves of the olive trees.
Everything as it was before - except

that the rock I am standing on has shifted
two centimetres further south and,
bare-foot, jug in hand, I have moved with it.

I wrote this when I was living in Italy last year.  Earth tremors are common there, but we also had a couple of quite big earth tremors in England too.  The poem is still a work in progress - it takes me a long time to get from a collection of images or ideas to the finished thing.  With this one, I haven't yet managed to get beyond description. 

Friday, 18 June 2010

On the Train Again

If I’ve been off the blogosphere for a few days it’s because I’ve been travelling. The Royal Literary Fund hosts a summer party in London to allow its Fellows to meet each other as well as representatives from the university they’ve been appointed to. It’s one of those occasions when writers feel properly pampered - and we get to talk to each other.
One of the nicest things to happen to me has been being chosen as a Fellow. I spent two very happy years at Teesside University and now I’ve been given another post at the University of Lancaster, starting in October.
It’s a very unusual kind of job. The Royal Literary Fund has a long history of supporting impoverished authors - dating back to 1790. Coleridge was one of their beneficiaries, and Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce were all helped out at one time or another. But more recently the Fund has moved away from just giving charitable donations. In 1999 it set up an innovative scheme that would help to support authors more widely while also providing a much needed service to students in universities.
During the nineteen eighties and nineties there was increasing concern about the levels of literacy in higher education. By licensing the rights to the Winnie the Pooh books, money became available to put writers into universities to help students with their academic writing. It’s a brilliant idea. The universities benefit and the writers benefit.
Without my RLF appointment it would have been very difficult to finish the Katherine Mansfield biography so quickly. The university supplied the research facilities and I had the security of a regular income while I wrote the book. Working with students was also hugely enjoyable.  So, on a summer evening in London (a bit warmer than the wild north) I raised a glass and said ‘thank you very much’ to the Royal Literary Fund and my employer - Winnie the Pooh!

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Tuesday Poem


We're far north;
beyond the setting point of the sun
which rims the horizon
as though it could always be summer.

Late July, and the birch trees
shift and shiver at three am
in a wind straight from Murmansk
and the perpetual arctic ice.

From the lake's edge the land seems
to go on forever - beyond politics,
into the impossible distances
of history, where women still

wash their clothes in the stream
and sleep above the stove.
Their children crowd the landing stage
with jars of wild strawberries,

flash stainless-steel teeth
at my bad Russian, show me
their living space above the cows -
a garden fenced with chopped logs,

cellars of potatoes stacked
against the fixed line where the sun sets
and the long winter night closes
over the trees like an eye-lid.

© Kathleen Jones

I wrote this poem after a trip to Russia which took me far to the north, towards Archangel. It was almost this time of year,  three weeks past midsummer and during the 'white nights' when it's daylight for twentyfour hours. The living conditions of people in these remote rural areas didn't seem to have changed at all in a thousand years.  I couldn't imagine what it must be like during the winter when the sun doesn't rise for  almost three months.

Sunday, 13 June 2010


The Gypsy Fair has gone and the trampled grass verges are greening up with the rain. In a few days you will hardly notice that anyone has been there. But the post mortems are just starting. First through the door was a letter from the police requesting feedback about their handling of the event.
A lot of people will be pleased because for the first time in many years there was very little trouble. It was certainly one of the quietest fairs I have ever experienced. But the atmosphere was less than pleasant. Sometimes in town it seemed that there were more police than visitors. Only two pubs were open - Appleby has seven - and several were boarded up. Those that were open found themselves surrounded by a cordon of police, some on horseback. Appleby might just as well have put up a ‘Gypsies not wanted here’ notice.
The gypsies mounted a silent protest, which I missed. They drove their horses into town, set them loose and stood completely silent, blocking the traffic in all directions, with the police facing them on the other side. Apparently the atmosphere felt menacing, until they gathered up the horses and cleared the road. There was no violence.
But there was no exuberance either, or the sense of joyous celebration that comes with the fair. A lot of people on holiday, enjoying themselves. This year, by Saturday evening a lot of people were leaving. And instead of staying until Thursday, most of the caravans left on Monday.
I can understand why some of the people of Appleby feel as they do. With the fair comes a certain amount of drunkenness and bad behaviour - the local pubs are used to taking up the carpets and removing anything that isn’t nailed down - and a certain amount of crime. Where you get huge numbers of people there is always an element who will use that as cover. There is also a huge amount of litter and garbage - hedgerows get used as toilets and it’s not pretty. But Appleby doesn’t have the infra-structure to cope with the number of people who come.
There’s also the inbuilt prejudice to Romanies that seems to exist across Europe - it Italy it’s the same. I found myself wondering what it must be like to belong to an ethnic group that everyone seems to hate.
But if the gypsies stopped coming to Appleby, it would lose a huge part of its annual revenue. For some businesses their income over ‘Fair Week’ (as it’s known locally) is all that keeps them going. And the horse fair is Appleby’s main claim to fame for the tourist trade. Quite a dilemma.

If you want a flavour of the Fair in its sunniest mood - Neil shot this little video on the instant camera -  the musician is Catherine Ashcroft.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Appleby Horse Fair

So the gypsy horse fair is over and things can begin to get back to normal. I love the traditional aspects of it - the horses and the beautiful painted caravans, but there’s little of that left now. The painted caravans are there for show and people actually sleep in the modern, chrome plated affairs parked next door. The horses too are just a commodity - transport is in four wheel drives, or the convertible Audis that seem to be the favoured vehicle at the moment.

Up on Fair Hill - about a mile out of Appleby - is the main encampment - a collection of the old vardas and newer caravans. Every road verge and patch of grass has horses tethered on it.

The country lane is closed to traffic and converted into a race track, where the trotting horses are put through their paces in front of potential buyers.
This is the picturesque side of the Fair. Tomorrow I’ll show you a different one - a tale of police harassment and public disorder.
But I did feel quite sad, watching the last of the vardas trotting up the hill out of Appleby, heading home - or just possibly the next Fair.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Flash Fiction: Fortune Cookies

There are two of them in the basket; one for each of us. I choose the nearest, then hesitate. The other one seems to be winking at me in the pink light of the fringed Chinese lamp. My hand hovers.
‘Oh, go on then,’ he says, in a tone that is half way between irritation and resignation. Then he picks up and opens the one I’ve just refused. An odd smile twitches at the corner of his mouth as he reads; ‘Don’t cry for it, try for it’.
Mine crumbles into fragments when I break it open. There’s nothing inside. I look on the tablecloth, on the floor, under my napkin. But there’s still nothing. The cookie is empty. I’m not superstitious, definitely not, but something uneasy and irrational drags itself out of hiding and sits there in the coloured foil, staring at me.
‘If you don’t eat it, it can’t come true,’ he says. He’s already crunching into his, the almost-smile still curling one side of his mouth.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Tuesday Poem: Horse Trading

I've decided not to put poems in the sidebar, which distorts the line breaks, but to put them up in the main body of the blog from now on. I've also been accepted as one of the Tuesday Poem group and am committed to putting up a poem (not necessarily my own) every Tuesday if I can.

They wake me early, cantering
along the river-bank below my window;
testy stallions and barrel-bellied mares
with velvet mouths and feathered shins,
bare-backed by Irish gypsies
over for the Fair.

Later I watch the pure-bred
horses harnessed in sulkies
jouncing across the grass,
arching their necks and lifting
their polished hooves like gods
from old mythologies.

In my house their ancestors gallop
under the floor. Five horses heads;
ivory shells of thin bone, blank sockets
rearing up at me out of another time.
Shaman's stallions, carrying souls to heaven.
Five white horses: one to protect

each corner of the house, one more
to bring fertility, sacrificed at the fall
of the year. Their shoes are above the door.
Their manes and tails pack the space
between my floor boards
curl in the plastered wall.

Outside I watch them turn and trot,
hock deep in foaming water,
"broken to harness" under the whip
flesh and sinew sold on a hand-clap.
At night I hear their mythic hooves
beating on wood; their snorting breath.

I wrote the poem lying in bed listening to the horses on the river bank below my bedroom window, during the Gypsy Horse Fair in Appleby. The town has a long association with horses and, although we don't have any horses carved into the landscape as in southern England, some of the houses here have horses' skulls buried under the floors. The mystical significance of this has long vanished, but the traditional Horse Fair continues.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Creative Writing On-Line

Part of this writer’s life is tutoring an on-line creative writing course for the Open University. It started about 6 years ago and I was one of the first tutors recruited. Since then we’ve all, as a group, pioneered the teaching of creative writing on-line through what is now called (abominably) the Virtual Learning Environment. This means that we set up conferences on the internet where our students can post up work, comment on each other’s writing and chat. As tutors we set group exercises, mark assignments, arrange on-line tutorials and oversee the on-line forum. It works well, though I much prefer face-to-face contact with students. Suggestions for improvements to precious, often sensitive, material are so much more palatable when conveyed by the human voice, modified by discussion, and not contained in the cold print of an email.
Today - Saturday - was the marking moderation meeting at Milton Keynes. This is essential, because we all have to give the same levels of grade to our students for similar work. So I had to get up at 4.30am to catch a train, participate in a mock marking exercise with other tutors and then get on another train back to the Lake District. The journey takes 4 hours each way, so it’s a long day. For me it’s several hours of soul searching into the value of teaching creative writing.
Can it be taught at all? You certainly can’t give students the talent to write - all you can share is the technical expertise. I often wish that there’d been a course around when I started out, so that I didn’t have to learn by hit or miss.
Can it realistically be marked? Or is that purely subjective? We try to mark by rewarding demonstrated techniques - the craft of writing - with a little bonus in reserve for manuscripts that have the ‘Wow’ factor.
Is it ethical to turn more writers out into a world with diminishing markets? When publishing is in its worst crisis for decades? But I think so long as you don’t give students unrealistic expectations and warn them how hard it’s going to be, then that’s ok. It’s ironic somehow, to encourage others to compete with you in an already over-crowded profession.
But students are learning for different reasons anyway - some of them simply do it for themselves. Some are writing as therapy, or to make sense of past experiences. Others are doing the module as part of another degree. Some European students are studying to improve their English. Only a small percentage want to be writers.
So now home, very tired, to crash in my own bed after a long day. It was great to meet the other tutors - almost the only time we get together. And in another month the course will be over for another year. Not sure whether I’m going to be tutoring again next year. I’ve decided that, with such a hectic travelling schedule, I need to cut my work load before I fold under the pressure! In three weeks I’m off to Cuba and three weeks after that I head off to New Zealand and Australia. After that I think I need a holiday .......

Friday, 4 June 2010

Appleby Horse Fair

This is what Appleby is famous for - a gathering of gypsies and horse traders. Every year this quiet, rather conservative town has its population boosted from around three and a half thousand to thirty thousand by an influx of Romany travellers from all over the UK and Europe, as well as all the tourists who come to see them. For the residents, it's rather like being under seige.
The fair is very ancient, though it’s bizarrely called the New Fair, because a new charter was handed out by James II in 1685 to legalise a previously unregulated gathering. The long association with horses here has some strange manifestations. Sometimes, digging up the floors of old houses, horses heads have been found buried underneath.
Most of the horses are the small, compact, brown and white horses traditionally bred by the Romanies. They’re much used for ‘trotting’ - sometimes called cart or gig racing - and the fastest fetch huge sums of money here. There’s a big Irish presence and I’m constantly reminded that some of my ancestors were Irish horse-traders. It was in my father’s blood and I seem to have inherited his love of horses along with the dodgy Irish genes!
We live on the river bank, so we are right in the centre of activity and have to fence off the garden to stop it being trampled down. Once, when we failed to get the wire up in time, we came home to find three horses on the front lawn, one tied to the apple tree and a very large four wheel drive parked beside it.

Every morning the horses intended for sale are brought down to the river to be washed and groomed. Today was mares and foals day - some of the foals only a few days old.

Tomorrow it will be stallions. Further downstream, where the bridge crosses into town, the river is very deep and a lot of the horses are brought down to swim - most ridden by children. But sometimes adults are tempted to take them in and you can see the horses struggling to stay afloat. In previous years there have been a number of accidents, including the deaths of horses, and the RSPCA have a big presence here. Anyone with a strong stomach can follow this link to YouTube.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Cumbria in mourning

I think everyone who lives here is feeling shaken today by a crime that would seem more credible if it happened in the USA. A quiet man,a good mate in the pub, a man who kept himself to himself, suddenly goes on the rampage with two guns, killing his twin brother, his solicitor, and at least nine other people, injuring many others and finally turning the gun on himself. There are many questions. We are all asking why a man who was capable of 'flipping' like this was allowed to have two high performance guns. Are the checks adequate? Probably not - it's still very easy to get a gun. Cumbria is a hunting and shooting county - I live surrounded by it. But I always want to ask why anyone really needs a gun? Is it necessary to kill anything? I don't believe that killing animals for fun is either ethical or moral. And if private individuals are allowed to keep guns, there is always going to be someone, somewhere, who is going to use that gun under stress against another human being.

When I landed in Boston, USA, the first thing I saw was a giant poster with a picture of a dead child and the slogan 'It is easier to child-proof your gun, than it is to gun-proof your child'. It's stayed with me for ever.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Goodbye to Italy

It's goodbye to Italy for a while and hello to rainy England! All I can do is look at the photographs and listen to the music. There was a great deal of it at Peralta. Memories of friends busking in the square at Pietrasanta, Irish fiddle music on the terrace for Easter, blues guitar in the bar during the writing course. I love most kinds of music and used to sing in a folk group a long time ago. This is a very early Tuscan folk song, in dialect, that will always remind me of my winter in Tuscany.