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Poems of my Life: My Grandmother

2 Jan

Grandmothers. We all have them. The pair allotted to me were rather distant. One didn’t intend to be, the other did. Nanna was my English granny, my mother’s mother; Farmor my Danish one. The former was a kindly but self-absorbed depressive lady; the latter a rather cold Cruella.

So many years on from their deaths, I find Elizabeth Jennings’s poem the first to come to mind when thinking of my grandmothers. It has nothing to do with them – and everything. Were I to write a granny-verse, I’d focus on my Nanna. She and my grandfather (Poppa) lived in a flat above a gentlemen’s outfitters. The sense-impressions of that poky pad teem. The mustiness of granny-smells: Gifty the mangy dog; old-lady perfume; cigarettes and pipes; over-steamed vegetables; seaweed by the front door; barometer to tap by the stairs; outside toilet an Bronco paper fro big jobs; damp blankets and counterpane, brylcream-stained antimacassars; ashtray stands with spin-away push buttons to make the stubs disappear; spare teeth in a glass by the bureau; complete Dickens and Encyclopedia Britannica hiding in a glass-front bookcase; ash hanging precipitously from Nanna’s lip (she would set herself alight more than once before her time was up)….I miss that stale, musty, can-only-be-Nanna smell. Despite not really being that close to her in her self-absorbtion, there are times when I catch a sense of her in a Victorian print, the scent as an elderly woman walks by, a look of despair. And in this poem.

MY GRANDMOTHER BY ELIZABETH JENNINGS

She kept an antique shop – or it kept her.
Among Apostle spoons and Bristol glass,
The faded silks, the heavy furniture,
She watched her own reflection in the brass
Salvers and silver bowls, as if to prove
Polish was all, there was no need of love.

And I remember how I once refused
To go out with her, since I was afraid.
It was perhaps a wish not to be used
Like antique objects. Though she never said
That she was hurt, I still could feel the guilt
Of that refusal, guessing how she felt.

Later, too frail to keep a shop, she put
All her best things in one narrow room.
The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished. There was nothing then
To give her own reflection back again.

And when she died I felt no grief at all,
Only the guilt of what I once refused.
I walked into her room among the tall
Sideboards and cupboards – things she never used
But needed; and no finger marks were there,
Only the new dust falling through the air.

 

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What are you thinking about? Nothing?

30 Dec

Here is an extract from my much-awaited first novel. Edwin is brushing his teeth on the morning of his birthday and thinking about not revealing his thoughts.

As he pondered mid- brushing, he digressed into that minefield of what thoughts and actions we normal people would never admit to. For example, at 11 this morning when his mother, keen to kill him with conversation,  would ask what he had  done so far today, would he include: contemplating masturbation and not shaving; putting plastic into the green bin; collecting his prescription for statins; the fierce argument with his ex-wife whose birthday call was a poisoned dart masquerading as a friendly pat; putting washer fluid in the wiper system of his car; chatting to Phil next door about how mossy his lawn had become; getting an earful from a hoodie whose snorting gob on the pavement he had tutted at? All these things were to happen in the next two hours but pass unremarked upon.  Ed recalled the times without number that mothers and lovers had asked the unanswerable ‘What are you thinking?’ The word nothing is a shortening of ‘Everything and nothing’ which is a further reduction from ‘Everything that is on my mind at the moment which is of private concern to me and nothing to do with you or anyone else – or if it is, it would be hurtful to say.’ Nothing is a much better way of saying ‘Mind your own fucking business’.

Most of what we think we don’t reveal – and we don’t want to. Practically it would be impossible to convey the information of the teeming synapses of our thoughts anyway. Much of thought doesn’t fit language either so explaining ourselves is clunky, hard. Most thoughts come unbidden and are wildly irrelevant to what we are doing, saying and thinking at the time. Inappropriate even. You know what I mean. With our nearest and dearest, in our most intimate moments, embarrassingly odd thoughts gatecrash the party and create a zeitgeist that’s impossible to share.

So my character Edwin is not alone in his reflections on his inner and outer worlds. And it is true that the most common answer to the question , ‘What are you thinking?’ is ‘Nothing.’ We can’t be bothered to explain the idiocy of our thoughts. We might upset and embarrass ourselves and others. We might reveal ourselves in an unflattering light. The reasons are endless but, perhaps, the main one is that we don’t want anyone to have unlimited access to our private world. We don’t like the idea that someone else might understand us as well as we do ourselves. So we hide, conceal, don’t reveal.

When I was masterminding an internal ‘audit’ of a school’s pastoral system, a pupil questionnaire included the statement: There is an adult at school who knows and understands me well and I would trust. Then the tick boxes ranging from strong disagreement to strong agreement. When we analysed the responses we found that almost all responses waxed lyrical about the school’s care – save for this one. When we delved a little we realised that 14/15 year olds don’t necessarily think adults know and understand them well. We changed the question of course.

We adults are no different are we? We like to think of ourselves as unique. Well we are because we don’t change too much from cradle to grave. My dear mother, who died this year, was an expert in asking the what are you thinking question when we were growing up. She used it at times to provoke; at times to show care. Just a few months before she died I was driving her home after Sunday lunch and to fill our companionable silence, I asked the question: what are you thinking?

She looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Nothing.’

‘Really?’ I asked.

‘Done enough thinking,’ she said and we continued on our silent journey.

2014 – My year in books.

29 Dec

Books 2014 Here is my 2014 list – 54 books in all. The Devil does find work for my idle hands and I have page-turned a-plenty. Less reading, more blogging in 2015.

I read the news today…oh boy

21 Nov

…..About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad:

The good and great of Rochester and Strood

Had caught the media-nation mood

And made their choice – a man called Reckless,

A turning coat, now purple, feckless.

From his Farage he has persuaded

That Brits of Kent shall be invaded,

Swamped, trampled by the  immigrant,

Such a silly, sad…compelling rant.

The aftermath..well let’s just guess…

Dreadful news for the NHS.

 

And on to the Shadow Attorney General

Whose cabinet days have proved ephemeral.

Her name suggests both sharp and sweet

But bloody stupid, too, to tweet.

 

And next the rapist wants to play,

He’s done his time is what some say

But moral hackles, rising high

Have writ quite large on Sheffield’s sky:

If  that bastard isn’t banned

We’ll rename Jessica Ennis’s stand.

 

No need to move from home work station

To find bad news from other nations

Lots to keep us weeping here

Ne’er mind Hammas, Putin, North Korea.

I read the news today oh boy,

Let’s hope the morrow brings more joy.

 

Poems of my Life. Flint.

17 Nov

Nursery rhymes and songs were the stuff of my childhood. Nothing unusual there. Listen with Mother and, when we had a TV,  Watch with Mother added more rhyme into the mix. Having a Danish dad meant Hans Christian Andersen and the stories and poetry of Ole Luk-Oye. More of this anon. Rupert Bear’s adventures were told in verse and prose. Now We are Six by A.A. Milne was read to me early because I had the book hand-me-downs from my elder brother.

Rhyme and rhythm should be part of a child’s sing-song day. At Cuddington County Primary School, I’m sure there were rhymes aplenty but one stands out. Flint by Christina Rosetti.

Flint
~Christina Rossetti

An emerald is as green as grass,
A ruby red as blood;
A sapphire shines as blue as heaven;
A flint lies in the mud.

A diamond is a brillant stone,
To catch the world’s desire;
An opal holds a fiery spark;
But a flint holds fire.

This is the first poem I remember being ‘taught’. I’m pretty sure that it was in class 3 –  Mrs Thorburn . I was 6. She would have had to explain what sapphires and rubies were, no doubt. We went foraging in the woods looking for flints, about which I had no idea. Mrs T encouraged us to clap stones together and make sparks, then breathe in the ignition aroma.

Then the poem. At 6 I was told what a simile was – and a metaphor but it took me longer to grasp that, I think. I knew about rhyme of course but hadn’t bothered with much else, I’m sure. Mrs T, after extolling the excitements of the gems, teased answers out of us about the monosyllabic fourth and eighth lines. It is these two lines that jump into my head as much as any other that I have ever come across. especially that last, exciting line. I can hear Mrs T now.

But-a-flint….holds…….FIRE!

Books, books, books….

16 Jan

My 2013 reading. Mini reviews and ratings. Highly questionable, really.  For what it’s worth…Books 2013

Am I getting more arty – or is it just an age thing?

22 Jan

I spent half an hour, last week, sitting in front of Il Tagliapanni (The Tailor) at the National Gallery. I was killing time and had persuaded myself to continue my journey of art education and discovery. Whenever I have done this in galleries up and down the land I have tended to forget the brilliant images within a millisecond of sipping the first pint in the pubs round the corner.

Not so with Giovanni Battista Moroni’s brilliant portrait. If the artist’s name and the pasta-giggle of a title wasn’t enough of a draw, the arresting demeanour of the beautiful tailor made you want to sit and stare. And so I did. The heavy tailor’s scissors to the bottom left drew the eye, which, having been drawn moved back to the kind, firm, quizzical face. Why are you interested in me? The tailor seemed to be saying. I  wondered about such an artisan being the subject of a portrait – after all wasn’t it just the toffs of the time could afford a portrait commission? I checked the blurb – it seemed that it was several decades before the Italians comfirmed the painting as that of a tailor. I wondered why. I sat again and saw the chalk lines on the dark velvet cloth being cut – must be for a VIP? But the tailor holds the attention…for ages. Go to the National Gallery site. See for yourself.

I wandered on and bumped into my old buddy Mark White – he an artist and teacher who has tried, sympathetically, to aid my art education. I was gratified that he added to my response to Mr Moroni’s painting, accepting amuch of what  I said with gratifying interest – then filling in some gaps. I wandered round to the National Portrait Gallery and caught The Duchess of Cambridge looking ten years older by the magic of artwork, the Taylor-Wessing exhibition which was erm..like…very good photography – and then I moved off to The Ship and Shovel to take stock…and a nice pint of Badger’s. As with so many, I guess, I was thinking through my real response rather than the one expected of someone with a finely-tuned artistic sensibility. You know the sort of thing – those moments when you have to face the undeniable truth that you like Simon and Garfunkel more than Mahler and Any Human Heart more than anything by Yann Martell or Salman Rushdie. Actually I like anything more than Mahler but I’d still go with my luvvie mates to the Albert Hall in the vain attempt to try to ‘get’ what they seem to ‘get’.

The evening held promise. I was heading for the Duke of York’s theatre, dahling, accompnied by a highly attractive woman, to see The Judas Kiss with Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox. The play charts the period from Oscar Wilde’s famous arrest at the Cadogan Hotel to his final parting from Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas). Quite a good deal of male nudity laced each scene but David Hare’s script was a joy. There were no foppish repeats of time-honoured epigrams, rather the sharp, sardonic wit of the tragic figure as he wrestled with his relationships and his life. Black, sad humour there was and Rupert Everett stole every scene, every exchange – our hearts went out to him as we laughed almost embarrassedly. Wow…that was art.

I’ve been on this arty kick for a few weeks. Much as I question the need for musicals, I found Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic fresh and engaging. I didn’t get bored (this being my benchmark for any judgement of quality) – mind you I have taken to not drinking alcohol just before or during theatre or film. Your head just goes doesn’t it? A couple of beers and 30 minutes into even the most rivetting of plays, your chin hits your chest. A woman a few seat dow from us at the Judas Kiss snored with some volume before her companion gave her a kicking. Not age, just wine.

A dear friend and I caught Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness at The Royal Court. Stirring intra-family strife. Dirty linen being washed; the baggage of an extended family’s life being opened on stage. It was effective, dramatically and the set change was stunning…but it was gloomy and a bit lopsided. The central part of the play consisted of a ‘Question-time’ style chanting exchange of truths being revealed in this surreal set-up. It worked but went on far too long. Intriguing, though.

Kristin Scott-Tomas, Rufus Sewell and Lia Williams did a great job in the revival of Pinter’s Old Times at the theatre newly named after him.  I could look at Kristin S-T for ages anyway – rather like Il Tagliatanni, actually. The staging here was obvious but good – the love triangle – and triangulate they did, these smart three actors, in every move they made or line delivered. I suppose with Pinter you can’t fail but there was an urelieved gloom which I didn’t go for too much but that’s the territory that Pinter invariably seemed to inhabit.

I finished up my January arty tour de force by slipping into Quartet at the Sutton Empire. I gather this Downton come Tea with Mussolini come Exotic Marigold of a film, improbably directed by Dustin Hoffman has taken a bit of critical stick. Psshhaww! It’s a gentle humorous delight about a bunch of operatic has-beens who end up in a home for musical pensioners. Billy Connelly gets most of the good lines; Maggie Smith delivers the same lines in the same manner; Tom Courtenay is vulnerably stoical and Pauline Collins does her best to imitate that silly woman who used to be on Coronation Street. Sheridan Smith probably advances her career as the doctor in charge of the asylum and a good time is had by all. Take your mum (if over 50) or your grannie or, if you have a bus pass yourself, grab a ride to the nearest flea-pit.

Well after all this activity do I feel more arty? Another page of A Casual Vacancy feels like I’m walking through treacle so perhaps my sights have moved up a notch. But I’m off to Jack Reacher later and I have just started my final sentence with a conjuction…so watch this space.

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