Sunday, 28 August 2011

Good lines

h and I adding our names to the wall at Ground Zero Blues Club, Clarksdale, Mississippi in April this year (that bit of trip here)

In this post I offer you a few quotations – from things I've read recently.

1. Via Chatwin

Whilst travelling I did read a book or two and one was “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989). I'd heard Chatwin's name for years but never got round to reading anything by him so I picked up a couple of his books in a second hand shop in Washington state. It was hard not to find “The Songlines” interesting as it covers a lot of my favourite subjects (walking, singing, trying to understand the world...) but it wouldn't be to everyone's taste (it just... stops here and there... not your average book, for sure). I was pretty interested in all the information about Australia and its Aboriginal people but I found Chatwin's style a bit repetitive and, now and again, even tiresome. Still, he was the erudite type and he does use some great quotations. Here's one from Robert Burton's “The Anatomy of Melancholy” (first publ. 1621):

The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun riseth and sets, the moon increaseth, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds, the waters ebb and flow, to their conservation no doubt, to teach us that we should ever be in motion.

And here's one from Kierkegaard (letter to Jette – 1847). I may have seen this quotation on another, more energetic, walker's blog too:

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it... but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill... Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

And now a bit of Chatwin's own text:

'I know this may sound far-fetched,' I said to Elizabeth Vrba, 'but if I were asked, “What is the big brain for”?, I would be tempted to say, “For singing our way through the wilderness.” '

I like that one.

2. Martin Bloody Amis?

There was a piece by Martin Amis in the Financial Times recently about one of my very favourite poets Philip Larkin. It contained this:

Literary criticism, throughout its long history (starting with Aristotle), has restlessly searched for the Holy Grail of a value system – a way of separating the excellent from the less excellent. But it turns out that this is a fool’s errand.

Guess I've met a few fools then (I knew it...). I'm certainly no Mamis fan but it's a really good article. Interesting too how he calls Larkin “the novelist's poet” (and very much not the poet's poet...).

3. Dawn French (popular culture alert!)

How about this from comedian/actor (or is that comedienne/actress?) Dawn French in her autobiography (of sorts) “Dear Fatty” (2008)?

I personally like the adventure of difference

and a longer excerpt (about her year in New York when she was 18/19):

For the first time ever, I was alone in a different country. I was nervous about how I was going to cope in this big bustling city and so I employed a technique which still serves me well today. I imagined myself as someone who relished new exciting opportunities, who was utterly unafraid and perpetually optimistic. It was a kind of reinvention. Everyone I met was new. These people didn't know me, there was no shared history, so I could be anything or anyone I wanted to be. My theory was that if I behaved like a confident, cheerful person, eventually I would buy it myself, and become that. I always had traces of strength somewhere inside me, it wasn't fake, it was just a way of summoning my courage to the fore and not letting any self-doubt hinder my adventures. This method worked then, and it works now. I tell myself that I am the sort of person who can open a one-woman play in the West End, so I do. I am the sort of person who has several companies, so I do. I am the sort of person who WRITES A BOOK! So I do. It's a process of having faith in the self you don't quite know yet, if you see what I mean. Believing that you will find the strength, the means somehow, and trusting in that, although your legs are like jelly. You can still walk on them and you will find the bones as you walk. Yes, that's it. The further I walk, the stronger I become. So unlike real lived life, where the further you walk the more your hips hurt.

I'm not normally a big reader of celebrity stories but (a) it's one of my Mum's books (and there are plenty of those still around the house), (b) I'm always fascinated by people who manage to make a living out of comedy and (c ) French's Dad killed himself... and I'm always fascinated by people who have been in this same, very peculiar boat too. It's not a great book (I have skimmed at times...) but it has its good moments. And I like her overall (there's an interview with her here on of all things 'This Morning'... why the hell not..?)

4. Dundee's finest

From songwriter and musician Michael Marra (talking on BBC Radio Scotland) about his ambition as a young man:

I didn't want my name in lights - I wanted it in brackets

I've written about Dundee's Marra on the old blog loads of times... in fact I even wrote him a poem (back here). And here he is singing some Rabbie Burns:

I've never thought of it before but I suppose to those of you not in Scotland green 'rashes' might seem odd... but I'm sure you can work it out.

5. Krishnamurti

And finally a line from Krishnamurti – via a young relative of mine on the evil facebook:

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society

Some food for thought I think.


Monday, 22 August 2011

The Reading Promise

On our recent can-we-escape-normal-life-please trip to the US and Canada we spent a certain amount of time in bookshops. All three of us (man, woman, child) are fairly keen readers and we all feel comfortable and relaxed, I think it's fair to say, in a bookshop (though we like music and DVD shops too...). In our time overseas we went to little second hand bookshops, giant book megastores and pretty much everything in between (and indeed one of my favourite places in North America is undoubtedly Powell's marvellous bookstore in Portland, Oregon - our Oregon visit is back here).

Despite these bookstore visits in fact I did very little reading during those six months on the road – mainly I had my nose in guidebooks and maps, leaflets and more maps. I read a few books along with h – though currently she prefers to read to me rather than the other way round – but mainly I planned to catch up with reading again when we got home. It was a bit weird reading so little for six whole months (usually I read quite a lot, I suppose) but it made it more like a holiday (as in different from the norm) and it seemed the right thing to do at the time.

One book that was top of my list to read when we got back was this one:

“The Reading Promise – 3,218 nights of reading with my father” by Alice Ozma (2011). I'd seen a copy in a Chapters store in British Columbia in June but had not bought it then due to our ever-increasing amount of luggage-to-get-home-somehow. Instead I bought it when we got home (it's originally a US book but I got the UK edition – published by Hodder & Stoughton, their page for the book is here). Then I got to reading it pretty much as soon as I could.

I suppose I found this book tempting mainly because it is about a parent and child reading together and reading is one of the things that h and I have done together most often. h has always loved books with a kind of crazy passion (this is the child that, as young as maybe not even 2 years old, woke us up in the middle of the night regularly with “read me the ducky book, read me the ducky book!”) and now, at 11, the passion shows no sign of dying out either. She doesn't only read books it should be said - she plays with them like they are toys, talks to them, wanders around the house with them, almost climbs inside them. She also much prefers to read aloud (or listen) rather than read quietly and again this preference shows no sign of disappearing. I find it interesting for many reasons but partly because “More about the song” for me was always at least partly about sound in poetry (rather than what seem to me drier, more intellectual concerns) and so I suppose maybe she and I have the preference for sound in common.

In “The Reading Promise” Alice Ozma tells her and her father's reading story – how left together at home for most of her formative years reading was one of their mutual passions to the extent that they agreed to read together every night (without fail) until she left home for college at 18. It started as a read-for-a-hundred-nights, turned into read-for-a-thousand nights and then it just kept going and they came to call it their “Reading Streak” (or “the Streak” for short). Ozma's father was a primary school librarian (not something we ever have in the UK to my knowledge) and he was something of a professional reader so in their case it was always him reading to Alice, rather than the other way around.

"The Reading Promise" isn't hugely about the books they read (something she covers in a blog post here) and like many readers I found this a bit offputting at first. However I stuck with it and I'm glad I did because it is a charming account of a very dedicated and loving father/single parent and the passion for books and stories that he nurtures in his daughters and his students. It is also, I suppose, about the place of books in our lives as computers advance in schools and homes (though this is mostly in the final chapters) and it is also about eccentricity, in many ways, in children and in their parents. Maybe all families are eccentric (thus making a nonsense of the word...) but I think that single parent families, in particular, can't help but be a bit eccentric (I know the one I grew up in was...) and that at times, as a child, you feel the lacks more than the gains. Ozma, however, seems to have learned (a bit earlier than I did perhaps...) to appreciate that devoted single parent and to celebrate their efforts and achievements. For that (and for getting a good book published before the age of 25) congratulations to Alice Ozma – job well done on both counts.

Alice's father, Jim Brozina, has written the foreword to the book and here's an excerpt from it that I know my Mum would have approved of:

“A parent who has proven time and time again that the growth and happiness of his or her children is priority number one does not have to worry about where those children are heading in life. They will be sensitive and productive members of society for as long as they live.”

I'm not sure it's always as straightforward as that... but it's not a bad idea to try it anyway.


Alice Ozma's website is here.

An old blog post of mine about reading to the small one is here

The pic at top of post is an old one of my Mum reading to h (aforementioned “ducky book” I think). It must be from about 2001.

Friday, 19 August 2011

And poetry - part 2

I listened to the Radio 4 'Great Lives' about Emily Dickinson today (it's here if listening to the BBC is something your location allows you to do). Programmes about Emily D are always heartening for those of us not succeeding too hugely as writers in our own lifetimes (even more so for those of us who are female and odd and who use... individual punctuation). The programme threw up a theory or two about her and featured this poem of hers at its very start:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us—don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Emily Dickinson

Interesting.... and I'm guessing she wouldn't have been in the queue for Celebrity Big Brother (had it existed in 19th century Massachusetts). By the way, I've laid the poem out as I found it in my "Selected Poems" (Borders Classics 2006). I say this because I am aware there are different schools of Emily lay-out, as it were, but I am not nearly academic enough to remember the differences or to be, in all honesty, that bothered about them (though mess with my weird layout and punctuation at your peril... shameless double standards, I know). Here is the same poem read aloud:

And now I will get back to doing anything else but writing any poems. Ribbit.


Wednesday, 17 August 2011

And poetry?

Misty Montrose, last week

I mentioned when I started this new blog just recently that I wasn't sure whether it would have any poetry content at all... and especially if it would feature any poetry by little old me. In the old blog I posted quite a lot of poems, took part in poetry projects, wrote about poetry matters and such like so it would be quite a change for me and my online life if this were all to change. Some of you were good enough to protest a little about this suggestion and your comments were much appreciated (we take what we can, eh, crumbs of praise, crumbs of self-respect...) but in all honesty I really have no idea, at this point, if I will ever write another poem again. I mean, who cares, really, especially when there is so much else to think about (social unrest, social decay, settling back in at home, not settling back in at home, going out, staying in, family life etc.). And it's weird because I'm not upset or even particularly confused or anything - I just feel a bit 'dunno' about the whole thing. And people keep saying “you must have got so much material while you were travelling!” and I'm like “yeh, maybe, s'pose so” (in all those six months I read very little poetry and wrote even less). These inarticulate responses seem very teenage, don't they? Maybe it's some stage of bereavement or something.

I do know that, even in simpler times, I never feel about poetry the way some of you others do. I don't bathe in it, revel in it, wrap myself in it and float away and all that (maybe that's my problem – it has always been music with actual tunes that has done those kind of things for me). And, for example, when I listened to the radio documentary about poet Rosemary Tonks last year or so and they got to the bit about her withdrawing from the world of poetry the commentators (and poetry lovers) on the programme were all “how could she do that?” and “why would she do that?” and I was like “well, duh, why wouldn't you?” Her departure may have had something to do with religion but I could imagine many other reasons why a person might want to abandon poetry (or at least goings-on to do with it). For me (so far) the poetry world has never worked much magic (though I know that for others it is a wondrous place to be, likeminded souls and all that). In my case I've been to poetry festivals and felt time and time again like a fish out of water, a fish without a bicycle and pretty much a fish out on a slab with my head cut off (not so magical). And I know I miss Adrian Mitchell...

So will there be any poems as the posts roll out over the coming months? I dunno, I dunno and, again, I dunno. Sorry to be so adolescent.

And now back to the social unrest... and some music... borrowed from Dick Jones.


Sunday, 14 August 2011

Anarchy in the UK?

It's two weeks now since our return to these beautiful shores (and quite beautiful they are too - we walked on the beach near Montrose today so I know that for sure). Over the past week however, like most people, my thoughts have been on subjects other than beauty as I have written one and read many articles prompted by last week's events in English cities. Sometimes the articles I've found interesting have been in unlikely journals – say this one in the “Daily Telegraph” - but one of the best things I've encountered was this article by Boff Whalley of the band Chumbawamba that found a home in the “Independent”. In it Boff reclaims the word 'anarchy' from the tabloids and that is such an important job (reclaiming our lives and ideas from the filth-spreaders). In the comments to my last post here I found myself doing it too, I think, when I wrote the words “we've all been calling each other 'scum' for so long we can hardly remember how to do anything else”. I wrote that as a quick response to something and then afterwards realised how true it probably is. This is always better than writing something, publishing it and only then realising you've got it completely wrong - though of course in this instance I'd rather it wasn't true at all.

We listen to a fair bit of recent Chumbawamba in this house (they've been around for years but it's only with later albums like 2008's “The Boy Bands Have Won” that the three of us have become real fans) and this week we were trying out a couple of their other albums on Spotify. They always have good album titles (and good covers like the one at the top of this post) and on one album called “A Singsong and a Scrap” (2005) I heard this song that I'd never heard before. I really liked it and thought you might too. It's called “Fade away (I don't want to)”.

Much as I like this song it does make me sad too - mainly because I still can't hear phrases like 'fade away' without thinking about my Mum and her last weeks (back in Spring 2010). Still, she is not forgotten at least. Not at all, not at all.


Thursday, 11 August 2011

Home again, home again

This photo looted from the Hartlepool Mail online. Taken by Paul Duxfield. So we are home... or at least back in our adopted home of Scotland (we've lived here since 2002 and we have a fair amount of Scottish links in our family too). And though it has rained almost continually since we returned we are still glad to be back, to see our friends, to be in our own house again, to walk our own dog. For now anyway. And yet our other home, the country where we were both born and brought up, is in big trouble this week (if you haven't seen coverage of what's been happening in London and a few other English cities then you must have been having a no-news week or something). We don't really call England home much any more but it still is that, of course, in many ways. We still have family and many friends there, we still sound English, we still can't help but be interested in it. And London... big, crazy London... I lived there for a few years some quarter of a century ago (eek!) so I know a bit about London too. Here are a few observations re the current English situation: No-one ever really expected David Cameron to be any kind of good leader (even other Tories, I think) and indeed it seems he is keeping to his target. And I know the leader isn't everything... but it is meant to be something. I suspect people who found Boris Johnson 'charming' and 'wacky' are feeling a bit different about that now. The banks really ballsed up and people are still mad about that and they will be for a long time. We don't mind getting ripped off a bit (in fact we expect that) but we don't really want our faces rubbing in it over and over again. They did, as it were, write a blank cheque for daylight robbery. Anyone who writes anything about all this explosion of violence and theft and uses the word 'surprise' has been avoiding some very obvious truths, it seems to me. Haven't they been in an English inner city area in the past, I dunno, fifty years? Haven't they been sworn at by a lawless (and loveless...) ten year old out there somewhere for heaven's sake? Haven't they seen all the gritty movies about alienation, poverty and feral youth and realised that our film makers are maybe taking those stories from real life..? But I guess some people don't ever see films like that... they can be really depressing (though not as depressing as getting your house burned down I'm guessing). Also, for me, the London police cannot enjoy a good season of student-bashing and baiting and then expect too much sympathy when they get opponents with a bit more attitude and application (and that's without starting on the News International business). And yet I still feel sympathy, of course, for some of the police officers - for the ones who do do a good job and have to take the crap and the burning bottles anyway. It's never the worst arseholes who pay the price, unfortunately. After a year when we have been bored to tears about the bloody royal family (and there was no escape from them overseas – there was possibly even more coverage of the stupid wedding in Canada and the US than here I think) the special ones have been conspicuously quiet during the recent riot season. Feel a bit embarrassed about all that wealth and all those lovely parties this week? Ever think you're part of the problem, princess? What nothing from you? Nothing? (Added later, 19.8.11, there have since been a couple of royal visits to riot sites - Princes Charles and Harry, that I'm aware of so far. For balance I thought I should add this. Not that it makes me any less keen on the the end of our monarchy. Not at all). And the great unsaid... London is just too big – too many people, too many poor areas contrasting so starkly with some of the most obscene wealth (all cities have that but London is kind of a leader in the field). When I lived there (so long ago) it was just after the '80s riots and the scars were deep and throbbing. This time there are so many young people with so much to prove that I don't see this clearing up any time soon. Some of them are genuinely angry and some are already fairly hardened criminals and more than happy for a chance to take a bonus or two. Some are too damaged to care, others are bored stupid and another bunch are, no doubt, just going along for the ride – but whatever their reasons or drives most of the hooded young out there will be having the time of their lives in some way or other this week (it may seem horrible to think that but if we ignore the pleasure element I think we will not understand what is happening). I've read a few times this week that it feels like war in parts of England just now (class war... sort of)... and it is a kind of war for sure. It seems that we cannot stop ourselves from making and getting into these war situations (both at home and away) because a lot of people knew this was coming and yet England, as a country, did nothing to stop it – in fact they brought, as the saying goes, it on (more for the rich, less for the poor, ra, ra, ra!). So, now it's here and right in our faces. And it's not pretty. Welcome home.


Sunday, 7 August 2011

The route

We have spent some of this, our first quiet Sunday at home, plotting the route that we took from February to July around the US and Canada. It is above (obviously) and we've also done a list with links to individual posts for anyone who might want to just go and visit a particular place of interest (that's all here).


Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Second post - looking and water

So here's the first thing I offer you on this new blog. It's a painting by a Canadian artist called Alex Colville (born 1920) and it's called "To Prince Edward Island" (source - Library and Archives Canada). PEI is somewhere we didn't get to on our recent North American adventure as it happens but still I bought the card of this painting in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa back in February and when I was sorting through stuff this week it startled me somehow. For a start one thing I learned on our recent trip is that I LOVE boats and being on the water (we went on as many boats and ferries as we could whilst away). Plus we did a lot of looking during our six months on the road. I do like to look... in my own way.

I guess this is the kind of thing I'm going to be posting and looking at on this new, slower blog. I'm not even sure if there will be any poetry (of mine) at all this time. Come sail with me... see where we get to.