Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Do not go gentle into that good night

I was going to write a post about meeting a literary agent last week, it was very interesting, but I can't be bothered to do it now. She did give some good advice that I will certainly take if I actually get my book written and decide to try and get it published. So many ifs...

Anyway if there's anything particular that you want to know ask and I'll answer if I can. Right now I need to keep practicing villanelles.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


It's 9.40am and I am sitting in a kind of red metal and glass hut on the piazza of the British Library, sheltering from the grey cold and bracing myself to enter the library itself. The hut is called The Last Word and is a café that dispenses myriad hot drinks, cold drinks and pastries to people like me, only the other customers look markedly less excited than I feel. They look positively blasé in fact, as if they neither know nor care that they are imbibing lattes and hot chocolates on the grounds of the very institution that provided Karl Marx with the material for Das Kapital. Charles Dickens, I'm sure, researched here, and thousands of others, famous, infamous and known only to their mothers, have been inspired here. As I chew sticky white icing off the tips of my forefinger and thumb I marvel at the nonchalance of my fellow patrons: have they practised in the mirror before coming out? Or are they just people who come here everyday to work, writers and researchers, who have simply got used to the place? Am I the only one here who is finally realising a long held dream? Just a short step away the repository of the nations knowledge lies. Everything that has ever been published in Britain, and much besides, is held here. The ghosts of our collective intellect reside here and once I've finished my frothy coffee and disappointing Danish I'm off to introduce myself to a few.

11Am: I am now a registered reading room user with a credit-card style pass complete with photograph. I have a 'how to' leaflet to read before I can use the reading rooms so have come to the (internal) café for a cup of tea. The place is humming with literary voices. I read the rules and find before I enter the reading rooms I must first dump my bag (too big), pens (dangerous to the collection), my half eaten minty Aero (ditto) and my coat (reason unspecified). I can take a notebook and pencils with me, a laptop if I had one, my phone if it's silenced, and in the locker room will find a clear plastic bag in which to carry them.
I also learn from the leaflet that the walls of the reading rooms will not be lined with great tomes as I had hitherto imagined because the books are all kept in the basement (some even off-site) and have to be ordered via computer. The British Library, it seems, is a kind of bibliographic Argos. This means I'll have to know what I'm looking for which I don't, I was hoping to browse: to feel and sniff and discover. Instead I will have to trawl through lists on a database and whatever I choose to look at could take up to forty eight hours to arrive, I only have five left! Better go and find those lockers.

4PM: I am back in The Last Word with a cup of tea. My first day as a British Library user is over. I now know the whereabouts of all the loos, the cloakroom, the locker room, have become quite familiar with Humanities 1, and even have my favourite route from there to the other facilities: a back staircase out of the way of the general public. I have searched the catalogue but have not held a single book in my hands. It took me so long to work out how to use the 'Argos' system that by the time I'd found something I thought I'd like to see I didn't have the seventy minutes left it would take to get it. So I wandered off to the exhibition rooms and saw Breaking The Rules, an exhibition of literary Avant Garde art, in my last hour, clutching my 'reader's room user' clear plastic bag like a badge of honour.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Collection Box

This is a quickie, or should be. Being a bit of a collector: rocks, shells, beach-glass, deads, ribbon, gilt-edged plates, globes, maps, paintings, shoes... I've run out of space, without having run out of the instinct to possess. So I thought I'd start collecting platitudes. You know the sort of thing: 'Men only want one thing'; 'Women drivers!'; 'Kids now-a-days', to which a nodding response of understanding is given and no more is said, or thought. I hate that, that lack of thought. It's lazy and unfulfilling. It seems to me some people live their lives by platitudes, and if you ask them what they mean they look at you as if you're mad or stupid. So you don't ask. You nod too and then go off feeling faintly bewildered.

I reckon there's poetry to be had in these phrases for unthinking living. I could sit somewhere like our local cafe for the next five years listening out for them or I could ask you for contributions. Have you stumbled upon any lately, are there any you use yourselves - surely not! - or any someone you know tends to use? My mother was filled with the 'what do you expect, he's a man?' sort, sometimes she'd say them with bile and sometimes with a tone of indulgence or acceptance. I can't remember them exactly now.

There must be some new ones kicking about that I haven't come across because I spend so much time alone in my garret too. Eco-platitudes perhaps: 'They don't recycle.' 'Ahh...' nuff said.

All contributions gratefully received.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

In Memorium


We should have been galloping on horses, their hoof prints
Splashes of light, divots kicked out of the darkness,
Or hauling up lobster pots in a wake of sparks. Where
Were the otters and seals? Were the dolphins on fire?
Yes, we should have been doing more with our lives.

That is a poem by Michael Longley. I found it in a book called Staying Alive : real poems for unreal lives which is edited by the poet Neil Astley. It's handily divided into sections that loosely cover life stages or the type of life hurdles we may come across, a bit like a bible for the secular age. This particular poem is in the section entitled Disappearing acts.

I turned to that section because on Monday I attended the funeral of my uncle Ian. He died suddenly a fortnight ago. I didn't see him very often, at the odd family event, and the last time was over a year ago at my cousin Glenn's party. He was married to my aunt T, my mother's sister and was a regular part of my life as I was growing up. My mother's family were all very close and were apt to throw parties and organise 'dances' at the drop of a hat. Uncle Ian was a musician, he played in several bands as a young man, and was the DJ at my wedding. I won't miss him every day but I will notice his absence at family get togethers for years to come. And, of course, I grieve for my aunt and three cousins who will really miss him. He and my aunt were married for forty five years, that's a long time to get used to having someone around.

The reason I chose the poem is that it totally does not apply to uncle Ian. He is not a man who could have done any more with his life. He was Burmese and campaigned tirelessly for Burma, raising money and awareness. He played badminton several times a week and continued to play guitar and DJ at charity events. He also picked his ten year old grandson up from school several times a week, taking him home and giving him his supper so his mother could work as mothers need to these days. Whenever I saw him I was amazed at his energy.

It's easy to be convinced by images in the media that we don't do enough. That we should be growing all our own organic vegetables; exploring foreign cultures whilst at the same time keeping our carbon footprints low; swimming with dolphins; fishing for marlin off the Caribbean; climbing mountains; camping with friends whilst dressed in Cath Kidston; turning our attics into beautiful live-work spaces; becoming familiar with the works of Fellini and Jean Luc Goddard, or Shakespeare, Keats, Yates, Donne... And then feel inadequate. Not uncle Ian, he knew what to do and did it. He didn't let snobby 'oughts' distract him. At least that's what I like to believe. So this poem seemed appropriate. Uncle Ian didn't need to haul up lobster pots while being photographed by the latest digital technology for validation. Which isn't to say he wouldn't have been interested in your efforts and would happily have sat through a showing of anyone's holiday snaps. And at family parties he was often to be seen with a camera hanging from his neck.

I used to love going to uncle Ian and aunty T's house. They were such cheery hosts and the food was always plentiful and fantastic. And there was always music. My mother played slide guitar and uncle Ian played all sorts of instruments, several aunts sang my mother included, and there would always be an impromptu jamming session. And dancing. At some point the dancing would begin and become more and more raucous. They were definitely movement people, always moving, always doing. I have grown up to be a quiet, stationery sort. I sit and think and write and, occasionally, talk. But I love to dance and I'm sure I inherited that from my mother's family. A family that uncle Ian embraced and became a major part of. His house always open to all of us.

Here's another poem from the same section of the same book. It's called Inside Our Dreams and is by Jeanne Willis:

Where do people go to when they die?
Somewhere down below or in the sky?
'I can't be sure,' said Grandad, 'but it seems
They simply set up home inside our dreams.'