Friday, 9 November 2018

St David's Cathedral prepares for Remembrance


The flower arrangers are at their art - red silk poppies amongst the white crysanths - for this Sunday's big one, the centenary of the end of WWI. Perspex cut outs of the heads and shoulders and upper bodies of the thirteen lost men of this tiny parish - the smallest city in the country - have been arranged on the pews in the church and its chapels. They are barely visible reminders of the missing.

Outside in the grey, the rain and wind have restarted their watery howl. Inside, grey and white striped marble reminds me of the pebbles I collected on the beach this morning during a lull in the wave of storms lashing the West this weekend. It is generally miserable, but the weather is all I have to worry about.

When we search out the tombs of mediaeval knights lying in their armoured splendour - all chainmail, helmets and swords - we forget that they were combatants, who fought at close quarters in an endless series of wars against the French, or even further away in the Holy Land, on one Crusade or another. And it's not easy to remember that even from the depths of history, there's nothing glorious about war.

I'm glad I didn't have sons and the dilemmas of toy swords and guns. My girls never wanted to beat the living bejesus out of anything. I confess I did buy my nephews light up broadswords one Christmas, which were judged, predictably, to be the best present. But I can't know how a mother might feel seeing her sons march off to conflict. I can imagine though that conscription could never work again. Despite the present nationalism stirred up by Brexit, I just can't see any of the young men I know agreeing to put their lives at risk for vainglorious nonsense decided by politicians. I suspect our prisons would overflow with conscientious objectors.

Perhaps our sons would not be needed in great numbers, though any number is too many, as we seem to be very good at remote control electronic warfare. Bombs dropped by drones. The army base near here specialises in such and can operate in any part of the world. It's the stuff of science fiction, except that it's not fiction. The soldiers were in the Cathedral yesterday, practicing their part in Sunday's service, along with the Guides and Brownies. I never liked the quasi-military element of Guides - the parades and saluting. It seemed silly to me, even aged twelve.

I can appreciate the Armed Forces wanting to pay tribute to their fallen comrades from however long ago, but why this involves the church, I am unsure, just as I puzzle why military banners hang in our churches. Of course, there is a role for the priesthood in providing comfort to anyone, but the mix sometimes comes close to an approval of war. And it goes back centuries. I stroll past the supposed tomb of Gerald of Wales, a Bishop of St David's, and remember how he travelled the country drumming up recruits to 'take the cross', which meant nothing religious, euphemism as it was for joining the Crusades - the holy war.

But then again, I recall Thatcher's service to celebrate victory in the Falklands War and, if I remember correctly, how she was reminded from the pulpit about the path of peace. That seems to me the role of faith. But peace will never be out broken as we are always fighting somewhere in the world and, if not, then arming others to do so.  As long as we have a massive defence industry, how can things be otherwise? I'd like to hear a priest rail against the immorality of BAE Systems and its ilk on Sunday. That would be fitting memorial to futile sacrifice.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Anni Albers at Tate Modern

When is weaving art?

When it's done at the Bauhaus and continued at Black Mountain College by the  exemplary Anni Albers, and displayed in a wonderfully informative exhibition. Having dabbled some years ago myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the patterns and colours, the technique and experimentation.

There is so much lovely work here it is hard to pick favourite pieces from the wall hangings and fabric designs, but six prayers as a torah covering where restrained and elegant, and there were several I would happily hang on my walls.

If you remain sceptical and think weaving can never be elevated beyond craft, then pop along with an open mind to review work created from a multitude of ancient and modern sources.

And take away this all too prescient thought:

'Our world goes to pieces, we have to rebuild our world...We learn courage from art work.' 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Keats' birthday wreath laying, Westminster Abbey

Every year on Hallowe'en when almost everyone else is either busy carving pumpkins, or blithely ignoring the horror fest, a small band of Keats devotees participates in something rather wonderful.

Until this year I was entirely ignorant of Keats' birthday wreath laying ceremony in Westminster Abbey. And it was only by virtue of a small innocuous post on Facebook that I not only found out about it, but ended up being one of the participating readers. I wrote in praise of the new Hockney window, which I was keen to see but too mean to spend the twenty pound entrance fee on. Judith Palmer, director of the Poetry Society, came to my rescue by offering to get me in for free, and also inviting me to read in the service.


Presided over by the charming and welcoming Rev. Jane Sinclair, who is one of the Canons in Residence at Westminster, we gathered in Poet's corner under the Keats memorial, which with Shelley's is high up above Shakespeare's. After a few prayers for the life of Keats, 223 yesterday, and the beauty of his poetry, I read the sonnet On the Grasshopper and the Cricket, also known by its first line 'The poetry of earth is never dead'. It was an ecological choice chiming with the climate change protest going on outside the Abbey on Parliament Square, but also appropriate for the change of seasons, now that we have moved from a prolonged period of very warm weather into the cold of winter.

Here it is in full:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:    
  When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,    
  And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run    
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;    
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead       
  In summer luxury,—he has never done    
  With his delights; for when tired out with fun    
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.    
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:    
  On a lone winter evening, when the frost      
    Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills    
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,    
  And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,    
    The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.

I especially love the idea of the grasshopper as taking 'the lead/in summer luxury'. Lead on.

Katy Evans-Bush read Keats' letter of February 1818 to his friend Reynolds. It is one of the more important of Keats' correspondence as it explains in part his view of poetry:

'We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself - but with its subject.'

No self-conscious experimental showing off for Keats then.

Chris Hardy read another sonnet: 'When I have fears I may cease to be', which is so deeply affecting as Keats frets about dying before he has written much of what he wants to. Finally Mab Jones offered Keats' entreaty to his siblings: 'Be as happy as you can. Think of me, and for my sake be cheerful'.  Not a bad mantra to live one's life by.

The most beautiful wreath was laid. It was a perfectly designed with a subtle colour palette. To Autumn made flesh, if you will. I left the short service feeling honoured to have been a part of it and ever so slightly shivery.

Of course, once in the Abbey, it was time for a little wander. Dwelling in Poets corner, we named checked our favourites of the 100 or so poets buried or memorialised there. I commented on the great lack of women's names aside from the obvious - Austen, Gaskell, Barrett-Browning, Brontes. As usual there is much to do to redress this imbalance as there are only nine women, aside from a couple of actresses and opera singers. Where are the memorials to Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Christina Rossetti, Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, Doris Lessing, and Iris Murdoch, to name but a worthy few? I feel a campaign coming on.

As to the Hockney window, which was after all the point of this whole escapade, it is a dramatic and exciting addition to the Abbey. Hockney has imported an abstraction of the Yorkshire countryside in Spring - all hawthorn - to bring much cheer and dazzle to the nation's church. Chapeau to the Dean for his vision.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Pumpkin time

My younger daughter called me this morning to tell me that she was enjoying the autumn leaves and the sunshine, and was feeling all pumpkiny. I know what she meant. This year autumn is one big beautiful glow of orange. Apart from a rather violent storm nearly two weeks ago, we've hardly had any rain and the temperature has been unseasonably warm. My winter coat is still in the wardrobe.

I've brought the glass pumpkins out from the cupboard and arranged them on the hearth with Edgar, the corvid. They are the only remnant of Halloweens past. Everything else has been lost. I don't know what happened to the boxes full of paper ghosts the girls made, the tombstones I painted and inscribed, the crows, pumpkin lights, bats, spiders and webs, our broomsticks, and Frank, the full size monster in his coffin. I imagine, like much else of the life my ex-husband didn't want, he threw them with the fog machine into a skip. It's saddening to think that this part of my girls' childhood is no more. At least they had the benefit of American Halloweens for the time we lived in California.

The next town to ours was Los Gatos, which is famous for, amongst other things, its Halloween madness. Tait Avenue is the main drag where every single house decks out its front yard in the most amazing displays of spookiness. One lady had Hollywood links and her monsters were automata of frightening proportions.  She herself went to the dentist to have fangs attached to her canines and wore cat's eye contact lenses. Another house set up the Halloween disco where one could boogie to the Monster Mash. Another had a Carrie bucket of blood (red glitter) poised to tip on treaters as they made their way on to the front porch. There were mad scientist sheds, and more Transylvania castles than there are in Romania.

Every one of the wooden Victorian houses was adorned with huge webs, and serious numbers of beautifully carved pumpkins. The girls used to come home with buckets full of candy. So much that I had to ration it for the next several weeks. It was a marvellous time and we all enjoyed dressing up, sticking to the ghoulish rather than the more wide ranging costumes that Americans also don.

And we brought the whole thing home with us. For a decade after our return we decorated our house every Halloween and doled out a great number of sweeties to the children of Caversham. Traffic slowed in our road and we were known as the Halloween house - I was even introduced at more than one party as the owner of such.

One year we had scaffolding up and became the Black Pearl with tattered sails (dyed decorating sheets), skeleton pirates in chains and a lot of rum for the grown ups. Another year, we back-projected and looped Thriller on a sheet on the garage and refused to give any sweets until we'd seen some serious dance moves from our treaters. Yet another year, we lit the fire bowl on the driveway and sat around it toasting marshmallows and watching The Nightmare before Christmas. Thankfully it rarely rained so our front garden graveyard lights didn't fuse. Kids came from all over to see what we'd done each year and to be frightened in a good way by our costumes.

I miss our Halloweens, but life changes and moves on, for the better, always for the better. No point looking back with anything other than fondness. Those are the best memories. As Edgar likes to remind me, the past is another country and you can't go there - nevermore!

Monday, 22 October 2018

People's Vote March

It was a sunny day and raking the leaves in my garden can wait. 20 October was the Saturday to forget about everything else, nothing was more important than joining nearly 700,000 other people, peaceably and with minimal police presence, asking for a second vote on Brexit.

Central London was packed to the gunwales. It was hard to walk at all, let alone march. It took three hours to go from Hyde Park Corner to Trafalgar Square, and that is no distance. There were people and their pets from all over the UK. It was joyful and hopeful. For once I was proud to be British.

We were lied to, and we want a fair vote now we know what Brexit really means for our economy and security, our freedoms and peace. Of course, some of us knew this all along and voted Remain, but the duped should be given a change to change their minds. That's called democracy and no-one, but no-one voted for this absolute travesty.

I hope the government wakes up a takes notice before someone dies from lack of vital medicine. Something must be bad if I take to the streets, but at least I can tell my grandchildren, I tried to stop it.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Recent Interview

If you go here, you will find an interview I gave recently to Paul Brookes. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Dear men, for the love of god, go away and do something else

Here’s something that has puzzled and troubled me in equal measure for years: why do men hang around in women’s clothes shops? 

If I am being kind, it might be because they actually like shopping, and supporting their partner in choosing something new and beautiful. My observed reality is that it is generally nothing of the sort. 

Aside from the rare, but there, and now well publicised, pervert getting off on watching women change, or worse, attacking them in the process, there are other insidious reasons. I have seen men gripping the purse strings so tightly that their cowed wives are unable to make their own purchasing decisions, let alone their own purchase. I've noted men so controlling of their wives’ appearance that their partners have replaced perfectly lovely things at their countermand. And I've experienced men practically occupying the women’s changing rooms to exert their influence. I have always felt angry and sad to encounter such coercion in practice and in public. 

Apart from telling lurking men to move away from the curtain as they make me uncomfortable, I have been largely unaffected by such attentions. Always my own woman in the matter of, well, everything, including choosing my clothes, for my sartorial mistakes, I have only myself to blame. But today takes the bias binding.

I am in a super shop selling the kind of soft unstructured clothes that I know suit me rather well. I select a long skirt and try it on in the cubicle, but to have a better view in the larger mirror in the shop, I swish around a bit and ask the very helpful shop assistant what she thinks. Before she can answer, the husband of the only other woman in the boutique pipes up “really nice” and nods his head vigorously. And that’s when the joy of the moment evaporated and I felt my gore rising. Who the fuck asked you? I wanted to say. What I managed to say was “I don’t need your opinion” and I flounced back into the cubicle, fuming.

What on earth did this man think he was doing? I am nothing to do with him. Nothing. Yet he felt entitled to answer a question that was not directed to him, as if he was the god of all women buying clothes in town this morning, as if his opinion was the one that was essential. He is not and it was not.

After he and his wife left, purchasing nothing, the shop assistant said she thought he was paying me a compliment. I explained how this was a misreading. He wasn’t. He was asserting control, and I will not be controlled by anyone I know, let alone a complete stranger. I wish I’d had the guts to tell him to sod off and mind his own business, but damn it, I’ve been too well brought up. 

So, men, please have the good sense to bugger off out of the shop, buy a paper and drink a cup of coffee somewhere quiet for half an hour or so. And NEVER think you are entitled to comment in this way to any unknown woman, EVER. The next one of you who does so to me is going to be on the receiving end of me losing my good manners. It won’t be pretty.