Friday, 21 December 2018

Season's Greetings

Another year rolls round. They say it's a sign of ageing if time starts speeding up. Everything is relative, I suppose.

This year has been bonkers: the government has gone mad and we are heading to be the country which shoots itself in the foot.

So, to banish, for a week, all scary thoughts of the coming food shortages and riots, and being controlled by those 3,500 troops who have been mobilised to 'help out', here's my seasonal poem for this year that was given a honourable mention in the Seren Christmas poem competition.

Happy whatever you celebrate. I won't say Happy New Year, as I doubt it's going to be anything that could be so described.

Christmas on the Beacons

This year I want to walk the hills
to a fresh dark –

a summit where I can wonder
on distant coastal towns
in their cliché necklaces
strung bright,

the Blues and Scarlets 
switched on weeks ago to vie
with constant sodium.

And then I’ll turn
to something darker –

the Sky Park is the only
beacon I wish for,
where far away points of light
have a chance to shine.

Years since I came here
for Hale Bopp; my compulsion
westwards behind a star.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro

Here is light and colour, black glass and marble to infinity. Even though you only have a few minutes to walk through the polka dot and mirrored installation - My Heart is Dancing into the Universe - those few minutes are amazing. Outside the drear of greasy London rain.

Inside all the possibilities of the spectrum in Kusama's trademark pumpkins and her mesmerising My Eternal Soul Paintings of significant patterns. Between the two in the garden of Victoria Miro's gallery are some really jolly Flowers that Speak All about my Heart Given to the Sky.

If you like bright colours and dots, and are prepared to go slowly in your appreciation of the forms Kusama suggests - I saw landscapes, eyes, and pleasing organics - then this is a cheerful exhibition of her often disturbed mind.

Looking at the recent paintings, some from this year even, it's hard to believe they were made by a woman coming up on her ninetieth birthday. What an astonishing achievement. I hope I am writing and printmaking with such clarity and energy when I am her age.

And what generosity. The Miro charges not one sou, but to enjoy this crowd managed show in relative peace you need to book time slot online. Don't miss out. It is an absolute joy to the senses.

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.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Why I'm not going back to the Globe

What heresy is this? Well, yes. And I'm not exactly sorry. Over the years I've enjoyed the close-as-we-can-have-made-it recreation of Shakespeare's Globe many times. Indeed when I was studying for my second degree in English, one of my Professors, Andrew Gurr, was a consultant to the building project. He gave us fascinating updates on progress, so I've always felt a kind of tangential, or at least vicarious, ownership.

But I've had enough. There are plenty of things I could moan about, so I'll limit myself to the most annoying. First off the sound, or rather lack of it. I realise that projecting to the gallery across the yard is difficult, but you are actors, damn it, and some of you are so much better at it than others. In this last week's visit to A Winter's Tale, I could not hear some of the younger members of the cast. Yes, I know it's open air, and there are many helicopters flying overhead, but I still need to be able to follow the beautiful words, or else it's all dumb show. Please, please work on this.

And stop gabbling. I know you are under pressure not to test the audience's patience by being too long about it, but the need to get through the play as quickly as possible does not do anyone any favours. Several of the cast where speaking so fast that I could barely keep up, and I am familiar with the play and used to listening to Elizabethan English. The result here is that where the plot relies on explication given by the minor characters, as it does in this play, not only can I not hear them, they are so rapid as to be tripping over the words. Even worse, all the best jokes were lost. The one about the dildo, especially.

Note: for gawd's sake take your time. Shakespeare's plays are long. They are meant to be a whole afternoon's entertainment. If some of the audience can't cope with that then, frankly, tough, and go and see a West End musical.

And finally, not that the Globe can do anything about this, but, audience, please, what on earth are you laughing at? Read the play beforehand and realise that the first part is a deep psychological drama and is serious, before it turns into a romance that resolves itself with a happy ending. In the past, this has meant it was referred to as a problem play. It might be difficult, but it's not a bloody pantomime.

I think many visitors to London take in the Globe as ticking off another sight on their list of to dos. That is obvious by the fact that the yard partly clears out at the interval. I just wish they' be better prepared, as constantly trying to find something to laugh at spoils things for others.

Call me Perdita then, as I am fed up with the Globe trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no-one. I want my Shakespeare considered and audible, so I'm going to stick to the National and the RSC, thanks all the same.

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2018

This year Grayson Perry did most of the honours in selecting and hanging the exhibition of Art Made Now. Thankfully the totally overused in inappropriate ways word 'curate' was nowhere to be seen. He had the galleries painted some pretty lurid shades of yellow and pink though, but they worked well.

There was nothing ground breaking, but there never is, and that, in a way, is not the point of this most democratic of shows, where five Sooty puppets stand as much chance of being selected as a sign for Unaffordable Housing or a bunch of painted sticks.

I enjoyed spotting the new work by some of my favourites like Tracey Emin (one painting and three lovely prints.- all figurative), Bill Viola (a mesmerising video from his people walking across the desert series), and Perry himself (huge print and lovely white people pot - a ceramic of Alan his teddy bear is hiding in the basement, only to be seen by members if they go down to the secret bar).

There was an anti-leave Banksy priced, of course, of £350 million, a new Anish Kapoor in the main courtyard (a huge red disk, hanging over a pile of weathered and vegetated basalt columns plundered from somewhere), and a host of generally lovely prints on the second floor.

The galleries were packed the day I visited as it was pouring with rain and in the exhibition's last week. We headed straight to the downstairs member's bar for coffee and later, lunch. Sssh don't tell anyone but the bar, which also serves food, is quiet even when the member's rooms are packed, and you have two glossy tree ferns to enjoy in the little courtyard.

I am pleased to report that the, no doubt ironically chosen, portraits of Farage and Moseley remained unsold.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The meaning of holidays to the retired

Now there's a question. And to answer it one needs to consider what a holiday is meant to be and why. And specifically in my new life.

Holidays, in their origins, holy days, those few days in the year of your average mediaeval peasant when, apart from Sunday, there was a day off - no sweating over a plough, or vat of urine soaked cloth, but you were meant to go to church before entering into the topsy turviness of a feast or a licensed day of foolery/drinking. These holy days of observance are there still in many of our public holidays - Easter, Whitsun, Christmas. And depending on which country you live in, there many be even more, though funnily enough the saints days of our four nations (David, Patrick, Andrew and George) are not public holidays, unless you live in the right place, and not England.

Holidays as the legal right to be paid, not to go to work, but rest from it, apply only to the employed and are there thanks to labour movement. In the UK the Holiday Pay Act was enacted as recently as 1938, after a more than twenty year campaign. Before then workers were only entitled to be paid for the eight public holidays we have. Imagine that. Now we have as of right twenty days of paid leave, plus the eight public holidays (unless you are a teacher...). It doesn't sound like much compared to the seven weeks plus I had in France, but compared to the US, is huge.

When I was working in full time employment, these were the most precious days of the year, not to be squandered, but planned and, damned it, enjoyed, and even bought more of from the salary sacrifice scheme, if that could be afforded. They were the days to spend as you pleased, to rest, to travel, and not to be under any obligation to look at email, let alone respond to it.

One year I had a precious week of holiday ruined by a manager who insisted, on pain of I know not what, that I attend a two hour conference call on a particular Wednesday afternoon. That doesn't sound like much of an imposition. But imposition it was, involving planning the entire day for the entire family so that I could be in a spot with good phone reception at the right time for the call, and it involved bringing the right paperwork with me in my luggage, oh and remembering what it was we were meant to be discussing. Sigh, but no more.

What though is a holiday now, when every day is a in effect a holiday in that I do not have to go to paid work and am always able to rest whenever I fancy? I imagine every retired person will answer that differently, but as a newbie at this malarky, here's my first year thoughts.

My first public holiday is coming up at the end of August. I am not planning on going anywhere. There seems no point in driving the length and breadth of the country for a long weekend at the coast or in the hills, when any three days chosen at random is such. No more traffic jams for me. From now on, these are days when I shall stay at home and laugh smugly at news report of mega tail backs on the M5. A public holiday is then a nothing, unless it is to be spent with those for whom it is something, my working children, perhaps.

As for the two week or more trip somewhere abroad, well, I'm presently in the middle of just such a fortnight. Yes, I am wandering, looking at new things, sitting in the sun, swimming, hanging out with my daughter, eating delicious food - I'm in the south of France - drinking lovely wine, reading, writing the odd line of the odd poem, and writing my journal and this post, but there is something much less pressing about it. I don't feel at all inclined to rush about ticking sights off on a list of things I must see. It's far too hot for that kind of carry on for a start, but also, I just feel less like being a tourist than I ever have before. No doubt when I return home people will ask we whether I went to X and Y, and what I thought of Z, and I'll feel bad that I didn't and don't, but right now, I'm just chilling.

These are, then, weeks when you do the same things in a different climate and scenery, and without the TV. Every morning, I manage to peel myself out of bed to look at the wooded valley of La Bourges in the Ardeche. It's beautiful. The quiet is punctuated by the goats bleating in the mainly oak trees below, the chime of the clock tower, or the chatter of newly-fledged house martins buzzing the village and the river. I enjoy the enormous breakfast made for me by my host whilst sitting on the terrace of the cream stone farmhouse and puzzling how the building was constructed, partly into the mountain side. I spend the rest of the morning writing or submitting or reading, then I trundle down to the river in the mint green Fiat 500 I've hired and spend the afternoon lounging and dozing on one of several little beaches, reading, and swimming in the deep pools cut into the basalt. I wander back for an evening shower and make myself presentable enough for dinner. My daughter takes my order and brings me my glass of chilled rose and my food. She's working in the restaurant in Bizet owned by her French boyfriend's mother. The menu is local, gusty and seasonal. Right now it's all myrtilles in deserts and the chutney that accompanies the foie gras.

I am very content. Blessed even. This then is my life, for the rest of it. I think I can get used to it, just about. You can call that I holiday, if you like.

Reviewing poetry books - a new thing

My first foray into this kind of thing is out now in esteemed poetry magazine, The North, issue 60.

Here you will find my thoughts on recent books from Ahren Warner (Hello, your promise has been extracted), Rory Waterman (Sarajevo Roses), and Menna Elfyn (Bondo).

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Museum of Walking

Great name for an organisation, no? And doing interesting things with walking and words - the art is taking part - as its byline goes. As more than a bit of a flaneuse myself, I was pleased to take part in a Wednesday morning haiku writing workshop with Andrew Stuck recently.

A dozen folk of wide ranging ages, we strolled very slowly in the heat from Holland Park tube station through the park, with the Kyoto garden as our destination. At various points en route, we stopped to hear about things as various as a potted history of haiku (naturally), this part of London as nineteenth century artists' colony (many of the pre-Raphaelites lived here), and the silver lime's ability to resist climate change by turning its leaves against the sun. Fascinating.

Writing haiku in rapid fire was a good challenge and I surprised myself as to how quickly I can do this. Interesting, as it's not my usual form. The results are available for downloading and folding into a little booklet - very Japanese - here.

The Kyoto garden's looking a little sick this summer - as in so many lovely gardens, even the trees (acers) are dying. Rain, please. And soon.

Becoming a Trustee of Spread the Word

It's essential that not for profit organisations seek financial guidance, but it's not inevitable that I am necessarily interested in replacing my old paid work with new unpaid work in the same field. Note to self: I have retired to focus on, inter alia, my writing. However, there are some things that one cannot and I will not say no to -  Spread the Word I'm glad to say, is one of them.

Developing writing talent in the city I call home is very close to my heart. So, it was with very great pleasure that last month I accepted the honour of being appointed a trustee of this wonderful organisation.

Please do check out our workshops, events and projects supporting and nurturing writers of all kinds and from all the diverse backgrounds which make up the marvel that is London. Sign up, turn up, submit, buy books, make new friends and learn new writing approaches. You'll be learning from the best.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Cristo -The Mastaba on the Serpentine

The light plays tricks on your eyes as the red barrels making up the sides of Cristo's first ever installation in the UK seem to be a different colour to their ends. It's not the case. This summer we learn what a mastaba is - a bench, originating in Mesapotamia. The temporary floating scuplture looks more like a decapitated pyramid or iceberg. Take your pick. With it's carefully planned minimal environmental impact is a giant something; part comment on global warming perhaps, part challenging building blocks - grown up lego, part, well, fun.

The best view is across the reeds near the Diana fountain. It grew on me as I walked around the lake, yet I found the pedallos and rowing boats, the typical things floating there, a distraction. I'd rather have seen it alone and colourfully menacing in the water, but that's what happens when you try to introduce art on this scale in the centre of the city. Worth a trot passed, but don't make a special trip.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The end of Ms Corporate, the beginning of Ms Full Time Writer

I walk out of the office for the last time, early, as there is precious little point hanging around with nothing to do. It’s a sunny and actually hot afternoon. London looks oddly different. That might be because my head is held high and I am actually looking at the city’s architecture for once, not scurrying home with my eyes on the chewing gum spotted pavement.

It feels like the day I left school: other girls were crying, for reasons I simply couldn’t fathom. I veritably skipped down the school driveway with a huge sense of relief. No more stupid rules controlling my days. After 35 years of heavy duty consulting work, there are again no more stupid rules or obligations, ever. I feel completely relieved of all responsibilities for anyone or anything other than myself. Hurrah.
I’ve dreamed of this for years, on every one of those days I toiled through ten hours at a desk plus at least a two hour commute on a packed train or Tube. I realise I am lucky, a tail-end baby boomer with the benefit of a good education. But wait, I’m not going to feel guilty about hanging up my calculator, I’ve worked my arse off, tolerated years of misogyny, having to work so much harder and better than the men around me, and butted my head against the reinforced glass ceiling until it bled.

I’ve bought a house, privately educated two children – my choice – and earned enough to save for a modestly rainy day. I’m 56, tired of dealing with other people’s unchanging and repeated BS, - it's not the work, it's never the work, it's the people, Sartre's hell, and so I am unfurling my umbrella.

Colleagues, who don’t know me at all, think I am mad. ‘What are you going to do with yourself’ is the crassest of questions, and in recent weeks I have been sorely tempted to say something, but I’m too well brought up. So, what am I going to do with myself?

Starting tomorrow morning I am going to catch up on my sleep. A long lie in with a samovar of tea and the cracked spine of a new book is in order. My father reminded me he slept for almost a month when he retired. He advises planning to do very little until I am better. I wonder how long it will take me to feel normal again, assuming, of course, I actually recognise what that is.

Our unhealthy sleep patterns are forever in the news and, as a chronic insomniac,  I am looking forward to no stress, interrupted nights, lighter circles around my eyes, and getting out of bed actually eager for the day.

Second is doing something about myself. I mean fitness and weight. Decades of sitting have left me with accountant’s bottom, and having my time eaten up by work means I am hopelessly, and possibly dangerously, unfit. A recent blood test told me I had elevated cholesterol and my GP said the word statins to me. I seldom walk 10,000 steps a day and riding my bike for five minutes in each direction to the Tube does not count for anything.

I’m not proud of this, but quite when you are supposed to swim, or go to the gym, or whatever when you have had a job like mine, children and a home to run, has been a mystery. So, it’s no more cheese sandwiches, crisps and four o'clock sweeties for me. I am going to fix the cholesterol with diet and exercise. I just need to figure how. Friends are telling me to use a personal trainer. I’ll let you know how that goes, once I locate my nearest gym.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Hidden London - new statue, way overdue

Women have been hidden in London for centuries; our contribution to the nation's life often ignored. I hope this putting right of history's wrongs is just the start of it.

It's about time there was a statue of a woman in Parliament Square, not her with the handbag obviously, that would have been a poor choice and would have attracted ire and admiration in uneven amounts. No, here is the compromise candidate in the centenary of women's suffrage, Millicent Fawcett, founder of the Suffragists, as opposed to the Suffragettes.

I would have preferred Emiline, but hey, violence is always unrewarded, unless you are a man. I note the statues of Smuts and Churchill over my shoulder.

Picasso, 1932 - Tate Modern

If you've ever had the sacrilegious thought about how much work artists actually do, then take a look at the volume produced in just one year, 1932.

This summer's block buster is a fascinating assemblage and survey of Picasso's oevre, including earlier works from the retrospective he had in Paris that year. An astonishing output and variety of paintings and sculptures, and this is only some of it.

Major chapeau. Don't miss it, but deep breath, it's going to be crowded at whatever time you choose to go.  Just try not to find the guy who thinks it's totally OK to stand it front of you because he has to take a photograph.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Hidden London - Hyde Park

"Don't be ridiculous, how can there possibly be anything hidden in Hyde Park", I hear you say. Well, OK. Not hidden, but not often visited. Two things on a recent picnic caught my eye.

First is the great view of Kensington Palace from the Henry Moore arch.

What arch? Yeah, me neither. It's tucked away between the two Serpentine galleries on the north bank of the Long Water, and forms a rather perfect frame. First erected in 1980, taken down in 1996 as it became structurally unsound, and finally restored in 2012, it is six metres of hewn stone. Pop along one day.

Secondly, the two Serpentine galleries, subject of much frantic phoning when you can't meet the person you are waiting for as they are standing at the other one.

At present showing video art, one of which, I forget in which gallery, is the mesmerising Typhoon coming on by American artist Sondra Perry. Much of the projection is a purple ocean that morphs into a digital manipulation of Turner's painting Slave ship (Slavers throwing over the dead and dying, typhoon coming on). Plenty of food for thought in that.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Blake in Sussex

Image credit V&A Museum
The, hopefully, last blast of snow from the east did not put me off heading out of town to Petworth House in West Sussex to see a small aubergine painted room in the servants quarters packed full of Blakes.

For three years Blake lived twenty miles distant at Felpham in a small cottage. It was the only time in his life when he left the capital to do crazy things like pretending be Adam and sit in his garden naked. But it was a very productive period for him, patronised as he was by the Duke of Egremont, to whom he wrote some really good letters of praise. My jaded 21st C eyes can't help reading these with a healthy dose of sarcasm. His wife Catherine was pretty good at it too. Necessities of survival one imagines. If you are a radical poet and artist, you need to make yourself amenable.

On show are works created during Blake's sojourn in Sussex including panels of Spencer and Milton, parades of characters from the Canterbury Tales and the Faerie Queen, and a host of religious watercolours and prints. My absolute favourite was Satan arousing the rebel angels, the light in which is positively divine. That Satan always gets the best lines is as true of Blake's vision as it is Milton's poetry. This watercolour and the shining Blake portrait on loan from the National Portrait Gallery kept me more than happy. Everything else was pure bonus.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

All Too Human - Tate Britain

Acres of flesh and, curiously, London landscapes are on offer in this mixed show that celebrates British painting, or painters who worked in the city in the last hundred years.

Great stuff from the familiar Bacon, Spencer, Freud and Auerbach. Less familiar, but no less worthy are Souza and Rego. The final room, there are eleven in all, was one of my favourites with Jenny Saville and others. And there are plenty of others.

Paint is applied finely or laid on thick to explore the fleshiness of our bodies. This show is all about the human form. Most exquisite of all is Freud's portrait of his mother. It's small, perfect, and available to be oggled over all summer. No postcard though.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Hidden London - London Wetlands Centre - Barnes

Acres of wetland habitat in London? Indeed, and full of migratory and native birds, and pretty endangered things from all over the world.

If you like your choice of lakeside hides and spending a winter's morning twitching, hithee. I am not a bird expert by any means. I know the names of most, not all, and I am pretty useless at spotting birds in trees and reeds.

This is where experts with industrial grade telescopes come in handy as your new best friends, spotting and sharing the rare Bittern, or telling you that that grey blob in the tree above you and out of reach of your tiny weeny binos is in fact a Green Finch.

Extras aside, there are plenty of fancy fowl to delight you. Do get there as it opens and before all the small people and buggies arrive to spoil the silence, well, sort of silence, if you can block out the planes making their approach to Heathrow.

Ashamed I have never been there until now. Rather happy that I have.