….you will stand alone, my dear, When wintry winds draw nigh.

The picture is a monument at Highgate Cemetery and the quote is from a poem by Lizzie Siddal (‘Dead Love’), wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I’ve just been in London and tried to fit in as much as possible to 3 days. The most startling, rewarding thing was a visit to Highgate Cemetery West. All the tours were booked on weekdays so we only had the Sunday to try and commute from the Homestay in Gunnersbury to Archway in time to catch the early, unbookable tours. We managed to get on the 12.30 tour. It was a stunning place, from the famous stones, to the catacombs to the Egyptian Avenue (all mysteriously sealed away from view) and the memorials to lives cut short: Alexander Litvinenko’s stone cut across at the top as a symbol of a life stolen and the monument to an 8 year old daughter being carried to heaven by an angel. The catacombs were unsettling: decayed coffins spilling out of holes, rotten wood held together by lead lining. There were also some funny stories and the experience was not morbid as it may sound. The most interesting grave for me was the plain simple stone that marks the place where Christina Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal are buried. We were told the story of the exhumation of Dante Gabriel’s poems from Siddal’s grave and that ‘her hair had grown in death’. I alredy knew the story from Desperate Romantics and The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, but being there was so peaceful and made all stories seen just stories and reality so much more poweful, sad, foreboding. I remember seeing the Ophelia Millais painting as a child and looking at the details in the face.

Another moving place to visit was the crematorium at Golders Green, but for completely opposite reasons. Here many ashes are scattered in surroundings so minimalist you barely know who is where – rose beds, thorn beds, numbered plaques and trees with inscriptions. It’s exceptionally well-kept and was deserted. Only gardeners and magpies for company. Paul Kossoff was down in a corner at the far end, out of sight and peaceful (where his friend says he would’ve wanted to be), his name engraved in a summer house and a small bridge over a symbolic river. Keith Moon, Marc Bolan, Peter Sellers and Ronnie Scott are also scattered here but their plaques are on the imposing red brick of the entrance.

Other highlights were Kew Gardens and the (live!) elm trees there – huge and thriving – also the peace of the place, the lake and the lack of tourists; Richmond and the river; a walk from Monument Station to the Tower of London, across Tower Bridge and down the South Bank past the HMS Belfast. We crossed again over Blackfriars Bridge and looked at the rotting oak supports of the old river moorings. I was ill with another cold/infection thing but was absolutely determined to enjoy every second of being away in a way that I have never enjoyed London before. The Syrian man who makes sandcastle sculptures on the riverbank near the Festival Theatre is amazing and deserves a mention at the very least.

I always feel I’m following in the footsteps of others in London, which of course we all are, but also of my mum and dad who met there in 1971 and have lived in so many different parts of the city. I was able to ask my mum tonight “did you and dad ever…?” about London places and pubs. I would never live there again but there is a magic about visiting.

I wish I’d been writing more. I have a lot in my mind. The thought of work on Monday’s like an anasthetic to thought. It’s the Copeland bi-election today. I took my daughter in to the (entirely deserted) polling station so she could see the voting process for the first time. If the hospital here is closed, I truely don’t belive it’s safe to bring up a child over an hour away down an appalling road from the nearest emergency medical treatment.

I’ve been reading the excellent and very original novels of Shirley Jackson, along with more Anthony Doer books. Shirley Jackson apparently died agoraphobic, obese and addicted to amphetamines and alcohol. To me what she produced is an absolute triumph of imagination and creativity over oppression and ‘small minded’ America. It’s no surprise why people like her struggle to cope with everyday life.

 

 

I Choose Fiction

‘I choose fiction’ was a line from a poem I wrote this week, but later scrapped (balled and threw into the fire) as it was nowhere near good enough. It was a poem about twins – one who battles through life, working in all weathers, miserable, tired but with purpose and the other who retreats to ‘burrows underground’, cellars and prisons of his own making, choosing the fictions of imagination over human interaction and achievement. Emily Bronte is always catagorised as choosing imagination and fantasy over ‘real life’. If she did at times, I think it was because she had too much reality: the death of her mother and sisters, cruel schools, a parish where her father conducted far too many burials a week for the small number of inhabitants and the prevalance of TB. The reality of death, which we’re still so shrouded from today, was blisteringly real. In occurred in the family home – no detail would be missed by a bright child, no artifice of wards or hospice to act as a bolster. In absence of the alcohol and laudanum Branwell could indulge in, a large dose of fiction was needed. But this is also why the books of all three published Brontes are so astonishingly blunt and unveiled. When I first started writing I was always told that my poems were ‘a bit depressing’ and to ‘concentrate on the humour you have’. I have tried both. I do laugh a lot and am silly. The truth is that writing mostly writes itself, chooses its subjects and can’t be forced. The silliness doesn’t need expression in poetry because it come from happiness and the spontaneity of the moment which speaks for itself.

This weekend we went to watch Lion at the cinema. I was very impressed that, while hoards of teenage girls paraded in and out with fizzy drinks and snacks and then left before the half-way point in the film, our 9 year old was riveted. She had no problems with the subtitles and was fascincated by the depiction of India and its street homeless children. The young boy who played Saroo was excellent. The Tasmanian scenes were also much better than the average film. There really is life beyond the USA but you wouldn’t think it at the Plaza. The screen was practically deserted. I expect everyone was in Lego Versus Batman.

The BAFTAs are on tonight. I am so rooting for Ken Loach and I, Daniel Blake. Especially supporting actress Hayley Squires. If I could act, I would want to play that role. I hope Loach gets the opportunity to speak politically. The world would be safer if there were more people as brave as Ken.

I’m so looking forward to a week off at the end of next week. Everyone seems in crisis in terms of mental health, social circumstances and just life really. The worst feeling in the world is walking away from a patient’s home and feeling you haven’t helped as much as you want to, that you’ve reached impossible stumbling blocks – hospital admission not being an option, benefits agencies hounding vulnerable people, poverty, relationship breakdown. I could be there hours but the same limitations would remain. I still want that magic wand though.

I’ve been very impressed by Jackself this week in terms of new poetry collections. Very disturbing in the same way nursery rhymes and playground myths are disturbing. I’ve also subscribed to The North and found it excellent. I’ve written about 3 poems this week. Not sure if they’re good enough yet.

We’re hoping to go to London next week for a couple of days. There are some famous graves to visit, plus the importance of getting away can’t be underestimated – like the scene in Dead Poets Society: “I stand on my desk to remind myself we must constantly look at things in a different way.” I’ve got very mixed feelings about London but hope to visit only new, positive places – there’s definitely enough of them.

I actually don’t prefer fiction, as much as I escape to it. I prefer reality in all its rags and disappointments. Facing it is the only way to gain the essential understanding to write well.

The importance of being honest

This week I’ve begun re-reading all the Jean Rhys books. I’ve also been revisiting her biographies. I know she was violently against the idea of biography and wanted to keep her vivid life and work (art) apart. I understand why. We all let ourselves down in life and try and construct out best selves in our work. Her life is so very full though -tragic, exciting. A life fully lived from literary Paris to the run-down, leaking bungalow in Cheriton Fitzpaine where she battled with Wide Sargasso Sea. When I think about my dad I have this struggle with reality and art. Undoubtedly he was a writer first, all his life – from the tiny notebooks from the 60’s to the novels later. He had the eye and the ear. He talked like a writer and he never tried to. He made trips to Little Chef seen magical. Then I think of his illness and what I saw and can’t ever forget, as much as I want to remember only the magical, utter aliveness of him well in the world. Then I realise how lucky I am because these elements of him are distilled in the books he left. He is still there, living , breathing on the page, shocking me at every turn with his unique vision of the world. There was an honesty about him, as there was about Rhys – both in life and art. I’ve learned that writing does not always have to be true to fact to be honest. Fact is important (especially in a climate of ‘fake news’), but it’s always filtered through layers of subjectivity, emotions, feelings, life experience… I hope i’ve expressed that with some clarity at least. I’m not sure I have.

I’ve written a poem about anorexia this week. I’m not anorexic, nor have I ever been or am every likely to be. The poem came out with truth in it though. I don’t think we need to live everything first hand to fully understand it. Sometimes I think that direct experience can muddy the clarity. We get so caught up in reality we can’t see how we are/how it is. I know someone who’s anorexic. She’s a beautiful young woman with everything going for her but belief in herself and the ability to feel she can have any control over her world without taking extreme measures, limiting what she puts into her body until – a walking skeleton – life is marginally more bearable. How did Shakespeare know so much I wonder? He could put himself into the place of kings, queens, jesters, the deformed, the clown, all races – there were no limits to his shape-shifting. It must have been imagintion and an astonishing ability to empathise. How does a mind like that switch off at then end of the day?

I’ve been feeling a bit better today after weeks of post-flu infections. We walked to Loweswater in the bitter cold. The moutains had snow on the tops. We looked for animal burrows, old misshapen trees amd skimmed stones across the lake. We went for tea in Cockermouth and life seemed to have a few more horizons.

I’ve been writing a bit more this week. I haven’t really written properly since early December. It was getting to me in ways I don’t even really understand. I’ve been trying to keep the idea of ‘truth’ with me at all times. I don’t want to live in a ‘post-truth’ world. I want to feel wind, rain, sadness, love, loss and all that makes you truely alive while I have the chance.