Category Archives: Writers Retreat

Seamus Heaney

It is not a secret that of the immense 20th Century poets, Heaney was far and away my favourite. When I saw him at the bar in Stratford during the interval of a performance of Julius Caesar, I could not contain myself.

“Are you Seamus Heaney?” I asked

“I am.” he said. I was smitten. If ever a woman could be in love with a man a good 30 years her senior, I was that woman. I’d studied Heaney for A level and then again at undergraduate. I’d marked countless exam papers attempting to analyse his poems. He was endlessly anthologised. He was everywhere.

Despite his popularity on exam specifications, I always found something else, something extra. There was always an undiscovered poem, always something familiar to me but not so popular. And unlike TS Eliot, who I tried so hard to ‘enjoy’, Heaney’s poems are accessible and meaningful and also so enjoyable. As I said to Heaney in that bar in Stratford, Personal Helicon is my favourite. If ever a man could be inspirational… It amused him no end that I could recite it. I’m sure most poets don’t get mobbed by girl groupies who quote poetry at them. He was like the Justin Bieber of the poetry world to me. I bet nobody else says that as they eulogise him today.

But he was. For the first time in my life, I loved poetry. I loved what it could do with so few words. He made me want to write. On more than one occasion, his words brought something to me. I’m sure having to learn 20 of them by heart for my A levels has something to do with it, but it’s evidence of his influence that when I am digging potatoes, I cannot think of anything but Heaney. Likewise for any other kind of frog or bog occasion.

His poems always had a way to move me to tears. Bye-child and Mid-term Break are the ones that are so simple yet so evocative. I never could teach about monosyllabic power without referencing ‘a four foot box, a foot for every year’ about his brother’s coffin.

But he was a man who wrote about nature and countryside life too – in ways that recreate a place and time more powerful than most writers I know.

Anyway, I wrote this little poem yesterday. I don’t think he’d care that it is rushed and impatient. He had very smiley eyes.

Willow Father

Summer squalls,

Immense electricity; a magnificent salvo.

There are trees here, great giants,

Towering oaks and ancient willows.

Echoes of you; echoes of words

Borne in with a gale

raised in distant lands.

In the morning, the sight

Of broken limbs,

Boughs strewn thoughtlessly by

A reckless and irresponsible storm

Brings easy tears to my eyes.

Scapegoat trees. I wonder

At their punishment,

Weeping over their corpses

And the chainsaw death knell.

And who will mourn?

I see your words at work around me,

Ripples through space and time;

I find them within me

And clutch at them,

Feeling their rounded heaviness,

Comfortable as rosary beads.

Last night, I picked ripe blackberries from the hedgerows.

Even there, a foreign land, where foreign words

Invade my thoughts like cannibal yellowjackets,

I found your words, played them over in my mind:

Glossy purple clots.

How quickly they turn!

I yearn to hold on to that sweet growing season

When everything is ripe for the picking, and old willows

Stand sentinel.



On Writing

There is not a day when I don’t write. So when my favourite minimalism blogger, Leo Babauta, wrote his latest post on writing, I thought I would share it with you.


I simply cannot remember a time when I didn’t write. From my earliest endeavours right through to computer days, I’ve always written. It’s how I draw. It’s how I create. It’s how I capture the world and it’s how I remember things.

I should say now that I have an appalling memory for events and emotions. I have a great factual memory. If it’s a silly little fact, like the fact that the unicorn is the national animal of Scotland or that Jaco Pastorius’ birthday is December 1st, then it’s embedded in my brain til kingdom come. But as for events, they might as well not have happened to me if I don’t write or take photographs in connection to them.

This blog initially started simply as a way to keep in touch with relatives. Then it became an aide-memoire for me, so I can recall what I’ve done and where I’ve been. It’s nothing more than the outpourings of whatever is on my mind that day, be it Carson Daly or Michael Gove. Some days I record what I’ve planted – mainly because that’s a habit I’ve had for the last two years, so I can keep track of everything that I’ve done. It’s nice to see the journey of a thing, from seed to food.

As Leo says, writing is reflection. It may surprise you to know that when I’ve taken multiple intelligences tests to find out my strengths, they are not linguistic as you might expect, but intra- and inter-personal. I write to reflect and I write to share. I read for the same reasons. It’s a curiousity about myself and about others that is behind it all. Seamus Heaney wrote in Personal Helicon:

I rhyme

to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

I think that is the most powerful image I have of why I write too. To see myself. Narcissus-like, as Heaney says.

p.s. He was MOST impressed that I could recite this poem ad hoc in the bar at the Swan in Stratford. I’m sure he had no idea, when he went to see Julius Caesar, that some crazy woman would recite him his own poems. He liked that it was my favourite.

But I read to find connections, to see into others. To understand myself better. I never knew until I read A Suitable Boy, for example, that I was an incurable romantic.

I think it’s a common thing for many people who suffer from depression to feel, from time to time, a real sense of inwardly-directed hatred, frustration and anger. I know it was very hard for my CPN to get a grip on the fact that in actual fact, I quite like myself, despite myself, and enjoy watching myself grow and evolve as much as I do seeing it in other people. That sounds really conceited, but writing has always helped me be kind to myself, to be gentle, to be reflective and thoughtful. For a girl with a motormouth and motorfingers, you would think that I don’t listen much. Ironically, the reverse is true. I consume far more i a day than I could ever hope to produce in a year. Or even ten. I’ve always used writing as a way to slow down and to think. I like the way words spill out and take form, like making thoughts something permanent and corporeal rather than something fleeting and transient. It’s the slowness I like.

I believe in practice too. Shannon is quite amazed at what I write, indeed, that I write. Today, it was a couple of articles about the area, a translation of light fixtures, a blog or two, emails, an article for a teaching magazine and an article about Barcelona. I spend about two or three hours at least every day in writing. It’s how I find what I like and forge my own style. It’s as personal to me as my fingerprints, and it becomes more so as each day passes.

I like art, too, but I don’t practise as often as I should in order to develop and progress. Not only that, I am very narrow in my approach. I have my favourite things and I tend to do a lot of that. Writing is my creative outlet.

Believe it or not, I also have to spend time thinking of my audience and what they want to hear – and not just for the articles I write. I think blogs make you nicer as you try to avoid all the negativity and nastiness and bitchiness that can filter into your life, even if you try to keep it out. In the past few years, there have been times when I have wanted to name and shame all the villains in my life, but public writing is not a place for it. Not even if you are anonymous. There are people who my friends and I discuss, like a certain person I call Hatchet-Face, but blogs are by-and-large a much more pleasant, charming space.

The hardest thing is having content. That’s why this blog could never be a daily thing. I just don’t always have something to say. I know you probably think I’m the wordiest person on the planet, but some days I have nothing to say. Nothing at all. And so, I write nothing. It’s not a block of any kind, just a more kind of introspective day.

Leo gives advice for anyone starting off. I agree completely with his guidelines. Write as often as you can. Have a time for it. I have two times when I write – early mornings, when I’m fresh from sleep and the day is still quiet – or evenings, when I can reflect on things that happen during the day. I think it is the regularity that makes it a habit, as with all things.

Writers’ retreat

I’m a notional member of ‘the writers’ retreat’ – a group online who spend an hour every so often writing just for fun. The goal is that you spend an hour writing online in silent pursuit of pleasure. I say notional because its time zones don’t work for me, being in the middle of the night, but I usually spend an hour anyway. It’s not very silent tonight – I have a bad case of the hiccups and Tilly is growling over a bone she tried to hide in amongst the magazines behind Steve’s chair – Jake is still chatting with his dad and Cops is playing in the background. Still, it’s my best attempt at a silent world for a silent hour of creative pleasure.

So… perhaps two topics to discuss – both linked by a rural village.

One is a piece of rural England that is seen as the doyenne of rural Cotswold villages. Busloads of American and Japanese tourists arrive there each day to sample ‘rural’ English life – a village as Stow-on-the-Wold. It is filled with Wind in the Willows sentimentality in a way – even the very name so quintessentially ‘English’ – harking back to an England perhaps long gone, preserved in a living museum to English village life gone by. When tourists think of English village life, they think of this: tea shoppes and antiques shops, painters’ galleries and quaint boutiques, ancient inns and hostelries. This is my mother’s world. Her family ran The Bell Inn for some time, and owned a smallholding on the outskirts of town, known as The Mill. I can’t remember much about The Mill except for the fact it had an old Mill on it, of course, and that I remember my uncle built cars in a workshop not unlike the workshops Steve now has on hand. There was a field of goats at the front and a chicken pen. The first time I went there, I was perhaps 10 or 11 – and it seemed like a different world to me.

The house inhabited by my maternal grandfather and Aunt’s family seemed like it belonged to another world than mine. Steps led up and down – nothing was even. The front room, I remember, seemed to be full of stuffed animals and strange objects. It was ramshackle in ways that cottages are. With no even planning, dark corridors led to rooms unexplored. I don’t know if it was really like this, or if time has done something strange to my memory. I remember the lanes seemed the greenest I’d ever seen as we went down to The Mill. My uncle Bill developed his own photographs, I think – I don’t know where – and I have a photograph of my brother and mum putting up a tent outside in an overgrown garden that seemed almost magical compared to our own very neat back garden which was middle-class suburbia through and through.

There’s a little of this wildness where we live now. Steps connect all the rooms – the floors are all on different levels. Secretive doors merge into the wallpaper and we discovered another attic a good two months after we’d lived here permanently. The land is a triangle, too, which my mother reminds me was the shape of The Mill. It’s nowhere near as big as The Mill, but maybe a little of it will remind my mother of the place she grew up.

It was into this rural kingdom of English gentility that my Dad arrived. I don’t know how he got there, why he ended there or what happened, other than in snatches. An inner-city Manchester boy in his urban clothes, with his wealth of 1960s experiences arrived in a town that was probably still in shock about Elvis and The Beatles, so lost in Greensleeves and Elgar it was.

He gave me a little snippet yesterday that brought back some of that quaint and charming English magic – he worked in a little restaurant in Stow called, aptly, The Stowaway. This is so resonant with so many images. Not just the pun on the name of the town, but the whole notion of stowaways (despite Stow being miles from the sea!) and I see wooden panels and dark interiors well used to hiding people who don’t want to be found. He says it was small – only 20 or so covers a night – and only two rooms – the restaurant and the kitchen – with two rooms upstairs to sleep in. English people do ‘small’ so very well – it’s probably impossible for Americans and Canadians (that’s you, Wendy!) to imagine how small English rooms and houses can be. I see oil lamps and oilskin tablecloths, odd chairs that don’t match – a far cry from white table cloths and linen that I imagine the world where my mother worked to be. My dad said he and the other guy who ran the place slept upstairs, and that his friend kept a rifle to pick off the rats.

Those of us in the end of our teenage years can sometimes live life so romantically and ambitiously – no fear to guide us – that our stories of those times seem a world away from the world we inhabit – finally – as ‘grown-ups’. No wonder they all seem so interesting to those of a younger generation – when they finally decide to listen to the days when their parents were more than their parents – the days when their parents were actual living, breathing people, intrepid teenagers. It reminds me of the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘Before you were mine’ where she looks back at her mother with an awe and a fascination for the woman her mother once was, before she belonged to the poet.

I look back at the teenage me, living in rooms in shared houses with students or friends, cooking meals for 16. Once, I went down to Brixton to stay with a Venezuelan friend, hopped over the barriers to the tube, got off at Camden – where Camden market seemed so new and so fresh – even though it had been a mecca for the peculiar and the unusual way before 1990 when I arrived there. I worked with Jewels, my Venezuelan friend, in a radical bookshop selling copies of socialist propaganda, feminist texts, Marxist texts. We stayed in his squat in Brixton, making pancakes on a calor gas stove, sleeping on fake animal skins, dying our hair matching colours in the bathtub. We talked for hours and hours, long into the night. He laughed at me and said I would fall asleep talking. He was the first person I’d ever met with his lip pierced – not once, but twice – nothing like the be-pierced youths of England today. And he was the first person I’d ever met who had ‘good’ tattoos – not just skulls and the usual hard rock images done by Dave in Bury. He had an eagle in full flight across his chest.

One night, we hopped over the heavily-secured fence into Brockwell Park – the heart of Brixton – and lay looking at the stars.

“No matter where you are, or where I am, you know you can always look up and see the same stars.” He told me. He was right. I look up most nights here, and often think of what he said. No matter how big the world, we still share the same view of the universe and whenever I need to feel connected, I know I can look up and know my mum or my sister can see the same stars. He taught me to go beyond myself, beyond my small town values and to think big. We talked only of big ideas, as only teenagers can still do, filled with passion about society and history, literature and music. I still think he was the person who knew me best in all the world. He was an exotic hummingbird to my Manchester sparrow – and he brightened my worlds and broadened my horizons in ways I could add to my life. I like to think that when I look at the world maps, wondering where to go next, his spirit of fearlessness and bravery makes me as intrepid as he was.

We walked one July night to Clapham, picking up pink rice from a Turkish takeaway along the way and eating it with our fingers. He said he had a friend who was having a get-together and maybe we should go. We walked by the house, where strange creatures came and went through the doorway, and we spent the night with people playing guitars. I remember very little except for a beautiful black woman singing her heart out. It was a woman who would later be known as Skin, in a band called Skunk Anansie. And she could sing!

The 18-year-old me would be wide-eyed at the 38-year-old me I’ve become. I don’t know whether I’d be amazed, or scornful. I know I’ve not changed that much. Maybe I’m much more cynical, but I still possess – and relish – the ability to be wowed by things. A cat watching a computer game, Molly cuddled up with Fox, Tilly hiding her bone in a pile of magazines, cherry blossom and chickens all still make me smile.

And so here’s part two of the tale of two villages: from Stow to Les Ecures. Stow is upmarket, antique-y and wealthy in ways that rural France is often not. There’s none of the polish and yet there is still most of what real Stow life was probably all about: village schools and church bells, green fields and the distant sound of shotguns. We are 14 houses, a handful more residents, a good few dogs and a bend on the road between one village and a small town. Nothing exciting happens. It can bring no romantic dreams of tiny, darkened restaurants sandwiched in the middle of a village – it has little so romantic about it. M. Richon with his yellow sou’ester and wellingtons is about as exciting as things here get. The old lady (and her mother, maybe!) who live opposite us and a little farther up. Arthur and his family, our very clean cut and delightful neighbours. A Dutch couple who have painted their shutters a wonderful shade of lavender. An older lady I’ve seen once when she came to tell me about the perils of the road. Michel, the farmer, who regularly waves as he tootles past on his tractor.

It’s not romantic. There’s nothing wonderful or daring about it. It’s not some unusually named restaurant in a village, or a squat in Brixton, but it’s my home. I hope I’ve not lost the fearlessness of my teenage years when I walked through Brixton on warm summer evenings, but I feel a little less rough around the edges, a little softer. A little more like my mother and father – a little more ‘straightforward’ – and yes, a little less awesome and amazing in how different I am from the teenage me – I feel like I’ve had the rough edges polished from me – perhaps as my father has had as the years have gone by.

It reminds me, though, in a very zen kind of way, that tough stuff is needed to polish diamonds. It’s not an easy job and it requires a lot of friction. Maybe such is true of life, too, that it takes a lot of buffing to smooth the rough edges and become just a little softer.

My hour is up. Tilly is silent now – she’s lost her bone for growling at Bird. Bird is sitting over my shoulder, his eyes shut, curled up in a ball. Fox is stretched out, a sofa to himself. Molly is sitting as close to me as she can possibly get and I am thankful for her soft warmth. Jake has gone to sleep and I’ve lost Steve to the world of some computer game and here we sit, all of us bound in 20 metres square, all of us in our solitary, comfortable universes. And, most thankfully of all, my hiccups have disappeared.