Sunday, 30 November 2008

Why not to write a poem

I was "commended" in a poetry competition. It put me in the top 5% and stated, accurately, that my poem wasn't good enough to win. There's something depressing about that. It was depressing, too, to attend the public adjudication alone. I left having spoken to four or five people, briefly - the people sitting on either side of me, who were friendly; a poet I recognized and a couple of people who gave me directions. I felt worse after leaving than after arriving, even though I'd read and heard some good poems.

That probably says a lot about my mood - perhaps I gave off an aura of unapproachability. It's more likely that the society members running the competition wanted to meet and talk with old friends. I was an outsider and felt all the shyness that implies.

Writing a poem can be a compulsion rather than a pleasure, though it's a relief to put it aside, more or less finished. Just before I submitted this poem for the competition, I realised it wasn't finished and did some more work on it. Since then, I've restored some of the earlier version. It's not quite right. I preferred the other poems I submitted - the ones that weren't commended.

I don't know why I write poems and I can't remember when I started. I just know that I've been playing with words for as long as I can remember and have never given it as much time as I would like. I've spent most of my life trying to conceal this embarrassing little habit.

But these days quite a few people have found out about the poems, though they mostly have the friendly tact to remain silent on the subject. I also get to talk to poets quite often - mostly not about poetry - and enjoy reading their work. I'm fortunate to know Pam Thompson who posts several poems a month on her blog. It made me wonder about posting a poem of my own.

This is the commended poem and I'm not making great claims for it.- But sometimes poems give pleasure even when they aren't great. And I have an affection for this because I wrote it when I was staying all alone in a friend's caravan in Llansteffan. I was thinking of the villages abandoned so that they could be flooded for reservoirs. And I was also thinking of what happens to language when people move to a new place.

After the Valley Was Flooded

Having left, she learned again the shape of fields,
new names for birds, the way another town
clung to the hillside, then fanned out
running roads across slopes, drawing trains
from powerful cities. Marrying, she became fluent
in her new place, as rivers were
the same and not the same, altering course.

There was a blue brooch once, lost for ever
on a careless morning, rocks for children
who climbed and laughed as gulls called,
a father’s crumpling smile – all different
in this new world where old shapes lost their force.
At night, she dreamed of distant bells. By day
the unused words twisted about her heart.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Mrs Minns

The photos say it all. The 19th century maids may be wearing caps and aprons - even carrying a kettle to show their "service" - but they are dressed in their best for the picture. They gaze out, confidently or nervously, holding the required pose before resuming their complex, interesting lives. They are hard-working women whose leisure activities and concerns for friendship and family cannot be shown in this photo.

If a 19th century photo can show women domestic workers as human beings, why do writers in the 21st century still get it so wrong?

I've been listening, casually, to the P.D. James serial on Radio 4. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that I don't turn it off. It follows The Archers and Front Row and I leave the radio on so that I can catch the 8.00 p.m. news headlines.

The serial is one of the later novels featuring James's posh, poetic detective Adam Dalgliesh. I used to read P.D. James. She created an early woman private investigator and I liked the idea of combining crime and poetry. Buit gradually P.D. James' take on class began to grate on me. In the end I couldn't bear to read her any more. The radio serial has reminded me just what is wrong with her writing.

The victim in this serial is a politician - posh and sensitive like James's detective. But the investigation, as usual, means interviewing the servants. The other evening an entire episode featured an interview with the victim's cleaner.

I had to listen. The first thing I learnt was that the cleaner lived in a council flat - just like my mum, who also worked as a cleaner. When I was growing up I knew lots of cleaners who lived on the estate. (For the benefit of P.D. James, that's a council estate, not the kind of estate owned by the landed gentry.) I enjoyed their conversation about their employers - it was gossipy and satrical. The wealthy employers were good material for a laugh, before talk moved onto more serious topics: politcs, family, books, television, etc.

Of course, the cleaner created by P.D. James was there for a purpose - to provide a clue to the mystery. But upper and middle-class characters in James' mysteries have complex lives and face ethical dilemmas. The cleaner didn't. She was called Mrs Minns - such a stock name for a domestic worker that it's also used by Enid Blyton in the first of her Famous Five books. And listening to the interview with Mrs Minns, as created by P.D. James, I longed for the ethical complexity of Enid Blyton.

Mrs Minns was not a character with a credible independent existence. She was an attribute of her employer - her role was to admire him. It was impossible to believe there had ever been a Mr Minns because people who get married are human beings with human emotions and Mrs Minns was a cardboard cut-out. (I've seen cardboard cut-outs who are more convincingly human.)

Mrs Minns' role involved the discovery of a book. It was, of course, a trashy romance with a lurid cover. My mum's favourite authors include Dickens, Shakespeare, Moliere, Plato, Borges and late 20th century magic realists - but that would be too much complexity for P.D. James to handle. Cardboard cut-out cleaners don't enjoy literature or art or think about politics - they leave that to real cleaners.

By the end of the episode I was angry. How could the BBC perpetuate this travesty of characterisation - this lack of literary imagination?

Before blogged about it, I had to be sure that it mattered. So I thought it through.

It matters that we see other human beings as complex individuals. Seeing people as cardboard cut-outs is dangerously close to seeing them as sub-human. If people are treated as sub-human, no-one will care what happens to them. We're already close to that when thinking of people on council estates. The government is threatening to move families out of their council homes, as a punishment for being unemployed or being too successful. This policy assumes that people in council estates aren't attached to their homes, communities or schools - are mere units who don't matter and can be moved around the country for political convenience. (But I, my brother and my parents were not sub-human. We loved our council-flat home.) P.D. James' fictions feed into current anti-working class prejudice and policies.

P.D. James is also in a position of power. She has been a magistrate. She has been a governor of the BBC. As Baroness James of Holland Park (an unelected member of the House of Lords) she is a lawmaker - she speaks and votes on matters that affect the people she fails to see as complex, interesting individuals.

Mrs Minns is not just a failure of literary skills. She's a failure of human understanding. She shows that P.D. James' grasp of ethics is dangerously narrow.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Odd jobs

I hope the owner of this toolbox doesn't mind that I've borrowed the picture. It comes from a page of pictures of a garage workshop - and I love workshops like this. They remind me of my dad, who is not just intelligent but skilled at all kinds of craft. Even in the flat where I grew up, he assembled a range of tools, with small items like nuts and drillbits kept carefully in Golden Virginia tobacco tins.

I wish I had the practical skills of my parents - or that my school had taught me useful things like woodworking. But these were seen as boys' skills. The idea was that we girls would marry. We would sew and cook for husbands and children but husbands would do the repairs. The boys' school included woodwork and metalwork on the curriculum; my brother produced a poker and toasting fork, which were things of beauty but of little use in our centrally-heated flat.

When the cat-flap shattered in a fierce wind, I realised I had to do something about it. I may know that the first reference to a catflap comes in Chaucer (the Miller's Tale) but I had no idea how to fit one. At first I worried. Then I asked my son to choose a new one of about the same size. It arrived with incomprehensible illustrations that were suppsoed to indicate how to fit it. I gave up looking and began to piece the catflap parts together for myself. After a while it seemed clear. I went to the shed to look for the drill and discovered I no longer had one. Fortunately a neighbour lent me a drill, a crewdriver and a pair of pliers. It was a fine, hand-held drill - like the one my Dad has. I cracked, peeled and unscrewed the wreckage of the old catflap and my son and I went to work.

Together we marked the places where the new screws would go and took turns at the drilling. It wasn't easy - the holes had to be very close to the edge of the gap and it's hard to drill at the bottom of a door. I was glad that my son did most of the work but felt quite pleased that I was also playing a useful part. I've never fitted a catflap before.

Gradually we got it in place - not particularly skilfully as one of the screws is crooked. But fitting it at all seemed like an achievement - and a great improvement on the hole in the back door. Joe didn't approve, however. He had thought the hole much better than a catflap - easier to manage. He looked at the new contraption unconvincedly and tried to persuade us to open the door instead.

It's not a great catflap but it has three advantages: it's transparent, it has a magnet which stops it from flapping in the wind, and it can be sealed with a small plastic sheet that holds it shut. I'm not sure Joe sees these as advantages.

Odd jobs proliferate. The washing-line snapped under the weight of sodden sheets which I hung up just before a downpour. We need a new backdoor - and the garden is in a desperate state. Unfortunately work is busier than ever and after 11-hour days I find it hard to summon the energy for anything else, except fencing, which seems to have a brief energising effect. Yesterday my Chinese horoscope urged me to do sport or "relaxing activities like odd jobs." The odd jobs didn't seem particularly relaxing. I chose fencing. They didn't teach that at my school either.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The smell of gunpowder

I'd forgotten the date. I didn't stay up late for the U.S. election results but went to sleep with the radio on and accepted a friend's offer to ring me when the outcome was clear. It made for a restless night and tired day. There were tired people everywhere, many exuberant with delight at news of Obama's victory. I was relieved - the thought of President Palin terrified me - but the news was shadowed by memories of 1997, when the election of Tony Blair felt like the lifting of a nightmare.

I stumbled through the day, giving way to clumsy mistakes. I was unsurprised to find that the train home would be half an hour late. All the trains were delayed after a fire alarm at St Pancras. Half an hour didn't seem too bad. It even gave me an opportunity to catch my breath and do some work in the station cafe (the waiting room was full).

I continued to work on the train, then swept everything into my bag as I reached my stop. And as I walked out into the dark drizzle, the smell reached me - gunpowder. "The fifth of November," I recalled, and a rush of thoughts and memories hit me. I couldn't reconcile them.

As an adult, I can't ignore the Guy Fawkes story: torture, fear, violence, orchestrated hatred. The bonfires once recalled that as clearly as any Chamber of Horrors. But it's all mutated into something both cosier and more anarchic: family participation in firework displays and celebrations. Fireworks Day is also bound up with childhood memories: the bonfire in the field, cold, gloved hands clasping the thin wire of sparklers, the small rocket placed carefully in a milk bottle, gasps of delight as the tiny catherine wheel sparks into a multi-coloured blur.

I love firework displays. I love the sudden blazing chrysanthemums that bloom for seconds then fade against a velvet-dark sky. I love the frisson of fear at the scream of swooping rockets - even the range of pops and earth-shaking thuds that recall tales of mud and anguish on the western front. I wanted to go to a firework display or party. But I couldn't. I was going fencing - and I didn't want to leave the cat for long.

Fortunately Joe doesn't seem too worried by fireworks - or not when he's indoors. Sometimes he sits up, alert, in case he's called on the defend the house - and he's not as settled as usual. He didn't like the early lock-in either. But instead of worrying, he curled up in one of his favourite places - the bathroom wash-basin - and settled down to sleep.