Friday, 19 November 2010

Kin

I was born into a very large Bristol family.  My mother was the eldest daughter of thirteen children, eleven of whom survived to go forth and multiply.  As a result, many of my earliest memories are of being surrounded by a throng of people who looked like me and sounded like me, but whose exact identities were lost in unholy confusion.  


My grandmother was the heart of our family; her modest Victorian villa the place to which we would all gravitate.  When she died at the age of 93, we realised that unless we all made an effort, we would lose that close family connection we'd always taken for granted.  And so we took to hiring a hall once a year, on the Saturday nearest her birthday, to throw a large, raucous party.


Yesterday was the 113th anniversary of my grandmother's birth; tomorrow we shall again flock to fill the genteel suburban avenues of Stoke Bishop with hail-fellow-well-mettery and hullabaloo.  This is a poem I wrote about our gathering, dedicated to my once and future kin:





Kin

Every November they gather together,
raggedy black with petroleum sheen
and sparks in their feathers.

Most live local,
drifting from suburbs like bonfire smoke,
although others hurl in from further afield,
storming up songlines,
until, like a genie freed from a lamp,
they swirl, and set the sky alight
with their crackling dance.

A parliament of starlings,
cacophonous cousins,
an argumentation of uncles and aunts!

Then one venerable elder
hunches his shoulders, opens his throat
and lets fly a hymn in notes
grown richer over years,
swelled by a hundred kindred voices,
all singing in different keys
their shared story.




Deborah Harvey © 2008, 2010



Kin will be published in my forthcoming poetry collection, Communion, due to be published next year by INdigo Dreams.



Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Power of Poetry

There's a huge old pear tree in my garden.  As it towers over the boundary between my and my neighbours’ garden, it’s tempting to conclude that it was planted in 1939 when the farmland it stands on was parcelled up into plots and turned into suburbia.  It looks so venerable, however, that I fancy it has flourished here far longer.

For all its gnarled beauty, it’s been a bit of a disappointment over the years when it comes to fruiting.  The pears are large, golden yellow and good to eat and stew, but the harvest is generally meagre.  What’s more, the tree is infected with scab and large numbers of its pears develop crackled skin and chocolate brown patches.  Most autumns, by the time you’ve cut the bad bits out, there’s barely enough to make more than a couple of pear crumbles.  

Last year, we had a strange but memorable Easter.  I was newly single, the kids fatherless.  To fill the gap left by my husband’s departure we’d acquired a boisterous border collie puppy who had yet to receive all his inoculations and was thus confined to base along with the rest of the family.  My dear friend Teresa arrived with a suitably shaped Easter present which was, in fact, a large iron cannon ball I’d long coveted and she’d managed to rescue from imminent skippage.  And the pear tree was in glorious, incandescent blossom.  All of this combined to give me a first glimpse of a better life, and I preserved that feeling of optimism in a poem to help me through the dark days that still lay ahead.   The fact that it subsequently won a prize in the 2009 MsLexia poetry competition was an unexpected bonus.
  
It was a pacific spring with little wind to strip the blossom and so, unusually, we had a glut of pears come September.  I duly stewed as many as I could store in my freezer, and gave away bucketfuls to my neighbours.  The remainder were left for foraging birds.  I briefly wondered if the tree had responded to my poem, in which I’d disparaged its bounty.  At any rate, it would surely be a long while before such abundance were repeated.


This year winter was hard and spring came late.  Our tree blossomed, but not spectacularly.  No matter, I still had tubfuls of frozen fruit left from the previous year.  Except that all this autumn pears have tumbled from the sky.  I gather them by the bowlful, and as I walk back into the house I hear more dropping, while still more hang from the branches like glowing lanterns.  Every night I stew a vast panful in diet lemonade and crushed ginger, while my youngest son and I are reduced to eating ancient chicken kievs of dubious provenance and fillets of frost-burnt fish in a bid to make space for yet more containers of the stuff.  Money might be tight but we shan’t starve this winter as long as we can continue to stomach porridge with pears; and pear cobbler; and butterscotch pear crunch; and pear walnut muffins; and French pear pie; and pork chops with pear chutney; and pears with spam and pears; and pears, spam, pears, pears, bacon and pears … 



The Wedding Tree

In autumn she huddles old bones
against the equinoctal storms,
discards a parsimonious harvest
of tarnished pears with crackled skin,
fit only for starlings.

A crabbed munificence I’ve forgotten
in this ragged April dawn
as she spreads her blossom-clotted arms,
as white,
as mad as Miss Havisham’s ghost,

and strips herself of wedding petals
at the insistence of the wind.
Watered silk and crimson seed,
throughout this Easter perfumes
bleed into my days.

And in a blessing of confetti
I am purified of love,
and rise,
a bride to the remainder
of my life.




Deborah Harvey © 2009, 2010






Sunday, 24 October 2010

Poorly dog ...


I nearly lost my dog the day before yesterday. Not escaping from the park lost, or running away to sea, but lost in the sense of dead. One minute he was his normal, bouncy, demanding self; the next – well, within ten minutes, anyhow – he was frothing at the mouth, losing fluid from his rear, and lying under a bush in the garden, whimpering. Another ten minutes and he was flat out on the floor of our local vets, being worked on by three of the team while an anaesthetised rabbit languished, abandoned on the operating slab.


Three years ago I nearly lost my daughter. She was two weeks into her university career and two hundred-odd miles from home when she went to bed one night and slipped into a diabetic coma. By chance, she’d arranged to go out with a friend from Bristol the following evening and when she failed to meet him or answer her mobile phone, he had the presence of mind to go to her halls of residence and get one of the members of staff to break into her room. As horrible as it was to see my boy sprawled on the tiles on Friday, so suddenly and shockingly close to death, it didn’t compare with seeing one’s offspring stuck full of needles and tubes in intensive care. Nevertheless, it's not something I'm anxious to repeat in a hurry.

Ted is the first dog I’ve had. Until the day I picked him up from the farm at nine weeks, the most onerous pets I’d cared for were rabbits and cats. As a result, I’d never quite understood the bond between owner and dog – in fact, when childless women gushed that their Yorkie or their dachshund was their baby, I’d inwardly roll my eyes. But sitting in the back of my neighbour’s car with a tiny, frightened Ted next to me in a plastic crate, I felt a bonding as fierce as any I’d experienced with my newborns. And as fond as I’d been of the parade of rabbits over the years - Jimmy, Ziggy Stardust, Spike, Drusilla, Bramble and Plum – and our acquired felines, Eric and Polly, now long departed, this was a far more powerful attachment.

Ted pulled through. At midnight I had a call from the all-night vets on the other side of town, where I’d driven him at 6pm because our local practice was closing for the night. Could I please come and pick Ted up, as he was whining and howling and refusing to settle. I duly relieved them of their charge, leaving them scratching their collective heads as to how a dog so full of morphine could be so intractable.

Ted is pretty much back to his normal self today, apart from shaved patches on his chest and legs from blood tests and two intravenous drips because he pulled the first one out. We’re taking it easy, however, until the results of his tests come back. The consensus at the moment is that he either had an attack of acute pancreatitis or a severe allergic reaction to something he ate. The vets do not believe he was poisoned, and for this I am profoundly grateful as he’d been given treats by both my fruit and veg man and the postman just before he fell ill. Having drifted through the first 48 years of my life on a tide of rose-pink ignorance and wishful thinking, all the reading I've done recently on the subject of psychopathy had me thinking the worst, especially as the postman had taken a photo of Ted with his mobile phone after he’d given him his treat. Nevertheless, from now on I shall keep a tub of gravy bones by the front door and any callers who want to can give him one of those.

I love my dog. He’s handsome and faithful and he enjoys walking with me in the country. He doesn’t mind if I write a poem instead of doing the ironing. Above all, he loves me back. I’m so grateful  he’s curled at my feet as I post this.



Monday, 18 October 2010

As I Walked Out One Autumn Morning

Friday being overcast but dry, it was off on a literary jaunt with two of my writing friends, Kate and Kathy, and Ted. Our destination was Slad, just north of Stroud, the home village and last resting place of the writer and poet, Laurie Lee.


First stop, the Church of the Holy Trinity, a pleasing simple Victorian edifice opposite the Woolpack pub, both of which were very familiar to Slad’s most famous son – indeed, he’s buried between the two.

The Woolpack, Slad









I re-read ‘Cider with Rosie’, Lee’s account of his rural childhood between the wars, over the summer and enjoyed it as much as when I was a teenager, although this time around I was more shocked by the hardship and sporadic brutality of the lives described.  


Also by how touching his depiction of his dreamy mother is – her thwarted passions and her unending struggle to do her best for her children and step-children in the face of their father’s defection to suburbia.


'Her flowers and songs, her unshaken fidelities, her attempts at order, her relapses into squalor, her near madness, her crying for light, her almost daily weeping for her dead child-daughter, her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man, her hysterical rages, her justice towards each of us children - all these rode my Mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves.


Laurie Lee's homeThis is the house in which Lee and the rest of the family lived. Aficionados will remember that they occupied the down-stroke of the T, the cross-stroke being inhabited by Granny Trill and Granny Wallon, who were perpetually at war and who died within days of each other.


So wonderful to see where it all happened, not so very long ago but a world away.

Laurie Lee's grave
‘Meanwhile the old people just dropped away - the white-whiskered, gaitered, booted and bonneted, ancient-tongued last of their world, who thee'd and thou’d both man and beast, called young girls 'damsels', young boys 'squires', old men 'masters', the Squire himself 'He', and who remembered the Birdlip stagecoach, Kicker Harris the old coachman...’

After exploring the village, we went for what should have been a five and a half mile wander through the wooded valley; however, the footpath petered out part way through and we ended up scrambling a lot further than that. No matter, we figured Laurie never stuck to the paths either, and Ted enjoyed intimidating the numerous pheasants we encountered.

There were glimpsed grey and green views, constellations of fungi, leaf-littered droves, oranges, Kathy's sinisterly dark treacle gingerbread, and cliffs of golden Cotswold limestone ...

Lovely!


Kathy and Kate at Slad






Thursday, 14 October 2010

A Visit to Wells Festival of Literature 2010

So, Saturday it was off to the beautiful Somerset city of Wells, at the invitation of the Festival of Literature Committee, for a prize-giving, luncheon in the Bishop’s Palace, and a talk on writing by the novelist Sarah Duncan. With me my writing teacher and friend, Kate Dunn, whom I was delighted to invite by way of a thank you for her support and guidance.

As luck would have it, morning dawned fair and our journey passed uneventfully. Having arrived with time to spare, we took a wander around the town. The trees have some way to go before their autumn colouration gains its full intensity, but they were still very beautiful, and given the lovely, slightly misty quality to the light, I was vexed that I’d carefully stowed my camera in the wrong handbag.

After we'd perambulated the moat, we made our way to the main entrance of the Palace and on to the light, high-ceilinged room where the prizes for the Short Story and Poetry Competition were to be given. I was expecting to feel nervous, but didn’t, partly because an actor was reading out the winning poems rather than the poets themselves, but also because it’s the poem that’s being honoured on these occasions, not the person who was fortunate enough to find it and pin it on the page. Still, it was a pleasure to accept the first prize cheque for £500 on behalf of said poem, ‘Coleridge Changes His Library Books’, along with a certificate and a charming terracotta tile depicting the Cathedral fashioned from books.

Lunch was handsome – roast pork and vegetables, followed by syrup pudding with clotted cream – and the company serendipitous. Kate and I sat with the poet who won second prize in the competition, the generous and indefatigable Sue Boyle who runs the Bath Poetry Café, her husband Jim, the actor Dennis Harkness, who won the Silver Wyvern prize for his short story and who tours with a one-man show about Coleridge (how’s that for synchronicity?), and his wife, the very talented artist Juliet Harkness. We were also joined by one of the committee members, who told us there had been 479 entries in the poetry competition this year.

After lunch we attended the talk about writing, and Sue kindly invited me to read at the November Poetry Café. Then, we left the Palace and made our way to the Cathedral, but not before we’d located the bell the swans ring when they want to be fed! Unfortunately part of the south aisle, the transept and everything to the east was closed to visitors as there was a choir practice in full flow, but even so, it was wonderful to drift along the stone avenues, dislocated from time. And that's another reason to go back soon.

Wells Festival of Literature


Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Blood for the Ghosts

I went to see the lovely Michael Wood again last week. He was in Bristol giving a talk on his latest television series about the village of Kibworth in Leicestershire. At one point he quoted the historian Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who wrote that we must 'pour our own blood into the ghosts of the past to make them alive', and in an instant he gave me the inspiration to complete lines that have languished for two and a half years.

Sedgemoor is an important place in my personal landscape. My ancestors are from Somerset and Devon, and I grew up hearing stories about the Pitchfork Rebellion of 1685 and the malevolence of the Hanging Judge. I spent a magical day there in February 2008, the highlight of which was watching a barn owl hunting as dusk fell. Now Mr Wood has shown me the connection and I have the poem I wanted to write, I think ...

Sedgemoor Ghost 7





Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Poem for National Poetry Day 2010

As it's National Poetry Day, I'm posting a poem about a poet. I was fortunate enough to win the 2010 Wells Poetry Competition with it, and it will be published in my first collection, 'Communion', next year. I hope to report back on the festival next week.



Coleridge Changes His Library Books


All this altering year you’ve called me

from the hills above Nether Stowey,
in the shifting of fossils and siltstones
that clutter Kilve’s wilderness shore. In Porlock
I glimpsed you through watered windows
at the hearth of the mariners’ inn
with jugfuls of cider, potted laver,
a communion of friends.

I saw your whole world imaged at Wyndcliff,
a moss-softened step for each day
that I gazed upon a Xanadu made real,
from the mazy ramblings of the Wye
down to a sunless Severn Sea.
Even the swift, sleek-whiskered river,
baptising the churchtown of your birth,
floated a dream of you

in a nutshell with paper sails,
walking your poems down droves and causeways,
lugging your library books forty miles,
till Bristol lights its tide of stars
and I see you
brimming with words and stories
all along the Hotwells Road,
as high as the swifts that scream over our city.



14th October 2009




Deborah Harvey © 2009, 2010



Thursday, 12 August 2010

A Visit to Ted Hughes' Memorial Stone

I love wandering and I love writing, and I often find that the first activity shapes the second. I’ve frequently returned from jaunts with my collie, Ted, the notion of a poem inspired by something I’ve seen germinating in my head. Days, sometimes weeks or months pass before the seedling breaks the surface; then more walking is required to find the poem’s rhythm and tease it out to a conclusion.


This would seem to be a common tendency. Coleridge and Wordsworth famously walked their poems on the Quantocks and in the Wye Valley and the Lakes, while the poet and travel writer, Edward Thomas, tramped the south of England obsessively. Alice Oswald traced the length of the river Dart to divine her marvellous eponymous poem, and another of my favourite books - my totem, in fact - is Alan Garner’s collection of essays entitled ‘The Voice that Thunders’, in which he writes brilliantly about the eternal nature of landscape.


I’m coming to the end of my annual summer holiday in my caravan in Devon, during which I’ve managed several walks worthy of the name. By chance, I’ve stumbled - not literally, thankfully - across several literary connections while out and about. In Sidmouth I saw a plaque commemorating the playwright and author, R F Delderfield. I’m ashamed to say that although I’ve heard of him, I’ve never read or seen performances of any of his works, even though they have such familiar and resonant titles as ‘God is an Englishman’, ‘A Horseman Riding By’, and ‘To Serve Them All My Days’. (I must have been busy gelling my hair and going to punk gigs when the latter two were televised.) A couple of days later, I walked past a thatched cottage in an isolated combe on Dartmoor in which the author Mary Wesley lived, and spotted a stained glass window dedicated to the writer, priest and social reformer, Charles Kingsley, in Holne Parish Church. He was born in the village when his father was curate there. And on Wednesday I picnicked with one of my sons and my dog at Coleridge Cross, high on the hills above Slapton Ley.


Steeperton Tor and Belstone


Rather more deliberately, on Sunday last I drove up to Okehampton Camp on the northern edge of Dartmoor. Ever since its whereabouts was revealed in 2003, I’ve wanted to hike out to the head of the river Taw on a pilgrimage to the memorial stone of one of my favourite poets, Ted Hughes. (Yes, my dog is named after him.) I’ve walked on Dartmoor a lot but only around its edges. This would be the first time I’d be penetrating almost to its bleak and boggy heart, a round trip of about ten miles. For this reason, and because I had my autistic son with me, I decided to play it safe and walk out on one of the military roads, rather than chance our way over marsh and clitter.


Our outward route wound down through the valley of the East Okement, past the familiar outlines of Cosdon Hill and Belstone, Oke and Steeperton Tors, and others I’d never seen before, such as the ethereally lovely Wild Tor.


Wild Tor


Eventually we reached the Army Observation Post that marked our departure from the metalled road onto a far rougher, stonier path. As this track turned east, we left it to squelch down towards the Taw Head through scrub and feral grass, squinting at every likely looking lump of granite. After about quarter of an hour of sploshing about, we spotted it on top of a spoil heap on the opposite bank of the infant river, below the bulk of Hangingstone Hill. Stepping across carefully (although it’s narrow, even here the Taw has surprisingly deep pools), we scrambled up the tump to our goal.


The resemblance of this promontory to a bronze-age cairn wasn’t lost on me. What a fitting place to remember a true chief of our tribe, our national poet, close to one of the sources of his inspiration.


Ted and Ted


Instead of returning via the same route, we continued along the military road in the same direction as before, following it as it curved back up through the parallel valley of Black-a-ven Brook, passing High Willhays and Yes Tor (the two highest points on the moor), as well as East and West Mill Tors, before depositing us back at our car.


I returned to the Biscuit Tin By The Sea temporarily lulled, but with an idea for a poem taking shape that would require some serious walking - and soon …



Friday, 30 July 2010

A Biscuit Tin by the Sea

If things had gone according to plan, I’d be half way to South Devon by now for a fortnight’s stay in my family’s caravan on a site between Teignmouth and Dawlish. A blow-out on the A46 just outside the village of Pennsylvania while I was on my way to pick up my son from his college in Dilton Marsh put paid to that, and tomorrow morning will be spent at the local tyre fitters. Then it’ll be a question of waiting until the traffic thins before we venture down the M5. I’d sooner drive in the dark than spend the first day of our holiday stuck in jams.

This part of Devon is home from home for me, my parents, maybe even my kids though they’d never admit it. In 1960, the year before my birth, my father walked onto the beach at Shaldon for the first time and immediately decided it felt like home. It was another 35 years - and as many summer holidays, not to mention stays at Easter, Whitsun and October half-term - before we discovered by chance that it really was home to our ancestors in the early 19th century. Almost all of those sojourns, and every single one since, have been spent in caravans on the same site, and whilst I might occasionally yearn for luxury hotels and holidays abroad that I have no hope of affording, actually I love the moors, both coasts and all the bumpy green bits in between. Another 35 years of exploring would still leave places of beauty and interest undiscovered.

The caravans have changed a lot over the years. Our first one was the only van on the park with a view of the sea, glimpsed between the great dark elms that marked the bottom boundary of the field. Now almost everyone can see a sweep of Lyme Bay in all its colours and moods. It had no electricity, and therefore no fridge or telly. Once they were invented, I’d take a tape recorder down with me, but we could only ever afford one set of batteries and they’d last approximately two days. There would then follow two more days of Leonard Cohen sounding even more lugubrious than usual as their power waned and (to my parents’ relief) failed. Light was provided by gas lamps, which gave out such a dim glow that my mother would stop my sister and me from reading for fear of straining our eyes and we’d have to sit and look at one another for the rest of the evening. Water was collected from a stand-pipe and heated on the stove, and the toilet block was a sprint along the drive, often in the teeth of a gale. Whole days of rain were spent on games of patience and jigsaws while I waited for the hiss of Triumph Herald tyres that would announce the arrival of my cousins, who had a caravan one row up and a few doors down. (I try to tell to my kids all this but they can't hear me above the Playstation or Family Guy DVD.)

Some things are the same, though. Being awakened at six in the morning by tapdancing seagulls. Basic meals that always taste better than anything cooked at home. Red cliffs meticulously embroidered with wild flowers. The lowing of cattle, and the sound of passing trains drifting up from the sea wall when the wind’s in the right direction. Bats in the lane and lit ships on the horizon. Dozing off at night to the hooting of owls.

Best of all, there’s the sense of living half indoors and half out - close to the elements and the animal world. Full moons are impossibly big, stars brighter than anything Bristol with its orange skies can offer. The clouds are mountains on the other side of the water. Thunder storms are louder and scarier, yet there’s also the increased sense of security that comes from being cradled by nature. Simple living in tune with the seasons. You can’t beat it.



Monday, 26 July 2010

Acts of Communion



My first collection of poetry, which is being published in early 2011 by Indigo Dreams, is called ‘Communion’. The title comes from a poem of the same name, which I wrote after visiting St Winifred’s Church in Branscombe, East Devon. But it’s neither a theological discourse nor a homily. Communion is a poem about the pleasures of the flesh.

Just opposite the doorway of St Winifred's, towards the rear of the nave, are the remains of a 15th century mural, believed to have depicted the Seven Deadly Sins, although only Lust has survived the depredations of Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell and those restoration-crazed Victorians. The sinning couple are shown in each other’s arms, while a skeletal Devil standing to one side is running them through with a lance. Not that this seems to bother the lovers at all. Both are intent upon the other.

It was this defiant pleasure, this communion, that I wanted to celebrate. I imagined them partaking of each other in other churches I’d visited, from Wells Cathedral choir with its sumptuous embroideries and the worn stone steps of its Chapter House, to St Enodoc’s, a tiny Chapel of Ease in Trebetherick, Cornwall, which, over the course of three centuries, filled completely with sand and was known locally as Sinkininny Church. Its graveyard is now the last resting place of Sir John Betjeman.

Apparently, churches were major pulling-places in the past, and when I saw the high-walled Georgian box pews in Puxton Church in Somerset, I could easily picture the illicit fumblings that might have gone on there, out of sight of the rector and the rest of the congregation. I’m a coward, though, so in my poem the couple’s final act of communion takes place ‘beneath the fan-vaulting of trees’ (although you could argue that the cathedrals that are our woods and forests are the most sacred places of all).

The word 'communion' has a more general meaning, however: namely, a coming together to share what we have with others. To me, a lover of the written word, it encapsulates the ability of poetry to leap the chasms between us, to let us know we’re not alone. That's the spark of recognition I would love to strike in people when they read my poems. That's why I share what I write.

It’s these layers of meaning that prompted me to call my collection 'Communion': the sacred and the profane, all mingled together and holy as hell.