Thursday, 31 January 2013

My January River of Stones

Empty glasses, bottles. Olive stones tumbled on a plate. The remains of crisps crushed underfoot.  Vestiges of a forgotten civilisation.

Nude shoots of rhubarb poke through claggy soil, pink as fingers

Catkins. Nature’s party poppers.

In the still dark
passing the bus stop
a galaxy of spat-out gum
stars wet pavements

My dog is not at my heels. I turn to see tufts of turf flying, 
hobble back over choppy ground, scanning this way and that. 
I cannot see it against the mud.  Then I spot a too dark, too thin coil, 
cold to my touch through the plastic bag.  
It did not emanate from my dog. 
Still, I knot it into a parcel and post it in the bin.  
The balance in the universe is restored. 

I have read them in my head and aloud, considered what each poem is telling me, arranged them and rearranged.  Now the listening to what they’re telling each other.

From my office window, I see the returning children spill from their taxis.  They burst through the main door in silence, hands shaping stories of stockings and laughter in January air.

Between each sweep of the windscreen wipers the world disintegrates, each molecule swelling until all I see is a wash of grey, beaded with the red of tail-lights, the sodium orange of street lamps.  I am underwater and in front of me shine the scales of a strange and massive fish.  Then, briefly, I am back in a queue of traffic and no, I am not jotting this down in my notebook as I drive.

Above us a croaking sound alerts us to the arrival of two ravens.  Although they are high over the valley, we can hear every word they are saying to each other.  Their conversation sounds so interesting, so tender that for a moment I would give almost anything to speak raven.  Then one rolls over on the breeze and they are gone.

Today the city’s a uniform shade of grey. 
The sky grits its teeth. As I circle the park with the dog, 
I take the memory of yesterday from my pocket, 
breathe on it and buff the colours until they glow.  
It will have to last me for a week or two.

My old boots leak.  
When  I peel off my socks, my toes will be white and wrinkly. 
But right now I’m out on Purdown with the dog. 
Each time his ball lands, it sends a spray of droplets into the air.  
So does he as he lunges for it, skidding along the ground on his side like a junior school goalie who’s just made a particularly spectacular save.  
There’s rain and snow forecast. 
It’s difficult to know where more water can go.

I heat the mug of milk in the microwave.  My son drank all the rum at New Year, so I slosh in a hefty measure of Glenfiddich instead and then another before grating nutmeg over the surface. Already a skin is forming which reminds me of custard and childhood.   As I take a sip, buds of warmth blossom in my belly.  No Lem-Sip for our mediaeval ancestors – this is how they saw off a cold, with a posset. And  I know I’ll sleep well tonight.

Caught unawares by the camera, I look each one of my years until more than half of them fall away and I see myself at the back of the bus and a woman paying her fare with creased cheek and my hair. Then my mother, unrecognised; now me.

Tilly the collie is dead.
She spent two years shut up in a shed
in her own excrement.

Was rescued, trained, loved
by a woman the closest thing to a god
in Tilly’s eyes. 

Tilly, who has died
knowing love.  

There’s a tinglng in my nose, 
building in intensity, 
as if each tiny hair is being teased into a frenzy.  
I stop walking, hold my breath.  
All of my attention is focused on the explosion that will come in a moment or two. 
I close my eyes and concentrate, willing the sneeze to happen.  My arm beats the air, as if my brain is struggling to find the right word. 
I wait, poised on the cusp. 

I turn the key in the lock and we step inside. The house smells faintly of urine. I look at Cathy. She calls ‘Pauline? Are you there?’

I’m aware that if she is lying dead somewhere, she’s likely to be in her bedroom, as she’s a late riser, so I look downstairs first and Cathy follows.  Front room, back room, kitchen, conservatory.  As each room yields no sign of her, I start to think that we are putting off the inevitable.  I open the cupboard under the stairs – anything to delay a little longer - and jump as I catch sight of Pauline’s familiar blue checked housecoat. It is hanging on a peg. 

‘PAULEEEEN !’ I bellow. ‘It’s only us!’ calls Cathy.  We look in the back bedroom, bathroom and toilet. Then the box room.  She isn’t there.

I peer through the gap between the half open door of the front bedroom and the architrave.  I can see the shape of a body under the covers.  I push open the door, my heart banging. ‘Pauline?’  There’s no answer.  The corpse is just a ruckle in the eiderdown.

We check the whole house again, more thoroughly this time, searching behind sofas, the other side of the bed in the back room, the garden.  I can hear my telephone ringing the other side of the wall.  That’ll be Meals on Wheels calling back to find out why there was no answer when they tried to deliver lunch.

As we shut the front door, a car pulls up on the drive. Pauline is in the passenger seat next to her step-daughter, who is scowling.

‘Bloody thing!’ she snaps, as my cat saunters round from the back garden. ‘Shitting all over the place.’

There is snow in the aviaries of cloud. Every fifteen seconds a flake drifts to the ground as if somewhere an albatross is shedding breast feathers one by one. Manna for dreamers.

Hound shouts out of the window at bundles of human without legs sliding down the road.

The girl pulling the sledge stops abruptly. 
The sledge does not.  
Instead, it butts her legs and she falls to the ground 
with a shriek as sharp as an icicle. 
Her sister tumbles out onto the snow, 
giggles melting frosty air.

I decide that so long as I stride out purposefully, the thick layer of ice covering the road outside my house won’t present any problems. It’s when you dither that you start to slip.  Anyhow, I have my walking boots on.  No problem.  I step into the road.  One step … two step … waaaaaah! I teeter, flailing, then dive for a tiny patch close to the middle where the ice has worn down to tarmac. For crying out loud, every year I forget how lethal the steep suburban street I live on is. And now what am I going to do?  I can’t stay here balanced on one foot all day. I gaze at the distant kerb ahead of me and strain my ears for the scrape of iron on concrete.  Is my neighbour still clearing his drive?  Is he going to see me go arse-over-tip … again?

I arrive at work in triumph, like Captain Oates taking a lot less time than he’d expected, only to find the building locked and in darkness.  The journey home seems a lot less arduous, my step made surer by the thought of all the things I can do on this unexpected snow day. Until I get to the hill, that is, and my feet slide from under me.  I make a grab for the railings; then, someone seizes my other arm.  It’s a man, not in the first flush of youth but a good few years younger than me all the same.  He escorts me over the road and would whisk me on up the pavement had I not assured him I could manage now thank you.  He strides away, leaving me feeling very old indeed.

Train timetables confuse
but do not bewilder.
Standing on platform eleven
wishing she’d remembered her reading glasses
is not the same as finding herself
in this strange and tangled place
where every movement risks danger,
a breaking of tell-tale twigs

At night the sky is light and orange with the play of ice and sodium streetlights. A 3am dawn at the darkest time of the year. In my kitchen come morning it is dark as snow covers the skylights, blocking out the day. A world in negative. 

Sunshine and whiteness.  I adjust my metaphorical goggles. We are miles from the soft grey sea and the surrounding mountains are like piled clouds on the horizon. I lift my skis onto my shoulder, fill my lungs with icy, rareified air and set off, my boots crumping on crystalline snow. 

Sunshine and whiteness in our municipal park. The snow might be melting fast but today I have travelled. 

on the ice a banana skin
surplus to requirements

Dancing's for starlings and midges
electrons around a nucleus
girls around their handbags

I did my best dancing alone
my arms lifted above my head
in the dead of the night
to the orchestrations of the fridge

Rain. Snow. Mud. Jeans. Dog. Suds. 

I stir and stretch. Faster than the speed of sound, a heat-seeking missile attaches itself to my foot by its claws.  Good morning, Oleander.

We stole Pero's freedom and belatedly gave him a bridge.  It is bright and windy today.  The sharp salt smell of the sea laps up the river.  The same sea that Pero crossed to a cold grey land.  

Up the park a cockerel crowing. 
Wake up. Wake up. 
This is the rest of your life. 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

An Approximation

The second poem with a shiny sixpence all of its own is called 'An Approximation' and it's just been highly commended in the 2012 Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition.  It too will be published in the competition anthology 'tentatively entitled' 'The Genesis of Falcon and Other Winners'. 

Again, the desire to write this poem was knocking around for a long long time.  I adore the visionary artist and poet William Blake.  In particular, I am fascinated by a celebrated episode in his childhood.  I also knew I wanted to write a poem that ended with the words 'angels on Peckham Rye'.  I just needed a way into it, and eventually I found it.  

An Approximation

'Sauntering along,
the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels,
bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars'
                        from 'The Life of William Blake' by Alexander Gilchrist

Oh, there've been hints, intimations.
Cumbrous rustlings in twigs. A silvery
glister that might have been
more substantial than moonlight.

I've noticed drifts of feathers falling
from viridian fan-vaulting, 
heard gears creak
as flight machinery unfurls.

One morning
while I was out walking
I heard a lime at the roadside singing
It's a beautiful day.

OK, it wasn't the tree.
It wasn't an airy deity either
just dangling legs in scruffy jeans
and unlaced trainers.

I don't suppose
I'll ever witness an oak
list under a cargo 
of seraphim

yet late autumn days
out on the Levels
mistletoed trees in orchards flutter
star-scattered wings,

and as countless cacophonous voices fly
I might dream
an approximation of angels
on Peckham Rye.  

© Deborah Harvey 2012, 2013

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Broken Water

Two of my poems have gone out into the world recently and come home with shiny sixpences in their pockets.

The first one is called Broken Water and it was commended in the 2012 Barnet Open Poetry Competition. It will be appearing in the competition anthology in due course. 

I wrote it in September while sitting outside the Arnolfini in between sessions at the Bristol Poetry Festival. The process was quite quick, although I had wanted to write it for almost a year, ever since I encountered the Hindu Goddess of Never Not Broken, Akhiladeshvari.  I'd tried several times but I just couldn't find my way in until I sat at the dockside with my notebook and pen and three quarters of an hour on my hands.

                Broken Water

The floating harbour is dark
beneath its lustre.  September
slumbers into dusk.

The people around you drinking coffee,
that girl lounging on the pontoon
(the one in jeans

the pink of ice cream),  
her friend, and the doggedly
jogging man will soon

be making their journey home
to whatever awaits them. 
And you too will leave this moment,

return to the pieces of a life
that can never fit back together  
the way they did before.  

But for now sit. Watch the wind’s
fingerprints smudging the surface
of the Reach.

Resolve to remember
the mutable beauty
                of broken water. 

                                                                            © Deborah Harvey 2012, 2013

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Next Big Thing

David Clarke has kindly tagged me in an on-going project called ‘The Next Big Thing’. This involves writers answering a set of questions about a book which has been or is about to be published. They then tag other writers who keep the chain going.  If you follow the links up and down the chain, it will be like going on a jaunt without even leaving the settee. It turns out that my preferred tag-ees - Roselle Angwin and Alison Lock - have already done it: you can read their respective responses here and here

The book I’m going to talk about is my novel, ‘Dart’, a story about a family living on Dartmoor during the Black Death.  It’s due to be published on 4th February 2013 by Tamar Books, which is an imprint of Indigo Dreams Publishing.

1. Where did the idea for this book come from?

I have a passion bordering on obsession for Dartmoor and I think the idea came to me in snippets of information that I gleaned while reading up on walks that I was preparing to do.  For example, I was intrigued by the fact that there's an area at Merrivale known as Plague Market, where the townsfolk of Tavistock would collect food stuffs placed there by moor-dwellers during times of contagion, leaving money for what they took.  And that the crossroads called 'The Watching Place' outside Moretonhampstead is believed to have been so named because it's where villagers watched to see whether the inhabitants of a plague-affected longhouse were dead before burning it to the ground in an attempt to halt the spread of infection.  These details gradually coalesced inside my head into a story.  

2. What genre does your book fall under?

I suspect that it's a  novel for young adults first and foremost, but please don't tell my publisher, Ronnie Goodyer, because he doesn't publish children's books!  I think it kind of slipped in under the radar:  Ronnie and his partner, Dawn Bauling, were already publishing my collection of poetry, Communion, and since we had all bonded over our shared love of Dartmoor and border collies, I resolved to submit the requisite three chapters anyhow, in the hope that the location might blind him to what I believed my target audience to be.

That said, 'Dart' explores many themes which will also resonate with a more mature readership, such as coming to terms with loss; remembrance and continuity; finding one's voice; and the triumph of the spirit in times of adversity.  I like to think that it will also appeal to the crossover and/or reading group market.  And in any event, as Tolkien observed in 'On Fairy Stories', we impose a false dichotomy between adults and children in terms of story-telling and the use of the imagination. 

3. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Well, I'm sure Lauren Ambrose, who played Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, would make a fabulous red-haired witch!  Though to be honest, I feel it would be a mistake to cast stunningly beautiful Hollywood stars.  People just didn't look like that in England in 1348!  So I'd be on the look-out for ordinary people with interesting faces who could be dressed down a lot.  

4. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

And I thought writing a three page synopsis was hard enough!  Erm ... The End Of The World Is Nigh!

5. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

When I started writing it, my four kids were much younger and more demanding of time than they are now, so I had to fit my writing in around them and my part-time job. I'd try to set aside one day per week during term time for research - I did an awful lot of reading up to get the historical and geographical detail right - and writing.  (During the school holidays, when I couldn't write, I marched them over Dartmoor instead, checking out locations and mapping my characters' movements.)  I don't know about the first draft - I can't remember - but I do recall that it was seven years between the germination of the story and the point at which I felt it was ready to make its way in the world, several drafts later. 

6. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Dartmoor was a huge inspiration, as I've already mentioned.  I also wanted to write it for my inner seven year old, who wanted nothing more than to become an author when she grew up.  I'd lost track of her over the years and wanted to do something kind for her.

7. What else might pique the reader's interest?

Well, we're constantly being told by the media that we are overdue a pandemic.  If one actually comes along, it would increase my story's topicality no end!

8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

As I mentioned before, it's being published by Tamar Books.  As far as arranging readings goes, I'm the person to contact as I don't have an agent - in fact, I'd be surprised if any poets of my lowly stature do.  That's what I see myself as first and foremost - a poet who happens to have written a novel.  In fact, I'm putting together a putative second collection of poems right now and falling in love with the whole process all over again.  

 Illustrations by Dru Marland.


Friday, 18 January 2013

Dog In Snow

Snow is a rare phenomenon in Bristol so here's Ted having fun. Lots of photos of lots of fun.  And one that isn't of him at all.

White Fang

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Saturday, 12 January 2013

A New Year Jaunt Part III: Abergavenny

And so on to Abergavenny, a place I'd been to once before, briefly, aged about seven, my parents having decided to visit my sister's former teacher who had retired there.  I remember being amazed at the closeness of the mountains to the town; also, that the teacher was not at home.  No point looking for her now - she'll be long dead, and besides her name was Mrs Davies.

I liked Abergavenny, although the livestock market was on, which I had mixed feelings about, finding poor confused creatures distressing.   Apparently it will be moving before long to Raglan, and a Sainsburys will take its place which will make the town like everywhere else.

As luck would have it, the flea market was on so we had a good rummage about, Dru finding some lino cutting tools and John a rebate plane with lots of different blades in a wooden holder. I discovered a bargain Ola Gorie brooch to sell on eBay. (Or keep!) 

After lunch in the cafe, we had a wander around the castle, scene of the bloody Abergavenny Massacre in 1175 when William de Braose lured three Welsh princes and other Welsh leaders to their deaths.  According to the 16th century antiquary, William Camden, Abergavenny Castle  has been oftner stain'd with the infamy of treachery, than any other castle in Wales.  The 16th century historian, John Leland, declared that its very high walls were likely not to fall.  This was before the Civil Wars, of course.  

 From the castle we headed for the large and rather impressive Church of St Mary, which used to be a priory.

What it lacks in the way of charm it made up for with a huge number of mediaeval tombs of knights and their women.  Also, a massive wooden carving of Jesse, which once had a tree sprouting out of its middle.  

All this repose reminded me of the legend that Arthur and his men are not dead, just sleeping beneath the hill until Breteyne has need of them again.   South Cadbury Hill in Somerset is one of the purported sites, as is Alderley Edge in Cheshire. (Alan Garner relates this tale in his story 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen'.)  Another possible location is Craig-y-Dinas in the Brecon Beacons, not that far from this somnolent bunch, and I could well believe it.
God keeping a close eye on what Gabriel is about to do with that lily while he makes his Annunciation.   
Then our final stop, the 12th century Tithe Barn belonging to the priory -a discotheque in the 70s, it has now been turned into a Visitors Centre for the Church and houses the magnificent 24 feet wide Abergavenny Tapestry, which was stitched to mark the Millennium.

The first photo shows Jesse from the Church and Sugar Loaf Mountain.

A panorama of the town, and the inscription (can you inscribe in stitchery?) Once Enemies Now Friends.

A brooding Owain Glyndwr surveys the valley.  

And look, here's my Ted presiding over the Abergavenny Massacre. Yep, seems about right.  

Friday, 11 January 2013

A New Year Jaunt Part II: Mountains and Molehills

Stepping back out of St Ishow's Church into the churchyard, you are again swept up in the magnificence of the Grwyne Fawr valley.  It hasn't changed while you've been inside, it's just that you were so beguiled by the artifice of human beings, you forgot Nature's genius. 

Here's a reminder.

I loved this sheep with a black spot on its bum. 

The Churchyard was stuffed full of interesting gravestones.  I particularly liked this fallen angel with molehill ...
... and this spelling mistake, spotted by Dru.  
Oh, and this headstone also: A Man is born to dye
One thing that struck me was the number of plain yet beautifully lettered graves which resembled those in Mells in north-east Somerset.  It's almost as if the churchyards are twinned ... 

Robin Truelove, Partrishow                      Siegfried Sassoon, Mells

        gravestone, Mells                              gravestone, Partrishow

... or maybe both villages tend to attract well-heeled arty corpses.

After a good fossick around the churchyard, it was time to return to the well, the site (so the story has it) of St Ishow's martyrdom in (it is believed) the 6th or 7th century.  It's a peaceful spot nowadays.

Of course, springs were sacred long before the Christians came, as were yews.  I took a small chunk of wood from the yew stump up in the churchyard to lay with all the other votive offerings.

This is the well itself, with a pannikin hanging on one side and niches for offerings.    

Heading for Crickhowell, we stopped to see if we could capture a photo that replicated the vision of Dru's picture.  By scrambling over a barbed wire fence, Dru just about managed it.  Meanwhile, a pair of ravens chatted to each other over head.  Perfect.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A New Year Jaunt Part I: Church of Saint Ishow, Partrishow

The first jaunt of the New Year began with a fabulous picture painted by Dru Marland, of the Church of Saint Ishow (or Issui) at Partrishow in Powys, Wales.  

I fell in love with it at first sight and emailed a jpeg to my publisher, Ronnie Goodyer of Indigo Dreams. He replied that he used to live near there last century and often walked his dogs (seven border collies, if memory serves) in the valley.  He also sent a couple of verses of a poem he'd written about the church with its miraculously surviving rood screen.  The next day at Bristol Can Openers in its new venue of Foyle's, our guest, Graham Harthill, mentioned that he lived in the same area of Wales so I showed him the picture and he revealed that he had written several poems about this place I'd never heard of until a day or two earlier. 

All this synchronicity led me to deduce that the picture is, in fact, a map, and so a date for a jaunt was set with Dru and Bristol poet John Terry*.  Before I went, I even wrote a poem, which is strange because usually I like to dabble my toes in the waters of a place before turning my mind to writing.  I called the poem 'Map Reading for Beginners'.  

We had the most beautiful winter day for our journey, underlined by the sight of mist filling the Usk valley at Abergavenny.  We parked near the holy well and climbed the last steep part of the hill, as seemed appropriate for a pilgrimage.  The views across the valley were at once majestic and homely, with sheep having left their washing on the line.
Our first stop was the eglwys-y-bedd - or Church of the Grave - now a shrine to the Martyr Ishaw who is said to have been murdered by an ungrateful traveller at the Holy Well. Its considerable age is indicated by the most marvellously wonky window.  I also loved the graveslab of Elizabeth, the daughter of Thomas Sanders, who died the 9th day of December 1770 aged 28, because the smily angel at the foot is holding its wings in the shape of a heart. 

There are so many surviving treasures in the Church itself that it is almost impossible to know where to start. Yes, I could see the astonishingly beautiful rood screen, but there in the corner, shouting his head off, was mediaeval Death (or Doom), appropriately brandishing a scythe and egg-timer, and also a rather splendid shovel.  So he got my attention first.

Ah, but the rood screen ... so intricately carved yet so plain in its unvarnished, unpainted simplicity!  Being 16th century, it would have been modern when King Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries and his son's vandals carried out their Cultural Revolution, yet it survived both of them.  It survived the zealotry of the Roundheads.  It survived the depredations of Victorian 'restoration'.  I hope it can even survive my rubbish photography so you can get some idea of just how astounding it is.   Some of the ivy that had decorated the church over Christmas was still in place, giving the impression that to step through the opening was to enter a fairy-tale forest or Narnia. There were even dragons there.  

Beyond, a simple, light-filled chancel, with 18th century memorials featuring blowsy angels which could have been designed by Beryl Cook and a small print of William Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World', which echoed the Edwardian lantern atop the shaft of the mediaeval cross outside in the churchyard.  

There is so much here to delight that I could write reams. Already I'm going to have to divide the trip into several blogs.  So I'll just concentrate on the treasures which delighted me most and if I miss out something spectacular, like the rare 1620 Welsh bible or the plain and perfectly designed pulpit, then I apologise.  

This is the central lock on the parish chest which, unusually, is hollowed out of a tree trunk.

 John and Dru in the nave.

 One of the oldest fonts in Wales with an inscription of c1055.  

John studying the murals in the nave.

Forgot the cattle, dammit!

 More about Partrishow anon.

*Note to anyone who doesn't know him: this is the John Terry, not the footballer, obviously.