Sew it goes, embracing wonkiness

When I began these posts in the theme of Little Big Steps, little did I know how small my steps would become, how small the majority of our steps would be. A few days before lockdown, I took the risk of going to my oldest friend’s funeral. The advice on social distancing, at that time, was less stringent. And the sorrow we all felt at losing one of the kindest, loveliest people I have ever known led to grabs of hands, consoling hugs. Then, within days, a brother fell ill, then my husband, then me. Nearly 5 weeks into (probable) COVID-19, little steps are all I can take, still plagued by breathlessness and fatigue caused by the virus piling an extra bag of sticks onto the heavy bundle I always carry due to twenty years of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

This is the longest thing I have written in five weeks. I have had little energy and little desire to write. Some days, all I have written in my journal is the day and the date, trying to keep track of some measure of normality, to know where I am.

My creativity has gone in another direction, towards sewing, a little bit at a time, using remnants given to me just before lockdown, stored in a box that I received from my eldest daughter for Mother’s Day, when we went for a socially-distanced walk along the banks of the River Medway. My last proper outing before self-isolating.

I didn’t learn sewing at home. My mother was a furious knitter, clicking at speed in her armchair whilst simultaneously watching telly. I never got the hang of it, the tension either too loose or too tight, stitches dropped, wonky ‘squares’ abandoned on the needles. But I did like sewing, beginning with cross stitch on those stiff oblongs of fabric with large holes in them, at primary school, appliquéing a felt seahorse onto fabric that became a swimming bag when I was in top class.

Grammar school knocked some of the enjoyment of sewing out of me. Excellence, striving for perfection, that was how it was, for all topics, and I soon learned that you only got help with things if you were already really good at them. Why support the girl who was struggling with sewing in straight lines, the girl who managed to stitch the skirt she was making to the skirt she was wearing? Why help me when there was the brilliant sewer who was performing miracles with an embroidered, ruched bodice and puffed sleeves? That other girl could get an A in O-Level Needlework, whilst I would have the subject removed from my school timetable as exam year approached, along with Music, which I also loved. I would do much better in languages, was forced to do Latin to help with my French and German. After all, at Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls results were everything.

Whilst I had no help at school, rather stern looks and disappointment from the teacher, I took a full-length skirt I was making to Mrs Field, my church choir mistress, who lived in a ‘big house’ and not only had a sewing machine but a sewing room! Mrs Field and her daughter Rosemary spent hours with me, showing me how to convert yards and yards of material into a ruffle to go on the bottom of my maxi-skirt. Long stitches and careful and even gathering made a floor-sweeping triumph when I wore it to the next Irish dance at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. They had patience with me, gave me one-to-one attention, and never made me feel inept and stupid, like I did in Mrs Whatshername’s class at school.

I took up sewing again when my daughters were small. I left them in a crèche at South Greenwich Adult Education Institute whilst I joined a sewing class. I was in my early twenties, and most of the other women were in their forties, fifties and upwards. I learned a lot about the menopause in that class. But, mostly, I learned how to make clothes for my children, complicated soft toys (my Mickey Mouse was a great success, once I unpicked the tail I had mistakenly sewn on his front and placed it on his bum) and made patchwork panels, which were added to quilts that were raffled at the end of each term, a panel or two by each class member stitched together.

Sewing became my sanity and insanity. After the girls were in bed, I would work on ‘just one more square’ of a patchwork bedspread, which led to another, and saw me sitting up into the night. I still have that bedspread, some 35 years on, now a picnic blanket.

These days, my sewing has taken on a free-form aspect. From the years of accurate pattern-following and precision-cutting and stitching of formal patchwork, I have discovered crazy patchwork (quick and easy by machine) and folded patchwork (takes longer by hand, but it is forgiving to inaccuracy and mistakes).

A couple of months ago, I found a book in Oxfam, The Coats Book of Embroidery, from 1978. This is where I discovered folded patchwork, and I am learning new embroidery stitches, techniques like whipping and interlacing, adding different colours to the base stitches. I look at the diagrams, skim-read instructions, make my own wonky way, deciding on what I am making and how to make it, with what, long after I join the first two pieces of fabric. It is a lot like the way I write, never plotting or planning, not knowing how it will end. But it’s a heck of a lot less frustrating than writing. There are no abandoned drafts, though there has been some unpicking and restitching, much like editing a piece of writing. I now feel I can just enjoy sewing without Mrs Whatshername looking down her long nose, over the top of her glasses, when I was in Class 3M at Rosebery. As for making an embroidered, ruched bodice, I don’t care for it, actually. I am making a folded patchwork rainbow with wonky embroidery and experimenting with inlay appliqué, thank you very much. No-one will be marking it or inspecting it for faults. It will soon be hanging in my front window, along with the other rainbows and hearts in the street.

The importance of rituals, candles and dogs

I was raised Catholic, as was my best friend Karan. I loved the rituals of a Catholic service, the ‘smells and bells’, and the sung Latin Mass. I knew the meaning of the words long before I learned Latin, translations from the English prayers that we chanted each Sunday and at primary school on a daily basis. The chanting meant that we didn’t appreciate the meaning of the prayers, and this was highlighted for me once, when I went to Mass in Ireland, and the service was garbled by the priest and congregation in double-quick time. It felt like everyone had done their duty, and could then get on with cooking the Sunday lunch or whatever.

In my teens, I started to skip church, choosing to spend an hour with my boyfriend instead. Until I was discovered passionately kissing my boyfriend goodbye at a bus stop. Caught by my father, he said nothing at the time, or at any other time. It was passed to my mother to deal with the embarrassing incident. ‘Snogging’ was the word she used, with a facial expression of disdain, so that I have associated the word with ‘a bad thing’ ever since. So back to church I went. When I reached 15 and had a different boyfriend, I was not allowed to see him on a Sunday unless I had gone to Mass and eaten a roast dinner at home first. Mass meant nothing to me by then, and hadn’t done for some years, and when I turned 16, I stopped going to church.

What I have held onto, though, is the ritual of lighting a candle, either in a church, a cathedral, or at home, and ‘praying’, in my own way, for friends and relatives who I feel need positive thoughts. I have other rituals, too, of my own making. Whether these help the person concerned or myself I don’t know. Perhaps they are something I perform for my own benefit. I do feel that rituals and ways of marking change are important.

My mother died two years ago. We had been estranged for many years, and I did not feel I wanted or needed to go to her funeral. To put it plainly, the thought of doing so filled me with great anxiety. I knew that I would only be going to put on a show, to please those who thought I should be there. Grief is hard for everyone, but it is a strange thing when you have been estranged. I discovered that there has been some research on ‘disenfranchised grief’, where it feels, or other people feel, that you have no right to be bereaved. This can happen when an ex-spouse dies, for example. I did feel  alone in my grief, and different from my siblings who had remained in touch with our very difficult mother, and indeed cared for her in her later years. I decided to hold my own wake for Mum. A few friends attended, I read something I had written about my mum, others read poems and sang songs. There was food and drink. Although none of these people knew my mum (except my husband, who had met her briefly), it was tremendously supportive, and I did feel that I had made my own ritual to mark Mum’s death. I also lit a candle while her funeral service was happening, when I was at home.

Karan, my best friend from my childhood years, died this week. It had been expected for the past 10 months, but is nevertheless a huge blow. During her treatment for a brain tumour, I sent her a Dog of the Week every Saturday. Karan loved dogs, and it was a way of keeping things light, but letting her know that I was thinking of her. The rules I made were that each dog must be able to fit in an envelope and must be posted on a Saturday morning. Each week I searched for dogs in card and gift shops, or made my own – I made an origami dog, found a wooden key ring at a craft fair, and a small felt dog in a gift shop on Brownsea Island. In the cards I sent each week, I would make up a name for the dog and a little story about them, and repeat the same text every week at the bottom of the card: ‘Dog of the Week is brought to you, dear Karan, to cheer you on and cheer you up during treatment, by your old mate, Cookie.’ Cookie was a childhood nickname, which only Karan and my two brothers still used. Now there are only two people in this world that call me Cookie.

I sent the last Dog of the Week on a Friday rather than Saturday. Karan died 6 days before her 61st birthday, and I had already made a card with a patchwork dog on the cover. I decided to send it to her family, with a note. I shall miss the ritual of finding, making and naming dogs, of going to the postbox each Saturday to send them. I have been lighting candles at home for Karan all week. Soon, that ritual will end, too.

Do Less in 2020

New Year’s resolutions, made at the darkest time of the year, are usually about depriving yourself (of food, drink etc) or pushing yourself to work harder at something. Gym memberships rise in January, causing regular gym-goers to pray for February when their usual haunts will be empty again, and those NY-resolution-makers will be lighter of pocket, having signed up for something they can’t keep up.

How about making DO LESS your resolution for 2020? As part of my Little Big Steps project, celebrating small steps as achievements in themselves, or on the road to bigger things, this is my suggestion. I got the idea after reading an article by Mia Gallagher in The Stinging Fly, Issue 41, ‘Practice, Process, Product’, from a lecture delivered at the Bray Literary Festival in September 2019. Gallagher writes:

I’m often asked by people for feedback on how they should complete a book or other Thing they are making. I usually ask them how long they’ve been working on it, how much time they intend to spend every week or every day going forward, and for how long. When they tell me their targets, I nearly always suggest they do less […] Don’t put in four hours a day. Put in one, or if that’s too much, thirty minutes. Or twenty minutes, three times a week. Each time you turn up, you build up energy. It’s the decision to be there that feeds the flame, not how long you stay once you’ve arrived.

Unless you are contractually obliged to complete a piece of work, in any discipline, and to a deadline, this is advice well worth taking.

Challenges that feel like competitions

I am declaring myself against National Novel Writing Month, when writers commit to writing a novel in a month; I am also ambivalent about the Write a Poem a Day months. I have only tried the latter, rarely get beyond five poems drafted, and hardly ever write them on consecutive days. I have given up feeling a failure, as I drop out on the second week, and instead work up those few poems I have drafted, preparing them for submission. I don’t do challenges that feel competitive, though I do set challenges for myself.

Changing habits

Habits are good, as long as they don’t stifle you. Like football fans wearing the same lucky socks to matches, we writers can become stuck in our habits, superstitious about notebooks, pens, times of day to write. I used to write only in A5 spiral-bound notebooks, using a pencil. I used to write only in notebooks that were given to me. The two notebooks I am using at present – A5 spiral-bound for general journalling; A4 for planning and research – are working perfectly well, even though I bought them for myself. Several gifted notebooks, that are neither A5 nor spiral-bound, lie on my bookshelves, full of my words. I recently picked up a cartridge pen, which I had not used in a while. The ink had dried up. It took some time to change the cartridge and scribble until the ink flowed freely. I now use it every day, instead of writing in pencil. I don’t need to stop to sharpen it, and even writing a few lines a day keeps the ink flowing. I see this as a good metaphor for writing habits, or for any creative pursuit: keep going, even a little at a time, or it will take you a while to get moving again.

Discipline needn’t be daunting

Discipline is a good thing if you have a long project to complete, but the project need not take over your life. I had a conversation with John O’Donoghue, about his method for writing his award-winning memoir, Sectioned: A Life Interrupted. I was daunted by attempting to write my own memoir; it seemed like such a massive thing to work on. John told me that he looked on his memoir as writing 15 separate stories. As he finished each story, he mentally pinned it up alongside the others, like pegging washing on the line. He worked at producing 500 good words, three times a week. This seemed achievable for me, and I did produce over 20,000 words working in this way. My memoir is now abandoned, for complicated reasons, and I am not working on a long writing project at present. But the process and practice remain a good lesson for me, plus there will be parts of the longer work that I can repurpose, in time, as poetry, as fiction. Working in small chunks of time, of output, is far more effective than bashing away until exhausted, then needing to cut away most of the words from the first draft.

‘Writing is not the only thing you do’

On my desk, I have a weekly planner, where I note down all sorts of ‘things to do’ from household tasks, birthday cards to buy and send, to writing projects. I used to have a separate mind map for writing, but now all my life tasks are together. In On Writing, Stephen King says: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’ The most helpful thing said to me last year, just after I had abandoned writing my memoir and was floundering over what to write, was by my osteopath. ‘Writing is not the only thing you do,’ he said. I was  furious, at first. How could he not understand that I am a writer? But it’s not the only thing I do. By just living, looking around me, I slowly, slowly started on a new poem, about my neighbour’s garden, from short notes written over a week or so, on a notepad by my bed. Just a minute or so at a time, until the poem formed. By doing less, I began to do more.

 

Talking to strangers and travelling fearlessly

We are standing on the railway station in Sighișoara on a cold morning in April. It was 19 degrees the day before, as we wandered round the citadel, and now the temperature has dipped to 2 degrees. There is no indication of why the train is late, no announcement, nothing on the board. The train is coming from Vienna, so plenty of opportunities for delay, and our journey back to Bucharest will take five hours.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle

A small crowd of people cross the track to the warmth of the waiting room, either knowing something that we had been unable to discover about the delay, or being used to this sort of thing with Romanian trains. The six of us left on the platform decide to follow them. We are a party of three, and then there is an older couple from Belgium, plus a young man with a rucksack, travelling alone. ‘Shall we dance?’ I say, in an effort to keep warm. The Belgian woman laughs, and joins me in a few steps. Her husband has hair the colour of the glacial water in the mountain streams that we have seen from train windows on our journeys through Transylvania. The couple intended to go to the Black Sea, but with the turn in the weather, they are heading for Brașov. The young man is touring fortified churches, and hiking when the weather allows. He tells us of a place in Moldavia he has visited. ‘It’s like a living museum,’ he says. ‘The people live in wooden huts built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s really hard to get there by public transport.’ It transpires that the young man is also Belgian. He and the couple are from the same village, but have never met before.

A sudden chime from the speakers, like an Alpine tune played on handbells. Our train is arriving in three minutes. The locals have already gathered this, ahead of the announcement, and have crossed to Linia 2. This is a theme throughout the trip: foreigners are just supposed to know, in the way Romanians know – where to find a kiosk to buy bus tickets, when trains are late. There is little information for tourists.

This is me, travelling fearlessly, with my husband and my friend. A pledge I took in my sixtieth year, to do sixty things for the first time, with a running theme of going to places I hadn’t been to before. All my life I have been fearful of travelling. My parents had migrated from Ireland to England, and the only trips I knew, growing up, were the long journey by rail, sea, bus and taxi to County Clare each summer, and the occasional journey to the Sussex coast. I had my children young, then had little money, and it seemed the opportunity to travel had passed me by.

Romania was quite a challenge, but I was attracted by a non-touristy destination, and by the fact that my brother’s boyfriend is Romanian, the two of them having made a similar trip through Transylvania. I was able to get advice from them – on how to buy bus tickets and train tickets (no point getting an Interrail card, as trains are dirt cheap in Romania), on bringing food for long train journeys, as there is no buffet. I learned some Romanian through an app, Duolingo, which taught me many useful phrases, such as ‘You are men. You have children,’ and ‘The owl eats insects.’ My friend, armed with a Berlitz phrasebook, and I, armed with six weeks on Duolingo, managed to negotiate buying train tickets and ordering food in Romanian, and even my reluctant husband ordered a taxi and learned how to say ‘Multumesc’ (‘Thank you’).

The memories I hold of that trip are not only of visits to castles, the beautiful scenery, of storks in flight and nesting alongside railway lines, but of the conversations with strangers. On a train journey, Teodora, a medical student on her way to university in Cluj Napoca, told us of her parents’ experiences, living in the time of communism, when they had to get up at 4.00 a.m. to queue for one loaf of bread for the week for the family. She explains why the younger people speak good English, but the older ones were only taught Romanian and Russian in the time of Ceaușescu, which explains why we have trouble conversing with older taxi drivers and people on buses. Nonetheless, the older Romanians we encounter are willing to show us how to stamp our bus tickets, and to reassure us that we are travelling in the right direction. There is friendliness and good-naturedness all round.

The Belgian couple we meet on the train platform think we are Romanians, at first. Coming towards the end of our stay, we no longer look like bewildered tourists, and I am no longer a fearful traveller.

Invicted – a guest post by SM Jenkin

I invited SM Jenkin to share her poem ‘Invicted’, as it lends itself to the theme of Little Big Steps. I know SM as Sarah – we were sister Medway Mermaids, part of a women’s writing group, and also share the experiences of being second-generation Irish women and living in the Medway Towns.

‘Invicted’ appears in her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head, published last year by Wordsmithery. It was also published in the anthology Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, a fundraiser for the UK mental health charity Mind, and runner up for Best Anthology at the Saboteur Awards, 2018.

Invicted

Victory
is getting out of bed, even though
it is past noon and everyone walking past
has seen that your curtains are
still closed

Victory
is having curtains in the first place,
and a net behind them, and
space to put them up and
keeping them there

Victory
is those sharp clean teeth and that cereal
that you swallow down and keep down
and the milk that is still OK to drink,
today

Victory
is remembering that above those sharp
teeth are lips that kiss, that shape
soft words:
you are allowed

Victory
is those clothes that keep you warm,
and those matching yellow socks
that remind you of
summer beaches

Victory
is making it beyond the chipped
front door today, and staying put
when they walk past, and see
right through you

Victory
is not telling them to go
fuck themselves, because really.
Who knows what their victory looks like;
is it anything like yours?

Victory
is going to bed and staying there,
not knowing if tomorrow is going to
be a victory day and
doing it anyway

____________

Over to Sarah, to tell us how she came to write ‘Invicted’:

‘Invicted’ was written as I reached one of the lowest points of my life, a culmination of what felt like a relentless conga-line of hurt and humiliations, large and small, and a couple of major health scares. It became difficult to get out of bed, to have any kind of energy at all; I didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere. It became hard to find anything to celebrate when it seemed like everyone else was surging ahead in their lives, and posting such happy pictures online. I was isolated and not meeting anyone. My life seemed small and grey in comparison. So, to compensate, I wrote myself a checklist for myself of the things I was able to do and why this was important. It started off more as a way of reassuring myself that I was managing to do something, to remind myself that I was doing something. That, yes, getting out of bed was an achievement. Yes, staying in the outside world once you managed to get there was an achievement. Yes, now that you’ve seen this you can celebrate and recognise that this is, after all, a common and shared life experience. That we do not know what other people’s victories look like.

I wrote that poem because shaping the words helped me to shape my understanding, and how important it is to recognise those small steps of achievement. Writing that poem became an achievement for me, and sometimes, when the bad days return, I can say to myself, Victory is getting out of bed. There’s still a hangover that any talk about weakness is not the done thing. I’m a poet. I’m not always going to stick to the done thing, especially now.

It was important to me to make a reference to HMS Victory, the ship built at Chatham dockyard, where my dad worked.

It feels to me that there is still a macho hangover in some parts of Medway. An idea that a victory is something that has a very narrow definition,  only applying to “wins” such as a conflict (large or small), a business win, a football match.  I wanted to explore and expand that definition for myself. That winning mindset is hard to shake off.

SM Jenkin is a second-generation Irish writer, a lover of science fiction and an editorial advisor for Confluence magazine. A former chair of the Medway Mermaids writing group, chair and founder member of the Medway St Patrick’s day committee, SM Jenkin is a regular performer on the Kent Live Lit scene. She has performed internationally, and has been published in numerous literary anthologies and magazines. Her debut poetry collection Fire in the Head was published by Wordsmithery in 2018.

Social media: @sajenks42  https://www.facebook.com/SMJenkinWriter

Little Big Steps, taking the first step

Since my last post, I have come up with a name for my project, which celebrates small achievements as good things in themselves, or as steps on the road to bigger things. The name is Little Big Steps – so far so good.

I had thought that this could become a book, or that I could start a new blog – something big. But the whole idea is to celebrate the small. So I am choosing not to follow one of the habits of highly effective people, as outlined by Steven Covey: ‘Begin with the end in mind’. (From The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Starting with something big in mind might mean that you never get started at all. It all becomes too daunting.

I have been thinking about how I get started on my writing, how I got started in the first place, nearly 20 years ago, when I was very ill and had severely limited energy. It started with a notebook, a gift from a friend. I wrote a little poetry in the notebook each day, typed it up the next day, edited it another day. Twenty minutes at a time was all I could manage. The writing was enough in itself, without thinking where it might lead to.

There are Boats on the Orchard, my latest publication, was not the result of starting with the end in mind. I was living in a house that backed onto a disused orchard, in a village that had been a major fruit-growing area; the orchards now disappearing or in decline. I had finished a story collection, which I had been writing for five years (also not started with a book in mind – a pair of stories sharing characters, which accidentally grew). I was not sure what to do with myself. I had a quote pinned above my desk, about when you finish a long writing project, it is as if you are falling from a tree, hitting off every branch as you come down.

It was a kind of bereavement, after living with those characters for so long. And after a bereavement, you have to carry on every day, putting one foot in front of the other. Putting new words on the page, even if they seem slight, even if it seems they won’t lead anywhere. So I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, and things I noticed as I walked the local orchards. Over time, those poems grew into something bigger – a commission for Wandering Words followed, and eventually a pamphlet, working with Sara Fletcher to produce images to illustrate the poems. It had long been an ambition of mine, to collaborate with an artist, and all this grew from seemingly slight scribblings in a notebook.

I guess the point of this is, you don’t have to begin with the end in mind. Just take a step and see where it leads you. For the time being, I have a name – Little Big Steps – and I have begun a new notebook, one that I have been saving for a while. I am jotting ideas, copying quotations from books and articles, and I have already asked a guest writer if she would like to share a poem of hers on this website, which fits the theme. More soon…

Small steps to a bigger world

Twenty years ago I walked out of the charity where I worked, never to return. Someone had given me permission to do so. A stranger, a counsellor with Victim Support, whom I not only told about the shock of my car being set on fire, but spilled all the awful things that had happened in the previous year. Not least of these was my deteriorating health, and an intolerable work situation. I had gone off sick the previous year, for 3 months, and returned sooner than I should have done, under pressure from the board of trustees, and because of my own wish to ‘get back to normal’. I returned with promises of more support and a reduced workload. This did not happen. The stress piled up, and my underlying health problems became more prominent. But I felt responsible, knowing how the charity had struggled with my earlier sickness absence, so I struggled on, until I came to a halt.

I do not remember the name of that Victim Support counsellor, nor what she looked like; just her words. ‘You don’t have to go back in that place,’ she said. ‘You never have to go back.’

My world became small. I had hoped, after a few weeks recovery, that I could apply for another job, resume my life, but weeks became months became years. My functioning was severely reduced, physically and mentally, and although I have improved since those early years, my life remains restricted by low energy, mental tiredness and physical pain.

I am telling this story, as I am approaching a milestone – my 60th birthday. That day I walked out of the office for the last time, twenty years ago, I was a couple of months short of my 40th. A third of life has been restricted by illness. My small world has only become a little larger in those twenty years, and this has only happened because of small steps.

There is a lot of emphasis on big achievements in the media – I remember a TV programme where people with mental health problems were supported and encouraged to run a marathon. Some of them achieved it, but I recall a man whose anxiety was so great that even leaving the house was too much for him. He tried in the early stages of the programme, but dropped out of the big run. He had achieved something big, just giving it a go, just leaving the house. Of course, showing him leaving the house and walking to the shops and back would not have made great television. The runners receiving medals and being hugged by Nick Knowles were what the viewers wanted to see.

I don’t want to totally put down what that programme achieved. My daughter was inspired by it, and took up running as a result. I am very proud of her for doing so, and for completing the Great North Run. But what about those of us that can’t run? Can’t run at all, let alone attempt a marathon?

My small steps over the past twenty years have led me to do bigger things. Taking up part-time study, leading to an MA in Creative Writing, started with little bits of writing, small sessions of researching funding for my fees, short sessions of filling out application forms over several days. It took a year for me to recover enough energy to attend a two-hour class once a week: my first writing course. And there were backward steps, during my MA course, when I had to get extensions for assignments due to my health.

I was inspired in recent days by a friend who is fundraising, asking for sponsorship as she loses weight and gains fitness. Her goal is to achieve this in small steps – walking to the shops instead of driving, taking her dog for longer walks. How fabulous, I thought. No marathon to run, no mountain to climb; just everyday things.

I thought, then, of friends whose lives are limited by illness, and others who find achieving big goals too daunting to embark upon. Of how to celebrate their small steps, their achievements. I think this could become bigger – a book, a blog, an inspiration for others. Watch this space as ideas come together.

Meanwhile, I am working towards doing 60 things for the first time. These range from visiting all of Kent Country Parks to travelling through Transylvania by train, which I did in April of this year: ‘Travelling Fearlessly’. For someone who barely left the house twenty years ago, it’s some achievement.

On stealing shiny words and walking into gunpowder smoke


I have two conditions that force me into solitude – one is chronic illness, and the other is being a writer. I don’t want to push the tortured artist thing, or the tortured sick person thing, but I do spend a lot of time alone. I don’t have consumption and live in a garret – it’s a comfy 1960s semi, actually, and my husband is often upstairs in his study in the smallest bedroom, and would come to my aid if I needed company or help, often summoned by the magic of WhatsApp if I’m too tired to climb the stairs.

Oare Gunpowder Works: a bridge beneath which only Borrowers could pass

I have been brought out of solitude by working on collaborative projects. The first was being one of a group of artists chronicling a year in the life of Rainham Community Orchard. We mostly worked alone, making our visits to the orchard: sketching, taking photographs, writing down lines of poetry, but some of my visits were with Sara E. Fletcher, who was to work on ceramics, some of which ended up with the words from my poems on them, and those of Stephy Stanton. Sara and I also met away from the orchard, to spark ideas off one another, which changed my words and inspired her work. During our walks in the orchard – on a windy February day, and again in September on one of the pick-your-own-apples days – I noticed things that I would not have done so if walking alone, and Sara could always be relied upon to identify plants and wildlife. The weeds I called ‘tall yellow flowers’ were Oxford ragwort, and both definitions ended up in a poem.

Walking with someone you have not walked with before, even in a familiar place, brings new insights. I did so with Anna Bell, ‘Anna Outdoors’, when she asked me to write a poem for children about Oare Gunpowder Works, near Faversham. For eight years, I lived close to the woods in which the ruins of the gunpowder works stand. I walked there alone, I walked with my husband, I was an ‘Artist in the Woods’, at their annual event, for a couple of years. And yet, with Anna, new revelations came to light – a low bridge over a leat (a waterway built to transport goods around the site, on powder punts), which Anna said would only allow Borrowers to pass beneath; the scribblings of bark beetles on a moss-covered log; the two-tone moan of industry from the other side of the road that borders the woods.

Anna, like Sara, knows things about nature. Her experience added to my inspiration, her words became mine in the poem (poets are magpies, we steal shiny things and claim them as our own). Anna talked of the ‘chattering of bats’, and that phrase was too good to let go.

As a child, I spent a lot of time on Epsom Common. I was a member of ‘The Red Pea Club’, named after the berries of the hawthorn tree in the alleyway near to our house. We had a club song, ‘Acorn’s the Word’, and a tree that we claimed as our own, The Dragon, which had branches that were wings and a tail, and a ‘cockpit’ from which to steer the dragon’s flight. I couldn’t tell you what sort of tree the dragon was, nor could I have named a hawthorn. I knew the ferns, the blackberries, and the wild golden rod that flourished on the Common, and the lilies of the valley that grew in our garden, but that was the limit of my knowledge of the names of plants and trees. Lost Words? I never knew them.

Back to the walk in the woods with Anna. She was keen for me to emphasise the sensory details in my poem, both of the Gunpowder Works as they are now, and as they were when the site was a factory, producing the black powder for the munitions industry. A friend told me that someone we both know has a licence to make gunpowder, so Anna and I visited Dave Lamberton at his Faversham home, where he fired a pistol in his garden, so I could experience the smell of gunpowder smoke. I stepped out from his kitchen to the garden, walked into the cloud of smoke – nothing at first, then in the nose, then down the back of the throat and onto the tongue, a bitter tang. The smell hung in my hair for the rest of the day. And all for one word in my poem, ‘The Gunpowder Spell’.

So, what have I learned? Writing is not just sitting alone with a notebook. It’s about walking and talking with others, with those whose experience is different from yours, and it’s about stealing – taking shiny words, storing them in your nest, then sharing them with others.

More about Anna Bell here: Anna Outdoors 

More about Oare Gunpowder Works.

More about Rainham Community Orchard.

On rereading (or just reading) A Kestrel for a Knave

A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines, was first published in 1968, and the Ken Loach film, Kes, came out the year after. I don’t remember if I read the book or saw the film first. As I read, scenes from the film played in my head. I now wonder if I read the book at all, or just saw the film. I was rereading (or perhaps just reading) A Kestrel for a Knave, for a writing and wellbeing event. We were asked to bring along a book on the theme of nature or ecology; one that meant something to us. I am sure that this book brought about my lifelong love of birds of prey.

A Kestrel for a Knave is about the transformation of a boy’s life through raising a hawk – Kes. Billy Casper lives in a mining town in Yorkshire with this mum and brother. His father has left home, and Billy no longer sees him. Billy is coming up to school-leaving age, which was 15 in those days. He is expected to work down the mine, as most lads who go to his school end up doing; Billy’s brother Jed is a miner. But the only thing Billy is interested in is his kestrel.

Billy is no saint. He steals Kes from a nest, and when he tries and fails to borrow a book on falconry from the library, he goes to a bookshop and steals a book instead. This is a child who can barely read and write, yet he teaches himself the art of falconry from this book.

A Kestrel for a Knave is filled with the language of nature. At school assembly, hymn books ‘bloomed white across the hall as they were opened.’ At a football match, Billy is described as ‘growling like a little lion’, and the other boys as ‘ a herd of multi-coloured cross-breeds gambolling around the ball.’

Cinematic descriptions, with an all-seeing eye narrating, made the book just right for translating into a motion picture. An omniscient narrator is frowned upon in current fiction-writing, but Barry Hines does it so well. The voice does not feel all-knowing; it’s just that there is no singular point of view. And the reader can easily picture the settings, action and people.

The scene I remember most is in the classroom, where Mr Farthing is leading a session on fact and fiction. He asks the boys to tell true stories, and the first boy leads with a tale of filling wellies with tadpoles and then putting them on. The other boys then encourage Billy to talk about his hawk. Billy holds the class and the teacher in rapture as he talks about Kes. This is a boy who is seen as unintelligent, a write-off, but here he is, an expert on falconry. The boys are then asked to write a tall story. Billy’s, poorly written in terms of spelling and grammar, describes an evening where his father is living back home. They go to the cinema as a family, and have fish and chips on the way home. It’s heartbreaking. What should be an ordinary account of family life might just as well be a fairytale.

Of course, the book does not end well. Billy takes money, meant to place bets on behalf of his brother, and spends the cash. Both horses win, and Jed would have won a tidy sum. Enough to take a week off work. Unable to catch Billy, Jed tries to take Kes from the shed where Billy keeps him, and inadvertently kills the bird. 

The edition I read was published in 1998, thirty years after the book was first published. There is an afterword by Barry Hines. Hines went to a grammar school; his brother to a secondary modern, like Billy. He talks about the divisions this caused, with children condemned as less intelligent, less worthy. Billy is seen as a failure, but, ‘If there had been a GCSE in Falconry, Billy would have been awarded an A grade, which would have done wonders for his self-confidence and given him a more positive self image.’

I have written previously about the divisions of the school system, my own experience of grammar school, while my sisters were sent to secondary moderns. I can see why Ken Loach picked up this book so readily and made it into a film that tells so much about class divisions and education.

A Kestrel for a Knave is well worth rereading (or reading for the first time?). Next for me is to watch the film Kes again.

A well-turned ankle – thinking about feet and walking

I have just finished reading Baggage, A Book of Leavings, by Victoria Field. A memoir of walking the Camino de Santiago as a way of reflecting on and recovering from the end of a marriage. Earlier this year, a friend rang to say that he was going to be walking the Camino, or part of it, as he only he had two weeks in which to do so. ‘Are you going to find yourself?’ I asked, only half joking. This friend had been through a major health scare in the previous year, as well as his wife’s treatment for breast cancer the year before. He needed this trip. I followed his progress on Facebook, recognising the pain of blisters and fatigue, but also with envy. I couldn’t ‘do’ the Camino, unless someone offered to carry me in a sedan chair or on the back of a motorbike.

I realised that I had to make changes, make my own pilgrimage. And I keenly felt my inability to walk far, how I still miss going out for a trek 19 years into an illness that ‘put a halt to my gallop’, as my mother used to say. My mother died earlier this year. One of those things that makes you stop and reflect on your life. In the past two years, I have moved house, my husband had a heart attack, and I have lost a friend of a similar age to me. Lost as in died: let’s not sugarcoat it. I also lost the ability to write for a long time – now happily returning to me like an old friend whose company I have missed, but who often annoys the hell out of me.

Whilst reading Victoria Field’s book, I have thought a lot about feet as well as walking. There is a pilgrim with boots made especially from a mould taken of their feet, who nonetheless finds himself in excruciating pain. There are blisters, feet with flayed skin, and an account of a man who devotes himself, unpaid, to tending the feet of pilgrims by the side of the road. Before her pilgrimage, Victoria decides on a pair of ‘cheap and nasty’ boots that she has been wearing long before her trip, rather than shell out hundreds of pounds on a ‘good pair’, and these boots serve her well.

Maria at college, in her walking days

I have been writing recently about the difficulty of finding physical and psychological space, living in a large family in a small house when I was growing up. And I realised that I found that space when walking. It was always with a purpose, rather than going out for a stroll – to work; my Saturday job in Woolworth’s, or to college when I decided to leave the grammar school and go to an FE college to take my A-Levels. The school was yards from my house, and I had never experienced the bus journeys to school of my classmates, having also lived within a short walk of my primary school. When I told my mum that I was leaving the sixth form, during the first weeks of term, she firmly said that she would not pay my bus fares to college, so I walked at least one way every day – some three miles. I did this in plimsolls or flip-flops when it was warm enough to wear them. I had never had fitted or expensive shoes, and there was no question of buying good walking boots.

I got a certain rhythm whilst walking, and would pride myself on how far along the road I got before a bus passed me. Neighbours would often say that they had seen me ‘going hell for leather’ as they had passed on a bus. It was the only space I had to myself, between home and work, home and college, and I often walked late at night, coming back from parties or nights out. I was only ever bothered once, during these late walks, by some lads at the hot dog stand in town, and when one came over to me, I just mentioned my older brother’s name, hoping that they might know him, and was left alone to continue my journey.

Into my twenties and thirties, I continued to walk with a purpose, and found, after my marriage had broken up, that walking by the river and across the Rochester Bridge would help me to sort out things in my head. My body would loosen, my mood lift, and more often than not, something I had been trying to figure out would resolve itself as I walked.

Then illness struck and, slowed to a snail’s pace, I still walked until I reached a point of near collapse, like when marathon runners hit a wall, except the distance I covered was minimal. I was deprived of my way of creating space for myself, solving problems, feeling better. I dreamed of it still, of running for a bus, of walking, jumping, skipping.

I am treating my toenails at present. Stripped of their summer clothes of brightly-coloured varnish, I am tackling the thick and discoloured nails with a twice-daily lotion, applied like nail varnish with a brush. I have noticed that the nails on my right foot grow faster than those on my left. I have noticed the stripes on my feet from wearing the same sandals all summer: two broad white strips across the lightly tanned skin. The second toe on each foot is longer than the big toe. Someone once told me this is a sign of being psychic. My feet are quite long and slender, and I like the look of them. I think of the phrase ‘a well-turned ankle’. I think it was used at a time when women showed little of their legs, and a flash of an ankle could drive a man, or woman, to desire.

My ankle was well-turned in a fall down the steps of the house I used to live in. I sprained the ligaments in my left foot, which swelled up and turned from black to blue to yellow as the bruising progressed. This was some fifteen years ago, and I still get pain in that foot, that ankle, from time to time.

I no longer wear plimsolls or flip-flops. A year ago, I decided to take better care of that foot and ankle, and to buy better shoes. I spent £80 on a pair of comfortable yet stylish shoes, which are serving me well. My feet deserve it.

As for a pilgrimage, walking the Camino is not for me, but I am going to do some travelling in my sixtieth year. By train, mainly. I never had a gap year as a teenager, never went interrailing or grape-picking, and have seen little of the world. My aim, as part of my Sixty Firsts, is to ‘travel fearlessly’. The trips may be short and not as ambitious as others might undertake, but I shall be broadening my world, flexing my feet, and showing a well-turned ankle..

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