Category: Nature writing

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.

Nostalgia – a longing for a past that is not our own

“I heard the news today, oh boy…” of the death of George Martin. The cacophony at the end of The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ is magnificent, and I was hoping to hear that; the track that BBC 6 Music chose to play first, though, was ‘In My Life’, a nostalgic song.

I have been thinking about nostalgia recently, with the loss of so many of my cultural heroes this year. Also, because I was involved in the production of a poetry collection about the experiences and memorials of soldiers in World War I – Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen by Vanessa Gebbie. It’s an immensely moving collection, which brought me to tears more than once as I was editing it. It has also brought a rush of responses from readers, the poems resounding with their own family histories. It’s interesting to me, as it is a kind of removed history. My parents arrived in England from Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and although my father arrived in 1944, and later did National Service in England, Ireland was neutral during the war. My family’s war experiences were different from those of an English, or in Vanessa Gebbie’s case, Welsh, family.

There is a photograph that sits on the cover of my cousin’s pamphlet, The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918, by Guss O’Halloran. It is of Pte Patrick O’Halloran, 1st Battalion Connacht Rangers, saying goodbye to his sister Bridget and mother Mary at Ennistymon Railway Station early in 1914. He died at the 2nd battle of Ypres the following year. It is an intensely moving picture. Bridget is avoiding Patrick’s gaze as they hold hands; he is leaning out of the train window, she is on the platform. Patrick looks a lot like my cousin Guss. Mary’s face is obscured by Bridget, though her sorrow must have been as great. Guss has written ‘The Last Goodbye’ across the photograph. It can be viewed, along with the pamphlet, as a PDF on the Clare Library website: The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918

I didn’t know these people, nor know of them till recent years. Nor did I know of the part that Irish soldiers played in the conflict until I read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And being raised in an Irish family in England, I was steeped in  nostalgia that was not from my own past, my own experiences. When Irish friends and family came round, there would be singing and the playing of records of sentimental songs about Ireland; the homesickness in the room would be palpable. An immense sadness, a longing for their homeland. It is not surprising that the origin of the word nostalgia is expressed in terms of pain. From the Concise OED:

Nostalgia – n. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past … acute homesickness, from the Greek nostos “return home” and algos “pain”.

We are suckers for nostalgia, from the ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On posters to Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. I must confess to watching the latter – largely undemanding, at times moving, and depicting the time when I was born and was an infant. It does feel like my past – the clothes the children wear being those I see in old photos of me and my family.

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

I am currently working on a poem based on a photo of a boy to whom I have no connection. A friend pointed it out to me on Facebook, knowing that I have been writing about the decline of the orchards in Kent. I have had some contact with the person that posted it – it’s of her uncle as a child, leaning on a cherry ladder in the now-felled orchard down the road from where I live. It was taken sometime between 1914 and 1920, she thinks, and I became a little obsessed with finding out about him. His history is not mine, nor the history of the orchards. I only moved to this part of Kent in 2008. It is not as if I grew up with the sight of sheep grazing beneath fruit trees, nor did my family occupy cherry orchards for a few weeks each summer to pick the fruit. Yet I am sad that these things are disappearing.

I wonder what it would be like to live in the present, to be concerned only with what is going on now, not to pine for a past that is not mine, not ours.

I do think that being an outsider helps us to see things more clearly, to record them. Being neither fully Irish nor English has given me an outsider’s view, standing aside and watching, not fully engaged with a nostalgia that is not mine to own.

Walking, walking; writing, writing

On a cold Valentine’s evening, in a room above a pub where the old sash windows didn’t quite close, I heard Katherine Pierpoint and John Gallas read poetry. The week before, I went to the University of Kent to hear Katharine Norbury read from The Fish Ladder, her superb memoir, which was one of my favourite reads of 2015. What links all three, and got me thinking, is that travelling inspires their writing.

Katherine Pierpoint talked about winning a Somerset Maugham Award, which had to be spent on travelling, then read some poems, and recounted some tales, from her trips to India and Egypt. John Gallas – well, he just keeps moving, and the poems he read ranged from New Zealand to The Alphabet of Ugly Animals, which he wrote after seeing an exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. He has also worked on a book of translated poems from around the world, The Song Atlas, and read one from Tanzania.

Katharine Norbury walked and walked from the sea to the source of water. Will Self, he’s another one: walking, walking; writing, writing. And I wondered if there was something missing from my experiences, from my writing, because I haven’t been very far at all.

My writing came from enforced inactivity. It started a year into my illness, at a time where I hardly left the house. Journeys were short, and the I was only able to be away from the house for an hour or two. This is still the case, sixteen years on. I haven’t spent a night away from home in a year. I nearly did – to go away to a wedding – but I crashed the day before, and knew I couldn’t make the journey.

Yesterday, I went on a short trip alone. A ten minute walk to the station, a train ride of less than half an hour, and a wander round Rochester, where I used to live. It’s familiar, yet changing. The shops change ownership, a cafe where I used to write every Sunday morning has changed names twice since I moved away, and has knocked through to the next shop. Even the railway station has moved a few hundred yards from the old one, which stands strangely empty as we roll towards the new one, the waiting rooms and shelters levelled, just a sign saying ‘Do Not Alight Here’.

The wild orchards near Newington

I am not alone often when I go out, but felt the need to undertake this bold expedition by myself. I notice things more when I am not in company. The wild orchards that border the track between Newington and Rainham; the passenger waiting on the platform in a thick puffa jacket, glasses tinted black on a bitterly cold day; a little girl in the next toilet stall with her mum, telling on Leah, who had ‘pulled all the tissue out and just thrown it on the floor, and that was a waste of tissue, wasn’t in Nanna?’ Nanna was in the next stall along from her. The small child in the Oxfam shop, who declared she was going to ‘inspect stuff’: ‘Hmm, this a very comfy chair’. How different the Cathedral looks from the platform of the new station, the perspex and metal shelters on the opposite platform obscuring the view. How cold the fingers of my right hand, texting my husband to ask him to pick me up at the station on the way home.

At the weekend, I’d heard Guy Garvey on the radio, at the BBC 6 Music festival, talking about living in New York for a year, and how being away had fed his songwriting. Again, the importance of travel to an artist. I listened to Guy Garvey’s solo album on my iPod on the way back from Rochester. I’d heard it a few times at home, whilst on my computer, my phone, reading, talking to my husband. I hadn’t really heard it at all. On the train, it was just me and Guy and the music, and staring out of the train window.

Perhaps it’s being alone that creates the experience, and travelling doesn’t need to be that far. My orchard poems, on Wandering Words, and new ones being written, started when I felt bereft after finishing my story collection. I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, as a filler-in thing, till the next writing project found me. They became that project. Like the shops and cafes of Rochester, the orchards are changing, disappearing. Here is a new poem – or perhaps two, about the boats that are docked on the orchard that backs on to our garden.

Dry Dock

A catamaran

upturned on trestles

a milk jug draining

ii

And now there are three

hour     minute     second     hands

stilled round the dead tree

 

Photo by Stephen Palmer

On a car ride from Faversham to home, I was shocked to see that most of an old cherry orchard had been chopped down; the second such orchard that has disappeared in the last two years. Last summer, we bought cherries from a stall in that orchard. A young woman was selling them, her toddler in a playpen under a tree, and a babe in arms, just ten days old. We asked what kind of cherries we bought each time – Napoleon Biggereau, Sunburst, Merton Glory. We bought some on the very last day the stall was open, on my way to an event where I read my poem ‘Know your cherries’. I used them as a prop, then shared them with my granddaughter. She accepted them silently, seriously, while the other poets read. The juice dripped down her chin.

Orchards and the A2 – writing for Wandering Words

No entry - orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

No entry – orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

A couple of months ago, an email arrived in my inbox, asking if I would like to write something for a new website called Wandering Words. Wandering Words is an Ideas Test project, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival, to put the written word on the map in Swale & Medway.

One of twelve writers tasked with ‘site-specific writing’, my given subject was the A2, which I could respond to in any way I liked. The only provisos were that I should spend at least three days ‘on site’, should encourage the participation of the people of Medway and Swale, and I had about six weeks to complete the writing.

I live on the A2, on London Road, Teynham, and I had already been working on some poems about the orchards that surround us. I am fascinated that Richard Harrys, fruiterer to King Henry VIII, lived in Teynham, and established the ‘chief mother of all orchards in England’, in and around the village. Initial research revealed that the Faversham Fruit Belt, which Richard Harrys began, stretched from Rochester to Canterbury, following the route of the old Roman road. In fact the first cherry trees in England grew as the result of Roman legions spitting out cherry stones as they marched.

For several weeks in March and April I could be seen hanging around in orchards (wandering lonely as a cloud?) gathering material for writing, taking photos, waiting for the blessed blossom to come out (two and a half weeks late this year, I was told), and talking into a borrowed iPhone to make audio recordings.

I made a couple of trips up and down the A2 with a photographer friend, Stephen Palmer, looking for orchards – both commercial and old, abandoned ones. It was the latter that interested me most, our best find being a disused orchard near Newington, which people pass by every day without even seeing. I documented a favourite walk, starting and ending on the A2, going up Cellar Hill, taking public footpaths along by orchards and down Nouds Lane. It’s amazing what new things you can notice, even on familiar walks.

I interviewed several people – a cherry farmer who I met at a farmer’s market; Pam Talbot, who used to pick cherries with her family in the 1960s and ’70s; an older neighbour, about his life travelling up and down the A2 for work, his memories of the road, the countryside and his working life.

The result is a sequence of poems, some nature and journalistic writing, photos and audio interviews, which appear on the website www.wanderingwords.org.uk

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author's attic, by S Palmer

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author’s attic, by S Palmer

I wondered at the end of it all, whether I had written an elegy for a disappearing world. The old orchards are going, replaced with short rootstock. New cherry trees are even grown under polytunnels with irrigation systems at their roots. More efficient, less back-breaking to pick from, but what have we lost? To quote from my final piece, ‘Walking anti-clockwise’: “The sight of orchard ladders in tall trees dripping with fruit will disappear from the Kent countryside. The orchards that Pam Talbot picked from in the 1960s have already gone. ‘I remember,’ she told me, ‘right at the top, you could see the cathedral.’ A clear view from Faversham to Canterbury, seen from the top of a cherry tree.”

 

Here are a few words from the funders: ‘Wandering Words is developed, managed and funded by Ideas Test, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival. We hope to inspire others to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and share their work too. Blogs, poetry, journalism, graphic novels – all are welcome – we want to create a digital library of written reflections on the area.’ Contribute your own Wandering Words at www.wanderingwords.org.uk

 

 

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