Thursday 20 December 2007

Christmas wishes

My office closes today until the New Year, and I shall be taking a break from computers, hibernating in the countryside and reading the new translation of War and Peace - a pleasure I've been hoarding for the holidays; pretending the rest of the world doesn't exist for a few days, just to recoup a little.

I've just read this interview with the translators, Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, and loved it, liked them both so much for everything they say, their love of the literature, the period, of words, their sparky scrupulosity. I'll be surprised if I don't very much like their translation.

How would I survive without books? I've not stopped thinking about Doris Lessing's words, placing hope in stories, imagination and the magical, inexplicable place within us that they come from. I shall place my hope there for the year to come.
"It is our stories that will re-create us"
I shall place my hope, too, in the true stories Rachel links to here about the healing effects of mindfulness and meditation for even the most damaged and traumatised among us.

Wednesday 19 December 2007


silver birches shine
more brightly in dark weather -
their ancestral home

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Not writing about myself

For I see that I haven’t been, directly – although the things I read and see and photograph and respond to are, of course, about me.

Why not? I think because I am surprised and confused by my own state of mind and spirit.

All of a sudden, I stopped looking forward, stopped dwelling on some better life I hoped perhaps to have at some time in the future. Something very bad happening to a friend made me realise, in a way that all the theoretical belief and all the philosophising in the world could not, that there is only the present – and there I was, catapaulted into it; and there I have stayed.

How it is being in the present is hard to say. It’s different. Harsher. But less overwhelming, because nothing lasts very long.

The present is not a place I’ve ever spent much time in, living always much more in my head, my hopes and my imagination.

It is so different that - odd as this is - I truly cannot say if I find it closer to despair or closer to contentment.

And I’ve no idea if this will last.

Line and watercolour

blurred by falling rain
trunk swirls and branches feather
the low purple sky

I'm submitting this to the next
Festival of the Trees, which will be at the beginning of January at Hoarded Ordinaries.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Three on a beach

One of Orhan Pamuk's essays begins with an iconic image:
I'd been invited to a festival in Australia, and after a long plane trip I arrived. They took me and a number of other writers to a motel. Three of us - the neurologist Oliver Sacks, the poet Miroslav Holub, and myself - then went out to the seashore. The coast was endless, the sky gray, the sea calm and almost gray. The air was still, close. I was standing on the edge of the continent that I had seen as a horse's head when I was a child. Sacks went off to the edge of the sea with his palette. Holub went off to look for stones and seashells and soon vanished from sight. I was left alone on the endless shore. It was a mysterious moment.
How extraordinary! Three figures silhouetted on a beach: the first modern poet I was moved by (found him in my first book on meditation, long before I began to read poetry) and who must have then been near the end of his life; the eccentric lyrical doctor who long ago opened my eyes to unconsidered aspects of being human and whose latest book I can't wait to read, and the impressive, endearing novelist who has taken me of late on journeys to such strange but familiar places.

Had they met before, these three such disparate writers from different corners of Europe? Did each know the others' work? Jetlagged, far from home and strolling together on a beach, did they converse or share a rueful, silent empathy with one another's weary dépaysement? Whether or not there was conversation first, clearly each felt the need to acclimatise in quietude and soon sought the solace and grounding of his own thoughts and habits.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Sound like rainfall

The seagull is standing on the roof, in the rain, as if nothing has happened. It is as if it's not raining at all; the seagull is just standing there, as still as ever. Or else the seagull is a great philosopher, too great to take offense. There it stands. On the roof. It's raining. It's as if that seagull standing there is thinking, I know, I know, it's raining; but there's not much I can do about that. Or: Yes, it's raining, but what importance does that have? Or maybe something like this: By now I've accustomed myself to rain: it doesn't make much of a difference.

... Sometimes, the seagulls take flight all together to rise slowly into the air. When they do, their fluttering wings
sound like rainfall.

Seagull in the Rain, an essay by Orhan Pamuk included in his new book, Other Colours.

Monday 10 December 2007

Cheap jibes are news; sorrow and inspiration are not

I’m ashamed to say that I succumbed to the headlines about Doris Lessing’s Nobel Acceptance Speech, ‘Lessing slams the inanities of the Internet’, they shouted, even in the Guardian, which published the speech in full. Before going off to read the whole speech as soon as I had time and attention to do it justice, I’d already been annoyed by the quoted sentiment and shared that annoyance with a few friends on my patch of the Internet, which, I feel – well, I would, wouldn’t I? – is an exceptional patch, where scathing generalisations don’t apply, where like-minded souls publish poetry and stories of the highest quality and have long, thoughtful discussions.

My annoyance and frustration remain: the frustration I feel with literate, deep-thinking friends who assume the Internet is not for them and don’t understand or believe that what I find there is something very different from the rush-from-link-to-link ethos they’ve heard about. It is a shame. Given time, and the persistence of a wide variety of online spaces, some of them may change their minds. Some, I expect, will never feel attracted to interaction via a humming metallic machine whose screen dazzles and tires the eyes. That’s understandable. And more than understandable if Doris Lessing, in her very old age, continues of the view that she has better things to do.

Now I’ve read the whole of what she wrote, I know the Internet is not the story here. The wretched story is that negativity makes good headlines and a provocative phrase that many readers will take personally makes a better news hook than powerful reportage of suffering elsewhere and a clear-eyed, frightening look into the future.

Now I’ve read the whole of it, I think she did herself and all of us proud, used the worldwide platform of her acceptance speech to say some things that really, really matter, and to say them as powerfully and beautifully as only a very great writer can.

We are a jaded lot, we in our world - our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

… Let us suppose our world is attacked by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise . . . but the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us - for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

Indeed, those who wrote the headlines about her speech are a jaded lot.

Saturday 8 December 2007

The weather in the streets

although not the way she meant it; in fact, just the way she didn't:

Beyond the glass casing I was in, was the weather, were the winter streets in rain, wind, fog, in the fine frosty days and nights, the mild, damp grey ones. Pictures of London winter the other side of the glass – not reaching the body; no wet ankles, muddy stockings, blown hair, cold-aching cheeks, fog-smarting eyes, throat, nose … not my usual bus-taking London winter. It was always indoors or in taxis or in his warm car; it was mostly in the safe dark, or in half-light in the deepest corner of the restaurant, as out of sight as possible.

Friday 7 December 2007

Not Natasha

MOLDOVA / Chisinau / Maria's husband-to-be abandoned her because the baby was not his... photo by Dana Popa

They keep returning to my mind: the photo above and Dana Popa's other pictures of young Moldovan women who are survivors of sex trafficking.

This young Romanian photographer is one of the winners of the 2007 Jerwood Photography Awards and her pictures, along with those of the other winners, can be seen until Sunday at the lovely Jerwood Space in Southwark, which I hadn't visited before.

I must admit that, since these awards are for young photographers just out of college, I was rather expecting to see more experimental, conceptual work. Whether the fusion of social concern with the highest artistic technique is a reflection of the judges' preferences or of the prevalent mood among entrants, I don't know. But here were beautiful and moving photographs of poverty, exploitation and environmental degradation, as well as general human quirkiness.

I really liked the whole exhibition, a sample and short account of which can be seen here, but came back and back to the Not Natasha series. Natasha is a scathing nickname for prostitutes in the part of Europe these young women come from. Dana Popa's photos defy the stereotypes and cast a clear and gentle look at each individual, now back in her home environment, some rebuilding their lives with partners and families, others rejected and shamed by their experience of sexual slavery. These are not horrible environments; just poor and old-fashioned. Dappled sunlight through trees, warm shadows and the softness of old lace and fading cretonne counterpoint the shocking brutality of their stories.

Some of her strongest photos accompany a story by Dana Popa on the international women's website, Imagining Ourselves, while the complete portfolio is displayed on line by the Anzenberger Agency.

Wednesday 5 December 2007


your music kept on
drawing me back to listen
despite the chill wind

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Morpho multiplied

Yes, it's another...
Photos taken in February 2005 at the
Butterfly House, Williamson Park, Lancaster.

Insecty theme in celebration of my photo and haiku published today on Qarrtsiluni. The current Insecta issue has been full of stunningly beautiful stuff and I'm a little stunned and definitely honoured to be included.

Monday 3 December 2007

Sufficient unto

Sunday morning, and the weather is a bit wild. London, in its muggy basin, doesn't get much wild weather. Time enough this morning for an hour's meditation. The wind circles and pushes on the windows, backs off again. An occasional car slushes by on the wet road. The cat purrs and sighs. Mind/heart/body still, for once, and accepting. Soft breath, slow thought, slowing sometimes into no thought. Gentleness for self and others, here and now. The wind again, a plane, a car, a breath. Sufficient.

Saturday 1 December 2007

Friday 30 November 2007

So much for...

...National Blog Posting Month. I missed a day. There was a good reason for that, a shock of devastation that left me not just without words but in a place where words - since words could change nothing - were beside the point.

More to the point, my hope that a daily discipline and achievable aim would foster thought and words, from day to day, proved mostly unfounded. I came face to face with the giant hamster-wheel of drudgery and emptiness standing full in the centre of my mind, with even less space around it than I'd thought there was. However, there was some space,and a trickle of words from time to time, and the other thing I came face to face with was the continuing, increasing fierceness of my need for words and need to pursue this however blocked I feel, however little the result.

Making a space every day to try and write: certainly good. Forcing a result every day and defining lack of words as failure: not good. Beth's lovely recent piece about the need for space between words, for words to take the time they need to germinate and grow, rang many bells, as did her words yesterday, contemplating writing and blogging as practice, part of life, an expression and a deepening of personal experience, as something completely worth pursuing to no end beyond itself. Yes! However hard it is, however tiny the result, I feel that too.

How very few words it takes in the end, when there has been inner void and silence for days, to bring relief, exhilaration and a renewed sense of centreing and presence. However few and difficult the words, it is worth going on.

The search for words, then, is to be taken seriously. The form, the blog, is contingent. I see with amusement that some of the little NaBloPoMo logos I attached to each day's post in November until I missed a day and knew I'd blown it have evanesced, leaving unaccountable spaces! I had simply cut and pasted them in - not, I suppose, what I was meant to do with them. Never mind.

Thursday 29 November 2007

The sense of being somewhere

Reading Other Colours, Orhan Pamuk's book of essays, many of them very personal, recently published in an English translation by his wonderful and now regular translator, Maureen Freely, I'm struck over and over by how much this is a man and a body of work in a specific context. Cosmopolitan as he is, with his fluent English and
westernised education and deep knowledge of European philosophy and literature; towering, eccentric mind, one of a kind, as his is, it is a mind so formed in large ways and small - and well aware of it - by the city of Istanbul. I wonder, oh I wonder, what that is like. And I long for it so, feel so deeply the lack of identification with a place.

I was talking yesterday with a friend about what's there when there's no one with us, nothing going on; about the need to face up to life in this moment when there's nothing to soften it or distract from it. I can't but think, though, that if you have a relationship with the place where you live, a sense of the place there with you, that must help. I've been feeling better about London recently, less constantly abraded by it, less angry and rejecting and wishing to be elsewhere. But it's a cessation of pain only; I can't imagine it ever being a positive relationship. London is too huge, too diffuse, but at the same time too much of it cloned with other 'global cities', and too relentlessly speedy for me ever to feel that being here is being somewhere. I know, I know that familiarity and identification are not only positives. That sinking sense of 'oh again, again!' that I all too often get when I walk into the office in the morning and do all the same look-around-put-down-switch-on actions in the same inexorable order as every day: since London doesn't feel like a place and I don't feel embedded in it, I'm perhaps spared that same sinking feeling on a wider scale.

But still, there is this nostalgia for a place, a home, that never was.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Found photos

Taken last Summer and forgotten because I returned from the short holiday with other things uppermost in my mind. The pleasingly eroded shapes of Scots Pine trees on the sand-dunes at Formby Point coastal nature reserve near Liverpool. Squeezed, half-starved and stripped half-bare by the wind and the shifting sands, they're kind of sad, but their frozen-in-movement forms have a tough, compelling weirdness.

Tuesday 27 November 2007


better a little bigger - click on picture to enlarge

Oh dear, having vowed that I would not post any more of these for a few days, I am desperate - and I particularly like this one!

The innocent and impersonal pleasure to be had from creating repetitive patterns is really basic and important, isn't it? Little has equalled the particular childhood joy of cutting out and unfolding snowflakes or rows of paper dolls. Or the spirograph - who else remembers when these first became popular kids' toys? Little, at least, until this!

Recapturing this kind of pleasure is a special delight. I've known people whose particular brand of self-absorbed neurosis clearly made such a blessed temporary ego-bypass and instant entry into 'flow' impossible for them, and am hugely grateful that my own admittedly huge ego and admittedly huge neuroses don't seem to intrude here.

Monday 26 November 2007

Odd view

but somehow pleasing.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Full colour, November

This was yesterday. Today was, at least briefly, brighter.

Appropriately, or perhaps inappropriately, enough, yesterday I also started reading Orhan Pamuk's
Other Colours. Perhaps these collected short pieces of a wonderful writer will help to unblock my own words. Or perhaps they'll have the opposite effect - why bother? In general, though, good writing, especially good writing about being a writer - as much of this is, directly or indirectly - fills me with joy in the act and its possibilities.

I attack the new shiny hardback, pen in hand. I'll mark the best bits (sorry, yes, I'm someone who does this). Fifty pages in, I've marked only one sentence. Not because little is outstanding. Because all of it is.

Saturday 24 November 2007

Stillness... transience

Int én bec
ro léc feit
do rinn guip
fo-ceird fáid
ós Loch Laíg
Ion do chraíb
- 9th century Irish

The small bird
let a chirp
from its beak:
I heard
woodnotes, whingold, sudden:
the Lagan blackbird.

The economy of means, the sense of a huge encircling stillness, of swiftness and transience all at once, these qualities recall equally the traditional haiku and the 20th century imagist poem...

Seamus Heaney in today's Guardian on the relationship between Irish, English and Japanese poetry.

Friday 23 November 2007

Just one more

but of course it won't be just one more... The photo is of this staircase.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Rainy pavement patchwork

click on photo to enlarge

The best thing about little minds is that
very little things please them.

A not-so-little thank-you to Lucy for pointing out that you can make photo-collages in Picasa.
I fear this was the first of many, many hours of fun.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Café lights

Lately, there are no words. If I had some I might lose myself in them, wander off into another state of mind. But I have none, and am stuck and sinking in a cold, barren place. Taking photos, such as these, which I like very much, helps a little. I was here. I looked around me and touched things with my mind, and my mind smiled. It still had no words. But the light, that strong light bursting through the high windows and the heavy glass doors! Willing it to stream into my mind and knock the stiff, cramped words from their perch in a dark corner.

I’ve been feeling a bit envious this morning. Not good!

A little concerned about a friend who’d been out of touch for a while, since she’s not been well in recent months, I emailed her: are you okay? It turns out that she’s engrossed in NaNoWriMo, which I’d told her about, and has written 40,000 words already! I’m so happy for her: she’s written a novel, but hadn’t been writing lately and was heard to murmur sadly that she didn’t know any more if she was a writer. So this is just fantastic.

Of course I enjoy inspiring and supporting others. But of course I aspire to more than that too. And since, while my friend has been writing her novel, I’ve heaved out on some days no more than a sentence or two, and on other days no words at all to go with a photo, and missed one day completely, thus failing already to blog every day in November - I also feel disappointed and, yes, just a little envious! Hmmph. We all know this can be either a source of bitterness or a spur to new energy.

From Whiskey River today:
There are always moments when one feels empty and estranged. Such moments are most desirable, for it means the soul has cast its moorings and is sailing for distant places. This is detachment - when the old is over and the new has not yet come. If you are afraid the state may be distressing, there is really nothing to be afraid of. Remember: What ever you come across - go beyond.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Monday 19 November 2007


... I'd not been late, if rain had not been bucketing from the skies, if the bus had not pulled away as I reached the bus-stop, I'd not have been standing forlornly in the empty street when arrows of unexpected sunshine pierced my umbrella, making me look up ...

How often do you see two?

Sunday 18 November 2007

Glass ceiling

Looking up or looking down?: the National Portrait Gallery Café.