Monday 28 January 2008


You wake before dawn, restless and feverish, some hovering virus that doesn't quite crescendo and take you over, but won't leave either. You toss for ages until sleep falls back heavy, and wake again late, then in and out of clammy dozing, 10, 11, until roused finally by wires of pain threading a forehead folded into tight, hard ridges. You fight for the will to get up and find painkillers, lie down again to wait for the drugs to numb. As pain recedes its place is filled by depression at the thought of another day when the simplest thing feels hard. You reach for the radio on-switch, the dial turned away from news - you can't take the cheery narrative of tragedy and fear and stress, so these days it's music only. On Radio 3 at one there should be Early Music and magically Lucie Skeaping tells you today from Versailes, the French Baroque ensemble, le Concert d'Astreé, playing Rameau, Leclair and Dauvergne [listen online until 2 February]- a group whose varying line-up sometimes includes Ruth. You went to see them at the Barbican a couple of years ago. Picture: a woman lying in bed next to a radio. Thought bubble in top right-hand corner: Ruth and her cello planted solid and upright on the stage, controlled flames spiralling upwards. Thought bubble: the conductor, Emmanuelle Haïm, that day in London heavily pregnant, with an injured arm pinned to her side like a wounded bird, all the music in her one good arm and inside her body. You're remembering, as it washes over you now in this gorgeous playing, the reason why you can go on, though growing older, sicker, lonelier and ever more sourly, wearily aware of incompetence and failure in every area of life. Because more and more that's not it. Because there is also, unaccountably but unequivocally, more bliss. Because the moments of joy in form and colour and air, in poetry and story and music and connection, grow only stronger and sweeter. So now you can get up and do another day, what's left of it, what's left of you, the strings quivering and patterning in your head.

Friday 25 January 2008



This cannot go on.
I have no more bunny photos.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Head down

Head down.

Chewing away all day.

It's a busy life.

No time to blog.

Monday 21 January 2008

Oh I do like sepia

Why sepia? The English countryside in Winter, for all its vivid greens,
its flashes of red berries and orange sunsets,
feels sepia
- an emanation, perhaps, of cold clay soil.

Saturday 19 January 2008

Moon over

Missing the countryside
mustn't leave it so long next time.

Friday 18 January 2008

The end of a path

I just found out that Michael died earlier this week.

It's a very odd thing to know someone through their blog and then to know the blog's still there but it's author has gone. I'll never forget the spirit of this man that I met in his honest words, his poetry and his wonderful photographs. He was younger than me. Just like Julia was. And brave and talented, just like she was.Yes, what an odd thing this is. May your spirit rest in peace, Michael. May your cats find love in their new home.

Here is his last blog post.

Michael was a copy editor on a daily newspaper. They published this obituary.


outside my
window in the
night owl
owl calls
all night the
owl is
just outside
my window all
night owl
calling calling
all night long
owl calls

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Figure and ground

I was very taken with Dave's manifesto for his new photoblog. I've always found his photos much to my taste, and what he says about them is too - an uncontrived alliance of aesthetic and politics is not common.
"I'm especially interested in the challenge of making photos in which the roles of figure and ground are reversible, or even nonexistent. Philosophically, I feel we must get beyond a perception of nature as mere scenery. Gorgeous wall calendars from Sierra Club and the like offend me at a very basic level; nature porn does nothing for the cause of conservation."
His words reminded me also of some black and white photos which I loved and have often returned to, by my hero, John Berger, in his volume of poetry, Pages of the Wound. You'd have to say they're landscapes, I think, not 'landscapes with figure', because they're on a single plane.

In the valley
The mouth of the river like a rumour
Whispers water in the ear of the fields.

Before it is dark
From this summit my mountain
You must descend me.
Photos and extract from At Remaurian - 6, by John Berger in Pages of the Wound: poems, drawings, photographs, 1956-96
My next thought, when Dave's words made me go back yet again to these pictures, was: attractive as I find them, are these meldings of woman with landscape just more of the crassest kind of objectification of the female form? (goodness me, by the critic best known for excoriating this in his famous
Ways of Seeing!) In context, I don't think so: pictures of his own naked body also feature in this book and often elsewhere in his work, and the poem seems to equate both his own and the lover's body with the landscape.

Anyway, there's a spare beauty that gets me every time.

Thursday 10 January 2008

When I first read Simone de Beauvoir

I only found out late last night that yesterday was the centenary of Simone de Beauvoir’s birth. Of the rash of media coverage caught up with today, I particularly enjoyed the series of personal appreciations by intellectuals, writers and feminists in the online Guardian, especially Lynne Segal's (though the level of readers' comments is pretty damn depressing - ugh!). Hard to believe she was born 100 years ago, since she was still very much alive and active when I first read her.

Autumn 1974: I was a student teaching assistant at a lycée in a small mountain town in central France. It was a beautiful place, but in those days very remote and no one was much interested in learning English or having anything to do with a foreigner. I was 20 and had never lived on my own, never mind spent most hours of every day alone. What kept me sane was reading almost the then complete works of de Beauvoir, purchased in the town’s single small stationer/bookshop. The shop’s row of white shiny folio paperbacks slowly shrank and the row on my bookshelf in the small, bare bedroom at the lycée grew. I read The Second Sex, all four volumes of the memoirs, the novels including the two fat volumes of The Mandarins and my favourite, L’Invitée, and many shorter works. I disappeared into her world for all those endless evenings alone. It was a rich and intense journey through many hundreds of thousands of words of history, biography, fiction and intellectual debate. I left my lonely room to live in the Paris of a generation earlier, the heady days of existentialism and early feminism, and learned an enormous amount. No one did so much to form my ignorant young mind. Few writers mean as much to me.

I chucked in the job and nearly chucked in my degree studies. My planned research project on de Beauvoir and the interplay of memoir and fiction never got written. But the interplay of life, stories and writing remains at the heart of my preoccupations. I read most of de Beauvoir’s later work as it was published and she will always have a big place in my intellectual and emotional landscape. Those shiny white paperbacks – now shiny yellow – still sit on my top bookshelf. Recently I took down L’Invitée and the volume of memoirs covering her fifties to re-read. I must admit that I didn’t really get into them. Perhaps, in the context of a lifetime’s reading, they aren’t quite as wonderful as I remember. Perhaps, too, they moved me and shifted my mindset so much thirty years ago that this can only be diluted by revisiting them.

There was another reason why she figured largely in my emotional landscape in the years following that first reading. I came back from France and fell in love, with a man who surely much resembled Jean-Paul Sartre: small and unprepossessing, brilliant and charismatic – and a compulsive womaniser. He was a wonderful man in many ways. We loved each other so much: I never doubted his love for a moment. But I couldn’t, wouldn’t deal with all the other women. I had enough of it and ran away to London, but a little bit of me continued for a long, long time to miss him, turn to look for him and wonder why he wasn't there. Soul-mates come along rarely. I used often to think of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s enduring and famously ‘open’ relationship, and wonder why I couldn’t be like her. I guess I only understood much later that it was because I lacked her strong sense of herself, her constant invention and re-invention of self in her mind and work (I know, I know, I grossly simplify ... nonetheless...).

Come to think of it, maybe no writer means as much to me.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Best of 2007

A bit of a hotch-potch. My preferences are never fixed, but it’s nice to remember a few things that made me happy.

Best book
Difficult. Both Half of a Yellow Sun and The Inheritance of Loss, two such different novels, were wonderful as much for exquisitely enjoyable writing as for importantly capturing a place and time. The Time Traveler's Wife, published earlier but new to me in 2007, was deeply memorable for its powerful and engaging metaphorical treatment of what love, life and relationships really feel like. Reading whole books of poetry is still quite new to me: Wendell Berry’s Given:Poems was a recent joy. Like almost every one of his books, John Berger’s 2007 essay collection, Hold Everything Dear was unmissable - his politics, his aesthetic, his deeply personal take on everything. The essay on desire was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. (And seeing him in the flesh was just the best, best, best). Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City stands out too, a hauntingly deep and thoughtful memoir of a man and his place. But I think I have to go for Suite Francaise, a true long-lost masterpiece and long-lost writer of the very highest calibre.

Best music
No hesitation here. Bach’s Cello Suites played on the viola da gamba by Paolo Pandolfo. I’ve heard so many different recordings, and liked many, but found none to surpass my cheaply remastered version of Pablo Casals. This is a bit different, though: even deeper and more naked.

Best film
I didn’t see a lot. I wonder why. I used to be such a cinephile. The one I loved most was The Singer. I’ve always been a big Depardieu fan. Great to see him at his very best in this gentle, subtle and intelligent film.

Best art
I’ll never forget Antony’s Gormley’s Iron Men, both in London and on the beach near Liverpool. Amrita Sher Gil was a wonderful discovery. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s photographs were very special. But most fantastic pleasure of all was the Louise Bourgeois exhibition.

Best city
New York. I’m so emphatically not a city person, and prefer them small if I must. But New York on my second visit beguiled me just as much as it did the first time, 17 years ago. Funnily enough, London is feeling quite a bit better lately too.

Best food
Not a doubt: rhubarb pavlova. Just perfect. So good I named my blog after it.

Best drink
Ultra-trendy, expensively packaged cider – semi-sparkling, not-too-sweet, preferable organic, preferably single-variety. Yes, it is expensively packaged and ultra-trendy, but much cheaper than a bottle of wine, thirst-quenching rather than dehydrating, good with most things, and tastes excellent.

Best beasts
Red squirrels at Formby, rabbits at Gaia House, dragonflies on a hot day in Dulwich Park.

Best new blogs
Both new initiatives by established bloggers. Bird by bird, daily sketches by artist and birder Pica of Feathers of Hope is just like peering over her shoulder into a sketchbook - totally satisfying and since she’s a talented graphic designer as well as artist it looks just beautiful. The Morning Porch by Dave of Via Negativa is a beautiful use of the new Tumblr blogging software. Both of these appeal to me so much, I think, because they use the form in a way that is particularly appropriate and well-defined and thus take it to a higher level.

Best blogs new to me
Tales From the Reading Room, literary essays stylishly written by a British academic, and Brave New Words, on writing and translation, especially literary translation, by a Swedish/English translator and writer who is American and currently based in Wales. Regular reading of more like these is the way I want to go.

Best 2008 New Year’s Resolution
“Stop sleeping with the laptop on the other side of the bed” (Ernesto)

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Still night

in the dark morning
I wake too soon, expelled from
warm oblivion

Friday 4 January 2008

Red sky in the morning

and, no, the proverb did not hold that day.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Top trees

The 19th monthly Festival of the Trees is currently in progress, curated by Lorianne at Hoarded Ordinaries. It’s a rich feast of beauty, facts and musings, where I’m delighted to have a small place.

After a week in the country, the forms and textures of rural Devon’s treescape continue to shape my personal skyline, shelter my perceptions, shadow and curl around my thoughts.

Rooks have long made their nests in the trees around Gaia House. Their hoarse calling punctuates the silence of meditation, but no longer breaks it, I find, after so many hours spent sitting in their company.

Tuesday 1 January 2008

Midwinter retreat

inside, darkness blurs
then hides our sitting shadows
outside, the first owl

on my windowsill
one richly wrinkled conker -
so carefully placed

rain on the window
wind sighing against the house -
a sad, gentle night

tall man with long scarf
while stooping to wash dishes
gets scarf very wet!

today I am rain
flowing over everything
tap, tap while we sit

Mona Lisa smile:
the blue angel dispenses
blue benedictions

down a muddy lane
is the secret spring where I
always make a wish

this bright band of blue
splitting the clouds wide open
is almost shocking

rabbit on the lawn
hoppity, hoppity - then
looks up and sees me

after the downpour
a washed meadow glistening
with shy renewals

(haiku written on my own in silence on retreat - came back on line to find a whole flood of them having a new year's party - what a sweet and unexpected pleasure!)