Monday, 23 May 2011

Robin Robertson top of the pops

Way back in January I posted about hearing Robin Robertson read on the radio. To my pleasure, when I was driving home yesterday, I heard him read At Roane Head again - I'm guessing it was on Poetry Please, though I only caught the end of the programme. It was as fearful and black as ever and a lesson in always pushing on into dark territory if that's where you're being led.

Anyway, to my considerable surprise this mornng, I found that there had been more clicks on my blog than ever before, and it's entirely due to people searching for Robin Robertson and At Roane Head and ending up here. I'm sorry everyone if you were looking for insight and information.

I can tell you though, that I bought the collection that At Roane Head appears in - The Wrecking Light - and took it up to my bedside table, as I most often read poetry in bed. Not this one though - it's the stuff of nightmares, literally. I went back to Pepys and easy nights.

I've just brought the collection downstairs and put it hopefully on my office rocking chair. I've so much work at the moment that there's little chance of me reading anything during the day for weeks, but it's there as a reward - I'll be reading it sometime in June, I hope, when I emerge from writing my builder's website, and the feature about intervenors for Sense, and the Guardian feature that's just been commissioned ... and the short stories that are jiggling around in the outer edges of my thoughts.

I can't wait to read on from the tantilising first line 'Only a blue string ties him to the present' that caught my eye when I opened up The Wrecking Light just now to write this entry. Better get working!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

John Cage in Bexhill

Well actually me and my friend S in Bexhill, to visit the De La Warr Pavilion, which turned out to have an amazing exhibition of John Cage's artwork. He was big on chance so I reckon he'd have appreciated the vapour trail that so neatly matched the curve of the Pavilion's balcony above our heads as we drank our second cup of coffee - we had to come back for another one to make the most of the stunning view.

Anyway, John Cage - blimey. I have to admit that I really only knew his 3'44", and that the rest of his music was seriously odd, but I didn't know he painted/printed too. He went to art college and always mixed with artists so it's not really a surprise. What is a surprise is that art created according to the I Ching - following the rules of chance - can be so powerful, and often beautiful.

There's a whole series called Where R=Ryoanji, based on a famous Zen stone garden in Japan. Cage made a bag of sixteen stones, all numbered, and used the I Ching to decide which stone should be picked, where on the paper it should be, and what should make a line round it. He used pencils, pens, paint, feathers ... The resulting pictures are not what you'd expect. In some Cage dropped the stones many many times - thousands I'd guess - and the paper is a mass of fine lines, almost a scrawl at first look. But then I saw that the lines had created something like a tunnel and in it, areas of mass that felt as though they were moving. Other pictures had only a few stone outlines, drawn in different colours and media - these were easier to look at, less disturbing, but beautiful.

My favourites were one of his River Rocks and Smoke pictures - all grey water and moving rocks - and his Mushroom Book, a lithograph map where words are forests. Though he wrote poetry and books about his work, I suspect he didn't trust words too much - in the films showing at the exhibition he's shown answering questions from people at various performances, and he weighs his words very carefully. He always made  perfect sense but I was so engrossed I forgot to take notes, so you'll have to take my word for it that I came away inspired to think differently about what art might mean, and the role of the artist (/writer). God I sound posey, but it really was amazing!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Printing an onion

Last night I went into TW to a printing workshop. I love looking at prints and wanted to  know how they are made - I've only done monoprinting before (apart from the time I sliced my hand open as a child trying to linoprint).

We started with colograph printing - inking objects like leaves, feathers, cuts-outs from textured wallpaper, placing them on a sheet of paper, and then passing them through a press so that the ink from the objects was transferred onto a clean sheet of paper. It's quite like monograph printing in a way. I used leaves, and cut out leaf shapes from wallpaper, orange netting and a plastic label.

I added green tissue paper, thinking of leaves landing on flowing water.
But I got muddled and half the tissue paper ended up stuck to the underside of the leaves.

We spent the second half of the evening trying dry point etching, which is what I was really interested in seeing done. I'm mesmerised by the detail some artists cram into an etching, and by the confidence of their lines, when one slip means a whole plate is ruined.

I brought along a photo of an onion I'd taken at home, and sat paralysed before my perspex plate. I'm not by any stretch of the imagination an artist, and drawing is not something I'm comfortable with at the best of times, even with a pencil and a rubber - so etching was intimidating.
Once you've finished etching, you put a small dab of ink on a large sheet of perspex, or two if you want to mix colours, and then scrape it thinly over your etching. Once it's all covered, wipe/dab it off with a pounce - a mushroom of hard scrim (rough cloth) and then another of soft scrim. Such splendid names!

On my first run through the press I used red ink, and realised my onion was flat and lacking in detail , so I added more screetches, re-inked in black, and ran the print through the machine again.

It still seemed rather two-dimensional so I added more lines and did a fresh print in black. It's still not a masterpiece, but I'm quite pleased at my first attempt!

 The thing I really came to understand is that printmaking is about layers - you see the object before you, and you recreate it on the plate, but the plate is a hidden stage in the process - it's a means to an end, and never gets seen by anyone other than the artist. And because the process of printing means passing what you've created through a mechanism of some kind (whether a simple roller or a complex press), the artist's hand is quite distant from the finished piece. I guess maybe it's the same for a writer - when you see the story in print, it's fixed, and has somehow moved away from the thing it was in your head and in your fingers as you wrote it down.

Our excellent tutors were Lindsay Connors and Niki Campbell both of whom made beautiful prints for the TW museum re-collections exhibition where writers and artists drew on the hidden collections in the basement

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Party party

Thanks to J, S, N, C and my Mum for unofficially launching The Best British Short Stories 2011 last night in the pub, complete with pink balloons. We always meet once a month or so to talk about a book we've all read so it seemed a good idea to try some short stories for a change, since BBSS11 was thrusting itself at us, waving wildly, shouting 'pick me! pick me!'. Though it's only been out a fortnight we all had a copy (might have something to do with my wild excitement when I heard I'd be in it).

The idea was that we'd pick our six favourites and see which two came out on top - but our taste turned out to be so varied that no two did come out clear favourites (no one was allowed to pick mine, to save embarrassment). So we talked about what makes a short story (something has to change, thanks Nic Royle, for your helpful introduction) and why some of these made us squirm, others puzzled us, and several made us bow down in awe.

And now we're going back to re-read to see if we can work out what the deeply unreliable narrator in So Much Time in a Life was telling us, and what the lozenge shape on the lawn was in Flora, and we'll re-read all the rest simply to wallow in the pleasure of a perfect variety pack of stories.

Monday, 16 May 2011


Today I've begun work on a website for a builder, tidying it up and adding a little bit of zip. Copywriting is my bread and butter work, and it's not much different to building really - lots of painstaking repetitive tasks, with the occasional opportunity for a bit of creativity and excitement.

As well as writing I sometimes teach brickmaking to school children at Bore Place. It's one of my most favourite things. They absolutely love the chance to get utterly filthy and to make a brick, something really important, a skill that could actually be useful. Almost all our houses round here are made of brick - the soil is heavy clay, and every village used to have its own brickyard (if you've only got a horse and cart and muddy tracks you don't want to lug those bricks far once you've made them).

I'm not much of a brickmaker, to be honest - this is one of mine, and it's flatter at one end than the other, and has a corner missing where I didn't fill the mould properly. But I'm proud of it, and love the fact that I made it, from clay dug out of the ground below the old winter housing for the cows, mixed with a bit of sand and soot (that's what made the dark patch). It's good to know too that it was fired in the Bore Place kiln by my friend Mary.

In this picture it's sitting in our courtyard, which is made entirely of Bore Place bricks. We watched them being made in the brickworks that was there until a couple of years ago. Brett the brickmaker showed us how to throw the clay into the mould sat on top of the stockboard with its ridge to form the frog, then scrape off the excess with the strike and lay it out on a pallet to air dry for a few days. In the dairy walls at Bore Place you can see paw prints where cats walked over the drying bricks before they were fired.

A really good brickmaker could produce between 3500 and 5000 bricks in a 14 hour day, with the help of his assistants - it takes me and the children an hour to make 30, so you wouldn't hire us if you were building a house. Maybe a very low wall?

Monday, 9 May 2011

This is my land

I went for a walk on Saturday - caught the 291 bus from my village up to Forest Row and then walked 12 miles or so back across the fields. Along the way I thought about maps - I took an OS map with me, but didn't need it as the route's one I've walked several times before, and anyway I carry plenty of internal maps (or is it one many-layered map?) in my head.

If you've lived in one place more or less all your life, wherever you go there are associations - the trip to A&E when your son fell off his bike and sliced his mouth open on the handlebars; the time your schoolfriend tried to entice a group of boys to your tent with mating calls; the iron age hazelnut you found on the archaeological dig (skeletons don't survive the acidic soil so a nut's a big deal); the pub where you learnt to drink cider and smoked your first and last cigar...

The bus passed all this and stopped outside H's flower shop in Forest Row. I turned round and headed home again on foot.

I don't know who devised the High Weald Landscape Trail, but it's gorgeous - rolling hills, fields and woods, and it all feels like it's mine because it's the landscape I grew up with. It was only when I lived in Yorkshire for three years that I realised how embedded our landscape is in our minds - I'm only at home when the fields are small, and each is hidden by trees and waves of overlapping hills.

The thing this walk rubs in, though, is that this isn't my landscape - every inch of it is owned. It's obvious when you walk through fields that they belong to the farmer or landowner. That's fine. But the central section of the walk goes through Buckhurst Park, an estate owned by the de la Warr family, and even in the woodland stretch you are confronted at every turn with notices telling you to keep out, keep to the footpath, go up this drive if you're a tradesman...

Thankfully, cross the road at Lye Green and you enter the Penn in the Rocks estate - although the land is all owned by one family here too, there are no signs apart from one helpful one pointing out where the footpath goes. Thank you!

I tried to draw a map of my route but it got way too complicated, covered in arrows and circles linking places and people. I'll have to keep it in my head.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Clare Leighton

Just look at the wonderful shapes in this engraving, 'September - apple picking' by Clare Leighton in 1933. Nowadays the apple trees in the orchards here in Kent and Sussex (where she made her picture) are grown on dwarf stock so the pickers can reach the topmost fruit while standing on the ground. I'm sure they're glad that their work is so much easier, but what a loss to observers. What's happened to all the curvy ladders, I wonder? And the baskets? It's all giant crates now.

There's an equally beautiful Leighton, 'A lapful of windfalls' where women gather fallen fruit in their skirts and the swoop of the skirt is full of movement and purpose. It's the image on the cover of 'Four Hedges', Leighton's 1935 book about her garden in the Chilterns where she battles with terrible soil, envy of luscious valley gardens and capricious weather, and loves being in a place where they are creating a garden from nothing. It was reissued last year by Little Toller books, and I've just finished it as a bedtime book - no nightmares, no excitement, but consistent pleasure and quality writing, and fabulous pictures.

(You can order giclee prints of Clare Leighton's work from the Bookroom Art press, which is where I found the print at the top of this entry.)

... and breathe out

At midday yesterday, despite me telling myself I was deeply calm, my body wagged a finger at me and put me right. Cold sweats, racing heart - what a wimp. So I sat myself down to finish my accounts with the radio blaring loud (The Avalanches' 'Frontier Psychiatrist' - what? Only 6 Music could play it), and that seemed to do the trick.

By the time I arrived at the Betsey Trotwood for the Best British Short Stories launch I really was as calm as I'd told myself to be - and quite right too: Nic Royle, the editor, was easy-going and so was the whole evening. Hard to be formal in a tiny cellar with standing room only, lots of beer, and tube trains rumbling under our feet. The readings were great - it's a pleasure to hear stories read the way their writers intended and I'm looking forward to re-reading the others' stories and hearing their voices in my head as I do.

So now it's launched, and I even have a copy - the ones Salt posted out last week still haven't arrived, so last night was the first time I'd seen my name in that contents list.

I have to say, it's a good collection - I haven't read it all yet, though I know the two stories by Hilary Mantel already from their original publication in the Guardian, but I love Claire Massey's Feather Girls and Adam Marek's Dinner of the Dead Alumni. Shall be reading the rest eagerly - a treat in store for when I've done my tax return. Revenue and Customs better be ready for the earliest tax return ever.