The Coronavirus Diaries, 3rd May 2020

Sunday and quiet. I read the Railway Children. I have seen the film countless times, and loved the stage adaptation which I saw at Waterloo Station some years ago, but I don’t think I have ever read the book before. I enjoyed it, though the sexism was a bit much. A lot much in fact. It made me start thinking about how we are divided and ruled in so many silly ways. Pitching girls against boys, women against men, calling it the battle of the sexes; are you a cat person or a dog person? Both. More war analogies. Currently we are being encouraged by some to divide along other lines – ease lockdown soon, keep it in place; blame the Chinese, the scientists; blame is very much a tactic used in the divide and rule handbook. It seldom achieves anything other than mistrust and anger. We point fingers, squabble and fight among ourselves, while the people who run things in governments, in banking, carry on in some stratosphere most of us never see.

I think it says quite a lot about my concentration that the only book that has held my attention for longer than an hour is one written for children. This morning I came across a tweet by the Reader Organisation. Those of you who have followed this blog for years will now I am a fan. I deeply regret that it no longer holds annual conferences in London. Anyway, the organisation is tweeting a video each day of one member of staff reading a poem. Here’s the link. You are invited to recite the poem aloud yourself and give feedback. I read it aloud and felt quite emotional.
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Books, glorious books

I am supposed to be reading Under the Wire by Iris Murdoch, and in fits and starts I am. It’s our book group choice for this month, and we meet again next week. I am just under halfway through and it’s a slim volume, so in theory there wouldn’t be any difficulty.

However, this week sees publication of Hilary Mantel’s new novel, the third and final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It began with Wolf Hall, continued with Bring up the Bodies, and concludes with The Mirror and the Light. The excerpts and reviews I have read confirm that this is going to be wonderful. Not even knowing how it all ends badly for Cromwell, a man who prior to reading Wolf Hall I thought of with an inward shudder, but who now, thanks to Mantel’s sympathetic, human portrayal, I feel a great sympathy, even affection for, will stop me from reading it.

I preordered my copy last May, but now it turns out I shall have two, as Celia and I have booked seats to hear Mantel on Friday at the RFH and our expensive tickets include a copy of the novel. In Under the Wire‘s favour, The Mirror and the Light is not a slim volume, and so I shall be unlikely to be tempted to carry it with me to and from work. But then Coronavirus is affecting my work. I haven’t caught it, but I am freelance and much of my work is with people from abroad. The cancellations are rolling in.

I returned another wonderful book to the library on Tuesday – Rose Elliot’s Complete Vegan. I have renewed it five times, but now finally ordered my own copy. I didn’t intend to borrow anything, but these two books caught my eye. I borrowed them both.

Front covers

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Art and the Future

Some Sundays are magical. I’ve just had two in a row. Last night we went, as has become the tradition, to hear the ten shortlisted poets for the TS Eliot Prize. Every single poet deserved the prize. I haven’t looked to see who has been awarded it, but my 50p would be on Sharon Olds.

Another prize in the arts took me to Margate the Sunday before last with Celia: The Turner Prize. I realised the day the winner of the prize was to be announced that I know one of those shortlisted, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, with whom I did some work a decade ago. What I did not know was that the four short-listed artists, when they met, had realised their art all came from the same place, and asked the judges to allow them to share the prize. The judges agreed.

Human rights, racism, the rich legacy of immigration, sexual repression, ecological crisis, are themes common in the work of both groups of short listed artists. To say the last night’s readings and last week’s trip to Margate to Turner Contemporary were inspiring is an understatement. Like many, I am saddened and depressed by what is happening in my country and elsewhere. Narrow minds, racists, white supremacists, revisionist historians, warmongers, nationalists are in the ascent. I have been low in spirits, appalled by events and attitudes, extremely worried about the future. Evidence that there are many people out there still working for good, for human rights, for justice, for truth, the NHS, for victims of indifference, lifted my spirits, despite the sober art. Continue reading

Poetry, Pain Thresholds, and Imaginary Bridges

Top of January’s High Spots is tonight’e event at the Royal Festival Hall when the shortlisted poets for the TS Eliot Prize will each read from their work for eight minutes. It was Celia who introduced me to this pleasure several years ago when she had a spare ticket. I think it may have been the first time I saw Simon Armitage perform live. Bliss.
Tonight there are about eight of us going and sitting together, meeting two more whose seats are waaaay behind ours, and almost certainly seeing Kate and Jane who like us are serial recidivists. I have only just realised that Nick Laird is one of the shortlisted poets. Delight. I saw him read at the Heaney Homeplace in February 2017, that magical weekend when Cousin’s friend Ann and I enjoyed three successive nights of poetry. Laird grew up around Cookstown, so not far from Bellaghy. Ann has since died from cancer which makes that weekend infinitely precious. There was a good local crowd, and I enjoyed a chat with him afterwards, learning that for a time he had lived near where my home is in South London. He was savage about Boris Johnson and the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle, so no wonder I warmed to him. I’ll have a quick gargle so I can whoop at the end of his set. Continue reading

Of Jet Lag, Disappointing Theatre and Amazing Poetry and Science

I thought I was over the jet lag. I’ve been back at work since Saturday, and MasterB’s insistence on breakfast at seven in the morning has helped get at least that part of my routine re-established pretty quickly. I had one evening when I went to bed shortly before six. It was that or nod off on the sofa. The dark evenings haven’t helped me stay awake. By eight it feels like midnight. I tried having a second cup of coffee one day, but that was disastrous; I was jittery and jumpy, and speaking so fast my tongue felt seriously tired. However, day by day I was gradually staying awake longer and later.

But this week I had tickets to two events in the evening. The first, on Wednesday, was to a play at the National Theatre, the second to a poetry and science event at the Shaw Theatre. Both were with Celia and we have had the tickets for some weeks.

I love the National Theatre. It is quite simply one of the best theatres in the world in terms of the three auditoria it comprises, in terms of its creative vision and commitment, in terms of its productions. actually, it is probably the best theatre in the world. This is the home of War Horse, and the puppeteers who work their magic in that production say there is no other theatre in the world where this play would have been staged; the work that went on for months behind the scenes to make it possible would not have been contemplated anywhere else. You get spoiled in london. It is the the theatre capital of the world.

So you’ll understand I had high expectations of the evening. The play was by David Hare, a writer I respect. On the way there Celia told me the reviews had been mixed. We were surprised to see many of the seats were empty. My experience of the NT is almost uniquely of full houses and anticipatory audiences. The lights dimmed. The opening scene was great, snappy, clever, promising. bUt after that it was slow. A lot of polemic and not a lot to watch. My eyes began to close. I was still listening, but the voices were sounding more and more distant.

I made myself open my eyes. I’m a fidget at the theatre. some people stay in the same position throughout a play. I don’t. I move about in my seat, cross and uncross my legs and arms, reach for my water bottle, lean forward, lean back. This time a lot of my fidgeting was to keep awake. I thought I was doing quite well, but then my head dropped and woke me up. I didn’t last beyond the interval. I wasn’t sure if it was me or the play. Celia stayed. She texted me when it was over: thumbs down. Oh well, put that one down to experience. Continue reading

Of Cooler Days, Poetic Blackberries, and Sunshine Yellow Flowers

Celia remarked yesterday that the long weeks of relentlessly high temperatures and continuous sunshine seem like a distant dream. She’s right, though it’s still been warm, there is a definite end of summer feel. This evening it’s been raining with a determination which is doubly annoying as I forgot to take something out of the car earlier. Also I closed my windows to keep the rain out and I felt rather too warm, so the sounds of rain fizzling to a stop has been most welcome.

Maybe if it cools down there may still be blackberries when I eventually get to das Boot. I picked lots in NI to have with my breakfast and to add to yoghurt, which was all very geographically appropriate as it is what the Tourist Board likes to call Heaney country.

Blackberries in Heaney Country

In the East, I was planning to do my usual afternoon of blackberry picking in Reach and then freeze most of them to enjoy in the winter. Continue reading

Forty-Eight Hours

In forty-eight hours I shall be at Cousin’s. I’ve missed autumn, and now it’s the build up to Christmas and the shortest days of the year. I’m anticipating dark afternoons wearing a hi-viz jacket when walking Westie Boy, heat from the wood burning stove, and a cold bathroom.

What I hadn’t been anticipating until a text came this afternoon were cats. But I now know three cats have joined the household. What Westie Boy makes of them I am eager to see. Why three, what they look like and how they were acquired, I have no idea. I’m hoping they are able to come indoors. Cold evenings are the perfect time to have a warm cat on your knee.

The plan is to see Uncle Bill on Thursday, so that’ll mean a trip to Belfast. I hope there’ll be a second trip too, but a week goes by very quickly. I’d like to go to the Fintan O’Toole lecture at Heaney Homeplace, but that’s on Thursday too, and I don’t think it’d work. Anyway, who would I go with?

Pylons

Golden


On a long leash


Slieve Gullion

A year ago it’d have been Ann D, but she since died. I think this visit is where I will have to accept that death has happened, because from here I find it impossible to imagine Cousin’s without Ann’s presence and conversation. Maybe that’s where the cats will come in. Cats for comfort and distraction.
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Angela’s Ashes

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Mother’s funeral, but it was someone else’s death I was remembering last night, Angela’s.

Over the weekend I received a message to say her ashes were to be scattered on Monday evening in the churchyard of Old St Pancras church, the church where her memorial was held. At that memorial friends and colleagues read a selection of poems by Angela. Last night, Nicola, who now teaches voice, and who taught drama and English back in the day when she, Angela and I worked together, had been asked by Rob, Angela’s husband, to read two poems while the ashes, with I hope Angela’s generous spirit, were released into the air.

Before Nicola arrived, Rob, an actor, and now a frail elderly man walking with the aid of two sticks, and very slowly, announced he would sing a song to Angela. It was My Love is Like a Red Red Rose. We stood in the shade of the Hardy tree while his cracked voice rang out, and we knew he felt the pain of her loss as keenly now as when she died. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having suddenly blurred vision.IMG_3923

The Hardy tree is named after Thomas Hardy who had the task of clearing the headstones of the graveyard, and now they are grouped around the tree which has grown into them and joined them in a mutual embrace. Continue reading